Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures. 2009.
I mean maybe it goes without saying that this isn’t my normal reading? I’m continuing to look for agents to submit to and the agent of Garcia and Stohl was recommended to me by an editor.
That’s not to say I didn’t basically enjoy beautiful creatures. Again it’s not normally what I would read, but it did certainly remind me how much I love magic in fiction. That sense of magic and adventure is the main reason I read, I think. Particularly the beginning was fun, when the rules of the novel were still unclear and there was mystery in finding out. At a certain point it got all Fantasy and YA, with Dark magic users and Light magic users and different names for kinds of “Casters” and “Claiming” and things. I like my magic a little less structured.
There’s a lot that I could say about Beautiful Creatures. I’m just going to quickly cover two things.
The first is the book’s exploration of Civil War themes. I was a little disappointed here. I think actually it may be a sign of how much our expectations around this kind of thing have shifted in only a decade. This book was published in the first year of the Obama presidency, at the beginning of the Tea Party, well before Black Lives Matter, in the very last years when America could still pretend it was a post-racial society. Beautiful Creatures takes place in South Carolina, and there are a lot of Southern references to give it that atmosphere, and Civil War history runs through the story. The writing makes no apologies for the Confederacy–I’m not accusing it of that. But though the novel even sometimes mocks Lost Cause ideology, and our protagonists recognize that the Confederacy existed for the sole purpose of preserving slavery, all of the feed-ins from Civil War history (which are very present in the book’s fantasy) concern exclusively white people.
Now, we live in a time of extreme concern for racial issues. (A good thing; these issues are of extreme importance.) And I don’t want to be unfair to the book. Suffice it to say that it’s a noticeable difference. Back then, the book could acknowledge that the Civil War was “about” black people and the right to own them but still appeal to an exclusively white version of that history. There are two black characters in the novel: they are both “the help,” so to speak, one of them in the present day and one of them, in a series of short flashbacks, a slave of one of the town’s mansion’s previous owners. I’m not accusing the book of racism–even if I wanted to, it’s not clear a YA fantasy from 2009 is really an important target. It was simply interesting to notice. I believe, with some hope, that the fiction landscape has changed in the past 11 years.
The second thing I want to mention is the typical naivete you find in fantasy. This is not restricted to YA fantasy, although it is important there as well. There is a particular scene where Lena, the young “Caster” whose story this is (the novel is narrated from the perspective of her Mortal high school boyfriend) is at a disciplinary hearing. The townspeople hope to have her expelled from the school. (She’s a witch.) To her rescue arrives her uncle, another Caster called Macon, who is known as the town recluse. Macon comes bursting into the disciplinary hearing (attended somehow by ALL of the townspeople) and convinces them to let Lena stay. He does so by threatening to out them on all of their secrets.
Quick context: Macon has a wolf (who looks enough like a dog) called Boo Radley who wanders the town. Macon can see through Boo’s eyes, which means he knows all of the secrets behind the townspeople’s moralizing. In the disciplinary hearing, he threatens to out people’s drinking habits and affairs and the like. They decide it would be better to let the matter be.
A few pages later the protagonist says something, that I think captures this naivete quite nicely: “Still, nobody said an unkind word to either one of us, at least not to our faces. If Mrs. Lincoln had put the fear of God into them, Macon Ravenwood had given people in Gatlin a reason to fear something even worse. The truth.” Combined with the randomness (and tone-deafness) of a Martin Luther King quote by a character during the disciplinary hearing, this is, I believe, the true escapism of fantasy. We do not read traditional genre fantasy to escape from the physical limits of the real world. We read fantasy to escape from its moral limits. Fantasy isn’t where people can shapeshift or firebend; it’s where truth is the arbiter of power and not the other way around. Where the moral arc of history does actually bend toward justice.