The Kate Daniels series by husband and wife writing team Ilona Andrews is one of my favorite urban fantasy series. I love reading fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction and romance. A big part of my love for these genres is their escapist nature. Another reason I love them is the way we can vicariously thrash through difficult social issues. I tend to read several books at a time, and will often re-read beloved books while reading something newer and/or more challenging. Yesterday I picked up the 4th installment in the Kate Daniels series, Magic Bleeds. While mindlessly reading, I came across a passage and thought, this is why I read these books.
I looked at Saiman. “How do you decide if someone is human?
He braided his long, slender fingers on his bent knee. “I don’t. It’s not up to me to assess someone’s humanity. Being human in our world is synonymous with being included into the framework of society. Humanity entitles one to certain rights and privileges, but also implies voluntary acceptance of laws and rules of conduct. It transcends mere biology. It’s a choice and therefore belongs solely to the individual. In essence, if a person feels they are human, then they are.
“Do you feel you’re human?”
He frowned. “It’s a complex question.”
Considering that he was part Norse god, part frost giant, and part human, his hesitation was understandable.
I don’t mean to sound defensive. I don’t feel like I need to justify reading and enjoying any of the books I read and enjoy. I have realized that my favorite favorite books have a soupcon of Social Justice Warrioring in them. Kate Daniels, one of my favorite urban fantasy characters, carries a sword and is better at fighting and killing than talking and diplomacy. Kate’s world is faced with a problem, a problem that will crop up again and again – who is human and who gets to decide what that means? The sudden onset of magic brought out the vampires, weres, witches, mages, trolls and all sorts of magical beings and creatures. The constant ebbing and flowing of magic and technology, makes the world unpredictable and chaotic. What happens when the world is unpredictable and chaotic? Some people get rigid about how things ought to be and start taking measures to eliminate anything different. Not long before this exchange, Kate is talking to Ted, the head of her chapter of the Knights of Merciful Aid – a non-governmental organization tasked with protecting humanity. Ted has just told Kate that not only does he think the weres, and others, are not human, he would prefer to see them exterminated. Ted believes this is necessary to protect humanity, Kate believes it would be genocide.
A lot of sci-fi, fantasy, and post apocalyptic books deal with inclusion/exclusion, us vs them dynamics. It is an easy dynamic to set up and provides the protagonists with an obstacle to overcome. I think it has been an attractive dynamic for readers in recent years because our ideas about who we are and how things ought to be are changing so rapidly, it can be dizzying. There are strong pushes on many fronts for changes that would grant greater equality and access to more people, and equally strong push backs to maintain tradition. I was born in 1968. I have lived through enforced school desegregation, a couple of waves of feminism, the rise of the LGBTQ rights movement, a world made smaller by technology, and a rapidly widening wealth gap. It is confusing. As I’ve said before, I think pop culture is a place where we work out our issues – whether it’s giving an outlet to our fear and paranoia, or envisioning a better way to be in the world.
LGBTQ issues, for example, have come out of the closet and are pressing for changes in how we consider sexuality and gender. Is it ok to be homosexual, bisexual, or asexual? What about people who feel like they are a different gender than the one assigned a birth? What if they feel like they are both genders, or neither? Can you be a woman if you were born with a penis? What if you still have a penis, but identify as a woman? If the concepts of sexuality and gender become more fluid, then the whole idea of traditional gender roles becomes useless. If you can’t look at someone and immediately know their gender, genitalia and sexual preference – how will you know how to behave towards them and what to expect from them? These are very confusing and threatening issues for some people. Some of the people who feel threatened are advocating measures that range from ridiculous to frightening to stomp out any challenge to their definitions of gender sexuality and what men and women can and cannot do. I can replace human with gender in Saiman and Kate’s exchange:
How do you decide another person’s gender?
It doesn’t have to be sexuality and gender. What makes someone American? Can you be a Muslim and American? Some people seem to think not. The social change required to expand inclusion is complicated and painful. The series certainly isn’t taking any major stands on sexuality and gender. While there are gay characters, it is mostly heteronormative. The authors have clearly thought a lot about the principles and benefits of inclusiveness. Books like Magic Bleeds allow us to grapple with it on a simpler level, enjoy an adventure and vicariously smack our opponents around with a sword.
Magic Bleeds is about much more than just who is human and who gets to decide the broadness of the definition. It’s also violent, funny, and suspenseful. Kate and Curran are at odds and have not resolve their relationship. Kate acquires an attack poodle, I always love a book with a good canine sidekick. Erra, a legendary Mesopotamian bringer of plagues, chaos and destruction has come to Atlanta to destroy the Pack, but focuses on Kate as well. Erra is my favorite of Kate’s big bads. The conversations and fights between Erra and Kate sparkle and snap. Their tea party is one of my favorite scenes in the series so far.
“Enjoy the feeling while you still have one. I’m going to enjoy your books after you die. You bred true by pure chance, and no matter what you do, you’re weaker than me. [Redacted]
That’s just about enough of that. I stared right into her eyes. “You’ll lose.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“You have no discipline. All you do is tear shit down. [Redacted] is a bastard, but at least he builds things. You turn cities into smoking ruins and blunder about like some hyper child, smashing anything you see. And then you sit here and wonder, ‘Why did all of my children turn out to be violent idiots? It’s a mystery of nature.'”
We rose at the same time, swords in hand.
More than any other opponent, Erra challenges Kate with what she could be and how woefully unprepared she is to face her ultimate nemesis. Magic Bleeds is the pivot point for the series. Pieces that we knew were going to come together in book one snap into place by the end of the book, and the groundwork is laid for some future conflicts. After this book though, the series becomes more surprising. The Ilona Andrews team are clearly comfortable with complexity.