*It’s swoony and I love the characters. I find it comfortable and reassuring, like a big fluffy blanket.
*It’s a smart take on Chosen One stories, upending tropes and challenging expectations. The first time through you think you know what’s going to happen, and then it doesn’t, and something much cooler happens instead.
*It’s funny and incisive, and has good things to say about the human emotional cost of magic, of being caught inside a fantasy story.
I’m not going to write a real review of this book, surprise, because I never can with books I really love, so here are some things I really appreciated on this go-round (spoilers ahoy, first time readers do not proceed):
*How many of the characters are not what they seem. Baz is the best example. You’re meant to assume he’s a Draco Malfoy type: the hero’s nemesis, cruel and entitled and arrogant. Instead, what you get is a sad, empathetic boy who loves his roommate and hides it by pretending he hates him, who misses his mother, who feels isolated because he’s secretly a vampire and can’t talk to anyone about it (and spends way too much time alone in the crypts hunting rats to eat), and who is actually a huge nerd who loves school. Similarly, Simon as the Chosen One, you expect to be heroic and talented, but instead he’s hopeless at magic, spends most of his life reacting instinctually and never thinking, and this is the big one, actually is the “bad guy” at the end. The twist of the hero who was prophesied to save magic actually having to save magic from himself is just brilliant.
*The Mage is the obvious mentor/Gandalf/Dumbledore figure here, and what Rainbow does with him is so interesting. She just really goes to town undercutting the hell out of that character type. When you read this book for the first time, especially if you’re used to reading fantasy books, you just sort of slot him in to that role, and everything he does seems good and normal (like it does to Simon). And all of his goals sound noble! Magical equality! Defeating the Insidious Humdrum! Preserving magic! Protecting Simon and bringing him to the magical world! But then . . . we begin to see that the Mage only cares about Simon as a tool and not as a person at all, and in fact that he *created* Simon, both as his father and as the Greatest Mage, but it’s only in the latter capacity that he cares for Simon at all. It’s dehumanizing. And then all the other warning signs begin flooding in, and it’s just a tidal wave of sexism and tyranny and abuse of power. The Mage, instead of becoming a figure of wisdom and reassurance, becomes one of power and corruption and coldness. He’s a zealot.
*This time through it really struck me how useless the good/evil paradigm is in this book. The two sides of the “war” are split between traditional magical families wanting to uphold existing power structures, and the people who don’t. The Mage is the leader of the latter, and as we grow to realize how *off* that guy really is, and how there are lovely people on the other side as well (mostly in the form of Baz’s family), it just becomes more and more apparent how pointless it all is. Some of those traditions are good! (Some are bad.) The Mage’s actions are unquestionably bad for the most part, but even he is given credit for some good and right ideas, like his insistence that magical learning should not be limited to the most powerful.
*The kissing scenes are still really, really great. But I was less caught up in them this time, and noticed how dark they actually are as well. Baz’s self loathing is intense, and I hope he finds a way out of it. He sort of does by the end, coming to terms with the fact that he believes his mother would have been devastated that her son was a vampire, not believing vampires could be good (which seems ignorant, because they clearly can), but also acknowledging that she taught him never to give up and that’s what he will take from his knowledge of her. That duality of thought really appeals to me. Things are not black and white here.
*That scene at the end where Simon, caught up in Penny’s spell, tells the Mage to stop hurting him, and because of who the Mage is, the only way for that to be a reality is for him to die. That is *bleak*, but so powerful for me. That he was such an abuser at heart that it was literally impossible for him to be alive and not hurt Simon at the same time, just. That’s some harsh judgment. But at the same time, that moment is so cathartic. Simon finally speaks up to him, and it’s such a simple request, with such devastating consequences.
*The idea that magic is based on language and meaning basically means that it’s based on communication. Words are central, and it’s not a coincidence that the climax happens the way it does, or that she makes a point of noting that Simon could barely speak before he came to Watford. Or that Baz is tormented by not being allowed to speak about the things he needs to speak about (he learns about the circumstances of his mother’s death from school(!), his parents never talk about him being a vampire, etc).
So yeah, I guess I still love this book.
I will confess that I am seriously considering not reading the sequel, because what if I hate it. This book holds such a dear place in my heart, and I don’t really need anything beyond what exists here. I’m going to need about 1,000 reviews from trusted sources before I can dive in, I think.
CBR Bingo: I Love This