Monday, January 2, 2017

Review: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne

Ah, the first book review of the new year!

Summary

Thomas is an eleven-year-old boy making a living off the dead: each night, he and his father go out grave-robbing. One night, Thomas digs up a grave to discover the person buried in it is himself. 

This disturbing discovery leads Thomas on a search through London, finding spiritualists, spirits, and a secret world of faeries. The faeries hold the key to Thomas's true identity, and they need his help.

Review: Creepy Faery Fantasy and Bad Puns FTW

I picked this book up because the cover was cool -- and a little disturbing -- and bought it purely for the terrible pun on the inside flap. The flap says that Thomas must "unearth" the truth about himself. Har, har. Yes. Give me this book. 


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The tone of the book remains grim despite that bit of humor. Some flashes of dark humor are scattered throughout, and the story is hopeful with a lot of heart.

A Twist on the Changeling Tale

Thomas discovers he's a changeling -- a very rare type of faery without magic. This happens when a faery egg is split in two, with one twin taking all the magic. If you know your New Testament lore, you may recognize the pun in Thomas's name: the disciple Thomas is known as "Thomas the twin." Thomas is also something of a "doubting Thomas." He doesn't really want to believe in any of this at first. 

Trevayne's take on faeries is quite different, but she makes it work. She keeps key parts of the lore, such as an aversion to iron and churchbells, while her alterations make them unique.


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Bells = bad. Nature = good. 

Personally, the idea of faeries in the city -- especially whole fey courts residing in Chicago and New York and London like iron and humans everywhere ain't no thing -- bothers the hell out of me. Faeries live in the country; they like nature and hate iron. They're associated with a pagan past and they hate the sound of churchbells; the iron they despise is associated with a modern world and the iron nails of the cross of Christianity. The Light/Dark or Summer/Winter courts are associated with natural cycles: of day and night, and seasons of the year. They steal cows and play tricks on farmers. 

Someone somewhere in urban fantasy decided to relocate them to the city and make them cool and hip. The trope stuck, and I really hate it. It's gratifying that the faeries of Afterlife despise the city and want to escape. 

So the Faeries Have a Problem and Thomas Has to Help

The faeries have been stolen out of faeryland by an evil sorcerer, Mordecai. Mordecai enslaves them, working them to death as he uses their powers to fuel his spiritualist shows. They are plagued by the iron and bells of London, and trapped in the city by Mordecai's magic.

Unfortunately, only someone of royal blood can reopen the passageways. Surprise, surprise, Thomas is the changeling son of the dead faery queen. The faeries need his help if they want to return home. But Thomas has no magic, so he may not be able to help them at all.


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Fairies swapping out babies.
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More to the point, Thomas is an extremely poor criminal who steals from the dead to survive. Until the revelation in the graveyard, his priorities were finding food, eating food, sleeping, and getting money so that he can find food and go to sleep full. It's telling that his basic needs -- food, water, sleep, security -- must be met before he can even consider goals like helping others. 

This is thoughtfully done and realistic. Too often, we see the trope of the pure-hearted poor or orphaned kid who's too good for their poverty-stricken surroundings. That trope romanticizes poverty in an uncomfortable way. Thomas may be the son of a faery queen, but he was raised dirt poor -- literally having to dig his living out of the dirt. The dead have more riches than he does. There's a struggle between Thomas's survival instincts which tell him to place himself first vs. his moral nature which wants him to help others. 

Good Horror Is Good

I'd class this firmly in the horror category rather than historical fantasy or paranormal for a few reasons: the "scary" look of the faeries; the morbid settings and graverobbing; spiritualism and speaking from beyond the grave; the horrifying conditions of the captive faeries; and a moderately disturbing torture scene. Is it horrifying? Yes. Hooray for horror. It's still appropriate for younger readers, of course. But certainly creepy.

Enslaved Faeries: Wait, what? 

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden takes place in 19th-century London. The main conflict is freeing the enslaved faeries, who live in a filthy basement, are abused by Mordecai, and are forced to perform in cages at his pleasure. He works them until they die and then pressures the survivors to hatch more faery eggs. Faeries reproduce asexually, and hatching eggs requires a great magical working by a lone female faery which can kill her if she isn't healthy. (All faeries appear to be asexual. Deadnettle mentions his "beloved" but there appear to be no sexual attractions or relationships.)

Thomas is horrified by the condition of the few remaining faeries. As one would be. But this all takes place without the mention that there are, in fact, human slaves in this time period. Britain, despite its eventual abolition of the slave trade and pressures on other countries to do the same, played a large role in global human trafficking.


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From references to the queen being a widow, we know that this is set after the death of Queen Victoria's husband, whom she famously mourned. Other bits of context suggest that it takes place fairly recently after his death. That makes The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden set in 1861 or sometime afterwards. At this time, there would still have been people living in London whose parents and grandparents had been slaves or who had been slaves themselves. What would Afterlife have been like if Thomas's human family had been descendants of slaves? 

You may also recognize the early 1860's as that one time America had a civil war. You may also remember that Britain was allied to the slave-holding South.

Now, I don't expect a dirt-poor urchin to know details of American wars or British politics. But I would expect an American ex-pat author to remember those liiiiiittle details. You know, the war that killed more Americans than all previous American wars combined at the time, and the practice of slavery, which still affects race relations and society today. 

Trevayne took such care to set this novel in a certain place and time. Why not take that care elsewhere? It would have been so easy for a character to throw in a passing reference to current events. Or for Deadnettle the faery to bitterly remark (in one of his MANY tirades on why humans suck) that humans enslave and exploit other humans. In a book so focused on freeing these faeries from slavery and oppression, the absence of any mention of human slavery is glaring. 


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And then there's Mordecai: Wait, what?


If you're going to make a Biblical reference by naming your twin protagonist Thomas, you can't expect me not to notice that you named your antagonist Mordecai.



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Ahaserus hears about Mordecai. source

In The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden, Mordecai is an oppressor, not a liberator. But even if Thomas's name had not been a Biblical reference, I think I would have noticed that Trevayne gave her antagonist a memorable Old Testament name of a powerful Jewish man...and then made him into a walking anti-Semitic stereotype. Mordecai is purely motivated by greed and the need to amass personal wealth, power, and social influence with the most prominent citizens of the land (the better to manipulate them and drain them of their wealth). He is also extremely cheap and stingy, refusing to pay for decent accommodations and food for the faeries. Without spoiling anything, the arc about Mordecai's relationship to faeryland is also troubling in this light.

It's fine to have villains of different ethnicities. It's not fine to have those villains be racist caricatures -- villainous because of their race or ethnicity. And in a novel about the enslavement of an oppressed group stolen from their homeland, it would have better fit the tone for the evil sorcerer to have been a Standard-Issue White Male. With none of the baggage attached to the name Mordecai.

To be clear, I haven't read any reviews of this book by Jewish readers. If you have, please leave a comment as I'd be interested to see someone else's take. But this unsavory element kinda makes me want to seek out a review by a Jewish person to see what they thought of the character. Or perhaps I'm just reading too much into this. But usually if I find myself asking, "Is this racist?" it might be racist.

Conclusion and rating

For writing alone, I'm stuck between a 4 and a 5. This was a fresh take on faeries and urban fantasy, which was amazing. I was enchanted and would definitely recommend it, but some transitions were abrupt and confusing. The ending also felt a tad rushed, but it wasn't bad. It all tied neatly together. A couple other things made me raise my eyebrows, but apart from that, the writing is 5-star material. 


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However, I can't unequivocally give it a 5 on writing. And, due to the problematic aspects I discussed, I'm going to give this one...ehhhh, a 2 or 3. I may still rec to certain people because ideally you should read things for yourself -- but with a very BIG AND LOUD caveat that it contains some cringey elements. 

Also ideally, we have an infinite amount of time in which to read an unlimited number of books -- but we don't have infinite reading time, and there are many books out there that don't make you ask, "Is this racist?" So if you read it, do so with that in mind. And definitely rent it from the library rather than paying for it. 

I've marked this under Diverse Reads for its (mis)handling of race and ethnicity, but also for the way it delves into other types of diversity. I find myself more disappointed in its antagonist because Trevayne handled other sensitive topics such as extreme poverty, asexuality, and adoption with such a deft and thoughtful touch.

2 comments:

  1. It's good to read this review. I'm an oblivious, perhaps under-educated/informed reader/writer myself, and it hasn't been until this past year that I was informed there was such a deficit or poor representation of diversity in books and television. I had no idea horrible tropes existed until a friend was heartbroken over the show the 100. I'm putting forth effort to be better in my own reading and writing, but I'm still oblivious and would've never picked up on Mordecai (not being familiar with the Old Testament reference) or noticed the lack of human slavery. I guess the best way to raise one's awareness is to become aware, right?

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    1. I'm glad you appreciated the review. Thanks for stopping by, as ever (comments make my day! :))

      I'm curious about The 100, but I've had friends who didn't like it so I probably won't watch it...and yeah, a lot of things fall into the same cliches that play on people's prejudices. It can even be unintentional. The author who wrote the Young Adult novel "Graceling" apparently did something really stereotypical with the blind character, but because people are being more aware and complaining about these things when they happened, she adjusted her portrayal in the second book. That kind of thing is always nice to see.

      I think I picked up on both Thomas and Mordecai because religion was such a big part of my life growing up but also because Esther was one of the few female role models in the Bible preached often enough for me to have picked up on it as a kid. I don't even think the unfortunate implications here were necessarily even malicious. The author was clearly trying to follow a strong theme and make us outraged about the faeries, and have compassion for the less fortunate (but didn't pick the best tools to portray that theme).

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