Friendship and choice – themes in urban fantasy…


I’m just thinking out loud…

Reading The Iron Witch, by Karen Mahoney, I came across a couple of passages that seemed to speak for the genre (of Urban Fantasy, that is). Specifically, these passages seemed to be more overt instances of themes I had wondered about with regards to Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series…

Sometimes melodramatic writing just seems to put these things more concisely and it helps form questions for the other texts…

Friendship and individual choice…

These are two pressures commonly associated with adolescence, but it seems to me that a lot of the vampire fiction out there at the moment – and a lot of the faery stuff that sits alongside it, too – takes a special interest in the issues of individual choice in a social world and the bonds of (urban?) friendship. Consider, for example, these passages in The Iron Witch:

from chapter five

“‘You tell me everything.’ The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Navin looked at her carefully. She had never seen him look more solemn. All the humor drained out of him, and his mouth, usually so quick to smile, had drawn into a [-p.81] tight line. ‘Maybe I don’t tell you everything, Don. We all have secrets. I just learned that today.’

She bit her lip. Dammit, this was something she would not be able to stand; there was no way she could go on without Navin beside her. But he was right. She had kept secrets; maybe too many of them for their friendship to survive. She had always believed that she didn’t have a choice – the Order had its rules, and she’d followed them because… well, because that’s what you do when you grow up among the alchemists.

But of course, now she knew an important but painful truth; the choice had been hers all along. Donna had chosen to follow the rules. That choice could cost her the most important person in her life; it could cost her Navin.” (italics in original, pp.80-81)

Okay, so it’s slightly melodramatic (this forms the end of chapter 5), but you get the picture – choices in friendship can be life-changing. The loss of a best friend = the ultimate cost… what does it all mean?

from chapter six

“Apparently it [Moon Sister] was a title she herself could look forward to if she followed in her parents’ footsteps and became a full initiate when she was eighteen. It wasn’t something she liked to think about, because it wasn’t something she wanted to do. She just hadn’t gotten around to telling anybody that. And she wasn’t entirely sure that they would listen to her if she did.” (87)

Here the boundary crossing of turning 18 is given magical impetus, yes, but the importance of individual choice attached to it connects with the experiences of the stereotypical adolescent reader…

Appropriate behaviours within relationships…

“Donna had tried really hard not to think about how toned Xan’s chest was while examining the imprint of the elf’s jagged teeth. This wasn’t the time to act like a teenager. [-p.112] But I am a teenager, she’d wanted to shout. It was so unfair – why did these things have to happen? Why couldn’t she just have a normal life? And then she immediately felt angry with herself for the blast of self-pity. She was determined to accept whatever life had to throw at her.” (italics in original, 111-112)

What is ‘acting like a teenager’? and when is the time to act in this way?

Is it surprising at all that the next scene is one in which protagonist and ‘hot boy’ share secrets by showing each other the parts of their bodies that make them ‘freakish’?

The question of behaviour and relationships comes to the fore later when Donna writes in her journal: “Being brought up as a child of the alchemists pretty much sucks. / What makes it worse, though, in so many ways is that Mom and Dad are well-known and, even today, remembered as heroes – or so I’m told. The Underwood name is one to be reckoned with. Can you imagine the pressure that puts me under? Seriously, if I told everyone I just wanted to go to a regular college once I’ve graduated, maybe travel for a while and then study literature, or even take some courses in creative writing… yeah, my life wouldn’t be worth living. / The Order has invested in me, you see. These tattoos of mine don’t come cheap. / My childhood has been taken up with training, lessons, operations for my arms, and exercises to control my strength – an “unfortunate side effect” (Maker’s words) of the iron holding me together. / It would be nice just to be a teenager. / But how is it fair that a teenager in the modern world should have to live by outdated rules laid down in dusty old books centuries ago? Rules made by a white, patriarchal system that patronized women and called them stupid things like ‘Moon Sister.’ Ugh.” (146)

Adult institutions and choice…

“Even before the tangle of questions had finished filling her overwrought mind, she knew the answer. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her aunt; it was more about her growing suspicion that she couldn’t trust the Order. Donna had never really been comfortable with the organization that practically ran her life – a secret society that kept secrets from her even about her own parents.

She had a horrible suspicion that all of these things were linked, but she didn’t know how the pieces fit together. Of course, that didn’t mean that she couldn’t find out. Starting tomorrow.” (italics in original, 134)

There is this sense here that Donna, the adolescent protagonist, needs to establish her own beliefs urgently; that the adult institution, the Order of the Dragon (an order of alchemists to which her family belongs), may not be safe or trustworthy. How reliable are adult institutions? When does the adolescent develop his/her own relationship with these institutions? How does ‘individual choice’ connect in with this?

Roberta Seelinger Trites’ ideas about power, adolescence, and the YA novel come to mind here too… the way this and other novels written in a similar vein deal with these ideas really just seems to reaffirm what she wrote about in her article, ‘The Harry Potter novels as a test case for adolescent literature’ Style 35(3)2001, pp.472+

Ref: emphases in blue bold, mind Karen Mahoney (2011) The Iron Witch. Random House: Sydney


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