Category Archives: Books

The trouble with elves

It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Rings, but this post brought back some old memories.

I was never really an elf fan. My favorite characters were the hobbits, because the hobbits seemed like people rather than Heroes of Legend. They’d rather have been at home than off adventuring, and they wanted to know when the next meal was going to be, and they mostly spoke in casual vernacular rather than solemn pronouncements. The elves were graceful and poetic and magical, and that was the problem–they were too perfect. They never seemed quite real the way the hobbits did. One of the great things about Lord of the Rings is that in a landscape lousy with elves and kings and wizards, it’s the humble little people who aren’t anyone special who make all the difference. Frodo isn’t a Chosen One of prophecy; he volunteers for a job that needs doing. And arguably the real hero in the end is Sam, who’s the most ordinary of them all.

I was reminded as well of another series, A.J. Hartley’s Will Hawthorne books. My feelings about those are more mixed, and I frequently outright disliked Will Hawthorne himself. But I usually liked him a lot better than his traveling companions, because they were all upright and noble adventurers on a quest that they took very seriously, whereas Will had a sense of humor, not to mention a healthy sense of self-preservation. (The generic-fantasy-photo covers on the author’s website are kind of unintentionally hilarious with the actual content of the books, which are narrated from Will’s sardonic perspective.)

I’ll take a character who seems like a real person, warts and all, over a paragon any day. The elves are impressive and all, but they’re kind of boring.

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Wizard politics

Yet more rumination on Harry Potter. I’m on shakier ground here than I was with wizard technology or pop culture, as I’m not a lawyer or any other kind of expert on law and government. Furthermore, I am an American; most of what I know about British politics comes from Radio 4 topical comedy, supplemented by Wikipedia. So this post is going to be mostly speculation, with more questions than answers.

Potterverse wizards have a very strange relationship to the British government. Most of the wizard characters in the books (with obvious exceptions like Madame Maxime, Professor Karkaroff, etc.) are British nationals who live and work on British soil, but they don’t seem to concern themselves with the Muggle government. I would be shocked to learn that any of them have ever voted in a parliamentary election. The PM, when his name comes up, is referred to as the “Muggle Prime Minister.” It’s not even clear if they regard themselves as subjects of the Queen. The government body they do acknowledge is the Ministry of Magic–but the title “Minister of Magic” suggests that it’s a Cabinet post, which implies a much closer relationship with the Muggle government than is ever demonstrated in the text.

Most of the knowledge we have of the relationship between wizards and the mundane British government comes from chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister.” In this chapter, the Prime Minister (who’s never named, but the commonly accepted chronology of the series puts it in John Major’s term of office) is visited by now-former Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, and there are flashbacks to the PM’s previous meetings with Fudge over the past few years. On the evidence of this chapter, my instinct is to say that the Minister of Magic isn’t a member of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister certainly did not appoint either Fudge or his successor, Scrimgeour, nor has either of them been attending regular Cabinet meetings. In fact, the Prime Minister is only informed of the Ministry’s doings in the event of an emergency, and regards annual visits from Fudge as alarmingly frequent. Any authority he might have over the Ministry is entirely theoretical. At most, the chapter proves that someone in the Ministry of Magic is paying enough attention to Muggle affairs to notice when a new Prime Minister is elected, but this doesn’t seem to have any particular effect on the running of the Ministry.

It seems, in fact, as though the Ministry of Magic isn’t so much a government department as an independent government in itself. Wizards have their own judiciary (the Wizengamot). They have their own laws and law enforcement bodies. They mint their own money–which suggests that if wizards pay taxes, they’re paying them to the Ministry. Given that each successive Prime Minister has been let in on the secret of the wizarding world, I have to wonder if the title “Minister of Magic” was chosen to appease PMs who might otherwise kick up a fuss about wizards being essentially exempt from their jurisdiction.

But wizards being exempt from British law is still a problem, particularly when wizards cast spells on Muggles. Stunning Spells, which are perfectly legal under the Ministry, would probably qualify as assault under Muggle law. Nor do I think the British legal system would look kindly on Memory Charms, though I don’t know enough about the law to say exactly what kind of crime they would be. And Memory Charms are a particularly notable example, because Ministry-sanctioned operatives perform them on Muggles all the time to preserve the secrecy of the magical world. It’s bad enough when they’re merely invading someone’s mind to make them forget they saw a dragon fly by, but in some cases this actually serves to cover up crimes by wizards. For instance, after Harry accidentally inflates Aunt Marge, the Ministry “modifies her memory” to make her forget the incident. Granted, Harry’s attack was unintentional and severely provoked, but making a person forget that she was attacked at all just compounds the crime. And whenever a British Muggle is attacked by a wizard on British soil, the Ministry immediately steps in to do this sort of cover-up–never mind that the Muggle government has a claim of jurisdiction and would probably take a much more severe view of the crime. If the Muggle authorities did manage to arrest and try a wizard for Obliviating a Muggle, would acting on the orders of the Ministry be an effective defense? (Contrast Rivers of London, where the Folly is within the Met’s chain of command and answers to the Commissioner and the Department of Professional Standards–i.e., to Muggles. Part of their function is to prevent breaches of the peace by the magical community.)

And that’s just criminal law. What about government recordkeeping? Many wizard children are born into Muggle families and have no knowledge of the magical community up to the age of eleven. These children have a paper trail: birth certificates, school enrollment, medical records, etc. Heck, even once they’ve started at Hogwarts, I bet their parents continue to claim them as dependents on their tax forms. But as adults? They enter the wizarding world so completely that they disappear from the records. They never get drivers’ licenses, use credit cards, pay taxes (at least to the Muggle government), own a car, register to vote, buy insurance, pay the television license fee… does no one ever notice that all these people’s paper trails have dead-ended? No wonder Muggleborn wizards all seem to leave the Muggle world behind; even if they change their minds later, they don’t have any ID or a credit history!

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48-Hour Book Challenge: Finish Line!

Books I read this weekend, with my faithful writing buddy the Uniducky.

Books I read this weekend, with my faithful writing buddy the Uniducky.

 

Total time reading, blogging, etc.: 25 hours

Books read: 5

Blog posts:
#1: A Natural History of Dragons
#2: Six-Gun Snow White
#3: Half a King
#4: Majestrum
#5: A Darker Shade of Magic

I thought this would reduce the length of my TBR list, but between them these books have five sequels in print and three more due out in the next year, plus a dozen unrelated books by those authors that I’ve been reminded I should read.

…Oh well, might as well get started. I’m checking out The Tropic of Serpents and Half the World from the library, because clearly I haven’t yet done enough reading this weekend.

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48-Hour Book Challenge #5: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Time reading: 6 hours

Thematically, I’ve come full circle–A Darker Shade of Magic, like A Natural History of Dragons, is in the general ballpark of historical fantasy, since Grey London–our world–is in the Regency period. I’ll have to add it to my list of magical London books.

This one was great fun–engaging characters, fast-paced adventure, and I love the contrast between the parallel Londons. The author pulls off a good balancing act with Kell; he’s one of the most magically powerful people in the world, but the villains are all up to his weight (and suitably creepy). Similarly, the super-powerful magical MacGuffin (MagicGuffin?) has the tradeoff of being the One Ring corrupting and draining the user, so it gives temporary fixes to problems at a long-term cost.

I really hope future books will answer some of my big world-building questions–if the Londons have only been cut off from each other for 300 years or so, does that mean medieval Grey London had magic? Can Antari travel between worlds from anywhere outside the various Londons? But even if those questions are never addressed, I look forward to Kell and Lila’s further adventures.

A few minor flaws: Sometimes a little too blatantly expository, but the exposition was interesting enough that I didn’t really mind. Also, every now and then an anachronistic turn of phrase would pop into the dialogue–and it only occurred to me halfway through the book that the author was using American spellings.

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48-Hour Book Challenge #4: Majestrum by Matthew Hughes

Time reading: 4.5 hours (Fewer pages than Half a King, but smaller print and denser prose.)

Back in high school, I was a library monitor. Among the school library’s magazine subscriptions was Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I ended up reading enough of their back catalog that I began to seek out issues featuring some of my favorite regular contributors. One of these was Matthew Hughes and his tales of Henghis Hapthorn, “Old Earth’s foremost freelance discriminator.”

High school is a few years in the rearview mirror by now, but the impression of the stories stuck with me. So I entered this book with a certain amount of context for what was going on. This turned out to be necessary, because without that context, I’m not sure how much of the plot I would have understood. There’s some complex world-building going on here, involving the world transitioning from an age of science and reason to an age of magic. I’m told Hughes’ work is meant to be a prequel to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, but I’m not sufficiently familiar with Vance to draw any conclusions from that.

Still, an interesting read with a strong narrative voice. I’m fond of both sci-fi/ mystery and fantasy/ mystery fusions, and Majestrum manages to be both. In other words: yet another Book Challenge read where I’ll be hunting up the sequels later.

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