The Immortal Architects, by Paige Orwin

Let’s get the basics out of the way first, shall we?  The Immortal Architects is the second in a series by Paige Orwin, the first of which was called The Interminables, and is an alt-world fantasy about wizards who destroy the world in order to defeat an evil immortal from the Middle East who is trying to destroy the world.  The main characters are Edmund Templeton and Istvan Czernin who,with help from a few others attempt to keep Shokat Anoushak al-Khalid, ancient Scythian warrior and magician, from rising and once again trying to destroy the world and all in her path.

It’s a workmanlike bit of plot and characterization, all the bits and bobs in the right places to give the reader a good sense of who the characters are and what they want, and with few enough plot holes that everyone arrives in the right order in order to make the final climax happen.  Points for interesting concepts including Edmund’s attempt to attain immortality by stealing time from others and Istvan’s existence as a ghost who literally embodies World War I, and the unlikeliness of the two coming together as allies.

A few years ago I might have glowed about this novel, because it is pretty inventive and imaginative, and has just enough of the unexplained to be interesting without becoming bogged down in explanations, but these days, I can’t help but read it a little differently.

This is a novel about white guilt.

That might seem like an odd thing to say in a fantasy novel.  Let me explain.

This is a novel about a white man born at the beginning of the 20th century, and his best friend, another white man born at the end of the 19th century, and their struggles to come to terms with a world that has changed in ways they can’t keep up with, which is where much of the pathos of the novel comes from: these two, both immortal in their own way, are the wrecking ball and not the flying superhero come to save the day.  One is afraid to die, the other literally can’t because he’s a revenant, and they are the whom this story is about.

The novel contains what, on the surface, is a diverse cast of characters.  As Edmund himself states in one of his guilt-saturated internal tirades, the head of the Twelfth Hour–the wizard cabal that ostensibly runs what’s left of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.–is a brown woman.  One of the other supporting characters is Grace Wu, a woman engineer with the ability to channel energy.  And, perhaps the most important, then there is Kyra, a young black woman able to create storms, who may be the secret to stopping Shokat Anoushak from coming back to ravage the world once again.

Shokat Anoushak is an ancient immortal, one who only wants to destroy, and also happens to come from the Middle East.  Kyra is a black woman from Rochester, NY, who is Shattered–someone damaged by the magical forces Shokat Anoushak unleashed and now, in the aftermath of the wizard war, dangerous to those around her because of the powers she wields–and also trans.  Barrio Libertad are the community at odds with the Twelfth Hour–coded white–who have a lot of power and are run by, you guessed it, a latino named Diego Espinoza.

All the characters mentioned are antagonistic to Edmund and Istvan in some way, and all of them are othered racially and ethnically.  It’s a white world, the story keeps screaming at the reader, and everyone else keeps taunting our two white male protagonists with their non-whiteness.

Edmund and Istvan are our point of view characters.  Edmund experiences a lot of feelings about things he does, things that happen, things he sees, things other people do.  He locks up Kyra with magical chains, all the while telling himself–in his head, in his feels–that he isn’t a racist and that everyone who will say he is is just being mean and not understanding his intentions.  At a point where Barrio Libertad obtain custody of Kyra, a random black man–never seen before or again after–is trotted out as a spokesperson and leader of Barrio Libertad, solely in order to point out to Edmund–and to the reader–that he is white and she is black, and to reference the history of racial inequality in the United States, which makes Edmund feel bad again.

Edmund repeatedly makes reference to his being “not a racist,” even when not confronted.  Remember, his is the reader’s point of view.   The author of this story made these narrative decisions, and decided to create the unnecessary and, frankly, unrealistic scene of a post-magical-war society living in the corpse of a previously animated city-sized monster who feels it necessary to call out Edmund for the racism of locking up a kid, instead of the hundred other dumb things he did in relation to that event.  That was black tokenism, and did nothing to move the narrative, other than to give Edmund something else to feel guilty about, which the reader then had to experience and is, presumably, expected to sympathize over.

Now let’s move to the other thorny subject.  Kyra is not just a teenaged girl, she’s a trans girl, for all intents and purposes.  When everyone meets her, in the middle of a killer storm she’s created, they all assume she’s a boy.  Both Edmund and Istvan misgender her repeatedly, and it takes a huge crisis in which Edmund and Istvan somehow get their priorities straight and decide that however misguided she is, it’s more convenient to just give her what she wants and use the pronouns she’s chosen.  From the first time Kyra asserts that she is a girl, the reader must slog through another 25% of the novel before Edmund and Istvan finally give in and reliably use her pronouns.  Istvan even goes on a tear, at Kyra, about how unrealistic it is of her to just expect people to get her and not treat her according to the natural order he’s used to.  He–a revenant of the great war capable of literally tearing people apart–screams at her about how she’ll get hurt if she insists on such irrational behavior.

It’s disturbing.  It’s even more disturbing that Edmund and Istvan are the only ones who call each other out for their behavior–unreliable as that is and usually only in relation to ways that they inconvenience each other–and no other part of the narrative really interrogates how they behave and shines a light on how problematic it is.  The narrative provides no other reliable mirror for their whiteness.

Kyra has memories of a happy time–all Shattered are given such memories in order to make them docile and useful to Shokat Anoushak–and Istvan’s referencing that time, in which she was free and happy to make decisions like what her pronouns were, also puts a date to when it ocurred–specifically the beginning of the 21st century, from about 2008 to when the war ended in 2020.  2012 was when the real destruction began, but Kyra has memories of a whole life, and in 2020 is about 15.  Read as a whole, the novel is implying that whatever happy reality Kyra remembers–our actual reality from 2008 on, which also coincides with things like Barack Obama being elected president and eventually passing the ACA–is not only not real, but not realistic, and that anyone who thinks they have a right to expect that kind of life or happiness deserves to get hurt.

I get it: the novel isn’t a manifesto.  And yet, writers bring all kinds of things to the table without realizing it.  Edmund’s arc isn’t really an arc at all.  It’s a straight line from the uncomfortable reality of the way he steals time from others to stay alive, to the way he attempts to lock away his mistakes so he won’t have to be confronted by them, to accepting banishment at the end of the story in order to escape the blame from another disaster he’s caused.

On the other side of the coin, Istvan can’t free himself of his bigotry, which is especially problematized by the fact that not only is he a gay man who was forced to live a lie at the turn of the 20th century, but that he repeatedly displays a hatred, a revulsion for that part of himself, and worries that Edmund will not want to be around him if he ever finds out Istvan loves him.  Sexuality and gender are difficult issues in this novel, to say the least.  For the first half of the story Kyra’s being trans is used as evidence that she is mentally  unstable, then she is punished for the rest of the story by being outcast, not fully trusted, and eventually physically attacked for not conforming to everyone else’s expectations of her.  The reader only ever gets glimpses into her real psyche through the lens of Edmund and Istvan’s gazes.

And through it all the reader is exposed to Edmund’s guilt, and his petty anger at being held accountable for the situation he’d created.  Even after 98% of the story, Edmund throws a tantrum over everything being taken away from him–after he tried to sell everyone out to Shokat Anoushak in exchange for the real secret to immortality–and includes being called racist in the list of wrongs perpetrated against him.  In a world where white accountability is sorely lacking, when being called racist is viewed as being worse than actually being racist, this story of a white man’s guilt is sadly accurate, and yet the way that it is presented is, again, not given the broader context against which to understand Edmund’s and Istvan’s actions as problematic.

For comparison, Mishell Baker’s novel Borderline, about a young woman with borderline personal disorder, has a white woman as its protagonist, and is told by her.  She repeatedly commits racist or ableist actions, sometimes in word, sometimes in deed, sometimes only in her head, and when in a good frame of mind to recognize it, feels guilty.  The difference is the ways in which Baker constructs the scenes.  Either the young woman is called out for behaviors that display overt racism or are racist microaggressions, or she makes a distinction in her own narration between the racism of her actions and the guilt she feels at perpetrating racist actions.  White people can and should feel guilty for being racist, but the story is not the guilty feelings, it’s the racism.  In The Immortal Architects, the reader is subject only to Edmunds experience of his guilt, not his realization of how he may be perpetrating racism and how his actions can be harmful to those around him.

That’s why this novel is a white guilt story and not a redemption narrative, or hero’s journey.  It’s a manifesto for the status quo that should be recommended with caution.

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