I’ve been noticing a sort of mini-trend in my reading, and I’d like to talk with you all about it. To be fair, I don’t know if the theme in question is an actual mini-trend or if it’s a trend that’s been around and I’m just paying better attention lately. Either way, I think it’s interesting and wanted to submit my findings before you all.
In the last half-dozen or so books that I’ve read, three have them have, in various ways, analyzed attitudes regarding race* and civil rights. What makes this trend unique, in my opinion, is how the analysis is handled. Rather than start the discussion in, say, a historical novel set during the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement or in a present-day urban setting, none of the three books I read are even set in our world.
Let me break it down for you.
The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a fantasy novel about two people groups. When the story starts, one group (the Valorians) are the ruling class – aristocratic conquerors who have ruthlessly slaughtered and subjugated the other group (the Herrani.)
This story deals less with what we think of when we think of civil rights (free people battling for equality) and more with basic human rights like freedom itself. What I liked best about TWC’s depiction of subjugation is it addresses the way the perception of an entire race can shift in just a few decades. Though the Herrani are the subjugated group and are therefore seen as inferior, just a generation before, their group was the superior one. They were the civilized people, eating with forks instead of their hands, widely known for their beautiful music. The Valorians, who see themselves as the master race, were the lowly barbarians of the north. While most slavery discussions in YA Lit tend to focus on the narrative of African slaves in America, TWC’s parallels reach further back to the conquests of the Roman Empire and their interactions with their neighbors in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Stolen Songbird by Danielle Jensen is also pure fantasy, following a human girl who is captured and dragged to a cursed troll kingdom to marry its prince. This story’s real-life parallels fall a little later in history to the centuries of systematic slavery in Europe and the Americas. Humans in Trollus are weak, unmagical, and seen as little better than talkative livestock. Few of them exist below ground, however, so the brunt of the trolls’ disdain falls on their half-troll offspring. Half-bloods (technically those with any amount of human blood, not only half) have no rights to speak of and are treated as property. They are used for the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in Trollus and even suffer from self-inflicted infanticide.
Unlike the other two books in this post, the two people groups in Stolen Songbird do differ in terms of species and DNA. (Trolls and humans are very similar in key ways but not the same.) However, in the grand scheme of things, the differences are negligible and are not sufficient cause to devolve into slavery and genocide. Of course, such weak motivations do not stop the trolls, just as they didn’t stop European slavers in history. Also, the trollish obsession with racial purity brings to mind the “One Drop” policy of antebellum America, where even a drop of maternal slave blood was enough to doom a child to the same fate.
Plus One by Elizabeth Fama is the book closest to our reality in terms of setting. The main characters live in Chicago, Illinois, but their world’s timeline split from ours during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. In that world, the population is split into two factions – Day (Ray) and Night (Smudge). Here I’m going to be gauche and quote myself:
Though Rays and Smudges are supposed to be equals in theory, Rays rule the world. They receive the perks, the privileges, and the courtesies of the ruling class. The world is shaped to benefit them in every way. They are superior beings, and in a spat between Ray and Smudge, the Ray will come out in the right. Smudges, on the other hand, while acknowledged as human beings, are treated as inferior. They are dealt with based on their contribution to society, not as their worth as people. The authorities treat them with suspicion, disdain, and outright barbarity.
The crazy thing is that there is NO difference between Rays and Smudges on a biological level. There is no basis for the power imbalance and discrimination other than arbitrary, socially constructed factors that hadn’t existed a mere century before. And yet the two groups distrust and even hate each other – the Rays out of loathing for the Smudges’ supposed inferiority and uselessness and the Smudges because of the Rays’ abuse of power.
I think what these three books attempt to do is a fantastic thing. Race, social justice, civil rights, and inequality are still such important subjects today, but so much of the discussion gets swallowed and stifled by history, prejudice, and the red herring of skin pigmentation. By removing their stories from our world (and sometimes from our species), Ms. Rutkoski, Ms. Jensen, and Ms. Fama are able to discuss these issues in a way that bypasses some of the major roadblocks previously mentioned. Our labels are stripped away. When reading these books, we’re not black, white, or brown people reading about other black, white, or brown people. Instead, we’re simply people reading about the struggles of the trolls, half-trolls, Valorians, Herrani, Smudges, and Rays and, more importantly, can peer under even those labels to be moved by the true issues at hand.
So now it’s discussion time. What do you think of this trend? If you’ve read the above books, what do you think of how they handled their discussion of the issues at hand? Have you come across any other books that would fit this mini-trend?
*Note: In this post, I have drawn parallels pertaining to the treatment of Africans and people of African descent throughout history, starting with the Roman invasion through present day, as the discussion of race in the context of black/white relations is the one most prevalent in American media. However, the problems of racial inequality and civil liberties pertains to all races and has a history spanning back thousands of years, so the points made above can be applied to many different scenarios and people groups.