From orcs to elves to dragons, non-human beings in fantasy books often fall into two camps. Some are presented as basically human, if often exoticized. The rest are generally presented as bestial: They may or may not be able to speak, but at their core they’re not too different from beasts of burden. Regardless of the archetype, their thoughts, feelings and cultures (when they have any at all) are described in relation to a human or human-like surrogate. Both Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner and The Deep by Rivers Solomon (with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes) buck this tradition, creating non-human characters that are defined not by their relationship to humans but in the context of their own societies.
In her debut novel Unnatural Magic, C.M. Waggoner spins a coming-of-age tale of love, friendship and murder that is both universal and completely new. Unnatural Magic’s first strand of story is that of Tsira, a half-troll whose heritage has made it difficult to fit in among her home clan. When confronted with first a half-dead solider and then with an attempt on her own life, Tsira is forced from her solitary existence. The book’s second strand is that of Onna, a girl with a prodigious gift for magic and the guts to blaze her own academic path when she’s denied a higher magical education due to her sex. But as she embarks on her new scholarly adventure, Onna quickly becomes pulled into a hunt for a troll murderer—and unknowingly sets out on a crash course towards Tsira. Equal parts romance, bildungsroman and murder mystery, Unnatural Magic can’t decide on a genre archetype, and that’s a good thing. The resulting amalgamation is delightfully unpredictable.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, in contrast, is a story of pain and new beginnings. Holding the collective memories of an entire race of people isn’t easy. It is even less easy if your underwater-dwelling people are descended from the children of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by their captors and left to drown. Yetu’s duty is to remember the pain of her ancestors so that the rest of her people can live in the moment, free from the trauma of the past. She is freed from the memories only during an annual ceremony in which Yetu shares the history with her people. Overwhelmed at the prospect of taking back the memories of her ancestors, Yetu flees to the surface in the middle of one of these Tellings. On the surface, she will learn not just of the world her people left behind, but also of her people’s future. Philosophical and atmospheric, The Deep is not just a story of trauma. It is a story that looks carefully at the individual’s place in society and explores what it means to collectively heal and to move forward by accepting, but not forgetting, the past.
Unnatural Magic and The Deep are as different in tone, writing style and subject matter as two fantasy books can be. But what the two share is a deep sense of empathy. As readers, we are not meant to identify with either Yetu or Tsira as though they were human. Instead, both Solomon and Waggoner ask us to imagine beings different from ourselves and then to meet them without trying to force them into human-shaped boxes in our minds. The results are as challenging as they are enjoyable, and any reader willing to try something different will be rewarded handsomely for the effort.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Go Behind the Book with C.M. Waggoner.