Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski

A young boy caught up in the complex political and religious turmoil of Spain in the late 15th Century discovers that nearly everything he once knew was a lie, and that his own past is tied into a great warrior turned traitor against the Crown. Soon Baltasar is meeting with the mysterious Baba Yaga and sailing across the ocean with none other than Christopher Columbus himself, adding to the dangers of the sea by dark magics that can conjure anything up from the world of legends and story. With a new world to explore and the shadow of a prophecy that readers may understand better than Bal himself, he must find his way among strangers, friends, foes, and family in this solid debut novel from Mlawski.

Alternative history stories are a tricky thing to get right. Spend too much time in the minutia of the world and you lose sight of telling an actual story. Too little, and it's like, "Why bother doing this, other than to include Queen Elizabeth/Mark Twain/Tesla/Einstein/Etc.?" If you can get that right, then there's the matter of making the characters feel modern without losing the historical sense of place. And if you get past THAT hurdle, there's the small matter of just what happens when you tweak the nose of history in the first place.

It's one thing to be sitting over beers going, "What if there was a magician aboard Columbus' ship?" It's another to turn that into a quality story that feels plausible, yet actually doesn't significantly alter the history we already know.

But that's exactly what Ms. Mlawski does, and it works perfectly. Instead of trying to craft a radically different plan for things, as others might ("Hey look, the indigenous people all have magic, so they kick that asshole slave-monger's ass!"), this story hews pretty close to the actual events, taking some liberties by adding magical explanations for ordinary events--exactly the type of thing that countless generations have done, right down to those who still see ghosts upon the fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere.* Thus as this story unfolds, the ideas that put the speculative elements together, namely that some people are blessed with a gift not only to be a storyteller, but one who can make their stories come to life, fits into the reality of the historical setting far more easily than, say, suddenly being able to conjure fireballs from your fists.

There's also the idea that to some degree, the comparison between writing good fiction and being able to perform magic to bring those stories to life. If you think about it, that's what a good storyteller does metaphorically. I love that Ms. Mlawski takes that idea and makes it literal here.

Because she has such a good conceptual set-up, the execution is strong. We immediately come to like and sympathize with Bal, because his situation is complete unenviable. Here he is, a converted Jew trying to make it in a land where the rulers have made it clear they want to be a "pure" Christian nation. Anyone with just a bit of familiarity with the politics of Spain around the time of Columbus (whose own family history is muddy) will immediately understand the difficulties he faces. When a secret branch of the Inquisition shows up and he learns just how different he is--even from the others in his station--it add another layer.

Once we have the main story started and a twist that finds Bal learning how to perform his new magic even as his world collapses around him, the story holds because it's based not on solving the riddles presented by the Baba Yaga or the discovery of the New World--it's about Bal trying to figure out his place, his role, and his identity. The rest is great fleshing out of the story and setting, but that's the key to making this one work.

Bal is our narrator, which makes the self-discovery all the more interesting. While we as the reader may figure out certain things right away (like how trusting Columbus is a generally bad idea), Bal takes far longer. But because we're inside his head instead of a third person narration, it's okay when he struggles along the way. It also helps that Mlawski gives Bal two strong supporting characters in Jini and Catalina. The latter is a young woman who refuses to be defined by the Patriarchy around her, and has a few things to learn of her own. She's a great addition to the story, keeping Bal humbler than he might otherwise be since she is the superior witch. I really appreciate that Catalina is around to show that women, too, have power in this world (since all the other spell casters we see are male), but it doesn't feel inserted, either. After all, there's a long history of women sneaking off to sea to find a better life for themselves disguised as a man.

The book has a few rough spots, mostly in relation to the islanders. Mlawski wants to treat them with as much respect as possible, but struggles because her narrator certainly wouldn't have extended them the same kindness. She even takes pains to state in the afterword that his views aren't hers. I think it would have been a bit better to have him be just a bit more racist in this regard, for accuracy. That's really the only slip up in terms of modernity creeping in. I also think she downplays the internal struggles of the indigenous people, too. It's okay for them to hate each other just as much as Europeans did from country to country.

Generally speaking, because this is a YA book, it can't get quite as rough as it probably should. Columbus is given a much lighter touch than he deserves, and it seems like the theme of "we're all good and bad" sometimes gets in the way of allowing someone to be the absolute bad guy, until we get to a certain scene that's historically accurate but feels like it's a bit too heavy compared to everything else. This book doesn't really have a bad guy, and while I love me some shades of grey,** this is a narrative that needed a bad guy and even the Inquisition is given a chance to explain itself.

Overall, though, the description is lush, the plot is extremely tight, and we even wrap up nicely, with room to expand should the book do well enough to get a sequel. The dialogue is very natural and I really felt like I was in Bal's head, not a book. His interactions with the others, particularly Catalina, are perfect for his age and time period. You can see him struggle and grow, and combined with an amazingly seamless alternative history, this is a book I'd happily recommend to anyone. I am seriously looking forward to Ms. Mlawski's next work.

*I'm not saying that seeing a ghost is as unlikely as a half-genie, mind you, but the general point holds.

**No, not THAT Shades of Grey.