REVIEW: On the Edge by Ilona Andrews
I’m not completely sure what to say about On the Edge, but then according to Ilona Andrews’ website I’m in fairly good company, because her publishers didn’t seem to be either. It’s not really urban fantasy because it’s not set in a city (although part of me thinks this is just being picky), it’s not really PNR because everybody in it is basically human, it’s not really straight fantasy because it’s got too many real-world elements. One of her editors apparently took to calling it “rustic fantasy” which more or less fits. Anyway the series (of which On the Edge is the first instalment) is set in a narrow no-man’s-land between the everyday “real” world (the Broken) and the crazy world of magic shit (the Weird). The residents of the Edge (Edgers) have a foot in both worlds but truly belong to neither.
Oh, I should add that because On the Edge is quite a twisty book, and I want to talk about the plot, there will necessarily be spoilers in this article. Sorry.
The book tells the story of Rose Drayton an Edger living between the Weird and Broken manifestations of … umm … somewhere in America? My US geography is really crappy. I think they’re near Savannah, which puts them in … Georgia? I’m not sure, but I get the impression that the book assumes a bit more familiarity with the area than I really had. It seemed to be trying to evoke quite a specific set of images, and I sometimes found myself lacking reference points (my knowledge of the American South is basically limited to True Blood, American Gothic and Gone with the Wind).
Anyway, Rose Drayton had a rough time growing up because everybody picked on her for being the daughter of a sexually promiscuous woman, and as a result she spent her free time learning to get really good at … umm … flashing. There seems to be a rule that every secondary world romance I read contains at least one piece of terminology that I can’t quite take seriously – if it isn’t “buggers” it’s “scribe virgin” if it isn’t “scribe virgin” it’s “flashing”. “Flashing” in the world of On the Edge is the technique of emitting a bright “flash” of magical energy for use as a weapon, or as a demonstration of power and without – as far as I know – showing anybody your tits or your cock. The more powerful your magic, the brighter and hotter the flash, and like stars flashes go through a spectrum of colours the hotter they get, so the weakest are a kind of dull brick red and the strongest are bright white (my inner science nerd wonders if the really strong ones are ultraviolet). When she was 18, Rose flashed white at some kind of school leavers’ flashing ceremony (that sounds really wrong) which – because magic is partly hereditary in this world – led to every family in the Edge (and several in the Weird) trying to drag her off for use as breeding stock.
Since then (I think it’s been four years but I’m honestly not sure) she’s been raising her two younger brothers (her mother being dead, her father absent) and fending off legions of men who literally want to abduct her and force her into marriage.
One such man is our hero, Declan.
Now I really thought I’d seen some dickhead hero introductions in my time but “Hi, I am here to drag you away and turn you into my personal baby factory” is pretty damned close to taking the cake.
I should probably say (spoiler alert) that Declan isn’t being entirely honest when he lets Rose believe that he’s rocked up out the Weird in order to stake a claim on her uterus, and a lot of his earlier alphole behaviour turns out to have been a bit of a bluff designed to obscure his real intentions, but I spent the first half of the book thinking “wow, this guy is the biggest dickhead I’ve read about so far, and let me tell you that is a pretty freaking high bar.”
Declan slowly grew on me, mostly as a result of his relationship with Rose’s two younger brothers, Jack and Georgie. The family dynamic between Rose, Jack, Georgie, their grandmother and (later) Declan is by far the strongest part of the book. The boys are believably childlike without being cutesy or stereotyped, and their viewpoints provide a fresh and interesting perspective on the unfolding story. I was very slightly bothered by the implication that the boys reacted so positively to Declan because they were Boys and therefore it was Good For Them To Have A Man In Their Lives but in the end their relationships seemed sufficiently genuine that I was able to get behind them.
Rose’s family situation – indeed her whole social position – was probably the element of the book I found most unusual and (for want of a better term) challenging. It is (in my experience) rare for protagonists in contemporary-set fiction (in any genre) to be anything other than stalwartly middle class. Even relatively blue-collar characters tend to work in skilled professions and own their own houses. Rose, by contrast, is properly dirt poor. Like doesn’t-know-where-her-next-meal-is-coming-from poor. Indeed the whole population of the Edge is literally marginalised – existing as they do in the cracks between two worlds that have no place for them. A large part of Rose’s motivations are to do with basic survival – not wanting to upset her neighbours (who could seriously hurt her), needing to earn enough money to buy groceries, and of course avoiding abduction and forced pregnancy.
I was torn about Rose’s poverty. On the one hand, it meant that the book could engage with some interesting and complex social issues (like the difficulty of interacting as an equal with a person who has vastly more social power than you, or the ways in which a community outside of the protection of mainstream society would regulate itself). On the other hand I felt that it sometimes descended into unhelpful stereotypes. Towards the end of the book, when Declan is explaining why he behaved like such an asshole when he first showed up, he explains that he tried to go to the people he presumed were the local authorities (the Church and the largest house in the area) and was met with active hostility each time. Rose then explains to him that the local priest is insane, while the largest house in town has a meth lab in the basement and its owners are afraid of the Broken authorities catching them. Now on the one hand, this can be read as Declan’s blueblood arrogance leading him to assume that the Edge works the same way as the Weird, him coming unstuck as a result, and Rose putting him right. On the other hand, it can also be read as the Edge being populated almost entirely by maniacs and criminals, and I’m really not sure what side I come down on.
Basically I spent a lot of the book feeling vaguely uncomfortable, because it always seemed to be on the edge of equating social privilege with practical merit or moral virtue. With the exception of the villain, all of the bluebloods we see (which are, admittedly, restricted to Declan and his immediate family) are basically utterly lovely people who immediately like, trust and respect the heroine (Declan makes it very clear that his earlier asshole behaviour was all an act). Edgers, by contrast, are very frequently a mixture of criminal, petty, vicious and obsequious. I should probably stress that this is only a very mild tendency, and one that could be read in a variety of ways. Rose frequently calls Declan out for his failure to recognise the validity of the Edger lifestyle, and for his habit of treating it as a sort of inferior reflection of his own society, so it’s not like the book is just saying poor people suck. On the other hand the book ends (spoiler) with Rose running off to live with Declan in the Weird, and this seems to be presented as an unambiguously happy ending.
So yeah it’s umm … complicated. Read charitably, the book provides a sensitive, nuanced, and non-judgemental portrayal of people who live in extremely crappy circumstances (and again, Rose is very quick to defend her people from outsiders). Read uncharitably, it presents a problematic mix of stereotypes which make poor people look like a bunch of gun-toting, meth-dealing, sex-slave-trading assholes.
I think my reading here wasn’t helped by the fact that when it came to the portrayal of the Weird, Andrews often seemed to be trying to have her cake and eat it. The Weird is a parallel Earth, and its history and society parallel Earth’s history and society. Andrews seems to have been in a bit of a bind about the society of the Weird. She seems to have wanted Dukes and Earls and hereditary nobility because those things are cool, romantic and sexy. But she also seems to have realised that hereditary aristocracy is a totally fucked up system of government. This leads to a slightly peculiar situation in which Weird society is run by blueblood aristocrats who are trained to rule from birth and whose power is hereditary, but at the same time is utterly meritocratic and ruled by aristocrats who are granted their positions only after passing a rigorous set of examinations (which any member of Weird society is allowed to sit) and years of distinguished service in either the civil or military sector. It’s difficult to talk much about this because we see very little of the Weird in this book, and it’s possible that the setup is deliberately self-contradictory and hypocritical – the nobility telling themselves that their society is entirely fair and equal when it’s actually rigidly class-based. But again, you could also read it as more evidence that rich people are just better than poor people. Notably, Rose is normally very quick to call Declan on his condescending bullshit, but when he explains that anybody in the Weird could become nobility if they work hard enough, she takes it perfectly at face value (despite the fact that she has been working her ass off her entire life and has basically nothing to show for it except a white flash and desirable ovaries).
The other slightly strange cake-and-eat-it feature of the Weird is its parallel history for the colonisation of the Americas. In the Weird, it was the people of the Americas who had the technological (or perhaps magical, or technomagical) advantage, and they regularly raided Europe. And then they … umm … mysteriously wiped themselves out.
The thing is, I do get that the colonisation of North America is a thorny issue to deal with, particularly for US writers. Very few people will deny that tremendous atrocities were committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas during the process of colonisation that ultimately led to the existence of the continental United States. But (for perfectly understandable reasons) very few US writers are quite willing to bite the bullet and say that the existence of their nation constitutes a historical injustice. This leads to a tricky tendency in some secondary-world fiction for writers to try to imagine a sequence of events in which white people of European origin wind up dominating the land that makes up North America without having any of that uncomfortable genocide in the middle.
This is something which, as a white man from England, I am really not in a position to be making judgements about. I absolutely see that American writers would want to write fantasies set in America – and in an America that looks more or less like the America they live in, rather than precolonial America, and why they wouldn’t want to deal with the less savoury bits of colonial history (just as most medieval fantasy glosses over – or worse, glamorises – the worst elements of feudalism). But I can also see why, for some people, having the Native Americans simply vanish (or never exist at all) is problematic in a lot of ways. Again, I’m not trying to make proclamations about issues I’m ill-equipped to understand, but to me the backstory of the Weird version of North America had uncomfortable undertones of Manifest Destiny about it.
So … umm … yeah. In the alternative history of the Weird, the indigenous peoples of the Americas managed to sort of … slip and fall on a weapon of mass destruction. Specifically they somehow discovered, or created, or were attacked by a magic egg that makes killer dog monsters. The killer dog monsters are some kind of magical hegemonising swarm, consuming magic from within living organisms to create more dogs. The villain of the book (a blueblood from the Weird who passed the nobility exams but failed to complete his required terms of service – again this seems to me to support the reading in which Weird society is supposed to be genuinely meritocratic, rather than messed up and hypocritical) somehow discovers, and bonds with this device, and proceeds to unleash it on the citizens of the Edge for reasons that never really become apparent.
For me the plot was probably the weakest part of the book. While I was very interested by it, I never really found myself interested in it, if that distinction makes any sense. By about halfway through the book it was clear that there were these mysterious dog things that were swarming all over the Edge, and that they were controlled by somebody who had some kind of connection to Declan and then … not a lot really developed. We find out that the villain has a name and a backstory, but that doesn’t really illuminate anything, we find out that he is in some way connected to the mysterious man who spent the first few chapters trying to get Rose to date him, but nothing really comes of that either. It’s just sort of dogs all the way down, and it didn’t really come together for me in a satisfactory way.
As I’ve often found with this type of book, On the Edge seemed to be telling too many stories at once. There was the love story between Declan and Rose, the family drama between Rose, her brothers and her grandmother, and the extrinsic threat posed by the evil dog monsters. Of all of them, I felt that the family drama was the best realised, and the evil dog plot worked best when it was a way of raising the stakes in Rose’s relationship with Declan and her brothers. I’m not sure I was totally sold on the romance. Declan lies to Rose about who he is and what he wants for most of the book, and she spends most of her time trying desperately to avoid having to marry him. It’s also made pretty clear that Rose is very unused to people treating her with basic levels of decency (her last boyfriend literally tried to sell her) so while I could see why she was attracted to Declan once he started acting like a human being (and treating her like one), I couldn’t help but think that she was taking things a bit fast.
This is partially addressed at the end, in that she agrees to go with him to the Weird, but insists on waiting a reasonable length of time before they get married, and gets him to sign citizenship papers for her and her brothers, so that she will be able to live there without him if everything goes wrong. Unfortunately (and again this might be a cultural difference I’m not aware of) this very sensible precaution is undermined by the fact that the time limit she sets on their engagement is … umm … a month. Now perhaps I’m just unromantic, and I do get that marriage is kind of part and parcel of the HEA in a lot of cases, but to me “one month” isn’t a reasonable cooling off time. I mean a month’s trial is the sort of thing you sign up for with an MMORPG or a fresh fruit delivery service. I’ve bought packs of toilet roll that have lasted longer than a month. One month is only enough time to decide whether you want to marry somebody if your primary concern is that they might be a werewolf.
I should probably stress that I’m not dissing the whirlwind romance as a trope, and I’m absolutely not condemning people who do get married after they’ve known each other for a very short length of time. What threw me is that Rose’s one month trial period seemed to be presented as her being actively cautious.
I realise I’ve criticised a lot about On the Edge, and I really didn’t mean to because it is – overall – an enjoyable, engaging book that does something that (as I am given to understand from my limited experience) is unusual in the genre. And I think a lot of my problems with it come from uncertainties about things which there simply isn’t space to address in the first volume.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading On the Edge: Showing off at school can get you into big trouble. Two swords are better than one sword. Electricity kills everything. Let your kid brothers pick your boyfriends. Don’t build a hegemonising swarm, it never helps.