Urban Fantasy geek out: the Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews

Urban Fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I’m lying; part of me thinks that as a doctor/professor/artist type, I’m not supposed to love it. But I have no guilt, really. Only pleasure.) That’s fantasy – vampires and werewolves, fairies and elves, things along these lines – but in the present moment. Rather than taking place on a different world (Middle Earth! Narnia!), or at some point in history (Outlander! Leviathan! – tho the latter is more YAF, Young Adult Fiction and steampunk), it’s now, or in the near future. Like, if we’re talking movies and television, True Blood or Lost, which are decidedly part of the genre, or Buffy or Teen Wolf, which were (obvs) way ahead of their time.  

My favorite is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (It’s also pretty cute that the authors are a couple, Ilona and Andrew.) The whole background of the world puts the fantasy genre on its head, in so many ways; and the tech and culture geek in me gets a real thrill around it.

Whereas in traditional Tolkien-like fantasy, “magic is leaving the world,” as science, technology, and contemporary know-how take hold, in Kate Daniels‘ world, magic is coming back, and technology is leaving – the latter eaten away by the powers of magic.

Myth and religion, magic and fae, werewolves, gods, vampires, and witches, from every part of the world, and every part of history, are real – and they gain their power from stories and belief.

Fascinating as part of the series, which now has 9 books and some short stories appearing elsewhere (some for free online!) is its own mythology. Like in many other fictional worlds (another favorite being Jim Butcher’s Dresden series), magic and technology do not get along. But rather than technology chasing magic away, or tech consistently breaking in the face of wizards, magic and tech simply do not exist at the same time. So with Kate, either the “magic is up” or the “tech is up.” And you never know when one might fail, the other dominate.

All the stories of old are real. Merlin. Golems. Vampires. Werewolves. Berserkers. Babel. The Morrigan. Dragons. All of it. But humans got arrogant. We used too much magic, grew our power until finally, it toppled over and destroyed itself; magic mostly left the world… for a time.

In the near future, our arrogance catches up with us again – this time technology toppling down from its overuse. Planes fall out of the sky, hospital equipment fails, buildings crumble, and, all at once, the monsters and heroes exist again.

Think of technology and magic as a pendulum swing. When one is up, the other is not. When that gets too powerful, it comes crashing down, the other rising. Interesting, in post-tech/post-apocolyptic Atlanta (er, all over the Daniels world, actually, but I had to slip in where she lives), the pendulum is more or less in the middle. This does not mean, however, that magic and tech are each at half mast; rather, every now and again, maybe after a few hours, maybe after a few days, all the gods disappear, the banshees stop shouting, my magic stops working, and the lights come on (etc). And, at the same random interval, the inverse, again.

One of my favorite things in all this chaos is the role belief in magic (or tech) plays. For example, praying to a lesser-known deity may again grant him or her power, new abilities, and more. Or, on the flip, and this is super clever, since we all know the basics of a car – filling it with petrol, changing the oil, that it goes via combustion – it would never run when the magic is up. But… how many of us really understand how a mobile phone works? For many of us, it may as well be magic. And so… sometimes (if the magic is not in flare), and for some people (if they are not too, too magical), phones will work when the tech is down/magic is up. Magic and belief, technology and its understanding, all can and do play off of each other in such interesting ways.

It makes for great stories. And the science and fantasy nerd in me loves every aspect of this.

Shape-shifters are infected with magic, DNA-swapping viruses. Vampires are actually empty, blood-sucking vessels, where Masters of the Dead can “ride” them like avatars. And Kate? She’s not really a hero. She’s deeply flawed, sometimes mean, only rarely kind, a complete bad-ass, who begrudgingly really does care about her world and those around her (especially kids!), and is thus immanently relatable and likable as a first-person author. And the romance, which takes quite a few books to build up, is mostly rom-com relief, with the occasional twist of the heartfelt.

Alright, I just convinced myself to start from the beginning of the series, and read once again. (Maybe I’ll write an academic paper about it, so it’s “work.”) You should, too. The paperbacks are super affordable at the moment.

This should get you started.

late addition: Ah, and they just announced book 10 yesterday! Timely!

Sean Slemon and Alfred Whitehead: on self-enjoyment and concern

Disclosure: South African-born and New York-based artist Sean Slemon is a long-time friend. That relationship grew precisely out of a mutual respect for each other’s work, and interesting conversation about cultural difference, politics, and life. When we met, he was a South African about to move to New York with his Jewish-American wife, while I was a New York Jew living in South Africa. And, bluntly: I think he and his work are brilliant.

As part of our work-friendship, I’ve had the pleasure of writing on, and around, Sean’s work for something like 15 years. I’ve penned a press release, a review, an academic essay, and two catalog essays, alongside his practice, which has continuously gained depth. There’s something to be said for this. While artists often think they need several voices across catalogs (etc) reflecting on their work (and I’ve certainly gained a great deal from the writings and thoughts of many others telling me what my work is doing, for them), there is also much to be gained from a lengthy engagement, from someone who has taken that journey with you.

Artists should have long-term conversations with writers, or theorists, or other artists, invested in their work. (More on this idea in a post in the next month or two, when I plan to preview a forthcoming book by philosopher Brian Massumi.)

I’m currently writing the catalog essay for Sean’s solo exhibition, Confluence Tree, which opens in Minnesota next month. And I’m also finishing up a section on his work, Goods for Me (also a bit on Public Property, above), for my forthcoming book. Here I’d like to briefly shine a light on his Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), and a few of the ideas I borrow from mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to think-with Sean in those other texts.

Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), 2015 African Padauk Hardwood 22 x 38-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches (55.9 x 95.3 x 115.6 cm.)
Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), 2015 African Padauk Hardwood 22 x 38-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches (55.9 x 95.3 x 115.6 cm.)

A paduak is a West African species of tree. Nowadays farmed, they grow about 160 feet tall, create bright red lumber, and get darker with age. Here Slemon extruded a two-dimensional drawing of a paduak into a sculpture, and then he simply made a paduak tree, at paduak scale, out of paduak wood. It’s fascinating to hear him talk about this memorial and celebration, this ludic attempt to turn a tree back into what it once was. Paduak is an especially hard wood, like nothing Slemon has ever worked with; he went through many saw blades for the show, had to cut it as if he were working with steel. It was a hard-won piece of art, where, in the end, the material itself speaks as loudly as Slemon’s intent with it, giving both him and “tree” some agency in that final piece.

Despite that Paduak will never again be a paduak, it re-members. That is, it embodies again. It remembers what it was, just as it is substantiated into what Slemon made it. Substantiated: given meaning like a substantiated argument, but also made into a material, and substantial, form. In this case, the two meanings are one and the same.

As viewers we have an immediately felt experience – what Alfred North Whitehead calls “self-enjoyment” (Modes of Thought 1968: 150) – which also has us “concern” ourselves with the before and after, with the outside that both made for this occasion of experience, and where, with our help, it might be heading afterwards (1968: 167). Film Scholar Steven Shaviro explains that Whitehead’s self-enjoyment “happens pre-reflexively in the moment itself. I enjoy my life as I am living it; my enjoyment of the very experience of living is precisely what it means to be alive” (in Beyond Metaphysics? 2010: 249). Self-enjoyment and life are processual – that is, ongoing rather than static – but are autonomous and individual events, each one “my” self-contained experience.

And while self-enjoyment is part of every isolated occurrence or experience, concern is for and with the things we experience – our outsides, and their befores and afters. Concern is “an involuntary experience of being affected by others. It opens me, in spite of myself, to the outside.” Concern thus “compromises my autonomy, leading me towards something beyond myself.” Concern is, Whitehead asserts, concern “with the universe” (1968: 167). It implies, Shaviro explains further, “a weight upon the spirit. When something concerns me, I cannot ignore it or walk away from it. It presses upon my being and compels me to respond” (2010: 249). Concern is always for and with things external to myself, with the many pasts in and of the world around me (which lead to this present moment of transition), and with the potential futures I may help to make.

Slemon draws and draws out a concern for matter and things, life and time.

While many painters, printmakers, and illustrators “think with ink,” sketch to produce new ideas, Slemon does so with his own matters of concern, as a sculptor. Wood with wood, each informing the other. In-form: in the process of being formed.

Goods for Me by Sean Slemon. 12 x 8 x 2 feet. 2011.
Goods for Me by Sean Slemon. 12 x 8 x 2 feet. 2011.

The artist recently told me, recalling his growing up in South Africa, “I come from a place where social equality and its very imbalance are always in the spotlight.” And he does not see this concern as distinct from that of the Paduak. When Sean Slemon is concerned with trees, he is also concerned with himself, with past and future, with resources, agency, and equality, with what they were, could have been, and still might be; he is concerned with how worlds and lives, things and selves, together practice their unfolding. Our experience of his art is an intensification, he says, of “ideas, people, parts of the country, attitudes, and points of view.”

Overall, in a long and beautiful body of work, Slemon re-places and re-presents different concepts of time and relation, people and peoples, matter and what matters. How does the Earth tell time? That tree show care? This nation flourish? We, as people, move forward? We are like children trying to sense and make sense of things we can never fully understand.

And yet, we can wonder at, and concern ourselves with, consequence and potential, style and aesthetics, compassion and beauty, so as to aim towards better futures.

Shaviro, Steven. 2010. “Self-Enjoyment and Concern: On Whitehead and Levinas.” In Beyond Metaphysics?: Explorations in Alfred North Whitehead’s Late Thought, edited by Roland Faber, Clinton Combs, and Brian G. Henning, 249-257. New York: Rodopi.
Whitehead, Alfred North. 1968. Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press.