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Race in Fantasy Fiction: What Do Multiracial Protagonists Look Like?

This is the first in what I anticipate will be a series of posts over the next month or so, in which I unpack my various thoughts about genre fiction’s handling of the identities Shawl & Ward talk about in their awesome book Writing the Other (reviewed here): race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and religion. For a while, I was debating which identity I wanted to tackle first, but given the last two novels I’ve read, I decided there was really only one obvious place to start. That’s because both books, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, feature multiracial protagonists in fantasy settings.

Of course, as any D&D player can tell you, “race” in fantasy (and SF, for that matter) most often means something qualitatively different from the way it’s used in the real world. Fantasy “races” are most often divided into groups like human, elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, goblin. I suspect the labeling convention probably sprung up in the days when the phrase “the races of man” was used to imply major substantive differences between humans from different parts of the world: this is the same baggage that leads to many of my Intro to Sociology students making the argument that we shouldn’t use the word “race” for humans at all, before I explain that even socially constructed concepts can continue to have weight in the real world. In everyday life, being a multiracial human (or anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into a social box) can lead to unique social situations like being asked by strangers to identify “what you really are,” or being told that “you have to pick one.” As with other aspects of the real world transposed into genre fiction, being multiracial in a fantasy novel ups the ante pretty quickly, changing the meaning from “a range of human geographical origins in your recent ancestry” to “a wide range of species in your recent ancestry.” In Addison’s Goblin Emperor, the two races in play are elf and goblin; in Hartman’s Seraphina, they’re human and dragon.

The two books take very different approaches to the concept, primarily I think because of their different intended audiences. Seraphina is intended as young adult fiction, and in large part, it’s a book about the struggles of being a kid who doesn’t fit in: specifically, being multiracial in a society where neither of the cultures you’re connected to fully accepts the other. When the book begins, the title character is living in human society (which means that she labels herself “half-dragon”: a fine example of how the dominant population gets to decide who’s called what) and passing for human. She has only a few markers of her dragon heritage, easily hidden under clothing — which is good, because marriage between humans and dragons is illegal, and dragons are very definitely second-class citizens in human society. Seraphina spends the book in constant terror of being discovered, particularly by her handsome young love interest. The book also spends a lot of time laying out the differences between humans and dragons, and features some really fantastic worldbuilding around the concept of what it would be like if house-sized lizards were able to take human form and live in human society. One aspect I particularly liked was the idea that since dragons aren’t as social as humans, social emotions like love are inherently foreign to them (and manifest in confusing ways when they take on human bodies). We have a very keen sense by the end of the book of the challenges of being caught between two cultures (and two biologies): holding aspects of both but not able to fully belong to either. There are definitely other themes at play here, too, most notably the importance of family (Seraphina has both human and dragon relatives who she loves dearly), but at its heart, this book is about the experience of a multiracial teenager coming to terms with her complex identity.

The Goblin Emperor is a very different kind of tale. As near as I can tell, it’s written as general-interest adult genre fiction, and so the odds that its target readers will be struggling to define their own identities are somewhat less. The title character, Maia, is a teenaged half-elf/half-goblin (first things first: I loved the fact that “human” — and too often defaulting to “white human” — was not one of his identities), unexpectedly thrust into the rulership of the elven kingdom of Ethuveraz when an airship crash kills his father and three older brothers. His multiracial identity plays a significant role in shaping the events of the story: because his parents’ marriage was arranged to seal a political alliance and his father was never happy with his mother, Maia has spent his childhood away from court and spends most of the book trying to figure out the rules of the enormously complex political world he’s been thrown into. Because he’s not of full elven blood, there are contingents within the court who think he’s unfit to rule and who take it as a matter of course that the realm will agree. But unlike Seraphina, this book doesn’t make Maia’s multiracial identity the single pole around which everything else revolves. Most of his problems come from his low self-esteem and country bumpkin-ness, not from the fact that he has goblin-gray skin.

A (brief) digression about the aspect of Goblin Emperor that impressed me most: the book has some very deep worldbuilding, particularly around language. Addison took some risks I’ve been hesitant to do in my own work around proper names and specialized terms, assuming that readers are able to keep track of foreign words (the emperor’s bodyguards, for instance, are “nohecharei”), titles (men, unmarried women, and married women each have three distinct forms of address depending on their social standing), and a long list of very similar names that aren’t always used consistently (and don’t match up with English-speaking readers’ sense of what male and female names should sound like, the young emperor Maia’s name being a prime example). It also hinted that the characters’ language used a different pronoun system than English, while using English to do so. All that goes to say that there was more going on in this book than just discussions of race, which sat well with me. I don’t know that I’d recommend Seraphina to adult friends; to those willing and able to keep a lexicon in their heads, I would recommend The Goblin Emperor in a moment.

I think the difference I felt between the two books is one I’ve talked about elsewhere here: the difference between writing a book that Addresses An Issue and writing a book About An Issue. Both books deal with the intricacies of having an identity that doesn’t fit into the prevailing system, but only Seraphina makes it the heart of the plot. I think I like it better when identity issues are only one of the things happening in a story or occupying a protagonist’s attention. As Nisi Shawl writes in Writing the Other, “[b]lack people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics.” (83)

That said, these books made me happy. Seeing multiracial characters who had relationships with both sides of their family (as opposed to Tanis Half-Elven from Dragonlance, whose story I lost interest in when I realized the authors had assumed the only way an elf and a human could possibly have a child together was through rape) gave me a feeling of progress, and made me feel like authors are thinking about the ways that worlds with different humanoid populations would interact in a more realistic sense (as I said to a friend when we were discussing worldbuilding a few months back, if you get groups of humans sharing space, the only two things you can pretty much guarantee will take place are violence and baby-making). I do think that in settings where “race” refers to species rather than phenotype or cultural background, authors need to be careful to avoid making all the humans white and having the other species stand in for people from other places (as I’ve said here before, the argument “but my setting’s based on medieval Europe” doesn’t hold water so well with readers anymore. Also, there were brown people in medieval Europe too).

I hope that more books like these come out in the next few years. I think that race is definitely one of the more visible points of critique for genre fiction, and one where we’re seeing slow and steady improvement in diversification both of people getting acclaim for their work and of protagonists. But there’s still work to do. There’s what one friend of mine called the “holy white savior” moment at the end of Game of Thrones Season 3; there’s the fact that black Spiderman isn’t going to get a movie; and let’s not even talk about Shyamalan’s Avatar: the Last Airbender. It seems to me the most important element here is to not let aliens and magical creatures stand in for having humans from different cultural and/or geographic backgrounds appear in your world. As Shawl puts it, what we want to avoid is “sf’s monochrome futures… where some nameless and never discussed plague has mysteriously killed off everyone with more than a hint of melanin in their skin.” (Writing the Other p. 76)

We’re on the right track. Let’s keep going.

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  1. The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon | Sociologist Novelist
  2. Hugos Review 2015: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison | Sociologist Novelist

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