Monday, May 18, 2015

THOUGHTS on Meljean Brook's "Demon Bound"

Meljean Brook's "Guardian" series is one of my favourite UF (Urban Fantasy)/PNR (Paranormal Romance) series. The book that irrevocably hooked me on the series was book 4, "Demon Bound." In this post, I evaluate whether "Demon Bound" passes three well-known tests for female presence in media: the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Test, and the Sexy Lamp Test.

1.0 THE SET UP: Guardians, Demons, Free Choice and Bargains

Meljean Brook's Guardian series has very intricate and complicated world-building (I love it), that I will only briefly touch on.  The overarching theme throughout the series is the importance of human free choice. The main players in the series are Guardians, humans who have sacrificed their own lives in order to save people whose lives were in danger from preternatural threats like a demon, vampire or nosferatu. These humans who have sacrificed their lives are visited by the Doyen, Michael, who offers the humans a choice. They can choose to stand by their original choice and die, or they can choose to be transformed into a Guardian. If they choose to be a Guardian, they will gain supernatural powers of shape-shifting, super strength,  the ability to fly. They will also develop a unique gift whose nature is usually a reflection of some aspect of their human life.  Guardians are bound to protect humans from supernatural threats, but there is an important catch: they can never subvert a human's free will.

The heroine of "Demon Bound" is Alice Grey, a guardian whose gift has manifested as communication with and the control of monstrously large spiders. Known as the "Black Widow," even for a guardian, Alice is considered creepy and strange; her movements are sharp and jittery like a spider's, and her academic interests are obscure. Raised in Egypt in the late 1800s, Alice has already been a guardian for 120 years by the time that "Demon Bound" takes place. The hero of "Demon Bound," in contrast, is Jake Hawkins, a novice guardian who died protecting small children from a nosferatu that was terrorizing a village in Vietnam. Jake was introduced in the previous book, "Demon Night," where we learned that his gift is teleportation.

2.0 ALICE GREY and the MAKO  MORI Test

"Demon Bound" passes the Mako Mori test - the main narrative arc of "Demon Bound" is Alice Grey's story. Before Alice was transformed into a guardian, she made a bargain with a demon. She promised to bring the demon's Michael's heart, not knowing at the time who Michael was. After being transformed by Michael into a Guardian, and learning who Michael is, Alice is horrified by what she promised. Because the makers of unfulfilled promises are punished by 1000 years of torture in a frozen field in hell, Alice is conflicted between her loyalty to the Guardians and Michael, and the promise she made as a human. The resolution of this conflict is the main narrative arc of "Demon Bound"; it is the narrative arc that connects "Demon Bound" to overarching storyline of the Guardian series. [1] Alice thus has her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man's narrative arc - she makes "Demon Bound" pass the Mako Mori test, as it

(i) has a female character ( Alice Grey)(ii) who has her own narrative arc 
 fulfilling her bargain without betraying the Guardians), and (iii) that narrative arc is not about supporting a man's narrative arc 

Mako Mori Test: 3/3 


"Demon Bound" also passes the Bechdel Test. Alice and Irena, another Guardian, have a four-page conversation about Baba Yaga. This segues into a discussion about Alice's bargain and the promise that Alice extracted from Irena years ago: in the event that the demon, Teqon, comes calling for the fulfillment of Irena's promise, Alice forced Irena to promise that she would lock Alice in a prison, so that Alice would not be able to fulfil her promise. Alice and Irena, two women, thus have a rather long conversation about something other than a man - so "Demon Bound"
(i) has at least two women in it, (ii) shows those women having a conversation, where (iii) the aforementioned conversation is about something other than a man. 

Bechdel Test: 3/3 


Alice Grey also passes the Sexy Lamp test. Much of the plot development in "Demon Bound" is low-action - Alice and Jake do a lot of research, given Alice's role as the Guardian's librarian, and Jake being assigned to be her assistant. The research, however, leads Alice and Jake to discover the skeleton of Zakril, one of the first Guardians. Research on Zakril's skeleton leads to Alice and Jake discovering the existence of the Grigori, one of the most important points in the overarching storyline. But it is Alice's actions/research that first leads to the discovery of the temple where Zakril is found, she thus could not be replaced by a Sexy Lamp (or in the case of Alice, a creepy lamp).

Additionally, when Alice and Jake are in Hell, held captive by demons, Alice is the one who figures out how to secretly communicate. And she is the one who rigs their prison with razor-sharp spider threads, a crucial ingredient in their plan for escape. The plan itself is Jake's, which shows that both Alice and Jake pass the Sexy Lamp test - neither of them could be replaced with a Sexy Lamp, because both take actions that are crucial to the events that occur - in this case, their escape from captivity. The issue of whether or not Jake passes the Sexy Lamp test is important for "Demon Bound" because Jake is much younger and in a lower position of authority than Alice within the Guardian ranks - i.e., he is in a role that is usually allocated to the heroines in romance novels. But in any case, both Alice and Jake pass the Sexy Lamp test.

The Sexy Lamp Test:   2/2
  Alice Grey
  Jake Hawkins
5.0 Jake Hawkins and the Mako Mori Test

Given that Jake fulfils a role that is usually allocated to heroines in romance novels, it's equally important to consider whether he would pass (a modified version of) the Mako Mori test. Does he have is own narrative arc that is not about supporting Alice's narrative arc?

Jake as a hero is a rather well-adjusted and uncomplicated guy, even if he has a problem filtering out insensitive things he shouldn't say - he's definitely not your typical broody alpha male with father issues. He does have his own narrative arc, however, even if it's small. Jake has always felt guilty about dying when he did, and leaving his then-pregnant girlfriend alone. He felt extra guilty because when he left to join the army, knowing he might die, he knew that he wanted different things than his girlfriend did, and feels that in dying, he didn't live up to his responsibility. Jake's pregnant girlfriend is a married great-grandmother by the time of "Demon Bound," as Guardians are bound to 100 years of training in Caelum before they are allowed to return to earth. Jake's narrative arc is thus about dealing with his guilt regarding what might have been his life. Although Jake's first contact with his human family is a teleportation accident, afterwards he chooses to face his daughter and see what he missed. He thus has his own narrative arc, separate from Alice's narrative arc, in which he shows agency in its resolution. All in all, Jake passes the Mako Mori test (modified to account for the fact that he's not female, he's just in the role normally allocated to female characters). So all in all, "Demon Bound" passes all three of my selected tests for feminism.

Mako Mori:
Alice:    
Jake:  N/A, , 
Sexy Lamp:

Alice:    
Jake:  N/A

6.0 Conclusion

"Demon Bound" is one of my favourites in Meljean Brook's Guardian series - the interactions between Jake and Alice are definitely funny, and there are definitely gritty parts (Alice is in a hard position), and grand parts (the way that Jake and Alice plan to deal with the demons and the bargain). The sad parts are downplayed, but there are sad parts (Alice's married life, for instance, and her students all deciding to ascend instead of staying to fight). It's thus not surprising as to why I feel justified in loving this book - not only does it fulfill all of my selected criteria for female presence, it also fulfils all my criteria for what I love in a book. It also does it while being original - very few romance novels have heroes like Jake, and even fewer books have heroines like Alice.


 [1] I guess one could argue that the overarching storyline of the entire series is Michael's narrative arc, so every other narrative arc supports his. But Michael does not feel at all like a main character in any of the books except the final one, so I reject this analysis!

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