The Dark Fantastic: A thoughtful addition to race analysis in fantasy

The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth ThomasThe Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth ThomasThe Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

In The Dark Fantastic (2019), Ebony Elizabeth Thomas offers up a thoughtful and important exploration of race in fantasy, looking in particular at four case studies: Rue in The Hunger Games, Gwen in Merlin, Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter. As should happen with books like these, reading it forces you to see things in a different light that you’ve long viewed and that have grown familiar.

Thomas defines her terminology early on as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations,” and then distinguishes it from Afrofuturism or the Black Fantastic in its recognition that “the vast majority of speculative narratives [in the US] are still written by White authors,” its focus on transmedia and fandom, and its reliance on reader-response theory (along with a heavy personal touch via Thomas’ own youth and her involvement in social media and fandom, along with her niece’s responses to reading). She also explains why her analysis is focused on female characters (mostly due to a lack of male ones).

Taking Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory as a jumping off point, Thomas describes a cyclical pattern of the Dark Other: spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation. This last, she notes, is all too rare. She then uses this framework to guide the reading of the four case studies, though each offers unique explorations of racial elements in addition to emphasizing/illustrating the pattern. As noted above, Thomas doesn’t limit her analysis to the texts themselves, but steps outside of them to look at the (often horrific) fan reactions via social media to the casting of black or mixed-race actors, even when, as in the case of Rue, the original material had clearly signposted the characters’ characteristics. While the reactions are similar, Thomas uses the various roles in different fashion, to peer into different nooks and crannies of the discussion. With Rue, for instance, she examines how black girls cannot be seen as “innocent” and how Rue has to be sacrificed for Katniss’ good. For Guinevere, part of the discussion centers on how fans argued she couldn’t be “beautiful” due to her race, while part of the analysis of Bonnie deals with how the shift in the character’s race came with an accordant shift in her centrality to the story (to the margins).

I can’t say I agreed with every reading Thomas offers, but one doesn’t read for confirmation and full agreement is never the goal when I’m reading thoughtful analyses of familiar works. I can say that the readings are almost always insightful and often eye-opening in the way they cast a different light on things or place me at a different viewing angle. And that should be the goal of such works. A goal Thomas achieves. Sometimes I wished she had engaged a bit more with some of the other critics she cites, sometimes I wished we could have gone down another path (an additional one, not an alternate one) or two; the book is a bit slim. But Thomas doesn’t present it as an exhaustive analysis or as a full, and thereby “closed” conversation, but more along the lines of an opening to one. And there again, she succeeds.

We need books like The Dark Fantastic to keep us on our reader/fan toes, to bring forward our blind spots, to fill in the gaps in our readings and reactions, to give us a language to discuss them. Recommended therefore for readers, and especially for educators and librarians.

Published in May 2019. Reveals the diversity crisis in children’s and young adult media as not only a lack of representation, but a lack of imagination. Stories provide portals into other worlds, both real and imagined. The promise of escape draws people from all backgrounds to speculative fiction, but when people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, the doors are often barred. This problem lies not only with children’s publishing, but also with the television and film executives tasked with adapting these stories into a visual world. When characters of color do appear, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter. The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world. In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities. Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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5 comments

  1. I definitely want to read this!

  2. I ordered this yesterday and with luck I will have it by Friday.

  3. Rebecca Fisher /

    It’s a coincidence that I would see this review on the exact same day I noticed this book at the library where I work! Now I’ll have to check it out!

    I was actually in the Merlin fandom at the height of its popularity, and the amount of racism and bile that was spewed at Guinevere for having the audacity to be a) not white and b) loved and respected by a white male character was disgusting, and you still see some of it pop up on-line to this day.

    It’s gratifying that Angel Coulby has continued to have a strong career post-Merlin, as she was certainly one of the best actors on the show.

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