Notes on Diversity:
Bookburners follows Team Three of the Vatican’s anti-magical forces, and Team Three is canonically multi-culti and world-traveling. Sam Brooks, the lead character, is a White woman, but her team mates spend as much time in the spotlight as she does. Asanti, the archivist, is a Black woman with fascinations and curiosities all her own. Father Arturo Menchu is a South American priest haunted by past mistakes. Grace Chen is Asian, and a powerhouse–the team’s secret weapon–and incredibly layered. Liam is an Irish White guy…so not diverse. But he is well-written, and he is a character who is actively coping with PTSD more or less openly through the entire course of the season (book?).
Basically, I was pleasantly surprised.
It makes absolute perfect sense that the Roman Catholic Church would have an ethnically/racially diverse group of people targeting magical artifacts given that Catholicism has a global reach, but, honestly, I think many authors would have taken this story and whitewashed it.
Bookburners is a team-written serial piece of fiction* about a lady cop who gets drawn into a world of magic thanks to curiosities of her wayward brother. Perry Brooks, Sal Brooks’ ne’er-do-well brother, gets his hands on an old, creepy book. And then that book gets its hands on him. Sal is drawn into the web of Team Three’s secret dealings, the ways in which they pull magic artifacts out of the world to protect unknowing mortal citizens, to get her brother back. Over the course of the season, along with Sal, we are introduced to magic users (benign and otherwise), the good and bad sides of the Vatican, and her teammates in Team Three.
Like the best serial dramas on TV, Bookburners strikes a great balance between problem-of-the-week story in a given installment and slowly building a season-long arc over the course of each episode. Some episodes pull more directly into that season-long arc than others, but all of them are excellent. Similarly, Bookburners features mutiple authors working together to create a single cohesive voice, and they pull this off quite well overall.
There are some real standouts to Season 1. The theme of redemption comes through loud and clear–not just for Perry Brooks, but for Sal herself and for Arturo Menchu, and also for Grace. Grace became, over time, my favorite character.
Grace starts the story giving virutally everyone the cold shoulder and slowly, carefully, opens up to Sal. It takes until episode 7 (“Now and Then”) for the reader to learn much about Grace at all besides the fact that she is sharp-tongued, and reads a lot, and that she is incredibly, almost monstrously dangerous in a fight. But in episode 7 everything comes together, and we learn why she is the way she is. And it is so wonderful. But this part is key:
We’ve always recruited from survivors.
Menchu says this to Sal as a way of explaining that everyone on the team has been touched by magic in some way before joining the team. He says it to tell her that she is not alone, that her position is not unique, that they have all had horrifying scrapes with the uncanny, and lived, and been unsettled enough to want to protect the world from it. That’s why they’re there; that’s why they’re teammates. But then, he tells her to “let Grace be Grace.” He refuses to tell he what she survived. The perspective switches, then, so that the reader sees what Grace survived from her own perspective. We are allowed to see Grace be Grace. Between this episode and a later episode (episode 10, “Shore Leave”) where Grace is allowed a day off, the story for me shifted very much to Grace. I still like Sal very much, but Grace was the one I was hooked on. She was the one who held the emotional stakes for me. By the last episode (16, “Siege”), I was desperate for resolution for her.
The beauty of the way Bookburners is written is that there is enough POV switching between the characters, and most of the characters have enough depth, that you are likely to hook into one of the teammates like this and find your favorite and ride them to the end. It is unequivocally Sal’s story, but Liam and Grace and Menchu all have their own side stories which have enough depth and pathos for you to dig into and connect with. Asanti, I feel like, is the weak link here–not present enough on the ground in their missions in the early episodes to get fully realized, but fascinating, but still somewhat two-dimensional by the season’s end.
I wonder where Season 2 will go. Given the ending of Season 1, it’s clear Sal will stick with the team, but there are intriguing questions with regard to her brother. I wonder what the arc will be. I want to see more of Asanti–much more of Asanti. I’d like to see more of Menchu beyond the fatherly team leader role. And Grace. Give me all the Grace-centric episodes you can, please.
Suffice to say my subscription is renewed.
*So it’s a book that was released episodically. All the episodes are now available through Serial Box, so you could read it (or listen to it; I more or less alternated) all in one big gulp. The writing team behind Bookburners is stellar: Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Xe Sands’ narration for the audiobook is also really excellent.
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