Author's note: there are spoilers in this review.
General: the end of this novella left me with a sense of deflation – not at the writing, which is superbly done, but the pyrrhic victory captured in the words “after all, dark is better than dead”(67). Zoë overcomes her dark-witch tormentor, Graham, but in killing him she gains darkness and loses the love of Connor and his werewolf/pet-dog companion, Shadow - the very person and friend she risks her self and life for. This acceptance is somewhat unfortunate, as it separates her in the end from the happiness (with Connor and Shadow) I feel she deserves considering all she has been through. Somehow it equates a kind of transgender reality. But then again, if life were what we imagine, there wouldn’t be the need to live. So, the unexpected ending, though more expressionistic, isn’t beyond reality.
Structurally, I found the divisions (of the chapters) a bit contrived in places. For instance, the handshake that seals the introductory meeting between Connor and Zoë starts in chapter 3 and runs into chapter 4. But this breaking up of beats works well in the transition from the hostility of Graham’s treatment of Zoë (at the end of chapter 13) and the loving gentleness of Connor’s love for her (at the beginning of chapter 14.
Novella’s motif: the overriding motif in this novella resonates in Zoë’s words that “loneliness and the need to feel loved was overwhelming, I wanted to belong to something. Even if I knew it wasn't right,” (44), and the fact that the capacity to hate depends on how hard we love – she couldn’t stand Graham (when she discovers his true identity) after initially falling deeply in love with him, and Connor couldn’t stand her (when he discovers her new reality at the point in the narrative where she kills Graham to save him and Shadow) soon after he falls deeply in love with her.
Lessons: I learned several things from reading this novella: auras “that calm, contemplative purple aura undulating around him like a hazy cloud was one of the few indicators that he wasn't human, but only someone like us — supernatural creatures, or others — could see them,” (11). Interesting how the changing auras show how witches have no control over their true emotions when their outward expressions are different. One would expect witches, whose powers reside in their ability to focus would have much more control. But it does underline a fact of life - all beings possess a duality, which is in a state of constant flux; the pull between witches “the strange pull in my stomach was pointed directly at him. And that meant only one thing. My mate, the supernatural equivalent of a soul mate, was a dark witch,” (21). Interesting to see how “Fate did a shitty job of choosing Graham Abernathy,” (35) to be Zoë’s mate. Makes me wonder what witches really have any control over. But I like how this builds up on the conflict because through this bond/pull Graham is able to find Zoë, Connor and Shadow as they travel through the belly of America; the quest for power “there were dark witches that liked to kill other witches for power” (11) and “dark witches were evil. Dangerous. And they wanted one thing. Power. They siphoned magic, and often, they killed to take souls, or essences — the most potent source of power — from their victims” (21). It was strange to read that Graham who had before then displayed extreme ‘power’ in hunting Zoë down and killing her entire family, in the penultimate scene had no ‘power’ to kill a new witch, or that his pursuit of Zoë was the quest for power is surprising as Zoë is a new witch. What is also curious is the number of people he had killed and stored in a cold freezer in his quest for power – Zoë’s entire family and more. How come he couldn’t tell these witches had no powers, or curiously that the witches he killed didn’t have powers to transform him is a point of concern in the novel’s narrative. I like the idea of Graham motivating Zoe to acquire power so that when he kills her he will absorb her powers. The last lesson I learnt concerns the other major motif of the novella - siphoning (21, 38, 45, 47, 48, 50, 53, 54, 57, 58, 60, and 64). If witches can siphon power from living things to help empower and protect themselves, why does Connor detests this? Was he on some kind of self-extinction drive?
Learning about siphoning was both intriguing and enlightening just to think the whole power struggle came down to what the white witches think is dangerous, and what the dark witches cannot detect. “When Graham searched my power, he never felt the electricity I siphoned. Because I wasn't dark. That was the ace up my sleeve.
When Connor told me he knew I siphoned the lightning from palm harbor, he revealed that he never detected a change in my power level, despite knowing it was there” (64). It was quite fascinating to discover that while Zoë and Connor were agonizing about the strength of Graham, it took something less powerful than lightning to kill him. Just goes to show, that power doesn’t lie in strength, but the limits of our weakness(es).
Language: the entire novella is riddled with beautiful lines: “Being other was lonely and dangerous. It meant a life of solitude, living in secret, and the threats weren't always the same,” (7); “Pink bled into the edges of his aura and tingles traveled down my body in response,” (9); “Though I barely knew him, he affected me in ways I never thought possible. And despite understanding that pink meant the beginnings of desire, I was unsure of what he was thinking,” (16); "Your body for their lives," (25). This is a well-written novella that captures the changing emotions of the characters quite well, and without going overboard deals with the nexal connections between Zoë, Connor and Graham. For instance, Zoë’s recollection of the first sexual act with Graham is made powerful by the author's use of powerful (flowery) phrase – “his mouth was like ambrosia as his taste exploded across my tongue and I knew I never wanted to stop,” (42).
Zoë as bildungsroman: there are several ways of analyzing Zoë, but I choose to see it as a bildungsroman and an initiation story of sort. First, Zoë is a bildungsroman because it charts the Zoë’s actual or metaphorical journey from youth to maturity. Initially the aim of this journey is reconciliation between her desire for individuation (self-fulfillment) – “there I was, a day away from eighteen, clueless about the world around me and needing to know how to use my power, while at the same time, trying to figure out what happened to my family,” (16) and the demands of socialization (adaptation to a given social reality) – “I sometimes found myself wishing I never became a witch in the first place. But for the life of me, I couldn't remember why” (8).
However, Zoë’s growth process has at its roots a quest story, which is both "an apprenticeship to life" – “he was also my teacher, helping me learn the ways of the world and what it meant to be a witch. I didn't have anyone else,” (7); “my mentor was taking care of me, which surprised me on many levels. Not only was he trying to keep us hidden from the dark witch that threatened us, but he kept me safe, and helped me through the aftermath of what happened” (34) and “so I decided to try something I figured out the day before. Something that was dark magic if done to another witch, but since it was the fire, it wasn't bad at all. It was a double benefit. I could show my mentor that I learned about something that was dark, but then modified it so it was light” (37), and a "search for meaningful existence within society." – “there I was, a day away from eighteen, clueless about the world around me and needing to know how to use my power, while at the same time, trying to figure out what happened to my family,” (16) and “loneliness and the need to feel loved was overwhelming, I wanted to belong to something. Even if I knew it wasn't right. And Graham was my answer,” (44).
Another characteristic of the bildungsroman present in Zoë is some form of loss or discontent that spurs her at an early stage away from the home or family setting in Australia. “It was hard to imagine a girl growing up south of Perth, Australia with a large family of strong women, only to find herself drifting around America at the age of eighteen with no family and no friends. Other than Connor and Shadow, that was,” (7); "I am from Australia and my family was rather large. But over the years they started disappearing. By the time I was old enough to follow in their footsteps as a witch, they were all gone," (11); “I missed my family so much that tears stung my eyes, but I choked them back. As much as I wanted to be with my family, I didn't leave them behind. One after the other, they all left me. And I was alone. It hurt even more that the following day was my birthday. Eighteen was a big rite of passage in my family — before they all disappeared, and I was dreading the thought of spending it alone,” (13). So, Zoë meets the feature of a bildungsroman that requires the growing child to either often be orphaned or fatherless - if not metaphorically, then literally – as in Zoë’s case.
Also, as in most bildungsroman, Zoë’s process of maturity is long, arduous, and gradual, consisting of repeated clashes between her needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order. “I was sure that protecting Connor and Shadow was the right thing to do. But after a while, I started to think I wouldn't survive what Graham Abernathy was doing to me,” (26); “even though I did it to protect Connor and Shadow, I still thought it would ruin my chance to be more than just mentor and student with the witch that held me tight against him,” (32); “his deep brown eyes searched mine and after several long moments, he spoke. "Why can't you trust that I can protect you?" (58). What is also evident in the novella is the fact that the absence or loss of her family symbolizes or parallels a loss of faith in the values of her home and family and leads to the search for an alternate parent or way or life. “And though we knew each other just under two months, I was already in love with him. Perhaps I was broken,” (28). “Though he didn't find out until later that I was also trying to protect Shadow, Connor insisted I shouldn't have risked my life for them. But what was done was done,” (34); “it was hard to fathom just how much I loved the man sitting in front of me. Especially in that moment. He was willing to fight for me, and so was Shadow. That meant more to me than either of them knew,” (54).
Eventually, as in most bildungsroman, the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in Zoë, and as she becomes accommodated into the (witch) society she assesses herself and her new place in the society. “My life will be about keeping Connor and Shadow safe. I’m finally strong enough to protect myself. Strong enough to protect them. Even from themselves. After all, dark is better than dead.
At least I can use it for good for as long as I can. Connor is worth it,” (67).
We find also in the novella that many Zoë is tested not only by her new surroundings, but also by love - many times the pure love (for Connor) is contrasted to the destructive/unhealthy one (with Graham). “Fate did a shitty job of choosing Graham Abernathy to be my mate. I wished it was Connor. It should have been Connor,” (35); “despite knowing that Graham was fated to be my mate, what I felt for him before I changed into a witch didn't compare to what I felt for Connor,” (44); “he was gentle. And he was kind. Being with him that previous night was no different. Not only did he ask me several times if I was sure, his hands never roamed over me until I granted him access … there was no blank look in his eyes, no cold detachment that left me feeling worthless. That was leaps and bounds over what I experienced with Graham … I was in love with him. Far above and beyond anything I ever felt for Graham,” (45).
A hallmark of most bildungsroman regards the central obstacle, which is usually contained within the protagonist. The novella abounds with several mental anguish of Zoë: “the more Graham talked, the more questions flashed across my mind … those questions stayed in my mind but I didn't voice them. I should have. I knew it, but I couldn't speak them,” (44); “I needed more power and I needed to find the solution that would win my sister back, even though I knew it would mean losing Connor. Or I was going to die trying,” (51).
Most protagonists in bildungsroman experience some sort of epiphany, where a moment of clarity helps them break through their delusions and changes them, either spiritually or in terms of their conduct, or both. The same is true of Zoë. “Graham was testing me, forcing me to develop my magic so I would be more powerful. If I was strong, it would give him more of a power boost when he took my magic and my soul, my essence along with it. In that moment, I realized his curse was a lie.
"The curse isn't real." (53).
The ending of a bildungsroman is often ambiguous, ambivalent, or lacks decisive closure “playing my part as a dark witch, I’ll gather power — without taking lives,” (67). The end of Zoë raises several questions: does the fact that Connor and Shadow leave mean they both believe this is an impossibility? Is this some kind of rebirth into an earthen witch? Can a dark witch be anything other than dark?
Most of what I have discussed under bildungsroman applies in a sense to the “initiation novel”: “narration about maturation, process of growing-up, about loss of innocence and entering the stage of sin and experience” – a kind of transition/initiation from childhood to adolescence and maturity, having “first experiences”, realization by a person of his/her adjustment or maladjustment to it, “ritual,” connected with physiological growth, self-awareness and life purpose, understanding the borders present-self and ex-self, realization of such categories as life and death, good and evil, discovering “the whole complexity and ambiguity of the world”, and first sexual experience. “As my mind finally came back to me, I realized my mistake. Oh, shit. I froze and tried to keep calm as he pulled away from me, setting himself to rights. It wasn't that I only knew Graham for eight days. It wasn't that I loved him, had sex with him for the first time — for the first time ever. It wasn't that he was ten years older than me. It was that we fucked. Outside. Beneath the pier. And Graham wasn't wearing protection. "Oh my god," I breathed with wide eyes and pulled my sweater around me. Tears stung my eyes as he grinned at me in triumph. Then I turned and ran away as fast as my weak legs could carry me.
Behind me, I could hear him chuckling,” (43).
A characteristic feature of the initiation novel that I find in Zoë is the use in the plot schemes of thriller and horror. Zoë dwells upon metaphysical phenomena, and all the active characters are those borrowed from the mythologies of various peoples (demons, monsters, werewolves, etc.). There is present in the novella, a picture of something incomprehensible and a terrible feeling of fear that forms in the reader’s mind as a reaction to real or imaginary threat to the lives of Zoë, Connor and Shadow. In this regard, I must say the author succeeded in creating the atmosphere of emotional stress, which is a defining feature of modern initiation novels. The author does quite well to sustain the mood/tone/atmosphere of fear and gloom throughtout the novella. There runs through the novella a constant threat to the lives of Zoë, Connor and Shadow - the rape scene in the library (26-27), and the delivering piecemeal, of the body parts of Zoë's sister (48 and 55).
Function of bildungsroman: Zoë fulfills most functions of the bildungsroman: it depicts and criticizes those vices of the society, which cause Zoë to suffer. It conveys a sense of realism because Zoë as a common sensitive person who is affected by the loss that she suffers, and we see how this loss, ultimately, changes the course of her life. In addition, the psychological and moral growth of Zoë gives us a deep insight into her character as a strong-willed person and also helps to understand the conflict in her life – the protection of her sister, Connor and Shadow without becoming dark.
Final thoughts: the plot of a bildungsroman as a key element of its prosaic form as a novel that details the life of one hero who is formed and nurtured under the influence of various factors (education, home, loved ones who surround hi/her). For instance, other characters in Zoë perform constructive (Connor) or destructive (Graham) functions in the process of Zoë’s formation, helping by good guidance, understanding or arranging obstacles to her, thus becoming her foe or even enemies, forcing her to move forward, look for other ways out from difficult situations of physical and spiritual order – siphoning. However, unlike the typical bildungsroman where the narrator is usually a mature person who has already found his/her place in life, Zoë is still figuring out what she really is – an new/unformed witch. Though, the image formation process and identity formation in the novella appear as a memory of her own experience, Zoë, however, doesn’t in a sense evaluate her growing-up from current point of view as an adult, or considers it with a time distance. I need to add though that the epistolary nature/structure of the novella attempts to fuse this. The entries in her journal allow her a comparison between the love she felt for Graham and the one she shares with Connor. A good example of this is the (assured/true) calm emotions that begin chapter 14, which underscores the (confused/false) combustible (derisive) emotions that end chapter 13.
Final questions: does Connor abandon her because he realizes she can protect herself? Does he leave her because she is mutable – not accepting that she is finite and limited as a white witch? Does he leave having realized the irony of his words, “you can't keep searching for power that isn't yours," (47). Who does power belong to? in asking these questions, I am cognizant of Zoe's plea to Connor "I'm not going to hurt you. I would never hurt you ... I still love you, Connor" (66). But no matter how much she tries to tell him she was still the same person, she knows seeing her darken "... was the last thing he wanted and it broke my heart to see all the pain he tried to hide as he made his way to our motel room." I cannot wait to see how this develops in the following series.
(review of free book)