The Big Idea: Alex Shvartsman
Posted on June 2, 2022 Posted by Athena Scalzi 7 Comments
Magic, monsters, and New York Style pizza. Three things you can expect to find in author Alex Shvartsman’s newest book, The Middling Afflication. Come along in this Big Idea to see what else lies within the city that never sleeps.
The big idea behind The Middling Affliction is actually three middling ideas stacked on top of each other, in a noir-sleuth trench coat.
First and foremost, this book is a love letter to New York City, and especially to South Brooklyn where I’ve lived for over thirty years. I wanted to tell a story where my adopted home city feels like a major character, where many locations and even characters are based on real places and real people, which are authentic and believable (for a humorous urban fantasy story, anyway).
Conrad Brent, our snarky and sarcastic protagonist, protects the people of Brooklyn from monsters and magical threats. It’s through his eyes that we see Brooklyn—and some of the other boroughs—and I sincerely hope that I’ve infused him with so much love for the borough that it comes through clearly. And while I’ve tried to avoid the obvious New Yorker clichés, do expect strong opinions about pizza.
The second idea is about the nature of magic. It is established wisdom that, in writing science fiction, the author shouldn’t get into the specifics of how their time machine or their FTL drive actually works. It’s best to gloss over such things, so as not to draw the reader out of the story and invite them to argue the point. Which is perfectly fine, except there’s a completely different standard involved when it comes to fantasy. Got magic in your story? You’d better tell the reader exactly how it works, and in minute detail. You’re expected to reveal its underlying rules with the thoroughness and precision of a role playing manual. It kind of saps the wonder and mystery out of a thing that, by its very nature, is meant to be both wondrous and mysterious.
In the Conradverse, magic works a lot more like real-world science. The basics may be well-understood, but there’s plenty left to discover on its cutting edge. Various groups and factions practice it differently, and they jealously keep some of the key developments to themselves. And that’s the people who study magic; average practitioners may know as little about magic’s inner workings as most people do about the technologies that turn sand and electric current into consumer electronics.
Conrad knows a lot less than he’d like to. He’s a middling—a person who can interact with magic but has no magic of his own. In a secret world filled with superheroes and supervillains, he’s the magical Batman: a grumpy and possibly somewhat unhinged vigilante with no special powers who relies on gadgets to keep up with the super-Joneses. He badly wants to find the cure for his affliction, and throughout this book—and the rest of the series—he will learn a lot more about the nature of magic than he ever expected to.
Finally, the third idea is to examine and reject deeply rooted prejudices. Conrad must hide the fact that he’s a middling, because middlings are despised by many among magic users, even though most of them have never actually met one. He must navigate the society where even some of the nominally good guys would turn against him if they ever learned his secret.
This is a lofty and serious subject for a book that’s 40% sarcasm and pop culture references. Still, as a first generation immigrant who escaped the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart. Conrad is not the only character affected by prejudice; I actively seek to subvert some of the common negative tropes. One of the most kind and selfless characters in the story is a shop keeper; one of the smartest is a member of the species not commonly recognized as highly intelligent, and so on.
These ideas are sugarcoated in a thick layer of action and adventure and—if I’ve done my job right—will have you returning for the sequel!
The Middling Affliction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
I first met Conrad Brent around a decade ago, when his first short story appearance, in “A Shard Glows in Brooklyn,” arrived on my [virtual] editing desk at buzzymag. Conrad’s snarky voice, and the rich, magical version of Brooklyn he inhabits made a huge impression on me.
Since then, Alex has published a ton of stuff, in most of the major markets, almost always including humor, all of it good.
But I’ve been waiting for the novel length Conrad Brent–I’ve got my copy, and I look forward to reading it!
Yeah, gonna have to check this one out, too!
“Finally, the third idea is to examine and reject deeply rooted prejudices. Conrad must hide the fact that he’s a middling, because middlings are despised by many among magic users, even though most of them have never actually met one. He must navigate the society where even some of the nominally good guys would turn against him if they ever learned his secret.”
I assume the man in the center of the cover is Conrad? My initial reaction was that a white, male protagonist is a poor choice for exploring prejudice. It evoked debates I’ve had with conservatives about “reverse racism” and “white men are the real oppressed people.” I would be interested to hear more about the process of selecting and combining this particular protagonist and this prejudice idea, with the goal of better understanding the decision.
A few thoughts about lebkin’s post.
It seems eminently reasonable to me that an alternate world will be have different classes, castes, and prejudices, and that not all of them will be based on ethnicity and gender. Magic creates a new power system, which will be a major factor in shaping the culture.
Fantasy has always been a way to address problematic culture issues, including prejudice, from a different vantage point. It gives readers a useful framework to consider “the other,” and, assuming they’re capable of empathy, can address universal patterns. Any exploration of prejudice can be enlightening, assuming the reader is capable of empathy.
3) There is considerable emphasis on “own voices” in fantasy. This is laudable on many levels. As a reader, I want books by authors whose experiences and world view are different from own. As someone who attempts to be a decent human being, I want everyone to have a fair shot at success. But it must be acknowledged that in the current climate, a white male author who writes about a female, third-generation, thoroughly assimilated Asian-American protagonist will be pilloried online for cultural appropriation.
4) Finally, there are plenty of white males who face prejudice that has nothing to do with their race and gender. To quote the author: “…as a first generation immigrant who escaped the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart.
Elaine – thank you for the really thoughtful comment. I will try to think more broadly about fiction addressing prejudice with the framing you give here.
Thanks for the response, lebkin. Your kind reception makes me feel much better about the weird errors in my pre-coffee post.
(Note to self: Drink coffee, THEN post online.)