A New Direction for an Old Trope

Like most, I first encountered the idea of insanity as a price for magic in the Wheel of Time series. At the time that Tor published the Eye of the World, it was a novel concept and uniquely terrifying. More importantly, that particular story element was masterfully executed. It was ingrained in, and drove much of, the story’s world building, character motivations, and plot. Like any other great work of fiction, Jordan inspired a generation of writers who gleefully worked to make the idea their own. However, in my experience not many authors have taken the time and effort to improve upon the concept. That is until Jim Butcher published the Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first installment in his new Cinder Spires series.

One of the things I like most about Butcher’s treatment of neurodivergence and neurosis is how different his characters are from those who have come before. For example one of the three etherealists that Butcher introduces us to, Master Ferus, is entirely unable to operate door knobs. He literally can’t get them to function. Though this limitation might seem trivial, can you imagine how difficult life would be if you needed to rely on others to get through simple doors? Furthermore, while it is often used as a comedic beat in the story, Butcher sets up a scenario in which Ferus’ inability to get through a door on his own has legitimate life and death consequences. It’s a wonderful tension payoff for all the moments of humor we enjoyed before.

Secondly, I love how Butcher handles delusion. One of his etherealist characters, Folly, often says things that seem like non-sequiturs or that are entirely incomprehensible to both the reader and other characters. However once the reader is allowed a view inside Folly’s head, we find out that she isn’t delusional at all. Rather, she is able to perceive an additional reality to which most of the other characters are both blind and deaf. By overtly reacting to that reality, she only appears to be delusional from the outside. It was an interesting twist on an old concept that had me as reader questioning my own assumptions of others “delusions.”

Finally, Butcher does an excellent job leveraging his character’s neurodivergence and neuroses while maintaining their humanity and competence. Jordan relied mostly on megalomania, schizophrenia, and delusion, all of which were shown to be unmanageable, destructive, and inevitable. While that choice worked well for Jordan’s story and aims, it’s an oversimplification that doesn’t do justice to the reality. Master Ferus, Folly, and Madam Cavendish are certainly all limited and shaped by their quirks and neuroses. However, they are also shown to be highly intelligent and capable agents in their own right. By writing his etherealists as three fully realized, competent characters, rather than maintaining the caricatures that have become all too common in popular culture, Butcher was able to take the trope into a new, unique direction.


2 Responses

  1. Suzanne Warr says:

    Fascinating insights. I’d picked up on the fact that this has become a super popular way to show the price of magic, but can’t say I’d thought it through any further. Thanks for sharing!

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Thanks for your kind words Suzanne! I was rereading (well… relistening) to the Aeronaut’s Windlass and it struck me how good of a job he did. Many people have talked about his use of mythology or the characters in the Dresden Files, but I don’t know of anyone who has made this point. Have you read the book? Who is your favorite character?

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