Can I interest you in an alternative history-steampunk-fantasy-western? With a Black main character? If so, I have the perfect book for you: Bella by Michael Conely.
Alternative History and Fantasy Combined
I have always been a fan of alternative history. Harry Turtledove introduced me to the genre via his Southern Victory series which re-imagines American history with the small caveat that The South wins the Civil War. After devouring that 11-book series and then finding my way over to George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series I have remained a steadfast fan of the category. Alternative history is always an interesting sub-genre of the fantasy world, because we all know what’s supposed to happen. The trick is to make a small change that snowballs rather quickly. This creates a world that is now something strange yet familiar. I always found good alternative history to be like an unending feeling of déjà vu, a flavor that always remains on the tip of your tongue.
In Bella, Conley takes this interesting and intricate sub-genre and adds in a steampunk and fantasy kicker. In short, he ups his degree of difficulty. When judging a stand-alone fantasy book or series, I’m interested in the traditional checklist: character development, pacing, story, setting, what have you. But additionally, I want to know about your magic system — is it explained? Is it new, interesting? What are the rules and regulations governing it? Is it logical and consistent? The magic system is in and of itself a character that needs to be introduced, developed and nurtured throughout. This has to happen while also giving the reader an alternative history lesson, staying consistent to that timeline. Conely has to balance elements of steampunk and westerns and then still somehow manage to give the reader an interesting magic system (that hasn’t been already replicated in 500 other fantasy books). Many authors wouldn’t have the chops to successfully juggle these many moving parts, but I am happy to say that Michael Conley’s Bella finds a way. Additionally Bella manages to combine these elements and have a young Black girl (Topher) as our narrator and main character.
Topher the Thief
The beginning of the story is standard fantasy fare. We have a motley crew of seemingly ill-fitting characters, sent on a mission to retrieve THE THING. You know THE THING of which I speak. Sometimes THE THING is a ring, an orb, a dead god’s gauntlet. THE THING is usually lost or stolen, and a crew is needed to retrieve it. This crew is made of a thief (Topher), tank (Wasco), wizard & familiar (Lin), and rounding us off is our Assassin (Jake). What makes this story interesting is seeing these classic classes on a quest for THE THING in an Old West setting that is slightly familiar but still different. The inclusion of the alternate history timeline combined with the backdrop of steampunk and fantasy elements gives this story an interesting twist that keeps it from going stale.
The very first thing that drew me into the book was the emphasis on Topher as our eyes and ears into the story. Too often finding Black characters in fantasy books is like trying to find Black characters on Friends. You know they should be there; you want them to be there, but they always seem to be mysteriously missing. And when/if they finally show up, they are often at best regulated to some secondary role that seems hastily written. That doesn’t happen in Bella. Topher is not only our narrator, we quickly find out she sneaks and slides into the main character role before you know it (in true Topher fashion). Wasco has the quest, Wasco is the engine that pushes the story forward, but Topher is the driver and she has both hands firmly on the wheel.
As she walks out of the city on her quest, we realize this is Topher’s first time really beyond the walls of her city. As Topher explores this new and frightening world, the reader gets to experience this new and frightening world as well. Whether it was a deliberate move on the authors part or a happy byproduct of good writing, Topher’s wide-eyed wonder rubs off on the reader. There is a natural synergy between narrators and reader and in this case, both get to be excited and wow’ed by the world that Conley creates. Topher is no grizzled veteran, hardened battle mage, or ruthless, quickdraw assassin. She is a kid trying desperately not to be and it is in that simplicity that I found it easy to relate to her. And if you haven’t been paying attention, on top of a steampunk, fantasy, western, Conley somehow manages to sneak in a coming of age story on the back end of the book as well.
Black Characters in a Fantasy World
I will admit, in the beginning, once I realized Topher was Black, I had two quick thoughts. First, I’m always excited to find Black main characters in fantasy. Second, I’m always wary when I find Black main characters in fantasy. I’m always worried about how well they’ll be written and how much time and effort is going to be put into the building blocks of that particular character. Then of course there is the question as to “will this really be a Black character?” Too often Black characters in fantasy books don’t remind me of any Black people I know. They get the 80’s Barbie treatment, whereas they are clearly white characters that are “painted” Black for the sake of diversity. Conley avoids this trap by giving Topher the narrator spot. So, it’s her voice we hear while we are reading, it’s her eyes and her experiences that are pushing us through the story, so if the character of Topher isn’t written well, the rest of the story would be doomed to fall flat on its face.
Conley must flesh out the narrator, he has to give Topher a full range of emotions and feelings, he cannot risk us feeling apathetic to a character that is so central to the story. Additionally, by placing Topher in an alternative history, steampunk, wild-west experience, Conley avoids the trap of having to make Topher “sound Black”. In movies, I can often tell when a Black character has been written by White writers. The jargon, dialect, vernacular and idioms are always a dead giveaway. Often the slang is “over-slangy”, stereotypically slangy, or out-dated slangy. In Bella, the setting is old west and alt-history, so Topher uses a new lingo. We aren’t familiar with how she is “supposed” to sound. So we don’t run into the continuity problems of a Northern, urban, Black girl using southern slang from the 80’s or a “valley” Black girl that doesn’t know how to code switch. Topher is a steampunked, Wild West bad ass and her language, idioms and slang reflects THAT reality.
Topher also gets an interesting backstory, not just as herself, but also in how Black people are viewed in this alternative timeline. Care was taken not just to “paint Topher Black” but to explore what the Black experience is like in this world.
The rest of the book is a wild, enjoyable ride. Wasco does great as the durable, grizzled vet (and I sense that the author put a lot of himself into that role). Jake as the “rogue with a heart of gold” stays interesting despite being a character that we have seen before. Even Lin as the stereotyped “Far East mystic”, brings something new to the table. Conley has some familiar tropes in Bella but he doesn’t rest on them. He adds just enough of a new twist on his characters so that they don’t become boring and predictable. The magic system is intriguing and interesting, but not fully explained. This seems deliberate and not an oversight, as there are multiple places in the book where the “rules of engagement” are clarified but are not yet made clear.
I think that’s a good thing, we are still in Book One and we must have somewhere to go. Bella does a good job of giving us the limitations and guidelines of the magic system while still leaving room for exploration. I think this is an area where having Topher as the narrator works well. As a young girl, we can’t expect Topher to have a full understanding of the magic system, she’s learning about it at the same time we are. As she grows in her role in the books, as she “levels up” I’m guessing the reader will too. We all get to grow together.
A Mash of Genres Done Well
A talented author is much like a talented chef — they can both do mystical things with ingredients that would confuse an average practitioner. Have you ever had a taste for tacos, so you Google or Yelp or otherwise wander into a random restaurant looking for something that hits the spot? Have you ever found that upon wandering in search of said tacos, you have somehow or another found yourself in a place that has a mad scientist chef in the back and instead of standard Tex-Mex, they’re back there whipping up Korean fusion bibimbap burrito bowls? (Shout out to Far East Tacos in Washington DC!) This is what happens when Michael Conley takes the ingredients of steampunk, fantasy and alt history, adds just a dash of western and blends it all together. Your first instinct may be to tread carefully, skeptical that such a mix could work but by the end of the book you find yourself licking your lips and wondering what’s next.
I enjoyed Bella. I enjoyed the journey, I enjoyed having a well-fleshed-out main character of color. I enjoyed watching the dynamics of this group grow as they continued their quest and I really liked how Conley set up the tension in the book. The pacing was good, the writing was great, and the setting was beautifully brutal. This book is more than a simple D&D quest to go kill the BIG BAD and retrieve THE THING. There are intricate themes of race, class, and gender explored. There is magic and mayhem and villains that literally live up to their noms de plume. There is a coming of age story tucked in behind all of that. And underneath yet another layer, Michael Conley seems to be attempting to have a conversation with us about what happens when people become allies, combine forces and use their collective powers to challenge an unfair system. Well played Conley, I look forward to finding out where Topher and the gang go next.
Something Similar: Wild Cards by George R.R. Martin
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