The Absolute Book, the celebrated 2019 fantasy novel by White New Zealander Elizabeth Knox, recently published in the US and UK, has received nearly universal praise. Critics laud its idealistic critique of status quo. Dan Kois of Slate marvels at “the book’s capacious intellect and imagination and moral purpose.” In The Guardian, Nina Allan describes the novel similarly:
The greatest fantasies have always held up a mirror to quotidian reality, and it is to this politically engaged, reality-critical, Swiftian strand that The Absolute Book belongs.
In the novel, the human protagonist Taryn is rescued from a demon attack by human/fairy hybrid Shift, who brings her into fairyland. By doing so, he embroils Taryn in a conflict over a very Christian Hell, containing both fairy colonizers and indigenous demons. Invading fallen angels oppress both demons and fairies, subjugating the demons and binding the fairies to pay dire rent: the Tithe, a periodic sacrifice of innocent humans, who are called the Taken.
Taryn finds the angelic occupation of Hell and coercion of the fairies via Tithe morally repugnant. She becomes part of the fairies’ insurgency project, as she joins a search for the “Firestarter.” This titular “absolute book” records “the Language of Command” with which the angels maintain supremacy. Fairies and demons, who both have human agents like Taryn, seek the Firestarter so that they can free themselves from the fallen angels’ rule. In this context, The Absolute Book seems to be a tale of anti-colonialist struggle and revolution.
The novel’s strengths are lush prose, wide scope, leisurely and immersive pacing, and self-reflective examination of the power of stories. These strengths deflect attention from the book’s ambivalent relationship with colonialism, which the author decries while simultaneously using negative stereotypes of disabled and queer characters, objectifying Black characters, and mischaracterizing Judaism. Her narrative choices consequently reinforce the very type of invasion and oppression that she seeks to condemn.
We see hints of this co-optation in the depictions of disabled and queer characters. Knox’s disabled characters have their disabilities cancelled out by fairyland. This appears most clearly in the treatment of Jane Aitken, originally a printer from the US of the early 1800s, and her fellow erstwhile residents of an asylum, where many endured pain and torture. Some of them also experienced mental illness. But all that changed when Shift brought them to fairyland as Taken. Jane summarizes this change: “I was an ailing, ageing woman ... For me, the Sidh [fairyland] has meant health and freedom” (p. 177). The women from the asylum are “no more restored to youth, beauty, and wholeness than Jane was”; Fairyland does not turn back the clock on the women’s physical condition. It does, however, apparently wipe away their past distress and trauma, rendering them “happy”; it gets rid of their disordered mental states, making them “as collected as Jane herself” (p. 236).
Knox’s magical excision of mental illness and psychic pain leaves little room in The Absolute Book for people with mental illness and/or disabilities. Instead, physical and/or mental disabilities are defined, in implicit contrast to the wholeness and mental cogency of post-Shift Jane and friends, as unhealthy states of brokenness and sadness. Furthermore, they are implied to be undesirable flaws that cannot coexist with happiness. This logic suggests that people with mental illness and psychic pain are pathetic, inherently unhappy, and unworthy of the idyll of fairyland. The appearance in the book of a single physically disabled individual as a developed character—Kernow, one of Shift’s Taken, who uses a cane—highlights that, overall, fairyland is not a place for physically disabled and/or mentally ill people.
Nor is the land of The Absolute Book hospitable to queers. While it is true that Shift’s bisexuality appears briefly, the only significant non-heterosexual relationship in the novel occurs between the human Jacob, another of Shift’s Taken, and the fairy Aeng. Aeng, one of Shift’s exes, seduces Jacob out of jealousy. Unlike Shift, who does not compel humans to love him, Aeng uses glamour to force Jacob’s affection. His manipulative tactics reinforce the stereotype of gay relationships as ones where predatory older men take advantage of inexperienced younger ones. Because Aeng and Jacob’s attachment is created by magic, it suggests that queer relationships are fake. With Aeng as a covetous mastermind who violates Jacob’s boundaries and Jacob as an obliviously infatuated victim, this relationship is a wholly negative depiction of queerness.
In the examples above, disabled people and gay people, respectively, are colonized. They are stripped of individual characterization and interiority so that the author can deploy them as symbols in service of her narrative. Jane’s formerly disabled cohorts become a general shorthand for the miraculous healing powers of fairyland. Shift’s treacherous gay ex represents bad fairy magic—coercive glamour that feeds you lies—in opposition to Shift’s lack of coercion with his Taken.
Knox’s colonialist worldview continues in her use of Black characters and her mischaracterization of Jewish concepts. In both cases, her Christian-centric worldbuilding overrides and suppresses other religions. There are no Black characters in The Absolute Book, strictly speaking. Though Shift and certain fairies are described as various shades of brown, there are no Black individuals. They appear only as a group, described as follows when Taryn sees them in fairyland:
The Africans must be representative of the people ‘rescued’ from the Middle Passage after 1800. If they had been left where they were, on the slave ships, in the early nineteenth century, they’d have maybe made it to miserable lives on the plantations, or maybe drowned and gone to whatever heaven was waiting for them. Instead they had two centuries in the beautiful Sidh, in the superb company of their rescuers; and then they were sold for those rescuers’ well-being.
[...] The realisation made [Taryn] want to stand up, take the mound, and shout at the crowd [of fairies]. But it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference. She understood that the sidhe knew that they were doing wrong, but their habit of living meant they just kept on living with it. (p. 460)
Knox treats these African Taken differently from the White Taken, such as Jane and her friends, who express thoughts and feelings and develop as individuals. By contrast, the Africans have no names, dialogue, action, or differentiation. They exist only to suffer in Taryn’s imagination as she contemplates their two possible fates, and to inspire her indignation. Through Taryn, Knox argues that the fairy colonization of, and resultant Tithe to, Hell dehumanizes people and reduces them to pawns in someone else’s game. She then practices that same erasure by using a group of Black people as a prop to highlight Taryn’s moral outrage.
At the same time, the mechanics of Knox’s Christian fictional world also deny the Africans much of their culture. The Africans have—or once had—their own indigenous cultures, including religion. But their status as Taken forces them into a Christian framework, consigning them to the Hell of a foreign faith. Knox’s brief mention of Taken Africans elides a non-consensual conversion in which the Africans’ religions are negated by the actuality of Christian Hell. The Africans’ origins in a land that White Christians wished to “civilize” through conversion makes clear the colonialist assumptions at work here.
Knox’s portrayals of Judaism are similarly vexed. (Disclaimer: I am not Jewish. I am culturally Methodist Christian. I am grateful for my Jewish friends who discussed and explained the concepts in the following paragraphs with me.) For example, Knox describes the Hell in The Absolute Book as the Hell of “Christian and Hebrew [read: Jewish] stories” (p. 392). Yet Hell—as a fiery, underground location, populated by demons, run by fallen angel Lucifer, and existing to collect, damn, and punish wicked human souls—is much more of a Christian invention than a Jewish one. Judaism’s emphasis on this present life means that the afterlife is neither clearly defined nor fully agreed upon. A place where the dead are damned and punished does not really figure in Jewish thought. Knox’s conflation of both Christian and Jewish afterlives into a single Christian Hell, then, overwrites Jewish traditions with the culturally dominant narrative of Christianity.
Furthermore, Knox also connects the Firestarter with the Torah, which reveals her misunderstanding of the latter. A demon in possession of the Firestarter calls it “the new Torah” (p. 56), while Shift says it is “the Torah above the Torah” (p. 398). Taryn defines the Firestarter who says as “a primer of the language of God” (p. 432). Physically speaking, the Firestarter is a very important and revered object, a handwritten scroll that has been laboriously prepared, a document of accumulated knowledge and wisdom, kept in a protective box. Through these descriptions, The Absolute Book represents the Torah as a material object containing a dictionary of sorts to actual words that God (or angelic minions) speak.
The comparison of the Firestarter to the Torah is therefore dubious. The Torah is neither a dictionary nor an encyclopedia. It is a complex accumulation of material, both oral and written, that can be and has been interpreted literally, metaphorically, spiritually, legally, and more. Moreover, both a “new Torah” and a “Torah above the Torah” are nonexistent concepts in Judaism. The Torah can be retranslated. It can be supplemented by commentaries and interpretations, like the Talmud and Midrashim. Nevertheless, Jewish practices and traditions have considered the Torah a final document, perhaps reinterpretable, but inappropriate for renovation into a “new Torah,” or usurpation by a “Torah above the Torah.” While certain Jewish traditions do theorize about a Torah free from human error, this perfect Torah would likely be in God’s possession and inaccessible to humans, since perfection may not be attained on Earth. The Firestarter/Torah similes in The Absolute Book suggest the author’s unfamiliarity with Jewish culture and practice.
Even worse, Knox’s equation of the Firestarter with the Torah transfers the Firestarter’s negative associations onto the Torah as well. While the Firestarter is not inherently bad, it records a language whose only in-universe purpose is to oppress demons and fairies. It is a colonizer’s reference manual. Knox’s connection between the Torah and the Firestarter links foundational Jewish texts and principles to the Firestarter’s “Language of Command,” a secret, magical tongue of domination. This connection is consonant with anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish people as sneaky, corrupt overlords. The absence of Jewish characters in The Absolute Book emphasizes that the Torah imagery has been deracinated and repurposed to symbolize a danger to the story’s Christian universe.
The Absolute Book’s ambivalent relationship with colonialism—a thematic condemnation complicated by the narrative use of colonialist tropes—resolves with apparent endorsement. The epilogue, set about two years after the final chapter, describes an Earth peacefully invaded by Shift and other fairies. They have been cleaning rivers, transforming oil wells into aquifers and superhighways into “ready-lawn food forests” (p. 613), and promoting sustainable, small-scale agriculture. Along the way, armed conflicts and birthrates have drastically decreased. Capitalism has receded in favor of barter, and almost everyone is happier. Knox’s mouthpiece character Taryn describes the changes to a dubious listener, Price, as salutary:
It’s like that thing in Star Trek. The Starfleet regulation [...] says that the doctor can relieve the captain of his duties. [...] Anyway, human beings are the captain. The doctor is the trees and the grasses and the marshes, and the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air. We humans were declared unfit for command. (p. 625)
Price, who thinks that the fairies’ alteration of Earth will harm humans in unforeseen ways, comes across as a comically paranoid blowhard in this scene. Meanwhile, Taryn dispenses serene common sense, dismissing his reservations as unreasonable.
Both author and main character seem to regard this as a happy ending and an auspicious beginning. If we unpack Taryn’s comparison, however, we find that the situation is not so clear. Taryn’s simile makes it sound like “the trees [...] and the beasts [...] and the birds” have overthrown humans for a regime that benefits the entire planet. However, Shift was the one who decided upon and implemented these particular projects: no one on Earth, human or otherwise, conceived of, aided in, or even consented to, this radical change. It was imposed upon them by an outsider who thought that he knew best how to solve the natives’ problems. Our initial image of this change, in which a fairy woman walks “right through people soaping clothes on the stone steps directly downstream of Manikarnika Ghat” on the Ganges River (p. 610), reveals the cultural imperialism motivating these actions. Just like this fairy woman, the fairy invaders disregard the Earth’s natives, practices, and perspectives, preferring their own supposedly superior ways.
If The Absolute Book is a “reality-critical” work, in Nina Allan’s words, with “moral purpose,” as Dan Kois claims, then it is not because its characters decry the harms of invading a land and quelling the indigenous people. It is not because Taryn and Shift aid Hell’s demons and fairies in freeing themselves from angelic dictators. It is because Knox’s unexamined colonialist rhetoric illustrates that rhetoric’s insidiousness. Using itself as an example, The Absolute Book argues that successful anticolonialism requires practitioners, especially straight, cis, White, able-bodied, culturally Christian ones, to examine their unintended biases and work deliberately to counteract them. Without such self-examination and change, liberationist activists may end up reinforcing the power structures they want to reform.