Onward! In many ways, Trans Wizard Harriet Porber And The Theater of Love—the sequel of the text we reviewed on Monday—achieves so much more. But you had to see how Chuck got there.
We pick up the story a good while into Harriet and Snabe’s relationship. Things have got a little quieter, but that’s just about their initial passion having settled a little bit into a happy, hopefully long-term, everyday. We find them in Las Vegas, where Snabe is performing regularly with his band, and where Harriet is getting a little stir-crazy for a venture of her own. After a telltale observation of ants working together to solve problems, and shift heavy loads, that is given so much space and detail that it immediately feels supercharged with symbolism (“They didn’t need magic, they just needed each other” [p. 6])—and a little metafictional warning by Snabe about upcoming conflict in a sequel, and a promise to “get through it together” (p. 17)—she runs into a sentient mailbox who is a huge fan of her spellwork (“I’m a total Porber Stan” [p. 22]). The mailbox tells Harriet that it would love to organize a fan meeting/signing event for her at its magic club. Feeling shy and overwhelmed, she at first declines—but when she finally does make up her mind to go, she is overwhelmed by the number of fans who turn up, and by their enthusiasm for her work. She also meets a very talented young wizard, a trans woman of colour named Neva Longbottle, who leaves a strong impression on Harriet and states that she both took a lot of inspiration from Harriet’s spellwork and that she can’t wait for her to write more spells (p. 36).
In this book, Chuck makes a point of magic being very varied and not restricted to any type of fantasy literature wizarding school:
“When asked why he’s always wearing a wizard’s hat and carrying a wand, despite being a bard, Bumbleborn usually responds with, “it looks cool.”
He also doesn’t sing, but surprisingly that’s not a bardic requirement. You just need to have a creative outlet for your magic, then harness it accordingly. There are painter bards, chef bards, even computer programmer bards.” (p. 24)
This meta-commentary about natural variety also applies to people’s bodies and, indeed, sexual practices. After a brief assurance that “as a trans couple [Harriet and Snabe] both have words that other pairings may choose to use, or ignore, terminology that makes [them] comfortable in [their] skin and allows [them] to be completely intimate with one another” (p. 28)—and an aside about honestly communicating one’s boundaries (p. 29)—Chuck Tingle has his protagonists get straight to interacting with feedback from readers and reviewers:
“Remember, in the last book reviewers mentioned there was no lube,” [Snabe] offers, a sentence so completely unexpected that it causes me to break out in a brief scoff of laughter.
“What?” I stammer. “This fat purple cock of yours is self-lubricating. It’s magically imbued.”
“I just think we should say that out loud,” Snabe continues. “We’ve got another chance, since the sequel just started. The readers should know to use plenty of lube.”
I glance over my shoulder at Snabe’s mention of the readers. “Wait, what? We’re being watched?”
“Not exactly,” the bard offers in return. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry if I killed the mood.”
I sit with this fourth wall stretching news for a moment, struggling to understand what it means and considering my options. Finally, I give my parasaurolophus a wink. “Let’s give them a show then.” (p. 30)
This book definitely takes the meta element some steps up, and not just on the sex level. I mean, yes, there is a moment when Snabe explains to Harriet that the romance recipe requires three sex scenes per book, and they think about it together and agree to break the rules and only have two sex scenes in this one, because they “don’t have to play by the rules unless [they] want to” (p.73). At the same time, they are free to make plans for “the next book” (p. 73), and they can even be more crossover and genre-defying than hinted at in the last one:
“So we don’t need to have sex,” I clarify. “We can be any genre we want.”
Snabe nods. “Absolutely.”
“Lucky you,” I coo. “despite all the silly tropes and baseless claims this is a low-brow artform… I’m proud to be romance.” (p. 74)
But there is more, and it’s even more rewarding.
Harriet Porber decides to set up her own Las Vegas stage magic show. (“Wait,” I hear a lot of SFF fans shout, “you can’t just sell actual wizardry as stage tricks and illusions!”—“Can’t what?” replies David Bowie dressed as Nikola Tesla in the big-budget film adaptation of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige . Case closed.) She gets into business with the JK Recreation corporation (the JK stands for “Just Kidding”), represented by the sentient snake The Great Magini. JK Recreation throw a lot of money around in public in order to impress potential patrons. They also have a reputation:
JK Recreation is known for using endless legal battles to crush anyone who speaks out against them. They’ve done plenty of blatantly unethical things, from attacking magic shows they falsely deemed too similar or shutting down parody performance in direct opposition to the first amendment.
“I know who they are,” I finally continue. “You don’t work for them, do you?”
The unicorn laughs and shakes his head. “Hell no. No reasonable person would confuse my work with a JK Recreation production.”
“If we do this, it’s going to be a small budget, independent production… with a big heart.” (p. 38)
When we meet The Great Magini, we immediately know that they are up to no good—not only because of the corporation’s initials, but also by their affiliations:
“Do you really talk to the author? To Chuck Tingle?” I question.
“That’s how all warlocks get their power, correct?”
The Great Magini smiles. “Most warlocks commune with Chuck, but some of us have other patrons.” (p. 47)
JK Recreation try to sell Harriet Porber a decrepit theatre by masking with illusion spells all of its flaws. When she uncovers the deception and declines the purchase, they launch a social media hate campaign against Harriet. Her agent, Minerma, helps her by pointing out that:
“On Twingler, if you know where to look, you can see posts that other people like […]. Sometimes this can be an insight into what they really think, while they blatantly lie in their public posts. That way they can avoid the scrutiny that comes with some of their… unsavory opinions.” “You mean hateful bullshit,” I counter.
“Yeah,” my manager continues. (p. 62)
Harriet is lucky enough to find a cheaper place that needs a lot of TLC, which will eat up all of her budget but has atmosphere and character. This is where she starts dreaming up her own version of a magic theatre:
The second I think of that loathsome snake I push her out of my mind, I'm here to create something positive, to fill my theater with magical displays unlike anything the world has ever seen. I want to create a place of love and positivity, a place that’s more than just a theater, it’s a home for anyone who needs one. (p. 64)
While practicing her magic show, which is very personal, Harriet speaks this passage to a simulated audience:
You are just as capable of using your talents to create love as I am,” I state confidently. “This show isn’t an expression of how I can stand up to the forces of hate when they try keeping us down, it’s an expression of how we can stand up against them… together. Because magic flows through all of us, and so does love. (p. 70)
Harriet emphasizes this thought to herself after the dress rehearsal:
“Love is powerful, art is powerful, community is powerful; and even though enormous media conglomerates have plenty of might behind them, we have might, too.” (p.71)
Snabe knows that this is a message to the readers. He makes it very clear when he tells her, “You were amazing. […] The way you weaved in a meta message about using community to speak truth to power… I loved it.” (p. 72)
In a seriously unexpected turn of events (but hey, look at these people’s budget), Harriet’s show gets bought out and shut down by JK Recreation over infringement of intellectual property—as if they owned magic. Now Harriet is out of money and has to resort to stealing her own props back from the lot behind the theatre. Of course, she and her friends are being followed, and at some point Harriet is inches and/or seconds away from death inside a magic moving box that can be compressed into a small, lightweight cube. (It works safely with furniture and the like, but if any living organism is inside the box, it will be squished [p. 101].) Luckily, Snabe is able to save his girlfriend with a teleportation spell he’s been practicing—only so far the final destination has always been rather uncontrollable, so she ends up in the middle of the desert, and they can’t find her in a jiffy (p. 103). Enter Cereal Black, the sentient breakfast food, who has been living as an Obi-Wan Kenobi-style hermit in a shack somewhere out here, but has kept up with all the information on JK Recreation:
“I also wasn’t thrilled with their politics. If you actually sit down and read what that company believes in it’s downright disturbing. They’d never admit it, though. That’s why they’re called Just Kidding Recreation.”
“Wait, what?” I blurt, confused.
“Oh yeah," Cereal continues. “They’re the worst. Post something fucked up online … Just kidding! Say something disgusting and bigoted … Just kidding!”
“I can see why you didn’t want anything to do with them,” I continue. “I wasn’t sure if they recently started being awful, or they were awful the whole time.”
“The whole time,” the living breakfast informs me. “They’re just getting more and more open about it. Ironically, these days they’re saying ‘just kidding’ less and less. They own the hate.” (p. 110)
With the help of friends and allies, and keeping an incredibly low profile, Harriet manages to get her show back on track for one big opening night. But even this is compromised by infiltrators in the audience, who of course hail from JK Recreation’s ranks. First, they take away Harriet’s voice, then her freedom of action (literally, by magic). But her friends behind the scenes know spells to work her like a ventriloquist’s puppet and they all work together to keep up the illusion that she is still in perfect control. This is when Magini’s recruits stand up, all armed with smuggled-in, pre-charged, deadly magic wands. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say: sometimes the best friends and allies are right beside you (and right where the haters aren’t looking). “We all deserve to be well-rounded characters” (p. 153).
When Snabe congratulates Harriet for doing a great job in her sequel (in which they even avoided interior conflict)—and strongly implies the possibility of a trilogy (p. 153)—he also makes a point of explaining that “[i]n this reality, JK Recreation is a bigoted magic conglomerate that likes to restrict opposing voices through legal intimidation and a vague support of discrimination while rarely directly saying these things themselves. In other realities, they could be anything; a sports team, a government agency, a fantasy author. Now that we’ve said our piece, readers can carry this story with them as they embark on battles of their own.” (p. 154) The characters leave the stage, and the book, with a simple message for us readers, which is that “[y]ou don’t need a sword or a wand to face down these overwhelming powers of darkness, you just need love in your heart, and the courage to stand up and say no.” (p.156)
In his Harriet Porber books (and especially in Theater of Love), Chuck Tingle shows us that the best reaction to hate is to be your best self in the face of it. He also demonstrates that community is a magical booster—and a home. Often, your best and most valuable allies are right next to you or where you're not looking. And even though hate persists, love and community keep us strong to carry on fighting—every one of us, in their own personal way. But with backup.
P.S. Please, Chuck, can we have that Neva Longbottle spinoff series? I’m convinced it would be real Hugo material.