So the Year of the Superhero is officially upon us with new short fiction from The Book Smugglers. And if this first story is anything to go by then things are going to get…weird. But also pretty great. Tackling superhero-ing on a very micro scale, this first story creates an entire world in the space of a small woodland, the characters mostly insects and the action visceral and intense. It's definitely not what I was expecting—but that's rarely a bad thing and here it means a mostly-delightful tale that I should just review already!
|Art by Melanie Cook|
"The Indigo Mantis" by E. Catherine Tobler (5726 words)
I can say this is not something I was expecting, a mix between A Bug's Life and a noir thriller, Indi a praying mantis looking for answers about her father's murder and finding a much more complex, and much simpler, story than she was hoping for. The story circles around nature and violence and power. The insect world presented here is much like our own, stripped of the alien nature of insects and bound to the dominant narrative of human misogyny. It's an interesting choice especially considering female insects tend to be larger than their male counterparts and sex works in such different ways. But in order to examine human systems the insect world is anthropomorphized in a very recognizable way, and Indi must navigate a world where she can kill the majority of the people around her but still is subject to discrimination and condescension.
The setting is an interesting one, though, filled with insects of all sizes and personalities. It's a fairly gritty place, definitely not Pixar-friendly, with severed heads and viscera and a nice amount of suspense and action. Indi is a superhero, and a bug superhero is a great hook, one that isn't incredibly explored here but that works into the more noir-ish elements of the story. And Indi's quest for the truth is delicately done, revealed slowly as Indi has to face some things she'd rather not. I'd love to see more of this world but a part of me feels like Indi's story was a bit too intricately tied to her father's murder and fallout from that. The story ties a bow on pretty much all of the lingering questions, and does so in a satisfying manner. It's a fun premise and a fine execution that had me engaged throughout.
[SPOILERS SERIOUSLY READ THE STORY FIRST] But I can't really talk about this story and not mention the major twist and conclusion, the truth that Indi is trying to avoid, that her mother killed her father and is reveling in her power to kill. It's complexly done, and shows how human systems don't easily translate. At least, what I was most conflicted about in my reading is that so much is placed on Indi not becoming like her mother, a cold killer—essentially not abusing the fact that she's so much bigger and more powerful than most insects. But she's also still the victim of misogyny and harmful stereotypes (that female mantids can't help killing, that females in general are unstable/inherently violent), as was her mother, and I can't help wonder if because of that the story muddies the connections between the story a the "real world." In the end I thought that it did a nice job of complicating empowerment and violence, and is probably worth revisiting again to help me firm up some of my impressions. But for now, and contained within the trappings of the setting, it's a very entertaining and compelling read. Go check it out!