I'm enjoying a new author, Jennifer Ashley, and the first book of her Shifters Unbound series, Pride Mates. It's light and airy, mostly, and the perfect antidote to the marvelous but depressingly heavy Robin Hobb trilogy I just finished. But even when an author colors inside the lines of the paranormal fantasy genre, as Ms. Ashley does (and this is not at all a criticism, I read these books with a certain expectation of knowing what to expect), there is a depth to the best of the genre that transcends the stereotypes of strong, independent women, hot alpha males, hotter sex, and inevitable HEAs. In this case, Ms. Ashley writes about beautiful people, who happen also to change into feline and lupine alter egos (or alter bodies, really), and the decidedly not beautiful consequences of prejudice that attend their ability to transform. Ms. Ashley is not the first to explore the ugly underbelly of human hatred and the small mindedness of judgment before the fact attendant to the “other” in our society. Charlaine Harris explores the consequences of racial discrimination against the newly revealed vampires living among humans and what happens when vampires "come out of the coffin." The inimitable Laurell Hamilton writes movingly about the prejudice experienced by those unfortunates who have been stricken with lycanthropy (the disease that causes a human to shift into a beast), and who now have no option but to let their animal natures out to play, and maybe to kill. Patricia Briggs expounds on the systematic internment of the Fae into mandatory reservations and the consequences of that decision by the federal government against an element of the population. Lilo Abernathy investigates, as a central theme of her Bluebell Kildare series, the civil unrest that occurs as a result of the antipathy between "norms," or non-magical humans, and their Gifted counterparts.
In each of these cases, the author explores the universal human need to identify a group, "them," for the sole purpose of more clearly defining "us." What a shame and a waste. But we humans do it again and again. That which is not "us" is, by definition, "them." Those who are "them" are, by extension and necessity, evil or, at a minimum, worse than "us." They are who we use to make us look and feel better about ourselves.
Are we hard-wired to hate? It seems so. Hatred of the other, which I've written about before, gives us unity, camaraderie, and a sense of shared purpose. It makes us feel like we belong—but it is a perversion of fellowship and community, not an authentic expression of fellowship. This phenomenon of human existence also serves to help some of us feel superior to others. We do this in a bizarre and seemingly nonsensical way (as if prejudice could ever have any basis in logic or reality, which makes makes sense in a twisted way, if you know what I mean).
In all of these distasteful scenarios, and quite explicitly in the world of Shifters Unbound, the non-human, supernatural beings are considered less than human. These are not beings with full rights because they are not considered full persons. They, like American slaves, along with Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in Nazi Germany before them, are fractional people, so that more than one is needed to make a whole. What a concept. Personally, I have trouble wrapping my mind around it, which is a good thing and I won't expend too much effort trying. It's not clear to me how someone or more than one someone, can look at a living, breathing entity in front of them who has two eyes, ears, arms and legs just like they do, whose faces form smiles and frowns and whose voices speak truth and beauty just like theirs do, and see them as less than human.
As you know, I love the world of paranormal fiction because it allows authors to explore ideas and philosophies in an exaggerated way to make their points. In Jennifer Ashley's world, shifters are herded into ghettos called Shiftertowns in different cities. These are analogous to internment and refugee camps or Native American reservations. After all, we need to keep them contained and accountable. If they are all forced to live in one place, we'll know where to find them, won't we? And then we’ll be able to control them, and isn't that what this little exercise in fear and prejudice is all about? This way of thinking is very warped, but seems to be prevalent, nonetheless. In Pride Mates, not only are shifters forced to live in Shiftertowns, they are also forced to wear magical collars that supposedly keep their beasts in check. Talk about taking control to the next level.
And, while the shifters (or any disenfranchised population) is corralled into ghettos and forced to wear symbols of their status, their captors (those would be the humans) like to practice deprivation. In Pride Mates, shifters aren't allowed access to cable TV or high-speed internet (controlling access to information, presumably), and they are not allowed to hold any job where they might come into physical contact with human (gee—not even as manicurists?). This deprivation is partly preventive, because it ensures that the dominated population can never become too rich or too powerful, but it’s also punative—a punishment for being less than—as if those who are denigrated in this way have any choice in the matter. And while deprivation might serve to keep the population down, physically and psychologically, it is also, as we’ve seen time and again, a recipe for fomenting discontent and rebellion. Stupid is as stupid does. Again, I’m talking about the humans in this scenario.
Because, of course, all of this says a great deal more about “us” than it does about “them.” Anyone who would subjugate a population just because it’s different or because they can doesn’t actually deserve to be called human, at least in my book. People who enslave, or imprison or degrade others to prop themselves up are the beasts, the savages, the ones unworthy of the status of personhood. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live or to do as they want—as long as what they want doesn’t involve putting and keeping others down. So, along with my light and airy read, my paranormal fantasy also provokes deep and meaningful thoughts. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.