Sunday, January 24, 2010

Magic in a Box: A Look at Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Last week, Jezebel ran an article about Jaclyn Dolamore’s debut novel, Magic Under Glass, that immediately sparked my attention about the book. Published by Bloomsbury, it has already garnered intense controversy after only a few weeks on the shelves because of its cover. Magic Under Glass, a YA fantasy novel, tells the tale of a young performer named Nimira who sings and dances for pennies in a seedy dive as a “trouser girl” until she is hired by a wealthy, mysterious gentleman to sing with his piano playing automaton (a mechanical man). Naturally, she arrives to find that nothing is as it seems. Something we learn about Nimira very early on in the story is that she is a dark-skinned foreigner from a distant land who left home to find her fortune, only to be met with prejudice and disdain at every turn. Now take a look at that cover. What do you see? Exactly. Yet another white girl in a terrifying corset. And that corsage under the glass bell jar doesn’t figure in the book either.

Jezebel link:

This controversy has been bringing to light a lot of unsavory things about the book business. Turns out this is not the first time Bloomsbury has forced a dark-skinned heroine to “pass for white” on her book cover. Last year, the same thing happened to Justine Larbalestier’s novel, Liar, also published by Bloomsbury. Larbalestier spoke out against this and managed to get her cover changed. Even though Dolamore’s less substantial reputation (this is her first novel, after all) made it seem doubtful at first that her book would get a similar reprieve, thankfully, it’s turned out differently thanks to incendiary coverage on-line and in the blogosphere. On January 21st, a representative released this statement, "Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologise for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly."

Reissue link:

It’s an all-too unspoken reality of the business that bookstores are still heavily segregated. Many bookstores I’ve been to, regardless of chain, size, or location, have separate African-American sections where African-American characters deal with African-American issues. Apparently, this section is markedly “lesser,” and a black girl on the cover on a “non-black” (i.e. written by a white woman) YA novel would banish it to this book store purgatory. Do publishers and bookstore owners seriously think this way? Do they seriously think that because I’m white, I couldn’t possibly care about the thoughts, feelings, and struggles of a girl with a different color skin? That’s insulting to readers of all races and negates one of the most beloved reasons for reading: to discover people, places, and things outside yourself and your immediate circle. “Post-racial” is a phrase being thrown around a lot nowadays to suggest that because we have an African-American president, racism is no longer an issue. Magic Under Glass proves otherwise. The fact that Nimira encounters prejudice because of her skin color and heritage repeatedly throughout the story turns this whole controversy into a case of hideous irony.

It also calls to mind another unfortunate reality of the book business: authors, especially first-time authors, have little to no say about their covers and the covers designers rarely read the books. As I said earlier, the scene depicted on the cover never happens in the novel and as we’ve already established, the model looks nothing like Nimira. As a writer, the idea of pouring your heart and soul into a book, struggling to get it published, to get it ready for the world, and then to have no say in the world’s first impression of it, infuriates me. As much as I hate to admit it, the cover almost always influences my decision whether or not to read a book, unless I go in because of a pre-existing interest. However, in the case of Magic Under Glass, Bloomsbury actually accomplished something else. They gave a unique book a generic cover attempting to lure an audience with familiarity rather than originality. Many YA novels, particularly fantasy novels, get covers similar to Magic Under Glass: our heroine (often looking nothing like our heroine), corseted, obscured in dim light, vaguely touching something. Libba Bray’s excellent 2003 novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, may have started this trend. Just for the record, Bray’s book is about a girl at a boarding school in Victorian England, not a prostitute in the Wild West as the cover might suggest. Magic Under Glass’s is so standard, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I had seen it in the store. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read it were it not for this controversy, which brings me to my last point.

Link to A Great and Terrible Beauty cover:

The overall consensus from those who wrote about the controversy was not that readers should boycott the book, but that they should read it and then write about the issue. Hence, yours truly. Of course, boycotting is not the solution. Dolamore is a talented author who worked hard on her book and deserves to see it read and enjoyed. However, part of me can’t help thinking that perhaps Bloomsbury did this on purpose to garner publicity for it. After all, cover designers seldom read the book, but publishers do and any publisher with common sense should know that putting a white girl on the cover of a book with a black heroine will make a lot of people angry. And get them talking. It’s not exactly as if YA Fantasy is a dwindling genre (at least from a reader’s perspective). There are SO many books to choose from, how do you promote one by an unknown author that could easily fall through the cracks? I'm not saying Bloomsbury meant to do this, but if they did, it seems to be working, especially since they dealt with such a similar controversy so recently and this book’s heading in the same direction, new cover and all.

I enjoyed parts of Magic Under Glass very much, but I didn't love it. Admittedly, this is partly because the ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered, implying that it’s the first book in a series, which always pisses me off. If I’m starting a series, I like to know going in. However, there's a lot to like. Ironically, Dolamore creates a fantasy world where prejudice is as much a reality as it is here. I liked Nimira. She's a heroine who having been born to wealth and lost it all, has left home to make her own way but found only disappointment. And then her story begins. She has moments of snobbery as well as compassion, fear as well as bravery, homesickness, divided affection, and uncertainty. She understands how often women must pretend in the company of men simply to stay safe but is still willing to fight for what she loves and believes in. However, other characters in the book (many of the supporting characters) get next to no development, while others (like Hollin Parry, the mysterious gentleman who “rescues” Nimira from life as a trouser girl) are so fascinating, I wished for pages more dedicated to them. Like I said, it’s the first in a series. Many of these issues may be resolved in later books, which is all the more reason there should be something on the cover to indicate this. Beware though: it ends on a cliffhanger and I genuinely felt cheated at the end. Magic Under Glass is an uneven offering, but as I said before, Dolamore is a talented author and I enjoyed falling into her unique, well-drawn world. I can’t wait to see Nimira represented as she should be.


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