Mark Reads ‘Street Magic’: Chapter 5

In the fifth chapter of Street Magic, Briar learns Evvy’s limitations, and Ikrum learns Zenadia’s plans. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Circle Opens.

Trigger Warning: For death, poverty, abuse, slavery, gang violence.


The Camelgut Den

As upsetting as the first half of this chapter is, it’s one of those scenes that’s rewarding because it highlights character growth. After having attended a number of disasters – natural and unnatural – while under Rosethorn’s watch, this truly felt like the first time that Briar got to prove himself entirely on his own. Rosethorn has clearly taught him well, and you can see her touch everywhere in this chapter.

Which is also DEEPLY DISTURBING, by the way. I’ll talk more about what Zenadia has done later in this review because Ikrum’s section sheds a lot of light on her behavior. Here, though, I wanted to talk about how Briar’s relationship with Evvy is changing before our eyes. It’s hard for me to not relate to Evvy in these pages, so much so that I think she might just affect me more than Daine did. As Briar quickly gains control of the chaos in the den, Evvy watches. That’s important because it sets her up as someone who is looking for direction, but only from certain people. From everyone else? She could not care less. It demonstrates to me that she’s incredibly picky about those she trusts and those see seeks guidance from.

Granted, most of this is from Briar’s perspective. He’s highly focused on the immediate needs of the Camelgut kids, so he moves from one to the next in order of severity. He uses what Rosethorn taught him to offer solace and comfort to people who would otherwise be forgotten or uncared for, but he doesn’t forget that Evvy is still with him. He involves her in small bouts at first, tasking her with lighting a crystal up with her stone magic, and then sending her off to warm up some stones. They’re small parts of the whole, sure, but I thought it was a good way for him to see what her grasp of magic was. And lord, she’s already way better at it than Briar expected:

Of his foster-sisters, Daja and Tris had learned to make crystals into lamps, Daja because fire was part of her smith-magic, Tris because lightning was part of hers. They had done it once by accident, making a night light for Sandry. After that it took each of them weeks to get the knack of it so they could do it as they needed. No one he’d known could make stone glow with no effort at all. He’d thought it would be possible, given Evvy’s magic and the fact that he’d already known mages who could get stones to hold light or fire, but it was one thing to think it possible and another to see the results of “Oh, that.”

She’s clearly got a lot more to learn, but her understanding of squeezing magic into a defined space or object is, by comparison, a lot better than Pasco’s was in the last book. But her concept of magic is extremely limited, and her control needs to be developed further. So I’m wondering, then: will Stoneslicer refuse to help Evvy? I didn’t seriously consider this as a possibility until Pierce switched over to Evvy’s point of view, and now? I can’t get the possibility out of my head.

“But these are lots better than gourds filled with hot water,” Briar said absently, turning the stone over in his hand. “This helps, Evvy. Thanks.”

A knot formed in her throat as he took the bucket from her. She watched him, blinking eyes that burned and trying to swallow that knot, as he tucked her stones into the blankets of those who needed to be warm. He’d said she helped. He’d thanked her.

I can’t speak for other survivors or for other folks who have lived in poverty or for people who have struggled with their own self-worth, but I can add my own self to this conversation. That feeling that Pierce describes here – a desperate, painful need for validation and acceptance – has plagued me for most of my life. It started when I was quite young, and I know exactly why that was. I could not seem to win my parents’ affection. My father was far closer with my twin brother than me, and it’s because they had similar interests. They loved football and westerns and roughhousing in the yard. I loved reading and writing and building intricate sets out of LEGOS that I’d use to act out miniature plays I wrote. My younger sister was my mother’s gem of a child, showered with praise and affection and material things. And I was a shy, cowardly nerd who tried so hard to be perfect in school, aching for those moments when my mom might hug me or run a hand through my hair and tell me I did a good job. I did this for years, at least until I got through junior high, and the affection never came.

I sought it out from teachers. I sought out validation from my peers. I tried to listen to the right music or dress in a way that made me seem cool, but I always failed at it. It was never authentic enough for anyone. I was too smart and geeky to be a punk, too poor to dress well, and too big of a pocho to ever be accepted by my friends who looked like me. That word used to be thrown at me all the time while my friends rattled off in Spanish. Pocho, they’d say, laughing and shaking their heads. I had picked up a great deal of Spanish just by osmosis, but this word was new to me and no one would tell me what it meant. On one of the many lunch breaks at Loma Vista that were spent in the library, I managed to find a Spanish-English dictionary tucked away in the reference section, and I perused through it, hoping I could find out why these boys said this word to me with such a sneer.

The colloquial use was not there. Instead, the more traditional meaning was: rotten fruit.

I did so many things in those years of my life to not feel like I was decaying before everyone’s eyes. I don’t know that I regret any of that. In hindsight, I understood my desperation. I understood why I cried in terror and shame if I didn’t get an A on every test or essay. I understood why I tried to sag my pants and walk with a more masculine swagger, despite that I was lying to myself and everyone else. I understood why I asked girls out to go steady and hold their hands, even though the very act repulsed me. And I know exactly what it feels like to swallow down a knot in your throat because someone reminded you that, for a brief moment in this chaos, you mattered. You contributed.

Some of my closer friends and people I’ve dated have said I’m nice to a fault, and I don’t doubt their view of me. I often do choose the well-being and best interests of others over myself. Has that led to me getting hurt? Absolutely. But there was entire period of my life where I truly and wholly believed that not one person cared about me. Not my parents or my family or the people at school I called “friends.” It led to me feeling this exact kind of desperation exhibited by Evvy here. I don’t want anyone else to feel that. Ever. That’s an absurdly ridiculous desire because I can’t fix everyone’s circumstances. I can’t expect to carry that kind of burden for other people, and I do have to protect myself at times. But if I care about someone, I want to make sure that they know. I want my time with them, either in person or over text or over Facebook, to mean something to me and to them, and I feel like that’s the least I can do to personally ensure that someone else doesn’t have to go through this.

This sensation, of course, is compounded by abuse, and I know my self-worth was damaged long ago because of physical and emotional abuse. It’s hard to feel like you deserve good things when people you trust turn against you in terrifying ways. If your parents are supposed to love you unconditionally, then what does it mean when their love is obviously conditional? Well, you blame yourself. It’s easier to do that when you’re young and you have no grasp on oppression or abuser dynamics. And I can see some of those traits in Evvy, like when she shrinks away from Briar after he raises his voice towards her. Or when she’s shocked that Briar doesn’t react to her revelation of her time as a slave with pity.

And shit, y’all, there’s such a thin line between pity, sorrow, and sympathy. I get that. I’ve written about a lot of the shit I’ve gone through in my reviews, and the online medium has generally made it easier for me to tell whether a person is using pity or sympathy. But in person? That’s a lot harder. The thing with pity that can be so offputting is that it’s too impersonal. It’s like an ambiguous sense of sorrow that isn’t attached to a person, but to the general idea of misery or misfortune. There’s no work done by the offering party to do anything to comfort a person, to allow them space to vent, to give them room to heal. In the end, it’s about how sorry someone else feels for what they went through.

It makes sense, then, that Briar does not offer this to Evvy. It’s because he knows. He can empathize with her in a way most people cannot. And that means he understand how dehumanizing it can be to talk about trauma and terror. He makes it easier for her to be honest:

What she didn’t, couldn’t, say was that she was comfortable around him. For all his pushiness and foreign-ness, she still felt as if she’d known him all her life. He was quick and inventive, as she’d learned to be, living on her own. She might vex and puzzle him, but never once had she seen pity in his eyes, even when she’d let slip that she’d been a slave. Never once had he treated her as a child, a female, or even a thukdak.

It’s not easy having to fight for your humanity your whole life, especially when it seems to be granted so readily to everyone around you. Briar treats Evvy like her own person, and that completely matters.

Ikrum Fazhal

I belive wholeheartedly that it was intentional that this entire scene was followed by an example of another character actively dehumanizing someone else. When you get right down to it, Zenadia does not view the Vipers or her eunuchs as people in any meaningful sense. Her wealth has afforded her a specific manifestation of privilege: she can treat people like things, a means to and end, and she can get away with it.

I was very surprised by the backstory provided here, though. And holy shit, y’all, does it ever explain Zenadia’s characterization. There’s no glorification of what the Vipers do to Zenadia, and as I mentioned in an earlier review, gang violence is often rested upon the bodies of those who are the most vulnerable. The Vipers thought Zenadia was a sex worker. But she twisted the attack in her favor, all so she could use these kids for her own ends:

“I’m bored,” she told Ikrum. “My children are grown, my husbands dead. I wish no other husbands or lovers. My grandchildren are tedious. It suits me to help the Vipers to greatness, if they can make the journey. If they can accept discipline. If you cannot –“ The lady shrugged. “I will find another way to amuse myself.”

It’s almost unbelievable that someone would spell out something this heinous and absurd, but that’s precisely Zenadia’s style. She’s remarkably forward about her intentions, which in this case is TAKING OVER A STREET GANG TO AMUSE HERSELF. And apparently her amusement also includes MURDERING CHILDREN.

All this is filtered through Ikrum’s eyes, which means we get a firsthand look at how horrible Zenadia is, namely in the way she makes Ikrum feel. It was sad to read this because Ikrum’s instinct was telling him to be afraid of Zenadia, to doubt her decisions, to get the hell away from her, but it’s mingled in with so many other things that complicate matters. There’s his admiration of her and the validation he feels from her. It’s a parallel with Evvy, isn’t it? Both these characters want something real from people they look up to, except that Ikrum is being used in the process. By an adult who is bored, by the way.

Goddamn, this is so disturbing.

The original text contains use of the word “cripple” and “stupid.”

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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