Privilege and Entitlement in Kat Howard’s “Unseen World”

a woman with face raised to the light, dropping coveralls from her body - vulnerability, taking off the coat of privilege and entitlement

The Privilege of Magic

Only some people can perform magic. Like any privilege to which we are born, whether it be masculinity, whiteness, wealth, heterosexuality, or attractiveness, the ability to weave a spell and make it stick is not good or bad in and of itself, except that society does make it so. Therefore, most of us end up confusing an accident of birth with entitlement.

Kat Howard explores this tension between privilege and entitlement in her novel, An Unkindness of Magicians. The magic community, called the Unseen World, is divided into houses. Every twenty years or so the houses hold the Turning to determine which of them will rule over the rest. This tournament that leaves some challengers dead and one victorious.

This sounds grim, but it’s not so different from the world in which we live. There have always been men and women willing to kill to hold onto power. In Kat’s story, for instance, there is Grey, a son from the house of Prospero. Being less powerless than he believes he deserves to be, he convinces himself that he is entitled to other people’s magic. To get it, he is perfectly content to lure young women to their death so he can steal the magic from their bones.

a woman with face raised to the light, dropping coveralls from her body - vulnerability, taking off the coat of privilege and entitlement

Murdering Indirectly

Most of use do not destroy others so directly. Instead, we make laws that perpetuate the exploitation of workers, that allow the wealthy to dig and drill and otherwise destroy the land. We send young men and women off to fight, not for the freedom, national pride, or honor we proclaim, but rather to protect oil rights and maintain our power.

To make such abuses palatable, we might convince ourselves that anyone without privilege is in that position because he or she does not deserve anything better. If we are sheltered enough, we might even forget about the deals we have made. When we don’t see the suffering, and we don’t hear cries, it’s easy not to care.

In Howard’s story, an unfair system of sacrifice is perpetuated by the House of Shadows.

A few generations ago, Miles, the head of the house of Merlin and the ruler of the Unseen World at the time, made an agreement to shore up a declining House of Shadows and ease the use of magic for everyone else. One child from each of the powerful families would be given to Shadows. In this secret and hidden place, the child’s magic would be drawn out through a horrible process of torture and terror, then be siphoned into all the other magicians. Thus, they could then create magic without feeling any pain. For in Unseen World, it hurts to weave spells. Headaches, nose bleeds, nausea are all common side effects. The bigger the spell, the bigger the consequence.

Privilege and the Pretense of Innocence

In the past, this discomfort created a natural check on the use and abuse of magical power. But who doesn’t long to have power for free?

If freedom for one person is enslavement for another, we need not dwell on that reality for long. We humans are so good at rationalizing, forgetting, and blaming the victim, that we can accept a political system that punishes the poor, the dark-skinned, the immigrant, the vulnerable, the sick because doing so creates more wealth for the wealthy, more comfort for the comfortable, and more power for the powerful.

In the Unseen World, the magicians pretended that the bloody place to which they consigned their own babies was really not so terrible.

Privilege does this to us. The more protected we are from the grim realities of the world, the more we can pretend that our success, our wealth, and our prestige harm no one.

It’s a lie in Howard’s book; it’s a lie in our world, as well.

A Longing to Destroy Evil

Regardless of who hears and who sees, the misery of those discarded children is real. Most of them die before they reached adulthood. Only two ever lived to become free of the bonds of that house, and they suffered from the trauma the rest of their lives.

Then, Sydney manages to walk out of house’s doors, but she is not really free. Still bound to the shadows of that place, her magic tethered there, she has a mission given to her by the head of her household. She is to fight in the Turning as Shadows’ representative.

She will do that. However, she has a plan of her own, which is to destroy the evil that is Shadows.

With a deep and desperate strength, with cunning and subterfuge, Sydney aligns herself with Laurent, a young magician new to the community. He hopes to start a house of his own, and Sydney agrees to be his champion.

Using One’s Own Magic

Laurent is a decent man. Lacking the prestige of the old and moneyed families, he does not understand the powerful politics that sustain them, nor is he aware of the cruel deal made to make magic comfortable for the privileged. Once he learns about that, he begs Sydney to teach him to draw on his own power rather than on the agony of others.

He is not the only one ever to do this, though. Some minor characters, unknown to the powerful families, make their own magic. But there is one from the wealthy houses who also scorns magic from the House of Shadows. Ian Merlin, the son of the very Miles who made the original bargain with that dark place, has forsaken its tainted magic. Estranged from his own house, and hoping to topple the oppressive system his father forged, he agrees to fight for the house of Prospero on the condition that, if should he win, they will nullify the pact made with that place of darkness and shadows.

Destroying systems of oppression is not easy, however. Indeed, for every corrupt power that dies, others are born. Throughout history, and probably before, there have been chiefs, and there have been slaves.

Giving Up the Tainted Power

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change unfair practices. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize our entitlement, question our privilege, and give up the power that is tainted by another’s blood. We shouldn’t expect, though, that our efforts will change the world. The world is a big place. Nor should we expect that we will do this anything close to perfectly. We will make mistakes, hurt others we never intended to harm, and fail ourselves.

That, at least, is what Ian found.

As the days pass, the rules of the Turning become more and more serious. Although the early duels can be won with tricks, the later ones must be fought to the death. Thus, one tries to avoid fighting those one loves.

This becomes particularly complicated for Ian, for Sydney has become his lover, and it turns out they cannot avoid challenging one another.

Clinging to Privilege

Because Sydney is still bound by threads of magic that can tear and wound her, she is powerless to do anything about this situation. Being privileged as he is, Ian does have choice. He can forfeit the match. If he should do so, however, he will also have to forfeit his magic. He will have to give up the power and privilege he does not know how to live without. Unable to face that prospect, he chooses to fight.

Howard lets him off the hook, though, because the match is nullified when Grey interferes, so neither Ian nor Sydney must die. Still, their relationship is never the same.

Though we may judge Ian harshly, few of us would give up our magical powers, even to save the life of one we loved. We might want to do so, but imagine having lived all your life with magic, having it be so much a part of you that you can’t tell where you end and the magic starts. To live in the world without that magical buffer can seem intolerable.

After all, why else do corporations pollute oceans even though they know they are destroying ecosystems we depend on for our own food? Why else would politicians pretend global warming is a hoax except that they cannot bear to part with their wealth?

Choosing to Relinquish Privilege

If we are not in positions of power, we don’t have to make such choices. Therefore we can imagine we would make the moral one. Perhaps we would. Some people do die for the cause of justice. Others choose vows of poverty in the hope of serving a greater cause. Sydney herself makes such a choice.

At the end of the book, Shara, the head of the House of Shadows, emerges from that evil place to fight Sydney herself. Sydney is surprised to discover that Shara is more powerful than she. Thus, she must make a choice. She can give up and lose, or she can channel the power of nature itself, allowing that enormous force to rush through her. There is be a cost, however. If she borrows the power she needs to beat Shara, she will end up scoured out, burnt up, her own magic gone forever.

To free the children who remain trapped in that horrible place where she was raised, Sydney makes the choice to win the duel and forsake her power.

Tolerating Discomfort

Sometimes it takes one who has suffered deeply to be so noble. Abuse, torment, and torture can destroy our spirits and our souls. They can also build in us an immense reservoir of strength that we can drink from to help us make difficult choices. Some of us, not having survived such trauma, simply cannot face the pain, and to let go of our power is painful.

That’s why we have to learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes when we ache inside. We must learn to sit with the anxiety that arises when our shadowy bargains are revealed. When it becomes clear that we are weak, imperfect, addicted to the ease of a privileged life, we must learn to face that truth. The more we know and accept who we really are, the less we will abuse our privilege, and the more we will be able to look into the mirror that others hold up for us. We will accept that we too often fall short.

Ian had to admit that, even though he thought himself better than the other magicians, he, too, was fallible. He had to humble himself before he could grow.

So must we. To live up to the values we proclaim, to make the world more fair and more safe, we must be willing to experience our shame, vulnerability, embarrassment, fear, and deep sadness. We must recognize our rationalizations, projections, pretenses, and defenses, and learn to let them go. Then when others challenge us to forsake the duel and give up our magic, we may find we can do it.

In faith and fondness,



Photo by Joey Native on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens

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