In honour of the release of Trial By Fire, I wrote a post on Emily <grin>. There are a handful of spoilers for Books 1-6, so read carefully. I’ve tried to keep spoilers for Book 7 to a minimum. Comments would be more than welcome, either here or the discussion forum.
Emily is something of an unusual character for me.
In many ways, she’s probably the closest thing I have ever created to a self-insert, a character deliberately based on me. Obviously, she isn’t me (and her early life is very different), but most of her traits and issues are traits and issues that I had when I was growing up and, to some extent, overcame as I matured into adulthood. (Just how successful I have been in becoming a normal human being is, of course, debatable.) Emily, as of Book VII (Trial By Fire), is making progress on overcoming her issues, but has yet to succeed.
Emily has many good points as a character. She’s genuinely caring, she’s loyal, she’ll be ready to do almost anything to help a friend, she’s clever and she’s quite good at sticking up for others. However, she also has her bad points; she’s quite bad at noticing that other people are individuals and have problems (lack of basic empathy), she’s quite capable of slipping into her own world for days or even weeks, she doesn’t make friends easily and she’s really appallingly bad at sticking up for herself. The latter trait, in particular, has vexed some of my readers, who feel that Emily should be a great deal stronger by now. However, most of these issues come from shadows in her past that she has yet to overcome, let alone banish into the back of her mind.
My editor, reading some of the later books, accurately pegged that some of the older characters – Lady Barb, Master Gordian, Master Tor and even Master Grey – understand Emily a great deal better than she understands herself. This is something of an understandable problem. Emily would be a great deal less sympathetic as a character if she acknowledged that she was doing something wrong, or unwise, and did it anyway. I can only tell the story from Emily’s point of view and there are plenty of times where she lacks sufficient knowledge or perception to understand precisely what is going on.
Emily’s early life has been mentioned, if briefly, in the books. Her father left when she was very young and she barely remembers him. (And it’s possible she doesn’t remember him, that her memories aren’t real.) Her mother, in the process of crawling into a bottle, remarried when Emily was five; Emily’s stepfather was emotionally abusive while her mother was outright neglectful. Emily grew up having to fend for herself; she pretty much cooked for herself, picked her own clothes from second-hand shops, etc.
(On a side note, yes; this is abuse. If you think otherwise, please don’t have kids.)
This obviously had a major effect on her personality. Babies are not born naturally empathic; they generally learn those skills through interaction with their parents, siblings and eventually their fellow children. Emily simply didn’t learn these skills; her mother and stepfather ignored her when they weren’t being unpleasant, she had no real friends at school (they saw her as weird; she was too ashamed of her family to even consider bringing anyone home) and most of her time was spent reading books. She was (and is) capable of recognising abstractly that someone might have a problem, but isn’t so capable of recognising a problem before it gets rubbed in her face.
A couple of readers have compared Emily to Hermione Granger of Harry Potter. It isn’t a fair comparison. Hermione is an extrovert in many ways – she’s bossy, pushy and really didn’t lose any of her unpleasant traits even after befriending Harry and Ron – while Emily is pretty much an introvert. She and Hermione would probably not get on, if they met; she’d probably get on best with Neville.
Puberty did not improve her life. She not only had to cope with growing into young adulthood without the advice or support of her mother (who was either drunk or moaning about how horrible young men were), her stepfather actually started to take an interest in her. He never touched her, but he kept looking at her; she believed, and she might well have been right, that he would eventually force himself on her. She feared for her safety constantly; she took showers at school, wrapped herself in as many layers as possible and tried to stay away from him. It was not easy.
This tended to overshadow her relationships with her fellow teenagers. She feared ‘jerk jocks’ at a very primal level, but she also feared the ‘sticky girls’ (to borrow an expression from Sarah Hoyt); the cliques who banded together to go shopping, date the jocks and look down on everyone else. Indeed, one of Emily’s less pleasant traits is that she prefers to be in control of her friendships; her closest friends at Whitehall are people she befriended after they were largely knocked down to bedrock. She was, and still is to a very large extent, the classic outsider, the one with no hopes and dreams.
This added another wrinkle to her personality. Emily was smart enough to understand that she wasn’t likely to get anywhere in life. She could go to college/university, but all it would really get her was a mountain of debt and not much else. In a way, by the time Schooled In Magic opened, she was deep in depression and waiting to die. She believed – she genuinely believed – that there was no way out of her current state.
If you want to compare Emily to the young Edward Stalker (depicted in First To Fight) you can see they are radically different personalities. Edward Stalker, born into crushing poverty on a scale beyond Emily’s imagination, still had a thrusting drive that took him out of poverty and into the Terran Marine Corps. Emily simply lacked the self-confidence that she could better herself.
I can’t really exaggerate just how demoralising it is to feel hopeless. There’s no point in fighting if one cannot win. Emily knew she was on a sinking ship, if you don’t mind the metaphor, but she also knew the surrounding waters were full of sharks. Escape seemed impossible, so she sat down and waited to die.
And then Shadye kidnapped her.
You’ll note, at least at the start, that Emily’s instinctive response is to cling to Void. He’s pretty much the first person who actually saved her. She’s hurt when he tells her she has to go to Whitehall, even though she accepts his explanation that he’s a lousy teacher. She doesn’t start thinking about finding ways to get home, simply because she has nothing left back there. She’s already accepted her future in the Nameless World even before reaching Whitehall.
She changes, in some ways, at Whitehall because she knows life is no longer hopeless. She has magic. All of a sudden, she finds herself with a push to actually master something and succeed. She befriends Imaiqah almost at once because she needs someone to talk to and she recognises Imaiqah as being largely harmless. She starts learning to defend herself, particularly against Alassa, because she thinks she can actually win. It was a boost to her confidence to discover that most of her knowledge, her historical studies, are actually quite useful in the Nameless World.
Her slow progress to friendship with Alassa actually illuminates some of her less pleasant traits. She starts by seeing Alassa as nothing more than a bully, the stereotypical Queen Bee surrounded by a flock of admiring cronies. Even after Alassa gets badly injured by Emily, she doesn’t understand just how seriously the incident has undermined Alassa’s position. When forced to work with Alassa, Emily actually lectures her, rather than trying to be friendly. There were plenty of more mature ways to handle the situation, but Emily had yet to realise that Alassa was a person in her own right. That didn’t happen until Emily actually saw Alassa – broken and depressed – and realised that the Princess had fallen from grace. And it took being kidnapped and escaping – together – that blended the three of them (Alassa, Emily and Imaiqah) together into a long-lasting friendship.
(This is, of course, a reoccurring pattern. Emily befriends the Gorgon after the Gorgon is unjustly threatened with death, befriends Frieda after she is bullied savagely, comes to terms with Melissa after she is kicked out of her family … her relationships with people who aren’t broken down beforehand are rather more distant. She does get on with Aloha, after a rather bumpy start, but they’re not as close as she is with others. People outside her social circle tend to regard her as friendly, but reserved.)
However, it was harder for her to form meaningful relationships with older men. She did not have a bad reaction to Sergeant Harkin – because he didn’t pick on her personally – but as she slipped more into the Nameless World, she found it harder to cope with King Randor, Master Tor and – eventually – Master Grey. All three of them targeted Emily personally; King Randor clearly intended to exploit her, while Master Tor and Master Grey regarded her as a potential menace. (Master Tor, at least, had a set of valid points when he chewed her out, although she didn’t recognise it at the time; she conceded Master Grey’s points in Cockatrice.) The parts of her mentality that were shaped by her stepfather’s abuse made it hard for her to stand up to them, at least for herself. She was immobilised by her own fears.
This isn’t uncommon among bullying victims. Don’t fight back, they think, or you’ll only get hit harder.
Her relationship with Lady Barb was a little more complex. She disliked Lady Barb at first, then realised that the older woman was genuinely trying to be helpful. Over time, Emily started to think of Lady Barb as a mother, which caused problems when Emily took Lady Barb for granted (most notably in LLW.) It didn’t really help that Barb came from a very different society and tended to try to push Emily to think for herself, rather than guiding her footsteps. She knew the truth about Emily’s origins, but she didn’t really understand that Emily would react differently than someone who was a native.
Like I said, Emily is very bad at reading people. She didn’t really grasp that Jade was interested in her (at some level, she thought of Jade as a jock; a decent jock, but not someone who would be interested in her.) Nor did she recognise that Caleb or Frieda were actually interested in her – or, for that matter, that Jade and Alassa were dating.
This causes other problems, of course. Emily is not self-centred: she doesn’t believe that everything should be about her. She doesn’t begrudge Alassa and Imaiqah playing Ken even though she loathes team sports with a passion. However, it didn’t occur to her in SIS that they would want her to watch them play. Getting bored, she wanders off to do her own thing – in many ways, she was lucky the murderer chose that moment to make his appearance, as it might have caused a major rift between her and her two closest friends.
A final problem that should be borne in mind is that Emily simply was not raised within the Nameless World. (Most people expect her to be somewhat isolated, as she is generally believed to be the daughter of a powerful magician, but they think she should know more than she does.) Emily doesn’t grasp, at a very primal level, how the Nameless World actually works. There are social issues that natives take for granted that Emily doesn’t understand – in many ways, Emily isn’t too different from a condescending aid worker visiting an African village (if they bother to do that much footwork) and loudly proclaiming she knows the answers to every little problem the villagers have, even problems they don’t think are problems.
This is probably clearest in LLW. A reader noted that Emily was too politically correct in her response to the various problems she had to handle, but she couldn’t do otherwise. She might have missed the point of the parable of the prodigal son, yet she is correct (by our standards) to ask why the farm should go to the wastrel when his younger brother was the one who actually stayed home and worked the farm. (Why bother working hard when the rewards for slacking off are so much better?) However, direct line inheritance is very important in any such community and, by the pre-Emily laws, the older brother was the unquestioned heir to the land. A little later on, her revulsion at the thought of an arranged marriage with a child bride (certainly, again, by our standards) made it hard for her to consider another solution. In a sense, Emily is a reformer who doesn’t quite understand what she’s reforming.
(It touches, I feel, on the very definition of a hero. One can paint a confederate soldier, even one who owns slaves, as a good man. However, one cannot do that to a time traveller from our era, where slavery is generally accepted to be wrong. A man from 2015 who travels to 1850 and starts buying slaves to work the land is unquestionably a villain; alternatively, one who bought slaves to arm and train them to fight the slaveholders would be a hero.)
This also touches on one of my pet peeves. People have a common tendency to believe that a fantasy society must work on the same rules as our own. As a world traveller, I’ve noticed this even in our mundane world. Something that would be entirely acceptable in one country is shocking and even criminal in another. Emily is someone from a largely liberal society who has landed, without quite realising it, in a society that is actually quite stratified. (It doesn’t help that she spends most of her time in the most egalitarian place in the Nameless World.) What she considers to be harmless may not seem so harmless to the locals – or vice versa.
Even Whitehall, as Emily ruefully notes, would be shut down on Earth, with most of the teachers put into jail. There is a surprising lack of concern for health and safety, at least when it comes to learning; teenagers are armed with deadly weapons, they’re allowed to work with explosive materials, some of the spells they use can have nasty long-term effects (poor Broomstick) and discipline is harsh. To us, it sounds horrific; Mountaintop, with its Shadows, is actually worse. However, the Nameless World regards it as a necessity. Whitehall is a military academy, at base, and many students are expected – later in life – to fight against the necromancers. The magical side of the Nameless World, at least, is very aware of the growing threat.
In many ways, as Emily acknowledges, Whitehall produces more capable graduates than anything from the modern-day West. However, it is also quite bad at tending to emotional needs; indeed, anything that smacks of mental health care is taboo. (Who in their right mind would want to help the necromancers overcome their madness?) Students who have demons, like Emily, have to overcome them on their own.
However, by the time of Trial By Fire, Emily has actually made considerable progress in overcoming her demons.
Perversely, Hodge’s attempt to rape her was a blessing in disguise. Beating him convinced her, at a primal level, that she could stand up for herself. Discussing the whole matter with Lady Barb afterwards helped to organise her feelings. It strengthened her for her trials at Mountaintop and girded her against Aurelius’s manipulations. (Ironically, Nanette’s antipathy to Emily stems from her paternalistic feelings towards Aurelius; she assumed, perhaps correctly, that Emily was being groomed as her replacement.) And events at the end of Trial By Fire will only have strengthened her growth.
She has a long way to go. But she’s getting there.