A review of Michelle Barker’s The Beggar King (Thistledown Press, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In The Beggar King, Michelle Barker explores the potential of the fantasy medium for creating a deep coming-of-age story. Jordan is a boy on the cusp of adulthood and in his society youths his age normally receive a talent, a gift that will help them to determine their career – either they are good at firing arrows, have an aptitude for prophesy, or some other gift that will allow them to chose a career path. But, Jordon’s gift hasn’t appeared yet. He has an ability to leap from building to building, and a skill at stealing from the marketplace, but what he really wants is a clear talent and an uncomplicated path to the future. But things keep getting more complicated for him.
Jordan encounters the dark figure from his culture’s mythology, the Beggar King, a being who uses undermagic, a forbidden type of magic that has been locked away because it could only be used for evil purposes and tended to turn on those who used it. Shortly after he first sees this dark figure, his community is invaded by the Brinnians, people who not only don’t respect his people’s traditions, but actively engage in activities that would be considered sacrilegious – hanging dead bodies from their sacred tree, killing sacred deer, and burning their sacred book.
When these invaders threaten to kill his mother, Jordan is told by friends and the Beggar King that he should consider opening the door to the undermagic that has been locked away in order to use its power to free his people. Jordan is caught between a feeling that it is his cultural and religious duty to rid his community of invaders who engage in sacrilege and his knowledge that if he opens the door to the undermagic, he may be engaging in a sacrilege greater than any that these invaders could bring. Jordan discovers that he is one of the few who has the power to open the door to the undermagic – he has been given the gift to retreat outside of the world and disappear, he is the only one who can cross the Bridge of No Return that only the Beggar King can cross, and he has already opened the door to the undermagic a tiny crack…. he is uniquely positioned to either be the saviour of his people or bring about their downfall, and both friends and the Beggar King are playing on his desire to be exceptional, to prove himself, and to have a place in society by encouraging him to make a name for himself by opening the door to the undermagic. He discovers that some doors open for us, and some doors open within us.
This is a book about the in-between, that place that teens occupy as they search for identity as adults while rejecting their childhood identity. The in-between nature of this book stretches out into the position of Jordan as a person who is between the living and the dead when he crosses behind “the wallpaper of the world” to disappear as well as being the person who can open the doorway to the undermagic. He walks in those in-between places, hopping from rooftop to rooftop as he travels, and when he gains the power to become invisible, in the world between the places of our world and the underworld. But, the Holy City of Cir is itself a place betwixt and between – it is an island that can only be reached by bridges, and each bridge can only be crossed at certain times, with certain thoughts and behaviours – each bridge requires the individual to be in a certain mindset before it allows him or her to cross, whether that mindset is mischievous, meditative, or another frame of mind. When it becomes invaded, the Holy City of Cir becomes further liminal, being a place both of the Cirrans and the competing cultural influence of the invading Brinnians. It has become a city in the midst of a clash between traditional religion and the new capitalist imperialism brought by the Brinnians. Jordan is also in a morally liminal place, pulled in different moral directions and stuck with uncertainty about magic and undermagic because of the presence of these moral and cultural Others.
The Beggar King reinforces this ambiguity, being both a figure that is in inside and outside of the world, appearing on its fringes, but unable to appear to everyone (only to those suited to open the gateway to the undermagic). Even the term Beggar King is liminal, positioning him between poverty and wealth. Before attaining the power of undermagic, the Beggar King was a sin eater, a scapegoat for his culture who had to eat food that was filled with the sins of the households he begged from.
Using these liminal characteristics, Barker suffuses her world with the inherent contradictions that come with youth and the transition to adulthood – the uneasiness and questions that come with transformation and change. Although early in the narrative, prophets see Jordan as a ‘little boy wearing too-big shoes’, his encounters with other aspects of the fringes, other betwixt and between spaces, helps him to grow into those shoes and face an uneasy destiny rather than the one of ease and fame which he would have chosen. He discovers that one never knows the full picture and that when one acts unilaterally, even when he thinks it is the best thing for his community, he brings greater trouble to them. Only by accepting his role as a member of a greater community and recognising the diversity of skills and strengths within the people around him can he gain a complete understanding of the situation that faces him and take actions that are in support of others rather than in service to his own desire to be famous. By observing the emperor who has conquered his territory as well as his own choices, he comes to understand that arrogance is one of the greatest forms of ignorance.
To discover more about Michelle Barker’s work, visit her website at http://michellebarker.ca/ . To pick up a copy of The Beggar King, visit Thistledown Press at http://www.thistledownpress.com/index.cfm .