Previously, on Handbook for Mortals: Dela and Charles continued to story of how they fell in love, which had literally nothing to do with what happened to Zade. Plenty of pop-culture references are made once Dela reveals her (and Zade’s) true abilities.
Also, remember how last time I said that Zade gets stabbed in this chapter? I accidentally lied. She gets stabbed in the next chapter. The rest of chapter 18 is more dialogue, and it too is a bit of a slog.
When we left off, Dela was explaining her magical powers to Mac, who was having a difficult time with the entire thing, as one might if one were told that magic exists.
Charles explains to Mac that the reason that Zade’s illusions were all kept super secret was because she used her actual magic. Mac asks what all of this has to do with Zade’s mysterious illness, and finally we get an explanation from Charles.
“When she did the Creation illusion, she built you into it. He was using you as a[ . . .]conductor of sorts. Some magick needs to be grounded, basically, like electricity needs a grounding wire. She needed really strong energy to ground that magick and keep it stable. The magick she was doing was dark and old magick that. . . well . . . that isn’t always very stable on it’s own. It’s referred to as chaos magick for obvious reasons. That’s why she wanted you to be on the board for the illusion.”
So the obvious question is this: why not use Charles as a “grounding wire”? He definitely for sure needs to be onstage with Zade if the act is going to be performed, so it’s a given that he’d be around, whereas Mac’s presence isn’t similarly guaranteed. And Zade knew that Mac was super pissed at her when her act was going wrong (in fact, she thought that it was her distraction during the performance that was causing the wackiness at first). Why wouldn’t she even take a moment to consider that her all-important “grounding wire” might not be at his most reliable? Since Charles figured it out, why didn’t Zade think of it while it was happening? Urgh. Argh.
Anyway, Dela elaborates, saying that Zade had him running the Main Board because that would put him in a good spot for anchoring? It’s not made clear why he needs to be Main Boarding as opposed to his normal duties.
Charles asks when Mac left the board, and Mac tells him that he hadn’t run it at all that evening. At one point, he left the theater altogether. Dela guesses that this was when it all went wrong. Mac instantly feels horrible for being at fault for the disastrous act, but Dela assures him that he’s not to blame. Mac asks why Zade would do something like this without telling him, but Dela acts like she’s about to explain it:
“Well, I did it with Charles for years without him knowing, and she knew that. Of course, Charles was in the show, so he couldn’t have left. It’s really dangerous to use someone who is unaware without a surefire way of knowing they won’t leave.”
There is zero explanation as to why Zade used Mac. I mean, they weren’t even anything official by that point. What if she had decided to go with Jackson as a boyfriend? Would she have continued to use Mac as a magical aid without his knowledge? Why the hell did Charles let her do this? It seems suspicious to me. Maybe it was all part of Charles’ secret plan to reunite with Dela? Maybe after it was clear that Zade was going to choose Mac as her BF, Charles was like “well shit” and concocted a plan that would necessarily rope Dela back into his life.
Mac continues to blame himself, and feels super guilty. Honestly, I’m with Dela on this one (in case you couldn’t guess): Zade made a really, really dumb move that Mac had no way of anticipating. On the other hand, I do think that Mac should feel super guilty about his abusive behavior towards Zade, but that’s not mentioned once.
Mac says that he wishes he could make it right. Dela says that there is something he can do! And that because he caused the energy to go wonky, he’s the only one who can make it right! Mac asks what it is he has to do. Dela has a hard time explaining Mac’s task:
“Please try not to freak out. I have to forge a . . . umm . . . well, it doesn’t matter what it really is. It’s going to look like a dagger–though it won’t actually be a dagger at all. It’s not worth explaining to you what it really is, other than it’s magick. At three o’clock sharp tonight, you’re going to have to plunge it into her heart on my altar outside.”
Three o’clock tonight? Then they’re fine. It’s probably only about one in the afternoon at the latest by this point, so at least now we know why Dela is happy to sit around drinking tea and telling stories?
Mac can’t believe what he’s hearing, and starts feeling ill. Many words are spent on showing Mac’s bewilderment. It’s not good, but it could be edited down into something that verges on being so. He asks if Dela is “screwing with him,” and she says she’s not. Mac asks how stabbing Zade could possibly help her. I, too, am very curious about the mechanics of Dela’s plan.
“It’s extremely difficult to actually explain but, in a way, it will release the energy that she’s battling with, plus–remember–it’s not a real dagger it’s a just going to look like one. It’s magick, with healing properties–think of it like an EpiPen[. . .] Right now, the energy is bouncing around her body and ripping her apart inside.”
The energy must not be very strong; Zade’s been in this state for about sixteenish hours now, and by the time she gets epi-daggered, she’ll have been that way for like 31? If only this book had used some of its 400 pages establishing a magic system instead of focusing the entirety of act 2 on a love triangle that causes zero drama! The incompetence hurts. I appreciate the explanation, but it feels very ad-hoc since Zade has never taken a single moment to explain how magic works beyond saying it involves “hand-waving.”
Dela hopes that Mac does as she says, because the situation will be hopeless otherwise. Another paragraph is devoted to showing how emotional Mac feels right now: he’s all scared and overwhelmed. Finally, he asks if this is the only way to save her. Dela says that she thinks so, and that even if Mac does go through with it, she might die. Mac struggles with the choice, and Dela asks him again to do it. Finally, he agrees, but he repeats how insane all of this sounds, and Dela thanks him.
Hot take: this novel should have been entirely from Mac’s point-of-view. I think he’s an ass, but he (and kind of Charles) is the only character with an arc. The “twist” that Charles is Zade’s dad and not a romantic rival would have actually worked, too.
Hot take II: this novel is told from the POV of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Hot take III: This novel explores the interior world of someone who has grown up feeling like they must be a quirky object of male desire, and the sad, superficial, self-centered life that results from such a worldview.
Charles looks at Mac and feels like he’s getting to know him better than ever before (duh?) and Charles thinks that he sees a lot of himself in Mac, and “finally sees how much Mac really loved Zade.”
Mac starts crying:
“What if I lose her? And it’s all my fault.” It wasn’t a question. Charles could tell that the reality that Zade could die had hit Mac and he was feeling the full force of that truth.
I haven’t mentioned this yet, but even though Zade is supposedly retelling this after going through people’s memories, Zade has begun referring to herself in third-person. I’m pretty sure that’s because this scene was written before Lani had made up the memory-pulling device and she forgot to go back and edit this.
Anyway, Mac asks Charles why he and Dela broke up. Charles clarifies that Dela left him, but that he mostly deserved it. Mac teases Charles about admitting he did something wrong, and Charles goes on to explain what happened:
“I lost it when she told me what she was. It was right after we had Zade. I thought maybe she had made me love her [. . .] Because I wasn’t sure if I could believe her, I cheated on Dela to see if I could. When I was able to cheat, I realized that if she had put a spell on my she wouldn’t have ‘let’ me be able to do that. I felt so guilty about what I had done that I started drinking heavily and even started doing drugs”
I don’t think Charles’ logic is valid, but I can kind of understand someone who is in crisis mode questioning the legitimacy of their relationship trying to test it this way. Again, I feel as though the male characters (by which I mean Mac and Charles) are allowed complexity and growth, which makes them more interesting. Like, even though Charles falls into a cliche drugs-and-alcohol spiral, there’s inner conflict here that Zade never gets. One of the reasons this chapter is so hard to make fun of in a humorous way is because it’s not hilariously awful. It’s not great, by any means, but it feels like it could be the climax to a OK paranormal romance/dramedy with enough editing and reworking.
So Charles says that after learning that Zade was magical too, he began talking about “putting her in the show” (she’s like a baby though? what the hell? I guess that’s the point?). Dela did a card reading, and one of Charles’ potential paths was becoming a total asshole, while the other was having all three of them live happily ever after. Despite this, Dela wanted to preempt any relationship trouble and broke up with him by disappearing with their child leaving only a letter.
“In the letter, she said she would come back when–and if–I had decided to take the right path, and when she saw it clearly.”
Now Dela gets to have inner conflict too? Wow, I really wish Zade could stay dead. It’s like her presence exerts a force that flattens out the personalities of everyone around her. Like, I get that Dela’s anxiety about her relationship is abusive and clearly shoehorned in as a reason for the breakup between her and Charles to be “both sides were wrong,” but it’s still more interesting than anything we’ve seen from Zade.
So Charles got depressed and bottled up all his feelings:
“I found out later, though, that [Dela] did put a spell on me not to talk about Zade–or to admit to a connection to either of them. That never made any sense to me, but I think it was because our break-up was just too hard on her. I broke her heart, so she thought it was best to push me out of her life altogether.”
Upon closer inspection, I have decided that I do not completely trust Charles’ retelling. I feel like he’s leaving something pretty major out of this. If a good author was writing this, Charles would be telling this story massively biased in his favor so it just looks like Dela’s the irrational heartless one. Although maybe he’s telling the truth: Dela apparently kept Zade in Tennessee via magical means, so she does have a history of controlling behavior.
After Charles tells his story to Mac, he feels relieved to have finally told the story of his failed relationship to someone. And that is the end of the chapter.
So, what are my thoughts on chapter 18?
- It probably could have been edited down. Alternatively, this dynamic could have been more present throughout the rest of the novel (maybe Zade could have learned this stuff in a scene with Charles prior to their spell-gone-wrong, and gotten super angry at her mother).
- There was zero tension. We get a few paragraphs where Mac feels things about having to stab his girlfriend with a magic dagger, but nothing feels urgent. This is supposed to be nearing the climax, and Mac’s few pages of drama are the only plot-related bit. Everything else was brand-new subplot.
- Ironically, Zade is pretty much an afterthought in this chapter. This should be the point where the World Revolves Around Her (as she’s in a coma or something and about to die), but we’re taken on a long, winding journey through the history of Charles and Dela.
- Why the hell was Jackson in this book? He never caused any conflict at all. Why wasn’t Charles a greater presence? As we can see, he’s far more relevant to the plot than Jackson. The only answer can be that Charles is Jackson, which fixes both of these problems by making Charles have more of a presence and Jackson relevant to the plot.
- In the first half of chapter 18, I forgot to point out this line that takes place just before Charles explains what happens with Betty:
“His eyes sparkled, making Charles look mischievous and full of secrets”
You know who else’s eyes are described as sparkling five times throughout this novel? Jackson. Mac’s eyes sparkle once at the very beginning, but since then, Jackson’s the only one whose eyes are consistently described as sparkling. Coincidence? Hell yeah. Fodder for my dumb theory? Also hell yeah.
Tune in next time for the thrilling, Zade-gets-stabbed-ing climax!
I’m pretty sure I’ve now sunken more effort into Handbook for Mortals than I have on any creative project of my own. So I guess that makes Lani Sarem my muse?