When people recommended the young adult novel Elatsoe to me, it was never as a quirky take on a fantasy world. That’s what it is, though: a modern America with spirit summoners, vicious vampires, and fairy children as its typical citizens. Magic is a known factor that makes travel convenient, complicates crime scenes, causes fantastical global warming.
Rather, the book was introduced to me as a story about grief, healing, and ghosts that features a Native lead. This is also a true statement about what Elatsoe is. What interests me about the discrepancy is how people don’t see a need to mention the setting, bizarre though it may be. Seemingly nobody is saying, “Brace yourselves, because this story has kind of an unusual world…”
That must be because the setting’s not so weird after all. Not since approximately 2005.
I believe that as genre conventions live out their lifespans, audiences don’t just seek self-aware protagonists (think of Whedonesque snarkers). We seek self-aware worlds. That doesn’t mean that every single background character needs to be genre-aware. It means the world evolves according to our changing tastes, experiences, and expectations. It also means that older stories become foundational, familiar, normal to anyone who’s ever dipped their toes in the genre.
Okay, we’ve seen Alice go down the rabbit hole, have a wild adventure, and wake up from her nap in the same place she started. We’ve seen Dorothy go to Oz, a tale which was made more realistic (and therefore believable) by proposing that Oz was just a dream. We’ve taken our first dose of fancy. Now let’s have some stories where the journey is real.
Besides “it was all a dream,” another common convention that has made fantasy easier to believe and slide into is the secret world: a magic wardrobe, book, garden, vehicle, or suchlike that brings the lead character into a new realm—no intruders allowed. Even when the secret place brings danger, it’s a refuge. It tends to give the lead greater power, independence, responsibility, self-esteem. They have access to a special place that nobody else can touch. So this secret world entails a power fantasy, too, even when it doesn’t come with a flashy sword. If nothing else, the hero has the power of access.
But the trope I’ve been building up to is the masquerade or cover-up: a global conspiracy to hide all magic from those meant never to access it.
This is the secret garden exploded. Your character no longer has a tiny little doorway to the fantasy place. Instead, fantasy is the world. Yet superficially, the world looks just like ours. That’s because myths and monsters hide themselves. It’s as if the mundane world is overlaid on the magical, smothering it. You and I may live in muggle society, but wizards live under our noses.
Children’s media of the 2000s grew in the shadow of Harry Potter. Maybe that’s why masquerades felt omnipresent to me growing up. Take, for instance, Ben 10, The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, American Dragon: Jake Long, Danny Phantom, The Spiderwick Chronicles…and that weird 2007 version of Bridge to Terabithia, for good measure.
Masquerades intersected thematically with the concurrent booms in spy fiction (including Spy Kids, Men in Black, Kids Next Door, Kim Possible, and Totally Spies!) and superhero stories (Spider-Man (2002), The Incredibles). This crossover highlights how stories using the masquerade tend to combine the hero’s access to a secret world with a more straightforward power fantasy. You, hero kid, have a secret that nobody in the mundane world can know. You’re part of the 0.0001% of Earthlings that can battle the great evil that’s plaguing us.
Yet with great power comes great responsibility. With the masquerade comes the explicit warning that if the fantastic secret gets out, Earth will be, for whatever reason, ruined.
This carries obvious potential for tense, suspense-filled plots. Oh no! My muggle best friend is about to learn that I’m a superpowered mermaid—and prom is next week!
But this also brings…problems, let’s put it that way.
When Masquerades Just Aren’t Fun
In many stories with a masquerade, the whole conspiracy is always on the verge of being revealed. Usually, it’s because the main character got a big head and showed their powers off to strangers, or accidentally let their best friend learn the secret, or had a magic malfunction at the worst possible time, or a schoolyard bully followed them home. And in my view, these are predictable episodes. We know that unless we’re watching the Season 5 finale, the world is not going to learn about magic beyond, at best, the protagonist’s inner circle.
While masquerades can be used to stunning, resonant effect—think of the moment in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone when Harry first discovers he was a wizard all along—they can become repetitive, choked with conventional plots put to the least intriguing use possible. Though keeping a secret is in theory a dazzling power trip, it ironically results in many power-defeating scenarios where the protagonist is forced to hide their greatness.
So tell me again: what’s your favorite part of Harry Potter? Is it the part where he defeats a giant dragon? Rides a creepy death pegasus? Casts the fatal spell on his mortal foe? Or is it when he uses his magic at home around his muggle family and gets wizard-grounded for it?
If you answered “when he gets wizard-grounded,” then I’m excited to learn more about your perspective, because you are in the minority.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets starts with Harry casting magic at home, but since he’s not allowed to cast magic in front of his parents, he gets banned from using magic, and he gets really upset, and everything goes wrong, and his owl flies everywhere. If I’m getting details wrong here, that’s because I don’t remember this scene being fun; I remember it feeling like a drawn-out piece of misery. And I thought, “What is the point of this, besides showing Harry’s hubris and, for the fiftieth time, his suffering?”
For that matter, it’s hard for me to read about Harry’s tortured childhood in Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone, too. It’s hard for me to read about a lead character being tormented or anxious or even just tense for the sake of a secret that they just can’t share.
I don’t pick up Harry Potter to see Harry get bullied because he’s a wizard. (Okay, I no longer pick up Harry Potter because there are so many better stories out there, but you know what I mean.) I don’t even pick it up to see him overcome bullying. I pick it up to see things that are totally unrelated to him keeping the wizarding world a secret. I think that’s a key reason why the masquerade has fallen out of favor since the 2000s: it’s not consistently fun.
Oh, also, there’s the fact that the concept of the masquerade in and of itself pisses me off.
Can Earth really not handle the truth? Are the humans of Men in Black so irresponsible that they can’t interact with, at the very least, those short wormy dudes that talk like Joe Schmo from down the street? Will my life be qualitatively worse if I’m allowed to see a harpy flying by once in a while? Not to mention the logistics are literally impossible. There’s no way I’m believing that any of these protagonists, or whatever secret organizations they belong to, are successfully running around and whiting out every pedestrian’s memory when they so much as squint at a sasquatch. It’s extremely convenient. And it grinds my gears. How does it not grind your gears?
Even when stories have excellent reasons behind their masquerades, it’s hard for me to accept them because the concept of having a masquerade tends to feel not just too ludicrous and too unfun, but too frustrating.
Maybe that’s why Avatar: The Last Airbender took my young world by storm when it premiered in 2005. Here was a fully realized world of magic made normal everywhere, without the sharp divide between magicals and mundanes. Instead of stopping short with the question of how these powers would overwhelmingly shape society, it plunged headlong into them.
Legions of shows have risen and fallen since then. Adventure Time drops Finn the Human into a goofy, dreamlike land with little need to explain itself. Steven Universe directly subverts the masquerade, turning the public image of its heroes into “those weird strong people that live by the beach.” In Hilda, a town learns to live side-by-side with new magical residents. Fantasy-hiding conspiracies may still pop up, and they may still be vital to most superhero narratives, but they haven’t been “hot” for a while now.
It seems that audiences are less interested in plot points like keeping one’s powers a secret simply because they’ve seen it. They’ve seen it and it’s stressful. Also, they’ve seen it and it’s familiar. It’s now a foundational trope that newer mainstream media can build upon.
How Elatsoe Kills (and Resurrects) the Masquerade
In a masquerade, the hero is one of very few individuals who can interact with the fantasy world. That access brings with it a sense of wonder, a sense that the hero is special. Remove that and you remove the wonder and the hero’s specialness…right?
Elatsoe finds ways to keep that wonder while addressing questions that series with fantastic conspiracies tend to broach. It does this while keeping a sense of refreshing realism.
How? Well, start with this: you’re a regular person in our regular world. You’re unlikely to consider yourself a “chosen one.” Yet there are things about you that are special—or at least things about you and your history that would intrigue outsiders looking in. Drawing out the interesting things about your life story doesn’t necessitate turning you into a firebreathing dragon (though that would certainly make things more dramatic). It will likely take introspection, soul-searching, and a journey close to the heart.
Ellie has the power to wake the dead. With help from her ghost dog Kirby, supportive friends and parents, and stories of her legendary six-great-grandmother, she must unravel the conspiracy that killed her cousin.
She’s not a chosen one; her family line isn’t the only one passing down its own peculiar magic. However, in the context of Elatsoe, she may as well be a chosen one; not only is she the only one who can find justice for her kin, she’s also wise about the nature of ghosts in a way that exorcists and psychics are not.
Elatsoe’s world strikes me as profoundly relatable. My family and lineage aren’t much like Ellie’s, and I can’t verify which aspects were inspired by or even pulled from the contemporary practice of Lipan Apache families, but at times it resonated with my own life. My mother has spent her whole life complaining that teenagers in scary movies are white because according to her, there’s no way a black person would willingly go in those houses. Where she comes from, people know when to respect the dead and when to turn away – and when it comes to anything spiritual, they trust their instincts no matter what.
When Kirby barks for no apparent reason, Ellie doesn’t brush it off. She follows the sinking feeling in her gut to the end, never stopping until she knows her family is safe. When dead relatives appear to her, she trusts them because she knows that the people who really love her in this life and the next would never do her any harm, not even as poltergeists.
I’m saying this because it bucks the tradition of what I expect from heroes in fantasy fiction for kids and young adults. Ellie is not cocky; she respects her parents’ wishes even when she doesn’t agree with them; she is spiritual. Nor does anyone in her story go through the motions of hiding the secret, or cleverly showing up bullies, or not believing in ghosts until Kirby makes something levitate for the fifth time. The one day Ellie used her powers for petty revenge is used as a poignant flashback, a reminder of how far she’s come when we meet her in the novel’s present. All these subversions go hand in hand for me. All these subversions make her a protagonist I’m excited to follow because they make her both relatable and fresh.
Yet this isn’t a total shunning of the masquerade trope. Since Ellie’s particular ghost-raising magic isn’t known to the wider world, her family unit is a kind of cover-up of its own. Or…is it? They can be pretty casual about secret-keeping; a viral video catches Ellie’s grandmother riding a transparent mammoth. That’s because it’s not ghosts that need to be kept secret—it’s a specific form of knowledge about ghosts. This gives the cover-up a more rational reason for being that makes more sense to me than the average.
Ellie wondered if Kirby could be trained to float like a balloon and trim branches from trees. Could he also rescue cats? Grab them by the scruff and gently place them on land? She imagined the city as a playground for ghosts. What would the world be like, if everybody knew how to train their departed pets?
Ellie hadn’t taught Kirby how to kill. But it was possible. The dead were more deadly than guns. After the Civil War ended, the souped-up United States Federal Army fell upon Texas and slaughtered the men, women, children in her tribe. With her six-great-grandmother dead, there was nobody to stop them. So the surviving Lipan people hid, and in secrecy, some escaped the genocide.
If the US had also controlled an army of dead hounds, there’d probably be no Lipan left alive.Elatsoe, pg. 204-205
Without spoiling things, the conspiracy that Ellie digs up is one of privilege, of who gets to decide who lives and dies. Ellie, as a young detective with huge magic potential, is living a sort of power fantasy. But that power trip is tempered by several factors, including her humility, her recognition of the great responsibilities upon her, and the way she’s seen by the wider world.
It’s also tempered by…the fact that readers have seen straightforward power fantasies before. Elatsoe’s world is messy, and the inspiration it pulls from real life tends to make Ellie’s life more complicated. I think that audiences are now eager for that complication. We’re ready to read fantasies that are less concerned with convincing us of the reality of their worlds, and more concerned about conveying the reality of people’s worlds, with their individual circumstances and their so-often-messy struggles. We want stronger tricks than “it was all a dream” to make stories feel intimate, and it takes subverting the familiar to make fantasy truly resonant.
For more YA thoughts, check out my review retrospective series on Harry Potter (which I read for the first time in my 20s) and my reflection on manga and gender roles, through the lens of Ultimo. …Anybody remember Ultimo? Please?