Divorced, biracial butcher Olive “Ollie” Krueger thought she left her magic days behind her. As a teenager she and her best friend, a gay Colombian kid named Victor, were recruited to magic by a charming warlock, but once Ollie used her prodigious talent to secure a family of her very own she abandoned her trade for a quiet country life. Some personal sabotage in the form of vengeful, mystical Possible Consequences later, and she finds herself working at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, living in a crummy apartment with Victor, and daydreams about reuniting with her ex-husband and estranged son. She’s living half a life, one with few responsibilities and little inertia, that is until her coworker, a Haitian butcher named Guychardson, turns up with a magic knife and upends everything.
Not far from New York, Maja, a young northern European woman, is also after the knife. Maja uses magic to see the histories of everything on earth, meaning she can trace and track anything. She’s hired by a group of white supremacists who dream of subjugating the world with Martin aka “Pig,” a creepy candy-aholic ex-Marine with a fetish for murder, as their gunman/liaison. As they slaughter their way through everyone who crossed paths with the knife, Ollie gets in their crossfire and is pulled suddenly and inextricably back into the worlds of magic. As the the fabric of reality begins to tear, Ollie goes on the run. Her past, present, and future collide as space-time folds in on itself and her teenage mistakes exact revenge on her future self.
Much like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Insides is a book with magic in it but isn’t actually about magic. The daughter of a drug addict mother and absentee father, Ollie spent her childhood on the streets until one day a warlock offered her the world. Instead she wanted a family and so she poured her magical energy into acquiring just that in the form of a man she didn’t really love and a life she didn’t really want. For her, the Possible Consequences for her manipulation of the natural order of things came in the form of a marriage-destroying affair that cost her her husband and son. Magic made her think she was happy for a time by granting her dream, and she had to learn the hard way that real life needs more than an illusion to sustain.
Maja’s relationship to Ollie is powerful yet delicate. Pig may be the villain but Maja is the antagonist. She and Ollie are not opposites but two versions of the same thing. Both women have warped views on family, struggle to make personal connections, and are desperate to connect with those they love but terrified to do so. Ollie lived then lost a magic-fueled fantasy family life while Maja lost then lived her own version of that as her dead brother’s consciousness embedded itself into her psyche. Where Maja wishes she go back in time and prevent her brother’s murder, Ollie wants to repair her past mistakes to prevent her son’s future desolation.
I find it fascinating the lack of interest in Ollie’s ethnic background in any of the publicity materials. None have mentioned she’s biracial, and one review I stumbled upon even dreamcasted Gwendoline Christie to play her in a movie. Except Ollie is biracial, a fact that’s mentioned repeatedly in the book. It’s unusual enough to find an SFF book starring a woman with Black and white parents, and even rarer when her race is incidental or tangential to the plot (as in the plot is about something other than the character’s race), so I’m not exactly pleased to see readers excise her identity. Not acknowledging her race is like not mentioning Sansa Stark is a woman; sure she’s a great character beyond her gender, but her femininity and femaleness is integral to how she negotiates and navigates the world. Same goes for Ollie and her ethnicity.
There’s a section early on in the book where she talks about being so light skinned that she can pass as either Black or white, and that while living in a largely white community she was assumed to be white so often that she “became” white for all intents and purposes. Just like her, I “also learned the ability to switch from one identity to the other when circumstances necessitated, when she could see some benefit to doing so.” That’s my childhood in a nutshell. I never felt Black until I finally moved away from my mostly all-white hometown. Being around other Black people outside my family for the first time in my life was just as exhilarating for me as it was for Ollie.
It’s a strange experience to float between two extremes, never wholly fitting in with either side. Ollie’s biracial-ness doesn’t define her existence yet it also makes her who she is. It’s the perfect mirror for her life with magic. As a runaway she fell onto the side of magic, as a mother she rejected it for mundanity, and as butcher she hovers between the two sides just as she felt closer to her Black side then closer to her whiteness before finally settling in between both worlds. Her husband is white and her lover Black, which explains why she cheated in the first place. Ulysses recognized her for who she was rather than accepting what others decided she was. Race is just as crucial to understanding adult Ollie’s decisions as her tumultuous childhood homelife. In magic and race she is both, neither, and whatever other people impose on her. To deny or ignore her race is to erase the central conflict of her character arc.
Craft-wise, there’s a lot to enjoy with The Insides. The secondary characters could use some more characterization and development, but the main trio of Ollie, Maja, and Pig are unique and well-defined. While the plot takes a bit to get going, once it does it steamrolls ahead leaving, carnage and consequences in its wake. Occasionally it stutters to a crawl and sometimes the descriptions and infodumps bog down the narrative, but the story is so keenly written that most missteps are easy to overlook.
The Insides is a fast-paced quick read with intriguing characters, droll dialogue, and a clever conceit. If you’re looking for a little meat on the bones of your summer reading (pun intended), look no further.
The Insides is available now from Melville House.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.