Feb 262013

Debora Geary considers issues of neurodiversity in the fifth book of her A Modern Witch series. As in all the previous books in the series, a witch is brought into the friendly chaos of Witch Central in Berkeley. However, since the protagonist in this case has Asperger syndrome, she does not welcome the noise and rich social interactions that the nexus offers, and, in fact, Beth struggles throughout the book against her desire to flee back to Chicago and the comforts and routines of her life there.

Beth appeared in a single scene back in the first book of the series, A Modern Witch. She was leading a coven in an occult shop in Chicago, and Jamie came to a meeting and told them essentially that they were doing everything wrong, demonstrated his superior powers and then left. Needless to say, Beth and rest of the coven resented his cavalier intervention, but it was hard to argue with the results. At the start of A Different Witch, a couple of years have passed, Beth and her coven’s wounds have healed, and Beth feels its time to seek out the training that Witch Central offers.

Since these books are written from a limited second-person subjective point of view, we spend a fair bit of the novel seeing things from Beth’s perspective. Beth is highly functioning and well-integrated into the neurotypical world. She has solid relationship with her business and romantic partner, Liriel, and she is aware of her limitations and abilities. I would be curious to hear someone with Apserger’s express how well the novel portrays an Aspie’s experience of the world (if, indeed, there is such a thing as a typical Aspie experience of the world). That being said, the Geary’s portrayal of Beth’s experience and sense of difference seems entirely plausible to me.

Geary manages largely to avoid the usual tropes of Otherness and difference. Beth is not particularly better at anything because she is less able at some skills like detecting social cues. She is aware of her limitations, but she does not place the entire burden of accommodation on her own shoulders. She can state what she needs, and she can give people a chance to meet her somewhere in the middle. On the other side, Beth is initially paired with Nell because they are both fire witches, but their first interactions are fairly much an emotional disaster for both of them. Nell has to confront the fact that she may be prejudiced against Beth, and that she might not be able to work with her at all. But both sides keep trying in good faith, and, ultimately, both Beth and the community at Witch Central find ways to work together.

The tone of the novel is ultimately hopeful: that a community can go through discovery and confrontation of difference through to genuine integration; that there is implicit worth and value despite difference. And a lovely theme which appears to woven into the series as a whole becomes a bit clearer, perhaps, indicating the direction towards which the novels are moving as whole, as Nell considers her son Aervyn:

His hearing aids were showing. Nell felt something inside her heart melt. Her son, one of the most loved people in Witch Central, had just declared himself tribe leader of the different witches.

Geary has always been building towards the telling of Aervyn’s story as the most powerful witch in generations, and in this novel we can see that something quite remarkable is being crafted within and through his story. As for Beth, we are honored for getting to understand her way in this novel.

The next book is slated for release in March.

(Full disclosure: I received a copy of this novel for free. Debora is generous with free content for anyone who writes reviews of her books.)

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