Last year, in 2021, I tried reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2016 City of Blades. It was the usual grim, dystopian affair, but I enjoyed it right to the point where the antagonist starts explaining her motivations:
“‘Can you imagine being trapped with all the corpses of your family for days and days, the stink of their bodies, the leak of their blood?…Imagine going to bed every night not knowing if you might reach out in the night and feel a cold, wet face beside you, and feeling its moustache and eyebrows and knowing it was once your father! Just flesh and bone, and nothing more.
“‘…Then imagine realizing that once there was more. Discovering that there was once an afterlife, a heaven! Once my family could have been safe! Once the dead could have been preserved, loved, respected!…[I]n one stroke all the afterlives that had been lovingly built for us had come crashing down, collapsing, trapping all those souls in the dark…
“‘This world should never have been…It is accidental. The first thing we should have done after the Blink was line up and calmly walk into the ocean, entering the oblivion from which we no longer had refuge. What is the point of living if there is nothing beyond life?’” (Bennett, 2016, pp. 403-404, 407).
When I read this, I began to shake. I did not sleep that night. I was completely horrified, not because the antagonist was trying to destroy an entire world due to her own tragedy, but because I understood her motivations and emotions only too well.
In October 2020, my father passed away after a long, painful battle with cancer. I was there when he died. I was holding one of his hands, my mother holding the other. Together we watched his pulse race, then stop. We heard his final breath, and then I felt his hand grow cold in mine.
In another universe, I would be able to see thestrals now.
So I can tell you that the antagonist’s agony is entirely realistic. It is completely accurate. This is exactly what goes through your head when someone you love literally dies in your arms.
The protagonist has no sympathy whatsoever, telling the antagonist that her tragedy and sorrow have no importance or meaning: “‘Your tragedy is but a candle flame among a forest fire!’” (Bennett, 2016, p. 404). And she does have a point: the antagonist’s personal tragedy does not justify her trying to kill everyone in the world. But these words hit me like a hammer blow:
“‘Do you even hear how foolish you sound?…I’ve lived my life in the shadow of oblivion…I’ve seen good people go to it and bad. And I’ve always known I’d go there eventually, one way or another.’” (Bennett, 2016, p. 407).
I felt like the protagonist—and the author—had just slapped me across the face.
I have pondered the same questions that plague the antagonist, and with the same agony and uncertainty: what if there is no afterlife? What if my father is simply nonexistent now? And does life have any meaning if there is nothing beyond it? If we are but a collection of calcium and tissue and electrons, what point is there to anything?
Foolish or not, these are the questions that plague you after a death, a death you have personally witnessed. And no amount of sneering rationalists snarling at you to shut up and make the world a better place does anything to help.
Words matter. Stories can heal an injured soul. Or they can hurt it beyond belief.
Seeing a loved one die changes something inside you. It’s a line that, once crossed, can never be stepped back over again. I am not sure whether Bennett understood this when he wrote the book. His accurate depiction of the antagonist’s anguished horror argues that he does, but his response—basically, to shut up and be a good little soldier—is a statement that personal tragedy and sorrow do not matter, that to even consider spiritual questions about death is an act of selfishness and folly. That to even hope for meaning is stupid, and potentially evil. He would not say this if he’d ever been through the same experience himself.
The Harry Potter books take a wiser and more compassionate view of the matter. In that universe, witches and wizards who see someone die gain the ability to see thestrals, magical spectral horses that blur the boundaries between earth and sky, life and death. In the Harry Potter books, personal tragedy always matters, and to contemplate spiritual questions is never foolish. Whatever lies beyond, the experience of death—even if we are not the ones who die—changes us profoundly. The thestrals of Hogwarts have had far more meaning for me since Dad’s death, just as Bennett’s scathing dismissal has been far more painful.
The morning after I read City of Blades, after my sleepless night, I got up, got breakfast together, and began to cry. For the first time ever, I was able to weep for my father’s death. So perhaps Bennett’s metaphorical slap in the face did me some good, even though I don’t agree with his sentiments.
Stories matter. They inflict both injury and healing. And I hear the screams of despair and see the black-winged thestrals far more clearly now than ever before.
Bennett, R. J. (2016). City of blades. Broadway Books: New York, New York.