Bookburners S02E05: Debtor’s Prison
by Mur Lafferty
4 out of 5
When We Last Left Our Heroes…: Asanti and Menchú are increasingly at odds over magical research. Liam had an odd encounter with someone from his past who he only barely remembers. Grace is considering her possible futures. Vatican politics continue to get tricky.
Case of the Week: The Maitress calls in a debt from Asanti, sending the team to Iceland to recover a magical secret.
How It Went: For all of the good work Asanti has done in the field lately, she’s still a bit awkward about it all. She’s waiting in a café for the Maitress (remember her, from the Market Arcanum? Took me a second, too.) and when she shows up, bringing her own teapot, Asanti has trouble keeping her composure for a second. The two – former colleagues, possibly more than that too – have met to discuss the terms of a debt: Asanti owes the Maitress for… something. Probably something big, one imagines – especially because the Maitress wants the whole team on it. “Someone relatively powerless and non-threatening is exactly what I need,” she says and the insult would sting less if it didn’t feel so true in comparison to the actual magical might of someone like the Maitress.
Asanti has no choice but to agree to the deal and so she sets out to brief the team – without Menchú. The excuse is that he’s still stuck in meetings over Angiuli’s ascension, but it’s clear that everybody has picked up on the “parents arguing” vibe between the two of them. It’s even more awkward when he shows up mid-briefing and is about to shut the whole thing down before Asanti reveals that she has to, because of her debt. There’s some nice subtle work here between the two of them: they’re frustrated with each other and pissed, but they also still care about each other. Menchú, if he wasn’t such a good man, could easily have said “nope, don’t care” – but the minute he realizes what’s at stake, he doesn’t blink before letting them go.
But he doesn’t go with. Again, there seem to be multiple layers of reasoning behind this – but the most obvious and the safest cover (well, safe being one way of thinking about it) is the political battle he’s waging. Menchú is not one for this sort of fight and it’s clearly taking a toll on him. When we see him battling back another assault from Team One’s Fox, we get a full dose of how wearying it is. This should’ve been an easy confirmation and it’s becoming anything but. My prediction still stands: trouble is a-coming from this angle.
Back with the team, they arrive in Iceland and find the Maitress not as the typically imperious older woman they’re familiar with but instead a slightly softer, rounder, more motherly type – and she’s living in some sort of eterna-spring cottage in the midst of the Icelandic wilderness. Asanti is allowed inside but Grace, Sal, and Liam are trapped in the yard, which results in both delightful bickering and their curiosity predictably (and humorously) getting the better of them. Grace gets turned to stone as part of a fountain and Liam is chomped by a giant flower – and I’m imagining, in the filmed version in my head, we saw funny flashes of Sal running around through the window while Asanti and the Maitress talked.
There’s a nearly-Pinteresque level of subtext in the conversation between Asanti and the Maitress, dropping all kinds of near-hints (Asanti helped defend the Market once upon a time, the two of them were maybe definitely romantically entangled, Asanti might even be a magic user of some kind…?) while also expanding our conception of the world a little bit. Technology isn’t the best friend of magic but it turns out there are some ways to get around that incompatibility, including this odd phone the Maitress has… and she believes that one of her “intangibles” (that is, secrets as opposed to actual objects) has been taken and is being held… at a mall kiosk in Reykjavik.
So let’s go to the mall!
There’s the predictable silliness and banter again as they arrive, including some more references to Grace’s desire to be caught up on fashion – but Grace is also the only one who gets to know why Asanti owes the Maitress this debt. It’s a doozy, judging from her face… but I imagine we’ll have to wait a few more episodes at least for that reveal.
They set up a plan, or perhaps several plans, for infiltrating this phone store that all go haywire when (after a charmingly South Carolinian Sal and the sexed-up Liam have attempted to talk to the shop owner) a gargoyle comes to life and attacks them. Asanti is trapped in an ice prison, the gargoyle is whooping up on them, and the shop owner turns out to’ve been a mage… but they manage to defeat the three of them with a combination of Grace’s dope knife skills and a well-timed improvisation involving a cayenne-pepper smoothie from the neighboring shop thrown right in the gargoyle’s eyes. It’s a solidly silly kind of fight and I was glad that it didn’t get too serious but instead just enjoyed its own absurdity.
It turns out the phones are some kind of magic-secret-reader – but that’s all we get to know. Asanti, in return, gets some information about the Orb and mentions that it looks like they’ll have to go to Shanghai. That’s two references in two weeks now, for those keeping count, so I’m imagining the team is going to be getting a pretty awesome passport stamp soon enough. But not before we have at least one more tense conversation between Menchú and Asanti, who doesn’t quite have a satisfactory response for the question of “Was it worth it?” before the episode cuts to black. I’ll bet this won’t be the last of those before their trip, either…
- Nice Little Shop of Horrors reference!
- The Maitress has “access” to the whole maid/matron/crone spectrum, apparently – but is that unique to her? Something all witches can do? What’s it going to take to get some Shakespearean magic going on in these stories?
- “As if the Vatican’s teams are the only ones fighting” – between this and the comments about Alexandria last week, I’m DESPERATE to hear more about the rest of the magic-fighting world. Who else is out there??
- A little meta, re: hospitality rules only being binding in stories. Nice.
Mur Lafferty is the author of The Shambling Guides series from Orbit, including The Shambling Guide to New York City and Ghost Train to New Orleans. She has been a podcaster for over 10 years, running award-winning shows such as I Should Be Writing and novellas published via podcast. She has written for RPGs, video games, and short animation. She lives in Durham, NC where she attends Durham Bulls baseball games and regularly pets two dogs. Her family regrets her Dragon Age addiction and wishes for her to get help. She tweets as @mightymur.