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Arcanos Unraveled

January 10, 2018

Like most of us, I spent the last few years tending to my own knitting, trusting that the politicians would work it out. When they didn’t, I started getting more involved. Last night I spoke at a City Council meeting, inviting the members to the first anniversary celebration of Signs on the Square, our weekly demonstration aimed at getting the attention of our congressional “representative” who usually votes to curry favor with his cronies rather than to benefit his constituents.

I don’t know how to knit and am not ordinarily very interested in it, aside from using it as a metaphor, but Jonna Gjevre’s new novel Arcanos Unraveled is a delight whether you’re interested in knitting or not. Like all those novels about sisters that are irresistible to women with sisters, I imagine this book will be irresistible to anyone who likes to knit.

Arcanos is a magical castle, the location for a magical college called The Isthmus that coexists with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Lest you think this is a Hogwarts knockoff, however, you should know that the main character, a magical textiles instructor, is an adjunct who gets fired and has to leave Arcanos before the action really begins.

The magical shields that protect Arcanos from the mundane world are down, and the adjunct textiles instructor, Anya Winter, has been charged with the responsibility of trying to restore them. To do this and retain her magic, she has to travel by flying carpet and fairy circle while avoiding modern technology. This sounds more fanciful than it is—as Anya explains: “Many witches raised by mundane parents lose most of their magic by adulthood. Carelessly exposed to computers and cell phones, they don’t have a chance to develop their powers.” The novel does not devolve into easy allegory, however—the way magic works in this world is affected by RFID, so they ward against it. Anya finds herself working with a mysterious character named Kyril who has magic but also manages to use technology while shielding himself from its effects. His magic turns out to be number magic.

Anya can make a powerful spell called a web portal with what Kyril calls “just a ball of yarn,” although she points out that “my dying mother spun this yarn by hand from angoras she raised herself.” While knitting the portal, Anya uses a Fibonacci sequence. Kyril tells her that at first he “thought those lace spirals were random…but you were adding up the sum of the last two repeats, every single time.” They have to work together to restore the magical shields for the college, as the knitting pattern is provided by a “Hollerith card,” which is also a computer code.

This is the point at which Gjevre makes knitting exciting (which, for me, is as good a trick as Weir doing this with welding in Artemis). The castle’s defenses were formerly provided by machines called the Drini, which Anya can fix after her realization that they are part of a giant magical knitting machine:
“I grasp the giant needle, and the gleaming metal moves easily in my hand. I pull it towards me, then loop it back down. Again, I pull it towards me, then loop it back down.
Kyril stares. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I think I’m casting on.’ Which conveniently requires only one needle.
A luminous thread of power begins to glow, shimmering, golden, and clear. It’s the ley line. Surely, the thread was always there, caught up in the machine, waiting for the technique that would call it forth. A shining thread catches on the giant needle as I swing it around. It forms a translucent chain of gold. The wormlike chain extends and grows, penetrating the granite wall. Then the Drini takes over, moving of its own accord, using the same looping motion I’d begun. The stone floor opens seamlessly, and a second giant needle joins the first. Noiselessly, they bind together an unbroken chain of gold light.”

There’s a political angle to the destruction of the magical wards and Anya has to figure it out before she gets caught in the crossfire. This is what forces her to plunge into a stand of stinging nettles in an attempt to travel by using the magic of a fairy circle:
“The presence of nettles makes me confident that there really is a fairy ring in the orchard up ahead. For centuries, the stalks of woodland nettles have been retted and spun into enchanted fiber, then knitted or woven into magical textiles. It’s said that the only successful resurrection shroud in the history of magic was woven with nettles harvested from a graveyard.”

In addition to the reference to necromancy, I love this story for the heroism of the adjunct, who finally realizes:
“There was never a place for me at the university. I’d thought The Isthmus could be the home I always wanted. But a home consists of people, and there’s a giant moat of power and privilege around these elite scholars—a moat that I could never bridge. I didn’t see the gulf before. I thought it was just their fine clothes or their advanced training that set them apart. But the truth is clear now: their loyalties are only to their own kind.”

I think Americans are becoming more aware of the “moat of power and privilege” surrounding many of our institutions, and while we can’t all be adjunct heroes, we can let fiction help to open our eyes to the viewpoint of those adjacent to the circles of power, those who have enough of a foot in the world of higher education or local government to lead the way towards making a difference.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2018 3:46 pm

    Yay! Knitting saves the day! I enjoy knitting and it is magical how things can be made from a string, but actually knitting magic, now that’s something! 🙂

  2. January 11, 2018 3:35 pm

    adding this to my tbr. it sounds like something I’d really enjoy right now. (and hopefully find slivers of time to read too!)

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