A review essay by Nalini Haynes
Where Oblivion Lives is a historical fantasy novel based on meticulous historical research. Diago is a member of the Los Nefilim, the Spanish branch of the nefilim. Nefilim are descended from angels and/or daemons who mated with humans. Diago has angel, daemon and human heritage so his history and his personality are complicated.
He’s also a musical virtuoso, haunted by his violin that was stolen years ago. The violin plays in Diago’s nightmares, reminding him of the past and warning him of a nightmarish future. His boss allows him to travel to Germany in search of the stolen violin. Spirits in the Rhine lure him to potential doom, nefilim are at war and, it being 1932, Diago is mistaken, repeatedly, for a Jew in a time when Jews are already the target of Nazi vilification.
Gay Paris is outdone by pansexual Spain
Diago and Miquel are a gay couple in love but they’re usually discrete in public. Early in the novel
A sudden pang of envy clouded [Diago’s] eyes. He wondered what it would be like to openly kiss Miquel in public and not disguise their gestures as whispers.
Accurate representation of cultural norms for the era imposes significant restrictions on same sex couples. To violate social norms in 1932 invites violent repercussions. Thus their romance in safe spaces is appealing (awww) but Diago’s fear when Miquel discretely kisses him in public is saddening.
However, Diago experiments with flouting convention:
No sooner had the words [declaring that he is married to a man] left his mouth than a rush of freedom sent his pulse hammering, and he suddenly understood Miquel’s need to push societal boundaries (p. 134).
Diago’s character arc is complicated, with Diago more concerned about the Los Nefilim deciding he’s a traitor than about social conventions regarding traditional marriage. He’s a bit of a rebel, struggling with abiding by Los Nefilim rules while being steadfast in his monogamous love for his husband.
Later, Diago’s internal commentary reveals that homosexuals were often thought of as being mentally ill. Furthermore,
With enough money and influence, Spanish nobility had entered their young men into asylums on the pretext of insanity when their only crime involved loving another man (p.222).
And that’s the more palatable type of consequence that occurred historically. LGBT people and disabled people have a lot in common when it comes to abuse and vilification by bigots. This minor thread about social conventions with repercussions adds tonal depth and flavour to both the novel and Diago’s character.
Bisexual but monogamous
Diago may be bisexual. Where Oblivion Lives is part of a series. While this novel is so well-written that I neither feel inundated with exposition backstory nor do I feel the need to read every previous novel or novella (need vs want), Diago’s sexuality may be more clearly defined previously. Certainly some other characters appear bisexual although Miquel is definitely only interested in men (p. 135). Perhaps bisexuality is a benefit of reincarnation due to characters reappearing in different gendered forms?
I couldn’t help myself: I asked the author!
None of this was addressed in the novellas, so you aren't missing any backstory in that regard. No, I never considered the bisexuality as a feature of reincarnation. Diago has always been bisexual, Miquel gay, and G. cis-gendered.
— T. Frohock (@T_Frohock) July 2, 2019
I don’t usually converse with an author during reading a novel nor while writing my review but Where Oblivion Lives has engaged my heart and my mind. Like Diago I’m breaking my own rules.
The Los Nefilim watch mortal affairs with the knowledge that events in the mortal realm are often mirrored in the Nefilim realm or vice versa.
In 1932 before Hitler takes power, Frohock’s characters discuss German racism including real-world books published by Nazis. Also,
…Based on my understanding of the events, one faction of angels wants to wipe the daimon-born from the face of the earth (p. 108).
Frohock has foreshadowed events that occur in 20th century history that will, to some extent at least I am sure, be reflected in her Nefilim novels.
Four weeks after Hitler was sworn in as the German Chancellor in 1933, the Reichstag (German parliament) suffered an arson attack. This was pivotal in establishing Nazi Germany (Wikipedia).
The day after the fire, at Hitler’s request, President Hindenburg signed the Reichstag Fire Decree into law by using Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone.
Furthermore, the same year scientists from the USA, UK and Canada visited Germany to instruct Germans on the use of euthanasia to kill disabled people. This lead to Nazis killing hundreds of thousands of disabled people while developing mass murder and mass body disposal technology that was then dismantled and sent to Auschwitz for use against other ‘undesirables’. Meanwhile, the institutions in which those dead disabled people used to live were repurposed for Nazi administration offices. (Snyder & Mitchell 2006, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).
On page 181, Frohock introduces the Sturmabteilung, two men in brownshirts uniforms. (This historical reference makes Firefly‘s Browncoats rather suspect, especially with the racist overtones of Whedon’s Chinese imperialists.) The Sturmabteilung were the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary organisation. As Germany’s descent into madness is usually documented noting 1933 as a turning point, I googled this thinking I’d finally found a flaw in Frohock’s research. Hell no. The Sturmabteilung were founded in 1920, the year Hitler joined the Nazi Party, and the Sturmabteilung helped get Hitler into power (Wikipedia b). Point to Frohock. I’m impressed.
Later Where Oblivion Lives reveals that the German branch of Nephilim are Nazis complete with a racial purity fetish. Very late in the book — without revealing plot details — two nefilim talk about the Nazi party, Reichstag (German parliament) and “a nasty little piece of work by the name of Hitler, who is gaining political traction” (p. 261). They go on to talk about social change in Germany. Frohock’s meticulous research reveals cultural shifts leading into the Holocaust while also foreshadowing what is to come in World War II in real life and, most likely, in future installments of her series.
Actually, Frohock says
The second book is set at the end of the Spanish Civil War and is concerned with something the Germans experimented with: creating the perfect soldier through drug use. The third book deals with the concentration camps in respect to the treatment of homosexuals in the camps… (see https://www.tfrohock.com/blog/2019/2/14/fieldnotes-the-pink-triangle). The entire topic is so huge, it’s necessary for me to choose a small portion of it and root out the details of that slice in time. Since my story centers around the Spaniards’ experiences during the Spanish Civil War & WWII, I’m focusing on Mauthausen (Frohock, 2019c, d and e).
This historical setting and accuracy adds to the appeal of Where Oblivion Lives because I’m learning about the history of the Nazi movement and eugenics, topics about which I’m passionate. I’m passionately opposed to this ideology, but I’m still passionate. Frohock is on the side of decency and humanity not on the side of genocidal maniacs. Kudos. And even more kudos to Frohock for managing these historical elements in a riveting story.
Where Oblivion Lives hints at domestic violence in the pasts of a few characters until an act of violence by a side character on p. 222. Frohock’s depiction is well-rounded, complete with a backstory given before Diago meets the abusive and abused. His internal commentary condemning the obvious history of violence revealed in the the dialogue of those concerned, and the repartee that ends with “Now look at what you’ve made me do. Get out. Go to bed”, said by the violent one who blames the victim.
Diago’s internal condemnation of the violence, his precarious and vulnerable position at the time and his previously revealed backstory of being a survivor all provide essential context to this violence. At no time does the story condone domestic violence. Instead, Frohock’s narrative offers survivors hope of escape, healing, and even future romance.
Frohock includes two characters with obvious disabilities. Diago is missing a finger, a very minor disability that is mostly inconvenience and an indentifier that he conceals to ‘pass’ (pass as ‘normal’ Wendell 2001; Hodge & Runswick-Cole, 2013) by wearing gloves. There’s another character (who shall remain nameless because SPOILERS) who is maimed:
Burned during the angelic wars, two of his wings were missing: the one that once covered the left side of his face and the lower left at his ankle. Without those limbs, he couldn’t fly.
So he became an earthbound angel full of hate . . . (P. 291).
It does not naturally follow that a person with a significant disability will be filled with hate and yet Frohock uses the evil-because-disabled trope, a trope denounced in Narrative Prosthesis (Mitchell & Snyder, 2000) and discussed again in Cultural Locations of Disability (Snyder & Mitchell, 2006).
It is with great regret that I note that this evil disabled person is also an albino-type: he has “snowy hair and alabaster skin” as well as being a Nazi obsessed with racial purity. Another character aligned with the antagonist is a “large nefil with white-blond hair” whose “right cheek was pitted with shrapnel scars”; there is a strong correlation between being unusually albino-like, scarring and being evil.
In contrast, Frohock positions a ‘normative’ German father and his eldest son as monsters passing unobtrusively.
With dark blond hair and a ruddier complexion, the young man was his father’s image right down to Joachim’s sublime smile. Nothing sinister marked his features, but then again monsters generally moved through the world unobtrusively, camouflaged by banality until their deeds manifested in the form of dead bodies or broken souls.
However, the other son in that family is ‘exceptionally pale’ with ‘hoarfrost hair and eyes the color of ice’. The father was a perpetrator of domestic abuse that we don’t see other than its effects, but his sons are enmeshed in evil. In the end, after actively participating in evil instead of fleeing, the albino-type son seeks redemption. In so doing, he becomes a ‘heroic albino’ (TV tropes) but the other son remains evil to the end.
A too-significant number of Nazis in Where Oblivion Lives are albino-types instead of being, as per Doerr (2015), “The true Aryan is as blond as Hitler [image above left], as slim as Göring [image top right], and as tall as Goebbels [image bottom right, Goebbels is the short guy in the front row]—”’ Frohock gives one notable albino-type the role of ‘heroic albino’ when he seeks redemption. This dichotomy is complex and to unpack it thoroughly would add several hundred words to what is already becoming an extensive essay. In short, I would prefer one fully-fleshed character with realistically depicted albinism alongside Goering, Goebbels and Hitler types instead of a multitude of genocidal ‘Aryans’ who are albino-types without vision impairment.
Shall I get on my hobby horse and talk about how people with albinism have vision impairment to varying degrees and how those with ‘snowy hair and alabaster skin’ would be disabled due to poor eyesight and, with albinism this severe, a human of this appearance would probably be legally blind? Shall I rant about how Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of disabled Germans — Fries (2017) thinks about 300,000 — before moving on to murdering queers, socialists and people of other races? I think I’ll just sigh audibly and give Frohock A VERY HARSH LOOK. In my opinion, use of these vilifying tropes is the biggest flaw in Where Oblivion Lives. At least she partially redeems herself, if in a mixed fashion, when the albino-type Rudi seeks redemption.
Frohock’s use of language is seamless. Although she sometimes uses Spanish or German terms because her characters think in those languages, she explains the context in the ensuing narrative. And, once, she used a word with which I was unfamiliar: horripilated. I googled it. It’s a thing. And it’s fairly self-explanatory:
undergo horripilation, in which the hairs stand erect from the body due to cold, fear, or excitement. “my skin horripilated and goose pimples ran up my spine” (Dictionary)
I love both the word, the connotation and learning a new term! At other times Frohock’s prose is almost poetic. I love her emphasis on music and sound, and her use of musical terms as descriptors, which suits the characters.
With a kick-ass adventure, the world hanging in the balance with the rise of Nazis in the supernatural and mortal realms, romance, queerness, domestic violence, addiction, and more, the nefilim are in for one hell of a ride. I’m buckling up for the journey. The depiction of disability is disappointing in an otherwise excellent feminist read. If Frohock continues telling this story as well as the tv series Bablyon 5, which also dealt with difficult social issues like eugenics, xenophobia and addiction then I’m staying until the end of the series. Next book, STAT.
ISBN 10: 0062825615
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Format: electronic, pp.368
Category: fantasy, historical fantasy, LGBT, romance
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Fries, K. (2017). ‘The Nazis’ First Victims Were the Disabled’: New York Times, accessed 4 July 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/opinion/nazis-holocaust-disabled.html.
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