Work Experience Annotations
As I noted when I was writing Book II, I was determined to explore the Nameless World in the series, rather than just keeping the books bound to Whitehall School. Work Experience, therefore, is largely set in the Cairngorm Mountains (named for the mountains in Scotland) rather than either Zangaria or anywhere else.
There’s a reason for that. As of the end of Study In Slaughter, Emily has been through hell – several times over. She’s at the end of her tether and suffering from something that might as well be PTSD. She doesn't need to return to Zangaria, or stay at Whitehall; she needs a break from everything. And so she accompanies Lady Barb on her rounds.
The Cairngorms themselves are based, at least in part, on Norway. My parents used to take us there for holidays and it was fantastic. Utterly primitive, of course – the less said about the toilets the better – but marvellous. I simply don’t have the words to describe them, but most of the scenery of the Cairngorms comes from my memories.
This isn't true of the local civilisation, which is a mishmash of Russian peasants and Scottish highlanders. Most of the locals are dirt-poor, completely isolated from all forms of learning; their lives are nasty, brutish and short. Many of their customs, particularly the ones Emily finds disgusting, are drawn from Russian history. There is a logic behind them, true, but it is hard for modern minds to accept.
For Emily, the trip is an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.
Mother Holly is a Hedge Witch. It isn't a particularly prestigious title in the Nameless World; Hedge Witches (they can be male or female) rarely have very much magic and tend to offer either low-magic potions or tricks to help the local population. They certainly can't do much to prevent their people from being abused by the lords, which is at least partly why Mother Holly accepts the offer of necromancy.
At this point in her life, Emily is tired and suffering from a form of PTSD – and not a little depressed, hence the offer of a chance to relax away from both Whitehall and Zangaria.
Emily’s relationship with Jade is a little rocky, for various reasons. At the end of Book I, Jade thought Emily was basically unmarriageable; there were dark rumours about her, her purported father is feared as much as he is respected and her future looked rocky. As he liked Emily – and he does – he thought he was doing her a favour by proposing marriage. However, Emily took fright and then wound up Baroness of Cockatrice, which rendered her too grand for poor Jade. It’s probably for the best, though; they wouldn't have made a good married couple.
The Travellers fall into a gray area between the magical bloodlines and newborn magicians such as Imaiqah (and, technically, Emily.) They’re generally regarded as low-power magicians, although they do have some surprises up their sleeves, and they can't take advantage of the scholarships offered to newborn magicians. Emily’s offer of a place at Whitehall for Jasmine means they will be able to send her to school, rather than teaching her themselves.
One thing I don’t think many people in the West understand is just how close to the margins some of the world’s poor actually live. There’s little in the way of social services in Malaysia, for example, and it’s actually worse in many parts of Africa. This tends to breed both fatalism and resentment for anyone who is seen as useless – disabled children, for example, are often mistreated because they’re a drain on resources. In this case, people would bitterly resent having to take a child into their house, knowing that the child was literally taking food from their children’s mouths. Abuse wouldn’t be surprising.
But the hell of it is that they have a point. Another mouth, eating food, might make the difference between life and death for the entire family.
A couple of people asked if Hodge was out of his mind, as he was trying to rape a magician. It wasn't a very clever thing to do, but there are some countervailing points.
Hodge has a very limited set of mental horizons. He doesn't know the world beyond a handful of mountains, in which he is a powerful person because his father is the village headman. The whole idea of someone having magic is largely alien to him; he knows magic exists, but he doesn't really comprehend its power. Meanwhile, every girl he wants yields to him because of his father, yet he doesn't realise that it is his father. To him, he is a paragon of male power, to whom all girls must submit. (This isn't an uncommon delusion.)
Emily simply doesn’t look very threatening, let alone powerful. To Hodge, she’s nothing more than another meek little girl – she couldn't even meet his gaze – and he saw her as being weak, so someone he could take at will. And he was wrong.
This scene wasn't easy to write, but it is important. It's the moment when Emily finally starts to overcome her problems.
Death Vipers are nasty little beasts, as I believe I mentioned in Study in Slaughter. They’re not only utterly lethal, they sweat a contact poison that makes it very dangerous to pick them up without intensive protection. It’s poison was seeping through Emily’s shirt and would have killed her, if it had touched her bare skin before she managed to make the creature her familiar.
Familiar bonds aren’t that complex. A magician who finds a compatible creature – not many do – can use the creature as an ally, or a tool. If the creature happens to be poisonous, as the Death Viper is, the poison becomes harmless to the magician. Once the bond settles, the magician can also use the familiar to cast certain spells.
Incidentally, I put the line about A Snake Called Voldemort in as a joke, but I was promptly assured that yes, there is a piece of fan fiction with that title <rolls eyes>.
Emily’s story about the good witch at a school for wicked witches is Black Magic Academy, by Emily Sanderson. This is something of a meta-reference; Emily the character was named for Emily the writer. My review of it can be found on Amazing Stories.
The Allied Lands Postal Service is a remnant of the Old Empire, although (by our standards) it’s much more like the Pony Express. Interfering with it would certainly cause problems, eventually attracting attention the village headman would prefer to avoid. The whole problem – let a potential criminal go or risk angering enemies he cannot hope to fight – seems insolvable until Emily and Lady Barb arrive.
Truth-testing has a number of rules wrapped around it, notably a ban on exploring matters that aren't directly connected to the issue at hand.
Homosexuality is, I suspect, taboo in so many cultures precisely because it doesn't lead to children. A homosexual king wouldn't be trying to father children, even bastard children. In a highly-macho culture like the mountains, it would also be seen as a sign of femininity or outright weakness. Rudolf’s sexual leanings may have saved him from the runes, but they also risk his family’s grip on power.
The Allied Lands as a whole have mixed responses to homosexuality. Noblemen are expected to father children first and foremost, so homosexuality would be frowned upon; magicians are supposed to be the senior partners in such relationships, rather than allow themselves to be dominated. (As in our world, the whole issue is surrounded with hypocrisy; the Romans believed pretty much the same.)
There’s something heartbreaking about Emily’s observation that Lady Barb and Sergeant Miles might be developing a relationship. Emily has come to think of Lady Barb as a mother, of sorts, but her birth mother married poorly and became a drunkard. Without ever quite realising it, Emily is worrying that Lady Barb will go the same way.
Which is tragic, because Sergeant Miles is a decent man and Emily, of all people, has good reason to know it.