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Sometimes A Story Is About Making the World Better

I’m a freelancer and have been reading and watching fantasy for more than forty years, so when I read that the protagonist of Rachel Aaron’s Minimum Wage Magic was a freelance mage, I was tickled.

I had previously read Aaron’s Eli Monpress stories and her Heartstriker Series so I was confident I’d love Minimum Wage Magic and I bought it on the spot.

I was not disappointed.

Opal and the DFZ

Opal Yong-ae is a freelance mage of Korean descent who works in what used to be Detroit. The book takes place in the same universe as Aaron’s Heartstrike series, so the city that used to be Detroit is now known as the Detroit Free Zone or the DFZ.

In the DFZ there are few, if any, rules and both the geography of the city and the lives of its citizens are subject to the whims of the spirit of the city—sort of a city-wide god.

The spirit of the DFZ isn’t a big fan of rules so both magic and capitalism are ratcheted up to 11.

When people skip town without paying their rent, “cleaners” like Opal Yong-ae go in to clean everything out and make the place habitable again. The cleaners pay for the privilege and recoup their money by selling whatever they find.

Every day is a gamble, and you need to put in some hard work even if you lose. It’s a hard way to make a living.

The Pressure She’s Under

I won’t get into the spoilery details, but Opal’s life is further complicated by the fact that she owes a rather nasty person a great deal of money. The fact that the money in question was used to pay for her education makes the analogy to today’s millennials more than a little bit obvious.

As a freelancer, though, I get it. The bills always come regularly while the paychecks don’t, and taking crappy, underpaying jobs because they’re the only ones available is far too familiar.

There’s a tendency among some freelancers to equate their existence with that of gunslingers in the old west. They’re hired guns who go wherever the money is, do the job, and move on. They never hang their hat up at Kitty’s place.

That’s the daydream, though. The reality is that you’re always grinding for clients and often fighting clients for the money they owe. It’s neither glamorous nor reliable, and Minimum Wage Magic captures that desperation very well.

With a payment due soon, Opal lacks the funds to pay it. She finds a clue that may—emphasis on the may—pay off big, but she finds it next to a dead body that causes all sorts of problems.

The Resolution

I will again skip past the spoilerish stuff, saying in passing that if you liked Heartstriker, you’d love this, to come to the point of this review. Opal fights through a lot of suspense, intrigue, danger, and adorkable obliviousness to get her hands on the big payday.

And of course, that payday forces her to make a moral decision.

That’s the thing with a lot of Rachel Aaron books. The protagonist doesn’t merely try to survive or even win at all costs. The protagonist attempts to survive and win the right way—the moral way.

Humanist Fiction

There has been a tendency in fantasy in recent decades for heroes and heroines to be some truly awful people. It has made for some great characters and great stories, but it’s tiring.

I mean, I get it. We live in times that are interesting enough to prove the accuracy of the curse. Escapism isn’t just a silly diversion, it’s self-care, and when faced with the frustrations of an inept economy and an entrenched oligarchy that quite literally would rather kill the planet than give up a sliver of their filthy lucre, it’s more than understandable.

But there’s another reaction to the times we’re in. Instead of assuming that we can’t win, we assume that we can. Instead of writing revenge fantasies where the heroes act just like the people we despise, we write stories with heroes that act like people we admire.

Some people call this hopepunk, and I can grok that, but I think of it as Humanist Fiction. It’s fiction that doesn’t merely revel in hope but actively tries to make the world better by providing examples of heroes doing the right thing.