A few people have mentioned to me that the Emily Kane series has become much darker, and even depressing in Book 6 – especially Timothy Richley, who has sent me some insightful emails on this subject. He suggests that the darkness seems to have entered Emily’s heart right around the time she went to Nepal, and ever since she has been overwhelmed by remorse for all the dead bodies she leaves in her wake, and is even preoccupied by fantasies of her own death.
I think Timothy’s right about this, and I’ve also been feeling a need to turn Emily’s thoughts onto sunnier paths. [A side-note: I’m not entirely in control of this. Emily herself often dictates events as much as I do. If this makes no sense to you, try writing a book; then you’ll see.] In Book 7, I plan on accomplishing exactly this, first by turning the focus back to her little “family” and a reunion of Li Li with her uncle Jiang, but also by giving Hsu Qi’s positive influence a chance to have a greater impact on Emily. In particular, I’d like to have her help Emily find some reassurance from her ghosts.
I think Emily’s development follows an inevitable trajectory, if you consider a couple of recurring motifs in the series. I originally imagined Emily as a remorseful heroine, and wanted to trace the impact of her remorse (and not just her fists) on the people she encounters. Of course, she is saddened by the violence she can’t avoid perpetrating, but she also has an impact on the villains who confront her. In one way or another, she becomes the agent of their redemption. Connie is the most obvious of these, but also Li Li’s father, Tang, from Book 1. The West Virginia bikers are another case, and maybe even Colonel Park, from Book 2. Shinjo is a variant of this from Book 3. Kathy Gunderson plays this role in Book 5, and in Book 6, Lt. Yan and Tsukino, and to a lesser extent Gyoshin Heiji, function in this way.
As I think about the episodes in which a villain trespasses against Emily and is then neutralized, I am reminded that the redemption of these folks comes at an emotional cost to Emily. She finds herself responsible, in some sense, for them, and even takes on some of their guilt (whether rightly or not). Jiang points this out in an ironic comment toward the end of Book 3, when Emily says she feels an obligation to take care of Li Li on the basis of an old proverb that if you save a person’s life, you become responsible for them. Jiang corrects her, saying that this only applies to beggars and thieves, and what you become responsible for is their debts – which is another way of saying that you take on their guilt.
I was initially attracted to this motif as a response to what I thought was a shortcoming of much action-adventure-thriller fiction, namely that the villain is annihilated by the story. What I mean is that the villain’s story no longer continues in any interesting way. You may recognize this as typical of much crime fiction, in which once the perpetrator is apprehended they are disposed of and not heard from again. I thought there might be something interesting in thinking about what happens to these people. The West Virginia bikers are a case of this – Emily neutralizes them in book 2, but their story continues in Book 3… and we may not have heard the end of them even now. Connie is another example, and perhaps a much more elaborate one. She enters the story as an aimless assassin, someone trapped in her own ambitions, and in the thrall of Meacham and David Walker. What becomes of her after the initial encounter with Emily is a powerful thread in every subsequent book. Ultimately, she comes to think of herself as Emily’s third mother-figure.
The result is that Emily builds up a subtle network of people loyal to her, but it comes at a cost to her, and the development of her character throughout the series is intended to reflect this. You may recall how, at the end of Book 3, once the killing is done, Emily looks up into the night sky and asks, in the resentful tones of someone ripped untimely from her adolescence, if there is anyone else the Goddess of the Sun wants her to kill. When she decided to go to Kathmandu, it was in the aftermath of that experience, and to escape those bitter emotions. Her fighting skills emerged out of the meditative connection she found to other people, hearing the movement of her opponent’s heart through her own breathing. She had always been a loner as a child and when she finally finds a connection to other people, it is based on the violence of her life. We might well think the irony of this is quite painful, which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that she thinks her meditative insights are more important than her fighting skills, more truly who she is. When she decides to go to Nepal, she hopes to find meditative access to this truth without the violence that had characterized her life until that point. Unfortunately, she is rebuffed by the Tulku, Rinpoche Tashi, who tells her that she will not find a meditative escape from the life of a warrior so easily, and this is driven home for her by the final battle with the Nepali gangsters. The one bright spot for her was the vision of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, that she glimpses for a brief moment.
Spoiler Alert: skip this next paragraph if you haven’t read Book 6 yet.
In Book 5, the Navy turns out not to provide her any relief, and its discipline seems even to imperil the meditative side of her life, and she complains about this just before agreeing to compete at the tournament at Quantico. She is the target of a dark conspiracy whose true dimensions she doesn’t fathom until the end of Book 6, and she feels a perplexing sense of obligation to the Crown Princess, which is not so easily reconciled with her duties as an officer. All along, she is concerned about the prospect of leading soldiers – about whether she is too dangerous a person for anyone to follow – and is ostensibly spared the burden of it in her role as a helicopter co-pilot. But she can’t seem to avoid the loyalty and trust of men like Tarot and Racket, and worries that they can’t appreciate the danger she feels all around her. Of course, when Tarot is killed, it is not because of any danger an ordinary soldier couldn’t assess on his own, and it is arguably the result of her rash decision to take on Diao by herself. As you might expect, she feels the weight of her responsibility for his death, and will need some assistance to get free of it.
In Book 7, it is Hsu Qi who will help her find a healthier relationship to death, and the dead, and will help her imagine a happier life, free of the demands of Amaterasu-omikami and the Imperial Household of Japan. Those baleful abstractions that have so dominated her consciousness in the first 6 books will give way in the sequels to healthier responsibilities to the concrete individuals who really matter to her – her mother and Andie, Li Li and Stone, Jiang Xi, Connie, Ethan, Kathy and CJ, and ultimately Perry. The path to happiness will not be free of danger, and much mayhem may have to be endured, and perpetrated, but it ought to be in the service of something much more joyful and life-affirming. Emily will continue to be the fulcrum of life and death – the true master who can use her sword to give life or take it away – but she will discover a new satisfaction in the life her destiny opens up before her.