Audiobook Review: The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world.   In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities.  Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”

This book has been on my radar for almost an year but I just kept putting it on the back burner for whatever reasons. But I recently came across it being talked about on Twitter and as we are always talking about the importance of good representation in media, I decided to pick it up and it’s really such an informative work. 

I have to say that I didn’t always completely understand the terminology being used in the book because it’s definitely more of an academic/research work and not just for casual reading. The author makes some very important points about how important representation is especially in media for young adults and teenagers, but also that the bit of rep that Black characters get is not always good and more often than not falls into very old and standard stereotypes, which do nothing for positive inclusion. The author dives in depth into four popular media franchises which were made from book to screen, and how the changes that were made to the Black characters during this transition from one medium to another fall into these tropes. 

From the depiction of Rue in Hunger Games where she becomes a plot device for the white heroine’s character growth, Gwen in the British show Merlin who ends up being sad and alone towards the end, Bonnie on The Vampire Diaries who never has a fulfilling romantic relationship despite being the self-sacrificing moral center of the show, and Angelina in Harry Potter who gets made fun of despite being a capable witch and then got whitewashed in the movies (even though she is the only named Black girl in the series). The author also dissects the reactions in the fandom towards these characters and how many readers seem incredulous to the idea that Black girls can be a queen in a historical, or be desirable and happy, or just exist with a fulfilling narrative of their own and not to further the arc of a white character. As someone who has read and seen all four of these books/movies/shows, it really made me look at all of them in a different light, and realize that we all have been conditioned to believe that centering of white characters is normal and anything else is other and exceptional. 

To conclude, I’m not really able to express exactly how I felt about this book but it truly was very eye opening and I think it’s an important read for anyone who wants to read and review books or any other media more critically, especially when it comes to representation. But I will say that you’ll feel more engaged with this book if you have read/seen all four of the series that are discussed, otherwise you might feel a little lost. And if you are someone who loves more academic or research oriented works which critique our modern young adult media, then this book is perfect for you. 

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