Subversive Books

Yesterday, I read an interesting blog post about the elements that make a book good.  I would not disagree with anything on that list (and I suspect you would not either).  Who wouldn’t consider theme, characters, and a satisfying ending essential to a good story?  But to that, I would like to add the word “subversive” to that list.  Because a subversive book (in my opinion) is one that makes you think.

Now, our culture is obsessed with the idea of subversive.  In fact, one could argue that the concept has become a commonplace, marketable commodity.  In advertising Inside Amy Schumer, we were assured that this comedy was subversive just like Gangman style is subversive and just like Captain America is subversive.  I could go on.  In American popular culture the word subversive, it seems, is now used to denote good; much like the term “fascist” often means nothing more than “bad”.

But what does the word subversive really mean?  According to, “subversive” is “tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system, especially a legally constituted government or set of beliefs.”  Subversive then has much in common with revolutionary.  To be subversive is to be in the minority; to advocate for things the majority does not believe in.  So for example when Berkeley students protest in the nude against just about everything, they’re not being subversive; they’re doing what you would pretty much expect Berkeley students to do.  Or when Disney finally releases a movie with a strong female lead, they’re not being subversive; they’re doing what Hollywood has been doing for over 40 years.

In a world where belief in institutions of all sorts—from politicians to courts to the media to religious institutions is at an all-time low and falling, being subversive means to celebrate those institutions.  Which brings me, in a round-about way, to what makes a book good and memorable.  And that, in turn, brings me (in a yet more-roundabout way) to the books in The Witcher Saga.

The Witcher series are “subversive” in the formulaic ways you have probably come to expect: strong women, anti-racist themes, anti-fanatical, and corrupt politician-sorcerers; it is also (very subtly) genuinely subversive.  Consider: the good guys in this series tend to be either merchants or bankers (dwarf bankers who are constantly being set upon by humans but bankers nonetheless); the least bad ruler (one who actually seems to do some good—and isn’t the idea that a government does some good a subversive one these days?) is a Teutonic-like Nilfgaardian.  And then there is the admiration for the priestesses who seem a lot like nuns.  Yes, these are priestesses to a goddess of fertility so even when they take a vow of silence (say) they honor their goddess in very direct ways.  Nonetheless, in a world that is either skeptical or hostile to religion, a statement like “it would be the first proof I’ve had that lack of faith has any kind of power at all” delivered by one of the series’ most admirable characters is wonderfully subversive in the true sense of the word.

That, in addition to the memorable characters, the themes, and satisfying endings is what makes The Witcher series not just good but memorable.  Because it really does make you think.

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