"Centernia is realistic fantasy." This is a phrase that's been repeated to me many times during convention conversations. Centernia hits on a variety of heavy topics...divorce, drug abuse, sexuality, economic imbalance...all wrapped up in a wild tale of magic and mayhem. I would like to analyze a few of these topics in greater depth, starting with depression.
*****Book 1 & 2 Spoilers Ahead*****
Nico is a character who experiences an inordinate amount of trauma. At the end of Return to the Castle, his parents are dead, Misa is dead, he's been doomed to a life without physical intimacy and he's about to become enslaved in the Mines of Briken. At the opening of Mark of the Castle, we can add torture, physical maiming, and an encounter with a Sinari woman. He’s hunted by mages and he fears that returning home may put Teren in danger. There's not much more that could be done to torture this man.
Through all of Return to the Castle, we established that Nico is generally a very logical, clever and resourceful person. In response to his tenuous situation, he could hide in the forest, obscure his identity, and send a message to his friends. What does he do instead?
He attempts suicide.
The cocktail of depression and PTSD.
Many protagonists in sci-fi and fantasy remain unscathed by the mental aftermath of the traumas they have survived, and if they do suffer, it’s mentioned in passing. Nico is not one of them. The shattered pieces of his life continuously jab at his psyche and dominate most of Mark of the Castle.
After Nico's suicide attempt is foiled, he’s set on the path to return home. Again, he doesn’t take the opportunity to reach out for help. His mental state obscures his better judgment and he becomes stuck in Yellow Valley until Jessica and Jared discover him. Panicking, he lashes out. He attacks Jessica and seriously wounds Jared in an act of hostility we can attribute to his PTSD. Jessica finally gets through to him by evoking Misa’s name, and it seems his deceased friend is his only tie to mental stability.
At this point, I’d like to mention Nico’s right eye, which becomes a symbol of his mental state. In Chapter One, we learned that it was so badly damaged he’s unable to open it. In Yellow Valley, it’s still severely injured.
Nico and Jessica eventually end up in the hands of the Holy Circus where Nico receives one more emotional kick: his father had remarried and had a hidden family. He is clearly unhappy about this discovery, avoids his new family, and is prickly when Jessi asks about them.
Odd family situation aside, with the circus Nico finally has a chance to breathe. Aunt Dahlia promises to keep him hidden. He’s in this sanctuary with Jessi, the one person he’s physically attracted to.
How does he react?
By lashing out, remaining socially withdrawn and lethargic.
“I don’t understand you,” Jessica scowled. “Why are you so angry all of a sudden?”
“I want to be left in peace.”
“But you’ve been locked away for so long, and all you want to do now is hide in a tent?!”
Nico remains in this state for many chapters until they return to the mining town of Briken, the origin of his despair. Jessica experiences the toxicity of the poisoned town and burns her throat in the acid rain. Nico offers her a mild antidote in the Plookory eggs. He talks about the ph levels of the yolks and his old analytical side comes through. After drinking the concoction, they converse about their previous relationship and Jessica feels hope that her friend is not entirely lost.
“It was like a tiny crack in the wall with just a sliver of light.”
A few days later, Nico saves his brother Reese from the needlewasp eggs. He relies on his logic and knowledge to figure out the source of his brother's fever. He experiences a major turning point as he sidesteps tragedy and receives sincere gratitude from his father's family.
As his Reese recovers, Nico repairs a clock, gaining the attention of his brethren who are eager to have someone with his mechanical skills. Nico starts going through behaviors that are more normal as he is tasked to repair the gadgets of the circus. He finds peace in the work, so much so that he attempts to rekindle his relationship with Jessica by taking her to the dance at Watersglade. Despite his improvement, he is not cured of his mental health disorder. At the dance, Nico experiences severe anxiety and panics in the crowded underwater ballroom. Jessica confronts him in the park outside. He speaks to her about an emotional state anyone with depression knows too well.
“Why did you stop loving me?” she asked.
The question was strange.
His feelings for her had never truly vanished, but had greyed like all of his life.
“I forced myself to eat the cake tonight,” he said suddenly.
Jessica crinkled her face, waiting for his explanation.
“I made myself eat the cake. I know it was good cake, the logical side of my brain said it was good cake. I felt nothing from it, no euphoria, no warm happiness, all the little emotions that go with that first bite of a wonderful piece of cake. I have no appetite for any food. I ate it because I knew you would be sad and ask me why. So, I ate the cake, and pretended I liked it.”
“Okay, so I’m cake,” Jessica smiled at the absurdity of the metaphor, “but this is all of life for you?”
“But you are not cake,” he insisted, “and I refuse to lie to you because it would be cruel.”
Several times, Jessica mentions ways to help him, including medication from earth and empathic intervention through Teren. He shies away from both, fearing a greater mental crash like the one that had destroyed his mother.
Eventually, Nico's friends come to find them in their Holy Circus hiding. After a brief separation, Nico returns to Aurumice. As he walks on the castle grounds, we learn that his right eye has gotten a bit better and he’s able to see blurry forms again.
Hidden in the castle, he comes to terms with another source of his depression, his father’s death. His “eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room” as he explores his father’s untouched office and old memories. This line is a direct contrast to the opening chapters where his eye is unable to handle the shift in light.
In Aurumice, Nico’s powers re-emerge slowly and he gains confidence. The castle in danger, he regains a sense of duty. On the eve of the fight with the needlewasps, he reaches out to Jessica. She welcomes him, bringing down his fear of intimacy. His character takes another step towards recovery.
In the midst of the needlewasp battle, he’s reunited with his old friend Savina. She asks him what happened to his eye, and he replies ‘it’s better than it was.’
In the last chapter of the book, Nico finally experiences freedom as the weight of the Aurumician debt is lifted from his shoulders. To symbolize his healing, “his eyes traveled up to the crystal apex of the ballroom.” There’s no mention of the damage and we can assume his wound has healed.
Nico will always bear the scar over his eye, and I’m certain there will be moments when the shadows of his past will creep up again. I hope that Mark of the Castle takes the reader on a realistic journey through depression.
On a personal level, I wrote Mark of the Castle when recovering from post-partum depression. My right eye is permanently nerve damaged due to my brain tumor. Nico’s struggles are my own, and his triumph likewise echos my recovery.
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