The Berlin Wall’s magic was supposed to last forever…
From Deutschland 86 to Atomic Blonde, the Cold War-era spy genre is enjoying a cultural resurgence, and W.L. Goodwater’s alternate history magical spy novel, Breach, is a delightfully supernatural addition.
“We seem to be inching back towards the Cold War,” Goodwater told Den of Geek at San Diego Comic Con. “I don’t know how quickly fiction is following behind that. Certainly, when I started writing this, with my villains being Nazis and Communist Russia, I didn’t realize that it was going to be so modern at the time. But I just think it’s a time period that has always drawn people’s imagination. The conflicts that come out of there have never really gone away.”
Set in an alternate history in which the Berlin Wall was built by Soviet magicians, Breach follows Karen, a young magician with the American Office of Magical Research and Deployment in the 1950s, tasked with investigating a mysterious fracture in the wall.
There are a lot of possible entry points into the world of Breach. It’s being promoted as John le Carré meets The Magicians, and the comparison is apt. Goodwater combines elements of spy noir with adult fantasy to create an entirely new magical world that remains very much grounded in our own.
“I love mashing up genres,” said Goodwater. “There’s no reason to stay stuck on one. I read a lot of le Carré and his spy and Cold War stuff and I liked his other stuff and it’s one of those chocolate/peanut butter things—why, don’t they taste great together! That was the only idea that I had and then I’m like ‘Okay, where do I go from that, how do I make a plot out of that premise?'”
From there, Goodwater began researching the Cold War and Berlin in particular and, as is often case, the more he read, the more he realized he didn’t know about the period.
“One of the things [I didn’t know], and I will freely admit my ignorance on this, was just how the wall physically functioned,” said Goodwater. “We really didn’t study it in school, so I kind of thought about it as a wall that bisected [the country]. West Germany and West Berlin’s on this side, and East Berlin and East Germany’s on this side. But Berlin is actually very far in the east, so the wall completely surrounds the place.”
“It’s just this little island and being completely surrounded by that and I didn’t realize that until I opened this great book on the Berlin Wall. There was this picture and it’s like ‘Oh wow, that’s what it was really like to be there, it’s just being completely surrounded by a very hostile group of people.’ So that tension, I was trying to get into the story as well.”
One of the best parts of Breach is main character Karen, who is a total Peggy Carter-type, i.e. highly competent and having to deal with institutional sexism on top of doing her job. At one point early in the book, she is asked to make coffee for her male peers—she does it, but makes the coffee so terrible that they will hopefully think twice about asking her to do the task again. Also, they will have terrible coffee.
Where did the Karen character come from?
“I think the goal of any good story is to find conflict and then just make it worse,” said Goodwater. “So, when I’m thinking about a character who’s going to be coming into this crazy situation in the 1950s, who would be in a situation to find more conflict, I thought of a woman who is very capable and therefore running into conflict with the men who may not see her as worthy of that. There’s so much room for conflict there.”
Like Peggy Carter, Karen is far from being a flat character defined by the sexism her gender expression provokes in others. For one, she is also a dedicated magical researcher, deeply interested in how she can use magic to heal rather than hurt others.
“Karen’s main interest in magic is as a researcher, trying to solve one of the things that magic can’t do, which is heal people,” explains Goodwater. “Magic does a lot of stuff to hurt people, there’s a lot of ways to break stuff, but the idea of closing a wound or mending a bone, you just can’t do that. So I wanted to have some limitations unlike some other universes where magic feels very cool and very whimsical and very fun because it can do anything but back to that conflict thing, I wanted to introduce things that it can’t do.”
“Magic can’t heal people, so that establishes Karen’s conflict as somebody who loves magic, but would like to do something constructive with it rather than just shoot fireballs at someone.”
In the world of Breach, magic works through the use of a locus, or a very important personal item that every magician uses to help focus their magic. In addition to being an important worldbuilding detail, Goodwater said he uses the loci as a way to introduce characters.
“[The question of] why does this person pick this locus establishes some rules for my universe but I’m really thinking about it as a cheat way to try to get more character depth,” said Goodwater.
Goodwater does a good job of making the world of his magicians unique amongst the rich tradition of fantasy magical systems, while also placing it within a familiar framework that does some of the narrative work for him.
“I wrote a long description of how magic works in the world,” said Goodwater. “I wrote a couple pages so that I could ground it and then I closed that document and never looked at it again because I didn’t want to stop the story for a page to talk about the minutia of this crazy little thing you just came up with. You want it to be unique but quickly understood.”
Besides, like his protagonist, Goodwater was much more interested in exploring the limits of magical power.
“[In Breach], there’s all this human history of spells that people just learn over and over and over again and they can do lots of interesting things, but there’s somethings it can’t do and that’s more of what I was interested in.”
Goodwater’s worldbuilding does include mention of various magical schools characters have attended before entering into the magical work they do in Breach. Goodwater said he wasn’t tempted to set Breach at one of these schools—”Setting it at the school certainly has been done, very, very well. Don’t wanna tread that ground too,” he said—but that kind of textured worldbuilding is important, and vital to crafting a world that can support multiple stories.
“I’m contracted for a sequel that I’m just finishing up now,” said Goodwater. “If there are more, the university that the people in the United States go to train their magicians is a possible place for future settings. Gotta keep some worldbuilding in the back pocket in case you gotta write more sequels.”
Another unique aspect of Goodwater’s magical worldbuilding is the cultural fact that Americans are prejudiced against magic, a narrative detail that came from our America’s history of isolationism. In Breach, Americans think of magic as an “Old World thing,” something they were able to avoid up until the World Wars.
“We were very isolationist, very anti Old World,” said Goodwater of Breach‘s America. “I imagine that people would still probably see this as a thing of Europe, a thing of ‘over there’ and the idea of American exceptionalism being ‘We don’t need that. We’re Americans. We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We don’t need magic.'”
This places Karen in direct conflict with her cultural context, a tension that plays out on a personal level in Karen’s relationship with her father, who fought in a World War II in which magic was very much a part of the conflict.
“The war involved magicians laying waste,” explains Goodwater. “What [Karen’s father] saw was magic killing a bunch of people, and German magic being used against him. So, it comes back with that prejudice ‘I don’t want to see that. That’s how they did it. That’s not how we did it.”
Goodwater set Breach in the mid-1950s at a time when, in our history, the Berlin Wall was not yet complete because he wanted to “set it in a time where the wounds of the war are a little bit more fresh.”
“Karen grows up as a child seeing the war and the effects but now she’s coming into that world,” continued Goodwater. “It’s kind of a new generation, that first generation after the war. So many of the people she interacts with are veterans who have gone through all that and that prejudices how they see Berlin. She’s coming into it all with fresh eyes.”
Though this is a book that is set in an alternate history version of our past, you may have noticed the many thematic interests that are very relevant to the current state of the world. Karen is an American who is working against rigid American isolationism to try to use her privilege and power for good. She is a protagonist living in a world that is desperately trying to heal itself, filled with people like herself who are trying to prevent further damage.
Breach is a book about a world trying to deal with some very real collective trauma, but it’s hopeful about what role the next generation can play in that healing. Personally, this is my favorite kind of escapism: a blend of fast-paced magical thrills and character-driven drama that also provides some much-needed catharsis based on the very real anxieties of the world that exists outside the pages of a book.
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