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Literature / Handbook for Mortals

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Handbook for Mortals is a 2017 novel by Lani Sarem. It enjoyed a (very) brief tenure on the New York Times bestseller list before being pulled because of the controversy surrounding the circumstances of its ascent.

Early-twentysomething Zade Holder is the magically-gifted daughter of a tarot card reader living in a small, closed-minded Tennessee town. Because of this, she has always felt like an outcast and longs for a more normal life. One day, she leaves to work in the prestigious Las Vegas magic show run by famous illusionist Charles Spellman. Using actual magic, Zade easily gets a role, and achieves stardom, friendship, and the sense of belonging she's always wanted. Most significantly, Zade attracts the affections of two other employees of the show named Mac and Jackson. After months of dates, concerts, celebrity run-ins, and a magical duel in a shopping mall parking lot, Zade and Charles begin working on an actually-magic, potentially deadly, showstopping act. On opening night, complications in Zade's love life cause the act to go horribly wrong.

Handbook for Mortals provides examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: The Plain White T's are shown to be starting to become famous and on the verge of getting a record deal, which would place the story sometime in the first half of the 2000s, but the TV show Game of Thrones is mentioned as having at least two seasons, meaning that the novel must take place after 2012. Finally, Zade and Jackson go on a date to see a superhero movie starring Ryan Reynolds, which must have been either Green Lantern or Deadpool, films that came out in 2011 and 2016 respectively.note 
  • Author Appeal: Lani Sarem worked in David Copperfield's magic show, managed bands, rides motorcycles, and enjoys tarot cards.
  • Author Avatar: Lani Sarem originally wrote Handbook as a screenplay in which she herself would play Zade. Thus, the only difference between Zade and Lani is that Zade can do magic for real, and Sarem is about ten years older than Zade is meant to be. Beyond that, Lani Sarem and Zade look very similar; they're similar heights and weights, they both have blonde, multicoloured hair, etc.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Sofia falls 50 feet into a pool of water and lands flat on her back. She walks away with a minor concussion and a few bruises, despite being unconscious and not breathing when she's pulled out of the water. Likewise, when Zade flips a cyclist's bike while he's on it (he accidentally bumped her), and he lands on his back on asphalt, he's not seriously hurt.
  • Artistic License – History: Dela says that tarot cards come from "an ancient form of Judaism." Tarot cards were invented in the 13th century AD, and weren't used for occult purposes until the 18th.
  • Artistic License – Religion: The text claims that Biblical kings consulted soothsayers before any major decisions, and that this is the origin of tarot cards. It's well known that under Old Testament law any form of fortune telling other than direct communication with God was a capital offence. (Not to mention that tarot cards were only invented in the 13th century and were first used for fortune telling in the 18th).
  • Beige Prose: Much of the text is very plain and lacking in anything descriptive or interesting, likely because it was converted directly from a script.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension:
    • Zade is attracted to Mac the moment she sees him, and he to her, but the first interaction between them turns into an enormous fight.
    • Dela and Charles.
  • Bishie Sparkle: Zade describes Jackson's eyes as "sparkling" multiple times.
  • Bouquet Toss: Dela throws hers, and magically makes Zade catch it.
  • Byronic Hero: Mac is easily angered, has trust issues, and gets a little bit physically violent. Zade thinks he's passionate and intense.
  • The Cameo:
    • Zade runs into Carrot Top and Wayne Newton while at the shopping mall.
    • Jackson's band is called the Plain White T's, and all of its real-life members appear. However, Jackson (an Expy of actor/musician Jackson Rathbone) has taken on the role of lead singer.
  • Clark Kenting: Zade uses magic every night for her act, but gets away with it by saying that her "illusions" are "old family secrets." This leads to conflict between her and Mac, whose real name is incidentally Clark Kent.
  • Cool Bike:
    • Zade owns a Ducati Streetfighter.
    • Mac owns a 1969 Triumph Trophy.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Zade's father was broken up with via letter and magically forbidden from talking about the fact he had a daughter.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: All over the place.
    She wasn't amused—nor did she find me funny, in the least
    Jackson seemed pretty happy that I had agreed. "Sweet," he said happily
    It was a photo of Zade and she directed her outspoken words directly to the photo.
    I was messing with a particular kind of magick—a kind of magick that was both strong and volatile. I was messing with a particular kind of magick, which I hadn't quite yet mastered. Chaos magick, is both strong and volatile, as its name implies and is by nature very unpredictable.
  • Disappeared Dad: Zade grew up without her father present in her life.
  • Entropy and Chaos Magic: Zade's trick that goes catastrophically wrong is literally done with "chaos magick".
  • Foot Popping: Almost-but-not-quite invoked by name:
    With that he kissed me passionately while bending me back like they do in the movies until my knee popped, which anyone who's ever seen any romantic movie would know, is a very good thing.
  • Fortune Teller: Zade and her mother are "gypsies" who have powers of foresight, and read tarot cards.
  • Friendless Background: Because Zade and her mother were involved with the occult, the parents in Zade's town would keep their kids from befriending her.
  • Generation Xerox: It is mentioned several times that Zade looks exactly like her mother.
  • Hand Wave: The way in which magic functions is both handwaved and consists of literal hand waving:
    It's going to look like a dagger—though it won't actually be a dagger at all. It's not worth explaining to you what it really is, other than it's magick.
    I waved my hands in elliptical motions, replaying that image in my mind. In a few seconds, my tent had risen by itself and was sitting securely on its own.
  • Hot Men at Work: Not a conventional example, but Zade thinks several times about how she thinks "show blacks" are sexy.
  • Hurricane of Aphorisms: Zade says that she is a big fan of quotes and has one for almost any occasion (even if this means the occasional misattributed quote)
  • Hypocrite: Zade often puts down other women and their femininity for being "shallow." However, Zade herself relishes male attention so much she strings along two men for months, spends two separate chapters shopping, happily buys a dress that shows off her curves, and tries different beauty products with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. If other women embrace their feminity and enjoy a one-time fling, they're vapid and shallow, but it's perfectly okay when Zade does the same thing.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each chapter is named for a major arcana tarot card, to the point the first chapter is chapter 0 to include "The Fool."
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Zade's stated motivation for going to Las Vegas.
  • Impossibly Awesome Magic Trick:
    • Zade's audition.
    • Zade and Charles' new "illusion".
  • Informed Attribute: We are often told that Jackson is charming and witty, but most of his dates with Zade are summarized.
  • Love Triangle: Zade spends the entirety of Act 2 torn between the dashing musician Jackson and the brooding, wounded Mac. In practice, almost all of Zade's interaction is with Mac and Jackson only appears a few times.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Charles is revealed to be Zade's father.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex
    Jackson: [talking about Zade] She's the kind you want to marry, not just use to get laid.
  • Meaningful Name: Master magician Charles Spellman. You might think it's his stage name. It's not.
  • Meet Cute: Zade meets Jackson when she bumps into him and he catches her.
  • Muggle–Mage Romance:
    • Zade and Mac
    • Dela and Charles
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Zade's tendency to have psychic glimpses of the near future is first brought up in chapter four. That is also the last time it's brought up.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Charles Spellman is obviously modeled on David Copperfield (whom the author knows in real life!)
    • Jackson is obviously modeled on Jackson Rathbone (whom the author knows in real life and had an obsession with while managing his band!)
  • Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: Mac overhears Zade and Charles saying they love each other and hugging, and he thinks that they're romantically involved. They're not.
  • The Peeping Tom: Mac watches Zade through a cracked-open door while she's getting her measurements taken.
  • Perky Goth: Lil, a costume designer for the show.
  • The Prima Donna: Sofia, the twenty-something girlfriend of Charles Spellman, who hates Zade for upstaging her.
  • Product Placement: The book is filled with namedrops of real brands, from Levi's jeans to Dakine duffle bags to Too Faced makeup. It happens so much that it's jarring when a superhero movie with Ryan Reynolds isn't mentioned by exact title.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: Zade will insist her name is pronounced "Zayd".
  • Ritual Magic: To save Zade's life, Mac, Charles, and Dela have to do a ritual
  • Sequel Hook:
    • Many plotlines are introduced once, never to be touched on again in Book 1.
    • The first novel ends with "and they lived happily ever after…OR DO THEY?". The "preview" of the second book begins exactly where the chapter left off, suggesting that it may have been the actual ending to the book.
  • Show, Don't Tell: The book has many long sentences and paragraphs painstakingly explaining virtually everything the author wants to get across, from explaining jokes and pop culture references to describing the reason for a character's actions at the time. This contributes to the length of the book.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Zade is so irresistible that a bar fight breaks out because of her and a teenage girl accuses her of trying to steal her boyfriend.
  • Stage Magician: Charles Spellman
  • Tarot Motifs: Zade and her mother are both tarot readers, and each of the chapters is named after one of the major arcana.
  • That Came Out Wrong: Mac accidentally says one, and it causes him a great deal of embarrassment.
  • Title Drop: Squeezed in at the very end:
    Mac: Think there's a book or something out there?
    Zade: What?
    Mac: Yeah, you know, like a handbook for mortals, just so I can keep up!
  • Unreliable Narrator: Zade misremembers events and does not disclose everything she knows as she learns it. Most significantly, she knows that Charles is her father long before the reader learns, and in the final chapter she strategically does not mention the names of the couple actually getting married for a few paragraphs, giving (what is meant to be) the impression that it's her and Mac when it's actually her parents.
  • Wall of Text: There are massive paragraphs, including ones that last multiple pages. In one chapter, a multi-page block of text is used simply to describe Mac's clothing and the etymology of the clothing term "wife beater".
  • Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma: The punctuation in this book is, um, creative:
    Mac paused but Charles sat, not reacting, Mac realized he needed to say something more than that.
    • There are also multiple typos left in, including at least one floating unpaired quotation mark and misplaced italics that suggests an accidental Ctrl+I on highlighted text.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Presumably, Charles breaks up with Sofia in order to reunite with Dela, but she never actually appears again after Zade's recovery from the climax.
  • Wizard Duel: Zade and the mysterious girl in the parking lot.
  • Woman Scorned: Literally name-dropped, Dela calls Charles' assistant this.