Fandom novels are gradually growing as a subgenre within YA and NA. I like them because they reflect a world in which I grew and matured, finding my friends. Even so, it can be hard to find a book that resonates with your experience and doesn’t mock fans. (Yes, I still have a long memory of certain YA novels that make it feel like the authors hate fandom.)
Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good acknowledges that it is hard to explain fandom to an outsider. It doesn’t help that fanfic is sometimes sold illegally en masse, and some fans can be obsessive. Even so, we don’t know how to communicate it to our loved ones that we have a passion for a community built over fiction. Then we stop trying, even when it’s important. That can lead to disaster, as it does in this novel.
Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good by Nancy Werlin
Zoe wants what her parents have: stability, good jobs, and true love. Oh, and being appreciated for her marketing efforts would be good as well as she films her neighbor’s cat with homemade soaps. Even so, the cat Wentworth’s lack of cooperation isn’t Zoe’s biggest problem. That would be her boyfriend Simon, and Zoe’s commitment to supporting him. When Zoe decides to go to DragonCon to find fellow fans of her new favorite show Bleeders and build up awareness, she finds herself flying to cons on the pretext of visiting colleges and going beyond simple bullet journal lists. Zoe soon has to juggle the campaign to renew Bleeders for season three with normal life. Soon the two clash, with disastrous consequences.
I do admit that I’ve met people at cons but I haven’t made instant friends where we stay in contact after; usually, I know them already. The exceptions are fellow authors who are acquaintances that then become friends over our desire to write; shoutout to them since they probably are reading this. Zoe finds her people, who love to cosplay and talk about fiction. She feels like she belongs, where she wants to be rather than an obligation to her jerky boyfriend.
Con culture runs through much of the story. It makes me wistful for the ones I’ve seen. There are large ones like NYCC, small ones such as a local version with mainly kids and parents, and those in-between. You can almost smell the fast-food roasting in the air along with fresh ink as artists and actors sign photographs. No matter the size, Sebastian tries his best to get the blood costume working. He has a few spectacular failures, at one point damaging a thousand-dollar painting.
We also get a look at bullet journaling, and how it’s done. As someone who’s starting bullet journaling and trying to understand it, Zoe has mastered the art beautifully. She even writes a college essay about it, that a few places love. The lists help her stay organized as her life becomes more chaotic. Even when job prospects get worse, the list perseveres.
The cast is also delightful. Meldel stands on the soapbox but also has a big heart. Liv, nonbinary with she/her and they/them pronouns, gets to the heart of Zoe’s relationship problems with Simon. Cam is blunt to a fault but cares a lot about Zoe, missing her when she has to skip on a con. Sebastian, bless his heart, tries to work out a cosplay that actually bleeds without humiliating him or causing property damage. Then we have Todd. We’ll get to him later.
As for the show itself? Bleeders as a sci-fi thriller don’t seem to be my cup of tea, what with all the death and dying, but it seems to have a place in a fandom where people understand that viruses can be deadly and that is where stories can bloom. It feels like Nancy Werlin knew about COVID all too well, and how it isolates us. (I kid because with how long it takes to publish a book, COVID was likely not on the horizon.)
This novel does address how fandoms help you create alternate identities. That is fine online, where you hide bits of yourself to avoid the Gamergate mods and extremists who are obsessed with purity culture. In real life, however, people resent when they find out you’ve been keeping secrets, especially when they are your partner in a relationship. Several older couples warn Zoe about this while they play Cards Against Humanity, how hiding a huge part of yourself can lead to hiding who you are. Relationships require a level of honesty.
Zoe admits she should tell Simon the truth. On the other hand, she found out about the show because he was ranting about his little sister watching it. That didn’t make a good first impression for what he would think of her.
This is the SPOILER point. You have been warned.
I must say, the author succeeded in building great characters. They made me pretty angry about how they behaved. It’s not a problem with the story with what happened because it was realistic. With that said, I do want to declare war on two of them.
Simon by far is the worst. Sure, good for him on registering people to vote but he is a terrible boyfriend. Zoe is oblivious to the fact that he is entitled to a fault, arrogant, condescending, and a know-it-all. He rummages through his little sister’s Internet history and tells their mother like they’re five years old again. While Simon justifies it by the fact that he and Josie don’t have a father and someone has to parent her, Josie calls him a stick-in-the-mud that once understood how to laugh but only cares about his own future. One good deed at the end of the book towards Josie and his campaign management to register voters does not make up for the rest of his actions. Simon also knows it, the way he squirms when finally coming to a convention for Josie’s sake. It doesn’t help that there are implications he cheated on Zoe with a fellow office worker and jumped on the opportunity to take the moral high ground. She never crossed that line.
It did annoy me that Simon didn’t suffer any punishment for what he did to Zoe. Her lying about taking her sister to a convention is one thing because as we find out, Josie casually threatened to blackmail Zoe about her previous trips. There’s also the fact that Simon refuses to even give Bleeders a chance and insults it at every moment he catches Josie watching an episode. Simon applying to Harvard without telling Zoe about it, after she went touring potential colleges for them, is quite another. She applied to one school at her parents’ behest, but not planning to commit to it.
Hiding a bit of yourself for fear of judgment and not being honest about your future are different levels of relationship wrongs. What’s more, Zoe realizes that Simon would have broken up with her if he had been accepted to Harvard anyway, regardless of the fandom or not, and he was looking for an excuse while she was doing everything to keep them together. To add insult to injury, a girl in the senator’s office had eyes for him. The only karma that Simon gets is he sees the senator at a convention, dressed to the nines in cosplay, and says that she’s a big fan. There’s a hint that office conversations will become very awkward because the senator will realize that Simon is an opportunist.
Of course, life isn’t fair. Men also tend to get away with more than women do when it comes to double standards in romance and fandom. At the very least Zoe can let Simon go, and watch him squirm on the convention floor as his new girlfriend admits she may get into Bleeders and stares at her predecessor who went viral and became a minor fandom celebrity.
(I do hope that Simon’s current girlfriend realizes that he is an opportunistic tool. She deserves better than a two-faced duplicitous self-righteous prat like him.)
Todd comes in close second and makes you wonder, “Why are men?” He belittles Meldel, which insults and turns her on at the same time. Todd also has a habit of interrupting women in general, even if they are complete strangers. Then he goes too far by making a video of Zoe getting fired and humiliated, which goes viral. While this does help save the show, Zoe gave no consent to being filmed or mocked. Todd doesn’t even have the decency to apologize about how Zoe feels like she can’t go into cons anymore. Yet he does look away when confronted, showing that on some level he knows what he did was wrong. He’s not the worst, but he is pretty bad.
Zoe promises offscreen revenge on Todd and declares him a mortal enemy, but we don’t know the details. The novel ends just as we get to that part. Excuse me? Viral posts were what led to women and marginalized people getting death threats in Gamergate. Todd has proved that he’s no better than entitled white supremacist fans. If anything, Mel should have put him on the couch for a month, if not broken up with him outright.
In addition, I hope we get a sequel to address the fact that Todd and Simon both got away with their crimes and misdemeanors respectively. It would also be nice to see fandom stories about what happens with season 3 of Bleeders and the fic realm.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.