I grew up loving Shakespeare, removed from an academic context where the texts are treated as the be-all-end-all of English literature. Stripped-down versions and retellings were where I thrived up to and through high school, and to this day make up my favourite takes on the Bard’s works. In that spirit, Brittany N. Williams’ That Self-Same Metal has become one of my new favourite books set in Shakespeare’s London, one that is not a direct retelling of any one story, but rather that takes the world and the words, and gives them a much-needed breath of fresh air.
The novel, the first in a series, follows Joan Sands, a 16-year-old Black girl living in London, and working for Shakespeare’s theater troupe The Kings Men, as their swordsmistress. Joan, like her parents and her brother James, is Orisha-blessed. In her case, this means that Joan can sense the presence of Fae, and can manipulate metal. Her concerns are those of any teenager no matter the era — unknowns about her future profession, crushes on the cute boy in the theater company, problems with an ex-girlfriend — until one day she sees her godfather arrested by the king’s soldiers and taken away. That act, for reasons she doesn’t yet understand, causes a sudden spike in Fae attacks on the people of London.
The larger mystery of the Fae, as well as Joan’s personal struggles both internally, and as a young, Black, queer woman living in a world that holds every one of those adjectives against her, are all given equal time to shine, and are woven together so expertly. There is magic, passion and humor sprinkled throughout, along with some genuinely terrifying moments. The world Joan inhabits is one that is familiar to anyone who ever had to take a Shakespeare class, but at the same time, simply in the inclusion of queer characters and characters of color, feels that much more accessible to those of us used to having to fight to be seen as just people in a story set anytime prior to the last 30 years or so.
As a heroine, Joan is the kind of self-assured teenager we all wish we were at 16. She is confident in her abilities, which are considerable, but is not immune to the kinds of questionable choices or doubts all of us made at that age in the full conviction that we were 100% correct. With the book ending on the kind of cliffhanger that will leave the reader desperate for more, I cannot wait to see where Joan goes as a character, and what will happen to her next.
Throughout the book, Williams’ love of theater and Shakespeare’s works shines through. She doesn’t hesitate to draw attention to plays and characters that were wrong back then, and wronger still today (Othello and Measure for Measure come to mind). But to love something is to critique it, and she does so wonderfully.
As an adult reading this book, I loved it. I also know that had this book fallen into my hands at 13, I would have been nothing short of obsessed. It injects a well-known body of texts with adventure, romance, and welcomes in all readers, no matter their background, inviting them to find a place for themselves in the magic.
That Self-Same Metal is out April 25, 2023. Special thank you to Abrams Books for the advance copy for review purposes.