In ‘The Hammer of Thor,’ Rick Riordan Throws Convention Out the Window

***SPOILERS for Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan, which you should all read, suggested age range be damned.***

When I read the first book in Rick Riordan’s series about Norse gods in the modern world last year, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer, I noticed something unusual: the main character lacked a love interest. Samirah al-Abbas, the young Muslim woman Riordan created to fill the Strong Female Lead role, was engaged to and in love another character. Magnus Chase, the protagonist of the new series, had no romantic options in sight.

So I knew, when I picked up Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor last week, that Riordan would introduce a new character to serve as Chase’s love interest. I just didn’t expect her to be a gender-fluid, transgender person.

Alex Fierro was assigned male at birth, but realized when she was young that she identified as both male and female. Because of her gender fluidity, her parents kicked her out, making her homeless as a mere teenager. She asks her companions to call her “she” or “he” based on which gender she identifies with more on a given day, rather than using the pronoun “they.” (She usually feels more female, hence my use of the feminine pronoun in this piece.)

Through Magnus’ well-meaning but ignorant gaze, the reader learns about gender fluidity, being transgender, the perils of transphobia, and the history of gender fluid and transgender individuals — according to Norse mythology, they’ve existed as long as Norse gods have. (Certainly longer, too.) Yet Riordan also emphasizes that Alex’s story is not every transgender or gender fluid person’s tale. She is one of many: being the only gender fluid or transgender person Magnus knows does not make her a mascot.

It would’ve been enough for Rick Riordan, one of the most popular children’s authors in the world today, to write a gender fluid and/or transgender main character. That inclusion, by itself, would have continued his intentional representation of diverse heroes. But he went a step further: Alex isn’t just a main character, she is a love interest, too.

In this book, she’s only subtly so. She’s got a lot of baggage; so does Magnus. Not to mention the fact they’re busy trying to save the world — y’know, normal teen stuff. They’ve also just met. But from the outset, the reader feels a connection between Magnus and Alex. Magnus finds her beautiful as a woman; he finds Alex handsome as a man. He is fascinated by her, he cares about her, and even though this book is meant for readers as young as 11, he is attracted to her.

Even in literature and media meant for adults, I have seen few portrayals of gender fluid or transgender people as attractive. They may be good, brave people, admirable and strong; but flat-out attractive? That one’s rare. Yet Rick Riordan, in a children’s book, broke that barrier. And he did so in a book that, today, hit Number 1 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

It’s almost impossible to quantify how much books impact people’s worldview, even children’s. (The Bestseller List highlighting The Hammer of Thor hasn’t even come out yet; Riordan just announced it on his Twitter.) But to give you an idea: the first book in Riordan’s Norse series, The Sword of Summer, had an initial print of 2.5 million copies. Many prints followed, meaning millions more children read that book. (And adults like me.) Since we can assume most of The Sword of Summer’s readers will get The Hammer of Thor as well, that means millions of children will meet Alex Fierro. Millions of children will be introduced to a gender fluid, transgender person for the first time. Millions of children will see a gender fluid, transgender person who is sympathetic, attractive, brave, smart, self-possessed, and wonderfully human.

That is revolutionary. That representation — to embolden gender fluid and transgender young people, to educate other children as allies — can, literally, change the world.

So you could say I got a nice surprise when I started reading The Hammer of Thor. By creating Alex Fierro, Rick Riordan threw the conventions of literary love interests out the window. And we’re all better off for it.

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“Master of None,” Like Me

When I started watching “Master of None,” the Netflix show “Parks and Recreation” alum Aziz Ansari helms, I expected to laugh out loud.

The fact I didn’t most of the time is not a knock on Ansari’s creation. If anything, it’s a tribute to what a strange creature that show is.

Reflecting upon “Master of None,” I remember an insight from one of my recent professors: no words are true synonyms. Words, like people, have histories. Falling out of people’s mouths and pens as they have for centuries, words accumulate implications like dust particles — ever-present, inevitable, invisible without a keen lens. Words carry connotations beyond their denotations. Hence the importance of diction: every word should be a precise choice, lest the writer convey a feeling that does not fit.

“Master of None” is not mirthful, as it rarely conveys or produces merriment. It amuses only sometimes, since it is almost anything but carefree. The show is clearly a comedy, but is not quite comical: the lack of ludicrousness is perhaps the show’s most distinct trait.

Rather, the show’s strangeness makes it somewhat droll. The dialogue and set-ups brim with wit. Both Ansari’s character, Dev, and the show itself mix sardonicism and optimism in equal measure. More than anything, “Master of None” epitomizes the adjective “funny”: clever and curious, waggish and odd, enjoyable and entertaining and difficult to understand.

I rarely laughed out loud while watching “Master of None” because I was too busy trying to understand it. I was, in a word, intrigued. In multiple words, I was fascinated, confused, astonished and a wee bit terrified.

The summaries I read of “Master of None” all pass the same posts: Dev (Ansari), a 30-year-old actor, navigates personal and professional life in New York City. His friends include Arnold (Eric Wareheim), a food-loving “token white friend”; Brian (Kelvin Yu), a Taiwanese-American actor; and Denise (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian. During the first season, Dev falls in love with Rachel (Noël Wells), a music publicist, in typical-atypical out-of-order fashion. Ansari’s parents Shoukath and Fatima have recurring roles as Dev’s parents, H. Jon Benjamin plays an acting colleague of Dev’s, and guest stars such as Colin Salmon and Claire Danes pop up.

But that summary, while sketching the show’s broad structure, only hints at what “Master of None” is really about. With a diverse cast, “Master of None” explores contemporary issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, ageism and gender. In one episode, “Parents,” Dev and Brian aim to learn more about their immigrant parents. In another, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Dev quickly becomes a feminist after learning about the sexism women face everyday. In “Old People,” by spending time with Rachel’s grandmother, Dev discovers how capable the elderly can be.

And there are only ten episodes in the first season.

“Master of None” explores those topics with intelligence, confidence and what seems like personal insight. But that’s not what struck me most about the show. I’d read plenty of reviews before watching “Master of None”; I anticipated those episodes and they discussions they contained. What I did not expect was the frank, realistic portrayal of life as a 20s-30s something in the 2010s.

From Dev’s 45-minute Internet search for the city’s best tacos to the awkward, touching genesis of his relationship with Rachel, “Master of None” portrays life right now. More than any other screen entertainment I’ve watched, Ansari’s show looks like the inside of a crystal ball: a blurry, approximate glimpse of what my life in a few years could look like.

Clear differences exist between Dev and me. I am not male, Indian-American, the child of immigrants or an aspiring actor. However, both Dev and I — and every other character — are not caricatures. We struggle to get jobs, but sometimes we snatch one. Our wages are too low, and costs of college and real estate are too high. We all live in New York City, a land of opportunity and disappointment, department stores and subway grime, celebrities and pervs. Our day-to-day habits involve the Internet and that’s okay, no matter what the more bitter members of preceding generations say.

“Master of None” is grounded in reality. Dev could be any number of people I’ve walked past on Riverside Drive; I could’ve sat next to Rachel on the subway. They are unique, but in the way all individuals are, not like the exaggerated personas milked on TV. Because of the characters’ realness, I do not aspire to emulate them like I do Leslie Knope; Dev and Rachel, although a good couple, do not provide the same “relationship goals” as Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate. Rather, Dev and his friends feel normal — simultaneously average and special; people I know.

Because I am a lost, confused 19-year-old with equal experience in relationships and living independently (read: none), that relatable quality made “Master of None” a virtual class in adulthood. I felt like I learned while I watched. In my friend’s words after I sent her a series of texts about it: “Man, this show is making you use such big words.” It’s true — descriptors I sent her included “socially conscious,” “educational,” “intellectually stimulating” and “revelatory.” And I mean it.

Watching Dev and Rachel’s road to a first date, I learned more about hookup culture than any teen magazine has taught me. Seeing a woman pursued home from a bar by a man she had rejected, I realized how easily that could happen to me — and why the woman, while walking, dialed “9-1.” During the ninth episode, “Mornings,” which documented Dev and Rachel learning to live together, I witnessed big and little fights, good mornings and fraught ones, and sex treated with a frank, compassionate “yeah, duh” attitude.

It was terrifying and enlightening, both foreign and familiar, like adulthood itself often is. In my minimal experience, at least.

Because of that, I did not find “Master of None” laugh-out-loud funny. The show touched too much besides my humor — fears about finding a fulfilling job, insecurities about how to act in relationships, confusion about how anyone can ever call themselves “grown.”

To me, it seems nothing and no one ever grows up. Instead, we’re always growing. I am; “Master of None” is, too. The times Dev and his friends made me chuckle fell in the latter episodes, not the earlier ones, which seems appropriate. After all, part of adulthood is learning we don’t always know what we’re doing. We learn to laugh about it along the way.