Title: Imposter Syndrome (The Arcadia Project 3)
Author: Mishell Baker
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: March 13th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 481 pages
Rating: 9.0/10 (Champions of the Genre)
So this review started out as a normal review and then it morphed into a weird self-reflection/series appreciation/review monstrosity. Because my god, Imposter Syndrome made me feel a lot of things. It’s a pitch-perfect conclusion (maybe?) to a series that has wormed itself into a special place in my heart, and it left me crying for most of its latter part.
So buckle up. This might be a long one.
Following the shattering revelations at the end of book 2, Imposter Syndrome starts out three months later, smack in the middle of a Cold War between LA-New Orleans Arcadia, led by Alvin, and UK Arcadia, led by Dame Belinda Barker. To make matters worse, there’s tension building among the fey. King Claybriar and Queen Dawnrowan are on opposite sides of the Seelie, the latter supporting Belinda, and Queen Shiverlash and King Winterglass of the UnSeelie would gladly see each other’s throats torn out. So when Tjuan (senior agent of LA4 Arcadia) gets framed by Belinda for a crime he did not commit, our protagonist Millie Roper decides that the best defense is an offense and plans a heist that would strip Belinda of crucial resources that grant her complete control of this conflict.
I found Imposter Syndrome much better in terms of plot and pacing than Phantom Pains. My problem with book 2 was that the plot felt very scattered–one minute Millie would be investigating the possibility of a ghost, the next she’s dealing with a murder investigation, and so forth. Everything is more focused this time around, on the heist and thwarting Belinda Barker. The characters know what they need to do, they know what’s at stake, and they just go for it. It’s simple yet perfectly executed.
The heist itself is brilliant. This is no Ocean’s Eleven with the best of the best doing their thing with confidence and cool. This is Millie and her wayward companions fumbling their way through one of the most ridiculously-plotted heists in the history of heists. It is a ton of fun with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. And there’s this one sequence in the middle of it that’s so cleverly-structured, it made me punch the air in excitement.
But as it has been for the past two books, the characters are the focal point of the story. The series remains one of the most diverse in fantasy: there are major POC characters, a bisexual protagonist, a lesbian love interest, a trans male character, and bi(pan?)sexual fey. And Millie continues to prove why she’s one of my favourite protagonists ever, with Mishell Baker finding the perfect balance between self-deprecation and snappy humour.
“Everytime I try to put it down I freak out. Last night I slept with it tucked into my pillowcase.”
“That is called anxiety, Millie.”
“Gotcha. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between sorcery and insanity.”
Millie has a lot on her plate–she has to deal with her BPD on top of all the Belinda and the fey stuff. And she fucks up. A lot. She gets paranoid and jumps to conclusions and sets back her own plan by miles. But what she doesn’t get are excuses from the people around her. They don’t coddle her; they don’t blame her BPD. They say: “This is your mistake. So take responsibility and fix it.” And she does try to fix them. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate this. To see a mental disorder depicted not as a throwaway quirk or stepping stones to a hurt/comfort plotline, but as something that’s a part of the character and which she needs to learn to manage. And the latter is an ongoing process with a lot of stumbles and failures, but also successes. I have yet to find such candid portrayal of mental health in any other fantasy.
Meanwhile, Caryl is dealing with the fact that all her emotions are now hers to feel and hers alone (most of the time, at least), with her familiar Elliot no longer permanently acting as her “trauma container.” So things are hard for her as well, especially when it comes to Millie. While they have cute and sweet moments together, their relationship overall is a kind of a trainwreck. There’s no doubt that, professionally, they’re both talented and competent people; it’s just when the personal issues rear their heads that things start to go sideways.
And I love that. I love how messy it all is.
Because while I don’t have BPD like Millie or a history of childhood abuse like Caryl, I see a lot of myself in both–Millie’s impulsiveness and selfishness, Caryl’s hyper-emotional, sponge-like state, and both of their low self-esteem. And some of their struggles hit a little too close to home, like Millie’s unwillingness to acknowledge her relationship with Zach, her maybe-boyfriend. And her struggles with relationships in general:
Claybriar: “You’re always the first thing in my mind. I’d fuck you if I could, believe me. But with her, it’s that–you know, that breathless thing where you don’t even feel quite safe. Like you’re falling.”
Millie: “It’s always like that for me at first…And then it mellows. Or goes away altogether.”
(Get out of my head, Mishell!)
And all the times Millie and Caryl burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere, struck me to the core. Because in the words of Moonlight, “sometimes I cry so much I feel like I’m gonna just turn into drops.” Because a lot of the times I find myself wishing for an Elliot of my own. Something to stop me from reacting to everything around me with so much anxiety and sadness and heartbreak.
And that’s really what this book, and this entire series, is. Not about Seelie and Unseelie and Hollywood, but about people, both human and fey, who have extraordinary abilities and walk through extraordinary worlds, and yet still grapple with the same pains that I do.
Now, is it realistic that people carrying around so much emotional trauma and mental health struggles can come together in such a short time to pull off a high-stakes heist? I don’t know–maybe not.
Is it inspiring and validating?
None of these characters are, in the traditional sense, heroes–Millie even says at one point, “I’m more of a shit-stirrer than a hero.” They mess up; they act selfishly; they hurt one another on purpose and by accident; and they’re constantly at war with their own minds.
But nor are they broken people. These guys spend most of the story running around scared out of their minds and full of doubt and they still somehow manage to pull things off. They’re always, always trying to move forward, with however many falls and stumbles they experience along the way. And sometimes that’s all that matters.
And that, to me, is realism. That is what being a human is all about.
I applaud and thank Mishell Baker for writing characters whose honesty doesn’t leave me feeling trapped or vulnerable, but included. Known. And if this is truly the end of the series, then it’s a fitting one. Not a happily ever after, but one that feels right and brims with hope.
Read this book. Read this series. You’ll not find another like it.