Thoughts On Theme: Deconstructing Revenge

Let’s talk about theme! It’s the foundation on which our favorite characters, plots, and settings are built, the invisible glue that holds any good story together. In these segments, I’ll talk about the themes behind Bloodlands and the upcoming Nightlands, including why these themes are important to the story, how they manifest in the plot, how they affect the characters, and more. I’ll try to keep it as relatively spoiler-free as possible, but reading the book first definitely helps contextualize the discussion.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of my all-time favorite themes, revenge. While there are a few different themes at play in Bloodlands, revenge in the grand over-arching theme that ties them all together.

Revenge (noun): the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands.

-Oxford Languages

Also known as making assholes pay for being assholes. Or a manual application of karma.

The Story of a Reckoning

If you haven’t read the book yet, or if it’s been a while and you just need a refresher, Bloodlands is the story of Senora West, a bounty hunter on a violent quest for revenge, who crosses paths with Shadow, a blood-drinking monster (we don’t use the v-word in these parts) with a great crime in his past that his mind is too fragmented to remember.

As Senora’s backstory unfolds, readers learn that she lost her family and nearly her own life in an act of brutal violence when she was a teenager. After barely surviving the attack and having to disappear into a new life with a new name, she dedicates herself to the (almost) singular pursuit of revenge against the man responsible.

Shadow’s tangle with revenge, meanwhile, is a mystery that unfolds throughout the course of the book, so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that they quickly find themselves acting as mirrors of one another.

A Theme for Self-Therapy

Throughout the years, I’ve written multiple iterations of the story that would eventually become Bloodlands. The characters, plot, and setting have all changed drastically from one version to the next, but the theme of revenge is the one thing that has always remained the same. It’s a story that’s always felt important to me to tell.

Writing, after all, is just a cheap (but laborious) form of therapy and a safe way of exploring dangerous ideas. The scenarios I write about generally have little to no resemblance to my actual life or history, but the ideas and themes that shape those scenarios usually have roots in something I’ve experienced physically, mentally, or emotionally. The pursuit of revenge (or just thoughts of revenge) is ultimately a manifestation of anger as a coping mechanism for trauma.

I had some seriously un-cool stuff happen in my childhood. Anger became my coping mechanism early on, and in some ways, I’m still working my way through it. Writing Bloodlands (in each of its ever-evolving forms) gave me a safe, guilt-free environment to explore and deconstruct revenge as a motivation and the coping mechanism that spawns it.

Character Catharsis

In Bloodlands, both characters use anger as a barrier between themselves and the world that hurt them. For Shadow, we learn that it’s a way of rejecting a world that has, in a devastating way, thoroughly rejected and punished him for what he is. For Senora, it’s a means of retaking power after the moment of utter helplessness that started her on her journey. It’s also one of the ways that she frequently creates distance between herself and others to avoid being made vulnerable again.

For both of them, revenge is also a way of re-establishing a sense of order and justice into a world that seems senseless and chaotic. When the innocent people they care about can be needlessly hurt, the only way to fix or make sense of it is to ensure that those responsible are punished in order to even the scales.

On the surface, that seems like an especially barbaric or archaic mindset stemming from the worst instincts and emotions embedded in our species–hatred, insecurity, fear, and anger. Which isn’t wrong, of course. But if we peel back that layer of anger or dig deeper into the fear that drives that need for retribution, we find that, for Senora, both are rooted in grief, born from deep loss and thwarted love.

Bloodlands is a revenge story, but deep down, it’s also love story, often not in the most obvious or conventional sense. It is a violent, profanity-laden thesis statement on the way that love for the people we consider family will make us do both great and utterly terrible things.

It’s also an exploration of how sometimes, in our worse moments, it’s our so-called “dark sides” that keep us alive and give us the momentum to push forward. After all, without her anger to shield and drive her, Senora might never have found the strength to endure her weakest and most painful moments without giving up.

We often like to categorize our emotions as being “positive” or “negative,” but in truth, I think they all have their uses if you know how to handle and harness them in a productive way, with plenty of self-care and self-reflection.

And when I say “productive,” I mean doing difficult things like pushing your way through school, getting in shape, or creating killer art. Not getting revenge on those who have wronged you and definitely not taking down a cartel. Just so we’re clear. We still have to handle our dark sides responsibly.

How It All Ends…

The moral of most revenge stories usually ends up being something along the lines of how revenge costs the pursuer their humanity and gives little sense of satisfaction in return. That lesson still holds true here. Bloodlands sees the creation of a vicious, self-destructive cycle that follows Senora into the story of Nightlands. And if Bloodlands is about harnessing your worst instincts and emotions to survive, then Nightlands is about learning to shift from survival to actual living, which as Senora will find, requires a much different approach.

Is she successful? Can anyone ever truly let go of the past? What does it take to move on from the tragedies that shape a person’s life?

If you’re curious, you’ll just have to pick up Nightlands when it releases sometime in the not-terribly-distant future to find out. And if you haven’t read Bloodlands yet… what are you waiting for, slacker?

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