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Kaz Brekker Makes Space for Disabled Characters in Fantasy (By Any Means Necessary)

I intended for this to be written and available before the release of Shadow and Bone season 2 on Netflix, but the longer I thought about it, the more thoughts I had.

This post also relies on having some context based in either the Dregs novels by Leigh Bardugo, and/or the Shadow and Bone adaptation on Netflix. In short, Kaz Brekker is a con man with a badly-healed broken leg and a custom, magically enhanced cane in a world where there is also flawless magic-based healing. He chooses his cane even when presented with the alternative. The whole effect is important to me personally, for reasons I will detail below.

Before we begin, I will leave you affiliate links to Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom in case the novels are of interest. Now on to it.

I mean the headline in two senses. One, that Kaz is calculating and ruthless and morally ambiguous allows space for disabled characters to be something other than perfect pure angels and guiding moral lights, which is one of two categories I see disabled characters put into so often it becomes cliché.

The other cliché, which I see more in action-heavy settings (when we make it there) is, as Ned put it in Spider-Man Homecoming, is “the guy in the chair,” no relation to the name of this blog, though I do see the irony.

This archetype is one of supporting the hero, providing information and strategy, maybe some gadgets and funny quips from home base as they get to go do the cool stuff. The only major pop culture example I can even think of with a disabled person in this role is Oracle from Batman, though perhaps I just need to read more comic books. Other more common examples might be Batman’s Alfred, Mr. Jarvis from Marvel comics, or Wade from Kim Possible. And while these support roles are obviously important, even vital to the operation in some cases, it is kind of disheartening when those are the only ones in which you ever see characters like yourself- a sentiment that I’d hazard a guess applies to more demographics than the one I’ve brought up here.

Kaz is ruthless, and mean, and kind of horrible, and I love that about him. He doesn’t have to be perfect and pure for people to care about him or find him important, and I enjoy the breathing room that creates. Also, he’s allowed to do the cool stuff.

A still shot of Kaz Brekker with his cane, raising an eyebrow and saying, "Well, if you die, we don't get paid," which is captioned across the bottom.
Kaz Brekker in the Shadow and Bone trailer from Netflix

My second, larger point, is that Kaz’s iconic cane and the mechanics of how it was brought into the world leave clear pathways to the creation of other types of mobility devices and aids. You can draw a straight line from Fabrikator-created cane to Fabrikator-created wheelchair- even the fancy one that I use that compensates for my difference in hand strength with adjustments in power assist. The magic of how it happens (literally) is never specified in the book, in part, because that’s not his area of expertise, and in part because it’s not really important. The important part is that the aid exists. It allows Kaz to do what he needs to do. How it was made in a technical sense is not relevant to how it performs its function, just that it does.

I will grant you that I encountered this book for the first time a few years after its 2015 publication, but I was 20 years old before I encountered a physically disabled person within a fantasy narrative, who was allowed not to be fixed in the end. Who chose to remain as they were, for various reasons, and never were in a situation where their disability was, either magically or technologically, made to have no actual bearing on the character or the story. Where it was actually allowed to be a feature, and an important one, of the character, rather than something to be fixed or overcome.

Kaz has his cane, yes, but it doesn’t entirely negate his disability and make it go away. It allows him more freedom and is very important to him, but it’s not an undo button. He has limits. The cane may allow them to expand, but he still has bad pain days and things like uneven terrain are difficult for him.

I’ve put off watching the new season of Shadow and Bone until I could get my thoughts sorted out, but I have high hopes for Kaz’s continued treatment in the adaptation, especially since the author is involved, and she intentionally designed him to be disabled in a similar way to herself. On top of that, Freddy Carter, who portrays Kaz, seems to be very respectful of the source material. So I have high hopes, but high expectations too. That cane is an iconic and important piece of not only the story and character, but disabled representation in fantasy media as well.

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