Thursday, August 28, 2014

Splash: A Twist on the Little Mermaid Fairytale

I recently watched the film Splash for the first time in twenty years or so. It was every bit as enjoyable as I'd remembered, but what I noticed this time that I hadn't really picked up on as a child is the fairy-tale nature of the story. Splash takes Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and turns it into what Bruno Bettelheim might consider a true fairy tale, while updating it to the modern age.

The story starts out in the past, communicated by sepia-toned film and extra-sparkly water. Allen Bauer is a little boy on a boat, fascinated by something he sees out in the water. When he jumps in the water, his parents understandably freak out. However, the underwater shot shows him to be safe, floating effortlessly just beneath the surface, gazing into the eyes of a young mermaid who smiles at him. When he is retrieved from the water, the mermaid cries.

Flash-forward twenty years. Allan Bauer, played by an adorably awkward Tom Hanks, is a successful business-owner in New York City. He ends up falling into the ocean again and is rescued by the same mermaid, all grown up and played by Daryl Hannah, who is incandescent. This time, the mermaid decides that she loves Allan and that she wants to be with him, so she takes the form of a human woman with legs.

Allan and the mermaid, who takes the name Madison after Madison Avenue, spend a delightful few days in NYC. She learns English after only a few hours of watching television, and struggles to understand the human/American cultural norms she is surrounded by, such as wearing clothing, not eating lobster with your hands, etc. However, she is clear about the terms of their relationship: she has to leave after six days, or she can never return to where she came from. Allan thinks that there's just an immigration problem, so he offers to marry her. Before they can do this, however, she is doused with water and captured by a kooky scientist, played by Eugene Levy, who is ecstatic that he can now prove the existence of mermaids.

Splash mirrors the tale of The Little Mermaid in several ways. The mermaid saves the human man; she goes on land to be with him; but the terms of her time on land have limits After all, as Walter would say, "this is not 'Nam; there are rules" ... just as in every fairy tale or magical bargain. Apparently the movie originally even included a scene in which mermaid-Madison visits a sea-hag to make the bargain. However, the rule here does not mandate that she can't talk; it just puts a time limit on what Andersen makes clear--that once you become human, you never go back. The movie also anticipates the later Disney film, with the whimsical scenes portraying Madison's encounter with human culture. It's not too far a leap to imagine Madison trying to comb her hair with a fork, like Ariel. 

The big difference between Splash and Andersen's version is that Splash has a happy ending. But the ending doesn't involve the mermaid staying on land; it involves Allan going into the sea, to join Madison there. For him, the terms are the same: he can't go home. 

It's interesting that the ultimate transformation happens to him, and not her. This flipped ending makes me reevaluate the film's message entirely; rather than being a fairy-tale about a mermaid, it's a fairy-tale about a man. At the beginning of the film, Allan's burden is that he cannot love. Through the journey of his relationship with Madison, he learns that he can--and the effect of that knowledge is a transformation.

I also like how, even though the story is modernized, the film is book-ended with two underwater sequences that preserve the dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere of the fairy-tale. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The House of the Four Winds: Shoddy plot and no romance


Do you ever read a book and wonder how it got published? Or read an established author and think, "Don’t they understand basic story-telling?"

The House of the Four Winds, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, starts innocently enough. Princess Clarice of the Duchy of Swansgaarde must go out and seek her fortune because she has eleven sisters and a brother, and the Duchy cannot support twelve royal dowries. Clarice is a master sword fighter and intends to make her living as an instructor. First, however, she seeks adventure on a merchant ship, disguised as a man named Clarence. The ship is captained by an evil lout, Captain Sprunt, but Clarice/Clarence falls in love with one of the ship's officers, Dominick. After the crew mutinies against the wicked Sprunt, they set sail for an unknown destination whose coordinates are provided by a magical amulet that Sprunt carried with him at all times. The amulet directs them to the House of the Four Winds, a pirate haven. The witch queen of the pirates, Shamal, enchants Dominick, bringing him under her will and forcing him to seek the Heart of Light, a source of unlimited magic in a dangerous location on the sea. Clarice struggles with her secret identity while trying to help Dominick get out from under Shamal's control and save the crew. 

The premise of the novel has some basic flaws, like the fact that the King and Queen of Swansgaarde can't support their twelve daughters just because they have a son. That's some Jane Austen shit right there. It makes you want to suggest that, perhaps, there is a middle ground between providing twelve royal dowries and just giving your daughters a moderate sum to live on just in case, let's say, they don't feel like exiling themselves from their home country/castle and disguising their identity and seeking employment in a field that could feature on an episode of World's Most Dangerous Jobs. I mean, how about just providing a regular dowry, since Clarice is going to marry a sailor anyways? Also, Lackey and Mallory use adverbs like they're going out of style. Nearly every dialogue attribution was paired with a "crisply," "mildly," "kindly," "moodily," and "quellingly." (Yes, quellingly.) But I was willing to overlook these in favor of what I hoped would be a fun fantasy/romance. 

And The House of the Four Winds did have some neat elements. I am always a fan of women-in-disguise stories, pining-after-your-pal stories, and stories that occur on ships in general. I liked that Swansgaarde was set in a sort of alternate Europe, complete with clear counterparts to Russia, Africa, Spain, and England. In this world, London is called Albion and the river that runs through it is the Temese. This provokes some interesting questions. Is the House of the Four Winds, impossible to locate unless you have a magical amulet, located in their version of the Bermuda Triangle? I wanted to find out more about the people that live in the various lands mentioned. What are the differences and similarities to our world? And how has magic shaped the history of this alternate world?  Unfortunately, these ideas aren't given any traction and the story continues as if the world Lackey and Mallory have created is just any other fantasy world. 

The main characters--Clarice and Dominick--are likeable enough, if stereotypical. They are noble and chaste. Good for them. The villains, however, are comically bad. Sprunt picks on everyone on the ship, including his cabin boy whom he has savagely beaten. He drinks too much, is dirty and smelly, and eventually turns out to be a pirate. Also, his name is Sprunt, which sounds like it came from a Charles Dickens novel. Likewise, Shamal is vain and power-hungry. She doesn't really care who sees her displays of magical force or her bosoms, which she displays to Dominick. We, the readers, are supposed to hate her for this, especially since Clarice, in her disguise as a man, has no means of seducing Dominick with her bosoms. 

The biggest drawback of The House of the Four Winds that I take issue with is the undeveloped plot. It seems like it was put together on a wing and a prayer, with the authors deciding at random what events should take place. For instance, in the chapter when Dominick and Clarice visit the House of the Four Winds, the pirate council can't seem to decide how to treat their visitors. They greet them kindly, proceed to bait and threaten them, and then decide to let them go if Dominick will agree to seek the Heart of Light. When he chooses not to, Shamal bullies him into it with magic. Every line of dialogue is confusing and unmotivated, and I continually felt as though I was being spun around. Perhaps that is the effect Lackey and Mallory wanted the scene to have on their characters, but I expect a light read like this to be relatively straightforward from a reader's perspective. 

Other moments of dialogue also seemed needlessly opaque. When Dominick anguishes about whether or not to tell the crew that he is under Shamal's control: "'Is it you who keeps the secret, Dominick?" Clarice asked boldly. "And not . . . another?" Another what? Another person keeping the secret that Dominick is ensorcelled? That’d be you, Clarice—the only other person who knows. Or are you suggesting that there’s another secret, such as the fact that you are a woman? Clearly (as the ellipses indicate) this is meant to be a pithy, suspenseful moment--you know, the kind that would appear in the movie trailer accompanied by significant glances. But it doesn't make any sense! 

The final conflict itself is disappointing. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] First Shamal's faithful manservant, Gregale, turns into a giant sea serpent, saving the day by eating his former mistress and protecting the ship and its crew from the other sea serpents, of whom he is the king, because why not? ("Why not?" could be the subtitle for this book). This would have been cool if it had been foreshadowed earlier in the book. Shamal could have easily gone into more detail when describing the dangers of seeking the Heart of Light, such as, I don't know, the fact that it is surrounded by sea-serpent infested waters. This would have heightened the tension of their journey and would have been an easy solution, even at the editing and revision stage. But instead the existence of the sea serpents, and Gregale's position as their king, came out of nowhere--very deus ex serpenta.

The most annoying part of the climax is that we NEVER SEE the Heart of Light. The store of mystical energy which Shamal seeks--we don't get a glimpse of it. The sea-serpent fight is over, the sailors find a bunch of unrelated treasure, yippee, everyone’s rich, and the Heart of Light remains the elusive mystery it always was. Even Clarice recognizes the ridiculousness of this: "I wonder what the Heart of Light was. I wonder what Shamal would have done with it if she'd been able to gain it." She goes on to speculate more, but it only draws attention to the fact that . . . hello, we've been hearing about the Heart of Light this whole time, and warned of its dangers, and wondering about Shamal's powers, and in return we get nothing.

And I really mean nothing. Because the primary reason I read this was for the romance. I can read good fantasy any old time, but I read this because it was a pirate romance. I need me some swashbuckling, sea monsters, and sexual tension. We got the first two, but the sexual tension was lacking to the point where, when the couple finally gets together, I was angry. "What? That was it? He didn't even say he loved her!" I wanted Dominick to have some confusing urges towards “Clarence”—some heated glances, or lingering hand-clasps—but in absence of that, I wanted the revelatory moment to include a kiss, a declaration of love, sweeping violins. Instead, he basically said, "I thought you were a boy, so I didn't expect anything more than friendship with you." Words to melt a woman’s heart, no doubt. It's certainly no "You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you ... etc." 

Actually, can someone just write Pride and Prejudice again, but set it on a ship? ‘Cause I would read the heck out of that. 

*This review originally appeared at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 1 star.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Teaching Dilemma: What to Assign?

So I'm tentatively gearing up to teach a course this fall at the University of Mississippi (fingers-crossed the class makes enrollment). And I've come upon a tricky problem.

It's an undergraduate survey of British literature from its Anglo-Saxon beginnings until the eighteenth century. I'm hitting the highlights--Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, etc.--while throwing some more unusual works in there. For instance, a play by Thomas Middleton.

That guy.

So here's my dilemma. I want to give the students a sense of the difference between Shakespeare and Middleton. Am I better off assigning two plays in the same genre--for instance, pairing a Shakespeare comedy with a Middleton comedy, or a Shakespeare tragedy with a Middleton tragedy? Or would it be better to assign different genres, to give the students an idea of the scope of dramatic literature in the period?

I'm using the NAEL, which includes King Lear and Twelfth Night. I've taught Twelfth Night before, but not Lear. I always try to teach at least one new work each time I do a class, so that I'm expanding my repertoire.

The pairings I've thought of are: King Lear and The Revenger's Tragedy, or Twelfth Night and The Roaring Girl. RT doesn't really have a ton in common with Lear. I guess they're both about families, royal dynasties, and (in different ways) about female virtue. But I like RT because it's so straightforward; there aren't a lot of confusing subplots or motivations--no inexplicable Lent enforcers, bawdy Puritan women, or madhouse-next-door situations. Vindice wants revenge; okay, done. I also think it might work because the students will probably have some level of familiarity with Hamlet, which it riffs on. If I teach TW and RG instead, I can get into cross-dressing, gender on stage, and early modern ideas and expectations about romantic love and marriage. Also, everyone loves a comedy.

And then if I mix and match, I'm sure other connections will arise, like senexes trying to control the lives of their children in Lear and RG, or  . . . you know, I honestly can't think of a good one for TW and RT. Brooding hero-types?

Or perhaps I'll let the students vote . . .

Friday, August 15, 2014

5-Star Books and "Literature with a Message"

I've been reading for FantasyLiterature.com for a couple of months now. At first, I wasn't sure how easy it would be to adhere to their rating system. I tend to be an overly expressive, enthusiastic person--hey, my hero is Leslie Knope!--and I worried that I would be tempted to give out the coveted 5-star rating like Halloween candy. 

But it's turned out to be very easy, and not just because I've read some real stinkers. To put it simply, the books to which I award 5 stars have made me cry.

Not just some little verklempt tears at an especially touching scene, but a full-on lay my head down weep after I turn the last page. The kind of cry when you're overcome by the goodness of the world; when you want the book to go on and on; when you feel, for a glimmering moment, like you might want to try and be a better person.

The three 5-star novels that I've read recently are Lev Grossman's MAGICIANS trilogy (mostly the last one, The Magician's Landbut the themes and plot I talk about span all three novels), Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emporerand Gregory Maguire's forthcoming Egg and Spoon

These three books have a lot of things in common. They each portray the coming-of-age of a young person. Each employs subtle, layered characterization, not exaggerations or stereotypes. None of the three is fundamentally preachy, although they do have messages that float to the surface. 

Most importantly to me, each novel is life-affirming without portraying life as easy or perfection as attainable. The civilizations and human relations portrayed are realistic and complex, despite being based (at times) in worlds of fantasy. For instance, in The Magician's LandQuentin realizes that magic entails hard work, not easy times. Egg and Spoon does not gloss over the struggles of the poor in the face of massive wealth and oppression. And the political machinations of The Goblin Emporer are just as subtle and back-biting as they are in the real world. Despite these realities, each protagonist emerges with a positive view of what the world can offer them. In these novels, people are, by and large, good.

This speaks to my biases, certainly. For one thing, they are all (ultimately) feel-good novels. This is not to imply that they are light and fluffy. Quite the opposite, especially with Grossman and Maguire who both show us real human darkness and evil. However, they each end with some measure of joy and hope, as do most of my top-tier books such as Neal Stephenson's AnathemWoolf's Orlandoand Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I'm a hopey-changey kind of person [see above re: Leslie Knope], so, no matter how technically impressive, I'm less likely to give a 5-star rating to a book with a negative or nihilistic message.

This isn't a standard I hold to, but more of a pattern I'm identifying. After all, I love Jeff VanderMeer's recent SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, and both Kraken and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville rocked my world. Not that those are negative or nihilistic, but I wouldn't say they're especially hopeful, either. That's not really what they're about. And I prefer Middleton to $hakespeare, and goodness knows there's nothing more pessimistic about goodness than Women Beware Women

This predilection could be called naive, and I accept that. There is certainly a lot of stuff in the world to make me question the inherent goodness of humanity, one of the most important tenets of my humanist worldview. And just the phrase "literature with a message" sort of makes my skin crawl, probably because it sounds like the tagline for a cheesy Christian bookstore. This de facto rating system would probably not be popular in a contemporary literature classroom, either. It's not really that cool to look for meaning, although we still do, undercover of other stated agendas. And the way I approach reading might change. Reading Kelly Link lately has made me question why I read, and push against some of my own readerly expectations such as the idea that there has to be a message. 

But rating any work of fiction is subjective. And, for good or ill, I like what I like. So for now, my 5-star ratings are reserved for the books that shake me--in a good way.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Magic for Beginners: Impressive and Strange

Kelly Link’s short story collection, Magic for Beginners, is a great piece of work. In a bit of a departure from her earlier collection Stranger Things Happen, the stories in it don’t follow normative narrative structures; they draw from sources as various as fairy tales, kitchen sink realism, heist stories, TV fandom, and Link’s own surrealist vision.  These nine stories don’t share overt connections, but they do provide a window into modern American life, complete with bland marriages, mortgages, and random zombie sightings. I listened to Random House Audio’s version of this book which is almost 11 hours long and is read by various actors such as Cassandra Campbell, Lorna Raver, Marc Bramhall, and others.
The first story, “The Faery Handbag,” was my favorite. It was the most straightforward, which probably indicates that I’m a lazy reader and not worthy of Kelly Link’s beautiful stories. But this story was just fun. The main character’s grandmother, Zofia, claims to be hundreds of years old, to come from a country no one’s ever heard of, and to have a handbag that contains an entire world. She cheats at scrabble and goes on dates with her ageless husband every 20 years and teaches her granddaughter phrases in Baldeziwurlekistanian (Link likes languages, especially made-up ones). When Zofia dies, the main character is charged with protecting the handbag — but it has disappeared. The reader, Rebecca Lowman, sounded just like what I imagined the protagonist would sound like — young, intelligent, earnest, and a bit sarcastic.
The third story, “The Cannon,” didn’t make any sense at all and I loved it. Written as a Q&A between two un-named characters, Link proceeds to tell us a lot about cannons, and one particular cannon in general, while using cannons as a metaphor for sex, marriage, and transcendence. Listening to this story was especially fun; two readers, Arthur Morey and Meera Simhan, took the parts of the questioner and the answer-er, and their delivery was so sly, funny, and naturalistic that, at times, I forgot I was listening to a discussion about a magical cannon. This passage, in particular, startled me into laughing out loud while I was listening at the gym: “Q: Who was the first person to be fired from a cannon? Was it a man or a woman? A: The first person to be fired from a cannon was a young man dressed as a woman.” I think this is a prime example of how, even when I have no idea what she’s talking about, Link can still tickle my funny-bone with her combination of surprising images and precise word choice. (And isn’t that, partly, the point?)
The fourth, “Stone Animals,” was less enjoyable for me, although it was impressive enough to win a place in 2005′s Best American Short Stories. It follows a family who has just moved into a house in the suburbs that is haunted by rabbits. Rabbits plague their yard, and their front walkway is flanged by two stone rabbit sculptures. (Link has confessed to watching Buffy compulsively and I have to wonder if the rabbit-haunting was inspired, in part, by Anya’s fear of bunnies.) As the story progresses, the family’s possessions appear strange, twisted, and wrong to them; they stop using toothbrushes, alarm clocks, washing machines, and even entire rooms as they succumb to the odd haunting. At the same time, it’s a rather mundane story about the slow breakdown of a marriage. But I found it too long and was thrown off at the beginning. It opens with an answer to a question that you don’t get to hear. “Henry asked a question. He was joking. ‘As a matter of fact,’ the real estate agent snapped, ‘it is.’” This was particularly confusing for me as a listener because Link doesn’t state the question. It wasn’t until I read a review of this story that I realized what the question was: “Is the house haunted?” In retrospect, I should have figured this out, but in the moment, I just didn’t get it — I kept rewinding, wondering what I had missed.
“Catskin,” the next story, tells the story of a witch, her children, and her cats. In this world, humans wear the skins of cats and witches cannot have children via biological means, but instead build their children out of twigs and leaves, etc. The protagonist, Small, is the witch’s youngest child and the heir to her “revenge.” I liked the fairy-tale atmosphere that Link creates; the story progresses through dream logic that, even when awake, makes a bent sort of sense. It reminded me a lot of Italo Calvino — Link even uses direct address from time to time. But I felt like the story went on too long, like mythological works such as The Mabinogion, which are episodic rather than having a concrete beginning, middle, and end. This was read by Marc Bramhall, who delivered both the humor and the otherworldliness well.
The volume’s sixth story, “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” was a fun read, following an ex-con who crashes parties to meet women and carries around a stolen painting everywhere he goes. This story was a great example of Link’s ambiguous genre status. I listened to it with my fiancĂ©, Wil, who does not enjoy reading speculative fiction as a rule. At the end, we both loved the story but had opposing interpretations of it based on our expectations. He listened to it as a realist piece, and concluded that it was told by an unreliable narrator, whereas I heard a spooky magical realist work. The fact that we could both love this story so much but have different interpretations of “what happened” is fascinating to me and speaks to Link’s skill and subtlety.
Finally, “Magic for Beginners” was another interesting, fun read that didn’t follow typical narrative structures. It tells the story of Jeremy, a high-schooler who watches a television show, “The Library,” with his group of friends. They enjoy debating its meaning and the identity of its main character, the ever-changing Fox. Link’s depiction of fandom is part of the fun of this story. But other things, seemingly unconnected to the TV show, are happening, too. Jeremy’s father has written a novel starring his son in which he dies from a brain tumor, while his mother has unexpectedly inherited an isolated phone booth and a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Link complicates the story further by insisting that Jeremy and his friends — indeed, the story we’ve just been reading — are also part of the TV show “The Library.” On the whole, I was captivated by the story, and especially loved the end when Jeremy and his mother visit the wedding chapel, which (hilariously) turns out to be cheesily horror-themed, like Disney’s Haunted Mansion. But I also felt like she was trying to do too much. The TV show, the wedding chapel, the blurring of reality and fiction — each would have made a great short story on its own, but together, it felt like too many elements.
Three other stories in Magic for Beginners — “Lull,” “The Great Divorce,” and “The Hortlak,” — were mostly boring to me. They each contained some interesting ideas, like prophetic pajamas and mediums as marriage counselors, but ultimately I didn’t really get them or just wanted to move to the next story.
Reading this volume challenged me in several ways. Yes, it was a difficult read, but it also challenged my ideas of what writing, and stories, should be. In a lot of ways, Link violates all the rules of writing as I’ve understood them. Her stories don’t have a beginning, middle, and an end. The events of the plot don’t always have a direct cause-and-effect relationship. It also made me question my taste. Why do I like Link, and not Paul Park? Even when I don’t get it, I have only undying admiration for her and her craft; but what is materially different, craft-wise, between what she’s doing and what Park tried to do with All Those Vanished Engines?
This conflict came into focus when I picked up the new paperback edition of Magic for Beginners,which includes a conversation between Joe Hill and Link. In it, the authors talk about the relative usefulness of interpretation, especially for stories that, like Link’s, are highly metaphorical and work to obscure their own meaning. Hill asks Link if art owes us explanations — and certainly, as a reader, I want them. As a reader, I generally want the story to be, in Link’s words, a “well-thought-out puzzle” that I can figure out. But maybe that’s the wrong thing to expect (all the time) from art. I also just like Link’s language. She makes me laugh. She puts images in my head that are beautiful, strange, and memorable. And she keeps me coming back for more, precisely because I don’t “get it” on the first… or second, or third… read.
*This review originally appeared here at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 4 stars.

The Magician's Land: A big and beautiful finish

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman, is a superb finish to what is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I read it elated, skin tingling and brain buzzing, savoring every word to make it last longer. When I finished, I wanted to read it again immediately. And yet, I also finished the book feeling a persistent ambivalence about the conclusion Grossman has created for his characters.

In The Magician’s Land, Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, has grown up; he’s thirty now, twelve years older than when we first met him in The Magicians. Having been ejected from Fillory, the magical land of his childhood dreams, he is now a junior professor at his old school, Brakebills, and has found his specialty: mending small things. In all ways his life is more mundane and limited than he’d imagined when he was younger, as if, as Grossman puts it, life had “briskly and efficiently stripp[ed] Quentin of his last delusions about himself.” But surprisingly, Quentin seems okay with this. He’s not the angsty, moody teen for whom even magic falls flat. He’s developed a work ethic and is more stable, more humble, more at peace than ever.

We also meet Plum Darby, a wickedly smart senior at Brakebills. After endangering the entire school with a prank-gone-wrong, she is expelled from the school. Quentin is caught in the crossfire and also loses his job. To make some money, Quentin and Plum take a magical heist job. The target is an old suitcase filled with objects that used to belong to the Chatwins, the original Fillory kids. What’s inside the suitcase is precious and earth-shaking. It will test Quentin and Plum to their magical limits. And it will save Fillory, which is about to die.

As usual, Grossman’s writing is sharp, funny, and precise. He describes the sound of cars on a wet road “like long strips of paper tearing” and moons “like stray marbles.” His characters talk like real people, not like volunteers at a Renaissance Faire. They reference Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Steppenwolf songs. And his narrative voice is so colloquial that it sounds, at times, like the voice of a smart blogger — the kind of witty self-referential voice that thrives on the Internet. “[Fairies] went along with it for the same reason that fairies ever did anything, namely, for the lulz.”

And the characters are deep, their struggles real, and their personalities are fun to spend time with. We get more backstory and development of both Eliot and Janet, the series’ snarky best friends. Janet’s story particularly resonated with the other strong, troubled women that Grossman has created; like Janet and Alice, she has her own trauma and rage to work out. We also meet Plum, who might be my favorite character. She’s smart, mischievous, and motivated. She loves Brakebills and magic the way Quentin did — thoroughly, unironically. At the same time, she is a descendent of the Chatwins, a legendary inheritance which haunts her. She worries about the potential taint of “Chatwinity,” wondering if Fillory will destroy her the way it destroyed her ancestors.

My ambivalence about the conclusion The Magician’s Land springs from my reading of the first two books. When I first picked up The Magicians, it was like nothing I’d ever read before—not satire or parody, but a full-throated rejection of some of the tropes of fantasy that I’d taken for granted. I thought Grossman’s project was a deflating of most fantasy literature, taking the wind out of its sails, showing it to be bloated and saccharine. Even while I rooted for the characters, I reveled in their angst and unhappy endings. To some extent, I saw the books as punishment for my escapist reading habits, and a tiny masochistic part of my brain liked it. There was no Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time; magic itself (the thing I sought when I read fantasy) was shown to be only as fulfilling as the person encountering it.

And, in part, that idea is borne out by The Magician’s Land. Quentin deals with both the death of his father and the death of a god. After his father’s death, his magic becomes stronger. He realizes that “he was truly alone in the world now, no one was coming to help him. He would have to help himself.” As opposed to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, there is no wise parental divinity in THE MAGICIANS series; the gods are as messed up as the people. It reminds me, in some ways, of Harry’s response after Dumbledore’s death in the HARRY POTTER series (a comparison Grossman deliberately courts). In the absence of a mentor or a parent, both Quentin and Harry pick themselves up and do the work set before them.

But, unlike with J.K. Rowling, with Grossman I never expected a happy ending. Not that Grossman’s ending is unambiguously happy; there’s (thankfully) no "Nineteen Years Later." But it is pretty happy and when I read it, it changed what I thought these books were about. Now I think they’re about earning your happy ending. Because Quentin earns his. He grows up, he learns from his mistakes, and he applies himself. In one passage, he asks Plum “What do you think magic is for?”

I used to think about this a lot,” Quentin said. “I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books . . . In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say Hey, the worlds in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there, everything will be fine. But in real life, that guy never turns up. In our world, no one ever knows what to do . . . You’ll never know if you put the ring in the right volcano, or if things might have gone better if you hadn’t. There’s no answers in the back of the book.

Quentin ends by saying that he doesn’t know what magic is for, but he knows that “it’s not for sitting on my ass.” He works hard at magic now, not to impress a girl or prove himself, but because magic is for making something big and beautiful. And whether or not the characters live happily ever after, Grossman has done exactly that.

Update: I listened to a couple hours of this book on audio, and wanted to review that as well. The audio was read beautifully by Mark Bramhall, whose deep American voice added some gravitas to the story. Despite his distinctive sound, Bramhall was especially gifted at doing character voices, which added a lot to his narration. The only quibble I have with the audiobook isn’t Bramhall’s fault; it’s just his casting in general (or perhaps my perception of it; I’m willing to accept the label of ageist here). His normal, non-dialogue voice sounds like a middle-aged (or older) man, which conflicted oddly with the very modern, Internet-savvy voice Grossman has cultivated. Lines in the narration like, “Shit was getting geological, yo,” just seem to cry out for a younger-sounding voice. Still, Bramhall understands Grossman’s writing and his reading is well worth a listen, even if unintentionally funny at times.

*This review originally appeared here at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 5 stars.

Rogues: A diverse and satisfying collection

Rogues, a short-story anthology by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, is a marvelously diverse collection of stories and genres, tied together by those scoundrels, those tricksters, those rascals, those rogues that you can’t help but love. I listened to it on audiobook and loved the experience, especially because a few of the readers were actors from Game of Thrones.
When I picked this up, I was most excited to hear two stories in particular: “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” by Neil Gaiman, and “The Lightning Tree,” by Patrick Rothfuss. Each of these took me back to a world that I already knew and loved.
Gaiman’s was a return to the London Below of Neverwhere, telling us a little bit more about the Marquis de Carabas, the suave, unflappable conspirator from that book. In this short story, however, he is a little less suave and a lot more flappable — and also more human. His self-creation (the Marquis de Carabas is not a person so much as a part he plays, down to his French accent) is motivated by a heady mix of vanity and sibling rivalry. In “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” we get to see more of the Floating Market, the mushroom people, and denizens of various London districts. The Marquis comes head to head with an old enemy, the Elephant who rules Elephant and Castle. After escaping the Elephant (he thinks), he ends up plunging both of them into deeper trouble with an even more sinister enemy — the Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. Ultimately, they escape the Shepherds, and the Elephant forgives the Marquis his debt. It’s basically Pulp Fiction, if Marsellus Wallace was an elephant and L.A. was filled with weird, often violent creatures who seem like they sprang from a hallucina… okay, so, it’s Pulp Fiction. And it’s great.
Rothfuss’s novella, “The Lightning Tree,” returned us to the world of Kvothe and Bast from the KINGKILLER CHRONICLESIn this story, we get a birds-eye view (that’s a joke, if you’ve read the story) of a day in the life of Bast, sometime before the Chronicler appears at the inn. He goes about his day performing different chores and tasks, always returning to the titular Lightning Tree, which is an unofficial meeting spot for the village’s children. In return for secrets, favors, and gifts, Bast helps the children with their problems or answers questions they have for him. Some of the problems and questions are simple. “How can I get out of trouble with my mum?” “How can you tell girl cats from boy cats?” etc. But some of the problems and questions require both vulnerability and ingenuity from Bast. One boy wants to know more about the Fae in return for a secret about where the second-most beautiful girl in the village takes her daily bath (Bast’s sexual encounters in this single day of his life number at least three). Bast’s answers about the Fae reveal more than they conceal, and I get the sense that even the boy walks away wondering if Bast is entirely human. Another boy wants help getting rid of his abusive father; Bast plays a trick that gets the father out of town for good, while also leaving the mother open to his sexual advances. Oh, Bast. Jo Walton wonders in her review if this story would be comprehensible to a reader not familiar with Rothfuss’ trilogy. I admit I wondered the same thing, but ultimately, I think it would. While there’s not a strong plot-based thru-line, the scenes with Bast are interesting and suggestive enough to make the story enjoyable even for those who haven’t spent a couple of days in Kvothe’s company. Rupert Degas narrated, making Bast sound even more sexy, mischievous, and detached.
While I enjoyed both of these stories a lot, my favorite from the collection was not set in a world from a pre-existing series. Scott Lynch‘s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” was funny, imaginative, and thrilling; I hope Lynch writes more with these characters, because they’re great. His heroine, Amarelle Parathis, is the leader of a gang of retired thieves. By angering a local wizard, she gets roped into doing one last job. But the job proves more tricky than anything she’s done before — and she’s stolen the Death Spiders of Moraska, and mailed them postage due to her enemies. The wizard Ivovandas asks her to steal a street. Before it’s over, we get a glimpse of magical cocktails, hypnotic toads, a spring-heeled were-jackal, and some truly lovely cursing, courtesy of Amarelle’s friend Sophara. “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is a classic heist story where thieves outwit their employers. Gwendoline Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth) narrated it, and she was wonderful — especially her acting of the fruity-voiced villain, who sounded like a noir femme fatale.
Two others in this vein — also completely enjoyable but not quite as memorable as Lynch’s contribution — were Joe Abercrombie’s “Tough Times All Over” (also read by Gwendolyn Christie) and “Tawny Petticoats,” byMichael Swanwick.
I also loved Phyllis Eisenstein‘s story “Caravan to Nowhere,” which follows the troubadour Alaric on his journey across a desert with a caravan in search of a mysterious and dangerous drug. Alaric himself was not as interesting as either the setting full of caves, oases, and mirages, or the caravan master’s drug-addled son who chases after illusory cities always on the horizon.
Another story I really enjoyed was Cherie Priest‘s “Heavy Metal,” set in a small mining town in Tennessee. The miners have unleashed something — a deadly toxin, a trapped spirit, or a little bit of both — and our mysterious hero calls upon both his Christian background and his pagan beliefs to subdue the threat and bring the land some peace. Eco-fantasy is fascinating to me, as is the intersection between religion and magic, so this story was very satisfying. Priest’s imagery was poetic and evocative, especially in the climax of the story when she describes the pagan spirits, leaving just enough to the imagination.
Because the anthology was focused on “rogues” as a concept and not on a particular genre of fiction, it included some wonderful stories from non-fantasy genres — westerns, spy thrillers, detective, literary fiction. Gillian Flynn’s contribution “What Do You Do?” genuinely terrified me while being, at the same time, solidly based in the mundane world of the real. Each of the characters seemed both believable and incomprehensible. In typical Flynn style, I never knew what was going to happen next and I loved it. Julia Whelan’s narration only added to the fun; she struck the right balance of irony, intelligence, and self-awareness, making the first-person narrator really relatable. I also really enjoyed “Bad Brass,” by Bradley Denton. It was a story about a sousaphone theft, which is probably the most interesting kind of theft I’ve read about since I read China Mieville‘s Kraken, and Gil Bellows narration left me with sympathy and admiration for the tough but tender-hearted main character. Finally, the story “Diamonds from Tequila” by Walter Jon Williams was a fun listen, mostly because the main character was such a strange guy. A successful but ugly Hollywood actor, famed for playing toughs, unravels the mystery of his girlfriend’s shooting, tracing it back to a Colombian drug cartel and a 3-D printer. The character was completely (and self-admittedly) narcissistic but it was fun to be in his brain for a little bit.
Finally, I did not actually like George R.R. Martin‘s contribution, which read like an encyclopedia entry on a historical character from Westeros, Prince Daemon Targaryen. Perhaps it would have worked on the page, but as I was listening, I longed for dialogue, setting, and direct action. Instead, it was a long-winded explanation of past events, breaking the classic writer’s rule “show, don’t tell.” While the backstory he’s created for his world is extensive and impressive, this story felt like it was just taken directly from Martin’s world-building notes.
On the whole, however, I loved the anthology and can’t wait to read more short fiction curated by Martin and Dozois. I think my next selection will be their collection, Dangerous Women.
*This review originally appeared here at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 4 1/2 stars.

The Long Mars: Finally getting somewhere

The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter still features egregious prose, but it finally begins to tie in some of the unresolved plotlines from earlier books in the LONG EARTH series. We now understand why Roberta (from The Long War) seemed so different; we find out where Willis Linsay, Sally Linsay’s dad and the inventor of the Stepper, has been hiding; and we see more of the Long Earth exploration as the Chinese and the Americans team up to go “where no man has gone before.”
This book also provides the most stunning portrayals of different Earths so far — chilling and inspiring answers to the “What if?” question that haunts our life-lucky planet. Landscapes full of masses of bacteria, of monument-building crabs, of plant life that approaches sentience, all of it like nothing we have here on Datum Earth.
We also have the beginnings of a real conversation about the Prime Directive as Willis and Sally travel to Mars, discover that there is a Long Mars (hey, that’s the name of this book!), and accidentally-on-purpose give stepping technology to an aggressive species that hadn’t discovered it yet. Willis’s lackadaisical attitude towards his responsibility as the technologically-advanced intruder, really sparks some ethical questions.
The other major plotline revolves around the Next, a generation of children born and raised after Step Day, whose development has been influenced by the other sentient species with whom they have come into contact. I think the idea of the Next is really interesting, but I was annoyed by their portrayal as unempathetic sociopaths. The rhetoric that Pratchett and Baxter give to them as dialogue (especially one of them, Paul) is egregious. Paul describes having sex with a regular human: “Well, can you imagine having sex with a dumb animal, a beast?… Fully human from the forehead down, but from the eyebrows up, the brain of a chimp, more or less.” They sound like mini-Hitlers in their defense of themselves as the next step of humanity, and of the “dim bulb” humans as basically animals. I found the earlier portrayal of Roberta much more ambiguous, nuanced, and potentially likeable.
On the whole, The Long Mars left me feeling less despair about where the series is going, but more anger about the shoddy treatment of such a cool idea.
*This review originally appeared here at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 2 1/2 stars.