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Science and magic would appear to be strange bedfellows. But that doesn’t stop writers from combining the two. Star Trek made use numerous magical cultures whose worldview clashed with the scientific culture on the Enterprise, and we’re all familiar with how all the tech toys in Star Wars meant little without the Force to offer an intuitive, magical alternative to science.

At a recent gathering at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, Ms. Nesbet mentioned how the dynamic tension between magic and science played an important role in her story. So as I plunged into her longish (381 pp.) middle grade fantasy, I was expecting something more or less familiar. What I got was something familiar, yes, but also delightfully different. The Wrinkled Crown isn’t sci fi, nor is it fantasy disguised as sci fi. Instead, it’s really an exploration of place, as seen the lens of a girl. And that place is as wildly original as any created world anywhere.

A key word in the story comes right from its title: wrinkled. More than just another word for magic, it also refers to the quality of place, the hill country where young Linny grows up. That quality gets mapped into the minds of people who go there, so that even those who live there are likely to be overwhelmed by illness if they wander too far into areas where the wrinkles dominate the land. Linny has an uncanny ability to navigate through wrinkled places, but that ability gets severely tested when she inadvertently sends her best friend to Away, a place so wrinkled that even Linny can’t go there.

To try to save her, Linny undertakes a perilous journey to the Plain, a place divided into warring camps: those who defend wrinkled reality, and Surveyors who want to stamp it out. While Nesbet presents the Surveyors unsympathetically, she also shows some of the wrinkled rebels to be less than ethical in their dealings as well. While running from members of both sides, Linny finds her animal familiar: Half-Cat, a determined, aloof-yet-loyal, multitalented feline. Half-Cat’s right eye is actually a light, and though her origin isn’t explained, it’s obvious that she is both animal and machine—wrinkled and unwrinkled.

[ALERT! SPOILERS AHEAD!]

Linny goes through a number of hair-raising escapes from Wrinkled and Plain people alike, including a harrowing journey through a maze of underground tunnels she navigates by smell alone. When she emerges, it’s right into a huge celebratory gathering of people, the one time of year when Wrinkled and Plain put down their antipathy and commingle. Linny appears to win over the crowd, who see her as the manifestation of a girl who, the stories say, will wear the Wrinkled Crown and unite the country. But Linny can’t follow this path—yet (perhaps in a sequel?). She still must save her friend Sayra, lost in Away.

I won’t go into all the details here, except to say that Linny escapes back to the wrinkled hills and finds a way to bring her friend back, while thwarting the plans of a crazy Plain man trying to tap into the extreme wrinkledness (wrinkletude? wrinkality?) at the edge of Away in order to bring unlimited energy to the Plain. The analogy to our world here is pretty obvious, because his method would also destroy wrinkles and flatten reality, an unthinkable catastrophe. Nuclear energy, the Keystone Pipeline, Global Warming—suffice it to say we have plenty of ways of flattening reality, too.

Nesbet clearly believes, though, that both Wrinkled and Plain are necessary for balance, and by analogy, so are magic/faith/spirituality and science. As such, The Wrinkled Crown functions as a parable. While the world she paints isn’t a dystopia, really, it has a stripped-down quality (oddly enough, though Linny discovers maps and how useful they are, the book itself doesn’t come with a map) that reminds me of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (reviewed elsewhere here).

Then there’s that word: Wrinkled. I’m sure that this word didn’t just pop into Nesbet’s head by accident. Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time comes immediately to mind. But there’s more to it than that, I think. Wrinkled skin, wrinkled clothes—wrinkles are things we all have to deal with on a daily basis. Our brains are wrinkled—without all those folds, we would lack consciousness itself. And oddly enough, wrinkles have been used by physicists and mathematicians to describe dimensions and space itself. Cosmetologist George Smoot even wrote a book about the origins of the Universe, Wrinkles in Time. Several times in her story, Nesbet presents the possibility that Linny’s world may be like a bubble that could pop and disappear—a prospect that comes straight out of contemporary multiverse theory.

Let’s hope our own world doesn’t do the same. In the meantime, I plan to take plenty of walks on the wrinkled paths in my own neck of the woods.

(Spoiler Alert)

The Cabinet of Earths and A Box of Gargoyles aren’t quite a series; they’re more like bookends. Their protagonist is Maya, a lonely 13-year-old girl stuck in Paris with her family, who runs into some serious French Voodoo based on old-school alchemy. The first book presents her antagonist Henri Fourcroy as a beautiful immortal young man who stays alive by distilling the life force from children. With the help of her Bulgarian friend Valko, Mayo struggles to save her five-year-old brother James from the immortal’s nefarious plan.

In the gargoylish sequel, Maya thinks Fourcroy is dead. Foolish girl. Not only is he not dead, he’s somehow infused his consciousness into stone walls and gargoyles. Maya falls into his magical trap and finds herself compelled to follow his instructions “like clockwork”—actions that will bring about Fourcroy’s resurrection and Maya’s death.

So, creepy entertainment for kids. And, like so many other gothic fantasies targeted for the pre-teen crowd, it’s also quite entertaining for adults. The biggest tool in Nesbet’s toolbox is voice: a warm inviting voice that comforts the reader like a cup of hot cocoa by a ghost-story campfire. It’s the antithesis of the first person, present tense in-your-face voice now in vogue in YA fiction. As an adult, I really appreciated Nesbit’s humor as she explores Maya’s foibles, determination, miscalculations, and ultimately her triumph as love conquers evil. (Seriously, did you REALLY think Maya was going to get turned into a Gargoyle Zombie? No way!) There’s no real heart-pounding action here, no edge-of-your-seat thrills. But exactly how Maya foils the devious Fourcroy remains in doubt until the end of each book.

Some real differences do separate these two stories. The first is considerably shorter, and while it spoons out oodles of Parisian charm, it follows a pretty consistent path to the end. It introduces alchemy as a theme, including an animated salamander door handle that I immediately bonded with. (The confluence of magic and science is one of Nesbet’s interests, and one that I myself share. The history of science rarely followed straight paths and is filled with contradictory beliefs and misinterpretations, such as Newton’s belief in astrology.)

The longer second book takes more of a psychological approach to Maya’s struggles with the spell that has bound her. Though the book drags a bit in the middle, this is also the story’s strength—Maya is a bit older, about to enter that age when emotional contradictions abound. We all fight against feelings of hopelessness, or give in to bad habits, and do things we SWORE would never do but do it anyway. The one trait that keeps her from falling apart is her caring instinct. She’s been entrusted with a gargoyle egg, and she’s going to protect it come hell or high water, even if it does almost lead to her undoing. Like Harry at the end of the Potter books, it’s love that saves her. Though to be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Fourcroy could be defeated that way.

I’m looking forward to reading Nesbet’s latest, The Wrinkled Crown, in which magic and science have taken the form of different realms in a fantasy world. It sounds like a great book to curl up with on a favorite couch with the last of the winter rains beating down on my roof.

Star Wars VII blasts into a post-Lucas galaxy that’s far far away, but all too familiar

By sheer force of numbers, A New Hope (whoops, I mean The Force Awakens) has taken the country of multiplexes by storm. Fans are flocking to the new sequel-that’s-not-a-prequel, critics offer a few light verbal jabs before applauding the film for its freshness and lightness of spirit, and even nonbelievers in the Star Wars canon are admitting that the movie has merit for its entertainment values. Virtually everyone I know who’s seen it has liked it. So despite the fact that I had to shell out an extra 5 bucks because the only seats available were in 3D, I was prepared to like it as well—considering that, back in the day, I thought the original series—especially when Han and Leia’s verbal jabs were more entertaining than swooshing light sabers—to be jolly good fun.

But Han and Leia were a lot older for this one. And though Han could still do that world-weary twinkle in his eye, his age showed. The two newcomers who replaced them as stars—the orphan junk dealer Rey and renegade soldier Finn—come off as much more serious, despite Finn’s occasional comic lines. Rey is scrappy (she works collecting scrapped parts—get it?) and determined and somehow strong with the Force, though we’re never told how she managed to swing that. She also wears the same expression on her face, a kind of blank stare, for virtually the entire movie. Finn is more interesting, but I had a hard time buying his running away from the army when the army had programmed his entire life up until that point. Not that he’d chicken out when it came time for him to kill innocent people—that’s a visceral, instinctive reaction to war. But he’s still just a number, and he only knows people as numbers. How’s he supposed to suddenly decide that he’s got a name—and a desire for freedom–unless someone has planted those seeds in his mind? And this film never shows that side of his backstory.

When these two get together, any chance for developing a relationship with nuance gets blasted away in withering tie fighter tracers and explosions. So here I’m going to go all grumpy on y’all and say that, back in the day, dodging tie fighter tracers and explosions was exhilarating fun. This time after just a few tie fighter tracers and explosions on a much-too-close 3D screen I had had enough, thank you. Yet that was just the beginning. The Force Awakens thus settles into the comfortable and peculiarly American movie diet of loud fast blow ‘em up shoot ‘em up chase scenes that for some reason Hollywood has decided every red-blooded citizen has to enjoy.

Otherwise, like Rey herself, director J.J. Abrams played the scavenger, ripping off chunks of the original Star Wars series and jamming them into his story. Apologists for this call this a nodding tribute to the original tale, but I call it lack of imagination. Did we really need another Death Star, only bigger? More Army officers that look straight out of the Third Reich? A bad guy who looks like a bad cross between Palpatine and Voldemort? Tie fighters that haven’t changed in thirty years? Another bar scene with aliens? Same old stormtrooper suits? Another father-son confrontation on a narrow bridge over an endless chasm? And how did the First Order come into being, anyway?
There was one scene that held my interest, a scene that might have revealed much about Rey’s character had it been explored further. Wandering into the basement of Maz Kanata’s castle, she stumbles on Luke Skywalker’s light saber stored in a box like a religious artifact. After opening the box she’s overwhelmed by eerie sounds and a flashback of herself as a child when her parents are wrenched from her. Had she stumbled on a powerful manifestation of the Force? Would we be granted access to her past and gain insight into what she believes and what motivates her? Perhaps a spiritual awakening, or a great fear would be unleashed on her? And what did it have to do with Luke’s light saber? Unfortunately, the scene ended quickly and Rey seemed untroubled and unchanged by the experience.

Perhaps—but it’s never even hinted as such—this experience enabled her to use the Force, which Luke only learned after numerous lessons from the venerable Yoda (here missing, alas). Because, guess what, she uses the Force to get her stuck-in-the-snow light saber to return to her hand just in the nick of time. Just like Luke.

So maybe in VIII, Rey will turn to the franchise writers and using her best Jedi mind control voice, say “You will unshackle your own creative bonds and do something truly different this time.”

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote this about a month ago and some…force (ahem) kept me from posting it. Could it be Disney himself? Or the threat of legions of TFA followers casting aspersions my way? But now I’ve decided to do the right thing and post it.

I do have one last meme to explore here: Kylo Ren’s cool new light saber. It dawned on me that this young, disturbed villain carried a Christian symbol, since the two crossguards shine red like the shaft. This can’t have been coincidence, and has been noticed by others on the Internet. The red color gives the saber a certain demonic quality, contrasting with Luke’s “pure white” light saber. What does this symbolism intend?

Christians may see it as symbolizing the anti-Christ, though I wouldn’t go that far. It could be a not-so-subtle comment, in visual form, that any religion taken to extremes leads to evil–Muslim, Christian, or Judaism, take your pick. “Christian Soldiers” has all to often been taken literally, leading to behavior directly antithetical to the teachings of Christ.

No doubt you have read book reviews for adult fiction that excoriate the writing for employing trite characters, hackneyed plots, and old, hoary thematic tropes. No doubt you have read some of these books as well, and found them to be nauseatingly boring reads. What fun is a story without plot twists and characters who explode conventions and challenge one’s notion of what makes a good tale?

No doubt one has gained considerable satisfaction in pointing out what these tropes are and why they make for mediocre fiction. Editors and agents in particular attack with relish submissions that rely on vapid, timeworn themes and techniques.

Even editors and agents dealing with children’s books.

And yet…what are tropes to children? Put simply, they don’t exist, particularly for younger children who are just beginning to explore the fictionverse. They don’t care if a villain is done up in paint-by-number colors, or a plot device is predictable as apple pie. They don’t care if adult readers know just what the hero is going to do because they’ve read it so many times before.

And yet…kidult fiction must also appeal to adults, who evaluate, purchase and often read said fiction to children. A writer of such fiction must perform a balancing act for two widely differing audiences.

Which brings me to my latest Middle Grade Novel read, Jinx by Sage Blackwood (aka Karen Schwabach). This fairly long (360 pp.) fantasy tale is about a preteen boy named Jinx. Who is—surprise, surprise—an orphan.

Really. Who would have guessed that a children’s book would feature a main character who’s an orphan? Well, just about anyone would have guessed. I haven’t done an official survey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one out of three fantasy tales for kids nowadays features at least one orphan, particularly as the main character. As an adult, I find this distressing. It’s a cheap and easy way to elicit sympathy for the protagonist, conveniently eliminates parents from the story, and gives the protagonist a convenient cause or sense of longing.

Know what? Kids don’t give squat about my feelings here. And I can’t blame writers for thrusting the mantle on orphans when the most popular kidlit hero of modern times, a Mr. Harry Potter, was an orphan par excellence.

Such orphans have to overcome a terrible temporary home life (the Dursleys) and find a substitute parental figure (Dumbledore). Jinx’s version of the Muggle family members are superstitious, mentally challenged villagers who live in a clearing in a scary, magical forest. Like Harry, Jinx’s substitute dad is a wizard. Only in this case, the wizard is only marginally better than Jinx’s abusive stepdad. But you know, the wizard knows stuff. Interesting stuff. And Jinx is so ready to find out what it is.

Jinx has no Hogwarts to provide endless snarky relationship tangles, but he does meet a couple of other magical wannabe kids. For awhile they thrash out their differences, and it’s kind of fun, but some of the conversations go on and on and on—Blackwood could have trimmed 50 pages of conversation and avoided some of the dreaded mid-novel sag. Things pick up when they meet a truly evil sorcerer, who nonetheless has his charms. I won’t say what happens—spoilers and all that—but the threesome deal with some loathsome evil here that’s also thankfully not too graphicly depicted.

Kudos to Blackwood for avoiding the trap of creating a cartoon evil character, at least. Her three kids may be in a fantasy world, but they are just like kids in our neck of the Universe. I guess that’s good enough for me to ignore the fact that she mined the Orphan Trope like a California prospector in 1849.

The urge to create: we all feel it, but how many of us push past failure to realize our creative dreams? All children act on this urge, but many shut it down as they grow older and deal with the demands of the Quoditian World. Some of us return to the urge and express creativity in many ways as an outlet from those demands. Some not only return to the urge, they defy the world to prevent them from returning to it. The price they pay may be high, and failure when it inevitably comes more painful. But the rewards can be great.

These thoughts came to me after watching PBS’s recent two-part series on the life of Walt Disney. For those growing up before the Sixties, Disney was the Oz to our young Dorothys, the man most responsible for the amazing evolution of stories presented to children—and adult—in animated film. Snow White, his first feature-length film, took the country by storm. His movies became must-see events, his Disneyland a mecha for kids. He was also perfect for the new medium of television during the 50s, so he had great timing…for a while.

The culture of the Sixties brought about a change in attitude about Disney and his empire. The term “Mickey Mouse” became a pejorative term, used to describe something seen as unimaginative, cheap, or status quo. Disney, once the daring rebel who took on the Hollywood Establishment, was now himself that Establishment. Nevertheless, the entertainment empire he built survived and flourished. People nowadays may have differing opinions about the quality of Disney’s work, but no one can deny that the man followed his urge to create in a massive way, beat the odds, and profoundly influenced not just American culture but World culture.

It’s no accident that his ubiquitous cartoon symbol, Mickey Mouse, was a feisty individual (nowadays certain quarters would label him a “maverick”) who kept his chin up in the face of adversity, never gave up, and triumphed in the end. This is how Disney saw himself. Even after achieving both fame and commercial success, he pushed projects that nearly bankrupted his company and destroyed his career. His urge to create took an ominous turn when he pushed his employees hard as well, and when they went on strike he simply couldn’t understand that now the Mickey Mouses were the inkers and in-betweeners, the production-line workers who were overworked and underpaid.

It’s a story some have compared to that of Steve Jobs, another creative genius who helped spawn a revolution. Both started as rebels, both drove themselves to become the establishment they’d formerly rejected, and both died too young to see the fruition of all their dreams.

But only Disney plied his trade in Story. The company he founded still pumps out Story, though its animated features rely more and more on a girl audience in love with the Princess Meme. Writers of children’s stories today ignore Disney at their peril, even if they dislike the man and what he stood for. What we can all take away from the man’s life is an appreciation for what it takes—hard work, thick skin, and passion—to achieve our creative dreams.

Post Script: A wonderful autobiography by illustrator Bill Peet gives a heartfelt, sometimes whimsical view of Disney. Peet worked for Disney Studios for a while, contributing to such classic animated films as Snow White and Fantasia, before he branched out into writing and illustrating children’s books. Peet also illustrated his autobiography with his distinctive cartoon style that really makes this a fun read.

That Kelly Link is a fearless writer who slaps fiction on your plate and dares you to eat it cannot be denied. In a previous review of her story collection Pretty Monsters I enthusiastically gave her YA writing a thumbs up, so I was relishing another crack at her quirky brand of prose with her latest collection for adults, Get In Trouble (Random House, 2015).

A number of themes and images run through these stories, if stories they truly be. Girls or women who are bored or bothered by boyfriends or things they don’t understand. Superheroes (too many, IMHO). Ghosts. Alcohol, always alcohol to fail as the longed-for panacea. And at the heart of everything, the stinking beast that is Florida. Link’s prose sometimes runs off like Hunter Thompson trying to figure out why he has two shadows, and so what if he’s just an ordinary housewife who doesn’t understand her husband?

Link loves to conflate the voice of the narrator with the voice of any number of characters in a story, dispensing with quote marks, throwing in cryptic catch-phrases that refer to a code that may or not reveal a meaningful connection or emotional truth. This makes the stories a bit of a struggle at times, though when the prose truly clicks, and Link reins in the overly clever cute stuff, it can be LOL funny. At their best, they leave a queasy feeling and give the reader plenty of space to figure out the meaning. At their worst, they’re repetitive and boring. Sometimes a story shows both.

None of the characters in these stories have what I would call an “aha!” moment. No startling revelations, no fateful choices, but more than likely a turning of some sort that changes the atmosphere from, say, gaiety to blurry apprehension. You have to sort through the rubbish for a payoff; readers more accustomed to having this neatly arranged by the author may lose patience. I won’t pretend that at times I grew weary of tripping through disgorged prose or pretentious characters who didn’t connect with me. But in most of the stories I would inevitably find a nugget or two—a wacky observation or cleverly turned phrase—and I’d do a mental fist pump, yes! Kelly, you still have it!

Here’s a quote from the final story in the collection, in a what-if world where pocket universes are de rigeur, at least in Florida, and the main character is a bureaucrat in charge of (I kid you not) inventorying “sleepers,” people who inexplicably fall asleep and have to be stored somewhere. Before the MC hunkers down in a climactic hurricane, she holds forth on a number of Florida’s tacky cultural icons, such as mermaids:

The mermaids were an invasive species, like the iguanas. People had brought them from one of the Disney pocket universes as pets, and now they were everywhere, small but numerous in a way that appealed to children and bird-watchers. They liked to show off and although they didn’t seem much smarter than, say, a talking dog, and maybe not as smart, since they didn’t speak, only sang and whistled and made rude gestures, they were too popular with the tourists at the Venetian Pools to be gotten rid of.”

It’s funny little observations and clever inventions like these that make Link a worthy read. I only wish there were more of them here, and fewer of the confusing, nonsensical ones.

Night of PanWith the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson middle grade fantasy series, Greek Mythology has also grown in popularity among both preteens and their teachers. Fictional treatments of such iconic figures as Jason, Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and even the god Pan have made the Greek myths familiar to young readers in a way that textbooks can’t.

There’s a reason why these myths continue to fascinate us well over 2,000 years since they were handed down to the Western World. The Greeks told stories filled with passion. Their heroes were capable of doing terrible things, and their gods acted in all-too-human—often lascivious—ways. Western drama as we know it was born in the religious dramas that gave us both comedy and tragedy. These myths greatly influenced all kinds of Greek thinkers—philosophers, mathematicians, rulers, playwrights—who in turn profoundly influenced Western thought in the Renaissance. We’d have no Shakespeare without the Greeks.

So universal do the Greeks seem to us today that it’s easy for us with Western postmodern values to forget how different from ours their cultural attitudes were. They had democracy, but also slaves, and women were treated as property as well. Warfare was glorified. Rulers often identified with a god who had the right to punish people as he saw fit. Once the ruling class ended the matriarchy of its ancestors, brutality was condoned or even praised.

Writing stories based on a culture with such a different ethical point of view from ours can be quite challenging—particularly in stories for young people, which we as teachers and parents require toe the ethical line. Stories with human sacrifice, gods who rape, incest, and other atrocities are generally kept away from pre-teens; in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, Herakles “swats” his family down instead of tearing them limb from limb. Percy Jackson only goes so far down this road as well—even when Percy slays a monster, it disappears in a cloud of gold dust rather than actually bleed to death.

Are there any novels out there for young readers that aren’t afraid to deal with the darker aspects of Greek myths? One such YA novel I read recently, Night of Pan by first-time novelist Gail Strickland (2014, Curiosity Quills Press) bursts out of the sword-and-sandal approach to Greek mythology with an exclamation point. The main character is not a storied hero, a wisecracking modern teenager, or a god. She’s Thaleia, daughter of a former oracle priestess at Delphi known as the Pythia.

Delphi played an enormous role in both Greek mythology and history. It’s a beautiful place, set on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, and for thousands of years the priests who ran the oracle grew wealthy from the kings who came from all over to seek information—or help—from the god Apollo. The Pythia sat on a three-legged stool over a gaseous vent, went into a trance, and spoke in tongues while the priests interpreted her babblings to their clients. While the Pythia was recognized as being important to the oracle, it was the priests—all male—who held the power and riches.

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Strickland’s approach is contemporary. Thaleia is a feminist; she has visions and defies the evil priest who rules Delphi and nearly pays for it with her life. She not only survives, but with her newly-found god companion Pan she gains the strength to claim the role of Pythia herself. In so doing she gives one of the most famous prophecies of all time, one which inspires the Greeks to defeat the Persian conqueror Xerxes in the naval battle at Salamis.

But wait, there’s more. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that, prior to Salamis, Xerxes tried to attack Delphi, and was repulsed by Apollo himself when the god sent an avalanche to repulse the Persians. Strickland cleverly uses this as another way for Thaleia to flex her magical muscles as she calls on Apollo for help, and to the amazement of her community the god responds.

Thus this story straddles too genres—historical fiction and New Age-tinged feminist pagan fantasy. Just when I thought this was a realistic story, here comes Pan with his bag of tricks. Thaleia is a true child of nature, and she experiences Pan not as a scary would-be rapist but as delightful-smelling outdoor kitchen god of sorts. At one point I was convinced they were going to have sex—isn’t that what satyrs do?—but no, Pan just wants to inspire her, like a good contemporary man who wouldn’t touch jailbait.

So Pan is cool, if a bit smell-infused. The other deity Thaleia encounters is Apollo himself, a far more powerful god who ruled the oracle. (Note: at one time the oracle was not ruled by Apollo but by Gaia, the earth goddess. I doubt many contemporary Pagans would have any problem wishing Gaia’s Python had kicked Apollo’s butt instead of falling to one of his arrows). Here Strickland has a problem: does she present the god as sympathetic, despicable, or something in between? After all, his head priest is a violent misogynist. Strickland presents him as a kind of disembodied force of nature—no face, even. Of course the gods could present themselves to mortals any way they liked, but I would have liked if Apollo had appeared with some kind of human aspect to him.

I give Strickland props for creating an appealing main character in Thaleia, and putting her in an intriguing historical setting that shows obvious scholarship on Strickland’s part. At times I found myself a bit confused by events, and at times the marriage of historical and fantasy fiction strains a bit. But overall this tale’s most important function is to remind us that embracing one’s passion can lead to great success, no matter whether you’re a Pythia-in-waiting or a suburban kid about to experience all that wild stuff Pan was famous for.

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