Gardner Dozois’ The Book of Magic a fine Collection of Contemporary Fantasy

It seems to me that Fantasy and Science Fiction are locked in a symbiotic embrace. Fantasy without legitimate world building lacks cohesion; Sci-fi without fantasy’s dream engines comes off as dry silliness. The seventeen stories in this collection, while definitely fantasy, also rely on remarkable world building to draw the reader into their shadowy depths.

Of course, as short fiction they don’t have the luxury of creating Tolkienesque worlds, complete with back stories. The authors have to let a single brush stroke carry the entire background at times, often with a wink to a reader whom they assume has the knowledge of the genre, and an informed imagination to match, to fill in the blank spaces.

To do this, most depend on tropes, as well as previous works with similar storylines and magical entities. The most persistent trope is that sorcerers (magicians, shamans, etc.) who reach a certain level of mastery in their arts inevitably overreach themselves and are either forced to kill other magicians in magical duels, or cruelly choose to do same. All sorcerers have a grimoire, a book of ancient spells, the use of which almost always has dire consequences. To accomplish their ends, sorcerers evoke all manner of magical spirits and beasts: “Djinn, trolls, elves…egregores, deodands, grues, erbs, ghouls, scorpion-tailed manticores…” to quote the book’s introduction. The more obscure ones mostly come from the gaming world—no surprise there, since the prevailing voice in most of these tales is an exceedingly clever Dungeon & Dragons master, with a taste for magical deaths executed in various bold and unexpected ways.

Perhaps the story that exemplifies the ethos the best is the only one not specifically written for this collection, George R. R. Martin’s “A Night at the Tarn House.” Here, every single character is encased in the unrelenting doom of a dying world, in which even magic itself is dying, yet still lures the unwary into chasing after its deceptive power. Every character seeks to kill every other character, and the only survivor is a fool with no magic at all. Given Martin’s taste for blood, this is hardly surprising, and while not very edifying is at least entertaining.

That’s not to say all the stories in this volume follow the well-tread magical path so fastidiously. For example, Scott Lynch’s drolly fascinating tale, “The Fall and Rise of the House of the Wizard Malkuril,” posits the sorcerer not as a sorcerer at all, but the extravagant house of a sorcerer, the brains of which house exploits the sorcerer’s vast magical holdings after he dies by slipping and falling downstairs (D’oh!). The house overreaches its power (of course), but unlike many other tales, reaches a measure of redemption in a cleverly composed ending.

A few other stories stray way beyond the tropes. Andy Duncan’s “The Devil’s Whatever” is set not in some sorcery-drenched gothic world on another planet, but in the American South, with homespun characters who just happen to have magical powers. But the greatest outlier has to be Ysabeau Wilce’s “Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror, Chapter II: Jumping Jack in Love.” This is a totally over-the-top explosion of ludicrous language, hilariously slapped together, to narrate the exploits of a kleptomaniac kid who goes to absurd lengths to win the girl of his dreams. Characters killed: 0. Laughs: too many to count.

All in all, this is a fine read, with stories artfully crafted for one’s magical pleasure. They all give enough tantalizing glimpses into their worlds without weighing the reader down with detail. Most feature some kind of twist at the end. Only one of them (Lavie Tidhar’s “Widow Maker”) left me bored and scratching my head. Even if you don’t have a grimoire, it’s good for a few spells.

Circe takes on Odysseus—and the Gods Themselves—in Madeline Miller’s Enchanting Novel

Odysseus, the man of many twists and turns, devious war captain and spinner of tales, profoundly lost castaway and vengeful lord, has captivated countless generations in the single-most studied epic from the Ancient World, Homer’s Odyssey. His story has served as inspiration for dozens of contemporary novels, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Zachary Mason’s postmodern mashup The Lost Books of the Odyssey. As both hero and anti-hero, the prince from Ithaca has proven to be a nearly inexhaustible source of literary exploration in the modern world.

That this work should continue to prove to be so profound to us is all the more amazing, given that the world that Homer describes—the rituals, beliefs, social values, and assumptions of the ancient Greeks—is so profoundly alien to the world in which we live now. The Homeric prose poem is a form that has no true parallel in our society. Thus when a contemporary author chooses to render this world in a way that resonates with us, the fabulous strangeness of it all can be easily lost. The writer must remain faithful, yet adventurous, to capture the story’s essence.

Madeline Miller chose not to put Odysseus in the center of the story in her best-selling novel Circe (Little, Brown and Company; 2018), but rather a Titan nymph witch whose primary claim to fame is turning Odysseus’ men into pigs when they ventured onto her island, the curiously named Aeaea. Since goddesses seemed to find Odysseus irresistible, she slept with him as well, and helped him out when it came time for him to leave her island. In the Odyssey, at least, Circe is a minor character who comes off well but doesn’t play a critical role.

Miller knows there’s much more to Circe than that, and she puts her considerable expertise in ancient Greek and Roman literature to fill her story out wonderfully well. She makes Circe an anti-hero of sorts herself, banished to an island because she turned a rival nymph, Scylla, into a terrible, ravenous monster. There she learns to live by herself, perfecting her pharma magic. She also meets and befriends Daedalus, the famous inventor who could rival Haephestus himself, and in a gruesome scene helps her sister Pasiphaë deliver the infamous Minotaur monster on the Isle of Crete. This all happens hundreds of years before Odysseus shows up, for Circe is immortal, destined to watch sadly as her mortal loves turn to dust.

As the story plays out, and Odysseus returns to Ithaca, the story focuses on Circe’s son by him. Telegonus is a difficult child, but she also loves him dearly. When Telegonus finally chooses to leave the island in search of his father, Fate intervenes and he accidentally kills Odysseus. The final chapters focus on her reconciliation with Penelope, Odysseus’ widow, and Telemachus, Odysseus’ son by Penelope.

In having Odysseus die this way, Miller chooses only one of different ways that those living after Homer imagined his life after the Odyssey. The one I was familiar with has him essentially dying of old age after an uneventful life. Miller’s end fits better with her protagonist’s story, and it also presents a side of Odysseus rarely touched on: his vengeful bloodbath in the second part of the Odyssey is consistent with a man who’s been at war and suffers from PTSD. None of his cleverness, nor Circe’s love, could cure his damaged mind or emotions.

His death also highlights another difference between Odysseus and Circe: one is mortal, the other is not. Circe’s island, isolated yet easily visited by gods and sailors both, is apt for one who literally spends centuries in solitude, punctuated by brief periods of passion and grief. Miller does an amazing job bringing the island to life with crafty precision. She describes the gods who deal with Circe—her father Helios, her nymph sisters, the Olympians Hermes, Apollo and Athena—as privileged immortals who cared little for her or for mortals, and approved of violent retribution as an effective way of dealing with outcasts like Prometheus.

Circe isn’t immune to cruelty; Exhibit A is her annoying habit of turning sailors into pigs. The Odyssey doesn’t say why she did this, but Miller comes up with an ingenious explanation: before Odysseus arrives at her island, other sailors did, and one of them raped her. She turned the rapist into a pig for revenge, and enjoyed it so much that she continued to do it when other ships arrived. When Odysseus proves immune to the spell, she recognizes her error, turns his pigs back into men again, and gives up this practice for good.

Again, this is Miller expanding on the Odyssey to fit her needs. Though I admit I was confused at first because I thought the sailor who raped her was Odysseus, and that didn’t fit from what I remembered of the Odyssey.

At story’s end, Circe leaves her island with Telemachus; together they slay Scylla, and then her son-in-law becomes her lover as they set sail around the known world. Because she has chosen to live among mortals, she grows more and more like one herself—her face ages, her skin grows looser. But she’s found contentment, and a kind of wisdom that’s impossible for a deathless god to find.

Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky

Science Fiction and Fantasy—or SFF, to the cognoscenti—is a rich breeding ground for cautionary tales fashioned for the times, from the threat of nuclear annihilation in the 50s and 60s to the dangers inherent in bioengineering and virtual reality in the 00s to Climate Change in our current decade. Now, it seems, the apocalypse, and the tattered post-apocalyptic remains, are standard fare for novels and movies alike, whether they’re dressed up comic book tales from Marvel or more literary fare like Margaret Atwoods’ Year of the Flood. So many “OMG the fate of the entire earth/universe is at stake!” stories are among us to keep raising the stakes (of a bored public?) that some novels and movies these days focus on That Terrifying Moment to the detriment of other interesting stuff—you know, like voice and character.

As shown by her first novel (Tor, 2016), Charlie Jane Anders is clearly aware of the tropes and uses them both playfully and urgently. She pulls no punches when it comes to facing the very real catastrophe awaiting both our planet and the human race, but she does it with a genuine funny voice and two sympathetic main characters, the whimsical yet serious witch Patricia, and her imaginative tech nerd counterpart Laurence. These two are joined at the hip from their early teen years, drift apart, and then when they meet again have to face both their attraction to each other and the fact that their respective social circles are locked in a death struggle.

So yes, the latter stages of the novels feels quite familiar to anyone steeped in the ubiquitous action tradition. But by then characters are so tenderly drawn, it’s impossible (for me, anyway) to get stuck in sneering, “Here go again.”

Each has their own serious faults. Patricia is a highly skilled healer, yet finds herself forced to kill people on occasion. Laurence works on a tech project that could possibly destroy the planet. They’re forced to become enemies just as they fall in love with each other. And both, aided by Anders’ quirky hipster voice, are charming as hell.

Most of the story is set in San Francisco, and Anders, who clearly knows the territory, uses the magic of the city to bolster the atmosphere. In this setting, the two main characters, perhaps preposterous elsewhere, seem to fit right in to the scene.

The writing is not without its occasional faults. Anders is a dedicated head hopper, jumping from one character’s point of view to another, a tactic she gets away with only because she’s so brazen about it. Sometimes the quirky fun gets overly cute—hard SF fans may find her tiresome at times. The ending disappointingly peters out. But if you don’t mind a bit of freak with your science fiction, you could do worse than pick this up for a summer read.

Side note: I got this book after hearing her and two other SFF writers talk on a panel at the 2019 Bay Area Book Festival. The topic was how contemporary SFF writers deal with Climate Change. It may not seem to be the driving element in this novel, but it’s always there in the background, and goes full ecodisaster near the end. If it gets people to think at all about the consequences of Global Capitalism culture, it’s done its job.

Humor writing is a difficult craft to master, almost as difficult as being off-the-cuff funny with friends and family in a manner that doesn’t get you roundly criticized (I know, I’ve been there). Sometimes a writer publishes something that may have seemed funny at the time, but…you know. M.T. Anderson, best known for his bitingly satirical YA novel Feed, has been guilty of this at times. His sci-fi send-up Whales On Stilts, for example, can be summed up entirely by the title. Yup, whales on stilts, got it. Next…

Anderson does better when he sets his sights on recognizable social ills and puts somewhat clueless characters into untenable positions. Feed does this, as does his other well-known work, Octavian Nothing. His latest book, done in conjunction with charmingly weird illustrator Eugene Yelchin, manages to do this as well. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (now there’s a name!) takes place in an imaginary world where the nation of Goblins and the nation of Elves are at constant odds, and on the brink of war. Spurge has been sent on an impossible mission. Launched by a giant crossbow into Goblin territory, ostensibly bearing a gift for the terrible yet mysterious Goblin king, he is actually a spy for the Elves. His host Werfel is a well-meaning Goblin, like Spurge an academically inclined fellow, who tries to impress Spurge with all manner of food that Spurge finds disgusting beyond belief. Funny? You bet. Think about that aunt you have to visit, who serves up things you’d never eat in a million years, like Haggis or pickled herring, yet because she’s family you have to at least pretend to be eager to take a nibble and say it’s good.

Spurge and Werfel are mirror-images of each other: each extols the wonders of their kingdom, and refers to the other kingdom as dastardly, evil, and foul. And yet they manage to hit it off rather well. Of course, things go awry, as things are wont to do when fantasy worlds are in conflict. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that these two diplomats get their eyes opened by each other, and learn to transcend their differences. Which is something our own nation could learn to do, wouldn’t you say?

This morality tale is a quick read, despite being over five hundred pages long, because a good percentage of those pages contain no text. Instead, on these pages Yelchin treats us to an illustrated view of the events that unfold, without words to explain them. The drawings are old-fashioned, full of cosmic suns and weird creatures, yet they also feature unusual angles to heighten the sense of drama they convey. Some of the images are absurd and some pretty funny, including some scenes when the intimidated Spurge breaks out of his shell and expresses his true elfishness. My only complaint about the drawings is that Yelchin fills the backgrounds in them with a murky gray light, in some cases ruining the proper contrast needed to fully appreciate—at least for a human like me—the drama they express. Perhaps this isn’t a problem for Goblins and Elves, but unless I were to actually find myself in their kingdoms where I could inquire within, I’ll guess it’s a problem for them, too.

Murky pictures or not, this is a fun read for all ages, even if it is aimed squarely at the 10 to 14-year-old tweener market. It’s a moral tale without being preachy, with relatable characters. One could do worse than to read it.

About About Time

Adam Frank’s ambitious attempt to braid together cosmic and human time

Time is one of those topics that always seems to stump me. Ever since Einstein hitched it to space to make spacetime, and cosmic physicists starting talking about things like 10-33 milliseconds after the Big Bang, I’ve sometimes asked myself questions like, what in the world does all that have to do with the fact that I burned the toast because I set the toaster timer at five minutes instead of four? Evidently I’m not alone in my bewilderment. Astrophysicist Adam Frank recently took the plunge into trying to make sense of all things temporal with his book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang (2011, Free Press).

Frank starts out with two basic points from the get-go: that human time and cosmic time are “braided” (he loves that word, by the way; he must have used it 14 times in his text, easy), and that the Big Bang is dead. From a point near the end of the book:

“…once we recognize the braiding of cosmic and human time, we may also recognize the turning point we have reached. In this way, we come to the end of our beginning as a species.”

The problem I have with this proclamation is that I still don’t get how the two times are braided. But he seems to imply that he doesn’t really get it either, but boy, once we start getting it we will be ready to either evolve into a new species, or go extinct. Think of the astrofoetus in 2001: A Space Odyssey, floating up there and ready to transcend humanity. Heavy stuff!

This is typical of his writing, though: Momentous change is coming down on the human race, and…he’s not sure what it is. It would be refreshing if he were up front about his ignorance, but at least he doesn’t come on like He Who Knows All. This becomes apparent by the end of the book, when he tackles the Big Bang theory and what might replace it. Instead of giving a definitive idea about what might replace it, he covers a few renegade “rebel” scientists who have come up with some rather wacky alternatives. Julian Baker, for example, is convinced that there is no such thing as time, only a succession of Nows. Baker lost his job promoting that idea. Next, he writes about Andreas Albrecht, a self-described “quantum cosmologist,” who coined the phrase “clock ambiguity” when he realized there could be no common ground between time on the quantum scale and time outside that scale. Finally, physicists Lee Smolin and Robert Unger decided that both String Theory and Multiverse Theory are essentially fictions, coming from a need by physicists (who are only human, after all) to establish timeless truths that exist outside of the world we experience.

He cheerfully admits that these rebels probably don’t have the Big Bang Replacement, and such a replacement may be years in the offing—but isn’t it great to see at least a few physicists stray from the party line?

Frankly, Frank doesn’t really explain the physics part all that well, though I’m glad he didn’t even try to explain String Theory, which to me sounds even more abstruse than the dense cogitations of a medieval philosopher like Duns Scotus. Frank does much better delving into the cultural development of human time, starting with Paleolithic shamans. Our concept of time has evolved as our tools evolved, from heavens-based observations to mechanical clocks to the tyranny of time efficiency developed in the Industrial Revolution to the globe-spanning instant connections of the Internet Age. This is all well thought out, but its connection to cosmic time he never succeeds in making. And he completely ignores another topic related to time as we humans experience it: subjective time. Why do some things seem to take longer than others? How do we judge time in the absence of clocks? How can time be deemed “precious?”

Just as there’s a disconnect between the Quantum and the Cosmic, so is there a disconnect between the baffling paradigms constructed by the physics community, and the social paradigms Frank describes in his book. I give him props for trying to make the connection, though, and perhaps he will succeed in braiding them…in time.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is probably the most enigmatic fantasy tale ever written. Is this 19th century classic an adult fantasy, a children’s story, a political satire, an extended riff of nonsense, a trippy exploration of a child’s mind, an exercise in wordplay, or—Oh, Dinah!—a combination of them all? Critics and readers alike have pondered the fascinating contrast between its seeming facile surface of dreamlike experiences and the darker elements that lurk beneath.

Thus we have a vast array of interpretations on Alice, from stripped-down grade school stagings to Disney’s appropriation to Gregory Maguire’s postmodern tweak (see my recent review of After Alice on this blog). The characters and tropes have been so ingrained into our collective consciousness that it’s hard to conceive of a new approach to Wonderland. Yet Bruce Bierman, an East Bay drama teacher who works with adult actors over 50, has come up with a brilliant take on Carroll: What if the characters in the story are simultaneously elderly people in a memory care unit who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

In writing the script for Wonder, Bierman drew not only from Carroll’s text, but from his own life experience (always a good idea). His father lived with Alzheimer’s for a decade before passing away three years ago, so he’s seen first hand not only the changes experienced by memory care patients, but how they relate to others, and how staff at a memory unit relate to them in turn.

My own mother also struggled with dementia in the few years before her death, and one thing I and others noticed about her is that her personality changed dramatically—so much so, that at times she felt like a different person to us. Every day for her was a struggle to find her identity and the identities of those around her. Bierman wisely chose this struggle to be the driving force behind his play.

Wonder starts out with a group of elderly live-in patients entering a common room for a sing-along. Alice is one them—an old woman, not a child as in Carroll. For the girl Alice, her adventure is a just a dream that vanishes when she wakes up. For the elderly Alice, the adventure has far more weighty implications. While she gains a measure of self-respect and agency at the end, we all know that this is no lighthearted romp for her, that her struggle to find identity will remain. Fortunately, two of the characters—the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat—work at the memory unit and provide her with help along the way.

The other characters she meets in Wonderland—the Dodo, Duchess, March Hare, Dormouse, Mad Hatter, King and Queen of Hearts—are also residents of the memory unit. After an entertaining cast rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s classic song “White Rabbit,” Alice finds herself falling through a hole in her mind. In contrast to the residents, the characters she meets at the bottom of her fall are lively, funny, and—in the case of the Queen—irrational and angry. As the Cheshire Cat puts it, “We’re all mad here.” Alice’s interactions with these people largely follows what happens in Carroll’s story, though out of necessity Bierman’s had to trim quite a bit of Carroll’s packed text. He’s also made a few changes, such as substituting the Queen for the Dormouse in giving a “dry” speech to help Alice and others dry out after being in the Pool of Tears. There are places in the original Alice that go on and on, full of linguistic and mathematical puzzles, that would be out of place in a play.

As in the book, Alice’s primary antagonist is the Queen, who randomly shouts “Off with their heads!” and otherwise behaves quite erratically and ludicrously. Of all the characters, the Queen (in my opinion) most fully embodies a characteristic often found in people with dementia—an uninhibited rage, followed by unpredictable mood swings, including expressions of delight—yes, and even wonder—before lapsing into a silence.

After Alice gets through the trial scene at the end, she returns to the memory unit. I got the sense that, in standing up to the Queen, she has gained some self-respect and sense of agency. Hopefully, that will help her in the days to come.

About Bruce Bierman and Viewpoints:

Bruce’s Viewpoints class at Stagebridge employs concepts developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and directors Anne Bogart (Bruce’s mentor) and Tina Landau. Wonder started as a series of exercises with the over-50 members of Bruce’s class. When his father went into a memory care unit, Bruce began to notice an eerie parallel between Wonderland and his father’s ward. At one point he didn’t want to go on with Wonder, but his class encouraged him to continue with the script, which has undergone a number of changes (as all good scripts must), and eventually that led to an actual stage production.

According to Bruce, at one point he decided that he wasn’t responsible for representing Alzheimer’s and dementia to the world, that he was just going to serve Lewis Carroll, and that this play was his own interpretation of Wonderland. I’d say he does more than just interpret Carroll—this play, and the players who helped bring it to life, adds a depth of meaning that Carroll’s story never had.

Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy Debuts with La Belle Sauvage

First, a checklist:

Daemons and more daemons? Check.
Appealing child protagonist? Check.
Experimental theology? Check.
Raging maniacal perverted genius on a your character’s trail? Check.
Nappies? Uh…nappies?

I’ll explain, but first:

Seventeen years ago, British writer Philip Pullman made a big splash with his fantasy novel The Golden Compass. Set in an alternate version of Oxford, England, it featured an endearing (Shall I say “spunky?” Perhaps I shall…) girl protagonist named Lyra Bevacqua who navigates a quasi-steampunk world with an armored polar bear for a companion, bearing a magical instrument called an alethiometer (the “compass” in the title), with mysterious parents who are either evil or terribly important or both, on a quest to save children from being permanently separated from their animal familiars, which in this world are called daemons. It’s all quite fantastic stuff. Two sequels followed with new adventures and new strange worlds and angels and witches and character arcs gone haywire. Fun reading for young and old alike.

But you know all this already, of course. And if you don’t, I suggest reading The Golden Compass before tackling Pullman’s latest.

Lyra is at the center of La Belle Sauvage as well. Though she’s just a little baby, she has a mysterious pull on all sorts of characters, including an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm Polstead, who finds the infant, temporarily being housed by a cloister of nuns, to be just the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. So we know right away that the target demographic for this book isn’t your standard 8-12 middle grade reader.

While the pace eventually picks up in the second half of the 400+ page novel, much of the first part consists of Malcolm helping the nuns at the cloister, thinking about who Lyra is, planning to fix up his boat (La Belle Sauvage, same as the book’s title), and tending to his job as a helper at his parents’ pub near the river Thames. Malcolm is one of those characters with so few character flaws that he seems even unlikelier than the assortment of daemons that populate the story. Actually, in real life it’s not unusual to come across a child devoted to helping others and doting on a baby, but in the world of fiction he’s a bit of an anomaly.

Pullman takes his sweet time showing how wonderful Malcolm is, and establishing his emotional ties to the river. He slowly adds elements of tension: a stranger with a vicious daemon, a repressive religious organization that takes over his school and turns kids into snitches, a number of messed-up adults who are apparently also interested in Lyra, and a scholar who turns Malcolm into a spy.

At this point, fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

But all these dangerous elements take a back seat to the real challenge facing Malcolm, and indeed all folk in alt-Oxford and alt-London: a massive, supernatural flood of Biblical proportions. Malcolm and a fellow pub employee, 16-year-old Alice, escape with baby Lyra on La Belle Sauvage and fight not just for their lives on the raging flood, but also how to keep the baby happy—I kid you not. Finding fresh nappies*, baby formula, and a fire to heat the formula to the right temperature become just as important as securing food and a safe place to hide from the aforementioned maniacal evil person, who also wants Lyra (natch) and has a vicious hyena with a damaged leg for a daemon. As we eventually find out, he is also in possession of the only alethiometer known to be missing in this alt-world, which Malcolm eventually takes from him. (I assume the importance of this will be revealed in the next book in the series.)

The flood is a mind-boggler, launching Malcolm and Alice on a journey into strangeness that reminds me a bit of the Odyssey: they meet (and barely escape from) a witch with magical breasts with which to feed Lyra; find temporary shelter in a place that appears to be inhabited by people who can be seen but can’t see them; and finally get help from a friendly Thames river giant to escape from the faery world that has them trapped.

In between the nappies and baby feeding and barely staying alive (experiences that all new parents experience, no doubt), they defeat the evil person, but it’s not all buttercups and daisies. At the very end they barely escape with their lives when attacked by a ship from the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the real force of evil, who have been tracking them all this time. This tale doesn’t have much of a denouement at all: their rescuer, Lord Asriel, plucks them out of the flood waters just as La Belle Sauvage crumbles like a soggy box of matchsticks. But Asriel has places to go and things to do—no time for nappies, he—so he basically drops all three kids off at one of Oxford’s colleges and, well, that’s all folks.

There you have it. Can’t hardly call it a book for kids, especially when Malcolm at one point discovers he has the hots for the older Alice. Besides, Pullman is a very involved narrator who jumps around a lot and tells the story his own damn way. Kind of like your favorite uncle who’d come over for dinner, and everyone is waiting for him to tell a humdinger of tale, but he doesn’t want to tell it over dinner, and then he has to have his drinky-poo, and then he settles into your father’s favorite easy chair, and props his feet up, and scratches the dog behind the ears, and then asks to have his drinky-poo refreshed, and then has to use the water closet, and then finally he settles back in the chair and the dog circles around three times widdershins on the floor at his feet and he finally gets into the real story.

Or something like that.

* “nappies” is Brit for diapers, not things with which to wipe one’s mouth.

Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.

a review of Dormia, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski. Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Preamble: the usual Spoiler Alert. I don’t reveal how the story ends here, but you won’t have a hard time guessing if you read the following review.

Young Alfonso has a problem: when he sleeps, his sleeping self does amazing things that he’d never be able to do when awake. At the story’s beginning, for instance, he wakes up to discover that he has climbed a very tall tree, with no memory of how or why he got there.

Sleepwalking is quite real, of course. I can attest to that: though not a sleepwalker myself, for a short time a friend of mine stayed in my family’s house when we were both teenagers. My friend woke up one morning to discover that, in his sleep, he’d climbed through a window, out onto the roof—three stories above ground. Needless to say, he no longer slept in the top floor of our house after that!

This story employs sleepwalking and a similar condition, waking sleep or “hypnogogia,” to full effect. Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski flip them from “disorders” into superpowers in their long (500+ pages) middle grade story about a boy who discovers that he is the Great Sleeper, and it is his destiny to return to a land called Dormia, set somewhere in the Ural Mountains, where he is to return a magical plant called the Dormian Bloom. Here, he learns, his ancestors have lived in secret for hundreds of years, struggling to survive against attacks by a hostile tribe, the Dragoonyans, and where only the Bloom, once planted in the ground, can protect the survivors. His uncle Hill whisks him off on a journey from Minnesota to some imaginary places, accompanied by quirky characters, until they finally arrive in the Urals. From there, the battle against the dreaded Dragoonyans takes shape.

I was definitely intrigued by the story’s premise. To their credit, the authors use super sleepwalking as both a way to build up excitement and a way to inject humor into the story. That’s because Alfonso isn’t the only one with sleeping powers—it turns out that the entire population of Somnos, Dormia’s last remaining city, also routinely falls asleep to perform certain tasks; for example, the sled driver who transports Alfonso around does so while snoring. The authors don’t overuse this technique, either, and they have great comic timing with some of the secondary characters.

That said, the novel wasn’t without some…issues. At times it strained my credulity, as its setting is both within the real world (the Bering Sea; the Urals) and in imaginary places along the way reachable only by boat. There were times when I simply couldn’t connect the dots on any kind of map in my mind. This wasn’t a terrible problem, just a distraction.

Some characters didn’t seem too well thought out. I’m thinking of a girl named Resuza, not a Dormian but a resident of a nearby remote city, who accompanies Alfonso for a while before disappearing with a mathematical clue. The narrator says that she’s dead, though I figured she’d turn up later, and sure enough she did—as a traitor. And then she claims she really wasn’t a traitor, and Alfonso believes her because…maybe he has a crush on her? It’s unclear.

Resuza’s puzzling behavior is connected to the unbelievable—and complicated—way that Alfonso discovers the secret way into Dormia. It has to do with a giant raven’s nest, and a huge root with a square hole in it (square root, get it?), and a watch with lines engraved on it that represent topographical lines on a map, and a metal egg that has to be turned in such a way that only someone like Alfonso with special hypnogogic powers can figure out how to line up that triggers the secret Dormian gate to open. What the giant raven had to do with any of this is never explained, but we do get to see Alfonso attacked and wounded by the monster—and then, in the ensuing action the wound disappears as though it never happened. It would make sense as a hallucination, but not as part of a plotline.

Finally, Alfonso makes it into Somnos just in time for it to be invaded. The authors chose to hop around different battle scenes rather than just sticking with Alfonso, and I found them to be unnecessarily long and confusing. The narrative tone throughout the entire novel is one that would appeal to readers who like tough guys, and Alfonso’s uncle Hill embodies that spirit as he wades into the fray with his .45 pistol and ancient aviator jacket. The tone is old-fashioned, but with a more modern narrative style. As an adult I found it tiresome at times, but I can imagine a 12-year-old really enjoying it.

The battles drag on (I’ve never liked long battle scenes, even in Harry Potter), some of it happening inside the huge, old, dying tree the Bloom will replace. Carnage ensues. Characters get killed, both “bad guys” and sympathetic “good guys.” The authors present cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and I kept thinking all was lost, until…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out, won’t you?

In sum: I give this one thumb up. After all, any story meant for preadolescents that lasts over 500 pages, and which I actually finish, has something going for it.

Postscript: I read this unaware that Dormia has two sequels to it now, though it hardly surprises me. I’m not inclined to read sequels, but make exceptions for stories that are…exceptional. Like the sequels to The Magic Compass, for instance. Speaking of which, look for my review of Philip Pullman’s first installment in his new Book of Dust series, La Belle Sauvage. Coming soon!

As a Baby Boomer coming of age in the 70s, I held Kurt Vonnegut dear to my heart. Here was a sci fi writer who bravely broke out of the genre with his lauded novel Slaughterhouse Five, yet also lent his considerable wit and knack for pithy prose to some of the most entertaining sci fi novels I’ve ever read. I held him in such esteem that I created an imaginary baseball team whose player names were all taken from Vonnegut novels.

One Vonnegut concept that particularly intrigued me was Ice-9, an apocalyptic substance that brings about (spoiler alert!) the end of the world in his classic novel Cat’s Cradle. Turns out that Kurt got the idea for Ice-9 at least partly from his brother Bernard, a scientist who worked for General Electric back in the 50s when the company sponsored research into cloud seeding to make rain. Kurt also worked for GE as a writer, and it was this confluence of science, growing political repression, and Kurt’s own wacked-out mind that gave us the writer who penned The Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, and other tales in addition to the ones already mentioned above.

The Brothers Vonnegut, by Ginger Strand (Farrar, Strauss & Gireaux, 2015), gives us a double-barreled biography of the brothers, following both Bernard’s research at GE as well as Kurt’s struggles as a writer before finally breaking into print. She also describes the intersection of weather science and military aspirations to use weather as a weapon as war, at a time when our nation had only recently entered the nuclear age and its attendant Cold War. It was paradoxically a time of great, foolish faith in Scientific Progress, and destructive paranoia as artists, political figures, and company workers alike were blacklisted by anti-communist fanatics.

The cloud seeders fit both of these paradigms. The popular press, egged on in no small part by writers such as Vonnegut, proclaimed a new era in weather control—no more droughts or catastrophic floods, and even dangerous hurricanes would soon be able to be deflected into a harmless course. Ironically, they lauded the possibility of melting the earth’s icecaps as a way to increase global warming, thus improving agricultural production! (Hopefully, these propagandists aren’t still alive and working for Big Oil.) Strand captures all these events and personalities with style and verve; you don’t have to be a Vonnegut fan to enjoy reading it.

Just as I finished this book, I stumbled on a few articles on a new scientific breakthrough that seemed to come out of a Vonnegut novel itself: the first creations of something called a Time Crystal. This is a crystal that not only oscillates in space, it oscillates in time as well, going through a series of reconfigurations that repeat themselves. No, you can’t put one on a pendant and wear it while balancing your aura—the one I read about consisted of a small number of ytterbium ions, all with “entangled electron spins.” Which means we’re entering the weird world of Quantum physics here. Still, you gotta admit: “Time Crystal” has that swag about it, and who’s to say the Enterprise won’t have them embedded in dilithium in the future? I bet if Vonnegut were alive to today, he might well find a way to put a Time Crystal into a hilarious novel about the end of the world.