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I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

Thoughts on The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls


If you’re a kid and love to feel squeamish about icky bugs, stinky messes, spooky dangerous houses, and evil magic, this first-time novel by Claire Legrand will be right up your creepy alley. Her main character Victoria, a 12-year-old perfectionist with a serious obsessive streak, has to survive a battle of fearful wits with a deranged witch who, unbeknownst to the clueless townsfolk where she lives, has indulged her sick desire to control people and kidnap their children from right under their noses. Along the way she grows close to her outsider friend Lawrence, nicknamed “Skunk” for a premature lock of gray hair atop his head. Appropriately weird cartoonish illustrations heighten the absurdity of it all.

What pulled me into the story is the main character, Victoria. She’s the kind of girl many of us would have hated: getting a B grade is enough to turn her into a pouting maniac, and she can’t help turning her nose up at everyone in her school. But Legrand does a great job of humorously showing her inner emotions and thought processes. Victoria is mirrored by her antagonist, the fearsome Mrs. Cavendish, in a way that feels believable and enhances the depth of her character.

[semi-spoiler in paragraph ahead]

Mrs. Cavendish is completely over the top, a contemporary take on the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’s beautiful yet ugly, compelling yet repulsive, and enslaved by her own warped wants. Where she gets her powers isn’t explained, but like many stories for children (admittedly, children mature enough to handle some pretty gruesome revelations) such explanations hardly matter. She is an eternal archetype, and while Victoria prevails here, the book’s ending leaves open Mrs. Cavendish’s return.

The critical questions I have for novels of this ilk are:

1) How well does the author make the transition from “normal” reality to that of the fantasy?

To her credit, Legrand doesn’t immediately plunge us into the world of the weird. She spends plenty of time establishing Victoria’s character, and setting the stage for the bizarre events to follow by more subtle clues: An icy coldness. Nasty classmates. And then finally, on page 35, she bumps into Mr. Alice (rhymes with “Malice”), the Home’s evil gardener, standing by the front gate of the property. When Mr. Alice says he “knows” Victoria, and that Mrs. Cavendish “makes a point of knowing all the children in the area,” you know you’re in for a scary ride.

2) Does the pace slacken in the middle?

I have to confess that, at times, the pace does slow down after she’s been trapped inside the home; especially when she re-experiences a number of ways the house changes shape a là Harry Potter, the story gets a bit repetitive. By the end, however, I was all in.

3) Does the author manage to put an interesting spin on tropes, such that they feel fresh rather than recycled?

Fantasy novels rely on tropes to set an emotional stage, and this one’s no different. This is the one area where Legrand falls a bit short. She especially overplays the “creepy smile” card, which is closely tied to the “everything’s perfect so shut up” card. Mrs. Cavendish herself is a bit of a stock villainess, and Victoria’s sidekick Lawrence is predictably sidekickish. The Home itself, while not a home to orphans, feels very Dickensian.

Nevertheless, Victoria is refreshingly funny and foible-enhanced enough to override all these concerns. Of course, if you’re a caregiver and your kids are prone to nightmares, you might leave this one on the shelf.

While perusing a shelf in the children’s section of the downtown Berkeley Library, looking for a book by local writer Anne Nesbet (see my review of The Wrinkled Crown), my eye fell on a book next to it: Wet Magic, by E. Nesbit. Intrigued by the title, and that it was a turn-of-the-century fantasy, I whimmed it and checked it out. After I’d finished reading Anne’s The Wrinkled Crown, I decided to give Nesbit’s hundred-year-old tale a try.

I had several decidedly different reactions to this undersea adventure as I read along. In the beginning, Nesbit displays cheeky British humor in her scenes describing four young siblings on vacation as they set off to rescue a mermaid captured by a circus. A parentless boy from the circus joins them, and in a memorable scene the mermaid displays princess-like airs as the children finally release her back into the sea.

[spoilers ahead]

As a gesture of goodwill, the princess uses magic to transport the children to her underwater land. At this point the story turns into more of a standard wonder-filled collection of fantasy tropes. War erupts between competing tribes of Mer people, and of course the children all play a critical role in ending the war. Nesbit’s world here is less convincing than the interplay of her young characters, and at times I was confused about who was doing what and why. The war itself made no sense, and Nesbit would agree, for the story’s main moral is that war is meaningless, and one should do one’s best to bring peace to all parties.

One part of the war that illustrates how the author relies on humor more than plot is when she describes a sortie between the Mer people and characters who escape from a cave made entirely of books and come to life:

Then slowly, terribly, without words, the close ranks of the Book People advanced. Mrs. Fairchild, Mrs. Markham, and Mrs. Barbauld led the van. Closely following came the Dragon of Wantley, the Minotaur, and the Little Man that Sintram knew. Then came Mr. Murdstone, neat in a folded white neckcloth, and clothes as black as his whiskers. Miss Murdstone was with him, every bead of her alight with gratified malice…Mrs. Markham had turned a frozen glare upon them, Mrs. Fairchild had wagged an admonitory forefinger, wave on wave of sheer stupidity swept over them [the children], and next moment they lost consciousness and sank, each with his faithful Porpoise, into the dreamless sleep of the entirely unintelligent.”

Upon reading this I laughed and thought, did children reading this back then actually know who all these characters are? Because doubtless every one of them came from actual literature, the sort that people nowadays don’t know anything about, even English majors. (I’m an English major and I recognized the Murdstones as being Dickensian, and of course I knew the Minotaur, but that was it.)

This invasion of literary demons is but a brief interlude, though, in a rather pedestrian conflict. I did rather enjoy her humor, though—as a kidult—and Ms. Nesbit is to be commended for promoting peace at a time when the world was about to explode into global war. As I finished the book I was left with a feeling that, no matter how different children’s books were back then, their writers had some of the same profound concerns that writers—and citizens of the world—do today.

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.