Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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Since the world went mad for Harry Potter a few years back, magic—and magical realism—have made respectable inroads into literature aimed beyond the juvenile market. (That The Night Circus positions itself thus was evident to me when the word “fuck” appeared on page 10—though it’s the only time that or any other “objectionable” language is used in the story, which takes place in Victorian times and is mostly quite restrained and proper.) The Night Circus is a spellbinding tale of magical intrigue, fantastic scenes that amaze and excite the senses, and intricate storylines woven together with the Circus as the central motif. It’s a great love story, not only between the two main characters who find themselves impossibly pitted against each other, but between the narrator and the circus he so lavishly describes.

This circus is both a plague that creates pain and a passion that ignites the impossible. As I read along, I continually felt like I was actually there, part of a drama with philosophical echoes more in line with stories by Hesse, Kafka, or Calvino, with a touch of Victorian Steampunkish spice to boot. The story is written entirely in present tense, which I found annoying at first, but eventually came to realize was absolutely fitting—the narrator is less a storyteller than a scene setter, someone who paints the picture of an elaborate show unfolding before you.

I also found myself drawn in by a continual barrage of clever conversations, philosophical conundrums and, like in a good mystery, descriptions of things tilting oddly with an emotional resonance hard to resolve. At times it felt a bit much, but Morgenstern uses a brilliant narrative technique to drive the tale: she employs two story lines, one following the main characters from the time they are children, and another following a boy from a time some years in the future who also becomes involved with the circus. As the climax looms, both storylines merge, with flipping pages following like bits of flotsam sucked into a whirlpool. (Or something like that.)

Sound exciting? It is. I do have a few reservations, however. One is that I found the ending…not disappointing, but somehow weaker than I expected it to be. The story is driven by two impeccably dressed gentlemen magicians who show little sympathy at all for the people they imperil: of the two lovers, only one is supposed to survive (Hunger Games, anyone?), and it was clear to me that one of them essentially murdered another character. Evil, right? Yet as the story ends and their plans are foiled, they seem but grouchy old men, without edge or consequence.

The other reservation concerns the Muggles…er, the “ordinary citizens” of the story. These are represented solely by the “rêveurs,” fans of the circus who follow it around the world like a bunch of Deadheads following Jerry Garcia. But what about the circus employees? You know, the ones who feed the tigers and clean the cages and sweep up the popcorn and do the dirty work? Well, this circus of dreams doesn’t have workers, it seems—everything happens by magic, and the magic comes basically from one person. There are no photos here of clowns in the alley, smoking cigarettes and looking beat. And this applies to the narrative when it leaves the circus as well: everyone seems well-to-do and culturally refined, except for our young hero at the end. After all the magic fireworks, I longed for an unflinching look at social realities, if only to put things in proper perspective.

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Back when I was in high school, one of my cleverly-penned personal mottos was “Weirdliness is next to Godliness.” If an idea was strange or bizarre, I attached a personal interest to it. H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy tales, Mervin Peake’s labyrinthine Gormanghast novels, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land stood proudly on my bookcase next to the battered Tolkien trilogy.

Had Jeff VanderMeer published his collection of stories, City of Saints & Madmen, in the 1960s, I no doubt would have been fascinated by Ambergris, the fungi-infested city of Vandermeer’s nightmares. As a gentleman of undisclosed years, my fascination has been tempered by firsthand experience of the real deaths of friends and family members. Graphic violence in pulp fiction and movies has dulled my reactions to the kinds of horrors VanderMeer employs in these stories.

Nevertheless, this City is no mere collection of genre tales. Start with Ambergris, a brilliantly conceived, steampunkish metropolis in an undefined time and place, both disturbingly similar to those in our world, yet vividly different as well. VanderMeer exhibits his literary bent with a clever nod to Borges by naming a bookstore after the Argentinian writer, for example. His character and place names strike me as influenced by Titus Groan. His King Squid and the ever-present fungi clearly evoke Lovecraft, and the overall tone of Ambergris carries unmistakable echoes of J.G. Ballard and even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. No doubt VanderMeer has added other references that went over my head as I read along.

The overall tone is unremitting darkness, brought about by a subterranean species of semi-humans known as “graycaps.” These people, if you can call them that, have bonded with the mushrooms and fungi that inhabit the city, and are a clear stand-in for indigenous peoples ruled by imperialist forces but never really conquered. Scavengers with the ability to drive conventional humans insane, instigators of violence, they live on the periphery yet inform every aspect of Amergrisian society, and are part of every story in this collection.

These stories range from the conventionally told “Dradin, in Love” and “The Tranformation of Martin Lake,” to a hilarious monogram on King Squid by invented squid-obsessed author F. Madnok, to a baffling interview with the author himself, known here only as X, who languishes in an insane asylum while trying to determine whether Ambergris is invented or real. A number of pages consist of nothing but number codes written by X with his toes, since both his hands have been cut off. The aforementioned monogram by Madnok has a lengthy bibliography full of seriously funny Ambergrisian books on squid. VanderMeer throws a postmodern kitchen sink at us, and that sink has plumbing full of sour-smelling goo that will probably infect our minds and lead us to strange parts of our world where unspeakable acts of cruelty await us.

So, yeah. If you like this sort of stuff, go for it. Even if you don’t, VanderMeer has enough brilliantly written passages to make reading this collection—or at least part of it—worthwhile. Consider the following passage from “The Cage,” in which merchant Robert Hoegbotton describes his love Rebecca:

The light came from her open eyes, although he could tell she was asleep. It was a silvery glow awash with faint phosphorescent sparks of blue, green, and red: shivers and hiccups of splintered light, as if a half-dozen tiny lightning storms had welled up in her gaze. What rich worlds did she dream of?”

Such transcendent passages are the exception, though, being far outnumbered by descriptions of scenes right out of a painting by Goya or Bosch. The endings to VanderMeers’ stories are also uniformly depressing, the possible exception being “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” in which the protagonist achieves a measure of redemption and grace. Ambergris has few saints, and even they are virtually indistinguishable from the madmen. Read at your own peril.

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