Tag: fairy tales

Review: In the Vanishers’ Palace

This review contains spoilers.

It can be fairly difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening at any particular point in Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 novella In the Vanishers’ Palace. Her prose is so rooted in her protagonist’s head, and her far-future world so wrong-footingly unfamiliar, that we frequently end up reading passages like this, where it’s hard to visualise what’s really going on:

Up close, the pillar was nothing like stone, more like polished metal given a slightly different sheen. Odd rectangular patterns were carved within it, parallel lines splitting around darker islands of pooled silver, converging towards squat nexuses in haphazard fashion. It looked like a child’s drawing, random lines and circles, but nevertheless it didn’t feel random, more like something that had its own logic…

The pillar in question is in the titular Vanishers’ palace, whence our protagonist Yȇn is taken after her mother summons the dragon-spirit Vu Côn to heal the daughter of a village elder. There is always a price for miracles, after all. Initially believing she’ll be eaten, or tortured then eaten, Yȇn is in fact tasked with looking after Vu Côn’s children Liên and Thông, to teach them ethics and etiquette and duty, for reasons that will become clear later in the narrative.

It’s a slantwise retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”, although I didn’t actually realise this until I’d finished reading it. Thematically, the two stories share an interest in morality – “Beauty and the Beast” is explicitly a didactic moral tale about what women should look for in a husband, whereas part of Yȇn’s job is to teach her charges morality through literature – and in filial piety: you’ll remember that the whole reason Beauty ends up in the Beast’s palace is because she loves her father too much to let him die, and the same is pretty much true of Yȇn, albeit her concern is for her elderly mother. The science-fictional Vanishers’ palace in which Vu Côn lives is every bit as fantastical as the Beast’s palace, capable of producing perfect fruit and other delicious foods from scratch (or, rather, from molecules, one assumes) and equipped with a vast and miraculous library.

But of course de Bodard somewhat complicates, interrogates, her original’s simplistic morality. “Beauty and the Beast” is pretty nakedly a bourgeois-capitalist fantasy: Beauty, daughter of a family down on their luck (although not so down on their luck that they cannot keep servants, apparently), attains wealth, comfort and rank by recognising her husband’s virtue. The magical palace is a manifestation of that wealth, able to provide Beauty with rich food without expending any visible effort. De Bodard’s Vanishers’ palace, meanwhile, is a different proposition altogether: the Vanishers being a godlike race who took the world apart, poisoning the land, bequeathing horrible gene-altering viruses to humanity and bending the laws of physics before, as their name suggests, disappearing somewhere nobody can reach them. The price of the untainted food their palace can produce, then, is precisely the price all but the richest of us are currently paying under capitalism: ruined fields, deadly disease, and – the central theme of In the Vanishers’ Palace, this – a cultural system that values humans according to their usefulness.

This last is where the theme of filial piety ties in. Vu Côn’s idea of responsible parenthood – of responsible guardianship not only of Liên, Thông and Yȇn but also of the hundreds of sick people occupying the makeshift hospital she’s set up in the palace – is to make decisions for her charges instead of telling them what’s up and allowing them to choose what they want. It’s this that drives much of the interpersonal tension in the novel; which is to say, the tension between Vu Côn and Yȇn, who are immediately attracted to each other despite the power differential. It’s also a complication of the original text’s straightforward view on parental relationships and traditional authority: that straightforward view, de Bodard posits, leads to the infantilisation of children and ultimately to their dehumanisation.

Back, then, to that labyrinthine prose; which I think is echoing on a technical level de Bodard’s thematic complication of “Beauty and the Beast” – that is to say, disturbing our expectations of what fairy tales are supposed to do, viz., work as clear, readable, didactic texts. In the Vanishers’ Palace does, I think, have a clear message – “don’t treat people as things” – and its disease-riddled post-apocalyptic setting obviously has clear, almost uncanny parallels with our own climate-changed, coronavirus-haunted reality. But, unlike its source text, it’s also more than its message and its relevance: in the impossible spaces of the Vanishers’ palace and inside Yȇn’s own head there are Gothic enormities. This is one of those books that feels larger than its actual page count (198, if you’re interested) would suggest. It’s messy and a little inelegant and sometimes you have to read back a few pages to work out what’s happening. But also? Those imperfections are what makes it fascinating.

Review: The Starless Sea

Published almost exactly a year ago, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea appeared on shelves eight years after her rapturously received debut The Night Circus. It’s an altogether more complex and grown-up novel than its predecessor, and yet ultimately I think the two books share a certain stasis, an escapist bent that stops them saying anything truly important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of The Starless Sea is Zachary, a gay Black grad student studying psychology and gender in video game design – although, when the novel opens just before the start of term, he’s busy procrastinating his studies by spending days in the library’s fiction section, rereading childhood classics. That’s where he discovers Sweet Sorrows, a wine-coloured volume that lists no author or publication information, but which does narrate a significant episode in Zachary’s own childhood – a moment when he found a door leading to wonders and walked away. We have just read this story: it appears at the beginning of the novel, alongside two other short tales that are also included in Sweet Sorrows, one of which tells of a magical underground library and a strange initiation ceremony. We conclude, correctly, that this library is what lay behind the door Our Protagonist did not open.

Zachary is understandably a little freaked out by an episode from his own life that he’s never told anyone about appearing in a library book, and after some research into where the book may have come from he chases a tenuous lead to a literary party in New York. There, a handsome storyteller named Dorian convinces him to steal another book from a powerful organisation, before sending him through another painted door into that underground library: a Harbor on the Starless Sea, stuffed with cats and a miraculous kitchen and, of course, more stories than you could ever count. But the Harbor’s closed for business; its heyday past; the Starless Sea is rising; and someone is shutting all the doors.

The Starless Sea is a lot more formally ambitious than The Night Circus: various fairytales and stories of the Harbor’s past weave themselves around the main narrative, and many of those tales are artefacts within the main narrative, creating an impression of endlessly recursive Story. The prose, similarly, is intensely descriptive, focusing on details of what things look and smell and taste and sound like to build a beguiling sense of place. The overall effect of structure and prose combined is to immerse you, the reader, in a kind of warm bath of story-symbology, to draw you into the heart of its metafictional world. In a sense the novel is what it describes: a cosy space to curl in, a seemingly-endless repository of story, a place composed of layer upon layer of half-familiar symbols.

It’s an enormously comforting read; particularly, I found, the first half, in which Zachary gets to explore the Harbor, accompanied by an apparently limitless supply of cats and fuelled by perfectly-baked treats available on demand. By the same token, though, I’m not sure there’s much going on beneath the novel’s obsession with material comforts. The symbols that recur throughout the narrative – hearts, bees, keys, swords, crowns and feathers – lead to nothing but themselves; as do the fairytales that loop endlessly back on themselves, weaving in and out of the main narrative. Stuff goes on, of course: Zachary and Dorian fall in love (an improvement on the white het romance at the centre of The Night Circus); a man out of time searches for his lover on the shores of the Starless Sea; the Harbor changes irrevocably. But all of this is coded as part of a great cycle; we get the sense that these are just stories repeating themselves. There is nothing truly, startlingly new in this story-world; it’s a recycled composite of childhood portal fantasies, of bookish fantasies like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, of fabulous fictional libraries like the one in Garth Nix’s Lirael, of fairy tales and stories and songs. “Arch” is the word that occurred to me while I was reading it: it feels precisely calculated to appeal to book-lovers without necessarily having anything truly urgent to say.

In that sense, it is, perhaps, the ideal pandemic read. Tapped out on real life? Sink into The Starless Sea and imagine you’re curled up in a fancy old-fashioned bedroom beside a roaring fire, no chores to do, no outside world to worry about. It is escapism in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, though, I am uneasy with the novel’s conception of what reading is for and what readers are like. The Starless Sea above all conceptualises reading as a comfortable pursuit: the Harbor is a place where all your material needs are seen to apparently magically; and, as I’ve said, the novel’s form, structure and content creates a sense of intellectual comfort, telling us familiar narratives over and over again. But reading at its best should be anything but comfortable. We should be critical readers, examining the biases of the texts we’re given; new understanding should make us uncomfortable; as readers we should be pushing the boundaries of our engagement with the world. Above all reading should not be about retreating to an ivory tower – or an ivory cavern, as the case may be – and relinquishing our duty to the world outside. To be a good reader is to take what we have learned in books and use it in our lives to build new and better things. The vision The Starless Sea offers of readers and reading is beguiling and dangerous; it is not one we should take with us into our real lives.

Review: Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman’s latest book-length project Norse Mythology frustrates me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of Norse myths, placed in an order that’s at least nominally coherent, stretching from the beginning of the world to its ending in the disasters of Ragnarok. Generally, it focuses on Loki, Odin and Thor; Loki’s exploits in particular provide the backbone for what little continuity the stories have, although there is a general sense that we are supposed to read these characters as logically consistent people, i.e. as we would read characters in a modern novel.

My question, really, is what Norse Mythology is for. I don’t know these stories in detail, the way I know Greek mythology, for instance; but I don’t get the sense Gaiman has changed very much here. What changes do exist are largely cosmetic: the gods’ dialogue is a touch more demotic than we might expect; things are occasionally conceptualised in modern terminology (“oxygen-rich” air pumps through the bellows of the dwarf Brokk). These are changes clearly geared at making the stories relevant and accessible to a modern audience; breathing new life into them, as it were. But it’s jarring to read such modernising touches set against a backdrop of casual misogyny and transphobia which does more to date the myths than any amount of archaic diction ever could.

And, actually, none of this misogyny or transphobia is particularly necessary to the structure of the myths themselves. Thor’s discomfort at posing as the bride of the ogre Thrym in order to get his hammer back: why not use Loki, who’s already there in the scene, as a foil to make Thor ridiculous in his fragile masculinity? Loki’s anger when people mention how he gave birth to Sleipnir in the form of a mare: just leave it out! Sif leaving a council of gods in order to show her friends her new hair: again, just don’t mention it! At the beginning of the book, in the creation of the world, we meet the giant Ymir, who is both male and female at the same time. Gaiman uses the derogatory pronoun “it” to refer to Ymir; if we’re talking about relevance, how simple would it have been to use “they” instead, a real pronoun that actual non-binary people use? None of this is substantially changing the meaning of the myths; they’re just – interpretations. Looking at the stories in a different light. Which is, surely, the whole point of retellings.

Or, say that for whatever reason you don’t want to remove the patriarchal slant that lies in the myths’ backgrounds. In that case, why not lean into their archaism? This is my second major problem with Norse Mythology: it has no sense of grandeur, of majesty, of darkness lurking in great pine forests or the passes of mountains. The gods in these stories are remarkably unheroic figures, forever being tricked by Loki or by an ogre somewhere – I’d argue that this is partly a result of presenting them as psychologically consistent characters without doing any extra characterisation work, and partly a result of Gaiman’s middle-of-the-road prose, which renders even Ragnarok unimpressive.

The thing is – this is Neil Gaiman, right? Isn’t he supposed to be the king of dark fairytale, of making old stories new, of drawing meaning out of the night – according to his personal branding, anyway? Why, then, is Norse Mythology so boring?

Ultimately, what I want from a retelling, and what Norse Mythology utterly lacks, is a sense of vision. I want to know why the author is retelling this particular story; why they think it’s relevant now; what they see in it that makes it worthy of our attention, today – whether that’s a mood, a set of themes, a central character. I want a thesis, not a half-hearted attempt to modernise the surface of stories that leaves their old and destructive prejudices intact. Norse Mythology frustrates me because it represents wasted potential. There is so much in these old stories that could be made darkly, delightfully new. Gaiman has missed every opportunity to do so.

Review: City of the Beasts

City of the Beasts is Chilean magical-realist author Isabel Allende’s tenth novel, and her first YA one (although it was published way back in 2002, before that genre really came into focus). Its protagonist is 15-year-old Alex Cold, who’s whisked away by his grandmother on an adventure into the Amazon, searching for a cryptid known as the Beast: an enormous creature that walks on two legs and emits a fabulously awful smell. They’re joined by guide Cesar Santos and his twelve-year-old daughter Nadia, narcissistic anthropologist Ludovic Leblanc (who has built a career off claiming that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are murderous and savage) and Venezeulan doctor Omayra Torres. But! Alex and Nadia hear the expedition’s co-sponsor, wealthy industrialist Mauro Carias, plotting to use the expedition to exterminate the indigenous tribes in the area they’re heading to in order to gain access to the Amazon’s mineral wealth. Uncovering this plot, and protecting the people of the Amazon from unchecked greed and ignorance, takes Alex and Nadia on a quest into the rainforest’s heart, where they encounter the People of the Mist, an uncontacted tribe who fear the cultural eradication or assimilation that will undoubtedly accompany the incursion of the outside world into their land.

Allende’s novel is, then, a Bildungsroman: it charts Alex’s passage from slightly spoiled California teenager to saviour and honorary member of an Amazon tribe. He and Nadia meet their totemic animals (yes, I know; hold that thought, please), go through official initiation rituals and travel to the home of the gods in order to win valuable treasures for themselves and the People of the Mist. I don’t think it could be more Bildungsroman if it tried. There’s a clear dichotomy throughout the book between modern Western life, which Allende portrays as “tame”, dull and ecologically rapacious, and life in the Amazon, where honour can be won, where all is in harmony with the rainforest, where ancient wonders and magical things walk. One of the indigenous people accompanying the expedition party, Karakawe, is said to have been infected by the “madness” of Western individuality, and is thus unlikely to return to his tribe. And it’s significant that the first time picky eater Alex gets to eat to his heart’s content after entering the rainforest is at the behest of the wealth-hungry Mauro Carias.

The idea that Western influence is bad for the Amazon and its people is not, on the face of it, that objectionable: if history tells us anything it’s that indigenous people rarely come off better in the long run for encountering Westerners; and it’s certainly true that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at a terrifying rate by people who are largely after profit. The book’s ecological message, and its conclusion that perhaps the West and its scientists shouldn’t get their grubby hands on everything, are…things I can get behind.

Here’s the rub, though. I can’t help wondering what research, if any, Allende conducted into the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. Her portrayal of them is so romanticised, so New Age-y, that I wouldn’t be surprised if she had done none. They live perfect lives, in perfect harmony with the forest; the only diseases they get are measles brought by outsiders (as opposed to, for example, malaria). Alex’s picky eating habits get discarded once among them, for obvious reasons, but the implication that food hygiene is a needless Western luxury feels like an oversimplification – I imagine even indigenous peoples can get food poisoning. But the main problem is that, put simply, none of the People of the Mist feel, well, like people. Children, maybe. Inscrutable alien Others. But not humans with complex motivations and emotional lives. Which is, in its own way, as racist as Ludovic Leblanc’s outrageous claims about their savagery. It’s also uncomfortable that they’re saved by two outsider teenagers, one of them a white boy, and that the whole story is told from the perspective of those outsiders, instead of the perspective of those whose livelihoods are the ones at risk.

There are things about City of the Beasts that I want to like, particularly its ecological message and its quite pragmatic approach to the gods of the People of the Mist – an approach that allows space for the supernatural while still offering a rational explanation for the gods’ presence. But its patronising take on indigenous life is unignorable; it’s fundamental to how the novel works, and so I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone read it.

Review: The Celtic Myths

I wasn’t very impressed by Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s The Celtic Myths, subtitled “A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends”. I mean, it was free from my local Little Free Library (pre-COVID), so you could say I’ve not lost out too much.

The book isn’t, as I thought from a quick glance at the back cover, a retelling of the Celtic myths, but actually a non-fictional treatment of them, looking at themes and what they might indicate about Celtic thought, with reference to archaeological artefacts. I think my problem with it is, basically, that it’s not very imaginative. There are no great interpretive leaps, and what there is will be mostly unsurprising to anyone who’s read anything on the subject. It’s not really organised as a reference work, either: there’s no contents list indicating where you might find treatments of particular myths, and although there is an index there’s no glossary of the sort I’d expect to find in a mythological reference work. It might make a good primer for someone who’s literally never read anything about Celtic myth, I suppose.

I notice, too, that Aldhouse-Green seems linked with the Celtic shamanism movement, which I have ranted about here. Seriously, why is this concept so prevalent in Neopaganism and Celtic studies?

Review: Speak Easy

Catherynne M. Valente’s Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be. Supposedly based on the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (although I admit I can’t see the similarity), it’s set in the Hotel Artemisia, New York, in 1929:

If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor.

It’s home to a kaleidoscopic cast of characters – flapper girls, bellboys, bootleggers, sex workers; Prohibition culture in miniature. At the centre of it all is Zelda Fair, apparently a fictional version of Zelda Fitzgerald, and the boy who’s besotted with her, Frankie (F. Scott, allegedly), who are drawn into a deadly game with Al, owner of the Artemisia and also King of the Underworld.

Do I remember the plot? Not AT all. For some readers this will be a bug, not a feature. For me – well, I was just enchanted by Valente’s wonderful, sparky prose, dense and rhythmic as poetry. This is a short read at less than 150 pages, but it took me a couple of days to read just because I wanted to savour it, luxuriate in it.

If Eve went door to door with her apple, not a soul in the Artemisia wouldn’t have grabbed it, planted a kiss on old Mama Fig Leaf, and had that shiny red temptation turned into the applejack of good and evil within an hour.

There’s a kind of frenzy to much of Valente’s writing, I think, an urge to get All the Words onto the page, which quite neatly reflects what’s going on in the Artemisia: a dash to squeeze as much juice from life as can be had, in parties and creative frenzies and intense friendships and affairs. It’s almost desperation, in fact, sequins thrown in the face of death. What little I’ve read of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life indicates a similar desperation: a youth spent in the scandalous pursuit of pleasure; a married life fuelled by alcohol and dancing, glamorous on the outside but bitter and argumentative within; an obsession with ballet that exhausted her physically and mentally. And then, poorly treated schizophrenia, creative frustration and an early death. Speak Easy is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a sad one, with Zelda looking forward to a long and hopeless marriage to a man who cares more about his own creative fulfilment than hers. So this is what Speak Easy is about, in the end: all the brilliant women whose vitality and creativity have been stolen by their men over the centuries, their thirst for life snuffed out or turned inwards, destructively. It’s a great book.

Review: The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice

I really ought to have reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s two Orphan’s Tales novels together; like Abigail Nussbaum, I think they’re basically doing the same thing. In the Cities of Coin and Spice is almost identical, structurally, to its predecessor In the Night Garden: it again consists of tales read from the uncanny birthmark of a shunned young girl who inhabits the vast and wondrous Garden of a sultan’s palace. Again, those tales frame and interrupt each other, creating an intricate tapestry of story that serves to reveal a world as well as the limitations of each storyteller. And again, the novel’s split into two books: the Book of the Storm, set in a ghostly city whose currency depends on coins made of bone; and the Book of the Scald, in which an army of djinns besieges a fabulous but dying city.

In this novel, however, we learn how all these tales connect to the girl’s own history and how she came to be in the Garden in the first place. “They are the tales of everyone who reached into the silver shadows and pulled [her] into the world.” This great wash of story, all for one person! If In the Cities of Coin and Spice adds anything to In the Night Garden, it’s this awareness of just how much history one life can have; how much that is strange and wondrous lies in the past (and future) of each person on this planet. The Orphan’s Tales as a whole is still not my favourite of Valente’s work – but it’s still enchanting, imaginative and fascinatingly complex.

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties looks, in every respect, like a book I should love. These are dark stories using fantastical elements to throw light on systematic misogyny. They often refer to and riff on fairytale. Within their pages dwell queer women and women who have lots of sex and women in complicated relationships with their own bodies that are frequently mediated by The Patriarchy. Women who know what it’s like to be low-key afraid in public places all the time.

Machado’s clearly an accomplished writer with plenty to say, whether it’s about internalised fatphobia (“Eight Bites”), men who demand everything of women and then some (“The Husband Stitch”) or the prevalence of raped women in popular culture (“Especially Heinous”). My favourite story, “Inventory”, is eerily relevant right now: as a deadly epidemic rages through North America, the female narrator remembers everyone she’s ever slept with, relishing memories of physical intimacy as she faces a future with no-one in it at all. Social distancing is impossible when you’re having sex with someone, after all.

Ultimately, though, the collection left me cold, for reasons that have everything to do with me and very little to do with it. Machado’s style is perhaps a little too capital-L Literary for me: too controlled, too obviously formal, perhaps, for its subject matter. I like my feminist fairytales wild and wide; I like them to leave darknesses unplumbed and frightening for it.

Having said that, I’d readily recommend Her Body and Other Parties to fans of Angela Carter, Roxane Gay and Helen Oyeyemi. We didn’t meet at the right time, this book and I, but others might.

Review: The Land of the Green Man

Short post today because I don’t have a ton to say about Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man, except that it’s delightful. It’s a tour around the folklore of the British Isles, looking at local tales of selkies, black dogs, giants, banshees and more. Many of these tales are tied to specific landmarks: churches, chalk drawings, mountains, stone circles. Larrington’s interested in the stories as ways of explaining the origins of such landscape features, but she also reads them in terms of what they have to say about such universal subjects as sex, death and our relationship to the natural world.

I enjoyed this as a work of comparative folklore that’s very attentive to the specificities of place: it’s even got a handy map in the front showing the locations of the tales it looks at. And as such it can perhaps help us rebuild relationships with the landscapes we live in, in this increasingly urbanised age. A few weeks after I read this I visited the Rollright Stones – one of the closest sites featured in the book to where I actually live – with my family and told them the story of the witch and the king and his knights. It was an immensely powerful experience being up there on the ridge of the world, with those stones that people have honoured for generations, feeling connected to those stories that go back centuries if not millennia. Remembering the places our folklore comes from keeps it alive; and in some way preserves the spirit of those places too.

In short – if you’re interested in storytelling not just about the British landscape in general, but about specific places within Britain, in how British people have connected with their environments since the Middle Ages and earlier, The Land of the Green Man is a good place to start.

Review: Pathworking Through Poetry

Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry looks at work from three Celtic poets – Seamus O’Sullivan, Fiona Macleod and, inevitably, W.B. Yeats – that deals with Irish and Scottish mythology, teasing out pagan metanarratives from each poem that then inform Tinker’s pathworkings – a series of guided meditations/visualisations that bring their practitioners face-to-face with Celtic deities, in theory.

The idea’s nice, but the execution is decidedly mixed.

Full disclosure: visualisation, especially in the form it tends to take in Pagan traditions, sets off my woo detectors like little else. This is a me problem, and I probably need to do a lot more reading on the role of imagination in spiritual experience to understand why it works for some people. Suffice it to say that it’s not for me, at this particular moment in time. It’s just unfortunate for Pathworking through Poetry, whose entire spiritual content is basically visualisation.

Although – it has to be said that the pathworkings seem to have very little to do with the poems and the readings Tinker constructs of them (which are themselves pretty cringey, being a mixture of extremely basic close reading and A-level speculation), which begs the question of what the point of the whole endeavour is. I did enjoy the poems themselves, as well as the bits and pieces of folklore Tinker recounts (for example, I was interested to learn that Bride/Bridget is a sun goddess; I hadn’t come across that association before). There’s a certain joy in picking up little tidbits in all kinds of different places, so for that reason I’m thankful to have read this! But it’s not something I’ll read again, or that I need on my shelf.