Tag: fantasy

Review: Fire

The second novel in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realms series – in publishing order – Fire is actually a prequel/companion of sorts to Graceling. It takes place the other side of the mountains, in a country called the Dells where there are no Graced people, but there are monsters: unnaturally coloured creatures who inspire fascination in all who see them. Our eponymous heroine, Fire, is the last human monster: her flaming red hair puts her in constant danger from predatory men, as well as other monsters. She can also control minds. She’s the daughter of another monster, a decidedly unpleasant man who until his death had great power over the weak king – and thus great power over the Dells. Fire is in part about how its heroine grows out of that shadow and comes to terms with her own power.

It is, in truth, very similar to Graceling, and I have very similar things to say about it. In aesthetic and mood it’s Generic Fantasy: the Dells are a cod-medieval-Europe analogue so conventional that the world doesn’t really need building. But its conventionality is a feature, not a bug: it’s integral to Cashore’s feminist project in Fire, which is about writing female experiences into a setting where they’re often ignored.

Cashore’s only fantastical innovation, the monsters, focus anxieties about mind control and also female agency. Like Graceling, Fire can be read as a primer for young adults on abusive relationships, as Fire deals with the legacy of her controlling father, who used his power to manipulate and harm those around him, and attempts to come to terms with her own power and how she can use it ethically. Cashore also makes the point that Fire is treated very differently to her father: whereas his monstrous powers of attraction won him admiration and subservience, her own otherworldly beauty attracts lust, jealousy and the threat of sexual violence from the men around her. Here Cashore is putting the cliché of the supernaturally attractive woman to work to examine contemporary rape culture and the gendered double standard. Her work here carries reflections of the grimdark convention whereby every fantasy woman is ever at risk of rape; except that rape in Fire isn’t a constant and thus normalised background reality as it is in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a major violation of personal sovereignty, a devastating and exceptional crime. This is rape culture as seen by the women who live at its mercy, not the men who use it for set-dressing.

What else? There’s a bunch of angry reviewers on Goodreads condemning Fire for having too much (extra-marital) sex in it for a YA book. Think of the children! How will they cope!!!! Any author who manages to attract the opprobrium of reviewers like this gets a win in my book: the reality is that most teens have sex, or at least think about having sex, and yet there are so few YA fantasy novels that deal with sex in a meaningful way. In any case Fire’s more interested in relationships than in sex per se: there are no on-page sex scenes, and much of the casual sex is actually frowned upon. Fire’s friend-with-benefits Archer (yes, really) has an unpleasant habit of seducing women, breaking their hearts and leaving them pregnant; Cashore sees this as another example of male entitlement. Fire’s own sexual relationship with Archer is pretty refreshing for a fantasy novel: they are friends as well as lovers, and Fire genuinely doesn’t care about exclusivity. And unlike a great number of YA heroines, she’s not interested in putting up with jealousy: when Archer’s behaviour becomes controlling, she dumps him, and later on finds a healthier relationship with someone who doesn’t try to tell her who she can talk to.

Fire also has reproductive decisions to deal with, as well as inconvenient menstruation (the smell of Fire’s blood attracts monsters, some of them deadly), both of which are again rare territory for YA fantasy. I suppose a valid criticism of Fire might be that it confines its heroine to traditionally female concerns like relationships and periods and pregnancy; she’s not a fighter like Graceling‘s Katsa, although she does have her moments. But if she’s confined to such concerns, it’s because those are the concerns we assign to medieval/cod-medieval women in Western culture. It’s the way that Fire deals with them that’s important: by asserting her agency and working ethically. Fire is a corrective to the morass of grimdark fantasy epics that depict worlds designed around men; it’s a story in which women’s concerns take centre stage.

Review: Graceling

I’d put Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling on the same shelf as Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series: the shelf of authors writing YA fantasy with strongly-characterised female leads who deal complexly with romance while also kicking ass.

Cashore’s generic medieval-Europe fantasy world is one in which, rarely, people are born with a Grace: a preternatural aptitude for one specific skill, like baking or navigation or fighting. Its heroine, Katsa, has a Grace for killing, which her uncle King Randa exploits mercilessly to subdue and frighten his enemies. She despises this role, and her uncle, and in recompense for the violence she’s forced to perform she sets up a Council which works in secret to move the fractious Seven Kingdoms towards peace.

Early in the novel, the Council liberates an aged member of the Lienids, the royal family of a quiet island nation, from the dungeons of a rival kingdom. There seems to be no obvious motive for capturing this inoffensive gentleman; when the Council starts investigating the kidnapping, they find links to King Leck, ruler of the seaside kingdom of Monsea, who everyone seems to think is a thoroughly decent chap and would never kidnap anyone at all. Something strange is clearly at work, giving Katsa the perfect opportunity to renounce her uncle’s control and go investigate, with the help of the handsome Lienid prince Po (not a Teletubby).

Graceling is very much Katsa’s story: Cashore is minimally interested in worldbuilding and maximally interested in how her young adult heroine starts to define herself and her priorities in response to the various scenarios the plot drops her into. One of those scenarios is close proximity to Po, who very quickly turns into her romantic interest. I really, really like how Cashore handles this central romance: Katsa doesn’t, like so many romantic heroines, fall immediately into her lover’s arms the minute mutual desire is established. Instead, she grapples with her need for independence and her unwillingness to have children in a way that feels honest and appropriate for the rudimentary social context Cashore’s sketched in (viz., a relationship between a woman and a man gives the man control over the woman; marriage necessitates children; etc.). This has the side effect of making the romance a satisfyingly slow burn, too, with a convincing emotional payoff: we’ve had plenty of time to get to know these characters and root for them!

I’m also interested in thinking about Graceling (and its sequel Fire, which I’ve also read) as a kind of primer on abusive and controlling relationships. The main threats and conflicts in these texts come from various forms of coercive control (including King Randa’s abuse of his sovereign power to force Katsa into working as his torturer-in-chief), and particularly from mind control. Po’s Grace, for example, is knowing what people are thinking about him: obviously this introduces some great tension into their romantic plotline, but it’s also something they have to work out very firm boundaries around so Katsa has the privacy and self-determination she needs. (This is another thing I love about how Cashore handles this relationship, how aware she is of the potential for abuse there is in this set-up.) Graceling‘s Big Bad exercises a much more sinister form of mind control, and as such acts as the flipside to Po and Katsa’s ultimately respectful relationship: a boundary-stomper, an ignorer of consent, in general the model of Who Not To Date.

I do not wish to imply that Graceling is perfect and without flaws: its worldbuilding, as I have said, is generic and sometimes incoherent (table forks are not a medieval technology! they didn’t appear in northern Europe until the eighteenth century!); all of its characters are high-ranking, privileged members of the nobility; and although Katsa is strongly and unusually characterised I wouldn’t exactly call her complex.

I do, however, think this is an incredibly valuable book to give a young adult: I would have been glad to have read it as a teen, just as I am glad to have read Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael and Abhorsen. It’s important to have female characters like Katsa: young women who have adventures and romances while at the same time working out anxieties around identity, family, sex, agency and their particular place in the world. And it’s important for YA novels like this to model what good and bad relationships look like and how to set healthy boundaries. I haven’t read Bitterblue, the final novel in the series, yet; I definitely will.

Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Review: A Slip of the Keyboard

Published in 2014, A Slip of the Keyboard was Terry Pratchett’s first collection of non-fiction pieces, covering everything from casting bees in gold to his work on assisted dying.

I held off on reading it for years out of a combination of healthy scepticism about the commercial reasons for publishing such a collection and exhaustion with the glut of substandard Pratchett work coming out at the time (his Alzheimer’s had a marked effect on Discworld – not his fault, necessarily, but also deeply sad for a lot of his readers), and it turns out I was not wrong to avoid it. Not that A Slip of the Keyboard is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it is just…limited. Pratchett in non-fiction, it turns out, is pretty conventional, lacking the ferocious wit and inventiveness of a Douglas Adams, say, or even the crusading anger of someone like Kameron Hurley – which is strange, because one thing everyone who knew him seems to comment on is his rage, the engine that, apparently, powered him. (I would never characterise the Discworld novels as angry; quite the opposite: they are full of hope and humanity. They often feature moments of anger, people angry on behalf of their families or their communities or their land, but it is not an anger that lasts beyond immediate need.)

He’s also pretty repetitive: this is, of course, a function of collecting pieces written for different occasions and venues across several years in a single volume, but it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable reading experience (and see Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt for a non-fiction collection that isn’t overly repetitive).

There are also hints here of the unwelcome conservatism that began creeping into his later novels (although if you look carefully it’s always been there, I think). Complaining about 50% taxation, in print, as Pratchett does in “Taxworld”, is not a good look for a millionaire who popularised the Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness. And in Neil Gaiman’s foreword to the collection, where he talks once again about Pratchett’s rage, he relates an anecdote in which he and Pratchett are late to a radio show because Pratchett refused to take a taxi. Affable old Sir Terry is so angry about his own mistake that they make the journey in silence. This basically sets the tone for the entire collection: here we have a grumpy old man, well past the peak of his career, complaining about taxes and making off-colour jokes.

It’s not all bad. There are some good bits about science fiction conventions, and writing Discworld, and signing tours; and his essay from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, “Notes From a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep It Real” is always a gem. But, you know the old saying. Never read your heroes’ ill-considered opinion pieces. On the whole, I could have done without this collection and its unflattering picture of an author I’ve always loved.

Review: The Compleat Ankh-Morpork

The Compleat Ankh-Morpork is one of those spin-off books that exists purely to delight the obsessive fan in all of us: a map of the chief city of Terry Pratchett’s absurdist high-fantasy Discworld, accompanied by a wealth of tourist information including a list of pubs, adverts for various businesses and several suggested walks.

I can plausibly imagine how something like this could do actual work, building on an author’s themes and worldview (Christopher Priest’s The Islanders comes to mind; or even Pratchett’s own Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook), but The Compleat Ankh-Morpork is not that kind of book. It’s a bit of fun, world-building ephemera for superfans only; a quick trip through a much-beloved city, laced with the broad, unsubtle humour typical of very late Pratchett, humour which occasionally borders on the racist or sexist in its descriptions of Klatchian curry houses and the like. It’s at least not as egregious as The Compleat Discworld Atlas.

Still, if you’ve got the energy and the will to ignore this, the book itself is a beautiful object in all its mock-Victorian steampunk glory. And visiting this bustling, vital, topsy-turvy city is always a joy, even in this imperfect manifestation. This is a book for a rainy winter afternoon, with tea and chocolate and the smell of pine needles, and preferably a cat on hand too.

Review: Melmoth

This review contains spoilers.

Sarah Perry’s 2018 novel Melmoth is based on a novel from (coincidentally?) 1820: Charles Maturin’s Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, which I have not read. I know, though, that it’s a collection of fictional accounts dealing with the titular Melmoth, a man who sells his soul to the devil for 150 years extra on this planet, and is reduced to wandering the world in search of someone miserable enough to take his place in this pact.

I love Gothic novels, mostly; they are very much My Thing, baggy and imperfect and overwritten as they often are, their excess concealing the unspeakable at the heart of existence. I enjoyed Melmoth, but I didn’t love it – it wasn’t the twisty, hypnotic yarn I was hoping for. Perry’s update begins in Prague, with a woman named Helen Franklin, a translator in self-imposed exile for some unknown sin in her past. An academic she knows slightly, Karel, bequeaths some documents to her on his death, detailing a number of tragic lives touched by a dark, mysterious figure who offers them a way out. And then her own past comes back to haunt her.

Why didn’t I love it? Well – I’m not sure why the interpolated texts are there when it’s Helen’s own story that feels the most urgent; the shadowy figure of Melmoth stalking through them feels kind of irrelevant by the end of the book. There’s a lack of impetus, of coherent vision, that stopped me being drawn in as I have been by, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Secret History, or Gormenghast.

I also wish that the racial dynamics of Helen’s past had been explored more. By which I mean: her Great Secret involves her Filipino boyfriend taking the blame for her mercy killing of an acid burn victim, also Filipino. The narrative is inclined to forgive her for this, but there’s no examination of how her white privilege complicates the situation, and how she benefits from it. It is mildly interesting that the book’s key section takes place in bright, vital Manila, in contrast to rainy, Gothic Prague: if we compare Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which Mrs de Winter recalls sinister doings in England, having fled them for southern Europe, whose bright white sunlight seems antithetical to such shadows, it’s evident that Perry’s reversing Gothic tradition here. And unlike many Gothic novels, this one ends in reasonably unambiguous happiness, or at least offers the promise of progress out of stagnation. So perhaps this is a text about becoming free; rejecting the trap of the past and of tradition. Perhaps.

This all sounds very Negative Nelly, I know, but I would stress that I did enjoy Melmoth; it made for a cosy afternoon’s reading. But a few months down the line, I can’t find a huge amount to say about it. Make of that what you will.

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Susanna Clarke’s short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu is best read as a companion to her magisterial Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. In fact, the text itself encourages readers to do just that, with its mock critical apparatus referring to “a somewhat obscure novel published a few years ago” which concerns the 19th-century magicians Strange and Norrell. The book, then, is a collection of stories about Faerie; or, to follow Clarke’s conceit, stories which may shed some light on the history and doings of the Sidhe, and the development of magic, in the British Isles.

What’s immediately noticeable is that most of these stories are about people living on the edges of the society envisioned by Clarke in her novel – briefly, a society where magic is a respectable pursuit only for gentlemen. The central characters of these stories are abandoned gentlewomen, Jewish doctors, impoverished clergymen, servants’ daughters; specifically, they are people whose circumstances bring them close enough to gentility and respectability to be manipulated by it without benefiting from it. Their use of magic, or their alliances with Faerie, gives them access to power that is not determined by their social status, and so undermines and threatens the established order. These are, in other words, unsettling stories: the gap between magical power and social power manifests sometimes as humour, sometimes as something more uncanny; it never sits entirely easy.

It’s a collection that perhaps seems light in comparison with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; but it both fulfils a fannish need for more detail about Clarke’s universe, and has a coherent artistic worldview of its own, and it’s frankly criminal how rarely both things are true of the same work. A book for Strangites and Norrellites both to enjoy.