Tag: fantasy

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.

Review: Gingerbread

TW: suicide.

Helen Oyeyemi’s works partake of the fairytale, steering a perilous course between whimsy and incoherence. They are referential, playful things, using traditional tales to comment slyly on cultural ideas of race, class and gender. And so, Gingerbread, her latest novel: the tale of three women, Margot, her daughter Harriet, and her daughter Perdita. Harriet and Perdita live together in a seventh-floor flat in London which, though faded, shows signs of former grandeur, with its velvet curtains and silver-shaded chandeliers. Their life seems happy, until Harriet discovers Perdita unconscious in bed, having apparently overdosed after a spate of bullying.

Gingerbread is a novel about placelessness. Margot Lee, you see, hails originally from Druhastrana, an eastern European country that, Christopher Priest-like, is not discernible on any map, nor discoverable in any Google search. A nation that has closed its borders, Druhastrana can seemingly only be reached by near-magical means: Margot smuggles herself and her daughter Harriet out in coffins, using a potion that simulates death. Hence Perdita’s near-fatal attempt to return there, to the homeland she’s never really known. This is, in short, a tale about immigration; more specifically, a tale about refugee-hood. Like Mohsin Hamad’s Exit West, it uses fantasy to curtail the actual physical journey away from a home country in order to highlight the lengths people go to in order to achieve it; and the dislocation they suffer when they’ve arrived.

The Lees’ lack of status – their strangeness, their self-sufficient isolation, their witchiness standing in, I think, for a cultural difference that their community rejects them for – stands in direct contrast to the worldliness of their rich benefactors, the Kerchevals, who are thoroughly at home in England and have the mansion to prove it. It’s all leaning into some typically fairy-tale dynamics: the handsome prince, the family psychodrama. But there’s something missing: I just don’t think Gingerbread is as sharp as, say, Boy, Snow, Bird, which uses “Snow White” to look at the toxicity of racism and sexism, or Mr Fox, where the Bluebeard story becomes a stick to beat a misogynistic author with. The fairy-tale resonances, while there, are muffled. I actually do like the way that the titular gingerbread, made to a Lee family recipe that “tastes like revenge”, associates these women with witchery and thus accounts for their social isolation, in a mirroring of the othering that many immigrants experience in real life. But I’m not sure it’s doing a huge amount of work beyond that: it’s an image that illustrates rather than interrogating. The novel’s frame of reference is too broad, there is too much going on, to add up to an emotionally meaningful fairy-tale schema. Try Mr Fox or the short story collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours instead.

Review: A Song for Arbonne

Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is, you might say, a tale of two countries.

First, there is “woman-ruled Arbonne”: a fantasy analogue of medieval Provencal France which is run on the principles of courtly love – meaning that women have significant soft power. The Arbonnais honour the moon-goddess Rian. Then there’s Gorhaut, a wintry northern country governed according to strict feudal principles, where women are considered little more than chattel. They despise Rian and worship instead her spouse, warrior-god Corannos.

Recent political developments have given Gorhaut both the means and the motive to invade Arbonne. It hasn’t done so yet when the novel begins, but everyone’s very aware of the volatile situation. Against that backdrop, a prominent Gorhaut warrior called Blaise enters into service with an Arbonnais lord, and an old grudge between two Arbonnais noblemen (involving a lost love and a missing child) threatens the security of the kingdom.

It’s the kind of fantasy that is almost not fantasy at all: the only sign of magic is the odd dream and/or vision. Relatedly, and rarer, it’s the kind of fantasy that cares about religion but not at all about whether the gods exist. You could read it as a companion to N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon: both novels feature twin societies – one decadent, one more ascetic – who worship the same deities but in very different ways.

It’s also a novel with a strong interest in the intersections between the personal and the political – specifically, in the ways that political considerations constrain personal relationships. Much of the novel’s intrigue concerns married people sleeping with people who aren’t their spouses: in fact two of the key characters are more or less openly in a marriage of convenience, as one of them is a gay man and the other a woman who enjoys quite a lot of sexual freedom as a result. How do these characters manipulate the power structures they find themselves in? How flexible are those power structures? How far do they allow people to balance personal fulfilment and public notions of honour and shame?

These are questions that would, I think, be more difficult to interrogate in a modern realist novel: Western culture at the moment has such a focus on individual achievement and self-actualisation that it’s tricky to see how more public pressures are acting, though I think those pressures are still there. For instance, career success has become so bound up with the idea of personal success that the thought that men might want to take some parental leave to bond with a new child is almost a radical one (although that’s changing, happily).

Like The Killing Moon, I think A Song for Arbonne is functioning as a thought experiment – at least, if that’s not its main function it’s at least one of its primary ones. So it makes its own argument best, and you should read it! (I’m glad I disregarded my woeful experience with The Summer Tree in deciding whether to give this a go.)