Tag: Harry Potter

Review: The Magicians

I’ve been meaning to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for a while, despite being burned by his sub-Da Vinci Code airport thriller Codex: how could that writer come out with something that seems so well-known in genre circles?

Well…I see it now.

It’s pretty explicitly a response to the Harry Potter series, which is in itself a commercial decision, right? Our Hero is Quentin Coldwater, a whiny teenager who is one day unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a sort of university for magic. Brakebills is like Hogwarts except with more sex, drugs and general nihilistic menace: at one point, a prank of Quentin’s sees a teacher’s spell go disastrously wrong, so a demon breaks in from another reality and leaves a hollowed-out husk in place of one of the students.

Quentin is very believable as an older version of Harry Potter, though: unexceptional, entitled and vastly less interesting than any of his friends. The emotional core of The Magicians is his vast sense of disappointment with the world: disappointment that his life is not more like a story. This disappointment has its foundations in a series of books he used to read as a child, about an enchanted land called Fillory, visited by four children who become Kings and Queens and…yes, Fillory is a Narnia analogue. The Fillory books have told Quentin for years that life should be simple, and authentic, and exciting; instead, he gets modernity, complex and mundane.

I mean. Yes? I think probably a lot of SFF readers have grown up like Quentin, searching for magic (for which read meaning) in a postmodern world; that’s an interesting Theme to explore. The problem is, partly, that Grossman frames Brakebills as a place of extraordinary privilege; magic stands in for wealth and power. Again, that’s an interesting move in itself, and there’s an implied critique here of the abdication of social responsibility that’s going on in the Potter books when its wizards refuse to help solve Muggle problems with magic. But it means that Quentin’s disillusionment just feels whiny and overprivileged; poor little rich kid, life is so hard. It doesn’t help that he’s standing in the way of characters who are facing genuine hardship even at Brakebills: Eliot, who is gay (or more probably bi, but Quentin hasn’t heard of bisexuality; it would probably make his mind explode, given his reaction to Eliot’s sexual orientation) in what reads as a pretty homophobic environment; Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills a few years earlier; heavily-tattooed and presumably working-class Penny. All of these people are more interesting than Quentin. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s still an unrelentingly miserable read.

Werll, all right, that’s not exactly true. The Magicians is fun on a world-building level. We get a lot of detail about the teachers and lessons and daily routine at Brakebills, which once again feels like a commercial decision: none of this is strictly necessary to what Grossman is trying to do, which is, broadly, Be Cynical About Hogwarts (to be fair, this isn’t difficult to achieve). But audiences like reading about Hogwarts, will sign up in their millions to sites like Pottermore that drip-feed pure world-building, so let’s give ’em more Hogwarts!

But it’s also endlessly, endlessly mean-spirited. There’s cynicism around every corner; everything is tainted by pettiness and rivalry and a terrible boredom eating at the edges of things. And, yeah, I can see Grossman’s point, but also he made the same point like 300 pages ago? And, really, do we still think cynicism untempered by empathy or hope is clever or constructive? Do we need to repeat the opening steps of postmodernism endlessly?

Which is to say: I have hated The Magicians and I have…not exactly loved it. Liked it, maybe. It has some moderately interesting points to make, which is vastly more than you can say for Codex. It is, however, as the Bandersnatch is fond of saying, not my favourite.

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Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

This review contains spoilers.

The latest film in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald focuses on magical creatures specialist Newt Scamander’s search in Paris for the immensely powerful, frightened and dangerous teenager Credence. The dark wizard Grindelwald is seeking to recruit Credence to his cause. The established powers of the magical world would, understandably, like to stop this happening.

As a fantasy blockbuster, it’s not the most compelling thing in the world. Like most films of its type at the moment, it’s so plotted it might as well be plotless: things happen in a vaguely logical sequence but it doesn’t really add up to coherent narrative drive.

That was a problem with the first film as well, though. And, I don’t think The Crimes of Grindelwald is as good as the first film, but it does have its compensations: namely that it’s a thing lovely to look at. The gorgeous, inventive 1930s costumes. The lovingly-rendered magical creatures in Newt’s menagerie. And, ahem, Newt himself, played by Eddie Redmayne, who brings a level of conviction to the role that miraculously lifts it out of stereotypical-nerd-boy territory, and which the rest of the film doesn’t quite deserve.

Oh, but. Let’s talk about ideological problems, because we all know that is where my critical heart lies. I’m fascinated by the way this film – this franchise, really – is so invested in the idea of family ties, despite its overt rejection of Grindelwald’s ideology of racial purity. Credence’s entire plot arc is about searching for his family, searching, as he puts it, for who he is; the film’s implication is that not finding his family is what makes him turn ultimately to Grindelwald. Meanwhile, there’s a simmering tension between Newt and his brother Theseus; a plot point involving the family of Theseus’ fiancée Leto Lestrange, who is of course related to the Bellatrix Lestrange who terrorises the later-set Harry Potter series; a full-blown argument between Newt’s friend Queenie and her Muggle boyfriend Jacob about the laws that prevent Muggles and magical people from marrying; and the fact that Newt’s crush Tina is Queenie’s sister. Everyone in this film is related to each other, in a way that seems to reinforce Grindelwald’s ideas that blood purity, and specifically blood ties, are what make the wizarding world strong. It’s the breaking of those ties that drive people into Grindelwald’s arms.

The film’s ideological muddle is best illustrated by the Queenie-Jacob subplot. In a nutshell, Jacob won’t marry Queenie, though he wants to, because it would make her a social pariah in wizarding circles, and is against the law in those circles anyway. Her unhappiness with this state of affairs eventually pushes her into Grindelwald’s faction, despite the fact that one of Grindelwald’s stated aims is to subjugate Muggles and prevent magical people from marrying them? I don’t think the film does anywhere near enough work to convince us that Queenie can really see this as a viable solution to the specific social problem she and Jacob are encountering. Everything about how she has been positioned as a character suggests that she’d be the very last person to support Grindelwald.

Part of the film’s problem is, I think, that it’s reaching for sophomoric political relevance in its portrayal of Grindelwald as charismatic demagogue. It’s trying, in a fairly shallow and obvious way, to talk about what makes otherwise sympathetic people support hateful ideologies (the shadow of Donald Trump, and, more historically, Adolf Hitler, rears up behind Grindelwald). It wants to talk about how social displacement radicalises people like Credence and Queenie – but it does so without taking account of the particular political tensions and divides that Rowling’s already written into her world. The status quo of the wizarding world already depends on blood ties and blood purity, so it’s not as if joining Grindelwald’s faction is upending the status quo in any particularly meaningful way.

(Actually, it occurs to me at this point that Grindelwald’s actual politics are only nebulously defined, beyond “enslave the Muggles”. Like Darth Vader and Sauron, he’s essentially just a symbol of Evil, which makes the kind of nuance Rowling is aiming for here tricky to achieve.)

Let’s talk about the film’s romances here a bit, shall we? Because they are Not Good. Newt may be utterly adorable as a character, but even so it’s hard to overlook the fact that he travels to Paris partly because he’s learned that his crush Tina is working there. Tina is under the unfortunate impression that Newt is engaged to somebody else, a misunderstanding that, in the worst traditions of on-screen romance, neither of them quite gets around to resolving for the next two and a half hours. For gods’ sake. If you can’t manage to have a reasonable conversation now how are you going to navigate any kind of serious relationship? And it’s actually a bit creepy to go abroad specifically to locate your romantic interest. Newt’s endearing social ineptitude obscures that creepiness but doesn’t excuse it.

And then there’s Queenie and Jacob, who the film’s trying to sell as a loving and reasonably stable couple. But…the very first time we see them, Queenie has enchanted Jacob in the hopes of coercing him into marrying her. And the very last time we see them, when Queenie chooses Grindelwald, Jacob says, “You’re crazy”. Not only is this an ableist slur, it’s one deliberately chosen to hurt Queenie specifically; her mind-reading powers have often seen her labelled “crazy” in the past, and she’s explicitly asked Jacob not to use the word to describe her. Of course, Jacob is angry and hurt at this point, but he’s also being positioned as the reasonable one, the “good” one, in this particular transaction; he is not choosing the dark side. So the film is endorsing his casual cruelty towards a woman he presumably, at this point, still loves.

The Crimes of Grindelwald, then, is a lazy film: one which wants to think of itself as more progressive and liberal than it really is. (I haven’t even touched on the Dumbledore controversy: the relationship between him and Grindelwald, which Rowling has implied in interviews and on Twitter was a romantic one, remains textually just a close platonic friendship.) It’s latched onto The Current Political Situation without thinking about how it would realistically affect the wizarding world, and it uses the same toxic romantic clichés as every single capitalist Hollywood blockbuster. But then, Rowling’s work has always been like this: full of unexamined, unsophisticated good vibes that unwittingly perpetuate systems of oppression. It doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch. But it’s not good either.

Ten Books From My Childhood That I’d Like to Revisit

  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. I mean. I’ve read this at least twice as an adult, so maybe it doesn’t really count as revisiting. But I grew up with Harry. For all that the books are imperfect, for all that I dislike the last three, for all that Rowling’s writing never gets better than serviceable, they’ll always be part of me, and I’ll always go back to them for a reminder of what it was to sink absolutely, uncritically, childishly into a fictional world.
  2. Predator’s Gold – Philip Reeve. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times recently – or, rather, I’ve mentioned its predecessor, Mortal Engines, which I re-read last year and, unexpectedly, loved. So I really want to find some time to re-read this sequel.
  3. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I very much want to re-read all the original Old Kingdom trilogy, straight through, at some point. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve really understood how lucky I was to grow up with these books, with their brilliant, flawed, shy, vulnerable heroines who have real agency and lovely romances that don’t compromise that agency.
  4. Fire Bringer – David Clement-Davies. I’m a bit nervous about this one. I have no idea how it will stand up to re-reading. I remember it being quite a dense book for seven-year-old me, so I suspect I might now find it leaden and/or overwrought. And possibly a bit heavy-handed on the Nazi allegory. BUT WHO KNOWS. I just loved the deer.
  5. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket. Oh, the Series of Unfortunate Events books! They are gorgeous: I think you can only get them in hardback, and the thirteen of them (fourteen counting the Unauthorised Autobiography) are quite something lined up on the shelf. I loved the twisted Gothicness of them, the way they’re ostensibly set in this world, but twisted through ninety degrees so everything takes on a new and sinister significance.
  6. Redwall – Brian Jacques. Oh, Redwall. You were so species-essentialist. And you also had delicious food. This is another world-immersion thing, I think: I have about ten books in this series, and I used to read them all in one go, rolling around in the peace of Redwall Abbey and the swashbuckling adventures on the high seas and the weird posh Britishness of Salamandastron and…
  7. The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy – Gavin Maxwell. This is in no way a children’s book, and I have no idea how I got my hands on it in the first place. It’s the memoirs of a guy who lives in a remote house in Scotland and takes in various animals, including, famously, a succession of otters. I remember it as often adorable, sometimes tragic, and fascinated by the landscape of Scotland. It would be interesting to see if that memory’s correct, and if I get anything else out of the book as an adult.
  8. Midnight Over Sanctaphrax – Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. The Deepwoods books were so deeply weird, they were brilliant. Sanctaphrax isn’t the first novel in the series, but it was my favourite because it featured an awesome library (a non-trivial theme of my childhood reading). I think it also had overtones of satire on academia, so that would be fun to re-read.
  9. The Thieves of Ostia – Caroline Lawrence. I don’t think I ever made it to the end of the Flavia Gemina series, but the ones I did read I re-read a lot: I loved how they called up Ancient Rome so thoroughly.
  10. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – Chris Wooding. I don’t have a fucking clue why this particular book, which I read once at school, has stuck in my mind for so long: why the name Alaizabel Cray, or the word wych-kin, calls up such a delicious shadowed horror in my brain. I barely remember what it’s about. I remember a monster that you could hear as an echo to your footsteps, that would eat you not the first or second time you looked around for the source of the footsteps, but the third. (Seriously? That’s terrifying.) And that’s about it. I actually suspect I’d find it magnificently underwhelming if I read it as an adult.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

  1. Istanbul. This was a by-product of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which is about a literary treasure hunt across Europe and makes Istanbul sound absolutely fascinating, a mix of ancient and modern. Sadly it’s not the safest place to visit at the moment.
  2. Exeter College, Oxford. I remember vividly, the first time I visited Oxford, using the map in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to find Jordan College. Which is Exeter. Yes, I am a nerd.
  3. The Discworld Emporium, Wincanton, Somerset. Do I really need to explain this? My parents now live within touching distance of Wincanton, anyway, so I’m hoping to visit very soon!
  4. The Shambles, York. The Shambles are the original of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork, the sprawling, smelly city-state in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Fortunately you are approximately a hundred per cent less likely to get murdered in the Shambles than you are in the Shades. Although the prices in the shops there do amount to daylight robbery (some of them, anyway).
  5. Tolkien’s grave, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien’s buried with his wife Edith, and carved below their names are the names Beren and Luthien: the species-transcending lovers of The Silmarillion. When I went in February, there were fresh flowers there, but it wasn’t a shrine or anything; just solemn and sad and I had a moment.
  6. King’s Cross Station, London. YES I AM A VERY SAD PERSON AND I WAS EXCITED TO GO TO KING’S CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME BECAUSE HARRY POTTER. I AM VERY SORRY.
  7. The Pump Room, Bath. This is a restaurant now; but wouldn’t be cool to go there and pretend to be a Jane Austen character? Yes. Yes it would.
  8. New Zealand. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the whole getting-on-a-plane-for-a-zillion-hours thing, but if I had to it would be New Zealand I’d go to – for, yes, Hobbiton and Mount Doom and Edoras and all the wonderful corners of Middle-earth. Actually, doing the Simple Walk into Mordor would be quite fun, for a given value of “fun”.
  9. The Whalebone Arch, Isle of Harris. The actual arch is less impressively Mievillean than I hoped it would be (I was thinking the Ribs from Perdido Street Station, which, not so much), but it’s still pretty cool: an arch made of the jawbones of a whale.
  10. East Coker, Somerset. Yes, because of that poem by T.S. Eliot. (Which I read part of at my granddad’s funeral in January, so it’s kind of important to me.) I don’t think there’s actually very much at East Coker, just one of a thousand tiny villages you’ll find in the hollows of the Somerset hills, but. But.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books People Have Been Telling Me to Read

  1. The Vorkosigan saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m convinced that the Vorkosigan saga is actually an elaborate hoax along the lines of Mornington Crescent. Everyone says they have read it, but I can never find it in libraries or in bookshops. Or if I can it’s some obscure volume from the middle of the series. How has everyone read it? How?
  2. Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula le Guin. I have read shamefully little vintage SF, and Left Hand of Darkness is by all accounts a classic. And I shall read it as soon as it turns up in my local library.
  3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This seems to be cropping up in a lot of places, and it does sound right up my street: steampunk alternate history with an examination of colonialism? Yes please!
  4. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway has been vaguely floating at the back of my consciousness for a while, but then her October Daye series came up in conversation at a recent TolkSoc event, and they actually sound quite good.
  5. American Gods – Neil Gaiman. I mean, American Gods is one of those books that you read if you are a proper fantasy reader. It’s a bit like Good Omens in that respect, I think: more niche than Harry Potter but orders of magnitude more famous than most other fantasy writers ever. But I dislike the way Gaiman’s cod-liberalism is inevitably accompanied by a generous side helping of sexism.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those books that are generally well thought-of by the genre community and which I’d quite like to read but which keeps getting shunted down my priority list for books that maybe aren’t written by white men. I will read it. I will.
  7. Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb. I’ve deliberately steered clear of Robin Hobb since I heard about her negativity towards fan-fiction, but she keeps coming up in conversations and she’s one of the more widely available fantasy authors, so maybe I’ll get round to this one day.
  8. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders. This was in the Tournament of Books this year and it actually sounded like a lot of fun, and other people have mentioned it as worth reading too, so on the list it goes.
  9. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy. My manager keeps telling me to read this. I am not convinced: I read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, and it’s just incredibly hard going and incredibly depressing and reading is, after all, supposed to be fun.
  10. Finnegans Wake – James Joyce. Look. “More accessible than Ulysses” is literally a terrible way of selling a book to me. Everything is more accessible than Ulysses. It doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!

Top Ten Authors by Number of Their Books I Own

  1. Terry Pratchett. Good old Sir Terry wins by a considerable margin: I have most of the Discworld books, plus the first three Long Earth books, the Bromeliad trilogy, the Tiffany Aching series, a couple of Science of Discworld books, two Discworld spin-offs (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook and The Discworld Companion), and a number of one-offs like The Unadulterated Cat and The Carpet People. And Good Omens, of course. 90% of everything he ever wrote is awesome.
  2. Brian Jacques. A family friend gave me a whole load of Redwall books when I was younger, and I bought a couple more: I read and re-read them endlessly.
  3. Enid Blyton. I have about 15 Famous Five books: lovely centenary hardback editions, given to me by my grandparents when I was small. Every time I went to see them they’d have another book for me. Obviously I can’t get rid of them.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien. I have a relatively small number of Tolkien books – 11, and that’s bulked out by French editions of The Lord of the Rings and a Latin edition of The Hobbit. I’ve never particularly been interested in the wider Legendarium, fragmentary and heavily edited by the Tolkien estate as it is – The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are enough for me to visit Middle-earth. I also have Tree and Leaf, and Unfinished Tales, but that’s it.
  5. Eoin Colfer. The Artemis Fowl series was another that I loved as a child – I grew out of them after Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (which was also, incidentally, when twelve-year-old Artemis and hundred-year-old Holly started crushing on each other, which, ugh).
  6. China Mieville. It is no secret that I am a massive Mieville fangirl, even though I only enjoy about half of his books. I have Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, The Last Days of New Paris (signed!), Un Lun Dun, Kraken and The City and the City. Funnily enough, I only really like the first three of those; the other two I’ve loved, Railsea and Embassytown, I borrowed from the library. Oh! I also have the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion on my TBR pile.
  7. Stephen King. The Dark Tower series, despite its disappointing back half, is still one of my favourite fantasy series, for its sheer ambition, its disjointed strangeness that echoes our world so terrifyingly.
  8. J.K. Rowling. I think this is probably a mandatory entry for anyone of my generation: I have the whole Harry Potter series, plus Quidditch Through the Ages. (My sister also has The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the scripts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’m pretty sure I also used to have a copy of the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it’s been lost along the way.)
  9. Catherynne M. Valente. Valente’s lush prose and wild, strange worlds mean I basically hoard her books like treasures. I have four of her Fairyland books, Palimpsest and Six-Gun Snow White; Palimpsest is my favourite of the ones I own, but my very favourite is one I borrowed from the library, Radiance.
  10. Charles Dickens. Four of the Dickens books I own – Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son – are a set, given to me by my grandmother (not the one who gave me the Famous Five books). The other – David Copperfield, my least favourite – I bought in a second-hand bookshop.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)