A love letter to Jessica Jones

Caution: mild spoilers ahead.

Is it the golden age of superhero flicks?


It may just be. Both Marvel and DC, the superhero homesteads we are most familiar with, have a very impressive line up of films scheduled for the coming years. And Marvel has done one better, teaming up with Netflix, one of the best things about the internet, to create a stunning series of shows. ‘Daredevil’, starring Charlie Cox of Stardust fame was a great hit, and the follow up, Jessica Jones is, dare I say it, even better.

Jessica Jones is the superhero I’ve been waiting for. She is smart, she is strong and she is a woman. She walks around Hell’s Kitchen in practical jeans and tops, donning a leather jacket for the cold. She is a hard drinker (one of her neighbours calls her a ‘lush’), but she doesn’t let it interfere with her work as a private investigator. And she is damn good at her job.

What did I love about her, apart from all the above qualities? She is so amazingly well drawn. Krysten Ritter has really done a remarkable job of portraying the deadpan, tortured woman with a terrible past, one that involves mental and physical violation at the hands of David Tennant’s creepily good Kilgrave. Ritter flits between intense vulnerability, thinking about her days of slavery to the ‘Purple Man’, and a resolute, bitter strength, determined to end the threat he poses to everyone, no matter what it might cost her.


I was half an episode in when I texted a friend, ‘I love this woman.’ I followed it up with ‘No, I really love her. I am actually sexually attracted to her.’ I watched Jessica Jones’s story with bated breath, hardly able to bring myself to stop, reminding myself that unless I did, I wouldn’t have any more for the next day. Was it the writing? Hell yes, it’s great writing. The acting? Of course. The show is stocked with amazing portrayals—from Mike Coulter as a brooding, tragedy-shadowed Luke Cage to Colby Minifie as the high-strung, extremely eccentric Robyn. The villain who horrified me at the same time that he made me feel his sense of acute isolation? David Tennant is always a treat, and as Kilgrave, he makes you feel for his character, at the same time that you utterly despise him.

But combined with all of that, combined with the great storyline, the drama, the suspense, the score (what an opening sequence), it was the joy of seeing this strong, powerful woman take on the person who had made her most vulnerable. It was seeing her reach out to a best friend, not just at her weaker moments, but all the time—keeping her looped in, knowing jess and trishthat Trish was always there for her when needed. It was the fact that this relationship, not the one between Jessica and Luke, nor even the antagonistic one between her and Kilgrave, but the one between the best friends who grew up with and were always there for each other, that defines the series. Episode 1 shows Jessica running to Trish after a long time away, coming to her as a last resort. The series chronicles the return of their deep bond, an unquestioned sisterhood that truly is the best thing about strong friendships between women.

Maybe this is what made Jessica, for me, a great female superhero. She wasn’t overly sexualized, nor was her love life the focus of attention. She wasn’t wearing impractical clothes (in fact, I was amazingly happy because, I realized, I had the same coat as her. Fangirl moment if  

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - March 10, 2015

there ever was one.) No one slammed her around for being a ‘girl’. She was great at her job, and in fact, she even brought to life the many stereotypes associated with male noir detectives: hard drinking, bitter, wise-cracking. But instead of shutting herself off from help and companionship the way many of those heroes do, she opens herself up to help. And it’s not from a male hero.

From personal experience, I’ve learned that it’s those friendships that really define you, that have saved me when things are going badly. Jessica brought that to life. And for that, among the many, many other things that I’ve breathlessly mentioned here, I am madly in love with her.

Damn you Netflix. Now I have to wait a year to see her again.

Frodo the Writer

Throw a rock in a gathering of fantasy nerds, and you’re sure to hit someone who has some sort of opinion on Lord of the Rings. Like as not, that person will also, if asked, give you an opinion on its hero, Frodo Baggins. Maybe she’ll tell you that Frodo was a weakling, or that his parts were the most boring in the book. Maybe she’ll be a little more charitable and say that Elijah Wood muffed up the character, and didn’t make his struggle as powerful and watchable as Viggo Mortensen’s brooding stint as Aragorn. Or maybe, if this person is one of my more fanfic-loving friends, she’ll say that Frodo/Sam is her OTP and Rosie was just a bad cover-up.

FrodoMy own opinion of Frodo has stayed pretty much the same for the last 13 years, since I first read the books. I liked Frodo. I actually liked him a lot, and put him on my top three list of characters. Sure, Aragorn swept me under his spell for a time, mostly when he was first introduced, but my fascination with him waned the closer he got to achieving all he desired. My liking for Frodo, however, stayed strong, and it was his sections that I read with unflagging interest, his chapters which kept me on the edge of my seat. Aragorn’s story was so straightforward in comparison; Frodo kept me guessing, right till the end when he refused to (spoiler) give up the Ring.

Frodo is easily among the most non-glamorous heroes I’ve ever read. He’s not particularly young and sprightly (he’s 50 years old when his adventures begin, 51 to be precise), he’s well off if not astoundingly rich, and he has absolutely no powers. He doesn’t even have the martial skills that Pippin and Merry seem to pick up. His courage is of an understated, non blustering kind, and big speeches are not his fortre. Honestly, the only reason he ends up carrying the Ring for the first half is because it’s just kinda there. And in the second half, only because he volunteers for something everyone else seems too afraid to do.

So Frodo’s single greatest act of courage in the books is saying ‘I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.’ It’s up to the others to figure out how to get him there.

As he stumbles on his journey, Frodo only seems to grow weaker. He becomes more distant from Sam, only humanizing (should I say hobbitizing?) in short bursts in Ithilien, with Faramir. He spares Gollum for reasons no one around him can understand, and he even turns on Sam for a wild moment, right after Sam has braved a tower-full of Orcs to come to his rescue. He gets carried right up to Mount Doom and then decides he’d rather keep the Ring after all—-or rather, the Ring decides for him, since he’s pretty much fallen under its spell by now. So then we get the roundabout reason for why Tolkien decided he should spare Gollum: thanks to Frodo’s seemingly incomprehensible, moronic decision, the Ring meets its fiery fate, and Sauron is destroyed.

frodo sam

And after all his suffering, being speared by blades and spears and bitten and stung, Frodo doesn’t even get a hapily ever after in his home town. His people don’t understand him anymore, don’t celebrate him or want to know about his deeds. He himself is too far gone to care, but Sam feels it for him. The best thing for everyone is for him to pass away into the West, where he can finally get the peace that he himself gave up at that Council in Rivendell.

But I still love Frodo, in spite of all his weaknesses. Maybe even because of them. He is, to me, the consummate writer figure. Writing is a hard and lonely job, we’re so often told. It’s literally shutting yourself away from everything else and spending hours with your pen, pencil, laptop, quill—whatever you use—on this mission that absolutely no one besides you will understand. It’s a willing decision to step away from the sea of life, from actually living in order to observe what’s going on—in your head or in the lives of others—and be part of something that is, more often than not, quite boring. No one wants to read about writing, and everyone thinks they want to do it, until they begin.

And once he’s recorded his tale and left the book behind for others to fill in, Frodo as a person is no longer important. The world at large doesn’t care about him, he knows. His part in the tale is done.

I could be stretching the metaphor here, but there is, in my understanding, no fantasy hero who comes as close to the writer as Frodo does. He simply has a will and determination to go on, an idea that ‘I’ve decided to do this, so let’s do it with minimal bloodshed’. I think all Frodo’s ideals and personality are pretty much stripped away by the time he gets to the final chapters—his task is all that defines him, and later, the book he’s produced. When you write, you build a world that, though it may have sprung from your imagination and frodo-baggins-the-lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king-2003-_151936-fli_1388098980experiences, must be depersonalised enough that someone, sitting on the other side of the universe, can relate to what you’ve created. You bleach your self from the tome, and set up a shining new space where others can find themselves in turn.

It’s a curious paradox, really, and one I’m not sure I entirely understand. But in my head, Frodo and the task of writing, the sheer grittiness it involves, are tied together inextricably. I love the quiet little hobbit who had the courage to stand up among all those bigwigs and declare his intent and his ignorance both. I love that one of his last acts is to write a book, such a departure from the sword and bravado that defines so many heroes. And I love how he disappears into the pages of his own creation, sailing off its edge into a world we can’t even begin to imagine.

Sirius, adulthood and moving on

(The fan art used in this post is by Viria–an artist whose work you can check out here)

In a previous post, I wrote about Sirius Black and how his crazily devout loyalty to his friends signals some very positive, as well as negative things. I wrote about how he might see ‘changes’ in people as a terrible thing, a form of betrayal nearly, a wavering from what he has chosen to devote himself to. It struck me then as it strikes me now that Sirius may not have been a very good adult role model, and it was for this reason among others that Rowling chose to kill him off in Book 5, before Harry had entirely emotionally outpaced him.

siriusI suppose it’s disturbing then that I’ve increasingly grown to identify with Sirius on certain matters. This doesn’t bode well for the emotional health of a seeking-to-be-well-adjusted 26 year old, does it? One of these struck me particularly hard recently, before and shortly after a trip to what was once a stomping ground, Delhi.

I’ve entered that age bracket where my friends are starting to get married. This is at once exciting and alarming.Exciting because who doesn’t love celebrations and excuses to get dressed up (okay, don’t answer that question, I actually know people who would disagree with me quite vociferously) and alarming because it seems to indicate that we’ve gotten…older. We’re no longer gushing about crushes and being excited that a friend is maybe kind of dating someone. Now we’re celebrating the legalization of that relationship, and how life is going to change after that.

Anyway, one of my closest friends is getting married very soon. It is an occasion for celebration, as she and her fiance seem very happy about it. I went to Delhi to spend some time with her, but things had changed already—she was no longer in the old house we once shared, for one thing. For some reason, this upset me greatly, and it was up to another friend to tell me ‘We’re all moving on.’

This reminded me of Snape’s infamous memory, our one glimpse into the dynamics of the Marauders as they were in Hogwarts. When the boys are relaxing near the lake after the exam, James is described as preening and running his hands through his hair, trying to catch the attention of a group of girls seated across from them. It’s understood that he’s trying to snag Lily’s eyes. Remus is buried in a book, attempting to study for the next paper and Peter watches James’s play with a Snitch, wide eyed.

Sirius is bored, and it’s this that sets the bullying of Snivellus in motion.

I should amend that, actually. Sirius is primarily bored. But he betrays another sentiment during this scene that sort of stands out, both in comparison to how he’s usually portrayed, as well as the sort of foresight it seems to indicate—something that most Potterverse characters don’t display. Sirius looks annoyed by James’s attention to Lily.

When I read the scene a couple of years ago I rather romantically saw it as Sirius being jealous because he was, well, attracted to James. Now I see how, while that might be true, there are other, more platonic reasons for his attitude. This may be because I’ve begun to personally understand and experience them.

Sirius, at this moment, sees Lily as what she is, though for no fault of her own: a disruption. Lily signals change for the group. James’s feelings for her, immature though they are, are a break away from his until-now unquestioned devotion to his friends. This is something he cannot share with Sirius, and opens up a whole new world that he is not a part of. Along with ‘growing up’, it’s a ‘growing away’, as Sirius reads it, and if he has to play up James’s immature side to keep him away from Lily a little longer, he will do so.


Of course, I’m not saying I’m going to break up my friend’s impending marriage, or those of the others who are in line to tie the knot. It’s not part of the plan at all. I do, however, understand why Sirius felt the way he did. Things change, people move on, and you may not be (any longer) one of their first priorities. Evidently Sirius grew up enough to make his peace with James’s infatuation (and extend his devotion to two more people—Lily and Harry), but I’m sort of glad he wasn’t tested by Remus and Tonks’s marriage—that might have been too much for the post-Azkaban Sirius to handle.

As the wise Mindy Kaling says, in her guise as scatterbrained Mindy Lahiri, ‘Being an adult is hard. It’s not all smiley faced emojis wearing sunglasses.’

It’s kind of cool that Rowling, through that brief foray into the past, gives us this little picture of a strangely prescient Sirius. She has all of maybe seven pages to do it, but it’s important enough to his characterization that she slides it in there. It never ceases to amaze me how, with just the lightest of strokes, she adds to a character and gives her readers yet another facet to identify with. Now that’s truly incredible writing.

House Talk: Slytherin

I’ve been a self-Sorted Slytherin for a while now. This might seem odd coming from someone whose favourite characters are mostly Gryffindors, but various things about the House of Snakes has convinced me, over the years, that this is where I truly belong. Here I present my reasons for loving Slytherin, apart, of course, from its beautiful underwater dorms.

Slytherin_by_SherlingtonDunnenWhat’s it mean to be Slytherin?

Before I begin, I should come clean about something. I didn’t always consider myself a Slytherin. In fact, when I first read the books, I told myself that of course I was Gryffindor. There could be no doubt about it. My conviction was based purely on the fact that Harry and his besties were in this House, and I, as the rightful Mrs. Potter, belonged there, by his side.

And obviously I was brave, and ‘chivalrous’, whatever that was.

But now that I think of it, even the reasons I wanted to be in Gryffindor were very, well, Slytherin. I saw the House as a means to an end, a way to fulfill an ambition (ie, declaring myself like Harry and therefore heroic), a means of living up to a desired image in my own head. I didn’t honestly relish the idea of living by a set of ideals that, at the age of 11, I would have been in no position to understand. I am not entirely fond of being thrown into the centre of attention anywhere, and was certainy not at the forefront of social activities during my middle and high school years. In short, I was not really cool enough to be a Gryffindor.

But still, why Slytherin? Why not Ravenclaw, full of smart kids? Wouldn’t I rather be considered a nerd than a slimy megalomaniac?

I think it’s all too easy to forget that when it’s first introduced by the Sorting Hat, the Slytherin quality that is emphasised in ‘cunning’ and a certain kind of ruthlessness—these are the people, the Hat stresses, who use ‘any means to achieve their ends’. It also says, strangely enough, that this is House where you’ll meet your ‘real friends’. A rather odd choice of words for a place we later find out is filled with Death Eaters and bigots, isn’t it?

Slytherin definitely suffers from bad press. Given the thousands of students who have no doubt passed through its watery common room, a few have made themselves so infamous that their actions overshadow any other achievements the House might have made. And because of the pure blood mania, we forget that what really defines Slytherins, from Draco to Snape to Voldemort, is a desire to prove onself, to be tenacious enough to succeed at something that they have set their minds to.

This, really, is what pulls me towards this House, and makes me want to be a part of it. Slytherin has no moral illusions—the things its members want vary from protecting a child to killing just to make a point—but what its members learn is that while ambition and grand dreams are all very well, it takes tremendous work and dedication to pulling them off. Whatfacts-about-severus-snape-severus-snape-391241 gives these people the drive to do those things is not just bravery or loyalty or smarts, it’s tenacity. And coupled with that a quality that none of the other Houses demonstrate as ably: an ability to admit wrong and turn around and start again, with just as much drive as before.

What else would you call Snape’s switching over to Dumbledore’s side? Or Narcissa Malfoy’s near-suicidal declaration that Harry was dead, all evidence to the contrary? Regulus’s suicidal mission to get revenge on the Dark Lord? They show that people change—like a moulting snake, you can cast off an old set of ideals and move on. And sometimes you should, because that’s just how life works.

What Slytherin and its tenets taught me was that you should dream big, but sometimes, you’ll find out that you’ve been incredibly wrong. People make terrible mistakes, but you can always be humble enough to turn around and try to set them right. The energy that you bring to ‘achieving’ your ‘ends’ will be undiminished, no matter what those ‘ends’ are.

I’m not idealistically convinced of the strength of my own morality and convictions, like a Gryffindor. I like glamour and charm way too much to not receive adulation and praise, which disqualifies me from Hufflepuff. I’m not happy just being the smart kid, and don’t see learning as an end in itself, so no airy Ravenclaw towers for me.

But I can choose a goal and bend my ambitions towards it, and if the need arises, change myself or my circumstances to ensure its completed. And if I change my mind and decide to go another way? No one can fault me for it. Slytherin promises its denizens that freedom, and embraces the possibility of change, which makes it, for me, really the most realistic House of them all.

House Talk: Hufflepuff

Since the blog has largely been, thus far, a smorgasbord of my opinions on various aspects of fantasy, pop culture and assorted superhero stuff, I thought it might be a change of scene to open up the floor to other fans. In this series, I hope to profile the Hogwarts houses, each in the words of a reader/fan/student who sees themselves as belonging to said house, identifies with its tenets in some fashion, and seeks, through the post, to explain what makes it the fit they most wish to see.


What is interesting about the Hogwarts houses is how they communicate a certain identity to the larger world, and it amazes me, time and again, how so many people (me included) Sort themselves and hold to their chosen house with such conviction, never minding that this is an imaginary space, and the name really doesn’t correspond to anything in real life. Except it does, evidently. It shapes a person’s view of themselves, and I think it’s fascinating to take a peek into what goes into that sort of self-identification. How much of an impression must these books have made, to have such a powerful effect on how a reader sees herself?

So, presenting the first speaker for the House (I can’t resist bad puns sometimes), Shreya Jindal. Shreya is one of my closest friends, and the first person I met who proudly declared herself a Hufflepuff (you know, before it was cool). She is currently pursuing an M.A.T in English Education at Brown University and apart from being a devoted teacher, she is a fanfiction-ophile, and particularly loves a good Hurt/Comfort fic.

Without further ado, I’ll turn the floor over to her!

hufflepuff_flag_by_kooro_sama-d3x64p7As a proud and self-proclaimed member of the House of Hufflepuff, I occasionally get odd or amused looks, even from the ranks of Harry Potter fans who engage in this kind of discourse on a fairly regular basis. And in truth, I can’t say I blame them, for Hufflepuff has always been the most overlooked, underrated House in the books.

As a teenager, when I first recognized myself as a Hufflepuff, it was with a sense of acceptance as opposed to the kind of pride I have now. I knew I was “unafraid of toil” as well as “loyal” and “patient,” but none of these values seemed particularly glamorous or exciting. I would never have dreamed then that I would one day tattoo a badger on my shoulder, and announce to Facebook and the world at large that I was “Hufflepuff and proud.”

The fact is that I have chosen a lifelong allegiance to the values of Hufflepuff House, and as with all successful Sortings, this was something I chose of my own volition. Part of it was seeing the results of hard work in my own life. Every time I have worked hard for something I truly cared about, I have usually gotten favorable results.

This is not to say, of course, that “hard work pays off” is a universal truth. I am fully aware that some successes are down to luck and others to circumstances, but I do think that people sometimes underestimate how powerful hard work, and equally importantly, being seen to be a hard worker, can be. In the workplace, hard work impresses everyone if it is undertaken with sincerity and genuineness. It is, I think, a secret weapon for those of us who don’t, or can’t, navigate politics in the workplace.

But the real moment when my membership in the House of Hufflepuff became not just a fact, but also a matter of pride, occurred two years after I started teaching. I was re-reading the Harry Potter books for probably the hundredth time, and I came across this quote from the Sorting Hat’s song in The Order of the Phoenix, “Said Hufflepuff, ‘I’ll teach the lot, and treat them just the same.’” In that moment, I instantly recognized in these lines the golden standard for all educators, something we are supposed to aspire to, even if, as human beings, we often fall short of the ideal.

I realized then that besides being a land of adventure and romance, magic and ghosts, Hogwarts was first and foremost, supposed to be a school, and that of all the four Founders, the only one who any sane parent would want to be teaching their kids was Helga Hufflepuff. Ravenclaw wanted the clever ones, Gryffindor wanted the brave ones, and Slytherin wanted the ambitious ones, but Hufflepuff knew she wouldn’t be doing her job right if she didn’t try to educate all of them, regardless of blood, status, or temperament.

From that moment on, I have tried to live by the ideals of House Hufflepuff in my personal as well as my professional life. Today, I wear the badger tattoo on my shoulder with pride, a lifelong reminder of the things that really matter to me both as a Harry Potter fan and a teacher.

Why Does Harry Wear Glasses?

When people send me manuscripts, or ask me for advice on their fantasy books, I find myself, often, saying one thing: ‘It’s great, but why does your hero/heroine have everything going for him?’

Since I’ve said this so many times by now, I thought I would stop and really think about where it’s coming from. Why do I automatically want to change a character who is successful, smart, popular, (more often than not) good looking and well adjusted, and give him/her a little more misery? Is it something as immature as jealousy, or could it possibly have deeper, more literary fuel behind it?

harry glasses

I think it’s a combination of the two. ‘No one,’ I might tell such a writer, ‘wants to really read a fantasy book about a spectacularly awesome person. Harry Potter works because he is weedy and unpopular and doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing more than half the time. Artemis Fowl is downright wannabe bad. Hermione has bushy hair and anxiety issues. And Jon Snow is quite likely an orphan with an angst overload.’

It may be a bad idea to put anyone from Westeros on that list, actually, since their very lives are cursed by being born into that brutal world.

But why do we want our fantasy heroes and heroines to not really ‘have it all’, at least at the start of their grand adventures? I touched upon this point briefly when I wrote about ‘The Poor Little Rich Boy’, a character type that’s easy to find in this genre. An attractive, wealthy, very skilled man who should, traditionally, be at the top of his social food chain is for whatever self-created reason low down, mired in troubles and more often than not, deeply unhappy. I used Jaime Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire and Sirius Black from Harry Potter as poster boys for this trope. Both have all the factors I’ve listed above, plus a certain swaggering, devil-may-care air, that falls apart quite spectacularly as their story progresses.

Honestly, I think writers do this to give readers a reason to root for these characters. Most people reading the book are not going to be as well-rounded as Jaime or Sirius, nor are they likely to see themselves that way. Give the characters some darkness, a reason for

GAME OF THRONES, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, The Laws of Gods and Men, (Season 4, ep. 406, aired May 11, 2014). photo: Helen Sloan / © HBO / Courtesy: Everett Collection

angst, and the readers are sympathetic, rather than envious. I’m not saying it’s every author’s ambition to make a reader feel ‘better about themselves’, but not feeling alone is one of the many reasons why people read books, and if they see that even those who seemingly ‘have it all’ are not entirely happy (often for terrible, tragic reasons), maybe they’ll feel less overwhelmed by their own anxieties.

Second, a reader needs an anchor in this entirely new, magical world. That’s the reason, I’m sure, most writers pick complete newbies to play the defining, ‘protagonist’ role in their fantasy series—they provide convenient tools through which to info-dump on readers. Harry has no idea the wizarding world exists, so everything he comes across must be explained to him and hence, to us. Rand al’Thor is a village bumpkin who thinks a two-day trip outside his village is a big deal; all the new places he goes and people he meets are, therefore, revelations and worthy of being shared with a reader.

But apart from the newbie status,we need a reason to hold onto these characters, to feel some sort of emotional connection with them. They are,after all, our alter-egos in this fantastic new place. And the easiest way to build this sort of connection is to make us feel just the slightest bit sorry for them. This is why, so often, the heroes and heroines are poor, or orphans, or not especially powerful in their social circles. Then we have a reason to root for them and watch them grow, proud of our own emotional investment that has begun to pay off. Everyone loves an underdog after all.

I think this is also why, so often, fantasy novels stutter to a close once the protagonist has done their job, and bowed out of the arena. What comes after being a hero? Domesticity, for Harry. A peaceful passage to the West, for Frodo. Slow coming to terms with loss, for Katniss. Wander the world, for Shadow. The struggle is over, so why should any of us readers care about these imaginary people in these fantastic worlds any longer?

So this is the question Rothfuss is trying to answer, and I’m waiting to see how he does it.

Back to school with James Sirius

If you live on the internet and know your Harry Potter, you would have heard that just a few days ago, James Sirius Potter, the eldest of the combined Potter-Weasley-Granger brood, set off on his first ever journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He was wished off in style, we presume, by his parents, his aunt and uncle, millions of Muggle wellwishers and, of course, his Creator herself, J.K. Rowling.


This had the immediate result of causing a load of nostalgia for fans all over the world. ‘Has it been that long already?’ one of my friends asked when I reminded them of what day it was. ‘Are we really that old?’ The subtext of the question was ‘Are the kids we grew up with now producing kids and sending them off to have adventures of their own?? Really?’

(To be fair to me and said friend though, Harry is, though we tend to forget it thanks to the timing of the book-releases, nearly ten years older than us and hence, forgiveably ahead in the procreation game.)

But it did make me think, a lot. Harry Potter is actually all grown up now, not just in the pages of Deathly Hallows (where he grew up nearly ten years ago), but out there, in the virtual world, people are recognizing him as a thirty-something who’s got kids and a wife and a stable, secure career. Harry probably pays taxes and has to work out regularly (no more scarfing down seconds of rhubarb crumble) and maybe meets his friends, what, once a week? I suppose he might see Hermione more, thanks to working in the same huge office, but I doubt that the amount of work she most likely takes on herself, she has much time for social engagements.


I wonder what it would be like, to watch a character you’ve sort of grown up with, deal with decidedly less exciting problems than a Dark wizard, the sort of problems that real-life people deal with. It’s much easier, for some reason, to imagine Harry filing his taxes than Frodo, and that’s not just because of the much more socially and adminstratively advanced realms the former occupies. What Rowling did by throwing in that Epilogue, much as many people hated it and scorned it for being ‘remarkably twee’ and hinting at continued problems, was to prove that her hero, unlike Tolkien’s, had a future and a life outside of his quest.

This is really quite a revolutionary thing to do in fantasy, and the only other person who seems to be working on it right now is Patrick Rothfuss.^ What happens to your hero when he walks off into the sunset—Tolkien and Jordan have covered that. Martin might not cover it because, as far as we can see, there is no sunset for his heroes to saunter into. But Rowling had Harry come right back into the business of living, really living, after his showdown with Voldemort. Maybe he took a long holiday—he certainly deserved it—but he came back from it and plunged right into the Dark wizard catching business. It’s like if Frodo had set up monthly tours to Mount Doom.

Maybe this is another reason why Harry is as popular and amazing a hero as he is. Unlike many others, who were offered a way out, Harry gets real. Harry finishes off with the excitement of saving the world early on, and then settles down to really ‘having a life’. Instead of having incredibly overblown expectations and entitlement (the kind I must confess to having), he settles for the white picket fence dream and seems to think that life really can’t get better than this.

Harry+potter-Harry_Potter_HP4_01I suppose he has perspective, unlike most of us. Having spent the greater part of his teenage years continually facing down danger, he knows that there are worse things than a job you don’t like, or social-media inspired envy. Harry is a wise man, and seeing his kid off at the station is probably a wonderful day in his book.

It’s nice to think of a Harry at peace. And it’s quite something when you realize that Rowling, though she gave him this domestic bliss, still hasn’t quite reduced him to ‘boring’. ‘Harry is a dad!’ doesn’t take away from his derring do and pluck. Just like the reliable Sam Gamgee, he’s done his duty, lived to fight another day, and then used that other day to soldier on, with better food and shelter.

So carry on the good work, Harry, and may your son enjoy his time at Hogwarts.

Crafting a World: Interview with Anthony Ryan

I’ve raved about it often enough that readers would know how much I enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ series. The trilogy is focused on the fate of the Unified Realm, a land where the ‘Faith’, a religious order, works in close tandem with the ruling family to maintain order and unity in the kingdom. When the lead character, Vaelin, finds out that the Faith may not be all that he’s been taught it was, things go spectacularly awry.

It’s a wonderful series, and brilliantly written, and a must read for fantasy fans everywhere. I was thrilled when Ryan agreed to answer some of my more technical questions, and give readers a peek into what went into the crafting of his very detailed, absorbing world.

1)A fairly traditional question first! Who were your biggest fantasy mentors, growing up?
eddingsFantasy really began for me with The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. In time I graduated to Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings. Later in life I discovered Robin Hobb, George RR Martin and David Gemmell, all of whom have been a big influence on my work.

2) How did the idea of the Raven’s Shadow series come about?

I don’t recall a single point of origin for the story, but I do remember it coming together in a nascent form sometime in the early 2000s. I’d conceived an early version of Vaelin as a character and had a vague idea about the course of his life and the world he lived in, but it didn’t start to gel until I realized he was part of a militant religious order. The 9/11 attacks were a recent memory and notions of religious conflict were also at the forefront of my mind, which probably had an influence on shaping the story. However, the biggest influence came from my reading of history.

3) You moved from self publishing to the more traditional route—how was the change for you?

It was a big decision to make. Blood Song was selling very well as a self-published book at the time and there was no guarantee that it would see the same level of success if I took a traditional deal. However, after weighing up the pros and cons I decided the series would only reach the widest possible audience if it had a major publisher behind it. Luckily, the series as a whole has gone on to sell over 300,000 copies in the US and UK, so I’ve yet to have any regrets.

4) The action of your series takes place in a well connected yet incredibly diverse world. Some of the empires you described—the Far West, for example, or the Unified Realm—seem to have echoes of our ‘real world’. Was it a conscious decision to model them thus?

The great thing about fantasy is that you can borrow from the real world and you don’t have to be completely accurate in how you depict it. I’m quite happy to mix and match as the story requires. The Unified Realm shares many similarities with late-medieval / early
16_Great_Wall_China_153096805-1680x1050Renaissance Europe, but neither is it a carbon copy. Ancient China is an obvious inspiration for the Far West and pre-imperial Rome provided a lot of material for the Volarian Empire, but then so did Nazi Germany.

5) The Faith, and faith in general, is very important to the series. It is a much more recognizable pillar of your world than it is in fantasy series, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, though they too deal with the questions raised by belief in a higher power. Would you like to comment on this?

Religion, or some form of ritual observance, has always been part of human culture and a huge influence on the course of history. I took the view that, if this world was populated by humans, then religion would be a big deal there too. Dealing with notions of Faith, which is something everybody experiences differently, also provides great scope for drama and plot development. I wanted to explore Vaelin’s changing attitude to his faith as his tower lord
preconceptions are continually challenged by contradictory experience. However, I was keen to avoid any lazy allegories about faith versus secularism. I think to think such things are presented as being just as messy and unresolvable in my pretend world as they are in the real one.

6) Did you have a favourite character while writing the books?

It has to be Vaelin, he’s my first born after all and I’ve been with him the longest. I did develop a great fondness for the other principal characters as well, though.

7) Was there any one particular storyline that you found difficult to write, for whatever reason?

Lyrna’s journey was pretty difficult to get right, especially in the third book. She’s probably the least sympathetic of the main POV characters, but then she also has the toughest job and I put her through some terrible experiences. The biggest challenge came in capturing her vulnerability whilst also doing justice to what a formidable human being she can be.

8) You take some bold decisions in your books, and choose, often, not to follow certain conventions or pander to expectations. Was this also a conscious decision, at any level?

I just don’t want to be boring. If I’ve seen it before I try to avoid writing it and there’s a certain joy in confounding expectations. Formula is often comforting and, when done well, can be rewarding, but I’m always looking for the next surprise.

9) How did you go about building your amazingly detailed world?

I did some pre-writing before beginning Blood Song, but not a great deal. Because I’d been thinking about it for a long time, large parts of the world were already in my head waiting to come out. But I’d guess about two-thirds of the history and geography was invented during the course of writing.

10) And finally, what excites you about working in fantasy today?

I guess what excites me most in the fact that I get to make a living writing in a genre I love. I often wonder about writing a novel set in the real world and worry I’d find it too constraining. Fantasy offers complete freedom bound only by the author’s imagination. I’m also fortunate to be writing at a time when the genre is really taking off, thanks in no small part to the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series.

Harry Potter, the Everyman Hero

Recently, in a letter, I tried to describe what various books mean to me, the relationships I share with them. Of course, most of those described were fantasy books, ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the stupendously weighty (literally) Wheel of Time books. I called The Lord of the Rings my ‘Bible’, the book that I harry sorcererslove and, as much as I might find elements of it jarring or disturbing, would not presume to pull down from its hallowed space. And I called Harry Potter a best friend, a companion found early on whom I tussle with, ignore sometimes, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, adore.

Enough and more has been written about the books, and what they’ve done for readers across the world. Fans have started charities in the name of Harry Potter spells, Emma Watson has channeled Hermione-like spirit and called for change in the name of feminism, and there are probably fans everywhere who try to live by the tenets embodied in the characters: justice, patience, and acceptance. But what does Harry himself, the character, mean to someone who is, now, approaching the not-so-YA age of 26, who has declared on many occasions that Harry is far from her favourite character, and would rather be sorted into his rival house than the one he himself is in?

(I think that last might be wishful thinking though. Honestly I’m more likely to be a moody and tempestuous Gryffindor than a calculating Slytherin. But hey, the Sorting Hat judges us on the basis of what we choose, right?)

Who is Harry Potter? You can get the biographical details easily enough. He’s a fanciable Dark Wizard destroyer, who carried the burden of his destiny from a young age. He is a
harry_potter_-_quidditch_hbp_promo_2social media celebrity in the age before social media celebrities, the sort of boy who might have become the star of a Vine or Youtube video made by other people, against his will. Through this relatively innocent character, Rowling explored a magical world that has delighted a host of us, imparted some lessons about good and evil and inspired a wave of fanfiction, some of which (gods forgive me) builds upon her creation so amazingly well that it’s been hailed as better than the original.

But after the initial rush of reading the series, it’s easy to let Harry himself slide. He is, after all, a stand in for the reader more often than not, a relatively empty canvas upon which you can paint yourself and stand in to better observe the people around him. It’s the other characters—Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, SIRIUS— who command my attention as a reader, who make me want to go back to the books again and again and have consumed a majority of my posts. Harry? He sort of slides into the background.

This is obviously a deliberate move on Rowling’s part, to make it easier for people to step into Harry’s shoes and sympathize with his dilemmas. She allows her readers to make Harry a character of their own, to become a part of themselves in an unconscious manner. You might not love Harry as an individual—and god knows I have enough problems with him—but you can’t utterly detest him either. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to read the books.

And Rowling does a brilliant job of making him so utterly believable. I can’t think of another YA/fantasy (not the GRRM variety!) whose hero is as flawed, and yet heroic as Harry. He’s an average sort of boy—he’s okay with his lessons, but Hermione’s always going to be better. He’s great at Quidditch, but even here, he’s aware that there are some people,
harry-potter_original-new-harry-potter-movie-trilogy-announced-jpeg-42959Viktor Krum and Diggory being examples, who are better and always will be better than him. He’s pleasant looking, but he’s no Bill Weasley, able to pull off long ponytails and dragon fang earrings. He’s funny, but he’ll probably never be known for it. He’s not wise in the same manner as Luna, or as successful on his own as Neville. And he’s certainly not half as conventionally popular as his girlfriends—Cho or Ginny.

Even his bravery, the sort of quiet, steady strength that propels him through his quest, is not flashy, not the hijinks of Sirius or Fred and George. What really sets him apart from his fellows is his faith in himself, and his ability to simply push on and, in spite of everything, to trust people. These are not qualities that are sexy, easy to impart. They’re the reason someone like Frodo isn’t the most attractive character in LOTR. Both of them would be dead meat in the world of Westeros, you know, the character most similar being Sansa Stark, and even she’s changing to cope with the big, bad world.

But it’s Harry’s very averageness that makes him a hero, and makes him so much more of a friend than his compatriots in the Potterverse. He is easy to slip into, to see oneself in, and he provides consolation more often than any other character in the series does. It doens’t matter if you’re not the best, not the smartest or most popular. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re wandering mindlessly through a forest, circling around a goal you’ve told yourself you need to complete, that seems, at the moment, impossible. Harry loses his way spectacularly, and then things fall into place by sheer luck, or coincedence, but they fall into place. Being lost is okay, he seems to show us, you’ll pull through it in the end.

DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 1,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In my 20s, this last has become increasingly important. It’s been a time of some confusion but, as a very very wise person told me, ‘everything passes’. And as long as I, like Harry, have my Rons, Hermiones, my Siriuses and Dumbledores and Lupins, my Molly Weasleys and Nevilles around, things will be okay. The Dark Lords will be defeated, the woods will end, and all will, eventually, be ‘well’.

The Devourers

Literature is all about answering the big questions in life: who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And, subtly different from that, what should we be doing here? Fantasy books take these questions up in some very zany ways, thanks to their ability to spirit us off into completely different worlds where the laws of physics bend at the whim of a controlling spirit (also known as the author) and we get that wonderful thing called ‘magic’.

the-devourers-coverIndra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, is no exception in this regard. Its many narrators grapple with some huge questions, some of which consume them completely, in spite of all the magic and strength they might possess.

Approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul mela, Alok, an unassuming, largely asocial professor of history in a college, has no idea that his life and what he knows of the world will be taken for a complete spin. The stranger gives him no name, only asking him if he wants to hear a story. And for the record, the stranger calls himself a half-werewolf.

Thus begins a journey through time and space—through the words of the stranger’s parents, Fenrir, a shapeshifter of the Scandinavian icelands, and Cyrah, the human woman he raped in a caravanserai in Mumtazabad of the Mughal empire. Desperate to avenge herself on her rapist, Cyrah journeys with Gevaudan, Fenrir’s one-time companion and fellow shapeshifter, to find the father of her child and bring him to justice. It is, as she discovers, the journey of a lifetime, and one that leaves her with perhaps more questions than those she set out to answer.

The Devourers is a very…sensual novel. Its author paints a vivid portrait of a world lost to most of us city-dwelling, ignorant ‘khrissals’ (the word shapeshifter use for humans, their rightful prey), rife with blood and sweat and musk, the scents and tastes that remind us, painfully, that we are physical beings, and that the characters we read about, for all their supernatural powers, are physical beings of musk and blood too. In fact, that actually seem, in some ways, more vividly ‘present’ than ordinary humans. It is humans who possess these wavering, single souls. Humans who turn into ‘ghost fires’ when consumed by their predators. The wispy and transient is associated with us pathetic khrissals, and the magical beings are a far cry from the removed, ethereal, almost sanitised Elves of the western fantasy canon.

Here, Das paints a powerful, ‘pungent’ portrait of one of these shapeshifters:

He pulls off his boots and stands tall and proud and naked his bare feet, taking his hardening penis in his hands an dpissing a steaming circle around his clothes. The rising smell of his waters fills my nostrils, pungent, clinging to the winter air as the ground melts to frothing mud. He stares at the mausoleum rising out of the ground. The many bone trophies sewn and burned into his skin writhe with his movements, the rib shards down his back bristling like the nubs of worn skeletal wings.

Das’s thesis, and what he attempts to illustrate through the monstrous act of Fenrir, is that what makes us human, what sets us apart from these ravenous, powerful creatures is that fantasy staple: our power to engender and share love. Not just romantic love, but the bonds of family and kin, the emotion that prompts a woman to hug her child to her chest, or an emperor to build a timeless tomb for his wife. Set as it is against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir’s rape of Cyrah, his attempt to ‘create’ something in a world where is just a ‘devourer’ becomes even more obviously a twisted attempt to possess, for one brief moment, that transient human emotion, to leave behind a vestige of feeling rather than simply snapping up and consuming it in one rending of his powerful jaws.

While this is a classic moral, and one that many many books have grappled with, what derails Das is his attempt to shoehorn another big question into this relatively slim novel: the timeless one of ‘who am I?’. Given the literal split soul of some of his characters, this question assumes fantastical dimensions, but even the humans—the defiant Cyrah, or the timid Alok—grapple with it as well. After undertaking the supernatural journeys they do, having come into contact with worlds they never knew existed, Cyrah and Alok are both forced to confront it. While Cyrah handles it by making her home on the borderlands between the human and the shapeshifter realm, Alok’s fate is left uncertain at the close. Perhaps it was this uncertainty, the multiplicty of the voices that arises at the novel’s conclusion, pointing to no certain path or closure, that left me feeling a little lost and less than enthused.

The Devourers is a rare thing in the Indian fantasy canon, though: a book that does not repeat religious myth in a spunky new format and label itself ‘fantasy fiction’. It is a solid attempt at crafting a new world atop the canvas of an old one, the Taj Mahal gleaming bright in the background as the shapeshifters bay for blood under the star spangled sky.