Pocahontas, 21 years later

I have wanted, and continue to want many impossible things. I look up to more fictional characters than real people, and they have changed in the course of time. But the first one I remember having any ‘real’ effect on me, the first person, male or female, animated or not, to have a deep and lasting impact on my life, was Pocahontas, the eponymous heroine of Disney’s 1995 film.

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When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Pocahontas. I can tell you why, too. In some ways, the story is one that is familiar to many ‘poco’ kids around the world, longing, if not always consciously, to see themselves in western pop culture entertainment. I saw the movie when I was 5 years old, and from the moment Pocahontas burst onto the screen, I was in love. She was so amazing: she was beautiful, smart, and so rebellious, jumping off waterfalls instead of timidly climbing down them, refusing to marry the warrior her father had selected for her and instead, trying to cement peace between two peoples. Plus she had that whole mystical goddess-like connection going on with the world around her, with winds carrying secrets to her, and trees giving her life lessons in the absence of other maternal figures.

And needless to say, she had great hair. This is the worst kept secret in my family: that at the age of 5 I decided to grow my hair as long as possible, not because tradition or my mother dictated it, but because I wanted to be like Pocahontas.

meekoI was a fangirl. In fact, I don’t think I’ve fangirled as hard for anyone since. I dressed up like her for Halloween, I danced to ‘Colours of the Wind’ for my school talent show, I got my mother to buy me all the ‘kid’ history books she could find about her, as well as any other merchandise she could afford on her graduate student salary. This included chocolate, picture books, stickers, dolls…so when people talk about a new generation of kids and the Frozen craze, I totally get it. I was on the other side not too long ago.

One of my most crushing disappointments came two years after seeing the movie. I was used to people calling me ‘Pocahontas’ by then, playing along with my extremely modest opinion of myself. I was ‘Indian’ after all (who cared for political nuances, like whether I was the ‘right’ kind of Indian?), and she was, at the time, one of only two ‘brown’ princesses on the Disney pantheon. So it was a bit of a shock when, at a summer camp, a counseler, when he heard my fellow kids calling me ‘Pocahontas’ said ‘Pocahontas? No, she’s Jasmine.’ I assume, since he was a very nice man, that he meant nothing but the best with that statement, but I was crushed. I didn’t want to be Jasmine: she was spoilt and pampered and she had to be rescued. Pocahontas was so much cooler. Even as a seven year old, I could tell that choosing to stay behind with her people rather than sail off with the dreamy John Smith was revolutionary, and therefore, raised Pocahontas to a level far, far above her fellow heroines. It was also my first experience of being stuck into an identity not of my choosing, simply because I happened to look more like one kind of princess than the other, but as far as such profiling goes, this was one with relatively gentle consequences; after all, my ego is not the biggest casualty.

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Can a kid’s obsession with a questionable fictional character yield good results? Research has shown that reading fiction increases empathy, leading to the spectacular conclusion that reading things like Harry Potter makes kids better human beings. I agree—through fiction you live in other people’s heads, see perspectives that would otherwise remain closed to you. you learn the world is not centred around you and people like you, or that it shouldn’t be.

Fiction can also open the doors to topics and events that you would never have known of otherwise, whet interest in things that you never knew about. For instance, a friend of mine, an English student, grew extremely interested in the American recession of the early 2000s, and continues to slake that interest through movies about it (thanks to her, I watched the treasure that is Margin Call). For me, Pocahontas did the same. I began to read about American Indian history, starting with the ‘kid’ versions available. The ‘true’ story of Pocahontas devastated me; even the briefly told version I had left me angry and disbelieving. As I grew older, I read more—novels by American Indian authors, histories, interviews with activists. I began to view the Disney movie with a more critical eye, and while the experience of writing a paper on it and its historical/anthropological inaccuracies broke my heart a little*, I still continued to love it.

Pocahontas answered some deep-seated need in me to see a liberated, cool brown woman doing things on screen. She also opened my eyes to a whole new world, something no other Disney person managed to do. So if I never knew her, I have no doubt my life, and my interests, would be quite different, to say nothing of my appreciation of the voices of the mountain, or the colours of the wind.

*I learned, for instance, that Pocahontas, for all that she’s touted as an ‘American Indian’ princess, does not look anything like one. Artists consciously created her as a composite of a different races, using elements from ethnicities around the world to build this ‘ideal’ human being.

Albus Severus and the Burden of History

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There be liberal spoilers for Cursed Child below.

There were many things I didn’t like about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I read it in a haze of disbelief, often resorting to texting a friend in the format Harry made so famous in Order of the Phoenix: using all-caps to communicate my rage and frustration. ‘How is this a thing?’ I demanded at one point, and her responses, which ranged along the lines of ‘I knew you would say that’ did little to soothe me.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the ordeal, and while I’ve safely moved on and begun reading other, less disappointing follow-ups to fantasy series, I haven’t been able to get some of Cursed Child’s more startling ‘revelations’ out of my head. So much about the story didn’t make sense given the context of Rowling’s carefully built world, and the themes she espoused with such fervour in the Potter books. Just one tiny, but irritating example: people went around saying ‘By Dumbledore!’ or ‘Thank Dumbledore!’ the same way they say ‘Thank God’ in the ‘real world’. In Deathly Hallows, Rowling made it very clear that no one, least of all Dumbledore, is perfect, god-like. In fact, she took care to point out that he was much more flawed than many other characters, including Harry. So to suddenly raise him on this pedestal was not just alarming, it was so profoundly antithetical to all she had drilled into us before.

And let’s not even get into that ridiculous stuff about Voldemort having a child. Not only do I seriously doubt he was physically capable of conceiving one (the ‘man’ was built of a dead person’s bones, Pettigrew’s severed hand, Harry’s blood and a baby form that had lead_largebeen reared on snake ‘milk’ and had no nose—are we expected to believe he had a penis?), but why on earth would he want one at all? He believed he was immortal, so there was no need for him to have an heir, and second, at no point has Voldemort ever been shown as capable of experiencing feelings as ‘human’ as love, or even lust. He had one goal, and I sincerely doubt child rearing would have been anything but a hindrance to it.

So yeah, many things bothered me. There was the Panju nonsense, the fact that Ron was a blundering idiot, that Ginny existed merely to soothe Harry and her son (whatever happened to her important career?), that Hermione had little to no security on her office (seriously, the same woman who was part of a plan to get into the Ministry at the age of 17 using Polyjuice Potion wouldn’t ensure the glitch wasn’t repaired when she was Minister?), that the Fidelius charm makes zilch sense to me anymore (if Lily and James were under the charm when they were in Godric’s Hollow, how were Harry and company able to see them when they traveled back in time? Pettigrew had never revealed the secret to them!), and that’s just scratching the surface. If I start talking about how the Time Turner was just the worst plot device ever, I’ll probably implode.

But what really bothered me was Harry, and his lack of relationship with this child, Albus. For whatever reason, Albus seems to have always had a victim complex. Perhaps it was the result of growing up with James for a brother; in a curious twist, the kids seem a lot like the people they were named after, James being popular, brash and sure of himself, and Albus ‘Severus’ the misunderstood misfit, whose need for attention drives him to do silly and ultimately, destructive things. So much for the whole ‘we are more than our abilities and blood’ spiel that the Hogwarts years were all about; so much for nothing but choices, much less names, deciding our fate.

In the Epilogue to Hallows, it looked like history was set to repeat itself in certain ways: Rose was already being touted as the smart kid, this time blessed with a magical background that she didn’t have to scramble for; Scorpius was the designated enemy, the one to be beaten, and Albus was, well, Albus was most like Harry. Not only had he inherited the green eyes, the ones that Severus basically threw his life away for (still not getting over that), but he had the insecurity and worries that plagued Harry too. It was to him that Harry imparted the secret of his own Sorting, so readers could be forgiven for thinking that out of all his kids, Albus was the one who Harry understood best.

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Evidently not. So much for Harry’s saying he doesn’t mind if Albus ends up in Slytherin, since his Sorting is what seems to set the ball rolling, culminating in a surprising declaration about Harry sometimes not wanting him as a son. While I completely agree that, given his own history, Harry is likely to be a lousy father, it was still a huge surprise that Albus, and not someone like, say, James, brought this on. Albus is the kid who is actually most like Harry: awkward, unsure of himself, holding onto one friend rather than making pals with loads of students. Harry too had faced the burden of history and expectation during his early years in school, and been alternately mocked, feared by, or lauded by peers. Hogwarts was never smooth sailing for him, and whatever happened in Year 6, before that, his time was marked by a less than stellar experience. Whether it was the aftermath of losing a landslide of points during his first year, being shunned for speaking Parseltongue, derided for fainting before Dementors, or haunted by whispers of death during Sirius’s escape from Azkaban, not to forget the anger that followed his announcement as Hogwarts champion, Harry knows what it’s like to not be understood or liked by Hogwarts students. So it’s really stunning that seeing what’s happening to his son, he does little to nothing about it for three whole years. When he does confront Albus, it’s with spectacularly bad results.

Ultimately, this is my major problem with Cursed Child. It’s not so much the ridiculous plot and the ridiculous turns and devices it employs to make its ridiculous ‘progress’, but what it does to the things we think we ‘know’ about these characters. Would Hermione simply hot-headedly cancel meetings and show up at Hogwarts with no plan? Would Ron just joke around and give out love potions, like he’s never done something more daring than leave the shop alone for a day? And would Harry, who’s seen so much and gone through so much shit himself, act out the way he does with a son who, more than any of his other kids, seems to bring to life the worst aspects of his own time at Hogwarts? Maybe they would, and maybe he would, but I’d prefer not to know it, thanks. I’d prefer to think he’d be a little more sensitive about it.

But oh well, that’s the price of not letting an end be the end.

The Potter book(s) I really want

The Cursed Child is here and despite some less than thrilled reviews, it is selling like hot cakes, as anything with the magic words ‘Harry Potter’ tends to do. Honestly, Rowling, or whoever he next co-writers are, don’t even have to try very hard any more. No matter how fanficcy the storyline, we’re all going to buy it anyway, the same way we buy tickets to DC movies with less than stellar reviews.

Just me? Oh, okay.

While more Potter is (usually) a good thing, I’ve been thinking: if Rowling had to dive back into this world, and release more books set in the Potterverse, why not travel back in time a bit? Yes, she’s doing this with Fantastic Beasts, but let’s be honest: I don’t really care about Newt Scamander. His story has never been central to the lives of the characters I already know, and since his adventures take place in the 1920s in New York City, the chances of his bumping into people I might know are extremely slim. Unless they shoehorn a Dumbledore figure into the narrative (which they could, since Dumbledore was definitely around and making dubious world domination plans), I don’t see how it’s going to tie into Harry’s Hogwarts years.

Nah, the prequel I’m really interested in, that so much of fan fiction has been obsessed with and built saga-length novels around, is Voldemort’s first rise to power.

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Who wouldn’t want to read a series about these guys?


Think about it—a book-length peek into those eleven years, featuring characters whose sheer awesomeness is hinted at in the course of Harry’s Hogwarts tenure, but whom we rarely see actually doing much. Mad Eye, McGonagall, Snape, the Marauders, Lily, Bellatrix, Lucius—all of them are people who feature heavily in the existing books, and I think it would be amazing to really see them deal with the darkness of Voldemort’s first reign.

There is much that Rowling hints at in the Potter books. Voldemort’s first rise to power was a time of mistrust, where betrayal was so rife that Sirius and Remus, best friends from school, actually suspected each other of turning against the Order. Things were so bad that people feared coming home to a Dark Mark floating over their houses, that entire families were slaughtered. It seems that battles were so intense that the Aurors were literally given the go-ahead to be nasty, to use the Unforgivables if they felt they had to.

None of this is unfamiliar to us in the real world. Mistrust, fear of the state, inexplicable disappearances, sudden death—all of it only seems to have been amplified over the course of the years since Harry died and came back to life. Obviously, since a prequel would dwell mostly on older, adult characters, Rowling would have the scope to work with much darker events than she portrays in her children’s books, to give rein to the headier side of desire, for power, people, life that no doubt propelled many of the protagonists of that first war. We’ve seen the effects of those days, the lingering distrust and bigotry, the betrayal of friends that resonates even in Harry’s lifetime, but we never see the cause, at least not directly.

tom riddleThe main reason I would want a prequel Potter book is because I want to see Rowling really write Voldemort. The Dark Lord in the Potter books is, at first, a mysterious, shadowy figure, who only really steps onto the scene in Goblet of Fire. Somewhere along the way, he loses the mystique and the cunning that made him so terrifying—by Deathly Hallows, he’s ranting and raving and opening fire on his few loyal servants. The result of this is that we cease to really fear Voldemort, and while that works on a symbolic level (showing that evil is, ultimately, small and can be overcome) it’s what keeps the books grounded, ultimately, in their genre as ‘children’s literature’. Evil is never that easily overcome, and while other novelists like Tolkien and Martin work this into their narrative, making it affect everyone involved in the grand fantasy undertaking, or just be part of their personalities, Rowling’s building of Voldemort as a Big Bad and final takedown of him gives readers the quick-fix but ultimately untrue words ‘All was well’.

Good for kids. Not so good for adults.

So I guess I’m asking for an ‘adult’ Potter book. Ridiculous? Maybe. I’ve been spoiled by fantasy I’ve read after Rowling, the Martins and Gaimans and Rothfusses, all of whom do such a good job of portraying the seductive, truly sinister side of evil. Maybe I’ve gotten used to seeing the adult characters in Harry’s world, and finding them more fascinating than the kids, which has led me to wish for stories about them. While fan fiction can handle this craving, the continued forays Rowling makes into her own world leave me wondering why she won’t answer it herself. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that did happen?

Rowling has said that she’s done with Harry, but I’m not asking for Harry. No, I’m dreaming of a time when he was merely a sparkle in his mother’s eye (more likely, his father’s eye). When four boys roamed the school grounds in the guise of animals, when a lonely half blood scrawled notes in his Potions book and dreamt of vengeance, while outside, a terrifyingly smart and determined man, fresh from his ‘foreign studies’, began to build his dark castle. I want feel relief when he’s brought down after long drawn out battles, the catharsis brought about by the sheer insanity of how he was defeated: by a tiny baby, staring out between the bars of his crib.

Who knows, maybe this dream will be a reality some day. Stranger things have happened.

This is not a Cursed Child review

cursed childQuestion: if you’re not exulting over Harry’s latest adventure on social media, are you dead inside?

For the past few days, I’ve been seeing status updates, celebrations of the new Harry Potter book (or, to be more pedantically correct, script) that released this morning. The last time this happened, many claimed, was 2007, when Deathly Hallows made its triumphant and heartbreaking entry onto the scene. Since then, there has been one book (The Tales of Beedle the Bard  [2007]), four movies (Order of the Phoenix also released in 2007, incredible as that might seem), news of three more movies, two versions of the same website, and finally, a play which opened its doors to the public yesterday in London.

Since Rowling seemingly bid adieu to Harry in 2007, she’s released four books, three of which she didn’t even publish under her own name. This is not counting the odd bits and pieces of information she dots about Pottermore, all of which, taken together, could probably build up that substantial Potterverse encyclopaedia we were promised aeons ago.

Besides this, there have been re-reads and re-reads, and controversies, and news trickling in about manga adaptations and Pokemon-Go-style HP games…so really, if you think about it, the magic’s never really left to come back again.

I confessed to a friend that, contrary to expectations, I was not jumping up and down over the new book. I confessed that this made me worry whether I had died inside, if I no longer found joy in the small things and had ‘grown up’ too much to want to pose with a book and write inspiring things about Harry and Hermione and Sirius and all the others who populate my blog. After all, if I’m not happy about a new HP book, can I be happy about anything?

Then I decided that I would stop over-thinking it and accept the facts: I do not feel the need to ‘revisit’ HP because it is so much a part of my life, my literary sensibilities and my fantasy footing that I never felt it go away. There’s nothing to revisit. It’s all still there, and I’m still referencing Rowling’s work enough in daily conversations that there hasn’t been enough of a break to make a new book—or script—feel like a ‘return’ to anything.

And I don’t think it’s just me. Harry, it’s safe to assume, has entered that rarefied realm of popular culture whose inhabitants are, for all intents and purposes, commercial or

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I will always be watching you.

otherwise, immortal. He’s right up there along with Indiana Jones, Batman and his merry rogues’ gallery, Superman, even (if you’re Indian) the characters of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He’s already been reinvented twice in our lifetime, played by two very different actors on very prominent platforms. New readers come across his adventures every day, in 79 different languages, and new viewers, if they have access to WB or MoviesNow, can catch up on the cinematic versions (seriously, there’s a Harry Potter movie playing every other day). Harry is here to stay, and nothing proves that like the two (TWO!) theme parks that continue to attract huge crowds, huge prices notwithstanding.

Perhaps my lack of discernible excitement is thanks to this knowledge: that there’s no need to ‘go back’ to anything about Harry, or the time in my life when I first met him, because he’s always been, and will continue to be around. I remember what my life was like when I read Prisoner of Azkaban, and while some things about being 12 years old are great, not everything was wonderful. Puberty was scary, and while adulthood may suck at times, I’d choose the uncertainty of my 20-something life over not understanding what was happening to my body, or the lack of deep friendships that, now, mean the world to me.

But everyone celebrates in their own way, and just because I don’t feel the excitement necessary to join in the party doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go on. That’s a thing Harry Potter taught us, right? That people express happiness, bravery, and their ideals in different ways, make different choices. And that’s a lesson the world could do with a lot more of, so really, it’s all to the good that there’s another book here, telling us about it once again.

Among Others

Among-Others1Between the ages of 8 and 17, I kept a diary. The writing was patchy until I hit 13, when it became a nightly ritual, something I would look forward to. I’d chronicle the events of my day, conversations with friends, budding romances, but more than anything else, I’d work through emotions and thoughts that I had no idea how to express to another human being. I had friends, of course, but I was still, as I think many teenagers are, very lonely.

I’ve written earlier about the role certain books played in my life at this stage, but there were few people around me with whom I could discuss them. The geek community was not thriving the way it is today, and book clubs were low on the ground, especially in boarding school. The world of comic cons and fan parties was far away from me, so my search for a ‘karass’ remained just that: a quest with no fulfillment.

It was only after I got to college that I found a set of people who had had, if not identical, at least similar expeirences, who had grown up perhaps trusting the characters they found in books more than the peers around them, and lived their lives as Eva Luna had so famously proclaimed: ‘as [they] would like it to be…like a novel.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, the diary closed its covers, and has stayed closed ever since.

But it was because of my high school experience that Jo Walton’s beautiful, emotionally wrenching, Hugo-award novel Among Others struck me the way it did. Written as a diary kept by Morwenna, the book is a teenage girl’s search for friends, identity, and moorings in a new world: one which no longer houses her twin sister, and has taken her far from the Welsh countryside, where they played with the fairies. But a mysterious tragedy—which becomes increasingly clear through the course of the novel—has resulted in her being taken into her father’s custody, and placed in a boarding school. Morwenna finds solace in reading, specifically science fiction and fantasy, and when she discovers a book club dedicated to the genre, she realises she may have stumbled upon some form of happiness at last.

Or maybe not. As with any story, even one ostensibly told through diary entries and set in the ‘real world’, there are complications. You see, Mor did some magic to find herself a ‘karass’, the word Vonnegut used to describe ‘a team that does God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.’ So when she starts finding friends in the book club, or the beautiful Wim, curious about fairies and longing to see them, seeks her out and starts paying her special attention, Mor worries whether it is all natural, or whether she, like her mother, is using magic to control others, embarking on the path to becoming, like Galadriel with the Ring, a ‘dark queen’.

Among Others was a really strange and unsettling, and yet comforting book. On the one hand, it was exhilarating to find out that someone whose life has taken a completely different trajectory from mine (Jo Walton and I have never crossed paths, right?) could still feel and write a story, create a character who I could see myself in so clearly. On the other hand, while it took me back to high school and the kind of person I might have been then, it also made me realise how horribly grown up I have become. Mor’s ability to speak to the fairies made me, rather than entranced by her, view her with suspicion, and I kept wondering when the jig would be up, whether Wim’s arrival was merely a set up to her being exposed as ‘not quite there’. After all, this book was set ‘in the real world’, where anyone who claims to be in touch with the magical is not to be trusted, usually. At least, not in the circles I move in.

So yes, it was depressing to realise that I’d lost the easy ability to trust in magic, to believe that it’s really there, and that a smart girl who talks about it is not ‘crazy’. I guess I’ve gotten so used to seeing stories that deal with it in any capacity as ‘fantasy’, or ‘children’s lit’ or ‘magical realism’—so when a book glides between realism and more fantastical elements with the fluidity that Walton’s does, I immediately grow suspicious, or annoyed, or wait for a catch. For all my desire for a Hogwarts letter, or a magical door to open into Middle Earth (preferably into Rivendell, which seems like a super cool place to live), I am comfortable knowing it won’t happen, that these are locked away within a certain kind of book. If magic were real, wouldn’t I freak out the way Mor did, and wonder how much of my life it had affected without my knowing it?

In this article on why the British tell better children’s stories than the Americans, the writer comes to an interesting conclusion: it’s because, thanks to their founding mythology, the British have an easier acceptance of the magical. How far that acceptance extends, whether it bleaches into fiction that is not touted as ‘children’s’ was not addressed, but it’s worth considering.

Roses and Rot

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Since Susannah Clarke’s brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I hadn’t read a book that dealt with the Fae, those simultaneously entrancing and terrifying Folk, in any great detail. Well, there was Patrick Rothfuss’s books, but since those are epic, and not portal or ‘second world’ fantasy, I don’t really include them here.

And then I stumbled across Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot. It came to my attention thanks to tweeting from Neil Gaiman, an author whose work I love and who I trust to give me good recommendations. So without reading anything more about the book itself, or the author (I don’t really like doing the latter before I’ve read a book, to be honest), I went ahead and bought it.

roses-and-rot-9781481451161_hrI was not disappointed. Roses and Rot starts off slow, but Howard builds such an incredible atmosphere that you just have to surrender and lose yourself to it. Marin and Imogen are sisters, one light and one dark, one a dancer and one a writer, both prey to a horrible, hateful mother who has long desired to uplift the one and destroy the other. Despite their mother’s efforts, Marin and Imogen are the best of friends, the closest of siblings, and at the start of the book, arrive together to begin a nine-month residency at the prestigious artists’ and creators’ retreat: Melete.

The retreat is everything the two could wish for. Marin has the opportunity to work with, and eventually, fall in love with, Gavin, a famous dancer and head of a prestigious dance company. Imogen, soaking in the beautiful surroundings, embarks upon an ambitious project: a novel that weaves together the structure and metaphor of a fairytale, the stories that had sustained her, and her sister, during some of their darkest years. In Melete, they meet fellow artists, Ariel, a singer, Helena, a tortured poet, and perhaps most intriguingly, Evan, a sculptor of extraordinary talent, who seems to disappear, and reappear, among the bridges and elf maples of the campus.

As time wears on, readers discover that Melete and its residents pay a disturbing price for their success, one that might succeed in doing what the girls’ mother could never do: destroy their faith in one another, for good.

Roses and Rot is a fairy story, structuring itself as a large fairy tale with a wicked mother figure, beautiful, mysterious woods, charming mentor figures with strange pasts and magical talents, and mysterious, cursed love interests. It is also a Faery story, and that means the Fair Folk, those terrifying people who are, as an observant friend put it, ‘vicious and amoral’. Howard’s book really puts forth the question: what would you do to succeed in your art, to be remembered down the ages like Shakespeare and Beethoven? Many people would say ‘Anything’, but only those who go to Melete know what that really means.

For me, the most enjoyable bit about the novel was its atmosphere, the rich detailing Howard puts into the world of Melete, the interactions between its residents. I loved the relationship between Imogen and her mentor, Beth, the friendship that develops between her and Ariel, even the relationship between her and Evan. Howard’’s strength as a novelist is her characters, her minute observations of the manner in which relationships unfold between people who begin as strangers, lodged together in a house, and how time mutates them into friends, confidantes. Her characters are eminently relatable, and her setting, gorgeous. I found myself wanting to go to Melete, never mind the strange things that happen there. The Night Market would make it completely worth it.

Also, there’s a lot to be said for the fact that Howard’s book actually made me want to be part of a residency. I’ve never seen myself as someone who can shut themselves away from the world so completely and just write, needing distractions in the form of other work or engagement with people in order to function—-but Melete…oh I could do it for Melete. There’s something so luxurious about the idea of needing to do nothing but write, and surrounding yourself with people similarly engaged in artistic pursuits. Maybe some day.

The parts where the novel falters are, for me, Imogen’s writing. I loved her voice, and the manner in which she narrates her own story, but I couldn’t be similarly wowed by her literary work, whatever we see of it. Perhaps I’ve seen too many rewritten fairytales (John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is still, for me, the pinnacle of literature in this genre), but her writing didn’t grip me. Of course, she is a fledgling writer in the book, and her book within a book is not a masterpiece, not when we see it, at least. Luckily, these stories within stories are few and far between, and Howard takes us back to the world of Melete and its scary fairy friends soon enough.

Would I take the ‘deal’ that Melete offers? My answer’s a bit long-winded. Once you read Roses and Rot, you can get back to me and I will fill you in. No point in my spoiler-ing it right now.

What are you waiting for?

The Star Touched Queen

One of the hardest things about writing epic fantasy is knowing when to stop.

Stop with the worldbuilding. Stop with the background plotting and the side quests. Stop adding new characters and giving them fascinating powers or stories that derail from the ‘main’ quest, and end up padding your book till its the size of a respectable brick and can, conceivably, be used for the same purposes—if you don’t mind your house getting a little soggy during the rain.

One of the ways to avoid that is to take the seemingly less ambitious ‘narrated fairytale’ route. You still have the magic, the mystery and the life altering quest, but if the setting is less clearly realized, its politics and history not so defined, it is alright. What you focus on, in this case, seems to be the voice of the person doing the telling, with all that entails: emotion, beauty, and more often than not, a greater attention to the how of the telling, than the what.

REVISED-Star-touched-Queen-coverIt’s for this reason that I would place Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen in the realm of the fairytale, a cosmic romance narrated by the clever, wilful Mayavati (or ‘Maya’, as she’s more commonly known). ‘Partnered with Death’, Maya has always been shunned when not outright bullied by her half sisters and the ladies of the king of Bharata’s harem. Her only friend is her little sister, Gauri, to whom she tells nightly tales of her own spinning. Maya has a talent for riddles and for listening in on the courtly happenings, but she doesn’t have what the harem ladies prize: great beauty, a respected mother, or a good horoscope.

But things seem to turn around when, during a particularly action-packed swayamvara, Maya is taken away to the magical land of Akaran by her new husband, the mysterious Amar. In her new palace, Maya meets Gupta, Amar’s extremely meticulous assistant, and wanders in myriad rooms, each of which seems to have a unique treasure hiding behind its door. There is a courtyard which houses a glass garden, a room whose floor is the ocean, and perhaps most mysteriously, a tree whose fruits are candles, which enclose within them shards of someone’s memory. Most importantly, in Amar and his new queen’s throne room resides a humongous tapestry, each of whose threads represents one life, and it is the task of the rulers of Akaran to tend it and thereby maintain the balance of the worlds.

Of course, every mysterious palace has its troubled prince, and every troubled prince has a hidden story, whose telling, or lack thereof, causes complications. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that though Amar promises his ‘jaani’ that he will tell all when the moon turns, she loses patience and, enamoured by the words of a mysterious woman in a mirror, takes matters into her own hands, with tragic results.

But just as a fairytale can’t exist without someone going off the path and courting trouble, they can’t come to an end without the protagonist overcoming his or her problems, at least to some extent. Maya really comes into her own in the second half of the book, when she has to cross worlds and face down enemies mythical and human in her quest to win back the love and memory of Amar, the Dharma Raja.

The strength of The Star Touched Queen is its writing. Each sentence is soaked in metaphor, offering surprising images that tie together disparate elements, and yet somehow managing to paint to a picture in the reader’s mind. Whether she’s describing the marigold-garlanded halls of Bharata’s palace, or the ice-sharp flowers of the Akaran glass garden, the scent of thunder wreathed around a mystical elephant’s tusks or the bloodlust of a demonic horse, Chokshi’s pen dances through words and worlds, drawing a reader gasping after it. I can forgive elements that seemed strange, unexplained (such as Maya’s shadow, which sometimes goes missing, or the rather jumbled politics of Bharata and its neighbours) simply because of the beauty of her prose. It’s evident that this story and Maya’s voice comes from someone who has dedicated love and effort to crafting every sentence that speaks of it, and Chokshi has the talent to do this mythical, mystical world justice and more.

Finally, what does this novel mean to me, a reader from India, watching as many of the tales she grew up with took on life in a new form? I’ve long felt that one of the hardest things for an Indian writer seeking to write fantasy is obtaining distance from the mythological beings and elements that  we might desire to use in our own work. ‘Suspension of belief’, I called it here. Chokshi has solved that problem by, as I said, positioning her work not as an epic fantasy set in a world that is completely her own, but retreating to the hazy realm that exists between fairy tale and myth, where certain things can be left unexplained, such as the structure of the kingdom, the geography—what prevails is the magic and the character’s adventure through it all. Maya is part of something cosmic and huge, which is greater than the nittygritty of any one kingdom. Her story, and Amar’s, occupies the space of myth, larger than the relatively much more human concerns of an epic fantasy. In her mistake lies the potential for imbalance between the worlds, and the death of Death itself. I’d say that’s a bigger deal than who gets to sit the Iron Throne.

Would I recommend this book? Definitely. It’s beautifully written, and the story is compelling. Maya is a lovely narrator, and her tale the stuff grand love stories are made of. Not to forget, Gupta is a pretty entertaining character. I’d love to read his treatises on the discourses of molluscs some day.

#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

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Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

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Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

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Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

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Jaime, the final proof

Mild spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire lie ahead.

song of ice and fire-book coverIs George R. R. Martin a good writer?

‘What!’ You scoff. ‘How can you even ask that question, when the TV show based on his books is arguably the most popular drama in the English speaking world, when his plot twists and turns so much that you have to consult websites to keep track of who’s where, and his books have sold millions of copies all over the world?’

All that this goes to show is that he’s a successful writer, whose books have intricate plots, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a good one in every person’s (haha) book. Sales have nothing to do with it, really, nor do convoluted plots. If the letter were the case, The Iliad is the least successful story ever. Its plot is notoriously straightforward.

Spoiler alert: There’s a big battle and pretty much everyone dies.

Personally, I consider various fantasy writers good for widely differing reasons. For instance, Tolkien is great in my eyes because he did something few people had done before him, and made it popular. Rowling because she managed to, along with building such an alluring world, pull readers of all ages into it and alongside her hero, making her books ‘grow up’ as much as her protagonist did. Jordan because his writing can be incredibly poetic, almost enough to make up for the needless skirt adjusting and posturing that bogs his books down in the middle. And Martin because, well, his characters.

I don’t think Martin is stylistically amazing. When I picked up A Game of Thrones I wasn’t wowed by the writing. I remember finding it clumsy, especially in comparison to the weighty, immediately epic quality of Jordan and Tolkien, which I was, at that time, more familiar with. What kept me reading was the plot, and the characters, all of whom I could immediately ‘side’ with. Martin plays his cards incredibly close to the chest, so that the first characters whose heads you inhabit to any great length are the Starks: Bran, Arya, Sansa, Jon. Ned and Cat. In fact, the only non-Stark characters whose heads we enter are Dany and Tyrion, and a brief prologue with Will, the unfortunate Night’s Watch member.

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This goes towards Martin’s establishment of the Starks as our ‘guides’ to this world. Their ethics and morals become ours, easy enough since (as I outlined in this post), they are the closest to a ‘normal’ family (what we by and large understand as one in the mainstream) we have. Therefore, their enemies become our enemies, and their friends, ours. Sadly the latter are few and far between.

This also means we see a lot of the characters through the Starks’ eyes, particularly one who becomes super important (and POV character on his own) later on: Jaime Lannister. jaimeAnd he fares particularly badly: Bran’s chapter shows him callously pushing a young child off a tower, and Ned’s are littered with memories of a man who not only ‘dishonourably’ killed his king, but also might have been trying to steal the Iron Throne for himself, until Ned stormed in and interrupted his private party. Sure, Tyrion has good things to say about him, but even then Jaime comes across as extremely privileged and therefore, not exactly ‘likeable’. Besides, we only have the word of his doting little brother to prove that he’s a good man, and that’s not exactly an unbiased opinion, certainly not enough to balance out the other things we’ve seen him do.

But then Martin does something incredible: he gives us Jaime’s point of view, but only after we’re sure he’s a horrible person. Jaime is the first person he pulls this switcheroo with; until A Storm of Swords, we’re pretty much dealing with the same POVs—mostly the Starks, Tyrion, Dany, with the addition of Davos. All of them are ‘good’ people (even if Tyrion is from the ‘enemy’ family, he’s smart and sympathetic enough that we overlook his Lannister roots), none of whom have previously been painted in a bad light. Martin doesn’t have to work too hard to get us on their side, not even Davos who, though Stannis’s man and a smuggler, seems to have a sense of loyalty that grounds him.

But when Storm opens, right after a prologue, you’re sucked straight into Jaime’s head, watching as he cruises snarkily along a river, happy to be getting back to his sister. ‘Hang on, this is the same sister he has had three children with,’ you think, ‘what a sicko,’ but that impression doesn’t last long. Instead, Jaime’s ‘love’ for Cersei, revealed in his memories of her, and concerning her, doesn’t strike you as ‘sick’; it’s twisted, true, but I at least believe, and even maybe root a little for him when he declares (as he did so dramatically in a recent episode) that he would do whatever it took to get to her side.

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‘Okay, creepy love for Cersei is no longer so creepy. But he’s still a Kingslayer!’ you tell yourself, slightly discomfited by this surprising about-turn. And then Martin whips out another surprise: Jaime didn’t kill Aerys because he lacked loyalty and wanted to grab power, or because he was ‘switching sides’. No, he killed him because that was, he thought, the only way to save the rest of the city. It was done for the greater good. And he’s been living with the knowledge of what he did, knowing what people think of him, trying not to let it affect him.

Oh, the angst.

Jaime’s seemingly carefree attitude is exposed much more early on in the show for what it is: an overcompensation. Tywin reminds him that he ‘cares too much about what people think’, and this contributes a good deal to his anxiety, his inability to do what his father might see as ‘needing’ to be done. But increasingly, he appears to lose this weakness, instead employing what people ‘think’ of him to his advantage. He’s a cruel, horrible Lannister who doesn’t shy away from killing babies to get what he wants—at least, that’s what he uses to convince Edmure Tully to get off his high horse, and thus, with minimal bloodshed, retake Riverrun. With this, Jaime shows us that he’s grown enough to understand what must be done, and do it without posturing; but he also manages to employ his smarts enough to get it done in a way that suits his conscience.

Jaime-Lannister-Profile-HDA Song of Ice and Fire is driven by many of the things that define epic fantasy: star-crossed lovers, dethroned, ‘rightful’ rulers, a conflict that threatens to end the world as the characters know it. It is also built on subverting many of the expectations that come with the genre, with Martin refusing to shy away from killing ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ alike, and playing havoc with readers’ feelings for them. Jaime Lannister is a smarmy, horrible man in A Game of Thrones, but by the end of A Storm of Swords, he had become one of my favourite characters, consistently among the most fascinating people n a series chockfull of them. He does horrible things for a twisted love, and is driven to commit acts that cross the boundary of decency and honour in a land considerably lacking in either of the two qualities, but still, I can’t help rooting for his eventual happiness.

And that’s how I know Martin is not a good writer. He’s a great one.

Sansa, the Starks and Westerosi parenting

A long time ago, nearly three years now, I wrote about Sansa Stark.

sansaFor some reason, I was attempting to ‘defend’ her, this child of the north who seemed (at that time) so out of her element, so unprepared for the evils that regularly plague the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Sansa, more than her other siblings, seemed spectacularly defenceless at the start of the series, even more than Bran, who was early on showing signs of superpowers. Sansa had arguably what would become the greatest political clout—marriage to Robert’s heir—but she had few skills that would enable her to survive in such a court, or so it seemed.

Someone, in a comment on my post, pointed out that this was unforgivable. Sure, Sansa is only 12 years old when the books start, but that’s no excuse for her utter childishness. When I think of it, her willingness to run and rat to Cersei Lannister when this very same woman had proven, earlier on, that she was more than capable of cruelty (it was Cersei who suggested that her direwolf, Lady, be killed) is quite strange. How come Arya’s instincts about people are so much more on-point than hers, given they’ve grown up in the same environment? From the get-go, Arya dislikes the Lannisters, and hates most of the people she meets in court. She is much more small folk friendly than her sister, or her brothers, for that matter, and unlike them, doesn’t seem afraid of slumming it, fitting right into the environment fate has forced upon her.

But Arya’s always been a rebel, unlike her older sister. And she found tacit support for her rebellion in both her father and her older brothers, notably Jon. Ned even hires a ‘dancing master’ for her, encouraging her quite openly in her ‘needlepoint’ lessons. 

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I’m not sure Sansa enjoys that same sort of solicitous attention. She’s shown to be ‘approved of’ and counselled by her mother, in one short scene where Catelyn is doing her hair, and speaking to her of her betrothal to Joffrey. She basks in the praise of Septa Mordane, who commends her needlework and disparages Arya’s much less neat attempts. Cersei’s bits of praise for her beauty and her ability to make her son happy are what drive Sansa into her arms, a huge contrast to her alienation from her father (brutally illustrated when Eddard gives her a doll in HBO’s A Game of Thrones and Sansa retorts that she hasn’t played with dolls since she was eight). Honestly, Sansa seems a cipher to her parents; Catelyn can’t quite comprehend how easily she can be swayed to go to the south, and Eddard appears to have lost any connection with her at all.

True, Westerosi nobles do not seem paragons of parenting in general. Balon Greyjoy, Roose
Bolton, Walder Frey, Randyll Tarly, Robert Baratheon, Stannis…the list goes on and on and on. Mothers too, when not over-indulgent, like Lysa, seem distant and forbidding, like Selyse Baratheon, if they’re not dead or simply silenced by the excessively patriarchal
household. But this being said, Eddard and Catelyn are (usually) regarded as good parents, because they seem affectionate, do not abuse their children verbally or physically and take care to provide them good homes and advice, where possible. Winterfell, at the start of the series, is almost paradisiacal in comparison to what we see of other keeps later—everyone seems happy, content, and the lord and lady are quite obviously compatible with one another, if not crazily in love. The siblings support each other, usually, and are not conspiring to kill and outdo one another. Even the ward, Theon, and the bastard, Jon, lead decent lives—though angst does them in later on.

It’s only later that we see how out of place Winterfell is in the scheme of things, how very different from every other keep and family we come across. Highgarden sounds lovely when Margaery sells it to Sansa, and true, the Tyrells do seem to stick together and be a decent enough clan, but she has most likely been trained in arts that Sansa does not possess. This is even more obvious in the TV series, but it’s hinted in the books too that Margaery is smarter and more cunning than she seems, unlike the relatively less sophisticated Sansa.

Did Catelyn and Ned just not do their job, instead suffusing their children with an idealism that leaves them open to attack? And, to tie back to what I was saying earlier, besides not giving her the weapons to survive in court, did her parents just not really connect with ned and caatSansa, instead leaving her to the devices of books and embroidery and other preteen girls? Cat and Ned seem curiously ‘modern’ parents in some ways, letting their children do more or less what they want (Arya being a case in point), and it’s true that they probably never thought they would be sent so far from Winterfell, let alone out of the north altogether. But still, given their political importance, and the fact that they command the north, it seems a bit..,odd they weren’t taught more savvy. I mean, there are politics at work in the Night’s Watch, for the old gods’ sake! No place, not even the paradisiacal Stark-ruled north, could be so awfully clean—and we see that when the Boltons come into power.

Of course, this could just be Martin’s way of building a huge contrast between the Starks and everyone else, making sure our moral allegiance, such as it is, lies with them. I don’t know about other readers, but I can’t make myself warm to the Lannisters or the Targaryens as a clan, no matter how much I might like individual characters from those houses (Jaime for the win). The Starks seem ‘normal’ in our scheme of things, but that only sets them apart, leaves them open to manipulation and power plays in Westeros.

So for that reason, Littlefinger is both a good and bad mentor for Sansa (and here I’m going purely on the books, where no selling off to Ramsay happens). He develops her latent potential for power games, thus honing her from ‘survivor’ to agent. At the same time, he accelerates her move from naive idealist to world wary young woman. I suppose this is only to the good, in Westeros. Idealism, when it’s not backed by power, doesn’t take you far. Just ask Dany, the only character who can really afford to be idealistic. But then again, she’s got them dragons and that fire-proof skin. Not all mortals, certainly not Westerosi ones, are so blessed.

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