A Tale of Elven Overlords

There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the  Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the  Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the  dawning of Men means the  end of the  other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the  two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.

Ithose-above-covern some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the  Eldar had continued to dwell in the  same lands as the  humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the  two races to have united fronts in the  first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the  more advanced of the  two, the  Elves, holding dominion over the  many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the  premise of Polansky’s narrative.

The  Others, the  Eternal, the  Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the  human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the  top of a mountain, in the  Roost, with the  five lower rungs populated by the  humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the  human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the  Eternal. Until now.

I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The  story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a  military commander of the  Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the  Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the  Fifth Rung, the  most poverty-stricken area of the  Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the  mind of the  reader. The  Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the  rest, related as they are to the  politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the  Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the  way through that the  narratives seem to come together, and the  threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.

But when they do come together, the  effect is so worth it. If Lord of the  Rings is the  those-belowpremise, the  execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the  interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the  rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the  characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the  bluff, but essentially good, military man, the  scheming widow, the  pretty, devoted servant, and the  angry young man. And yet, the  way they play against each other, and the  events that they are spiraled into, make the  reading worthwhile.

Though finally, it’s the  Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the  reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the  struggles against them, and the  various forms those struggles take, the  Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the  humans in their world, and the  readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.

Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the  world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the  books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the  best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the  Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself. 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry must buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

How does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

eddieFantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

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If the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that goldsteinsthere is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

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A City Dreaming

city-dreamingWhile I was reading Daniel Polansky’s latest, the novel A City Dreaming, I thought, I’ve never read something like this before. Episodic, dark and yet edged with a humour that makes you snort with laughter, the book is unlike anything I’ve come across recently in the SFF genre. Only later did I realize ‘Hey, isn’t this somewhat like Hitchhiker’s Guide meets The Magicians?’ That only served to raise my appreciation for the book. Being compared to Guide is, after all, a status that many authors would be proud to reach.

Set in New York City, A City Dreaming is easy enough to describe, in one sense. It follows the (mis)adventures of the mysterious M, a magician, or wizard, or…I’m not sure how he would describe himself, really. He’s in ‘good with the Management’, the mysterious forces that seem to regulate the ebb and flow of magic in this universe. He has a bunch of friends, from the gender bending Boy to Anglophile Pakistani Stockdale, all of whom are part of the same ‘Management’-friendly group. But rivalries divide the magicians, as can be expected in any fantasy book, with Manhattan ruled by the distant, beautiful-so-long-as-you-don’t-look-too-closely White Queen, Celisa, and Brooklyn overseen by the warm, maternal Red Queen, Abilene. While most magicians have to pick one side or the other, M somehow balances relations between the two, attending parties in a Park Avenue apartment while also tramping through the hipster neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. He’s a man about the town, our M, and he’d like to keep it that way, only the Queens, for whatever reason, seem to be trying to pin him down as they gear up for some sort of showdown.

This is urban fantasy at its best. Polansky conjures a dark, edgy New York, populating it with spectres and monsters and magical peoples, who flit in and out of the loosely strung together episodes of M’s time in the city, and yet leave an indelible impression on the reader. A character who shows up in Chapter 2 may not come back until three quarters of the way through the book, but something about the way Polansky writes makes sure you don’t forget him or her, or need refreshing. M seems to get into increasingly absurd adventures, from having to save a friend from ‘river pirates’, to getting high on a drug that puts a literal god in your body, to exorcising a ‘haunted’ house in a Brooklyn neihgbourhood, and though Polansky writes it all with the sort of ironic humour that Grossman commands so well in the Magicians trilogy, you can’t help but get sucked in. It’s a magical Portlandia, with M coming across people who might be well at home in a parody of a Humans of New York Facebook page, but here, despite that underlying humour, you can’t help but root for these characters, or wonder what they’re going to get up to.

It takes something to balance that seeming detachment along with intensive worldbuilding, and life-changing stakes, and the author’s own attitude is mirrored by his character, M. Though he’d seem to like nothing more than to disappear into a (preferably) calm and placid existence, maybe livened up by the odd woman or three, M is dragged time and again into the war zone, having to rescue friends from their own problems, or the City from the perils that routinely stalk it. He saves the world on more than one occasion in the book (that’s hardly a spoiler in fantasy, right?), and does so with a sort of ‘oh well, here we go again’ nonchalance that could have made him, int he hands of a lesser writer, an annoying or boring character. But despite his obvious skill and talent, you never stop caring about M, never write him or his friends off as people who will ‘always’ win; every time they face a trial, you care, despite the fact that everything about M seems to declare that you really shouldn’t, that this is just another day at the office for him.

I’d recommend A City Dreaming wholeheartedly. It’s deftly written, it’s hilarious, and it takes you on a journey through a crazy city, from its darkest basements to its glittering penthouses. There’s no doubt that Polansky loves the New York he’s built, and it shines forth, three (if not more) dimensional and so ‘real’, despite the magic and mysteries that bubble at its base. The writing is beautiful, the adventures original, the book as a whole a trippy, dreamy experience. Besides, how could you not want to read something in which the hero saves the world from a plague of artisanal coffee shops?

The Ghost Bride

There is a girl. She is beautiful and smart, though she doesn’t know about the former and has never had occasion to really test the latter. She is quiet and minds her own business, though she has a ‘powerful curiosity’ about the world, and has ‘always’ wanted to explore. She lives with her father, a rich man whose fortunes have gone to seed, and her once lavish home is haunted by the absence of her beautiful mother, whom she herself can barely remember.

There is a man. Wait, there are actually three men, one of whom is not, strictly speaking, a man at all. These men are all interested in the girl, for varying reasons. One of them is a handsome, hardworking heir to an immense fortune, and marriage to him will resolve the girl’s family’s debts. The second is a mysterious, sardonic ‘minor government official’, who intends to use the girl as a pawn in some dangerous investigation he is conducting. The third is a not-so-handsome, spoilt, one-time heir to an immense fortune, who wants to marry the girl as well. The problem is, this last man is dead.

ghostbridefinalrevYangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride has all the elements of what has increasingly become a mainstream genre: the paranormal romance. Only, it’s set in colonial Malacca, Malaya in the 1800s, and the heroine, Li Lan, wants nothing to do with her paranormal suitor, the ghost of rich boy, Lim Tian Ching, the scion of the rich Lim family. The Lim family wants Li Lan to marry their deceased son for reasons that are, at first, unknown, and while she shudders at the idea of tying herself to a dead man who haunts her dreams, she is much less unwilling to anchor herself to his handsome cousin, Lim Tian Bai, a handsome Hong-Kong-returned doctor, who now oversees the business empire that would have been Tian Ching’s, had he not died under mysterious circumstances.

But when Tian Ching’s attentions make sleep near impossible, and Li Lan’s life gets clouded over with exhaustion and misery, and the heavy knowledge of her father’s debts to the Lim family, she seeks the help of a medium. One thing leads to another and she finds herself trapped in the hazy world of the Chinese afterlife, unable to rejoin her body thanks to the demonic guards Tian Ching has posted about her house. The only ‘man’ who can help her seems to be Er Lang, a mysterious figure who wears a large bamboo hat, unwilling to show his face, but more than willing to lead Li Lan on a dangerous quest that throws up answers to questions she didn’t even know she had.

The Ghost Bride is a lovely book, taking its readers (like me) who know nothing of Chinese mythology and legends into a world that is breathtaking in its detail and realization. The story is engaging, if not revolutionary, and the characters well etched, if a tad stereotypical. For instance, Li Lan, the heroine, falls into that trap that so many YA women find themselves in: she is beautiful, but doesn’t know it. She is smart, but we never really see why even though it’s hammered into us time and again by the author’s description. She reminded me a great deal of Maya from Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen, both being motherless, ‘bookish’ in ways that their fellow upper class girls are not, and touched by a vague breath of scandal. Like Maya, Li Lan finds herself on the wrong side of death, seeking to right a wrong she didn’t intend to make. Unlike Maya, however, she has an ally in the figure of Er Lang, who conveniently appears to rescue her when the stakes are high.

The problem with so much YA is that it is so formulaic. There is nothing utterly new about this book, apart from the setting and the care with which it is detailed. The world of the Chinese afterlife is quite wonderfully evoked, and readers can see the ghostly lights trawling the streets of Malacca, the ox headed demons who police the resident spirits, feel the terror of those who cling to this semblance of life rather than go on to the courts and be judged before passing through to reincarnation. Choo’s strength lies in her worldbuilding, and it was chiefly this that kept me hooked. I wanted to know more about the Malacca she had built, both the world of the living, and that of the dead. Her characters are types rather than something original, and the placement of the tiles that constitute the plot rather laboured and formulaic, if not, at times, overly long drawn out, but journeying into the world itself—that’s worth the journey.

The Wall of Storms

When I finished Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I felt as though I’d been on a long, satisfying journey. It had begun with that most reliable of fantasy openers: a seemingly invincible ‘evil’ empire, a heroic prince thirsting for vengeance, a cunning and street-smart nobody who knows better than most lords and ladies how to play a political game. But the reliability didn’t last for long, and through the course of its long and episodic length, Liu tweaked and pulled at expectations and conventions, landing up with a conclusion that was as spectacular as it had been, for me, unforeseen. I couldn’t imagine what he might follow this first serving with, and it’s a good thing I didn’t try, because The Wall of Storms will take almost every ‘settled’ notion or attitude you might hold, and shatter it as effectively as the ‘wall of storms’ in the book breaks apart the ships of those who dare to push beyond the boundaries of Dara.

wall-of-stormsThe second book in the Dandelion Dynasty begins shortly after the first leaves off, and in an almost comically similar manner. The royal children, Timu, Thera, Phyro and four-year-old Fara have sneaked out of the palace in Pan, and are enjoying a day of truancy in a tavern, listening to a storyteller spin tales of days past. Only, these are days we know about, if we’ve read Grace of Kings. The storyteller speaks of the dead Hegemon, Mata Zyndu, perhaps the greatest figure from the uprising against Emperor Mapidere. Phyro, the more military-minded of Kuni’s sons, is quite the fanboy of the Hegemon, and the children are having a good time, until someone thinks to stir up trouble by proclaiming the storyteller is being treasonous by invoking the dead Zyndu in such an admiring spirit. After all, the Hegemon did try, multiple times, to kill Kuni Garu, the man who now rules Dara. A new character, a young woman looking to sit the Imperial Examinations, enters the fray, and her life and those of the royal children are never the same again.

It’s impossible to fully communicate the sheer range of events that take place within the covers of Liu’s book. There’s the slow, boiling politics of discontent that were hinted at towards the close of Grace, with the court splitting between the more militaristic mindset of Gin Mazoti, Marshal of Dara, and the bureaucratic organisation watched over by Empress Jia, a conflict that finds new pawns in the persons of bookish Timu and adventurous Phyro, both of whom are sent off to test their skills in governing their father’s empire. There’s the inevitable fallouts and rebellions that take place between old allies, a result of misunderstandings and the all too human failings of pride and ambition. There’s the meddling of the gods, the same unpredictable figures we met in Grace, each of whom has a stake in the events that unfold, and a pawn to help make their ends come to pass—though some of these gods have a more obvious and kinder agenda than others.

But the event that really rocks the crumbling empire arrives only about a third of the way through the book: a force from outside the islands, intent on crushing the world Kuni and his peers, his allies and enemies, and all his subjects, live in. The Lyucu, a strange and ‘barbaric’ people, have done what none in living memory have managed to do: pass through the ‘wall of storms’ that barricades the seas of Dara from the rest of the world, and they certainly don’t come in peace.

The Wall of Storms is a huge book, and I mean that not just in terms of volume. The sheer amount of action and events packed into its pages is stunning, and it amazes me time and again how Liu, with just a few strokes of a pen, conjures into being worlds and characters, has them move through events that would, in the hands of a less deft writer, take chapters, if not whole novels, to recount. In the space of a few paragraphs, Liu paints the complete portrait of a character, giving you a reason to love them, root for them, fear for them as they move through inhuman trials and come face to face with the gods themselves. I will always envy this talent, and admire him for it. He proves that to be a truly ‘epic’ writer, you need not lose yourself in long-drawn out descriptions and conversations; a few well placed words, some quick exchanges and pointed comparisons, and your readers can gain as good an understanding of your world and the people who dwell in it as any companion encyclopaedia might give you.

But what makes Wall of Storms great is the manner in which Liu handles his themes. In Grace, Liu allowed his comic spirit to roam free, and while kingdoms and an empire rose and fell, there was never an overwhelming sense of darkness or dismay. Sure, readers felt sadness when Mata Zyndu died, but it was a bittersweet feeling; we knew he had no place in the world that Kuni had built, and he went out in a matter worthy of his mythic status: falling in combat, and being whisked away by the gods. The world was a more stable place for his absence, and that was a price Liu makes you think worth paying.

But there is no such palliative here. Storms has much more brutal themes running through it, most obviously (and perhaps importantly) the question of who has a ‘right’ to a land, who can claim a territory as their ‘own’. The Lyucu come in force, and they strike hard, forcing the inhabitants of Dasu (the site of their landing) into servitude, slaughtering thousands, and unleashing their garinafins—dragon-like creatures—upon peaceful towns. Honestly, the chapters detailing their arrival, and all that precedes it (for Liu, brilliant storyteller that he is, makes sure you know about their background, and refuses to paint the Lyucu as purely evil) are quite difficult to read, but it is precisely his delicate handling of such thorny issues that cemented, for me, Liu as a master novelist. He writes without ever becoming preachy, without clumping you over the head with morals and easy dismissals of characters and their goals; like Martin, he makes you appreciate each and every person in his universe, god or mortal, Lyucu or Daran, as a being capable of both ‘good’ and ‘evil’. ‘The individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he once commented to me in an interview; he bears that out in the stories in Paper Menagerie, and even in the fantasy world of Dara, he ensures that it holds true.

I cannot stress it enough: read The Wall of Storms. All the old favourites are back, Kuni, Jia, Luan (my personal favourite), Gin. Then there is the new, younger batch, coming into their own: Phyro and Timu, the clever Princess Thera and the ambitious, idealistic Zomi Kidosu. There are fun capers, incredibly detailed worldbuilding, surfacing crubens and swooping garinafins, supernatural encounters and ‘silkpunk’ science fiction devices that (sometimes) save the day. There’s an ending that makes you realise that sometimes, the old world has no choice but to be swept away completely to make way for a new, exciting one. Sometimes, change is a risk worth taking; just ask Luan Zya, or his divine mentor, Lutho, God of Wisdom.

Or better yet, don’t ask; just read Liu’s saga, and see for yourself.

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

cursed child

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.

harry_potter

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

MSDHAPO EC040

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.