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

gallery_uktv-jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrell-episode-2-04

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.’

dany1

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.

dany fire

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.

margaery-and-sansa-house-tyrell-35788280-5000-3327

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.

dany gif

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.

eddard-ned-stark-1920

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.

Game-Of-Thrones-Cersei-Jaime

‘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. 

Eddard-and-Arya-lord-eddard-ned-stark-29539691-800-450

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.

game-thrones-daenerys-her-dragons-gifs-ydhb3tpel-wxvua2jo2csw-IxfGdr13Kt3qgWACCgT5sg

The ‘new’ Hermione Granger-Weasley

A few months ago, when it was announced that Noma Dumezweni, Olivier-award winner and all-around stellar-seeming actress, would be playing Hermione Granger, everybody’s favourite swot in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the fandom went mad. Most people embraced the casting of a black actress, seeing it as an indication that ‘main’ characters in popular fiction need not always be white if not explicitly described as such; a lot of other people got angry and took to the books to point out that what had been done was unconscionable. Myself, I wrote about why this was both welcome (a no-brainer) as well as not entirely out-of-canon (or untrue to Potterverse themes), here.

Everything to do with this play is under microscopic scrutiny though, so no surprise when, a few days ago, the first cast-in-character photos were released and people went crazy again. We got our first glimpse of Dumezweni as Hermione, looking mighty fine in midnight blue. Personally, one look at her convinced me that I would be willing to trust this incarnation of Hermione with my life. Others though, not so happy, citing much the same reasons they had right at the outset. To add fuel to their fire, Hermione and Ron’s daughter, Rose Granger-Weasley, is being played by a black actress (Cherrelle Skeete) as well. The horror! The people of colour are everywhere! It’s an invasion!

granger weasleys

I don’t think we need another post justifying/explaining/laying out how great it is that someone of colour has been cast as an inspiring, iconic character. I know that the casting team of Cursed Child know their job, and don’t need me to lay out why their choice is great. In some ways, I see the rationale behind Priyanka Chopra’s line of thinking, which is, succinctly put, all this race stuff doesn’t matter and we should just give the job to the person who’s best qualified to do it.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where ‘the best person for the role’ is always given the job. As both the backlash and the support for/against Rose and her stage-mother has shown, we don’t live in a ‘post racial’ society. This has the following immediate impact, when it comes to this particular choice of actress(es):

  1. People are angry still angry that someone not white was chosen to play a character portrayed as white in the recent films.
  2. The sight of the new Hermione and Rose made me, as a non-white fan and long-time lover of fantasy, extremely happy.

See, there you have it. If we live in a post-racial world, why would I be particularly thrilled by the sight of Noma in full costume? It should have been normal for me, much as the Wanda_Poster_Cropsight of Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch provoked the response ‘Okay, cool, she looks good.’ Yeah, maybe that’s a bad example; I did not ‘grow up’ reading about the Scarlet Witch, and she is not as high up on my list of favourite fictional characters as Hermione is, nowhere near her level.

But you see what I mean? I’ve never been one of those readers who consciously felt the lack of ‘reflections’ in the literature I read. The colour of someone’s skin didn’t keep me from thinking they were my soul-twin, or that we could be best friends. For instance, the character I most identified with for a long time was Kirsten, one of the American Girls of the series of the same name. I understood, at the age of 8 (when I really got into the series), what it felt like to leave home and friends and come to a new country where I knew nobody, and didn’t really understand the language (only unlike Kirsten, I was leaving a nation of immigrants to come to the ‘old country’, I just didn’t know it). I didn’t feel like I couldn’t empathise with Harry, or Frodo, or Rand or Egwene when I read about them, just because they were male, or white, or both.

Maybe it’s a product of growing older and more aware of context, but now, when I read a book set in a post-apocalyptic future, and it has no non-white people in it, I get a little annoyed. Now when I see a ‘dream cast list’ for a series which I loved, and saw myself in, and it harbours no dark-skinned person, I am a little taken aback. And when I see that  no-nonsense dark-skinned Hermione, I feel a rush of pride and love and omg how amazing are you, woman, that you made me more excited to see this play than even the words ‘by J. K. Rowling’.

Noma-Dumezweni-as-Hermione-Granger-in-New-Cast-of-Harry-potterSo no, I’m not going to justify this choice, I’m not going to explain it to those people who still see the need for explanation. The paradox of our time is that we live in an age where these things shouldn’t have to be explained, which means, such casting choices should ideally be ‘normal’; but even idealistic me knows that it’s not normal, and it’s not because of the haters or the self-appointed keepers of canon, but because I still feel a sense of victory at seeing a black Hermione. I look forward to the day when it’s just another casting announcement, one that I read over in the same manner I read that Brie Larson may be Captain Marvel.

But until that blissful day, I’ll be right over here, squeeing over how bloody wonderful the new Mrs. Granger Weasley looks.

Drilling down to success: Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

As a successful pop culture critic and writer, Charlie Jane Anders is a woman I am much in awe of. The co-founder and long-time editor of popular website io9 (the best place to find ‘geek’ news on the internet), Anders is no stranger to fiction writing either, publishing loads of short stories, and winning a Hugo for her novellete, Six Months, Three Days. The latter is being adapted for TV by NBC. She also organises ‘Writers with Drinks’, a monthly event where writers of different genres come together to read from their work, 

Last year, she released her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. She’s recently quit her post at io9 in order to focus on writing her second novel. Here, I speak to her about All the Birds, where she sees the genre of fantasy going, and balancing critical and creative writing.

charlie jane copy

1) Cliched question first! How did you come up with the main storyline? Was it something you mulled over for a long time?

This was definitely something that took a LONG time to come together. I started out with the idea of “witch and mad scientist,” and it was super vague. I originally thought of it as just an excuse to smush together a bunch of genre tropes and play with lots and lots of story ideas from science fiction and fantasy, from Harry Potter to Star Trek. In the end, though, the book wound up not having a lot of commentary on tropes — instead I got obsessed with the relationship between the two main characters. I stopped thinking of “mad scientist” and “witch” as representatives of different genres, and started thinking of them more as different worldviews that it was interesting to juxtapose.

2) How much of the environmentalist streak in the book (that I personally loved) is a personal philosophy? Is Patricia and the witches’ fears of a teetering world something that you find yourself thinking about?

The environmentalism in the book came from a couple different things. First off, I feel really strongly that if you’re going to write about a near-future world, you have to deal with the effects of climate change and extinctions (or else come up with some explanation for how we solved them somehow.) Because ecological problems are in our future, pretty much for certain, according to scientists, and you can’t speculate about the future without taking them into account. And secondly, I started to think of the “mad scientist and witch” storyline as being about technology and nature — and thinking about the environment seemed to be one good way of talking about the impact of technology on nature, and the ways that the two things go together. But I was also super, super careful to keep it ambiguous as to whether we actually were teetering on the edge of some kind of apocalypse. Various people in the book believe this to be true, but there are also people think we’re just going through a rough adjustment, and we’ll come out the other end. The fears of some kind of apocalypse had to feel plausible enough to drive people to take some extreme action, but I don’t think you ever know for sure how bad things will get, or how quickly, in real life. So it didn’t feel realistic for us to know for sure if the environment (or civilization) was actually going to collapse.

3) The narrative of the book grows up quite dramatically, from the 6-year-old Patricia’s perspective to the 20-somethings who finally exit its pages. How hard was it to put yourself in those differing mindsets? Was it something you had to work on a lot?

I love writing about kids, and I love writing about adults. The hard part was probably making these characters feel like the same people at different ages. I felt like it was really important to show them growing up and still dealing with the same questions they struggled with as kids. But it was a really ambitious thing to take on, and it meant really getting to know these characters, so I could build in lots of little things that made them feel like they were still the same people, without being super blatant or anything. It was super tricky, and took a TON of concentration in rewrites.

4) Patricia gets called down a lot for “Aggrandizement.” Was this a sort of inside joke on the “hero complex” that so many fantasy heroes (and not a few fantasy fans) have, and its lack of relevance in the “real world”? What was the thought behind it?

I hadn’t thought about the idea that the “Aggrandizement” taboo was a rebuke to the “Chosen One” motif in fantasy, but that actually makes a lot of sense! In fact, though, I was thinking more in terms of basic worldbuilding — like, whenever you have a group of magicians who have incredible powers, I always wonder why they don’t take over the world. Or at least wield major power. So when I was trying to come up with a magical world that made sense, and had some real weight and history to it, I needed to come up with something that keeps these magicians from just crushing everyone. So the prohibition on Aggrandizement was a good way to put some checks and balances into place. Plus, it kind of plays into Patricia’s whole thematic and character arc in a lot of different ways.

GeekLove5) What were some of the books that influenced you?

There were so many — lately, I’ve been talking a lot about Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, which was a strange, beautiful, unnerving book that redefined my sense of what is possible in books. So I was incredibly upset to find out that Dunn just died, and we never got to see her next novel. Just for that one book, she will always be one of my writing heroes.

6) I really liked Theodolphus Rose! Any chance we’ll be seeing more of him and his School any time soon?

Oh yay, thanks! I don’t have any plans to revisit Theodolphus. I did post some “deleted scenes” featuring him on my Tumblr, which give a little bit more context to his troubled career as a school guidance counselor. I am working on one short story that ties in with this novel, but Theodolphus isn’t in it, unfortunately.

 7) Is there any particular kind of fantasy/world that you want to see more of in the mainstream?

I have been saying for years that portal fantasies (like Narnia) are due for a comeback. And I’ve definitely seen some cool examples of the portal fantasy come out in book form lately. I just feel like there’s so much goodness to be gotten from the story of someone from NarniaWardrobe“our” world who journeys to a fantasy world and gets swept up in the strangeness and glamor of it all. I love that juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and the meeting of cultures, etc. etc.

8) You’ve written short stories, novellas, and now a novel—plus your work will soon be a TV series. Has it been hard to shift between different forms?

I really love switching back and forth between short fiction and novels. I think you actually get a lot of benefit from doing both, because it keeps you in good shape. It’s like doing different sorts of exercise. Short fiction gives you a lot more practice writing beginnings and endings, and also making a logical world full of believable people in a hurry. But then novels involve writing a whole lot more middle, and force you to develop your world a lot more. I love doing both. I am terrified of actually writing for television though, because then I would have to discover just how ridiculous my dialogue is when spoken by actors.

9) How much do you think about other media while writing? For instance, did you ever consciously structure your work, keeping in mind TV episode formats?

I don’t really think about how anybody might try to adapt my work for the screen — that would just drive me nuts. What I do think about, though, is some other random television/movie stuff. Like sometimes when I am working on a story, I try to think about what “sets” I need to build, and which three or four sets most of the action is going to take place in. And then I obsess about what makes those three or four locations memorable and buffyinteresting — like how on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they have the high school library, the Bronze, and a couple other locations where a lot of the action takes place. Thinking about it this way helps me keep from just creating a ton of bland locations, because in fiction there are no budgetary constraints on how many “sets” you can build. Also, I’ve watched TV in the past and thought about the way that a lot of TV episodes structure their scenes, and how they pack a lot of drama and information into a few minutes. That’s interesting to pay attention to.

10) And finally, a question that has a lot of relevance to me—was it difficult to shift from being a critic/editor of books to writing one yourself? Do you ever find the two roles influencing each other?

I was doing a lot of criticism and entertainment writing even before I started working at io9, but definitely the io9 gig made me worry that I was going to be so stuck in the mode of snarking about other people’s creations, I wouldn’t be able to turn that off when it came to creating my own stuff. But in fact, I found that working on io9 just gave me so much more excitement for writing and creating — maybe because getting to geek out about what worked and what didn’t work in other stories made me have to think about storytelling in a new way, and that really had a huge impact on my creative process. I ended up feeling like I got paid to go to grad school and learn about science fiction. I still love to drill down into stories and figure out how they succeed and fail, and I think that’s a super useful exercise for writers to engage in.

Thank you, Charlie Jane, and I look forward to your next book! Everyone else, do pick up All the Birds in the Sky. I promise you it’s more than worth it. 

Uprooted

red forestThe words ‘once upon a time’ have always held a note of unparalleled promise for me. Call it the product of colonial baggage, of new-age Disney imperialism, or what you will, but there is no beginning for a story that sounds as portentous, as magical, as downright compelling as those four words. I’ve even let my fondness for them carry me through five seasons of ABC’s less than stellar show of the same name, though you could dismiss that as the result of said Disney imperialist baggage instead of any sense of fairy tale fidelity.

From this rather rambling paragraph, one might surmise that I love the phrase, and the fairy tales it usually prefaces. I also love fairy tale reworkings, my favourite collection being Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. This sort of stuff is hot right now, as Frozen, Tangled and other such female-power centric tales would testify, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted falls into its adultified (therefore, slightly more true-to-‘original’) genre.

A book built using elements of Polish folklore and fairytales, Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a seemingly simple village girl, and her drive to protect her friend, Kasia. The vally in which Agnieszka’s village is situated also harbours the corrupt and dangerous Wood, a place where, like the classic forest in many fairytales, something sinister resides, from whence issue monsters and nightmares. Those who venture into the Wood, or are taken into it, seldom return, and when they do, they are changed horrifically by some malignant power deep in its heart.

The valley is watched over by a wizard only known to the villagers as ‘the Dragon’, a distant, forbidding figure who seldom intrudes into their lives, except at the time of the Choosing. Every ten years, the Dragon selects one girl around the age of 17, whom he takes into his tower for ten years. What he does with them, the villagers aren’t sure, but after they emerge, they never stay at home, moving out of the valley and into the wider world. Agnieszka dreads the ‘taking’, not because she thinks she will become the dragon’s new ‘girl’, but she fears sundering from her closest friend, Kasia, who is ‘special’ and therefore, expected to be taken into the mysterious tower. Her world is turned grimly upside down when instead of Kasia, she is chosen and taken to the Dragon’s tower. Agnieszka must put her time in the Dragon’s tower to use when later, Kasia is taken into the Wood, forcing her to venture under its eerie boughs.

uprooted-naomi-novik-book-review-ya-fantasyIn a book that spins the familiar tropes of Beauty and the Beast, placing them amid the grim darkness of a forest, Novik weaves a totally unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable tale. There are proud princes, kidnapped queens, unsettling foes, fantasy monsters and stuffy wizards galore. There are also plucky village girls and surprisingly softhearted abductors—for all his pretensions otherwise, that is exactly what the ‘Dragon’ is regarded as in the villages—and of course, at its heart, a story of friendship. Agnieszka’s motives in the book, at least at the start, are largely driven by concern for Kasia, and there seems to be little she won’t do in order to save her friend.

The language of the book is simple, compelling, so much like a fairytale in one of those large, gilded collections of The Brothers Grimm. Novik’s world is painted with large brushstrokes, but her words manage to evoke detailed pictures in the mind of the reader. She refuses to lose herself in the lacework and flowery descriptions that dog many other fantasy writers, sticking to the simple, steady voice of the narrator. Like Agniezska herself, the girl’s voice (which guides readers through the book) is forthright, blunt more often than not, making no pretence at something she is not. For instance, here, in a few simple sentences, Novik conjures up for us the sheer menace of the Wood:

But there was something watching. I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here….something alive, and I was trapped in an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

For people who enjoy fairytales and the sense of wonder they evoke, like fantasy that rips apart expectation and convention, or just want a good story to while away the summer hours, Uprooted is the book for you. There’s something so refreshing about a book that doesn’t follow the epic hero quest formula, and instead, takes you back to the randomness of the fairy story, where literally anything can happen, where atmosphere means everything, and where the good old peasant girl gets turned into a princess in a tower, and instead of languishing for a prince, uses her guts and her guile to do what she thinks is right.

All the Birds in the Sky

The end of the world—such a cliched backdrop for a fantasy novel, wouldn’t you say? Most of them have world ending (or at least civilisation ending) stakes. And speculative fiction, Atwood style, uses the end of the world as a given; it’s what you do afterwards that counts, and forms the meat of the story.

all the birdsCharlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky is a blend of two things: on the one hand, it’s a fantasy, about growing up different, weathering the alienating world of high school and its mainstream cliches, and finding a place when you’re older, a place that happens to have magic and/or incredibly advanced science and, perhaps best of all, people who appreciate those things. On the other, it’s a love story set in a teetering world, like Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy, where ecological disasters are on the horizon, and no one can do anything to stop them. Except maybe they can. Except they really can’t. Except…well, we don’t know.

It’s not a surprise that the co founder and editor of io9, one of the leading SFF/geek culture sites on the internet, should spin out a novel that deftly blends genres, traditions and continually defies expectations. All the Birds follows two characters: Patricia and Laurence, a witch and a scientist respectively, from their days of stumbling around in childhood, through a beleaguered friendship in middle school, and then the tests and trials of adulthood, where they find themselves on opposing sides in a race to save humanity from its self-created destruction. The binaries in the novel seem fairly simple: the witches, Patricia’s people, are ‘for’ Nature, while the scientists are willing to wreck what’s left of it in order to privilege and thus save human civilization. The witches cannot stand idly by while human ego dooms all other living creatures, and thus begins a face-off between two sets of powerful cabals. Laurence and Patricia will find their feelings and friendship tested, in the grand tradition of many, many love stories.

I’ll admit, it took me a while to really get ‘into’ the book. This is because Anders’s writing in the early chapters seems more redolent of a children’s book than a sweeping SFF saga—but this is a deliberate effect. Like the Potter books, Anders sought to make her narrative tone ‘grow’ with her characters, with the result that the first few chapters use simple language, and sentences are almost painfully blunt in terms of descriptive effect. The first Potter book followed an 11 year old; the first chapter of All the Birds follows a six year old—you can imagine the tonal difference between the two. But don’t let that seeming ‘immaturity’ throw you off, or let you assume that this is a book for ‘kids’. It proves, after a point, that it is very definitely not for younger readers.

My favourite part of the book was the closest it has to a ‘villain’—Theodolphus Rose. A trained assassin from a ‘Nameless’ school, the bits about him were almost Snicket-like, absurd and comic and in that wonderful territory between children’s and adult fiction. I felt like it was here, talking about his exercises, his strange messages from fellow ‘assassins’ that Anders really let herself have fun, and it shows. Honestly, I wish there had been more about him, or more writing that showed this hilarious side. Anders has a talent for it, and I hope she harnesses it more often.

Should you read it? Yes, because it’s just so refreshingly different, and yet familiar. Like I said, it uses some of the typical tropes of speculative fiction, and fantasy, but blends them in a manner I haven’t seen much of before. It is quite beautiful in parts, and also addresses the very millennial angst of growing up believing yourself to be special, and not having anything to do with that belief later in life. In fact, people are constantly pulling Patricia down as a matter of duty, telling her that ‘Aggrandizement,’ the idea that she is personally responsible for saving anyone, let alone the world, is a dangerous one, and can only lead to terrible things. This seems to be a theme in what I call ‘secret world fantasy’, like The Magicians, the problems that come with balancing the ‘real world’ and its adult mundanity with beliefs in ‘specialness’ or ‘Chosenness’ that are inherent to fantasy. Anders doesn’t dwell on it exhaustively the way Grossman does, but deftly pulls it like a running stitch through her embroidery of her characters, and leaves you thinking about it all the same.

quentin

It’s not easy to be me.