Putting Quill to Parchment: Letters in the Potterverse

This last week, I’ve been feeling a strange need to write letters. And not in a romantic, oh what a throwback to simpler times sort of way, but because, genuinely, I think that sometimes, writing to somebody is a much more therapeutic process than messaging them, or even talking over the  phone. This is because, unlike other, more instant forms of communication, you’re not giving your interlocutor a platform through which to respond immediately. It’s impossible for them to interrupt you, or gainsay you, or cut you off midway—all things that happen far too often when we speak to one another. A letter lets you get it all out there in one go, giving you space and, importantly, the  other person, time to absorb your words, and think about what you’re feeling.

It’s for this reason that I really think the  written is the  most powerful, and therefore, to me, meaningful form of communication. Don’t get me wrong, I love heart to hearts with my besties as much, if not more, than the  average person, but in the  absence of that space and time where once those heart to hearts were taken for granted, a letter can step in, and make you feel less alone in a world where we are constantly reminded, every time we log onto social media, that someone out there is probably doing life better than you.

This got me thinking, as many things inevitably do, about Harry Potter, and how the  characters of that world use, so often, letters to share things that bother them. It’s amazing isn’t it, that in a universe where people can literally just pop over to each others’ houses in a blink, where they can roam through fireplaces to more magical locations, they still rely on the  staple of quill and parchment to say so many important things.

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And letters are hella important in Potter. Letters are what get him out of his Muggle life, for one thing, and the mystery around the ‘letters from no one’ in Philosopher’s Stone is what indicates that Harry is more than meets the eye. Later, letters from his friends are what literally keep Harry motivated, push him through the  horrible summer days at the  Dursleys, even, in a twisted turn of events before second year, tell him that not everything he experienced in Philosopher’s Stone, was a crazy dream. Harry’s friends reach out to him constantly all summer long, for three solid summers, giving him the  support he needs to get through the  days. They even send him literal nourishment and sustenance, birthday cakes and assorted other, healthier food items, coming to him in the  summer before his fourth year in Goblet of Fire.

Letters are also therapeutic in the  series. When Harry is very troubled, woken with an aching scar in Goblet, he writes about his worries to Sirius. Indeed, his correspondence with his godfather is one of the  cementing blocks of their relationship—starting from the  moment when Pigwidgeon arrives, bearing the  note that allows Harry to go to Hogsmeade, to the  last note he reads from Sirius, which, heartbreakingly, talks about the  two way mirror. Sirius and Harry’s relationship, one of, if not the  most, supportive relationships in the  entire series, is constantly imperilled by the  disruption of this form of communication—when it flourishes, before the  start of Book 4, Sirius’s wellbeing is highlighted through the  beautiful, tropical birds he uses to deliver his letters. By the  end, all forms of communication out of Hogwarts have been imperilled, thanks to Umbridge’s snooping, and because of this, this fundamental breach of a channel Harry has long taken for granted, tragedy unwinds.

Riddle_DiaryAnother great example of literal soul baring: Ginny writes to Tom Riddle. She uses Voldemort’s first Horcrux as it was seemingly supposed to be used: as a diary, a record of her innermost feelings. She makes herself so vulnerable by spilling out her soul thus that soon, her body is no longer her own. The implication seems to be that as much as writing can help you affect someone, it can also undo you, pulls a secret, hidden and hence vulnerable part of you outside into a harsh world, where people may not be so kind to it as you hope they will be.

If you think about it, it’s really weird that anyone in the  wizarding world still writes letters, even people who technically no longer have to. You’d think that only the  kids (who can’t do magic outside of school) and those who are under house arrest (Lily, for instance, who writes that letter to Sirius) or in other dire, magic-less situations (Sirius on the  run) would take recourse to such a, well, ‘ordinary’ form of communication. But that’s not the  case. For instance, Bathilda Bagshot, in her scattered interview with Rita Skeeter, mentions that Albus and Grindelwald constantly sent letters back and forth, despite living in the  same village and both (presumably) being old enough to do magic legally. Given what we find out about their relationship later, these letters have a particularly poignant quality, not just the  musings of two, young ambitious wizards but, in the  case of one, at least, also a means to reach out, and unburden oneself, to a fascinating crush.

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In the  Potterverse, people do extremely mundane things—fight over petty jealousies, go on disastrous dates, call each other horrible names in the  schoolyard, write letters. These are all ways Rowling uses to humanise her characters, underline the  fact that though they have magic, they are no different from us who don’t. Letters, physically sitting down and creating a message for another, are still the  most magical, meaningful ways to reach out to someone, to prove that the  writer, and the  person being written to, are bound in a matrix of emotion that is real, made tangible by the  creation of this physical message.

 Nothing compares to Harry’s feelings as he looks as Lily’s old letter, drinking in the  sight of her handwriting:

The  letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son.

Impatiently brushing away the  wetness in his eyes, he reread the  letter, this time concentrating on the  meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.

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I think the  greatest example of this, of the  power of such personal writing to wrench feelings about and reduce someone to a puddle of emotion is that last image Rowling leaves us of Snape. A man we’ve always seen as cutting, mean, petty even, is memorialized for readers thus:

…Snape was kneeling in Sirius’s old bedroom. Tears were dripping from the  end of his hooked nose as he read the  old letter from Lily. The  second page carried only a few words:

‘could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!

‘Lots of love,

‘Lily.’

Seasons of Splendour

There are a number of ways to anchor a tale: to a character, to a particular location, to a timeframe. Most novelists I read choose the  first, fewer the  second, and even fewer, the third. This is not representative of trends in general; as I said, most novelists I read do this.

In the  fantasy genre, which overlaps so much with the  more hazily defined myth and fairytale realm, it is easier, I think, to tether your story to a person, or a being of some kind. So much of your world, especially if its high fantasy, is foreign to your readers already. Usually, writers give them a crutch to hold onto as they enter this world, and that comes in the  form of an easily sympathetic character like Harry Potter, or Lucy Pevensie. Even Martin goes with this technique, preferring to reel readers in with morally relatable characters like the  Stark family first, before launching on them the  Lannisters and the  Greyjoys.

Two books I read recently depart from this use of character as anchor, instead going with the  third option: timeframe. They use the  central tenet of a season in order to frame a tale, and define the  things that happen with it. The flow of time, or what we humans perceive as time (Arrival, anyone?), and the  need to maintain that flow, ensure it is without disruption, is what forms the  central tenet of these novels: Eowyn Ivey’s The  Snow Child and Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.

snow-childThe  Snow Child is set in Alaska, in the  1920s. It uses a tale familiar from many cultures around the  world. A childless couple, Mabel and Jack, arrive in Alaska, ready to start a new life. What they desire, perhaps more than anything, is a child, but tragedy has taken this chance from them time and again. One snowy evening, Mabel and her husband build a child out of snow, and afterwards, strange things start happening, beginning with a little child, Fiona, arriving in their backyard.

The  child becomes part of their lives, living with them in the  winter months, disappearing in the  spring and summer. Mabel’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep her within the  house clash with Fiona’s desire to return outside to the  world she knows, the  landscape she loves. Jack and Mabel find happiness in being with her, but for Fiona, they are one small part of her experience, of a world that also includes the  Alaskan mountains, and wolverines, and deep, pine forests.

The book drags a bit, the  characters becoming dull and a trifle predictable halfway through. Perhaps the  problem is that Ivey has picked a fairytale that is, all said and done, a short one, one whose ending cannot be anything other than melancholic. We know that for all Mabel’s attempts, Fiona will leave, whether it is through the  door and up into the  mountains, like a ‘normal’ human, or fading away into the  snow covered landscape, like her magical counterparts in the tales.

Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but I enjoyed Beagle’s Summerlong much better. This novel, or novella, I suppose, since it is almost unfairly short, is set in a lingering summer summerlongon Gardner Island, near Seattle. Abe and Joanna, a late middle aged couple, find their lives turned upside down when they meet Lioness Lazos, a beautiful, mysterious young woman, who waitresses at a restaurant they have been frequenting for years. Lioness seems to be on the  run from someone, and eager to help her, Abe and Joanna step in, Abe even offering her shelter in his home. In return, Lioness brings with her small acts of kindness, that take the  form of magic—plants unfurling from the  soil in moments, beached orcas being guided back joyfully into the  sea, balmy weather that shields the  island from its usual, wintery tempests. It doesn’t take long for Abe and Joanna, or readers, for that matter, to figure out who she is: Persephone, of the  Greek myths. And with that realization comes another: Hades must be on his way to find her.

Beagle’s prose is beautiful. Seriously, this was one of those few books where I found myself putting it aside, hoping to lengthen the  experience and savour it for a little longer. His evocation of the  gods and their role in this world, in keeping things running smoothly, is perhaps more poetically done than even that master of modern deities, Gaiman. Witness, for instance, Abe’s defense, to Joanna, of why Lioness must return to the  dark realm she so abhors:

‘Because if she isn’t coming and going with the  seasons, everything’s out of balance, everything…The  world needs winter, the  world needs volcanoes, the  world needs floods, storms, bloody hurricans, because you cannot have Primavera without nasty.Demeter has to grieve for Persephone when she’s away in the  Underworld, and Demeter has to rejoice when she returns…’

Beagle’s depiction of Hades, too, is similarly nuanced. Not the  cartoonish villain of so many other books, Hades here is a melancholic, thoughtful god, a refined individual who knows his role, and while he might lament it, must carry on with his job, as one of the  few of the  pantheon who still ‘matter.’ Beagle’s Hades weeps for the  wrongs he’s done to Persephone, the  long charade they must play, and the  forces even larger than him that have made him what he is. ‘There were three brothers,’ he tells Joanna with a bitter smile, ‘and the  youngest was given a realm that nobody wanted.’

Summerlong is a rare and beautiful book, melding larger questions of death and life and humanity into the  relatively short burst of 200 pages. It is a book that’s meant to be savoured, to be thought about, somewhat like Gaiman’s American Gods, the  book that comes closest in terms of theme. But Summerlong, like its title promises, has a completely different mood from the  latter. Where Gaiman’s Norse gods are champions of iron and blood, the  Greek deities here, and the people they are entangled with, literally and physically, are mellow, evoking images of sunny seas and pale yellow wines, bursting berries and nodding heads of wheat. But despite this, a truth is never far from Beagle’s, or the  reader’s ken: lying at the  base of all this beauty, and nourishing it, bis the  dark loam of the  soil, where the  dead things go.

Knights in La La Land

best-leslie-knope-gifsIf there’s one thing that you can expect to hear from TV critics these days, it’s that we’ve reached ‘peak TV’. There’s so much good stuff to watch, in some many different genres, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up, not unless we, in the immortal words of Leslie Knope, ‘work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.’ Of course, here ‘working hard’ refers mostly to the labour undertaken by our eyes, which may become glazed if not permanently damaged, by excessive staring at a screen.

I watch more TV than a lot of other people I know, one of the few benefits of deciding not to sign up for a regular salary and its (many) perks. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hotstar and the  good work of Russian/Belarusian/Indian pirates, I can keep up to date with a load of shows that channels here do not deign to broadcast, or air at inconvenient hours, interspersed with ads. Despite the  amount of time I have, I have still not managed to watch everything that my friends assure me I ‘have to see’, like Breaking Bad, or The  Wire. Yes, yes, I know, I cannot claim to have lived unless I strike those off my list.

I’m usually reluctant to taste a new show, unless I’ve a) read about it in some esteemed publication whose writers I take seriously or b) been told to do so by a friend whose opinion I trust. My reluctance also stems from the  fact that for me, getting into a new show is a huge investment. Once I start something, I usually try to finish it, sticking with it as it makes its way to what is hopefully a great season/series finale. There have been very few instances where I’ve given up on a show I started, and though it may not be the  greatest example, Quantico was the  last to fall into this category. I tried to be supportive, but I’m sorry PC, I just couldn’t take it after three episodes.

My greatest joy comes from finding a show that has finished its run, and therefore is available in its entirety to binge watch. This January, I stumbled across just such a show. It ran for all of two seasons, has 18 episodes in all, each of which is around 21 minutes, the  standard sitcom length. I was amazed I hadn’t found it earlier, given that it hit all of the  right notes (for me). Seriously, consider this:

—It’s created by the  guy who wrote, among other film successes, Tangled.

Its music is written by the  guy who shaped the  music of, among other Disney movies, Aladdin.

—It’s executive produced and written by the  guy who is most famous for voicing, get this, Aladdin.

—Oh, and did I mention, it’s a spoof of knightly romances, a convention-spinning medieval tale of spurned lovers, ‘evil’ kings, overlooked squires, badass princesses and subplots galore?

It’s called Galavant, and I devoured it in a little less than three days.

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Disney gets many things right (yes, you guessed it, Disney owns this show), and one of them is spoofing its own work. The  classic animated films are filled with little puns and Easter eggs that reference others in their fraternity—such as the  Genie turning into Pocahontas, or Pumba, in throwaway moments of Aladdin and the  King of Thieves. But self-
spoofing is elevated to an art in Galavant, which employs the  musical numbers that
distinguish Disney’s classics to hilarious effect. The  opening title is basically a sum up of our hero, laying out his ‘every fairytale cliche’, and the  problem that besets him: his lady love, Madalena, has been stolen by the  ‘evil’ King Richard, and he must ride to rescue her on her wedding day. Ring any bells? That’s pretty much the  premise of Walter Scott’s poem ‘Lochinvar.’ So yes, cliched premise, but what follows is upturn after upturn of convention, starting off with Madalena deciding, ‘on second thought’, that she’d rather have fame and riches as queen than living a poor, if ‘acrobatic’ sex-filled life with Galavant. And so less than a quarter of the  way through the  first episode, the  opening titles have been debunked—Madalena is not the  helpless damsel we expect in so many knightly tales, and Galavant is an out-of-work, wine-sozzled man with a beer gut, no longer quite the  picture of ‘ruling in every way’.

But not for long. A mysterious princess shows up, claiming to need his help for vengeance against the  nefarious Richard, and promising him the  precious Jewel of Valencia in payment. Desperate to strike back at the  man who ‘stole’ Madalena, Galavant agrees to come, and thus adventures involving landlocked pirates, ridiculous battles, and singing monks begins.

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Heroes out to save…somebody.

The  cast is perfect, particularly Karen David, who plays ‘ethnically-ambiguous’ Princess Isabella, Mallory Jansen as the  ambitious Madalena, and Timothy Omundsen as the  hilarious King Richard. Everyone sings, and hams it up, and looks like they’re having such fun with their roles, fully embracing the  faux medieval aesthetic and all its Disney splendour. There are plenty of in-jokes, like random signs pointing to ‘Winterfell’, a handsome knight named ‘Sir Jean Hamm’ (played dashingly by John Stamos), and even a dig at Disney’s problematic race record, with Isabella, Sid (Galavant’s black squire) and Galavant singing stirringly about  what a wonderfully diverse cast they are. Alan Menken’s tunes are comfortingly similar to what we expect from a Disney production—catchy and filled with digs both at the  show itself, and the  larger TV universe of it which it forms a part. For instance, my personal favourite is the  opener of Season 2, where the  cast catches the  audience up with what’s happened in Season 1, and celebrates not being cancelled despite not ‘being Game of Thrones’.

Galavant owes a great deal, of course, to Don Quixote, one of the  earliest and still best send-ups of the  medieval romance. It’s easy to watch, and really seems made for people who want a little Disney feel good in their lives—feel good that is smarter than Once Upon a Time. I loved the  show, and I think that anyone who likes Disney, who likes intelligent satire and storytelling, and also just likes to see the  typical princess figures turn things upside down, should check out Galavant. Musicals seem to be having a moment, so why not keep the  La La Land feels going, Game of Thrones style?

A daemon on your sleeve

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve been on a writing hiatus for the  past month, and hence there have been no updates. After a few weeks of cold and carbs and cousins, I have decided it’s time to slowly pull myself back into the  writing seat. Alas, time and fame wait for no one. Or well, fame does, but the  effort required to get it doesn’t appreciate breaks when they stretch too long.

This is a year of many anniversaries, but perhaps none is so important to me as this: 2017 marks twenty years of Harry Potter! Harry Potter and the  Philosopher’s Stone was brought into this less-than-deserving world in 1997, which means that the  kids born along with the  book are now legally allowed to drive, get married and (in Europe at least) drink alcohol. They might even have had kids of their own. This is slightly insane.

MSDHAPO EC040But in celebration of this all-important anniversary, I’ve decided that every month, I’ll do a long-ish, meandering, beautifully worded post on the Potter books. ‘That’s not very different from what you usually do,’ you might say, and you’d be right. But this is a conscious decision, and these posts will be planned, which, if Pullman’s His Dark Materials are to be believed, makes all the  difference, since it signals intent and self-awareness and that all important and elusive thing: consciousness. Just go with me here.

Pullman actually segues perfectly into what I wanted to talk about today: the  desire to ‘know’ oneself, and the  translation of this yearning in fantasy fiction, specifically the  fiction meant for a younger audience. I’ve spoken about this earlier, in my post on Ron Weasley. I was a teenager when the  internet arrived at home, and made its presence felt in my social life. Noisy dial-ups and tied up phone lines notwithstanding, I made good use of it, MSN Messenger-ing with the  same people I had seen in school just hours earlier. There was the  high when my crush logged on and we entered into conversations peppered with sms language (him) and excited questions and too long answers (me). But apart from these conversations, my greatest pastime was reading Inuyasha or Lord of the  Rings fanfiction, or and taking ‘personality tests’.

These things have made a comeback, thanks to the  Internet’s greatest  popularity contest, Buzzfeed. But they’ve been around for ages, and I think my devotion to them at 13, a weird, housesin-between, annoying age, is telling. I might have dismissed it as ‘just me’ if it weren’t for the  fact that so many of the  books I read at that age, especially the  fantasy ones, dealt with these ideas too, and so explicitly. The  fascination to know oneself has persisted: what else explains the fact that, despite smart commentators and readers calling out the  stupidity of the  Hogwarts Sorting, so many of us continue to take those Pottermore quizzes, to discuss our Houses with our friends, and attempt to ‘Sort’ the  characters of shows we watch, or the  real people we see on TV? The Hogwarts Sorting, though far from perfect, at least points towards certain traits in the  characters, or what they hold as most important at that moment. It’s more than most of us can say about our ‘House’ sorting in school, where people are literally just shuffled into teams on the  basis of numbers.

And as much as Rowling might show us that the  Sorting is almost entirely random, that it’s literally done on the  basis of an eleven year old’s current frame of mind and understanding of herself, we continue to put some store in it. The  thinking behind the Sorting is what drives us to figure out what our Patroni would be, wands, Animagus and now, Ilvermorny houses. All of these results go some little way towards telling us something about ourselves we’ve long suspected, wanted to confirm. For instance, the  Pottermore test told me my Patronus would be a black mamba snake, which makes me feel mysterious, sexy and powerful. If only I knew it weren’t a computer algorithm producing this result, I’d feel even better about it.

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The  ‘daemons’ of Pullman’s Dark MAterials books are literally aspects of the  human soul given physical form. When a daemon ‘settles’, takes on its permanent shape, it reveals something about the  person it belongs to. For instance, a person who enjoys exploring, moving from one place to the  next, mentally or physically, may have a bird daemon, or a faithful and steady persona be paired off with a dog. What’s even more interesting is that the  sex of the  daemon is usually the  opposite of that of its human, though Pullman does mention a character whose dog daemon is male, like its master. He leaves unclear the  implications of this, which is a trifle surprising in an author who dared to literally kill God in his books.

But knowing yourself is one thing, it’s another entirely to wear that knowledge on your sleeve and let the  world see it. That’s what the  Sorting does: brand you for life in a small, small world where people make snap judgments based on your mindset as an eleven-year-old. The  daemon bares your soul, literally, and allows people to make decisions about the  kind of person you are, with no hiding or space for misreading. You’d have to get really, really good at dissimulation in a world like that. Thankfully, with social media, we’re making huge strides in that direction. So maybe we’re finally daemon-ready; the  filters have trained us well.

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.