This is not a Cursed Child review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I will always be watching you.

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

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

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

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Among Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roses and Rot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you waiting for?

The Star Touched Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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