‘Some good in the world’

Years after finishing Deathly Hallows for the first time, this conversation still wends through my mind:

‘Are you planning to follow a career in Magical Law, Miss Granger?” asked Scrimgeour.

‘No, I’m not,’ retorted Hermione. ‘I’m hoping to do some good in the world!’

hermione

Before the atrocity known as The Cursed Child came out, Hermione’s plans and career was a rather emotional topic of conversation for me. I remember a particularly charged exchange with a friend, wherein I asked ‘How on earth did Hermione survive after school?’ I was going through a bit of a rough patch in ‘the real world’, having found it not as hospitable and accommodating as I might have hoped. ‘Merit’, hard work, perseverance—none of that seemed to count here. It didn’t matter that I worked well, I thought; the road to whatever I wanted was long and hard and filled with obstacles, and some people had the power to get over them more easily than I did.

‘Hermione would never have been happy outside of school,’ I remember saying. ‘She was too good at it.’

Hermione was and is my model of what kind of student, nay, the kind of person I want to be. She’s intelligent, compassionate, and incredibly intuitive. She’s able to grasp concepts, really get at the fundamentals, in a way that not many other wizards seem to; she’s loyal and not afraid to get her hands dirty, or put in the time to get a job done. As I mentioned in this post, she’s incredibly brave as well, taking on a world she knows nothing about, with no safety net in place to catch her, for the sake of her best friend, love and the ‘rightness’ of her cause.

Such a person, I was sure, would inevitably be let down by the world outside of her school. She was too smart, too fair-minded, to want to thrive in a world of nepotism and red tape, ridiculous rules and drudgery. Unlike the far more officious Percy, who seemed to worship authority almost for its own sake, Hermione was not afraid to question and call out things she found wrong. It may have begun in Divination class, when she scoffed at Trelawney’s predictions of doom, but it was certainly in full force by Order of the Phoenix, when she not only helped start the DA under Umbridge’s nose, but uttered the now-infamous line: ‘I mean, it’s sort of exciting, isn’t it? Breaking the rules.’

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So when she talked back to Scrimgeour in Deathly Hallows, and scoffed at his question of her entering the law, it made a lot of sense. Of course Hermione would have no time for wizarding law, which kept house elves in slavery and endorsed segregation between ‘beasts’ and ‘beings’. She’d seen the law misused enough in just six years of being part of the magical world: Hagrid being carted off to Azkaban as a ‘preventative’ measure, Sirius’s lack of trial, and the exoneration of Lucius Malfoy being key examples. Not to mention, she had literally rebelled against the Ministry in school. Why on earth would she ever decide to go into that hellhole, when she had the whole world open before her? Surely she’d go onto some illustrious research career, I thought, and change lives, curing dragon pox, Neville’s parents, and rehabilitating house elves and other ‘marginal’ elements of wizarding society on the side.

Among the more ridiculous elements of Cursed Child was this, I thought—the revelation of what Hermione actually did after school. We don’t know how it happened, but somehow, she ended up not only running for Minister of Magic, but winning the position. That she won was not the confusing thing; it was her deciding to do it at all.

I tried to expunge it from my memory, like most of Cursed Child. Hermione would never have sold her soul and gone into politics! I told myself. She saw how corrupt it all was. She knew, even after Voldemort was gone, that the Ministry did not change overnight. Of the trio, Hermione was always the most grounded, the least likely to proceed on feelings and idealism alone. She weighed and measured every decision, at least when she felt she had the luxury to. Defeating Voldemort, of course, was a little beyond the scope of the normal, and so she’d thrown her arms up and gone along with Harry’s lack of a plan, while furiously preparing for any eventuality that might result (see: her beaded bag).

downloadBut then, as they say, life happened. I realized it was actually totally of a piece with Hermione’s logic for her to go into the belly of the beast. Hermione was careful, yes, but she never shrunk back from a challenge. Hermione did not rush blindly forth on the strength of feelings alone, sure, but she also never agreed or submitted to anything, or anyone, she felt was wrong. Hermione was smart and capable and scornful of those who believed they were better than her, simply because they were richer or prettier or had ‘purer blood’, but she was also willing, and more than ready, to work with those she respected and cared for, and had never, ever abandoned a friend, or a person, in need.

Surely this Hermione, someone who had saved the wizarding world with her smarts and talent, who’d started a society that was the butt of her friends’ jokes and championed a cause few would support—this Hermione, when she saw the problems of the world she’d chosen to defend, would roll up her sleeves, flick out her wand, and get down to solving them. And what better place to do it from, than the heart of power?

Hermione was on my mind when I read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the many more like her, young women who are stepping up, around the world, to take charge of a political system that’s historically worked against them. Hermione is on my mind when I read about Reese Witherspoon, or Priyanka Chopra, or other women in the film industry, who, sick of waiting for good parts to be written for them, have opened new streams down which ‘overlooked’ stories can set sail. And Hermione is definitely front and centre when I look at my own female friends, many of whom are doing and will do incredible things, whether that’s braving the courts and corporates, crafting art for a variety of media, or teaching the next generation of Hermiones and Harrys and Rons just how to go about defeating their own Voldemorts.

To them, and to Hermione, salút!

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Soaring on the Other wind

The tale of puberty, that difficult, awkward phase of a person’s life, has been told many times. I recall it with alternating flashes of embarrassment and nostalgia. There are some parts of it I think of fondly—the suddenly much more serious friendships, the whispers of crushes and romantic interest—and others I prefer to forget.

Why do I begin with this? I’ve read, somewhere, that the books we read in that phase, or as young teenagers, are the ones that affect us most, that stick with us and mould what becomes of us later on. I don’t know where this was, or even whether it’s scientifically proven, but I’ve often thought of it, and wondered at its validity, especially in my life. It’s true, for me at least, that the books I read in those years, 13 to 17, are the ones that have stayed with me longest, and still feature on my ‘top ten’ lists, even now, more than a decade later.

leguin_ursula_kUrusla le Guin’s books were among those.

I still remember it so clearly. When I hit 13, and my body began its weird, inexplicable morphing towards adulthood, my mother made me start ‘exercising’. This was very strange to me, since I was a fairly active child, attending dance classes and karate classes. True, I spent most of my time between those classes lying around and reading, or walking around and reading, but this emphasis on ‘exercise’ mystified me. She would make me, and my sister, go upstairs to the terrace, and do ‘something’. Skip, I assume. Or run. I’m not sure, mostly because, the moment I reached the terrace, I would pick up my book, and walk around, reading.

It was exercise of a sort, I suppose.

One of the books I picked up was Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet. I was coming to it fresh from The Lord of the Rings, and I knew, already, that I liked fantasy. I was more at home among dragons and Elves and heroic ideals than I was in any other place (like near a skipping rope, obviously). Being a smug little 13 year old, I thought I knew what I was in for, and being a smug little 13 year old, I was surprised.

The world of Earthsea was nothing like Middle Earth. It was dirty, and it was corrupt, and its residents smelled bad and lost control of their bowels. I distinctly remember a description of a princess—a princess—gasping in fear and the narrator commenting on the snot dangling from her nose. I was so scandalized by this; I was coming off fresh from the Arwens and Galadriels, who probably never had to sneeze, let alone leave mucus dangling from their noses.

But I loved it, and most of all, I loved the women in it. Two of them, specifically. I worshipped Tenar, the priestess in her tombs, who turns her back on everything she knows to flee to freedom and the outside world. I loved how she became wise, and venerable, and that I’d been able to watch her do it, in a way I never had with Galadriel. She felt reachable, closer to me than any woman Tolkien had created.

And I adored Tehanu. I’ll always remember The Other Wind for its last scenes, the victory and sheer power that accompanied Tehanu’s departure. I wanted to be her, and it’s with only the smallest bit of embarrassment that I admit wishing I was part dragon, so I too could transform in  a blaze of glory, and sail away from everything on the other wind.

rebecca-guay-the-tombs-of-atuanLe Guin’s world, and her women, were complicated, and messy. They were not an escape from reality. Puberty is a strange time. I remember feeling terrified, of everything, of myself, of inexplicable, hard to name things. Life didn’t seem neat and tidy, the way Tolkien’s world was at the end. There were darknesses in every corner, and I think, at that age, I was just beginning to realize it. At least, I was beginning to realize the dangers that accompanied my existence as a girl, and learning to cultivate a very particular kind of fear.

And strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, le Guin’s fantastical world reflected that darkness. It had at its root a greyness that Tolkien’s didn’t, a reckoning with the fact that many lives are haunted by danger, and dread.  And yet, her heroines managed to overcome it, whether by jumping madly across chasms, trusting to the words of a stranger, or reaching their arms up into the heavens. They struggled and they made mistakes, and they faced horrors, but they won through a hostile world.

They endured, perhaps with grey in their hair, or burns on their faces. But importantly, they endured, fighting on, or flying into, another day. 

the other windAnd I guess that’s what she’s done, enduring in a genre traditionally hostile to women, living life with a grace and fortitude that she infused in her characters. I’d like to think that she crossed that crumbling, horrible wall, and found it waiting on the far side. That Other wind, which swept her up, and took her to lands more fantastic than we can imagine.

Rumblings of war too distant: American Gods on TV

Every good reader and writer knows that to build a good story one requires a structure, and often, that structure is the bones of another, older tale. Almost every fantasy series does just this, bringing us into a world whose battle for existence is really just another in an ongoing conflict, only the gaps between them are so large that it feels new for those involved. A Song of Ice and FireLord of the Rings, even Harry Potter, many of them hint at what has come before, and often make it sound as though that battle, the one we just about missed, was actually the more exciting and epic and dark one; too bad we got the watered down present instead.

Neil Gaiman’s work of genius, American Gods, comes at this in a slightly different way. Here, the past, one of bloody glory and sacrifice, literally wages war with the present and future. The old gods, fearing irrelevance in the modern world, go to war against the smug new ones, and a crisis of belief envelopes the United States. ‘This is the only country that doesn’t know what it is,’ the mysterious Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow, our protagonist, at one point. The book was first published in 2001. The TV series debuted this year, but it’s eerily timely, considering everything that’s happening, not just in the US, but many other places in the world.

american godsMy relationship with American Gods is one of deep respect, bordering on an almost reverential awe. I think this is Gaiman’s greatest work, and nothing he’s done, before or after, comes close. It’s such an ambitious idea, to distill the soul of an entire country, and pour it into these forms from all over the world, but somehow, he managed it. The sheer audacity of it, to take all these immigrant stories and not just elevate them to the level of the divine, but to actually have the divine take form on your page and give it an almost disturbingly human quality, so the gods piss and fuck and act as ridiculously human–if not more so—than the believers they need so badly—this is soemthing that so few writers do with any grace, let alone the mastery that Gaiman displays. Our myth writers, who sell in the thousands, cannot compare. This, this is myth writing or retelling or casting or whatever you want to call it. It’s making the old new in such a way that you can see it happening, and only marvel at the sheer craft with which its done, like a glass house in which you can see all the beams and rafters, and appreciate the architect’s vision for what it truly is.

Anyway, enough blathering about the book. How did the TV series do? I was nervous, coming to it, which is why I put off viewing it for so long. The book was so cerebral, so intense an experience, that I felt no TV show could do it justice. The avalanche of great reviews calling it the show of the year and whatnot only made that apprehension worse. There’s something about extremely glowing reviews that puts me off; maybe it’s the hipster in me, who refuses to like what the mainstream has dubbed incredible. Not unless I dubbed it incredible first, ya know.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

So how does the show compare? Some of the key elements are the same: Shadow, a taciturn, brooding, muscular man gets out of jail to find that his wife has died in an accident. He is hired by Mr. Wednesday, a tricky old man who has some sort of grand plan up his sleeve, one which Shadow does not entirely understand. There is a crazy leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. The dead wife comes back to life and follows Shadow around. Gods old and new turn up in Shadow’s path and taunt or tease him, with lethal consequences or not depending on whose side they are on. And the whole is interspersed with flashbacks, stories of side characters, from the past or the present or in between, and how they came to America, bringing with them their beliefs and traditions, and their gods. Now, the gods feel abandoned, their followers turning to newer deities like Technology and Media (played by a totally-enjoying-herself Gillian Anderson), and the incense and sacrifice that once formed the staple of their diets, their very existence, is gone.

mr wednesdayThe casting is pretty damn good. Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday, and he does bring the character’s slippery charm and humour to the fore, but doesn’t let viewers forget that within, something else roils and churns, soething much older and more sinister. Ricky Whittle is broody and beautiful as Shadow, and I really liked Emily Browning as Laura Moon, or ‘dead wife’ as she’s more often called. The show has the added advantage of focusing on Laura more than the book did in some ways, following her journey, which parallels Shadow’s own. Just as Shadow journeys from doubt to belief and back, Laura, a much more nihilistic character, does the same, and Browning plays her clutching at meaning in an understated manner, which perhaps makes it all the more impactful. There also seem to be expanded roles for some of the side characters here, such as Bilquis, a fertility goddess, and Mad Sweeney, who really lingered on the edges in the book, only careening chaotically into the middle of the action now and then. I suppose this is done to pad out the whole season, and leave enough meat for a second, if not third and fourth as well.

Emily Browning as Laura Moon

Emily Browning as Laura Moon

There are downsides to this padding—and that means that the ‘conflict’ doesn’t really start until well into the season, if then. Some of the episodes are stuffed with too much long drawn out conversation, which works well for a comedy, or more ‘realist’ drama like Mad Men, but here runs the risk of being boring. I could have done with less hijinks with Laura for instance, and more of Mr. Nancy, the form of Anansi the Spider. Or perhaps more of the old gods and their stories, and less of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow conversing? Shadow is never the most entertaining conversationalist, so really, these are one man shows that we could have done without.

Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: you can live without watching it. It’s stylistically done, yes. Some of the acting is great, yes. But does it string together well as a story? So much that is great about the Gaiman novel is that though it appears a little fragmented, though it takes a while for the shape of the ‘quest’ to come together, and even then it is only a small glimpse of what we must understand as a much larger battle that human minds cannot possibly comprehend, the whole works together. This? It’s a bit draggy in parts, and too incomprehensible in others, and overall, lacks the big picture amazement that say, Game of Thrones or Legion have. Hopefully it’ll be tighter next season.

But if you haven’t already, go read the book. Trust me, that is one thing you will not regret.

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.

harry writing

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.

alan-rickman-wrote-a-heartwarming-goodbye-letter-to-harry-potter-and-jk-rowling

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.’

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.

galavant-poster

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.

trio

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 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.

Albus Severus and the Burden of History

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There be liberal spoilers for Cursed Child below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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