WoB Talk

February 14, 2017

My Novel Is Totally Happening #2: In Which We Discuss the Potential Absence of Love Interests

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 8:31 am

It’s mid-February, and you know what that means: 1) everything is pink and cute, and 2) it’s time for another pre-book-launch post about something tangentially related to my novel, Weave a Circle Round. And since it’s also Valentine’s Day, that “something” will inevitably be love-themed. Stay tuned.

First, however, here is my second character portrait, this time of Josiah, one of the mysterious neighbours who moves in next door to Freddy’s family and immediately starts to disrupt everything. If this were like about 90% of YA urban fantasies, Freddy and Josiah would start out hating each other but eventually discover they were in love. I’ll tell you straight up that this doesn’t happen. It’s not even a spoiler. Two paragraphs with Josiah will demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is not love-interest material. Telling you why would be a spoiler, but trust me: there will be no longing sighs and stolen glances here.

josiah-edited

Funnily enough, just writing that makes me feel as if I need to go on the defensive. What…am I saying Josiah isn’t good enough to be a love interest? What’s wrong with him? Am I insinuating that people who have things wrong with them can’t attract crushes from angry fourteen-year-old girls? Am I implying Freddy’s obviously better than him? Am I discriminating against Josiah? Doesn’t he deserve to be part of a love story?

Okay. It’s Valentine’s Day, and all the couples are off gooping at each other, so let’s unpack this.

Why in the name of all that is holy is the love story seen as the pinnacle of everything good and right in the world? Is it not possible to create a work that doesn’t contain a love story but in which it’s not implied that the characters simply don’t deserve one? I like Josiah. I think he’s awesome in his own dysfunctional way, but I’m not going to reward him with a love story because I don’t see love stories as rewards. Why should they be? If you’re a kid who’s suddenly swept away on a terrifying and fascinating journey through time and space, is the thought foremost in your mind really going to be, “I wonder when I’ll find my soulmate”? Or is it going to be, “I guess I have to learn to climb mountains really, really quickly”? Sure, teenagers think about sex a lot. They also think about a great many things that are not sex. What’s with the assumption that the culmination of the story always has to be a Big Damn Kiss that will lead inevitably to lifelong marital bliss and personal fulfilment?

Admittedly, fairy tales are probably at least partially to blame, but even there, the connection is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of fairy tales via our old friend Disney. Disney has fetishised “true love’s kiss” and made it the central focus of its stories. The company is beginning to pull back from that, but only to the extent that the kissing is now cleverly self-aware and occasionally involves sisters instead of lovers. Yet if you trace “true love’s kiss” back to the fairy tales on which Disney is drawing, you’ll notice something interesting: it isn’t there.

Yes, it’s true: “true love’s kiss” is an invention of the Mouse. Disenchanting kisses are not actually hugely common in fairy tales. When they do turn up, they are often bowdlerisations of scenes in which Person A disenchants Person B by other means (ranging from “just being there” through “sleeping with B” to “cutting off B’s head”). The only folk-tale-derived version of “Sleeping Beauty” that includes a kiss is the Brothers Grimm’s, and even there, the kiss itself doesn’t wake the girl up; it just coincidentally happens right when the hundred years are over. Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the Grimms’ “Snow White,” and the various versions of “The Frog Prince” that have not been bowdlerised don’t contain kisses at all. The disenchanting kiss is, for better or worse, now a firm part of our idea of how stories work, but it hasn’t actually been so for very long.

This is important because while we now think of fairy tales as being about true love, what they’re generally really about is marriage, which isn’t the same thing at all. Even just sticking to the European tales, we see a bunch of stories developed by peasants to whom marriage was one of the only ways of experiencing even a limited form of social mobility. Of course the boy has to marry the princess at the end of the story; he’s the youngest son of a poor miller. How else could he possibly get ahead? Of course the girl wants to go to the ball. Her society tells her that’s her only way of escaping her grim family situation. Marriage in these stories is all about social climbing. In the Grimms’ “The Brave Little Tailor,” the princess doesn’t even like the tailor she’s forced to marry. In fact, she tries to have him killed. The tailor doesn’t care; he bullies her into standing down, and the story ends there, with the tailor sitting pretty and his wife both fearing and resenting him. “The Brave Little Tailor” is not really much of an exception where fairy tales are concerned.

So we have this influential body of stories in which getting married is the ultimate prize. As Disney has demonstrated, it’s not so difficult to turn “success = marriage” into “success = true love.” Is it all that surprising, then, that we have come to expect love plots in all our stories, and that we see characters as somehow lesser if they can’t get the girl/boy/sentient mushroom?* I can’t speak for every culture in existence, but I can tell you the entirety of Western civilisation spends a lot of time screaming at me about how I’ll be wasting my life if I don’t find Mr. Right and pop out at least two babies. We’ve internalised European peasant wish fulfilment and turned it into something that may be a tiny bit more harmful, as we don’t always acknowledge that it is wish fulfilment. The women sitting around in spinning circles telling stories about girls rescuing enchanted princes with magic golden spindles didn’t spend twenty-four hours a day convinced that someday, their princes would come. Many of us kind of do. Today is emblematic of that; Valentine’s Day has become an expectation, a love-focused day on which couples can celebrate achieving “the dream” while the rest of us losers sit around waiting for the chocolate to go on sale.

We’ll eventually fall out of love with love, and our fictional worlds will begin to shift. Our current belief that the power of “true love” is universal and undeniable can be contradicted via a quick look back at stories written down not all that long ago. There’s no reason to believe that romantic love will survive forever as a central ideal. For now, however, we might consider not dismissing stories that don’t culminate in a love plot or thinking less of characters who don’t get love stories. Sometimes, Peter Parker, it’s not “all about a girl.”

I do want to emphasise that I’m not knocking works that do love stories well. There are plenty of those. Sometimes, love plots are called for, and love interests can be amazing characters when they’re allowed to function outside the simple “love interest” category. My favourite love stories are organically part of the plot, not forced onto it as a reward for the protagonist. It’s also nice to see characters who are already in relationships and who aren’t continually in danger of destroying everything because they have no self-control. Not every story has to be a will-they-or-won’t-they plot or a story of adulterous betrayal or a tragic tale of lost love in which a character is haunted by the memory of his or her brutally murdered lover. Sometimes, Person A and Person B are together and fine, and it can be just as interesting as — if not more so than — love as a reward.

Happy Valentine’s Day. I would like, stubbornly, to raise a glass to all the fictional characters who aren’t involved in love stories and don’t want to be. More power to them. At least when their adventures are happening, they’re paying proper attention.

*Depending on your genre.

January 15, 2017

My Novel Is Totally Happening #1: In Which We Talk About Time Travel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 1:50 pm

So I have this novel, Weave a Circle Round, coming out in the fall of 2017. I may have mentioned it once or twice because I may just be super excited about it. I’ve been yearning to be a real writer and publish real novels my entire life, and now I’m 42 and it’s actually going to happen. This makes me go AAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGH a lot.

However, we’ve still got close to eleven months to go. This doesn’t make me any less excited, but it does make me want to fill in the gap by writing and drawing stuff. I’ve thus decided to produce a series of pictures of the novel’s characters. With luck, I’ll occasionally remember I’m doing this and add to the series. For now, have a drawing of the book’s protagonist, Freddy Duchamp. I have appended a number of vague and somewhat mysterious notes to the image; they don’t give much away, but they’re definitely pertinent. This is, incidentally, how I see Freddy. I don’t mind if others see her differently.

freddy-edited

Since I’ve got you here, I may as well also talk a little bit about time travel.

Here’s the thing:

I love time travel. I may love it a bit too much. Weave a Circle Round, which I wrote in 2010, involves time travel. In 2014, when hope had begun to fade that anyone would ever pick the book up, I started a webcomic, It Never Rains, that also involved time travel. A year later, Tor bought the book, and suddenly, I was someone who wrote about all the time travel all the time. The funny thing is that despite my love of time travel, I’d never written a time-travel story before. Now, unexpectedly, I had two simultaneously.

Yet…I don’t think of Weave a Circle Round as a time-travel story. I think of it as a story about other things that happens to have time travel in it. The distinction may not matter to many people, but it interests me because it says something about the ways we use time travel in stories. It is, in a way, a unique device because its effects tend to remain broadly the same (i.e., it involves a character or characters moving atypically through time instead of or in addition to space) even when its causes, rules, and mechanisms vary widely. This flexibility renders the meaning of time travel extremely elastic.

Imagine three stories involving characters who travel from 2017 to 1914. The first character is a scientist who builds a vaguely plausible machine that makes use of the principles of space-time as we currently understand them. The second is a little girl who finds a necklace in her great-great-grandmother’s jewellery box and is transported into the past when she puts it on. The third is a police detective who is working at solving a murder but keeps being yanked inexplicably back in time, rendering the case difficult to solve (though is it, in fact, connected to the time travel?). These are simply three of a huge number of possible variations, but they demonstrate how the shape of each story is affected by the type of time travel being used. The scientist in the first story wants to travel in time; the story is one of exploration and scientific discovery. The girl in the second story is time travelling via magic, not science, and the travel is accidental. If she is in a story for children or young adults, it is relatively likely that there will be a teaching element to the tale, not because all children’s stories are didactic but because children’s authors do often use time travel to teach a lesson or propel a character into a coming of age. The time travel will teach the character something about herself, her family, or her society. I would argue that the third work is not a time-travel story per se but a mystery in which time travel plays a role. The mechanism of travel could easily be either science based or magic based; unlike in the other two stories, the mechanism doesn’t drive the story (or if it does, we don’t find out how and why until much later).

The point is that the time travel has a different purpose in each story, and that’s before we get into the tangled distinctions between different models of time travel and delve into arguments about whether or not, in a particular story, it is possible for characters to change the past. A time-travel story can be primarily about travelling in time, but frequently, the time travel itself is almost incidental. One of the first time-travel stories — and arguably still the best known — is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which is definitely focused on time travel as an adventure, but even so, what it’s really about is Wells’s own time and the social structure of his society. Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred uses time travel as a metaphor for slavery even as the protagonist, Dana, is pulled helplessly back into a time in which her ancestors are enslaved. In Back to the Future, the DeLorean is a fun time machine, and Doc Brown’s shameless mugging is appreciated, but we’re really watching the story of an alienated kid in danger of following in his parents’ failing footsteps who is able to come of age by quite literally getting to know his family and the nuances behind his parents’ behaviour. Time travel allows these stories to happen, but in every case, it’s important as more than just the mechanical action of travelling in time.

In fiction, time travel can effectively be a portal to another world (albeit a world defined by time, not space), a cosmic teaching tool, a metaphor for fate, a metaphor for free will, a reminder that the past is important, a warning that actions have consequences, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities. It’s rarely just time travel. It can mean whatever an author needs it to mean and take on a central or a peripheral role in a story; it can work with or without a machine, with or without a magic device, with or without a didactic element, with or without limits or restrictions or bootstrap paradoxes or time travellers accidentally stepping on butterflies. It can fit comfortably within science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, surrealism, or a bizarre combination of all of the above.

Time travel is kind of everywhere on TV right now, and I’m not sure that’s an accident. I think we may be drawn to it when concerns about the past or the future are prominent in our society, and at the moment, we’ve got both. It’s not just the idea of fixing the past that fascinates us, either; it’s the idea of making it worse by making the wrong choices. It takes only a small tweak to translate that into an anxiety about us making the wrong choices in the present and screwing up the future. This is really Wells all over again, except that the past, not the future, has become our metaphorical playground.

I don’t really know how to end this essay without saying something twee about my own stories and how they fit in here, but that’s not my point. The fact that time-travel stories don’t have to fit any particular pattern — though they can — is what I find fascinating about them. In Terminator 2, the remembered line “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” warns John Connor that his mother intends to change the future. Time travel itself echoes this line: it is what we make of it, though sometimes, as in the Terminator films, it gets away from us and carves out its own meaning.

November 13, 2016

Review: Claudia Gray’s A Million Worlds with You

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:01 pm

A Million Worlds with You (Firebird, #3)A Million Worlds with You by Claudia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Million Worlds with You closes out Claudia Gray’s Firebird trilogy. I gave each of the previous works 3 stars and have been bouncing between 3 and 4 on this one. I’d say 3.5 would be fair. Bits of the novel work extremely well, while other bits are still bothering me. All in all, the final book in the series constitutes a fairly strong conclusion.

Dimension-hopping “perfect traveller” Marguerite Caine here picks up exactly where she left off in the cliffhanger of the second novel: trapped in her own body, which has been stolen by “Wicked,” the worst of the alternate Marguerites. However, Wicked’s visit is a brief one because Paul apparently has Marguerite-Sensing Superpowers and can identify any Marguerite in any body (sigh). Wicked escapes on a wild journey across the dimensions, with Marguerite on her tail. The plot is oddly video-game-like; Marguerite must continually hop into versions of herself that Wicked has recently set up to be killed, figure out the traps, and save herself and often other people from death. Wicked’s scheme is both vengeful and purposeful, as the more Marguerites she murders, the less chance Marguerite and her allies have of saving the dimensions Wicked’s grief-stricken parents are trying to destroy in their “Monkey’s Paw”-like quest to put their dead daughter Josie back together again. (Side note: I’ve got to admit I’m disappointed that Gray never mentions “The Monkey’s Paw,” even obliquely. The Josie plot is pure W. W. Jacobs.)

The tour of the dimensions continues to be fascinating. Though most of the dimensions aren’t that different from Marguerite’s own, her alternate selves frequently find themselves in wildly divergent situations. As well, some of the dimensions are different enough to provide great set pieces. I won’t give anything away, but there’s one dimension in particular that allows Marguerite to…well…really get to know herself. A lot of the time, the difference is made by whatever field Marguerite’s scientist parents decided to go into in a given dimension. Marguerite, who is becoming increasingly comfortable as an interdimensional traveller, seems endlessly fascinated by the new worlds even as she struggles to save them.

However, she is also discovering the costs of her travels. This element is one of the book’s strongest. The previous volumes have Marguerite beginning to realise how much damage she may be doing, but the lesson is driven home here as the Marguerites start to die and even the ones who survive may find their lives irrevocably altered. Wicked also demonstrates to Marguerite that her own good intentions have the potential to be twisted out of shape, as does her artistic gift. Marguerite’s ultimate antagonist here is not Wyatt Conley, the villain who pops up throughout the previous books but who barely appears in this one; it’s instead a damaged version of herself. Her coming of age is tied inextricably to her ability to know and understand her own worst self.

As with the other books, one of the weak links is Marguerite’s love life. It’s increasingly hard to care about her relationship with Paul. There are points where Paul’s stony refusal to admit that he may not always be broken as a result of his “splintering” experience works, but a lot of the time, he may as well just be announcing that he’s drawing out the suspense so the love plot doesn’t conclude too soon. The romance is often a distraction from the more interesting things going on, to the extent that it’s a relief whenever Marguerite jumps away on her own. It also makes me grit my teeth a bit to see an eighteen-year-old character so extremely convinced that she will be with the same man forever and ever, but maybe that’s just me.

Yet the love plot is often less distracting here that it is in the other books; it is not what almost drove me down to three stars again. This time, the biggest problem is that Gray seems to have lost track of her own story. There are a lot of inconsistencies, starting with the method Wicked’s cronies use to destroy dimensions (didn’t the characters in the last book say they hadn’t quite figured that out yet?). Many of the inconsistencies constitute spoilers, so I won’t get any more specific, but while I was reading, there were several points at which I thought, “But…!” The ending also seems a bit rushed, with plot points tumbling over each other and characters changing their behaviour for the sake of what seems like plot convenience rather than genuine development.

In the end, the Firebird trilogy is somewhat uneven but worth reading. Marguerite develops as a character over the course of the trilogy, especially in the final book, and her adventure is exciting and imaginatively described. I’m still not a huge fan of the love triangle, but the closer focus on Wicked in A Million Worlds with You almost makes up for it.

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November 6, 2016

Review: Kasie West’s P.S. I Like You

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 10:53 pm

P.S. I Like YouP.S. I Like You by Kasie West

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me just start by saying this is not my kind of book.

I don’t really care for romances. If a novel that belongs to some other genre has a romance in it, I’m okay with it as long as it’s unobtrusive and doesn’t stop the actual story dead in its tracks. My ideal romance subplot would probably be the relationship between Sam Vimes and Lady Sibyl in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! All the romance beats are there, but the lovers, if they can be called that, are a down-on-his-luck drunken policeman and a large, cheerful spinster devoted to training pet swamp dragons. There is nothing not awesome about that romance.

YA non-SF romances, on the other hand, are just not written for me. They weren’t even written for me when I was thirteen. However, I subscribed to the monthly OwlCrate box this summer. OwlCrate is devoted to YA fiction, which works for me because I’m interested in the genre, and when I bought the subscription in August, I thought I was too late for the August box and was aiming for the September box, which contained a book that looked intriguing. However, I was just in time for the August box. It featured P.S. I Like You, which has a pink spine and a cutesy title and a jarring cover featuring two real teenagers who basically look like the worst people in the world. I had nightmares about this kind of book when I was ten.

Since I’ve made a bet with myself that I’ll read and review all the OwlCrate books, I must start with this one, even though the September and October books are much more my sort of thing, as is the pending November book. Ah well.

Rules of the review: I write this in full recognition of the fact that this book is not for me. I’ll try to be relatively objective.

The novel follows high-school junior Lily Abbott, a young hipster who wants to be a songwriter, though she hasn’t yet gathered up the courage to show anyone her lyrics. She has a large, noisy, artistic family that is living paycheque to paycheque, though there’s no sign anyone else at her high school isn’t well off. She has a crush on a senior named Lucas and a vendetta against her best friend Isabel’s former boyfriend, Cade. One day, in Chemistry (which she hates), she scribbles some lyrics from one of her favourite songs on her desk, and someone replies. She and the mysterious other student begin exchanging letters they wedge under their shared desk. The story then progresses as a mild mystery: who is the letter writer? Which boy is Lily slowly falling for? Will her family ever leave her alone for two seconds so she can finish a song for a songwriting contest? Why is Lucas so cute? Why is Cade so annoying?

For what it is, the novel is…well…all right. Lily is a pretty engaging narrator, though she indulges in a fair amount of self-pitying whining. Her family is quite fun. I want to know more about her mom and dad’s bizarre jewelry-making rivalry, and I think everyone should have a blind pumpkin-pie-tasting contest at Thanksgiving. I do find that the minor characters are pretty sketchily drawn. Lily’s sister Ashley gets a bit of a personality, but her two little brothers, whom she calls Thing One and Thing Two, are considerably less defined than the actual Thing One and Thing Two. Isabel’s boyfriend has almost nothing to do, and the boyfriend’s friend David seems to exist for no particular reason; he vanishes quietly once he’s expended his plot-related usefulness.

I won’t give away the identity of the letter writer, but it didn’t surprise me even a little bit. I guessed it immediately. West’s red herrings are a little transparent. The romance works best when Lily and her admirer are still exchanging letters; the letters do genuinely sound as if they were written by a couple of slightly pretentious teenagers. Once the two meet, however, the story just keeps going and going and going and going, even though there’s not much of a point. The whole thing is a little predictable and not particularly memorable. It is nice that when Lily finds herself in a pickle, she’s saved not by her True Love but by her siblings.

While I would rather focus my wish-fulfilment fantasies on trips to magical lands populated by monsters, not on That Cute Boy I Like, I’m sure a lot of kids will enjoy this book. The three stars are for them. I doubt I’ll ever read it again, but I did binge the last third, so I guess that’s something.

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October 29, 2016

Review: Claudia Gray’s Ten Thousand Skies Above You

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 1:22 pm

Ten Thousand Skies Above You (Firebird, #2)Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ten Thousand Skies Above You is the second book in Claudia Gray’s Firebird trilogy. It continues the story of Marguerite Caine’s adventures through a myriad of parallel dimensions. Last time, she was seeking revenge for her father’s murder; now she’s out to rescue her boyfriend, Paul, who has been torn into four separate pieces by the shadowy corporation blackmailing Marguerite into working for it. As she strives to find the splinters of Paul while also trying to avoid helping the Triad Corporation, Marguerite must also struggle with the personal consequences–on both her life and the lives of her other selves–of interfering in the workings of the multiverse.

As with the first volume, A Thousand Pieces of You, Volume 2 is a slightly frustrating mixture of amazing world building and dreary love triangle. Gray’s treatment of the multiverse continues to be fascinating. Some of the worlds Marguerite visits are very similar to ours (in fact, by implication, one is ours; Marguerite herself seems to hail from a closely related but not-quite-identical world), whereas others are either more or less advanced or have been sent off in bizarre directions by important historical events. This time around, Marguerite visits a world that is, technologically and culturally speaking, stuck in the Middle Ages; a world in which the United States is involved in a war on American soil; a world very like her own in which she gets mixed up with the Russian mob; a technologically advanced world in which nations have been replaced by constantly warring corporations; and our own world (probably), which is recognisable because it has iPhones in it. She also revisits one of her favourite worlds from Volume 1, though that doesn’t turn out quite as she expects it to. Gray continues her ruminations on souls and destiny and whether or not alternate selves are all the same person, and it all gets very interesting when Marguerite leaps into a version of herself who is…well, let’s just call her “not a very nice person” and leave it at that. It’s interesting stuff. Every new world offers new possibilities, some exciting, some kind of horrifying.

However, eighteen-year-old Marguerite is a bit obsessed with Paul and the whole idea of the two of them being in love forever in every universe. I understand. Eighteen-year-olds are often intense about these things. That’s fine. It’s just that every time the love angle comes up, the plot stops dead. It becomes a chore to grind through Marguerite’s agonised thoughts about whether every Paul is the same and whether she’s really in love with her friend Theo in one of the worlds and whether she really should be in love with Theo and whether it means anything that Theo is in love with her and whether Paul is her fate after all and OH MY GOD, MARGUERITE, JUST STOP. When I read the bit where one of the Pauls called her “insecure,” I nearly applauded. It’s great that Marguerite’s got real flaws, but this particular flaw makes her seem awfully whiny and clingy at times. It’s hard not to cringe when she meets a new Paul and repeats over and over again that she’s sure she’s safe with him because he always protects her. Protect yourself, kid. I know you can.

The story is heading into tangled-conspiracy-theory territory in advance of the final book, which comes out in a few days. It seems promising. However, a new wrinkle in the love plot has been introduced, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get through Volume 3 without screaming in impatience. I do realise this is partly just my own aversion to love stories rearing its problematic head. However, take, in comparison, another Claudia Gray book, the Star Wars tie-in novel Lost Stars. It’s also a love story. It could even accurately be called a Romeo-and-Juliet story, possibly one of the most cliched types of love story around. However, in that one, the flawed, likable characters transcend the love plot. The love story is always there, but it doesn’t stop the flow of the narrative or impede the world building. Character development is not entirely tied to who is in love with whom and/or who is separated from whom. The love plot is absolutely important to the story as a whole, but it doesn’t take anything away from that story. Give me something like that, and I’ll stop complaining about all the gooshy love.

I would characterise Ten Thousand Skies Above You as see-sawing between two stars and four. It’s effectively a four-star novel into which a two-star alternative self from another dimension has leaped.

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September 28, 2016

Review: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:28 pm

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First of all, I should say that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (the original 1962 novel) is one of the books that has most profoundly shaped my own writing, as well as my approach to literature. It’s not a perfect book–L’Engle was right at the beginning of her career when she wrote it, and it shows–but Meg Murry remains one of my favourite protagonists. I can’t tell you what a revelation it was for me as an awkward twelve-year-old girl when I picked up this book and saw a character who was just as stubborn, angry, tearful, and unfair as I often was. Meg isn’t sweet or pretty; she can be kind and compassionate, but not without a struggle. She’s real. And when she goes to fight IT the first time, the gift she’s given by Mrs. Whatsit is her faults. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the simple but profound lesson that passage taught me: that strong characters are not necessarily strong people, and that apparent weakness can be far more interesting than obvious strength.

I picked up the graphic version of the novel because I’d heard good things, but I was still worried, not because it was a comic–I am happy to defend comics to the death–but because it was an adaptation. I know the 2003 television-movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time didn’t turn out all that well. I also sort of felt that the story didn’t particularly need to be a comic. However, I tried it anyway because why not? At the very least, it seemed like an intriguing project to explore.

For the most part, the adaptation works well. L’Engle’s text is dialogue-heavy, and most of the words used in the comic are taken verbatim from the novel. One choice the adapter, Hope Larson, makes is to turn some of the narration into text boxes containing Meg’s first-person perspective. A few of these bits are taken from first-person thoughts Meg has in the novel; others shift the third-person commentary into the first person. The technique both works and doesn’t. It does allow Meg some of the interiority the comic-book format takes away from her, but it’s a bit inconsistent, disappearing and then popping back up again at random. The text boxes are most prevalent when Meg is alone, which makes sense, but when other characters are in play, Meg sometimes seems to fade into the background.

Luckily, Larson’s evocative drawings are especially effective when it comes to Meg’s expressions. She also differentiates well between the characters, with Meg’s pinched little face standing in stark contrast to Calvin’s teenage awkwardness and Charles Wallace’s big-eyed, cherubic intelligence. Meg’s black eye becomes a character in and of itself; when it is healed by Aunt Beast, the reader almost misses it. The designs of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which are also distinctive and full of personality. Perhaps the oddest thing about how the characters are drawn is that many of them seem to smile at inappropriate moments, but even these weird little smiles eventually become endearing and stand in contrast to Charles Wallace’s borderline evil smile when he’s under the control of IT.

The evil-Charles-Wallace segment alone is worth the price of admission. Larson takes her adorable Charles Wallace design and shifts his expression just enough that the angelic becomes demonic. The scenes in which IT is controlling Charles Wallace are, if possible, even harder to read here than they are in the original.

The graphic format sometimes works very nicely. At other times, the story seems choppy and abrupt, with Meg’s switch from screaming anger to smiling acceptance when she is being asked to go back for Charles Wallace alone being a particularly glaring example. The ending seems even more sudden here than it does in the original. However, all in all, Larson does a good job of letting L’Engle’s dialogue tell the story as she fills in the narration with images. The choice to use only the colour blue as shading gives the images a spooky feel that complements the mysteries of the plot.

While I don’t think this adaptation will be replacing L’Engle’s novel any time soon, and while I’m not entirely convinced that someone reading it before the novel will be able to follow everything that’s going on, the graphic retelling makes a good companion piece to the novel. It doesn’t really give us anything new, but it nonetheless offers a pleasing visualisation of an iconic work.

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September 24, 2016

Review: Claudia Gray’s A Thousand Pieces of You

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 8:03 am

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird, #1)A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up A Thousand Pieces of You because of its intriguing premise: most particularly, because the idea of a girl hopping from dimension to dimension to avenge the murder of her father sounded full of yummy sci-fi goodness. I still love the world of this novel and the vast potential inherent in the idea of interdimensional travel. However, the good old love triangle at the story’s heart weakens what could otherwise be a solid narrative with a great female protagonist.

The novel follows Marguerite Caine, the artist daughter of two brilliant scientists, as she joins one of her parents’ grad students, Theo, on his quest to catch the murderer of Marguerite’s father. They are chasing another grad student, Paul, who has apparently cut Dr. Caine’s brakes and sent his car into the water, then absconded with a piece of technology that allows him to leap into alternate-dimension versions of himself. Marguerite and Theo use the only two other versions of this technology in existence to follow, and Marguerite finds herself living the lives of a variety of other Marguerites, some of whose situations differ radically from hers (one is a Russian princess, and yes, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this). As she and Theo follow Paul from world to world, Marguerite begins to realise that the situation is not quite what it seems and that Paul may not, in fact, be her enemy after all.

The best aspects of the novel involve the exploration of the alternate dimensions. Gray’s many-worlds model has a built-in acknowledgement of what one character calls the possibility of “fate”; in other words, while the worlds may deviate quite widely from each other in some respects, the same people do tend to exist in all of them (as wildly unlikely as it may seem that exactly the same sperm would penetrate exactly the same egg even when the parents of the child are coming together in extremely different places, situations, and circumstances). The world in which Marguerite is Russian is especially fascinating, as its technology has lagged behind that of Marguerite’s own world, and everything is very nineteenth century, even while many of the people who exist in our twenty-first-century still exist there (for instance, Bill Clinton is around, wearing mutton chops, apparently). The first world Marguerite visits is also intriguing because it is more advanced than Marguerite’s and thus allows Gray to play with some inventive technological innovations.

Another strong aspect of the novel is Marguerite’s own musings–and eventual deepening confusion–about identity and relationships. In the various dimensions, she inhabits the bodies of Marguerites who both are and are not her. In one of them, she has an experience that, as she acknowledges later, the “real” Marguerite should have had herself; it’s an experience she can never have again. Even before Marguerite begins considering the ethics of what she’s doing, the reader may feel uncomfortable watching her make certain essential decisions that have the potential to profoundly affect the Marguerites whose lives Marguerite is borrowing. The strongest segments of the novel revolve around Marguerite coming to grips with the consequences of her actions. Her interactions with the various versions of her family are also well handled. In some dimensions, her father is alive, and Marguerite is put in the position of having to spend time with someone she loves and she knows is, in her world, dead. In other worlds, her mother is dead. Her sister sometimes exists and sometimes does not, and once, she gains three entirely different siblings instead. Loss itself takes on a variety of dimensions through Marguerite’s dimension-hopping adventure.

However, the love story is intrusive to the point of being overwhelming. Love stories in general do not make me leap to my feet in joy, but I can accept a good love story that has a reason to exist and moves the plot along. While it’s certainly possible to argue that the love plot in A Thousand Pieces of You is really the main point, it acts to weaken, not strengthen, Marguerite as a character. She seems to accept as a matter of course that the big strong men need to be there to protect her. Even when she’s at the point of the story where she finally realises exactly what’s going on, there’s a helplessness about Marguerite. She gets quite a few nice moments of agency throughout the novel, and she’s at her best when she’s alone and forced to rely only on herself, but whenever one of the guys turns up, she tends to defer to him. While this could absolutely be part of her character growth–an element she must recognise and eventually overcome–it actually seems to become more acute as the story progresses.

As well, the triangular shape of the plot is such a well-tread path that even with its various twists and turns, the story becomes rather predictable. Let’s just say (without giving anything essential away) that I was pretty sure what was up with certain characters long before the shocking truth was revealed, simply because that was how the love triangle demanded the story should go. There’s one small surprise that is pretty neat, but otherwise, everything pans out as expected. The mundanity of the love story detracts from the stronger world building and also, more harmfully, from Marguerite’s growth as a character. When she’s going all gooshy about being protected and looked after by someone who treats her like a fragile, breakable doll, she has less time to ruminate on consequences.

In the end, I’m happy enough with this book to pick up the sequel (and likely the third volume when it’s released in November), but I’m very much hoping that sequel will give Marguerite more of a chance to shine. Her character still feels incomplete: promising, but too bound up in being an object of desire to become an agency-driven subject.

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September 20, 2016

Review: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 8:34 am

Children of Earth and SkyChildren of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s books since I was thirteen or so. I’ve made my way through all of them, including his volume of poetry. Lately, however, I’ve had a harder time getting into the stories. For me, the pinnacle of Kay’s work is The Lions of Al-Rassan, in which he captures beautifully the idea of a war in which there is no right–and no wrong–side. Nothing since has quite measured up.

Children of Earth and Sky is, like many of Kay’s books, set in his not-quite-real parallel universe, which contains many historical similarities to our own world without being absolutely bound by actual history. The novels also contain some magic, though often only hints of it. This particular volume is farther forward in the history of this world than Kay has ever gone, taking place in the otherworldly equivalent of the Renaissance. Its setting covers much the same ground as the Sarantine Mosaic novels, though the works are set nearly a millennium apart.

This is where the first problem arises. I know Kay likes to build in little connections between his novels, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or at least not until the references start taking up nearly as much time as the narrative, and not always for much of a purpose. It’s nice to know what’s become of Crispin’s work and some of the places he visited, but a lot of this stuff seems to be here simply so people who have read the Sarantium books can go, “Hey…I remember that!” After a while, it begins to read as a little self-indulgent.

The characters here are also a bit more sparsely sketched out than they could be. Kay tends to go into great detail when he creates his characters, and the novel starts out promisingly, but the characters never truly grow beyond their own broad types. There are only so many times the narrator can tell us a character is “very young” (the narrator seems fixated on everybody’s youth) before we start wishing for less harping on age and more attention to character development. None of the characters does anything particularly surprising. They’re all smarter than the average bear and have a tendency to get out of scrapes by saying or doing exactly the right thing at the right moment (when they make mistakes, the narrator chimes in with, “It was a mistake,” or something similar). They’re also all the very best at everything. Danica is the best fighter, Marin the most clever merchant, Pero the greatest artist (eventually), Leonora the best [spoilers, but believe me, she’s the best at it]. No one is incompetent at anything. Consequently, even though the characters are quite far apart in their situations, stations, and occupations, they have a certain sameness. It doesn’t help that Danica and Leonora, the only two important point-of-view women, are both young, beautiful, and blonde.

Kay’s treatment of women sometimes bothers me, though certainly not always. Jehane of The Lions of Al-Rassan is, despite being stuck in a be-cursed love triangle, a well-written character with both strengths and flaws. Other female characters who manage to transcend the radiant beauty Kay almost always gives them (with one or two exceptions) do also pop up from time to time. However, many of these women are defined mostly by their sexuality. The argument that women’s power in a patriarchal society is often a manipulative one that works largely through sexual favours is, well, problematic to start with, but even if we accept it as true, we run up against the problem that in this particular story, the two major female characters are an exemplary warrior and a woman who eventually gains a type of power that has little, if not nothing, to do with sex. Why, then, the continual emphasis on these characters sleeping with various people (even, sometimes, having to sleep with various people)? If the same attention were paid to the sexual exploits of every male character, fine, but it’s really not. When Pero is forced into a sexual encounter, it’s framed as an uncomfortable and backward situation; when the same thing happens to both Danica and Leonora, we get to accept that as the way things are (plus justified because the men are kind). While both women are strong people, they’re not particularly strong characters because they’re both two-dimensional and seem to exist mostly for the male characters, even as they go around accomplishing extraordinary things of their own volition.

To be fair, most of the characters are weak here. I know I keep coming back to the characters, but the problem is that this novel is less character driven than it thinks it is. Things happen because the plot tells them to, especially where Damaz is concerned. Towards the end, the story becomes more and more abstract, with the narrator pulling right back from the characters and reciting what will happen to them years or even decades in the future. Kay does like to have these pulling-back moments, where he examines context and wider consequences, but he uses the technique so often here, especially later on, that he simultaneously yanks us out of the story and telegraphs the plot with lots and lots and lots of heavy-handed foreshadowing. I’d rather not be told point blank that X is meaningful.

That said, I did find the novel hard to put down once I was well into it. I read the second half all in one day while I should have been doing about twelve other things. Even if the novel as a whole is a bit disjointed and predictable, it contains some great set pieces, such as the last stand of a tiny band of raiders against a massive army or Pero’s conversations with the terrifying khalif he is painting (it would actually have been nice to have more of the latter). Danica’s dead grandfather is also pretty amazing. There’s plenty here to like, despite the problems.

I’ll continue to read Kay’s novels, but I’m still waiting for the next The Lions of Al-Rassan. As long as the characters continue to be broadly drawn and predictable, and as long as Kay continues his gradual slide back towards the sentimentality that characterised his early novels, I’m not sure I’ll get it.

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August 10, 2016

Person of Interest (TV): Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 4:15 pm

Person of Interest image

Sometimes, you just sort of miss an entire television series, then hear about it slightly after it has concluded from two different sources and decide to try it out. Person of Interest (CBS, 2011-2016) escaped my attention entirely until I came across an article calling it “essential science fiction television.” Shortly afterward, my friend Kevin asked me if I’d seen it. It looked intriguing, so I gave it a try.

Person of Interest is certainly essential science fiction television. It’s a well-written, character-driven show that starts out (as many shows do) as a relatively standard procedural before evolving into something much more challenging. In the process, it presents and develops a number of complex ideas about artificial intelligence and its implications. The show combines good storytelling with thought-provoking content in a way that is sometimes difficult to find on television but is a good example of how effective television can be as a medium.

In its first season, as many have observed, the show is already good, though still relatively ordinary. Its premise is the comfortable old people-with-a-secret-weapon-fight-crime-from-the-sidelines one that governs so many procedurals, not to mention so many superhero narratives. In fact, in its first season, POI is a superhero story in all but name, with ex-CIA operative John Reese recruited by mysterious billionaire Harold Finch to prevent crimes before they happen. The preventative nature of Reese and Finch’s work is the show’s first twist; the second is that Finch is getting his information about these potential future crimes from an AI of his own invention he calls only “the Machine.” He and a partner made the Machine for the US government, which uses it to prevent terrorist attacks. However, as it monitors everyone everywhere, it also detects “irrelevant” future crimes involving (as the narration at the beginning of every episode puts it) “ordinary people.” The government dismisses these people. Finch, who has, unbeknownst to the government, retained access to the Machine, does not. The Machine provides him with only their social security numbers, not indicating whether the “person of interest” is a potential victim or a potential perpetrator. Reese and Finch must help or stop the people of interest while avoiding the attention of a corrupt police department and, more particularly, Detective Joss Carter, one of the few good cops remaining. They also often call on the reluctant help of dirty cop Lionel Fusco, whom Reese has blackmailed into being his inside man.

The first season is, again, already solid, but with every subsequent season, things get more interesting. Carter eventually joins the team, and Fusco begins what will be a long journey to redemption and true investment in his new role of helping people; in the meantime, new players turn up, such as assassin/computer genius Samantha “Root” Groves, seemingly sociopathic Agent Sameen Shaw (who deals with the relevant numbers until she is betrayed by her employer), and an adorable attack dog named Bear with whom every character falls instantly in love. Characters who start off as antagonists end up drawn into the team, which becomes an intriguing collection of broken people fighting in frustrating secrecy to save the world. However, it’s the introduction of a rival AI, Samaritan, that truly tips the show over from “good procedural” to “holy crap, this is some great science fiction.” The Machine, coached by the compassionate Finch, has picked up morality along the way; Samaritan, with no such coaching, sees humanity as something to be “saved” through control, not compassion. POI gradually becomes a meditation on the nature of humanity and morality, control and free will, love and sacrifice, all wrapped up in a suspenseful TV-friendly package.

In my opinion, the best episode is Season 4’s “If–Then–Else,” which I won’t describe because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s one of those television episodes — like, for instance, House, MD‘s “Three Stories,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body,” and Doctor Who‘s “Blink” — that is simply a work of art in and of itself, an episode that is, plot-, theme-, and character-wise, a perfect storm of narrative effectiveness. Other episodes contain similarly powerful material, but “If–Then–Else” is fantastic from beginning to end.

If you haven’t come across this show yet but are interested in AI-themed stories that play with post-9/11 paranoia and its consequences, Person of Interest is worth trying out. One of its greatest strengths is also one of its greatest seeming contradictions: it tells the story of an AI far more intelligent than any human being by focusing not directly on the Machine itself but on the flawed humans it is working so hard to save without ever having been given a voice of its own.

August 2, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Rehearsal Script): Spoiler-Free Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:44 pm

I have some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I’m going to organise them into two documents, one without spoilers and the other with lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven’t read the script or seen the play, this spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, go find the spoilery document, in which I go into a lot more detail.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverOn July 31, 2016, the “special rehearsal edition script” of the dramatic production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which debuted in London on July 30, was released. A milder version of the excitement attending the releases of the previous Potter books played out, with people attending midnight releases and staying up all night to tear through the book (I was not one of those people, but mostly because I was out of the country on release day). There are, however, some differences this time around, and they’re worth taking into account.

Cursed Child is not a new J. K. Rowling book. Her name is prominent on the cover, but it appears under the much smaller words “based on an original new story by” and is followed by the names of her collaborators, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. The script’s playwright is, in fact, Jack Thorne (Tiffany directed the play).

Not everyone agrees that Rowling’s writing is stellar, but her storytelling style is imbued with a kind of magic that is lacking here. Yes, the format is very different; this is a play script, not a novel, and therefore, we mostly stay out of the characters’ heads, though we get glimpses of their thoughts via stage directions. We’re used, as readers of the Harry Potter books, to spending most of our time with Harry Potter; here, on the other hand, there seem to be at least three protagonists, and the most engaging of them isn’t a Potter at all. The script is not as polished as it could be, which makes a certain amount of sense, though as an English scholar, I’m a little less forgiving than many will be. Scripts do get published. It is not impossible to edit them. Good playwrights are amazing writers. Thorne’s script seems only so-so as a work of literature, and some of the lines are cringeworthy. I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary, for instance, for the characters to speak the moral of the story aloud. For that matter, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary for the moral of the story to be so obvious.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding the plot, as there are a lot of potential spoilers looming here, but to take you a few pages in (i.e., about as far as you would get in five minutes or so of reading): we pick up exactly where the novels left off, with Harry’s middle child, Albus, about to start his first year at Hogwarts. He is anxious he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and Harry tries to reassure him by pointing out that the Sorting Hat gives everyone a choice. On the train, Albus and his cousin Rose — Hermione and Ron’s daughter, who is barely in the play and seems little more than a carbon copy of Hermione — look for a compartment to sit in and come across Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son. This is a neat scene because Scorpius is such a great character: smart, anxious, funny, and sensitive to the social difficulties involved in his making friends with Harry Potter’s son. I would gladly spend a whole novel with Scorpius. How absolutely wonderful would a series of book revolving around Draco Malfoy’s son be? How amazing would it be to see Draco as a struggling father striving to come to terms with a child both brighter and kinder than he ever was? There’s almost endless potential here.

The problem is that Albus is not nearly as likable. Shy child Albus is quickly swept away as the play takes us forward, brief scene by brief scene, to Albus and Scorpius’s fourth year at Hogwarts, by which point Albus has become a sulky, self-righteous little brat. Harry isn’t behaving very well either; the two of them constantly misunderstand each other. Harry pulls away from Albus because he’s not as easy to connect with as his two other children, and Albus despises Harry because he’s constantly in Harry’s shadow and sees himself as a disappointment. I know the play was written considerably before The Force Awakens came out, but it’s sometimes difficult not to see young Albus Potter as having a lot in common with young Ben Solo.

Complications ensue, a villain emerges, friendships are tested, and members of both generations must go through some painful experiences, all in service of repairing (with luck) the rift between father and son. It’s a comfortable sort of plot, and there are some twists and turns along the way, but few of them feel unexpected to me. My favourite sequence still seems rather too familiar because I’ve seen this sort of thing before in other stories of the same type (sorry for the vagueness, but I’m attempting to steer clear of spoilers here). That bit, notably, focuses on Scorpius, not Albus.

Another problem is one that carries over from the novels, though it becomes even more noticeable in the play: where are the female characters? Rose seems at first to be important, but she quickly disappears. Ginny and Hermione both have their roles to play, but Ginny is there mostly to chide Harry gently for his lousy relationship with Albus, while Hermione is more or less a plot device. The emotional focus is on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. That’s great. Father-son stories are nice, as are stories of friendship. However, the Harry Potter stories famously focus on three friends: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They are equals in the friendship, and they go through their adventures together. Rose, here, appears to allow the playwright to replicate the triangular friendship of the older generation, but Rose herself is deprived of characterisation and agency and treated mostly as an object of desire. The other female character who could be seen as replacing her as the third angle of the triangle, Delphi, is the Repressive Love Interest Who Comes Between the True Friendship of the Male Leads. By the end of the play, it’s apparent that all the characters who matter as characters are male.

It is entirely possible this all works better on stage. Perhaps some of the awkward dialogue has been dropped or smoothed out. The special effects are probably amazing; the descriptions of them in the stage directions are certainly enticing. If the actor who plays Scorpius is worthy of the material he’s been given, that character is going to be wonderful to watch. I would love to see how the production manages spells, transformations, owls, and the Sorting Hat, not to mention the terrifying scene involving the Trolley Witch of the Hogwarts Express. I’m just not sure all the pyrotechnics will be enough to save the play. It’s got potential. The idea of Harry Potter’s and Draco Malfoy’s sons becoming friends is just begging to be played around with. However, when I’m reading through the script and am constantly being distracted because I’m reminded of things I’ve seen in The Force Awakens, the Very Potter Musical trilogy, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a distinct possibility the story itself may need work.

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