WoB Talk

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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