Friday, October 15, 2021

Opinion: On Sarah and Jareth

This started out as a FB post but quickly mushroomed, and the thoughts here are, IMO, important for storytellers, so I'm saving them here.

Today's bugaboo which has resulted in a mini blog post. I'm *so* tired of dudes explaining how Labyrinth, with a then-39yo David Bowie and -14yo Jennifer Connelly is basically child p**n in the same vein as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Just stop already. I've heard this refrain so many times over the years. 

Labyrinth is NOT Lolita

And Connelly's memories of him are good. After his passing, she had this to say: "I think it's very sad, his passing, for so many reasons. To me, not only was he a genius, he was a genius who had the time to be kind. [That] was my experience of him.” 

Here's my hot take: Jareth the Goblin King acts as an animus to Sarah's sexual awakening. And while there was implied sexual tension between the two characters, it was never followed through. 

I always view what happens once Sarah steps over the threshold from our reality into Jareth's labyrinth to be some sort of dream-sequence. She enters a liminal space in which she comes to terms with the fact that she's no longer a child and must soon put away the things of her youth. This is a story about the dawn of sexual awakening. 

Yes, Jareth's age makes one uncomfortable, but I believe it's *meant* to. In the beginning of the story, she externalises her power. 

This line from Jareth is telling: Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn't that generous? 

And until she learns her own true will, she is powerless, lost in a labyrinth of her own making, IMO, until she stands up to that mystery presented by Jareth. 

She wins back everything by saying this: Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great... You have no power over me. 

In terms of magical workings, this is pretty awesome stuff, and a film that had a massive impact on me when I watched it as a preteen. It's an initiatory fairy tale that still speaks deeply to me years later, it still has all its resonance, despite the dating of the SFX and soundtrack. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Silence of the Soleri (The Amber Throne #2) by Michael Johnston

Book one of The Amber Throne, Soleri, by Michael Johnston, got off to a promising start with an Egyptian-themed epic fantasy world, but unfortunately book two, Silence of the Soleri, didn't quite follow up. I feel that this can be attributed to there not being sufficient development for individual character arcs, in addition to a polarisation of the main arc. 

Johnston's writing is strong, but I feel that more stringent attention in the developmental edits could have helped lift this story out of the somewhat muddled novel that was eventually released. One good thing is that we didn't have any characters withholding key information as what happened in Soleri. Yet I do have a bone to pick with the mysteries of the Soleri themselves, that were left hanging by the end, which came off with a deus ex machina. Action sequences often felt rushed, with characters' motivations for their behaviour not clearly expressed, which marred the compelling world building for me somewhat.

I know it's awful making comparisons with other, more popular works, but I kept feeling as if these books were offering a serious nod to GRRM's ASoIaF, which wouldn't have been wholly unpleasant if individual character arcs were fully fleshed out.

There's not much else I can say, for fear of spoilers. Johnston has much to offer, and with an editor lending a stronger hand in the developmental stages, this novel could have been so much more. Also, I don't want to come down too hard, if there are more books to follow in the series, and this one is intended as middle book in a trilogy – in which case the loose threads will be picked up later.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Tales of Terror by Edgar Allan Poe, narrated by David Thorn, Bruce Blau

It's time for me to make yet another awful admission. I've made it past 40+ years on this planet without reading much of Edgar Allan Poe's writing. If I recall correctly, I read "The Black Cat" when I was a wee little thing, but I don't think it stuck with me. Tales of Terror by Edgar Allan Poe, narrated by David Thorn and Bruce Blau was included in my Audible subscription, so I figured why the heck not. 

Included in this batch were the following stories: "The Tell Tale Heart", "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", "Hop Frog", "Murders in the Rue Morgue", "Masque of the Red Death", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "Fall of the House of Usher", "The Black Cat", and "The Cask of Amontillado".

So, in other words, all the great classics. My big takeaway from this is that Mr Poe has a bunch of favourite words, some of which include "ghastly", "grotesque" and "hideous", among many others, and he had an especial love for describing the beating of hearts of the horror of staring into eyes.

I will admit that as a cat lover, I found "The Black Cat" hard going – more so this time around than when I first read it. "Masque of the Red Death" was oddly apt for the times in which we live. Overall, I appreciated delving into these tales, as the prose is slow-moving, highly descriptive, and layered. Dark, of course, too, which is a bonus. And very much what I would term Gothic fiction.

The production quality was a bit patchy in places – I could clearly hear where extra bits were dropped in, as there was variance in the sound which jumped out at me enough for me to feel the need to comment. Some of the accents the narrators put on also grated on me a wee bit. Not enough to toss the iPhone across the kitchen, but enough to raise a brow.

If you're looking to add to your literary experiences, this is a good introduction to Poe's writing. And I can say that it very much comes alive as spoken word – to get past the author's general wordiness, that is. And he does take a while to get to a point – but then the writing is very much a product of its time, which is something to be kept in mind.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

I knew from the moment that I read the blurb that I'd enjoy The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. The premise is right on the mark for me: the musically gifted Nannerl Mozart wishes to be remembered, but in a world that favours men, with women relegated to being carers and mothers, a future as a shining star in music is out of reach. Not only that, but Nannerl finds herself overshadowed by her younger brother Mozart, who becomes the focus of their father's obsession for fame. 

As a musician, I already knew some of Mozart's history, and I enjoyed how Lu brings Nannerl's world to life, where travel was often a wearying, toilsome process in a shaking carriage and diseases like smallpox drove fear into people's hearts. Lu's knowledge of and love for music shines through in every chapter.

At its heart, this is a story about family, and the special bond between brother and sister, but also a journey into the dream-like kingdom of Back, where the unnerving faerie Hyacinth presides. I got serious Labyrinth vibes off the novel as a whole, with Hyacinth's fair fa├žade masking a more disturbing darkness much in the same way that Jareth the Goblin King at first presents himself as a dubious benefactor to the innocent, trusting Sarah. And in much the same way, Nannerl's own awakening as a young woman is reflected in Hyacinth as her animus.

What at first seems a magical intrusion into Nannerl's life soon takes a more sinister turn, as she navigates the choppy waters of growing up and finding her place in the world, while also coming to grips with the bargain she's struck with Hyacinth. I won't spoil, but I will say this much: the ending was bittersweet and subtle, and the author's message about women's rights crystal clear. How many other young women throughout the ages have had to take a back seat due to societal norms? This resonated strongly with me. 

Lu's writing is as musical as her subject matter, and her descriptions bring the story vividly to life. There were parts of the tale that dragged a little, and the conclusion is more a gradual, somewhat predictable unfolding as Nannerl aims to set injustices right, but overall this is a thoroughly enchanting story that I'd recommend to anyone who cares about the dreams of young women.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

A Blessing of Unicorns by Elizabeth Bear

I've been meaning to get into Elizabeth Bear's writing for a while now, so when A Blessing of Unicorns popped up in my Audible suggestions, I thought why the hell not. Only in hindsight do I see it's book 2 of a sequence of stories – The Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries, but it didn't bother me none that I missed the first instalment, and I may well go back to pick it up when I have a moment.

I will admit that it took a little getting used to narrator Zehra Jane Naqvi's voice, perhaps because the previous audiobook I'd listened to had been read by a man with a much deeper voice, but once I was over the initial shift, I got into Naqvi's style.

Set in the 2070s, which aren't that much different than current times, save for the deeper reliance on virtual and augmented reality than we have currently, A Blessing of Unicorns has Bangalore-based Police Sub-Inspector Ferron trying to figure out why internet-famous influencers are going missing. Not to mention figuring out why the missing women's flats are filled with small herds of artificial lifeforms in the form of multi-coloured unicorns.

Overall, this is a somewhat playful mystery that pokes sticks at society's tendency to put internet-famous influencers and their rather artificial lives on a pedestal. I enjoyed it, especially for the non-Western-centric flavour in speculating on an India of the future. And Ferron is a delight, and a pleasing change from the usual jaded, hard-bitten cops that often crop up in these sorts of stories.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I have a terrible admission to make. In all my years, up until the tender age of 43, I had never read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Yes, I know. Unforgivable. Especially if you consider how iconic the character is in terms of how the monster has permeated Western culture in fiction and cinema. Chances are also good, that many of you might've seen the creature on screen rather than leap off the pages of the source material. And I'll add here that loads of people didn't quite get the nuance of Shelley's story when we peel back the layers to understand who the real monster is.

Hint: It's not the creature.

At least, that's not how I see it.

What makes Frankenstein or, as it's also known, The Modern Prometheus, even more amazing is that Shelley started writing it at the tender age of 18, and it was published when she was 20, in 1818. How many of us can boast such a feat? Hells, I only finished my first novel after I turned 30. And it certainly wasn't even a touch near the mastery that Shelley boasts.

Frankenstein is a classic example of a Gothic novel, and I'd hazard to argue that it firmly straddles both the science-fiction and horror genres, and if you're serious about writing SFF, it's one of those works that is an absolute must to have delved into if you consider yourself an author who has earned their chops.

I haven't had as much time as I'd have liked to sit down and read the novel, but was able to pick up a copy included in my Audible subscription – a win. So I'd like to give a massive shout-out to the narrator, Dan Stevens, who did an absolutely amazing job with his characterisation of not only Victor Frankenstein, but the creature, and also Captain Walton, all of whom are important narrators.

Each has a particular viewpoint of the situation as unreliable narrators of the story: Frankenstein in his hubris and denial in his role as creator; the creature in his failed quest for personhood; and Walton as an impartial observer who introduces and ties up the story. 

There's much more to this story than merely a mad scientist playing god – if you delve deeper, it's a look at what makes us truly human, the capacity to reason, to feel pain. On a meta-level, it can even be viewed as a story that shakes its fist at an uncaring, unfeeling and selfish god who creates without care for his creations. And, also, a cautionary tale of not taking anyone or any situation at face value – with far-reaching consequences. 

I kept asking myself: what if Victor had not recoiled in horror? How different would this story have been? Instead, I found myself growing increasingly angry with the man in his hubris and denial in his role for having created this monster. Yes, yes, there'd have been no story otherwise, but I couldn't help but feel for the wretched monster so desperate to find love and acceptance. 

If you, like me, have yet to give this story a spin in its original format, but don't have the time to read, then I wholeheartedly recommend this edition from Audible. It's incredibly well produced and Shelley's writing is nothing short of magnificent. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd #1) by Giles Kristian

I've been meaning to get back into Giles Kristian's writing for a long, long time, and picked up God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd #1) when it was on sale not so long ago. Perhaps it's because I've really enjoyed The Last Kingdom as well as the source material (Bernard Cornwell's books), and just a general fuzz for anything Viking Age related – so God of Vengeance really just pushes all the right buttons for me currently.

First off, Kristian writes combat sequences well, and with a ring of authenticity that is hard to find in the historical fiction or even epic fantasy genres. He really makes you feel like you're present, as a reader, and the cast of characters he brings to life is diverse and complex.

We start the journey with young Sigurd, son of the jarl Harald. And the worst happens to a young man – his entire family is killed in a plot by a crooked king, and unsurprisingly, our enterprising lad vows vengeance. The only problem is he's got no boat, no resources, and no warband – to go up against a bunch of back-stabbing wolves who hold all the power. And not only that, they've taken his sister, Runa, to be married against her will to a man she doesn't love.

So, yeah, Sigurd's got a huge axe to grind, and this story is all about how he gets his stuff together, against all odds, to rescue Runa and spill his enemies' blood. And a lot of warning: so. Much. Blood. Kristian also skirts around the edges in terms of the supernatural. We never know if the gods are real or whether Odin really does favour Sigurd, but enough happens to show how the gods' actions are all too real to their believers. While Sigurd claims to be favoured by Odin, a boast that will make most god-fearing folks reconsider whether they want to cross him, we must remember that Odin is not exactly a kind nor gentle god, and for all victories claimed in Odin's name, a terrible blood price must be paid. 

This action-packed revenge-epic is just right. Now excuse me while I toddle off to pick up book 2.