More Than Enough: Reflections on Hardship in The Barren Grounds

For most readers David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds will be in many ways a familiar stroll through something similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. But despite all the ways in which this new Candian book for young readers parallels the classic story, The Barren Grounds is a powerful challenge to European ways of knowing that challenges readers of all ages to think about their own role in colonialism and through, on the land. These are themes that the target age demographic of the book might not be able to articulate, and I don’t want to make the entire argument for what young readers may or may not get from the book here, but as older readers of a story meant for children there are surprising layers which challenge set perspectives of the world. In particular I was continuously struck by the ways in which notions of ‘plenty’ and ‘enough’ were recontextualized in unfamiliar ways.

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Magic Pixie Dream Boy: Quirky Characters and Gender in Light Fantasy

There is nothing particularly wrong with young adult fiction, it makes readers out of people who might not otherwise pick up a book, but it does rely on a different set of tropes. The ‘magic pixie dream girl’ trope is one of many to becoming a mainstay in teen books and is also the subject of mocking from the wider literary world. Some of that mocking is well deserved as it speaks to the continuing unrealistic representations of young women in media, but other aspects are just traits that make characters interesting to read about – especially in the kind of light fantasy that dominates YA books. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater makes at least a marginal attempt to subvert this trope by having a cast of magic pixie dream boys instead. The boys are the compelling characters of the story and have the kinds of quirky, forceful personalities that are associated with the dream girl trope. Whether it is an intentional subversion or not, the Raven boys show off the best of a trope at the heart of many light fantasy books where traditional fantasy archetypes would seem out of place.Read More »

Terrifyingly Indifferent: Reflections on Middle Earth After Camping

Lord of the Rings is not known for its subtle layers of moral complexity. There is no flicker of doubt regarding Sauron’s evil plans or the innate goodness of hobbits. JRR Tolkien was consistent in his use of clear moral coding both with characters and with world building which is particularly clear in the contrasting forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien. It is a view of nature that is either wholly malevolent or wholly benevolent. There is a power in Tolkien’s forest that moves a reader to either fear or awe and occasionally a bit of fearful awe. The forests of the real world are not accompanied by such clear moral coding but is often able to provoke very similar emotions when one is immersed in them. The nature of the real world is indifferent to people, beautiful without the implication of virtue and dangerous without necessarily being out to get you.Read More »

Benefit of the Doubt: Foreshadowing in A Darker Shade of Magic

Note: I have not read the rest of the books in the Darker Shade of Magic series, this is an opinion formed purely on the way the first book was written and my predictions about how the rest of the series panned out could easily be wrong.

It’s a fine line between subtly and cheesiness in most writing. This is especially true when the author is attempting to give attentive readers some insight into future plot twists. V.E. Schwab wavers across that line and the reading experience in A Darker Shade of Magic is heavily impacted by how willing the reader is to buy into both Schwab’s writing and their own intelligence. There are moments where expectation is built up and then allowed to sputter out while in other instances the hints seem less like hints and more like flashing neon signs. In a book with intriguing world building and an interesting cast of characters I found myself often willing to give the author the credit, but it is not the kind of masterful construction that leaves the reader in awe.Read More »

Purpose Built: Navigating the Multiverse in the Chronicles of Narnia and The Magicians

The notion of alternate universes lives in a strange place in popular imagination. It is used by popular movie franchises, debated by science and the topic of the occasional joke. The multiple universes of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia predate most of these interpretations and their presence is often forgotten within the wider image of Narnia. This image was somewhat reworked in Lev Grossman’s Narnia inspired Magicians books but the utilization of the multiverse remained quite similar. These books demonstrate the limitations of the notion of alternate universes because the readers are only able to focus on these worlds one at a time. So, in these conceptions the multiverse becomes a kind of back closet where characters and ideas can be shoved for later use before being pulled out at the appropriate moment. Both Lewis and Grossman us this strategy to great affect with good writing making the movement in and out of the multiverse feel smooth and blended with the more singular world of their stories.Read More »

The Art of Character: Rebecca Belmore and James Joyce

Characters looking into mirrors for the sake of the audience getting to know their appearance is a standard devise in film and literature. However even in the visual medium of portraiture there are artists who step beyond pure physicality of their subjects to bring the viewers into a deeper consideration of a person. These abstract portraits can be powerfully emotional and have a much fuller sense of a whole human because there is not easy mental image being formed. Works like Rebecca Belmore’s Mr. Luna are windows into deep personal relationships and demonstrate what is possible when an artist moves beyond traditional conceptions of portraiture. It is not unlike the deep inner life that stream of consciousness writing brings to classic books like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man. For the viewer or reader of such works the impact comes from the emotions and connections of the person being presented, not some meticulous description of physical characteristics.Read More »

Code or Creed: Statements of Belief In Star Wars and Dune

Despite entertaining fan projects such as listing Jedism on the faith section of the Canadian census I don’t think there are many people who genuinely hold science fiction philosophies at the centre of their lives. However, the short and catchy poems that represent those philosophies have become an interesting point of both fan culture and the lasting world of various fandoms. Both the Jedi and the Sith have short manifestos in Star Wars and even the Sith version is the kind of memorable snippet that fans tend to be able to recite verbatim. Similarly, the Litany Against Fear from the Dune books has become a defining element not just of the series but of the groups that inhabit it. These kinds of short but meticulously crafted poems are effective means of building a world that is rich, believable and inhabitable to fans.Read More »

Academically Ugly: Geometric Horror in H.P. Lovecraft

One of the consistent motifs in the short fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is the description of creatures and spaces as non-Euclidean. Most readers are still able to identify the horror of these creations (as well as the rampant racism in the stories) but the description itself is highly academic. For many readers this isn’t enough to build a mental image on, most of us couldn’t tell you what makes geometry Euclidean or not. However, Lovecraft’s work remains an icon of the horror genre that continues to be the inspiration for all kinds of stories in a wide variety of media. His use of highly intellectualized descriptions are given enough context that they still have an impact for a lay reader while leaving a deep well of symbolism for more in depth readings.Read More »

Act Your Age: A Rant about Children in Fiction

Children in most fantasy fiction decidedly do not act their age but instead behave like adults whose appearance has just been adjusted for emotional impact. Most often this is in pursuit of giving the book a gritty or disturbing feel rather than an actual need for child characters. Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks is a shining example of this strategy and the incongruous ways the supposedly child characters behaved was a source of frustration throughout the entire book. There is a place for child characters, like in The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card where the setting and plot are truly dependent on the youth of the protagonists. Any mention of age in Way of Shadows is a source of immediate frustration and break in immersion which could have been solved either by letting go of the pretense of the character’s ages or by adopting a strategy more like the one in the Ender series.Read More »

The Author Through the Looking Glass: Feelings of Fiction in Memoir

Memoirs allow a degree of creative freedom that is not as pervasive in the more formal styles like biography or autobiography. While this can result in a more interesting and accessible book there are also narrative choices that make memoirs harder to connect with as something ‘true’. In the iconic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig speaks of his past self as an entirely separate person, his experiences seeming like a kind of fiction to both the primary narrator and the reader. Much more recently (and with mixed reviews) Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas the author intentionally anonymized herself, making it difficult to attach her life to the idea of a real person. These narrative choices that are allowable in memoir can make these books far more compelling to read but they also have the tendency to move the books towards fiction in the mind of the reader.Read More »