Sunday, March 24, 2019

Crimes of Grindelwald: Messy but Lovable

I finally had the chance to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald recently (both the theatrical and extended cuts) and boy do I have a lot of thoughts.

It goes without saying that there are massive spoilers ahead.

  • First off, let me say that the extended cut is better. It's only seven minutes longer, but those seven minutes add some very necessary scenes. Credence's rebirth in the alternate opening, Leta's fears in the ballroom scene, more time with Credence and Nagini, and an extended version of Newt and Albus Dumbledore's early conversation all serve to fill some of the many holes left in this film's plot. If you have access to the extended cut, watch it. It's worth it.
  • There's a lot of magic here. Some of it is old but fresh such as Portkeys and fantastic beasts. Other elements are new and strange (looking at you, blood pacts, Maledictus, and vision-spewing skull). Some of it could do with deeper explanation, while other pieces fit in and carry as much weight as they need to. Nagini's status as a cursed wizardborn destined to become a snake makes her a tragic figure, and I'm not sure how well it fits with her story in the Harry Potter novels. But I'm invested in seeing where Rowling takes her.
  • Okay, the timeline is all sorts of messed up (as far as we know now). McGonagall shouldn't be at Hogwarts, Credence can't really be a Dumbledore (or at least not Albus's full sibling), that's not actually the Titanic (much as it seems to evoke that image), and so on. For now, I'll overlook these things, but they are there and Rowling will have to deal with them eventually (at least Credence's lineage; the rest is hand-wave-able).
  • As much as I love the various beasts in the first film, they feel more integrated here. Aside from the kelpie scene in Newt's basement, the beasts fit into the story as needed rather than becoming a bunch of MacGuffins on legs.
  • For the record, I really, really, really dislike the way Queenie's arc was handled. It feels off, out of character, undeservedly heartless and naive. I am hoping she's been enchanted (her final exchange with Jacob seems to have some hints to this end), because otherwise I'm left trying to explain a powerful mind reader failing to see through Grindelwald's rhetoric to the truth of his heart. Maybe he's a skilled Occlumens; maybe his charisma is enough for him to project his desires on others. But Queenie's choice feels forced, not real, and I'm sticking with the enchantment theory till proven wrong.
  • Newt, Tina, Leta, Theseus, Credence, and Nagini are all skillfully written and acted, despite some clunky (but necessary) exposition in the final act. Most of these actors and actresses deserve awards for the emotional ranges they display in small moments throughout the movie.
  • This movie is complex; it bears repeated watching, much as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies do. The plot isn't as straightforward as the first, and it helps to not expect it to be. I don't think this film stands on its own as much as J. K. Rowling would like, but it certainly fills its place in the larger story. I have a feeling it will hold up better once more of the series is out, but it does feel less skillful than the first film. Honestly, it could have done with more movie, even beyond the extended cut, just to fill in some of the gaps (such as with Queenie's arc).
  • I really don't know what to make of the Credence is a Dumbledore thing. There's got to be something to it, or else it's a cheap shot and I don't expect that from Rowling. This feels like a Snape killed Dumbledore moment. We think we've got the whole story, but there's another ten layers to be peeled back in the next film (or three). Grindelwald is obviously willing to lie, but how much of what he says is false is still to be determined. I like the theory that Ariana's Obscurus resides in Credence, but unlike Star Wars' revelation about Rey, I don't think they can just make Credence a nobody with a magical accident after so much time spent on his heritage.
  • Please, please, please let us get more of Leta somehow. Flashbacks, revivals, unshown rescues. Something. She's this movie's Percival Graves for me. I want more.
  • In short, I don't love this film as much as the first. But I do still love it. Newt and Tina, Leta and Theseus, (surprisingly) Jude Law's Albus Dumbledore, and Credence and Nagini all make me ready to rewatch this one as much as I would the first. For all its flaws, there's still enough here to bring me back, and I'm already anxious for the next installment because I want to know what comes next.

So what did you think of Crimes of Grindelwald? Are you still excited for the series to continue? If you've read the screenplay, does it add anything to our understanding of the film (unlike the first one)?

Monday, March 18, 2019

Top 10 Fantasy Series

I often talk about specific books and series that I love, but I've never broken down (for myself or others) just which fantasy series I love more than all others. So I decided to work out what my top 10 fantasy series of all time are, based on the following criteria: I have to love the themes, the magic, the characters, and so forth (themes of hope, light conquering darkness, etc. being preeminent); how complete is my reading of the series; and how many re-reads have I completed, if any.

The Elemental Masters

The least completely read series on this list, Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters wins a place by virtue of its unique blend of fairy tales, magic, and historical romance. Every time I read a new book in this series, I remember how much I love the world Lackey has created.

The Dresden Files

I'm all caught up on this series barring the newest short story collection, Brief Cases (which is in my ever-growing to-read pile). This series has it all: magic, romance, mystery, vampires, world-changing storylines, and very personal character arcs. It weaves hope and humanity into every story. The characters, relationships, and storylines grow with each book so that, while they can all reasonably stand alone, each book feels more fulfilling for all the hardships that have come before.


This trilogy (plus a prequel I've yet to read) packs a lot of development into its three little books. It features a pretty coherent magic system in a world that treats magicians as the upper crust of society (with all the good and bad that entails) and carries its main characters through some major progressions of character. I'm due for a reread.

Old Kingdom/Abhorsen

This series of five novels and two novellas features one of my favorite magical systems ever. There's a magic based entirely on stringing symbols together to form the meaning you want, and parallel to that is the magic of necromancy--calling up (or, in the case of the titular Abhorsens, driving back) the dead. The main characters are all staunch in their beliefs and strive to do the right things. The final book (unless Garth Nix graces us with more) ties all the stories together and finishes things off nicely. I'm also due for a reread here.

Osten Ard

A series so good I reread it to prepare for the long-awaited sequel trilogy . . . that I have yet to begin reading. Book 2 of that trilogy comes out this summer, so I need to get into gear on reading The Witchwood Crown. I've reviewed the books in this series here, but I'll repeat that this series features my favorite twist on a prophecy plot in fantasy along with a perfect slow-burn romance and some iconic characters. Williams's books are what A Song of Ice and Fire wishes it was.

The Dark is Rising

I have a love-hate relationship with this series. I love the Celtic and Arthurian touches in a (slightly) modern setting. I love the disparate storylines coming together. I love that it mixes coming of age, adventure, thriller, and more in its five books. But I don't love the ending, and there are a couple of scenes in the books that rub me the wrong way (like the scene in the church in The Dark is Rising). But it also features one of my favorite Merlins, and I've read the whole series at least twice, so here it is.

Harry Potter

At this point in the list, we're no longer surprising anyone. I've read this series through at least three times and some of the books I've read as many as five times. I love the themes of friendship, bravery, and justice that are the backbone of the series. I love how much Rowling makes us feel for her characters. I love the world she created. You guessed it. I'm due for a reread.

Attolia/Queen's Thief

I've read this series through three or four times (usually whenever a new book comes out). I'll probably read through it again next year when The Return of the Thief finally arrives. I love Gen's cleverness and the way he grows from book to book. I love the layers of intrigue in the middle books that reveal more details with each new reading. I love the way Gen's actions and the actions of those around him serve as the instruments for larger forces.


I'm listing Middle-earth as a whole because, while The Lord of the Rings is the core of the legendarium, it's not the only book and I really do love The Silmarillion and The Hobbit as well, just in different ways. I've read LotR probably four or five times complete, with a few partial readings thrown in as well. I've read the Sil twice and The Hobbit two or three times, but with this series the number of reads means less to me than the fact that these books resonate with me on a deeply spiritual level. The struggle to find what is right and to do it no matter the cost, the hidden workings of the Valar and Eru in the world to bring about the triumph of good, the small moments of kindness and friendship in the heart of a dark and terrible world--all these and more make me come back to this series with renewed awe for what Tolkien built. And when I leave again, it is with renewed courage to face the world and defy the Shadow.

The Chronicles of Narnia

As I said, no one should be surprised that Narnia tops the list. I've read the whole series more times than I can count. It's been a part of my life for close to twenty years, and it serves me as encouragement and refreshment on some of my darkest days. This is the series nearest and dearest to my heart because it laid down roots there and cannot be removed. I will never not come back to Shasta on the mountainside, Eustace at the well, Lucy and Susan at the Table, Digory in the garden, Puddleglum under the earth. These characters are my constant friends and companions, and the love of their stories has led me to some of my dearest friends on this earth. Whenever I meet Jack Lewis in heaven, I don't know that I shall have words to thank him for what he has given me through these books.

What are your favorite fantasy series?

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Review Round-up: Bridge of Clay, The Wee Free Men, and The Silver Branch

I've been doing a chunk of reading in the last few weeks, along with finishing "Paper and Thorns" (if you need a refresher on this fairy tale novella, click here for all the snippets and behind-the-scenes posts). If you're interested in being a beta reader for "Paper and Thorns," leave a comment with your email (all comments are moderated, so if you don't wish to have it be public, just say so and I'll delete the comment after sending the story your way).

On to the reviews!

Bridge of Clay

The long-awaited next book from the author who wrote The Book Thief, Bridge of Clay is the story of the five Dunbar boys following the return of their estranged father, Michael. He wants them to build a bridge with him, and all of them refuse, except for Clay. As Clay and his father work on the bridge, the oldest Dunbar boy, Matthew, narrates the stories of Michael, Penny (their mother), and their family. We're given insight into the histories of individual members of the Dunbar family and those who were major influences in their lives, such as Michael's first wife and Clay's close friend Carrie.

This book is convoluted, jumping back and forth between the present and multiple past times, flowing forth as Matthew tries to make sense of all that has happened and piecing together a family history. This book is brash and heartfelt. Its characters spout vulgarity and profanity out of habit, but (at least in the audiobook) Zusak's accent smooths some of this over (to my American ears).

The story is heartbreaking, carrying us through numerous tragedies in the lives of the Dunbars, but it is not without hope and joy. It is like a true memoir, losing none of its beauty for its fictional nature. Mature readers of The Book Thief and other powerful general fiction will find this one worthwhile.

The Wee Free Men

The first in Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching subseries of Discworld books, The Wee Free Men doesn't feel like a Discworld book for the most part. It reminds me of Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, though it is much older. Tiffany is a nine-year-old girl in a large family of shepherds. She is the best-behaved child, and therefore is often overlooked, especially in contrast to her younger brother Wentworth, who has a penchant for getting into trouble. One day, Tiffany sees tiny fairies floating down the river and shortly afterward she finds herself drawn into a conflict with a queen of Faerie.

This is one of the few books I've ever read that comes close to the feeling of reading Narnia for the first time. It offers maturity and maturation on the part of its main characters. It eschews common "follow your heart"-style morals for more realistic growth points. Tiffany understands that she doesn't love her younger brother, but that doesn't hold her back from trying to save him at all costs.

Woven throughout Tiffany's journey are memories of her time with her late grandmother. These scenes are some of the most powerful and touching in the book. Fantasy lovers of all ages, especially those who love Narnia, Valente's books, and strong protagonists with room for growth will enjoy this one.

The Silver Branch

The second in Sutcliff's series of novels following the Aquila family, The Silver Branch jumps ahead a century or so from The Eagle of the Ninth. Two cousins, one a surgeon and one a soldier, are united at a fort in southern Britain. They have several chance encounters with the newly declared Emperor of Britain and his closest adviser. After failing to warn the Emperor of his adviser's treachery, they go into exile in the north before being pulled into an underground rebellion against the traitor's rule.

Sutcliff continues to excel at writing strong friendship and showing the power of firm convictions and loyalty. The prose here is once again sparse but revealing, and the tale moves quickly from intrigue to intrigue. Fans of the previous book, Sutcliff's style, and Roman Britain will find this an enjoyable entry in the series.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Locke and Key: If Stephen King Wrote 100 Cupboards

A while back, I got the audio adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's graphic novel series Locke and Key as part of a promotion on Audible. I haven't delved into it yet, and when my local library picked up the whole series I decided to check out the source material before diving into it.

Before I go into the story, let me be frank: this is not a series for younger readers. It's probably not for a lot of older readers, either. Joe Hill is Stephen King's son and it shows in everything he writes, for better or worse. This series deals with graphic violence, alcoholism, death, murder, and creatures called (for lack of a better term) demons. Extreme profanity and vulgarity pepper the dialogue throughout. Proceed with caution and discernment.

That being said, there are some good bones in this story. As the title suggests, my first impression of this series (volume 1 pictured above) was that it was N. D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards if Stephen King were writing it. There's ancestral mansions, magical doors and keys (not all of which are very nice) and an old enemy of the family come to claim vengeance for the previous generation's deeds.

But after the first volume, the similarities (such as they are) fall away and Hill and Rodriguez really dive into the world they've created.

Following the brutal murder of their father, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode Locke move back to their family's ancestral home of Keyhouse in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, along with their mother, Nina. Soon after, Bode finds a key that lets him pass through a door and come out as a ghost. His family disbelieves his story, but soon Tyler discovers the truth of it when his father's murderer, a former classmate of Tyler's, shows up and tries to finish off the family. In the aftermath, a dark spirit, an echo, escapes from the wellhouse on the Keyhouse land. This spirit, known as Dodge, has a score to settle with the Locke family, and it knows a lot more about the keys scattered around the mansion than the Locke children.

The story progresses through five more volumes, following the Lockes as they gather themselves and move on from their grief and trauma. Sometimes they make really poor decisions, and sometimes they grow in unexpected ways. The past keeps coming back to haunt them, and Dodge's plots always seem to strike them at vulnerable times. The story of their lives isn't always a pleasant one, but it is strikingly honest in its portrayal of the aftermath of personal decisions. Relationships are broken and not always repaired.

The thing that makes this story worth all the mire is that it never quite loses hope. Hope that the Lockes will win the day. Hope that they will find peace and new life on the other side of their grief. Hope that they can overcome their inner demons. The series isn't strong in its religious overtones. Aside from the flashback sequence in the 1700s, there's hardly any mention of God or religion. The closest it comes is a conversation about death and what comes after in which souls are described as dust motes in the sunlight vibrating in tune with the rest of the universe. But as I said, it is a hopeful story, and that hope is what allows it to be worthwhile.

If you enjoy darker stories like those of Stephen King and Joe Hill, you'll be glad to read this series.

There's also a Netflix adaptation in the works, but until the rating and content are revealed, I can't quite bring myself to be excited. The story is perfectly plotted for a TV serial, but unless Netflix reins in the violence and language factors, I'll have to pass seeing this one on the small screen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Digging Holes and Connecting Dots: Rereading Holes 20 Years Later

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher read a number of books to the class. Stuart Little. Maniac Magee. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Number the Stars.

But one that sticks with me the most is Louis Sachar's Holes. Though I remember the other books being part of that year, Holes is the one I remember whole passages being read in my teacher's voice. When the movie came out, I remember loving that the story was presented so faithfully (something I attribute to Sachar's screenplay more than anything). This story has fixed itself firmly in my imagination like few other books from that period of my life.

Recently, inspired by some posts raving about the movie adaptation, I picked up Holes again and reread it for the first time since it was read to me almost 20 years ago. (And if you want to feel old in a hurry, just realize that a book you thought you hadn't read for 10 years is really from 20 years ago. Not that I speak from experience or anything.)

From the first page, I was back in a story that felt as familiar as breathing. I don't have a lot of stories that do that for me. Narnia. The Lord of the Rings. The Westing Game. The Attolia books. It surprised and delighted me to find that I could come back to Holes and find it as rewarding as that first time so many years ago. Some of the familiarity stemmed from having seen the movie in whole or in part more recently than I'd read the book (though still not in the last few years). But there were some passages, such as the opening chapter, that felt as familiar as if I had read the book only months ago, not years.

I've been thinking about why this book has stuck with me--why the story of a boy wrongfully imprisoned whose luck turns around resonates so deeply with me. And I think the answer is this: Providence.

Sachar's narration doesn't frame it that way. His only mention of God is in the flashback to Kate Barlow when the townsfolk burn the schoolhouse and kill Sam the onion man. The sheriff says that God will judge Kate. After relating that the lake dried up after this injustice, the narrator tells the reader to decide who God judged.

But despite the fact that God is largely left out of the story, the story itself is filled with moments of Providence. Hector/Zero and Stanley connect through the stolen shoes; later they are both sent to Camp Green Lake, which connects to Stanley's family history via his great-grandfather, who was robbed by Kate Barlow. Stanley carries Zero up the mountain and sings to him while he drinks, breaking the curse Madam Zeroni placed on Stanley's great-great-grandfather years before (that is, if you believe there ever was a curse). These connections might be too many coincidences for realism, but they're the sort of interconnectivity that I love to see in a story.

It's only through their incarceration together that Stanley and Zero are able to find their better selves and their happy endings. Stanley breaks the curse on his family and learns to be a self-sacrificing friend. Zero learns to read and reunites with his mother. The friendship between their families is restored. None of these things could happen without their time at Camp Green Lake, and that speaks to me of Providence--a divine guiding hand that brings about the best ending, even if the journey leads through dark valleys.

Even as a child, I loved finding out that there was a deeper connection between characters than what we have seen or heard in the present moment of a story. I loved finding that there were more layers to a story than there first appeared, and it was only better if a story revealed that a greater power was moving in the story to being about a good end.

What are some stories that have stuck with you through the years? Do you find a theme working through them? Tell me about it!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Review Double-Header: Rosemary Sutcliff and Jonathan Stroud

Today we're doing two smaller reviews of recent reads: Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth and Jonathan Stroud's The Hollow Boy (third in the Lockwood and Co. series).

I picked up The Eagle of the Ninth because Megan Whalen Turner has mentioned it multiple times as an influence on the Attolia/Queen's Thief series. Marcus's early injury in the story directly inspired Eugenides's story in The Queen of Attolia, and Turner has even said she wrote Thick as Thieves partially as a reversal of Eagle; rather than the soldier, it is the slave who tells the story. The quest feel of the latter half of Eagle also feels very similar to Turner's The Thief.

But enough about influences. Eagle isn't a seat-of-your-pants thriller or even a typical quest narrative. While the seeds for the quest are planted early, the mission to retrieve the lost eagle isn't even introduced until nearly halfway through the book. Instead, we're treated to Marcus's personal journey from centurion to invalid to new man. Sutcliff takes her time, painting the landscape without overwriting, keeping jargon and cultural references as natural as they would have been to the characters without explaining more than is strictly necessary to her readers.

I was expecting more of a traditional adventure tale, and while that expectation was somewhat disappointed I didn't find myself regretting the time spent with Marcus and Esca, the gladiator Marcus purchases and later frees. Their friendship is one of the best things about this book. The mutual respect they have for one another and the lengths to which that respect (and yes, even brotherly love) takes them to make this story refreshing even if it isn't always the most gripping.

Fans of Megan Whalen Turner, historical novels, or tales of friendship will enjoy this book.

In this third installment in the Lockwood and Co. series, Stroud pushes some of his characters to new breaking points. After the startling revelation at the end of The Whispering Skull, Lucy, George, and Lockwood are continuing to do what they do best: stop hauntings and generally ignore their own feelings. Lucy's Talent for Listening is growing stronger, and it's not just the wisecracking skull she can hear speak anymore. But with Lockwood's distrust of her growing empathy for the ghosts they banish and the introduction of a new team member, Holly Munro, the gap between Lucy and Lockwood seems to be growing wider.

To make matters worse, there's a regular epidemic of hauntings springing up almost overnight in Chelsea, and the top officials in the field can't find a way to stop it. With tensions rising and old enemies reappearing, how much more can Lockwood and Co. take?

The Hollow Boy started out feeling slow to me, despite the tantalizing promise of the final scenes of The Whispering Skull. The central mystery doesn't take center stage as early as I expected and the main questions on my mind (What happened to Lockwood's sister? What's at the heart of the Problem? etc.) weren't developed as much as I'd hoped. Add to that Lucy's continued misinterpretation of her own feelings (she seems convinced she misses a professional closeness to Lockwood, but it's pretty clear she is developing romantic feelings for him) and her failure to think clearly, and I found myself being frustrated a lot here.

But then there's the new twists Stroud weaves into the story. Two antagonists from the previous book make appearances (and threats), setting them up for further development in the final two books. There are hints of a larger conspiracy involving the heads of the two main anti-ghost agencies, Rotwell and Fittes. The mysterious Orpheus Society gets a name and a sprinkling of new information. And, perhaps most importantly, Lucy and Lockwood mature. They're not at the ends of their character arcs, but they both emerge from The Hollow Boy as wiser versions of themselves. Throw in a potentially horrible (though not necessarily truthful) prophecy from a ghost and what is absolutely the creepiest haunting in the series so far, and The Hollow Boy comes to a satisfying end. I can't wait to get the last two books and see how Stroud winds things up.

Recommended for fans of horror, haunted houses, mystery, and likable but flawed protagonists.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Paying Your Debts to Keep the Wolf Away: Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver

A year and a half ago, I read and fell in love with Naomi Novik's Uprooted, a mostly new fairy tale for adults that draws inspiration from Novik's Eastern European heritage and my own favorite fairy tale, "Beauty and the Beast."

Last year, Novik released a sister book, Spinning Silver, and I finally got around to reading it.

Spinning Silver does not take place in the same universe as Uprooted, but it feels very similar (magic systems aside). The narration is nuanced and varied; each of the ultimately six narrators has their own voice and diction (the audiobook is spectacularly performed by Lisa Flanagan).

The story is openly a "Rumpelstiltskin" retelling; Miryem's opening narration brings the story to the forefront and sets it in opposition to her own. The story about the miller's daughter, she tells us, is one that people began to tell to cast the moneylender (a Jew) in a demonic light in order to get out of their debts. Miryem knows the prejudices against her people, and feels them all the more because her father is the local moneylender, and he is too gentle to demand repayment, even in the face of a life-threatening illness besetting his wife.

But Miryem refuses to lose her mother because their neighbors won't pay their debts, so she takes up her father's work. It turns out she's really quite good at it, though her parents caution her about hardening her heart against those she collects from.

Eventually Miryem's success grows to the point that she boasts she can turn silver into gold--and unfortunately for Miryem, the king of the Staryk (a race of icy fey who raid the villages in winter) hears her and seeks her services. If she fails, he will kill her.

Along the way, Miryem's story intertwines with those of Wanda (whose father is in debt to Miryem's family) and Irina (the daughter of a local duke with political aspirations). The Rumpelstiltskin story is reworked multiple times from different angles. Miryem becomes the Rumpelstiltskin character to Wanda's family, but then the miller's daughter when the Staryk overhears her boast. Irina is likened to the miller's daughter who borrows jewels from the moneylender. There are debts and contracts, some paid for good and some for ill, like the Tsar Mirnatius's contract inherited from his mother.

Despite the tension between Jewish and (ostensibly) Christian characters, religion plays a small role in the story. Elements of the Jewish faith become more important to Miryem at times in the story, and a Jewish blessing is found to have power in the right circumstances.

The truly astounding aspect of this book is the level of worldbuilding and interconnectedness Novik achieves with her storytelling. The Staryk are developed from bogeymen to a civilization; rumors become vital to the plot; small acts of kindness are paid forward. The magic is intriguing and all the more precious for its rarity; unlike Uprooted, Spinning Silver doesn't treat us to any wizard schools or fraternities.

At times frightening and philosophical, Spinning Silver is always compelling. It is the story of everyday woman and men caught up in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes mundane and sometimes otherworldly. They are faced with choices that seem small but have far-reaching consequences. It is a story of how one life can affect many, and how many lives together can build or break a community. Though it is not "the" moral of the story, a large part of the book's moral and philosophical view can be summed by this passage from Miryem's parents:

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.”
If you enjoy fairy tales, fleshed-out fantasy, or just strong storytelling, give Spinning Silver a try.