The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.

Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.

Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.

While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.

Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of  strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.

School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.

With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.

Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.

Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.

Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.

Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.

Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.

The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.

Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.

The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of  2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.

Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.

Final Score: 8/10

 

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Movie Review: Tolkien

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Like many, I grew up reading the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and his excursions into middle-earth. Even though world building has come a long way since then with other grand epic fantasies, Tolkien paved the way not only with his imagination of his worlds but his sense of history and primarily language.

There are a few things that go into consideration when making a biographical motion picture of such a creator as Tolkien who not only has a large literary body of work but has also been the source of several huge films based on his work. One of the things to consider is what separates the artist from the art and what influences led the artist to create?

This is a Fox Searchlight production. It does not reference the Warner/New Line movies in any way. On top of that, it was made without the involvement of the Estate or family. This last part may leave a sour note, but the fact is that Tolkien estate has never authorized any sort of biographical film about Professor Tolkien, and seem unlikely to.

With all that out of the way. this biopic  directed by Finnish director Dome Karukoski is a fine dramatic picture and portrait of an artist as a young man, but of the bonds of brotherhood that that would impact him for the rest of his life. On top of that is the romance he shared with Edith Bratt, the love of his life — not only the future Mrs. Tolkien, but the Luthien to his Beren.

You can approach Tolkien as a fan of his work, but even if you know nothing about The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or any of his other works, you can appreciate a remarkable  period coming of age film about fellowship, young love, the horrors of war, and the lasting impact they have on us for the rest of one’s life. People expecting insight or revelations into the creation of Professor Tolkien’s world will have to be satisfied with being offered the building blocks that are at the heart of his imagination.

At a young age, he (the younger young Tolkien is played by Harry Gilby) had always had a love of languages and was an adept reader. He was home-schooled by his mother who would unfortunately die while he and his brother were quite young. He and his brother are put into foster care while Father Morgan,  a gruff priest (played full on Irish by Colm Meany) is his legal guardian. While in school, he forms a friendship with fellow students that would influence the ideas of the bonds of fellowship for the rest of life.

As a teenager (now played by Nicholas Hoult), he meets and falls in love for fellow boarding house resident Edith Bratt. Father Morgan is opposed to this on the basis that it will effect his studies and his admittance to Oxford, and she is not even Catholic.

Even when he is an Oxford student, he is not the not the best at his studies of classics, but would later find his his true calling at the prodding of a philology professor, played by Shakespearean legend Derek Jacobi.

The trailers for this film made me think this was a biographical movie that mixed in the author’s life story with his fiction in surreal fashion like Paul Shrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I certainly thought so from trailers, but that is not the case. The instances of surreal, dream and nightmare images of reality and fantasy elements mixing together are confined to Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of the Somme during World War I. The Battle of the Somme serves as the centerpiece to the story as most of the film is told in flashback from it.

Tolkien is a film worthy of seeing not only for fans of the Professor, but even for those who are not. It is filled with fine performances by actors of young to old. NIcholas Hoult as Tolkien brings a balanced mixture of a youth that is conflicted with what his heart’s desires and what is expected of him. Lilly Collins as Edith Bratt (who once auditioned for the role of Tauriel for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy) makes it easy to believe why she would be the eternal love of J. R. R. Tolkien.  It is also supported by a remarkable score by Thomas Newman who may have done one of his best work in years since Shawshank Redemption. Sure, the film could cover the famous years that have been the subject of many documentaries already, but that would make for a trilogy of films if it did.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film. Whether you are a fan or not, it transcends the biopic genre and presents a drama that is well made, intelligent and entertaining. Recommended.

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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Building a believable and realized world is not an easy task. S.A. Chakraborty’s debut fantasy novel, The City of Brass, is a near perfect world-building blend of myth, history, and originality. The layers of lore, myth, and back story is so thick and rich though that there is a slight price paid in plotting and characters.

We are introduced early on to Nahri in as a young Cairo woman making her living as a con artist during the Napoleonic era occupation of Egypt. She gets by pulling little cons, mostly working marks over with fortune-telling scams and the occasional exorcism. He has magical abilities that she uses for her hustles but beyond that she really has no understanding of where they come from. She also does not understand her natural abilities to understand any language she hears. And in true mythological fashion, she is an orphan who has no idea of who her parents are or of anything else about her family.

One day while performing an exorcism of a young girl she interprets as merely mentally ill, she livens it up by incorporating a summons in a language that she thinks she only knows. Little does she know it actually summons a Daeva warrior and awakens the Ifrit Iwithin the girl. That night she is hunted by the fiery Ifrit while Dara, the Daeva rescues her. Realizing that she is at least part Daeva herself (known as a Shafit) and that the Ifrit are now hunting her, they head to Daevabad, a magical city where only Deava’s, Djinn, and Shafits may enter.

Things aren’t rosy in Daevabad, though as there is growing unrest among the Shafits against the pure blood Djinns. Meanwhile the upper-class nobles who still call themselves Daevas maintain a tribalistic disdain for the Djinn, whom they consider usurpers. The youngest prince of Daevabad, Ali, has sympathy for the Shafits who are treated as second class citizens in the enchanted city. He becomes secretly involved with the Tanzeem, thinking he is contributing to a benevolent organization but his naiveté  gets the better of him when they are not what they appear to be.

There is quite a bit of naiveté to go around it seems as Nahri herself gets caught up in the internal politics of Daevabad and its history. She is believed to be the only surviving daughter of Manizeh, a legendary healer who died twenty years ago. She was the last of her kind and it was believed that she had no children. She is named Banu Nahidu, the great healer of the city. Yet she shows herself inept at healing creatures straight out of fairy tales.

Dara, it turns out, is the ancient protector of her family, but with a tainted and bloody past that inspires fear, hatred, and even awe.  He is not only secretive of his bloody past, but his memories are foggy as well.

Though the novel is lean on plot development and is a bit of a slow burn as far as narrative action is concerned, the author makes up for it by incorporating middle-eastern myths and modern world building techniques to bring to life an amazing world in her debut novel which is the first in a planned trilogy. There are layers upon layers of internal lore, mixing known myths about Djinns and Ifrits  along with the author’s own creation. She also mixes in subtle Islamic myths about the prophet Suleiman (Solomon).

Underlying the heavy lore of The City of Brass is subtle and subversive messages of racism, and especially tribalism. The difference between Djinn and Deavas are really in a name. And yet when Narhi calls Dara a Djinn, he is deeply offended by it. He also shows an illogical hatred for those that call themselves Djinn. And then there are the Shafits who are of blood mixed with humans who are treated poorly

This beautiful novel is not without blemishes, however. Some of those are with the way the characters act or react to things, especially that of Nahri. As streetwise as she comes across in the beginning of the book, somewhere in the middle of the book, she seems to become less street smart and spends time having her heart flutter when in the presence of Dara to being extremely naive about the what it will take to survive in her adopted city. She shows little interest in learning about her family history, the history of the Deavas or of her supposed mother and family. This is a little frustrating since a good con artist would learn a few things about their surroundings just by instinct.

Dara, himself does not come across as a very sympathetic character. He is quite short-tempered and bears a centuries old grudge against the al Qahtani, the ruling family of Daevabad. He is also elitist and rather prejudiced against those who have adopted to calling themselves Djinn as opposed to Daevas. And he is especially disdainful of Shafits.

Ali’s role comes across later as the good guy, in contrast to Dara’s bad boy image. Though he is a competent warrior and member of the city’s elite guards, he is also bookish and empathetic to the sufferings about him of the Shafits. He may have the bigger character arc as he will have to deal with his empathy for the suffering against his love and loyalty to his father.

King Ghassan al Qahtani is a surprisingly nuanced character. Not evil, but pragmatic in his rule of Daevabad. He also loves his children dearly, yet will cut will not hesitate to cut ties with them if it became necessary.

This is a very rich and lush book of will engulf you into a world full of Djinn, Ifrits, and many other magical creatures. And yes, there is even a flying carpet. S.A. Chakraborty’s website has a helpful guide to the world of the Daevabad Trilogy. The book also has a glossary in the back. It can come in handy because there is a lot to digest in this world.

The novel closes at a cliffhanger and I have the follow-up book The Kingdom of Copper on my too read pile already. This book is Highly Recommended.

Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The dreams of Gods were too huge, too beautiful, simply too much. They were everything that lived and everything that died: a great, weaving circle, the cycles of creation and destruction that molded all things. They were a knife to the hand and a field of metal and blood. They were glass and flame, earth and water, the way birth feels and a blinding tightness akin to dying. They were creation. Creation, in its headiest, purest form. She wasn’t made for this. She was small, far too small to survive.

I am beginning to think that we are at a new golden age of fantasy literature. I grew up on a steady diet of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, and too many Forgotten Realms novels than were healthy for me. Between Tolkien, the D&D world of Forgotten Realms and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time, the worlds were imaginative yet had a lot of similarities to each other. These were tropes I grew up on and always went back to because they were familiar territory and easy enough to jump into. They were also influenced by many of the same Euro-Nordic and Celtic myths. As much as I love those, it is incredibly refreshing when something new comes along or in some cases something that is from a perspective based a different on history and myth

Tasha Suri’s debut novel Empire of Sand is a book influenced by the Murghal Empire without being a book about the Mughal Empire. It stands in its own universe of myth and lore. The world that she creates is very well realized, both epic in it’s scope yet is a personal journey. It’s use of magic is believable in not only that world but seems like it would have worked in ours a long time ago. The magic rituals seem to be based on Indian classical dances, mainly the Bharatanatyam.

Mehr is the privileged daughter of the Governor of Jah Irinah who serves under the auspices of not only the Emperor, but of the godlike Maha who is the real power behind the Ambhan Empire. His mystics pray for the fortunes and prosperity of the empire and or misfortunes of their enemies. Yet as privileged and sheltered as she is, she is an outcast in her own palace. her heritage is only half Ambhan as her mother was of a race considered barbarous, the Amrithi. Her mother, rather than let vows bind her to her father, she left to join her people out in the desert not to be seen again. Though Mehr is an outcast, her younger sister Arwa has been taken under the wing of Maryam, their step-mother. Yes, there is a (sort of) wicked step-mother. What mainly alienates her from everyone is that Maha still chooses to follow the ancient rites of her people such as ritual dances and the belief in daivas, djinn like creatures descendant from the gods.

It is not only beliefs but the power that manifests when she performs the ancient dances that draw the attention of the Maha’s mystics. They come to her father with an arranged marriage proposal. By tradition she has the right to turn down the proposal and her father advises so. but it is not a good idea to turn down the mystics, so to save not only her family’s honor but heir lives, she chooses to marry a servant of the Maha.

What will follow is the revelation of the truth behind the Maha’s power and his monstrous personality.  Mehr’s journey becomes our journey as it is her point of view we follow except for a couple of brief chapters. Her journey is a personal one where she discovers the strength of the powers hidden within her rituals and power of vows that are truly binding. With all that going on, the foundation of the story and her motivations is a love story between her and Amun, the Amrithi man whose vows to the Maha and his mystics practically make him their slave.

Ms. Suri’s world building hints at a deeper and richer history than we are presented with. And that is a good thing. The illusionist’s best trick is leaving the audience wanting more. Since this is the beginning of a series (but the book can stand on its own) we can expect more of the mysteries of this world to open up on us. What we do get revealed to us is a world where the dreams and nightmares of sleeping gods can shape the very fate of an empire.

I cared a lot for Mehr’s struggles whether they be mundane ones or life threatening ones and found her to be a strong heroine who has to grow stronger as the world crumbles around her. There are moments of violence and physical abuse in the book that may be unsettling to some but it is never exploitative.

 This is a highly readable book with relatable characters and I can’t wait to get to the next installment.

Current editions of Empire of Sand contain an interview with the author and a preview of the folow-up book Realm of Ash. I originally received an advanced copy through NetGalley but went ahead and purchased the book to suppor the author.

 

Book Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of versity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

— Matt Ruff

Note: Though fantasy fiction, this book reviewed is based on real and painful times in American history, particularly the Jim Crow America of segregation and racism against Black Americans was not only the norm, but the institution.

Is it possible to separate the person from their art? Does knowing that the person whose work you enjoy, even admire, is a horrible person change your view of that work? I still have books signed by authors I don’t agree with like Orson Scott Card, but in storage. I still have the Mists of Avalon by child molester and abuser, Marion Zimmer Bradley on my shelf. The creator of the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was recently convicted of possession of child pornography. I can’t look at these works again without thinking of the wrongs committed by their creators.

I never got into H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve tried to but just never could finish the supposed classic “At the Mountains of Madness.” But Lovecraft was such an integral figure in imaginative fiction that little did I know I was reading works that were definitely influenced by him. From Stephen King and Brian Lumley to the films of John Carpenter, I’ve grown up with Lovecraft lore. Little did I know that this literary giant of imagination, this icon of genre fiction was a racist. I’m not talking about the casual racism of “he was a person of the times” that so many other artists were back then. He was an outright white supremacist.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is not only a book inspired by Lovecraft but one about the racial attitude that Lovecraft shared with so much of America. Through its ensemble cast of African-American characters they will navigate through secret societies, sorcery, other worlds, ghosts, time travel, and Jim Crow America.

From the publisher’s description:

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

The book takes its time to get to any incidents of supernatural horrors that are promised. Instead of a straightforward novel we get stories of novella or novelette length that are interconnected with each other culminating in a confrontational conclusion. In the first and titular segment, Atticus, his uncle George (publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to the real world Negro Motorist Green Book) and childhood friend Letitia encounter horrors of America’s racism. From a simple stop at a gas station to just sitting at what is thought to be a safe diner, the experience of being Black in 1954 America can range from demeaning to life threatening. They are searching for Atticus’ missing and estranged father who is in Ardham, Massachusetts. Atticus originally misreads his father’s handwriting as Arkham, hence the origin of the title Lovecraft Country.

This will lead to the introduction of the main antagonist of the book, Caleb Braithwhite, who will directly and indirectly effect the characters for the rest of the book until a final confrontation that is satisfying yet leaves room for a sequel. Perhaps we will get that sequel in the form of another book. But since it is also a forthcoming HBO series produced by Jordan Peele, we may get it from the show.

What Matt Ruff accomplishes here can’t be called a delightful read. In fact much of it is incredibly uncomfortable. Not because of any eldritch horror, but from the historical context of America’s great sin of racism. There is a segment where Montrose Turner, Atticus’ father recounts his boyhood memories of the real life Tulsa Riot of 1921. The memory, as recounted, and as written by Ruff, stabs you in the heart.

Yet, in spite of the real world horrors, there is a strength in the characters that not only allows them to endure but to inspire. There is Hippolyta, George’s wife, who dreamed of being the first Black female astronomer ever since she was a child and continues her love of the stars. She will feature in her own adventure while doing research for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Her twelve-year-old son, Horace, wants to become a comic book publisher. Letitia Dandridge purposely becomes the first homeowner in a White neighborhood, so that it may open the doors for more Black home ownership in the area. Each character, in their own way, wants to carve a place for themselves in a system that is designed to keep them down.

A sub-theme of the book and it’s characters is that several of them are also geeks. Atticus, George, Horace, and too a less extent, Letitia are readers of the popular science fiction of the era, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course H.P. Lovecraft. And though Burroughs is problematic, Lovecraft as we now know, was outright bigoted. And perhaps this passage can help me reconcile with my own modern experiences with someone like Marion Zimmer Bradley:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. ”

“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Atticus gets that stab in the heart, when as a young man, his father shows him a copy of a Lovecraft poem called “On the Creation of Ni***rs.” Except Lovecraft did not use Asterisks. Ruff credits Pam Noles’ article, “Shame,” as an influence. It is about the difficulties of being a Black science-fiction fan in America.

The audiobook is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, whose dramatic performance adds weight and nuance to characters who sometimes undergo some emotional toils. He is a stage actor who is also no stranger to audiobooks.

Among the accolades that Lovecraft Country has received, one of them was a nomination for the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Ironically up until 2015, the World Fantasy Award statue was a likeness of H.P. Lovecraft. It was finally changed after 40 years from pressure to do so.

Some readers may not like the way the book is divided into novellas that are interconnected. Personally I really appreciated it and perhaps he only weak segment would have to be the Horace centered story. But overall, Matt Ruff not only brings to life the hard world of the characters but he manages to infuse them with an authenticity as well. These aren’t great heroes out to save or change the world. They are Black Americans making it through a shameful period of America’s past that is not really all that distant and not one that we have distanced ourselves away from enough yet.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

A Reader’s Guide to Lovecraft Country
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Cory Doctorow on Lovecraft Country
When Jim Crow Drank Coke
Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Shame by Pam Noles

Anime Review: The Ancient Magus Bride

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The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.

— JRR Tolkien

It may seem like anime has no problem of portraying fantasy worlds. But let’s look at that objectively. How much of the well-known fantasy series these days are in the Isekai genre? In other words a character or characters find themselves dropped in a fantasy/RPG/gaming world. Nothing wrong with that, but the sheer number of these that come out every season is baffling and I guess there is a market for it. There have been some great ones like the classic Vision of Escaflowne; some good ones like Grimgar; and for better or worse, Sword Art Online has played a huge part in the popularity of the genre. Note: Konosba is a masterpiece. I don’t care what you say. Fight me. But any original anime that is based on magical and fantastic worlds are getting far and few. Even Record of Gancrest War though it is not Isekai relies on RPG elements of leveling your powers up by defeating opponents and acquiring crests.

I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of the first three episodes of The Ancient Magus Bride last year and was captivated immediately not only by the beautiful animation and attention but the world creation involved. It began streaming on Crunchyroll in October 2017 and I am happy to say that the series as a whole is as captivating as those first moments I saw the preview. Based on a manga series written and drawn by Kore Yamazaki, the anime follows the manga quite closely.

We are first introduced to Chise at an auction where she is selling herself at auction so that someone would talk care of her. Yeah, it’s weird and creepy as heck – even for anime. At the London auction she is bought for five million pounds by Elias, a reclusive seven-foot mage who hides his skull shaped head in public. He aims to make her his apprentice because she is a Sleigh Beggy, a mage who is able to create and absorb great magical energy.

What unfolds over the next twenty-four episodes is a magical journey through Celtic myth and folklore as Chise learns to use her power. We also get to know more of Elias and the world they inhabit. And what a wondrous world it is. The world of The Ancient Magus Bride is pretty much our world, more specifically England, but it is inhabited by creatures invisible to us. Chise’s inherent ability allows her to see these creatures though and as a Sleigh Beggy, they are drawn to her. It helps that these fey creatures are in most cases simply adorable.

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There are many things that make The Ancient Magus Bride work so well. It’s not afraid to take its time to tell its story of discovery. Through Chise’s point of view we undergo a journey into a world of faëry that is filled with wonder, beauty, and horror. It is with that sense of wonder that makes it special. There are shots in almost every episode that are worthy of framing and rival any that done by Studio Ghibli. The animation by Wit Studio is that good.

One of the early episodes introduces us to dragons, who are a protected and fading species from the world. Chise encounters an aging dragon who is near the end of its life. The dragons when they die return to the earth from where they came and become great trees. In his last moments, Nevin the dragon shares his final memories of flight with Chise and in the end offers a branch from the great tree that he will soon become so that she may fasten her mage’s staff.

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Drawing heavily from Celtic mythology, we meet characters like faërie Queen and King Titania and Oberon, a Banshee who no longer has a voice, a leánnan sídhe who is in love with a mortal, and a church grim that will form a protective bond with Chise. The world building just feels authentic and inviting as well. It’s as if the anime is saying “This world has dangers, but it also offers beauty and love. Come join us.” I highly recommed that you do.

The Ancient Magus Bride is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com subtitled and Funimationnow.com English dubbed. A home release has yet to be announced.

The manga is licensed in English by Seven Seas Entertainment and is available from Amazon.com digitally and in paperback.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

 

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My experience with Greek mythology was first instilled by the movies of Ray Harryhausen. I loved Jason and the Argonauts as a kid and still do to this day. I may have read some condensed little bits of Greek myth while in middle school. It was not until I attended college that I was exposed to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And although I found Homer interesting, overall I thought The Odyssey was pretty dry. Maybe it was just the translation I read.

Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe is in no way dry or boring. It takes the old myths that we are familiar with and weaves them together into a narrative that is captivating, engaging, and fresh. Reading Circe is akin to sitting is a great hall after a meal while a poet recites tales of love, passion, loss and magic. The lights are dim and a crackling fire is burning on the hearth.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun. A seemingly black sheep of the family she is exiled after showing kindness to Prometheus who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mortals. It is here that Circe’s story begins to take off. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia. On this island she hones her craft of herbcraft, referred to as pharmaka. To the gods it is considered witchcraft.

But even in exile she receives visitors. The first is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He doesn’t care about her exile status and finds her fascinating. He brings her news of the outside world, of the wars of man and the petty squabbles between the gods.

We later get glimpses of Circe’s family. Her sister is Pasiphaë, wife if King Minos of Crete, and mother of the Minotaur. Her brother is Aeëtes, King of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Through her eyes we get a unique perspective on the old myths that so many of us grew up on.

Circe is probably best remembered as the witch that Odysseus encounters and basically shacks up with for a year while returning from the Trojan Wars. And true to the spirit of her narrative, Miller presents a different perspective on the familiar tale as told by Homer.

Madeline Miller has managed to take the old and present it as something that is fresh, and told in a style that is engaging and hard to put down. The language flows smoothly and is almost conversational in ton. It’s perfect for the first person perspective that it is written in. Of special note, the audiobook, as narrated by Perdita Weeks, is exceptionally performed with nuanced storyteller like performance. It is Perdita Weeks’ first book narration and I hope to here more of her performances.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is the perception of women in the world of the Greek myths. Miller explores that not only with Circe, but with Medea and Penelope as well who had been given short shift in most other interpretations. Jason and Odysseus are not the heroes that they have often been portrayed as and the reason why Circe changes any men that come to her island to pigs is understandable and as far as I’m concerned better than some deserved.

What Miller has done is something special and hopefully can be taught alongside Homer and Ovid in Classics courses in the future. Despite it being a retelling of stories thousands of years  old, its style is modern, and relevant. Highly Recommended.