Saturday, November 18, 2017

Ambiguously Feminist: The Miniaturist

My latest historical fiction read, The Miniaturist, started out strong. A young girl Nella can't stand that her new husband remains a stranger, in every sense of the word, that her spinster sister-in-law is intolerable, and all she has to get her from one day to the next is her hideous wedding present, a miniature doll house. That dollhouse is slowly filled with figures contrived in such a way to shine an ominous light on the inner workings of her household, from the mysterious miniaturist. At least, that's what Nella thinks.

All that sounded great, and I certainly able to imagine myself in imperial Amsterdam. But once the story started to unfold, the magic of its premise fizzled and faded away. The reason for Mr. Brandt's distance is written dramatically, but everything that follows after is equal parts confusing and frustrating. The secrets that Nella learns of her new husband are ones that give her, a girl of noble birth, enormous power within the household. But she remains mousy, and never wields that power. Even if her family had financial problems, she was born into entitlement, and her reactions-basically letting the Brandt family run roughshod over her- doesn't feel historically authentic. It feels more like poor characterization.

At the same time, Mr. Brandt is villainized, not because of the nature of his secret, but because of the misery he imposes on his entire family for ensnaring them in his secret, and his own neglect of his obligations-to his wife, his sister, and his business. But it's painfully obvious that the author did not want to demonize him for being gay. Which is all well and good except, again, it's not historically authentic..

Another major anachronism ran through the heart of Nella's characterization. That she's invisible in society, and in her household, because of her age. A child bride of only eighteen tender years. She is constantly referred to as a child but her new family, and feels that way herself at least some of the time. The miniature house itself is the largest indicator of that. It's a toy, a plaything for young girls to learn the running of a household. EXCEPT: She's not a child bride, not in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Girls younger than her were married and mothers. Not a soul would have thought her in such terms.

The thing that interested me so much in this book was the suggestion of darker, potentially supernatural fiction. Or even simply weird fiction would have been satisfying. This was none of those things. The answer to just who the miniaturist is is very bland at disappointing. There were so many other viable possibilities. What Burton went with is the most banal choice. She tried, maybe, but the effort was so slight you might miss it. You'll be too busy fending off heavy blows from the naked misandrist message. Which is convoluted, because even the guy pulling everyone else's strings dies in the end. It's clear Burton is trying to make some sort of statement about the misery of seventeenth-century women, but it's extremely unclear as to what that is. Also, it felt unnecessary. We could have had a much better plot that had that deeper under the surface to give it meaning, but without that plot, whatever it is Burton thinks she's saying looks like a trumped-up soapbox.

Rating: 2/5
**New Author Goal: 24** Only a half dozen more to go!!

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Emo Politics - Burning Glass

I can never get enough royal intrigues, and despite its (many) flaws, Burning Glass kept me anxiously turning pages.

Auraseers, people who can sense the secret emotions of those around them, are an invaluable asset to the King. But when the King's brother Anton comes to fetch her, Sonya isn't ready. She has no control over the emotions that invade her mind, and hasn't learned to differentiate the feelings of others from her own. To top it off, her lack of discipline caused her orphanage/convent to burn to the ground, when the will of the angry mob at its gates overtook her.

Sonya isn't at all prepared to combat the powerful will of King Valko. It becomes clear quite soon that her physical attraction to him is simply a mirror of his desire. It is most interesting when we see the tumultuous nature of his emotions and thoughts, and it becomes clearer and clearer that the King is mentally unstable.

Harder still are the people in the King's court who have learned to hide their emotions. That served as a crutch to the plot, given the main job of the Auraseer is to understand people's emotions. Of course people try to hide their emotions-especially politicians. So why can't she see past their barriers? Is it because she wasn't fully trained? Maybe. But it seems more of a plot device to keep us guessing about Duke Anton's feelings for Sonya, and which of the brothers she has real feelings for.

I appreciated very much that the setting was more Russian-inspired, though the world-building wasn't taken far enough. There were plenty of breadcrumbs there that are the start of good fantasy- the question of a changeling prince, a poisoned monarch, an ambitious and well-meaning brother, and a lot of potential poisoners among the courtiers. But the development of these in any real sense was forgotten for the sake of the romantic tension, which is the basis of the story. I won't say that I minded that, because that part was good, but there were plenty of detractors. One of the worst offenders were the people from the neighboring fantasy land, who walked, looked, and spoke French. Major fantasy faux-pas. Also, Anton's vision for the future of his kingdom seemed naive and far-fetched. Revolution is never a clean, simple thing, and the deposition of one king is not enough. Perhaps if her research for world-building had gone beyond national window dressings, the author might have recognized this, making a revolution more gritty, and you know, authentic, but I digress.

Another issue for me was the complete uselessness of Sonya herself. I would have expected and preferred to see her grow into her role, and use her power effectively. We get almost the exact opposite, where she gets sucked further and further into Valko's influence, until the last minute where she basically pulls off a miracle-it's an inorganic, unconvincing conclusion to the plot. But who cares, when Sonya actually manages to figure out how she feels? Flawed as it admittedly is, I can still say  yes, this story could have been much much better, but, at $2, I will read the sequel anyways.

Rating: 3/5

*New Author Goal: 21**

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#22: Kepler's Witch - Wouldn't you know, the first time in ages I pick up a nonfiction book, and I'm deceived by the back copy into thinking it will be worthwhile.

#23: Anno Dracula - Again, the back copy kills me. Alternative history where Dracula wins? Great! No plot or characterization, only name dropping? Not so much.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Solid Spiritualist Fiction: Things Half in Shadow

Being an expert in Spiritualism attracts me quite naturally to works of fiction that focus on that practice, or use it as a backdrop to set a mood. But it's a double-edged sword. Many works cannot fully satisfy because  I know too much. My standards for authenticity are abnormally high.

Things Half in Shadow by [Finn, Alan]Which is why Things Half in Shadow was such a pleasant, enticing surprise. In this part mystery, part supernatural thriller, Philadelphia reporter Edward Clark begrudgingly accepts an assignment to expose the city's mediums as frauds, and support the strong strain of opposition to Spiritualism running rampant in the city, alongside devout, if gullible, followers in the wake of the Civil War.

Clark calls upon his childhood training as a stage performer to suss out the tricks of Lucy Collins, a third-rate medium at best, and cruel selfish huckster at worst. But before he can expose her, she learns his secret-his real name is Columbus Holmes, the supposed dead son of Magellan the Great, the world-renowned magician locked away for murdering his wife.

He reluctantly agrees to help her only expose her competition, but there's a snag or two. For one, Clark can't see any deception in the seance held by Leonora Grimes. Second, Grimes is dead by the end of the seance. Clark, Collins, and the other seance members were the only ones present. They become suspects in a locked room mystery. Fun!

Except, both Clark and Collins have secrets they don't need the police digging up. In the turmoil, Clark loses his job in the paper, his fiancee Violet breaks off their engagement, and the Police Inspector, his friend, is not helping as much as he hoped. The world Clark has carefully built for himself is crumbling around him, all because of his association with the strong-willed Lucy Collins. Well, you know what they say about opposites. Their interactions were delicious.

To save themselves, the take up the torch of the investigation, and get much more than they bargain for-including a secret society targeting mediums and insight into what really happened on the fateful day Clark lost his mother.

Everything about late nineteenth-century Philadelphia felt authentic: the fervor and opposition for Spiritualism, the sprawling impact of the Civil War, the rules of social decorum that break down once all hell breaks loose.

I might not have agreed with Clark's choice in the end, when it came down to the feisty Collins who knows the true him, and the fiancee who sees the error of her ways, but the book ended with the potential for a sequel. I will wait impatiently to see if one arrives. In the meantime, this was one of the best books I've read this year by a new author, and about a favorite subject of mine.

Rating: 5/5

**New Author Goal: 20**

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Chilling Vivisection - The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The only thing I knew about The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) going in was that in involved an autopsy (obviously), and that it was directed by André Ørvedal, the director of Troll Hunter (2010), which is one of the few found-footage films that actually blew me away.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe was a tight, nearly perfect horror, and the best scare I've had in a while. It features a father and son team of medical examiners pressured to complete an autopsy before the night is out, after an already long day.  The problem is, that the body is pristine-no bullet wounds, no stab marks, no physical aberrations of any kind. But she was found half-buried at the scene of a quadruple family murder. So how did she die?

The things the Tilden boys reveal about the girl, peeling away layer after layer of her body, are simply impossible. From a production standpoint, the pacing and the props are just brilliant. The very visceral horror of the autopsy was dramatic and well-shot, and complemented perfectly the sinister, psychological horror lurking just beneath the surface. And all the close-ups of the actress's face were beautifully creepy. I never got tired of it, because I never knew exactly what to expect.

My one critique is that, towards the end of the film, we're given an theory of the body's origins, and the meaning behind all the unimaginable things they've found. The explanation was too complete for my taste, too neat and tidy. I didn't need all that-some, maybe, fine. But I prefer more mystery in my mysteries. This only detracted from the plot for a very small fraction of time, so it did not affect the overall experience.

I love Brian Cox - he's so versatile!

And then, all hell breaks loose. And the chaos that happens after is a wonderful blend of outright carnage and terrifying atmosphere. To execute both horror and terror simultaneously is not an easy task, but the film uses a deft hand to deliver both in hefty doses. The result was a supremely satisfying experience, which lit up more than one of my brain's horror-loving zones.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Heartbreakingly Perfect: The High Lord

Damn you, Trudi Canvan. Can't you let your characters be happy?

The conclusion to The Black Magician Trilogy, The High Lord, is everything I hoped it would be, and more. We learn the true intentions behind the High Lord Akkarin's use of black magic, a secret magic that will get him executed if it is discovered.

The slum girl Sonea has risen a bit since her flight from the Magician's Guild in the first book, (my review here) earning her place at the guild as a student and as the High Lord's favorite in The Novice, (review here!) even if she came to that position through blackmail for knowing the High Lord's secret.

In this final installment, Sonea learns all the honorable reasons behind Akkarin's practice of black magic, and joins him in the impending war against the Ichani, an ancient enemy that strengthens itself though black magic, drawing power from their slaves as well as the people they kill. Once the Magician's Guild discovers Akkarin's secret, Sonea stands with him, and the guild very stupidly and very publicly denounces and exiles them into the lands of their enemies, leaving themselves wide open to an attack too powerful for them to withstand. Meanwhile, in the Sachakan wastes, everything Sonea and Akkarin have been through together in the past few days, and the past few years, and all she now knows about him, comes to a head. In the most pleasant of ways.

The old arrogance of the Guild is turned on its head as they completely fail to defend the city from the threat, only surviving through the return of Akkarin and Sonea from exile, and their alliance with the Thieves and their secret nexus of tunnels through the city that allow them to pick off their enemies.  Then, of course, there's the final confrontation, just in case the guerilla-style warfare didn't satisfy, which it did, since it showcases just how strong Sonea has become.

I admire the tight, cohesive way in which the geography of Imardin, as well as its distinct, class-based neighborhoods played an integral role in the Ichani invasion. I have to admire the amount of thoughtfulness it took to have all these pieces come together in such an exciting and authentic way at the end. With most of Imardin destroyed by the battle, the Guild is entirely shaken up, both in numbers and their approach to black magic. It will be interesting to see how those lines get redrawn.

Can't say I'm happy about the ending though. It's powerful, authentic, and heartbreaking. I can't stand that Canavan seems allergic to a happy ending. But, for all that, it's a million times better than lots of stories that do give me a happy ending. Her books linger, so I just have to learn to suck it up.

I'll let this one simmer a bit before diving into The Ambassador's Mission, the first book in Canavan's Traitor Spy trilogy, which takes place in Imardin some time after the conclusion of The High Lord.

Rating: 5/5

The Ambassador's Mission (The Traitor Spy Trilogy Book 1) by [Canavan, Trudi]

Friday, October 13, 2017

Demonic Giallo: Beyond the Door

Image result for beyond the door movieBeyond the Door (1974) came into my orbit when I read about it on Fantasy Literature. It called the film a mash-up of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, not giving it much more credit than that. The things it said it didn't like about this film, in relation to the well-known works, raised an eyebrow, as did the relegation of the film to being only for hardcore completist horror fans.

I beg to disagree. Beyond the Door has much to offer horror fans of all stripes, being a masterful mingling of a variety of horror themes and tropes popular to its time. It is a fine example of the charm that 70's horror exudes. One small indicator of the film's thoughtfulness are the children of Jessica, the pregnant woman who becomes possessed by the devil. They swear unflinchingly throughout the film. I found this both entertaining and intriguing - it was a clever twist on the idea put forth in The Exorcist that obscenities alone, from the mouths of children, are shocking enough to be labeled "demonic activity." Here, it is used to demonstrate the autonomy these young children have without substantial adult supervision, and sets the general tone for the family dynamic.

The trippy, non-linear storytelling is an essential component of this film which, no offense, seems to have gone above the head of the person whose review caught my attention in the first place. The Lynchian style "Is is future, or is it past?" sort of narrative makes the film more interesting and compelling, in my view, than the films which influenced it. It also allows for a stronger, more cohesive concept of the demonic here. The over-narration at the beginning of the film makes it very clear that you're dealing with the devil: not some random demon, not just one of his many faces. Such things are unclear in The Exorcist over the course of the franchise, and go from unclear to downright confusing the more Exorcist movies you watch.

The non-linear telling also served as a major plot point with the antagonist in the film, the character who at first lures Jessica into a satanic ritual, then allows her to escape. He exists on borrowed time for the purpose of retrieving her, but his existence brings to the story a stronger metaphysical character that is ultimately rewarding, and feels extremely authentic and organic to the alternative, metaphysical spiritualities that experienced a heyday in the 60's and 70's.

It also allowed for the more unique moments of possession in this film, with layered and split photography providing the backbone for the special effects. The best, scariest moments of the film were the ones that didn't look transparently like Linda Blair. There are some excellent moments (my favorite was the children being terrorized), and with the length of the film, the scenes that were too derivative could have been cut without detriment to the movie.

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Lastly, this style of filmmaking is something I have seen before - it falls very neatly into the category of gialli, Italian horror from this period that is known, through names like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, precisely for its nonlinear narrative and explicit scares. That Beyond the Door is very firmly a part of this context seemed entirely lost on the writers at Fantasy Literature, and is most likely the reason why the film could not be appreciated for its depth or complexity, and instead decried the filmmaking as confusing and chaotic. The proof of this is in the pudding: it's an Italian production, the male lead (Gabriele Lavia) played a prominent role in Deep Red, Dario Argento's masterpiece, and in the sequel to this film, Daria Nicolodi (Argento's wife) plays the female lead. All of this suggests that a film like this one ran in those circles.

For all those in favor of demonic possessions, satanic rituals, David Lynch, vintage horror, international films, weird/speculative storytelling, and high art in films, Beyond the Door is for you.

K Rating: 5/5

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Invisible Gods: City of Stairs

My usual critique of fantasy fiction that just doesn't hit the spot is that the characters are good, but the world-building leaves something to be desired. For City of Stairs by Robert Bennett, the opposite is true. The world-building was great. It felt fresh and original, and I really loved the concept of a city filled with stairs that lead to nowhere--or rather, that the places they led to no longer exist. At least for mortal eyes. Also, the non-Western influences that are all the rage these days were noticeable, without being used like copy-paper. Well done.

City of Stairs is set at an interesting, clever point in Bulikov's history. It has fallen as the sacred city, conquered by the very people they had conquered for centuries. Their gods, the architects of the city and much much more, are killed by the Kaj, and any records or history of the gods are kept from their would-be devotees.

Not that I believe you can actually do that (cultural memory is stored in individuals as well as on paper), BUT, after the murder of an ambassador, the granddaughter of the Kaj is sent to Bulikov to solve the case. The deeper she digs, the clearer it becomes that not all the gods were destroyed, as the new empire was led to believe.

All that was great. And the gods and their sub-deities are all very distinct, robust, and intriguing. What didn't work for me were the main characters: Shara, the Kaj's descendant, now working as some kind of field agent, her partner Sigrud, and Vohannes, one of the leaders of Bulikov's elite and a person of increasing interest. Shara is mousy but intelligent: interesting on its own, but not suited to "field-agent" work. Sigrud does all that. He's interesting, but the platonic chemistry between them doesn't really work because it's not offered in enough depth. There's plenty of backstory on the non-platonic chemistry between Shara and Vohannes, but what Bennett ends up doing is villainizing Vohannes by his behavior, even though it is clear he's not meant to be. I'm all for people needing to figure out who they are, but not at the expense of other people, and certainly not without remorse. Which is essentially how Vohannes is described. So when Shara falls back into a familiarity with him, it seems entirely misplaced.

Unlike my usual gripe, where the characters pull me through a bare-bones world, I kept anticipating the turns in the plot, and had to actively ignore the inauthentic behaviors of the story's heroes. And the sequel just sounds like a repeat of this story, focusing on one of the secondary characters I didn't care a whit for in the first place. The plot was wrapped up so tidily, I have no imperative to read any further in the series. Bummer.

K Rating: 3.5/5
**New Author Goal: 19**