Tales of Winter

The question of what makes a good man is a perennial one. Where the role of women as the nurturers and caregivers of society has always been a pretty solid baseline for individual women to accept or reject, as creatures who seek frontiers and challenges men have always had to find new things to define themselves. While intellectual pursuits have always been a venue for masculine success the form they take varies. In ancient Greece you could be a philosopher. As time wound forward intellectual men turned to art, although philosophy by no means lost its cachet during this time. By the time the 1800s rolled around, science largely usurped both philosophy and art as the realm of the successful thinking man. These days the masculine intellectual works in technology or mass media.

The same is true of the men who are most skilled in working with their hands or who make their living through physical activity (although admittedly it seems the life of the professional athlete has changed the least over time.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with change in the way things work. However very rapid change can result in men getting unmoored from every touchstone that makes it possible for them to navigate life. Very few artists are tackling the question of what it means to be a man in the modern era. Andrew Klavan is one of those few.

Klavan’s Cameron Winter novels are an interesting study in what it means to be a good man, presenting us with a protagonist who is not exactly an expert on the subject but possesses many of the basic qualities that have made manhood vital to the human experience. At the same time, we learn that for most of his life Winter had none of the role models that made it clear how to use them. There are many stories in the world today that create a strong dual narrative between a character’s formative years learning and growing contrasted against where they wind up after they are adults. What’s interesting is how Klavan uses this device.

Many of the worst parts of Winter’s history are now the impetus for him to set right wrongs in the world. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. However Winter isn’t bent on vengeance for the things he lost or trying to make up for his emotional shortcomings through action. Instead he’s trying to understand the virtues he didn’t learn in his youth by righting wrongs he finds in adulthood. That’s an interesting lens to use.

When Christmas Comes is the tale of a man who must make a judgment between good and evil at a moment when, for better or worse, he’s the only one who sees the situation with the clarity to weigh all the factors. This requires Cameron to confront his own biases and consider how appropriate they are. A Strange Habit of Mind takes this to the next step, forcing Winter to consider problems from more than one point of view and weight the outcomes of his decisions on a much bigger scale.

In the first story, the question of what is going on is just as important as the right thing to do. In the second, Winter must weigh what is going on against the various good and evil actions of a wide variety of people. That’s refreshing. Most, if not all stories of the modern day begin with a right course of action presumed based on social dynamics like status or race. They also usually leave the consequences of their protagonist’s decisions conspicuously absent from the end of the story, or present such wildly unbelievable outcomes as to make the entire story meaningless.

However, based on plot alone Klavan’s stories are not particularly notable. They don’t do anything new. It’s the execution of those plots where Klavan’s abilities really shine. Klavan is a very experienced crime writer who excels at sketching his characters and building an atmosphere of melancholy and anticipation. We know Winter isn’t in the best place. He is building a better world for himself and others, one step at a time. It is fascinating to watch the decisions Winter makes on that journey. He makes deliberate actions and his emotions follow well illustrated paths, facing opponents who are well calibrated to him as a character and as an investigator.

It’s hard to point to anything Klavan does badly. That alone isn’t enough to make a great story but when you have at least one standout skill – as with Klavan’s character writing – you do get very good ones. The Cameron Winter novels are definitely good stories. I recommend checking them out so you can be on the train when a great one arrives, because I have a feeling we’re not that far from the moment the definitive Cameron Winter story drops.


They Come in Pairs

One of the seminal manga of the early 21st century was Himoru Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a gripping story full of interesting characters living in a deep and fantastical world with a clear and understandable “magic” system. The story began simply and spiraled out into seemingly ever more complex layers. At the end, however, the place we began turned out to be the place we arrived at: The maxim that mankind cannot gain anything without giving something of equal value in return. The fundamental law of alchemy proved to be the fundamental law of the story.

Arakawa has a flair for characters and simple but striking visuals in action scenes, skills she has levered in her artwork for other series. However she hasn’t produced her own fantasy story in over a decade. Silver Spoon, her love letter to the farmers of her home island of Hokkaido, is a great story but also a very mundane one. When I heard she had launched Yomi no Tsugai (localized as Daemons from the Shadow Realm, a literal but somewhat cringey translation), a new fantasy work, I was immediately interested.

First, and perhaps most interesting, Yomi no Tsugai is set in contemporary Japan. While Arakawa’s previous original creation was set in the modern era adding a layer of the supernatural on top of that added a level of depth and, just as importantly, gave her the opportunity to add a rich symbolic language to her story like she did in Fullmetal Alchemist. I cracked open the first chapter with great anticipation.

I was not disappointed.

That said, I was very, very surprised by the nature of the story Arakawa presented. Fullmetal Alchemist featured what is known as a “hard” magic system, where there is a system of supernatural occurrences that work on a series of concrete, almost scientific rules. The story’s titular alchemy has several solid, predictable maxims. Mass must be conserved. Energy needs to come from somewhere. The dead cannot come back to life. Our protagonist, Edward Elric, is a man of knowledge and reason, as befits a master of what is essentially a branch of science in his own world. Edward and his brother Alphonse are as close and brothers can be. The bonds between Edward and his family are a central driving force in his life and he relies on them from beginning to end.

Yomi no Tsugai has what is known as a “soft” magic system. There are few or no hard and fast rules in a soft magic system, they represent the bizarre and inexplicable forces in life that mankind have always struggled to understand and live with. In this case, these forces are called tsugai, spirits of the netherworld that bind themselves to certain people. Tsugai have abilities based on what they are and usually follow some kind of theme. They’re unpredictable and often hard for people to understand. There’s only one concrete rule about tsugai; but more on that in a moment.

Our story opens on the birth of our protagonist. This is not a normal place to start, in fact it would be downright inadvisable except that Yuru and Asa are children of prophecy – twins born on a day where light and dark are equal, one at night and one during the day. This condemns them to a cruel fate. They have the potential to access phenomenal abilities for the low, low cost of dying once and, whether they want to pay that cost or not, others are happy to force it upon them.

The twins are cruelly separated and then cruelly brought together again. Circumstances conspire to destroy all trust between them and Yuru, our protagonist, is forced to leave his home and doubt almost every meaningful connection he has formed in his entire life. Even the village he was brought up in was a lie. Yuru has been raised in a society still living in the middle ages and when he leaves he finds himself in modern day Japan, with all the culture shocks that come with that. It turns out that Yuru is totally ignorant of the world he lives in. The only thing he has to rely on are Sayuu-sama, the guardian deities of his home village. Sayuu-sama are tsugai, the spirits that live in two stone statues that defended the gates of the village for four hundred years. This brings us to the one hard and fast rule of tsugai.

They come in pairs.

The statue on the Left and the statue on the Right are as opposite as they can be. The Left is a stoic woman, not given to expressing herself much, with a hard attitude and a tendency to go out and solve problems proactively. The Right is a boisterous, outgoing man. He defends what he cares about, expresses his fondness for others readily and encourages Yuru to think for himself. Only their stone bodies and dedication to their master Yuru join them together.

What’s fascinating is that, just like equivalent exchange in Fullmetal Alchemist, this paired yet opposite nature of tsugai is reflected in every aspect of the story. Yuru and Asa are fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. Through the story we quickly learn that they pair day and night, light and dark, binding and release, stoicism and emotivism. They are caught between two warring factions, one of which pursues modernity, the other which tries to restore the past. Asa chooses to align herself with a faction, Yuru announces his intention to stand alone.

It’s as if every aspect of the story is slowly revealing itself as another tsugai who’s character, powers and intentions we have to wrap our minds around in order to understand the narrative. It’s brilliant but also exactly what I should have expected from Arakawa. She’s very deliberate with her storytelling. Perhaps far more so than I ever anticipated. It was only when I got current with Yomi no Tsugai and went back to reread Fullmetal Alchemist while I waited for more of Yuru’s story that I made the final discovery. I’ve hinted at it already. That is, of course, that Yomi no Tsugai and Fullmetal Alchemist are also a pair.

They pair hard and soft magic. A fantasy world and a world like the present. A protagonist of science and reason with intact relationships and a protagonist of ignorance and naivety who’s trust has been broken. The thematic core of Yomi no Tsugai looks like it has been implemented in such a way as to duplicate that theme even when it’s just sitting on a shelf next to Arakawa’s previous work! That’s a very meta inference to make, I know. And yet creating a good story requires such care and intentionality that I can easily believe that Arakawa went to that level when crafting Yomi no Tsugai.

Is it true? I don’t know. But I certainly intend to keep reading ’til I find out.


I’ve written about my problems with the storytelling of Rian Johnson in the past. However after observing his career for some time, I’m beginning to believe that there’s a deeper thread running through his work that bears addressing. In the past, Johnson has stated he’d rather have half his audience love a film and half hate it than have a large majority simply like it. In fairness, he has succeeded in becoming quite the controversial director.

This position is merited. But I think the reason underlying that merited controversy is Johnson’s simple, undiluted laziness. On his own, I don’t think Johnson being a lazy director who somehow finds an audience is bad. Art and effort don’t have an entirely linear relationship and, once a certain degree of competence is achieved, even lazy creators can still create work of surprising artistic merit. This is true in every area of life and I don’t think art is an exception.

If Johnson was the only lazy director out there it might not be that big of an issue for movies as a whole although it would be disappointing. However we’re starting to see it with other creators as well. James Gunn and Taiko Waititi are also directors with a great deal of talent, in particular with a gift for striking visuals and excellent editing. As writers they have very little ambition.

Let me make my case using some examples from Johnson’s writing – and be warned there will be spoilers in here. In the movie Knives Out, Johnson builds his entire plot around a character, Marta Cabrera, who’s most notable characteristic is an is her inability to lie. Any time she lies she winds up vomiting. Marta is the caretaker for the aged Harlan Thrombey who winds up dying (indirectly) of an inappropriately administered medication. As his caretaker, Marta is implicated.

By the end of the story the genius detective Blanc has deduced the real killer and corners him into confessing using a gambit that hinges on… Marta lying. This is revealed when Marta barfs all over the killer after he confesses. All this happens in direct contradiction to all the previous instances where we see Marta vomit when she even tries to lie.

Now, I wouldn’t object to this as much if we’d seen Marta practice to overcome her difficulty. However there’s no set up like this at all, in fact it raises the possibility that Marta can lie and everything we’ve heard from her is actually a lie. We were supposed to be able to be confident in Marta’s integrity and the climax completely undercuts it to the point where I’m not sure her entire untruth allergy is a ploy on her part. It destroys Johnson’s narrative.

This happens again in Glass Onion, Johnson’s latest mystery film. A major central character, Andi, is revealed to be dead and the character who’s been called Andi up until the middle of the story turns out to be her twin sister Helen. This doesn’t add new dimension to any of the characters. It doesn’t cast any of their conversations in new lights, it doesn’t create tension since we don’t know Andi is an impostor and it doesn’t give rise to any clever gambits. A little more effort could have made this a twist that improved the story but instead it just undercuts our investment in what we thought we knew.

Finally, in The Last Jedi Johnson sets up the infamous hyperdrive kamikaze scene, where one ship rams another at near lightspeed in spite of the ways that contradicts everything else we’ve seen about the hyperdrive in the past including the previous installment in the franchise, Rogue One, where we see a ship at near lightspeed collide with another and get smashed to rubble without harming the other one. Give the hypderdrive kamikaze it’s due. It’s an impressive visual. It also shows a lack of care for the previous story and a lack of imagination for how he will get to his desired visual. There are may ways he could have achieved this. In fact in said previous film we see ships using ramming in ways suited to the Star Wars universe.

Johnson is supposed to be a genius artiste, setting up common tropes and then subverting them with his clever movie making. However, when he subverts he does it in the laziest way possible. You thought Marta couldn’t lie? Surprise! She can! You thought Andi was one person? Surprise! She was someone else! In fact, in Glass Onion the story is so bad that the characters themselves insult it as moronic. However, hanging a lampshade on your story’s lazily used tropes doesn’t make them okay. It just points out your laziness.

Waititi and Gunn are likewise both artists with their own visions that they seem intent on forcing into any narrative they produce and not making the least concessions to it. Gunn relies on character tropes to replace much of his character development. Waititi shoves jokes into his movies without trying to smooth the transition from narrative to joke or make the joke organically arise from the situation. It’s deeply frustrating, especially as these directors show so much talent in many other areas of their movie making.

Most of all it’s frustrating that people are so content with cheap entertainment. It is great to see people creating at their highest levels but when they only put their passion and effort into a very narrow band of what they make it shows incredible contempt for their creations and their audience. Hopefully one day we’ll all have more care for what we create and consume.

A Secret Unshared

When Rachel Griffon finds a stone statue of a woman with bird’s wings standing abandoned in a forest she’s perplexed. She’s heard of creatures like women with dragonfly wings. She’s heard of creatures that look like women with wings instead of arms. She cannot think of anything like a woman with bird’s wings growing from her back and that’s particularly unusual for Rachel because she never forgets anything.

This striking and memorable scene is our first clue to the mystery at the heart of Rachel Griffon’s life.

You see, Rachel lives in a world where a powerful society of secret magic users lives alongside normal people, hiding their existence with guile, magic and secrecy. Rachel attends the Roanoke Academy of Sorcerous Arts where – wait! Wait! Come back!

It’s true, the core concept behind L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Rachel Griffon story is pretty well trod ground at this point. However, there’s more to Rachel than a Harry Potter clone. For starters, unlike most of what I read in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Roanoke Academy has a very realistic feel to the social dynamics that swirl through its halls. Rachel spends a fair chunk of her time navigating that social minefield without that side of things getting ridiculous or oppressive, which is a nice touch. While teenage drama is not my cup of tea I think the intended audience will find it engaging and Lamplighter shows how a teenager handles those challenges without endorsing any of the bad behavior that inevitably results from some of these hurdles.

However, Rachel’s story is not primarily a social drama, it’s a hero’s story. While the social battlefield is part of the story it’s not the primary focus, rather the focus is on the mysteries that result in Roanoke becoming a very dangerous place. Rachel has a unique tool for solving these mysteries in her photographic memory. It actually lets her slip out of mind altering spells with shocking ease and makes it very easy for her to remember all the details of her lessons – to say nothing of all the little clues that didn’t mean much at first but eventually all point to the source of whatever problem she’s facing in a particular tale.

However, where Rachel is a very powerful mystery solver she’s not a very powerful wizard. She can’t tackle these problems on her own. She doesn’t have a whole lot of magical muscle to put behind her spells, she’s incredibly tiny so she doesn’t have regular muscle either and she’s a little naive in the way she looks at other people. She has to rely on her friends and family to overcome many of the challenges she faces. For some protagonists that could be an issue. However, Lamplighter takes pains to construct each of her stories in ways that let Rachel play an active role in every stage of the narrative by playing to her strengths.

Rachel has strong morals that often put her in conflict with others who find the occasional compromise acceptable and drive her to right wrongs, whether or not that’s something a young girl should be responsible for. She has a strong sense for deductive reasoning which allows her to leverage her excellent memory. And she has an ability to connect with people quickly that allows her changing social landscape to present opportunities without dragging her along on a railroaded plot. Finally, Rachel has an incredible ability to keep secrets.

Every Rachel Griffon story revolves around some kind of secret or another and Rachel is often the first to figure it out. However she’s not always the first to share it. Rachel finds a special thrill in knowing things others don’t and being able to share those secrets at the moment where they will make the most difference. She knows this is her power. That she’s so proactive in using it and takes such joy in using it to help others is a credit to her, even though sometimes she does misuse it.

You have to understand that in order to understand Lamplighter’s masterstroke. You see, Rachel’s entire story is structured so that we can share this thrill with her because we know something she does not. We know that the stone woman with bird’s wings is an angel. The strange orphan words that seem to have no meaning in Rachel’s world – words like steeple and saint – encompass ideas that mean nothing to Rachel but are commonplace to us. You see, the core mystery in Rachel’s story revolves around something we know that her entire world has forgotten.

For a girl with a perfect memory that’s a terrifying thing to contemplate. She may also be the only one who can remember it again. So she tries to piece together the threads and figure out why someone would hide a piece of history away, why strange creatures like the one called Moloch are forcing their way into the world by violence and deceit and why a lion and a raven were arguing in her bedroom one night. She doesn’t even realize that conversation is one of the most important clues she has. But we know.

We know that Rachel’s world has forgotten Christ and His Church. But a secret on that scale cannot be kept for long.

Rachel’s entire story gives us a chance to keep a secret until the moment she’s ready for it. So far, she hasn’t reached that point but the ride to this point has been wild. I can’t wait until we reach the moment when it’s all revealed.