An update on short stories and first thoughts on A Candle in the Wind.
Category Archives: Cool Things
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.
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.
The Truth and Beauty – Manic Philosophy
A while ago I read Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing. It was a fascinating recounting of the life of a man who struggled with his family, his place in the world and his fundamental beliefs, a man who did not fully find his place in the world until the eve of his fiftieth birthday. As a result I was very interested to read Klavan’s insights into the intersection between faith and art, which he has committed to paper in his latest book, The Truth and Beauty. In the introduction to this book, Klavan states that his wife (who reads his books first) found the book interesting but wasn’t sure if it was good. He reports that his answer was, “Of course it’s a good book. I just have to cut out all the bad parts.”
In this endeavor, he succeeded. There isn’t a bad section to this book. Unfortunately, it feels like the book itself would be stronger if he had polished up some of those bad parts to the standard of the rest and left them in, because I feel like it could really use some connective tissue in there.
This book is divided into three general sections. First, the introduction and statement of purpose. Second, an examination of the life and times of England’s great poets. Third, a meditation on the Gospels, with occasional reference to said poets to illustrate a point.
The core idea of this book is something I think is on point. By which I mean I agree with it 100%. Klavan is trying to grapple with the dichotomy of authenticity and performance. Human beings are not entirely authentic creatures nor are we entirely performative. We are both people pleasers and self-indulgent narcissists, we are both mold breakers and creatures of habit, we are creatures of thought and creatures of impulse. Our societies are structured to maximize natural roles and yet the iconoclast is a natural and vital role.
There’s several solid lines of reasoning to argue Jesus Christ harmonizes these two seemingly conflicting states into a single superposition. Klavan explores a couple of them in his book and I don’t have any problem with his reasoning.
Klavan also argues that the life and times of the English Romantic poets forced them to try and resolve this conflict as well. They had to sort out their own radical beliefs, the demands of human nature and the bedrock nature of reality. Klavan walks us through the time period and important events in the lives of the poets to make his case. I’m not an expert on these poets or the era. I can only take what Klavan presents at face value and, if it is all true, he does make an argument that the poets did find their ideas in conflict with their pursuit of art. It’s certainly compelling stuff to read.
Finally, Klavan expounds on the beauty of the Gospels, the way they show us many people, but Christ in particular, balancing the roles of performer and authentic person. We see that only Christ balances these two things perfectly, and this is what made people react to him so strongly.
What I find missing from all of this is a direct correlation between the Romantics and the Gospels. I understand that Wordsworth et al failed to balance the conflicts between authenticity and performance. The problem is that’s not a unique failing on their part, it is the human condition in general. Klavan speculates that their excellent art has stood the test of time because it points towards universal truths and does so beautifully, even if those artists didn’t live up to those truths and were not, themselves, beautiful. Fair enough, many such artists exist.
I just don’t see how the two sets of observations connect. Perhaps it is best to just read The Truth and Beauty as another memoir, a recounting of the facts, ideas and poetry that passed through Klavan’s mind as he was struggling his way to deeper understanding of the Gospels. It certainly works well that way. Perhaps others will have the flash of genius moment Klavan did as they read this. I didn’t have such a moment, nor was the direction Klavan’s thoughts moved during that revelation clear to me. That was what I hoped to get from the book, but didn’t. Perhaps the fact that I’ve been enamored with a similar idea for over a decade – I did a presentation on the Parables of Jesus, Chinese wisdom literature and the unity of character and applied morals in college – has clouded my ability to take in new thoughts on the matter. That can happen to creative minds. Once we have an approach to a topic in mind taking on a new one can be difficult.
All in all, I enjoyed reading The Truth and Beauty a great deal. It was interesting, humorous, informative and grappled with big ideas. But I didn’t get the insight into how two very deep subjects connect that I had hoped and if that’s what you’re really hoping for I’m not sure you will, either. If you’re okay with that, or if you’re just looking for a high level overview of the English Romantics, you may enjoy this book. And, of course, you may be able to pick up on parts of this book that I could not. But I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book to people trying to pick up a deeper understanding of truth and beauty vis a vie the Gospels, because I didn’t find it here. It’s hard for me to parse the worth of the book in that respect, however, because I have also been caught up in the questions Klavan wrestles with for most of my life. Your mileage may vary. I would recommend reading the sample or checking your library before buying.
I’ve been kind of hard on Klavan’s writing here. But I do think this is a good book and I hope to see more nonfiction from Klavan in the future.
Scars: Of Rats and Men
If gratitude is the measure of a man, then J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars is a story about taking the measure of two men who are at their lowest. By men, I mean one man and one genetically modified rat.
Our heroes are James, retied astronaut and garbage disposal man, and Max, an augmented bomb disposal rat with near human intelligence. For those of you not in the know, rats trained to find and mark land mines already exist in our world today! They do not have near human level intelligence, although I personally know many people who lack the ingenuity of the average rat, but they make up for it through a well-trained sense of smell. Max is a logical extension of this concept, a rat with the intelligence to also disarm the land mines they find and reclaim land long unusable due to the danger the landmines present.
Or at least Max was that. When we meet him in the story, Max is retired from that line of work and now makes ends meet as James’s emotional support animal.
James was an astronaut who towed debris out of orbit so it would no longer pose a danger to space lanes and satellites. Then he lost his leg in an accident we don’t initially know the full details of. With a prosthetic, PTSD and a host of pills to take there’s no way James is ever getting sent back into orbit again. James and Max are a pair of oddballs with long histories in interesting and dangerous careers that leave them with very strong opinions on the world and how they should live in it.
Scars is a novella and as a result it’s difficult to discuss the plot without recapping it in its entirety. I don’t plan to do that here, you’ll have to read it if you want an idea of the story beyond what you get here. The character development is great, the characters themselves are interesting and the plot… well, it’s very simple but perfectly suited to the story. Not every narrative needs politics, romance and betrayal. The story is mostly a character study and it studies those characters quite well in the space available.
Finney has done his research. He’s looked into the mechanics of space flight and the dangers therein. He’s a longtime rat owner and it shows, my knowledge of the temperament and behaviors of rats has expanded exponentially based entirely on reading this one story. Admittedly, I knew almost nothing before.
There’s also a lot of interesting angles explored through the characters backgrounds, which are both similar and wildly different. Both are used to high stress and highly regimented lifestyles whereas they’ve responded to their changes in circumstances in very different ways. Psychology was clearly a part of how these characters were developed and it’s quite satisfying to see. All that said, this is not a perfect story.
For starters, we end with James making a resolve to change his behavior. That’s admirable and leaves a door open for further stories exploring how he acts this out but I would’ve liked a conclusion that shows us his first steps along that road. Perhaps that would have overshadowed the ending. I didn’t see the story in previous drafts and I know finding the right ending point is difficult but I was left a little unsatisfied. Given everything I know about James I’m not sure how well he can follow up his new direction. I would like to know how rocky the road would be for him, especially since we may never see him and Max again.
Speaking of that little rat, Max is a great character but he’s a little one note. He has one major emotional beat in the story and the rest of the time he’s pretty much the same as always. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of character. I just felt like Max has the potential to be much more and it wasn’t explored as much as it could’ve been. Some of this is a choice of medium – novellas are short, they don’t dig into characters as much as novels do. Some of it is undoubtedly the author working to keep the point of his story sharp. My critiques here are more nitpicks than outright flaws, matters of taste more than errors.
If you’re looking for a short, interesting sci-fi story delving deep into the nature of two interesting characters, I recommend to you J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars.
Unexpected Fun With L. Jagi Lamplighter
If you were to walk through the forest and happen across a statue of a woman with feathered wings sitting in a clearing beside a long abandoned stone building, what would you think? Most likely you would assume you’d found an old church, long abandoned by its congregation. Perhaps you’d share a moment of comradery with the place’s guardian angel before continuing on your way. Regardless, you probably wouldn’t find that much out of place with it.
When Rachel Griffon happens on such a scene at the beginning of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffon that’s not at all how she reacts.
Rachel has no idea what the statue is when she discovers it and that takes some real doing since she has a flawless memory and has read every travelog, adventure tale and bestiary in her grandfather’s library. Her grandfather was one of the foremost scholars in the World of the Wise, for him to not know something takes quite a bit of doing. It is the mystery of the winged woman, along with a dozen other small things, that forms the core of Rachel’s drive through the course of the story. She wants to know the secrets of the world. Then she wants to share them, for it’s the thrill of revelation that truly fascinates her.
As a twelve year old girl, nearly thirteen, you might expect the secrets that most interest her to be of a particularly mundane variety. However, while some mundane middle school drama afflicts Rachel, it’s not the focus of the story. The Roanoke Academy of Magical Arts has a great deal more going on in its ancient hallways than just puberty driven angst.
Anyone remotely familiar with the Harry Potter franchise will immediately understand the core premise of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s series. Rachel Griffon is newly enrolled in magic school and in the halls of that school she will find far more of an education in far more things than she expected. The hidden wizards of her world – the Wise – live far more complicated lives than she expected. Rachel herself isn’t quite what you’d expect of a Harry Potter knockoff.
Now before I go on let me address that obvious issue you may be raising right now. “Nate,” you say, “middlegrade fantasy is a very worn out genre. How can you expect me to get invested in yet another tale of magical teenagers going to magic school?
I understand this objection. But Lamplighter brings a sense of myth that is badly lacking from a lot of middlegrade literature. Many books written for teens try to tap into the sense, so common in young people, that the world is new and undiscovered and everything that exists just came into existence moments ago. Lamplighter, on the other hand, presents us with a world that is ancient and shaped by strange forces that have left Rachel and her friends in very unenviable postions. Yet those forces are not all hostile or malevolent. Some of them are but most of them are just consequences of big decisions made ages ago, they are signposts of a history that must be understood and lived in by our heroes if they ever hope to make anythign of themselves or their world.
It’s a much stronger approach to worldbuilding and character growth than I’ve found in most middlegrade writing, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Add in the mysteries and character dynamics that Lamplighter does so well and you have a very strong read for just about any audience.
Back to our protagonist. She’s a well bred young woman with loving parents and a noble lineage. Magic was always something she knew of, while her mother held a fondness for the mundane people – the Unwary – that helps her keep a fairly nuanced perspective on the world around her. While a flawless memory helps her with the study of magic, she’s no great talent. Many of her peers pick up their lessons faster than she does.
Rachel doesn’t even have a grand destiny laid out before her. Some of her friends are fated for heroics, but Rachel herself isn’t one of them. If she wishes to do some great thing for the world around her she’ll have to find that work and take it on herself.
The conflicts at Roanoke are deeply steeped in the history and lore of Lamplighter’s world. As you might expect of a story starring someone who never forgets, connecting details of past events to unravel current problems is an ongoing theme in this story. Rachel delights in gathering facts, making connections and revealing her secrets at the right moment. We delight in seeing whether she’s chosen the right moment (which she does often) or if youth and naivety have deceived her and she’s misread the situation (which isn’t rare).
Beneath all the flashy magic spells, shadows of old evils and standard schoolyard drama, however, Rachel faces deeper issues. One touch I really liked came in the third novel. After several weeks of chaos, emotional strain and traumatic events, Rachel finds herself on the verge of a very believable mental breakdown which is resolved, as so many things in her life, by the unexpected but totally coherent application of her flawless memories. It’s hard to describe more without spoiling the moment, so I’ll leave it at that – suffice it to say this is one of my favorite moments in the series so far.
Another interesting deep current running through Lamplighter’s novels is the twin questions of purpose and allegiance. Rachel is constantly looking at her loyalties to friends and family and comparing them to her own wants and goals. She’s a very driven character, but also a very devoted one. Reconciling her strong sense of duty to principle and loyalty to others is difficult for her. Her principles are challenged and some are worn down in ways that don’t benefit her. Five novels in and Rachel still doesn’t have a clear cut, highest standard for her life. Yet.
But there are hints.
One of the greatest achievements Lamplighter reaches with her series is inviting the audience to share Rachel’s delight in knowing a secret. Yes, we follow her adventures and know many of the secrets she knows. However, things go a layer deeper than that. You remember our opening thought experiment, of finding a guardian angel by a ruined church? This is a secret we know that Rachel does not.
There are other hints to that secret in the early pages of the first book. Rachel owns a model of broom known as a steeplechaser. However, no one knows the meaning of the word steeple. It’s an orphaned word, like saint, so old that its meaning is lost even though people still use it. And, of course, there is the familiar. All the students at Roanoke have familiars but Rachel’s roommate brought a particularly unusual one. A lion, miniaturized for convenience. A lion that talks to a raven on the windowsill in the middle of the night. Even among the Wise, even among the enhanced creatures known as familiars, animals don’t talk.
But these two do. The lion isn’t supposed to be there, the raven says. He was called, the lion explains, and where he is called no earthly power can keep him from answering. Not even in a world where knowledge of him has been locked away.
This is the secret we know, but Rachel does not. We know the Lion of Judah and we get to watch Rachel slowly discover him in spite of the painstaking efforts made to hide him from view. In spite of the fact that the lion here is behind enemy lines. In spite of all the other things clamoring for her attention. This part of Rachel’s story is what truly gripped me as I read Lamplighter’s books. It was a brilliant idea, executed in a way that did a wonderful job of holding my attention. If watching someone discover that secret seems like a worthwhile tale to you, I would highly recommend this tale.
The Hyperions – Visuals and Story
I’ve gotten very invested in the methods of visual storytelling in the last couple of months. This isn’t just because I love comics and the methods of telling a story there, although that’s a part of it, but also because I’m trying to develop a better understanding of integrating descriptions into prose. I’ve repeatedly received feedback in the last few months from people wanting a better idea of what things look like. I’m not the best at describing the worlds my characters inhabit or what they look like and that’s a weakness I’m trying to overcome. Part of my approach to that is analyzing the visual storytelling of others. Putting things that work into words helps me put my own thoughts into words better, and that’s a big part of why I write essays like this. Hopefully reading them helps you folks, too.
The most visually creative film I’ve watched in recent memory is The Hyperions, directed by Jon MacDonald. The Hyperions exists in a carefully recreated world of the late 1970s and features the retired scions of a superhero program. The titular Hyperions are an interesting combination of the traditional superhero and the Power Rangers. They wear spandex costumes with capes, like Superman. But their powers come from a bulky, wrist mounted device that relies on badges and tweaks their physiology rather than genetic mutations or magic. This blending of narrative and visuals from two very different sources is common throughout The Hyperions.
The clearest example comes through the eyes of Professor Mandelbaum.
The Professor is a classic emotionally distant, absentminded genius who never quite connected with the kids he gave superpowers to. His focus is very much on the future and the things he hopes to create. When he’s alone with his thoughts the world around Mandelbaum becomes animated – as in, it changes from what we see to actual, hand drawn animation. MacDonald apparently did this animation himself. It’s a brilliant touch to show just how much the Professor lapses into his own thoughts and his own world when he’s alone with his thoughts. It also helps us understand why he never quite connects with any of the people he cares about. They’re literally living in different worlds.
While Mandlebaum is clearly based on Professor Xavier, the legendary leader of the X-Men, he has a large touch of the Power Rangers and tokusatsu as well. He has a mechanically augmented parrot with enhanced intelligence, much like the sidekicks of Power Ranger team founders. He’s out of touch with the modern world, which is more like a tokusatsu leader and less like Xavier. It’s an interesting balancing act, telegraphed by a number if visual design choices in his appearance and the things he creates.
The buildings the story takes place in also offer differing insights into the characters and how they’re related. Professor Mandlebaum’s mansion is a big building that manages to be both cluttered and empty at the same time. Outside of the Professor’s rooms, the mansion is a pretty impersonal place. There’s very few human touches. Instead there’s a lot of stuff scattered about, snacks or books or whatever else the Professor thinks will hold the interest of the youngsters he’s taken in. The Professor’s rooms, on the other hand, are very snug. His favorite chairs and books are there, in a space clearly optimized to be as close to the fantasies in his head as possible. It’s a place perfect for him, but difficult for others to make sense of at first.
In contrast, the museum where Vista and Ansel spend most of the running time is very impersonal. It chronicles the lives of the Mandelbaums through a pane of glass, as if the people it immortalizes were bugs under a lens or actors on a stage. It reinforces the sense that Vista and Ansel are long removed from their lives as superheroes whether they like it or not. The mayhem unleashed there at the end of the film is a nice touch, emphasizing how that chapter of their lives is over.
There are other little visual touches that are quite nice. Maya’s teleportation effect is animated, rather than some kind of 3D, computer generation effect, which makes the visual feel like a touch of Professor Mandlebaum’s world made real. This emphasizes the closeness between the two on top of being a perfect visual representation of what the Professor is hoping to accomplish. The talking bird character manages to look completely organic to the world it lives in, even though it’s also clearly a puppet effect lovingly brought to life by a dedicated member of the film crew.
On top of that, painstaking care is taken in creating a world made entirely of parts from the late 1970s (outside of the obvious additions added by the nature of the story). This added touch of realism makes the more fantastical elements feel like they could be right out of that era, as if MacDonald is simply documenting a part of the era we were unaware of until The Hyperions was released. A lot of care went into making the visuals all feel organic.
The Hyperions isn’t the best superhero film ever created but all the attention to detail in the way it tells the story lets MacDonald reach a conclusion that is particularly poignant. The film ends on a long shot of Vista going into her father’s office, a place that has been entirely for the Professor until now, and she sees it with new eyes. At first I thought this was a strange shot to end the film on. But as I ruminated on the film I came to realize this shot shows Vista becoming a part of her adopted father’s life in a way she wasn’t before. She understands parts of him she was too young and immature to appreciate when they parted ways but which she’s come to see more clearly now that she’s a mother herself. So she can enter her father’s place and feel at ease now, where she was clearly out of place before. A well done use of visual storytelling subtle enough that I might have missed it.
You can’t make a perfect story entirely through visuals. You need good storytelling on other fronts to round it out. By the same token, good visual storytelling is an integral part of building a well-rounded story that speaks to the audience on all levels. I can’t point to any single story, film, comic or novel, that handles all of them perfectly. We have to examine stories that handle particular aspects of story well and The Hyperions handles the visual aspects quite well. If it’s a subject that has troubled you I would recommend giving it a look.
Mary’s Wedding – Simple Excellence
I recently had the opportunity to go and take in a little theater. The name of the show was Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and I went in with very few expectations. I’d never heard of the play and the description didn’t tell me much beyond it being set around World War I and the two actors portrayed a young couple in love. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had confidence in the group producing the show, all for One Productions doesn’t go for saccharine stories after all, but I sat down in the theater with some reservations.
I needn’t have worried.
Before we break down the story itself let me say a few words of praise for the production itself. First, the cast of Jessica Munsie (Mary, Flowers) and Cooper Beer (Charlie) did fantastic work. Their performances were sincere, emotive and engaging. They studied horseback riding to add authenticity to some of their scenes and it showed. They had great chemistry with each other and the audience. The set was also perfect, built in two layers and full of props used in surprising and interesting ways. From the use of wheeled railings as doors and horses to the upper level’s many duties as hills, bridges and the deck of a ship, the minimalist set did everything it needed to and more without ever straining belief.
Many people say seeing how a trick is done makes one appreciate it less. Mary’s Wedding is the kind of show that convinces me that the opposite is true. I caught a dozen little flourishes, like the causal setting of a hat on a platform as an actor walks around behind the stage, that speak to the practice, dedication and proficiency both actors developed while preparing for the show. It made me enjoy the performance more and not less. Well done, one and all.
Now for the story itself. Mary’s Wedding focuses on the titular Mary as she dreams on the eve of her wedding. We are introduced to this dream by one of its chief figures: her sweetheart, Charlie. He tells us we are seeing a dream, and as it is a dream we must understand it follows its own logic and its own sense of time. It’s a great opening soliloquy, drawing from concepts we often see in Shakespeare and intended to lull the audience into the theater of the mind. Many plays do this, in one way or another, because the sets and costumes may be great but we know, deep down, they’re not real and the illusion of the stage is not as powerful as, say, that of the movie screen.
A good storyteller knows how to weave the spell that creates this illusion of reality for audience and sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to step into the narrative with us. It’s a bold approach, and Massicotte deserves props for taking it. I know it worked for me.
From this simple introduction a clap of thunder snaps us into the narrative itself – Charlie, seeking shelter from a thunderstorm and Mary calling out to him. This ominous opening gives way to Mary and Charlie’s first meeting, as they both hide from the rain in a barn. Mary is recently arrived in Canada from England, Charlie is a longtime resident of the area so they’ve never had opportunity to meet before. Mary helps Charlie overcome his fear of the thunder by coaxing him to recite poetry. Charlie only knows The Charge of the Light Brigade so that is what he quotes.
This is when I realized this story didn’t have a happy ending.
The dire stanzas of Tennyson’s poem weave throughout the play, a simple foreshadowing for a simple man. Charlie is like the cavaliers Tennyson describes – fixated on his duties and carrying them out. He knows things could end badly for him, but he presses forward regardless. This is contrasted with the poem Mary cites as something she has no wish to live out: The Lady of Shalott.
Subtlety, thy name is Stephen.
All joking aside, these simple allusions give Mary’s Wedding a chance to weave these grandiose and romantic notions of duty and heartbreak into a very simple romance story. Mary and Charlie are from different worlds and different social standings but they fall in love. We see their relationship as it struggles to survive awkward meetings in the town streets, flubbed meetings with families and ultimately Charlie’s decision to join up and fight in the Great War in 1914. Interspersed with stories of the growing romance are stories of Charlie’s time in Europe, told to Mary through letters he sends home from the front.
Both aspects are told in a blunt and straightforward way. This is not a Hollywood romance or war movie. Much of the pretense of such stories are stripped away, with Massicotte focusing on very realistic dialog and motivations for his characters. Charlie’s letters home sound very much like those I’ve read in compilations of first-hand accounts from any number of wars from the present day back to the American Civil War. Mary and Charlie’s relationship is free of flowery promises or generic statements of affection.
Many stories could be fairly criticized for trying to characterize their protagonists using well know works of literature. But, while Massicotte is doing that in his script, he is also doing something a little more complicated than that. He is showing his characters use these poems to try and express themselves to each other. The Charge of the Light Brigade grapples with many philosophical questions that people think about but rarely try to articulate to each other. When forced to explain the horns of a dilemma like that which Tennyson describes, the average person will fail to put their thoughts into their own words. So, they turn to the poets.
It is this, I think, that makes Mary’s Wedding work. It shows us simple, everyday people as they put their hand to every tool at their disposal to connect with each other and share their struggles. It’s an impressive achievement.
The portrayal of Flowers, Charlie’s commanding officer during his time in Europe, is another fascinating device. Flowers is portrayed by the same actress who plays Mary. When Flowers and Charlie first meet Charlie is on the troop ship headed to Europe, smoking while watching the ocean at night. Flowers finds him and asks what he’s thinking about, to which Charlie admits he’s thinking about a girl back home. Flowers warns him not to do that, or soon enough he’ll be seeing her everywhere – which, of course, he already is. The close friendship the two develop is illuminating and powerful, and Jessica Munsie’s portrayal of Flowers was so excellent that I never confused her with Mary in my mind. It provides us a look at another side of Charlie, one we need to really appreciate before the story concludes or the conclusion will not be as powerful as it should be.
Ultimately, Charlie never comes home.
Charlie only lives in the dream, now, and soon enough Mary must wake up and continue on with her life. Her wedding day is coming. There is still a good life ahead of her, even with all the grief and regret that came from her parting with Charlie. That is the promise at the end of Mary’s Wedding. It’s a bittersweet ending, but the only ending their story could possibly have had. The thunder we heard at the beginning of the story is quiet now, and the rains have left poppies in their wake. And just like Mary, we must wake from the dream on that stage and leave Mary, Charlie and Flowers behind.
As nearly as I can tell, while many of the events in Mary’s Wedding actually happened, Charlie and Mary were not real. Their story was a dream we shared for a moment. But we can carry that simple dream with us in our waking lives, a reminder that the peace we have was bought at great sacrifice. A reminder that after loss we can still carry on. Those simple messages are a powerful gift, and one I am grateful to have.
Fall 2021 Reading Wrap-Up
I am a writer, and so I read. What have I read recently? Strap in.
Thrawn: Greater Good, by Timothy Zahn
I’m a longtime lover of Zahn’s work and, while I’m not invested in the Star Wars franchise these days, I will make an exception for him. His latest series in that franchise focus on a new origin for his fan favorite character, Grand Admiral Thrawn. The first trilogy of books was somewhat interesting, but largely existed as peripheral works to the TV show Rebels, which I haven’t watched. That did reduce my investment in the series some, although I found the second novel in that trilogy very enjoyable overall. However, his second trilogy allows him the freedom to play around with the kinds of world building and open ended tactical inventiveness that is fun to read and dig in to. Beyond that, we get to see a wide array of interesting characters at different levels of society all trying to play out their interests and balance them against the titular greater good.
Beyond that, Zahn is playing an interesting game. In most of his novels we learn a great deal about his antagonists and follow a lot of the game from both sides of the gameboard. However, in this trilogy Thrawn’s opponent is hidden from view for 95% of the story, which gives it a different flavor. A warning – outside of Thrawn himself this novel has very few ties to the wider Star Wars galaxy. If you’re not a fan of the character and you’re looking for Star Wars, rather than just Thrawn, it may not be for you.
For Crew and Country, by John Wukovitz
This is another niche book. As a long time student of the Samar Island action during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, I try to read every book on the subject that comes out (which is about one every four or five years.) Crew and Country is a complete service history of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, from its commissioning to its loss in combat on 25 October, 1944. This is not really a good book for people new to the topic to read. (Read The Battle for Leyte Gulf by C. Vann Woodward or The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Oct. 23-26 1944 by Thomas J. Culter before this book if you’re not familiar with the story at all.)
While Last Epic Naval Battle by David Sears or Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer are brilliant retellings of the story from the level of the normal crewman, and Hornfischer also goes deeply into the story of the Roberts, Wukovitz digs into that one specific crew to the point where you almost feel like you’re talking to someone who served with them. Every other retelling of the story presents the reader with a jumble of crazy events unfolding in parallel, which is understanding as that’s how a battle plays out. But in Crew and Country diversions from the decks of the Roberts are brief and this creates a very different atmosphere to the crews training, Crossing of the Line, service in the Pacific and final defense of Taffy 3.
Perhaps it takes a person who’s spent a decade trying to learn new tidbits about a six hour period of history to appreciate this book. All I can say is, if that’s the case, you should try it some time. This book, and the men it pays tribute to, are treasures that you deserve to enjoy.
When Christmas Comes, by Andrew Klavan
I reviewed Klavan’s Another Kingdom trilogy some time ago. While I found the way he released and promoted that series very interesting, as a fantasy series and allegorical tale it was merely above average. Klavan is a good storyteller and master of the crime story (Werewolf Cop made that clear when I read it) but he never put in quite the research into the practical aspects of things like sword duels, armor and other aspects of medieval life to quite sell them when they came up in his story.
But with When Christmas Comes, Klavan has returned to his roots. As a crime story, its suitably dark and gripping. Cameron Winter is a fascinating protagonist, with an understandable malaise about his character that both he and we hope to see dispelled. And the story is full of unsavory characters we can loathe as well as sympathetic ones we can attach to. If it has one major weakness it would be brevity.
When Christmas Comes is a very noir story, with purple prose, a man with a solid moral core, and a lot of very nasty people around him. Those are both its biggest selling points and the thing I believe most detractors will dislike. That said, it’s not a wildly inventive tale. If you like an expertly executed crime story, this will not disappoint. But it’s not as inventive as the Another Kingdom novels or Werewolf Cop. I highly recommend it to fans of crime drama and character studies, and perhaps the casual murder mystery crowd. But beyond that, I don’t know as the story will have much purchase.
Soulfinder: Demon’s Match and Black Tide, by Douglas Ernst
Iconic Comics puts out a number of fun adventure titles but of all of them Soulfinder is the darkest, most mature and most interesting. In many reviews, these would automatically equate to being of the best quality. I do not believe you need dark or mature themes or even deep and interesting concepts to create an excellent story. In fact, adding these things to a subpar story can make it worse, not better.
All that said, Soulfinder is probably the best comic Iconic offers, which I say as no slight to their other titles. Father Patrick Retter is an infantry veteran turned priest who gets offered the chance to take the ultimate blending of his skills – a position as one of the Vatican’s Soulfinder Exorcists.
The Soulfinder narrative moves on multiple levels. Retter has personal relationships that range from close friendship to tense family ties. And there are demons. He has responsibilities to the parishioners at his church and presumably, at some point, his own matters of faith to consider. Also, demons.
Ernst has put a lot of interesting things in the air and he juggles them quite well, delivering good stories and good characters while avoiding many of the common traps stories about exorcist priests often fall into. I know that Ernst is a devout Roman Catholic, a veteran and a widely travelled man. He’s done his research and brings a lot of knowledge and authenticity to the table. Retter and his allies are likeable people with a lot of good skills and good heads on their shoulders. It’s also nice to see a story that not only isn’t shy about matters of faith, but actively embraces them. That may turn off a small portion of the audience but even openminded atheists have read and enjoyed the series, so I find I can recommend it to anyone over 12 whole heartedly. Younger readers may find the themes and concepts a little over their head and the imagery unsettling.
And that’s the reading round up for this essay series! We now move back to my next fiction project so, as is traditional, there will be a week off before coming back to the preface of the