A Tale of Elven Overlords

There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the  Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the  dawning of Men means the  end of the  other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the  two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.

those-above-coverIn some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the  Eldar had continued to dwell in the  same lands as the  humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the  two races to have united fronts in the  first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the  more advanced of the  two, the  Elves, holding dominion over the  many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the  premise of Polansky’s narrative.

The  Others, the  Eternal, the  Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the  human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the  top of a mountain, in the  Roost, with the  five lower rungs populated by the  humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the  human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the  Eternal. Until now.

I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The  story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a  military commander of the  Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the  Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the  Fifth Rung, the  most poverty-stricken area of the  Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the  mind of the  reader. The  Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the  rest, related as they are to the  politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the  Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the  way through that the  narratives seem to come together, and the  threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.

But when they do come together, the  effect is so worth it. If Lord of those-belowthe  Rings is the  premise, the  execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the  interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the  rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the  characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the  bluff, but essentially good, military man, the  scheming widow, the  pretty, devoted servant, and the  angry young man. And yet, the  way they play against each other, and the  events that they are spiraled into, make the  reading worthwhile.

Though finally, it’s the  Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the  reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the  struggles against them, and the  various forms those struggles take, the  Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the  humans in their world, and the  readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.

Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the  world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the  books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the  best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the  Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself. 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, or, The Potterverse Extravaganza, Ep. 1

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry has to buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

eddieHow does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

Fantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

goldsteinsIf the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that there is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

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Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

The Potterverse is coming for you.
The Potterverse is coming for you.

A City Dreaming

city-dreamingWhile I was reading Daniel Polansky’s latest, the novel A City Dreaming, I thought, I’ve never read something like this before. Episodic, dark and yet edged with a humour that makes you snort with laughter, the book is unlike anything I’ve come across recently in the SFF genre. Only later did I realize ‘Hey, isn’t this somewhat like Hitchhiker’s Guide meets The Magicians?’ That only served to raise my appreciation for the book. Being compared to Guide is, after all, a status that many authors would be proud to reach.

Set in New York City, A City Dreaming is easy enough to describe, in one sense. It follows the (mis)adventures of the mysterious M, a magician, or wizard, or…I’m not sure how he would describe himself, really. He’s in ‘good with the Management’, the mysterious forces that seem to regulate the ebb and flow of magic in this universe. He has a bunch of friends, from the gender bending Boy to Anglophile Pakistani Stockdale, all of whom are part of the same ‘Management’-friendly group. But rivalries divide the magicians, as can be expected in any fantasy book, with Manhattan ruled by the distant, beautiful-so-long-as-you-don’t-look-too-closely White Queen, Celisa, and Brooklyn overseen by the warm, maternal Red Queen, Abilene. While most magicians have to pick one side or the other, M somehow balances relations between the two, attending parties in a Park Avenue apartment while also tramping through the hipster neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. He’s a man about the town, our M, and he’d like to keep it that way, only the Queens, for whatever reason, seem to be trying to pin him down as they gear up for some sort of showdown.

This is urban fantasy at its best. Polansky conjures a dark, edgy New York, populating it with spectres and monsters and magical peoples, who flit in and out of the loosely strung together episodes of M’s time in the city, and yet leave an indelible impression on the reader. A character who shows up in Chapter 2 may not come back until three quarters of the way through the book, but something about the way Polansky writes makes sure you don’t forget him or her, or need refreshing. M seems to get into increasingly absurd adventures, from having to save a friend from ‘river pirates’, to getting high on a drug that puts a literal god in your body, to exorcising a ‘haunted’ house in a Brooklyn neihgbourhood, and though Polansky writes it all with the sort of ironic humour that Grossman commands so well in the Magicians trilogy, you can’t help but get sucked in. It’s a magical Portlandia, with M coming across people who might be well at home in a parody of a Humans of New York Facebook page, but here, despite that underlying humour, you can’t help but root for these characters, or wonder what they’re going to get up to.

It takes something to balance that seeming detachment along with intensive worldbuilding, and life-changing stakes, and the author’s own attitude is mirrored by his character, M. Though he’d seem to like nothing more than to disappear into a (preferably) calm and placid existence, maybe livened up by the odd woman or three, M is dragged time and again into the war zone, having to rescue friends from their own problems, or the City from the perils that routinely stalk it. He saves the world on more than one occasion in the book (that’s hardly a spoiler in fantasy, right?), and does so with a sort of ‘oh well, here we go again’ nonchalance that could have made him, int he hands of a lesser writer, an annoying or boring character. But despite his obvious skill and talent, you never stop caring about M, never write him or his friends off as people who will ‘always’ win; every time they face a trial, you care, despite the fact that everything about M seems to declare that you really shouldn’t, that this is just another day at the office for him.

I’d recommend A City Dreaming wholeheartedly. It’s deftly written, it’s hilarious, and it takes you on a journey through a crazy city, from its darkest basements to its glittering penthouses. There’s no doubt that Polansky loves the New York he’s built, and it shines forth, three (if not more) dimensional and so ‘real’, despite the magic and mysteries that bubble at its base. The writing is beautiful, the adventures original, the book as a whole a trippy, dreamy experience. Besides, how could you not want to read something in which the hero saves the world from a plague of artisanal coffee shops?