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?

The Ghost Bride

There is a girl. She is beautiful and smart, though she doesn’t know about the former and has never had occasion to really test the latter. She is quiet and minds her own business, though she has a ‘powerful curiousity’ about the world, and has ‘always’ wanted to explore. She lives with her father, a rich man whose fortunes have gone to seed, and her once lavish home is haunted by the absence of her beautiful mother, whom she herself can barely remember.

There is a man. Wait, there are actually three men, one of whom is not, strictly speaking, a man at all. These men are all interested in the girl, for varying reasons. One of them is a handsome, hardworking heir to an immense fortune, and marriage to him will resolve the girl’s family’s debts. The second is a mysterious, sardonic ‘minor government official’, who intends to use the girl as a pawn in some dangerous investigation he is conducting. The third is a not-so-handsome, spoilt, one-time heir to an immense fortune, who wants to marry the girl as well. The problem is, this last man is dead.

ghostbridefinalrevYangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride has all the elements of what has increasingly become a mainstream genre: the paranormal romance. Only, it’s set in colonial Malacca, Malaya in the 1800s, and the heroine, Li Lan, wants nothing to do with her paranormal suitor, the ghost of rich boy, Lim Tian Ching, the scion of the rich Lim family. The Lim family wants Li Lan to marry their deceased son for reasons that are, at first, unknown, and while she shudders at the idea of tying herself to a dead man who haunts her dreams, she is much less unwilling to anchor herself to his handsome cousin, Lim Tian Bai, a handsome Hong-Kong-returned doctor, who now oversees the business empire that would have been Tian Ching’s, had he not died under mysterious circumstances.

But when Tian Ching’s attentions make sleep near impossible, and Li Lan’s life gets clouded over with exhaustion and misery, and the heavy knowledge of her father’s debts to the Lim family, she seeks the help of a medium. One thing leads to another and she finds herself trapped in the hazy world of the Chinese afterlife, unable to rejoin her body thanks to the demonic guards Tian Ching has posted about her house. The only ‘man’ who can help her seems to be Er Lang, a mysterious figure who wears a large bamboo hat, unwilling to show his face, but more than willing to lead Li Lan on a dangerous quest that throws up answers to questions she didn’t even know she had.

The Ghost Bride is a lovely book, taking its readers (like me) who know nothing of Chinese mythology and legends into a world that is breathtaking in its detail and realization. The story is engaging, if not revolutionary, and the characters well etched, if a tad stereotypical. For instance, Li Lan, the heroine, falls into that trap that so many YA women find themselves in: she is beautiful, but doesn’t know it. She is smart, but we never really see why even though it’s hammered into us time and again by the author’s description. She reminded me a great deal of Maya from Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen, both being motherless, ‘bookish’ in ways that their fellow upper class girls are not, and touched by a vague breath of scandal. Like Maya, Li Lan finds herself on the wrong side of death, seeking to right a wrong she didn’t intend to make. Unlike Maya, however, she has an ally in the figure of Er Lang, who conveniently appears to rescue her when the stakes are high.

The problem with so much YA is that it is so formulaic. There is nothing utterly new about this book, apart from the setting and the care with which it is detailed. The world of the Chinese afterlife is quite wonderfully evoked, and readers can see the ghostly lights trawling the streets of Malacca, the ox headed demons who police the resident spirits, feel the terror of those who cling to this semblance of life rather than go on to the courts and be judged before passing through to reincarnation. Choo’s strength lies in her worldbuilding, and it was chiefly this that kept me hooked. I wanted to know more about the Malacca she had built, both the world of the living, and that of the dead. Her characters are types rather than something original, and the placement of the tiles that constitute the plot rather laboured and formulaic, if not, at times, overly long drawn out, but journeying into the world itself—that’s well worth the journey.