The Traitor Baru Cormorant, China, and The Roman Empire

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I took four years of Latin in high school. I joined a Latin club in college. I took a History of Ancient Greece class for fun. I love learning about the classical civilizations.

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” was not a book I expected to make me crow with the joy of someone who read the Aenied voluntarily. For one thing, the protagonist and the majority of the characters are refreshingly non-white. Baru is introduced with her two fathers, watching a ship dock. I got the impression that she lived in an archipelago.

But Dickinson drew on quite a bit of history to make his world, and the empire of “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” is heavily inspired by the Roman empire. Dickinson also picked out whatever he wanted to from a dozen different countries, from the revolutionary legacy of China to the Indian Schools that practically annihilated Native American culture.

This is one of the true joys of fantasy: to make a world both like and unlike our own. To play with our own history, to combine cultures in unlikely ways. And Dickinson combines his mad cultural playground with both fantastically drawn, fierce characters, and with intensely realistic geopolitics. It’s seriously amazing, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” and the Question of Realism in Fantasy

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Thanks to Game of Thrones, these days “gritty” and “realistic” fantasy are all the rage. If people aren’t swearing, having sex, and discussing their bowel movements, it’s not “realist.”

Seth Dickinson looked at this trend, turned his head, and found a way to make it cooler. “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” does describe some semi-graphic violence, but sex is almost completely absent, and explicit language rare. Instead, the book is concerned with the question of “how the world works.” How do empires rule? How are cultures changed and conquered? How can taxes and fiscal policy make and break kingdoms?

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” is intensely realistic. It asks how, from the ground up, a rebellion can begin and end. How can people be affected. How can the world be made to turn in a particular direction. And it’s awesome.

George MacDonald and Originality

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I pride myself on having read a lot. I’ve dabbled in just about every genre, I know narrative structure and standard plot devices well enough that I am not often surprised by stories anymore. So, when I opened George MacDonald’s 1897 novella “The Light Princess,” I was not expecting something fresh or surprising. I was expecting an old-fashioned fairy tale.

I was wrong. I’ve never read anything quite like “The Light Princess.” MacDonald’s voice is completely original. His depictions of the prince and princess of a fairy tale are paradoxically (given the title) down-to-earth, normal people to whom fantastical events happen. And his idea–what if a princess were born who weighed nothing at all, and ran a real risk of blowing away in the wind–is both poetic and hilarious.

Nothing is quite like the stories George MacDonald wrote more than one hundred years ago. Nothing will ever be quite like them. And there are always surprises to be found between the covers of books.

Holes: A Perfect Symphony

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Any one plot from this novel could be a story itself.

There’s the boy sent to a “camp” for juvenile delinquents in the desert.

There’s the interracial couple in the 19th century.

There’s the young man in Eastern Europe who breaks a promise to a gypsy woman.

There’s the woman whose entire life revolved around digging holes.

Each one could be a story, and each one is a good story. But Sachar didn’t settle for one story. He knitted them together, and he did it brilliantly. Remove one story, and the whole thing falls apart. But each man and woman’s life intersects in delicate, perfect ways, making for a perfect symphony of story.

Ink And Bone: What’s Institutional Inertia Doing in YA Lit?

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Not that I’m complaining! I love stories of people interacting with big institutions. It’s an odd and random literary taste, and very rarely satisfied in a non-meta way (I’m looking at you, Foster Wallace; I love you but that was really hard to read).

Basically, the idea is that the printing press was never invented. Instead, the Library of Alexandria has monopolized all the knowledge of the world and used it to gain political power. Sovereign states simply cannot exist without the Library.

As she explores the implications of this, Caine proves to have fully realized her world. The date is around 2030, but you only know that because a journal entry is dated early on. From the setting, it seems like it should be around 1850. The centralization and control of knowledge has badly retarded technological progress, and we see the process of stopping development in action as the novel unfolds.

The culture of the library itself, with it’s cutthroat policies, nepotism, and well-designed system, is at the dark heart of the novel. In this culture based around institutional inertia, a couple of kids try to get by, and get their hearts broken.

Jo: The heroine of Little Women?

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Opening up “Little Women,” I thought that it would be a multi-protagonist sort of book. I was wrong. Jo is the protagonist.

Jo is the first one to speak, and the last sister to settle down and marry. Jo is the primary love interest of the “hero.” Jo is the best friend of doomed Beth.

It is Jo’s development as a person that makes the strongest narrative thread in the book. Amy and Meg also have arcs, but Jo makes more mistakes, has more adventures, acquires more true friends than either of them.

Jo is a tomboy. It’s the central fact of her character. All through the book, people compliment her on how much more womanly she’s becoming. But at the novel’s end, she is running around in the mud with a load of little boys, living and running a school for boys, mothering two boys herself. She lives in an entirely male world–she has become a woman, but on her own terms.

In a difficult and often painful world, all three of the surviving March sisters hollow out small oases for themselves and their families. But while Meg and John Brooke make a tiny world just for them, and Amy and Laurie make a porous and low-key world, Jo’s allies let her make a huge world for herself. In fact, Jo’s world–the school she’s founded, the family she’s made–is so strong and sprawling that it sucks other people in, makes them part of the family.

Jo is a complicated heroine, a woman at war with herself, at conflict with the very idea of the feminine nature that was held to be morally “good” in her time. It’s often said of heroines like her that “she’s a modern girl born in the wrong time and place,” but the truth is that Jo made her world into the right time and place by sheer force of will, personality, and love.

Little Women and Faulkner’s “The Heart at War With Itself”

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There’s a quote by William Faulkner that “the only story worth telling is of the human heart at war with itself.” I thought of this plot every time I started getting frustrated with the moralizing in “Little Women.”

Let me explain: Little Women is super moralistic. Most modern society=bad, acting badly=feeling badly, femininity=good. But, irritating as it can be to read sermons or have acting un-tomboyish praised at every turn, the power of the story Alcott is telling is rather impressive.

Jo, as the protagonist, is the woman who contains the greatest war within herself. Firstly she is, of course, a tomboy, and it’s judged as natural and good that she become more feminine (although she never becomes so feminine that she feels truly untrue to herself). She also has a terrible temper, which she inherited from her mother. She works against this temper, fighting with her instinct in order to be forgiving and kind. Then there is her writing, which she pursues for purely mercenary reasons and out of genuine passion, the two drives battling with one another within her heart. Finally there is her love for Laurie, which she actively tries to change from sisterhood to romance, and fails.

Then there’s Meg, who essentially leaves the story halfway through after her marriage. Yet, she too is at war with herself, trying not to value things like finery and high society, trying to be innocent and pure. She basically overcomes these character flaws at the same time that she leaves the main narrative, which makes sense: hers is no longer a story worth telling.

And finally we come to Amy (I’m skipping Beth because she’s pretty colorless). Amy probably makes more mistakes than any other character, from failing to hide her limes at the age of 12 to almost making a marriage from purely mercenary motives. Her story rises and falls, moving from passion to detachment and back again.

Just about every time the book gets moralistic on you, what Alcott’s doing is trying to put these wars into language. And although the value judgements characteristic of the time can be irritating to a modern reader like me, it doesn’t diminish the strength of the story.