Creating and Breaking a Familiar Story

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I was a bit confused by the latest “Memoir of Lady Trent.” I was expecting a big political upheaval to kick in. I thought there would be a battle, a thrilling chase, a geopolitical firestorm.

I thought this because that was how the last two “Memoirs” went. Go somewhere, study dragons, stumble into a war, play a public and pivotal role in that war, be banned from coming back, go home. A similar plot played in the first novel.

So, as I neared the end of “In the Labyrinth of Drakes,” I was expecting something big to happen. Plots to pay off, a villain to be unmasked. I even thought I knew which character would turn up with an army of bad guys. But nothing happened.

I’m still a little torn on how I feel about this. On the one hand, I felt like the previous two books promised me something, and that promise was broken in this book. I feel a bit of a letdown. On the other hand, Brennan was very clever in designing the plot. The political upheaval is replaced by scholarly upheaval, the shuttered personal becomes public, and all around the book feels fresh.

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Perhaps any experiment with form must accept the risk of breaking promises  made. Some people will probably always feel upset about this. But everything familiar began as unfamiliar, and the greatest joy comes in a promise fulfilled in the most unexpected of ways.

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Prague In Literature

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There has to be a graveyard. If there isn’t a graveyard scene, the book isn’t really taking place in Prague.

Prague is an odd sort of city, a melancholy, dark place. The greatest Prague writer was Franz Kafka–that tells you a lot right there. And every once in a while, Prague turns up in an unexpected place. When that happens, the way to tell if the author has actually been to Prague is to ask “is there a graveyard scene?”

Helen Oyeyemi, author of “What is Not Yours is Not Yours,” lived in Prague. I know that because I read an interview, but also because her book is full of eerie puppets in Prague graveyards. Jonathan Stroud, author of “The Golem’s Eye,” spent time in Prague. I don’t have a clue if he admitted that in an interview, but his protagonist went to the Prague Cemetery pretty quickly.

Certain places are alive in ways that are not quite understandable to the human eye. And when the feel of those places is captured in books–something special happens.

The Goats and the Power of Adolescence

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“The Goats” is a camp book, a wilderness book. In it, two teenagers are marooned on an island by their fellow campers because they have been marked out as “different,” “immature.” They are stripped naked and left to have sex. This will normalize them.

It’s a horrifically disempowering situation to be in. But the two protagonists of “The Goats” aren’t disempowered. They flee the island on their own steam. They get by themselves, without compromising their senses of honesty, for days. They find power.

The be a teenager is to feel powerless. Teenagers are victims of their hormones, victims of their own fears. They live in a complicated and difficult world, where any friend can become and enemy and vice versa.

In “The Goats,” the characters take ownership of their lives. They turn their own powerlessness into independence, turn their forced relationship into a source of strength. The start as victims, but emerge victors.

Because of Winn-Dixie and the Non-Normative Family

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I live in China, and here the majority of families are two-parent. Not only that, but there is an assumption that the majority of families in America are also two-parent.

But the truth is that a very, very large minority of families in America are now one-parent. That’s not something that has ever existed in human history before. No one is quite sure how to deal with it. Political reactions range from trumpeting the value of the single parent to putting in place every possible incentive to keep parents together. And a huge source of anxiety for American society in the last few decades has been “how do we explain this to our kids?”

“Because of Winn-Dixie” isn’t explaining to kids how to deal with having one parent abandon them. It’s the story of how one girl came to terms with her mother leaving her. The idea of “family” was broken, and it feels as if it can never be repaired. Most kids can barely process the idea that their parents don’t know everything, and now they have to process the idea that their parents can not only do wrong, but can commit sin.

Her family broken, she has to find a new family. And because of Winn-Dixie, she does.

The Temeraire Series, Indigenous People, and Leveling the Playing Field

Like the book says, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” were the three major factors that allowed in European colonization. In the Americas, European diseases decimated the local populations, and anyone who survived had only wood and stone weapons with which to fight the initial waves of conquest. In Africa, superior technology allowed Europeans to conquer the continent. And in East Asia, European weapons technology pulled ahead of Chinese tech enough for China to be defeated and humiliated in the Opium Wars.

Then Naomi Novik asked “what if everyone had dragons?” Dragons are not a purely technological innovation, they are a natural one. They grow, they aren’t built. They are bred, yes, but they can never be bred into the sort of dead end that technology can reach.

In Novik’s China, this means that the technological head start the Chinese had in the middle ages never went away. They learned how to breed dragons better than Europeans, and they kept it up.

In Africa and the Americas, this means that the native populations couldn’t be easily dominated and subdued. Sure, plague still swept through native Americans, but it was not solely responsible for the conquest of the Americas. However, when the colonizers come on boats without dragons, and the local populations have fully integrated dragons into their cultures, the European guns and steel are useless.

It’s hard for me to describe, as a history buff  and a person invested in social justice, just how awesome this is. There’s an African empire that has no interest in getting the English to abolish the slave trade, because they’re going to end it themselves by burning all the goddamn ports to the ground with effin’ dragons. There’s a sequence in which the characters journey up the coast of Africa and find that every single slave port has been destroyed in a coordinated attack.

There’s a recounting of a famous incident in which the emperor of the Inca was murdered, after being ransomed, by Europeans. In real history, the Incans attacked the Europeans, and it was a bloodbath as the Europeans shot thousands of Incans and emerged without a scratch. But add dragons on the Inca side, and suddenly the Incan bloodbath becomes dismembered Europeans.

In North America, it’s pretty ruddy hard for the early Americans to ignore and trample over the native tribes when those tribes are breeding dragons–so the colonists and the native peoples unite in their desire for independence, and produce a new fusion of a distinctly American culture.

In fact, over the course of the series, Europe is slowly revealed to be quite backward in its idea of dragons, and Europeans’ failure to integrate dragons into their society has put them at a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. The Regency era was, in real history, a time when England felt itself to be the master of the world. Not so here, because they’ve kept dragons walled off from their society. They’ve lost access to a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They’ve downgraded thinking beings into animals, and they’ve suffered for it.

It’s a pretty awesome way of turning history on its head.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: A Sequel, of Sorts

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It wasn’t the same.

I mean, it wasn’t the same as reading all the other “Harry Potter” books for many reasons. It’s been many, many years since I had a new Harry Potter book. I’ve never read an HP book on kindle before. The play format was very different and positively jarring. The fact that it wasn’t only JK’s voice was noticeable.

For those of my generation, Harry Potter was not really a series of books. Harry Potter was an experience. Staying up all night reading the fifth and seventh books is something I have very distinct memories of. The moments particular characters died are emblazoned on my memory. My grief, my joy, my excitement–those are all bound up in my memories of Harry Potter.

That experience can have no sequel. After the last movie came out, it was over. Pottermore touched that experience, the Ilvermorny business very nearly skews that experience–but nothing can actually join that experience. It is in the past. It is over.

And when the books and movies ended, the truth is that they took seed in the mind of the fans. That was it, it was over–and we were free to imagine what we would for the future. Fanfiction became the only fiction.

Maybe, if JK had written another novel, instead of a play and a movie, it would have been different. But as it is, it feels like she is writing fanfiction about her own universe now. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” feels no more real to me than the mad fanfictions that fill the internet, than the occasional fun little parody movies that pop up on youtube. This might be because, while JK spent the best part of a decade plotting the books, she only spent the last few years working on this play. It might be because I’m so disappointing with how bad a job she’s been doing at inserting her Wizarding history into American history.

This book didn’t feel like an attempt to recapture the experience of Harry Potter. What it felt like was an experiment with, and a reflection on, the world JK built (which, again, is a very fanfiction-ey thing to do). She gets to challenge the characters she created in new ways. She gets to reflect on the long-term effects of what she put those characters through, of what relationships developed over the course of her seven novels. She gets to reframe things, to show how different people interpreted the events of her books. And she gets to address some of the major criticisms of her books, like the fact that everyone in Slytherin was on a scale from slimy to super-evil, or that the time-turners could have been used to save like everyone.

Looked at from the perspective of an experiment, a sort of writing exercise, I found the whole thing immensely enjoyable. It doesn’t feel like the books, it doesn’t feel closely connected enough to the experience of Harry Potter be a real sequel–but that’s all right. Because it’s really just a lot of fun.

Five Children and It: Stepping outside the Self

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Children, according to JM Barrie, are fundamentally selfish and heartless. He’s not exactly wrong: children in general are selfish, careless of the future, impulsive, and lacking in self-awareness.

So what would happen if you gave four selfish, careless, impulsive, and un-self-aware children one wish each day? That’s the premise of “Five Children and It,” and the results are brilliant. Of course, first the children wish for beauty. But to be beautiful is to no longer be themselves, and they can’t even go home because they’re not recognized. Luckily, the wishes go away at sunset. Then they wish for wealth, but no one believes they didn’t steal it. They figure they should have wished for specific denominations of cash, but never get around to doing it.

Then they make the mistake of wishing that they can make a wish anywhere, instead of talking directly to their grumpy genie creature. This is when the impulsiveness gets really bad, and they make assorted inadvertent wishes and have all sorts of trouble dealing with the consequences.

Only when one of the children can finally step out of herself enough to wonder what It’s feelings are that the shenanigans stop. She asks It how It feels, and what It wants. By doing this, she is able to at last befriend It, and to undo the bad consequences of their wishes once and for all.

It’s a masterful story, a perfect example of how some of the true masters of Story can say things without actually having to say them.