Five Things I Love About Merlin

merlinMy tween daughter begged me to watch the BBC show Merlin (now streaming on Netflix and Hulu). I was busy. I had things to do. And Season One was, I’m sorry, AWFUL. But when your tween says, “Mom please participate directly in my life” you realize that this is a limited time offer. So I soldiered on, and while I still can’t say that Merlin is a “good” show in the sense of, you know, making any sense, I can say that I’m helplessly addicted to it as of about halfway through Season Three.

I’m planning to write more about Merlin after I finish the show, so this will be short and, frankly, extremely shallow. Let’s be honest here – most of the things I like about the show are things I like for shallow reasons (Arthur, Gwaine, Lancelot). I’m not also not going to list all the reasons this show is not actually very good except to say that it’s as dumb as a bag of hair. But here are five ways the show got me hooked:

1. Those clothes

The clothes are anachronistic and ridiculous but DAMN they are pretty, and ever since Morgana turned evil her hair jewelry has been AMAZING.

No one with hair like that should look so cranky.

No one with hair like that should look so cranky.

Seriously, these clothes are to die for.

Seriously, these clothes are to die for.

2. Those Guys

I know. Shallow. Revel with me. Unleash the female gaze:

Lancelot

Lancelot

merlinbj

Arthur

Gwaine, AKA My Little Smoochybear

Gwaine, AKA My Little Smoochybear

I’m not including Merlin here because the actor does a great job of making him a realistic teenager. But he’s a teenager with potential. Like whoa.

Speaking of Merlin:

3. The Subtext

Are they not the cutest???? KISS!! KISS, DAMN YOU!

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Dear Arthur, please stop throwing things at Merlin’s head. The abuse makes it hard to ship you guys. And I really want to:

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4. The Acting

In Season One, Anthony Stewart Head pretty much had to carry the show himself through sheer force of will. but Between Season One and Season Two everyone must have gone to acting school or made deals with the devil or something because man, these people are KILLING IT.

5. Women Fight and Men Cry (and vice versa).

This isn’t a terribly feminist show. In some ways it is exit and in some ways it’s progressive. It’s pretty standard stuff. But there are multiple main female characters who have their own lives, they pass the Bechdel Test all over the place, and there are some nice surprises. Every main male character on this show, regardless of where they fall on the “macho” spectrum, has cried, openly and unashamedly, at least once. And Morgana and Morgause are warrior women, although lately they’ve been doing more conniving and less fighting, to my great disappointment.

Is it stupid that her hair is not tied back? Yes. But it worked for drama earlier in the episode. Meanwhile, she's a badass.

Is it stupid that her hair is not tied back? Yes. But it worked for drama earlier in the episode. Meanwhile, she’s a badass.

Over at smartbitchestrashybooks.com, I’ll give a full review of Merlin when I finish watching it. In the meantime, my advice is skip Season One and start with Season Two. You’ll catch up. It’s not that complicated. Oh, and did I mention THIS!

Who can resist a bad CGI dragon? NOT ME!

Who can resist a bad CGI dragon? NOT ME!

Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker

cover of Thinking Woman;s Guide to Real MagicThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is harrowing and lovely – at times dreamlike and at times gritty.  This is one of the few portal fantasies that deeply explores the ramifications of being transported to an alternate world in terms of mundane things.  There’s magic and adventure and romance, but much more time is spent on matters such as how to get boots that don’t leak, and the importance of knowing the nuances of language instead of just vocabulary.  For this reason, the book is slow-paced, but also thoughtful and interesting.

Nora is a graduate student whose thesis on John Donne is going nowhere.  Her boyfriend dumps her, her thesis advisor is poised to do the same, she’s got no self-esteem or backbone, and she wanders into the woods on a walk and finds herself in faerie.  Suddenly she’s beloved and special and going to wonderful parties every night.  She knows nothing makes any sense but it doesn’t seem matter, and the Prince of Faerie wants to marry her.  It would be perfect if she could just shake the feeling that something is not right.

The book takes it’s time with Faerie, and this part is dreamlike and very slow-paced.  The way the author balances the tone between happy dream and terrible nightmare is adroit – you know that kind of dream where you’re afraid it’s about to become a nightmare?  Like there’s a creepy thing at the very edge of the dream so even though the dream is happy you are still afraid?  That’s what Nora’s experience is like.

The book really gets interesting when Nora leaves Faerie.  She’s not in her world – she’s in the land of Ors, which is somewhat medieval in nature but nothing that is too closely paralleled with our history.  This part is also slow-paced, as Nora struggles to make a home for herself in a place where she has no marketable skills, only rudimentary ability with language, no social skills to speak of (people often complain that she ignores propriety) and no status (she’s a woman without husband, property, money, or family).  The moment when Nora, who’s spent her life studying literature, realizes that she’s illiterate in the language of Ors, is heartbreaking.

What’s great is that this part of the book is well-thought out, and it gives Nora a chance to shine.  We meet her at a low point in her contemporary American life, and in Faerie, her intelligence is forcibly muted (she’s basically roofied the whole time).  But in Ors, she has nothing to rely on but her brains, and she builds confidence as she figures out how to survive.

Meanwhile Nora is under the protection of a magician, and they begin studying Nora’s copy of Pride and Prejudice together.  The magician is a total jerk – rude, arrogant, contemptuous of Nora because of her status, and yet gradually more respectful of her as she shows talent and tenacity.  Could there be some kind of parallel here?  HMMMM?  Note:  I never liked this guy but he’s the kind of hero who is pure catnip to some readers – dark, tortured, and angsty.  There’s an event in his past that I think makes him irredeemable.  Yet I loved watching Nora stand up to him over and over again and I look forward to reading more about him in the upcoming sequel.

This book is being marked as fantasy chick-lit.  I have no problem with fantasy chick-lit (other than the name “chick-lit” which makes me want to claw off my own face) but I don’t feel that description fits.  This is a pretty in-depth, serious fantasy.  I love the way there are dragons and ice monsters but also problems with leaking boots.  Nora spends more time peeling apples than she does casting spells (although once she starts spell-casting it’s pretty awesome).  I found this book easy to put down but a pleasure to pick up again.  There’s a sequel on the way.  Will Nora and the cranky magician get through the second half of Pride and Prejudice?  Will she ever slay that damn dragon?

Emily Croy Barker’s website has a reading guide that includes maps, a list of poems quoted in the book, recipes, and a playlist.

Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

12814333Reading A Stranger in Olondria makes me feel a little bit drunk.  This gorgeous book by Sofia Samatar is a love letter to the power of reading to transport, to wound, to heal, to oppress, and to liberate.

A Stranger in Olondria takes place in a fantasy world.  Jevick, the son of a rural pepper merchant, is tutored by a man from Olondria.  This man teaches Jevick how to read.  When Jevick’s father dies, Jevick must make the yearly trading trip into Olondria, to the trading city of Bain.  This vast city is full of books, and Jevick is almost crazed with the freedom he experiences as a teen away from home for the first time, and as a reader with sudden access to all the books he could possibly want.

This is great until Jevick attends a festival called The Feast of Birds.  After the festival, he finds himself haunted by the ghost of an illiterate but ferociously articulate girl who demands that he write down her story. He refuses, because there is no alphabet in her language and because reading and writing are barred to her people.  Their battle of wills and occasional truces embroil Javick in a devastating conflict between two political and religious factions.

This is the time of year when I try to read as many books as I can that have been nominated for either The Nebula Award for Best Novel or The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It’s a great time for me, because it causes me to read a much broader range of material than I normally do, and much of the material is more challenging than my day-to-day fare.  That’s not to disparage the quality or content of the books I turn to most often.  It’s just that I find that many of the Nebula nominees has particularly dense and rich language and or complex plots.  I average approximately three books per week, and it took me well over a week to finish A Stranger in Olondria even though the book is only three hundred pages long.  To be honest, even that seemed much too fast.  I’d like to read this book as a meditative practice, one page a day.  It’s that beautiful in its use of words.

There are so many things we could focus on with this book – the plot, the relationships between people, particularly between Javick and the ghost and between children and parents, and the work-building, which is particularly wonderful because this fantasy does not feel based in the mythology and landscape of Western Europe.  People are described as having dark skin and hair,  and much of the world feels African or East Asian.  I was so distracted by the poetry of the words that I barely grasped the plot, so I’m just going to focus on language.

This is a book about language, both spoken and written, and as such the language is gorgeous and sensual.  I could pick any paragraph as an example.  Here’s one I found by opening the book to a random page:

The house stood on the eastern side of the Yeidas.  It was the last estate, shipwrecked between the farms and the eternity of the desert.  It stood in the sparse embrace of its orchard of plum and almond trees and turned its shuttered eyes on the contours of the plateau.  There was the library, there the terrace with its stone balustrades, there the balconies caged in iron flowers.  I remember even the creak of the gate and the shadow of my hand as I reached for it, in the argentine light of the snow.

That paragraph is an English Lit paper waiting to happen.  In the nostalgia of memory, the house, which was the home of a nurturing mother and terrifying father , is both beautiful and confining, and memory is both concrete and nebulous – I love “the shadow of my hand” and the “caged” iron flowers.

I’m going to close with an excerpt from a really long paragraph about reading.  If this doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what will.

“A book”, says Vandos of Ur-Amakir, “is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.”  Fanlewas the Wise, a great theologian of Avalei, writes that Kuidva, the God of Words, is “a taskmaster with a lead whip”.  Tala of Yenith is said to have kept her books in an iron chest that could not be opened in her presence, else she would lie on the floor, shrieking.  She wrote, “Within the pages there are fires, which can rise up, singe the hair, and make the eyelids sting”.  Ravhathos called the life of the poet “the fair and fatal road, of which even the dust and stones are dear to my heart,” and cautioned that those who spend long hours reading or writing hold not be spoken to for seven hours afterward. “For they have gone into the Pit, into which they descend on Slopes of Fire, but when they rise they climb on a Ladder of Stone”.  Hothra of Ur-Btome said that his books were “dearer than father or mother”, a sentiment echoed by thousands of other Olondrians through the ages, such as Elathuid the Voyager, who explored the Nissian coast and wrote, “I sat down in the wilderness with my books, and wept for joy”.

Beautiful.

 

Gateway Drugs: Fantasy

door opening onto poppiesIt’s been a while since we had an edition of Gateway Drugs over here on Geek Girl In Love.  This is the feature where we talk about what books you would recommend to someone who wants to try out a genre for the first time.  Today’s feature is on Fantasy.  Hop on the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter, and tell us what got you into fantasy, or what you’d recommend to someone who was trying out Fantasy for the very first time.

Here’s my pics for some things to try.  Let’s start with some obvious categories:

The Ultimate Fantasy Classic:  The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Please.  Like I’m not going to suggest Lord of the Rings.  Everyone reads Lord of the Rings.  start with the Hobbit, but be aware that it was written for a younger audience.  Frankly, I prefer the Hobbit.  I enjoy the simplicity of the storytelling.  But for the real stuff, you have to read the trilogy that follows.  By the way, to my complete astonishment, I loved the Peter Jackson film adaptation for LotR, although I was less thrilled by the first Hobbit movie.

It’s For Kids, but not Really:  C.S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, and J.K. Rowling

This category also applies to The Hobbit.  Some of the most popular fantasy has kids as characters, and is marketed as being for kids, but has themes that attract adults.  The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, is of course incredibly important to the genre.  This series has strong Christian undertones which, as a child, bothered me not a whit.  Even as an adult, I’d argue that the only book in the series in which the Christian Allegory becomes obvious and invasive is in the last book in the series, The Last Battle.  I loathe The Last Battle and my ten-year old consultant agrees with me.  But the other books in the series are wonderful.

More recently, Phillip Pullman came out with the series His Dark Materials.  This series, which starts with The Golden Compass, tends to end up on children’s shelves, but I’d argue that it’s much more for teens and adults as the material is both intense in terms of violence and intense in terms of complicated themes.  Phillip Pullman is an atheist and just as Christian allegory shows up  in the Narnia books, there’s a lot of atheist allegory in the His Dark Materials Book – but not enough to be oppressive or mess up the story in a heavy-handed way.

And of course, let us not forget Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling.  J.K. Rowling released about one book a year for seven years, with the expectation that her audience would grow up with the books.  As a result, the first book feels very much like a book for kids age 8-10 but the last book deals with much darker stuff.  Anyone who says “The Harry Potter Books are for kids” clearly hasn’t read Book 7.

Not for Kids, Nope, Not At All:  Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Disclaimer:  I tried to read Game of Thrones.  I really did.  But I had been spoiled so I read the first chapter about Ned Stark’s happy family and became so horribly depressed that I gave it up.  The Game of Thrones phenomenon is huge thanks to the HBO series.  Game of Thrones took epic fantasy and made it gritty, realistic, and political.  Expect lots of violence, lots of sex, and lots of scheming.

OK, that’s the basics.  But what are some less obvious fantasy choices for a newcomer?  Here’s a handful of titles that are marketed for adults and which have attracted a lot of attention both within and without the genre community:

Modern Gems

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

This is a modern fantasy, in which a man, Shadow, becomes involved in the lives of the Gods that people brought to America with them when they emigrated.  The book is famous for its clever and poetical premise, its attachment to the American landscape, and its language, which is beautiful but modern, unlike the ornate language of most high fantasy.

War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull

This is one of my favorite books, ever.  One of the first urban fantasy books, it tells the story of rock musician Edie who becomes involved in the Faerie Wars.  The sense of day-to-day life and the sense of magic and magical creatures are equally vivid.  This book also features one of my favorite romances.  It’s exciting and funny and scary and exhilarating.  You can find my full-length review of this novel at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Fantasy has a reputation of being by and about white people by Saladin Ahmed removes fantasy from the realm of European mythology and sets his story in a fantastical version of the Middle East.   Great characters, great world-building, great plot.  you can find my full-length review here on Geek girl In Love.

 What got you into fantasy, and what would you suggest to a friend?

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Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Cover of "Hild"Hild is a fascinating historical fiction about Saint Hilda of Whitby.  It’s a slow-paced book but not dull.  It’s immersive.  To read the book is to step into the 600’s in Britain, where Hild survives by watching everything and everyone around her, even as she struggles to make sense of her own desires and dreams.

In this book (Griffith tentatively plans to do three), Hild goes from age three to adulthood.  During this time she become’s the king’s seer and has to navigate treacherous politics and war.  She learns to fight and she participates in battle and in ridding a region of bandits.  She learns weaving and some healing arts and the art of midwifery.  Do not read this book if you are pregnant as not all pregnancies end well and some are very, very bloody and harrowing.  She struggles with her sexuality, especially her feelings towards her foster-brother.  Above all, she watches.

Read because of the gorgeous use of language.  Here’s a sample passage:

She crunched in the grey-brown sedge on the edge of the rhyme and watched.  It might be spring half a mile away, down in the valley along the beck, but here, high on the march moor by the sea, it was a harsh, color-less world.  Here there was no greening blossom, no curve of burbling stream or round river rocks.  The rhymes ran spear-straight into the horizon, the willow beds running between them, all under a tin-grey sky.  Steel-coloured water lapped and slapped along the dirt banks, and the willow canes, not yet in leaf, rattled and shook like tally sticks.

It’s interesting to me that this book has been nominated for a Nebula Award, because the elements of fantasy are very minimal.  This is a book that is deeply based in realism.  Smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste are important to Hild personally and politically.  She can tell what’s happening inside a pregnant woman by looking at the woman’s urine and she can tell whether or not someone is pregnant in the first place by smelling them.  She knows how to deliver a painless mercy kill to a wounded man and she knows that if she plants red flowers she’ll have an advantage in trade the following year (because bees like red flowers, which means more honey, which means more mead).  Most of Hild’s prophecies come from her careful observations of the world around her.  She knows that the coming winter will be hard because she watched bird behavior, not because of mystical events.  I absolutely think this book deserves awards but I’m not sure the category of “fantasy” is accurate for it.

Anyone who is interested in the craft of writing should read at least some of this book, even if the genre isn’t interesting to them.  It was certainly interesting to me, although it moved slowly.  There’s a lot of waiting and observing, punctuated by quick, brutal action and confusing political turmoil.  I cared about hold and worried about her and I’m anxious for the sequel!

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Sir Terry Pratchett

tumblr_mzcolqBAfe1qe712jo1_1280Terry Pratchett’s new Discworld book, Raising Steam, has been out in the UK for months.  Finally US readers get a crack at it as it is officially released in the US today.  Run to your bookstore!  Run, I say!

Raising Steam takes place in the fantasy world called Discworld.  This is part of a huge series of more or less stand alone books.  In each book, Pratchett takes a satirical, usually hilarious, look at some element of modern life.  My personal favorite, Maskerade, makes affectionate fun of opera and of the Phantom of the Opera.  The Truth sees Discworld get its very first newspaper.  Guards!  Guards! introduces us to the police force…and so on.  My advice on where to start is to see where your passions lie and follow that trail, although I’ve listed some specific suggestions at the end of this review.

Raising Steam sees the invention of the first locomotive.  Lord Ventari is, of course, anxious that this new invention not destabilize his realm, and he puts Moist Von Lipvig, a reformed con man who has already fixed up the postal service (Going Postal) and the bank (Making Money), in charge of making sure the railway is built, and that the railway is built in such a way as will work to the advantage of Lord Ventari.  Meanwhile, the dwarfs are experiencing civil unrest over the fact that dwarves are leaving the mines for the big city, and working with and even marrying trolls and humans.  Most of the social commentary in the book comes from the sections regarding dwarves.

I loved this book, but its tone is a little different from the earlier Discworld books, including those featuring Moist.  The humor is sharp but less laugh-out-loud in nature.  In fact there are very few sections during which I whooped with laughter, or rushed to quote a passage.  The Discworld books have always had some serious points to make, and my sense with this book and the previous book, Snuff, is that Terry Pratchett has no interest in messing around – if he has a point to make, he’s just gonna come out and make it.

Terry Pratchett has a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s which does not affect his ability to make books although he can’t actually physically write or type (he dictates them).  I haven’t noticed any problems with his more recent books in terms of writing quality.  The only difference I observe is this switch to a more serious, pointed tone – which is saying a lot, since the Discworld books have always been pointed and often quite dark, despite an overall sense that goodness and hope struggle to persist, no matter how mad the world may be.   This sense continues to pervade Raising Steam.  Pratchett’s writing seems more urgent to me in his last couple of books, but that may be less a matter of what’s happening with him and more a matter of what’s happening with me, a devoted reader who hears the clock ticking on a beloved series.

The dwarf plot and the train plot go together in a way that feels less like a natural progression of the story and more like someone trying to figure out how to connect two completely different plots and saying, “Well, we could always do this”.  Toward the end a whole new dwarf thing is introduced, which means we get all our social metaphors packaged together.  I’d sum it up as a message that inclusion and diversity are good things.  This didn’t bother me too much because as messages go I’m quite fond of the messages involved in the dwarf storyline, but it the message was a bit heavy-handed even by Discworld standards.  If you are deeply opposed to things like legalizing gay marriage, or equal opportunities for women, or racial and ethnic diversity, then you won’t like this book although I’d argue that you certainly ought to be reading it.

I don’t recommend Raising Steam as the first Discworld book you should read but I do highly recommend it overall, and if you haven’t read other Discworld books, don’t worry, you’ll catch up just fine.  I loved this book even though I missed the madcap feel of earlier installments.  If you are new to Discworld, here’s some suggestions on where to dive in:

The Color of Magic:  The very first Discworld book!  This one introduces the wizards.

Equal Rites:  Introduces my very favorite characters – the witches.

Guards!  Guards!  Meet the City Watch!

Reaper Man:  Hello, Death.

Going Postal:  Moist von Lipvig is introduced and stamp collecting is born.

My personal favorites:  Maskerade, Lords and Ladies, Carpe Jugulum, Hogsfather.  Of those four, three are about the witches so I guess there’s some bias there.  I did not read the series in order and you don’t have to either.  Just have fun with it!

Book Review: Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard

Moth and Spark.hi res coverMoth and Spark is a epic fantasy that manages to tell a more or less complete story in one volume.  It’s clearly sequel-ready, but it’s also self-contained, which I vastly appreciate.  The language is simple but eloquent – a nice departure from some of the more florid language you sometimes find in fantasy.  It involves politics, war, magic, and dragons, but at its core is a war-time romance.  I’m going to focus on why that romance works, using Jennifer Crusie’s list of the steps of romance:

1.  Assumption:  Is this person desirable?

2.  Attraction:   Is this person a possible suitable mate?

3. Infatuation:  Cues of joy and pain lead to the “giddiness of immature love”

4.  Attachment:  Mature, unconditional love.

In Moth and Spark, Prince Corin and commoner Tam cross paths at a party and are instantly, painfully attracted to each other.  Assumption happens right off the bat – they are both gorgeous.  Right away we move into Attraction, and here is the first roadblock.  Yes, they’re both very pretty, but Tam is disappointed to learn that Corin is a prince and not a soldier, and Corin is disappointed to learn that Tam is the daughter of a doctor and someone he cannot possibly marry due to her respectable but low-level social status.

But there’s another thing that happens during the assumption phase – Corin refuses to condescend to Tam, and Tam refuses to give Corin any deference.  Respect as a another person, sure.  Obiesence, no.  This link between them, this recognition of their true selves, causes them to propel into the infatuation stage, marked by secret meeting, a flower in Tam’s hair, and her thinking to herself, “He likes me! and laughing at herself for basically being a giddy schoolgirl about the guy.

By the time Corin and Tam are split up, they’ve had a very short time to grow into Attachment.  I thought a lot about why this works.  There’s nothing to say that they are madly in love except that they say they are manly in love.  One day they are trading “copulatory glances” at a party and the next they are soul mates.  how did that happen?  Why do I believe it even though I think I shouldn’t?

I think the key here is that Corin and Tam’s story is about love during wartime.  In war, everything happens at fast forward.  Upon  first reading, I though Corin and Tam skipped from assumption to attachment, but then I realize that the author takes great care to show them moving through all the steps – just very, very quickly.  And this works because of the context – in war, people have no time to waste, and Corin and Tam have to step up fast or drop the whole relationship.  They can’t casually date during a dragon attack.

Ultimately, one of the thing romance is about is recognition – seeing and accepting the other for who they are.  Corin and Tam start out with recognition and this is the foundation of their relationship.  It doesn’t matter whether they snore or whether they have different taste in desserts or whether she likes rock climbing while he prefers quiet walks on the beach.  Recognition is what matters and that’s why Tam and Corin need each other and are able to not only sustain a relationship but deepen their commitment despite being completely separated for large parts of the book.  Kudos to the author for pulling off a challenging situation and turning it into a gripping, satisfying love story!

Also, there are dragons.  Wonderful, wonderful dragons.  Can I have one for a pet, please?