by Carole McDonnell
This month’s reviews will focus on stories that exhibit the juxtaposition of the past and the future, the then and the now… and female rescuers.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, Karen Foxlee, ISBN 978-0-385-75354-8.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is beautiful fairytale storytelling, full of wonderful layers, and totally silly fun. It’s the most childlike book of this month’s lot, but it feels the most literary. Not because it’s stuffy or academic or pretentious. It’s none of those. But because its thematic playfulness will make it stay in the reader’s memory for years to come.
Much of the fun is in the telling, the joy of playing with words, narration, and characterization. All the novels discussed in this article juxtapose the past and the present but this is the only book where past events are actually narrated by one of the characters. And when our Marvelous Boy narrates, the rhythmical beauty of fairytales is positively glorious. There are so many themes bouncing around on each other. They include: storytelling, history, preservation of the past, sacrificed children, grief, and the various ways of knowing.
As I said, the story is about the past and the present. In the past, the villainous Snow Queen locks up a little boy. In the past, a little boy has been chosen by the wizard elders to battle the Snow Queen and save his village. He’s taught all kinds of things by wizards elders, misery owls, and by his jailers. But he isn’t exactly sure what he knows or how his knowledge will help him defeat the Snow Queen. He doesn’t even know his name because it was stolen from him. He remains locked up — un-aging — for about 300 years until he meets scientific-minded Ophelia. It’s no spoiler to say that she is the one who is destined to free him and, more importantly, save the world. And no gallery of whispering ghost girls, no evil Crusader mannequin, no magical owl, no soul-extracting machine, will prevent her from finding the sword before the Wintertide Clock chimes on the third day.
For the most part, all the present action takes place in a museum. Its many terrifying secret halls and haunted rooms are scary as heck to sneak around in. Which is fitting. Because knowledge is entombed around us or handed down via scientific books or oral stories or anecdotes or remembered words from our dead mother or even from our own surmisings and conclusions. And Ophelia slowly begins to understand the very keen distinction of science as a tool for investigation and not as a “belief system. As Ophelia sets about using science to understand, categorize, and decipher the magical unexplainable things in the world, the author honors both the power and limits of science.
But all this sounds much too serious. And the book is decidedly not serious. Really, it’s not. The narration is deadpan quirky, and funny as heck because the author nails the kid-speak kid-think verisimilitude. These are not stupid kids, but their attention spans, priorities, observations, and wandering kid thoughts create laugh-out-loud moments. The heroine is so stressed, afraid, and annoyed to be pulled into having to deal with magic and world-saving. The hero is so melancholy, patient, insecure, and introspective that he is downright adorable.
The story is predictable in the way fairytale adaptations are predictable. One knows the author is playing with the material and this book is excellent historical playfulness. I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves fairytale adaptations. And after your child reads it, prepare to be nagged to visit museums. This book will be one of my faves for years to come.
The Secrets of Life and Death, Rebecca Alexander, ISBN: 978-0-8041-4068-3.
The Secrets of Life and Death is urban fantasy. Like all the novels I read this month, it has two timelines: the timeline in the past concerns Elizabeth Bathory (She of the virginal and very literal blood baths); Edward Kelley who sees angels, is superstitious and has a matter-of-fact disdain for women rooted in his religion; and Dr. John Dee whom Edward Kelley is assisting in an attempt to save the life of said Elizabeth Bathory. Edward is also writing a diary. This diary links the past to the present where we meet “Borrowed Timer” Jackdaw Hammond (not her real name), occult expert Professor Felix Guichard and good witch Maggie who uses sigils to keep dead folks alive in the same way Elizabeth Bathory was kept alive back in the day.
Jackdaw “Jack” Hammond is not the real name of our main protagonist because she is now “living” under an assumed name. She has been kept alive by Maggie’s herbs and sigils. Of course, someone’s now after the sigils, ancient secrets, and the occasional girl plucked from the brink of death. Alas, for better or worse, the desire to stay alive is a strong one whether one is good or evil. So poor Jack is now a woman in jeopardy from an evil pursuer.
This book falls into the primary category of historical fiction. But it’s also urban fantasy and women-in-jeopardy. It’s a quick, easy read for folks who might like supernatural mysteries. And it is definitely light reading, although it makes one ponder certain deep mysterious questions such as: “Can a religious person be deceived by a demon?” and “Why is living so important?” (I think this every time I watch The Walking Dead.)
It’s a good book. It’d make a good movie. I appreciate learning about the history of far-flung places. I might one day actually read the travel journals of the real life Dee and Kelley. I might try reading another historical urban fantasy book, though. Because right now, I can take or leave urban fantasy. I have nothing for them, but I have nothing against them. And as for detective stories I find them a bit cold and contrived. A protagonist who is vaguely undead is not going to change that. And unless the woman in jeopardy is being chased for some racial or political reasons, I kinda tune out. So, although I liked this book, I didn’t love it.
There was a sickness subtext in this book that should’ve gotten me passionately involved in the character’s plight. I’m a sucker for stories about sick or morbidly ill folks hanging on to life, but somehow that didn’t click with me here. Apparently, I have some deep perverse need for books to overwhelm my soul. I recommend this book for good summer beach reading.
Saving Lucas Biggs, Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, ISBN: 978-0-06-227462-5.
By now, you all know that I’m a lover of the time travel genre. Add teenagers, social justice, snarky comments about pop culture, the oppression of the poor, evil corporations and a zippy likeable first person narrator and I am sold.
The narrator-rescuer in this book is Maggie. (Seriously, there are as many Maggies in novels as there are Sams in kid movies) Anyway, Maggie’s family has a special gift. They can go back in time. Of course, they are never supposed to actually do that because… Because? Because History resists, that’s why! But really, when your dad has been framed for a murder he didn’t commit, what’s a girl with time-changing skillz supposed to do? Hell yes, she goes back in time!
The story is told in alternate chapters, with three different narrators. Maggie, Josh (who is a kid in the past and a grandpa in the present), and Charlie, Josh’s grandson and Maggie’s BFF. Can Maggie go back to the poverty-stricken miners of 1938, Arizona and prevent young Lucas Biggs from growing up and becoming an evil cold-hearted bitter judge? Can one fix history by undoing the past? Or can one only fix it from the present?
Okay, so I knew zip, nada, nothing about the lives of miners in Arizona. I didn’t know if there really was a revolt by miners in Victory, Arizona. Heck, I didn’t even know if there was a Victory, Arizona. This novel was passionate about the life of the poor Greek, Italian, Irish, Spanish, and Asian miners that I wondered if this was real history. So I went searching on the web. It seems there were some uprisings in Clifton, Arizona that had to do with mines and Mexican workers. That’s when you know a historical novel has achieved something, when you start researching.
The novel is a perfect YA book. A little love story here, a little speculative fiction there, a little meditation on quantum physics and the nature of time over there, and an underlying passion for justice that might turn its reader into an activist. But, for all that, the story isn’t preachy. It’s a quick read and it’s involving.
I’ve discovered something about myself. It seems the college literature major is still alive in me. But now it has merged with the activist me and the religious me. So, if a story does not connect to my soul or about oppression, it better be humorous or literarily playful.
Avalon, Japanese-Polish 2001, Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Screenplay by Kazunori Ito, Malgorzata Foremniak as Ash. 107 minutes.
I’m a lover of virtual reality movies. Think Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, The Matrix. I’m not sure why. Probably because they play with reality. The trouble is, after reality is played around with, the filmmakers inevitably want to leave us with a twist ending that exemplifies the question: Main Character, are you sure you’re in the real world?
That’s all very well and good but if that’s all the story is going to devolve into, then all the stories pretty much feel the same. The Matrix stands out by being about dehumanization. Dark City is just so haunting. Besides, it’s about aliens and we have a happy ending. The Thirteenth Floor works because it does the thirties period so well.
So what about Avalon?
Well, like most virtual reality movies, it’s a gritty, dingy, world. There’s a brownish tinge over everything, like dusty vaseline on a camera lens. Yet the lines are stark, like rotoscoped anime. There’s a Big Brother meets post World War Eastern Europe vibe. And, as is common in Japanese anime, there are sprinkled references to Western legends and myths that really don’t amount to much. This time the references have to do with King Arthur. Hence the title.
The main character is a woman named Ash. She’s an ace player of an illegal game called Avalon. She has no other life except this game. The game, itself, has benefits. People in this world seem to be poor with rationed diets, but the top role-playing gamesters make good money.
In the past, Ash belonged to Team Wizard but she supposedly shouted “reset” in a game and that broke up the team. Although burdened with that false accusation, she wants to advance to a new level. However, the Game Master tells her that she needs to be part of a team to go to the new level. It’s simply too dangerous to advance alone. Ash believes the powers-that-be simply find it easier to track of a team rather than a single individual.
Suddenly, up comes a new player who is taunting her and one of her old teammate tells her about Murphy who is an “unreturned” and about a Ghost Girl who is a neutral character who pops up in the game, a little girl who might be an easter egg or a bug in the system. The little girl is the key to going to a level called Special A. Special A has benefits that are off the charts. Plus it might just might lead to freedom from the game. Murphy had chased the ghost and well, he’s now catatonic and in an asylum for all the “unreturned.”
Ash is curious. Who is behind this virtual reality illegal war game? Does the game have an end? When did it begin? She sets out on a mission to find Murphy and to convince him to return to the real world. In that way he can leave his catatonia behind. She finally reaches Special A which is Avalon, or a beautiful bright reality that Murphy lives in. Or perhaps he has created it for himself. Or maybe the game makers created it as its own false Zion, ala Matrix. Whatever it is, it is a world of beauty, music, brightness, and harmony. Quite unlike the dingy, war-torn game-levels Ash and other players have had to jack into. But when the movie ends, we find ourselves wondering if Ash was ever real in the first place.
As I’ve said, Japanese worldbuilding is often full of references that make no real sense. We have hints of The Once and Future King, the Nine Sisters who supposedly created the program, and Avalon. But the computer interface Ash speaks with is an eerie looking guy in a clerical collar. And then there is that dog.
It’s a movie full of sound and fury but which ultimately states what all these movies typically say, “Reality is what you make it.” Nothing new there.
Happy reading, all!
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.