Sunday, June 26, 2016

TV Musings: The Magicians Season 1

The Magicians is part of the Syfy network’s ambitious new slate of scripted genre programming.  The series is based on Lev Grossman’s popular trilogy, which begins with a novel of the same name. I reviewed the Grossman’s The Magicians here, though I have not read the following two novels. The first book features a miserable young man, Quentin Coldwater, who is accepted into the magical academy of Brakebills. The story follows Quentin and his friends, both through their school days and their eventual journey to the magical world of Fillory (based very loosely on Narnia).  Though it seems to draw influence from the Chronicles of Narnia as well as Harry Potter, The Magicians is definitely not a story suited for children (see the content warning at the end for details).  The television show roughly follows the story of the first novel, though it includes in parallel content from later in the trilogy as well.  I had a lot of fun watching the show, though I felt like it had some missteps.

Any adaptation generally diverges in some ways from the original work, and Syfy’s The Magicians is no exception.  It stays more or less true to the very basic plot (as far as I’m aware), but viewers hoping for the nihilism and ennui of the novel will likely be disappointed.  I appreciated the atmosphere of the novel, but I think I prefer some of the tonal changes that were made for the television adaptation.  For one thing, the characters all seem much less unconditionally miserable.  Quentin is shown to be struggling with depression, but seeing the story from outside his head keeps the focus more on his actions.  He also has some surprisingly endearing quirks, like his ridiculous dreams and his fondness for Taylor Swift.  While Eliot spends some time drowning in grief and substance abuse, his behavior is clearly triggered by his experiences in the show and not just a general malaise.  Finally, while the show does have a lot of grimness and shocking violence, it manages to balance it out with well-placed humor.  I have to appreciate a story this dark that can consistently make me burst into laughter.  

The first season of the show includes not only Quentin’s time at Brakebills, but also the parallel story of his childhood friend Julia, who is rejected from Brakebills despite her magical talent.  Julia’s story was new to me, but I thought it made a lot of sense to keep her side of things moving.  What’s more, they started tying in the Fillory content from the very first episode (through ominous dreams), which seems a nice way to indicate the direction of the main plot.  However, this means that the show began with a massive amount of characters and subplots that it wanted to introduce right away.  This made the first few episodes feel especially rushed, as well as making the characters initially feel a little one-note.  It took a while for me to be really invested in the characters, but it did happen before the end of the season. Past the first few episodes, things began to slow down a little bit, and each of the characters began to develop through their individual stories.

As much as I’ve been enjoying the show, there are a few things that bug me along the way.  First, I feel like the child abuse is included only for shock value, and I don’t think it is kind to ascribe child abuse to a fictional character that is obviously based on a deceased actual person.  Second, they currently seem to fall several times into a common television trope that requires gay people to never have happy endings.  Finally, there is a general lack of focus in the show, with side plots that are often randomly dropped and never mentioned again.  The most egregious example of this is Quentin’s father’s terminal illness, which seems to be introduced solely to teach Quentin that magic can’t solve everything. However, he doesn’t really try very hard before giving up on his father, and then he never mentions or contacts him again.  Several of the others have similar glitches like this (Alice’s grief for her brother, Julia’s relationship with her fiancĂ©, etc...), which unfortunately undermines my perception of the coherence of their character.  Despite these significant complaints, though, I have actually been enjoying the show, and I am excited to see what everyone will do in the second season.  I’m hoping that the show continues to grow and improve as it moves forward!

Content warning: language, sexual content, violence, substance abuse, child abuse, sexual violence.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip

This review also appears on the Worlds Without End blog, which can be found here.

Every time I have read one of Patricia A. McKillip's novels, I have been struck by her poetic language and the vibrancy of her fantastical worlds. Therefore, I was delighted to have a chance to read and review an advance review copy of her latest collection of short fiction, Dreams of Distant Shores (to be published June 14, 2016). The book collects seven works of short fiction, one essay by McKillip, and a warm and insightful afterword by Peter S. Beagle.  McKillip's essay is about her style of writing high fantasy, which involves simultaneously following and breaking the rules of the genre.  I enjoyed the glimpse into her writing process, and I think the balance between tradition and originality that she describes is one of the things that has kept drawing me back to her fiction.

The short fiction in Dreams of Distant Shores, though, is far from traditional high fantasy. There are no queens, courts and heroes, and the stories take place in worlds not unlike our own.  I thought the title itself was a remarkably accurate description of the contents within, since each tale felt like a dream permeated by a different style of magic.  The vein of strangeness that runs through every work ties the collection of stories together.

The book opens with the confusing and surreal "Weird".  A man and a woman are locked in a bathroom with a gourmet food basket, while someone or something attempts to break in.  The two of them seem oddly calm, and the woman recounts the weirdest things that have happened in her life.  It's a strange slice of a story, and reading it feels like falling into a fragment of someone else's nightmare.  The story "Edith and Henry Go Motoring" (original to the collection) also feels like a peek into someone else's dream, though a more peaceful one.  Edith and Henry go on an aimless journey in the English countryside, crossing a bridge with an unusual toll to an unexpected destination. I felt that these two stories were the most subtle and elusive of the collection, and I ended up reading them multiple times to try to gain a better understanding.

"Alien" (original to this collection) is another calm tale, and one that feels more grounded in a mundane reality. It features an elderly woman who claims to be visited by aliens, though her family fears she's losing her mind.  It's a lovely and quiet story about growing old, familial relationships, loneliness, and wonder.  Also, I think it must be the most positive alien abduction experience I have ever read.

Moving to the lighter side of the collection, "Mer" (original to the collection) and "Which Witch" are humorous stories with very different takes on the subject of witchcraft. "Mer" follows an immortal, form-changing witch who just wants to settle down into something comfortable and rest.  In the process, she spends some time as a goddess and a wooden mermaid, and gets involved in an unusual local religion.  The story is much less about the witch herself, who just wants a long nap, than it is about the ordinary people with whom she winds up getting entangled.  The vagueness of the magic system works well within the story, since a lot of the humor comes from the characters' exasperation with the confusing events happening around them.

Patricia A. McKillip
Patricia A. McKillip
Rather than the ancient, formless, sleepy witch in "Mer", "Which Witch" follows a fashionable young woman in a witchy rock band. She's proud to have recently acquired a crow familiar, but the two of them are having issues with communication.  Unfortunately, what the crow is failing to communicate at the beginning of the story is, "You are in terrible danger!" The magic in this story is tied up in music, something that I think is pretty hard to pull off in a written story.  I thought the music as magic sections were pretty fun in this case, though I'm not convinced the musicians would have put on a decent performance!

Moving into the longer fiction, "Gorgon in the Cupboard" was my favorite of the collection. The story involves a community of Victorian painters and models, and the kinds of relationships that exist between them. A middling painter searching for inspiration finds his muse in Medusa, whose spirit manifests in his unfinished painting of Persephone.  Medusa directs him to search for a model, and he looks for someone who will stop him in his tracks and elevate his work.  However, that model is more than a symbol or a mythological figure, but a human woman with her own griefs, thoughts, and dreams.  What follows is an emotional story about how people are shaped by their experiences, and the value of seeing others as they truly are.

The final novella in the collection, "Something Rich and Strange" is a lyrical and imaginative story that carries an overt environmental message. A couple that lives by the coast have a stable life together, until supernatural forces slowly begin to tear it apart.  The man is drawn inexorably to the water by a siren's call, while the woman begins to see strange things in the familiar coastline. It is not long before the situation begins to get really out of hand. The story is beautifully written, and it had some pretty funny moments without losing its fundamental sincerity and gravity.  I'm usually not a fan of including blatant messages in fiction, but the ocean really is in a sad state (though there are some signs of hope).  Altogether, it is a haunting story of a relationship stretched to the breaking point, as well as a call to take responsibility for environmental damage.

In closing, this was an excellent collection of short fiction by Patricia A. McKillip.  Each of the stories takes place in a different world, with a different tone and approach to the supernatural.  With such a range, from the surreality of "Weird" to the Victorian painters of "Gorgon in the Cupboard", I expect it will please fantasy fans with a variety of tastes.  As for me, I have enjoyed visiting each of McKillip's Dreams of Distant Shores.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Short Fiction: April

It’s time for more discussion of short fiction! For April, I mostly read work that was available for free online, so I will provide the links for everything below. Looking over the ones I marked as my favorites, I have realized that I picked some extremely sad stories for April. However, I think they each carry at least a little seed of hope or potential for future happiness.

Blood Grains Speak Through Memories by Jason Sanford (Novelette): In this unusual post-apocalyptic story, a class of people (land anchors) are enslaved by nanotechnology (grains) to safeguard particular plots of land. If other humans damage their environment, or even just stick around for too long, the grains will force their human guardians to a homicidal response. The anchor Frere-Jones has lost her husband and her son, and her anger against the grains is likely to eventually cost her life. Trapped within a system she despises, she tries to find a way for her life to have meaning. With its creative setting and deep emotional stakes, this story was my favorite of the month.

This is a Letter to My Son by KJ Kabza (Short Story): In this near-future, a technique has been developed to provide ‘plastic surgery’ on one’s mind. If a person is unhappy with something about their body, they can choose to either change it or simply to change their feelings about it. The story follows a transgender adolescent named Kellsey, who only knows her deceased mother through the many video messages she left behind... for her son. Kellsey faces a frightening choice about her future, one that seems unfair for a child her age to have to contemplate. Kellsey’s story is an exploration of self-perception, grief, and mortality.

That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn (Short Story): There was a long and painful war between two races, one telepathic and one not. Now that it is finally over, a non-telepathic nurse goes to visit a man who was both her former prisoner and captor. As a gesture of peace, they enjoy a game of chess together. In the process, they both remember their roles in the war and slowly come closer to healing. I enjoyed the hopeful perspective of the story, as well as the humor of a middling chess player attempting to play a telepath. In addition, it was very interesting to consider how a war could be waged between telepaths and non-telepaths, and what it would cost each of them.