Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Captain America 2: Winter Makes Me Cranky

I, my husband, and two of our friends watched Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier on Saturday night. I’ve been pretty happy with most of the movies produced by Marvel so far, despite a few missteps (Iron Man 2, I’m looking at you). In particular, I think that The Avengers is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread. So I went into the theatre with reasonable explanations for a nice popcorn flick.

Instead, I came out feeling sad and cranky. I think I may have reached my limit of superhero movies that attempt to be smart by addressing current political topics and yet fumble the ball.

Note: Spoilers ahead.

Where to start? Well, how about…

Its simplistic depiction of institutional evil

I’m not going to summarize the plot, but it’s pretty standard spy-movie territory. (Blah blah, SHIELD infiltrated, No One is Trustworthy, Big Data, mass pre-emptive drone strikes, people are sheep and will trade freedom for security, it was Robert Redford all along, whatever.)

When it’s finally revealed that Hydra’s been pulling the strings and that the helicarriers are really targeting people based on the threat they pose to Hydra’s new world order, the proceedings feel hollow, somehow. Captain America patches into the speaker system of SHIELD’s HQ and gives a Rousing Speech revealing that Hydra’s filled the organization with spies, that the corruption goes all the way up to the top, and that the true agents in support of Freedom and Democracy have to fight back.

As Rousing Speeches go, it does its job, and the various loyal SHIELD agents turn against their foes. Meanwhile, Cap and his trusty fellow soldier manage to board each of the three helicarriers (AKA: floating, geotargeting remote drone-strike platforms of doom) in time to rewire their targeting systems so that they will simultaneously shoot each other instead of all of the innocents targeted by Hydra’s potential threat algorithm. There’s even a helpful counter on each ship’s screen, showing the number of targets dropping dramatically from 700k to 3. A general sense of relief pervades the film when all the ships (undoubtedly stuffed to the gills with Hydra baddies) explode and fall into the ocean.

But let’s think about this: if Hydra really wanted to ensure its grip on SHIELD, would they really have placed the majority of their units onto these three ships, especially knowing that others within the organization have become suspicious of the plot? And if Hydra’s really been a parasite within the agency for 50 years, would one speech have been enough to make The Good Guys understand? This sort of warped thinking can’t be purged easily. It really shouldn’t take three big explosions to destroy half a century’s worth of war-mongering.

Which leads us to…

Too many explosions

This movie has a serious case of Man of Steel syndrome. After a while, all the fighting, all of the  hand-to-hand combat and awesome mechanical wings and cybernetic arms gets kind of… exhausting. Lots of CG, lots of shattered glass, lots of just-in-time escapes, you know the drill.

Oh, and let’s not forget…

It (almost) fails the Bechdel Test

I know, I know, the Bechdel Test has its flaws. But there are not one, not two, but three badass military women in this movie (four if you include the bits with Peggy, even though her character is in a nursing home dealing with Alzheimers). Two of them, Black Widow and Maria Hill, share at least several moments of screen time. But when do they share that screen time, and what do they discuss? They’re either in the hospital talking to others, or at the recovering Nick Fury’s bedside. Yes, they talk about ways to disarm Hydra’s helicarriers of doom, but never – not for a single moment – do they have a private chat.

I got into a big discussion about this with my husband. He pointed out that the girl that Steve Rogers asks out for coffee (who is really an undercover SHIELD agent assigned to protect him) is actually Peggy’s niece, and that she’s seen finishing off a phone call with her aunt before he talks to her. But Peggy’s never seen onscreen during this conversation; if he hadn’t told me that she was Sharon Carter, I would not have made the connection. I doubt that other viewers unfamiliar with the comics would have picked up on this either. So yes, nominally, this movie grudgingly passes the test.

But honestly, is this the best it could do? Both Thor movies passed the Bechdel Test without having to rely on a technicality like that. It’s not that frickin’ hard. The fact that they failed to do this even in the wake of The Avengers just pisses me off. On top of that, despite this conversation, this scene is all focused on the male protagonist: the phone call is used as a way for Rogers to break the ice and ask her out. After she declines, she reveals that the stereo in his apartment has been playing loudly for a while. This isn’t a scene based on any sort of female actualization or agency in any way – she’s presented as date material, then gives him a handy warning. Again, is that the best this movie could do?

This movie is fun. It’s got explosions. It’s got neat fight choreography, snappy dialogue, and a paucity of shaki-cam. But I don’t know…I guess I’m becoming a bit bitter.

Ad Astra 2014 Recap

Everything is awesome!

Ad Astra, where everything is awesome!

Ad Astra wrapped up just a few days ago. Now that I’m fairly sure I haven’t gotten con crud,  I’ll tell you all about it! Although I didn’t take part in any panels or do any readings, I had a blast. Here’s a breakdown:

The panels

There was a lot to choose from. I’ve learned from past conferences and conventions not to pack my schedule too tightly, but it was so hard to resist. I think I attended about 10 in all, most focusing on aspects of writing and editing fiction. Highlights include the three I attended where Anne Groell was a panelist, the “Mission Unfilmable” panel with James Bambury, and the “That Drives Me Crazy” panel with my good friend Andrew Barton. All in all, I was pretty satisfied with what I attended. I also live-tweeted a number of the panels with the #AdAstra2014 hashtag.

The readings

I only attended two readings this year. One was a regular reading, but the other one, well, that was something special. More of the (somewhat NSFW) specifics are available on Michael Matheson’s blog. But let’s just say that the combination of fan fiction, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Shakespeare, and Harry Potter that was on display that night was a legend in the making. I really hope that a reading like that becomes an institution at Ad Astra and similar cons.

The parties

If there’s one thing that conventions are good for, it’s parties. My husband and I attended a few, most notably the Doctor Who tea party on Saturday afternoon, and the Bundoran Press launch party for Strange Bedfellows the same evening. We entered raffles, got pictures taken in front of a green screen where you could choose a digital background (I chose the classic Tardis interior and wore the 4th Doctor’s scarf), ate cookies, and had some tea (which was somewhat middling, unfortunately).

That night at the Bundoran launch party we got to hear several authors read, including Andrew Barton and Robin Riopelle. Riopelle’s reading, in particular, was amazing, which brings me to…

Books and other fun purchases

I bought lots of books at both WFC 2012 and last year’s Ad Astra. This year, not so much. In fact, I bought only 3 books! One of which was Robin Riopelle’s debut, Deadroads – her reading was so emotive and engaging that I couldn’t resist. Interestingly, this book is one of the first ones published by Night Shade Books after their incorporation into Skyhorse Publishing. It’s comforting to know that despite its financial issues, this press has continued publishing quality fiction.

Aside from that, I did make some random purchases, including this little guy knit out of yarn:

A tiny little Captain Picard, knit out of yarn.

Make it so!

Let’s just say that the next time I have some Earl Grey, I won’t be doing so alone!

One last thing…

The masquerade was on Saturday evening at the same time as the Bundoran launch, so I didn’t get to see the amazing costumes in play. However, people wore costumes all weekend, so I am happy to present to you possibly the most awesome video I have ever filmed:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WKdZQKjWxc

 

Yes, that is someone dressed up as Newt from Pacific Rim (with arm tattoos drawn on in Sharpie marker!) doing contact juggling a la Labyrinth. You’re welcome.

Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. JamesTitle: Talking About Detective Fiction
Author: P.D. James
Publisher: Vintage Canada
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago, I read an old article by Jo Walton on Tor.com about reading protocols for SF. I’ve been aware of the concept of “reading protocols” for some time, but this article, simply by giving that concept a name, has been very useful.

Since then, I’ve wondered about how exposure to one genre affects one’s perceptions of other, different genres. Put simply: how easy is it to switch from one set of protocols to another? Are there shortcuts you can use to learn new protocols quickly?

That’s what I wanted to know when I read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. Part history of the genre, part inquiry into detective story tropes, and part memoir, this book seemed like the shortcut I was looking for. Like speculative fiction, mysteries often follow a set of conventions that provide the reader with familiarity, comfort, and structure. Also like speculative fiction, mysteries have tropes that typify the genre to outsiders yet are seen as dated and stale by insiders. Space aliens don’t carry ray-guns anymore, and the butler didn’t always do it.

So, what have I learned about detective fiction from this book? Lots – mostly that my own perceptions about it are indeed out of date. I learned that “Golden Age” mystery novels often sacrificed plausibility in favour of ingenuity. I learned about how the post-war climates of the US and the UK contributed to making “hard boiled” and “murder mystery” fiction such divergent subgenres. I learned that the “Watson” figure long ago transformed from a walking exposition receptacle into something more nuanced.

Most surprisingly, I learned that “Golden Age” mystery was relatively welcoming to women writers. James devotes an entire chapter to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, examining their differences, similarities, and legacies. In contrast, it’s hard for me to think of four female science fiction writers (even ones who relied on male pseudonyms like Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr) who wielded such influence during SF’s own Golden Age, although I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Has this book given me all of the necessary protocols to appreciate detective fiction on its own merits? I doubt it – there are large parts of my brain that need to be rewired to fully appreciate the intricacy of the genre. But this book is as good a start as any.

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. JemisinTitle: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Yeine Darre is the daughter of a barbarian chieftain of the Darre people in the backwater continent of the High North. But she’s also the daughter of the sole child of Dekarta Arameri, the de facto ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri family, from which her mother hailed, has ruled the world for over 2000 years, since the God War resulted in the death of Enefa, the Betrayer, and the triumph of Itempas, the Skyfather, over Nahadoth, the Nightlord.

Of course, that rule has been helped immeasurably by the fact that Itempas gave them control over the remaining gods and godlings he vanquished. It was unprecedented when Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, abdicated such power in favour of eloping with her father. Now, mere months after Kinneth’s death, Yeine has been summoned by Dekarta to the capital of Sky and been declared an heir to the throne. In a world where men and women control gods, Yeine learns that nothing – including herself – is what it seems.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately. Perhaps it’s the winter weather. Perhaps it’s been all the slush reading – which I love doing even if it takes up a lot of headspace. I don’t know. But after I finished The Troop last month, I just couldn’t stick with a book. I’d heard great things about The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, but didn’t read anything beyond the first 20 pages. Then, motivated by a recent piece on NPR by Amal el-Mohtar, I tried reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison, but I got only about 10% in before the weird pacing issues and sexual politics got to me.

So when I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few days ago after it had been sitting on my shelf for over a year, it was a thunderbolt. Beautiful prose? Check. Interesting changes in point of view and non-chronological structure? Check. Lots of political machinations and Rubiks-cube-level plotting? Check. Goddamned amazing worldbuilding? Check, check, check. Transcendant, moving climax? Check. (And oh yeah – some pretty steamy love scenes. Although I don’t normally talk about that in my reviews, consider this book a definite check.)

I leafed through the first pages a few days ago to see whether it was speaking to me or not. But I didn’t start officially reading it until yesterday – and I finished it in less than 12 hours.

Let that sink in for a minute. After not having the mental focus to read anything longer than a short story in over a month, I read all 400+ pages in a single day. That’s how good this book is.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time, ever since I first heard about Jemisin through the Writing Excuses podcast. I was really interested in hearing about how she wanted to question fantasy tropes that reinforce a white male ideal, and this book succeeds in spades. From the critiques about colonialism, race, and power, to the true story behind this world’s religion, almost everything in this book forces readers to re-examine their expectations about fantasy worlds and protagonists. And aside from the concrete, intricate worldbuilding, the prose is absolutely lovely. It’s mythic and propulsive and the same time – quite the mean feat, since the prose of so many other fantasy books with the same ideas often take a turn towards the turgid.

Gods, I can’t praise this book well enough. It’s just – go, go read it. Don’t wait over a year like I did.

Dear tea, I love you.

Varieties of tea from Bonsai HillLately, I’ve been feeling pretty burnt out on reading books. Magazine articles are no problem, and neither are short stories, but I haven’t read a full book in about 2 weeks. I’m going to have to do something soon if I don’t want to get too behind on my reviewing. The Summer Prince is there by my desk, waiting for me to get past the first 20 pages, but it’s just not grabbing my interest.

So instead, I’m going to talk about something else I love besides books: tea.

It’s only been in the past 2 years or so that I’ve been drinking loose-leaf teas instead of bagged ones. Before that, I only had access to the generic kinds found in the grocery store, which always tasted kind of gross.

I learned early on that green teas were my favourite. White varieties were okay, but I didn’t want to try black teas at all after years of Orange Pekoe and hibiscus and chamomile. Slowly, my collection grew – a tin from Teaopia (now Teavana) here, a bag from David’s there, a stop-off at the Sloane pop-up shop on Toronto’s Path after that…..

And that was just the beginning. A few months back I found Steepster, the tea community’s equivalent to Goodreads. I started reading the reviews on there to know which ones were good and which ones to avoid. About a month ago I went one step further and opened my own account. When I mentioned this on Twitter, my friend Jessica asked whether I was going to the Toronto Tea Festival.

Having never heard of it, I did some googling, found the site for the festival, and rubbed my hands in glee. Jessica and I made arrangements soon afterwards to attend the festival together, which happened a few weeks ago.

It was glorious.

The Appel Salon was packed full of tea vendors and drinkers. Tables and tables full of different types – greens, whites, blacks, oolongs, herbals, rooibos, pu’erhs, everything! – to sip and sample. This was an amazing opportunity to try teas I’d never had before, and to buy from independent stores instead of the big chains. I ended up buying 5 different kinds – 2 greens, 2 whites, and an oolong.

Five varieties of tea purchased from the Toronto Tea Festival.

My haul from the Toronto Tea Festival.

The two white teas were kind of hit and miss – the fruit-flavoured white tea I got from Majesteas was a huge disappointment in particular – but the oolong was a nice introduction to that variety, and the two greens from Capital Teas were absolutely lovely. In fact, I liked them so much that I almost don’t want to drink them, since I don’t want to run out. (Seriously, their Jasmine Dragon Pearls are something else.)

Since then, I’ve gone on a bit of a tea-buying spree, getting stuff from David’s and TeaVivre, and making wishlists of other teas from other vendors. Steepster is now a huge source of temptation, because posting reviews of new teas is one of the built-in mechanics to gaining a wider following on the site. Seeing all the reviews of other teas on that site and figuring out which ones I want to try is my current replacement for window shopping. I’ve got about 30 teas of various amounts in the dining room now, and even have a few free samples on the way in the mail. The pressure is on to go through the smaller amounts faster – that way I can buy some more!

Anyways, yes. Tea. It’s lovely, it’s delicious, and it’s gotten to the point where on some days I’m not even drinking water anymore.

What about you? I’d love to get some more recommendations in the comments.

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Title: The Troop
Author: Nick Cutter
Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Note: I was given an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher.

Imagine the savage survivalism of Lord of the Flies merged with the creeping bio-engineered dread of The Stand. Mix in the five personality archetypes of The Breakfast Club (albeit a boys-only version) and you get Nick Cutter’s (aka Craig Davidson’s) new horror novel The Troop – with all of the positives and negatives that implies.

Scoutmaster Tim Rigg has taken his 5-member Boy Scout troop on a 3-day camping trip to Falstaff Island, a small island off the coast of PEI. There’s the jock, Kent Jenks, son of the local police chief; the wild child, Ephraim Elliott; the sensible everyman, Max Kirkwood; the creepy loner, Shelley Longpre; and finally the nerd, Newt Thornton, last in the pecking order. Scoutmaster Tim, who is the town doctor back home, has high hopes for 3 days of hiking, learning, and otherwise hearty outdoor activity.

But there’s another person coming to the island. A man who carries inside him a genetically-engineered horror the likes of which the world is unprepared for. And he’s hungry – so very hungry.

So, let’s get the literary clone-work out of the way. Like many people, I had to read Lord of the Flies in high school, and absolutely hated it. My opinion as a teenager was that the whole descending-into-savagery thing would probably have been completely avoided if there were at least one female in the whole group. Growing up and learning about what occupies the minds of teenaged boys, I have to amend that opinion somewhat – but my absolute dislike of that book has not lessened. (And if you’re wondering, I couldn’t stand Catcher in the Rye that much either.)

At first, I was nervous that The Troop would travel down that same everyone-turns-into-animals-because-Man-is-the-real-monster path. This was especially worrisome in the first half of the book, since the author tries so hard to establish the meanness and social hierarchy of the boys. With the exception of Newt, the requisite fat nerd, the rest of them are cardboard cutouts: Kent is a bully, Ephraim is supposedly angry (I say “supposedly” because although we’re told an awful lot about how angry he is and how he always starts fights, he doesn’t actually act violently until he’s pushed), Max is friendly and average but resolute, and Shelley is your standard-issue sociopath-in-training.

However, once the true menace of the book is revealed, the characters display more psychological depth than I expected. There are some predictable turns here (especially regarding Shelley), but the addition of Tim, who believes he can help the sick man who’s wandered into their midst, adds a new dimension to the story. In Doctor/Scoutmaster Tim, not only do we see a man blinded by his own confidence in his abilities, but we also see the boys’ reaction to that blindness – and the lack of trust in the adult world that results.

Now that’s interesting.

Less interesting, but still helpful, are the interstitial pieces of text showing how the bio-engineered parasite came to be, and the political and cultural aftermath of the outbreak. They provide context and help the novel’s pacing, but I think they strip the real threat (a genetically-modified tapeworm meant to promote weight loss but secretly developed as a biological weapon) of some of its mystique. They do contribute to the novel’s ambiguous ending, however.

Other than that, the book contains some unusual and truly repulsive body horror. I have a pretty strong stomach, so when I say that, I mean it. I found it particularly hard to handle the scene where Ephraim cuts himself in order to remove the parasite from his body.

Overall, I thought this book was okay, but I wish more time had been spent on character development, especially in the rather creaky opening.

Up next: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book Review: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Blood: The Stuff of LifeTitle: Blood: The Stuff of Life
Author: Lawrence Hill
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital waiting for a doctor to examine my stomach and declare with authority why it was hurting so damn much. It was a Saturday night and no walk-in clinics were open, so my husband and I took the bus to the closest ER. Part of the triage involved giving a blood sample, so I did my standard routine when it came time for the nurse to stick me with the needle, which goes something like this:

  1. Don’t look. Look as far away in the opposite direction of the blood-giving arm as you can.
  2. Make noise, or focus on existing noise, so as to avoid hearing the small suctiony sound of your blood going into the vial. (Don’t scoff. You really can hear your blood entering the vial if the room is small enough. It is not pleasant.)
  3. Mentally count off the clicks you hear as each full vial is switched out for an empty one.
  4. Wait for the sensation of the needle being withdrawn, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Except this time, #4 took an awful long time in coming. The nurse asked one of her colleagues, “Do we need 2 vials or  3?” and just sat there waiting. The needle was still in my arm. Where was the blood going? Would it fountain up out of the needle end?

When the nurse got her answer and took the final vial of blood away, she also tossed a small flexible tube into a biohazard container. It was clear, and full of my blood. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said, “it’s just a teaspoonful.”

I felt slightly sick at the thought. And thus did I realize that I needed to take Blood by Lawrence Hill off the TBR pile and read it post-haste.

Blood is the latest installment in the CBC’s Massey Lectures, and it’s about as far away as one can get from the previous year’s subject matter by Neil Turok. Blood is a substance that is both physically and socially complex, and Hill does his utmost to examine each of the social and physical realities surrounding it: race, vampirism, menstruation, religion, identity, transfusions, sports scandals and doping, disease, citizenship, murder, vengeance, and more.

It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, to marry the scientific and the sociological like that. And while Hill does do an adequate job of balancing on that tightrope, there are more than a few places where he slips and falls.

I think this is most apparent in the prose style itself. Blood is a topic full of nuance, but Hill’s writing is so portentous and repetitive that it feels like he’s struggling under sheer mythic weight of the thing he’s writing about. Here’s an example of what I mean:

It’s an awfully seductive fluid. When it leaves the body, it’s a big deal. People might die. People might be accused of attempted murder, or worse. Even when it is supposed to spill – think of menstrual blood, for example, or of the blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules – it has power and significance. Maybe it is impure. Maybe it could damage you. Maybe that menstrual blood could spoil food or rob a man of his hunting power. Or maybe it is the blood of the virgin, suggestive of innocence and protection. In addition, blood acquires holy significance in the world’s pre-eminent religions. Christians consider Christ’s blood to be sacred, and imagine that they drink of it when they lift the cup of holy wine to their lips. Judaism and Islam have intricate rules about how animals are to be bled and how blood must be absent from food.

I didn’t really put my finger on what bothered me so much about his style of writing until I typed the above excerpt out. Forget the fact that he bounces around madly from murder to menstruation to sex to religion and back again. Focus instead on the digressions he makes, and the way he describes things. It can’t just be “blood from a woman’s wedding night,” but “blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules.” It can’t just be “wine”, but “holy wine”, as if you’d use any other kind in a church and instead just go down to the corner store for a medium-bodied red to use for the Eucharist.

In other words, his writing doesn’t let the topic speak for itself. It spells things out to a painful degree, and in the process, fetishizes something that has already been fetishized enough. Considering that this book’s goal is to unpack a lot of the unspoken assumptions behind the idea of blood, we need less of this mystic attitude, not more.

I’m conflicted about this book in other ways as well, as there was at least one glaring factual error that I found (in the section about Harry Potter, oddly enough – aren’t there any editors at House of Anansi who have read the series?), and some truly dismissive attitudes about adolescent depression and self-cutting, such as this little gem:

Just as many young people are drawn to vampire culture, many are also drawn to cutting themselves as form of controlled self-abuse. Experts theorize that cutting among young girls is not generally the expression of suicidal impulses, but rather a way of managing pain and anxiety. The vampiric seduction is a private act, as is the act of drawing out one’s blood. People tend to get over their vampiric obsessions as they emerge from adolescence, as do most girls who have been drawn to cutting.

The vampiric attack is irreversible. Once you’ve gone over to the dark side, there is no coming back. You do get to live forever, but no longer as a human. Cutting, however, allows for more control. Who will see the marks, which you can cover up with clothing? How seriously are you to be hurt, by losing a little blood? For some, perhaps, cutting focuses one’s pain in the body, instead of in the psyche. But it is temporary. And most adolescents grow out of it.

Is this for real? “Oh, cutting isn’t that serious, it’s just an adolescent phase. How much harm can it do, anyway?” I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this passage comes right on the heels of a discussion about the Twilight series. Gee, I wonder which major demographic most commonly cuts themselves? And does there happen to be any overlap between that demographic and the demographic responsible for making Twilight a runaway success? Ah well, never mind. Those things are just phases. Let’s give them a cursory discussion just to say we talked about it and move on.

The more I think about this book and what it chose to focus on versus what it chose to skim, the more frustrated I get. And it makes me sad, because in many ways, Blood‘s observations about identity and race are trenchant and well-thought-out (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Hill’s own ancestry). But it’s missteps like those above that get my blood boiling.

Up next: The Troop by Nick Cutter

Book Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. LewisTitle: Till We Have Faces:  A Myth Retold
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: N/A (pirated copy)
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5

Despite his importance to the fantasy genre, I’ve never been a big reader of C.S. Lewis. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just a single time as a child, and the story was so un-engaging that I promptly forgot what happened. Subsequent attempts to read the book led to me stalling right around the time Lucy encountered Mr. Tumnus.

Add to that The Problem of Susan, and it’s easy to see why I’ve been wary of his books.

However, I love stories that reinterpret classic myths, and this particular interpretation was analyzed wonderfully by Karen Burnham and Karen Lord, so Till We Have Faces leapt onto my TBR pile.

And boy, am I glad that it did: I am not ashamed to call this book a masterpiece.

Orual, the veiled queen of Glome, is old, alone, and approaching death. One thing she is not, though, is pious. She has seen the gods for the charlatans they are, and wants the whole world to know what she knows: that they are cruel, and delight in taking only the most precious of things from humanity, leaving nothing in return. Such a thing was her sister, Psyche. Years after Psyche’s ruinous disappearance, Orual wants to tell her side of the story and hold the gods accountable. And so she writes:

Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome, a small kingdom near Greece that worships the dark goddess Ungit and her son the Brute. Orual is so ugly that it is immediately understood by her lout of a father that the only value that she’ll bring to the kingdom is to be educated as a man would – her younger sisters Redival and Psyche are far better marriage material. As a child, Orual is happy because despite her ugliness, she has people who love her: the Fox, a Greek slave who is her tutor and her father’s most valued advisor, and Psyche, who is gifted with both great physical and spiritual beauty.

However, when drought and plague strike the kingdom and rumours spread that Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty, it is taken as blasphemy of the highest form. Despite the philosophical interpretations of the Fox (who says that Ungit is really a debased version of she whom the Greeks call Aphrodite), the high priest of Ungit decrees that she must be sacrificed on a mountainside to the Brute.

Orual learns of this and takes ill. Upon her recovery, she resolves to find Psyche’s remains to give her a proper burial – Antigone was able to do at least that much, she reasons. However, upon her journey to the sacrifice site, she finds out that her sister is alive and well. Orual is shocked and convinced her sister has gone insane – what Orual sees as a sprig of wild berries Psyche sees as a feast in a palace. And how can Psyche, who is so beautiful, love something as ugly as the Brute? Has Psyche lost all sense of sisterly duty?

Who, really, is in the right? And why should the gods, who are powerful, make such playthings of humans, who are weak? Orual resolves to test her sister’s newfound happiness, with disastrous results for both of their souls.

For a long time, Lewis was dissatisfied with the classical story of Psyche and Cupid. Nothing about it – Psyche’s sisters’ jealousy, Psyche’s own gullibility and disobedience towards her husband – made any sort of sense to him. Till We Have Faces was his attempt to create fully-fleshed, believable characters whose actions were consonant with those of the original myth.

Lewis succeeds in doing this by making Orual a real piece of work. She may be physically ugly, but she makes up for it with a keen intellect and a good sword hand. However, she’s also desperately lonely and needy, unwilling to be honest with anyone about her true motivations, least of all herself. Orual’s insistence that Psyche look upon her own husband’s face is not only a test of loyalty, but also a desperate gambit on Orual’s part to make her sister realize the truth about her life on the mountain.

I really don’t know how well I can describe the book after this point. Both sisters pay a terrible price for their actions. Psyche disappears. Orual becomes queen and rules successfully for decades. But deep inside she’s a thornbush of guilt. It is only at the end of her life that she’s willing to delve into the reasons why she originally forced Psyche’s hand.

In fact, it’s easy to see that the series of visions she has (which are chock-full of Jungian imagery) before her death leads to a conversion experience. C.S. Lewis was known for writing extensively on Christian themes, so it’s interesting to note that he manages to lend a Christian veneer to Orual’s experience, despite the fact that she worships the gods of ancient Greece.

Considering conversations in the last year about whether female characters should be likeable, Till We Have Faces is a timely book to read. In many ways Orual is not likeable – she’s needy and manipulative, and convinced that the sacrifices she forces other characters to make are made for the right reasons, rather than for her own happiness. But within the confines of the story, the choices do make sense, especially when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is Orual’s mind.

What I mean is that more people should be reading this book. After hearing Burnham and Lord talk about it, I was desperate to read it myself. But you know what? It appears to be out of print. I couldn’t buy it through my Kobo. I couldn’t even find a copy of it through the Toronto Public Library, which quite an is impressive feat. Scanning Abebooks resulted in finding copies that were a bit out of my price range. So when my friend sent me a pirated PDF version of this book, I threw up my hands and said “good enough.”

Let me repeat that: I have a huge library of eBooks. Hundreds of books and magazines that were purchased legally, or gotten for free through otherwise legitimate means. I am generally against eBook piracy. Yet I was willing to read a pirated version of this book, because it was otherwise so hard for me to find.

Lewis’s Space Trilogy just got a handsome new reissue from HarperCollins for its 75th anniversary. Of course, I wish that Till We Have Faces was still in print, but the 60th anniversary of its original publication is only a few years away. Will anyone else be rooting for a new print edition to celebrate?

Up next: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Holy crap. I’m reading slush for Lightspeed Magazine!

Lightspeed MagazineOK, I need to get something out of my system right now:

Ohmygod ohmygod I’m slush reading for Lightspeed this is so awesome everything is awesome someone please pinch me holy crap!

Alright, now let me back up:

A few weeks ago, sci-fi anthologist extraordinaire John Joseph Adams announced on his blog that Lightspeed Magazine was looking for some new slush readers. Those interested were free to apply online. So I did. I filled in all the boxes and fields, gave my contact info, and then submitted it, hoping that the science fiction gods would look down kindly upon me.

I didn’t hear anything for a bit, so I figured they were still wading through applications. However, since I’m an impatient little Virgo, I asked the magazine yesterday via Twitter if they had any updates. Within hours of that tweet, I got an email from Mr. Adams himself saying that I was on board! And that I had an account to access the slush pile right now and everything!

When I saw the email in my inbox I hyperventilated and squealed in delight. I’ve missed reading slush since the closure of Electric Velocipede, and the chance to do the same for Lightspeed – a magazine that I’ve subscribed to for years, and have mentioned in various blog posts here – is so cool. It’s a volunteer position, but I’m pretty sure I can fit it in with the other things I’m involved in, like my new writing group.

One final note: take a look at the Women Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign that Lightspeed Magazine is running. If they make their stretch goals, they’ll do an additional all-female double-sized issue of Nightmare Magazine guest-edited by Ellen Datlow, and even resurrect Fantasy Magazine for an all-female double-sized issue edited by Cat Rambo. Who can say no to a deal like that?

Writing resolution update

It’s the 19th, and I’m proud to say that I’ve stuck with my resolution of writing at least 250 words of fiction every day!

One of the biggest reasons behind this is that I’ve got a huge motivator now: less than 2 weeks ago, I was accepted into a writing critique group. The members of the group meet up in-person every week; the critiques work on a rotating basis so that different people submit pieces of writing every week, and everyone comments constructively on everyone else’s work. My first piece was critiqued just this last Thursday.

And Oh. My. God. Having a supportive, understanding group of people to be held accountable to makes such a huge difference.

There’s the pleasure that comes from people praising your work, of course. But there’s an equally exquisite pleasure to be found in hearing other people tell you the moth-eaten holes in your story’s fabric – holes you can’t really grasp because you’re the moth. That is, you’re the moth that’s…creating the fabric, instead of ruining it?

You know what, never mind. I’m rolling with it.

Before I got my first critique, I was just writing in response to random little prompts, punching in the metaphorical clock each day to reach my word count goal. But now? Now that I know what needs fixing, I’m making up new scenes left and right, and not only that, but I’m actually returning to scenes and expanding on them. Even as I was falling asleep last night, I was thinking about what new sensory details I would add in today’s writing.

Is this what writing every day really does to you? Because I’m so glad that I’ve gone beyond the clock-punching stage. I really hope I can keep it up.