I’ve had a beaten-up copy of The Shattered Court lying around my apartment for some time now, and I finally decided it was time to give it a read. The book is the opener to a series, and introduces a Britain-based country with its own unique magical system. However, my interest in the book quickly turned to frustration and disappointment as I learned more about how the magic worked. While the series attempted to say some challenging things about gender and magic, it fell down harder and harder every time it tried.
Game of Thrones’s seventh season is nearly upon us, and given how poorly we found the previous seasons, I suspect I’ll continue to hate the show. After all, I’ve spent the past three years telling myself that it can’t get any worse, only to be surprised in new and unfortunate ways. Nevertheless, as the next book is also coming out soon (“soon”, probably meaning sometime this decade), I decided to reread the series.
I love the books for their amazing worldbuilding, interesting characters, and the messages they bring us. Beyond that, they’re just good in a way the show is not. Everything I love about A Song of Ice and Fire—the intrigue, the nuances in characterization, things making sense—have been removed from the show, and we don’t need to look much farther than the prologue and first episode to see how. In both, we are introduced to Waymar Royce, a man of the Night’s Watch, and his two companions. Sharing an ill-fated trip north of the Wall, both books and show use these characters to set up the world and give us our first taste of Westerosi society.
Sometimes it’s a bad idea to think too hard about the things you love. Last week, while we were looking for something to watch between the Tonys red carpet and the actual Tonys, my friend and I settled on a channel showing Toy Story.
Now don’t get me wrong, I adore the Toy Story franchise. However, it’s one of many beloved childhood stories where, if you poke too closely at the seams of the worldbuilding, it starts to unravel into questions that only get more disturbing.
You first meet the protagonist of Night in the Woods, twenty-year-old Mae Borowski, when she arrives at her hometown’s bus station after dropping out of college. She remarks that the bus station is probably the newest and fanciest building in the town of Possum Springs, all the better to give people coming through the best first impression possible. However, we soon see that the bus station, with its shiny floors and glorious sunny mural advertising prosperous life in Possum Springs, is just a façade, and as soon as Mae arrives in the town proper, we see that it’s crumbling inside and out.
As Mae explores her childhood home, the game’s use of color, landscape design, character dialogue and atmospheric music all help to build a rich, vivid, sensory picture of this once-great but slowly dying coal town, injecting so much personality that the setting almost feels like a character. Which not only makes it a fantastic backdrop for the unfolding story, but a neat metaphor for what’s going on with Mae herself. And… also a little bit of something deeper and darker.
Spoilers for the end of Night in the Woods ahead!
I’m always on the lookout for queer YA, so I jumped at the chance to read Timekeeper, a novel set in a steampunk-esque Victorian London that stars two queer male leads. Timekeeper starts in media res and launches you right into the story, and I quickly fell in love with its concept of mechanics who can control time. However, as the book continued, I became disappointed with said concept just as quickly.
Spoilers for all of Timekeeper below!
I very recently started watching Star vs The Forces of Evil (no spoilers, please!) and was amused by an episode where Star needs to undo a spell she’s cast on Marco. She pulls out the wand’s manual, an ancient, crumbling tome filled with the wisdom of ages of wand users to consult, only to realize that all of their notes are so cryptic and poorly organized that it will take her ages to make any sense of them. This got me thinking about magical journals in general. A common staple of fantasy fiction is a magical guide to the world in question, typically in the form of some kind of handwritten diary or log. Sometimes a book is just a book; I can’t imagine, for example, that Newt’s finished version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be anything but a basic bestiary. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, these books are often most compelling when they serve a greater purpose than simply as a how-to or a reference of some kind. By including these books in a layered way, we can add additional complexity to the stories we tell.
Not long ago, Ace and I were discussing how the wizards in the Harry Potter universe never seem to grow as a society. They are still stuck with very basic technology, and while many tasks are certainly made easier with magic, no one can deny that Muggles seem leaps ahead of wizards in a lot of ways. From being able to explore space, to using computers, to even having pens, Muggles have it better—seriously, why would I ever use a quill? But this got me thinking: this isn’t just in the Harry Potter world. A lot of magical societies in fiction seem to be stuck in a more medieval era. This led me to consider how we evolve as a society. It is just a fact that human beings are more likely to grow and change to fulfill a need. It’s easier to wash clothes with a machine than by hand, and having a computer makes it easier for us to access information, keep in touch with friends, or learn new things. But for magic users, when you can wave a wand to conjure fully prepared food or teleport yourself somewhere in an instant, is there ever really a need or desire to grow and change?
When you are as obsessed with Harry Potter as I am, you start to notice some of the overarching worldbuilding issues that affect the characters you love so much. One big issue is definitely the Statue of Secrecy, which has been the cause of a lot of conflict in the Harry Potter universe. The Statute of Secrecy makes it so that all wizards have to hide themselves and their magic from Muggles. However, there are a lot of problems with this, and Grindelwald certainly seemed to have a point about the Statue of Secrecy at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In the video below, Grindelwald (still disguised as Graves) states that the Statute of Secrecy is a law that “has us scuttling like rats in the gutter, a law that demands we conceal our true nature, a law that directs those under its dominion to cower in fear lest we risk discovery. I ask you, Madame President, I ask all of you, who does this law protect, us or them?”
Grindelwald’s words seem to ring with a terrifying truth in that moment after the death of Credence, a charge that none of the other wizards present truly seems to be able to answer. Granted, Grindelwald’s plans to take over the world and enslave Muggles are neither good nor reasonable, but I can certainly see why he seemed to draw a larger following than someone like Voldemort. The Statute of Secrecy makes it so that wizards really can’t do much to help Muggles or even help themselves. It definitely causes issues with the worldbuilding in the series as well, and it would be beneficial to have a character who could better show the complexity of this issue.
One of my favorite books when I was younger was Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. It had everything a girl with my interests could have hoped for: a plucky heroine, rebellion, a fantasy setting, court intrigue, epistolary romance… I adored it. When I got to the end of the book, however, I discovered something strange.
The last ten pages of the book promised a never-before-seen addition to the story. Excited to read more about Mel and Danric and the rest, I eagerly turned the page… to discover that the addition was a trite and honestly embarrassing epilogue. It was tooth-rottingly saccharine, and turned the kickass protagonist into a wilting flower too nervous to talk honestly with her husband. I didn’t have much of a critical eye at age eleven, but even then I knew it was a shitty writing decision. So why are so many authors going the way of the epilogue now? It’s terrible in so many ways, and it needs to stop.
Before watching Stranger Things, I found myself sitting down to enjoy The Shannara Chronicles. I knew nothing about the story going in, and Saika had yet to write her post on one of the books, so little did I know just how bad this story was going to be. I don’t mean that the story is bad in the sense that it’s irredeemable—I mean that it’s bad because it’s lazy. Despite being based on a subpar book series, I think that The Shannara Chronicles really had a lot of potential that it could have reached had more time and thought been dedicated to it. Unfortunately, while the show has a lot of things I love in stories—queer representation, enemies becoming friends, fantasy in general, and discussions of racism—all too often it felt as if the story was simply running through a checklist and didn’t actually know how to use any of its material.
Spoilers up ahead.