Liz is a former Academic with interests ranging from Ancient Geography, Philosophy and Ethnicity to neuroscience to Marvel comics. She blogs at Black Gate on all things audio (and whatever else catches her fancy). In her copious free time, she writes the web serial Storm and Ash, which can be found at stormandash.com.
A Bittersweet Twist on Conventional Fantasy: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
The closing months of the year always bring a host of “Best of…” lists. This year I was delighted to see one of my personal top five making those lists: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. A departure from McGuire’s usual fare, Every Heart a Doorway is a bittersweet twist on conventional fantasy that neither shies from more dwells on the darker side of our encounters with the fantastic.
The premise of Every Heart a Doorway isn’t exactly new. Out in the countryside exists a boarding school for unusual children.These children are all children living in the “after” part, the “after” that comes after The End. Each student at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children has accidentally stumbled into an otherworld and then returned home to find themselves so changed that they can no longer fit in at home. Some of them are heartbroken at being kicked out of paradise. Some of them are traumatized by what they experienced there. Most of them hope to return to their individual worlds, somehow, by finding their Door again.
We find our own Door into this school through Nancy, a young woman who has just returned from one of several Lands of the Dead. Shortly after her arrival, another student is found dead and Nancy, along with her newly made friends, must find the killer before the school is closed or they become the next victims.
As a murder mystery, the plot itself isn’t innovative. It is well plotted and paced, but there are no real surprises here. It doesn’t need to be, though. The real strength comes from McGuire’s characterizations and the subtle, quiet tone to the work.
A few weeks ago, I was playing with my daughter, who is on the brink of turning four.
“Come here you little demon,” I said.
“I’m not a demon! You’re a demon!” she shrieked before pulling an imaginary sword and shouting “WINDSCAR!!!”
Yup. I got full on Inuyasha-ed by a four year old pixie child.
Raising children as a Geek means forging into unknown territory, at least for me. I’m a natural born geek myself, but I’m one of the few in my family. My older siblings introduced me to Star Wars, and discovered Trek thanks to friends at school. I found my own way into SFF fiction along the way, with help from teachers and other friends.
So figuring out raising kids and passing along the love of these things is a new field for both my husband and I. We’re a multi-fandom household: we love both Star Wars and Star Trek (and Star Gate, for that matter) and we have watched the original Star Wars trilogy with my older daughter, who finishes Kindergarten this week.
We’ve argued playfully over whether or not we will introduce the prequel trilogy… ever. She’s a mature six, so she watches (slightly curated) episodes of Star Gate: SG-1 with her Dad. We watched Avatar: The Last Airbender at an early age, and are now working our way through Inuyasha and Yu-Gi-Oh!.
In my last post, I described one product of the Hellenistic period of ancient art as the invention of the novel. This surprised many people, who thought that the novel was an invention of a much later time. So of course, being an academic of leisure (she says as she ducks a flying juice box), I had to say more about it.
Some scholars do date the invention of the novel to the Modern period in Western Europe. I will display my ignorance and say I do not know why this is. Many books exist outside of English, outside of the Modern period, and in fact outside of the Western hemisphere that easily qualify as novels, so it is difficult for me to see this claim as much more than chauvinism. But if someone wants to correct me on this point, I am willing and eager to be enlightened. Or to fight you on it.
The first novel that we have comes from somewhere between the 2nd Century BCE and the 1st Century CE. It is a positively charming little book called Callirhoe, and it describes the travails of a beautiful young woman who marries her true love, an equally handsome young man named Chaereas. Shortly after their wedding, he kicks her in a fit of jealous rage and she dies.
Did you hear about the Xena reboot? How about the new Voltron series? Twin Peaks is re-launching this summer, and you may already have your tickets to the next comic book movie.
What is up with that? Is Hollywood completely out of ideas? Have they gotten so risk-averse that all they can do is recycle old material? Or is it simply nostalgia run amok, a nation full of millennials who don’t want to grow up?
I think it’s something different, and something pretty exciting. I don’t think our love of reboots is a lack of creativity at all. In fact, I think this is an incredibly vibrant artistic period, and is about to become even more so.
Why? Because we’ve seen this before. Bear with me, guys.
The Hellenistic period of the Ancient World begins with the death of Alexander the Great and extends until the rise of the Roman Empire. There, we got our hard facts out of the way. You may even remember that from history class.
Historians like their categories, and periods of history broken down into neat charts with clear defining events.
But in this case, we can talk about the way Ancient Mediterranean Culture shifted dramatically in a very short period of time. We became more and more able to talk about a Mediterranean culture, for one. The disparate cultures of Greece, the Near East, Northern Africa, and the Italian peninsula came into much closer contact because of Alexander’s Imperial ambitions. Trade had existed before, but the construction of travel networks and large cities allowed for an even greater exchange of information.
When we talk about great dates in literary history, 414 BCE doesn’t really make the cut. But if you’re a sci-fi or fantasy reader (and if you’re reading this page, you probably are) it should probably be one of the foremost you know of. Why?
Because prior to the fifth century BCE, we had never seen a fantasy setting in Western literature. People may have doubted whether Humbaba really existed or if Odysseus ever visited the Island of the Lotus Eaters. But the idea of pure poetic invention hadn’t come to full realization. This is partly because in the Ancient World, the idea of a strict delineation between fact and fiction was a bit strange. Myths didn’t have a strict canonical version, and people were comfortable with a lot of variations on the truth flying around. It wasn’t relativism, not as we understand it, it was… well, a sense that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, or that whether or not something was true wasn’t necessarily tied to whether all the facts happened just that way.
So you could play with storytelling, and storytellers played a lot. But Aristophanes’ The Birds is the first time that we are aware of that we see a fully fleshed out, completely invented country.
Laughter is one of the defining traits of higher primates, ourselves included. While I’m pretty sure my dog can grin, I have yet to hear him giggle. His attempts at humor are pretty weak, too. But for those of us in the opposable thumbs club, humor is a near-universal. What makes someone laugh may vary from culture to culture and across time, but our love of laughter is a constant.
This was as true of the Ancient Athenians as it is of us. Our word, comedy, is in fact a Greek word that contains the ideas of partying or festival-going and poetry. And the Greeks loved comedy. Today I want to talk specifically about Old Comedy, which you probably know (if you know it at all) from the works of Aristophanes.
Aristophanes would have gotten along well with Jon Stewart. Old Comedy was highly topical: it was deeply political, satirical, and fond of poking fun at the powerful. It made use of mythological themes and characters, but unlike our surviving tragedies usually took place in a relatively modern, if highly fanciful, setting. The plots were absolutely ludicrous, and the jokes made pointed reference to contemporary politics. So much so that, should you choose to read any old comedy (and you should: it’s worth the effort), I’m going to break with my usual custom and suggest you get a highly annotated, solid, scholarly edition to do so. In most genres, I advise people to go with readability. But with Aristophanes, you’ll need the footnote that explains that a certain individual was famous for his blowjobs rather than his active performance for anal sex if you want to get the joke in the backyard scene of Ecclesiazusae.
In the entryway of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, there was an inscription that read Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself. This aphorism has been popular with various segments of Western society, particularly in the last century. When we use it, we typically mean it in the context of self-understanding or enlightenment, of introspection or even psychoanalysis. We mean self-knowledge as a deep delving into our own personality, our tastes, our desires, and our goals.
Which is slightly funny, because that is not at all what the Greeks had in mind when they carved it on the wall.
If we were to translate the intention of the inscription rather than the words themselves, it would read something like, “Remember your place.” Not nearly so satisfying, I’m afraid, but to the Greeks this was an immensely important concept. And from it, we get one of the most critical notions of characterization that we see in modern literature: that of hubris.
Hubris is the idea that there are screw-ups, and then there are cosmic screw-ups. Saying you’re prettier than the girl next door is obnoxious. Saying you’re prettier than the goddess Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis, is a grave offense on a cosmic level, and terrible things are going to happen to you. This isn’t (just) because the gods have delicate egos and are easily offended by mean humans. It’s because they are fiercely protective of their status as gods. Were one to read a less religious and more temporal lesson in this, it is also a warning to the majority of mankind to always be cautiously respectful of those who have more power than you and to those in power over others that the gods are above all.
Ovid plays with this traditional idea in his retelling of the myth of Arachne. Arachne is classically portrayed as having broken this most important rule: she has forgotten that she is merely a mortal and that she owes respect to the gods. Arachne is a weaver, one of the greatest who has ever lived. But she refuses to give worship and thanks to the goddess Minerva (the Romanized Athena) as the goddess of weaving, and denies that she has been in any way blessed.
I have made my love of the mashup abundantly clear. Still, if you had told me four months ago that my favorite new book this year would be a Young Adult Brazillian-set post-apocalyptic retelling of Gilgamesh?
I would have stared at you blankly for some time before walking away. If nothing else, this just shows you how treacherous the blurb can be.
Nevertheless, after I had the privilege of hearing Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Guest of Honor speech at this year’s WisCon (something which is worthy of its own post), I was eager to read her work. I’m wholly glad I did.
The Summer King’s main protagonist and narrator is June, a young artist who lives in the city of Palmares Tres,which rose after a worldwide cataclysm, part nuclear and part climate change, which rendered most of the surface of the planet uninhabitable. Palmares Tres is a fully enclosed city with a political structure that is both familiar and utterly strange. Its day to day life is governed by a council of elders in a manner that closely resembles a large modern city, even as it stands out for its exclusively female roster. But there familiarity ends. Palmares Tres is also ruled by a queen who serves in five year terms. That queen is chosen by the Summer King, who is elected by the people at large. The manner of that choice? He rules for one year, to be sacrificed at the end of his term. With his blood, he marks his choice as the next queen. As the book opens, June is pushing for the election of Enki, a young man from the slums of Palmares Tres, for Summer King. Her own crush on the new celebrity is complicated when he becomes involved with her best friend, Gil, and she is nominated for a prestigious scholarship.
What follows is an examination of youth, family, love, class and power, and above all, the nature of art. This last is a particular preoccupation of June: the value of art, the cost of its production and its impact on the surrounding world. That Johnson is able to convey this preoccupation without pretension is a feat in and of itself.
As I discussed in my previous two posts, Ovid does some amazing things in writing about sexual assault that I think all authors should take a look at. He often writes about it in a way that is subtle, empathetic, and respectful of rape as a crime with long term impact both on individuals and on larger societal groups.
Notice I said often. Because I want to make it very clear: Ovid was not a feminist. He was not a proto-feminist. He was often times more sensitive to issues that we would consider feminist today, but he was still a product of his time. He advised men when told “no” to keep trying. He advised women being pursued by men that saying “no” was a character defect. And he was willing to, say, turn one of history’s largest abduction scenarios into a punchline.
I refer, of course, to the Rape of the Sabine women, which Ovid covered in the Ars Amatoria. If you have never picked up the Ars, believe me when I say you are missing out. It is at times horrifying for having the sexual politics of, well, a first century wealthy Roman, but it is also an absolutely fascinating glimpse into daily life two thousand years ago. Ovid is advising young men on the art of finding, wooing, and keeping a lover, and he recommends that they take advantage of the close quarters of the theater to meet women. After all, that’s how the first generation of Proper Romans got their wives!
He then launches into the tale of how several dozen young Sabine women were invited with their parents to a performance shortly after the founding of Rome. At a pre-arranged signal, the Romans jumped up, grabbed a girl, and ran for it. The Sabines went back to gather their allies, returned after several months to reclaim their daughters and slaughter Romulus and his skeezy bros, and found that said daughters objected to the Sabines murdering their now-husbands. Peace ensues, and the Romans are left with many years of really awkward family reunions.
Hilarious, right? Not really. Not in the age of Bring Back Our Girls. Not then either, I imagine.
I may ramble on a bit this week, and I apologise in advance. You see, I have a deep attachment to Medusa. She’s the center feature of the aegis tattoo I have on my right arm. My doctoral dissertation (which I do not recommend anyone read) was entitled Medusa’s Blood because of its discussion of a lot of what I’ll cover today. And, fittingly, a review of Clash of the Titans was the first thing I ever wrote for Black Gate, a handful of years back.
Most of us know Medusa from Clash of the Titans. Hopefully the 1970s version because the newer one is pretty terrible. In any case: she’s easily recognized. Scary looking woman, snakes for hair. Turns people into stone when they look at her. Came to bloody, hero-induced end. But what we learn from Ovid is that Medusa was not always a Gorgon. In her youth, she was one of the most beautiful human women alive.