A blog about writing, reading, and watching stories

Tag: fantasy

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children Series

I recently managed to borrow Seanan McGuire’s fifth Wayward Children book from the library, just as the sixth volume was released, and library patrons piled on to the waiting list like the pigeons that once mobbed me in the Piazza San Marco. I don’t want to wait! Does first come first served really make sense in this situation? Or shouldn’t the line be ordered with those of us who fit in the least going first? No? Oh, well. Maybe this is a Logic world after all.

The Wayward Children books posit the following: that if a child truly, pathologically, does not belong in this world, then a doorway will open to a world where that child might belong. And if that world spits the child back out as a teen, possibly as a test, that teen will want nothing, nothing, nothing so much as to find the door that will lead them back home. The books are short and scary and sour and bitter and sweet, like a good cup of coffee. Don’t expect a Disney world or even an original-Alice one found through the looking glass. These worlds are much too bizarre for most of us to fantasize about visiting, let alone moving in. And these books are filled with nuggets of wisdom, not just about belonging, but about loving, living, and everything else.

The first book, Every Heart a Doorway, is a revelation. I didn’t know a story of a hundred or so pages could be so deliberate and word-perfect, like a poem. The characterization is exquisitely precise. In fact, it’s the characters, more than the worlds, that I’m a little bit disturbed by even as I love them (and I’m not talking about the ones who’ve been brought back from the dead, either). Let’s just say it’s the trans boy Kade (nothing disturbing about that — and if you disagree you can just leave now and we won’t miss you) who fits in our world the best. Think about that for a moment, given the prejudice trans people are facing in some communities today.

In the fifth book, Come Tumbling Down, I especially like the portrayal of Jack (Jacqueline)’s lover Alexis, whose body, thanks to various magical circumstances I’m not going to spoil for you, isn’t working very well at the moment. As soon as she tells Kade, “the fact that I’ve been damaged doesn’t make me broken, and you don’t need to behave as if it does,” I start to read her as a disabled person like me. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, or only a function of us humans seeing the world each through our own distorting prism, but let’s accept the analogy. Since I see her as disabled, it makes me very happy when she breaks the rules of the only acceptable public narrative for disabled people (“I can do everything you can do”) by admitting what she can’t do a chapter or so later. Many disabled people can do anything an abled person can do. But many of us can’t. So our narrative is, “I am worth as much as you, even though I can’t do everything you can do.” But no one puts that on the kind of motivational posters hung outside a college’s accommodations office. In this society, we judge people by what they do. We define people by what they do. It’s so much easier than defining them by who they are. I’ve heard the encouraging, “You can do anything,” and I’ve heard the discouraging, “You don’t contribute anything,” many, many, many times each. It’s a much rarer and more precious gift to hear someone say, “You can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean you’re broken.” Thanks for that, Seanan.

The OA: Part 2

While The OA did, as I suspected, leave the liminal space of the fantastic and dive headfirst into actual supernatural narrative in Part 2, the show improved so much that the particular tension from an unreliable narrator wasn’t needed. We could still argue about whether the show is original enough to be worth watching for most SF/F buffs–and about exactly where that line falls, now that the plot is complicated enough that I’ve never seen all those particular tropes combined in just this way–but I’d rather point out some of the writing techniques the show used well this time.

An actually mysterious beginning

Part 2 opens with characters we don’t know, in a dimension we don’t know: specifically, with a private eye, a desperate client, and a missing girl who is a female version of Buck, one of the OA’s listeners in Part 1. This beginning wouldn’t work half so well without Kingsley Ben-Adir as the private eye protagonist, inhabiting the character so completely and (it seems) effortlessly. He has some help from the writing, though. In this new season, we start again with a mystery, but a mystery seen through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the answers. Remember, the mystery in Part 1 is the story of Prairie’s captivity, but Prairie knows her own history already, and it’s hard to over-emphasize how that drains a narrative of urgency. Even when Prairie arrives in Part 2, she doesn’t have the memories of her alternate self, so she doesn’t have the answers, either. Without answers, our main characters can ricochet from stressed to desperate and back again. Thank God.

So why start with Karim, our private eye, and not the characters we know? This allows the writers to employ a technique that science-fiction and fantasy novels use all the time: the gradual widening of the world. Personally, this is one of my favorite things about speculative fiction, because it’s often tied to a sense of wonder that comes with each step farther into the unknown. The idea is to start very simply, with a situation that is small and somewhat ordinary (in this case, a bare three characters in a well-known fictional plot: private eye, client, missing) and to gradually let the story open up into something bigger and weirder. It’s as if the audience is climbing a mountain through layers of cloud and each new break in the fog allows them to glimpse a wider world that is not only stunning, but also redefines each previous view. They could only do this with a new character, because our returning friends are already deeply steeped in weirdness.

An end to static situations

Exactly how many static (read: unchanging) situations were featured in Part 1? Let’s see: there’s Prairie’s captivity in the past; the boys listening to her story in the present, and the gradual revelation of how horrible their home lives really are without any real change to them; and Prairie’s adoptive parents’ doubts about her sanity (and who can blame them, when she literally goes blank in every scene with them in it?). In fact, looking back, Part 1 seems to completely confuse “bit by bit revelation” with “plot.” Sorry, but no. Learning new information is exposition; goals, conflicts, decisions, and disasters that change the situations the characters are in (leading to new goals, etc.) is plot. In a book it would be much harder to disguise exposition as forward motion, but since actors were acting it out–wow! It kind of looked like plot. But when you compare it to the ever-changing situations in Part 2, the steady progress towards ultimate goals and confrontations, it’s easy to see the difference.

Of course, the devil’s advocate in my head is telling me that Part 2 could move so quickly only because of all the set-up and character development in Part 1. To which I say, yes, but it’s better to do them at the same time. Go watch Battlestar Galactica, Killjoys, Dark Matter, Stranger Things, etc. to see how.

The OA: Part 1

Though I didn’t find the first season of this Netflix show as compelling as, say, a great Syfy primetime creation such as Killjoys or Dark Matter, I was interested in a couple of the techniques the writers used to keep me watching (other than the pandemic).

First, the two stories–the lives of the present day listeners and the story of Prairie’s kidnapping and captivity–balance each other. Though many of Prairie’s fellow captives lacked character development, and are somewhat cookie-cutter in their shape and predictability, the present day group includes nuanced characters with many sides to them. In fact, what passes for plot in the present day story is basically the slow revelation of details about these characters’ lives. As you can imagine, this present day story is a bit lacking in urgency, so that is provided by the sensationalist plot of the past story. This kind of balancing is trickier than it looks, because it involves allowing both stories to be lacking on their own, yet complete together. It would’ve worked as intended for me if “OA”–,I won’t spoil it for you–had turned out to be an original concept and not some thing we’ve all heard of before. Now to the fun stuff.

The much more enjoyable tight rope act this show demonstrates actually has a name, used to describe the classical French literature that first made it famous: la fantastique. This genre is not synonymous with fantasy; instead, it is fiction that deliberately makes it impossible for the reader to tell what is real. There is always a supernatural explanation of events which is in someways easier to believe, and a realistic interpretation which involves more convoluted explanations. Often, as in The OA, the doubt springs from an unreliable narrator (so fun!). The realistic explanation is that Prairie is, and always has been, crazy; the supernatural explanation is…well, no spoilers.

Since there is a second season/part to this show, I have a feeling the writers are going to jump off the high wire, and the truth of the supernatural explanation will be confirmed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Of course, if you really want to play with an unreliable narrator, you should read Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth. But you’ll have to start with the excellent Gideon the Ninth, or you won’t even know when to be suspicious of Harrow’s narration.

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