Monday, February 25, 2013

Sara's Library: Clockwork Angel

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
Book one of The Infernal Devices trilogy
Margaret K. McElderry Books 2011
During Victoria's reign, a teenage American from New York, Tessa Gray, travels to London at her older brother's request.  However, once she arrives, she is imprisoned by the evil Dark Sisters, who force Tessa to use her previously untrained shapeshifting abilities and speak of a marriage between Tessa and someone known only as the Magister.

Enter Will Herondale, a reckless bad boy in the employ of the London Institute, an organization dedicated to protecting our world from Downworlders (vampires, demons, and the like).  Rescuing Tessa from the sisters,   she is inducted into the world of the Shadowhunters, who agree to help her find her missing brother, in return for her cooperation in stopping a plot against the Institute.

There were a lot of problems with this book.  I'm really not sure where to begin.  The setting was meant to be Victorian London, but the characters felt far too contemporary to have been inhabitants of it.  Will was especially anachronistic, espousing the favored sarcasm and brooding of YA love interests today.  Despite being a womanizing gambler who spends far too much time in the seediest districts, we're led to believe that because he can recite poetry, he's a good match for our protagonist.  I am well and truly tired of these bad boy characters who, with the love of the female protagonist, change into something better.  It's unrealistic and, worse than than, such pairings lead impressionable young girls to think such relationships are ideal.  I'm glad that by the end of the book it seemed like Tessa might prefer Will's quiet friend, Jem, though I doubt she will wind up with him by the end of the trilogy.

The pacing was a mess.  There were a number of times where I simply wanted to stop reading because nothing of consequence was happening and the writing was not of the quality I am used to reading. There are large portions dedicated to mundane tasks, and given that the characters are wooden archetypes, it wasn't very interesting.  But Ms. Clare did write semi-decent battle scenes, and I wasn't positive of the identity of the Magister from the beginning, so it wasn't a total waste of time.

Each chapter begins with a random quote from a piece of literature, but said quotes rarely paralleled the events of the chapter, so I'm really not sure of their purpose.  Tessa is a bookworm, yes, but the quotes were far from necessary.

And it's perfectly clear that the Victorian setting and inclusion of automatons is simply to cash in on the popularity of steampunk.  I doubt Ms. Clare knows anything about the sub-culture, though, to be fair, few people writing steampunk novels do.

One positive: Although a steampunk rip-off of Twilight, Tessa does have a personality.  And her shapeshifting abilities make her far more capable than Bella ever was.  I might read the second installment to see if it improves any, as I did like Jem, but I'm not in any hurry to do so.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Up a Beanstalk

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 13: "Tiny"

Summary: Rumpel, Emma, and Henry go on a family vacation  embark on a journey to seek out Baelfire.  The shawl does the trick as expected, and save for a minor scare at the airport security checkpoint where Rumpel had to momentarily remove the shawl, all was well.  We learned there is no magic in this realm outside of Storybrooke, and Rumpel may be going through some magic withdrawal.

Back in town, David and Snow force Hook to show them his ship, where they find a shrunken giant in a cage.  Hook says he is part of Snow's plan, and viewers will recognize him as the giant from earlier this season.  The heroes decide to free him, but he becomes enraged at the sight of David and goes on a rampage through the town.

David eventually realizes that the giant probably mistook him for his twin brother, James.  Regina, meanwhile, gives the giant a mushroom from Wonderland that returns him to his original size.  When David confronts him, he sinks into the pavement, under which there appears to be a tunnel.  The spell wears off, he is left clinging to a pole for dear life, and David and crew save him.  He then decides to plant his magic bean in the land near Storybrooke and the dwarfs offer their help.

In the fairybacks, we learn more of the giant's story.  Anton is the smallest of his kind and oft bullied because of it.  He also has a fascination with humans equal to that of Ariel, so one day he decides to become part of our world by descending the beanstalk and snooping in a pub window.  James and Jack (Jacqueline) pretend to befriend him, tell him a sob story about the country's debt so he'll give them the giant's treasure, then follow him up the beanstalk to steal the beans.  The whole ordeal ends with all of the giants (save Anton) and Jack dead and the beanstalks razed.  One can definitely understand why Anton no longer trusts people!

This episode was a bit of a nice change-of-pace with so much of it focusing on side characters that weren't expected to play that big of a role.  It was also a game-changer since Anton's bean farm may just be able to transport the gang back to the homeworld.  There should be some interesting drama surrounding the return once it becomes possible, especially between David (who wants to return) and Snow (who wants to stay here).  A prediction I (and a number of other fans) made will likely prove to be true next episode, given where Rumpel's flight was headed, so I'm looking forward to it.

With everything shaping up, though, I really wonder what the writers could have planned, save for the inevitable conflict with Cora and the possible drama I mentioned in the last paragraph.  Maybe we'll see more adventures of Mulan and Aurora back in the fairy tale realm?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dream Factory: Les Visiteurs du Soir

Les Visiteurs du Soir
a.k.a. The Devil's Envoys
Directed by Marcel Carne
Original release: DisCina 1942 (France)
US theatrical release: Superfilm Distribution Corporation 1947
US DVD release: Criterion Collection 2012
Streaming: Hulu
Not rated

Gilles and Dominique, a pair of minstrels, arrive at the estate of Baron Hugues during the celebration of his daughter Anne's engagement to Renard and perform for the entourage.  Having sold themselves to the devil, they are here to ensnare the betrothed.  Through magic and trickery (including a spell that freezes time), the envoys attempt to seduce Renard and Anne.  While Dominique successfully toys with both Renard and Baron Hugues, unlucky Gilles falls in love with Anne, who returns his feelings.  As the devil's plans unravel, he arrives himself to set things "right."

Les Visiteurs du Soir isn't particularly famous, overshadowed by Mr. Carne's later film Children of Paradise, but that doesn't mean it's a forgettable film.  It's remembered as an allegory of the French resistance during the German occupation of WWII, although this was not the director's intent.

Mr. Carne operated under the banner of poetic realism, which favored stylized sets over realistic location shooting, and often featured ill-fated characters who lived on the margins of society.  Gilles easily fits the mold here, being a poor lover who mistakenly entered into a Faustian bargain.  His former lover, Dominique, no longer cares for him, enjoying the conquests ordered of her, and he feels trapped by the confines of his extended life and the restrictions of his contract.  Upon realizing that he is in love with Anne, he attempts to spurn her, rather than sacrifice her to the devil, but their love proves to be too strong.  In the end, he has her love, but not his life.  It's quite fatalistically romantic!

The special effects used are fairly basic, but they've aged decently.  Or, at least, they aren't reminiscent of cheesy Dark Shadows effects.  The costumes and sets also appear to have been made on a fairly large budget.

Not being a French speaker, I can't really comment much on the acting, although I did enjoy the performances of Alain Cuny (Gilles) and Jules Berry (the Devil).

This film actually reminded me of a distilled The Seventh Seal, likely because of the fatalism, time period, and supernatural goings-on.  While it would be unfair to compare this to Mr. Bergman's masterpiece, it's fairly enjoyable, if slow at times, and I feel that fans of cinematic fantasy will enjoy it.

Here's the original French trailer:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sara's Library: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic 2012
Printz Honor Book 2012
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature Nominee 2012

On the island of Thisby, every November flesh-eating water horses compete in the Scorpio Races, an ancient ritual that has evolved into a tourist attraction and one of the island's only sources of profit.  Puck (a.k.a. Kate) lost her parents to the water horses, but when her older brother Gabriel announces that he's leaving for the mainland, Puck decides she must enter the race (and win) in order to save the family home from being repossessed.  While already facing the inherent struggles of racing carnivorous beasts on the back of her beloved horse, she also must face the bullying of the sexist townspeople, who believe a girl shouldn't be racing.

And then there's the mysterious Sean Kendrick.  Abandoned by his mother as a small child and orphaned when his father was killed by a water horse, Sean has made his living working at one of the island's stables, capturing and training the water horses, and has won four Scorpio Races already.  While he must win this year's race to buy his favorite water horse from the stable owner, when he meets Puck, he becomes determined to help her win, as well.

I had really enjoyed Ms. Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, although I do feel it would have been better as a stand-alone novel (some of the events in the later books are just too far-fetched!).  So I was very much looking forward to reading this, especially after it won the Printz Honor.  But...I was rather disappointed, to be honest.  The book was good, but it was not the amazing experience that I was expecting.

As with the Mercy Falls books, the POV shifts between Puck and Sean in alternating chapters.  However, unlike those books, the two protagonists read very much the same, aside from the occasional bit of sarcasm on Puck's end.  Were it not for the character names emblazoned above each chapter, I probably would not have known from whose perspective I was experiencing things 80% of the time, save from contextual clues, such as interactions with other characters (i.e. Puck's brothers, the stable owner, etc.).  It seemed like a step backward for Ms. Stiefvater and I was quite surprised.

For me, at least, this book was a bit of a slog.  I appreciated the world-building, especially the mythology behind the races, the parade, and the initiation of the riders, but it felt like the pacing was off.  When something is called The Scorpio Races and said races take place in the last twenty pages, there is a problem.  I understand that the book was very much about the people involved in the races, and the tourism, and the horses, but that was more than 3/4 of the book.  I don't think I'm alone in having expected an exhilarating race, and what I received was underwhelming at best.

There's no question that Ms. Stiefvater is a talented author, but I don't feel this was her best effort.  I still need to read The Raven Boys, but I am hoping the issues present here have been fixed and I can go back to loving her work.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Once Upon a Time...At the Hospital

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 12: "In the Name of the Father"

Summary: Emma and the crew arrive at the scene of the car/shooting accident and escort all parties involved to the hospital.  The driver of the car, an outsider from Pennsylvania, has been seriously injured, and there is some debate as to whether or not he should be saved, as he may have seen magic being cast by Rumpel.  Ultimately, the group decides to save him, but Dr. Whale cannot be found.

Rumpel tries to help Belle, who is extremely hostile toward him and amnesiac, having crossed over the town line without her object of power.  Emma confronts Hook about Cora, though he is less than helpful, and questions the outsider about what he saw (after Dr. Whale has been tracked down by Ruby and performed a successful surgery).

Cora, meanwhile, forms a truce with Rumpel and snakes her way back into Regina's life.

The episode ends with Rumpel asking Emma to accompany him on his quest to find Bae, as repayment for her deal with him from last season.

In the fairybacks, more is revealed about Whale's past, namely his brother's death, father's disapproval, and Rumpel's visit to learn about science.  Honestly, not that much new material was revealed.

It was a decent episode, though not quite as good as the last one.  I enjoyed the use of technicolor for Rumpel's appearance in the otherwise black-and-white world of Scienceland.  It reminded me quite a bit of Oz and how color was used to represent fantasy and/or magic.

I have some complaints, though.  Even being amnesiac, I think Belle was being overly hostile.  I know I am a fan of the dynamics between Rumpel and Belle, but I would say this even if I wasn't.  And shouldn't a counselor or therapist have been there?  It seems rather uncouth to have no third-party mediator in their dealings, considering the circumstances.  I don't think that was very realistic.

Also, I am sincerely  hoping that the writers aren't setting up a Frankenstein and the wolf-girl romance between Whale and Ruby.  Unfortunately, the dialogue between them on the pier makes me think otherwise.

I'm sure it's a tremendous mistake for Emma and Rumpel to be leaving town with Cora and Regina paired up, but perhaps it's all part of Rumpel's master plan?  We'll have to wait and see.

Sara's Library: Stardust

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Original publication: Avon Books 1998
This edition: William Morrow 2006
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel Nominee 1999
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature 1999

In a village called Wall, so named for the wall between our world and that of the faeries situated nearby, a Faerie Market is held every nine years.  In 1839, Dunstan Thorn goes to the market to procure a gift for his love, Daisy.  After purchasing a crystal flower from one stall, he ends up having intimate relations with the stall-girl.  He marries Daisy shortly after the market, and in February the next year, a baby boy (presumably the result of his tryst with the stall-girl) is left at their doorstep.

Seventeen years later, the boy, Tristran, foolishly tells his heart's desire that he will find and claim a fallen star, which the two had seen fall earlier, as a gift for her.  He enters the world of Faerie and soon discovers that the star is not a dead space-rock, as we would expect, but a living, breathing girl named Yvaine -- though it should be mentioned that were she to ever cross the wall she would  become a space-rock.  Although at first Tristran intends to give Yvaine to Victoria, his ladylove, during the course of their travels he comes to view Yvaine as a person, not an object.

Two other characters in pursuit of the star round out the cast: a witch who wishes to gain immortality by snatching the star's heart, and the Lord of Stormhold, who is searching for a lost topaz in the star's possession.  The various encounters between the protagonists and these two account for most of the tension in the novel.

The two protagonists, Tristran and Yvaine, are both written rather believably and often have snappy dialogue, as is usual for characters attributed to Mr. Gaiman.  In the hands of a less capable writer, the story would have seemed too far-fetched and easily become asinine drivel.  But even the non-fantasy reader should be able to enjoy this tale, styled after the early fantasy novels of the Victorian era, yet accessible to modern readers by avoiding overly long and overly dry passages.

I will say that when I first read this I was not at all in the mood for a breezy fantasy, so I do caution potential readers to be in the right frame-of-mind when choosing this title.  Stardust isn't groundbreaking, but it is a beautiful homage to fantasies of the past.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Among Beasts

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 11: "The Outsider"

Quick summary: Rumpel has been tinkering with a spell that would enable him to cross the town line with his memories intact, which is vital if he is going to leave Storybrooke to search for Baelfire.  Having perfected the spell (which requires a "sacred" object) with Smee and his famous red cap, he turns Smee into a rat and begins to prepare for his journey.  In a safe in his shop is a shawl that once belonged to Bae, which he shows to Belle.

While getting the library ready for its grand re-opening, Belle is attacked by Hook, but manages to lock herself in the elevator and call Rumpel on her cell phone.  When the two arrive back at the shop, however, they learn that Hook's attack was a distraction so he could pilfer the shawl.

Belle sneaks onto Hook's ship, finds and frees the much-alive Archie (who tells her it was Cora, not Regina who attacked him), and retrieves the shawl, even fending off Hook for a bit until Rumpel's arrival.  Although Rumpel wants to kill Hook, Belle convinces him to spare his life, which backfires on both of them as Rumpel prepares to cross the town line.

In the fairybacks, Belle joins a group of men questing for a dangerous beast called a yaoguai.  Although she can read Chinese, the men treat her poorly and kick her off their wagon.  This doesn't deter her, though, and she easily tracks down the beast, encountering Mulan, who has been tracking it for months.  The two agree to work together, although it is Belle who ultimately faces the monster, who is actually Prince Philip transformed.

Although I had the end of this episode spoiled for me by the official Facebook page, I still greatly enjoyed it. While I'll be the first to admit that I'm a sucker for any Rumpel-centric episode, I feel this is one of the best episodes of the season thus far, primarily because it develops the characters, which is something few episodes succeed in doing.  I was quite happy to see Belle prove her worth in both the past and present, which will hopefully quell the arguments made that she's equivalent to Twilight's Bella.  This episode really gave Belle a chance to shine, and I hope the finale of the episode won't prevent us from seeing her do more awesome things in the future.

Unlike the last few weeks, I don't have a lot of complaints about this episode.  In fact, the only thing springing to mind is either a failure on pacing or a failure to properly devise world maps; that is, how did Belle travel so quickly from our standard European-based fairy tale land to the equivalent of China?  The episode wasn't paced as though a good deal of time had transpired.  Does fairy tale land have a layout similar to Epcot, where you can travel from France to China within the span of ten minutes?  Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but this truly bothered me.

I'm hoping to catch up on the last two episodes over the next few days, as my monster has Wednesday and Thursday off.  It would be great if the writing in the next two is as good as this one was.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sara's Library: Five Children and It

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
Original publication: T. Fisher Unwin 1902
This edition: Random House 2010

When a wealthy family sends its children to a country house in Kent, the four older children (Robert, Anthea, Cyril, and Jane) discover a Psammead, or Sand-Fairy, in a gravel pit near the house.  The Psammead is a small, brown furry thing with eyes like a snail's, and he claims to have been buried in the pit since the Stone Age, making it difficult for him to grant wishes as he used to.  He does agree, however, to grant the children a collective wish each day, which will last until sundown.

The children proceed to wish for the sorts of extravagant wishes that are to be expected (beauty, wealth, to be rid of their baby brother), and each wish backfires with comedic results.  Of course, the children learn a lesson from each of their wishes gone bad, as this is classic children's literature, and as such, somewhat didactic while still being entertaining.

It's a very dry humor, and coupled with the archaic language, I don't think this book would please the average child today.  There's not enough excitement or action to really captivate a modern child, which is unfortunate because it is a good story.  Leave this one to children's literature scholars.

As for this particular edition, it's a hardcover with the original illustrations by H.R. Millar included.  The illustrations are black and white, but they really evoke the time period, so I do recommend reading an edition with them if you enjoy turn-of-the-century children's lit.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Under Suspicion

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 10: "The Cricket Game"

Quick synopsis: Cora and Hook arrive in Storybrooke, where Cora decides to meddle in Regina's affairs, claiming that Regina is not yet "broken."  This happens shortly after Regina leaves a welcome back party at Granny's, which Emma had invited her to, feeling that the others will never accept that she is trying to change.   Emma had told her she decided to invite her after speaking with Archie, who expressed that he thought Regina was making progress in her efforts.

The next morning, Regina confronts Archie, feeling the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement has been breached, and Ruby sees the argument.  So, of course, when Archie is found "dead" the next morning, the gang immediately concluded that it must have been an angry Regina (while in reality it was Cora glamored to resemble her daughter).  This conclusion is corroborated by evidence gathered from Pongo's memory, which is magically revealed by Rumpel and Emma (who consciously uses magic for the first time.)  By the end of the episode, with Henry believing his mother killed Archie, Regina is sufficiently broken and the audience is left with a final shot of the real Archie imprisoned on Hook's ship.

The fairyback parallel features Regina about to be put to death at the stake, but Snow feels that there is still good in her and calls off the execution.  However, when put to the test, Regina tries to kill Snow and is banished, setting into motion the plans for the curse that would later result in the move to Storybrooke.

Despite garnering some positive reviews from Entertainment Weekly and IGN, I have to say I was disappointed with this episode.  I felt the plot device of an innocent-framed-for-murder was used well in season one when Mary Margaret was the primary suspect in the disappearance of Abigail/Catherine, but to use the exact same idea replacing Regina with Snow and Archie with Abigail makes it seem like the writers are getting lazy.  Was there no other way they could think of that would result in Regina contemplating a return to evil?

Also, the self-righteous attitude of the heroes (especially David) in this episode was disgusting.  I realize that in fairy tales things have absolutes, so this is likely a nod to the black-and-white nature of the original tales, but the audience is much more sophisticated than that.  If the supposed villains Regina and Rumpel can have such nuanced roles, why can't the protagonists?  These "monsters" are much more human in my opinion.

All in all, a somewhat disappointing return.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sara's Library: The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Original publication: Gollancz 1979
This edition: Penguin Books 1990

As a fan of both fairy tales and Gothic literature, this had been on my to-read list for awhile.  I finally read it back in October, as part of my month of Gothic horror, but somehow never got around to writing about it.  Were this just a piece of mindless fluff, I suppose I wouldn't bother, but writing of this caliber deserves to be properly reviewed, even if it comes months after the fact.

Being a collection of ten short stories, I don't intend to write about every story's merits and flaws, but rather the collection as a whole.  However, I did have a few favorites, as was to be expected.

Overall, this was a phenomenal collection with decadently rich, descriptive writing throughout.  Despite its short length, this is the kind of book one savors.  I truly enjoyed the subversion of the "damsel in distress" in a number of these stories, and while this has become common in mainstream media, even to the point of being touched upon in Disney films and serial dramas, Ms. Carter was one of the first to do it and one of the best.  I can't really think of any complaints I had, aside from a minor quip about repeated stories (two "Beauty and the Beast", three "Red Riding Hood.")  But, given that most of these stories were published elsewhere before being collected, it's easily forgivable.

The novellette from which this collection derives its name is one of my top tales, primarily because its story is the most fully realized.  A retelling of "Bluebeard," here the protagonist is a young conservatory student wed to an older, wealthy man with sexual tastes akin to that of the romantic interest in one of the most poorly written bestsellers of all time.  Rather than bombard the audience with tacky sex scenes, Ms. Carter alludes to the acts in sensual prose.  Being a "Bluebeard" tale, the husband leaves on business, forbidding the girl to enter one chamber in particular, where she discovers the extent of his sadism.

While the girl remains a damsel in distress in this tale, it's worth noting that she's not saved by a man (though a blind piano tuner does gallantly remain with her through her peril), but her mother.  This is in keeping with the familiar saviors in the original tale (her brothers), while giving the story a feminist perspective.

My other particular favorite is "The Tiger's Bride," which is an inspired retelling of "Beauty and the Beast," where the daughter is gambled away in a game of cards.  While I liked the other animal husband tale in the book, I felt this one stood out more because of its reversed ending.

Whether read as a whole, or in part, I cannot recommend this collection enough to any fans of gothic literature or fairy tales.  I will definitely be reading Ms. Carter's novels at some point!