My retraced path through Hogwarts continues, with book 6. In a lot of ways, this is a book holding its breath; the stage has been set for the big climMy retraced path through Hogwarts continues, with book 6. In a lot of ways, this is a book holding its breath; the stage has been set for the big climax, but we're not there yet. That said, there's a lot to be interested in as well. The exploration of Voldemort's past alongside the mysterious potion book bring a little complexity to Harry's understanding of some characters, and the inclusion of Slughorn offers a revisit to book 2's theme of fame and influence with a little more nuance than Lockhart could provide. Neville and Luna, and the rest of the Dark Arts auxiliary squad don't get a lot to do until the very end, which is a shame, after the way they were built up in book 5. And the flashbacks, while some of the most interesting parts of the series (I loved the complexities of power in the scene with Voldemort and Hepzibah), ultimately are there largely to set up the final horcrux treasure hunt plot in the next book. Rowling's approach to romance is interesting; unlike Book 5, where Harry was mostly interested in Cho in a largely hypothetical sense, here, he's much more clearly smitten with Ginny. And yet, almost all of that emotion comes from before they get together. Rowling more or less skips past the initial phase of their relationship to them being comfortable around each other. Granted, romance has never been a focus of the book, but it's rather striking that their first in-depth conversation about their relationship is Harry breaking up with her at the end. All in all, though, for a book that's setting the stage for the finale, it holds up fairly well....more
I tend to view the Harry Potter series as split into two parts: the first part being a children's series of almost one-off mystery stories with most tI tend to view the Harry Potter series as split into two parts: the first part being a children's series of almost one-off mystery stories with most things resolved at the end, and the second half a YA series focusing more on Harry's coming of age and the ongoing war against Voldemort. Book 4 is a sort of transition book, which means this is the last book firmly in the first camp. I'd also argue that, out of the first three, the mystery is handled the best, as it's less obvious than the first, and less left field than the second--and considering that this plot involves time travel, mistaken identities, and werewolves, that's saying a lot. I liked that Hermione got a plotline of sorts that was more than her quarrelling with Ron or Harry, although she doesn't so much learn a lesson from that (that she can't do everything, and doesn't have to) as she fixes things by dropping two courses she doesn't need anyway. The dementors are maybe the most disturbing creatures introduced yet, and we see a very dark side of the wizard incarceration system, that they'd subject criminals to the dementors despite knowing that most go mad. It fits very much with the out of sight, out of mind approach that the Ministry adopts in books 4 and 5. This is also the book where Harry's father issues come to the forefront, as he confronts the man whom he believes led to his father's death. In short, there's a lot going on, perhaps more than ever before, and Rowling is showing the long term planning and plotting that serves her well in the longer books....more
Chamber of Secrets suffers, I think, from sequel syndrome, where it's ok, but still plowing the same field of the first book close enough that it feelChamber of Secrets suffers, I think, from sequel syndrome, where it's ok, but still plowing the same field of the first book close enough that it feels a bit like the same crop, but a different year. Does this metaphor work? I am not a farmer.
The plot of the book is that Harry is back at Hogwarts for another year, but there's something afoot; someone claiming to be the heir of Slytherin is striking, leaving victims turned to stone in their wake. Harry is a prime suspect, and he and the gang must figure out who is really behind the attacks before the school is closed for good. The book features a lot of elements established in the first one: Harry's horrible non-school life with his awful parody of a family; the magical disruption that takes him back to Hogwarts; a new Dark Arts teacher; a new season of Quidditch; a threat against the school that reaches a head by the end of the school year, etc. In later books, Rowling plays with the formula a bit more, but here, there wasn't quite enough building to satisfy me.
On the other hand, there's a lot to like as well, as Rowling's ability to borrow from other genres comes into play in really satisfying ways. The initial Dursley situation plays out like a sitcom farce, and the trip to Hogwarts is almost a magical version of the Dukes of Hazzard. The main plot is a little bit of a mystery story and a little bit of a horror slasher tale, as the list of victims grows and the list of suspects narrow. There's a play with Harry's celebrity as sitting on the edge of notoriety and I like the resonances between him and Tom Riddle (I'd speculate that there was a draft of the story where he spent more time interacting with the diary, too.)
I'm not a fan of the climax, which basically frames Harry's main hero qualifications of being able to notice that stone Hermione is holding a piece of paper, and his blind faith in Dumbledore, and I don't like that Ginny here doesn't get a lot of agency or characterization beyond being a victim. She's downplayed as a character to such a degree that most of her dialogue is summarized for the reader rather than actually being said. There's something very, very interesting in being able to inscribe a past version of yourself into a written record of the past, but that doesn't get as much play here as it could be, and it all relies on the very familiar series trope that a great deal of the action could have been circumvented if Harry had opted to have a five minute conversation with Dumbledore or another teacher.
In sum, I think the book has some strong ideas at work, but doesn't quite come together as well as others in the series....more
Long after I read the Harry Potter series, what I remembered most was my frustrations with the book: Harry as a bland protagonist who manages to be thLong after I read the Harry Potter series, what I remembered most was my frustrations with the book: Harry as a bland protagonist who manages to be the center of everything; Hermione always working twice as hard for half the recognition; Ron existing to make Harry look good; Dumbledore's favoritism; the formulas that held fast for each book. Rereading this book now, though, I'm reminded of what I knew at the time, that these books were also very, very good. More than most of the series that came into popularity after her, Rowling knows how to balance her books, so that you get a mix of humour at all times alongside the pathos--take, for example, the baby Death Eater in the climactic battle. Likewise, the ordinary pressures of school are bound up in the plot. This book in particular does a great job exploring the theme of surveillance in great detail, with more information on the institutions and bureaucracies that manage wizard life, and an enemy that's less a force of Evil and more the sort of real life problem you run into when a bullying figure with petty ambitions rises to power in an institution. There's a lot more ancillary characters who come into their own too--there's more a focus on characters such as Neville, Ginny, and Luna, and I have to say I never liked Harry better than when he shifted into teaching. It's a long, very long book, and I actually had to get a second copy after the first was missing 50 pages near the end, but it reminded me why this series is so beloved and why it deserves to be....more
Let's dive in here. Let's go deep, and really think about what makes a choose your own adventure zombie apocalypse story starring a sentient plush bunLet's dive in here. Let's go deep, and really think about what makes a choose your own adventure zombie apocalypse story starring a sentient plush bunny rabbit tick. I'm going to get really technical and really detailed, and I think we'll all learn a little something before we're done.
Using terminology I largely invented, Zombocalypse Now is a choose your own adventure book that specializes in persistent, binary-unfolding, latitudinal choice. In terms of those latter two adjectives, that means it's very close to the original style of choose your own adventure books, such as Edward Packard's Sugarcane Island, back in the 1970s. Generally speaking, that means that most entries that aren't endings contain a least two choices, and the choices keep branching off into largely separate paths until you do reach an ending--hence the binary-unfolding part. (The separate path part is what distinguishes these books from gamebooks like the Fighting Fantasy series, which tend to feature more crossover and merging between paths, as well as be directed towards a single "main" ending.) Later books in the original series tend towards fewer choices, with more entries that are just part of the story leading directly to another entry, without choice--as a result, if you "mapped" out all the choices of these books, the map would be longitudinal; the first few CYOA, and Zombocalypse Now are, in comparison, latitudinal, in that their choice maps are much more spread out along the horizontal.
Where Zombocalypse differs from the original CYOA is in the writing, and it's here that Youngmark shines. In particular, the CYOA series was infamous for its choices being narratively inconsistent; if you made one choice, your best friend could turn out to be a soviet spy, and another choice, the same friend was an alien all along. Rather than the friend being both an alien and spy, the different paths posit mutually exclusive narrative universes. Brace yourself, because Zombocalypse does something entirely different. Rather than radical exclusivity, Zombocalypse exhibits radical persistence, where fundamental aspects of the plot remain the same regardless of what choices you make. For example, the cause of the zombie outbreak is the same throughout, and many of the characters you meet down one path will be there down another, pursuing the same sort of actions they'd be doing with or without your presence. The result is that the book feels much more like a simulated world, where the plot is unfolding with or without you, and you choose what course you take within it. Occasionally, the book even draws on that knowledge, letting the reader draw their own conclusions--one ending, for example, takes on a very different tone when you realize exactly what you're bringing into the refuge. I'd argue that Youngmark uses persistence to better effect in his next choosematic book, Thrusts of Justice, but it's definitely a selling point here as well.
So that's structure, more or less. Let's talk about writing. The immediate question here is, why make the reader-character a sentient plush bunny? Why take the zombie apocalypse, and add the fact that in this world, sentient plushies exist? Arguably, the book wouldn't be intrinsically different without its rabbit lead, but it does serve a few purposes. Usually, CYOA make the reader-character as bland as possible, to encourage the readers to think of them as themselves; this identification usually runs afoul of the fact that the character is often implied as teenage, male, and, frequently, white. By making the reader-character something impossible, it jumps over that hurdle; it also creates some distance between reader and character, which helps with the fact that this bunny will be dying a lot. (It's a side effect of the binary-unfolding, latitudinal CYOA that they have a lot more endings than most CYOA; the zombie setting helps with that, because it's implied that your character is going to die a lot.) And it also sets a tone, that the book's going to be humorous and somewhat absurd, which again helps with the high fatality count. And in general, the book is absurd and funny; Youngmark puts a lot of detail and style into his writing, and it helps.
When I started reading the book, I mistakenly thought there was only one good ending; I think I was confusing it with another zombie-based CYOA. That's not quite the case, but there are a large number of ways to die, and very few ways to eke out survival in this zombie world. What I like about the book is that, within the boundaries of its persistence, it explores a large number of permutations on the zombie theme--there's several variations of the survivors turning on each other, there's uncovering the conspiracy behind the zombies, there's a pet semetary tribute subplot, and there's even a dedicated bit where it really dives into what it means to be chainsaw wielder in a zombie world--a lot more complicated than you'd think.
On the subject of the book's themes, it's worth noting that virtually all of the good endings come about through a team-up; more or less any attempt to go it alone in the zombie apocalypse winds up in death. I appreciate that; for virtually all the characters that you could feasibly form an affection for, there's a way to make sure they survive. My main complaint about the book, however, is that the result of the choices are often not predictable through what's offered. Consequently, it sometimes feels arbitrary what path will lead to victory and what one is another death. One could argue that this was done purposefully to reinforce the arbitrariness of fate in the face of apocalyptic event, that the true terror is not the zombies themselves, but the realization that the universe is ultimately capricious and uncaring. One could also argue that, nah, it's just easier to write it that way.
There's more I could talk about here--the way the book sets up more interesting deaths by unusual zombie creatures, the way uncontrollable mental breaks come into play in a system designed around controlled choice (sidenote: a lot of the bad endings going it solo revolve around the character losing their mind), the history of floride in North America. But I think I've made my point. Zombocalypse Now is a nifty little CYOA, and I think we're all better off for having gone on this voyage of discovery together....more
**spoiler alert** Gullstruck Island is home to several native tribes, as well as colonizers who made their way onto the island and live in an uneasy t**spoiler alert** Gullstruck Island is home to several native tribes, as well as colonizers who made their way onto the island and live in an uneasy truce with them; the islanders, including the Lace, worship the island's volcanoes, whereas the colonizers worship their ancestors, dedicating them tracts of land, a practice that has forced them to constantly expand outwards. The island is governed in part by the colonists and in part by the Lost, people born with the power to depart their bodies and fly with their minds, who serve as the communication system for the island. The story centers around Hathlin, a member of the Lace and keeper of Arilou, her sister, the first Lost born to the tribe in generations. However, the tribe harbours a secret, as no one is sure whether Arilou is really Lost, or whether her mind is simply not there to begin with. What starts as a desperate attempt to pass a series of tests for Arilou becomes something much greater, as Hathlin and Arilou are embroiled in a plot for the fate of the island.
There's a number of things to like about this book--not the least of which being a clear departure from Tolkien-esque fantasy--but for me, the two highlights were the cultural differences Hardinge sets up, and the relationship between Arilou and Hathlin. It's easy to read the colonists and the Lace as a loose analog for Western cultures and the Pacific islanders, but there's a lot more nuance there as well. For example, I love that the Lace decorate their teeth, and that it's traditional among them to smile when they're nervous, a trait that instead of placating the colonists, makes them even more uncomfortable in the Lace's presence. The early parts of the book where the Lace are attempting to fool inspectors that Arilou is indeed Lost feel like a part of the story tradition of the clever native who outsmart the overconfident Westerners, and it was a lot of fun seeing Hathlin coming up with ways to keep her village safe. (As an aside, I also like the way the volcanoes are regarded as forces of nature, which can be semi-anthropomorphized--although that's not the right word, as they're gods rather than just people--but not entirely understood. It plays into traditional depictions as the native folk being more "in tune with nature" than the colonizers, but on a basic level, it just makes sense that the people who lived in an area longer would be more attuned to it than those who have been forced out their homeland by their own defunct policies.) I was very disappointed, then, when about a third or less into the book, something happens that makes a lot of what Hardinge sets up about the Lace village (village of the Hollow Beasts) more or less moot, and removes a lot of the nuance of the colonial power imbalance, in exchange for something more us vs them.
That said, I also appreciate that this isn't a book where anyone is just evil for the sake of it. Even the villains are, at worst, acting in their own self-interest and clearly motivated. For the most part, I'd say they also have a tendency towards being a little broad, but that fits with the YA/chldren's group that Hardinge is writing towards. But as I said, where it really shines is the relationship between Hathlin and Arilou. I'm not going to claim it's a perfect analogy for what it's like to have a mentally disabled sibling; it'd be arrogant of me to presume as much. However, I'd argue that the advantage of fantasy is that it can offer relationships that, without being direct analogs, can resonate with real world situations. (The trick is to not let them overshadow those real world situations--fantasy, for example, is littered with resonances to existing First Nations cultures, or slavery, but often at the expense of never showing any human whose skin isn't white.) Hathlin loves her sister, clearly, but there's also clearly a part of her that resents having to set aside her own desires and wants in order to help Arilou, in the belief that that's what's best for Arilou and their village. A big part of Hathlin's journey is coming to realize who Arilou is in her own right apart from her, and Hardinge handles that with enough nuance to make the changes feel earned.
Hardinge juggles a lot with this book--setting up multiple cultures, a complicated and unusual sibling relationship, and the Lost themselves as well as the various magical creatures around the island, not to mention the forward motion of the book's actual plot and multiple villains to deal with. (As well as a resolution that does an excellent job speaking to Hathlin as a character.) It's to her credit that for the most part, the book carries it off. I'll admit to being very disappointed when the book moved from the village of the Hollow Beasts, and that the plot itself was sometimes lagging behind the setting, but all in all, I'm glad I read it....more
Fables is a series I enjoyed a great deal back in my university days, though it's also one of those books I'm not sure I'd want to go back to and readFables is a series I enjoyed a great deal back in my university days, though it's also one of those books I'm not sure I'd want to go back to and read from the start--I have a feeling it maybe hasn't aged very well, or that I'm just not in the same place to enjoy it that I was a decade or so ago. This book, though, was a nice trip down memory lane. The connecting thread is that Snow White, at some indeterminate point in the past, has been captured by the sultan of the Arabian Fables in Exiles, and she stays alive by intriguing him with stories. While there's some attempt at discussion of the stories after, it's reasonably clear that there's usually no direct thematic connection between her stories and her situations; although to be fair, that was true for the original 1001 Arabian Nights too. (Although for the later, that's more because they were a lot of stories by different authors put together.) So what we get are a few stories that fill in the gaps between characters, and introduce a few more through vignettes.
Mostly, we get a lot of stories set just before the Advesary invades, or during the invasion. We get the early days of Snow White's marriage and a rather dark version of her life with the dwarves, Reynard tricking a set of goblins, origin stories for the Frog Prince, Bigby, and the town's witch character, and a nice story about Mayor Cole pre-Fabletown that explains a bit more how he came to be in his position, as well as a few two page intros to various characters. There's some very unpleasant gender dynamics at work in many of the stories--Snow's initial imprisonment, mentions of rape, the witch's story and spurning. It's not gratuitous, and it's clearly a consequence of the war time and savage nature of the fairy tale world, but at the same time, it comes up often enough that it feels fatiguing to me rather than effective. (YMMV.) Early Fables leaned a little too heavy on making the Fables "modern" and different from their traditional depictions by virtue of having them act really mean and vicious and dwelling on the violence a lot more than the original (which had their fair share of violence too), and I feel like the book dips into that well too. It's also, despite the intro, probably a book more for the fans, as the meat of it is filling in the past of characters we already appreciate.
The art is amazing. It's a smorgasbord of different artists, generally one or two for each story. The relative brevity of the story, and the book's nature as a one shot, means it's free to go to artists who focus on work that's a little slower paced than a monthly 22 page comic, and so we get a lot of artists known for album and comic covers. Their backgrounds give the stories a bit of a static feeling at times, but that fits very well with Willingham's technique here, that these are stories being told to a third party. None of the stories felt entirely essential, that I was seeing a radically new or significant part of Fable lore. But it was a component book, and I wasn't disappointed going back to it....more