I, Tonya / ***

i_tonyaLet me open this by saying that I have pretty profoundly mixed feelings on I, Tonya, a film that I sort of loved and hated in equal measure. A sort of meta-biopic of Tonya Harding that features duelling (and contradictory) narratives from various players, fourth-wall breaking, and a desire to look back at this story that was one of the foundations of the 24-hour news cycle we’re stuck with today, I, Tonya is undeniably ambitious, surprisingly funny, and never boring. And yet, at the same time, there’s often a sense that it’s a film on the verge of spinning out of control, with wildly clashing tones, constant (and grating) musical choices, and characters that are so over the top as to be cartoonish. And yet again, there’s an argument to be made (that I first heard articulated by Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show) that, in many ways, all of that is the perfect form for a movie about Tonya Harding: loud, brash, contradictory, a little grating, but technically ambitious and overachieving, and unafraid to be itself, no matter what.

That contradictory batch of feelings echoes for me all the way through the film, down to the performances. On the one hand, you have Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan as Harding and Gillooly, both playing older versions of themselves reflecting back through their own lives, and altering their performances to match the version of the story they’re in. When the film focuses on the two of them, it’s fantastic; the two of them bring out nuance and complexity in characters that have been so often reduced to caricature by the media, and the added dimension of having them reflect back lets us see how the incident and its aftermath impacted their lives. (And enough good can’t be said about both Robbie and Stan, who are phenomenal; the film demands a lot of them, and they rise to the occasion, playing their roles like chameleons that match whatever scene they’re in.) But then, on the flip side, you have Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s mother and Gillooly’s friend/Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn, respectively. Both are superb in their roles, but the film turns both into absurd cartoons, robbing them of anything except over the top dialogue and one-note writing that hammers away at the impression they’re supposed to make. Janney is awful and cruel and vicious; Hauser is idiotic and clueless and delusional. And both do a fantastic job in their roles, giving their all and making their scenes great, but there’s a sense that both roles are so absurd and one-dimensional that they grate, especially in contrast to how well the film handles Harding and Gillooly.

But couldn’t you argue, you could say, that the film is so clearly subjective – so clearly focused on the perspectives of Gillooly and Harding – that those roles should be cartoonish? In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t a caricature of these people; it’s how Harding and Gillooly saw them, since we don’t get their side of it? There’s an argument to be made there, I think (although it doesn’t take into account the way that Janney seems to occasionally enter into the film as a narrator herself); similarly, you could use some of that to deal with some of the film’s other excesses. Most notably, I’d say, is the film’s constant, incessant soundtrack of classic rock standards; it often comes across as a film without any confidence in its audience to get the emotional vibes it’s trying to convey. On the other hand, could you argue that they reflect the soundtrack that Tonya wants to put onto her own life, and the soundtrack of her memories? Maybe so.

But the more I think on I, Tonya, the more I think the film’s execution simply doesn’t work, no matter how much I feel like I love what it was trying to do. I love that the film digs into Harding’s working-class roots and makes it clear that the narrative of her being a white-trash thug comes from a media snobbery; at the same time, the film’s portrait of her roots is often every bit as condescending and sneering as that of the people it’s criticizing. I admire the way the film takes on Harding’s abusive life, often showing it brutally and unflinchingly; at the same time, it often jars horribly with the film’s glib tone, and sometimes feels as though it’s being played for laughs when it shouldn’t be (most notably with Janney’s horrific Mommy Dearest). And more than anything, the film feels smug and can’t let anything be left to subtlety. (A scene that reflects this in miniature: there’s a late film shot that finds Gillooly remembering the day the media moved on. In the background, you can just make out that his TV is showing the Nicole Simpson crime scene – a nice, subtle touch. Which the film then hammers home by shifting camera angles to make sure that you can’t miss it, all but foregrounding it.)

I can see why I, Tonya is so popular and well-received. It’s undeniably funny and entertaining, and its goals are fascinating. I love the meta-take on the biopic, and I love the way the film strives to match its content to the stories being told and the people telling them. But it’s a film that also gets exhausting, whose smugness is irritating, whose condescension gets wearying, and whose mashup of tones often doesn’t work and leads to uncomfortable clashes. And most of all, it’s a film that sometimes isn’t sure what it wants to be: a revisionist take on Tonya Harding, or a broad comedy? A fourth-wall-breaking piece of metafiction, or a cartoonishly absurd recapping of a famous incident? It’s a film that I can see why people like, and won’t begrudge them for their appreciation, but just ultimately didn’t work for me that well.

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Phantom Thread / *****

phantom-thread-alternate-poster-6-620x916There are essentially two ways I could review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread. I could be incredibly brief, saying that I needed time to think this one through, and that much like Anderson’s The Master, it’s a film that doesn’t lend itself well to instant analysis; it’s designed to let you sit with it, unpacking it over time and turning it over in your mind. The second approach to reviewing it, though, is to do what I’m going to do: to think out loud, to process Anderson’s fascinating, complex, nuanced, layered film in waves, and do my best to unpack everything that makes this film so incredible. (Behind the scenes note: as I’ve written this review, my star rating has gone up, as I’ve talked myself more and more into how much of a masterpiece this film is.)

Echoing really no other Anderson film as much as The MasterPhantom Thread isn’t what your expectations are telling you it is. It’s not even the film you’re going to think it is 20 minutes in. On the surface, this is a period drama set in the 1950’s, following a demanding, difficult, idiosyncratic fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he strikes up a relationship with a quiet, sweet waitress named Alma (relative unknown Vicky Krieps, who holds her own against Day-Lewis – not a small feat). Added into the mix is Woodcock’s close relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows her brother’s moods, needs, and requirements intimately, and enables/tolerates/assists him as needed. And from that – and the film’s lush, rich textures and costumes – you might feel like you’re getting a period romance drama, something sweet and heartfelt.

But that’s not Phantom Thread, which buries its jagged psychological edges in manners and moods, focusing on the power dynamics between these people in subtle ways, and refusing to spell out any of its subtext until the closing minutes, and even then, only barely. It’s a film about a fraught, difficult relationship between a difficult man and a loving woman who wants to make him happy; and yet, simultaneously, it’s a critique of the arrogance of genius, which thinks that it deserves the freedom to be obnoxious and cruel. It’s a comedy of manners, but one with a far more unusual (and kinkier, to some degree) view on the thing. It’s a love story, but a deeply unconventional one, focused on the way these two people love each other and yet demand control over their relationship and over the other party. And ultimately, though it gives us answers in a wildly unconventional way (one of my favorite film memories of the year is feeling the crowd react nearly physically as they realized exactly what the nature of their relationship was becoming near the end of the film), it does so in a way that feels both right for the characters and ultimately on a human level, getting at something more universal than you’d expect for a movie about such unusual needs and desires.

And yet none of that conveys how frequently, constantly funny this film is, giving you laugh out loud line deliveries, comedy from loudly buttered bread, and so many superb lines of dialogue conveying irritation that I have days worth of new things to say to my students. It doesn’t convey the richness of every performance (yes, of course Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible as Woodcock, bringing out the humanity of this man as well as his genius, making his black moods both understandable and repellent, and evoking both strength and weakness as necessary. But how great is Vicky Krieps, slowly letting us realize that Alma is far from the submissive, meek woman we think she is, and holding her own in this struggle for control against Lewis, all while doing so little physically? And then there’s Manville, who gets so many of the film’s great lines, playing the cold observer trying to navigate between the two) and how deeply human and complex the characters become thanks to those performances. And more than anything, it doesn’t prepare you for Anderson’s direction and cinematography. From the way he brings every driving sequence to life as an excuse for Woodcock to cut loose to the haunting depiction of a fevered hallucination; from the deep discomfort of a horrible wedding to a silent battle across a New Year’s Eve gala; from the silent moods of a breakfast table to an angry confrontation over a dinner gone wrong – somehow, Anderson films them all in incredible ways, drawing out the tension, the psychological moods, the uncertainty, and the beauty of every moment, delivering a richness that can’t be conveyed in words.

Because Phantom Thread truly is a relationship movie. Not in the sense we so often use it – where we watch two people fall in love over time – but in terms of being a movie about how people relate to each other, and how those connections shift and evolve over time. We understand both why Alma loves Reynolds and why he’s so difficult; we see the appeal of Alma but also know why Reynolds gets so frustrated; we empathize with the difficult line Cyril has to walk. And maybe better than any other director alive right now, Anderson knows how to direct in a way that lets his actors draw out those connections without spelling them out, using great acting to explore bonds and deep issues in a natural way. That he also backs it with sumptuous visuals and bravura sequences is, I think, icing on the cake. It’s a film that’s funnier than you expect and darker; it’s both more entertaining than you’d assume and more complex; it’s both easy to watch and thought-provoking enough to leave you pondering it for a great long time afterward. It is truly a remarkable film on every level, a dazzling masterpiece that keeps revealing more layers to me as I think on it, and a film that reminds you why we should count ourselves lucky to have Paul Thomas Anderson working as a filmmaker today.

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Snow Week: Family Viewings

As mentioned in my last post, we had an unexpected week break from school and work around here, and when you’re trapped in a house with children, you don’t always get the chance to watch the movies and shows you might really be wanting to see. Luckily, we got to watch some good movies and shows anyhow, even given the family restrictions. Once again, in the interest of time, I kept the reviews shorter than usual.


lego_ninjago_movie_ver2_xlgThe Lego Ninjago Movie is undeniably the weakest of the Lego films so far, but, then again, when your basis for comparison is the amazing The Lego Movie and the surprisingly great The Lego Batman Movie, is falling short of that bar that surprising? What’s more disappointing, though, is that it lacks the rich emotional hooks of its predecessors. Yes, there’s an interesting story about a father who abandoned his child, but The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t really invest in that story the way The Lego Movie was about growing up, or how The Lego Batman Movie found resonance in isolation. Moreover, The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t use its great cast all that well, essentially wasting a number of great voices (including Kumail Nanjiani, a favorite of mine, as well as Jackie Chan and numerous others). And yet, for all of that, I had a blast watching it, simply because, whatever it lacks in depth and emotion, it makes up for in silliness and absurdity. There’s a reveal early on in the film about an “ultimate weapon” that had me in tears not only the first time, but every time it was brought back. And then there’s Justin Theroux as the film’s ostensible villain and deadbeat dad, swaggering through everything with a cocky voice, impeccable comic timing, and all the best lines. Is The Lego Ninjago Movie anywhere near as good as the movies that came before it? Not even close. But did I laugh really hard throughout it? Oh, god, yes. Rating: *** ½


mv5bmtuxmjizodi0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdk3oti2mdi-_v1_uy1200_cr10706301200_al_I’m a huge fan ofLemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, a gleefully dark and Gothic children’s series that dabbles in literary allusions, rich symbolism, postmodernism, and black comedy in equal measures, all while spinning a complex story about coming to terms with a lack of answers in the modern world. That may sound pretentious, but it’s hard to convey just how rich and fascinating the series is, all while still being laugh out loud funny, clever, and just a joy. All of which is to say, I wasn’t sure that it would be easy for an adaptation of the works to capture all of that tone and magic. And yet, somehow, Netflix’s take on A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a treat, through and through, capturing the tone of the books perfectly while also diving into the series complicated plotting and weird postmodern touches. There’s little way to talk about the series without talking about Neil Patrick Harris’s performance as Count Olaf (and numerous variations of that character), and rightfully so – Harris makes Olaf menacing while also bringing out the absurdity and comedy of the show, turning an incredibly complicated role into a treat that works. (It’s a fine line to walk, making Olaf’s disguises convincing enough to work while also remaining obvious to us, and Harris straddles that line effortlessly.) For my money, though, Patrick Warburton is the show’s secret weapon, playing Lemony Snicket himself as a wandering Greek chorus and delivering Snicket’s gleefully dark narration in a dry monotone that makes it all the funnier. Add to that a trio of strong performances by the Baudelaires, and the involvement of Daniel Handler (the author behind the Snicket pen name) to adapt the story and his mythology into something manageable (as well as possibly correcting some repetitiveness that cropped up in the first few books in the series), and what you get is a blast. It’s wonderfully silly while keeping the dark themes and worries of the book, captures that sense of hopelessness while keeping everything tongue in cheek, and giving us a visual feast of Gothic touches that brings this bizarre universe to life. I couldn’t be happier with the adaptation (with the possible exception of some slow patches that are as much due to the books we’re covering and less with the adaptation itself) and am already excited as could be for season two (coming in March!). Rating: **** ½


100395A few years ago, I went to see Paddington after hearing that, yes, despite how dire it looked, how bad it seemed, it was truly a charming, wonderful little film – a verdict I wholeheartedly agreed with. Now comes Paddington 2, which may be even better than the first – it’s funny, it’s charming, but more than that, it’s a welcome tonic of positivity, hope, and humanity at a time when we all seem to be rejecting those things. Like the first, Paddington 2 is a gentle, earnest affair; there’s no snark, no winking double entendres going over the head of kids, no pop culture references to keep people on their toes. (The only movie reference in all of Paddington 2 is to a Charlie Chaplin film, and that’s the kind of thing I can get behind.) Instead, it’s the story of a young bear who thinks that we should be kind and appreciative toward people, and that if we look for the best in people, we will usually find it. Indeed, most of the plot of Paddington 2 revolves around Paddington’s desire to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy, who raised him from a cub. Mind you, that storyline ends up with Paddington in prison after taking the fall for a cunning thief (played by Hugh Grant in a wonderfully ridiculous performance), where he deals with the surliest of cooks (Brendan Gleeson, predictably great). Once again, director Paul King manages to make his film earnest and positive without ever being simplistic or overly sappy, letting his message come through without ever turning it into a “lesson” film. How? Much of it comes from his command of the tone, which is winningly silly throughout (with a lot of inspiration from silent comedy); what’s more, King once again brings more visual flair and imagination than you’d expect, drawing on Wes Anderson at times to turn a tour of London into a trip through a pop-up book, or a dazzling montage of days of cooking into one continuous shot. The result is pure joy throughout – it’s very funny, very sweet, and absolutely works, no matter your age; there’s something wonderful about a children’s film that wants to be about human experiences and kindness, and that goes doubly at a time when such qualities are in short supply. (That the film is set in post-Brexit Britain and features such a casually diverse cast and numerous comments about immigrants bettering themselves is, I’m sure, no accident.) In short, it’s a true treat, and a movie that genuinely made me feel a little better about a world that could produce it. Rating: *****


IMDb: The Lego Ninjago Movie | A Series of Unfortunate Events | Paddington 2

A Slew of Snow Week Reading

When you get stuck in the house for an unexpected week of snow days – and, more importantly, when you don’t have any grading or planning that you need to do – that just means it’s time to catch up on your reading. But, given that I read a lot over those days, I’m defaulting to some shorter reviews for this batch. After my reading post today, I should have a quick roundup of some family viewing I did over the days as well.


51qwwmse4bl-sx316-sy316Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson have both written some books that I really enjoyed on their own, so the idea of them collaborating seemed like a promising one. And, indeed, there are some interesting ideas at play in A Necessary End, a book set as a disease spread via insect bites has begun to wipe out much of the population of the planet. Set after the plague has already spread throughout the globe, A Necessary End starts off well, following a journalist as he tries to track down the origins of the plague, and tracking his wife’s attempts to reconcile the plague with her own fervent religious faith. But as the book goes on, you can’t help but feel that it should have been shorter, or maybe even a series of connected short stories. There are plotlines that feel entirely unnecessary (I’m thinking mainly of a revenge-driven man desperate to punish those he feels are responsible for the death of his family), and ultimately, it all feels like a book designed to explore how we grapple with the disconnect between science and faith. That’s rich, promising material, but A Necessary End doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, giving us an interesting final scene but otherwise spinning its wheels throughout, tossing out odd moments and details that don’t add up to enough. There are some interesting threads here, but it feels like something that’s far too long – and considering that it’s less than 200 pages already, that’s not great. Rating: ***


ATWQInspired by the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events (more on that later), I decided to finally jump into All the Wrong Questions, the second series by Lemony Snicket. (Technically, yes, “Lemony Snicket” is the pen name of Daniel Handler, but given how idiosyncratic and fleshed out Snicket is, it’s worth keeping the pen name as the creative force.) Comprised of four volumes – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”“When Did You See Her Last?”“Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, and “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” – the series features all of the wordplay, literary allusions, skewed narration, and great writing that you came to expect from Snicket’s Unfortunate Events. But while that series was Handler’s efforts to capture the tone of an Edward Gorey illustrationAll the Wrong Questions finds the author moving into the realm of hard-boiled noir, complete with rapid-fire one-liners and dialogue, femme fatales (femmes fatale?), double-crosses, and more. Snicket/Handler makes the transition look effortless, keeping his dryly cynical tone intact while making the twisty detective tale work. The subject matter, too, finds Snicket changing tack; rather than the distant observer of the Unfortunate EventsAll the Wrong Questions is about Snicket at age 13, working with a chaperone assigned by his secret organization, and trying to figure out what’s going on in a dying town named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. There’s a villain working behind the scenes, a mysterious statue that everyone wants, a librarian named Dashiell who’s trying to get information out to the people, and a lot of adults who are absent/useless in any meaningful way, leading the young people of the town to band together to solve disappearances, thefts, and even murder. Each of the All the Wrong Questions books stands alone, but they work best as a single story, as clues overlap between the books, characters develop, and you gradually realize how each of these cases connects into a larger master plan. 61uokarjc2lAnd it all comes together in a fantastic way, with Snicket making a decision that justifies the series’ noir tendencies and finds the series, in much the same way its predecessor did, diving into morally gray and uncertain territory.  In other words, it’s a worthy successor to its predecessor in every way, and I can’t recommend it enough; once again, Handler shows how tone, smart writing, and clever craft can be accessible for young audiences and adults alike, all without ever feeling condescending or pandering. Rating: *****

A side note: I also read a companion book to the series entitled File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, which feels like Handler’s homage to Encyclopedia Brown books. 13 mysteries, with the solutions left to the end of the book. They’re a lot of fun, with at least one solution being laugh-out-loud funny; and, as you’d expect from Snicket, there are some fun hints throughout, with multiple red herring solutions tossed into the final section. It’s a fun read, if fairly inessential, but if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Rating: ****


23208397Ben H. Winters came to my attention with his incredible The Last Policeman series, which followed a policeman struggling to stay true to the cause of justice as the world around him ended. Fascinating though that was, it pales in comparison to the ambition of Winters’ Underground Airlines, which is set in a modern-day America in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. (To get in front of the obvious critique: yes, there’s something problematic, to be sure, about a white author taking this on, but Winters approaches his material honestly and thoughtfully, and his responses to such critiques have been strong and admirable.) And, as the title implies, there’s still an underground movement to get slaves out of the Hard Four (the four states which still have legal slavery) – a task made more complicated by the way the country, and indeed, the world, has tried to adjust to the presence of this evil still existing in our world. But rather than giving us an easy hero, Winters instead gives us Victor, an escaped slave who’s now working for the government, tracking down other escapees. That’s morally rich territory, especially as we come to understand what drives Victor, and Winters makes the most of it, filling Victor with internal loathing, questioning, and uncertainty. As you might expect, Winters uses his alternate history as a way of commenting on racism and separation in our modern world, from low-class labor and wages to isolated communities given no support by government – in other words, totally outlandish ideas with no relevance whatsoever. (Sigh.) Winters does all of it while giving the book the momentum and structure of a tight thriller, complete with double agents, espionage, organizations within organizations, and more. But what really haunts about Underground Airlines isn’t the plotting; it’s the glimpse at a world that’s depressingly similar to ours, where slavery and racism are legal and tolerated, where races are subjugated through policy and governance, and where people are forced to serve against their own interests. If that doesn’t hit home to you, well, you’re luckier than I am. Rating: *****


Amazon: A Necessary End | “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” | “When Did You See Her Last?” | “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” | “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” | File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents | Underground Airlines

Quick Reading Roundup

28965131Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was exactly what I wanted: a pulpy, twisty read more interested in delivering thrills and keeping you off balance than in worrying about exploring deep thematic resonance. That may sound like a slam, but it certainly isn’t intended as one; after diving through His Dark Materials and dealing with holiday stresses, there was something great about having a book about nothing more than playing games with the reader. The plot starts simply enough, following two women as they go through their lives. One is a doctor’s wife, struggling with some mental health issues and dealing with a tense, fraught marriage; the other is the secretary where the doctor has recently been hired, who has started up a flirtation with the doctor while unaware of his marriage status. Flicking back and forth between the two perspectives, Pinborough lets us think that this is merely going to be a story about two women and the tensions between them, only to drop the rug out from under us with a casual aside that reveals that there’s a much more devious game going on, and one of our narrators isn’t as innocent as she seems. What follows from there is a gleefully twisty read, one that rapidly chews through being a Gone Girl-esque mindgame before evolving into something even wilder (an evolution that will no doubt either make or break the book for some people, depending on how open they are to books that gearshift into a whole other novel at some point). And it all leads up to a series of wild twists that managed to fool me, and I think I’m a pretty seasoned thriller reader; every time I thought I was getting ahead of the book, it managed to trick me again. I had a blast with it, and while I have a couple of minor misgivings related to the very end of the book, all in all, it’s a blast of a read – a wonderful little piece of pulpy psychological manipulation. Rating: **** ½

32796253Any serious horror fan will probably be intrigued by the title of Final Girls, Riley Sager’s debut thriller novel that toys with elements of slasher films. In horror parlance, a “final girl” is the one girl who survives a slasher movie, usually getting the best of the killer by the end; there’s a lot more to it than that (especially in more critical analysis, where the “final girl” trope has some sexual and moral connotations), but in the end, it’s about a survivor – the one who outlasts Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees, or whoever. Sager’s novel is a play on that trope, following the story of Quincy Carpenter, the sole survivor of a lakeside cabin killing spree that left her alone, scarred (both mentally and physically), but alive. Over the years, the media has linked Quincy with two other girls who survived similar events, dubbing them the “Final Girls” – which means that, when one of them is found dead, Quincy finds all of her old trauma resurrected. Sager cuts back and forth between Quincy’s modern day life, with all of the emotional trauma and baggage left behind from that horrific night, and flashbacks to the night itself, gradually revealing what happened as Quincy herself slowly remembers and clears out the fog of traumatic amnesia. Meanwhile, a long lost Final Girl shows up at her house, forcing Quincy to deal with her trauma in, let’s say, a more direct and dramatic fashion than she’s used to, and things start going very, very bad. Final Girls is generally a lot of fun, riffing on the “final girl” trope while treating the events with every bit of the horror that would result if they really happened; even so, Sager gets to have her cake and eat it too, staging the actual massacre with a lot of love for 80’s slasher flicks. The ending of Final Girls sank it a bit for me, though; as much as I was enjoying it, the end felt far weaker and more contrived than the rest of the book, scrapping all of the things I was enjoying about the book in favor of a lot of labored plot twists that feel a bit forced and shoved in. For all of that, it’s a fun read, and I’d still like to read more from Sager; there’s a lot of promise here, and a lot to enjoy. It just doesn’t pay off well in the end. Rating: *** ½

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Joe Hill made his name in comic books, so it’s no surprise that Wraith plays so well, giving us a nightmarish side story set in the world of NOS4A2, Hill’s horror novel about a vampire that feeds off of the emotions of children. Serving as a sort of prequel to that book, Wraith gives us a glimpse of the origins of Charlie Manx before following an escaped group of convicts who find their way into Manx’s dream-constructed Christmasland, an amusement park where it’s always Christmas, and a happily smiling moon lays overhead. That all sounds great, but as anyone who’s read NOS4A2 knows, the reality is far more twisted and disturbing. And as drawn by Charles Paul Wilson III, Christmasland is the stuff of nightmares. Wilson mixes just the right amount of surrealism and unreality into Manx’s “happy” place, making everything just the right amount of uncomfortably unreal, and keeping the reader off balance until the horror elements truly turn loose. And trust me, turn loose they do; Wraith is truly a horror comic, maybe even more so than Hill’s justly revered Locke & Key series – there’s violence, horrific characters, but more than that, there is some truly unsettling nightmare fuel in here, as Wilson finds a way to put Hill’s boundless imagination on paper and bringing Charlie Manx’s thoughtscape to life. From a plot perspective, fans of NOS4A2 will enjoy finding out about Manx’s backstory, as well as truly seeing Hill’s conception of his characters, but even the uninitiated will find this a wild ride – the plotting isn’t anything truly rich, but the experience works like gangbusters. Just remember, it’s not for the faint of heart. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Behind Her Eyes | Final Girls | Wraith

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden / *****

34050917Sometimes, there’s little more intimidating than approaching the second book of a series you loved. What if it doesn’t live up to the first? What if it retroactively goes back and changes things you liked, or moves away from what made the first book great? Worst of all, what if it just leaves you disappointed? And so, yes, I was a little nervous about The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden’s follow up to the incredible The Bear and the Nightingale. That was a book I truly loved, and one whose scope remained intimate and character-based, even as the story got more complex, the mythology richer, and the imagination wider – and between “fantasy series bloat” and “middle book syndrome,” there was plenty that could go wrong.

And somehow, not a bit of it did, because instead, I got a book that I loved every bit as much as its predecessor, and left me every bit as excited and enthralled by this series as the first one did.

Like its predecessor, The Girl in the Tower is a book about medieval Russia – a country that’s not yet a country, on the verge of historic change. It’s a population that is slowly letting go of its folklore and heritage, moving towards Christianity, but also towards independence. But the Khans are still in charge, and more pressingly, there are horrific bandit attacks happening throughout the cities, where populations are slaughtered and girls are kidnapped – and the bandits disappear without a trace.

While The Bear and the Nightingale focused on life in the wildernesses of the time, The Girl in the Tower dives into the world of medieval Moscow, with court politics, royal unease, power struggles, and the Church all pushing against each other and interweaving in complex ways. Yes, Vasya Petronova is still here, clinging to folklore and the creatures of magic that are being forced to the side in the face of a changing country; but this time, Arden brings back two members of her family that we barely got to know in Nightingale – her devoted monk brother Sasha, and her married-into-royalty elder sister Olga. What their part is in this story is – as well as how the Crown Prince and a mysterious lord come into play – should best be discovered by the reader. Suffice to say, once again, Arden mixes magic, history, character building, and imagination into something incredible, spinning a story that remains true to its characters while dazzling with its inventions, which dives into Russian folktales and fairy tales while immersing itself in history, and all around dazzling me on every page.

More importantly, Arden’s characters continue to grow over the books, turning their relationships into an equally important part of the series, from a complex romance that shouldn’t exist to family relationships strained by different values. The book allows these to be as equally – or more – important as the plotting of the book, investing us just as much in the love of a family member as we are in the truth of these mysterious bandits. It even further complicates our feelings on a returning villain, who continues his shift from hateful zealot into something more tragic, even as his cruelty continues. And if that’s not enough, there’s the rich subtext of the book, as a country tries to reconcile its past and its future, even when those things are incompatible.

Somehow, Arden does all of this while making her story exciting, inventive, and thrilling; even more impressive, she both sets up a final entry in the series and once again delivers a self-contained story that satisfies on its own terms, not just as setup for an eventual payoff. In other words, it’s a piece of a larger whole, but a piece that can be appreciated on its own – and that’s something we don’t do often enough. Yes, the payoffs are more effective if you’ve read the first book – there is a final moment between two characters that broke my heart, even as I suspect there’s more to come – but more importantly, I can spend the next few months waiting on book 3 satisfied with what I have, even though I’m ready for more.

And in the meantime, maybe you should read these books. If you love the way Neil Gaiman uses fairy tales to explore larger themes; if you love books about historical fiction with a focus on folklore and belief; if you’re fascinated by Russian tales of heroes and demons and ghosts; if you love fantasy about women who want to be more than their gender should allow; if you’re fascinated by the boundary between religion and myth; or if you just want an incredible tale of magic, love, bravery, and wonder…if you’re any of those things, read these books. You won’t be sorry. And then join me in the wait for book 3, won’t you?

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden / *****

CoverThere is an art, I think, to writing about magic. To have a story that features magic is one thing; to have that magic feel truly, well, magical, is a whole other thing. Having characters able to do wondrous, incredible feats of supernatural ability is all well and good, but the best books about magic make it feel truly remarkable and powerful, like something primal and incomprehensible that we are on the verge of comprehending. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell does this, as do many of the works of Neil Gaiman; Lev Grossman’s The Magicians often does as well.

And now, onto that short list, I can add The Bear and the Nightingale, a captivating, haunting, moody, enchanting debut novel by Katherine Arden, who blends Russian folklore and fairytales with a historical novel, and creates something truly remarkable – a blending of fantasy and coming-of-age novels, a reflection of how the growth of Christianity covered up ancient beliefs, a ground-level view of history, and most of all, a fantastic story that swept me into its rich world and left me hungry for more.

In some ways, The Bear and the Nightingale is a rich meal that should be savored, letting its pleasures reveal themselves over time, so I won’t say much about the plot other than the basic setup: that the book is set in medieval Russia; that it follows a rural family with connections to the Royal Prince of Russia; that its focus is the family’s youngest daughter, whose love of the natural world – and the folkloric creatures who inhabit it – is leading to her independent and willful spirit, which may not bode well for her future as a dutiful wife. How the story becomes something more ambitious – a parable for the replacement of myth with religion, how the magic of nature and history begins to manifest itself, how the old gods begin to awaken…I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.

What I will tell you that The Bear and the Nightingale is a dazzling mix of fairy tale,  coming of age tale, and historical fiction, one that blends the three effortlessly and in a constantly exciting, unpredictable fashion. Arden’s prose is luminous, feeling both like a translated Russian fairy tale and something more poetic and beautiful, finding the beauty of snow-swept forests and of forgotten gods, of frozen rivers and religious icons. More than that, she brings her characters to rich life, letting all of them thrive in their complexity. Each trades off of archetypal roles – there’s even a wicked stepmother, to say nothing of a strict priest who finds witchcraft at a glance – but Arden refuses to let any of them be so simple, giving even her villains pathos, depth, and sympathy.

Most excitingly, though, Arden makes her story feel thrillingly alive in every single way, from the awe inspired by magic to the immersion in folklore, from the complicated personal relationships to the details that bring medieval Russia to life. The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite kind of book – one that feels so immersive that taking a break from its story feels like a shock to the system, as you’re thrown out of Arden’s world and back to our reality. (Reading a book about the frozen woods of Russia in the middle of an icy cold winter? Even better for the immersion.)

I truly loved this book; maybe there’s no more obvious tell of this than the fact that, as soon as I finished the final page, I immediately ordered book two in the series and began it without even taking a break. And I already know that having to wait a few months for book 3 will be excruciating. It’s wonderful fantasy, immersive history, and a brilliant story of a young girl keeping the spirit of her homeland alive, even before it was a homeland. I loved it, and am excited that this is only the beginning of Arden’s career.

P.S. How refreshing is it to get a fantasy novel, especially one that’s part of a trilogy, that serves as an entirely self-contained story, with a true ending all of its own, even if the story continues? What a treat, especially in this age of endless series without a conclusion ever in sight.

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