All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders / *****

512les0yullBefore I write this review, I want to tell you about something I hate, and something I love. (Don’t worry. This is relevant, I promise.)

  • One Thing I Hate: When I was a kid, I hated going to the bookstore and seeing one big section labeled “Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” These were wildly different genres to me (an admitted nerd), and I found it baffling that we shoved them together, considering they had little, if anything, in common, apart from perhaps the perceived audience.
  • One Thing I Love: The more I read, the more I love books that refuse to abide by genre boundaries, and the more in awe of them I am. Writing in a single genre is hard enough, but mixing your genres can be doubly hard, to say nothing of the risk you take in alienating an audience that doesn’t want unexpected shifts. But for me, there’s something exhilarating about books that defy expectations and easy categorization, because to me, that’s what life does.

So, what does all these have to do with All the Birds in the Sky, the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders? Well, Anders’ novel does that thing I love, and more than that, it would be one of the only books I know that easily would fit in that strange hybrid genre bookstores created, because it’s that rare book that mixes science-fiction and fantasy elements seamlessly, interweaving the two and playing them against each other in rich and satisfying ways. And if that’s not enough for you, it’s a coming of age story, a quiet romance, a YA novel, a dystopian/post-apocalyptic tale, and more, all while completely working in a way you wouldn’t expect from something that ambitious.

So what is this book about? It’s best to go in relatively cold, so I won’t go too much into detail, beyond telling you that the book’s early pages focus on the friendship between Laurence and Patricia, two kids who’d be comfortably labeled as “outcasts” by most of their peers. Both come from dysfunctional homes; both are more talented than they’d first appear; both enjoy the company of the other, who seem to accept them for who they are. But what we know, and Laurence and Patricia don’t come to understand immediately, is that they come from two different worlds. Because while it’s evident from the early going that Laurence is a techno-geek, one who makes two-second time machines and artificial intelligences, Patricia’s talents seem to be more fantastic and supernatural – indeed, they seem to be drawn from the world of witchcraft.

That conflict – between science and magic – makes for fertile ground, and All the Birds in the Sky embraces it, letting that schism and divide drive the novel as it develops in wild an unexpected directions. And every time you think you have a handle on it, it slides away from you and evolves. Oh, you think it’s a YA tale about two friends coming to terms with their destiny? No, that’s only the early going. Oh, it’s something in the vein of The Magicians, with the underground world of magic and how we connect to the real world and ourselves? Nope, it’s not that either, nor is it an easy tale about how science can save the world from our worst impulses. Indeed, one of the great joys of All the Birds is seeing how the book constantly defies expectations, evolving and shifting while remaining true to its characters and its themes, all throughout.

Enough can’t be said about Anders’ craft, which doesn’t just create a lushly imagined and crafted world, but populates it with memorable characters down to the smallest supporting role. More than that, there’s her wonderful command of tone, which can slide from comic hilarity (a casual reveal and apparent side story in the early going about a man at the mall is laugh out loud funny and absurd) to heartbreaking, from wondrous to nightmarish – but every one has the same command of craft and ability. And more than that, there’s the amazing story, which spans years and half the planet, and touches on man’s responsibility to the planet, science ethics, redemption, and more, all while never losing sight of these two characters and their bond. It’s rich, imaginative, wild, and more than anything else, it’s incredibly humane and beautiful in ways that just made me smile. And that, I think, is the best thing about it – the top of a very long list of great things. (Well, that and the fact that this is Anders’ first novel, which hopefully presages a long career to come.)


Mary and the Witch’s Flower / ****

36694One of the looming specters over the world of traditional animation is the eventual retirement of Hiyao Miyazaki, the undisputed legend of animation, and the mind responsible for films like My Neighbor TotoroSpirited AwayPrincess Mononoke, and more. Miyazaki’s plans to retirement has led to a lot of questions about the future of the iconic animation studio Studio Ghibli, and even with his determination to make another movie, it’s been a source of worry for many fans of animation.

So in many ways, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is incredibly reassuring that the spirit of Ghibli will stay alive. The first film from Studio Ponoc, a studio founded by Ghibli alumni, Mary and the Witch’s Flower feels very much in keeping with the Ghibli model: lush, fluid animation; a wondrous sense of adventure and fun; interesting female protagonists; an imaginative, dazzling mixture of reality and magic; the constant presence of nature as a background; and so much more. The story of a young girl who finds out that she’s a witch, only to find herself in the mix of some supernatural intrigue, Mary is a blast to watch, both visually and as a story. From the opening sequence, which follows another witch as she makes a dramatic escape, Mary is lushly animated and beautiful to watch unfold, especially for those of us who love traditional animation.

Mind you, the easy knock that’s been made about Mary is how derivative it is of Ghibli films, and that’s not an untrue point. From adorable cats and girls on brooms (a la Kiki’s Delivery Service) to creatures that feel like the entities from Spirited Away and Mononoke, down to general structure of the story, Mary definitely feels like a studio trying to show that it can fill the shoes of its predecessor. (In that way, it sometimes feels like Ponoc’s version of The Force Awakens, mixing and matching elements of its forebears while still making a propulsive, wonderful piece of entertainment.) And, yes, the story feels a bit thin at times, with some pacing that feels a little rushed and abbreviated at random points.

And yet, none of that took away from how much I enjoyed Mary beginning to end. It’s exciting, it’s beautiful to watch, and more than anything else, it’s absolutely joyous in a way that so few children’s movies manage. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower pale a little comparison to the novelty of Ghibli movies? Sure, a bit. But did any of that matter while I watched it? Not in the least.


Swords and Deviltry, by Fritz Leiber / ****

8699856I grew up reading a lot of classic pulp fantasy and sci-fi, as well as authors who were inspired by that generation of writing, and yet, somehow, I don’t know that I read much by Fritz Leiber, one of the most iconic fantasy writers of all time. If I did read much from the man who coined the phrase “Swords and sorcery,” it hasn’t stuck with me, because almost everything about Swords and Deviltry – the first collection of stories about Fafhrd the barbarian and the Gray Mouser, a magic-wielding thief – felt new and unexpected to me – in a very good way.

Now, to say that Swords and Deviltry – a collection of four short stories, two of which provide individual backstories, and one of which includes the fateful meeting and first adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – feels “new and unexpected” may give you the sense that this is new and revolutionary stuff. It’s not, or at least, it’s not now; there’s little denying that this is the foundation of so much fantasy that came after it, setting the groundwork for generations of writers to follow in his footsteps. Written in the late 1950’s, the stories here are pure, old-school pulp fantasy, with epic heroes, fantastic settings, complex names that feel a bit over-the-top, and more – in other words, if you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll feel right at home. And yes, they’re dated, in some ways, although surprisingly less than you might fear; the casual inclusion of allusions to Islamic faith surprised me in a good way, and while there’s still some of the rampant sexuality of pulp fantasy, it’s far less skeezy and misogynistic than so much of that tends to be, giving the female characters more personality than you’d expect from the period, to say nothing of the agency they display over their own lives and choices. (Indeed, even the first society we see here – from whence Fafhrd originates – is a matriarchal society in every imaginable way.)

No, what I didn’t expect about Swords and Deviltry was the light tone Leiber brings to bear here. Much of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s first meeting is done in a gloriously light tone, from their unexpected alliance as they both attempt to rob a merchant to a night of heavy drinking and very bad plan making. There’s a sense of wry fun to the enterprise that’s impossible not to enjoy, and it really sets the books apart from what I expected. There’s a sense that Leiber wanted his fantasy to be, well, more grounded than so much of the genre can be, finding the quiet humor and dry wit that most people really have in life. And the result is both fun and exciting, mixing great action sequences with fun dialogue, and letting the plot unfold at a perfect pace to keep you drawn in. (And the end of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” packs an unexpected wallop, as the boys drop the jokes and banter, and unleash hell on those that have wronged them.) I had a blast with it, and feel like it’s every bit as good now as it was when it was written, over 60 years ago – it’s still fresh, fun, exciting, and holds its own, not just as a historical artifact, but as its own wonderful creation.


Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell / ****

9780307947475In some ways, I wish I had read Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove before I started reading the stories and work of George Saunders, because there are so many times that I couldn’t help but compare the two writers. Both are writers who eschew the literary pretensions that come along with so many modern “literary” writers, instead dabbling in magical realism, horror, and other fantastic elements. Both are dryly funny, mixing satire and odd humor with more thoughtful content. Both write beautifully, crafting exquisite phrases and fascinating descriptions that make their stories more satisfying than many whole novels by lesser writers.

And yet, the Saunders comparison hurts Vampires so much because of the fact that Saunders is, quite frankly, better at stories than Russell is. Take the title story, which follows a pair of vampires as they navigate their centuries-long relationship. It’s an offbeat story, with imagination to spare, but falls back into the cryptic, symbolic, vague ending so popular with “literary” fiction. That problem haunts the similarly promising but ultimately frustrating and irritating “Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”, in which a young man seems to be getting messages from the cosmos via a swarm of seagulls…and nothing else ever becomes clear or meaningful. And while “Proving Up” opens with a science-fiction take on the Homestead Act and the way we all find meaning in our possessions and property, the ending doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the story before it, and left me wondering what I was supposed to get out of it.

And yet, some of the stories are pure joy. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a hilarious riff on sports tailgating, one that finds spectators cheering the “Food Chain” game, hoping against hope for the underdog krill to finally devour whales, all as the narrator gradually reveals more and more of his own personal history. There’s also the gleefully weird “Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which a number of former American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses in a country barn for no apparent reason. Both of these stories steer into their absurdity, embracing the anarchy and silliness and letting the richness come from not only the weird world, but also from the way Russell keeps it grounded in her characters. In similar ways, there’s “Reeling for the Empire,” which follows a group of Japanese girls who have been drafted into silk production for the Empire…by means of turning into silkworms. The result is fascinating and incredibly strange; yes, it’s ultimately a little overlong, and feels a little aimless, but the imagination and writing are superb. Best of all is “New Veterans,” the story of a massage therapist who’s assigned to help veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts. What starts as the most grounded and plausible story takes a surreal turn early on, and ends up becoming a thoughtful, complex meditation on memory, healing, pain, and regret, all while managing to be a story about a very vivid tattoo whose realism becomes unsettling.

I want to be clear – I liked a lot about Vampires in the Lemon GroveYes, I couldn’t help but compare the collection to another author, one whom I love. And yes, it might not help that the collection’s weaker stories are in the first half, setting things off to a lackluster opening. But the more I look over the contents, the more I find to like about the collection. Moreover, the fact that Russell is so open to genre fare – to fantasy, to science-fiction, to magical realism – that’s no small thing. Yes, I’d like her to lose her most “literary, New Yorker” tendencies. But there’s a lot here to enjoy, and I’ll definitely try on more of her work for size.


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?



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.


The Shape of Water / *****

shape_of_waterIt’s worth noting, I think, that there are few directors working today whose wavelength I am more attuned to than Guillermo del Toro.  A filmmaker who loves genre films – horror, fantasy, and the fantastic especially – but finds ways to offer meditations upon them, investing them with heart and metaphorical weight, del Toro has made a career out of films that are all but impossible to pigeonhole. Pan’s Labyrinth was part coming-of-age, part war tale, part political metaphor, and part dark fairy tale; The Devil’s Backbone tackled similar areas, but in the guise of a ghost story; Crimson Peak was a Gothic romance turned haunting tale; and the list goes on. But whatever he does, del Toro invests his films with magic, imagination, astonishing visual richness, and a love of cinema that comes out in every frame. And with my own love of genre, of fairy tales, of old motifs given new life, it’s no surprise that I’ve loved pretty much every one of his films.

Now comes The Shape of Water, a mixture of The Creature from the Black LagoonBeauty and the Beast, Cold War parable, and character study, all done in a mixture of fantasy, horror, thriller, and romance, and all done with incredible visual beauty, emotional richness, and earnestness that’s heartwarming. It’s not mere marketing that del Toro has described the film as “a fairy tale for troubled times”; this is a movie about giving the voiceless a voice, about letting those who are the minority voices in a dark majority have a chance to speak, and about finding beauty in a dark world.

All of which sounds heavy, and make no mistake, The Shape of Water can be dark. This is a Cold War tale set in a research lab, run by an abusive agent (played superbly – as if he’s capable of anything less – by Michael Shannon) whose job is to break down and understand the lab’s newest asset: an Amazon river god, captured and brought from his homeland, kept in a water tank and trained through torture and chains. But rather than telling the story through the monster’s eyes, or through the military’s, the film finds its eyes in the oppressed and the hidden: a closeted gay man. A black cleaning lady. An undercover agent who can’t even use his real name. A mute white woman. In any other film, these are the supporting characters, the wacky best friends; here, they are the voices of reason, the rebellious forces against a system driven by fear of the Russians, fear of the creature, fear of the unknown, and a desire to make a “perfect” America that has no basis in reality.

What follows is simple enough from a plot perspective, as our mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins, in a brilliant performance) strikes up first a sort of friendship, and then a more intense bond, with this creature, who himself is unable to speak. From there, the plot is best discovered on your own (although the trailers have done a more than fine job of giving most of the details away already), but really, the story is almost beside the point. This is, to quote Ebert’s great rule, a movie more about how it goes about its story, and the mood, execution, beauty, and sheer magic of the film comes through at all times. It’s a love story; it’s a Cold War thriller; it’s the story of a woman finding a voice when she has none; it’s the story of American exceptionalism run amok; it’s the story of man’s efforts to tame nature and establish dominance at any cost.

But more than any of that, The Shape of Water is about relationships, from platonic friends to repressed desires, from forbidden loves to long-lasting marriages, from alliances of convenience to unions of belief in something more. And del Toro, despite all of his genre roots – and you will be reminded that this is a horror film at times, let me assure you, as things get dark and violent when you least expect them – films it all as a romance film, even if it’s a wildly unexpected one, and an unconventional one, to put it mildly.

Part of me has issues with The Shape of Water; part of me feels like the first act is rushed, that the film is so ready to get to its central relationship that it doesn’t quite lay enough groundwork. But most of me gives up on that in the face of how much I truly loved this movie. I loved its fierce dedication to beauty in the face of ugliness, to the fact that love matters even in the face of cruelty and evil and hatred. I loved the way it embraces its big emotions without irony or shame, going big and operatic and swinging for the fences. I loved the dignity it gives to every character, even its villains. I loved its lush visuals, its beautiful music, the way it uses shadows and cameras and characters to illustrate everything from social and political class to emotional bonds. It’s a film about love, and one made out of a love of cinema, yes, but also out of sincerity and hope in the face of darkness. And all I can tell you is that, yeah, that worked for me and then some. And if you add into that the genre elements, and the creature effects, and the incredible performances, and the unexpected joys, and the use of fairy tales to get at human truths…

…yeah, you could say I loved this movie, even if it’s only because it couldn’t have been more made for me if del Toro tried. And I’ll make no apologies for that.