The Cosmic and the Ordinary in “When the Sky Fell On Splendor”

What do we want from an alien encounter story? If The Three Body Problem and “Arrival” are any indication, we’re looking for a mirror to hold over the planet––we want to explore what we as a species would do in the face of uncertainty and crisis. We want to inspect a civilization with different starting conditions: run the experiment again, and see if anything changes. But, in the interest of full disclosure, these are high-stakes, hard sci-fi expectations. And they have no place in the pages of When the Sky Fell on Splendor.

The primary thing that separates Emily Henry’s novel from these stories is scale. A more traditional take on the alien concept is planetary and cataclysmic. When the Sky Fell on Splendor is intimate, and unshakably focused on the inner lives of its human ensemble. That’s not say to it lacks the deliciously vast cosmic gaze; the one that keeps us coming back for Doctor Who and PBS’s astronomy programming. It just folds it into quiet, ordinary lives, as per Emily Henry’s perennial fabulist gift: with the subtle aid of the supernatural, she writes small towns that feel infinite.

In The Love that Split the World, she vests a sleepy, dew-kissed Kentucky suburb with the makings of the universe. In A Million Junes, magic pours into Five Fingers, Michigan, a “thin” place between the Earth and the heavens, where the wondrous and inexplicable seep through.

Splendor, Ohio––though not as fondly regarded by its residents as the other two––is a welcome addition to Henry’s brilliant collection of little infinities, and the ways in which it stands out mark an intriguing new direction with regards to her crafting of settings. Splendor, with its derelict steel mill, crumbling old houses, and lone, job-market-dominating Walmart, is a slightly grimmer place than woodsy, romantic Five Fingers, but Henry still finds the space for heavy fog and moonlit fields, which she writes with careful precision, knowing at every touch just how precious they are. She manages to summon up a rousing batch of nostalgia for a town that her characters ceremoniously flip off every time they drive past its limits, but it’s possible here on different terms: it isn’t inherent to the place, and it isn’t a factor of chance.

All the value that Splendor holds is shared among people, either living or in memory, and though character is the indisputable heart of all of Henry’s YA novels, it feels particularly vital in When the Sky Fell on Splendor, both because the supernatural element here has a much slower build, and because the book grasps at a theme that has much more to do with the inherent un-magic of the small town everyone is trying to escape from than it does with the roving lights on the horizon.

When books try their hand at confronting the senselessness of real life, it often feels like a coy slap on the wrist as punishment for expecting narrative coherence (this is a thinly-veiled jab at Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). When the Sky Fell on Splendor, though, manages this quite well, as a work fixated on how cruel and unjust freak accidents, chance, and ultimately, circumstance, can be, as opposed to serving it to the reader as an act of subversion. It also mercifully refrains from papering over our main character’s craven past with the chance at meaning the mysterious happenings suggest; in fact, it cleverly poses them as a false lure, one that exposes the foibles of a few side characters, as they grasp at this chance to be extraordinary and it does not wholly provide.

In terms of genre, Henry nails the delicate fantasy-contemporary balancing act, tweaking the novel’s internal logic to accommodate the powerful forces of unknown origin, but not so much that it cheapens her characters’ lives by offering them up as sacrificial heroes. It is in this that she tells the bittersweet truth that lies deep in every genre reader’s mind: we want the call to adventure to change everything––but it might not.

How do we exist after that, knowing that the universe keeps wonders, and yet its illogic takes parents and futures and hopes all the same? When the Sky Fell on Splendor has an answer. It’s trite on paper, but in execution, it holds real gravity and it’s offered without a shred of irony in sight.

Human connection is really the key to surviving until the last page, and why shouldn’t it be––the book is centered by the strong ties of an electric young ensemble, and their conflict makes the ‘found family’ label feel truly earned, even though they’re already established friends by page one. This relationship, in other words, has a well-defined arc, and a legitimate, profound source of strife. All of this is brewing in the story from the beginning: we see it in unspoken words, forbidden topics of conversation, shared grief. This early scaffolding is what allows the central tenet of this work––that other people make life worth living, even if it is not ostensibly of cosmic note––ring so true. You feel it in every line of dialogue. You feel it in every inch of a mundane yet inestimably valuable place. You feel it in the way every small life becomes infinity.

“Violet City” An Empty Attempt at A Story of First Contact

When an alien invasion takes root in New York City, Pen Simmons, Violet City‘s teenage lead, remarks that it’s “like a big budget space movie has come to life over our heads.” She uses this point of reference often, as the novel progresses and its plot unfolds. Dead bodies roll down the pavement like stunt doubles, the destroyed city looks like a post-apocalyptic film set, and when she first encounters one of the aliens, beginning a tenuous alliance that later turns into something more, the whoosh of air rushing from the airlock of a spacesuit first enters her ear as something she’d only heard before in sci-fi movies.

It seems a trivial detail, but in terms of what it reveals about Violet City‘s execution as a work of science fiction, it’s critical. Page Morgan, ultimately, relies on the reader’s knowledge of pop culture as a crutch in building both the landscape of post-invasion Manhattan and the internal logic of the world of the Volkranians, her species of coldly logical, ruthless invaders. Rather than a deliberate entry into the genre, it feels like a collection of details assimilated from like sources––the vague trope that people panic in disaster informs every glance we get of post-invasion New York City, while the Volkranians are aliens of the wholly expected Vulcan variety: formal-speaking, human-faced, and only a hair’s breadth away at all times from offering up an explanation eerily similar to “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

This isn’t to say that alien invasion concepts have to be wildly original in order to be valid––rather that in Violet City‘s quest for broad appeal and familiarity, it neglects the opportunity to introduce something new. Even the execution of the book’s central hook, the budding romance between Pen and one of the invaders, whom she nicknames Rowan, is expected, snagging on conflicts even a casual viewer of sci-fi could predict at a glance.

The book also suffers from a severe dearth of proper scaffolding with regards to character: though it’s perfectly readable and its pacing moves at a fast clip, there’s something off at the heart of its planning, and it doesn’t reveal itself until the final act, where Pen takes several almost existential risks, and they all ring hollow because there’s nothing the story equipped her with that she lacked in the beginning. Though character work like this takes the back seat to the action of most stories, its skillful implementation is essential: a protagonist must substantially change, and the obstacles they face must be the catalyst for their doing so.

In one of the most important early scenes, however, Violet City has Pen jump to defend the life of an alien she doesn’t even know––and succeed. From there, though it’s clear the author wants to write a character whose morals and worldview change after getting close to the enemy, the approach has nowhere to go. Because the book opens by showing the reader that Pen is willing to act to protect one of the aliens, and can work up courage in the face of mortal peril, it renders all of the objections Pen has to doing the same later on entirely obsolete. Nothing’s at stake in the event that Pen fails. And the threat that she will is virtually nonexistent.

From here, it doesn’t matter when either of the major characters’ lives are in danger. It doesn’t matter when Pen gets the chance to abandon her shaky alliance and doesn’t take it. It doesn’t matter when ships crash or shots are fired or action tears through the pages. The story, in its construction, wants for everything a narrative needs to breathe.

When movies destroy landmarks and level city blocks, they do it because it’s a shortcut: when cities that loom large in popular imaginations turn to rubble on-screen, it evokes at least an echo of what a story would otherwise have to do to awaken that feeling. In some regard, it must work––after all, screenplays keep using it. But a shortcut is no substitute for real groundwork. I may have seen plenty of what happens in Violet City in a movie before, but that doesn’t mean it cuts closer to me once it transpires here. In fact, that might be the very reason it doesn’t.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy.

Photos by Andre Benz and Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.

Marissa Meyer’s “Heartless” Is Fun, But It Ultimately Misses the Mark.

For Marissa Meyer’s Queen of Hearts origin story, Wicked, the Gregory Maguire novel-turned wildly popular musical, is an obvious influence. What if the Queen of Hearts was once a teenage girl who wanted nothing to do with the crown, Meyer’s tale asks, with the catchy edge of an “I want” song looming around the corner. Catherine, a Marquess’ daughter looking down the barrel of an unwelcome marriage proposal, wants a bakery. And a love interest her parents most definitely wouldn’t approve of. And we’re off!

Meyer, ever the fairy tale enthusiast (she’s best known for her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder), has a ball reworking the absurdity in the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a framework more befitting a modern fantasy novel. She keeps the oddities and lets them run wild, but tempers them with a foundation of quest-friendly magical logic underneath. Wonderland still has much to offer those who take it just seriously enough: though Meyer’s take isn’t quite as morbid as the one in the 2010 Tim Burton film (which I seem to be citing often these days), it takes after it in the delicate balance of strangeness and tragedy. By knowing exactly when to play things straight, Heartless can frolic with the tea partiers one moment and reel from a wrenching loss the next––and rarely find itself missing the mark in tone.

Its greatest virtue is in falling back on sincerity, a lesson well-learned in the way Cinder and its sequels burst with wide-eyed joy, and put to good use here. Whatever the consequences (the book is a bit unkind to a few side characters, for instance), Heartless follows its heroine with tireless conviction, grieving when Catherine grieves and judging where she judges, even if it’s overblown; even if the reader can see right through it.

Some care might have been taken, though, in the way Meyer depicts the King of Hearts, Catherine’s unwanted suitor. He’s extremely short in stature in almost all his appearances in modern retellings, shown as squat and a little over half Catherine’s size in Heartless. Going this route isn’t a mistake in itself, but the book wades into messy territory in emphasizing this when it wants to convince us how unattractive he is. In the same way making Queen Levana’s disfigurement a factor in her villainy is a mistake in Cinder, using the King of Hearts’ stature like this is a mistake here. If Meyer planned to go this route in crafting him, she would’ve done well to avoid showing Catherine being openly repulsed at something a reader could reasonably recognize as a real-life disability.

As far as suitors go, Meyer makes a solid but not illuminating mark with the King’s foil, Jest, a court joker who’s more than meets the eye. When he’s not angst-ing over the impossibility of sharing a life with Catherine, he’s interesting enough to watch to keep the pages turning, but underneath, there’s a real dearth of substance. The love story in Heartless, in a searingly tragic turn of events, in other words, hits the same walls that Wicked‘s does––you know: the one between Elphaba and what’s-his-name.

There are bigger pitfalls looming in the offing, though, as Heartless dwindles to its last line. For one thing, Catherine is as different from the Queen of Hearts as they come, but all this serves to do is make the eventual transformation more jarring. Heartless opens on a surprising Point A, introducing us to the young Queen of Hearts as a teenage girl with no royal ambitions, a love of baking, and only the slightest hint of her future tendencies, but from that vantage point, the tragedy about to befall her has no central weakness as a sticking point.

In lieu of this, Meyer’s forced to dish up a series of heartbreaks that, in tandem, are supposed to amount to that fateful day-to-night switch, but ultimately feel more incidental than truly ordained. They don’t reflect on Catherine: they reflect on the her rigid station in Wonderland. Something like this can be a moving tragedy in its own right––but it doesn’t produce the conclusion Meyer is aiming for. Approaching Heartless as a reader, I wanted to watch the making of a villain, but all I got was a hero who breaks spontaneously after an incident of misfortune.

There’s one moment, in the middle of Act III, that, with some tweaks, might have better sealed the deal than most of what the actual conclusion has to offer, but you can almost see the author’s hand shrinking back before it unfolds. The rage Catherine feels in that moment as her parents back her into the proverbial corner is fresher and more in character than the rage that tears through her in the denouement: the only thing stopping this from being the tipping point is hesitation on Meyer’s part.

Its blistering resonance is instead cut short in favor of the real conclusion, maybe because Meyer worried that it was too juvenile or trivial to be truly convincing as the last straw. What replaces it, however, is a convoluted destiny plot that eats up the last 80 pages, breaching an ‘inevitability of fate’ motif that was conspicuously absent from the first 300, and pushing the excessive pulp of a gruesome tragedy to the fore at the cost of something quieter but much richer in character.

The ultimate weakness of Heartless, if I may be so bold as to call it a tragic flaw, is its fixation on the ‘what if’ that spawned the book, more concerned with making a convincing argument than with letting the character change organically. It seems like Meyer opted for the drastic ending not because it suited Catherine in particular, but because it’s an easier ‘what if;’ something an outside viewer would more readily accept as a villain origin story.

In effect, I’m being convinced where I should be enthralled, Catherine’s eventual fate a drag on the story where it should be an asset.

Destiny works in mysterious ways. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

In “The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls,” Legrand Masters the Pointed Children’s Tale

Claire Legrand’s 2012 middle grade debut has a lot to offer: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is as charming as it is creepy, fronted by a perfectionist protagonist who likes everything just so…and bolstered by a villain who is startlingly the same. It’s the best kind of horror––one of institutional critique––and the best kind of middle grade––one that interrogates the relationships that children have with the adults in their lives, and doesn’t emerge with complete faith in authority intact.

The eponymous Cavendish Home lies at the edge of Silldie Place, the street of none other than promising, top-of-her-class Victoria Wright. Children have been disappearing from the wealthy suburb of Belleville for some time now, with explanations that would fall apart instantly if anybody cared to poke them (only no one does). This is of little concern for Victoria, who pours herself entirely into her schoolwork and forgets the chills the Home gives her as soon as she passes it by. Her peers keep shuffling out of classes, “ill” and “visiting relatives” almost entirely outside her notice, until one day, she knocks on the door of the brilliant, musically-inclined Lawrence Prewitt, her only friend, and greets his parents in his place. Bearing too-wide, plastered-on smiles, they tell her that he’s staying with his grandmother; perfectly benign, nothing to see here, thankyouverymuch.

Here, Victoria has two options, and, wielding Victoria’s desperate need for approval and vehement distaste for breaking the rules, Legrand very nearly has us convinced that she’ll shrink to the safer one. She can either keep her suspicions to herself and go on being a model student, or she can get to the bottom of it––and, very possibly, in trouble.

One thing to note about Legrand’s setup is that it isn’t nearly as spellbinding as the payoff. Every clue advances something, from the warnings of a few adults already in the know to the ominous shuffling of roaches in every shadow, but the first act does spend some pages re-trodding old ground. There are a couple false starts where you find yourself itching for things to unravel already, only for Victoria to shy away and slip back into safety, with the unsolved mystery still in the air.

In terms of suspense, Cavendish Home has the exact opposite problem as that of Sawkill Girls, Legrand’s young adult horror from 2018, which has deliciously wicked buildup and a reveal that falls short. Ultimately, we know, by virtue of its introduction and by virtue of the title, that the Home is to blame for the disappearances, and to dance around the question at the beginning wastes valuable time that we could’ve spent reading every lurid detail of what life is like in its dastardly clutches.

Once we finally get to do so, a little later than we ought, every chapter afterwards makes it worth the wait. It’s dark and twisted, indeed; a perfectly rendered cabinet of horrors: manners classes meet torture chambers and make a fittingly terrible pair. But all the more memorable is the portrait its terrors––and its evil mistress, Mrs. Cavendish––paint of Victoria.

Victoria’s friendship with Lawrence is mired in condescension. She spends an inordinate amount of time trying to tidy his faults (à la Emma Woodhouse), with the same exacting hand that Mrs. Cavendish uses to transform petulant, rebellious, or otherwise unseemly children into the empty, well-mannered shells that leave the Home––if they leave at all. Legrand cleverly angles Victoria’s greatest weaknesses against the qualities most prized by her role models. Her obedience becomes complicity, her teacher’s-pet tendencies make her a willing victim, and her Belleville-trained tastes prevent her from seeing the corruption at work until it’s almost too late.

Those same traits, brewed in A-student insecurities, are the best-examined members in Cavendish Home‘s ensemble, complete with the details that only come from lived experience, or a close study of such: the spiral Victoria’s first B sends her into, the petty feud with the only other prospective primary school valedictorian, the way she assumes Lawrence must languish without this validation––because his parents don’t brag about him, the worst fate Victoria could imagine. Legrand, having set this up, offers Mrs. Cavendish as a stirring foil for Victoria’s tyrannical tidying, just as much of Belleville’s dark side as Victoria herself. They have some truly compelling exchanges, all of which serve to nail to book’s sharp lampoon of society’s attitudes towards children into place.

As we see in the terrifying array of Cavendish Home children with spirits beaten, unable to stand up for themselves, there’s something truly insidious in a society––not to mention an institution––that tells children they have no value, and ought to sit down, shut up, and stop causing such fuss. This story isn’t just an inspired horror with a chilling monster waiting for us at the end; it’s a necessary indictment of the adult world’s worst tendencies apropos of its fledgling members, because children taught, as they are in Belleville, to keep their heads down and their grades up grow into adults who look the other way when the minds and spirits of the next generation are sanded into oblivion.

Most scathingly of all, there was space for the monster before it settled into the well-manicured lawns of Belleville. We’ve known since the first page (but it’s only spoken outright in the stormy eleventh hour) that the Cavendish Home only churns out perfect, silent children because their parents want them.

It’s the mark of a pungent social dimension in Legrand’s writing that ––despite an ebullient triumph in the book’s final act––this eerie truth lingers, and we get no guarantee that it is gone for good.

The Pigeon’s 13 Best Books of 2020

Note: Most of these books were not released this year. The only qualifying factor is that they had to have been picked up in the past 12 months, by yours truly.

Reading Robert MacFarlane’s Underland first thing in the new year might be my greatest regret. Inventive, far-reaching, and exploratory, this stunning work of nature writing sets unfathomably high standards for the casual nonfiction reader, and upon finishing, you must confront the sad truth that there is simply nothing like it. In its pages, we greet the world underneath, in all its forms, from remote caves to the Paris catacombs, with culture, history, and introspection woven in. It’s nonfiction that reads like an odyssey. Science that reads like magic. If you “don’t like nonfiction”––nonsense. You will like this.

There’s something rare and precious in Caitlin Doughty’s memoir, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, which follows her time working at a crematory, and, after, at mortuary school. It isn’t just that it shines a wry light on an oft-avoided topic; it probes the depths of that very avoidance with memorable and beautifully rendered detail. What Doughty does with dead bodies––giving them humor, fashioning them identities, noting an eerie beauty in their blue-tinted skin––makes for a reading experience that is just as much reassurance as it is profound unease. These tonal contradictions, wielded in tandem, make quite the mark.

On every front, Magonia really shouldn’t work: we spend almost a third of the book in the ordinary, before magical happenings unravel the heroine’s sense of normalcy, and once they do, we follow bird-people who steer sky-ships, straight out of the pages of an obscure medieval manuscript (the Annals of Ulster, for those wondering). But Maria Dahvana Headley is entirely at home in the weird. She has a keen talent for realizing outrageous fantasy concepts with perfect sobriety, resulting in a high fantasy novel that feels like a quiet work of fabulism––intimate and infinite. This one sings.

Though The Horse and His Boy falls victim to some regrettable tropes, it’s still an ebullient fairy tale, and a downright romp. An adventure in the Chronicles of Narnia that diverges from the main timeline, it follows a new character in the same world, as he teams up with a talking horse, an intrepid heroine, and her talking horse, and endures various shenanigans as he searches for belonging. Lots of fantasy novels can lay claim to a sense of humor, but rarely is it as situational as it is here. This book is funny in a way that cannot be separated from its substance, and its substance––earnest, hopeful, and no small part whimsical––is its own reward.

Like many beloved novels, The Once and Future King has a notorious Big Cry at the end, so be warned: you think it won’t work on you, and then it does. Equal parts familiar and inventive, this unconscionably beautiful book injects distinctly modern meaning into Arthurian myth by way of tactful anachronism, tackling areas of subversion that don’t often enter into retellings, and bending genre with aplomb. It’s also downright unfair, frankly, that this same book also manages to twist the knife in terms of the myth’s staple tragedies: if you know King Arthur, you know how it ends. The Once and Future King is just fresh enough to make it hurt.

In the same vein, Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows also makes use of a touchstone, recasting the twelve dancing princesses as doomed heiresses in an eerie, seaside town, with possibly-magical, possibly-murderous happenings at the heart of mysterious deaths. As the first book to be reviewed on this blog, it’ll probably always be a personal staple, but more than that, it reunites the fairy tale with its gloomier, gorier implications and takes on a deliciously unnerving dark-maritime aesthetic worthy of a menagerie of stories––that House of Salt and Sorrows stands alone makes it all the more dear.

Some pairings just work––Kiera Cass and palace love triangles are one of them. In The Betrothed, Cass dips her toes into secondary world fantasy, but with a deeply personal focus: we follow a hesitant maybe-future queen as her friendships weather the accompanying pressure and scrutiny, her conscience finds itself unmoored in the halls of power, and the King (unknowingly) goes up against a commoner for our heroine’s affections. Intrigue unfolds, and threats are brandished, but the book focuses these forces on the ties of love and family, capturing a truth rarely at hand in fantasy adventures: events of historical note ruin everything.

Fanny Price, Mansfield Park‘s lead, is more timid than most famed heroines of her stripe. When her wealthy adopted family victimizes her, she bows her head and and silently plays along, denying us the invigorating release of a tirade, but in cooperation with––or perhaps resulting from––this, Mansfield Park‘s satire makes a clean and memorable bite. Jane Austen looks at polite society with the eyes of a perpetual outsider denied the safety to defend herself from it, and it is through this that its duplicity, hostility, and exclusion come under harsher fire than they do in some of her other work. I’m calling it now: Austen’s most disliked also happens to be her best.

Loving Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is an inescapable curse. Though its wholesome American moralizing can grate on a modern reader, it offers kind glimpses at early artistic endeavors, warm but complicated family relationships, and an authentic grasp of the perennial adolescent question: in a world where you’re free to choose, but not free from necessity, where do you seek your future? Alcott gives us four sisters, and compelling answers among them, but the greatest gift of her novel is forgiveness; the assurance that, should you choose not to follow your dreams, you are still worthy of love.

Far less forgiving are the disquieting pages of Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s memoir of her time at three tech industry startups. Several years of distance have dimmed her––and our––faith in Silicon Valley’s ability to save the world, but this book’s slow burn of disillusionment takes those fallen hopes and makes them flesh, from the vaguely athletic clothes everyone at the office seems to be wearing to San Francisco’s fading culture. An off-kilter collectiveness to some of the prose––we realized it, but we didn’t say anything––only serves to refine the book’s unnerving core: the halls of power assume (and want) us to match them in every way.

Beth Revis’ Shades of Earth finishes her always memorable, always heart-wrenching Across the Universe trilogy, a generation-ship sci-fi adventure that, despite being quartered on an aging hunk of metal floating in empty space, has worlds of surprise up its sleeves. As a finale, it shoulders the kind of responsibility under which innumerable third books flounder, but Revis keeps the series alive with a widening gyre of paradigm-altering revelations that change things drastically without ever feeling like whiplash. Its immaculate pacing, unflappable faith in humankind, and imaginative worldbuilding set it favorably against standout episodes of Doctor Who, and, knowing me, that is among the highest compliments I can give.

Wide in scope and brilliantly executed, Isabel Wilkerson’s history of race in America, Caste, keenly observes and skillfully deconstructs how our flawed country both wilts under and feeds white supremacy. Wilkerson’s thesis, that we live under an arbitrary hierarchy that reinforces itself at the expense of talent, stability, and even life, paints a clearer picture of the tumultuous politics of recent years than many others––as Wilkerson describes, frankly and finally, any explanation that ignores racism as a vital component is incomplete. This book gets the United States, at an intuitive, deep-cutting level. It’s about the big geology and the human beings standing on the faults, as well as what awaits us if we allow the insidious scaffolding of our history to go unchallenged. Essential reading, for any American.

Magic is a fact of life in Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe, a fantasy adventure where the federal government regulates fairy circles and monsters are very much real. Ellie Bride, a Lipan Apache teenager with an investigative streak, is an illuminating protagonist to watch at work. With the ghost of her family dog, Kirby, at her side, as well as the occasional wise-cracking best friend, she unearths the true circumstances of her cousin Trevor’s untimely death, in a murder mystery that shines a light on the politics of magic in a world much like our own, while also nursing an adventurous spirit and an absorbing mythology. It’s almost staggering, everything this book manages to be at once, but it pulls it off like it’s nothing.

What books have you read and loved this year? Inquiring minds want to know, in the comments.

“The Price Guide to the Occult” Is A Witch Story Sapped of Magic

In The Price Guide to the Occult, Leslye Walton tell us exactly what the curse is right away.

This isn’t exactly a problem for Walton, whose 2016 novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is all the more rich for its detailed backstory and family history––we don’t meet the titular character until nearly a hundred pages in, but by then we’ve been endowed with an intimate understanding of the dismal fates of all her ancestors, and are bracing ourselves for whatever ironic/magical/heartbreaking conclusion the future has in store for her.

Walton returns to her multi-generational roots in The Price Guide to the Occult, a rain-soaked contemporary fantasy tale set (again) in the Pacific Northwest. Here, she substitutes a quick-witted prologue for chapters of setup, where a new arrival to the aptly named Anathema Island, Rona Blackburn, under threat by settlers who believe she’s a witch (she is, but that’s beside the point), binds herself to the island to take refuge in its magic, and in effect curses all her descendants, right down to Nor Blackburn, of the present day. No member of the Blackburn lineage has been a proper, spell-casting witch since Rona. Instead, every new daughter is saddled with a specific supernatural Burden: Nor’s grandmother can heal, and Nor herself hears the thoughts and feelings of plants and animals. The curse also extends to the Blackburns’ romantic lives: they’re all doomed to short-lived love stories with (mostly) tragic endings.

Things unfold rather slowly (a misstep, considering the story Price Guide is aiming for), but the book essentially follows Nor as her estranged mother, Fern, makes a very public return to magic. One day, during a routine shift at Anathema Island’s kitschy occult shop, The Witching Hour, a book offering Fern’s mystical services arrives, and within weeks, she commands an army of devoted followers, which Nor watches her amass from a distance, with horror.

But The Price Guide to the Occult‘s iffy attempts at suspense do quite a number on this plot line. For one thing, the threat, even when it arrives in the sickening perfect form of Fern Blackburn, seems distant, unreal, and superfluous at every turn. Nor, at one point, has to go so far as to duck into hiding, but even with all of Walton’s specific gory details, no monstrous thing about Fern comes to life, no part of her sway over her devoted followers is made visible, and so the reader is left not terrified, not fascinated, but baffled––baffled by the power that Fern really has no compelling reason to have, baffled by her influence, her persistent absence for the story, her framing as a villain, her vagueness.

The main ensemble, composed of Nor, her bubbly best friend Savvy, a high school crush named Reed, and his brother Grayson, is similarly sapped of narrative energy, but in a way that’s quite the opposite. They’re almost aggressively normal––Nor, the only would-be witch of the bunch, overwhelmingly so. She’s depicted as fleeing to normalcy, in response to the heavy price and corrupting qualities of her family’s magic, but beyond that, her substance is rather sparse. She just runs and recovers from things and wishes her powers would disappear. This alone isn’t a mistake for a work of fantasy to commit to doing, but there has to be something in the magic itself that truly frightens the main character. It has to show her some dark, demented part of herself she’d rather cower from all her life than see. Here, though, the fuzzy possibility of becoming like her mother is enough to drive Nor away. Away from what, it isn’t really specified, because her Burden, as it appears for most of the book, is a dull thrum too inconsequential to deserve notice most of the time, and magic as it appears otherwise is a pretty passionless affair. When it isn’t conjured in passing, it’s described in the same plainclothes terms as any other mundane task, which almost begs the reader to wonder why it’s regarded as feared or fearsome in the world at all.

Ironically, the best writing in The Price Guide to the Occult arrives in its tragically short flashbacks––the prologue at the beginning, and a few tales of past Blackburn daughters scattered through in scenes and paragraphs when there’s time. Walton is brilliant with flashbacks: she keeps just enough distance to mire the characters in their own ironies and define them with the sharp, fast strokes of a caricaturist. Against these cleanly-crafted silhouettes, details really pop––Walton can make a convincing case for love bringing her characters to their knees in a fraction of the time as it takes for most stories to do so, with just a few carefully-curated images and a discerning gaze that allows her to regard them with distant, narratorly pity.

However well this approach makes for the past, though, it almost repels the present day. Walton gets around this in Ava Lavender by making the story as much about the other residents of the town as it is about Ava, so much so that several characters get this treatment and the whole book feels vividly recounted, rather than lived in real time. But in The Price Guide to the Occult, it’s all Nor, and Walton’s ending-the-curse approach to the plot forces her into Nor’s head, dulling the power of her narration. She tells us often that something terrifies Nor, that Nor shudders to imagine something, that something makes Nor’s pulse race––and it suddenly snaps the book into the past, where it makes much more sense to tell us that a character is frightened than it does to give us the culprit.

It seems, every now and then, like concept and form are at war within these pages. Leslye Walton wants to tell a story about a girl who fights off the dark allure of magic: her choices and her ability to rise to the occasion defeat a deadly force––and she, in terms of movers and shakers, is alone. But her writing, suited to swift and well-defined portraits, and casts of characters that tug and snap at each other more than they effect disaster in the real world, seems to want to tell something entirely different.

Why “The Library” Is Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Crowning Episode

My first introduction to Avatar: The Last Airbender came this summer. I watched episode one sometime after midnight on May 27th, a few hours before my mom and I made an errand for my high school diploma. The show, a whip-smart and wide-eyed romp with unbeatable comic prowess, kept me going lo these long months––I nurtured my restraint and indulged in one episode a day (usually in the morning, though, as a recent graduate, my sense of ‘morning’ is rather nebulous). It took immense strength to close Netflix after every episode and not go further. I was persistently loathe to do so.

The middle chapter, a common enemy of us writer types, is one among many things the almost annoyingly superlative Avatar does extremely well. A great second act offers the viewer the chance to re-trod old ground and dredge up new treasures, from the surprising depths of familiar characters to revelations in theme. Of its three spirited, ambitious seasons, the second wins in my book: it challenges its characters to the utmost, it has an absolutely devastating finale, and it contains my favorite episode of them all, “The Library.” (Though the particularly strong run of stories that scaffold it provide the title with plenty of strong contenders.)

What makes “The Library” so special is a winning trio of plot elements all in top form and miraculous unity: well-matched character feeds rich theme fuels immaculate structure. Each of these qualities alone makes for a thought-provoking and involved viewing experience, but together, they make for a fascinating examination of knowledge, its value, and the ethics of its use.

It all starts, by my estimation, with the decision to place Sokka at the helm. He’s the brilliant/goofy side character to end all brilliant/goofy side characters, and though he spends a not-insignificant amount of time as comedic relief, the real substance of his character, as demonstrated in other episodes where he holds a key role, is knowledge. He progresses from being clever but inflexible to incorporating other perspectives and confronting obstacles adaptively––and where he progresses, he learns, both for the immediate benefit of an advantage, and for the benefit of learning itself.

Pragmatism, however, is what ultimately tips the needle on most of his decision-making, gifting us the subversive nerd, who doesn’t delineate between knowledge for knowledge’s sake and knowledge for the sake of practical gain. He’s both insatiably curious and shrewd, a combination that can sometimes obscure his intellectual bent, but, in the case of “The Library,” is precisely what allows it to shine.

These two seemingly disparate values are usually in harmony in our charming comedic figure: Sokka gets to figure out how things work for the fun of it and use his smarts to get the upper hand, but “The Library” does what all well-scaffolded stories do, and externalizes this potential intra-character contradiction, so that it isn’t just a character fighting for a goal (for Sokka, that’s intel on the Fire Nation), but opposing philosophies locked in struggle.

Though Sokka sees no problem with putting knowledge to use for human ends, Wan Shi Tong, the fearsome and imposing spirit guardian of a massive, supernatural library, very much does. Wan Shi Tong sort of embodies a noble academic impulse to preserve the sanctity of learning; to elevate it beyond the concerns of humans fighting to get the edge on one another. In fact, upon first encountering Sokka and co. as they make their way into the library, he raises objection to this explicitly, and only lets them in on the condition that they won’t abuse the riches stored there.

This, of course, is entirely contrary to Sokka’s plans, but the keen irony of this narrative is the fact that, in order to get access to the information he intends to use against Wan Shi Tong’s wishes, he has to sacrifice some integrity already––that is, he has to lie. The story never goes so far as to actually vindicate Wan Shi Tong’s pure, untouchable view of knowledge, but it does just enough to expose the fact that Sokka’s philosophy does involve a sacrifice in principles, which peppers the usually very black-and-white quest against an antagonist with delicious complications––this is present in a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s most memorable episodes, but here it also runs parallel to a fascinating dichotomy that has its roots in one of literature’s most interesting dualities.

As Friedrich Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy (a seemingly absurd reference for me to pull, but just trust me), the elements of Greek drama trend towards two extremes: the characters’ mortal toils and fatal flaws are Dionysian, mired in the muck of reality and excess, but the chorus are Apollonian, representing rationality, harmony––in short, perfection. Avatar has no chorus and it in no way fully plumbs the depths of human misery, but the sharp contrast between these two sensibilities is very much present in Sokka and Wan Shi Tong.

It’s this contrast that marks the ultimate tragedy of the episode––the library’s destruction. Wan Shi Tong, upon discovering Sokka’s intentions, ultimately decides to steal back the knowledge he provided to the humans who used it improperly, burying it under the sand for eternity. There’s no direct analogue for this in the real world, but it does have a degree of resonance: if we only value (and, to be frank, fund) intellectual endeavors that demonstrate some immediate practical use, we sort of hollow out the meaning of inquiry, eschewing the gifts bestowed upon us by generations of study for something undeniably a bit more…greedy.

This is obviously not to say that Sokka’s pursuit of intel represents this extreme––rather that careful attention to theme allows us to say about Wan Shi Tong the best thing that can possibly be said about an antagonist: the guy has a point.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is at its best when it incorporates this kind of complexity, playing with villains that aren’t quite villains and heroes that aren’t quite paragons, with fascinating implications and beautifully-rendered quandaries. Something to be savored, it rewards a good rewatch: I would know––I can’t stop.

What are your thoughts on Avatar: The Last Airbender? Have a contender for best episode? Tell me below

I Still Love “P.S. I Still Love You”

Jenny Han’s widely loved To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before introduces us to hopeless romantic and scaredy-cat Lara Jean Song Covey, who moons over her crushes in secret, terrified of little more than to have her feelings known. Letters, her charmingly analog method of wrangling her heart’s desires, are in order for every object of affection. Never to be read, they contain her vulnerabilities, longings, and deepest, most embarrassing secrets. They remain hidden in a hatbox, nestled in the recesses of her closet. Until they aren’t. Chaos ensues.

In the fallout of this disaster, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before gives us fake-dating goodness, high school nostalgia, and a really genuine instance of character development––as Lara Jean emerges from her shell, we really want to root for her, and though a lot of her growth is romantic, it also manifests elsewhere, yielding a full portrait that, along with Han’s conversational, detail-oriented writing, feels real, albeit in a reality with brighter colors, warmer feelings, and far fewer dark nights of the soul.

By the time of P. S. I Still Love You, set in January and February of Lara Jean’s junior year (To All The Boys starts in September), Lara Jean is dating one of the recipients of the forbidden letters (Peter Kavinsky, a lacrosse player), close friends with another (Lucas, who she danced with at homecoming freshman year), and has reconciled things with a third (Josh, her neighbor, and sister’s ex-boyfriend). One letter met the wrong address and has since returned, but another’s whereabouts are still unknown, addressed to one nerdy and subdued John Ambrose McClaren, yet to garner a reply.

Some tension in the first act of the book arises from romantic misunderstandings between Lara Jean and Peter––for one thing, he’s still rather close to his ex, Genevieve, and for another, there’s a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s first for-real kiss going around on social media, and the rumor mill has latched onto word that it went beyond kissing, smacking the two with looks of suspicion from classmates, unsolicited words of advice from adults, and campus meme status, which, Han, for all of her allegiance to slightly outdated popularity- and mean girl-based school politics, manages to depict pretty faithfully.

This subplot, which was bumped back to the third act of To All The Boys in the 2018 film adaptation, provokes some petty drama among the characters that can feel trite on occasion, especially with regards to Genevieve, but Han often takes care to make sure it comes from a deeper place, and paints insightful pictures of all the interactions that build up to a big spat––all the little decisions Lara Jean makes when she’s with Peter, to let things slide, to swallow her objections––and it’s ultimately really convincing when the consequences of these moments add up, and boil over.

But the tension in P.S. I Still Love You, possibly as a symptom of YA’s early-2010’s love triangle boom, is at its best when yet another love interest is added to the mix, in the form of the missing fifth addressee, John Ambrose McClaren.

He enters the happenings rather late for a supporting figure so crucial, but the way Han offers him as a foil for Peter is well-suited to the task at hand, both in terms of personality, as a more observant, mild-mannered alternative to Peter’s boisterous, jockish sensibilities, and in terms of relationship progression, offering a squeaky-clean, early phase relief from the complications time has given Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter.

How Han resolves these contradictions makes sense for her goals and for Lara Jean’s needs as a character, but she neglects to give both relationships proper time for their culminations. Instead, the third act of P. S. I Still Love You feels like it’s been slashed through the middle and hastily stitched together in the aftermath. After making a key decision, Lara Jean has time to feel only fleeting regret before going back on it, her connection with John doesn’t have enough space to mature, and things overall get resolved in a hurry, as if P. S. I Still Love You is trying desperately to alienate itself from uncertainty, even though that same uncertainty is what made its predecessor so rich.

But it has one particular element to its name that does give it an ever-so slight leg up. With John Ambrose’s reply comes the bitter pang of nostalgia––Lara Jean, Peter, John Ambrose, and Genevieve all used to be friends back in middle school, and Han pays the most compassionate, delicate attention to the painful fraying of these bonds, particularly for someone as prone to living in the past as Lara Jean. As in everything else that makes this series so delectable, it’s all in the details. The buried time capsule. The friendship bracelets. The words left unsaid.

Tell me what you think! Hit me up in the comments
Next week: I go off about Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“Elatsoe” Is Required Reading for Anyone Who Likes Ghosts, Sleuthing, and a Good Time

In a slightly different America, magic and the supernatural are routine: the federal government regulates the use of fairy circles, powers are passed down like traditions, and vampires are relatively ordinary––if ostracized. This is the world of Darcie Little Badger’s debut YA novel, Elatsoe. It takes some cues from fabulism, where stories more-or-less belong to the contemporary label, and magic, generally a mundane feature of society, takes a subtle back seat, but in stakes, mystery, and scientific sensibilities, Elatsoe is something all its own. A detective puzzle. A ghost story. An adventure. A family reckoning.

At curtain, we meet Ellie, short for Elatsoe, and her dog, Kirby. (And yes, miraculously, amidst everything else, Elatsoe also manages to be a touching girl-and-her-dog story.) But Kirby is more than what only occasionally meets the eye: he’s been dead for five years, and the canine playing with Ellie on page one is an oft-invisible ghost, one Ellie learned to summon at twelve, when members of her Lipan Apache family learn the family secret, along with its corresponding unbreakable rule: the ghosts of animals, both ancient and recently deceased, are fair game. But the human dead are fearsome things, not to be tampered with.

When her cousin Trevor dies in the eerie town of Willowbee, Texas, it’s ruled an accident. But his parting words, given to Ellie in a dream, tell a different story. After this revelation, the murder mystery plot of Elatsoe sets off at a fast clip, and Ellie’s keen eyes, with the close help of her family and a witty best friend, uncover the dark secrets of a too-perfect small town.

In the uncovering of Elatsoe’s plot developments, one key quality of our seventeen-year-old investigator stands out right away: Ellie, uniquely for YA literature, doesn’t stand alone. The nature of Darcie Little Badger’s fantasy world confers a surprising advantage that most paranormal and fantastical circumstances do not: unearthing the truth about Trevor’s death is a family affair, as are Ellie’s dealings with ghosts––we get to see it test Ellie and her family together, and the more dangerous obstacles are faced by a team, rather than one intrepid teenager. Elatsoe reflects, quite generously, the reality that teenagers can, and do, rely on their families, and it doesn’t make them any less capable. A crisis, with the usual friction of an I-want-to-help vs. you-should-stay-safe dispute, doesn’t have to mark an exception.

Connected with this are the largely low-stakes, research-based sleuthing techniques Ellie uses to get a grip on the situation––aside from the paranormal leads. And, yes, this is a very niche thing to get excited about, but the way Little Badger skillfully incorporates history into the proceedings lends so much richness to the novel, injecting intensity and urgency into gaps in the town’s record where unsavory details have been papered over. The revelations you can derive from an afternoon of research (and Elatsoe is filled to the brim with the nitty-gritty of afternoons of research) are the bread and butter of this novel’s truly fascinating process. What’s more, they’re genuinely feasible for our young protagonist who’s been told to stay out of trouble, rendering a strikingly grounded central plot against a setting of magic and wonder.

Little Badger’s worldbuilding is gorgeously fluid. Details emerge organically and so much of it feels unexplored––not in a wasted-potential way, but in a sense that’s true to life, where every novel has side characters with lives lived mostly off the page, and Elatsoe gives the tantalizing impression that there are as many forms of magic as there are cultures, and what we see here is the tiniest impression of a world as genuinely varied as our own.

The traditions in Ellie’s family are also tied to a rich history of story, with tales of Ellie’s Six-Great (eight generations back) grandmother making occasional appearances. The narrative threads of Elatsoe feel like so much more than themselves, connected by storytelling to the distant, legendary past, and tied by Ellie’s skill to the ghosts of a far earlier time.

Elatsoe has adventure, fairy circles, and ghost dogs, but the coolest thing in it by far is an abundance of creatures from the Ice Age and beyond. In an act of unabashed nerdiness, Little Badger uses the paranormal elements of her creation to awaken through fiction a mammoth, a trilobite, and whales of eons past, an indulgence that’s incredibly rare in speculative fiction, but so overwhelmingly cool that every work without it present is suddenly operating at a massive loss.

The most impressive quality of Elatsoe, though, is that it uses the strange and divine precisely how our world would use it, running the gamut from beauty to terror. It has magic that exploits the natural world and takes advantage of the vulnerable. It has wondrous but tightly-guarded secrets. It has dogs that are loved long after their deaths. It has an expansive sense of time that’s only broadened by dances with the metaphysical. Elatsoe, in these terms, is miraculous: it brings the faraway close, and somehow grounds the lofty without crushing it.

Review: Obsidio by Amie Kaufman And Jay Kristoff

The Illuminae trilogy, a unique hard sci-fi told through documents, fictional IMs, and transcribed security camera footage, meets its explosive end in Obsidio, an ambitious, point-of-view packed tale of daring escape and conspiracy. Though it revisits familiar thrills, Obsidio‘s dogged attempt to live up to the promises of its predecessors lands it in a common young-adult-trilogy malaise, wasting precious time to dredge up buried moral quandaries, provide neat endings for its ever-expanding crew, and adding to its tedious, wavering stack of plot elements. The volume, ultimately, is a flame that burns with more light than heat.

Obsidio opens on Kerenza, a mining colony that has secretly outlasted the attacks that sent our two original leads fleeing from it in book one. BeiTech, the shady interstellar mega-corp, has established a presence there after they attacked, and is using the colony’s resources to refuel an abandoned ship, the Magellan, for a light-years long escape. No word comes from overhead about what they’re going to do with the now-illegal, presumed deserted colony once they’ve extracted what they need, but BeiTech’s history tells us it isn’t good.

Asha Grant, cousin of Illuminae‘s Kady Grant, is stuck on the planet working as a medic, witness to BeiTech’s increasingly brazen abuses of power. Just as she and a cohort of dissidents begin to suspect that BeiTech has it in for the whole colony once the Magellan is refueled, Asha’s ex-boyfriend, Rhys Lindstrom, makes planetfall, but he’s in a BeiTech uniform, and fighting on the wrong side.

There’s a lot to admire in Obsidio‘s far-reaching scope: in addition to the six deuteragonists now at the series’ helm, it’s also about the struggles of other hapless captains, privates, and civilians caught in the crossfire. It’s not rare that Obsidio will take an interlude away from the action to show us a morally grey BeiTech operative wrestling with the immorality of her orders, or a Kerenza citizen struggling against corrupt rule. But to commit to this kind of storytelling requires substantial investment, and the multiple protagonists and simultaneous storylines expose the glaring flaw in starting an undertaking this big: Obsidio, despite its 615 pages, just isn’t long enough.

Compared with the time we were given to get to know Kady and Ezra in Illuminae, and Hanna, Nik, and Ella in Gemina, Asha and Rhys’ impact in Obsidio is negligible aside from the glimpses of Kerenza cutting to their perspective gives us. They’re familiar archetypes as well, the Responsible One and the Renegade, some of their scenes and plot points easily replicable in the trilogy’s other installments. Also, because the novel is split so many ways, the original characters have minimal, glossed-over arcs, playing roles that feel like callbacks or Easter eggs, with their most pivotal moments behind them.

Ending with an ensemble combined from previous books isn’t unheard of in YA: one of the most popular examples of this in recent years is Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, which introduce a new pair every book, culminating in an eight-character lineup. But the page count is a not-insignificant force behind why this works: the last book is an enchiridion to book one’s single-sitting romp. Obsidio, as a consequence of its limited supply of page time, is constantly short on space. Everything feels rushed as a result, form the change of heart that smacks Rhys Lindstrom in the face before it’s ripe, to the high-stakes tragedies that seem forgotten all too soon.

A.I.D.A.N, short for Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network, is a computer that’s played an outsize role through the series, managing each book’s waves of successive crises with questionable and unsparing methods. This is examined thoughtfully and poignantly in Illuminae, but when it returns in Obsidio, the scenario feels recycled. Worse––trivialized. In the moment, the writing behind A.I.D.A.N.’s scuffles with morality is equal parts beautiful and terrifying, but when it comes time for the other characters to work through the fallout, the gravity of these actions is lost entirely, owing to the fact that they’ve already been trotted out and fussed over, and to revisit them neither furthers A.I.D.A.N.’s development as a character or does any service to the progression of plot. It does play into the advent of a mutiny, a compelling subplot with some heavy impact, but it isn’t strictly necessary for even this purpose. The discontent brewing on the battleship has plenty enough to feast on already, and this extra, superfluous nail in the coffin wastes that precious resource any other element of the novel could handily put to use: time.

Time, simply put, is in such short supply because Obsidio is scattered across star systems––it stretches impressively beyond its limits, but the messages get garbled over such a distance. It’s trying to be too much. It’s trying to accommodate too much. It’s the explosive finale bigger and better than ever before, unwilling, like a host of YA sci-fi finales, to make any sacrifices. It does have an astonishingly high death toll, but it doesn’t have the time to linger on it, and we don’t even notice the fallen, before or after they’re gone.