Thursday, July 30, 2015

Book: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris is a very good novelization of Norse mythology, told from the perspective of Loki. Harris has clearly read The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson at the very least and studied other texts on Norse mythology in order to formulate one of the best representations of Norse mythology that I have seen in popular media. Of course, her scope is limited to those stories that Loki plays a major part in, so the book is not a great primer on all of Norse mythology, but since Loki is a major player throughout the universe and especially during Ragnarok, there is still plenty of interesting material for Harris to work with. 

In a mark of true hypocrisy though, I will say that my primary issue with this book is that it does not really expand upon the original stories. Harris does great work in weaving together the disparate stories about Loki that appear in Norse mythology, as they are primarily presented in The Prose Edda. She expertly switches their order around to construct a more coherent storyline and creatively provides Loki some motivation for the mischief he reeks upon the other Asgardians by slightly changing his origins and place in the universe. However, Harris does not give a lot of thought or time to Loki’s motivations, beyond the basics of his nature as a trickster and his sense of betrayal by Odin. Also, Harris does not give much characterization to the other gods beyond their epithets and brief descriptions, making everything feel rather flat and without real, understandable motivation.

I understand, of course, that it is difficult to really expand upon mythology without running the risk of projecting too many modern ideals and interpretations onto a different culture, but Harris did not shy away from that at all. She uses many modern phases and descriptions for what Loki does to make it accessible to a modern audience, but instead of feeling like a natural part of the world as Loki describes it, it ends up feeling very out of place. Again, perhaps it would work better if Harris had taken the time to flesh out the characters a bit more, invented a few new stories to bridge some of the gaps that still exist in the narrative, and really made the whole Norse universe feel more modern, but that is not what Harris chose to do. 

Credit where credit is due, however. On the whole, I do believe that Harris does a wonderful job of writing a novel that makes some sense out of the various stories that exist about Loki in what remains of Norse mythology. I think many people who are not already familiar with the stories will find this book very interesting and entertaining, and I have to praise Harris for remaining so true to the source material in a way that many modern writers do not care to. However, as someone already familiar with Norse mythology, I am disappointed to not see anything particularly new or clever in the presentation of these stories. Harris does not add much to our understanding of Norse mythology and does not provide a unique perspective on how these characters might have acted in different circumstances.

Harris, J. M. (2015). The Gospel of Loki. London; Saga Press. 
Sturluson, Snorri. (2005). The Prose Edda. (J. L. Byock, Trans.). London: Penguin Classics.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book: While Beauty Slept

(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)
     **SPOILER ALERT: reading will spoil the book**

In comparison to Boy,Snow, Bird that I reviewed previously, While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell is a much better example of a fairy tale retelling!  Despite being set in a world without magic, it still creatively contains all of the most important, recognizable elements of the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty.  The evil witch, the sleeping curse, charming princes, and true love all make an appearance, even if they do not look the same or have the exact same significance as in the traditional story.  But just as with The Snow Child, this story is about so much more than just the fairy tale: it gives a relatively fair and balanced look at some of the challenges that women faced in medieval society (even if it is an entirely fictional world).

While Beauty Slept is definitely a feminist’s take on the traditional tale, since all of the female characters are in charge of their own decisions for the most part.  They still have to adhere to some societal expectations of their rank, but they are largely depicted as being wilful people with ambitions and minds of their own.  The modern notion that women are fully capable of inheriting the throne of a kingdom is a central theme that drives the main conflict.  When King Ranolf breaks with tradition and declares his only daughter, Rose, his rightful heir instead of his brother, the next male in line for the throne, he stirs his brother’s resentment, as well as dissent among some of his subjects, which eventually leads to war.  It is also what drives Millicent’s jealousy, since if her father, King Ranolf’s grandfather, had recognized women as capable of ruling alone, she would have been queen, as the oldest of her siblings.  Millicent’s jealousy and thirst for power, especially after having been banished from the kingdom, is what leads her to cast a “curse” on the baby Rose at her christening, which hangs over the royal family for a long time.

The main character, Elise, ends up being the real hero for Princess Rose as well, since a different kind of love, that of friendship and loyalty between women, is highlighted as being more important than romantic relationships.  For me, one of the best parts of this story, is how it does not vilify Elise for choosing to put her duty to the Queen and Rose as their servant and friend above the decision to marry her true love, who refuses to take a position at the castle so that Elise can keep her job.  Since neither Elise nor Marcus is willing to give up their profession to be together, they both decide that they cannot be married and have to live with the consequences of that decision.  But rather than having Elise be alone and miserable for the rest of her life, the story shows that Elise takes real pleasure in her job and is eventually able to make a politically advantageous and happy marriage, even if there is little real love in the union.  This story provides one of the most fair and balanced representations of love and marriage, how they are intertwined but also play different roles in different women’s lives.  Some of the female characters are praised for being able to make a love match while other characters are praised for making a political match, since whatever the reason, it is shown as being the best thing for that woman to do, and few if any of the characters are shown as ending up in a miserable situation. 

The way that most of the characters get their happy ending is actually quite impressive, if perhaps a little trite.  I do not want to spoil it too much, but I was surprised and happy at how well things worked out, since it really brought all of the fairy tale elements together to make the story that much more cohesive.  The way that the story ends is also what really saved this book for me because I had been caught off guard by how much the story dwelled on Elise’s life and relationships, rather than Rose and the curse.  It read much more like a romance novel for so long that I almost did not finish, but the ending is so good that it helped me enjoy the book so much more.

Overall, While Beauty Slept is another good example of how a fairy tale can be adapted to a different message while still retaining enough elements to be recognizable.  The fact that this story is used to demonstrate how female friendship can triumph in place of romantic love also gives it a very modern feel, despite being set in a fictional medieval kingdom.  It is both a clever adaptation of a fairy tale and an interesting story about women, so it should appeal to a broad audience of readers.

Blackwell, E. C. (2014) While Beauty Slept. New York; G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book: Boy, Snow, Bird

(Image from C/W Mars catalog)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is not at all a fairy tale adaptation, despite that being its given subject heading.  It is certainly strongly inspired by the fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and its central point about the dangers of obsessing over appearances, but it contains zero details or plot points from the fairytale, since having a wicked stepmother is hardly exclusive to the tale of Snow White.  The central message of the book is not even really about beauty and the violent consequences of the single-minded pursuit of it.  Instead, the story uses the symbolism of mirrors and absent or changed reflections to examine the deceptive nature of appearances and their importance to how we perceive ourselves and each other, especially in relation to race.

     **SPOILER ALERT: reading farther may spoil the book**

The reason I say that this book is not an adaptation of Snow White is because a large number of the important fairy tale characters and plots are missing.  As far as I can tell, there are no seven dwarves, certainly no princes, and no attempts on Snow’s life.  The praise for Oyeyemi’s other works that appear on the back cover of this book imply that this should be a gothic, haunting tale.  However, given the number of times that the wicked stepmother tries to outright murder Snow White in the original tale, including sending her out into the woods with a huntsman who has orders to cut out Snow’s heart, there is surprisingly little threat of violence from Boy, the stepmother.  The only truly gruesome part of the story comes from the Rat Catcher and the awful descriptions of how he treats both the rats and Boy.  Of course there are a few other disconcerting elements, visions in the mirrors, conversations with spiders and such, but nothing near the terrifying details of the original Snow White.

The only element of magic realism in the story, which is what helps it feel a little bit more like it is related to the fairy tale, is the mirrors.  The suspiciously absent or altered reflections that the characters see of themselves or others cannot really be explained, since they could either be a result of a trick of the light, or the consequence of magic.  I really like that aspect because it gives the story a bit more depth.  Toward the end of the book, though, there is suddenly introduced the likelihood that an actual spell is at fault for Boy’s mother’s transformation into her father.  Unfortunately, that particular plot point is actually not addressed or discussed in any sort of detail, despite it being a potentially vital key to our understanding of exactly how the mirrors really factor in to the perceived images of the three main women.  It heavily implies that there is some sort of curse that afflicts the women of Boy’s family in regard to their reflections, since it occurs in three generations, but really is not given any depth or credence.

If this book had not been advertised as an adaptation of Snow White, I am not sure that I really would have been able to recognize it as such.  I think that it was much more just inspired by the fairy tale, so that Oyeyemi uses the trope of the stepmother that banishes her stepdaughter and mirrors that sometimes tell the truth about appearances, to explore race relations in mid-twentieth century Massachusetts.  I probably would have liked the book more without having been told that it is a fairy tale adaption, because then I would not have had specific expectations, namely that there would be more readily recognizable characters and plot elements.  Even if the plot were twisted on its head and the characters did not react the same way to similar situations from the fairy tale, it still would have been more enjoyable as an adaptation, because that is what I love so much about them; the cleverness and ingenuity authors use to bring new life to an old tale.  That is not to say that I don’t appreciate what Oyeyemi did with her story, I really like the elements that she did incorporate, but my expectations for a fairy tale adaptation were not met, which probably got in the way of me fully appreciating what happened in this book.

Managing expectations is something that is key to enjoying stories, especially when it comes to fairy tales and myths.  Marketing books is very important of course, but it is equally important not to mislead readers, in my opinion.  It is part of the reason why genres are so often discussed and “magic realism” was invented in the first place.  In this case, I think that labeling Boy, Snow, Bird as a fairy tale adaptation does a disservice to the work.  I am still intrigued enough by Oyeyemi’s ability to reimagine fairy tale elements in our “real” world, and thus will most likely read some of her other books as well, but now I will have much different expectations of her stories.  

Oyeyemi, H. (2014). Boy, Snow, Bird. New York; Riverhead Books.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Book: The Crane Wife

(Image from the C/W Mars Catalog)
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness is an unusual take on a Japanese folktale.  The most unusual part of it is how little resemblance it bears to the “original” story, but still manages to be a clear reinterpretation of it.  To a certain degree, that is of course to be expected, since it is not like folktales usually give enough information to fill a whole novel.  In this case, as with most variations of the story, the most important aspect is the fact that the man, in Ness’s version, George, cannot see the crane, Kumiko, as she creates her art, because then she will be forced to leave.  But everything else about the story has no connection whatsoever to the folktale, e.g. it is set in modern day London, rather than Japan, and the art that Kumiko creates from her feathers is not fabric of any kind, but figures on tiles that are not complete without contributions from George.

Of course, the novelization of any folktale or fairytale usually gives it more depth, because it gives the story more space to explore its message, but Ness’s interpretation really gives the traditional tale a whole new dimension and message, by adding that one little twist to the story: the crane’s work is not complete without contributions from the husband.  In all of the folktale versions of “The Crane Wife” that I have read, the woman weaves an almost magical fabric from her feathers, which she presents to her husband upon completion, to be sold in order to make money for the household.  In those stories, the fabric is a gift from the crane that is created explicitly for the benefit of the man.  In Ness’s version, Kumiko’s artwork is something that she originally started creating just for herself, to be able to tell her personal story.  She had initially intended to sell some of her tiles to help support herself, but her primary body of work, the thirty-two tiles of her story, were not really meant to be seen by anyone, let alone sold for profit.  However, as soon as she saw George’s paper cuttings and began adding them to her tiles, Kumiko’s artwork took on a whole new life and purpose that could not have been achieved without George’s contributions.  In this manner, their artwork becomes an analogy for relationships in general, in that each person is special on their own, but it is only in the juxtaposition and combination of two lives working together as one that something truly magnificent and meaningful can be created.   Whereas the traditional folktale can be seen as being about the trust that needs to exist between husband and wife, with the husband keeping his word about not looking on his wife as she works, Ness’s novel takes the story beyond that basic level of trust necessary in any such romantic relationship.  He expands it to finding an appreciation for the beauty that can only be achieved when two people live and work together in loving, trusting, harmony. 

     **SPOILER ALERT: reading farther may spoil the book**

The other really interesting and unusual thing about Ness’s approach to the novelization of this folktale, is the way that he chose to write it in terms of setting and tone.  He did not give it an ancient, magical setting, nor did he quite fully give it a gritty, realistic, modern setting.  In the beginning I thought he was going for a timeless, indistinct setting, but once it became clear that it was modern London, I thought he was going to take the “magic realism” approach, where it would never become clear if Kumiko was actually the crane and Rachel was the spirit of the volcano.  For much of the book, I liked his unclear approach to the events, with the imagery being so vivid but no real explanations given as to whether what George experienced with the crane in his backyard and what he saw in Kumiko’s apartment were real or not.  But I was surprised when at the climax of the story, it all became painfully clear that yes, these were magical beings that George had encountered, who had been playing out their cosmic story on the grandest scale of time.  It was a little disappointing to me, because I am rereading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey with one of my book clubs, and I have been thinking a lot about how much I love the use of magic realism as a way of reinterpreting folktales and fairytales.  I think that magic realism as a genre is the best way to breathe new life into traditional stories that have somewhat lost their meaning over time, so I was a little upset when Ness chose not to stay on that path, when so much of the story seemed to be heading in that direction. 

Overall, The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness is a complex reimagining of a traditional Japanese folktale.  I have not actually even begun to touch upon some of the truly imaginative ways that Ness was able to expand upon whatever version of “The Crane Wife” that he grew up with.  But if you take his expanded story and reduce it again to its simplest folktale form, I am truly impressed by the new meaning that Ness was able to bring to the story by changing one small detail about the work of art that he put at the center of the story.  And even if I do not agree with all of the choices that Ness made as a writer in presenting his story, it is certainly a book that anyone who enjoys folktales or fairytales should read.


Ness, P. (2013). The Crane Wife. New York; Penguin Press.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book: The Night Circus

(Image from C/W Mars catalog)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is, at its heart, about a battle between chaos and control (pg.378).  That is the driving force behind the challenge that two magicians, Hector and Alexander, establish and in which they force Celia and Marco, their protégés, to participate.  It is an interesting basis for a story because it takes what would otherwise be a straightforward story about a magical circus to an almost cosmic level.  It is disappointing then that Morgenstern does not give that aspect of the story the attention and importance it deserves. 

Hector and Alexander remind me of fairy tale fathers, like in Rumpelstiltskin or Beauty and the Beast, who gamble with their daughters’ lives rather than their own.  Each man has a different approach to the use and teaching of magic but rather than battling each other to the death to see which method is stronger, they force their students to unknowingly do it for them.  There have been multiple battles over the years in different venues around the world, and the one that they start between Celia and Marco is just one more for them to add to their growing tally.  The egotism displayed by Hector and Alexander is astounding because there is no reason given as to why they feel the need to prove one method better than the other or when they will no longer feel the need to senselessly sacrifice others for their own vanity.  They are god-like in their abilities, near immortality, and lack of concern for the lives of others.  It is reminiscent of Artemis and Aphrodite in the Greek tragedy Hippolytus where a whole family gets torn apart because they get caught between the goddesses in their fight for recognition. 

That is where I think there is a particular lack of world-building in The Night Circus.  I picked up this book on the recommendation of a colleague who suggested that it might fit into the genre of magic realism, which came up when we were discussing The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.  However, I would argue that there is too much explicit magic in the story to really let it pass as magic realism.  As a piece of fantasy fiction I think the story could have benefitted from a bit more context of exactly what magic means in  the world, and why we should care about these battles that take place.  The majority of people in the world of the story have no idea that magic is real and Morgenstern never even toys with the idea of what might happen if large numbers of people figured it out.  There is no talk of needing to keep it secret, no discussion of what makes someone able to perform magic, and no mention of magic’s role in the universe beyond its potential entertainment value.  There also is not much hinted at about why this story, this battle, is so different, other than outcome.  But the outcome does not seem to have much of an effect on anything beyond keeping the circus alive. 

Of course, I am fully aware that I am highly biased toward cosmologies and creation myths and have a tendency to find stories that do not have cosmic consequences a little pointless and dull.  This story was not dull, I could hardly put the book down, but what was driving it for me was mostly the need to find out how Celia and Marco got around the fatal rules of the game they did not know they were playing for much of time.  I had formulated a theory before even beginning the book, based on the summary on the inside cover flap, and I needed to see how my idea compared to what the author came up with.  Still, I found that it was difficult to care about the characters because I did not understand what makes their story so special.  There was so much potential for this story to be a deeply imaginative take on the world, but instead it just presented the story without much explanation of the important pieces. 

The final chapter tries to give the story more gravitas, talking about how stories and tales are their own kind of magic (pg. 381), which I agree with of course, but it feels very out of place in this particular book because that is not really how the story has been presented this whole time.  Usually in the books that I have read that talk about storytelling, it also talks about how storytelling is used to make something or someone significant (The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney or The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd comes to mind).  But if that is what Morgenstern was trying to do with this story, I do not think it worked particularly well.  Celia and Marco’s love story was too disjointed and rushed to be of any significance and the circus itself lacks a substantial purpose beyond basic entertainment.  On the whole, while The Night Circus was an enjoyable story with the potential to be a modern fairy tale, the disjointed manner in which it was told and the hints at deeper meaning that were never more fully explored did it a disservice.


Morgenstern, E. (2011). The Night Circus. New York: Doubleday.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book : The Wolf Gift

(image from C/W Mars catalog)

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice sadly does not go into much detail of the werewolf myth as Rice has reimagined it.  Much of the story is bogged down in the gruesome fumbling of the main character, Rueben, as he learns to adapt to his new powers as a werewolf without the help of anyone else in the know.  However, toward the very end of the story, the very first of the morphenkinder (what werewolves refer to themselves as in the story), is introduced and tells part of his back story.  I really like the way that Rice has reimagined werewolves, I just wish that she had given more back story in this first book.

The most surprising thing about these werewolves is the fact that they are not a hybrid between a human and a wolf.  Instead, they are a mutation from an imaginary prehistoric race of ape like creatures that were eventually wiped out by homo sapiens.  This prehistoric race already had the ability to change into a more canine-like creature when they became enraged, which they claimed was a gift from the gods.  Margon, the first of the werewolves as we know them, was a homo sapien that had been exiled by his own people and came to live among this race and eventually received the gift himself by receiving multiple bites over a long period of time and a strange twist of fate.  No reason is given as to why the beastly form that these creatures could take was so wolf-like, but it was not a form they could change into at will; the change only came when they worked themselves into a frenzy when faced with an enemy.

The primary reason that the prehistoric race would need to whip themselves into a frenzy is because they could smell “evil,” which always warned them of the approach of those who would do them harm.  That is one trait that was passed on to the modern werewolves, along with the ability to acutely hear the voices of the innocent crying out in need of help.  As the characters in the book discuss, that raises many moral and philosophical questions about what it means to be “evil” and what duty the werewolves have to help those that they can hear. 

Overall, Rice’s approach to werewolves is grounded in the theory of evolution and she has addressed some of the issues that the immortal werewolves face from modern science.  For as scientific as the origin myth is, however, it still has many mystical elements that make sense and help keep everything interesting.  In comparison to every other werewolf story I know, which is admittedly not many, this is the most complete origin myth I have seen.  I am still puzzled though about the lack of connection with actual wolves.  Most werewolf stories have something to do with a mutation from wolves or involve wearing wolf skins, such as in Norse mythology, usually because of a desire to attain some of the aspects of wolves, such as their strength and ferocity.  Here in Rice’s world, the wolf connection is extremely minor and almost nonexistent, despite it still being called the “wolf gift.”

Since so little information is really given about the morphenkinder in general in this book, I will most likely have to read the second book in the series, The Wolves of Midwinter (2013), in order learn more about the werewolf mythology as Anne Rice has developed it. 

Rice, A. (2012). The Wolf Gift. New York: Random House.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book : The Golem and the Jinni

(Image from C/W Mars catalog)

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker does not actually focus on the mythological aspects of golems and jinn.  It is the story of two unlikely friends, Chava, a female golem made out of clay, and Ahmad, a jinni from the deserts of Syria.  Both characters are brought to New York City, somewhat against their wills, at the turn of the twentieth century, where they must learn to blend in and find their own path in life.  Along the way they meet many other people in their separate cultural communities and come to find that their lives are more entwined than they ever could have imagined.

Instead of being characteristics that sharply define the main characters and help drive the action, the supernatural aspects of their beings are treated more like any other type of backstory that an immigrant to New York City would have.  There is little discussion of other golems or jinn and what happened to them, and there are no other supernatural creatures mentioned or encountered at all.  When I first decided to read this book, I had been hoping that there would be an underground society of supernatural beings in New York City that would help bring these two unlikely friends together, but there is really no talk of what other supernatural creatures might be out there if golems and jinn can exist.

The fact that Chava is a golem and Ahmad is a jinni is not the focal point of the story but the primary vehicle through which the author can inject social commentary into the story, especially about gender, religion, and societal expectations.  Because Chava and Ahmad are not human but are expected to act like them, they must learn about society and thus the audience gets to view our strange human customs through the eyes of characters not born and raised into them.  Chava learns a lot about Jewish culture and customs as one would expect from a golem, which comes from Jewish mythology, while Ahmad compares what he remembers about Bedouin culture in the deserts to the Syrian immigrants he meets in the new city.  This adds a layer of interest to the story to help make up for the lack of world-building on the supernatural side of things.

Overall, it is interesting to see a story where the supernatural does not matter much.  It helps to inform some of the action, of course, and is necessary to the final resolution, but for the most part, the fact that Chava and Ahmad are mythical creatures does not make much of a difference in the story.  It is a very modern perspective to categorize such characteristics as just another minor difference such as race or gender that should not interfere with recognizing free will and the capacity for love and affection.  I was a bit disappointed in how little discussion there is of the mythology behind golems and jinn, but I think that this story is a good example of how such characters can be adapted to modern morals and perspectives.  It continues the tradition of adapting stories to current needs in order to keep the myths alive.

Wecker, H. (2013). The Golem and the Jinni. New York: Harper.