Review: Heart of the Winterland

Princess Calisandra is two hundred years old, and you would never know it, because she still possesses the body, mind, experiences, and maturity of a very young woman. That is what happens when you pass your whole life in a kingdom locked by magic into winter, timelessness, and an inescapable sameness. But finally something is giving, either in Cali or in the magic, because after two hundred years of accepting every day just like the last, she is growing restless. She is about to rebel.

She is about to leave.

She is about to find out what, or who, may exist outside her empty little kingdom, locked in winter and in time.

Heart of the Winterland, written by Kirsten Kooristra, is a fantasy novel appropriate for all audiences. It is rich in world-building and in characters, bringing together warriors, princesses, and sorceresses across a diverse range of milieus, from snowy Trabor to the sea. The magical kingdom of Sjadia, the spell cast by the queen, and indeed the novel’s premise, all stand as imaginative and intriguing concepts.

Unfortunately, there is a meandering quality to the plot. The heroine possesses no real goal, aside from ‘leave and see what’s there’, no nemesis, and little initiative. What she does is usually in response to what happens to her, and what happens to her is due almost entirely to other people or to coincidences. I waited for the central conflict or need to emerge, but it never did.

Heart of the Winterland is a gentle fantasy that is abundant with sympathetic characters, imaginative world-building, and intriguing fantastical concepts. At the same time, it lacks a strong driving force. Choose according to your preferences.

 

View Heart of Winterland on –

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Look Away: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Houses burning down. Parents dying. Guardians dying. Untalented actors with ropes, knives, and nefarious plots. Hurricanes, deadly leeches, dangerous reptiles. Lumber mills with numerous safety violations. This is a series of unfortunate events, and you can pull up a chair and watch.

Or you could just look away.

This January Netflix premiered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, an adaptation of the children’s series of the same name. To date, eight episodes have been aired, adapting four of the thirteen books. Like the books before it, the show revolves around the adventures, misadventures, and misfortunes of the three Baudelaire children. After their parents die in a mysterious fire, they must escape Count Olaf’s schemes to get a hold of them and the Baudelaire fortune – again, and again, and again.

I had heard of Lemony Snicket before, invoked as an example of the literary devices of lampshading and of breaking the fourth wall. Knowing only this, and absolutely nothing of the actual story, I tuned into A Series of Unfortunate Events. The two most prominent elements of this series are its tone and its humor. The tone is ostentatiously bleak, with the theme song warning that watching will ruin “your evening, your series-of-unfortunate-events-2home life, and your day,” and narrator Lemony Snicket promising endless woe, troubles, and inconvenience. A literal pall hangs over the show – much of it, especially the scenery, appears to have been put through a gray filter. And this grayness is a mistake, an overreach of cleverness that undercuts the specific pleasure of a visual medium.

The series’ showily dismal tone is part and parcel with its humor – sometimes dark, always absurdist. A Series of Unfortunate Events thrives on repetition (it’s not a sea, it’s a large lake); on smashing the fourth wall (Lemony Snicket explains the concept of dramatic irony in relation to a particularly unfortunate event); on the unnecessary definition of words (in this context, “unnecessary” means “not needed”); on repetition (it’s not a sea, it’s a large lake); on absurdity (your closest living relative is the relative who lives closest to you); on repetition (LARGE LAKE).

As a rule, humor should not be explained or defended. If you don’t like this sort of humor, you won’t like the show. Even if you do, the show sometimes goes too far. It’s funny that Lemony Snicket has a two hundred-page book written by the woman he loves, explaining why she can’t marry him, but the repeated jokes about an older woman’s unfulfilled desires for marriage and a family are merely sad.

The characters of A Series of Unfortunate Events, like its humor, lean toward the absurd. Even Count Olaf, the villain of the story, is ridiculous, though he is sinister, too. The Baudelaires themselves are loyal to each other, courageous when the moment demands it, and – considering what they have to put up with – remarkably polite. They can be stilted at times, but in the natural sort of way you might expect wealthy prodigies to be stilted, and there’s something charming about them.

There’s a story here, too, but not much of one. I can usually enjoy the repetitivity of the humor, and always forgive it, but the repetitivity of the plot is another matter. Virtually every adult is malicious, dense, or both, and this allows the series to spin pointlessly through several reiterations of the same storyline. Villain employs laughable stratagem to get the children. Clueless adult falls for it. Children avert total disaster at the last minute. Villain employs laughable stratagem to get the children. Clueless adult falls for it. Children avert total disaster at the last minute. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Villain employs …

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

The last episode suggests that the series may be breaking out of this cycle. I worry, however, that it will be crippled by a more fundamental flaw. You see, A Series of Unfortunate Events lacks heart. Sometimes it lapses into genuine drama, with ensuing moments of pathos, and there is poignancy in how fast the siblings hold on to each other. But all this seems almost beside the point – and in truth, if the show took Olaf and his schemes any more seriously than it does, it would be too dark. A disconnect exists in this series, and there’s no heart strong enough to unite it in meaning and emotion.

Despite this lack, A Series of Unfortunate Events has its virtues. It can be visually interesting, in spite of the overabundance of grey. It is sometimes fun, often delightfully absurd, and on rare occasions, moving. The cleverness and the humor are abundant, and who knows? We are only eight episodes in; the best may yet be ahead.

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Movie Review: Small One

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to town, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. The run-time is 26 minutes, and I think the only character whose name we know is the donkey’s. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Movie Review: Tarzan

The foundling raised by animals in the wilderness is an immemorial idea. A couple weeks ago I reviewed a movie about one of the most famous of these foundlings: Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle. Today I will review another movie, this one about another foundling of almost equal fame: Tarzan.

Disney released its animated version of Tarzan in 1999, on the dying wave of the Disney Renaissance. After the wave crashed, Disney languished in cheap, lusterless sequels for a decade; as it crested, it released celebrated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King. In between, Disney released more experimental, and now largely forgotten, films – Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and, of course, Tarzan.

Tarzan is the least experimental of the three. It’s a departure from classic fairy tales, but still fantasy, unlike the sci-fi incursions Atlantis and Treasure Planet. The Disney formula of orphaned hero, boy-meets-girl, and animal sidekicks is intact. Variations are evident, however. Tarzan is an unlikely hero, his character made up of two divergent halves – one the epitome of physical strength and skill, the other naive and imitative in the most childlike way. The lively Jane, with her scientific interest and artistic bent, is an unusual heroine, neither too timid to slap Tarzan nor too proud to demand his help.

The music follows a similar pattern. Tarzan features the classic Disney spate of songs, hurrying the story along and encapsulating character motivations. Phil Collins, writing the songs, provides a departure of style. The lyrics are written from the viewpoint of various characters but sung by one outside singer – a technique curiously reminiscent of the songs in Toy Story. The music may well be the highest-quality element in the movie, although the stellar animation of Tarzan’s physical agility and ape-like mannerisms comes close.

Tarzan is strongest in its lighthearted moments; when the movie wants to be entertaining, it is. It stumbles when it tries to be dramatic. Tarzan’s adoption by the gorillas, and Clayton’s trickery, are competent and more. But outside of these and a few other moments, the drama fails to be convincing.

A great deal of this failure springs from Clayton, who manages to be, as the story’s villain, both over-the-top and underachieving. He is so obviously bad you wonder how Jane and her father ever got mixed up with him in the first place. On the other hand, his ambitions aren’t scary, or even particularly impressive. He wants to capture some gorillas alive! Only two of whom we have, as the audience, any reason to care about anyway! Remember when Disney villains plotted spectacular revenge and to take over kingdoms and control powerful magic and fun things like that?

The film is also unconvincing in answering the question it sets itself regarding Tarzan’s nature and place in the world. It comes too quickly, with too little reflection and reckoning. This disappoints me because the question was so interesting. It is, however, the movie’s lesser failure.

Despite the film’s stumbles, Tarzan is a fun romp with two or three musical numbers that are good almost to the point of being addictive. Unlike Tangled and Beauty and the Beast, it may not stand up to a thousand viewings, but it is certainly worth at least one.

 

Postscript: About that music … It’s been in my head.

Now it can be in yours.

 

Review: Imbeciles

See if you can follow this chain of logic. Human defects – mental, physical, and moral – are carried through heredity. In order to eliminate these defects from the human race, the genes that cause them must be eliminated from the gene pool. In order to eliminate such bad genes, the carriers of those genes – that is, people – must be eliminated from the gene pool. To put it simply, the defective must not reproduce.

There are three ways to ensure that the defective do not pass on their genes and so continue to drag down humanity with the unfit. The first is to segregate them in institutions where they will not have the opportunity to reproduce. The second is to sterilize them. The third is wholesale slaughter. Which door do you choose to enter a brave, new world?

Eugenicists chose door number two, mass, forced sterilization of people deemed unfit by the powers that be.

All this sounds like science fiction, but in sad truth, it’s history – American history. In Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen tells the nearly-forgotten story of eugenics in America. He focuses his account on the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which challenged Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law. 

Cohen tells the story of eugenics through Buck v. Bell, and he tells the story of Buck v. Bell through its major figures. Each chapter of the book is named after one of them: Carrie Buck, the victim; Dr. Albert Priddy, superintendent of Virginia’s Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded; Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office and leading advocate of eugenic sterilization; Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who wrote Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law and defended it up to the Supreme Court; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famed Supreme Court justice who coined the epigram from which the book’s title is taken: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

This book is structured almost like a series of biographical essays, as the author reaches back into the life-stories of the players in Buck v. Bell and tries to define their motivations. The great strength of this structure is that it makes the book accessible, easy to read, and focused on the individual, human side of the drama. As a way of relating the history of American eugenics, it works surprisingly well, at least in the earlier chapters. The careers of prominent eugenicists like Albert Priddy and Harry Laughlin dovetail nicely with the story of eugenics in America.

The chapter devoted to the lawyer Aubrey Strode is, in this respect, more uneven. Much of it is relevant to the book’s topic, but the author wanders on side trails that are not. It is even worse with Oliver Wendell Holmes. The author is clearly fascinated with Holmes’ background as a Boston Brahmin and whether or not he can be rightly regarded as a liberal judge. No doubt some readers will be as well. But these things, which take up page after page of Imbeciles, have nothing to do with eugenics.

Indeed, it is difficult to justify Holmes’ inclusion in the book purely on the book’s proclaimed subjects. Holmes’ life crossed the eugenics movement in no significant way until Buck v. Bell, and even in Buck v. Bell, his importance is minimal. True, he wrote the majority opinion and made it clever, sharply expressed, and cruel. But although he expressed the Court’s decision, there is no reason to believe he had any special role in making it. The author speculates on how he may have influenced his fellow judges, but there is no evidence that he actually did. The Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell was 8-1. Oliver Wendell Holmes was just another vote in an overwhelming majority.

Although Imbeciles lost focus in evaluating the life and career of Oliver Wendell Holmes, it remains a highly informative book on a fascinating, neglected piece of American history. It is also skillfully written, being lucid and articulate without being showy. The information is, moreover, well-chosen and well-presented, and the sources are varied and reliable. I highly recommend Imbeciles to all lovers of history.

Movie Review: Peanuts

I am back! Where have I been? Well, that’s a long story. I will only say, for now, that with finals week behind me, I hope to be posting more often. And I will begin with this review of a movie I now regret not catching in theater.

 

Who hasn’t seen it – Snoopy balancing a typewriter on his doghouse, Linus with his blanket, Charlie Brown decked by a fast ball on his own pitcher’s mound? These are all unforgettable images, imprinted on our culture’s memory.

But who has seen all these things in 3-D computer animation? Because, thanks to The Peanuts Movie, now we all can.

The Peanuts Movie, released last year, takes up this challenge: How do animators change Schulz’s comic into a computer-animated movie, while retaining its style and its appeal? This challenge is paralleled by the greater one faced by the writers – how to remain faithful to the old, great comic without simply repeating it. The specials were short, and this full-length movie requires a greater adaption than they did, a greater bending to the requirements and limitations of a different art form.

The makers of Peanuts meet both challenges with considerable skill. The film translates the style of the comic into 3-D; the characters look like themselves, and their world looks like the one Schulz created for them. Beyond its visual style, the film draws so much inspiration from the comic that every moment is suffused with it. Watching the movie, you can feel the comic.

And yet just enough is new. Movies, unlike comics, demand to be unified into one story, and the filmmakers provided this unification through the little red-haired girl. The story, although episodic in structure, is held together by the thread of Charlie Brown’s single purpose to impress her. The episodes, although never directly copied from the comics, all have their antecedents in the book reports, school adventures, and sports that Charles Schulz used so richly.

Some characters, most notably Charlie Brown and Snoopy, have been subtly changed. Charlie Brown spends most of the film as star-crossed as ever, always trying to be the hero and somehow always ending up the goat. Yet his failures are more dignified here than in the comic; it is hard to imagine Schulz giving Charlie Brown as much ability as this movie does, or as much meaning in his losses. Charlie Brown, in the film, loses a school competition because of an act of kindness; in the comic, it would have been because of something less meaningful, more random, more darkly comical.

Here, as in the comic strips, Snoopy is distinguished chiefly by the fantasies that so far outstrip his actual position in the world, and by his own unawareness of that fact. He is, however, far kinder to Charlie Brown, helping him and rooting for him throughout the film. Snoopy’s obliviousness to Charlie Brown, whom he thinks of as “the round-headed kid”, is removed from the movie. He yields the dance floor to Charlie Brown where Schulz, funnier and harsher, would have had him beat his owner to win the dance with the little red-haired girl.

This general softening goes beyond the characters to the story itself. The ending held a victory Charlie Brown never, in fifty years, achieved in the comics. This is partially, no doubt, because comic strips go on and movies end, and the unified story must have an ending to match. But it is also, no doubt, part of a judgment that the comic was a little too sad, Charlie Brown a little too inadequate, his world a little too cruel.

Schulz’s Peanuts was never truly jaded, never reached the bitterness or cynicism of some modern comics. Yet it is, in certain moments, more achingly sad than any of them, and running jokes like Charlie Brown’s always-bad baseball team seem to reflect this same blue measure of the world. The movie’s alleviation of this sadness is its one true departure from the comic. Other alterations, such as putting Peppermint Patty in the same school as Charlie Brown, are mere compression for the sake of time.

The Peanuts Movie is an accomplished retelling of Schulz’s great comic strip, successfully exchanging the art form of a comic for the art form of a movie. It is both funny and touching, and if less profound than the comic, it still provides that moment of satisfaction that the comic never did.

That moment where Charlie Brown finally wins.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Shock of Night

Willet Dura has survived a great deal – war, years of pursuing criminals, and (most impressively) the Darkwater Forest. It all helps to explain his uncanny interest in death, but it doesn’t quite excuse it. As the king’s reeve, he is called to investigate murders in the royal city of Bunard; sometimes he arrives at the scene of the murder before he is called. And there he does the one thing no other reeve in the city does, or has ever done: He questions the dead victim. What do you see?

Happily, there is never any answer.

The Shock of Night, written by Patrick W. Carr, is the first book of the Darkwater Saga. The novel is fantasy, and its world-building is particularly elaborate. From the treacherous world of the nobility, with all its grand constructions; to the ancient church, divided into four orders and weighted with history and tradition; to the almost superhuman “gifts” that divide mankind into classes, to the poor quarter and the urchins and the royal city itself – this is an unusually intricate world, and it’s not mere scenery. These are not only elements of the world but of the story itself.

That is to Patrick Carr’s credit, but it necessitates a slower pace and a more elaborate style than is normal in modern novels. In another aspect, however, the novel’s style is very modern: It switches off between a first-person and a third-person viewpoint, with the first-person narrator sometimes appearing in the third-person sections. I have known other modern authors to do this, and I have always regarded it as a kind of cheating – an unsportmanslike attempt to dodge the limitations all narrative styles necessarily bring. The stark combination of two different styles breaks the unity of the narrative and can create dissonance for the reader, though many readers doubtless rise above.

This novel boasts a large cast of characters, realistic and handled with a human touch. Willet Dura, the protagonist, is intriguing from the start, a genuine hero with an indefinable dark side. There is something wrong with him, but we aren’t sure what. And neither is he. Toward the end he began to verge on the unlikeable, as he passed judgment where he had no right to and condemned people without realizing they were much like himself.

Having read Carr’s previous trilogy, I can see in his newest book his continuing maturation as a writer. I regard The Shock of Night as his finest novel yet, holding onto the strengths of his earlier books and allaying the weaknesses. I did not, of course, find the novel perfect. I thought the characters showed a remarkable lack of zeal in questioning their one eyewitness to a murder they were so eager to solve.

Worse, it puzzled and eventually annoyed me to watch one character shift his loyalty from the Vigil to Dura. Admittedly, the Vigil did some things that were … difficult. But that is from the reader’s viewpoint. From the character’s viewpoint, he had watched the Vigil do such things for many years, and served them faithfully through it, and evidently approved, or at least accepted, all of it. I saw no reason why he should have suddenly taken offense, especially for Dura’s sake. I enjoyed Dura as a character in a book. But as an individual in the real world, I would not let him loose on the streets.

The fantasy concepts of The Shock of Night – the Darkwater, the Vigil, the gifts, mental “scrolls” – are fascinating and well-handled. The world of the story is complex and convincing, and the style of the book matches it. The Shock of Night is a worthy fantasy novel, and I am glad to see Patrick Carr back on the scene.

 

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.