A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
This an excerpt from a fantasy/ romance/ historical fiction I've been working on during quarantine. In an alternate version of America, where magic is commonplace, a witch and wizard have adventures as they travel the country in pursuit of magic and gradually fall in love. Right now, I call this story Hazel and Saul, after my main characters, but the title is subject to change. This is a second draft, which means it's pretty early on in the writing process. I haven't added a lot of details and description, and the prose is rough. This scene takes early in the story, when the title characters first meet.
Hazel Meets Saul
Pennsylvania, October 1870
He was worse than a peddler. The wizard stood at the gate of her aunt’s house, banging on the door for a good ten minutes. Hazel could tell he was a wizard by the gaudy purple cloak he wore, popular among only the lowest rung of that profession. Hazel had made the mistake of peeking out through the window to see what was making the noise. Unfortunately, he’d seen her, and his rapping had only grown more furious.
“Miss Blackwood! Miss Blackwood!” he cried.
Hazel pressed her hands to the side of her head. She had a terrible headache and his pounding on the gate only made it worse. She’d been sick these last three days and wanted nothing more than to curl up and rest. But here was this annoying creature, disturbing her peace.
“Miss Blackwood! A word, please! Just a word!”
Hazel sighed. From his voice he sounded rather young. Young and full of energy and shamelessly relentless. She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him, so she put on her cloak and bonnet and hobbled out. It was cold and chilly, and the wind on her face made her shiver, despite the warmth of her cloak. She walked down the path through the front yard until she reached the gate.
“Ah, Miss Blackwood!” The wizard sounded relieved. “Thank you for your indulgence. I crave but a moment of our time. You are Miss Blackwood, are you not?”
“I am, but--”
“My name,” he said with a flouncy and exaggerated bow, “is Solomon Felix Zephyrus, an apprentice wizard of distinction, and I have a proposal for--”
He stopped and blinked. He leaned forward and stared at her face, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You’re young,” he said, with some dismay.
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Title: Dark (The Dark Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Paul L Arvidson
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Dun has troubles on his mind. Since his father disappeared, he has become the main provider for his family. Worse still, he's dealing with vivid and terrifying dreams--a sign he bears the gift of foretelling. When the village elders appoint him as head of a quest to find out why their mysterious neighbors, the Machine-folk, have gone missing, Dun assembles a band of allies to accompany him: his cheerful best friend Padg; Tali, an apprentice-alchemist; and Myrch, a man with many useful abilities and secrets. As they confront the different tribes, they begin to suspect that something odd is going on--a darker presence that threatens to throw their whole world into chaos.
I decided to take my own advice and find some free fantasy books on Kindle to read during quarantine. Dark was one of several I downloaded. What caught my interest and kept me reading was that the world felt both unique and believable. Fantasy books often rely on big, flashy elements to get attention: dragons, unicorns, gods, monsters, magic. But I appreciate a story that takes its time to build its own cultures.
Dark started off with a tribe of simple folks who live by fishing, trading, using reeds make baskets. And yet, there are hints of a more complex world. “Found” items have a curiously manufactured feel to them, underground tunnels are actually a complex system of pipes, and a decayed civilization is shown to have wielded great power once. Something happened in the past, but what could it be? That mystery kept me reading.
Dark initially gave me vibes of: Watership Down, which is high praise for me. (Watership Down is one of the foundational books that has inspired my writing.) You have a group of ordinary people with different abilities, led by someone with flashes of prophecy. (I love prophecy.) Occasionally, they come across technology that the audience may be familiar with but is baffling to them. Their journey is simple, but challenging, and members of the group need to use their different abilities. Friendships are forged and deepened.
However, the similarities diverge when it comes to the ending. Watership Down has one of the best endings I have ever read. Dark’s ending, while certainly not the worst, was rather disappointing. The problems began at Chapter 48, because at Chapter 48, Dark underwent a rapid genre shift and became an entirely different book.
VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD
Title: The Guardian: A Dream-Hunter Novel
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon
Genre: Romance, Fantasy
After thousands of years of being tortured in hell, demigod Seth has one chance to escape his misery. His master, the primal god Noir, has captured Solin, god of dreams, who has information about a key that can grant great power or cause great destruction. Seth is put in charge of interrogating the Solin. Little does he know that Solin’s daughter, Lydia, has come to free him. Lydia is an immortal were-jackal with the power to walk into another person’s dreams. But she is no match for Seth, who quickly captures Lydia and offers Solin a trade--the missing key for Lydia’s life. Solin agrees, and Seth keeps Lydia as collateral. But when Seth gets to know Lydia, he finds himself drawn to her. And though Lydia would like nothing more than to hate the man who tortured her father, the more she learns the horrors of Seth’s past, the harder it is to keep her own creeping feelings at bay.
A friend recommended Sherrilyn Kenyon to me a while ago, but I hadn't really gotten around to checking her out. So when I spotted one of her books at the La Habra Library bookstore for the low, low cost of ten cents, I quickly jumped on the chance. I was not disappointed. I finished the book the same day I bought it. The Guardian was that addicting.
The Guardian is a romance book first, a fantasy book second. It has a kind of Beauty and the Beast vibe going, which I really like. If it were a film, it would be a hard R for cursing, sex, and, most prevalent, scenes of violent torture. (More on that later.)
Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy
King Arthur is dead. Ogres roam the land, but the people are accustomed to them. More disturbing is a fog that clouds memories. Axl, an old man who lives a modest life with his wife Beatrice, occasionally has glimmers of people long forgotten: a woman with red hair, a missing child, and his estranged son. When Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to visit their son, they run into a slew of strange traveling companions: a warrior on a solemn quest, a boy marked by evil, and the last remaining knight of King Arthur’s court. As memories are revealed and the secrets of the past are peeled back, Axl and Beatrice learn of a way to restore what was once forgotten--but at a startling cost.
I bought The Buried Giant because its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Remains of the Day. As such, I wanted to wait for the perfect time to read The Buried Giant and slowly savor it. Initially, I was captivated by the simple beauty of the prose and filled with a sense of romance. But lurking under the quests and magic was a startlingly realistic look at the nature of war, hatred, and vengeance. These dark undertones slowly crept up on me and left me shaken and disturbed by the end of the book.
This doesn’t mean that The Buried Giant contains explicit material. It doesn’t. There are no graphic or gory depictions of violence, no sex, and no profanity--nothing that is typically labeled as “shocking.” I think what disturbed me, on a personal level, was the contrast between the high ideals of the characters and the horrific atrocities they were still capable of inflicting. It seemed very… realistic… for a fantasy world.
In 2019, three popular fantasy epics “ended” (or so they claim). We had the final season of Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. All three of them disappointed me for largely the same reason. Previous installments had promised something new, but when it came time to deliver, they couldn’t. So they went back to old tropes common in fantasy and played it safe.
I love epic fantasies, but I haven’t been reading them lately, because it seems like all of them--even the ones I like--end in the same way. Kill the main bad guy and poof! all your troubles will be over. Enemy armies will die or be too demoralized to fight. You will never need to contend with a second-in-command or a sizable amount of supporters within the populace. Instead, you can throw a big party and celebrate that good has triumphed over evil.
If killing the Big Bad isn’t enough of a climax, there’s always the heroic sacrifice. The hero dies--or seems to die--to save the world. No surer way to evoke pathos than a tragic death. But the heroic sacrifice need not actually be done by the min character--that would be depressing. The heroic sacrifice can be committed by a character in need of redemption. A former villain, a traitor, a character who gave in to a moment of weakness, a person haunted by bloody deeds of the past. It doesn’t matter if they realized the error of their ways five minutes ago or spent ten years painfully trying to change the course of their life. The only true path to redemption is death.
I hate these tropes. I mean, I understand why they’re used, and I will be the first to admit that when done them well, they can be damned effective. When lazily and poorly handled, however, they can carry a dangerous subtext, one repeated over and over, until it starts to inform our psyches.
Warning: Spoilers and Strong Opinions follow the break. This isn't a review, just me getting some things off my chest.
A little over a year ago, my sister introduced me to The Good Place. I thought I could safely watch a few episodes on Netflix. I was wrong. I binged two seasons in two days. This is why I stay away from T.V. I have an easily-addicted, nay, obsessive personality.
The Good Place is an NBC-airing half-hour comedy about a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who died. Fortunately, she ended up in the Good Place. Immortal-being Michael (Ted Danson), architect of the perfect neighborhood Eleanor will inhabit for all eternity, congratulates Eleanor for being such a stellar example of humanity and introduces her to her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics and moral philosophy. As soon as Michael leaves, Eleanor drops a bombshell on Chidi. There’s been a mistake, she’s not a good person, she’s not supposed to be here, and she’s afraid if anyone finds out, she’ll be shipped off to the Bad Place. As weird events in the neighborhood threaten to expose her true identity, Eleanor enlists Chidi’s help to become a good person and earn her place in paradise.
There are so many things I love about The Good Place, from the characters, to the relationships, to the concepts. It is a unique fantasy/ speculative fiction, which creates a fully functioning, well-developed world, while contemplating the big questions of good and evil, life and death, and what makes us human. It teaches ethics and moral philosophy, name dropping famous philosophers, summarizing core concepts, and integrating the lessons into each episode of a continuing story arc… and it’s funny! The Good Place is something that feels like should not exist, let alone be any good, let alone have people watch it… and yet it does. I’m amazed.
As we head into Season 4, the final season, The Good Place has evolved into what I am convinced is the purest definition of epic fantasy. It may be disguised as a quirky comedy, but when you have a tight group of friends making terrible personal sacrifices in the service of world-shattering stakes--yeah, epic. This is what I want from fantasy. Not just the same old magic, dragons, and elves. I want something original, something that takes risks, something that tackles complicated issues while still giving me reason to hope.
So as I was watching re-runs of Season 4 on Hulu early in November, I got to an episode where Eleanor and friends are discouraged. They’ve just had a huge setback, but they’re re-grouping and trying again. I finish watching and go out to walk the dog, and I’m thinking about what it means to save the world. In The Good Place, the stakes are huge, and yet all that needs to be accomplished, when it comes down to it, is for certain “medium persons” to become good. Which made me think. If the souls of humanity were riding on me being a good person, could I do it? Could I be, not even great, but just a little bit better?
It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
Title: Sister of Blood and Spirit
Author: Kady Cross
Genre: YA, Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance
Lark and Wren are twins. White-haired Lark was born living. Red-haired Wren was born dead. Nonetheless, the two continue to communicate. Being known as the girl who talks to her dead sister has a way of making Lark’s life miserable. After being labeled the school freak and attempting suicide, Lark hopes to re-enter high school without attracting unwanted attention. Unfortunately, she is soon confronted by a group of students who ask for her help. Among them are Kevin, the medium Wren called out to when Lark lay dying; Mason, the boy who held Lark as she bled out and begged her not to die; and Ben, a handsome boy who seems weirdly cool with the supernatural.
It seems Lark’s new acquaintances have trespassed onto an ancient hospital, where an angry ghost attacked them and left spiritual wounds on their body--wounds invisible to everyone but Lark. Lark realizes the angry ghost has marked them as his own and will continue to suck their spirits dry unless someone puts a stop to it. Lark prefers that person not be her. But when Wren guilts her into helping, Lark will put everything on the line to save a group of people who may become her friends.
I picked up this book at the library because the ghostly themes reminded me of a book I’m currently writing. I liked the concept of supernatural sisters. I was interested to see how the author addressed the afterlife. I wanted to like Sisters of Blood and Spirit, I really did. But I didn’t. Every element felt under baked, and the more I read, the more bored I became.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.