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.
Although she is an abandoned orphan in the Dusklands at the outer edge of the Amber Empire, Sylvie is born with a “legacy”—a gift of magic. She can spin elaborate illusions, fantasies of her own creation. Knowing that only those with noble blood can wield magic, Sylvie treks to the Amber City to claim her rightful spot in Empress Severine’s court. She hopes to find a place to belong. Instead, she’s thrust into a dangerous game of intrigue and politics.
Ragged and poor, no one takes Sylvie seriously, least of all the Empress. But Severine is intrigued by Sylvie’s power. She offers her courtiers a wager: if Sylvie can polish her legacy by Carrousel, her allies will gain favor and Sylvie will receive position in the court. A handsome nobleman named Lord Sunder with the unnerving legacy of causing pain agrees to sponsor Sylvie, but wagers against her. With no allies, no upbringing, and no idea what she’s gotten herself into Sylvie—newly renamed Mirage—will have to use all her powers to outwit her enemies and beat them at their own game.
On the one hand, Amber and Dusk is not a particularly ground-breaking novel. All the major tropes of the YA/ Fantasy/ Romance/ Dystopian genre are here in full force. Determined heroine with more power than she realizes? Check. Mysterious past that becomes important in the third act? Check. Love triangle? Check. Decadent and cruel empire with a rebellion growing in the wings? Check. If you know the genre, you’ll recognize many of the same elements at work here.
Author: Stephanie Garbar
Genre: YA Fantasy Romance
After seven years of dreaming of escaping to the magic and splendor of Caraval, Scarlett Dragna’s wish has finally come true—at precisely the wrong time. Her invitation to the exclusive five-day fair arrives right as she is about to be married to a count she’s never met. Marriage is the only way Scarlett can think of to keep herself and her impetuous sister Donatella safe from their father’s wrath. Donatella, however, has other plans. When her sister seizes the opportunity to visit Caraval, Scarlett has no choice but to follow her into a world where illusion and reality intertwine, where dreams can be purchased at the cost of dark secrets, and where to win the ultimate prize, Scarlett may have to pay the ultimate cost.
I bought the book because it had a strong concept that had a lot of potential. Not only does Scarlett get to visit this carnival of magic, but soon her sister is kidnapped and Scarlett is forced to play a game with the Caraval master to get her back. Why is Scarlett singled out? What sort of game will she be forced to play? How will she overcome the obstacles to emerge the winner?
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.