Chaos and a Bloated Mango

Fevered Star is Rebecca Roanhorse’s second novel in the Between Earth and Sky fantasy series, and it picks up right where Black Sun left off, except it is no longer Year 325 of the Sun. It is Year 1 of the Crow. Order has been usurped by chaos. The city of Tova is destroyed, and the sun now hovers “on the horizon like a bloated mango, casting only enough light to shadow the city in an eerie perpetual twilight.” That won’t be good for tourism.

The story opens with Lord Balam (the jaguar lord who arranged to send Serapio to Tova to crush the sun priesthood) learning how to dreamwalk – a nasty bit of sorcery outlawed for centuries. Balam is intent on breaking worlds and “realigning the very course of the heavens.” So far his plan is going swimmingly but for Serapio surviving the attack on Sun Rock. That was unexpected and unwelcome. Fortunately Lord Balam always looks for the “potential in the chaos.” Potential abounds.

Serapio has become Odo Sedoh, the Crow God Reborn. But his clan, Carrion Crow, is split on whether this is good for them or not. Chaos is unpredictable.

Naranpa, too, has unexpectedly survived. She was the Sun Priest, but she becomes the living embodiment of the Sun God. She just needs to learn how to control her incredible powers. Easier said than done. If Naranpa succeeds, she can restore order and heal the Meridian, but she desperately needs allies. All three of them do.

Serapio, Naranpa, and Lord Balam struggle to form these alliances. Each has access to powerful magic they sometimes struggle to control. The future of the Meridian is at stake. War appears inevitable. It looks to be bloody and catastrophic for all involved.

Ms. Roanhorse tells an absorbing story that moves at a steady clip. The characters are diverse, complex, and realistic. As in Black Sun, Ms. Roanhorse’s incorporation of mythology from the pre-Columbian Americas is interesting and effective. She brings refreshing elements to the fantasy genre. Most importantly, Fevered Star maintains the reader’s curiosity about where this series is headed.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

When Pretending to be Something, Don’t be a Nazi

In the introduction to his sublime Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut famously warns “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Take Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the novel’s captivating narrator. He wasn’t careful at all, and now he’s sitting in an Israeli jail waiting to be tried for war crimes. Hi ho.

Thirty years earlier during the 1930s, Campbell was an American playwright of “modest reputation” living in Germany. He was married to a beautiful German actress, and they were a “nation of two.” What could possibly go wrong? A brushfire called World War II.

Immediately before the war started, Campbell was recruited by an American agent to be a spy. Campbell agreed because “I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out.” He succeeded outrageously and for all the world to hear. He became a radio broadcaster and propagandist for the Nazis; however, during his broadcasts he sent coded messages to the Americans to help the Allies win the war. But to the world, he is a “shrewd and loathsome anti-Semite.” His outward support for Nazism ultimately lands him in that Israeli jail.

Mother Night is Campbell’s confession to the Israelis. He gives it voluntarily and eagerly. But he’s not interested in exoneration. He readily admits to being a “man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.” Is this irony or just a statement of fact? Does it matter?

Because here’s the thing. Campbell was a spy for the good guys in that war, but he still helped the Nazis. His father-in-law, early in the war, had suspected Campbell of being a spy. He hoped Campbell would be shot as a traitor. By the war’s end, he no longer cared if Campbell was a spy or not. “Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us . . . I realized that almost all the ideas I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you . . . You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.” That’s quite an indictment. And it is one of the passages that makes this book brilliant. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Campbell’s vicious propaganda assisted the Nazis in their brutality. It is not clear at all how he helped the Allies. Given the severe consequences of all his lies, does being an American spy save him from condemnation?

Mother Night is obsessed with lies and their consequences. And though it was written more than 60 years ago, it is as relevant now as ever. Chew on this if you doubt me: “I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Hag-Seed: A Tempest in a Teacup

In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project to have Shakespeare’s plays retold by acclaimed or (more frequently) popular novelists. Gratuitous? Yup. Lazy? Sure. Good idea? Nope. Money grab? Yahtzee! But, hey, Hollywood does it all the time, so why not?

Plus, Hogarth tapped Margaret Atwood to modernize The Tempest. So how bad could it be? Fair enough. Hag-Seed (Ms. Atwood’s adaptation of The Tempest) is not bad. At times, it’s quite enjoyable, but that’s usually when Ms. Atwood doesn’t hew to the play.

Felix is Ms. Atwood’s Prospero. Early on, we learn that his wife died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Miranda. We also learn Miranda died when she was about 4 years old. In a former life, Felix was the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival, which he planned to make the “standard against which all lesser festivals would be measured.” To do this, he needed money, and that was Tony’s job. However, Felix’s failure to focus on the business side of the festival costs him. Tony convinces the board to fire Felix, and Tony replaces him. Felix has a temper tantrum and goes off the grid – changing his name and essentially exiling himself.

About 12 years later, Felix is working part-time at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute where he puts on Shakespeare’s plays with the inmates. “Power struggles, treacheries, crimes: these subjects were immediately grasped by his students, since in their own ways they were expert in them.” His program is modestly successful.

Tony and some of the more culpable board members are now important government officials. They will be at the institute to see the inmates perform My Fair Lady. Really? You ask. No, that would be stupid. They are staging The Tempest, of course. Felix plots his revenge.

The novel works best when it focuses on Felix’s interactions with the inmates and how they produce the play inside a prison – how they relate to Shakespeare’s works. They are effective and humorous fairies, goblins, and demons, and there is much to like about these passages. Ms. Atwood is adept at handling the “play within a play” aspect of The Tempest, and the prison is a perfect substitute for an island.

But the novel is less successful in addressing Felix’s need for vengeance. In The Tempest, vengeance is central to the plot. At times Prospero is monstrous in his pursuit of it. However, Prospero did not voluntarily exile himself. His brother usurped him and put him in a small boat with his young daughter – leaving them to drift on the sea. His brother clearly wanted them to die horrible deaths, so Prospero’s desire for vengeance is understandable.

Vengeance is central to Hag-Seed as well, and Felix at times is also monstrous in his pursuit of it. But his all-consuming need for vengeance doesn’t hold up. Felix exiled himself. Miranda was already dead, so her life was never at risk. If Felix’s life was in danger, he did it to himself. His desire for vengeance, which drives the plot, is gratuitous. Ultimately, and sadly, so is Hag-Seed.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Kazuo Ishiguro’s No Country for Old Men

Listen. Masuji Ono desperately wants to tell you something. He’s still relevant. Time has not forgotten him.

Ono is the beguiling narrator in Mr. Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. The story opens in Japan in October 1948. The Americans are now in charge, and Japanese society is going through monumental changes. But Ono is focused on successfully negotiating a marriage for his younger daughter. His past may make that difficult. Or it may not. It’s unclear because few people seem to remember him these days. Post-war Japan is moving on without him, and he’s not too happy about that.

At the beginning of his career, Ono was an artist of the floating world – the “night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings.” He was ambitious. When the imperialists takeover, Ono abandons the floating world and (as he tells it) becomes the center of a group of artists producing “work unflinchingly loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor.”

Ono seems to have had some influence during the 1930s, but Mr. Ishiguro is coy. He never allows the reader to discern how influential Ono actually was. Even in Ono’s self-serving narration, nagging doubts poke through. Ono may simply be deluding himself and as a result unintentionally misleading the listener.

The war allows Ono to excuse and justify his work for the Imperialists: “if your country is at war, you do all you can in support, there’s no shame in that.” Except there might be – especially when you betray friends and colleagues. However, Ono smothers this shame every time it tries to breath.

Despite his arrogance and evasions, Ono is sympathetic. His unflinching support for Imperial Japan did not protect him. His wife died, and his son was killed in a “hopeless charge” across a minefield. He has suffered and done so stoically. He loves his daughters and grandson. But he’s lost in this new Japan. He recognizes (somewhat reluctantly) that the “old spirit may not have always been for the best.” That’s an understatement, but it’s the only kind he can make.

Ono spends much of the story trying to convince the listener, any listener, that he was highly-esteemed at one time. And he may have been. Or he may have just been ordinary – a thought Ono refuses to contemplate. Mr. Ishiguro is a master of the unreliable narrator, and Ono certainly falls in this category. “I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty . . . the personality represented rarely comes near the truth as others would see it.” Is Ono describing a colleague or (unwittingly) himself?

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Black Sun – We Aren’t in Narnia Anymore

Black Sun is the first book in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Between Earth and Sky fantasy series, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: make you want to read the second book. The story opens with 12-year old Serapio being blinded by his mother – yeah, no Mother’s Day roses for her. She tells Serapio his blinding is necessary because “Human eyes lie. You must learn to see the world with more than this faulty organ.” Fair enough. But isn’t there an easier way to teach this lesson? Apparently not in the Meridian – the world where this story is set. Especially when the mother’s ultimate goal is to turn Serapio into a god. She’s not interested in roses.

This is 10 years before the Convergence – a “day when the sun, moon, and earth align, and the moon’s shadow devours the sun.” Order moves to chaos and back to order again. But during this transition, order is vulnerable and chaos can overthrow it. The Watchers are tasked with maintaining the “balance between what is above and what is below.” However, rumor has it they are corrupt and weak. Seeds of rebellion have been thrown on fertile ground.

The story jumps to 20 days before the Convergence, and a daughter of the sea, Xiala, has been tasked with transporting Serapio to Tova (the Meridian’s holy city) in time for the Convergence. It’s an arduous journey across water, and the crew is disgruntled. But Xiala has mystical powers. She should not be trifled with.

Serapio has been trained as a warrior and now has magical powers of his own. His destiny is to battle the Watchers. He will be formidable. The story ends on the day of the Convergence. The battle is beyond bloody, but the outcome is unclear.

Black Sun is stellar. It has all the elements of a traditional epic, but it also pulls from many myths outside Western Europe. Ms. Roanhorse’s the Meridian is no Camelot, Middle Earth, or Narnia. In those fantasy worlds, there is an obvious divide between good and evil. In Black Sun, it is opaque. The story is told from several points of view. Some characters think Serapio is a hero, while many consider him a villain. So are these constructs meaningless because they are subjective? Such a thought would cause C.S. Lewis to crap his pants.

Near the end Ms. Roanhorse writes: “tell me your stories so that I might know who you are and what you value.” She clearly values an expansive epic – one that includes matriarchal societies, gender fluidity, and bisexuality. She also treasures interesting world-building, complex characters, and great story telling.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

London Fields: Sex, Death, and Darts!

Martin Amis’ London Fields was published in 1989, and its obsession with the end of the millennium is humorously bleak. Or is it bleakly humorous? I don’t know. But there are other obsessions in the book, too. Oddly (to an American), darts is one. So is death. And sex. Definitely sex. And death. Definitely death.

The story is a disturbing love quadrangle. Keith Talent is a violent, misogynistic cheat. Guy Clinch is an inept, credulous romantic. Samson (Sam) Young is an author. And because this is a “modern” novel, he is also the narrator, but he is not “one of those excitable types who get caught making things up.” So does that mean he’s honest? Or does it mean he’s never been caught lying?

Nicola Six (think Sex) is the black hole these men don’t try to escape. When she was a child, she had an imaginary friend named Enola Gay, and Enola had a little boy. Yeah, Mr Amis does not paint with pastels.

Nicola has always been able to sense when something will happen, so she knows she will be murdered on her 35th birthday. She’s looking forward to it. Oh, yes, nearly forgot – the world, and everything in it, is shabby. Except Nicola. She’s resplendent and wants to die.

From the beginning we know who the murderer is. We also know Nicola is the “murderee” (she is definitely not the victim), and we know when she will be killed. As Sam explains, the story is not a “whodunit”. It’s a “whydoit”. It succeeds either way.

But why is Nicola obsessed with death? Is she heart-broken? Is she bored? What does Nicola say about it? “I am a male fantasy figure. I’ve been one for fifteen years. It really takes it out of a girl.”

Nicola is every sexual fantasy men have. But is she just drawn that way? Like Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. We only see her through Sam’s filter. When Nicola reads a chapter Sam has written about her, she doesn’t recognize herself. But that doesn’t matter to Sam. It’s how he sees her, and he’s writing the story. So does Nicola welcome death because she’s too good for this shabby world? Or is it the only way out of a story in which she does not recognize herself?

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Abomination!

I have always believed kindness should be applauded. On Mother’s Day morning I was at my local grocery store, and the employees were handing one red rose to each mom as she was leaving. Now I am a mother. I come from a long line of mothers. My mom, for instance, was a MILF, which (I believe) means Mother I’d Like to Forget. The point is – I was really looking forward to getting my red rose.

And just as kindness should be applauded, pure evil should be demolished. That little high school hussy didn’t give me a rose. She saw me walking to the exit, and she went off to talk with her friend – probably to buy drugs.

So I had two choices. I could follow her and politely ask for my well-deserved rose. Or I could go home and stew. Maybe even let it ruin my Mother’s Day. Complain about it to strangers. I knew my decision would reveal a lot about me as a mother.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Anthem: Coming Soon to Netflix

The back cover of Noah Hawley’s Anthem informs the reader “[t]his isn’t a fairy tale.” The admonition is repeated inside the covers as well. This is either clever misdirection or false advertising, because the story has a wizard, witch, Orcs, goblins, ghosts, and trolls. Despite the presence of strong female characters and an appealing ethnic diversity that looks like America, this tale is as conventional as it gets: a ragtag group of heroes goes on a quest to save a damsel-in-distress. So don’t be deceived or misdirected. This is a fairy tale, and it was written with Hollywood in mind.

Now wait a minute, Gladiola. How can you say that? You don’t know the writer personally. You haven’t pissed with his penis. To which I reply: true, gross, and that’s not how the saying goes.

This is how I know. All the adults are evil and selfish, and the ragtag heroes are sexy teenagers. But, wait, there’s more. Unlike any teenagers you or I know, they immediately cooperate with each other (even though most of them have never met before) and (though they have no training in combat) they are able to take on a group of professionally-trained mercenaries. Sounds like Hollywood’s youth fetish to me. Plus, Mr Hawley’s background is in television and film.

All this should not suggest the story is bad. As a traditional quest narrative, it succeeds. It’s a page turner. But it is also a vision of contemporary society as seen through Hollywood’s dark, expensive sunglasses. Everyone is one dimensional. The heroes have backstories designed to pluck every heartstring three or more times. All the monsters are irredeemably evil and pulled from today’s headlines. The wizard is a pedophile modeled after Jeffrey Epstein. But he is so sexually cannibalistic, Epstein’s perversions appear quaint by comparison. One family resembles the Sacklers of Purdue Pharma infamy. But the fictional version is so greedy and selfish, the Sacklers come across as pickpockets. Donald Trump does not appear in the story, but he is constantly referred to. Except here he is not a sore loser ex-president, he is a God King – something only Trump himself would believe.

Mr. Hawley never preaches. His skills are more formidable. He screams. He rubs the reader’s face in bromides – all of them variants of WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL THE ADULTS IN AMERICA! Many things, obviously. But perhaps not as many as Mr. Hawley would have us believe.

I am not discouraging you from reading this book if you are so inclined. It’s a fine fairy tale. However, you could simply wait for it to come out on Netflix.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Flowers and Stars for Algernon

If you enjoy the musical stylings of Sting (and who doesn’t?), you might enjoy Richard Powers’ Bewilderment. It’s creative, intelligent, and pretentious. Everything you want in a good pop song.

The story follows a father and son, Robin, as they cope with the recent death of Robin’s mother. The father is an astronomer. Robin is 9 years old and diagnosed as being on the spectrum – a vague assessment that is less than helpful because, as his father points out, “everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.” At any rate Robin is extremely sensitive to everything and has difficulty relating to his “normal” classmates – so they torment him.

To help re-wire his brain, he is enrolled in an experimental but promising neurofeedback program, which works wonders until a nefarious orange-haired politician spitefully cuts off the funding. Robin begins to revert with devastating consequences. It only sounds like a 2021 version of Flowers for Algernon because it is.

The novel works best when it focuses on astronomy and the search for unknown (to us) planets throughout the universe. “The laws that govern the light from a firefly in my backyard . . . also govern the light emitted from an exploding star one billion light years away . . . One set of rules runs the game, in all times and places.” In language accessible to a layperson, the novel discusses scientific matters, such as the Fermi Paradox, which (to paraphrase) states: if the universe favors life (and science indicates it does) then, given all the universe’s time and space, why does it seem no one is out there. These sections are fascinating.

However, the novel gets bogged down when the discussion returns to Earth. The parallels to Flowers for Algernon are obvious, and the reader has a fairly good grasp of where the novel is headed from the beginning. The references to the Trump presidency are strident. Mr. Powers is not a fan. He is angry but so are a lot of people, and he does not bring anything new or all that interesting to the conversation. The novel succeeds when it explores the universe – just not that portion pertaining to Earth.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Not Too Shabby

If you are a fan of historical fiction, it is hard to do better than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both won the Man Booker Prize. As that esteemed literary critic Adam Sandler would say: not too shabby. The third and final book in this sympathetic treatment of Thomas Cromwell is The Mirror and the Light. It did not win the Man Booker Prize. Probably didn’t come close.

Who is Thomas Cromwell, you ask. Congratulations! You aren’t English. Moreover, you are probably an upstanding citizen living a meaningful and productive life.

Thomas Cromwell lived in the first half of the 1500s. But you don’t need to be familiar with the English Reformation to enjoy these books. Wolf Hall describes Cromwell’s brutal childhood and how he rose from obscurity to become Henry VIII’s most influential adviser. His chief adversary is Sir Thomas More, who is opposed to Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The book ends with More’s execution. Cromwell has accumulated wealth, power, and a potent ally in Anne Boleyn.

Bring Up the Bodies opens with Henry married to Anne. However, Henry soon grows tired of her and falls in love with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s alliance with Anne is now problematic, as Henry expects Cromwell to find a way to get rid of her so he can marry Jane. Cromwell accomplishes this and in doing so manages to have some of his political enemies executed as well. But, of course, Anne must lose her head too. The book ends with Anne’s execution and Cromwell at the height of his power and influence.

Anyone familiar with Greek tragedy knows this is where it all unravels for Cromwell – if only the unraveling wasn’t so plodding. Welcome to The Mirror and the Light, which limps along to Cromwell’s demise.

The first 2 books are stellar. Cromwell’s adversaries (Thomas More and Anne Boleyn) are worthy opponents and truly challenge him. In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell’s only real adversary is himself, and he makes several mistakes that ultimately lead to his execution. It just takes a long time to get there.

The history of this time is fascinating, and Ms. Mantel has certainly done her research. Just as importantly, she knows how to tell a compelling story – at least she does in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Cromwell had an eventful life. But ultimately his livelihood (and his life) depended on the whims of a paranoid, superstitious, and mercurial monarch. As one character describes Cromwell’s predicament: “[y]our whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.” Fortunately, we live in a time when monarchs don’t have the power or inclination to ruin people’s lives. Just ask England.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor