Review: Refreshing and Affecting Fantasy in Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago

This review contains mild spoilers.

 

If anyone ever tells you that fantasy literature is a stale genre with tired tropes, direct them to two 2019 releases: Booker Prize winner Marlon James’ epic fantasy debut Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the latest novel from Canadian mythweaver (and U of T Law alum) Guy Gavriel Kay, titled A Brightness Long Ago. Both are risky, powerful narratives that think about history and storytelling, and are luminous additions to a modern fantasy environment of constant experimentation and improvement.

James’ Leopard is the first in his Dark Star trilogy, all set in a violent, hallucinatory world inspired by African myth. Each volume will explore the same circumstances from a different perspective, weaving a complicated Rashomom-style story-braid that speaks to how we tell stories with the limited information we have. Leopard is a prison confessional narrated by Tracker, a man who can find anyone (even the dead) for the right price. His is the story of a failed attempt by nine individuals to find a boy—but why anyone wants him found is a secret being kept from some in the group.

Meanwhile, Kay’s Brightness is set in the same world as his celebrated Sarantine Mosaic, twenty-something years before the events of Children of Earth and Sky, published in 2017. This is the sixth novel in this shared world built from real-world history; Brightness is a clear parallel to Renaissance Italy, a time of both celebrated art and bloody wars between city-states. It follows the lives of several characters, noble and common, against the backdrop of a feud between two great mercenary captains and the faraway siege of the glittering city of Sarantium, inspired by the Fall of Constantinople led by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 CE.

There is a lot that makes these novels atypical, beginning with style. James writes with a literary density of allusion that doesn’t often produce bestselling epics, and the action set-pieces that might deserve their own chapter in another book begin and conclude with barely enough time to be processed. It feels like an epic on steroids, or a tale told by a narrator who is partial to some parts over others—which indeed it is. There are dead-ends and half-truths and only a hint of a deeper story. In a similarly subversive fashion, Kay finds his characters meandering along arcs without the endings one might expect: We follow a healer’s nomadic journey across the world for a few years as her path intersects with other characters, only to have the rest of her life unspooled in a few paragraphs at the end, including her death. Kay has a reputation for changing tenses to heighten drama or make a point, but here his promiscuity extends to point-of-view, going from first to third and, in my favourite scene, second person, as the reader is invited to view the story from the omniscient authorial perspective.

These deviations from the norm can bring a level of discomfort or dissatisfaction to the reading experience. But the full power of these novels can only be felt by surrendering to what the authors have made. After all, there are enough well-worn fireside tales out there. Occasionally you need to jolt your system with something new.

In writing a novel with an unusual narrative structure—long prologue, sudden timeskip, rushed epilogue—James is exploring a new kind of storytelling, one that is paralleled by his unconventional approach to worldbuilding. A rogue’s gallery of monsters drawn from African myth are mentioned in passing without much exposition as to what they look like until we meet them. The very confusion generated highlights how encumbered fantasy has become with its European bestiary. We know what werewolves and vampires are, but what the hell is an Ipundulu? Or a grass troll—is it a species of African orc? Education is sometimes uncomfortable. But those who persevere past their initial disorientation will be rewarded.

Brightness is also out to educate. For Kay, who is writing about history as a set of unexpected occurrences in the lives of individuals, that means showing us the world away from the defining conflict of its time—the siege of Sarantium—as proof that life and politics go on even in the midst of great historical events. Our characters will perhaps go unnoted by historians, but their choices will still affect the outcomes of important moments. That is why some character arcs end so unspectacularly. It’s realistic. But the journey to those endpoints is so wonderfully executed that Kay can be forgiven. And at the very end of the story we are told that even though our loved ones may have died and been forgotten, they have not been forgotten by us, and we can keep those memories and let them guide us through every turning of Fortune’s wheel. We live on in memory “for as near to always as we are allowed.”

What truly makes these novels wonderous reading are the powerful character moments placed alongside this didacticism. Without them the stories might feel gimmicky, amongst the worst of fiction that doesn’t understand that its primary purpose is entertainment, not commentary. Each novel has a romance element, each with its own strength. Leopard’s is an explosion of tenderness after a violent streak lasting hundreds of pages; it’s a queer love story that feels as healing for the reader as the characters involved. Brightness’ is bittersweet, told in flashback and framed in the evening light of memory, a soft, warm illumination that picks out that fullness of life we can’t always find in the moment. Powerful scenes linger long after the last page is turned: a horse-race to end all others, a gladiatorial ogre fight, a tree where love lives, and chance encounters on a green, windy road that alter the course of a life.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf and A Brightness Long Ago are two novels with things you didn’t want but can enjoy, and things you didn’t know you wanted and will love. Surrender and be astonished.

Contributed by Tahmeed Shafiq 

 

Frankenstein vs. Prometheus: A Consideration

The fact that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was given the alternate title of “The Modern Prometheus” has always puzzled me. So being as mildly obsessed with mythology as I am, I started to consider just why Victor Frankenstein was casually likened to an ancient Greek titan Prometheus.

When I previously thought about Frankenstein, I saw oppositions between the titan and the man. Reading Frankenstein as a mythological homage would require one to view it as a cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to have the power of a god. However, when Prometheus pulled his tricks he already had the power of a god, or more accurately a titan. This power gave him the ability to mistreat the gods and steal fire. He is an immortal being and known by the Olympians as quite the trickster, although his offences towards the gods were often in favour of the humans.

The most common myth known concerning Prometheus is the one in which he steals fire for mankind, got locked away for this offense, and then was  forced to have his liver repeatedly eaten by an eagle. Although, there is a longer preamble to this myth that should be considered for this comparison to Frankenstein. Prometheus was punished for stealing that fire that Zeus was specifically withholding because Prometheus had essentially played a prank.

This reaction angered Prometheus as he was very fond of humankind. Therefore, he stole back the fire from the gods for the humans to use. In my eyes, this is a very stark difference between Frankenstein and Prometheus. The titan is motivated towards his actions by the desire to help those he cares for; whereas Victor Frankenstein is motivated by his own desire to surpass what is known science.  The overall character motivations create a divide in my mind between the two characters. I believe that there is a very large, gaping distance between the desire to do something because you like or care about someone vs. the desire to do something simply because you want to see if you can.

Another thing to think about is the idea that Prometheus cares for his creations. There are certain myths in which Prometheus himself created mankind, or at least a specific surviving age of it. This creation of mankind goes hand in hand with the care for them, and the overall desire to provide them with what they need i.e fire.

When you look at the relationship between Frankenstein and what he creates, the first thing you get is terror. No desire to protect or help, simply an instant regret for having created what he sees as an atrocity. The fatherly nature that Prometheus takes towards humans is a key part of his being known and remembered—along with the trickery and intelligence. I feel like looking at the overall story of Frankenstein, that there may be a tad bit of a different outcome there. Considering that Frankenstein himself left his monster to fend for himself in a countryside where if he was seen, he was feared and possibly attacked. Granted, the monster was able to learn to speak and the basic ways of the world, but that was with no help from his creator, nor did it allow him to be accepted in the world.

Now let’s discuss what is known as common knowledge about Frankenstein, which is that from classic horror to Scooby-Doo Halloween specials, Frankenstein’s monster has been terribly afraid of fire. So why did Mary Shelley decide to connect her creature that has such a terrible experience with fire to the one who brings fire to human beings? This, I propose , must have to do with the monster’s interaction leading to knowledge about the world. This connects to the fact that Prometheus is known to be a titan  of great intelligence, and the fact that fire hurts is one of the first things that Frankenstein’s monster learns about the world. I think it is significant to note here, that fire is a connection to the monster instead of Frankenstein, the main character of the book.

There are a handful of these connections between Victor and Prometheus as well, like them both being, or thinking that they are, the smartest of their kind, and their connection to creation. However, I truly do think that there is more that is noticeably opposite about the two. The blatant disregard for his creation drives a wedge between Victor Frankenstein and the titan who taught his son how to save humanity. A translation of Prometheus’ name brands him to be the “fore-learner” over his brother, whereas Frankenstein gains his knowledge through greed and not necessity. In my mind the allusion to the mythology in the title of Frankenstein is simply not justified with the extent of the differences between Frankenstein and Prometheus.

Contributed by Riley Switzman. 

The Heart of Hunter x Hunter

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In a genre known for tough guys eager to duke it out for the sake of it, drawn-out tactical fights that can last episodes, power-levels, and edge-lords, the acts of love and understanding which denote Hunter x Hunter’s (2011) narrative climaxes seem somewhat out of place. As a shonen anime, Hunter x Hunter has a peculiar focus on hearts. By hearts, I mean visceral blood-pumping organs as well as emotions that are commonly associated as “coming from the heart,” such as friendship, love, and empathy. By peculiar, I don’t mean to suggest that this focus was awkward–in fact, I found that it enhanced the show and refreshed an otherwise over-done genre. Having hearts allows Hunter x Hunter to be a show that is still about tough characters and awesome battles, but with an added emotional depth that shatters the preconceived notions of what a shonen should be in order to create characters who seem more like people caught up in dangerous situations, rather than heroes versus villains. Let’s take a look at a few of these heart-pumping moments to get an idea of what I mean.

 

When organic hearts appear in Hunter x Hunter, they are always near the end of brutal fight scenes that often leave me doubting the morals of the ‘good’ characters I had so eagerly supported. The first of these pits Killua, a punkish thirteen year-old skater boy, against the convicted mass-murderer Johness, known for taking pleasure in ripping his victims apart with his bare-hands. Killua ends the fight before it begins, ripping Johness’s beating heart from his chest. This not only leads to the revelation that Killua comes from an infamous family of assassins, but also that his moral compass, at first assumed to be aligned with that of his life-loving best-friend – and series protagonist – Gon Freecs, is far more cold and sinister.

 

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Similarly, Kurapika, the calm and collected thinker of the main group of characters, goes berserk when faced with Uvogin, a member of the Phantom Troupe – the gang of thieves who committed the genocide of his entire clan. In another extremely one-sided fight, Kurapika decimates Uvogin, rupturing the thief’s heart with his magical chain when the latter refuses to betray his closest friends. Moments like these reveal a darker side to characters who are, in more peaceful situations, friendly, and kind. This theme of grey morality, that the heroes of the show are capable of villainous actions, and that the villains are capable of being heroic, carries on throughout the show.

 

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Hunter x Hunter shows that the interchangeability of good and evil are a result of the opening or the closing of one’s heart. When Gon murders Neferpitou out of vengeance, Killua is saddened to witness his friend’s monstrous actions.

 

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On the other hand, the antagonist of the show’s longest arc, Meruem, chooses to halt his plans for world domination in order to spend his last moments with the one he loves.

 

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These themes come to a head in the show’s final arc as Killua and Alluka confront their older brother Illumi. Whereas Illumi sees Alluka’s god-like powers as a weapon to be used, Killua sees Alluka as nothing other than his sister. Prior to the confrontation, it is established that Illumis believes Alluka’s powers can only be activated upon granting a series of her requests. This is shown to be incorrect when Killua simply asks Alluka to send Illumi away, and she does. What this suggests is that trying to logically identify and to establish reasonable methods to activate Alluka’s power is futile because there is none. All she needed was the same love given to the rest of her siblings, all she needed was someone willing to open their heart and accept her wholly.

 

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All of this is not to say that Hunter x Hunter throws out what makes it shonen in favour of a cliched “love conquers all” narrative. It’s more complicated than that. Hunter x Hunter is unabashedly shonen, it revels in its archetypes just as much as it subverts its tropes. But, Yoshirio Togashi’s decision to tell a story where a character’s feelings are more important than their power-level allows his characters to be less like talking anime chess pieces with unique abilities, and more like people. His characters are allowed to become individuals whose personal thoughts and emotions transcend their heroic or villainous roles within the narrative. Because of this, Togashi’s story has a level of character depth and unpredictability that I have a hard time finding elsewhere within the shonen genre. The tension that comes from fights are no longer about who is going to win and how, but rather how the consequences of violent confrontations will haunt the participants, and, through them, affect those they love most. Good versus evil doesn’t quite vanish, rather they get stripped down to what they really are: people versus people. In Hunter x Hunter, anyone can be a hero, or a monster. All it takes is a change of heart.

 

Contributed by Lawrence Stewen

Ava’s Pick: Top 7 Female-Centered Fantasy Books

With the rise of TV shows like Game of Thrones and American Gods, the fantasy genre has has gained widespread popularity in recent years, reaching people who wouldn’t have even paid attention to fantasy stories before. The likes of Brandon Sanderson, J. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman and George R. Martin have become household names. The heroes in these stories go on dangerous adventures, where they fight tyrants, wield magic and ride dragons. These heroes are spectacular and their stories are breathtaking. The prevailing issue?

The books that dominate the high fantasy genre are written primarily by male authors for male audiences. Women are rarely seen in these roles, laying waste to battlefields and becoming the stuff of myths and legends. Moreover, fantasy books with female protagonists are either largely ignored or promptly carted off to the Young Adult section. Female-centered fantasy books are often afforded nothing but a cursory glance, even though they deserve a space in the mainstream fantasy genre. Without further ado, here are my personal top 7 fantasy books written by female authors and centered on female protagonists:

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #1)

Set in the terrifying “Stillness”, The Fifth Season follows three intertwining, gloriously female narratives in the struggle for survival on a hostile planet habitually torn apart by the apocalyptic Fifth Seasons, a force that wipes out civilizations every few hundred years. Only the orogenes have the power to evade doomsday after doomsday, stopping earthquakes in their tracks. Essun, an orogene in hiding, must brave the wasteland to find the daughter that was taken from her. Page after page,  N. K. Jemisin slowly reveals a world that is brilliant and horrifying in equal measure – the characters that inhabit this world even more so.

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Green Rider by Kristen Britain (Green Rider #1)

Total misfit, Karigan G’ladheon, is running away from school when the legendary Green Rider bursts onto her path, bearing a life or death message for the King. Injured and dying, the Rider passes on the letter and his position to Karigan, who is more than a little hesitant to take up the mantle of a dead man. Hunted by mercenaries and monsters, Karigan is waylaid by magic and political intrigue. With an exceptional heroine and epic quest for adventure, Green Rider is a great series for fantasy lovers.

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Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass #1)

Once universally feared as a highly sought after assassin, Celaena Sardothien is not one to be trifled with. After a year enslaved in the salt mines of Endovier, she is offered freedom by the Crown Prince himself, in return for acting as his champion in a competition to determine the next official royal assassin. When contestants start disappearing only to turn up dead, the royal palace becomes a magical battleground, and Celaena must stop the rampage before she succumbs to it. Celaena is as badass as they come, and the way her character grows and develops in later novels is phenomenal. Sarah J. Maas is a master storyteller, slowly bringing you into a world steeped in magic and lore.

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The Witching Hour by Anne Rice (Lives of the Mayfair Witches #1)

With The Witching Hour Anne Rice writes a goth epic of blood, black magic, sex, and the supernatural. Spanning four centuries, The Witching Hour anchors itself on a great dynasty of Mayfair witches – a catatonic family torn apart and bound together by monsters, incest, secrets, and magic. Given up for adoption at birth, Rowan Mayfair leads a normal but successful life as a doctor. Any sense of normalcy is shot to hell when Rowan’s birth mother dies and she discovers her connection to an ancient coven of black magic witches. Anne Rice’s prose is breathtaking, and the historical backdrop of The Witching Hour makes for a really splendid read.

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Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce (Daughter of the Lioness #1)

This list would be completely amiss without Tamora Pierce, who was more or less the pioneer of female-centered fantasy. In Trickster’s Choice, Alianne wants to become a spy and serve her kingdom, but her parents are vehemently against it. When she is captured and sold into slavery abroad, she has to employ her natural espionage skills or die, in a court ruled by political intrigue, murderous gods, and dangerous conspiracies. While Trickster’s Choice is more of a Young Adult novel, it’s nevertheless a terrific read anchored in the epic aspects of fantasy. 

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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

The daughter of a bad moneylender and the granddaughter of a great one, Miryem takes matters into her own hands and takes control of the family business to pull her family out of poverty. She’s so successful at making money that she claims offhandedly that she can practically turn silver into gold. Big mistake when she lives right next door to the deadly Staryk, who will do anything  to get their hands on said gold.  Centered on Celtic myth and Jewish culture, Spinning Silver is a breathtaking story built on female friendship and solidarity. It had great characterization, brilliant storytelling, and beautiful prose – five stars.

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Six of crows by Leigh Bardugo

In a fantasy realm filled with magic and corruption, Kaz Brekker, a ruthless and cold-blooded gang leader, throws together a ragtag team of criminals to perform a high-stakes heist in the deadliest city in the world. Their motto? No mourners, no funerals. Deliciously dark and intensely magical, Six of Crows has a brilliant cast of diverse and multi-layered characters. Bardugo’s world-building is masterful, and the way the story unfolds is nothing short of exceptional. 

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What are some of your favorite fantasy novels written by women?

 

Contributed by Ava Fathi 

“One Piece”: A Review

One Piece – Why is it special?

One Piece’s reputation precedes it. Setting a Guinness World Record for the most copies published for the same comic book series by a single author, it’s been in near-constant serialization for over 15 years and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. One Piece is a Japanese shonen manga, an action-oriented fantasy following in the footsteps of renowned titles like Dragon Ball. Yet, in terms of longevity, One Piece stands head and shoulders above its influences and contemporaries . So, what makes One Piece special?

Story Structure – A Grand Odyssey

One Piece is a simple story about a treasure hunt. The story follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a happy-go-lucky boy harbouring the powers of a “Devil Fruit” that turned his body into rubber. He sets sail for the Grand Line (a colossal planet-spanning sea) in search of the fabled treasure known only as “One Piece”. What follows is a massive island hopping adventure– which allows Luffy to slowly assemble an equally ambitious crew, battle rival pirates, and fight off Marines (operatives of an oppressive World Government bent on stamping out piracy).

Each island has a distinct geography, social structure and position in the interconnected network of the Grand Line: some are occupied by Marines, others are independent kingdoms, and still more are uncharted territory.  The surprisingly intricate geopolitical landscape allows for a wide variety of plot threads; Marine bases can be invaded by our heroes to rescue comrades, while alliances can be forged with neutral kingdoms to quell rebellions. The consequences of these varied story arcs form a constantly evolving world that exists independently of our heroes.   

The versatility of this setting works wonders for a long-running action comic by preventing narrative stagnation and providing a constant sense of progression. Sailing to the next island is always accompanied by anticipation for a new story-line and new ideas, and it’s always a tangible step closer to the crew’s ultimate goals. One Piece, therefore, is one of the few shonen manga that justifies its length. The journey’s grand scale is complemented by the story’s length, novel ideas are explored at each island and the overarching narrative maintains a steady momentum towards a definite, inevitable finish line.

Artwork – Humour and Worldbuilding  

Eiichiro’s Oda distinctive artwork is the most immediately noticeable aspect of the comic. Faces and bodies have exaggerated proportions, often contorting to convey strong emotions or pull off inhuman martial arts feats. And the designs of characters themselves walk a fine line between the traditionally cool and hilariously goofy: where else can you find a megalomaniac king/mafia swathed in flamingo feathers, a cyborg sporting a pompadour, or a government assassin who morphs into a cuboid giraffe? This isn’t surface level novelty either, as character designs are often visual indicators for a character’s colorful personality or superhuman martial abilities. For instance, the aforementioned cyborg can detach his sideburns to use as projectiles in combat.  

This design philosophy carries over to the world itself. We’ve seen islands on the back of ancient elephants, islands made of giant pastries, islands housed in undersea bubbles, etc.  However, worldbuilding is never sacrificed for the sake of novelty or a cheap laugh. Geographical features pose challenges for our heroes, like using a freakin’ boat to reach an island in the clouds, or play into the aforementioned social structures and global political landscape. This attention to detail ensures that the world feels cohesive and lived-in despite its absurdity.

Characterization – Friendship and Ambition

Beyond the wonders of adventure, One Piece heavily focuses on camaraderie and platonic relationships. The concept of building a crew remains integral to the story progression and the characters. Crew members are handpicked by Luffy and, through the course of the journey, have their motivations and personalities thoroughly explored (often through flashback sequences).

Roronoa Zoro is a prime example of this approach to characterization. An ex-bounty hunter, Zoro is bent on becoming the greatest swordsman in the world. He’s the first person to join Luffy’s crew and is initially skeptical of the fledgling captain. However, Zoro soon gains real respect for Luffy’s wild ambition (as it mirrors his own), and becomes his most ardent supporter, despite being qualified to be a leader in his own right. While Zoro’s loyalty demonstrates his own growth, it also highlights Luffy’s leadership capabilities. When the going gets tough, even the fun-loving Luffy gets serious and takes up the captain’s mantle.

This type of development has been afforded to all ten members of the crew so far, and forms a believable bond between all of them. Beyond an innate desire to see new islands and characters, it’s this friendship that drives the story forward. This isn’t a story about chosen ones on a quest to save the world, it’s a story about misfits and weirdos chasing their unrealistic, foolish dreams. Friendship ties the weird, disparate elements of the story’s world together. No matter where we go in One Piece, we’ll do it as a crew.

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, One Piece isn’t an infallible comic. Not every arc is a winner, some characters aren’t especially deep, and the humour isn’t for everyone. But it’s worth examining the properties that make it unique, as these same properties have cemented it as one of the longest-lived stories of our time, a true epic in the making. One Piece’s strengths reveal themselves as the world unfolds, and it’s a lot of fun to be along for the cruise.

 

Contributed by Avi DasGupta 

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“The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”: A Review

Remaking old classics with a darker twist has been a common trend in film and television lately, and Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the latest example of this. Sabrina The Teenage Witch was a comic book series published by Archie Comics starring a spirited girl who lived with her aunts and had to balance her normal life along with being a witch. A sitcom was made in the 90’s by the same name that maintained the relatively light and witty tone of the comics (it’s delightful! I recommend it.)

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina keeps much of the original details from the comics: Sabrina’s still an orphan and a half-witch (her mother was a mortal), she still lives with her Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda, and she still goes to high school with her mortal friends. However, the show adds another element to this premise that drastically changes the tone, clouding it with something more sinister. In this adaption, all witches and warlocks are members of the Church of Night, in which they serve the Dark Lord. This Dark Lord, instead of being some vague presence, is actually referred to as being Satan. The show’s script normalizes this Satan worshipping (such as with characters casually exclaiming “Praise Satan!”). There are also priests in this Church of Night, like the character Father Faustus, and every person who “walks the path of night” must undergo a “dark baptism.” These are some of the main examples of Christian symbols and elements being inverted for the purposes of creating this “other” world. This concept by itself is one thing but adding it to an already existing notion of witchcraft complicates the premise, making the show difficult to carry it out successfully and believably. Not to mention that equivocating witchcraft with Satanism is inaccurate and also potentially problematic.

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In Netflix’s adaption, a giant statue of Baphomet stands in the central hall of The Academy of Unseen Arts, a magical school that Sabrina attends on a part-time basis. Baphomet is an image of a man with the head of a goat and is a deity present in many occult traditions. However, this statue got The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina into a bit of legal trouble recently. The Satanic Temple (religious and political activist group based in Salem, Massachusetts) claimed that the statue too closely resembled their own, thus violating copyright laws. However, the lawsuit has since been amicably settled. The Satanic Temple also addressed, as did many other spectators, that the show also inaccurately portrays Satanism. However, there were other Satanist representatives that went against this and said that they didn’t take issue with the show at all, so the reactions have been fairly mixed. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are also people who identify as witches and this portrayal of magic and witchcraft may be equally unsatisfactory to them as well.

Despite this faulty and often clumsy equivocation of witchcraft and Satanism, the show has many elements that I enjoyed. The cast is diverse and the characters they play are complex and interesting. The dialogue is witty and snappy, the visuals are beautiful, the soundtrack is great, and the story itself is very fast-paced and intriguing. I found myself fully invested in Sabrina’s life and the choices she made. I also thought that “The Academy of Unseen Arts” was really fascinating (who doesn’t love witchy boarding schools?) and thought that these positive aspects to the show carried it through.

However, all of the problems discussed above did stay in my mind throughout watching and I definitely think that this took away from the show instead of adding to it. The original premise of Sabrina The Teenage Witch could have been given a far more inventive and fresher “dark” twist than what was done.  The continuous inversions of Christian symbols and rituals that I mentioned earlier got too obvious and overdone at certain points of the show and made it seem like they were over-emphasizing their point. The unseen arts academy, the elements of the occult and the magical creatures present in the show could have definitely stood on their own without the label of “Satanic” being attached to them.

Despite all of this, I understand creative license and the fact that this show is very clearly in the fantasy genre and does not explicitly aim to comment on real-world Satanists and real-world witches and pagans or try to misrepresent them as the same thing. Many people understand this, which is why despite the controversies and legal disputes, representatives from various affiliations have spoken up in defense of the show. Since it’s been so widely enjoyed it, it has been renewed for a new season. Admittedly, I am very much looking forward to it and I am curious to see what Sabrina gets up to next!

Contributed by Grusha Singh

The Golem and The Jinni

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In her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, Helen Wecker crafts a tale of two magical creatures who find themselves amongst the large mass of immigrants in 19th century New York City. Chava is a golem crafted from clay, recently created because golems are naturally bound to servitude and her master wanted an obedient wife. When her master dies at sea, Chava finds herself in the city all alone.

Meanwhile, a tinsmith in Little Syria is busily fixing a copper flask when a young man suddenly leaps out of it. The man reveals himself as Ahmad, a jinni entirely made of fire. Ahmad had been trapped in the flask for the past century and was now finally set free by the tinsmith. Given their newfound freedom, Chava and Ahmad must try to settle into human guises and make a living for themselves in this strange new city. Chava takes up a position at a bakery, and a kind Rabbi who knows about her supernatural nature gives her housing. Ahmad voluntarily works for the tinsmith who freed him to keep himself occupied.

One fateful night, Chava and Ahmad cross paths. As soon as they meet, they immediately recognize each other’s magical nature and are warily drawn to each other. Due to this curiosity and the relief in knowing they are not the only supernatural beings in the city, Chava and Ahmad begin to take nightly strolls together and form a tentative friendship. They talk about their struggles in fitting in to this human society.

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By Mia Carnevale

Ahmad is an ancient, restless creature who grows impatient each day with what he perceives as the monotony around him. He longs to go back to the desert and be with his own people, but he must first try to find a way to return to his full original form. Chava, however, is extremely new to the world and is deeply overwhelmed by it. She throws herself into her work to build a routine and be able to serve others. Despite their differences, Chava and Ahmad both find it easy to speak freely with each other, even though it leads to heated arguments. The main questions explored in the novel arise through conversations. What does it mean to be a human being? How does one control primitive instincts while assimilating to a new world? Is there a middle ground between free will and submission to fate?

As the novel unfolds, Chava and Ahmad interact with a variety of background characters who each carry their own vibrant stories. There is Mahmoud the ice cream maker, a long dead Bedouin girl, an heiress named Sophia, and a cunning wizard named Schaalman. All of these characters seem unrelated to each other at first, but their story-lines all eventually tie together through unexpected and sometimes dramatic revelations. Wecker does an excellent job at building up the story’s main conflict and resolving it in a refreshing and inventive way. The lives of Chava and Ahmad remain extremely intriguing to the very end of the book, but the author still gives us a satisfying amount of closure with their fate.

As an avid reader of fantasy novels, I can attest to the fact that most of them are mainly based on European/Western legends and mythology. That’s why I found The Golem and the Jinni to be a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre; it focuses on magical elements from other cultures that haven’t been nearly as ambitiously explored. Through the titular characters of The Golem and the Jinni, Wecker draws upon Jewish mysticism and Arabian mythology respectively. She takes inspiration from these stories, adding her own thoughtful ideas and interpretations into the creation of these creatures and the laws that bind them. The different narratives are neatly woven together in a “story within a story” format that reminds me quite a bit of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights. The enchantingly vivid imagery and careful world-building are reminiscent as well.

The Golem and the Jinni is a gripping and dazzling tale filled with magic, adventure, and danger. However, it is also much more than that. It is a book that raises profoundly philosophical questions about faith, culture, society, and most importantly, the immigrant experience. Even though Chava and Ahmad are powerful magical creatures, they are also immigrants in an overwhelming city. Throughout the course of their experiences, they both must figure out how to stay true to their roots while they attempt to create a new life for themselves in this city they now hesitantly call home.

-Contributed by Grusha Singh

Submissions are OPEN for Winter 2018!

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Are you interested in submitting to The Spectatorial? Well, you’re in the right place. We are accepting submissions until FEBRUARY 17, 2017 for Volume VIII Part two.

Please read our Journal Submissions page to ensure that your piece meets our requirements. Sign up on our Facebook Event page to get our alerts and notifications!

We’re looking for:

  • Short Stories
  • Novel Excerpts
  • Poetry
  • Graphic Fiction
  • Academic Papers
  • Articles
  • Interviews
  • Visual Art

Send art as PDFs and text as .docs to thespectatorial@gmail.com. Please ensure that your name is not anywhere on the document itself.

Anything & everything speculative goes. Fantasy, horror, science fiction, superhero, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, gaslamp, steampunk, and anything else that you can think of. We accept papers and articles on film, photography, art shows, literature or any other medium that you believe you have seen express speculative elements. We also accept papers analyzing the place of speculative fiction as a whole, and encourage you to submit these sorts of analyses.

We are looking for two things: really good stories and strong, analytical thought. If you think you have what we’re looking for, we absolutely encourage you to submit to us.

Thank you for your interest in The Spectatorial. We’re excited to showcase your work!

Kimi no Na wa

Have you ever felt like you’ve lost something and won’t ever be able to find it? That’s the feeling I had when I watched Kimi no Na wa, or Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai.

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Image from thehypedgeek.com

Your Name opens with a classic body swap between Mitsuha Miyamizu and Taki Tachibana, two Japanese teenagers who wake up in each other’s bodies. Mitsuha lives in rural Itomori with her grandmother and younger sister, while Taki resides in Tokyo with his father. In the beginning, their struggles to adjust to each other’s lives are amusing, but their relationship blossoms when Taki is introduced to the culture and rituals of the Miyamizu family. Mitsuha and Taki attempt to meet face-to-face later on, and the repercussions of this final test will resonate with them for years to come.

In short, I highly recommend this movie. It’s one of the best anime films I’ve ever seen. I went in thinking I knew exactly what was going to happen, and came out wondering what kind of magic the production team had conjured behind the scenes. The following paragraphs are my attempt to piece things together. They contain SPOILERS, so I recommend watching the movie before reading on.

Names

The significance of names is prominent throughout the film, as names are keys to memory. Without a person’s name, you can’t link them explicitly to a solid memory or image. Furthermore, emotions and impressions can change more drastically without a name to tie them together, like when you wake up from a dream that dissipates before you can put it into words.

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Image from midnightpianist.wordpress.com

The first time Taki writes in Mitsuha’s notebook, asking “Who are you?” Mitsuha-in-Taki’s-body writes her name on his left hand with a black marker. The second time we see Mitsuha’s name written down is in her diary, which stresses the importance of her name as part of her identity. Taki attempts to understand her by using her name as his first point of entry.

At twilight, in the film’s climax, Mitsuha and Taki finally meet face-to-face. But the magic fades before they can write their names on each other’s hands, and their memories of each other fade as well. When twilight is over, they return to their own misaligned timelines and give up the most important thing to them—their memories of each other.

Time

According to Mitsuha’s grandmother, everything, including the flow of time, can be represented in the braided cords. The cords break, come undone, and then reunite. Time can similarly be unravelled, cut, then joined with strands which may otherwise never meet. In a way, water or sake and the braided cords all represent the flow of time. They encompass the various ways one can transfer something onto something else, such as: water from one destination to another, objects from one location to another, and the braided cords from one person to another. As water binds to the body, then to the soul, the braided cords bind the body and soul of its owners, joining them inseparably.

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Image from aminoapps.com

The red braid Mitsuha passes to Taki symbolizes the depth of their relationship, which will stay constant even if their connection breaks physically. By giving it to him, she is joining her future and her past with his own. The end of the film emphasizes this inseparable connection when the two are reunited despite the loss of their memories of each other. When they see each other while on separate trains, they’re moving in opposite directions, almost as if the strength of their bond shifted time itself to bring them together again—Mitsuha from the past, and Taki from the future – therefore, representing the triumph of personal connection over time’s unpredictable flow.

As I watched Your Name, I felt as if I had lost a piece of myself in the vivid art, music, and storytelling of a wonderful masterpiece. There would always be a part of me reliving the events of the tale, wondering if I’d ever be able to fully grasp the intricate threads that were woven into the narrative, and secretly hoping that I’d always keep searching.

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Image from blog.lhyeung.net

-Contributed by Vivian Li

Journey

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By Mia Carnevale

There are various ways of controlling anxiety or stress: sitting down with a good book, taking a walk outside, or even enjoying a cup of tea with one’s current activity. Video games tend to be overlooked in this area. They are better known for being loud or fast-paced—not what someone would turn to if they were searching for calm, or emotional investment.

This is the obstacle Jenova Chen set out to overcome in Journey, the final game of a three-part contract between Thatgamecompany and Sony that came out on PlayStation in March of 2012. It eliminates the goal-driven structure most video games follow, instead allowing one to get lost in the surroundings and music. The atmosphere makes it easy for a player to feel small.

The story is told without any verbal narrative and uses cut scenes that are, at times, ominous. It was only after finishing the game that I decided to go back and read about the storyline, picking up on details that enhance one’s understanding but don’t hinder the gameplay if missed. Journey is the story of a now-ruined civilization. The player travels through the remnants, past floating centipede-like mechanical automatons that are on the lookout for intruders.

The premise itself is fairly straightforward: the player assumes the role of a strange robed figure standing in an endless desert. A large mountain looms overhead, with a light shining upwards from its split peak. The goal is to slowly make one’s way through the game in order to reach the summit. But putting it that way eliminates all of the things that are important in Journey. Here, the focal point is in the things that people tend to overlook when playing a game.

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Image from kotaku.com

The music sets the tone from the very beginning. As the player guides the cloaked figure through the remnants of a destroyed civilization, there is already something meditative about the game. This is particularly evident when the figure’s scarf comes into play. Rune-decorated scarves and red ribbons are probably the central imagery of the game. The scarf lights up when fully charged by magical ribbons scattered throughout the environment. The charge is then slowly expended when you hold down the O button to fly. Later on, these ribbons form bridges, or make up huge floating jellyfish and serpent-like creatures. The player has to charge up at one creature before gliding on to the next one.

Large, white-cloaked figures reminiscent of Tibetan monks appear at occasional checkpoints to further elaborate on the story. The meditative quality of the gameplay is heightened by encounters with anonymous figures at various stages of the journey. These are controlled by other players somewhere in the world who happen to be at the same stage in the game. Players can communicate via a series of chiming tones, and can choose to work together by charging up each other’s scarves. These encounters build a sense of companionship that is strengthened by the anonymity and lack of competition between players.

Yet all of the above is still focused on the minute details of the game. The reality is that one must play the game in order to fully understand the effect Chen was going for. Despite how short it is—taking only a couple hours or so to complete—playing it feels like one has wandered into a tiny time loop. It’s a game that elicits melancholy and longing, as well as joy and relief, taking you from a vast desert into dark underground caverns guarded by Matrix-like automatons, then up the mountain and through a blizzard. There is one particular moment, at the end of the underground cavern before one has finally broken out, that I would gladly replay over and over again, flying from one ribbon jellyfish to another through a sea of golden mist as it rises higher and higher, until it finally bursts into a warm glow. It was a moment that sent a tingling sensation through me, making me understand what all the praise and near-perfect reviews were talking about.

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Image from picquery.com

At the end of the game, after reaching the summit, there is a beautiful cut scene of the player’s figure dissolving into an expanse of white light. A shooting star crosses the sky from the summit and follows the journey backwards, illuminating the other players who are on the same path. Once it fades beyond the sand dunes and the sun rises again, one has the option of starting the journey over again. Regardless of how cliché or predictable it may sound, Journey feels like an entire lifetime shrunken down into a few hours, at the end of which there is such an overwhelming spectrum of emotions that it is difficult to leave it behind. It’s a few hours of pure, unfiltered magic that has been skillfully woven into a narrative that doesn’t care about overloading the player with details or imposing criteria, instead it seeks to comfort and move, and does both in the most unique way possible.


-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko