There are spoilers ahead, though I try to avoid the biggest ones.
I was predisposed to love this series before I read the first bopok, after hearing the author explain that the inspiration for the first story was her own reading of tales (when she was a child herself) in which a child or group of children were transported to a magical world where they had a world-saving adventure but then were forced to go back home and just be ordinary kids again! And as a kid I had felt exactly the same way as I reached each of various fantasy books that I read.
When Seanan McGuire explained how she came to write the award-winning first story in the series, she mentioned specifically the original My Little Pony cartoon as one of her inspirations. I was exactly the wrong age when the original series came out, but the more recent My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series roped me in. So much so that for several years now with a group of friends I have been running a tabletop roleplaying game using the Fate system to run a campaign in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic universe, with the twist that we are crossing the series over with the Cthulhu Mythos (with a heavy sprinkling of things like Ash vs Evil Dead).
The upshot of all of this is, that once the title of the sixth book, Across the Green Grass Fields and the official blurb was released, I was essentially vibrating in great anticipation for the book. Because it was going to be about kids crossing through a portal to a world of adventure, but also specifically the original world which had inspired the author to start the series. So since this story would be about the aspect of this theme about which the author feels most passionate, presumably it would be one of the stronger entries in the series. Given that the fifth book was “merely” Really Good, but was therefore a letdown (for me) from the Stupendously Incredible that was the fourth book, I really wanted this book to wow me.
So, the book follows a young girl named Regen—who happens to be really into horses—who is having a bit of difficulty navigating grammar school. She had two very good friends, until one of those friends did something which the other friend felt wasn’t properly girlish and thus needed to be shunned. Regen feels very badly for the shunned friend, but also feels she can’t risk losing the regard of the bullying friend. There is some discussion to be had about whether deciding to stop being friends with someone should be regarded as bullying, but I’m afraid I come down on the side of the shunned girl’s mother that this behavior is a form of bullying.
Some years later, Regen begins feeling more insecure around her remaining friends because they seem to all be going through puberty and she isn’t. When she talks to her parents about it she finds out that she is intersex, specifically she has androgen insensitivity. They explain how the doctors discovered it, and reassure her again and again that this doesn’t mean anything is wrong with her. It’s just she won’t undergo puberty on her own, but she can with hormone replacement therapy.
This revelation bothers Regen even more. The next day at school she makes the mistake of telling the bully who she thinks is her friends. This does not go well, and she flees the school grounds, intended to go the long way back home. In the wooded area she is walking through toward home, she finds a mysterious door, which she goes through, and she winds up in another world.
She meets some of the inhabitants (a family of centaurs), and is informed that whenever a human comes to the Hooflands (which is what they call the world) something big will happen, and the human will save the world. Regen doesn’t want to save the world, particularly when she hears some of the stories of humans who came before her who all disappear after saving the world.
The Hooflands are inhabited by a lot of mythical creatures, all with some kind of hoof or other. The unicorns seem to be dumb animals (and are raised as livestock to be eaten by the centaurs). There are kelpies, fauns, perytons, and so forth. Some of species do not get along with others. Kelpies, for instance, are describe as mindless beasts and monsters.
Regen lives with the centaurs for a time. The happy family is disrupted because the Queen of the Hooflands puts a bounty on Regen. The centaurs relocate to a place where they think the Queen can’t find them and live there more or less happy for several years. Until it becomes clear that the Queen is evil and is hurting the other inhabitants of the Hooflands, so Regen sets out to try to save the world (without vanishing afterward).
There was, for me, a big problem with the book. The opening chapters, while Regen is dealing with the difficulties at school and discovering that she is intersex and so forth was extremely compelling. You know how some people yell at the TV when a character does something foolish? I was talking to the book when it became clear that Regen was about to tell the bully about her gender. I knew it was going to go badly, and McGuire had me on the edge of my seat about how badly it would go and what happened next.
But, again, this is how I experienced the book, not long after Regen arrived in the Hooflands almost all dramatic tension evaporated. I literally fell asleep while reading the second half of the book. Twice. It took me two more days than it ought to have to finish it because it just wasn’t grabbing me.
I’ve read other reviews of people who absolutely loved the book and found it rivetting to the end. The writing is good. There is not a big glaring plothole or anything like that. I just wasn’t able to make myself care about what happened to the Hooflands. I kept wanting to know what was going to happen when Regen got back. It just didn’t feel like anything important was at stake within the Hooflands part of the story.
This doesn’t mean that the book was badly written. It means this falls into the category of books that aren’t for me. This is not the first time that I have encountered this phenomenon with an author whose stories I otherwise adore. For whatever reason, this one didn’t grab me.
And I’m not happy about that! Because I really wanted to adore this book. I wanted it to move me the way book four did.
I might try to re-read it again later. Maybe I was just not in the right place mentally that week for it to resonate for me.
I still highly recommend the series. As mentioned above, there are people out there who absolutely loved this one. So maybe you will, too. I’m still looking forward to the next book. I hope it’s one that grabs me.
I need to get my other hosting issues sorted out and get a couple of my other sites back up on the web. But a conversation elseweb made me dig out this essay I wrote and first published 22 years ago and resurrect it on this blog. Homophobia is not a recent development in the sci fi community. But also neither is allyship, so:
(Originally published 18 June, 1999)
Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was one of America’s finest writers. He was one of the great figures of the Golden Age of science fiction. During his lifetime he produced over 200 stories, several novels, film and tv scripts (including two of the most famous episodes of the original “Star Trek” series), plays, and dozens of non-fiction reviews and essays. His many literary awards include the Hugo, the Nebula, and the International Fantasy Award.
Sturgeon wrote such great fiction because his philosophy was “Always ask the next question.” He even created a symbol or personal shorthand for “Ask the next question,” a capital “Q” with an arrow through it. He was never satisfied with conventional wisdom or pat answers.
And that tendency got him in big trouble in 1953, making him the central target of an intense “anti-homosexual blacklist” within the publishing community. Prior to the 1970s, it was virtually unheard of for gay men, lesbian, or bisexual characters to appear in any kind of fiction, and when they did, they were either vile villains or tragically flawed creatures who committed suicide before the end of the story. While many science fiction authors were questioning racial stereotypes or decrying McCarthy’s rabid anti-communism, they closed ranks with the rest of the status quo on the question of homosexuality.
Not Theodore Sturgeon. At the time a father of four and somewhat notorious womanizer, Sturgeon still couldn’t help but ask the next question. If racism was wrong, why not sexism and heterosexism? He wrote three short stories in quick succession. The first, “The Silken Swift” was a twist on the unicorn legend that questioned society’s definitions of purity and innocence, while making some comments about the role of women in most cultures. It caused a slight stir, but didn’t seem too far out. Then “The Sex Opposite” started showing up in editor’s mailboxes, in which Sturgeon posited a whole subspecies of humans who could change their gender at will, and whom engaged in long term relationships with members of all three sexes. This provoked a mild uproar, and many editors shied far away from it. Sturgeon started receiving unsolicited advice, some of it implied that people were assuming he was homosexual (because only a “pervert” would even think of portraying such relationships as possible, let alone successful and happy) and suggesting that he tone it down, for the sake of his career.
Which seemed to firm up Sturgeon’s resolve. He sat down at his typewriter and created “The World Well Lost” in which homosexual characters were not only portrayed as normal, well-adjusted people in the future, the story came right out and referred to the homophobic past has a horrible time. Fear and loathing of homosexuals was a sign of an immature society, the story said. This was too much for some people. The editor of the magazine Fantastic, Howard Browne, was so outraged by the tale, not only did he reject it, he immediately started phoning all the other editors he knew to organized a boycott of Sturgeon. Browne wasn’t satisfied with bullying other editors into agreeing never to publish anything from Sturgeon again. He and his cronies promised to completely ruin the career of anyone who dared publish “The World Well Lost” itself.
Ray Palmer was a feisty man who was editor of Universe Science Fiction, a small pulp sci-fi zine at the time. Perhaps it was because Mr. Palmer had suffered from disfiguring disability since childhood, and had little sympathy for bullies, but in any case, Palmer put “The World Well Lost” into a fast track to get it published right away. And he publicly dared Browne’s group to make good on their threat.
Browne’s coalition quickly crumbled, and the “Homosexual Blacklist” faded away before it had a chance to damage any other careers.
Sturgeon kept on asking the next question, never afraid to broach topics just because they were controversial. And Palmer enjoyed a long and successful career in publishing. Thanks to them, other writers in the fifties, sixties, and seventies could explore the subject of homosexuality in a more balanced and tolerant fashion. While it was true that, even into the late seventies, most readers, critics, and editors assumed that any author who wrote such a story was probably gay, bi, or lesbian themselves, it was because of two courageous heterosexual men, Sturgeon and Palmer, that those authors could give us those rare, early glimpses into a world where homophobia was neither common nor acceptable.
This pride month, remember to raise a toast to Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Palmer, two people who knew it was better to do the right thing than to be perceived as the right kind of people. Where ever their spirits are now, I’m sure they are still asking questions.
Time for a review of the latest episode of WandaVision: “A Very Special Episode…” Since I keep taking too long to finish these, I’m going to try to do a bit less verbose in my recapping and focus on reviewing. And before we get into that, I want to mention up front that while I thus far love this show playing on Disney+, it is still unfortunate that the Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.
This week’s episode continues the trend seen in the first three where Wanda, Vision, and the town of Westview moves through the decades with styles, decor, and so forth evoking sitcoms of a particular era. This episode has moved into the 80s, and while i recognized the styles and at least the homages during the opening sequence to Family Ties, but I have to confess that while I am familiar with a lot of the sitcoms of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, I didn’t watch much TV during the 1980s1. So I probably missed a bunch of subtle stuff in this one.
This episode moved back and forth between the viewpoint of Wanda and Vision inside the reality bubble, and the scientists and agents outside. With some direct interaction that did not go very well. It was interesting, it was intense in places, and the mystery managed to deepen some more. I don’t think I can say more without spoilers, so if you don’t want to read those, stop now!
Seriously, spoilers ahead!
When the lightning burns, the wolfsbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright – or, more of why I love sf/f
I have been trying to write a review of the sixth book in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and realized that I couldn’t really talk about it without talking about the rest of the series, and I had somehow neglected to write about the previous book when I read it last year, so I need to talk about it before I jump into the latest. So, this will be a review of the fifth book. For reference, I wrote about the first three novellas in this series here. And then I wrote about the fourth book (which left me sobbing uncontrollably), here.
I should preface this with this statement: before I read the first book in this series I was predisposed to love them, as the author had explained on a panel at a sci fi convention I attended, that the inspiration for the first story was her own reading of tales (when she was a child herself) in which a child or group of children were transported to a magical world where they faced danger, monsters, and adventure but managed to save that world… and then were forced to go back home and just be ordinary kids again!
And I definitely loved the first book in the series, as well as the next several sequels.
The fourth book, In An Absent Dream was—for me—the most devastating, but the first three had been pretty moving.
When the first teasers for the fifth book came out, I must admit I had mixed feelings. The first book had introduced us to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a refuge for those children who were not happy to be sent back to mundania after having slipped through the shadows into another world. Among the children we met in the first book were the twin sisters Jack and Jill, who had been to a world of horrors. And they had turned out to be central to the mystery of the first book. The second book in the series is a prequel to the first, and tells the story of how Jack and Jill (or Jacqueline and Jillian as they were known by their parents) went to that world, had their adventure, and come home.
It was clear from both the announced title of the fifth book and its official summary that we were going to be treated to yet another adventure involving Jack and Jill. And while I had enjoyed the first and second book in the series, there had been a whole lot of other characters introduced in the first and third books whose stories I really wanted to learn more of. So giving yet one more book to Jack and Jill, who had already had two books, seemed like it was giving the shaft to some of the other characters.
On the other hand, the magical world that Jack and Jill had traveled to, known as The Moors, was based on the old Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s. And I loved those particular movies, which had contributed quite a bit to how much I had loved the second book in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. So I wasn’t really complaining about getting to spend more time there.
McGuire has explained several times that the series is set up thusly: odd-numbered books will be set at the school and involve groups of children who have already had at least one magical adventure on their own working together to solve a problem, while even-numbered books will be straight up Portal Fantasies where we see one or more children going to one of the magical worlds for the first time, and how that transforms them.
So. Come Tumbling Down begins with Jack unexpectedly coming back to Eleanor West’s school after taking her deranged sister back to the Moors and needing help. Several characters accompany Jack and her resurrected girlfriend, Alexis, back to the Moors to try to stop Jill from doing something truly horrible that will (among other things) cause great harm to her sister, Jack. Not to mention cause a lot of other bad things to happen to the mostly innocent bystanders trying to live their lives on The Moors.
It is clear right away that something is very wrong. Jack and Alexis explain the situation, and beg some of the students of Eleanor West’s school to come back with them to The Moors to stop Jill’s evil plan, because Jack can’t do it without them. A couple of the other wayward children we met in earlier books, as well as at least one we haven’t seen before this book answer Jack’s call and go back with her to the Moors.
We get to see aspects of this world that weren’t covered in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is cool. But as the rest of the quest unfolded I had a bit of a problem. Most of the characters that Jack persuaded to come back weren’t actually needed to complete the quest. Honestly, exactly one, and only that one and only for one specific task of the characters that Jack begged to come back with her did anything that actually contributed to solving the problem. All of the other actions that contributed to the solution were performed by Jack on her own. So most of the characters (including one who paid a very significant price) were not needed after all. Their only purpose in the plot was to get hurt (or worse) to create some tension, and not actually to contribute to the final solution.
It can be argued that Jack didn’t know that when she pled her case early in the book… but the author should have known that, and should have structured the story somewhat differently.
Mind you, I enjoyed the quest, its solution, and the new things we learned about the Moors. I just think the author dropped the ball at a couple of points in the plot, is what I’m saying.
However, the over all story—most importantly the explicit revelation that what some people call a monster can actually be the hero of the tale—was very entertaining and quite good. So like every other story I’ve read by this author, by the end despite some things not going the way I thought, I was still left mostly happy with that tale and looking forward to the next story in the series.
But it didn’t feel either as tight nor as poignant as the fourth book. And maybe I should just accept that sometimes an author hits their stride on every single aspect of a book in an incredible way, and other times they only hit it on say three out of five major components.
I mean, I liked the book. I went back to reread it and enjoyed it the second time. And as soon as I knew their was another book in the series coming out I preordered it. Which means, I guess, that I’m saying some of the books in this series are Incredible and Stupendous, and others are merely Really Good.
And that’s okay.
Time for the next installment in my weekly WandaVision episode review. I reviewed the first three episodes here. I’ll try to to stick to one episode at a time going forward.
This week’s episode, entitled “We Interrupt This Program” gave us a lot of answers while raising many more questions. It is also chock-full of connections to and characters from other parts of the Marvel universe. Which is cool for nerds such as myself. But I want to stress that you don’t have to be familiar with all of those other things to understand. The show is still doing a fairly good job of framing this story in a way that people who aren’t familiar with the other properties can follow and be just as perplexed about what’s going on as the rest of us. There is one bit at the beginning of this episode that might need a bit of extra explaining for someone who isn’t Marvel obsessed, but even then they gave some explanation that I think might have been enough for those not familiar.
So, I’m going to limit the body of this review to only what happens on screen, and if I feel the need to squee about any of the bonus things along the way, I’ll toss that into footnotes.
The only non-spoilery thing I can say is that this episode tells us what was happening from the point of view of government agents and scientists who are outside of Westview. Which is way the viewers (us!) gets some answers, obviously.
I can’t really say anything more without spoilers, so, if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now.
Seriously, spoilers ahead!