Eragon 35: Helgrinding Through

And we keep plunging into the literary abyss that is Eragon. But this chapter was much better than the past few because–wait for it–something actually happens!

The chapter, “Worshipers of Helgrind” starts with Eragon going out to explore the city of Dras-Leona. The chapter title comes from the citizens of Dras-Leona, who worship Helgrind, the mountain that looms above the city.

Does anyone else think that the name “Helgrind” is just a little too on the nose?

While he’s wandering through the city, Eragon finds a slave auction. He plans to use magic to free a slave that’s being bid on, but realizes that the slave would never be able to escape. So finally, finally, Eragon has learned something. He realizes that he can’t save everyone, but if he fights against the Empire, he can help a lot of people. I’m not sure if I would call this a proper turning point for his character, as he’s never wanted to join the Empire. But at least it’s something.

Going back to the “Galby is a terrible autocrat” theory, sending the Ra’zac to capture Eragon and kill his family might be the worst possible way to get Eragon on his side. It’s a great way to ensure that a unique and soon-to-be very powerful young man hates you. Why couldn’t Galby start with something more appealing: “Join me, I’ll make you a king. You’ll have power and gold and your family will be safe.” That would be a much more interesting–and challenging–test of Eragon’s character.

Back to the matter at hand, Eragon visits a cathedral in the city.  I am actually curious about what Eragon believes in. Religion was never mentioned prior to Eragon and Brom arriving in Dras-Leona, so I’m curious as to what sort of faith they have, if any. When Eragon pays his respects in the cathedral, it’s not to any god (or Helgrind), but to the cathedral and its impressive architechture.

But remember when I promised that something happened in this chapter?

Something finally happens! When Eragon goes to leave the cathedral, the Ra’zac are standing in the entrance.

Now, since it’s been far too long since I’ve made fun of a single sentence…

A sibilant hiss came from the smaller Ra’zac.

I would like to nominate “sibilant hiss” as the most redundant phrase of the book so far.

He had chased the Ra’zac for so many weeks that the pain of their muderous deed had dulled withinin him. But his vengeance was at hand. His wrath exploded like a volcano[.]

I shit you not, I laughed outloud. There must be a way to do purple prose so it’s not so unintetionally funny. This isn’t it.

Eragon does try to fight the Ra’zac, but they’ve got the city guards backing them, and he’s outnumbered. When he finally gets in touch with Saphira (and through her, Brom), they agree that they’re outnumbered* and need to flee the city. They ride as far from the city as they can in the night and set up camp. Not long after they set up camp, Eragon falls unconscious.

He falls unconscious a lot. Let’s see…I think that’s four times so far. And, glancing ahead, it’s going to happen a few more times before the book is finished. It’s gotten to the point where it’s no longer dramatic, and Eragon is more reminiscent of a fragile anime girl or flimsy romantic heroine than a badass Dragon Rider. I’m not really a fan of the constantly fainting character anymore. I first noticed this in the Hunger Games series. Whenever Eragon (or Katniss) faints, when (s)he comes to, there’s someone ready to explain what happened while (s)he was out, instead of the character experiencing it and narrating it for themselves. The literal definition of telling rather than showing. In the cases of Eragon fainting because he used magic that took a lot of energy, it makes sense. But it just keeps happening over and over again, and no longer cares the suspense that it should.

*Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned

Eragon 8-9: Teenager, or Idiot Ball?

When I read books, I really like it when teenagers and child characters actually act their age. This was one of the problems I had with Angelic Layer, which was that the young child acted nothing like a little kid. But in Chapter 8 of Eragon, I can’t decide if Eragon is acting his age, or just being a big idiot ball. But since he’s only fifteen, I think it’s fair to say that he’s an idiot by default.

When Roran tells his father, Garrow, that he plans to leave, Garrow is totally okay with it. In fact, he’s happy for Roran. Eragon is pretty surprised at Garrow’s reaction, and disappointed with it. On one hand,  I understand that he’s going to miss Roran. But on the other, what the hell was he expecting? Roran’s got an opportunity to make a better living than he does on the farm, and make enough money to get married.

I think I’m supposed to be sad, or at least feel something. But Roran doesn’t have any real character yet, and the only thing we know about him so far is that he’s in love with Sloan’s daughter. I’m almost reminiscent about when my sister left for college. I was sad when she left, but I also knew that her leaving home was inevitable, and it ended up being one of the best things to happen to her. So sure, Eragon, be sad, but don’t resent Roran for moving forward with his life.

Before we move on to the next chapter, I’d like to end it with a quote near the end of the chapter, when Roran is packing to leave.

“[Roran] paused, then picked up something from the pillow and bounced it in his hand. It was a polished rock Eragon had given him years ago. Roran started to tuck it into the bundle, then stopped and set it on a shelf. A hard lump formed in Eragon’s throat, and he left.”

I know that this is supposed to make me feel sad, but it only reminds me of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”

i got a rock.gif

Moving on to chapter nine, where we finally got…plot! Yay, plot! The chapter begins with Roran leaving the farm and Garrow giving advice to him and Eragon. It’s as awkward as it is sweet. But in the back of my mind I had to remember that the author was only fifteen when he wrote this. A lot of that shows in his prose, but it kind of dampened the impact of Garrow’s farewell speech to me. Garrow talks about life and love, giving him advice for the future. Things that the author’s never experienced. It actually reminds me of a time, during my senior year of college, when a freshman tried to complain to a group of seniors about his workload. In an out-of-character moment for me, I ripped this guy a new asshole, (loudly) explaining how he can complain about his work to other freshmen, but he had no right to whine to us.

He never complained in front of me again.

Of course, when we’re teenagers, we think we know everything. So maybe Paolini trying to show off his “wisdom”, such as it is, is entirely in-line with the rest of his writing.

Eragon goes into town to see Roran off, and is warned by another villager that there are strangers who have been asking about the “stone” he found in the Spine. Eragon puts the pieces together that someone is after Saphira. Well, what were you expecting, Eragon? You know the Empire and Galby killed the other Dragon Riders, and you even acknowledged that they would probably hunt down Saphira, too. God, you’re dumb.

And watch out, because I’m going to tear apart a single sentence. Again.

“The voice was deep and moist.”

Ugh.

No one likes the word moist. And I’m not even sure how a voice can sound “moist”, unless they’ve got a lot of spit in it. The idea was that the stranger’s voice gave Eragon a sense of rot and decay. But there just had to be some better way to evoke this. Because right now, I’m only giggling. Because the voice is deep, like a cave. And moist, like a…cave.

An Ember in the Ashes

I’m back, baby! I’ll be getting back to Eragon shortly, but I’d like to take a a moment to review a more recent book, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I’ll also be posting parts of this review on GoodReads, so don’t worry–I’m only plagiarizing myself.

An Ember in the Ashes follows the stories of two main characters: Laia and Elias, with each chapter switching between their perspectives. They lead very different lives in the Empire; Laia is a poor Scholar, while Elias is one of the top students at the elite military academy, Blackcliff. When Laia’s brother is jailed for treason and her family is killed, she seeks the help of the Resistance to save him. In exchange for freeing him, she agrees to spy on the Commandant, the leader of Blackcliff. Elias dreams of freedom outside of Blackcliff and plans to desert after his graduation, even though doing so is punishable by death. When fate intervenes, Elias stays at Blackcliff, where he finally meets Laia, and their lives are forever changed.

As long as you don’t mind first-person present tense or changing character perspectives every chapter, the prose is quite good. I never came across a line that made me want to pull my hair out because it was so poorly phrased, which is more than I can say for some of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog. Even so, some of Laia’s chapters just felt like they were padding, and only part of the book to keep with the pattern of switching between the two characters. This is especially true during Part 2, when most of Laia’s chapters are just details of the Commandant’s abuse. They don’t reveal any new information about Laia or the Commandant, nor do they move the plot forward. I’m all for treating your characters horribly, but at least make sure that their suffering is for something. Laia herself is a rather insipid character. She doesn’t grow much throughout the novel, her most daring moment being when she agrees to spy for the Resistance. Even that seems out-of-character for her, as she’s quite meek and doesn’t take risks. Elias’s side of the story is more interesting, and he’s one of the few characters in the book I ended up liking. At times, I really felt that the novel could benefit by removing Laia’s chapters entirely.

Laia’s character isn’t the only one that needs to be fleshed out. The Commandant – who is also Elias’s mother – is the lead villain in the story. She is evil because…well, because she’s evil. She enjoys abusing her slaves, killing members of the Resistance, and actively tries to get others to murder Elias. Her reason behind all this? She’s evil. She’s never made even slightly sympathetic, and the readers are never really shown her motives.

The world building is also problematic. The first two chapters are in media res. It might be exciting, but because the book’s just starting out, the reader has nothing invested in the two main characters. We don’t have any reason to like them, and can’t really appreciate the impact of their actions until later in the book. Exposition in the beginning of the book feels heavy-handed and shoved in for the benefit of the audience. In later chapters it comes more naturally. Or maybe I’d just gotten used to it at that point.

An Ember in the Ashes wasn’t really a book for me. Sometimes I thought the book would redeem itself, but for everything in it that I liked, it did two things that I didn’t. At the end of the day, its flaws outweighed its strengths.

Still, if it sounds like a book you might enjoy, check it out. I just wouldn’t recommend paying full price.

I only came to read An Ember in the Ashes in the first place was because my sister and I are in a small book club. Obviously, this wasn’t my selection for the group. My sister and I were not overly thrilled with the prospect of reading yet another young adult book staring a girl in an oppressed society starting a revolution and finding true love along the way. To help keep us both sane–and give us something to smile about while we dragged ourselves through this–I texted her a one-sentence review of each chapter. Please, enjoy my descent into madness.

  • Chapter 1: I read this chapter three hours ago and I already forgot the brother’s name because that’s how little I care.
  • Chapter 2: There’s so little world building or characterization that I neither understand the importance of or care about anything that’s happening.
  • Chapter 3: All the things I dislike in this chapter won’t fit in a single sentence.
  • Chapter 4: If Elias wanted to desert, why didn’t he run when the school literally kicked him out to survive on his own for four years?
  • Chapter 5: Have I ever mentioned how much I hate first-person present tense?
  • Chapter 6: Not really loving the way the exposition was handled here, but it’s more than the rest of the book has given us so far.
  • Chapter 7: At this point, “character development” would mean that the main character develops a personality.
  • Chapter 8: Just once, I would like to read a young adult fantasy novel that never uses the word “destiny”.
  • Chapter 9: I’m a little amazed that I have the willpower to not throw this book across the room.
  • Chapter 10: You know, it is possible to write a young adult fiction without having a “chosen one”.
  • Chapter 11: Wait, when did Laia grow a spine?
  • Chapter 12: The more I think about the details of Blackcliff Academy, the less sense it makes.
  • Chapter 13: I really hope the Commandant becomes an actual character, and not just a villain who’s evil for the sake of being evil.
  • Chapter 14: OF COURSE LAIA IS SO BEAUTIFUL WITH HER GOLDEN EYES AND LONG EYELASHES AND “FULL LIPS”
  • Chapter 15: When will this end?
  • Chapter 16:  Every time this book comes close to being cool, it ruins it.
  • Chapter 17: Laia’s chapters are nothing but light torture porn.
  • Chapter 18: I seriously suspect Sabaa Tahir has mommy issues.
  • Chapter 19: This is not how you build a strong female lead.
  • Chapter 20: Changing perspectives every chapter makes the slow story progression less noticeable, and I’m not sure if Tahir is a genius, or can’t get a handle on pacing.
  • Chapter 21: All of Laia’s chapters in a nutshell: Laia is sad because someone either tells her she makes a lousy spy or hurts her.
  • Chapter 22: There’s one female character with depth, and her entire arc is about men lusting after her.
  • Chapter 23: I make a motion to replace all Laia chapters with Spiro Teluman chapters.
  • Chapter 24: Can we talk for a second about how Elias and Helene didn’t actually use their cunning to pass the Trial of Cunning?
  • Chapter 25: This chapter made me so happy because it means I’m halfway through this waste of paper.
  • Chapter 26: I strongly suspect Helene’s sudden burst of racism is because Tahir noticed she was a much better female lead than Laia.
  • Chapter 27: Generally, it takes normal human beings more than thirty-second conversations to fall in love with each other, no matter how beautiful they are.
  • Chapter 28: This is just four pages of Elias thinking Laia is hot.
  • Chapter 29: If the flirting in this chapter was any more awkward or forced, it would be the second Avengers movie. #2Burns1Stone
  • Chapter 30: This book talks about sexual violence a lot.
  • Chapter 31:  Achievement unlocked: cameo character is more intriguing than main character.
  • Chapter 32: I also vote to remove insipid and predictable love triangles.
  • Chapter 33: NOPE.
  • Chapter 34: Can we go one chapter without mentioning rape?  
  • Chapter 35: I’m not sure what I hate more: that Helene goes completely against her established character, or that Laia’s only role in this book is to be a punching bag.
  •  Chapter 36: The Helene-Elias romance subplot is so, so dumb.
  • Chapter 37:  Five bucks says the Resistance is going to betray Laia.
  • Chapter 38: And now we’ll take a break from an Ember in the Ashes to bring you a less interesting version of The Hunger Games.
  • Chapter 39: You know, this backstory would have been really useful AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FUCKING BOOK.
  • Chapter 40: There are so many logical holes in the Trial of Strength I wouldn’t be able to list them all here.
  • Chapter 41: Laia, how are you this stupid and still alive?
  • Chapter 42: So many eyerolls.
  • Chapter 43:If the Commandant knew that Laia was a slave since the Moon Festival, why didn’t she kill her much sooner?
  • Chapter 44: The “Trial of Loyalty” is really just a test of who could get to Laia the fastest.
  • Chapter 45: I call bullshit on Laia suddenly be able to take the Resistance leader hostage, in his own hideout, surrounded by his supporters.
  • Chapter 46: This is the closest thing we get to an explanation of the Commandant’s anti-social behavior, and it still fails to explain anything or make her an iota more sympathetic.
  • Chapter 47: Laia is way overdue to become a strong heroine, but when it actually happens, it just is out of character for her.
  • Chapter 48: I’m supposed to feel something at Elias’s rapidly impending death, but mostly I’m annoyed that all he’s doing is whining and quoting Serenity.
  • Chapter 49: We really shouldn’t have to wait until the second-to-last chapter of the book for the main character to do something useful.
  • Chapter 50: OH THANK GOD I’M DONE

Final Thoughts:

T81Ltam

I hated this book. The love triangles were unnecessary and sloppily written, the magical aspects go unexplained, the villains are never given any depth, Laia is almost on par with Bella Swan as a female lead, and the book doesn’t even freaking end. I’ve read 50 chapters of this crap, and nothing gets resolved: not the romantic subplots, Laia’s quest to save her brother, or even a basic explanation of Helene’s sudden magical powers. Nope, there’s a sequel coming out, and someone’s already got the movie rights.

And, to get on my soapbox for a minute, this is also on par with Twilight for bad female role models. Helene is the token strong girl, but her entire character arc is about men lusting after her, and her doing anything she can to keep Elias alive. Including swearing fealty to the man who has directly said that he’s going to rape her. Laia’s not much better, as her arc is almost entirely her getting tortured or beaten up (and then rescued by Elias)–for another male character, albeit her brother–and she doesn’t do anything proactive until the very end of the book. The one female character whose arc doesn’t revolve around a man is the Commandant, who is a heartless monster (for no fucking reason).

This book is 446 pages of drivel. Sabaa Tahir’s prose is well-written, but the characters are flat and boring, and the story has no satisfying resolution.

Screw this. It’s my turn to choose the next book for book club, and after reading Me Before YouThe Nightingale, and now, An Ember in the Ashes, I need to get away from all this stupid chick lit. If you need me, I’ll be nose deep in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Angelic Layer Chap. 5: The Art of Losing


Remember when I said we’re going to talk about Hatoko? It’s time to talk about Hatoko.

Misaki can’t land a hit on Hatoko’s angel, Suzuka. She keeps dodging Hikaru’s attacks, and Misaki can’t figure out how.

This is only Misaki’s second battle, and it shows. She’s making what is probably a rookie mistake. When she wants Hikaru to move right or left, she’s also moving her own body right and left. As soon as she figures this out, Misaki stops moving. She doesn’t give Hatoko any more hints about what she’s planning to do, and starts turning the fight around.

When we first met Hatoko, she’s just called an “Angelic Layer nut”, but it’s supposed to be a surprise when we find out that a six-year-old is the reigning champion of the game. I don’t remember if I was surprised when I first read this, but I have a feeling that I probably wasn’t.

There are two things I don’t like about Hatoko’s character. The first is that she’s a six-year-old, and doesn’t act like one at all. Hatoko is intelligent, calm and collected, and sure of herself. That’s not to say that young children can’t be smart and calm (though I’ve yet to see a kindergartner as un-excitable as Hatoko), but it seems highly unlikely to me that she would be so disciplined, and so well-spoken.

No one talks like this.

She’s a just a little kid, playing with her favorite toy, and being really good at. From the child prodigies I’ve seen in various anime and manga, they all seem to be set in one mode: calm and smart. I think a prodigy character would be much more interesting if she acted…well, acted their age. A child, smarter than most adults, given tasks required of adults and lauded for their intelligence…that’s a cool idea. But what if they just wanted to go to the playground instead of doing rocket science? Or their parents want to make them go to bed, but they really want to finish finding the cure for cancer tonight? I like that idea much more than one that treats child prodigies as just a smaller version of adults.

The other thing about Hatoko that I sort of disagree with is her concept. She’s already discovered something that she’s the best at, she’s already a champion. And she’s six. So…what the hell is she going to do with the rest of her life? And even though winning is a lot of fun, and everyone likes to win, if you go into every contest knowing you’re going to win, wouldn’t things get a little boring?

Pretty soon, Hatoko will just be like a tiny Forrest Gump.

“And then I played Angelic Layer, again…and then I became world champion, again…”

Or maybe she’ll just crash and burn horribly like other child stars. I hope not.

But back to Misaki and her second fight. It’s not a huge leap to guess that she’ll win the tournament, which she does. She’s the heroine of an upbeat manga, after all. But what I hadn’t been expecting, as a thirteen-year-old, was that she would lose this fight. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone that she loses to Hatoko; even Misaki accepts it.

Icchan says that the thing Misaki needed to learn to succeed in Angelic Layer was how much losing hurts.

I was a little conflicted about how I felt about this. Of course, I’m part of the “self-esteem” generation. That is, me, and people my age, all got told that we were special and unique snowflakes, that we should all believe in ourselves and have confidence. I do believe that it’s important to have self-confidence, so I’m okay with some of this.

However, I’m not okay with overly-sheltering children. Yes, kids need to be protected, but you can’t shield them from everything. You can’t stop them from failing, or save them from disappointment. The hope is that when children fail, they learn something, and strive to improve themselves. Kids need to learn how to lose, because life is full of losing and failing. Hearts get broken; dreams don’t always come true, no matter how much you want it or believe in it.

You have to learn how to fail, so you can pick up the pieces, and and strive to make yourself better.

And that’s exactly what Misaki does.

And, that’s it. We’ve reached the end of the book. It was nice to revisit these characters again, and remember the joy and excitement I felt watching Misaki’s journey through the first time. But the nostalgia isn’t enough to make me keep this book. Misaki grows up in her story, and so have I.

Final Verdict: For Sale

Next I’ll be starting up a rather long project–and I almost can’t believe I’m saying this–Eragon by Christopher Paolini. Stay tuned!

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 7: Drawbacks of Childhood

In the first chapter of The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis captures the magic and wonder of childhood. In the seventh chapter, it’s all about the helplessness.

Digory and Polly go on the adventure of their lives, but it involves a lot of waiting around. Polly has to go home, and her parents punished her for getting her shoes and stockings wet under circumstances she can’t quite explain, and is out of the picture for most of this chapter. Jadis ends up getting a horse-drawn cab and is taking a romp around the city with Uncle Andrew. Knowing how dangerous Jadis is, Digory contemplates going after them. However, he’s faced with several limitations. He doesn’t know where they are, and his Aunt Letty would never let him leave the house if he couldn’t tell her where he was going. Besides that, he doesn’t have any money to pay for trams to take him around the city.

When you’re a kid, it seems like everything you do is on someone else’s schedule. You have to depend on adults for just about everything. They’re supposed to provide for you and protect you. Even as we get older and more independent, we still rely on our parents, and (in theory) live by their rules. Driving home the point is Polly, punished and unable to help. It’s a little frustrating that Digory can’t go after Uncle Andrew and Jadis, even though he knows that’s what he should do. Watching Digory sit and wait for them to come back may not be the most exciting thing to read, but it is realistic.

Along with that, there’s another part of this chapter that gave me chills, when Aunt Letty briefly discusses Digory’s mother and her failing health.

‘What lovely grapes!’ came Aunt Letty’s voice. ‘I’m sure if anything could do her good these would. But poor, dear little Mabel! I’m afraid it would need to be fruit from the land of youth to help her now. Nothing in this would will do much.’ Then they both lowered their voices and said a lot more that [Digory] could not hear.

It wasn’t the talking about the obvious foreshadowing about fruit from the land of youth, but the part where the adults lower their voices so Digory can’t hear. I can tell you from experience that when you have a chronically sick relative, conversations like that are a big part of your life. My sister and I would overhear things that we weren’t supposed to, almost always worrying news. We almost never heard the end of those conversations. Either it would get quiet, or I’d become so uncomfortable that I’d somehow make my presence known. Hopefully in such a way that the adults wouldn’t realize I’d been listening in, though I might never know for sure. It turns out they’re a lot more perceptive than I thought. Of course, I used to sneak out of my bed and think that throwing a blanket over my head would prevent my parents from spotting me and sending me back upstairs.

Childhood logic.

I don’t know how other kids in similar situations handled things like this, but I was too anxious to ask my parents questions about what was going on. The information I got about my aunt was either from what they told me directly, and what was overheard. It’s funny, the things grown-ups will say when they think you’re not paying attention. And for something this big, I always paid attention.

Let’s not delve into childhood fear and sadness for a moment, though, and appreciate a very minor, nameless character: the maid. She has no idea what’s going on, and it’s something of a running gag in this chapter.

While Aunt Letty was hurtling through the air, the housemaid (who was having a beautifully exciting morning) put her head in at the door…

‘Oh, Master Digory,’ said the housemaid (who was really having a wonderful day)…

‘Sarah,’ she said to the housemaid (who had never had such a day before)…”

I don’t know why I like this so much. It just makes me smile.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 6: Unexpected Plus One

We’re a third of the way through the book, and I’m getting pumped to go back to Narnia! Digory and Polly haven’t quite escaped the clutches of Jadis, but they’re able to escape back to the Woods Between the Worlds and…return to London?

Wait, when do they go to Narnia? No, seriously, I read this, I know Digory and Polly accidentally take the Witch to Narnia. Why are they going back to London?

Well, it turns out I forgot a lot more details in this book than I realized.

The children and Jadis wind up back in Uncle Andrew’s study, and it becomes immediately apparent that Uncle Andrew just got a lot more than he bargained for.

In Charn she had been alarming enough: in London, she was terrifying. For one thing, they had not realized till now how very big she was. ‘Hardly human’ was what Digory thought when he looked at her; and he may have been right, for some say there is giantish blood in the royal family of Charn. But even her height was was nothing compared with her beauty, her fierceness, and her wildness. She looked ten times more alive than most of the people one meets in London.

Maybe that description is a bit cliche now, but I love it. Jadis’s presence also puts Uncle Andrew in his place pretty quickly. I like the contrast between the two. When Digory and Polly see Uncle Andrew in the beginning of the book, they see him as someone fighting and powerful. Compared to Jadis, he’s weak and cowardly. And, it would appear, not too bright, either.

Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grown-ups have another kind. Uncle Andrew was beginning to be silly in a very grown-up kind of way.

I’ll give my compliments to Lewis for that one. Not only does he capture the magic of childhood, but also at least one true fact about adulthood as well: that we have no idea what we’re really doing, but pretend that we do.

We also see more of Uncle Andrew’s character; along with being totally unprepared to deal with the consequences of meddling with magic, it turns out he’s pretty lousy at being…well, being an adult. It’s not just the “silliness” of thinking that Jadis would fall in love with him, but you can see it in other details. In one side note, the narrator says that Uncle Andrew has blown through his own money, and quite a bit of his sister’s.

Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that Uncle Andrew ends up being this pathetic. He looks small, literally and figuratively, next to Jadis, and is something of a fraud when it comes to being a true Magician. But he was able to use magic to send the children to another world, and have them return (with an unexpected plus one). Using magic in a world where none exists is pretty awesome, even if he was a schmuck about it. But as soon as Jadis comes into the picture, everything interesting and intriguing about him is out the window.

I guess the moral here is: Playing with magic can be cool, but you’re a jerk and not as cool as you think you are.

That’s a strange lesson.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 5: The Queen Said One Word, You Won’t BELIEVE What Happens Next

I remember a fair bit about this book since I last read it. Digory and Polly wake up the evil witch Jadis, and they inadvertently take her to the new world of Narnia. I remember that it was Jadis’s spell that put everyone to sleep, and left Charn in ruins.

What I didn’t remember was how scary Jadis actually was before Digory and Polly found her. This chapter is dedicated to her backstory, and elucidates how Charn became frozen as it is now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us an explanation as to why the people sitting outside her chamber start out looking kind and end up looking cruel. I suppose it was just used as a build-up to end in Jadis. That’s understandable, because this is a children’s book. I’m a little disappointed that there’s no (apparent) deeper meaning behind this, because I’m an adult reading a children’s book and expecting more depth than the author provides.

Jadis tells us that she and her sister were feuding for the throne,  giving us images that are a bit…graphic for a children’s novel.

‘I have stood here (but that was near the very end) when the roar of battle went up from every street and the river of Charn ran red.’

Holy hell. I know that children’s literature isn’t sunshine and roses all the time, but that’s pretty dark.

Like Uncle Andrew, Jadis’s backstory has a backstory, and holes that I desperately want filled in. It also shows us that she’s completely evil. I’ve been reading Clash of Kings, and some of the dialogue she has sounds like it would fit perfectly into the Game of Thrones series.

‘Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing under the sun.’

‘But the people?’ gasped Digory.

‘What people, boy?’ asked the Queen.

‘All the ordinary people,’ said Polly, ‘who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and the animals.’

‘Do you understand?’ said the Queen (still speaking to Digory). ‘I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will? [. . .] You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules.’

It’s probably not fair to compare the two, but that mentality is basically the reason everyone in  A Song of Ice and Fire gets screwed over.

Jadis tells the children that there is a word–a “Deplorable Word”– that is so powerful it would end Charn. The Word itself is a deep, dark secret that only the most powerful magicians in Charn ever knew it. And while we’re comparing Narnia to things that Narnia shouldn’t be compared to, it reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which is so funny, you’ll die when you hear it.

Most of Charn’s magicians refused to learn the Word, and it was forbidden to ever use. Jadis didn’t share their reluctance, and set out on an epic quest to learn the Word, and…

‘It was the secret of secrets,’ said the Queen Jadis. ‘It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word, which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it.’

…Really? That’s it?

This entire chapter is the story of how Charn ended up in this state, and we don’t get to see the most interesting and intriguing part. Hell, we’re not even told why Jadis was fighting her sister. I would probably read a whole book on Jadis’s rise into power, her learning the Word, and killing Charn with it. That sounds like an awesome story. Or maybe a terribly generic one, but at least I’d get some of my questions answered.

Excuse me, I need to go and write a fanfiction now about Jadis’s backstory.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 3: Pool Party

It took two chapters, but the adventure has finally begun. Digory takes two green rings, one for himself and one for Polly, puts on a yellow ring, and winds up in the “Other Place”. This is one of my favorite things in this book series: the Woods Between the Worlds. Even the name sounds magical.

Digory finds himself, not in Narnia, but in a lush forest. There are shallow pools of water every few feet, and the place is so quiet, it’s as though you can hear the trees growing. As enchanting as it sounds, though, the Woods Between the Worlds scared me as a child. Digory isn’t there long before he starts to forget who he is, or why he came here.  He finds Polly in a similar state, half-asleep, and she doesn’t recognize him. When they see that they’re both wearing yellow rings, their memories are jogged, and they remember who they are and what they’re supposed to be doing.

While I was still hoping that I’d find a magical world in the back of my closet as a child, this scene helped me be aware of all the risks that might entail. I obviously knew that I’d be charging into battle to fight against evil, but I didn’t think of all the obstacles that would come before that. If I ever traveled a magical world, I would have to bring a friend with me, in case I wound up in the Woods Between the Worlds. I also really hoped that friend would be a unicorn.

I love the idea of the Woods Between the Worlds, though. Each pool of water is an entrance to a different world, provided you have your magic ring on. The Woods seem to stretch on endlessly, with pools every few feet. There are so many worlds that the children would just be able to walk into, which is a dizzying thought. As they’re about to try one out, Polly suggests that Digory marks their own pool of water, so they can find their way back home.

I rather like Polly. She seems like the brighter of two, and maybe even the braver.

The Magician’s Nephew was the second-to-last book written in the Narnia series, which means that Lewis most likely hadn’t thought of the Woods Between the Worlds before then. It’s a bit of a shame, I think, because it’s too good of an idea to waste. With endless worlds you could literally jump into, you could spend a lifetime exploring in the Woods and never visit the same place twice. Hence why it’s so important for Digory to mark the pool that will take him and Polly home, when they’re ready. That’s another scary thought: losing your world, and trying for the rest of your life to find the right pool and get back home. Even though that sounds like it would make a great story, that was another childhood fear of mine. When I discovered a new world (because I knew it would happen, someday) I would also have to take precautions to get home. Because as much fun as exploring other worlds is, sometimes you just need to sleep in your own bed.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 2: Ethics Review Board

We’ve made it the second chapter, and we’re on the cusp of the true adventure. Digory’s the nephew, and we at last get to meet the Magician. His name is Uncle Andrew, and he’s as close to a mad scientist as the Narnia series gets. He’s got crazy, fly-away gray hair, everyone around him thinks he’s mad, and is, in fact, something of a genius. Before wardrobes and strange cupboards at school, Uncle Andrew figured out a way to send people to someplace…else. He doesn’t quite know what that other place is, but he’s more than willing to use Digory and Polly as his human guinea pigs.

Most of the second chapter is dedicated to Uncle Andrew explaining how he was able to make magic rings that could travel between the worlds. He received an ancient box from his godmother (who was said to actually have fairy blood), containing dust from Atlantis. After many years of study, learning everything he could about magic, he created several yellow and green rings. The yellow would send anyone who touched it to the “Other Place”, and the green ring would, in theory, bring them home again. Before Polly and Digory accidentally found their way into his study, Uncle Andrew had only tested the yellow rings on literal guinea pigs. They all vanished, but none of them returned. Unsuspecting Polly became his first human test subject, when she takes a yellow ring, and disappears from the study, and the universe altogether.

I remember not liking this chapter very much. To me, it cemented Uncle Andrew as a villain in the story (and what nine-year-old likes villains?), and the attention was all on him. When I read it now, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I wanted more.

‘Meanwhile,’ continued Uncle Andrew, ‘I was learning a good deal in other ways (it wouldn’t be proper to explain them to a child) about Magic in general. [. . .] I had to get to know some–well, some devilish queer people, and go through some very disagreeable experiences.’

Okay, so we’re in London, in a world without magic. Uncle Andrew has found a way to use magic to send people to other worlds, and it’s suggested that the way he learned things was not on the up-and-up. Tell me that backstory doesn’t intrigue you. Who are these people, what are these disagreeable experiences? I want to know!  C.S. Lewis should have just skipped writing The Horse and His Boy and given us Uncle Andrew’s story instead.
There’s no room for moral ambiguity in the Narnia series, though, so he wouldn’t be an acceptable Lewis protagonist. And it’s made very clear that even though Uncle Andrew is, in fact, “beastly” for sending Polly to another world without telling her what she’s getting into.

This is exactly the reason why we have ethics review boards. Sure, they might stop you from doing some of the really fun social experiments, but at least you won’t wind up in a different universe when you’re filling out questionnaires with Lickert scales.

Wait, is there actually an experiment out there that can send me to a magical world? SIGN ME UP!

Unless you’re sending me to Westeros.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chapter 1: Growing Up is Hard To Do

I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and I think one of the most influential ones in my life has been The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. All told, I would read the first four (in chronological order) of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian. I never quite made it to the three final books, though I owned them all. If anyone ever asked me which book was my favorite (and no one ever did), I would have told them The Magician’s Nephew. It was the first in the Narnia series that I ever read, and it opened up a world of magic to me.

When I was in grade school, my Aunt Linda was sick with ovarian cancer. I spent many weekends traveling to hospitals two or three hours away from home to see her. It was a hard time for me, and I think one of the reasons I really fell in love with fantasy books was because I needed some magic in my life.

Right from the first few pages of this book, though, I realized that it wasn’t just a need to escape that compelled me to read — and love — this book as a child. When the main character, Digory, meets his friend Polly for the first time, she can see that he’s been crying. He explains:

‘And so would you [. . .] if your father was away in India–and you had to come and live with an Aunt and an Uncle who’s mad (who would like that?)–and if the reason was that they were looking after your Mother–and if your Mother was ill and going to–going to–die.’

Well, shit. Already something I could relate to, and we’re only on page six.

I also forgot how quickly children’s books start. Digory and Polly meet, they’re friends, they go explore houses. There’s not much build-up before they reach Uncle Andrew’s study and begin their real adventure.

Now, there’s plenty of criticism about C.S. Lewis, but there is at least one thing he does right: captures the enchantment of childhood. Polly has a secret “cave” in the attic of her house, and it’s a place that I would have loved to have as a child. Re-reading this, I still wish I had a place like this.

 Polly had used the bit of the tunnel just beside the cistern as a smugglers’ cave. She had brought up bits of old packing cases and the seats of broken kitchen chairs, and things of that sort, and spread them across from rafter to rafter so as to make a bit of floor. Here she kept a cash-box containing various treasures, and a story she was writing and usually a few apples. She had often drunk a quiet bottle of ginger-beer in there: the old bottles made it look more like a smugglers’ cave.
 A cozy hideaway, a space just for you to be alone in. And there’s something about making this in her attic that makes it truly child-like. Perhaps because even if I had a hide-out like that as a kid, I wouldn’t be able to fit into it as an adult. If I did, and I returned to it, it would be a place full of nostalgia, certainly, but not a place of wonder as it once had been.

Childhood is a common theme throughout the Narnia series. Peter and Susan get booted out of Narnia at the end of Prince Caspian because they’re too old, and the only people who can save Narnia are children. There’s a little sadness when it comes to leaving your childhood behind, knowing that magic isn’t really real, that you’ll never find a secret world in your closet or get a letter delivered by owl. (My owl with my Hogwarts letter just got lost! I swear!) There’s one passage in the first chapter that captures this exquisitely, when Digory and Polly are discussing what might be in the empty house they’re trying to sneak into.

‘But I don’t expect it’s really empty at all,’ said Digory.

‘What do you expect?’

‘I expect someone lives there in secret, only coming in and out at night, with a dark lantern. We shall probably discover a gang of desperate criminals and get a reward. It’s all rot to say a house would be empty all those years unless there was some mystery.’

‘Daddy thought it must be the drains,’ said Polly.

‘Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations,’ said Digory.

When we talk about the end of childhood, we talk about children losing their innocence, or gaining responsibilities. Maybe every so often, we should think about their imaginations, too, and keeping our own ones intact.

We all have to grow up, but our imaginations don’t have to be a casualty of adulthood.