An Update From My Side of the Universe

Who am I? What am I doing? Existential angst aside, it has occurred to me that almost everything I post on this blog is a review or vignette, so here is a little context about the person who writes them. If you couldn’t care less, feel free to skip to the next post. It’s a vignette. There is complementary coffee.

So what have I been doing? Reading, of course, and writing, in different stories roughly divided along the line between wizards and androids. I am editing my second novel and consequentially tearing my hair out by the roots. Also, having inhaled both seasons of the inexpressibly excellent Stargate Universe on DVD, finishing up just yesterday, I’ve turned to  YouTube tributes in order to numb the heartbreak. Seriously, how could something so good be cut short just when the possibilities were so open? I see gene replicas, transferred consciousness, controlled time travel, another whole galaxy of aliens. Bring it back, people! It’s not too late! On a more positive note, there will be another season of my other favourite TV show of the year, Once Upon A Time. I will be posting up my thoughts on season one very soon and crossing my fingers that season two arrives in Australia pronto. The latest season of Doctor Who has and I am looking forward to finding out what the connection is between dinosaurs and spaceships. No one is allowed to tell me ANYTHING about this until after 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

I have been reading other people’s blogs – not so many as I would like, because my brain tends to shut down after being online too long, but if you like my vignettes see a master magician at work with Erin Morgernstern’s flax golden tales here. It was seeing her use the format that made me think of writing that way myself and it is endless fun. I am also following Tansy Rayner Roberts’ posts about comic book superheroines. I know virtually nil about comic books so it’s quite fascinating hearing someone who loves them talk about the complexities of such long-running characters.

There is some personal panic about politics, but you don’t want to know about that. I don’t want to know about it. I want to pretend I can’t hear or see what’s going on until someone puts a ballot paper in my hand.

That’s enough about me for the next couple of months, I think. Unless they bring back Stargate Universe, of course, in which case you will hear fangirl screams from space. In the meantime, here is a vignette. Enjoy the coffee.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.6 – The Wild Swans

Hans Christian Andersen was not a cheery person. ‘The Wild Swans’ is among the more optimistic stories he wrote and certainly my favourite. This version comes from Peter Haddock Ltd.’s Andersen’s Fairy Tales and may remind you of two different Grimm brothers’ tales on the same theme called The Twelve Brothers and The Seven Ravens. Fairy tales are like that – they all belong to the same world of roses and apples, ravens and swans, and for some unfortunate youngest daughters, losing multiple brothers to avian transformation is an occupational hazard.

Far, far away, ‘in the land to which the swallows fly in our winter-time’ (perhaps a little self-referential allusion to ‘Thumbelina’?) there is a king with eleven sons and one daughter who are pretty much perfect in every way, but like many widowed royals he is stupid enough to fall for a wicked Queen who commences an immediate vendetta against his children. She turns the boys into wild white swans and sends the little girl, Elise, into the country to be brought up by peasants. Their father’s reaction appears to be more or less ‘meh’. When Elise is fifteen, however, she is brought home as pious and beautiful as ever. Andersen waxes lyrical on her virtues for so long that it’s sort of understandable when the Queen instantly loathes her.

The king, however, has finally remembered he has a daughter and wants to see her, so instead of turning the girl into a swan like her brothers the Queen applies that popular beauty treatment…toads. Apparently while kissing frogs turns them into princes, kissing toads and hiding them in somebody’s bath will turn that person ugly and evil. Only not Elise! She’s perfect, remember? No sooner has she set foot in the bath than the toads spontaneously transform into poppies. That’s because she’s so pure of heart. The Queen realises she’ll have to do her own dirty work, quite literally, since she coats her helpless stepdaughter in walnut juice and tangles up her hair. The king, instead of maybe blaming the fact the girl’s been raised in total poverty for goodness knows how long, decides this grubby peasant can’t possibly be his daughter.

Elise doesn’t know what to do. She desperately misses her brothers but has no idea what might have happened to them, or how she can find them. Driven out into the world to fend for herself, she ends up in a great forest where she sees her reflection in still water and realises what’s happened to her. It is a bit disturbing that the brown tint of her skin is perceived as so hideous the king can’t even recognise her (not that he necessarily would anyway, this is no father of the year we’re talking about here) and that she can only restore herself to her true beauty by washing herself white again. It may be just a reflection of the Queen’s skills as a twisted make-up artist, but it is a noticeable prejudice nonetheless.

Anyway, there’s Elise, clean now but alone in the woods. All she can do is pray, and luckily for her it would seem that someone upstairs is listening. She is led to a tree heavy with wild apples, offered pretty visions of angels and cherubs to send her off to sleep, and in the morning meets with a friendly old lady who has spotted eleven white swans wearing golden crowns swimming down the brook. (Incidentally, the Queen didn’t think letting the boys keep their crowns was a giveaway at all?) Following the brook down to the sea, Elise finds eleven white feathers there on the beach, but no swans, so she settles herself to watch the sea and wait. At sunset the swans return. Elise hides to watch them and witnesses their transformation back into her brothers.

The brothers are overjoyed. They swap evil stepmother stories and brainstorm about what to do next. They decide to take their sister across the sea with them when they depart and weave her a mat from rushes which they can carry between them as they fly. When stormclouds mass, however, and the sun begins to set without any sign of land, it looks like their devotion to Elise may be the death of them all. At the last minute they alight on a rock barely large enough for them all to stand in safety. They sing a psalm for courage and set off again at sunrise. Elise witnesses floating castles up among the clouds, churches and fleets of ships. This night, though, there is solid land waiting within reach. Her brothers find a beautiful cavern in which she takes shelter for the night. She prays again and God delegates to the beautiful fairy Morgana, who lives in one of those cloud palaces and has a startling resemblance to the informative elderly lady from the forest. Surprise!

Morgana is a useful sort of person to know. She has all the answers. In order to save her brothers, Elise will have to weave each swan a shirt of stinging nettles with her delicate hands, and if she speaks so much as a syllable before her work is done her words will fall like a dagger into her brothers’ hearts. No pressure, then. Elise wakes, thanks God and sets straight to work. Returning at sunset, her brothers first blame their sister’s inexplicable behaviour on a new curse, but when they see what she is doing they realise she is trying to save them. The youngest brother weeps with gratitude and when his tears touch her blistered skin, they wash away her pain.

If you think she’ll be allowed to simply get on with things, though, you are in for a disappointment. Who should turn up but another king! He’s out hunting, spots Elyse and falls instantly in love. She cries, she wrings her hands, she couldn’t possibly be clearer without screaming at him to go away – which she can’t – but he says (and I QUOTE) “You shall thank me for this some day!” and carries her off to his palace. He dresses her up in beautiful clothes, shows off his art collection and talented musicians, but she still won’t stop crying, and she won’t talk. Finally the king gets the point and gives her back her nettles. Taking advantage of her moment of gratitude, the king orders an impromptu wedding. The Archbishop isn’t impressed. He tries to turn the king against Elise, but the king is not the listening sort and marries the girl anyway.

Elise warms to the king’s grandiose gestures now that she can work too. Every night she steals away to make the nettle shirts and when she runs out of thread, goes to the churchyard to find more nettles. Even when she comes across a group of naked witches devouring dead bodies she won’t be daunted and gets her nettles anyway. By this point she has toughened up considerably from the frightened girl who let herself be thrown out of her father’s court. Unfortunately, her midnight gathering has been witnessed by the Archbishop, who is thrilled to have some nasty gossip to feed into the king’s ear. God is not pleased; sculptures of saints in church shake their heads while the story is told, but the Archbishop interprets this as a gesture of support for his version instead. When Elise next goes to the churchyard to gather nettles, her husband and the Archbishop both follow. Assuming she is going to join the witches – I mean, she’s only his wife, why give her the benefit of the doubt? – the king refers her to the people and the people condemn her to be burnt.

But Elise has her nettles. Ignoring the taunts and abuse thrown her way, she works at the shirts until they are almost complete. On the night before her execution her brothers arrive at the castle gates, pleading to see the king, but his guards won’t wake him and the moment the sun rises the young men are once more swans who cannot speak even to save their beloved sister. Elise is dragged to the pyre and even then she is weaving, desperate to finish her work in time. The crowd see this as clinching evidence of her guilt and are gathering around to destroy the shirts when the swans swoop in to protect her. Perhaps they can’t set the king straight, but they will try to defend their sister as best they can.

In an abrupt mood swing, some of the crowd decide this means she must be innocent after all, but the executioner is unmoved. Elise takes her last chance to save her brothers. Throwing each shirt over a swan-brother’s head, even the one not quite finished, she restores them to their human shapes and finally declares her innocence. Understandably enough, she then faints. Backed up as she now is by eleven strong young men and a pyre of wood that has miraculously turned into a hedge of roses, the charges are dismissed. The king takes back his wife, the church bells ring and there’s a swarm of happy birds to complete the scene. Let’s hope they weren’t expecting her to make nettle shirts for everyone…

I’m not fond of that ending. If I’d been Elise, the very least I would expect from the king is a bit of grovelling for assuming I was, you know, a corpse-eating cannibalistic monster, but all he has to do is give her a pretty flower and everything is forgiven. The brothers, though, I love. They are loyal and loving and while she’s trying to save them, they are doing their best to save her. The evil Queen doesn’t get any further mention in the story after her plot to bring down Elise succeeds, but I think she’d better watch out. Eleven angry princes just ditched the feathers and they might be wanting their kingdom back.

Vignette No.8 – Deserter

Deserter

The prison was the oldest in the world and no one had ever, ever escaped.

It was carved from a dead volcano, a ragged outcrop of rock jutting from the middle of a desert where the wind was harsh enough to scour the earth raw and crack it wide open like a bleeding red back. The only light came from irregular pockmarks in the stone walls, too high up to reach, too small to put a hand through even without the lacework of steel webbing across the crack; with it, even the most emaciated finger could not force its way free.

Inside the cells, the ceilings were very high and the walls very close together. It was either suffocatingly hot, during the day, or intensely cold, after nightfall. In the permanent twilight of the prison, the temperature was the only way of telling what time of day it was. Some prisoners perfected their guesses to a fine art and could tell the time to within an hour’s accuracy. It didn’t help them much.

And everywhere, wherever you went, from the titanium portcullis inwards, were guards in desert red uniforms and black visored helmets, armed with sleek black guns like muzzled dogs hungry to bite. They never removed their helmets. They never spoke. Their hands made signs and the prisoners obeyed, or were bitten. Perhaps the guards were proud of their prison; perhaps they felt as trapped here in the desert as any of those they guarded. Perhaps they really were as soulless as they seemed and felt nothing at all. It was impossible to tell.

The prisoners called them daemons.

They brought him in still drugged from the flight across the desert and chained him in a cell deep underground, where even the temperature could tell him nothing, always constant, always cold. And it was dark. The rocks were phosphorescent with a faint greenish glow – enough to let him see the corpse colour it gave his skin. Enough to make the chains that bound his wrists shine a sickly silver.

Outside, the sun burned down on the bloody desert. The daemons prowled their rocky keep. The portcullis stabbed the ground with steely teeth.

Which made it all the more embarrassing when he crept out as a cockroach.

© Faith Mudge, 2012

Review No.22 – The Tower Room

The Tower Room – Adele Geras

Red Fox (Random House Children’s Books), 1990

I found a reference to this book on Australian author Kate Forsyth’s blog (she of Bitter Greens) and was immediately intrigued by the concept. Published in Britain over twenty years ago, it was a little awkward to get hold of – my copy came through that wonder of the literary world, the interlibrary loan. At 138 pages, it’s a quick read but does not feel rushed or compressed. I was raised on a blend of Mallory Towers and Hogwarts and have certain expectations of fictional boarding schools. This book both met and undermined them, which is always an interesting experience.

Since the death of her parents Megan’s only family has been her distant guardian, her only home the isolated boarding school of Egerton Hall and the tower room she shares with her friends Bella and Alice. Cocooned in a world of enforced girlhood, their lives are a simple pattern of responsible study and mild rebellion until one day Megan looks down from the tower window and sees a young man below, looking back at her. Meeting Simon Findlay will change her life beyond recognition, but there is a price to be paid for love.

Rewriting the fairy tale ‘Rapunzel’ in a 1960s girls’ school is no small challenge. Geras not only pulls it off with surprising grace, imbuing her setting with a slightly dreamlike quality, she also seamlessly incorporates elements of other fairy tales into the story with such subtlety that sometimes I only realised later what she’d done. The main characters are interesting and individual, their apparently sheltered lives tinged with an elusive element of menace. There are two more books in the Egerton Hall series, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night. I shall be tracking them down.

Review No.21 – The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness – Brianna Karp

Harlequin, 2011

In 2008 Brianna Karp was an American success story. Overcoming a traumatic childhood in a religious cult, she had a job she loved and a home of her own. Then the company for which she worked started laying off workers. She was one of the unlucky ones. Unable to get steady work again in an increasingly unstable economic climate, she was forced to move back into her abusive mother’s home while she worked out what to do next. By February 2009 she was living in a trailer in a Walmart parking lot. At a friend’s suggestion, she began writing a blog about her experiences called ‘The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness’. She had no idea where it would end up taking her.

Name the worst things that can happen to anyone and they will have happened to this woman. From an intensely abusive childhood to dead end jobs, merciless bureaucracy and oh yes, living in a supermarket parking lot, she’s been through one hell of a wringer and somehow come out the other end intact. The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness is a gut-wrenching read at times. Karp’s style of writing is simple and matter-of-fact, never self-pitying, though if anyone has a right to be it’s her. I am not often awed, but her sheer resilience is nothing less than inspiring. For those interested in reading the blog that started it all, Karp can be found at www.girlsguidetohomelessness.com.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.5 – The Golden Bird

There was an era when no information other than the author and publisher was considered necessary for inclusion on the inside of a book. I therefore have no idea when my Abbey Classics Grimms Fairy Tales was printed, but let me put it this way, it was probably before sexual emancipation. This is one of the few children’s editions I have encountered which contains ‘King Thrushbeard’, which sucks, frankly, as I think I’ve said before. Fortunately for the book, it also contains ‘The Golden Bird’.

Apples are fairy tale fruit. In this story, a royal pleasure-garden has managed to acquire a tree that bears golden apples, a specimen of which the king is understandably possessive. When the apples begin to mysteriously disappear he posts each of his three sons to guard the tree on a different night. It is of course only the youngest son who manages to stay awake long enough to see the thief: a magnificent golden bird. The prince attempts to shoot it, but the bird is too quick for him and all he gets is a feather. When he shows it to his father in the morning the king is instantly smitten. Like most fairy tale royals, he has a thing for gold and decides he must have the whole bird, but instead of going to find it himself he sends his sons.

The eldest prince sets off first. On the way he meets a helpful fox who advises he take quiet lodgings in the next village. Instead of listening the prince tries to shoot him (what is it with these princes and shooting miraculous wildlife?), then heads straight for the local hot spot, disappearing without a trace. The same thing happens to the second prince, who gets called into the black hole of a tavern by his elder brother and likewise loses himself in the revelries. By the time the third prince is due to depart, the king is having second thoughts. His youngest son is, however, determined to prove himself and is finally allowed to try his luck. Unlike his brothers, he doesn’t try to kill the talking fox and is rewarded with a lift to the village, where he takes shelter in the boring alternative tavern. He emerges in the morning to find the fox waiting for him with astonishingly detailed advice on where to find the golden bird and how to steal it. You can’t help feeling he’s given this an awful lot of thought for a random fox by the roadside…

Reaching the castle in question, the prince loses all his brownie points by ignoring the fox’s very sensible advice and transferring the bird from its ugly wooden cage to an ornate golden one. The bird shrieks, the prince gets caught and sentenced to death. He is offered a last-minute second chance by the bird’s owner, another king with a mild obsession where gold is concerned. Demanding the theft of a neighbouring monarch’s remarkable golden horse, he is prepared to throw in the golden bird should the prince succeed. Why he thinks that’s likely when the prince has already proven himself to be a rubbish thief, I’ve no idea, but it’s faith that is not rewarded. The prince once more forgets sound advice from the long-suffering fox and replaces the golden horse’s old saddle with a fancy one, waking the beast and summoning the guards. Luckily this king also mistakes the prince for a professional thief and offers another swap, his golden horse for the beautiful princess of the nearby golden castle.

The fox is pretty fed up by now but agrees to help one last time. The prince is sent in to kidnap the princess, who convinces him (how thick is he?) to let her bid farewell to her parents, who automatically kick the prince into prison. The fourth king of the story is less charmed by gold than the others, possibly because his house is made of the stuff. There is a mountain spoiling his view – if the prince can’t level it in eight days, it’s curtains. The prince hasn’t a hope, but on the seventh day the fox shows up and works its magic. The mountain disappears, the king is delighted and lets the prince leave with his daughter – because obviously getting rid of pesky mountains makes you perfect husband material. The fox then arranges a neat con to trick the golden horse and bird out of their respective owners without losing the princess or the prince’s life. For once the prince actually listens and they ride away triumphant.

When the fox is asked what reward he desires for his faithful assistance, he asks for the prince to chop off his head. The prince can’t do it and the fox decides to leave, offering one last warning as he goes: do not buy gallows-meat. The prince agrees without having a clue what his friend means. When he sees his older brothers about to be hung, he doesn’t make the connection, coming to the rescue and paying off the angry villagers. He’ll regret it, of course. On the way back to their father’s castle they throw him into a brook and return home with bird, horse and broken-hearted princess, claiming all the glory for themselves.

Little do they suspect their younger brother has not only survived, he has been rejoined by the rather wonderful fox, who pulls him free of the brook and dresses him up as a beggar to elude the wicked brothers’ attention on the way into the palace. None of his family recognise him, but the princess does. Finally acquainted with the truth, the king puts both elder princes to death and names his only surviving son as heir, providing the youngest prince and his golden bride with a happy ending, if you really can be happy after half your family has tried to kill you and then been executed for attempted murder.

There is a still a surprise in store, however, for the young king-in-waiting. Walking in the forest where he first met the fox, he runs into his old friend and is reminded of an old favour that was never paid. The prince is an unwilling executioner, but to his amazement the dead fox transforms into a man – the princess’s long-lost brother, no less, an altogether better species of relative than the deceased princes (although helping in the kidnap of your sister is slightly dubious, I should think). There is much happiness all around and even the golden bird who started the whole mess seems content. Possibly because it is now within very easy reach of a certain golden apple tree…

There are variations of this story in which there is no helpful fox and a much more manipulative princess, but I can’t help liking this one just for that weird twist at the end. I wonder what the fox’s sister made of his restoration. I hope he moved into the castle and took over management of the country’s affairs. Don’t you think he’d make a better ruler than his hapless friend? He might even be able to sort out the world’s gold crisis.

Review No.20 – Among Others

Among Others – Jo Walton

A Tom Doherty Associations Book, 2010

I read this book for the first time last year, largely because of a comparison to Diana Wynne Jones, whose books are a personal benchmark of greatness for me. And amazingly, Jo Walton meets it. Among Others is narrated in diary form by spiky Welsh teenager Mori Phelps. Her leg crippled in the same accident that killed her twin sister, she escapes her deranged mother only to be exiled to England by Child Services to live with the father she’s never met and his wealthy half-sisters. They rapidly pack her off to an elitist boarding school, where she ignores her isolation by immersing herself in books. Even behind the walls of Arlinghurst, however, she still isn’t safe. It was no accident that killed her twin. And now her mother knows exactly where to find her…

Already winner of the 2011 Nebula award for Best Novel, Among Others was also recently awarded the 2012 Hugo for Best Novel. It deserves the success. The sometimes shockingly frank thoughts of a lonely, angry but immensely intelligent and determined fifteen-year-old girl are brilliantly written. Many first-person narrations invest too heavily in their central protagonist to the detriment of other characters, but everyone in Among Others feels absolutely real, so much so it is difficult to believe this is not a true account. I wanted it to be true. Mori herself is a fascinatingly flawed heroine. Also, this book has one of the best takes on magic I have ever read. I could say it reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, and it sort of did, but Walton is too original for the comparison to be fair – let me put it this way, if you like Wynne Jones, it’s very likely you’ll like Walton too. Re-reading it, my only complaint is that there isn’t more. It’s that good.