Disney Reflections No.2 – Rodents Are the Best Dressmakers

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/44/Cinderella-disney-poster.jpgThough Walt Disney had been tossing around ideas for a version of this fairy tale for years, Cinderella was eventually released in 1950. Cinderella’s hair confirms this fact.

The fairy tale: I covered three versions of the Cinderella legend for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, from Jamaica, Russia and Germany, but not the Perrault version! It closely resembles ‘Ashputtel’ only with a fairy godmother instead of a vicious bird and considerably less gore.

The film: In a “tiny kingdom…rich in romance and tradition” – and presumably hard cash, to pay for the fancy houses – a widower with one young daughter marries a widow with two daughters of her own. She’s introduced looming at a window, flanked by sullen little girls and petting a large cat, like a Bond villain in disguise. When her husband dies, she lavishes all his money on her daughters Anastasia and Druzilla, while all the work of the household falls to Cinderella. Forced to abandon her bedroom in favour of a rickety tower room, running in circles to patch up the neglected house, the story pulls no punches about her storyline – this girl is being abused.

Fortunately, Disney bluebirds maintain their alliance with disenfranchised stepdaughters and act as friendly, feathery alarm clocks. Cinderella covers her head with a pillow, thereby endearing herself to me at once; the well-meaning wake up call interrupted a wonderful dream. When the nearby clock tower chimes in its two cents, she shoots a glare its way, like it has personally betrayed her. “They can’t order me to stop dreaming!” she declares defiantly. She means her step family, who would indeed order her to stop dreaming if they could.

Dressing swiftly, with the aid of the aforementioned bluebirds and a gaggle of drowsy rodents, Cinderella is almost ready to start her day when a pair of frantic rats come racing into the room. A new rat is in the house. Cinderelhttp://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20121009234430/disney/images/f/f6/Cinderella-979.pngla’s first priority – picking out an appropriate outfit from her stash of dinky clothes – is sidelined when she learns the rat is stuck in a trap. She not only releases him, she gives him the name Octavius (quickly shortened to Gus) and places him in the particular care of Jaq, a more worldly wise rat familiar with the perils of the household. Chief of these is the stepmother’s cat, Lucifer. He’s a huge fluffy grump with his own canopy basket. Cinderella’s big, clueless dog Bruno dreams of chasing him, but in reality Lucifer has it all over him and Cinderella too.

She tries to make peace while preparing three breakfasts and feeding the chickens, throwing down extra corn for the mice. In order to reach this feast, they need to circumvent Lucifer; Jaq stages a ‘Great Escape’ style diversion but Gus overestimates his carrying capacity and draws the cat’s attention at exactly the wrong moment. Despite Jaq’s valiant efforts, Gus is cornered under a teacup. Cinderella unwittingly comes to the rescue once more; the teacup is one of three which she has to carry upstairs, and Gus is delivered right into the lap of an outraged stepsister, who runs straight to her mother for vengeance. Lucifer runs in the same direction, because if there is a side you want to be on in this house, it is the stepmother’s. She sits in the shadows of her bedroom, all death stare and heart’s blood lipstick, plotting terrible things. The rat in a cup incident earns Cinderella a lengthy list of jobs to add to her already hefty schedule. Even Lucifer feels she’s gone too far – probably because she wants Cinderella to bathe him.

Meanwhile, at the castle, the king is throwing a hissy fit and really anything that comes to hand. He’s desperate for grandchildren – as evidence of his terrifying paternal pride, he has a portrait gallery of baby photos culminating in a painting of his adult son that’s got to be about ten times life size – and is infuriated at the prince’s lack of co-operation. His friend/ lackey/ captive audience, the duke, tentatively suggests that maybe he should give the prince some space, letting him find love on his own terms. “Love,” scoffs the king. “Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions. So we’re arranging the conditions.” His son is due to arrive home today, so the king’s throwing a huge welcoming party – and inviting every eligible girl in the land.

Two of those eligible girls are Cinderella’s stepsisters, currently polishing their musical skills. They would not be ugly if they’d just stop scowling, but they’re certainly tone deaf. Outside, Cinderella is scrubbing the floor and singing sweetly amidst a cloud of psychedelic bubbles. Lucifer spoils her fun by gleefully prancing all over the clean floor with grubby little feet. This movie is going to a lot of effort to make the audience dislike him, but I will love this cat until the day I die.

Cinderella has to leave off scrubbing anyway to collect the mail and interrupts the music lesson to deliver the king’s invitation. She’s still in the room as it’s read aloud and declares her intention to attend the ball like everybody else. There’s a calm resilience to Cinderella, an undaunted willingness to stand up for herself, that you can’t help admiring. Unless you’re her stepmother, who smoothly agrees Cinderella may attend…if she gets all her chores done first and finds something suitable to wear. Cinderella plans on wearing an old ballgown of her mother’s, but it will take extensive modification and her family soon find a million other uses for her time.

The posse of girl rats who live in her room take over. They have her sewing supplies; they can do this thing. Jaq and Gus eagerly volunteer but the girls reject them based on outdated gender stereotypes and send them to forage for trimmings instead. This means another run-in with Lucifer. Undaunted, they return with a sash and blue beads, both abandoned by Cinderella’s stepsisters. They get to help out with the sewing after all and judging from the way they handle scissors, the girls had good reason to want them elsewhere. Together the rats and bluebirds whip together a stylish pink and white confection, then eagerly await Cinderella’s return.

She’s had a bad day. Having given up all hope of attending the ball, she bids her stepfamily goodbye with immense dignity and poise, and climbs to her tower…where she finds the rats’ present. With ecstatic cries of thanks, she dons the gown and rushes downstairs. Her stepmother, initially shocked, quickly recovers. Drawing her daughters’ attention to their repurposed accessories, she stands back and allows a sartorial bloodbath. The girls literally tear apart Cinderella’s clothes, it’s genuinely disturbing. They then flounce into the waiting coach, and Cinderella runs out into the garden to cry.

She’s sobbing so hard she doesn’t notice the little sparkles that presage imminent magic. Next thing she knows, her head is on the knee of an apple-cheeked old lady. Cinderella realises this is her fairy godmother – she has to work that out on her own, because her godmother is busy looking for her wand. I swear she plucks it out of midair just to show off.

http://www.toonswallpapers.com/user-content/uploads/wall/o/56/Cinderella-Look-Glass-Slippers-1280x960-Wallpaper-ToonsWallpapers.com-.jpg “The first thing you need,” she proclaims, “is a pumpkin.” Cinderella is skeptical, but her godmother gabbles gobbledygook with such authority that the vegetable blossoms into a glittering carriage. Next, she turns all the watching rats into shiny white horses, and the actual horse into a coachman. Bruno the dog becomes a footman. With that, she thinks Cinderella is all set to go – it takes a gentle nudge for her to remember the rags and tatters state her goddaughter is in. A flick of the wand fixes that. Clad in a sparkling dress and glass slippers, Cinderella is so far over the moon that she doesn’t even care all this magic has a very limited expiry date.

We’re in the middle of the film and still haven’t met the prince. We glimpse him now, on a red-carpeted stage, greeting a queue of single girls with the occasional discreet yawn and sarcastic look at his impatient father. He only wakes up when, over Anastasia and Druzilla’s heads, he glimpses Cinderella wandering around uncertainly at the far end of the room. He walks straight off the stage to meet her. The watching king stage manages some romantic lighting and a dreamy waltz. Sure that the evening’s end game has been won, he toddles off to bed, leaving the duke to settle final details. Since the prince dances off with Cinderella, that leaves the rest of the guests to entertain themselves. I hope the food’s good.

Floating together through the blue and white dreamscape of the royal gardens, Cinderella and her prince are sweeping each other off their feet. Just as they are about to kiss, the killjoy clock tower starts striking midnight and Cinderella leaps up. “I haven’t met the prince!” she cries, as a weak excuse. He tries bewilderedly to explain who he is, but she’s already racing down the stairs, leaving one shoe behind in her rush. The duke – noticing too late that the romantic moment has gone awry – wildly overreacts and sends a scary swarm of riders in black to catch her. Luckily, the carriage disintegrates on the last stroke of twelve and they are left with no trail to chase.

The king, assuming his son has proposed, greets the duke the next morning with cigars (HELLO 1950’s TOBACCO FETISH) and a knighthood. The duke unwisely explains the failure while his monarch has the sword raised. To say the king is disappointed is the understatement of the century: he goes on a rampage. “You were in league with the prince,” he howls, while doing his level best to cut the poor duke in half. He only calms down when he hears his son has developed an obsession of his own and sworn to marry only the girl whom the lost shoe fits. The duke is sent out to try it on the foot of every girl in the land.

Hearing the news, the stepmother wakens her own daughters. Very sensibly, they don’t see the point, since the shoe belongs to neither of them – their mother, clearly infuriated that her daughters have acquired this streak of common honesty, insists they make every effort to get the shoe and the prince too. They begin running about, throwing clothes at Cinderella in their haste to get ready. She has overheard the news; lost in giddy daydreams, she pushes the clothes back at her startled stepsisters and glides off, humming last night’s waltz. Her stepmother’s eyes practically glow with wickedness as she puts the pieces together. She follows Cinderella up to her tower room and locks her in. Then she calmly descends to greet the exhausted duke.

Jaq and Gus follow, committed to retrieving the key. While one stepsister and then the other attempt to squeeze into the tiny glass shoe – assisted by a truly committed footman – the rats steal away the key and haul it up stair after stair. This is the rodent equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. They are so close, right outside Cinderella’s door, when Lucifer pounces. He catches Gus, and therefore the key. The other rats charge forth, armed with forks and a lit candle; the bluebirds hurl crockery; all to no avail. Lucifer is impervious to their frantic attacks. Then Bruno comes charging up the stairs and Lucifer is so terrified he JUMPS OUT OF THE TOWER. We never find out if he’s okay. I am really properly upset about this. Setting dogs on cats is not normal and not funny. It is cruelty.

I just Googled the Cinderella sequels. (There are two.) Lucifer is all right.

I’m still angry.

http://img1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20091219050226/disney/images/b/b6/Cinderella4.jpg Anyway. Unaware of the battle raging upstairs, the duke is about to depart when Cinderella runs downstairs. He takes in her teeny feet and excellent manners with a surge of optimism. The footman hurries forward and is deliberately tripped by the stepmother; the shoe flies off its cushion and smashes into fragments on the floor. Cinderella calmly reveals the other half of the set, slipping it easily onto her foot. The duke looks like he wants to marry her himself out of pure relief.

The actual wedding takes place at once. Cinderella loses her shoe again on the church steps, fleeing a rain of confetti; her adoring father-in-law returns it. Climbing into the honeymoon carriage, she finally gets to kiss her prince.

No word on how the stepmother takes this emotional blow.

Spot the Difference: Again, Disney sticks fairly close to the fairy tale plot. In both the original story and the movie, the godmother transforms everyday things into a party ensemble, including rats – they unsurprisingly get more screen time in Disney’s version, chewing up the scenery with several separate chase scenes and cute Donald Duck-esque babbling. Lucifer is an original character, of course, and the king, while he certainly exists, had nothing like the narrative presence. He basically writes the romance so he can get grandchildren. Still, with their matching levels of mild sarkiness, Cinderella and the prince are not the worst couple ever. I just hope they swapped names before they got married. It seems an important detail to overlook.

The Sharazad Project: Week 8

Night fourteen begins with the princess Sitt al-Husn performing sorcery to restore the second dervish to his human shape. She takes a knife inscribed with Hebrew characters and cuts a circle in the ground; over it she writes and speaks all manner of spells, until darkness descends and the ifrit is summoned against his will. Everyone else shrinks back, but the princess holds firm. “There is no welcome for you,” she tells the ifrit, and he changes shape into a lion. “Traitress,” he snarls, “you have broken our covenant and the oath. Did we not swear that neither of us would oppose the other?” “You accursed ifrit,” she snorts, “am I bound to one like you?” In case you have not guessed yet, Sitt al-Husn is THE BEST FOREVER.

And it gets better. Still shaped as a lion, the ifrit leaps at the princess and she turns one of her own hairs into a sword, cutting her enemy in two. Sadly this does not kill him. His head becomes a scorpion, and the princess becomes an enormous snake. They take shape after shape, battling with beaks and teeth and claws, until the ifrit takes the form of a pomegranate and scatters his seeds across the palace. The princess shapes herself as a rooster and pecks them all up, save one that falls into a fountain. This becomes a fish. Reforming herself as a larger fish, the princess dives in pursuit. A terrible scream echoes through the palace and from the water lurches the ifrit, fire pouring from his mouth. Behind him rises the blazing princess. Smoke fills the air as they fight. The king feels deeply guilty for forcing his daughter into such a battle and wishes he’d never found the ape at all. Perhaps these words attract the ifrit’s attention, for suddenly he’s breathing flame at the king and the dervish. The princess intervenes, but a spark catches the dervish’s eye and blinds it.

Even in the middle of a fight for her life, the princess shouts prayer, and proves once and for all that she is TOO AWESOME by reducing the ifrit to ashes. She asks for water, but not for herself – no, she’s still focused on the task at hand. Reciting spells over the cup, she throws it over the ape/dervish and restores him to human form. She then tells her father that she has not long left to live. Her victory has come at a great cost. She has time to utter one more prayer before a black spark leaps to her face and she falls to ashes.

Sitt al-Husn, you deserved so much better. Rest in peace.

The dervish feels bad about it, like that’s any use. He joins the princess’s devastated father in a hair-tearing frenzy of grief, which ends with the poor king fainting. When he recovers, his officials and advisers have arrived and are in dire need of explanation. On his orders, an enormous memorial is built over Sitt al-Husn’s ashes, while the ifrit’s are blown away with no ceremony at all. The king is so sick with grief it seems he will die, but after a month he begins to recover and summons the dervish to deliver some harsh truths.

“Young man,” he says, “I passed my days living at ease, protected from the calamities of time, until you came here. How I wish that I had never set eyes on you or your ugly face, for it is you who have brought me to ruin. Firstly, I have lost my daughter, who was worth a hundred men. It was you whom my daughter rescued at the cost of her own life. Secondly, I was injured by fire; I lost my teeth and my servant died.” He acknowledges these things are not really the dervish’s fault, but he can’t bear the sight of him any more and wants him gone. Now.

The dervish does not know where to go next. Grateful just to be alive, he shaves off his beard, puts on a hair shirt and sets off travelling again, his plan being to reach the caliph and explain his circumstances – just like the first dervish. Thus he came to Baghdad, encountered his doppelgangers, and arrived at a rather frightening party. The lady of the house is satisfied with his tale, permitting him to go free, but he joins the growing audience instead as the third dervish begins his story. “They both were victims of fate,” he says sorrowfully, “but I brought this fate upon myself.” Some time ago he was a competent king with a passion for sailing – his vast collection of ships including a fleet of merchant vessels and an armada of warships, plus all the pleasure boats his heart could desire. During a cruise around his kingdom of islands, his company sail into a ferocious storm. When at last it clears, they are very lost.

A lookout climbs to the crow’s-nest to look for land. He sees fish floating on the water and in the distance a shape that looks sometimes black and sometimes white. The captain goes into a state of mad panic, wailing, “Good news! We are all dead men; not one of us can escape.” Everyone follows his lead except for the king, who has no idea what’s going on. The captain explains: that shape on the horizon is the Magnetic Mountain. Its powerful influence on the ship’s iron will tear the vessel apart. According to legend, a brass dome stands upon the dreaded island’s shore and within it a brass rider. He is somehow responsible for the deaths that surround this island, and they will only stop if he falls from his horse. Um. I thought it was magnetic influence? Is it magic magnetism? Let’s go with that.

The captain goes back to sobbing while his crew give each other their final words in the hope someone might survive. Through the night, the ship drifts closer to the mountain; come morning, they are right on top of it. Every scrap of iron is torn from its place, flying towards the magnetic rock; the ship shatters and everyone is thrown into the water. Most drown. The dervish/king is of course one of those who survive, clinging to a plank that is eventually blown ashore. There he finds a track carved into the mountain.

Night fifteen begins with the king climbing it, praying frantically. When he reaches the summit in safety, he gives ritual thanks for God’s mercy and takes refuge in the legendary dome. While he sleeps, he has an unusually informative dream.

“Dig beneath your feet,” he is told, “and you will find a bow of brass with three lead arrows, on which are inscribed talismans. Take the bow and the arrows and shoot the rider on top of the dome, for in this way you will rescue people from great distress.” Once the statue has fallen into the sea, the king is to bury the bow where he found it and wait on the mountaintop for a wave so vast it will rise to his level. Upon it will be a boat and a brass man – a different brass man, who will carry the king to safety. There is only one condition: until he departs the boat, the king must not speak the name of God.

Guess what he goes and does. No, go on, guess.

In his defence, it is an involuntary exclamation of relief as he comes within sight of land. No sooner has he cried out a grateful prayer than the boat tips him out and leaves him to swim the rest of the way. Like the stubborn sort he is, he prays the whole time. Thrown ashore by a violent wave for the second time in under a fortnight, the king squeezes out his clothes and trudges off to figure out his position. It’s not good. Trapped on a small island, he’s very relieved to spy a ship in the distance and climbs a tree the better to watch its approach.

When it docks, ten slaves emerge, each carrying a spade – and at this point I’ll repeat, GIVE US A BLACK CHARACTER WHO IS NOT A SLAVE, it isn’t that hard. All ten walk to the centre of the island and start digging. The king sees them uncover a trapdoor, then travel back and forth from the ship with supplies that range from butter and honey to sheep. Clearly someone’s settling in for the long haul. On their final trip back to the trapdoor, two passengers accompany them – an elderly man and a handsome boy. ‘Beauty was brought to be measured against him,’ thinks the king, ‘but bowed its head in shame.’

They remain underground for an hour or so. When the rest of the party emerges, the beautiful youth is missing. The king waits for the ship to depart, then climbs down from his tree and opens up the trapdoor. Within is a luxurious chamber, decorated with silks and fresh flowers, in which the young man sits fanning himself. He’s alarmed at the intrusion, but once convinced that his visitor is human he’s quite happy to talk. To find out why he’s tucked away in a secret bunker, return next Tuesday for the rest of the third dervish’s tale.

The Sharazad Project: Week 7

Trigger warning: references to extreme violence towards women

Welcome back to the house of whips and lies, where most of the guests are currently tied up awaiting execution, and the two who have been pardoned refuse to go. Having given their own stories, they now want to hear everybody’s else’s, and are obliged when the second of the three dervishes begins his tale.

Like his companion, he too is royal – a king’s son whose life has been dedicated to scholarship and whose many academic successes have attracted the interest of the king of India. Gifts and compliments are sent along with an invitation to this king’s court. The dervish’s father sets him up with a small fleet and he arrives on shore amid an impressive procession that is immediately beset by well-armed highwaymen. “We are envoys on our way to the great king of India, so do not harm us,” the dervish’s people protest. “We don’t live in his country,” the highwaymen retort, “and are no subjects of his.” They start killing servants and the procession scatters in terror. Though wounded, the dervish flees as well. The highwaymen are too busy exulting over their plunder to bother with pursuit.

The dervish is now lost and broke in unfamiliar country. With no better plan in mind, he picks a direction and walks. At length he comes to a fortified city where the roses are in bloom, the birds are singing and no one is actively trying to kill him. Not because they don’t want to – the first person he meets is a tailor, to whom he pours out his unhappy circumstances, and who advises him not to do that with anyone else. The king of this city is, by unlucky coincidence, engaged in a blood feud with the dervish’s father and has no reason to do him anything but harm.

The tailor, however, is very friendly. He lets the dervish sleep in his shop for a few days while he finds his feet, then asks if he has any skills that could earn a living. The dervish rattles off a list of academic accomplishments, only to be told they are all useless – no one in this city cares about science or literature (seriously, tailor? You asked everybody, did you?) so the dervish is told to become a woodcutter instead.

It’s something of a comedown, but the dervish needs the work and, using the tools the kindly tailor has supplied, manages to support himself. After a year living this way, he’s digging away at a tree stump when his axe strikes metal and he realises he’s found a trapdoor. Underneath is a flight of steps, which he descends without hesitation. Beyond the stairs is a door, and beyond the door a magnificent chamber in which resides a dazzlingly beautiful girl. They stare at each other, startled. He’s thinking some rather lewd poetry; she’s wondering if he’s human or not. He assures her he is and explains the mess of his life to her. She’s duly sympathetic, but her own story is even more traumatic. She is a princess from the Ebony Islands and on her wedding night was snatched away by the ifrit Jirjis. She has been locked up in this palace ever since, well provided for materially but a captive just the same. He comes every ten days, sleeps with her, then goes away again. If she needs anything, he’s told her to lay her hand on the inside of a dome – this part is not explained, maybe she means the ceiling? Some other facet of architecture?

Anyway, this is the fourth day of the cycle, so it is safe for the dervish to stay if he wants. He’s very quick to agree. She bathes with him, brings food and drink, and he sleeps for a while. When he wakes, she’s massaging his feet. This is her slightly odd intro to saying being locked up underground is lonely and depressing and maybe they should have sex. The dervish is one hundred percent on board with the idea. They spend the night and half the next day in bed, with a lot of wine. When the dervish gets up, he can’t even walk straight, but he’s trying to be gallant. In an arrogant sort of way. “Get up, my beauty,” he commands, “and I will bring you out from under the earth and free you from this ifrit.” Except she doesn’t want rescuing. She wants a sizzling affair, and given her time is her own nine days out of ten, she doesn’t see why there should be a problem. The dervish is so focused on being her hero he barely hears her. He spots the dome she uses to summon the ifrit and I think it can’t be part of the ceiling, because he gives it a savage kick.

Night thirteen begins by showing us why this was a really awful idea. The room goes dark and shakes around them while thunder and lightning batter their senses. The ifrit has come. “By God, you have brought harm on me,” the girl cries, “but save yourself and escape by the way that you came.” The dervish is so eager to run away he forgets to take his shoes or axe. At the foot of the steps he glances back and sees the ifrit emerging from a rift in the ground. The girl tries to convince him she just got drunk and tripped over the dome (is it a table? Ornamental?), but he spots the abandoned shoes. Going into a jealous rage, he rips off her clothes and starts beating her, trying to torture out a confession. If the dervish wants to be a hero, THIS IS THE TIME. But he is not a hero. He abandons her to her fate and slinks home to the tailor.

Even so, he can’t escape what he’s done. By the time he reaches the shop, a ‘Persian’ has already tracked him down via the other local woodcutters, apparently to return his axe; only of course it is the djinn. Through everything he has inflicted on his prisoner, she wouldn’t give her lover’s name – did she even know it, poor thing? – but he’s found his prey anyway. Snatching up the dervish, he flies away. They plunge directly through the earth into the underground palace, where the girl is staked out, bleeding from her brutal inquisition. The dervish starts crying. “Whore, is this your lover?” the ifrit demands, and despite her injuries the girl insists she’s never seen him before. The attempt misfires badly, because the ifrit only releases her to force a sword into her hand. To prove she cares nothing about the dervish, she is told to cut off his head.

The two of them have a semi-telepathic conversation involving eyebrows. The dervish recognises that the girl’s tempted to use the blade, but instead she throws it aside. “How can I cut off the head of someone whom I do not know and who has done me no harm?” she demands. “My religion does not allow this.” The ifrit spins around on the dervish and gives him the sword. If he proves his indifference to the girl by beheading her, he shall go free. The dervish immediately advances; the girl looks disbelieving. Remembering she JUST SAVED HIS LIFE, the dervish throws down the sword and just blurts misogynistic drivel. “Oh powerful ifrit, great hero, if a woman, defective as she is in understanding and in religious faith, thinks that it is not lawful to cut off my head, how can it be lawful for me to cut off hers when I have not seen her before?”

It’s all to no use. The ifrit seizes up the sword himself and hacks off first the girl’s hands, then her feet, then her head. He then has the FUCKING GALL to call her an ‘unfaithful wife’, because kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl and forcing her to be your sex slave is exactly the kind of action that inspires loyalty! NOT. EVER.

I need a minute to scream my rage.

Okay, so next he turns on the dervish. Due to his ghastly double standards, he’s willing to simply change the dervish into another form – a dog, a donkey or an ape. The dervish grovels and wails about how wronged he is and tells the ifrit he should forgive him ‘as the envied forgive the envier’. Cue a story segue. I have never been less interested.

In this sub-story, two men live side by side. One envies the other so much he starts getting sick, while his neighbour only grows more prosperous – a cycle that ends with the envied man moving away. He buys some land in another city, builds a mosque and shows his golden touch applies to all endeavours when worshippers start flocking to his door. The envious man learns of his success and goes to the mosque too, like a creepy person. He asks for a private audience so he can lead the object of his envy to a well and push him in.

The murder attempt only fails because a community of jinn to live down there and notice what’s happening in time to catch the falling man. One of them knows about the bad blood between the former neighbours, and also knows that the king plans to visit the mosque the next day – his daughter, the princess, has been possessed by an evil spirit and he wants advice. The only way to drive it out is to take seven white hairs from the black cat that live in the mosque and treat the girl with their fumes, presumably as they burn.

The man memorises all of this. He rises from the well at dawn, astounding everyone who sees him, and proceeds to cure the princess in about ten seconds flat. The king gets terribly excited and asks his state officials what reward the healer deserves; they suggest marriage, so before you know it the man is a prince. His luck being what it is, he next become vizier, and when the king dies he takes the throne. One day while he’s out with his friends from court, he sees the man who tried to kill him and has him brought over. Is it revenge? Nope, he hands over a load of gold and twenty camels, then has him quietly escorted over the border.

The ifrit considers the dervish’s story. Then he goes right ahead and turns him into an ape.

Dumped on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, the dervish starts travelling again. Eventually he ends up by the sea and jumps aboard a ship. The crew freak out and want to kill him but he sobs all over the captain’s boots and gets turned into a monkey butler instead. At their next destination, a decree has been issued that everybody must write a single line on a sheet of paper, as the king is looking for a new royal calligrapher. The dervish writes out poetry in six different scripts and when the paper is returned to the king, his is the only script that will do. The king orders that he be brought to the palace with much pomp and ceremony; then his attendants start grinning and the truth comes out. The king loves the idea of a monkey calligrapher, especially one who writes down poetry about literally everything he does. He can even beat the king at chess.

The king calls for his daughter so he can show off his new pet, but the moment she lays eyes on the ape she not only realises he’s human, she knows exactly who he is and where he’s been, even describing the manner of his lover’s death. This unusual perception is just the beginning of her skills – she has a whole cache of spells at her command that her father knew nothing about. He’s fine with that. He asks for her to restore the dervish to his true form so he can be made vizier.

Does it work? Do we care? Next week, the second dervish’s tale concludes, and more importantly we spend some time with the secret sorceress.

Review – Monstrous Affections

Monstrous Affections – ed. Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

Candlewick Press, 2014

Where do you find monsters? Out beyond the borders, whirling in the sky above a battlefield. In another dimension where the sun won’t set. Walking in the woods after dark, in deep water, in a cage. Inside a face you thought you knew. Inside your head. Sometimes they come at you with tooth and claw, and you’ll fight for your life…but sometimes, you’ll welcome them in.

This collection of short stories spans a wide spectrum, from light fantasy to horror. The type of monster varies enormously too, with vampires and harpies, shapechangers and aliens, kraken and demons. Several didn’t work for me because of the odd structure and plot direction. A few I actively disliked – horror is not my thing. Most, though, took a creative approach to the concept of ‘monster’. I particularly liked the very different takes on vampires from Cassandra Clare and Joshua Lewis, and Holly Black’s marvellous ‘Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)’. Kathleen Jennings’ ‘A Small Wild Magic’ was the only short story in graphic form, and I could easily read more about her character Marilyn. Sarah Rees Brennan’s ‘Wings of the Morning’ was every bit as adorable and incisive as I expected – though if you want to get the most out of it, you really need to read her online work The Turn of the Story, because then you’ll understand why I punched the air a couple of times out of delight. Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have also edited another anthology called Steampunk!

Review – Labyrinth

Labyrinth – Kate Mosse

Orion, 2006

Originally published in 2005

In the summer of 2005, Alice Tanner arrives in France for a working holiday at an archaeological dig in the French Pyrenees. Eager to move on from a recent break-up and needing to settle an unexpected bequest from an estranged relative, Alice has easy explanations for how she ended up at the dig – but not for how she knew to find the cave. The discovery of two bodies and a strange stone ring brings ancient secrets to the surface, setting off a chain of events that go back eight hundred years to another girl, another summer, in the city of Carcassonne on the eve of war.

When I declared my intention to read more historical fiction in 2015, my wonderful mother took notice. Labyrinth was part of my history-themed Christmas and when I caught some of the TV adaptation, I was interested enough to bump the book up the list. It’s thick but easy to read, and the switches between past and present were well handled, though the parallel plots meant some repetition and the romantic elements did not convince me. Near the end, there were too many info-dumps, reducing the emotional impact, and the resolution required a lot of handwavery. (Spoiler: I also wanted more moral grey from Oriane, whose legitimate grievances against her father and husband were quickly brushed aside. She had good reason to resent Aläis. I wanted to see the sisters work through that and am very disappointed it didn’t happen.) Labyrinth needed more nuance, but it is a loving exploration of a time and place in history that deserve remembrance.

The Sharazad Project: Week 6

We pick up where we left off last week: the porter is pleading for his life with poetry and the woman who brought him into this mess is laughing at how unconvincing it is. She’s angry about her rules being broken, but wants to hear the men’s stories before she has them killed. Only they’d better talk fast, because it’s almost morning.

“Damn you, Ja’far,” the caliph says, unreasonably. “Tell her about us or else we shall be killed by mistake, and speak softly to her before we become victims of misfortune.” “That is part of what you deserve,” Ja’far retorts, and I like him so much. The lady ignores them, going to the dervishes and enquiring whether they are brothers – though I don’t think losing an eye is a standard genetic trait. They are not related at all, as it happens. Instead they are all princes from different lands who lost their respective eyes in unrelated but apparently remarkable circumstances. The lady says that if each man tells his story, he may go free unharmed. Strange anecdotes are like currency in Sharazad’s world, which makes sense given her circumstances.

The first man to grab the offer of clemency is the porter, whose story is short and boring – he was hired to carry groceries and got in way over his head. The woman laughs again and tells him he may go, but he doesn’t want to leave until he’s heard the other stories. At this the first dervish steps forward to give his own tale.

He is the son of a king, who had a brother, who was another king over somewhere else, who also had a son, born on the same day as the dervish. Read that twice if you have to. Being in the habit of visiting his uncle quite often, the dervish knows his cousin well and they have always got along. When his cousin asks for help, the dervish agrees without question. That is a bad idea. The cousin brings a veiled woman into the room and wants her taken to a specific part of a specific cemetery, where they are to wait for him by the burial enclosure. He shows up with a bowl of water, a bag of plaster and an axe, then breaks open a tomb to reveal an iron cover. Underneath that is a hidden staircase.

He tells the woman, “Now you can do what you have chosen to do,” at which she descends the stairs. The cousin means to follow her. As a final part of this favour, he wants the dervish to plaster over the disturbed stones in the tomb so it looks undisturbed. Apparently he’s been working on this plan for a full year without explaining himself to a soul, and he doesn’t intend to start now. He disappears down the stairs. The dervish plasters the tomb and goes back to his uncle’s palace.

He wakes up the next day hoping it was all a dream, but his cousin has vamoosed and no one knows where he might be – including the dervish, who searches the cemetery repeatedly without finding the right burial enclosure again. After a frantic week in which he can hardly eat or sleep, he realises the matter is out of his hands and heads home. Where EVERYTHING IS WORSE. He’s seized at the city gates and tied up by his own father’s servants. At first they won’t even tell him why, but then the truth comes out – the army has rebelled, the vizier has murdered the king and the dervish is now public enemy no.1. It’s not just a political gesture, the vizier genuinely hates him. You see, the dervish once tried to shoot a bird with a pellet bow and accidentally took out the vizier’s eye instead. He has been waiting for some time to get his own back, and he’s finally in a position to order the dervish’s execution.

The dervish tries to protest it was an accident. “If you did it by accident,” the vizier snaps, “I am doing this deliberately.” He then sticks his finger in the dervish’s eye and pulls it right out of the socket. If that’s not revolting enough, he has the dervish dumped inside a box and taken outside the city by the executioner, to be killed and left for carrion. But the young man sobs so hard he sets the executioner crying too and the longstanding goodwill between the two men carries the day – the executioner lets him live, advising him not to try seeking vengeance.

Well, luckily for the dervish, he has a backup palace. Returning to his uncle’s city, he recounts recent events. The king is already traumatised by his son’s disappearance and is quite overcome at this latest blow. Seeing him so distressed, the dervish confesses his own part in whatever the hell actually happened and the king brightens up. They go together to the cemetery, this time managing to locate the right tomb. Climbing down the hidden stair, they walk blind through a haze of smoke until they come to a hall well packed with stored food. In the middle is a couch and upon it are both the king’s son and the woman he brought with him, frozen in each other’s arms – for somehow they have been transformed into charcoal. The dervish’s uncle is furious, spitting in his son’s face and essentially telling him he’s going to hell. Not that he can actually hear.

Sharazad breaks off at this cliffhanger – night twelve commences with the king taking off his shoe and whacking his charcoal son with it. His nephew is understandably shocked; his first reaction was grief, for his cousin and the unknown girl. She’s not unknown to the king, however. She is his daughter. The prince was obsessed with her; all the king’s attempts to keep them apart were to no use and eventually he threatened his son with death if he continued to pursue his sister. So the prince had the bunker built and provisioned, clearly intending to keep the affair secret. That did not work out so well. It would seem the heavenly punishment for incest is instant incineration.

The king starts crying and the dervish does too. He says the dervish will be his son now, but that only lasts until they reach the palace, because once there they come under attack from the ambitious vizier and the city quickly falls. The king is killed.

Grieving and terrified, the dervish fled the city, shaving his face as a disguise. He came to Baghdad hoping to find the caliph and appeal his case, but did not know where to go. Meeting two more dervishes of unnervingly similar appearance, they formed a trio and thus came upon the house together.

Tenses are awkward in these segues. I prefer to write as much of them as possible in present tense, for the sense of immediacy, but that makes coming out of the segue sound a bit strange. I shall have to consider this problem some more.

The lady of the house tells the dervish he may go. Like the porter before him, he refuses to leave until he’s heard the other guests’ stories. If you feel the same way, return next week, when the second dervish tells us all about his disastrous love life.

Review – Attachments

Attachments – Rainbow Rowell

Orion Books, 2011

It is 1999 and a newspaper office in Nebraska is unimpressed by the digital revolution. Having grudgingly given their employees Internet access, they want its use closely monitored. It is Lincoln’s job to maintain the web filter and report any emails that breach the company’s rules. Though he hates the work, he’s at such a loose end he doesn’t know what else he should do – but then, he’s not exactly doing what he’s told. Two repeat offenders are Jennifer and Beth, who secretly email each other throughout the work day. Their conversations are the highlight of Lincoln’s job. But how do you introduce yourself to someone when you already know them? Is there really such a thing as love before first sight?

This concept should not be as charming as it is, but Lincoln is such a delightful protagonist and Beth and Jennifer are so much fun to read about that I consumed the book in half a day. Rowell has a gift for dialogue; it’s believable and hilarious, with a quiet warmth that infuses the whole story. All her characters are well drawn and treated with respect, even when their quirks would make them easy to mock. Her other books include Eleanor and Park and Fangirl.

The Sharazad Project: Week 5

NSFW (not safe for work). Explicit language.

It is still night nine and Sharazad is beginning the tale of a porter from Baghdad, whose job is to carry around other people’s shopping. One day a beautifully dressed woman approaches him at the market and asks him to follow her. Enchanted by her dulcet tones, he hurries at her heels while she goes from one place to another. She buys wine and fruit, meat and nuts, pastries and fancy toiletries. The porter loses enthusiasm for the task as his basket gets heavier, but perks up when they reach the woman’s house. She lifts her face veil here and of course she’s gorgeous. So is the woman who opens the door, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the way she’s described – ‘eyes rivalling those of a wild cow’ is not my idea of a compliment, and comparing her breasts to pomegranates is not much better. The porter is so overexcited he almost drops the basket. I don’t think I’d invite him inside.

They do, however. The house is luxuriously decorated, with a pool at its centre so large a skiff is floating on it and from this boat emerges a third woman, ‘glorious as the moon’. The porter is allowed to put down his basket and the three ladies of the house put away their purchases. They then try to pay the porter, but he’s too busy staring to get the hint. “Why don’t you go?” one of the women asks. “Do you think that we didn’t pay you enough?” He confesses his adoration and offers to be their love slave, on the principle that women totes can’t have fun without guys around! The women are skeptical. Seeing that his chance is slipping away, the porter insists he’s super intelligent (“I have read books and studied histories!”) and can keep any secret they want.

If he wants to stay, the women decide, he’d better pay for the privilege – a house this fancy doesn’t maintain itself. “Have you not heard what the author of the proverb said,” they admonish, “‘love without cash is worthless’?” The first woman, who brought the porter home in the first place, abruptly reconsiders and offers to pay on his behalf, which does not please the others. Another of the women says that if the porter asks any questions, he’ll be beaten. The porter agrees to terms and the women set about preparing their party.

This involves a lot of wine. Once properly drunk, the porter tries out some romantic poetry – or at least he thinks it’s romantic, personally I get put off by that many references to blood and tears. The women like it better than me. They are also very drunk. There’s dancing and singing, which leads to kissing, which leads to a confused sort of feeling up. The second woman (the doorkeeper) eventually strips off and jumps in the pool, taking a mouthful of water and spitting it at the porter. Coming back to the others, she throws herself in his lap and gets straight to the sexy talk. She also slaps him a lot. The other women join in and everyone gets naked and starts talking about their preferred slang for genitals.

Night ten begins with the four of them laughing uproariously and drinking some more. When night falls the women tell the porter to get dressed and go, but he asks to stay and the woman who brought him there wants that too. “Who knows whether in all our lives we shall meet someone else like him,” she says, “both wanton and witty.” The other women agree he can stay the night but only if he does what he’s told and asks no questions.

They finally eat something, and because alcohol poisoning is apparently not a thing, keep downing wine. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. One of the women gets up to answer it. “At the door are three Persian dervishes,” she tells the others when she returns, “with shaven chins, heads and eyebrows. By a very remarkable coincidence, each of them has lost his left eye.” These unexpected visitors want to stay the night. Agreeing to the same terms as the porter, they are permitted inside. Cue MORE DRINKING. The dervishes start playing music, the girls sing and there’s another knock at the door. It’s not the neighbours complaining – it is the caliph.

You see, he has a habit of disguising himself as a merchant and prowling the city with his vizier and executioner. His vizier is actually called Ja’far; sadly he does not have a parrot. He’s the brains of the trio. When the caliph wants to crash the party, the vizier points out those people are DRUNK and maybe it’s not a good idea to hang out with the sozzled. The caliph could not care less. “I want you to think of some scheme to get us in,” he orders, so Ja’far tells the woman who answers the door that they are traders who have become lost en route to their hostel, might they please spend the night here? Once the three men have agreed to the same bargain as the earlier arrivals, they are seated and given wine. The caliph tells them he’s planning a trip to Mecca and won’t drink. Maybe he has some sense after all. He’s given sweetened willow-flower water instead, which he likes.

One of the women rises, the one who hired the porter and who he believes to be in charge. She takes the other women by the hands and announces mysteriously that it is time to settle their debts. Clearing a space in the middle of the floor, they move their guests to benches on either side of the room, but the porter is considered exempt and asked to help out…by pulling a pair of black dogs from a cupboard. That is a bad way to begin. The first woman takes up a whip and beats each dog repeatedly while the poor creatures howl, then gathers them close and kisses them. Her spectators are naturally freaked out by the savage animal abuse and the caliph in particular wants answers. He looks to Ja’far hopefully; the vizier gestures for him to be quiet.

“Get up and do your duty,” the first woman instructs the second, the doorkeeper, who obediently retrieves a lute and plays a frankly disturbing love song that sums up as ‘loving you makes me sick but I’m doing it anyway’. The first woman is very affected, ripping her clothes and collapsing in a faint. The watching men see scars all over her skin, like the blows from a whip. “I can’t keep quiet without knowing the truth of the matter,” the caliph mutters. Ja’far reminds him of the bargain they made, and the caliph reluctantly subsides as the third woman is called upon to keep her promise.

Cue more lute-playing and another concerning love song. I interpret this one to mean ‘love is awful and a specific lover is specifically awful’. This time the doorkeeper is the one moved to cloth-ripping, and demands more sad poetry. The third woman obliges with several verses about how much it hurts being neglected by someone you love. The doorkeeper rips her dress again. I think that is this household’s version of applause. The torn clothes show bruises on her skin and the dervishes regret ever coming to this creepy place.

Their remarks draw the caliph’s attention; he thought they were a part of the household, but upon inquiry realises even the porter is a newcomer with no idea of what’s going on. “We are seven men and they are three women,” the caliph calculates. “So ask them about themselves, and if they don’t reply willingly, we will force them to do so.” Everyone agrees except Ja’far. “Let them be; we are their guests and they made a condition which we accepted, as you know,” he reasons, and points out that it is almost morning – once the caliph is back in his palace he can summon the women for questioning.


Overhearing the argument, the first woman comes over to ask what is being so hotly debated. The porter unwisely tells her. She looks at the others, to confirm they are all part of the question, and they all say yes – except for Ja’far. “By God, you have done us a great wrong,” she says furiously, and strikes the floor three times. Another cupboard door flies open and seven armed slaves come striding out to tie up the transgressors. They ask for permission to execute the men, but the lady wants some answers herself first. The porter starts babbling frantically, blaming the dervishes for breaking up the sexy times and begging with poetry for her to spare his life. She starts laughing.

That is the end of night ten, and this week’s segment. Find out next Tuesday if that laughter’s a good sign or maniacally villainous.