The Sharazad Project: Week 39

Last week Prince Dau’ al-Makan insisted on reeling off poetry in the middle of the night, drawing the attention of his sister Nuzhat al-Zaman, who sent a eunuch out to fetch the unknown reciter. He was given strict instructions not to harm whoever it was, which is a bit unlucky really because when confronted Dau’ al-Makan goes feral and starts spitting abuse. The eunuch patiently explains he means him no harm, quite the opposite in fact. Dau’ al-Makan consents to accompany him to Nuzhat al-Zaman’s tent and the furnace man follows some way behind, mentally penning the prince’s obituary. Then it strikes him that Dau’ al-Makan, backed into a corner, might blame him for the disruptive poetry and the furnace man starts worrying about his own life instead.

Nuzhat al-Zaman is the only one who knows what’s going on, or at least what she hopes is going on. Her eunuch’s description of the poet would seem to confirm her suspicions. She sends him back out to relay a request for more poetry. Dau’ al-Makan wants to make it clear that he won’t share his identity; that there might not be an identity to share any more. He’s obviously having a crisis. Nuzhat al-Zaman bursts into tears when she hears that, and has the eunuch play go-between again, asking Dau’ al-Makan who he has lost to cause him such grief. “I have been parted from everyone,” he replies, “but dearest of them to me was my sister.” In night seventy five, he expresses his misery through verse, referencing ‘Time’s Delight’ again – the meaning of Nuzhat al-Zaman’s name – and she throws caution to the winds, emerging from her tent to see the poet for herself. They recognise one another at once and fly into each other’s arms.

And promptly faint, because they’re highly strung kids and this is quite the shock.

The eunuch, to whom no one has explained anything, covers them up with a blanket and waits for them to come to. When Nuzhat al-Zaman awakens, it is with a surge of happy poetry. “Time swore it would not cease to sadden me,” she cries. “Time, you are forsworn, so expiate your sin.” A tearful Dau’ al-Makan responds with a few lines of his own: “We two are equal in our love, but she/ Shows hardiness at times, while I have none.” They hug some more, then go inside the tent to swap stories. She tells him everything, not the version her older brother and ex-husband Sharkan approved. Dau’ al-Makan tells her about the immense kindness of the furnace man and Nuzhat al-Zaman promises that they shall repay him for it. In the meantime, she calls in the eunuch and gifts him a purse of money as a reward from bringing her brother back. Then she sends him off to fetch her husband.

The chamberlain is acquainted with the twins’ true identities and zooms in on the key point: he is now son-in-law to the king. “I shall be made the governor of a province,” he speculates, and embraces his younger brother-in-law enthusiastically. Nuzhat al-Zaman sends him away again so she can chill with Dau’ al-Makan, passing on orders that the furnace man should be given a horse and made an official part of the procession.

The furnace man, assuming the worst, is preparing to escape. He freaks out when Nuzhat al-Zaman’s servants encircle him and the eunuch doesn’t help matters at all by shouting, “Who was it who recited the verses? You liar, how can you say: ‘I didn’t do it and I don’t know who did’ when he was your companion? I am going to stay with you from here to Baghdad, so that everything that happens to your companion will happen to you.” Secretly he’s told the other servants to take care of their new charge, but he can’t resist a little revenge. As the journey continues, the furnace man is seated on a good horse and fed fine meals whenever they stop, but still dreads the other shoe dropping and spends the whole time in tears. He’s a bit highly strung too.

He sees nothing of his friend, because the twins have forgotten that other people exist outside their bubble and are busy catching up on the miserable time they spent apart. Three days out from Baghdad, the caravan is just loading up for another day’s travel when they see an army thundering in their direction and the chamberlain goes to find out what’s going on. A company of horsemen detach from the main force to meet him. Alarmed, the chamberlain explains his position. The horsemen then tell him the news: King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man is dead, poisoned in his own palace.


Unfortunately his enabler, otherwise known as the vizier Dandan, is still around and in charge of things, so the chamberlain is told to go meet with him. The king’s sudden death has left a fractured powerbase, with some factions supporting Sharkan’s claim to the throne and others holding out for the long-lost Dau’ al-Makan. Nuzhat al-Zaman, being a girl, isn’t considered at all. Dandan and the army are on their way to Damascus to bring Sharkan back for a coronation.

Upon this revelation, the chamberlain sees a great big shiny opportunity. Next week, join me as the younger generation of royals stake their claims to the throne.

Review – Prudence

Prudence (The Custard Protocol No.1) – Gail Carriger

Orbit, 2015

As the daughter of a vampire, a werewolf and a preternatural, Lady Prudence Akeldama – better known as Rue – is not quite like other girls. For instance, when she touches a supernatural creature she can steal their shape, which is tremendously useful for fleeing an awkward party or winning an argument. When her adoptive father Lord Akeldama invites her into a secret tea scheme, Rue leaps at the chance. Not only does she get the very latest in dirigible technology, she can float off to India to try her hand at a little espionage and bring her friends along for the ride. Things do not go to plan. From an encounter with a parasol-thieving lioness to becoming accidentally embroiled in a shapeshifter uprising, Rue is in well over her head. On the bright side, she’s learning how to really work a tail.

Do not come into this book expecting it to make sense. Though this is the first book in the series, it’s really the next installment in Carriger’s earlier Parasol Protectorate series (which begins with Soulless) and relies upon some knowledge of those characters. It’s also completely ridiculous, sometimes in a good way – Carriger has a knack for sparkling one-liners – and sometimes just frustrating. Indian culture and religion are treated with the same flippancy as everything else, but it comes across as disrespectful rather than playful. I found the beginning a bit slow and the ending was a mess. Still, if you enjoy comic steampunk, you may want to follow up with The Custard Protocol No.2, Imprudence, slated for release in mid 2016.

Disney Reflections No.9: In Which Blondes Are Not Having More Fun

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

I can be quite demanding when it comes to fairy tales. Occasionally I go on impromptu rants about feminist princesses who should be household names but aren’t and I’ve written several retellings – including, as it happens, one about Rapunzel. When I first saw Tangled, shortly after its release in 2010, I was a little underwhelmed. As with The Princess and the Frog, this is my first rewatch.

The fairy tale: I reviewed the Grimm brothers version of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.

The film: We begin with a wanted poster for one Flynn Rider that you’d be forgiven for confusing with a pin-up, what with the roguish smile and good hair. I believe it to be the only one in the movie that doesn’t deliberately get his nose wrong. “This,” announces the voiceover, “is the story of how I died.” Flynn hastens to clarify that it is not as depressing as it sounds! Nor is it his, it actually belongs to a girl called Rapunzel. So it would appear he is already nicking the story.

Once, he tells us, a drop of sunlight fell to earth and where it landed, a magical golden flower grew with the power to heal the sick. When the pregnant queen of a nearby kingdom falls desperately sick, her subjects turn out in droves to search for the legendary flower. Unfortunately, someone else found it first. For centuries a woman called Mother Gothel has been hiding the flower under a cunning leafy basket. By singing over it, she calls on its power to restore her youth and beauty.

But the deluge of miracle-seekers takes her by surprise and despite her best efforts, the flower is found. The queen drinks it down, recovers at once and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. In celebration a painted lantern is lit and floats away into the sky.

Magically assisted pregnancies always come with side effects, however, and in this case it is a creepy wannabe immortal sneaking into their daughter’s bedroom to take back the magic. Rapunzel’s hair glows like the flower when she hears the song, but the spell doesn’t last when a lock is cut off. Does that stop Mother Gothel? Not a bit of it! She takes the child and spirits her off to a tower deep within the woods, to bring her up in complete isolation. A more sophisticated version of the leafy basket, really. Refusing to give up hope, the king and queen send up thousands of lanterns every year on their lost daughter’s birthday, hoping that one day she’ll see them and come home.

Years pass. Rapunzel grows and so does her hair. Having found myriad uses for the endless blonde coils – from a lasso to a bungee cord – she’s technically capable of leaving the tower. In fact, frenetically active individual that she is, she needs to leave the tower, she’s painted all over the walls and has made enough candles to open a small shop, plus she’s driving her chameleon sidekick Pascal crazy with games of hide-and-seek. The world outside scares her, though. Mother Gothel has drummed it into her since infancy that no one out there can be trusted.

At this point Flynn Rider finally crashes into the movie, leaping across rooftops with some very large thugs in pursuit. They’re on the same side, nominally. Flynn wants his own castle, where he can pose dramatically on the battlements; the Thugs want the royal treasure. Letting him down through the roof – because OF COURSE Flynn thinks he lives in a heist movie – they acquire a heavily guarded tiara and leg it like mad.

Meanwhile, at the foot the tower, Mother Gothel has arrived for a visit. She doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s hair, that’s for losers, she lets her adopted daughter haul her up instead. She then proceeds to tear down Rapunzel’s self-confidence with carelessly unkind jokes that are excused with an ‘I’m just teasing!’ that actually make them WORSE. Rapunzel, though, has a plan. She turns eighteen tomorrow and she wants one thing: to go and see the floating lights that rise every year on her birthday.

Mother Gothel tries to brush her off. When Rapunzel persists, she’s treated to a litany of horrors that are sure to pounce on her the second she sets foot in the outside world, ranging from men with sharp teeth to the plague, and accompanied by rapid-fire criticisms, until Rapunzel is so distraught she’ll promise anything for a reassuring hug. “Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again,” Mother Gothel tells her, and Rapunzel agrees. It’s deeply disturbing to watch. Assured that her charge is sufficiently cowed, Mother Gothel departs again into the forest.

Which is unexpectedly full of soldiers, in pursuit of Flynn and his associates. Despite Flynn being distracted by a badly drawn wanted poster, they’ve managed to maintain their headstart, only to run into a rocky dead end. He convinces the Thugs to give him a boost up in exchange for the treasure-filled satchel, but filches it on his way up and runs off without them. The soldiers are hot on his heels, led by a moustachioed commander on the white charger Maximus. Flynn swings down from a tree, knocking the commander to the ground and replacing him in the saddle – but Maximus immediately skids to an outraged stop and does his level best to rip the satchel out of Flynn’s hands. It goes flying instead, hooking on a branch, swinging precariously over a clifftop. Flynn and Maximus brawl to get to it. Unable to bear their combined weight, the branch snaps and they fall from a great height.

Because this is a Disney movie, they survive it. Maximus springs up. The forces of justice cannot be stopped by so trifling a thing as a near-fatal fall! He tries tracking Flynn, but the thief has ducked behind a curtain of leaves and is hiding in a cave. From the other side it opens onto a flower meadow…and a hidden tower.

Flynn doesn’t need magic hair. He scales his own way up and is promptly knocked out cold by a frying pan. Rapunzel has a perfectly reasonable freak-out over his unconscious body and shoves him in a cupboard. Once she gets over the panic and confused attraction, she zooms in on the really important point: one of those untrustworthy people Mother Gothel has been warning her about came into the tower and she handled it. Also, he has nice teeth.

Then she sees the open satchel, and inside, the sparkling tiara. It takes her a few tries to figure out what it’s for, but once it’s on her head…

Mother Gothel naturally chooses that precise moment to interrupt. Hiding the satchel and tiara, Rapunzel hauls her up as usual and tries to explain what happened, but at the first reference to their earlier argument, Mother Gothel flies off the handle. “You are not leaving this tower!” she shouts. “Ever!” Rapunzel stares at her with wide shocked eyes and right then makes the decision to lie. She pretends that she wants paints for her birthday instead, ensuring Mother Gothel will take a three-day trip away. As soon as she’s out of sight, Rapunzel cautiously approaches the cupboard. is still out cold, possibly with permanent brain damage from all the whacking. When he finally wakes up, he’s tied to a chair with suspiciously silky golden rope and a gorgeous girl armed with a frying pan is standing over him. Quickly sizing his captor up, Flynn tries out the charm card but just baffles her. She makes him an offer: he can have his satchel if he takes her to see the lights and brings her safely home. Considering he just robbed the royal family, that sounds a bad deal to him. But it’s that or be tied up with hair for the forseeable future, so he agrees to her terms.

For the first time ever, Rapunzel sets foot on grass and earth. She meets her first Disney bluebird! She alternates between dizzying joy at her escape and paralysing guilt at deceiving her mother, while Flynn looks on with stony resignation. He tries to exploit her conflict to make her go home, but Rapunzel turns contrary immediately. She is going to see those lights.

Meanwhile, Mother Gothel gets ambushed by Maximus. He backs off, disappointed, when he realises she’s not his quarry – but she sees that he’s a palace horse and hurries back to the tower. Of course, Rapunzel isn’t there. Mother Gothel finds the tiara instead…and a wanted poster of Flynn Rider.

Who is trying out another tactic to get rid of his unwanted companion. He drags her to a hardcore pub for lunch. It’s called the Snuggly Duckling, and is full of ruffians, rogues and generally the kind of armoured blokes who look like knock-off orcs. Turns out this was a terrible plan because they recognise Flynn (those wanted posters are inescapable!) and decide to hand him over for the reward money. Only everyone wants the reward money so he’s thrown from one thug to another while they bicker it out. Rapunzel finally catches their attention with a violent flick of her hair. It is not something you can ignore. “I don’t know where I am and I need him to take me to see the lanterns, because I’ve been dreaming about them my entire life,” she pleads. “Find your humanity! Haven’t any of you ever had a dream?”

Forget orc extras, these guys wandered off Les Miserables. THEY ALL HAVE A DREAM. From wannabe concert pianists to interior designers to that guy who makes ceramic unicorns, they all seize on Rapunzel as the eager listener they’ve been waiting for all their lives. Even Flynn (admittedly at swordpoint) joins in, though his dream is to be hideously rich on his own personal island. No one sympathises. Gothel arrives at the door in time to see her adopted daughter dancing on a table surrounded by cheering thugs. And look, she’s the worst in pretty much every respect, but that is a legitimate maternal nightmare. Rapunzel is having the time of her life, though, and Mother Gothel can’t get near. Instead, the door slams open for the palace guards. The Ducklings, having had a total change of heart mid dance number, spirit Rapunzel and Flynn out the back door so she can achieve her dream. They’re out of luck anyway because Maximus kicks in the door, reunites with his commander and tracks Flynn’s scent to their escape route. Flynn’s associates – who were caught but not very well restrained – grab the opportunity to free themselves and set off to catch their double-crossing partner.

Rapunzel’s attempt at bonding with Flynn over backstory is spoiled by soldiers thundering in pursuit. They fetch up in an abandoned quarry, cornered by the variety of enemies Flynn has acquired. Rapunzel swings to safety with her hair, leaving Flynn armed with her frying pan – it is an excellent weapon but not so useful against Maximus, a horse with a grudge and a knife between his teeth. Disarmed, Flynn is cornered until Rapunzel throws him a length of her hair and drags him to safety. Well, not actually safety. Maximus has kicked down a beam to make a bridge so he can get to them, but they’re already gone, swinging away on loops of hair. That’s when the floodgate collapses, water floods the quarry and they get stuck in a dark tunnel. With the water rising and no way out in sight, Rapunzel sobs out an apology. Flynn confesses that Flynn isn’t his name at all, his real name is Eugene Fitzherbet.

Smiling wanly, Rapunzel shares her secret: she has magic hair that glows when she sings. Realising what she just said, Rapunzel starts singing. By the light of her hair, they dig their way free of the tunnel and tumble out, scrambling up onto a riverbank. Rapunzel is blissed out on being alive. Flynn is still rather gobsmacked by the hair.

Mother Gothel, in the meantime, has caught the wrong escapees. She gets Flynn’s erstwhile thieving friends instead, and convinces them to join forces with her. They get the tiara and a promise of revenge.

Flynn has other problems right now. Rapunzel has wrapped her hair around his injured hand and he watches with increasing bewilderment as she literally sings him better. Flynn would really like to flail and flee for a bit, but Rapunzel is giving big sad kitten eyes so he forces himself to be cool with the glow-in-the-dark hair and she ends up telling him how her hair stops working when it’s cut, how Mother Gothel was afraid for her (HA) and that’s why she’s never left the tower before now. It’s obvious she is feeling guilty again. On the other hand, it’s less than a day since she left the tower and Flynn is already returning the kitten eyes. 

Rapunzel drops the subject of whether she’s going back home in favour of needling ‘Eugene’. He tells her that when he was a child, growing up in an orphanage, he’d read to the younger kids from a book of adventure stories and dream about a life of swashbuckling excitement. He swears her to secrecy. He has a reputation to protect. A bit awkward after all the oversharing, he jumps up to go get firewood and Rapunzel gazes after him fondly.

So obviously this is the moment Mother Gothel arrives to ruin everything. It’s a gift.

She takes her usual tack of maternal guilt-tripping, trying to pull Rapunzel into the woods, but Rapunzel digs in her heels and won’t go. She thinks something is happening between her and Flynn, something good. Mother Gothel’s reaction is instantaneously spiteful, mocking the very idea of anyone wanting Rapunzel, and tosses the satchel – complete with tiara – at her foster daughter, telling her to put Flynn to the test. If he gets what he really wants, he’ll leave. Rapunzel is standing there shell-shocked and alone when Flynn comes back. She quickly hides the satchel while he rabbits cheerfully on about superpowers.

The next morning he wakes to a dripping wet and utterly enraged Maximus looming over him like the Charger of Doom. Rapunzel wakes to Flynn howling blue murder as the horse hauls him off by the boot to face justice. She grabs his arm and they have a brief tug-of-war. The boot pops off and we discover Flynn Rider does not wear socks. He must have terrible blisters.

Of course Rapunzel doesn’t wear SHOES, so… her and Pascal and some authoritative babytalk, she gets Maximus to stand down. The sympathetic murmurs of ‘nobody appreciates you, do they’ probably help. She brokers a 24 hour truce between horse and thief for her birthday, though they squabble wildly behind her back. She doesn’t care – she’s arrived in the royal city and it is gorgeous.

Not, however, really designed for a woman with hair about treble her own height, so Flynn enlists a group of enthusiastic little girls to plait it all up. Able to walk freely, Rapunzel wanders about wide-eyed. A mosaic of the royal family – complete with the lost baby princess – catches her eye. Then she gets distracted by a group of musicians and kicks off a dance party. She’s adorable, and also one of nature’s leaders. No one sees saying ‘no’ to her as an option. Flynn watches on, trying to pretend he’s exasperated instead of totally besotted. Over the course of the day she paints sunbursts on the cobblestones, they eat sweets in alcoves, he shows her maps in the public library (I assume it’s public, he might have broken in) – and they dance, dance, dance.

It is the best birthday ever. When night falls, Flynn acquires a boat and they sail onto the water to watch the lanterns rise. As they wait for the light show to begin, Rapunzel wonders aloud what she’ll do after this. “Well, that’s the good part, I guess,” Flynn says. “You get to go find another dream.” the palace, the king and queen – worn down by years of hope and grief, so tired of waiting for their little girl to come home – step onto the balcony to light the first lantern. After that everyone joins in, sending a galaxy into the sky. Rapunzel is transfixed. Flynn surprises her with a lantern of her own and she responds by shyly returning his satchel. He doesn’t actually want it. He takes her hands instead. Leaning in for a kiss, he sees a terribly unwelcome sight over her shoulder – his ex-cronies waiting expectantly on the shore. Realising that he’ll have no peace until they have the tiara, he leaves a very confused Rapunzel in the boat while he heads off to hand over the satchel.

But of course they are working with Mother Gothel now, who doesn’t want riches, she wants her pet magic princess. Rather than letting him go, the thugs knock Flynn out and tie him to the helm of a ship so it looks like he’s leaving Rapunzel of his own free will – while she stares after him, devastated, the thugs bring out a sack. They know about her hair and they know how much that’s worth. She flees, but her hair snags on a bit of driftwood and while she’s desperately trying to tug it loose she hears the sounds of a struggle, followed by Mother Gothel’s familiar voice calling out her name. She turns back to find her foster mother standing over the unconscious thugs with a large branch. So relieved to be saved, Rapunzel agrees to return to the tower.

Meanwhile, Flynn’s boat knocks up against the castle walls. The tiara is tied along with his wrists, which makes no sense if he was trying to get away, but the castle guards are not looking for logic and lock him up on the spot. Maximus overhears Flynn frantically shouting Rapunzel’s name and realises everything has gone wrong.

The following sunset, the guards come to take Flynn to the gallows. At the same time, Mother Gothel has finished unbraiding Rapunzel’s hair and is trying to pretend nothing ever happened. “The world is dark and selfish and cruel,” she declares, but Rapunzel is looking at the world through different eyes. Thinking about the sunburst on the royal flag, she sees it everywhere in her paintings and remembers where she saw it first: dangling above her cot. She’s the lost princess and suddenly she knows.

(Memories do not work quite like that. But never mind! Revelations are afoot!)

On his way through the cells, Flynn spies the thugs and knocks aside his guards to plunge at them, demanding to know how they found Rapunzel. They tell him it was ‘the old lady’, and he works out what must have happened. As he fights the guards, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel, refusing to accept her weak lies. “I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power,” Rapunzel cries. “I should have been hiding from you!” She sees now that Mother Gothel stopped Flynn coming back to her. Admitting that she sent her foster daughter’s boyfriend to the gallows, Mother Gothel tries to patch it up with another ‘mother knows best’ line.

Rapunzel turns spitfire. She will not be used any more.

Back at the palace, doors are suddenly slamming shut, locking Flynn and his guards in a small corridor. It is an ambush – this time in Flynn’s favour, as the dreamers from the Snuggly Duckling come swinging in to the rescue. AND THEY BROUGHT THE FRYING PAN. The whole army mobilises to face the threat. The Ducklings calmly catapult Flynn out of the courtyard and onto Maximus’s back. The horse may not like Flynn much, but Rapunzel is in trouble and if that means organising a prison break? Maximus has a MISSION, people. They go whirling off in a mad gallop towards the forest.

Arriving at the base of the tower, Flynn calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair (it had to be said!) and a golden cascade spills out the window. He catches hold and climbs up – only to see Rapunzel chained and gagged on the floor. Mother Gothel knifes him in the back. “Now look what you’ve done, Rapunzel,” she says dismissively. As she hauls on Rapunzel’s chains, Pascal bites her skirt and is kicked into a wall for his pains. “For every minute for the rest of my life,” Rapunzel swears, “I will fight. I will never stop trying to get away from you. But if you let me save him, I will go with you.”

Mother Gothel agrees. She chains Flynn up instead and Rapunzel flies to him, ignoring his feeble attempts to make her stop healing him. It means she’s not paying attention when he grabs a shard of broken mirror off the floor and slices away Rapunzel’s hair. Without it, Mother Gothel doesn’t want her; without it, she can’t save him. The magic fading, it all turns her natural brown and Mother Gothel’s years finally catch up with her. In a frenzy, she reels backwards – and tumbles from the tower window, to her death.

Rapunzel stares after her, horrified, then goes back to Flynn. She sings the magic song hopelessly, holding his limp body in her arms. But magic is a part of her, and cutting off her hair doesn’t change that. When her tears fall on his face, they melt into his skin and flare gold. He wakes up groggy and flirty. They kiss passionately on the floor. after that, a guard bursts in on the king and queen with the news they have been hoping to hear for so, so long. They run to the palace balcony, where Rapunzel and Flynn turn to meet them. The queen is the first to step forward – incredulity gives way to joy and before you know it there’s a huge family group hug underway. Flynn watches on smiling until the queen holds out a hand and hauls him in.

With Rapunzel restored to her true home, dreams start coming true left, right and centre. The Ducklings give up banditry in favour of performance art and romance. Maximus becomes chief of police. Pascale eats a lot of fruit. As for Rapunzel and Flynn…well, he goes by Eugene these days. Still tells outrageous stories about his life and occasionally nicks her tiara. And they are living very happily ever after.

And just for the record, there’s no reason to stop lighting the lanterns just because the princess is found. She wants to CELEBRATE.

Spot the Difference: Well, there’s hair. And towers.

Look, it’s not got much common ground with the fairy tale and that bothered me on the first watch, but to be fair to Disney there’s a lot of non family-friendly content in the original story: the wild tower-room love affair, the resulting pregnancy, the prince’s eyes being put out with thorns, Rapunzel wandering the wilderness with twins. The Disney version steers clear of all that, opting for a lovable rogue instead of a prince and a princess instead of a bartered peasant girl. As with many retold fairy tales, this one tweaks the traditional structure (well, more yanks violently) to make each character’s motivations more understandable. Rapunzel’s parents desperately need the plant and are unaware of the consequences that will ensue from taking it; Mother Gothel wants something specific from Rapunzel; the magic in the hair is probably why it’s so ridiculously long.

What’s delightful about this version of Rapunzel is how she uses that hair. It could easily be a terrible hindrance to her adventurous personality, but she grew up with it and makes it work for her, and Flynn helps her come up with a sensible solution when she really needs it out of the way. In fact, Rapunzel has a tendency to use stumbling blocks as launching pads. The naivete Mother Gothel mocks is tempered with fierce determination; she expects the best from people and usually gets it, but she’s prepared to deal with danger too, even when it comes from someone she wanted to trust. She and Flynn are a well suited couple: outgoing, exuberant, personable, cause havoc wherever they go.

As for Mother Gothel, she is…unnerving, because she’s so believable. It’s difficult to say for sure how much of her relationship with Rapunzel involves genuine maternal fondness, however twisted and abusive, and how much is just possessive pride in Rapunzel’s power. Dominating and vicious when crossed, Mother Gothel gas-lights her foster daughter to keep her obedient, and it’s terrifyingly effective. It takes explicit certainty of her ill intentions for Rapunzel to finally break away, and it’s hard. That’s an important story to tell.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that both Rapunzel’s parents survived to the end of the story and that we got to see traces of Rapunzel’s personality in her loving father and brave, open-hearted mother. There are not enough mothers in Disney.

Maximus is obviously fabulous. The Ducklings are adorable in a weird, unhygienic sort of way. This version of ‘Rapunzel’ may not stick as closely to the original as I’d have liked, but it is irrepressibly good fun with a respect for emotional realities, and anyone who can look at Rapunzel’s big sad eyes without wanting to give her the moon is probably evil. One thing that still irritates me: did her eyes have to be that big, and her waist that small? Disney princesses have always had unlikely proportions, but the principal female characters in Tangled have only-in-animation measurements while the men – even the stupidly handsome Flynn Rider – have more natural shapes. It’s a trend to discourage.

Review – The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library No.1) – Genevieve Cogman

Tor, 2015

Irene is accustomed to secrecy. As an agent of the Library, she has access to a multitude of alternate worlds and may be sent anywhere, at any time, to acquire treasures for the voracious collections of her superiors. She doesn’t need to make the universe a better place – she just wants to keep the books safe. Saddled with a very suspicious mission and an even stranger assistant, it gets hard to maintain that professional detachment. Even the Library has its urban legends. And there are stories Irene never wants to meet…

This is a steampunk fantasy fusion that can’t be taken too seriously, but doesn’t overdo its eccentricities either. A slow start leads into a cheerfully bizarre adventure, with cool-headed bibliophile Irene doing her best to be unimpressed by everything. The relationships between characters are unexpectedly, enjoyably complicated, and while the conclusion was a bit weak, the ideas involved are intriguing. A sequel, The Masked City, is set for release in early December.

The Sharazad Project: Week 38

Trigger warning: references to incest

Last week we left Nuzhat al-Zaman in the unpleasant position of having just found out she married her brother, upon which he promptly married her off to someone else. Now we’re going to find out what happened to her other brother, last seen leaving Damascus with his friend the furnace man, heading for Baghdad on the heels of a gift procession from the governor of Damascus to King ‘Umar.

Why is Sharkan sending his dad gifts? Well, while he’s still reeling from the revelation about Nuzhat al-Zaman, he gets another letter from the king. ‘Umar wants for the taxes to be sent to Baghdad and Sharkan’s new wife with them, so he can meet her for himself. Is this because he admires highly educated women or cares about his son’s happiness? No. This is King ‘Umar we are talking about and he is a creep of the highest order. An old woman has arrived at his court with five exceptionally educated girls. “I loved them as soon as I saw them,” ‘Umar gushes, “and I wanted to have them in my palace and under my control, since no other king has anyone to match them.” I HATE THIS MAN SO MUCH. The old woman will not sell the girls for anything less than a tribute from Damascus, so ‘Umar wants it sent pronto, and Sharkan’s intellectual wife with it so she can debate with the new arrivals. “If she gets the better of them,” ‘Umar assures his son, “I shall send her back to you, together with the tribute of Baghdad.” Rather strongly implying that if she loses, she’s not coming back.

Night seventy puts Sharkan in a quandary, because he might not have recognised his sister on sight – not surprising as he’s twenty years her senior and hardly ever saw her – but it’s too much to hope the king won’t know her either. Sharkan sends for Nuzhat al-Zaman to help decide how best to answer their father’s letter. Longing to go home, she suggests she go to Baghdad with Sharkan’s chamberlain (her new husband) and offer up the PG-rated version of events they cooked up between them. Sharkan agrees.

So when the gift procession leaves Damascus, both royal twins go with it. In night seventy one, they take the long journey to Baghdad and Dau’ al-Makan gets terribly emotional as he nears home. One night while they are camped – as it so happens, very close to the chamberlain’s tent – the young prince recites tragic poetry at the moon and faints away. Nuzhat al-Zaman, equally troubled by the proximity to Baghdad, overhears him. Part of the poem refers to ‘Time’s Delight’, which is what her name means. Sending for her chief eunuch, she asks for the reciter to be brought before her.

Which brings us to night seventy two, and the eunuch explaining that he has no idea who is reciting poetry since everybody is meant to be asleep. “If you find someone awake,” Nuzhat al-Zaman reasons, “it must be the man who recited the poem.” That would be true if Dau’ al-Makan had not passed out – as it is, when the eunuch goes looking, the only person he finds awake is the furnace man, who is terrified of him. He assumes that the grand lady the eunuch represents was angered by the recitation and immediately insists it wasn’t him. “The reciter was a passing wanderer, who roused and disturbed me,” he says, which isn’t such a lie really, when you think about it.

Dau’ al-Makan comes to some time later and opens his mouth to vent with more verse. The furnace man hastily quiets him, explaining that a big scary guard has been going around looking for the reciter. “Who can stop me reciting poetry?” sobs Dau’ al-Makan. “I shall do it whatever happens to me, for I am near my own land and I don’t care about anyone.” “You want to get yourself killed,” the furnace man hisses. When Dau’ al-Makan sticks to his guns, the furnace man finally loses his temper. He points out that he’s been looking after the prince for a year and a half, it is the middle of the night, everyone is exhausted and no one wants to hear poetry please and thank you.

“I shall not change my mind,” Dau’ al-Makan, Poet of the Night, declares. Loquacity appears to be a family trait. He reels off more lines about love and loss and falls down in another faint. Nuzhat al-Zaman hears him and is so agitated that she threatens the unfortunate eunuch with a beating if he doesn’t get hold of the reciter. That’s the stick; as the carrot, she gives the eunuch a purse of money to pass on when he finds the man in question. He’s to bring this person back to her if possible, and if not, find out as much as he can.

In night seventy three, the eunuch returns to the furnace man and demands to be shown the reciter, saying that he’s afraid of his mistress’s temper if he goes back empty-handed. This does nothing to ease the furnace man’s fears. He insists the guilty party is a stranger, a wanderer who will surely be accosted by the guards, and he winds up his guilty spiel by kissing the eunuch on the head. It’s not very convincing. The eunuch goes off but conceals himself nearby to watch what happens next. Therefore, he sees Dau’ al-Makan being woken and warned again.

“I’m not going to worry about this,” the prince responds sulkily. “I don’t care about anyone, for my own country is near at hand.” “You may not fear anyone,” the furnace man snaps, “but I fear for you and for myself, and I asks you, for God’s sake, don’t recite any more poetry until you are home. I didn’t think you were like this. Don’t you realize that this lady, the chamberlain’s wife, wants to reprimand you for disturbing her, as she may be sick or wakeful because of the fatigue of the journey and the distance that she has travelled?”

That’s actually very courteous and thoughtful. Good on you, furnace man. I wish this story had given you an actual name.

Being a spoilt, traumatised teenage prince, Dau’ al-Makan pays him no heed at all. This time the eunuch catches him in the act of reciting and pounces. The furnace man takes off, hiding nearby to see what becomes of his reckless friend. Find out next Tuesday what happens to them both, and what stupid thing this family try after that.

Updating an update

I used to put actual effort into titling my updates but my brain is currently occupied elsewhere (there are witches involved, untrustworthy roads and arguments about what constitutes civilisation, it’s demanding a lot of mental space) and this is very brief, so, well, watch out for the day you get ‘Update Squared’.

Ticonderoga’s anthology Hear Me Roar has recently released its e-book edition. You can find it here on Amazon and also on Smashwords. I gave an entirely undignified squeak of delight when I read this review of the anthology, including lovely thoughts about my story, from Juliet Marillier. While we’re on the subject of e-books, FableCroft’s digital only collection Focus 2014: highlights of Australian short fiction is scheduled for release on the 30th of this month. More information about that will go up on my Publications page when I get it.




The Sharazad Project: Week 37

Trigger warning: incest

Nuzhat al-Zaman is the daughter of a rapist tyrant, has been recently enslaved and even more recently freed – only not really because she’s just been married off to the governor of Damascus, who just happens to be her estranged older brother Sharkan. This family could single handedly fuel a talk show for years. And let me tell you, if there’s one thing Nuzhat al-Zaman is an expert at, it would be talking.

Admittedly I don’t understand half of what she’s saying, it’s all disjointed anecdotes about various caliphs whose state of continued existence is in some doubt, but if Sharkan is drowning in her meaningful lectures he deserves every word he’s getting.

She’s currently expounding on the virtues of the caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who apparently once wrote to the Meccan pilgrims to let them know he sanctioned no wrongs they may have suffered en-route. He gave permission for the pilgrims to disobey any governor who acted against them. “I do not want to be spared a painful death,” he said, “as this is the last thing for which the believer is rewarded.”

We’ll leave him with that thought while we return to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, another very religious and socially conscious monarch. The anecdote is narrated by an unknown ‘reliable informant’ who sees the caliph place twelve dirhams in the royal treasury and put none aside for his children or household. Reliable Informant chides him for bad parenting. ‘Umar says that if his kids are deserving, God will look after them. He calls his twelve sons before him and regards them tearfully. “Your father has two choices,” he tells them, ” – either that you should be rich and he should enter hellfire, or that you should be poor and he should enter Paradise. He would prefer this latter than that you should be rich. Rise, then; may God protect you, for it is to Him that I have entrusted the matter.”

Reliable Informant is indeed reliable. Outsourcing one’s familial responsibilities to a higher power is a jerk move.

Someone called Khalid ibn Safwan is hanging out with ‘Umar’s son Yusuf. They go to see ‘Abd al-Malik’s son Hisham and the caliph is there too? Which caliph, I have no idea, maybe Yusuf has inherited or ‘Umar is still in charge, but whoever it is wants to know what Khalid ibn Safwan has to say. Khalid replies with an anecdote about an earlier king who courted praise from his friends and was rebuked for his pride in the transient glory. The caliph is deeply struck by the scolding and chucks aside the crown to become a ‘wandering ascetic’. Hisham is really moved by the story. He takes up the ascetic life too, though not the wandering, and his servants come to tell off Khalid for ruining their master’s pleasure in life.

Nuzhat al-Zaman breaks off there, so it’s not clear what side she takes in the argument. “How many good counsels are there in this topic,” she says. “I cannot produce all that is to be found here in one session…” When night sixty seven begins, she offers to continue her impromptu lecture tour over a series of days. “O king,” the officials agree, “this girl is the wonder of the age, unique in her time. Never at any time throughout our lives have we heard the like of this.”

Sharkan is officially married to Nuzhat al-Zaman, as I understand it, but only the first stage of formalities has been attended to and the actual wedding is yet to take place. A feast is ordered and the ladies of the court remain to attend their new mistress. Singers are summoned to perform. As evening draws in, an avenue of candles are lit from the citadel gates to those of the palace. Sharkan bathes then returns with the great men of Damascus for the unveiling of the bride.

Their wedding night is creepy not just due to the slavery thing, which makes any possibility of consent very dubious, but because they really don’t know they’re related. When Nuzhat al-Zaman immediately falls pregnant Sharkan is delighted and writes to tell his father. He wants to send her to Baghdad to meet his siblings. COULD THIS BE MORE AWKWARD. Sharkan is particularly delighted with his bride’s intelligence, and is clearly very proud of his marriage.

The response arrives a month later. He learns that his father has lost both the younger royals, who snuck off on a secret pilgrimage and never came home. The king is now in mourning. He orders Sharkan to find the prince and princess but couldn’t have sent his worries to a less sympathetic ear, because Sharkan is an ambitious warlord who hates competition. He takes the story to his new wife, yet somehow they still don’t work out each other’s true identities. In time she gives birth to a baby girl. When Sharkan comes to see his child, he sees a familiar jewel hanging around the little princess’s neck. It is one of three that were gifted to Sharkan’s family by his ex-girlfriend Abriza, who I still miss from this story so much.

“Slave girl,” Sharkan demands, “where did you get this jewel?” “I am your lady and the mistress of all who are in your palace,” Nuzhat al-Zaman retorts, because she’s fabulous like that. “Aren’t you ashamed to address me as ‘slave girl’ when I am a queen and the daughter of a king? Concealment is now at an end and it can be revealed that I am Nuzhat al-Zaman, the daughter of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man.”

Understandably, Sharkan faints.

As night sixty nine gets underway, he makes the much less understandable decision to keep his own parentage a secret, insisting that she share her story in full. This she does, unwittingly confirming Sharkan’s fears. “How could I have married my sister?” he broods to himself. “By God, I shall have to marry her off to one of my chamberlains, and if word of the affair gets out, I shall claim that I divorced her before consummating the marriage and married her to my principal chamberlain.” A bit late for that, Sharkan, she just gave birth to your baby. This is such a soap opera.

He finally tells Nuzhat al-Zaman that he is also the king’s son. She flies into a hysterical panic and Sharkan explains his plan, comforting her as best he can, which is not tremendously well. He names their daughter Qudiya-fa-Kana’, which means ‘It was decreed and it happened’. SUBTLE. REALLY SUBTLE. Nuzhat al-Zaman is duly handed over to the chief chamberlain, to bring up her baby in his household.

While all this melodrama has befallen the princess, what’s become of the prince? Next week we catch up with Dau’ al-Makan, who came to Damascus without realising that half his family were already there, and is now about to leave.

Somehow, I do not think the baby is going to stay a secret for long.

Review – Just a Girl

Just A Girl – Jane Caro

University of Queensland Press, 2011

The daughter of England’s beloved King Henry VIII, it would seem Princess Elizabeth is destined for greatness. Yet life at court is a chancy one, and before the age of four she has lost both mother and title, declared a bastard like her older sister Mary before her. The best she can hope for from her father is to be remembered. She is, after all, just a girl, and the king is obsessed with siring a male heir. But a time of change is coming, and whether she wishes it or not, Elizabeth will be at the centre of a new age.

It’s no secret I am a passionate Elizabeth fan and I don’t entirely agree with Caro’s perception of the princess, painting her as more insecure and less politically adept than I believe she really was. The structure of the novel didn’t always work well for me either, particularly at the beginning, shifting about from one time period to another without letting the reader take in the setting. Just a Girl does cover a large part of Elizabeth’s life, from childhood to coronation, and I really appreciated the focus Caro paid to the incredibly complex relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. From no queens to three – it’s a fascinating period of history. Elizabeth’s story continues in Just a Queen.

The Sharazad Project: Week 36

Trigger warning: reference to incest

Last week Nuzhat al-Zaman – secret enslaved princess and loquacious philosopher, recently married to her estranged brother – was asked to share her views on etiquette and had a lot to say. During night sixty two, she expounds on her theme with a new segue set in the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, where someone called Mu’aiqib is treasurer. Night sixty three opens with him, for unknown reasons, giving the caliph’s son a dirham (that being a silver coin of moderate value). Later, Mu’aiqib is sent for by the caliph himself, who sits holding the coin accusingly. “On the Day of Resurrection,” ‘Umar declares, “this dirham will involve you in a dispute with the people of Muhammad – may God bless him and give him peace.” How does he know this? He’s a caliph. He doesn’t have to tell you, and he won’t.

Someone called Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (Nuzhat al-Zaman thinks that introductions are for lesser storytellers and just throws in new characters when she likes) is in charge of distributing money between public works (or so I assume, the phrasing is very vague) and ‘Umar’s personal savings. He must do a decent job because when ‘Uthman (I’m assuming that’s ‘Umar’s son?) becomes caliph, Abu Musa stays in the same position. One day, someone called Ziyad accompanies him to watch the division of monies. I haven’t a clue who Ziyad is or why he’s there, but when he sees the caliph’s son take a dirham from the collected money he bursts into tears. The caliph asks him what’s wrong. “I brought the tax money to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab,” Ziyad explains, “and his son took a dirham. His father ordered that it be snatched from his hand, but when your son does the same, I don’t see anyone saying anything or taking it away from him.”

So is ‘Uthman caliph of a different area? Are these men contemporaries? I’ve read some confusing segues for this project, but this one is a downright mess.

Someone else is introduced at this point, Zaid ibn Aslam, to share an anecdote of ‘Umar’s reign. He may be ‘Umar’s son; he may not. The way he tells it, one cold night ‘Umar had a King Wenceslas moment – seeing a campfire, he insisted on visiting the family of travellers sheltering by its warmth. A woman had placed an empty pot over the flames to keep her hungry children hopeful and quiet. Upon hearing of their plight, ‘Umar sent Zaid ibn Aslam off to the palace to collect supplies and they returned with the ingredients for a simple, filling meal. The children ate; satisfied, ‘Umar went on his way.

‘Umar is apparently a bit of a saint. Night sixty four expounds on his acts of generosity. He once bought a slave who refused to sell him a sheep, because he trusted in the man’s honesty. He dressed roughly and ate simply while his servants were given fine things, and valued acts of courage over familial affection. “One year I prayed God to let me see my dead father,” ‘Umar’s son says, “and I saw him, wiping sweat from his forehead. ‘How is it with you, father?’ I asked. ‘Had it not been for the mercy of God, your father would certainly have perished,’ he replied.”

I give up on these people. I don’t even know who is alive and who isn’t.

Fortunately, Nuzhat al-Zaman moves on to different anecdotes. She has impressive stamina but dubious coherency. I don’t even know how to summarise the disjointed little anecdotes and quotes she’s throwing all over the place. Now she’s telling us about ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, another socialist caliph who gives over all his private wealth to the public treasury. The Umaiyads – I’m going to assume they are his family – appeal to his aunt Fatima, asking her to talk some sense into the man. The ensuing visit starts awkwardly because they both want the other to start first.

In night sixty five ‘Umar waffles at length about succession and metaphorical rivers – or perhaps they are not metaphorical, it’s hard to say. Speaking for all of us, Fatima gives up in disgust. She goes back to the Umaiyads and tells them, “Now you can taste the fruits of what you did by allying yourselves through marriage to ‘Umar.” I like you, Aunt Fatima.

Upon his death, the caliph summons his children and is reprimanded for leaving them without an inheritance. ‘Umar declares that either his children are obedient to God and are thus provided for, or are disobedient and deserve no help from him. GO TO AUNT FATIMA, KIDS. ‘Umar tells us about his religious dreams, which have left him with a terror of divine wrath. Nuzhat al-Zaman goes on to offer more anecdotes about what a god-fearing ruler ‘Umar was. During his reign a shepherd let wolves wander among his flock without incident, and ‘Umar once gave a sermon about how we are all dead, really, and I do like you very much, Nuzhat al-Zaman, but please get to the point.

So ‘Umar is still on his deathbed. He refuses to even have a pillow in case it is placed around his neck on the Day of Resurrection. (Why does he think God hates pillows? NO ONE KNOWS.) He faints and Aunt Fatima throws water over him until he rouses. When he tries to get up, annoyed by her concern, she physically holds him down and tells him that though she loves him, “we cannot all speak to you.” I think that’s another way of saying ‘you are impossible’.

And Nuzhat al-Zaman is still talking. Join me next week to find out if any of her audience are still conscious.

Focus 2014

This month FableCroft Publishing is releasing Focus 2014: highlights of Australian short fiction, an e-book only collection reprinting short stories by Australian writers that have received awards acclaim both here and overseas. I am tremendously honoured that my story ‘Signature’ was selected to appear alongside all these fabulous names!

St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls by Angela Slatter
Wine, Women and Stars by Thoraiya Dyer
Vanilla by Dirk Flinthart
The Legend Trap by Sean Williams
The Seventh Relic by Cat Sparks
Death’s Door Café by Kaaron Warren
The Ghost of Hephaestus by Charlotte Nash
The Executioner Goes Home by Deborah Biancotti
Signature by Faith Mudge
Cookie Cutter Superhero by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Shadows of the Lonely Dead by Alan Baxter

For updates and more information, check the FableCroft website.