Disney Reflections No.10: The Modern Royal’s Guide On How Not To Parent

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

It is a rare fairy tale where the protagonist’s parents are a) alive, and b) capable of raising their children without life-damaging trauma. In this, the final post of Disney Reflections, the royal family of Arendelle fail both spectacularly. I was introduced to Tumblr’s opinions on this movie – including various versions of ‘Let It Go’, genderbent art, and meta I tried really hard not to read – before seeing it myself, which meant I was spoilered for several things on top of my usual ‘You’re Doing My Fairy Tale Wrong’ literalism. A rewatch is definitely necessary for judging this one.

The fairy tale: Frozen is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Snow Queen’, which is one of my favourites (admittedly, the list is lengthy) and was reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project. You can read my thoughts here.

The film: We start in the kingdom of Arendelle, which sounds like a dress shop rather than an actual place and what, may I ask, was wrong with Denmark? I mean, I can’t prove ‘The Snow Queen’ starts in Denmark but that’s where Andersen was from and later in the story Gerda travels to Lapland, so it would be reasonable to assume…

…you don’t really care, do you? It’s just I MISS the days when Disney set its fairy tales in real places, hyper-stereotyped though they usually were.

Anyway. Arendelle. It’s very north. In a sequence that reminds me of The Little Mermaid’s opening number, ‘Fathoms Below’, we see the ice-breakers at work on the river, hauling away vast frozen chunks with skill and speed. Tagging along behind is a little boy, with an equally diminutive young reindeer. He’s trying to learn the trade without anyone actually teaching him or, in fact, noticing he’s there.

http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/0/03/Images-3.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20140530195547In the castle, Princess Elsa is trying to sleep. The colours of the aurora borealis swirling in the night sky outside are not enough to wake her, even her little sister Anna’s determined tugging can’t get her up, until the magic words are deployed: “Do you wanna build a snowman?” The answer is YES. Elsa wants to build a snowman. And in the echoing great hall of the palace, that’s precisely what she does, because Elsa has magic that allows her to create winter at will. She makes the floor an ice rink, waves the stick arms of a snowman she calls Olaf, makes little hillocks of snow for Anna to jump between. But Anna keeps jumping higher and higher, and Elsa can’t keep up. Nor does Anna listen when she’s told to stop. A stray bolt of ice magic strikes her across the head; she tumbles to the ground and goes still. A streak of white appears in her hair. Panicked, Elsa screams for their parents.

Who at least know about the magic, though they don’t really like it. They take their daughters to the trolls, little mossy people who strongly resemble boulders. Trotting alone through the woods, the pint-sized ice-breaker is nearly mown down by the frantic royals and hurries after them to see what’s happening. “Cuties,” one troll remarks, petting both boy and reindeer approvingly. “I’m gonna keep you.”

The rest of the trolls are focused on the frightened family huddled in their midst. The chief troll comes kindly forward to examine his patient. It’s lucky – to a given value of ‘luck’ – that the blow struck Anna’s head, not her heart. By stripping away all memories of magic and modifying them to normal winter fun, the troll heals her. He warns Elsa that her power will only get stronger, and that she must learn to control it or disaster will follow. He illustrates his point with flashing red illusions that terrify the young princess and her parents, who decide the best way to handle their daughter’s burgeoning abilities is to go into full lockdown. The castle gates are locked; the staff reduced. Elsa’s things are moved out of the room she shared with her sister. She is encouraged to stay away from people until she learns to control her power…but the tighter her restrictions, the worse her control. Seeing that she makes frost with her bare hands, her father gives her gloves. The outside world becomes a terrifying place for a little girl with a secret.

And on the outside is Anna, bewildered at the sudden change in her sister, trying to coax her out of her room with slowly declining hope. She resorts to dangerous stunts to entertain herself, like riding a bike down a staircase, and starts talking to the paintings. When the girls are in their teens, their parents go on a fortnight’s sea voyage and are caught in a storm. They don’t come back. Now Elsa is utterly alone, and so is Anna.

Three years later, the stillness on the castle cracks. Elsa is about to ascend the throne and that means, “for the first time in forever”, the gates are about to be opened. Anna is almost hysterical with excitement. She whizzes past ‘wow, am going to meet someone new’ straight to ‘TRUE LOVE IS OUT THERE’. Though her notion of true love is basically just someone who wants to talk to her. Oh, honey.

In the city outside, the festival mood is echoed in flower garlands and ribbons. The little boy, Kristoff – all grown up to lumberjack proportions, along with his reindeer Sven – is among the hopeful crowd. More distinguished guests, including a gang of dodgy-looking dignitaries, arrive in the port. When the gates are flung open Anna dives out, plunging into the crowd like she’s taking her first deep breath in years. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Her co-ordination could use some work, though. She runs straight into a horse, falls in a boat and ends up face to face with a prince. He’s handsome and courteous; she’s instantly smitten. Conversation stutters along in awkward mutual apologies until the introductions are made. He’s Hans; she’s the soon-to-be-queen’s younger sister; oh yes, and the coronation is about to start, she should probably be there.

Underneath a veneer of regal composure, Elsa is freaking out. Whatever she touches with her bare skin immediately frosts over, but part of the ceremony requires her to hold the traditional orb and sceptre aloft in front of everyone. She takes them in her hands for the briefest possible time and whips her gloves back on afterwards.

The following party is far less formal. Once Elsa has been introduced by her official title, with Anna by her side – and it’s desperately sad how uncertain Anna is about being there, edging diffidently away so they don’t stand too close – there is jaunty music and dancing. The sisters attempt to have a conversation. It’s reserved but kind on Elsa’s side, awkward and eager on Anna’s. Both are a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people suddenly in their home,  both sniff longingly at the aroma of chocolate. Their chat gets interrupted by the Duke of Weselton (one of those dodgy-looking dignitaries from earlier on), who asks for a dance. Being the queen has its perks; Elsa can say no, but Anna gets whirled around on the floor while the duke tries to pump her for information and simultaneously perform an acrobatic sort of hornpipe. Coming back to Elsa after the dance, Anna makes another tentative overture – “I wish it could be like this all the time” – and Elsa obviously agrees, but the reminder closes her down again, making Anna back off in tears. 

And who should she stumble into at that moment? The handsome, the dashing, the much-better-dancer-than-that-duke Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who proceeds over the evening to prove himself a fantastic listener. They swap stories: he’s the youngest of twelve brothers and three of them once pretended he didn’t exist, she doesn’t feel welcome in her own home. After hours of sneaking around the castle and gardens like little kids, Hans spontaneously proposes in a romantic spot beside a waterfall and Anna spontaneously accepts. They both http://i2.wp.com/www.thefandom.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/frozen-anna-hans-2.jpgseem drunk on finding someone who actually likes them. Bursting back into the ballroom to tell Elsa, their dizzy vibe is abruptly dampened when she points out they’ve only just met, this is weird, she’s not giving her blessing and definitely not hosting their wedding. She’s not very tactful. One thing leads to another, the sisters get into a screaming row and Anna accidentally pulls off one of Elsa’s gloves. Instantly, a wall of razor sharp icicles flash across the floor.

Elsa’s secret is finally out. Horrified, she flees into the village square but everyone wants to stop and congratulate her. The Duke of Weselton – who has somehow taken charge – shouts out an order to stop her. In her panic, Elsa lashes out again and her people shrink back in fear. She runs down to the fjord. When water meets her feet, it turns to ice, making a bridge for her to pass across. Which is pretty damn spectacular. Behind her, the whole fjord ices over, trapping the ships. Elsa’s fear is so great she has brought a sudden winter down on Arendelle.

http://www.scifinow.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Once-Upon-A-Time-Season-3-spoilers.jpgAnna is not one of those calling Elsa a monster. She feels guilty about the fight and worried about her sister; leaving Hans to hold the fort, she gets a horse and rides off to find Elsa. “She’s my sister,” she reassures Hans. “She would never hurt me.” But Elsa does not want to be found. Climbing high into the mountains, the snow a whirlwind around her, she has gone right through panic into something like elation: she can’t go back so why bother with the rules? Why not do whatever she wants? Why not…LET IT GO, LET IT GO, SHE CAN’T HOLD IT BACK ANYMORE…

Had to be said.

Crafting a palace from ice, she frosts herself a dress and conjures up a snowman just for the hell of it. Elsa likes being banished. The cold never bothered her anyway. It does bother Anna, who didn’t change out of her summer ballgown and just lost both her cloak and her horse in the woods. Staggering through knee-deep snow towards the rising smoke of a chimney, she discovers a little shop that is stocked almost exclusively for summer. Managing to acquire a warm dress and boots, she and the shopkeeper are both taken aback when a snow-encrusted stranger stomps in demanding carrots. It is Kristoff, who has just come from the North Mountain, where scary magic stuff is happening. Anna perks up. In return for buying his hideously expensive winter supplies – the shopkeeper is not sympathetic to sorcerous changes in season – she enlists Kristoff’s help to reach the mountain and hopefully convince Elsa to stop freezing Arendelle to death.

Kristoff has grown up a bit odd. He prefers his reindeer Sven to human beings (well, that’s not odd, Sven is adorable, if a bit dog-like) and has a ventriloquism thing going on where he pretends Sven is singing along with him, but he’s all Anna’s got, even if he does tell her off for scuffing his freshly lacquered sled and takes Elsa’s side in the Hans argument. Anna sticks to her guns. It is TRUE LOVE. When wolves attack the sled, she works off her anger beating them away with Kristoff’s guitar.

I feel really sorry for wolves in Disney films, they get so badly typecast.

Anna and Kristoff end up running straight at a cliff. Because it is Disney, they get over safely; the freshly lacquered sled, however, ends up at the bottom of a ravine. Anna guiltily promises to buy a new one. Kristoff isn’t very forgiving, but Sven likes her so Kristoff ends up having an argument more or less with himself and comes along grudgingly.

As the sun comes up, the wintry world Elsa has created glitters bewitchingly. Anna and Kristoff are walking through it (with a very bouncy Sven) toward the mountain when they come across Olaf the mobile snowman, Elsa’s creation from last night, who is cheerfully critiquing the lack of colour. Despite initial misgivings, Anna gives him one of Sven’s carrots for a nose. When he introduces himself, she recognises the childhood name and realises they have a lead on finding Elsa. Olaf is delighted to help, though it means bringing back summer. He likes summer. Just doesn’t understand quite what it is…

As a side note: being a Queenslander, I find his desire to get tanned really unhealthy. Snow melts. Skin burns. Don’t tan, people!

Meanwhile, in the city, Hans is great in a crisis. He’s handing around cloaks and blankets, offering hot soup from the castle kitchens, tamping down the Duke of Weselton’s hysterical accusations. When Anna’s horse returns without its rider, he rapidly gathers volunteers for a rescue party. The Duke sends along two men who do not have the royal family’s interests at heart. Unaware of the concerns for her safety, Anna climbs higher into Elsa’s winter wonderland. The closer they get to the top, the spikier the ice formations grow. At length they come to a cliff-face that’s too steep to climb. Nothing daunted, Anna launches herself at it anyway. “You know, most people who disappear into the mountains want to be alone,” Kristoff points out. “Nobody wants to be alone!” Anna declares. Olaf politely interrupts by finding a staircase round the back that leads straight to Elsa’s massive ice palace. Kristoff falls in love with it on the spot.

He’s indignant when Anna insists on going in alone, but doesn’t push it. Olaf trots in anyway. Elsa is astonished to see him alive; apparently her magic has even less limits than she thought. Anna reminds her of the snowmen they built as children, asking her to come home; Elsa gets a painful flashback to when her magic and her sister last collided and demands she leave, go back to the castle where she’ll be safe. Only she won’t, because eternal winter. Hearing what her magic has done, Elsa is appalled – she doesn’t know how to undo it and Anna’s blithe assurance that she can is maddening. Ice starbursts out from her, a splinter accidentally lodging in Anna’s chest.

The noise brings Kristoff running. That’s the last straw for Elsa, who calls up a giant snow bouncer to throw them out. Unfortunately, like Olaf, it has more personality than she intended. When Anna insults it, the snow bouncer chases after them all in a homicidal rage. Kristoff rapidly rigs up his rope and pick to swing them down the side of the mountain, but the snow bouncer starts pulling them back up and they have to cut the rope, falling into deep snow. As they get up and try to decide what to do next, Kristoff notices Anna’s hair slowly turning white. Realising she was struck by Elsa’s magic, he leads her to meet some friends.

They really do look a lot like boulders. Olaf is skeptical. But the stones quickly reveal themselves to actually be trolls, who are so wildly overjoyed about Kristoff finally introducing them to another human being that they start planning a wedding straight away. I find this a bit creepy. Finally, when Anna collapses, they figure out this is a medical emergency rather than a marriage, but the news gets no better – Anna has been struck in the heart and the only cure for that is an act of true love.

Kristoff lifts her onto Sven. His idea is to bring her back to Hans for true love’s kiss, but Hans is at the ice palace getting attacked by Elsa’s snow bouncer while the Duke’s men slip past with crossbows. Elsa begs them to just leave, flinging up ice to defend herself – but by the time Hans gets there, she has both men at the mercy of her ice and is about to kill them. “Don’t be the monster they fear you are!” Hans calls out. Elsa wavers. One of the Duke’s men grabs the chance to fire his crossbow; in deflecting it, Hans brings down a chandelier. Elsa is knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she’s in a cell under the castle, hands gloved in iron to prevent her using her magic, and Hans comes in pleading with her to bring back summer. She tells him what she told Anna: she doesn’t know how.

At the same time, Kristoff is riding like mad for the castle. He leaves Anna with the people there, unwilling to go but not sure what else he can do, and she’s quickly bundled into a quiet, warm room with Hans. She explains as best she can, already very weak, and he leans in to kiss her…only their mouths don’t meet. He pulls back at the last minute. “Oh Anna,” he remarks. “If only there was someone out there who loved you.” In a screeching narrative U-turn, he reveals his hand. All he actually wants is the kingdom and as it looks like he can have that without her, he’s going to let the magic take its course. To be sure it does, he locks the door behind him when he leaves. Heartbroken, Anna collapses on the floor.

If this is really based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, I think it’s a bit much they’ve named the villain after him.

Hans then goes straight to the council room to announce Anna’s death at Elsa’s hands. “At least we got to say our marriage vows,” he whispers, “before she died in my arms.” He should be off on stage doing Romeo and Juliet. Instead he gets the throne and everybody’s approval to execute Elsa. But it won’t be quite that simple. As Anna told him, he’s no match for Elsa – her ice freezes the metal gloves to breaking point and she breaks down a wall to escape her cell.

Up on the hill overlooking the city, Kristoff is walking away from the royal family drama. Sven completely disagrees with this life choice. Kristoff kind of does too, though he can’t quite admit it. This is probably their first fight ever. It breaks off when they see the massive storm building around the castle – Anna is down there and Kristoff doesn’t even hesitate, plunging back the way he came.

The one to reach Anna first, however, is Olaf. He picks the lock with his carrot nose (there’s an interesting line to type) and throws caution to the winds by kindling a fire to warm her up. Though she can barely talk, Anna tries to warn him. “Some people are worth melting for,” he tells her. That is an act of true love, if you ask me, but he thinks they should get Kristoff, who is riding hard for the castle. If they’re going to reach him, it had better be soon – spikes of ice are spreading across the castle, turning it into a death trap. Breaking open a window, Anna drops onto the frozen fjord. Unknown to her, Elsa is close by, lost in the storm of snow. Hans is in pursuit; Kristoff and Sven are searching. It’s like a game of Murder. Guess who’s the murderer?

Hans comes up behind Elsa. He tells her that she killed Anna and the shock of it brings her to her knees, the storm collapsing with her. Raising his sword, Hans prepares to finish her off – but Anna sees them first. With the last of her strength, she throws herself between them, just as she turns into a statue of pure ice. Hans’s sword shatters on impact, sending him flying. Elsa sobs brokenly over what is left of her sister while Kristoff, Sven and Olaf look on helplessly.

Magic is tricky. Anna thought she needed to receive an act of true love; instead she showed one.https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/48/96/bd/4896bdc7789cdc5bc872a36d1f9d9b1c.jpg The ice melts and the sisters share their first hug in a very long time. Elsa realises that love is the key; if fear can set off an eternal winter, a sibling reunion is enough to end it. The deep snow around doesn’t thaw, it vanishes, leaving them all standing under a warm summer sky. Including Olaf. Who does start melting, but Elsa promptly fixes that with a personalised snow cloud to follow him about.

Which means there’s only Hans left to deal with. Anna faces him with disdainful composure. “The only frozen heart around here is yours,” she informs him, before decking him in the face. Everyone approves. Including the councillors, who are watching from a balcony and have changed their minds about a lot of things. For example, Elsa gets her crown back uncontested, while the Duke of Weselton is sent packing on the next ship out. Hans is taken home to face his big brothers.

http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/a/a6/Annakristoffkiss.png/revision/latest?cb=20140308194133Since they’re handling unfinished business, Anna prepares a surprise for Kristoff. He gets a brand new sled, the official post of Royal Icemaster and Deliverer, and a quite enthusiastic kiss from the crown princess. Olaf and Sven play practical jokes with a carrot and Queen Elsa creates an ice rink in the castle square to show off how fun her powers can be. “I like the open gates,” Anna confides. “We’re never closing them again,” Elsa declares. Skating together, surrounded by the people who love them, they both have all they ever wanted.

Spot the Difference: Okay, so this is a sweet movie. I love to see anything about sibling relationships take centre stage, particularly sisters, and there are some interesting – if not terribly well explained – narrative subversions. Anna breaking the spell on herself was a delightful touch that took me a second viewing to recognise, I thought Elsa’s grief broke it the first time around. Elsa is an unusually ambiguous character for Disney, which is also good to see. A lot of Elsa’s behaviour suggests she has an anxiety disorder, making her the first Disney princess with a mental illness, and her emotional upheaval gets a lot of very welcome nuance. These are all great things. On the other hand, a retelling that bears less resemblance to the original story would be difficult to find. The overlap is extraordinarily small and the differences are…interesting.

Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about friendship – not just between Gerda and Kay, but the host of allies Gerda receives support from along the way. Most of whom are female, occupying a wide spectrum of ages: the lonely enchantress, an exceptionally well-educated princess, the robber girl and a pair of wisewomen. The Snow Queen is a distant and largely disinterested villain. Anna and Elsa appear to be an odd amalgamation of Gerda, Kay and the Snow Queen – actually, that’s too much of a stretch, they appear to be entirely original characters with no basis in the fairy tale at all. There are no other significant female characters. Every secondary character of significance is male. This movie is about frightened girls finding their ground, and that is an important story to tell – but in the process, a host of fantastic women have been ignored.

Why pretend this is based on ‘The Snow Queen’ at all? It isn’t! It has a queen who likes snow. That’s not the same. I can appreciate all the good things about this movie and rewatching it was enjoyable, but as a retelling, it is a complete failure. I hope they make another version of ‘The Snow Queen’ someday and do it a bit more justice. Frozen stands perfectly well on its own.

This has been a fun project for me. It’s always exciting to see how fairy tales are adapted for changing times and audiences, what different ideas each iteration draws from the same story. Over Disney’s long history, the approach has evolved markedly. The next Disney princess to hit screens will be Moana, in a movie of the same name which will be released next year. I’ll definitely be watching it. Thank you for reading – I hope you’ve had fun too!

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Review – The Lady of the Rivers

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousins War No.3) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2011

The year is 1430. The English rule half of France and the French king’s most famous soldier has just been caught: the one they call the Maiden, Joan of Arc. Her death is a reminder to every woman watching that this is a world ruled by men. Born into wealth and trained into the elegant ideal of a noblewoman, Jacquetta of Luxembourg exists in a different world to Joan – but she too has a birthright, as a descendant of the water goddess Melusina, and no woman with such powers can ever trust she is safe. When she marries into the English royal family, she must learn to walk a balance between knowledge and denial – or fall to her death.

I am more than a little in love with this series. Jacquetta is a little-known but significant historical figure – mother of Elizabeth Woodville, great-great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I – and it’s fascinating, seeing how her story fits into a larger picture of the turbulent times. Gregory weaves in a thread of fantasy, which I like, but doesn’t overdo it. The Cousins War continues with The Kingmaker’s Daughter.

The Sharazad Project: Week 43

Trigger warning: references to rape and homophobia

Last week Dau’ al-Makan, his brother Sharkan and their brother-in-law who still doesn’t have a name beyond ‘the chamberlain’ all rode off with their enormous army to fight a holy war against the king of Rum, whose mother killed King ‘Umar, because ‘Umar raped Abriza and the family blamed him for her murder too. ‘Umar’s sons are aware of the allegation but have totally ignored it in favour of VENGEANCE.

We return to night eighty eight, as Dau’ al-Makan’s army crosses the border and the local townsfolk flee to Constantinople for protection. Dhat al-Dawahi tells her son to get his act together – she’s done her part by killing ‘Umar and taking back the princess Sophia, now it’s time for the fathers of both wronged girls to destroy ‘Umar’s successor. Emperor Afridun is totally on board with her plan and happy to contribute his armed forces. I love how Dhat al-Dawahi manages to be an international diplomat, ruthless assassin and bossy mum all at once. For all their familial arguments, I think Abriza would have liked it too.

The imperial army is camped on the coast when they hear of Dau’ al-Makan’s approach. Within days both forces are facing each other, and Dandan is the first to ride forth with thirty thousand riders around him. Little do they realise that Dhat al-Dawahi has drawn up the emperor’s battle plans, presumably based on her experiences in Baghdad. She sent out fifty thousand men to sea where they are to wait until Dau’ al-Makan’s army is in position. The secret assault will take the invaders by surprise and pin them between the emperor’s forces. “What an excellent plan this is of yours,” Afridun approves, “mistress of the cunning old women and refuge of the priests in time of discord!”

So as Dau’ al-Makan’s men advance, their camp is burned behind them. This is a holy war as well as a vengeance quest and the narrative will not let anyone forget it, with much shouting of ‘infidel!’ on both sides. It’s also obvious that the narrative sides with the Muslims. Sharkan leads the charge against this new front. With heavy losses on both sides, he wins the battle. The royal commanders spend the night pepping up their exhausted men and thanking the wounded. Afridun decides to send out his greatest knight, Luqa ibn Shamlut, to take on the warrior prince in combat. Consecrating his troops with the finest incense, the emperor prepares for a second day of warfare.

In night ninety, it becomes clear that the narrative really doesn’t like Luqa ibn Shamlut, despite his lyrical name. It condemns his looks even as it praises his skills, and describes him as ‘the blackness of night, the foul breath of the lion and the daring of the leopard’. He rides out to battle carrying a trident, towards hellfire apparently. When he calls out his challenge, Sharkan comes barrelling out armed with lance and poetry. He shows off his reflexes by catching Luqa’s javelin out of midair and throws it back at him, along with a second javelin that kills him instantly.

As night ninety one begins, so does the real battle as both armies plunge together. There are some fairly graphic descriptions of the casualties. When darkness falls, soldiers on both sides retreat from a field of corpses. Dau’ al-Makan seizes the chance to praise his big brother for taking down Luqa, but Sharkan is making plans of his own. He sends the chamberlain and Dandan around the coast to hide as the imperial forces did, in reserve. When Sharkan’s men fake defeat, that will be a signal for his allies to rejoin the fight. Duly following this strategy, they draw the emperor’s troops into pursuit. In fact, Afridun is so confident of victory that he sends word to the king of Rum.

Night ninety two proves him wrong. Backed up by their hidden forces, the main army turns back to face the imperial army and one particular warrior carves a path with bloody elegance, blades spinning and long hair whirling. There is poetry about his hair. ‘Long hair is of no use except when it streams out/ On both sides of the head on the day of battle,/ Belonging to a young hero with a straight lance/ That drinks the blood of the moustachioed enemy’. YES, REALLY.

Sharkan is very impressed when this warrior of the luscious locks reveals himself as Dau’ al-Makan. He’s actually worried for his brother, so maybe he’s not planning to grab the throne as soon as this is over after all. “King, you are risking your life,” he warns Dau’ al-Makan. “Keep your horse close to mine, for I don’t think you are safe from the enemy. It would be better if you did not ride out from our lines, so that we may shoot at the enemies with our arrows that fly true.” “I want to match you in battle,” the young king insists, “and I don’t grudge risking my life by fighting before you.”

He’s not risking it anyway, because Afridun’s army is pretty much routed. The survivors flee for their ships and are blocked by Dandan’s forces. Most of the soldiers are slaughtered; the wealth and supplies aboard are captured.

In Constantinople, the people are celebrating a falsely reported victory. Dhat al-Dawahi has had the city decorated to welcome home the troops. Amidst the festivities, the tattered remnants of the imperial army limp in with the terrible news. Afridun is so horrified that he faints away. When he comes to, he has a religious crisis and someone called the Patriarch, who am I going to assume is probably a priest, assures his emperor that enough prayers will drive the Muslim armies away.

“O king,” Dhat al-Dawahi says, “the Muslim armies are large and it is only by a ruse that we can deal with them. I intend to play a cunning trick and I shall go to them in the hope that I can succeed in what I plan to do to their leader and kill him, their champion, as I killed his father.” She intends to destroy them utterly. To complete this, she needs a hundred Syrian Christians. The emperor duly rustles them up, explains the situation to them and receives their consent to the plan. Dhat al-Dawahi then boils up a kettle of drugs and soaks a kerchief in the ominous mess. Next, she disguises herself so effectively that she comes before the court unrecognised. Having impressed everyone with her resourcefulness, she takes her Syrians and heads off to meet the invading army.

In night ninety three, the narrative reveals that actually it hates Dhat al-Dawahi, declaring her to be ‘a sorceress, skilled in magic and in lies, unchaste, wily, debauched and treacherous, with foul breath, red eyelids…her hair was grey; she was hunchbacked’. She is very well educated in a variety of religions, to better aid her tricks. That’s apparently bad. She’s also the first canonical lesbian – a passionate lesbian, what’s more – who spends a lot of time hanging out at her son’s palace because he has a harem of gorgeous slave girls and she enjoys sex.

What part of this is meant to make me dislike her?

Abriza’s maids Marjana, Raihana and Utrujja are familiar with the old lady’s sexuality. Their erstwhile mistress didn’t get along with her grandmother – but given Dhat al-Dawahi went on a lengthy undercover mission to avenge the dead princess, that seems pretty irrelevant at this point. Abriza had a baby son, incidentally, just before she died. He’s probably about four or five now? The story seems to have forgotten his existence.

Anyway, Afridun is so afraid of the triumphant Muslim army sweeping across his lands that he empties the countryside, bringing as many people as possible to shelter at Constantinople. His ally, King Hardub of Rum, has every confidence in his mother’s ability to stop the invaders. Her plan begins by dressing her men as Muslim merchants, accessorised with mules and bales of fabric. They have an imperial edict demanding they be left to trade in peace, to complete their ruse. As for herself, she wears white robes, smears an unguent on her face and ties her legs until ugly weals are left on her skin. Next she has the men beat her up and lock her in a chest.

They are horrified at the order, but she stands firm. According to their cover story, they were told by a picture to go to the the monastery of Matruhina, where a miracle worker was imprisoned. This anchorite had been imprisoned and tortured for fifteen years in an underground cell and it was a holy duty to rescue him. I’ll assume that the anchorite will be Dhat al-Dawahi herself. After all, she has to be brought before the Muslim army, where she will ‘destroy every last one of them’.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned army is celebrating with the spoils. Dau’ al-Makan is waxing lyrical about their excellent teamwork. He goes from Boy Scout good cheer to bloodthirsty evangelism, telling Sharkan he plans to ‘kill ten kings in revenge for my father, to slaughter fifty thousand Rumis and to enter Constantinople’. NO, Dau’ al-Makan, did no one ever tell you that genocide is a REALLY BAD THING? Sharkan is one hundred percent okay with it but does worry about his little girl, Qudiya-fa-Kana, left behind in Damascus. Dau’ al-Makan sympathises – he left behind a heavily pregnant wife and she may have given birth by now. “So make a pact with me,” he suggests, “that if it turns out to be a boy, you will allow me the hand of your daughter in marriage to my son, binding yourself to this with an oath.” Sharkan agrees. They congratulate each other on their victory and Dandan joins in now the conversation has moved back to war, advising the royal commanders to take their army deeper into enemy territory both on land and by sea. “‘If I am given life,'” he quotes, “‘I take war as a mother,/ The spears as brothers and the sword as a father.'” These three have the worst priorities.

They set off for Constantinople, crossing a long stretch of desert before coming upon a beautiful plain. So enchanted is Dau’ al-Makan that he orders a camp of three days, allowing his forces to rest in the unexpected paradise. At this point, his men come upon a caravan of Syrian ‘merchants’, whose goods they begin to steal as the spoils of war. The merchants call out for the king’s intercession and are granted an audience. They produce the imperial edict, admonishing Dau’ al-Makan for behaving with so much less honour than the Christian emperor. They then share their story about the anchorite, moving the royal brothers so much that both burst into tears. As night ninety five begins, the fake merchants conclude their tale by bringing out Dhat al-Dawahi’s chest and presenting her as the freed anchorite, chained and injured after the recent escape.

Dau’ al-Makan and Sharkan kiss her hands and feet in awe. She declares that she has been tested by God and wishes to join the holy war – she even refuses food, praying fervently for three days and nights. The royal brothers are both fired up and want to take up a life of asceticism, only they’ve got a war to fight, so on the morning they are to break camp they go to ensure she prays for their success, and to hear the story of her capture.

Thus follows a remarkable spiel of lies. She claims the ability to walk on water, a discovery which led her into a life of travel and spiritual exploration. Upon coming to these lands, she encountered a monk on a mountain-top and received a friendly welcome – but it was a trick, ending with her starving in a dark cell. After forty days of imprisonment, a patrician called Decianus (presumably Roman?) arrived at the monastery with his beautiful daughter Tamathil and a small entourage. In a really bizarre idea of entertainment, the monks went to bring out their prisoner’s body, only to find ‘him’ alive and well and worshiping. Cue fifteen years of torture, presided over by Decianus. In this way, the fictional anchorite watched Tamathil grow up. Intending to become a nun, she was dressed as a man to prevent the king stealing her away. Decianus also stored his wealth at the monastery.

“Tomorrow night, following her usual custom,” Dhat al-Dawhi continues, “Tamathil will go to the monastery and will be joined by her father and his servants, for he is afraid for her safety. If you want to see this for yourselves, take me with you and I will hand over to you that wealth, together with the treasures of Decianus which are on that mountain.” Including his daughter. EW.

Sharkan and Dau’ al-Makan are all enthusiasm. Dandan, experienced at manipulation, is less sure, but dares not speak against the new royal favourite. Dhat al-Dawahi suggests that the army move off a distance so as not to scare away Decianus and Dau’ al-Makan decides to take only a hundred riders to the mountain, along with plenty of mules to haul away the treasure. The chamberlain is given charge of the army in the absence of the usual commanders, and isn’t to inform anyone of the diversion. Join me next week as the rest of Dhat al-Dawahi’s plan unfolds, and this collection of very unpleasant people do more unpleasant things to each other until someone finally just gives up.

I think that might take a while, though.

The Sharazad Project: Week 42

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

As we enter night eighty six, Dhat al-Dawahi’s plan to revenge herself on King ‘Umar for the rape and death of her granddaughter Princess Abriza is entering its final stages. She has convinced him to fast for a month in exchange for her beautiful quintet of philosopher/ assassin slave girls, she has declared association with mystical ‘unseen men’ who are probably spirits (if they exist at all), she has convinced ‘Umar to send the mother of his twins, Sophia, to gain these unseen men’s blessing. Before the group of women set off, Dhat al-Dawahi brings the king a sealed glass. He is instructed to drink it in private on the thirtieth day of his fast. Giving him her blessing, she then departs with Sophia and the five girls.

At the end of his fast, the king drinks as instructed. When he doesn’t emerge from his chambers, his people assume at first he’s simply exhausted by the demands of the month, but when a second day passes and he doesn’t respond to their concerned shouting, they take his door off its hinges. He’s in a dreadful state, skin torn and bones crushed, quite definitely dead. By him is a note of explanation.

“Evil-doers are not missed when they die,” it reads, bluntly. “This is the reward of those who scheme against the daughters of kings and rob them of their virtue. Whoever reads this should know that when Sharkan came to our country, he seduced our princess, Abriza. Not content with that, he took her from us and brought her to you and then sent her off with a black slave who killed her. We found her murdered body in the desert, thrown on to the ground. Such is not the action of a king and this is the reward of one who acts like this. Accuse no one else of the king’s death, for no one else killed him but the cunning mistress of mischief, whose name is Dhat al-Dawahi. I have taken the king’s wife, Sophia, and brought her to her father, Afridun, emperor of Constantinople. We shall now attack you, kill you and take your lands. Every last one of you will perish; you will have no lands left and the only inhabitants that remain will be worshippers of the Cross.”

Okay, so the holy war bit is terrible and unnecessary, but I’ve been waiting for someone to go into a screaming rage about Abriza’s death for SO LONG now and that this is her grandmother – who didn’t even like her that much – gives the retribution a particular poignancy. Ignoring the accusations of rape and murder levelled against their recently deceased monarch, ‘Umar’s advisors fall straight into arguing about succession.

The winner of that dispute was, of course, Dau’ al-Makan. Upon hearing his vizier Dandan’s story, he and his sister Nuzhat al-Zaman start sobbing. So does the latter’s husband, the chamberlain, though it’s likely he never actually met ‘Umar. He follows up the shared grief session by instructing his new king, “Tears will do you no good. The only useful thing is for you to harden your heart, strengthen your resolve and take firm control of your kingdom.” He softens a little and adds, “For whoever leaves behind a son like you has not died.” Dau’ al-Makan pulls it together, orders a parade of his troops and has Dandan go through the contents of the royal treasuries so that he can distribute largesse. Included among his bounty is the tribute from Damascus, the goods of which are handed out to the troops.

Night eighty seven takes us to Baghdad, where the city welcomes its new king and Dau’ al-Makan takes up his place on the throne. He has a secretary write to Sharkan, informing him of recent events and ordering him to bring an army to avenge their father. This is the unfortunate side-effect of vengeance: it never actually ends. The letter is carried by Dandan, who has instructions to promise the kingdom if Sharkan wants it.

Finally, Dau’ al-Makan has the emotional space to remember his old friend the furnace man, who has been dragged along in his wake since the young king’s rapid return to power. Dau’ al-Makan grants him a lovely house as thanks for all his kindness, then zips off hunting and hooks up with a beautiful slave girl. She falls pregnant on that same night, as women in these stories tend to do.

Dandan eventually returns with the news that Sharkan is headed for Baghdad, and Dau’ al-Makan sets up a campsite to greet him about a day’s ride from the city. Sharkan is about twenty years older, a battle-hardened leader with equally seasoned troops. He arrives in a cloud of dust. When he gets down from his horse, Dau’ al-Makan ditches protocol and throws himself into his brother’s arms, weeping. Sharkan bursts into tears too and they share a rare moment of fraternal amity in their mutual grief.

More soldiers come in from across the country as word of the upcoming holy war spreads. While they wait for their army to grow, Sharkan asks Dau’ al-Makan for his story and hears praise for the furnace man, who has not yet received all the favours the grateful young king intends to bestow. That will have to wait until after the war. Sharkan remembers what his sister and ex-wife Nuzhat al-Zaman told him about her own miseries and sends greetings to her and her new husband. She replies with inquiries about her daughter’s health. Satisfied that his familial duties are discharged – let’s be honest, this is the most decent behaviour we’ve ever seen from him – Sharkan goes back to drumming up soldiers.

Dau’ al-Makan, meanwhile, has married the pregnant slave girl and gifted her with a household of philosophers and mathematicians. Probably he needs the mathematicians more than she does, what with calculating the provisions for a massive army and all, but it’s the thought that counts. When all troops have arrived, Dau’ al-Makan rides out with Sharkan at his right and the chamberlain at his left.

Personally, I wouldn’t trust either as far as I could throw them, but we shall see.

Review – Unmade

Unmade (The Lynburn Legacy No.3) – Sarah Rees Brennan

Random House, 2014

The Lynburn family have always been masters in Sorry-in-the-Vale. Now the town is being torn apart between those who follow Rob Lynburn – those who would rule by blood and sorcery – and those who refuse to be ruled. Kami Glass has led the rebellion, but her choices are dwindling fast. The boy she loves has disappeared into the hands of sorcerers; her mother bows to their rule and her friends all live under their shadow. Without magic, Kami will lose this war. But there is always a price for power.

This is the conclusion of the Lynburn Legacy, Sarah Rees Brennan’s second trilogy. Despite her trademark snark and banter, it’s quite a bleak book. While I felt her handling of some parts was too heavy-handed – her characters tend to alternate between varying types of sarcasm and almost painful sincerity, without enough middle ground – there is a strong heart to the story and gorgeous imagery throughout, which is fitting, because the town and the woods are really more like characters in their own rights than just settings. Rees Brennan’s next novel is an urban fantasy called Tell the Wind and Fire and is set for release in April next year.

Queensland Literary Awards 2015

The Queensland Literary Awards for 2015 were announced late last week and I am very honoured to have been selected as runner-up for the Young Writers Award, in the 18-25 category. My story ‘January Days’ can be read for free on the State Library of Queensland website, as can the winning entry ‘Surface’ by Grace McCarter, the Young Writers Award winners in the 15-17 category and all the commended entries. You can also see the full list of winners for the Queensland Literary Awards here.

For once it was an event I could actually end up getting to and it was a fantastic evening! There’s always a particular vibe when a large number of writers occupy the same space, like they might start bending reality any minute. (Also the after party happened at the State Library on the Queensland Terrace, which has walls decorated in teacups like something straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) I had the chance to meet the lovely Kathleen Jennings and Angela Slatter, and acquired several new titles for my to read list. I’d like to offer a big thank you to the State Library and everyone involved in putting on the event!

In other writerly news, FableCroft have released the gorgeous hardcover editions of Cranky Ladies of History for general purchase and are running a Goodreads giveaway for two copies of the book. It’s open until November 15th.

The Sharazad Project: Week 41

Night eighty returns to the vizier Dandan’s segue, in which the second of five beautiful, highly educated secret assassins is displaying her intellect before King ‘Umar. She kisses the ground before his feet and launches into a series of quotes. I will be summarising quite concisely because frankly this is boring to read.

Philosopher/assassin No.2 continues the theme of subtle recrimination by stating, “The wrongdoer, it is said, will be filled with regret, even if people praise him, while whoever is wronged will be unhurt even if people blame him.” She also disapproves of people who laud their own achievements, declares that what matters most is having a good heart, and quotes a ‘learned man’ to say, “Who is the happiest of men? He whose manliness overcomes his lust, whose ambition reaches far into the heights, whose knowledge is extensive and who makes few excuses.” She continues into night eighty one with anecdotes about terribly pious people who’d rather weep their eyesight away and live in abject poverty than challenge the role God has chosen for them.

The third philosopher/ assassin comes forward to give her piece, staying on the subject of asceticism, sharing anecdotes to demonstrate how really religious men should live in the fear they won’t live up to their own sermons and advice. The fourth philosopher/ assassin takes over, beginning with someone called Bishr al-Hafi and his fears of ‘secret polytheism’. “It is when one man goes on bowing and prostrating himself for so long that he becomes ritually impure,” she explains. Another of Bishr al-Hafi’s pearls of wisdom was a response to someone who asked him to teach hidden truths, because apparently “this knowledge is not to be taught to everyone but only five in every hundred, like the alms tax on cash.”

On the same occasion a threadbare man stood up with a declaration of his own: “beware of truth that brings harm, while there is no harm in a lie that brings some benefit; necessity allows no choice; speech is of no help when coupled with privation; and silence does no harm in the presence of generosity.” All of Bishr’s family have a reputation for piety. One time his sister went to a great imam to ask if she was allowed to use other people’s torchlight for her spinning. I fail to see the potential for wrongdoing in that and luckily so did the imam.

She finishes up with an anecdote about ‘Mansur ibn ‘Ammar, who denied all shopping cravings and overheard a prayer on pilgrimage once that, in a case of either unfortunate timing or cosmic come-uppance, coincided precisely with another listener’s death. I have no idea what the point of that story is meant to be.

Anyway, moving on, we’re almost done! The fifth and final philosopher/ assassin agrees with her companions’ points about wealth being a root of sin, and how with prayer and random good deeds you can acquire the patronage of someone rich so you don’t have to risk it yourself. If it was good enough for Moses…who, according to her, not only earned an excellent meal by drawing water for a pair of wealthy sisters, he made such a good impression on their dad that he was offered marriage to one of them. The philosopher/ assassin talks a bit about being a good neighbour, then withdraws to allow her mistress – Dhat al-Dawahi, mother to a king, grandmother to a dead princess, sworn enemy of King ‘Umar, not that he realises any of that – to come forward and share her thoughts on time management. Basically, sleep is for losers, you should spend all your time on worship and die of exhaustion!

I’m paraphrasing, in case you can’t tell. Though I am certain she’d love for ‘Umar to die any way possible.

She also advocates semi-starvation and abstinence from all worldly things. According to her, an imam called Al-Shafi’i freely offered religious advice and hoped no one would thank him for it, and a government official called Abu Hanifa refused his salary because he did not want the love of tyrants to enter his heart. “Can you not associate with them,” suggested the caliph’s messenger, “and yet keep yourself from loving them?” “Can I be sure that if I go into the sea my clothes will not get wet?” Abu Hanifa snarked back. Dhat al-Dawahi quotes other people about avoiding treachery, debt and quarrels. “Remember death frequently,” Dhat al-Dawahi advises, “and frequently ask for pardon.”

She returns to sit with her girls and the king, taken by the collective beauty and intellectualism on display, decides to keep them around. In a horrible twist, they are assigned the palace where Princess Abriza once lived. Every time the king goes to visit them he finds the old lady in prayer and admires her piety. When he asks the price of the five girls she expects him to offer a whole month of personal fasting and prayer. She then sends for a jug of water. Speaking incomprehensible words over it, she covers it with cloth and gives it to the king. He’s to drink it after the first ten days of fasting, to give him strength. “Tomorrow, I shall go to my brothers, the invisible men,” Dhat al-Dawahi says mysteriously, “for whom I have been longing, and then after the ten days have passed, I shall come back to you.” The jug of water is locked away; the old lady leaves.

In night eighty five, she returns with sweetmeats wrapped in a leaf. These are a gift from the next world, granted by the ‘unseen men’, who may be spirits? The king is delighted. Twenty days later she goes to him with more news from her invisible friends. The girls are great favourites with them, apparently, and the unseen men are glad they are going to ‘Umar’s care. So that’s obviously a big lie. The old lady wants to take her girls for the blessing of the unseen men, who may even grant them a mystic treasure to bring back to ‘Umar. “You must send with them from the palace someone dear to you who may enjoy the friendship of the invisible men and seek their blessing,” she tells him, and he offers his Byzantine slave Sophia – also a mistakenly enslaved princess and mother of his lost twins.

That’s some very elegant plotting coming together there. Join me next Tuesday to watch the rest of Dhat al-Dawahi’s scheming come to fruition.