Review – The Cursed Child

The Cursed Child (Harry Potter No.8) – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

Little, Brown, 2016

Nineteen years after Voldemort was defeated at the Battle of Hogwarts, the wizarding world has settled into a wary peace. Harry Potter is now the Head of Magical Law Enforcement and a father of three, but his middle child Albus has grown to hate the legend that surrounds his family and all the expectations that come with it. Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius has a different legacy to cope with. Voldemort may be gone, but Dark magic is not and rumours are swirling about a dangerous and recently re-discovered magic. Albus and Scorpius want to set right a long-ago injustice, but the stakes are so much higher than they know.

I am of the generation who grew up with Harry Potter: Global Phenomenon. It is a part of my cultural DNA. As such, I was necessarily going to be critical of any addition to that series, because I had expectations. While this is technically the eighth Harry Potter story, it is a play script co-written with two other writers and so feels quite different in style to the original books. The story is led by Albus and Scorpius, but Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Draco are all significant characters. While the premise of the plot required more hand-wavery than I was comfortable with and didn’t have enough sensitivity for some of the topics it wanted to tackle, it explored some interesting ground. I’ll go into more spoilery detail in the paragraph below.

SPOILERS: I was very pleased to see the fairly monolithic anti-Slytherin attitude of the original books subverted when Albus was Sorted into Slytherin alongside the sweet-natured and studious Scorpius. Draco had also matured into a much more complex character in The Cursed Child and his unexpected bonding with Ginny looked like the start of a delightful friendship; his interactions with Hermione and Professor McGonagall were also enjoyable, and the difficulties of negotiating a post-Voldemort world were fascinating.

Unfortunately the tight structure of a play script doesn’t allow for the breadth of exploration I’d have really liked to see and it did the younger characters no favours, as they don’t have much time to develop. Albus was self-absorbed to an astonishing extent; he seemed to think of his father’s childhood as some sort of dramatic origins story instead of years of abuse at the hands of his legal guardians, and actively blamed Harry for the death of a boy murdered by Lord Voldemort. When Harry was fourteen years old, in an encounter he barely survived himself. It was interesting seeing the ripple effect of Cedric’s death and it was a beautiful moment when he rescued the boys in the maze, but to blame Harry for his death was such an absurd contortion of thinking, and required such an immense amount of ignorance, that I had trouble taking anything Albus said or did seriously afterwards. Even his friendship with Scorpius – which was genuinely affectionate most of the time and could have easily segued into an adorable romance – took a lot of emotional labour on Scorpius’s side in order to function. At the end of the play I found myself siding with Professor McGonagall’s exasperated view of things. She was an excellent voice of reason.

I was very pleased to see Harry call out Dumbledore on the way he ignored Harry’s abuse for all those years, and to see how that impacted on Harry’s own ability to be a parent, but I think the subject could have been handled better. Making Harry relive his own parents’ deaths just felt cruel and unnecessary.

Overall I have very mixed feelings about The Cursed Child. I am sure it would be much more satisfying seen on stage, and I’d love to know how some of those stage directions were pulled off. A project like this can’t possibly please everyone – the opinions I’ve expressed are the tip of an iceberg of meta – but for all the inevitable flaws, I am very happy to see these characters again.)

Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1969 (published as part of the Agatha Christie Crime Collection)

Originally published in 1934

On the surface, Samuel Ratchett is an unremarkable American traveller, albeit a paranoid one. When his fears come true in the most extraordinary fashion, his body found savagely stabbed aboard the snowed-in Orient Express, the civilised mask falls away and the dead man is revealed to be a notorious kidnapper. Revenge, it would seem, has finally caught up with him. The case is a tangle of conflicting clues and inexplicable alibis, but the killer has made one crucial mistake: they committed murder aboard the same train as Hercule Poirot.

The thing I like best about Agatha Christie’s books is when she proves her credentials as the Queen of Crime by disassembling all your expectations of how a mystery novel is supposed to go. Christie’s work is so very much of its time, with all the racism and sexism that entails, and yet remains so readable – Murder on the Orient Express is a story that only gets creepier the more you think about it, which is probably why it has become one of her more famous books. Though most of the characters are drawn only in broad strokes, as is Christie’s usual style, the writing is clear, concise and somehow convincing, even when it shouldn’t be. And I am always happy to read about Hercule Poirot being cleverer than other people.

Review – The Raven King

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle No.4) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2016

Gansey has spent half his life searching for the legendary king Glendower. Together with his friends, he is closer than he’s ever been to achieving his quest – but another power has already woken in Henrietta, reaching for Adam through the ley line and infecting Ronan’s dreams. Noah’s ghost is disintegrating. Blue’s home is under attack. And Cabeswater is dying. If they want to save it, and each other, they need magic that is stronger than a demon…and to survive long enough to use it.

This is the fourth, final and in my opinion, the best, of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle. Every character arc is given space and depth, and the newer characters fitted in seamlessly. Laumonier was brilliantly creepy. I found the resolution for Glendower somewhat dissatisfying and was more interested in some plot threads than others, but they were woven together well and the writing is beautiful. The series began with The Raven Boys and continued with The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Ladies of Legend: Danae, Andromeda and Medusa

The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Mortals/Danae/danae.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_(mythology), http://greekmythology.wikia.com/wiki/Andromeda

Trigger warning: references to incest

Danae is the daughter of Acrisius, with either Aganippe (not the horse Aganippe, or the nymph, a different one) or Eurydice (not the Eurydice who married Orpheus, a different one), depending on which version you read, and the granddaughter of Aglaia and King Abas of Argolis. This is important, because Abas and Aglaia had twin sons, Acrisius and Proetus, and when the time came to settle the succession, it was decided that they should take turns at ruling the kingdom. It’s a lovely idea that did not work at all. Proetus seduced his niece (the account is unclear on whether or not the encounter was consensual); outraged, Acrisius chased him out of the kingdom and Proetus took refuge in Lycia, where he married himself a princess and acquired an army to retake the throne. The ensuing war was as much of a standoff as everything else in the twins’ lives to date. They eventually split the kingdom into two, with Acrisius now ruling Argolis.

As Danae is his only child, Acrisius goes to an oracle to ask whether he will ever have male heirs and gets much more of an answer than he bargained for. Not only is he assured that he’ll never have sons, his future grandson is apparently destined to murder him. Acrisius does not respond well to the news. He locks up Danae in a prison of brass to prevent her ever falling pregnant, but does not factor in the epic libido of Zeus, leader of the Greek pantheon, god of lightning and wreaker of general emotional havoc. Zeus manifests in the prison as a shower of gold, has biologically confusing sex with Danae, and she falls pregnant. He promptly vanishes from her life for keeps. She gives birth to a son, naming him Perseus.

According to Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, it take Acrisius FOUR YEARS to find out Danae has had a baby, and what that says about her isolation is terrifying to consider. He does not believe her story of a divine encounter, suspecting instead that his brother may have reached her somehow – and he is certain that if he wants to live, her son has to die. To perform such an act himself, however, would bring down the wrath of the Furies, goddesses who take a very dim view of familial homicide. So he settles for locking Danae and Perseus in a wooden chest and throwing them into sea to drown, suffocate or starve – whichever happens first. Somehow this does not count as murder?

Only they do not die. The chest floats past the island of Seriphos and is caught by Dictys, a fisherman, who opens the chest and releases its traumatised occupants. He takes them to the court of his brother, King Polydectes, who allows them to live with him.

This offer does not, it should be noted, come from the kindness of his heart. He wants to marry Danae, but she is resolutely uninterested and manages to keep him at bay for years, despite her immensely precarious position. As time passes, Polydectes becomes more forceful – but Perseus has grown up into a strong young man and he is very protective of his mother. Once again, a king looks at Danae’s son and decides to get him out of the way.

Polydectes is at least capable of subtlety. He pretends to give up on courting Danae and announces his intention to marry Princess Hippodameia, daughter of Pelops. As a gift for his new love, he requires each of his friends to give him a horse, but Perseus has nothing of his own to offer. He promises to instead bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa, and Polydectes holds him to his word.

And who exactly is Medusa, that her severed head should be so prized? Once again, it depends on the story you read. There are three Gorgons. Euryale and Stheno are immortal; Medusa is not. In one version they are three sisters, the children of the sea goddess Ceto and sea god Phorcys. Their siblings are the dragon Ladon, the terrifying half-serpent Echidne and three more sisters known as the Graeae – Deino, whose name means ‘dread’, Enyo, meaning ‘horror’ and Pemphredo, meaning ‘alarm’ – who would later become the Gorgons’ guardians. Euryale, Stheno and Medusa were once very beautiful, until Medusa slept with Poseidon (the big name god of the sea, as opposed to all the other ones) in one of his niece Athene’s temples. Athene lost her temper. Poseidon was just fine, but Medusa and her sisters were transformed into monstrous creatures with huge teeth, bronze claws and serpents for hair. For a goddess who supposedly represents justice, Athene certainly lets her temper get the better of her.

Another version has it that Medusa was originally a mortal woman, punished by Athene for the same offence and adopted by the other Gorgons, who come by their snake hair naturally. Medusa retains her beauty but is condemned to loneliness: if any man meets her eyes, he will turn to stone. She is, however, worshipped as the Serpent Goddess by the Amazons of Libya. One story even has her lead them in battle. Which makes me curious, what would happen if she looked at a woman? Could this be a beautiful lesbian love story?

If only. Unfortunately she has been roped into playing the villain for a heteronormative hero quest orchestrated by a creepy king and an angry goddess. Athene holds one hell of a grudge. She and the messenger god Hermes go to advise Perseus on his quest, beginning with a trip to the city of Deicterion to look at a picture of the Gorgons and identify which sister he plans to kill. Next Athene gives him a mirror-bright shield, a helmet that confers invisibility on the wearer (once the property of her other uncle Hades) and a strong bag suitable for containing a severed head. Hermes gives Perseus an adamantine sickle for the actual beheading and a pair of shoes like his own, with wings that will allow him to fly wherever he wishes. Directed to the kingdom of Night, Perseus goes to seek out the Graeae.

The Graeae, or Graiae, are the only ones who know where their sisters live. They also know the location of the Stygian Nymphs, who give Perseus his bag and sandals in an alternate story. The Graeae are grey-haired, sharing between them a single eye and a single tooth, over which they quarrel fiercely. Perseus exploits the conflict by seizing control of both and bargaining them back to their rightful owners in exchange for the betrayal of the Gorgons. The Graeae make the trade. What Perseus does next is up for debate: in one version, he carries his vile behaviour to the limit, throwing the eye and tooth in a lake, but obviously I prefer the story in which he keeps some semblance of decency and leaves the Graeae unharmed.

Perseus flies to the remote sanctuary of the Gorgons, in the land of the Hyperboreans. He finds the sisters asleep, surrounded by the weathered statues of men and animals unlucky enough to meet Medusa’s cursed eyes. Keeping his gaze carefully fixed on Athene’s reflective shield, Perseus picks his way to Medusa and beheads her while she sleeps. In the moment of her death, her long-ago union with Poseidon produces a delayed childbirth – the magical horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor arise full-grown from her corpse. Woken by the disturbance, Stheno and Euryale seek furiously for their sister’s murderer, but Perseus is concealed by the helmet and given unnatural speed by his winged shoes. He escapes with Medusa’s bloody head in his bag.

When he grows weary, he tries to rest in north-western Africa but is thrown back into the sky by the Titan Atlas, who bears the world on his shoulders and was once warned that he would be robbed by a son of Zeus. Perseus retaliates by exposing the head of Medusa. Atlas is turned to a stone mountain range, which frankly, given his occupation, might be doing him a favour.

Perseus flies on across the African continent. Over Ethiopia, he sees a young woman on a rock by the sea, naked apart from incongruously grand jewellery and struggling frantically against the chains that hold her in place. This is Andromeda, the daughter of King Cepheus of Ethiopia and his queen Cassiopeia. The queen is a very beautiful woman, but not a prudent one. She claimed aloud that she and her daughter were lovelier than the Nereids, who complained of the insult to Poseidon; he reacted by sending a flood to Cepheus’s kingdom, followed by a ravenous sea-monster just to make sure everyone got the point. The Oracle of Ammon – why do people KEEP CONSULTING ORACLES, it only ever makes things worse – told Cepheus that the only way to save his people was to sacrifice his daughter to the monster, so that was what he did.

Her beauty now saves her; an admiring Perseus kills the monster and frees Andromeda from her chains. He plans to marry her and take her home with him. Given that her father just left her to die and she was previously betrothed to her uncle (in another version, to the king Agenor), she has every reason to like this idea. Her parents are less pleased. They consent to a quick wedding, but during the celebrations her thwarted suitor brings armed men to the table.

In Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Cassiopeia and Cepheus are all for a change in groom. Perseus fights until the odds are too badly against him, then draws out Medusa’s head as a last resort. Everyone is at once transformed into stone, including Andromeda’s parents. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies takes a more generous view, suggesting Cassiopeia and Cepheus probably supported their daughter’s choice in husband and were exempt from the transfiguration.

Either way, the lovers are quick to leave Ethiopia. Returning to Seriphos, Perseus arrives to find Danae in desperate straits. With Polydectes no longer willing to accept no as an answer, she and her original rescuer Dictys have taken refuge in a temple. Perseus goes straight to the palace to display his promised gift to the king; Polydectes and his entire court are all turned to stone.

Perseus willingly gives up the weapon after that. It’s quite risky to have around, after all. Athene, having flayed Medusa’s corpse and turned the skin into a cloak, inflicts a last indignity on her dead enemy and takes the head for herself, to carry into battle.

Perseus also gives back the helmet and sandals to his divine supporters. He helps Dictys take the throne of Seriphos and then sets sail for his mother’s homeland of Argos, where Acrisius still holds the throne. Andromeda and Danae both accompany him. Suspecting that Perseus and Danae are plotting revenge, Acrisius flees to Larissa. Perseus just wants to forgive past murder attempts and move on, but where gods and oracles are concerned, nothing is so simple. At this time King Teutamides is holding an athletics competition as part of his father’s funeral and Perseus competes; during the discus-throwing, a fateful wind (let’s face it, probably guided by the spiteful gods) turns Perseus’s throw aside and the discus hits his grandfather in the foot. The shock kills Acrisius, fulfilling the prophecy he ruined his life – and the life of his daughter – to avoid.

Oracles suck. Pass it on.

Acrisius is buried in the temple of Athene. Perseus is unwilling to rule in Argos, so offers to trade territories with his great-uncle’s successor, Megapenthes. It’s unconventional, but Megapenthes agrees and Perseus becomes king of Tiryns, with Danae as his queen. They both live to a great age in what appears to have been a happy and faithful marriage. They had a large family of seven sons – Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon and Cynurus, according to Wikipedia, and Perseides, Alcaeus, Perses, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus and Electryon according to greekmythology.wikia.com – and two daughters, Autochthe and Gorgophone. After her death, Andromeda was made into a constellation by the gods, along with her husband and mother.

Interestingly, Gorgophone made a name for herself by breaking tradition and remarrying after her husband Perieres died, instead of committing suicide, as was the tradition of the time. It seems that her mother and grandmother had too much experience with sacrifice to encourage it in her.

I like to think Danae and Andromeda got along very well. The sad thing is, I think they would have understood Medusa too. But they were never given the chance.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Swordspoint

Swordspoint (Riverside No.1) – Ellen Kushner

Bantam Spectra, 2003

Originally published in 1987

In the city, the business of politics is carried out over chocolate, under fireworks, at dinner parties – but underneath the civilised banter lies a cut-throat reality. The nobility crush their rivals and take revenge through their proxies, the swordsmen, and no swordsman is more sought after than the famous Richard St. Vier. He lives in the squalid district of Riverside with his lover Alec, a fiercely argumentative young scholar, and keeps his distance from the quarrels on the Hill, even as he risks his life for them. Some acts of vengeance, however, go deeper than any sword.

It isn’t easy to write a blurb for this book. Having read the second one in the series first, The Privilege of the Sword, I had a vague idea of how this story would go, but the blurb on the back was so terrible it gave away pretty much the entire plot, so I advise avoiding any summaries for Swordspoint altogether. Richard and Alec are both abrasive, morally dubious characters whose relationship is very confusing even to themselves; in other hands this would have been quite a grim story, but Ellen Kushner has a delightfully dry, witty style and a gorgeous way with words. I found that Swordspoint is particularly suited to reading aloud. This copy also includes three short stories about Richard and Alec, which continue to flesh out the rich setting of the city. I will definitely be reading the third book in this series, The Fall of the Kings.