Reviews – Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2017

From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.

I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.

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Review – The Sleeper and the Spindle

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Chris Riddell)

Bloomsbury, 2014

On one side of the mountains, a young queen prepares for her wedding. On the other side, a curse spreads unchecked. People fall into a sleep from which they cannot be woken – beasts slump where they stand and birds fall from the sky. Many years ago, so the story is told, a princess pricked her finger on a bewitched spindle and the spell has been upon her lands ever since. Should a hero be brave enough to wake her, it might be enough to wake them all. And the queen has already defeated a witch’s sleep once. Why not again?

If there’s one kind of fairy tale retelling I love best, it’s where different fairy tales are woven into the same world and the characters get to meet each other, because I am just that much of a fangirl. Neil Gaiman’s melding of ‘Snow White’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a short story originally published in the anthology Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales but with the gorgeous illustrations by Chris Riddell it’s more like a very short graphic novel than a picture book. It’s the kind of strange, unsettling loveliness Gaiman does well, just a bit open-ended for my taste.

Review – Hansel and Gretel

Hansel & Gretel – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2014

The story is as old as dark forests and dark thoughts. Two children hear voices in the night, and in the morning are led away between the tall trees, far from the paths they know. Even if they can find the way home, they know they won’t be safe – but the world is so hungry, and there’s so much worse in the woods than wolves…

This is pretty much a straight retelling of the Grimm brothers fairy tale, with murkily atmospheric illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti. Gaiman gives the story a wider context, though, that gives it greater depth. The notes at the end explain the fairy tale’s history, which is as bleak as you might expect. Maybe not a good bedtime story for smaller children, but older ones with a taste for scary adventures might like this one.

The Runaway and the Resurrectionist: My Top 10 Reads of 2013

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.

– Jonathan Gottschall, ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human’

  1. Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
  3. Wonders of the Invisible World – Patricia A. McKillip
  4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone/ Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor
  5. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan
  6. Feed – Mira Grant
  7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
  8. Blue Remembered Earth – Alastair Reynolds
  9. Raven Girl – Audrey Niffenegger
  10. The Diviners – Libba Bray

Honourable mentions on the list must go to two web comics I discovered this year. Girl Genius is a wild gaslamp fantasy with mad science and a cast of fabulous characters headed by the charming and slightly terrifying Agatha Heterodyne, while Nimona fuses science fiction and medieval fantasy into one astoundingly cohesive world, either in peril from the united forces of Ballister Blackheart and his shapechanging apprentice Nimona, or about to be rescued by them. They haven’t decided yet. Very recently I’ve also started following A Hundred Days of Night, a comic based on the ancient Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, but with added sarcasm, romance and politics. It’s not very far along yet, but is already tremendous fun. My heartfelt thanks go out to all these creators for making so much remarkable work available online for free!

Review No.123 – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Headline, 2013

It began with a lie and a theft and a suicide. Forty years ago, a man killed himself in a stolen car, and with his passing woke something old and dark from beyond the world. The little boy who finds him does not understand death yet, but he recognises power. When a beautiful monster slips into his world and he finds himself alone, helpless and friendless inside her snare, there is only one place he can go for help: the farm at the end of the lane. Three women live there. The youngest sees an ocean in her duckpond; the eldest remembers the Big Bang.

This is a beautiful book. It is strange and sad and sweet, warm with charm yet laced with sharp shocks made all the more dreadful because they are seen through the eyes of a little boy. The ending feels somehow slightly incomplete, but perhaps that was intentional. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, among all those other things, mysterious, and I for one didn’t mind that at all.

The Girl Who Conquered the World and Cackled

Looking for the Female Fictional Arch Nemesis

Finding heroines in fiction is easy. I can rattle off lists of amazing female protagonists without blinking an eye, with examples from across different eras, genres and age groups. But I recently realised I couldn’t do the same for female villains. Ransacking my admittedly spec fic heavy mental bookshelves, I noticed that most of them have a central antagonist, and most of those antagonists are male. Men have cornered the market of world domination and I barely noticed.

It’s just not good enough, people. We need to fix this.

I’m tired of my evil role models being the bad guy’s girlfriend, or a stock-standard temptress who’ll probably fall for the hero anyway. I want to read about the woman at the head of the dread army. I want the female equivalent of whoever that guy is in the James Bond movies who strokes the fluffy white cat. I’m not talking about a Dolores Umbridge here. I’m talking about a Lady Voldemort. Arch Nemesis only need apply.

It’s interesting that when I was compiling the following list the first female arch villains that came to mind were from children’s books – the Witch of the West, the White Witch, the Witch of the Waste. A few are described as ugly, but more often they are beautiful and use that as a weapon too. And sometimes they don’t give a damn what you think they are. Beautiful, ugly, or none of the above, they’re taking over the world anyway.

I give you fair warning: there will be spoilers. A lot of spoilers.

  • The Witch of the West from Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. She wants to avenge her sister and retrieve a pair of stolen ruby slippers. With an army of flying monkeys and sleeping poppies at her disposal, she’s a force to be reckoned with, especially since the Wizard of the title is no more than a guy who rose to power on a lot of hot air.
  • The three Lilim of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. The only thing that can restore their youth and beauty is the heart of a star. Unfortunately, the star is actually a woman who happens to already be using her heart, but the witches don’t care. They will carve their way through the world until they find her.
  • The Witch of the Waste in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Drawing her power from a pact with a fire demon, this witch has wrought such devastation that she is surrounded by her own personal wasteland, and is constantly seeking to extend it. Her anger is a slow burn of resentment that finds its target with the wizard Howl. No one jilts the Witch and gets away with it.
  • Lily in Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad. All she wants is a perfect world, where cooks are plump and cheerful, servant girls are only too happy to marry the handsome prince, and wolves make a safe scapegoat for everybody. She has an obsession with mirrors, but fairness does not come into it.
  • The White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe/The Magician’s Nephew. She wants power and will do anything to get it, including the utter destruction of her own world and smothering another one in a never-ending winter. She rules by fear, but her charm is just as dangerous as her rage.
  • Domina Pearl from Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria In Shadow. She has been the shadow behind the throne for as long as anyone can remember – with the death of the Duke, she sinks her claws into his five-year-old son, while around her Ombria decays.
  • Laurel from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. Rich, beautiful and eternally young, Laurel is as enigmatic as she is powerful. She can manipulate any situation to put you in the wrong, and while she likes to play the occasional game with her pet humans, she never allows herself to lose.
  • Jeannine from Veronica Roth’s Divergent. When the faction of Abnegation turn out to be an obstruction on the way to Jeannine’s rise to power, she does the logical thing and infects the warrior faction Dauntless with a serum that makes them commit wholesale genocide without knowing what they are doing. But it’s not personal, you understand.
  • The Faerie Queens (both Seelie and Unseelie) from Holly Black’s Tithe. They are beautiful, they are powerful, and they are stone cold heartless. Their subjects cannot help but love them, even as they commit acts of unspeakable cruelty or force others to do it for their savage entertainment. No one within the circle of their ever-shifting attention can ever be safe.
  • The Marquess from Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The little girl who lost everything, the Marquess has taken over Fairyland and is crushing it down to a manageable size with chains of human bureaucracy, all while wearing the most impressive of hats.
  • Kitty Kwok from Kylie Chan’s Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang trilogies, beginning in White Tiger. From asking her employees to perform espionage to taking genetic material from the children in her care for ghastly experiments, there is no low to which Miss Kwok will not stoop – and it would seem there is no getting rid of her either.
  • The sorceress Oonagh from Juliet Marillier’s first three Sevenwaters novels, beginning in Daughter of the Forest. She marries an Irish nobleman for his power and position, and when his six sons turn out to be troublesome she uses sorcery to transform the boys into swans. But that’s only the beginning. The sorceress will manipulate anything and anyone to reach her ends, and the family of Sevenwaters is squarely in her way. That means that one way or another, they have to go…
  • Victoria in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. In the first book of the series, Edward of the Cullen family kills Victoria’s boyfriend James. Bad idea. Victoria will rip apart the world to avenge him, even if it means creating an entire army of super-vampires to do it.
  • Annabelle Kasprowicz in Lenny Bartulin’s A Deadly Business/Death By the Book. The bombshell daughter of an ageing millionaire, she may indulge in the odd seduction, but she will not let anyone get between her and the money. Not even her own father.
  • Cruella de Vil from Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmations. You know someone is pure evil when they can kill a puppy. Cruella takes it to new levels by kidnapping whole litters of them to make herself the ultimate fur coat.
  • Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The nightmare headmistress is the heavily muscled arm of educational authority, but her only interest in children is throwing them out of windows. She is incapable of showing kindness to anyone, even – in fact, especially – her own niece.
  • Selena Leonelli from Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens. Surviving a horrific childhood that forever warps her view of the world, she uses her work as a prostitute to gather secrets and power, but everything depends on her retaining her youth and beauty. If that means destroying the lives of young girls unfortunate enough to share the same colour hair, well, it’s a sacrifice she is quite happy to make.
  • The Ragwitch from Garth Nix’s The Ragwitch. Long ago she built herself an empire but was exiled to another world in the body of a ragdoll. Now she has returned and she’s lost none of her hunger for power. Drawing together an army of her terrifying creatures, she sets forth to reclaim the land.
  • Queen Levana in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. Her true face concealed behind a mask of beautiful glamour, her every word laced with intent, she is a dictator with plans for expansion. The only thing she seems capable of loving is her throne.
  • Dragwena of Cliff McNish’s The Doomspell. She has laid waste to an entire world and that still is not enough to satisfy her. There are other worlds, other places and people to bring under her dominion, and if it requires the deaths of a thousand children to get to them, she would kill a thousand and one just for the fun of it.

Analysing this highly subjective data, I have come to the following conclusions:

17 are from speculative fiction, 2 are from mainstream fiction, one is crime.

8 are from children’s books, 5 are from YA and 7 are from adult books.

15 are witches, sorceresses, or manipulators of some type of magic.

15 have wealth, 12 have beauty or the appearance of it, 11 are in a position of official authority, 8 have the appearance of youth (but none actually have it), 8 are/were married or in an equivalent relationship.

9 have conquest as their main objective, 10 are out for vengeance.

15 come up against female protagonists, 4 come up against multiple protagonists of both genders, one comes up against a male protagonist.

But these books are only what I have read. I’m throwing the question out to everyone who reads this post: where are the female arch villains? Not from television or film – I want to hear about the ones from books, manga or graphic novels, the ones we don’t hear about enough. Which are the ones that spring first to mind? Which ones can you think of that I haven’t mentioned here? I really want to know!

Not that I’m planning world domination or anything. Promise.