Pantomime – Laura Lam

Pantomime CoverSeries: Micah Grey, #1
First Published: 5th February, 2013
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Gene is the daughter of a noble family who has a secret. Micah is a runaway who joins the circus. They’re both the same person, because Gene/Micah is intersex.

There are two timelines in the book. Gene’s starts in the events leading to her running away. Micah’s starts when he visits the circus, and eventually ends up getting a job as a trainee aerialist. Often in stories like this, it’s apparent which name and pronouns are the preferred ones of the person. It isn’t in this case. Both Gene and Micah are identities put on for necessity, and neither is the whole truth. There’s a strong theme of working out how gender roles and sexuality apply. I liked that Micah’s journey was handled as something that wasn’t clear cut and that varied over time, as things like gender and sexuality are not necessarily things that are obvious and set in stone for all people. It did tend to stray into “both male and female” territory, but Micah’s society doesn’t really have a concept of non-binary anything, so it did fit as the best Micah had to describe himself. It reminded me of the ways I’d try to describe myself when I was younger.

The plot was engaging and I enjoyed reading about the circus community. The pacing was mostly there, though I did drift when the pantomime performance began. It’s difficult to make a stage play work in novel format, and I don’t feel this really did it, but it was a short part of the book.

I also liked the world. It’s relatively low tech, but there are devices left from the civilisation of the past. No one knows how they work, so once they run out of power, they can no longer be used. This also links in to a past of other species and human hybrids of various kinds. I had reservations about exactly how this was applied to Micah, but the general idea was good.

There were some areas where it didn’t work for me. A big one is Micah’s presentation as an intersex person. He runs away to avoid invasive surgery designed to make him conform to a binary sex. Micah’s problems are shown sympathetically and it’s clear that forced surgery is not the right choice. The nature of the story means that Micah manages to escape and decide what he wants, which is a positive message. The broad idea wasn’t a bad one, and does cover issues that intersex people can face. But I wasn’t too comfortable with the rest.

I haven’t found many intersex characters in speculative fiction, but where I have, they’re usually a reimagining of what humans would be like if one person could perform all reproductive processes. Technically, this is a form of ovotestes, but this isn’t how it usually looks in real life. Ovotestes doesn’t dictate a certain appearance and doesn’t mean a person can perform all reproductive processes. On the contrary, this would be extremely rare in a human. Speculative fiction usually gets around this with a handwave of magic or genetic engineering. I’m not saying this type of character should never be written, but it does seem like it’s written so often that it becomes the one true representation.

Micah is very much a fantasy intersex character. He belongs to a magical species where everyone is like Micah. This means he is not human and he is not an intersex member of his species. I’ve kept the label, and discussed Micah as belonging to that label, because it’s how he’s usually categorised in book discussions. I also think the character would be of interest to people wanting to look at intersex characters. But it’s not what I was hoping for when I read the book.

There’s an uncomfortable focus on Micah’s body. People would just happen to feel Micah’s genitals or he’d show them to people rather than explaining (and it certainly wasn’t a culture where nakedness among friends would be viewed as commonplace). It felt rather like Micah was on display to the reader. I’d also note that Micah’s concerns for being rejected due to his body don’t extend to empathy for others. Micah is rather negative about the appearance of the woman with a moustache, for example.

The choice of which circus members would be major supporting characters also didn’t sit well. The freakshow characters are there so Micah could feel bad about showing people as freaks, but they didn’t get character development. Tauro in particular stood out to me, because as well as looking a bit like a minotaur, he appears to have a developmental disability of some sort. The acrobats are non-white and don’t speak the same language as Micah, which means they’re not included in anything. The first time they appear, their movements are likened to wolves, which further removes them from being referred to as human.

The people who get the most development are white, with one of Micah’s potential love interests also being from a wealthy background. So there’s a lot of background diversity, but it only tends to come into the foreground when it’s about being QUILTBAG.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed the book, and thought it had an interesting world and accessible writing style. It’s also still somewhat rare to have a bisexual lead or to look at gender outside of a binary framework. But it didn’t really fit what I was hoping for when it came to having an intersex character, and I wish some of the background characters had been a little less in the background. Note that there are some sexual assault themes, including an implied rape in someone’s backstory, as well as general violence.

She Remembered Caterpillars

Game LogoDeveloper: jumpsuit entertainment
First Release: 17th January, 2017
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

A girl is determined to save her father from death using the power of fungi.

This is a puzzle game based on navigating little fungus people (gammies) to launch pads, so they can fly away. Getting there involves crossing caterpillar bridges and other obstacles. The gammies are marked by a colour and a shape, which dictates which obstacles they can cross. The design of the puzzles is clear. Using colours and shapes gives a backup for anyone who can’t use one or the other, which is helpful for colourblindness or not being able to see fine detail very well.

The difficulty of the puzzles increases slowly. New mechanics have a simple level to show how they work. However, the text instructions for how things work are sparse. This won’t be a problem for most players most of the time, but some players may need a little more guidance to get started.

Progress through the game is split into acts, which slowly take the player higher up a structure. Each act has a distinctive art theme, which reflects the feel of the story at that point. I loved the style of the art. It’s hand drawn and whimsical, in a twisted fungal kind of way.

The story is told through text, which appears at the start of the levels and acts. It floats between memories of the girl and her father, and trying to save him using the gammies. Other uses of fungi are also hinted at, suggesting a world where fungal things are integral to everything. It’s a non-linear approach to storytelling that I see more often in short stories than games, and it fits very well here.

Gammies fly away

Image Caption: A raised structure of pathways is surrounded by mist. The structure has an organic feel in muted earth tones. Bright caterpillar bridges in blue (with circles), red (with squares) and purple (with Ds) join the sections. Three gammies fly helicopter-style from fungal launch pads. This is what happens on finishing a level. The gammies are little fungus people with faces and colours/shapes to match the bridges.

The progression of the art and story was balance well through the acts. The puzzles were mostly spaced well, as each act introduces a few new things. The exception was act seven, which saw a change in scenery, but no new mechanics. This was the weakest act for me, as the gameplay felt like it was staying on a level rather than advancing. That’s not a strong criticism though, as mainly I felt the game kept things fresh with new gameplay elements.

I enjoyed the game and would recommend it. The shape and colour concept of the puzzles was interesting, and it was very relaxed as there was no time limit. The art and story were great. Everything combined together to create something unique. It took me around five hours to complete the puzzles, but could take more or less time depending on skill. Though this is generally a cute game, note that the story does involve death and medical procedures. Lame is used as an insult at one point.

[A copy of this game was received from the developer for review purposes]

The Demon Girl’s Song – Susan Jane Bigelow

Demon Girl's Song CoverFirst Published: 20th September, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Andín’s dreams of the future come to an end when she gets an ancient demon stuck in her head. But it might be there are bigger problems in the world than one demon.

The setting is a secondary fantasy world at the start of its industrial revolution. There are factories and trains, alongside magic. Motorcars are just starting to appear in places, though not to the point of replacing horses. Socially, it’s a time of change. Women have few rights, which is first seen when Andín is unable to go to university. Her father thinks it would be a waste to send a girl, and instead wants to send her brother. It’s expected that Andín will marry and her brother will hold down a job. Yet these attitudes are being challenged, not only by Andín herself. At a larger scale, there’s a push away from emperors and monarchs towards democracy in some of the countries.

Things are a bit rocky at the start of the book. Neither Andín nor the demon come across as pleasant, with a lot of random angry outbursts. Some of these didn’t make sense, and still don’t even after thinking about them. I’d have expected the demon to be a little more cunning given his age, rather than giving away his presence through tantrums. A few extra lines in places might have clarified these reactions.

Once the initial mystery of how Andín ended up with the demon is resolved, it starts to really get going. I’m glad the book didn’t consist solely of the demon mystery, as it would have stretched a bit thin. It also gives them something else to be doing as they get used to each other.

The characters do get more interesting as they settle. One thing that’s particularly interesting is how the demon changes to having a new host. After years of inhabiting men, he initially thinks of himself as a man trapped in a girl. This starts to shift as the two merge together.

The cast is diverse, with non-white, lesbian and bisexual characters. There are some references to insanity as a shorthand for bad things, though it’s not as bad as most books in that regard.

This is a standalone book. It wouldn’t require a sequel to make sense. The choice of an industrial revolution setting is less common in the genre, which I appreciated. However, the slow start and initial difficulty getting to know the characters does make it harder to get into the story. Once I did, it was an entertaining read.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

Paddington (Film)

Paddington CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Paul King (director, writer, story); Hamish McColl (story); David Heyman (producer)
Main Cast: Ben Whishaw; Sally Hawkins; Hugh Bonneville; Madeleine Harris; Samuel Joslin; Julie Walters; Jim Broadbent; Nicole Kidman; Peter Capaldi; Tim Downie; Michael Gambon; Imelda Staunton
First Shown: 28th November, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The original Paddington Bear books, by Michael Bond (who has a cameo in the film), began publication in the late 1950s. The film isn’t a retelling of any specific book, but follows the same basic idea. Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) home in Peru is destroyed, so he stows away on a ship heading for London. Once there, he ends up at Paddington Station, where he meets the Brown family. But things take a sinister turn when a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) finds out he’s arrived.

I wasn’t sure how funny I’d find the film, as some of the humour stems from Paddington not understanding what’s going on and making mistakes. However, the funny side tended to be that things turned out unexpectedly, rather than Paddington feeling embarrassed or upset. I find the former funny, but the latter makes me uncomfortable. So I was glad it focused on unexpected resolutions.

The interactions between the Browns were great. At the start, there are obviously tensions in the family. Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is very serious and obsessed with trying to shield everyone from risks. Judy (Madeleine Harris) sides with him over Paddington, because she wants the family to appear normal and not be embarrassing. On the other side, there’s Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is an artist, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who dreams of being an astronaut. The dreamer side of the family want to help Paddington. I liked seeing how the family came together and sorted out their differences.

However, my favourite member of the family was Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), an elderly relative. Her asides, and her practical approach to dealing with Paddington, were very funny. She knows what’s really going on, even if it takes the Browns a little longer to figure it out.

There’s a magical realism feel to the film. Paddington causes some comment, but most people either ignore that he’s a bear or accept it after an initial comment. Things shift around the characters, such as the mural changing in the Brown’s house, the band playing the background music appearing in the scene, and the dolls house in the attic becoming a tiny version of the Brown’s house. This works particularly well due to the film being live action, as it grounds the surreal elements in the real.

One possible issue is whether people will make the connection between a bear in a children’s story and real refugees. I felt this was handled reasonably well, as there are references that reinforce this connection. Paddington has a label around his neck, reminiscent of child evacuees in World War II. This is stated directly in the film by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who hopes it will remind people of their past kindness. Putting this into the story was a nice touch, as it’s something the author of the books said was a direct inspiration for Paddington’s label.

Some of the hostility Paddington faces is based on fears about immigrants. The Brown’s neighbour, Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), is worried that bears will end up taking over the neighbourhood and keep him awake with their jungle music. The narrative makes it very clear that Mr Curry isn’t a nice person. In contrast, Paddington also meets Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who was a Jewish child refugee. Mr Gruber is warm, kind, and everything Mr Curry isn’t.

Colonialism is tackled in the tradition of snark and sarcasm. The film opens with an old colonial explorer (Tim Downie) on an expedition to Peru. He’s taken only the essentials, which means a trail of baggage including a large clock and a piano. Later, as the bears are learning English from a recording, it announces to them that British people have numerous words for rain, in a parody of the statements made about Inuit people and snow. Peru is referred to as Darkest Peru, as it is in the book, though the repetition of this is taken to an extreme that highlights its ridiculousness. Many of these moments are subtle, but clear in their critique of colonial attitudes.

The choice of villain also reinforces an anti-colonial narrative: she’s a taxidermist working at the Natural History Museum, who wants to return to a time when the best way to deal with a new species was to kill it and mount it as a trophy. She represents the old values, with all the problems that come with them. Her scenes are particularly chilling, because she is so callous about the value of life.

Though I generally liked the film, there were moments I didn’t like. There’s a scene where Mr Brown dresses as a woman as a disguise and a security guard flirts with him. These kinds of scenes rely on the idea that a man dressing as a woman is inherently funny, and that a man flirting with another man is funny. I did like some aspects of how it was handled though. Mr Brown later comments on the clothing being liberating. The disguise represents the first risk he takes to help Paddington, stepping outside of the constrictive life he’s constructed. It’s more unusual to follow up such scenes with a positive framing (it tends to be “never again, because I’m a manly man” rather than “actually, that was fine”).

I recognise that Paddington being called Paddington is unavoidable given the source, but it does still make me wince that he gets named because his name is deemed unpronounceable. That’s always been the part of the story that doesn’t sit well with me.

Paddington is a light-hearted family film with genuinely funny moments. I enjoyed seeing the Brown family come together and loved the visual style. The topic of refugees and immigration is as relevant now as ever, and the film presents this in a positive way. I would note some of the taxidermy scenes could be frightening for younger viewers. No animals are harmed, but the intentions are clear, and there are previously stuffed animals on show.