Review: The Adjacent

This review contains spoilers.

The Adjacent is the second Christopher Priest novel I’ve read; the first was The Islanders, a gazetteer of the fictional Dream Archipelago which hides a murder mystery and a love story. The Islanders was a story about liminality, isolation, art and the constriction of landscape; it was fun in a geeky way, but also possessed of a delicious and somehow melancholy menace.

The Adjacent is…some of these things, but none so successfully. The novel opens in the IRGB, the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Our Hero is Tibor Tarent, a photographer recently returned from an Eastern Anatolia ravaged by climate change-induced drought and terrorism. His wife Melanie has been killed by a weapon that leaves a perfect triangular crater of blackened earth; nothing else. Back in the IRGB, much of north-west London has been ravaged by a similar weapon. Tibor is directed around the country by unnamed officials, for nebulous debriefings, through a landscape afflicted by violent storms and unspecified oppression.

Then the narrative shifts to WW1: a stage magician is summoned to the front to help the Allied forces disguise their planes so the Germans won’t shoot at them any more.

Then, again: WW2, a young RAF man meets a Polish female pilot who he quickly becomes besotted with. He looks her up much later in life, and finds that her family history doesn’t quite check out.

Then: Tibor again, in a kinder England, meeting a scientist who’s devised what he thinks is the end to all wars.

Then: a man crossing a strange desert with an enigmatic woman. He can’t remember how he got there.

Then: a woman searching one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago for her lost love…

…you get the idea. It’s a sort of sub-Cloud Atlas thing: a set of stories nebulously connected, with eerie echoes and half-connections that you clutch at but never exactly grasp. We intuit that the stage magician and the RAF man and the man in the desert are all versions of Tibor. There are also several versions of an enigmatic woman who won’t reveal anything of herself but really wants hot no-strings sex with Tibor and his sub-versions. There are lots of mentions of triangles. Several definitions of “adjacent”. An abiding interest in utilitarian vehicles and how they move through the landscape.

Which is undoubtedly all very interesting. But what is it for?

Adam Roberts suggests that it’s all a big stage trick: Priest distracts us with these tantalising connections, these various versions of history and the future, in order to return Tibor’s dead wife to him without us raising an eyebrow.

This is a convincing reading. It’s certainly more convincing than anything I’ve come up with. But it kind of depends on how invested we are in Tibor as a character, and in his relationship with Melanie. It’s also structurally problematic, in that it constructs Melanie as a thing, a plot device, a cipher: she has no existence in the novel except through Tibor’s memories, and so bringing her back can only be about him, not about her.

And I didn’t find Tibor a compelling enough character to overlook this. I think this is partly deliberate: some play is made with the idea that Tibor, as a photographer, is a passive observer, unable to intervene in the situations he records. And that’s similar to how we experience the novel: we chase down a nebulous concept of truth by observing, by reading, but we can’t intervene. The truth always recedes away from us, into the interstices between each narrative, the missing Polish woman, the memories of the man in the desert, NW6, a tower at a military facility in the IRGB that flickers in and out of existence. There’s always that indefinable, unresolved something missing, unexplained; the nebulous Real which cannot be found or recorded or pinned down in its entirety.

I enjoy this sort of thing in a novel, usually; I love art that records the numinous, the things that lie beyond explanation and rationalisation, what Todorov would call the Fantastic. The adjacent, you might say. But…I also don’t have much patience for Priest’s unexamined Islamophobia (Islamic Britian as Orwellian dystopia) or his insidious sexism, the way the women in his narratives are reduced to ciphers for the men to chase. (An exception is the narrative set in the Dream Archipelago, which is written from the point of view of a woman; not coincidentally, this is the best part of the novel.) The world(s) of The Adjacent is (are) too thinly imagined; there are far more absences than the ones Priest actually wants us to look at. That’s why, I think, I can deal with sexism in things like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, both of which channel ideas of the Fantastic that are similar to those in The Adjacent: these worlds are rich and lush with fecund, rotting detail, the better to point up the glaring absences at their hearts. I want to be hypnotised by the Fantastic; I want it to draw me down into the depths of its unknowns. The Adjacent just didn’t do that for me.

Top Ten Queer Characters

  1. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. A bi, poly pirate who’s also really hot. *mic drop*
  2. Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Sissix and Rosemary’s relationship is one of my favourite things about this book. They actually TALK about things instead of trying to guess at what the other person’s feeling. And visibly support each other. Also! I think this was the first queer SF book I read, and I read it when I was just starting to come out (to myself as much as anyone), and I was so grateful that Sissix/Rosemary could exist.
  3. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” Boom! Nyx is bi – as are most of the characters in the novel, actually – and defiantly, violently female, and lord knows she’d be a terrible person to have dinner with but she’s a great character to read about.
  4. Lila – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Lila is a cross-dressing, genderfluid steampunk pirate who (at least in the first book) shows no interest in romance, and it’s great.
  5. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. I mean. Everyone in Palimpsest is queer. I like November most, though: I’m drawn to lonely, unassuming characters trying to fill the spaces left by their hopes.
  6. Alma – The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts. So Alma is here because she’s incredibly unusual in fiction: she’s in a long-term relationship with another woman, who she cares for 24/7. And they’ve been together so long (and Marguerite is so ill) that it’s not even particularly romantic any more. It’s a couple dynamic we see very rarely in fiction – although Roberts presents it so matter-of-factly it’s easy to miss how radical it is.
  7. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s another really unusual character: a teenage girl, practising Muslim and trauma survivor who gets a queer romance that’s believable and adorable without getting in the way of the very real dangers she faces. All this is brilliant in a YA novel.
  8. Ingray Aughskold – Provenance, Ann Leckie. This is another novel where Everyone is Queer (the best kind of novel), and Ingray’s developing crush on a female police captain is just adorable. And one of those romances that make you want to shout “JUST KISS ALREADY!”
  9. Avice Benner Cho – Embassytown, China Mieville. I just remembered this one! Avice is in an asexual relationship with her husband Scile, because they don’t enjoy sex together but still want to be partners. Which is another unusual, and welcome, dynamic.
  10. Fevvers – Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter. OK, so it’s never confirmed that Fevvers is in a relationship with her chaperone? agent? friend? Lizzie, but my word this book is definitely queer. And Fevvers is brilliant: larger than life, subversively feminine, altogether wonderful.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is basically a Regency romance. Its heroine, Jane Ellsworth, is the daughter of a country gentleman; at the ripe old age of 28, she’s essentially been put on the shelf, while her mother promotes the charms of her sister Melody relentlessly to every young bachelor in the neighbourhood.

This isn’t quite the Regency as we know it, though: Kowal’s addition to the period comes in the form of glamour, a vital accomplishment for every young gentlewoman – the art of creating genteel illusions to show off in drawing rooms and dining rooms. Jane is a particularly skilled glamourist, but what she can do with that skill is obviously limited by her social status and her gender.

The novel clearly has Austenian ambitions: if you’re at all familiar with Austen, you’ll be able to see the various twists and turns the plot takes a mile off. The reading guide at the back of my copy claims it’s inspired particularly by Persuasion, but really it remixes elements from all her novels. Tonally, it’s far too “light and bright and sparkling” to have anything to do with the autumnal loveliness of Persuasion – Jane may have superficial similarities to that novel’s pale spinster Anne Elliot, but in her cleverness and her wit she’s much more like Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet. Her overbearing and tactless mother, and her laconic father, likewise recall the Bennet parents much more readily than they do Sir William Elliot. There’s a Wickham figure, and a storyline much like Georgiana Darcy’s; a Mr Knightley analogue; a scene similar to Emma Woodhouse’s visit to Box Hill.

I say all this not because I think it’s particularly interesting or relevant, but simply to illustrate how Kowal fails to engage meaningfully with Austen, and with the period. The only way you could possibly read Shades of Milk and Honey as a Persuasion analogue is by misreading Persuasion: because the point of Persuasion is not that Anne is a spinster, it’s that she’s a spinster because she made a mistake in the past, and because her family neglects her almost criminally. It’s a novel about regret, about wasted potential, about the rot at the heart of the aristocracy – none of which is true of Shades and Milk and Honey, which insomuch as it’s about anything is a novel about jealousy between sisters.

It’s also a novel that fails to engage with Austen’s concerns more widely, on anything more than a superficial level. Which is to say: it’s heavily indebted to the various social dramas of Austen’s novels, the balls and the dinners and the visits and the close female friendships, without being interested in any of the sociopolitical meaning with which Austen so heavily freights these occasions. The novel has nothing to say about (for example) the role of women (beyond the usual twenty-first century response of “wasn’t it terrible to be a woman in the eighteenth century, aren’t things so much better now”), the function of romance in a patriarchal world, or the tension between our social roles and our private selves – all key interests of Austen’s. It’s puzzling that a novel so obviously, self-consciously steeped in Austen’s work seemingly has nothing to say about it.

We’d expect the fantasy element, the glamour, to do some of that metatextual work; to make us look afresh and slanted at this canonical author (as Naomi Novik does with the eighteenth century in her Temeraire series). Except – well, one very fundamental problem with glamour in the magical sense is that it’s more Faerie Queene than Pride and Prejudice; it belongs more to the Elizabethan era, which is fascinated with illusion and mirroring and the magics of the masque, than it does to the Regency, which is (generally) more interested in the rational, in social structures and comedies of manners. That’s not to say there aren’t ways glamour could work in a Regency setting, of course: it could be a potent metaphor for how we perform social roles, say, or it could point up a conflict between domesticity and art; and, indeed, Shades of Milk and Honey gestures at both these meanings. But only gestures: it has no clear sense of what this speculative element is there for. It’s magic for the sake of magic, and as a result it feels tacked-on and ill-thought-through.

I’m probably being harsher on this novel than I need to be; I certainly didn’t hate it, and though I could see the twists and turns coming I still enjoyed them. Even Austen-lite is quite fun, it turns out. But it’s nothing more than fun. It’s Austen fan-fiction – worse, Austen fan-fiction that does none of the work of reinterpretation and exploration that fan-fiction tends to be good at. It’s not terrible. But it’s not brilliant either.

Review: The Fractal Prince

OK, I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed ignoring this blank page long enough now.

A confession: I have only the dimmest memory of what The Fractal Prince is about. It’s the sequel to Hannu Rajaniemi’s post-Singularity heist novel The Quantum Thief. It’s a take on The Thousand and One Nights set in the last human city, a vaguely Middle Eastern locale that’s threatened by rogue nanobots known as “wildcode” and by the political entity called the Sobornost, which wants to upload every remaining human mind to the purity of digital consciousness. Jean le Flambeur, the thief of the first novel, is involved somewhere. There’s also a human woman called Tawaddud who used to be the lover of a jinn, a human mind trapped inside an object. Oh, and stories are dangerous in this city: telling someone a story can invite the wildcode into their minds, or the jinni.

That’s pretty much all I remember. Impressionistic flashes.

Partly, that’s because Rajaniemi’s prose is incredibly abstruse, eschewing “as you know, Bob”-style explanations in favour of, um, no explanation at all. Given that The Fractal Prince is a novel taking place in a far future in which humans have all but left Earth and all but entirely fused with computers and machine intelligence – there seems, in fact, to be no practical difference between a human mind and a software mind – this makes things tricky. A sample sentence (borrowed from Adam Roberts’ review of the novel in Sibilant Fricative):

The q-bubble struggles to keep up with the barrage it is taking across the electromagnetic spectrum and switches to neutrino tomography around the Bekinstein epicentre.

(Roberts comments, in typical laconic style: “That brings, I confess, no images at all to my mind.”)

Mind, this isn’t a case of authorial incompetence; it’s not the turgid style of, say, the physics sections in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal series. Rajaniemi’s prose is detailed, clever, jewel-faceted – like cyberpunk clockwork, or, better, like a computer circuit-board. You can appreciate the artistry, the minute, interlocking detail, but you suspect that you’ll need a degree in advanced computer science actually to understand it.

Nevertheless, I would recommend these novels, with a few caveats. (As Tori Truslow points out in her review for Strange Horizons, the use of Orientalist imagery in The Fractal Prince is potentially exoticising. And the sub-plot detailing Mieli’s past romance with a woman, a romance which informs her actions in The Quantum Thief, verges on queer tragedy.) They attempt to narrate a future that’s genuinely radically different from now, and which is not entirely, or even mostly, pessimistic – which is an important thing for SF to do. They are ambitious and unusual and they do something new in a highly saturated field. I’m not sure if I’ll read the last book in the trilogy (if I had a pound for every time I’d said that I would have…a lot of pounds), but I’ll definitely remember the ones I did read. In impressionistic flashes.

Review: The Islanders

It should not come as a surprise when I say that I enjoyed Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. It’s a book that could have been written with me in mind: a gazetteer of a fictional, fantastical and fundamentally unmappable archipelago that’s also the elliptical story of a murder? Yes please!

And so: the Dream Archipelago, we’re told by the mysterious Chaster Kammerton, who writes the novel’s foreword, consists of an unspecified number of islands – at least twenty thousand, and almost certainly a lot more, each of which has its own customs, its own laws, its own currency. It cannot be mapped, and travel is haphazard and slow, because of “temporal distortion”. It is caught between the warring nations of the north and south continents – despite its Covenant of Neutrality, the effects of those wars frequently spill over into the islands themselves. It is, in sum, a liminal place, a borderland, never one thing or the other.

The Islanders, meanwhile, takes the form of a gazetteer of these islands, as I’ve said; that is, it purports to describe each island rationally, objectively, even scientifically, looking at the geography of each island, the tourist attractions, the currency, the laws. Some of the entries, however, have very little to do with the particular qualities of the island they purport to describe; instead, there’s a short story about someone living on the island, or otherwise connected to it. These apparently unrelated short stories – whose very presence serves to disturb the self-avowed objective rationality of the text – move slowly into place as you read, building up the story of a murder.

The tension the novel generates, or rather makes visible, between the scientific impulse to categorise and describe and the essentially uncategorisable, unknowable nature of everyday human experience reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I also love and which is long overdue a re-read. It’s a novel that asks its readers to work for meaning – to make implicit connections to work out the “truth” behind the surface. It’s also – necessarily – beautifully structured: each piece of information you get, however irrelevant or incidental it seems at first, becomes vital to building the whole picture.

I find it particularly suggestive that both novels – Nabokov’s and Priest’s – prominently feature artists. In The Islanders, most of the named characters, who crop up across many of the short stories and the more straightforwardly “factual” ones, are artists of one sort or another: novelists, writers on social reform, landscape artists, magicians. And many of them operate on the wrong side of the law – for repressive laws, shadowy government agencies, official secrets crop up again and again throughout the novel, again generating an uneasy tension between the official, “scientific” version of the truth and whatever it is that might actually be going on. An admittedly reductive analysis of The Islanders might posit that the artists are seeking to represent the actual lived experience of the islanders, while those in authority are protecting an “official” version of a multifarious “truth”.

That’s a lot of quotation marks for one post; but that’s also the kind of novel The Islanders is. It disturbs notions of textual authority in a way that’s deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. It isn’t, strictly speaking, doing anything that’s particularly new (Pale Fire does pretty much everything The Islanders does), but it does do it well. And, c’mon. A fictional gazetteer? Be still my ever-geeky heart.

Review: The Quantum Thief

I’ve struggled to find a way into The Quantum Thief, to write about it. Admittedly that’s partly because I read it several months ago (yes, I am a bad reviewer with an extensive backlog); but I also think it went slightly over my head.

It’s set in a universe which has hit the singularity and passed cheerfully out the other side. Human minds can be cloned and copied like software programmes; menial computing tasks are carried out by what are apparently conscious, artificial minds called gogols. Extreme bodily injury is mostly a matter of discomfort; flesh can be grown back as easily as a very easy thing. And death is not necessarily permanent. All of this is taken as given, as things that the reader will know as a matter of course, which does not exactly make for light reading.

Beneath all this concept, the plot’s actually relatively straightforward: a heist plus a detective story. The titular thief, Jean le Flambeur, is rescued from a brutal quantum prison by the mysterious woman Mieli, who’s in the service of a goddess, the pellegrini. (I think we’re supposed to read the goddess as an extremely advanced computer consciousness, but who knows.) Mieli and the pellegrini, for their own reasons, want Jean to retrieve some of his own memories, which he’s left locked away somewhere on Mars. Specifically, in a city called the Oubliette, which is governed by social codes of privacy whereby people can regulate how much of their interactions others can remember.

Meanwhile, a young up-and-coming detective tries to solve a mysterious murder involving chocolate and the Quiet Ones, the re-embodied minds who run the city.

There’s a lot of world-building in this book; matched by prose that’s overflowing with neologisms, names for tech we don’t have and factions whose powers we never quite work out:

The spimescape view is seething with detail, a network of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only be made in the guberniya worlds close to the Sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost.

That passage makes probably as much sense to you as it does to someone reading the book.

This makes for a difficult read, and to some extent I relished that difficulty: it’s a refreshing change to read something that engages so thoroughly with how fundamentally different the far future will look; how what we consider as “human” may change so thoroughly.

That’s not to say that The Quantum Thief manages entirely to escape the pitfalls into which more relatable science fiction tends to fall. In particular, it occasionally feels uncomfortably male gaze-y – Jean’s attracted to Mieli, and his narration can tend to privilege her sexual attractiveness rather than her character. And there’s a thing called “combat autism”, seemingly a mental enhancement of some sort which allows Mieli to experience and analyse dangerous situations dispassionately, which feels vaguely appropriative and stereotypical of people who have actual autism – crucially, Mieli can switch “combat autism” on and off at will.

And that prose really does make the shape of the novel hard to pick out. I enjoyed it, but I feel like I took less away from it than I should have.

Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

This review contains spoilers.

It feels impossible to review Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without first acknowledging the downright strangeness of the fact that it’s a play at all.

This is, after all, Harry Potter. It could have been any damn thing it wanted to be.

The franchise may have been born in Britain, but at this stage it’s basically an international phenomenon, with an international following. The Potter fandom is definitely one of the largest and most significant anywhere.

And only a tiny fraction of that fandom will ever be able to experience what’s being called “the eighth instalment” – part of the canon – in the Potter franchise as it’s supposed to be experienced.

There is a book, of course. (Inevitably.) But let’s be honest: Cursed Child is not Shakespeare. It is not Pinter. It is not even Noel Coward. In short, it’s not the sort of play whose strength lies in its dialogue, or its insights into the human condition. It’s more like Chicago, or Les Miserables: its strength lies in spectacle, its ability to conjure emotion through stagecraft. To read Cursed Child is to miss out on what actually makes it good.

And yet: theatre is uniquely expensive. Actually going to see Cursed Child, for most people, will involve not just the ticket cost (I think the cheapest tickets are £30 each for both parts) but also travel expenses, food and at least one night’s stay in London. And that’s if you get the Saturday tickets, which allow you to see both parts on the same day, but which are also the most in-demand. If you can only get weekday tickets, you’re looking at probably two days off work and two nights in London.*

There are families with Potterhead children – or, indeed, Potterhead parents – for whom the cost of a hardback book is beyond them.

Creators are free to do whatever they like, of course (especially if they are gazillionaires), but this particular creative decision does seem to have its roots in generating hype through exclusivity (the team behind the show are even running a patronising #KeepTheSecrets campaign). Why else make something that most of your fanbase are never going to see?

Let’s move on to the show itself, for we cannot rant all night.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about fathers and sons. It begins with the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which, as you probably remember, Harry sent his son Albus off to Hogwarts worrying about which house he would get into at school. This, then, is Albus’ story: son of the famous Harry Potter, always unable to live up to that legacy; sorted into Slytherin, a rubbish flier, almost friendless. A disappointment (so he thinks) to his famous father.

It’s also Scorpius’ story: son of Draco Malfoy, and unable to escape that legacy; friends with Harry Potter’s son, much to his father’s contempt.

Scorpius and Albus feel like losers. As a result, they’re manipulated into going back in time using a stolen Time-Turner to rescue Cedric Diggory, who they see as another “spare”, someone who didn’t need to die.

Their meddling with time has predictably disastrous results. In one alternative future, Albus got sorted into Gryffindor and is forced to break up his friendship with Scorpius; in another, Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts, killed Harry Potter and took over the school. Meanwhile, the boys’ parents are going out of their minds looking for them, and trying at the same time to deal with the unexplained resurgence of dark creatures across the wizarding world.

Cursed Child has quite a lot in common with the later Potter books: it has no discernible structure – being more a succession of “and then”s – and, seemingly, no particular project beyond the fannish question of “what would Harry/Draco be like as a father?” The plot, specifically, becomes ever more byzantine as we wade into Part 2, throwing in an unnecessary extra twist in the form of the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange (instantly distracting everyone in the audience with the entirely unwanted image of Voldemort having sex, because really?), who wants to bring back Voldemort by going back in time and stopping him attacking the Potters. Which means the entire cast – Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Albus and Scorpius – all have to go back in time too and make sure that he does kill the Potters. My question is: doesn’t this radically alter the moral universe of the series? Doesn’t it mean that every time we read about Godric’s Hollow, we now have to imagine everyone there watching it happen – and doing nothing?

The play doesn’t really answer these questions, because it doesn’t seem terribly interested in thinking about how the mechanics of its time travel works. In Prisoner of Azkaban, everything that happened stayed happened: that’s how Harry survived the Dementor attack, casting the Patronus on his second time round the loop to save the version of himself that was going round the loop the first time. We can argue about whether or not time travel actually works like that (as the Resident Grammarian likes to), but at least it’s consistent. Whereas Cursed Child treats time travel as much more like a McGuffin that lets us perform various fanfic-type thought experiments with the franchise: what if Ron and Hermione never got together? What if Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts? And so on. Albus and Scorpius hop between timelines like alternative universes, with no particular regard for causality – except in the one case where it’s plot-convenient for something clever to happen with time travel. (It involves a blanket and some spilled potion, for readers who have seen the play.) Using time travel but skirting the thorny issues it raises seems like a) a waste, and b) cheating.

I’ve now bitched about Cursed Child for almost a thousand words. And yet, in all honesty, I loved it. Because it is very good – certainly better than the later Potter books – at being a fanwork. It’s aware, at a fundamental level, that for a huge majority of its audience Harry Potter isn’t just a fantasy series they happened to enjoy: it’s a narrative whose symbols are, for better or for worse, embedded deep in our psyches. It deploys those symbols as myth to press its audience’s buttons, so to speak. It doesn’t need to explain why stumbling upon Dementors at Hogwarts is bad, beyond bad; it just needs to put those Dementors there, with a suitably menacing soundtrack, to evoke fear and horror and suspense. The audience – including me – gasped when beloved characters’ names were mentioned in unexpected contexts; laughed at franchise in-jokes; cried at emotional bits that got their force not from any particular brilliance in the script-writing but because of the history we have with the characters. For example: Snape sacrificing himself in one of the alternative pasts to bring about the “correct” one again, and Scorpius telling him that he’ll be remembered as a hero. For example: Harry’s awful recurring nightmares about Voldemort and the cupboard under the stairs. The reason the play doesn’t have a single coherent project or structure is that it is, instead, a collection of resonant moments, continually reaching back to the original series for their emotional force. And its power in doing so is increased exponentially by the fact that it’s a shared experience: all those fans, having all those emotions at the same time – it’s like an emotional amplifier. This is something only theatre can do.

I haven’t yet mentioned the acting or the stagecraft, on the principle of saving the best till last. Because it’s really these things that bring the production alive. Anthony Boyle as Scorpius is easily the standout performance: weird, hunched and often a little scary – and full of pathos, too. Jamie Parker as Harry Potter is also fantastic – what a change it makes to have a decent actor playing Harry, bringing the full force of the character’s angst and trauma right to the fore. (This is hands-down one of the best things about the play, too: that we see Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, struggling with his traumatic past, and struggling with being a father; that he’s still able to make strong decisions despite it. It’s OK not to be OK.)

Music and dance are important to the play, too, holding those emotional moments and amplifying them further. My favourite scene (out of many contenders) was one in which Scorpius and Albus, forbidden to be friends, climb up and down and over staircases being shunted around on wheels by other members of the cast, to the soundtrack of a bass-led Imogen Heap instrumental track. It’s a beautiful sequence, one that really brought home to me that I was watching a love story of sorts. (Incidentally, I will forgive J.K. Rowling practically everything if Scorpius and Albus turn out to be bisexual and become boyfriends.) Scene transitions are made with much cloak-swishing; Albus’ confusion in a Charms lesson is rendered by students dancing gracefully around him while he flails clumsily. It’s a show constantly on the move, accentuating its lead characters’ isolation. And the magic! The production team have used every resource at their disposal to make objects fly, portraits move, people turn into other people. There’s one particular effect that neither I nor my friend could work out, and for all I know it could have been actual magic: whenever the characters used the Time-Turner the whole theatre seemed to vibrate, the air distorting like a bubble. It was astonishing, and wonderful.

I felt utterly heartsick for a while after seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, reluctant to leave its enchantment despite its very real problems. And that makes me angry: because this is not something that any Potterhead should miss. And so many will. If you can, go and see it.

*I’m lucky enough to live and work in central London, and I saw the shows on a Thursday and a Friday night. It cost me about £50 to see the two parts: £30 for one ticket, about £10 for four Underground fares, about £10 for two dinners at Wasabi. £50 is not necessarily a bank-breaking sum, but nor is it a trivial amount.

Film Review: Now You See Me

This review contains spoilers.

Now You See Me is the kind of film you can really only watch once.

It’s a film about magicians; not the fantasy Harry Potter kind levitating broomsticks and fighting dragons, but the real-world illusionists pulling rabbits out of hats and cold-reading, the Derren Browns and the David Blaines.

Four street magicians, calling themselves the Four Horsemen and following Mysterious Instructions issued by a Mysterious Hooded Figure™, steal three million Euros in paper money from a Parisian bank, live on stage in Las Vegas. The film alternates between their trajectory as they promise two more shows of similar audacity, and the story of the FBI team assigned to investigate them for, um, stealing three million Euros, which definitely did happen, even if they can’t prove the Horsemen did it.

There are some things the film does very well. It’s good, for instance, at articulating the anarchic appeal of magicians, the idea that in a world increasingly governed by institutions and entities most of us cannot hope to understand, there are still those who can game the system, exist in the space between the rules, break the laws and not be held accountable. After the Paris heist, the Horsemen escape arrest because, as one of them observes to the FBI, arresting them would involve admitting the existence of magic, which would render the organisation a laughing-stock; the Horsemen are ghosts in a machine that cannot acknowledge them because to do so would undermine its own legitimacy.

It’s a film steeped in modernity, and problems of modernity, with its fast-paced jump cuts, its palette of techno-blues and blacks, and Jesse Eisenberg, who thanks to The Social Network is essentially synonymous with swift-talking, showy contemporaneity. The chemistry between the Horsemen (Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson) is great, their onstage camaraderie nicely contrasted with offstage tensions; it’s a good way of getting at both the appeal of illusion and its inherent falseness.

Unfortunately, the film fails (for me, anyway) because it’s basically a metafilmic gimmick. One of its central mantras is “the closer you look, the less you see”; another is the idea that the place where the magic seems to be happening is exactly not the place where the important part of the trick is happening. So the film’s final revelation, the one designed to “solve” the entire story, Illusionist-style, is that, unbeknownst to everyone involved, the FBI detective assigned to investigate the Horsemen is actually the Mysterious Hooded Figure™ who’s giving them their instructions, having engineered the whole situation since he was about fourteen years old in order to take murky revenge on a magician-debunker called Thaddeus who’s also been tailing the Horsemen.

D’you see? D’you see? The Horsemen and their Amazing Stage Magic are a distraction from the real story, the distraction that allows the trick to happen in the shadows. Just as the Horsemen trick their audiences, the film tricks you. Do you see how clever the writer is? All fiction is a trick designed to delight you and dazzle you and distract you from the horribleness of the world!

Yes, film, I see.

The problem with this is that, although there are some ways in which fiction can be compared to a magic trick, there are some important ways in which fiction is not like a magic trick. The most important of these is that, while magic tricks can get away with a surprise ending because this is the real world and if something happens it must be possible, in fiction you have to show your workings because otherwise your audience will lose interest and wander off.

By which I mean that saying that someone is a master manipulator is very different from convincing us that they are. The fact is that the FBI agent character (Dylan) does a very good impression of not being able to manipulate his way out of a paper bag, and no big reveal is actually going to change that.

By the film’s own logic, I should be able to rewatch the film and see the trick happening, now I know where to look. I just get the feeling that it doesn’t have this kind of rewatchability; that there are no clues telling me that Dylan is running the whole show. I’m not even 100% sure on his motives for revenge on Thaddeus; my parents were talking over a bit of dialogue that may have given me a clue, but to be honest if I managed to miss such an important bit of plot in such a small space of time that’s not much of an excuse for the film.

As a result, the ending leaves Now You See Me feeling curiously disappointing and unsatisfying, an irritating bit of show-offery that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It’s not by any means unwatchable (although if you’ve read this review it probably is now), and in fact it’s quite entertaining; it’s just that, like most magic, it could have been something more.

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

gathering-of-shadows_ukcover-400x586A Gathering of Shadows is the sequel to Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, which I read right back at the beginning of the year and rather enjoyed. The series is set in a universe in which there are four Londons connecting four worlds, side by side: Grey London, our own in the time of Mad King George, where magic has been bled away to stop it burning the world; Red London, where magic is plentiful and the people are, by and large, prosperous; White London, a dying world full of murderers preying on whatever magic they can find; and Black London, unspeakable, utterly destroyed (or so it is assumed) by magic become conscious. When a Black London artefact found its way (impossibly) into Grey London, it’s down to Kell, one of only two magicians left who can cross the boundaries between worlds, and Lila, a cross-dressing thief, to return it before everything comes crashing down.

So Gathering picks up four months after the end of Darker (which was pretty much a self-contained story). Red London is about to hold the Element Games, a magical tournament between the magicians of three empires – a carefully choreographed political spectacle to keep the peace. Kell, who is a sort of possession of the royal family of Red London due to his rare abilities, and Rhy, the prince of Red London, are both feeling trapped by their state responsibilities and by the bond Kell created between them to keep Rhy from dying at the end of Darker. Meanwhile, Lila is on her way back to Red London having spent four months at sea in the service of the flamboyant privateer Alucard Emery.

Gathering is very definitely a Middle Book: nothing very much or very pressing actually happens – although there’s also very little that feels like it’s setting up for the next book. It should feel like Schwab is just marking time – but somehow it doesn’t.

Partly, I think, it’s because Gathering is deeply invested in its characters, and is perfectly happy to wander down random tangents in the service of developing them. In particular, it avoids the all too common tendency in fantasy for characters to fall narrowly into “good” or “evil”; instead, they manage just to be “people”, who make bad decisions or good decisions for all kinds of reasons, selfish and selfless. Lila, for example, is a killer, and largely unapologetically (one of her first acts here is to murder a man whose purse she’s stolen); the text doesn’t quite judge her for that, and she kills rarely enough that the text avoids the trap of making murder look cool. I’m well aware that Lila, actually, is something of a stock character – the insanely skilled and stubborn thief in the night who turns out to be good at everything – but she’s so much fun that I don’t care.

There’s also an incipient hint of romance here, which is a shame, because I was gunning for Schwab to ignore the usual YA swoony swoony romance thing, as seemed likely in the first book – but there is a gay relationship here which the characters don’t see as unusual, so that’s something.

Generally, I think Gathering is a broader novel than Darker, taking in several viewpoint characters so that information gets released to us in bits and bobs, at precisely the appropriate time; a clever trick which, alongside the device of the Element Games (in which some of Our Protagonists are participating, of course), gives this functionally plotless novel the illusion of pacing and tension.

One last thing that I found fascinating – the novel’s interest in masks, in double identities, in the parts that people play, an interest reflected in its focus on the material realities of Red London and especially on clothing and colour, where it picks up a brilliant steampunky vibe. I’m not sure how much there is to say here until the third book gets published, as really Gathering doesn’t quite stand on its own.

Definitely a Middle Book, then, but one that pulls off its Middle Book-ness with aplomb and skill. I think I actually enjoyed it more than its predecessor.

Top Ten Books I Read Before I Was a Blogger

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m currently re-reading this, and I think one of the things I love about it is how autumnal it is: that gentle, gorgeous sadness.
  2. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, all the Discworld books. Going Postal is one of my favourites, though: I’m fascinated by showmen, and if Moist is anything he’s a showman.
  3. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. Apocalyptic and vast, a story of truths half-told, of men in black and way stations and mutants under mountains: in many ways this is just perfect fantasy. I’ve never read anything like it since.
  4. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I read and re-read this, and its sequels Lirael and Abhorsen, endlessly. It’s got an awesome heroine, a sarcastic cat, a vast and wonderful library (in Lirael), and an invented world with a lot of depth.
  5. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, which I read when I was in school: I fell in love with its sprawling sentimentality.
  6. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. Another novel that features libraries: its main characters track down Dracula through a paper trail of pamphlets and books from across time. It made me want to go to university; not that I hadn’t wanted to go before, but this made me want it concretely.
  7. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently is one of the great comic creations of English literature: irreverent, off-beat and ironical.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. Another wonderfully autumnal novel: I read it for my A-level course, and it was just so rewarding to study.
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. This was the first Harry Potter book I read (don’t ask) and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since. I think it strikes a great balance between worldbuilding and plot, a balance that the later books don’t ever really achieve.
  10. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman. I just really, really loved the idea of daemons, and the fact that it was a huge, dense book to get stuck into. Reading it back now, it’s also full of quite complex ideas about science and metaphysics and philosophy.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)