Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

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Review: Loving Vincent

My roommate and I went to see Loving Vincent at the Michigan Theater yesternight.  I’d heard about it on Tumblr – that some enterprising folks had labored to make a movie about Vincent van Gogh where every frame of the action was a painting: 65,000 frames in all, either based directly on van Gogh’s pieces or in imitation of his style, to a rich and striking effect.

The animation of it – stroke by stroke changing, flickering, the whole scene rippling and shifting – was more remarkable than the storyline initially.  The postman’s son, Armand Roulin, is charged by his father to deliver one last letter (recently discovered, a year after Vincent’s death) to Vincent’s brother Theo.  Armand goes in reluctance, remarking on van Gogh’s peculiarities and how he wasn’t so close to the man as his father was.  He consults Père Tanguy, who informs him that Theo died shortly after Vincent, and suggests that Armand consult Vincent’s doctor – a close friend to his patient – to learn the address of Theo’s widow.

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Armand as painted by van Gogh, and as played by Douglas Booth

As Armand goes from his father to Tanguy, talking to Dr. Gachet’s housekeeper, to the innkeeper’s daughter, to the boatman by the river, to Dr. Gachet, and still others, he learns more and more about Vincent: his personality, his habits, the melancholy that hung over him, the brother he loved, the financial worries they shared, and the circumstances of his death.  These perspectives sometimes conflict (“You can’t trust any gossip from the Gachet household,” then “I suppose that’s what the Ravoux girl told you?” and, later, “You’ve been talking to Dr. Mazery, haven’t you”), but in Armand’s search for the truth, sifting through opinions and hearsay and unofficial reports, he finds his own appreciation of and love for Vincent.

The conflicting reports – Vincent was completely calm; he was cured; how could he experience such abrupt shifts within 6 weeks; don’t you know that melancholy can cause rapid shifts in 6 hours; suicidal people don’t shoot themselves in the stomach; normal people don’t cut off their ears; the angle indicates he received this stomach wound from someone else; well, he told me he’d shot himself – turn Armand’s errand into a bit of a crime scene investigation, but without losing sight of the human players involved.

The framing is straightforward but intriguing in its revelation of different lights on the subject: the boatman reckons van Gogh and the doctor’s daughter were close, closer than the doctor wanted.  Others thought the doctor, an aspiring artist, envious of Vincent’s skill.  Several characters refer to a huge fight between Vincent and Dr. Gachet, which preceded Vincent’s death by a couple weeks, before the doctor himself reveals what horrible thing he’d said.

These bits of exposition, or flashbacks depicting the story as the bystanders relate it, were painted in black and white, in a more realistic style, setting them apart from Armand’s journey.  When the letter finally reaches Theo’s widow, Armand receives a copy of one of Vincent’s earlier letters to encourage him on his own path.

It is a beautiful film, especially rewarding to those who recognize The Zouave, The Night Café, The Yellow House, The Sower at Sunset, Wheatfield with Crows, and the many other works used in the storyboard.  The facts of the matter – that Vincent’s youth was hallmarked by failure, that his prolific work did not sell in his lifetime, that he struggled with poverty and mental illness, that he died at 37 – are never hidden, and as presented, they made me cry a lot.  But rather than focusing solely on the blue and grey of van Gogh’s life, the movie is awash in shades of amber, saffron, and goldenrod: contemplative and hopeful at the last.

Reactions: Thor: Ragnarok

This (again) is not a review so much as a collection of reactions – in bullet point form, because there’s nothing like shooting my thoughts out into the wild.  Assume spoilers are ahead, if you’re the sort of person who fears that sort of thing.

  • For a film called Ragnarok, whose trailer had huge dramatic shots of Hela crushing Mjolnir, fire over Asgard, and lots of fighting in general, this was a colorful, light-hearted movie.  
  • Pretty 80s.  Sakaar made me think of Ready Player One for some reason, as did theGrandmaster Grandmaster, despite the fact that no egg-hunting of any sort was involved.
  • A+ use of “The Immigrant Song.”
  • Thor and Loki were both goofier than I expected.  I keep getting surprised by how effective tasers are against the god of thunder (and the god of mischief, to boot)
  • Likewise, it’s odd to me that Dr. Strange’s reflexes are fast enough to surprise them. 
  • Loki playing Odin and watching plays about himself makes perfect sense, while simultaneously confusing the part of me that expects more gravitas of him.  Maybe that is my fault for expecting the consummate Slytherin where I should be braced for the Weasley Twins.
  • On the other hand: surely the Weasley twins would never be ashamed of “Get help” if it continued to work.
  • Karl Urban and BTCC’s accents always make me laugh so hard, because what are you?  
  • Hela’s pretty one-note, but she’s more interesting than the Destroyer, Laufey, Malekith, Algrim, or Surtur.  Not as interesting as Loki, I guess.
  • I looooved Korg, who was apparently played by the director.  Something about motion capture + straightforward delivery + his voice = instant hilarity.
  • Valkryrie’s arc was very satisfying to me.  The old battles and painful defeats, the escape to a life of drudgery, the heavy drinking, the decision to face death on her feet: all this was conveyed so neatly.  
  • I cackled at the idea of Odin being left in an old folks home.  
  • I don’t like the concept of leaving actresses out just because you don’t feel like paying them…but…I was relieved Jane was gone.  Farewell, Utter Lack Of Chemistry Foster.
  • The Grandmaster is a good time.  
  • Fenris is just a big puppy?!  I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and see him as a huge wolf.  He just looked like a puppy on a tiny-scaled set.
  • Mjolnir being a mere focus of power reminded me of silent, wandless magic.  Thor going all lightning-punchy was amazing, but it reminded me of nothing so much as Pikachu.

    Thor lightning.png

    I choose you!

  • Thor swearing with Midgardian curse words struck me as…impoverished, really.  Why would you say “I want to get the hell out of here!” when you used to say things like “Know this, son of Coul” and “This mortal form has grown weak!  I need sustenance!” and “Do I look to be in a gaming mood?”  Presumably this was part of the “less grim, more fun!” action plan, but…semi-archaic verbiage IS fun.   
  • I was amused to see Tessa Thompson’s Scrapper 142/Valkyrie described as ‘Thor’s love interest’ in articles thereafter, because I didn’t get any such vibe.  But he knows her enough and respects her enough that any further development would be more believable than anything with Jane Foster, so I’m all for that.


In short: good times!  Now, if only it didn’t take 37 hours to watch all 17 of the movies involved in this universe.  

Reactions: Macbeth

Y’all know me.  There’s still so much that I haven’t read, despite the passing years and my unending reading list.  I’d never read Macbeth before this week, and still haven’t seen it performed.

There are probably others in this same boat, and yet I figure that it’s a familiar enough play that what follows is a casual assemblage of thoughts rather than a proper summary or review.

To start with: I don’t feel guilty for having missed MacScottishplay until now, but I do feel mildly regretful.  How many allusions to this have I missed?  How many did I catch, but not understand as fully as I might have?  I recall a story that quoted “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” verbatim, and based a horrible, torturous curse on a blade which is invisible to all but the victim.  If I could find that story again, I might find that scene to be richer than before.  I’ve also let references to Banquo’s ghost slip by, because who’s Banquo, and what’s his ghost up to?

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But there are certain references that get explained somewhere or other – English classes,playgoers’ conversation, Startled By His Furry Shorts, etc.: witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king; prophecies get fulfilled one way or another; Lady Macbeth becomes a compulsive hand-washer; someone named Macduff gets addressed; and, if you read enough about Tolkien, apparently some copouts happen concerning the movement of Birnam Wood and the nature of vaginal childbirth vs. c-sections.  The former inspires the Ents, the latter Eowyn’s greatest moment.

Here are some things I missed until I’d read the text for myself:

– There was a moment where Macbeth thought “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me Without my stir.”  ‘If fate wants me to be king, maybe it’ll happen without me having to, you know, kill anyone.’  It’d make for a quieter play, presumably, but also a less direct plot.  I’m checking Ao3 to see if that fanfic’s been written yet.

– Despite the one moment of “Hmm, murder might not be necessary,” Macbeth really gets down to his bloody business quite swiftly.  I didn’t expect him to be Hamlet, but I also didn’t expect him to stab three people before the second act ends, hire a couple murderers to stab two more people in the third act, somehow get a third murderer involved (possibly to ensure the silence of the first two murderers, which means it’s turning into one of Doze Plans Vere You Lose You Hat) thereafter, and have all of Scotland at war by the end.  

– I read a few pages of lit crit, analyzing whether Macbeth is guiltless (or…less culpable, anyway) because his wife egged him on; these conclude that she didn’t take up the knife herself because her nerve failed her, and the fact that Macbeth did, in fact, stab a bunch of people indicates that it is not solely his wife’s ambition, but also his own, that drives him.  

– On account of this, it is the witches who say “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,” of Macbeth.  I had never realized that the witches say this line, for some reason, nor had I realized that in so doing, they are referring to Macbeth: a man so full of evil that he is no longer a man, and is above all else a wicked Unman.

– Macbeth’s ambition and how it plays out strikes me as somehow naive.  Okay, you’ve been hailed as king-to-be…but…is that throne what you really want, if you can’t have it without killing your kinsman and your friends in a complete inversion of every rule of hospitality?  Do you really want this power if everyone hates both how you acquired it and how you wield it?  One commentary on “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” submits that Macbeth recognizes how much shorter and unhappier his wife’s life became because of their actions.  Idjit.

– Relatedly, “To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus” is a pretty ridiculous thing to say when you’ve killed so many people to BE thus.  There is nowhere to fly from death even when you aren’t a murderous villain, but, you know.  Being a murderous villain doesn’t really protect you from the people who frown on that sort of thing.  Killing a castle full of civilians just gives your enemies more motivation for revenge!

– Also seemingly foolish: to rely on “Laugh to scorn The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” without turning the verbiage inside and out.  I suppose we 21st-century readers have the benefit of centuries of hindsight/textual analysis here, but…I dunno, it’s not like they defined their terms for you.  “None of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,” but no one said you couldn’t get attacked by an animal, or a virus, or a natural disaster – leaving aside the verb “born” and how thin those hairs can be split.  Or, where the Wood is concerned…the 2015 film apparently involves Macduff burning the wood, and the ash thereof floats on the wind to the castle and retains its role as screening the soldiers’ numbers.  Or perhaps it could be made into paper.  If you’re going to be guilt-wracked and paranoid, then by golly be thorough about it.

In sum: Macbeth is a short but crazy ride, chock full of memorable lines and well worth the read.  May it take you less time to get around to it than it took me, and may you share all your own thoughts and reactions to it below!

Review: This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, formerly of The New Yorker, spent at least a decade assembling this memoir, subtitled A Reckoning with Depression.  She labors to exorcise her own demons while shedding light on this murky condition:

If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.  There is little you can point to: no obscene rantings, no sudden flips into unrecognizable, hyper-energize behavior, no magical belief systems involving lottery numbers or fortune cookies.  It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression’s claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn’t look crazy.  

After 2.5 months without finishing a book, I tore through this one in less than a week.  This Close to HappyMy own mild depression has contributed to how few books I’ve read of late, so it was a relief to complete this one promptly (not least because I am one in a long list of folks requesting it from the library, and I’d feel guilty making those after me wait).

Merkin’s stated goal was to give “a report from the battlefield,” “to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside” – without making depression out to be some rare, elegant condition that only proves incapacitating on occasion for dramatic effect, but rather “as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self.”  

Overall, she succeeds.  There is no glamour surrounding her battles.  The three chief facets of her particular struggle with depression are how it arose chiefly as a consequence of her childhood; how it has resulted in at least three stays in psychiatric hospitals; and how, despite a plethora of drugs and hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, the thought of suicide (whether idle or longing) is never too far away.

“I can’t tell anymore whether it’s my chemistry acting up or the ancient griefs I carry with me rearing up in response to a present provocation…I only know it hurts to have to go on,” she writes, after pondering whether she is doomed to depression by her genetics or by her upbringing.  The latter sets the stage for a life of grieving and anxiety: well-to-do parents who hand their six children off to a grim nanny (chosen so that she would not usurp the mother’s place in her children’s affections); scarcity of food and paucity of clothing despite a household with a cook, chauffeur, nanny, et al; a general lack of attention or comfort or encouragement.  “With all that bothers me about myself,” Merkin says, “it is too large a stretch to imagine myself as someone else, sent into the world on a current of love.”  Phillip Larkin’s most famous line has never been truer than in her case.

The shadow of Daphne’s mother hangs over the entire book, as over her whole life.  Her desire for closeness, affection, comfort, and love – never satisfied in childhood – manifested in a clinging adolescence and adulthood: always and everywhere sharing her thoughts, her doings, her sex life, and the best of her writing with her mother (who, as described, reminds me of nothing so much as the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).  I do not often regard a piece of media with the thought “Daddy issues,” but it is impossible to read This Close to Happy without summing up at least a portion of it with “Mommy issues.”

Accounts of depression must be as many and varied as those suffering from it, which means that Merkin’s mother, her Jewish background, her home of New York City, her reading and writing, and her work in publishing are as much a part of the story as anything else.  So though it is an account from the trenches, bravely and openly assembled, it is not the report I look for – though I would be unsurprised to learn that what I seek is my own account: milder, less suicidal, but still given to the occasional numbness, the apathetic listlessness, the oxymoronic nature of a joyless Joy.

I came away with a sense of relief that I have not had to live Daphne’s life, but also questions: is my own dysthymia strictly a product of genetics, or is my own family somehow more dysfunctional than I’d thought?  My Christian faith, if not as vibrantly faithful as it ought to be, is not Merkin’s etiolated fragments of her Orthodox Jewish childhood; should I in fact have “a dazzling sense of purpose” because I still believe in God?  If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?

I’ll report back when I know.  In the meantime, it’s safe to say that I’m even closer to happy than Merkin.

Review: Silverlock

A couple of friends recommended this book to me, so I was excited to pick it up and start it.  It’s a fun blend of different classical stories, settings, and characters.  By the end, I was glad to have read it; there were some rough bits in between.  

A. Clarence Shandon, the eponymous Silverlock (so called for the streak of white in his hair), is clearly Eustace Clarence Scrubb all grown up.  Unfortunately, traveling through the Commonwealth of Letters does not improve him as much as being dragoned by greed and un-dragoned by Aslan.

…possibly I am biased by the fact that he narrates.  This being so, one sees all too far into his head.  He is often driven by the basest motivation, including a bit of rather misogynistic skirt-chasing, and that’s distressingly clear throughout.  The remove of a third-person narrator might have helped.  As it stands, I didn’t really have the chance to develop much sympathy for him before his vices made me dislike him.  

The enjoyable part is the land where he ends up.  In the Commonwealth, he meets with such classical figures as Circe, Little John, Beowulf, Job, Pangloss, and some Whynnyms; he travels from the shore, to Sherwood Forest, down Watling Street, by the chapel of the Green Knight, and past Gitche Gumee (! my Michigan heart delighted in that).

So as a pastiche, it’s fairly good.  Shandon is helped along by Golias, a composite of every single well-traveled bard out there: first, to survive; second, to help an asinine fellow get his girl back; third, to start off for the spring of all inspiration (a path that goes through Hell, so Shandon’s lucky Golias had his back).

(Golias, being a bard, sings a lot of songs.  These are rather fun, except that I’m terrible at making up tunes as I read, so they weren’t quite as fun for me as they could have been.  However!  At one particular point when Golias saves Shandon’s butt, I’m preeeetty sure the song he sings scans about the same as one of Tom Bombadil’s favorites.  It was an apt spot for it.)

Each scene of the picaresque was assembled nicely, and altogether it fit cunningly.  But Shandon’s journeys only ever serve to make him glad to be alive for himself.  He does not turn outward, glad to be of service to others.  When the story finishes, he’s been changed, possibly even grown a bit…but so far as I can tell, he remains a man-shaped dragon.  

Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Last August, T. Everett recommended I read The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, saying “Have you ever wondered what Harry Potter would be like if it were about Hermione instead?”

I hadn’t wondered this, because of Ann Margaret’s excellent stories on that very premise – except that, okay, I had, because those still revolve around Harry and his path as the Chosen One.  So the question becomes, “What would Hogwarts – and Hermione – be like without Harry’s shenanigans?”

If we took Rachel Griffin’s Enlightenment as the answer, it would be “Largely the same; other shenanigans would arise to fill the gap.”  There are, in fact, so many shenanigans springing up that the whole 360 pages or so comprise five days, assuming I counted properly.

However, Rachel and Hermione, and their respective worlds, are dissimilar enough that the question of Granger-sans-Potter remains unanswered.  Rather, we are presented with a whole lot of other questions, answers, and characters, including:

– Rachel, a wizard girl of Noble Blood, with an eidetic memory, a strong work ethic, an unyielding compulsion to obey adults (until she tries really really hard and breaks said compulsion), a devotion to her father which must eventually be transferred elsewhere, and complete religious ignorance…but I’m getting ahead of things.  By dint of memory and effort, she flies very well. She remembers everything she looks at, though there were too many instances of Let Me Stop And Review The Picture In My Head for my taste (though I must concede their purpose: to help her see past magical obfuscation). She is super concerned with Who Likes Whom.

– Siegfried, an orphaned dragon slayer who often exclaims “Ace!” while hoarding his gold and food (so much so that he doesn’t know to buy an extra set of clothes), and whose quixotic ideas move the narrative forward, if haltingly.

– Nastasia, a Russian princess…of Magical Australia, for whatever reason.  She has a Bag of Holding, a violin, several skills which I have forgotten, a deeper commitment to the rules than even Rachel has, and the blessing/curse of having Visions when she touches certain people.

Many other figures crop up, though their development is flimsy.  Honestly, a lot of it reads as flimsy: the number of talents every single character has, the fact that a “girl reporter” is under threat of death, the amount of improbable things figured out by a bunch of 13-year-olds, the rapid escalation of threats interspersed with a lot of concern over dating.  The names – Gaius Valiant, Salome Iscariot, Dr. Mordeau, to name a few – are either super-literal or the reddest of herrings; I’m betting on the former.

Still, a few subtler details await development by the margins.  For one, individual takes on magic and magical worlds are generally diverting, and this world is no exception.  The American wizarding school, the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, explains how the colony of Roanoke went missing: the school’s founder turned it into a floating island, safe from the eyes of the Unwary (this world’s Muggles).  Magical familiar animals, music, and particular materials (including wands of metal and jewels) contribute to one’s magical abilities.

One of the most intriguing facts is that Rachel Griffin, Devourer of Library Books, is ignorant of all religious information – to the point where she doesn’t understand why a broom would be branded a “steeplechaser,” or what a friar is, or what the winged statue in the forest might be.  The dramatic irony involved might carry on through another book; given the visions, Morningstar references, and discussions between a prophetic raven and a miniature lion, I expect some kind of celestial showdown in the end.  Hopefully it doesn’t get too preachy.

Altogether, it’s a story that’s mostly drawn in Crayola colors – but here and there are shades in between, shadows implying that something deeper may come.  The concept is better than the execution; by the end of the narrative, I wasn’t certain what Rachel’s “unexpected enlightenment” actually consisted of.  Hopefully the next three installments can answer the questions this book left hanging, and further illuminate the reality (and history) of the Wise.