No, but seriously. I opened my Kindle to read Battlefield Earth, and there it was, at the very top of my virtual bookshelf, implying that I’d downloaded it sometime in the last two weeks.
I have, at best, only a fuzzy recollection of possibly doing so.
More concerning, its title contains the word “Arc.”
I am not on the advanced reader team for this book. I am not familiar with this author. No emails have been exchanged requesting a review.
Goodreads claims it was published in 2021.
cue the bookmarkedone panic because nooo I did not leave this book sitting there that long, right?
In case you’re worried, I downloaded it January 28th. Of this year. “Arc” is part of the series name, not an indication of an advanced copy. Most likely it was a freebie someone posted on Twitter, I snagged it, and promptly forgot about it in the chaos that is reviewing books, composing a musical, and plotting the creation of a medieval punk band.
I’m always very careful with my ARCs.
The Kingmaster, by C. A. Doehrmann
Series: Arc Legends of Ellunon, No. 1
Genre: (YA) Fantasy
Content for the Sensitive Reader:
Bloodshed, Epic Battles, plenty of swordfighting, magic, one Man Who Mysteriously Lost His Shirt scene, mind control/possession, poisoning, use of blowdarts (if you have a needle phobia, this might not be for you), some sexist/ableist comments.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
It’s actually a rather fun read. It’s got a good flow to the prose, one that catches you and keeps you reading so the pages flick by. And it’s quick. Compared to the 1,050-page monster that is Battlefield Earth, I felt like a wizard speeding through this.
It starts in the middle of things, not so deep that you have no idea what’s going on, but so the characters already know each other and have some history to their relationships and the world.
I knew this was an indie book, so I braced myself for the flaws that come with that heritage–no professional editing team, usually the early days of a new writer, some soft spots in the story.
A few typos. That’s all. That and the perhaps too-blue background of the cover are the only things that immediately separate this from a traditionally-published novel (and let’s face it. I’ve picked out typos in professionally published books. Even among my favorites).
It deserves being noted. Because to come up with something that polished, to do it on your own, while handling writing, formatting, publicity, and getting it to the grubby hands of hungry little readers–
It’s quite something.
Anyway, on to the book itself.
Allow me to introduce you to our cast of characters.
Kyen of Avanna
Skinny lad. Believes in the beauty and wonder of The Sandwich. Forgets things easily. Wanders off often. Fights for his friends. Very awkward around young ladies of nobility. Doesn’t do physical affection (hugs). Oh yeah, and there’s something about him being a master swordsman and the sole survivor of a kingdom decimated in the last war, of which he is a mythic hero.
This boy. I kind of love him.
Finn of Veleda
Redhead. Also fight-for-my-friends type. Gets woefully insufficient page time. Has ten sisters. Also happens to be a crown prince.
Adeya of Isea
Have you read or seen The Princess Bride? She’s…kind of a Buttercup. Little bit. You know, stunningly beautiful, Goldilocks hair, plays the damsel in distress. Three times. Cries…a lot.
It’s not as bad as all that. She’s spunky and energetic and knows what she wants. She doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.
She’s young, that’s all. And next to two master swordsmen when she’s just learning the basics of fighting, she’s going to look clumsy and awkward.
I like Adeya. Or I want to like her, anyway. She’s kind. All she really wants to do is help.
Galveston of Eope
So while titles for Finn and Adeya are more like minor inconveniences that do not prevent them from hanging out with a homeless wanderer like Kyen–
Galveston is a Prince.
Imagine Boromir, and then add an extra layer of pompishness.
I like Boromir. Galveston–less.
At any rate, he’s still cool when it comes down to smashing stuff with a sword. He’s a former soldier who lost a hand in the same war Kyen fought in–but that doesn’t stop him from knocking down his foes like bowling pins. In that aspect, at least, he’s amazing.
The Kingmaster (villain)
Ah yes! The swishy-swishy-black-cloaked bad guy! Assassin time! Appearing in your bushes with a blowpipe and poison darts! Mysteriously escaping all possible pursuit!
I can’t actually say more than that without spoiling the book.
The story itself?
There’s a lot to like.
the fight scenes are actually…good? As in reading them is interesting because of the way the author describes the way the characters move (and yes, each one has a different fighting style and it’s gorgeous)
Doehrmann knows how to write some suspense and make you care about the characters (Kyen. We care about Kyen. Boy deserves more sandwiches)
There are some eyebrow-raising plot twists (even if I, a seasoned fantasy curmudgeon, had my suspicions)
less murder than you might expect. Look, it’s a fantasy where the fate of the world is at stake, so there’s going to be some bloodshed, some casualties. But Doehrmann is careful. She doesn’t see death as the ultimate answer to solving a conflict. Especially in cases where monsters can’t be killed.
What I didn’t like?
it’s quirky for the sake of being quirky–there’s no sun in this world, just the “arc.” No implication of what this looks like or how a sun in the shape of a crescent moon might affect the world it shines on, gravity, twilight, etc. (although we do get a green sunrise, which is…frankly, lovely). It’s for the aesthetic, like the names, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the worldbuilding or story.
sexist comments to the girl! You’re a woman! You can’t fight!
cue a round table of literary lady assassins laughing in this stupid boy’s face. Just because we might weigh half as much as you and don’t have the power of a charging bull, we can still stab, slice, poison, and political-intrigue our way just fine, thank you.
ableist comments to the guy–
At first I thought it was a coincidence/sloppy writing, how frequently Galveston’s missing hand was brought up in description. Okay, we get it. He’s missing a hand. Lots of people in fantasy (and especially High Sea/Pirate) books are.
But then we get to the topic of why Adeya doesn’t like him. Not technically a spoiler here, since it’s obvious from their introduction, when he’s presented as her suitor, and she’s presented as…less enthused.
“I mean, have you seen Galveston’s arm? And he’s so old! I’ve tried but I can’t! I just can’t!”
Doehrmann, C. A. The Kingmaster: (Arc Legends of Ellunon Book 1) (p. 191). C. A. Doehrmann. Kindle Edition.
I can see her not wanting to have a suitor significantly older than herself–she reads like a teenager, although I don’t believe her age is ever mentioned, and honestly, who can blame her there?
But complaining about his arm?
(cue furious bookmarkedone noises)
I’m angry about this for a lot of reasons.
It’s not a big deal. It’s not even ugly to look at, it’s just a clean amputation.
He gets on fine without the hand (see smashing up lots of people/places with his sword)
Congratulations! You just made your protagonist so shallow when we were just starting to like her!
There are so many other things to dislike about Galveston that there’s really no excuse for Adeya choosing this one
his nastiness to her/trying to make her feel small/useless
his casual sexism
the fact that they just aren’t a good fit for each other as people
Need to reject a guy’s affections? Totally fine. It happens. Don’t take your tips from Adeya of Isea.
The whole Galveston comment has to make me reevaluate another aspect of the book that I dismissed on the grounds of “writer probably didn’t think about it from this angle.”
It’s medieval fantasy. Everyone has various types of swords, shields, spears, helmets, Spanish-style cotton armor, leather armor, chain mail–you get the idea.
They all have traditional, fantasy-trope Eurocentrically-medieval weapons, while the villain has a blowpipe.
I’m going with the hope that the author did her research and discovered it has been used in Western Europe, even if it traditionally is associated with Asia and Central and South America.
Instead of, y’know, singling out the villain as “culturally different.”
You wouldn’t do that…right?
Last thing that makes me squirm is the whole “arcangel” thing. It’s clearly drawn from religious language, and the entire book is characterized by the light/dark, good/bad imagery.
It’s the first book. I don’t know what the writer is plotting for the future, if this is intentional allegory or–just something that happened. It’s something I pay close attention to, anyway.
All in all, it’s not a bad little book.
It’s a fun read, even with its flaws. And it’s got a good moral at its heart:
Stick by your friends, even if they push you away and you aren’t sure what to do, vett your guests better than “dude, that’s a great story,” oh, and make sure that you give soldiers an ample pension when they retire so they don’t start an uprising against you.
So I don’t know how anyone else writes. Your process.
Me, I channel my characters’ emotions. What they feel, I feel. Even if I don’t always realize it.
Case in point: this week.
I’m working on a novel that I’ve been working on for four years now. Doing the Tolkien Method–starting from the beginning every time I dig it back out and getting a little further each draft. It’s a beast. But that’s not the point here.
The point is that my protagonist is a mess. I love her, but she’s an emotional train wreck.
Not in the sense that she’s crying or lashing out or doing anything interesting. More in the sense that she is entirely suspicious, collected, contained, the “why are you being nice to me” type with a possible history of violence who is Not Used to having soft things.
Yes, I have dropped a harsh character into some fluff storytelling and I will not be apologizing for that.
But because she’s on my mind all the time…it’s wearing on me.
I’ve always done this thing where I carry my characters with me in my head, pick up where we left off if I have a spare moment. Grocery shopping? In the novel. Somewhere noisy and trying to ignore the hubbub? How about the rest of that chapter? Long car trip? Conversation that really does not require you say anything to keep going? Game on.
But this novel…I’m so deep in her thoughts she’s rubbing off on me, and I too am becoming a slightly jumpy, dark and bitter character.
Don’t do this, if you’re going to be around people. Like, at all. I don’t remember what story I was writing now, but I was having lunch with friends and accidentally timed it so I finished a really dramatic scene immediately prior.
My hands were shaking.
One time I got emotional about a time jump because a character I started with when she was nine or ten was suddenly all grown up with a family. That was a funk that lasted for days.
But this protagonist?
Be glad you don’t live with me right now.
I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I just think I’m having a bad day with a side of “why must people.” Couldn’t be hanging out with a girl who doesn’t trust anyone within stabbing distance of her. Nah. Couldn’t be that.
It’s kind of exhausting.
Writing through the night is probably not helping.
So you’re getting a short update tonight, because I didn’t want to skip a week of posting now that I’m in the groove again, but don’t have the energy to write a 6,000-word rant about a troll book.
It snowed here. Like frosting on gingerbread. It’s pretty.
Showed someone my lifetime NaNoWriMo wordcount and was rewarded with, “That’s disgusting.” That is the appropriate response.
Apparently if you show up on Twitter and ask if anyone wants to talk about faeries, the answer is a resounding yes. I haven’t had writers crawl out of the dark corners of the internet to talk to me en force that readily in a while.
Things will be better once I get some rest. Work is crazy right now, so of course all I want to do is write.
Every time I work on this novel, I hope this time, this will be it, this is the draft that will finish it.
I came here for one reason and one reason only. To watch Sophia Anne Caruso be a dazzling good actress and watch a nonsensical fairy-tale fashion show lasting two hours and twenty-seven minutes.
I read the book first, because I’m a nerd.
If you missed the first part of the review, (the book), you can find it here, and if you don’t care, then you can crash ahead. Have fun.
So when I saw the length of the movie, my first thought was, “Ah. A carefully duplicated storytelling event in which every element is meticulously copied from the book and bibliophiles across the world are delighted.”
Well, sort of. They get it pretty close.
There are some differences. For the most part, they’re good differences.
The cast is older.
I did a little poll with the gang I watched the movie with (none of which had read the book) and asked how old they thought the characters were supposed to be. Guesses ranged from fifteen to eighteen, which I thought was pretty fair, going by the tone of the film.
I nodded to myself, smiled a little, and told them that in the book, Sophie is possibly as young as thirteen.
The appropriate expressions of confusion, concern, and slight disgust emerged.
I’m not going to mention all the reasons why it was super awkward and uncomfortable for Book Sophie to be that young since going through it in the book review was more than enough. But casting 21, 19, and 22-year-olds for Sophie, Agatha, and Tedros, respectively, makes a lot more sense. It’s a YA vibe. A PG-13 movie. Teenagers can have fairytales too. It’s okay.
(I have since read that Sophie is supposed to be fifteen in the book…let’s just say that’s not particularly clear in the writing. At all. Especially since Especially since I’ve typically seen it marketed as a MG title, not YA).
The flirting is less like pulp fiction romance.
Only one “boy-who-mysteriously-lost-his-shirt” instead of it happening with remarkable regularity. And the nudity is completely erased.
Yes, in case you were wondering, these were two of my major complaints with the age of the book characters.
They still flirt. There’s still some over-the-top cheesy romance moments (whoops, I fell into your arms, oh look, now you have to teach me archery, darling), but that’s sort of to be expected. This isn’t exactly a serious film.
But the “everyone must pair off and have a date for the ball or be expelled?” Gone. Not even mentioned. It was ridiculous, after all.
Relationships are still sometimes shallow, but now it’s in an amusing, possibly ironic way. We the audience can smile and shake our heads when Sophie picks out her prince and finishes by saying, “Aesthetically it just makes sense.”
The abusive elements in the School for Evil are fewer in number
True, according to psychology, treating someone negatively can at times bring out their negative side as they lash out at the unfairness of their situation. But it’s a little difficult to stomach an actual torture chamber as part of a school curriculum.
The room is still there in the film, but no one gets hurt. It’s more of an aesthetic choice, a visual threat.
Scary and a little uncomfy? Perhaps. But at least there’s no more murder of a “monstrous” sentient individual by a teenage girl.
Fewer unnecessary characters
The painter is gone. The overly-princess-y princess teaching animal communication is gone. The main cast is pared down to just a few teachers, making it more focused and easier to keep track of.
And while we’re talking about the teachers, we do have to talk about the unique acting choices.
Because at first, Professor Dovey and Professor Anemone are over-the-top, “isn’t it all lovely” fairytale princess types. Think Anne Hathaway as the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland and you’ll get the idea. It’s sometimes a little weird, a little distracting.
But when things get serious? That façade evaporates.
The film addresses the superficiality of the Good School more directly than the book. I can’t help suspecting this is playing into that–the two teachers are filling their role, appearing to be princess perfect, pretending everything is going smoothly, even when they’d much rather be themselves.
And while we’re on the topic,
The film version actually addresses the fundamental problems of the school
The idea is a balance between good and evil. Okay. Sure. Whatever.
In the book, everyone is completely convinced that the balance between good and evil still exists–only one of the characters has the power to overturn it.
In the movie, we get to acknowledge that this clearly is not the case.
People who are self-centered but beautiful infest the School for Good. The Schoolmaster claims that the school is the ultimate authority–no mistakes can or ever are made, so don’t bother questioning something you think is wrong. Good has won contests for centuries–but in truth, it’s Evil that’s winning–Good is complacent and weak, and what’s more, the punishments they exact on their enemies are brutal beyond any sense of justice.
Let’s hit the pause here for a second. Because even though this is a little thing and it’s easily overlooked, this is important.
Anyone who has read the Grimms’ fairytales (it’s me, I read the Grimms’) or Perrault’s (yes, those too), Andersen’s (I am a nerd), Asbjørnsen and Moe folktales (you’re getting the idea) or any other number of folk and fairytales, the old ones, before the Victorian era came in and scrubbed the blood off our faces, we know that real fairy stories are painful, dangerous, weird, confusing, wild affairs where people get hurt, punishments are brutal, even Cinderella has some bloodshed, and you don’t ask what is cooking in the pot.
So to hear the Schoolmaster laugh and mention just a few of the ways “heroes” kill their enemies in these stories–we know what’s up.
When people hate something enough, when they are sure of how right they are, of the complete evilness of their enemy, they don’t think about consequences. Maybe you’ve seen this before–the hero has a hard time killing not because they care about the life of the enemy, but because they don’t want to have blood on their hands.
Fairytale heroes aren’t always nice people. And it’s true in real life, too.
We don’t care what happens to the monsters, do we? We don’t stop to think about what’s right, about how it feels to suffer when it’s “what they deserve.”
Punishment is a thing. But it can become torture. Justice is an ideal. So easily, it’s petty vengeance.
To see a silly fairytale spoof movie tackle something like the us/them divide, to say just because you’re in the moral right doesn’t make it okay to mistreat another person–it’s good.
It’s very good indeed.
You may remember a few of these from our review of the book. Kiko is still here in the film, sweet as ever, but she’s joined by others from different cultures and races. Just a single look at the main poster makes it clear.
Fairytales are for everyone, from every culture, background, lifestyle, and appearance.
(cue a very pleased bookmarkedone)
And in an opening shot of the School for Good, front and center, there’s a princess in a wheelchair. Granted, we don’t see her a lot for the rest of the film (I failed to pick her out a single time if she was there), but it was exciting to see her. There are curvy actresses on both sides of the Good/Evil divide…although Dot, the girl who can transform anything into chocolate, isn’t the chubbiest one anymore (she’s even more fun than in the book, has an adorable hairstyle, and nobody even thinks about criticizing her because she’s the girl who can turn anything into chocolate isn’t that cool?). The fat-shaming that had me grinding my teeth together in the book is blissfully deleted.
And while we’re here, I want to talk about height differences.
Probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people, but in filmmaking, it’s typically easier to have people of similar height playing the main roles so they all fit neatly in the frame.
Sophia isn’t as tall as the other actors. And they don’t try to hide that.
Personally, I think it’s really nice. People are different shapes and sizes, and it’s good to recognize that, to say it’s okay, it’s normal, it’s beautiful even, to be exactly what you are.
And does it personally delight me to have a Small Furious Person in goth-y outfits taking on the world?
Yes. Yes, it does.
Nicer characters and blurrier lines.
(SPOILERS in this section)
I had…a hard time liking a lot of the book characters. Sophie was a shallow jerk, Agatha was so pragmatic and pessimistic. It isn’t hard to figure out which one is going to wind up in which school if you’re paying attention.
But in film?
Agatha’s beautiful. She dresses more plainly than Sophie (not to say I wouldn’t totally buy her gorgeous long coat if I found it in a shop somewhere), but there isn’t as much harping on her physical appearance as there is in the book. Both girls are lovely and unique in their own, different ways.
We don’t start with Agatha griping over Sophie testing makeup on her or cooking with only healthy flour. We see them bonding. We see them saying snarky things about the messed-up little town where they live (face it. The fairytale village of Gavaldon has Problems). They eat together. They stick up for each other. They see each other as equals.
It’s so much easier to make Agatha’s point after that–we’re not all good or all evil, we’re human. Where the girls went after that opening, it’s easier to see how they were pushed and pulled, changed by the choices they made, rather than born into them.
As one of the professors said, we are what we choose to do. Not “what” we are.
The witch makeup transformation for one of the characters has the stereotypical giant nose and large, pointy ears. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on why that doesn’t sit well.
There’s still the age-gap relationship between an immortal and a teenager, but at least the girl isn’t barely thirteen anymore, and the two at least look and act pretty close in age.
And there’s the Harry Potter levels of possession, blood magic, power hungering, sorcery and battle.
It…doesn’t bother me because I live and breathe this genre and that’s–just kind of what we do (ay, happy Friday, Jake. Got another “my powers are overwhelming me and blurring my sense of judgement and even though I made this choice I didn’t know what it would mean and now I think I’m losing who I am.” When you’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all). But I mention it because I know it can be a bit much for people who aren’t used to that kind of thing. Blood oozing from the walls is a bit weird if it’s your first time. Or third time. Or if it’s in like a suburban house or an office, yeah, that would be freaking me out too. I get it. Know what you’re comfortable with.
So…yeah. That’s The School for Good and Evil.
End result? I liked the movie better than the book. Feels weird, but yeah. It’s still a goofy, silly fairytale movie, but there’s some good stuff at its core. Most of the issues of the novel are gone, smoothed out like writing another draft, and all that’s left is to enjoy the show. It’s not perfect. It’s better than it was.
Am I late to the party for a book published in 2013?
Am I late to the party for a book that got a Netflix adaptation late last year?
But fear not! The curmudgeon has arrived, so it’s high time to bring the music to a screeching stop and stare in horror, frozen awkwardly on the dance floor, open-mouthed over your plates of petit fours, glossy hardcovers in hand, as I sharpen my pencil and make my villain entrance.
Are we in for another book rant, my lovelies?
One final time, overwhelmingly, yes.
Book: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Series: The School for Good and Evil, No. 1.
Genre: MG High Fantasy/Magic School
Content for the Sensitive Reader:
Some mild language; fatphobic, ageist, and sexist comments; a few instances of cultural appropriation for artistic/fashion reasons; heavy emphasis on appearances as personal value; shirtless characters, ogling of said shirtless/short skirted characters, undressed characters–all of these characters are minors, by the way; brief age-gap relationship between a 13-year-old and immortal of unknown age; mild kissing/flirting; magic, spells, discussion of “hags” and “witches,” transformation into sentient animals (some humanoid), murder of est. 12 sentient background characters and dramatic death of 4-6 named characters.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
This is one of those books that I finish and want to do nothing more than rub my temples and make inarticulate noises because clearly, you’ll all understand my eloquently phrased reaction to this piece from that, right?
It’s not a great book. It’s not a bad book.
Hence the internal conflict.
First you should hear the good part.
It’s a story about friendship. It’s the story of two girls who somehow overcome their differences and teach everyone around them to look beyond appearances, to appreciate who they are and the power of choices–we are who we are because we decide. We fight for what kind of people we want to be. No matter the difficulty, we choose to do good or do evil.
And the epic battle of middle-grade students clobbering and stabbing and mud-sloshing each other in the last third of the book isn’t bad in terms of fast pace and drama, either. It has a few twists and turns to keep you guessing.
It’s got good descriptions. It’s pretty.
So what’s the problem?
Um. A lot.
First of all, it’s very, very flirty for a MG book. Can middle-grade characters notice each other and flirt? Absolutely. Are they going to do it with the fluency, confidence, and vocabulary that Chainani gives them?
Uh. Probably not.
The kids in this novel are twelve. The age a lot of kids are incredibly awkward and shy around the opposite sex, Chainani’s characters are more than ready to flirt and gawk and kiss and date, Sophie is showing a lot of skin in very modern, non-fairytale outfits (not important to the point, but still), sneaking out late at night for romantic meetings–you get the idea.
And describing boys not just looking at but slobbering over girls?
That’s distasteful at any age.
There’s a prescriptive, pawnlike aspect to affection in the novel.
Boys are a prize for the prettiest girls, and vice versa. Granted, this is meant to play into the shallow, “surface characteristics only” nature of the characters in the first half of the novel, but for most of the characters, this doesn’t change at the end. They’re all perfectly happy to go off with their assigned dates to a party, people they neither know nor like, let alone love. Not only buying into the “a relationship makes me a whole/worthy individual” toxic logic fallacy, but doing it because failure to do so results in getting kicked out of school.
Love and romance! Do it for the passing grade, kiddos!
And actually, the more I think about this, the more angry it makes me.
There’s enough pressure on kids to do well in school already. I live among the nerds, right? I’ve seen it. You want to be smart, you’ve got to be smarter. The world is an ugly, competitive place. Get the A. Fight for it like your value as a person depends on it.
Because, unfortunately, a lot of kids (and teens!) actually believe this. My worth correlates to my academic performance. And hey! Our system doesn’t exactly make it easier. There’s a fine-print implication that if you do well in school, you’ll get into college, get a good job, get a happy life.
Lies. But sure, now that we’ve got life, career, and happiness tangled up with academic performance, let’s just lump romance into the pile.
I’m not joking. Some kids become princesses in this magic school, some fail and get transformed into talking teapots. Don’t pass the class, don’t become royalty, don’t get paired with a prince of equal aesthetic success, and certainly don’t find anyone else who will love you.
Guess only the protagonists get a happy ending in Chainani’s world.
(cue bookmarkedone screaming)
Hmm. Should probably tackle the fatphobic comments.
Most of my issues with the book I’m desperately attributing to sloppy writing. Don’t misunderstand–there’s some great writing here. The beginning is painfully slow at times, yes, but otherwise, it’s polished.
I’d always prefer attributing something to an honest mistake than outright cruelty.
Like with the weird romance dynamic, the comments start as a way to hint at the character of one of the protagonists (hint: it’s pretty clear she’s awful from the start!). How to villainize your character, fast and dirty edition?
Have her say she hates old people
Have her dislike and actively insult/be rude to curvy/chubby characters
…and anyone else who doesn’t fit her standard of “beauty.”
It’s a tool. It’s a foil. I don’t like it, but I grit my teeth and wait for the character development, when apologies are given and the protagonist recognizes the beauty of people as they are.
Except it doesn’t really work. There are two curvy characters clearly noted in the novel–one a student, the other a professor. The student, Dot, is introduced perpetually eating. The professor is…not particularly intelligent.
And that’s it. Dot continues to eat chocolate and be an absolute sweetheart for page after page while everyone treats her like trash, until they briefly acknowledge her surprising, good-natured intelligence at the end.
The problem? Dot’s stopped eating chocolate. As if we have to change her character to make her fit.
As for the professor, she tints her makeup to costume as a “queen of Persia” in…what honestly feels like a bad caricature with a fake accent.
Also uncomfortable is the perpetuated blue/pink, boy/girl, protector/defenseless garbage spewed at us on the Good side of the school–apparently if you want to be a good girl, you have to be pretty, sit still, and get rescued.
Are we serious?
Look, I get that Chainani is going off the fairytales he knows, the “damsel in distress trope,” but that’s not how fairytales go. There’s a Grimms’, particularly gory, where the boy dies in the beginning and his sister has to work the magic for his resurrection. Girls take action in fairytales. Sure, they might be at a disadvantage sometimes, but so is the third son, the Ashlad–
I’m getting carried away.
I think this is, again, either poor writing, or setting something up for a series and not finishing it in the actual novel. One of the protagonists even questions the foolishness of all this–but then turns around and buys into the “I’m defenseless” argument.
And when a girl does something, takes some action outside the realm of villainy?
She’s compared to a prince. As if she can’t have her own agency, as if a princess taking action, moving the story forward, is absolutely unheard of.
(screams in angry folklore nerd because did Rhiannon beat all of the knights in a horse race to be called defenseless? Did she haul grown men up a hill on her back because she’s weak?)
Oh, and let’s not forget Anadil. Cool Henchmen No. 2 student with albinism…who is referred to as “the albino,” and during a Cinderella-esque transformation sequence when ugly deformities are erased–gets “chestnut hair.”
(cue more bookmarkedone screaming)
Okay, let’s go with the option that maybe Anadil was self-conscious about her unique appearance and the spell reflected her own ideas of what a conventional beauty looks like–but now I’m in danger of fanfictioning this thing because nowhere is anything like that mentioned. If anything, just the opposite. Anadil is cool because she’s confident. Sure, Hester and Sophie call the shots, but she never crumbles like Dot does.
So why do I like this highly implausible scenario? Because, darling, then I can cleverly avoid the idea that the author would dare to imply that people with albinism are anything but the beautiful, unique, wonderful individuals that they are!
(still more bookmarkedone screaming. I think it’s getting louder)
Let’s move on!
It’s another magic school book.
Obvious, I know. But like it or not, the book is in conversation with the Harry Potter franchise.
Same sorting into opposed houses (two instead of four)
Same teachers absolutely useless at keeping their students out of mayhem
Same Forbidden Forest (it’s blue this time)
Same “gotta get a date for the Yule Ball/Evers Ball or be a loser” rush
Same protagonist determined there’s more out there, they’re destined for greatness, they’re special
You get the idea. If you had to sum up the first School for Good and Evil book, it would pretty much be, “Hey, we know sorting houses are actually not a great way to structure education, but we still want a magic school and can’t think of anything else, so just have a book where the whole point is that they’re bad.”
Okay. We can live with that. It’s a good point, right?
And this is one point that actually gets pulled off well in the novel.
We’re all human. We all fail. We all do horrible things, even to our dearest friends. We’re joined in this struggle of life, good and bad, and in that common ground, we can be united. Our flaws can drive us apart, but they can also bring us together.
Awesome, right? Terrific thing to hand to kids. Look at your friend who’s being harsh or rude or cruel. Maybe there’s something you don’t know. Maybe your kindness can make their life better. Maybe you can make a friend.
As the hours passed, Good and Evil shared looks across the Clearing—first threatened . . . then curious . . . then hopeful . . . and before they knew it, they were drifting into each other’s sides, sharing blankets, crepes, and cherry grenadine. Evil thought it had corrupted Good and Good thought it had enlightened Evil, but it didn’t matter. For two sides soon turned into one, cheering on the Prince-Witch revolution.
Chainani, Soman. The School for Good and Evil (p. 334). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Prince-Witch revolution. Possibly my favorite line in the entire book. Two sides joined together by a symbol, by people who dared to reach for something no one said they could have, to break the rules, to risk it all.
It’s a really great moment.
And then the book ruins it.
Because right after you finish the novel, Chainani has included a note from the School Master with a sorting test. So you can find out if you’re Good or Evil. So the story can continue exactly the way it was going before the novel began, nothing changed.
Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you about this book. It’s got some heart, but I can’t excuse its moral failings, either.
You know, one of the top recommends after reading a Chainani book is a Chris Colfer Land of Stories book. And I could see that. It has that same blend of research and squishy feel of “this is a kids’ book so we’re not going to go that far. Let’s just talk about glass slippers some more!”
(rubs forehead because Grimms’ Cinderella didn’t even wear glass shoes)
It’s funny, because I can remember getting really mad about a few Colfer books. More because Cinderella isn’t a fighter, that’s not her character strength, don’t throw a plot twist in the actual final page when I don’t have the next book in my lap you evil creature, why is Red Riding Hood–that kind of thing. Aesthetic, personal preferences I can get understandably furious over.
Not usually stuff that’s going to hurt anybody.
When I think about what Chainani’s book was reaching for–you’ve always been beautiful, you don’t need to change, it’s okay to make mistakes and forgive, we all need it because we’re human–I’m just disappointed. I can’t believe the truth Chainani holds in his hands because of so many stupid lies he hasn’t cared enough to squash.
I’d rather a Colfer book that doesn’t try to have such an important moral at its heart, that doesn’t fail to achieve it by such a titanic flop.
You could have been great, little book. You could have been earthshattering.
Too bad. Today we’re talking about flowers. Because it’s the middle of January. Perfect timing. Clearly.
Today I found out about the red spider lily.
They’re poisonous. Eaten or touched. Relatively immune to pests and disease. They’re funky, they’re gorgeous, and more importantly, they symbolize final farewells.
It’s a death flower.
It’s called the “corpse flower,” but also the “red magic lily.” Something so spectacularly strange–if you received one only once in your life as a gift, how could you ever forget?
Marigolds. I’ve known them since I was a little girl. The round, puffy flowers, the hollow stems, bright oranges and yellows. They’re as cottagecore as mushrooms and every bit as comforting.
They symbolize creative passion and happiness. A good flower for musicians, I think. They’re known for keeping away insect pests, but less well known, they’re also said to repel fairies, much like iron does.
Still don’t know why.
It’s only fair to include a flower fairies like in our bouquet, then.
I read ages ago in researching a story (which still remains unfinished on a thumbdrive) that while fairies love sweet foods, best of all is saffron. It’s a spice, though you may know it as a color, and it’s made from the saffron crocus.
I remember searching the grass, waiting for the first crocus to open in spring. Tulips and daffodils push their green shoots up first, but crocuses are the first to bloom, purple and white and yellow.
Red spider lily is the flower of death. Spring crocus is youth and rebirth. It suits the ageless fair folk, in a way.
Calendula was another I discovered for a story. I wanted a yellow flower, and there it was, cheerfully greeting me. There’s a character associated with it. So often when I think of it, I find myself smiling, remembering him sitting on the grass, spade and overturned earth and little pots of springy, happy flowers.
Calendula is edible. And good for just about everything, so they say. I’m not even going to list things because there are too many. Ancient healing flower.
I can’t find a clear meaning for calendula. In India, it’s a wedding flower. Sometimes it’s a happy thing, this flower, sometimes it’s a thing of grief. Sometimes it’s as sunny as a marigold. Sometimes it means sympathy.
For me, it’s a friend.
I read somewhere that no one asks boys what flowers they like nearly enough. I imagine that’s a fair statement to make. The answer that time when I was reading was sunflowers, so now I think of that when I think of them, too.
That same character with the calendula, I started wondering if sunflowers were what he liked best too. But he seems to have a whole garden of flowers in my mind–calendula, sunflowers, daisies. All the bright, cheerful ones.
Asters are for faithfulness. Star-flowers. So simple, but almost as if they know something we do not.
Same flower, a few days apart. Pink hyacinth. Filled the whole garrett room with its perfume. I had two that year, one blue, one pink. One is planted in the cold, damp earth outside, waiting for spring. The other is still in my window. I drew back the curtain to find its little green shoot poking out of last year’s dead leaves.
Sometimes a flower is a perfect gift.
I am waiting too. Waiting to see what color the one in my window will be. It has been so long I am not sure which is which. I think it might be the pink.
One cannot think of a bouquet without roses, whatever Kvothe of The Kingkiller Chronicle might say. And these are special, because they were mine.
Eleven roses for my violin recital. The baby’s breath dried nicely and is now sprouting from the top of my baby Groot planter.
It’s a special thing, to have a bouquet when you perform. Very special. A cellist I know had a sunflower for hers. But the roses suit me.
It was quite a night, roses in one arm, violin case in the other. I hope the next one like it is better still.
I don’t have to tell you what roses mean. We’re readers, we know. The romantic imagery has been stamped into our minds until it has become as common as dandelions and just as unwanted.
I still love them.
Either way, I’ve tricked you into learning some new flowers. Perhaps you’ll fill your writing with them. Perhaps I’ve brought you some color on a cold winter day.
Today was supposed to be a book review day.
My last review got six likes. That’s all.
I’ve come to a conclusion.
If no one’s paying attention, I’m done trying too hard. Spending too much time thinking about what people might like, scuttling for public approval. From now on, I write what I like.
Hi. I’ve been neglecting you. A post a month is not really the update schedule I want to have.
Let’s just say invisible imps have been playing havoc in the writing garrett, okay?
And let me tell you what I’ve been up to.
I’m probably the most disappointed that I didn’t get to post weekly updates for how things were going. No, I said, “I’m doing NaNo,” and then promptly evaporated into fog before your eyes.
The part you didn’t bear witness to is that I did write 50,000 words in a month.
(cue bookmarkedone chucking the stale confetti everywhere)
And I have a couple of drafted posts in the wings waiting to gush about the adventure. But before that–
I can’t tell you anything.
I know, I know, I know! It’s ridiculous! But–
My NaNo project is on its way…somewhere.
I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I wrote during November (first draft! What are the odds?). And while I hit the 50,000, I didn’t write everything I wanted to. I was still thinking about my characters.
Very dangerous. Don’t do this. If you let your characters stay awake in your skull, they’re going to kick their way out even if you want to work on other things.
And that’s exactly what happened. Maybe two weeks of lying awake at night thinking about my inky little friends, and I was back at it, reshaping the story.
Not a novel this time. Short story. Okay, longish short story. It’s fantasy. Cut me a little slack.
And–it worked. I think. Maybe. Hard to say. Anne Mazer’s trick of “stick a knife in the middle and see if it comes out clean” for finishing novels/short stories/etc. works, I suppose, but if you’re sleep deprived so you can’t speak properly because How Do You English Anymore–it’s kind of hard to tell.
I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen. I wrote it, I polished it, I sent it out.
Now I wait.
Probably three months, I wait.
(cue bookmarkedone faceplanting into a pillow because after that long, NaNo will be five months over, no one will care and actually, I might not remember what story I sent out)
So…yeah. You might get a pile of “I drafted a novel” posts in a few months. Entirely out of season.
Promise me you’ll love them then?
But wait! Why can’t you hear about it now? Who cares that it’s in process?
Ah, yes. Intelligent readers.
Blind judging. Yes, I know I blog under an alias, but even so my stuff is–distinctive.
I think. I hope?
And hey! New York Times bestselling authors have bumbled into my corner of the world before, it’s not impossible that friends in the writing world would put two and two together and boom! Bookmarkedone’s clearly dazzling short story is chucked in the bin because anonymity is toast.
Not going to happen today.
On the other hand…
I’ve got a story out. Maybe this will be the one. Maybe this time. Maybe.
That brings us to the end of December. But that’s not all, oh no.
For some reason beyond logical comprehension, I decided to write a flash fiction piece in 24 hours, miss the deadline by about seventeen minutes (because time zones. Why, time zones? Why?), have the publishers kindly consider my story anyway, and promptly chuck it in the bin, giving me the first rejection of 2023 and possibly the fastest rejection received to date!
On the same day my NaNo-Frankensteined-into-a-short-story project had to be in.
Don’t you love the end-of-quarter holiday season smashed into one?
Right. So frankly, I’m exhausted.
But that’s okay. Because I’m snuggled up in a big hoodie in the garrett, finishing a blog post before three in the morning. Clear night so I could do some stargazing on New Year’s. Had a bonfire. Finally got my grubby claws on a copy of A Tolkien Miscellany, at an antique shop, of all places. I think my copy of The Fellowship came from a different antique shop…not the weirdest place I’ve scavenged books.
Life is…crazier than I’d thought it’d be right now. Just when I thought things would slow down, violin, composing the musical, work, writing, and my own personal brand of chaos have whisked me away.
It’s not so bad. Most of the time. Except when it keeps me from writing. You know writers–pounding out that new story is the only thing we want to do–until we actually have time to do it.
Well, here’s to having the time and the brilliance. It’s a new year, after all.
So the next time I yet again try to pick up and enjoy a YA book, someone please teleport into my local library, shake me by the shoulders, give me Paddington Bear’s Hard Stare, and teleport away again.
I am not a happy reader of YA.
And yet! Every time! The gorgeous book covers! The delectable story concepts! The ease with which the writing flows!
It can’t be that bad, I think. YA fantasy is just MG fantasy aimed at an older age group.
Right. Except it’s really not. It’s an entirely different thing, and if you compare one to the other, you’re just going to get a massive headache and possibly a Master’s degree level thesis.
Where am I going with this?
I’m about to review Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Raven. It’s about to be a really solid grumpy little rant (it’s fun when we do those. Really). But it’s unfair for me to eloquently trash this book for failing to meet my expectations when I, the noble reader, am in fact set up to dislike YA as a genre, apparently down to my core.
Some people spend their whole lives aspiring to be snobs. Some of us just start life out that way.
Book: The Iron Raven by Julie Kagawa
Series: The Iron Fey: Evenfall, No. 1.
Genre: YA Fantasy (modern Fae/Robin Goodfellow retelling)
Content for the Sensitive Reader:
Enough profanity to push the PG-13 film rating, some dramatic sequences, magic magic magic, blood/battle scenes (none particularly graphic), assassins, attempted seduction (mild/moderate), suggested seduction of multiple men and women by one character, kissing, gooey shadow monsters, antisemitic imagery/caricature and other racial insensitivity.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
WARNING: this rantish review will contain spoilers for The Iron Raven! Read at your own risk!
Okay. Deep breath. Set the stage.
It’s about the middle of November. I’m in the tiny local library downtown, browsing the half-size stack that is the YA book section. It’s technically the first in-person visit to a public library since pre-Plague days, so I’m understandably very happy.
And I pick up The Iron Raven. Because it’s yellow. It has ravens on it. And it promised me Robin Goodfellow an entire book all to himself are you joking it’s coming home with me.
There was a little voice in the back of my head chiding me that I wasn’t going to like the YA version. This was silenced by corvid brain chanting Puck, Puck, Puck, Puck over and over again.
Another little thing I should mention.
There are a few characters that I am–particular about.
and now, apparently, Robin Goodfellow (Puck)
If there’s a reinterpretation, I’m already there with my grabby hands outstretched. If I haven’t read/watched it, then I know about it. Retellings are great.
But if you reinterpret a story so it loses all the core essence of what we loved about it in the first place…
I’m getting ahead of myself. The Iron Raven. Let’s talk about it.
It started out…really well, actually.
I mean, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a magical Fae market under the shadow of a Ferris wheel in an abandoned fairground, right?
Of course right.
And giving us our tour is Puck, introducing all the things he can use just to prank everyone.
(This is, I should note, after the prologue in which we meet Young Puck and a lot of dead forest creatures…it’s established things are Going to Happen in this book and we’re not shying away from the violent side of Faerie nature. Right? Well…)
Thing is, we don’t stay in the Goblin Market very long. Why am I mentioning it?
Because it’s probably my favorite location in the book.
I have a weakness for magic abandoned circus places. It’s specific. I’m aware.
Let’s talk about the characters, shall we?
Bear in mind, I’ve never read a Kagawa book before. I don’t know who any of these non-famous, non-mythic characters are or how they tie into things.
Lucky for us, Kagawa has no problem repeating herself.
Kind of a lot.
So in no particular order:
Puck (I lied. Of course he comes first. He’s the reason I’m here). It’s Robin Goodfellow! From A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Puck of Pook’s Hill! Everyone’s imagination who has ever crossed paths with him once because he is the unforgettable prankster! In this version, he’s a pointy-eared flirty boy in a green hoodie who swears too much and tells terrible puns that are never funny!
Keirran–emo kind of not vampire Fae Elf Prince Boy who appears to deliver ominous message, take part in one Epic Battle, and promptly disappear for the rest of the book. Shame. I could have liked him.
Nyx–nighttime assassin, required Fae who Does Not Understand This Reference, and required Hot Girl presence in every YA book ever. You know, the one that cannot exist in “closely fitted leather armor” without having some idiot boy slobber all over her–erm–be part of the main romantic arc. Yes, it’s Puck. Yes, I’m grumpy about it. In her favor, she does have a unique appearance to give the rest of the cast a little variety. Shiny silver hair and yellow eyes are cool.
Ash–original emo Elf boy. Pretty sure Puck actually says this at some point in the book. Essentially exists to be Puck’s foil/best friend/worst enemy and nothing else. No character arc.
Meghan Chase–former mortal girl/chosen one and now ruler of the Iron Fae. Good for her. Likes falling into her husband’s arms. Can also shoot lightning out of her hands.
Coaleater–part metal (is he technically a cyborg? we’ll never know) Iron Fae horse person. Honestly pretty cool, but super focused on tradition and honor. Kind of just there to round out the cast, move the plot forward (like the literal sentient machine of Deus ex machina) and chill in the background until someone needs to dramatically battle vault off his back.
The Big Bad monster. No, I am not joking. That’s really the name Puck gives it in the book. Essentially your standard ink blob monster (think Rorschach plus the globby creatures that pop up in multiple Studio Ghibli films and add a few extra tentacles and antlers). Makes you hate life. And probably possesses you so you kill all your friends.
(cue bookmarkedone massaging temples because what do I do with this?)
Look, I was willing to give Modern Puck a chance. There’s not a lot of detail about him in the Midsummer version, which means there’s a lot of room for fanfiction authors (let’s not pretend–that’s what this is) to do their stuff. Green hoodie? Why not? He’s not a suit-and-tie kind of guy. Mischief? Absolutely. Swears a lot? Personally don’t care for it, but it’s definitely a plausible interpretation. Falls deeply and madly in love with a serious assassin after actually falling in love with a mortal girl some years prior?
That’s…not the Puck I know.
Especially when the Lady in Question is a very no-nonsense killer type.
Puck. What even.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Nyx, because I really need to talk about Nyx.
Bear in mind, I like her. I don’t really understand pairing Puck with her, but I like her.
Here’s the plot point I take issue with. Nyx is a type of Fae that steals glamour–essentially Fae life force–from other creatures constantly to fend off fading into oblivion. This can happen intentionally, all at once, or unintentionally, uncontrollably, all the time. With me so far?
Okay. Next you need to know that absorbing glamor can change the person who absorbs it. Absorb the energy of the “Big Bad?” You’ve got a snarling, very angry Ent/Goodfellow/Fae/etc. Simple, right?
Here’s my point. Nyx is with Puck all the time. Sometimes quite literally in his shadow. At the beginning of the book, she’s cold and distant. She’s an assassin and a bodyguard. Her one job is to keep her king alive. The regular suffer-in-silence emo YA type.
By the end of the book? She’s cracking jokes with Puck. Specifically, his jokes.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Puck isn’t falling in love with Nyx. He’s falling in love with the part of himself that Nyx has siphoned from him–especially after he gave her a lucky token he’d been carrying around since the beginning of the book.
Do we address this fact that Nyx is not going through a character arc so much as losing her identity and becoming a second Puck or the fact that this may or may not be intentional or that she one day may drain Puck’s extensive glamour/life essence dry?
No. They’re in love. That’s it.
Moving on from clearly non-canon material, let’s talk about the plot!
It…reads like a video game.
Now if you like that, it could be great. Start at point A, talk to a lot of NPCs, end at point Z after a lot of Epic Battles and hooray! You win! End book!
For me…I kept wanting to skip ahead, to where things actually got good, but there was no “skip ahead…” and this was the entire book.
Puck gets into Squabble leaving Goblin Market
Puck gains new Companion
Puck goes on quest to deliver information about Squabble to Queen
(Puck goes on Side Quest/character bonding adventure to prevent Companion from instantly dying in Iron Realm)
Puck delivers information
Puck joins Queen on original quest started by Squabble
(cue much traveling, several epic battles that really all feel the same except the very last one where something finally clicks for Puck that has clicked for the reader a long time ago, and that’s a wrap. Let’s not forget to thank our secondary locations, Steampunk Fae Realm, Ominous Forest, Ominous Forest II, Return to Ominous Forest I, Boggy Swamp, and Castle We Stole from Beauty and the Beast)
The battles are equally, if not more video-game-esque than the plot. It’s the classic MMORPG–each character has a different skillset (in this case the glamour powers of Summer, Winter, Iron, and whatever Nyx has going on), powering up time, and spells that require recharging (if you think I’m joking, near the end, Ash literally builds his wife ice parkour steps so she can dramatically hop up them to be at Good Stabbing Height). More importantly, characters can die, but it’s not likely, and even when the possibility is incredibly great…none of the battles really mean anything.
Look, I read a lot of SF/F stories every year, particularly from new and emerging authors, and the question is, if you make death less possible, if you make characters more powerful or completely unkillable, you’ve got to raise the stakes in another way. Even if you can’t die, you can still hurt. Even if you don’t feel physical pain, everyone’s got something they want to protect.
How about the epic battles in J. A. Becker’s “For the Federation,” in Writers of the Future Vol. 38, hmm? Difficult to kill just means higher stakes, even more dramatic fight sequences as time slips away.
Or “War Hero” by Brian Trent (WOTF Vol. 29), where dying means coming back to life to be tortured again and again and again in an endless loop of gruesome pain?
Yeah, Kagawa doesn’t do any of that. She could. She sets it up by telling us once the Fae die, that’s it. It’s over. Complete cessation of existence. No souls to pass on to some afterlife.
But she doesn’t delve into it. Maybe it’s because Puck is never really serious about anything, but even from the first battle, it feels–methodical? Ritualistic? Just going through the motions? Just another Monday at the office?
Danger has long since ceased to hold any spice for these ageless characters, and, accordingly, there is no heart-pounding on the account of the reader, either, even when doing a backflip over an antlered and tentacled hateful shadow-monster should, under normal conditions, be pretty thrilling.
Am I being a little unfair?
Maybe. It’s like I said. I’m not a fan of heavy profanity when I read, and that was pretty hard for me to get past. I tried. I tried to like this new, watered-down, friendlier, “not violent to mortals,” “ask the girl if she actually wants to kiss you now,” version of Puck.
But what dropped it from a three-star to a two-star review?
Early on in their adventures, Puck and Nyx come across an encampment of goblins. There’s a struggle, Nyx kills a few, and lets the last one go when he begs for his life in a silly accent. Puck proceeds to casually call their entire race the cockroaches of that dimension, and Nyx agrees. Later, they pass by another goblin camp (if memory serves me properly), and Puck, under emotional strain, considers how fun it would be to rush in and kill all of them.
Okay! Let’s look at the facts here, please!
These are not beetles, flies, gnats, rats, mosquitoes, or any other type of pest that could cause disease, crop damage, or any other type of major problem.
The goblins here are sentient creatures. Evidenced by their capability to speak coherently to Nyx.
Robin Goodfellow is talking about a massacre of sentient creatures to take the edge of tension off his day–killing for fun.
Okay! It’s Puck! He’s not a nice guy in all the stories! Fae kill mortals sometimes. What’s the difference between that and killing a few goblins?
Well, first of all, there’s a world of difference between playing a malicious prank on a human because you don’t understand how mortality works (the classic function of Puck and most Fae), accidentally killing said mortal, versus intentionally going out to exterminate an entire race of creatures.
Second of all, they’re goblins.
This is a picky topic, and I’ve thought more than a little bit about how to tackle it. If you’ve spent any time at all in the fantasy writing world, you’re probably aware of the huge debate of J. K. Rowling’s goblins in Harry Potter and how they pass on unkind stereotypes and caricatures of the Jewish people. Maybe it’s intentional, maybe it was simply passing down cultural stories without looking more closely at what they might mean. Of course I saw it after the issue was carefully pointed out to me, but I wasn’t really sure how I personally felt about it. It read more like an extremely unfortunate accident than something malicious (although that could be just because I generally like fictional goblins).
But to introduce your goblins not as an independent group in a fantasy world with their own culture, motivations, and beauty, but as something to be carelessly stamped out? To refer to them as cockroaches?
That, to me, feels way, way more alarming.
Kagawa’s protagonist essentially says, “I’m bored. How about a genocide of a sentient people group that traditionally has been used as a stand-in for a real-life group that is currently undergoing serious hate?”
(cue bookmarkeone screaming because not okay, not okay, not okay why is no one talking about this?)
Oh, but never fear! There’s actually more!
Remember I mentioned Coaleater in the character list? Cool dude? Iron Fae? Partially metal? Could probably stand up to just about anybody without flinching?
If I read this correctly, he’s also Kagawa’s POC representation. Dreadlocks, skin tone, etc. Cool, right? Representation for the yay!
Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about this so much if I hadn’t gone on full alarm mode with the goblin genocide. But Coaleater also has a nonhuman form. He can shapeshift into a horse.
Normally, wouldn’t think twice about that. Shapeshifting, great. Horse is a noble creature, makes sense that someone with a serious sense of honor and nobility would take that shape. No problems, right?
But if you exclude the greenish and dark blue skin tones (since they don’t have an obvious parallel in our world), Coaleater is, as far as I understand, the only POC character.
And he makes a transformation into a beast. An animal, traditionally used as a beast of burden, that other characters proceed to sit and ride on in the rest of the novel.
That’s…really super not comfy for me to think about in light of historical slurs and stereotypes.
To see this from a mature author (with a minority heritage, no less!) and a major publisher, published only last year–frankly, I’m a little shocked.
I want to believe this is an accident. It probably is. Sloppy writing. That’s all. On the part of an author and her entire editing and development team. Sure. Stranger things have happened, right?
But it’s still…not good.
Just once, I’d like to have unproblematic goblin fiction. No caricature, no stereotype, no real-world parallel. Just funky little goblin dudes with their shiny pebbles and mushrooms and mismatched socks.
Even if I have to write it myself.
So that’s the Iron Raven.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading the whole rant. Some other book reviews are in the works (even some gushy fangirling ones! I do actually like reading books), so stay tuned!
Fairies, bards, bags of buttons, mushroom hats and turkey legs–
She’s back from the Renaissance faire, with pocketfuls of trinkets and stories to share!
Yes, this has taken me almost a month to publish. NaNoWriMo22 has been stealing all my braincells and I had a few internet crashes that deleted parts of the drafted post from WordPress.
(devastated bookmarkedone noises)
And the usual struggle with my cryptid-stole-the-trail-camera blurry photo quality.
Or, y’know, we could just say good things come to those that wait and that this is such a brilliant post it required that much time and attention.
Let’s go with that.
A brief explanation of Renaissance festival recaps for the uninitiated:
bookmarkedone, among other unexpected odd jobs, works at Renaissance festivals. It is as fun as it sounds.
She’s a bard. Violin. Celtic, fiddle, classical, and anything else the situation calls for. It calls for a lot you wouldn’t expect.
Yes, she could just stay on the classical stage and be a “good violinist…” but it’s so much more fun to run away to the realm of folk musicians for a day and be ridiculously OP.
There will be no photos of said bard in character/costume because of modern technology restrictions at work (and because of the blurry “the cryptid realized it was on camera” quality of every picture I take. To the dandelion puff with six-foot scepter who got a good photo of us together…I’m a smidge jealous).
Because there are scandalously few renfaire blogs/almost nobody who writes about what it’s like to actually work at these events, you’re about to read the perspective from the inside…which is very different from being a casual patron.
…we do these recaps every year, so I don’t really remember what else I’m supposed to say here. If stuff doesn’t make sense, hey! Go read the recaps from the last couple of seasons. We skewer pumpkins and cheer for bloodshed. Great fun.
Having apologized to our regular readers for the delay, we now return to recounting the adventure.
By the time I got there on Saturday, there was already a line.
Not a line. There was a chain of people from the ticket booth through the little cut in the trees leading to the parking field, into the field itself and down a couple rows of cars.
It was long. Like a city block long. And I was getting there shortly after 10:00 a.m. The faire didn’t even open until ten.
I didn’t have time to stop and stare because I was in a hurry to get inside, but as I was hiking across the field, I did gawk.
I can remember the days when Dragonfest was a handful of tents in a parking lot. This was–a lot. I don’t have an official tally because no one bothered to tell me, but I’ve never seen this many people there.
And of course every one of them was going to hate me a little bit for slipping past without a ticket.
Normally I gloat about this (to my friends. Not to strangers. I’m not that rude). Violin gets me in places as I please. Concert halls. Renaissance faires. Museum fundraisers. No lines.
But that day…
They had these little wood stakes with cord at about waist height to keep people in the line, and after I was finally close enough to actually see the frazzled clerks in the ticket booth–
I realized I was on the wrong side of the line.
I’d hiked the whole way, chin up, consciously not looking to see if people were giving me the “doesn’t that girl know she has to wait in line like everyone else” looks, only to realize the entrance was on the left of the wall of people and I was on the right.
So I did the only sensible thing there was to do.
I ducked under the rope and stole into the faire I work at.
In front of about a hundred people.
So because I was only too aware everyone was watching me (it’s not like they had anything better to do; grass doesn’t grow fast in October and there was no paint to dry)
and I didn’t want everyone either
to hate me for apparently stealing my admission or
to go “well, she got away with it,” and follow me like a horde of too many petulant ducks–
I found someone taking tickets and waited until he had a breath so it was clear I wasn’t the miscreant everyone absolutely thought I was.
I know what you’re thinking at this point. “Why is she spending this long talking about the line?”
Because the character you’re about to meet pretty much made my faire experience this year, and I’m not skipping him.
Besides. It was an impressive line.
So there’s sort of a tradition among some ticket-takers at faires.
It’s the tradition of The Troll.
You’re here for the experience, right? Ordinary people don’t go to renfaires. Or if they do, they’re not ordinary by the time they leave. You’re here to have some fun. And we who work at the faire are going to give it to you–so why not make something boring (here’s your wristband, here’s your change, next), well, let’s say unexpectedly amusing.
Where do you meet trolls in fairytales, kiddos? Trying to cross a bridge. Gotta pay your toll. So if you meet “a troll” at the gates to renfaire?
I knew a lady once who said she’d make kids swordfight with her (they were blunt practice swords, not real blades, I repeat, we are not handing children real steel) before they could go through the gate. Sometimes it’s just banter, they’ll tease you a little, chat about your costumes, tell jokes, be a little mean, pretend they won’t let you in until you answer a question or a riddle–if you’re in the mood for it, gate trolls can be great fun.
You never know if there’s going to be one or not.
Up I walk, violin case on my back, to this gentleman in a hat with Dragonfest buttons,
and as politely as possible, I say, “I just want to let you know, I’m not sneaking in. I work here.”
Important note. They don’t brief the crew on who’s cast and who isn’t. Most of us don’t know each other before we meet there, on the grounds, that day. Oh, we fall together naturally enough, look after each other like family, but this clerk has no way of knowing I am what I say…and come to think of it, I have zilch way to prove it.
He looks at me, back at the ticket-counting he’s doing, then at me again.
And this is when I find out he’s The Troll.
“Do I believe that?” he says.
I stop. I think he’s serious. I’m just about to worry, when he says, “You know, I think I do.”
That’s it. Troll likes you, in you go.
I’m laughing by now, and I promise to come back to play him a tune later as my proof of employment. And since he’s a lovely person, he agreed to tell me a story, as a trade.
I love renfaire.
Argh. I put off writing this post for so long.
Because I have to decide what stories not to include or write such a huge post I can’t even muster the strength to proofread and finish it.
So much stuff happened.
You know I’m a writer, so I’ve honed my skills, paying attention to everything, remembering the details until I get a chance to write them down. But everything happened so much at Dragonfest that I started to feel like I was on a carousel, whirling around and around, the faces of people I met blurring together until I was left sitting on a porch swing clutching a pink rock and wondering where I’d gotten it.
The answer, by the way, is that a fabulous mushroom hat girl gave it to me. She asked if I’d like a token and offered me the rock or my choice from a bag of buttons. She wasn’t crew; she was just someone who wanted to share and be part of the fun. I played her a jig in trade, and she danced so the charms on her hat clinked together in the very best way.
And nearly stepped on her phone before a friend yoinked it almost out from under her heel and narrowly averted disaster, but that’s not the point.
She was actually one of two people I met like that at the faire. The other was a younger girl, probably the MG book author’s dream audience. She’d made what she called “spells,” and told us all about them–potion for strength, fairy dust–I can’t recall the others now, but she had a name and a gift for each.
Guys. Guys, this girl gave me fairy dust.
She was very serious about the whole thing, and so I reacted with proper respect. After she gave me the tiny bottle, she said, with utmost solemnity, that she’d only offered to give me fairy dust because I was very talented.
So, anyway, that girl is kind of my hero, and I’m keeping the fairy dust because it’s the coolest and I love it and yes, none of you stand a chance against me anymore.
You don’t say “Are we there yet?” at the faire. Munching your turkey leg, sticky and dusty and sweaty, pockets full of treasure, you say “When is the joust?”
It’s not like I have a watch. I don’t need one. When it’s time for the joust, the grounds empty to fill the stands, sit on the grass, perch on hay bales, crowd around too close to the tilting field and get cheerfully told off for entering “the blood zone.”
But there’s also that weird between-time while everyone is settling into seats and waiting for the knights to emerge on the field.
And that, friends, is exactly when I make my mischief.
A word of warning–there’s probably a very simple reason why I get on well with the gate trolls.
I played “Drunken Sailor” by the drink booth. Twice. The wandmaker got “Hedwig’s Theme.” Deadpool cosplayers (traditionally) get the theme from the Titanic (don’t…don’t ask). Most of the song choice thought process for me is, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if…”
There’s a tradition, with the joust.
Ever heard of a sweet little film called A Knight’s Tale?
(first of all, if you want to understand renfaire culture, go watch A Knight’s Tale, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When you’re utterly confused, come back. That’s right).
Okay, so in Knight’s Tale, the soundtrack is primarily Queen songs. And the opening is “We Will Rock You.”
I mean, it wasn’t so much needing to learn it as being scandalized that it wasn’t in my repertoire. It had to be done.
So when I happened to cross paths with the new court jester…
Great guy, by the way. Jigged for me. Orange and blue motley that most definitely did not get its dye from the Renaissance era and We Do Not Care.
I stopped him in the King’s Tent.
“Might I petition you for some mischief?” I asked.
Guys. This man was so excited he couldn’t speak properly. When he finally got the words out he said, “That is literally my job.”
I told him what I wanted. All he had to do was start the rhythm. Stomp-stomp, clap. The crowd knows it. The crowd always knows it. I’d do the rest.
We split in different directions. He went left. I went right. The crowd heard us coming.
You remember that troll I told you about earlier (henceforth he will only be referred to as “the Troll” because I never caught his name. His official title is bard because he’s quite a good storyteller, but I think you can see how that would be confusing)?
His hands appeared above the heads of the crowd, clapping. Somehow, he and I wound up walking in step through the crowd, clapping, playing, confusing everyone.
There were patrons on both sides of the tilting field, and by the time the knights entered, they’d only just caught wind of what was happening, and half the patrons were utterly lost, but the jester, the Troll, and I? We amused ourselves, if no one else. The Troll was quite pleased with having music follow him around (the sort of “I could get used to this” satisfaction).
I don’t have the words to tell you how I was grinning.
After officially adding “rabble-rousing” to my resume…
I’m pretty sure I played for my steel fighting friends’ rivals.
Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. I knew there was a split a few months ago (I think I was graduating at the time, so I’m not really clear what happened), but it wasn’t until Dragonfest that I learned they’d formed their own fighting group.
Drama? Eh. Not really.
You’ve got to remember, renfaire players are family. We look out for each other.
And I’ve never been one to care about the drama of who stepped on whose toes anyway. The boys can work out their squabbles without me being involved.
So when one of the former members said I could play for their fight, if I wanted…I wanted.
A crisp fall day, watching men in full steel armor slam each other over the head with swords and axes while “Thunderstruck” is going in the background–what more could one ask for?
This. One could ask for this.
What you are looking at is the keyring designed by one of the young ladies on the crew. And the story she told me is that each fighter has a specific design (there was an adorable cat asking for carnage sticker…unfortunately the fabulous lady fighter that one was based off of wasn’t at Dragonfest so we didn’t get to meet). The one I picked out belonged to the axe fighter–I think he’s called the Woodcutter. Story goes the designer presented this adorable cat to him and he said no.
Don’t like it. Too cute for me.
Lucky thing, the designer said yes, it’s cute, and yes, we’re using it, because people like cute things and they’ll buy it.
Yes, we do, and yes, I did.
I told her the dangerous kitty would be joining my Plague Doctor Dragon on my violin case (from the year Dragonfest had to be cancelled. Dragon in a top hat. It’s great. None of my orchestra mates have ever noticed it), so now the dragon key ring has a friend.
She was understandably delighted by the idea.
I joked later that if the two rival steel fighting groups wanted to fight over who got the fiddler, I wouldn’t mind.
Because if they never book the same events, then I get to go to twice as many renfaires with my friends. Behold my devious brilliance!
(I did say you wouldn’t stand a chance now that I have fairy dust)
In retrospect…one of the lieutenants from the original group did get in touch out of the blue this week…
(sounds of bookmarkedone hoping she hasn’t been too devious for her own good)
Anyway, more stories!
I’m running out of space in this post for everything that happened.
I went back to the line and strolled along it for a while, trying to give the people waiting something entertaining and wound up appearing at the same time that King Henry arrived to greet his guests and tell them the joust had been delayed so they wouldn’t miss it…so it looked a bit like I was a king’s bard.
There was a little man in a Hogwarts T-shirt, crown, and cape, so I played “Hedwig’s Theme” for him. There was a little Gandalf with his dad who looked understandably put out on hearing it (no Gandalf likes being mistaken for Dumbledore). So the Shire Theme followed, and I think they were both mollified.
I made fun of my friends (still waiting in line, ha, ha), full knowing that none of the other people in the line knew that I’d brought them and would probably be thinking I was just very comfortable striking up conversations with perfect strangers.
Met a couple of mushroom hat girls later who told me they’d stood in line for at least an hour.
I felt really bad about this for a while–it was nobody’s fault, of course, and the ticket trolls were doing their absolute best to get everyone through as fast as possible–but I heard we got nasty review about it online.
(cue bookmarkedone being slightly crushed)
I felt better after hearing about the lines at DragonCon. Someone told me the “line was part of the experience,” a way to meet other patrons, slow down, anticipate what’s to come. I hope that’s true and most of the patrons felt that way. The Troll and I agreed to come back and play the line together the second day (spoiler: I didn’t make it because I was physically exhausted and almost fell asleep in a hard kitchen chair. I’m sure if we had done it together, the line would have been an attraction in itself).
But enough about downsides.
I saw Lady Jillian of the Famously Amazing Hair Clasps (my bestowed title for her, not her official one) and bought more hair sticks because they’re pretty and make me feel like a little wizard,
The rock booth lady (whose name I do not know), but who happily sold me a chunk of carnelian and chided me for not playing closer to her booth (we’d been next-door neighbors at the last faire when I was with my mercenary buddies). I played Paganini 20 for her and chatted with her daughter, who is already an accomplished jewelry-maker herself. I poked through their rings (wire wrapped. All handmade. Gorgeous), and asked her if they were arranged by size.
She bit back a sigh. They were, at the beginning of the day–
I was already nodding, commiserating. After a hundred hands passing over the shiny baubles, any organization was quite undone.
And I saw Lady Kiki again, of the famous earrings (and 2Cellos fan). There was also a booth with little terrariums with wire trees (the wind was blasting the tents down, so the little globes didn’t stand a chance. Two were shattered, at least). The proprietor told me she has a video of last year’s performance in her phone.
This was…a somewhat odd announcement? I get a lot of comments working at faires, and you learn to roll with the weirdness of our lives and professions, but is there an appropriate response to a stranger saying she has a recording of your playing?
She was actually very nice and said she shows it to people when she’s persuading them to come to Dragonfest (you should come! see this cool fiddler? don’t you want to listen to her in person?). So that’s flattering. And considering the number of photos/videos people have taken of me performing with (or without) my permission…honestly I probably shouldn’t spend the time thinking about it.
There were also a few new vendors this year, so since I’ve been attending or performing at the faire every year since it started but one–
I had ample opportunity to spread my arms wide and say “Welcome to Dragonfest!” like that scene from the first How to Train Your Dragon film.
It’s every bit as satisfying as it seems.
And of course, one must visit the fairies.
I mean, what are you even doing if you don’t pay a visit to the Fae Court?
Or in my case, an empty tent with one slightly forlorn gentleman guarding it because the fairies were out making mischief and drinking tea.
We had a nice chat, anyway. He told me the fairies had flown, and I nodded a little to myself and said, “Yes. They tend to do that where I live, too.”
That’s not to say I didn’t see them. They were scattered across the faire, charming everyone with bubble wands.
Life always can use a bubble wand.
I’m sure I’m leaving out so many stories. The gymnast tumblers who were so good at their art. The kind lady who offered to let me stash my violin case with her instead of under a tree and made sure I would do so again on the second day so it wouldn’t sprout legs or get tampered with. Thistlegreen playing “John Ryan’s Polka” with me first thing in the morning on his pennywhistle. Listening to the Troll tell stories on the little stage at the end of the day, all of us cozy and tired out. Said Troll inviting me to have a stage set, even though I hadn’t been scheduled for one (I declined…but that’s not to say I wasn’ t very much touched at the offer). Losing the Tree of Life pendant I bought at my very first gig with the mercenary fighters (a little heartbroken, but I’m half hoping someone else picked it up and has a faerie treasure now. It’s what I get for running to greet my fighter friends and leaving it on a cord it could so easily slip off of). Trolling the Larp and HEMA fighters with song selections. Everything. Everything, everything, that I can’t put into words, all the sounds and smells and sights and friends that you simply have to be there to understand.
It’s all done for another year. Everyone’s packed up and gone home, cozying in for the winter season. Won’t see one another again until spring.
So we’re left with the frost on the windows and the trinkets and the memories.
And the plots. And the plans. And the practicing of repertoire for next faire. And the maps.
Because, you know, the world is full of faires. And what sort of people are we if we don’t daydream about seeing the very best of them?
Is it okay to say that I don’t know where to begin?
There comes a time when my chaos becomes too much for even me.
Let’s just set the scene, then. It’s a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, the glass reflecting off the curving front of the expo center, and the Ghostbusters van parked on the sidewalk. Caleb Widowgast and bookmarkedone are on their way to comic con.
What’s this? The bookmarked has given you a real name and broken the code of aliases?
Wrong again! It’s an alias upon an alias! You find your bookish blogger in the company of a Critical Role cosplayer.
(cue the maniacal laughter)
Normally I would have left this out entirely, just let you think I was conning solo, but it’s important to the story.
Because in cased you aren’t familiar with that particular D&D wizard, you should know that he has a cat. Accordingly, the cosplayer has a cat.
And accordingly, I have a small plush tabby cat multiple times through the day when my con buddy needed both hands to do something.
Somewhat awkward. Just holding a stuffie under one arm like that’s normal. Petting it like Michael Sheen pretending to be Blofeld the Bond villain with his very fake white cat.
Nerd cons, everyone.
You’re probably wondering at this point if bookmarkedone was in cosplay attire.
I was not. Planned on it, but things fell apart at the last minute. Sometimes that happens. I was pretty disappointed, since I originally planned this trip sheerly for the opportunity to show off my personal costume design and enjoy all the fun that comes with being your favorite character for a day.
But I was still determined to go and have my adventures. And maybe I dressed–a little more the way I wanted to, since I was salty about not going in costume? Fashion’s a funny thing. I remember reading some story–I can’t remember where now–about a tailor being magical because he can make a beggar look like a king and how that simple act of putting on a costume can make you not just look like something or believe it, but be what you pretend to be.
In a way, it’s true. You move differently when you’re in different dress. It can make you confident, it can make you comfortable, it can make you hate tulle skirt linings with an undying passion. There’s a power to what you wear.
If anybody can remember the book, please save me from wondering. I’m pretty sure it’s either Rothfuss or that strange dragon series that I read two volumes of like five years ago with a type of creature called a Roffle.
All that soliloquizing to say that on that particular Friday, I Did Not Care. I wasn’t trying to blend in or look normal or pretend to be human or any of those things. It was comic con. There would be far weirder people. So I wore what I wanted. Tall boots. Cool pants. Red crystal earrings.
It felt good.
Widowgast gave me a once-over and said I still looked like I was playing a character.
I said, “I am. I’m being myself.”
As we were walking up to the expo center, Widowgast said again how probable it was that somebody was going to try to guess my character.
I just said I honestly hoped it happened, because if there was a character out there that much like me, it was probably something I’d want to read.
Anyway, in we went to the con.
And this is the point that I should mention I was wearing an orange sweater.
I didn’t think it was a big deal. Halloween, autumn, pumpkins, spooky season.
Until we realized that the con’s logo and almost everything else about it was bright orange.
Widowgast told me I was cosplaying the con itself.
Happy accident. I was more than cool with that.
(except that the con closes permanently after three days, never to be seen again…perhaps better not to carry the idea that far).
Anyway. That’s more than long enough talking about clothes and colors.
You want to hear about the con.
So because this was the final run of this particular con, there wasn’t a lot to see.
Understatement: it was really, really small.
And because Widowgast and I were there on the first day…we almost had the place to ourselves.
Coming from cons where you have to inch your way through hallways because there’s always that one spot that jams up and is shoulder-to-shoulder packed with people and good manners are mildly scandalized because dear, dear–you really can’t avoid brushing shoulders with someone–
It was different. And at times a little creepy. Like, it wasn’t abandoned; the expo center room wasn’t big enough for that, but it was strange.
Probably would have been weirder if I’d actually been in cosplay. You want a crowd of fellow friendly weirdos when you’re doing something like that.
On the other hand–we also felt a little like VIPs. Entire con practically to ourselves. Sweet.
Of course, I think some of the vendors missed the memo that there were actually people who were going to be there on Friday–they weren’t well organized. More than a few were still setting up shop at one o’clock when it opened officially at ten in the morning, and several booths were vacant.
That said, everyone was super, super nice. Vendors, cosplayers, staff, someone doing security (awesome colored contacts for heterochromia. Please do not ask me what the character was because I have no idea), even ordinary gamers and visitors like your incognito blogger.
For the record…you do not know the crisis that went on in my mind when Widowgast and I were getting name badges at the door. I’m pretty sure the lovely clerk would have put down any name I gave her…but even not being in cosplay…giving my real name felt super weird. Official: I’ve been blogging under the bookmarkedone persona too long.
There was a life-size statue of a Ghostbusters monster right as we came in (to my Tolkien-fan eyes it looked like a slobbery Warg), and after I took a picture of Widowgast standing by it, a random friendly cosplayer in a cow-print outfit offered to take a picture of both of us.
I declined (much happier behind the camera), but I thought it was really sweet, since we wouldn’t have had a good way to take a photo together on our own.
The vendors were just as lovely. I’ve been some places where booths are…not so friendly. You get a “are you going to buy anything already” vibe, and honestly, I can’t blame them for that. There’s not a lot of money doing a gig like that, and it can be pretty exhausting.
Not so here. We stopped by one booth with a bunch of necklaces and I started trying to see how many fandoms I could recognize for Widowgast’s entertainment. Because we were the only ones there at the moment, the boothmaster (vendor. I mean vendor) started paying attention too and supplying the ones I couldn’t guess (only two, if you were keeping track. I have very different references for crossbows than The Walking Dead.). I didn’t buy anything from him, but he didn’t seem bothered in the least to have us admire his wares.
And most of the others were the same way. We must have strolled through the floor of the con three or four times, and everyone seemed perfectly cheerful to have us there (VIP energy again? We had our official orange lanyard badges at this point), directing us to what they thought we’d like, laughing as we bantered, complimenting Widowgast’s outfit (I mean, book holsters are pretty awesome, right?), and just being charming.
It could also have something to do with us.
I’ve picked up this habit, working the faires. I always stop in at the booths, but let’s face it, I don’t have the money to buy trinkets from every single one at faire prices (which can be quite steep, especially for a little peasant bard). So I try to tell them how cool everything they’ve made really is (because seriously? Chainmail jewelry? Crowns with squarish crystals that look like a box of stone Crayola met the perfect goblin princess?). It’s probably a habit that really concreted itself for me after I heard people being really rude to vendors at faires, trying to knock prices down by insulting the wares (don’t do this. Don’t make me avenge them). Every artist deserves to feel good about their craft, and well, maybe the spirit of my bardic flattery started rubbing off a little.
I should also explain that I was starting to feel a lot like I was at renfaire.
This is dangerous.
Well, darling, it’s a different version of myself that goes to renfaire than anywhere else. I’m not completely playing a character, but that’s about the closest explanation I’ve got. Mostly it’s just being really relaxed and comfortable with everybody–and getting into a lot of mischief wherever and whenever the opportunity arises.
You’re about to get to the crux of the double-booking problem. Hang on to this.
So because it’s the week before I’m going to Dragonfest, Widowgast and I are goofing around, the vibe is so familiar, and everyone is being so nice and making me feel right at home–
Yeah. I kind of went into renfaire mode.
This means two things.
At the faire, everyone on the crew is family. You can relax and have fun around your family. One might even say you can trust them.
I’m much less careful of what words I actually let escape my mouth.
Do we see how this might be dangerous yet?
So like I said, we’ve started playing this game to see how many fandoms I can recognize, and we wander into this art booth. These can be very simple–a few prints on the wall, a couple of books to flip through.
Widowgast starts chatting with the artist, and I let the two of them do the Human Social Thing, quietly paging through the demo drawings. He’d done an impressive full-color of Yennifer and Geralt from The Witcher (haven’t watched, but “Toss a Coin,” need I say more?). I wait until I have Widowgast’s attention and point it out. I keep flipping through, guessing some, missing others (Moon Knight, Skeletor, some I can’t remember now–there are a lot of fandoms out there), and then I turn the page to a gorgeous Sauron in full armor, Ring intact, wreathed in flames.
And in the fondest, most affectionate and proudest voice you can imagine, I said, “There’s my boy!”
(cue bookmarkedone realizing far too late that was out loud)
I don’t think I actually looked at the vendor after that. I doubled over so my head almost touched the table laughing, said thank-you, and ran away.
I would have scolded Widowgast for not stopping me from saying that, but not even I knew what I was saying until it happened, so…yeah.
Widowgast thought I made the artist’s day.
The truth is, even as small as the con was, I could keep telling stories.
The electronic gamers who looked suspiciously like the electronic gamers from a previous year, settled in the same formation at the back of the room.
The dice merchants who were running a two-for-one sale we didn’t notice so I told them they’d broken Widowgast by saying 5+5=8 (the dream is collapsing, but hey, it’s a good dream).
Listening to Widowgast’s Zemnian (German) accent and overcompensating not to absently start matching it and accidentally going Full Renfaire Voice Mode (I…can’t actually explain what this sounds like. It’s too subtle a change. It’s still my voice, my accent, but also…not. I did the voice switch later for my dad and he said something along the lines of “oh no,” so apparently I wasn’t imagining it).
Widowgast plunking money down to play Plinko since I’d never done it before and bookmarkedone going full analytical mode (which is not how the gamble is meant to be played…but I won Widowgast a poster, so…).
The minifig builder who brought an entire castle populated with tiny crows with knives, a pirate ship, surprisingly realistic trees, pumpkins, and a miniature lake that for a second I thought was actually liquid (yes, we went in while he was still setting up, and yes, he was absolutely lovely gushing about D&D and, as Widowgast informs me, being far too modest about his art).
The perfume blender who had a unique scent crafted for each D&D class (I freaked out a little over the genius of this. Yes, the bard one was amazing. I want to say it had pink grapefruit in it, but I’m honestly a little fuzzy at this point).
Amigurumi squid. In the same booth as the plague doctor masks and the D20 dice keyrings.
The ladies crocheting/knitting while waiting for unwary visitors to stumble into their booths.
The Renaissance-Star Wars cosplayer. Still floored by that one.
Looking Widowgast dead in the eye and saying “Con artist” (you’re cool if you get the joke).
Going thrift shopping afterward and finding a T-shirt that reads “That’s a horrible idea. What time?” I thought it sounded like a MG or YA character, same energy as “let’s go overthrow my evil uncle’s empire” as a pickup line/first date idea. My friends insisted I buy it. Am a little concerned about why exactly they think it’s so perfectly me?
But we don’t have time for all that!
Because this is a two-parter post!
Look, I couldn’t clickbait you with “Don’t double-book the bard” and then not explain myself, could I?
So the little con ran three days. I was originally planning to only go Day 1, Friday, with Widowgast, but I wound up stopping in for a bit on Saturday as well. Glimpsed SpiderGwen from Into the Spider-Verse sitting under the trees outside the expo center (would have asked for a photo, but she swung away to other adventures before I got there). Security had different colored eyes today. Dark red, the color of congealing blood.
But I couldn’t stay long, because I was on my way to a violin gig.
Yes. That does mean that I was in full concert black and heels as I brushed shoulders with Ghostbusters, Storm Troopers and gamers. I had the foresight to wear slacks at least, so it wasn’t like I was going to the grocery store in a floor-length black dress (again. I needed ice cream, what can I say?).
It’s always a little awkward, going in full-black somewhere it’s not expected. I knew it would be okay once I got to the con, since with as many anime and comic characters as I’d be around, who was going to notice a kid in all black?
But I still had to walk about a block and cross the street to get to the con looking like a formal ink smudge with a very orange lanyard in one hand.
I could have been uncomfortable about it. But I was still in almost the same mood as the day before. And in heels. Fun fact: you can’t slouch in heels.
So…I owned it.
Something to remember, everyone out there with Impostor Syndrome. Nobody out there has a clue what they’re doing. So you might as well go out and be comfortable in your own skin, because it’s going to make you the coolest person out there.
I still got some odd looks from a bunch of anime cosplayers crossing the street the same time I was leaving. Which is fair.
The really important event from the second day is going to sound trivial, because it was just an average nerd in a T-shirt. It was, however, a very specific fandom T-shirt, for the character I’d been planning to cosplay before the fandom blew up in my face. And while I didn’t want to get anywhere near the drama (bookmarkedone’s inner critic reminding me this is why we prefer dead author fandoms that have at least a few decades of dust on them instead of things that are new ahhh why did we get in a fandom where the creators are still alive?), it really meant everything to me to see someone just casually being a part of that story, that community, assuring me that everything’s going to be okay and whatever’s going on right now, the fandom’s going to rise from it unscathed, as strong and beautiful and strange as it ever was.
I didn’t say anything about it. We were both standing at the perfume table at the time and I did a double-take when I saw the logo on the T-shirt (probably stared and made him uncomfortable, if we’re honest about it), trying to make sure that was what I thought I was seeing.
And I did think about being all “Oi, is that an [xyz] fandom shirt?” But in the end, I started talking to a vendor and by the time it was over, the perfect stranger I’d been considering chatting with had wandered away.
Moral of the story. If you do something cool, if you’re part of something bigger, if you show your fandom colors and nobody says a word to you, remember that nerds are a quiet bunch and you may have secretly made someone’s day.
It really did catch me a little off guard, even though I think I was looking for something like that since the first day of the con. I was still thinking about it a long while later.
And it’s as much as a reminder for me as for anyone else. I’ve had a plague doctor dragon in a top hat keyring on my violin case for two years now, and no one has ever breathed a word about how awesome it is. Either I worked with a very shy or unobservant orchestra, or I’m wasted on them.
Speaking of which! The Concert!
(I know, I know, finally)
This was actually my first ensemble gig since last May, so–yeah. One of the longest breaks I’ve had in a while.
There was a little moment of “How do we do this again?” But all is well in bookmarkedone’s orchestra world.
Especially considering I think I had a week to prepare for this concert?
I know some people would probably say I shouldn’t tell that part of the story to the non-initiated…so don’t tell them.
It went like this. An old orchestra friend from uni messaged me out of the blue, something like, “How are you? Long time no see. Cool, cool. So are you up for playing a concert on the 15th, or–?”
I’m kidding. There was no chit-chat. He had someone drop out at the last minute and needed another violin. I got the music (had to prompt him for an address for the venue, though), and because I don’t ask a lot of questions…that was about it. This date, this music, concert black, this address. That’s it. I knew it was a fundraiser, but honestly, until I got there, I had no clue what for.
(sounds of bookmarkedone being the perfect spy intensify)
Anyway, you have to remember that I was still in comic con/renfaire mode for this next bit.
The organizer was really clever and put stickynotes with our names on all the chairs so we’d know where to sit–especially important since some people played different parts on different pieces. Two names on a chair mean you move. One means you don’t. So there’s an awkward shuffle of an entire largely introverted and uncomfortable orchestra, heads down, squinting at chair seats, trying to find our places.
Except for me.
I found my place pretty easily, and lucky, lucky me! I didn’t have to move.
And watching everyone else shuffle about, this little voice whispered in my head, it’s literally musical chairs.
It should go to my credit that I didn’t say that one out loud.
But when a young lady directly in front of me bent squinting, saying “Why are there two names on my chair?” having missed the prior explanation…
…well, there was this perfect silence, and I said, dead serious, “You have to share.”
She looked up, and I nodded, “Two people, one chair. Yes.”
And this is why they shouldn’t let me do a concert after comic con, everybody.
I could have been helpful and explained, but no! Snarky mode activate, snarky mode there to stay!
The concert itself went well, although I don’t know that my particular brand of humor was appreciated. It was one of those nice ones where the music is easy, the performers seasoned enough to relax, the pressure low–it felt good not to play for a grade or an audition or anyone’s approval. Just to play. You don’t always get that chance, in the violin world. It’s good to hang on to it when it comes.
And…yeah. That’s this week’s adventures. By the time you hear from me again, I will be one Dragonfest the wiser. My favorite faire of the year, I’m already anticipating the mayhem and mischief.
Musicians know that there are a few times of year that are really crazy for gigging. March is one if you’re involved in schools because of contests. December–because December (some of us still get a little twitchy if you mention “Sleigh Ride…” that wood block is…a lot. Especially if you sit near the back where it’s the loudest and you can’t see when it’s coming but you feel it there).
But when did October get added to the list?
Frankly, I have no idea, but things have gone from very quiet to “Hey, do you want to play this weekend?” all at once. If I make it to November 1 and can start my NaNoWriMo project from the cozy nook in the garrett, I’m going to be one very happy and sleepy little bard.
Speaking of which…
I’m off to Dragonfest 2022!
And since I’m cramming in the practice time, running off to do my first cosplay since before Ye Olde Plague descended on these lands and getting into a lot of other mischief I either can’t share yet or can’t think of because I am (yet again) editing a post after midnight–
Here’s my reactions right after submitting my Dragonfest performer applications back in the middle of August. I didn’t publish this until now because, well, just because you have a 99.99% confidence that you’ve got a gig, you don’t want to be wrong. I didn’t know for sure that I was going until the first week of September.
…yeah, I got no excuse for why I didn’t publish it in the intervening month.
It’s a bit of a ramble. I hope you can excuse that.
So I just submitted my applications for this year’s Dragonfest Renaissance Festival. Since I’ve been playing violin there…um…two or three years running (does this make four?), and they always seem to like me and invite me back, I was pretty sure the forms were just a formality.
Even if I can’t remember ever waiting quite this long to hear back from them before.
This particular festival gets a little more posh and polished every year. This time I actually had to send recordings of my music instead of just saying “I’m a bard. Can I come?” I mean, I can remember back when I just walked in and started playing and mocked my friends for having to wait in line and buy tickets.
Yeah. Probably better they upped the security since.
In case you don’t know (which most of you reading this probably do), Dragonfest is my favorite faire. It’s not the biggest. It’s simply the best.
No, I will not be accepting argument on this point. Unless you are offering me faire tickets to change my opinion. Bribery is great.
Back to the point.
I’ve been hanging around Dragonfest since it started, which just goes to show that it’s a very young faire that makes me feel weirdly old. Yes, I can remember the early days of contact juggling and pottery in the parking lot behind what I was informed was Elfindale.
No, seriously. That’s what it’s called. Brick manor, retirement home, and shopping center. Elfindale.
Like, I’m not saying this faire was destined for greatness, but…well, we’re here, aren’t we?
And we’ve moved out of the parking lot, by the way. In fact, Dragonfest officially has its own property now, instead of renting some field, and according to the updated website, they’ve named it Dragon’s Brook.
I am perhaps unreasonably happy about this development.
I mean, how many people can say, “Oh, I’ll be at Dragon’s Brook next weekend.” Seriously. With a straight face.
And I get to work there. How cool is that?
I won’t lie. I’ve had more than a few days this summer when I needed cheering up. Hard truth: sometimes life stinks. I get down; everyone does.
But then I get something like this. Call it an adventure. Search it out for ages, then it falls into my lap.
And I’m forced to remember how mad lovely my life really is.
I work with someone who owns a castle, guys. Dragon’s Brook, revisited. Joined a steel fighting gang. There’s a fencing club that meets down the street from the garrett–I don’t even know who they are. They’re just part of the landscape.
If I were writing myself as a fictional character, I’d have shelved it with all the other “unrealistic wish fulfillment fluff” a long time ago, because seriously, you’re probably sitting at home reading this and doubting me right now. Readers would shake their heads and say “unrealistic,” and that’s it for the story, game over. It’s fair. I don’t seem real. My chaotic bardic life does, I freely confess, sound a little too good to be true.
It is. For me, it is. And that’s why I love it.
And I think it’s especially interesting to remember now, right after I’ve gotten a glossy-gilded diploma in my claws. Remembering how ages ago, before all this started, everyone had a different idea about what I was going to be, what I was going to do, because they didn’t have a clue. You know–are you going to be a book editor, sweetie? An orchestral musician? Are you going to be–wow–even a smidgen–oh dear–at all normal?
While I can’t say it’s exactly the way I planned it–I think the argument’s settled that this wasn’t what anybody pictured me doing. Playing the local faires. Blogging the chaos. Getting narrowly out of trouble. Nobody, including me, has any idea what’s coming next.
It’s a delicious feeling, not knowing. You’d never realize how many castles there are around here, just out of view of the trees.
Anyway. We were talking about this year’s Dragonfest.
I know I was a little keyed up, submitting the application, getting nervous the way I always do for auditions and stuff like that. But I think what really got me was the new video trailer for Dragonfest 2022. We always have some fun little phrase, “Come make merry!” “Something something Shakespeare” (no, that’s not a direct quote), “Live the fantasy!” etc. Just something to fill out the page, most of the time.
But this one, Dragonfest’s. It caught my attention.
Near the end of the video, it reads “Once Upon a Time is Now.”
I know what they meant by it. Come spend an afternoon in the fairy meadow, eat a turkey leg, talk in a funny voice, buy a shiny pebble. Forget about your troubles.
But it’s so much more than that.
I think I’ve mentioned before the James Riley quote from his mind-boggling Story Thieves series. If I remember the context right, Kiel Gnomenfoot grabs Bethany by the shoulders and says “Be more fictional” (you doubted me when I called him a brilliant idiot. Doubt me no longer).
It’s something that sticks with me. Be more fictional. That’s why we read some fiction, right? To glory in someone doing all the things we never have the courage to do? Jump off a cliff, fall in love, battle to the death, waltz with a nemesis (step 1, acquire nemesis, proves difficult for some), sail the seven seas, kiss the cold stars before you fall asleep, use galvanization to create life from raided corpses instead of going to college classes–erm, maybe not that last one.
Be more fictional.
It’s true there are a million things in life we can’t even begin to change. But please, why is it we’re choosing to be so boring? Why don’t we wear the mismatched shoes, walk in the rain, stay out late to look at the stars? Why do we follow all these rules that don’t matter, don’t make us happy?
We can make our own fairytales. We can fight to keep them.
I’m aware this is a bit of a ramble. Like I said, after midnight post. But I didn’t want to miss another Tuesday, and I figure if you’ve hung out with me this long, you know what you’re in for.
The weird. That’s what you’re in for. The weird.
You can watch the Dragonfest trailer for yourself if you want, but I warn you, if you’re searching for a familiar bard among the crowd, you won’t catch a glimpse in the video. Per usual, I’m flitting too much to get caught on camera. That is, of course, how I prefer it. There’s too much to see at the faire to stay in one place for very long or to even think of sitting still. It’s fairyland come to life for a day, and I’m always out to see every turn in the path and adventure there is within it.