Monthly Archives: October 2011
There is a distinct and important difference between being afraid and being disgusted, and modern horror seems to forget
this all too often. Graphic scenes of torture or gore are not, by their nature, frightening so much as they are gross. If I decline to eat live cockroaches, it isn’t because I’m ‘afraid’, it’s because I imagine the experience will be unpalatable.
When I go to see a movie or watch a show that is intended to be frightening, there seems to be a 50/50 chance that their idea of horror is going to be pretty bloody and graphic, but the film won’t be frightening, really. Exciting perhaps, but not scary. Fright comes from a different place, at least for me. I don’t have nightmares about gore and violence. Hellraiser didn’t so much scare me as gross me out. I slept fine that night, though I can’t say I had a huge appetite for a rare steak afterwards.
Ah, who am I kidding? I always have an appetite for rare steak. Hell, I felt like meatloaf right after seeing Julie Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus in the theaters. Mmmmm…bloody.
What scares me is the idea of helplessness. Alien scared the hell out of me, and you know why? Not because the critter burst from that dude’s chest, but because they were all stuck on a spaceship with a monster and there was no way out. It wasn’t as if there was no way out because they were idiots, either–the characters in that movie were operating at the top of their intelligence; the idiot ball was not in use. There was no way out because there was no way out.
That’s scary. The inexorable approach of doom is frightening. The unavoidable slip into madness is frightnening. Stephen King knows this better than anybody. Most of his truly terrifying works are based on that idea. In It, how can the kids possibly defeat Pennywise? In The Shining, Jack is terrifying primarily because his wife and kid are stuck with him while miles and miles from any kind of help. Misery works on the same concept, and on and on and on. It’s not the gore, folks, it’s the isolation, the removal of agency, the horror of helplessness.
If you want proof, try transposing. If Pennywise were to pick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how would it go? If a lone alien got loose on one ship among a fleet of ships, how hard would it be to solve the problem? If the crazy dad from The Shining chased his wife and kid into a crowded shopping mall, how dangerous would he really be?
A lot of horror movies like to cheat by creating artificial isolation by throwing around the idiot ball or breaking the rules
of reality just for the hell of it, but I’m not buying it. It’s all too easy sometimes to explain how to escape the dangers of a horror movie, and that’s a sign of a bad horror movie. House seems haunted, but you’re only visiting? Dude, just go home. Crazy killer in the woods? Drive away. Being chased by some slow-moving zombie monster? Just run away.
So, in conclusion: Freddy Kreuger was scary (you can’t get away), but Jason Vorhees isn’t as much (he can’t realistically ride the bus or catch a cab so, you know, just leave). Likewise, cutting off some guys nuts and tossing them in a blender isn’t scary. If he’s made to do it because he has a brain worm that he can’t get out, that is scary. It’s all about setting, it’s all about agency, it’s all about character.
It isn’t about the blood.
The following was excised from a KGB black ops facility by CIA deep cover operatives in the winter of 1971. It is an incomplete fragment of what is apparently a much longer work, and it is uncertain how, if at all, the Soviets intended to use or had used its contents or, indeed, who the author is. It is the advice of this translator that this file is some kind of fiction or the rantings of a lunatic. There is, however, far too much associated KGB and CIA documentation to discount it entirely. Something was going on here, though what is terrible to contemplate.
What is often misunderstood is this: all sorcery is black sorcery. There is no other type. The flashy tricks and dramatic swoops of the stage illusionist are charades, nothing more. Likewise, the mentalist and the so-called psychic are nothing but talented charlatans and liars. Sorcery—true sorcery—is dirty and abhorrent to so-called cultured men. This I know.
The irony of black sorcery is that it is as old as God Himself. Its power derives from His own, at least in part. We may not cast back the waters of the Red Sea, nor may we transmute staff into snake; these miracles are beyond us, just as they were beyond Pharaoh. We know, however, a deeper secret. It is one more subtle and every bit as powerful.
Sorcery is the power of Life and Death.
The great Gift given to the world by the Almighty and wielded by Jesus over the body of Lazarus is the power which we manipulate, though to a much lesser degree. If Eden were the great bonfire that began it all, that which we toy with is but the sputtering embers and errant sparks of that great conflagration. Still, with sparks one may do much, if one is clever.
Sorcery involves the viscera and fluids of living creatures to be enacted. If you are opposed to shedding of blood and disturbed by the touch of dead flesh, you will never be a sorcerer. Indeed, one should not wish to be a sorcerer at all; it is no blessing. Perhaps in the courts of ancient Egypt our skills were esteemed, but now we are reviled, abhorred, or simply denied. Only upon the tiny island of Hispaniola can you find members of our order practicing their art openly, and even then they are met with derision. The societies of mankind deny what they know is true—life is a power beyond the simple physics of anatomy. Were it not, every doctor could bring life where there is death; every scientist would have a Monster like Victor Frankenstien’s.
I am one of the last, true necromancers. I write this to explain myself and my work, but I do not seek your forgiveness or pardon. I have done nothing wrong. Raising the dead is no crime if the cause for which they are raised is just, and I am a just man. Or I was a just man until recently.
My captors—these wretched, drab bureaucrats who fawn in Stalin’s wake and worship the fiction of their Party—they have made me do what I would not have done otherwise. I have created things for them and I know that they will be misused. I have given eternal life to the unworthy and the vicious; I have raised the innocent to obey the guilty. These are crimes, but I will make amends. I have all the time in the world, though they refuse to believe it. I was old when Tsar Nicholas II was a boy, so what do they know, these children of Lenin?
It may come to pass, however, that they will somehow destroy me. If this were to happen, it would be unwise for me to leave this world without laying out the weaknesses of those things which I have created. Heed me well:
Your enemy is not the servants—what the bokor of dark Haiti call zombi—for, while they have many uses, their power is brief and worthless without direction. No, it is the masters you must fear—those who have never passed the lychgate or similar after their deaths, those bodies that still live. They are the lych [editor’s note: this word originally written in the Latin alphabet; it is presumed the author was not satisfied with its Cyrillic equivalent for reasons I can only infer. It should be noted that the word is most probably derived from the Old English ‘lic,’ meaning ‘corpse’ or ‘body’ and nothing more], and they are the only ones besides our Lord and those who have passed into His Kingdom who have achieved eternal life. This life, though, is a shadow of its former self.
The lych persist in this world in full possession of their mind and willpower (so long as the one can maintain the other), but they rest within a body that is physically dead. They are sorcerers almost without exception or, at the very least, they know something of sorcery otherwise they will not be long for this world. They should not be underestimated under any circumstances.
You cannot murder a lych. They are already dead. Stab them and they will only bleed insofar as their blood is still present. Shoot them and you create a hole and nothing more. Cut off their head and their body and their head will seek to find one another. They do not feel pain, or at least not strongly—many come to miss the sensation; it drives some mad. Break their bones and you damage their vessel, but you do not harm their resolve or their intelligence.
It has been suggested that the lych may be killed by fire or by utterly obliterating their body. This is only partially true. Destroy the body and you rob the lych of his vessel, but his spirit will not dissipate. He will lurk and fester in the place where he was struck dead—for an eternity, if need be—until he is either truly released from this life or a new vessel presents itself. This is most easily accomplished with another dead body. It may be accomplished otherwise, as well. Possession is a very risky endeavor for the lych, but bears with it proportional benefits. I digress, however—more about possession later.
The lych is sustained by the captured essence of his life force. This is contained in his phylactery or phylacteries, known also as zombi to the bokor of West Africa, though this should not be confused with the servants the lych often employs. The process for preparing a phylactery is long and complex and requires much blood. It is a process I will not share with you, nor with my captors. What is important is that the phylactery or phylacteries are the only true weakness of the lych and their only bond to mortality. If it cannot be found and destroyed utterly, the lych can never truly depart this world for his final reward or punishment, as is appropriate to his actions.
The weapons of the lych are numerous and mysterious, and vary according to individual. To list them all here would be pointless—there are always exceptions. I have mentioned their sorcery, and that is enough for you to know their power. They have spent many mortal lifetimes perfecting their arts, and they are more skilled in them than any other save another of their kind. In general, it is enough to know that the lych have power over the dead and the living, the spiritual and the physical, and can learn and do much with the simple application of certain rituals. Their intelligence is their weapon, and it is a potent one.
Of their weaknesses, however, I can speak more directly. I have already mentioned the phylactery, but this is as much advantage as it is weakness—a lych may hide his phylactery anywhere on the Earth, even many thousands of miles from himself, and make his foes despair in hoping to defeat him. There are those lych who have buried theirs deep in the darkness of continental forests and jungles, never to be found again, and lived for ages without fear of compromise. The lych who wears his phylactery about his neck is a fool, but few of them are fools.
The greatest weakness of the lych is his body. It is dead, rotting, and weakening with every passing day. If they sustain injuries, they never heal. If they contract diseases, their body falls away to rot around them. This is of great concern to the lych, as he is then less able to blend into society and also less physically capable of interacting with the world. The ancient Egyptians embalmed their immortal high priests so that this rotting process would slow itself, and most modern lych do so as well. This, however, leaves them gaunt and thin—very corpselike in appearance and physically weak—but enables them to live in relative stability for long periods. They will cover up their gaunt appearance with make-up and wigs (the lych loses his hair very quickly) and wear concealing clothing. They will also seek to avoid infection and exposure to bacteria with ruthless attention, as the simple germs common mortals encounter on a daily basis are sufficient to devour the lych’s body. They will need to moisten their eyes and tongues often to prevent them from drying out and withering (though it should be noted they do not need these organs to see or be heard). Finally, they will avoid bright sunlight, as even minor burning from the sun is irreversible and leads to further complications. The lych values his body, even though he does not need it to persist—it is his primary tool for interacting with the world, and he spends much of his time caring for it.
There are those lych who seek to maintain some of their vitality through the consumption of fresh blood. This has its uses for a lych, as he is typically in need of fresh blood to engage in sorcery (which can, in turn, be used to delay his gradual decay). This habit among some is undoubtedly the origin of the so-called vampyr, but the lych is considerably more dangerous, if physically less potent.
Another important weakness of the lych lies with purified salt. Salt is an element that connects humanity with God and is a symbol of His various covenants with the faithful throughout time. Salt, particularly if pure and consecrated, interferes with the connection between the lych and his phylactery. If you were to make a ring of pure salt around a lych, the body would fall inert and the spirit banished back to his phylactery, as the link cannot pass a barrier of pure salt. Likewise, a lych may not pass onto consecrated ground. It should be noted to the fanatical that this is not an indication of the wickedness of the lych, but rather a regrettable fact of their existence. Throwing salt on them does not hurt them anymore than it would hurt a mortal person.
As a final caution, those who would combat the unrighteous lych must be made aware of certain misconceptions about the living dead. Holy water and holy symbols are of no worth against them, except perhaps as psychological weapons. Running water does not stop them anymore than it stops another man (though the embalmed lych is a poor swimmer and usually too weak to cross any great breadth of water). Burning them destroys their body, but has no effect on their spirit (though it should be mentioned that those lych that are embalmed with certain alcohol-based chemicals will occasionally explode as much as burn—be warned). With proper sun protection, a lych has no compunction walking about during the day, and even direct sunlight, though bad for their body’s long-term duration, does not harm them. To rely upon these superstitions in your battle against the lych is to court your own death.
That is enough for today. My captors are coming—I can smell them. I am interested in how they will choose to motivate me this time; they have given up on torture, of course. There are still things they cannot make me do. What evil they have compelled me to commit is only a fraction of my potential; I only hope they do not suspect this. I hope I am strong enough to endure longer than this new Union of theirs. I must be, even if I must live on as a spirit in this dismal place forever.
The undead are in-vogue of late. Vampires, Zombies, Ghosts and so-on are all pretty popular in movies, TV, books, and so on. One thing I’ve found odd, however, is that more and more of these critters are the result of either technology or religion to almost the exclusion of all else, and I’ve been thinking about that idea vis-a-vis the undead, and I’m not sure I love the idea.
The Undead and Science
The science-creating-the-undead thing is much, much more recent than the religious angle and, for my money, also more ridiculous. Science–even pseudoscience–is poorly applied to things that are ostensibly dead. Just think about it for a few minutes and much of the scientific explanations for werewolves, zombies, vampires, and the rest of our popular monsters rapidly fall apart.
I’ve already explored why this idea is nonsense for zombies (if you don’t recall, check out my anti-zombie manifesto), but let’s take Vampires, instead. The Blade franchise, in addition to others, have maintained that Vampires are essentially people who (1) don’t grow old, (2) drink blood, (3) are ‘allergic’ to silver, (4) have poor defenses against sunlight, and so on. You watch Blade devising new technogadgets to combat them, they rationalize things like ‘UV light works like sunlight’ and ‘the vampires can wear sunblock, so…’ and on and on and on. Thing is, they very rarely take it all the way, which is what I find annoying. I ask lots and lots of questions like ‘why can’t the metabolize regular food instead of drinking blood?’ or, ‘if they can’t make their own blood, why don’t they get transfusions instead of drinking it–wouldn’t that be faster?’ or ‘if they’re dead, how come they don’t rot?’ and so on and so forth until I just get so frustrated with the damn thing and start yelling ‘why didn’t you just call it magic? MAGIC!’
The Undead and Religion
The other common origin for the undead comes from religious or spiritual material. Now, this I don’t really have a problem with, per se, in that this is from antiquity. Usually used in reference to ghosts more than any other kind of undead, the religious/spiritual angle is a story with lots of dramatic potential and is firmly based in our collective human canon–everybody’s got their stories of demons, ghosts, vampires, and so on who had something terrible happen to them and they linger on in this world, waiting for something to either destroy them or show them how to ‘cross over’, so to speak.The only issue I have with this particular version of the tale is that it’s so, well, wishy-washy. There aren’t any rules, really, and it’s the rules that make monsters fun. Vampires are the most popular not because they are inherently the coolest, but because they have the most lore built up around them in the form of rules, laws, and ‘gubbins’, if you will, that give the protagonists in stories involving vampires more to ‘sink their teeth into’, if you’ll pardon the pun. Without these rules, we’re stuck with talking about our feelings and trying to ‘make things right’. This can be interesting, but it doesn’t lend itself to rip-roaring adventure, exactly.
The Middle Ground
What I’d like to see more of (and it’s out there, mind you, just I want more) are monster stories that (1) acknowledge we’re working magically here and (2) have set rules in place to keep things crunchy. Buffy/Angel tended to do this, I think Supernatural has done this to some extent, and of course their are Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but it hasn’t seemed to propagate.
Perhaps that’s just me, anyway, from my position on the periphery of the Urban Fantasy subgenre. Perhaps this is just my knee-jerk reaction to zombie mania, which I find aggrevating, and to the wussing-down of vampires from ‘fearsome monsters’ to basically plain old supervillains/heroes (if that). I want me some scary-ass new monsters, or old ones dredged up, preferably created by wizards or, better yet, are wizards themselves.
Yeah, I’m talking about the lich.
You know what I mean–the oldest, nastiest, most badass undead creature in Dungeons and Dragons, brought back into a new housing. The most recent incarnation of this fella was Voldemort, really, but I’d like to see more done with the idea. Heck, I plan on doing more with it myself, provided I ever get around to it. I want an intelligent, powerful, sorcerous monster who is neither attractive nor numerous to kick some mortal ass. I think much could be done with these wizards-turned-immortal undead, and I’m hoping it happens.
I’m also hoping I can contribute. Perhaps I’ll introduce the character I have in mind here on this blog sometime. Maybe I’ll discuss the Rules of the Lich. In any event, I really want to see fewer plots involving monster-making viruses or demonic possession.
I have a feeling this post is going to be unpopular, but here it goes: Dr. Who is an unimpressive television program. I have tried–I’ve really tried–to like the show, but I just can’t stop rolling my eyes most of the time. At this point I’ve slogged my way through about two seasons–the Chris Eccleston season and the majority of the first David Tennant season–and I can’t quite see what it is that has all you Whovians hooked. It took me a little while to formulate exactly what it was that I disliked about the show, and I think I have it narrowed down. What follows is my critique, for your perusal and (possibly) ridicule, though I can’t for the life of me figure out what has so many folks obsessed.
What I Like
Since I like to keep myself fair and even-keeled when it comes to ripping up popular scifi/fantasy properties, let’s start with what I like about Dr. Who. In the first place, I should point out that I really wanted to like Dr. Who, and so these various facts were the things I kept bringing up early in the first season to defend the show against my wife, who thinks it is overall pretty stupid-though-tolerable television.
In the first place, I like the overall concept well enough–the idea of an ancient alien who travels space/time alone and helps people along the way isn’t a bad one. I never thought it was particularly amazing or innovative, per se (I mean, isn’t that the structure of about 75% of the adventure television programs ever made, just this time across space and time instead of some other more earthly setting? I mean, from The A-Team to Kung Fu to Paladin to, hell, even to The Shadow, that’s basically how they all work). It took me a while to work up the interest to watch the show, mostly because catching up with a television show is a lot of work and the concept wasn’t really calling out to me.
Then, when speaking with a friend of mine who (I presume) enjoys the show, he pointed out the thing that I did (and do) like quite a bit: the tone and the main character. I love how positive the Doctor is–so much sci-fi is all doom and gloom and it gets oppressive and miserable sometimes. I love that the Doctor actually enjoys travelling around and that, despite all the evil he’s seen, he hasn’t gotten jaded and miserable. Lonely perhaps, but not miserable. That was fun, watching the Doctor grin and laugh and joke his way through horror and mayhem. The sense of humor sprinkled across the episodes and the Doctor’s banter in general is quite good and amusing, and if I ever watch any more of the series, that constitutes the sole reason.
So, okay, enough with the positives.
What I Don’t Like
There is a good bit more about Doctor Who that I find anywhere from annoying to lazy to unpallatable, and this might take a little while. Settle in.
Charge #1: Poor Supporting Cast
Rose Tyler is a very boring character. I gather that she vanishes or dies at the end of this season (I’m not quite there yet), but whatever–she bores the hell out of me. I mean, seriously, what’s her deal? If you’re struggling for an answer there, it’s because she HAS NO DEAL. She’s a prop, as like as not. She has no desires (that I can detect), no obvious fears or baggage (well, her dad, I guess, but that’s pretty standard ‘girl with father issues’ crap and not very interesting), no compelling relationship with anyone besides her mother (who’s a much better charater, by the way, and I would have preferred to see the Doctor and Ginny galivanting across the universe in a heartbeat), no set of interesting skills or hobbies, and just about nothing else I can figure that would make her an interesting character in any way shape or form. This is only made even more frustrating by the fact that the Doctor is so damned enamoured with her. “I trust Rose Tyler” and “She’s stronger than you think” and “I believe in her” and all that crap. Why? She’s a damned blank slate, man. It’s like saying you believe in the wisdom contained in a sheet of blank paper.
In addition to this, of course, is the fact that just about every other character is a one-shot person whose actual characteristics are either glossed over or unimportant. There are exceptions, of course, in individual episodes (like that guy who founded the Doctor fan club only to get all his buddies absorbed by the ridiculous fat alien–very good character, that guy. Too bad the end of the episode made the whole thing absurd as opposed to touching), but generally the whole group is a wash. For my money, besides the Doctor, the only good characters have been Mickey and Ginny, and the show keeps shoving them aside instead of using them in interesting ways.
Charge #2: Frequent and Irresponsible Use of the Idiot Ball
First off, I appreciate very much that the Doctor isn’t walking around with an arsenal in his pocket and doesn’t go out of his way to pick fights or blow things up or kill things–true to character and a refreshing change from most TV sci-fi fare. The thing is, though, the show keeps the Doctor alive not because the Doctor is all that clever (he isn’t), but because the enemies are usually overly stupid or slow-witted or otherwise inept. If you don’t know what I mean by the ‘idiot ball’, go here–this show uses it ALL THE DAMNED TIME. Like, in just over half the episodes at least, probably more. If the Doctor is being chased, the enemy moves at a walk. If the Doctor is being threatened, their weapons don’t work or they miss or something. If the Doctor is captured, there is usually a fairly convenient method of escape that presents itself that a reasonably intelligent adversary would never have allowed. It’s RIDICULOUS.
Point in case–remember the first David Tennant episode? The one where the giant spaceship of nasty aliens shows up and gets a whole third or quarter of the Earth’s population under its control and has them held hostage? Well, generally I liked this episode (it was one of the good ones), but there were a number of things that I found ridiculous and pertaining to the idiot ball. First off, the TARDIS shows up aboard their ship and the Doctor strides out (after being revived by tea, of all things–more on that later, though) and starts talking. So, a few questions: (1) why don’t the aliens capture and incarcerate the unidentified alien who isn’t part of the diplomatic party? (2) why are all the people aboard the vessel and surrounded by hostile aliens still alive in the first place? (3) Once the Doctor calls their bluff on the Blood Control thing, why don’t they just kill him right then with their rayguns rather than have a duel? (4) Why did the aliens let the Doctor look at the Blood Control thingy in the first place, since they knew they were bluffing and wouldn’t want him to figure it out?
I mean, in all reasonable situations, the Doctor would be captured, pinned, killed, or otherwise neutralized as soon as he shows up. Don’t even get me started on the Daleks, who, for such an advanced race of killing machines, have probably the least efficient method of going about killing people ever. What is the rate of fire on those stupid death rays, anyway? Muskets fire more often, for crying out loud.
Then, of course, the Idiot Ball is fielded almost as often by the supporting cast as it is by the villains. So, I just watched that episode where the kid can draw people and then suck them into the drawings. If your kid could do that, and you knew your kid could do that, and the Doctor told you your kid could do that, and you were told not to let your kid do that, would you leave your kid alone? Even for a second? Then, even supposing you did make the mistake of leaving her alone once, would you do it a second time? What the hell, lady? It would have been one thing if that kid’s mother was meant to be portrayed as negligent, but she wasn’t, so far as I could tell. She was just spontaneously stupid becuase the idiot ball had lodged itself behind her left ear and wasn’t letting go.
Charge #3: The Doctor Isn’t Very Clever
Look, he isn’t. He’s just not all that smart. If he were, he wouldn’t need the idiot ball to hit the field quite as often as it does. For most of the episodes I’ve seen, the Doctor wins on a technicality. He doesn’t outsmart the opposition, he doesn’t overpower them, he doesn’t outmaneuver them, he just remembers something he learned once about X and then applies it and viola! “Oh, right, Blood Control doesn’t work like that!” or “He just needs a hug from his mom” or “obviously the telescope kills werewolves!” It’s ridiculous. I find myself throwing my hands up in the air more often than not and rolling my eyes.
There have been other shows that have done this, of course–Star Trek: The Next Generation is chief among them. What made TNG a better show, though (and it is a better show) is that, while the A plot designed to solve the ridiculous alien cloud or whatever was invariably solved by Data shooting some kind of subatomic particle at it and everything working itself out, the underlying character arcs at play in the B plot were actually compelling and interesting. This was done by having good characters that we liked, as opposed to the Doctor and Rose doing nothing for no reason all the time and, therefore, giving us nothing much to fall back on. We just sit there and watch, inevitably, as the Doctor whips out his sonic screwdriver and solves the problem by use of pseudo-science and xeno-archaeology. We have to accept his solution, of course, since we have no prior knowledge of what’s going on, anyway, and his explanation is as good as any, but it’s still fairly lame. The Doctor’s no genius, he’s just read more books than us. I’m unimpressed.
Charge #4: The Show Buys into the Doctor’s Mystique
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that just assumed the audience’s belief in the coolness of the main character more than Doctor Who. Let me think for a second….hmmmm…well, maybe Knight Rider or the A-Team, but since they had characters that actively earned their cool more often, I’m not certain. In any event, the show just assumes that everybody watching thinks the Doctor is the coolest thing since James Bond, and it goes out of its way to prove it. They play up his history at just about every opportunity, play eerie music when outsiders are thinking about him, and all that would be fine if they didn’t insist on having him perform ridiculous stunts like recover the Olympic Torch. Jesus–it didn’t even make sense that he would be there, let alone picking it up and running with it.
At times the show does this well, but much of the time I find myself rolling my eyes and saying ‘whatever, man–you’re just a dude who bums around the universe with a blonde sidekick, you aren’t Nelson Mandella.’ Now that I’ve said that, of course, there’s probably an episode where the Doctor teaches Nelson Mandela how to read and write or some just paternalistic garbage. Anyway, moving on to my final point:
Charge #5: It Just isnt’ that Scary
Doctor Who doesn’t scare me. Maybe I’m jaded or heartless or something, but I just haven’t found any of the episodes to be really all that creepy. That one in WW2 with the gasmask kid asking for his mummy? Eh. How scary can a slow moving child really be, anyway? That, of course, really comes down to the heart of it: why should I be scared of creatures that aren’t even all that dangerous to a dude who flies around the universe with a screwdriver and a trenchcoat? I got a trenchcoat, I got a screwdriver, and I’m every bit as smart as that guy in his magic phone booth (yes, ‘police box’, I know–I’m trying to goad you), so why am I scared again?
Well, to make a long story short (too late), I’ve found Doctor Who to be underwhelming at best and downright stupid at worst. There have been perhaps 4 episodes I’d call ‘good’ so far, and none I’d call ‘great’. The closest they came was the first Tennant episode, where the Doctor actually did something clever (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”), and past that…eh. I could take it or leave it. If Doctor Who were on television at the same time as Star Trek Voyager, it would be a coin flip, I kid you not.
Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”
If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ’I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in. Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful. You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.
This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).
Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer. When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.
The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.
Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.
There is a picture floating around Facebook by
Timothy Schmidt (Alex Panagop–check him out here). It’s one of those ‘Inspiration’ poster spoofs, and this one is about Teddy Bears. Observe its awesomeness. If you can only read large type, the caption says “Protecting Innocent
children from monsters-under-the-bed since 1902.” The picture, of course, speaks for itself.
As a very imaginative little boy, I was very serious about my stuffed animal guardians. I had a stuffed elephant, a teddy bear, a pair of dogs, and a stuffed duck. Their job was to protect me from monsters. I realize this all sounds very girlish, but my stuffed animals had ranks, a chain of command, and particular missions. The elephant was heavy artillery, the rabbit and dogs were reconnaissance, the ducks were air support, and the bear was the frontline trooper. They would combat and, presumably, defeat any evil creatures that laid siege to my bed each night while I was asleep. I presume they were always victorious because I never was actually consumed by any monsters.
The monsters I imagined as a child came in all the various shapes and sizes of a small child’s hell. They were insectoid daemons, psychotic undead killers, giant poisonous spiders and crabs, and a man-eating giant named Big Belly Ben whose particularly frightening illustration in a book of children’s nursery rhymes haunted me for much of my young life. The original rhyme went like this:
ROBIN the Bobbin, the big-bellied Ben,
He eat more meat than fourscore men;
He eat a cow, he eat a calf,
He eat a hog and a half;
He eat a church, he eat a steeple,
He eat the priest and all the people!
A cow and a calf,
An ox and a half,
A church and a steeple,
And all the good people,
And yet he complain’d that his stomach wasn’t full.
The picture featured a giant kneeling over a church in a medieval European city and prying off the roof with one hand while he stuffed wriggling people in his mouth with the other. I’d have nightmares about Big Bellied Ben stooping over my own house, peering in the windows with his big eye trying to see me and, if he did, he’d rip off the wall and pull me out. I’d struggle to hide in the closet, but I never could get the door open. It was stuck, or my socks kept slipping on the floor, or I was in a whole different room in the house and had to run up the stairs, dodging the windows, as Ben’s greusome laughter shook the walls.
Can you understand why I had a team of stuffed commandos by my bedside each night?
With the exception of Ben, the monsters that infested the nooks and crannies of my house had certain limitations I was quick to capitalize upon. Firstly, they abhorred light. Turning on the lights in any room before entering would be sure to drive them away. Secondly, they were slow, so if I ran through a dark room (or outside at night, or through the basement) I’d be unlikely to be grabbed. Finally, they hid between the cracks in the floorboards or in the cement floor or the brick walkways. If I just didn’t step on any cracks, I wouldn’t get nabbed or, at the least, I’d buy myself some time. I can’t quite express how *real* these things were to me, either, and they were that way for a long time. Longer, probably, than most of my friends my age.
Gradually, the intricacy of the forces fighting against the monsters grew to a point where it had its own factions and rivalries. The bear, for instance, defected to my brother and, while my brother’s stuffed animals were allies in the anti-monster quest, intra-bedroom warfare developed from time to time. Furthermore, my sister (who seemed to have nothing but stuffed rabbits and dolls) had her own little society of critters, but they ‘didn’t believe in monsters’ and occupied the same role in my little drama as Rohan did in the Lord of the Rings–sitting on their butts, not getting involved, all because their ruler (my sister) was having poisonous lies poured in her ear by a traitor in the midst of her rabbit population. My brother and I would occasionally stage crusades against the heathen bunny creatures and take captives. My sister would complain to my mother, though, so such invasions were short-lived.
All of my toys eventually got in on the act. GI Joes eventually formed the backbone of my monster-fighting force, along with an assortment of He-Man action figures, Star Wars guys, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (though my belief in the forces of darkness living within my house was waning significantly by then). I can only presume that this arms race was due to darker and even more sinister monsters being sent against my bedroom fortress each evening, but I don’t know for sure.
I was asleep the whole time.
Eventually, all of this led me to write science fiction and fantasy. I learned to build worlds and to populate them with characters before I could even read, and I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since.
I am probably the only person on Earth who finds The Lion King underwhelming and not particularly moving. Yes, yes–I can hear you booing and hissing, and I don’t care. I think it’s an adequate tale. Not bad, by any means, and worlds better than the likes of Pocahontas and Mulan, but hardly worthy of the popular adoration it’s been enjoying the past fifteen years or so. So, where to start my little rant…oh, I know:
It’s Disnified Hamlet
I am certainly far from the first person to point this out, but in case you’ve never realized, The Lion King is Shakespeare’s Hamlet with all the sex removed and with a happy ending. Told by lions. It sounds crazy, but think about it for about twenty or thirty seconds. Ready?
The plot of Hamlet: A young prince who lacks direction returns home after being away when he is told his father has been murdered by his uncle who has married his mother. The ghost of his father asks him to seek vengeance, and the young prince spends the balance of the action doing so, all the while learning how to be ‘the man’ of the house.
The plot of the Lion King: A young prince who lacks direction finds out his uncle has murdered his father and de-facto married his mother and, after chatting with his ghostly dad, returns to make things right by avenging his father’s death, all the while learning how to be ‘the man’ of the house.
Same. Damn. Thing.
Simba is Hamlet, Mufasa is Hamlet Sr., Scar is Claudius, Nala is Ophelia, Timon/Poomba = Rosencrantz/Gildenstern, Zazoo is Polonius…etc, etc.
What Disney changes, though, and one of the things that pisses me off about it is that they (1) remove Laertes (bad move, since it’s Laertes that really makes things interesting), (2) never explore Simba’s uncertainty about taking out Scar, and (3) the only person who dies is Scar, and that not even by Simba’s hand/paw. Granted, it’s a Disney movie–I get it, no super-duper tragic ending–but even still, it sours me on the film a little. That, however, isn’t the main problem I have. The main problem is that…
The Movie Wastes Time
Yes, it does. Seriously, it does. Stop arguing–go and watch the movie again. Did it? Now, let me ask you two questions:
1) What is this story really about. In other words, what’s the conflict?
2) How much of the movie is actually spent resolving or exploring that conflict?
My answers are this: 1) Simba’s journey from child to man through the process of securing justice for Scar and saving the Pridelands. 2) 40 minutes of a 90 minute movie.
The useful and important parts of the movie are the opening song, the Elephant Graveyard scene and Simba’s talk with Mustafa afterwards, the Death of Mustafa, the reunion with Nala, and the final fight with Scar. Altogether, a minimal portion of the movie. What’s the rest?
Because we waste SO MUCH TIME with Hakuna Matata, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King,’ and a bunch of other completely pointless stuff that doesn’t advance the story, doesn’t sufficiently explore Simba’s character with any degree of depth, and means the *really interesting stuff* (i.e. the main plot of Hamlet) is essentially squeezed into the last 20 minutes or so of the film. Because of that, the film lacks pathos. I am not fully invested. I feel like the movie just is getting started and then, all of a sudden, it’s over. Boooo!
Oh yeah, one more thing:
The Songs are Lame
They are. They really are. Not the score, mind you–that’s pretty good–but the actual songs are generally boring. “Circle of Life” is great, but the rest? “Hakuna Matata” is mildy diverting but uninspired, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is actively annoying, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is completely terrible in all ways. Even the controlling metaphor of the song is strained. When following up such acts as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, I was frankly expecting more. Even Pocahontas’s songs are better.
So, there you have it. I think the Lion King is lame. Have at me, Disniphiles!
(oh, and as a side note, the Julie Taymor Musical version is much, much better than the animated film. I actually recommend that one)
When the time came, Myreon was the first applicant called. She looked neither right nor left as she walked through the ranks of her wealthy, well-dressed peers. Myreon didn’t need to see the contessa’s face to know what she thought of her, nor was it a mystery what kind of toothy, artificial grin Gold Chain would sport as she passed. They had come back in twos and threes, surreptitiously clutching small pieces of jewelry or tiny vials of dark liquid, not speaking with each other save to offer vague commentary about the weather or the time. Myreon had glared at them all, but they hadn’t returned her look. They looked away, politely ignoring her existence. They were wealthy, and they had a lot of practice evading the gaze of poor people. They were good at it.
Passing through the iron gates of the Arcanostrum was like passing through a thin sheet of cold rain—the taste in the air changed, the temperature cooled, the sunlight became filtered and diffuse. Myreon had done this twelve times before, but even on the thirteenth she was still disoriented. She could never tell if the place she was now was actually on the other side of that gate or not—it looked nothing like the simple paved path one could see from the plaza beyond. It was a garden, of sorts, shaded over by old willow trees and featuring a perfectly circular pool with a rim of mossy stone and filled with yellow-green water.
There, standing around it in a half circle, were the five Archmagi—Cormyr of the Dweomer, Odric of the Fey, Salien of the Lumen, Lyrelle of the Ether, and Lord Defender Trevard. They wore simple cloaks and bore staves as unique as their persons—this one withered and bent, that one gleaming, straight, and true. The Lord Defender was wearing a suit of mageglass armor so spotlessly bright that it sparkled like silver in the twilight gloom. These were the five most powerful wizards in the world, the Keeper of the Balance himself excepted, and they were all staring at simple Myreon Alafarr, with her dog-eared old spellbook and her plain dress.
“You are aware of the test’s requirements?” Cormyr asked, his hawk-nose bouncing a little with every accented syllable.
Myreon nodded. “Yes.”
Salien smiled at her. “Very well,Ms.Alafarr—you may cast your spell.”
Myreon didn’t move. She had been planning what to say ever since Lyrelle left her on the plaza, but now she could think of nothing that wouldn’t sound like a whine or an excuse. She clenched her teeth to keep her chin from quivering.
Salien motioned for her to begin, her every movement soft and somehow fascinating, like the gentle motion of a swan on water. “Go ahead, Ms. Alafarr. No one expects much.”
Myreon’s eyes began to water. “I…I’m afraid I can’t cast a spell, Magus.”
Salien frowned. “Oh. Not a one?”
Odric tugged a twig out of his long, unkempt beard. “Hmph. Did you read the sign?”
Myreon nodded. “Yes, but…but I can’t.”
Lord Defender Trevard nodded slowly. “We understand, miss. It is a very challenging test—you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Tears were flowing down her cheeks at this point. Myreon was holding her breath so as not to sob. If only they weren’t being so nice about it. If only they mocked her like the others, then it would have been easier. Instead, she stood there feeling like she was being stabbed over and over in the guts, and there was nothing she could do but to stand there and take it. “I…I know…thank you.”
Lyrelle tapped her staff against the ground. “We will be making our final decisions for admission tomorrow, Ms. Alafarr. Please return then to hear our results.”
Odric raised his hand. “You should know, though, that not passing the final test weighs heavily upon our decision.”
Myreon nodded again and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Yes. Thank you, magus. Thank you for passing me this far.”
Cormyr shook his head. “We promote on merit and merit alone, miss. You have nothing to thank us for—thank yourself.”
And that was it. Myreon left that magical garden and walked back into the plaza. All of the other applicants saw her face and didn’t need to ask her a thing. They all knew what had happened.
The walk back to the inn was long—longer than usual. It might have been due to the time of day; it was still early, and the streets of Saldor were bustling with all kind of traffic. Myreon, though, wasn’t thinking about the traffic. She was thinking about those glittering spires and ivy-clad halls to her back. She was thinking about the things she would never learn and the places she would never see. She was thinking about winter.
Drython Alafarr was sitting on the steps before the inn to meet her coming home. Mitos the innkeeper was with him, whittling a stick and chewing tobacco. Both men rose when they saw her coming.
“You’re home early!” Drython said, smiling at her.
Myreon didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to cry—particularly not in front of that creep, Mitos. “It was a different kind of test today.”
“Did you fail?” Mitos asked, spitting into the gutter.
Myreon glared at him. “That’s private.”
The innkeeper shrugged and went back to his whittling. His eyes, however, kept straying to Myreon’s bodice.
Her father seemed not to notice. “When do you find out how you did? Tomorrow morning?”
He clapped his daughter on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do well, Myrrie. They’d be fools to fail you.”
Myreon shook her head, her eyes fluttering and mouth pressed into a thin line. Her father saw her expression and she knew he understood. He gathered her up in a warm hug and whispered. “Never give up, Myrrie. If they don’t want you, make ‘em look you in the eye and tell you so.”
Myreon knew he didn’t understand; to think that Archmage Lyrelle would have a problem telling her she failed to her face! The hug felt good, though, and she leaned into it.
When they broke apart, Mitos was still there. He spat again. “If you fail tomorrow, missy, there’s a job for you here, if you like. I pay serving girls better than most.” His eyes glittered over he quivering moustache.
Drython Alafarr gave the Ihynishman a curt nod. “Thank you for the offer, sir, but my Myrrie didn’t fail anything.”
Mitos shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
The next day was cold and wet, with a rainy fog the clung to the stones and the lampposts of the city early in the morning. Myreon wore her patched and faded wool shawl and was wet through and shivering by the time she reached the plaza again. This time, though, she was completely alone. She waited before the gates in the morning mist, glancing left and right for any sign of anyone else, but there was no one.
Had everybody failed? It was possible, she guessed. Probably the archmagi saw right through their fake sorcery and had failed them outright. Or maybe they had all been passed straight away; the archmagi had just looked each wealthy young person up and down and said ‘congratulations, you’re just the kind of clever, wealthy fellow we’re looking for’ and that was it.
It couldn’t be, though. Could it?
The gates opened, all by themselves. Beyond, a Defender of the Balance in full mageglass armor and firepike pointed at her. “Myreon Alafarr?”
“With me, miss, if you please.”
Myreon stepped through and, again, the cold shiver passed through her body and she found herself standing again in that strange garden. It wasn’t raining here, nor was it cold; it was precisely as it had been the day before. The archmagi were there, as well, looking exactly the same as well. This time, however, there was a chair. Archmage Lyrelle motioned for her to sit in it.
“It has been an unusual year for applicants, to be certain.” Lyrelle said, her voice firm and declarative, as though she were reading a prepared statement. “Each year we expect a certain number of applicants to cheat or attempt to cheat, but very seldom do so many of them do so.”
Myreon blinked. “They all failed?”
“They were all eliminated immediately.” Cormyr said, his lip curling. “As you would have been, had you taken Lyrelle’s little offer.”
“So, I was right—it was a…”
Lyrelle raised her hand. “If you please—I haven’t finished. Now, it was wise of you not to accept my offer to cheat, Ms. Alafarr, even if it did mean you failed the test. As some of your fellow applicants surmised—and correctly—the test was an impossible one. It is extremely unlikely for a person without any formal training to be able to perform a sorcerous act to our satisfaction. Indeed, we expressly do not want the progeny of hedge wizards and adherents of petty witchcraft infiltrating these halls.”
“Hmph.” Odric offered, folding his thick forearms beneath his bushy beard.
Lyrelle favored the Archmage of the Fey with a significant glance—one that apparently bore enough weight that Odric un-folded his arms—and continued. “There is a second part to the test, however. We wanted to see if the applicant was willing to fail.”
Myreon’s heart leapt. Could that mean…
“What we do here,” Lyrelle continued, “is train young men and women to manipulate the very fabric of creation itself to their whim. It is a considerable power and with it comes considerable responsibility. There are a great many shortcuts and work-arounds in the High Arts, and all of them are dangerous and unwise. We do not wish to instruct people who would rather cheat than fail—that recipe leads to disaster for all of us.”
Myreon waited, but Lyrelle appeared to have finished. “Ma..magus, does that mean…”
The archmagi all nodded.
“I PASSED!” Myreon leapt to her feet. “I’m an initiate?”
Salien came to her, arms spread. “Welcome, initiate. May your stay here be long and enlightening.”
Myreon hugged her—she was thin and bony, like a bird—but broke away. “I…I have to go.”
Lord Defender Trevard blinked. “Go? Where?”
“My father! I need to tell him!”
“Bah!” Odric barked. “The man already knows.”
“Why?” Myreon said, blinking at the old mage as the other came forward to shake her hand. “Who told him?”
Odric laughed. “My girl, a man doesn’t need a test to tell him his daughter is a winner. He knows. He knows deep in his bones.”
Myreon grinned more widely than she had in weeks. She felt like she could fly away—she was air, the sun. She was the summertime in a wool shawl.
Myreon was not alone in her assessment of the odds of passing. As the plaza before the Arcanostrum’s gates filled up in preparation for the day’s test, more and more young men and women read the note and were thoroughly horrified. Their reactions were, on the whole, more volcanic than Myreon’s own. Many wept, bitterly and openly, and cursed anything and everything nearby, though chiefly the archmagi. Others raged and stormed and shook their fists through the iron gates as though, by expressing their displeasure, the magi of Saldor would relent in their unreasonable expectations. Still others simply deflated, turned pale, and wandered off to various corners of the plaza, heads down, and drew invisible plans in the dust with their feet.
Myreon, for her part, went nowhere and said nothing. She could think of no coherent plan to enact, no preparations to begin, and no reasonable recourse to fall back on. A lot of applicants quit, right then and there—some of them loudly. One fellow, at least five years older than Myreon, wearing an ostentatious ensemble of lace and ostrich feathers, threw his floppy hat at the gate and spat, “I’ve had it with you! To Hell and Damnation with all of you wizards! Jean-Pierre Marsien DuPoirrette is not to be mocked!”
He turned and meant to march straight away, but Myreon was in his path. He glared at her, is pointed nose flaring like miniature bellows, and shooed her aside. “What are you still doing here? Go home, peasant! You failed—we all failed!”
Myreon felt her stomach flip and knew her bottom lip wanted to quiver, but she held them still. “I’m staying because I’m going to pass. You leave if you want to.”
The contessa from earlier lifted her head from her servant’s lap. “What? Do you know a spell, then?”
Myreon folded her arms. The contessa was no older than thirteen, and Myreon had no interest in looking stupid in the eyes of an arrogant child. “Maybe.”
That attracted a lot of attention. A few seconds later, every applicant in the plaza was crowding around Myreon, Pierre, and the young contessa. “Show me the spell you know!” One girl yelled, pulling off a solid gold ring with a diamond setting. “I’ll give you this!”
Another girl, probably Myreon’s age exactly, sniffed delicately at the ring. “Exactly the kind of gift one would expect from a Galaspiner Guild-girl.” She gave Myreon a sickly-sweet smile and unclasped her necklace. It was enchanted with emeralds that changed color in watery patterns and from it emanated a sweet, spring-like aroma, like fresh rain on a grassy field. “There’s much more like this for my friends. Can’t we be friends?”
Myreon’s mouth was hanging open, so she shut it with a click. “I’m…I’m keeping the spell to myself. I don’t know how to teach it, anyway.”
“Selfish little commoner!” The contessa hissed. “You think just because you know some piddling little magic trick that we’d consent to beg?”
The boy in Eretherian livery shook his head. He was at the back of the crowd, but he was taller than almost everybody by six inches, so everybody could see the smirk on his face. “She doesn’t know anything; she’s bluffing. I’d do it, too, if I were her. She needs us to quit so she can be the only one left in an hour. Then they’d have to take her, spell or not.”
The girl who’d offered Myreon the ring laughed. “They don’t have to take anybody. My uncle says there were a few years while he was an apprentice that they took no one.”
Another boy spoke up. “My father says that some years they take up to fifty. Maybe if we all fail the test, they’ll take all of us—we’d all be equally qualified, right?”
Pierrepulled himself to his full height, which wasn’t impressive, and stuck his nose in the air as though he smelled something. “I do not accept a world in which I am ‘equal’ to any of you. The blood of the Griffon Throne runs in my veins, and…”
The girl that offered Myreon the magic necklace rolled her eyes. “You Akrallians and your stupid bloodlines. As though the drop of royalty in your veins even compares to the hearty river of nobility common to all well-born Eretherian families. My grandfather was…”
Everyone began shouting at that point, and Myreon ducked out of the crowd. She sat underneath a nearby tree and watched the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful compare heritage and wave around pieces of heraldry and signet rings each of which would have purchased the whole inn she and her father had stayed in and would have enough left over to knock it down and build their own mansion. Her father had always encouraged her to look at people through their own eyes, but she found it practically impossible with these brats. Even without passing this test, they would all be lords and ladies—second sons and daughters, granted, but still noble. Where would Myreon be? Nowhere, that was where. She hoped they did all quit; at least then she wouldn’t be forced to listen to them bicker.
In the end, the group broke up. The Eretherians formed their own little circle (wherein they still argued among themselves, as Eretherian nobles did), the Akrallians formed their own circle (where they spent much of their time comparing bloodlines and seniority, as was their wont), and the Galaspiner guilders clustered in a little group nearby to Myreon. They seemed a bit more organized, and were pitching to one another various theories on what to do. Eventually, one of the quieter ones—a boy about Myreon’s age with blacksmith’s shoulders and a gold chain around his neck that could have bought and sold any dozen blacksmiths—whispered loud enough so that Myreon could scarcely hear. “What if we cheat?”
Myreon jerked her head sideways to stare at him. He caught her eye and grinned. “What if that’s the test?”
“What do you mean?” A pimple-faced redhead asked, scratching at his collar.
Gold Chain shrugged. “Every year they say the Arcanostrum’s final test, whatever it is, is a trick of some kind. Maybe this is the trick—maybe they want us to give up. Only those of us with enough cunning to find a way to pass make it through.”
Myreon stood up and came closer. The Galaspiners paid her little mind. “If we’re caught, we’ll be automatically failed!”
“We’d fail anyway—they’ve got to know that, don’t they? They want us to cheat.”
“How?” Myreon asked. “How do you cheat with something like this?”
Gold Chain grinned. “Easy—I know an enchanter near here. He can put a simple spell into something like a ring that will last for a few hours or maybe only work once. You get him to enchant it, walk into the test, cast your ‘spell’, and take what comes.”
The Galaspiners grinned like thieves. “Good idea. What’s something like that cost?”
“No more than a couple dozen gold marks, I’d bet.” He gave Myreon a wink. “Not cheap enough for everybody, I guess.”
They laughed at that; the sound of it was like a slap in the face. Myreon blinked and backed away. “What if I tell?”
Gold Chain shook his head, still chuckling. “Your name’s Alafarr, right? Your dad’s a vintner?”
Myreon froze. “How do you know that?”
“You tell on me and my friends, Alafarr, and I’ll see to it that my father buys that rotten little vineyard and throws you to the wolves.” Gold Chain, still smiling, gave her a little half bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse us—we’ve got a test to pass.”
Myreon watched them go, rage and fear making her heart skip in her chest. She wanted to smash Gold Chain’s toothy face with his stupid chain, but didn’t dare to anything other than glare at him. She turned away, just so she wouldn’t have to watch them leave.
Elsewhere in the plaza, those who hadn’t quit seemed to have gotten the same idea as the Galaspiners—they headed in various directions, babbling about potions that could make them float and magic scrolls that could cast themselves. They had relatives or business contacts or retainers who could fashion these things, and in every case the only cost would be money or favors. With every little lordling that walked off with a sly grin on his face, Myreon felt the weight of the test pressing more and more heavily on her chest.
What if she was the only one who failed, and only because the rest of them cheated? What if this was how it happened every year—the rich ones just bought their entry, and the others got brushed aside. Surely the archmagi could see through their tricks—couldn’t they?
What if they couldn’t?
Myreon threw herself under the same tree and put her head in her hands. She didn’t cry—she was too paralyzed by events. She was numb. She was going to fail, and the rest of these spoiled, cheating brats were going to win. It wasn’t fair.
“You’re one of the applicants, aren’t you? Myreon, isn’t it?” The voice was a woman’s, warm and firm like that of a kindly grandmother who doesn’t accept excuses.
Myreon looked up to see a striking woman with golden hair just barely streaked with gray and a firm face barely creased with the cares of age. Myreon didn’t need to see her black robes or the intricate staff by her side to know who she was: Lyrelle Reldamar, Archmage of the Ether and Mistress of theBlackCollege.
Myreon struggled to her feet. “Magus, I…I didn’t see you…I didn’t know that you’d…”
“I take care not to be seen when I choose not to be, child. Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying.” Myreon said, wiping under her eyes just to be sure. Her hand came back wet.
The Archmage Lyrelle smirked. “Of course not. Are you ready for today’s test?”
“I…no. I’m not. I can’t cast any spells at all.”
Lyrelle’s lips pursed in maternal concern. “My dear, that means you’ll fail. Whatever are you to do?”
“I…I…” Myreon couldn’t hold it in anymore. Her whole body seemed to melt into sobs. It was all she could do to hide her face in her hands. Her cheeks burned with equal parts misery and mortifying embarrassment—here she was, an applicant to the Arcanostrum who had made it all the way to the thirteenth test, and she was crying like a child in front of a woman widely considered to be the most powerful mage in the world.
Lyrelle put an arm around Myreon’s shoulders and patted her on the head. “Now, now, Myreon Alafarr. Stop this nonsense—sobbing makes you look like a market pig.”
Myreon half-snorted. “Wh…what?”
“I’m speaking to you now because you are one of our most promising applicants, and I personally don’t wish for you to fail. However, the other archmagi are unlikely to accept a girl who can’t even cast a simple spell, so…”
Myreon blinked away some tears. “Are you…are you offering to help me cheat?”
Lyrelle clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Cheat? Such a stigmatized term, isn’t it? I’d like to call it ‘surreptitious assistance’.”
“But I don’t have any money and…”
“Do I sound as though I’m asking you for money, darling?” Lyrelle smiled at her and shook her head. “I have all the money I need, I promise you. No, I’m offering you this, free of charge, because I’d rather have a hard-working Saldorian girl in the Arcanosturm than any dozen spoiled Akrallian brats, Eretherian boobs, or Galaspiner sneaks. We Saldorian women should stick together, don’t you think?” The Archmage winked at her.
Myreon felt herself blush. “Thank you, magus.”
“Your answer, Myreon. Do you wish to have my surreptitious assistance in this test or not?”
Myreon looked into the archmage’s eyes. They were a warm brown shade, but there was something sharp about them, too. Myreon realized she was reading Myreon’s facial features—observing, assessing, judging. The words of Gold Chain came back to Myreon suddenly. “What if this is the test?”
Lyrelle tapped her staff on the cobblestones. “Well? Imp caught your tongue?”
Myreon opened her mouth but it took a second before the word came out. “No.”
“Really?” Lyrelle blinked.
“No thank you…magus.” Myreon made a small curtsey. “I…I told my father I’d make him proud.” The last bit sounded very stupid when she said it aloud, so she blushed and apologized again.
Lyrelle pulled herself to her full height and adopted a more aloof expression than before; it was as though the ‘motherly’ part of her was slipped off as easily as a pair of gloves and stuffed in her pocket. “Such a pity, my dear. Such a great pity.”
And then, without so much as a pop, the archmage was gone.
Myreon Alafarr’s father looked brittle and tired, like a rusty hinge about to give out. Still, he smiled his snaggle-tooth smile and handed her the battered old spellbook that had been handed down from generation to generation on the Alafarr vineyard. “You’ll do me proud, Myrrie, I know.”
Myreon smiled at him; it was difficult. “What about the bill, Papa?”
Drython Alafarr looked over his shoulder at the tiny room he and his daughter had shared the past week. Tucked under the eaves of the inn on its top floor, Myreon could only stand upright in one half of the room, and the other half was comprised of a stale straw mat that smelled of mildew and sweat. Her father had let her have it; he slept on the floor. “I’ll settle the bill; worry about the test—that’s what matters.”
“Don’t let that weasel cheat you.”
“Mitos isn’t a cheat—he’s been very kind to us.”
“Mitos is a sleaze, and he’s stuffed us in this hole and taken all our money because he knows you’re too kind a man to say anything.” Myreon glanced down the steep spiral stair to see if anyone was listening—it was still early, and the Ihynishman that owned the inn was seldom awake this early, but one could never be too careful. She’d noticed how the man had been watching her ever since they’d arrived. He would be sitting in a chair by the fire with her father every evening when she returned from the testing. He would be waxing his thick black moustache with his thin fingers while his eyes hugged her hips and slid up and down her backside. The leering only stopped when his wife would happen into the room, and then he would let his eyes flutter up to the rafters or into the fire and continue to nod along with whatever her father was saying. Myreon knew, though. She knew what kind of man he was.
Her father sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “At least my daughter thinks I’m kind. Hurry up—go. You’ll be late.”
Myreon nodded. The knot of anxiety just beneath her breastbone tightened another quarter turn; when she left, it really would be time to face the final test to enter the ranks of the Arcanostrum, the greatest school of sorcery in the world. “Good bye, Papa.”
Her father hugged her tightly. “Don’t be frightened. I believe in you, no matter what happens. Hold your head high, no matter what—it shows good breeding. Do me proud.”
Myreon nodded again, unable to say anything else, and went out into the street.
The Alafarrs were once well-to-do vintners before the war, and Myreon remembered her father and uncles doing well by their families and never wanting for much. The war had changed that, as wars so often do, and left them barely able to keep what little land they still owned. Myreon knew her father had spent the whole of the family’s savings on this trip to Saldor, and just for her. If she failed or if she passed the test today, they would have a difficult winter. She could scarcely stand the idea of her father and uncles and mother going hungry because of her. “I will not fail.” She repeated to herself, over and over, just as she had every morning for the past two weeks. The knot in her chest tightened another quarter turn.
Myreon’s father was too poor to afford an inn inside the OldCity; they couldn’t even afford one just outside. They had been forced to stay in a run-down neighborhood in Crosstown, all the way across the river. It took Myreon the better part of an hour to wind her way through the tangled cobblestone streets, across the river on a water taxi or flat-bottom ferry, and then through the ivy-clad gates into the OldCity, where the impossibly tall towers of the Arcanostrum stood at its heart. Every day the sorcerous academy looked different, and every day Myreon made her pilgrimage to its gates, gazing up at its scintillating parapets and gleaming spires every few seconds. All the while, inside her head, she kept chanting, “I will not fail, I will not fail.”
Each year in late autumn, the magi of the Arcanostrum held a test to admit new initiates into their order. Applicants went through a variable number of tests, depending on who was doing the testing, with each test growing more challenging than the last. This year there were thirteen tests—the most in decades, they said—and today was the thirteenth. Where there had been literally thousands of applicants, there were now only a dozen or so, of whom Myreon was one.
Her competitors were the sons and daughters of ancient noble families or wealthy guildmasters, tutored since birth and afforded every luxury. They, Myreon had no doubt, were staying in fancy hotels or in private villas mere steps from the gates of the Arcanostrum. They had a team of people coaching them—perhaps even magi from the Arconstrum itself who were their friends and relatives. They weren’t distracted by lecherous innkeepers or destitute fathers or the chance of starving this winter. The Arcanostrum rarely took more than three or four new students a year—what were the chances she could overcome and…
“No!” She cursed at herself. “I will not fail. I will not fail. I will not fail.”
When Myreon finally made it to the wrought iron gates of the Arcanostrum, about ten other applicants were already there, chattering eagerly to each other. If they noticed her, they quickly turned away. Some sniggered, and Myreon assumed they were laughing at her. Others, though, looked worried. Some looked positively pale, as though they might pass out at any moment. One girl in an expensive dress vomited into a bag held by her manservant.
Myreon tapped the girl on the shoulder. “Excuse me?”
The girl glared at her. “Did you just touch me?” The manservant moved to block Myreon from physically accessing the girl again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
The girl pointed to her tiara. “I am a contessa! You don’t tap me on the shoulder like some barmaid.”
Myreon set her jaw. “Look, I just wanted to know what’s going on.”
The reminder of why they were there seemed to hit the contessa all over again, and the color drained from her face. “Emile! The bag!” She spun around and the manservant held the bag up as the rich girl heaved the contents of her probably very expensive breakfast inside. For the first time in two weeks, Myreon was glad she hadn’t eaten anything.
“Hey, girl.” Another applicant—a young man maybe two or three years older than her and wearing the livery of an Eretherian noble house—pointed at the gate. “There’s a note about it there.”
Myreon looked where he was pointing. Pinned to the gates was a note that read “The final test will begin an hour later than normal. You will be asked to perform a spell; come prepared.”
The tension in Myreon’s chest tightened another full turn. Her heart started pounding and she felt suddenly faint. “Cast…cast a spell?”
The young man shrugged. “I know. I’m pretty well cooked—I can’t cast a jot.”
Myreon stepped away from the gate, trying to keep tears from welling up in her eyes. Her whole body seemed to shake at once. A spell? She couldn’t actually cast a spell! That was why she was coming here! How could they expect her to cast a spell? It wasn’t possible!
Frantically, she tore open the little family spellbook. It was a collection of silly rhymes and simple curses—no real sorcery at all, just superstition and mummery with a little bit of common sense. She had been using it to keep notes in the margins and that was all, but now she paged through it furiously, looking for a spell anywhere that might serve. Nothing. Nothing at all. The only real spells in there were too complicated by half and written in a tongue she barely understood. “Oh no. Oh no.”
Myreon knew, beyond doubt, that she was going to fail.