This month’s New Releases include Astounding Frontiers #1, Doctor to Dragons by G. Scott Huggins (both from Superversive Press), Love’s Highway by Forbidden Thoughts contributor Jane Lebak, a new and improved edition of Declan Finn’s Catholic thriller A Pius Man and many more. Check out the link below for the full list and more details. Happy Reading!
A couple of weeks ago, I took my 12-year-old daughter to the town library in search of something to read. When I asked the librarian in charge of the YA section to recommend something without suicide or sex, she said, without hostility but quite firmly that we were in the wrong section. Apparently those were the predominant themes of modern YA literature. (Mind you, this is the stuff offered to them as pleasure reading, in addition to the doom-and-gloom highbrow literature they’re already required to read for school.) And then we wonder why so many of today’s teens are A. depressed and B. avoid pleasure reading at all costs.
It is therefore with great pleasure that I report on this latest offering from a science fiction author Jon del Arroz. For Steam and Country is, as the title implies, a steampunk adventure first and foremost, but it also succeeds brilliantly as YA.
The protagonist, Zaira von Monocle, is a 16-year-old, who–shocker!–actually behaves as a normal teen, even though the circumstances of her life are anything but ordinary. Sure, she is a daughter of a great adventurer, who inherits her father’s airship and goes off to far away lands and gets involved in battles that might decide the fate of her country. Yet at the same time she is subject to the same challenges and emotions as any teen. She has a secret crush on a neighbor boy who, frustratingly, only sees her as a friend. She feels sad about having lost her mother at a young age and devastated at the news that her father is presumed dead. She has a comically adorable attachment to her pet ferret (yes, there’s a ferret named Toby, and he’s important to the plot!). And, as most teenagers, she has her flaws: she is stubborn, occasionally rash, doesn’t know her limitations while at the same time being insecure… Did I mention the “normal teen” thing? If you don’t have teens of your own, just take my word for it. Zaira is true to life, perhaps more so than the cynical and too-smart-for-their-age creatures that populate modern YA fiction, especially the kind geared towards girls.
Read the full review at Marina’s Musings
**Cross posted from Marina’s Musings**
I have to admit, after the third movie in the series I decided I was done. The plot was overly complicated, the good guys kept double crossing each other, and the ending… Let’s just say a movie of that caliber did not earn such and ending and leave it at that (and no, the after-credits were not enough to provide satisfaction for what was at the time meant to be the end of the trilogy.)
I skipped the fourth. More than that, I forgot it existed and had to look up why this latest installment was billed as Number Five. When the new trailer came out, my first thought was, “Oh no, they’re at it AGAIN? Meh.” Still, it was a long weekend and I decided to kill a few hours by watching it on the cheap in a smaller local theater.
My husband, who saw Dead Men a few days before me, said it was actually better than the original. I’m not sure about that because the original was, well, the original. The characters, the world, the visuals–it was all new and so by default more entertaining. But this one comes close and does better than the original on a couple of fronts. Also, and this is a biggie, we’re not talking about going back to the well. This movie continues the story where #3 left off. (I hear Penelope Cruz didn’t want to come back. They didn’t make the character die of leukemia a la Sarah Connor, but the script behaves as though #4 never happened, as far as I can tell.)
In the first scene, we meet young Henry, Will Turner’s son, who promises to break the curse that requires his father to be forever sailing The Flying Dutchman. Fast forward nine years, and grown up Henry is getting in trouble at sea over having too much knowledge of the legends no one believes until… well, I won’t spoil that one. In the meantime, Carina, the scientist obsessed with the stars she believes will lead her to her father is about to hang for witchcraft. As for Jack Sparrow, let’s just say the shameless ripoff of one of the Fast and Furious movies works very well as his re-introduction scene. The three main characters are thrown together, sometimes literally, until they agree to work with each other to obtain this particular movie’s McGuffin.
It is rare to see the fifth entry into any franchise that succeeds both at taking us back and introducing new characters. Henry and Carina are immediately likable as driven, passionate individuals who make a lively, forever bantering couple. Jack Sparrow is entertaining as ever as a down-and-out captain without a ship, far removed from his former glory. (There is a marvelous flashback scene, thanks to the wonders of CGI, that made me wish for a prequel. I wanted to spend the time with THAT Jack Sparrow, one less interesting and flamboyant, but more admirable. If we do see a prequel, I’ll know I’m not alone.) Barbossa is seen in a new light, and Salazar, the current villain, is sufficiently murderous yet has understandable motivations. The plot is clear of unnecessary complications, and the action has near perfect balance of CGI and live action. Except for a couple of scenes that look like a setup for a new Disney attraction (you’ll know of what I speak when you see them) the movie does not have the look and feel of a video game. The camera work is solid, and there is no confusion, in spite of many scenes taking place in the dark, as to who is doing what where.
And then there are all the things that are not in the movie.
No Strong Female Character. I know, it’s shocking to have a woman character who is physically capable, strong-willed, and a scientist to boot to not be the dreaded SFC. Writers of books and movie scripts alike seem to have forgotten that it’s possible, and yet here we have Carina as a great reminder. She is smart and educated without knowing everything or being right every time. She is brave and athletic, yet sometimes needs saving from perils she can’t handle on her own. She is driven and stubborn without being hostile, and while she doesn’t “need” a man, she clearly enjoys being courted even as she refuses to admit it.
No anachronistic nods to modern Hollywood conventions. The romance is sweet, in tune with the rules of the movie’s world. Carina blushes at the notion that she’s attracted to Henry. Henry is happy at seeing Carina’s ankles. Jack Sparrow, being more worldly, makes fun of the innocent lovers, but it’s good natured fun, and whatever else Sparrow is meant to be, role model isn’t it. There is physical contact, sure, but not the semi-obligatory casual hookup that we’d come to expect and/or fear from most Hollywood productions, whether or not said hookups make sense in the context of the story. Also, Carina’s actions are consistent with the way a woman would act in the male-dominated world. When a shop owner tells her to leave and not touch his instruments because women are not allowed inside his shop, she reacts not with righteous indignation or physical assault, but with an offer to fix his maps and to pay him extra for the item she desires. It was a small scene, but I appreciated the care that went into crafting it to feel as true as possible right before the movie veers back into the over-the top action mode.
No on-the-nose references to politics. None. No purposeful controversies during the movie’s promotion. No gratuitous jabs at Evil Politician of the Day. No inane quotes that end up marring the telephone poles for decades to come *cough* Star Wars Prequels *cough*. Not even a Very Special Screening for Group X (that one is not the movie’s fault, but still highly annoying). All you get is a 2hrs + break from the world events, and it’s engaging enough to keep you from checking your social media feed on the phone for the duration. There was a time most if not all blockbusters would provide this oasis of entertainment to the viewers. Now, sadly, it’s so rare that it merits praise, and so praise it gets. I recommend it wholeheartedly. See it in the theater. Tell your friends. Let’s make it an amazing success so Hollywood gives us more of what we want: good old-fashioned entertainment.
Before Superversive Press took aim at the very foundations of the Social Justice movement with the Forbidden Thoughts anthology, they took a chance at publishing my dystopian novella The Product. There has been some question as to whether Forbidden Thoughts is superversive, and I can see why people would say it’s not. However, there’s an angle that does tie into the superversive philosophy, and my novella, although fairly apolitical for a dystopia, addresses it.
I have long stated that those who worship at the altar of Social Justice do worse than break everything they touch. A significant side effect of their meddling is to remove all joy and inspiration from whatever they target, be it social interactions, scientific discovery, or entertainment. Since everyone loves Harry Potter references nowadays, SJWs are the real-world Dementors. My novella does not specifically mention Social Justice, but it does present its end result: a world without joy or hope. However, human nature being what it is, someone, somewhere, will find a way to resist, which brings us to…
The Product will change your life. It will give you joy and confidence, make you more aware of the world around you. You will find new friends. You might even fall in love.
Few people know its name. Fewer still dare say it. It is, after all, illegal. Users are jailed. Dealers meet an ugly death. Yet the temptation is irresistible.
Kevin is a dealer. And he is about to get caught.
Seraph from Tangent Online* and Jeffro from Castalia House Blog present different takes on the specifics, but both reviewers agree that The Product is a good representation of a superversive story. (This being a promotional post, I also have to point out that it made Jeffro’s list of Best Short Fiction of 2016). And for the next couple of days, it will only cost 99 cents for the readers to judge for themselves. Happy reading!
*This review has a spoiler at the end, so if you prefer to discover the nature of the Product on your own, stop reading about mid-way through the last paragraph.
And now, folks, your seatbelts (HA!) because I will try to make this post deep. How deep? Glad you asked. I’m going to take the recent discussion of what qualifies as superversive fiction and apply it to this movie. If you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t blame you. But stick with me here. Just because something is lowbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be superversive, at least in part. And if we can see superversive elements in this piece of schlock, maybe they would become easier to identify elsewhere. Thus, let the experiment begin!
Aspiring/Inspiring. Our heroes are far from being role models, that’s for sure. But are they reaching for something higher? Are they attempting to improve the world, what little of it is in their control? The opening segment includes a prolonged drag-racing sequence that ends with Dom Toretto acting with both generosity and honor towards a person who really deserves neither. Much later, when the villainess questions why Dom seemingly rewarded the man who tried to kill him, the response is, “I changed him.” Does it work like that in real life? Probably not. Thugs don’t choose to join the side of light because of one event, not commonly anyway. Is it possible? Yes, I suppose it is. Is it something we’d like to occasionally see in our art? Absolutely.
Virtuous. I can see how this requirement can be viewed as problematic at first glance, but we need to remember that superversive heroes don’t need to be perfect. They do, however, need to know right from wrong, and more importantly, the story itself must be clear on the matter. An advantage of a well crafted dumb action movie is that the central conflict is very clear. The good guys are… maybe not all that good, not all of them, but they are working for a good cause. And the villainess Cipher, played with obvious delight by Charlize Theron, is as cold and vicious as they come. Her purported justification sounds vaguely noble from throwing around words like “accountability,” but at no point are we sympathetic or thinking, “Well, she’s kind of right…” Nope. Not even close. In this story, shades of gray are non-existent.
Heroic. This one is easy. Unlike in some of the other entries in F&F franchise, the protagonists’ motives here are mostly pure: family, loyalty, honor and oh yeah, saving the world. There is revenge mixed in for some, and an opportunity for a second chance for others. In particular, Deckard (Jason Statham), a villain from one of the previous films, is at first hard to accept as one of the good guys, but he does redeem himself in one of the more spectacular and absurd scenes in a movie that’s full of them. In the end, they all rise to the occasion and do what they must to fight evil, no matter the cost. Additionally, in what to me is the stand-out moment of the movie, Letty bets her life, without hesitation, for a chance to reach and save her husband who appears to have gone rogue. It plays much better if you know the history of these characters, but it’s powerful in either case.
Decisive. Again, easy, as per requirements of the genre. The protagonists don’t have time to agonize over their choices, in part because there aren’t too many. Saving the world is a non-negotiable goal. While there are heart-breaking scenes, we see not a hint of the modern “why me?” angst that has infected even many of the superhero movies. They hurt and they grieve, but never stop moving towards the goal.
Non-subversive. You’d think a movie in a franchise built around essentially glorifying outlaws would be subversive by definition. Not so. This entry in particular has a villainess whose main intent is destruction of the current order, but there’s even more than that. In one of the obligatory Villain Exposition scenes, she’s intent on convincing Dom Toretto, the man who values family and faith, that he is wrong in his priorities. It’s not enough for her to use Dom’s skills. She has a need to destroy who he is, to prove that his life has no meaning, and by extension, no one’s life has meaning. This is an important point. If life is of no value, if family, faith and honor are but an illusion, then mass murder is a perfectly acceptable stepping stone to one’s goals. The villainess is a nearly perfect embodiment of subversion. She would not, in fact, be out of place in an old-fashioned fairly tale, from the time before our culture has developed a need to understand, justify, and sympathize with villains rather than to advocate and celebrate their unconditional defeat.
There were other things that are remarkable on that front. For all the banter and joking around, there’s not a hint of irony when it comes to good old fashioned values. Dom talk constantly about family as if it’s some kind of magic mantra needed to pull him back to the light. (One reviewer commented that at times the movie has a feel of a GOP convention, with the word “family” being mentioned over 50 times.) They pause before a meal to say grace. Crosses figure prominently, both in the visuals and once actually in the plot. Two young hot-blooded men are courting an attractive woman, but that’s where it stays. There is no obligatory danger-inspired hookup, but on the flip side, no blanket rejection of men or romance either. It’s a small scene, fun and light-hearted, but also old-fashioned. And in the end, for all the ridiculous special effects and action, I think this is one of the reasons the franchise has endured. These movies entertain and amuse without tearing down, and they leave you, if not inspired, at least satisfied with a simple tale that shows the world working mostly as you know it should. Not so bad for a piece of dumb action after all.
NOTE: The bulk of this article was originally posted on www.declafinn.com, almost two years ago. However, in light of the even-growing trend of “re-imagining” old stories for both children and adults, it bears repeating. This analysis also serves as a good demonstration of the differences between subversive and superversive storytelling. While Maleficent received mixed reviews from critics (50% on Rotten Tomatoes), the audience ratings were much higher (71%) and its financial success is undisputed. I therefore feel safe from any accusations of intentionally picking a modern dud to compare to a beloved classic. In my not-so-humble opinion, Maleficent’s flaws are features, not bugs, for it aspires to subversion and succeeds at that level.
One of the side effects of not growing up in the culture is that, no matter how well-assimilated, one inevitably misses some of the basics that all the native-born take for granted. Classic movies, especially those geared towards children, fall firmly in that category. So it was that after almost three decades in the U.S., I still was not familiar with one of the greatest creations of American culture. I am, of course, referring to the Disney classic movie, Sleeping Beauty. Suitably mortified, I ended up renting both the original and the “modern spin” version that is Maleficent.
I had reservations, having been burned to a crisp by the atrocity that was Ever After, but the trailers promised great visuals, plus Angelina Jolie in title role sounded intriguing.
Thus, a double-feature family movie night was on. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a modern Hollywood production to a beloved classic. On the other hand, since I had not seen either movie previously, sentimental value was a non-factor in my case and my expectations would not be unreasonably raised for one over the other.
First, Sleeping Beauty. In terms of storytelling, it is straightforward and honest, the way children’s tales tend to be. The rules of magic are simple, the threat and the possible salvation are laid out, all the characters are introduced in the early scenes, and we more or less know how this ends.
Yet there are layers, too, and it’s a great demonstration of how a story can be more complex than it seems while retaining its innocence. Take the scene where Aurora meets the Prince in the woods. They have, essentially, fallen in love before ever having laid their eyes on each other. The meeting is just a validation of something that is already there. How? Why? Is it magic, or destiny, or just a lucky coincidence? We don’t know, but by establishing that both had dreamed of each other before their encounter, we, even as cynical adults, are given enough reason to believe that true love is indeed in the works.
Later on, we get a surprisingly dark yet effective scene where Maleficent, having captured the Prince, torments him with visions of life wasted and love lost, but there is something else. She is mocking the traditional model of a heroic knight who defeats his foe and rescues a maiden, denying the very possibility that the good can triumph. In her world, there is only power and vengeance. No love, no hope, no joy except in denying love and hope to others—a perfect combination of ancient evil and modern nihilism.
In the end, while the Prince is the nominal hero of the story, a big chunk of the credit belongs to the good fairies. They free him not just from physical chains of the dungeon, but also from despair, give him the right tools (the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Righteousness- that’s right; in your face, nihilism!) and guide him along the way. Even in the final confrontation, where the Prince, seemingly alone, has to defeat a fearsome dragon, he is not, in fact, alone as the good fairies make sure the final strike of the sword strikes home. Is there a deeper meaning to the way this part of the story pays out? It is for the viewer to decide.
The rest of the story is simplistic by today’s standards. True love’s kiss is just that. Aurora does indeed wake up, and aside from a little comic relief, the story concludes exactly in the manner we had been promised at the start. It’s not a bad lesson to modern storytellers always on the lookout for The Big Twist. Some stories are beautiful just by their essence and can be told effectively using neither irony nor misdirection.
And now, for Maleficent. Skeptical as I was, the visually stunning opening scenes, combined with a hypnotic voice-over asking us to challenge what we think we know of the story, gave me much hope. A part of me wondered why a beautiful girl possessed of magic powers to heal and protect all living things would have a name that literally means “causing or capable of producing evil,” but I put it aside. It did, however, set the tone for the story: hauntingly, darkly beautiful; self-aware in a detached, post-modern way; and often too clever for its own good. In other words, mostly the opposite of the original story it was meant to re-tell.
Maleficent is not the villain of old, but a horribly wronged, heartbroken woman trying to heal her physical and emotional wounds through an act of revenge. And other characters are just as unrecognizable.
The King Father is first a thief and a liar, then a cruel coward, then a full blown lunatic obsessed with killing and destruction, his daughter merely an afterthought by the time the story really gets going. The brief moments where he shows glimpses of humanity are lost because they serve no purpose to this particular version, and that’s too bad because he could have been a great tragic character if handled by a more careful storyteller.
The fairies, who in the original are comical and lovable yet powerful when it counts most, are reduced to incompetent, annoying, squabbling hags who seem to understand nothing of life, or love. They disappear for large stretches of the movie, only to come back and remind everyone how ineffectual they truly are before slinking off again, not even managing to produce comic relief, let alone serious magic.
Aurora is sweet enough, and does get a decent amount of screen time. The best scenes that could really have been the whole (much better) movie are between Aurora and Maleficent, the innocence and innate joy of the girl slowly but surely melting the heart of the bitter, vengeful woman and turning her into a loving maternal figure. But the story’s ambition is bigger, and darker, than that. The little hint of what it might have been makes the end result so much more infuriating.
What about the Prince, you ask? Well, there is a Prince. Unfortunately, he has nothing to do but look confused. He’s not heroic, or interesting, or even particularly attractive. He shows up occasionally to signal in red flashing lights that this story is oh-so-very different. I suppose the script writers think we as the audience are just that dense.
There’s also a Raven who is turned by Maleficent into a shape-shifter and spends some of his time being a semi-useful sidekick who occasionally utters a word of wisdom before being turned into yet another CGI creature.
“But, but…What about True Love’s Kiss? You promised!” says a demanding, if unsophisticated, viewer who still thinks she paid the $10 to see a fairy tale. Said viewer will, indeed witness a kiss, and the Beauty will wake up, but that is all. The Big Twist so lacking in the original is found here. I did not feel cheated, per se, only because the “surprise” was, in a way, so tediously predictable, but neither was I satisfied.
Given the thrust of the story, the ending with Aurora ruling over the newly happy magical kingdom under the wise tutelage of Maleficent should have been enough. But is it? Is there room in the story for romance, for the quaint idea of “happily ever after”? Well, the Prince shows up at the end, for now apparent reason, and all I could think about at that point was “He wants MALEFICENT for his mother in law? He must be either very brave or very stupid, and from the movie’s view of men, I’d have to put money on stupid.” Since we aren’t supposed to question such things too deeply, the movie pulls us back to the beautiful vistas and a hypnotic voice-over, and soon the end credits start rolling to a suitably macabre remake of the original Sleeping beauty love song.
I have to give the script writers credit where it’s due: the movie stayed true to its vision till the very end. Unfortunately, the vision is thoroughly at odds with the classic it was claiming to re-tell. While it is possible to create a compelling story—NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps a dark fantasy—where the hero and the villain is one and the same, Maleficent doesn’t quite gets there. Once you look beyond the special effects and Jolie’s solid acting, this “re-imagining” eagerly tears down the original, but fails to build anything substantial in its stead. But then, knowing what we know of today’s Hollywood, perhaps that was the intention all along.
Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press.
Purim is a lesser of the two Jewish spring celebrations. It has a short list of observance requirements (does a Jew ever need an excuse for a festive meal?), and is no more than a curiosity to those outside the faith (what’s up with the funny costumes and triangular cookies?). Passover, which comes only weeks later, gets all the glory, and deservedly so. And yet, the story of Purim is as compelling as it is universal, and frankly deserves a better tribute than this obscure production, or even a hilarious Twitter Feed summary.
Think of the characters alone. A tyrannical King? Check. Evil advisor? Yep. Poor, beautiful and virtuous young woman, tasked with saving her people from certain doom? You got it. A kindly older man, a hero in his own right, giving said woman advice and inspiration? Absolutely. Add a magic wand and you have an old-fashioned Disney film. Ah, but here’s the thing. There is no magic. Of course, you already knew that since we’re talking a religious tale, but there is also no voice from above, no visible miracles, not even a mention of G-d. The heroes pray for wisdom and strength, but the actions are solely their own, even if in retrospect some of the coincidences must have been divinely guided. This, to me, is the central lesson of this Holiday. In dark times, we might wish for superheroes and extraordinary powers (as we certainly do now, considering our entertainment preferences), but they are not necessary. Often the only quality that separates the heroes from the rest is the will to make the right choices and persevere, no matter the cost.
That brings me to another point, and here comes the storytelling connection. There is a lot of talk nowadays about the need of more strong female characters in fiction. Most people, upon hearing the term, imagine leather-clad Amazonian babes kicking the bad guys into oblivion. Tiny women defeating men twice their size is a modern variation, currently in the process of overstaying its welcome, but the point is the same: physical prowess is valued above all.
Not so with Esther. It is easy, from the comfort of our modernity to underestimate the level of her courage, or the height of her achievement. She approaches her husband the King (who had ordered his beloved wife Vashti executed for a single act of disobedience) without being called, in violation of court etiquette that is traditionally punishable by death. Then she proceeds to manipulate and outsmart both the King and his genocidal advisor Haman, thus obtaining mercy for her people and causing Haman’s downfall.
How did Esther accomplish such a feat? Certainly not by force. Not by her beauty alone, either. Vashti’s beauty did not save her from execution. In fact, Esther had gone through a fasting ritual before approaching the King—not something conducive to looking her best. Still, she succeeds. One can only conclude that her greatest assets, in addition to virtue and faith, were those usually underplayed in modern portrayal of heroic women: charm and patience, intuition and empathy. With those, she melted the heart of a tyrant and out-strategized a ruthless warrior, in a society that used women as disposable playthings. Perhaps modern storytellers could take a lesson as to the different ways in which a female character might be powerful, rather than falling back on the tired Hollywood clichés.
The story doesn’t end there, but diverges yet again from the expected. The King, having decided not to kill the Jews, could not to revoke his original verdict. Instead, he gave the Jews permission to arm themselves and fight back. And fight they did, defeating trained soldiers sent to exterminate them. Once again, victory does not come from obvious divine interference, but is won by righteous, yet ordinary, individuals who rose to the occasion. Esther had provided an opportunity for the Jews to save themselves, and they took it. In the final analysis, both parts of the story are equally important.
And so, there is another lesson to be found in this tale, perhaps most relevant to our times. Faith is important, and so is proper leadership. However, neither will save us from darkness if we, as individuals, refuse to act when called upon. Esther’s courage would have been wasted had the people not rallied to protect their lives and homes. Let us not today similarly waste the sacrifices of those who came before us, the men and women who built and defended our great country. Freedom, safety and prosperity that we currently enjoy are fragile things, uncommon in history, rarely found even now around the world. By all means, let us choose the leaders who would help preserve them, but we dare not forget that the final responsibility lies, inevitably, within ourselves.
Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom(a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press.