TRANSformations

A review of Anna Frost’s The Fox’s Mask (Musa Publishing, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

It is refreshing to see a fantasy book that is set in Imperial Japan. So often, fantasy series are based on a Western Medieval archetype, inferring that this is the only forum for sword and sorcery. Anna Frost, although not Japanese herself, explores the imagery and richness of Japanese culture as a framework for her novel The Fox’s Mask. Populating her novel with Kitsune (fox spirits), healing spirits from springs, demons possessing humans, and dragons, it is clear why she chose an ancient Japanese setting for her fantasy series because it is so rich with mythical material for her to incorporate into this narrative. The framework of Shintoism works so well for explorations of the fantastic, having a general comfort with the notion that the natural world is populated not just with recognised animals, but also with a range of spiritual beings and manifestations.

Frost’s novel explores the relationship between duty and love (whether that be of a job or of a person), the social obligations that try to push people to accept familial responsibility over their own needs. Akakiba is a kitsune, able to transform from human form to fox form. He is a samurai, interested in protecting humanity from demons who would do them harm. He loves his job, and tolerates the humanity that he serves to protect… yet, his world is shaken when he is forced to take on a human apprentice, Yuki. Despite sharing years with his apprentice, he keeps secrets from him about his past, his family, and his kitsune nature. Despite his family wanting him to hold his first duty to them, he sees his primary duty as the protection of humanity, honouring his relationship to Yuki, and living the samurai lifestyle.

Yet, his choices have consequences. By not choosing to settle down and have a family of his own, he risks his clan, a people that are facing extinction as their numbers dwindle. Not only the foxes, but all spirits and otherworldly beings are beginning to dwindle, gradually disappearing from the world. The world is changing and Akakiba is faced with the notion that he may be contributing to that change by not taking a mate.

The Fox’s Mask is further enthralling because of its willingness to feature LGBT or queer characters. Characters are accepted in a large number of different relationships and love is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Because the foxes are able to change shape between human and fox and change sex between male and female, they are comfortable with ambiguities of gender and sex. They aren’t stuck in the human notion that one’s born gender defines them, or that one must chose to only enter into a sexual relationship with the opposite sex… the only challenge is that they try to encourage their members to enter into relationships with the opposite sex to ensure that there are children born and that the dwindling population continues. Anna Frost’s engagement with queer subject material is complex, not allowing easy relationships, but instead inviting the reader to engage in the complexity of issues that arise from a past society that is different from our own (both because of the past setting and the fact that they are foxes).

To find out more about The Fox’s Mask, visit Musa’s website at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=400

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Transformation, Secrets, and a World in Flux

A review of Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light (Daw, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light is a transformative text on multiple levels. It is about Jenn Nalynn, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is confronted with her own changing nature and the need to understand her own place and what has shaped her into who she is. Not only is her situation changing, but her understanding of herself has shifted and she is left with questions about where she has come from and what has shaped her, and what she is becoming. She is coming to realise that her world is shaped in secrets, things kept from her, and truths that are buried seemingly for her own protection. But, innocence can be dangerous, secrets can cause pain, and not-knowing often means actions taken in ignorance that can be harmful because they lack an understanding of the context in which they occur.

Jenn is in a place of magic, Marrowdell, a place that she has grown up with and seen as normal because it is the world that has shaped who she is. But, it is a place where people eat toad eggs, where toads guard houses, where trees move of their own volition, where water appears when needed, and where dragons play in the meadows invisible in the light but revealed in their majesty as the world turns to twilight. Only through a stranger’s eyes, by hearing about what wonders surround him, does Jenn see that the place she lives in is not “normal”, that it is wondrous. As a truth-seer, Bannan sees more than others – he sees that roads run as silver, that the house toads wear armour, that moths are able to write down what they observe. He sees what Jenn is incapable of seeing, notices what she doesn’t notice.

Jenn is met with the need to understand herself and her place in her world better, to see truths that have been hidden from her for her own protection. She is changing, and with those changes, she grows in connection to her home of Marrowdell (a place which she cannot leave without death to herself and the landscape) and also in her own magical ability. Yet, without being taught about her magic, with it constantly being buried and kept secret from her, she acts out of ignorance, causes damage to the people, places, and things around her. Cushioned in a world that doesn’t want her to experience hurt, she hurts others by accident. When power and ignorance are paired, damage is bound to happen.

Jenn, desiring companionship, transforms her childhood friend, Wisp, a creature who plays with magic, invisible, and ever-present, into a human being. He loses his dragon nature, trapped within a man’s shape and limited by it. He becomes something different, changed against his will by Jenn’s wish. Wisp has become Wyll, a stranger to Marrowdell, and a source of interest and fascination to a village that is accustomed to knowing everyone. He questions things, challenges ideas that are entrenched, and provides a foil for human actions, showing that what is assumed to be natural is only natural for human beings.

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Czerneda creates a world in which everything and everyone is in flux, challenging and questioning themselves and the nature of the world around them while trying to uncover mysteries that have been left hidden in the desire to protect secrets. She reveals that worlds are always steeped in the mysterious and that everyone is always searching for their place in the world while only knowing a fraction of it, of themselves, and of those around them. There is a danger in ignorance, and a need to learn and reveal even painful truths to others to prevent harm.

To discover more about Julie Czerneda and her current projects, visit her website at http://www.czerneda.com/ . To discover more about A Turn of Light, visit http://www.czerneda.com/fantasy/turn.html .

Fantasy Fridays Throughout June!!

Fantasy Fridays Throughout June

Fantastic realms provide us with new ways of looking at the world. Creating new worlds gives us a chance to look at our own world in a new light, questioning our preconceptions, and allowing us to see our own world as unusual, fantastic, and as much of a creation as those that are created by fiction authors.

From urban fantasy to high fantasy – fairies, elves, dragons, wizards, and monsters – this month will be time for a fantastic adventure.

Check out Speculating Canada every Friday in June for fantasy adventures.

 Spec Can Dragon post

Dragonville

A review of Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy (Viking, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Charles de Lint often takes his readers into the hidden parts of the world and brings attention to the things that people ignore in the world around them, whether that be the fantastic side of the world and the potential for a magical viewpoint or attention to those within our society that are often ignored such as the homeless, or those on the social fringes. In The Painted Boy, de Lint takes on gangs, a part of our society that most people prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist outside of the media excitement over violent attacks (and then they are only noted at a distance). De Lint reminds readers that they do exist and that kids in gangs have a reason for being in them that can’t be gotten rid of just by punitive actions – rather, we need to look at the social issues that give rise to gangs: poverty, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, racism, exclusion, social ideas of masculinity, a society that celebrates violence.

James Li is a Chinese-American teen who, at the age of 11 had a tattoo suddenly appear on his back; a tattoo of a dragon that meant that his life had changed and that the weight of traditions that he knew nothing about had come down on him. He is sent out into the world at age 17 to discover himself and find the dragon within him (literally since he is a dragon shape shifter). When he arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, he is instantly pursued by gangs who think that he is part of a rival gang infringing on their territory. But he is the fundamental opposite of the gang mentality, though bears enough similarities to contain a social commentary on gangs.

Like gang members, James Li’s body is marked with his particular group affiliation (the dragon), he has had a strict regimen of control, loyalty has been bred into him as an essential part of his being, he could be killed by those in charge if he disobeys the authorities in place, dragons are territorial so he embodies a sense of place much as gang turf does, his body contains a potential for rage and violence. But his role shows the fallacy of the claims that the gangs make. They are not actually loyal as the dragon is, they are afraid of those in control. The gang leaders will kill those under them from a sociopathic whim, whereas the dragons will only kill of one of their members becomes a threat to others. The gangs aren’t actually part of their turf, they don’t respect it or the people on it – they control it with fear. James holds a distorted mirror up to the gangs, illustrating that they are hollow and that all of the values and ideas of belonging that they claim are shallow and without substance. Gangs don’t protect or guard anything despite their claims to protect their members, where James as a dragon is the literal embodiment of protection. De Lint evokes the history of the dragon in China as a protector of emperors, but notes that over the years as empires have fallen, dragons have become guardians of places, linked to the spirit of the place and guarding over locations. They protect spaces, but aren’t lords over a territory.

De Lint’s interest in place is common to many of his stories; featuring various genius loci (spirits of place) and focussing on the distinctiveness of landscapes (even urban landscapes) as having both distinctive physical but also spiritual features. By creating a figure who is a shape-shifting dragon, de Lint brings extra attention to ideas of space and place. James Li has to connect with the embodiment of the spirit of his new town in order to drive the gangs and drug lords out and protect his new home. But he also has to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his new home and learn about how to deal with the social issues that have become embedded in this place such as fear, poverty, threatening notions of masculinity, general disrespect for others, and the realities of a community in threat. De Lint doesn’t create a magical cure that fixes the society, but rather requires James to find himself within his new community and acknowledge and work on notions of changing social issues gradually. James is required to create friends, acknowledge the community around him (both human and supernatural) in order to prevent him from becoming like the previous gang leaders of the place, who weren’t really attached to it or its communities but viewed it instead as a territory to be controlled. When his dragon threatens to consume him and destroy the city he is supposed to protect, it is only through the collective efforts of the community of friends he has made getting together to have a concert and the rhythmic beat of the music that holds the collective heartbeat of the community that brings him back to himself. He learns that he cannot guard a place from a distance, but rather has to be part of it, to have connections to the people around him and to care for them. Here de Lint once again contrasts James to the gangs – whereas the gangs have a false community based on fear, James is able to establish a community based on mutual respect, cooperation and the desire for collective well-being.

Key figures in this change in society are the lesser cousins – shape-shifting supernatural beings who are generally seen as weaker. Despite being self depreciating, the weaker spiritual powers are the ones who gather people together, who create connections and open pathways of communication. The Painted Boy acknowledges the importance of all members of a community in creating a society and that the under-represented often have a key role that is ignored by a society that focusses on the ‘big’ powers.

Despite being one of those big powers because of his dragon heritage and supernatural abilities, James considers himself a social outsider, a kid who wants to learn and above all else wants to belong. He faces the struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, while simultaneously wanting to be unique and special. He is in a war with himself both through his desire to lead a normal human life and his need to fulfill a destiny that has been inscribed onto him.

To read more about Charles de Lint, you can visit his website at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/  and can read more about The Painted Boy at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/painted-desc01.htm .