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

Advertisements

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 .

Voudoun Visions of Toronto

A Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in The Ring (Grand Central Publishing, 1998)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson blends urban fantasy and near-future science fiction together in a Toronto environment. She creates a Toronto that has been cut off from the rest of Canada, ghettoised and locked off from the rest of the country and made into a controlled space where entrances and exits from the city are carefully monitored and controlled. Yet, this space of conflicted identity, a Toronto that is searching for its new identity, searching for what it should become from a past that has been conflicted and confused. Toronto’s identity has been cut off from the wider Canadian identity through its rejection, and yet this could be an opportunity for it to find a new identity.

Despite its near-future science fictional setting, Brown Girl in the Ring is a space of fantasy, incorporating into it magic, mythic figures, Loa (gods and goddesses of Haitian Vodoun), and visions. Ti-Jeanne is a woman who is conflicted between her Torontonian identity and the rich Caribbean heritage that her grandmother has passed down to her – Caribbean foods, creole, healing herbs, and some elements of vodoun. She has had visions and magical power passed down to her that has attracted the attention of the Loa, the gods of Vodoun and her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne has pointed out that if she denies this aspect of herself, if she ignores the magic, it will over-ride her. If she lives in conflict with this aspect of herself, she will be warring with herself instead of integrating herself and accepting all aspects of her identity.

Hopkinson’s Toronto is a place where magic can occur, a place where cultures intersect and assert themselves and where people search for identity and meaning as they see their community in new lights, push for change, and come to find new definitions of home. Her Toronto is not one steeped in one history, but a place where multiple histories intersect, where the visions of diverse people come together to see a more complex, more magical, and more inclusive space.

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, you can visit her website at http://www.nalohopkinson.com/ . You can explore more about Brown Girl in the Ring at http://www.nalohopkinson.com/writing/fiction/books/brown_girl

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