Loa in Dreamland

Loa in Dreamland
A review of Nalo Hopkinson and Neil Gaiman’s House of Whispers Vol 1: The Power Divided (DC Vertigo, 2019) 

By Derek Newman-Stille

For those of you reading Speculating Canada over the past few years, you have probably noticed that I am a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s work. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and of comics, so I was extremely excited to find out that the two collaborated on the comic series “House of Whispers vol 1: The Power Divided”, set in the Sandman Universe and to see their voices mingle in an exploration of the potential of that imagined universe. 

Hopkinson and Gaiman have always demonstrated a continuing fascination with border crossing and the implications of the collision of the physical and spiritual world and “House of Whispers” happens at that point of contact when the spiritual realm of the Loa (Afro-Caribbean deities) is partially pulled into the world of dreams and the goddess Erzulie finds herself outside of her space of worship and cut off from the world she knows and her ability to help her worshippers.

At the same time, a spiritual virus is released amongst the human population, making the infected feel as though they are dead, yet alive. Medical practitioners can’t see anything wrong with the infected people, but they are left without feeling or joy or connection to the physical world. Their spirits are sent to the world of dreams and they are left empty, wandering meaninglessly across the world. This virus is spread by words, through a phrase, and this instantly reminds me of the Canadian film Pontypool where a zombie virus is coded in language. It makes me wonder if there is a trend occurring where people are both recognizing the power of language and also questioning what language can do. Hopkinson has always demonstrated a fascination with the power of language in her novels and short fiction, linking words to magic, exploring the way that language shapes us, and playing with the sounds and taste of language. 

The description of the living death that Hopkinson describes not only evokes the idea of the zombie, but also evokes depression. Most of our society looks at depression as a form of sadness, but for those of us who experience clinical depression, we often feel a sense of emptiness, a disconnect, and a hollowness that strongly differentiates depression from sadness. The feelings of the characters in House of Whispers evoked this sense of depression. This depiction is as powerful as it is painful to read. I could feel myself resonating with the sense of loss and pain that the characters were experiencing. Hopkinson’s creative energy wound itself throughout this powerful narrative, giving it life.

As always in her work, Hopkinson highlights diverse bodies and identities. The majority of her characters are BIPOC, which is a fantastic change from the normally excess of white characters in comics. Moreover, her narrative focuses on diverse body sizes and Erzulie, for example, is represented as fat, which is an exciting shift that allows for the recognition that fat is beautiful (especially since Erzulie is the Loa of love, desire, and beauty. Hopkinson also features disabled people and LGBTQ2IA relationships including lesbian couples and nonbinary characters. This is a comic that engages the multiplicity of human experience, and it is so much stronger for that reason. Her characters are highly developed, relatable, and carry so many waiting to be told stories in their every sentence. This is a rich comic that is filled with the potential of narratives yet to come. 

Like most comics, House of Whispers: The Power Divided is a collaborative work, both with other writers such as Gaiman and later with Dan Waters, but also with artist Dominike Stanton, whose artistic talent brings Hopkinson’s words to visual life and adds to the power of the story she tells, particularly by emphasizing bodily diversity and evoking the beauty of the human (and magical) form. Set partially in a dream world, this comic is a form of dreaming given physical form.

To read more about House of Whispers Vol !: The Power Divided, go to https://www.dccomics.com/comics/house-of-whispers-2018/house-of-whispers-1

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, go to https://nalohopkinson.com/index.html

No More Magical Cures

No More Magical Cures

A Review of Jamieson Wolf’s “The Descent” in Nothing Without Us edited by Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson (Renaissance Press, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Jamieson Wolf’s “The Descent” explores a trope of disability that is often apparent in fantasy literature – the Magical Cure. Frequently, this trope is used because abled authors can’t imagine the possibility of someone being disabled and still being able to live a happy life, so the author writes away the disability in one pen stroke. The Magical Cure trope isn’t limited to actual magic. It is also used for the instant scientific inventions or the writer has the character conquer their disability with willpower (both incredibly offensive tropes). Wolf takes on this constant representation of the Magical Cure trope by having his narrator  Jefferson deal with magic and his own magical abilities.

Jefferson learns magic to try to gain the ability to get rid of his disability. Instead, he separates his disability into a separate individual, and personifies it under the name Max Shadow. When Jefferson has to descent down a flight of stairs (Jefferson’s real arch nemesis) to an oracle that is supposed to be able to give him the tools to erase his disability, Jefferson ends up not fighting Max Shadow, but instead fights his own internalized ableism that has resulted in his desire for a Magical Cure.

“The Descent” is a powerful story that involves the intersection of disability and queer identity and Wolf is able to weave his story with a bodily experience that is shaped from his own queer, disabled identity. His story is about ideas of desire and desiring, an idea that frequently arises in queer literature, but rarely in Disabled literature, and Wolf is able to examine the critical question of what it means to desire disability – to not just reject it or seek to erase it, but instead to embrace disability.

To find out more about the Magical Cure Trope, check out my Disability Tropes 101 post on Dis(Abled) Embodiment https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2019/10/22/disability-tropes-101-the-magical-cure/

To find out more about Jamieson Wolf, go to https://jamiesonwolf.com

To discover more about Nothing Without Us, visit https://nothingwithoutusanthology.wordpress.com and to buy your own copy, go to Renaissance Press’ website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sbp=false

In The Shadows of Giants

In The Shadows Of Giants

A review of Liz Westbrook-Trenholm’s “White Rose, Red Thorns” in Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm intertwines multiple fairy tales in her story “White Rose, Red Thorns” while giving complexity to the characters involved. She tells a tale of a giant’s tiny human caretaker and a young thief named Jack who looks far too much like her former lover, Snow, though with male features instead of female. 

The giant’s caretaker finds herself trapped between the cruel world of giants in the clouds and the cruel world of humanity below, at home in neither space and always having to hide who she is. Westbrook-Trenholm reminds readers that older women often have to hide their power in order to not be considered threatening for having it, and the giant’s caretaker has to use cunning to make herself seem weaker and more insignificant than she is. 

Westbrook-Trenholm tells a tale of loss, mourning, and hiding, but also reveals the hope that can come from letting go of secrets and embracing who you are. “White Rose, Red Thorns” is a beautiful mix of fairy tales, combined in a way that exposes the magical thread that runs through them. 

To discover more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to get your own copy, visit Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

These Beans Lost Jack

These Beans Lost Jack

A review of Ace Jordyn’s “The Story of the Three Magic Beans” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile Editions, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Do magic beans ever get tired of granting wishes? Do they ever get frustrated with having to fulfill everyone else’s dreams instead of their own? Do they ever crave a normal life without all of that magic where they can just soak up some water, nest in the soil, and get warm in the sun? Ace Jordyn’s “The Story of the Three Magic Beans” answers those questions with a resounding “YES!”. Where Rati Mehrotra’s story took readers into the animal world, Ace Jordyn’s tale brings us into the vegetative world.

Plants and plant products play an important role in fairy tales. They are often catalysts for change and transformation, but they don’t often get the credit they deserve. After all, who would Cinderella be without her pumpkin carriage? Who would Snow White be without the poisoned apple? Who would Jack be without his Beanstalk? Plants are figures of change, which may be why they appear as objects of transformation in fairy tales. They change from seeds, dropping roots into the ground and sending shoots of green up into the air where they feed on sunlight. They change with the seasons, sprouting leaves, bringing them to flower and bloom and sometimes to produce fruit and then letting those leaves change colour, dropping them to decay and becoming bare branches or retreating into the ground in a bulb. The vegetative world winds tendrils through our fairy tales, but often gets ignored. Ace Jordyn centralizes beans – transforming them from passive objects and foods into characters with agency, desires, and figures who go through their own transformations.

The beans of Ace Jordyn’s story not only question ideas about the passivity of plants in fairy tales, they also challenge limited ideas of family by exploring different family structures and ideas for raising young (seedlings). The beans go through their own adventures seeking a place to call home and a sense of belonging while also battling to keep themselves from being eaten, meeting other vegetables, and finding their way through a complicated world.

To find out more about Ace Jordyn, visit http://acejordyn.com

To discover more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, visit https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and visit Exile Editions at https://www.exileeditions.com

Skin Deep

Skin Deep

A review of Nathan Caro Frechette’s “Skin” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (2018, Exile)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Selkies are creatures from Scottish folklore (but also noted in the Orkneys and Shetlands) who are capable of transforming from seal to human by shedding their skin. In many selkie tales, female selkies are stolen from their watery home when a man steals their seal skin and then keeps the skin hidden away, forcing his new selkie bride to do his bidding. These are generally coercive tales where women (or their children) have to escape from the control of the skin thief by finding out where the skin is hidden and stealing it back to disappear into the ocean.

Nathan Caro Frechette reshapes the selkie mythos in his story “Skin”, which plays with the idea of skin and identity, turning the tale into a Trans story of self discovery and resistance. Frechette keeps the coercive element of the tale, but instead abstracts it onto the protagonist’s mother, bringing attention to the way that parents of Trans kids frequently try to control their children’s identities and prevent them from expressing their gender identity.

Using the figure of the Selkie, Frechette examines the way that Trans people are often cut off from the history and culture of other Trans people, exploring the idea that the abundance of cis-gendered (non-Trans) culture and the lack of representation of Trans culture has an impact on Trans youth, particularly as they search for a connection to others in their community.

Frechette, himself a Trans man, examines features of Trans identity through Ron that cis-gendered writers would not have the experiential knowledge of. Frechette examines what it is like to explore the world as a Trans person and examine the oppressions (whether intentional or unintentional) a Trans person experiences through things like misgendering, dead-naming, and erasure. Frechette is able to bring his real world experience of chest binding and feelings about bodily identity into the character. But this is not just a tale of gender dysphoria – Frechette examines the gender euphoria that comes when someone genders us by using our pronouns and names and accepts us for who we are.

“Skin” is a powerful story that tells a Trans tale of transformation and examines the power of folklore and fairy tales for expressing identities that have been traditionally underrepresented. Frechette writes his story to speak to a Trans audience, which is powerful since many people write Trans stories with a cis-gendered audience in mind and he proves that tales don’t need to be written for a cis-gendered audience to speak to a wider public because this tale is a tale that can speak to anyone who has examined their identity.

To discover more about Nathan Caro Frechette, check out his page at https://nathancarofrechette.ca

To discover more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com or check out Exile publishing at https://www.exileeditions.com

Yule Witchcraft

Yule Witchcraft

A review of Ami McKay’s Half Spent Was the Night (Alfred A Knopf, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

There’s magic in the air this holiday season, and with it a lot of witches and the Wild Hunt. In Ami McKay’s Half Spent Was the Night, readers are plunged into mystery surrounding the Yule season. It is a tale of three witches and the secrets and lies that surround them and a reminder that nothing stays buried or hidden for long. Half Spent Was The Night is a tale of unwrappings and new discoveries filled with occult potentials, yet, like many holiday stories, it is also a tale of family. In this case, it is a tale of found family – of the community surrounding three witches and their familiar.

Including recipes, poetry, spells, bits of folklore, and oh so much magic, Half Spent Was the Night isn’t only a tale, it is a grimoire of Yule magic and lore.

To discover more about Ami McKay, visit http://amimckay.com

To find our more about Half Spent Was the Night, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/579980/half-spent-was-the-night-by-ami-mckay/9780735275669

Mute Power

Mute Power

A review of Savannah Houston-McIntyre and Andrew Hewitt’s Amya Vol 1 (2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Amya Vol 1 is a fantasy tale of mystery and suspense, filled with secrets and magic. It is about two kingdoms on the brink of war and the possibility of the return of a divinity who may be able to save everything. This is a tale of a secret, sacred history that is revealed in pieces.

Houston-McIntyre and Hewitt tell a story of a mute noblewoman who has incredible magical potential, the power to create illusions… but there are hints of something more about her personality. Amya touches the lives of those around her, changing them through her contact, but she begins to draw together a group of adventurers who are interested in supporting her. Though Amya is mute, she is not portrayed as defenceless and she is not someone who is seeking a “cure” for her mutism. She is a complex and powerful character.

Amya vol 1 is a tale of political power plays in a world of change, where there is a fight for half-elf rights, where patsies are set up as regicides, where young noblemen escape from family lands, and where myth and reality intersect in forging a new future.

To discover more about Amya and the creators of the comic Savannah Houston-McIntyre and Andrew Hewitt, visit http://www.amyachronicles.com/about/the-amya-team