Behind the Wallpaper of the World

A review of Michelle Barker’s The Beggar King (Thistledown Press, 2013)

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author


By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Beggar King, Michelle Barker explores the potential of the fantasy medium for creating a deep coming-of-age story. Jordan is a boy on the cusp of adulthood and in his society youths his age normally receive a talent, a gift that will help them to determine their career – either they are good at firing arrows, have an aptitude for prophesy, or some other gift that will allow them to chose a career path. But, Jordon’s gift hasn’t appeared yet. He has an ability to leap from building to building, and a skill at stealing from the marketplace, but what he really wants is a clear talent and an uncomplicated path to the future. But things keep getting more complicated for him.

Jordan encounters the dark figure from his culture’s mythology, the Beggar King, a being who uses undermagic, a forbidden type of magic that has been locked away because it could only be used for evil purposes and tended to turn on those who used it. Shortly after he first sees this dark figure, his community is invaded by the Brinnians, people who not only don’t respect his people’s traditions, but actively engage in activities that would be considered sacrilegious – hanging dead bodies from their sacred tree, killing sacred deer, and burning their sacred book.

When these invaders threaten to kill his mother, Jordan is told by friends and the Beggar King that he should consider opening the door to the undermagic that has been locked away in order to use its power to free his people.  Jordan is caught between a feeling that it is his cultural and religious duty to rid his community of invaders who engage in sacrilege and his knowledge that if he opens the door to the undermagic, he may be engaging in a sacrilege greater than any that these invaders could bring. Jordan discovers that he is one of the few who has the power to open the door to the undermagic – he has been given the gift to retreat outside of the world and disappear, he is the only one who can cross the Bridge of No Return that only the Beggar King can cross, and he has already opened the door to the undermagic a tiny crack…. he is uniquely positioned to either be the saviour of his people or bring about their downfall, and both friends and the Beggar King are playing on his desire to be exceptional, to prove himself, and to have a place in society by encouraging him to make a name for himself by opening the door to the undermagic. He discovers that some doors open for us, and some doors open within us.

This is a book about the in-between, that place that teens occupy as they search for identity as adults while rejecting their childhood identity. The in-between nature of this book stretches out into the position of Jordan as a person who is between the living and the dead when he crosses behind “the wallpaper of the world” to disappear as well as being the person who can open the doorway to the undermagic. He walks in those in-between places, hopping from rooftop to rooftop as he travels, and when he gains the power to become invisible, in the world between the places of our world and the underworld. But, the Holy City of Cir is itself a place betwixt and between – it is an island that can only be reached by bridges, and each bridge can only be crossed at certain times, with certain thoughts and behaviours – each bridge requires the individual to be in a certain mindset before it allows him or her to cross, whether that mindset is mischievous, meditative, or another frame of mind. When it becomes invaded, the Holy City of Cir becomes further liminal, being a place both of the Cirrans and the competing cultural influence of the invading Brinnians. It has become a city in the midst of a clash between traditional religion and the new capitalist imperialism brought by the Brinnians. Jordan is also in a morally liminal place, pulled in different moral directions and stuck with uncertainty about magic and undermagic because of the presence of these moral and cultural Others.

The Beggar King reinforces this ambiguity, being both a figure that is in inside and outside of the world, appearing on its fringes, but unable to appear to everyone (only to those suited to open the gateway to the undermagic). Even the term Beggar King is liminal, positioning him between poverty and wealth. Before attaining the power of undermagic, the Beggar King was a sin eater, a scapegoat for his culture who had to eat food that was filled with the sins of the households he begged from.

Using these liminal characteristics, Barker suffuses her world with the inherent contradictions that come with youth and the transition to adulthood – the uneasiness and questions that come with transformation and change. Although early in the narrative, prophets see Jordan as a ‘little boy wearing too-big shoes’, his encounters with other aspects of the fringes, other betwixt and between spaces, helps him to grow into those shoes and face an uneasy destiny rather than the one of ease and fame which he would have chosen. He discovers that one never knows the full picture and that when one acts unilaterally, even when he thinks it is the best thing for his community, he brings greater trouble to them. Only by accepting his role as a member of a greater community and recognising the diversity of skills and strengths within the people around him can he gain a complete understanding of the situation that faces him and take actions that are in support of others rather than in service to his own desire to be famous. By observing the emperor who has conquered his territory as well as his own choices, he comes to understand that arrogance is one of the greatest forms of ignorance.

To discover more about Michelle Barker’s work, visit her website at http://michellebarker.ca/ . To pick up a copy of The Beggar King, visit  Thistledown Press at http://www.thistledownpress.com/index.cfm .

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Blind Vision Quest

A Review of Douglas Smith’s The Wolf at the End of the World (Forthcoming)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Wolf at the End of the World courtesy of Douglas Smith

Cover photo for The Wolf at the End of the World courtesy of Douglas Smith

The Wolf at the End of the World is a tale that would resonate with the spirit of any environmentalist – the struggle of diverse species to survive, the conflict with human greed and capitalism, the invasiveness of the human presence on animal life, and also the potential for a shift in human consciousness toward a connection with the animal world, an acknowledgement of our dependency on our environment and eco diversity. As he often does, Douglas wields myth as a tool for pedagogy, much like myth-tellers have been doing throughout history. He taps into that vital essence of the story to reveal truths that we ignore in our mundane world and teaches complexity through the poetics of language and potentials of symbols.

Smith’s work, as always, is full of potent ambiguities, the moral questions that fill us with the potential to interrogate our world and challenge the assumptions that have become part of living our lives. He does this through beautiful prose and an exciting and powerful story. Smith tackles issues of huge importance for our understanding of modernity such as the relationship of the human to our environment, the power of greed, the emptiness that comes from loneliness, the danger of secrecy (particularly government initiated secrets), ideas of ability and disability, the relationship of indigenous people to the state, and the general issue of bodily and identity difference. He recognises that accepting difference is a complex process, even for the person who is fundamentally ostracised and cast socially as different.

The Wolf at the End of the World is a text of loss and hunger, the pining for that which is missing, absent, taken away, or desired, and Smith embodies this in the figure of the Windigo, a being from Indigenous cosmologies that is the embodiment of hunger with a heart of ice, an insatiable appetite. It is the perfect symbol of modernity, with all of our greed, our loneliness, our desire for something we have lost or not yet obtained… it reminds us of our absences. The Windigo, despite being the villain in this novel, becomes a form of teacher, espousing a pedagogy about the dangers of desire, the dangers of creating a heart of ice and always wanting and losing ourselves to greed as a way of trying to fill the spot in ourselves that has become empty (or icy) because of our feeling of loss. The Windigo is a great expression of the modern condition.

In contrast to the Windigo are the Heroka, figures who are shape-shifters, able to speak to and connect on a spiritual level to animals, and a boy, Zach, who is sorting through his difference – as a blind person, as someone who is half Cree and who does not know about his father. His mother, who is Cree, has been running from her heritage, trying to ignore her past, and she fears her son’s difference, and also the secrets that she has kept from him about his father’s heritage and the potential differences that are inherent in it. But, Zach’s differences are his strengths, things that have shaped him and he is put into the position of accepting his differences and becoming even further different from the socially-defined norms or of passing as “normal” and missing something of himself.

Ancient gods reenact mythic roles, renewing and changing the world around them to play out what it means to be human and what it means to be spirit and animal. Trickster spirits play with human lives, challenging them to change, learn, and grow, and to question everything they have been taught and the world that has shaped them. The reader is carried along on this mythic tale, taught the potential of stories to challenge us and make us more aware.

To find out more about Douglas Smith and The Wolf at the End of the World, visit his website at http://www.smithwriter.com/the_wolf_at_the_end_of_the_world . This novel will be coming out soon and you can link through the website above to pre-order a copy.

Dead Depressed

A Review of James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Zombies are normally pretty content – they groan, they chase, they eat, they shuffle… but what happens when a zombie becomes depressed? In James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, depressed zombies get promoted. No matter how much they tell their bosses they hate their jobs, plan to demotivate workers, and decrease productivity, a diagnosis of depression is a one way ticket to the top… in fact, Buck Burger’s description of how he plans to destroy the company is exactly the skill-set and thought pattern that zombie corporate life thrives on. After all, when you are a people that are totally steeped in decay and the destructive lifestyle, what is more appealing than destruction. But, Buck starts to feel stuck, realises the monotony of his existence… and unlike most zombies, he dislikes this monotony… he wants to do forbidden, stigmatised things like change.

When Buck meets Fairy_26, a green-haired beauty infused with life, he sees in her everything that is lacking in his own unlife. The fairy, and the supernatural races have something that he has been desiring, something that challenges the monotony of existence and promotes growth. She is the opposite of everything every zombie wants (which is probably why the zombies and the supernatural races have been at war for so long), but because she is so different and because he hates his unlife due to his depression, she represents an opportunity for change, a challenge to the status quo of boring zombie existence. Instead of mindless destruction, she is steeped in mindful life.

Buck wishes he could become what he eats… a living human being. He pines for his lost life and envies the living. Fortunately, as depression often does, his depressed state serves as a hunger suppressant, which is ideal for someone who wants to give up gnawing upon people.

Buck has to question commitments, obligations, social restraints upon him that hold him in his current unlifestyle in order to make a new unlife for himself. He has to challenge his marriage obligations to his wife, his job requirements, and commit social faux pas that would horrify any moral zombie in order to free himself from the chains of dull, colourless zombie existence and open himself to the vibrancy of fairyland and fairy life.

Marshall reveals a social critique of the monotony of human existence through the figure of the zombie. In our corporate greed and unquestioning repetition of outmoded patterns, we become like zombies – unwilling to change things, unwilling to question, unwilling to extend our creative impulses. His zombie society represents a flesh and blood covered mirror of corporate life and the eerie creep of suburban society. Zombies in his world impose their values on the young through an unquestioning education system designed to make them into automatons and prepare them for transition into zombie society or the zombie digestive system.

Marshall notes the allure of the zombie lifestyle and why it is so desirable for so many people “I know how they feel. Angry. Mindless. They’re doing things because they’re supposed to do things. They don’t want to. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know anything. For a while, they tried to learn but they didn’t so they stopped. They became zombies. It’s easier than trying to stay human when everyone else isn’t” (195). Like zombies, we get trapped into simple desires in an attempt to fill a void in our life of what we really want with meaningless trinkets that the marketing world tells us will fill that void. We mindlessly replicate things, follow the status quo, don’t seek to learn the meaning behind things. This is pretty alluring. It seems, on the surface, to be an easy lifestyle… but our society have become like zombies, not questioning, not changing, following outdated patterns, and mindlessly destroying – after all, look what we are doing to our environment. After reading this, any trip to the mall or witnessing of road rage lets the reader see the zombie apocalypse already in full swing.

To find out more about Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, check out ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/books/zombie-versus-fairy.php

To read more about what James Marshall is up to, visit his website at http://www.howtoendhumansuffering.com/ .

An Eldrich Digital Light

A review of Kent Pollard’s A Perfect Circle (in Misseplled edited by Julie Czerneda, Daw 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Thorn was created to be evil, he was made to be an evil wizard… that’s the way he was designed. But, what happens when a wizard designed for a video game accidentally summons the overseer programme for the game? What happens when that wizard becomes aware of the role that he is locked into by his design? In A Perfect Circle, Kent Pollard explores the morals of gaming – creating characters as disposable figures and locking the players into a notion of moral exception by virtue of the virtual nature of the character as well as his label as “evil”. Video games are a space where moral absolutes are possible and can lock the player into black-and-white binary moral thinking – “I kill that because it is evil, and save that because it is good”. As a society we tend to ascribe moral absolutes on figures that we construct as enemies and our politicians use terms like “evil” to abdicate moral responsibility. We similarly digitise “enemies”, constructing them as less than human and quasi-virtual to treat their deaths as less impactful than those who we count as “Ourselves”. With digital warfare, this becomes easier – when the killing lens can literally be a digital scope. Thorn, like the overall notion of “enemy” is an archetype, but Pollard invests in him human feeling, experience, and the ability to overwrite his assigned role, to question the paradigm in which he has been placed and break out of the code confines that define and control him.

Pollard invests his wizard Thorn with AI (artificial intelligence) technology, a consciousness and ability to think for himself, and raises the question of whether video games in the future will do similar things when AI technology is further developed. What happens if we create consciousness in a digital construct and what does it mean to kill something that we have created with a form of conscious mind? Would using AI technology in video games be moral?

Thorn experiences an existential crisis, debating his place in his world, his understanding of selfhood, and the constructs that surround him. Worlds and layers of reality become destabilised, questioned, shaky, and understandings slip and break.

Quote – Any Evil that Entered the World Contaminated the World

“No cure was worth torturing cats and mice. It was like arguing that inventing, then using, the atom bomb was justified because it ended the war and diminished suffering. Any evil that entered the world contaminated the world.”

-Scott Fotheringham – The Rest is Silence (Goose Lane Editions, 2012)

Superhero Complex(ity)

A review of Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa, Tyche Books LTD, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

There has been a recent increase in the public interest in the superhero genre with increasing numbers of superhero movies, increasing numbers of people wearing superhero related merchandise and increasingly larger population groups getting excited about the figure of the superhero. Yet superheroes that are being represented often embody American ideals of the self-made man, the perfect body, and dichotomous views of good and evil. It is therefore timely that Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa released Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories.

Masked Mosaic seeks to push the boundaries of the superhero genre: to include complexities and issues that were often ignored in the Golden Age of comics and continue to be ignored in our culture’s nostalgia over comic figures of the past. The stories in this volume often play with Golden Age themes and complicate them. Rather than replicating hegemonies, the characters are diverse: aged, not ideals of bodily perfection, queer/ LGBTQ2, and culturally diverse. They represent a more inclusive reality of Canadian culture. It is a combination of pastiche and resistance to the past hegemonies that were embedded and encoded in Golden Age comics.

The binary image of superheroes with a universal idea of good and evil is disrupted in this volume, blurring the boundaries between hero and villain. The authors of these short stories recognise that heroes often support causes that are unjust and that heroism is often tied to political beliefs of the time and are not, in fact, universal concepts. Heroism is tied to ideologies of the ruling elite, enforcing power structures. Yesterday’s heroes may be considered today’s villains or vice versa. This volume is a reminder that heroes can fall.

Superheroes as mythic and iconic symbols are explored as well as exploring the complexities and problematic nature of symbols.

Featuring the work of E.L. Chen, Kristi Charish, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jonathan Olfert, Kevin Cockle, David Nickle, Derryl Murphy, D.K. Latta, Emma Faraday, Mike Rimar, Emma Vossen, Patrick T. Goddard, A.C. Wise, Rhea Rose, David Perlmutter, Lisa Poh, Marie Bilodeau, Rhonda and Jonathan Parrish, Chantal Boudreau, Michael S. Chong, Jason Sharp, Alyxandra Harvey, Michael Matheson, and Jason S. Ridler this volume contains a diversity of voices in Canadian SF – both new and established. The stories involve everything from supervillains in a relationship with heroes, superheroes made out of dreams, Mexican wrestlers, aliens, seamstresses, archaeologists playing with possession, and figures from the Canadian mythic past and from history.

In an era of obsession with origin stories, Lalumiere and Alexa collect stories that represent every part of the superhero’s life from origin to retirement.

You can find out more about the Masked Mosaic collection at Tyche Books’ website http://tychebooks.com/ . You can check out a review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Iron Justice Versus the Fiends of Evil” from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/unmasked

Between Pages of Experience

A review of Jo Walton’s Among Others
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

SF has a pedagogical value – it teaches, it shares experiences, and it opens the mind to new horizons. Outsiders and social outcasts are often drawn to SF as a means to explore a world that seems strange and alienating to them – reading the alien as a way of understanding themselves. Jo Walton’s Among Others explores how young Morwenna, a girl with a disability, and far more clever than others girls in her year, explores the world through pages of SF books, living in a conversation between reality and the fantastic. SF becomes a tool for her to navigate her life – learning about diversity, philosophy, love, utopian ideas, politics, sexuality, and gaining deeper context for human existence. Yet, SF books also have a power about them beyond learning about magic – as a girl who can do magic and can see fairies, SF becomes a tool for magic, using the pages and phrases of her books as protection from spells around her. SF books are more than themselves, deeper, and beyond the ordinary.

Morwenna has always been able to see fairies, and at a young age tried to shape them according to the precepts of Fantasy books, Tolkeinising them and limiting their reality to what she hoped would be the case. As she ages, she begins to learn about the nature of fairies for themselves, rather than trying to put her ideas upon them. They are extensions of the landscape, extensions of place and space for a girl who is having difficulty finding her place.

Morwenna’s mother seeks to use magic to rule the world, changing it to suit her, but Morwenna debates the nature of magic, questioning its use and the morality of changing the world. Magic works in subtle ways, changing the world in ways that could be debated or disregarded. Spells change the conditions of things to cause the desired things to come about – a leaf dropped in a toxic puddle can transform a wasteland of industry into a garden, but not instantly as it occurs in many fantasy novels. Magic in Walton’s world just sets the conditions whereby things can be changed, causing the closing of a factory and the abandonment of an industrial area so that nature can reclaim it. Magic suffuses Morwenna’s life, but it is subtle, changeable, and debatable.

Pain and loss have shaped Morewenna’s life – the pain of her damaged leg, the loss of her twin, and the continued ostracism of her peers. The temptation to use magic to better her life is all around her, yet her moral structure prevents her from using it. When she does a spell to find a community and is suddenly asked to join a Science Fiction book club, she worries that she has taken the will from her compatriots and made them like her. She fears taking agency away from others and becoming like her mother.

Morwenna sees more than others do, aware of the depth and context of the world. She not only sees the magical world, but notices things in her world that others ignore and disregard. She sees differently than those around her, fascinated and interested in things that others wouldn’t give attention to, and finds the topics of other people her age uninteresting and pedantic. With so many fascinating things in the world, she wonders why they would focus so much on petty gossip.

Told through a series of journal entries, Among Others is a tale of self discovery and loneliness in which SF provides not only tales to entertain, but lessons to live by and fuel for the magical world surrounding Morwenna.

To read more about Among Others, you can explore Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/amongothers/JoWalton .