Review: Mordred, Bastard Son

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Mordred, Bastard Son

by Douglas Clegg

★★☆☆☆

2006 • 360 pages • Alyson Books

What’s the dividing line between fiction and fan fiction?

Obviously, there’s the major demarcation between your intellectual property and someone else’s intellectual property, but even that hard and fast legal definition ignores the fact that the vast majority of historical fiction is real person fic and the widespread plundering of the public domain by everyone under the sun. Creatively, though, the artistic impulses behind original fiction and fan fiction are totally different. The writer of fan fiction isn’t writing in a fandom because she lacks imagination (this is me pulling out my bullhorn and bellowing “DIANA GABALDON” at the top of my not inconsiderable lungs); she’s writing in that fandom because she’s responding to that text in a very specific way. That response can be as simple as “I think John and Sherlock should make out, so I’ll write some smut” to “Watchmen doesn’t have enough female characters, so I’ll genderflip the whole thing.” And so we stumble across another line: how far away from a text can your fan fiction (or retelling, homage, or “reimagining,” as the legal and published ones are advertised) get before it simply circles back and becomes your own story in a way that is decidedly different from a fan reclaiming Doctor Who for herself from Moffat? If it’s simply keeping the names the same, what does it say that an alternative universe fic like Master of the Universe can, with little to no effort, become Fifty Shades of Grey?

So perhaps we can answer today’s first question with today’s last question, purloined from Shakespeare, that great writer of fic—what’s in a name?

In his introductory remarks to Mordred, Bastard Son, Douglas Clegg states that his intention in writing the now cancelled Mordred trilogy is to both tell Mordred’s side of the story and inject some gay representation into the Arthurian myths. These are classic fan writer impulses, and I was prepared to tuck into something along the lines of The Mists of Avalon—to see the complex motivations behind the choices we know from the canonical text.

But Mordred, Bastard Son doesn’t really tell the story of a man maligned by history for his acts in defense of the old religion. In fact, it doesn’t really tell the story of Mordred as we know it, because it never gets there. This is not something I can entirely lay at Clegg’s feet, as the trilogy was abandoned by his publisher after its publication. (He has said, as of this year, that he plans on publishing the other two installments, but they have not materialized.) And yet, for a novel about a character whose involvement in Arthur’s downfall is certainly the most iconic part of his story, Clegg is in little to no rush to get Mordred to Camelot. There’s a little bit of The Name of the Wind in Mordred, Bastard Son, as Mordred tells his story to a curious onlooker over the course of several days (with the frame story still technically in media res), neatly separating out three acts into three novels. Of course, that only works if those three acts have acts of their own. That’s the eternal difficulty of constructing a satisfying trilogy.

Telling the story of Mordred’s childhood, raised by his mother Morgan le Fay on the idyllic but isolated Isle of Glass, could have been a satisfying story in itself. With little external plot required until Mordred ventures to Camelot, it would have been a perfect opportunity to dig into everyone’s motivations, explore Mordred’s sexuality, and lay the groundwork for the story ahead. But the story Clegg ends up telling is the story of a young hero destined for greatness, whose complex relationship with his mother and his aunt, who both have very legitimate reasons for despising Arthur (Arthur raped Morgan; Morgause tried to play by the rules of the new world order and lost everything), is flattened when Morgause simply cracks, turns evil, and raises an army of the dead to kill Guinevere for reasons. Mordred must ride to her rescue. That’s one way to rehabilitate a character: completely rewrite him and leave him at the mercy of fate.

Without the Arthurian names, in fact, you would probably mistake it for a pretty generic fantasy novel notable only for its representational value. Clegg’s invented culture for Mordred and Morgan’s people sit oddly with the vaguely historical events going on, even though it fondly reminded me of gorging on mediocre fantasy novels as a preteen. There are some interesting changes to Arthurian legend that would have been fascinating to see play out against the traditional story (which we do not get to)—Merlin as a gruff bear of a man, Excalibur as a cursed, One Ring-like sword, and Mordred having to swear a vow of chastity in order to learn magic. But they fizzle. I’ll grant Clegg Excalibur, as we do not even encounter it in this installment, but Mordred’s chastity becomes the bane of his existence once he encounters a handsome hermit.

Given the novel’s fondness for telling instead of showing, despite the passing of the years in the story, this means that the topic that is discussed the most in Mordred, Bastard Son is Mordred complaining that he can’t have sex—because he’s the only gay kid in the village at first, and then because of his magical vow of chastity. Mordred as the only gay kid in the village is an odd choice, given that it’s talked about—at length—that the Isle of Glass is so pro-queer that it hosts same-sex hand fastings. Mordred’s situation is clearly meant to echo alienated queer kids in straight spaces, but the Isle of Glass is explicitly a welcoming space.

I realize that The Mists of Avalon, especially given that I read it as an impressionable preteen, has set a bar for Arthurian retellings for me that few can match. But Mordred, Bastard Son is not very interested in even trying.

I rented this book from the public library.

Review: The Rose Throne

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The Rose Throne
Mette Ivie Harrison

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 400 pages • Egmont

The Rose Throne sold itself to me by simply including two princesses as its leads. (Itself, I say, as if there isn’t a marketing team at Egmont who did their job well. Although it does say something positive about the young adult market that they thought promoting two princesses who interact with each other meaningfully was the way to young readers’ hearts…) The cover copy, which I surreptitiously flipped through while I worked at the book store, promised two princesses pitted against each other by court politics in a way that did not make me fear that they would hate each other at first sight because they didn’t get along with other girls or some equally noxious and boring narrative excuse. I dreamed of two princesses finding an alternative solution to whatever court intrigue was at hand. What I got… was almost that in a peculiarly frustrating way.

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Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

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The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe

★★★★☆

2008 (originally published 1987) • 704 pages • Picador

And, at last, we come to the New York City reads.

It was inevitable, of course; part of the joy of living here is seeing the city refracted at you in virtually all visual media produced in America. (Captain Cinema and I now have the habit of yelping out locations we’ve been to whenever we see them, including eying the seats in which our not yet born butts will perch forty years later as we watch classic Saturday Night Live.) While I’ve been dying to read The New York City Diaries long before moving here was a sure thing, I decided to save it for my Thanksgiving visit home as a literary tether to civilization in the wilds of suburbia. (The physical tether will, of course, be the stunning amount of hair I’ve shed over this city.) Instead, I reached for Tom Wolfe—it was high time we got reacquainted.

While trying to articulate the peculiar beauty of Wolfe’s writing to Captain Cinema while breezing through one of the Strand’s cozy outposts, I ended up comparing his writing to sleep paralysis. “You know, when you’re so tired that you close your eyes, but you’re not asleep, but you couldn’t open your eyes or move for the life of you, and it’s wonderful?” (If you think I’m long-winded in prose, you should hear me talk.) Sleep paralysis is too extreme a descriptor, of course, but it’s circling what Wolfe’s writing does for me. Reading Wolfe is like submerging into a welcome fever—there’s something warm and compulsive about his writing, that insinuates itself into your mind. After I read The Electric Kool-Aid Test, I woke up with his literary voice in my head the next day. Perversely, this is because Wolfe is such a gifted mimic of not only the human voice, but the human context. I’ll need to read more Wolfe to finalize my conclusions, of course, but, with The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Test as my data, I find that what sets Wolfe apart is his ability to capture the moments that make up a movement, be it in his own voice or in a fictional one. I’d start pulling quotes, but we’d be here all morning.

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Review: When She Woke

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When She Woke
by Hillary Jordan

★★★½☆

2011 • 344 pages • Algonquin Books

What happened to When She Woke? The peculiar pleasures and perils of having such a long reading list (and viewing list and listening list and…) is that by the time I actually get to reading something, I’ve forgotten all about it. But I feel like When She Woke made a very positive splash back in 2011—has it really been three years?—and then vanished. This, in itself, means nothing: our pop culture attention spans have only gotten shorter and shorter, to the point that I initially didn’t watch “Too Many Cooks” because twelve minutes was too long. That’s part of the charm of pop culture—there’s just so much of it that you end up with forgotten treasures squirreled away all over. (The moment I realized that I would never be able to listen to all of the music produced in the eighties was practically a spiritual experience.) Seeing that process in action is just what happens when you pay attention to pop culture.

But When She Woke’s slip into recent, fuzzy memory also has to do with the fact that, from day one, Hillary Jordan made sure that everyone who read it would think of two other novels. In the same way that I half-jokingly refer to Eragon as A New Hope set in Middle-Earth, When She Woke is The Scarlet Letter set in the Republic of Gilead. (All novels are sequels, influence is bliss, et cetera, et cetera, thank you, Michael Chabon.) The high concept pitch has endured the test of time (did you know we don’t know where the term even comes from? Language is magic), but there’s always a danger to the “X meets Y” pitch: if X and Y have stood the test of time, you better hope that XY is good enough—or at least different enough—to make your audience stay and not simply wander back off to X and Y.

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Review: You

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You
Austin Grossman

★★★★☆

2013 • 400 pages • Mulholland Books

The first identity I ever explicitly owned was gamer.

My brother is significantly older than I am, and I experienced his nineties adolescence secondhand as a small child. The signifiers of cool (for a given value where whatever your older sibling does is awesome) were the SEGA Genesis in the corkboard entertainment center in my brother’s room, the familiar weight and heft of a Nintendo 64 controller, and a discarded Street Fighter II strategy guide that I poured over in the family van. I remember perching on a medicine ball and watching him play Warcraft II, the two of us in perfect, rapt silence; I remember fleeing from the room as he faced off with Ganon for the last time in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Pop culture starved as I was, video games became my childhood imagination’s major anchor. 

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Review: I Am J

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I Am J
by Cris Beam

★★★☆☆

2011 • 352 pages • Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

I’m not sure I have that much to say about I Am J, let alone the seven hundred words I decided a long, long time ago was my required length for a review in this house. (Every space I occupy, be it a physical space or not, inevitably becomes referred to as a house. Even the Church of Bowie, although, I suppose, it is technically also the Thin White Duke’s House.) The novel is a fairly straight forward transition narrative: a teenage trans man comes to terms with being trans, decides to begin hormone treatment, and finally comes to a place in his life where he can live as himself. It isn’t poorly written. It boasts a diverse cast. It actually talks about homelessness and queer youth. But there wasn’t anything for me in it.

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Review: Wolf in White Van

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Wolf in White Van
by John Darnielle

★★★★☆

2014 • 224 pages • Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I feel like I’ve arrived at music’s front porch recently, in the same way that I’ve only recently started taking to film and television in any serious way. My great trouble has long been my childhood focus on the single, which is what happens when you only have access to greatest hits albums and nineties film soundtracks. I learned of the concept of the album in middle school, when I began buying music (baby’s first album: Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. A moment of silence for my half-hearted and unfulfilled punk and goth yearnings as a child), but I just treated all albums like greatest hits albums: I raided them for the songs I liked and discarded the rest, never really thinking of them as a cohesive, coherent unit. This culminated in my finally confessing to a friend that I’d never even heard Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, which I was then claiming as my favorite album, all the way through—at the Atlanta leg of the Viva La Vida tour.

But, in the last few years, I’ve improved. I spent several weekends in college drowsily drinking in Tom Waits’ discography, daydreaming that I was hiding in the rafters while the band played. The album experience, I concluded, was all about atmosphere, and therefore necessarily at odds with my literally single-minded focus. But last Saturday on the train, I listened to Haim’s fantastic Days are Gone and drowsed, just the same as I did with Tom Waits. But “Don’t Save Me” and “My Song 5” drilled into my head nonetheless. Albums are about atmosphere, but song craft is about specificity and distinction. That balance is central to music—at least, modern music released in album form.

Wolf in White Van is also largely about that balance—between atmosphere and distinction. That makes complete sense, given that its author, John Darnielle, who is also the main musician behind The Mountain Goats. The protagonist, Sean Phillips, is in the grips of an extended adolescence, caused by a completely inexplicable incident sometime in his teens that also left him hideously disfigured. Sean himself is in his thirties, making an odd living running Trace Italian, a roleplaying game played over mail. What little plot there is centers around two teenagers who died playing a real life version of the game and the revelation of what Sean actually did to himself. But the story is about how Sean’s imagination both helps and hinders him, especially given the distance his disfigurement has put in every relationship in his life. Darnielle balances the two into a delicate, raw, and painful novel, as Sean, seasoned by the twenty years since the incident, picks at the loose threads in human interaction and his own mind. Continue reading

Review: Sorrow’s Knot

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Sorrow’s Knot
by Erin Bow

★★★★★

2013 • 368 pages • Arthur A. Levine Books

I can’t say I’m totally sorry to have left bookselling in the rearview mirror when I left Denver, especially now that I am gainfully employed once more. (Yes, it’s publishing, no, it’s not trade publishing, and no, I’m not going to talk about it.) It’s really nice to have a predictable schedule and not have to deal with the small, interesting messes that come with working the children’s section. Or any other section, come to think of it.

But I do miss book recommendations simply falling into my lap at work with absolutely no effort. There was always a new shelf talker, bookmark, excited customer, or swag floating around. (This is why I own a City of Bones tee shirt. It lives at my mother’s house, where I wear it to clean.) Sorrow’s Knot was one such recommendation; I found the bookmark while cleaning out my pockets to do laundry. The downside of all of those recommendations, of course, is that there were so many of them that I never got around to them. But now I am very lucky to have a passive commute, where I can have my own sacred reading hour every (work) day.

So, at long last, I’ve come to Sorrow’s Knot, practically sight unseen after the summer I’ve had. Which is really the best way to come at such a hypnotic, archetypical, and yet thoroughly unique novel.

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Review: Pantomime

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Pantomime
by Laura Lam

★★★½☆

2013 • 400 pages • Strange Chemistry

I go out of my way to interrupt any continuities in my reading. According to my house rules, I can’t read the same genre twice in a row, and, more often than not, I don’t read two books intended for the same audience one right after the other. Nonetheless, there are always through lines to be found in my reading. That’s how reading works—you’re the common denominator in all of it. You are the glue that makes the context.

The through line between Tell The Wolves I’m Home and Pantomime is the kind of secret that you cannot tell. In the former novel, June Elbus cannot bring herself to face her love for her uncle (okay, it is so much better than that description suggests); in the latter, Gene cannot confide the fact that he is intersex without fear, even in the slightly more broadminded circus he takes refuge in. (Laura Lam takes the welcome approach of using first person to avoid gendering Gene’s pronouns. We’re more aware of how people gender Gene than how Gene genders himself. However, given that Lam’s quick summary of her first book for readers uses “he” to refer to Gene as he finishes out the first novel, I’m going with that. Spoilers at that link!) Even expressing himself in a way that was inaccessible to the noblewoman Gene was raised as, he has to play a part to protect himself.

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Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

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Tell The Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt

★★★★☆

2012 • 360 pages • The Dial Press

No matter how much young adult fiction I read, it’s difficult squaring the fully realized humans that populate the vast majority of them with my own experience of adolescence—foggy, confused, and only on the road to being a person. (Tips for teens: everybody is worried about themselves. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Also, queer girls, don’t let straight girls give you makeovers. Their motives are rarely pure.) I understand why, of course. Not every author or every story needs to dig deep into the strange dreamscape that is the adolescent psyche. And every adolescent is different. But it’s important to write stories about the painful, harrowing process of becoming a person, lest kids (like yours truly) grow up ashamed of the half-formed nature that is, by rights, theirs.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells the story of one such teenager—June, a fourteen year old in the eighties, mourning the loss of her beloved uncle Finn. Her parents attempt to put on a brave front and refuse to discuss the disease Finn died from, while her elder sister Greta views June’s excessive mourning with cruel contempt. Only Finn’s final painting, a portrait of his nieces entitled “Tell The Wolves I’m Home”, marks his time in their lives. Adrift without Finn and vague at school, June suddenly finds a new avenue back to Finn when Finn’s boyfriend, Toby, asks to speak to her. The two begin meeting clandestinely, bonding over their love of Finn even as June has to keep him secret.

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