TV Review: Doctor Who Episode 3.03 “Gridlock”

Episode 3.03 “Gridlock”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Originally Aired: April 14, 2007

Synopsis: “The Doctor and Martha return to New Earth to find it has been laid out as a horrendous trap, stuck in a giant and long traffic jam under the streets of New New York.”

A rather grimy, almost claustrophobic episode is this one. We return to New New York (first seen in Episode 2.01 “New Earth”) to find it a dystopia. The premise is ridiculous, but a bit frightening precisely because it’s based on something relatable: we’ve all felt, at various times, that we were spending most of our lives stuck in traffic. Well, the residents of New New York really do spend most of their lives stuck in traffic! And their flying cars float in a massive underground tunnel-road, meaning they can only get out of their vehicles every few months, when they inch up to a loading dock.

Bring a bandana...or a gas mask! The flying-car fumes are that bad.

As an adventure it’s fairly interesting and well done. Martha gets kidnapped by a desperate couple who need her in order to, essentially, use the carpool lane, and the Doctor gives chase. The best parts feature him jumping from rooftop to rooftop of flying cars while searching for her. It’s a near impossible task, but he never gives up.

But it’s not an episode that demands rewatching. The setting is convincingly portrayed, but ugly because of it. Some of the side characters are interesting and well-played (including the young couple that kidnaps Martha), but writer Russell Davies again indulges his political ideas by going out of his way to include lesbian characters (and, rather uncomfortably, a marriage between a human woman and a cat-man that produces children). The gap between Davies’ morals and Christian morals is made more awkward by the usage of the Christian hymn “Abide With Me” to celebrate the liberation of the citizens at the end. I like the song, and I like that the humans sing it, but coming from the pen of Davies it almost feels like mockery because we’ve seen how little he cares for Christianity.

Aviator cat-man-with-Scottish-accent is really cool, but it's creepy that he married a human woman.

The main reason to see this episode is for the reappearance of the Face of Boe, that ancient and mysterious creature that was first, and briefly, introduced in Episode 1.02 “The End of the World.” Reputed to be the oldest living creature in the universe, he is now dying, and he chooses to gives his last words to the Doctor; it’s a prophecy, in fact: “You are not alone.” What does it mean? Martha presses the Doctor, but he sadly rejects the possibility that there is another Time Lord out there. The Time Lords are all dead, he explains, having died in the Time War against the Daleks along with their planet. So the Face of Boe must be wrong, or must mean something else, he insists. Of course, this is a plant for something to be revealed later in the series, but it does lead to the Doctor opening up to Martha with a beautiful description of Gallifrey, his long-destroyed home planet, in its prime. After two adventures, he finally pulls up a chair and tells her something of who he is and where he comes from. It’s nice to see him recognize how important this is for a companion to hear. The adventure is over, now it’s time to talk.

Martha: When you say “last time”, was that you and Rose?
The Doctor: [he pauses, somewhat taken aback by the question] Um… Yeah! Yeah, it was, yeah.
Martha: [looking put off] You’re taking me to the same planets that you took her?
The Doctor: [surprised, oblivious] What’s wrong with that?
Martha: [disappointed, upset] Nothing! [starts to stalk away] ‘Cept have you heard of the word “rebound”?

Source of Photos: Killcolor
Other Review: Doctor Who Reviews

Book Review: “Lilith” by George MacDonald

An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.

Lilith is equal if not superior to the best of Poe.
~W.H. Auden

If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling…But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man…Myth does not essentially exist in words at all.
~C.S. Lewis, 1946

Title: Lilith
Author: George MacDonald
Pages: 252
Published: 1895 (making this a piece of Victorian literature)
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In his large and mostly empty home, young gentleman Mr. Vane is led by a strange old librarian, Mr. Raven, to a mirror that transports him to an otherworld, where he is confronted with the truth of his own soul and with the very mystery of evil itself.
Reason for Beginning: After reading MacDonald’s own Phantastes, I determined to read any work of his that I could get my hands on. Lilith was the next I could get my hands on.
Reason for Finishing: An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.
Story Re-readability: It may not be the easiest reread, due to MacDonald’s peculiar style, but it probably should be in order to better understand its underlying meanings. As Lewis says in the quote above, there is a wisdom in MacDonald that comes out in his writings, and I don’t think we’re likely to fully understand his wisdom after only one reading of it. Fortunately, each chapter is fairly short and usually comprises a single major incident, such that you can easily track your progress through the book.
Author Re-readability: This is my second MacDonald novel, and I loved it and will seek out his other books as well. The value in rereading him comes not so much from his writing style (though there are times when he manages a wonderful turn of phrase), but in the deep content of his books and the values that infuse them. He can preach boldly without being preachy because his sermons are woven into the fabric of his stories. Take the sermon out of the story, and you lose the story.
Recommendation: I would be pleased if everyone read this book, as it is so unique and has so much of real value, both aesthetically and spiritually, to offer. Yet I think that many people may have difficulty getting beyond the book’s strangeness, as sublime as I find it. Knowledge of Christianity is extremely helpful in understanding this book, as MacDonald references theology quite often without explaining his references very well; nonetheless, such knowledge is not necessary. In fact, MacDonald himself would probably have preferred readers to merely read and soak in his story without trying to understand every little bit as they go. When reading Lilith, focus on the emotions of the characters and of the scenes, and then use the theology to guide your understanding of those emotions.

Obtainability: I recommend reading a physical copy of Lilith so that you can underline passages and make notes in the margins. However, it is also available online, in the public domain, here.

Key Thoughts

You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
~Lilith, pg. 30

If I could meet with just one dead author, it would be to sit down with George MacDonald and have him explain, page-by-page, what he meant in Lilith and Phantastes. These two novels have some of the most surreal and difficult plots I have encountered. It’s not that they are bizarre or meaningless in any postmodern way—through them runs a deep and sure current of absolute Truth that always leads to the Christian gospel. As C.S. Lewis noted, MacDonald has a tendency to preach his point even in his stories, only we do not mind as much as we might because he is a superb preacher. With this I agree. It is not MacDonald’s values or his message which seem obscure, but the details of every strange event which, while providing opportunity for commentary of a philosophical or theological nature, are nonetheless quite, well, strange.

The plot is closer to a dream narrative, and the question of why certain events happen is better answered by examining them from an allegorical or symbolic perspective rather than applying mundane logic. I think MacDonald’s powerful images are meant to awake in us recognition and acceptance of spiritual truths. Many of these are not very clear when we first encounter them in the book, but become clearer by the end. Take this excerpt near the beginning:

Then I saw, slowly walking over the light soil, the form of a woman. A white mist floated about her, now assuming, now losing to reassume the shape of a garment, as it gathered to her or was blown from her by a wind that dogged her steps.

She was beautiful, but with such a pride at once and misery on her countenance that I could hardly believe what yet I saw. Up and down she walked, vainly endeavoring to lay hold of the mist and wrap it around her. The eyes in the beautiful face were dead, and on her left side was a dark spot, against which she would now and then press her hand, as if to stifle pain or sickness. Her hair hung nearly to her feet, and sometimes the wind would so mix it with the mist that I could not distinguish the one from the other; but when it fell gathering together again, it shone a pale gold in the moonlight.

Suddenly, pressing both hands on her heart, she fell to the ground, and the mist rose from her and melted in the air. I ran to her. But she began to writhe in such torture that I stood aghast. A moment more and her legs, hurrying from her body, sped away serpents. From her shoulders fled her arms as in terror, serpents also. Then something flew up from her like a bat, and when I looked again, she was gone. The ground rose like the sea in a storm; terror laid hold upon me; I turned to the hills and ran. (50)

Is the ground rising literal or metaphorical? It could be either, I don’t know. Nor do I know what purpose it serves for the incident or the story at large. Our protagonist knows as little as we do at this point. And yet even now, having finished the book and knowing who the woman is and why she grasps her side in pain, and even knowing the source of her arrogance and misery…I still don’t know why she appeared at this early instance, why she fell to the ground now and not other times, and why her limbs sped away as serpents (when next we see her, her limbs are attached the way they are supposed to be). I can say, to some degree, what MacDonald means, but I have no idea why he chose to say it in this way!

When confronted with Mr. Raven, a person who seems to shift physically between an old man and a literal raven at the casual blink of an eye, and who speaks in seeming riddles and appears to inhabit an otherworld even as he stands in Mr. Vane’s library, Mr. Vane accepts the situation rather quickly and engages in philosophical argument. Not that he fails to question the weirdness of the situation; he does, but doesn’t dwell on it long. What I’m trying to say is that his reactions are not always what the reader’s would be or what the reader would expect. This isn’t a bad thing, really: it makes Mr. Vane a much more interesting protagonist. He engages philosophically with the dreamworld around him, trying to understand it and his place in it. Still, it is often hard to understand why he reacts in a certain way at a certain time, or why a particular thing happens.

Yet MacDonald is aware of the strangeness, and sometimes comments on it. There is an instance where Vane becomes enslaved to a group of evil, brutish people who are so stupid that he could easily either escape or even overcome them by his wits. Yet he continues in his slavery and only tries to escape in the most inconvenient and unnecessarily difficult ways. Much later, when he is wiser, he reflects on that incident with incredulity at his own foolishness.

“The lady stood a little way off, looking, even in the clumsy attire I had fashioned for her, at once grand and graceful.”

The chapters are short, and each one contains a very curious scene, most of which are so strange and powerful in their imagery that they will stay with you for some time: there is the house of Mr. Raven and his wife, with an endless dark room lined with couches on which people lie who wait for the resurrection of the dead—they have willingly died to themselves in order that they might live a new life;  the Evil Wood, in which skeletal armies massacre each other every night, but fade before the sun rises; the bountiful forest of the Little Lovers, children of innocence and beauty who spend their days alternately frolicking and hiding from the stupid adult brutes that live nearby; the hall of leaves and branches in which skeletons dance and curtsy like aristocrats; the massive dry riverbed that is plagued by monsters only at night; the House of Bitterness, whose kind but enigmatic mistress speaks to white leopards and always wears a veil over her face; a male and a female skeleton of recently-deceased aristocracy arguing comically about their broken carriage and the difficulty of walking without muscles on one’s knees; the great city of Bulika with its silent, fearful populace, its leopards and creepy Thin Man stalking the streets; and the final scenes, so magnificent and rapturous, of…ah, but that would be revealing too much!

I have listed these images in an attempt to prove a measure of what Lewis is saying in his quote above: that the power of MacDonald’s stories lie not in the words he uses, but in the events themselves. I could retell the entirety of Lilith in my own words, and as long as I am true to the content of the story, it would retain many of the same haunting qualities it has coming direct from him. This is the power of myth and fairy story, which belongs also to Fouqué’s Undine and which Tolkien discussed in “On Fairy Stories.” (I remember now that MacDonald himself called Undine the most beautiful of all fairy tales he knew.)

Theological stuff

As to the title, the book does involve the old Jewish myth of Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife, who rebelled in arrogance and greed from God’s established plan and was cast out of the Garden to be replaced by Eve. The story is not in the Bible and is not true, but MacDonald uses it in his fantasy to convey his message of the sheer power of God’s grace. This book is all about salvation, and the necessity of letting go of sin, dying to one’s own self, and accepting the will of God to cleanse us and make us more like Him.

What I love about MacDonald is how powerful holiness is in his stories. Evil is shown truthfully to be weak, decrepit, a desperate sham, a pitiful and vindictive rebellion against God that only hurts the rebel, while only in holiness can people truly find themselves. We are made for Heaven; our struggle through this life is the result of our own sinful rebellion. Sin is part of human nature, but it was never meant to be; it is like a disease which attaches itself to the body, but was not originally part of it. And we cannot cure ourselves—the sick can never cure themselves! We must submit to the One who can cure us. This is always MacDonald’s message, I think: by submitting to Christ, we are cleansed of the evil that was not meant to be part of us, and we become truly ourselves.

There is another theological point, however, which MacDonald does not get right. Perhaps you have heard that he was a universalist? That is, that he did not believe that Hell is eternal, but that every created person, including the demons and Satan himself, will eventually be redeemed and join again with God. Well, it is true: this belief is expressed fairly clearly in Lilith. The Shadow, representative of Satan, is prophesied to eventually lay down his arms and submit to God, “the last to wake in the morning of the universe” (218). I have not read any of MacDonald’s sermons or essays on this subject, and so can only guess at his reasoning. My guess is that he thought that God’s grace and love are so all-consuming that it would be inconceivable for any evil to be able to resist it for ever, even Satan’s. It is a noble error, resting as it does on the sovereignty of Christ’s love and sacrifice, but an error nonetheless. MacDonald made the mistake of relying on his own reason and feelings in trying to understand the concept of Hell, and in doing so ignored the explicit nature of Scripture.

Firstly, if those who consistently and consciously reject the grace of Christ’s sacrifice unto their death do not have to pay an eternal price, but will be saved anyway, then the gospel is robbed of its meaning. Why should any person repent now, if they can sin as they please in this life and be cleansed—easily, without having to submit to anything themselves, they think—in the next? Secondly, the Scriptures clearly state that eternal punishment exists: Matthew chapters 7, 10, and 25:31-46, among others.

Does this serious error invalidate the spiritual value of MacDonald’s message and story? I think not. Christians must be aware of biblical theology and of where MacDonald trusted his own reasoning over God’s Word, but that does not mean he is no Christian, nor that his book cannot be termed a Christian book. His portrayal of the victory of God’s love over the most dedicated sinners is beautiful and moving. Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.

And yet, for all that, the unique power of MacDonald’s story is very hard to communicate; you simply must read it for yourself.

None but God hates evil and understands it.”
~Lilith, page 206

Other Reviews
Andrew @ Till We Have Faces

TV Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.05 “Turk Flu”

Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.05 “Turk Flu”
Original Air Date: March 31, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Dwight O’Dwyer
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Synopsis: “The Sheriff is importing slaves to work in a dangerous mine. In the meantime there is an archery competition at Nottingham Fair.” (Wikipedia)
Recommendation: While the story has some interesting aspects, including a different take on the classic archery competition, it also introduces the ridiculous character of Djaq, a “Saracen” girl, who so far has greatly annoyed me.

Key Thoughts

This episode includes many references to modern-day issues, such as the suspicion of Middle-Easterners in the West, Britain’s 2006 bird flu, and Muslim resentment towards “Christian” nations (yet interestingly, nothing about the dangers of radical Islam). The vehicle for these “themes” is the arrival in Nottingham of a batch of “Saracen” slaves that the Sheriff has bought to work his deadly iron mines, represented by the spunky girl-poorly-disguised-as-a-boy Djaq. Unfortunately, both the character and the references are basically ham-handed liberal rants against the West that threaten to interfere with the more fun aspects of this episode’s story. Djaq is less a character than a mouthpiece, and despite being apparently a teenager, she seems to be this wise (yet fiery) receptacle of all Arab science and knowledge. Her lines are few, but annoying. Her actions and reactions are mostly illogical, especially her ill-explained decision to join Robin’s group at the episode’s end (or was there even an explanation? Everyone seemed to take it for granted).

Apparently all English believe that "Turks" have a contagious and deadly flu. Or at least, that's what Robin hopes they believe...

Robin’s men intercept the slaves as they are being conspicuously transported in a wagon, and once our boy Hood realizes the situation, he resolves to strike at the Sheriff twice with one stroke; firstly, by using the slaves to help him infiltrate and destroy the mine, and secondly, to free the slaves. Ah, but that’s not all he has to worry about! For the Sheriff is holding an archery contest—for the express purpose of trapping him, naturally—and even though Robin knows it is a trap, it pains him that the job destroying the mine is keeping him from attending. But of course, you know things will work out so that Robin gets to win the contest and accomplish his other noble goals. Of course!

I think my favorite moment is the look on the Sheriff’s face when—reclining happily at the archery contest, waiting for Robin to arrive—he is told that his precious iron mine has been destroyed and all the slaves set free. It’s a look of absolute horror and panic, followed by he and Guy galloping desperately to the mine in time to see Robin mock them and escape.

Would I watch it again? Probably not, unless I was bored. All of the Robin Hood episodes seem pretty interchangeable. The fun comes from the fast-paced adventure and abundant roguish quips, making the increasingly-frequent “political commentary” quite annoying and out-of-place.

TV Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.03 “Who Shot the Sheriff?”

Find my other reviews of this show at my Review List.

Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.03 “Who Shot the Sheriff?”
Original Air Date: October 21, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Richard Standeven
Writer: Paul Cornell
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Synopsis: “With the people of Nottingham being attacked by a mysterious archer, Robin finds himself blamed.”
Recommendation: At last we have Robin leading a band of outlaws, fighting the Sheriff from the (sometimes elusive) safety of the greenwood and being a pretty decent chap to all the poor oppressed townsfolk even when they turn against him. Exactly what I signed up for. Overall it’s another fun episode with a good bit of roguish action. Much like the others.

Key Thoughts

As usual, the story is fast-paced and entertaining, if not always brilliant, and I’m pleased that Robin’s defining character traits are his dual senses of honor and justice, and his unwillingness to sacrifice either. The show likes to throw tough moral decisions his way, which is as it should be, and while they don’t elicit quite the gravitas that a show like Doctor Who, or even Highlander, does, they still help to give the proceedings a bit of depth and redeeming value. The action remains just this side of cartoony, and is a good deal of fun.

Also, I note with interest the presence of a black British character in a high-ranking position, whose anachronistic presence (like the anachronistic clothing, weapons, and just about everything else) goes uncommented on. This should be a clear indication of the kind of show Robin Hood is.

Also noteworthy: while this is a family show, moreso even than Doctor Who is, by my reckoning, it’s not afraid to kill off side characters. This episode in particular involves a number of innocent people getting shot with arrows, and Robin himself blamed for their deaths. Nothing is bloody or dwelt on, but some parents might consider it too intense for their children.

And now for my…

Obligatory Marian Rant

While this episode does end with Marian being slightly less hateful than previously, it precedes this with a particularly irritating example not only of her hypocrisy, but of her determination to disrespect Robin at every turn. Part of this is the writers’ fault, and part the actress’. The scene involves a night where Robin has snuck into the castle to deal with the Sheriff and hides in Marian’s bedroom to escape from searching guards. While Marian doesn’t hesitate to hide him, she has the gall to castigate him for never showing his feelings and acting as if he can’t be hurt. Apparently, this is how she interprets his righteous anger at the Sheriff’s violent oppression, his anguish at the tragedies that befall his serfs, and his unhesitating self-sacrifice for others. She’s seen it all herself—in fact, I complained about a similar scene in the previous episode where her illogic is even worse. Rather, it is Marian who comes across as arrogantly untouched by Robin’s selfless sacrifices. While it is revealed that she does have her own ways of combating the injustice of the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne, she doesn’t emote it at all, and lack of emoting is her very accusation against Robin! Marian is presented as cold and immature, whereas Robin—though he’s not my favorite interpretation of the character—does appear to have considerable self-control.

Like we can't tell you're a girl when you pose like that, really.

[SPOILER] The end of the episode reveals that Marian herself is the mysterious Nightwatchman, who is also handy with weapons and was doing some minor fight-the-oppression-and-help-the-poor work before Robin returned from the Crusades. Since I knew this show wanted to make Marian a “tough action girl,” I wasn’t surprised or unduly annoyed by this. I mean, it is annoying because the show doesn’t need it and her character doesn’t deserve it, but to be honest, when she finally had to confess it to Robin, and he was amused but kind of pleased, she actually became less annoying. Who’d have thought?

TV Show Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.02 “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?”

Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.02 “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?”
Original Air Date: October 14, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: John McKay
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Content Advisory: Light PG-13 violence of the swashbuckling sort, the threat of someone’s tongue being cut.
Synopsis: “While the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne take control of Locksley, Robin, Much, Allan and Will encounter Little John and his gang of outlaws in the forest.”
Reason for Watching: Had a spare hour and decided to continue on from Episode 1.

Recommendation and Key Thoughts

There’s more fun swashbuckling in this episode, and I quite enjoyed it. You can’t take it seriously, of course – it’s pure camp, winking at the audience the whole way and just generally trying to have a good time. That’s why I’m finding it easy to accept the offenses against history, logic, and physics, so far.

It’s also why I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the character of Marian. All the other characters seem half aware that they are in a swashbuckling comedy (Robin more than half), but Marian takes herself far too seriously. Consider this: near the climax of this episode, Robin has turned himself in to the sheriff in order to save the peasants of Locksley from the Sheriff’s violence. Robin is sentenced to hang the following morning, but naturally Marian visits him in prison with the intention of helping him escape. Before she does this, however, she tries to chew Robin out for being a selfish “fool.” Her reasoning is this: Robin gave himself in, which means he’ll die, which means he won’t be around to protect the people of Locksley, which means he did the wrong thing. Robin laughs at this nonsense, but likes her too much to point out just how illogical she is. Because, following her reasoning, Robin should be protecting his people by doing something which leads directly to their gruesome mutilation. She won’t even admit to his honor and integrity in doing this. Now, to be fair, much of her frustration with Robin comes from her own hurt feelings regarding him leaving for the Crusades while they were still engaged—but then who is being selfish? At any rate, Marian is the only character who is a complete bore when onscreen. She doesn’t seem to realize that in a Robin Hood show, you’re supposed to have fun!

The Sheriff of Nottingham

Fortunately, the other actors get this very well indeed. Special mentions here go to Keith Allen as the entertainingly despicable Sheriff and Gordon Kennedy as Little John. The former is quite a cunning fellow, as he quickly deduces that Robin values the lives and freedom of others far above his own life, and will not kill unless it is the last resort to save lives. And the latter gives this episode its emotional weight, as we learn he has a son in Locksley that he’s never seen, on account of his being an outlaw for so long. Kennedy is older and appears far more mature than the other young men onscreen, and that works greatly in his favor. This isn’t a buffoonish Little John, or a simple one—he may express himself forthrightly, but there’s lots of thought behind his eyes. I like this portrayal—he’s easily my favorite of the band so far.

John Little

And it’s nice to see Robin effectively at the head of the outlaws by the end of this episode. Every Robin Hood movie or show wants to start with an origin story, so it takes an episode or two for him to make friends with the outlaws and become their leader. It makes sense to do this, but the part I really came for is all the robbing from the rich, giving to the poor. Hopefully, that may now commence with gusto!

Book Review: “Myst: The Book of Atrus” by Rand and Robyn Miller, with David Wingrove

Title: Myst: The Book of Atrus
Series: followed by The Book of Ti’ana (a prequel) and The Book of D’ni based on the mythology of the Myst computer games.
Author: Rand and Robyn Miller, with David Wingrove
Pages: 286
Published: 1995 by Cyan, Inc.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “These pages are your link to the story of Atrus, son of Gehn, and the last of the race of D’ni—the masters of The Art, the craft of linking to other worlds through the descriptive art of writing. For most of his young life, Atrus thought the stories his grandmother told him were just strange legends. Then his time came to explore the magnificent underground realm…The Book of Atrus is a tale of son against father; of truth versus evil; and of love and redemption.” (Back Cover)
Reason for Beginning: First, I vaguely remembered a good friend recommending it to me years ago. Second, I found it at a library book sale. Third, the jacket is really cool!
Reason for Finishing: Fast-paced story with lots of really fascinating and pretty original ideas. The sense of discovery was palpable—I genuinely could not predict how the story would play out, and that excited me. Also, the characters, while few, are pretty mature and multifaceted.
Story Re-readability: Even after knowing the end, I think it would be interesting to read the book again, to catch more details that may have slipped by the first time. Stylistically, the fast pace and pleasing narrative style should make rereading easy.
Author Re-readability: Hard to say how much of this book is David Wingrove’s and how much is the work of the Millers, but I’m certainly going to check out the Books of Ti’ana and D’ni when I get a chance.
Recommendation: Yes! While it falls short of being a masterpiece, this is still a very good story nicely written, with an original (to me, at least!) premise. Dealing as it does with the art of writing itself, and even with the concept of subcreation (though without directly mentioning Tolkien’s term)…

Key Thoughts

(No significant spoilers below)

Going into Myst: The book of Atrus, I knew nothing of its premise or its mythology. I even overlooked the synopsis (copied above) on the back cover. As a result, I had the joy of discovering its world and story wholly through page-by-page exploration, my mind alert for telling details and glimpses into its makeup. And, fortunately, while the book was certainly written with the games’ fans in mind, the Millers and Wingrove also constructed it so that the uninitiated will not have undue trouble. Atrus’ situation at the start is outwardly simple and settled—meaning the reader does not have untangle a web of happenings by jumping in media res—and the fact that he knows very little about his history and the D’ni means that, for the most part, we are learning alongside him.

The volcano and Cleft.

The boy Atrus’ mother died giving him birth and his father subsequently abandoned him in anger and emotional pain. His grandmother, Anna, raises him in a cleft in the side of a volcano, in the middle of a vast desert, where water gathers in a pool and allows them to grow enough food to survive in terrace gardens filled with fertile volcanic soil. They are periodically visited by traders from afar and with their surplus buy certain tools, foodstuffs, and few luxuries—enough to forge a comfortable existence. We gather this information by watching events, by listening to brief conversations, and by being patient. How they started their life in the Cleft, we do not know, but we note the interesting fact that both Anna and Atrus always wear special goggles whose lenses can be adjusted for opacity—like sunglasses of varying strengths—or to magnify images like a telescope or microscope. Nor do we know anything about the world beyond the desert, but that there is a market for the paintings Anna produces from the plant dyes she grows.

The story proper begins when Gehn, Atrus’ father, returns to take charge of him. Gehn is a hard and bitter man, blaming his mother Anna for many unsaid things, and he intends to undo the “harm” that her upbringing of love, thoughtfulness, and patience has supposedly done to his son. In the past years, he has been studying the ruins of D’ni—their ancestral underground home, utterly destroyed thirty years ago—in order to master the magic Art of Writing that had enabled the D’ni to rule an empire of thousands of self-created worlds for sixty thousand years, all from their subterranean city. Gehn says their people were worshiped as gods, and rightly so, for they can create worlds and life from nothing but words and the powers of their imaginations!

The Art of D’ni Writing, called “the art of precise description,” is beautifully literal: when a D’ni writer describes a world, that world comes into existence, and is called an Age. A special paper and special ink are required, as is the special D’ni language in which to write, but still, what is written becomes real. If the writer describes well—that is, precisely, accurately, with detailed knowledge of the elements, physics, wind patterns, tectonic movements, etcetera, and with perfect attention to cause and effect—the Age that comes into being will be stable and fertile, filled with a self-sustaining environment and possibly peopled with whole cities and kingdoms that regard him as a god. But if he writes not well, if he makes mistakes, writes contradictions, if his writing does not have internal consistency, then his Age becomes unstable and eventually collapses into nonexistence. If any changes are made to the Book that describes an Age, those changes will become manifest in the Age itself—for better or for worse!

This part of the story, as you can imagine, holds the greatest interest for me. So much so that my thoughts on the matter grew so long that they better fit in a separate post, which you should be able to read shortly.

The conflict comes from the polar opposite personalities of father and son. I like characters like Atrus, who is a quiet, intelligent, and sensitive boy. His mind is scientific and romantic, and he works carefully on problems so as not to make mistakes, and with the intent of trying to understand the basic principles which the world runs on. He wants to Write new Ages because of the beauty of the process and of how it may help him better understand his own world. His father, however, is ambitious and impatient. It is telling that of Gehn’s dozens of Ages, all are unstable and falling apart, while it is heavily implied that Atrus’ first attempt—on which he poured more time and thought than Gehn ever put on his—is perfectly stable.

Even more jarring tensions arise when Atrus begins to question his father’s theories that all the Ages they write are created originally, ex nihilo, by their words. What if, Atrus wonders, all these worlds already exist, and we are simply able to link to them when we write? His father will tolerate no such thoughts, for, among other things, they would require a moral change in his behavior. And yet Gehn is not a thoroughly despicable person, not fully fallen. His joy at the beauty and complexity of the Art is genuine and not based on thoughts of selfish gain, and I believe he does truly admire his son. He is trying to do what he thinks is right, but he is stubborn, unwilling to consider the moral consequences of his actions, and possessed of the belief of his inherent superiority to pretty much everyone else.

The story takes its time to develop, but there is always something interesting to discover just around the corner, sort of like intellectual cliffhangers. I like the overall clarity and smoothness of the prose; it moves quickly but still has time for detailed observations along the way. Descriptions paint strong and often beautiful images without being too flowery. There’s nothing outstanding in the prose, but generally serves the story nicely.

The book of Atrus is held back not by what is on the page, but by what is left off; certain story developments are terribly rushed and need more time and depth to have the weight they should. Most egregious are the ending chapters concerning Age Five and the character of Katran, both of whom are extremely important but receive the bare minimum of page time. Atrus’ relationships with this place and person are crucial to his whole development into an adult and to the climax and themes of the plot, and yet they remain sorely underdeveloped.

And ironically, the prose, while mostly very nice, often lacks quite the precision we need to form the needed mental image. The neat sketches scattered throughout the book help to correct the most confusing ones, but it wasn’t until I looked at the MYSTlore Wiki that I really understood what the cleftwall was, despite it being mentioned repeatedly in the early chapters. This is jarring mostly because the rest of the prose mentions very apt details, and the whole concept of D’ni writing is centered around writing precisely and accurately.

But the story, ultimately, is very neat. I would like more of my questions answered, especially pertaining to the origins and nature of the Art, but there are two other books and a few games in which the concept is still to be explored. Even the climax itself is satisfying, but that it was rushed so badly. Everything that is present in the story, I like a lot—it just needs further development. Myst: The book of Atrus is not as extraordinary as I had hoped, but it is still beautiful, inspiring, and satisfying.

Webcomic Review: The Phoenix Requiem

Title: The Phoenix Requiem (read here)
Author: Sarah Ellerton
Artist: Sarah Ellerton
Published: 2007 – 2011
Pages: 800
Genre: Victorian-style fantasy romance, with mild horror elements
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “On a cold December night, a gentleman stumbles into the town of Esk, gunshot wounds leaving a trail of blood in the snow behind him. Despite making a full recovery at the hands of an inexperienced nurse – and deciding to make a new life for himself in the town – he is unable to escape the supernatural beings, both good and bad, that seem to follow him like shadows. As they try to discover why, the nurse must question her beliefs and risk her own life in order to protect her family, her friends, and those that she loves…”
Reason for Beginning: The artwork is gorgeous and the premise sounded interesting. I’d never read fantasy in a Victorian-era setting before.
Reason for Finishing: It took some time and some concerted effort, but the artwork and slow-developing plot kept me coming back until I finished it.
Story Re-readability: I doubt I’ll reread the whole thing—it’s too long and not quite engaging enough—but I may revisit parts now and then, for the artwork and a few characters I liked.
Author Re-readability: This is my second webcomic of Ellerton’s I’ve read, the first being Dreamless (which was the first webcomic I reviewed here), and I plan to keep tabs on her future projects. I may even read her other completed webcomic, Inverloch, although her art style wasn’t as developed for it.
Artist Re-viewability: Beautiful artwork. Tracy Butler is still the best, but all throughout The Phoenix Requiem, Ellerton’s art is elegant, with saturated colors and especial detail paid to clothing. Everyone in the comic dresses very stylishly; I wish I could dress half so cool as some of the guys she draws.
Recommendation: It’s a good webcomic and I’m glad I read it, although the story moves so excruciatingly slowly with an only adequate payoff that I can’t proclaim this truly excellent. But in the end, it was interesting and pleasingly stylish, with likable characters I could cheer—modestly—for. The Phoenix Requiem is not a must-read, but it’s a decent read.

KEY THOUGHTS

Story

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Phoenix Requiem is that, for all its length, not enough of significance happens. Ellerton provokes many questions early on, and that’s great, but she spaces out the answers too far, and when they come, they usually are insufficient. Most of her 800 pages are not used efficiently. They do not add much to her basic story. Characters never acquire the depth that the denizens of Lackadaisy had after Volume 1 of that story, which was only 62 pages long.

Also, not enough of her invented world is explored. The action (what little of it there is) spans only one town and two minor cities, despite the brief references to a fascinating world beyond the story’s borders. Even these three locations, while interesting and beautifully drawn, lack a great deal of personality. After spending the majority of 800 pages with the characters in their hometown of Esk, I should have a good idea of its geography and feel, enough to know whether it’s a place I’d like to live myself. But I don’t. Even animal life seems conspicuously absent. In the very early pages she shows off two neat fantasy forest creatures, but neither they nor any other animals appear again, even though most of the story takes place outside!

The story isn’t excruciatingly boring or anything, but because plot developments are spaced so far apart, by the time you learn one thing you’ve often forgotten the last thing the plot told you. The passage of time is unclear; weeks or months can pass in a few pages, and we may only catch on after the fact through some dialogue. To help counteract this, the characters frequently explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It’s often a bit unrealistic for them to exposit so, but it helps the reader figure out what’s going on.

Robyn takes on a shade.

One of the main areas of confusion is in the relationship between all the spiritual beings—the shades, ghosts, spirits, and hellions who have been gone from the world for centuries but are beginning to make a comeback. Ellerton has a brief description of each on her Character page that helps, but as the story progresses all their rules, details, and motivations are hard to keep straight, and even when the characters seem to understand and talk about them, it can be hard to follow the logic. By the end, when we get the full explanations of the mythology and all the answers, it still seems a bit shaky, a bit arbitrary.

The premise and the way it plays out are still interesting, but Ellerton doesn’t focus enough on her actual world. Long ago there was a contract between spirits and men—since forgotten by men—that gave humans magic and the ability to create fantastic empires and civilizations. Even though their culture still looks pretty advanced and sophisticated—being at a Victorian stage of development, after all—many of the people still long for halcyon days of magic. The problem is, Ellerton never shows us what has been lost by the loss of magic. What can they not do now that they would have done with magic? Their civilization seems complete and normal, without any gaps that magic could fill. Because of this, all the talk about magic feels inconsequential.

The ending itself is reasonably satisfying. The romantic couples are paired off the way they should be and one character gets to be a living legend without apparently having to sacrifice much of his own happiness. There are still some weaknesses, though. Ellerton’s final explanation of the afterlife is a bit of a letdown. Jonas hypothesizes about the existence of God when one character says that she was created specifically to ferry souls to the afterlife, but such a deity is implied to be an absentee figure in this world. Also,the only explanation of what happens to the souls of the dead that is given any credibility in-universe is the idea (very Eastern) that they all just go into a “sea” of souls and their individuality and consciousness disappears. Such a cosmology shouldn’t satisfy anyone, in fantasy or in real life.

Characters

Jonas and Anya.

The characters, while mostly likable and decently-portrayed, simply are not well-defined enough for their motivations and attitudes to be easily remembered over 800 pages. They also tend to act much younger than they look. All appear to be in their twenties, but act like high-schoolers, especially with regard to their emotions, maturity level, and how they express themselves. They are remarkably indecisive.

With Lackadaisy, the characters were so vibrant and fascinating that I wanted to talk about as many of them as I could. With The Phoenix Requiem, although I feel I should talk about them more for my duty as a reviewer, it’s hard to muster the motivation. Their melodrama simply did not involve me much, and none of them really inspired me. The central characters of Jonas and Anya, whose romance is clearly what Ellerton is most interested in writing, are fine, but not particularly memorable. As such, I’ll just mention the two characters I actually cared about.

Petria is the most fun of the them and the one I enjoyed reading the most, despite her being a supporting character. She is the most down-to-earth and the most forgiving of human foibles, and also happens to be the prettiest of the women, especially at the end. She’s a minx, to be sure, with a disreputable past life that the gentlemanly Robyn rescued her from, but I liked that she was able to become more respectable without losing her humor and sense of fun.

Robyn Hart himself is more interesting than Jonas, in my opinion, and I was sad to see that of all the important characters he gets the most shortchanged in terms of page-time. An ex-soldier who rescued Petria from her brief life as a teenage prostitute and is devoted to becoming a farmer, he has a strong sense of justice and chivalry that appeals to me.

Artwork

As you can see above, the beautiful artwork is the main reason to read The Phoenix Requiem. The combination of detailed, painterly backgrounds with clearer, almost cel-shaded characters is heavily reminiscent of a high quality animated film, as from the Disney heyday. The colors are lush and very easy on the eyes, and every page is attractive to look at.

The art isn’t quite as masterly as Tracy Butler’s in Lackadaisy, to be sure. There are occasional gaffs where characters don’t look their age, such as this one where a grown woman looks prepubescent and younger than her own daughter! Characters generally emote pretty well, although at times their facial expressions look a little off, and other times too extreme and borrowing too much from anime, which is jarring when it appears beside the otherwise naturalistic drawings. The action on a page also isn’t always as clear as it should be, and too often Ellerton wastes space for shots that may have been part of a film (closeups, things like that) but which do not add to her own story at that moment. Geography is also a minor issue. After spending the majority of an 800 page story in the town of Esk, I should have a decent feel for its layout. For most of the story I thought it was a small village, until suddenly, on about page 734, it appears much more developed with tightly-packed, well-built houses.

But the quibbles about the art are pretty insignificant next to its general beauty. Clothing is Ellerton’s especial expertise, every piece she designs being more interesting and attractive than most of what passes as modern fashion. The clothing perhaps takes up a disproportionate part of her focus and energies, but it turns out so spectacularly that even I—hardly a fashion aficionado—am not complaining.

Let me sum up

The premise is good and interesting. The execution of the story is rocky and it takes far too long for anything of significance to happen. Characters are decent, with Petria and Robyn being most lively, but no one is a true standout, and the characters never seem very mature. The artwork is exceptional and beautiful.

Other Reviews
El Santo @ ComixTalk