I wanted to post something during these last days as September turns into October. Mainly because on October 4th and October 5th, I’ll be back in New York City for my ninth consecutive New York Comic-Con!
But more than that, I’ll be at Boom! Studios headquarters on Friday morning (10-2:30) and Saturday afternoon (2:30 – 7).
If you stop by TABLE 1828 during those times, I’ll be there to sign Form of a Question or An Elegy for Amelia Johnson and have plenty of time to talk!
But because I can’t simply self-promote, I also wanted to take some time to write about art I’ve experienced lately. I’m currently handling a surfeit of different Works in Progress over a multitude of media, and as I plan out the rest of my writing year, singling out some movies, television, and literature that made me think about how I tell stories seems appropriate
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – The Nearly Plotless Story
I have long had an affection for Quentin Tarantino, particularly as a person who loves meta-narrative, unconventional plotting, and having fun with genre. (I met Tarantino in 2007 and nervously sputtered about my love for Pulp Fiction while he graciously ignored my lack of chill.) What fascinates me about Tarantino in the latter half of his career is how he seems to be playing by a different set of rules from other writer-directors; his stories have a knack for going in unexpected directions that make logical sense in his mind, while viewers like me can sense the logic is there but not fully grasp it. (Death Proof, which might be his ultimate statement as a filmmaker, is the best example of this.)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, after three movies crammed to the gills with action, finds Tarantino firmly back in Death Proof mode, and that wins me over right away.
Tarantino’s last three films were either concerned with alternate histories of America or pulling the trick of creating a 70mm recording of a stage play. They were all plot heavy and focused on sweeping external conflicts. Once Upon a Time almost doesn’t have a plot at all. Instead, with his trademark eye for detail down to the last veneer shine of an old-school color TV or bar, Tarantino is focused on atmosphere.
The story, such as it is, revolves around three people adjusting to a changing entertainment industry and a changing America in 1969. Sharon Tate, for Tarantino, might be a metaphor for Hollywood itself, in its endless celebration of youth and beauty. She also might be, to borrow a reading from Sarah Welch-Larson, an individual whose life is as precious and valuable as any individuals and who should be defined by how she lives, not how she dies. In any case, Sharon seems well-placed to build a career in a new Hollywood, while her neighbor Rick Dalton and his best friend Cliff Booth are struggling to adjust and figuring out what their lives mean as they fear obsolescence. As the film shows, Rick, despite his problems, has reserves of mental strength and willpower, while Cliff can define himself through physical action. Yet none of these characters’ journeys are dramatized as much as witnessed in an elaborate world, quotidian and gentle, as they go through existence interacting with others without, seemingly, any major problems. The gentleness extends to the film’s scariest moment, Cliff’s unexpected sojourn to Spahn Ranch where he meets Charles Manson’s family, a setting where the quiet only makes things scarier.
Tarantino uses this easy pace and conversational tone to his advantage. We’re now used to his alternate histories and we expect as he weaves a familiar depiction of the Manson Family, he’ll be twisting the story to some other end. The gentleness of the movie and its refusal to break too far from history, complete with a documentary-esque narration by the always great Kurt Russell, is a huge set-up for the transformation we know is coming in the end. He knows we’re anticipating it and thus takes a different tack then he did in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.
It’s not my place to talk about the final sequences. Ethan Warren of Bright Wall/Dark Room has written more eloquently about them than anyone can. But they’re left so open to interpretation (I prefer to think of them as a dream of things that should have been) as to leave even the most satisfied viewer with questions. It’s Tarantino’s hardest movie in figuring out how you should feel, harder than The Hateful Eight. Thankfully, it’s much less nihilistic.
Lupin the Third Part V – The Serialized Story
Many people know I am not always a fan of serialized storytelling. Indeed, I think DC and Marvel have been slowly killing themselves with the need to make every title part of a serialized EVENT (“When everything is an event, nothing is.” – AUTHOR OF SLUGFEST) and if I were in charge I would put a five-year moratorium on events and demand single issues, maybe three-issue arcs at the most.
But sometimes, as Lupin the Third Part V shows, you get serialized storytelling right.
Lupin the Third, a show I gave a chance to after listening to Blank Check With Griffin and David talk about The Castle of Cagliostro (a tremendous action movie from a grandmaster, by the way) has been a centerpiece of Japanese pop culture since Monkey Punch created the character and his world in 1967. And like many long-running franchises, it’s felt a need to reboot and adapt to the times, as this sixth incarnation of the series remind us. And yes, six. There have been parts I through V and 2012’s fourth series, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which is high on my watch list and started the idea of shaking off the staleness of the saga.
Fujiko Mine, with great care and Part IV which followed, on a looser basis, told stand-alone stories which were linked to an overarching season-long plot. Part V, which debuted last year and is now airing on Cartoon Network, instead uses 75% of its season to tell four extended stories which in turn tell one giant story. And it does this so well that said 75% makes for one of the greatest series of the decade.
Of the 24 episodes, by the way, 17 relate directly to the arc, while the other 7 are standalone stories which call back to previous incarnations of Lupin. One, which ties into the series finale, is excellent. Another, basically a 20-minute piece of slapstick inspired by Part III, is fun to watch. The other five are supremely uninteresting.
But those seventeen episodes. WOW. Beginning and ending with musings by a mysterious new character, tech baron Enzo Bron, on what it means for a person to be considered a hero, the story does more than firmly plant Lupin in the 21st Century, an age of globalized technology, unstable governments and societies, and everything in flux. It tells a story of how in a life of instant gratification, instant knowledge, and the impossibility of mystery and mythmaking, a figure can still become a legend, and a legend has a role to play.
The four arcs have plotting that revolve around themes which feel familiar to us, and are executed with great humor and plenty of imagination
I – It begins with Lupin having mastered modern technology to a point where his heists a first feel far too easy. Than he discovers that the Internet and social media can be mobilized against him, as unseen figures manipulate the world into a “Game” where there’s a bounty on Lupin’s head, and with everyone sharing his movements, there’s no place to hide.
II – In a meditation on the nature of criminality itself, Lupin finds a possible rival, possible ally as he attempts to steal some of the most confidential information in France to honor a friend. That rival/ally is Albert, who trained as a thief with Lupin but went into the French government instead, realizing that with the right amount of power you can steal an entire country.
III – A metaphorical battle, as Lupin wants to pull off a traditional jewel heist but gets stuck in the middle of a country’s power struggle between liberal reformers and a hardline religious right, while he also must confront emotional problems raised by his friends.
IV – Parts I, II, and III have all their pieces come together as a now very public figure – Enzo – creates the ultimate version of social media, which absorbs all information and verifies the truth about any statement, any action, anything anyone might wish to keep secret. Lupin gets stuck in a world where he has no privacy and algorithms call the shots. Crime is impossible. The entire social order can be toppled. But there’s one gentleman thief who can flip everything on its head.
It makes me think of how James Bond, the DC Universe, and other franchises that attempted to bring cool, pop art characters into the twenty-first century had those attempts collapse under the pressure of too much grimdarkness. Lupin the Third Part V deals with thought-provoking themes while never losing a sense of fun, and the thrill of such fun. Indeed, the crucial episode, No. 23, has Lupin make a speech to a disheartened Jigen and Goemon (after a spectacular battle sequence) about why and how he chooses to endure as himself even when things get bad.
The other side of this series is an exploration of Lupin and Fujiko’s relationship built on all the stories that have come before. Fujiko really doesn’t become an active player in the story until the third segment; things begin with her and Lupin on the outs for reasons very slowly revealed over time. And it ends in the series finale with one more killer dialogue scene, in a pause from a world in crisis in which Lupin not only pulls off a terrific reveal but also states pretty plainly why this very odd on-again/off-again twosome loves each other.
Fujiko’s place is taken for most of the saga by Ami Enan, a genius teenage superhacker who represents the modern world without subtlety. Ami undergoes an arc of her own from being quiet and antisocial (for shocking reasons dealt with early on) to active and emotionally open, along the way falling for her new friend Lupin but choosing not to act on her feelings. But her admiration, and those last two episodes, imply that Lupin’s time is far from over.
I couldn’t recommend this enough. Albeit with a CONTENT WARNING for a brief mention of child sexual abuse that really comes out of nowhere.
I have to issue a full disclosure for the final two parts of this. I’ve gotten to know Ashley Poston and Paul Krueger personally through twitter and the convention circuit. It’s possible my regard for them may color my opinions. But I feel confident in saying they’ve convinced me that the future of genre fiction, namely sci-fi and fantasy, is in great hands.
Soul of Stars and Heart of Iron – The Story for the Fans
I happen to believe Ashley Poston is one of the geniuses of modern science fiction. Her gifts as a writer have few peers. But it is her fandom that puts her in a class of her own.
Because it’s hard to know where the fan in Poston ends and the novelist begins.
You might think this would be a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing.
Since breaking out in 2017, Poston has worked in two major forms. One is space opera, to which I’ll be devoting the bulk of this part. The other is a retelling of fairy tales in the setting of comic-cons and fan cultures. I’ll write about these books when I focus on the fine art of YA romance, a genre which has staked a powerful place on my side of the world. I mention these because Poston writes about people who love art and pop culture with an honesty and lack of condescension few people think to use. She understands what people love and hate, how they’ll act and dress, and the decisions made by powerful creators that be which can whip a subculture into a frenzy.
Most of all, and this is clear if you’ve seen her twitter, she embraces fanfiction.
Go on FanFiction.net or Archive of Our Own or a couple random tumblrs and let the
numbers wash over you. Fanfic is a force unto itself with base of readers who want to both live in these worlds a while longer and get some very specific, satisfying experiences from a narrative. One could argue about the artistic worth of people telling stories using others’ intellectual property (and others have debated this a ton) but for me, fanfic has much in common with the serialization of my beloved Victorians. Long stories with verbose paragraphs and high emotions slowly updated over months or years until they reach the end. In terms of writing something that can please an audience and contains creative means of self-expression, authors could learn much from fanfic. Poston has mastered the elements and poured them into her novels as few other producers of “serious” (and I emphasize those quotation marks), hardbacked literature have. This makes her stand out.
Some of those elements I’ve come across a lot:
- Queerness, in the form of non-heterosexual relationships and nonconformity to a gender binary.
- Grafting stories into other genres, i.e. retelling a movie plot with characters from a different television show
- Engaging plotting; even if it’s the simplest or slowest hook, the writer of multichapter fanfic needs to keep people coming back
- The embrace of the everyday; much of the best fanfic features multiple scenes of characters hanging out, sharing food and drink, not doing anything particularly serious or dramatic for key chunks of diegetic time
- And to borrow some categories, plenty of angst (high emotions again) and plenty of hurt/comfort, in which friends, lovers, or friends who might become lovers bond when one suffers a physical or emotional blow and the other steps in to give them the care they need.
One last element, an embrace of writing frankly about sex, is not used to the
fullest extent by Poston due to her YA audience (and the books are no better or worse for it). All the rest, she draws on them and keeps coming back to them because she knows a writer with an original voice will make them work. And work they do in Heart of Iron (published last year) and Soul of Stars.
The two books are described the author herself as “Anastasia in Space.” She mostly draws from Don Bluth’s 1997 animated version, although every telling of the story boasts a lost princess, an empire of haves and have-nots, and a royal romance or two. In this telling, Ana, a member of a crew of space pirates, is revealed as the heiress to the Iron Throne through an adventure to save the one person she loves, Di, a hyper-logical android on the verge of breaking down who has a secret past of his own. In the midst of the action, they form an unexpected friendship with Robb, a member of the royal family Ana’s supposed to rule, and Robb in turn falls for Jaxx, the pirates’ alien navigator with yet a third tangled history. Don’t roll your eyes; Poston makes all of it feel plausible (she would have been an outstanding writer of melodramas and well-made plays in the century before Miller, Williams, and Osborne), in large part because she switches the narrative point of view between all four main characters so we fully understand who they are and why they’d wish to keep things hidden.
She also roots them in a space opera world sci-fi fans only dream of existing. There’s multiple planets, multiple types of aliens, multiple governing bodies and religions, and a class system, including a very organized criminal class, a population of “metals” like Di who are kept mainly in servitude, and a scheming royal court.
What is remarkable is how much I just mentioned and how thoroughly realized it feels to me although Poston establishes it with the barest amount of description. Her world of lost temples, spectral presences, and intergalactic gliders emerges with only a few chosen details. And the bulk of such place-setting comes in Heart of Iron. For that book, Ana and her friends trek to ghostly space stations and elaborate palaces, with each action dropping a bit of backstory and a bit of context. The plot in itself reveals the world, and that plot, starting with Ana’s attempt to fix Di and the lengths she goes to for the needed information, picks up steam little by little to a surprisingly murderous conclusion…
And then Soul of Stars hits the ground running and doesn’t stop for nearly 500 pages. Indeed, it accelerates that literary whiplash wouldn’t be unheard of for the tale, except that the thickness and fastness of reversal, revelation, and choice amidst perilous realms, starship battles, and one-on-one fights are overwhelming the reader with emotional impact.
This is a great thing. GREAT. The storyteller’s first duty is to make us feel something, and Poston takes the primal emotions of fanfiction and has something set the mood with every chapter. We the reader carom as her characters get hurt, feel wracked with guilt, break down, and give in to accepting that others forgive their mistakes and misdeeds on the one hand, and to mores sensual pleasures on the other.
It might almost be too much, except, and this may be the highest compliment I pay Ashley Poston, she is confident as hell. I wish I could feel her confidence all the time. She knows that the pacing and force of her storytelling will work; I can sense the planning that went into every word she chooses. And thus, when as befits a story written by a fan for fans, all ends with her spin on “Happily ever after,” it’s an ending that’s earned as all getout.
And it guarantees I will read every book Poston writes from this point forward, because I know, with certainty, I will be given the unexpected every time and the experience will be joyful, a little cathartic, and everything else I crave every time I open a book. She delivers.
Steel Crow Saga – The Epic Story of the Decade
I may end up writing less about Steel Crow Saga than Heart of Iron/Soul of Stars, but that’s not a judgment of Paul Kreuger’s tale. This is my favorite novel of 2019 and a book I think everyone should read.
I’m prone to hyperbole, as my friends and readers know, so time to back it up.
Kreuger’s first novel, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, is an effortlessly charming work of modern fantasy and a debut that I wish my own first book could match. The story was well-paced, the characters more than engaging (more on characters in a bit), and the set pieces constructed for maximum suspense. It’s one of the only novels that inspired me to make a playlist, since Kreuger captures the diversity of Chicago in settings that invoked all the senses. But the last touch was how he worked out a world where magic is real and powerful and operates according to a strict set of rules. I felt he had his eye on every sparrow that fell in this Chicago, and that’s not a feeling I get from a lot of modern literature.
Steel Crow Saga takes the qualities of Nightshade and sends them up to another level. It isn’t that Krueger has once again worked out a complicated system of magic…indeed, two complicated systems of magic, in the form of metalpacting (binding your spirit to metal objects to use as you will) and shadepacting (binding your spirit to that of an animal you can call forth to use extraordinary powers). The mechanics, behaviors, and risks of both are depicted with the right amount of explanatory breadth and well-planned action sequences.
But forget magic alone. Krueger brings forth a world I’ve never seen before.
His continent of the Dahali, the Jeongsonese, the Sanbunas, the Shang, and the Tomodanese, five peoples in a shifting network of subjugations, wars, and alliances, is written to imply there’s a history stretching back centuries. And this world mixes the familiar—cars, the idea that a dog will always be your best friend, a heart-racing set of chapters entirely set on a train full of intrigue—and the things that should be more familiar than they are—cultures, social structures, and traditions drawn from Asian history, all unfolding with the most lavish detail—and, of course, the unfamiliar—the magic and warfare and everything that goes with them. Unlike some fantasy novels, there’s no maps, and no helpful guidelines like those that filled Nightshade, but we read this book and we get it.
The book ebbs and flows wonderfully. There’s no constant tempo or acceleration, as Krueger pauses the action at several points to revel in memories of childhood, digressions on the history of these imaginary lands, or succulent descriptions of food and drink. In a lesser writer’s hands, this could have made Steel Crow Saga a slog. Krueger writes it like Anthony Trollope, one of the highest compliments I can give. The amount of things said about this world is so great that it implies we’re glimpsing only 1% of everything, and I would happily listen to a description of the other 99%.
But the stage on which the action takes place is small potatoes compared to plot and character. Like Poston (they share a deep understanding of how to balance a story), Krueger cuts back and forth between four perspectives (with a few intrusions) of three women and one man. Tala, the Sanbuna military heroine with powers she can’t talk about and sometimes doesn’t know she has, Lee, a Jeong master thief who’s never known stability, Xiulan, a Shang princess turned pipe-smoking master detective, and Jimuro, the young man who will become the Steel Emperor of the Tomodanese. Fate brings them together in the wake of wars and uneasy peace, and they end up doing more than constructing a world order—they also must defeat a seemingly unstoppable super-powered antagonist who threatens everything.
Krueger understands these characters so well. He knows how to give each one of them a real internal conflict that translates into how they handle external conflicts. He gives them relationships that feel exactly right: the uncertain but powerful opposites-attracting love of Lee and Xiulan, and the sworn enemies to friends-who-might-be-more journey of Tala and Jimuro (a relationship that reminds us mutual respect can be more satisfying than romance). And in a trait that stood out for me in Nightshade Lounge and becomes all the more prevalent here, Krueger avoids Atonement syndrome. His heroes may hold some parts of their lives back, but they’re always honest about the important things. They communicate with each other. There is never a drawn-out, ridiculous conflict that could be solved with the expression of a sentence. Nothing in this 512-page book is annoying at all. Do you know how rare that is?
Heck, all these characters are terrific, mainly because there isn’t a real villain. There’s depth, motivation, and surprise in potential villains like a crafty would-be queen and a rebel commander (the latter left me deeply worried for a few chapters, but I shouldn’t have worried…you’ll see why in the book). Even the antagonist is someone I have a hard time thinking of as a villain. For all the death and destruction, we come to learn they’re someone who had part of their life ripped away against their will. Few things can be more dramatic than a bunch of flawed but basically decent, thoughtful people whose motivations clash before they finally have to take down an ultimate wild card in their midst, and the lack of villainy provides for surprises that carry more impact since they’re not tied to a staid good v evil conflict.
I could go on about the plethora of great one-liners, and an ending that equals the
perfection of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, giving a real resolution while hinting at new adventures to come. (If I ran a publishing house, I’d offer Mr. Krueger a fortune to write a series of mystery novels. PAUL IF YOU’RE READING THIS I’M DEAD SERIOUS.) But I end with this thought, which I steal from myself on twitter.
The world right now is kind of a shitshow. But every day I wake up and keep going because I’m surrounded by peers of mine who are trying to do good and build something better with knowledge and determination. We’ve got reality covered. We need fantasy too. The power of fantasy (and sci-fi and such) lies in creating a world you never imagined and, once it’s enthralled you, saying things we need to hear, stripped of the real world contexts that can allow us to accept it. Fantasy is a way of telling the truth. And this novel tells the truth about the overpowering need to connect with other people and other cultures. The bonds we have with every living thing in ways we don’t imagine. The awesome power of love and forgiveness. I encounter these themes a lot. Rarely have they walloped me this hard. It’s why Steel Crow Saga is a tremendous piece of fiction and a book everyone in 2019 should read. (And then read Poston’s books. And then go watch anime and wild cinema. And come see me in New York!)