Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

Review: “The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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In the 17th century, fugitive slaves founded a free community in the mountains of northeastern Brazil. They called it Palmares. Contemporary accounts describe the courtyards and the fountains, the churches and council meetings of that sprawling settlement, which survived for decades before a concerted military effort by Portuguese colonists wiped it out in 1695.

Fast-forward several centuries, past a nuclear apocalypse that has scrambled climates and countries, and we come to the founding of Palmares Tres, the great pyramid-shaped city on a Brazilian bay, where author Alaya Dawn Johnson sets her new young-adult novel, The Summer Prince. Founded and ruled by women, the city ascends in tiers — from the algae-farm slums at its base to the queen’s quarters at its tip — and it runs on a rich, strange mix of nanotechnology and archaic ritual.

The first queens of Palmares Tres devised a unique system of transferring power: Each woman can rule for up to two five-year terms. Every five years, the city elects a Summer King, who rules for one year with all the charisma of a rock star — and then dies in bloody sacrifice, choosing the next queen with his dying breath; a dying man’s choice is thought to be incorruptible. As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa recalls the first time she saw the sacrifice. “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die,” she says. “Queen Serafina stood in a stark room of wood and stone – the high shrine. I liked her because her skin was dark and glossy and her hair silk-smooth. I had even gotten a Queen Serafina doll for my birthday last June. But today her face was fierce and still; today she held a blade in her hand.”

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual it is to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual it is to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

With all this going on, Johnson doesn’t ignore her world-building. With grace and precision, The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old-fashioned science fiction storytelling. Johnson has created a city that lives and breathes on the page, its samba rhythms and sea breezes balanced by algae stink and rusting spiderbots. Palmares Tres pulses with a vibrant mix of high tech and Brazilian tradition. (Seriously, I want this book to be made into a movie, and I want Bonde do Role to do the soundtrack.) By the time June and Enki pull off their final work of art, you will love the city every bit as much as they do.

Review: “The Virgin of the Wind Rose” by Glen Craney

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While investigating the murder of her fiance in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam. Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon’s Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged. The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal’s Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.

Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days.

I liked Craney’s style of writing for the most part. However, I felt he had a tendency to over-dramatize the negative, especially by using unnecessary adjectives. In addition, I had a lot of issues with his portrayal of Jaq. In the beginning, she is portrayed as this pious virgin with a “Caribbean figure” and “luscious sable hair with wild Medusa curls.” If that isn’t sexist enough, she is engaged to marry a missionary who was “impressed enough with her potential for obedience” and voluntarily enrols in a Christian cult a.k.a. “rehab” just because her father-figure says so. I confess, what I know of evangelical Christians and “true believers” of any kind is heavily biased. But, if you choose to pit Muslims and Christians against each other in your story, why is the Christian made to sound rational in his piety and the Muslim a deranged lunatic, when it is understood that their faiths have largely similar origins?

In terms of historical content, it is obvious that Craney spent a great deal of time and effort researching the different events and characters that pop up in the course of the story. However, the descriptions often become long expositions and include a lot of obscure details, making them a difficult read, even though the reader knows they exist to provide context. Even the characters often rely on an archaic vocabulary to make their point, using words like ‘carnaptious’, ‘druthers’ and ‘troglodyte’, making the entire setting seem anachronistic.

Despite being based so firmly in real history, Craney never makes you forget the story’s a work of fiction with his conspiracy theories that border on the implausible. They don’t take anything away from the novel per se, and end up paving a truly epic path for the protagonists to follow. We get treated to secrets guarded by Prince Henry and the Order of the Christ, Queen Isabella’s hunt for them, the Spanish Inquisition’s lesser-known purposes, cryptographic tablets with orders passed on them, End-Time cults… all in all, things definitely worth suspending one’s disbelief for.

The balanced narration ensures that the mystery is exposed at the right pace, switching between the present and the past at the right times, with Craney revealing just enough to pique our curiosity while keeping the really jaw-dropping revelations until the climax. The way the whole thing evolves is rather reminiscent of Dan Brown’s style (or Brad Thor, as some prefer to compare), focused on keeping the mystery alive and prominent until the end, and perhaps even after that.

Overall, The Virgin of the Wind Rose is an enthralling page-turner that will keep you glued to the couch despite its flaws. It’s a largely logical and well-developed mystery and anyone who enjoys reading about globe-trotting treasure hunts will certainly love this book.

P.S. I was provided a copy by the author. The views expressed are honest and personal.

Review: “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt

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The Greek language contains multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Eros means physical love. Philia means friendship. Storge means familial love. In English, a single word — love — umbrellas all these emotional varietals. Without so many fine distinctions, is it surprising that 14-year old June Elbus’s first feelings of love leave her mixed up?

In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt poignantly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and culture under strain as it comes to term with a complicated disease.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in 1987, the book opens with the death of June’s beloved uncle Finn, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life–Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following his death, she begins to realise that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honour Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realise how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer—blaming him for Finn’s illness and death—and who is ostracised and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; Greta is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl—or rather, every girl—growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult. Here, for instance, June reflects on the diminishing returns of getting older: “It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. . . . Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck.

Though Brunt’s approach to AIDS and homosexuality is bold, her novel is mostly an extended meditation on all the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much. The plot is never dull, and the convincing emotional climaxes, while overwrought, are appropriate for a narrator of June’s age. Though the book has young adult–novel qualities, with moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold, there’s enough ambiguity and subtlety to interest a wider audience.

Review: “The Antelope Wife” by Louise Erdrich

Family stories repeat themselves in patterns in waves, generation to generation, across blood and time.

In 1998, Louise Erdrich published The Antelope Wife to high praise from readers and from critical reviewers.  But in 2009, Erdrich reread the novel and started to think about the characters. The result was a complete reworking of the book, published in 2012. I was very intrigued by the idea that an author would return to a well-received work and drastically change it. In an interview published in the P.S. section of the Harper Collins edition, Erdrich says that only “the beginning is the same, and then the book changes utterly“. I haven’t read the original, but I’m going to have to find a copy so I can make a comparison.

As the revised version of The Antelope Wife opens, a cavalry soldier pursues a dog with a Ojibwa baby strapped to its back. For days, he follows them through “the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River” until finally the dog allows him to approach and handle the child–a girl, not yet weaned, who latches onto his nipples until, miraculously, they begin to lactate. In another kind of novel, this might be a metaphor. But this is the fictional world of Louise Erdrich, where myth is woven deeply into the fabric of everyday life. A famous cake tastes of grief, joy, and the secret ingredient: fear. The tie that binds the antelope wife to her husband is, literally, the strip of sweetheart calico he used to yoke her hand to his. Legendary characters sew beads into colorful patterns, and the patterns become the design of the novel itself.

The Antelope Wife centers on the Roys and the Shawanos, two closely related Ojibwa (or Chippewa) families living in modern-day Gakahbekong, or Minneapolis. Urban Native Americans of mixed blood, they are “scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings,” and Erdrich follows them through two failed marriages, a “kamikaze” wedding, and several tragic deaths. But the plot also loops and circles back, drawing in a 100-year old murder, a burned Ojibwa village, a lost baby, and several generations of twins.

Though the saga is animated by obsessive love, mysterious disappearances, mythic legends and personal frailties, Erdrich also works in a comic vein. There’s a dog who tells dirty jokes and a naked wife whose birthday surprise has an audience. Throughout, Erdrich emphasizes the paradoxes of everyday life: braided grandmas who follow traditional ways and speak the old language also wear eyeliner and sneakers. In each generation, men and women are bewitched by love, lust, and longing; they are slaves to drink, to carefully guarded secrets or to the mesmerizing power of hope.

The book is full of familiar themes–love, family, history, and the complex ways these forces both bind and separate generations, stitching them into patterns as complex as beadwork. At least initially, this swirl of characters, narratives, timelines, and connections can take a little getting used to (Erdrich now draws family trees in the beginning); the plot sometimes bogs down with an overload of emotional complications, the novel ultimately celebrates the courage of following one’s ordained path in the universe and meeting the challenges of fate. In the end, Erdrich’s lovely, lyrical language prevails, and I felt like I had succumbed to the book’s own dreamlike logic.