Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Quick Sips - The Book Smugglers August 2018

There’s two new Awakenings season novelettes at The Book Smugglers! The first evokes and complicates fairy tales and specifically a fairy tale romance, and is cold and in some ways very cruel. As cruel as reality, at least, which it turns out is quite cruel indeed. It’s a story that in some ways embraces what it means to be a fairy tale, full of darkness and magic and hope. But at the same time, it seems to me to hesitate short of providing a completely expected experience. Instead, it challenges the reader about their assumptions about what these kind of stories look like, and how they should end. And the second looks follows a young girl growing up, reaching for an adulthood where she can finally take control of her own life after years and years of dealing with waiting, abuse, and a pressure to conform. Both stories do a lot of interesting things, and build maintain very different styles while still pairing well, showing the world in all its complex, beautiful cruelty. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Jennifer Johnson

“The Girl with the Frozen Heart” by Y.M. Pang (8255 words)

No Spoilers: Inara has traveled far only to end up mortally wounded in the winter snow, the final survivor of a battle but not for long given the arrow in her chest and the numbness spreading through her limbs. Except that the god of winter has been watching, and doesn’t want her to die. So he saves her, but not without a cost. Without memories and without emotions, she comes to a small village where Telzo is a blacksmith apprentice. The piece to me is very much a fairy tale, with an edge of magic and hope and love but also a grimness, a tragedy to it. There’s a great layering that the story manages between it’s own structure and trajectory and that of a fairy tale within the story. The piece plays with narrative distance very well, starting immediate and intimate and then pulling back, slowing drawing closer and closer again until an ending that left me, at least, both melted utterly and chilled to my core. It’s lovely and romantic while challenging the traditional ideas surrounding fairy tales.
Keywords: Cold, Memories, Gods, Winter, Love, Fairy Tales
Review: For me this story is a study in fairy tales, in part because of the expert control of distance that it manages. The piece begins with tragedy and pain and death, with Inara bleeding out into the snow only to be saved. But life comes with a price because of who saves her. The god of winter is powerful but not a force of life. Instead, he’s a force of death and loss. And while there’s the strong feeling that it’s not what he really wants to be, that’s the truth of his situation. He cannot change his spots, and so he does what he can, freezing Inara’s wound but her heart as well, taking away her emotions and her memories. So when she stumbles into Telzo’s village, it’s as something of a blank slate. She finds her place and works at earning her way, unsure really what she wants or what she should be doing, but alive and relatively content with that. Not happy, not sad. And it’s that distance within her that informs the distance the story maintains. Where she is cold, the reader is kept back and the prose remains a bit haunted. And as she warms, the prose wakes up more as well, infused wtih the hope and warmth that Telzo brings to the story.

And I just love how the larger plot mirrors the layered narrative of the sung folktale of the woman who is captured by the god of winter, who after fourteen years is reunited with her love, but even then lost all her memories. Except there are different versions of the story around, and while the one that Telzo knows is capped by a happy ending, the one that Inara grew up with and begins to remember, the reason that the god of winter took the woman was to prevent a tragedy from unfolding. And glob does this story mess with expectations, that fairy tale assumption of there being a happily ever after, that these people will be rewarded from their love and their kindness and their patience. When, really, the story is all built on tragedy and powerlessness, and if even the gods cannot provide a fertile ground for happiness, the story seems to ask what hope mortals have. Or, to put it another way, the story looks at power and at cost. The god of winter is able to save Inara’s life, but not in the way he wants, and certainly not in a way that she agrees to. He has to make due with what he’s able to do. My expectation as a reader of fairy tales and perhaps as a watcher of Disney films is that the power of love will provide its own magic that will allow Inara and Telzo to find a way to live out their lives. It’s the promise of the form, of this kind of romance. And the story denies that for the reader, instead showing that the melting of Inara’s heart is beautiful, yes, but also deadly. That though it’s not fair that she should be so doomed, it’s the reality of the situation, and it was established at the onset. It’s the case of the reader basically being told what’s going to happen and then not wanting to believe it, and feeling a bit crushed when that shoe drops.

And really, the pain that I feel as a reader is testimony to how well the story builds up the central romance between Inara and Telzo. There is a deep patience there, an acceptance of who they are while both are also striving to understand each other and learn more about the world around them. The story begins at a moment of magic but also violation, where Inara is saved but has no say. Her relationship with Telzo is much more about her consent, but still limited by that initial action by the god of winter. There was one moment where I was a little hesitant because Telzo equated feeling certain things with being human when that’s not really the case, but otherwise it is a tender and wrenching story touched by frost and melting to reveal that the ice has not erased the pain and damage, only covered it up. A great read!

“Running” by Itoro Udofia (9653 words)

No Spoilers: Arit begins this story as a young girl with a tendency to hide from her family. From the violence of her father, the religious devotion of her mother. From all the ways they make her feel unsafe, and all the ways she fears they will prevent her from having a place in America, the country she was born in but is never quite considered to be a part of. Because of her skin, because of her parents. Only in her hiding she is found by something from beyond, a spirit that offers her some relief from the isolation that surrounds her, named Ekpewan. And it’s her relationship to this spirit, who is more from the land of Arit’s mother, who is a connection back to Africa, that guides and sets the tone of the story. Because Ekpewan speaks with a voice urging Arit to listen to her family, to not seek to escape the abuse or the harm they cause. Who pushes Arit to embrace religion, as well, and bridging the gap between her American blackness and her Africanness. It’s a complex and difficult story because it deals with identity and drive and family, things that are not easy to navigate, especially when they carry the baggage of Arit’s.
Keywords: Spirits, School, Dancing, Family, Prayer
Review: There’s so much to this story for me that speaks of family and the complex nature of identity. For Arit, her life is spent running from her childhood, from the hurts and the abuse (hence, I assume, the title). She wants to hide, to get away, to find a safe space. It’s why in my opinion she wants so desperately to switch places with Ekpewan, because what Arit wants is a place where she can dance until she is healed, until she is ready to get back to life. And instead she has to hear from this spirit that it’s her life that’s enviable. That Ekpewan wants Arit’s life, and that Arit should try harder to appreciate what she has. Only Ekpewan doesn’t really get the realities of Arit’s life. She doesn’t understand the intricate dance required to be black in America while still being considered foreign. Arit just wants to blend in, to have something of her own, to be able to live without her parents, and without this spirit constantly whispering in her ear. She doesn’t want to have to pretend that what her family has done didn’t cause pain, or damage. And she certainly doesn’t want to have to live by their terms, especially when what she needs is space to heal until she’s ready to fully reach for her dreams.

And family is just such a complicated thing, because they can be so important. Because without family it can feel like there’s no support, no connections. Arit’s life is largely defined by her family, and she has few friends, few real people she can confide in who will tell her to put her own care first. Instead she is always told of her duty, of her obligation and responsibility. And really she doesn’t want to lose all the parts of herself she barely understands. She doesn’t seem to me to want to forsake her family or her heritage. At the same time, though, those things are linked to her abuse, and to her feeling of powerlessness. She’s not allowed to define herself, and so all of these things are turned into weapons that hurt her. And though it means losing a part of herself and her identity, she needs to run from them or else she will drown, pulled under by a vision of God who looks nothing like her.

And I just love the way the story brings Arit to a place where she’s able to move away, to run to a place where she feels better about herself. Where she can cut the ties that hold her to her family, to that part of her identity. Not because she can never handle it, but because for most of her life it has been somewhat toxic, and she needs to build herself whole before she can risk being exposed to that more. I feel it’s hopeful in that way, recognizing that family is often not something you can just walk away from. But you can run, and get distance, and maybe then return at some point on your own terms. Which is what I feel Arit builds to through the story, so that she can really discover who she is and try to craft the future she wants for herself without being derailed by the expectations put on her by her family. It’s a deep and moving story that takes a very nuanced look at growing up, and it’s a great read!


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