I saw Moana this last week, and read some very good books. I did not do this intentionally, but found that they all contained a similar thread: they were all about tricksters.
I like trickster characters a lot. I always have. I gravitated towards the Odysseus stories the most out of all the classical canon because he seemed like the thinking man’s hero who generally couldn’t rely on his brawn to get things done. He had to outwit and outmaneuver most of his foes. Out of Norse mythology I love Loki, and not just the snarky version we get in the Marvel universe. Something that has always drawn me to Native American folklore and storytelling is the prevalence of trickster archetypes over every other archetype combined. I find that as a Jewish dude, many of my own folk heroes are tricksters, be they biblical or more contemporary media. They’re a mainstay of African American literature and you could argue that the best Shakespeare plays feature prominent tricksters. They’re everywhere, and when they’re done well, I love them.
Hell, it’s the reliance on tricksters that probably drew me to Neil Gaiman’s body of work in the first place. The dude loves them even more than I do and his knowledge of them dwarfs what I would consider my above-average knowledge of the archetype in both mythology and pop culture.
They’re just so much fun. They generally never come from a position of power. They’re underdogs who have to scrap and claw their way to greatness, and most of us love stories like that. They’re regularly confronted by people who could kick their ass without breaking a sweat, and the only way to survive those situations is by wit and manipulation. Half of them are, admittedly, terrible people and not what you’d call role models, but they readily demonstrate the possibilities of lateral thought as a skill that should be cultivated.
Anyway, with that bias divulgedhere are my brief reviews.
Moana was brilliant. Easily my favorite Disney movie since the 90s, and I liked Tangled and Frozen. I went into it afraid that it was going to fall into some bad traps, but it avoided them splendidly. Polynesian tattoo culture was given the respect it is due as a form of familial tracking and storytelling instead of just decoration. The first and only animated film you’re likely to see that features a scene of mallet and bone comb tattooing, and they didn’t just cover the men with them. Moana’s grandmother sports a backpiece anyone with an appreciation for ink would be jealous of.
My fascination with tattoo stuff aside, it was just a fun movie. It made you feel good without being cloying about it. The music is gorgeous, even if there are points where you want to maybe pull Lin-Manuel Miranda aside and remind him he doesn’t have to do Hamilton breakdown raps in everything. The soundtrack is addictive and I’ve had it on my ipod practically nonstop since seeing the movie, particularly Jemaine Clement channeling late 70s David Bowie as a gilded coconut crab (seriously, go see this movie).
I liked that Maui didn’t steal the stage from Moana at any point. As most they were co-stars, and she did a lot of the heavy lifting without him taking the credit for it. I was really afraid that they’d downplay the trickster elements of his demigod character because, frankly, if you have The Rock in your cast as a giant muscled dude it’s probably pretty hard to fight the urge to have him blow things up. Instead he was much more reliant on his tools and magic than his brawn, because he was routinely going up against things that made him look scrawny by comparison. That was cool and unexpected. Moana is one of the most badass Disney princesses (still trying to work out if tribal chieftain’s daughter still counts) and I like that there was emphasis on her being groomed to run things on the island herself instead of being married off with the conflict coming from somewhere other than romantic entanglement, as even some of the most well-meaning Disney flicks have done in the past.
Moving on from that, let’s talk books.
First, I picked up Vicious with VE Schwab, a book that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year but kept failing to read, and now I very much regret that. Schwab’s narrative voice is a delight to read, frankly. She mixes sinister with funny without detracting from either tone, and the characters are all incredibly well developed for having what amounts to a couple of days together plus flashbacks to ten years prior. Victor is the definition of a good antihero in the sense that he is the protagonist, and he is going up against people worse than he is, but he’s an absolutely deplorable murderer and torturer in his own right and you kind of hate yourself for liking him. But you do like him, and you can see why his motley crew of companions stick with him beyond fear of his powers.
Speaking of which, something that scared me off reading this was someone describing it to me as Superman versus Luthor but with Luthor as the good guy, because I’d already seen variations of that in Megamind and Doctor Horrible. It is not that. It is way better than that. It has a collection of powers and a take on superheroes that you’ll be thinking about long after you put the book down. Stuff I have not seen before, and I consider myself a pretty well-read nerd on things like this. Good enough that I’ve already loaded up Schwab’s other, urban fantasy tinged novels on the ground that if they’re half this good I’ll probably still love them.
Finally, I picked up the climax to one of my favorite series ever, The Fall of the House of Cabal. It perfectly caps off the prior books and short stories, wrapping up loose ends and dipping the entire knot in sealing wax to create a work of art. It’s a strong story, one that knows exactly how it’s going to end when it starts out, if that makes any sense. The problem I’m running into here is that it’s book five in a quintet, and I can’t really talk about anything I liked in it without spoiling the prior books. So, instead, I’ll talk a little bit about those prior books and why you should go read them (and this) if you already haven’t.
You guys know how I’m a gigantic Terry Pratchett fan, yes? I can’t go five feet without thinking of how Discworld applies to a situation, I quote him as often as I do Tolkien, I can’t think of a single author who shaped my worldviews as much as he did, right?
I say with my hand to my heart that Jonathan L Howard is just about the only living author I can think of who approaches Terry Pratchett’s skill, at least of the authors I read.
The Cabal series is an exploration of a certain style of literature where horror, strangeness, science fiction, fantasy and comedy are blended together and refuse to acknowledge boundary lines. There are scenes where you’ll burst out laughing and then immediately blink back tears. They’re also written in era-appropriate prose somewhere in the 1930s-1940s, channeling Wodehouse with a supernatural tinge.
They have a little something for everyone, and that’s what makes them work. Howard doesn’t stick with one genre, although he could have made it into a period piece urban fantasy if he really wanted. That would be too easy and constricting.
You’ve got Necromancer, a Faustian bargain story inspired by the same demonic carnivals that gave us Something Wicked This Way Comes but is told from the perspective of the carnival’s owner, who really isn’t all such a bad person and has his reason for ripping peoples’ souls out. Detective is a murder mystery channeling the best of Agatha Christie aboard a zeppelin midflight. The Fear Institute is a beautiful riff on HP Lovecraft and his dreamwlands setting, underappreciated and often forgotten in the cavalcade of Cthulhu ripoff stories. Brothers Cabal is every Hammer Horror trope mushed together and stewed over a low heat.
They are some of the books I go back and read again and again, and that’s before I even get into the novellas/short stories.
What I love about Johannes Cabal is that he is such a great take on the smartest man in the room trope, a beloved archetype whose social awkwardness is outpaced by his brilliance, which is such a dominant trait that people can’t help but throw themselves at him and want to befriend him (see: Sherlock, House, etc). This time it’s played straight. He’s the smartest man in the room and people generally hate his guts because he is so overbearing and unable to read others’ emotions that you want to reach into the text and slap him. It’s a breath of fresh air for a worn out character type today. He’s a perfect trickster, too, in that he often finds his necromatic powers dwarfed by the foes he goes up against – or simply by the guns he usually finds pointed in his direction when he makes one too many badly timed sarcastic remarks.
The books are all good. I think the quality of Brothers dips a little bit by sheer virtue of not being about Johannes so much as split between him and his less interesting brother, but it’s still a damned good read and head and shoulders above most books you might compare it to.