Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Iron: Or, the War After by S.M. Vidaurri

With quiet artwork and complex, beguiling characters, S.M. Vidaurri pulls off a heart-stopping debut. He is unafraid to change the course of the story by planned decimation or by chance. The result is a story that piques curiosity and sympathy, and builds a longing to see justice served, though even when it is delivered, readers feel the cost.

Iron: Or, the War After begins with the rabbit James Hardin stealing military documents for a rebel cause. Two military officers ordered to find him must work together while one openly insists the other is a traitor. What follows is a tale of old wounds, uncompromising beliefs, tests of mettle for adults and children alike, and as with any great war story, all-consuming obsession. The anthropomorphic characters lend to old sayings--one character is literally a stubborn old goat--while also breaking expectations such as Ford, the unwise owl. Readers may also be happy applying their own significance to the symbolism behind the animal choices, as Vidaurri leaves ample room for it.

Vidaurri's choice to use anthropomorphic characters is a wise one itself. Humans would be challenging to distinguish in Vidaurri's simple lines and washes. In Iron, the animals stand out in the dark atmosphere with their long ears and beaks, allowing readers to easily track which animals belong to which faction.

Some readers may be put off by the lack of information on the war that came before the story's opening. Vidaurri never reveals what it was about or whose cause is best to root for. This is an undoubtedly intentional choice as Iron is not about the war before, but the war after, the one soldiers and citizens battle within themselves every moment after living through the horrors of war. 

In the Acknowledgements, Vidaurri thanks Erich Maria Remarque for inspiration. Anyone who has read All Quiet on the Western Front will recognize Remarque's influence: there is no side to root for because all humans are destroyed by war, even the ones who go on living, and all people, even enemies, are capable of compassion toward each other. For the characters in Iron, living in a world of constant winter, the war is also constant. It is forever biting and lethal. Yet not one to end his first work in despair, Vidaurri concludes Iron: Or, the War After with hope. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Francesca Lia Block Project: Psyche in a Dress

I'm revisiting works of my favorite urban fantasy author Francesca Lia Block, as well as reading her new work, in order to see how my perception of her work has grown and how her craft has changed, remained the same, etc. over the years.

When I first read Psyche in a Dress in 2006 during my breaks at Borders one day, I didn't quite get it. I knew it was beautiful and enchanting like everything Francesca writes, yet its meaning was lost on my inexperience.

It is near the end of the story when Joy returns to Psyche that I figured out what the journey of Francesca's Psyche is about.

I have been young too
I have been Psyche, I have been Echo
I have been Eurydice
I have been Persephone, like you
I thought I was not a goddess
My mother was a goddess
Now I am Demeter, like my mother
Because of you
My Demeter tried to save me from Hades
That man you have is Eros too
I let my Eros, your father, leave
because I didn't think I was enough
But you must remember you are everything
We all are
Psyche means soul
What more is there than that?

~from Psyche in a Dress, Frances Lia Block

When I was 20, I had been Psyche, I had been Echo. I had not yet been through hell, I was not Persephone, I was not Eurydice. Now I'm 25, and during the time from the first reading to the next, I was in turn Psyche (again), Eurydice, and Persephone. Like fairy tale heroines who are at the same time Snow White and her wicked mother, the men in Psyche in a Dress at times seem to be the same person, but at other occasions are distinctly different characters. I don't believe in such a thing as THE ONE, so I think Psyche and Eros are fluid states; you can have several true loves* in your life, but one person won't always be the right person.

I think there is a possibility that Francesca believes in soul mates, and I draw my strongest evidence from Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books. Every main character pairs off with someone from a young age. This is especially true for Weetzie's daughter Cherokee who meets her future lover Raphael when they are children. The couples fight and separate, but like Francesca's Psyche and Eros, they're meant for one another so nothing will keep them apart forever.

I've realized that sometimes it isn't that a book isn't for you, but instead a book isn't for you at the moment. This is something I think is true as a reader and a writer. Something in my mind nags at me all the time, saying, "Please stop writing your vampire novel. Start your faerie tale retelling novel." But I reply, "No, I have to write my vampire novel, then the one that might be magical realism, then a collection short stories (maybe an urban fantasy or two in there somewhere, and maybe even the first book in the crossover fantasy series). After that I have to live with monks in France for a couple weeks. THEN I'll write my faerie tale retelling novel."

The myth of Psyche is really about the faith needed to truly love the gods. No one nails that concept as well as C.S. Lewis does in Till We Have Faces. I can't imagine anyone topping it. Francesca translates it into a tale about equality in relationships. I'm irked by people who look at myths and folklore on a surface level only, and I was worried during both readings that Francesca's story would turn out that way, but she explores the pain and confusion of healthy and destructive types of love, and the effects it has on the soul. (Soul can be read in a spiritual or secular way.) Psyche punishes herself for betraying Eros' request to never look upon him, but ultimately she declares herself a goddess. I'll say that again: ultimately she declares herself a goddess. She doesn't need the gods to bestow it on her like the Psyche of myth. Francesca's Psyche is worthy of being a goddess because she exists. She carries on despite neglect and being wrongfully shamed.

Psyche doesn't ask or need to be worshiped. Women-as-goddesses in Psyche in a Dress survive trials by fire, and are protectors of the young as a result. They are goddesses--patron saints, even--looking out for those whom haven't yet had their trials. But you must remember you are everything I think Francesca is telling us that even though Love is out there, we are still whole without Love. Eros is not our other half, the piece of ourselves we are waiting for in order to be complete.

*By "true love" I mean a love that is healthy, honest, and nondestructive. I've had pleasant relationships that have ended, and I'll always love my former partners.