Hello! My summer has been extremely busy, so this (and the next two posts) are extremely overdue, but here we are! I haven’t had much time to play games lately, but I have read a lot of books, so let’s talk about that.
Books: The Dain Curse; A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window; Howl’s Moving Castle; Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency; The Magic Thief: Home
Comics: Rice Boy, Order of Tales, Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
This is a book that I found out about through a mention in an annotation in The Annotated Big Sleep, which talks about (and I’m paraphrasing here) the use of drug use and certain mental conditions in the 30s era as a sort of separation of or alteration of self (which I suppose is not exclusive to the 30s era) and off-handedly mentioned that The Dain Curse had a character who was a morphine addict who was a bit similar to the character in The Big Sleep (who I won’t mention by name for spoiler reasons) and additionally that The Dain Curse is about a sort of mystery with an actual supernatural element–the aforementioned Dain Curse.
Or, in less long-winded terms, The Annotated Big Sleep mentioned The Dain Curse and led me to believe that it would be a mystery with some actual supernatural stuff going on, and I’m a massive slut for that combination of narrative elements, if my writing a book to that exact effect wasn’t a big enough tip-off.
Anyways, The Dain Curse features Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, the unnamed investigator who’s an unsentimental and hardboiled asshole, and the story follows chronologically from Red Harvest, which I have not yet read. Of the various flavors of hardboiled investigators that exist, the Continental Op falls much more towards gruff and tough than charismatic and clever–which isn’t to say that he’s not intelligent, because he certainly is. The story itself concerns three separate cases surrounding Gabrielle Leggett, a girl who is allegedly under a curse where everyone around her dies violently. I found the beginning part of the book (ostensibly about recovering a set of stolen diamonds) a bit slow, but the story really hits its stride after that once the Dain Curse and Gabrielle’s messed-up family history comes out and all the other plot developments follow on from there.
The Continental Op is not a compelling or likeable character the same way Philip Marlowe is–he’s got a hard edge and an unsentimental streak, not to mention that he’s more than a bit of a bastard, but he gets the job done and he does it well. The Continental Op does a lot of the right thing, but he’s not a good person, and that really colors a lot of his story. You really get the sense that the Continental Op cares very little about his cases and the people he interacts with outside of any professional obligations, whereas a character like Philip Marlowe cares too much about a lot of the people he meets, and it produces a drastically different story than you get from the Chandler books.
As for the combination of supernatural elements and mystery, the most I can say without spoiling anything is that trying to figure out whether the curse is a supernatural curse or something with a more mundane solution is part of the mystery. That alone should tell you how the supernatural is handled throughout the story, which I guess was a little disappointing for me. There’s an extremely specific dynamic that I want to read, and that’s an established detective using established mundane detective skills to solve a mystery with supernatural elements. The Dain Curse gets pretty close, but the supernatural element is more understated than I would have hoped.
All that said, I really enjoyed reading The Dain Curse. It’s a little different from the usual crime fiction I’ve read, and while the beginning part is a bit slow, once it reaches the end of the first part, it takes the story and starts running with it. If the synopsis sounds interesting to you, I’d definitely give it a shot.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket (2000)
Slowly but surely, I’m making my way through this series. With regards to this story in particular, I believe that if your story is titled something along the lines of The [blank] Window, someone had better be seen doing something very dastardly in that window or falling out of it. Fortunately, and not to spoil anything, this book does fulfill my extremely specific standards.
That aside, something that struck me while reading The Wide Window (besides the criminally negligent adults which are standard in this story) is that these books, as short as they are, are extremely tight narratives. The moment that stuck out to me most was when Klaus brought up Josephine’s fear of real estate agents–a one-off joke if there ever was one–at a pivotal point near the end. The book would have been perfectly good and well-written even without firing that particular Chekhov’s gun, but it’s little things like that that stand out.
I guess the other thing I noticed was how unsanitized the violence is. I mean, it’s not as if there’s blood and gore, but the danger that the Baudelaires are in is not downplayed, nor are the consequences. People unambiguously die in these stories. I don’t think that’s really a weird thing–pretty horrific stuff has happened in kids books besides these ones for sure. I suppose the more specific thing I’m trying to say is that the way violence and hardship is presented in this story is very frank and (unlike Roald Dahl’s conga line of horrors) relatively grounded in actual things that are dangerous, especially when you consider the aforementioned completely useless adults. And that’s par for the course, coming from A Series of Unfortunate Events. I don’t have a problem with this–I don’t think that all children’s media has to or should be scrubbed of all the terrible things happening–it’s just different, that’s all.
While I’m here, I’d also like to say it’s impossible to start a fire using a magnifying glass and moonlight. xkcd’s What If? wrote an article about it and why that violates the second law of thermodynamics. Of course I’m not expecting stringent scientific accuracy from A Series of Unfortunate Events of all things, but that’s one of those things that sounds plausible enough to be possible but really isn’t.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
Like many people in the mid-2000s, my first exposure to Howl’s Moving Castle was through the 2004 Miyazaki film. I don’t recall at which point I found out that the movie was based on a book, but at some point I checked the book out from the library to read it. I don’t recall much from the first time I read the book. In all honesty, I think at the time I was a bit turned off by the ways the book and the movie differed (which they do in some fairly significant ways), and I didn’t retain much of it.
That being said, I have a lot of respect for Diana Wynne Jones’ writing and enjoyed a lot of her other books–come to think of it, that’s probably where I ran into the book version of Howl’s Moving Castle–so I decided I ought to give the book a second try.
Howl’s Moving Castle occupies a certain niche of fairy tale stories where the characters have a certain level of self-awareness about their own genre, the same niche that’s also occupied by such books as Patricia C. Wrede’s Talking With Dragons and sequels. The story centers on Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three daughters. After her father dies, her stepmother sends the younger two off to seek their fortunes–one to learn magic and one to an apprenticeship at a bakery–leaving Sophie to continue working the hat shop. After some things happen, Sophie gets cursed by the Witch of the Wastes to be an old woman, and Sophie, as any reasonable person would, decides the best solution to that is to run away from home and go on an adventure. Naturally, she runs into the titular moving castle and meets the fire demon Calcifer who keeps it going, and makes a deal with him to release him from his contract with Howl so she can be uncursed.
Loosely speaking, the main bulk of the story’s plot involves Sophie trying to figure out the terms of Howl’s contract, and I do mean loosely. The plot feels pretty meandering and a lot of things happen that don’t always seem to connect. There’s a missing prince, there’s Howl’s womanizing, there’s some history between Howl and the Witch of the Waste, there’s Howl trying to avoid responsibility, there’s Howl’s wizard apprentice Michael, there’s a trip to actual real-life Wales, there’s Sophie doing a lot of magic, and others. There isn’t really a single main driving thread except the whole Howl-demon contract thing, which seems to get waylaid a lot of the time. To be fair, a lot of these disparate threads do come together by the end, including that whole contract business, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that the character’s motivation doesn’t always seem present.
That sounds like a bad thing, but I don’t think it necessarily is. Howl’s Moving Castle is, in large part (though not wholly), a romance. The meat of the story is about the interpersonal relationships between Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, Michael, and other characters instead of being laser-focused on trying to deal with curses and magical contracts. It’s definitely more of a character-driven thing than a plot-driven thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every story needs to be a thriller–it’s perfectly fine to be more relaxed, sometimes.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (1987)
This is a story that I found because I was reading about paranormal detective stories as sort of background research for my book, and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was roughly described as being about a detective who’s kind of a charlatan who cons people who believe in the supernatural and is then really miffed when the supernatural turns out to actually be a thing.
There’s a general rule of thumb when I write stories–especially fiction with supernatural elements–which is: present the premise to your story as soon as humanly possible (e.g., dealing with a dead friend, detective in a world with magic, post-apocalypse with demons). That way, people know what the plot/world/setup is, and they can make a judgement early on about whether that’s a premise they want to stick around for. Douglas Adams clearly has no such rules. If you don’t go into this story trusting that Douglas Adams will eventually pull everything together into a coherent plot, you will probably lose interest before all the pieces start looking like they might come from the same puzzle. Or, to put it another way, it is nearly impossible to figure out what the book is even about until around halfway through–the titular character doesn’t even actually show up until about a third of the way into the book. Is it about ghosts? Is it about a robot monk from an alien planet? Is it about computer programming? Is it about Kubla Khan? As it turns out, it’s about all of these things! Not that you would know that until maybe halfway through the book.
In some ways, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a surprisingly tight narrative, in that everything that needs to be presented is presented and critical to the plot. Despite the writing style, there’s very little excess in the narrative–no scenes that can really be cut out with no consequence to the surrounding story, which is good. Of course, the fact that the story spends about a third of it laying out the pieces without ever really showing what the actual plot is means that a lot of people will have forgotten the salient points by the time the main conflict comes around.
Is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency the detective novel that I was looking for? No, not exactly, because a “true” mystery novel (in my opinion) needs to have a question. Stuff like, “Who killed the man?” or “Where is the missing jewel?”. Sometimes more questions come up in the meantime, but the story starts with a question and ends with answers. While there are things being detected and discovered in this book, there isn’t really a question that’s being solved other than a general “how are all these strange things related?”. By no means is that a bad plot, but it’s not really a “true” mystery plot.
Like I said earlier with The Dain Curse, there’s a very specific niche of supernatural detective fiction that greatly appeals to me, which is a story where strange definitely supernatural things happen but are treated with mundane solutions and methods, and that, at least, is satisfied by Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It’s the detective part of that that’s not quite up to what I really want, but the treatment of the supernatural is pretty close (my preferences lie slightly more grounded, as grounded as things like ghosts and psychics can be).
As for the writing style, well, it’s Douglas Adams. It’s funny and has dry wit and it made me laugh more than once because I guess that’s the kind of humor that works for me. If you’re acquainted with the writing style from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, that same style shows up here, and the writing style really puts in a lot of work carrying readers to the point where the know what the hell is going on, because the plot sure isn’t.
If you can have faith in Douglas Adams that he’s not just pulling random plot points out of his ass for kicks, I think that Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a pretty fun read. It is, once again, a book that probably benefits greatly from a second read-through when you know what the hell is going on.
The Magic Thief: Home by Sarah Prineas (2014)
The Magic Thief is a series that I enjoyed a lot when it first came out–so much so that I actually memorized the little alphabet cipher that’s used in bonus asides throughout the book. For the uninitiated (and I imagine it’s a lot of people, because The Magic Thief never struck me as a particularly popular children’s fantasy series like Magyk or Inkheart or Ranger’s Apprentice), The Magic Thief takes place in a city called Wellmet which is divided into two halves–Dawn and Twilight. Dawn is the rich people side, Twilight is the gutter rat side. Between them is a river with a bunch of islands where wizards live (of which there is a surprisingly small number). Wizards do magic with a special magic rock that usually kills anyone who picks it up if it’s not that wizard. The titular thief is Connwaer, or Conn, who steals one of these special magic rocks and doesn’t instantly die, so he (through a series of events) becomes an apprentice to a recently un-exiled wizard named Nevery. Anyways, they save the city a few times and learn more about where magic comes from, which you should read the books if you’re interested.
Since I got a physical copy (it wasn’t available in e-book format from my library), one of the things that really struck me was how large the text size was. I mean yeah, it’s juvenile fiction, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it feels absolutely enormous when you’re coming from reading Raymond Chandler books in their tiny, tiny, font. Something that’s really nice about reading fiction aimed at younger audiences is that you can finish reading them pretty quickly. I started reading the book on the train and finished reading it before I went back on the return trip at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s nice to have a story that’s lighter, no matter how old you are or what doorstoppers you’ve read.
Moving on. Home is the fourth book in the series, which is weird because I thought that the series was over after the third book. Without spoiling anything, there was a thing in the third book about fixing the magic of the city which had a resolution that made me feel like there wasn’t really any room to escalate further and was completely taken care of. Apparently I was only half right, because this book doesn’t really escalate–it just brings back the magic problem and throws in a few other fun conflicts to make the story a little spicier. Barring executive meddling and money-grubbing, I’m pretty sure that this is the last book in the series unless there’s some kind of spin-off featuring a new protagonist.
Speaking of, one of the biggest charms of the series is really the main character, Conn. He’s a thief and a lockpick, but he’s honorable and fair-minded. He has a lot of pride and a sense of self-worth, to the point where in the first book when he realizes that Nevery meant to hire him as a servant and not an apprentice, he decides that he would literally prefer to live on the streets than answer to him in that way. He’s resourceful and his narration is very frank in a way that really helps endear me to him.
The plot involves yet another scheme to destroy the city, which the other wizards suspect Conn for (especially since they don’t trust him a whole lot to begin with). Besides that plot, I think one of the main things about Home is Conn coming into his own. The new leaders of the Dawn and Twilight want him to be the head wizard, which he extremely refuses. They try to keep Conn from haring off on his own to solve the city destroying plot, but Conn gets around that and the three of them work through the relationships and troubles between them. Besides that, Conn is also shown really becoming a wizard through his cleverness–he comes up with new spells, he has a pretty intimate understanding of how magic works, and he really makes the most of his abilities, both magical and roguish.
The Magic Thief in general is a series that I really enjoy and would definitely recommend to just about anyone who wants some light fantasy of the slightly pre-Industrial Revolution flavor. I liked the story a lot when it first came out and it still holds up this many years later. The characters are strong and likeable, the world-building is not exhaustive but more than enough to create an enchanting picture, and the plots are satisfying to read. If you think any of this sounds interesting, definitely give it a shot.
Rice Boy by Evan Dahm (2006-2008)
Rice Boy is a webcomic that I read for the first time about seven years ago and which some people might recognize from one of the characters being a default avatar on Kongregate. It’s a comic that I enjoy immensely and would say is very good, but is not exactly what I’d call super polished. But more about that later.
Rice Boy is the story of a prophecy about how some sort of chosen one will show up and bring back what’s effectively a god who went missing a while back. A machine man working for one of the other sort-of gods called The One Electronic has been going around looking for the chosen one. The last potential chosen one ended up being a dick and not at all the right guy, so The One Electronic goes to Rice Boy, who might be the chosen one. Rice Boy, who couldn’t possibly come from more humble origins, tells The One Electronic that he doesn’t think he can be the chosen one. The One Electronic leaves, and Rice Boy decides, hey, why not go check out this place anyways? And so the story follows The One Electronic and Rice Boy on their adventures through a very strange, strange, land.
The art of Rice Boy is very distinct and robust, with bold lines and what I think of as “bold colors”, like the Bold Crayola markers with in-between hues like blue-green and red-purple. The style is fairly simple and built from shapes and patterns like you might see in a kid’s picture book. Most locations in the story only use a few main colors at a time, and the limited color palette in addition to the art style gives it a very fairy-tale feel. Part of it is that everything in the world as we (and Rice Boy) explore it is strange and alien, with glowing plants and strange types of creatures–and everyone is some type of creature, because there are no humans–and as a result, a lot of the story is not just about Rice Boy and The One Electronic, but also about us discovering this world, piece by piece.
One of the main feelings I get about Rice Boy is that it’s breezy. It zips by very fast all the way through, with the main characters going from location to location without hardly any time to stop and rest. There’s not a lot of drawn-out conversations or exposition, just an adventure zipping past through treacherous lands and the occasional assassination attempt. The author’s done some commentary on the story on his blog, and it’s clear from there (and from reading the story) that a lot of the story was written as the comic was being made–a lot of small things happen that are never really explained and the pacing of the story is, as I’ve said, very quick. I don’t think that detracts from the enjoyment of the comic, though. The briskness contributes to the dream-like feeling of the story, and when you’re finished, you definitely get the feeling that, while everything’s been resolved, there’s still so much to discover about the characters and the world. And you know what? It works.
Rice Boy is a fairly quick and straightforward read, so if you have some time, give it a shot!
Order of Tales by Evan Dahm (2008-2010)
Order of Tales, on the other hand, I did not read until this month. I started reading it back when I read Rice Boy but I didn’t get much further than a few pages. Unlike Rice Boy, Order of Tales is drawn in a very stark black and white hatched style (and one that increases in quality quite dramatically as it progresses). It takes place in the same world as Rice Boy but a pretty significant number of years before. The One Electronic makes a reappearance, but not in his capacity of seeking the chosen one.
The story follows Koark, who is a keeper of stories, who’s trying to find out about some forbidden or missing story that’s related to a huge evil overlord sort of guy. In his journey, he runs into The One Electronic, who sends Koark to find the bottle woman, who is, y’know. A woman who is a bottle full of some kind of liquid. As you do. Turns out the evil overlord wants the bottle woman and Koark would prefer that didn’t happen even though he technically at that point has no stake except that giving people to the evil overlord is generally bad.
Order of Tales is much less breezy than Rice Boy. It’s a bit slower and partially due to the black and white art style, there’s less emphasis on the traveling so much as the actual plot of the missing story, the bottle woman, and the evil overlord. Koark has much more agency than Rice Boy did, actually seeking out what he’s looking for more than Rice Boy getting punted around by fate.
The lore of the world opens up a bit more in Order of Tales, with interspersed sections with stories and mythology from the past, which is great except for the fact that I found them very difficult to read. The plot itself partially has to do with the history of the world, with the machine men and everyone else and the conflicts between them. There’s definitely a lot of history figured out, of which we only see a small portion, and you definitely get a sense of the world being much larger than this story that’s being told in it.
Thematically, the story is about, well, stories. The main conflict centers around a story that’s missing, an evil overlord who destroyed libraries and won’t let anyone read stories, and Koark trying to find this lost knowledge. There’s a pretty clear message about the importance of preserving and sharing knowledge as well as the power that comes from that. Koark is not really a cool action hero–he’s kind of a weenie, and scared of a lot of the things that happens to him and pretty useless in a swordfight, but he keeps his head and his wits about him when the going gets tough. There’s definitely an emphasis on knowledge rather than force being the driving power in this story.
I don’t know if I enjoyed Order of Tales as much as I enjoyed Rice Boy, but they’re so different from each other that it’s not really fair to make a direct comparison. Order of Tales has a much stronger plot thread and more characters that are more strongly characterized, whereas everything in Rice Boy was brisk. They’re very different stories for different needs, but I think that if you read Rice Boy and want to learn more about the world and the history, reading Order of Tales isn’t a bad way to go about it.
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro by Satoko Kiyuduki (2004-2018)
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro (or Hitsugi Katsugi no Kuro. ~Kaichū Tabi no Wa~ in Japanese) is my second favorite manga of all time, right under Pumpkin Scissors and right above Fullmetal Alchemist. The seventh and last volume released in English this month so of course I got it the day it came out.
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is mostly told in a series of four panel comics about Kuro, a traveler wearing black who carries a coffin everywhere; Sen, her former teacher/guardian who got turned into a thousand bats; and Sanju and Nijuku, two very strange little girls she picked up from a laboratory. The overarching plot concerns Kuro looking for the witch who cursed her and Sen, hopefully before the curse kills her, as well as the witch itself and how she came to be, and the origins of Sanju and Nijuku. Incidentally, this manga is a primary inspiration for my web serial, Something Wicked.
The one thing that stands out to me the most about Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is the incredible amount of style. The art is stylish and cute while still being able to capture darkness, in a way I might compare to something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. The story is similarly generally lighthearted but morbid–for all of the story that’s about Kuro traveling and teaching the kids, she’s literally carting around a coffin in the very likely event that the curse kills her or puts her in a situation where death would be preferable. Both the format and the storytelling style isn’t standard–the story is told in episodic snapshots of Kuro and co. on their travels and the four-panel strips break it up and pace it as a series of moments instead of a continuous stream.
The plot itself isn’t horribly complex, but the way it’s handled isn’t quite standard, either. It’s not a linear story, with a lot of flashbacks and episodes that don’t necessarily follow each other chronologically, and the overarching plot of Kuro’s curse and the witch only comes out slowly and in small pieces as the series progresses. A lot of points of information are shown starting early on, but it’s not until the later volumes that the connections between them all comes clear.
Besides the main plot, the story is primarily devoted to the relationship between the members of the traveling party and the people whose lives they affect–however briefly–on their travels. While there’s a couple of recurring characters, most of them only show up for their episode and aren’t seen again–as you’d expect for the many faces a traveler meets over the course of a long journey.
The world the story takes place in is a little bit fairy-tale like (and I guess with Rice Boy this makes it look like I have a thing for fairy tale stories, which I swear is a coincidence) where magic and strange things definitely happen–nobody comments on the fact that Nijuku and Sanju have cat ears or tails, ghosts exist, and there’s some supernatural beings that show up–but outside of the witch, there’s no magic done by people. With respect to the supernatural occurring, most of the stories are almost entirely mundane, the only strange or magical elements coming from Nijuku and Sanju or the witch in some way…but it doesn’t feel mundane because of the way the story is told. You get a sense of the world being a bit magical even when nothing magical is really happening.
Anyways, the series is completed now and you should totally read it. It’s really good. The author notes that she might release an eighth volume with bonus stories, but the main plot is done and properly resolved in a way that certainly left me satisfied.