5 Reasons why new writers (and not only) should watch Whispers of the Heart

I hope everyone is keeping well. This has been a tough week for many reasons and I have tried to find comfort in writing. Despite hope that I will learn my lesson, I am trying Na.No.Wri.Mo again this year, so I thought I might do a weekly writing positivity post to uplift fellow writers who are attempting it.

I recently watched Whispers of the Heart, one of the few Ghibli films I hadn’t watched before. While I felt I would have enjoyed it slightly more had I been closer to the main character’s age, I nevertheless liked it very much, and saw a bit of my younger self in it. I do wish I had watched it around middle/high school age, when I knew less about my writing practice than I do now, as I feel it would have helped me with some of my struggles. So here are 5 reasons why I think this is a great film for young aspiring writers (and other artists).

1) It’s a fun, uplifting story that contains specks of a writing theory.

The animation might not be as striking as that of subsequent fantasy classics like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but as is the case with all Ghibli films, Whispers of the Heart is beautiful in its simplicity. From everyday occurrences, such as visiting a library or following a cat around, to the less mundane antique shop and the and the magical scenes taking place only in Shizuku ‘s imagination, the animation alone makes for a great viewing experience.

Whispers of the heart young aspiring writers
It’s not by chance that this image is considered to have inspired the lo-fi study girl. Ghibli films remind us that the small things are beautiful and important.

The story itself might not be the most original, and in many ways it is your typical middle school romance. This is not to say that it’s not a cute story, with a main character who feels misunderstood but also determined to follow her dreams. even when they feel very far away.

What I loved the most about Shizuku’s journey was that I saw my younger self in her. Always writing and studying, looking forward to being able to focus on my book idea, experimenting and very emotional about my work. I think that the theme song “Country Road” that Shizuku sings in one of the film’s most iconic scenes isn’t coincidental. For many writers, the worlds we build become home, but the road that leads to that home isn’t easy, so we have to remind ourselves that it’s totally worth it.

2. It’s honest about the struggles of balancing life with writing practice.

What happens when you want to be a full time writer but aren’t quite there yet? When responsibilities get in the way?

Shizuku’s struggle to balance her school grades with her decision to take her writing more seriously – at the expense of sleep and a healthy lifestyle – may resonate with anyone who wants to make their writing practice part of their daily life, but haven’t found the right balance just yet.

Whisper of the heart GIF - young aspiring writers

Watching this film after finishing my Masters – and right after deciding to wait before enrolling in full time education again – made me feel grateful that I can currently make writing one of my priorities. It also reminded me that such a thing as a perfect schedule doesn’t exist. Putting writing first is a choice many writers might want to make at some point, and it can make all the difference when it comes to completing a project. At the same time, choosing to focus on other priorities, like education, might be just as important and even benefit one’s writing in the long run. Whispers of the Heart realistically shows both sides – and the fact that we can’t always balance them, but we can get there.

3. It shows the importance of a support network.

When I was around Shizuku’s age, I wouldn’t show my work to anyone. Not ever. I had this notion that a story had to be polished to perfection before the world could see it, and I wouldn’t even mention I was writing, because I somehow thought the statement wasn’t valid, unless I was writing something of quality. It took me years to realise this is not how artistic expression works.

 Whisper of the Heart (1995), dir. Yoshifumi Kondō gif young aspiring writers

I don’t know if it was intended that way, but the scene in which Seiji plays the violin and Shizuku reluctantly agrees to sing felt to me like a foreshadowing of her decision to share her work with Seiji’s grandfather, Nishi, and receive feedback. And while her determination to write a story while Seiji’s is away starts off as an antagonistic pursuit, there’s some truth in the fact that surrounding ourselves with people who are passionate about their craft can inspire us to work on our own.

More than that, the support of loved ones can be very important for a writer, whether or not they are involved in the writing. Shizuku’s conversation with her parents, their concerns, but also their understanding of the fact that she needed to prioritise what mattered to her, and their decision to support her even though they were worried, was so important and heartwarming to watch.

4. It tells hard truths about first drafts and feedback.

Most writers at the beginning of their career have felt this to some extent: we want to polish as we go, until we have something perfect, and perhaps this is what discourages so many people from actually finishing something. I’m totally guilty of that, which made me admire Shizuku for getting a draft done the first time. Not that this makes accepting a draft’s flaws much easier.

Whisper of the Heart (this is one of the reasons why I relate to Shizuku)

We are invested in our writing. We become emotionally attached to it, and no matter how many resources insist that we shouldn’t be, I insist that it’s ok. We are allowed to have feelings about what we wrote, because, at the end of the day, how much would it matter if we didn’t feel strongly about it?

In that sense, Shizuku’s meltdown after voicing what she had pretty much known, that her writing isn’t where she wants it to be, feels very relatable. The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that writers won’t necessarily like the first feedback they receive. At the same time…

5. … it reminds us that it will get better.

Writing well takes a lot of effort. Regardless of one’s talent, it’s still a skill that needs to be cultivated, and much time can pass without seeing tangible improvement. This means that we can’t get enough reminders that it’s ok, we are doing our best and will, eventually, get there.

shiro nishi  Whispers of the heart young aspiring writers

I particularly liked the gem metaphor Nishi used. While by no means the most original, it made me smile, because it’s a reminder of all the things each writer has to offer, and will only be able to offer by taking that first step, getting something out there, that is rough, that requires much more learning and effort to shine, but can be polished. And while such a positive, optimistic solution isn’t new or unheard of, it is really uplifting.

Have you watched any other films or series that focus on writing? And what other writing posts would you like to see in the upcoming weeks? Let me know in the comments!

Controversial Ranking: American Horror Story Seasons From Worst to Best

Hi there! I hope you are all enjoying this spooky season (as much as reasonably possible, at least). There are no Halloween parties or events these year where I am, and of course this is sensible. Thankfully, it’s a nice, cosy time for creepy books and series. I introduced my flatmate to American Horror Story and she didn’t kick me out, so I guess this is a forever friendship.

Since the early years of the American Horror Story fandom, I’ve been encountering lists that attempt to rank the seasons. It’s a side effect of the anthology format: with so many different settings, plots and styles, some are going to work better than others. Seeing what other fans and critics thought of each season, and their reasons for ranking them the way the do has always been interesting. However, I have yet to encounter the list I actually agree with, so I decided to make my own.

So grab some tea/coffee/pumpkin spice latte (or not, as eating while watching AHS isn’t necessarily a great idea) and let’s rank the seasons from worst to best. I won’t include 1984, the newest season, as it’s not on Netflix and I haven’t managed to watch it yet. As I have mentioned in my previous post, where I tease some of my preferences, feel free to fight me in the comments, as long as you’re nice about it.

8) Hotel

I’ll be honest here. This is the one season I haven’t finished. It was not Lady Gaga as I actually liked her acting. Was it the absence of Jessica Lange? Was it that, as the first one I actually tried watching, back in 2015, it just didn’t do the trick for me? No clue. Knowing that this isn’t the best for the credibility of my rankings, I’ll just admit it was a dnf for me, and I might update this list, when I actually get down to watching it. Given my tendency for settings in which bad people who hate each other are stuck together and have to cooperate, I feel this might not actually be so bad.

7) Roanoke

Yes, people praise it for being a subdued season with short episodes that avoided some of the pitfalls of Freak Show and Hotel. It didn’t help that I enjoyed some of the things most people perceive as pitfalls of Freak Show.

The concept, of course, was amazing. The story of the Roanoke colony is an enduring mystery, already teased in murder house, and I’ve been interested in finding out more from a very young age. I also love a good meta story, and the idea of a story within a story within a story, while parodying all these cringe-y paranormal tv shows was genius. Unfortunately, this was only 4 episodes. Then the fourth wall was understandably broken, and my, wasn’t it a mess. Great actors portraying mediocre, uninteresting characters who simply did not live to do enough for me to care about them, pointless body horror in the form of cannibalism and and a really disappointing ending that did not feel like a resolution at all. Not a fan.

6. Cult

Another one I’m not a fan of. I understand it was meant to be political satire, and it was rather chilling for an episode or two. However, after some time, I felt I lost track of what was satirised. Between the toxic relationships and what I felt was a ridicule of real life phobias and other issues, I couldn’t find anyone to root for, and I really don’t know where the whole thing was going. I have no memory of the ending either, which says a lot.

5)Apocalypse

There are a lot of negative things one can say about Apocalypse. I don’t know if it was objectively good, but to me, it was the point where things became entertaining again. Sure, it was over the top, totally unbelievable, and there are many, many choices I’m not at all sure about, but at least it was fun to watch, which is more than I can say of Cult or Roanoke. While Coven had a conclusion, it did feel pretty incomplete compared to other early AHS seasons, so it was nice to see an attempt at tying loose ends. Plus, Cody Fern was the most entertaining anti-Christ I’ve seen on TV. I will never stop enacting his over the top quotes.

4)Murder House

This is where it all started, and the story was arguably one of the neatest, with a relatively tight focus. It was a great introduction to the workings of the AHS universe. Having re-watched it recently, I think it has high re-watch value because things are foreshadowed so perfectly. The acting was also great and started a tradition of quirky characters, and actors who give their whole heart to the role even if a scene is a bit silly. The only negative thing for me was that I didn’t like most of the characters (I will forever rage at Ben Harmon, though Violet, Vivien and Moira were nice). I felt much more about the next 3 seasons, but this was nevertheless a really strong start.

3)Coven

A really fun season and perhaps the most stylish and aesthetically pleasing one. Some things did feel ridiculous and, as is the AHS tendency it soon descended into a hot mess, but it was a very enjoyable mess. From the iconic quotes, to some of the most iconic characters the returning actors ever plays (Myrtle Snow is my personal favourite) this season was witty and full of girl power. Something I definitely missed in Cult, for once.

2)Asylum

One of the grittiest, scariest seasons in my opinion. An asylum in the mid 2oth century is a terrifying even without a Nazi and the Devil himself running it. But more than that, I enjoyed the fact that, rather than being about horror as such, Asylum was about people. Sister Jude and Lana, especially, are some of the best characters I’ve seen in an anthology TV series. While Jude starts off as an antagonist, her life story is heart-breaking and while some of her actions are unforgivable, she did achieve character development, making one of Jessica Lange’s best moments. Lana, on the other hand, was an imperfect protagonist. I am really tired of protagonists who only have superficial flaws. Lana was selfish and ambitious in destructive ways, but at the same time she was such a survivor making it impossible not to root for her. It definitely deserves to be called one of the best AHS seasons if not the best.

1)Freak Show

Ok, hear me out. A lot of people hate this season and believe this is where it all went downhill. And yes, Asylum is probably better crafted plot-wise. I definitely considered putting it first, but, at the end of the day medical horror is not my cup of tea. Carnival horror is. So is any tragic story that features wandering circuses, actors etc, who live together in a found family structure. Yes, the plot seemed non-existent at times, but characters over plot is a rule I live by. A lot of people lament the fact that Twisty the Clown wasn’t the main villain, which I get, but also, the many different villains felt very realistic to me. While it might have seemed dull to the audience, I felt it perfectly captured the dangers faced by those the society perceived as monsters – and showed who the real monsters are. While not all characters were equally developed I cared about most of them to the point that the last two episodes made me cry. Also, despite popular opinion, I really loved Edward Mordrake and the musical numbers. Plus, Pepper’s story was one of the best TV episodes ever in my opinion. Obviously, all these are a matter of personal opinion, but I loved many things that people hated about Freak Show, so I’m making a list just to defend it.

Aaaaand that’s it. A very spooky, very subjective list, but then again aren’t all AHS lists subjective?

What was your favourite American Horror Story Season? And what are you watching this Halloween? Let me know in the comments!

Tropes and Tea : Favourite and Least Favourite Horror Tropes

I was recently tagged by a friend to share my favourite horror trope for a giveaway. And as I had already been considering spooky content for this October, I thought, why not make a post about it? We can’t have a Halloween party this year, so make some tea (or pumpkin spice latte, or whatever is your preferred drink that doesn’t alliterate ‘tropes’) and let’s talk horror.

Favourite Tropes

1. Dead All Along

There’s no point in denying it; I love a good tearjerker. I also love ghosts. Not so much for their potential to be scary, but mostly because, when done well, they can be layered characters and great plot twists – while revealing more about the living characters as well. I can’t really share many favourite examples without giving spoilers, but I will tell you my favourite YA series does it, and (in my opinion) does it well. If you know me, you know the YA series. American Horror Story does it creatively, especially in the first season, and the anime Another where someone in the class is dead, but no one knows who, plays with the trope in interesting ways.

2. Tortured Monsters

It is as old as Frankenstein after all. And yes, I know who is the doctor and who is the monster but…

sister Jude from American Horror Story Asyum saying "all monsters are human"

Even thought many modern societies are more inclusive than they used to be, there’s still a long way to go, and many are still othered and treated horribly simply because they differ from the norm. Which is why I’m not really interested in otherworldly monsters with a totally different morality than ours (unless good worldbuilding is involved), who are evil for no reason. Not when the real horror is committed by humans.

3. Creepy circus/carnival/anything performative

Yup, I’m one of those English majors who love the word “performativity.” There is something chilling about circus settings, perhaps because of the clowns’ creepy reputation, because of the things that can be done with make-up and the body and, most of all, because the boundaries between magic and reality can be blurred.

emma roberts faint American Horror Stroy Freak Show

I will withhold more representative American Horror Story : Freak Show gifs, to keep this family friendly. But yes, Freak Show is unapologetically (and controversially) my favourite season. Feel free to fight me in the comments but please be kind about it.

4. Creepy or otherwise cursed families

Horror might not be exactly family friendly, but it is often very much a family business. When the horror comes from people and places we normally associate with safety, things can only become more terrifying. From humorous examples like The Addams Family to chilling children’s (?) stories such as Coraline to more recent, genuinely distressing films like Hereditary, family horror can be play with one’s worst fears, which is what makes it so effective.

christina ricci as Wednesday Addams

5. Creepy Village/Small Town with a secret

As I have mentioned before , moving to a small town can be unsettling. Such settings make it all but impossible to keep secrets. So when a secret is kept under lock and key, you know it’s very, very creepy. I’m thinking of anime like Higurashi (which, by the way, has a new anime I can’t wait to watch) and Another. The atmosphere of villages and small towns can add to the horror. Nothing like cicadas’ cries before a murder, whoops.

Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni GIF
All good so far?

Least Favourite Tropes

1)Eye Scream

Eyes, perhaps more than any other body part, seem to suffer in horror films. Especially in body horror, but eyes in particular can also have a psychological effect. Being unable to see whatever the horror is, is, well, frightening. I can’t say I’m against horror associated with eyes or that it’s always a bad trope. I just… can’t see (pun intended) any object coming remotely close to an eye. When watching Ratched I seriously closed my eyes during the lobotomy scene. I’m a short-sighted person who has never used contact lenses and has never considered vision-correcting surgery because I have this weird phobia about putting any object inside my eyes. So while not necessarily bad, this trope is not for me.

2.Vague demonic entity

Sure, possession is scary. So is exorcism. So is random evil that is totally inexplicable and impossible to talk about.

Many horror media rely on such tropes. That’s ok. At the same time, I can’t count how many movies I have watched in which the threat was, well, something vague and demonic, that the main characters do or do not manage to get rid of. I can hardly remember the names of these movies because the horror simply lacked character.

The first Conjuring used the demonic possession trope well (if I remember correctly, it’s been ages) and I also liked the devil in American Horror Story: Asylum because there was personality and entertainment value in that one possession. I also love cosmic horror and weird fiction because, at least, there is something sophisticated about this type of unspeakable horror. Other than that, I will stand by human monsters and misunderstood monsters any day.

3. No one ever moves out

Once again, this is largely a matter of personal preference, as this is a trope many horror movies (have to) rely on. Sure, if my house was haunted I might have done stupid things as well. I also know that if people in horror movies were smart enough to leave the haunted house, there would be no haunted house movies. But seriously, if you do leave and barely escape with your life, do you have to go to the house again for no plausible reason? (totally not targeting a certain AHS season).

4. All was futile

We spent two hours watching people trying to get rid of some Evil Thing. Perhaps many died in the process. Then, in the last minute it turns out that all was futile and the Evil Thing is still very much there, still very much evil and nothing will be resolved. Am I being mean here? Maybe, because this is another common horror trope that many iconic works use. In any case, I’m personally tired of this. Like the vaguely demonic evil, it doesn’t really do a good job at haunting me, unless it happens in a really surprising way I could not see coming. Otherwise, I might just forget I ever saw the movie.

5. Body Horror for the sake of it.

At the end of the day, I do enjoy horror, so there are some things that I will endure. I don’t expect my horror movie (or any media) to not feature any kind of body horror at all, as I do believe it can be effective. But I won’t watch something that relies solely on body horror.

Aaaaand that’s it. A very subjective, slightly obnoxious list of favourite and least favourite horror tropes. What’s the conclusion? Other than the fact that I’m probably not an ideal horror viewer, who knows? I keep forgetting these are not academic texts, so, like one of the horror tropes I hate, I can just… not conclude. Perhaps more beloved/hated horror tropes will come up. But I’m not very funny so I had better wrap-up here.

What are your favourite and least favourite horror tropes? And what trope discussion would you like to see next? Let me know in the comments!

Serpentine by Philip Pullman

This review was originally written for The Nerd Daily. Thanks for the Advance Reader’s Copy!

Some stories are complete, and they don’t need sequels or new additions… but they keep haunting the author and the readers anyway, so adding to them just feels natural. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is one such story.

Published about two decades after the ending of the original trilogy, and between the second and much awaited third instalment of The Book of Dust (a new trilogy comprising a prequel book and two sequels focusing on Lyra as a young adult), Serpentine is a sweet short story. According to The Guardianit was first written in 2004, a fact confirmed in the author’s note, and it was initially auctioned for charity. Sixteen years definitely seems like a long time but, in fact, the publication feels very timely.

With the book being only 80 pages long, and art taking up a large percentage of those pages, it is hard to talk about Serpentine without spoiling anything. However, it’s safe to say that the issues it addresses make it a fitting prologue to The Secret Commonwealth, which is the second instalment of The Book of Dust and the first to focus on an adult Lyra.

Serpentine serves as a bridge between the twelve-year-old girl we left at the end of the first trilogy and the twenty-year-old woman of the second. In this short story, Lyra is a teenager; still adventurous, daring, and most of all curious, always ready to interact with others and demand answers. This is not to say that her experiences in His Dark Materials haven’t changed her and her beloved daemon, Pan. Most of all, the relationship between the two of them, the only constant in their shared life, has altered. After Lyra’s necessary, but devastating actions, their once uncomplicated love has shifted into a cautious dynamic that none of them fully understands. Serpentine alludes to that, setting the stage for the strife that will follow in Lyra’s adult life and – while we cannot yet confirm that – perhaps concealing some sort of hint for Lyra and Pan’s future. The yet unnamed Book 3 of The Secret Commonwealth, possibly to be titled Roses from the South or The Garden of Roses according to Pullman, will hopefully tie all loose ends.

For the moment, Serpentine did the trick of keeping our interest alive until then and reminding us that there is still so much to find out about Pullman’s universe. Lyra’s journey back north and her meeting with an old friend has some bitterness about it. Lyra has lost something of her plucky, positive attitude in The Northern Lights. Still, there are also glimmers of hope; hope of connection with oneself and others, and of better understanding of one’s world.

All in all, Serpentine is a very well-written piece, with good dialogue and beautiful imagery. If there is one negative, it is that it does not stand very well on its own. Much like the “lantern slides” section in certain special editions of His Dark Materials (bonus content about the characters, presented as a snapshot, rather than a story), Serpentine is a quick episode, more picture than story. It will be enjoyed by fans eager to see more of Lyra and Pan (and even hear about some other characters we know and love!), but there is no real plot about it, only an issue that will be better explored in The Book of Dust trilogy. That being said, the picture offered to us in this little book is still tender, and the illustrations by Tom Duxbury only makes it more so. Like the short story Lyra’s Oxford before it, Serpentine does not significantly add to or alter Pullman’s universe. It nevertheless reads as a sweet, brief homecoming to a beloved world.

‘Ratched’ Season 1 Review

Sarah Paulson as Ratched

Hi everyone! It’s the first autumn ever since I can remember that I’m not a student, which means there is a bit more time to watch all the horror films/series this spooky month. My flatmate and I enjoyed watching Ratched (though enjoyed never seems like the best word for this kind of thing!) so I wrote a Review/mini recap for The Nerd Daily. Be warned, there are some spoilers!

Rating 7/10

This year, Ryan Murphy, the creator of American Horror Story, introduced an exciting new concept with his signature creepy style. Ratched, a Netflix original that premiered on September 18th 2020, is an origin story and an intriguing character portrait. Inspired by the character of Nurse Ratched, the iconic villain of the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ratched explores ethics, views on criminality and mental health in the late 1940s, and abuse in psychiatric hospitals in interesting but disturbing ways.

The choice of Sarah Paulson – a year older than Louise Fletcher was in 1975 when she portrayed the terrifying nurse – for the titular role, was controversial when first announced, especially since this is a prequel. However, since Fletcher’s performance is so famous, it might have been difficult for someone much younger to live up to it, and Paulson does an amazing job. In that, she is accompanied by actors we have seen in American Horror Story like Finn Wittrock and others we haven’t, such as Cynthia Nixon, Judy Davies, Jon Jon Briones, and Sophie Okonedo, all of whom provide entertaining, if a bit campy performances.

Sarah Paulson had already proven her ability to portray engaging, multi-layered characters. These characters, however, had often been victims of horrors beyond their control, as has was the case in the second, fourth, and seventh seasons of American Horror Story, for instance. Here, from the very first scenes, the viewers understand that Mildred Ratched herself is a horror that won’t be contained or controlled. Already from her stylish relocation to Northern California, Mildred comes across as vaguely menacing and very much intimidating.

Ratched, Ryan Murphy's stylish netflix original

Her goals become clear when she arrives at Lucia State Hospital, a mental institution where Edmund Tolleson, a recently caught mass murderer is held. The hospital is run by Dr. Hanover whose supposedly state of the art methods are nothing more than harmful, now disproved practices. Mildred, who very much did not have an interview scheduled, lies and blackmails her way into a meeting with Dr. Hanover, persuading him to give her a job as a nurse.

From there on, terrifying things start to happen in the hospital, some of which are directly caused by Mildred. The things she does to achieve her goals are often hard to watch, from abusing her position and the hospital resources to causing mental breakdowns just by speaking calmly – much like Nurse Ratched in the iconic book and film the series was inspired from.

At the same time, being an origin story, Ratched reminds us that the titular character is still human. Her crimes are horrible and should not be justified, but there is no doubt that she too has lived in a monstrous world. Growing up in the foster system, she was repeatedly abused, physically and psychologically, by various parent figures. Through it all, the only person she could trust was her foster brother – no other than Edmund Tolleson, who killed their last, and most horrifyingly abusive foster parents, saving her. Deeply traumatised and feeling guilty for being unable to protect her brother from the law, Mildred decides to make it up to him, using her position to save him from what looks like a painful death sentence. But what will she do when she finds out that Edmund might not want the kind of help she has to offer?

Sarah Paulson as Ratched in the new netflix original

The side characters, while not as complex as Mildred, provide sub-plots that are connected to the main story, making a creepy, campy, if inconsistent tapestry; Dr. Hanover might seem interested in understanding the human brain, but his past failures haunt him. His present commitment to horrifying medical violence including but not limited to lobotomies make him unlikeable and weak. He is very easy for Ratched to manipulate and eventually overthrow. The mother of a former patient, whose limbs Hanover amputated years ago in a horrific incident, will pay any amount of money for Hanover’s head. Betsy Bucket, the head nurse, and Ratched’s rival, is hopelessly in love with Hanover but her loyalties will change over the course of the series as Hanover’s true nature will be exposed. Gwendolyn Briggs, the press secretary of Governor Wilburn, a main antagonist who wants to see Edmund executed only to promote his campaign, eventually moves beyond that role, to become Mildred’s love interest, helping her discover her sexual identity which she had denied so far. Charlotte Wells, a character with dissociative identity disorder, a very misunderstood condition especially at the time, has a small role but gives a great performance, causing many plot twists.

If some of these things sound a bit problematic, they likely are. While it’s an undeniable fact that many mental institutions in the late 1940s were horrifying places with little regard for the patients’ health and autonomy, some of the treatments are portrayed in unrealistic ways. The lavish cinematography does not make an exception for the hospital, which looks surprisingly bright and cheerful for the most parts. Some viewers might justifiably not be pleased with some of the series’ depictions. However, as in American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and other works by Murphy, the plotholes, over-the-top characterisation and extravagance, all work somehow, creating a chaotic, but and memorable viewing experience.

The twisted finale did not bring the closure we might have expected. With her full backstory revealed, Mildred has shown a softer, more humane side. She has finally accepted her sexuality and has entered a loving relationship with Gwendolyn, but after all her lies and crimes, will this last? Nurse Ratched is considered an iconic cinematic villain for a reason, so it’s safe to assume we haven’t seen the worst of her yet. Edmund Tolleson, free once more, still haunts her. Their last interaction suggests that none of the two will easily let go of the other. Their once-loving relationship has turned into something unhealthy and obsessive that won’t let them move on. With such a chaotic plot, full of twists, we can only speculate what the future holds for them.

In many ways, the atmosphere of Ratched echoes that of certain American Horror Story’s seasons, especially Asylum, featuring Murphy’s signature elements: characters who are much more twisted and three-dimensional than you initially suspect, body horror and the darkest aspects of sexuality, but also diversity and great acting – no matter the writing. The aesthetic, however, is very different; extravagant but beautiful with fitting colours, period costumes and breath-taking sceneries come in stark contrast to the cruel ‘treatments’ – many of which were once approved of in reality. And perhaps that’s what makes the series so chilling. Rather than using supernatural elements, jump-scares, or horror for the sake of it, Ratched is first and foremost about people. People who are disillusioned, misunderstood, forced to navigate in a monstrous world that makes them monsters as well. Monsters who are still human and want to survive, whatever it takes.

Did you watch Ratched? What did you think? And what are you watching before Halloween? Let me know in the comments below.

Book Review: The Crowns of Croswald by D.E. Night

I recently started using NetGalley and I thought I could add my reviews here as well, to have a more complete archive.

Rating : 3/5 stars.

A big thank you to the publisher (Stories Untold Press), the author and NetGalley who provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Being a middle grade book with a magical school setting, The Crowns of Croswald was a nostalgic read for me, as it reminded me of books I used to read when I was a bit younger. At the same time, the book featured many unique ideas, from endearing magical creatures to different types of magic young readers (and not only) will love.

The book introduces 16-year-old Ivy, a scaldrony maid that is, a caretaker of scaldrons, small dragons whose heat is used to prepare food. Overworked and mistreated, Ivy finds comfort in sketching and in late night conversations with her only friend, a dwarf who tells her stories and secretly provides her with books. Understandably, Ivy longs for something beyond her dull life, a common, but always relatable character goal.

When Ivy is unceremoniously dismissed from her job, she’s taken to the Halls of Ivy, a magical school where she is to be trained as a scrivenist – a historian of sorts, who gathers different kinds of knowledge and records them through the use of magic and art. This proves much more interesting than it might sound, as it involves sketching, virtual magical quests and a lot of reading, making for a creative magical system. Apart from scrivenists-in-training, the student body also consists of royals, young nobles who learn to practice different types of magic enabled through their magical, jeweled crowns.

The moment Ivy arrives at the Halls her real adventure begins; she makes new friends and finally feels at home. At the same time, she finds out she’s one of the school’s most gifted students, and remembers things everyone else seems to have forgotten. Her curiosity leads her to dangerous paths, especially when she comes across the name Derwin Edgar Night, a scrivenist who went missing many years ago. In seeking him, she learns much about herself – and the mysterious Dark Queen who rules Croswald. Speaking of Derwin, I loved the fact that he has the same initials as the author. This adds to the mystery, makes the author seem like a part of the story, and helps the readers suspend disbelief.

While the book is short and generally fast-paced, there is quite a lot of exposition at the beginning. This is not necessarily bad, but I sometimes found it a bit hard to keep track of the side-characters, such as the teachers, the classmates and the school staff, as a lot of them where mentioned few times without much information about their personality and function. I still loved learning about the Halls of Ivy and their residents. The magical system was creative and whimsical, something to derive joy from, rather than an overtly “scientific” type – which is often a tendency in books that feature some kind of magical apprenticeship. The author’s inventions, such as devices that help the students read faster, magical means of transport and very informative (if disturbing) tomes make The Crowns of Croswald a fun read.

The art is pretty great.

Ivy was a lively character, plucky, curious and always up for a challenge. While I am a bit weary of the Chosen One trope, and it was obvious from early on that she was very special, I still cared to find out about her past. I would have loved more information about her background, her family and her abilities, as well as some elaboration on the setting’s politics, that would make it even easier to suspend disbelief. Who is the Dark Queen, and why do people mostly accept her existence? What does the life of graduate scrivenists look like? I also wish the stories of characters such as Rebecca, Ivy’s roomate, a royal who wants to be a scrivenist, and Fyn, an older student always at the right place in the right time, were explored and developed a little more to help the reader feel really invested. In that, But hopefully the next books will do just that!

From the cute sketches at the beginning of each chapter, to the idiosyncratic teachers and unique magic, The Crowns of Crowswald offers an enchanting, immersive experience for young readers. While some tropes, such as the Chosen One could have been handled more creatively, I loved the magical system and I feel the series has a lot of potential to provide very original and fun imagery and storylines as it progresses.

All in all, definitely not a bad book, though I feel I would have enjoyed this one more if I were closer to the target age.

Did you read anything fun this weekend? Let me know in the comments below!

Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston

This review originally appeared on The Nerd Daily website, thank you for the Advance Reader Copy! I have a soft spot for YA, foxes and sentient forests, so I had so much fun reviewing this!

Among the Beasts and Briars is a delightful YA fairytale by Ashley Poston that takes the reader to an enchanting journey into lost kingdoms and cursed forests, with strong and interesting characters.

Among the Beasts and Briars a YA fairytale by Ashley Poston

Cerys is the daughter of the royal gardener and best friend to the crown princess, Anwen. In the peaceful kingdom of Aloriya, Cerys does not dare dream of anything but a calm, uneventful life as the next royal gardener. But Cerys has a secret power, a magic in her blood, that makes flowers bloom. This is not treated as an ability to be cherished. Rather, it is deemed a curse, a token of the dark, forbidden woods, inhabited by Ancients and bone-eaters. These dangerous monsters are only kept at bay by the King’s crown, an enchanted artefact, given to the first king of Aloriya by the Lady of the Wilds who rules the forest. Cerys know of the woods’ curse better than anyone in Aloryia: years before, an encounter with the dangers within has left her deeply traumatised. While she managed to escape unharmed, the woods claimed her mother, the crown prince and his squire, and left Cerys with a power she must hide. When the King dies, and the time comes for Anwen to wear the crown and keep the kingdom safe in his stead, it is revealed that the curse will no longer be kept at bay.

In a desperate attempt to break the curse and save the kingdom, Cerys sets out on a quest she had never believed herself capable of; travelling to the mythical city of Voryn, about which she knows nothing but legends, find the Lady of the Wilds and ask for help. In this dangerous journey she is aided by unlikely companions:  Vala, a bear that seems to know the way, and the witty, but cowardly Fox, who had been following Cerys around for years, mysteriously transformed into a human boy through her magic, and really misses being a fox.

Fox GIF
As if I’d ever miss the opportunity to use an animal gif.

The writing style is simple and easy to follow, alternating between the viewpoints or Cerys and Fox, illuminating their feelings and complicated relationship. Both are interesting characters, who change and grow together. With the short chapters often ending in cliff-hangers, I would rarely finish a chapter without wanting to pick up the next. There were many interesting twists that I loved, and while an attentive reader might guess some of them early on, this does not detract from the reading experience, as part of the joy comes from reading about Cerys and Fox as they slowly develop, and wondering how these twists are going to affect them once revealed. While the resolution seemed a bit abrupt and easy, this suited the fairytale atmosphere and the themes the book explores, so it felt satisfying throughout.

Among the Beasts and Briars a YA fairytale by Ashley Poston
Plus, the cover is so pretty.

Among the Beasts and Briars is a fun read, ideal for fans of Uprooted and other books with cursed or sentient forests. While the narrative starts off slow, with some necessary exposition, it soon picks up, and once Fox appears, his constant bickering with Cerys makes it hard to put the book down. On the surface, the book reads as a YA fairytale, using fairytale tropes, such as a main character with a secret magic, a dangerous magical artefact, and a kingdom that must be saved. This, however, is not necessarily negative, as many of these tropes are employed in unique ways or subtly subverted, making this an ideal read for anyone who loves fairytales. At the same time, the story proves fresh, unique and inclusive, with the main characters unlearning narratives they had believed their whole lives, finding out the dark secrets of their prosperous kingdom, and resolving to do better. Most of all, this is a book about characters who know the legends and enchantments they have heard of were not created for them; so, they make their own.

Writing a Dissertation during a pandemic; a reflection in which several wolves appear

When all university activity moved online last March, I felt robbed. While I knew I was lucky that my loved-ones and were healthy, and that there were still things to be thankful for, this was definitely not what I had dreamed for the second half of my Mlitt. Partly in desperate hope that this was not over yet, but mostly because it really felt irresponsible to travel, I decided to stay in Glasgow anyway. Fortunately, like all my Glasgow-related choices so far, it turned out to be the right one.

This is not to say it has been easy. Before we could even imagine the lockdown, I was already very worried about my dissertation. I was stuck. I had really enjoyed my Mlitt classes and, of course, I had a lot of ideas about projects I would like to work on. But somehow, all of them were future projects, and none of them felt right to commit to for the next four months.

Then the University closed and the lockdown happened just as I had barely scribbled the skeleton of a topic about animals in fantasy. Many days were spent crying and watching teen dramas, trying not to think about the outside world. With all the fear, information overload and a situation that was definitely going to get much worse before it got any better, I was not ever sure how I was going to make it. It’s been said that many people went through a process of grief during that time. I know I did.

But deadlines were approaching fast. Before I knew it, I had to make a presentation, on The Hunger Games, no less. Choosing this topic some ten weeks before the apocalypse happened, I had no idea how dystopic things were going to become. It was definitely the strangest time to do this, but somehow I pulled through. After all, that was a presentation on something I had loved as a teenager and, for once, I was proud of my argument about survival through hybrid identities, enough to submit it as an abstract for a conference (more on that in another post). Things were not looking any brighter, but, like the characters I was writing about, I was surviving. My dissertation pitch, not so much.

In an attempt to find something I could actually enjoy, I started making lists of fantasy books and other media I loved, then tried to find common threads between them. Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy was one of the first that came up in most lists. I have already talked about the lasting impact of Hobb’s writing in my life. There were next to no academic resources on the Farseer Trilogy, as far as I was aware, but instead of putting me off, this excited me all the more. I wanted to make my own points about her work. This was the specialisation I had been looking for, but I couldn’t come up with a topic about the trilogy alone.

I kept researching, and trying to determine my main interests. The good news? I had plenty. The bad news? They seemed totally unrelated. What could be a common element between fairy-tale retellings, the Farseer Trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire (there are many issues with this series, but I had come to Glasgow determined to write about it, and the determination was still there) and anime? My idea about animals in fantasy still existed, but I had initially seen it in a children’s/YA context. Besides, it did not feel coherent enough.

And then, suddenly, I found the common thread between all the things I wanted to write about:

Wolves.

Wolf, Fantasy Literature
If this wasn’t what you expected to read at this point, let me tell you this: you and I have that in common.

I had considered wolves to be my favourite animals, ever since I became obsessed with the works of George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, when I was about 16. But they had felt familiar, even before that, in the way that fantasy had always felt familiar, almost a home to return to. Wolves were found in retellings, in my favourite contemporary fantasy works, even in some anime I was interested in writing about. How was I going to write a whole dissertation on wolves? I didn’t know, but I was excited to find out.

With 5 primary works (some of which consisted of many, huge books), this would have been an ambitious topic during the best of times. During a pandemic that was already taking its toll on my mental health and making me more anxious than normal, it sometimes felt impossible. But these were all works I had read/watched before. I could finally use my time as a full-time nerd to make something potentially useful with my love for them.

Besides, I had questions: why were wolves the villains in so many fairy-tales but are often good/morally ambiguous characters in contemporary fantasy? Why do they appear so often in fantasy, and acquire fantastic roles more often than other animals, horses, for instance? Why are they often associated with marginalised perspectives? This last question became the one I kept returning to. What had begun as an assumption, was taking a more defined shape as I read more secondary resources. There was definitely a link between animal and human marginalisation in literature, and fantasy could shed light on that. I became determined to find answers.

In many ways, writing a dissertation during a pandemic feels tougher than doing it other normal circumstances. In other ways, it was not totally different. The four months of research and writing surprised me in more than one ways.

For one thing, time worked in weird ways. I have heard a lot of people complaining about this one throughout the lockdown. There were good, productive weeks, with regular meals and snacks in between and a normal sleep schedule. There were sleepless nights, only dark between 12am and 3.30am (I unironically loved my Scottish summer, but not this part). These nights would find me drinking chamomile in a vain attempt to sleep, and wondering what would happen if I never finished my book. But no matter my mood and level of productivity, I had never expected this time to pass so quickly. I know I had plenty of time, and I know I put a lot of work, as I submitted by the original deadline, but I cannot say I remember much of it now. Some weeks felt two days long. Not being able to go far from home, and not being allowed to socialise with most people we know, can sometimes give us unrealistic expectations about the work we can get done. It can make us feel we will devote much, much more time on the project than we normally would. I found this is not always the case. During times of uncertainty, fear, and sadness, planning can take different shapes and more, rather than less free time to unwind can be necessary.

I really loved the earlier, more relaxed part of my research process. I usually enjoy writing more than researching, and will most often do the two simultaneously, but this time I chose to reread some of my primary sources first. This allowed me to make assumptions, connect ideas and research them while simply enjoying some of my favourite texts. Somehow, having a good, but rather vague idea of where I was going, allowed new ideas to come up. I should mention, however, that is was also a very emotional time. I loved rereading the Farseer Trilogy. I cried several times all the same, be it from frustration over unproductive days or awe and heartbreak over Hobb’s writing.

Fitz and Nighteyes by Manweri 
Robin Hobb, Farseer Trilogy
I mean, look at these two, this artist has perfectly captured how wholesome they are.

Rereading parts of A Song of Ice and Fire was also rewarding, though I found myself more critical of the series than I used to be. It was a long, hard reread (I blame the long, long days and non-existent nights) but I came up with some ideas I’m proud of.

Robb Stark | Asoiaf art, Robb stark art, A song of ice and fire
Yes, I did find a lot of good wolf fanart out there; it wasn’t one of the project requirements.

Never having written a dissertation before, I was used to smaller projects that had to be researched quickly, then written over a short period of time. This meant that my essays would take shape over the span of mere days. Four months to research a single topic felt huge, but in many ways, it required much more patience and determination. In times full of anxiety, with bad things happening all over the world, it feels extra frustrating to put effort and still not see your project take a shape. One needs time to understand and accept that this is normal. It took me even longer to actually believe this was eventually going to have a shape I would like.

Eventually, it did take shape and I feel very lucky for that. Lucky because, although this was hard work, and not luck, I still had many things to be grateful about. A supervisor that had helped me shape my thesis the way I had dreamed it, friends and classmates who were very understanding and patiently listened to me ranting about wolves, flatmates who knew when I needed a break, even when I didn’t know it myself.

Completing a dissertation
Fantasy
Academia 
Wolves
The fact that the library eventually opened was also great.

I still feel robbed some days, and while I consider myself used to it by now, I also worry about the future, as the pandemic can’t seem to end. But as an introvert writer and new academic, I try to focus on the things I was able to do, and would have been able to do either way. Even under normal circumstances, I would have been in my room most of the time during the writing process. I would still have support from great people, and I would still have learnt, grown, and reached surprising, and hopefully insightful conclusions. Having managed that under unprecedented circumstances makes me feel stronger somehow, even as I wish some things had just never happened.

So, what are these conclusions? I might share some day, when I have my results and know how good these conclusions were, or come up with ways to expand them. For now, I’m just trying to figure out my next steps, but I’m happy, feeling like I have conquered my quest. And it was totally worth it.

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

I suppose I should start with a life update. I have been inactive for most of the summer, as I was working on my Mlitt dissertation. This, and the whole idea of completing my Mlitt amidst a pandemic are stuff for a whole other post, which I’m planning to write, hopefully soon. And as I couldn’t accept that my time in Scotland was to end so soon and unceremoniously, I decided to stay for a little longer, and hopefully have a base here for now, which is both exciting and terrifying.

This year (having been in full-time education for so many years I still think of years as starting in September) looks very uncertain compared to the previous one, and I am not entirely sure what I will be doing, but I certainly plan to work on my writing and blog, writing book reviews more consistently and ranting about pop culture as usual.

For someone who studied her comfort genre for the past year, I have recently read outside my comfort zone quite a bit. While I love fantasy and dystopian literature, I have always been averse to sci-fi. I am not sure why. I suppose the aesthetic had something to do with it, and I still can’t say I’m a huge fan. However, when I read the description of The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis, I couldn’t resist making it my dissertation-break read. It did not disappoint.

The First Sister takes place centuries after the destruction of Earth, and focuses on the conflict between the Geans – who have colonised Mars and live in a military theocracy, priding themselves in keeping the ‘natural’ ways associated with Earth – and the Icarii – who have colonised Venus and Mercury and developed superior technology only available to them.

The titular First Sister is a priestess living in a Gean warship. She is nameless, and her voice was taken away from her while young. As such, she is obliged to listen to soldiers’ confessions so that they do not go to war troubled, and be sexually available for them. Being the highest ranking sister, she only has relations with her commander, but when he retires, and does not keep his promise to take her with him, she finds herself in a precarious position as the new captain will likely select a new First Sister. But the new captain, Saito Ren, handles things differently, and, while the First Sister tries to win her favour, her superior, ‘Auntie’, commands her to spy on Ren. The First Sister hesitantly accepts, but her loyalties become increasingly conflicted as she and Ren come close.

The First Sister by Linden Lewis
Not exactly a spoiler, but hopefully those who have read the book will get an idea of what I’m trying to represent here?

Meanwhile, in Venus, Lito sol Lucius, an elite soldier of the Icarii, has been separated from his partner, Hiro – with whom he is connected through a neural implant – after a humiliating defeat by Saito Ren. Now Lito is presented with a new partner, and a mission; to find Hiro, who has apparently turned traitor, and kill them. But when he discovers recordings Hiro has made, in which they explain their actions, and the twisted nature of the world they had once trusted, Lito finds himself conflicted between loyalty to his partner, and the orders he was given. Failure could endanger all he has fought for, including his precarious social mobility from second-class citizen to elite soldier, and the safety of his beloved sister, but obeying comes to mean betraying Hiro – and himself.

The chapters alternate between the point of view of the First Sister and Lito, and Hiro’s recordings. All in all, the chapters are short and very readable, and I could rarely finish one without immediately wanting to binge the next two, and return to whatever character I was reading about to find out more about them. All three have dark, interesting pasts and are, in some way, victims of the endless war between Geans and Icarii – and their superiors’ machinations.

But The First Sister is much more than a space opera. As the author succinctly puts it, this book is about ‘finding your voice’ and ‘choosing your loyalties.’ Characters who had so far complied with their superiors’ demands, but always knew something was wrong, realise that they might be the change they had secretly wished for. That it was not them who were wrong, but their society, who lied to them or considered them broken in some way.

With my minimal knowledge about the genre, I cannot compare this book to other sci-fi works, or even pin down similar books. I have seen it being recommended to fans of Handmaid’s Tale and I agree that the First Sister’s situation invites some parallels, though this book sets the foundation for what will hopefully be a more empowering and positive culmination. Without being able to compare the setting with similar ones, I found it interesting and original, featuring haunting backstories and a disturbing engagement with body politics.

Another exciting aspect of the book is its diversity. With the story unfolding in a post-human society, no labels are used, but the characters are from all across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, with diverse sexuality and gender expressions. Moreover, they come from different ethnic backgrounds, as Lito is of Italian and Spanish decent, while Hiro and Saito Ren are Japanese. A detail that I loved and have rarely seen is speculative fiction, is the author’s use of languages. Rather than having all the characters speak English without further analysis, as is often the case with Anglophone books, the setting features Spanish and Chinese as main languages alongside English, while Japanese, German and Italian are also mentioned, and characters are generally expected to speak at least two languages – with various degrees of success. This might seem very small, but as a person who grew up with English as my second (but very prevalent) language, I was glad to see something closer to my experience.

While the entire plot was consistently good (I’ll be honest, I enjoyed Lito’s parts slightly less, mainly because I don’t really love army stuff) the last 25% of the book was what really blew my mind. The twists were amazing, and the revelations about the characters haunted me for days. Thankfully for my sleep, there was no cliffhanger, but I look forward to book 2 all the same.

Rating: 4 stars

The First Sister by Linden Lewis
For those of you who have read it, do tell me if you understand what I tried to do – to justify the time I annoyed my friend by asking her to take this photo again and again.

Have you read The First Sister? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

This review was originally written for The Nerd Daily.

Rating : ⋆⋆⋆ 1/2 (3.5 stars)

When it was announced that Suzanne Collins was preparing a Hunger Games prequel, the responses were mixed, especially since it was going to focus on President Coriolanus Snow, the main villain of the trilogy and arguably one of the most despised characters. When this prequel finally came out in May 2020, it received equally mixed responses. One thing is certain; The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an interesting and relevant, if polarising, book. It’s enjoyable, but very different from Collins’s other works and the way readers feel about it is a matter of personal opinion.

ballad-of-songbirds-and-snakes-review
I do love the vintage feels on the cover.

We all remember President Snow from The Hunger Games trilogy as the intimidating face of Capitol’s dystopian government. Snake-like, smelling of blood and roses, hiding his ruthlessness behind a pleasant demeanour, possessing seemingly endless wealth and power, he seemed unbeatable until we came close to the end of Mockingjay. But now we know this had not always been the case.

In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we are introduced to 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow. With his family’s wealth lost due to the recent war between the Capitol and the Districts, Coriolanus lives with his grandmother and his cousin, Tigris, in the family manor they can barely afford to keep, almost always hungry but carefully hiding his financial circumstances. Being a promising student, his only hope to save his house and advance socially, is to secure a prestigious scholarship for university studies. This scholarship, however, becomes almost unattainable when Coriolanus and his classmates are implicated in the 10th Hunger Games.

At this early stage, the Games are very different from the pompous, televised events of the original trilogy. Viewing is not compulsory, and most Capitol citizens are not fans. The tributes are brought to the Capitol and thrown into the arena soon after. In the meantime, they are kept in cages, they receive little food and no training, and there is no attempt to make the audience invest in them. Coriolanus and his classmates are the ones expected to change that: each of them is assigned a tribute to mentor and present to the Capitol, in an attempt to create a connection between them and the disinterested audience. Moreover, they are invited to come up with ideas to increase the then unpopular Games’ viewings. Some of the students are reasonably horrified at the idea of actively participating such a cruel institution, but others, including Coriolanus, see their participation as an opportunity for advancement.

But Coriolanus’ enthusiasm is short-lived; soon, he finds out he is going to be the mentor of the female tribute from District 12, which is considered the most unattractive assignment and the least likely to have a winner, just like in the original trilogy. To everyone’s surprise, Lucy Gray Baird (named after William Wordsworth’s poem, “The Ballad of Lucy Gray”), looks like she might actually stand a chance. A travelling singer until being trapped in District 12 after the war, experienced with snakes and poisons, Lucy Gray soon becomes a fan favourite, and Coriolanus finds himself attracted to her. As he works to give her the best possible chance of survival, the two become close, but it is impossible to forget that what he is doing for her, he is doing for his own gain as well. The narrative constantly reminds us their unequal power dynamic, and it’s impossible not to think that this is going to end badly. But for whom?

ballad-of-songbirds-and-snakes-review
Don’t be tricked by the cosiness.

The book is divided in three parts; before, during and after the 10th Hunger Games. At about 600 pages long, depending on your edition, this is a rather slow story with too many uneventful chapters, followed by very fast developments that are hard to keep up with. Knowing that – no matter what happens – Snow will end up a tyrant, makes some chapters feel too long and almost pointless, as there is no real suspense about his fate.

But perhaps this is not the point. Perhaps the point is to make us wonder why this book feels dull compared to the main trilogy. Is it really dull? Is it because, deep inside, we are complicit to the spectacle culture the Capitol slowly develops, at the suggestion of its most gifted students? After all, it is them that come up with the idea of betting on one’s favourite tribute and offering sponsorship in the form of food and medicine. The way even reluctant students accept their complicity in the Games, and the consequences for those who don’t, are very disturbing, warning us that dehumanising power structures are very much possible in real life. Like many dystopian stories, the narrative raises questions about human nature under pressure, which makes the book hauntingly relevant.

When picking up The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I was worried about the way Collins was going to handle her villain’s early years. Would she justify his actions too much? Would his point of view be too alienating? In the end, the reading experience was quite interesting, if hard to get into. Some readers might enjoy the third person limited more than the first person of the initial trilogy. The style was different, and perhaps more polished and lyrical. With Snow’s viewpoint being the only available one, I wouldn’t go so far as to say his actions are condemned, but they are not glorified either. The implication seems to be that villainy does not happen overnight. That perhaps there is not one specific point at which someone becomes evil. Rather, a series of small bad choices when better ones had been possible,  becomes an avalanche (you will understand the pun when you read the book). In that sense, spending time in Snow’s head is interesting, if not pleasant. Given the book’s length, however, the ending felt a little abrupt and it could have benefited from a better build-up. At least, Snow’s bad choices were not usually presented as justifiable by the narrative, unless, perhaps, by himself and those like him.

A weakness, in terms of characterisation, lies on the fact that, apart from Snow and Lucy Gray, few other characters were developed enough for the reader to care about them. Apart from the 24 tributes, there were 24 mentors, many of whom are understandably only mentioned a few times but even those who stayed around for longer felt interchangeable or disposable. Given the nature of the series, it is expected that many will die, but I felt that many minor characters in the original trilogy were much more memorable. Lucy Gray herself was quite interesting and, although never giving her viewpoint is a narrative necessity, it would have been nice to see more of her. She is a survivor, singing many songs we haven’t seen before (and some we have, waking old memories and new fan theories). Although this artistic, weird character type is by no means new, there is more to her than meets the eye.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not another Hunger Games. It is part character study, part political philosophy, inviting the reader to think of human nature, the desire for control and how bad choices escalate, with horrific results. The pacing and build-up could have been much better, and Snow’s old experience with District 12 did not feel entirely plausible, but the book is still relevant for the questions it explores. It is not an extension or a replica of the original trilogy; it is what it was meant to be.

Have you picked up The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!