“This is my home. This is the place I call home.”

Before we start, a few things about Final Fantasy for the uninitiated. It’s a Japanese Role-Playing-Game series created by Squaresoft (now Square Enix, which is pretty much the JRPG company), and it is pretty much the classic JRPG series (at least in the US). There are 14 main games, all unconnected, and about fifty billion sequels, spinoffs, etc. Most gamers (including me) started their foray into fantasy RPGs with a Final Fantasy game. And no, at the rate they’re going, there will probably never be a Final Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy IX

Synopsis: Zidane Tribal is a member of Tantalus, a traveling theater troupe-cum-band of thieves, who have been hired to kidnap Crown Princess Garnet of Alexandria under the cover of performing a popular play. But when Garnet herself asks Tantalus to kidnap her, the chain of events that follows finds Zidane separated from his companions and drawn into the conflict looming between the four great nations of the Mist Continent. As Zidane and Garnet flee from the power-hungry Queen Brahne, they begin to uncover a plot that goes far beyond the threat of war, and could in fact lead to the destruction of the world…

Review: Let’s get one thing out of the way first.

In this blog, video games are to be treated with the exact same respect as any other form of media. I’m not talking about a shoot-em-up or a text adventure– games on a blog like this are going to have substance.

Everyone okay with that? Good. Now let’s move one.

So… you know how I mentioned that medieval/European steampunk/magitech-y style was my favorite fantasy setting?

Yeah, that all started with this game. I was about eleven when I first played it, so I was already way into both fantasy and video games, but this style was new to me. I had already played the groundbreaking Final Fantasy VII and thus  had all my expectations for what a game should be like pretty much blown out of the water, but the visuals in FFIX just clicked with me.

I mean, yes, the game is eleven years old, so of course it’s going to look dated now, but I maintain that it’s one of the best-looking games for the original Playstation. And really, there’s a whole lot of beautiful and detailed worldbuilding going on, and you know how much I love worldbuilding. The one thing that always bugged me a little about the game’s appearance were the appearance of the people, as the combination of realistic graphics and an exaggerated comic style felt a bit off. However, I always get used to it after playing for a little while, and it doesn’t hurt the game’s tone at all. (People who dismiss FFIX as a “kiddy game” because of the art style? Go away.)

The main cast. Of course they look silly, it’s a JRPG.

The music is some of Nobuo Uematsu’s best work– and considering he’s one of the most famous video game composers of all time, that’s saying something. However, it’s more like the entire soundtrack overall is good, rather than there being a few really standout tunes (not that I don’t have my favorites, of course). There is no voice acting at all, since this is an old game, but thankfully the localization team did a great job with the massive amounts of dialogue typical for a JRPG. In fact, this is one of the best English scripts of its time. (I have heard great things about Vagrant Story, another Square game, but I’ll have to see it to believe it.)

Now, since this is a video game, I do have to talk about gameplay a bit. This is classic JRPG stuff– explore the world, battle monsters, dungeon-crawl, and advance the ridiculously long and complicated story. FFIX deliberately hearkens back to the more traditional gameplay of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasies, while keeping the gaming interface fresh and modern (for 2000… but really, it still isn’t that hard to get into now). It’s well-paced, well-balanced, and intuitive. People new to Final Fantasy and wondering where to start should at least take a look. This isn’t a game review blog, so I’ll leave it at that and not go into specifics.
 
While Final Fantasy IX is, at least initially, much more lighthearted than previous games in the series, this does not make it a kiddy game filed with sunshine and rainbows, as some people dismissed it. And it’s a shame, because this is the Final Fantasy most people seem to forget about because of that. It is still a very idealistic game, but its storyline is complex, emotionally mature, and at times achingly bittersweet. I didn’t get the finer points of the storyline and themes until I replayed it years later– kind of like The Last Unicorn, except that this was never meant for kids.
 
One thing I love about the story is how enjoyable all the characters are, and how much more character-driven the story is. The way they interact is just wonderful, and it’s great to have a friendly, happy-go-lucky main hero like Zidane after three previous brooding, conflicted, and tormented main FF characters. Unfortunately, most of the character developement moves to focus on Zidane, Garnet and Vivi after the first half or so of the game. The other party members are just as excellent, but underused. Not that I don’t love those three and how they develop, of course. Zidane is in fact my favorite FF hero– while he may be the youngest, he is certainly one of the most emotionally mature. And Garnet–surprise!– is my favorite FF princess. She does a great job at pulling herself out of various damsel-in-distress pitfalls. The romance that eventually develops between them is slow-paced, natural, and never overtakes the main plot (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy VIII!)
 
Am I forgetting any– oh right, Kuja.
 
 
When your game’s main villain is a hammy, femmy guy wearing a metal thong, it is a very difficult task indeed to make him not only interesting, but legitimately threatening. Kudos, Square.
 
Does FFIX have problems? Of course. I think its main one is that it stays too close to the Final Fantasy formula while FFVII and VIII did great jobs with shaking it up. As I said before, a lot of the party members are just not developed enough. It has pacing issues in its last third or so, but that’s common with most JRPGS. Overall, it holds a special place in my very favorites as a beautiful, enjoyable, well-made and inspirational work of fantasy.
 
Since this game is so old, it’s very difficult to find an original copy, but if you have means to access the Playstation Network, it is available to download. Get it if possible; it’s well worth the $10.
 
I was going to draw a picture for you all, but my computer is being fixed at the moment, so I’ll leave you with images from some of my favorite scenes in the game.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Filed under fantasy talk, Final Fantasy, review, video games

So looking through my search terms…

…I found that most people (unrelated to the people in the class I’m taking) stumbled onto my blog while searching for three things. The first was for some of the anime that I had reviewed, and the second was for information about Tantarian (the unofficial mascot of the Library of Alexandria, who I will sort of be making a post about as the semester finale).

The third and most popular search term was for magical realism– specifically, information about the short story that gave me the idea to make that post in the first place: “The Third Bank of the River”. It seems like a lot of students have a class that was similar to mine. So they came to my blog hoping to make sense of that thing. Sadly, they did not get the information that they needed. This is very unfortunate, as there is pretty much no information about “The Third Bank” anywhere on the internet, and you’d better believe I was looking for some as I was reading it.

So to you poor people who had that story forced on them, first: My deepest sympathies. I understand exactly how you’re feeling right now.

Second: Do not despair! With the help of my handy-dandy World Lit notebook, I will now try to give you the information you require.

Note that these are direct transcriptions of my in-class notes. I am not responsible for your inability to interpret the stuff I scribbled down while daydreaming about getting back to my room and going back to sleep.

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–Rosa marked significant transition in Latin-American lit– magical realism

–boat = responsibility/adulthood? possibly running away from/rejecting death

–is it the family keeping him there? why did he stay?

–dichotomy – so close and so far away – in a moving river but never moving – certain empowerment from being in the river

— not a physical barrier btwn river + shore – symbolizes conflict in life

— movement vs. permanence – father stays still, son never moves on

–moving water = life, father immersed in life, but not moving w/it – tension btwn him + people on shore – it’s them who are removed from life

–transcend logicality (this is underlined but WordPress doesn’t have an underline button) – move to the third bank (this is also underlined), the illogical, irrational one

–illogical things not questioned, not meant to be taken literally

–where real forms are combined in ways that do not conform to daily reality

–very popular in Latin America – response to Western logic/realism

–art of surprise – messes w/time/narrative structure

–start in realistic settings, but no logical explanation – not about finding the answer.

——

I hope that was useful in some way (even if just for a confused laugh)! Again, none of those magic realism things are by themselves bad. Shows like Utena use them masterfully, and that’s why I love a good fantasy like that. But this story… ugh.

The next post will probably be my last. It will be a tribute to the origins of this blog’s namesake, the Library of Alexandria. Yes, it involves a city called Alexandria which does happen to have a library in it.

It's actually in Alexandria Castle, but whatever.

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Art Post!

Warning: There are a whole bunch of images in this post. For the sake of your internet connection, I’ve had them all shrunk down a bit, so click on an image to see it in full size.

You know what I think? Art is awesome! But you knew that I thought that already. As a treat for you today, and as a break from 1000-word posts, I’ll be showing you a bunch of my favorite fantasy art! Concept art, character design, scenery, scenes, and anything else I can think of, in all of my favorite styles!

It’ll only be video game official art, concept art, screenshots, etc, since I don’t feel like scouring the internet looking for sources on original artwork. Most of it came from a video game art site called creativeuncut.com; the rest you can find in a five-second Google search.

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Let’s start off with a very beautiful and unique game, Shadow of the Colossus.

The atmosphere in SOTC is just breathtaking. These are all actual screenshots from the game, by the way.

This one is concept art.

Moving on…

I have not yet found the means to play Dragon Age: Origins, but I was very impressed with the concept art. This is a dark fantasy Western RPG.

Oh yeah, and I guess there should be a dragon too.

Next: Valkyrie Profile 2, a weird platformer/JRPG thing. I couldn’t get through the actual game, but most of its art is lovely.

I’m confused by this picture because I though the Valkyrie and the girl were sort of the same person… oh well.

I love stylized artwork too!

This is Amaterasu from the action-adventure game Okami. She is the coolest wolf ever. Can other wolves make the sun rise on command? I thought not.

Amaterasu concept art.

Some scenery from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which has a beautiful Impressionistic art style.

Not all fantasy has to be medieval, of course.

This is promotional artwork for the Persona series. They’re urban fantasy JRPGs and can be somewhat creepy.

The exaggerated limbs and angles give the art a real urban fantasy feel.

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Is that all, you ask? Of course not. But this post was getting long.

Oh right, one last thing. Zelda fans? You will love this (warning: ridiculously huge image) and the making of.

Non-Zelda fans should take a look too, because that is some incredible digital painting.

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A Brief Tribute to Anne McCaffrey,1926-2011

First of all, I apologize for not updating in nearly a month. This semester has been extremely difficult for me. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a few more posts before classes end.

When I heard that Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders of Pern series as well as countless other fantasy and science fiction novels, had passed away November 21, I knew I had to write something about her, no matter how brief. I already mentioned her  in my post about Tamora Pierce back in September as one of the first fantasy/sci-fi authors to have a main female protagonist, but her contributions to the speculative fiction community were far more than that.

McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo or a Nebula award, both extremely distinguished awards for science fiction and fantasy. Her books were some of the first science fiction novels to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List. She also paved the way for other female sci-fi and fantasy writers, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover series) and Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea series). These were all somewhat before my time, but my parents read them avidly.

I’m not a huge Pern fan, though I started reading my dad’s collection at an early age, and I know I’ve said before that I don’t consider those books pure fantasy. In fact, they’re mostly science fiction with a few fantasy elements. However, her portrayal of dragons was hugely influential for fantasy. I loved Anne McCaffrey’s dragons, even though I didn’t like the much more science-fictiony direction the later books took.

I didn’t always agree with McCaffrey’s opinions, or love everything that happened in her books. But I was quite saddened to find out about her death, as were my parents. It was just one more thing to mark the passing of a generation of creators of speculative fiction. They’ve made me want to create fascinating and memorable worlds from an early age, just like these authors and more. My inspirations are the ones who came before me, and for that, I thank them.

Rest in peace, Ms. McCaffrey.

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Back on Schedule!

Sorry for the long delay. This semester has been beating me up lately, and it’s difficult to find the time to write these things. I’ll try to at least have something up for these last few weeks.

I’m also writing most of this very late at night, hyped up on caffeine and sugar, procrastinating from the two papers I should be writing. I apologize in advance for clumsy writing and any typos I may miss.

—————

So. This was going to be my analytical post about Harry Potter, and I had it all planned out and everything, but I don’t feel like writing it right now. Instead, I’m going to take a more personal approach and talk about how this series has impacted my life. Then I’ll get into why I think it ended up becoming so beloved and successful.

I grew up in a family of readers. You can’t walk five feet in my house without tripping over a book. Fiction, nonfiction, any genre and subject matter imaginable, it’s there. Every time I go home and look around for books, I rediscover something or find something new. My parents and I have our own bookshelf(ves), though we borrow from each other’s liberally.

I don’t think any Harry Potter book has ever been on any one bookshelf in my house. They all end up in places that are easily accessible: the dining room table, the big armchair, the kitchen next to the cookbooks, even the bathroom. Both bathrooms. It’s the only book series that I can have detailed discussions with both my parents about. (Well, not really, but it’s the only one where all three of us are very familiar with the material). 

My grandmother was also a big reader and Harry Potter fan, and a lot of my later memories of her are of us reading and talking about the books together. I would bring books to her in the hospital, as many as I could carry, and make sure that at least one of them was a Potter book. She preordered the books for all of her grandchildren, including Half-Blood Prince, but never got to read that one, as she passed away two months before its release in July 2005. The day the package came to the door, I spent all day in my room reading (warding off my parents from reading over my shoulder at mealtimes). Every time I got to a character or a theory my grandmother and I had discussed, I wished that she could be there reading it with me, and I still think of our times together fondly every time I reread it.

Harry Potter didn’t just impact my relationship with family members. A girl who I became friends with in middle school was dyslexic and initially hated reading, something I found impossible to fathom. I finally got the books on tape from the library for her to listen to as she read along, so she had no choice but to give into my demands to read. Eventually she started reading them on her own, and fell in love with them. Her reading improved drastically, and she began to devour every book I recommended and find some favorites of our own. Often she would thank the Harry Potter series for helping her to love books (something I’ve heard happened to a lot of people who were initially against reading). Our friendship (which was  based on more than Harry Potter and books, don’t worry) lasted for many years and several moves across the country, until she eventually moved to Hawaii and we lost touch in high school. When I think about her, I hope that her love for books, started with Harry Potter, has not diminished, wherever she is now.

As for me, well, of course I love the series. I sort of fell out of full-on fan mode after Half-Blood Prince, especially after I went into high school and started to get really into anime and console video games, but I’ll still pick up one of the books if I find it lying around the house. There’s something special about these books, which had such a strong impact on me and so many people around the world.

Why? How did they get so popular? I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who have written lots and lots (I just typed ‘splendidly’ there… I need to go to bed) of long academia things trying to explain exactly that, involving lots of statistics and stuff like that. It was the right place and the right time. There was a niche that needed to be filled. J.K. Rowling got lucky. Whatever.

Let’s be honest, Rowling is not an incredibly good writer, although she did improve over time. I actually preferred George R. R. Martin’s prose. What she is good at is storytelling. Worldbuilding. Character developement. Her world is engaging and relatable while still managing to be whimsical and fantastic; her themes are clear and strong; her love for what she has created is obvious. In short, Harry Potter moves beyond shallow entertainment and into something that can be talked about, and wondered about. It’s not ‘Art’ — its main goal is to tell a story. But it makes people care. And once you start caring about a story, it’s got you.

You can’t simply rely on bizarre architecture, or flying unicorns, or lists of spells to make good fantasy. The trick is taking these things and making it so that people care about them. I cared about Harry Potter. I wondered how the series was going to end. I hoped that he would defeat Voldemort and live happily ever after. I ultimately did not care about the people in A Game of Thrones. The story didn’t ‘catch’ me, even though technically the writing was better.

Some of this is a matter of personal opinion, of course, since I know plenty of people who love A Game of Thrones. But even so, my point still stands. Fantasy settings should not be used as a crutch. They should be used to enhance the story, adding new depth and possibilities. And that’s what Harry Potter did.

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“Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision?”

The Vision of Escaflowne

Synopsis: Hitomi Kanzaki is an ordinary high school girl with a knack for reading tarot cards, but her life is changed forever when a vision of a knight battling a dragon becomes reality, and she is transported to the magical world of Gaea. There she meets the young prince Van Fanel, who is attempting to unite the countries of Gaea against the mighty Zaibach empire. Swept into the conflict, Hitomi finds that her tarot readings are beginning to come true, and that she may have the power to change the fate of the entire planet– for good or for ill. But first, she must discover the secret behind Van’s origins and those of his legendary mech, Escaflowne.

Review: Escaflowne is one of the most shining examples of positively derivative fantasy I have ever come across, which is why I wanted to review it immediately after decrying bad works of derivative fantasy last week.

It embarrasses me to say this, but for a long time I actually avoided Escaflowne because I was under the mistaken impression  that it was just a standard shonen mecha (that is, giant robot anime for teenage boys) series. When I finally heard that it was a shojo fantasy/romance, I became extremely confused, but decided to watch it anyway because hey, fantasy. It turned out to be… a shonen/mecha/shojo/romance/adventure/high fantasy. And somehow, it works.

Look, capes and swords! That makes them fantasy!

Let’s get right down to the technicals, since those and the presentation are pretty much everything that makes Escaflowne work. This show is just beautiful. The art and animation are gorgeous and richly detailed. I love how though the setting is mostly medieval European/steampunk style (my favorite fantasy setting!), it also has some distinct Asian elements that make it interesting and unique.  The character designs are shojotastic, which basically means that the girls are cute and the guys are gorgeous, but it’s not enough to distract people or turn them away. It’s all very, very pretty– exactly what you’d expect from a high fantasy.

The soundtrack is… perfect. Not that I’d expect anything less from the legendary Yoko Kanno, but it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect an epic high fantasy soundtrack to sound like. For voice acting, I’m going to say to avoid the English dub on this one. There isn’t anything really wrong with it, but the English episodes I saw were just so bland and lifeless, especially when compared to the fantastic Japanese cast.

Okay, so the audio and visuals are both ridiculously good, but what about the rest of the presentation– narrative, plotting, and pacing?

…Yeah, those are ridiculously good too. The first episode starts out slow, as what looks like a standard shojo high school romance begins to unfold… suddenly, DRAGON IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TRACK FIELD.

I know the CGI's dated, but these dragon designs get a free pass from me because that is so cool.

After that the plot kicks into high gear and never once looks back. This tight, intricate, and super-fast pacing is what really makes Escaflowne stand out. Every single episode, every single scene, is unskippable, packing in huge amounts of story and character development. Events that would normally take one or two episodes in another anime take half an episode in Escaflowne, and somehow still manage to keep all of their impact. This is why both the shonen and shojo elements work so well– exciting action scenes and giant robots doing cool stuff are balanced by character progression and a giant love… uh… dodecahedron… consisting of most of the main cast. Normally this sort of thing would be incredibly confusing, but Escaflowne deftly juggles its multiple plotlines with masterful exposition.

Before you start to worry that this show is too good to be true, however, let’s move on to the actual content.

Scroll up and reread the synopsis I wrote. Done? Okay, now can anyone point out anything in there that was even remotely original? (And if you answer with ‘the giant robot’ you obviously haven’t watched enough anime.) No? I thought not.

Escaflowne moves along like it’s checking off from a guide to anime and fantasy cliches. The archetypes here are as old as dirt, and while characters do develop as I said before, their arcs are entirely predictable. They’re not bad characters, and I enjoyed them a lot, but they’re enjoyable, well-developed stereotypes, from “ordinary high school girl” Hitomi, “hotblooded young warrior prince” Van, “ladies’ man with daddy issues” Allen, and even “honorable villain henchman with good intentions” Folken.

Also, why is Hitomi still wearing her school uniform in magical fantasyland? Why does that happen all the time in anime?

The story, while intricate and developed as well, is also one big cliche. If you’ve played any sort of fantasy video game from Japan from the past twenty years, you know what’s going to happen. And I… have played a lot of those. On the other hand, I keep playing them for a reason, so I was still able to have a lot of fun watching Escaflowne.

No, my main problem with Escaflowne was the ending– well, the last two episodes in general, but the ending especially. The pacing had just been so perfect throughout, and then it was like someone realized “Oops, guys, we need to finish up here”. As a result, the last two episodes feel rushed and inconsistent compared with the rest, and some major characters are sort of glossed over to get to the final battle. The ending isn’t really bad, but… what happened left me frustrated, and not in a good way. It definitely knocks Escaflowne down a peg on my favorite anime list, and that’s a shame for such an amazing series.

There is also an Escaflowne movie (called, amazingly enough, Escaflowne: The Movie), released several years after the series, that I have not yet seen. I’ll see if I can find it and make a follow-up post on it sometime before the end of the semester. It’s apparently an alternate retelling of the series, instead of a continuation.

If you want an epic, traditional high fantasy series played straight, I absolutely recommend Escaflowne.  If the English dub were any better, I’d say it would be a perfect introduction to anime, especially for fantasy lovers. It’s a classic that’s got something for everyone, and while it sacrifices originality for technical perfection, it shows why those old cliches still exist.

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Next time: I tackle the Harry Potter series. Help me.

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Filed under animation, anime, review, Vision of Escaflowne

Tantarian’s Guide for Avoiding Fantasy Pitfalls

Bad fantasy. It’s out there. A lot of it.

This will be a brief guide of some of the problems inherent to fantasy literature and how to avoid them (I’ll be covering fantasy artwork in a later post). Now, a lot of problems like poor characterization, infodumping, overuse of descriptions, and so forth are just examples of bad writing, and can happen in all literature. What I’m showing here is not how to write properly, but how to tell an interesting fantasy story. Maybe someday, when my own prose improves, I’ll talk a bit about the former. But not here.

I know that most of my readers don’t write fantasy, or even write at all, but I’d still like to give you a sense of what works and doesn’t work, and what I personally like and dislike. To those who do plan to write– good luck, and I hope this guide is useful to you!

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1. All fantasy is derivative, but that doesn’t mean you can rip off someone else’s work.

Yes, I said it. No fantasy work will ever be completely original. You can trace most contemporary fantasy back to Tolkien, and trace him all the way back to folktales and mythology. This is true of all genres, of course, but I think it’s particularly important for fantasy writers to understand this.

Now, this is not in itself a bad thing, or even a problem. The problem is when writers don’t even try for any originality. It’s okay to draw inspiration from your favorite authors, but there’s such a thing as going to far. When I read a fantasy novel I should be going,” Oh, that character/concept/whatever was inspired by some other book, and here’s this author’s unique take on it.” I should not be complaining, “Hey, that’s the exact same character/concept/whatever from some other book. No, really, it’s exactly the same.”

Build on what you have borrowed from others, don’t just use it as is. Oh yeah, and if you have something totally original that’s never been done before… stop and think for a moment why.

2. Use stereotypes wisely, and do not overuse.

I’m not going to say ‘avoid all stereotypes’, because a lot of them still exist for a reason: they work. They’re a good starting point for creating a character. But like I said in the first point above, you need to build on what you already have. Try playing with readers’ expectations for a character. Switch things up a bit. A good idea is to think about a character that you would like to read about, not just a character that’s easy for you to write.

It’s also possible to have characters who are well-developed stereotypes (In fact, I will be talking about that a bit next week). While this makes them immediately identifiable, they also become far too predictable. It’s up to you whether you prefer to sacrifice originality for something that’s tried-and-true but possibly boring. The latter is fine for side characters, but an uninteresting main character is never a good idea.

2.5. They’re horses, not robots.

This is really just my little pet peeve, but I felt like it needed to be addressed because I have seen it in pretty much all high fantasy ever. I have worked with horses for over ten years, and they are big horrible slobbery things that break their legs every five minutes because they have no brains. (Not really. But sometimes I feel that way about them.) They are ridiculously delicate creatures who require constant supervision so they don’t catch a cold and die.

Galloping across the rippling plains for days on end might look pretty cool in a movie, but not when your horse collapses from exhaustion foaming at the mouth with its legs all twisted inward and it looks at you with big desperate eyes as it thrashes on the ground and then you have to put it down and all the little children cry at your movie and never want to see it again– can you live with that? Can you??????

Also you can’t actually jump onto your horse’s back from a two-story window. The Westerns lied to you.  Sorry.

3. Create a consistent world.

Fantasy logic varies wildly from story to story. You can have the most carefully crafted and detailed set of magic rules ever that take ten pages just to explain, or you could just have everything powered by happy thoughts and be done with it. You can have an imaginary world with a complex socio-political history that could take years to analyze properly, or you could have Vaguely-Defined Fantasy World #2343. All of these are fine. But I, the reader, have something called ‘the suspension of disbelief’. As a fantasy reader, mine happens to be very, very high. So if you break it, there’s a problem. Don’t make me think, “There’s no way that should have happened according to the rules that were already set up!”

And if you have created an established magical Deus Ex Machina that can fix everything so you can write yourself easily out of difficult situations, I will roll my eyes at you. Really.

4. On how to write believable female characters.

I have heard way too many people (and not just men) complain that they can’t write female characters. Well, I have a solution for you.

Ready, everyone?

Write her exactly as you would any other character.

That is, don’t write ‘men’ and ‘women’. Write people. Feminine and masculine ‘characteristics’ all come down to stereotypes in the end anyway– they’re only a starting point. Your battle-hardened adventurer is not going to go off and have a giggly slumber party with all her girlfriends just because she’s female (okay, she might, but only if it fits her character). Because all fantasy women are good for are looking pretty, getting kidnapped and talking about boys and clothes, right?

Fantasy is a great place to find great female characters (and other minorities not commonly or accurately represented in the real world) because there are no limits except for the ones you set. That’s one of the things I love so much about speculative fiction.

And if you’re still confused about this, go read a Tamora Pierce book or something. I mean, come on.

5. Choose a style and stick with it.

This one should be self-explanatory. Just like your logic should be consistent, your tone should be consistent as well (unless you’re deliberately changing it for shock value or to subvert the story thus far, which can take some practice). If you’re doing Tolkien-style high fantasy, your characters aren’t going to be talking like 21st-century teenagers, and if you’re doing contemporary urban fantasy they won’t be speaking in Elizabethan English. I’d talk about avoiding purple prose as well, since that pops up in fantasy alarmingly often, but that’s more about bad writing.

6. Do some research before you start writing anything.

Yeah, yeah, I know… It’s fantasy! But really, even if you’re planning to make things happen that are deliberately unrealistic for the cool factor, you should probably know how to do them properly beforehand. Kind of like how a writer should know how to write in standard English before they start playing with words, or how an artist should learn basic essentials like composition and anatomy before they start drawing magic marker faces in five different dimensions.

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I have even more to say, but this post is late anyway, so I’m done for now. If you liked this post, make sure to read the companion art post (coming hopefully in late November). Sorry for the lack of pictures, there will be plenty next time!

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Next time: Some good old classic high fantasy and… wait, are those giant robots?

“I haven’t hunted dragons in a long time. This is going to be such fun!”

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Magical Realism

This post is not on the schedule. I just needed to rant a bit about something somewhat fantasy-related, and this seemed like a good place to do it.

This week I had to read João Guimarães Rosa’s short story “The Third Bank of the River” for a class. This story belongs to a genre known as “magical realism“. This is a strange and broadly defined genre which in some cases is clearly like fantasy but in others is not. Its broadest definition is when magical, supernatural, or otherwise illogical elements blend with a clearly realistic, logical world. The results can be… strange.

So what counts as magical realism? Well, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis does, for one. Realistic world, completely illogical and inexplicable event. Does it count as fantasy? Sort of. But not the type of fantasy that I like or am interested in.

Going back to “Third Bank”, the things that happen in that story (which I don’t think I can even summarize) are bizarre, illogical, and pointless. And they’re meant to be. See, the reason magical realism became so popular was part of a backlash against Western ideals of literature. Since the 19th century, the Western world has been obsessed with the rational, the logical, and the orderly. Everything needs to have a point and a reason. “Third Bank” is the antithesis of this. It’s like… a story about a type of story.  It demands that the reader be in the ‘third bank’, a place beyond or between the fantastic and the logical. It’s carefully crafted and written… and makes me want to punch something every time I read it.

Remember my Info Desk? I said there that my first goal in my absorption of media is to be entertained. Magical realism (at least most of it) doesn’t do it for me.

It’s not the illogicality that bothers me, since fantasy is all about things that can’t happen in the world. I mean, in Harry Potter people can transform into animals, completely defying the law of conservation of mass (among others), and I can accept it without batting an eye, because it’s a consistent rule that has been established in that universe. It doesn’t have to make real-world logical sense as long as I can suspend my disbelief. It’s fantasy.

No, the first main problem I have with magical realism is the dissonance between the characters and the events. The whole point of magical realism is that it’s supposed to be set in a realistic world. And then you get stuff like Gregor Samsa changing into a giant bug and having the extremely understated reaction of “how am I going to get to work this way?” The characters aren’t zombies or robots. They’re supposed to be real people who act realistically. And yet they act as if nothing really fantastic or illogical has happened. This is very creepy.

However, I can even overcome all of that as long as the story holds my attention. Unfortunately, a lot of magical realism is supposed to be allegorical. The characters aren’t real people, they’re symbols. The events occurring are not literal. Now, most allegorical stories kinda rank really, really high on my list of ‘pretentious garbage I won’t touch’. The reason for that is ‘they’re really really boring’. Even if I like their message, or what they’re trying to represent, it’s all useless if it doesn’t catch my interest. There’s no narrative. No development.

And what’s worse, allegorical/magic realism/postmodernist stories don’t have to be dull and underdeveloped. They can be entertaining and thought-provoking as well! The catch is that you need a good story that you can enjoy for the literal meaning and appreciate on a deeper level for the allegorical meaning.

There are some fantasy works that I have chosen not to cover for this blog. Most are non-Western fantasy based on Japanese mythology, since most of my readers probably won’t be familiar with it. The others are stuff that’s so… strange… that I’m not even sure how to review or recommend them.

Revolutionary Girl Utena falls in the latter category. It’s a deconstruction of the shojo genre (Princess Tutu has been described as ‘Utena lite’) that also happens to have allegorical and magical realism elements. Dissonance between people and events, symbolism popping out of every frame, bizarre scenes that go nowhere, an inconclusive ending… roses everywhere… the car… and the elevators with the mausoleum plots… the arena full of desks and the outlines of bodies…

This picture is here to break up the text. Yes, it’s raining rose petals.

…Sorry, got distracted there. Anyway, as you can see, Utena has pretty much all the things I despised in other magical realism stories. Aaand it just so happens to be one of my favorite anime series of all time. Wait, what?

See, here’s what Utena has that all those other things didn’t: stunning visual and sound presentation, an engaging plot that can be interpreted literally and allegorically, and complex, developed, relatable characters. Plus, they even explain why all of the weird stuff is happening! (At the end of the series, so long after you’ve become completely lost, but still.)

Why can’t more magical realism stories do that? Because The Metamorphosis would have been way less boring if there were sword duels in a giant arena high above a magical forest every chapter. Seriously.

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Yikes, this got way too long. Sorry guys, I guess I had a lot to say. I’m done now. Gaiman on Monday!

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“Those who accept their fate find happiness; those who defy it, glory.”

Warning: the following TV show contains ballet, romance, magic, fluffy girly cuteness,  and obnoxiously huge anime eyes. Take a look at these two trailers to see if you can tolerate the content. If you still love Disney movies and/or have been interested in that weird pony thing that’s been going around the internet, you should be fine.

Princess Tutu

Synopsis: Once upon a time, there was a duck who fell in love with a prince. The prince, Mytho, was empty inside, for he had sacrificed his heart to seal away an evil raven. When the duck wished that she could help return the prince’s heart to him, an old man appeared and gave the duck a magic pendant that could turn her into a girl. The girl, named Duck, now searches for the missing shards of the prince’s heart in a town that merges fairy tales and reality. Coming close to a heart shard transforms her into the beautiful and graceful Princess Tutu, who wins over her opponents through her magical dance. However, complications arise– who is this other princess, Rue, who is vying for Mytho’s affection? And why does Mytho’s guardian, Fakir, not want his heart to be returned?

Review: One thing I love about fantasy is how it can so easily transcend the limits of its genre. It gives the opportunity for the story to be played out in new and fascinating ways, and questions the nature of fiction and reality. 

So why am I bringing this up in a kid’s show about a magical girl ballerina fairytale princess?

You may have found the above synopsis somewhat confusing. That’s because Princess Tutu is a fairytale– inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, good old Walt Disney, and quite a bit of classical balletmost obviously and importantly Swan Lake. It’s also a metafictional fairytale, which means all of the characters know they’re in a story and try to fit their roles to the best of their ability. Or should they defy the limitations of their fictional world and just be themselves?

…Right, let’s back up a little bit here.  Moving to the technical side, Tutu manages to take a fairly small budget and really make something out of it. The character designs are extremely shojo and stylized, but pretty and clean. Backgrounds are detailed and varied, and the use of color to set the mood is fantastic. The action/dancing scenes aren’t perfectly animated, but are gorgeously choreographed and look amazing, making that a forgivable offense. Unlike most magical girl shows, there isn’t a huge amount of stock footage, and Princess Tutu’s transformation sequence is only a few seconds long, when its predecessors could have transformations lasting more than a minute.

That's the prince on the left. He isn't a girl. Really.

Tutu uses famous classical and ballet tunes, making its soundtrack one of the show’s best features.  This is the perfect venue to expose people to classical music– I’m currently listening to “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker on repeat. As for voice acting, I have not seen the original Japanese version,  but can safely say that the English voice cast is just fantastic. The standout performance belongs to Luci Christian as Duck/Tutu, who makes Duck endearing without being obnoxious, and gives Tutu a heartfelt, serene grace.

Back to the actual content… Okay, I’ll admit that I was reluctant at first to start watching this. And, well… you can sort of see why. I mean, I like shojo, but… Princess Tutu. Princess. Tutu. I have my limits.

But, well, it looked cute and harmless and I’d been told by quite a few people to watch it, even those not normally into magical girl shows. The first half is pretty standard monster-of-the-week, finding the prince’s lost heart shards/dodging romantic complications, etc., but I kept watching because I felt like I’d touched on something special. Something was building beneath the surface. The story, set in motion, began to slowly grind forward once again.

And then…

Princess Tutu is not quite a deconstruction of fairy tales and the magical girl genre– it’s too gentle for that. However, it does take a good long look at the nature of archetypal roles, and of the power of story and words. Fate vs. free will is a strong recurring theme throughout. Who is Princess Tutu, exactly? Is she truly the one fated to be by the Prince’s side forever? Or in the end, is she only just a duck?

Tutu is not afraid to get into darker, more complex (still suitable for children, but more PG-rated) themes and scenarios in its second half, and proves to be a worthy successor to all those Disney movies that terrified us as kids. It’s also exceedingly well-written, with some fantastic characters. I loved the main cast (Duck, Mytho, Fakir and Rue), their stories, and their struggles with the roles assigned to them. The supporting cast and even the one-shot characters are interesting and enjoyable as well.

My main problem with Tutu is that the buildup is just too long– 12 out of 26 episodes– and it could easily make someone lose interest before the good stuff starts happening. Otherwise, can you tell already that I love this show? Because I love this show. I would happily write out 1000 more words praising it if that meant more people would watch it. I love how people spent so much effort to create a beautiful, intelligent, well-written story for children, that just about anyone can watch. I love a good fantasy that delights in its genre and pushes its limitations.

Princess Tutu is an exquisite show, and I normally reserve that adjective for things currently in museums. It’s not perfect– no shows are– but it’s still one of my favorite anime series, and something I would recommend to anyone.

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Convinced? Want to watch Princess Tutu? Well, you can watch it legally on Youtube (here, you may need a Youtube account) (looks like they took it off) and Hulu (here) in English, free of charge. It’s only 26 episodes, so what are you waiting for?

Next time I try to talk about fantasy science, using Tales of the Abyss as the main example. Why? Because I like it. Also because it makes no sense.

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“She is the only unicorn to ever know regret– and love.”

The Last Unicorn

Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle

Synopsis: In an everlasting green wood lives the very last unicorn in all the world. Upon finding out that she is indeed the last, the unicorn sets out on a quest to find the rest of her kind, for she is certain that they cannot all be gone. Her journey brings her into contact with humans, where she learns of the best and worst of humankind. Eventually her travels bring her into the domain of the legendary Red Bull, and she undergoes a transformation that will change her perception of the world forever.

Review: I’m never quite sure what to say about The Last Unicorn. Since this is a review, people are expecting me to say whether it’s good or bad, and if I would recommend it, but this is going to be a bit more complicated.

I’m very picky about visual presentation and aesthetic quality in visual media, and The Last Unicorn… well.  The art sort of bounces back and forth from delicately detailed to, uh, bad, though some of it is just that I don’t like the way the human characters are drawn. The animation is good… for 1982. Okay, maybe the rotoscoping makes it look like all the characters are on stimulants, and the unicorn looks like she might snap in half from a stiff breeze.

This is not the most vacant-eyed stare in the movie, but I couldn't find a better picture.

The music is very… eighties.  To the point that I knew it was dated even when I was little. I’ve seen people praise the voice acting, but there are only two performances I was ever interested in, and I’ll get to those later. The pacing of the movie can be very jarring, with some bizarre tonal shifts along the way– the fault of the people trying to take a book not for kids and turn it into what they believe is a children’s movie.

And that is one of the main problems with The Last Unicorn. To put it very simply, the original novel is not meant for children. I only chose to review the movie and not the book simply because it’s been years since I read the book and I just rewatched the movie this August. I think the movie gets things right– a lot of things– but it’s flawed because it just can’t replicate the source material in the mature way it deserves.

Ah, there we go.

And now for the things it gets right. There is a lot going on under the jerky animation and plot that I didn’t notice as a kid but caught right away as an adult. Unicorns are my favorite fantasy creatures, and one of the reasons for that is that there are so many ways to use and interpret them. They are traditionally innocent, aloof, and magical, and this unicorn is no different, but the way she is presented and how she develops certainly is. It’s very easy to interpret the unicorn’s journey as being allegorical.  (Of what, I won’t say if you haven’t seen the movie already.) The fact that this managed to stay in the movie says some good things about it. I also love that the movie kept the book’s original ending, which was not of the conventionally happy sort, as its impact would certainly have been lessened if the ending had been changed.

But The Last Unicorn’s greatest asset is its sheer emotional power.

I could sense the undercurrent of unrestrained feeling even when I was a child– there is a raw, haunting quality to the unicorn’s journey, and a bleakness that I don’t normally see in kids’ movies. I’m not talking A Game of Thrones bleak– it’s nowhere near that bad– but despite the datedness of its presentation I always find myself taking the story very seriously. This is aided by the two vocal performances that I mentioned before. The first is Mia Farrow as the unicorn, who somehow manages to stand on the line between raggedly plaintive and laughably melodramatic without crossing it  (well, most of the time). The result is a voice that seems strange for a gentle and innocent unicorn, but fits more with her true personality. The second is Christopher Lee as the bitter, tortured King Haggard, a character who is much more complex than he initially appears. I don’t think I have to elaborate on that one much. Anything voiced by Saruman is automatically awesome.

The Last Unicorn brought me to tears when I first saw it, and still does to this day. Not because it’s depressing (though its tone is often bittersweet) but because I could relate to the emotions, the joy and the sadness, that the unicorn experiences as she begins to understand humanity.

Final verdict– You’ll either connect with The Last Unicorn emotionally or you won’t. If you don’t, the rest of the movie is such a mess that it really isn’t worth watching. If you do, you will love it in spite of all that. But whether you do or you don’t, check out the original book as a fantastic example of a fantasy novel.

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Next Time: I gush about some of the finest television ever produced for children. And if you thought I couldn’t get any girlier than unicorns, you’re wrong.

You'd better get used to the flowers.

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