If there is any city in the United States that might truly be touched by magic, it is New Orleans. With its near-seamless blend of French, Cajun, and African influences, New Orleans is both unlike much of the rest of the United States, and also deeply enmeshed in it. That connection – present, and yet in some ways almost tenuous – makes New Orleans an appealing setting for writers interested in telling stories with supernatural elements. The most well-known of these writers is Anne Rice, whose novel Interview With the Vampire takes place in various time periods and locations, but mostly in New Orleans (where, incidentally, the film adaptation was also filmed). Nowadays anyone interested in Rice’s novels can take a “vampire tour” around New Orleans, many of which include shooting locations from the film.
Like many other readers, I became enchanted with New Orleans after reading Rice’s novels in high school, and then later on in university, when I picked up Poppy Z. Brite’s Liquor and Prime at the encouragement of one of my good friends. However, it has been a good long while since I read about the city as a setting for a novel, so when I came across The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad, I decided to pick it up and revisit what is, to me, the most interesting city in the United States.
Nowadays, the term “dark fairytale” appears to have gained a certain kind of cachet, since it tend to be attached to a lot of media with a hype train a mile long. Of course, to define this term it is important to understand what its two components mean. I am certain folklorists and scholars can argue over the finer points of what makes a fairytale, but in general, a fairytale is a short story featuring fantastical elements like folkloric figures (hence “fairytale”, since fairies are out of folklore and myth), with clearly good and clearly evil characters, most of which fall into some kind of archetypical mould.
However, in many cases the oldest versions of fairytales were remarkably bloody and gory – a reflection, no doubt, of the dangers and difficulties of the lives of the people who told those stories in the first place. Take, for example, the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, which features the Evil Queen eating the heart of a deer thinking it was Snow White’s, and said Evil Queen eventually punished by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dancing herself to death. Compare that with the version that Disney put onscreen in 1937: no hearts are eaten and no Evil Queens are forced to dance to death. Since then, eliminating the bloodier details of fairytales has been de rigueur for Disney’s adaptations, and the subsequent popularity of such films has not only turned Disney into a media juggernaut, but has literally defined the term “fairytale” in popular culture.
When I read a novel, I have a kind of mental checklist of things to look for while I read. That list includes things like setting, characterisation, plot, narrative flow, prosody, themes – basically, all the things that I think are essential to a good story. Sometimes some parts are better than others: for instance, the setting might be beautifully built, but if the characters aren’t up to snuff, that lowers the quality of the book in my eyes. Or the plot may be perfectly paced and exciting to read about, but if the themes are not fully fleshed out or, worse, objectionable, then my opinion of the book goes down accordingly. Of course, these things tend to balance things out: great writing can sometimes make up for a poorly-built world, or fantastic characters can occasionally make a lacklustre plot more bearable.
But not all novels fit easily into this checklist. Sometimes a novel isn’t necessarily about telling a story, and is instead more concerned with experimenting with narrative, for example. Such novels can be hard to pick apart, and in such cases it becomes important to look for other parameters to use for measuring the novel’s quality.
It is a mildly terrifying thing when I read a book that is much-loved by a great many people, and come out the other side wondering why the book is so popular in the first place. I suppose I simply came to the hype much, much later than everyone else did; after all, the book of which I speak was first released, to much popular acclaim, some twelve years ago, and I am only reading it now, when the hype has long since quieted and the book likely lives in the warm, rosy glow of nostalgia for those who claim to love it. I, for my part, come to it with fresh eyes, with an awareness of its popularity and yet unaffected by it, since the hype is a part of my past and therefore does not affect my reading of the novel.
This blindness can be a boon, in its own way; it allows me to appreciate the book on its own strengths, its own merits, my judgment unclouded by hype. At the same time, however, I worry that those who read my thoughts regarding a book they love may turn into a metaphorical lynch mob. This may seem laughable to some, but this is the Internet: such things are possible.
I’ve been fascinated with ancient Egypt since I was in grade school. I attribute this fascination to my mother, who gave me a lovely set of lavishly-illustrated Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness books when I was younger, and those books informed my current, adult fascination in history and science, as well as nudged me towards the kind of reading I most enjoy doing today. My mother would help me amass quite the collection of such books as I was growing up, but among the very first books she gave me was about ancient Egypt. Since then, I have been enamoured with the place and the time period, and once dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist, digging through the shifting sands in search of lost Egyptian artefacts.
Because of this early interest in the subject, I’ve tried to keep up with whatever new books about ancient Egypt come out – something that was difficult before, but now made significantly easier thanks to the Internet. It has also become much easier to find books about specific parts of ancient Egyptian history, or about specific personages; oftentimes, I skim the Kirkus Review’s website for new books that might interest me. That was how I found out about The Woman Who Would Be King, Kara Cooney’s biography of Hatshepsut, which turned out to be one of my favourite reads of 2015, despite a few minor issues I had with it, which I mention in this review.