AEL: O Jerusalem, No.6 ep.5-6, The Phantom of the Opera, Riordanverse fic

11 days until I turn 36!

O Jerusalem — I feel like this is the weakest installment in this series, and that it would have been better as a novella than a full-length book. The first half or so (I didn’t bother checking exactly how far I was through it) is almost completely pointless, and could have been told in a quarter of the time. When it actually gets around to the plot, it’s interesting and fun, but it takes fore~e~e~ever to get there.

My guess is that King wanted to fill in this gap (a very understandable desire), didn’t feel she could get away with writing less than a full novel even if the story she had in mind wasn’t long enough for that many pages, and therefore padded out the first half interminably to get the length she wanted. I wasn’t reading the series yet when this one was first released, and I certainly can’t speak for her other readers, but I’m sure I, at least, would have been happier with a better-constructed but shorter story.

This time through, I read it with an eye/ear to how this book might fit in if I were to insert it into the middle of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice where it falls chronologically, and I don’t think it would work very well. The conflict of that book is mentioned enough that it’s not like the reader forgets this is a middle-of-the-action story, but emotionally I think the breaks are too clean.

During O Jerusalem, Mary doesn’t seem to give as much weight to her reflections on what’s waiting for them back in England as I think that deserves; and once they’re back in England for the end of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I don’t feel like her recollections of the events of O Jerusalem are weighty enough either. It is totally in-character for Holmes to be able to compartmentalize the two cases so well, but perhaps not so much for Mary.

In two discrete books separated by three other volumes, this is probably for the best. It would be distracting and tangential for Mary to share the real depth of her feelings on either plot in the middle of the other. However, it also adds to the sense I got the last time I read through this series: that Mary is kinda inconsistently characterized. Of course if you accept the conceit that these are Mary’s memoirs, written with a humanly flawed memory and a natural bias leading her to include, exclude, downplay, and embellish various events and aspects of her own character, it makes a bit more sense… but the criticism does eventually fall onto the real author nonetheless.

I am super interested in Ali and Mahmoud, however. I wonder especially whether King intended them as a gay couple all along, or whether that eventual revelation was a retcon. I mean, to me they seemed excessively gay for each other from the very first time I read the book, and (though I don’t remember Justice Hall very well) even gayer the next time I met them. But at that point I kindof assumed they were your typical this-author-hasn’t-the-faintest-idea-how-gay-her-characters-come-across pairing.

Of course as the series goes on, you get more and more hints at just how gay-friendly King is (or at least allows this series to be), and I was overjoyed at the eventual (unnamed, but to me no less conclusive) confirmation that Ali and Mahmoud are actually romantically involved. But I still wonder whether that was King’s intention all along.

Because their being a gay couple puts an interesting new spin on their presence in Palestine. Surely they’re in far more danger being together there than in England! But in some ways they’re freer and safer in Palestine simply because of the logistics of the life they lead there: in Palestine, under the guise of brothers, they can hold hands, share a tent, and display a level of closeness and devotion that in another context might be eyed askance without raising any eyebrows.

And I wonder if Mycroft knew what their relationship was when he sent them out. Was he doing them a favor? Or did he use the knowledge as a sort of blackmail? What Mycroft knows, how he knows it, and what he does with that knowledge is perhaps a matter better left untouched, but I’m still curious.

Now obviously Ali, during O Jerusalem, is resentful toward both Mary and Holmes, doubting their abilities and wishing them far away. But I can’t help thinking he’s especially annoyed about Mary for a couple of very specific reasons. First of all, I kinda feel like Ali wants nothing to do with women on a close personal level — not that he’s necessarily any more misogynistic than any other man of his time, gay or straight, but it seems like he just doesn’t want women being a big part of his life. Having Mary around would be extremely annoying in that sense, and that, I believe, is the sense in which Holmes made his admonishment that Ali should think of Mary exclusively as Amir.

Secondly, Mary is in a situation very similar to Ali’s: she’s in Palestine acting as a spy/government agent and hiding something huge about herself. The difference is that she can go back to England and live openly as a woman, whereas Ali cannot go back to England and live openly as a homosexual. Mary’s presence and disguise would be a constant reminder of this fact, and it’s no surprise that Ali would be bitter about it.

And in that sense, trying to think of Mary exclusively as Amir would not help at all — not only because Ali would always be aware, underneath, who and what “Amir” really was, but also because I think Ali and Mahmoud are both aware of the romance slowly developing between Mary and Holmes. Considering “Amir” subconsciously in love with Holmes, and then reflecting that “Amir” could so easily return to England and express that love, would only rub salt in Ali’s wounds, methinks.

And what does Mahmoud think of all of this? He wears his heart on his sleeve so much less than Ali does that it’s hard to say. He seems a lot more sympathetic about Mary’s situation, and stoic about his own, and in general he’s so hard to read that I don’t have much of an opinion about his position at this point. I’ma have to wait until I get back to Justice Hall and see what I think.

No.6 episodes 5 and 6 — There are some plot developments that surprise you, and I find they tend to fall on a scale somewhere between This is a surprise but it totally makes sense and Seriously what the flying fuck. And I’m afraid the vision/collapse scene with both Safu and Nezumi at the end of episode 5 kinda fell farther toward the WTF end of that spectrum XD Not the far end, but it was definitely more WTF than That Makes Sense.

I’m of the school of thought that people should be allowed to wear whatever the fuck they want, and also I dislike most arbitrary gender boundaries. However, I’m not entirely blind or clueless; I’m familiar with the society I live in and how it works, so it’s not like I don’t recognize cross-dressing and its implications when I see it. People wearing whatever the fuck they want obviously doesn’t bother me… but the way cross-dressing gets used as fetish fuel in some gay romances does.

Because it’s rarely used as an aspect of characterization; we’re rarely given a reason such as, “This man likes to feel more feminine by wearing women’s clothing,” or, “This character falls somewhere in the gender spectrum other than ‘man,’ and expresses that through choice of wardrobe,” or even just, “This character wears whatever the fuck he feels like, and happens to want to wear this outfit right now.” Wearing women’s clothing is usually just a shorthand for “less masculine,” which a lot of media still wants to push as equivalent to “gay,” which is presumed titillating for the gay-seeking audience.

Now, No.6 didn’t necessarily read this way with Nezumi in the good old man-in-drag-plays-female-Shakespeare-parts role, and it’s possible I’m doing the series a discredit by relating these thoughts at all… but I have to admit that my hackles immediately go up when I see a guy in drag in a gay story, because I’m automatically assuming we’re going for shorthand gay stereotypes rather than real characterization. But I have to wait and see.

Another thing that sometimes bugs me in stories about gay men — and this absolutely includes a lot of fanfiction I write with my own hands, because I am a terrible person — is their exclusion of female characters. Female characters get the short end of the stick in so much fiction to begin with; when they’re left out of the only thing they often seem to be thought good for (sexual availability/desirability), they sometimes disappear entirely, and you’d think we were living in a world where women don’t even exit. Which is why I’m kinda happy to see Safu trying to get back into the main plot.

However. Another thing that bugs me (because I’m picky as shit, apparently) is when the straight partner is hurt and abandoned by the newly-outed gay partner. It may be realistic, but it’s too damn sad! In this case, Shion and Safu aren’t actually together, so it can’t be as bad as it sometimes is… but Safu has admitted that she loves him, and I can’t imagine she’s going to get out of this unhurt or without turning into that female lead that gets rejected because the main character is gay. That’s another sad trope.

Of course I’m working on the assumption here that Shion and Nezumi are going to get together eventually, or at least that the possibility of it is going to be a major plot point. I’ll have wasted a lot of agitation on nothing if this turns out not to be the case! Only then I’ll have to talk about queerbaiting, which is often even more aggravating than any of the above.

By the way, I think Dogkeeper is totally in love with Nezumi too. These poor women :\

The Phantom of the Opera — I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book since I was 12 or so. Quite a few; I’ve always loved it. But in some ways I feel like it’s… not very good.

First off, there’s this thing authors used to do that kinda drives me crazy and that was quite prevalent in the 17 and 1800’s, particularly in any work that smacked of fantasy or science fiction: they could never just tell a story in a straightforward manner, like First this happened Then that happened. There always had to be a framework story explaining the source of or even almost excusing the story they were about to tell; or else a conceit that otherwise maintained, I know this story is fantastic, but I swear it’s totally true!

Consider, for example, the utterly pointless framework narrative in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that adds nothing to the story except a poor and unnecessary attempt at rooting it in reality. Or how about the entire stupid voyage to the North Pole in Frankenstein that just tediously postpones the relation of events we actually want to read about? And remember the superfluous introduction to The Oval Portrait that Poe seemed to completely lose track of? Why did they do this??

The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t really have a framework, but it does do that thing where the author claims this is a true story he’s researched at great length, and the entire book is written with this conceit. Some sections are presented as quotes from official documents or memoirs in order to lend credence to the story, and the author speaks in first person from time to time (especially at the end) relating how he supposedly came across this information or into possession of these documents.

And this, I think, weakens and confuses the story to an extremely annoying degree. Actually it was kindof an epiphany this time around: nearly everything I dislike about this book stems from this researched-true-story format. Instead of telling a coherent story arranged for optimal sense and dramatic effect, Leroux lays out plot points every which-way and makes references to any part of the story he feels like whenever he wants to without caring that they may be spoilers.

It’s a great story, but its execution is pretty terrible… and all because the author felt like he needed to maintain this conceit of its having been a true story, and give evidence thereof throughout, instead of just telling it. Ugh. So frustrating.

There are a few other things that get me about this book (I really do love this book; I promise! I’m just a complainer.), and they kinda melt into each other. First, in the true spirit of early science fiction/gothic horror, Leroux wants to let the reader believe at first that Erik’s tricks really are supernatural. By the end you’re supposed to be like, Ah! It was all clever mechanical tricks! and admire the horrific ingenuity of O.G.’s mad mirror-moving skills. But at first, Leroux’s descriptions are deliberately misleading in order to fool you into thinking there’s something magical going on.

The problem is that it doesn’t work. A skilled ventriloquist could make an auditorium filled with people believe that an opera singer was croaking like a toad, sure, but the singer herself would in no way be convinced that the sound had come from her own throat. A rotating mirror might create some slight visual confusion, but the passage beyond it would not be invisible, and even any optical illusions created would not be enough to convince a reasoning adult observer that someone had disappeared inexplicably. A man might breathe underwater through a hollow reed, and you might convince me with some effort that he could even sing through it (OK, I doubt you could ever convince me of that; have you ever actually sung, Leroux??), but the resulting sound would not be in any way haunting or compelling or angelic.

The result of this continual nonsense is not that Erik appears particularly clever, or even that the reader ascribes supernatural powers to him — it’s that everyone else in the story comes across as a fucking idiot, especially Raoul. He reacts to everything so childishly (to give support to the idea of first supernatural and then clever mechanical tricks) that it’s difficult to think of him as the reasoning adult I referred to in the previous paragraph. He reads as so childish and stupid, in fact, that I can’t imagine what Christine sees in him.

OK, that’s not quite true. One of the things I do like about this book is that there’s a lot less toxic masculinity about Raoul than the type of story this is would seem to prescribe. He doesn’t try to make choices for Christine, or discount her experiences, or mansplain at her, nearly as much as I would expect, given the time period and his station in life and the situation he finds himself in. He’s allowed to feel and show emotion — even to cry — and in fact he even faints. He may be a childish idiot, but every time I read the book I like him a lot better than I’m expecting.

And he’s an excellent contrast for Erik. Raoul seems to lack genius of any kind, is relatively respectful of Christine as a person that can make her own choices, and is kinda stupid and… I’ll say childlike for purposes of contrasting him with Erik. Erik, who is a genius in multiple fields, seems to be very intelligent, and is clearly jaded and bitter and old in many senses of the word (though his actual age isn’t specified; I read him as being maybe in his 50’s).

And Erik is the quintessential stalker/abuser. Among other behaviors typical of the class, he starts by coaxing and ends by frightening and guilt-tripping Christine into cooperation, then hurts her and pretends she’s forced him to do it (and therefore that everything is her fault). Contrasted with this type of behavior, Raoul suddenly seems like a model love interest, and it’s probable Leroux didn’t feel he needed to work very hard developing Raoul’s character because of it XD

(Speaking of Erik as the quintessential abuser, here’s what makes me hatefully rage most about Weber’s musical. I think he adapted the story pretty well, and of course the music is wonderful, but making a Draco in Leather Pants out of the abusive murderer Erik was meant to be — a sexy anti-hero out of an unequivocal villain — is unforgivable.)

Hey, and also speaking of Erik and his weirdness! When — and, kinda more importantly, why — did he build a series of hollow bricks for optimal ventriloquism and a rotating mirror setup for optimal kidnapping in a random opera dressing room? There’s no way you can convince me he built all of that while Christine was occupying the room; even if he did his work only at night while that area of the opera house was unnoccupied, I can’t believe he could have gotten it done without anyone (particularly Christine) noticing that something was amiss.

And if he built all that stuff before she started using that particular room… why? I guess I could believe that she was elsewhere in the building and he’d already become fixated on her, so he modified an existing dressing room to suit his needs and then somehow managed to get her installed in it. Otherwise I have to assume that he fitted up a dressing room specifically on the off chance he wanted to give voice lessons to, and eventually kidnap, its inhabitant. You know, just in case. Or else did he set up the same bullshit in every dressing room in the opera house? That thoughts makes me laugh out loud.

OK, so, anyway. The Phantom of the Opera is a silly book with a lot more promise than delivery, but I love it and probably always will.

Something Like That by Kazymyr — This is a fairly short Riordanverse fic about Nico Di Angelo and Will Solace, a pairing I came out of The Heroes of Olympus absolutely snarling for more of and then squeed myself half to death about in The Hidden Oracle.

This was an adorable story, funny and sweet and touching all the way through. It was wonderful (and often tear-inducing) to watch Nico trying to get his head out of his ass and deal with living people; and the struggle with daddy issues (particularly regarding Octavian) hidden just under Will’s sunshine was just as poignant.

My favorite thing about the fic, though, was the excellent way the author managed to capture the family-like feeling of camaraderie Rick Riordan is so good at developing in canon. The banter between Will and Nico, as well as at meals with Percy and Jason, was fantastic too; some of the lines that made me laugh the loudest were spot-on Percy moments.

This story is the first in a series, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading the rest. The latest story is in-progress, though; what have I gotten myself into???

OK, let me take a moment to mention that I’ve always found the concept of “canon-compliant fanfiction” a little laughable. It’s fanfiction. It will always be non-canonical. However, I only really feel this way about making canon compliance a goal — like, specifically trying to avoid making any changes to anything established in canon. As a label that specifies, “This story adds onto existing canon without having to change anything in that canon,” I don’t mind the concept.

Because stories that fill in gaps are sometimes fun to read, and certainly a valid type of fanfiction. We know Nico and Will were eyeing each other at the end of The Blood of Olympus, and we know they’re together in The Hidden Oracle, so fanfiction to cover the get-together is an eminently desirable thing — especially since a lot of us like the get-together process better than just about anything else in the world XD

And of course this story is not and does not claim to be canon-compliant (particularly because it was written before The Hidden Oracle). But because it is that sort of fill-in-the-gaps type of fic, it got me thinking about that whole “canon compliance” idea, and how ridiculous it is (to me) when some fanfiction authors try so slavishly not to change anything while they’re in the process of coming up with original material outside of the canon.

I should really shut up now.

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