AEL: David Copperfield, Guardian of the Horizon, The Dark is Rising, Leia Princess of Alderaan, The Last Jedi, early Batman comics

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens — I was excited for this book, not only because I hadn’t read it in probably 25 years but also because it would, I thought, be interesting to read a long Dickens soon before Christmas (when, as you may recall, we always read A Christmas Carol aloud over snacks on the Eve).

And just to start out with, having read this book reinforces my opinion that A Christmas Carol is far from being Dickens’ best work. But I’m not going to get into A Christmas Carol thoughts here again; most of my ideas this year were just elaborations on what I related last year in regard to the novella and various adaptations. I’m considering writing an actual essay on the subject, but that will probably never happen.

So. David Copperfield. This book is possibly the quintessential Catalog of Abuse, and certainly one of the primary examples of that trope from the era that popularized it. There are certain points in the early story I almost couldn’t handle, and it was only Dickens’ mad skill at prose that allowed me to do so. Because his construction of the narration, truly remarkably, smooths away any issues I might have; even in the saddest scene, there’s often a little twist of hilarity at the end of a long sentence that improves the mood and makes the tragedy not merely tolerable but often actively enjoyable. (See, Shakespeare, that’s how you do comic relief.)

This is the type of story about which I have to continually adjust my expectations in order to enjoy. I’m used to a more focused narrative with the traditional beginning, middle, and end, often with one clear, major goal that is met (or specifically discarded in favor of some important lesson learned) by the conclusion. David Copperfield is a rambling life story with, yes, a number of narrative threads that wrap up with the meeting or discarding of some goal, but no overall connecting thread beyond “this one guy’s ongoing experience.” This is not a bad thing in any way, but sometimes I get caught up in waiting for the drop in a mix — waiting for the “point” of a book — and in a story like this, such a moment may be long in coming.

Uriah Heep may be the most loathsome character in all of literature. Which is not to say this book isn’t chock-full of hateful people. The Murdstones, Steerforth, fucking Rosa Dartle… Dickens really outdid himself here. I even dislike poor Dora, though she’s not, of course, in the same class as the others I’ve mentioned. It’s just marvelous how this writer could populate someone’s life so thoroughly with such thoroughly horrific characters.

Speaking of Dickens characters, I wonder if there’s a literary (or even TV Tropes) name for this thing he always did: the story and its characters are a perfect blend of realism and exaggeration. Even when you can accept the over-the-top nature of an individual character or circumstance, the combination of droves of these somewhat ridiculous names and characteristics and situations strain credulity even in the midst of an entirely believable and totally serious narrative. It’s kinda like Disney movies where the main characters are animated with a relatively realistic stylization, but periphery characters are grossly exaggerated in feature and figure.

And I don’t mean to say that this is at all a bad thing or makes me enjoy Dickens less. Just, this blend of silly and serious is something interesting I’ve noticed in works other than his (and that were probably inspired by his), specifically Harry Potter — and I think it makes such works difficult to enjoy for literal-minded people and extremely difficult to adapt into other media (though we all know what my opinion already is about adapting books into other media).

I wish we got to see Emily’s train of thought. It’s the type of detail that’s always glossed over in books like this, taking second stage to the never-tiring (and indeed very admirable, but perhaps less interesting) desire of Mr. Peggotty to find and save her. I would love to know exactly what motivated her to do what she did, how her thoughts and feelings on the matter changed with her circumstances, and how she felt about the way everything wrapped up with her. But, once again, the men’s stories (Mr. Peggotty’s search and Ham’s reaction and death) are evidently soOoOo much more important than that of a mere woman, even if she is a major player *rolleyes*

I remembered, from back when I read this book as a child, that Mr. Micawber brought about Uriah’s downfall somehow, and I was eagerly waiting for that to happen, but I had forgotten that he was essentially undercover (and not at ease with his wife in so being) for a freaking year in order to accomplish this. The man’s a Poe-damned hero. He’s comical and kindof annoying, but his almost incredible dedication to this noble cause makes him a highly admirable person nonetheless.

I don’t remember whether I’ve mentioned it before, but something that touches me deeply in some works is the sense of family that builds up among the characters (usually characters that are not technically a family); and even in the midst of more pointed tragedy such as abuse and death, I find the most tragic aspect of some stories to be the breakup of a set of characters that have developed this sense (looking at you, Cowboy Bebop).

So when David Copperfield takes a turn into The Tale of the Copperfield Family Versus Little Shit and His Horrible Mother, you better believe I’m on the sideline shaking my pom-poms and crying my eyes out. The family unit of David and his aunt and Mr. Dick and Agnes and Traddles and Micawber (and, yes, poor stupid Dora) is so sweet and engaging as a unit that it makes me love the book even more.

And I definitely loved the book. Usually something this long I divide into pieces (putting two other books in the middle) so I don’t get burned out and start to dislike it for no other reason than that it’s long and I have concentration issues… but I blazed straight through this one without pause (even for fanfiction!!) with no trouble whatsoever. That may be a new record!

Guardian of the Horizon by Elizabeth Peters — Obviously I’ve already gone on (and on and on) about Autobody-Shopping particularly regarding this book, and I’m starting to tag these AEL’s with certain common concepts I mention in them for ease of location later. Anyway, one of the many ways in which Autobody-Shopping is poor writing, I believe, is that, in a book like this set earlier than it was written (LOL they all are, but you know what I mean), it changes the tone of the book in comparison to those that fall chronologically around it.

Going from The Ape Who Guards the Balance to Guardian of the Horizon (and, by the way, it’s only just occurred to me how irritating those thematically similar titles are in succession like that), I, at least, find this abrupt drastic increase in Autobody-Shopping jarring. Like, why now, all of a sudden? Obviously the explanation for so many horrible aspects of this habit applies: because the book was written out of sequence, and either the author or the publisher believed either that nobody would ever read the series in chronological order or felt that the Autobody-Shopping for the sake of the new-release readers was worth aggravating every subsequent later reader or rereader forever more.

Anyway, I really like this book. There were various reasons for returning to the City of the Holy Mountain — tying up loose ends from Last Camel, giving Nefret some closure, rectifying the precarious political situation the last trip as well as the inevitability of technological advancement and the passage of time left the place in — and, though many of these considerations are mostly or entirely meta, some of them apply to the characters’ motivations as well.

But the greatest reason to go back to the Holy Mountain lies entirely out-universe, and I’m only surprised it took her as long as it did to write it; I’d be willing to bet it was bugging the crap out of Peters for the entire second half of the series: the desire to BRING FUCKING SETHOS into this situation. Sethos + Holy Mountain is a match made in heaven, and one of the reasons I love this book so much. Gah, I love Sethos.

And of course he would have found his way there almost immediately after Amelia inadvertently tipped him off about it.
Though I have to wonder exactly how soon, and what his medical condition was when he made his first expedition. We never find out for sure what state he was in when he was shot as Cyrus; that seemed pretty dire. Anyway, his involvement here is perfect and scratches an itch I didn’t know I had.

But moving on from Sethos. You know I wonder what Amelia’s actual religious convictions really are? She mentions religion and claims a strong belief on a regular basis, but it comes across as more than a little falsified. Of course that’s a lot of her experiences and personality — she’s history’s greatest unreliable narrator — but sometimes I’m curious about certain things going on in her head that she just doesn’t seem to relay to us accurately.

One thing that makes me happy about this book is seeing Ramses having a simple, briefly comforting relationship. His long pining for Nefret gets a little frustrating for more than just him, after all, and it’s nice for him to get some satisfaction in the middle of his despair. I like how Daria breaks it down for him, and the sex-positivity behind their purely sexual relationship, even if Ramses does have the inevitable “I want to marry you!” moment.

In thinking about the delightful sense of family I got during David Copperfield, I was by necessity reminded of one drawback to the entire Amelia Peabody series: that this sense of family doesn’t exist nearly so strongly among the Emersons, who actually are a family, and their circle, as it reasonably should. Of course the Emersons are the most dysfunctional family ever written, and seem to retain cohesion through sheer will power, so that’s not really a surprise… but it is kinda sad.

Favorite moment in this installment: “Beaded collars!” That was my text-tone for my mom for the longest time. These days I always have my phone on vibrate, but if I ever get back to sound I will probably reinstate that particular tone because it’s hilarious.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper — I don’t know if there’s some significance to the age 11 that ties in with the various mythologies Cooper works with in these books, but I’ve always felt it’s too young. Yeah, yeah, Will’s an Old One and not properly a child and has all this great knowledge and these powers and shit, but the way he behaves strains credulity when I remember he’s technically lived for only 11 years. His moments of acting like a child are few and far between, and not even entirely 11-ish anyway.

I remember thinking, the last time I read this series, that after these first two books the author made an effort to give women a bigger role in the story. I recall there eventually being a female Lord of the Dark. I hope I get that impression again, because I don’t get a very good impression during the first two books.

Srsly, the Lady, super powerful and revered and apparently hugely important in the conflict between the Dark and the Light, gets pwnd at our first meeting with her, and when she comes back she never does anything. Maggie Barnes, far from being a Lord of the Dark or even a major player like Hawkin, is referred to by the rather diminutive title of “witch-girl.” The two female members of Will’s family that play any important role do so by falling down a flight of stairs and getting taken hostage. John Smith’s wife, evidently a fellow Old One, literally does not get a name. It’s just… not a very rewarding or involved story for women.

This series gets surrealism right, though. And of course by “gets it right” I mean “uses it in a way I can tolerate and even enjoy,” so this is a totally subjective assessment XD And I only bring it up because I was recently wounded by Robin McKinley’s usual fare and therefore have surrealism — and what I enjoy and what I don’t — on my mind.

There is a certain type of intersection of surrealism or allegory with realism that sometimes doesn’t work, however, and I think we definitely have a heavy dose of that here in the overall nature of the Dark vs. Light conflict. Because the whole thing, when you look at it too closely, doesn’t make any damn sense.

So we have this ongoing struggle between good and evil without any real motivation established on either side and no evident direction from any higher power than themselves. Of the Dark Will notes, Such creatures were not born to their doom, like the Old Ones, but chose it. So some people, for whatever reason, choose the Dark, but some people are predestined for the Light. But why?

Any writer can tell you that the motivations of the villain (even more than the motivations of every other character, which are all important) are some of the most crucial aspects of a story. A person may choose to do (what I at least would consider) evil for a variety of reasons. They may commit murder out of anger; they may steal out of avarice; they may write fantasy novels in which women are raped over and over again and try to hide behind ‘historical accuracy’ out of a desire for self-aggrandizement. But you know one reason almost all people that ever live don’t have for choosing to do evil? “Because it’s evil.” Evil for evil’s sake is something that happens largely in Saturday morning cartoons (if those still exist).

If you believe in a Satan-esque figure, an active intelligence trying its best to tempt humans into doing wrong, it’s a little easier to accept the idea of evil for evil’s sake… but really only in the Satan-esque figure itself. Because the temptations still have to have some rationality behind them. Nobody’s going to insinuate into your mind the idea, “Lie on your tax forms because it’s eeeevil…” They’re going to say, “Lie on your tax forms because a bigger return means you can get a new tattoo this year.” There’s still going to be a reasonable motivation behind whatever you’re being prompted to do wrong, an understandable goal being progressed toward that’s more than this silly concept of being bad for the sake of it.

And yet, as I mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be any driving intelligence in this conflict — no Satan-esque figure directing the movements of the Dark — and the Dark’s apparent goal is ‘to rise.’ And maybe the individuals of the Dark are moved by a desire for power over others; that, at least, is a time-tested motivation that holds up pretty well… but that’s never clearly established.

The Dark is just this nebulous menace whose individual members — at least its proper members, if not necessarily the hired help like Mrs. Palk — do some tricky magical things to further the greater goal but don’t seem to have any recognizable desires. They’re not trying to hoard 99% of the world’s wealth or exercise undue control over women’s bodies or deny climate change, as far as I can tell; they’re not really trying to do much of anything.

Meanwhile, the Light’s entire purpose appears to be to thwart the Dark. There’s no active reason for them to exist, only a reactive one. They Old Ones aren’t born to a destiny of ending world hunger or giving Flint clean water or encouraging literacy; they’re just there to stop the Dark from rising. And I’m kinda tempted to say, “Who cares?” The Dark is doing its little rising thing and the Light is doing its little thwarting thing, the whole thing is silly, and I’m content to let them get on with it over there somewhere.

Except that in the meantime the books are so much fun.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray — TMS recommended reading this book before seeing The Last Jedi, so I did. Have I mentioned my history with Star Wars novels? I used to own, like, 86 of them, though of that number I’d probably only read about 75 since I started losing interest before I got through all of what I’d collected. Those books, of course, are now called “Legends” and no longer part of the canon. Honestly I don’t regret their loss; there was some decent stuff in there, but far too much Kevin J. Anderson, and Mara Jade was totally wasted on whiner-boy Luke.

Aaaanyway. This is the first of the new canon novels I’ve read, and not only did I appreciate the recommendation to read it before TLJ, since I felt it revealed depth to parts of the movie that I wouldn’t otherwise have perceived, I enjoyed it very much for its own sake. Of course I’ve seen the breakdown — who hasn’t? — of how very, very, very little time onscreen and few lines female characters get in the original trilogy, but it had never really occurred to me until now just how little characterization Leia actually has in the movies. She’s… feisty? She’s a good shot? We’re given to believe she is or becomes a good leader. That’s… about it, really. This book definitely improved on that.

Yes, I liked Leia in the book very much, and enjoyed watching her grow and learn. And I adored the Organa family, the love they feel for each other and their interactions. Breha is a total badass. I also really enjoyed Leia’s romance with Kier; it felt natural and sweet and very appropriate for her first love. The end of his story, by the way? Holy shit, that was good stuff.

Because the fledgling rebellion aspect of this book was excellent. The various problems in starting such a movement, the conflicting ideals (loved the mention of Saw Gerrera, BTW!), the dangers and uncertainties and the moral questions… it was all portrayed so well. I felt like Leia came out of it really understanding what was at stake after the loss of Kier and the reasons he’d had for doing what he did; this first personal experience with war and rebellion demonstrated poignantly how she developed the strength we see in her later.

I was also very fond of Amilyn. Then when I saw TLJ that solidified into intense love. What a great character! I mean, she’s basically Luna Lovegood In Space, but that’s fine; drawing inspiration from other sources is a valid method of forming a character. Anyway I just adored her friendship with Leia, and I wouldn’t mind some fic about them in a romantic relationship for a while either.

But where this book hit hardest, and makes me shiver just thinking about in retrospect, is in the Irony of Inevitability I’ve mentioned before. In fact this is the ultimate example: the reader is so painfully aware Alderaan will be destroyed in about four years and that every single person on the planet will die, a good percentage of the book as a whole and especially several specific lines and passages are stabbingly ironic and poignant. Take this, for example–

“You can always invite your friends to our home,” Breha said. “Which is why you should go to the ball tomorrow night on Coruscant. That will only ever happen once, while your home will always be here.”

I MEAN HOLY SHIT MAN. The author brilliantly twists that knife over and over and over again, leaving you feeling exhausted and prostrate from tragedy in the best possible way. That’s what fanfiction should be. That’s what our medium is all about.

So, yeah, I definitely recommend this book not only to any Star Wars fan, but as a specific tie-in with The Last Jedi and for anyone wanting to know more about Vice Admiral Holdo.

Before I move on to the film in question, I have to take a moment to discuss a few things in the audiobook version of this book. I understand that a lot of Star Wars audiobooks do this thing where there’s constantly music and sound effects and voice effects and such, and, seriously, FUCK THAT SHIT.

Is it not bad enough that some audiobooks feel the need to put music at the beginning and end and make me want to throw axes and poison-tipped shuriken and small buildings at them? What is this whole-hog beginning-to-end barrage of noises?? This is not an audio drama; it is an audio book. It is a book. If I wanted to watch a Star Wars movie with a full score and sound effects and all that shit, THERE ARE NINE OF THEM NOW. AAAARRRRRGH.

Also, though this narrator, Saskia Maarleveld, is good (she doesn’t read Amilyn’s tones quite as described, but I’m satisfied with her performance on the whole), at one point she gives very distinctly masculine and feminine voices to characters referred to with “they” pronouns, and that annoyed the crap out of me. I felt like the author had gone out of her way to remove binary gender from that scene, and the narrator inflicted it on the characters anyway. Come on! The galaxy’s bigger than that!

The Last Jedi — I was so so so so freaking excited to see more of Amilyn. In the book, when she and Leia were the fastest of friends forever near the end, I was like, Aww, that’s adorable; too bad I’ll never hear anything about her ever again. But her sacrifice scene was so badass, both in story terms and visually. How awesome she is. I’d really like more of her in the intervening years (since what I thought at the end of the book was still practically true), but I was very glad to see her here.

The plot of this movie kinda felt all over the place, yet I was surprised at how well the entire thing flowed. It didn’t feel too long, and I never really got bored or impatient. Of course we’ll have to see how much I enjoy it on future watchings.

I liked how personal everything felt. Though there were physical conflicts, often on a large scale, characters’ relationship with the Force and with duty and honor (and with each other) seemed more central to the story being told.

I’m interested in and even pleased by the conclusion Luke reached about the Jedi Order. Of course one can have very little respect for the Order as it existed at the (chronological) beginning of the series, but also can’t help feeling a little of the awe the characters do now for this nearly forgotten monument of the past. And the idea that the Force is so much bigger and more interconnected a thing than one order can channel is so interesting. I really wonder where they’re going to go with that.

I can absolutely see Luke reacting the way he did to the moment he had — that moment of, “Oh, shit, I’ve gotta kill my nephew” — which was something that could shake anyone deeply and destroy their belief in the infallability of their training, their own motivations, and the traditions they ostensibly follow. But would he have had that moment in the first place? Of that I’m not so sure. This is the guy that was so stupidly convinced he could rescue his father — his father that had actually done tons of bad shit for decades, as opposed to a nephew that was merely corrupted in his heart but hadn’t, as far as I know, committed any actual evil yet — that he basically harassed and annoyed Darth Vader into betraying his longtime master.

And, seriously, Luke’s always been a whiny, obnoxious person and kindof a shit Jedi, so this isn’t a deal-breaker for me. I don’t know that I find it entirely feasible, but it doesn’t ruin the story for me the way I know it does for some other fans. What I do wish is for a fill-in novel about Luke to give us a little more perspective on the changes he’s gone through. The leap from Return of the Jedi to this new set of movies isn’t impossible for me to make, but I think some supplemental material would ease the transition a little for more fans than just my easygoing self.

Meanwhile, I loved seeing Leia actively use the Force. I totally respect that other considerations in her life kept her from becoming a Jedi herself, but it’s always been a little frustrating not to see her demonstrate her power along those lines. The brief scene here where she did was extremely satisfying. Princess, General, all-’round badass, and also SHE CAN FLY THROUGH SPACE.

Interesting that Snoke turned out to be a shorter-term and less developed villain than some of us anticipated. I like having Kylo take over the First Order at this point, though; it’s a more interesting progression than having Snoke for three movies and feeling like we’ve got yet another copy-pasted element from the original trilogy in this Emperor Palpatine clone.

Also, tension with Hux ahead! It’s getting more and more difficult to ship Kylo Ren and Hux except in a hilarious way, but shipping them was always more or less a joke, so I’m not going to stop now.

There were indeed a lot of familiar story elements to this movie, but I feel about retreading them the same way I feel about reading many different fics about the same characters: y’all keep remixing; I’ll keep enjoying.

People say the Finn/Rose part of the story was entirely pointless, but they only think that, I believe, because the plan failed. It reminds me of To Build a Fire, a story in which you wouldn’t say all the dude’s attempts at building a fire are pointless. Though I agree that parts of it (particularly the chase scene on Canto Bight) needed to be edited way down, I loved that subplot and I even loved that the mission failed. In a story like this, a mission like that always succeeds, and it was nice to see people trying so hard at a decent idea and, for once, not beating the million-to-one odds.

I liked this movie very much. Still weird to be a Star Wars fan again.

Early Batman comics — Way back at Halloween, I stepped into my local comic book shop to show off my Robin costume, and thought it would be appropriate to purchase something Batman-related while I was there. I happened upon Batman: The Golden Age Volume 1, and was interested to see how this beloved set of characters got their start.

So obviously I dove into these 1930’s comics expecting ugly art, poor writing, racism, and sexism, and I found it all in droves. No surprises there. What did rather shock me was the total lack of artistic merit and even apparent potential for artistic merit. I mean, I was anticipating terrible comics, but… not quite this terrible.

They leave me wondering who looked at this bullshit and thought, Yeah, this has promise; we could make something really good out of this. Because if I’d read any of this before I’d seen modern interpretations of Batman, I would have laughed my ass off and moved on. I love reading this old nonsense because it’s hilarious, not because I get any legitimate enjoyment out of it as a work of art.

I suppose it must gradually get better (I’m still in, like, 1940) until eventually it starts to read like a sensible story told about real characters with some thought behind it… but, damn, Batman got off to a rough start.

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