Finally, after many many weeks, I got around to doing a reading using the "What are the next steps on my path?" reading that I grabbed from DIY WITCHERY on Tumblr. I used Maggie Stiefvater's Raven's Prophecy deck, meaning I used her Illuminating the Prophecy book as well as the Anthony Louis book I usually use. I had to fill out a lot of these new in my notebook, which means a lot of these haven't popped up in readings I've done for myself since I started taking notes.
The first card is the Last Step card, showing the step on the path I just came from. This card is the Nine of Swords, the Nightmare card, which represents paralysis and depression, indicating that whatever this reading is about (I didn't have a specific thing in mind, just life in general, maybe writing, maybe job stuff, I dunno) and I admit that this is pretty accurate for a lot of how I've felt for most of this year. I've done no fiction writing and made little attempt at career advancement, and wasted untold hours being generally tired and fretty and Extremely Online. I guess the positive thing here is that this is the last step and not the current one, meaning I'm moving on from the paralysis. I'm not quite sure what the lesson from the previous step is, except possibly that I should take better care of myself.
The second card, which is the center card in the second column, is the Current Step card. It is important to know the lessons from the current step because they provide tools that may be useful in later steps. The card here is the Ten of Cups, the Joy card. This card basically means that things are going well--not just that you're happy internally, which is the Nine of Cups, but that things are in harmony and balance externally: your relationships are all going splendidly, etc. The lesson for this card, according to Stiefvater, is to not squander it. Coming out of the last step of depression and paralysis, this indicates to me that I'm basically in a safe space now and have room to become productive and do stuff again, which I shouldn't waste. But what should I do? I've been pretty good at generally keeping myself busy with regular ongoing nonsense and not necessarily accomplishing anything--haven't finished my novel, haven't been studying poker or Gaelic, haven't actually done much concretely in terms of organizing within DSA. But now is a good time to do whatever it is I want to do with a good time, apparently.
This seems to be borne out by the next card, the Next Step card, which indicates where my path with lead me next. This third card is the middle card of the third column, and it's Major Arcana I: The Magician, who represents "Mastery of special knowledge, focused energy" in Louis and "Ability, versatility, control, connections" in Stiefvater. The Magician indicates that you've been acquiring knowledge or engaging in some form of disciplined training or otherwise preparing to do stuff, and it's time to take that specialized knowledge or experience and go forth and use it to do some stuff. It's an auspicious card for initiating projects. I think the progression among the first three cards is clear, at any rate; the big question left is, what project do I focus on?
The fourth card, which is the bottom card of the second column, is the Advice card. Here it is the Ten of Wands, "The Weight of Ambition," which is basically a card that says you're trying to do too much stuff and you need to figure out how to share some of the workload so you don't burn out. This is probably good advice for me in that it is something I have been bad at my entire life; I try to do too many things and I don't like to ask for help. This ties in with some readings I've had done in the recent-ish past that basically indicate I need to cut the pointless stuff out of my life and prioritize better if I want to get anything done. I am not good at this and have done a lot of waffling over what it is I ought to prioritize, although since the last reading that said that (Gillian did the reading for me several weeks ago) I have done better at wasting less time on social media and reading the news.
The sixth and seventh cards, which are the top card in the second and third columns, oddly enough, are supposed to be input from whatever spirits or deities or other entities you want to hear from. I'm secular so I have no idea who or what I want to hear from, but I want to hear it, so I guess these two cards are words from An Uncaring Universe or the Law of Narrative Irony or something. Which is odd, because having included them in the spread I can only include that they sound like they're from my parents. The Ten of Coins is the Material Abundance card, which basically indicates material security and family support, and provides a reminder to pay it forward and think about other people in the future. The Emperor indicates rules and authority, but he is a dude who has rules for reasons, and according to Stiefvater provides a reminder that, if you're going "to slough off the authority of an Emperor, you must find the Emperor within yourself." In other words, discipline.
So, in short: I've been not doing much lately, but I'm in a good place now and it's time to do stuff, regardless of if I feel inspired, and to do stuff in a disciplined and forward-thinking manner. The cards, needless to say, do not tell me what kind of project I should be focusing on.
But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.
But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.
This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.
I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.
I was not disappointed.
The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)
The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.
The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.
If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.
With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).
I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.
The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.
I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.
Skull Sourcebook is literally just a big ol' coffee table book full of art with skulls in, which basically makes it the best art book ever, as far as I'm concerned. It is organized into sections like "Skulls in Music" and "Skull Tattoos," and there's also a "Skulls in Art" section for skull art that doesn't fit into any of the more specific categories. The "Skulls in Music" section kicks off with a multi-page Grateful Dead spread, which I appreciated. There's a bit of introductory text at the beginning of each section, about a page or two of it, and this is where my only real issue with the book comes in: This book badly needed an additional round of proofreading. I am incapable of not noticing these things.
I accomplished the reading bit in record time for a borrowed book, starting it first thing Sunday morning and finishing it just before dinner, because Sundays in the summer are for lounging around reading entire books in one sitting.
Uprooted follows in two of my favorite longtime fantasy traditions, which are "books based on fairy/folk tales" and "books about teenage girls with magic powers." Mostly it draws on Polish fairy tale traditions that I'm not super familiar with (for example, I did not catch that the witch Jaga was Baba Yaga until she was actually referred to as "Baba Jaga"—but I do know who Baba Yaga is). The premise of the book refers clearly to the well-known fairy tale trope of dragons capturing or demanding princesses and/or village maidens—a trope I've enjoying seeing upended since Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and that I think more authors should do stuff with—although it becomes pretty clear the second it is explained that the Dragon here is actually a wizard that we're looking at more of a Beauty and the Beast type of situation.
Beauty and the Beast, obviously, is a not entirely unproblematic sort of situation to be in, and Uprooted features a bunch of tropes that are sort of problematic if you think about them seriously, or that some readers might be tired of, but they were also the sorts of things that I was expecting and I think they were handled about as well as they could be without turning it into too serious of a novel. There is the usual Mr. Darcy problem that someone who is a gigantic asshole but really is nicer or better in some way underneath, or otherwise is an asshole for a reason, is still an asshole, because being terrible to people is bad. Agniezka, our heroine, does at points confront the Dragon about the ethics of terrorizing the village by taking one of its girls every ten years, even if he doesn't do anything bad to them; there is, of course, no way to actually make it not terrible that he's been scaring the shit out of his entire constituency for a century. He's also an awful, awful teacher at the beginning, well into being abusively so, especially when there's no communication about what it is that he's actually teaching. While we're at it, feudal monarchy is a terrible form of government.
Also, this is one of those books where the main character is special, and while she's not good at everything, the one thing she is really good at she is the best at. You are either in the mood for this sort of story or you should go read something else. I like this sort of story when it's executed well; this one, because of the nature of Agniezka's magic, has some parallels to Tamora Pierce's Immortals series, which was one of my favorites when I was wee.
The initially really harsh mentor is a fairly common fantasy trope that probably is bad praxis for anyone trying to become a teacher, and the "has important knowledge but is hilariously bad at actually teaching" trope is a less common one but a situation that I always find sort of hilarious (although the prize for this goes to Alabaster from N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, if only for the bit where Essun has to teach the basics of teaching to him before he can teach her the magic stuff). The inevitable romance between the Dragon and Agniezka actually only ends up happening once they figure out how to work their two very different types of magic together, and as a result, even though the Dragon spends most of the book being almost Edward Cullen-level intolerable as a person, the resulting romance, born as it is out of highly charged drift-compatible magic workings, ended up being more compelling to me than most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots. (Magic is sexy, OK?)
The villain in the book is the Wood, which is, as one would guess from the name, an evil forest that periodically sends out all sorts of horrors to carry people off and infect cows with some sort of grotesque hell-demon disease and make people go mad. The term used throughout the book for the malevolent essence of the Wood that gets into stuff is referred to just as "corruption," which I like, because it avoids having to use the word "darkness" for what is basically the age-old fantasy convention of having to defeat Darkness as a sort of literal force, like we see in The Dark is Rising and A Wrinkle in Time and that one Dead Alewives sketch where a dude casts Magic Missile at it. So it's the same idea, but corruption has a sort of dirty rotting biological feel to it rather than grand moral absolutism; a little more like Hexxus in Ferngully except it doesn't sing and is not played by Tim Curry. Eventually Agniezka does figure out what the Wood is and starts to fix it, but not before a series of events with a numbingly high body count, especially considering that the rest of the book is generally not that dark. In fact, I found the final battle to be perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I admit that writing climactic battles is very tricky to pull off.
The real key relationship in the book, though, isn't between Nieshka and the Dragon, or between the Wood and all the people around it, or between all the various intolerable political factions. It's the relationship between Nieshka and her childhood best friend Kasia, played in my brain by the late Russian model Ruslana Korshunova. Kasia was the one everyone assumed the Dragon would pick, because she was beautiful and clever and brave and kind and basically perfect, whereas Nieshka was basically a slatternly mess who was really good at gleaning mushrooms and berries and stuff in the woods, but nobody noticed because Kasia was around.
Ruslana Korshunova, the "Russian Rapunzel." RIP.
Kasia and Nieshka's friendship apparently cannot be ended by anything, whether it is the lifelong knowledge that Kasia will be taken away, or any of the strange things that happen to her after Nieshka is taken instead. Their friendship endures a lot of separation and some embarrassingly soul-baring magic as they both slowly transform into increasingly bizarre and powerful creatures, Nieshka essentially being the second coming of Baba Jaga, and Kasia turning into some sort of preternaturally strong tree warrior. I want a sequel of Kasia's adventures kicking ass and taking names and being a warrior-dryad. The I want an animated movie of it.
Overall, this is a very delightful book that was exactly the sort of thing I find restorative and comforting to read, provided you don't overthink it, and it makes me wish I knew more Polish fairy tales.