I saw Into the Woods last night. It was incredible. I was already a huge fan of the original musical, and while there were a few incidental changes, the movie did an excellent job of portraying the characters and exploring the complex, abstract themes in Sondheim’s original.
I could write a whole book on those themes and the way Into the Woods explores them. Maybe this’ll turn into a series of posts, or maybe I’ll get distracted by the weekend and never touch the subject again. Who knows. But anyway, the aspect of Into the Woods that I want to talk about in this post is how Into the Woods compares and contrasts to another Disney favorite of mine, Tangled. SPOILERS for both are ahead.
Into the Woods‘ Rapunzel arc and Tangled both tell the story of a young woman who’s spent her life hidden away from the world by a singing witch inspired by Bernadette Peters. Continue reading “Tangled Woods”→
Last year I reviewed Anthea Sharp‘s Feyland trilogy and the first book in her Feyguard spinoff series. Last month, Anthea sent me an advance review copy of the second Feyguard book, Royal. I unfortunately wasn’t able to finish it before the release date, but I enjoyed it as much as the rest of the series, and am now happy to recommend it to my readers.
Royal “Roy” Lassiter didn’t figure much into my review of the original trilogy, so here’s a recap. Roy is the son of the CEO of VirtuMax, the gaming company that developed Feyland. He’s first introduced in The Bright Court (Feyland #2) as a spoiled, entitled little bitch. A glamour spell makes him the most popular and intriguing student at his new school. He’s the guy all the guys want to be and all the girls want to be with. Until he loses the glamour spell, and the rest of the school sees him the way protagonists Jennet and Tam do – a mediocre person with a lot of style and little substance. I don’t know if this was intentional on the author’s part, but I saw him as a parody of Edward Cullen.
The Twilight Kingdom (Feyland #3) left the readers with the impression that Roy did have some substance after all; he’d just lacked the opportunity (both on- and offscreen) to develop it. He gets that opportunity in Royal. As the title implies, this time Roy is the protagonist, with Jennet and Tam in supporting roles.
Roy is now a member of the Feyguard and of Jennet, Tam, and Marny’s inner circle. He’s happier with this small group of friends than he ever was with throngs of followers. But Jennet and Tam’s happy couplehood is a constant reminder that he’s struck out with every romantic prospect he’s had since moving to Crestview. The reader can guess that he’ll get a chance with Brea Cairgead, an emissary from the Dark Queen disguised an exchange student from Ireland.
Brea and Roy are particularly well-suited for each other. They were both brought into the world as tools for a narcissistic creator’s own purpose, and they’re both trying to discover and cultivate identities beyond that origin. Roy is the only child of a materialistic corporate mogul who’s been grooming him to take over her empire from birth, right down to naming him Royal. Brea was just a fish (no, really) living a simple, carefree life in the waters of the Unseelie Realm until the Dark Queen remade her as a naiad and sent her to the human world to lure people into Feyland. Neither queen accounted for her creation having a will of its own. Roy doesn’t care about business or technology, and would rather develop his hidden talent as an artist. Brea would rather befriend humans than feed on their mortal essence. They both long to be seen for who they really are, but continue to hide it because they’re legitimately terrified of the consequences.
While Royal probably has the least actual gameplay out of the Feyland and Feyguard books, it keeps all the factors I’ve loved about the series so far. What gameplay there is shows a familiarity with real fantasy RPGs. Roy, Jennet, and Tam are all learning alternate characters in this volume, and they play them like competent gamers unused to a new class with new powers. There’s still no femmephobia or catty girl-hate. Brea is as literal a Manic Pixie Dream Girl as possible (a trope that can be handled positively imo), and neither Jennet nor Marny is threatened by her wispy fey mystique. Gender stereotyping is ignored in-universe. No one thinks twice about a girl playing a knight or a boy playing a caster who draws with light. Roy’s mother does have a meltdown when she finds he’s been drawing flowery pictures of faeries, but it’s not because the pursuit is insufficiently masculine; it’s because she doesn’t see any money in it. (One has to wonder how much she paid her graphic designer.) The fact that Brea has never played video games isn’t brushed off as “Meh, she’s a girl”. Instead, it tips Jennet off to the fact that she isn’t human.
Ultimately the focus on the characters is what makes Royal worth the read. It’s great to see Jennet and Tam’s relationship, officially established at the end of the Feyland trilogy, progress with little angst or drama. Marny continues to be everything. I really hope she gets her own Feyguard book complete with a worthy love interest, because she’s one of my favorite things about this series. Although one of the best things about her is that she’s happy and confident without a boyfriend, I want to see someone love Marny as much as she loves herself. And, of course, the heart of the book is Roy and Brea finding the truth about themselves and each other. The end of their story is bittersweet without being tragic, and hopeful without being easy.
I discovered Anthea Sharp’s Feyland books in Story Bundle’s young adult bundle. The excerpt from the prologue of Feyland: The Dark Realm piqued my interest in that it avoided a lot of cliches that annoy me. Its futuristic setting didn’t suck significantly more or less than the present. The teenage heroine, Jennet Carter, wasn’t described as a misunderstood outsider. There was no femmephobia to be seen. The narrative didn’t talk about how Jennet wasn’t pretty and then describe her as a conventionally attractive white girl. (It describes her as a conventionally attractive white girl and acknowledges that she’s pretty. Which I have no problem with.) And most of all, Jennet being both a conventionally attractive girl and an awesome gamer was completely taken for granted. I wanted to read more.
Okay, that wasn’t all that made me want to read more. Jennet was portrayed as an awesome gamer without being a perfect gamer. The story opens with Jennet having almost completed an unreleased immersive virtual reality game called Feyland. She’s facing the final boss. And then she loses, which, in a touch of realism, she expected to happen. Because everyone loses to the final boss the first time. Jennet expects the game to load last save and let her fight the boss again.
But no such luck. The final boss, the Dark Queen, isn’t just a video game character. She is the actual fey Queen of the Dark (or Unseelie) Court, and she’s using the game as a portal to the human realm so she can feed off of humans’ “mortal essence”. Humans like Jennet. Who is now doomed to die in the real world unless she can meet the Queen’s demand for a “champion” and face her in battle again.
This leads Jennet to classmate and fellow gamer Tam Linn. If you’re familiar with Scottish ballads (I wasn’t), you know where this is going. Either way, you know Tam is going to be Jennet’s love interest. I like the way Sharp writes their relationship as characters and even more as gamers. In-game, Jennet is a mage and Tam is a knight. There are no straw feminist moments when Tam puts himself between Jennet and whatever is attacking them. Both of these experienced gamers recognize that Tam is just playing a tank, while Jennet’s squishy wizard stays safely out of range and does damage and crowd control from a distance. Tam messes up sometimes. Jennet messes up sometimes. Both of them have each other’s backs. And while their shared love of gaming is a big part of their mutual attraction, at no point is a cute girl who likes fantasy and video games given unicorn status.
In fact, it’s established early on in the book that Jennet is one of several female gamers at her new school, including Tam’s best friend Marny. Marny is another favorite thing about this series. First, she’s tall and plus-sized (the third book implies Samoan ancestry) and is proud of her body. We first meet her when she’s trying to design an avatar and is upset that the game won’t let it be fatter. Second, while she’s initially suspicious about wealthy Jennet’s motives for hanging out with ghetto kids like her and Tam, she isn’t catty or insecure about the difference in their appearance. We never get any indication that Marny resents Jennet’s thinness or blondeness. Third, Marny’s combination of gaming skills and femaleness is taken for granted as much as Jennet’s. And possibly the thing I love most about Marny’s character…she is not romantically interested in Tam. At all. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, a young adult series with no love triangle! A guy and a girl are like brother and sister and neither wants to be anything else! And the girl develops a genuine friendship with her best friend’s girlfriend! This dynamic continues throughout the two sequels, Feyland: The Bright Court and Feyland: The Twilight Kingdom.
I can’t talk much about this aspect of Feyland’s awesomeness without giving too many spoilers: the way the series draws on real British Isles mythology. Tam’s name and a major plot point in the first book come from “The Ballad of Tam Lin,” which Sharp includes in Feyland: The Dark Realm‘s appendices. Feyland itself is divided between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Archetypical fey folk like Puck, the Wild Hunt, and changelings appear throughout the series in pivotal roles.
The first of a new series in the Feyland universe, Feyguard, is due for release on November 30, 2013. Spark centers on Spark Jaxley, a female professional gamer who’s introduced in Feyland: The Twilight Kingdom. If Anthea Sharp continues her winning combination of great characters, great use of folklore, and great depictions of gaming, I’m sure I’ll love her new series as much as the first.