May 9, 2014

Flights of fantasy

Here I plan to document some of my favorite fantasies, their characteristics, similarities, differences, themes, etc. This post may change with time. Here goes:

With the popularity of Harry Potter, the niche genre of fantasy shot into the mainstream and stayed there. Since then, every year one or the other fantasy series has climbed the charts and garnered critical acclaim. After Harry Potter elbowed out adult books in the bestseller lists, the publishing industry responded by creating a new category called ‘young adult fiction.’ Most fantasies that fit this category today seem to be responding to Harry Potter in some way, some with obvious adoration like Mortal Instruments, and some with refutation of Harry Potter’s tight plot like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Harry Potter was notable for dishing out grown up themes like death without patronizing children, and some books like Hunger Games responded by taking such themes further.

The virtual deluge of fantasies since then can sometimes be hard to navigate. Here’s a helpful guide to some of the best fantasy books out there, some well known and some not so much, but all worth your while.

Mortal Instruments
By Cassandra Clare
The writer admits to being an avid fan of the Harry Potter series. You can find many elements in this book that remind you of Harry Potter, like an academy for wizards (though they are not called that), and a protagonist who discovers her magical powers only late in life. But soon, the book starts taking flights of its own, and leaves you breathless with its smart and fast plot. By book two, it leaves Harry Potter behind with an interesting maze of a plot and heartbreaking characters that you will fall in love with. Also, this series is an example of how adolescent books after Harry Potter have been gingerly stepping into ‘grown up’ territories: this one explores forbidden sexuality, which was a subject Harry Potter stayed far away from, even though it is of prime concern to adolescents.

Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Because of its adolescent characters, the Hunger Games trilogy definitely falls under ‘young adult fiction’. But one generation ago, parents would not have allowed their children to read this book that traverses the ‘grown up’ territory of dystopia with ease. This series can be called fantasy noir, starting as it does with a cynical protagonist in a crumbling world. She never does shed her thick skin, and we are not sure if her crumbling world builds itself again. Gone are the days when fantasy meant a giant lion riding in at the last moment to save the world (Aslan of Narnia). Here little girls learn to survive, because if they don’t they will be demolished by their harsh society. And if they survive that, the government will crush them like ants. This series depicts how war can force children to grow up early, how trauma can leave you broken for years, and how it can tear normal families apart.

A Series of Unfortunate Events
By Lemony Snicket
If you are looking for answers, solution to mysteries, or to happy endings, turn around. This book is not for you. The writer warns you of the same many times, and yet you want to go on, to be with three uniquely gifted children (one inventor, one scholar, and one infant biter) who lost their parents to a fire. They are then shadowed by thugs who are after their parents’ vast property. The trio’s misadventures are not for the fainthearted: They never manage to kill their villain, never find out what killed their parents and what secrets they had nurtured. There is no poetic justice. You never even know the identity of the writer! But if you want to read a book sparkling with wit where every line shines like poetry, go for this aimless ride that you will enjoy. Also, we have a genius female lead who plausibly saves the situation most of the times.

Wind on Fire
By William Nicholson
Like many modern fantasies, Wind on Fire explores a dystopian world where people are not free to make choices about their lives. How the protagonists rescue their world forms the story of the first book of this trilogy. In the meantime, the writer creates entirely original fantasy characters: old children who are ready to infect everyone else with a touch, soldiers who will fall to death just so that other soldiers can climb upon their body and cross a gorge. The haunting concepts often have no explanation or origin. But then the plot goes into how after freedom, delirium can make people complacent and weak, ripe for picking by power-hungry lords. And this needs no explanation because it rings true. The trilogy then explores the concept of slavery: is it really bad if you are well fed and happy with your duties? Finally, it ends with what true freedom means.

His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman
This trilogy about an epic battle between the Devil and a little girl was published the same year as Harry Potter was. So in many ways, it is uncontaminated by the fantasy fever that swept the world after Harry Potter, and shows you the possibilities of what fantasy could have been if different writers had followed different paths. Like most fantasies, this one, too, is an epic, but at the heart of it is not a battle between good and evil but between childhood and growing up, innocence and experience, and sin and love as defined by the Bible. Though it is a fantasy, the series walks through complex real subjects like physics (multiple universes), theology (was God simply the first being that came into existence, who claimed ownership of everything that came after?), and morals (is it right to sacrifice one for the sake of many)?

The Owl Service
By Alan Garner
If you want to read a fantasy completely unconnected to current trends, this is the book for you. The Owl Service is the name of a set of china plates and bowls, in other words, Service, that depicts owls. Three teenagers find themselves embroiled in an ancient myth—of a woman who is made from flowers and becomes an owl—that comes alive every generation. The classic Welsh plot of one woman and two men, divided loyalties, and betrayal is borrowed from real myth of a woman called Blodeuwedd. It recurs time and again in a little village with new characters, and it is up to the characters how they handle it: whether they punish themselves and bind each other again as owls, or whether they set themselves free as flowers. With lilting language that gives a glimpse into the beliefs of Welsh society, this little book is a joyride.

Petrol (dispenser): Girl’s new best friend

“I don’t want a diamond ring, all I want from my man is an unlimited petrol supply,” said someone on my facebook wall. The words rang over and over in my ears, and I nodded inwardly. I had been standing in line for an hour already, and I was ready to give my heart and soul for a litre of petrol. Actually, ‘line’ is an understatement because five motorbikes stood abreast in each row, with the threat of a sixth coming and joining them from the side whenever possible. The pump owners had put up a rope to cordon off a waiting area, but since the area could fit only two bikes in a row, the rope had long since been trampled.

Despite standing in line for an hour, the line had barely moved two inches. Time and again someone (presumably with at least half a tank of petrol) would talk about leaving the quest and going home, but since the motorbikes were meshed like fingers of two hands linked together, the only way to get out was to fly. I decided to make use of the time. I took out a book and settled down on my cushy scooter seat. Immediately, the honking started from behind, “Sister, you need to be a little active,” said the most insensitive of them. Yea, if I put down my book and stared fixedly at the petrol dispenser like he did, the line would move forward magically.

I soon realized I could not concentrate on reading because a fight had broken out between motorbike owners and car owners, each pulling one hand of the petrol dispenser. Others joined in and soon it became a tug of war, with the petrol dispenser in danger of having his hands torn off. The police arrived, whistles started blowing, and the problem was apparently solved by limiting the supply: Rs. 500 worth petrol for motorbikes, and Rs. 1,000 for cars.

It was not over for some. There was one drunken man who threaded his way through the motorbikes, telling each and everyone how he had championed their case against the cars. I had supported him as he made his argument, but I did not want to stand there patting his back while I should be watching for loopholes in the line.

But what annoyed me the most was neither the slow line nor the brawls, nor the drunkard who continued singing for the next half an hour. It was the man beside who kept his engine running the whole time, ready to lurch whenever the line inched forth. I had just enough petrol to get me halfway home, from then on I would have to drag it. “If you have so much petrol, why are you in the line in the first place?” I fumed inwardly.
Besides me, some people were facing bigger problems. A girl in stylish red top and high heels paced the pavement back and forth, restless like a cat. She often sent irritated glances at our direction, and I trembled as I asked myself if I knew her. But then she turned around and addressed the guy behind me and I heaved a sigh of relief.

“Rajuuuuuu, why don’t you doooo something? Look, people who came later than you are so far ahead of you, some of them even got petrol and left. Start your bike, take out the money, just DO something,” she yelled, waving her arms wildly at the offending motorbikes that had managed to get petrol.

My friend’s facebook status again rang in my ears. They used to say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Not any more, no more. I looked back at the guy, expecting a grumpy face, but he had a remarkably calm expression. He had started his bike and was taking out his purse as she had asked. Since there were 30 bikes ahead of him (5X6), I doubted if that would help. In the end, neither he nor I were successful – the petrol ran out. As we wheeled our motorbikes away, I could hear her muttering under her breath, “Useless fellow, utterly useless!”

He must really love her! I wondered how many others, who did not have such a deep bond, had broken up in this season of scarcity.

“How do you manage to get petrol?” I asked my colleague at work the next day. She was happily driving to work everyday. “I’m just friendly with the local petrol pump owner,” she replied. “He lets me know before the lines even form, so I get there first.” Well, I was on smiling terms with my local petrol pump guy too! I decided to extend my friendship to him from that very day. He had a pot belly. I reminded myself it wasn’t about looks.

But I soon realized that this was not the right time for friendship bands. I had two plastic bottles with me, having left my empty scooter at home. I hovered around him with the bottles, but he did not even return my smile. To my annoyance, the same drunkard from the day before was championing the cause of motorbikes again, and leading a movement to ban plastic bottles. The previous day, as I supported him, I had never realized the tides would turn so fast against me.

“Get away, girl,” said my would-be-best-friend petrol dispenser. “They will all yell at us if we give petrol in bottles. If you stand here, you just disturb us at work.” There goes my new best friendship, BOOM!
I could not think of giving up when I was this close to the magic liquid. Desperately, I called my sister to bring her scooter. She must have understood my desperation, for she left her warm cocoon at home, arrived in her pajamas, and parked her scooter on the line, 20-strong already. I hovered near the dispenser as she neared the pump, my mind increasingly hazy due to the proximity with petrol.

That day, thankfully, the petrol did not run out by the time she got to the front. It was now or never! While my sister was getting her scooter filled, I yanked the nozzle and started filling my bottles (for an hour I had them open, their lids in my pocket!) “It’s the same thing,” I told the horrified onlookers, “you can just give her a little less!”

My best-friend-of-an-hour yanked the nozzle back, spilling some petrol on my hands. I did not care, at the moment it was the sweetest smell in the world. Besides, my bottle was full already. I knew I would not shower for the next few days. I did not wonder when my colleagues refused to share a cubicle with me the next day.

Later that same night, I wanted to share my victory. I attached a photo of myself holding a bottle of petrol and sent it off to friends with the caption: “I’m a full-tank girl!” It rhymed perfectly with “I’m a Complan girl.” Though I had never drunk Complan in my life, my pose would give the Complan girl a complex.

“Drink it, drink it like Complan,” came a response to my photo. “Then every time you pee, you will get petrol!”

The fumes of petrol must have really gotten to me, because this seemed like the sanest thing I had heard all day. I thanked the gods that I had already poured the petrol into my scooter, otherwise who knows maybe I would have tried it? I fell into a deep sleep where I vividly dreamt of bathing in petrol.
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