Nothing on the Reading challenge this month. I've got through a double bill on my Harry Potter re-read/listen, however, with arguably the strongest entries in the series: The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire.
The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to the Night Bus and the Dementors, expands on the backstory linking Professor Snape with Harry's parents and their friends, and presents us with the first concrete example of Dumbledore being wrong about something; he changes his mind when presented with evidence, but he and McGonagall are initially as sure as anyone that Sirius Black was a murderous traitor. This was also the book which first described the Quidditch Cup in a way that makes any kind of sense (see also The Goblet of Fire.) Whereas previously it seemed as though everyone but the Seeker was extraneous, here we meet the idea that accumulated total score is important. Yes, the Snitch usually determines victory in the match, but to win the season the other players need to rack up the score as well.
Probably the most memorable addition to the canon are the monstrous Dementors, who serve as putative protectors, antagonists, and as foreshadowing that not all is well in the wizarding world if law and order is in the hands of such creatures. Similarly, the prejudice against muggle-borns rears its ugly head again, accompanied by anti-werewolf prejudice as represented by Professor Lupin, the first decent Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in the series.
The Goblet of Fire begins with scenes set at the Quidditch World Cup, which initially provide a light-hearted opening – and show that in professional matches, the Snitch is not the sole arbiter of victory – before seguing into one of the darkest moments in the series. Actually, I say segue, but the fact is that there is an undercurrent of darkness from the first, with Arthur Weasley being one of the only wizards at the Cup who makes any effort to try to hide his family's wizarding nature from the mortals who own and manage the campsites around the pitch, rather than just magicking their way about and occasionally zapping someone's memory rather than inconvenience themselves. Coupled with the bureaucratic bulldog that is Barty Crouch, and the continuing influence and good name of the Malfoys, it is clear that the wizarding world is no more utopian than the muggle one.
And then comes the Death Eater rally, which was just uncomfortably apt to current events. Usually I go to sleep listening to my audio book, but even the dulcet tones of Mr Fry couldn't lull me to slumber around a subject so reminiscent of the real-world horrors of Charlottesville. There are many who say that JK Rowling should stick to writing children's books and stay away from politics, but between the Death Eaters at the world cup, tormenting Muggles for fun, the poisonous Rita Skeeter, and the seemingly affable Cornelius Fudge(1), it is apparent that even when writing children's books she has and always has had a keen pen for a bit of political satire. Even her heroes come in for some schtick, especially in this instance Hermione, whose well-meaning attempt to liberate the Hogwarts House-elves is the rankest patronisation, regardless of her good intentions.
Prisoner and Goblet represent for me the pinnacle of the series, representing a significant maturation over Stone and Chamber, and preceding the bloated misstep of The Order of the Phoenix. Actually, I say that, but I've been surprised by enough as I listened to the first four volumes of the series(2) that I am not going to write off Order just yet. I do find it chilling that the Death Eater rally seems so much less over the top than it did in the faraway past of the year 2000. Also notable in the re-read is just how many characters have much longer careers in the series that I remembered, just because their names didn't register so much in early appearances.
As a side note: Avoid Pottermore if you don't want to lose hours of your life.
The Remnant is the final volume of the Oversight trilogy, although at times it doesn't feel like it. Beginning with a fractured Final Hand, beleaguered on all sides, things rapidly go downhill for London's magic police. Even by the standards of the previous instalments, this is a pretty bleak prospect, and the more interesting as the characters are given the space to wonder if they didn't fuck up a generation past by not giving the whole thing up as a bad job and falling back to lick their wounds and rebuild their numbers. It is unusual in many ways, not least for the primary villain, the man behind the curtain who has motivated the entire plot, dying largely by accident without ever having met most of the protagonists.
Perhaps more impressive is that the series concludes with the apprentices genuinely seeming to get the point better than their mentors, and the ancient order overturned, but not entirely for the worse. Even the sluagh, the trilogy's particular take on the faerie(4), embrace some aspects of change. Moreover, those of our heroes who survive the climactic battle do so as much because of their willingness to show mercy and compassion as because of their skill and strength. All this makes The Remnant an interesting book, although in all honesty it does not feel like the conclusion of a trilogy. There are too many fleshed-out side characters whose stories and actions are left unresolved, in particular those of Caitlin and her American associates, not to mention the somewhat sinister implications of the East Coast Remnant's seemingly cult-like process of 'regulation' and John Dee's designs on both the mirror world and the West. The novel certainly leaves one wanting more, but the palpable threat that there won't be any presented by that 'trilogy' designation makes the degree of that wanting less than comfortable.
Giant Days Volumes 1 & 2 collect issues 1-8 of John Allison's virtual dead tree university opus. Following the academia-bound adventures of Tackleford's Goth princess 'Dark' Esther de Groot, grounded Northampton lass Susan Ptolemy, and the whimsical, homeschooled Daisy Wooton. The three wrestle with illness and romance, struggle with the spectres of boyfriends past, contemplate their sexuality, do battle with the forces of internet-enabled toxic masculinity, and even, on occasion, find time to study. Daisy even finds time to fall victim to a psychological condition which dissolves the boundary between reality and fiction, binging on Friday Night Lights until she becomes a down-home Texas gal, much as Shelley Winters once believed Homicide: Life on the Streets to be the true reality(5).
Giant Days is somehow both bizarre in the best way, and very down to Earth, much like its siblings in the Allison stable. It's a little odd to see that style and humour delivered with a different style, but really no more so than looking at decade-old SGR strips or – heaven help us – Bobbins. I admit I was reluctant to get into it at first, in part because damnit Esther/the Boy was my OTP and then the Giant Days webcomics turned him into a bit of a jerk, but honestly I think it's helped in that regard by providing further context to Esther's life after the Boy, in particular by going to immediately after, whereas Eustace Boyce didn't appear again until he was all growed up into a barely likeable man-child(6), which did little to endear the break up to me as a plot development.
|The world might be a very different place if more people|
Finally for the month, the Sherlockian odyssey continues with His Last Bow, ironically the penultimate collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, including the titular oddity in which our hero is brought out of retirement on the eve of the Great War to do battle with a German spymaster. It's an oddity in part because it is narrated in the third person, and in part because it departs the familiar ground of robbery and murder to embroil Holmes in an espionage thriller. It's not really Doyle's forte and, as a result, is far from his strongest work. It's a little reminiscent of The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie's foray into the world of spies, in that regard, the trappings of a whodunit proving ill-at-ease with the less forthright lexicon of the Great Game.
The collection also includes the two-part 'The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge' and the bait-and-switch of 'The Adventure of the Dying Detective', which has its impact somewhat lessened for its inclusion in a collection which asserts in its preface that Holmes is alive and well in 1917. 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax' takes our investigators across Europe for perhaps the first time since 'The Final Problem', and sees Holmes nearly defeated. 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot' and 'The Adventure of the Red Circle' both see Holmes allowing or excusing acts of murder which is considers justified by survival or retribution. A number of these stories contain elements familiar from earlier entries in the canon, but then could Doyle really have been anticipating, even at the height of Sherlock mania, the kind of scrutiny and longevity that his work has since enjoyed?
(1) Who it turns out is actually much more sinister than I gave him credit for the first time around. Mostly he is ineffectual, but he embodies subconscious privilege with his unthinking deference to blood purity, even while notionally against pureblood supremacy, making him a classic liberal bigot.
(2) And I know enough people who reckon that Jingo(3) isn't that bad at a second glance.
(3) Once I've got through Potter, I might have a bash at revisiting the Discworld series.
(4) Or at least those of the masculine persuasion.
(5) I like that the weirdness is consistent.
(6) He got better.