Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review for Hades: Lord of the Dead by George O'Connor

There are a couple of myths I can't stop thinking about, and one of them is the myth of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter and wife of Hades, lord of the realm of the dead.  She is everything from a symbol of the transition from childhood to adulthood to an explanation for why the seasons change (well, at least in temperate climates).  In more obscure (older?) stories, she also plays an important role in the story of Dionysus, which makes sense in light of the cycle of life/death/rebirth that both divinities embody... but that might be another story for another day.

Every version of the story that I have ever read features a young girl who is completely without agency.  For the most part, Demeter doesn't have any either.  She reacts in rage, but ultimately she must comply with the will of her brothers Zeus and Hades (and in some versions even Poseidon).  This myth embodies the tension between men and women in the ancient civilization and to some extent also our own.

If anyone else has ever been bothered by that, you're going to love George O'Connor's version.

Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, Demeter grieves and the earth turns barren, Helios tells her about the collusion between Zeus and Hades, Persephone comes back but only for half of the year.  Yada yada yada- every major plot point you remember is there.  It's what O'Connor fills around them that makes this delicious.

Ask yourself: how many young girls want to be so tightly held by their mothers?  What kind of a goddess is willing to destroy mankind in vengeance for the loss of her daughter?  And if someone were offered a throne, how many people would willingly say no?  Sunlight is warmer than the underworld, but sometimes warmth is stifling.

It's not all Hades and Persephone's love affair.  As O'Connor hinted a few months ago, we also get to see why Tantalus is related to the word "tantalize".  Importantly, O'Connor isn't just throwing that in here because we're talking about Hades and Tartarus.  In most versions of the myth, Demeter's behavior is, um, anti-social because she's distracted by her search for her daughter.  I loved the way O'Connor followed the strings of those two stories about starvation, human sacrifice and cannibalism.  In this version, Tantalus is an indirect contributor to the resolution of the story, and it makes sense.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I'm going to disagree with O'Connor's characterization of Hades as "emo".  For me, that conjures up images of a darkly dressed Hamlet moping through his palace, unsure of what to do next.  Hades is darkly dressed, and we could argue he mopes.  But Hades, too, has agency, and here it is as meaningful as Persephone's.  And what good is a myth if it doesn't provide us with meaning?

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Review of Avatar: The Last Air Bender- The Promise Part 1

I am not a hardcore sci-fi or fantasy person.  What I've come into contact with in those genres are inescapable cultural phenomenons.  Some of it I like (Star Trek!) and some of it I could live perfectly happily without (Star Wars).

Add Avatar: TheLast Airbender to the list of things I do like.  If you're unfamiliar with the animated Nickelodeon series, it's the story of a world where people are born into states dominated by elements.  (Yes, the network that brought us Sponge Bob Square Pants and Fairly Odd Parents also gave us one of the finest anime-inspired series ever.)  Some can "bend" or control the elements and are called "benders".  The Avatar, the one person who can control all of the elements, is reincarnated after the death of the previous Avatar and into the next element in the cycle.  The states are the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes and the Air Nomads.  At least, they're used to be Air Nomads; after the Avatar was born into the Air element, the Fire Nation killed all Air Nomads in an attempt to establish world domination.  Fortunately, they just missed Aang, the twelve-year old Avatar, who had run away from home and wound up trapped in a glacier.  The story picks up 100 years later, when the world is dominated by the Fire Nation and Aang is miraculously rescued by Katarrah and Sokka, adolescent siblings from the Southern Water Tribe.

The three season series is as much about Aang accepting his responsibility as The Avatar and acquiring both the skills and the wisdom to defeat Fire Lord Ozai as it is about the slightly older Prince Zuko, Ozai's banished son.  His quest is for redemption, first from his father, then from his own conscience.  He is easily the most fascinating character in the well-drawn cast (pun intended).  His conflicts run deep and are symbolized by his power-mad father and his wise uncle Iroh.  We discover later in the series that his dual nature goes back even further: he is the great-grandson not only of Sozin, the Fire Lord who started the world war, but also Avatar Roku, the avatar who immediately preceded Aang.

The Promise, Part1 picks up after Aang has defeated Ozai by depriving him of his ability to bend.  (FYI, that's something most avatars can't do, but that's how bad ass Aang becomes.)  Aang, Zuko and Earth King Kuei take upon the task of removing the Fire Nation from their colonies in the Earth Kingdom as the first step toward healing the wounds of the long war.  Zuko, however, is tormented by his memories of his last encounter with his father who refused to tell him where his mother was and taunted that Zuko would need his help to be a good ruler.  Upon reflection, Zuko asks Aang to promise him that if Zuko becomes like his father, he will put an end to him.  Aang is horrified, but reluctantly agrees.

The story picks up one year later.  Although Zuko's guards believe he's paranoid, he's proven correct when a young Fire Nation colonist from the Earth Kingdom makes an attempt on his life.  He returns her to her father, who chastises him for not protecting his people in the colonies.  Zuko is enraged until he meets the man's wife- an Earth Bender.  He realizes that his would-be assassin is also an Earth Bender who is loyal to the Fire Nation like her father.  After a tour of the city, Zuko realizes that everything isn't as clear as it had seemed to him and Aang a year ago.

Aang and his friends are outraged when Zuko calls off the return of the colonists without any explanation.  When Aang and Katarrah confront Zuko in the colonial city, Aang comes close to keeping his "promise" to Zuko until Katarrah makes the same realization that Zuko did: it's not that simple.  Aang and Zuko grudgingly agree to meet with the Earth King to discuss a resolution to the problem of the colonies.

When the story leaves off, Zuko visits his father in prison to ask for guidance.  The last frame is of Ozai's smile.

I wouldn’t recommend this for someone who didn’t already know the basics of the animated series and hadn’t seen at least a few episodes.  The reader needs to understand the struggles both Aang and Zuko endured to defeat Ozai to appreciate the disappointment both feel on different levels when they realize that that the work doesn’t end once the fighting stops.  As we see when we read history- or current events- most people are shades of grey.  Frustrating at times, but it makes for a much more interesting story than black and white.

This is the first of three graphic novels set to bridge the 70 year gap between the end of The Last Air Bender series and the upcoming Legend of Korra, the story of the Avatar who follows Aang. From what we've seen of the previews, we know that Korra is a Water Bender from Sokka and Katarrah's tribe who is trained in all of the elements except Air.  The beginning of the story is about her journey to get training from one of the few Air Benders in existence.  In this case, Tenzin- a son of Aang and Katarrah. Interestingly- maddeningly- little so far has been released about the fate of the Fire Nation or Prince Zuko. In other words, if you want to find out, go buy volumes 2 and 3 of The Promise.

For $9.99 per copy, I should probably say no.  However, I'll not only get them, I'll probably get them the first day they're out.  If you're a fan of The Avatar: Last Air Bender series, I recommend you do the same.