Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.
This March, my media consumption has been full of the old made new, or revisited, or otherwise reimagined. At the forefront of my reading has been Tempests and Slaughter, the new Tamora Pierce novel. Set in her world of Tortall, it’s the start of a prequel series about established mage Numair Salmalin, originally called Arram Draper, and covers his early years of magical study in Carthak. It’s been quite a while since I read the Wild Magic quartet, which most prominently features the adult Numair/Arram, but I remember enough to be powerfully hit by a bittersweet nostalgia at the knowledge of how his early friendship with Orzone, later emperor and enemy, turns out.
Pierce’s writing is as compassionate, skilful and engaging as ever, and having heard her speak in 2016 at Worldcon about her struggle to have the book focus primarily on academics – her editors wanted more gladiator fights – I’m immensely glad that she seems to have finally got her way. While Pierce never shies away from dark topics, even (or perhaps especially) when writing about younger characters, the importance of education in general and mentorship in particular has always been central to her writing. Pierce understands exactly how to make school stories riveting, because she understands that, while information about the world might inform and please us, the true appeal is in the intimacy such a setting affords to characterisation. What does the teacher want in a student? How do they instruct? Are they flexible or biased, and how does this change their perception of their acolytes? What interests the student, and under what conditions do they learn best? What else is going on in their lives that informs their ability to focus or tests their limits, and how do their teachers react to it? What happens when students are teachers in other contexts? What happens when teachers refuse to learn? Such questions have always been at the heart of Pierce’s stories, and seeing her investigate them anew through Arram’s eyes is indescribably wonderful.
Whenever Pierce writes about young people learning, she does so with an enviable mix of depth and deftness. In my estimation, she’s one of only a handful of authors who can truly pull off lengthy timeskips in the space of a single work, which is another reason why she’s so good at writing about schooling – a decidedly lengthy process. Having given her audience a detailed sense of scope, routine and impetus for her characters as they learn to be knights, mages, police officers, healers, spies, noble administrators, or criminals (or sometimes a few of these in combination), she manages to dip in and out of both their most educationally representative and personally significant moments in a way that shows the smooth passage of time. Her characters learn and grow, and because her schoolroom scenes are neither didactic, irrelevant episodes nor Chekovian harbingers, they become essential to the narrative, allowing for fantastic, naturalistic character development.
In Pierce’s hands, a part of me is forever and always ten years old, crouched in the breathless, dusty quiet of the library where I first encountered her books, a circle of children beckoning me into their collective future. That circle has since opened, and opened again as her young characters grow into mentors themselves – and now, with Tempests and Slaughter, she has reversed the process, showing us how an established character grew into himself. It’s wonderful, and the only reason I haven’t yet finished the book is because I don’t want it to end.
Coming at nostalgia from a different angle, I recently discovered that Pokemon Gold, Silver and Crystal, which originally came out on the old Gameboy Color, are now available to download on the Nintendo DS. Though I’m already playing Pokemon Go on my iPhone, there’s something to be said for revisiting the older games, too. I haven’t played Gold in years, but I’m now midway through my first ever playthrough of Crystal – a largely identical product, except for slightly improved graphics and some extra content – and while it doesn’t evoke nearly the same heightened emotional state as a new Pierce book, there’s something oddly soothing about the process.
And also, at the same time, something utterly hilarious. Look: back when I was eleven years old and Pokemon first came out, the idea that kids my age were allowed – expected, even! – to go travelling through islands collecting magical battle-monsters was integral to my enjoyment of the setting. Now, though, I’ve found myself livetweeting some of the practical absurdities this scenario involves when considered from an adult perspective, especially given certain game mechanics. Specifically: your pre-teen avatar has a mobile phone, so that you can swap numbers with total strangers, who then call you repeatedly to tell you about their lives and ask you to come hang out with them in the middle of nowhere, oh my god WHY. Like, I mean: I know Gold and Silver originally came out in 1999 when it was still a Huge Big Novelty for anyone to have any sort of non-landline, such that we’d yet to experience true social panic about the now commonplace scenario of tweens and teens all having phones, but surely, surely some adult involved in the game’s development could’ve thought, “Hey, it’s pretty weird that a fortysomething fisherman keeps calling this kid to tell them how he spends more time with fish pokemon than his own family. Maybe we should make it so that the only NPCs to swap phone numbers with the protagonist are kids themselves?”
(Also, the thing about certain pokemon only evolving through trades still stands, which is annoying because I’ve got no one to trade with and I want an Alakazam, goddamit. Also also, my Togepi and Igglybuff both apparently need happiness to evolve, though the game doesn’t really tell you how to achieve this, and I’m bitter about their continual smallness. CHEER UP AND GROW, YOU TINY MAGICAL BASTARDS.)
The most unexpected and surprising part of this month’s nostalgia journey, however, was my trip to see the new Tomb Raider movie. I’d heard almost nothing about it until a hot minute before it opened, and my expectations were understandably low: I mean, I’ll confess to enjoying the utterly trashtastic Angelina Jolie version from 2001, because it’s so self-consciously absurd that it kind of loops back around again to being enjoyable, but it’s not what you’d call quality cinema. But the new Tomb Raider, based on the 2013 game reboot (which I didn’t play, but which was very positively received), starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft? Is kind of amazingly good.
I don’t want to offer too many spoilers, because I think people should go and see it, but character-wise, it’s an accomplished point-by-point subversion of everything the earlier film embodied. Jolie’s Croft was polished, suave, knowingly seductive, calm, rich, composed and at home in every environment; and is also, except for her employees and love interest, a loner. Vikander’s Croft, by contrast, is rough-cut, awkward, unselfconscious, dorky, reckless, poor, impulsive, and – while brave in new environments – realistically vulnerable. At the start of the film, she’s also shown to have a solid network of friends, including other women. While Croft is still an heiress in this setting, her refusal to admit her father’s death and sign the papers that legally entitle her to her inheritance mean she starts the film working hard graft as a bike courier, taking on the job of ‘fox’ in a cyclist’s fox-hunt – an incredibly dangerous and illegal test of her strength, cunning and agility – to earn £600.
When she finally learns about her father’s hidden double life, her desire to find out what really happened to him leads her to Hong Kong and the ship captain Lu Ren, played deftly by Daniel Wu. His father, too, disappeared along with Lara’s, and while the two ultimately share no on-screen romance – and while they spend a good deal of the film apart – the chemistry they have in their shared scenes managed to be both tender and electric, hinting at a narrative option I fervently hope will be explored in any future instalments. Yes, the film is a little ridiculous at times, as is always the case with big action blockbusters, and when the fabled tomb is finally entered, the traps encountered are a clear homage to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (i.e., the best Indiana Jones movie, I will fight and die on this hill) – which, depending on the degree of joy in your heart, will either delight or annoy. But it’s the characterisation – and even, dare I say it, the writing, so often neglected by Hollywood in recent years – that really carries the film. Every character we meet, no matter how minor their role, feels real and vivid, the whole full of small yet elegant gracenotes. The big reveal did something I genuinely wasn’t expecting, and while I’ve had a few fridge moment queries subsequently, those feel like small beans compared to an archaeological-action plot which, despite clearly evoking its narrative predecessors, nonetheless managed to feel fresh and engaging.
I have a love/hate relationship with describing anything as gritty, but in this case, it’s a positive: Vikander’s Croft is gritty, in the sense of hardscrabble. She takes enough hard knocks – and feels them – to convince us that she’s a realistic scrapper, but is helped along by just enough cinematic handwavium that her suffering never becomes truly dark, the film never anything less than a fast-paced spectacle.
The conceit of white people exploring Lost Secrets on Hidden Asian Islands is, of course, a trope and an issue all by itself, and as such, I’ll understand why if, given other recent forays into this territory such as Iron Fist and Arrow, some viewers would rather give it a miss. I will say, though, that Lu Ren’s character, while deserving of a much larger role – god, I really liked him, he had damn well better appear in any sequels – nonetheless made a positive impact on how that aspect of the plot unfolded. Lu Ren and Lara are both loyal, snarky, empathic pragmatists: they always try to stay alive first, but still offer help whenever they can and, ultimately, always come back for each other.
And that’s my month in media. How’s yours going?