With various forms of madness on the rise in our country and our world, it’s none too easy at times to focus on the positive. Yet it’s worth a try. There’s still joy to be found in good stories. A few that have given me pleasure of late:
Victoria. All who know me know my weakness for sumptuous British costume dramas, and this one had me from its haunting opening theme. If the excellent film Mrs. Brown (1997) stands as the definitive word on the bereaved middle-aged Queen Victoria, this one may just be the definitive word on the young, inexperienced, newly-crowned Queen awkwardly navigating the treacherous waters of her new position, determined to be her own woman yet at the same time desperate for support and advice. Jenna Coleman’s performance brings her to life as someone you want to strangle at times but root for anyway, and she’s surrounded by such stalwarts as Rufus Sewell (as Lord Melbourne, the much older but still charismatic mentor on whom she develops an early crush) and Peter Bowles (as the stodgy and bigoted Duke of Wellington, his military-hero days behind him). Plus there’s an adorable tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Victoria’s beloved lapdog Dash, who brings a smile to my face every time he appears. Never underestimate the Power of Cute.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Can you love a central protagonist when you disagree with nearly everything she does? I would have said “No,” before my husband and I started catching episodes of this TV musical comedy on Netflix. But now I have to admit I love Rebecca Bunch, the smart but completely mixed-up lawyer played by Rachel Bloom, who moves from New York to California to be near a childhood flame who, at the end of the day, isn’t worth driving across town for. I’m not quite sure whether I love her in spite of her disastrous choices or because of them — maybe a bit of both, because Bloom, the show’s creator as well as its star, always lets us see why she behaves as she does. She and the other characters may burst frequently into song (and a fine, eclectic bunch of songs they are; for a sample, take a listen to a plea from Rebecca’s alternative love interest and Rebecca’s mother’s disapproving rant when she comes for a Christmas visit), yet they feel more real than many a TV character on shows praised for their “grit”; Rhiannon Thomas’s review aptly praises this show’s realistic portrayal of mental illness.
Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (the anime series). Since Matt and I are both fans of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which released such gorgeous films as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke, we had to check out this Ghibli offering that’s streaming now on Amazon Prime. The show is clearly aimed at a target audience several generations younger than I, but it goes straight to the heart of my inner ten-year-old. The series has everything my ten-year-old self would have relished: a lush and exquisitely animated forest and a young female protagonist who is allowed to roam through it freely, unsupervised, because her parents deem it fitting that she learn the forest’s ways for herself. The story moves slowly, as do many anime series outside the action-adventure genre. But the clever, curious heroine, who has taught herself not to be afraid, holds my interest. My inner ten-year-old wants to be just like Ronja.
Crooked Kingdom. My happiness in this YA fantasy novel by Leigh Barduro is bittersweet; it’s the second volume in a duology, and I’m sad there isn’t any more. This book has all the virtues I’ve noted earlier about the first volume, Six of Crows: intriguing world-building, plenty of action, emphasis on friendships, flawed and complex characters. Yet I should point out that among those strengths, this book succeeds in the very area where entirely too many YA fantasies fail — the romances. As the six protagonists enact a plan to fleece and expose both a sociopathic merchant and a brutal crime boss, we follow the romantic intrigues of three couples, one of them a pair of young men. In all three cases, Barduro lets us see why the couples are drawn to each other, why they work well together, and how they learn from each other and do each other good.
Memories of Ash. Going all the way back to the days of legend, fantasy fiction has a history of depicting female magic and magicians as evil. (Remember Morgan le Fay?) Because of this, I take special pleasure in novels in which the protagonist is a heroic female mage. In Intisar Khanani’s novel, a follow-up to her novella Sunbolt (which absolutely must be read first), we follow a very gifted young apprentice-mage as she works to save her mentor from unjust imprisonment. (The mentor is also a woman, and these two aren’t even the only impressive female mages we meet.) How the heroine works and experiences magic is described in a vivid detail that rival’s Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and while she does have a love interest, romance is clearly only part of her story and not the whole of it, always a welcome thing to see with a female lead. Unlike Crooked Kingdom, this novel will get a sequel. I’ll be ready to snatch it up for my Kindle.