Creator Corner: Interview with Ji Strangeway, Author of Red as Blue
This past month has been unexpectedly refreshing creatively, and I’m so excited to offer you all another new installment of my Creator Corner series, where I sit down and talk with original content creators about their work. Fresh on the heels of my interview with writer, actor, and author of the graphic novel Journey to Gaytopia, I was given the opportunity to talk with Ji Strangeway, film director, writer, poet, and author of the soon-to-be-released hybrid graphic novel Red as Blue.
Her debut novel, Red as Blue is set in a fictional Colorado desert town in the 80s. The story follows 15-year-old June Lusparian, a Mexican-Armenian teen struggling to make sense of everything—her life, her sexuality, and her future. Touching on numerous settings and themes ranging from the LGBTQ community to the punk rock scene to the Reagan Era and high school shootings, the book features elements of the prose novel, screenplay, and graphic novel illustrations. It’s a story about finding hope and the transformational power of creativity in overcoming adversity. It’s about the power of love rather than the love of power. And a punk rock girl who falls in love with the cheerleader, who loves her back.
Gretchen: With all the options out there for telling stories, how did you decide on a graphic novel?
Ji: Well, it’s a hybrid novel, not a pure graphic novel. And the reason it came about is because even though I’m pretty well read, I’ve always hated reading. It’s really more of a mechanical problem than it is a content problem. I’ve always had a problem with staring at 100 to 300 thousand words. That never made sense to me, and I can totally relate to why a lot of people don’t like to read. People say our generation or the new generation hates reading, and they look down on us. But people didn’t figure out until social media got big that it has nothing to do with the fact that we hate reading; it’s just that our minds work differently. Our minds are much more fluid and visual and we need different things out of reading that books can’t always give to us.
The reason I created a hybrid is because I’ve always wanted to read a book the way I would like to read it. When I sat down and wanted to write this novel, I almost quit because I couldn’t write the way you’re ‘supposed to.’ So I said, fuck it, I’m just going to work with a really good editor who is also my friend, Michael Mann. He’s absolutely brilliant; he’s an author who’s taught creative writing and graduate studies in feminism and rhetoric. Michael helped me break rules in a way that’s not so experimental that it would be problematic for my first novel.
I thought about all the different mediums of writing that I love—I write screenplays, too—and I took stuff from screenplays, from prose novels, and from graphic novels. And I noticed that with every one of those mediums, there’s something about each one of them that I consider to be completely useless. I only took from them what I liked and everything else that didn’t work, I threw away. So that’s how my hybrid came about. It’s completely my own invention.
It’s all about efficiency for me. I don’t know if it’s because of my film background, but one of the things my directing teacher said to me was, “Get it up, get it in, and get it out.” I don’t know if that was meant to be pornographic, but it was intended for the economy of filmmaking. You get in there, you get your shot, and you move on because you have budget involved. That probably isn’t the best way to describe it because the efficiency isn’t about rushing the process, it’s just about ‘why do I have to suffer through this particular process of reading when there are other ways of doing things?’
G: Speaking of your process, how did you decide on which elements you wanted included in the story? Are there certain aspects you only did visually or only in prose, for example?
J: That part was actually very easy for me. It was intuitive, a lot of common sense. When I read novels, there are things about them that I really love, like that slow creative process of loving words, going deeply into that dream space where you can marinate and take your time. But there are things that are kind of masturbatory. Do I really need that much detail? Is it for you, the author, or is it for me, the reader? And that’s when the efficiency part kicks in for me.
There are other aspects of the rules of novel writing that weren’t really efficient. I don’t really want to figure out where we are in the story, location-wise. As a writer, I also don’t want to deal with describing to you how I left the room and ended up in a restaurant. It’s hard for me to do, and it really doesn’t matter. So, I took away the whole problem of interiors, exteriors, and location and just used a cyber-texting way of doing it efficiently, which is using the @ symbol and #. You know, like, “@Paradise High School #Cafeteria.” Right away you’re there.
That is actually borrowed from screenplays, but I didn’t want to write a screenplay so I created my own way of shifting locations.
The graphic novel part is very interesting to me. I love graphic novels, but I think I can only handle one page. It’s kind of visual overload. Just as a book can give you an overload of hundreds of thousands of words, the magic of looking at a picture kind of gets lost when the whole thing is images. I’m sure people who love comics would disagree, but I don’t read comics. I can’t read a page filled with images and thousands of word bubbles.
What I love about graphic novels is the imagery and ability to immerse yourself in an image that words fall short of. It was only after I sat down and drafted out the scenes that I looked at the images and realized that they are more like portals than they are explaining the story. You’re reading the novel, but then you take kind of an Alice in Wonderland-type excursion into an image, and it puts you deeper into the world I’m talking about. So, they’re used sparingly in places I thought were needed instead of doing a full-on graphic novel.
Those are some examples of the techniques I invented and used. Oh, I also want to mention one other thing about novels that I find utterly useless, which is that I don’t really see the point of “he said, she said, she replied, he explained.” I don’t see any purpose for that! That’s where screenwriting is brilliant, because you just have the name of the character and they talk. What’s beautiful about it is that you don’t have to know that the character is screaming. When an actor reads a screenplay, they imagine how a character would speak based on the words they say.
The whole experience altogether opens up your imagination and allows the reader to do more of the imagining, kind of like an actor would do when they read a screenplay. They’re doing more imagining and filling in the blanks rather than me having to say exactly what a character looks like when they talk. So when I do describe how someone looks, it’s because I really need you to know it!
That’s the kind of efficiency I’m talking about.
G: You’re giving your reader more agency to participate in the creative storytelling because they’re supplying their own interpretation of how things are said.
G: That’s really cool, I like that a lot. Speaking of what to include, the graphic novel is set in the 80s. Was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?
J: I’m curious why you asked me that question, and I really love that you asked it. So, I’m going to answer assuming I know why you asked it.
There is nothing more irritable to me than when I see a new book, movie, art exhibition, or anything coming out that is 1980s just to be hipster cool or trending. It seems like when you look back in history, people love doing things that are set 20 or 30 years previously because it’s ‘cooler.’ At times, it just seems to be a fashion statement. I don’t know why that is, but you can always tell when someone is telling a true story about a particular era or if they’re just trying to be cool. I just want to say, I’m not a hipster and I’m not hipster cool! I’m just real, or I like to think I am.
Red as Blue is born purely out of the 80s. It’s really important that I talk about the 80s because anything before the internet was the dark ages. Unless you were part of the ideal at the time—blonde, big boobs, drove a Mustang, ran with kind of a Barbie and Ken crowd—unless you had a Brady Bunch family and all those Americana-type things, you were invisible. You were excluded. You weren’t part of the American narrative. You were not considered American and because of that, it permitted a lot of hatred and prejudice.
That was the 1980s for me; it was completely dark. This story comes out of that darkness, and I think because it was so dark, it also brings a lot of the beauty with it. The strange beautiful light that came with the alternative music scene and the post-punk movement that completely shaped society up to today.
The 80s were so critical because we were fighting for our lives. Listening to music was war, because if you didn’t like Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams, you got shit for it. If you listened to Depeche Mode? You’re a fag. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it was. Music was war. The stuff that we were listening to that was alternative was a form of—we didn’t know it at the time because we didn’t think about it—but it really was pure activism. Not political, but we were living it. We were walking targets.
So, the way my book captures the 80s is more like a redemption of the 80s that never were for a lot of people.
G: Shifting the topic a little bit, what inspired you to start writing?
J: Survival. I’m Vietnamese and was born in Laos, so we didn’t come here by choice. We came here as refugees, running away from a violent war and being displaced. We came to this ‘America the beautiful shithole’ because it was the promised land, the dream, the place that refugees go to do be safe and welcomed. But it wasn’t that way at all. My whole life was filled with “Go back to where you come from” or “What are you eating, dog?” Every name that you can think of, I was called every single day. I was completely torn down and ripped apart every single day by the environment and even by the other people who were oppressed, the Mexicans. They were treated like second-class citizens in Colorado where I grew up.
Then, moving to the suburbs, I got the same thing from the white, Christian culture except they were more awful with it. They didn’t say it to your face, they said it behind your back. I said, “I can’t handle this.” If I’m going to have racism, I’d rather have someone punch me in the face than say something behind my back because that’s just a slow, gnawing cancer. It’s just so painful.
I started writing for survival. I didn’t write because I was a writer, I couldn’t even spell. I was almost completely illiterate to be honest. All the kids around me were speaking slang. That’s why the character in my novel says ‘ax’ [instead of ‘ask’]. It’s not because I was trying to make my character weird, it’s because that’s how we were talking. We really were ‘axing’ people stuff.
I started writing through journaling, and it was something that I did instinctively for survival. I didn’t realize it was saving my life. The type of journaling I did wasn’t diary writing: “Dear Diary, today I bought some spandex at the mall.” It’s not that. It was going so deep into yourself and healing yourself and having someone to talk to because there was no one else who could understand you because they weren’t having your experience. I wrote so much that I was filling up Mead notebooks; whether they were 80 or 120 pages, I’d fill them up both sides. I was furiously, furiously writing.
I continued writing, and it evolved into poetry, then it evolved into essays, then it evolved into creative writing. It carried me through everything I did, including filmmaking. Because a good story has to come from writing, it doesn’t come from actual filmmaking.
So, it’s really interesting because writing has always been with me even though since childhood, I’ve pretty much been a visual artist. It’s interesting that I’ve kind of ignored writing but it was actually always there, and it took me this long to realize that I’m not a bad writer.
G: Given your personal experiences, talk to me about the importance of representation of marginalized communities. How did that shape the story you tell in Red as Blue?
J: The first thing is, I grew up in the housing projects of Colorado. It’s really upsetting to me that for the longest time, even up to today when I tell people that I grew up in the ghetto, people laugh. They think that Colorado is Aspen, Telluride, and film festivals. And that’s exactly the problem. There aren’t enough stories talking about your environment, and if you don’t talk about your environment or don’t tell your story, you’re invisible.
To describe this environment that June lives in would disturb a lot of people who haven’t heard about the place that she lives in. They might think I’m making all this up. But for those who have grown up in these Chicago-kind of neighborhoods or Mexicans struggling to be American but not—and I was strangely a part of that environment—it’s real. People tend to think it of it as fiction. But, when you tell the stories of these kind of communities, it brings people together and it educates others. They realize, for example, that Colorado, at least the Colorado I grew up in, isn’t just skiing and sunshine.
G: What do you want to see more of when it comes to depicting queer and non-white characters?
J: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because when I’m writing about LGBT characters, I’m not thinking about race. I’m usually thinking about what makes a character different. I think the core of a lot of the problems we have in this world, and especially in America, in terms of accepting one another is the differences, regardless of what race or gender we are. For me, I’m interested in characters who have some form of ‘otherness.’ I guess in political terms the word is intersectionality, but I don’t even know how to spell that word, much less how to use it!
But I like otherness. And in terms of otherness, it doesn’t even matter what—if we’re black or white or gay or straight. When we see that otherness in a person and we connect to them, it opens up our consciousness and our hearts. And that’s the part in us that destroys stereotypes. When you meet someone and experience their otherness, you see them as a human being. Like when you read stories about a Mexican in a white world or a lesbian in a straight world, or even worse in a straight male-dominated world, you start to learn what it’s like to be that person. When you experience a person’s otherness, you relate to them no matter how different they appear on the outside. That otherness is more important than anything else for me when it comes to writing characters.
I love that my main character is Armenian-Mexican, but her otherness is that she’s also gay. And her real otherness, her true otherness, is that she’s real, innocent, and incorruptible. And the girl that she falls for, and that falls for her, is a white cheerleader. But her otherness is this beautiful capacity to see through skin, class, and gender; she’s a beautiful girl because of her otherness.
So, more important than creating non-white, LGBT characters is if you can do it and still show this otherness. That really is what I’m going for when I write characters.
G: Is there anything out there—in film, television, or print media—who, for you, is getting it right in one way or another?
G: Blunt answer, I like it! In what way?
J: Well, I have only myself to blame because I’m one of those artists that other people hate. I find artists, whether they be a filmmaker or a writer or a visual artist, hate this about me more than non-artists. I don’t keep up with what other people are doing, and I never have. They get really angry with me if I don’t know who a particular author is or filmmaker or painter.
I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world because I am one of those artists who gets everything from within. I really do. I’m not saying that to be special. I don’t see any reason to look at tons and tons of stuff and then emulate or imitate it. Everything that I do is coming largely out of my imagination and experiences. Anything I truly need to know about makes its way to me because it’s meant to be and is often a synchronicity.
So, I really am to blame for not knowing what’s good out there. That’s why I answered ‘no.’
G: So, it’s really more ‘I don’t know,’ rather than just ‘no.’
J: Yes! More like I don’t know. But I have to say that we live in a super diverse world, and there’s no one size that fits all. There’s not one lesbian film that fits all lesbians. I made a film, and a lot of lesbians probably can’t relate to it, because my films tend to be art films, more European style. They’re not the stuff you see on TV or mainstream filmmaking.
The only way you can get it right is to get it right in your niche market. And if that niche market catches fire, then it becomes accessible to the mainstream and to more people, which is great.
I don’t want to spend time naming names or bagging other people’s work, but one thing no one is getting right in terms of lesbian films is that I’m offended when men make lesbian films or even dare to write a lesbian story. That is so offensive to me, and they should be ashamed. People can have a lot of arguments around it, and it’s true, an author, director or anyone talented can make anything brilliant. But I haven’t examined this enough to be able to describe how sick it makes me feel. It’s just so offensive.
G: Red as Blue touches on the very sensitive topic of school shootings, which seems more relevant now than ever. What led you in that direction and why do you think it’s important to tell this story in media for teens and young adults?
J: First, I want to say that I thought it was really eerie that the Florida MSD shooting happened right when I started promoting the book. That was strange because for the longest time, I wanted to talk about homicidal teens and high school shootings somehow, in some way, in storytelling.
At the time that I was developing the story, nobody understood why the hell I was writing a teen love story with this stuff in it. I just felt like it needed to be told, but it needed to be told not as a focus. When people write or create stories about Columbine or high school shootings it’s always focused on the violence and on the mind of the killer. I’ve always felt that this isn’t the right way to go about it. The only way that we can heal society in terms of waking them up to why these things are happening is to open up their hearts. And that’s why it has to happen in love story.
The message I want to get across with the school shooting happens in the background of the society that my character June lives in. Ever since Columbine happened, I’ve been disturbed by high school shootings, and I sprinkled it in the story’s background in a way to show the societal cancer behind that shooting. When you look at the story and you see all the bullying, violence, hatred, and all these kids acting kind of Lord of the Flies in a 1980s way, and with the heavy white male patriarchal Christian consciousness going on in the time—all of that is the cancer going on underneath. That’s what is causing these kids to go berserk. I didn’t make it so I’m hitting you over the head with that message, but that’s really what I’m trying to show. To show the youth that they’re not the problem, society is the fucking problem.
And that’s what’s happening today. The youth are standing up because they didn’t have a voice back then. They were supposed to be obedient, listen to authority, and do what adults say. They didn’t have the media outlet to say anything and they were so used to being pacified, to shutting up and letting adults tell them about their experiences. So the cancer continued to grow. I was so pissed when I saw these so-called experts talk about the youth experience on the news. I was like, “Fuck you. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re the ones who caused these problems.”
Even back in the late 90s, if you dared to say that, you’d get shit for it. Nobody wanted to believe that religion was behind it or that society was fucked up. You couldn’t question authority. What’s happening now is that the cancer has grown so huge that it can’t be ignored anymore. Gun control is not the problem; gun control is just a massive, most obvious tumor. The kids—thank god for the kids. Social media has enabled them to take over and to show the adults that they didn’t know how to raise them. Basically, the kids have been raising the adults since Columbine because no one did shit for them.
That’s what I’m going for in this novel, and I’m so happy that in some strange way whatever is happening right is so true to what I dreamed of when I was writing this. The youth is so inspirational.
G: What do you hope teens reading your story walk away with?
J: How can I answer that without being kind of cheesy?
G: Be cheesy all you want!
J: I think I’ll stick with something simple and important to me since the time I made my short film “Nune.” It’s an adaptation and millennial version of Red as Blue in compacted form and takes place in modern times.
What I was going for there is the same thing I’m going for here with the book, which is that I want to show teens that no matter how dark, or how hard things are, or how invisible you feel, it is always worth holding onto your highest ideal. You need your highest ideal to save you and pull you through. In this story, the highest ideal was love for one another. And aside from that, for June, her highest ideal is to make music. For Beverly, her highest ideal is being good at what she does, which is sports.
But you have to have ideals. And if you don’t have them, you have to create them, because you have to hold onto something. That’s your life raft. That’s the part that gets you through, especially when the world gets fucked up and you have all these adults who don’t understand you and try to derail you and tell you you’re wrong about things when you know you’re right. You know you’re right when you’re holding onto that ideal.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
J: I’m just focused on promoting the book. I think I need to take a vacation and clear my mind to work on my next project, which will likely be a novel. More than likely it will be something transcendental, and probably female-centric and more than likely LGBT.
G: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me; I’m so excited for the release of Red as Blue!
J: Thanks for interviewing me, it’s been really cool!
Red as Blue comes out May 15th and will be sold at all major online retailers in both ebook and print. Preorder begins March 27th, which is just around the corner, so get ready to reserve your copy! You can also ask your local library or bookstore to order a copy.
Images Courtesy of IDKL Media and GYATRi Media; Artwork by: Juan Fleites
Grilled Cheese and Goblins is Supernatural Noir with a Delicious Twist
Like supernatural noir and wish it were more LGBTQ+ friendly? Do you enjoy an afternoon of sexy goblins, animated Christmas cookies, and smart-mouthed leprechauns angry about pixies stealing their jobs? Do you ship the grumpy one with the happy one? If any of this applies to you, or you’re just looking for a fun set of short stories to read with gay protagonists and supernatural beings, I highly recommend Grilled Cheese and Goblins: Adventures of a Supernatural Food Inspector (hereafter, Grilled Cheese).
Grumpy and rumpled former chef and restaurateur turned supernatural food inspector Keith Curry won me over from the first slice of cheese. And no, I don’t mean metaphorical cheese—though there is sometimes a bit of camp involved in these supernatural short stories—I mean actual grilled cheese. It’s Curry’s favorite food of course (lol, food puns). This isn’t my first foray into Blind Eye Books’ repertoire, and I was not disappointed.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Vampire Hunter. Leprechaun Fighter. Food Inspector.
Keith Curry has his work cut out for him.
NATO’s Irregulars Affairs Division is a secret organization operating in thousands of cities around the globe. Its agents police relations between the earthly realm and those beyond this world, protecting citizens from both mundane and otherworldly dangers.
Former chef turned NIAD food inspector, Special Agent Keith Curry found out about magic the hard way and is now determined to keep dinner safe for everybody. Includes the novellas “Cherries Worth Getting,” “Magically Delicious” and the never-before-published “Bring Out Your Best” plus bonus shorts and more!
The Good Stuff
Supernatural noir is my brain candy genre; not that it can’t be edgy and dark, only I prefer the kind with a bit of humor about itself. There’s something charming about the culture clash inherent in modern noir detective stories set in a supernatural world with fae, goblins, pixies, and magic. There’s so much potential for banal absurdity too, like in Grilled Cheese’s “The Most Important Meal of the Day,” which sees our protagonist cooking breakfast for a mage to undo the Lovecraftian apocalypse currently destroying the city. Something about making blintzes while a many-eyed monster with blood-red tentacles decapitates people makes me cackle with glee.
Which is to say that the worldbuilding for this series of short stories all centered around Keith Curry is fantastic. The first few paragraphs of the first story utterly immersed and engrossed me. The world felt lived in, vast, yet not overwhelming. As if this world just is and we’re seeing only a tiny corner of it. Author Nicole Kimberling knows how to create a sense of comfort in this world that’s both familiar and different from our own. She’s clearly done her work creating this vision of supernatural reality, yet it doesn’t feel either stale or overly complicated. We know enough details to get us through understanding each of the stories without getting lost. However, I never felt bogged down by exposition or encumbered by explanations. She finds that perfect balance between detailed and info-dumpy.
The tone and ambiance come across right away as well, the noir-adjacent hard-boiled detective vibe yet, once again, without feeling like I’ve seen too much of this before. The stories balance humor with gruesome elements well, and I appreciate that it doesn’t take itself or the genre too seriously. Some of the plot elements can be a bit absurd, but who cares? He’s a supernatural food inspector chasing down contraband pixie dust and extra-human steroids contaminating the supernatural blood supply. There’s bound to be a bit of absurdity to it, and I like that. Like I said, I like some camp with my supernatural crime dramas. Helps balance out the thought of fruit ripening out of human body parts.
Speaking of supernatural noir, it’s nice to see an example of the genre with queer characters that isn’t bait-y. (I don’t kneed to mention the television show I’m thinking of here, you know which one I mean.) And I’m all about characters for whom being queer is just part of their story; they’re not Gay™. They just a food inspector and his hot, strike team goblin boyfriend who work for a government agency focused on “irregular affairs.” I also love that the protagonist is a former chef and his role is tracking down food contamination, which is a unique spin on a supernatural investigator that leads in some surprising directions.
Speaking of characters, they’re excellent. Kimberling writes Keith with a deft touch. Too much cranky, and a protagonist can veer into obnoxious real fast. Keith has just the right amount of cynicism and pessimism to be enjoyable (I always love the ‘grumpy lobster’ characters with hearts of gold, like Toby from The West Wing). Plus, we get to see him change and mellow out a bit over the course of the stories, especially in his relationship with and thoughts about his boyfriend, Gunther Heartman a ‘trans-goblin’ whose physical features had been permanently altered in utero to make him appear fully human (see below).
Gunther, with his optimistic, gentle, thoughtful personality balances out Keith nicely. For characters that on paper seem like tropes (the cheerful one and the grumpy one, e.g.), Keith and Gunther don’t feel like tropes at all. They’re three dimensional, interesting, and fun characters who truly let us see multiple sides of what living in this world is like. There are some truly delightful secondary characters I wish we got more of as well. Johanna, Damien, and Susan from “Bring Out Your Best” were some of my favorites, plus I did wind up enjoying the mage from “The Most Important Meal of the Day” more than I expected I would when I first started the story.
The sex scenes are tastefully done and emotion/romance focused, which is how I like my romance. I read fewer queer male stories than I do queer female stories, and I tend to be less invested in male/male pairings, but this couple utterly charmed me. They’re well-written, engaging, and have great chemistry together. It helps that the stories they exist in are so entertaining, too.
Kimberling’s use of ‘trans-goblin’ for characters of goblin heritage who had been transmogrified in utero to be fully human looking stood out to me as potentially loaded. As a cisgendered woman, I cannot comment on the impact or implications that such terminology would have on the transgendered community. However, I did want to point it out, as it is a major facet of Gunther’s identity and informs the way Keith interacts with and thinks about him.
More than that specific wording, there’s something uncomfortable about seeing a marginalized identity and community correlated with a being whose heritage isn’t just accusations of violence and murder but actual predation on humans. Trans-goblins aren’t the only fae beings given LGBTQ+ coding in the stories, and marginalization of the fae and other supernatural beings frequently functions as an analogy for LGBTQ+ marginalization. I’ve seen such coding before (X-Men, for example), and on the one hand, I understand why so many writers find the analogy appealing. It’s a way to discuss current and historical socio-political and religious marginalization without sounding too preachy.
However, my concerns with it here are the same as when it’s used elsewhere. There’s a double-edged sword in using magical and dangerous beings as stand-ins for marginalized community: it both accurately conveys the fear non-marginalized folks have of LGBTQ+ people and inaccurately, and likely inadvertently, affirms the perceived danger. Humans would have a right to be afraid of beings that drink their blood or feast on their flesh, or have done so historically. Being afraid of mutants who can kill you with a touch, mages who can throw fireballs at you, or superhumans that can crush your skull with two fingers makes sense when you’re a squishy human without powers. That same fear when applied to queer folks or other marginalized communities is unfounded and based in bigotry rather than actual fact.
Because of this disparity, I’m always uncomfortable with stories that situate actually dangerous or historically violent/predatory entities as stand-ins for marginalized communities. Your mileage may vary, and Kimberling’s use of this trope didn’t ruin my enjoyment. Like I said above, I enjoyed this world, these characters, and the stories themselves. This is just something to be aware of going in.
Final Score : 9/10
Note: Since I am not qualified to speak on the issue of the handling of trans-ness or its association with Gunther’s goblin identity, I can only discuss the other elements of the story.
Overall, this series of short stories is an entertaining read. The really short snippets are delightful, though only work in a volume like this one where they have context. I enjoyed each of the mysteries, which were engaging and quick reads. Perfect for an afternoon or to read on commute. As mentioned, my discomfort with associating marginalized identities with dangerous magical beings wasn’t enough to quell my enjoyment. So, in the end, the well-developed characters, a fascinating and well-fleshed out world, and a good balance in tone and ambiance make this series of shorts a winner for me.
About the Author
Nicole Kimberling is a novelist, editor and podcast creator. Her first novel Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other speculative fiction works include Happy Snak, The Sea of Stars and a variety of short stories and novellas. Contemporary works include The Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years. She is the creator and writer of the podcast “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” an audio drama exploring the day-to-day case files of Special Agent Keith Curry as told by his twelve-year-old cat sitter. Prior to becoming a novelist she cooked in restaurants for twenty years and synthesizes her philosophical thoughts about food and cooking in a recurring column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You can contact her @nkimberling69 or www.nicolekimberling.com.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images Courtesy of Blind Eye Books
Mordor, Defiance, and Hope
I was intrigued going into Book VI at how this last leg of The Lord of the Rings was going to stack up in reality versus memory. While I’d always held Book VI to be my favorite, I’ve gotten the impression that that’s not a terribly common opinion. Kate Nepveu over at Tor, for example, associates it largely with an endless slog of long, grim walking. And that is… not wrong! “The Land of Shadow” covers twenty pages in my edition. Most of it consists of a long Despair Walk over Evil Lands. The land is sharp and ugly. There’s not enough food or water. Frodo’s hope meter has dried up entirely, and he powers himself forward solely on a blunt, practical reserve of duty. He assumes he’s going to die. It’s just a matter of giving it a go until then.
It says a lot about the tone of the chapter that within the first page Frodo and Sam dangle off the parapet of the Morgai road and then drop blindly into blackness, not knowing how far they are going to fall. They do this quickly and undramatically. What else could they do? It’s a brutal mirror image of the slow, pained descent through Emyl Muil, so many chapters ago. There, the hobbits nervously creeped over edges, armed with rope and light and rest. Things seemed bad then, ominous and pocked with danger. Here, they simply fall off a bridge into darkness. They make it: they have the luck (“luck”) to fall only twelve feet into a thorn bush. But there’s every chance in the world that they wouldn’t.
And that desperation characterizes the rest of the chapter. Frodo, when he speaks, does so in distracted, short sentences. “Look here, Sam dear lad,” he says at one point. “I am tired, weary, I haven’t a hope left. But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move.” And Tolkien remains pitiless towards his characters. For every instance that he gives them a trickle of bitter oil-water or allows for a “dreary canopy dim light [to leak] into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison,” he also floods the path of Mount Doom with tightly-packed camps. Or he makes Frodo and Sam, after a twelve-mile walk (on hobbit legs!), endure a brutal forced run.
It’s no wonder, throughout this chapter, that Frodo so consistently abnegates himself. He rarely seems to think or feel, simply focusing his energy on the mechanical completion of his task. His personality seems largely blunted out. He cares about their obstacles only abstractly, repeating how unsurprised he is that things are going poorly. And in a particularly frightening moment, he reveals that not only his sense of self but his own past seems to be being stripped away. “This blind dark seems to be getting into my heart. As I lay in prison, Sam, I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now.”
Light and High Beauty in Mordor
It’s disheartening how this sense of loss pervades even the chapter’s moments of relative hope. Sam’s wish for light is granted with an impressive speediness.
Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.
It’d have been easy to make this an obviously triumphant moment. Something akin to the shaft of light illuminating the king’s head at the Crossroads. A new wind blows across the Pelennor, Éomer gets his eucatastrophe, and Aragorn turns the tide of battle. It seems things will metaphorically play out above Frodo and Sam, in that “battle far above in the high spaces of the air.” But there is so much distance. The light that comes is weak and grimy. Even when Tolkien steps in to tell us it’s the fifteenth of March, he chooses the grimmest depiction of what’s happening: Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields. It’s an objective moment of hope, but in the moment it feels… largely useless. Mordor filters the light and the story into its grimmest iteration, like a depressed brain stuck in thought patterns that silence the good and augment the distressing.
It’s even, as per usual in Tolkien, reflected in the landscape. Mordor, Tolkien notes, “was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.” There seems to be some hope in this, especially since it comes on the tail of Frodo and Sam finding a trickle of unpleasant-but-potable water. It could be a moment of resistance, of the land itself fighting back against what Sauron has done to it (in a light parallel to Saruman). But instead, as we get deeper into the landscape, we find that all that has survived is violence.
Coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives.
Beyond that, the orcs and midges in the land have all be marked, branded by a Red Eye. And by the time Frodo and Sam reach the Morannon it is utterly desolate, bereft of any life at all. Over the course of the chapter, what started as apparent resistance is revealed to only be an allowance at best, and an articulation of Mordor itself at worst.
In both cases, moments of potential hope get kneecapped before they can really take hold. There is one moment, though, that seems like it manages to transcend this: when Sam sees a star.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for the moment, his own fate, and even his master’s ceased to trouble him.
This passage was deeply meaningful for Little Katie. I remember re-reading it solemnly the way some people probably re-read the Bible. I was very attracted to the idea that beauty or hope could be a piercing, physical sensation. It always made me feel both hopeful and sad. That’s still there, but I am intrigued by the last two lines, which I hadn’t particularly remembered. The distinction provided here between defiance and hope is a fascinating one to me: the position of the self. Where Frodo’s despair seems to be manifesting in the loss of his own self, Sam seems to find hope in the same thing: in their very transience of their roles in the grand scheme of the story in which they partake. It’s a nice, complex moment, especially given how central individual choice is to Tolkien’s moral cosmos.
- We get our seeding for the return of Gollum next chapter. I hadn’t recalled that Frodo inadvertently saved Gollum’s life here. His mail shirt, discarded on the first day of their walk, was picked up by Gollum and saved him from being killed by an orcish arrow in the back. I think I’m going to wait for our big conclusion next chapter to comment on that. But one of Frodo’s few moments of active choice in this chapter—to discard his mail shirt and sword, under the assumption that he’s done striking blows—saves the being that will ultimately save the mission.
- In a chapter that is decidedly Not Funny, I got a big laugh out of Sam saying “Let me drink first, Mr. Frodo” upon finding a trickle of water. Frodo, vaguely put off about it: “Alright, but there’s room enough for two.”
- It seems a reasonable reading to say that the star Sam sees is Earendil, though Tolkien doesn’t explicitly state it. (Kate Nepveu in the article linked above says Tolkien reveals it in the Appendices, but I haven’t checked). It works either way, both readings adding different kinds of complexity to the story.
- I have been delighted to find out how gossipy Mordor is and how ineffective its propaganda machine is. The orcs on Sam and Frodo’s trail note they don’t even know what they’re hunting for. “First they saw it’s a great Elf in bright armor, then it’s a sort of small dwarf-man, then it must be a pack of rebel Urukhai; or maybe it’s all the lot together.” The defeat of the Witch King of Angmar has also leaked, despite the party line that the War is Going Well. I like this both for the insight that some factions in Mordor are treasonously delighted at the demise of the “Shriekers,” and also because it makes me wonder if Tolkien cribbed some of this from the notorious role of propaganda in World War I.
- Prose Prize: “Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.”
- Contemporary to this Chapter: As you can see right above, it’s Battle of Pelennor Field Day! As far as I can tell this chapter covers March 15-19, reaching the early parts of our other heroes’ march to Morannon. Also interesting, though, is the fact that Sam thinks on Lórien and Galadriel as they were being hit by the second assault of Mordor forces. “If only the Lady could see us or hear us, I’d say to her: ‘Your Ladyship, all we want is light and water: just clean water and plain daylight, better than any jewels, begging your pardon.’ But it’s a long way to Lórien.” Sam sighed and waved his hand towards the heights of the Ephel Dúath, now only to be guessed as a deeper blackness against the black sky.”
- In two weeks: the end of all things! Meet you at Mount Doom.
Art Credits: Art, in order of appearance, is courtesy of WiseSnailArt, suwi, and Ted Nasmith.
The Tower of Cirith Ungol
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” shares an unenviable position with “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” as book openers. They are all responsible for taking a narrative speeding along at full steam, halting it in its tracks, rewinding, and starting something else. It’s a necessity for how Tolkien chose to structure his story but a tricky business, particularly after the strength of Book V. “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” managed to overcome the disadvantages their positions by introducing a new, immediate dynamism. Smeagol and Gondor reorient both stories, creating near-immediate newness and momentum that propel their books forward. “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” doesn’t do this—we’re at the point for tying up loose ends, not creating them.
That’s for the best, but it does mean that “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” drags a bit as an opener. It’s not bad, by any means—we’ll get to the good stuff in a bit—but it does have a tendency to rehash older thematic and emotional beats that were conveyed more emphatically in “Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choices of Master Samwise.” Sam’s horror at what’s happening is affective, but not new. Evil sowing the seeds of its own destruction is a solid Tolkien theme. But its articulation here—as Shagrat and Gorbag tear each other apart, leaving a clear path for Sam—is more convenient and less potent than in an established, nuanced character like Saruman. And the reminder that Mordor keeps people in rather than out is an ominous one, but again, nothing new.
That said, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” does have some moments that work really well, and it serves as a nice, tender reminder of how kind Tolkien’s sense of heroism is at its heart.
Visions of Power
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is one of the loneliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Sam spends the first two-thirds of it, as Tolkien tells us, “utterly alone.” Merry and Pippin have flirted with loneliness earlier in The Return of the King but neither were ever really in a position of comparable isolation. Sam starts off Book VI by walking into Mordor by himself. His panic-induced adrenaline has worn off, and he first catches a glimpse of Mount Doom while standing small, cold, and afraid.
Tolkien repeatedly referred to Sam as the central “hero” of The Lord of the Rings throughout his letters and “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is right in the middle of the chapters where he most explicitly acts out this role. He just maybe-murdered a giant spider of numinous darkness. He’s storming a presumably orc-ridden tower. He’s about to carry Frodo and the Ring up a mountain. And amid all of this, there’s an interesting examination of what Sam’s heroism is and isn’t. First, there is simply the question of power, as Sam faces his main temptation from the Ring around his neck.
As Sam stood there… he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: for forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it; and to challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.
As in other cases, Sam’s rejection of the Ring requires a voluntary abdication of power, even power with the intention to do good. Gandalf, as Tolkien mentioned, would have been far worse as a master of the Ring than Sauron precisely because of his good intentions. Sam—thanks to that solid hobbit common sense—is able to realize that benevolent garden tyranny is still a tyranny of its own.
The interesting thing about this chapter, though, is that Sam is also repeatedly saved by the power that he abdicates. He knows that “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm.” But at the same time, he is also saved in the Tower by the Ring’s transformation of his appearance into “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at its breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom.”
There is a sense of tension present throughout The Lord of the Rings around this question. The peace and simplicity of the Shire, its utter disregard for power and conquest, form the core of hobbit courage. But the question of how—and whether—such things can be maintained without force nearly always bubbles below the surface.
Tenderness and Heroism
Yet despite altered appearances and some surprising handiness in spider fights, Sam’s heroism is of course rooted almost entirely in love. When I read Tolkien as a teenager, I was always aware of a strong contingent of shippers who were deeply invested in the idea of Frodo and Sam being a couple. I doubt this was intentional on Tolkien’s part, if for no other reason than because The Lord of the Rings as a whole is a remarkably asexual work. But I also am not surprised by it in the slightest, because the relationship between Frodo and Sam is intimate and tender in a way that feels unique in the depiction of male fantasy heroes. There is hand-holding, spooning, and so many tears!
He lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when the night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness; but it was not allowed.
It’s such a non-toxic version of masculinity that—from my perspective—feels very refreshing. Touch and affection are embraced as healing and strengthening. Tears are a mark of empathy and not of weakness. Sam couldn’t quite pop up on Steven Universe, but it’s also not that much of a stretch.
But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled from his eyes.
After his more traditional heroic role in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” Sam here is heroic in the inverse. He sings, he cries, he hugs, he doesn’t fight anyone. I do wonder, to a certain extent, if Tolkien manages to be so old in his views here that he feels new. In any case, it does feel like another indication of the wobbly foundation for claiming Tolkien as the grandfather of modern fantasy. It’s hard for me to think of subsequent fantasy author who treats emotion in anything approaching a comparable way.
- The first paragraph I wrote for this review described the chapter as “rocky.” It occurred to me that this could be read as a pun in relationship to the landscape, and that seemed so terrible—lampshaded or not—that I just deleted the entire paragraph and started over.
- I’ve always been really into the Watchers and I’d forgotten how small a role they actually play. I apparently just had a thing for frightening boundaries as a child, between this and the Sphinx Gate from The Neverending Story.
- As a kid I also made up a melody for Sam’s song in Cirith Ungol and would sing it to myself when I was by myself because I was a neeeeerrrrrrrddddd.
- I like that Ring-ravaged Frodo is often indistinguishable from a nihilistically-depressed millennial on tumblr: “Here, take this elven-cake, and drink that last drop in your bottle! The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s not good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.”
- Was momentarily but deeply baffled to discover Tolkien talking about the orcs “fighting over the swag” in Cirith Ungol. Swag, though, has a long and fun etymological history you can start reading about here. The use here probably comes from 17th century English thieves’ cant.
- Poor Frodo. He tells Sam that “two great brutes came and questioned me, questioned me until I thought I should go mad, standing over me, gloating, fingering their knives. I’ll never forget their claws and eyes.” Sam, who believes in the power of tears but not psychotherapy, tells his best friend to lock that shit up in his mind vault and never think or talk about it again. No wonder Frodo has to sail off the face of the earth away from his problems.
- Prose Prize: Not a highlight for prose, to be honest. Everything’s perfectly fine but there aren’t a lot of standouts. I do quite like the ending of the chapter though. The drama of what’s occurring pairs nicely with a simplicity of prose. The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged; and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien does it for me this time! He mentions that it is March 14th, just a bit before the Rohirrim arrive at the Pelannor. By the time they leave Cirith Ungol, the Battle of Pelennor Fields is well under way. As with the beginnings of the other books, Tolkien does make some (at least token) efforts to reorient the reader to the new narrative stream.
Art Credits: Film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Sam approaching Cirith Ungol is courtesy of aegeri.
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