Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

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I had the book version.

You should never read a novel purely so that you could impress strangers by saying you’ve read it. Pride and Prejudice taught me that lesson, and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the unfortunately-named John Bunyan, drove the point home.

The narrator spends the entire story asleep, telling us what the little people in his weird dream get up to. This was the most interesting thing about Pilgrim’s Progress, because it allows for the mostly third-person narrative to interrupted by first-person descriptions of what the characters look like. Such a device deserves to be used in a much better book, I might have to steal it.

The story itself is about some guy named Christian, who abandons his loving family on the advice of the sketchy drifter Evangelist to look for the shining Celestial City. Along the way he meets people called things like Ignorance, Obstinate, Pliable. A lot like the dwarves in Snow White, really. Maybe John Bunyan had a thing about names, seeing how he shares a surname with a podiatric malady? I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. Christian begins as a naive fool and ends up as a know-it-all pious tool, and everyone else’s character is summarized by their name.

The geography of the book is just as unsubtle. Christian begins the book in the City of Destruction, is put on trial at the hedonistic dystopia Vanity Fair and is imprisoned in Doubting Castle. I don’t know about you, but as an Australian some of these names feel downright plausible. Over here we’ve got Mount Despair, Mount Disappointment and Mount Pleasant.

As I read the Pilgrim’s Progress I begun spinning wild scenarios that would liven the book up. What if Christian and his companion Hopeful consummated their close relationship? What if it turned out that Islam was the real religion, and this whole Shining City thing was a con? How do these characters dream? What if Christian ate too much junk food at Vanity Fair and spent the night crouched in a foetal position in his hotel room while his entire being throbs with the agony of a stomach ache? Would his pain be anthromorphised as tiny demons, and would they get stupid names? And who is giving these ridiculous characters names? Are they just nicknames? As of now my theory is that Pilgrim’s Progress takes place in some sort of Platonic World-of-Forms cosmos, and each character is the platonic ideal they represent. But I don’t actually understand Platonism…

What does happen is this: Christian makes it through Hell, almost literally, and gets to his city.

I wouldn’t recommend Pilgrim’s Progress to anyone. Christians deserve better allegories, and they can find them in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and the more sci-fi inclined should check out his underrated Space Trilogy.

 

The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole – Sue Townsend

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Long-term readers of this blog will remember me raving about Diary of a Wimpy Vampire back in February. I think Adrian Mole was the prototype for that book, or at least a very influential example of the comedic diary genre. So how does this novel stack up to another novel I really enjoyed?

Adrian Mole is like a teenage version of Mark Corrigan from Peep Show, stuck somewhere between precocious and just plain pretentious. Both his parents have children born from affairs while he is an off-and-on-again relationship with some posh girl called Pandora. Occasionally Adrian will send a poem to the BBC, and they’ll humour him with a polite rejection letter. Confusingly, the novel doesn’t end with a dramatic climax, or begin with an exciting event either, but I suppose that’s realism for you.

There were funny bits, but the book didn’t grab me like Wimpy Vampire did. Maybe it was the complete lack of fantastic elements. Oh well.

Adrian Mole was pretty popular in the eighties, in Britain ITV made a show based on the character. Here’s the opening song:

And now I want to go watch Ashes to Ashes again.

Death and Ker – Rayless Night

So I read another video game fan fiction, and you can check out my badly-expressed thoughts on why these things are so great at this link.

Death and Ker is based on Persona a classic dating sim/role playing game about Japanese students hunting mythological manifestations of the Jungian collective unconscious while the rest of the world is frozen during midnight. It’s absolutely brilliant, check out the great music and art style in the video above. Rapping and singing during battles? Yes please!

The Playstation Portable version of the game, which I played, allows you to choose whether the protagonist is a boy or a girl. I chose to play the game as a male character, because it required less imagination on my part, but Death and Ker goes with a female protagonist. The big consequence of this is that some street punk who died tragically in my run of the game becomes a love interest with a considerably longer life span.

Beyond that I can’t say much about Death and Ker‘s plot because most of it would be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the source material and because the story is set after the game. And you want to play the game. Suffice to say that Greek mythology buffs will get a special enjoyment from this story Death and Ker.

Rayless Night captures the characters’ personalities, motivations and voices perfectly but I felt there was something lacking about the pacing. Fan fiction is an inherently serial artform, so the story felt more episodic than most novels. And I wasn’t entirely clear on the importance and consequences of the main character’s quest, although that could be due to sloppy reading on my part.

There was something about the premise which I also found unsatisfactory. I can’t go into too much detail for fear of getting spoilery, but at the end of the game the protagonist had to permanently leave her friends so that they could stay safe. Rayless Night reunites her with the old gang, by having an unfortunate side character take her place. This felt like cheating.

Of course Persona fans should read this book. And if you’re not a Persona fan you should become one by playing the game. But if that’s too much for you, go read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality instead, which according to my calculations is the best fan fiction with the widest popular appeal.

That Which Devours – DK

First things first, this is a Final Fantasy VIII fan fiction. So for most of my followers this review will be absolutely useless. But if you’ve landed here after googling something along the lines of ‘Final Fantasy VIII fan fiction’, you’ve come to the right place.

The great thing about reading fan fiction is that I already know the characters and the settings. When you read something original, there’s always this awkward transitional phase where you need to work out what the protagonist looks like, how they think, and how they fit into their world. It’s especially bad with genre fiction, where the author needs to explain the setting to you without breaking into outright exposition, and there’s all these funny names and Arbitrarily Capitalised Words. That’s not a problem I had with That Which Devours. From playing the game I already knew that Squall is a grumpy introvert who looks like Keanu Reeve and lives in a flying boarding school for child soldiers who fight with mythological entities painfully grafted into onto their brains. Simple.

Fan fictions based on video games are particularly great because they allow us to see the game’s world through the eyes of the characters who inhabit them, instead of just hovering above them like some godlike camera. We learn how player characters react emotionally to the events we put them through and how they makes sense of their wider culture. It’s like the difference between watching a film and reading the novelisation, or between watching someone do something and having them explain to you why they did it. This fan fiction does it fantastically well.

DK’s That Which Devours hooks you with one of the most compelling sentences I’ve read in a blurb for a good while. ‘Parodies don’t always have to be funny’. The scenario this enigmatic phrase hints at is this: after Squall has a particularly powerful mythological entity removed from his brain, an uncannily handsome and competent doppelganger is born. This double slowly usurps Squall’s position at the flying school, his relationships with his friends, his entire life basically. He does this because he wants the same things the original wants, but unlike the original he’s willing to enact his forbidden desires – with horrifyingly violent and occasionally incestuous results.

This whole situation is a play on the old ‘Mary Sue’ trope. A Mary Sue is a character too perfect for the audience to sympathize with, and instead become an object of their contempt. The stereotypical fan fiction Mary Sue is an impossibly beautiful girl with an absurdly tragic past and one single, inconsequential, flaw. To me, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Conan the Barbarian are all Mary Sues. You can get away with writing perfect characters is you put them in a scenario that can only be overcome by perfection – I’m thinking of Superman. Sues are commonly complained about, and are frequently parodied, often without actually being funny, so it’s refreshing to see someone play the concept seriously and explore the consequences.

Another good thing about this fic was how they handled the character of Xu, Squall’s second in command. In the game she’s noticeably unimpressed by her superior and this characterization in maintained in That Which Devours. After everyone else falls in love with Squall’s double, Xu remains as apathetic towards him as she was to the original. It’s nice to see such a minor character given the limelight.

Anyone who loved Final Fantasy VIII will enjoy this story. And I think the scenario is inventive enough for anyone unfamiliar with the source material to enjoy it, if they’re willing to muddle through confusing terminology or just Google everything they don’t know. It’s only 30,947 words long, after all.

For the rest of you, I recommend this: go to Fanfiction.net or Archive of Our Own, choose a franchise you know well, sort the stories by reviews, comments or favourites, click on the top five, and you’ll find something brilliant. I guarantee it.