The Most Heinous Literary Crime
I spend a lot of time on TVTropes, most often between the hours of 11pm and 2am. In fact, I spend more time on average reading TVTropes than I do actually watching TV. As an avid writer and reader, it’s been a great way for me to find new reading material which matches my current interests (seriously, TVTropes has an entry for everything).
It’s also allowed me to put a name to one of my least favourite literary tropes: Doing In the Wizard. That’s when a book or movie which starts out as a fairytale goes “PSYCH! You sucker! There is no magic after all!” I find this depressing as hell. The whole point of fantasy fiction is to spin up worlds where the impossible becomes possible. If a work opens up with fantasy, the magic better be real. I don’t want to start watching a poetic film about selkies and then get slammed in the face by “IT WAS ROMANIAN DRUG TRAFFICKING ALL ALONG”.
That, by the way, is the plot of the movie Ondine. I so wanted to like Ondine. It’s lovely and atmospheric––and it has a selkie character, which I’ve established as one of my favourite mythical creatures. Except whoops, actually, there are no selkies: the titular woman is actually a drug mule from Romania, who just happens to be an excellent swimmer. All of the inexplicable events she was thought to have caused, from luring salmon into shallow waters with her singing to… curing a child’s kidney disease (yep, it’s that kind of movie) are shrugged off as a series of weirdly specific coincidences. I felt like screaming. Everything was set up so perfectly for a fantasy movie, and then they completely ruined it! Personally, I think they should have just rolled with the idea they’d been hinting at through most of the movie and had Ondine’s evil selkie husband show up to fight Colin Farrell. That way they’d have gotten the thriller element they were aiming for in a more believable way than the supposedly-realistic ending they went with. As it stands now, though, it’s pretty hard for most viewers to buy the whole “string of coincidences” gimmick which is integral to the not-a-selkie twist.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that a lot of authors love murdering their wizards. One of the books which stung me the most with its Doing In the Wizard betrayal is Where the Forest Meets the Stars, by Glendy Vanderah. It starts out so promisingly, with an otherworldly child named Ursa appearing outside the narrator’s door and insisting that she’s an alien visitor sent to experience five miracles on Earth. Okay, cool, that’s a fun premise. The pace of the book is achingly slow at times, but the characters spring off the page as fully-formed people. It can be hard to write precocious kids without making them sound obnoxious, but Vanderah does it really well with Ursa.
And then the entire book descends into a slurry of clichés. I won’t go into details, and to her credit Vanderah hints that maybe the magic is real after all, but Ursa’s “real” backstory is a half-baked tragedy queen jumble. I hated it. I stayed up till 3:30am reading this book, and when I turned the last page I felt like throwing it at a wall. There was nothing original about the way the story unfolded. I’ve seen the same set of tropes in half the crime shows and thriller novels I’ve read. But if it had been a book about a girl who turns out to be an alien possessing a dead body? That’s fantastic. I’d have loved that. Maybe the alien could have solved the murder of the little girl whose body she now inhabits.
Sometimes it really is best to let fairytales be fairytales. Sometimes it works better if the child really is an alien, or the mysterious woman turns out to be a selkie after all. Don’t bait and switch when it comes to fantasy! Nurture your wizards, authors. Keep them alive for readers to enjoy!