Shadows of the Dark Crystal – J.M. Lee

shadowsIf books were children, the treatment I’ve given them lately may not land me in jail, but I might get a stern talking-to by Social Services. Oh, the ironies of teaching literature, spending all day long with books and coming home without enough energy to charge a cell phone while it’s still on. If I had book shelves beneath my stairs, I could compare myself to the Dursleys, literally keeping Harry Potter in the pantry all the time. As such, I feel that the last few books I’ve read, I’ve been about as fair and balanced as a rusted-out bathroom scale shoved in a closet in a Fox News studio. Fortunately, I’ve found one I can get through and enjoy without the regret of wasted time and money you get when the high class escort girl you hired isn’t the one from the picture on the website. What’s more, the book stems from the world of the 80-minute Jim Henson production, The Dark Crystal. Managing to make a movie-based book that expands the lore and, what’s more, manages to capture the Jim Henson feel without the muppets, is a task that ranks up there with slaying the Nemean lion, destroying the One Ring, and reading a presidential ballot when you want to vote for the guy who hates words. But somehow, author J.M. Lee managed to bring skeksis back with his book, Shadows of the Dark Crystal.

skeksisThe book serves as a distant prequel to the Dark Crystal film, set way back in a time when gelflings weren’t harder to find than a Mormon strip club. In fact, the skeksis employed them as guards in their palace, and the gelflings served with a sense of pride, patriotism, and Stockholm syndrome that would rival that of even Hispanic and female Trump voters. (Preemptive apology for any political tone in today’s post, but I’m writing less than a week after the election, and we in the U.S. are currently a little worried that our hallowed democracy and electoral college will soon be replaced with “Trial By Stone!”) Naia, a swamp gelfling, receives word that her brother, one of the aforementioned guards self-flagellating themselves in service to Trump’s Satan’s Parakeets, is on trial for treason. The only thing preventing the skeksis from beating him over the head with a lead bucket of propaganda for an hour—mostly to tenderize the meat for later—and using the remaining pulp to thicken their soup is that they can’t find him. But since punishment is always entertaining whether or not there’s a legitimate crime to go with it (as per standard Republican philosophy), the skeksis insist that someone stand trail in his place, and call for a member of his family (dear God, I’m glad Trump can’t read. This book would give him too many ideas.). From there, Naia begins her journey to discover a horrible, dark, and twisted secret that anyone who’s seen the movie kind of already sort of knew.

For starters, she discovers the Crystal is no longer pure and white, but dark and corrupted (which finally breaks the trend of Republican comparisons, as the GOP is somehow all four of those at once). I thought about marking that as a spoiler, but again like the Republicans, anyone who’s paying attention has known that since 1982. Furthermore, the dark secret Naia needs to tell the world is that the skeksis have been eating the gelflings, draining their essence and turning them into empty husks to use as slaves, much like…okay, do I even have to keep saying this? [sigh] Sadly, we’ve been promised that the federal minimum wage is going the way of the gelfling.

Enough political stuff. Let’s return to a cheerier subject: a world ruled by the iron fists of a group of bloated, decomposing lizards with a wardrobe that looks like a drag queen who’s been run through a wood chipper.

Author J.M. Lee does a marvelous job showing us things we’ve known about for 35 years. And while that sounds like my normal humor rhetoric, I’m actually serious. Jim Henson, the Rembrandt of Muppetry, does such an amazing job of creature design and world building that the finer aspects of his own story fly by like a heavy dose of gamma radiation—it may be invisible, but it’s still there, and it affects us deeply, way down inside, in a way that changes us forever. Before reading Shadows of the Dark Crystal, I had always looked at the essence-draining like any other ticking clock in an adventure movie. But the treatment Lee gives it in his book would send chills down Stephen King’s spine (although considering he’s responsible for a book with a climactic showdown with flying clams who devour an airport, that may be a low bar to jump).

Naturally, no book would be fun to write about if it were flawless enough to be the child of Mother Theresa and Jesus. The pacing, especially in the early-middle part of the book, drops with a lot of introspection and a burgeoning love plot with a gelfling singer-songwriter one-hit-wonder that thankfully pays off like a Wells Fargo savings account. Ultimately they don’t shoehorn the romance in, but like the Wells Fargo account, it makes me wonder if there were a better way I could have invested my resources. I mentioned Jim Henson’s world building and creature creation before, which admittedly is responsible for much of the film’s success and everyone’s fascination with mangy vultures dressed like Elton John if he were in the Thriller video. Lee, on the other hand, could start a game of Minecraft with the goal of making a birch tree. Almost none of the creatures he creates are unique or expand the world in any way. Granted, if he had done something stupid like create a race of Big Bird monsters, I’d probably be even angrier, but the reason I read novels like this is because trying to get my fix of an excellent movie that’s only 80 minutes long is like trying to enjoy a box of porn that contains nothing but a DVD with the sex scene from Terminator, a screenshot of Jennifer Connelly from Career Opportunities, and a Medieval manuscript illustrated by a monk who lived in an entirely male community for sixty years.

the_skeksis-yearbook

And I thought my yearbook photo was bad…

Fortunately, despite the flaws, the novel delivers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m assuming Trump was inaugurated about a week ago, which means I have to find a gelfling before the Great Conjunction or he’ll live forever. In which case, I’m moving to New Zealand.

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