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If nineteenth-century Iranian women discovered time travel, where would they go? What would they bring back?



Photographer Shadi Ghadirian did not have these questions in mind, persay, but she is interested in how the Western world perceives Iranian woman like herself. In her photography series "Qajar," she brings out the cognitive dissonance that someone unfamiliar with Iran may experience, as well as comments about the position of women in society today.

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Illustration by Maxfield Parrish from The Arabian Nights, 1909

Sufrah was created by Marcel Schwob and appears in “Sufrah, Geomancer” (Vie Imaginaire, 1896). Schwob was also the creator of the King in the Golden Mask and Septima.

“Sufrah, Geomancer” is a sequel to the Arabian Nights. Moghrabi Sufrah is the magician who is Aladdin’s enemy in the Arabian Nights, but as “Sufrah, Geomancer” tells us, at the end of the Arabian Nights Sufrah’s body was not burned black by the drug he consumed, but rather put into a deep sleep. Sufrah escapes from Aladdin’s palace through a window while Aladdin is making love to the princess. But when Aladdin’s palace disappears to China, as happens in the Arabian Nights, Sufrah is left alone in the open desert, without any food or water. Nor does he have any magic charms he can cast or magic items he can use to rescue himself.

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Close up of Danae Stratou's "Desert Breath", which would be an apt illustration for this novelette. Image courtesy of io9. Click for link.

The Xipéhuz were created by “J. H. Rosny (aîné)” and appeared in “Les Xipéhuz” (“The Shapes,” L’Immolation, 1887). “J. H. Rosny (aîné)” was the pen name of Joseph Henri Honoré Böex (1866-1940), a French author. For many years after his death Böex was forgotten, primarily because the majority of his work was written in disrespected genres like science fiction and the prehistoric romance. But in recent years critics and academics have begun paying him more attention and giving him the credit he deserves. Böex produced some remarkable science fiction and is considered (with Jules Verne) to be one of the most influential figures in the development of science fiction in France. “Les Xipéhuz” is one of his most famous, and best, stories.

“Les Xipéhuz” is set in the Middle East, circa 5000 B.C.E. A nomad tribe, the Pjehu, discover a group of “translucent bluish cones, point uppermost, each nearly half the bulk of a man...each one had a dazzling star near its base,” clustered around a spring. When the Pjehu draw close to the cones, or “the Shapes” as the narrator calls them, the Shapes attack them, killing many, although they only target warriors and avoid killing women, children, the sick and the aged. But the Shapes do not pursue the Pjehu beyond a certain distance and ignore them if they leave the Shapes alone. The Pjehu, shaken, consult a group of local priests who decide that the Shapes are gods and that they must be sacrificed to. But the Shapes kill those priests who approach them.

The priests experiment with slaves and determine the distance beyond which the Shapes will not pursue humans, and then the priests set that boundary with stakes and decree that the Shapes are to be left alone. But other tribes are not told about the priests’ decree or ignore it, and members of those tribes cross the boundary and are massacred. Then the Shapes begin expanding their territory. When the tribes try to resist, hundreds of their warriors are killed by the Shapes. All the tribes of Mesopotamia begin fearing for the existence of Man, and some men turn to dark cults.

The tribes’ wise men at last consult the hermit Bakhun. Long ago he had abandoned a nomadic life for a pastoral one, and in so doing flourished. Bakhun believes in odd and unusual things, like the sun, moon, and stars being “luminous masses” rather than gods, and that “men should really believe only in those things tested by measurement.” Bakhun tells the wise men that he will dedicate his life to studying the Shapes. He does so, and draws a number of significant conclusions, most important of which is that the Shapes are living beings rather than spirits or gods.

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Vathek was created by William Beckford and appeared in Vathek: An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, with Notes Critical and Explanatory (1786). Beckford (1760-1844) was one of English literature's real oddities. He lived a life of scandal and extravagance, both financial and sexual, and even in the 21st century his name retains the faint air of scandal. But more important than Beckford’s personal life is the fact that he wrote Vathek, one of the greatest of all Gothic novels.

Vathek, the grandson of Haroun al-Raschid, is the Caliph of Samarah. He is dedicated to sensual pleasure and has built five palaces, one for the enjoyment of each sense. Vathek has a “pleasing and majestic” figure, and a keen intellect. When angered his glance can kill. He has an enormous amount of determination and is willing to sacrifice much for his goals. But he is magnificently dissolute and addicted to pleasure, sensuality, and new sensations. He is enormously self-centered and considers the lives of others small prices to pay for his own happiness and the achievement of his goals. He is unable to resist temptation, and his own “unquiet and impetuous disposition” will not allow him to be content with the wealth and comfort he already has.

Vathek builds a mighty tower to better pursue his interest in astrology and to penetrate the secrets of Heaven, and Mahomet Himself sends genii to help Vathek, but the tower only shows Vathek how much he enjoys looking down on humanity from the its summit. But one day an intensely ugly creature arrives at Vathek’s court bearing wondrous objects, knives that cut without the hand being moved and sabers which harm those who the wielder wished harmed. The stranger does not speak to Vathek, so the hot-tempered Vathek has him imprisoned, only to find him vanished the next morning and his guards slain.

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Hajji Baba enjoys the company of Zeenab. After Ḥabl al-matin Persian tr., Calcutta, 1905, opp. p. 142. Caption & Image courtesy of Encyclopaedia Iranica. Click for source.



Hajji Baba was created by James Morier and appeared in Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824) and Hajji Baba in England (1827). Morier (1780-1849) was a British diplomat, adventurer, and author. He first went to Persia in 1807 and visited it and surrounding countries several times over the next decade. His desire to write something in the Persian style of Arabian Nights produced Hajji Baba of Ispahan.



Hajji Baba is a charming rogue, someone who began life as a barber/surgeon but whose wanderlust and desire for money led him to leave home on a caravan when he was only sixteen. But the course of roguery doth ne'er run smooth, and he is almost immediately captured by a band of Turcoman bandits. Hajji Baba lets himself be captured a second time by a shahzadeh (prince) and is taken to Meshed, where he becomes a water carrier. Hajji Baba sprains his back carrying water–his boastfulness leads him to take on far too much weight, including that of his main rival–and so he becomes an itinerant vender of smoke. But he cuts his tobacco with dung once too often and is caught by the Mohtesib (“the Mohtesib is an officer who perambulates the city, and examines weights and measures, and qualities of provisions”) and bastinadoed for his fraud. So Hajji Baba becomes a dervish, telling colorful stories and shaking down listeners for money; he stops in mid-story, just when things are getting good, and asks for donations in exchange for his continuing. He then becomes a doctor to the Shah of Persia, a position he loses due to an imprudent love affair. And so on and so forth, for hundreds of pages, through colorful stories and attractive boasts and genial swindles and painless mendacity and jovial hypocrisy and maidens fair and wry observations at the foibles of the mighty and the poor.



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Illustration from Hypatia titled "Raphael and the Mob"

Raphael Aben-Ezra was created by the Reverend Charles Kingsley and appears in Hypatia; or, New Foes with an Old Face, which first appeared in Fraser's Magazine beginning in January 1852. It was published in two volumes in 1853.

Hypatia is set in Alexandria in 415 C.E. and follows the final months of the life of Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 C.E.), the first major female mathematician and the head of the Alexandrian Neoplatonic School. Her former student and friend Raphael Aben-Ezra, a cynic, also begins to question the truth behind his personal philosophy.

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About the Quest for Unusual & Adventurous International Notations & Tales (QUAINT).
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Steampunk fashion is seen as modern interpretation of fantastical ideas based on history. This trend of multicultural influence and inspiration seen in steampunk fashion is also reflective in fashion trends today. The rise of Chinese designer Guo Pei is one example of this; she has been well-known in Chinese fashion circles for many years, but her recent collections created buzz throughout the runways of the world, in particular her 1002nd Arabian Night collection.

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This weekend, I'm rockin' it out at New York Comic Con. I'm there mostly doing the Day Job thing, unfortunately (though, if I can, I might wear my steampunk for Sunday.)

For anyone who manages to recognize me in my civvies, though, you'll probably end up being filmed or photographed, if you're looking fabulous and want to flaunt it.

In the meantime, enjoy the linkspam below. This edition features lots of interesting essays, some awesome postcards, and a video of my interview with Cherie Priest.

Read on BeyondVictoriana.com
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Work has been hectic as of late, and I'm also in the midst of preparing for Dragon*Con. I don't have as much new stuff planned out for this week as I had hoped, but have you checked out my essay series about multiculturalism in steampunk yet? And see the links below for more good things to read/watch/run in the streets shouting about.

Read on BeyondVictoriana.com
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This weekend I'll be at ConnectiCon instigating havoc with my steampunk friends and helping out with several panels. On top of that, "Steam Around the World: Steampunk Beyond Victoriana" is making a comeback! I'm wicked excited to be presenting this panel again. For all attendees, feel free to stop in--

Saturday, July 10th
7:30 - 8:30 PM
Room Location: Check your schedules


And for those of you in the area, I will also be at the Steampunk Bizarre on Sunday for the steampunk meet-up. There should be some nifty artists presenting their work, so I hope to see some of you there.

In the meantime, check out the collection of links for your viewing/reading pleasure.

Read on BeyondVictoriana.com
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Note for Ay-leen: There has been a little switch in the guest post schedule, and Michael Redturtle's post has been moved to next week.
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Harun Ar-Raschid (also spelled as Harun Al-Raschid) was a caliph of Baghdad during the Abbasid dynasty who reigned from 786 to 809 A.D. His court was arguably the most memorable of the Abbasid dynasty, and he was the inspiration for many tales in One Thousand and One Nights.

Read the rest on beyondvictoriana.com
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I'm preparing for some big events in May (like co-hosting two panels at the Steampunk World's Fair. Will you be coming? It's bound to be INTELLECTUALLY STIMULATING and IMMENSELY ENTERTAINING.) Thus, the next post will be delayed. But never fear, I have some nifty reads that have been building up in my inbox for you to check out after the cut.



Read more on beyondvictoriana.com
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Image Courtesy of Read My Hips. Click for Source.



This week is a preview of my article written for the upcoming Steampunk Magazine Issue #7: New and Future Worlds.

Read on at BeyondVictoriana.com
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“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.” Lalla Essaydi (source)


Lalla Essaydi is not a steampunk, but her latest photography series is, in essence, what multicultural steampunk can be: a framework in which representations of the past can be questioned by the present.

Read at BeyondVictoriana.com

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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

Jaymee and I had a discussion the other day triggered by the use of the word "Victorientalism" (also spelled "Vicorientalism") in the steampunk community and whether it is an appropriate description of the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western fashion. I had my first (rather angry) rant about Orientialism sometime around this time last year, and now would be apt to revisit those thoughts about Victorientalism.

First, let me say that steampunk, because it deals with the dynamics of history and its alternatives, can never, ever be considered apolitical.* History is always subjective, choosing to expose or veil people, events, and perspectives based on the bias of the teller. In fact, it's not surprising that the most widely-known histories are those written from the perspective of those in the dominant culture and that underrepresented histories are so because they have been ignored or oppressed by institutions in the dominant culture (government policy, school education, media representation, etc).

Even something that seems frivolous like fashion has political ramifications, since clothing, as the most basic form of self-identity, has always being subject of control by others. Threadbared, a journal that focuses on the politics of fashion and beauty, captures the sentiment of how the politics of clothing impact everyday life during their discussion about vintage:

Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist's captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African "converts" abandon their "heathen" clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the "zoot suit," the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as "unpatriotic;" and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.

Thus, when speaking about Orientalism aesthetics, its existence as an art form is undeniably entangled with its political and social consequences. Orientalist fashions has long served to romanticize colonialism both in the past and today. The word "Orientalism" itself was a creation of the West to use by the West in reference to the East. That alone is a reason that the use of "Orientalism" as a term, especially by white people, does not promote a message cultural equality and exchange. It rings of old colonialist sentiment, which is connected to the history of Western engagement with the East as Professor Richard Martin mentions in his article "Orienting the Wardrobe":

Interestingly, each strand of Orientalism in dress has arrived with its own political circumstances. India yielded much in being a colonial nation. China's long isolation crystallized Cathay as an enchanted dream, although clearly some soft goods, such as the brocaded silk velvet of a sixteenth-century Portuguese cape, passed early on to the West. The opening of Japan in the 1850's influenced impressionist artists and Western fashion enthusiasts alike.

Therefore, believing that the word "Victorientalism" implies a positive, transcultural blend is misguided. In fact, using the term "Victorientalism" as a phrase to emphasize Eastern aesthetics in Victorian style is somewhat redundant, for Eastern influences have been prevalent in Western Victorian fashion already. Professor Richard Martin, in Orienting the wardrobe, gives an overview of the history behind Orientalist fashion and gives examples of British fashion, like the Paisley shawl and mandarin and pagoda sleeves, that had Eastern origins but then had been adapted into British fashion. For examples of this, Metropolitan Museum of Art has a fascinating overview of the Eastern influences in Western fashion in their online exhibit Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress.

Thus, the existence of Eastern influences has had a long history in Western dress and had frequently been tied to political moorings; as a result, the term Orientalism today is in flux between its literal geographical meaning and the implied negative baggage it has acquired over timethat Orientalism is a Western-created ideal imposed upon the East and used to justify its subjugationan argument first presented by postcolonial theorist Edward Said. Commentary in the steampunk communities, however, continue to frame Victorientalism in a positive light, highlighting its romanticism as a positive endorsement for its use. This is all fair and well, IF the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone. However, because it is very much alive todaycausing damaging stereotypes and promoting racist mindsetsthen perpetuating the glorified stereotypes of the Orient only serves to hurt the people of color they were based on. Moreover, such attitudes are only expressions of privilege, where white steampunks can turn a blind eye to steampunks of color in the community.

In fact, the term "Orientalism" may be on the way out. Its negative connotation has become so prevalent since Said first made his argument forty years ago that academic communities are starting to reject the term even in reference to Eastern-originated fashion, prefering the terms "Asian Look" or "Asian Fashion." Academic Bong-Ha Seo's 2008 article for the Journal of Korean Society of Clothing and Textiles argues against the use of the term "Orientalism" in fashion in "Critical Discussion on the ‘Orientalism’ in Fashion Culture":

Orientalism is geographical violence. In spite of the independence of numerous colonies, imperialistic culture is still influential. Therefore, Orientalism as an enlightened and open conversation without deflection or prejudice cannot be supposed.
So, don't think that adding the Eurocentric "Vict-" is a cute way of undoing the negative connotations of a historically loaded term. The term "Victorientalism" doesn't neutralize anything: the message is not the positive transcultural blend of east and west. Instead, the term augments a oppressive Western concept with another Eurocentric prefix. It's Western objectification times two. And Orientalism by any other name is still Orientalism.

But to sum up

I'm not saying that there is no beauty in these fashions.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't like it.

I'm saying that what one likes doesn't always exist in an apolitical vacuum, no matter how much one wants it to.

Fashion, just like any form of art, is a reflection of society, and art movements like Orientialism have complex political history that members of the dominant culture may not recognize as something negative or hurtful. Moreover, the social implications of Orientalism didn't die out with the end of the Victorian era, but has had a rather long and, often socially detrimental, afterlife.

So if one chooses to engage in Orientalism or toss about the word "Victorientalism," do not act defensive if other marginalized people take offense. Do not claim that you are re-living a "past that never was" because you're not; your fantasy is merely replicating attitudes from a very real present. Rather, instead of justifying this discriminating mindset, figure out for yourself what you can do to stop engaging in promoting those hurtful messages.


*One caveat: Steampunks and steam enthusiasts can be apolitical, but a person's apolitical stance does not mean steampunk as a conceptual idea is apolitical.


Below is a brief suggested reading list of resources that present a mindful assessment of Orientialist aesthetics and the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western looks.

Fashion & Orientalism resources:

Edward Said: Since I really can't quote him here often enough (and in the contextual whole in which he is meant to be quoted), so here are the two landmark books he had written on Orientalism.
Orientalism
Culture & Imperialism

Re-orienting fashion: the globalization of Asian dress (Excerpt also available on Google Books)
by Sandra Niessen (Editor), Ann Marie Leshkowich (Editor), Carla Jone (Editor)

Book Description:
From ‘Indo chic’ collections on the catwalk to mass-market clothes in retail shops, Asian fashion is everywhere. Re-Orienting Fashion explores this phenomenon in a global context and, unlike other books, does not ignore the western / non-western divide. How do western economic, cultural, political, iconic, and social forms influence Asian fashion when (and often because) that fashion is an expression of resistance against western encroachment? How does dress reflect state ideals and gender roles in nations struggling to construct new identities informed by modern, western impulses? What role does gender play and how does this tie in with commodification by the global economy?

With chapters focusing on East, South, and Southeast Asian designers, retailers, consumers, and governments, this timely book moves Asian fashion center-stage and will be of interest to dress and fashion theorists, anthropologists, sociologists and all those seeking to understand globalization and its effects.

Imperial Bodies
C.M. Cullingham

I've found this one of the best resources that details the conflicted dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized in terms of fashion exchange. I can't recommend this book enough.

Book Description:
This innovative volume demonstrates that the body was central to the construction and maintenance of British authority in India. Imperial Bodies explores ways in which the transformation of the British presence in India between 1800 and 1947 involved and relied upon changes in the way the British in India managed, disciplined and displayed their bodies. The move from commerce to control, and then to imperialism and Empire corresponded to a shift in bodily norms. As the nineteenth century progressed, an openness and interest in India gave way to a ban on things Indian. The British rejected curries for tinned ham, cool white clothing for black broadcloth and Indian mistresses for English wives. By the twentieth century, the British official had been transformed into an upright, decent representative of British virtues whose task was to bring civilization to India.

By the late nineteenth century, racial theory focused attention on the physique to such an extent that the body became a distinct category within official discourse, regarded as an instrument of rule. The body was used symbolically during Raj ceremonial, and even the pith helmet worn by officials was turned from a reminder of British vulnerability in the tropics into a symbol of British power.

Through an in-depth discussion of texts and practices, the body is introduced into the historical account as an active social principle: a force in the construction of social inequalities along lines of race and class. Drawing on a wide range of sources including government records, newspapers, private letters, medical handbooks and cookery books, E.M. Collingham paints a vivid picture of the life and manners of the British in India.

This important contribution to both British and imperial history will appeal to students and scholars of cultural and colonial history.

Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the exhibit guide to the MET link I included above. It's hard to find, but they give a sensitive assessment of Orientalist fashion while also acknowledging the movement's fraught political history. Plus, it contains those beautiful images as seen on the website and more.







Online Resources:


Excerpt from The Art of Decoration: Written by English cleric and popular Victorian writer Reverend H. R. Haweis In this excerpt, he talks about aspects of Orient design since the 1700s in British dress & decoration. About Oriental design in women's fashion, he hilariously commented that:

It was the dregs of that blind admiration for Oriental colouring with no understanding of its principles, which clothed Englishwomen in such horrible mixtures at the beginning of the present century, a fault which Frenchwomen with their better natural taste, and complexions which repudiate garish hues, were unlikely to fall into. Hence England soon won an unenviable celebrity for never knowing 'how to dress...'
Clothing & Fashion Encyclopedia - An online fashion history blog. The overaching history or Orientalism in fashion is explained in Part 1 and Part 2.

Orient-ing Fashion: Written in 1997 issue of Harvard's Digitas Magazine about that fashion season's Orientalism trend, Mina Kim Park's article is still very insightful. It also shows how modern fashion remains problematic in regards to racial representation and cultural appropriation that cannot be explained away by slapping a cheerful "multiculturalism chic" label on it.

On Using the Orient to Orient the West On Jaymee Goh's steampunk blog Silver Goggles. Her observations of the conceptual use of the term Orient by the West. Good stuff. She has also written a wonderful response to Victorientalism as well: Countering Victorientalism.
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

The intelligent automaton—one of the many symbolic Others in sci-fi literature.  When characterized sympathetically, the automaton represents humanity without being human, the lone outsider puzzling the world around it.  The Othered Automaton pops up in steampunk lit too, like Boilerplate and Mattie from The Alchemy of Stone. In both cases, the automaton finds camaraderie with people who feel similarly alienated by the societies they live in; Boilerplate had his Buffalo Soldiers, Mattie had her mechanic dark-skinned lover Sebastian.  But what Jaclyn Dolamore brings to the table is a new perspective to this relationship in her fantasy steampunk novel Magic Under Glass: the protagonist is not the Othered Automaton, but that of Nimira, the human Other seeking her fortune in a strange land.  

In this YA novel, Nimira travels west from her Middle East-inspired homeland of Tiansher to the Victorian-esque Lorinar, a land where an uneasy conflict is brewing between it and the neighboring fairy realm. Lorinar, however, isn't as welcoming as she had hoped. Its citizens are familiar with Tiansher only as the "exotic Tassim" and Nimira can only find work at a cheap sideshow as a "trouser girl" singing her country's native songs to ignorant audiences. That is, until she meets Hollin Parry, a sorcerer who takes her in to sing alongside his clockwork automaton.  The previous girls Parry had hired left, claiming the machine to be haunted. Nimira discovers, however, that the automaton is not a possessed machine, but an elaborate prison. Inside is Erris, a fairy prince long thought dead. Now, Nimira must figure out a way to free Erris before war breaks out between Lorinar and the fairy world.

What makes Nimira so memorable is her resilience against the daily prejudice and ignorance she faces. What makes Magic Under Glass commendable, however, is the fact that her outsider struggle is not the point of the novel, but another layer of social complexity that Nimira must navigate through in order to accomplish her goals.  Nimira, for her part, does not forsake her identity to assimilate into Lorinar culture: she carries the world of Tiansher inside her, drawing strength from her memories of home. On the other hand, she also has to deal with those who try to exoticize and diminish her existence, such as when she's asked to perform in her "trousers" instead of her elegant Lorinar dress during an important performance. Her complicated feelings toward her employer are another case in point: echoes of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester resonate in the relationship between Nimira and Parry, but I along with Nimira questioned the root of Parry's fondness toward his "Tassim" girl.      

Her position as a foreigner in a Western-based culture is more interesting to read than the reverse—that of the "Eurocentric" traveler in the "Othered" foreign land, which is more frequently represented in fantasy.  Moreover, her background paves the way for her sympathy toward fairies and Erris. Nimira also wins major points for being a strong character that doesn't wait passively for the action to happen, yet she can still show vulnerability and cry when she needs to.  All the women in Magic Under Glass are sharply defined; only the villainous Miss Rashten seems a bit flat.  Also Parry, as misguided as he is, earned my sympathy.

The magic of this novel is a bit sketchy for my tastes, and I'd rather have more detail about its system and details about the fairy world. The vagueness I encountered can be explained by the open ending that's the set-up for a second book. Usually I'd be upset by this, but I'm more than willing to wait for the next installment of Nimira's journey.


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On another note, I first heard of this novel because of the US cover's whitewashing controversy, and after reading the book, I find it even more insulting to the reader and disrespectful to the author that Nimira was represented as a light-skinned white girl instead of her dark complexion. However, the YA blogosphere unleashed a furious wave in response, culminating in Bloomsbury's announcement that the hardcover jacket will be changed immediately.  That is why, for the curious, I linked the UK cover instead of the US one for now. I can't wait to see the revised cover, though.


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