Fanfic Title: Clouds and Lions
Fandom: Gundam Wing
Reviewed by: Natalie Baan
The world of Gundam Wing fanfiction is vast--perhaps a little too vast. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stories, the profusion of pairings and alternate universes of all description, the extremes of silliness and often brutal angst. In the constant crush of new pieces--many dashed-off and hence rather miserably written--and the clamor of so many authors all trying to outdo each other with strange and different twists, the more subtle treasures can be hard to find.
"Clouds and Lions" by Torch is just such a treasure. Set during episodes 4-16 of the series (from just after Trowa's first meeting with Quatre to just before the duel in Antarctica), it follows Trowa's view of events, fitting precisely into the gaps left by the show. It touches on pretty much all the defining Trowa scenes within that timespan--the duet with Quatre, rescuing Heero after Siberia, the preparations for the duel, among others--but the emphasis is on what happens between and around those scenes, the framework that binds them into one whole. Most of the action that takes place onscreen is only alluded to; the story's focus isn't so much on those dramatic moments themselves, but on the lulls between them, the spaces for rest, reflection, and realization. And this is one of the things that shines about this story: its luminous attention to quietness and to the small, carefully observed details of daily life.
It may seem odd to highlight a story for its attention to the ordinary and the understated, but it's exactly those details that make a world and the people in it feel real. It's the things we don't think about day-to-day ourselves because they're so familiar or our minds are elsewhere--but then we read an author's description and think, "Yes, that's exactly what eating mustard feels like, or suppressing a yawn, that's just the way a hedgehog would move, stiff and furtive, that's the precise weight of unrelieved heat in the middle of a dusty midsummer day," and it wakes us up, makes us remember and appreciate that our own lives are full of these delicious sensory perceptions, and it makes the story come alive for us as well. It's not merely the wealth of detail in this story that makes it stand out--it's also the selection of just the right details and the simplicity with which they're presented. Though "Clouds and Lions" is full of description, none of it is ever excessive; the prose is clean and straightforward throughout. Both the unfailing observation and that low-key, unadorned voice are very appropriate for Trowa--described by Catherine at one point in the series as a "quiet boy," Trowa is someone who watches his surroundings constantly, taking in far more than he reveals. As a former mercenary and Gundam pilot, his life depends on that awareness, and Trowa registers every aspect not only of his surroundings, but of the people with whom he interacts, even if he doesn't always understand them.
There's another strength of "Clouds and Lions": the very fine characterization, and particularly the natural, believable way the characters speak and relate to each other--not merely the five Gundam pilots, but also the secondary characters such as Catherine and Rashid, and even the author's original characters, especially the circus performers. The various exchanges, sometimes brief, frequently oblique, nonetheless carry significant levels of meaning. Often it's not so much what's said as how it's said, the quality of the silences around the words, the little actions that accompany them. The story is mainly about the connections between people, the development of a knowing, a familiarity that can eventually lead to closeness and friendship, and so the author's skill and close attention to these interactions is essential to the story's success. That's also probably why so many scenes revolve around preparing and sharing food: not only does food provide a rich variety of those sensuous details, smell and taste, sight and touch, that evoke the everyday life against which the Earth/Colony war is set in opposition, but food has always been a special medium of exchange between people, a symbol of hospitality and trust.
The shounen ai element in "Clouds and Lions" is entirely subtext, like the original series. You can see it if you want to, most particularly between Trowa and Quatre and to a much lesser extent between Heero and the very briefly appearing Duo, but as in the series the true emphasis lies elsewhere. But never fear! Torch in her awesomeness has written a series of side stories, alternate possibilities that branch out from the main "Clouds and Lions" storyline, in which various characters turn that subtext into actuality. From the expected Trowa/Quatre to the less-conventional Trowa/Zechs (with a few stops for other pairings in between), the side stories offer sweet erotica to satisfy all of us fangirls. So yes, we can have it both ways--the subtle, unresolved tensions of the main storyline and the fulfillment and release of the side stories.
The main "Clouds and Lions" story is probably best appreciated by readers who've seen the series, as there's a great deal of pleasure to be had in seeing how Torch plays off and expands upon the minute details of the original material. However, even readers less familiar with the show can enjoy this story, as long as they're willing to approach it with patience and attention, letting it unfold in its own time. I'm not personally a Trowa fan, but the evocative voice and the truly excellent writing in Torch's story won me over completely. Even scenes that left me cold in the original series took on new life--in particular the duet, which I find schmaltzy and almost unwatchable in Gundam Wing itself, is redeemed here. Torch brings out the bittersweet ache behind the shared music, shows the balance in Trowa tipping between attraction and fear. In a later scene, Trowa, in his trailer at the circus, is reading a book of music that Quatre has given him:
When the song ended, he closed the book and let his head fall back, too, against the wall; the book rested on his chest, held there by his crossed arms. He wasn't meaning for it to happen, but the waltz began to sound itself out, each note a dark-gold curl shaved off by the precise motion of a bow--a violin playing, not a flute. Trowa closed his eyes, and the violin played for him, and the rain fell, and its light beat seemed as heavy as the sound of Catherine's knives finding their target, and just as inescapable.
Torch says nothing more in this scene. She doesn't need to.
"Clouds and Lions," the side stories, and Torch's other fics can be found at her web site, http://www.strangeplaces.net/torch/ She can be reached at email@example.com .