Review: Jen Calonita's “Conceal, Don't Feel”

Conceal, Don’t Feel by Jen Calonita is sub-par Frozen fanfiction. The fact that it was authorized by Disney and published in hardcover under a Disney label doesn’t make that any less true. If anything, that makes its existence an embarrassment.

I love fanfiction stories. I’ve even written a few. Fanfiction is hard because usually it’s about something you love, something into which you have dived so deep you know much more of the lore than the average person. You have watched that movie or TV show or read those books four or five or a dozen times. You know elements of backstory, about discarded plot ideas and scenes cut for flow or timing. You might work in homages to other works from the writers or actors. You might work in homages to other fanfic writers playing in the same IP.

Conceal, Don’t Feel fails at almost all of this. It takes as its premise the idea that Anna & Elsa were separated after the first incident where Elsa accidentally uses her magic on Anna, and Anna was raised in a village far from the capital. The Troll King, Pabbie, casts a spell on all of Arendelle to make everyone except the King, the Queen, and the two adoptive parents forget Anna ever existed. The writer from there tries to knit together a coherent retelling of the plot of Frozen.

It just doesn’t work. Overall, the plot is broken and weakly motivated, and the setting gets unfairly abused to achieve some coincidences that don’t justify the reversals they herald.

Let’s start with the basics: the Frozen universe has a rule about magic: the more intimate and personal it is, the better. Magic done “in the large,” to affect whole countrysides, always goes badly. Elsa loses control of it in the first movie and sinks all of Arendelle into an eternal winter, and the plot device of the second film is an equally affecting country-wide spell that must be broken. Pabbie knows this rule, and breaks it in the book.

Anna’s illness in Frozen was caused when Elsa struck her heart with her magic. No such incident happens in the book. Anna… just gets sick. There’s some hand-wavery about how the first incident, the “magic of the head,” worked its way down to her heart, but it’s not a credible explanation.

Kristoff is about as useless as the spare button on a coat in this book. Olaf is a cheap Greek chorus.

It’s Elsa who goes to talk to Pabbie, and the scene there is pointless, an infodump that could have been handled a zillion different ways.

It’s Elsa who Hans romances. The book does some work to explain that Elsa’s magic first returned on the day her parents die, her heartbreak unlocking some of it, but that her parents had done a good job of socializing her. She’s shy and introverted, but has spent much more time getting to know her kingdom and her people, and Hans “knows” she’s an only child, so it’s her he tries to seduce. It does not go well.

The idea that Elsa’s regent, a man who supposedly kept the kingdom running for three years while Elsa tried to get control of her grief, would defer to a foreign nobleman and give Weselton control of the palace guard is absurd. Hans’s “man of action” role is slightly more credible, but it’s a plot hole a mile wide even in the film.

We see a lot more of Idunn & Agdar, which is itself a nice touch, before they’re killed about 2/3rds of the way into the book. You know it’s coming, and it’s about the only genuinely moving part of the story.

Fairly, since it’s a book, the scenes where Hans and Weselton are bundled up and put on a boat out of the kingdom have room to give us some fairly funny logical extensions of the dialogue from those scenes in the movie.

So, as fiction, it’s not a great story.

As fanfiction, it’s a terrible effort.

There are two scenes where Calonita works in quotes from Wicked. That’s a commonplace trope in Frozen fanfiction, as the voice actress for Elsa, Idina Menzel, was also the actress for the first run of Wicked, and it’s her voice on the “original Broadway cast” CD. But really, having Hans deliver Glinda’s lines? And the only lines are from Defying Gravity, and not from anything else? No Dear Old Shiz, no Something Bad, no One Short Day?

But there’s so much more to the Frozen universe than just singing along with a Broadway hit. Even if we take out the meta from the comic stories and Once Upon a Time, there’s the extended CD with songs that were dropped, like Life’s Too Short, We Know Better, and More Than Just The Spare, and there’s the artbook and outtakes, with the fan-famous “pig-pie” scene. Heck, knowing that Elsa & Anna are both left-handed is a huge flag in Frozen fanfic that you know what you’re doing with the source material. (I can understand not working in any Tangled references, as that’s a whole ’nother can of worms Disney doesn’t want opened.)

Calonita doesn’t know, do, or care about any of this. This may be a little harsh. I would never tear on an AO3 fanfic author about stuff like this, but if Disney’s going to pay someone to do this I would have expected better than a bad retelling of the original with weak plot reveals and weaker plot reversals. Right up until the moment Elsa loses control of her powers I thought she was doing okay (caveat Olaf), but after that moment the story fell apart because she didn’t know how to make the threats to Anna, Elsa, or Arendelle actually feel threatening.

Earlier: Romance Is Science Fiction

Later: We treat our future selves as strangers to protect our free will.