December 2, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Hawkeye Season 1 Ep 3, "Echoes"


This episode pulled back a bit on the character-building storylines of the previous two in favor of action and a long if inventively shot car chase, with the exception of one meaty scene I will get to. It also has the origin of one of the villains (a character who will eventually get her own series), wrapped up in a cliffhanger.

The origin story is Maya Lopez, aka Echo, the leader of the Trackside Mafia. (Though I don't think much of her leadership abilities, since she's overseeing a bunch of idiots.) We see scenes between her and her father, with him explaining why he enrolled the Deaf girl in a hearing school--she has to serve as a bridge between the two worlds. Maya also has a prosthetic foot, but despite this she proves to be a badass at her karate lessons, mopping up opponents by observing them and mimicking their fighting style. Her story comes to  head when she is grown and comes home to none other than the Ronin decimating the previous incarnation of the Tracksides and killing her father, which explains why in the previous episodes and in this one she is so determined to hunt him down. 

Coming back to the present day, Kate and Clint are still tied up at the warehouse and Maya comes out to interrogate them. She demands to know why Kate was wearing the Ronin suit if she isn't the Ronin, and Clint spins her a technically true line of bullshit about the Ronin being dead, killed by the Black Widow. Maya asks how he knows this, and he says, "I was there." Which is again technically true, but it also leaves a large elephant trumpeting in the corner of the room: what will Kate do when she finds out her hero, the Avenger she idolizes, is actually the man who murdered so many people during the five years of the Blip? That revelation does not happen this day, as Clint manages to escape his bonds and he and Echo fight their merry way across the warehouse. Clint finds his bow and arrows and manages to skewer most of the Tracksuits, and even frees Kate with an arrow piercing the duct tape binding her hands. The two of them burst out of the warehouse and steal a car outside. Since in the process of fighting Echo Clint lost his hearing aids (she actually stomped on one of them), Clint is trying to get Kate to drive, but as Echo and the remainder of the Tracksuits burst out after them, there isn't time. Clint takes the wheel and speeds off, leaving Kate to shoot the remainder of his arrows--the "trick" ones--in an effort to stop their pursuers.

This is the aforementioned chase scene, and it's a doozy. For nearly half its length, the camera is sitting in the back seat of the car, pivoting between Kate and Clint in the front and the pursuers barreling after them. I'm sure it was cleverly edited together, and there are some cuts later on, but the first section looks like it was shot in one take. Kate works her way through all of Clint's trick arrows: one spits out purple bubbling Play-Dough that covers and blocks a pursuer's windshield, one blows up a following van, one sticks to the windshield and sends out threads grabbing whatever is nearby (since they're wheeling through a Christmas tree lot at the time, this means the trees are whipped back and bound to the vehicle), and the last one, a one-two punch employed on the last pursuers, sends a normal arrow straight into the air intersected by an arrow marked "Pym", which nicks the first, blows it up into an enormous size, and pierces the truck coming towards Kate and Clint. This takes place on a bridge, and Kate and Clint then jump over the side. Clint shoots a grappling arrow which latches on to the side of the bridge, enabling them to swing to the top of a passing string of subway cars on the tracks beneath. 

After this bit of excitement, Kate and Clint return to her aunt's apartment, where the (as yet unnamed) one-eyed dog was left. Clint is without his hearing aids, and through a good use of sound design, we hear what he can hear--which is almost nothing: voices are muffled and faint in the distance, the words not understandable. Because of this, when Clint's son Nathaniel calls to check on Daddy and ask if he's going to make it home for Christmas, Kate has to write what the kid is saying on a pad so Clint can respond to it. This scene is well acted by Hailee Steinfeld, the expressions on her face showing that she realizes how much Clint cares for his family, and the sacrifice he is making to stay in New York to help her.

Later on, they head to a street doctor Kate knows to get Clint's hearing aid fixed. Afterwards, sitting in a nearby restaurant eating (and feeding the dog more pizza), we get to the meaty character scene I referenced earlier. (This is one advantage of watching this on streaming, that I could pause the scene as it went along and write out all the dialogue.)

Kate: "I know this may sound weird, but I've dreamed of this for as long as I can remember. My dad was fearless, and his whole life was about helping people. When I put that suit on [the Ronin suit], I thought, this is it. This is the moment I become who I'm supposed to be." 

Clint: "I remember the day I thought the same thing. You know, it comes with a price."

"What does?"

"This life you want to live. To really help people. I mean, try to help people, anyway. It comes with a lot of sacrifices, and some things you'll lose forever." (As Clint says this, a shadow passes over his face, and you know he's thinking of Natasha.)

"Well, there's also the things you gain, like trick arrows and cool costumes. Speaking of which, I've been thinking about your branding problem." (At this, Clint shakes his head and looks down in despair, knowing Kate's not listening to a word he's saying.) "You need a more recognizable costume."

"You realize my job for the past 20 years was to be not recognizable, right?"

"Well, you've officially failed at that. Picture this in purple." (Shows Clint a sketch)

"Oh, wow. What's that on his head?"

"It's your head. Wings, like a hawk. That's an H on your forehead. For Hawkeye."

"Well, not happening."

"What if it was all black? All black, with a mask? Maybe a hood?" Since this is essentially the Ronin suit, Kate goes into an aside: "You can't say who Ronin is because it's someone close to you, right? [Ya think?] It's your job to keep their secret."

Clint ignores this: "There are several reasons I'd never wear a flashy costume. My job is to be, number one, a ghost. Number two, my wife would divorce me if I put something like this on. And number three, I'm not a role model. I'm sorry, Kate, I'm not a role model. Never have been."

"What? Yes, you are. You are. You came here. You left your family at Christmas because you thought some stranger was going to get hurt. You stuck around even though I screwed up. And now you're stuck. Whether you like it or not. The Tracksuits have connected us both to Ronin, and it's pretty clear they're not just going to drop this."

"Well, that you are not wrong about."

"Not to mention the fact that my mom might be marrying a murderer." 

"And then there's that."

"As far as I'm concerned, we're in this together." 

Since there's not much else Clint can do at this point, he gives in. Kate insists on sneaking into her mother's penthouse and using the resources of Bishop Security to dig up dirt on the Tracksuits and/or Jack, so they go there (all three of them, including the newly-christened Pizza Dog). Kate inexpertly tries to hack her mother's laptop and eventually gets locked out, but not before discovering something about an organization known as Sloan Enterprises. Clint, meanwhile, wanders around the obscenely luxurious penthouse--and runs across Jack, who flicks out the retractable Ronin sword and holds it to his throat.

Cue cliffhanger. 

This episode really shows off the Kate/Clint dynamic, and it's fascinating to watch. Perhaps Kate is also coming round to the conclusion that she's not as invincible or smart as she previously thought? At any rate, though I don't think this is going to be my favorite Marvel series (WandaVision and Loki jointly hold that title), this show is growing on me. 


November 30, 2021

Review: Unchosen

Unchosen Unchosen by Katharyn Blair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting, subversive little book. It's a zombie apocalypse (with the twist that the zombie virus is a supernatural one, transmitted by eye contact and arising from a curse supposedly uttered by a long-dead pirate queen). (And said pirate queen, Anne de Graaf, was apparently a real person, although her death curse was fictionalized for this story.) This is well enough, but it's only as I went through the book that I realized its true theme--the deconstruction of the Chosen One trope.

You know the story. You've seen it in The Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and countless other stories, movies and TV programs. Whether as a result of birth, a prophecy, or selection by the gods, the Chosen One is born or is made special and tasked with saving the world, regardless of what he/she wants. The Chosen One has to face down Big Bads that would make most sensible people scream and run for their lives, because there is no one else who can do it. And even if they succeed, as Frodo discovered, they can never return to their pre-Chosen lives. The burden is immense and one they cannot escape, and they sometimes buckle under it, as Buffy did during the much-maligned Season 6 of the show.

In this story, we begin some months into the supernatural zombie apocalypse, and our narrator is Charlotte Holloway, the middle of three sisters; her older sister is Harlow, the talented singer/guitarist, and the younger is Vanessa, the budding gymnast. Charlotte doesn't seem to have any particular talents, save surviving, and quick thinking....and lying, as it turns out. Because her sister Vanessa is the Chosen One, with visions and a red Latin phrase magically tattooed on her fourth rib. Here, the Chosen One must find Anne's Heart, the ruby formed by Anne de Graaf's curse when she died, and break it, thus breaking the curse and ending the zombie apocalypse.

This being a supernatural strain of zombies, they're nothing like the usual stumbling, moaning, flesh-rotting, brain-eating shamblers, at least not right away. They retain their thinking ability for some time, and can be identified by their glowing red eyes--which our characters can't meet for fear of catching the virus themselves. This leads to some clever workarounds, such as everybody wearing mirrors on their arms, hands, and shoes, because a second-hand reflection doesn't transmit the virus. There's also an out: if you're infected and look three people in the eye within a certain period of time, you give the virus away and your eyes then turn yellow, signaling your immunity to re-infection. Yes, this sounds silly writing it out, but these rules are a large driver of the plot, and I give the author credit for establishing them and sticking to them. Naturally, society breaks down as the virus spreads throughout the world. There is a remnant of civilization and government called the Torch, led by engineer Genevieve Lassiter and her son, virologist Abel Lassiter, that builds walls to keep out the Vessels (the name for this world's zombies) and still has electricity. But the West Coast states, such as California where the Holloways live, become a sort of pirate haven as uninfected people take to the seas--and greedy virus survivors called Runners hunt down the uninfected Curseclean, taking and selling them to those who wish to unload their own infections.

Charlotte's compound is broken into by a group of Runners, and to prevent Vanessa from being dragged away and sold, she steps up and pretends to be the Chosen One. She is captured and taken aboard the Runners' ship to a mysterious person called the Vessel Queen but along the way, the Runners' ship is raided in turn. Charlotte and some of the other prisoners are rescued by Seth Marsali, son of one of the generals from the Torch.

To save herself, Charlotte repeats the lie that she is the Chosen One. This begins a twisted chain of obfuscations and lies, as Charlotte slowly ingratiates herself with Seth's group. (To be fair, Charlotte remembers a great many of the strange prophetic pronouncements Vanessa makes after one of her nightmares, and Charlotte's figuring out things that are coming before they actually happen does a lot to shore up her credibility.) Seth sails up the coast, intending to take Charlotte to where the Heart is, and as Charlotte slowly begins to bond with these people and fall for Seth. She doesn't realize it at first, as at the beginning of the book she thought herself in love with Dean, her older sister Harlow's boyfriend. But as she lives out the lies she has told others, she begins to feel something she hasn't felt in years: hope. She also begins to inspire hope in Seth and the rest of his group.

This book is about Charlotte's realization that she doesn't have to be the actual "Chosen One" to save everybody. She fights, she figures out the riddles Vanessa has uttered, and at the end she leads Seth to where the Heart is hidden and destroys it. She meets the ghost of Anne de Graaf and learns her true purpose:

"I hated you," I whisper. I put my hand over hers.

"And you did it anyway," she says. "Redemption. A way to stop this, Charlotte. I always picked you. But it had to be your choice. You had to believe it. And it had to cost you everything." She pulls our hands away, keeping her fingers wrapped around mine.

I stop, looking down at my ribs. At the mark left there. I shake my head.

"The Chosen One was always going to be the one who chose herself. Just like I did."

At the incredible time sink TV Tropes, there is a Chosen One entry--and there is also an entry for the Unchosen One.

If The Chosen One is the ultimate perpetrator of Because Destiny Says So, the Unchosen One is the ultimate perpetrator of Screw Destiny.

The Unchosen One is the hero or heroine who stands up to do what's right not because of a prophecy, but because they feel the need or desire to stop the Big Bad (sometimes doing so in spite of a prophecy). The Unchosen One is, in essence, a Chosen One who chooses themselves.

That's who Charlotte is, and that's what this book is about. Someone who defies "destiny" and takes their fate in their own hands. To quote Sarah Connor, "There is no fate but what we make."

This philosophical underpinning makes the book quite a bit deeper than the usual "zombie apocalypse," and is a big part of why I enjoyed it.

View all my reviews

November 27, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Ep 2, "Anomaly"


The second episode of Discovery features one important real-world update. Apparently someone at Paramount realized how badly they shat the bed by yanking the series from Netflix two days before the Season 4 premiere, as there has now been some frantic backpedaling:

Starting with countries that have already begun rollout of Paramount+ outside the U.S.— Australia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Venezuela—the first two episodes of Discovery season four will release this Friday, November 26, a day after episode two releases in the U.S. and Canada.

Across Europe in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK, episodes will be released at 9:00 p.m. local time through the free streaming platform Pluto TV—which is owned by ViacomCBS—“each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” with simulcast releases airing on the dedicated Star Trek channel for Pluto in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. Several of those markets and more—including the UK, Germany, France, Russia, South Korea—will also be able to purchase new episodes of Discovery on select digital platforms, beginning on November 26.

I suppose this was the best they could do at this late date, but let's face it, this was absolutely bungled. I don't have any issue with Paramount eventually migrating all the Star Trek series to the streaming service: that's certainly their right. But they could have waited until Paramount Plus finished rolling out, then given viewers plenty of notice: "Discovery will begin airing exclusively on Paramount Plus starting XX date." Of course, people would then have to make up their minds if they were going to pay for yet another streamer, but if everything Trekkian, from movies to series, is going to end up on Plus, that seems to me a sufficient draw. (It is for me, anyway.)

Ah well. Far be it for me to judge the labyrinths of corporate minds. 

 This episode of Discovery doesn't do all that much in advancing the overall plot, but it more than makes up for it with its explorations of the characters. It deals with the consequences of what happened in "Kobayashi Maru," and for Stamets, some lingering trauma from last season. I've always said Discovery's cast is their greatest asset, and this episode gives at least one or two scenes to let the characters shine (except for the bridge crew, dammit--I've been beating this drum since the first season and they have yet to listen to me). However, both Anthony Rapp, as Stamets, and David Ajala, as Book, give excellent performances. Especially Ajala: you see and feel every ounce of Book's grief and pain over losing his brother, nephew and home. In the final scene when he finally admits to Burnham how deeply he has been hurt, and breaks down and cries, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. 

Saru returns to Discovery following the tragedy at Kwejian, and while I completely understand the character's decision to postpone his own captaincy to support Michael Burnham during this crisis, it's frustrating. Saru made such a good captain, and this is shown in his scenes both on the bridge and with Tilly, re-establishing their relationship. I jotted down most of the dialogue from the latter:

Tilly: "Did you get taller?"

Saru: "Not that I'm aware of."

"I don't know if Kelpiens grow later in life, but you seem taller."

"Do I?"

"Maybe you have a little more swagger going on or something. [This said as Saru walks by Tilly's side, with his habit of swinging his arms] That's a compliment."

"Then I thank you." 

"I'm really glad you're back."

This was played to wry perfection by Doug Jones, and awkward affection by Mary Wiseman. 

Saru is also christened with the term Mister Saru by the bridge crew, and has a couple of scenes with Burnham showing the value he will be to her as a wise, pragmatic counselor. Indeed, at the climax of the episode, when Burnham has to talk Book out of his grief to bring him back from the anomaly, where his ship has been stranded, Saru tells her: "Perhaps now is an appropriate time for you to set aside the captain in favor of the partner." 

For her part, Tilly has not quite settled into her new rank of Lieutenant, and is still suffering aftereffects from the death of Commander Nalas last episode. In fact, she approaches Culber and says she needs to talk to him professionally about this. But Tilly has also grown, as seen by the mentoring relationship she is taking on with Adira, the newly-made ensign who undergoes a baptism by fire. 

We also see Adira's boyfriend, the incorporeal Gray, presented with the synth body soon to be made available for his transfer. This is recalling Star Trek: Picard's first season, with the admiral being name-checked as having undergone the process: "The artisan did a wonderful job with the body. She used the Soong method, named after the 24th century cyberneticist who developed it."

Gray: "This is 800-year-old technology?"

Culber: "The process was attempted a number of times after Dr. Soong first used it on a Starfleet admiral--Picard was his name--but the success rate was so low that eventually people just stopped trying." (Also, I imagine the 24th-century prejudice against synths had a bit to do with that as well.)

Adira, alarmed: "What--should we be worried?"

Culber: "Well, the fact that Gray's consciousness has already survived transfer to a new host once seems to be a good sign." 

Gray is still fully committed to this, but Adira is not completely on board, I don't think. 

Paul Stamets also has a reluctant heart-to-heart with Book, who he has barely spoken to for months. When Discovery is ordered to scan the anomaly--described as a "five light-year-wide roving binary black hole," although when they get to it Stamets admits, "I have no idea what we're looking at. It's bizarre"--Book insists on taking his ship into the accretion disk (which, remember, is made up of the remnants of his planet and people) to get the data Starfleet needs to determine what this is and predict its path. Burnham tries to talk him out of it, saying he isn't ready, but Book says he isn't Starfleet and will go with or without her permission. Saru comes up with the solution of sending a hololinked Stamets aboard Book's ship. While they are inside the anomaly, getting the data (and losing the tether to Discovery because of the anomaly's sudden gravitational waves, in a couple of cool scenes where the artificial gravity generators cut out and everyone floats out of their seats [what, no seat belts on this starship? Come now!] before crashing to the floor), we find out why Stamets is so awkward around Book. 

Stamets: "You know, I was told to follow your lead. That you would let me know what you needed."

Book: "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about me trying to be sensitive, and you being you."

"You do realize you've spoken more to me today than you have, what, in the past five months?"

"That's not true."

"Ever since you found out I could run the spore drive, your ego got bruised and then you blamed me."

"Nothing to do with it."

"What is it, then?"

Stamets, reluctantly: "You remind me of how helpless I was. When I look at you, all I can see is how close I got to losing everything. Again. You were the one who saved my family. I wasn't able to do anything, and I hate that feeling." 

This may seem dry just seeing it on the page, but trust me, both actors were outstanding throughout. 

Book loses navigation and engine power inside the anomaly, and the bridge crew (mainly Tilly and Bryce, who contributes the idea of Book literally riding the anomaly's gravitational waves and "surfing" his way out) comes up with a plan to rescue him. But Book, overcome by his grief to the point where he is hallucinating seeing his nephew Leto on the bridge, is nearly suicidal, demanding Stamets remove his hololink and let him go. That's when Burnham has to basically talk him into living again. Sonequa Martin-Green has the annoying habit of sometimes whispering her dialogue instead of speaking it, but for this scene, it works. 

At the very end, Tilly starts sifting through the data and finds something quite disturbing:

Tilly: "I did find something. The reason the distortions got worse, even though Discovery held its position? So this is the anomaly when we arrived. [gesturing to bring up the holoscreen displaying what she's talking about] And this is it after we left."

Saru, with dawning horror in his voice: "It changed direction? What could have caused that?"

"That's the thing. There is nothing in my understanding of astrophysics that can explain it."

"But we gathered this data in order to predict its path. Are you saying we cannot do that?"

"No sir, we can't. It could go anywhere, at any time, and we may not have any kind of warning at all."

So I guess the 31st-century Federation is now up shit creek.

All jokes aside, this was a good episode with excellent performances and and a nice emphasis on character. It really seems like that jumping forward 930 years has made this show come into its own. I do wish the writers hadn't settled on yet another GALAXY-SPANNING TURNED UP TO ELEVEN CRISIS, but if they can alternate the ALL-CAPS NAIL-BITING ACTION with a focus on character as they did here, this season will be quite a ride. 

November 25, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Hawkeye, eps 1 & 2

I never paid that much attention to Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye as part of the Avengers. He was just kinda there, one of the only ones (along with Black Widow/Natasha) without superpowers and/or suits. The much reviled Avengers: Age of Ultron did give him a new dimension by introducing his family, which I did enjoy seeing, along with this: 

That was one of the few good things to come out of an otherwise forgettable movie. 

This all changed with Avengers: Endgame. I thought Hawkeye should have been sacrificed instead of Natasha Romanoff to get the Soul Stone, and said so. So I came to this series with a bit of a built-in bias against the main character (also, Jeremy Renner has not exactly covered himself with glory either). I might not have watched the show at all if it had not been for the fact that it's introducing who is apparently intended to be the next generation Hawkeye, Kate Bishop. I own two Kate Bishop graphic novels and enjoyed them very much. Hailee Steinfeld, the actor, has been turning in good performances since True Grit. So I decided to give it a chance. 

The first two episodes dropped yesterday, and are set six days before Christmas, evidently two years after the events of Endgame in the Marvel timeline. This is not long enough for Clint Barton to recover from losing Natasha, as we see in the very first scene. It is, however, long enough for someone to write and stage a Broadway show called "Rogers: The Musical," which I guess is meant to be Marvel's bombastic answer to "Hamilton." It's an over-the-top restaging of the Battle of New York, with the tagline of "I can do this all day." Hawkeye, who is in town with his three children to "reconnect," watches the show until the actor playing Natasha dances across the screen, at which point he can't take anymore. He turns down his hearing aids (he's later shown as needing them due to all the explosions he lived through fighting for the Avengers) to tune out the music, but he finally has to get up and leave, about halfway through the show. He is uncomfortable with all of it, the veneration for the Avengers and his own celebrity, as we see throughout both episodes. Unfortunately, the other main character of the show we and he are about to meet, Kate Bishop, is majorly star-struck on Hawkeye, and that naive hero worship is going to get her (and Clint) in all sorts of trouble. 

Kate does have a good reason for it though: she and her parents were in New York when the Chitauri came through, and an arrow from Hawkeye skewered one of the monsters that was coming straight for her. Later, at her father's funeral, her mother Eleanor asks what a pre-teen Kate wants, and she replies: "A bow and arrow." Jump to the present day when Kate is in college and on the archery team (as well as studying martial arts and fencing, and winning medals for both) and on a dare, she climbs to one of the top floors of her college's buildings and shoots an arrow into a neighboring building's bell tower to ring the bell. She does hit the bell, but then it falls to the bottom of the tower and takes an expensive antique clock with it.

Kate says she is 22 years old, and the way she is characterized fits that age: she is brash, inexperienced, naive, impulsive and reckless. A monologue from her mother in the first episode sums her up perfectly: "Young people think they're invincible, and rich people think they're invincible.  You have always been both. You're not. You will get hurt. Don't go out looking for it." (Trouble, that is, which Kate proceeds to do from the get-go.) She is sent home to her mother in New York in disgrace, where we meet her mother Eleanor's boyfriend, Jack. We see right away that Kate doesn't like Jack (with good reason, as we find out). She accompanies them to a charity gala where she meets Jack's uncle Armand ("third of seven," he pompously informs Kate) and Armand drops the bomb that Eleanor and Jack are engaged. Kate confronts her mother about this and storms out to get some air (where she meets a one-eyed golden retriever that will play a role in the story going forward--and the dog doesn't die, at least not yet). When she comes back in she overhears Armand saying something to her mother that sounds like a threat. Evidently thinking she is a sleuth, Kate follows Armand and Jack downstairs to a hidden room in the basement, where they are attending a secret underground auction.

The auction is selling off superhero souvenirs for bored rich people, including the Ronin sword and Ronin suit from Hawkeye's time as the masked murderer. (Armand and Jack bid on the former, and Armand tells Jack he can't afford it. Jack then makes an ominous crack about the money he's going to inherit one day.) While the auction is proceeding, Kate is discovered, and as she ducks into the back hallways and tunnels to escape the head caterer who knows she's not supposed to be there, she runs on to a group of Russian-speaking guys with guns and ski masks that are obviously up to no good. Sure enough, just as the bidding begins on the Ronin suit, the back wall of the underground room is blown out, and the Russians run through the room, looking for "the watch from the Avengers compound."

In the confusion, Jack picks up the Ronin sword (or rather the pommel--the blade retracts into and pops out of it, so the thing must have been designed by Stark Industries) and shoves it in his tuxedo jacket, and Kate stumbles across the Ronin suit. Since she apparently can't resist the shiny black and gold covering of a villain she knows nothing about, she puts it on. The Russian thugs see her and we realize they have a history with the Ronin, as Kate has to fight her way out. She karate-chops her way through the crowd successfully, although she does have enough sense to run when she realizes she is going to be outnumbered. She emerges on the street above just as another one of the gang finds the Avengers watch--and gets attacked by a dog, the very same dog we saw earlier, for his trouble. 

(And isn't that a coincidence? I haven't read the 2012-2015 Hawkeye comics run much of this story is based on, but one wonders if this "dog" is going to be the equivalent of Goose, Captain Marvel's cat.)

The dog takes off across the street, gets stranded in traffic, and Kate, still wearing the suit, backflips across a line of cars to pull him out of harm's way. This, of course, gets recorded on somebody's cellphone, and the footage is later shown on the evening news--just in time for Clint Barton, who has returned with his kids from visiting the city's Christmas tree, to see.

After dropping the dog at her apartment, Kate sneaks into Jack's place to see just what he is up to, and stumbles across the body of Armand, freshly slain. Escaping the crime scene, she runs into the Russian gang, which either followed her (and if so, that's a helluva big plot hole--how?) or are the ones who killed Armand. She makes a good account of herself again, but this time it's five or six to one. She barricades herself inside an unlocked SUV, I guess trying to find the keys and drive away? when the biggest thug of the Russians punches out the driver's side window. But before he can drag her out, he's yanked away and the rest of the gang is quickly disposed of, by, you guessed it, Clint Barton. Clint pulls her away and down an alley, where he rips off the Ronin mask. Kate gasps, "You're Hawkeye!" and Clint says, "And who the hell are you?"

This ends the first episode, "Never Meet Your Heroes." The second episode, "Hide and Seek," picks up right away, with Clint attempting to bail Kate out of the trouble she has made for herself (and him) with the Russians, the so-called "Trackside Mafia."

(And may I say that these guys are about the most underwhelming antagonists ever? They're shown throughout this episode to be little more than bumbling dumbasses, even if they get to toss a few Molotov cocktails into Kate's apartment in an attempt to burn her out. At the very end of this episode, we meet their boss, a fierce-looking young Latina woman. I hope she makes a better villain than her minions.)

Now that are two characters have met and are interacting with each other, the show picks up a bit. Kate's smart-alecky youth and eagerness is a nice contrast to Clint's tired cynicism--he doesn't want to get back in this game anymore, but he feels he has to do something to help Kate. He takes her back to her apartment so she can change out of the suit and give it to him, only to be followed and surprised (again--how?) by our favorite Russian dumbasses. With the apartment burning, they have to snatch the dog and flee, leaving the suit behind. After stashing Kate elsewhere, Clint returns to the apartment, sneaks a firefighter's coat and hat from one of the engines outside and puts it on, and prowls around, looking for the suit. It's gone, but as he puts the coat away he notices a sticker on the engine window for NYC Larpers and wonders if one of these people has lifted the suit. He visits their website and sees that this is in fact the case, as there is a picture of someone with the suit. The next morning, after hustling his children off on their flight back home and saying he will join them later, he returns to where Kate is hidden. By this time, the report of Armand's murder is also on the news, and Kate refuses to stay where she is (her aunt's apartment) any longer. She says she will be safest at her mother's security company, so Clint drops her off there, after programming his number into her phone "in case of an emergency" (which direction we already know, and he should too, that she will completely ignore). 

There follows the funniest scene in the episode, of Clint going to the LARPer tournament to get his suit back.  He isn't permitted to walk in and talk to the person who's wearing it--no, he actually has to sign up and fight his way to that person. Which he does, in a cleverly filmed slo-mo sequence where he wallops his way through the crowd with his fake plastic broadsword. The guy who has the suit, Grills, recognizes him as Hawkeye and won't give it back unless he can get the ego boost of defeating an Avenger. Clint rolls his eyes but acquiesces to this request. Having gotten the suit back, he stashes it in a locker and calls his wife, telling her he's not going to make his flight. He tells her exactly what is going on, and this conversation is the most interesting one of the show so far, as it reveals that his wife is aware that Clint was the Ronin and what he did during the five years she and the children were gone. (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. How would you cope, knowing your husband was a murderous vigilante for five years?) Clint says he has to take care of the "Tracksuit Mafia," and his wife reminds him he has 5 days to do it. 

After work that evening, Kate has dinner with her mother and Jack. Kate makes several attempts to bait Jack into revealing what he is, and finally talks him into fencing with her. He lets her touch him with the foil several times, condescendingly letting her win, until she finally attacks when he isn't looking and he rips the blade out of her hand. (Which would explain why he was so interested in the Ronin sword.) Kate tries to tell her mother Jack is hiding something, but Eleanor refuses to listen. When Kate leaves, she immediately calls Clint (of course) saying she has "clues," and damned if one of the Russian dumbasses doesn't pick up. He growls, "Clint Barton cannot talk to you right now," but apparently doesn't cut the connection (my God, these people are stupid) which allows Kate to track Clint's location. 

Following through on what he told his wife earlier, Clint has set up a bait-and-switch scam and lets himself be captured by the Tracksuit Mafia. He's trying to talk to their boss, and they're still trying to find Kate Bishop. Which they do without exerting any effort, as Kate, wearing her fancy purple archer's outfit, crashes through the ceiling where Clint is being held in a misguided attempt to rescue him! The last shot of the episode is the both of them tied up, and the Russian dumbasses' boss about to come out to confront them. 

Well. The most interesting character in this show is Kate, but she needs to grow up a bit. Still, Hailee Steinfeld plays her exceptionally well--Marvel certainly nailed the casting for this character. And I'm waiting to see how the one-eyed dog fits into all this. It's a promising start, I think, but they do need a better villain. Hopefully either Jack or the young Latina woman will level up to provide one.

November 23, 2021

Review: A Terrible Fall of Angels

A Terrible Fall of Angels A Terrible Fall of Angels by Laurell K. Hamilton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, Laurell K. Hamilton was on my must-buy list. The first book in the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, Guilty Pleasures, came out in 1993. She was one of the first urban fantasy writers I remember seeing, several years before the genre really took off. I bought every Anita Blake book up to what I consider the last good (or at least readable) book in the series, Obsidian Butterfly, and a couple of books beyond. Unfortunately, by then the drop in quality was so obvious that I couldn't continue. It was sad to see a series I had enjoyed descend so quickly into badly-written vampire porn. I also tried the first four books of the Merry Gentry series but soured on them as well. Until I saw the hardback of this book in my library, I hadn't read anything by this author in more than ten years.

I'm not sure why I picked this book up. Maybe it was nostalgia, because I really liked Hamilton's writing at one time. Maybe it was because it was in the library, and I could take a chance on it without losing any money. Possibly because it was a new series and a new protagonist, and I was hoping against hope that her writing had improved. Whatever the motivation, I gave it a try.

Reader, I regret it. This is one of the worst books I have ever read by this author, and after Cerulean Sins and Incubus Dreams, that's saying quite a lot.

This is a supernatural police procedural, set in a world of angels, demons, witches and other supernatural creatures, where magic is real and God exists. ("God" being the Christian god--tellingly, we never hear anything about Allah, Zeus, Loki or Anansi.) Our protagonist Zaniel Havelock is a cop and a trained Angel Speaker--he can see angels and demons, and communicate with all the different kinds of angels, from guardian angels to seraphim. Zaniel spends twelve years training at the College of Angels, from seven to nineteen, only leaving after a crisis of faith (and falling in love with a seraph). Zaniel spent some time in the army, where he got his nickname of Havoc (which I guess the author thought was cute, but which wears thin quickly, especially since everybody in the book repeats it fifty billion times), and after his discharge went into police work. He marries a woman named Regina, or Reggie, and they have a son, Connery. The marriage has hit a rough patch because Reggie has difficulty accepting Zaniel's job, and at the beginning of the book they are separated. In the opening chapter, Zaniel becomes involved in an angelic murder mystery, and spends the book (at least the part that doesn't deal with his emotional/marital issues and endless pages of pointless conversations) hunting down a murderous demon.

I don't even know where to start with the problems in this book, so I will relate the things that irritated me the most. This story is badly plotted, and the pacing is atrocious. The first encounter with said murderous demon, in a hospital, is broken into chapter breaks that should have been individual scenes, some only a page or two long. Really? C'mon, let's just insert an asterisk here if you absolutely must have a break, and get on with the story. These mini-chapters don't portray the urgency of what's happening at all, mainly because there's so damn much extraneous, useless dialogue. (Which isn't the only problem with the dialogue, but I'll get to that.) After this initial fight is finally wrapped up, the middle section leaves the case behind almost entirely to focus on Zaniel's marital problems, with more bloated chapters of couples therapy and an endless conversation in the parking lot after. After all of Zaniel's worrying about his son, we never even get to meet the kid, which makes Connery come across as an opaque placeholder only there to insist that Our Hero Is a Good Father. Zaniel says he is, but you don't believe it, because it's never shown to be true.

The second and greater problem with the dialogue: most of it is cringingly awful. Hamilton has the maddening habit of having her characters say each other's names over and over throughout every single conversation, even one-on-one, when you would think said characters would have a clue who they're actually talking to. Just flipping to a random page and a few lines:

He shook his head. "Someone should have been powerful enough to figure this out earlier, Z."

"I don't know why they couldn't help you more, Jamie."

He screamed. "That is not my name!" His hands were in fists at his sides. He was so angry he was shaking.

"Levi," I said, my voice as calm as I could make it. "Levi, I don't know why the College failed you."

"I'm sorry, Z. I shouldn't have yelled at you." His voice was calmer, but he was still shaking.

"It's okay, Levi."

Oh, for frak's sake. REAL PEOPLE DO NOT TALK LIKE THIS. I don't repeat the names of persons I'm talking to in a group situation, much less one on one. Zaniel's and Jamie's scenes are the worst offenders, as the pages and pages of bad dialogue and endless Z/Levi/Levanael/Jamie go on till I wanted to scream. I started wondering, has Hamilton always had this horrible tic, and I just didn't notice it? I thought about flipping through my Anita Blake paperbacks to find out, but stopped myself. I have a sneaking suspicion the Suck Fairy may have paid them an extended visit, and I don't want to spoil what pleasant memories I have left.

After the bloated center of the book (which I can't believe the editor didn't insist on chopping out), the action finally picks up again as Zaniel hunts the murderous demon down. (This is supposed to be a murder mystery, but due to the bad plotting, there is precious little "mystery" to it. We know who--if not quite what--the murderer is. There aren't any clues or red herrings, and no real sleuthing to be found.) After more extended, useless, distracting conversations with random women, Zaniel and the demon have it out. At the book's climax there is a reveal that Hamilton basically ignores, but which seems to me (again with the bad plotting) should be vastly more important to the story: this demon is half human, unable to be manipulated by the thoughts of humans around it, and can torture its former human body's Guardian Angel. These little anomalies are played up throughout the story, proclaimed to be "impossible" more than once, and entirely dropped at the book's end. Really? The author didn't think her Angel Speaker detective should spend a little more time on that?

This book saddens me, because by the time I got to the end, I had the firm impression that someone--the publisher, the editor, or the author herself--thinks that Hamilton is Too Big To Edit, much to the book's detriment. If there ever was a book that needed a red pen--nay, a red axe--taken to it, it is this one. The only reason I finished it is because much to my relief, the bad and long-drawn-out sex scenes that ruined the Anita Blake series are absent. I shall now return it to the library, and at least as far as this author is concerned, I shall never fall prey to nostalgia again.

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November 20, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 Ep 1, "Kobayashi Maru"


So welcome back, y'all, to my recap of Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery. Before I start, for those of you who just got your Discovery episodes rudely yanked out from under you, I must point out this widely-publicized dick move by Paramount, as recounted here:

For three seasons, most of the world has watched Star Trek: Discovery through Netflix, the streaming platform that was, outside of the U.S. at least, also home to most of Star Trek’s past as well. But in a shocking move, days before the series was set to return to the streamer for its fourth season, now those fans will have to wait—and sign up for an entirely different streaming service.

Deadline reports that ViacomCBS has paid off the lucrative deal that brought Discovery to Netflix across the world outside of the U.S. and Canada four years ago, pulling the entire show from the platform at midnight tonight. The removal also means that Discovery’s fourth season, which was expected to begin airing weekly on Netflix starting this Friday, November 19—a day after it premieres on Paramount+ in the U.S. and on CTV’s Sci-Fi Channel in Canada—will now not air in international markets for at least a few months.

As the first comment on the article so succinctly states:

I’m not endorsing piracy, but honestly, shit like this is a major reason as to why piracy still exists.

It's also surely inclined to make people want to sign up for Paramount Plus whenever it debuts in their country. 🙄

I apologize to any readers outside the US/Canada, for discussing a show you won't get to see for several months. 

ALL the SPOILERS follow. 

The title of this episode, "Kobayashi Maru," referring to Starfleet Academy's unwinnable training scenario, does not become relevant until nearly the end, when Captain Michael Burnham and the new Federation President, Laira Rillek (also the first female President we've seen, played by--and I had to rack my brain to figure out where I had seen the actor before--Chelah Horsdal, from Amazon's The Man in the High Castle) discuss Burnham's actions through the episode. President Rillek joined the Discovery crew for their mission not just to "tick a box and prove herself," as Michael originally thought, but to evaluate Burnham for a possible captaincy for the next generation of dilithium-free warp-capable engines, the experimental "pathway drive" soon to be tested on the Voyager-J. But after watching Captain Burnham demonstrate her usual James Kirk-style over-the-top heroics, Rillek changes her mind:

"Leadership is about balance. Knowing what weight is yours to carry and what isn't. You just don't see that yet.

Your acts of bravery are irrefutable. They are also huge swings of the pendulum, and in a time of rebuilding, there is a very fine line between a pendulum and a wrecking ball." 

Michael Burnham's well documented "pathological need to save everyone" is referenced in two scenes in this episode, more bluntly by Rillek and more kindly by Cleveland Booker, Michael's lover and honorary Discovery crew member (Book: "You know you got lucky today." Michael: "It worked, didn't it?"). We will see whether this theme is fully explored through the season, of course. I hope since it's been so prominent in the premiere, they won't flinch from tackling it head-on. 

The season opens five months after the events of the last, with Michael now Discovery's captain, taking her crew on missions to deliver dilithium to worlds left stranded by last season's Burn and re-establish diplomatic relations with planets left isolated for decades by said Burn. This gives us an amusing opening sequence of Michael and Book meeting with a species of bipedal butterfly people, the Alshain. A misunderstanding about Book's cat Grudge (Book and Michael: "She's a queen!" Butterfly guy, outraged: "You hold a Monarch captive?") leads to a shootout with the butterfly people chasing them. Michael notices they're not flying well and tasks Tilly for a solution. Tilly, Stamets and Adira figure out that with their dilithium gone and their satellite network down,  they can't navigate properly. (There is a lot of incomprehensible technobabble in this episode, but Anthony Rapp and Blu del Barrio handle it with aplomb.) Tilly sends out the remote DOTS robots with dilithium and fix the satellites, and Book and Michael escape in Book's ship, after giving the Alshain the dilithium Michael promised. After returning to the ship, the Butterfly Emperor calls Michael and asks her why she did that. Michael replies: "We're the Federation. It's what we do." 

Back at Federation headquarters, Starfleet Academy is re-opening after 125 years. In talking to the first class of cadets, Michael notes that the Federation's member worlds have risen from 38 to 59. She introduces President Rillek, who acknowledges and praises the Discovery's crew for their actions last season. She also introduces the newly-built Archer spacedock, where the next generation of Federation starships will be constructed (and we see what we later find out is the Voyager-J, in the midst of refitting). In talking to Tilly after the ceremony, we find out she has been promoted to Lieutenant (and in a nice touch, we see Admiral Vance has been reunited with his family). Then Michael is taken aside by Admiral Vance and shown a distress call just received from station Deep Space Repair Beta 6, which was knocked out of orbit and damaged by an unknown anomaly. Discovery, with its spore drive, is the only ship that can reach it in time, and Michael is ordered to go. President Rillek also insists on coming, which Michael tries to object to--as she tells Admiral Vance, Rillek is "a politician checking a box." But there's nothing she can do about it, so Discovery, with Rillek on board, set off.

They jump to Beta 6's location to find the station spinning madly out of control, with life support down in all but the center section and the artificial gravity and inertial dampeners fluctuating. The station commander asks for programmable matter to fix what's broken, and Adira, a newly made ensign, is dispatched with Tilly to help. (We also see a scene of Adira talking to Gray in which Gray says he doesn't yet have a holographic body, which seems kind of odd, as the Kelpien ship last season was able to make one for him.) The repairs to the station are almost done when Beta 6 and Discovery are suddenly bombarded by frozen methane from the system's Oort cloud, which was knocked askew by the same phenomenon that damaged the station. Michael orders Discovery's shields extended to cover the station, and a repair mission suddenly becomes a rescue mission. The methane has also knocked out Discovery's transporters, and the drain on the ship's shields puts a hard time limit on the rescue. This, of course, sets Michael Burnham up to save the day (as usual), and she takes off in a worker bee to free wreckage stopping the station's lifeboat from launching, which Rillek rightfully objects to. At any rate, the lifeboat makes two trips to get everyone off the station and onboard Discovery, and Discovery jumps away just after shields are lost and the lifeboat makes it into the shuttle bay--but the station debris smashes it as it lands, and the commander and two other people are killed. 

This sequence of events prompts Rillek's confrontation with Michael, where it is revealed that she really came onboard to evaluate Captain Burnham for the Voyager-J. Needless to say, Michael is no longer on Rillek's list. It's rather a refreshing scene, actually, as Rillek is willing to confront Michael's hotdogging as (so far) the crew of Discovery is not. Again, I hope this theme is carried through the rest of the season. 

We also check in with Saru on Kaminar, where it's establishes that it's been five months since the events of Season 3. On Kaminar, the Ba'ul and Kelpiens are living together in apparent harmony, but they have also gone completely isolationist since the Burn. We're treated to a nice scene of Saru making an impassioned speech, trying to convince his people to rejoin the wider galaxy. There's also a sweet scene where we catch up with Su'Kal, who says he is "happy and loved" on Kaminar, and Saru need not stay there when he clearly wants to return to Discovery. 

Finally, Book returns to his home planet of Kwejian to guide his nephew Leto through a manhood ceremony. This does not end well, as the entire planet and all of its people are consumed by the same anomaly that smashes the Beta 6 station, and Book only escaped because he was aloft in his ship, searching for why the planet's birds were suddenly panicking and flying, when the anomaly came through. His ship finds Discovery on autopilot, and Book storms aboard and insists they look for Kwejian. The planet is not at its previous coordinates, but is instead smashed into fragments and hurled hundreds of thousands of kilometers away. The final shot of the episode zeroes in on Book's anguished face: "They're all gone." 

(Which is kind of a crappy thing to do, fridging an entire planet.)

This episode does a good job of setting up what will be this season's stakes, as well as re-establishing relationships from the past season. It was also directed by returning go-to Discovery director Olatunde Osunsanmi in a sort of frenetic zoom-to-everyone's-faces style, especially in the bridge scenes. Your mileage will definitely vary on that, as some people might get a bit nauseated. The episode was mostly action, but there were some nice character scenes, for Saru in particular. And the episode just looks great, from the planet of the butterfly people to the clever upside-down depiction of the damaged Beta 6 station.

A (mostly) nice start, people. Carry on. 

November 16, 2021

Review: Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Nothing But Blackened Teeth Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novella explores the haunted house trope, in this case taking a group of twenty-something friends and sticking them in a house they come to find out is full of ghosts and demons drawn from Japanese folklore. The setup is familiar, and the situation brings all the simmering tensions between said friends to the surface. Cat, the narrator, is just coming off a recent suicide attempt, and her other friends--Lin, Philip, Faiz, and Talia--have pasts that involve unrequited love and dating each other. Naturally, all this is brought to the fore by the ohaguro-bettari, the ghost of a murdered bride who sets them against each other.

Having said that, the most interesting thing about this book was the creepy and scary as hell cover. This faceless bloody-mouthed being reflects exactly what is described in the book, and is one of the most effective covers I've seen in a long time. The author does play a bit with horror movie cliches in the narrative--in fact, when the ghosts begin to show themselves, one character says, "Cat, this is literally the part where the supporting cast dies horribly. You're bisexual. I'm the comic relief. It's going to be one of us." Unfortunately, any momentum the story gathers is inevitably derailed, for me, by the clunky turns of phrase the author keeps using. I'm sorry, but for the most part this prose does not flow, and many of the similes and metaphors had me rolling my eyes and thinking, Really? I appreciated Khaw's ambition and attempts to stretch herself, but these experiments did not work.

Still, the haunted house is dripping with atmosphere, and the main ghost, the ohaguro-bettari, for the brief moments she is onstage (she's well and sparingly used) is enough to give you nightmares. I just wish this book had been better written.

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November 13, 2021

Review: When Sorrows Come

When Sorrows Come When Sorrows Come by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 15th installment of one of the longest-running (and few remaining) urban fantasy series out there. We are following the adventues of October "Toby" Daye, a half-human half-Fae changeling who was once cursed by her liege lord to be a fish for fourteen years, who fights and stabs and bleeds and solves mysteries and upends kingdoms, and generally makes herself a pain in the ass to all the high Faerie muckety-mucks. There is a great deal of complicated worldbuilding in these books, so much so that lately the author has been taking the first several pages of each book to recap all the things the reader absolutely has to know before continuing with the story.

That's all right, when the character's voice is as engaging as Toby's is. And this book is a pivotal point in the series, as Toby is finally getting married to her love, Tybalt the King of Dreaming Cats.

Of course, it wouldn't be an October Daye story without an attempted assassination and coup and a great deal of blood- (and in this case, ichor-) spilling. But once again Toby saves the day--this time, with the help of several members of her adopted family--and at the climax of the book, she and Tybalt are indeed wed.

As is customary with each new book, a bonus novella is included. Most of the time these focus on other characters, but the novella for this book, "And With Reveling," serves as an epilogue to the main story, focusing on Toby and Tybalt's wedding reception and seeding several plot developments which will probably come into play in future books.

I hope this series can continue its run for a while yet, even though the urban fantasy boom is over. (Maybe because this series has, for several books now, been focusing more on the deep lore and complex worldbuilding of Faerie, relying more on the "fantasy" and less on the "urban," is one of the reasons it's still here.) Also, I think it helps that McGuire's publisher, DAW, seems to be one of the few SFF imprints still putting out normal-sized mass market paperbacks? (I buy my share of hardbacks as well, but I simply do not like those tall narrow clunky things that many times these days serve as "paperbacks.") In any event, when the next book comes out I'm sure Toby will be back to her usual blood-soaked mayhem, but it was nice to see her have a chance to slow down and be happy.

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November 9, 2021

Review: Glimmer

Glimmer Glimmer by Marjorie B Kellogg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As this book's subtitle states, this is "A Novel of Climate Change," but it's not quite in the way you might think. Yes, we have the drowning coasts, the collapsed governments, the climate refugees, the decaying society, the chronic shortages of food and everyday items (although I guess we have learned a little about that in this age of empty toilet paper aisles), the burning forests, the stifling daytime heat, and last but not least, the recurring Category 5 (and 6!) hurricanes that are so much a fact of life in this harrowing future....but that's not really what the story is about. This story is about the people that are growing up in this terrible age, and how they are taking this collapsing way of life and remaking it.

Marjorie B. Kellogg is a very underrated writer. I remember her from a long ago mass market paperback, Harmony, which has some similar themes to this book. This setting is the abandoned (at least by rich people, leaving it to those who can't afford to go anywhere else) island of Manhattan, the bottom part of which has been wholly or partially swallowed up by rising sea levels. This has caused a restructuring of society in the form of "dens," groups of people living on the higher floors of the surviving buildings, who "pick" the empty neighborhoods and bring back anything usable. Several of the dens grow rooftop food and have goats and chickens, and survive as best they can with no help from any state or federal government, as they have been left entirely on their own.

Our protagonist is Glimmer, a young woman rescued after one of the category 5 superstorms, Abel, tore through Manhattan a few months ago, leaving her with amnesia and PTSD. She was found by the inhabitants of one of the dens, Unca Joe's, and since she is essentially a blank slate, she provides a useful entry point to understanding this strange new society. There are other dens, including Macy's, made up almost entirely of young orphaned or abandoned children; the more uptown Empire State, with better technology than most; the Storm Worshippers, a "wacko sect pledged to a hurricane goddess"; and BlackAdder, the enemy den, who steals and kills and, as we see towards the book's climax, does some pretty damn terrible things.

Because this book is so character-focused and driven, it could be considered slow by some. I would say its pace is more deliberate, exploring the character interactions and how this new society is building itself from the ground (or water) up. (Although the book's climax, with Unca Joe's and other dens racing against time and surging seas to move their entire population to a new home in Yankee Stadium in advance of an oncoming Category 6 superstorm, is nail-biting.) At the beginning of the book, Glimmer wishes only to escape to the Mainland; as she slowly remembers her past and realizes that there will be no sanctuary on the Mainland, she throws in her lot with the ragtag refugees building a new life in what's left of the Bronx.

I suppose this could be called anthropological SF, as it is more concerned with the new society emerging from the drowned remnants of the old than the ramifications of its worldbuilding (which is just as well, I suppose, since what we do see is horrific enough). (And lest you think a Category 6 hurricane is implausible, well, this article published just a month ago will change your mind. It repeats nearly everything Kellogg extrapolates in this book, and those hurricanes will probably make their appearance even earlier than her timeline.) The main knock I have against this book is the ending; it's abrupt and feels incomplete, although it certainly carries home the book's main theme: even in the direst of circumstances, humans can and will work together to build a new world. This is intelligent, thoughtful science fiction, and worth seeking out for those who like chewy ideas and characters with depth.

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November 2, 2021

Review: The Forever Sea

The Forever Sea The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the debut novel from an author who, as far as I can tell, has only one previous publishing credit: a short story in 2016. That's quite a leap to this full-length novel, which has a minimum of first-novel problems and a whole lot of terrifically inventive worldbuilding and characterization.

This is a fantasy set on a world that instead of having water oceans, has oceans of grass and other plants: the titular Forever Sea, where ships that sail the green waves are kept aloft by their magical "hearthfires." Kindred Greyreach is a hearthfire keeper aboard The Errant, and as the book opens she and her ship and crew are on the run from pirates, trying to reach their home port of Arcadia.

Kindred is the protagonist and viewpoint character, but the Forever Sea is a fully realized character in its own right. The author uses wonderfully evocative language that paints a lovely picture of the various plants and grasses that make up the Forever Sea, from the tiny flowers The Errant harvests to the tree trunks of the floating Once-City, tree trunks as broad as the ship Kindred sails upon. Beasts live in this grassy ocean as well, giant wyrms and other things--we see the first in an exciting, suspenseful battle where a wyrm and its parasitic vines drag the ship under the surface, and Kindred has to use her hearthfire magic to break free and save her ship and crew.

I don't know if I've ever read a fantasy world quite like this one. With its wealth of small and well-thought-out details, it feels real and lived in. This depth of worldbuilding is also matched by some good characterization, particularly of Kindred and her crewmates aboard The Errant. Kindred's journey is about finding her place in this world, and coming to fully appreciate her grandmother, the famed captain the Marchess, who Kindred fought with and left behind two years previously to join the crew of The Errant. But the Marchess has died....or has she? Kindred's former crewmates tell a tale of the Marchess sailing her ship to the wild areas of the Forever Sea, known as the Roughs, and stepping right off the deck and walking across the grasses, to vanish into the depths below. She has gone to explore, to plumb the depths of the Forever Sea right down to the fabled tales of people who live at the bottom. At the end of the book Kindred leaves The Errant behind, diving in a woven grass submarine to join her.

There is also a very interesting frame to the book as a whole, as it is a tale being told by "the Storyteller," who travels from camp to camp relating the same story over and over again: Kindred's story. This apparently takes place some decades or even centuries after Kindred's time, and we are told that the Forever Sea has changed: it has become overgrown, mysterious and dangerous, and the previous civilization of Arcadia and the Mainland is gone. This sets quite the stage for the next book.

This book does have a few first-novel pacing problems, but for the most part it's an impressive, absorbing story. It's well worth seeking out.

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