July 24, 2021

Review: Unity

Unity Unity by Elly Bangs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly ambitious book for a first novel. (In the Afterward the author says she's been working on it off and on for eighteen years.) Whether it's successful in that ambition is a different question. I think overall it's well-written with engaging characters and some rather depressing worldbuilding.

I suppose whether you like this book depends on whether you can cope with the elements of said worldbuilding. This book is set in a future a hundred and forty years from now, when climate change is in full swing. The seas have risen, the continents are scorched, and most of the human species has moved into undersea cities. Governments and countries are fractured and broken, the United States is a distant memory, and the undersea cities are, for the most part, ruled by criminal warlords. Our protagonist, Danae, is desperate to leave her undersea world, Bloom City. She has a time limit to meet up with what she calls the Unity, the nanotech-powered gestalt consciousness she severed herself from five years earlier. This book is the story of her quest to reunite with the rest of herself, the different factions that are after her, and the philosophical discussions as to whether a post-singularity unified consciousness is, or should be, the future of humanity.

At the end, the book seems to be saying that the answer to that question should be "yes":

You know who I am. I'm Danae, with all the 223 lives whose combined memory and experiences amounted to her consciousness--and I am Alexei, with all the lives he took. I'm more than the sum of those parts: I am all the things neither of them were capable of doing, or being, or realizing, as long as they were separate; connections they couldn't make, thoughts too complex to fit inside a single head, emotions too vast to pump through the chambers of one heart.

But I know things, too. When I turn the Whole's parting gift between my palms and focus, they all bloom so vividly in my mind: the innermost workings of cells and molecules and subatomic particles, the comprehensible language of all matter and energy and motion; the most basic foundational principle to the most chaotic emergent quality. I know how to cure the plagues and halt the famines. I know how to turn the sky blue again.

I think I know how to heal this dying world.

There's only one hope I carry with me now: that I could be the right person to do it. I've maimed and killed, feared and hated--but I have also loved, rescued, protected, created, and given birth. I contain everything that is human--and finally, after everyone I've been, none of it is beyond my understanding. Because I am understanding. I am unity.

The being referenced in this excerpt, the Whole, is at the end, Danae's primary antagonist. It is what remained of the initial Unity after she severed herself from it. After deliberately killing a person, Danae believed she could never, and should never, be accepted by the Unity again (and the only reason she is making the journey is to let her lover, Naoto, join the Unity instead). In the intervening five years, the Unity grew to a godlike being that was prepared to let swarms of unleashed nanotech destroy the world and create a better one from the grey goo that remained. Because it considered itself to be superior.

The Whole scoffed. "We are objectively better than separate people. We can say this without ego. Even you, apart from me, are vastly more capable and more intelligent than any un-unified individual who has ever lived."

At the last, Danae uses the only thing she has to defeat the Whole--her guilt and remorse over the murder she committed. Because you are me, she says, and I have killed. So you have no business murdering the human race, or letting them die, because you are no different than them.

In the book, this gambit works. But this is the part of the worldbuilding that turned me off, because the entire idea of the Unity, or the Whole, is the creepiest goddamn thing ever. In a way, it's set up as a sort of benign, wholesome--well, maybe not wholesome, but at least non-aggressive--Borg from Star Trek. What could possibly go wrong?

So I think this is a marmite book. I kinda-sorta liked it, but it gave me the heebie-jeebies. However, there's no denying the author's talent, to come up with something like this. I hope her next book doesn't take eighteen years; but I also hope it goes in some other non-Unified direction.

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July 21, 2021

Review: A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler

A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by Lynell George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was a bit disappointed with this book, but that's possibly because I had unrealistic expectations for it. I knew it was far too short to be a comprehensive biography, but I was hoping to get a bit more detail about Butler's life and how she wrote her books. There is some of both of those topics in this book, but it seems for the most part to be shallow and quickly skimmed over. Octavia E. Butler is crying out for an in-depth biography and analysis of her work, and I hope someday she gets one. This isn't it.

(Actually this is probably more what I'm thinking of.)

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July 20, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Loki Season 1 Ep 6, "For All Time. Always"


So we've come to the end of Loki. Not the series finale, but the season finale, as revealed by a card mid-credits:

Which is a good thing, as we were left with pretty much the mother of all cliffhangers. If the powers-that-be had deliberately (or even accidentally) written the show to end that way, knowing it wouldn't be coming back, I would have been tempted to...maybe not throw my Fire TV against the wall, but I would have thrown something. This ending blew the Marvel Cinematic Universe wide open in a couple of different ways, and will have to be dealt with in Phase 4. Most prominently by Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, coming out next year. 

This is simultaneously Loki's strength and its biggest weakness. The events of WandaVision will play into Phase 4 and the Dr. Strange movie as well (and Captain Marvel 2, with Monica Rambeau). At the same time, WandaVision was more or less its own little self-contained thing, dealing with Wanda Maximoff's trauma and grief. This is precisely what made it so good (and this quality was amply recognized, with 23 Emmy nominations including Best Limited Series and actor noms for Elizabeth Olson, Kathryn Hahn and Paul Bettany). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, in my opinion the weakest of the Marvel Disney Plus series to date, has not yet received a second season order. But it really doesn't need one, as its main purpose was to set up Anthony Mackie as the new Captain America. 

Loki, on the other hand, not only had to explore its main character and give him a compressed version of the arc we saw in the movies (since we started with 2012 Avengers Loki), it had to introduce the character [REDACTED] and throw its bomb into the heart of the MCU. The first goal was the most interesting, as some layers were added in this show that we didn't see in the movies (Alligator Loki among them, heh heh). The second took up almost all of the final episode, and while the actor playing [REDACTED] did a fantastic job, the bomb-throwing itself involved a lot of talking and backstory. Which is not unusual for this show, as it's made clear from the start that we're going to get a great deal of sitting at tables, conversations, character reflection and exposition. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you have a cast talented enough to pull it off...and Loki had that in spades. Nevertheless, as a series Loki had do a lot more heavy lifting than the shows that preceded it. 

Which in the end made it a bit of a mixed bag....better than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but not scaling the rarefied heights of WandaVision. Still, I'm glad it's getting a second season, if for no other reason than I don't have to throw something at the wall. 


Most of this episode took place in the Citadel at the End of Time, where Loki and Sylvie finally tracked down the being behind the TVA curtain. He was only identified as "He Who Remains," but according to various sources, he is a variant of Immortus/Kang the Conqueror. Apparently Kang is going to be the next Marvel Big Bad. He invites Loki and Sylvie to sit down at his desk and talk (after demonstrating to Sylvie that he knows exactly when and how she will try to stab him and can blip out of range, at least until everything passes what he calls the "threshold." This is a bit fuzzy and not explained well, but it seems to be a point where the multiverse, perhaps knowing Kang is going to die, stops feeding him information and starts coming apart), and explains how he got to where he is. In the 31st century, the original Kang discovered the multiverse and his variants. The different versions of himself all cooperated for a while, but the nastier ones started the multiversal war that nearly wiped out all of existence. So the TVA Kang weaponized the devouring purple cloud seen in episode 5, Alioth, killed all of his other selves, and set up the TVA to continuously prune the timelines and prevent other versions of himself from coming into existence. "He Who Remains" has been the master manipulator behind the curtain for millennia, and now he wants nothing more than to retire and/or die...and he has selected Loki and Sylvie, allowing them to win through all the obstacles in their path to reach him, to take his place. If they let him live and take over, the TVA and the state of the multiverse will continue as before...but if Sylvie kills him, the multiverse will fracture, and all the bad versions of Kang will arise once again. 

(Kang is played by Jonathan Majors, late of the HBO series Lovecraft Country [and just nominated for an Emmy for his performance], and he does a fantastic job. As is the norm with this show, it has a lot of sitting and talking--in this case, nearly the entirety of the He Who Remains scenes. Majors has to create a full-blown, layered character in about fifteen minutes of screentime: a master conqueror/manipulator simultaneously riddled with hubris and depression, an egomaniacal god who wants to rule everything and a tired old man who only wants to fade away. I've said all along that the strength of Loki's cast covers a multitude of talky, expositional sins, and Majors is no exception.)

Naturally, this does not sit well with Sylvie. She has devoted decades, possibly centuries, of her life to running and hiding in various apocalypses long enough to survive, stay ahead of the Time Variance Authority, and orchestrate her revenge (as she tells Loki before they enter the citadel, "I was pruned before you even existed"), and she is determined to kill He Who Remains. She says he is nothing but a liar and refuses to believe what he is telling them. Loki, on the other hand, sniffs out a few grains of truth amongst all the bullshit, and tries to talk her down. He doesn't even tell her not to kill Kang--he just asks her to consider the options, saying what happens if Kang is dead and something even worse comes along? Sylvie, maybe recognizing that Loki is making a little too much sense here, accuses him of wanting the "throne"--presumably the leadership of the TVA--for himself. They fight, in a neatly choreographed battle, and Loki finally throws away his sword and faces Sylvie with nothing but his words. He says "Stop" several times and continues: "I've been where you are. I've felt what you feel. Don't ask me how I know. All I know is I don't want to hurt you. I don't want a throne. I just want you to be okay." 

Sylvie stops, for a moment, and you can tell Loki's words are getting to her. Because she suddenly kisses him. Some other reviews of the episode have simply gotten this wrong. When I watched the episode the second time, I could see it--Loki does not kiss her (though I'm sure he wanted to); she kisses him. And I'm sure she did it because a) she wanted to stop him from saying anything more that might cause her to back off; and b) she wanted to distract him long enough to grab He Who Remain's TemPad and remove Loki from the playing field. Which is exactly what she does. She pulls away, tells Loki, "But I'm not you," opens up a time door and pushes him through it, sending him away from the Citadel and into (as we will see) another timeline. Then she turns and runs Kang through with her sword. He tells her, "I'll see you soon," as he dies, and behind him, we see the Sacred Timeline fracturing into a million pieces. 

This is the bomb that has exploded in the heart of the MCU, and Loki knows it. He also knows he has been betrayed, and we can see the weight of both things settling on him (through another bit of Tom Hiddleston's marvelous acting). Finally, he runs through TVA headquarters--since that's where he ended up--to find Mobius and explain what happened. But Mobius doesn't recognize him. He doesn't even recognize him as a Loki--he thinks he's an analyst from another department. Loki, suddenly realizing he has landed in an alternate timeline where maybe he has never existed, turns to look at the TVA's multi-story inner courtyard, where a massive statue of He Who Remains has suddenly taken up residence. 

Roll credits. 

This is what I mean about the supposed star of the show getting a bit of a short shrift. I think this season could have done with at least another episode to better flesh out the characters and explain what is going on here. (And apparently that nearly came to pass--according to one of the writers, Episode 2 almost contained more of Sylvie's backstory. Talk about a missed opportunity.) I think Loki is the second best of the Marvel series so far, but I also think there are a lot of things they could have done better. I hope the second season will address them. 

July 17, 2021

Review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third book by the author of The Martian follows the same general template: a thorny problem that our science/engineering nerd hero has to solve. In this case, the problem, if unsolved, will lead to the extinction of the human race. Ryland Grace, our protagonist and (as we find out, very reluctant) hero, wakes up from an induced coma aboard the Hail Mary, a ship traveling to the nearby Tau Ceti solar system. At first he doesn't know who he is or why he's there. Both his backstory (in past tense) and ongoing story (in present tense) gradually unfold, as he explores the ship and discovers his two crewmates have died in transit. He is alone and must solve the problem of the mysterious Astrophage, a space-dwelling life form that is gradually consuming the sun's energy and will result in an iceball Earth if it is not stopped.

This book has a very retro feel to it. It would be right at home alongside Robert A. Heinlein's and Isaac Asimov's novels from the 50's and 60's. The author makes an attempt to have female characters (although the most prominent of these, Eva Stratt, the head of the Petrova Taskforce, is a cardboard character at best). An intriguing, well-thought-out, and truly alien species is introduced and the representative thereof is given some decent characterization (although as soon as Rocky learns English he ends up sounding as much whitebread male as Ryland). Rocky has come to the Tau Ceti system for the same reason as Ryland--his home star, 40 Eridani, is also infected with Astrophage. The two of them team up to solve the problem, work together, and develop a genuine relationship. So much so that at the book's climax, Ryland sacrifices his chance to return to Earth and, he thinks, his life (because he doesn't have enough food to make the trip) to save Rocky and his species.

This is all fine. But this book is full of hard-science NASA minutiae, and since my own inner engineering nerd is pint-sized at best, the endless loving descriptions of tools, equipment, measurements and calculations began to get on my nerves after a while. And I couldn't even roll my eyes and groan, "Get on with the story," because that is the story. The introduction of Rocky, and the unfolding relationship between him and Ryland, helped a bit. There were also a couple of nail-biting action scenes. But for the most part, this is a linear line of: Identify problem; brainstorm solutions; implement solutions; solve problem; move on to the next problem. Which, again, is fine for a book that feels like it should be sixty or seventy years old....but nowadays, that is such a restrictive (and it must be admitted, a white male American) definition of SF. The field has broken wide open, and there is so much more to science fiction and fantasy nowadays that in the end this book (at least to me) comes off overall as generic and boring.

It was on the New York Times bestseller list, however, and I have no doubt it will eventually be coming to a Theater Near You, so it's found an audience. And I didn't dislike it. But there are just so many more exciting things to read.

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July 13, 2021

Review: A Master of Djinn

A Master of Djinn A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two years ago, I read the novella that was the prequel to this book. In my review, I stated: "This story is well paced and tightly written, and the world is something I would like to explore further." Heh. From my fingertips to the author's ears? This book is the expansion of that world, and a fine followup it is.

This is definitely a case of a world and story benefiting from a full length novel. The author is a historian in his day job, and that expertise is woven all through this book. This is an alternate history where a door to another dimension was opened forty years previously and magic, as well as djinn and various other supernatural beings, now reside in our world. The immediate consequence of this for Egypt and Cairo, where this story is set, is that the British colonizers were kicked out; not only from Egypt but other countries as well, such as India. The sun set on the British Empire rather abruptly in this world, and this is a large part of why the villain in this book is trying to use the djinn, and a magical ring that controls them, to take the English power back.

Our protagonist, Fatma el Sha'arawi, works for Cairo's Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. She is drawn into the investigation of the murder of several members of a secret society. The person who killed these people is impersonating Al-Jahiz, the man who forty years ago unleased magic and the djinn on the world. This person cannot really be Al-Jahiz, or so Fatma thinks, but the impersonator is doing a fine job of whipping up unrest. This leads to an attack on the Ministry itself, and stealing a contraption from its headquarters known as the Clock of Worlds. The impostor hopes to use this to wake up the Nine Ifrit Lords from their extradimensional sleep and use them, along with the rest of Egypt's djinn, to take over the world.

Fatma is fine protagonist: an intelligent, dogged, pragmatic investigator who wears brightly colored suits and ties, a bowler hat, and carries a cane that conceals a sword. She has a lover named Siti, a mysterious woman who pops in and out of Fatma's life and proves to be a bit more than human. She also gains a new partner along the course of the story, Hadia, an overeager rookie who also proves to be more than first advertised. The relationships between these characters and others (including a man who is morphing into a crocodile god) are one of the highlights of the book. The characterization is well balanced with the plot, and the depth of worldbuilding is revealed gradually as the story goes along. It's never overwhelming or infodumpy.

Previously, the author had written short stories and novellas. A full-length novel is an entirely different beast, a test I'm glad to say he's passed with flying colors. This is a fascinating world, well worth visiting.

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July 12, 2021

At the Movies: Black Widow



While I'm happy that this film's opening seems to be a success ($215 million is nothing to sneeze at, especially in this sort-of post-Covid era), while I was watching it I thought, "This is a few years too late." Knowing Natasha's fate in Avengers: Endgame casts a pall over the entire movie, and the post-credits scene brings it home. 

(Yes, I'm still mad about that. That creative choice, to put no fine point on it, was stupid. Natasha worked her butt off post-Snap to keep the Avengers together, while Clint Barton was running around playing vigilante and murdering people, and she's the one to sacrifice herself? Fuck that. I don't care if Hawkeye had a wife and kids he would presumably be reunited with if the Snappees were returned. Stark Industries could have supported his family if need be.)

Now: SPOILERS follow.

 Unfortunately, a good part of this film seems to exist to set up Natasha's younger adopted sister, Yelena, as the next Black Widow, both in the films and on Disney Plus. While Florence Pugh is wonderful in the role, one occasionally gets the feeling that Natasha is the sidekick in her own movie. (This is not helped by the fact that David Harbor, as the aging Russian supersoldier the Red Guardian and Natasha's adoptive father, sometimes cringingly overacts.) Maybe because of this, Scarlett Johanssen's performance, while adequate, is not outstanding, except during her scenes with her adoptive mother, Rachel Weisz. The antagonists, Dreykov the founder of the Russian assassin training academy the Red Room and his super-suited, super-powered killer Taskmaster, are not that compelling (even with the twist that Taskmaster is the daughter Natasha attempted to assassinate in Budapest years ago). 

As far as I was concerned, the best (and the most bittersweet) scene in the entire movie is the post-credits scene. The film is set in 2016, post-Captain America: Civil War, but this scene is set post-Avengers: Endgame and apparently close to the events of the Disney Plus TV series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This is because as Yelena goes to visit Natasha's grave, she runs into the mysterious woman from that series, the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. In the series, Valentina was shown recruiting John Walker's US Agent to be a part of her (maybe) villainous team, and now we see Yelena is on Valentina's payroll as well. Valentina says she has Yelena's next target: the man behind her sister's death. She opens a tablet and we see a picture of Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye. The Contessa Valentina was supposed to be introduced to the Marvelverse via this film, but having seen her in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, her appearance here actually makes more of an impact. 

Having said all this, the film was well directed, structured and paced. The mandatory action set pieces were interspersed with quieter character-building moments. The usual overblown third act CGI was, surprisingly, more restrained than I have ever seen in a Marvel film (or maybe the technology is just getting better). But unfortunately, in the end, except for Yelena, the movie feels like a throwaway. It's not too little, but in the case of Natasha Romanoff, it's sadly too late. 

Grade: C

July 11, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Loki Season 1 Ep 5, "Journey Into Mystery"


We've reached Loki's penultimate episode, and this one is a heady, funny romp over a blasted dreamscape. We're following what seems to be the series' established formula: action at the beginning and end, and in the middle, at least one scene where Loki sits and talks to someone--either Sylvie or Mobius--and has an emotional epiphany. In this particular case, as he and Sylvie work up their nerve to face down the purple smoke monster, Sylvie asks if Loki will betray her. Loki admits he's betrayed everyone: his father, his brother, his home. "I know what I did and I know why I did it. That's not who I am anymore. And I won't let you down." 

That remains to be seen, of course, especially if the person behind the curtain proves to be yet another Loki Variant. People are undecided if that's what's going to happen, or if, as is rumored, we're going to see another Marvel bad guy, Kang the Conqueror. In one way, it would make more sense for the ultimate baddie to be Really Evil Loki, as this entire show (and especially this episode) has been exploring just how many variations on the character can be shown. And one must also remember the central question of the series has not yet been answered: "What makes a Loki a Loki?" The show has danced around a definition, but nothing has been pinned down. Obviously that's waiting for the finale. 

With this episode, however, getting there has been a helluva lot of fun. In fact, I laughed my way through the entire first half, with the chaotic, hilarious set pieces of the Loki variants. Richard E. Grant stole the show as Classic Loki, with the 60's yellow-and-green costume that he owned like a boss. Kid Loki provided a somewhat chilling reminder of how ruthless a Loki can be, with his confession of what caused his Nexus Event: "I killed Thor." Boastful Loki bragged how he defeated both Thanos and the Avengers and gathered all six Infinity Stones, which was bullshit. But the Loki sweeping the internet, maybe on a par with Baby Yoda, was this little guy: 

He didn't have any lines (and apparently on set he was a bright blue alligator plushy that got CGI'd in later) but he inspired some of the funniest moments in the episode, especially the underground confrontation with all the Lokis when he jumped up and chomped "President" Loki's (also portrayed by Tom Hiddleston, as a particularly smarmy ass) hand clean off. (And not only chomped the hand, chewed and ate it. But according to Kid Loki, cannibalism must be a thing in the Void at the End of Time. Which would make sense, since running from Alioth the Smoking Purple Variant-Eating Machine doesn't leave any time for a garden or a greenhouse.)

That scene, in which all the variant Lokis fell to squabbling, fighting and backstabbing, also provides some evidence that our Loki has indeed changed. He is thoroughly embarrassed by all his other selves' conniving goings-on, standing there watching with folded arms and a cringeworthy expression on his face. He also dances and twists his way through the fighting hordes to reach the escape gate Classic Loki has created. And finally, at the very end when he and Sylvie try to enchant Alioth, he voluntarily takes off running to distract the monster so Sylvie can get close enough to use her enchantment, yelling and waving the flaming sword Kid Loki gave him. 

In the finale, undoubtedly everyone will be converging on the Castle at the End of Time: Ravonna Renslayer, who has Miss Minutes searching for a hypothetical spaceship that can ride the temporal waves to the end; Mobius, who has vowed to burn the TVA to the ground; and Sylvie and Loki, who in the mid-episode talking scene danced around the subject of, and kinda-sorta-maybe admitted, that they might have feelings for each other and could possibly want to solve the problem of what they will do after all this together? And, of course, whoever is inhabiting the Castle at the End of Time. 

The way things have been set up, I am in hopes they will be able to stick the landing with this one. I don't know if it's the best of the Marvel series to date--that title still goes to WandaVision, I believe--but it has been the most fun. And for the first time ever, I have been seriously considering buying a Funko Pop. 

(Available for pre-order now. Heh.)

July 8, 2021

Review: True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I only knew of Stan Lee through the cameos in the Marvel films--I didn't really start reading comics till a few years ago. I knew very little of Marvel's history, and indeed the history of the comics industry in general. So in that sense, this biography was a revelation. Stan was a complicated character, by turns a generous visionary and a calculating bullshitter. He was hailed for creating Marvel's stable of iconic characters, but this book makes a convincing argument that most, if not all, of the classic 60's Marvel characters were created by artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Personally, he had a happy marriage, but his daughter and only child was apparently bipolar, and he had to work his entire life, well past the point where he should have been able to retire, to support his wife and daughter's profligate spending. He made questionable business decisions, to say the least, and embroiled countless people in get-rich-quick schemes and endless boasting Hollywood film/tv/movie/animation projects that never came to fruition. At the same time, the last year of his life was terribly sad: after the death of his wife, he was exploited, abused, ripped off and manipulated by both his daughter and various venal hangers-on. The last chapter made for a bit of depressing reading, let me tell you. This book is well written and paced like a novel, and exhaustively researched and documented. If you're not fond of discovering just how much crumbling clay is in your heroes' feet and legs, you probably shouldn't read this.

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July 6, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Loki Season 1 Ep 4, "The Nexus Event"


Ah ha! Finally, a bit of plot movement. Although, as seems to have become a habit with this show, it's intercut with scenes of people sitting and talking. On the one hand, when you have such good acting as Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson and the other cast members provide, you don't mind this at all. I can certainly see why Hiddleston agreed to do this show, as he's had the chance to dig more into the character of Loki in four episodes than nearly the entirety of the Marvel movies. On the other paw, we only have six episodes to deal with all the fallout, and I'm afraid the remaining two are going to be overstuffed. Apparently the powers-that-be had the same thought, as the purportedly central mystery of the show is blown right by (and blown up) on its way to yet another question.

But along the way, we do have some good scenes for our three main characters, Loki, Sylvie and Mobius. A bit of Sylvie's backstory is shown, as she's snatched away as a Variant by none other than the now Judge Ravonna Renslayer. She looks to be about eleven or twelve at the time, and the question of what she was doing to make her a Variant has not been answered, or at least not yet. Her timeline is reset and she is processed through the TVA as Loki was. But when she is taken to be judged, she bites Ravonna's hand, stomps on her foot, grabs her TemPad and runs, manipulating it to open a time door and jumping through. (Which was exciting to watch, but falls apart the minute you think about it. Those little doohickeys are way too easy to steal and operate, especially by someone like Sylvie who has likely never seen them before. And really, the Time Variance Authority is supposed to be this super-secret, super-powerful organization that basically controls all of time and space from the shadows, and they haven't heard of BIOMETRIC SECURITY?? This is becoming a thing in our world, and you'd think in an organization like the TVA, the TemPads would be keyed to their operators' DNA or even their brain waves.)

In the present with Loki, as they are sitting on Lamentis waiting to die, Sylvie recounts this and tells Loki how she learned to evade the TVA by hiding out in apocalypses: "That's where I grew up, in the ends of a thousand worlds, and now that's where I'll die." Loki, in a surprising burst of thinking about someone other than himself for once, tries to console her and takes her hand. A few minutes later, as a final chunk of moon hits the planet and a wall of killer debris is coming towards them, two time doors open up behind and they jump through, back into the custody of the TVA. 

(This is important, by the way, and ties in with something that happens later, but both things are kind of glossed over. One presumes they will be tackled in the remaining episodes.)

The two are collared and separated, confined to different rooms. After some time, Hunter B-15 comes in. When Sylvie enchanted her before, she saw something. Something from a different life. She takes Sylvie back to the Roxxcart timeline, and the two of them stand in the rain as the Hunter demands that Sylvie show her her pre-TVA life. Sylvie does so, and the knowledge of who she was is reflected in every inch of the Hunter's face. We don't see any of it, but we don't need to; it's summed up by the emotions drifting across the Hunter's face and a single line of dialogue: "I looked happy." (This is a great scene, with terrific acting by both Sophie di Martino and Wunmi Mosaku.)

Mobius makes a welcome return after his absence in the previous episode, opening with him waiting to talk to Ravonna Renslayer after her audience with the Time Keepers. He wants to talk to Hunter C-20 and is stunned to find out that, according to Ravonna, she's dead. He doesn't understand: "I don't get it. She seemed okay. She seemed fine." Ravonna says the Hunter deteriorated rapidly after she came back, in an escalating barrage of excuses that wear increasingly thin as the episode goes on. 

But Mobius also has to hunt down Loki and Sylvie, and he goes down to the main TVA control room. (Apparently the reset bombs Sylvie set off in episode 2 were only a temporary thing and designed to distract the Minutemen so Sylvie could get to the Time Keepers, as the Sacred Timeline appears to have reset itself.) Abruptly, about the same time as Loki takes Sylvie's hand while they're waiting to die, there is a sudden, very red and rapidly accelerating time branch showing up on the main Sacred Timeline monitor. This is, of course, our two Variants, and they're brought back and collared. (These collars prevent them from running off and even fighting back, as neither Loki or Sylvie can physically resist what's being done to them until the collars are released at the end.) Mobius takes Loki in for interrogation, calling him an "asshole and a bad friend" along the way. Loki does manage to yell that "the TVA is lying to you" before he's shoved into a room that turns out to hold a time loop. 

The time loop scene is interesting and important, because it not only brings back the long-absent character of Sif from the Thor films, it serves to strip Loki of all his defensive layers and make some uncomfortable admissions to himself and the audience. Sif storms into the room, yelling at Loki because he's cut off a huge hunk of her hair and calling him a "pathetic worm." She then punches him in the jaw, knees him in the crotch, and knocks him to the floor while uttering the line that lays him bare: "You deserve to be alone and always will be." And she does it over and over and over, storming out the door to the left and re-entering through the door to the right, repeating her accusations and her physical assault no matter how Loki tries to talk to her or deflect her (which is also why I decided the collar was restraining him from fighting back or even doing much in the way of protecting the family jewels). All this results in the most honest moment of self-reflection we have heard from the God of Mischief yet: "I crave attention, because I'm a narcissist. I suppose it's because I'm scared of being alone." (The tenth, or the 100th, iteration of Sif listens to this confession and is silent for a moment, and we wonder if Loki's painful honesty is getting through to whatever the heck is animating her; then she snarls, "Pathetic" and exits through the same door to start the cycle again.)

After who knows how many rounds of this, Mobius comes in: "You ready to talk?" He takes Loki back to the original room where they sat in the first episode, and we see another cycle: Loki again tries to tell Mobius the TVA is lying to him, and of course Mobius doesn't believe him. So Loki launches into a bullshit story of working with Sylvie for years and not caring what happens to her. Mobius calls him on that too, saying they've already pruned her. Loki tries to control his very emotional reaction to that, but Mobius sees through that as well: "You like her! What an incredible seismic narcissist--you fell for yourself!" Finally, flustered and trying to deny that Sylvie is his girlfriend, Loki comes out with it.

"You're all Variants! Everyone who works for the TVA. The Time Keepers didn't create you. They kidnapped you from the timeline and erased your memories. Memories she [Sylvie] can access through enchantment. So before this, you had a past. Maybe you had a family, a life." Mobius still doesn't believe him and throws him back into the time loop. 

But we see in the following scenes that Loki's words did, in fact, sink in. Mobius goes to see Ravonna Renslayer to sign the paperwork and close the case, and asks again about Hunter C20. He is given more thin excuses, which he seems to accept--but when her back is turned, he snatches her TemPad from the table and replaces it with his own. After leaving her office, he goes to a quiet stack in the TVA library and turns it on (there's that lack of BIOMETRIC SECURITY again) and pulls up the last recording of the apparently truly deceased Hunter. It shows that she did indeed remember a past before the TVA and realized she was a Variant. It also shows Ravonna Renslayer coming into the frame, as evidently the final person the poor Hunter saw. 

At this, Mobius goes to get Loki, asking him if he can swear to what Sylvie saw. "So I just have to trust the word of two Lokis?" 

"How about the word of a friend?" Loki says quietly. 

The two of them leave the room to rescue Sylvie, but the jig is up...as Ravonna Renslayer is standing outside the door, with a couple of Minutemen bearing pruning sticks. "You have something of mine," she says. Mobius hands it over and tries to play dumb, but it's obvious that he knows what is about to happen. He answers the question Ravonna had posed to him earlier--"if you could go anywhere, anytime, where would you go?"--by saying (paraphrased), "I would go to wherever my life was before I joined the TVA, where maybe there was a jet ski." At that point, Ravonna knows she's busted, and orders Mobius pruned. He disappears in a golden glitter of CGI, leaving Loki gasping in grief (another marvelous acting moment from Hiddleston). 

After this, Loki and Sylvie are taken to see the Time Keepers. This scene was more than a little disappointing, because it's about the worst special effects I have seen in any Marvel property. I mean, it's evident that the three huge sorta-human monsters we see sitting on floating thrones have been set up to tip off the audience that "ERRR, NO, THESE ARE NOT REALLY ORGANIC BEINGS," but for frak's sake, couldn't they have been a little less blatant about it? Not to mention the fact that I could barely understand what they were saying, and if I hadn't had subtitles turned on, I wouldn't have been able to follow their dialogue at all. At any rate, Loki starts trying to bluster his way through his imminent execution. Suddenly the door opens to reveal Hunter B-15, who clicks a device that releases Loki and Sylvie's collars. She tosses a sword in Sylvie's direction and the fight is on. Loki eventually dispatches the two Minutemen, and Sylvie (seemingly) knocks out Ravonna. She then hurls her sword at the head Time Keeper, and lops its head right off. The head rolls down to Sylvie and Loki's feet, with a suspicious lack of blood and gore, and Sylvie picks it up to show off the truth--the Time Keepers are androids. (The other two also power down and shut off when this happens, so it's evident the central 'droid was the controller for all three.)

This resets the entire storyline, summed up by Loki's line of dialogue: "Then who created the TVA?" They are momentarily knocked off balance and confused about what to do next, and Loki (of course) decides that he just has to tell Sylvie something right now. He stammers and wavers and says this is not easy for him, he's never done this before, and the audience is meant to think that he's about to express his feelings for her (although I'm not sure this will prove to be the case). But whatever it is, he doesn't get it out--a sudden flash of pruning stick from a recovered Ravonna glitters the star of our show into nothingness. From her expression, Ravonna expects to die, but Sylvie just knocks the stick out of her hand and says, "You're going to tell me everything."

Roll credits.

But wait! There's more! A mid credits scene: a tight closeup of Loki's face, with him groaning and saying, "Is this Hel? Am I dead?" 

"Not yet," says a voice. "But you will be unless you come with us."

And the camera pulls back to reveal three (or actually four, I guess) new Loki's, with the background of a burned-out New York City skyline. There's a Loki with the classic yellow-and-green 60's Marvel costume (Classic Loki, per the credits); a Loki holding a handmade Mjolnir (Boastful Loki); a kid (Young Loki); and even a baby crocodile with a little Loki horned hat!

(And that kind of looks like the remains of the Avengers tower on the extreme right.)

Now the credits actually roll. 

Well. Since this is episode 4, it needed to do a little shaking up, and this episode certainly delivered. However, as I said, I wonder if this means the final two episodes will be overstuffed (as Loki will obviously have to go find Mobius, as well as tangle with whatever is actually behind the TVA). In any case, I'm certainly set for the ride. 

July 3, 2021

Review: The Witness for the Dead

The Witness for the Dead The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The description for this book is "The Goblin Emperor #2", which I suppose some canny PR person wrote to lure readers in, but it's more than a bit misleading. This book is not about Maia Drazhar, the protagonist of The Goblin Emperor. He is barely mentioned in this story, and we see nothing of how he is doing. Instead, the focus is on a minor character from the first book (so minor I don't even remember him), Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead.

This book is kind of difficult to review, and it was difficult to read as well. Not because stuff doesn't happen--Thara solves a couple of murders, hunts down a serial killer, and dispatches a ghoul. (He also drinks a lot of tea--tea is almost a secondary protagonist in its own right--and listens to a lot of opera.) That part is fine, and what seems to be two unrelated murder cases come together in the end (even if the resolution is a bit pat). I guess my biggest problem with this book is Thara as a character. He's not quite two-dimensional, but he is flat. Even though the book is told in the first person, there seems to be a deliberate distance between the reader and the protagonist, and Thara states flat-out that he prefers to talk to the dead rather than the living. I saw someone mention (and I'll be hanged if I can remember who it was now) that Thara is the portrait of an autistic person in a hierarchal society, and there might be something to that.

We do learn quite a bit more about the society as a whole, and there is far more magic in this book than the first. That's fine, but I would far rather have had this book live up to its billing, and be the actual sequel to The Goblin Emperor. 

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