October 6, 2022

Review: The Me You Love In The Dark

The Me You Love In The Dark The Me You Love In The Dark by Skottie Young
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This graphic novel had some good intentions, but it really didn't fulfill them. I think the main reason for this is that it was only 5 issues long. A domestic violence/abuse story such as this one, especially with a supernatural element, needed more room to breathe and tell its story.

Rowena Meadows is an artist trying to come up with enough paintings for her next show, and she is stuck. She leaves home to rent a new house (a three-story Victorian) that she hopes will jump-start her muse. The house is rumored to be haunted, but she rents it anyway....and sure enough, the ghost (portrayed as a white skeleton and spinal cord floating in the background) is there and begins to observe her.

The domestic violence portion of the plot takes off from there, with the ghost being able to actually speak to Rowena in the second issue (I think because she's trying to paint the ghost and works some magic through her paintings to give it more physical substance). They draw closer, but the ghost is also starting to be possessive and keep her in the house, literally in the dark with the curtains drawn.

All well and good, but in issue 4 the ghost's abusive turn happens, and it's so sudden it doesn't land with the weight it should have. This book really needed one or two more issues to bring its story home. As it is, the final two issues detail Rowena's struggle to get away (the ghost ends up killing someone and she has to burn the house down to stop it). The art is okay, but the story is a bit lacking. It was a noble effort, but it kind of fizzled out.

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October 2, 2022

Review: Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films

Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book surprised me, as it took an angle I didn't expect at all. Although the subtitle "The Science of Horror Films" should have been a tip-off, I still didn't expect the narrative presented here. Maybe because the very idea of juxtaposing "science" with "horror film" is so unusual I didn't think the author would follow through with it.

But follow through she did. In this book, you will learn more than you ever thought could be said about different brain regions and how the body and mind react to various stimuli: fear, terror, disgust. As the title suggests, it is very heavy on the science, referencing many studies (all documented in the endnotes, although the book really could have used an index). The horror films discussed definitely take second place, mentioned only for how they are used to reveal the science of how they affect us.

If you came to this book for the films, you will be disappointed. (Although chapter 2, "A Brief History of Horror," does do a fascinating dissection of the various horror "waves" and how they were reflecting the state of human society at the time.) But if you go into it knowing its focus will be on scientific research, you will be rewarded with some really interesting insights. And the extensive list at the end of all the movies the author watched to write this book should inspire horror aficionados to search for films they have possibly never heard of.

Books like this, with such a different, unexpected slant, don't come along too often. Recommended.

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September 27, 2022

Review: Be the Serpent

Be the Serpent Be the Serpent by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 16th book in the long-running urban fantasy series (and one of the few urban fantasy series remaining) and as she does every four books or so, the author severely shakes up the plot and world. This story sets off shockwaves that I think are equaled only by The Winter Long, book #8. Faerie is not going to be the same going forward, and neither is Toby.

(And just as a question: How on earth does Seanan McGuire keep track of all the plot bombs she is going to set off throughout the series? Does she have a huge marked-up whiteboard on the wall? It takes a great deal of confidence and/or hubris to plant seeds several books back that will only come to fruition, say, ten or twelve books down the line, and assuming/hoping the series will sell well enough that your bomb will actually be able to go off.)

In this case, the particular plot bomb that explodes sky-high has to do with the deep history of Faerie. The timeline is (briefly) shown clear back to Faerie's creation, and Oberon, Titania and Maeve's emergence. This has more of an SF edge and connotation than I'd expected, and I hope (and expect, from all the hints around the sudden re-emergence of Seers) that we will be able to revisit it. This book also sets up the long game of the other vanished Queen and the sacrifice she had to make, and the threat hidden in the basic fabric of Faerie itself.

On a more personal level, Toby (view spoiler) a surprise that is revealed in the very last pages of the book, right before a cliffhanger that had me wailing and gnashing my teeth. The author doesn't do cliffhangers of this sort often, fortunately, because when she does they grab you by the throat. We also get a bonus novella told from the viewpoint of the Luidaeg, revealing the moment centuries ago when her terrible geas was laid on her. This didn't really advance the overall storyline, but it was nice to have as a character study of one of my favorite series people.

Sixteen books in, this series is as strong as ever. You definitely don't want to start with this book--the author does a good job of bringing us up to speed in a couple of pages, but nevertheless a great deal of what's going on won't make sense if you haven't read at least the past few books. I don't know how long the series is planned to last, but it seems McGuire is gearing up for the endgame.

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September 25, 2022

Review: Once & Future, Vol. 4: Monarchies in the UK

Once & Future, Vol. 4: Monarchies in the UK Once & Future, Vol. 4: Monarchies in the UK by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the latest volume in the ongoing series of Monster Hunters (as opposed to "Monarchies," I guess--heh heh) in the UK, where the timeless tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table come to life in a monstrous, gory, undead fashion. Our protagonists, the badass manipulative grandmother Bridgette, Duncan, her hapless and until just recently kept in the dark grandson, and his girlfriend Rose have all been dragged into the Otherworld--a very bloody and nasty version of Faerie--along with the entire country.

Here, stories live and are as likely to chomp your head off as inspire you, and William Shakespeare managed to capture Beowulf inside the pages of a spell rather than letting it rampage through the countryside. Bridgette, Duncan and Rose are trying their best to survive, and also save all the people residing in Bridgette's care home, while Undead Zombie Arthur and Merlin are preparing for their own fight against the pretend King, the challenger Lancelot. The world is expanded a bit, incorporating pieces of other mythologies like the Greek Gorgons (and at the end, Robin Hood, who Bridgette frees to fight both Arthurs).

One thing I wish is that the family drama of the first volume was followed up on in this one. We still don't know what Bridgette and her daughter Mary's (Duncan's mother) issues are. Also, Rose is pretty much overlooked here, aside from her insisting on going to Bath to find her parents. Having said that, the consistency in the artwork, with artist Dan Mora and colorist Tamra Bonvillain, continues in this volume. The panels are again well placed and thought out and the colors vibrant. The pages look terrific. This story is a bit of a setup for the final volume (which I have pre-ordered) but it also stands well enough on its own.

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September 23, 2022

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Becky Chambers has made a very successful career for herself by writing what are basically warm, fuzzy comfort reads. There are no Big Bads or world-shattering stakes in her stories. She concentrates on the characters and their interactions, and the plots, what there are of them, are usually aimless and rather meandering. For that reason, I like her at shorter lengths. I've read some of her novels, but the novellas (this book is only 152 pages) seems to me to be her sweet spot.

This is the second Monk & Robot novella, and I like them both more than anything else I've read by her. They are set on the inhabited moon Panga, a terraformed world of a gas giant that was apparently settled by Earth and abandoned centuries before. The human settlers have undergone an environmental awakening of sorts, as their culture and society is built around sustainability rather than growth, and their so-called "Factory Age" is behind them. This "Awakening" also applies to the robots who once worked in said factories, who simultaneously, or nearly so, Awakened to sentience and walked off into the wilderness of Panga, never to return. Until in the previous book the tea monk Sibling Dex, reaching a point of being unsettled with their life, took off into the same wilderness and ran across the robot Mosscap, who stated it wanted to visit human settlements and ask a question: "What do humans need?"

This book is the story of Dex and Mosscap touring the towns and villages of Panga and asking the people they meet that question, and what each of them discovers along the way. Both Dex and Mosscap's characters undergo some satisfying evolution, as each grapples with existential, philosophical life decisions. Mosscap realizes it can never get a complete answer to its question, and the very fact of venturing into the human world to ask it has fundamentally changed it from the rest of its brethren. Dex comes to understand they maybe don't want to be a traveling tea monk anymore, although they're not sure what they want to do next. But whatever new paths each of them may take, they want to do it together.

This is a kind, gentle, thoughtful story. It also has a few instances of laugh-out-loud humor (such as when Dex hooks up with someone at one of the villages they visit and Mosscap greets them the next morning with a hearty "Good morning, Sibling Dex! Congratulations on having sex last night"), and one can't help but be caught up in Mosscap's childlike enthusiasm over all its new experiences. The story doesn't so much end as fade away, like the last scene in a movie, with the knowledge that these two are going to continue their travels out of our sight. I much prefer these shorter stories from Chambers, and I hope she keeps writing them.

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September 18, 2022

Review: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is going to be rather long, and the reason is this:

See all the bookmarks at the top? That's the bits of paper I tore up and stuck in the pages, marking passages I wanted to go back to. I don't usually do that with books, but this story is an accomplishment of the highest order, and the best book I have read this year. I wanted to be able to explain why.

This book is a brutal, detailed, layered examination of both academie and British colonialism, set in a 19th-century alternate history with one crucial difference: the metal silver, when cast into bars and engraved with similar words from different languages, has been discovered to have magical properties. Use the right words in translation and a specific magical effect will be produced. This singular diversion from "our" history has utterly transformed both British society, global capitalism, and England's colonization of other countries, and not for the better (not that it was good to start with, but now it's worse). Silver-working props up Britain's entire economy and way of life, and the powers that be will kill to preserve it.

(In other reviews, I've seen people complaining that such a thing would have altered world history far beyond the indicated timeline, and ordinarily I would agree. However, after thinking about it, I believe in this world this was a relatively recent discovery, say within a century or two of the book's setting in the 1830's. Of course the English, realizing its potential, jumped right on it to make use of and expand their rapacious colonization and exploitation of other countries.)

The center of British silver-working is the titular tower of Babel in the city of Oxford. Because languages blend and drift over time and the effect of "match-pairs" is gradually reduced, a steady infusion of new languages and translators is needed. Cue the first and primary protagonist of our four main characters, Robin Swift, a Chinese boy brought to England at the age of ten. His biological father, Richard Lowell, one of Babel's professors, believe Chinese will be Babel's language of the future. After the death of his mother, Robin is integrated into Professor Lowell's household, given an education, and expected to go to Babel to put his Chinese translation skills to use for the British Empire.

(Thinking about this setup after I finished the book, I came away with the unpleasant conclusion, especially after Robin's older half-brother Griffin was introduced, that Professor Lowell made a habit of this sort of thing. Visit China, seduce a young Chinese girl, and sire a child on her to provide a steady stream of Chinese translators he could then bring back to England. He didn't care in the least about these kids as human beings, as was made evident by the fact that the first thing he does is insist Robin choose an English name and forego his Chinese one. We never hear it and don't know what it is, and in this way the erasure of Robin's heritage and culture starts immediately.)

Robin grows up and dutifully goes to Babel, where we then meet the other three primary characters: Victoire, a Black woman from Haiti; Ramy, a brown man from Calcutta, India; and Letty, a white British woman who was accepted into the Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel, only after the death of her older brother Lincoln. I mention the ethnicities of these characters because they are vital to the plot. In addition to colonization, this book drills down into the intersections of racism, white supremacy and sexism, and this is reflected in the character arcs of all four protagonists. But the main themes of the book are the twin cancers of white supremacy and capitalism, and how the British and Europeans use them to oppress the rest of the world to the point where, as the book's title suggests, 'the necessity of violence' arises to throw them off.

At the beginning, Robin is naive and conflict-averse. He loves what he is doing at Babel and is reluctant to give up his translator's creature comforts. Even though he meets his older half brother Griffin and for a time is roped into supplying silver bars and manuscripts for Griffin's underground Hermes Society, he is torn between the memory of China and the life he has at Babel. It's not until more than halfway through the book, four years into Robin's studies at Babel, when he returns to his home city of Canton in China to negotiate a truce between the Chinese emperor and the British corporations wanting to open up more trade, that the scales fall from his eyes. The British, led by Professor Lowell and others, intend to use this incident to declare a full-scale war on China....a war that, thanks to the advantages silver-working has given their armed forces, they intend to win.

From then on Robin and his three friends are irrevocably drawn into the revolution. There is considerable grief, guilt and pain for all of them, and this being an R.F. Kuang novel (as you know if you've read any books in the Poppy War trilogy) the author is unsparing as to the consequences of her characters' actions. For this book that means most of the characters will be killed off. Kuang does not write uplifting books or happy endings, so if you're not in the mood for grimness you might want to skip this one.

But I hope you won't, because it's so good, and so beautifully written. For instance (flipping to one of my bookmarks) this is how Robin describes his work:

I think translation can be much harder than original composition in many ways. The poet is free to say whatever he likes, you see--he can choose from any number of linguistic tricks in the language he's composing in. Word choice, word order, sound--they all matter, and without any one of them the whole thing falls apart. That's why Shelley writes that translating poetry is about as wise as casting a violet into a crucible. So the translator needs to be translator, literary critic, and poet all at once--he must read the original well enough to understand all the machinery at play, to convey its meaning with as much accuracy as possible, then rearrange the translated meaning into an aesthetically pleasing structure in the target language that, by his judgment, matches the original. The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.

And when Robin returns to Oxford after his epiphany and realizes what his life there always was:

But the dream was shattered. That dream had always been founded on a lie. None of them had ever stood a chance of truly belonging here, for Oxford wanted only one kind of scholar, the kind born and bred to cycle through posts of power it had created for itself. Everyone else it chewed up and discarded. These towering edifices were built with coin from the sale of slaves, and the silver that kept them running came blood-stained from the mines of Potosi. It was smelted in choking forges where native labourers were paid a pittance, before making its way on ships across the Atlantic to where it was shaped by translators ripped from their countries, stolen to this faraway land and never truly allowed to go home.

Kuang sets a lot of plates spinning for this book, and she keeps all of them in the air until the end. As I said, it's not a happy ending, but it's the only ending that could be written. She was nominated for a great many awards for the Poppy War trilogy, but damn....this book is even better. If it were up to me, I would give her all the awards.

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September 17, 2022

"Make It Like Me"

This is the perfect answer to all the white-fragility whining over the Black Ariel in Disney's live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid."

Miles Vorkosigan (in a comment on Adam-Troy Castro's Facebook page--scroll down almost to the bottom)
Cue "Under the Sea"....

The Jealousy's always greener
When you've always had your way
The casting for Little Mermaid
Has people in disarray
For Disney's had the audacity
To do something we insist
Defies the innate caucasity
Of creatures who don't exist!

Looking like ME!
Looking like ME!
That's how the white folks and the alt-right folks
Say it should be!
All mermaids must be white as snow
As our made-up evidence gonna show!
It's not what her race is
Just that her place is looking like ME!

Her tail is still green and scaly
She still has the same hard choice
But making her Halle Bailey
Is taking away MY voice!
Now every proud Paul and Peter
Don't like her inclusive hue
We gonna boycott the theater
And hold our breath till we're blue!

Cater to ME!
She must look like ME!
Because if you don't, then maybe I won't
Buy your DVD!
It's all your fault I got the notion
To go ethnic-cleansing the ocean!
Don't you be carryin' any non-Aryan diversity!
Make her like me
We want adhesion to simple reason
Naturally! (Naturally!)
And to really make us bitch
You'll have a drag queen playing the witch!
Don't mock my frail face! Give her a pale face, ASAP!

The Aryan Guard
Is taking it hard
The new KKK
Is crying away
The white-by-default
are planning assault
On Twitter, they're bitter and pale!
The Bijou Beckys
Are pain-in-the neckies
The Cinema Sallies
Holding hate rallies
The film-critic Flynns
Are flipping their fins
And, oh, those Incels WAIL!

So make 'em like ME! (Make 'em like me)
Always like ME (Nothing but me)
If Idris Elba plays William Tell, be wary of me
If your shows pass the Bechdel test
I'll be fomenting civil unrest
Don't call me racist! You're a disgrace, it's all about ME!
Whites are so groovy! Make every movie all about ME!
I'll feel excluded if it's not duded
I'm in a rage unless it's Caucasian
It can't be better-o, unless it's hetero

September 10, 2022

Review: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had a bit of a run of modern retellings of older stories lately, and this is another one. This updating of H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau adds the titular daughter, Carlota, and expands on the themes of meddling with nature by making the hybrids layered, relatable characters in their own right.

Of course, the "science" in this story is hand-wavey to say the least, as we are talking about genetic engineering (and embryo transfers into a pig's womb) that is far beyond our reach, even now. However, that isn't the point of this story. The author uses the skeleton of Wells' tale to comment on imperialism, colonialism and sexism, as Doctor Moreau's wealthy benefactor, Hernando Lizalde, is paying him to mass-produce hybrids to use on his sugar cane plantation. Our two viewpoint characters, Carlota Moreau and the manager of the Moreau estate, Montgomery Laughton, alternate chapters.

This is very much in the gothic tradition, with its lush setting, atmosphere, prose and emotional impact. Carlota Moreau discovers she is not as human as she thought, and she breaks her father's chains and comes to know her own strength. She realizes who her true family is (the hybrids) and chooses them in the end. For his part, Montgomery severs at least some of his ties to his own tragic past, and extricates himself (for the most part) from the morass of alcoholic self-pity he was wallowing in. The pacing sometimes seems slow and deliberate, a gradual, careful building of the story and themes, but the payoff is worth it.

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September 7, 2022

Review: A Spark of White Fire

A Spark of White Fire A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is based on the Mahabharata and other Indian (as in the continent) texts. I've classified it as "science fantasy" because that's exactly what it is: some trappings of science fiction with a whole lot of high fantasy buttercream frosting layered on top. We have celestial realms, gods and goddesses (although they reminded me of Star Trek's mercurial, capricious Q more than anything else), castles built on space stations, sentient warships, and a supremely dysfunctional family that seems to be hellbent on destroying one another.

Esmae is our protagonist, the long lost daughter of the King of Kali, who was sent away (actually cast into deep space in a pod with the expectation that she would never be found) because of a prophecy that she would bring her family to ruin. Seventeen years later, having grown up on the spaceship kingdom of Wychstar, she enters an archery competition (and I use "enter" very loosely--she simply walks up to the target after everyone else has already shot and shoots the remaining arrow squarely into it before anyone can stop her) to win the sentient warship Titania. Everyone expects that Alexi Rey, the golden boy who is the banished prince of another spaceship kingdom, Kali, will triumph. But Esmae beats him at his own game--and in the process reveals she is his long-lost twin sister Alexa.

The King of Kali gives the final decision of who would possess her to Titania herself, and the ship chooses Esmae. So Esmae goes to Kali and takes her place as a princess and possible heir to the throne. Of course, she has an ulterior motive: she hates the current ruling King, her uncle who she believes wrongfully took the throne from her late father and Alexi, and she plans to bring him down from within.

This story is rife with politics, competing factions, and court intrigue, and Esmae gradually realizes things are not as straightforward and black and white as she always thought. She is torn between her brother and her uncle, as well as her uncle's adopted son and heir, Max. (There is a bit of romance, but it's understated and not the main thrust of the story, which is refreshing.) As time goes on, her feelings of hatred and the certainly of her revenge begin to wane. Nothing is as it first seemed, and Esmae is torn between conflicting loyalties.

This story is extremely well written with excellent characterization, and while the combining of SF and fantasy might sound a little odd, for the most part the author pulls it off. I ripped through this book and will certainly go looking for the rest of the trilogy.

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September 3, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power


A while back, Jeff Bezos flew his golden airplane over the Tolkien estate and dropped an atomic money bomb on it. 

This show, in its first season, is the most expensive program ever made, a title I imagine it will hold nigh on to forever (especially since the second season is filming in England instead of New Zealand). Like a great many other people, I watched the first two episodes.....and I have Thoughts.

First of all, I want to say that the outdoor shots were gorgeous. Especially in the first episode, the natural beauty of the New Zealand landscape was in full view, and it stakes a claim as the loveliest place on planet Earth. However, the expense of this show is not in its landscapes but rather in its special effects and CGI, which is unavoidable given the epic scope of the story they're trying to tell. Along that line, as an experiment, I went back and re-watched a couple of the most CGI-heavy episodes of Netflix's The Sandman, which I think stacks right alongside The Rings of Power in terms of creating worlds that never were. Specifically, episode 4, "A Hope in Hell," where the King of Dreams pays a visit to the titular realm, and the finale, "Lost Hearts." Now, the CGI in the first two episodes of The Rings of Power is very good--spectacular in episode 1 with the snow-troll battle, and episode 2 showing the dwarven city inside of Khazad-dum--but it's not half a billion dollars better than The Sandman, or even HBO's Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon. I'm sure The Rings of Power will at some point have a Helms Deep-like battle, and House of the Dragon will join in with its own "Battle of the Bastards" or "Hardhome," which The Sandman won't attempt. So in that instance it's not a fair comparison. Still, the point stands. 

Given that, how about the pacing and the characters? Episode 1 of The Rings of Power had a lot to do in terms of setting up the backstory and characters, and it unfortunately groaned and creaked throughout. To be fair, it's pretty damn hard to reduce the entire history of the elves and their war with Morgoth and Sauron to a few sentences. Nevertheless, it wasn't until episode 2 that the various storylines started taking off. As far as the characters go, even though it seems like the young Galadriel is being set up to be the (sort of) protagonist, she's nowhere near the most compelling character. That honor goes squarely to Nori Brandyfoot, with Elrond a close second. (In fact, Elrond's busting rocks against Durin was my favorite part of episode 2.) Now, with the reappearance of the Orcs and the mystery of who that guy is in the comet that fell to Middle-earth, it feels like we're starting to get somewhere. 

With as huge a cast and as sprawling a storyline as The Rings of Power is supposed to have, they're not going to have an easy time keeping it reined in. House of the Dragon and The Sandman (my two points of comparison) aren't going to have those issues, I don't think. And while Jeff Bezos and Amazon Studios certainly have the billion dollars plus to throw at the show, I for one would much rather have had some of that diverted into making three more seasons of The Expanse, or another season or two of Paper Girls. Sometimes, bigger isn't better.