April 14, 2021

Review: Across the Green Grass Fields

Across the Green Grass Fields Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the sixth book in the Wayward Children series, and unfortunately, it is not one of the better volumes. The series follows a standard portal-fantasy formula: children who do not fit in for whatever reason--upbringing or inclination--find a door to another world where they belong. Inevitably, this door is marked "Be Sure." They go through this door and find a world that was made for them...and when they grow up and have to return to ours, they spend the rest of their lives searching for that door again.

The formula being the same, the difference is the worlds each of these kids stumble into. It's become clear to me that the most interesting world, by far, is that of the twins Jack and Jill, and the dark, beautiful and horrifying world of the Moors. I would read a full-length book set in that world. This world, the Hooflands, is just okay. The author tries her best to work up a genuine threat to her protagonist, but she doesn't really succeed...and at the end, we learn the "threat" was just a fakeout anyway.

The Hooflands is a world made up of all the hoofed creatures of our myths and legends, from centaurs and unicorns (here, unicorns are a domesticated animal like cattle, kept for their milk and meat, the thought of which is rather icky), to fauns, kelpies and minotaurs. Our protagonist, Regan, crosses into the Hooflands and falls in with a herd of centaurs. The worldbuilding fell down a little bit here, for me, as we really don't get a good idea of what it means to be a centaur. For instance, how and what do they eat, if they have both human and equine stomachs? Horses cannot vomit and are prone to colic because of it. How about centaurs? Those kinds of basic worldbuilding questions are kind of glossed over.

There's a very Narnia-like feel to this world, especially in the final chapters when Regan is on her way to the Queen's castle and falls in with a kelpie (a carnivorous equine) and a peryton (a sort of winged skinned deer) and it turns out they both can talk. Truthfully, Gristle and Zephyr, the kelpie and the peryton respectively, were the most interesting characters of the bunch. I would rather have seen Regan spend the book with them than the centaur herd. Regan does grow throughout her five years in the Hooflands, learning that the friends she thought she had in the human world weren't friends at all, because they were trying to fit her into a rigid box of what they thought a girl should be. (Regan is intersex, and when she learns this and confides it to her human "friend," Laurel, Laurel throws a fit.) The centaurs accept Regan for who she is, and love her regardless of how different she is from them, and while that's a good lesson to learn and impart, it still feels a bit superficial. It isn't explored in any depth.

In the end, I liked this entry in the series...marginally so. It was okay, nothing more. The Moors, and the world of skeletons a character in the preceding book came from, are the more interesting destinations in this collection of portals, and I hope the author returns to them.

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April 13, 2021

Review: A Desolation Called Peace

A Desolation Called Peace A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to last year's Hugo Award-winning A Memory Called Empire, and takes the story in a different direction. The focus is on an alien invasion, with a species whose technology can kick the ruling empire Teixcalaan's ass. But the themes of colonization, cultural shock, and identity are still very much in play, along with the added complication of just what makes a person, as seen from both the viewpoint of the aliens, the Teixcalaanlitzlim (inhabitants of the Empire) and our nominal protagonist Mahit Dzmare, the Ambassador to Teixcalaan from Lsel Station.

This is a deliberately paced, dense, chewy narrative. It took me more than a week to read it, which was partly by choice--I was taking the book to work and hauling it out during my lunch and breaks--and partly because I wanted to take it slow and give myself time to absorb what is happening. This is not a quick beach read, folks. There are worldbuilding layers here, carefully planted, that need time to tease out, and characterizations that slowly unfold like the petals of the flowers the Teixcalaanlitzlim love so much. If you start this book, please don't try to rush through it. Take your time with it, and the rewards will be immense.

But I think the main ideas and themes can be summed up here, when Mahit and her partner (and lover) Three Seagrass are trying to explain to the former Teixcalaan Emperor's heir, Eight Antidote, just why they are trying to negotiate with the aliens instead of shooting at them. Mahit has been frustrated for some time, and finally lets slip some uncomfortable truths.

Dzmare interrupted her , carefully. Like a swimmer diving into water without a splash. "Because, Your Excellency, the envoy likes aliens. Likes human aliens, at least--she told me so when she met me the first time--because she, unlike some Teixcalaanlitzlim, thinks humans who aren't Teixcalaanli might be a kind of human. It's easy to get from there to thinking that aliens might be a kind of--person. Even if they aren't human persons."

"Mahit," said Three Seagrass, like she was shocked.

But the Ambassador went on. "I don't know how they talk. I know they have more languages then the ones we've learned how to say words to them in, and that at least one of those languages isn't one a human can hear. I know they don't care about death the way we do, but that they do understand death. I know that they came back to the negotiating table, after the first meeting. And that they haven't stopped attacking the Fleet, even during the negotiations. I know all that, and not much more. But I think they might be a kind of person. And if they are..."

"If they are, Your Excellency," said Three Seagrass firmly, "there is the possibility of a brokered peace before we lose too many more Fleet ships. That is all."

This is pretty much this book summed up in a nutshell, along with some spoilers that the reader won't understand until they get close to the end. It shows the beauty and horror of the Empire, that invading culture that smiles as it tries to destroy other people's way of life. It sows the seeds of explaining an alien species whose sapience is diametrically opposed to the human intelligence it is fighting, and what one human has to sacrifice to make the aliens understand what they are doing. All this is carefully set up throughout the proceeding four hundred pages, and when the war ramps up to the final confrontation, with scenes divided between our four viewpoint characters, the suspense is nearly unbearable.

This book is fantastic, building on what happened in Memory and developing both the world and characters. To take the series in another direction, expanding the story while still holding on to what came before, is a hard thing to do, but the author manages it. Don't miss this.

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April 11, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep 4, "The Whole World Is Watching"



 

This episode was quite a turnaround, thankfully. If the show had produced another stinker like last week's "Power Broker," I would have seriously considered dumping it. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. 

(And Marvel? Let this be a lesson to you. Don't let the John Wick writer anywhere near your properties from now on. Keanu Reeves is in a class by himself; Sam and Bucky don't need to be Wick-ified.)

This episode moved the plot forward quite a bit, while still allowing for the nice character-based conversations and scenes that, as far as I am concerned, should be the heart of any story. The opening scene is wonderful, in Wakanda six years ago (and thus a year before Thanos snapped away half of the Earth's population), with Bucky and Florence Kasumba's Ayo, the Dora Milaje we saw in the final scene of the previous episode. Ayo has been working on deprogramming Bucky, and here she puts her work to the test. She says Bucky's trigger words, one at a time, while he winces and cringes and waits for his Winter Soldier programming to take hold, and flashbacks to his time as the Winter Soldier flash across the screen. But nothing happens, and at the end of the scene Bucky is crying with relief. Ayo says, "You are free. You are free." 

See, this sort of thing, the character exploration and nuance, is exactly what was lacking in the previous episode. We also get good character-based scenes with Sam, who draws upon his VA counselor training to attempt to talk down Karli Morgenthau. He tells Bucky and Zemo that Karli's not wrong; after the Snap, international borders pretty much ceased to exist as immigrants were welcomed to help countries rebuild, and world governments (or whichever governments were left, I suppose), came together to manage the remaining population and keep civilization running. Then, after the world population was restored, all those people were tossed into the street. In his conversation with Karli, Sam says he understands her motivations and agrees with her fight; just not the way she's going about it. It looks like he's found common ground there, and he might very well have succeeded in stopping her...if a certain red-white-and-blue bull in a china closet hadn't charged in, which I will get to. 

(Honestly, Marvel is better off not tackling the ramifications of the Blip at all, because the more they try to do so, the murkier and more unbelievable it gets. My blogpal Steve J. Wright discusses some of those ramifications here. Frankly, someone should have set the Avengers down in Endgame and made them debate whether or not the Snap should be reversed. It's five years later and the planet/civilization is probably starting to recover; and climate change and environmental degradation, like it or not, would have been greatly mitigated by the halving of the population. It seems to me reversing the Snap is tiptoeing toward the proposition of the cure being worse than the disease. That should have been a discussion for ethicists, not superheroes.)

Zemo is back to his smarmy manipulative kinda-villain self, using a bribe of Turkish Delight (which I've never eaten, but I've heard from several different sources that it's just yucky) to talk some kids into revealing the time and place of the funeral of Karli's adoptive mother, Donya Madani, and who later, after all hell breaks loose at the end of the episode, pursues Karli and tries to kill her. She drops the world's final remaining bottles of supersoldier serum, and when Zemo realizes what they are, he stomps them into tiny shards. Bucky had said, a couple of episodes back, that while Zemo is crazy he also has a code, and that seems to be true. 

But the biggest beneficiary of this much better written episode is John Walker. In "Power Broker" he was just an asshole; here, he seems to be morphing into a tragic asshole. He's obviously in over his head, burdened with the weight of the shield and the legacy of Steve Rogers. The second best scene in the episode takes place after the Dora Milaje--Ayo and another warrior--come in and try to take Zemo and end up kicking everyone's asses (which Sam tries to tell Walker is precisely what will happen; he says, "You're better taking on Bucky than the Dora Milaje"). This includes a stunned Walker, who starts out condescending to Ayo and says after she whups him, "They weren't even supersoldiers." Wyatt Russell is doing some very good work here--indeed, the acting throughout this episode is stellar--and the bewilderment on his face is almost enough to make the viewer feel sorry for the guy, as least until you remember his oozing condescension and entitled arrogance. Anyway, going back to the previous scene where Zemo destroys the serum, Walker shows up afterwards--and finds the one remaining vial. He looks at it for a long minute and tucks it in his pocket. 

The scene I'm talking about is right after that, when Walker and Lemar are trying to recover from having their butts kicked. Walker asks Lemar straight out if he would take the serum if he had it, and Lemar says, "Hell yeah." (When Zemo posed the same question to Sam, Sam's immediate reply was "No.") Lemar justifies this by saying that (paraphrasing) "power only amplifies who you already are," and when Walker says, "And me?" Lemar notes that he's earned three Medals of Honor and "consistently makes the right decisions in the heat of battle." (An opinion that, sadly, as shown by the ending of this episode, turns out to be dead wrong.) Walker notes that day in Afghanistan that earned him those honors was "the worst day of my life," and then states the motivation for him wanting to be Captain America: "We both know the things we had to do in Afghanistan to be awarded those medals felt a long way from being right. Being Cap is the first time I've had the chance to do something that actually feels right." Lemar counters, his mind still on the serum: "God, the lives we could have saved that day if we'd had that serum." 

I rewound that scene three times to write down the dialogue, because it defined what's going on with John Walker's character. At the end of the episode and the final confrontation with Karli and her crew, Walker bursts in and you realize he's taken the serum (among other things, he hurls the shield against a wall so hard it buries itself halfway into the sheetrock, and kicks one of Karli's followers through the air and down a flight of stairs). Karli's minions kidnap Lemar and tie him up, trying to lure Walker in so she can kill him. As Walker, Sam and Bucky battle to get to where Lemar is, he pulls a hidden knife out of his uniform and cuts himself free. When Karli comes running up, ready to kill Walker, Lemar throws himself between them--and Karli's superpowered kick sends Lemar smashing back against a concrete column and breaks his neck.

Karli and her crew take off running. Walker completely loses it and chases a random follower, pursuing the poor guy into a courtyard where they're surrounded by people. Walker doesn't care; he screams, "Where is she?" The man, realizing what is about to happen, tries to protest: "It wasn't me!" But Walker raises the shield like a scythe and drives it down into his body. We don't see it actually hit; we see the fellow's hand go limp and blood splatter across the flagstones, but when Walker stands up and away and the camera focuses on the shield, the bottom third of which is drenched in blood, you realize he probably decapitated that man. And the whole thing has been filmed on the phones of all the people in the courtyard, and Sam and Bucky, arriving too late to stop Walker, stand there looking at him in horror. 

My goodness. Watching it again, this episode was riveting. That's what I mean about John Walker being turned into a tragic asshole--but make no mistake, he's still an asshole, and Sam and Bucky need to take him down.

Two episodes remaining to do it. 

April 8, 2021

Review: Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism

Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism by Seyward Darby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an important, disturbing read, chronicling as it does three white American women who get caught up in (and in some cases, throw themselves wholeheartedly into) the white nationalist movement. The first women profiled, Corinna, eventually manages to break free; the other two, Ayla and Lana, are (presumably) still there, spouting their white supremacist nonsense. What's most disturbing about the book is how mundane and in many ways normal their lives are...at least until they turn around and say something like this:

"I would love to be able to just do things around the house and feed my other creative interests and spend time with children," she [Lana] remarked. "But that's not the times that we live in, because now we're all called to say something against....this anti-white system that wants to come after our children, that wants to destroy their future."

And I'm thinking, are you kidding me? How can you believe this bullshit?

That's the power of this book, because it shows how people can be hoodwinked into believing it. A lot of it has to do with wanting to belong, finding their tribe--or what they think is their tribe--and the support they get therein, at least as long as they toe the line. Corinna, the first woman profiled, doesn't really manage to break free until she finds another community to give her what she received from the white nationalist movement--which she does when, ironically enough, she converts to Islam. The other women make various journeys to get to the dark places of white nationalism they eventually inhabit, including mommy blogging and converting to Mormonism. It's interesting to see how they twist themselves into pretzels to justify their repulsive views, in the sense of "interesting" that involves staring and shaking one's head at a train wreck.

This isn't a comfortable book to read, but in an America still infested with the aftereffects of Trumpism, it is a necessary one.

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April 4, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep 3, "Power Broker"



 

Yeah....no.

This third episode, unfortunately, is not good. It's mainly a series of strung-together prison breaks, chases, fight scenes, shootouts and explosions, apparently written by the same person who wrote the John Wick movies. Now I have no objection to any of the above in and of themselves, but when those things come at the expense (and in one case, an actual regression) of character development, then...nope. 

Let's start with the worst thing: the new Captain America, John Walker, in both of his scenes this episode, is turned into a cliched asshole. Admittedly, this possibility was shown in the last episode, especially when he snapped at Sam and Bucky to stay out of his way when they refused to work with him. But that was also part and parcel of scenes giving the character some genuine nuance. He stated he didn't know if he could live up to the weight of the name and the shield, and reassured Sam and Bucky he wasn't trying to replace Steve Rogers (although that also came with the barb of wanting to get Rogers' "wingmen" on his side). But here? When Walker and Lemar raid the same house we saw Karli and the Flag Smashers hiding out last episode and the owner not only refuses to answer questions but spits in Walker's face, he loses it completely and yells, "Do you know who I am?"

Well. Any number of responses could be made to that, including, "Did you even watch the last episode, clueless writer-dude?" But since Marvel wants to keep this fairly family-friendly, the only thing that should have been said (and wasn't; the actual line in response was, "Yes, I do, and I don't care") was, "Yes, someone pretending to be Captain America." A prime opportunity was lost there, like so many other things in this episode. Where Walker and Lemar later turn up at the prison where Sam and Bucky (mostly Bucky, since he didn't tell Sam anything about it until the plan was already underway) bust Helmut Zemo out of prison, Walker states he knows what they did and he's going to go "off the books" for this one. Which apparently means like the lazy-ass second-rate Captain America he is portrayed in this episode as being, he is going to follow Sam and Bucky around and let them do all the work before swooping in to get the glory. This writing is inconsistent and contradictory, and I don't care if this person also wrote for Keanu Reeves, the showrunners should not have let him do this. 

This fundamental misunderstanding of the characters, it seems to me, also bleeds over into the relationship between Sam and Bucky. There was some snarky pissing-match dialogue for them last time out, but their scenes together also showed some real character development. Here, their dialogue is just tiresome macho sniping, and at the worst possible moments, to boot. (Especially when they're in the middle of a shootout and Bucky complains about Sam not going to the left, and Sam shoots something back to the effect of, "It's in all the action movies," which made me roll my eyes. I mean, really? That just came off as, "HEY, LOOK AT [JOHN WICK-WRITER] MEEEEE!!!")

Helnut Zemo (who's revealed to be an actual baron! who still has all his money which hasn't been confiscated by the government after he assassinated a head of state! so Sam and Bucky get to ride around the entire episode in a private jet and/or one of the Baron's collection of  classic cars) is actually the best character in this episode, and that's mainly due to the actor, Daniel Bruhl. He makes several interesting observations, as a matter of fact, such as that Bucky fell back into being the Winter Soldier right quick (when the three of them visit Madripoor to hunt down the source of the super soldier serum). He also waxes about the perils of putting superheroes on pedestals and ignoring their flaws. These snippets of dialogue, along with Sam's bitterly noting that he should have kept Steve's shield and destroyed it rather than giving it away and letting Steve's legacy be twisted and perverted, are some deeply buried nuggets of ideas that a PROPER writer, instead of a cheesy, Mission Impossible-style knockoff, would have brought to the surface and fully explored. 

But no, instead we have this mess. Bucky comes off the best of all, which is damning with faint praise. Sam, on the other hand, falls prey to Required Plot Stupidity Syndrome. When he, Bucky and Zemo meet with Zemo's contact--and after Zemo warns them, "No matter what happens we have to stay in character; our lives depend on it"; a warning he repeats at least three times--SAM DOESN'T TURN OFF HIS FUCKING PHONE SO HE CAN BE INTERRUPTED BY HIS SISTER AT A CRUCIAL LIFE-THREATENING MOMENT. He also gets to spout such cringeworthy dialogue as, "I can't run in these heels!" (presumably high-heeled boots, to fit in with what he calls "looking like a pimp").

I swear, if I had been Anthony Mackie, I would have thrown an absolute fit. 

Karli Morgenthau is similarly cheapened as a character, again after having been given some interesting layers last episode. Someone close to her dies in this episode--either her mother or adoptive mother, although exactly who is never clarified and thus we're given no real reason to care--and she takes the Flag Smashers on another raid, stealing six months' worth of hoarded supplies from a Global Repatriation Center compound with the intent of taking them to a refugee camp. The Flag Smashers all get away with the supplies, and then Karli blows up the building with the tied-up guards inside, and gets to snarl some more cliched dialogue: "That's the only language these people will understand." Argh. Really? This, from a so-called professional screenwriter? 

This episode was incredibly disappointing. At the very end, in keeping with the show's tradition of introducing a surprise character in the final scenes, we see one of the Dora Milaje from Wakanda, who has come hunting Zemo. I hope the writer of the next episode is not the same as this one, or that character is going to be wrecked too. 

April 1, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Ep 2, "The Star-Spangled Man"

 


Two episodes in, this second Marvel series is more of the typical Marvel offering, as opposed to the metatextual weirdness of WandaVision. I think it suffers a bit in comparison, although your mileage may definitely vary on that. Having said that, this is a solid episode that moves the plot and does some good character work both for Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, and surprisingly, John Walker, the heroic, ultra-patriotic, clean-living, square-jawed Captain America replacement. And Wyatt Russell is very good in the role. 

In fact, the opening scene focuses on John Walker and does a good job of giving him some depth. He knows what the Captain America shield represents and is worried he won't be able to live up to it. As he says, "Everybody in the world expects me to be something, and I don't want to fail them." He receives a couple of pep talks, the first from a woman--maybe his wife? girlfriend?--and then his sidekick, Batttlestar. Then he goes out to a televised interview at his high school football stadium where he explains that while he's not a supersoldier, he has guts, and while he never knew Steve Rogers, he thinks of him like a brother.

At that we cut to Bucky Barnes, who is watching this with a horrified, disgusted expression. This does not sit well with him at all, as we see in the very next scene where he barges in on Sam, who is about to take off for a mission in Munich, demanding to know why Sam gave up the shield.

In fact, this is a running theme for Bucky throughout the episode: he cannot understand why Sam gave up the shield, because Steve handed it to Sam and wanted him to have it. He's wondering if Sam is the person Steve thought he was, and if Steve was wrong about Sam, then maybe (which is Bucky's real worry) Steve was wrong about Bucky, too. This revelation comes out during a well-written and acted scene of Sam and Bucky facing off in a version of "couples therapy" demanded by Bucky's therapist Dr. Raynor. The two of them sit close together, facing each other, looking into each other's eyes, and after Dr. Raynor finger-snaps them out of their little staring contest/pissing match, the two of them exchange some stark, honest truths. 

This is not the only stark truth we see in this episode: after Sam, Bucky, John Walker and Battlestar take on the Flag Smashers (who Sam realizes are supersoldiers, suddenly popping up after 80 years), Bucky says there's someone Sam should meet. He takes Sam to visit an older black man in Baltimore, who is revealed to be Isaiah Bradley, a black supersoldier he ran into in Korea seventy years before. (Which means the man's got to be in his nineties, but he's still strong enough to pick up a little metal container of something off his kitchen table and fling it across the room with such force it buries itself halfway into the wall.) Bucky tries to tell Bradley there are more people around like the two of them, and they need to find out where they're coming from and who's making them, but Bradley orders Sam and Bucky out of his house. Outside, Sam unloads on Bucky for not telling him about this man, but Bucky says he didn't even tell Steve. (I hope we see more of Isaiah Bradley. In this one brief scene, we meet a complex, troubled character, well played by Carl Lumbly, who leaves an indelible impression.)

There is some of the usual CGI'd superhero pew pew, including an (overly long) fight scene atop two semi-trucks, where the Flag Smashers are smuggling something out of Munich and kick our four heroes' collective asses. This sequence also has a wonderful moment where Bucky breaks into the back of one of the trucks and tries to free a young woman he thinks is a "hostage," only for the woman--Karli Morgenthau, the leader of the Flag Smashers--to give him a chilling, sinister smile and hurl him clear out of the back of the truck, to smash into the grill of the truck following. John Walker keeps trying to talk Sam and Bucky into working with him, and these scenes inject more than a bit of ambiguity into his character. In one, he's the humble new Captain America who's not trying to replace Steve Rogers, but later on when he pulls his shield-bearing rank to free Bucky from the police station where he was arrested for missing one of his therapy sessions and violating his parole, Walker looks every bit the entitled, clueless white ass. You can tell he wants to be Captain America, or he thinks he does, but he really doesn't understand what being Captain America means. And when Sam and Bucky refuse to work with him and walk away, he turns ugly as he says, "A word of advice. Stay the hell out of my way." 

At the end of the episode, Sam and Bucky decide that the only way to find out who is making more supersoldiers is to visit an old Hydra villain. This is Zemo, the villain from Captain America: Civil War, who we briefly glimpse in the last scene, sitting in his prison cell. 

I guess, for me, the jury's still out on this. It might be worthy, but despite the character work done here, it still seems to be a bit more of the same old-same old. It all depends on what is done with this setup. We shall see. 

March 30, 2021

Review: We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novella is a post-apocalyptic alternate history that the blurbs compare to A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Hunt for Red October. I haven't read either, although that description sounds more like something made for Hollywood. I daresay this would make a good movie, but it would definitely need a discerning, nuanced script. This story deals with faith and religion, from the viewpoint of a young person raised in an apocalyptic death cult, the vaguely Catholic, monkish Brotherhood, waiting to carry out the Last Judgment. Our protagonist, Remy, is a woman--young girl, rather; she's about thirteen or fourteen--aboard one of the last surviving nuclear submarines, the Leviathan.The Leviathan patrols the oceans twenty-three years after World War III, waiting to launch its one remaining nuclear missile. An act that the cult members are told will send them to heaven and make the sea give up the dead bodies of their comrades. (And, unfortunately, there are a lot of bodies for the sea to give up, as for the past twenty years the Leviathan has been kidnapping young boys to prop up the cult and feed into the rear section of the boat, where the nuclear reactor that powers the ship soon irradiates them.)

The most notable thing about this book is its atmosphere: it's dripping with claustrophobia and paranoia. The author has nailed the feelings and sensations of being trapped in a submarine, with the bulkheads pressing close on every side, and never seeing the sun or sky. Remy has even more to hide aboard this boat full of secrets--because no one knows she is female, with the exception of the "caplain" (the cult's term, a blending of captain and chaplain) who rescued her from the Topside, the poisoned surface world, years before. She was saved because of her beautiful singing voice, which lands her a spot with the Choristers, the young boys who sing the hymns that keep the Brotherhood on the straight and narrow.

But Remy's faith has begun to crack. Her best friend, Lazlo, was drafted for a Topsider raid, and in the process watched his fellow Brothers slaughter nearly everyone aboard the ship they boarded. He heard these people begging for their lives, saying the war was over and the surface wasn't all poisoned, and those aboard the Leviathan don't have to live the way they are living. For his doubts he is sent to the rear of the submarine, consigned to the reactor room as one of the Forgotten. Remy is deeply shaken by this, so much so she sneaks away to talk to the prisoner the caplain has brought on board ship, the woman he hopes to force to fix his last missile's broken targeting system.

This is the story of Remy's taking charge of her life and breaking the terrible shackles of the cult of the Brotherhood, and eventually leading her friends in a rebellion to escape from the submarine as it prepares to carry out the Last Judgment. I do wish the worldbuilding was fleshed out a bit more--this is a novella, of course, so we don't have room for a lot of backstory. There is a bit of necessary infodumping in the middle of the story, as the Topside prisoner explains the state of the world to Remy as best she can. (Short version: this is an alternate 1986 where the Cuban Missile Crisis led to World War III, and Australia is now the world's superpower, or what remains of the world.) The ending is also ambiguous: after Remy and six others escape from the submarine as it goes down, they are afloat on a life raft, waiting for rescue. The implication is that they will be rescued, but we just don't know.

Nevertheless, this is a well-paced story, an exploration of faith (and even at the end, Remy still seems to have faith, even though she's now free of the cult). I hope there is a sequel. Exploring what happens to these characters in the new world they have been abruptly thrust into would be fascinating.

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March 23, 2021

Review: The Doors of Eden

The Doors of Eden The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book comes across as a bit of an old-fashioned throwback, to the days when ideas were the engine of story. It's stuffed full of ideas: deep time, the multiverse, alternate history, alternate worlds, parallel evolution, dimension-hopping Neanderthals, and a journey aboard a living spaceship back to the very first Earth, where an alien intelligence that evolved during the first life-bearing epoch in Earth's history (the Ediacaran, 565 million years ago) awoke and became a god.

Needless to say, it's a doorstopper. Fortunately, I bought the paperback, which still comes in at nearly 600 pages. If there was a hardback edition, I imagine one could use it to pound nails.

Books like this definitely need some engaging characters, and for the most part this book delivers. I don't think the characterization is outstanding--I would have liked for some of the Neanderthals to have POV chapters--but the characters are likable and have some depth, especially the nominal protagonists, Lee and Mal. One thing that's evident in the prose style is that the author is British. I knew that before I even looked at the short bio in the back, as this book is full of that dry, deadpan, stiff-upper-lip British humor. For instance, on the very first page:

Mal was short for Elsinore Mallory, because her parents came from came from a particular social stratum where that was perfectly acceptable. However, she never forgave them for it.

This book has multiple points of view, but there's also a hint of an omniscient POV running in the background. This has the feel of the author standing back, just a hair, and weaving a bit of his own commentary throughout the narrative. This becomes a more evident at the end, when the villain (as smarmy, arrogant villains who just have to talk tend to do) reveals his motivation.

At the climax of the book, the characters come to the conclusion that the only way to save the multiverse from collapsing is not to isolate each individual timeline, but blend it--overlap the individual Earths to an extent, with permanent links between all of them. This will provide the scaffolding, as it were, to prop up the multiverse. Unfortunately, the antagonist, the aforementioned smarmy, arrogant billionaire who has been trying to exploit the multiple Earths, objects.

"The plan," Rove said, "is to preserve our world, Mr. Sabreur. Our world--as it should be preserved. To save our institutions, customs and way of life. Not to live in a world where the unspeakable is around every corner. And I'd have thought you'd agree. Do you really want to live in the world they're proposing?"

"Not really," Julian admitted. "Sounds like the lesser of two evils, though, compared to annihilation."

"But they can make it work!" Rove spat. "I've seen the maths. Until this latest nonsense from Khan, they were perfectly happy to keep trying, too. Mr. Sabreur, look at who you're standing with here. Not your sort of people, not at all. You can't just let them waltz in." He indicated the Cousins [the Neanderthals], Ertil, Cam [other intelligent species from different timelines]...but his gesture might have taken in Khan [a trans woman], Lee and Mal [a lesbian couple] too. And to Lee's amazement, Rove's voice trembled a little, a genuine mote of sentiment making itself known. "They're stronger than us, Sabreur. They'd make us their slaves, destroy us, colonize us."


This sort of xenophobia could apply to a lot of current situations in Adrian Tchaikovsky's country and mine. (Or at least in my case, until Donald Trump's ass was booted out. Unfortunately for the UK, Boris Johnson is still there.) But this book was written in the context of Brexit, and I can't help but think (though again, to be clear, this is only my speculation, and nothing I have read the author actually saying) that this character of Rove and his motivation, and the way he is defeated in the end, is the author's big middle finger to the people of Britain who voted for Brexit. The solution to the universe-spanning problem in this book is cooperation, not isolation; and sharing, not selfishness. As the book ends, the blended multiverse is opening up countless new possibilities for the people of Earth, and indeed the sapient inhabitants of all the Earths--possibilities that will, in the end, make life richer and better for all of them.

That's the final Big Idea of a story built on such, and it ties all the other ideas together in a pretty impressive bow. I'm sure some people will complain about this book's length and heft. But ideas like these demand a story this size, and if you give it a chance, you will be rewarded.

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March 20, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 1, "New World Order"

 


This is Marvel's second streaming series, following on the heels of WandaVision. Right from the get-go, we see this is going to be a more typical Marvel storyline. We have a short scene where Sam Wilson is dressing up as if for a funeral, picking up Steve Rogers's shield while snippets of dialogue from Avengers: Endgame play in the background.

Steve: How does it feel?

Sam: Like it's someone else's.

Steve: It isn't.

Sam hasn't taken up the Captain America mantle like Steve wanted him to, and we can see he's torn about it. Then we shift to a jarring helicopter rescue scene that turns into a CGI hurlyburly pow-pow, which seems to be there for the sole purpose of jumping up and down and proclaiming, "OH HAI THIS IS A MARVEL STUDIOS/DISNEY PLUS PRODUCTION AND WE MUST SHOW OFF OUR HIGH BUDGET SUPERHERO TRICKS." Sam jumps/falls out of planes and helicopters, gets shot at, dodges missiles, shoots back, swoops into helicopters midair and gets into nauseatingly fast-cut fisticuffs with the bad guy, dives down a canyon with the tips of his wings scraping against rock, and spins and twirls in the air, all in service of snatching some guy before the helicopter crosses the Libyan border.

It's boring, and we've seen it all before. The CGI is also a bit dodgy in places--the results of doing special effects over Zoom and at home? At any rate, I rolled my eyes and wished I had an edit button to chop this right on out. It only lasted ten minutes, thankfully, and then we got into the meat of the episode: "What happened to Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes after Endgame?

Sam's been working for the Air Force for the past six months, and working with his sister Sarah in Louisiana, trying to salvage the family fishing and shrimpboat business. Fortunately, the episode pays more attention to the latter. It's really nice to have a look at what turns into some complicated family dynamics: Sarah kept the fishing business afloat as best she could while Sam was Blipped out of existence, and she rather resents him barging in after five years and trying to take over, despite his protestations that he only wants to help. This comes to a head during a scene at the local bank, where Sam and Sarah try to take out a consolidation loan. Despite Sam's fame--and the extremely off-putting sight of the white banker fanboy asking him for a selfie "with arms spread"--they are turned down. Of course, both Sam and Sarah know why that is, and so does the viewer. 

Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes is having his own post-Blip and PTSD problems, which take the form of nightmares about his Winter Soldier days. In one nightmare in particular, he assassinates some Russian higher-up, and then kills a poor Asian guy who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnessed the kill. There follows a long scene with Bucky's court-appointed psychiatrist, a no-nonsense older woman who does not take one iota of Bucky's shit. These sessions are a condition of his pardon, and he also has an "amends list" he is working on--in the case shown, a woman put in power by Bucky's work with Hydra, who he then proceeds to bust. The psychiatrist (I didn't write it down, but I think her name was Dr. Naylor) tells Bucky he needs to learn to trust people, and he really is very fortunate: he has his mind back. She reminds him, "you're free." Bucky objects: "To do what?" 

After the session, he meets an older Asian man, Yori Nakasima, for lunch. This has apparently been happening for some time. Unfortunately, we soon learn Mr. Nakasima is on Bucky's "amends list," and is the father of the man he killed. Obviously, this is going to come out sooner or later, and it's not going to be good. (Mr. Nakasima more or less bullies Bucky into asking the waitress where they are eating for lunch out on a date, which goes about as well as you'd expect.) Bucky still has to meet up with Sam, which I presume will happen in the next episode or two.

Earlier, in a continuation of the opening scene, Sam had turned Steve Rogers' shield over to the Smithsonian Institution. During this sequence, Steve is spoken of in the past tense, and Sam says, "He's gone," so I think it's probably safe to assume that Steve Rogers is dead. (Which would only make sense, as Steve and Bucky were contemporaries, and Bucky is specifically established as being a hundred and six. When Chris Evans reappeared [as if in a poof of magic--seriously, how did that happen?] at the end of Avengers: Endgame, he was buried under a ton of centenarian latex. There's also an unexpected cameo from Don Cheadle as War Machine, discussing the post-Blip world: it's broken and needs somebody to fix it.) Later, on his parents' boat in Louisiana, Sarah tells Sam "you'd better look at this." 

The last scene in the episode is a press conference announcing that the United States of America has a new hero--and this turns out to be (and y'all saw this coming, right?) a new Captain America: a bright, white, square-jawed Captain America. (This is Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and he definitely has his father's prominent chin.) Sam closes his eyes and doesn't say a word, but the betrayal is written all over his face. 

There's some other odds and ends, mainly an establishing of what I think the series' antagonist is going to be: a group called the Flag Smashers, who think "the world was better off during the Blip." But the main focus (aside from the idiotic ten-minute CGI pow-pow) is on character work for Sam and Bucky, which I for one was glad to see. (I'm finding that the older I get, the less I like explosions and the more I like characters, which is one reason I'm quite fond of the first season of Star Trek: Picard.) This limited series is only supposed to be six episodes, and both its stars clearly have a lot of things to work out. I hope the show gives them the space to do it. 


March 19, 2021

Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 2: Once Bitten

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 2: Once Bitten Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 2: Once Bitten by Jordie Bellaire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given all the nastiness that's emerged about Joss Whedon, I'm glad another writer (Jordie Bellaire) has taken over this reimagining of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This update--the same characters, slightly altered, with cell phones and Willow starting out as an out lesbian--seems to be giving the franchise a bit of fresh air.

Having said that, I don't think the new writer has found her stride yet. I particularly liked Chapter Seven, an issue concentrating on Willow and her struggling to cope after giving away half her soul to prevent Xander from becoming a full-blown vampire (see, I told you the characters were altered)--but at the same time, that storyline, to my mind, was not given the space and seriousness it deserved. In fact, by the time I got to the end of this volume, it seemed to be dropped or forgotten. Season Seven's Robin shows up here as a Sunnydale teenager secretly working for the Watchers' Council and trying to get close to Buffy. Spike, while he is present, is sadly neglected, and Angel isn't in this volume at all. Overall this story came across as muddled and I couldn't figure out where it was headed.

As far as the art goes, this artist is okay, but he isn't as good as the first. I don't demand my comic book characters look exactly like their actors, but Buffy, Xander and Giles, as drawn here, are well nigh unrecognizable. This artist also really likes his pop-out eyes, which started to get on my nerves after awhile.

So: I don't regret getting the first two volumes of this, but I'm not sure I'll continue.

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