March 23, 2019

Review: The Light Brigade

The Light Brigade The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Kameron Hurley, and I loved her last book, The Stars Are Legion. This book is very different: bloody, gory, twisty, chewy, and mindfuck-y as all get out. It's something only Kameron Hurley could write, and she pulls it off with aplomb.

It's also bleak and depressing, except for the ending. This is a post climate change world, with no governments or countries, just warring corporations. Society is based on the corporation's bottom line, which means citizenship has to be earned, along with basic human rights like food, shelter and medical care. (Among other things, this is an interrogation and rebuke of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, as Hurley demonstrates the horrors to which that book's philosophy would inevitably lead.) Dietz (no first name or gender until well along in the book) is a "grunt" that has signed up for military service in the Corporation Corps, after the defining event in her world's history known as the Blink. "The Blink" is the destruction of her hometown, Sao Paulo, by the Mars colonists (or that's what the people are told, anyway), using the matter transport technology that powers so much of this story. (Hurley handwaves this a bit, not providing any real explanation for it, but the impression I get is that it's as ubiquitous in this future as Wi-Fi: always hovering in the background, waiting for someone to be jacked in.) She wants to be on the side of the "good guys" fighting for those she lost in Sao Paulo, including her brother and lover.

But once she finishes basic training (which is of itself a horrorshow, as Hurley aptly shows how her world's military turns people into robotic killers who follow orders) and begins going on her "drops," broken down into energy, riding a wave of light to her destination, and then reassembled, the story begins to turn itself inside out. Dietz's drops become progressively more jumbled and out of sequence, and she realizes she is moving forwards and backwards in time, caught in a loop where she is reliving the war over and over, from different vantage points along the sequence. She sees people die, sometimes blown up right in front of her, and returns earlier in the timeline to find them still alive. This is a masterclass in plotting--it could have been confusing as all hell, but I could pretty much follow the jumps, discovering where and when I was along with Dietz. Along with this, Dietz slowly begins to discover how much her corporation has been lying to her, and how the entire war is based on that lie. At first she tries to object, but then realizes there is no escape from this endless loop save by burning it all down--and at the end, this is exactly what she does.

This book is dense and chewy, and gives you a lot to think about. It is also very political, although those discussions are mainly left for certain chapters where end-timeline Dietz is being interrogated as a Mars POW. But those aren't just thrown in to push a message--they sum up Dietz's thinking, show how she broke free of the corporate and military propaganda she has been fed all her life, and provide her motivation. The book ends with her going back to the very beginning of the loop, the beginning of her endless war, freeing her friends and family in Sao Paulo, and riding the beam of light along with them to a different, better future.

This is one helluva ride. It's not a story to be rushed through. It's not a comfortable read by any means, but I think in the times in which we are living, it is a necessary one.

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March 22, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery, S2 Ep 10, "The Red Angel"

Hoo boy. This episode demonstrates what has become the modus operandi of this season of Discovery: over-the-top, overstuffed, convoluted, unnecessary plot twists, and plot holes big enough to warp a starship through, balanced out with stellar character moments. Spoilers ahoy, after the picture.

(I've used another image of Philippa Georgiou, because as usual, Michelle Yeoh damn near salvaged the whole thing all by herself.)

We open with Airiam's funeral, which would have been more emotionally resonant if we just hadn't gotten to know her before she got offed. This included the first of two great Saru scenes, as the Kelpien sang Airiam to her rest as her coffin was catapulted into space. (Was that really Doug Jones singing? If so, hell, what can't that man do?) Then we have a round-robin scene of discussion about the Section 31 rogue AI and the Red Angel, interrupted by Ensign Tilly busting in and saying she found a snippet of code from the Red Angel in Airiam's memories--a snippet that matches the biological scans of Michael Burnham.

Oh. (Which comes as no surprise to fans of the show. In fact, a certain Australian wag put up a poll on this very question last week.)

The next scene shifts to Sickbay, where Hugh Culber assures Pike, Spock and Admiral Cornwall that it is, indeed, the future version of Burnham operating the Red Angel. (While it's nice to see Wilson Cruz again, and obviously the writers wanted to give him more to do, is it really a good thing to reactivate Dr. Culber to duty without giving him an extensive physical and psychological evaluation? Seeing as he was, you know, so recently dead and all.)

(Oh yeah, and Culber stating confidently that it is Michael? As we'll see at episode's end...whoooooops.)

Given this assertion, Stamets, Tilly and Spock come up with a plan to build a "mousetrap" for the Red Angel. Spock points out that many (although not all) of the Angel's appearances have come when Michael is in danger. Therefore, if they intentionally threaten her life, she should appear. Captain Pike objects to this, but Burnham insists on pushing ahead. (And therein is the biggest plot hole in the episode--they should not have brought her in on what they were doing. Yes, if it had been Michael, she would have been forced to show up to save her own life, but armed with foreknowledge of the plan, she also would've been able to come up with a way to escape.)

This plan, set on a planet with an atmosphere inimical to human life that Burnham is deliberately exposed to, works. She is allowed to temporarily die, the Red Angel appears to zap her back to life, and Leland and Ash, aboard Georgiou's ship, close the Angel's wormhole and cut off her escape. The mousetrap closes, the suit falls to the ground and opens, and the person within tumbles out--and it's not Michael at all, but her human mother.

To backtrack on this a little bit, Michael Burnham has lived for over twenty years thinking both her parents were dead. In a strong, tense scene in this episode, Captain Leland, from Georgiou's ship, revealed that they were covertly working for Section 31 way back when, and Michael's mother actually invented the time-traveling suit. But a younger Leland allowed their location to slip to the Klingons and they tracked the elder Burnhams down and murdered them. After learning this, Michael punches Leland out, not once but twice. Following this is another excellent scene between Michael and Spock, as they begin to work out the kinks in their relationship.

In the other plot thread, the continued recovery of Culber, there's a very good scene where he goes to Admiral Cornwall, who was apparently a therapist in an earlier period of her life, and has a short but beneficial therapy session (something he desperately needs, obviously). He also tries to talk to Stamets later on, but there's way too much going on at that moment for the two of them to have any kind of conversation, and Stamets tells him so.

Two other scenes just had me chortling, one in particular where Georgiou goes down to engineering where Stamets and Tilly are working on the mousetrap, and when Culber stops by, she immediately picks up on the tension between them (and knowing the Mirror Emperor, she's spying on everything and everyone anyway). She then launches into a hilarious monologue about Stamets' alternate in the Mirror Universe being "pansexual" and how much fun she had with him, even over Stamets' objections of "I'm gay, and so is he!" (meaning Culber). There's another bit where Saru, testing out Leland's sincerity, pulls himself up to tower over the human while saying that even without his ganglia he still has a pretty good read on whether someone is a threat, and I'm thinking, "Cripes, threat ganglia or no, this is someone you do not want to fuck with."

So now Michael's mother is thrown into the mix for some good old-fashioned family dysfunction and melodrama (or some more, rather, given her Vulcan family's history). The strength of Discovery, by far, is the characters and character dynamics. They just need to get their plotting together. Sigh.

March 21, 2019

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 9: Teenage Wasteland

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 9: Teenage Wasteland Ms. Marvel, Vol. 9: Teenage Wasteland by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection was a little disappointing for me, mainly because of the artist, who I didn't like at all. Her take on the characters just seemed too juvenile. Yes, I know they're teenagers, but there's drawing teenagers and then there's drawing kids, and too much of the time it seemed like the artist was going for the latter. The storyline was a bit more interesting, because in the first three issues Kamala wasn't even there and Wilson concentrated on the side characters, especially Zoe. This was welcome, and proved that these side characters (at least as a group--maybe not so much individually, with the possible exception of Mike) are capable of carrying a comic. The appearance of Kareem, also known as the Red Dagger, added some spice to the storyline--especially when Kamala reappeared and the Red Dagger gave her her first kiss.

(Of course, he then immediately states he has to go back to Karachi until she sorts herself out. The only reason for this seems to be to avoid a love triangle with Kamala and Bruno [who has returned from Wakanda], which I can actually get behind, as love triangles are so cliched.)

Very soon now, according to what I've read, the entire series is due to be rebooted with a new writer: Saladin Ahmed, who wrote the recent run of Black Bolt. I know successful comics reboot all the time, and it did seem like the recent Ms. Marvel storylines have been petering out a bit. So we'll see. I'm willing to give Ahmed a shot.

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March 20, 2019

"We're on an express elevator to hell, going down"

Review: Captive State--2 stars

(My ratings system: 1 star: Terrible; 2 stars: Okay; 3 stars: Liked; 4 stars: Really liked; 5 stars: Loved)

I really wanted to like this film. It has a promising beginning, with a fresh take on the "alien invasion" trope. Unlike Independence Day and others of its ilk, it doesn't show the actual invasion; the story picks up nine years afterwards, with the aliens (ironically, and tellingly, given the official name of the Legislators, unofficially called the "roaches," because they thrive in the dark) firmly ensconced on Earth and pretty much running the place. Apparently the governments of Earth rolled over when they came, signing agreements and bowing down (for sure, the aliens have the superior tech, but given the thousands of nuclear warheads still existing on the planet, you'd think somebody would have launched one, or more, of them rather than give in. Oh well, whatever). Now the mayor of Chicago, where the story is set, is touting the Legislators' rule as "saving humanity" or some such platitude. After a brief infodump recounting the invasion (and the apparent reduction of our society back to 80's era tech--bye bye smartphones, hello massive CRT's, minimal Internet, and dialup. Why? No reason given, other than to give the protagonist a job--uploading digital files and destroying the chips--where he could meet the rebels), we zero in on our protagonist, Gabriel Drummond. He is the younger brother of Rafael Drummond, a rebel leader now presumed dead, but revered to the point where his face is graffiti'd on brick walls citywide.

You already know what I'm going to say, don't you? Rafael ain't as dead as he seems to be. Gabriel is clumsily kinda-sorta trying to follow in his brother's footsteps, and friends of Rafe's lock a collar on him that blocks his tracking signal (everyone now has an ugly organic-looking tracking slug implanted in their throats) and takes him out to meet his abruptly-resurrected brother. The two are reunited in the best scene in the movie, as Rafe urges his brother to pick a side. Something big is going down, and Gabriel is not at all sure he wants to be in on it, but he gets dragged in anyway.

In this initial setup, we also meet John Goodman, a Chicago cop devoted to tracking down rebel cells, as the last revolutionary breakout resulted in the roaches wiping a section of Chicago off the map. This seems like an odd bit of casting, but he's surprisingly effective here (I guess someone saw Goodman's bravura performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane). He's introduced by way of a visit to a prostitute (the completely wasted Vera Farmiga--I don't know why in the hell she would take such a cliched, thankless role), to whom he unburdens himself, to a point, and apparently has been doing for some time. We find out Rafael and Gabriel's father, who was wasted by one of the aliens in the opening scenes (turned to a bloody mist, though I can't quite figure out why the parents in the car's front seats were killed and the kids in the back seat escaped unscathed. Oh yeah, that's right, because the plot demanded it) was Goodman's partner, and he's dedicated himself to watching after first Rafael and then his brother, whether Gabriel wants him to or not. Goodman's character, William Mulligan, is convinced that a new rebel cell is arising in Chicago, and he's determined to find it.

All well and good. Gabriel is an engaging character, and there are interesting questions raised regarding taking risks and fighting back vs. keeping one's head down and going along to survive, and just who are the real terrorists here. We follow Gabriel to the point where he ducks into a warehouse, pursued by a horde of alien drones that look like fleshy flying suckers, and barricades himself inside a glass-walled office. The drones plaster themselves to the glass, exposing their round creepy open mouths, and we don't know how Gabriel is going to get out of this....

And the movie cuts completely away from this suspenseful situation, to focus on a group of people we've either met briefly before or not at all, and to concentrate on what is eventually revealed (after a long dragass time) to be Rafael's resistance group. We're shown the coming together of its plan to infiltrate an upcoming rally at Wrigley Field, where the Legislators are actually going to make an appearance, and blow said Legislators up.

This interruption, and the cockamamie structure of the remainder of the film, threw me completely out of the story. After a bit of watching these people I didn't know and didn't give a shit about, I wanted to jump up and yell, "But what happened to Gabriel?" These two jumbled storylines do eventually dovetail together, sort of, but on reflection it seems to me the screenwriters were focusing on the wrong character. This is Gabriel's story, and it should have been Rafe's. This would have tightened up the story, and also would have improved an ending that gets more uncomfortable the more I think about it.

To wit: Rafael's blowing up the roaches at the rally succeeds, but then the aliens threaten to wipe more of Chicago off the map. Mulligan uses Gabriel to capture Rafe and his cell's survivors and lead the police to "Number One," the leader of the cell, who proves to be--guess who? Mulligan's girlfriend, who has also been screwing other higher-ups in the Chicago hierarchy. This is revealed in a lengthy bit of exposition (well, at least it was at the end of the film rather than the beginning), where Mulligan outlines the plot, names the terrorists and  many of the Chicago higher-ups who have been compromised (including the Commissioner) and is appointed acting Commissioner, which requires visiting the aliens in their stronghold underneath Chicago.

(And why are they there? We're not really told, other than "exploiting natural resources"--again, why?--and just to keep the aliens pretty much out of sight and the CGI costs down, I suppose. Although their one appearance, as a bipedal insectoid porcupine thing that communicates with whistles and clicks, is well-done and creepy.)

So the film's final twist is that Rafael and his compadres are taken aboard the aliens' ship and whisked offplanet, and Mulligan, the new Commissioner, gets on the elevator to drop down 300 feet to the alien stronghold. But as he goes down, we see a transparent liquidy goop begin to spread over his entire body--the same organic explosive that Rafael's crew used earlier--and we realize that this was a long, deep game orchestrated by Mulligan to get himself into the heart of the alien occupation and blow it to smithereens. Which would have been fine, if both Rafael and Number One (her name isn't listed on IMDB, but I remember it was being Rebecca) had ever been told about this. Instead, the ending carries a very unpleasant whiff of White Savior, as Mulligan manipulates and sacrifices both Rafe, Rebecca, and a great many other black and brown people to get to this point. This is why I think the protagonist should have been Rafael Drummond instead of his brother, and he (and Number One) should have been shown as consenting to and participating fully in this plan.

There's a lot of interesting ideas here, and it seems like there's a good film struggling to get out, but the poor storytelling structure and clashing storylines absolutely hamstring it. Somebody should have demanded the writers take another pass at the script, and also take a long hard look at just who gets to save who. This is 2019, people. We don't need old white guys saving us anymore.

March 19, 2019

Review: Monstress, Vol. 3: Haven

Monstress, Vol. 3: Haven Monstress, Vol. 3: Haven by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This third volume of Monstress expands both the world and the story. It's evident that this is the graphic novel equivalent of an epic fantasy, and while those kinds of doorstoppers are something I usually steer clear of, I am enraptured by this. This is due in no small part to Sana Takeda's gorgeous and ground-breaking (and award-winning, deservedly so) art. But Marjorie Liu's story is equally intricate and fascinating. In this volume we find out more about Zinn, the Lovecraftian-like Old One our protagonist Maika Halfwolf carries inside her, and get glimpses of the history of a conflict that extends thousands of years into this world's past.

However, this volume does end in a cliffhanger, a rather distressing one. Maika and Zinn defeat one of Zinn's "sister-brothers" (fellow Old Gods) who is trying to destroy the city of Pontus, where Maika and her friends have fled. After the battle, it is discovered that the fox-child Kippa, the most sympathetic character of the lot (I'm beginning to wonder if Kippa isn't the real protagonist of this story, instead of the anti-hero Maika) has been taken by beings unknown. The final panel is a heartbreaking image of Kippa's cloak, lying abandoned in the dirt.

This is a fantastic and absorbing story that is maintaining its high quality. In fact, I think Image is publishing the best comics around now, outshining Marvel and DC. Please do yourself a favor and pick it up.

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March 18, 2019

First Impression: Star Trek: Discovery S2 Ep 9. "Project Daedalus"

I have mixed feelings about this episode. There are many good things about it (characterizations and direction) as well as some not-so-good things (plot and the overall Big Bad). But the worst thing is the one I saw from the opening scene.

That is, we wouldn't be beginning an episode showing the viewpoint of an interesting but criminally underused character if we weren't going to bump her off.

Look, Star Trek has always had a "redshirt" problem. That is, a seemingly endless array of expendable characters who are there only to be slain by (in the case of the Original Series) the Monster of the Week. (Since we can't realistically--not from a story POV, but a television industry POV--kill off William Shatner or Patrick Stewart, after all.) In some ways, this trope was better in TOS: whenever a strange new redshirted person appeared, the viewer knew that's what they were there for, and thus didn't have to bother caring about them other than a certain detached curiosity as to how they would be offed.

But Discovery had made some (admittedly minimal) efforts to flesh out the bridge crew this season, which I heartily approved of. This shouldn't, and doesn't have to be, the Michael Burnham Guilt-Me Show. (Referring to Burnham's biggest flaw, which was brought painfully to the forefront during a beautifully acted scene in this episode, between Sonequa Martin-Green and Ethan Peck.) We have some wonderful characters here, and excellent actors, and they deserve a chance to shine, dammit. Just look at what they've done with Anson Mount's Christopher Pike this season. I would happily follow him, Spock, and Number One (another highly touted but underused character) into either a mini-series or a spinoff. Even with what little we've seen of the bridge crew, these are interesting individuals who could power compelling stories, and it's goddamned frustrating that the powers-that-be don't seem to realize that. A single scene per episode, spotlighting a different crewmember in a round-robin sequence, would have sufficed.

Instead, we get Lieutenant Commander Airiam's fascinating backstory, and snippets of her friendship with Sylvia Tilly, pilot Kayla Detmer, and tactical ops officer Rhys--only to end in Airiam's well-acted, moving, and infuriating Noble Sacrifice.

It is beautifully shot, I will grant you. Jonathan Frakes directed "Project Daedalus," and it's abundantly clear that he is the best Star Trek director (even if he is fond of long, swooping, upside-down, slightly nauseating pan shots, like the one at the beginning of this episode). The pacing is spot on, the action explosive, and he gets a bravura performance out of Sonequa Martin-Green--the anguish on her face in her final scene with Airiam is palpable. And the episode's ending, with Airiam replaying her favorite memory as her cybernetic systems fail in the unforgiving vacuum of space, is enough to bring tears to a lot of viewers' eyes. I just wish we had seen all this stuff, and all these relationships had been established, before this character's death.

So that's my first and foremost objection to this. The second is the direction the plot reveals are apparently taking us. The AI-gone-rogue is a time-honored Star Trek tradition (and a particularly TOS tradition, as it sometimes seemed like James Kirk spent half his time talking killer robots into destroying themselves), so it's not the idea in and of itself, it's what is done with it. What complicates this is that it's Section 31's AI gone rogue. Which would not matter so much if there wasn't going to be an entire upcoming series exploring Section 31 (along with Michelle Yeoh's badassery). So, unfortunately, I think the showrunners are going to pull their punches with this entire storyline, because they have to worry about the other series. This is evident in the dragging in of whatever-the-hell the Red Angel is, which at the ending of this episode seems to have something to do with Michael Burnham's dead parents (and which will play right into her "everything is my fault" complex, even after Spock beautifully deconstructed it in this very episode).

Having said all that, there are some very good things about this episode, and the pitch-perfect characterization is at the forefront. In particular, Saru seems to be back on track, with the addition of some extra confidence and forcefulness after the loss of his threat ganglia. The scene between Spock and Stamets was also noteworthy, as Spock boiled down Hugh Culber's trauma to just a few well-written and delivered lines. I find it very interesting that the writer of this episode is Michelle Paradise, who was just announced as the co-showrunner of Discovery's third season. If they can marry her command of the characters to some better plotting, we could have a really breakout third season. This one (with some nagging weak points) is certainly better than the first, but I think the show still has a way to go.

March 16, 2019

Review: The Tethered Mage

The Tethered Mage The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a deliberately paced, measured, but thoroughly absorbing story. It has somewhat of an old-fashioned feel about it, which fits the setting of a thinly disguised Renaissance Italy. If, say, this alternate-history Venice was also brimming with mages and dangerous magic, which sets up some interesting ethical conundrums I wish had been more deeply explored. Ah well, maybe in the second book.

The conceit behind the worldbuilding is the bald statement that mages, if they existed, would consider themselves superior to non-magical humans and set themselves up as rulers, leading to the non-magical humans taking some pretty drastic measures to rein them in. In this world of Eruvia's past, this included the outright slaughter of mages in some countries, and in others (such as the Serene Empire) the mages being controlled by magical "jesses," which is a non-removable bracelet that effectively locks their powers down under the person who placed the jess on them, also known as a Falconer. Naturally, this carries some unpleasant slavery connotations, but at the same time one can hardly blame the Falconers, since many mages can rain down death and destruction. The titular character, the fire warlock Zaira, can burn entire cities if her abilities are unrestrained. Zaira has also murdered people in the past, including her own parents.

(There's also the nasty Skinwitches of the neighboring country of Vaskandar. The way this book ends, I imagine they will be the villains going forward, but man, they creeped me out.)

Into this heady mix is thrown our protagonist and narrator, Lady Amalia Cornaro, who commits the classic blunder of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus forced to harness Zaira, creating a binding that will only end with one of their deaths. But Amalia is the daughter of the La Contessa Lissandra Cornaro, one of the members of the Empire's capital city Raverra's Council of Nine. A big deal, in other words, and a big no-no for the daughter of La Contessa to have a Falcon. Zaira's tethering starts this story off, and it evolves into a dense tale of politics, court intrigue, treachery, and Amalia's attempts to prevent an all-out war.

In the process, Amalia grows from a sheltered, bookish young woman pretty much under her mother's thumb into a confident, strong Falconer embracing her new role and helping to put an end to the looming conflict. (Although the La Contessa Cornaro is not the Wicked Mother she originally appears to be, either. All these characters are refreshingly layered and throw the reader some surprises.) I do wish the ethics of the Falconer system would have been discussed more, as some characters are dead set against it, while others regard it as a necessary evil. I also hope the fiery, irrepressible Zaira gets some POV chapters, as I would love to get more insight into her. But this book held my attention throughout, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

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March 14, 2019

And Now: Your Political Interlude

Wow. Samantha Bee rips Tucker Carlson into itty bitty cracker-sized pieces. It couldn't happen to a whiter nicer guy.

March 12, 2019

First Impressions: Star Trek: Discovery, S2 Ep 8, "If Memory Serves"

I think this will be the pivotal episode of this season of Discovery, as there are a lot of things happening here. Storylines collide, surprises are revealed, and consequences are seen. It helps that it's also a bang-up episode in and of itself, right up there with "Saints of Imperfection" (my second favorite episode of the season) and nipping at the heels of "An Obol for Charon."

Let's discuss these three facets of the episode, one at a time. This will of necessity involve spoilers. I'm also not going to recap everything that has gone before, as that would make this post Jethro Tull-like in length. So if you're confused, warp off to CBS All Access and get caught up. I'll still be here.

Spoilers after the picture!

(Yes, I still miss Lorca.)

(But Pike has definitely helped to ease the pain.)

1. Culber's Resurrection; or, Life After Death Ain't All It's Cracked Up To Be

Poor Hugh Culber. I really felt for the guy, because he's completely adrift. He spent months in the Magic Mushroom Palace struggling to survive and barely hanging on to his sanity, and now he's back in the "real" universe in a newly generated body that isn't his (lacking previous scars, for example); on a ship and among a crew that have gone on without him; with his murderer serving on said ship; and with a husband, Stamets, who desperately wants to go back to the way things used to be, as if nothing has happened.

This, obviously, is impossible. Culber says straight out that he doesn't know who he is, and understandably so. That being the case, he certainly doesn't know if he still loves Stamets. I know some people are upset about Culber breaking off the relationship, and admittedly this whole thing was a mess from the get-go, as Culber never should have been killed off in the first place. It was a stupid, unnecessary "plot twist" from the previous showrunners. Nevertheless, it was done, and this is a sometimes-clumsy way of showing the consequences of that boneheaded decision. I hope that the current showrunners will see their way clear to bringing Culber and Stamets back together, after exploring and resetting the characters and relationship.

It helps that both Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz have been spectacular in their roles. In that heartbreaking scene where Culber breaks things off, Rapp just knocked it out of the park.

2. Flashbacks! Recaps! Jeffrey Hunter and Anson Mount Look a Whole Lot Alike!

This episode opened with a squee-inducing montage of the original Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," which was reworked for the two-part episode, "The Menagerie." It's possible that a (very few) Discovery viewers don't know what all the fuss over Talos IV is about, and this "previously [like 50 years, man] on Star Trek" brings them up to speed. Then it's a glorious dissolve of past into present, Jeffrey Hunter's (the TOS Pike) face fading into Anson Mount's, and we're off to the races.

Anson Mount as Christopher Pike has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the season. This is a character that never appeared past "The Menagerie," and thus is a relatively blank slate, and Discovery has made the most of it. Mount's performance has turned Pike into a layered, multifaceted character, in a way that is more than a bit tragic, since we already know his end.

3. Spock Stops Teasing, and Starts Speaking!

Ethan Peck, as Spock, actually gets to say something that makes sense (well, mostly) in this episode, instead of muttering backwards number sequences and snippets of "Alice in Wonderland." Of course, the immediate question is, "How close is he to Leonard Nimoy?" And the answer is, he is and he isn't. He has some of Nimoy's mannerisms and speech patterns, but although they're similar, they're not slavishly carbon-copied. Overall, he struck me as being far more smug in his logic-superiority than later-era Spock. This would make sense, as at this point in his life Spock has a bit of a stick up his ass. (Also, the beard, which Burnham makes delicious sisterly fun of, helps to hide the fact that Ethan Peck does not have nearly as close a resemblance to his predecessor as Anson Mount.) We're only one true episode into his tenure, but I think Peck's performance is interesting enough for me to (tentatively) call it a winner.

(But hell, that kid who plays young Spock? He's the real winner of the two in this episode, acting-wise. That scene where young Burnham, running away to protect the family from "logic-extremists", insults and demeans young Spock to keep him from following her, was raw and real. It hurt Spock to the point where two decades later, despite recognizing the reason she did it, Spock can't bring himself to forgive her, and you can see why in every pained expression and quivering lip on that kid's face.)

4. I'm Afraid the Red Angel Will Turn Out To Be an Overblown Red Balloon

So apparently the Red Angel is a time traveler from 500 years in the future, the same place as the Evolving Squid Probe that attacked Pike's and Ash Tyler's shuttle, Nautilis-style, in last week's episode. (Which was a very cool special effect, by the way. Discovery continues to look gorgeous.) I am very hesitant about any kind of time travel storyline on Star Trek, because it usually ends up shooting itself in the foot and blowing itself up, all at the same time. Add to this the fact that this temporal wanderer is trying to prevent a timeline where Something Ominous, Something Black and Blue destroys all inhabited planets and all sentient life, according to Spock's not-quite-coherent recounting of his aborted mind meld with the Red Angel. To which I reply, "Ah, cripes, I'm really beginning to hate any We Must Prevent the Death of the Universe Stakes," because that storyline is so over-the-top as to be meaningless (and what the hell is the point anyway? That this universe and its inhabitants are so bad the Big Bang needs to start over?). As far as emotional resonances go, Stamets and Culber affected me far more in this episode than the reveal of its Red-Suited Pseudo-Religious Something-or-Other.

5. Lieutenant Airiam, We Barely Knew Ye

Come to find out that Lieutenant Airiam, the gray-skinned, prosthetics-wearing cyborg on the bridge, was infected by the Evolving Squid Probe from last week's episode, after it scanned the shuttle's computer, Discovery's computer, and bled its way right into her eyes, showing up as three red dots in each pupil. In this episode, she sabotaged the spore drive, preventing Discovery from jumping at a somewhat crucial moment. Which would mean a lot more if we knew anything at all about Airiam, other than she sometimes works under Sylvia Tilly. I mean, come on, people. This is an online streaming service, and you can make each episode as long as is necessary. It seems to me you could have included a couple of scenes featuring Airiam in the previous one or two episodes, even if they just amounted to her having brief conversations with, for instance, Tilly. That would make her predicament (and apparent upcoming betrayal, judging from previews) more meaningful than a perfunctory dispatching to Save Our Female Lead.

6. As Usual, Philippa Georgiou For the Win

The final scene of this episode is delicious. After Leland, aboard Section 31's flagship, falls for the Talosians' illusion of Burnham and Spock beaming aboard, the Mirror Emperor casually reveals that she tangled with the Talosians in her universe and nuked the planet to slag (or at least she thought she did, I suppose). Then she asks how Leland is going to deal with losing his two fugitives and stalks off, leaving him staring bug-eyed after her. Talk about hoisting someone on their own petard and leaving them high and dry. I cannot fucking wait for Michelle Yeoh's show.

This may sound like I'm praising with faint damns, but despite all this, I really liked this episode. What I don't like is what it appears to be setting up. But we'll have to see.

March 8, 2019

Review: Kill the Queen

Kill the Queen Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a reason I don't read much epic fantasy, besides the fact that a great deal of it has books that are thick as a brick. I don't own many concrete-block-sized doorstoppers, but I don't mind them if I can get into the story. The thing that puts me off about most epic fantasy is that I really don't like trying to navigate through a convoluted tale with a cast of characters in the triple digits.

Thankfully, that isn't the case with this book. Kill the Queen has a laser focus on one character, the Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair, seventeenth in line to the throne of Bellona, and her quest to reclaim her throne and save her country after her cousin Vasilia Victoria Summer Blair massacres everyone else in line for the throne and most of Bellona's nobles as well. Only Everleigh, with her secret immunity to magic, manages to escape.

In some ways, this is a generic bland fantasy world, although the author does deserve kudos for trying to make it not so overwhelmingly white and male. There are quite a few competent, fierce women in these pages, including Serilda Swanson, the leader of the gladiator troupe Evie falls in with after her escape from the palace. Evie herself is a well-developed character who goes through a nice character arc, changing from a cast-off royal who just puts her head down and tries to survive to a strong woman who steps forward to do her duty for her country and people. Along the way she finds true friends in Serilda and others in the gladiator troupe, and her newfound family helps her with her final showdown with Vasilia.

Unfortunately, the character of Vasilia is the reason I haven't rated this book more highly. Vasilia is, to put it bluntly, a scheming cardboard over-the-top psycho with little nuance or even a credible motivation beyond being a sociopathic nutcase. The antagonist left standing after Vasilia is defeated (at least until she magically whisks herself off to her own country), Maeven, is far more interesting, and I hope Maeven is the villain of the second book.

This series shows a great deal of promise, but it could stand some improvement. Fortunately, this book has intrigued me enough to carry on with the second.

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