A completely adorable paranormal romance about the forbidden love between a werewolf boy and a weresheep girl.

The Capshaw sheep shifters and the Wolfe werewolves have carried on a feud for generations in their small town. It’s less murder in the dark, and more avoiding each other, getting in fist fights, and bringing up thirty-year-old fender-benders at inopportune moments. But Julie Capshaw and Damon Wolfe secretly befriended each other as little kids, until it ended disastrously when their families found out.

Julie went off to college, while Damon stayed home. But her English literature degree was about as profitable as one might expect, so back she came to help out at the family farm. Her future stretched before her, long and dreary and full of potatoes.

Needless to say, Julie and Damon’s childhood friendship turns into a very adult romance. But can they overcome his abusive father who rules the pack with an iron fist, the asshole alpha of a neighboring pack angling for an arranged marriage with Damon’s sister, and millennia of bad blood between wolves and sheep?

Of course they can! It’s a romance! But a romance that takes some rather unpredictable turns in the middle, giving it excellent narrative drive. In other unconventional elements, it has a lot of focus on the families rather than just on the main couple, and not just on characters who can be paired up in later books. I especially enjoyed the rifle-toting sheep grandmother.

And, of course, there’s the sheep. The worldbuilding is sketched in lightly but convincingly and originally for both species, from the different ways that sheep eyes work to the different cultural attitudes toward romance. And all the descriptions of sheep running around being heroic and the heroine’s little sheep hooves clattering over the floor never failed to crack me up.

If you enjoyed my Mated to the Meerkat, you will enjoy this – it’s funny and sweet, instant comfort-reading. If you generally dislike romance, this is not the book to sell you on it.

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing was written under a pen name by Layla Wier, aka Sholio/Friendshipper. (This is not a secret.) She’s a friend of mine, but I promise you that I would have adored this book anyway.

Only 99 cents on Amazon. I’m sure you could get an epub copy upon request.
In brief, AMAZING. If it’s playing anywhere near you, run and see it immediately. (It only has about two more days left in the USA.) If not, see it on DVD when it comes out.

This is a difficult movie to review because I don’t want to give too much away. It not only has several surprising plot twists, but also a lot of gorgeous imagery that’s wonderful to see for the first time, when you don’t know it’s coming. So I won’t say much about the plot.

Baahubali is an original historical fantasy that plays out like it was based on an ancient myth. Though it doesn’t have the complexity of character or moral ambiguity or intellectual heft of The Mahabharata or Ramayana, those epics and other the ancient tales of India clearly inspired its epic scope, archetypal themes, and magical imagery.

Classic tropes from Indian legend – the boon, the rivalry between princes with disastrous consequences, the humble but loving mother who adopts a son with a destiny, the mountain in the clouds, the war formation the enemy doesn’t expect, the woman wronged who demands bloody revenge – all make appearances here, and are given their proper, larger-than-life weight. The hero reminded me of Bhima in personality and physique, but a number of incidents were clearly inspired by the life of Krishna. For instance, the baby held above the waters echoes Vasudeva crossing the flooded Yamuna to hide away the infant Krishna.

The song I linked in the last post is a version of a hymn to Shiva, the Shiva Tandava Stotram, which is attributed to Ravana. I’ll quote some of it because even in translation (by P. R. Ramachander), you can feel its power and beauty and sensuality. (Remember how magnificent it sounded in Telegu.) That is the sort of ancient writing, still living today, which inspired this movie.

The celestial river agitatedly moving through his matted hair,
Which makes his head shine with those soft waves,
And his forehead shining like a brilliant fire
And the crescent of moon which is an ornament to his head,
Makes my mind love him each and every second.

He, with the shining lustrous gem on the hood
Of the serpent entwining his matted locks,
He, who is with his bride whose face is decorated
By the melting of red saffron kumkum,
And He who wears on his shoulder the hide
Of the elephant which was blind with ferociousness,
Makes my mind happy and contented.

A lot of the movie walks the fine line between magnificence and camp, but even when it’s ridiculous, it’s gloriously ridiculous. This is what you get when you put together an extremely talented director steeped in Indian myth, a brilliant cinematographer determined to tell the story visually so even people who don’t understand the dialogue will love it, and a totally committed cast, and have them all go for broke. Sometimes this results in "Did somebody order a LARGE HAM?” hamminess. More often, it captures the larger than life spirit of myth.

When a woman reveals her secret plan for revenge, a strong warrior staggers backward from the force of it. A desperate prayer to Shiva is answered with a boon that allows a dying woman to walk underwater. A man whose destiny is to climb the unclimbable mountain falls a thousand feet, only to rise to climb again. A sleeping warrior on a riverbank, her arm dangling in the water, is seduced by a prankster lover who swims through schools of bright fishes to paint a tattoo on her hand. If you ask why he was in the river and where he got a set of underwater paints, you’re missing the point.

A lot of the power of myth is in its lack of naturalism. Events occur and choices are made not because of the realistic motivations of ordinary humans, but because archetypal stories are playing out. If Baahubali had been more realistic and less theatrical, it wouldn’t be half as magical.

It was the most expensive movie ever made in India, and while the CGI is occasionally a little shaky, it uses its budget to the max. When CGI first came upon the scene, I thought it would be used to create fantastical worlds and creatures – sense of wonder brought to sight. And sometimes it is, but more often it’s used to create big, pointless, repetitive explosions. Baahubali uses CGI to create beauty and wonder. Just look at the waterfall and the city in the trailer. The entire movie is like that.

(Plus blood-splattering battle sequences and bull-wrestling. I’m glad they put the disclaimer that no animals were harmed and all animal falls are CGI at the start of the film rather than the end, because otherwise I’d have been concerned.)

Though I’ve emphasized huge! Epic! Grand! In my review, there’s also lots of nice little touches. Many of the characters have marks on their foreheads, like bindi, which helpfully identify them when you’re trying to distinguish Magnificent Warrior Dude # 1 from Magnificent Warrior Dude # 2. (This isn’t usually difficult. They all look quite different, and also have different Magnificent Moustaches. But given my general terrible facial recognition skills, I appreciated it.) The hero has a coiled cobra, the mark of Shiva. A pair of princes are marked with a sun and moon. There’s a complete throwaway bit, lasting maybe five seconds, where a pair of bull-masked dancers butt heads, that is SO COOL. I also enjoyed the funny-on-purpose moments.

My only real criticisms are political rather than artistic. There’s a song/dance number where the hero melts the warrior heroine's icy heart via stylized fighting and pulling off her clothes. It’s clearly meant to be about him breaking her emotional barriers with his sincerity, sensuality, and passion. But, well. Not to mention the unfortunate implications of what was actually intended, where she embraces her femininity and warmth… and then totally forgets how to fight so he can rescue her. And then there’s the attack of the dark-skinned barbarians, with its own set of unfortunate implications.

In a more enjoyable use of traditional gender roles (traditional in India), there is not one! Not two! But THREE awesome middle-aged moms! One is a loving mother raising a son she doesn’t quite understand. One is a total badass who rules a kingdom with cool authority after taking on a regency with a baby in one hand and a bloody dagger in the other. The third initially seems passive, turns out to be anything but, and has one of the best scenes in the entire movie. (For the benefit of my one reader who’s actually seen Baahubali: a handful of twigs.)

Be warned: Baahubali ends on a very dramatic TO BE CONTINUED!!! Well, it is subtitled “The Beginning.” But I ate up all three hours and would have happily sat through three more. The first hour, especially, is pure magic. I haven’t felt so transported in a movie theatre since the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Rings.
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I will write a real review later, but in brief, this is a south Indian historical fantasy that plays like a myth transferred straight to the screen. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, is full of moments straight out of legend, has a fantastic score and amazing action sequences, and also has a number of surprising plot twists.

It's only playing in the US for about two more days, and should be seen on the big screen. I haven't enjoyed a movie this much in literally years.

Trailer. (Not subtitled, but the movie has English subs.)

One of my favorite songs.
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I HATE zombies. And body horror creeps me out. And child-in-danger stories are usually annoying and manipulative. So I can’t believe I am actually recommending a child-in-danger zombie novel that is chock-full of disturbing body horror… but this one is really good.

It opens with a heartbreakingly charming narration by Melanie, a bright little girl who adores her teacher, who secretly slips her a book of Greek myths. Melanie loves the story of Pandora, the girl with all the gifts. But she doesn’t understand why her beloved teacher often seems so sad, or why she and the other kids have to be tied to chairs to attend school. Why is almost immediately clear to readers – it’s after the zombie apocalypse, and she’s the rare intelligent zombie that scientists are experimenting on in the hope of finding a vaccine or cure – but there are many other mysteries that are less obvious.

The first section and denouement of the novel are the best parts; the first because of Melanie’s narration, the last because it’s an absolutely perfect climax, satisfying on the all levels. In between is a more standard but well-done zombie novel. In particular, the mechanism of the zombie apocalypse is pleasingly clever and well-worked out. But the beginning and the end really make the book.

Right from the start, Melanie is explicitly compared to Pandora, so it's clear that in some way, she will unleash horrors upon humanity, but also hope. And all through the book, she does, in ways that change as she changes, learning more about the world and herself. It's beautifully done.

I don’t often like horror. When I do enjoy something marketed as horror, it’s often despite rather than because of the genre. For instance, I love the author’s voice (Stephen King) or prose style (Tanith Lee) or psychological insight (Melanie Tem) enough to get me past that horror is a genre of emotional atmosphere, and the specific emotions of horror – fear, dread, horror, disgust – aren’t ones I usually enjoy.

But there’s another emotional state that horror can evoke, which is something akin to Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. It’s horror as transcendence, where terror and horror are also beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s probably not coincidental that the authors I mentioned above hit that mark for me – not always, and not in everything they write, but sometimes. C. L. Moore’s stories “Black God’s Kiss” and “Shambleau” are like that, too: creepy and disturbing, but also seductive and full of sense of wonder.

The Girl With All the Gifts hits that mark, off and on, until coming to a conclusion that’s viscerally horrifying but also beautiful and transcendent. The characters other than Melanie are sketched in, plausible types rather than three-dimensional characters, and a late reveal about the teacher’s past is reductionist rather than revelatory. But the beginning is brilliant, the middle is solid, and the ending is haunting in the very best way.

The Girl With All the Gifts
Apollo wants to understand why Daphne would rather be a tree than have sex with him. Athena wants to find out what would happen if she took everyone throughout time who has ever prayed to her to let them live in Plato’s Republic, gave them a doomed island, a bunch of robots, and children to raise as per Plato’s ideas, and told them to go for it. A young Victorian lady named Ethel renames herself Maia and devotes herself to the Just City. Two children, taken from the slave markets and given to the Just City, come to opposite conclusions about its worth.

Out of all of Jo Walton’s strange premises, this one takes the cake. Even more than “Framley Parsonage, but everyone’s a dragon.” But I love that she thinks of ideas like this, has the chops to carry them out, and is supported by a publisher who will publish whatever bizarre book she chooses to write. The Just City is a terrific book that I can’t imagine anyone else writing.

It’s a novel of ideas in the very best sense, full of complex and interesting questions with no easy answers, and populated by three-dimensional characters who care deeply about and are profoundly affected by the issues at play. (The issues include but aren’t limited to consent, free will, nature vs. nurture, whether the ends justify the means, and how idealistic movements and planned communities succeed and fail.) Since I grew up in a planned community, I found the book particularly interesting. It does not escape Walton that one of the most toxic issues in a planned community or progressive movement is the willingness to sacrifice vulnerable members for the supposed good of the whole, nor that the same community can be a utopia for one person and a dystopia for their neighbor.

This is the first of a trilogy, but comes to a conclusion that’s open-ended yet satisfying, shocking but inevitable in retrospect. I guessed where it was going in general, but was completely surprised by the details.

You don’t need to be familiar with or care about Plato’s Republic to read this. The book explains everything you need to know. It’s much more about larger issues of utopia/dystopia than about the Republic specifically, though the actual specifics are from the Republic. Note that it contains rape, slavery, child harm, and other disturbing things, and also characters endorsing all sorts of terrible opinions. This is not a book to read if you want the voice of the author interjecting to assure you that terrible things are terrible. It’s very much a book where many opinions are presented and it’s left to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

If you intend to read this, avoid reviews. There’s several plot twists that will be more satisfying if you don’t know about them in advance. Spoilers are fine in comments.

The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, is out now.

The Just City
Whether or not you will like this playful novel about Indian superheroes depends largely on how much you like its distinctive voice. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

#

In 1984, Group Captain Balwant Singh of the Indian Air Force’s Western Air Command had dangled his then three-year-old son Vir off the edge of the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, nearly giving his gentle and hirsute wife, Santosh Kaur, a heart attack in the process. With the mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot, Captain Singh had tossed his son up, caught him in midair and held him over the railing for a while, before setting him down safely.

His son’s future thus secured, Balwant had turned to shut off his wife’s uncanny impersonation of a police siren with the wise words, “Nonsense, foolish woman. See, my tiger is not afraid at all. He is born for the sky, just like me. Vir, say ‘Nabha Sparsham Deeptam’.”

Vir had not been in the mood for the Indian Air Force motto at that point, his exact words had been, “MAA!”

All these years later, Vir still remembers that first flight with astonishing clarity: the sudden weightlessness, the deafening sound of his own heart beating, the blur of the world tilting around him, the slow-motion appearance of first the white dome of Sacré Coeur and then a wispy white cloud shaped like Indira Gandhi’s hair behind his flailing red Bata Bubble-Gummers shoes. His father had said that moment had shaped his destiny, given him wings.

But his father isn’t here now. Flight Lieutenant Vir Singh is all alone in the sky.

#

Vir, like the other superheroes, got his powers on a commercial flight to Mumbai; why and how this occurred is never explained and doesn’t matter. The powers derive from the characters’ deepest desires, so Vir, an all-Indian hero, became Superman; Uzma, a British-Pakistani aspiring actress, is loved by everyone she meets; Tia, a discontented mom who wishes she’d made different life choices, gets the ability to generate copies of herself. (One guy gets the power to control weather based on the condition of his stomach, but exactly what this power means to him is not explored.)

The characters’ knowledge of superheroes and the fact that most of the superheroes they know of are not Indian provides a lot of the comedy and social commentary of the book, as they discover that all the good superhero names in English are taken, and the Hindi alternates are incomprehensible or unpronounceable to a global audience. (Vir’s suggestion, based on the highest Indian military decoration, is shot down due to no one who isn’t in the Indian Air Force having heard of it.) And is a giant superhero battle with lots of property destruction the inevitable climax of any superhero story?

The characters are lightly but vividly sketched. They’re types rather than well-rounded characters, but they’re fun types. My favorites were Uzma, who just wants to be famous, Tia, whose power is more badass than it sounds, and the super-baby, or rather the hilariously bonkers cult following attracted by the super-baby. But the wry narration was my favorite part of the book, tossing off quips and references like a never-ending shower of brightly colored confetti.

There is a sequel, which I will definitely read, but this book ends conclusively. I think the sequel takes place several years later and mostly involves different characters.

Turbulence
In Dresediel Lex, an alternate Los Angeles once ruled by Aztec Gods but now taken over and colonized by undead corporate wizards, Caleb, a gambler and risk management expert embarks on a risky love affair with Mal, a reckless parkour player… and discovers a deadly threat to the city.

This book is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, but in a different part of it and involving different characters. They can be read independently.

I didn’t like this quite as much as Three Parts Dead, because it had less of the charming dark humor of the latter and I didn’t like the main characters or their relationships quite as much. It’s still an excellent book, the funny moments are really funny, and it’s perhaps the only book I’ve ever read that actually has something interesting to say about human sacrifice.

Caleb is the son of Temoc, once a priest to the old Gods, now an outlaw and terrorist/rebel against the new corporate overlords his son works for. One of my favorite parts of the book was their fraught relationship, consisting almost entirely of Temoc unexpectedly materializing, Temoc and Caleb squabbling and guilt-tripping each other, and then Temoc de-materializing when he either gets too frustrated or the people chasing him getting too close. Temoc is a terrible person and worse father, but he has his good side and was probably my favorite character. He was also responsible for my single favorite line in the entire book. It’s at the climax and involves a ghastly eldritch horror, and you’ll know it when you get to it.

The ideological divide between father and son involves human sacrifice. Temoc makes the very valid point that Caleb’s corporate bosses are also sacrificing people, just minus the altars and knives: they oppress the poor for the benefit of the rich, they steal water from outlying areas to quench the thirst of their desert city, and they enslave the old Gods. So rather than the simple (and dull) point that human sacrifice is bad, the book raises a much more interesting and relevant set of questions: how much human life and pain is worthwhile to keep a society functioning? Is there any moral difference if the people being sacrificed are consenting to some degree or another? Is it possible for a society to exist without oppressing someone? Are there options beyond walking away from Omelas?

These questions are woven into an excellent, atmospheric novel, full of cool bits. Though I wasn’t that into the main romance, I loved Caleb’s non-romantic relationships. In addition to the father-son one, he also had a lovely friendship with Teo, his co-worker, who in turn had a fun romance with an artist named Sam. (Since I realize the names are ambiguous, that’s a lesbian romance.) The structure is good, and the climax is excellent. I especially liked how even the bit characters had agency and individuality.

Max Gladstone reminds me a bit of China Mieville in the inventiveness of his worldbuilding, exuberance of his prose, and concern with injustice and inequality, but with a more optimistic and humane perspective. His characters may be hurt, physically or emotionally, but they are never punished or shamed for trying to do the right thing. They fight against heavy odds in an unjust world, but even the worst of them have moments of human kindness and concern. That includes not only Temoc, but also the evil overlord skeleton sorcerer.

Spoilers below! Read more... )

Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence)
For those of you who've been waiting.... Hostage in paperback!

Sorry about the price. It's the cost of doing print on demand. If it's too expensive for you, you could buy the e-book or request that your library buy the paper edition.
rachelmanija: (FMA: Ed among the ignorant)
( May. 26th, 2015 09:43 am)
I was on vacation, and the one movie theatre in town had only two options. It was this, or Pitch Perfect 2. I have not seen Pitch Perfect 1. Also, I like George Clooney. Tomorrowland it was!

Oops.

If one of those old-school sf fans who keeps trying to make teenagers read Heinlein juveniles was hired to make a big-budget movie as propaganda for optimism, they might well have created Tomorrowland.

The plot, as best as I can summarize it without too many spoilers, is that a little boy tries to build a jetpack in 1964. He is encouraged by a mysterious little girl, Athena, who tells him to hope and keep trying and to believe in optimism and the future. Then the movie jumps ahead to Casey, a genius teenage girl who believes in hope and trying and optimism and the future. We know this because most of her dialogue early on consists of stuff like, “Keep trying! You can’t give up hope! Believe in the future! Cynicism is bad! Optimism is good!”

Then she gets a magic button that transports her to a cool future straight out of Analog circa 1950. (In one of the few actual cool bits in the movie, her physical self and surroundings in the current world continue to affect her self in the future; when she moves, both her selves move, so if she walks into the wall of her present-day house, she smacks into an invisible barrier in the future. Sadly, not much is made of this.)

And then she meets Athena, who proceeds to direct her on a plot coupon collecting adventure. There are random killer robots. And also George Clooney, the idealistic little boy, now grown up and bitter. Casey lectures him on optimism, in case you missed her speech the first time. But even if you missed it the first two times, it’s okay; she gives it about six more times. And if you miss those, you still won’t miss the speech, because other characters give it too. Repeatedly.

I liked the girl who played Athena. She had a surprising amount of technical skill. I did not like the girl who played Casey, but I think that was at least as much the fault of the script as the actress. Clooney had the advantage of playing the bitter guy, which meant he had the least number of paens to optimism.

I appreciated the message – you can change the world, but first you have to believe that change is possible; optimism is not stupidity and despair is not wisdom; the future might be pretty cool – but I did not appreciate that about 50% of the total dialogue consisted of explicitly stating the message. After about the twentieth time some character robotically recites something like, “Optimism is good! Despair is bad! Believe in a bright future!” I started feeling like I was in the Brave New World. Which is not at all what was intended.

Also, considering that the entire movie was about the idea that the future is cool… the future was not actually that cool. It had robots, jet packs, floating swimming pools, and floating trains. The swimming pools were neat, but by now kids have seen lots of movies depicting cool futures, and pretty much all of them have a more comprehensive and appealing vision of future coolness than “things that float.”

And also, the future was not actually the future. It was a pocket dimension. I think. It was explained several times, collecting additional plot holes and confusingness with each iteration.

This was by no means the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It had some good bits. And it was at least bad in a different way than big-budget kids’ movies are usually bad. I normally find Disney movies highly competent but slick. This was not slick. It was a hot mess. I suspect that there was so much interference from so many people, many of them probably trying to make sure the audience could follow it, that it ended up simultaneously convoluted and simplistic, over-explained and confusing. And while it was not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it is very possibly the most anvillicious.
I’ll quote the cover copy, so you’ll see why I was interested in this.

"A masterful tale of ambition, jealousy, desire, and superpowers.

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates--brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find--aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge--but who will be left alive at the end?"

The blurbs talked a lot about moral depth, complexity, and ambiguity. Between the blurbs and the plot, I thought I’d get The Secret History with superpowers, starring Professor X and Magneto.

The first fourth or so of Vicious is exactly that. The rest, not so much. I had very mixed feelings about the book as a whole, and not just because the actual book matches the plot but not the implications of the blurb. The first fourth is a stunning work of storytelling. I was absolutely glued to it. The compulsive readability wanes as the book goes on, but maintains reasonably well throughout its length. Throughout, the structure is cool, the prose is good, and many of the ideas are interesting.

Here’s what’s not so good: the characters. The two main guys seem interesting when they’re at school together – morally dark, sure, but Schwab does a great job there of suggesting complexity, hidden depth, potential for great good or great evil, etc. Then they become superheroes, and turn into one-note sociopaths.

Eli, who suddenly becomes a religious maniac serial killer, is more like a half-note. His POV sections are really boring. He’s on a delusional mission from God. He kills people because he’s on a delusional mission from God. That’s literally it. When he thinks of Victor, it’s just as someone he needs to kill because he’s on a delusional mission from God.

Victor either also becomes a sociopath, or was always one; it’s hard to tell. His POV is more interesting because he does think about things other than hurting or using people, but basically, he hates Eli (no complexity there) and wants to kill him, and will torture, kill, and use people without hesitation or qualms to bring Eli down.

I expected a fraught, love-hate relationship between them. Nope! They just want to kill each other. I expected moral ambiguity. Nope! They’re both sociopaths. Pitting one sociopathic murderer against another is not moral ambiguity, nor does it bring up interesting moral questions. “If a bad guy kills a worse bad guy, does that make him a good guy?” is not an interesting question. (Answer: No.)

There are three other POV characters who get much more limited page time. One is also a sociopathic murderer. Another is a collection of potentially interesting traits that don’t cohere into a real-feeling character, but at least is not a sociopath. The last is an actual, believable, three-dimensional, mostly coherent character who is not a sociopath. The book would have been more interesting if it had been entirely about her.

There may or may not be something about the process of becoming a superhero that turns people into sociopaths, or turns certain people into sociopaths. This is discussed but never really explored or resolved. Of the four superheroes who get significant page time, three are sociopaths but it’s unclear if they were before they got powers.

I recommend this if you’re OK with sociopathic POV characters and want to read a cat-and-mouse game between two sociopathic villains. On that level, it’s pretty good. If you’re looking for more human characters, I can’t recommend it. Which is too bad, because if the whole book was more in the vein of the beginning, when it seems like the characters might have actual depth and complexity, it would be stunning.

Vicious
rachelmanija: (Default)
( May. 13th, 2015 10:17 am)
I didn’t like it. Squee-harshing below.

For context, I entirely or mostly enjoyed both Captain America movies, The Avengers, and Iron Man I and III, and found both Thor movies and Iron Man II at least moderately amusing. So it’s not that I don’t like the franchise.

Spoilers! Squee-harshing! Tiny amount of squee regarding Jeremy Renner's biceps! Read more... )
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The character is a lawyer entering a nightclub:

As she swished toward the spiral staircase, she cut a wake through demons and skeletal Craftsmen, vampires and priests and technomancers and a deep purple, multi-tentacled horror it took her a moment to place as a client from a decade back.

Talk about "hit the ground running" - this fantasy begins with Tara, a young wizard-lawyer, literally crashing to earth after getting flung out of floating magical law school. After attempt to live a quiet life in her home village ends catastrophically due to a darkly hilarious culture clash involving ordinary people's lack of appreciation for having their dead loved ones raised as mindless zombies, however helpful that might be in terms of fighting off an invasion, she heads for the big city, where she is hired as legal representation and wizard for a temple hoping to resurrect their dead God.

The year is still young, but this is my favorite fantasy that I've read so far this year. It reminded me a little of Terry Pratchett and a little of P. C. Hodgell - the wry tone, the bizarre and bustling city, the sense that even the walk-ons have their own motivations, the multiple plotlines that come together into a satisfying whole, and the sheer exuberant inventiveness. It's written in omniscient, with a narrator who periodically comments (usually hilariously) on the action. The law-based magic system is one of the most interesting and original I've encountered. And embedded in a whole lot of action, legal maneuvering, and magic is a thoughtful look at consent, free will, and whether the ends justify the means.

Even the worst characters have comprehensible motives, and while there's some gruesome violence and acts of highly dubious morality, it's not a grimdark world. Some characters learn empathy, some hit bottom and rise from there, and others have more everyday epiphanies, like getting better at their jobs or making new friends. The heroine is ruthless and terrible at human interactions, but not malicious; "What do you mean, you're running me out of town with pitchforks because I resurrected your dead loved ones as zombies to fight off the enemy? They died fighting to protect you all; I'm sure it's what they'd have wanted!" is typical of how she starts out. It's not where she ends. But my favorite character is the bewildered young priest who chain-smokes to stay in touch with the memory of his beloved fire God.

Highly recommended. I can't wait to read the next books.

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence)
Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss. Science fiction classic with amazing worldbuilding, in a world where each season lasts for hundreds of years. Also relentlessly gross and grim, with characters who didn't engage me at all. Gave up.

Yet I feel strangely cheered that a brilliant man like Brian Aldiss can commit a sentence - not meant to be funny - like Something in his hollow belly went whang at the thought.

Even the best of us sometimes write "Something went whang."

Into the Night, by Suzanne Brockmann. I had somehow missed reading this installment of her Troubleshooters Navy SEALs series. Sadly, it was the worst one. Mike Muldoon has no personality - he's young, hot, likes older women, and... uh... that's basically it. White House staffer Joan DaCosta is incredibly annoying. There are stupid misunderstandings galore, plus yet another ridiculous romantic obstacle impossible to take seriously: Horrors! This completely perfect man is younger than me! Also, virtually nothing happens in the entire book.

The subplots were way more interesting, but the WWII one (which I liked a lot) had little page time, and the doomed romance between Mary Lou and the sweet Arab guy ended incredibly depressingly, with him probably dying of injuries sustained in the action climax and everyone falsely believing that he was a terrorist. I wonder if this is resolved in a later book, and I just don't remember it because I didn't have the context that would have made it seem relevant. (I remember what happened to Mary Lou; I mean what happened to Ibrahim Rahman.)
The continued adventures of Lady Isabella Trent, Victorian explorer and DRAGON NATURALIST. In this volume, Isabella sails around the world on the appropriately named Basilisk, accompanied by her young son Jake, an underwater archaeologist named Suhail, and other companions.

I enjoyed this the most of the series so far. It strikes a perfect balance between action and exploration. Isabella has matured enough to be interesting in a different way from the monomaniac of the first book: still obsessive and headstrong, but more introspective, thoughtful, and interested in people in addition to dragons.

The dragons are great, and there are lots of them. I thoroughly enjoyed the interconnected mysteries of taxonomy, biology, and history. Some mysteries are solved, but others are deepened. I feel confident that the final explanation will be satisfying. (I’m assuming it’s not going to be Isabella discovering evolution, because that seems to already have been discovered – she mentions the concept of different species having a common ancestor as if that’s an ordinary idea to consider.)

The supporting characters in are more vivid and interesting than in the previous installments. Jake comes to life as a personality, both like and unlike his mother, obsessive but on a different topic. Their relationship neatly steers between the obvious clichés of “I hate you for loving dragons more than me” and “Who cares about dragons now that I’m a mommy.” Suhail is a satisfying possible love interest, both sexy and geeky. To Isabella, he’s mostly sexy because he’s geeky, though she does appreciate the multiple occasions when his underwater explorations require him to remove his shirt. I also liked the adrenaline junkie ship’s captain, Aekinitos.

But my favorite supporting character was Heali’i. And that leads neatly into spoilers. Read more... )

A tremendously fun and unexpectedly thought-provoking installment of the series, with all the dragons one could desire.

I read an ARC that was missing the illustrations, but based on the stellar quality of the illustrations in the first two books and the extremely tempting captions, I will have to buy the actual book to get them. I would also pay for a book of more illustrations plus Isabella’s field notes on dragons, and I bet I’m not the only one.

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)
Warriors of Alavna, by N. M. Browne. Children’s time travel or portal fantasy. The first few pages, with a popular boy and an outcast girl stumbling into another world or time, grabbed me despite some irritating word repetition. (Yes, I got that the magical yellow portal mist felt oily the first two times you mentioned it.) Keep.

Can’t Catch Me, by Michael Cadnum. Fairy-tale re-tellings in a charming voice. Definite keep, probable read soon.

The Oracle Betrayed, by Catherine Fisher. Extremely vivid first chapter, in which a girl in a fantasy ancient Greece enacts a ritual involving a brass bowl full of scorpions, to bring death to a god incarnate and rain to her land. Definite keep, probable read soon.

The Complete Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper. Classic sf that I’ve never read. The opening had nice vivid worldbuilding, and also a playful tone, which I hadn’t expected. It seems fun. Keep.

Shadow Prowler, by Alexey Pehov. Epic fantasy translated from Russian. I have never read any Russian fantasy, so I was excited to read something different from American and British epic fantasy. Then I hit this, on page one: Fortunately, I have yet to run into the demons who have appeared in the city since the Nameless One began stirring in the Desolate Lands after centuries of calm.

Nevertheless, I persevered. And encountered this on page two: The rumor is that the artifact that has until now held the Nameless One in the Desolate Lands is weakening, and soon he will burst through into our world from that icy desert covered with eternal snow. War is approaching, no matter how hard the Order of Magicians and the multitudes of priests try to put it off. It's simply a matter of time. Six months, or perhaps a year—and then all those things they used to frighten us with when we were children will be upon us. The Nameless One will gather together an army and come to us from behind the Needles of Ice, and the horror will begin. Even here, in the capital, you sometimes come across devotees of the Nameless One. And I'm far from certain that the Wild Hearts of the Lonely Giant Fortress will be able to hold back the hordes of ogres and giants. . .

Unless someone wants to tell me that this is actually a brilliant satire, discard.
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In which Lady Isabella Trent, alt-Victorian dragon naturalist and explorer, goes to Africa.

Needless to say, she learns about dragons, but also about herself. She’s already grown up quite a bit at the start of the book, and grows more during it, becoming less blinkered, reckless, and self-centered. This allows for a wider and more complex view of both the individual people and the cultures she encounters, but loses some of the humor of the first book, which largely came from Isabella being monomaniacal.

The first half of the book is largely taken up with Isabella traveling and meeting people and learning about the region’s culture and politics— but not, alas, its dragons. That part was interesting on a worldbuilding level, but slow. I also really, really wanted more dragons.

About halfway through, the plot gains a lot of suspense, some dragons appear, and I got more involved with Isabella’s character growth. The second half read very quickly, and had some fun surprises. But while the dragons were satisfyingly different from the ones in the first book, they play a surprisingly small role— more quest object than actual presence. Given how fascinating they were in the first book, I definitely could have used more dragons in this one.

While a solid story in its own right, the book does feel like a lot of it is there to set up later events. I’m looking forward to Voyage of the Basilisk, which I suspect and hope will have more dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)
I am trying to beat a path through my unread books, which have gotten really out of hand. As in, I have no room for new books. I am setting myself a challenge: to periodically pick up unread books, especially ones on overcrowded shelves that I don’t even know why I own the book in the first place, and read one chapter. On the basis of that, it either goes back on the shelf or to Goodwill. (Or— likely frequent outcome— I finish reading the book on the spot.)

Obviously, these notes are not remotely full reviews, but are merely for entertainment purposes. Feel free to tell me if you think I’m about to discard something I’d enjoy if I persevered.

Voices After Midnight, by Richard Peck. Author was famous in the ‘80s, but I never got into him. Two kids from 1988 time-travel to 1888. I know this because of the back of the book, but the first chapter-and-a-half didn’t get to it. Extremely, extremely dated, packed full of references that were new and hip in 1988. Also, dullsville. Discard.

Sign of the Raven, by Julie Hearn. Another time travel children’s book, this one to the early seventeenth century, which also didn’t get to the time travel by the time I gave up. First chapter consists of a mom with cancer, lots of descriptions of a mysterious stench, and a protagonist I really didn’t like. Likely to be depressing and full of grossness. Discard.

Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, by A. Lee Martinez. A minotaur girl in a Percy Jackson-esque world. The first page was funny enough to grab me, plus one rarely sees a female minotaur. Keep.

Anxiety and its Treatment, by Griest, Jefferson, and Marks. An intro to anxiety for people who’ve just been diagnosed with it, not a treatment manual, as I thought when I nabbed it from library discards. Too old and dated to be useful. Discard.

A Night Without Stars, by James Howe. This grabbed me enough to finish it, though I’m not sure I’d re-read. Italian-American, 11-year-old Maria has to have an operation for a hole in her heart. She’s scared and no one explains things to her clearly. At the hospital, she meets Donald, a boy her age with severe burns, whom the other hospitalized kids mock and ostracize. Donald and Maria bond over admitting their fear and being honest. Dated in many ways, which is too bad since it was obviously written in part for children who are facing surgery and probably wouldn’t be given to them now due to the datedness, but emotionally honest and sweet.
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