Category Archives: fantasy

Book Review: Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

Stormwielder  (The Sword of Light #1)Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a promising debut novel. The construction and characterization are not seamless, but it held my attention until the end. I have read another of the author’s books, set in modern times, and overall I liked this one better.

Where I think the author’s writing especially shines is in coming up with plot developments that make sense and move the action forward. The story is fast paced and never gets bogged down. The battle and action scenes are well written and enjoyable but also skimmable if you get tired of that sort of thing after a while, the way I do.

A character whose magic is too strong for him to control so that he unwittingly commits terrible deeds is an intriguing premise. This would have been a good setup for the development of a dark wizard. That Eric doesn’t go that way, but is actually led towards redemption, could be a very powerful character arc. That potential is largely unrealized in this novel. Eric learns to control his magic pretty easily and quickly once he meets up with Alastair, and never looks back.

In general the relationships between Eric and Alastair and Eric and Inken are pleasant to read but I think they could have used more development. If a story is going to start with magic so strong out of control that it burns down an entire village, murdering dozens if not hundreds of people, it is going to have to take more than a week or two and a few lessons for the magicker to learn to control that magic. A more drawn-out and suspenseful learning curve would have also given us more opportunity to learn about the history of the world and the magical system.

This book almost seemed like 2 stories, stuck uncomfortably together. The first deals with Eric, his magic, and the fallout from his destroying Gabriel’s village. It is basically an origin story for Eric. The second is when the real quest begins, to save the world from Archon. I liked both stories but found them a little thin in this format. I hope that in future installments Eric’s past comes back to haunt him and provide some further conflict.
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Mundane Monday: Embassy Suites

I was out with my husband finding some geocaches near a creek in Milpitas for my daily streak (830 days as of this writing), and spotted this building in the distance.

The way the light shines on it through the clouds, the green hills around it, the dome, the river, the mist, all this made me think it might be something special. Maybe some rich Silicon Valley millionaire’s villa, or a folly building like a mini Hearst Castle. A winery? A high school? A museum?

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It turns out it’s an Embassy Suites hotel. I’ve never stayed there, but yeah, it looks nice.

The Mundane Monday Challenge is under new ownership. Check it out at K Ottaway’s Rural Mad as Hell Blog.

Book Review: The Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

The Silver OptionThe Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

Vampire novels are not my usual genre, but I did read Twilight years ago along with my then-tweenage daughter. The Silver Option is much smarter, but less creepy-romantic. There is also no need here to wade through pages of bloated purple prose to get to the good parts.

Lasky’s writing is snappy and witty. She gives her characters fresh voices and manages to make the existence of vampires believable in fin-de-siècle Cincinnati without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Her explanation of vampire biology was very smooth. I don’t know if she writes science fiction, but I think she would be good at it.

The first half of this book is excellently paced, and I enjoyed Jeff’s initial attempts to hide his vampire nature from Roxanne. The scenes told from his point of view created a believable alien/vampire mindset. Jeff’s behavior was a good simile for the self-conscious stage play that is modern dating. I also didn’t mind knowing before the characters did why Roxanne turned. The description of her turning was both eerie and matter-of-fact. It was a delicious irony that Roxanne handled vampire-hood so much better than Jeff.

The death of Tiffany tripped me up. The situation in which Roxanne uses her vampire nature to seek revenge on rapey douchebags has a lot of potential, but that potential was underutilized. Tiffany’s character deserved better, and the fact that Roxanne played a role in her death, however unintentional, undermined the argument that Roxanne had a good handle on this whole vampire thing. I won’t spoil the ending but I found it a little abrupt. It was almost a relief to get back inside Jeff’s head again.

That is a minor quibble, however. The Silver Option is a fun read, even for readers who may not think they like vampires.

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Film Review: Tomb Raider

This film could be called “white woman’s burden.” It mirrors social progress in a number of ways, and in others shows how far we still have to go, especially in this genre. I haven’t seen the original Angelina Jolie version of Tomb Raider, and I don’t play the Lara Croft video games, so I’m coming to this review as an outsider. My husband likes blockbuster adventure movies and superhero movies and I often do too. This one seemed like a blend of Batman and Wonder Woman with a little Isak Dinesen thrown in.

A real character?

Alicia Vikander is compelling in the lead role and is fun to watch. While that is certainly progress from Lara Croft’s origins as a character so top-heavy you wonder how she could possibly haul that chest out of bed, let alone up the side of a cliff, it’s a rather low bar to clear.

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This film starts out appearing to give her a genuine character arc. She is shown full of braggadocio and naiveté in equal measure. That she’s realistically tough in the boxing ring and fast on a bike make some of her later stunts a little less Mary-Sue-ish. And it makes sense that a poor little rich girl with more bravery than sense would get taken advantage of by muggers in Hong Kong.

Disappointing Men

But the other characters, especially the men, are disappointing. Lu Ren, who takes Lara by boat to the remote island where their fathers both disappeared, could be a much more multifaceted character than he is. He too has lost his father in mysterious circumstances and is apparently suffering from depression and alcoholism. He nonetheless survives a disastrous shipwreck, shrugs off being shot in the shoulder, and bounces back from a direct blow to the face to become a handy sidekick and helper when Lara needs him most. He spends most of the film taking this sort of abuse, sometimes for laughs. Daniel Wu, who plays Lu Ren, is a charismatic, famous actor in China, and deserves better. Some actual chemistry between these two characters would have gone a long way.

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Sprout

Her father, Richard Croft, starts out more promising. Appearing to have lost his fragile grip on reality, at first he thinks he is hallucinating when he sees Lara on the island. But the flashbacks that show their relationship are saccharine-sweet and confusing in their timeline.  The camera lingers on a goodbye scene between Richard a roughly 8-year-old Lara, to the point that it makes you think that that must have been when he disappeared. Which would make the current Lara all of 16 . . . but wait . . . she’s really 21.  When teenage Lara finally shows up in the final flashback, it’s redundant.

Her relationship with her father seems to consist solely of his leaving and promising to come back. And surely an eccentric, slightly mad, grief-stricken billionaire titan of industry could have come up with a better nickname for his daughter than “Sprout.” I was reminded for some reason of an underwhelming scene between a young Tony Stark and his father. Superhero movies are obsessed with parents, particularly fathers, yet they never seem to understand, or be able to dramatize, what kids really need from these figures.

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Several times during the movie, it is hinted that Richard might actually be mad, or at least that his mental health has been compromised by grief and isolation. It is further suggested that Lara herself is skeptical about her father’s quest but blinded by her love and respect for him. That she shares this skepticism with Lu Ren and with the antagonist, Mathias Vogel, could have made for some gripping psychological mind games as the legends of Himiko are explored during the climax. But this opportunity too is squandered.

The fruits of privilege

This iteration of Tomb Raider proves that women can be believable, relatable action heroes, something that was actually in question 30 years ago. But this female hero has only gotten as far as Bruce Wayne and Charles Xavier before her. A rich, privileged white person uses the fruits of that privilege to fight villains that look like herself and grapple with the ugly legacy of colonialism. The modern Lara Croft is a breakthrough character for white women, maybe, but not for the majority of the human race.

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This movie, thankfully, doesn’t take itself all that seriously. This is what saves it from being a self-important mess. At one point, as Lara’s situation gets even more dire, she looks at the camera and says “Really?”

We would all do well to watch this film in that spirit.

Check out my review, and others, on MovieBabble!

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

The book by Madeleine L’Engle on which this movie was based was one of my childhood favorites. I looked forward to the film eagerly because I wanted to see a gifted director do justice to the material. I thought that many of the changes were promising updates for modern audiences, able to bring the book’s uplifting message of love to more people.

On an even more personal note, my still-unfinished novel, Hallie’s Cache, was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories, a misfit young teen girl looks for her missing father and grows into herself in the process. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected from 26 publishers before going on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century. There has been a previous attempt at making a movie out of this material in 2003, with mixed success. It has always defied categorization: is it for adults or children? Is it fantasy or science fiction? Is it too Christian or not Christian enough?

After watching the current version, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to make a good movie out of this book. The director, Ava Duvernay, did everything right: she assembled a great cast and approached the project with care, respect, and a wide open vision. And I enjoyed it on its own terms; I identified with Meg and her teenage problems. I found Storm Reid to be an appealing and relatable actress. I rooted for her and her friends to save her father. I loved the trippy visuals, the costumes, the animations. I even cried for the brokenness in the world, as gently as it was portrayed, and cheered for the family’s reunion. But it wasn’t the story that packed the emotional punch that I remembered and loved all these years. Opening to mixed reviews and eclipsed at the box office, it is likely to remembered, if at all, as a footnote to Duvernay’s career.

As much as I hate to admit this about a childhood favorite book, the problem is likely not with the filmmakers, but with the source material. Written in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is of a particular time and place. The book’s characters are all European-Americans, redheads or mousy-brown-haired with Anglo-sounding names like Charles Wallace and Dennys (who, with his twin brother, is wholly absent from this movie). It famously opens with the Bulwer-Lytton cliche: “It was a dark and stormy night,” as Meg watches a thunderstorm from her lonely, cluttered attic room. For these reasons, and because of the three witches, the gossip about Mr Murry’s disappearance, and the neighbor’s sheets drying on the line, I had always pictured it taking place in an eccentric, secretive New England small town–a small town with a dark side like the ones that L’Engle herself, and her contemporary Shirley Jackson, lived in and raised their families.

Bringing this story out into the bright Southern California sunshine as this movie did took too much of the edge off. Certainly there are edgy areas of Southern California too, but we didn’t see those. The Murrys’ home is gorgeous and spacious. The middle school Meg attends is a well-resourced model of ethnic diversity headed by principal of color who is a three-time science teacher of the year award winner. This muddies the rationale for why Meg is bullied by the other students. In the book, Charles Wallace is an odd prodigy, perhaps a savant on the autism spectrum although that was not understood at the time the book was written, and Meg gets in trouble at school for defending him from bullies. She is thereby always his protector, and her actions at the end of the book, when her fierce love saves Charles Wallace from IT’s clutches, are perfectly in character and make emotional sense.

In the movie on the other hand, Charles Wallace is still a prodigy, but he appears quite well tolerated, happy, and self-contained, and he doesn’t need Meg to protect him. If anything, he is the one protecting Meg. Meg’s outcast status is instead attributed to her father’s disappearance. But in present day California, with so many children being raised by single parents and blended families, her father’s disappearance would not be the scandal it was in 1962. Her loneliness can and does lead her to act out further, but it is a feeble justification for her school situation as depicted here.

Details of what happened on Camazotz are also compressed in the movie. The book’s depiction of Camazotz, the planet that has given in to evil, gives off a sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic banality. Complete conformity to a 1950s suburban nuclear family ideal is expected, and outsiders’ food turns to dust in their mouths. “IT,” the master controller, appears in the book as a disembodied brain on a dais. IT appeals to Charles Wallace and seduces him to ITs side because of ITs ability to control and impose order on messy human impulses. IT was a metaphor for the tyranny of a society that values and runs on brains and intellect alone and disregards love. That in the book there are two battles against IT and that Meg must make the decision on her own to return to Camazotz and rescue Charles Wallace compound the sense of foreboding and dread, as well as making Meg’s triumph sweeter and more meaningful when she does ultimately rescue him.

The movie, however, shows little of Camazotz; the scene with the kids bouncing balls in unison seems like a confusing non-sequitur rather than a Potemkin village masking the fear and desperation of the populace. After her father and Calvin are defeated, Meg is forced immediately into lonely battle with IT. This battle scene was disappointing. Some of the creepy tree-like things with branches might have supposed to have been neurons with dendritic trees, but the overall connection of the movie’s IT to an emotionless, loveless, disembodied brain capable of the ultimate in mind control was weak.

The rescue scene itself focused too much on whether Meg herself was lovable in spite of her faults and not enough on the transforming power of Meg’s sacrificial love for Charles Wallace. The book is unapologetically Christian in outlook, reflecting L’Engle’s own Christian faith and naming Jesus as one of the warriors against the darkness that enveloped Camazotz. I believe that L’Engle intended Meg’s love for Charles Wallace here to be selfless and Christlike, yet her Christian imagery and references have been dropped from the movie, to its detriment. Mrs. Who quotes and references many world religions; Christianity could have been included there. And why not acknowledge Jesus’ role, and the role of faith for many Christians, in fighting evil? True to her character, the scientist Meg would likely remain skeptical, and that would be okay too. Warriors can come from all faith traditions, and from no faith tradition.

The other big problem with this story is the science, the so-called “Wrinkle in Time” itself, known in both the movie and the book as a tesseract. Back in 1962 at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when the theory of relativity was new and humans hadn’t yet gone to the moon, the idea that you could bend space-time with your mind by “tuning” it to the right frequency might have been a little more believable than it is now. There is a scene in the movie in which Dr. Murry is shown giving a seminar about how tessering works. Jeers and guffaws of disbelief come from the audience; as well they would in real life. He sounds like a New Age motivational speaker in the tradition of Werner Erhard, or a trickster like Uri Geller.

I still remember when an annoying boy in my physics class explained to me what a tesseract “really” was: a cube within a cube, a projection of 4-dimensional space into 3 dimensions the way the drawing of a cube on paper as a square within a square was a projection of 3-dimensional space onto 2. There was nothing about wormholes or traveling 93 million miles with just your mind. Talk about disappointing! It wouldn’t have taken much to give Dr. Murry in the film a high-tech device that would make tessering possible, or some novel psi powers based on his and his wife’s research. These would have to be hand-wavey and entirely fictional of course, but good shows have been based on less. What doesn’t work is asking us to accept that New Age mumbo-jumbo somehow became true for this family because they “believed in themselves.”

As a smart girl who was interested in science, I believed too long in this book’s oversimplified and inaccurate version of how science works. Meg’s parents worked together in a homemade lab; when her father disappeared, her mother continued her experiments in the kitchen, bunsen burner on one counter, soup on the other. There was no mention of grants, funding, students, safety regulations, collaboration outside the family unit, or even publication. It’s a more romantic and family-friendly vision of doing science than has ever actually existed. Perhaps this vision was inspired by the real-life Curies, French Nobel Laureates Marie and Pierre and their children, who discovered radioactivity; yet their work had a visible dark side. Modern science is safer for its practitioners, and it is more open and collaborative than either what the Curies experienced or L’Engle’s vision. It is also more expensive and more technical, and requires more energy and perseverance than romantic genius for success. A film that wants to inspire young people in science in the 21st century would do well to tell a more accurate story about the scientific process. This film drops that ball completely.

I hope this movie inspires its young audience, but sadly, I don’t believe it’s memorable enough for that.

Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.  Continue reading Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Always Walking Away

RIP Ursula K Le Guin.

I read her story, “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,” as a teenager, and I never forgot it. The name Omelas comes from her reading of a street sign to Salem, O(regon) backwards. “[… People ask me] ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?” The story is about a beautiful, vibrant town, Omelas, whose very existence rests on the hidden suffering of a neglected and abused child. Most residents of Omelas learn to ignore the child’s suffering when they become aware of it. A few do not; they are the ones who walk away.

More recently Le Guin’s social commentary has been on display in the Oregonian, as she protested the coverage of the “Flock of Right-Wing Loonybirds” who had taken over the Malheur wildlife refuge, or gave her opinion of “alternative facts.” To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie. 

I’m grateful I got to meet Le Guin for a week one summer at the Clarion West SF writers’ workshop in Seattle. There she sometimes referred to herself self-deprecatingly and humorously as “the little she-slug.” I wrote a fantasy story that she critiqued, called “Sunrise on West Lake.” Inspired by my time living in West Berlin before the wall fell, it was about a musician who escaped, who walked away from a repressive society. The protagonist was named Ravena after the corner bus stop where I caught the bus to the workshop. That corner was actually at Ravenna and Woodlawn, in the Green Lake neighborhood. But I dropped one of the n’s, just for fun. Ursula’s first comment on the story was, “why do female fantasy protagonists’ names always have to end with -a? Yours doesn’t!”

“Sunrise,” like every short story I’ve ever written, wanted to be a novel. Recently I wrote another short story that wants to be a novel, called “Life and the Maiden.” The title is meant as a play on “Death and the Maiden,” which is the title of a song, poem, movie, and string quartet by Franz Schubert. Music still plays a role in this more recent story, but the protagonist this time, a “maiden” named Viola (after the instrument), rebels against her musician parents and doesn’t play. And she too walks away, literally, from her childhood home. While writing the walking away scene, I pictured Gwyneth Paltrow’s character from Shakespeare in Love, sole survivor of a shipwreck, walking away from shore towards adventures unknown; propelled towards a new life from the ruins of the old.

John Scalzi wrote this wonderful tribute to Le Guin in this morning’s LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-leguin-scalzi-20180123-story.html

In it, he writes about a different book of Le Guin’s, Always Coming Home, and the effect that it had on him:

“This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer — the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who then walk through it. “Always Coming Home” is not generally considered one of Le Guin’s great books, but for me as a writer and a reader, it was the right book at the right time. The book turned me on to the possibility of science fiction beyond mere adventure stories for boys — that the genre could contain, did contain, so much more. The book opened me to read the sort of science fiction I didn’t try before.”

I hadn’t thought of this interpretation until now. I understand walking away, but I had had trouble getting through Always Coming Home. At the time I considered that a bug, but maybe it was a feature. Maybe Scalzi’s words are a worthy counterpoint to some of the straitjacketed genre plotting advice that is out there.

I’ve been to Salem O, and my daughter goes to school there. The Pacific Northwest, where Le Guin lived, is a beautiful place. One can imagine where she got the inspiration for the joys and delights of the Omelas summer festival. “The Ones who Walk Away” was written in 1973; it was chilling back then. Read through the lens of modern politics and formulaic action-packed dystopian fiction, at first it seems smaller in scope and even a little quaint. But it still hits me, a privileged, white, (no-longer-so) young person, someone who would theoretically love to participate in such a summer festival, right in the gut.

I wonder again, where are the walkers going? Maybe this is a story about a failure of imagination, or a failure of faith. Maybe instead of walking away, they should have stayed and tried to change things. Can you really walk away from Omelas? Are you walking away, like Viola, to a brave new world? Or, in the walking away, are you finally coming home?

***

“Life and the Maiden” was officially rejected yesterday from the short story contest I sent it to, so I am free to disregard the word limit and turn it into the novel it wants to be. (Yay?!)

Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Breach, by Lauren L Garcia

Catalyst Moon: Breach (Catalyst Moon Saga Book 2)Catalyst Moon: Breach by Lauren L. Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I reviewed Book 1 in this series, Catalyst Moon: Incursion, I wrote “I’m glad I read this book, and I do want to know what happens to the characters. But I wish I didn’t have to wait so long to find out.”

It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long at all. Book 2, Breach, is here, and it’s significantly better than Book 1. Continue reading Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Breach, by Lauren L Garcia

Book Review: The Time Table by Caroline Mather

The Time TableThe Time Table by Caroline Mather

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this independently published book to review as a member of the Book Review Directory, where my blog is listed. The writing style is fluid and a little formal, which fits the setting, and the formatting is clean and error free. I read it in about an hour on a plane, and it made the flight time pass quickly.

The Time Table is about a billiard table, built from slate cut from a Standing Stone in the British Isles, which serves as a portal through which people can travel through time. The author spends just the right amount of time and effort on explaining how this works—that is, not much—and gets right to the stories, which are all set in attractive periods of English history, including the present day.

The book works well as a collection of loosely-related tales centered around the billiard table and the London house where it has been located since the early 1700s. Quite a few people end up going through the table—so many that one is a bit surprised that it’s still a secret in 2016.

Overall the pacing of the stories is pretty good, never draggy, but sometimes the kissing starts surprisingly quickly and without much warning. There is a lot of kissing, caressing, and stolen, smoldery looks, but nothing more. The sexism of past ages is invariably dealt with or mitigated by the love of good men, and the table itself is always a force for good, helping its hapless humans work through their modern and not-so-modern dissatisfactions. The author’s optimism about love, relationships, the power of conversation, and the possibility of living happily ever after, is refreshing.

I don’t usually read time travel romances, so others more familiar with the genre might be less forgiving of some of this book’s foibles than I, but I found it to be a delightful break from heavier reading fare, like a tasty chocolate bon bon.

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Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

The Winter Knife (Minnesota Strange Book 1)The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good YA literature will stay with me long after I am finished with it, even as an adult. I would have been in the prime target audience for this book when I was a teenager, and I would have devoured it (pun intended). The story was a pleasant surprise on several levels. First, the author has a real gift for character and voice, especially with young teens. She manages to tell a fantastical story without talking down or condescending to her audience, while at the same time not going to any of the despairing, hopeless, or crazy places I feared she might be heading with the supernatural element.  Continue reading Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville