A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

This book reads like fanfic grown wild and untamed, the sturdy and feral descendant of stories past. That, in my mind, is a good thing.

I tried to sum up the novel’s concept, as practice for making pitches and loglines, and came up with something like… “what if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I did not, apparently, read the first released edition. Before posting this, I read a little bit of other commentary on A Deadly Education, to doublecheck my own impressions, and found some critiques of what seemed like racist content that I had entirely missed. It turns out that I wasn’t oblivious (this time): Naomi Novik acknowledged those critiques after receiving them last fall, said the language was unintentional, undesired, and unnecessary, and removed it from later versions of the text (including the version I read).

Honestly, the only thing that seemed off to me was the lack of more queer folks. As someone who works with kids and teens, I’m kind of surprised that there was so little overt inclusion of characters who weren’t cis and het, even in the background. Yes, it’s easy to read one or two characters as queer, but “plausibly deniable” inclusion just isn’t the same thing. I know that Novik has included queer people in her Temeraire books (only as side characters sadly, but important and beloved ones), and—given the change in context from Napoleonic-era historical fantasy to modern teen fantasy—the general lack seems like an avoidable oversight.

Now, of course, dating and romance necessarily take a back seat to simply surviving in this story. Certainly it could be argued that our protagonist, outcast that she is, is paying more attention to other things than the sexualities and genders of those around her. But she’s also an astute social observer, and I would expect her to pay attention to who was dating whom (or who was crushing on whom) if only for the way that those relationships would change power dynamics in the Scholomance. Surely someone in that hell-pit of a school is openly queer.

That said, the lack of more queer rep was not a dealbreaker for me. I was still stuck in this book, pulled back in repeatedly. I’d open it while my computer turned on, and then keep reading while the machine patiently waited for my password. I’d open it when I sat down for lunch, and lose an afternoon. I’d open it as I lay in bed, and then struggle to put it down and sleep. This book grabbed me, and I want the sequel.

Putting those issues aside, I rather liked the book’s commentary and focus on inequality, and the way that inequality is baked into the setting as a driving force. It’s poignantly, painfully honest—and reminds me in a good way of later themes in the Temeraire series. The resources available to any wizard are a vital concern, and they’re literally life or death for students in the Scholomance. People will do nearly anything to get an edge, or keep one, and that desperation is the lifeblood of this book. I’m so glad that it’s brought to the forefront here.

Yes, I recommend this book. If you wanted more teen wizards, awful and dangerous schools, teenage drama in terrible circumstances, or delightfully and justifiably angry female narrators, this book will make you very happy. Indulge yourself.

Also, if you want another perspective on the book, check out this naga’s thoughts. I used the image at top from that site.

Soul (2020)

I liked this movie, but had some complicated feelings about it.

On the one hand:

Soul is, in my opinion, a higher quality movie than many other current American movies. I enjoyed it, and yes, it did make me cry a bit. Soul also does a better job of including non-white people, and specifically black people, than most previous Pixar movies. The same is true of Soul in comparison to animated movies in general, beyond Pixar. As such, it represents an improvement on the current state of American movies both in terms of representation and in terms of other elements of artistic quality. Basically, yes, Pixar continues to know how to make good movies.

On the other hand:

Doing a better job of including non-white people, and specifically black people, than most previous Pixar movies? That’s a comically low bar. The same holds for most movies in general. It honestly isn’t hard to expand the portrayal of black characters beyond being poor, criminal, or poor and criminal… and yet American film and TV continues to stagnate there (with a few notable exceptions). So while Soul does improve on this front—and I’m glad that it does!—I’m reluctant to give Soul too much credit beyond acknowledging and being glad that Pixar is moving in the right direction.

Perhaps more importantly, there are a number of critiques of the movie—predominantly from people of color—about how people of color show up in the movie. These critiques include but are not limited to the discomfort and weirdness around *SPOILERS* putting a white woman’s voice in a black character’s body for a decent chunk of the film, or having the black character be disembodied for much of the runtime *END SPOILERS*. While my opinion on this front really doesn’t matter, these critiques seem fair to me.

Where does that leave Soul?

I enjoyed watching it. I think it’s a good movie. I would have liked to tweak the end a smidge to hone a theme that I think was present but not quite fully realized… but that’s okay. I also think those issues mentioned above are real and present, and the critiques I read (or which were read to me) around the time Soul came out make sense.

If we lived in a world where there was not such a poverty of representation for black people in movies, animated or otherwise, I think none of these critiques would be especially trenchant. If we lived in that world, Soul would simply be a good movie with touching observations about what it means to be a human, to be alive. As part of a larger constellation of abundant and varied representations of black people, Soul would be great.

We’re not in that world, not yet. We have a long way to go. Soul is a step in the right direction, but it’s not perfect. We have to keep moving.

A side note… I have to remind myself sometimes that it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to make art that isn’t perfect, or doesn’t match the ideal in my mind. And, when I screw up, I have to remember that anyone who walks is going to fall on their ass sometimes. I must keep my art sufficiently removed from my self that I can accept criticism of it (and can critique it myself) without throwing myself into debilitating self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. And then, of course, I have to try again.

Some of my patience for Pixar and Soul comes from the fact that I literally don’t have skin in the game. But some of it comes from wanting people to make art, and knowing that that means accepting some missteps along the way (as long as people are willing to learn from them, unlike J.K. Rowling’s transphobia for example).

Will Pixar learn to do better? Will they continue trying to do better? I don’t know. But I hope they do. And they can improve things by doing more of what they already do, and what they’ve already started to do.

Pixar is really good at making meaningful stories that I have treasured for years. I’d like them to keep doing that, and I’d like to think that they’re good enough, skillful enough, and have their hearts in the right place enough to help relieve that poverty of representation I mentioned before. Pixar can’t do it on their own, but they (and many other folks) can make life different. Better.

I look forward to it.

Lupin, and knowing the course of the arc

I’ve been enjoying Lupin (on Netflix) a great deal. My partner and I have been watching it together. But as we finished episode three, something started bothering me—not really a problem with the show, but instead a disconnect between, on the one hand, the trajectory of the show’s tonal arc and narrative resolution, and on the other, the number of episodes available.

I could see that there were only five episodes so far. I know that Netflix posts all episodes at once, which meant that those five episodes were all that exists (for now). But the change in the show’s tone from the end of episode one to the end of episode three, and the narrative arcs that remain to be wrapped up at the end of episode three, don’t line up with five episodes being the sum total of the show.

Unless the show is a downer, or ends with many elements of the denouement implied rather than being explicitly laid out. But neither of those possibilities match my genre expectations or the precedent the show has already set for itself.

For Lupin, there’s an easy answer: the first five episodes are the first half of the season (thanks internet), and more episodes are supposed to come out sometime in the summer of 2021. Now I know that I’m going to be treated to a cliffhanger when I hit the end of episode five, and I shouldn’t expect everything to wrap up neatly, or even to offer resolution on any front. That’s fine by me, even if I do wish I could have all the story right now.

On the topic of arcs…

I wrote a scene around two months ago, something that came to me while I experimented with some other story beats. But the scene was the emotional turning point of a larger story, without any other material to support it. The scene alone made me cry, but I couldn’t figure out what else I needed to add for the rest of the story.

It was a bit like magically building the middle of a bridge first: I could see it hang there in the air, and it was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure how the hell I was supposed to connect it to anything else. I had this sense that the moment I tied any other scenes into it, tried to support it from earlier or later in the story, the middle would come crashing down… unless the rest of the piece was perfectly aligned. This was not conducive to writing more.

Last Friday, I finally pieced together a first draft outline. This week I’ve churned out some excellent bad first draft material. I know what I need in order to fill out the rest of the story. Except…

As I’ve made progress, I’ve realized: that scene, which feels like the emotional climax of the story, doesn’t need anything after it in the story for it to feel impactful. Everything I write after that scene in some way waters down that climax—unless I can find new ways to build the climax and denouement into each other. Maybe more troublingly, the course I choose for the story’s conclusion after that climax changes the story’s tone and themes completely. There are (at least) two extremely different options before me, and I’m stuck on indecision.

It like I’ve looked at the center span of the bridge that I made, hanging magically in the air, and suddenly discovered that the bridge doesn’t have to come down where I thought. The emotional and narrative arcs could arrive in more than one place (this is normal) but I can’t decide which destination feels more right (this is less normal). I can’t decide which is more honest to the characters, the story, the setting, or the genre. I can’t tell whether my inclinations towards the different possible destinations come from past grief and depression, from my artistic sensibilities, or what.

I’ve mapped out one version, and I’m going to write it. But with the conflict I feel about it, I have to try at least one other ending. And because I’m still making the story, it’s a bit like reaching episode three of a five episode set and having to choose whether that’s it, or whether there are another five episodes coming.

Which story is better?

How can I know?

We’ll find out.

Isle of Lyn

The last of a string of islands, its land rises from a pebbled shingle beach on the windward side up to a rocky set of cliff faces on the leeward. Three small ruins sit atop the cliff’s heights, each a collection of collapsing fieldstone walls, but the isle’s largest ruin rises in a series of mounds from the isle’s central span. The mounds are crowned by rising stonework which pierces upwards through the earth, a spear of stone for each small hill crest. A few of these rising structures still hold some remnants of roof, but most have been stripped bare down to their narrow stone skeletons. Most notably, however, each mound and each spear of stone runs in a straight line pointing just off windward, aligning perfectly with the smaller islands in the string that runs to windward.

With the exception of large storms’ gusts, the wind always blows from the same direction.

The last people to live on the island might best be described as a dwindling cult, a series of occupants too devoted to their obsession with the ruins and the island chain to care for their own basic needs. The wreckage of their settlement rests near the windward base of the isle’s central valley, weatherbeaten wood and bits of fieldstone foundation. Most houses were constructed from the wooden ships of those who’d sailed to the island, hulls dragged ashore and broken down for shelter from the elements. Perhaps the greatest mystery of the cult was how and why any joined in the first place, with an alarming rate of conversion among those who visited the little colony which died there.

The dead settlement’s small fields have been long neglected, disappearing into the turf while a few volunteer crops persist. The goats brought to the island dot the green slopes, staring at newcomers so bold as to land ashore, watching any who pass nearby through the island’s waters. The goats avoid the central valley. Once cleared for easy passage, it now lies overgrown with long grasses and burgeoning brush.

It is unclear why any who visited this desolate place would have chosen to remain, let alone settle and devote the rest of their lives to tending it. The fact that so many did, that so many set themselves down in a place where the very consistency of the wind might drive one mad, baffles those who’re cursorily familiar with the island’s history. But some few observations made from the sea, or from the pebbled shingle at the islands windward edge, point to a deeper mystery.

The foundations of the old settlement houses, like the ruins atop the leeward cliffs, are fieldstone-built. Such stones are easy enough to find on the island, similar enough to the larger rocks on the pebble shingle as to be easily imagined elsewhere ashore. But the stone spears which rise from the mounds are worked, their stonework well cut and cunningly joined. Moreover, none of those stones come from anywhere nearby. The closest similar known source would require delivery over hundreds of miles, much of that open water.

Finally, each of the stone protrusions is large enough to fit several people inside, and most accounts from those who’ve visited them swear that they are hollow. No one has been down inside them in years, to the best knowledge of the outside world. If any have, they have not shared their discoveries with anyone else… though that is certainly possible, especially given the occasional fresh shipwreck found in the waters near the Isle of Lyn, or beached upon its shore.

The few old accounts of the stone spears’ interiors do not agree with each other, often in such open disagreement as to suggest that the writers were hiding something. This is often argued by those who’ve studied the Isle of Lyn, especially by those who’ve traced how many of the old writers ended their lives on the island as part of that dwindling obsessive cult. Until someone else ventures there, all that remains is quiet speculation about these strange ruins so isolated from the rest of the world.

Blythe’s Keep

Blythe’s Keep rests atop a precipice, other stonework peeking through the tall grass beneath the fortified tower, the rugged slope giving way to a half-broken cliff. The cliff descends steeply to the well-traveled road below, giving anyone at its crest a commanding view of the lowland. The road holds traces of ancient highways, massive paving stones laid snugly together, broad leafy trees spaced alongside to shade the path.

Some distance past the cliff, a tributary of those paving stones wend away from the highway, climbing the gentle slopes which rise to the keep’s cliff face. Their old course now lies buried by landslide and overgrowth, and whatever they led to—older than the keep, without a doubt—remains hidden as well. The main highway continues on, undisturbed.

The keep is recent, in the comparative ages of laid stone. Built under the direction of the warrior called Blythe, it rises about five stories from the clifftop and is still broad at its tapered peak. The remains of its sloped roof peek above the weary crenelations of the roof’s edge. From its position at the top of the cliff, any occupant of the keep could interdict traffic along the road as they wished. They could, similarly, prevent anyone from interfering with travelers upon that road.

The stories about Blythe generally agree that he was an affable bandit who rose to prominence by winning over the people living in the lowlands around the cliff and its hills. With their allegiance, he levied tolls on any who passed along the highway that ran below his cliffs, while also running off his more violent or less restrained competitors. The money he gathered with the support of the local folk went into maintaining the road, buying better tools for the locals, and building the beginnings of the watchtower which would become his keep.

It’s also well known that Blythe had an acquaintance, Insuza, with an interest in the old, dead, and arcane. Her particular expertise varies by the retelling, but it’s always considerable. Stories vary on the nature of their relationship: lovers in some tales, comrades in arms in others, sometimes both, sometimes merely professionally connected. Regardless, in every story about his keep, Insuza was consulted early and often during its construction. Something about the keep, something about where it was built—and perhaps what lay beneath it—drew her like a moth to the flame.

At some point, however, she disappeared. The keep was finished, and only Blythe remained. Blythe died a petty lordling, with his own fortified tower that he rarely left, but without any heirs to his name. All agree that he was lonely, that he slept poorly, and that it was best not to mention Insuza in his presence.

Antiquarians argue about what could possibly have driven the involvement of Insuza, and collectors of old tales disagree about what happened to her. Some point to the ancient stones which stick out like jutting teeth from beneath the tower’s feet, and say that Blythe found ruins when he laid the foundations of his keep. According to them, Insuza’s expertise was requested to know where it might be safe to build. When her knowledge was no longer needed, they say, she departed.

Others agree that ruins were found, but say that Blythe and Insuza ventured down into them only to find something horrid. Here the tales diverge once more; one branch believes Insuza emerged from the ruins, while the other claims she was lost below. Regardless, all agree that Blythe blocked off access to the ruins and set himself to guard them with his keep, perhaps patiently waiting for Insuza’s return from her research elsewhere… or dreading the moment when she’d come knocking from below, in some more horrible form.

Update, 1/27/21

This week has not gone according to plan. Last week didn’t quite either, but this week has been worse.

Suffice to say, the writing isn’t happening as intended. As desired.

However, I’ve finally read a few books again. I somehow went through a rather bad dry spell for the past several months. Maybe more like the last year. I guess I’m not actually surprised.

But reading these books has been reinvigorating, exciting, inspiring. It’s like I spent long enough drawing down my reserves of enthusiasm that the wells ran dry, and these books are filling me back up again. They’re not all exactly what I’m looking for, or fine literature per se, but they’ve all reminded me of what I love about fiction. Reading them has been wonderful.

I’ll probably write about the books here another week, when I’m not driving my partner to their grandfather’s (tiny, outdoor, socially distant) funeral.

Life ends, life continues. C’est la vie.

And as my mom pointed out, maybe this will be good fuel for more writing to come.

The Cairn of Morag

High in the windswept hills, where rain and fog shroud the grassy slopes and leave dew on brambles and gorse, a vast pile of boulders rises from between the slopes. As tall as the hills around it, taller even, the pile is known as the Cairn of Morag, and it is large enough to bury a giant. Should an intrepid explorer choose to risk themselves, it would be possible to squeeze in through the gaps between the stones, where wet trickles down and the darkness echoes with the quiet rattles of shifting pebbles and small skittering feet.

Mosses and lichens sheathe the outer stones, a green-and-gray coat that hides the cairn from distant eyes amongst the surrounding hills. The cairn is home to birds, snakes, rabbits and other small creatures, but travelers in the area speak of something far stranger: near dawn and dusk, stories say, a red fox prowls the stones with eyes that glow like the sun. Rumor has it that those who’ve seen the lights on the cairn come down with fevers, beset by visions, haunted by the dead. This illness is, perhaps, a judgement; those who’ve killed find themselves hunted in their dreams by the beings whose blood they’ve shed. Those who’ve lost loved ones speak of reconnecting, with all the touching love and horror such a meeting may bring.

The people who live below Morag’s Hills, farmers and shepherds, masons and miners, leave out small offerings to the fox and avoid looking towards the cairn. Some of their stories say Morag was a giantess, a shapeshifting witch who blessed the land around her hills and taught the first smallfolk there to farm. Those stories say that she was struck down by a jealous god, or perhaps a demon, but was too strong to be truly slain. Stuck in the realm between life and death, her old body buried by the smallfolk she had cared for, she took on the form of a red fox with sunlit eyes to watch over her hills until the moon fell from the sky.

Other tales claim that Morag was once human, a sorceress who ruled the nearby land from her hill-keep and drew down the light of the moon to feed her growing hungers. In these stories, Morag feasted on the flesh of her subjects, simmering them in her twelve cauldrons until the meat fell from the bone, reducing the blood-broth to jelly. When the stars could finally watch no more of her profane rites, they sent down servants and maledictions, burying the hungry Morag—and all her treasures—beneath her own tower. These stories say that the red fox, Hale, is the last surviving servant of the stars, and that he continues his watch over Morag’s cairn to be sure she never rises again.

Whatever truly happened, whether those stones cover a giantess, a sorceress, or some legacy more banal, few these days approach the cairn. Only those greedy or desperate enough to seek the truth, or willing to risk their lives to see the dead, travel high into those hills near dawn or dusk.

Novelizations Panel Schedule, Arisia 2021

Come hear me (and other people) talk about Movie Novelizations!

1pm EST, Saturday Jan. 16th, this coming weekend.

I’m only on the one panel this year. This is a far lighter load than I had last year, when I was on seven panels and modded four of them—one of those by surprise (the Harassment one).

Part of me is a little sad about doing less this year. I really do enjoy being on and moderating panels, for all that I was worn out by it last year. But another part of me is fine with it; I have a weekend that I can use to do other life-things. I won’t come out of this weekend feeling run down from running around constantly and talking non-stop for hours on end.

And yet.

I enjoy nerding out about a hodge-podge of topics, and I enjoy listening to other people speak knowledgeably about their areas of expertise, and I *really* enjoy shepherding panels through their explorations. I’ve made some good friends, people I value reconnecting with, over the years that I’ve been at Arisia. I’ll miss seeing and talking with them this year. I’ll miss being on panels with them.

There were fewer panels offered this year that called to me, fewer panels for which I thought “oh that one fits me to a T” or “I could really add something there.” I don’t think that lack is beyond normal variation, especially given the trying circumstances for any convention this year. And I don’t mean that there aren’t good panels on offer, merely that there weren’t as many that felt correct for me.

If you’d like to hear about movie novelizations, or the struggles involved in translating any given story across media, come check out this panel on Saturday. I hope you’ll see me there.

I had a different post, but news

I’m sure plenty of other people are writing similar things. I haven’t been able to focus since I was told to look at the news yesterday afternoon. An angry mob pushing their way into the halls of Capitol Hill, handled with kid gloves by the same law enforcement that beat so many over the summer, attempting to disrupt and undo the peaceful transfer of power that our democracy is built on…

Side note: I don’t want more people shot by law enforcement. I do not think more of yesterday’s mob should have been shot or beaten or anything else. I just want the phenomenally more peaceful protestors of color, those arguing for less police violence who have been treated so much worse over the last summer in the same city, to be handled with more generous restraint.

Resignations of Trump’s Cabinet members at this point are fervently clutched fig leafs, unless they come with something like the following statement: “I was unable to convince a majority of fellow cabinet members to invoke the 25th amendment. As such, I am resigning instead of continuing to support President Trump. I recommend that the President be removed from office immediately, by impeachment since none of the remaining cabinet will speak out.”

Society is a collective agreement about reality. Our democratic republic relies on that consensus reality being broadly shared by a sufficient mass of citizens. Without that shared reality, democracy fails.

Trump and his abettors have been working for years (decades in the case of Fox, conservative talk radio, and now their more radical news network and podcast heirs) to carve away enough people from that consensus to cover their own autocratic impulses. In many cases, this means working hand in hand with fascists and racists. The preponderance of Proud Boys and neo-nazi affiliated groups in the mob yesterday have been there all along (in case no one remembers Richard Spencer yelling “Heil Trump” after the 2016 election). They aren’t a majority, as our elections have amply demonstrated, but they sure can make a lot of violent noise.

Speaking of which, it seems strange that there’s so little coverage of the makeshift bombs found at DNC and RNC headquarters in DC yesterday.

Regardless, there must be consequences of some sort for these actions. Inciting violence and insurrection is bad. And letting people (Trump in particular) get away with it is worse. He’s reopened a wound in American society, or perhaps simply pulled off the pus-laden bandage and gleefully rubbed shit in it until it became gangrenous.

Ignoring gangrene in hopes that “time will heal all wounds” is an excellent way to die.

Movie Novelizations at Arisia 2021

I’ve had a writing break. I’m still on break, as it were, at least for another day or two. Working at home so much even before the pandemic means that I’m used to the struggle of easing myself back into my work schedule. Doesn’t make it easier. Reading about people’s struggles adjusting to working at home last March and April was vindicating, and offered guilty nourishment for my schadenfreude.

This year I will be attending Arisia virtually, and will only be on one panel. Organizing Arisia for 2021 seems like a particularly difficult and thankless task, so I am glad that a) someone else is doing it, and b) they’re still doing their best to run a convention despite COVID-19. After working digital LARP camps this summer, I really didn’t want to be on more than one or two panels in a weekend, so this is perfect for me.

The panel I’m on this year will focus on movie novelizations. I hope to include some exploration of other translations of story across media (from pure-text to text with illustration, animation, or live action… and vice versa). I’m fascinated by the ways in which stories (and the story-telling arts) change as the medium shifts, and the ways that story elements become more or less accessible for audiences across different media.

I don’t think that any particular narrative tricks are *impossible* to translate from one medium to another, but they’re certainly not all equally easy to alter.

Take, for example, the ability to convey internal emotional state. A story told purely via text can be first person, granting the reader direct access to the character’s emotional and physical state. In live action form, on a screen, that character’s emotional state is only accessible through the viewer’s interpretation of the actor… with as much (or more) variation in interpretation due to a viewer’s personal response to an actor.

Or perhaps I should compare the ease with which text can dilate and contract time, glossing over the details of a battle in a few sweeping sentences (Lloyd Alexander does this neatly a number of times in his Chronicles of Prydain series) while giving tight focus to an emotional conversation. Live action film can do these things, but I think the audience’s perception of time (and how time works on the screen) is different than the assumptions of a reader. Meanwhile, film can convey a myriad of elements in one shot, encompassing more details (and background clues) in a single frame than is feasible by text; Knives Out is a glowing example of this.

All of which is to say, I’m very excited to nerd out about this with other similarly excited people. I think there’s a lot of good material to explore.

I’ll post more details about when this panel will be when I know more myself.