The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross

It’s been a hot minute since I last read Stross. At least several years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel like I’ve changed significantly since then. Both as a person and (more narrowly) as a reader. It seems that Stross has changed somewhat as a writer as well (between this book and The Delirium Brief) but… in most ways the work is still the same. And given that what I really wanted was another Laundry Files book, that’s okay.

Also, I know I’m writing here about a book published three years ago (and therefore written even longer ago) and comparing it with a book published four years ago (thus written even further into the past). Writers are cursed to be judged on the merits of their old selves, forever. I try to be generous.

It’s weird knowing that I’m now at least five years ahead of where Stross was when he wrote the book, because my subconscious still thinks of this book as “current.” A lot has happened in the past five years. C’est la vie.

Anyway.

Did I enjoy The Labyrinth Index? Yes.

But this isn’t the place to start this series. If you pick up this book without having read a good deal of the preceding series, you’ll be lost. Some of you will no doubt pick up on things fast enough to enjoy it, but you’ll probably have a bit of cognitive whiplash. If, on the other hand, you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in the series… you know what you’re getting yourself into and you’ll probably like this one too.

This series is cosmic horror / grim bureaucratic office comedy / political thriller / spy shenanigans, and it’s the only series I know of which hits all those notes. It’s not as introspective or emotionally investigative as other books I’ve read recently. It doesn’t try to be. I’m not saying it’s merely a cold, unfeeling genre fiction monster ready to crush you beneath its plot, but it’s certainly more about intrigue and external plot than it is about interpersonal (or internal) emotional plot.

If you want something that will scratch those genre-itches, and you need to scratch all of them at once, this is the only back scratcher that I know will do the trick. If you haven’t read anything from the series yet, check out The Atrocity Archives and see whether the genre combination is to your taste. Some things in Stross’ writing will change, others will stay the same.

Relatedly… I can’t tell how much Stross’ writing of (or about) female characters has changed. I’ve been weirded out by it in the past, but that weird-factor is just connected enough to the genres Stross switches between, and just intermittent enough, that I have trouble pinning down exactly what is going on. I think he’s improved, but I haven’t compared his earlier work and his current work side by side. Just be aware that there may be odd or uncomfortable stuff there waiting for you.

Also, I sometimes feel a little weirded out by how Stross wrote the future-past—or past-future, or whatever—and wonder what strange scrying he does for his prognostications. But that quasi-prescience is also part of Stross’ appeal for me, and it’s part of what makes reading his “near-future” based work a few years later so fascinating (even if The Laundry Files aren’t the best example of this). It does tend to date his work more thoroughly.

Oh, and: if you don’t mind spoilers, there’s some good thinking on all of the above from Stross himself, right here.

Lupin (Netflix, 2021)

Months ago I wrote about Lupin, and the course of its narrative arc. Having now finished part 2, I’ll just say it’s been a heck of a trip… and a fun one. It’s absolutely true to its genre, absolutely delivers on my expectations, and still manages all the tension and rollercoaster-ride feel that you’d want from a duplicitous and intricate master-thief drama.

I was able to call many of the narrative beats ahead of time as my partner and I neared the end of the show, enough so that I barely felt surprised. This might seem like a failing in a show that’s supposed to be twisty and surprising—but by that point in the show, I wasn’t watching it for a surprise. I’d been won over by the personal drama and the characters. I knew what was expected, I knew the primary twists that would come, but what I wanted most was to see the show land its finish and wrap things up neatly with my preferred resolutions for everyone involved. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t surprised, because the show was satisfying.

It feels good to watch a show so deeply embedded in its genre, to know and appreciate the ways in which it delivers all the required beats… and to fall for the characters in the process. Yes, I recommend it. I doubt that comes as a surprise at this point.

Lupin does an excellent job of showcasing everything you need to know about its story in the first episode. Reminiscent of what Seth Dickinson does in the first chapter of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Lupin simply holds up its hands and says “I promise you this, and more of it.” And then it gives that. It does, of course, add more emotional depth and greater context in some truly wonderful ways, but it stays true to its promise.

If you watch the first episode and decide you don’t want more, don’t worry about it. If you’re on the fence I suggest a couple more episodes; some of the show’s emotional background is only visible with a little more context. But if you saw that first episode and were hooked, I’m glad to say you’ve got another nine to enjoy (and even more some day soon, given the confirmation of a third season).

Have fun.

Amari and the Night Brothers, by B. B. Alston

Some books reshape their genre. Others expand it to include a wider range of voices. Some do both. I often like books that do the first. I believe we as a society and community need books that do the second. For examples of books that reshape their genres, I’d offer up The Ballad Of Black Tom and The Fifth Season. For books that expand their genre, those two still work… but I can also add A Dead Djinn In Cairo, and now B. B. Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers.

Amari and the Night Brothers feels like another step in the same chain as A Dead Djinn In Cairo. It doesn’t, in my eyes, revolutionize the underlying components of the genre (yet), but it’s solid and has a refreshingly different perspective from the usual run of Middle Grade supernatural school protagonists. Amari—the main character—is black (as is B. B. Alston) and in a genre so dominated by white writers and white characters that’s pretty dramatic. It feels sad to say that’s enough, but I think it’s true.

As I said, this book didn’t fundamentally change or subvert anything I expected from the genre. I was able to plot out the tropes and most of the twists pretty well beforehand. But it’s good. Those tropes I saw coming felt right, and their resolutions felt rewarding. This story does everything I’d want a solid book in the MG supernatural school genre to do (with allowance for a little bit of deus ex machina), and it does it with heart and with a different set of assumptions about the world than so many other stories I’ve seen and read. That’s what I love and admire about it, why I’d recommend it.

And unlike A Dead Djinn In Cairo, I’ve seen enough of B. B. Alston’s work here to believe that there are other interesting things coming down the pipe, ways in which this story is going to grow, and tell its story differently. Amari and the Night Brothers already had my interest standing on its own. And I look forward to seeing what new paths B. B. Alston adds to this well-trodden genre.

Late-Posting Ear Infection Blues

The title says it, really.

I’ve got several things to share, notably: I just read Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, I’m currently reading Three Ordinary Girls by Tim Brady, and on Tuesday I just put together the rough layout of my second World Seed (pre-art).

But I’ve got an ear infection, and the antibiotics I’ve been given are wreaking havoc on my guts and my energy level. And since today was far busier than I’d expected, here I am writing about this at 10pm.

I’m going to be out of the loop for a bit, but I’ll probably have posts for you about those two books at some point in the near future. And if you play RPGs and want ideas for scenarios, or want kits that will teach you ways to make any cool idea into your own scenario, check out Whimsy’s Throne on Patreon.

A Dead Djinn In Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark

Short, fast, fun. A Dead Djinn In Cairo is a good read, with a marvelous setting. It’s also my first time reading any of P. Djèlí Clark’s work.

As a veteran fan of investigative mystery horror, adventure, and Mythos stories, the tropes here feel familiar. That seems intentional. These character and plot tropes are called on to lend the story its structure and familiarity, and they make the story quick and tight when it might otherwise require more explanation and exposition. This works well; it’s an expert’s use of the existing genre shorthand to sketch in structure and conventions, and it lets Clark explore ideas and settings that rarely make it into these genres. It’s skillfully done, and worth admiration.

That exploration is part of why I don’t mind P. Djèlí Clark’s reliance on tropes for narrative stability. He lavishes his attention on novelty elsewhere, with quick splashes of set dressing that seep slowly out of the scenery. The combination of elements is delicious (a turn-of-the-1900s ascendant Egypt, women’s increasing independence, religious turmoil, fantastical creatures and beings in our world following the removal of some of reality’s barriers…). It’s all very good. I love the world he’s created here and will happily read more of it.

But that reliance means I don’t yet have a sense of whether I’ll like P. Djèlí Clark’s other narratives. At some point I’ll want more than my enthusiasm for this cool setting; I’d love for the narrative and its tropes to feel exciting without feeling like they hew so closely to the genre’s conventions, and I’d love for Clark to take the standard tropes and twist them a little more firmly into his own setting’s image. That said, I’d certainly recommend this story over any number of other genre stories. He delivers the expected tropes at least as well as any of the older examples I have to hand, and the trappings of P. Djèlí Clark’s story are more appealing to me. Based on this, I hope he’ll find other ways to exceed those stories as well.

Ted Lasso S2, 2 episodes in

It’s… not as good yet.

I’ve been struggling to figure this out. I’m not surprised that it doesn’t feel as incredibly good, because the experience of that first season is hard to replicate. But I’d hoped that it wouldn’t feel like such a come-down. And I couldn’t understand why it did until I’d talked it over with my partner.

Actually, we talked about it, then saw an interview with two of the writers, then talked about it some more. The interview helped things click, talking it over again settled them.

Season two is still more like what I want from television right now than most other shows are. It’s still a show that (mostly) feels pretty good, and I still enjoy it. I still recommend it, to those who liked the first season.

But the rhythm is off.

Season one of Ted Lasso had a spectacular rhythm to its delivery of plot development. It built arcs and finished them neatly in places during an episode that left me feeling secure, which is strange for most TV shows I’ve seen recently. And even when arcs were left hanging between episodes, I didn’t feel like the show was toying with me and my feelings. Nor did I feel like the show was hooking me and dragging me along to the next episode, even as the appeal of the show and its story *absolutely* hooked me and pulled me along. In many ways it felt like Ted Lasso’s first season was confident enough in where it was going with its story, and willing enough to trust that I would want to stay with it, that it didn’t do the “grab the viewer by the hanging plot threads and unresolved emotions, and only offer resolution NEXT TIME” thing. I liked the writers not doing that.

Season two, two episodes in, doesn’t feel as self-assured to me. It doesn’t feel like it really trusts itself in the same way. It’s far more concerned with grabbing and holding on with its unresolved threads, less willing to trust that the audience will want to keep watching.

The way this shows most, for me, is in how unresolved things feel at the end of an episode. What really brought this home for me was the interview with the writers, in which they admitted that they didn’t have the whole season written before they started filming. I don’t envy them going from “we have everything written out beforehand” to “nope now we have to improvise and hope we’re at least one episode ahead.” And I think (just guessing here, wild speculation) that they’re leaving elements unresolved in the way they have so far *because* they need to leave themselves openings for the next step. Without the whole season planned and written already, they feel the (understandable) need to give themselves a clear and easy way forward.

This also means that it feels like they’ve had less time to edit their work. Season two, so far, doesn’t feel quite as slick as season one. It doesn’t feel as clearly like they’re moving from best-possible-scene to best-possible-scene. I’ve even wondered—maybe one or three times—whether there was a better scene they skipped or didn’t think of that they would have included if they’d had more time to think things over.

It doesn’t help that I also want them to do a different thing with a particular character (it’s Nate, folks, I want Nate to be not-an-ass). I fully expect that to be resolved at some point, probably this season, but god it’s grating.

Now, counter-argument: maybe the writers have a good idea of what they’re doing (even if they don’t have things already planned and finished). Maybe they’re leaving these plot threads open because they have plans for them later in the season and they know everything needs to be lined up long beforehand. I can absolutely see this being the case; I actually suspect they *do* know where they’re taking things even if they aren’t quite sure how they’ll get there. And maybe they simply decided to make the second season feel less episodic and more like a binge-show where each episode bleeds into the next, complete with tension and unresolved issues.

Honestly, my trust in these writers being competent is a big reason for why I’m still watching the show. I’m watching because I believe that counter-argument, and because I enjoyed the first season so much and want to see where these characters go. But regardless of how much I believe they know what they’re doing I’m still sad that some of that feel, the tidiness and rhythm of season one, feels like its gone.

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine has written another excellent book. A Desolation Called Peace branches out from the space covered in A Memory Called Empire, and while I know there’s more that could be squeezed from the first book’s subject matter I think this evolution serves the story (and the reader) well. And don’t worry, Martine doesn’t abandon anything she built before. Instead, she calls forward elements which had been waiting in the wings; it’s more of a shift of focus than a dismissal of the old.

Specifically, where the first book asked “what does it mean to be human, or a person? Who draws the line, and where?” as a running background theme, this book puts that front and center. And I love that. Those questions are important at any time, but they’re integral elements of a totalizing imperial worldview, and as such they’re critical to this story and setting. Honestly, those questions are part of what I love about science fiction in general, and they’re a big part of what I love about this series in particular.

Now, this book felt a little slower to me, more gradual or less heart-in-throat until nearer to the end. But it’s no less fraught. In many ways, the excruciatingly complicated fusion of the personal and political feels more poignant here, even as the book and that fusion explore new themes. And yes, Martine is still good at digging into the ways hegemony wraps itself around everything, strangling like a ligature until conformity (or death) is achieved.

Now, about this book feeling slower… I wasn’t sucked in head first the same way that I was for the first book, not until further into the book than last time. I’ve had a hard time telling how much of that comes from different reading circumstances, like changes in the time I set aside for reading, versus how much comes from differences between the two books. Either way, I’m pretty sure it took me much longer to read A Desolation Called Peace than it took me to read A Memory Called Empire

But the magic that Martine conjures in the first book is still present. A Desolation Called Peace is still full of heartfelt complicatedness, and confusing wants and desires and struggles, and its *really good*. The conflicts brought to the surface here are wonderful. I like seeing them on the page. I haven’t seen them in other books any time recently, and it feels really good to see Martine explore the ways in which hegemony and empire worm their fingers into everything, no matter how intimate or pedestrian.

Unlike with some other series (e.g. Becky Chambers’ books), order matters here; you should absolutely read A Memory Called Empire before you read this one. If the first book wasn’t to your liking, I’m afraid this one probably won’t be either. But if you’re not a light reader, and if you want good intrigue, ethical dilemmas, questions of humanity, interestingly alien aliens, and the baggage of empire… this is your deal.

Ted Lasso

I’ve been recommending Ted Lasso to friends recently, and now it’s your turn.

Ted Lasso is hard for me to pin down. The closest genre-bucket it fits into is “dramatic comedy,” but that feels misleading; this show doesn’t feel like many other dramatic comedies I’ve seen recently—or maybe ever. It feels absurdly kind, in a wonderful way.

Ted Lasso is most certainly a comedy. And it has dramatic elements, not shying away from the personal struggles facing the characters or the (mostly social) challenges they’re up against. But the only comparable shows I know are… more cruel? They don’t build my trust in them. The other shows I’ve watched in this genre don’t feel like they really honestly love their main characters, or like they’re written with empathy for the characters and their struggles.

In my experience, when most other dramedies explore tough emotional situations, they feel like misery-porn. At best, they’re wry and a little removed from the action. At worst, they draw out the pathos and angst and awkward personal struggles, and then they stew in those feelings until they finally make their audience feel better several (long) episodes later by offering relief… after they’ve created another suffering magnet for another character in the show. But the audience’s resting state is discomfort, leavened by brief flashes of humor at someone’s expense, and the characters rarely feel lovable or leave me cackling in delighted glee.

I guess, when it comes down to it, I usually don’t feel like those other shows care about whether they make me happy. They’d much rather be serious and funny, or just painful and funny. It’s as though they’re fine with being depressing as long as they get a chuckle out of me.

That’s not Ted Lasso.

I trust the writers of Ted Lasso in ways that I don’t trust other show’s writers. They’ve proven to me that they can take an absurd premise (American football coach is hired to coach a British Premier League Football [soccer] team), weigh it down with some serious personal and interpersonal issues for dramatic ballast, and then plot a steady course that leaves me smiling in happy admiration.

They do it in 30 minute chunks. They make fast and robust characterization look effortless. And then they make rewarding character development look easy too. And the editing! Whoever’s behind the way this show skips directly to the important parts, whether that happened in the cutting room or in the writers’ room or wherever, they deserve a prize.

Oh, and the show brings up those painful and serious issues that I mentioned above and then handles them gracefully. Things don’t always turn out perfectly, but they feel good in a way that I’d forgotten was possible in a TV show. It doesn’t feel dishonest, it just feels… hopeful.

And I love that.

Honestly, some people probably won’t like that. Not everyone will be as happy with Ted’s incredible positivity as I am. And perhaps some people might dislike how the show sometimes leans into its goofy bits, or pushes for the happier and healthier resolution. It might not always deliver the feeling of “reality” that those people want.

But I’m sad and scared and anxious more of the time than I’d like. So much TV that I see only embraces that, like a deeply critical cynic insisting that they’re a realist… and then laughing at me and calling me foolish to hope for anything.

Ted Lasso doesn’t do that.  It does the opposite.

In some strange way this show and its hopefulness are reminiscent of what I love about Star Trek. It’s idealistic. Not blindly so, and not in the same way that Star Trek is, but… that uplifting feeling is still there.

Ted Lasso feels refreshing, and brave, and honest in ways that both feel healthy and are damn funny. I don’t know that I want every show to be like this one, but I could really use a few more like it.

Loki, revisited

Well, as far as I can tell, the show stuck the landing.

Loki is now secure as my favorite of the Marvel TV series so far. Sure, I’m excited to see what comes from What If…? but I don’t expect those jaunts to have the same emotional weight, or to be given the same time and focus. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that there’s supposed to be a second season of Loki, and that I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m going to try talking around spoilers as much as possible. But I am going to talk about the show, mostly from a structural perspective. If you’re really worried about spoilers and are able to watch the show, I strongly encourage you to go enjoy the rest of Loki’s first season (when you can) and ignore the rest of this.

I was worried when I started watching Loki that the show would promise too much and give (or resolve) too little. I was also afraid that, like WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier before it, Loki would suffer from compression or similar [writing / directing / editing] runtime and continuity problems. To be clear, I think WV and F&WS worked… but I also think they suffered from narrative cuts and cramming.

So. This show promises a whole lot. I think it delivers more.

In a really wonderful way, this show kept giving me more than I expected. There was one exception—one that kind of disappointed me—but that had been foreshadowed extensively already. Mostly, the show felt free to resolve lots of issues and move things along to a new, messy resting state with new sources of tension that I quite enjoy. Best of all for me, the show leaned into the exploration of Loki’s motivations, hopes, and dreams, and played those through to the hilt.

Honestly, I think the certainty of a second season is critical here. Without it, and without the show’s writers and runners feeling free to resolve issues or create new ones as they saw fit, I think they would have felt pressured to tie things up more neatly for the end of the season (and the show). And I think that would have done a huge disservice to the story. I suspect that pressure (along with budget) is what forced WV and F&WS to compress as they did.

I believe that Loki‘s messiness is actually better than a neatly tied up story, even if we never get more Loki. I’d love to have more stories that feel free to do this sort of thing: creating interesting and exciting and difficult situations and then using them for honest explorations of characters I enjoy… without feeling locked into tidying everything up at the end. I like stories that end with open possibility.

I know other people don’t necessarily feel the same way. I have friends who love a neatly resolved story with all the loose ends tied up and all the resolutions for each character explored on screen. They abhor open-ended conclusions that only imply next steps and leave it up to the viewer to decide, or imagine, what happens next. But for me, a lot of that is boring or uninteresting. Life is full of the unexpected, and it feels more honest to me to close out a story’s arc while leaving open the shapes of arcs to come.

Loki does that. I have my guesses about where things will go, but there are many possibilities, and I look forward to exploring them even if I have to do it in my own mind.

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Raya and the Last Dragon is not a subtle movie. It hammers you with its themes from the very beginning, tying setting and conflict and nearly everything else into a robust and relentless thematic journey from initial action through to climax and conclusion.

And I really liked it.

Because while Raya’s thematic beats thump home like clockwork, it’s also heart-warming, dramatic, gorgeous, and engaging.

This movie did not surprise me. While it has nice little flourishes that feel right, it did not wow me with big twists or unexpected reveals. Nor did it leave me guessing about its message. But it did have me crying by the end. This story got me in my narrative soft spots even though I could see the setup coming from its first twenty minutes.

In many ways, Raya is an excellent introductory movie: it both teaches how to incorporate a central theme when making films, and offers a very clear example for audiences still learning to identify themes in movies.

A few quick highlights without spoiling anything: the fight choreography and performance is excellent (partially covered on this episode of Corridor Crew), as is the art and character design and the differentiation for the five different regions of the movie’s world. But the best part, from a narrative perspective, is that the movie feels true to its characters. The speaking characters may not be the deepest and most nuanced, but they feel relatable and human instead of paper thin. And I never really feel like they’re being made to carry an idiot ball; they aren’t roped in as plot tools without deeper consideration given to being honest to the character as we know them.

I like the voice acting and animation too! I’m not wishing for a sequel (the movie does a good job of delivering a conclusion, and doesn’t need more as far as I’m concerned), but I would happily watch and listen to these people (Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Tae Kim, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, and Sandra Oh) doing more work together… especially if the next movie they do is anywhere near as pretty as this one. Oh and points to Alan Tudyk for once again being a charming animal voice actor in a predominantly non-white movie, I continue to appreciate the role reversal.

So yes, I do recommend this movie. I liked it. It might not get you in the emotions the way it got me—I’m sure that experience will vary—but it’s good.

Update: Oh, and, because this video is accurate and made me snort, here’s the link to the Honest Trailer for Raya. Watch it if you don’t mind being spoiled (or if you’ve already seen Raya and want a laugh).