Witch Hat Atelier #1, by Kamome Shirahama

This is strangely great.

No, “strangely” is wrong. Nothing about Witch Hat Atelier feels especially unusual, trope-wise. It feels… expected. And I love it. It smoothly delivers a genre experience that I love, and I want more.

I’ve only read the first book so far. I raced through it this morning, and I’ve already requested the next three. I’m amazed at how well the story manages to move comfortably inside its genre’s expectations while still catching my attention and winning me over.

It’s a healthy reminder of how much delight can be drawn from indulging in competent genre fiction. There are certain themes that I often enjoy (restricted access to magic, young magic users stepping up to face adversity, gradual revelation of infighting and intrigue within the magic world, gradual revelation of deeper complications about *why* magic is restricted), and when given books full of those I frequently fall into the story nose first. The first book of Witch Hat Atelier hits all those notes without knocking me out of the groove at any point. While this means that I haven’t been surprised yet, it moves quickly enough that I’m delighted to just be along for the ride. There’s just something marvelous about watching plucky young magic users improvise their way through magic to get the job done, especially when everyone assumes that they’ll fail.

I haven’t read enough of the series yet to say how it will shape up long term. I haven’t even read enough to say that any of the characters feel like they’ve grown beyond their familiar introductory archetypes. It doesn’t matter. Kamome Shirahama has done well here so far, and I’m looking forward to more.

The Orpheus Plot, by Christopher Swiedler

The Orpheus Plot is fun, and an excellent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Its dramatic arc has a similar structure, it has good kid vs adult conflict, and it digs into some moral quandaries. Even better, it’s all about a young teen coming into his own through his larger struggles against the powers that would control him and his world. It’s more than that, too, but those are parallels enough for me to know that I should reference this book. That fact that it’s also space-adventure MG sci-fi, vanishingly rare, is just icing on the cake.

The biggest reservation I had with In The Red is resolved here; The Orpheus Plot clearly digs into the social questions and issues of its setting, rather than more or less pretending those things don’t exist. I’m glad it does. I can see how In The Red’s narrator might not have been aware of those larger struggles, but I think The Orpheus Plot is more interesting and more rewarding for focusing so much on the societal struggles of Inner System-vs-Belter politics and the struggles of life in the Belt in general.

Now, because of how similar our stories are (and because I do actually think both my story and Swiedler’s are good) most of my quibbles about this book are smaller scale and more personal. If you want middle grade space sci-fi I can already tell you to pick this up. If you want me to pry a little deeper, keep reading.

First, a few thoughts about some of the emotional arcs.

Some of the emotional resolution later on felt a little rushed or unexpected. There were hints of social and emotional arcs that had outgrown the established material without enough support in place for their final end points—mostly in the narrator’s interactions with other students towards the end. And there were a few places as the climax rolled on where it felt like a scene or interaction happened because it needed to be in the story and the main character needed that push, rather than because the story world led us there… just normal issues, spots where I felt like I could see the seams that revealed the story’s artifice. Also, those interactions are classic genre tropes, and they don’t feel out of place so much as they feel noticeable.

Now, a bigger difference between The Orpheus Plot and Bury’em Deep: I think Christopher Swiedler has more positive opinions of hegemony, authority, and the system than I do. That, or he’s less willing to question such things in fiction for middle grade readers.

Relatedly, there are some ways in which Swiedler’s space-future feels remarkably staid. There isn’t much queerness (I think I recall one mention of a non-het couple?), and neither the hegemonic center nor the frontier fringe have much visible divergence from our own social norms. That feels odd.

Historically speaking, divergence from shared social norms increases with time and distance. “The past is a foreign country,” to quote L.P. Hartley. People telling stories about the past usually put considerable effort into rewriting, recontextualizing, and even obscuring pieces of the past in order to make history match the author’s social standards, preferring to highlight the places where things are still the same (and make up commonalities where they need more). Many Westerns are an excellent example of that, ignoring the queer, non-traditional, and racially intermixed communities that developed on the frontier of the expanding US in favor of writing about strong independent straight white men.

But the future is a foreign country too. I wanted more of a departure from our own ideas of how society works, more ‘foreign-but-recognizable’ social conventions. The Orpheus Plot clearly has some, and highlights the differences between Belters and Inner System folks, but I wanted more of them. I wanted to know that there were “total weirdos” out there somewhere, and I wanted to feel more confident that life as we know it feels totally foreign to our narrator—that, from our narrator’s perspective, we readers would be uncannily different.

But I think the key to this, the reason this story feels more staid or in line with authority, comes back to the stories it most reminds me of. This story’s narrative arc reminds me of Treasure Island, or a reimagining of something from C. S. Forester’s Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien’s series. And whatever issues this story might raise with authority (the Navy, Inner System-dominated politics, etc) those authorities are still presented as less-bad than the alternative.

I’ll go into further detail, but there’ll be some *SPOILERS*.

So, this story is more than a modernization of those old Age of Sail adventure stories. But while we’re exposed to the ways in which the system is clearly bad for Belters, and we’re given a sympathetic view of Belters’ complaints, the story’s key revolutionaries are never painted with anything but a villainous brush. Heck, the big villain—leading the revolution—is almost comically evil, engaging in some really tropey, mustache-twirling bad stuff. And we never see enough of his side of things, or hear enough about his story, for those actions to feel anything but melodramatic. Moreover, he’s enough of a scumbag the rest of the time that it’s easy to ignore the validity of his larger complaints. No matter how much sense some of his complaints might make, and no matter how the narrator might pointedly agree at times, he’s still obviously bad rather than complicated.

It’s okay to have bad guys in your stories. But I wanted there to be more complication to the central conflict, rather than having the most sympathetic revolutionary (not that main baddie) feel more like a less-charming Long John Silver. 

Part of the struggle here is just time and focus in the book, I think. That less-charming Long John Silver, a Navy crewmate involved in the lower decks’ conspiracy with the revolutionary Belters, never quite has enough narrative focus to become a helpful replacement parental figure. Without that narrative focus, without the warm fuzzies of a friendly older ally on the ship, we (and the narrator) don’t quite feel close enough to him to wonder why he makes the choices he does. That means that even when he offers us a little more moral complexity near the end of the story, it doesn’t carry as much narrative weight as it could have, had there been more connection there.

Plus, our narrator is so concerned with making it in the Navy and not rocking the boat that we never get as much honest reflection on how the Navy isn’t doing well by the Belters. There’s a brief scene where that becomes relevant, but it’s not in the forefront enough of the time, the way it’d need to be if the story were really digging into the oppression experienced by the Belters. Honestly, I’m not sure how the story would have worked if that had been written differently. I suspect the book would have had to be longer. *END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I don’t know that I did a better job (in Bury’em Deep) with any of the issues I’m critiquing in The Orpheus Plot. But I think interrogating those points, poking the issues and digging deeper, is really important. And maybe, I hope, doing that in fiction for kids will invite their further reflection.

The Orpheus Plot is good space adventure fun. If that’s what you’re hankering for, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Update, 3/17/22

Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.

I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.

Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.

I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.

Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.

I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.

With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.

In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler… plus other thoughts

I write this while distracted. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is eating at my mental budget (hot take: the Russian invasion is bad). I’ve struggled, wondering whether I should put this book review aside and instead write about the war in Ukraine right now, or just sit down and write a review without mentioning what was happening. But two things leapt out at me while thinking about that.

One, if I’m going to write about Ukraine, I’m probably going to approach it from an analysis of the speeches of Zelensky and Putin over the past few days, and a discussion of the social and geopolitical concerns involved. Worse, giving the invasion the attention it deserves will take more time than I have for this today… and possibly more time than today, period.

Two, my struggle with writing this review and ignoring mention of the invasion of Ukraine is relevant to my discussion of this book.

Why?

Give me a moment, and I’ll tell you.

In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler, is a fun science fiction survival adventure written for middle grade readers. For nerdy middle grade readers, probably. Sold as Hatchet meets The Martian, it delivers on those ambitious comp titles.

I found it in the process of researching agents for my own middle grade science fiction adventure, Bury’em Deep, and I’m glad I did. First, I’m glad because I think the agent who repped it might like my manuscript—though as ever, queries are a shot in the dark and I sent my query to her before I’d read this book, due to library delays. Second, I’m glad because it’s fun. I enjoyed reading it.

To elaborate: I was a huge fan of Hatchet when I got my hands on it in third grade. In The Red has a lot of the same energy, and Young Henry would have loved this book. So if you like middle grade survival fiction, and if you like science fiction, you’ll probably like In The Red too.

But finally, I’m glad I found In The Red because I think it’s a decent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Mostly. I’ll explore how they diverge in a moment.

But first, In The Red is a good comp title for Bury’em Deep because the two books are so similar in genre and structure. The rhythm of narrative tension, and the way both books escalate tension and stakes, is parallel. In several cases that’s true almost down to the chapter and page. I go a little harder right at the start of Bury’em Deep, but otherwise the books’ slow build and intermittent spikes match each other’s feel quite neatly. Furthermore, both main characters share the fundamental desire to be safe and go home, and both have some ”questionable” risk assessments. And the similarities continue in their emotional experiences: both Michael (of ITR) and Barry (of BD) are anxious, though I think Michael’s experience of anxiety is closer to a classic clinical diagnosis.

But how do the books diverge?

And what the hell does all of this have to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or with my desire to write about that invasion instead of writing this book review?

In The Red is a good middle grade science fiction survival story. It replicates the feel of Hatchet, and it threads The Martian’s needle of being a mostly-hard sci-fi survival story on Mars that still feels engaging.

But it confines itself to those stakes.

Our narrator’s survival story isn’t impinged upon by any other social concerns, or any awareness of what’s happening—please imagine me waving my hands—“out there somewhere.” This means that I have no sense, when reading it, of what the rest of the setting is like or what else might be going on. I don’t know who’s at war with whom, I don’t know what Michael’s parents worry about late at night, I don’t know what social issues are present and plaguing the Mars colonies or erupting out in the Belt. For that matter, I don’t know what the hell is happening in Florida, where one of our characters is from. We’re never given a hint. Apparently Florida still exists, and the Florida Keys haven’t been entirely submerged by sea level rise. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

I don’t know how well I succeed, but I’ve tried to make Bury’em Deep feel different than that.

Returning to the start of this piece, the answer to my struggle was to write about this book and to mention the Russian invasion. And that “yes both” approach was my approach for making Bury’em Deep feel like a more realized setting. I want readers to trust that they’d know if something as momentous as the Russian invasion of Ukraine were going on in Barry’s setting. I want them to trust that they’d at least find out when Barry did. I want them to believe that Barry would have opinions about such a thing.

I’ll elaborate.

Barry, and thus the reader, doesn’t know everything that’s going on. His understanding of his world (well, solar system) is imperfect, and he’s not well-versed in all the relevant political and social conflicts that are going on. But he’s aware of some of it, and he can’t ignore how those conflicts impinge on his life. Moreover, his awareness of those conflicts and struggles only increases over the course of the story. And while his immediate struggles for survival are small in scope, they are tied to many other much larger struggles. 

Basically, Bury’em Deep is political. I try to give as deep a setting background as I can without ever breaking Barry’s train of thought. I want to enable my readers to draw their own conclusions about the status quo in Barry’s solar system, and I want them to question how reliable and astute a political observer this thirteen-year-old spacer kid might be. I’m not trying to pull one over on the audience with an unreliable narrator, I just want the readers to ask themselves questions. And I want deeper questions to be available for more advanced readers, without getting in the way of a less advanced reader’s enjoyment.

This difference, the distinction between something that feels “apolitical” (In The Red) and something that is absolutely jam packed with political observation and experience (Bury’em Deep), feels like a difference in era as well. The science fiction that In The Red feels like is older, and less interested in critiquing society. It isn’t as interested in examining, or even acknowledging, modern day moral and ethical questions. It’s willing to accept our social assumptions and go have fun doing something adventurous. It doesn’t encourage readers to imagine those possible moral arguments, or to wonder for themselves what might be right, just, or good.

And I’m fine with that. I don’t think every book has to be a deep dive into hegemony. I don’t think every book has to question our bedrock assumptions about society and personhood and what is moral or ethical.

But “apolitical” is a quiet lie: all art is political. Not poking at our social assumptions goes hand in hand with tacitly approving of them.

Thus, I fervently want some genre fiction out there that does question our social assumptions. I want some genre fiction that doesn’t put on its blinders and just focus on the fun adventure to be had. I want fun, yes, and adventure, but ideally I’d love those things with a dash of wondering about whether what someone has done was just or correct. I want young readers to enjoy a story, and I want to invite them to engage critically with that story’s world.

My hope with Bury’em Deep was that it would be gateway fiction. I wanted Bury’em Deep to steer young readers towards books by N.K. Jemisin. I wanted to introduce classic science fiction questions about the boundaries of humanity, popularized with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner and the old versions of Ghost in the Shell. And I wanted to be honest about the struggles and conflicts in my characters’ lives, not keep troublesome and scary things hidden. That means mentioning the invasion of Ukraine, or allowing similar things to be a part of the setting.

In The Red focuses on being honest with readers about anxiety and panic attacks. My hope is that Bury’em Deep does that with the question of who we count as a person and where that boundary lies. So they’re not quite the same book after all.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez, gave me warm fuzzies.

It walks the tightrope of middle grade fiction with flair, firmly accessible without condescending to the reader. It’s kind, it feels honest, it’s the kind of book that I’ll recommend to anyone (provided they don’t mind reading about kids in middle school). It’s a really solid book that deserves to be enjoyed by more people—and that more people deserve to enjoy.

There’s a couple things I think the story does really well, and I think I can cover them without spoilers.

I’m very aware that fiction is a facade. And I know that making it look and feel like something deeper, giving readers enough to cling to and build on to believe that the characters are full people, is a lot of work. Doing that for one or two characters is difficult enough. Sketching out the other nearby characters such that they also feel deep and don’t detract from the piece as a whole is beautiful.

Carlos Hernandez makes this story beautiful.

The kids who are our main characters all feel deep, human. And we see enough sides of them to believe that they are living, breathing, feeling people. This means the book never treats any of the kids in it as unknowable or other or villainous; even when characters don’t like each other, they’re still given the author’s empathy. It’s wonderful seeing a book put so much effort into humanizing its characters, and refusing to take the easy shortcut of using them like little cardboard cutouts.

And the adults nearby feel real too, in the slightly hazy seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-child way. They don’t get as much time as the kids (and that’s appropriate) but they round out the cast and give the impressionistic daubs of background color that evoke life without pulling the reader’s focus away from the main show. It’s a well written book. 

It’s also written differently than I would expect for MG science fiction. It’s far more slice-of-life than adventure, more about the smaller puzzles and dilemmas faced by the protagonists than about large scale adventures or quests. This isn’t bad, but it might surprise people who came looking for tense adventure. And it means that, if you don’t become emotionally attached, you might not feel compelled to see the emotional plots through.

That’s in part because the physical plot is several disparate chunks, woven together to create the overall emotional and personal arcs for our narrator Sal. This didn’t bother me (it’s a good book!) but I think it may have contributed to my distraction about halfway through, when I wandered away from the book for a few days. I wanted to continue the story, but I didn’t feel like it had grabbed me by the nose and was dragging me onwards.

When I describe it like that, I’m not sure why I like that experience in the first place. But I do like that in my adventure stories. And that’s not really what this story is about or what it feels like. Instead, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is touching and sweet and well-crafted, and it does an excellent job of building personal investment to keep its audience hooked.

I think this works partly because Carlos Hernandez has done an incredible job of “frictionless writing,” making a story that just slides you along without any feeling of resistance or struggle. The story isn’t dragging you with it—you’re gliding, and it feels effortless. This might have been aided by my familiarity with Spanish, which shows up sans translation several times, but I also think Hernandez does an excellent job of working code-switching between languages into the book with a minimum of confusion. Oh, and despite obviously being the first of two books, this book ends in a way that feels good and self-contained.

Basically, it’s good. It’s well written. I recommend it. I have the sequel on hold at the library, and am looking forward to reading it as soon as I get my hands on it.

Update, 2/10/22

No review for the moment, just an update. I’ve got Sal & Gabi Break the Universe right now, and am looking forward to getting my hands on In The Red soon (which for some reason wasn’t available as an ebook through Libby). My recent book-sprint has slowed down again, just waiting for it to pick back up again. Might have something to do with watching more shows than I usually allow myself to, or giving myself permission to watch them less attentively than I usually try to.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Murderbot to my partner and they’ve been loving it. I love rereading it too, though I’d forgotten how difficult some of it is for reading aloud. It turns out that while I think Martha Wells was right to bury some conversations in paragraphs the way that she did, simply because that’s how they fit in Murderbot’s stream of consciousness, it’s a lot harder to read those buried lines aloud without breaking up my reading to clarify what Murderbot says versus what it thinks. This could be easier, if I had thought to come up with a distinct voice for Murderbot’s speech as opposed to its thoughts, but alas I did not.

Besides, that would be odd, right? It’s all Murderbot. It should sound more similar than different.

It’s not all bad though. I did luck into some hilariously good voices by accident, especially while reading ART’s lines.

I’m not sure what next week is going to look like, or whether I’ll be able to post much; I’ve been selected for jury duty, and might be otherwise occupied.

Oh, and on the video game front, following up the Hero’s Hour post from two weeks back… there’s another game that also obviously wants to follow the path of the old Heroes of Might and Magic games: Songs of Conquest. It’s not available yet, though early access is supposed to start in March. From the little I’ve seen so far, it looks like they’ve focused a larger team with more resources on making fewer factions in a game with more visual polish and greater similarity to HoMM’s old combat mechanics. Hopefully it is also more stable.

The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz

I’ve been meaning to read Sarah Jean Horwitz’s The Dark Lord Clementine for years, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s charming. Extremely charming.

I have complicated feelings about how the main character is constrained by forces outside her control, and how that creates what I felt was a gendered portrayal of empowerment, but… that’s what the story is all about. And on reflection, the feelings I had about the gendered story conventions were both correct and missed the point. The story beats which evoked those conventions are crucial to the course of the story, and crucial to the way its conclusion works so well and feels so good.

I don’t think the story could create the same excellence without them.

The Dark Lord Clementine is about Clementine, sole child of Dark Lord Elithor and heir to the family’s title and responsibilities: crushing witches and competitors, vying with other Dark Lords while maintaining evil status, and making the local peasants’ lives miserable. It’s about Clementine’s need to live up to her father’s expectations—as well as her own expectations, and those of her society. And it’s about her need to save her father from the terrible curses of his enemies, when he’s struggling to save himself.

It’s about more than that too, about relationships and manipulation and abuse, and friendship and betrayal. It’s about growing into yourself, and finding your way in the world on your own terms. It’s full of classic upper middle grade goodness.

I recommend it heartily. That goes double if you like middle grade fantasy at all, and it’s still true even if you don’t.

Now I’m going to pontificate about gender and genre fiction for a minute, before segueing into potential spoilers. Don’t worry, I’ll mark them clearly.

I should note, the Folding Ideas video on empowerment in Jupiter Ascending was very helpful to me in reflecting on this. The key question asked there is “do the characters take action within the story, on their own terms? Or are they solely acted upon by the story?” That was a useful framing device for me.

Classic adventure stories, the genre that I’m used to thinking of as my measuring stick for empowerment, don’t do a good job of encompassing social expectations and the way they impinge on characters’ lives. Protagonists in those adventure stories rarely have to explicitly juggle others’ perceptions of them (or their perceptions of themselves). More often, they’re forging new paths outside the traditional bounds of society, or casting off their expected roles—but doing so in a way that is expected by the genre, and by cultural expectations of (usu. male) heroes. They’re nearly always archetypically “manly,” and certainly not “weak.” Whatever that means.

Yes, those stories—presented as being ungendered—are culturally extremely male-gendered.

So when reading adventure stories, or genre fiction in general, I have several constantly running questions in the back of my mind: what social pressures are exerted on the protagonists? How aware is the protagonist of the social pressures they’re under? And do they question or act against or (usually in the academic sense) queer those pressures? 

Slight digression: in my anecdotal experience, the less aware the protagonists are of these pressures, and the less aware the story is of these pressures, the more likely the story is to regurgitate and not question those old gender conventions. Relatedly, those stories are also more likely to be written by a man who hasn’t spent much time examining gender roles and their social impact, and generally hasn’t had a good critical think about how gender roles constrict people (of all sorts) in negative ways. For that matter, those authors are also more likely to be white or to have some other kind of unexamined privilege. Basically, it’s a solid clue that the author hasn’t had a good think about feminism, and the way in which cultural expectations constrain everyone—which is painfully obvious when those authors’ male characters are seemingly unaware of the constraints of the system while knowing deep in their gut that they must be “manly” at all times.

Moving on.

This (the unexamined-ness, or a story’s lack of awareness of gender roles) isn’t universally a sign of the author being unaware. Sometimes people write stories where those pressures aren’t as present explicitly because they want to imagine a different world, or don’t want to spend their brain power on our world’s conventions. It’s just a tendency I’ve noted, and which I continue to keep tabs on.

Tying that back into the previous thread…

When stories deeply invest lots of attention in social pressures and expectations, and constrain their characters with those things, they also often read to me—with my assumptions trained by old (male-centric) adventure genre fiction—as being gendered (gendered female, that is). And the empowerment that I see in those (”female“) stories often feels less empowering to me than the empowerment in old adventure fiction. It’s a whole noodle-y mess of ingrained cultural assumptions. And my narrative palate was well trained; for a long time, I appreciated stories that empowered characters by allowing them to do all those typically-gendered-male things far more than I appreciated the ones that showed protagonists working carefully within their social constraints. It’s been long slow work to counteract: expanding my narrative palate has taken time.

What’s more, expanding my palate hasn’t changed my fundamental issues with these gendered expectations around different flavors of genre stories. I’m still wrestling with how to write genre fiction that feels appealing and empowering, and which queers those gendered conventions of empowerment. I want to be able to write good stories that play with all sides of those gendered narrative expectations, and then go new places too.

Maybe that’s part of what I love about Clementine’s story.

Okay, now we risk some *SPOILERS*. I’ll keep things general, but… I’m giving away the narrative arc without giving precise details.

See, Clementine is extremely aware of her responsibilities, and feels the constraints on her life quite keenly (though she doesn’t question them much at first). She acts, taking initiative as best she can, but flounders in the process. And who can blame her? She’s trying to do the work of an adult (several adults, really) and is balancing far too many duties all at once.

All of these constraints wrap Clementine up tight. They felt suffocating to read. It was both awful and extremely effective storytelling.

And unlike the adventure stories I read when I was young, this story is less about our protagonist going out and forging some brilliant new path or performing acts of derring-do, and more about our protagonist finding the wherewithal to escape those constraints and reach the freedom to forge her own new path. Those oppressive constraints are key to her emotional journey. Without them, her struggle and growth would feel less meaningful and consequential. This is why my internal judgements—about how the story wasn’t empowering Clementine enough—withered by the time the story finished.

Clementine doesn’t go out and “do adventures” in the same classic (male-gendered) genre fiction way. She isn’t empowered in the same ways. But she absolutely is an empowered character. She’s able to choose and make decisions, and isn’t simply shuffled around by the plot without an opportunity to make her own decisions and try to act as she sees fit. Others have power over her at times, and she’s certainly not in control of everything, but she can steer herself and ultimately arrives at a place that feels more empowered because of her own choices, more able to engage with the world and its expectations on her own terms.

In some ways, this story feels like an exploration of the edge between two classically gendered narrative structures, moving from one to the other. It’s great.

I recommend it.

Blade Singer, by Aaron de Orive and Martha Wells

This isn’t Murderbot.

It’s really not fair to compare the two. But because I found this book by looking for other things involving Martha Wells—that felt like Murderbot—I’m afraid it’s doomed to comparison. This was the available book, with Martha Wells’ name attached. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I did finish it.

Blade Singer isn’t Murderbot. It’s straightforward portal fiction, with a powerful fey three musketeers vibe. All genres I like. Clearly intended for that awkward threshold between middle grade and young adult, where the plot is very middle grade but the writing is a tad more complex, Blade Singer has a mix of genres (and a target audience marketing category) that I have strong opinions about.

Honestly, this book is fine. I enjoyed it. My quibbles with it are perhaps unreasonable.

Leaving aside my desire for more Murderbot, I think this is actually a solid book to give to a younger reader who enjoys fantasy, fey and faeries, swashbuckling and musketeers, or portal fiction. And it’s a solid choice for any younger reader who might like those things and hasn’t gotten deep into books yet. It isn’t as immediately accessible as other simpler reads (it’s no Warrior Cats), but it’s not especially difficult either. On that front, it lands the upper middle grade rating pretty solidly.

However… as someone who’s quite familiar with (and enjoys) all the genres involved, this book also doesn’t offer any big surprises or new takes. It isn’t transforming the genres, or at least not in a way that offers a story more complex and nuanced and to my taste. It doesn’t succeed where other ostensibly-for-children fiction has thrived, with the depth required for cross age-market appeal (think She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, most Pixar movies, or Nnedi Okorafor’s middle grade work like Akata Witch or Shadow Speaker).

Blade Singer’s stumbling blocks for me, I think, were its moral and emotional plots. They were present, all the requisite structure was there, but they felt almost bland. Like I could see the action on the page, and I knew how it would or should play out, but I never felt pulled into it, into feeling it. And I know this book could have done that. All the puzzle pieces were there.

Part of that could have been the close over-the-shoulder third person narration, but I know other close third stories have succeeded for me where this book didn’t. And while adding more filigrees to the moral and emotional plots might have helped make them less straightforward, I don’t think that would have solved the issue for me—I don’t feel pulled in just because something’s complex, I enjoy something being complex when I’ve already been pulled in. I think it came down to something about the characterization, and the fact that I simply bounced off of fully connecting with the narrator, Manny.

Your mileage may vary.

But that emotional bounce, and having a solid physical plot while struggling with the emotional and moral plot, reminds me of my own experience first writing fiction. With most of my preceding storytelling experience coming from running RPGs, I struggled to make stories with emotional connection or character depth. I’ve written about all that on this blog before.

And maybe I’m reading too closely here, but I think Aaron de Orive had a similar starting point (both in terms of games and the fiction he consumed). He’s involved in writing for RPGs and video games, and the authors he mentions on his personal site aren’t known for their excellent depictions of relatable complex emotional people, not like the modern authors I’d compare them to. Many are the same authors I read as a kid.

For me at least, writing linear fiction was a puzzle that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t solving. Most adventure fiction I’d read as a kid didn’t have much emotional depth or nuance. And while I knew how to elicit reactions from my players, that was all about setting up the stage with the right plot pieces and then letting them complete all the robust internal character struggle in their own heads. I didn’t know how to show that on the page. Sometimes, I still don’t.

But I wanted Aaron de Orive (and Martha Wells, she’s credited as a co-author even though this doesn’t feel anything like her other work I’ve read so far) to yank on my heartstrings. I wanted these authors to reel me in deep and leave me really feeling the joys and sorrows of the characters involved. That didn’t happen. And I didn’t feel attached enough (as I did with Murderbot) to complete the loop myself.

But as I said above, my quibbles are probably unreasonable. Blade Singer has more emotional depth than those adventure stories I read as a kid. It’s not a bad book! It’s perfectly fine, and I do recommend it to anyone who likes the relevant genres. And, to really enjoy it, I think you’re best off reading it as a kid who doesn’t have as much experience with these stories.

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.

Last week’s movies: 6 Underground & Enola Holmes

I saw Enola Holmes last weekend, and saw 6 Underground the week before. One I can’t recommend, and the other I’d recommend to nearly everyone.

First, 6 Underground was a very pretty mess. I haven’t looked up who was in charge of writing (Paul Wernick & Rhett Reese?), edits, effects, or anything else past Michael Bay’s role as director, but somewhere along the line a great deal of the movie fell apart. If you want a simplistic portrayal of regime change a la Batman, with minimally developed characters and frequent holes in the story—and the world’s continuity in general—then 6 Underground is for you. As per usual, Bay is extremely good at finding beautiful camera angles and showcasing big action sequences… but he mostly ignores the other stuff that movies are made of.

Sometimes I fear I hallucinated my enjoyment of Bay’s Pain & Gain, and worry that I should re-watch it to see whether it’s still worth holding up as a counter-argument to my usual dislike of Bay’s movies. I haven’t gone back to it yet. It’s hard to muster my enthusiasm, when I’ve just watched something else by Bay.

Thankfully, Enola Holmes (eponymously named for the main character) was delightful.

I like middle grade and young adult fiction. If you’ve followed anything else here for a while, I doubt that will be a surprise. Enola Holmes feels like an excellent translation of Upper Middle Grade / Young Adult storytelling into movie form, and I would love to see a sequel (which I understand is in the works, lawsuits from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate notwithstanding). Relatedly, I now want to read the book series this movie was based on, the first book of which is The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer.

A few choice tidbits in no real order… I’m a fan of the movie’s little historical nods, especially including suffragists (later called suffragettes) who really did learn jiujitsu in order to take on cops who tried to break up their demonstrations. The movie’s (and I assume, the book series’) extrapolation of the Holmes family’s dynamic is excellent fun, and I loved seeing the growth of Sherlock (in the background) in response to Enola’s prodding—heck, any time Millie Bobbie Brown and Henry Cavill were on screen together was fun. Honestly, putting Helena Bonham Carter, Millie Bobbie Brown, and Henry Cavill together in a movie is a pretty strong lure for me. I also can’t overstate how glad I am for a period piece like this to include the women’s suffrage movement, and to draw the traditional male protagonists’ attention to it without making those protagonists the focus of the story.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories or Middle Grade / Young Adult narratives, and don’t mind some fourth-wall breaking commentary from the main character, I strongly recommend Enola Holmes.