Arabella and the Battle of Venus, by David D. Levine

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Arabella of Mars, and I’m glad to say that Arabella and the Battle of Venus lived up to all my expectations and then some. David D. Levine has crafted another excellent adventure story in his science fiction alternate history setting. If you like Regency-era drama, Age of Sail adventure, and historical science fiction, these books will (heh, it’s funny if you’ve read the books) float your boat.

If you took my advice and read and enjoyed the first book (yes, I advise you to enjoy the book), I think you’ve got a safe bet with this one. Arabella and the Battle for Venus is a solid sequel. Reading it was a delight, though I did squirm a little bit (more on that in a moment). It offers another excellent adventure while cleaving to the genres of the first book, and reminds me of the enjoyment I found reading Hornblower books in sixth grade but with altogether more depth… and the promise of additional depth to come.

Now, mild thematic and book jacket-level spoilers.

There is a little more weight lent to the romantic subplot this time around, as one might expect from a story about a young woman racing across a war zone to free her fiancé from a POW camp. I hadn’t expected there to be any other romantic complications, though I should have, and those stressed me out a bit! They’re what made me squirm, maybe for the same reasons rom coms do. I’m still not sure I fully understand that part of myself. But—despite my squirming—I think the book and characters are probably better off for those complications. They help to grow Arabella emotionally from where she started in the first book, and I appreciate that.

I’m going to take a tangent here, weaving back through the first book. I’ll eventually return to this book, and my tangent will have some vague thematic spoilers without hitting any concrete plot points.

My biggest concern with the first book was that it wasn’t clear to me whether Arabella—the character or the books in general—would more clearly confront the colonialism and racism of the setting over the course of the series. The first book had some confrontations with these ”isms,” in fairly constrained contexts, but our point of view character Arabella did not seem fully aware of their pervasiveness or their larger ramifications. Nor did she seem cognizant of the implications of her own life on Mars as an Englishwoman living among Martians.

In short, the Arabella of the first book was convincingly blind to problems that her privilege didn’t require her to face. Honestly, that felt very real. I think it was an understandable writing choice, and a solid one.

Crucially, this is not to say that Arabella was willfully blind or actively in denial. She set herself on the right side of those conflicts when they arose, opposing and loudly disagreeing with racist arguments. But it wasn’t clear whether the later books would also dig into the inherent colonialism of the setting.

So. I hoped, and I read into the titles of the two following books and the jacket blurb of this book (Battle of Venus), and I made some assumptions from my sense of the author. All of that, plus the tonal hints of the first book, encouraged me.

Having finished book two, it looks like I was right to be encouraged. I’m glad to say that Levine does continue to bring these issues to the fore. Problems and disagreements slowly and seamlessly bubble up into Arabella’s awareness through her immediate context. The positions Arabella takes and the solutions she finds all suggest that Levine is continuing this thread of growing Arabella’s awareness of the injustices around her, and that these things will all come to a head soon.

Now, Arabella doesn’t feel especially radical from a modern perspective. Arabella’s positions and opinions—as they’ve developed so far—don’t feel revolutionary. Except… they kind of are.

Context matters!

Arabella has a keenly felt sense of justice. She has a disregard for her society’s gender norms that is heartening to a modern reader and would probably place her at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement in her time, which was (contextually) a pretty damn radical place to be. Her opposition to racism and racist arguments is similarly steadfast, and admirably radical for the time. And that opposition extends to the casual anti-Martian & anti-Venusian racism she encounters, which I think is present to set up for her bigger and more overt confrontation with colonialism in the third book—though that’s merely genre-savvy speculation, since I haven’t read book three yet.

Basically, it looks like Levine has planned all this from the outset, just as I’d hoped. He pulled apart Arabella’s various stages of personal growth and burgeoning awareness into three books, allowing her emotional and political arc to develop across multiple perfectly solid adventure stories. If he’d tried to write this personal arc all in one go, the book would have felt congested and emotionally tumultuous—Arabella’s growth would have felt implausibly rushed and unreal. Instead, because Levine paid attention to spacing this arc out across narrative time and separate books we’re able to enjoy Arabella’s personal growth without ever choking on it.

This is another good example of the dynamic I mentioned in my reflections on Murderbot.

Given all that, I suspect that Levine will stick the landing in book three. I’ll let you know once I’ve finished it.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Like I said at the start, I’m really enjoying these books. Unless those genres I mentioned above sound like torture to you, I suspect you’ll enjoy these books too. Try them out!

Wait, one last thing. Based on his Author’s Note, David Levine finished this book while losing his wife to cancer. Finishing a book is hard enough in good times. I can only imagine that doing so (and doing it well) while experiencing that loss must be tremendously painful and difficult. David, if you read this, thank you for this story. And thank you for persevering to share it with us. May Kate Yule’s memory be a blessing and a comfort for you.

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Arabella of Mars, by David D Levine

David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars is an excellent Age of Sail sci-fi adventure story replete with the drama of Regency-era social expectations.  It has all the requisite ingredients: imperiled family in need of aid, dangerous shipboard voyages (between planets!), subdued romance, personal rebellion, social maneuvering, and a little bit of marriage. I inhaled this book.

I read perhaps a couple pages on Thursday last week and then spent almost all of Friday devouring the rest of the story. I very wisely did not take the book to bed with me on Thursday night, for which I’m glad. I probably wouldn’t have slept much if I had. As it was, I requested the next two books as soon as I finished on Friday afternoon.

This is the kind of story that I love… and having finished it, I have some concerns. I’ll focus on the things I loved first. Just know that (depending on the course of the next two books in this series) I might have to refile this from “delicious new candy” to “problematic fave“ on account of colonialism.

Also, there are a few things that I’ll cover here which might constitute very mild spoilers. I doubt any of them would surprise someone who’s already familiar with the genres involved, but if you want to avoid spoilers entirely I recommend you skip ahead to the last paragraph.

So. First off, I love the setting.

In the late 1600s, Captain Kidd sailed to Mars. There he explored, met and befriended the bug-like locals, and ultimately sailed back home. There are now human colonies elsewhere in the solar system (including on Mars), and ships which regularly make the voyage from planet to planet across the great rivers of air in between. Clockwork exists and automata are an advanced art, and coal gases are used in great quantities to fill the lift envelopes of airships until they’ve crossed “the falling line”—the elevation high enough for a ship to sail out of a planet’s orbit. 

A quibble: I’ve seen this book called steampunk, and I don’t agree. Not yet at least. There are genre similarities, but this story is deeply rooted in the British Regency-era of the Age of Sail. Heck, it’s all set in 1812 or 1813, and the Napoleonic wars are still underway. While certain setting elements overlap with steampunk (clockwork and automata, airships, alternative versions of space) the story has more similarity to Novik’s Temeraire books and other Age of Sail adventures (e.g. C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, or O’Brian’s many naval novels). What’s more, there’s no concern with industrialization or the pressures thereof. So while there’s a little steampunk-ish set dressing, and I can understand using that as a marketing term in 2016 when this book was published, I don’t think it’s accurate.

Back to the setting! Despite the alternate history, social expectations have remained much the same. British Regency Era gender and class conventions are still potent forces, shaping our protagonist Arabella’s world(s). Her taste of something different, what with being raised on Mars by a Martian nanny with very different ideas of gender and class roles, is tantalizing. Levine establishes all of this with admirable efficacy in his quick prologue, setting the stage for the rest of the story and all the conventions that will stymie Arabella in her quest to aid her family.

Actually, I admire Levine’s writing here in general. He’s adopted a markedly period voice, straitlaced and constrained in a way that emphasizes the social restrictions and expectations without sacrificing the feel of personal insight into Arabella’s world. He’s skillful, and it shows. Even when things are predictable (in good, genre-confirming ways) they don’t feel forced.

And, maybe because of all that, this book has lots of fun (mostly quiet) social commentary going for it. Arabella’s struggles and observations around gender and class feel fitting to the genre, and give us a window into Arabella’s growth of her own perspective on what is right, proper, and moral, departing from the ”received perspective” she starts the story with. I really enjoy that growth, and it feels good to see it take place.

But I can’t mention that growth without discussing those concerns I mentioned above.

Stories in the Regency Era, and especially any kind of story involving the creation of colonies in a place with intelligent locals, will unavoidably engage with colonialism. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid in this kind of story, and pretending colonialism (and its problems) doesn’t exist is usually just a way to be an apologist for it. Fortunately, that isn’t the approach this story takes.

Okay, more implicit spoilers ahead, though they should remain pretty general.

For all that Arabella of Mars doesn’t ignore colonialism per se, it also doesn’t address it directly. Partly, I think that’s due to the narrator’s proximity to Arabella’s own perspective; there’s a lot that Arabella hasn’t examined deeply about the social order and her role in it, never mind the ways in which humans and Martians interact. There are, however, many overt hints that Arabella disagrees with or isn’t aligned with the common colonialist assumptions of her society.

This comes out in the little details: Arabella notices the ways in which English depictions of Martians are wrong, and they irk her; Arabella corrects others a number of times, and signals dissatisfaction with their racist and colonialist assumptions; and she is unwilling to embrace the racist and colonialist arguments of others even when they’re not focused on Mars and Martians. As I said, all the little hints are there.

Actually, reflecting on those little details, I wonder whether some of my enjoyment of this story is tied to similarities with how my mother spoke of her childhood in Uganda and the US.

Back to this book, Arabella’s rejection of English colonialism, or her opposition to it, isn’t fully articulated in the way that I think the setting (and the story thus far) calls for. Her own estimations of her fellow landed English gentry start mostly neutral and grow more negative. And she clearly feels more attuned to the social conventions of Martians (or even the crew she serves with) than to the conventions of her peers. But while she appears to judge the existing system as lacking and feels estranged from it, she’s still a part of it and hasn’t articulated a different position.

About par for the course in book one of a series, really. This is part of my reason for both liking the book and trying to reserve judgment.

Anyway. The story thus far feels poised to dive deeper into this struggle with colonialism. And so far, it feels like it’s aware of that. That’s all well and good. But it hasn’t (yet) made that confrontation its focus. If it doesn’t dive into that confrontation with colonialism, or at least face it along its narrative path, I’ll have to revise my opinion of the story.

So.

If you were avoiding reading the spoiler-ish above material, rest assured this is the *END OF SPOILERS*.

I like the book. I like it a lot, and absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes Age of Sail adventure with a splash of Regency drama and a hint of Jules Verne. If you want alternate history science fiction on interplanetary sailing ships, this is your best bet. And if you know a younger reader looking for these sorts of things, this is accessibly YA-ish to boot.

The Lost City (2022)

While I was traveling recently, I saw a number of airplane movies. Some of them were spectacular, some were crap. At least one was stuck in the middle: The Lost City with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum.

It’s been a while since I watched movies on an airplane; it’s been a while since I flew, period. There’s always something a little weird about airplane movies… I think I’m more inclined to like them, if only because they offer a welcome distraction from hours of monotony. My “was it fun” bar is lower.

The Lost City would have passed that bar even without being stuck on an airplane. The movie was good fun. It was absurd in a number of very appealing ways, and played with audience assumptions deftly. I would be willing to call the movie an excellent (if predictable) comedy adventure with a dash of romance, except…

Alright, look, I normally give *SPOILER* warnings, and I don’t know how to talk through this without mentioning specifics. You’ve been warned.

The movie does almost nothing to engage the problematic side of its adventure-archaeology plot. They mention it, and then… basically nothing. Yes, the villain Abigail Fairfax (thank you for chewing the scenery, Daniel Radcliffe) is obviously portrayed as Doing A Bad. Yes, the genre calls for some adventure-archaeology, and yes this movie portrays “let’s steal these ancient artifacts” less positively than, say, Indiana Jones. But given how neatly the writers played with our expectations in the other plot (the adventure of our romance author and her books’ cover model), I wish they’d done more here too.

I’ll come back to that.

I can understand why the movie focuses on the duo played by Sandra Bullock (romance author Loretta Sage) and Channing Tatum (cover model Alan NoLastName)—they’re great! The ways in which their characters comedically subvert their tropes are pure gold. I wish more movies did what The Lost City does here.

The opening of this movie had my complete buy-in. I’d hold it up as a brilliant example of good character establishment, with just enough interplay to set up the forthcoming character trope inversions and the (eventual) odd-couple romance plot. The movie’s jokes about publishing, authors, models, and our assumptions about all those things, all landed for me. It’s good stuff!

This is the part of the movie that I thought was especially excellent.

Then we get Daniel Radcliffe’s obsessed villain, and the excellence continues. There’s a scene with cheese and an airplane that… look, it was kind of dumb, but it had me cackling quietly in my seat. The whole opening of the movie is like that. The magic continues with the introduction of yet another star actor, and we’re given a treat while Tatum’s Alan plays off of this magnificent foil.

And it’s right around here where the movie sets up something that they then fail to explore well. We’re introduced to a local, Rafi played by Héctor Aníbal, who works for the villain despite disagreeing with him because there’s no other well-paid work. In a set of throwaway lines that the whole rest of this excellent opening act led me to believe would see plenty of future pay-out, our villain reveals his villainous plans; he’s bought one whole side of an island, full of ancient ruins, and is paying locals to dig up their history so that he can soothe his tender ego with some artifact-granted self-aggrandizement. He admits the locals don’t like it (so far so good, that’s more than most other archaeology-adventures do), and even says that Rafi has particularly mixed feelings about it.

The movie has gotten my hopes up at this point. With all the other set-up and payout that’s been going on, that casual aside is worth every second it takes. It tells me exactly what’s coming, and I’m excited for it.

I want to see Rafi have a character arc. I know he’s not a main character, but I want him to at least have a couple lines. And I want to get enough time with him to see how and when he turns against Fairfax. I want his dramatic shift to feel important.

It gets short-changed. We see a fragment of what I’d hoped for.

Mostly, the movie doesn’t pay attention to Rafi’s dramatic shift—despite the fact that it is central to the heroes’ survival. Those throwaway lines were there for a reason, they set up the eventual twist in exactly the way I’d expected. But Rafi’s emotional journey is given almost no play at all.

And when you take a step back, you can see similarly short shrift given to all the other POC characters. Now, I acknowledge that all the other POC characters are also side characters, and they’re given roughly as much narrative attention as any other side character. Maybe even more attention, because the side characters are mostly people of color.

The problem is, this doesn’t really solve the issue at hand. It just draws attention to the fact that all the people who have narrative focus are white despite the movie predominantly being set in a very non-white place.

They almost made a spectacular movie. As it was the performances were delightful, and a lot of the writing was excellent, and somewhere along the way someone dropped the ball and the movie just came out fun but with thorny snags. And it is fun. I had fun the whole way through, even when I was disappointed.

But my disappointment was even sharper because it was so clear that—at some point along the way—someone knew they could do more. And then they didn’t. They wrote Rafi’s character knowing he’d play a vital role at the end, and they laid the foundation for his emotional journey to be satisfying, and then they never followed through. Maybe it was lost in the edit, maybe it didn’t work during shooting, I have no idea. I just know that it should have been there and then wasn’t.

And that void doesn’t just leave the movie without a deeper emotional arc for a POC character, it also makes Fairfax’s villainy flatter. Rafi’s moral objections to the heedless extraction of his people’s history serves as a foil to Fairfax’s rabid egotism. By stripping out the development of those objections, and Rafi’s role as a reluctant-lieutenant-turned-eventual-resister, we lose the nuance and depth of Fairfax’s desperate and callous selfishness.

Now. Does an adventure movie need to have all that emotional depth?

Well, no. It doesn’t need that. This is a functional adventure movie as-is.

But it clearly has the bones of all that additional emotional depth. And it could have had a significant chunk of all that with probably only four more minutes of run-time. That would take the movie from 1h 52m to 1h 56m, and honestly that doesn’t seem like an issue to me.

Heck, those four minutes probably would have made this one of the first archaeology-adventures to give more than lip-service to the problematic history of archaeology, too. It already looked like they were trying to do that in places, via implication. They just didn’t land the whole message in the final cut. Another missed opportunity.

So.

It’s a fun movie. I’d even say that parts of it are excellent. I just wish they’d carried it a little further, because I think it was almost a spectacular movie instead of a pretty good one that sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth.

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.

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.

EV adventures

I was busy last Thursday. Very busy. I had a bit of an adventure, really.

My sib has finally replaced their ancient car with an EV, and we used it last Thursday to deliver our brother (the eldest) and his kids to the airport. From Burlington, Vermont, to Boston’s Logan Airport.

During the winter.

I, and my sib, learned a great deal.

We delivered our eldest brother and our niblings to the airport only twenty minutes later than planned, but the drive took approximately twice as long as I’d normally expect (seven hours, ish). It turns out that the quality of the charging stations available to you matters a great deal, whether that’s “do they charge quickly” or “do they work at all.”

The EV in question is not a Tesla, no superchargers for us.

This all meant that we stopped several times for recharging, with each stop taking about thirty to fifty minutes. We would stop charging before hitting full capacity because the rate-of-charge decreases significantly as the battery fills, so we tried to time our stops to only charge when we’d actually get faster charging. I can see a future where this becomes more normal, and the dominant “highway refueling” paradigm shifts from gas stations with little quick-to-use convenience stores to charging stations with diners, restaurants, or any place that can hold your attention easily for fifteen to fifty minutes. It’s not a bad feel, really, and if we weren’t under time pressure to deliver our family to the airport, it might have been nice to slow our journey and appreciate those stops. Not having COVID be a thing would help too.

But as best as we can tell, any charger installation needs someone nearby who really cares about whether it works and how well it works. The reliable chargers were near stores that might want them to attract clientele, mostly Whole Foods (though there was a Walmart with mostly-okay chargers). But other chargers, like one hidden behind a hotel, were often simply broken and only registered error codes or offered trickle charges that would take a whole day (or night) to refuel. Even the chargers in Somerville’s Assembly Square garage didn’t work reliably; if my sib and I are right, this comes down to no one establishment caring enough about the chargers to push for their regular maintenance, and no one establishment seeing them as clearly tied to their own reputation.

Having delivered the fam to the airport, we then turned around and headed back north. Well, after stopping to charge again and eat. It probably would have been a better idea to stay the night in Somerville, all things considered.

But we retraced our steps, mostly without excitement (except for a surprise fireworks display), until we were nearly in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. That’s when the temperature dropped into the single digits (6F or so) and we both got real quiet, watching the battery’s gauge plummet.

We had to cycle the defroster, and turn off the car’s heat in general, in order to nurse the battery to the charge station… where we discovered that the charging capacity had been temporarily reduced (from earlier that day) due to an in-progress system update. It felt, in many ways, how I imagine early gasoline car trips might have felt. Remarkably functional, exciting, and just uncertain enough to keep us on the edges of our seats.

So we spent the next hour and a half or so waiting for the battery to charge. We napped (or lay still with eyes shut, in my case), and drank our extra coffee, and generally tried to pass the time as midnight rolled by. After watching the battery drop so quickly in the cold temperatures, we didn’t want to chance going up and over the Green Mountains without a nearly full charge, so we took extra time to be sure. Then, nearly full, we set out again.

The first leg of that trip was nerve-wracking. We kept eyeing the number of miles remaining, comparing it to the percent charge still in our battery. We planned out where we’d pull off the highway and ask for help, if it looked like we were losing charge too quickly. It wasn’t until we could tell that we were definitely getting slightly more than one mile per percent of battery charge that we relaxed—we knew we had another charger in range at that point, which would let us finally return to Burlington about seventeen hours after we’d left.

From there on, it was fun. We talked, listened to music, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Vermont is beautiful, and driving through it at night and watching the snowscapes pass by is still something I love.

It’s not a trip I want to make again in an EV though, not the way we did it.

I think that until the charging infrastructure is a little better—more reliable, faster, more omnipresent—I prefer to make shorter trips. Or I prefer to make long trips like that with more flexible time available on either end. I suspect that the trip would feel quite different in the summer, too, without the battery choking on the frigid temperatures.

But, for all that I have been raised to expect the convenience of a gas engine, I think the more languid rhythm of a long EV trip is quite nice. And I think it’s vital that we build out better charging infrastructure to make those trips easier, because EVs are the only practicable way to move car-culture and long range personal transport past petroleum. I don’t think there’s anything inherently different about what is possible with an EV, I just need to change the way I think about structuring my trips in them: what would be a three and a half hour trip will be longer, and I’ll want to plan for more rests and more layovers, as it were.

This makes me think of rural America, and of small towns.

I actually think there’s a lot to be said for EV charging, and building business offerings around that, as a way to buttress the small communities that are so often simply passed and ignored by people on highways. When you’re nearly guaranteed to spend half an hour in a spot charging your car, you’re far more likely to look around and be tempted to eat or buy something. Gasoline vehicles will pull into a station and be out again three minutes later, there’s no captive audience there. But EV drivers are far more likely to want something to do, see, or eat while their vehicle prepares for the next leg of the trip. If an EV charging network can collaborate with local businesses, or if local businesses can band together to offer a charging station… that would be great.

Despite the harrowing nature of some pieces of my trip last week, I think EVs are great. I think they’re vital to weaning ourselves off petroleum, and I think they could be another way to bring people to the small communities that have withered along the sides of the highway for so long. Maybe we’ll be fortunate enough to see them succeed.

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.

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).

Space Sweepers (2021)

I couldn’t help but think of Cowboy Bebop. I’ll mention Planetes too, but I still haven’t seen it so I’m only making a topical connection.

See, Space Sweepers shares so many aesthetic and tonal qualities with anime that I would be remiss not to point it out immediately. If you already know you don’t enjoy less-rigorous, more-adventurous space thrillers with lots of crunchy techno-bits slathered on for that sweet flavor, but without the density of “totally realistic” sci-fi… this probably isn’t the movie for you.

If, on the other hand, you want a dramatic space thriller with some cyberpunkish themes and just enough emotional moments to make me sniffle, check out this movie.

Why? Because even with my few quibbles, Space Sweepers is still a touching story about grief, struggling to make ends meet, and the humanity of those society has cast aside. It’s flashy, it’s fun, and despite the rough bits it has heart.

Oh, and *damn* do I enjoy the cast and the polyglot melange of this space future. The faces on-screen are incredibly diverse, and absolutely helped sell me on this movie’s setting. Sure, all the main characters are South Korean, and the big antagonist is played by Richard Armitage, but whoever was in charge of casting actually paid attention when they were asked to get a *broad* range of different people.

Having said that, I do have to add one of those quibbles I’d mentioned: this movie’s acting quality and character development are unevenly distributed. I feel like that goes hand in hand with the anime themes I mentioned above, but it’s more noticeable when watching real live humans.

The core crew feel solid to me, and I don’t feel like the script screws them over. Bits of character background and motivation seep out throughout the movie, and I *like* that. We’re not immediately clobbered with each character’s backstory. I already mentioned Cowboy Bebop, but this is yet another place where I see a connection.

Unfortunately, the villain is a tad bit cardboard. I know that Richard Armitage can do better, so I can only assume that either there was more material which never made it to the film’s theatrical edit, or the script never allowed for the character to really shine. Similarly, the whole movie is peppered with some oddly stiff moments where bit-characters talk (mostly in the background) and simply feel… contrived. Like, it made sense for someone to say a thing, so the script included it, but the delivery didn’t quite land for me.

It wasn’t a big enough issue to pull me out of the movie, or even make me dislike it.

My other quibble: there are a few plot twists that feel contrived at best. They didn’t break the movie for me, but the logical holes were… pretty big. Big enough that I simply had to embrace them as part of the story and move on—which was more difficult for me than overcoming my quibbles with the acting. I think what gave me the most trouble wasn’t the deus ex machina, but the fact that the film could have covered it (or at least justified it better) with a few small changes earlier on. It felt like an unforced error.

Of course, knowing the little I do about movie production, I realize that I may be wildly off the mark. Who knows how many variations the script went through, how many of those last scenes were cobbled together from different shoots, or how much of their budget they’d run through by the time anyone saw the same plot holes I see? It’s not like making movies is simple or easy.

Anyway. I liked this movie. If you know you like its genres, I think you’ll like it too.

Tamsyn Muir’s Sword-wielding Lesbian Space Necromancers

This isn’t anything in-depth about Gideon the Ninth or Harrow the Ninth. It’s much faster than that.

If “lesbian swords and necromancy in space” doesn’t sound appealing, I guess you should look elsewhere. I thought it was great. Gideon the Ninth has plenty of drama, channels anime in places and ways that I found very satisfying, and delivers convoluted mystery alongside swordplay, violence, and necro-magic. Tamsyn Muir (Tor page, Tumblr, homepage) has my attention.

I’m also enjoying the separate in-universe story The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, which takes place before the opening of Gideon the Ninth.

For those who don’t like starting a series until it’s finished… first, that’s silly, it’s not how publishing works. If you want a series to exist, you should damn well read the first book and recommend it to others. Secondly, I don’t think you need to worry as much about that here: while Gideon the Ninth is obviously the first of multiple books, the ending ties the story up neatly and resolves things while still leaving room for a satisfying next story.

I read Gideon the Ninth last year and loved it. I took a little while to really sink into it, but once I had been caught I was stuck in it and couldn’t put the book down. It juked and weaved all over the narrative space; I never felt like it was letting me down by breaking narrative rules, but always felt like I should have seen the next twist coming and was instead surprised by it. I realize that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightful.

I also loved the deeply anchored first person perspective that carried the narration throughout. I took a while to tease out where Gideon’s perspective was reliable and where it wasn’t, but honestly that only made the whole book more fun for me. The generally grisly nature of the story, the YA drama undertones (or just tones sometimes), and the excellent adventure / mystery plot were only made better by Gideon’s grumbling, scathing commentary.

I haven’t started Harrow the Ninth yet.

I’m really looking forward to it.