Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks

Sometimes books read like TV shows. This is one of those times. Hardly surprising, given that the author has a background writing for TV dramas. She does a good job of it here, too.

Lily SparksTeen Killers Club handled me roughly. I loved it. Riding its ups and downs, I felt emotionally whipsawed and had to set it aside a few times to take breathers and regain equilibrium (something our poor narrator never has a chance to do). By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, still locked in admiration for the ways the story had pulled me back and forth time and again. Because for all that I’d been on a ride, it was an impressive ride. Sparks knew how to grab my heartstrings, and she did it fearlessly. The book had caught me and reeled me in, and pulled me along for the whole thing.

Well, not quite the whole thing: at the start I was partly distracted by needing to finish another book. But it was easy to slip back into it after finishing the other book. Then, of course, it was hard to put it down.

And yes, I’m on board for reading the sequel (which I suspected would exist, but wasn’t certain about until writing this). I’m a little concerned about it, for reasons that are lightly spoiler-y and which I’ll share in more detail below. Blandly put, I’m not sure which genre tropes the story-to-come will follow. There are a variety of options available, after all. But the story’s overall tone could go in several directions, and I won’t know how well it will fit my palate until I read the dang thing—which I will definitely do.

All of which is to say, if you like YA teen drama and serial killers and murder mysteries, this is a great book for you. Be ready for a heck of an emotional ride.

Now.

I can’t go into detail about this without implied spoilers for the book. But this series of observations are eating my brain, so here goes.

*IMPLICIT SPOILERS*

This varies by subgenre, but dramas don’t like to kill characters or let them stay dead. This is especially true of TV dramas, which often suffer from what I’ll call a dramatic conservation of characters.

I say suffer, but in moderation this conservation is a positive thing. Because dramas build up value in their characters, investing them with growth, backgrounds, and relationships that make them richer and more interesting, these dramas are loathe to sacrifice their developed main characters or let them die—even when that death would make sense. This dramatic conservation of characters feeds into the “main character glow” or “plot protection” that shields developed characters from death. But this conservation also provides the audience with reliable narrative focal points, and both encourages and rewards the audience’s emotional investment.

Some stories are more prone to this than others, but I think it’s especially prevalent in character dramas that specialize in arranging (and rearranging) their characters along various social faults of contention. Characters twist or are twisted into new disagreements, the situation is milked for all the drama it can hold, and then some new development arises that prompts another realignment. The longer a story runs, the more realignments happen, and the more strange situations people end up in as the writers try to deliver new and exciting stakes. This is the process that leads to jumping the shark. It’s also the process that results in somebody being caught in a terrible accident or dangerous what-have-you and then miraculously surviving (possibly with some character-altering development, like amnesia).

Usually, dramatic conservation of characters is maintained. Usually the characters don’t actually die, or if they do they aren’t actually gone for all that long. That’s part of the reason that so few character deaths are treated seriously in these stories… or at least, why so few are treated seriously amongst these stories’ audiences. The genre-savvy know from past experience that characters don’t usually die or stay dead.

This, sadly, only makes it harder to actually up the stakes in these genres.

It doesn’t help that these stories sometimes try to up the stakes by killing off people the audience has little attachment to. Instead of demonstrating that the situation is dangerous, this only reinforces the relative safety of the main characters. Scalzi’s Redshirts is all about this trope as it exists in Star Trek. Other stories try to demonstrate how dangerous and gritty they are by killing off characters seemingly at random—sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels like the author is trying to be edgy.

I think character death in these stories usually works best when it’s given space and weight, or at least makes an impact on other characters (I’ve written a bunch of posts about this). There are a handful of exceptions.

But the thing that’s eating at me, the thing I’m concerned is going to happen in the sequel, is that Sparks won’t let characters die when they really ought to… or will kill more characters just to show that she can. She’s set herself up for a tricky path going forward, and I suspect *EXPLICIT SPOILERS* based on the end of the book that she won’t let characters stay dead when that would actually fit her story well. But I don’t know! Maybe she’s just lulling me into a false sense of security. As I said above, I’ve got to read the sequel to find out. *END SPOILERS*

Still on board for YA drama about teen serial killers, with some murder mystery on the side?

Get thee to the library (or bookstore).

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

Deep Wizardry, by Diane Duane

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Yes, that is a truly massive shark.  The cover of the version that I read had something to do with a whale, but I like this one better.  I thought I’d already reviewed this book, and it was only as I was sitting down to write my review of the next one in the series that I checked back through my previous posts and found that I was wrong.  So before I tell you my thoughts on High Wizardry, let me tell you how I felt about Deep Wizardry.

The quick and dirty version is as follows: Diane Duane is good at her job, and she knows how to write books about young children taking on incredible responsibilities and facing overwhelming decisions… Which is a decent description of growing up, when I think about it.  Of course, most of us aren’t given access to powerful magical forces except in a metaphorical sense.  Deep Wizardry, like So You Want To Be A Wizard, is quality children’s literature; I’ll even go further and say that it’s good enough to merit your attention and reflection too, child or not.

With the exception of the “I think I read most of this before” section, my review of Deep Wizardry really is very similar to my review of So You Want To Be A Wizard.  I’m still more than a little bit in awe of Duane, she still writes excellent YA adventure with exceptionally mature themes, and she still does an incredibly good job of not talking down to her audience.  What I hadn’t really appreciated before is just how well her chosen storyline and protagonists map onto the experience of going through puberty and becoming an adult.  Call me stupid, call me slow, but though I noticed it in the first book I took another book or two to finally decide that it was more than just a fortuitous construction of the moment.  This, of course, has simply left me more appreciative of Duane’s writing chops, and her choice of subject material.

As per usual, there’s more after the break.

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So You Want To Be A Wizard, by Diane Duane

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I’m more than a little bit in awe of Diane Duane.  It’s been a while since I read something of hers, and I’d forgotten how good she was at her chosen profession.  Though the genre is no longer quite so thinly populated as it was when this book first came out, I still think that Duane outdoes the young wizard competition.  When it comes to books about serious young people dealing with serious (if fantastical) problems, she’s totally on top of it.  Admittedly, I’m not the most experienced judge for this particular sub-genre, but Duane is worth reading if you like YA literature that doesn’t talk down to its readers.

So You Want To Be A Wizard follows two young newly-sworn-in wizards who are facing their very first duties, which include slowing down the entropic death of the universe and generally trying to make the world a better place.  You know, the usual.  As you might expect from a story with protagonists devoted to such expansive duties, they don’t have an easy time of things and quickly end up in way over their heads.  I admire the depth of the goals Duane sets in front of her characters, as it seems as though they never lack for things to do.  This also means that they’re facing things that are profoundly scary and difficult to deal with, which turns out to be the perfect recipe for excitement and wonderfully climactic scenes.

Without spoiling anything, I think I can safely say that this book is an excellent adventure with exceptionally mature themes for a YA story.  The themes are more cosmically oriented than those of many other YA books that I’ve seen recently, with an emphasis on the broad scope of a story that I normally associate with epics; I admire the way in which Duane manages to include an epic scope even as she keeps the story (and its narration) very personal.  It takes considerable skill to see that through, and Duane clearly has it.  If you enjoy epics, YA stories, modern fantasy, or anything similar, I expect that you’ll like this book.

Ok, so I have an odd story about my history with this book…

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The Queen is Dead, Long Live the … Oops

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It wasn’t my fault, I swear.

I died because I didn’t know enough battlefield medicine.  It turns out that you’re not supposed to push an arrow through yourself when it’s stuck in your chest.

It wasn’t really my fault: I’d never been lonely enough to put lots of time into mastering the basics of medical care, and I’d spent all my time focusing on intrigue, learning who’s who, and figuring out what plots I might have to worry about in the weeks before my coronation as Queen of Nova.  After my disastrous showing at the grand ball, I’d tried to play catch-up with my long neglected social skills.  Somehow I never got around to learning what to do about arrow wounds.

I just didn’t think they’d be an issue, you know?  Or at least, not as big an issue as accidentally starting a rebellion by pissing off my nobles.  I’d already had one of them assassinated, and had only succeeded because of all the time I’d put into mastering my network of agents.  Next time, I’ll make a different mistake.  I’m sure of it.  Welcome to Long Live the Queen.

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