River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

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Dang, that cover is gorgeous.

I just realized that I never wrote anything about River of Teeth here.

River of Teeth is a delight. It is compelling, it is exceedingly evocative, and it cemented my tremendous respect for Sarah Gailey. That respect isn’t simply for Gailey’s fabulous what-if—though a heist western about queer hippo-riding cowboys in the swamps of Louisiana wins you lots of points in my book—no, my respect is for Gailey’s obdurate embrace of optimism, hope, and upbeat tone despite nearly every genre expectation insisting otherwise. When I read River of Teeth, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d read a book so fraught with dire struggle, and with emotional conflict, yet which somehow rose above despondency and grimdark. It’s still hard to come up with such titles, but this is one of them.

Gailey’s characters are capable, but merely mortal. They face the impossible. And somehow they never lose heart.

I think it says something that I inhaled River of Teeth, and then immediately inhaled the sequel, and only ever felt better for having done so.

River of Teeth is a small thing, and it’s a marvel that there is so much inside it. I strongly recommend both it and its sequel Taste of Marrow. If you like well-grounded weird historical what-ifs, or westerns, or heists, or stories which adamantly refuse to kill their queers and which hold tight to hope with both hands… this story is for you. If you just want a good time, this story is for you.

Please, go read the book.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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The Goblin Emperor is strangely soothing. I don’t mean that it will make you feel good the entire way through, nor that nothing bad happens; I mean that it’s touching, fun, feels real, and somehow delivers good political intrigue in a grim situation without being dark or gloomy. Also, it hooked me and kept me excited despite being a tome.

I found this book on a Tor list recommending anti-grimdark stories, and it entirely delivers. Though shelved as YA, I think everyone would like it.

You know how sometimes you don’t want a story to end? You reach the finish and sit in that lingering need to see more, stuck on the idea that surely you could get just a little more story out of the book if you squeezed it just a bit harder. That was this book for me. I wanted more, I wanted to see what came next.

But Addison timed the climax and denouement for this book extremely well: she resolved the central issues, the emotional and political struggles that swirl through the heart of the story. Then, with that resolution still in hand, she ended things; no unecessary time is spent dwelling on anything extra or outside the story. Also, no matter how much I want to read more about the good things that happen to these characters, reading about only good things would probably bore me after a while.

And, unless they launched a whole new story, I’d feel sad when things strayed from that quiet feeling of calm stability.

I have more to say. I won’t give you explicit spoilers, but bear in mind that (if you’re strongly in the anti-spoiler camp) you may glean more from my comments than you wish to know. If you want to stop here you can. You should already know by now that I recommend this book.

Anyway, you spoiler-phobes have been warned.

There’s a lot of grimdark out there. There’s an excess of stories that revel in showing us how gritty and real they are by rubbing our noses in how poorly everyone treats each other. It takes a special kind of attention, a particular exercise of will, to write political intrigue—complete with assassinations, nefarious plotting, and villains aplenty—while still clinging to an underlying optimism, and giving everyone relatable humanity.

I rarely read characters I fall in love with in political intrigue novels, people who are quite simply good. They’re usually narrative fodder, intended to show the reader how characters die. So it is an absolute joy to find that The Goblin Emperor neither ignores the dangers of trusting those who desire your power, nor casts the central character as a manipulative super-human. Instead, The Goblin Emperor allows its main character to be manipulated and suffer for his naivety, learning from his mistakes without losing his honesty and decency or being crushed beneath the novel’s narrative heel—this story doesn’t assume that to be kind one must also be stupid. It allows him to be a good person trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation, even as he struggles with the growing weight of understandable paranoia and the inability to know what choices might be the ‘right’ ones.

It helps that The Goblin Emperor doesn’t bother with irredeemable villains; even the people I came to detest still had their own reasons behind their actions. Whether obviously selfish, well-intentioned, or something else, they always felt complexly human and real.

What I’m saying, really, is that this is a good book. Katherine Addison did a good job, and made a story that I strongly recommend. It’s emotionally real, it’s sometimes grim, but it’s also hopeful. And that matters.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman

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This movie manages to embody the tone of the central character, AND make me believe that the central character really is the Spiderman that I know and love. It’s not grim-dark, or silly (well, I mean, it *is* silly but it’s *Spiderman* silly). I really enjoyed it, and would happily watch it again. And while nothing is perfect, I felt like this movie did a wonderful job of portraying a Spiderman with hope and integrity, and without the angst that seems like such a big component of so many other Marvel movies.

I’m not saying I don’t love the angst, but there’s something refreshing about seeing Spiderman so relatively free of it. Maybe Peter will grow into it in the future, but that can take its own time.

Also, while I still want to see a Spiderman movie about Miles Morales (which the internets tell me has been teased by an easter egg I missed), I was impressed by the fact that this movie managed to feel inclusive in a way that other Marvel movies have not. Maybe I shouldn’t be that impressed. The other Marvel movies, after all, haven’t exactly been bastions of inclusion. But I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the movie’s high schoolers. Honestly, anything else would have been jarring, so it’s good they didn’t screw it up.

Flash Fiction: Hope

In a return to form, I’ve got more flash fiction for you from Chuck Wendig’s regular prompts over at terribleminds. This one got away from me. By which I mean, this is not what I’d set out to write in the first place. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but I couldn’t stop writing it, and it felt right anyway. So here it is for you.

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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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Eric Flint and Determined Optimism

I love reading Eric Flint’s books.  Even when they’re not especially “good,” per se, I still go out of my way to get my hands on them.  There’s something special about the way that he constructs story-worlds that I find captivating, and I think I may finally have some of the right words for it.  Time and again, I’m struck by the way in which his stories convey a rigorously optimistic, idealistic world view; his protagonists work together to create a better world, or a better future, or a better something else, but there’s always the underlying presence of cooperating with others in order to improve upon what already exists.  I don’t always agree with everything that he writes, but given a choice between an Eric Flint-esque book and something less hopeful, I’ll pretty much always pick Flint (or at least return to Flint after a jaunt elsewhere).

Part of it has to do with inspiration, and part of it has to do with my personal headspace.  I consistently reference the need for inspiration towards something better when I review Flint’s books, often referring back to my article on Schindler’s List.  I sometimes feel willfully self-deceptive when I consciously shape my media consumption like this, but I find that my own outlook on life is far more positive and constructive when I make sure that I balance my media intake with more hopeful and inspiring stories.

All of which is to say that I find that Flint’s writing serves a very distinct purpose.  I like his work more for the fact that he very specifically introduces such positive people and/or groups into his stories; I find it tremendously reassuring to read about people consciously working together to create a better world, and I often feel more empowered to do the same after reading his work.  It makes a nice counterweight to my research into things like sex slavery, MKUltra, or Operation Condor.  There’s something refreshing to Flint’s idealistic community organizing that helps to clean out the toxicity of the horribly sinister things that we human beings have routinely done to each other.

I think there’s more to be covered here, but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.  What do you think?  Do you have similar mental health management strategies?  Do you actively seek inspiration in the media that you consume?

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Holy crap, this is a good book.  Many thanks to Monica for the recommendation and the loan.

It turns out that Octavia Butler knew what she was doing when she wrote Parable of the Sower.  She managed to create a believable (and deeply grim) future; perhaps more impressive, the grim future she envisioned in 1993 still feels like a compelling vision of our potential future, even if the dates and tech seem a little bit off.  To be perfectly honest, I find the future shown in this book to be especially frightening because of the fact that I remember imagining something very much like it in my early childhood.  Except, of course, I had no conception then of the persistent undertones of racism that are seamlessly integrated into Butler’s story.

Somehow, despite writing about a world that is so clearly dying, about people caught in the death throes of a failing state, Butler writes a protagonist who retains all the hope that you could possibly ask for.  And this isn’t because our narrator is naive or stupid: it’s because she has looked carefully at the world around her and recognized that she has a choice between giving up and killing herself, or deciding to do something to change things.  And she’s clearly unwilling to give up.  I find her really refreshing, a wonderful narrator to follow through such a wounded world.

I’m not saying that it necessarily feels good to read all the way through; the truth is that this book is quite painful at times.  But it’s also uplifting in a way that only people enduring in the face of adversity can be.  And not just enduring, but people who refuse to simply prey upon each other, and who instead try to make something better from the world around them despite how ruined it is.  I like that a lot.  I find it inspiring, and I think that because of that this story fulfills an extremely important role.

Because I’m on a tight schedule today, I’m going to make this one brief rather than going into further depth about the story or its construction.  I admire what Butler has done with this story, and I wish she were still alive for me to thank her for writing it.  I hope that you pick it up and read it too.  If you’ve read it yourself, please weigh in with your thoughts below.  I’d love to hear them.

As if the good story weren’t enough, this is yet another good example of a teen female narrator for me to learn from.  Yet another reason for me to like the book.

 

Madoka: Tragically Magical Girls

There’s so much that I want to tell you about this show, but telling you would be a disservice to you and to Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  This show deserves better than that; I might even go so far as to say that it deserves to be watched.  I’m not saying that it is the alpha and omega of anime (or even of magical girl anime), but it is exceptionally well made.  From the standpoint of appreciating artistic storytelling craft, this is a show that you will want to see.

The art itself is of variable quality.  Some episodes received more time and effort than others, in part because of the end of the show’s release schedule coinciding with the 2011 tsunami.  Background facial animation, for example, is minimal regardless of episode, while the last two episodes truly shine with the extra time that the studio took to release them after the tsunami.  But the anime’s visual design is just as fascinating and worth attention as the storyline itself.  The witches, foes of the show’s magical girls, are bizarre and appropriately unsettling, and each feature their own distinctive style of illustration.  More on that later.

However much I liked the studio’s fascinating art choices, my favorite part of Madoka still has to be the storyline.  I’ll try not to spoil you, so let me put it this way: if you want a happy show, you should pick something that doesn’t have schoolgirls struggling to shoulder the burden of protecting the world.  Sound interesting?

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Schindler’s List, and stories that inspire us

It is rare for a movie to reduce me to tears.  Not just tears, but quiet sobbing too.  Schindler’s List does it.

Schindler’s List tells a powerful, horrifying, and moving story, one which ought to be heard by everyone.  It is more than a story of persecution and salvation, it’s a story of inspiration and hope.

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