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).

Mining my boarding school experience for Cesium Deep

This one is going to be a little more personal. Also a little more disjointed.

I went to a mixed boarding / day school for high school. I was there as a boarder.

My time in my dorm was both great and awful. It’s part of where I’m drawing inspiration for the story I’m writing about Cesium Deep.

When I say that my time in my dorm was great, I mean that I met and made friends with some awesome people. I came to love living in a community, and felt close to some of my dorm mates in a way that is hard to explain. Some of those friendships existed because we were teens who were able to live in the same space and share our passions and interests in ways that I hadn’t really thought possible before boarding school. Sometimes, living in a dorm was a hell of a lot of fun.

But some of those friendships existed because we survived the awfulness together.

I don’t think it’s surprising that no one else from my dorm came to our 10th reunion.

When I say that my time in my dorm was awful, I mean that Continue reading

Trouble Writing Cesi

When I was first writing Bury’em Deep, the editor I was working with through my mentorship program asked me to write scenes from inside Cesi’s head. She wanted, ideally, for the book to include sections or chapters from Cesi’s perspective.

It was a good idea, and Continue reading

The Music Behind Bury’em Deep

This is an incomplete list of the songs and artists that built the soundscape I tried to stay in while writing Bury’em Deep (and editing and rewriting it, and, well, you know).

The initial bulk of the music was industrial, with a few other genres tossed in. I think there was something about the frequently wordless, highly rhythmic, often distorted quality of that music that drove my sense of living inside a spaceship. My vision of those spaces was not the JJ Abrams Star Trek Apple Store feel of white, glass, and lens flares. It had more in common with World War 2 era submarines. Any gleam or shimmer came from the false realities of glasses’ environmental skins.

The next place I took musical inspiration from was synthwave. Something about the way those sounds combined with the more grating and grinding industrial music fused the feeling of large heavy machinery with complicated computers. Better yet, the synthwave often had a driving beat as well, something that mimicked and pantomimed the rhythms of the industrial tracks that had first sparked my imagination.

This means that alongside Front 242 (Tragedy For You), lots of VNV Nation (specifically tracks with fewer words), Foetus (Love, and (Not Adam)), and Ministry, I had heaps and piles of tracks from Makeup and Vanity Set (everything they made for Brigador, plus at least five other albums), Perturbator, Lazerhawk, Kavinsky, and Waveshaper.

Then, the more idiosyncratic additions and odder pairings, the ones that I couldn’t ignore:

VNV Nation’s song 4 A.M. flows seamlessly into the choral version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings that you find at the opening of the Homeworld soundtrack. I later discovered Edward Higginbottom’s choral version of that Adagio for Strings. I used the rest of the Homeworld soundtrack too.

I listened to two remixes of tracks from Star Control 2. They were Starbase – Under a Red Sky, and Property of the Crimson Corporation.

I listened to Holst’s Planets, and Clutch’s eponymous album. I cycled through several tracks off Tomoyasu Hotei’s album Electric Samurai (especially Dark Wind and Howling). I listened to SomaFM’s space mission station, and Science from the album Sounds of GE. Sometimes I listened to Orbital, primarily their Blue Album and In Sides. I used tracks from Receiver, by H Anton Riehl, and NASA’s Symphonies of the Planets: Voyager Recordings.

Sometimes I listened to one album or track on repeat for hours on end. My musical desires grow strange(r) while I’m writing.

If you have any of that music, I suggest playing it while you read the book. If you don’t have the book, I suggest listening to that music and imagining what it feels like to live trapped in a tin can in the far reaches of our solar system.

Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

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At least this cover doesn’t make me want to devote another 500 words to critiquing it.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Diana Wynne Jones cribbed from Disney’s 1992 Aladdin, but Castle in the Air came out first (in 1990). Perhaps more strangely, I haven’t found anything about the making of Aladdin that confirms that they were inspired by Castle in the Air… but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cross pollination.

As with Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps even more so, this is a book that I want Continue reading

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

 

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Howl’s Moving Castle is an excellent book. I’m indebted to my friend for recommending it to me; I knew the book existed, and I already loved the Miyazaki film, but it was her mention of it that finally pushed me over the edge.

Now that I’ve read it, I have to say that Diana Wynne Jones Continue reading

The Girl Who Drank The Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

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My reading log entry for this book has notes scribbled in the upper left corner: “read this again, read more Barnhill.”

Sometimes I have the pleasure of finding something that feels like it has wafted in through my window, a strangely whole remnant of a dream. It tantalizes, and though it obviously operates on a logic I only comprehend on that precipice between slumber and wakefulness, it holds together. Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank The Moon is one of those books.

This is not to say that The Girl Who Drank The Moon is confusing or inaccessible. Rather the opposite. It is seductive, and it pulled me in as one might fall into reverie: never losing consciousness, but slowly melding from one reality into another without any clear boundaries between the two.

I admire this book.

I love the dreaminess of its fantasy, I love the elegance of its language and the way it presents its stories within stories. I marvel at how well Barnhill has tied conflicting accounts together, like strands of rope twisted against each other until they bind and form a stronger whole. Perhaps most of all, I love the ways in which this story eludes the expectations of a fairy tale while still being a fairy tale through and through.

I did feel that—at the very end—this story lost a little of the breath-taking elegance it had carried so effortlessly throughout. But that cannot detract from the story as a whole for me. It remains too good, and I know for a fact that any semblance of effortlessness is a beautiful lie made of hard work and considerable skill.

That’s why I’ve set this one aside to read again. That’s why I want to read more of Barnhill’s work. That skill, that sense of story, is something I admire and covet. I want to let it soak into my skin, let it become part of me as well.

I strongly recommend this book, especially if you’re looking for middle grade fantasy or fairy tales. I think you could probably delight younger children by reading it aloud. I know that it delighted me.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I like the one on the left more.

I’m a sucker for a good cyclical story, for plot elements interwoven early and revisited at the climax. That’s part of my love for Die Hard and Hot Fuzz. This book is neither of those movies, but it does many of the same structural things.

My feelings for Ship Breaker are slow and warm, less the quick shine of delight than the steady glow of admiration. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I was particularly impressed by the way in which Paolo Bacigalupi built up the feel of coming full circle, and filled it with excellent foreshadowing as he established the struggles to be faced. I also appreciated the book’s explorations of family, loyalty, and love, how they felt etched deep in the text, part of the world that seeped out through every pore. Despite their omnipresence, I never felt as though the book was beating me over the head with its themes; I even ignored them for a while simply because of how completely they merged with the characters and text. Like a shot from a skilled pediatrician—medicine delivered amidst pleasant distraction—they were slipped into the rest of a seamless whole, the needle unnoticed until it was gone. Not perfectly slick, but very well done.

This book is easy to read as a hero’s journey, but Bacigalupi avoids the wish-fulfillment capability-fantasy that periodically crops up in genre stories. People struggle and strive through difficulty and danger, people learn and grow, but they never feel superhuman; the main character’s most fantastical accomplishment is quickly learning to read. This preserves a rough and prosaic taste that grounds everything, making the moments of higher tension even more piquant in contrast. It’s something I like a great deal.

I haven’t even addressed the setting or characters, the way Bacigalupi enmeshes the reader in the world without explaining anything, without needing to explain anything. It’s another thing I admire and aim for in my own stories, and I want you to discover it for yourself if you haven’t already. I wasn’t surprised to see Tobias Buckell thanked in the afterword, and if you like Ship Breaker or its ilk I’d strongly recommend Buckell’s Arctic Rising and Hurricane Fever.

Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

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This is not the kind of book that I read when I was a kid. It’s not quite the kind of book that I prefer to read right now. Despite that, I enjoyed it.

In terms of age range, Cosmic is definitely middle grade. I can see why it is called sci fi, but I think that classification is misleading when compared with other middle grade science fiction. With an allowance made for several advancements beyond current technology, this story is fundamentally about our own world—and the few pieces of advanced technology that are present don’t change that.

The writing honestly made me uncomfortable, and didn’t pull me in right away; the story moves slowly, and from the beginning I felt a looming sense of dread due to the effective foreshadowing. I wonder whether readers of the intended age would feel differently. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, for example, is famously fun for kids and terrifying for adults… perhaps Cosmic is similar?

I don’t mean to say that the book is bad: it’s actually quite good, once you get into it. But it’s slow and meditative, and it took a while to grow on me. Also, when it did finally grow on me, I felt like I was appreciating it very specifically as an adult; that’s quite distinct from how I’ve felt about some other good middle grade sci fi I’ve read recently. Perhaps a reader less invested in the adventure fiction that I loved as a kid would be more interested in Cosmic. Or maybe I’m just not the right kind of kid inside to really enjoy this book.

If you want a meditation on growing up, the arbitrariness of childhood and adulthood, feelings of connection and responsibility, and maybe just a little bit of space, Cosmic is a good book for you. If you want something fast paced and snappy, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Hell Yes Roller Derby

I’ll have the next section of Chapter 3 of Miska up for you soon. But first I wanted to point out that I’ve been reading several comics about roller derby recently, and they’re all *good* comics.

Aimed at a slightly younger crowd (middle grade and up), we have Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. I love its depiction of pre-teen social strife and self-discovery; it feels emotionally honest in that painfully real way, without dwelling too long on any given story beat. I can see why it won the Newbery. I think what struck me most (*slight spoilers*) was the fact that Astrid doesn’t magically recover her friendship with her old best friend. There is no miraculous kiss-and-make-up to mend broken friendships, just learning from previous mistakes and trying to do better the next time around. (*end spoilers*). I like it a lot. I suspect I’ll be recommending this one to just about everybody. I’d suggest ordering from your local comics shop or bookstore.

And for slightly older readers who want more of that sweet derby fix, SLAM! is absolutely wonderful. Created by Pamela Ribon and Veronica Fish, it hits many of the same emotional notes as Roller Girl but with a slightly more mature focus, as two women struggle to learn more about who they are and who they can be. Once again, self-discovery and friendship both play an important role. But things get a little more complicated and emotionally fraught here, not least because, damn it, Pamela Ribon is cruel enough (read, deservedly confident enough) to leave the reader’s (read, my) emotions hanging in hopeful tatters between the end of one issue and the beginning of the next. You can save yourself from some of this by buying the trade copy collecting the first four issues, which I believe is coming out soon. At least you won’t be stuck at the end of issue #3, heart in your throat, waiting for #4 to come out.