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.

Paladin’s Hope, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Hope is the queer continuation of Ursula Vernon’s paladin romances (written as T. Kingfisher). It does finally deliver the gay romance I’d asked for previously, and now I’m wondering what other stories we’ll get next given that I know there are a few paladins remaining without books about them.

For personal reasons, I enjoyed reading this one less than I enjoyed the others (Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength). I’ll try to dig into that, but I should add: if you liked the previous books in the series and still want “paladin romance,” this will still give you that and do it well. My personal discomfort has more to do with my own history than with some bigger critique of the book or series.

These books are all about paladins (often along with their potential romantic partners) being—in the words of friends who also read and enjoy these books—“total goobers.” The paladins these books revolve around all have lots of reasons for telling themselves why they’re not good enough for a romantic partner, or telling themselves that they’re doing everyone a favor by not pursuing or committing to a relationship, or etc. They are, in short, goobers. This goober-ness almost always drives the core of the relationship drama at the heart of each novel’s romance plot. There’s always other plot too, good fun stuff, often with intrigue and murder playing off the romantic tension to draw the story out and let everything feel right, narrative-wise. It’s well-written and does the expected romance novel thing, and it’s all fun.

But with Paladin’s Hope, Vernon very evocatively wrote some goober-ness that reminded me—painfully, powerfully—of my own previous episodes of goober-ness. And that hurt a lot. It hurt enough, was evocative enough, that I had to stop reading for a while and just meditate to keep myself from spiraling.

That’s the reason I liked reading this one less.

It’s still a good fantasy romance with murder and intrigue, like the others in the series. It’s certainly got some solid characterization and a good portrayal of relationship dynamics (healthy and unhealthy).

It wasn’t comfortable for me, and that’s okay. With any luck, you won’t have the same issues that I did.

The book also establishes the next step for the larger story world’s plot. I’m quite excited about that. I think the next few books in the setting and series will be fun, and big, and open up bigger overarching plot elements again. Those felt a little lacking with this novel, though I can’t say I noticed the lack until I reflected on it after the fact. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one.

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light is magic society intrigue set in early 1900s Britain, with a heaping serving of gay romance on top.

I knew I was reading something very gay before I started, given what little I’d heard about the book beforehand. I *hadn’t* realized I was going to be reading lurid sex scenes. Fortunately, I was able to avoid reading those scenes in public (something I’ve tried to be cautious about since a few awkward experiences in high school—Covid has actually been helpful there), and I was able to just relax and enjoy the book.

If you read the things I had to say about Ursula Vernon’s books, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this book delivered all the gay romance I’d felt was lacking in the first two Saint of Steel books. Also, I just realized that I read the newest one (Paladin’s Hope) and didn’t write about it here. I’ll try to rectify that.

But I’m distracting myself. This book is good stuff. And it opens with an excellent dramatic scene that sets the stakes for all that is to follow.

In fact, thinking about it from a composition perspective, I wonder when Marske decided to use that as the opening scene; it’s the right choice, I think, and does a marvelous job of creating tension for the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the obvious jumping off point for the next set of scenes. It feels like the teaser intro used to open a spy movie and showcase the future badness our heroes will face. That’s not the wrong choice or the wrong genre for the rest of the story, it’s just not the surface genre for the next step of the story. And I really want to know what inspired Marske to thread these pieces together this way.

Backing up…

Freya Marske has combined several genres here, as I mentioned up top. There’s gay romance, there’s magical fantasy, there’s historical society intrigue and drama (subgenre: British, early 1900s), and there’s the related spy genre. I tie those last two together because, in many ways, spy stories (more le Carré, less Fleming) feel like a reduction of society intrigue: concentrated, cooked down over some higher stakes to something more piquant, seasoned with a dash of paranoia and murderousness. The ultimate dish here is less twisty than an actual le Carré story, but with some of the same flavors and machinations.

So. Back to the novel (heh) genre blending of the book’s first chapters…

When the first scene of the book feels like the opening to a spy story, turning up the pressure and letting us know that something dire is afoot, that’s great. Then the story segues into something that feels more like society drama and leaves the threat lurking under the surface, like a shark too deep to show the reader its fin. And that works too. But, as a tonal shift, I don’t think the choice to do things that way is immediately self-evident. Or, it wasn’t an obvious option to me until I read this.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that all those elements work well together. What’s more, the genres feel well-blended; I’m really looking forward to the (clearly intended) sequel(s) and how they play with this mixture, because I suspect this story’s continuation will give me even more of the magical intrigue and spy fiction that I desperately want. If there’s more queer romance in it, all the better.

All of which is to say, if this blend of genres sounds like your cup of tea then you should hop to and find yourself a copy. It’s good stuff.

Clockwork Boys, by T. Kingfisher

It seems that I’m on an Ursula Vernon kick. I knew I wanted more stuff in the same setting, and I knew that this book (this series, actually) had also been recommended to me, so…

Look, Clockwork Boys is more of the same. It’s very reliably the same.

Not the same characters, not all the same dynamics or storylines or what-have-you, but genre-wise it’s still the same. Clockwork Boys is still fantasy, and romance, and adventure. Plus it has some other genre tidbits that are atypical for most romance stories but which fit well with a fantasy adventure RPG—murder, subterfuge, demons, the usual. It has the same drawbacks I’ve already mentioned in my pieces on Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength (still no queer romance here, it came before the others), but the book is solid.

And I like it. I knew what I was getting; I liked the flavor before, I like the flavor now. Vernon is good at what she does, and if you think you might enjoy a fantasy adventure story with some romance and a dash of subterfuge and demons, she’s the person to follow.

For extra context: I’m amused but not at all surprised that Vernon decided to write these books (and presumably the Saint of Steel books) out of frustration with the writing for male romantic leads in several CRPGs. She says as much in her Acknowledgements section. And while this book isn’t a novelization of a CRPG, you can taste the similarities and parallels. I’d say Vernon accomplished her goal: these characters (and their relationships) feel more compelling and plausible than the source material.

Oh, also, this book ends abruptly. Like, extremely abruptly. It’s very clearly the first half of a larger book, and it’s very clearly split here because this is close enough to half way and there’s a little narrative closure immediately before the cut. This is another thing Vernon mentions in her Acknowledgements, and it surprised me even less than the CRPG source material.

I don’t think the sudden end is bad; the sequel is already out, and if I’d known about the cut ahead of time I would have placed a hold on the second book. So this is my warning to you. If you like the book when you pick it up, get your hands on the sequel too. Don’t be like me. I didn’t plan far enough ahead, and now I have to wait.

Another side note, I suppose… if you’re here for the romance specifically, you might be a little disappointed. Some vague *SPOILERS* follow. The romance plot here is clearly being developed and teased. You can tell (if you’re not entirely unfamiliar with romance plots) almost immediately. But the meat of the romance plot doesn’t happen in this book. This one’s just build up, and pushes the external plot along. Honestly, I’d be a little surprised if the next book doesn’t feel like it’s strapped to a rocket, given how much has been established here already. *END SPOILERS*

So. If some mixture of these genres is your jam, or if you like fantasy CRPGs and were always a little disappointed by the writing of their romance plots, this book is probably for you. And while I haven’t read the sequel yet, you should probably get your hands on it along with the first book so you don’t have to wait like I do.

Paladin’s Strength, by T. Kingfisher

I enjoyed Paladin’s Strength. I knew what I was getting into this time. It’s still fantasy and romance with a few other genre bits tossed in. It’s still good, I still like all the genres in play here—or at least don’t dislike any of them enough to turn me off enjoying the rest of them.

Specifically, romance is kind of hit or miss for me. It’s not my popcorn genre. I don’t feel sucked into it or compelled or fed by it in the same way that I do with other genres, I don’t delight in it the same way. But when it’s well done, and especially when it doesn’t exist on its own, I’m down.

And it turns out that Ursula Vernon (pen name: T. Kingfisher) is good at her job. She’s good at writing characters that I enjoy. She knows the beats for a romance, and she’s happy to improvise around them with other interesting genre material. I don’t think I want to read more of her romances right now—I could use a palate cleanser, a break—but I like the world she’s established enough to want more of that, and if that requires reading romance I guess I’m down.

I just wish the romance were more queer.

Queer romance isn’t a necessity for me, but it does feel like a big boon. I’m not sure precisely what about it appeals most to me. Maybe it’s just the way in which queer romance seems more likely to diverge from classic gendered expectations of romantic relationships and interactions? Maybe I’d be down with het romance if it hewed less closely to conventional gender roles for its development.

Unfortunately, that queerness is not very present in this story. For all that Vernon does an excellent job making her characters feel like people, the central romance still feels fairly conventional to me (though I should note that Vernon continues to do fun things with healthier and more interesting relationships than I usually see in romances). There are certainly queer folks around, and there are queer characters baked into the background of the world in such a way that they are both unignorable and totally normal. That’s good. A big plus. But I’ve been hoping that this series would diverge further from conventions, and it hasn’t yet.

Apparently, from the blurb I’ve read, the next book in the series will have queer romantic leads. It should come out next year, Paladin’s Hope, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s about two characters I’ve liked in smaller roles in these first two books, so I’m very ready for it. Hopefully that romance feels less conventional too.

Despite my complaints, I think I’m learning. I’m certainly getting a better handle on how a genre + romance combo works. The romance is broadcast early on, usually through a meet-cute or some sufficiently distinctive interaction to anchor the pair’s dynamic for the reader, and then there’s a tremendous pile of will-they-won’t-they and yearning lustful thoughts before some kind of more satisfying release (ahem) close to the denouement, often just before the climax (AHEM) comes to a head (god, everything is sexual, this is like high school).

Obviously, there’s some room for variation, and for stylings around the edges. Novik and Vernon (and Bujold) don’t structure their romances exactly the same way… but they’re close enough to each other, for the most part.

I don’t plan on writing much in the romance genre per se, but it’s nice to know the structure and conventions to be able to play around with it on the sides of other stories.

Anyway, yes, much like with the previous book, Paladin’s Grace, if you like romance and don’t mind fantasy, mystery, and intrigue—or if you like fantasy, mystery, and intrigue and don’t mind romance—you’ll probably enjoy this book. This book might not be for you if any of those things is unpalatable for you. But if you’re not sure, or you’ve only read bad examples of those genres previously, give these books a try. Vernon is good at her craft.

Paladin’s Grace, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Grace went by quickly. I was hooked early, and pulled right on through. The many good things I’d heard about Ursula Vernon’s work feel like they apply here too.

Side note: T. Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon are the same person, T. Kingfisher is the pen name used for a whole suite of Ursula Vernon’s projects. I’ve meant to read Ursula Vernon’s work, especially Digger, for a while now. When I learned about her pen name, I signed up for these books right away. Easier to get them as ebooks from the library than to find a good, physical omnibus of the comic.

I was a little surprised, however. I hadn’t realized this would be romance. I think I might have enjoyed Paladin’s Grace more if I’d known beforehand that it was. But I did enjoy it, and it’s my own fault for not reading any of the book’s theming data—besides which, the fact that the story is romance is pretty abundantly obvious when, soon after the cishet meet-awkward, the narration is overtaken by constant thoughts about the other party.

My genre-revelation wasn’t a problem. I already knew that I enjoyed some fantasy romance (thanks Naomi Novik & Lois McMaster Bujold). If you actively dislike romance (in this case, lots of wistful thoughts and mostly-unfulfilled lusting), you may not like this book. If you can tolerate romance, this book has a bunch of other good stuff in it too, things that usually don’t end up in romance stories. After all, as Ursula Vernon acknowledges in her author’s note, most romance doesn’t accompany grisly fantasy murder mystery, dead gods, and legal drama. The perfume and frequent discussion of scents is perhaps the most normal detail. The fact that one of the leads is a perfumer may be a little less normal, as are her frequent attempts to mentally reconstruct nearly every smell she comes across, no matter how foul.

Anyway.

I absolutely recommend this book if you want solid fantasy fun. If you hate romance, that’s more complicated. If, like some of my friends, you only find romance palatable when it’s queer… I’m sorry, this book will not satisfy you.

But if you’re as intrigued as I was by a story about a paladin whose god has died, have at it. I had a good time.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

CBB+Book+CoverShit Children of Blood and Bone is good. Tomi Adeyemi deserves more than praise for this.

The end of the book was all that I could have wanted and more, and I loved it. I finished it in tears, big warm heartfelt and healing ones, the kind I like. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for fantasy YA, and I’d add it to the reading list I’ve made of works by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Alaya Dawn Johnson (all of whose work you should also try if you haven’t yet).

Now, as often happens with YA these days, I did bounce several times nearly two-thirds through. My dislike of YA star-crossed romance tropes—and my fear and anticipation of the next guessed-at story beat—got the better of me. But each time, what Adeyemi actually wrought was so much better than what I’d feared. She did conform closely enough to the tropes for the story beats to be recognizable as those tropes, but she wrote them well. Better, she wrote them differently enough that I, as someone who struggles through those pieces of YA novels, enjoyed it. Tomi Adeyemi is skillful and capable, and she twists characters around and makes them suffer, and she does it brilliantly.

This book is beautiful and powerful and magnificent, it is evocative and compelling, I love it. And I absolutely admire it as craft and as message. Children of Blood and Bone calls out brutal truths about our own world. I fervently hope it reaches more people… and that we change our world.

Thank you, Tomi Adeyemi, for making this and sharing it.

I’ve already picked up Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel.

Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

CastleintheAir

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

 

HowlsMovingCastle

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

Ignite the Stars, by Maura Milan

IgniteTheStarsCover

I struggled my way into this book. Not because the characters or setting didn’t compel me, but because the writing clashed with my expectations. The language of the text did not reliably flow for me, and several early conversations felt stilted or unnatural. It was jarring and distracting where I wanted it to submerge me completely.

But I persevered, and I’m glad that I did. It was the characters, the setting, and their underlying tensions that kept me going. Though it’s clear from my early jarring experience that Maura Milan and I don’t communicate on the same wavelength, her story is marvelous. I happily finished Ignite The Stars, and by the end I felt none of the disjointed language I’d experienced earlier.

Now, I haven’t re-read the start. I don’t know whether there’s simply one piece of the text that is written differently, or whether I became used to Milan’s writing and stopped noticing what had been difficult for me earlier. Other books I’ve read (like Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series) are certainly an acquired taste that take a great deal of work to access and appreciate—and while I know that about them, I’ve lost track of how hard I worked to access them the first time. It’s not clear to me whether I’ve lost track of my difficulty accessing this book as well.

Regardless, I admire what Milan has made here. Few YA sci fi books I’ve read recently do as good a job of incorporating stories of oppression, hate, and exclusion, let alone deal with the consequences of hegemonic expansion or intolerance against refugees and ethnic groups. When they do incorporate these elements, they rarely feel as honest as this—like they’ve been tacked on to add some socially conscious edge to a story, instead of existing as part and parcel of this story’s world. Milan has done the second.

Moreover, she’s done the second while making a good story. Yes, there are some very specific genre story beats that you’ll see coming. If you’re already familiar with the particular tropes, you won’t be surprised (no I won’t spoil them). But Milan has made something that feeds all my genre expectations while still incorporating everything I mentioned above, and I admire it a great deal.

Honestly, I hope that I could do half as good a job as she does.

So yes, I recommend this book. That goes double if you want YA sci fi with a school plot and light romance elements. If you have language trouble early on, stick with it—there’s good story worth reading on the far side.