Palm Springs (2020)

So, look, Palm Springs checks a lot of boxes for me.

Palm Springs could have been half as good and would still have entertained me. Instead, this movie had me cackling and murmuring appreciatively by turns.

It’s a deeply philosophical character study wrapped up in a semi-absurdist grim comedy about life, and what it means to be a part of it. It’s my kind of good movie.

It’s got time loops. It has characters who feel believably human throughout the situations they’re stuck in. It takes the opportunity offered by playing with time loops to delve into what makes those characters tick, what they believe about the world, and how that drives the decisions that they make. There’s some love, there’re plenty of personal realizations and comedic moments, there’s a bit of enlightenment, and there’s a whole lot of dying (with very little gore).

I loved this movie.

That’s because…

First off, I’m a sucker for time travel. I’m even more of a sucker for time loops. I’ll enjoy stories built on either of those things, because they delight me even when other parts of a story aren’t as good.

Another thing I like: I like stories with characters who feel believably human. I like characters who feel internally consistent. I like characters who—even if they disavow this—have personal philosophies and worldviews that I can understand through observing the characters interacting with each other and their world.

Watching believably human characters play off each other and struggle with their beliefs about the world and life, seeing that done well, that’s a treat. It’s even better when I recognize some of the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the perspectives in play. 

Now, I don’t want all of my movies to be about people struggling with those perspectives on life. Nor do I want every movie I watch to be about people struggling with their worldviews as they intersect with others’. Someone no doubt argues that every story is that, probably Truby, but that’s missing my point.

Besides which, Palm Springs does all that without making it feel cumbersome. I say that it’s deeply philosophical, but none of that gets in the way of enjoying anything else going on in the movie. It’s the perfect approach to an “all-ages” philosophical text; much like those exemplary Pixar movies designed to entertain children and adults simultaneously, Palm Springs is accessible at any one of a variety of levels.

Though, uh, it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

Still. If you want to watch Palm Springs as a romance, that’s available. If you want to watch it as an exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist teachings on reincarnation, proper action, suffering, and enlightenment, that’s there too! And if you’re looking for a grim comedy where some hooligans make a bunch of regrettable choices and suffer (somewhat) for them, that’s there in spades.

This movie will inevitably be compared with Groundhog Day, because… time loops. And because they’re so similar. Also, heh, this post is going up on Groundhog Day despite me having watched the movie maybe a month ago.

What I mean is, Groundhog Day is *the* present cultural touchstone for anything like Palm Springs. Hell, Groundhog Day digs through a lot of the same material and wrestles with many of the same philosophical questions. I doubt Palm Springs would exist without Groundhog Day. In a number of ways, Palm Springs feels like a modern update to the older story. 

That modern update makes a huge difference for me. In a good way.

Annnnnnd here we hit the *SPOILERS*.

For all that Groundhog Day and Palm Springs cover similar ground, Groundhog Day is trapped in a romance story’s paradigm. Winning the love (and belief) of someone not stuck in the time loop through engaging in proper moral action—and through showing off whatever skill you’ve developed over your eternity in this time loop—is the path out. That conclusion isn’t stated explicitly, but it’s sure as hell implied by the movie.

It’s a romance story. Love saves the day. Being a more moral human helps, and is important, but love saves the day.

Palm Springs offers that conclusion, and then explicitly rejects it. Right action, doing the right thing, atoning for previous faults or doing good wherever you can… don’t get you out of the loop. Being in love also doesn’t let you escape. Not even reaching peace and acceptance will bring you out.

But… they’re all important.

Escaping the time loop takes significant, hard work. And escaping the loop is important to the film’s plot. But it’s not achieved because “love saves the day,” it’s not “following the romantic plot brings escape from misery.” It’s something orthogonal to any of that.

No, the experience of finding peace, and of (mostly) doing the right thing by others, and of being able to love one another, those are all important for their own reasons. They have their own value. They can make existence better. And, critically for how this film compares to Groundhog Day, they ultimately aren’t the key to escaping the eternal time loop which is such an easy metaphor for existence.

Basically, Groundhog Day is a story about a trapped guy growing enough that he finally gets the girl and thereby finds freedom. Palm Springs is about people reaching enlightenment and finding joy—together, and as individuals.

I love that change. It means that Palm Springs doesn’t fall into the same Hollywood romance-logic trap. So many romance-genre stories build up romantic attachment into an impossible ideal that leaves any human relationship feeling flawed or inevitably doomed by comparison. Palm Springs nimbly vaults across that yawning chasm of bad writing which plagues so many genre stories, and feels more real and more human as a result. Because of that, I can enjoy the romance storyline without wanting to tear my hair out. I love it.

Another thing: Groundhog Day focused solely on one person. No one else was in the loop as well. That meant that there was no way for anyone else’s perspective on the world, on life, to respond to and adapt to any internal shift experienced by Bill Murray’s character. Yes, he could talk to other people, and yes they could share their whole perspective with him, and sure, he could come back and talk to them again another day with a different perspective. But everyone else was stuck in one place and time in their lives.

Palm Springs doesn’t do that. With multiple characters caught in the loop, it gives us a richer connection, more byplay between characters. The other people in the loop can come to their own realizations, they can grow and change and travel their own personal courses. They aren’t static.

That makes a phenomenal difference. What’s more, it means that when we’re given a deeper look at the life of these characters, their jumping off point for each repetition of the day, we can see how they’re trapped in turn by their own circumstances, their own pain. That, in turn, recontextualizes everything that’s come before. Laying bare the private sufferings of the characters, peeling back the layers for the audience throughout the movie, lends nuance. It makes them feel more human, and more comprehensible.

It also makes their growth, their changes, and the ways they play off each other so much richer. Those slow revelations feed neatly into how the characters’ perspectives bounce off each other over and over, changing a bit every time. It’s a well-established screenwriting technique—Truby loves it, see The Anatomy of Story—but this might be the clearest depiction of it that I’ve seen yet. It’s part of what had me muttering appreciatively, or just saying “wow,” throughout the film.

*END SPOILERS*

So.

Yes, I think you should watch it. I’m sure there are people who will see this movie and feel nothing, or be frustrated by things that I didn’t notice. Maybe if I watched it again I’d have a more critical perspective. But if you, like me, enjoy time loops and good human characters and dark comedy and a bit of romance and some philosophy… watch it.

Palm Springs is my kind of good movie.

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A House With Good Bones, by T. Kingfisher

My experience of reading A House With Good Bones was weird, because I made some silly assumptions. It was also fun, and good, and I’d recommend the book. However, this isn’t an in-depth review; I’ll share more about this book elsewhere through GeeklyInc, so I’m focusing on my reading experience here. When I dive deep into the book, I’ll let you know.

Onwards.

I’ve previously read and enjoyed several other books from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon). I’ve come to expect, for better or worse, a certain flavor of genre fiction. Her Saint of Steel series and her Clocktaur War books are all fantasy romance with other genres laced in (murder mystery, adventure, horror, etc). I foolishly allowed myself to think that everything she published as T. Kingfisher would therefore also have strong romance genre elements, and would feel like romance overall.

I was wrong!

Okay, I wasn’t that wrong. There are still hints of romance genre conventions here. There are plenty of things in this story that feel like they belong in a romance novel. They’re fun when they show up and they help lighten the mood. But the book doesn’t deliver all the requisite story beats for it to feel like or qualify as romance. Instead, it has just enough romance to allow the audience to enjoy a little bit of that flavor while enjoying all the rest of what the book is really about.

Which is horror. Spooky, weird horror. Spooky, weird gradual horror that reminds me powerfully of the RPG Unknown Armies, which is in turn inspired by the fiction of Tim Powers (who you’ll be shocked to know also writes some spooky, weird horror).

And Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is good at writing this horror.

I already knew she was good at other flavors of horror. Her Saint of Steel books revolve around the murder mystery and fantasy horror genres (yes, with romance), and I had a grand time with those. But the horror of those books is different from the horror of A House With Good Bones. And that difference, plus the less-present romance, threw me for a loop.

To dig into that flavor metaphor, I took my first bite of this dish thinking I was eating Italian and found out I was eating Indian. Sure, both words start with “I,” both cuisines make good use of tomatoes, and both are delicious—but what I got was not what I was expecting.

I figured out what was going on pretty quickly. I was happy with it. I spent a good portion of my time with this book smacking my lips and saying “huh!” and trying to suss out the different ingredients.

So. Yes, I recommend this book when it comes out. Yes, I had fun with it. Yes, if you like T. Kingfisher’s other work you’ll probably enjoy this too. But keep in mind that this is—first and foremost—something besides romance. With that, I think you’ll have a good time.

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.

The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

I’ve deeply enjoyed reading Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series. I’ve recommended it to many people. And now, having finished it, I’m going to recommend it to you again.

This is how I started my review for the first book in the series:

“[W]hat if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

The Golden Enclaves delivers a solid close to that story. It is the third and final book in the series and—while the book ends with room available for more sequels if Novik changes her mind—the story is definitely concluded here in ways that will satisfy most readers. “Most,” because I know some folks will just want the story to keep going with these characters forever, which I believe is all according to plan for Novik (or at least a feature rather than a bug).

This book does what I wanted it to do. It resolves many hanging plot threads, it answers a series of questions I’d had since the first book, and—maybe most importantly—it dreams up a future in which people are able to make the world a better place, by hook or by crook. It has hope.

*That’s* the bit I’m most impressed by. That hope.

This book is full of a lot of struggle. It’s full of lots of traumatized kids. People die, or are hurt in awful ways.

But it’s hopeful. And it’s not hopeful in the Harry Potter “let’s go back to the world as it was, and pretend that without resolving any of the issues we’ve discovered everything will be fine” kind of way. It’s hopeful in the “let’s do our damndest to make the world a better place, without destroying it in the meantime” kind of way. The whole series has been hopeful like that, but this book really sticks the landing. And I love it for that.

So many YA and YA-adjacent stories are dystopian, and the resolutions to their dystopian problems rarely feel hopeful or real to me. Either the dystopian world remains awful, or the attempted fix doesn’t work, or the fix works but reeks of deus ex machina and only works because the author says it does.

Novik set up a whole bevy of problems in the first two books and made it clear that the world was an unfair and often awful place. She offered (difficult, dangerous) ways for her characters to work around those problems.And this book, like its series as a whole, manages to follow that thread through to the end without either disappointing me with a total lack of plausibility or falling into hopelessness.

Annnnnnd I hadn’t realized until now that I never reviewed The Last Graduate, the second book in this trilogy. That was an oversight. I’m not going to rectify it before I finish this post though, so here goes.

A warning: if you didn’t like El’s voice as the narrator in the first two books, this series might not be for you. Novik was extremely successful with her creation of her narrator’s voice. She does a good job of keeping everything inside El’s head, and of maintaining El’s voice as a consistent thing. Novik also manages to weave her story and world through El’s unreliability as a narrator without leaving us, her readers, totally bereft of clues that El might not be the most objective and reliable observer. I really admire that. It’s one of the things I love about these books. If that bothers you… you’re out of luck. Try a different series.

A separate warning: one of my friends mentioned El knowing or narrating a few things in this book that seemed outside of her scope of knowledge. I didn’t notice those as I was reading—I was quite caught up in the story and may have missed them. You might stub your toe on them though.

I’m not planning to dive deep into the plot of this book, but I will say that reading more will probably spoil you for the previous books with implications if nothing else. I’ll also casually drop in a few spoilers after this paragraph without further warning. If you care about that, I suggest giving the first book a go. I loved all three, I recommend them, and Novik has done a good job of starting this series as she meant to continue it. The series isn’t bereft of twists, but it’s very thematically consistent—if you like the first book you’ll probably like the rest, and vice versa.

The Golden Enclaves picks up precisely where The Last Graduate leaves off. Very precisely. And the rest of the story doesn’t honestly take all that much time as the setting reckons it. There’s a little slow period near the beginning as El tries to recover from her time in the Scholomance (more or less a machine for traumatizing children until they’ve survived hell). But after that, things move a bit faster. And they snowball wildly out of control, as El finds out what’s been going on outside the Scholomance while she and all the other kids were locked in hell.

Despite this—or actually because of it—there’s still plenty of time for Novik to ladle in several more hefty servings of revolution and commentary on inequality, until they become a driving factor of the story. That’s perfect, because it’s part of what I’m here for. She also adds more queerness, as she did in The Last Graduate, but where it felt unforced in The Last Graduate here it feels more like a surprise.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still here for it. I’m glad that Novik added more queerness, I’m glad to see it in this story. And next time I would love to see her do more of that earlier in a series. Having El find out that she’s surprise-bi in book three, however, felt a bit like a curveball given how carefully Novik sets up almost every other story element, like Novik improvised that element where she’d planned all the rest. Or maybe I was too oblivious, because one of my friends was shipping El and Chloe really hard at the end of book one.

Anyways. My words and thoughts are wandering.

If you want to read about wizard revolutions, or about magically obstinate people warping the world around them into a less destructive and more just place, this is for you.

I love this book. I love this series. I recommend them both. I hope that you enjoy them too.

p.s. my partner pointed out that I gushed more about this book in person than I did here, and I’ve made a couple edits following that. Don’t hold my gray brain weather’s bland tone against this series, I really did delight in these books, and in sharing them by reading them aloud to my partner.

Review of A Restless Truth on Geekly Inc

I’ve got another review on GeeklyInc for you, here. This one’s about A Restless Truth, sequel to A Marvellous Light, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. Spy fiction, high society drama, romance, magical intrigue… it all fits well together. I may give you more of my thoughts on the book here in the future, but for now I suggest heading over to Geekly Inc to see my words!

The tl;dr: Freya Marske does an excellent job blending sapphic romance, murder, magical society drama, and sexy times. I continue to be delighted by her blending of spy fiction and society drama, and I’m looking forward to book three!

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.

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.