Witch Hat Atelier #1, by Kamome Shirahama

This is strangely great.

No, “strangely” is wrong. Nothing about Witch Hat Atelier feels especially unusual, trope-wise. It feels… expected. And I love it. It smoothly delivers a genre experience that I love, and I want more.

I’ve only read the first book so far. I raced through it this morning, and I’ve already requested the next three. I’m amazed at how well the story manages to move comfortably inside its genre’s expectations while still catching my attention and winning me over.

It’s a healthy reminder of how much delight can be drawn from indulging in competent genre fiction. There are certain themes that I often enjoy (restricted access to magic, young magic users stepping up to face adversity, gradual revelation of infighting and intrigue within the magic world, gradual revelation of deeper complications about *why* magic is restricted), and when given books full of those I frequently fall into the story nose first. The first book of Witch Hat Atelier hits all those notes without knocking me out of the groove at any point. While this means that I haven’t been surprised yet, it moves quickly enough that I’m delighted to just be along for the ride. There’s just something marvelous about watching plucky young magic users improvise their way through magic to get the job done, especially when everyone assumes that they’ll fail.

I haven’t read enough of the series yet to say how it will shape up long term. I haven’t even read enough to say that any of the characters feel like they’ve grown beyond their familiar introductory archetypes. It doesn’t matter. Kamome Shirahama has done well here so far, and I’m looking forward to more.

Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks

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

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

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

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

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

Now.

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

*IMPLICIT SPOILERS*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get thee to the library (or bookstore).

Update, 3/17/22

Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.

I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.

Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.

I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.

Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.

I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.

With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.

A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

This book reads like fanfic grown wild and untamed, the sturdy and feral descendant of stories past. That, in my mind, is a good thing.

I tried to sum up the novel’s concept, as practice for making pitches and loglines, and came up with something like… “what 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.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I did not, apparently, read the first released edition. Before posting this, I read a little bit of other commentary on A Deadly Education, to doublecheck my own impressions, and found some critiques of what seemed like racist content that I had entirely missed. It turns out that I wasn’t oblivious (this time): Naomi Novik acknowledged those critiques after receiving them last fall, said the language was unintentional, undesired, and unnecessary, and removed it from later versions of the text (including the version I read).

Honestly, the only thing that seemed off to me was the lack of more queer folks. As someone who works with kids and teens, I’m kind of surprised that there was so little overt inclusion of characters who weren’t cis and het, even in the background. Yes, it’s easy to read one or two characters as queer, but “plausibly deniable” inclusion just isn’t the same thing. I know that Novik has included queer people in her Temeraire books (only as side characters sadly, but important and beloved ones), and—given the change in context from Napoleonic-era historical fantasy to modern teen fantasy—the general lack seems like an avoidable oversight.

Now, of course, dating and romance necessarily take a back seat to simply surviving in this story. Certainly it could be argued that our protagonist, outcast that she is, is paying more attention to other things than the sexualities and genders of those around her. But she’s also an astute social observer, and I would expect her to pay attention to who was dating whom (or who was crushing on whom) if only for the way that those relationships would change power dynamics in the Scholomance. Surely someone in that hell-pit of a school is openly queer.

That said, the lack of more queer rep was not a dealbreaker for me. I was still stuck in this book, pulled back in repeatedly. I’d open it while my computer turned on, and then keep reading while the machine patiently waited for my password. I’d open it when I sat down for lunch, and lose an afternoon. I’d open it as I lay in bed, and then struggle to put it down and sleep. This book grabbed me, and I want the sequel.

Putting those issues aside, I rather liked the book’s commentary and focus on inequality, and the way that inequality is baked into the setting as a driving force. It’s poignantly, painfully honest—and reminds me in a good way of later themes in the Temeraire series. The resources available to any wizard are a vital concern, and they’re literally life or death for students in the Scholomance. People will do nearly anything to get an edge, or keep one, and that desperation is the lifeblood of this book. I’m so glad that it’s brought to the forefront here.

Yes, I recommend this book. If you wanted more teen wizards, awful and dangerous schools, teenage drama in terrible circumstances, or delightfully and justifiably angry female narrators, this book will make you very happy. Indulge yourself.

Also, if you want another perspective on the book, check out this naga’s thoughts. I used the image at top from that site.

The Letter for the King, early thoughts

I’ve only watched a few episodes, a little bit into number four at the time of this post. I don’t know whether I’ll get through the rest of it at this rate. I’ve been enjoying it, for the most part, but I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed it enough for it to hold my attention when I have so many other things to watch.

If you watch this show, you should be ready for YA fantasy tropes to hit you really hard. This is especially true of those classic questing YA fantasy adventure tropes, from stories full of knights and long journeys and all that jazz. These tropes will be all over, and they aren’t too carefully hidden. If you don’t like YA fantasy, I can’t recommend the show. If you do like it, well, keep reading.

What’s good about the show?

First, most obviously when you’re watching the show, it’s friggin’ gorgeous. Lots of pretty scenery and fabulous locations, solid costuming, the works. If you want attractive medieval fantasy vistas, this show will deliver. I think it’s intended to cash in on the present lack of Game of Thrones, and while it hasn’t yet hit any of the bonkers high notes that GoT did with its visuals, I will vouch for this show’s eye candy.

Second, something that I rather appreciate and feel is important: this show has more actors of color than most other medieval fantasies (or TV shows, period) that I’ve seen recently. Now, that isn’t particularly hard to do given the pasty complexion of so many TV shows and movies. It’s an admittedly low bar, and it’s one more shows should clear.

But I’m glad to say that the actors of color here aren’t simply set dressing, and aren’t (all) reduced to stereotypes—a higher proportion of them are main characters than I usually see. Even better, the focal character is a person of color. It’s refreshing! I like having a broader representation present on the screen, and I find it more interesting this way. 

Unfortunately, that brings me to a less-good detail.

The setting for the show still has fantasy racism, clothed in a thin skein of nationalist bluster. Yet that skein is see-through: the folks that most racist people in the show are racist against are still people of color. Mostly black. 

The show’s writing is clearly of the opinion that this racism is bad and/or wrong. The story is written to empathize with the main character, as he deals with other people being racist against him. Unfortunately, I feel like the show could be doing a better job with this, and could be teasing more out of this. The show’s handling of things feels more tame and settled than makes sense.

Certainly there are better examples of recent works interrogating racism and handling surrounding issues of systemic oppression (mostly not TV, I admit). If the show didn’t want to face all of that, I think they could have done a better job of presenting national animosity without tying it to skin tone. Overall, it feels more like a missed opportunity and a curiously unexamined blank spot in the larger whole of the story, like someone left a low-res artifact in the middle of a beautiful landscape photo.

Maybe the clumsy handling of racism comes from the fact that the source material is a Dutch fantasy novel from the 1960s? I haven’t read it. But browsing the novel’s wikipedia page leads me to think the original didn’t even attempt any such handling; the show has obviously already diverged a good deal from the book, and seems likely to diverge further.

That means the clumsy handling is new to the show, perhaps in an attempt to make the show more modern or current. I’m not sure how to feel about that (especially given that I’m simply guessing). On the one hand, it’s good that they are trying (I think)… but on the other, well, I wish they’d done it differently.

Still, I will say that the broader representation and vague attempt to critique racists is an improvement over many previous shows. Having a diverse group of actors is better than a homogeneously pale cast. Critiquing racism, even poorly, seems like a clear advance from not daring to mention it or (worse) simply including it without any comment or critique. So while I think the show could do better, I’m willing to give it a pass here for trying.

Am I the right person to be passing judgment here? No, not really. If you want to do proper diligence, you should probably read some less-pale person’s thoughts on the show. But I do think this show is contributing to shifting the mode of pop culture in a better direction.

Addendum: Alright, just finished the fourth episode after writing the above. I’m still not sure I like the way the show has handled everything I mentioned previously (also, goodness they’re bad at making a believable belowdecks set for a small ship)… but there does seem to be some more interesting side commentary implied in how the story handles magical power, white savior narratives, and attempts at cultural appropriation etc. So as I said before: I’m not sold on the whole thing, but the show is doing a better job of some of this than their predecessors have.

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

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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

 

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

Light Years, by Kass Morgan

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Light Years is a fine book, nestled deep in the readily-identifiable heart of its genre. It never Continue reading

The Beast Player, by Nahoko Uehashi

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To someone well-versed in American (and more generally, Western) narrative expectations, The Beast Player is a bit of an odd duck. It is, however, a good duck.

Some of this oddness can be chalked up to the fact that Continue reading