Review

Recent Reads: Dawson, Chu, and Schaff-Stump

Catching up on some of my recent reading…

Cover: PhasmaFirst up is Phasma [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Delilah Dawson. I wanted this book for two reasons. The first is that Phasma has been criminally underutilized in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. So much wasted potential, and I wanted more about her character.

The second is because this is the first Star Wars book with my name in it. Sure, it’s in small print on the back book flap (author photo credit), but it’s a start!

From the publisher:

Deep inside the Battlecruiser Absolution, a captured Resistance spy endures brutal interrogation at the hands of a crimson-armored stormtrooper—Cardinal. But the information he desires has nothing to do with the Resistance or its covert operations against the First Order.

What the mysterious stormtrooper wants is Phasma’s past—and with it whatever long-buried scandal, treachery, or private demons he can wield against the hated rival who threatens his own power and privilege in the ranks of the First Order. His prisoner has what Cardinal so desperately seeks, but she won’t surrender it easily. As she wages a painstaking war of wills with her captor, bargaining for her life in exchange for every precious revelation, the spellbinding chronicle of the inscrutable Phasma unfolds. But this knowledge may prove more than just dangerous once Cardinal possesses it—and once his adversary unleashes the full measure of her fury.

What impressed me most about this one was the frame story, which was used to talk about Phasma’s background and history. We know Phasma ends up as a high-level villain, which means her story isn’t likely to be a happy one. How do you tell her story without getting overwhelmed by the darkness and the hopelessness?

You bring in an awesome Resistance spy named Vi. As interesting as it was to learn Phasma’s story, Vi and Cardinal ended up being my favorite characters. Cardinal is a nice contrast with Phasma, being of equal rank and genuinely believing in the purpose and ideas of the First Order.

It’s still a dark story, but there’s hope as well. Well done, Dawson!

Read an excerpt at Starwars.com.

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Cover: The Vessel of RaNext up is The Vessel of Ra [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Catherine Schaff-Stump.

This is one of the twistier books I’ve read in a while, about magical families and their secrets and conflicts. Lucy Klaereon is bound to the demon Ra, destined to battle him for control. If she wins, she gains his service power. If she loses, she is to be killed. But Lucy’s family see her as weak, and nobody believes she’ll be able to win.

From the publisher:

While traveling in Venice in 1837, Lucy Klaereon, in order to save her family’s honor and her immortal soul, decides to commit suicide by drowning herself in the Grand Canal. Unfortunately for Lucy, she is rescued. Her rescuers believe they can separate her from the demon Ra, whom she is destined to fight because of an ancient family pact.

What Lucy does not know is that her rescuers have their own agenda. Paolo Borgia, head of a deposed magical family, wants to use Ra for his own purposes. Lucy is given an alternative, to separate herself from her demon and family, which she gladly welcomes. When she finds out the truth about Ra, Lucy’s purpose changes from not only freedom, but to righting an ancient wrong.

Octavia, Lucy’s older sister, is in pursuit. She has been trained since birth to kill Lucy when Lucy loses her battle with Ra.. At the ritual to free Ra, the two sisters clash with surprising results. Octavia is possessed by Ra and Lucy is determined to free her sister and keep Ra from reshaping the world in his image.

There is one small problem. Lucy has been murdered. However, she’s not about to let a small detail like that keep her from correcting her mistakes. Lucy will save Octavia, even if it kills her again.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Secrets and betrayals and love and death and more betrayals and several very power-hungry characters willing to do whatever it takes to increase their magic. There’s also courage and decency and hope. Every character comes with their own background and conflicts and stories. It makes for a very good and complex story.

Here’s an interview and excerpt where you can read more.

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The Rise of IO: CoverFinally, I read The Rise of IO [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Wesley Chu.

This is a great follow-up to Chu’s books about Tao. (I reviewed The Lives of Tao here.) Whereas Tao was a highly skilled Quasing who had changed the course of human history through his hosts. the central Quasing in this book is…well, pretty much the anti-Tao. For example, one of IO’s more notable hosts was a general by the name of George Custer.

From the publisher:

Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.

With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?

Like the earlier books, this is a fast-paced SF thriller with plenty of action, and I really enjoyed it. It’s nice to see women taking more of the stage in this one, and Ella is a great character: smart, streetwise, and practical.

There’s a pretty big plot thread left hanging at the end, so I assume (and hope) we’ll be getting more of IO soon. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter over at Tor.com.

SPOILERS: The Last Jedi Review and Discussion

I did it! I dodged almost all spoilers for The Last Jedi for more than a week until we were finally able to go see it.

I was a little nervous — reactions seemed really polarized for this one. Some people loved it, others hated it. Some of the hate was from trolls who couldn’t stand the idea of a franchise where white dudes weren’t front and center, but not all.

Personally? I loved it. And after a little spoiler space, I’ll talk about why…

SPOILERS AHEAD

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The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart - Cover ArtEarlier this year, I snagged a copy of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], a middle-grade fantasy by the delightful Stephanie Burgis. I wasn’t able to read it right away, because I wanted to read it with my twelve-year-old son Jackson, who’s a big fan of all things draconic. So once we finished the series we’d been reading together, we started in on this one.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family’s mountain cave … if only they’d let her leave it. Her family thinks she’s too young to fly on her own, but she’s determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she’s transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time … won’t she?

I asked Jackson a few questions, starting with, What did you think of the book?

“I give it five thumbs up — no, wait — four talons up, because it’s a dragon!”

What was your favorite part?

“I liked the ending, when the dragons were [spoiler] and [spoiler] and everything.”

What did you think of Aventurine?

“I liked her. She was cool. I liked that she tried to go out of her cage even though her parents said she wasn’t ready, and I liked that she tried to [spoiler] at the end even though everyone told her not to.”

Sounds like you like that she made her own choices, and didn’t let anyone else tell her what to do.What did you think of the other characters, like Silke and Marina and the rest?

“I thought Marina was kind of like what Aventurine might be like if she was older, and Silke was pretty cool and pretty nice.”

Did this book ever make you hungry, too?

“Yes! I wanted to eat a chocolate dragon. (Like a chocolate bunny, only a dragon.) I don’t think I’d like the chili chocolate, though.”

There was one part of the book you were upset about. Could you talk about that a little?

“I didn’t like the part when Aventurine had given up, because it made me feel depressed and angry and scared, and all the negative emotions.”

How did you feel when we read the chapter after that?

[Jackson bounced and waved his arms in excitement to answer this one.]

Who would you recommend this book to?

“Everyone! Especially people who like dragons, chocolate, or very exciting and good stories!”

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I tend to agree with Jackson. This was a lot of fun, though perhaps a bit dangerous to my blood sugar. I loved Aventurine’s struggles as a dragon-in-a-human-body, trying to understand and adapt to all of the weirdness that is humanity. I loved her relationships with Silke and Marina.

I saw a twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying. And I suspect it wouldn’t jump out as much to younger readers (or readers who aren’t also authors).

If I had to pick just one word to summarize the book, I’d go with “charming.”

You can read the first chapter on Burgis’ website.

The Tick, Season One

My introduction to The Tick came in the late 90s, with the animated series. A few of my grad school friends and I would get together each week, eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, and watch The Tick (and a few other shows.)

I loved it. I loved the humor, the silliness, the undermining of superhero tropes, and the overall sense of fun.

This was my background as I logged onto Amazon Prime to watch their live-action take on The Tick.

It felt like the entire show was filmed using the same Gritty Angst Filter they used on Batman v Superman. They managed to make The Tick almost entirely joyless.

Spoilers follow…

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A Doctor to Dragons, by G. Scott Huggins

Doctor to Dragons - CoverI met G. Scott Huggins almost twenty years ago. We were both published in Writers of the Future XV, and we ended up in a writing group together for several years. He was one of the folks who helped me grow and improve as an author. I published one of his stories in Heroes in Training a while back.

In April of this year, his humorous fantasy novelette A Doctor to Dragons [Amazon | B&N] came out.

I love the premise and setup. Dr. James DeGrande is a veterinarian in a land that’s been taken over by a Dark Lord, and the whole thing is written with a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor. The book is made up of several distinct but related stories, showing the growth of James and his partnership with his assistant Harriet (a physically disabled almost-witch).

Here’s part of the publisher’s official description:

Everyone says it was better in the Good Old Days. Before the Dark Lord covered the land in His Second Darkness.

As far as I can tell, it wasn’t that much better. Even then, everyone cheered the heroes who rode unicorns into combat against dragons, but no one ever remembered who treated the unicorns’ phosphine burns afterward. Of course, that was when dragons were something to be killed. Today I have to save one. Know what fewmets are? No? Then make a sacrifice of thanks right now to whatever gods you worship, because today I have to figure a way to get them flowing back out of the Dark Lord’s favorite dragon. Yeah, from the other end. And that’s just my most illustrious client. I’ve got orcs and trolls who might eat me and dark elf barons who might sue me if their bloodhawks and chimeras don’t pull through. And that doesn’t even consider the possibility that the old bag with the basilisk might show up.

The only thing that’s gone right this evening is finding Harriet to be my veterinary assistant. She’s almost a witch, which just might save us both. If we don’t get each other killed first.

I appreciate writers who take traditional fantasy and flip things around to present a different perspective. Just as I enjoy clever protagonists, like James and Harriet. (And while this may come as a shock, I also like fantasy that tries to have fun.)

There’s one bit I need to talk about. About 80% of the way into the book, we meet Countess Elspeth Bathetique, an incredibly neglectful pet owner and generally unpleasant person, and we get this exchange:

“Dammit, my lady, you’re not even a vampire!”

“How… how dare you? I identify as a vampire, you filth! You cannot dream of the tragic destiny which is ours!”

“What? Suffering from vitamin deficiency, malnutrition, keeping out of the sun for no damn reason, and torturing your poor pet basilisk? If I dreamed of that, I’d seek clerical help!”

I don’t believe it was intentional, but seeing language generally used by transgender people played for laughs by a wannabe vampire threw me right out of the story. I emailed and chatted with Scott, who confirmed that wasn’t the intention. The Countess was meant to be a darker take on Terry Pratchett’s Doreen Winkings. But he said he understood how I or others might read it the way I did.

One of my favorite parts of these stories are the veterinary details. Huggins’ wife is a veterinarian, and there’s a sense of real truth to the protagonist’s frustration with neglectful pet owners and the various challenges of keeping all these magical animals healthy. It helps to ground the book and acts as a nice counter to the humor.

I couldn’t find an excerpt online, but there’s a promo video on YouTube.

Mazes and Monsters: The LiveTweeting

A couple of weeks ago, I asked people to share an announcement about Invisible 3, saying that if we got at least 100 retweets, I’d do a livetweeting of the 1982 made-for-TV film Mazes and Monsters.

Mazes and Monsters movie posterThe film is based on the novel of the same name, by Rona Jaffe, and warns of the dangers of fantasy role-playing games. It’s based at least in part on rumors and legends of students sneaking into the Michigan State University steam tunnels to play Dungeons and Dragons and disappearing.

Most of this background is, as you might imagine, complete bugbear twaddle.

On the other hand, this was a chance to see Tom Hanks in his first starring role for film.

You’ve got Robbie (Hanks), a troubled kid whose brother vanished years ago. He comes to a new school after failing out of the last one for playing too much Mazes & Monsters. He tries to avoid M&M’s siren song, but because he’s “Level Nine,” Kate, Daniel, and JJ really need him to join their game.

When Robbie and Kate hook up, JJ gets depressed and talks about suicide, but instead decides to run a live-action version of M&M in the local caverns. Robbie promptly has some sort of mental break and “becomes” his character, on a quest that takes him to New York City to find the Two Towers.

All four kids seem to come from rich families (I’m not 100% sure about Kate), because the film is so much more powerful if it shows that even rich white kids can be broken and destroyed by the evils of role-playing game.

Invisible 3 CoverThere’s also a bird, a lot of hats, a mother who likes to redecorate her son’s room, and a skeleton having inappropriate relations with a flashlight.

I’m embedding the Storify of my tweets below. If any of this makes you laugh, or if you just want to show your support or sympathy, please consider checking out Invisible 3 and/or leaving a review. Thanks!

And now I’m off to try to recover some of my SAN points…

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Wonder Woman (Here There Be Spoilers)

My family and I finally saw Wonder Woman today. (I made sure to do up the beard with the appropriate colors, of course!)

Selfie with yellow and red beard bandsI liked it a lot. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s easily the best of the DC superhero films for me. Not necessarily a high bar to clear, but still…

Was it perfect? Nope. I saw the twists with Ares and the “godkiller” pretty much as soon as they were introduced. Elena Anaya’s Doctor Poison was sadly underutilized. The final battles were a little too CGI.

I still enjoyed it. I loved Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. Lucy Davis was a lot of fun as Etta Candy. Perhaps most importantly, the film gave us a Wonder Woman who had heart. Who loves and protects and smiles and cares and tries to help, and not just in battle. The moment when she tries to comfort Charlie after what appears to be a PTSD-type nightmare, or her unabashed joy in ice cream or seeing a baby for the first time…those moments made Wonder Woman as much as her big fight scenes.

I’ve seen people talking about how they cried during this movie at the sight of a woman taking center stage as a powerful, compassionate, world-saving superhero. I’ve seen criticism of the way the film quickly abandons Paradise Island and surrounds Wonder Woman with an almost entirely-male cast. I’ve seen love for the casting of an Israeli woman, and for a Native character who introduces himself in Blackfoot. I’ve seen pain and frustration at the way black women are portrayed or pushed into the background. (I loved watching Robin Wright kick ass, but why couldn’t the movie have kept Philippus as Diana’s trainer?)

I’ve also seen that amazingly clueless Guardian review, which complains:

Confusingly, Diana later explains that “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.”

Anyone else completely unshocked to find that this review was written by a man?

I included the link, but I recommend reading more thoughtful commentary and responses like the following:

It’s hard to hear something you love is problematic. We saw The Princess Bride again last weekend. I love that movie. I think it’s brilliant…but it’s also almost exclusively male, and includes a scene of Westley threatening to strike his so-called love because he doesn’t like something she said. That’s messed-up. I still love it, but not because I delude myself into thinking it’s perfect.

Wonder Woman is extraordinary and powerful for a lot of people. It’s also flawed and frustrating or disappointing for others. This isn’t a contradiction. It’s the nature of art. Sure, certain criticism might be ridiculous — waves at that Guardian reviewer — but I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by pretending our faves are perfect, or by refusing to listen to people who point out genuine problems.

I liked the movie. I liked Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. I think this was a big step forward for DC films…but one step does not a journey make. I hope Hollywood learns and does even better in the future.

I’ll end with Stylist UK’s 25 life-giving photos of little girls dressed as Wonder Woman.

Gal Gadot with Young Fan

Photo from Ryan McGee’s Twitter Feed

Borderline, by Mishell Baker

Borderline: Cover ArtJust finished reading Borderline [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Mishell Baker. This is a Nebula award finalist, and having raced through the book, can see why. Here’s the official description:

A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.

For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she’ll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble’s disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.

That description sells the book short, in that it ignores a huge part of the book. Those “inner demons” are a reference to the fact that Millie has borderline personality disorder. In fact, everyone who works for the Arcadia Project has some form of mental illness, for reasons that are gradually explained and explored throughout the book.

I don’t know enough about BPD to judge how true Baker’s portrayal is, but it’s clear she’s done her research. Some of Millie’s comments about therapy and the techniques she’s learned to manage it ring very true to techniques my wife (a mental health therapist) has talked about. It feels respectfully written, which shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve read some of Baker’s posts and essays about mental health.

The central idea of fey serving as muses for big Hollywood names, and the effects and consequences of that magic, sets up a good story. But it’s the characters that really elevate the story. (I think Caryl was my favorite by the end.) They’re all portrayed with a sense of honesty and respect. BPD affects a lot of how Millie processes and reacts to things, for example, and sometimes that goes pretty badly. The story doesn’t try to justify or excuse Millie’s actions in those cases, nor does it condemn her as a horrible person. It’s presented as part of who she is, and we see her awareness and her struggles to manage being borderline.

The same holds true with Millie’s physical disability. Baker clearly did a lot of research about Millie’s prosthetics and the other effects of her disastrous attempted suicide. The metal in Millie’s body disrupts fey magic, but it isn’t played as just a clever way of giving her an advantage over the fey. I don’t have first-hand experience here, but it’s handled and written in a way that feels true to me.

The ending felt a little bit rushed, and got a little darker than I’d expected, but it worked well both to wrap up the story and lay some groundwork for the sequel, Phantom Pains, which just came out a few weeks ago. I’ve already added it to my reading list.

You can read an excerpt on Baker’s website.

For those of you who’ve read it, what did you think?

Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper Cover ArtI continue to snag books out of my son’s Scholastic book order forms. One of the latest was Shadowshaper [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Daniel José Older. It’s an enjoyable, relatively quick read. Here’s the summary:

Sierra Santiago planned to have an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a mysterious fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for herself and generations to come.

The “About the Author” section notes that Older lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is where the book takes place, and it shows. Sierra’s world feels real and fully developed, populated with interesting people and places. It’s a far cry from some of the generic pseudo-New York settings you sometimes get.

I love the concept of shadowshaping, the way the magic works as a collaboration between spirits and shadowshaper, and the possibilities of that power. One of my favorite scenes was watching Sierra discovering what she could do with a simple piece of chalk.

Sierra and the rest of the cast are great, all with their own personalities and flaws and conflicts. They feel like real people…it’s just that some of them can bring their artwork to life.

My only complaint is that the villain felt a bit flat and obvious. But the ideas behind that villain, the theme of the privileged cultural outsider barging in and making a mess of things, are totally valid and powerful. I wouldn’t want that to change; I just would have liked to see a little more depth to them.

And kudos for the awesome librarian.

I’ve seen a number of reviews praising the diversity in the book. On the one hand, I do think that’s worth recognizing, and I definitely appreciated it. On the other… I don’t know. I wish we could reach a point where we don’t have to praise authors for showing the world the way it is, and could instead just note when authors fail to portray a realistically diverse world. Does that make sense? I dunno…probably something that needs a longer blog post to unpack.

Anyway, to wrap this up, the ending was lovely and made me eager to read Shadowhouse Fall, which comes out in September of this year.

Nova, by Margaret Fortune

Cover of NovaI am shamefully overdue on reviewing Margaret Fortune‘s book Nova [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. I’d been hoping to review and provide a blurb before the sequel came out. Since the sequel was released on Tuesday of this week, it looks like I blew it.

Here’s some of the publisher’s summary:

Lia Johansen was created for only one purpose: to slip onto the strategically placed New Sol Space Station and explode.

But her mission goes to hell when her clock malfunctions, freezing her countdown with just two minutes to go. With no Plan B, no memories of her past, and no identity besides a name stolen from a dead POW, Lia has no idea what to do next. Her life gets even more complicated when she meets Michael Sorenson, the real Lia’s childhood best friend.

There’s a lot going on here. In some respects, this reads like a pretty standard coming-of-age story, with Lia learning about herself, developing relationships and a romantic interest, and finding purpose. In space!

It’s enjoyable on that level, and for a good 3/4 of the book, Lia’s personal growth takes center stage. But all this is happening against a background of interplanetary war, in which Lia is a literal weapon for the other side. Fortune sprinkles hints and clues as we go, preparing us for the big revelations at the end.

I guessed one of those revelations pretty early on. Others were more of a surprise. The pace really picks up as we learn the truth about Lia’s past and the war she’s fighting. I had a really hard time putting down the book during those final chapters.

In some respects, it reminded me of reading Heinlein as a kid — engaging teen protagonist and interesting space stuff, all written in a way that pulls you along for the story. (But without the more problematic aspects of Heinlein.) The fact that her glitched clock keeps starting and stopping, slowly whittling away the seconds, adds a nice layer of tension and conflict.

I would have liked to see Lia grapple a bit more deeply with the fact that she’s both a suicide bomber and the bomb itself, but the ending resolves that pretty well.

All in all, a fun read. I suspect more experienced SF writers might find parts of it familiar, but it’s still enjoyable. (And best of all, the ebook edition is currently on sale for $1.99.)

Book two of the five-book series, Archangel, came out on March 7.

Jim C. Hines