Review

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.

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis

Kat, Incorrigible cover artAt a group booksigning in Lansing last month, I snagged an autographed copy of Stephanie Burgis‘ debut middle grade fantasy Kat, Incorrigible [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. It’s a fun read, which the publisher describes thusly:

Twelve-year-old Katherine Ann Stephenson has just discovered that she’s inherited her late mother’s magical talents, and despite Stepmama’s stern objections, she’s determined to learn how to use them. But with her eldest sister Elissa’s intended fiancé, the sinister Sir Neville, showing a dangerous interest in Kat’s magical potential; her other sister, Angeline, wreaking romantic havoc with her own witchcraft; and a highwayman lurking in the forest, Kat’s reckless heroism will be tested to the utmost. If she can learn to control her new powers, will Kat be able to rescue her family and win her sisters their true loves?

In this charming blend of Jane Austen-era culture, magical whimsy, and rollicking adventure, readers will find a true friend in the refreshingly unladylike Kat Stephenson.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Kat’s relationship with her two sisters, and the development of each of those three characters. All three of them are strong and determined to do what they think is best, and they all have different and conflicting ideas of what “best” means, which causes wonderful familial conflict. I love that they’re all powerful, and it’s different power for each one.

This is book one of a trilogy, and you definitely start to see the larger magical world, with its wonders and dangers both. The strong, often rigid societal rules of Kat’s mundane world are reflected in the magic one as well, and Kat has little patience for them in either world.

The publisher described it as “charming,” and I think that’s the perfect word for the book. There’s fun and adventure and magic and a rebellious magical heroine, all of which make for a good read. But what separates this story from the pack is the development of Kat, Angeline, and Elissa. Watching them love and care for one another while simultaneously getting so infuriated was wonderful. All three are active characters trying to take control of their own lives. They all make mistakes — sometimes heartbreaking ones — but they never stop trying to do what’s right.

And you’ve gotta love a book that manages to present and dump a traditional trope within its first two sentences!

You can read the first two chapters on Burgis’ website.

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I am Princess X, by Cherie Priest

Cover Art for I Am Princess XBack when my son was in school, I noticed Cherie Priest’s YA novel I am Princess X [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] in his Scholastic book order form. Naturally, I added that to the order we sent in!

Let’s start with the official summary from the publisher:

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X? When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon — her best friend, Libby, who lives.

I stumbled a little in the beginning, because I’d gotten it into my head that this was a fantasy novel. Between the princess thing and the fact that Priest is known for SF/F… and the fact that I didn’t read the back of the book as closely as I should have. This is not speculative fiction. It’s YA mystery with a bit of a thriller feel.

It’s also a comic, which was cool. You get pages from the I Am Princess X webcomic interspersed between some of the chapters. I would have liked a bit more of the comic, but it made sense for it to end where it did, about 2/3 of the way through the book.

There’s no romance to speak of. The heart of the book is the friendship between May and Libby, which I liked a lot. I also appreciated the strained relationship between May and her father. May’s parents are divorced, and neither one of them is doing a great job of parenting. Her mother isn’t really part of the story, but I liked that her father was at least trying. Not always successfully, and he certainly messes up sometimes, but he wasn’t just a cardboard failure of a parent, or completely absent from the story.

Computer gurus Trick and Jackdaw were interesting characters as well, though they didn’t feel as well-rounded. But I’m not sure if I really wanted more of them, or if I prefer it this way, with the main focus on May and her story.

It was a little too dark for my son (he’s 11), but I enjoyed it.

You can read an excerpt here.

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HEROINE COMPLEX: Review and Giveaway

Heroine Complex - CoverOne of the best things about writing for DAW is that they occasionally shoot me an ARC or finished copy of one of their new releases. Which is how I got my hands on an advanced review copy of Sarah Kuhn‘s debut novel Heroine Complex [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound].

The cover shows a scene from the beginning of the book, in which our two heroines take on a group of demonic cupcakes. Which should tell you most of what you need to know. But for the sake of completeness, here’s the publisher’s description:

Evie Tanaka is the put-upon personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, her childhood best friend and San Francisco’s most beloved superheroine. She’s great at her job — blending into the background, handling her boss’s epic diva tantrums, and getting demon blood out of leather pants.

Unfortunately, she’s not nearly as together when it comes to running her own life, standing up for herself, or raising her tempestuous teenage sister, Bea.

But everything changes when Evie’s forced to pose as her glamorous boss for one night, and her darkest secret comes out: she has powers, too. Now it’s up to her to contend with murderous cupcakes, nosy gossip bloggers, and supernatural karaoke battles—all while juggling unexpected romance and Aveda’s increasingly outrageous demands. And when a larger threat emerges, Evie must finally take charge and become a superheroine in her own right … or see her city fall to a full-on demonic invasion.

Review: This is a fun read. It took me a few chapters to get drawn into the story, but the more Evie started settling into her role as substitute hero, the more I was hooked. There’s a nice balance of demon-fighting action and actual character-building and messed-up relationships, including Evie and her best friend Aveda, Evie and her troubled sister, Evie and her romantic interest (a demon-studying scientist who raided Neil Gaiman’s wardrobe), as well as a lot of secondary relationships and interactions.

The violence is all relatively light. There’s also some sexual content.

I suspect you’ll have some readers complaining, “Why aren’t there more male characters? Why are the only guys the love interests and background players?” I also suspect many other readers will find those complaints to be a strong recommendation for reading the book.

Some revelations were a bit predictable, though there were also twists I didn’t see coming. And that’s okay. This isn’t a story that attempts to be super-deep and mysterious and profound. It’s an unapologetically fun story of two Asian-American women fighting demon cupcakes in San Francisco and doing their best to save the world.

Read an excerpt.

Giveaway: DAW sent me not one, but two ARCs of this book. So I figured one of them should go to a reader. If you’re interested, leave a comment about your favorite superheroine. I’ll pick a winner at random and mail you a copy early next week.

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Jim C. Hines