Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

I have a definite thing with the paranormal concept of “mating”, which is mostly understood to be an unbreakable romantic bond that exists independent of the emotional state of love. Obviously, romance novels have certain parameters to them, namely, that there be an HEA or HFN, so mostly they don’t address the glaring problem that a bond like this, one independent of emotion, can represent. So I kind of freak out when writers address the potential disconnect between mated bond and honest affection, because it’s so vanishingly rare. The newest Alpha & Omega novel, Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs, addresses this issue. The only other novel that I can think of that takes on a disconnect between mated bonding and real affection was one of Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, The Secret. That instance was utterly heartbreaking.

I have a pet theory that the “mating bond” acts as a sort of safety net for people writing overbearing asshole types, which many of these shifters tend to be. The whole pack hierarchy of dominance/submission, which is de rigueur in shifter narratives, offers up a steady supply of pushy, domineering alpha males (literally! har har) whose behavior towards women would be legitimately alarming in real world contexts. (Hell, often their behavior towards other men as well.) With the introduction of the mating bond, that more or less ensures the romantic lead won’t go fully physically abusive, though of course the more intangible methods of abusing and controlling one’s partner are still fully on the table. Admittedly, the Alpha & Omega series isn’t quite a romance series, though it includes a strong romantic through-line, so much of my noodling about the mating bond doesn’t apply, exactly.

The Alpha & Omega books follow the married couple and mated werewolf pair, Anna and Charles Cornick, the Omega and Alpha of the series name, respectively. The werewolves in this universe are often incredibly violent, and the pack bonds are just the thinnest check on that violence. This is in direct contrast with shifters like the Changelings in the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh, whose shifter nature instills a sense of protectiveness and community. Singh’s Changelings are almost constitutionally incapable of abuse; Briggs’s werewolves are all too capable of violent outbreaks, and in some cases predisposed. Further, Charles acts as his father, Bran Cornick’s enforcer, and Bran is the pack leader of all North American werewolf packs, a sort of uber-alpha. His direct pack is made up of the hurt, damaged, unstable, and otherwise not housebroken werewolves. As his dad’s strong arm, violence is literally Charles’s job. His bond with Anna provides ballast for him, a line out to softer, kinder human emotion.

But the mating bond between Anna and Charles — one that seems genuinely enviable — is not the relationship at issue in Wild Sign: it’s the prickly, disconnected connection between Bran Cornick and his mate, Leah. The fact that they are mated but seem to have a deep antipathy for one another has been a thing not just in the Alpha & Omega series, but the Mercy Thompson books as well, where Leah acted as mean step-mom antagonist. Frankly, the way the antagonism between Mercy and Leah was introduced and maintained was indicative of a problem Briggs had writing relationships between women, at the very least in the earlier novels in that series, but really going up to the one that took place in Europe? I find the individual novel names forgettable. Anna’s relationship with Leah has been less antagonistic, but largely Leah is portrayed as a harpy Bran ruefully puts up with. And honestly, if I were Leah, I would be less than impressed with Bran’s lackluster care and concern. His treatment of her as an irritant has never sat well with me.

Wild Sign acts as a corrective to this, and gives us not just Leah’s backstory, but also the origin story for her relationship with Bran Cornick. Anna and Charles head out to the California wilderness to investigate an off-the-grid town full of magical users which seems to have vanished without a trace. Apparently, this town was on land that Leah owns, and both the land and the reason for the town’s disappearance are connected to her mating bond with Bran. Suffice it to say, there’s some real nasty shit in her backstory, the kind of thing even Briggs addresses mostly euphemistically. Her bond with Bran is anything but ideal, almost an echo of said nasty shit, and it’s completely legible why they would hold each other at a distance. They are bonded by trauma, unbreakably so, but trauma isn’t actually ennobling, and intimate violations can play havoc with one’s ability to be intimate.

It’s a lot, and there were certainly points where I wondered if maybe it was too much. But then Briggs has never much shied from really nasty traumas, especially in Alpha & Omega. Charles and Anna met, after all, when he had to execute her pack leader because of the alpha’s brutal sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of Anna and others. And indeed, the antagonist in Wild Sign dredges up this history of violence for Anna — makes her relive it — in a way that felt true to the ways trauma can resurface, even for people who are functionally healed. Shifter narratives, especially those that center on werewolves, deal often with body trauma, I find, something having to do with the werewolf’s lack of control over their body, and the violence of the physical change.

That said, there are some real moments of levity in Wild Sign, like Anna and Charles’s run in with some sasquatch, or the basis for the monster of the week the novel has going. Which is good, because darkness pushes on everything they do, threatening to snuff out the sometimes tremulous light. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.

Review: Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen

This was written a while ago, after our move, but I only got around to posting it in its edited and spellchecked form like half a year ago. Then there was some catastrophe and I lost a bunch of posts. So this is it again!

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I’ve been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I’ve read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am sometimes in the mood for stupid stuff, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor’s daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father’s killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. Two thirds.

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manner befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It’s all pretty sketchy.

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it’s not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl’s sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy’s sister’s illness, and Miles’ blackmail.

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair — there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC — I was so in love with Lucy. She’s no inventor’s daughter, an appendage on a Great Man, but a scientist in her own right. I do want to acknowledge that in the world this fantasy is based on, women really didn’t have many opportunities to education short of what they could filch from their fathers and brothers. That often steampunk girls have mad scientist or inventor fathers is not my issue. It’s that most often the father is a Great Man, and the daughter-protagonist a mere shadow of his genius or keeper of his legacy, without a lot of agency in her own vocations or avocations.

This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she’s also not gadding about in trousers because she’s so transgressive zomg, but a careful woman of her class and station. Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven’t earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters ™ who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she’s got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsy. She has good relationships with other women — not just one, but several — and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

Aspects of her prescribed gender roles chaff, absolutely, but some don’t, which make Lucy an altogether more believable and nuanced character than someone wearing a leather corset on the outside of her clothes shooting out the lights all the time or whatever. She’s not someone’s bondage fantasy of a Strong Woman. Moreover, her worth isn’t predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy’s mettle in this sort of steampunkery.

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. Oh, and the most childish complaint: dude is not a clockwork beast, whatever that means, just the regular kind. (Of course I know writers rarely have control over titles; chill.)

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk

I’m going to date the hell out of myself with this anecdote, but it can’t be helped. It comes as likely no surprise that my family can get a little ranty, my mother’s side anyway. Just to rely on some specious ethnic stereotype: Mum’s side is Welsh, who tend to be known for their voluminousness (and for their drinking, alas.) That was certainly true for the Welsh ancestor who emigrated to the States, likely because he’d knocked up the neighbor’s daughter. Late in his life, my grandfather would get calls to come pick up his grandfather at the bar where he was singing Welsh hymns at the top of his voice. As a consequence, Grandpa was a lifelong teetotaler.

Anyway, before I get too far down the rabbit hole of Depressing Tales of Victorian Drunks, let me get to my point. Grandpa had a tendency to go on about various topics, often to the great irritation of my mother and grandmother: they’d heard every single one of his disquisitions before. (Somewhat tragically, he wrote two volumes of memoirs filled with this stuff, and not one of us has read them. We heard it all when he was alive.) Mum took to calling them his “cassette tapes”: simply load up the tape, and let the bullshit flow.

I tell this story because I, myself, have a number of cassette tapes, rants I can just load up and spool out like a magnetic strip. One of them has to do with hereditary magical systems, and how they are inevitably racist, eugenicist, and gross as hell. So many writers just gloss over the inexorable disgusting consequences of having magic be something in the blood. I mean, that I’m using language like “in the blood” just illustrates how nasty this all is. This is the language of tiki-torched racists. It turns the divine right of kings into “good blood”, a semi-scientific justification for social injustice.

So I pretty much freaked when I read Witchmark, which addresses the nastiness of heritable magical systems straight on. (It’s also steampunky as hell and also seems to invoke the Crimean War, which always gets me hot and bothered, because it’s like WWI but way, way less legible and more about how incomprehensible war is.) The lead, Miles, was a member of a magical family, one of a discrete number who have been indefinitely detaining & using other magical people, forcing their children into political marriages, and using their surplus number as magical batteries. It seemed better to him to run off to an unwinnable war than live in the pampered yet obscene comforts of his family of origin.

So I was well excited to read Stormsong, C.L. Polk’s follow up to Witchmark. Stormsong follows Grace, Miles’s sister. She was the heir apparent, the one who would wield the power of both herself and her brother. She was instrumental in bringing the whole rotten system down, but the way it played out, not even a large minority of Aelanders know the particulars of how the magical system worked and its human cost. She’s still in government, trying to “change the system from within”, which is going about as well as one would expect. Which is to say: not well.

Stormsong ended up giving me serious Amberlough Dossier vibes, which I count as a very good thing. Lara Elana Donnelly’s trilogy (the latter two books anyway) deal with that indefinite period after the old regime falls but before the new one has entrenched. It deals with the people who, when the fit hit the shan, had motivations that were murky, conflicted, or self-serving. This is a tricky as hell period to write about successfully, which is why pretty much no one bothers to try. It’s so much easier to write the period where everyone knows, down to the reader, who is righteous and who is a godamn fascist.

Stormsong ended up feeling not as strong as its predecessor, but then, as my anecdote of the cassette tape illustrates, I do have my predilections. That said, I was completely able to start, middle, and finish reading this novel during the coronavirus times, something that I cannot say for much literature that has even slightly dark themes. Polk has this incredibly light touch with what can be unapproachably intense subjects. It’s not that she’s treating them lightly — not at all — but that she can slide them into a story with a conflicted prime minister and the girl reporter she can’t stop thinking about. I’m 100% there for Sapphic yearning, maybe especially because it’s the bait for deeper meaning. I’m decidedly on the hook for book 3.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

An Incomplete List of Zombie Television Series I Have Enjoyed.

8 Zombie Series Worth a Looksee

Note: I wrote and published this a while ago — September to be exact — but due to some shenanigans involving backups or something, several posts were lost, in addition to all pictures on the site. So that’s a bummer. But that’s why this might seem familiar.

A couple few months back I wrote a thing about the oddball zombie movies I have have enjoyed, which got me thinking about zombie television series. There were a bunch of things I wanted to include, but they weren’t movies, and I didn’t want the list to burgeon too much. So here I am now with all the zombie series that I half-wanted to include but couldn’t!

Like the movie list, the series included hail from all over the globe. I’ve deliberately excluded well known network/cable stuff like iZombie or The Walking Dead. This is my rodeo and I will do what I want, but more importantly, I’m talking about the oddballs that maybe the average non-zombie-obsessed freak might be interested in.

Canada

Black Summer

I went back and forth about this one, because as a spin-off of sorts, maybe I should include its source material, Z-Nation. Z-Nation is an avowedly z-punk take on the zombie apocalypse, both pulpy and melodramatic in turns. Its old school Dr Who-style micro-budget forced its writers and designers into bottle episodes and off-camera horrors in ways I thought enhanced the series, but then its whole aesthetic was so deliberately goofy that who even knows. Black Summer has a similar low-budget shitty-digital-video feel, but it’s not really campy at all. You wouldn’t find, say, a z-nado, a zom-baby, or zombie strippers like you do in Z-Nation. This is hardcore First Night storytelling, staged in those first weeks when the dead begin to rise.

Z-Nation never exactly stressed me out because its environment was too fictional, if you’ll excuse my vagueness, but Black Summer did, and often. The series opens with a nuclear family packing up to run. There are sirens in the distance, and as they make their way through suburbia, people pour out of their tick-tack McMansions into the street like a river. They come to a military checkpoint, the daughter is loaded onto a transport vehicle, and the father is discovered to be bitten and ejected. The mother follows the father back into the neighborhood as her child is removed, screaming, in the custody of the military. There are other plotlines too — a Black man in the custody of the police; a deaf man and a Korean woman; even a zombie who reanimates in the street.

The thing that makes Black Summer so arresting is how suburban everything is, how normal, in the pejorative sense of the word. The world Black Summer inhabits hasn’t been broken down and overrun. The lights still work and the windows are unbroken. The automatic doors at the grocery slide open when you walk towards them. The opening episodes have Roshoman-style overlapping narratives which I thought were a cut above ur usual zombie fare, but could read as precious in the wrong mood. I enjoyed how different Black Summer was from the series it spun off from, but I can entirely see how partisans of one wouldn’t like the other. They’re very different kinds of pulp: one leans into the silly and melodramatic, while the other relies on a gritty shitty digital video aesthetic.

Freakish

I fully admit that Freakish isn’t great — maybe isn’t even good — but it definitely hit some sort of sweet spot for me involving teen melodrama and the zombie apocalypse. (I <3 teen drama 4evah.) I really loved the YA novel This is Not a Test because of its use of the tropes of teen fiction in the extremity of the end of the world. I love how it makes manifest how dire everything is in adolescence. It makes the emotional landscape manifest.

Anyway, Freakish follows something like a half dozen teens trapped in the school when the local chemical plant melts down (or whatever), filling the town with a cloud of chemicals that turns them into something like zombies. One of the kids seems to know more about the spill than he should. Several have secrets both banal and deadly, and there’s a love triangle or two. They while away their time playing grownup and failing just as horribly as actual grownups. In short, it’s the Breakfast Club with teeth. And Canadian accents.

England

Dead Set

I watched Dead Set ages ago, after it premiered in England, but well before it was easily available in the States. I got a bootleg copy from a much cooler friend, and then mailed (like literally through the Post Office mailed) the DVDs around to a list of people. This I’m sure dates the fuck out of this. Dead Set is a limited series — only five episodes — about the zombie apocalypse taking place around the set of the British reality tv show Big Brother, a place which at first blush seems like the perfect place to ride out the end of the world. It starts, like all Last Night stories do, with the usual melodrama and personality conflicts of both the crew and the staff of Big Brother. (This is made even more verisimilitude with the inclusion of several Big Brother “personalities” in the series: everything from former Big Brother house residents to a marquee host.) (It also features a tiny baby Riz Ahmed.)

The following paragraph is riddled with spoilers, so beware, spoiler averse.

I was just absolutely floored by the end of Dead Set, which saw basically the entire cast zombified or otherwise dead, up to and including the ostensible heroine. I kind of can’t think of another series like this, that’s just like, fuck it, kill everyone, let’s just wholeheartedly embrace the nihilism inherent in any zombie narrative. Usually someone survives to make you feel good about the human race or whatever. The way Dead Set uses spectacle and violence to deny the viewer catharsis is pretty freaking cool, all told.

In the Flesh

In the Flesh takes place after the zombie menace has been contained, and everything is slowly grudgingly returning to a new normal that is anything but. The series follows one of the those afflicted with Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) — oh how I love the penchant for zombie neologism — in his reintroduction to his small, mean, Northern English town. The zombies in this alt-history were beaten back and rounded up. Government scientists found a cocktail of drugs, to be injected daily, which would keep the feral zombie-state at bay. Kieran is sent home with makeup to cover his pallid skin, contact lenses for his dead eyes, and scheduled injections to keep him from murdering everyone around him.

Complicating Kieran’s reentry into society — I mean, in addition to his guilt over the killings, which he remembers with perfect clarity, and his clearly undead state — is that his small town was a locus for the living’s mile by mile reclamation of a landscape teeming with the feral dead. So he’s coming home to a populace who are something like bigots — if not outright bigots — with something like an acquired disability or communicable disease. It’s … not great.

The thinking and reasoning zombie is very much a thing, in literature at least, and occasionally the films made of those books: The Girl with All the Gifts, Warm Bodies, even the execrable Patient Zero with a wasted Stanley Tucci. But I can’t think of an example (short of The Returned, a French series I’ll address down-list that is a serious edge case even for inclusion on a zombie list) that shows the living and the dead interacting this intimately on a day to day basis. The traumas of zombie narratives tend to be ongoing, at least for the living. In the Flesh plays with this, showcasing social recovery which relies on re-traumatizing an entire class of people. Like you do.

Brazil

Reality Z

Reality Z is weird, and I’m including it not because I thought it was great or anything, but more because of its oddball nature. It’s wholeheartedly and avowedly a remake of the British Dead Set, which I raved about previously. Dead Set was five episodes; Reality Z is ten. The first five episodes of Reality Z are almost shot-for-shot recreations of the source material, from antagonistic normality to nihilistic finality, with just enough new establishing source material to connect the next plot arc. The next five episodes follow another group of survivors to their doom, complete with a similar-but-different rationale for the group’s inevitable breakdown.

I suspect there’s a lot of this series I’m not getting because I’m not Brazilian, and not particularly up on Brazilian politics and culture. Many of the characters feel trope-y, but I can’t quite read the tropes and what Reality Z might be doing with them. (And when I say they feel trope-y: this is not meant as a slag. Genre fiction deals in tropes, and the myriad ways writers animate and reanimate those tropes drives the genre.) There’s a corrupt politician and his corrupt policeman and handler, a political dissident, a cast off corporate drone and her beleaguered son. They reclaim the reality tv house depopulated at the end of the Dead Set arc, and are in turn joined by a whole new set of randos and types.

It’s … pretty messy, and probably not in a good way. Dead Set was stiletto-thin, in and out before you noticed the cut and then damn. Remaking Dead Set and then appending a whole other Dead Set inspired arc onto it seems like a weird choice. Why not just go with the final five episodes as its own rumination slash exploration of the whole decadent consumerist spectacle of reality television and its attendant cruelties? Which is not to say that the new characters and character arcs are bad or uninteresting, just that maybe the creators should have had more faith in their story, and let it stand on its own. And while I’m bitching just a little, I did have a good time watching this, and it’s definitely worth a watch as a companion to Dead Set if nothing else.

France

The Returned

It’s somewhere between disingenuous and faux-naïve to put this series on a zombie list, yet still I do it! The undead in The Returned are fully alive, turning up months, years, decades completely unchanged from the moment of their deaths in a small French town on the Swiss border. Their returns are small, explosive events, detonating whole families, but quietly and secretly: A teenager, unknowing of her death, and now several years younger than her once identical twin; the husband of a woman now remarried after raising up their child alone; a preternatural child with no living family taken in by a self-contained and scarred woman. These people all deal with the resurrections of loved ones with the quiet hissing conversation of the totally freaked out, reintegrating imperfectly into lives that have, as they say, moved on.

The Returned reminds me strongly of early Twin Peaks: moody and Gothic, claustrophobic and blue-lit. (The Returned isn’t as grotesque as Twin Peaks, nor as funny, which is probably related.) The fundamental relationship between the two is grief, both public and private. The way The Returned deals with the grief caused by the loss is opposed to the average zombie narrative. There’s no expedient violence, no frenetic action as death drives the living to their inevitable fates. Instead it stews, uncomfortably, in the small moments of lived lives. It makes no pronouncements. Even the clergy demurs as to the advisability of the resurrection of the body — “I’m not sure it would be a good thing”

India

Betaal

I fully admit that Betaal is something of a mess. It starts with such promise — something like mercenaries (maybe police, maybe military, maybe Blackwater) are tasked with relocating a native population “for their own good”, and accidentally awake the literal hungry ghosts of colonialism. Which is a completely awesome set-up for a series, and I loved all the metaphorics by 2 by 4 that they hammered home. Police are a colonial force; imperial forces use rule of law to exploit both resources and people. The first couple episodes use their zombies as a metaphor for colonialism, and I am 100% here for it. But then the story diffuses into subplots and confusing machinations pretty hard, its metaphors stuck in the mud and spinning.

I did enjoy much of the staging and scares. The zombies aren’t full-on K- or J-horror chitinous nightmares — they can still talk and reason in certain limited circumstances, making them all the worse — and the directors take full advantage of the filmed-in-dark-o-vision aesthetic of the series. It is a often effective way to cover for a microbudget and I did jump and squeal at multiple points. At others it was just like, what even is going on here? Obfuscation by dark (or just off camera) relies on the eventual reveal, and that was sometimes not so great.

That said, the series ultimately misses the mark, getting too bound up in personal bullshit to be really effective. Like, it’s neat they started out with zombie-as-colonialism as the central metaphor, but then someone flinched as to actually committing to that as the spine of the series. By the end, I was like, how can I possibly make meaning out of this mess? Which is totally fine, if disappointing: not everything has to have meaning, it’s just real nice when it does. I understand how my expectations are unreasonable.

South Korea

Kingdom

I feel like one of the reasons I ultimately stuck with A Song of Ice and Fire for four and a half books was its opening, which allows the reader to catch a glimpse of the zombie menace just beyond the Wall. Ned Stark executes a man for desertion because that man nearly got killed by some zombies and then ran the fuck away from that, boy howdy. It’s been an age since I read Game of Thrones, but I’m pretty sure the zombies don’t appear meaningfully again until maybe book two? And even then? Again, that is fine! Not everything has to be about zombies.

However, if you’re jonesing for a medievalish court intrigue saga but this time with zombies, look no further than The Kingdom! Set in Korea’s Joseon period, the series follows the grown son of the king’s concubine and presumptive heir to the throne who is beset by his father’s much younger pregnant wife (who will ostensibly deliver the true heir, should the issue be male), her powerful burgher family, and zombies, not necessarily in that order.

We learn right quick that the king has zombified, but the queen’s powerful family is covering that up so they can get that baby born and cement their power through the throne. (Which I thought was kinda interesting because that’s not precisely how primogeniture works in the West. The queen would deliver a monarch irrespective of gender, and even after the king died. But then there’s also no official recognition of the children of concubines, and Westerners don’t use the term the same way anyway, so.)

The crown prince is well out of his depth, on the run with a good naturedly corrupt courtier-type as they picaresque their way through the Korean countryside. Bae Doona (who I really enjoy) does a turn as a beleaguered nurse who puts the pieces together as to how the zombie plague works and largely single-handedly saves the bacon of, like, everyone. Unfortunately, she’s mostly carried along the narrative like luggage, and isn’t given enough actual story work. But the hats alone are worth the price of admission, so don’t credit my grousing overmuch.

Honorable Mentions

There are a number of series I’ve only had the time to catch a few episodes of, for one reason or another, so’is I can’t say if they’re worth or watch or not.

New ZealandThe Dead Lands. The opening of The Dead Lands is both jarring and comfortable. It takes place in the “long ago and far away” space of the fairy tale, but with what are recognizably modern zombies. The situation in Maori myth set in a lush New Zealand setting doesn’t hurt either. But at only one episode, I kind of can’t say what was going on? A demi-god pisses off actual gods and … zombies? Maybe? I did very much dig the mythic setting, which stands in sharp contrast with most zombie narratives which feature the decay of modernity, if not outright ruin porn.

CaliforniaThe Santa Clarita Diet. Only caught the first two or three, and I have no idea why I never continued. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have a snappy, wholesome chemistry, which is tested when Barrymore’s character wakes up one day hungering for human flesh. It’s the kind of comedy where early lightness promises to deepen, especially given the sometimes bleak-yet-technicolor jokes of the earliest episodes.

Daybreak: On paper, this series seemed like it was tailor-made for my proclivities: kinda Gen-X self-aware and self-referential, with a teen movie aesthetic which I usually eat up with a spoon. (I mean, Matthew Broderick plays the high school principal in flashbacks, come on.) I adore the completely bullshit “groups one finds in a lunchroom” cataloguing sequence that takes place in teen movies (see the one in 10 Things I Hate About You for example), and Daybreak takes this all a step further, turning them into post-apocalyptical gangs reminiscent of The Warriors.

Reader, I hated it. I couldn’t make it more than 3 episodes in. Maybe it was the mean-spiritedness, maybe the sub-Broderick douchebag-cum-hero, maybe it was just a bad potato. I fully think it might work for others though! A weird way of ending a roundup of zombie series I enjoyed, but there you are.

Go Large or Go Home: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously — like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying — but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it — both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren’t terrible people there wouldn’t be any heat and there wouldn’t be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark strives for a sensible, measured tone and its characters mostly don’t act like twats, but two things keep The Demon Lover from being a snoozer like A Discovery of Witches: There is a real current of high emotions, even if the prose is measured, and the metafictional elements make the narrative satisfying on a different register. A monster yoga class is most bananas thing in A Discovery of Witches, but it mostly reads as silly and incongruous, not the Gothic kind of bonkers. Mostly people sit around, read, and drink absolutely prodigious amounts of wine.

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead, Diana is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but she won’t use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. I can see, given her childhood, why she might reject her witchy powers. Her parents died young under cloudy/tragic circumstances, and she was raised by fun witchy aunts after their deaths. I can imagine a psychological mechanism by which she rejects her parents’ origins because she believes that this got them killed or some other pop psych nonsense. But that is not her professed motivation. Instead, she wants to succeed in academia on her “own merits,” question mark? Which, isn’t magical ability one of her own merits? She’d regularly prissy and condescending to her aunties about their magic. I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You’re in love with each other after having a not very interesting sounding dinner? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.

I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss this novel as “like Twilight” or “just a romance”, but I think that might be both wrong and kinda sexist. Twilight, for all its stabs towards real world resonance, is absolutely fucking bonkers. You may have trouble getting through the prose, but the book fairly teems with Bella’s anxieties and passions and emotions. While Diana shares Bella’s almost sneering condescension to everyone around her — Bella doesn’t like anyone — she doesn’t share Bella’s high emotions, or, dare I say it, clumsiness? Meyer’s over-reliance on Bella’s propensity to the faceplant as a meaningful character trait is sloppy and ridiculous, of course, but it does gesture to the ways her relationship with Edward disorders her world. Diana is prim and priggish through the entirely of her interactions with the supernatural. There is precious little fascination; mostly magic is a pain in her ass. And as I’ve said before, her relationship with vamp dude is based on so much Tory smugness that it completely lacks juice. Most romance novels I’ve read, even the boring ones, do a better job of stoking the heat. If someone slags A Discovery of Witches as “just a romance”, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their understanding of both Gothic and romance novels.

Anyway, I don’t want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup type characters plot their way through genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, but this outing is not a success. I don’t particularly like Diana — she’s a unappealing mixture of conceited and useless — but I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to. Frankly, if this were written in such a manner that we were expected to laugh at her self-satisfied bullshit instead of cheering it on, A Discovery of Witches would be aces.

Review: Roar of Sky by Beth Cato

Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth trilogy – which began with Breath of Earth, continued with Call of Fire, and now completes with Roar of Sky – has been an incredibly active and peripatetic series. While Roar of Sky does cover at least as much ground as its predecessors – our heroine Ingrid, her lover Cy, and their friend and pilot Fenris move from Hawaii to California to Arizona and several points between – there’s something almost internal about the movement, contemplative and personal. After the pyrotechnics (almost literally) of the climax of Call of Fire, Ingrid is bruised and hurt, seeking answers to deeper questions of who she is and where she came from. Even as she seeks answers to her origins, she struggles with limited mobility and persistent pain from her last encounter with the antagonist, Ambassador Blum, physical disabilities that may likely be permanent. She is coming to terms with her origins, even as she learns – painstakingly, painfully – how to go forward.

We first met Ingrid Carmichael in the weeks leading up to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which leveled 80% of the city and still ranks as the largest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history (in both our timeline and hers). But while the earthquake may the same, the California it takes place in is profoundly different. The United States and Japan have merged into a larger empire called the United Pacific, and have since waged war on China. As a nation at war, the Unified Pacific is in the grips of dangerous xenophobia against anyone who isn’t Japanese or white American (but especially against Chinese-Americans). As the dark-skinned daughter of a prominent geomancer, Ingrid is both insulated from public animus, and deep in the heart of a system that devalues and judges her. Because Ingrid has a secret: she is a geomancer too.

Which brings me to another key difference between Ingrid’s world and our own history: geomancy, Reiki, kitsune, qilin, sylphs, and all manner of mythical powers and strange creatures exist in world of the Unified Pacific. Ingrid’s closest relationship is with geomancy, a sensitivity and mastery over the seismic power of the earth. This power can be siphoned off by geomancers and locked into crystals, which are then used like batteries to power everything from lightbulbs to dirigibles. This is not just an alternate history, but an alternate reality. Women are not supposed to be able to work geomancy, so when Ingrid’s powers of geomancy manifest during the earthquake, it thrusts her into dangerous geopolitics (pun absolutely intended.)

Roar of Sky begins in Hawaii, where Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris have fled after their confrontation with the kitsune (a fox deity, of sorts) who is living as a high-ranking official in the United Pacific, and absolutely dedicated to the destruction of all Chinese people – both in America and Asia. Ingrid was told by her father that she has a familial relationship with the Hawaiian goddess Pele, so she braves the active geology of the Hawaiian islands (as a geomancer, this kind of seismic activity can be deadly) in order to find out more about her kin. Ingrid is wheelchair bound at times, her nervous system burned out by the overflow of magic she used to protect herself from the kitsune previously. Ingrid’s visit to the crater of Kilauea is tactile and detailed, with the kind of description that feels lived in. She thrills at her feelings of connection with the landscape, even while acknowledging she will never quite be Hawaiian, even if it is her family’s heritage.

Her interactions with Madame Pele are even more interesting. I’ve seen a lot of characters damaged by magic, like Ingrid, who then drag around for a while until they are magically healed. Magic takes, then it gives back. But that is not what happens for Ingrid, even while she treats with goddesses, qilin, and other forces of nature. Ingrid’s legs are permanently damaged, and no amount of narrative convenience or wishful thinking will heal them. Cy and Fenris work tirelessly to fit her with braces and other helpful apparatuses, but even those that work force Ingrid to adjust to her new physical limitations. Never have stockings been more annoying. In a real way, Ingrid is learning to walk again, even as she’s in a flight, and then fight, for her life and those she loves.

As Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris move through the United Pacific, they encounter and re-encounter people who are pivotal to both their pasts and their futures – everyone from Theodore Roosevelt (recast as ambassador in this reality) to Ingrid and Cy’s fathers, mentors, sisters, and friends. Ingrid has always been a likable character, though her naivete occasionally rankled. That naivete has been dampened by the real limitations she’s encountered, though it never quite goes away entirely. (Ingrid, after all, has been somewhat sheltered.) That naivete – which some would call optimism – is her weakness and her strength, and both are put on full display in Roar of Sky. Roar of Sky is as much the story of empire as it is of one woman, and her journey both within and without.

Review: Novice Dragoneer by E.E. Knight

E. E. Knight returns with Novice Dragoneer, which promises to be the beginning of a rich fantasy series. We first meet Ileth on the doorstop of the Serpentine Academy, where people train to become the companions of dragons. She’s arrived just moments after the gate was barred, but before the end of the day when anyone can apply to the academy. Due to a childhood interaction with a dragoneer, Ileth has been working toward admission to the Serpentine for years, going so far as to run away from her precarious situation in the north. She has nowhere to return to; she has bet everything on admission. And they still don’t let her in. She waits for long days on that doorstop, watching with anticipation as those better connected and more noble than she pass through the gate. At long last, and due to her indefatigable mettle, she’s admitted into the Serpentine Academy.

The focus of the novel is tight on Ileth and her concerns, so we only begin to understand the larger politics at play though glancing and offhand interactions. She’s given the unenviable job of fishmonger at first, under the thumb of a failed novice who has built something of a fiefdom out of cruel treatment. He’s largely the regular kind of self-important jerk, but he’s also glad to heap misogynist punishment on any woman who has the bad fortune to fall under his aegis. Due to a sequence of bad events, Ileth and this fishmonger manager end up in a duel. She wins not due to native or acquired skill, but because he’s bad faith personified, breaking rules that he feels justified breaking because he’s never been taken to task heretofore.

He’s run off in a manner that promises his return eventually, and Ileth is shuffled off to a group of dancer novices. This section of the novel was itchy to me just on principles, even while I enjoyed the intimate nature of Ileth’s relationships during this period. Ileth moves from the girls’ dorm, which is ruled over by an Aunt Lydia sort of person, to a group who dances both for the dragons and for politically important people in the Vale Republic. It’s the kind of group who is, impossibly, both treated like a bunch of whores, and feted everywhere they go. I think the idea of sweaty, dancing women acting as a kind of soporific for dragons is ultimately weird, positioning dragons as a sort of male gaze, even while there is much exclamation to the fact that that’s not the case. This isn’t lingered on too much, which is good, because I could rapidly become both bored and angry with this idea.

But despite this shaky world-building, Ileth’s time in the dancer corps is the most intimately rendered part of the novel. Up until Ileth’s placement with the dancers, dragons were largely theoretical. They are always pulling on the fortunes of those in the academy, even as they remain largely off-screen; here we meet one face to face. They are like gravitational bodies mostly inferred through effect. But when Ileth is assigned a duty way down in the bottom of the keep to dance for an ailing dragon, that’s when the real magic of the novel starts.

Her relationship with the ailing dragon is like her relationship with the Serpentine in miniature. Her great strength is in watchful waiting, which she then turns into resourceful action. She spends much time simply observing the somnolent dragon, then carefully, carefully, begins to work on his behalf. She equally carefully observes the indifferent guards who round out the slim cadre of people on that level, and, like in her work as a fishmonger, divines a corrupt purpose to those who are supposed to care for the ailing dragon. Her conversations with the dragon are some of the more heartfelt of any in Novice Dragoneer, the sly imparting of wisdom from one just about run down but nonetheless full of history, to an ambitious, dedicated, but ultimately naive child on her way to matriculation.

Novice Dragoneer doesn’t so much end as middle. It decidedly has the feel of a novel that is to be a first in a series, laying out the world in a deft but sometimes withholding hand. The tight focus on Ileth’s concerns both gives and takes away, though ultimately I think it’s a good choice. The concept of world-building is one of those contested things, but I find myself much more drawn to fictions that hew to a character’s specific point of view over some scatterdash high level “As you know, Bob” way of building a universe. So not everything worked for me in Novice Dragoneer, but its main character did, completely and emphatically. She was a still and moving point in a complicated world, embodying the paradox of a young person on the edge of matriculation.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Written in Red by Anne Bishop: Speshal Snowflake Powers Activate

This review slash rumination was written five years ago, before the term “snowflake” took on specific political meaning. Which is to say: now, it’s a slur from conservatives about liberals, slagging them for being thin-skinned or whatever. Back before the current political shitshow, the term “speshal snowflake” had some limited currency out there in the book-o-sphere. It referred to a character who kept mowing down narrative impediments by virtue of inherent awesomeness, a Mary Sue in terms of plot expediency if not eye color. Pretty much all of these terms are now twisted and/or problematic. So, you know, you’re welcome to my anachronistic musings about urban fantasy novels, half a decade too late.

I’m here today, friends, to talk about the Speshal Snowflake. She’s one of those creatures both more ubiquitous and more soul-wearying than vampires, starring in melodramas in multiple subgenres, both fantastic and literary. Like the Mary Sue, who can be either close cousin or indistinguishable doppelganger, the Snowflake can scythe down impediments through sheer narrative invincibility, the hand of the author cradling her against the slings and arrows. She’s the only person that matters; everyone will love her; all will look on her and despair, etc. The Speshal Snowflake is special precisely because we have been told she is so, and anything she does (or does not do, often tellingly) is special on the dint of this telling, both regardless and irrespective of actual, measurable, ethical worth. 

And like the Mary Sue, reactions to the Speshal Snowflake are decidedly gendered. Very rarely, and only in the most egregious of cases, is a male character understood to be either a Mary Sue or a Snowflake. I can’t think of an instance where anyone seriously called Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead a Speshal Snowflake, but it’s all there: complete lack of narrative danger (for Rick), others dying to prove Rick right slash lend gravitas to Rick’s ethical struggles, an almost preternatural ability to fall upwards into leadership roles. I barked out a laugh when Rick was questioned by some nameless Alexandrian in a recent episode, who then got eaten by walkers just moments later. Rick is right because he is right, and the narrative will bend itself around his rightness. Nevermind if it would be well more interesting to see a world where his ethical choices weren’t immediately upheld by the narrative. If the walking dead are like weather, an implacable force that carries no inherent moral force, they they should be ultimately uncaring of any choices anyone makes. No man should be exempt from winds that blow.

But we’re more inclined to call Katniss Everdeen a Snowflake than Rick, even though I feel like their situations and ethical struggles are roughly commensurate in terms of silliness of premise and direness of consequence.The walking dead violate the very laws of physics, and it makes no sense that a teenage girl would be the center of a struggle for empire. Which is I think my point: the walking dead are not weather, they are a narrative device, just as surely as Panem’s ludicrous and impossible political system is a device. Those things aren’t important because story, narrative, is not reality, it is something heightened and purified and concentrated. Let me tell you a tale of people in extremis, and the choices they made. Let us wind up this automaton and let it go. 

These nerds once made relationship maps for things like the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, charting how often various characters are in relationship with one another. Beowulf looks like spikes radiating from Beowulf himself, while the Sagas were a complex web of relationship, with no one person in the middle. The Sagas, of course, are based largely in fact, and there is not one particular protagonist of this here world. That a story is about anyone at all, in particular, makes them special.

We are, all of us, the leading role in the story of our lives, and when we slip into the narrative skin of these our avatars, we bring our native self-importance into the mix. We bend to the “I”, because we are the protagonist in our stories unfolding. Which is to say, there isn’t especially anything wrong with the Speshal Snowflake. Every protagonist is going to have more or less Snowflakiness in their crusts because that is how fiction works: this person or persons is more important than all the rest, which is why you’re bothering reading at all. It’s like asking why no one shows people going to the bathroom in movies: because that’s dumb, and it’s not in service to the story. 

Which is not to say that the Speshal Snowflake can’t get irritating. I found Bella Swan cringingly, horrifyingly accurate to my adolescent sense of self-importance and self-involvement — the way she treats her friends is shabby indeed, just as a start — even though the narrative rewarded her constantly for this awful behavior (insofar as anything in Twilight can be understood as a reward). I just fucking squirmed through most of her interactions with her peers, how every single uncharitable instinct of hers was credited, how everyone else’s interior life was that much more legible compared to how complex and inscrutable she is. 

Edward cottons to her precisely because he can’t read her mind, even though we can, and we know. I found this reason for his ardor just hilarious, btw, because literally every boy on earth cannot read my mind, and I certainly didn’t have anyone tripping over themselves to stalk me (more’s the better). There’s something clever about how Meyer sets this up: putting us right in the mind of a boring B+ student of no particular talent, and then making her desirable for something we can all relate to. You know, no one can read my mind either?! And I just got a B+ in English?? We know what she thinks because on some level we thought it as Speshal Snowflakes ourselves, before the world intruded with its elegant and inevitable smackdowns that come in like a thunderstorm as the years tick on. The Speshal Snowflake is someone who has never been confronted with weather, the rain lashing the windows and the electrical wire down on the ground, hissing. 

So. The reason I bring up the Speshal Snowflake is that 100% the protagonist of Written in Red is one. She rolls into town with naught but the clothes on her back, on the run from dangerous figures who are unaccountable to the usual societal systems, and in short order finds herself a job, a place to live, and the protection of otherworldly forces. She heals a boy who was irreparably damaged by the loss of his mother, makes friends with implacable and deadly forces, and almost accidentally works a political system to her favor. She is, in short, everything I should hate in urban fantasy. But I don’t. 

I fairly love her, and her world. The world of Written in Red is something like the one in Charles DeLint’s Newford books, where crows and coyotes and bears shed skins to walk with us humans; or Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, with its profound alt-history of magic and death. We are on another Earth, where humans exist at the largess of creatures terrible in their needs and powers, and as we humans tend to be, we have to be reminded of that fact over and over. I found the perspective of the non-human characters, who think of us a meat, just terrifying, the kind of thing that slipped into my dreams and conjured up nightmares of being hunted and torn. 

Meg Corbyn is a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet, who has been raised as an asset, as a useful source of prophesy for men rich enough to pay for such a thing, and either enrich themselves or feed their predilections. She escapes somehow — no doubt a tale for later books — and ends up in a mid-sized town in the north. Maybe Buffalo, maybe Milwaukee, maybe Minneapolis; big enough to feel more important than farming communities, but too small to really matter (though its residents would never admit it). Another newcomer (and point of view character) is the police officer Monty, who reads like an old school constable, his work more politics and subtle maneuvering than gun handling and force. 

Meg follows a prophesy she had to the inner-city citadel of the Others, where human law does not apply. She’s hoping she can dodge the people who have very real incentive to control her prophesies by hiding behind inhuman monsters. It’s not really much of a plan, admittedly, but she’s been very sheltered. She gets a job as the liaison between the Others and the humans of the city, and most of the plot bops around watching her steps and missteps as she navigates her new life. And it’s here where her Snowflake powers really activate, almost effortless making friends and allies among the Others.

But here’s the thing: I resent Snowflakes that are only so because I have been told they are, characters who are demonstrably terrible people who win only because the author deems it so. (Jamie McGuire writes a ton of these heroines, boy howdy.) I have some reservations about late-period Harry Potter, for example, who gets told over and over that he is good, when a lot of the stuff he does, like the shit with Gringotts and Griphook, is completely indefensible. Completely indefensible, and I will not entertain arguments that say that because Harry is good, nothing he can do is bad.

That is the problem with the Speshal Snowflake: when authors lose sight of moral agency. I would have accepted the sequence with Griphook if there had been any narrative stank on it, an acknowledgement that that was a shite thing to do, but maybe the ethical landscape is more complex than good or bad, that growing up might mean getting dirty. That a lot of evil in the world is done by people acting on what they believe to be the right reasons. That’s not what happens. We are sung a chorus of Harry’s goodness. We will not linger on the sizable number of deaths perpetrated on a poorly understood and sometimes persecuted minority who look a lot like a Jewish stereotype, if you get right down to it. Their lives and deaths do not matter

Phew, I apologize for the freak out; I’ve been saving that one up. That’s not what’s going on here: Meg has very real reasons for why she’s so innocent, why she doesn’t react like normal people to scary, dangerous predators. As a blood prophet, she was kept secluded and helpless. Everything she knows about the real world was through disconnected images and sounds she was taught. If she doesn’t know what a car is, then she can’t describe her visions to the people who control her. At the same token, she can know what a microwave is, but she should not be taught to use one.

Denying her self-sufficiency was a form of social control. That she takes very real delight in learning the simplest of things, like listening to pop music, ischarming, and reminds us readers of the wonder of our everyday lives. I exclaim this quite regularly, but did you know I carry around in my pocket a tiny computer capable of getting me just about any book, movie, or musical recording; it can connect me to others across the globe and on another floor of the house; it can furnish me with information about just about anything. Good god, you guys, it’s like a goddamn science fiction novel. That Meg is fresh and delighted by all the wondrous things we take for granted is no strike against her. 

Her existence as a blood prophet is also very subtly done. She’s been told a lot of things about what that means and how she is, and she only slowly starts to question that received wisdom. It’s not even lingered on, but that Meg very deliberately chooses to live in a place where she has seen a prophesy of her own death, that she doesn’t run from the prophesy, is a very cool detail. This is how a prophet would behave, trusting her own visions, letting them play in the hopes that she could turn the knife, instead of avoiding it altogether,

That the prophesy is accessed through cutting, and that all of the blood prophets are girls, is another fraught detail. The other point of view characters condescend to feel bad for her, assign her the blame for the scars tracing her body, but it’s not as simple as they made me do it or she’s pathological. Especially when we begin to understand the true violence perpetrated on her in the home for girls, when her skin was sold out for the scars it could bear. The potential violence of the Others, which is still often terrifying, has got nothing on the violence she’s already endured. She’s a Speshal Snowflake precisely because she understands weather, and the things worse than weather. 

I’ll admit there were moments when I was like, aw jeez, that’s a little too much. A young woman who plays as clumsy antagonist, working for the people who would get Meg back for her prophetic skin, has baldly stupid motivations that are lingered on far too long. Meg herself mentions another girl in the place she came from, an openly defiant girl, and I wanted to hear way more about her. Reminded me, in a way, of Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, this bright, angry, dynamic personality who lays in harsh contrast with the almost passive protagonists, the special ones.

(I don’t really have this thunk completely out, but there’s something about those minor characters, the throwaways and half-remembered, who have so much life in them compared to the drear details of the average protagonist, special or not. I have a number of fictions I love precisely because of the minor characters, and though this isn’t exactly that, it’s interesting to me that people can often write the incidental more strongly than the important. Maybe their lack of importance makes them easier to write true.)

Anyway, Written in Red was just delightful to me, the kind of thing gulped down in all the space I could make for it, running to its prophetic conclusion. I thought it dealt beautifully with the trope of the Speshal Snowflake, grounded her right in the background she needed to exist, in the parameters she was given. No, of course, magic doesn’t work, but if it did, this is what it would look like. It would look like the storm on the horizon, the one we can never exactly escape, right up until we batten down, and do.

Review: Fray by Rowenna Miller

I was ambivalent about Fray’s predecessor, Torn by Rowenna Miller, and I continue to be ambivalent about the Unraveled Kingdom series. I do think that Sophie is in an interesting position in the novel. As a small business owner who has pulled herself out of poverty and now is betrothed to the crown prince, she’s more than capable of rubbing elbows with all manner of folk, if not comfortably, than at least credibly. But I’m less enamored by Sophie’s burgher judginess and almost willful naivete when it comes to effecting change in the brutally unfair government she lives under. She continues to evince a sort of conservative (lower case c) cowardice that I find distasteful.

After the street violence of Torn, Fray opens on the eve of a reform vote. The government of Galitha seems to be a sort of constitutional monarchy, but more in line with 19th Century Russians than 18th Century English. (I don’t say 19th Century English, because Galitha is maybe only at the very beginning of an Industrial Revolution.) By which I mean, the nobility, who make up the governing body, are bloody brutal bastards. A labyrinthine bureaucracy has a stranglehold on most commerce, and both city workers and farm laborers are kept right on the edge of the most abject poverty. The country is a tinderbox, and the ruling class does not comprehend just how much danger there is of the whole thing erupting into very serious violence, despite being given a taste of the edge of that anger at the close of the last novel.

Sophie herself is in a precarious position. Though she began a love affair with the crown prince at the end of Torn, and they are engaged to be married, his family largely ignores her due to her ignoble birth and wrong ethnicity. (Sophie is a member of a persecuted minority, but this mostly feels like window dressing to me. The way it tends to come up is Sophie commenting to herself about her Otherness, and not in constant, casual microagressions in every interaction she has.) Though I did credit her several panic attacks about what marrying into the royal family will do to his standing — she is the type to offload her true anxieties onto other people — I had a hard time believing the royal family of this backwards country would do anything but work him over until he married someone “respectable”. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened between Charles and Diana, and that monarchy is only a figurehead.

Add in the fact that a distaff relative — who happens to be in a committed relationship with another woman — is being severely pressured to marry a man for political reasons, and the world begins to look like its bending to either the needs of the plot, or Sophie, or both. I am always willing to give some latitude for the sake of the story, so this isn’t a cardinal sin, but it could become one with time. Because the other problem is that Sophie regularly and almost compulsively puts the desires of her wealthy friends over her family, her people, and her neighborhood. Her brother — one of the leaders of the resistance — was denied entrance to the university due to class and race, and he has since poured his prodigious talent into tract-writing and rabble-rousing. He’s absolutely not wrong about anything he says about the injustice of the world.

Even though Sophie ostensibly understands what a raw deal he and most of people like them have been given, she’s constantly frustrated by his disquiet. When violence flairs up in the streets, she blames her brother despite the fact that social inequity is everywhere and that anger is *inevitable*. When the reform bill passes, and then Sophie and the crown prince slowly come to the realization that the nobility is slow-walking any true reformation, I was like, oh my god, OF COURSE that’s what they’re doing. Why is this a surprise? Your brother has always and ever been right, you just refuse to hear anything he has to say. Moreover, even the rich assholes pretty much told Sophie and the prince to their faces that they would cripple the reform. Her middle of the road whataboutism is infuriating. Sure, maybe your boyfriend is a good guy, but its clear to me, and everyone else in the country, that the ruling classes are ripe for having their heads separated from their necks.

But! Then the book will mess with Sophie her bougie preconceptions, so I end up being on the hook for more. I keep hoping for a big SYKE! turns out Sophie is a revolutionary! moment, but then the alternative might be more interesting: a portrait of someone, who, like the rest of us, worries about the news of babies in cages and hopes for incremental change, but can’t be arsed to actually do anything but worry. Shudder. That’s a horror story right there.

Book Review: Perfunctory Affection by Kim Harrison

Sometimes I feel out of step with other readers. I thought THE DRAFTER and its sequel were both excellent novels. The mid-apocalyptic Detroit setting was well detailed. The characters' backstories came out organically as the reader's understanding of the world deepened (and the reader's experience mirrored the protagonist's confusion, at least in the first one.) Also, drafting was just a cool concept, and spy drafters even better. Alas, I felt like those things were absent in PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION. The setting is an indistinct college town in Anywhere, USA, and the mechanics of the magic at play here are rote. Worse, I didn't feel much from or about the characters either.  

PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION starts in medias res as a woman, Meg, barrels down a road in her car, castigating herself for trusting various people. She gets into an accident (which reminds her, briefly, of an older accident that ended in blood on the road) after a man jumps in front of her car. They argue, then we jump back 3 days, and begin following Meg through her day. First stop is to her psychiatrist, who appears to be helping her through social anxiety and agoraphobia, stemming from the death of her mother and a brutal car accident. Meg is put on a new highly experimental drug called Fitrecepon (hint: anagram solvers are a thing) and then sent out into the world. Meg is to keep a diary and watch for paranoia and changes in diet and sleep patterns.

Which is where I run into my first set of problems. From here, Meg goes out and spontaneously makes friends with a visiting professor (Meg is an art teacher, apparently), at which point they become joined at the hip and spend the entire weekend together with escalating intimacy. I think Meg's weird toad-eating and subservience to her new friend Haley is right in line with her dismal self esteem and her fervent desire to overcome her anxiety. I think she also would be hungry for a drug to be a magic bullet, which is how she treats it, even after Dr. Jillium's warnings. But Dr. Jillium should have her license revoked for how she handles a highly experimental drug (which is apparently not even in trials, it's so experimental, which is not how any of that works.)

My mother's best friend has cancer, and last month they decided to try a new chemo drug on her. She went into the office and was hooked up to the rig, where they pushed a few secondary drugs first. Then they hung the bag with the drug in it. Jay watched the drug run down the tube to her hand, and the moment the drug hit her bloodstream, she went into anaphylactic shock. They had to do the whole Pulp Fiction epi pen to the heart thing right there as her husband watched on in horror. This and other terrible side effects of, really, any drug are always possibilities; ask me about how contrast dye makes my body break out in hives! When Meg blows off keeping a diary of the effects of the drug, that should have been the end of it, right there, day one.

The opening bit also blows any sense of creeping dread we may feel. Haley, Haley's roommate, Meg's boyfriend, Austen: they are all under suspicion by the reader, which made me read a lot closer for tells and slip-ups by the characters. Of course Haley and her friend-boy are not to be trusted; we have that knowledge from the first. Meg's escalating paranoia about Jillium and Austen reads exactly like a side effect, which no one seems to see but the reader. That all is not right with Meg's sense of what is real and what isn't is telegraphed so loudly that I had the twist figured well before it hit. While I don't think that's a bad thing in all instances -- sometimes the tension between what the reader knows and the characters do can be a cool effect -- in this case it made me skim a bit until I could get to where Meg catches up.

I don't want to land too hard here. This may come off as a bitchy thing to say, though I don't mean it that way, but PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION is readable as hell, and I was halfway through before my brain started screaming about Dr. Jillium. The novel moves along at such a fast clip that I didn't have any time to start nitpicking, and even when I started, I was compelled to read to the end. I am not in any way a completist, and abandon at least half the books I start. Meg's genuine rush at overcoming some of her anxiety is well rendered, and I think in general her mental illness is dealt with sensitively (though I'm a little unsure about that ending.)

So, on the balance PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION was a nice read on a Sunday, but I just didn't think it was up to the quality of THE DRAFTER, which of course no one read because the world is deeply unfair. The cover is also aces.


I received my copy from Netgalley.