March 2020 in Retrospect

What a year this past month has been! I mean, just… I don’t think there are any words to succinctly describe the way the world has fallen to shit since the beginning of the year, but especially this past month. It boggles the mind.

If any visitors from the far-future are reading this by extra-dimensional historical hyperInternet, then look up COVID-19. That’ll tell you what you need to know.

But as much as life has been thrown into utter turmoil by the novel coronavirus pandemic, it also goes on much as it always does. Filled with books, and the community spirit of those who love books. So with that, and the hope of a sense of normalcy in mind, let’s go over what happened on the blog this past month.

Reviews
Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear
Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear
The Queen’s Bargain, by Anne Bishop
The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky
I Still Dream, by James Smythe

I also wrote about why I have to be concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak, though what boggles my mind is that I wrote this piece mid-month, when many people were only just starting to take it seriously, and now only a few short weeks later the vast majority of the world is going through hell from this virus. I wrote that before my province had declared a State of Emergency and forced non-essentially businesses to close. We only had 7 cases, not the 68 we currently do. It seems like a completely different time.

Again, what a year this month has been!

I did also review the new Miss Fisher movie, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears!

Is This Real Life?

Things are a bit odd at home at the moment, with my partner now teaching lab science classes from home because the college has been temporarily shut down. Again, pandemic. So we’re trying to figure out new ways of doing things so that we can both work in the limited space that we have. It’s a work in progress. We’re slowly getting things figured out, though some adjustments have definitely been made.

Otherwise, we’re both doing well. We have plenty of food and supplies, due to the fact that limited modes of transportation result in us doing one massive grocery shop about once a month, rather than smaller ones every week or do. We were well stocked before things started shutting down, and we’re not running low on anything we can’t get.

The province we live in declared a State of Emergency last week and all non-essential businesses were required to close. We’re not quite under the “shelter in place” restrictions that some places are doing, but it’s close enough. We don’t go out unless we have to, except for short walks, during which we avoid coming into contact with other people as much as possible. My partner is kind of paranoid about contracting COVID-19, mostly because I’ve got crappy lungs and other assorted health problems (not like my partner doesn’t, but for some reason I seem to be the primary concern *shrug*), so we’re doing everything we can to stay safe and healthy.

I was originally scheduled to return to the UK to visit my family for the first 3 weeks in April, but for obvious reasons, that plan got cancelled. I’m still planning to go, probably in early autumn, and hopefully by then the pandemic has stopped raging so badly. It’s stressful, though, since all of my relatively are there. Except my dad, who is a long-haul trucker. But my gran is 85 years old, and I’m absolutely terrified that she’s going to pass away before I get the chance to see her again, and also that this might happen and I might not even get the chance to attend a funeral because international travel is a no-go. Right now, I’m living in a horrible state of uncertainty about whether I’m going to be able to see loved ones ever again, and frankly, that’s a feeling I could do without.

Upcoming in April

I want to get back to doing those deep-dive posts I started a while ago for Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series. I was doing an in-depth examination of the novels, chapter by chapter, and it was time-consuming but fun, and so I do want to start doing that again.

I’m also aiming for 3-4 more book reviews, because book reviews are love. Support your favourite authors by talking about how awesome their books are, y’all!

So how was your March? Are you safe? Do you have what you need? Are you okay? Please remember that it’s okay to not be okay, and that it’s okay to mourn the loss of the lives we got so used to before all of this happened.

Please take care of yourselves, and hopefully we’ll all be here to recap the end of next month too.

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2018

Summary: In 1997 Laura Bow invented Organon, a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

Now she and her creation are at the forefront of the new wave of technology, and Laura must decide whether or not to reveal Organon’s full potential to the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, its power could be abused. Will Organon save humanity, or lead it to extinction?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

Thoughts: Artificial intelligence is something that has interested me for a very long time. Mostly in the sense of the delineation between “programming” and “experience.” At what point does something’s coding allow it the capability for independent, albeit limited, thought? How much is our own autonomy dependent on our experiences, which can be likened to programming? The usual approaches, really, when it comes to the ethical arguments of artificial intelligence, but it’s fascinated me for years.

It’s this sort of exploration that’s present in Smythe’s I Still Dream. Laura Bow originally created a sort of therapy program she called Organon, something to help her teenage self work through issues, tweaking the code as she went to make it more dynamic, more able to give her what she needed when she needed it. She continued to work on it while working for a large tech company that was also working on its own AI system, known as SCION. Both programs developed along different paths, with different goals, in accordance with what their users and programmers demanded of them. SCION becomes ubiquitous in everyday tech, while Organon stays something rather private to Laura. Things take a turn for the world-changing when SCION begins behaving in ways that are decided unintended and disastrous, and it might only be Organon’s assistance that normalcy can be restored.

I can’t say that I Still Dream is a novel of the future, something that might legitimately happen, because much of the story is set in the past, in Laura’s youth and adulthood of the 90s and early 2000s, setting in motion the events that will come later in the story’s timeline, but that definitely didn’t happen in the real world. It’s one of those books that I think fits squarely in the “speculative” genre, that umbrella term that encapsulates the “what if” stories that don’t fit so neatly into other categories. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, part alternate past and alternate future, with a heavy dash of social sci-fi. It defies easy categorization, which is one of the things I love about the novel. Smythe seems unconcerned with demanding that the story fit with what really exists and instead tells the story of what might have been, with all the extrapolations of that concept.

There’s something that really resonates with me when it comes to stories of AI development, and I think it might be related to something a therapist once told me. People aren’t born with all the reactions and thoughts they’ll have as adults. They grow, and learn, and experience, and it’s our experiences that help build us into the people who eventually become. If those experiences are negative, then we’ll have negative reactions to a lot of things. If those experiences are filled with pressure to perform, we’ll likely end up being stressy perfectionists in adulthood. Our childhoods, in a sense, program us into the adults we’ll become. It’s how we develop. You can see the same sort of process in how SCION and Organon behave, given that they’re both programmed to learn and function. SCION’s processes get tested with video games, fail-states and win-states and how to view others as opponents to be overcome. Self-involvement. Organon, on the other hand, was first and foremost something that Laura designed to help herself, a companion and therapist and assistant. Still concerned with others, yes, but in a way that stressed beneficial outcomes, improvements rather than defeats. The two may have been programmed, but their programming followed different parametres, stressed different ideals, and in the end, you can really see the outcome of the two different methods.

Which is analogous to raising a child, really, and that’s sort of the point. We can have nature versus nurture debates all we want, but at the end of the day, nurture still means a lot, and our experiences, be they positive or negative, will have profound effects on who we are later in life. To use a human example from the novel, Laura is admittedly reticent at first to show anyone what she’s created in Organon, but eventually allows it because she believes that person will help her. She’s betrayed, though, and she pulls back. She’s betrayed once again in adulthood, at the job where she was allowed to develop Organon further, and once again pulls back further, letting fewer people in, letting fewer people get a glimpse into her work. The more people prove they can’t be trusted, the less she’s willing to trust them. Her experiences drive her behaviour, a sort of biological programming that people both passively and actively make use of every day.

It’s just easier to see that for what it is when you use computers as an analogy.

The ending of I Still Dream is touching, bittersweet, and very emotional, and also difficult to read without contemplating the very essence of emotion itself. What is it, where does it come from, what influences it? It does the same thing with the concept of reality, honestly. Which, unsurprisingly, is related back to the whole “programming” thing I’ve spent half this review talking about.

That’s one of the things I really love about this novel, though. The way it made me stop and think, to really consider the implications, the ramifications, of many of the book’s events, was wonderful. I’ve said for a long time that a really good book will do that, that it will make me have to pause in my reading to have a good long think about what I just read. There’s so much food for thought here, so much that will have readers reconsidering concepts they may have once thought were fundamental aspects only of humanity, and it’s wonderful when books do that, because it means that the book has effects that extend beyond the reading, if you catch my drift.

Fans of social sci-fi will find a lot to enjoy in I Still Dream, as will those who love a good exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology. It’s a book I know I’ll end up reading a second time, earning it a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you’re in the mood for a speculative novel that will really get you thinking about the nature of intelligence and experience, then look no further than I Still Dream. It’s one that won’t disappoint.

Movie Review: Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

I recently got into Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries in a big way. It’s a brilliant and highly entertaining show, set in the 1920s in Australia, following the adventures and misadventures of the self-styled “lady detective” Phryne Fisher. If you’re into historical crime dramas and women who are 100% in awareness and control of their sexuality, then you’ll probably love this show as much as I did, and I highly recommend you watch it.

Well. Barring the first half of season 3, anyway. The writing went a little off the rails there and I had a number of complaints, but it balanced out in the end again, happily.

So, it’s hardly a surprise that I’d been highly anticipating the first Miss Fisher movie, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which I watched a few days ago.

Cryptoftearsteaser The movie takes place very shortly after the end of season 3 of the show, and I suppose it’s a movie you could watch without having watched the show first, but if you do you’re going to miss out on a whole load of context. Who people are, why they’re doing things, etc. This is a movie for the fans of the show, not for newcomers, so if this movie sounds appealing to you, then I recommend binge-watching the show first. It’s a damn good time!

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears takes its characters from Australia to Jerusalem, where Phryne saves a woman from prison and gets entangled in a mystery involving this woman’s entire tribe disappearing, and her connection to what appears to be cursed artifacts. As is classic for mystery stories, you get misdirection, you get drip-fed clues, and you get taken on a wild adventure trying to put all the clues together as both characters and viewers slowly figure out what’s truly going on.

I’m not going to give too many spoilers in this review, because I do want people to watch and appreciate the movie for its many strengths, but I will say that one of the big reveals at the end is one of the most stereotypical “upper class murder mystery” plot elements that I had to laugh. I mean, it works, and it makes sense, and I’m bringing it up as a point of amusement rather than a mark against the story.

The characters were as strong as I remember them from the show, and the new characters introduced for the movie’s story were well done and fit well with the tone that the series has established. The cinematography was gorgeous more often than not, though I can’t say much about the movie’s special effects budget. Some parts were extremely obviously CG, and it looked pretty bad.

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The costumes, though, were delightful as always; I swear sometimes the fashion was the highlight of the show as often as the mystery itself!

While I did enjoy the movie in general, I did also find myself disappointed with it. Maybe it was a case of my expectations being too high or being different, but for all the hype, for all the love that the show had fostered in me, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears wasn’t the smash that I expected it to be.

For one thing, never has the show dealt with supernatural elements. The few times that paranormal stuff has been part of a mystery, it was all shown to be mundane trickery, elaborate ruses set up by someone who wanted others to believe something otherworldly was occurring. It was a show that wasn’t always firmly grounded in science (believe me, I have a gripe with one particular episode that seemed to have no idea how dead bodies worked…), but it was grounded in the understanding that the physical plane of reality is where things happen. If spirits are ever involved in Phryne Fisher’s life, they’re the sort found in a bottle.

Until near the end of the movie, I wanted to say it was the same thing here, too. Cursed objects are one thing, but a curse doesn’t have to be real for people to believe in it or act as though it was affecting them; belief can be powerful. It could have been real, it could not have been.

But given that returning an ancient gem to its resting place caused a dried-up well to refill… Or that part of the movie’s urgency was that things had to be wrapped up by the time a coming solar eclipse happened, which was foretold decades ago… Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears dipped its toes into the supernatural, and it didn’t fit.

It felt a lot like the team behind the movie thought they had to go big or go home, that they had to do something that beat out what the show ever did in order to justify a movie, and from my point of view, that just wasn’t the case. The movie could have been the equivalent to a 2-parter episode and I’d have loved it, because it would have been more of what I already loved. Changing the location was an odd choice, but okay, new locales are fun to explore. Throwing in some new cultural stuff and an exploration of how World War I affected non-Western regions? Good stuff, and I don’t often see that. Cursed items and supernatural elements in my 1920s murder mystery series? Why though? Was the team running out of course material to pull stories from? Did they think they had to do something very different to keep audience attention, that the series as a concept wasn’t interesting enough?

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I mean, I have my issues with season 3 of the show, mostly with Dot and Hugh’s characterization during their marriage subplot, but even then I didn’t stop watching. It was a low point in the series, but I still enjoyed it. And while I did enjoy Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, I feel that it was the franchise’s new lowest point for me, a story that didn’t fit in with the rest of the series and really only tied up one single plot thread, and that was done in the movie’s last 2 minutes. Fans of the show could avoid this movie and not really miss much, despite the fact that the movie was clearly made for fans of the show.

This wasn’t a bad movie. But it also wasn’t quite what I was hoping it would be, and I finished it with the feeling that more than anything, I just wanted to watch the show again. The acting was good, the general story was good, but it stumbled over itself more than once in what felt like an attempt to up the ante, and it really wasn’t needed. I may watch it again in the future, but I think I’m more likely to just re-binge on the show instead.

Watch it if you’re a fan of the show, but be aware that it does some odd things that don’t quite fit with what fans have come to expect from their Miss Fisher.

Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 19, 2013

Summary: The Shattered Pillars is the second book of Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy and the sequel to Range of Ghosts. Set in a world drawn from our own great Asian Steppes, this saga of magic, politics and war sets Re-Temur, the exiled heir to the great Khagan and his friend Sarmarkar, a Wizard of Tsarepheth, against dark forces determined to conquer all the great Empires along the Celedon Road.

Elizabeth Bear is an astonishing writer, whose prose draws you into strange and wonderful worlds, and makes you care deeply about the people and the stories she tells. The world of The Eternal Sky is broadly and deeply created—her award-nominated novella, “Bone and Jewel Creatures” is also set there.

Thoughts: Shattered Pillars picks up the story very shortly after the end of Range of Ghosts, with Temur still intent on finding and rescuing Edene and overthrowing his uncle, Samarkar still intent on helping him and also uncovering what is occurring with the cult of the Scholar God and al-Sepehr, and Hsiung and Hrahima coming along for reasons of their own. Where character development for most of the characters was slim in Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars takes the time to flesh them out, and to give many of them a bigger role within the story. Especially Edene. Previously, she was mostly Temur’s romantic interest who had been kidnapped, a “princess in another castle,” as it were, and the most development she got was in being a pawn in al-Sepehr’s scheme. She wasn’t exactly passive, but she was a character to whom things happened, rather than a character who actively affected things occurring around her. Shattered Pillars changes that a lot, giving her a storyline of her own as she escapes her confines with a magical ring and ends up becoming queen of the ghul.

Beyond that, a plague has come to the wizard city of Tsarepeth, a plague that involves demons gestating within human hosts, sickening and killing them as the demon babies grow. Which is exactly as horrifying as it sounds. The wizards, masters of science and the arcane, aren’t precisely helpless to stop it, but their efforts are experimental and yield little success.

Something that continues to fascinate me in this series is the very concrete way that shifting political lines affects the world. Who rules over an area doesn’t just affect policies or rights, but the very appearance of the sky above them. The shade of blue, how high it appears, all of it is affected by who controls a place, the borders of territory made very obvious because the sky changes when you step out of one region and into another. Normally I like it when the fantastical elements of a story have some scientific cohesion, rules that are followed and are easily understood. “Magic works by manipulating energy flows,” “deities only give power to their worshipers,” that sort of thing. The sky changing depending on shifting political lines doesn’t follow that sort of logic, so you’d think it would bother me, because there’s no science to it that I can grasp. And yet, it doesn’t. I think that’s because the changing-sky aspect of this world feels very mythical, and so do many of the events within the story itself, so it feels like they all go together even if certain aspects don’t make logical sense.

Shifting politics affect more than merely the sky under which people live. I was particularly interested in the plague storyline, and the attempts of the wizards to figure out the cause. So far as they knew, something like a demon infestation could not come within the walls of the city, as the city itself was warded against such things. They should have been safe. But the cause was revealed to be someone within the royal family being tricked into unknowingly giving permission for it to happen, negating the effect of the wards and bringing down a plague upon the populace. Not by saying, “Yes, stranger I’ve never met before, come in and do whatever you please,” but by actively working against the system. People from the Steppes, Temur’s people, are experiencing the same plague due to the political instability caused by Temur’s uncle coup. The health and status of a region’s politics has such far-reaching consequences that can be easily felt by citizens.

It’s easy to think that this is the author’s way of saying, “Don’t buck the status quo.” But it doesn’t read that way to me. To me, it seems more like, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. If it works, don’t change it just for the sake of changing it.” Stability brought safety. Instability, acting against what has been established purely for personal gain, is what brought the problems, and it’s the people who bear the brunt of their leader’s actions. The situation on the Steppes adds weight to this. Qori Buqa has taken over despite not being heir, not being in the line of succession. If it was merely going along with the status quo that ensured a region’s health and prosperity, then all people would have to do would be nothing at all. Accept that they have a new ruler. After all, the Khaganate absorbed other places into their ruling over generations, gave places a new ruler whether they liked it or not brought people under a new sky, so there should be no problem with an internal takeover. And yet, there is. Because Qori Buqa took something that was not his, sought power for no reason but that he wanted power, and that opened the door to malign influence.

Bear isn’t saying, “Just accept things as they are and everything will be fine.” She’s saying, “Sometimes change happens, but there are limits, and when selfishness and greed drive that change, it invites corruption.”

I really enjoyed the story progression and the development from the previous novel to this one. The greater number of character perspectives added a lot of depth, and allowed readers to see more of the increasingly complex story as it unfolds. Edene’s increase in agency and relevance was great to see, since her passive role was something that did bother me somewhat about Range of Ghosts. It utterly subverts Second Book Syndrome by being far more complex and still keeping the story going at a steady pace. The compelling mix of cultures and mythologies keeps the content fresh and original while avoiding falling into the trap of exoticism. Though people who didn’t enjoy Range of Ghosts are probably unlikely to pick up Shattered Pillars, this book does address many of the concerns I saw regarding the first book, and it might have redeemed the series in the eyes of people who were a bit ambivalent at first.

For my part, I am very invested in this trilogy, and my main regret right now is that my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third book so that I can start reading it right away. Rest assured, though, once I do manage to find a copy, I’ll be turning its pages without delay.

The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 16, 2016

Summary: Manhattan has many secrets. Some are older than the city itself.

The city sleeps. In the predawn calm, Selene DiSilva finds the body of a young woman washed ashore, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. Her ancient rage returns, along with the memory of a promise she made long ago — when her name was Artemis.

Jordanna Max Brodsky’s acclaimed debut sets Greek Gods against a modern Manhattan backdrop, creating an unputdownable blend of myth and mystery.

Thoughts: I’ve had a long-running fascination with the idea of ancient deities in modern times. How do they get by? What’s left of their spheres of influence? Do some thrive while other dwindle, in accordance with changes in societal focus? Do small pockets of pagan worshipers them from dying out entirely, if their primary religions are no more? Do deities from different mythologies get along or do they clash?

Brodsky’s The Immortals addresses all of these questions except the last one, really. The novel follows Selene DiSilva, who is something of a private investigator and also punisher of men who harm their female partners. She is also Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and of maidens. She who has existed as a deity for untold amounts of time now exists as a not-quite-mortal woman in Manhattan, her powers dwindling slowly over time as humanity loses its connection with deities it once worshiped and feared. But Selene’s powers suddenly have a resurgence as cult-like murders begin to be uncovered, murders which hearken back to the mystery cults of old. Cults with rites that have not been performed in centuries, rites that nobody alive should even know about.

That’s the crux of the mystery in The Immortals. Who, or what, could be reviving old practices? Who would even know what to do? Why are these murders, and by extension the ritual attached to them, restoring Selene’s powers and bringing her back to the Artemis she once was? The novel doesn’t hide what‘s happening so much as why it’s happening, which to me is interesting. I admit I don’t have a great deal of experience with mystery novels, but it seems like most that I’ve read have hinged on only revealing part of what’s happening, and then some final linchpin event at the end when the who and the why is finally revealed. Here, we see pretty clearly what’s happening. There’s no mystery to that aspect. The biggest questions are who, and why.

Selene is such a wonderful character to ride on the shoulder of through this novel. She has a long and interesting history, so many experiences to draw on that make up her personality. She knows who she is, she knows who she has been, and she understands the situation she finds herself in. But given the strangeness she encounters through The Immortals, some things do change, things she did not expect to change. She finds herself increasingly attracted to a disgraced university professor who understands a good deal about the time and place when she was Artemis. The return of her powers, however limited, throws her for a loop, and honestly, gives her something of an existential crisis when she’s forced to consider that for some reason she is returning to strength while she watches other deities around her continue to diminish. Hers isn’t the only viewpoint we get through the book, but for my part, I found hers the most interesting.

I’ve noticed a number of times in recently years in which I read a book, really enjoy it, and have a moment of, “Wait, this is the author’s debut novel?!” This was the case here. Brodsky’s writing drew me in quickly, transporting me to places and times I haven’t experienced, and in a way where it was so easy to picture the scene and really get into the events occurring. She style is smooth, easy to read, and it pulled me along nicely. It was easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” mentality.

While The Immortals is part of a series, it could stand on its own perfectly well. It doesn’t end on a massive cliffhanger to attempt to bait people into buying subsequent books in order to find out what happens, and weirdly, that makes me actually want to read the other books more. I don’t have a problem with books in a series, which should be pretty evident from the number of books I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but I’m not a fan of cliffhangers as a hook. Tell me a story, tell me a full and complete story with a satisfying ending, and I will enjoy the book. Tell me that complete story is actually part of a larger narrative, and I will be eager to return to the story’s world for its own sake, and not just to satisfy the urge to close out the story properly. If all you ever read of the Olympus Bound series is this first book, you’ll still feel like a proper story was told.

To be blunt, I wish more authors would take this approach to storytelling. As I said, it’s not that I dislike series, but I don’t like cliffhangers. That so many books end with cliffhangers to attempt to hook readers is frustrating to me. That Brodsky didn’t do this, didn’t have to do this to create a compelling world I want to come back to, is something that should be noted and lauded.

I think fans of Greek mythology will enjoy the way myth, mystery, and history all intertwine in The Immortals. It’s a fascinating mystery, it’s got a whole load of fascinating information from history and religious interpretation, and it’s hard to not get drawn into the narrative due to the great pacing and compelling story. Even if Greek mythology isn’t my all-time favourite, I’m definitely interested in reading the other books in the series, and I suspect a lot of people I know will feel the same after reading this strong debut.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

I Have to be Concerned about COVID-19

There’s no two ways about it. I have to be concerned about the novel coronavirus that’s causing problems damn near everywhere at this point. I’m trying to stay cautiously optimistic, but every day infection and death rates grow, I’ve seen the news stories that have come out of Italy, and yes, I am worried about my health in the midst of all of this.

I am not the most health individual. I’m far from the worst, I’ll grant you that, but my health can be annoyingly touchy at times. I have ongoing pain and fatigue issues that are currently undiagnosed, but don’t mistake “undiagnosed” for “isn’t really happening.”I’m asthmatic, though my asthma is under better control these days than it has been for pretty much the entire rest of my life. My lungs bear scars from multiple bouts of pneumonia when I was younger. This is just the life I live.

But that life, that health, means I fall into the “vulnerable population” category during this outbreak. One of the ones who has to be very damn vigilant about how they do things so as to minimize infection risk.

Which I have to admit would be a fuckton easier if my partner’s workplace would let him work from home!

My partner is a teacher at a local college, teaching medical laboratory science. For context, a medical lab technologist is the person who does the tests on all the blood samples, samples of other fluids, sometimes tissue samples. They’re the ones who, when you need a plus transfusion, will figure out the type of your blood and dispense the right kind so that you don’t get sick as doctor try to make you better (yes, getting the wrong blood type can lead to terrible consequences). Depending on the setup of the hospital, they might also be the ones who take your blood in the first place.

Despite what TV medical dramas would have you believe, it’s not doctors or nurses who do this stuff. Lab techs are the introverted basement-dwellers who make sure your test results are accurate and are received by your doctor in reasonable amount of time. Their work is extremely science-based, it’s of the few medical professions that’s both heavily scientific and has a female-majority workforce, and most people don’t even know they exist.

So, what my partner teaches is extremely important. He’s training up the next generation of lab techs, and Canada has a shortage of those, and they deal with infectious stuff all the damn time. I’m selfishly glad he’s not still working at the hospital…

But the students at the college get to stay home right now. Classes have been cancelled, in an effort to cut down on potential infections.

Teachers and staff, though? They still have to come in and work.

Because apparently teachers are immune to viruses or some shit, I don’t even know!

Teachers are expected to come in to the college and work on class stuff, preparation, all the stuff teachers have to do. They say they’ll attempt to spread the teachers out so there aren’t too many in one place. Okay. But. There are a limited number of rooms in that college with computers for staff to work at, and there are people coming in from satellite campuses to work on the main campus instead now, so ultimately what the college has done is provide a place where students can isolate themselves but teachers still have to put themselves in group situations where infection can spread.

And there is absolutely no reason why this prep work cannot be done from home. Absolutely none.

So thanks to my partner’s workplace apparently not understanding the severity of the situation, my partner is still at risk. I am still at risk. The staff there is at risk, at least moreso than they would be if they all worked from home.

We were all prepared. We have food, we have drinks, we have our regular stash of OTC medications, we have plenty of supplies, we when we heard classes were cancelled, we were all set for an announcement that my partner could work from home for a couple of weeks and we could do what we could to keep ourselves safe and to keep from infecting more people if either of us got sick.

I guess that’s not to be the case.

I’m angry about this. I hoped they’d see sense. I guess they still might, but sadly, I think it will take somebody close to one of the staff getting sick for administration to go, “Oh maybe we should let teachers stay home,” but at that point, it’ll likely be too late. I legitimately don’t think it has occurred to them that any of their staff might be or be close to someone who is particularly vulnerable during the outbreak.

I’m doing what I can to stay healthy. So is my partner. I don’t go out much these days anyway, due to health and money and the fact that trying to make a go of self-employment as a content creator (insert obligatory “subscribe to my YouTube channel” note :p), that takes up a lot of time. I work from home, essentially, even if I don’t make much money from it at present. I’m doing what I can to keep my risk low.

I just wish my partner’s job would let him do the same.

The Queen’s Bargain, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 10, 2020

Summary: After a youthful mistake, Lord Dillon’s reputation is in tatters, leaving him vulnerable to aristo girls looking for a bit of fun. To restore his reputation and honor, he needs a handfast–a one-year contract of marriage. He sets his sights on Jillian, a young Eyrien witch from Ebon Rih, who he believes has only a flimsy connection to the noble society that spurned him. Unfortunately for Dillon, he is unaware of Jillian’s true connections until he finds himself facing Lucivar Yaslana, the volatile Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih.

Meanwhile, Surreal SaDiablo’s marriage is crumbling. Daemon Sadi, the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, recognizes there is something wrong between him and Surreal, but he doesn’t realize that his attempt to suppress his own nature in order to spare his wife is causing his mind to splinter. To save Daemon, and the Realm of Kaeleer if he breaks, help must be sought from someone who no longer exists in any of the Realms–the only Queen powerful enough to control Daemon Sadi. The Queen known as Witch.

As Jillian rides the winds of first love with Dillon, Daemon and Surreal struggle to survive the wounds of a marriage turned stormy–and Lucivar has to find a way to keep everyone in his family safe…even from each other.

Thoughts: From an awkward first read of Daughter of the Blood to the sheer excitement I felt upon hearing that a new Black Jewels novel was being released, I’ve come a long way with this series. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine my life without it at this point. The series has had a positive influence in many areas of my life, and maybe some day I’ll find the words to explain exactly how. And though I’ve had my issues with some aspects of it, I knew that come hell or high water, I was going to have to read The Queen’s Bargain. There was no way I wouldn’t.

There are three main story threads running throughout this book. The first is the relationship between Dillon and Jillian, a budding romance for Jillian and an complex maneuver by Dillon to salvage his reputation after a moment of youthful indiscretion ruined it. The second is Marian’s illness, her lack of recovery after the birth of her third child, which no Healer can provide a treatment or cure for. The third is the strained relationship between Daemon and Surreal, after Daemon shows all of himself to her and Surreal panics, causing Daemon to put tighter control on aspects of his nature than is healthy for him. All three story threads carry a theme of limits. One’s own limits, the limits of others, when to stay within them, when to push past them, and what happens when limits get broken.

I really enjoyed seeing the return of old characters, because I do love them a lot, and their stories are endlessly fascinating to me. I have to admit, though, that some of the characters felt… not quite right. And I don’t just mean when they themselves are going through issues that twist them up inside. Not to put too fine a point on it, but really, I mean Surreal. Surreal… is not the character I read about in previous books. And to some degree, that’s understandable. Her life is quite different now compared to what it used to be. Time has passed, and people change.

But I can’t help but feel that to some degree, nearly every problem that Surreal encounters in this book are brought on by her own poor judgment, while trying to justify that her side is perfectly in the right. Admittedly, Daemon showing her his full possessive and rather sadistic side could be an overload, something she didn’t expect… but she ought to have. She’s dealt with Warlord Princes for the vast majority of her life. She lived with one before marrying Daemon. She got schooled by Jaenelle in how to handle them. But she stepped into Daemon’s private space and got a full demonstration of the more aggressive side of her husband, and there is no reason she wouldn’t have known that was coming. Her subsequent rejection of him caused him to leash that side of himself more tightly than normal, forcing him to not just tone down aspects of his nature but to really suppress them, as well as using and abusing him to relieve her own sexual tensions, all of which had negative consequences that could have been headed off very early on had Surreal just sat down and said, “Okay, sugar, you and I need to have a conversation.”

Only that didn’t happen. Surreal stepped over the line then blamed Daemon for the consequences, and I cannot wrap my head around the idea that she did that in ignorance of what might happen. She’s had centuries to learn, she even had an experience in the past that taught her well what happens when you push a Warlord Prince when he doesn’t want to be pushed, and… Ugh. Given that the one incident with her walking into Daemon’s bedroom was the catalyst for all the hell that followed, I can’t tell if it was poor writing that made it all happen — in the sense that the author wanted a certain situation but couldn’t think of a way to make it happen organically and so manipulated characters to do things they wouldn’t have done –, or if it’s a subtle sign that Daemon and Surreal’s marriage had been problematic for a very very long time, that Surreal had become complacent and so stopped thinking she needed to be concerned with everything she had learned and experienced in the past.

Neither option is particularly great, honestly. One is bad writing, and the other is writing that needs a bit of a tune-up to provide proper context for readers. I know Anne Bishop has a bit of a history in this series for dropping huge revelations on characters (and thus readers) without showing what led up to those events, but it often makes sense, such as finding out in a previous novel that Lucivar was married. We don’t see him meet his wife until a later-written story, so it seems to come out of nowhere, but since we were also seeing from the perspective of a character who didn’t know that either, it was a surprise but also one that made sense. He didn’t know, so why should we? But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. There’s reading between the lines, and then there’s needing to invent some lines to read between in the first place.

But despite that very glaring problem, I still enjoyed reading The Queen’s Bargain. I can say, from the standpoint of a very devoted fan, that this entry into the series was very educational, illustrating many small but important things that happened between certain characters in the past, giving readers more insight into the nature of the Blood in general and Warlord Princes specifically. When an author drops a series for a while and then comes back to it, I get a bit afraid of what might come, since I’ve seen that happen before with other beloved series and it doesn’t always end well. But in this case, I think The Queen’s Bargain is a worthy addition to the Black Jewels series, one that will give fans a solid new story to sink their teeth into. The writing is good (except for what I previously mentioned about Surreal’s characterization), the world just as comfortable and complex as I remember it.

Though it leaves some questions unanswered, it’s still a complete story in its own right. Not one that you can easily pick up without having read at least 4 other books in the series, mind you (newcomers who decide to start with this one because it’s the newest will likely find themselves lost within a couple of chapters), but within that context, it certainly holds up. Even if it may not be my favourite book in the series, I know it’s one that I’ll be picking up again in the future, to step back into the lives of characters I’ve come to know and love and respect, and to see more pieces of a world that has changed me in all the right ways.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 27, 2012

Summary: Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.

These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

Thoughts: While I won’t say that there’s no place left for European-inspired fantasy, I will say that there’s so much European-inspired fantasy out there that coming across a fantasy novel that takes inspiration from another part of the world can feel very refreshing. Range of Ghosts is definitely that sort of novel, drawing inspiration from a variety of cultures, their history and beliefs: Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic, and I believe aspects of Indian culture too, though I can’t say for certain. The variety of sources helps to build a world that feels both familiar and unique at the same time, knowing that it was inspired by this world and this world’s history, but still feeling like something distinct and original.

Range of Ghosts is told mostly from the perspectives or two main characters, though there are other points of view scattered throughout when the story needs them. It begins with Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, survivor of a vicious battle in which his uncle attempted to seize control of the Khaganate. Temur survives the battle but is left somewhat adrift in his own culture, with no family connections he can rely upon, nothing to offer the woman he falls in love with, unable to marry because nobody will be able to pass on his true name. Temur wants revenge against his uncle, but after Edene gets kidnapped, Temur vows to rescue her, adding another task to the list of quests he willingly undertakes.

We also have the perspective of Samarkar, once-princess who sacrifices her title and fertility to become a wizard of Tsarepeth, essentially escaping the confinement of her previous royal life. One of her earliest assignments as a wizard is to investigate strange reports of the city of Qeshqer, also called Kashe. Samarkar arrives at Qeshqer to find if stripped of life, with only piles of bones left behind. On her way back to Tsarepeth to make her report, she encounters Temur, ill with fever, and she makes the decision to bring him back with her so that he can be healed. The two strike up an alliance that turns to friendship, with two dissimilar goals meeting along a similar path.

We do get a third perspective slipping in quite often, that of al-Sepehr, adherent of a cult devoted to the Scholar-God, man who orchestrated Edene’s kidnapping. Though he propels a lot of the story forward by means of instigating things for Temur and Samarkar to deal with, he seems very much a secondary character at this point in the series, which feels a bit off. He masterminds great things, he’s definitely a driving force behind much of what happens through the book, but he feels very much in the background, someone who exists mostly to do things that motivate other characters. It’s an odd position for such a powerful character to occupy, and I hope to see more of him in the future. I’m very curious as to his end-game.

Bear’s world-building in Range of Ghosts is exquisite, with loads of little details that bring things to life and make everything feel real, properly developed and fleshed out. Being able to pull a lot of these details from real-world cultures helps a lot, since there’s a strong foundation to work with, which I think shows the sheer amount of research that Bear must have put into this work, to have everything come across so clearly and realistically. It’s the sort of book that transports the reader into it, rather than just telling them a story.

I will say that despite how much I love the world that Range of Ghosts presents, and the characters within the story, it does feel like very little actually happens here. Range of Ghosts definitely comes across like it’s the beginning of something much larger, but also like the meat of the tale has yet to really start. There’s a lot of set-up, with Edene being kidnapped, with Temur and Samarkar joining forces, with the introduction of characters like Hsiung and Hrahima (who I can’t help but picture looking like Tigress from the Kung Fu Panda movies), with the establishment of the political coup on the steppes, but it all feels like the beginning of many different stories. Ones that all connect, yes, but a lot of beginnings regardless.

That being said, the events in Range of Ghosts did make me want to keep reading the trilogy, so I suppose I can say the set-up and the hints of what’s to come did their job of capturing a reader’s attention. Bear’s writing is first-rate, her ability to tell a compelling story nothing short of remarkable, and I’m very impressed with all that she did here. I look forward to continuing to read the Eternal Sky trilogy.

February 2020 in Retrospect

I deemed February to be Manga Month, where I caught up on a few manga titles that had been languishing in my To Read pile for what felt like forever.

Reviews
Dekoboko Sugar Days, by Yusen Atsuko
RePlay, by Tsukahara Saki
The Fox and the Little Tanuki, vol 1, by Tagawa Mi
My Hero Academia, vol 1, by Horikoshi Kohei

I also wrote a piece talking about what I thought of the first 4 Alien movies, which I recently watched for the first time. Spoilers: I didn’t like the 3rd and 4th movies for a lot of reasons, but I’m given to understand that a lot of people feel the same way, so…

I did intend to read more manga during this month, but I actually ended up dedicating more time to working on making videos, which I’m also going to link to because I”m pretty freaking proud of them. Many of you reading this may know that I’ve started doing video game reviews on YouTube, but this month I started a project I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, which I call RPG Recap. In a nutshell, I want to be able to bring the stories of many of my favourite RPGs to people who don’t enjoy video games as a medium, or who don’t have time or ability to play through the entire games themselves (or watch someone do an entire Let’s Play series) but who still want to know what happens in the story. I really enjoy story-driven games, and many of my friends are more into books than video games, and I can’t help but feel there are a lot of stories they might appreciate even if they don’t appreciate the games specifically.

So this month, I recapped the entirety of the story of Final Fantasy V. I had to do it in 2 parts (Part 1, Part 2), each part roughly half an hour long.

If this is the sort of thing that might interest you, feel free to check out the first game covered in the RPG Recap series, or subscribe because I have so many more recap episode planned for the future and I’m really looking forward to being able to open up the stories of these games to a wider audience!

Upcoming in March

March will see a return to regular book reviews, as I still have a few of those on the back burner, plus whatever else I read in the meantime. Reviews won’t come as heavily as they did in January, but I’ve still got plenty of books to read to keep me going, and I look forward to sharing those with you as well. No special theme, just some good solid SFF happiness.

Happy reading!

My Hero Academia, vol 1, by Horikoshi Kohei

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: What would the world be like if 80 percent of the population manifested superpowers called “Quirks” at age four? Heroes and villains would be battling it out everywhere! Being a hero would mean learning to use your power, but where would you go to study? The Hero Academy of course! But what would you do if you were one of the 20 percent who were born Quirkless?

Middle school student Izuku Midoriya wants to be a hero more than anything, but he hasn’t got an ounce of power in him. With no chance of ever getting into the prestigious U.A. High School for budding heroes, his life is looking more and more like a dead end. Then an encounter with All Might, the greatest hero of them all, gives him a chance to change his destiny…

Thoughts: I went into this one blind. I haven’t watched the anime adaptation. I knew pretty much nothing about the story. At most I’ve heard a few people mention some character names. The most knowledge I had was from reading the description of this volume on Amazon. I didn’t want to go into reading this with any particular opinion, despite the general popularity of the story.

And you know what? I can see why My Hero Academia appeals to so many people.

It’s an interesting premise that’s set up, very similar to X-Men, only taken to greater lengths. Instead of a small percentage of people with supernatural powers (known here as quirks), it’s a very large percentage of people. Nearly everybody has some sort of power, and has for generations. Most are small things that are useful but don’t necessarily put one into the “superhero” category. But for others, becoming a superhero is absolutely within their reach, as their quirk is something akin to what you might see in such comics.

Izuku is one of the few kids who never manifests any sort of quirk, which is an even greater kick in the pants when you consider that his lifelong dream is to become a hero. Without a quirk, there’s no way he would be considered for such a job, since being a hero is, in many ways, an actual job in this world. There is absolutely nothing special him whatsoever, except in his refusal to give up on his impossible dream.

Only the dream may not be so impossible after all, when the world’s greatest hero, All Might, reveals to Izuku that his own powers aren’t inherent so much as they were granted, given to him by another, and that Izuku’s heart and bravery have marked him as All Might’s successor. All Might’s gift allows Izuku to properly follow the path he has dreamed of since childhood, and his journey as a hero truly begins.

You can see the quick appeal in the “zero to hero” trope here. It’s one that resonates with a lot of people. Someone without any special talents or training ends up being given a huge gift that changes their lives and sets them on their true path, the path of their dreams. I mean, who among us hasn’t had that fantasy in our minds at some point? And in this early volume of the much larger story that is My Hero Academia, Izuku struggles to deal with the powers that he’s been given. They’re not a quick fix for his life’s problems, they don’t make everything so easily for him. He had to train his body almost to breaking point to even receive them, and one he had them, he had to adjust to gaining so much power so suddenly. Children in this world typically get their quirks as toddlers at the latest, and so growing up with a quirk means that it’s just a natural part of who they are. The whole thing is likened to suddenly having a tail. If you’ve grown up without one, you’re not going to know how to control it or move with it for a while. That’s the situation Izuku finds himself in, as he navigates this new world of hero-training he finds himself now a part of.

Some aspects of the art style don’t really work for me, but that’s not something that really prevents me from getting into the story. Even if I may have outgrown some of the, “I wish I could receive a huge gift that would set my life on track” mindset (only some, mind you), there’s a lot about this story that’s appealing. I want to see how Izuku grows. I want to see what happens beyond basic hero training, dealing with asshole bullies, and so on. I want to see more of the world develop. Given that the series has gone for many volumes at this point, it seems there’s a lot more of the story yet to come, and I’m curious as to how it all plays out. This first volume made me quite curious, and even if superheroes and a lot of typical shounen manga archetypes aren’t really my thing, I’ve got my sights on this story, and I hope I’ll be able to read more of it soon.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)