Review Roundup: Thorn and Mind Games

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Genre: YA Fairy Tale retelling

Synopsis: A retelling of the Goose Girl. Princess Alyrra grows up in a cruel household, until she is sent away to marry a foreign prince. However, an attack from without and betrayal from within robs her of her position, leaving an impostor in her place. Alyrra instead ends up as a goose girl, living a different kind of life. She even finds a degree of contentment. But her old life still has ties to hold her down, and the prince she was supposed to marry desperately needs her help–hers, not the impostor’s–against his enemies.

Series: Standalone.

POV: First person single.

Romance: Kind of, yes.

Preview: Couldn’t find a working link to one, though Amazon should have a preview.

This is pure fairy tale (in the traditional style, not Disney style), told in a compelling and believable way.

I have a soft spot for compassionate protagonists who still have a healthy sense of self-respect. Alyrra takes responsibility seriously and is willing to help people even at her own expense, but she doesn’t want to compromise her own happiness, either. She isn’t a martyr–she wants to be able to do the right thing, but she also wants to live her own life. When these things come into opposition…well, that’s the point of the book.

Throughout the story, Alyrra learns who she is and how to stand up for what she believes.

Some gruesome things do happen in this book (fairy tale, remember?). They illustrate concepts like elitism, justice, and vengeance. Some characters are driven by things that have been done to them, and plenty of characters experience injustice of various sorts. Still, the overarching themes of the book are forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. And it’s nice to still have that.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys fairy tale retellings. This is a really good one.


“The next time you walk around looking like a rainy day, I’m taking you to find another youth to save.”

Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

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Genre: Urban fantasy, with some elements of paranormal romance

Synopsis: Justine is a hypochondriac, and it’s on the verge of ruining her relationship. Through chance, she meets a man named Packard who can help her by teaching her to weaponize her condition and having her join his psychological hit squad. Justine isn’t exactly thrilled at the though of hurting people–even psychopaths, even with the ultimate goal of rehabilitating them–but the potential for a life where she can form connections with people who understand her is a powerful enticement…

Of course, Packard has secrets of his own, and a long standing nemesis with whom he has unresolved business. And Justine is thrown right in the middle of it, trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

Series: First in a trilogy.

POV: First person single.

Romance: Notice, up in genre, where I say that this book has elements of paranormal romance?

Preview: I have no luck today–I can’t find a sample chapter for this book either.

Wow. That was not what I was expecting at all. When I think UF, I think gritty and violent. This book wasn’t at all–it was crafty and hopeful. Most of the action was more of the psychological/manipulative sort, rather than the physical sort. Justine is kickass in an emotional capacity, rather than a physical capacity, and manages to play to her strengths very well. This book is different, and it owns it.

The opening scene is great, by the way, establishing Justine’s character and narrative style. I loved her immediately.

The story can work so well because of her. She’s genuinely concerned with doing the right thing, and expresses doubts about what Packard’s tactics from the onset. However, she desperately wants the acceptance and the peace of mind that she would get from accepting his offer. She wants the friends who would understand her. She wants to be able to say what she’s feeling without being ridiculed.

Those are very human desires, and eventually they win out enough for her to start rationalizing what she’s doing–it’s not that bad, because she sees proof that she’s targeting a bad guy. Or, this is only temporary anyway, and she’ll get out as soon as she’s able. The whole time, she remains understandable and sympathetic. She’s put in some difficult positions, and she makes the best of them while ultimately striving for something better in the long run.

And Justine being a hypochondriac also makes for an interesting narrative, especially since the plot continually delves into how these kind of fears grow and always treats those fears with sympathy.

Also, not a standard plot line in several ways, though going into specifics would be telling.

Great read, great narrative voice, and a very interesting and unusual story.


“If you become frightened, you can throw yourself out of car.”

“Fashion magazine disease articles. My personal kryptonite.”

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Roundup on Diversity and Equality in Sci-fi and Science

Somehow, this turned into an equality roundup.

Here’s an interesting essay that won a Hugo this year: “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative” by Kameron Hurley, at A Dribble of Ink. I like it because it acknowledges that trying not to be prejudiced is hard and ongoing, while buying into the the prejudices around us is easy and the default. As anyone who’s ever tried to take a long hard look at their instilled beliefs will know. We all start off believing the things we’re told, right or wrong. That isn’t anyone’s fault, and we all do it. The important question is, do we ever stop?

Since that story got me clicking links, F— Yeah SciFi/Fantasy WOC also posted a comment by Scott Lynch where he responds to criticism of one of his characters, a “widowed black middle-aged pirate mom,” quite forcefully.

At Scientific American, the post What makes a Good Scientist? What makes a Thug? Reflections on how young men like Mike Brown are perceived by the public went up last month. The same author has another good post from last year, A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good, about obstacles that present themselves early on.

For statistics, here’s the 2013 Digest on diversity in Science and Engineering from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

And of course, there’s the recent paper dealing with Women in the Sciences Report Harassment and Assault that’s causing some buzz, especially when accompanied by a truly horrifying personal account of harassment in field research. (How can these things even still be happening? Why aren’t we way beyond that yet?)

To end on a positive note, there’s the response Bioware writer David Gaider made back in 2011, to a critic complaining about bisexual characters in Dragon Age 2. I have lots of reasons to be a fan of Bioware, but this definitely contributes.

Feel free to point out anything on the topic that stood out to you in the comments, or anything that I might have overlooked.

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Favorite Moments from Legend of Korra: Book 3

Genre: Fantasy/steampunk

Synopsis: Korra is the Avatar, charged with bringing balance into the world, and she just made a huge decision that changed everyone’s reality. Now she and hers have to deal with the consequences of that decision, good and bad, before those consequences deal with them.

Series: Third season.

Watch: Here. (All episodes available temporarily.) 

Is it just me, or are the season finales getting better and better?

Despite Nickelodeon’s best efforts, this show is awesome. This season’s a little slow, but after watching the finale, I can’t bring myself to really complain about anything. I’m just too in awe of where it went. Book 3 was more of an ensemble show, with Korra sharing a lot more of the spotlight and the action. I don’t know how much I can talk about without spoilers, so I won’t even try (and if you’re in danger of being spoiled, you should probably just go watch the show. Every single episode is up on right now, and I don’t know how long it’ll last.)

So without further ado, some of my favorite moments from Book 3, big and small.

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Korra bleakly looks at the prospect of not recovering from this battle: Remember Book 1, when the writers didn’t even know if they were going to get a second season? Because of that, Korra ended up getting over a major hurdle way easier than she should have. Now, the writers know they’re getting a fourth season, so they’re unafraid of leaving Korra in a vulnerable position, where she’s paid a price for winning the day and she’s going to keep paying it into the next season. It’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see where they take her personal journey now.

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Jinora becomes an airbending master: Like almost everyone else, I love Jinora, and this was an incredibly heartwarming moment. For Jinora personally, and also for the way Tenzin declares the new mission of the air nomads. I’m glad Jinora got to shave and tattoo her head like she always wanted.

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Tenzin takes on Zahir and his people: Tenzin’s good. The whole fight was great.

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Zahir and P’Li: All season long, we get to know these two characters a bit, get to know what they’re capable of, and find out about their relationship. And the show waits until the end to show their height difference, and treat it like it doesn’t even matter. Which is perfect, and right, and makes for a nice moment.

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Mako being awkward around his exes: If any good came out of dreaded love triangle of season 1, it’s the stance that it allowed the show to take on friendship. Korra and Asami are great friends, despite having dated the same guy. And they’re both friends with Mako, and make sure to point out to him that he doesn’t have to be so awkward about it.

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Eska and Desna go visit their secret prisoner: Everything about this conversation was hilarious, including Zuko’s contribution. And Eska and Desna’s reaction to finding out they even had a secret prison.

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Meelo the drill sergeant–seriously, the kids are hilarious. (And Jinora just rocks, but the rest of the kids are really entertaining too.)

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Ming-Hua waterbends her arms: Because she doesn’t have any arms, so makes herself some water tentacles.

I can’t list every moment, but all of the characters are just awesome.

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Korra’s been very restrained this season, though she is pushed into breaking loose. Whenever she lets out her inner thug, I’m just like, there she is. That aggressiveness is always somewhere in there, even when she’s subduing it for a more effect strategy.

Lin Beifong and her sister both rock, in different ways. And make sure to get in on the action.

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Bolin is in fine form for comedy, but still always hold his own with the main cast in action scenes.

In short, while I might have complaints about the season, this show in general makes me happy enough that I’m just going to bask in its glory for this moment.

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Anticipation for Fall 2014

Fall 2014 has got a lot going on at the TV stage. I’m going to be trying a lot of things–I anticipate dropping a lot of shows quickly, and keeping a solid few. Some of the shows I intend to watch at least one episode of:

Agents of SHIELD

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Premise: In the first season, our protagonists were one team in a huge organization, until [huge spoiler for season 1 that everyone probably already knows about]. Now SHIELD is in pieces, and it’s up to Coulson and his team to rebuild it (despite their illegal status as an organization).

Genre: Action/Sci-fi/Superhero

My Thoughts: Presumably with all the set-up stuff out of the way in the first season, there’ll be a lot more interesting things going on now. Especially with assorted new SHIELD agents joining the cast, including Lucy Lawless. Whatever happened to Fitz is liable to make for a good story, too. Oh, and Ward’s back.

Chances I’ll Stick with It: Guaranteed


Premise: In this new miniseries from Syfy, a spaceship was launched with 600 people during the Cold War, not to return for a hundred years. There’s a murder, and that’s all I know about the plot.

Genre: Sci-fi/Alternate history

My Thoughts: Syfy’s programming has been getting much better recently, and Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica is in it. That’s pretty much all I know, so I have no idea what to expect.


Premise: Magician John Constantine is an exorcist, who’s going to get up in the dark supernatural drama going down whether he wants to or not.

Genre: Supernatural/Horror

My Thoughts: I’ve been hearing really good things about the Hellblazer comics for a long time now, though I’ve never actually gotten around to reading them. I really do hope this is good, though there’s already been one odd thing–Constantine won’t be portrayed as bisexual, and creator David S. Goyer’s comment on the topic left his stance kind of ambiguous. In the comics, most of his romantic involvements are with women, but he has them with men as well. Hopefully, someone will change their minds at some point and at the very least verbalize it.

Fate/stay night

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Premise: High school student Shirō ends up drafted in the Holy Grail War, a recurring fight-to-the-death between powerful magicians (usually from legacy families) and the spirits of historical/mythological figures. The winner gets a wish. One wish, that could be anything at all.

Genre: Supernatural

My Thoughts: I’m excited for this one (though not nearly as much as I am for Psycho-Pass). Mostly because of the fantastic (if at times horrific) Fate/zero anime, whose story is a prequel to this one (also the work of Gen Urobuchi, though he doesn’t seem to be personally involved in this one).


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Premise: A forensic scientist gets superpowers (speed), and uses them to combat others who also gained powers, but decided to misuse them. Meanwhile, the case of his mother’s murder in his past continues to haunt him.

Genre: Superhero

My Thoughts: It’s genre, I’ll at least try out the premiere. Though who knows, maybe I’ll drop it as fast as I dropped Arrow (which was before the first episode even ended). Or maybe not.

Also, forensic scientist, huh? Am I gonna have more bad science to complain about?


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Premise: This show will follow the early days of Detective James Gordon, and little Bruce Wayne, in addition to addressing origin stories for Batman villains.

Genre: Superhero

My Thoughts: We’ll have to see if the show finds a good balance between storytelling and fanservice. But it is a superhero show, so I’m in for at least the pilot.

How to Get Away with Murder

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Premise: A defense attorney teaching at a law school finds herself and her students involved in a murder.

Genre: Mystery/Drama

My Thoughts: Not my usual genre, and hype (no matter how substantial) by itself is never enough to convince me of anything. But it does feature a non-white female lead, so I’m at least going to try it initially. If I like it, great, but it’s possible it might not be my thing.

Legend of Korra: Book 4

Premise: Avatar Korra is tasked with bringing balance back into the world, and last season, she restored the airbending nation. However, she has also failed to recover from the action of the last season, and the new airbenders have decided to pick up the slack.

Genre: Fantasy/Steampunk

My Thoughts: I haven’t even reviewed Book 3! Korra is always really good, even when it goes in a direction I didn’t see coming. Seriously, the team behind this is amazing.

Chances I’ll Stick with It: Guaranteed


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Premise: Ginko has the ability to see supernatural like creatures that most people can’t, and he spends his time resolving issues relating they create for the people around them.

Genre: Fantasy/Supernatural

My Thoughts: I have needed to start watching this show for a long time, and I’m putting my foot down. I probably won’t be able to watch the earlier seasons in time to prep for this, but whatever, I’ll catch up as I go along.

The Originals

Premise: New Orleans is teetering on the edge of a witch/vampire/werewolf war for control of the city. The presence of the powerful Mikaelson family, the original vampires, complicates things–they’re not exactly a pacifying force, and no one ever really knows what side they’re on. The only thing that matters to the (incredibly messed up) Mikaelsons is family. (Okay, power comes in a close second.)

Genre: Supernatural

My Thoughts: Let’s be honest. A supernatural drama about family, and failing family, and loyalty as a matter of principle rather than genuine belief in a person. About broken people living as best as they can, even when their best really sucks. I’m obviously going to keep watching this, even though I miss Rebekah as the female lead (and Hayley isn’t exactly capable of filling her shoes).

Chances I’ll Stick with It: Good


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Premise: Everyone’s psychological state is constantly monitored, to catch the potential for violence before it happens. Unhealthy psychological profiles are met with therapy, incarceration, or execution depending on the circumstances. Last season, we got to know the world, how it affected people, and what the system really meant. We saw several perspectives on how to handle the situation, short-term and long-term. We saw where the system failed. I have no idea what we’re going to see this season, but it’ll be awesome.

Genre: Dystopia/Seinen

My Thoughts: Psycho-Pass is back! Yes, Gen Urobuchi’s dark cyberpunk dystopia’s second season is on, and I’m going to be watching it in broad daylight with all the curtains open while at least one person or dog is in the house.

Whoa, this puts me in agreement with the majority when it comes to this fall’s most anticipated anime. When does that ever happen? Psycho-Pass wins, though it only places second with men–which is kind of funny given that dystopian cyberpunk isn’t the stereotypical preference for female audiences. (Could it be because the female characters don’t suck?)

Chances I’ll Stick with It: Guarenteed

Sanzoku no Musume Ronja

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Premise: Ronja is the daughter of a bandit leader, and spends her time having adventures in the forest or in a castle.

Genre: Adventure

My Thoughts: It’s Studio Ghibli, oh my god, it’s Studio Ghibli! (For those who’ve been living under a rock, that’s Hayao Miyazaki’s studio, renowned even in the Western world for movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle). Guys, there’s no way I’m not watching this if it’s Studio Ghibli. And look, no princesses.

Chances I’ll Stick with It: Good

Anyone else know what shows they’re planning on giving a chance?

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Terrier, Bloodhound, Mastiff: Tamora Pierce’s Tortall

Eventually, I’m going to get around to all of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books. They’re just so satisfying.

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Genre: YA Fantasy

Synopsis: Beka Cooper comes from a poor family in the Lower City that got lucky–the Lord Provast of the city’s guardsmen took them in. Since then, Beka has been in training to be a guardswoman, or Dog.

Terrier follows Beka as she first becomes a Puppy, or a Dog in training. There are two serial killers in the Lower City, and Beka cares very much about stopping them. Luckily for her, her informants are capable of bringing in special information to help bring them in. That is, if Beka survives her first year patrolling the streets of the dangerous Lower City.

Bloodhound follows Beka as a new Dog, on a hunt for counterfeiters. The counterfeiters are threatening to collapse the country’s economy, so much bad money are they dumping into the market.

In Mastiff, Beka goes on the most important Hunt of her life. A kidnapped child of no small importance must be found, and very powerful enemies want to prevent that from happening. Beka, her team, and her scent hound will track the scent over the country until they find the kid is found, or until they’re all killed in the attempt.

Series: Three books, each following a standalone plot at different points of Beka’s life.

POV: First person, journal-style.

Romance: The novels cover sweeping sections of Beka’s life, and so sometimes she’ll be in relationships. But the emphasis of each book is very much the current Hunt that Beka’s on.

Preview: Here.

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These are great. They follow Beka as she investigates, as she patrols the city keeping order, and in her personal life. Each of the investigations is very different, too.

Terrier has Beka in her local district, where she knows how things work, but against big and secretive enemies. In Bloodhound, Beka is more out of her element, having to follow the leads for the counterfeiting enterprise. She even needs to do some undercover work and playacting, things that make her uncomfortable. Mastiff has Beka on a tracking mission, where she needs to find a child being trucked about the country, and play nice with nobles trying to get top secret information out of her, or hinder her investigation. (Playing nice with nobles is hard when you’re a commoner and they have all the power. You can’t even investigate them properly.)

The plots themselves are a lot of fun, and I love the supporting characters. Beka’s training dogs, Goodwin and Tunstall, are good at their jobs in different ways, balancing each other. Beka’s breakfast friends are a steadfast group with great chemistry, even as they avoid certain topics of conversation so as not to upset each other. Sabine, the lady-knight who doesn’t mind slumming around in the Lower City and doesn’t care much for rank, is a good addition to the eclectic cast. Pounce, Achoo, and Slapper–the animal companions of the story–are compelling in completely different ways.

Beka herself, I loved. She takes her job very seriously. She’s shy in company, and it takes her a while to connect with people. But when she’s working, she’s much more able to interact with people to get the job done. She doesn’t generally seek people out but ends up with a nice core group of people around her anyway.

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Compared to other Tamora Pierce heroines, she’s almost as good as Keladry from the Protector of the Small quartet. Alanna from Song of the Lioness, who started it all, is more temperamental. She’s a good character, but of the three Pierce heroines I’ve read about, has to be my least favorite just because the other two are so good and so much more personally compelling, for me.

Keladry is my ideal person. She stands up for people who need it, without taking rank into account. She knows who she is, and her biggest problem is other people refusing to accept that. She doesn’t have the same kind of turmoil about her gender as Alanna has (though that turmoil is understandable and realistic)–she even takes to wearing a dress on her off-time during squire training, so that her guy classmates wouldn’t forget that she was a girl and unashamed of it. She amasses a group around her by being loyal, brave, caring. And she doesn’t have much of a temper.

Beka is very relatable to me. Her introversion, her adherence to the rules. I love how much she cares about what she’s doing. And how much she loves doing it.

Another nice thing that crops up constantly in Tamora Pierce books is the idea that the protagonist, usually starting out young and ending still fairly young by the end of the series, isn’t necessarily going to end up with her first boyfriend. Relationships end. Some people might have passionate romances that may or may not end. Some might have steady relationships. Some might not even end up in relationships at all. Others might take a while to find someone who works for them. It’s different for all of these girls.

I’m writing about all three books in the Legend of Beka Cooper series all in one post, because I couldn’t stop reading in between books long enough to write a review. This is always the case with Tamora Pierce books. I can never stop reading until I’ve finished the series. All of the books I’ve read by her so far have been fantastic.

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Science in Media: Multiple PhDs

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In Agents of SHIELD, Coulson informs us that Simmons has two PhDs in fields he can’t even pronounce. In another example, Tess from Eureka has three PhDs (why would anyone do that to themselves?) I’m sure there are more.

For some reason, there’s this ideas that the more PhDs you have, the smarter you must be.

Um, no.

You don’t need multiple PhDs unless you’re doing a radical career change. It’s like getting a bachelors degree, then going back to school for another four years to get a second one.

You don’t hit a ceiling when you get a PhD. PhD students are not at the top of the hierarchy. When you get your degree, you’re ready to move on to the next step in your natural career progression, which is to become a postdoc.

If you chose to go back and do another PhD, that’s a career change. For one, you would never get a PhD in, for instance, molecular biology then go back and do another one in chemistry. You would do a PhD in either molecular biology or chemistry, and incorporate both interests into your project. It doesn’t matter what the name of your specific PhD is–it matters what you’ve been working on, while you attained the PhD.

Furthermore, if you don’t become a postdoc in, say, chemistry, and instead go work on an astronomy degree, you’re leaving chemistry for astronomy.

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Now, if you wanted to study the chemistry of meteorites, or something, you might get a degree in one or the other and find a lab interested in astrochemistry. Or, you could find a lab that is interested in pursuing your project, but has no previous experience with astrochemistry, and set up a collaboration between labs where the two labs can each fill gaps in each others’ knowledge.

The point is, a PhD program is there to teach you how to do research. Once you learn how to do that, you don’t need to go back and be a graduate student again (and if you do, you probably shouldn’t have graduated in the first place).

Multiple PhDs is for drastic career changes, when you can’t get the job you want with what you’ve studied. Otherwise, you get a job, and maybe even make strides towards having your own lab one day.

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Outlander, and Claire’s Surprisingly Good Balance of Competence and Vulnerability

Genre: Historical/Drama/Romance (based on a novel I haven’t read, but is reputedly very good)

Synopsis: A WWII nurse gets mysteriously transported to 18th century Scotland.

Series: 1 season of 8 episodes; there will be a season 2

I’ve Watched: The first 4 episodes.

Verdict: Enjoyable

I’m really warming up to this show, fast. Instead of using the girl-out-of-her-element trope to make Claire helpless (as I usually see it used), this show is using it to make her competent. Claire is unusually well-prepared for spontaneous time travel, and it’s actually quite lucky that she in particular is sent to this time period. (I mean, let’s be honest–most of us would be doomed.)

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The war created the type of environment that allowed Claire to develop medical skills in the field as a nurse, which would come in useful in any time period in the past. The biggest problem is the lack of equipment and materials, but being a combat nurse probably helps her there. And even better, Claire recently acquired the convenient  hobby of botany, extending to plants local to Scotland. Which is nice, given that she also studied up on what medicinal uses the plants have.

Claire’s husband was a historian, most recently interested in 18th century Scotland, which is exactly where his wife ends up. In addition to that, he had his own experiences in WWII including work in an intelligence agency. And fortunately, Claire appears to be a very good listener.

I’m totally okay with all these coincidences, because though Claire is an outsider, these things mitigate some of her disadvantages and even give her unique strengths that no one else in this time period could possibly have. And guess what? I like it when my protagonists aren’t completely hapless. She’s scared and she makes mistakes, yes, but she pulls through on her own merits, instead of by hiding behind someone else.

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Another nice thing is that a main protagonist has a disability, that in no way stops him from being the lord (Laird) of the castle with the loyalty of his subjects. And he’s completely unashamed of it.

I’m hearing Outlander lauded as a feminist Game of Thrones, and personally, I wouldn’t have thought to compare the two on my own. Other than the fact that they both require costumes, they’re very different shows. One’s an epic fantasy and the other’s a historical (not to mention that they’re based on different time periods and cultures). Outlander is also slower paced, and more anchored to one location with a smaller number of characters. The shows definetly have different feels to them.

That said, I do understand that with the weird way HBO’s staging some scenes and adding in others not in the book, there’s a need for something that doesn’t fetishize abuse.

I’m finding Outlander has a unique charm, due to its environment and characters. The tighter focus lets it do some subtle character work, and that allows the characters to feel deeper. There’s something broiling beneath the surface of most of the protagonists, that isn’t as simple as an archetype.

Normally, by this point in the story, I’m wanting more things to actually happen, but for some reason, in this show, it works. Claire is failing to get home and becoming more integrated into this new life. She’s failing to accomplish her goal because the point of the plot is to lock her in, instead of to break her out. The slow pace could have been dangerous, if the show didn’t have so much personality.

The point is, this show requires skillful execution to work, and it’s getting it. My earlier reservations appear to be unfounded. I’m definitely going to keep watching Outlander.

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Favorite quotes:

“This is backwards. I should be the one leaving for the front lines.”
“Welcome to the 20th century.”

“I’m free. Can do whatever I please.”

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