The Killing Moon: Fantasy Grounded in Humanity’s Flaws, Wisdom, and Vision

Borrowed from nkjemisin.com

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Gatherers are priests who harness the power of dreams for healing and peaceful death of souls judged corrupt. They are never to use this power for selfish ends. After a tragic mishap in enacting his duty, Gather Ehiru no longer feels worthy, and can’t find the peace in his soul that he needs to carry out his tasks. But he will need to pull himself together in any way he can, when it turns out his priesthood is being used…and is partially corrupt. All things anathema to the worship of his goddess.

Series: First book, can stand alone.

POV: Third person multiple, told mostly from the perspectives of three characters: Ehiru, Nijiri, and Sunandi.

Romance: None.

Preview: Sample chapter. 

Works like this are the reason I read fantasy. This book is poignant, amazing, and reflective of the human experience.

Ehiru is a veteran at harvesting people’s deaths, and believes in the goodness of his duty with the kind of fanaticism expected of people whose perspectives have never been challenged. Even as his life starts falling apart at the seams, he doubts himself long before it ever occurs to him to doubt his assumptions.

And yet, he and his order have created this awesome blend of their expectations and wisdom–so while Ehiru is not entirely right, he isn’t entirely wrong, either. He and his brothers say a lot of intelligent things–things to do with consideration, choices, and putting the needs of others first. But Ehiru also has some odd, narrow expectations. His character journey is paramount to the resolution of the book’s conflict. So much depends on him, and so much depends on who he becomes.

Nijiri is Ehiru’s apprentice. We first meet him as a prideful, somewhat angry young man with a deep admiration for Ehiru. He’s supposed to be learning, but his mentor is not at his best, and deteriorating every day. This puts Nijiri in an odd place, where he needs to step up in situations he isn’t ready for, intellectually or emotionally.

Sunandi is a foreign ambassador, replacing a recently deceased predecessor. She stumbles upon the secrets her mentor died for, and crosses paths with Ehiru and Nijiri–members of an order she and her people consider obscene. But as much as she hates what they do and how they imagine themselves doing a good thing, she’s forced to associate with them nonetheless. To uncover the truths that others have died for, and to keep many more from following after.

There’s a lot of maturity in this book. It touches on how we can fail other people by keeping our suffering to ourselves, even if we think we’re being strong by doing so. How something that can seem so obvious and so right for one person, can be completely different and wrong for another. How good intentions combined with ruthlessness doesn’t necessarily make pragmatism, but rather something closer to tyranny. And there are these nice subtle touches throughout the story that are just so real.

The villain is interesting, especially as certain aspects of his character could easily have been a set-up for an anti-hero in another type of story. I spent the entirety of the book trying to figure out just who he was. His goals, motivations, and personality are unveiled sequentially, so that we don’t get the full picture right away.

He’s a visionary, a tyrant, a revolutionary, and a sociopath all rolled up into one package. And it makes sense.

The things he does are pretty horrific, and yet he always has a purpose for why he does them. There’s always a problem he’s solving with his actions. It’s just a terrible way to solve that problem. Actually, it might literally be the worst way.

This illustrates why the ends don’t necessarily justify the means. It’s something that comes up a lot in media, but rarely goes further than the sentiment. Here, our villain wants to change things, fix real problems he sees in the fabric of his society. Forcibly. Over the dead bodies of his enemies and even some of his allies. The type of person he has be to do the things he does…well, if he dealt with his problems differently to start with, if he was a different kind of person, he might have been a hero instead of the villain.

This book is fantastic. I love seeing the characters not just from their own perspectives, but from each others’–the differences between those views were cool. Ehiru’s personal journey was cool. And I was so busy being amazed by this awesome book–which stands amongst fantasy’s best when judged by any criteria–that I almost forgot to mention that it is another fantastic entry in the sadly too-small pool of non-Europeanesque fantasy. It’s based on ancient Egypt.

In that vein, the setting is imaginative and explores different boundaries than are typical of the genre. The philosophy behind the Gatherer’s mentality, the use of dream magic and its addictive properties, the historical interplay between the two countries in which the story is set. There’s plenty to praise in this book.

Favorite Quotes:

A Gatherer does not seek help, he had told himself at the time–and so he had not, thinking himself stronger for handling the matter on his own. Thinking of himself, when he should have held his fellow acolytes’ peace foremost in his mind. Of course Omin would do evil again; Omin was corrupt. Better to have brought the matter to the Superior and Gatherers, and damn his pride… Any action was better than complacency while corruption festered and grew.

“We are not meant to scrabble over scraps of power, pulling one another down like crabs in a barrel.”

“Suffering is part of life,” she said. “All the parts of life are jumbled up together; you can’t separate out just the one thing.”

True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict.

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Outlander, and the Unfortunate Misstep Concluding the First Half of Season One

Genre: Historical/Drama/Romance

Synopsis: Claire, a WWII nurse, gets mysteriously transported to 18th century Scotland. And thus ends up in the middle of the conflict between the Scots and the English–which is awkward as she’s an Englishwoman who ends up becoming an unwilling houseguest to a Scottish clan.

Series: First half of first season is out, second half airing in April, second season to come.

Borrowed from venturebeat.com

I’ve Watched: Episodes 1-8

Verdict: Episodes 5-7 = Good, Episode 8 = WTF

First, let’s talk about episodes 5-7, which I wrote about prior to watching 8:

The show is definitely filling a need, and it is good. But it’s also really making me crave an epic fantasy TV series that also takes a more frank and less exploitative look at the more personal factors. (Why HBO, why?) Outlander isn’t quite my preferred kind of show, but it’s so well done, that it doesn’t much matter.

Borrowed from intimesgoneby.files.wordpress.com

The writers can have their characters sit around a table for an entire episode (and do), and still make it fascinating because of the tension and interplay between them, and the threat of what is going to happen. When our bad guy, Randall, is brought into a scene, there are these dramatic pauses where we’re holding our breath waiting to see what he’s going to do. He’s brutal, but there’s this sense of deliberateness behind this. He’s in control of himself, even when he wants to appear like he’s out of control. So when he takes those moments to wait before acting, there’s no way of telling what he’s decided to do. The threat of what he might do is almost worse than what he does do (from the safety of my screen, anyway–I’m sure Claire and Jaime feel differently).

I feel bad for poor Claire, out voyaging with the men. She seems very isolated in her current circumstances. Even when she connects with people, only Jaime really seems to regard her even remotely as an equal. It’s kinda sad, but it’s also a really nice touch. Of course, she’s isolated. She’s completely displaced from her time. And I like that we get to see that vulnerability, instead of having it glossed over.

Borrowed from ibtimes.com

The marriage episode was very interesting. I’m impressed with how Claire’s wedding to Jaime–the romantic male lead–is contrasted to her wedding with Frank, whom Claire was forced to leave via accidental time travel. Her wedding to Jaime is definitely the worse of the two–for one, she was drunk the whole time. For another, marrying Jaime was about the ceremony, while marrying Frank was very personal for the both of them. They didn’t even have a ceremony, and it was really sweet. So this is a bold move, having things be decidedly not perfect for the marriage the audience is supposed to be cheering for. And having things be perfect for the marriage Claire lost. It’s awesome.

Poor Jaime is way more head over heels for Claire than she is for him at this point. She’s still mourning the loss of the husband that’s lost to her. And he’s actually dealing pretty well with having an arranged marriage with a woman he’s completely taken with, who isn’t actually there herself. And who is not comfortable with the fact that she’s required to consummate this marriage that they’ve both been pressured into. The episode does a good job of illustrating consent, actually–you wouldn’t think so, due to the very dubious circumstances, but it does.

Borrowed from hypable.com

And as for really bold moments, Claire and Jaime’s first time isn’t that good. It’s awkward. That’s right, the romantic couple in a romance getting together for the first time is awkward. Jaime’s inexperienced, and the show isn’t covering it up–it’s actually shoving it in our faces. And it’s awesome, because despite what we’ve been taught to think, this really doesn’t detract from anything. He learns, things get better, and Jaime isn’t in the least diminished by any of it. And he’s not diminished by not diminishing Claire.

In terms of dumb protagonist moments, I have to highlight Claire’s sympathizing with the Scots over dinner with the English officers who are occupying the area. Claire really needs to stop drinking wine. She says something stupid pretty much every time she does it. There are times you don’t speak your mind (generally when speaking your mind is liable to get you killed and therefore render you ineffective in terms of actually being able to do anything). This is the kind of mistake that requires bravery to commit, but less so intelligence. Which means Claire should have realized (being a relatively intelligent person) that this was the time to keep quiet. It wouldn’t do anything other than get her in trouble–potentially a lot of it–and render her untrustworthy to yet another group of people.

Now episode 8. The lackluster episode of the season.

Borrowed from ibtimes.com

The main problem in this episode is the last scene–essentially everything with Claire and Randall. One problem (the smaller one) is that Randall loses a lot of that tension that made his other scenes so intense. The other (the huge one) is the second sexual assault Claire experiences this episode. The staging of the scene is almost Game of Thrones gratuitous when it comes to sexual violence–in contrast to the earlier assault which focuses entirely on Claire and her reactions and experiences, in a way that was much more humane.

Seriously, there’s a huge difference between staging the scene from Claire’s perspective and then showing her face the aftermath (her repeating, “I’m in shock, this is shock” was very powerful), and ignoring Claire’s perspective, then focusing the camera on Claire’s body and the men’s facial expressions. I just…what? How is it possible to frame essentially the same kind of situation in both a way that expresses understanding and sympathy and one that doesn’t in the same episode?

Personally, I would have been perfectly happy without either scene, but that’s a me thing. However, the last scene does not belong in this show.

Borrowed from wikia.nocookie.net

One thing I did really love about that episode was Jaime’s friend, Munroe, who had his tongue cut out by the English. He still managed to communicate fluently with Jaime through a mixture of lip reading and signing–though the show did illustrate the little bit of extra effort that went into using proper nouns, Not a lot of extra effort, and both Jaime and Munroe treated it as par for the course. This is cool because Outlander isn’t erasing disabilities from history (no matter the difficulty we might have discerning how disabilities were treated from historical records, of course they existed), but it’s also treating characters with disabilities like people who can still have lives.

As for Frank and the police, trying to figure out how Claire managed to vanish in thin air…it wasn’t an interesting storyline. And it wasn’t the most believable for me, either. There are plenty of other reasons why someone might go missing without a trace other than running off with another man. Even if the case is determined to be unsolvable, it makes no sense to conclude she must have disappeared without informing any relatives or friends. The scene where Claire is trying to get back to Frank, and they’re both at Craigh na Dun is good, but the rest of the story isn’t so interesting.

Favorite Quotes:

Claire: Well, doesn’t it bother you that I’m not a virgin?
Jaime: No. As long as it doesn’t bother you that, I am. I reckon one of us should know what we’re doing.
(–and after they tricked us into thinking the opposite, too. I don’t know if the Starz team or Diana Gabaldon is responsible for that one, but it was crafty either way.)

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Ascension: It’s Awkward

Short post this week, and probably next week–I’ve got a big presentation coming up, and am concentrating on finishing up some experiments for that.

Borrowed from forbes.com

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: Due to fears that the Cold War could degenerate into a devastating conflict, the US launched a secret space mission in 1963, with volunteers sent up to space for a hundred years aboard the USS Ascension. Present day, the current generation is halfway into their journey, looking to spend the next 50 years (or the rest of their life) in space. Until a murder occurs–and having a killer aboard a closed, inescapable ship poses a huge threat.

Series: 6 episodes.

I’ve Watched: Episode 1.

Verdict: Awkward.

Borrowed from dmcdn.net

Syfy is back in the sci-fi game and the results are…well, I wasn’t expecting them to equal Battlestar Galactica, or anything. And that’s good, because they didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the general outline of the story, but once we get to the actual details–dialogue, characterization, progression of logic–there’s just no life in it.

The show starts with a woman taking off her clothes. This is followed by an awkward romantic set-up, in a thankfully short scene. And then there’s forced kissing, all within the first ten minutes.

Then the plot goes to Earth. Harris is the son of the man responsible for the program, and his father is now in a mental hospital. We get awkward exposition of the Ascension’s backstory through Harris and a phd researcher who gets into the hospital (somehow) to try to see his dad. Seriously, their interaction goes from hostile to cordial out of nowhere. The actual content is fine, but the dialogue and staging just can’t sell the scene.

Back on the spaceship, a body is found. XO Aaron Gault walks in and hears the medical professional declare it was an accident. Despite having no experience with these kinds of things whatsoever, he posits that it’s likely murder. And is promptly assigned to the case. Yep. Awkward.

Then Aaron tries to question the family of the deceased, in a clunky scene which pretty much only succeeds in demonstrating his incompetence. Followed by a scene with a medical professional who tells him about the victim’s psychological evaluations–a conversation clearly meant to bring up more exposition, that both characters already knew about yet for some reason discussed anyway. As You Knows tend to be awkward, practically by definition.

I could go on, but to be honest, nearly every scene is awkward. It never quite makes sense that it’s happening the way it’s happening. It always seems a little too staged, not organic enough. It’s not so much that the ideas for the scenes themselves are a problem, it’s the execution. It’s the details that don’t quite fall in place.

There are some genuinely interesting plot points here, but the way those ideas are presented is lackluster. The characters are lackluster. So it’s a shame, because there are some intriguing concepts–and if the presentation wasn’t constantly breaking immersion or if I cared about the characters, I’d really want to know how they play out.

So far, Syfy’s attempt to go back to serious shows–whatever their definition of that might be–isn’t working for me. Neither Ascension or 12 Monkeys is impressing me, and a good chunk of that is a lack of expertise. The scientists in 12 Monkeys don’t even know their own fields, and the investigator in Ascension has no idea what he’s doing. The latter situation is better than the former, but the way it’s played out on screen makes it not work.

Let’s hope the next space-operas and “serious” shows Syfy puts out are executed better.

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Teen Wolf: From Awful to Pretty Good in Four Seasons

Borrowed from wallwidehd.com

Genre: Supernatural

Synopsis:

S1: Normal teenager Scott gets turned into a werewolf, and has to learn about what he is while trying to figure out who turned him into a wolf in the first place, and why.

S2: Things come to a head as the fanatical head of a werewolf hunting family–also the grandfather of Scott’s girlfriend–arrives in town with a vendetta.

S3A: A pack of Alphas comes to town with the intent of recruiting the new Alpha from Scott’s pack–by getting that Alpha to kill his own people. If that weren’t enough, innocent people are turning up dead, and Scott’s pack has to figure out how this is related to the Alpha pack.

S3B: The steps Scott’s pack took to win the day in S3A come back to haunt them. They’ve awakened something dark and powerful, something that feeds on chaos and pain. And now they have to figure out how to stop it, without harming the innocent person whose body it possesses.

S4: An old enemy makes a return, and Scott’s pack realizes all the supernaturals in town are on a hit list.

Series: Four seasons, fifth forthcoming.

I’ve Watched: All of it. Somehow.

Verdict: S1 – Bad. S2 – Meh. S3A – Decent. S3B – Good. S4 – Good.

I remember hearing about this show when it first came out, and deciding that it wasn’t worth checking out. It wasn’t my thing, and had a decent chance of just not being that good. That was a good decision, because if I had tried to watch the show when it was first coming out, I would never have gotten past the first episode.

Fast forward four years, and I came across several posts at Kiss My Wonder Woman about the show: The Inescapable Goodness of Teen Wolf’s Scott McCall, Strong Female Character Friday: Malia Tate (Teen Wolf), Strong Female Character Friday: Melissa McCall (Teen Wolf). And a bunch of other posts from before I discovered the blog.

Then recently, I came across Teen Wolf: Subversion, Masculinity and Gender.

Granted, I only skimmed these posts, because I hadn’t watched the show they were talking about. And going back at these posts to actually read them, they were not as positive as I remembered–I guess I missed the criticism while skimming. But still, I got to wondering. What is this strange utopia of equality on television that I’m hearing about?

That impression definitely set my standards too high. The show does do better than average in terms of diversity. As much as that deserves to be recognized, however, I don’t exactly believe in settling when it comes to equality. So let me point out some of the things I liked and didn’t like on this topic. There’s more where this came from, but here’s what I can think of off the top of my head.

Borrowed from roryroselyn.com

Diversity, the good:

  • Scott is our main protagonist. He’s mixed race, with a (presumably) hispanic mother and a white father–notably, his mother is the responsible one, raising Scott on her own, and his father is the deadbeat former-drunk who isn’t around. Scott himself is interesting as the lead because of how strongly he believes in being a good person. He takes it on himself to protect the people in his life without becoming a killer. The show even makes a point of saying that he’s one of the rare few werewolves who gain power through their own merits instead of by taking it from someone else.
  • Speaking of Scott’s mother, she’s awesome. She’s a nurse at a hospital, competent at her job. She’s also a poor, single mother raising a good kid who’s suddenly got all of these problems, out of nowhere. Despite all that, she remains grounded and compassionate. She’s easily one of the best things about the first season, and I like her even more when she’s finally let in on Scott’s new supernatural status.
  • Scott’s mentor figure (the one who isn’t Derek, because Derek sucks at being a mentor) is a) black, b) really nice and cool, and c) still alive.
  • Danny is the best friend of our resident jock, Jackson–Scott’s rival. He’s gay, and it’s really not treated like a big deal. Also cool is that Danny is not Jackson’s lackey. When Jackson gets too wrapped up in his rivalry with Scott, Danny flat-out tells him to get over it.
  • The cast is pretty evenly split gender-wise–in season four, it’s finally 50/50. I’m very happy to see both a socially savvy yet also intellectually brilliant female character, and an adorkable female character in the show. Actually, I’m pretty happy with the range of characterization in general. Allison, Kira, and Malia all get to contribute to the action, and their skills sets and talents are all different.
  • It’s also good to see an Asian female lead who’s portrayed as competent, awkward, expressive, and desirable, all in one.
  • There is both a male and female non-action character among the cast, whose main contributions are planning and ingenuity. And these non-action roles are just as integral and useful as the action roles.

Diversity, the not-so-good:

  • Scott was originally asthmatic, a condition absolutely cured by his transition to werewolf-dom. Unfortunately, this means his becoming strong, capable, and efficient is mirrored by him losing his asthma. That’s…a bit of an awkward connotation.
  • Likewise, Erica, a girl who had epilepsy, becomes a werewolf (which immensely reduces her symptoms). And immediately turns into a sensual and sexy person. Like, overnight. Most of this is accomplished by her changing her clothes, makeup, and personality–all things that have absolutely nothing to do with her condition. If she had the skills and resources to dress up and wear make-up, she could have used them before. She could have been both epileptic and pretty, and her peers probably would have been just as awful to her because she was different. I imagine the show wanted to use her appearance as a substitute for showing the changes that losing her epilepsy would have on her life, but it’s a bad substitute. Because Erica is only shown as confident or desirable or interesting after she doesn’t have epilepsy anymore.
  • The women of the werewolf-hunting Argent family are its leaders, because of the entirely nonsensical idea that all the previous wars in the world had been caused by men. I could probably write an essay on how bad this logic is. For one, since most of history is written for men and by men, it’s impossible to gauge women’s contribution or lack thereof to these kinds of things. And even if it wasn’t, this in absolutely no way proves that any one gender is better at decision-making than the other. But I’ll just stick with this: By now, we’ve all learned to at least pretend to see people based on their individual merits instead of their demographics. The Argents aren’t even pretending. Also, the Argent’s ‘women are the leaders’ rhetoric is all talk anyway. It doesn’t see much actual practice.
  • After Erica kisses Derek, he tells her not to do that again because he has someone else in mind for her. What? Ew, that’s disgusting. She’s a teenage girl, Derek. You don’t give her to guys like she’s candy.
  • The sheer unadulterated focus on ‘getting the girl’ in the first season really creeps me out. No surprise that I like both characters way more when they’re not together.
  • While Danny himself is a great character, having him be a supporting character to a secondary character means he’s a small part of the show. And as soon as he leaves, a new gay supporting character to a secondary character is introduced, seemingly to replace him. That smacks of tokenism. Tokenism is a step up from no diversity, but it would be better if it didn’t feel like the show was checking off a box.
  • Of a certain trio, the last remaining survivor is the white guy. He’s also the one who got the best story lines and character development–and I really do like him, but the show could have put in the work to make me like the other characters, too. It chose not to.
  • The Alpha pack of season 3 had one token woman and one token non-white member (the same character, incidentally).

If there’s anything I got wrong or missed, please feel free to let me know in the comments.

As for Scott’s no-killing policy, I’m of two minds here. There are times when Scott being unwilling to take out one person has led to more subsequent deaths. Yet, there is something to what the show is saying. Killing someone, and maybe even just allowing someone to die, changes you. In-show, there’s a physical representation for this–a werewolf’s eye glow color changes to a bright blue if they take the life of an innocent. Would Scott be the same person, or the same leader, if he didn’t make every effort to keep everyone alive? I don’t know. And being who he is has lead to more good than anything else. As he is, he protects others, respects others, and does it as if it’s the only thing to do.

With respect to the quality of the show overall, it gets progressively better with each season (from pretty bad to really good).

Borrowed from homecinemachoice.com

Season one was not good. There were a couple of cool moments here and there. But honestly, without those good reviews, without me going into the show searching for something to like, I wouldn’t have made it past the first few episodes. I certainly never would have finished the first season. There is just way too much teen drama and artificial focus on romance. The stakes for one episode was a lacrosse game. Seriously, there were a lot of life-or-death problems around, and yet much of the tension was derived from things that didn’t matter as much. Will Scott get to date this girl he’s just met, or will he have to focus on controlling his wolf? Will Scott be able to play at this lacrosse game to finally show his classmates what he can do, or will he be benched for the whole season? Who cares?

Every time Scott said his girlfriend’s name in that breathless way, I wanted to scream. Everything was about her for him. Thinking about her–even though he’d just met her–helped him control his werewolf powers. He never lost control and attacked her the way he did to his best friend. I refuse to believe that attraction to a girl you’ve just met wins out over a lifetime of friendship. It was details like that really frustrated me, along with the predictably boring mental gymnastics Scott and Stiles had to do to explain supernatural occurrences to those unaware of them. It probably isn’t entirely a coincidence that I enjoy the show more as more people find out about the supernatural.

It is possible to have teenagers in a supernatural show want normal teenager things and not suck. But that can’t be the main source of tension in an episode. I don’t watch fantasy/sci-fi to find out if a teenage werewolf makes it on a sports team or gets a date. I want the stakes to be higher–and in later seasons, they are. The forth season even revisits the idea of regular stuff being important when you’ve got other life and death things to worry about, but Scott has a little more perspective at that point. When he gets too into his status as captain of the lacrosse team and hurts someone, he takes a moment to question his priorities.

Borrowed from tumblr.com

Season two was better, but still very frustrating. I could tell that there was a good show hiding somewhere within the plot and characters, but it wasn’t revealing itself very frequently.

I liked the idea that Allison’s grandfather was emotionally manipulating her to become a brutal werewolf hunter, using the death of her mother to push her over the edge. But I didn’t like the execution. He was too unsubtle about it, and I had a hard time believing anyone would buy it. Since when do teenagers like it when people tell them what to think?

I didn’t like the resolution, either. Making Gerard reveal that he was after something all along–something that betrayed everything he stood for and everything he’d taught Allison–was a cop out. It was a way to avoid dealing with the actual arguments that he had been making by discrediting him instead. And Allison had been believing those arguments. They weren’t magically invalidated when it turned out Gerard was willing to overlook them for his own reasons.

Borrowed from wegotthiscovered.com

By season three, the show is a lot better. Especially the second half of it. It’s not perfect, but it’s evolved to the point where it’s a good show with hiccups instead of a bad show with good moments.

In both parts of the season (each of which could be considered their own season), the villains were more engaging. A pack of alphas trying to forcibly recruit one of the protagonists, by manipulating him into a position where he would kill his own pack. And a demonic trickster spirit possessing a character we care about. The stakes were higher–no more of, will Scott get to go on a date? Instead we wonder, who’s responsible for these mystery killings? Which of the characters will survive? And this time we know that many of the secondary characters are genuinely at risk.

Teen Wolf has stopped leaning quite so much shallow questions, while retaining at its core the concept that people matter. Scott and his pack are about protecting people, and about looking out for each other. They’re not about killing. And now they’re up against these strong, brutal enemies with a totally different worldview. And they have to take on these people while remaining true to themselves and each other.

It took a long time to get to the point where I like the show (and I’m fervently trying to forget the first two seasons exist), but it got there. So even though I would never have made it past the first episode if I were watching the show when it was new, I’m glad I got here. But I can’t really recommend the first two seasons. Personally, I wish I had just started with the third season and skipped the first two.

So if you want a decent show with better than average diversity, maybe consider skipping straight to the third season.

Favorite Quotes:

“Sometimes history does repeat itself, Scott.”
“Only if you don’t learn.”

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The Young Elites: Delving into the Darkness

Borrowed from blogspot.com

Genre: Young adult fantasy

Synopsis: Ten years ago, a plague decimated the land. Most of the plague survivors were children, and many of those were scarred afterwards. Of the scarred survivors, some developed powers. The crown views this as an abomination, and has authorized the Inquisition Axis to hunt these people down.

Adelina has long known that she had been scarred by her illness, and that it changed her life. But she did not know that she was one of the powered. When her abilities manifest, she is caught between the Dagger Society–a group of powered teenagers with their own agenda–and the Inquisition Axis, who think of her existence as an abomination.

Series: First book. Can stand alone.

POV: First person

Romance: Depends on your definition of romance.

Preview: Here. Don’t read the author’s quote if you don’t want to know what the story’s going for ahead of time.

Um, wow. The story here is about our protagonist plunging into darkness, and finding out who she is when she emerges on the other side.

Adelina has a lot of ugly thoughts, though she’s unusually perceptive about the ugliness of her own feelings–I imagine it’s more common for people to rationalize away that kind of thing. It’s unfortunate that the people around her continually push her into tapping into her negativity. They want her to access her hatred and anger, to tap into the power that it evokes. And she does, and the results have…consequences.

I loved how Adelina was not a typical recruit. It’s pretty hilarious, in a genre where joining an organization of powerful youths is not uncommon, to see one of the recruiters learning about his charge react like, ‘uh, maybe I should be backing away slowly…’ Not that most of the other characters in the book are functional or anything. So at least Adelina’s in good company.

Also refreshing, is that Adelina is scarred, which we don’t see too often with female protagonists.

The other characters were really cool, and often not who I expected them to be. But there’s not a lot I can say without going into spoiler territory. Because only towards the end did I even realize that this entire story is not the story I thought it was. I won’t go into detail on anything (though it doesn’t seem to be much of a secret–it’s in the article I linked to that excerpts the first chapter above), but it’s really cool.

I recommend it anyone who isn’t too attached to overly happy endings.

The setting is inspired by Renaissance Italy. The gondolas clue us in early, suggestive of Venice. Additionally, a horse race occurs which is obviously based on the palio, a tournament which happens across Italy–though I’m fairly certain not in Venice. (Where would Venice fit a horse race?) They have piazzas, which is the word much of Italy uses to refer to squares. I could go on. This is just really cool for me, as someone who’d lived four months in Italy and studied history during that time.

So I’m quite happy.

Favorite Quotes:

Be true to yourself, Violetta once told me when I was trying in vain to win father over. But that’s something everyone says and no one means. No one wants you to be yourself. They want you to be the version of yourself that they like.

“It is pointless to believe what you see, if you only see what you believe.”

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Science in Media (or lack thereof): 12 Monkeys

Borrowed from timeinc.net

Confession. I only managed to force myself to watch the first half of the first episode of 12 Monkeys–which sucks, because I was really looking forward to two STEM female characters in a show (given how I kinda relate to that). I can’t even tell whether 12 Monkeys is good or not, because it keeps shattering my suspension of disbelief.

Within the first five minutes of the show, scientist co-protagonist Cassandra is giving a lecture, and this comes out of her mouth: “I know this is a controversial thing to say in front of a room full of doctors, but…we’re not God.”

Wow. So many reactions running through my head simultaneously.

1. Why on earth would that be a controversial thing to say in front of a roomful of doctors?
2. Yes, because there’s nothing like not being able to help a patient to make you feel like God.
3. Does the show actually understand the difference between a doctor and a scientist? This would be a completely ridiculous thing to say to a bunch of scientists too, but it’s even more ridiculous to say it to doctors. (Irrespective of whatever the religious beliefs of these doctors/scientists might be–and yes, both professions encompass people of a wide variety of beliefs).
4. No one in the medical field talks like this. And no one is more aware of the current limitations of medical knowledge than the people working in the medical field.
5. Clearly, there is a segment of the public who thinks doctors/scientists are like God, and one of them wrote this episode. This is deeply, deeply disturbing. Also a tiny bit flattering, but mostly disturbing.

If some random person said this, it would be one thing. But the character who said it was herself a scientist. Or doctor. Again, I’m not sure the show understands the difference. So that was immediately very jarring, and took me right out of the story. This was followed by another mention of “playing God” in the same episode, this time with respect to a scientist rather than a doctor.

There’s this article a friend recently sent me, The Fermi Paradox. It lists an assortment of theories for why we might not have found life anywhere other than Earth. Obviously, we don’t have enough information to narrow down an explanation, but given how little we know, there are a lot of possibilities. I think this might be a good reference to check out to get an idea of how scientists might think when we’re in the early stages of dealing with something we don’t understand (and we’re always dealing with something we don’t understand–otherwise, why study it?) And it’s a nice way of pointing out how humbling science can be, and how no one who works in the scientific field could possibly think they have all the answers. After all, if we had all the answers, we’d be out of a job.

This isn’t the only weird thing to crop up in the show. The supposedly intelligent Cassandra…isn’t. Intelligent, I mean. And the show claims that “in all currently known science, time travel is impossible.” I’m not a physicist, but isn’t time travel considered at least theoretically plausible at this point?

But I’m not sure I’ll ever have the energy to dive back into this show, for any reason. Maybe it’s good, but it is exhausting to have to watch a show that is so dependent on science when it doesn’t know the first thing about the topic.

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The Final Formula and The Blood Alchemist: A Blend of Urban Fantasy, Chemistry, and Fun

Borrowed from beccaandre.com

Genre: Urban fantasy

Synopsis: Addie is an alchemist who can’t remember what happened to her since the night the the institute housing the greatest alchemists in the country exploded. She creates a potion to try to restore her memory, but only gets a few more moments, a few more hints to what happened. But she does learn that the Fire Lord was there that night, making him her next stop for information.

So she launches on a journey to find out who destroyed the institute, who took her memories, and what the people chasing after her want. And discovers who she was, who she is, and who she’s going to be.

Series: First two books in an ongoing series.

POV: First person

Romance: Yes.

Preview: The first book is currently free on amazon, and here’s an excerpt.

Our main protagonist is Addie, short for the Addled Alchemist. That’s a nickname given to her by the guys she works for, because she showed up one day with no memory of who she was, and an inability to say anything that wasn’t an ingredient for a potion.

All she knows is that she has the tattoos of a master alchemist (a title for which she is decades too young), the alchemist headquarters exploded killing all of the masters around the time she lost her memory, and someone is after her. That, and she knows how to do alchemy, even if she can’t remember learning it.

So Addie, along with her best friend James who found her the night of the explosion, sets out to reclaim those memories and discover what happened to her. The truth about who her enemies are and who she was isn’t even close to what she’d imagined.

The author (Becca Andre) is a chemist, which I could tell from pretty much the first page. (Proper lab terminology tends to give it away fast.)

One of my favorite things about this story is the main protagonist’s power set, if it can be called that. She’s an alchemist, which means she crafts potions that can explode, or heal people, or cause memory loss–so things that real life chemistry can do, but way more effective, controlled, or specific, because magic. That means her skill set is high in versatility but must be prepared ahead of time. And it’s really, really cool. Seriously, this is one of my favorite kinds of powers in fiction.

Of course, the story keeps depriving poor Addie of her potions, probably to keep her from being too overpowered. Addie ends up having to think on her feet and working with what’s in front of her, because she frequently doesn’t have the luxury of preparation.

Addie herself as a character is a mixture of ambition, compassion, and pure, unadulterated confidence. She knows she’s good at what she does, and she knows that she must have earned it sometime in her forgotten past. Her ambition is entirely for her craft–she sets high goals for herself and the idea that someone else might have discovered the final formula, the great goal towards which all alchemist strive, is distressing. Sometimes her ambition and confidence take her a bit too far, but what she achieves is pretty cool until she has to face the music. After all, just because she can deal with the immediate situation, doesn’t mean she can deal with the future consequences. She ends up with a pretty even blend of success versus failure overall, I think.

Another thing that I absolutely love is the idea of redemption. One character was not a good person, once upon a time. And that character is genuinely different now, but the past still needs to be owned up to. It’s cool to have an anti-hero in the mix (and not just the one, as of the second book). There are still unanswered questions with respect to this, which the third book may or may not address. So far, I’ve really enjoyed following this plot in the story. It hasn’t been pulling its punches.

And there’s the friendships that the characters build with each other, which are pretty sweet. The people in Addie’s life that she’s established relationships with after her memory loss (with the exceptions of James’ brothers), are so deeply different to the people she’d known before. Her current friends are loyal and honest, but as in the dark as she is. Her former companions all have their own agendas that Addie can’t remember, and they’re all telling her whatever they think will best serve that agenda.

Her friendship with James is built on how much they need each other’s support. James is desperate for acceptance, given his own power and his history. He expects to be feared, or reviled, or otherwise unappreciated. Addie’s friendship is kind of like an anchor for him, when he feels like he can’t trust anyone. For her part, Addie gets James’ unconditional help and support. And belief in her. It’s strong for what it is, but the best part is that they’re forced to move past it. Their friendship changes and is redefined.

Her relationship with Rowan has a rocky start–she needs to know what he knows, without risking that he might be lying, and without being burned to crisp. So she gets a little creative with her potions to get what she needs and escape unharmed from their meeting. She bites off a bit more than she can chew there, but fortunately, he’s reasonable and has the same questions she has. He’s surprised an alchemist of her stature cares about anyone other than herself, given his experiences. They build up a mutual respect. It’s cute.

The truth is revealed in the first book, and that segment of the story wraps up nicely. The second book is about dealing with the consequences of that truth. And fixing the things which that truth broke. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s fun. These books are fun.

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