Miscellaneous Roundup 2

The personal intersecting with the science (AKA Work/life balance): I’ve been sick this past week, which isn’t great timing when I literally cannot miss a day of lab without risking over a month of work. So that’s been fun. For those interested, I’m knocking out a gene of interest in cell lines, isolating single cells, and growing populations from those single cells. When enough cells grow, I can store some as back ups–but I’m not at that stage yet. If any of them die out now, they’re gone forever.

Every Heart a Doorway is nominated for a Hugo: I posted last month about this novella, how much I loved it, and how it hit me on a personal level. So it’s worth mentioning that Every Heart a Doorway is on the ballot for the Hugo. It’s pretty awesome to see something that feels so outside the mainstream being acknowledged. 

Another convention has a harassment-related scandal: For those who haven’t heard, there was an uproar last week about a sci-fi convention that had a known harasser (who’s been at it for over a decade) on staff, after a guest of honor pulled out of the convention over his presence. Jim C. Hines has a write-up explaining the situation, and K Tempest Bradford’s post has some other information. The convention initially stood by the harasser, before finally removing him from their staff.

It was handled impressively badly. When their guest of honor contacted them, explaining that she’d personally had uncomfortable experiences with him and didn’t feel safe, one of them replied back saying that the rumors about this guy are overblown and she’s not being fair to herself in avoiding him. Then someone from the convention publicly posted the private emails she’d sent to them without her permission (they’ve since been deleted). Among other insensitive things. So that happened.

Critical Role:

1) The Bard’s Departure; A Psychologist’s Reaction to Episode 85 of Critical Role – I like to point out posts professionals make talking about media, and this links to a more personal piece from the perspective of someone who’s experienced the psychology in question–also an important thing to pay attention to.

2) My updated thoughts on Critical Role – With the show doing a year time-skip, this is a great time to check in.

The journey to hell arch – I loved this. The group walked into an all new setting where everyone was trying to corrupt them and get them to sell their souls. There was a bunch of information gathering, subterfuge, and deal making–not all of it to the party’s favor. The rush through the prison itself, searching for their target while not trying to get caught by the guards, was thrilling. I do love seeing those high level spells used creatively, and the cast really had fun with this one. There were several close, tense moments where everything depended on the roll of the dice. I was on the edge of my seat, probably more so than for any other action-based episode in the series.

The wind-down/conclusion before the time-skip – This was hilarious. The show is always good, but this was one of the funniest episodes I can remember. It’s highly dependent on the personalities of every character, and yet accessible to newcomers. If I’m ever in the position of finding an entry point into Critical Role for a friend, I’ll start them at the moment in this episode where Pike shows up–it provides a bit of exposition for her character, who was absent, but not too much. And the humor for the bar scene here doesn’t depend so heavily on all the moments that came before it.

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Orphan Black Season 4: Bringing the past to life

Genre: Sci-fi/thriller

Synopsis:

S1: Grifter Sarah Manning happens to meet a woman who looks exactly like her in a train station, right before the woman commits suicide. Naturally, Sarah uses the opportunity to take her identify and steal all her stuff. But while pretending to be the now-deceased Beth Childs in order to access her bank account, Sarah finds herself thrust deeper into Beth’s life than she imagined. But there’s a reason Beth killed herself. There’s a reason why the two of them look so alike. And Sarah’s walked right into a dangerous trap.

S2: Sarah now knows who she and her look-alikes are–but so does a powerful organization. The Dyad Institute runs a program studying the look-alikes, the clones, but up until Sarah stumbled into Beth’s life, she’d remained off their radar. Now that Dyad knows about her and her daughter, it’ll fight to get their hands on them.

S3: Sarah forms a tenuous compromise with the Dyad Institute, but her family is threatened by another set of clones–her brothers, given to the military while she and her sisters were given to a research institute. The male clones are suffering from a disease, and they believe Sarah and her sisters are the key to their cure. They–and their military allies–will do near anything to save themselves and each other.

S4: As several factions fight over the fate of the cloning program, Sarah and her sisters are caught in the crossfire. Following in the footsteps of Beth’s last investigation before she died, Sarah has to keep herself and her sisters alive–which means finding a cure for the disease affecting them, even as her enemies want to misuse the same information that she needs.

Series: 4 seasons. The 5th and final season is upcoming.

I’ve Watched: All of season 4.

Verdict: Fantastic.

(video)

I’ve been loving Orphan Black pretty consistently since its premiere, and this season is not an exception. That’s especially impressive, given that the plot ties into events that happened before the beginning of the series, employing flashbacks to bring us into those moments. Flashbacks comes with a lot of potential pitfalls–we already know what’s going to happen, so there’s a limit to how much the story can surprise us–but Orphan Black uses that to its advantage.

Nearly all of the first episode of the season is composed of flashbacks, and I’ve never seen another series pull that off so well. Orphan Black zeroes in on a character who dies in the beginning of the pilot, executing it in a way that’s riveting. 

Spoilers

Throughout the rest of the series, we’ve only known Beth through secondhand information, picking up bits and pieces from the people in her life and whatever evidence she’d left behind. Now, we get to witness her experiences in those last days, watch the cage slowly closing in around her. The deep personal aspect of the story drives the episode, and knowing what’s coming charges every scene with a sense of tragedy.

The most powerful moment arrives as Beth is nearly alone, confiding in a mystery character with no connections to anyone we know about. This is a window into a secret world. No one else will ever understand the full depth of everything that was weighing on her in that moment. That knowledge is lost to our protagonists. And getting to see those secret moments now, four seasons after her death, makes it clear how much of her experiences were erased from the narrative. How much she took with her to her grave, how much knowledge she had that the remaining protagonists are only now putting together.

There’s something satisfying about how the show works to make Beth matter, to make her character seem real, even though she’s been dead for the entire series. It doesn’t take her for granted. That’s most impressive for Beth, but this is something Orphan Black does for all of the sisters. Despite its fast pace, it makes time to expand on their experiences.

Sarah is always moving to where the action is, constantly driven by the danger to herself, her sisters, and her daughter. Whatever happens, she’s at the lead, taking risks and pushing forward. And yet there’s always new conflicts for her character, especially now that she’s stretched so thin. She has her foster brother, Felix, and her foster mother. She has her daughter. She has a slew of sisters–three of whom she’s personally close with, and an unknown number of acquaintances or strangers whose future she’s nonetheless responsible for.

And if that isn’t enough, the memory of Beth is always there, the sister who was responsible for all of them before her. The woman she only saw for a second in life and came to know in death. The person whose life she stole, who she’ll never be able to apologize to.

With all these new ties pulling at her, with the responsibility for so many people on her shoulders, it makes sense that the most personally challenging moments for her come when Felix finds his biological sister. Felix’s motivations are understandable, as both his foster sister and mom find more of their biological relatives. Sarah ends up focusing on the immediate, life-threatening concerns facing her sisters, and he’s always relegated to supporting their needs.

But Sarah’s character flaws shine through in the difficulty she has accepting Felix’s sister. As much as Sarah’s grown, moments like this serve as a reminder that she was a total, self-focused wreck not that long ago. This responsibility thing is new for her. 

Then there’s Cosima, who’s only getting sicker while she researches a cure for herself and her sisters. Who’s reeling from the uncertainty of whether her girlfriend is alive or dead. Orphan Black keeps both Cosima and the audience in suspense as to Delphine’s fate for a long time. I’d been spoiled already about her survival, because there were plenty of posts at the time about how a queer woman finally got to live. (A fair reason for jubilation, considering not just the 100’s recent fumble, but an entire history of fumbles.) But it surprised me how long the season took to confirm it–they didn’t have to put their audience through that. 

There’s a lot of complexity and character work in Orphan Black, something that’s remained consistent for all four seasons. It’s great. I probably won’t be able to watch season five as it comes out, but I will absolutely see it, sooner or later.

Also: I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to pull out objects you’ve been stabbed with, instead leaving that to a trained medical professional.

Favorite Quotes:

“My sister has a robot maggot in her face. You tell me what the solid plan is.”

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Sci-Fi for Capturing the Imagination with Detail-Oriented Debate

Today I want to bring up two pieces of media, a book and a movie, that do a great job with something I don’t see tackled in fiction very often–they delve into the complex details behind the big picture, and make them interesting. They form a story around those details, instead of making it all about the big picture.

Character conflict and personalities are used to engage the audience with the narrative. Meanwhile, focusing on the complexities instead of sidelining them make the stories feel like they belong in a world as complicated as our own. Both of them managed to pull me in by appealing to my sense of curiosity. So it’s fitting for me to talk about both in one post, given that they share their strengths.

The Terrans

A woman floating in a spaceship, forming a ball of energy in front of her with hands. The writing reads

Image: Ace via Jean Johnson

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: Jackie is a psi–primarily a telekinetic and telepath–for the United Planets. When her civilization’s precogs start getting visions of a first contact with new aliens, Jackie’s abilities and government experience recommend her as an ambassador for the coming encounter. The mission puts her in the path of a new hostile species, and initiates contact with potential allies–the V’Dan–provided everyone can get over their cultural differences and distrust of a new civilization. The pressure is on Jackie to make sure an alliance goes smoothly, and given the gulf of understanding between them, she’s got her work cut out for her.

Series: First in a series.

POV: Third person, with Jackie serving as the primary protagonist.

Preview: Here.

This book is great for people like me–detail-oriented, and interested in hashing out complexities. The complexities in question are culture clashes, governmental checks and balances, transparency, applications of science. The story doesn’t skimp on much, when it’s relevant to the problem at hand. And it’s nice to see the details that are needed to make the entire thing work weighted appropriately.

Since one of my frustrations with the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda game is some of the oversimplifications in it, this served as a balm to that part of me which wanted every detail treated with the gravity it deserved.

The main protagonist is Jackie, a stern and dedicated professional who wants to do the right thing–and wants to be the one making sure the right thing gets done almost as badly. She genuinely believes in the ideal her government aspires to, and is frustrated by people who don’t meet her own standards for maturity. In a lot of ways, she’s shaped by the expectations of her society, while still retaining a more localized cultural identity that rounds out her character.

She’s thrown into the center of a new and complex cultural interaction, one where both sides face difficulty and frustration in getting over their preconceptions. One nice touch is that both civilizations have advanced their technology differently–which means each of them has made progress that the other hasn’t. There was this illustrative moment where one person was rescued by the other side, and yet couldn’t help but think of his rescuers’ technology as primitive.

This book mostly focuses on a handful of V’Dan interacting with Earth’s civilization–the next in the series is shaping up to tackle the opposite circumstance–so we get a lot more details about Earth’s society. The government is still in essence a representative democracy, but with more citizen engagement. We get descriptions of what safeguards are put in place to combat corruption from previous centuries (including our century.) There’s certainly an appeal to the idea that public officials must not only maintain a plurality of support, but also pass tests on basic knowledge of laws and STEM subjects.

Speaking of STEM, I like how a lot of the science is handled–contact with a subset of humans that have been separate from Earth humans for some 10,000 years is met with quarantine, and a rush to develop vaccines. There are a number of nuanced stances on science and spirituality from several characters.

There are also discussions of ethics–they’re technically focused on government and psi abilities, but my medical research background leads me to associate detailed considerations of ethics with science. I’ve never encountered the same level of discussion on ethics in any other field, (though plenty could use it).

Overall, the Terrans should appeal to people who love to think and overthink–that includes me, which is why I ended up getting really into it.

The Man from Earth

(video)

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: A group of college professors gather to say goodbye to one of their colleagues–only for him to spring a surprise on them that challenges their reality. In the ensuing conflict, the truth becomes a matter of what each person is willing to believe.

Verdict: One of my favorites–a thoughtful piece focusing on character conflict and nuance over action.

The last time I talked about this movie was years ago, but after reading The Terrans, I had to bring it up again for thematic purposes. Not because the premise of the story has that much in common with the book, but because the execution does. Both focus on character conflict coming from people’s assumptions, and both engage in detail-oriented conversations which serve as the primary driver of the plot.

The Man from Earth is about a man who can’t die–meaning he’s been around since prehistory, never ageing. The story delves into the details of what that would actually mean, in a practical sense. What is he capable of remembering? How much knowledge can he accumulate? How could he fit into the world, as he is?

A group of diverse, intelligent people discuss the ramifications–and it gets heated, because each of them approaches the topic from the standpoint of what they want to believe, and what it would take to convince them. They approach it from different areas of expertise–biology, anthropology, psychology. Religion becomes a hugely contentious point, affecting at least one character on a deeply personal level.

The conversation is interesting, the picture the protagonist paints compelling–and the conflict drawn out when people’s beliefs collide is raw and powerful. I still think the ending should have been ambiguous, but the story remains deeply engaging.

I would recommend both The Terrans and The Man from Earth as examples of thoughtful, complex sci-fi that captures the imagination primarily through character conflict and detailed discussion of the practicalities behind big ideas.

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Mid-Game Impressions for Mass Effect: Andromeda

Genre: Sci-fi RPG

Synopsis: An intergalactic coalition from the Milky Way sets out to colonize a new galaxy. After 600 years travel, with the passengers cryogenic-ally preserved, you–Ryder (a customizable character)–are among the first woken up. You’re part of the team meant to explore the planets and ready them for settling.

Unfortunately, something has happened to this galaxy between when your people first analyzed them 600 years ago, and now. The worlds don’t sustain life the way they’re supposed to. Now you have to figure out what happened and how to fix it–while trying to initiate peaceful first contact with new species along the way.

Series: In the same world as the other Mass Effect games, but stands apart from them.

Verdict: Plenty of great concepts. Execution vacillates between good and mediocre.

(video)

Considering my obsession with Bioware and how many playthroughs of every Dragon Age game I’ve done, I expected to marathon Andromeda. That’s not happening. I’ll definitely finish it eventually–it’s good enough for that–but I’m not completely engrossed in it. But for now, I’ve gotten a sense of the game’s strengths and weaknesses in its beginning and middle. Spoilers follow.

Prologue:

The beginning was great. There was this deep sense of exploration as you get dumped on this a new, strange world and try to fend for yourself. The driving story behind it was immersive, the characters had these nice hints of personality that boded well for getting to know them. The side quests revealed bits and pieces of the big picture you’d fallen into, letting you slowly piece together where you stood. 

The settings are beautiful. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but I love how the environments of every planet are distinct. They each have their own unique look and their own unique hazard conditions. It creates a different feel for every world.

Eos:

I went into the next part of the story super-excited to see where it leads. And it starts out promising. The plan that our initiative had is in tatters–we’re missing most of our ships and colonists, the worlds we wanted to live on aren’t habitable. The station we’re meeting up with doesn’t have enough resource to keep going for much longer and, to top it off, recently exiled a large amount of its population after a rebellion. This was all great set-up.

Then there’s figuring out the old technology left by an advanced civilization, technology that can regulate the atmosphere and make these planets livable. When we find out we’re not the only ones interested in this tech–and that the other guys (the kett) aren’t friendly–it sets up this great dynamic of combat archaeology.

I mean, think about how awesome that sounds: combat archaeology. 

It’s such a cool concept that I’d have used in the title of my post if it had lived up to my expectations. Unfortunately, while there were some nice aspects to it, a lack of variety made it less cool with time.

After a while of traveling around Eos doing side quests in a more open world fashion, the fun of that also peters out pretty quickly. Some games do a great job with an open world landscape, and that turns into a great strength for the game–Fallout: New Vegas comes to mind. Andromeda is not a Fallout game, and (with exceptions), much of the open world content is a bit of a weakness. 

The angara:

Next, your team makes first contact with another species called the angara. This is an indigenous species, unlike the kett, who arrived and violently disrupted the lives of the angara. Now, the angara and the kett are at war, and the angara may make useful allies for your initiative–if they have a reason to trust another new species so soon after the last one that arrived turned on them.

I’m wondering if this story line here isn’t a bit too close to the old ‘an outsider walks in and fixes everything for the indigenous people’ plot. It doesn’t actually make sense that your initiative develops a technology in another galaxy, completely independent of this one, that happens to be able to interface with the technology of a more advanced civilization here. And this tech is way more advanced, completely beyond what your people are capable of. Meanwhile, the angara have literally built their civilization around this technology, yet can’t operate it as well as you can.

There’s no way around this: I don’t like how dependent the angara are on the protagonist. The game tries a few times to create the impression that it’s mutual, that both groups need each other–but the narrative doesn’t really support that.

There are a couple of other things here that stand out as a little strange to me:

  • There are a group of angara extremely against any new alien arrivals–including you. You manage to win over one such commander literally minutes after killing his entire squad. That’s an impressive devaluation of his people’s lives. I get wanting to create an avenue for the protagonist to win over her/his detractors, to give the player a sense of accomplishment, but that’s maybe not the best way.
  • The angara are way too aware of their cultural differences with us. One companion, Jaal, explains to you that his species feels emotions strongly soon after he joins your crew–which, 1) he only knows his own experiences, so really, he should think that our people feel emotions weakly while his are normal. And 2) he shouldn’t know enough about us to pinpoint exactly where our differences come from. This feels too much like treating our culture as the default, which the angara shouldn’t do.
  • The angaran city is weirdly similar to our city, considering how our two populations have developed independently throughout literally all of history. Two random cities in the real world today will look more different. Two cities in another Bioware game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, will look more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t even give them different doors.

Kadara:

This is where the game picks back up for me.

Kadara is awesome. The vibe of the warring criminal factions creates a great backdrop, and the open world side quests are actually interesting–scanning murder scenes or suspects, determining which of two factions are lying to you, that kind of stuff. It shakes up the usual dynamic for go-somewhere-and-fight-people missions or fetch quests.

The mystery behind the Charlatan, an anonymous figure leading one of Kadara’s factions, also adds quite a bit of fun to the game. I don’t know if we ever find out who this person is, but I’d love it if we did. I suspect the bartender. (I’m probably wrong. I usually am.)

Overall:

That’s all I’ve seen of the game at the moment. I’ll wait to talk more about characters until I’ve played through the whole thing–briefly, so far, I think they’re cool conceptually but don’t engage on a deeper level.

So this game isn’t what I was hoping for from Bioware, but that’s a really high bar to clear. It’s still enjoyable, with some great ideas. That said, it’s definitely got its highs and lows.

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Miscellaneous Things of Interest, from Sci-fi to Giving Back

Mass Effect: Andromeda – This game is coming out tomorrow, and I’m super excited. Hopefully, I’ll get a playthrough done in time to post about it next week. I’ve managed to remain surprisingly unspoiled so far–all I know is, it’s set after the Mass Effect trilogy and thus detached from the action of the previous games, and it’s a Bioware style RPG in a sci-fi setting. I haven’t so much as looked at a trailer, don’t know how many companions are recruit-able, and don’t even know the plot. So the discovery process should be interesting.

NYC Teen Author Festival For anyone in or near New York, there’s a book festival happening this week. The majority of the panels will be Friday and Saturday. I unfortunately will not have time to go, because I need to celebrate three birthdays. (The cat may not care if I skip his birthday, but I’d feel guilty.)

TableTop Season 4 –  This series where Wil Wheaton plays an assortment of tabletop games with guests from geek culture is back. 4 episodes are available on Youtube with a new one being added every week.

(video)

Real World Stuff – As much as I go to sci-fi and fantasy to explore themes of human nature and world-changing events, terrible things happening in real life is depressing. It’s easy to feel helpless. The philosophy I’m leaning towards is that doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing. (And it opens the door to make it easier to do a little more, but even if it doesn’t, it’s still something.)

For some people, this will involve a lot of communication or attending large events. For me, I’ll probably keep volunteering and commit to making some small donations every few months–this time around I’m choosing Doctors Without Borders. Last time it was the ACLU. (As a note, donations are more effective when they’re regular instead of one-offs. I don’t feel I can do that, which is an example of my ‘do what you can as long as it’s something’ practice.)

If anyone is in the position to volunteer, and interested in doing so, it can be rewarding. It’s made a huge impact on my perspective of the world.

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Critical Role: Changing Party Dynamics and Uber-Powerful Spells

Genre: Fantasy RPG

Synopsis: A party of adventures called Vox Machina must make their way through a changing world, facing ever more powerful enemies and their own personal demons. The story is brought to life by a cast of professional voice actors, and the ever-present chance that bad planning or bad dice rolling will end that journey forever.

Series: 89 episodes.

I’ve Watched: All of it.

Verdict: Still totally

Available: All of the episodes are uploaded to the Geek and Sundry website. The show streams live on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel, Thursdays at 10pm EST.

(video)

With the wrap-up of a major arch, Critical Role reaches another milestone in its story–spoiler–the first time a player retires a party member and creates another character to play. I really do love how this show progresses and keeps moving forward, evidenced by the fact that I won’t stop talking about it.

In this case, the dynamic of the party, Vox Machina, is shaken up–they’re all reeling from the fact that one of their friends who has been with them for so long isn’t anymore. Meanwhile, this random dude (Taryon) shows up and manages to push all of their buttons, while just barely managing to give them a good enough reason to come along. (And it’s kinda fascinating that the actor who changed characters gets to watch Vox Machina praise one of his characters while ridiculing the other.)

Taryon’s essentially a spoiled rich kid who wants to prove himself to his father. The powerful items that he’s bought or made are what makes him capable of being part of such a high level party, but he’s–well, let’s say he’s still in the process of learning how to handle himself in dangerous situations. Plenty of comedy comes from his golem, whose purpose is to write down the story of his adventures. Especially when Taryon comes out of a situation he hadn’t handled well, but dictates it to his golem as a tale of his personal heroism.

With Taryon being both new and unwittingly abrasive, he and the rest of the party are slowly working up to a more trusting relationship. Very slowly, and not at the same pace for everyone. It’s also interesting to see touches of conflict when this close-knit group of friends warms up to the new guy at different rates. Like when your friends take to someone you’re not ready to trust yet.

And because Taryon is played by Sam Riegel, this is often used to hilarious effect:

  • One moment is when Taryon bonds with Percy over both of them being inventors, and Keyleth–Percy’s best friend–is insecure over him getting a new friend who shares this interest she doesn’t understand. Taryon and Percy play up the humor during the scene where she expresses her insecurity, by cracking jokes and laughing loudly enough for her to hear through the walls.
  • Another is how Taryon does not memorize any of their names except Percy’s. Until another member of the party, Pike, produces a truly hilarious set of flashcards for him to learn from.

I’m perfectly happy watching these relationships evolve from scratch, and finding out how Taryon–who’s really good at misunderstanding things–works his way into the tightknit group that is Vox Machina.

Furthermore, I’m super excited that Keyleth can now cast 9th level spells. The way this was introduced into the story was great, with it being played out as part of the plot in a way that completely floored the rest of the cast and the audience (certainly me). It was a strong cinematic sequence that I rewatched several times just to see how everyone reacted to it.

And I’m glad that Keyleth in particular will cast 9th level spells. This is a controversial opinion among fans, but I love watching how creative she is with spellcasting. It adds something extra to the mechanic of DnD, where she’ll try to find a way to fit the situation with her magic, and it’ll either work great or fail–which is actually really cool for a druid manipulating the elements. It means that, in the world of the story, controlling the forces of nature isn’t predictable or safe. That aspect really adds something to the narrative, and it requires both the player and the dungeon master to go with that creativity, which they do. 

While I’m speaking of Keyleth, I want to mention that the actress who plays her (Marisha Ray) is a really engaging panel speaker. I watched this video of her recent panel at Anime Milwaukee:

(video)

I’ve been to a bunch of panels and watched even more online. Solo panels depend a lot on the speakers’ personality, and whether they have interesting stories to share. Marisha’s are always really good.

As for Vox Machina, I could go on about the virtues of each character and the power of their flaws. Every member of the cast adds a lot to the story, and Critical Role is better for having each of them. But since I’m clearly going to be watching this show for the foreseeable future (every Thursday night, all year round except holidays), I’ll have plenty of time to give more in-depth thoughts for each character in future posts.

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Every Heart a Doorway: The Painful Clarity of Not Fitting Into Your World

A forest with a door in front of it, not attached to any building. The words read, "Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author."

Image: Tor via Goodreads

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy/ YA Fantasy

Synopsis: Sometimes children stumble through a hidden entrance in their world into another one, and often that world is right for them in a way their own never could be. The lucky ones stay, but others come back. They could spend their lives looking for a way back to their true home, the one they’d found once by luck, trapped somewhere they know they don’t belong.

A long time ago, Miss West was one of the children who came back. Locked out of that world, she’s created a school for teenagers like she used to be, somewhere they can be with others who understand their experiences. Who understand how badly they want to go back to a place that fits them. But with longing and desperation come dangers, and not long after new student Nancy arrives, her classmates begin turning up dead…

Series: A novella that can stand alone. There is a second in the series, which serves as a prequel for two of the characters in this one.

POV: Third person.

Preview: Here. 

This is a story about not fitting in, and not wanting to. It’s about how the world tries to put people into boxes, no matter how bad the fit. About that longing for understanding and acceptance.

It really resonated with me, feeling real in a way most stories focusing on outcasts don’t. It doesn’t glamorize being different and ignore the costs. It doesn’t sugarcoat. It doesn’t reserve weirdness for cis-gendered straight white guys. Instead, it shows a spectrum of different people with different experiences, none of whom are understood by the world around them. Many of whom still can’t figure out how to understand or accept each other, even knowing what it’s like to be on the other end.

All of the characters were deeply distinct, and brought different things to the table:

Nancy was quiet, still, and respectful, in a way that illustrated that this was absolutely who she was comfortable being. She knew how to fade into the background, and could do it deliberately or instinctively. The way her parents refused to understand and accept who she’d become is painful, and illustrates how people can do damage with the best intentions.

I related to Nancy for a number of reasons. One was not wanting to be the center of attention. Another was her asexuality. Her experience on the spectrum is different than mine, which is unsurprising given how wide the spectrum ranges, but I liked that the story included some acknowledgement on the complexity of sexual versus romantic attraction.

Jack is the mad scientist who went to a world that resembled a horror movie and apprenticed herself to another mad doctor. She’s blasé about blood and death and violence, with a penchant for saying some genuinely disturbing things in public. And yet, it’s hard to peg down her morality so easily. Is she the mad doctor who places curiosity ahead of reverence for life? Or is every disturbing thing she says or does really about acquiring the knowledge to save more lives? And if so, is it worth it? The complexity and vividness of her character is really cool, and she’s an absolute standout.

Kade is conscientious, likable, and responsible. He’s also never going to get a portal back into his world, after it threw him out for being a boy in the body of a girl when it’d wanted a girl. This school is the only home he’ll ever have, and he’s invested in protecting it. I like that despite his odd fit with the main group of protagonists (Nancy, Jack, and co. went to way more macabre worlds than he did), their differences were something that all of them generally accepted and didn’t judge each other for.

Christopher knows what it’s like to hide things to fit in, even here at a school where they were supposed to accept each other’s differences. He traveled through a world of dancing skeletons, which is a bit too creepy for most of his classmates (though still not as much as Jack’s world). Only now is he starting to find a group where he can talk about his experiences without alienating potential friends.

Sumi is always going a mile a minute, always in motion. Her mind is always racing. She wants nothing more than to go back to the world she’d made a home in, but unlike many of her classmates, accepts that she never will. Most of the things she says make a backwards kind of sense if any, as she’d traveled through a nonsense world, and she’s considered a force to be reckoned with.

Jill is Jack’s identical twin, who traveled with her to the same world, though they’re nothing alike. Where Jack apprenticed herself to a mad doctor, Jill chose to serve a vampire lord. Neither of them fully understands what drives the other, and the only thing keeping them together is how little both of them fit in with anyone else.

This was a wonderful story. Seanan McGuire was already one of my favorite authors, but of all the work I’ve read by her (and I’ve read a lot), this has to be the one that delves most deeply into conformity versus individuality. Into how hard acceptance is to find for yourself, or even sometimes to give to others.

Favorite Quotes (the abridged version, because I could put half the novella here):

Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.

Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.

Most of them had been looking for smaller waists, cleaner complexions, and richer boyfriends, spurred on by a deeply ingrained self-loathing that had been manufactured for them before they were old enough to understand the kind of quicksand they were sinking in.

This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it’s you.

It was being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you.

Most of you got unicorns and misty meadows. We got the Moors, and if there was a unicorn out there, it probably ate human flesh.

You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.

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Urban Fantasy Follows

Most of my urban fantasy mainstays, the series that I’m still following loyally, are ones that I picked up before I began blogging. Which means whenever a new book comes out, I’m left thinking about whether to address the series or the book, or how to talk about a book further along in a series. So to put some of this out of the way, I’m throwing together a master post of the urban fantasy series I follow, along with their initial premises and my favorite aspects about them.

Cassandra Palmer series by Karen Chance

A woman with a star symbol tattooed on her back, standing near an office widow. The words in front of her read "Touch the Dark, Karen Chance, Can you ever really trust a vampire?"

Image: Ace via Karen Chance

First Book: Touch the Dark

Premise: Cassie ranks fairly low on the supernatural pecking order–she gets visions of the future and talks to ghosts, whereas vampires and mages are much more obviously dangerous. Still, her powers are useful enough that a shady vampire had her raised in his household until she escaped. But now he’s finally tracked her down. 

To make matters more complicated, Cassie is in line to inherit a much more prestigious power, one whose passage no one controls. She’s unaware of this, but the vampire’s master is…and so are the other people in the same line of succession.

Number of Books: 8

Favorite Title: Curse the Dawn

Favorite Aspects:

  • Karen Chance is really creative–it shows in her action scenes, in her world-building, in every little detail. Her writing evokes Murphy’s Law to great effect, with things getting rapidly worse in the most awesome ways.
  • A big defining characteristic of the series is time travel. Because we follow Cassie’s perspective, we follow her personal timeline–but this doesn’t always match up to the same order other people will experience events. When Cassie’s actions change time, she even ends up remembering things that never happened. This means a lot of characters have a lot of different information at different times, and it’s cool to realize who knew what when, and what that means for their past actions.

Preview: Here.

 

Dorina Basarab series by Karen Chance

A woman holds a gun. The words read "New York Times Bestselling Author of Hunt the Moon, Karen Chance, Fury's Kiss, A Midnight's Daughter Novel."

Image: Berkley via Karen Chance

First Book: Midnight’s Daughter

Premise: Dorina is a dhampir, half-human and half-vampire. Her kind are detested by vampires because of the risk they present, and even if they weren’t, they aren’t given to living long lives. Dory is an exception, centuries old, and the daughter of a particularly family-oriented vampire–Mircea Basarab, brother of the famous Dracula. Her relationship with her father is complicated and mostly distant. Until her infamous uncle escapes, and Mircea asks Dory to help track him down. 

Number of Books: 3

Favorite Title: Midnight’s Daughter

Favorite Aspects:

  • I love these books because of the sheer chaos. Much like in the Cassie Palmer series, the world-building and action scenes are imaginative.
  • Dory has a complicated family history, and her relationship with her father is interesting, especially as she learns more about it.

Preview: Here.

 

Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews

A woman wields a sword, with a lion behind her. The words read "Ilona Andrews, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of Magic Breaks, Magic Shifts, A Kate Daniels novel."

Image: Ace via Ilona Andrews

First Book: Magic Bites

Premise: Kate is a smart-mouthed mercenary who works hard to isolate herself and come off as a common thug. She’s in hiding, and she can’t afford to stand out. Unfortunately, the death of her old guardian forces her to work with the shapeshifters. As she slowly starts letting more people in, her secrets become more and more threatened…which risks not only her own life, but everyone she cares about.

Number of Books: 9 (10 if you count one novel from Kate’s friend’s POV)

Favorite Title: Gunmetal Magic (though this is the book that isn’t from Kate’s POV)

Favorite Aspects:

  • These books have great world-building, often based off of mythology, and great humor.
  • The series evolves as Kate’s life changes, and the status quo has shifted several times in major ways.

Preview: Here.

 

October Daye series by Seanan McGuire

A woman with pointed ears holding a bright candle, illuminating the stonework around her. The words read "Seanan McGuire, ...should appela to fans of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files...Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs... - Library Journal, An Artificial Night, An October Daye novel."

Image: DAW via Seanan McGuire

First Book: Rosemary and Rue

Premise: October (or Toby) is a changeling, someone with a mix of human and fae ancestry. Despite the fanatical emphasis on purity in fae society, she’s managed to build a place for herself on the fringes, crossing over to the human world. She married a human man, had a changeling daughter, and lived a good life–until a spell cast on her by one of her enemies transforms her into a fish for over a decade.

When she comes back, her life is gone. She hasn’t aged, but her husband and daughter have long since moved on after her disappearance. Burned by trying to live in the human world, but out of place in the fae one, Toby is left adrift. Still, no matter how the fae feel about her heritage, her skillset is a useful one. And Toby still has her ties to their world…

Number of Books: 10

Favorite Title: Once Broken Faith

Favorite Aspects:

  • Toby as a protagonist grabbed me immediately, with her self-imposed isolation and how she learns to let people in.
  • I love the way Toby’s relationships evolve. As she gains a better sense of herself, she comes to see the flaws with some of her longstanding relationships. Rifts open up between her and the people she’s known the longest. But the friendships she makes more recently come out stronger. 
  • My favorite part of the setting has to be the knowes, which are pockets of realities that belong to certain ruling fae. They reshape their space and geography according to their rulers’ wishes, and they have an interesting level of sentience which Toby is one of the few people to acknowledge.

Preview: Here.

 

Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs

A woman leaning against the back of a car. The words read "#1 New York Times Bestselling Author of River Marked, Patricia Briggs, Frost Burned, a Mercy Thompson novel."

Image: Ace via Patricia Briggs

First Book: Moon Called

Premise: Mercy is a walker–a shapeshifter that turns into a coyote–who was raised by werewolves. Out on her own making a living as a mechanic, she’s nonetheless surrounded by supernaturals. From the werewolf alpha living next door, to the fae from whom she bought her garage, to the vampire whose Scooby-Doo themed van she repairs. 

Mercy isn’t strong like a vampire, doesn’t heal like a werewolf, and doesn’t have the power of the fae. But somehow, she keeps stepping up when trouble rears its head–and it all starts when her neighbor is attacked and his teenage daughter abducted.

Number of Books: 9

Favorite Title: River Marked

Favorite Aspects:

  • I love the character dynamics, and the way they grow. 9 books in, and yet there are always new ways for relationships to evolve.
  • It’s also nice that in addition to moving forward, we’re given more perspective on what’s already happened. Mercy has a lot of backstory with most of the main characters from before the series started–which I also quite like–and sometimes we’ll get insights to how their perspective has changed or what Mercy didn’t know at the time.

Preview: Here.

 

Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs

A man and a woman stand back to back, the words read "#1 New York Times Bestselling Author of the Mercy Thompson novels, Patricia Briggs, Dead Heat, An Alpha and Omega Novel."

Image: Ace via Patricia Briggs

First Book: Cry Wolf (though the series technically starts with the novella Alpha and Omega)

Premise: Charles is a centuries old werewolf, and the son of North America’s most dominant Alpha. He acts as his father’s enforcer. While solving a problem with one of his father’s packs, he meets Anna–one of the rare Omega werewolves who has the protective instincts of an alpha but not the aggression. And also, apparently, his mate. 

Anna didn’t become a werewolf in the normal, acceptable way. No one asked her if she wanted it, no one explained what it entailed. One day, she was attacked, and just like that her life had changed. She meets Charles when he comes to clean up her mess of a pack. And she leaves with him, joining his father’s pack. As Anna and Charles are still getting to know each other as people, they also come to find that they make a decent team. Which is good, because Charles’ father only sends him out against the greatest threats, and they’ll need each other for the things the other couldn’t do alone.

Number of Books: 4 (5 if you count the novella)

Favorite Title: Fair Game

Favorite Aspects:

  • Anna and Charles are in an interesting and strange place. Their wolves chose one another before they got to know each other. So they don’t really have the familiarity to know how to deal with each other or help with the other’s problems. But because of their wolves, there’s high stakes for both of them to figure out how to make this relationship work. They’re both adults, but they also both have their hangups and need to spend time trying to figure out how to communicate.
  • We meet Charles’ father Bran and his pack in the Mercy Thompson series, but this one centers more of those characters. Bran’s pack makes for an interesting set up, because he takes the wolves that aren’t fit to be anywhere else. Often the old and disturbed ones. So it’s interesting to see more of the inner dynamics of his pack.

Preview: Here.

 

 

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Terminator: Genisys Reboots the Franchise for the 21st Century

A picture of a man with parts of his skin wounded enough to reveal metal underneath, holding a smoking shotgun, in front of a black font with some fog. The words "Terminator Genisys" are written over him.

Image: Skydance via Den of Geek

Genre: Action/Sci-fi

Synopsis: John Connor is the leader of the resistance in a world where humanity is being obliterated by Skynet, a self-aware artificial intelligence. Without him, humanity stands no chance. In the original Terminator movie from 1984, Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to kill John’s mother Sarah before he can be born. John sends back a trusted colleague, Kyle Reese, to protect his mother. However, in Terminator: Genisys, this has already happened.

John’s mother has raised him with the knowledge that a Terminator will be sent back to kill her, and that he sends Kyle Reese to stop it–and that Reese will father him, then die shortly afterwards to protect Sarah. But because it’s already happened, Skynet knows this too.

So when Reese is sent back in time, it doesn’t happen the way John told him it would. A Terminator is waiting for him in the exact time and place he arrives. Sarah Connor has been fighting off Terminators since she was 9 years old, because Skynet had sent assassins even further back in her timeline. And she’s been all but raised by a reprogrammed Terminator sent back in time to protect her.

Nothing is happening the way it’s supposed to, and Skynet has changed tactics based on its knowledge of the timeline the same way the Connors have. Sarah and Reese will have to adapt, working together to destroy Skynet once and for all. Because the program won’t make the same mistakes again.

Verdict: Pretty good, if confusing for anyone who doesn’t already know the premise and a bit too fast-paced.

(video)

This movie tries to do for the Terminator franchise what Days of Future Past did for the X-Men movies–reset the storyline for a new generation. Using time travel, it updates the story for modern times and brings the action out of 1984, into 2017.

My knowledge of the Terminator franchise comes from The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was an interesting TV exploration of Sarah Connor’s fight to protect a teenage John Connor from time-traveling threats, raise him to be the man he’s meant to be, and fight the emergence of Skynet in the present day. Which means I’m pretty familiar with the lore without ever having seen one of the movies.

That’s good, because if it wasn’t for that, I would have no idea what was going on in the beginning. This is because the previous Terminator movies all serve as backstory for this one, and several of the characters are fully aware of that backstory the entire time. (Note how I had to detail the plot of the 1984 movie in my synopsis above.)

I like the premise, that the timeline has been even further altered from the original movie. And it was pretty entertaining to watch Kyle Reese go back in time thinking he knew what was supposed to happen, and then having the rug pulled out from under him. The explanation of what was happening up to that point may not have been the best, but once Reese went back, I really started enjoying the movie.

Beyond that, this story worked to make the conflict personal. There are a lot of interesting parts to the set up, and I only wish more time was spent on to exploring its emotional impact. As it was, the movie tended to lodge a few introspection scenes in between numerous action scenes. But those few scenes were well done, and still managed to convey a host of complicated feelings.

Like the huge distrust Reese carries for Sarah’s robot foster dad, an old terminator programmed to protect her and whom she calls Pops. That’s to be expected, but there’s this nice 5 second moment where the movie shows us the impact of Reese constantly badgering Sarah about it. It’s there and it’s gone, but it addresses something subtle.

Then there’s the conflict that Sarah, and even to a certain extent Reese, feel with respect to how their destiny and future had been laid out before them. There’s the fact that Sarah knows she’s supposed to fall in love with Reese years before she ever meets him. There’s Reese finding out he’s supposed to fall in love with Sarah days after meeting her. Their relationship just barely keeps from being rushed because they’re both a little in love with the idea of each other before having to interact–especially Reese, who’s been listening to his hero (John Connor) hero-worshiping her for much of his life.

Pops–played by Arnold Schwarzenegger–had a great dynamic with Sarah and Reese. There was that bit of disconnect based on his non-human processing, but a nice hint of dry humor to a number of their interactions. It was cool, and added a good bit of character to the scenes–especially the action scenes, which would otherwise have been like hundreds of other scenes I’ve seen in hundreds of other movies.

The ideas played with in this movie are intriguing. A number of character progressing scenes are handled with skill. But it just doesn’t feel like enough, to get too deep into the material. Terminator: Genisys leans heavily on the action, and I like action movies–almost every movie I’ve written about so far has been an action movie. But I want substance from them. And this movie does have substance, except it just doesn’t feel like the priority. It was a pretty decent movie as it stood, but I absolutely thought it had potential for more.

Favorite Quotes:

“All you people know how to do is kill what you don’t understand.”

“The future is not set.”

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Tales from the Borderlands: A Corporate Lackey and a Con Artist Go Treasure Hunting

 

A man and woman standing next to the words "Tales from the Borderlands, A Telltale Game Series"

Image: Telltale via Steam

Genre: Interactive adventure/sci-fi

Synopsis: Rhys is trying to make his way up the corporate ladder in Hyperion, which is hard when his boss has it out for him. But if he intercepts a vault key–which can open up a cache of riches–it’ll propel his career to the top. Of course, said vault key is on Pandora, a run down slum of a planet that’ll be a challenge to brave. And things become even more complicated when he runs afoul of a con artist, Fiona.

Fiona would love to get out of Pandora, but she needs resources to do it. Robbing a Hyperion lackey might just be enough to accomplish her goals–and everyone knows those guys are terrible, so it wouldn’t even be that wrong, would it?

And so Rhys and Fiona are set up on a collision course, with riches and both of their futures on the line. Will they be able to get their hands on a vault? Or will they kill each other first?

Series: Stands alone. Set in the world of the Borderlands franchise.

Verdict: Great humorous adventure story.

(video)

This was so much fun, and absolutely hilarious. It took a while for me to get into it, but once I did, it didn’t let go. It’s a comedic adventure story where the player alternates between two characters. One is Rhys, a lackey working for the evil corporation, Hyperion. The other is Fiona, a con artist who tries to take advantage of him. These two, along with their colleagues, are thrown into a chaotic adventure to find a cache of treasures, all the while dodging enemies who want it as badly as they do.

We open up with Rhys’ side of the story, and here is where it took me a little while to appreciate what the story does. Rhys is working for the big bad corporation, where condescension is an art form and corruption is how you get ahead. It isn’t just that everyone’s an asshole. It’s that they’re all taught to be assholes, in ways that are amusingly obvious. This is genuinely funny, but it made it hard for me to connect to the narrative at first. It made it hard to find a way to get behind Rhys the character, who we’re ultimately supposed to be.

Later on, I found a rhythm with how to play his character in a way that I actually ended up enjoying. To me, he was earnestly following the playbook for the ideal he was taught to believe in. There’s a certain model Hyperion strives for, and he joins the rest of his colleagues in following that model. He never sees another way to be, but he also doesn’t have that cutthroat instinct. So I chose to interpret his acting like a total jerk as grandstanding, which actually made it a lot more fun–and allowed me to pick the most ridiculous dialogue choices that I would otherwise never be able to. (The game also makes this much easier by being self-aware of how not cool Hyperion’s idea of normal is.)

Whenever it came down to real world consequences–like if he actually had to hurt people to follow that model–I’d have him be a lot more uncertain. Especially if he could see the reality of the damage he might cause, instead of only understanding it as an idea. When he’s all talk, he’s having fun with it and getting into the showmanship. When people are getting hurt or he’s expected to betray his friends, suddenly he’s not that into it anymore.

I also ended up appreciating how utterly without shame Rhys is. He does not care if he looks like a wimp–sometimes I get the impression that being a bit of a wimp is part of that model he’s trying to follow, of that stereotypical corporate bad guy. Which would explain why he’s not self-conscious about it at all. And that’s a good part of what allows the game to be so funny. Rhys could be flailing around while dodging a bad guy, surviving through sheer luck while looking as incompetent as possible. If he’d been embarrassed about it, then the game would’ve invited us to laugh at him. But he plays it cool, completely unphased by it, and instead we’re laughing with him.

Playing Fiona was more straightforward. She’s a grifter, driven by a strong bond with her family. She lies and steals and cheats, but because she’s living in the slums and trying to build a better life for her sister, it’s simple to see where she’s coming from. Then there’s the bit of fun to be had with her slowly discovering that she can be more than just a con artist, that she’s got it in her to really commit to adventuring.

I played her as putting her family first, but not completely ruthless. She’ll have no problem playing crime bosses or gangsters, but when she’s dealing with those honest people trying to earn their living, she’ll hesitate. Then she’ll weigh how desperate her circumstances are versus what she’d cost them.

Rhys and Fiona’s characters are dependent both on the framework of the narrative and how the player chooses to interpret them, which is an interesting combination. Tales of the Borderlands is heavily story-driven, which means that the protagonists’ personalities must stand on their own. But in giving players the ability to direct Rhys and Fiona’s actions–though not the flair with which they’ll enact those actions–we get to choose an important aspect of who they are.

This is a staple of Telltale’s games, of course, but what made Tales of the Borderlands unique is that it didn’t go for easy character archetypes for the audience to get behind. In the end, that risk made for a richer experience. I’ve obviously had to search within myself a little to find a way to be Rhys in particular, and that brought me deeper into the story.

Overall, I really fell into this world. Despite my initial reservations, I even fell into playing as these characters. Between an unforgettable style, great sense of humor, and quirky supporting cast, Tales from the Borderlands is another amazing Telltale experience. The story is so much fun, and I absolutely loved it.

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