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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Hilarious Trailers: Goblin Is Incredibly Honest About Its Supernatural Romance Tropes

I had to share this, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trailer be this upfront about what it wants to do (although of course, everyone knows.)

(Note: This is not a commentary on the show itself, as I haven’t seen any of it. Also not a commentary on romance in general–I may be a sci-fi/fantasy kind of girl, but I believe that every genre is equally valuable. Unless that genre happens to be founded on principles of inequality, and I really hope that’s not a thing.)

(video)

There’s this new supernatural romance K-drama available on Dramafever, and I happened to come across a trailer of it–a trailer so funny, it borders on parody. Even unintentionally, it still kind of manages to serve that purpose. I could not stop laughing while watching it.

A little too much honesty, Goblin, but thanks for the entertainment. 

It reminds a bit of the fun that the Deadpool movie had promoting itself, except for how that was intentional. It also kinda reminds me of when SNL did a parody of Black Widow:

(video)

And then DC came out with a first look trailer for Supergirl which wasn’t a parody–it was for real–but managed to closely resemble the parody that came before it.

(video)

(Also not a commentary on Supergirl the show, as I’ve never seen it–just the trailer.)

Technically the situations aren’t all that similar either, but the Goblin trailer taps into the SNL parody’s self-awareness of its tropes, and the DC trailer’s lack of awareness of how funny that is.

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Emerald City Pilot: The Wizard of Oz Remake That Tries to Do Too Much

An assortment of characters arrayed in front of a gate. The doorway in the middle of the gate opens onto a yellow brick road, where we see Dorothy and a dog walking into the distance. Words read "Emerald City."

Image: NBC

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Dorothy is on her way to meet her biological mother–and instead finds a dead body and a storm that transports her to another world. Her arrival throws the local power plays askew, and makes her a target. Still, there’s only one thing she can think to do. Follow the yellow brick road to the Wizard of Oz, so he can help her find a way home.

Series: First season airing.

I’ve Watched: The first episode.

Verdict: It’s uneven. Some moments are tedious, other are actually pretty good.

(video)

I tend to be wary of portal fantasies–stories where someone from our world falls into a fantasy world. That’s because:

  1. Those stories tend to have a little too much wish-fulfillment for me.
  2. It’s hard to portray a character stripped of everything that’s familiar to her without falling into the same repetitive, tacky tropes.
  3. I personally enjoy it more when my protagonists aren’t left completely floundering in a new world with most of their old skills completely useless. I don’t want the character made circumstantially incompetent in comparison to everyone else.

But Emerald City is based on The Wizard of Oz, which perhaps raised my expectations a little too high. I haven’t read the book and it’s been awhile since I saw the movie. But from what I remember, that story avoided the portal fantasy pitfall listed above. The point of The Wizard of Oz isn’t to leave a boring life and build a new one in a fantasy world, it’s to find a way out of a strange place. The musical elements and comedic tone meant the story didn’t really have to handle much angst from Dorothy. And rather than being surrounded by people much more competent than she is, Dorothy picks up fellow travelers who all have similar problems to herself–they’re all focused on improving their greatest weaknesses.

Emerald City is different, partly because it wants to be a gritter, more epic take on the story. It still does okay, but doesn’t completely avoid the classical portal fantasy pitfalls. Mostly, the problem is in the second point: it’s hard to portray the realism of a character having everything she knows stripped away from her. And if that doesn’t come off as real, it makes the whole story feel just a little off.

The first half of the pilot was weighed down by that, and by a few other things that made the story hard to fall into. The transitions threw me–things happen too abruptly, without enough lead-up. The dialogue is also a bit off sometimes. Especially with the instant-they-meet love-interest, whose banter struck me as cringe-y.

But then again,some scenes worked well individually. Whenever the Witch of the West mouthed off to anyone, that was sure to be a good moment. The animosity between her and Glinda, even though they were nominal allies, really stands out. When Dorothy comes across an herbalist witch keeping a boy locked up against his will (she claimed for his protection), the tension in those scenes was good. And then we’d switch to another scene, and the show would overload on the theatrics.

Emerald City seems to want to be edgy, but doesn’t always put in the work to add depths to those edgy concepts. I’m sure another story could take ideas like ‘the yellow brick road is made of opium’ or ‘the Wicked Witch of the West operates a brothel’ and use them in a way that’s interesting. But in this show, there’re just kind of there. Maybe something different will be done with them in the other 9 remaining episodes, but the groundwork that’s been laid isn’t encouraging. 

Even if the show resisted the urge to sensationalize every now and again, I’m not sure that this particular combination of The Wizard of Oz with epic fantasy works that well. Emerald City is trying to tell two different stories. One is about Dorothy, upended from her world and navigating another one in order to get home. The other one is about the political divides in a land where The Wizard of Oz stands against the witches, banning magic from his realm. Both of these stories would be stronger if they were told separately instead of together. Or if Emerald City waited to tell the Wizard-versus-witches struggle until after Dorothy finishes adventuring and becomes a player.

Overall, it feels like the show bit off a bit more than it could chew, trying to be too many things at once. So is it worth watching? I honestly don’t know. The tedious parts really are. But it’s not any worse than the average show, and it really has its moments. The second half of the pilot was definitely an improvement on the first half, so if the other episodes continue in that vein, maybe the good will outweigh the bad. We’ll see.

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Crooked Kingdom: A Gang of Misfits Up Against the World

 

A crow flying vertically in front of a gray background, with the words "#1 New York Times-Bestselling Author Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom." Followed by the words "When you can't beat the odds, change the game."

Image: Henry Holt and Co. via Leigh Bardugo

Genre: YA Fantasy

Synopsis: Criminal mastermind Kaz put together a crew of teenagers and used them to pull off an impossible heist–but instead of reaping the rewards, they were betrayed. Now they have to get back at the people who back-stabbed them, save one of their own, and hopefully come out with something to show for it. But every power in the city wants to get their hands on what–or rather, who–they stole. Making it ever more complicated to stay in control of the situation, as the crew’s resources and allies dwindle.

Series: Second in what I think is a duology. Six of Crows was the first book.

POV: Third person, from the perspectives of the 6 protagonists (and one other character for the prologue.)

Preview: Here. 

(My review of the first book here.)

This story is so much fun. It’s loaded with twists and turns, as both the protagonists and their enemies engage in a game of cunning, constantly trying to outsmart each other. I don’t know if there’s going to be in another book in this series, but I would love it if there were.

I’m especially invested in these characters, the six crew members who are practically on their own against the most powerful forces in the city. There’s so much to them, and each of them has engaging internal conflicts.

Inej was incredible in this book. Her personal history has a huge impact on who she is. Of the main characters, she’s one of the ones who thinks the most about her past experiences, and where they fit with her present and future. We see that in her perspective, in the way she feels about her family and her life as an acrobat. In her enslavement and how she used Kaz’s gang to escape it, applying her skills as an acrobat towards reconnaissance and spying. She’s quiet and focused, competent and determined, but with plenty of remaining self-doubt. There’s something awesome about her ambition to acquire a ship and hunt down slavers.

She has conflicting interests that she struggles to reconcile in herself–her sense of obligation to Kaz, her insistence on holding onto her remaining morality, the future she wants to build for herself. I’m glad that she doesn’t compromise her goals, and doesn’t ask anyone else to compromise theirs, but still manages to hold onto those relationships.

Kaz is always interesting. He’s built up this reputation for himself as a huge bastard, and he believes his own press. He needs to believe it, because being the one victimizing others makes him feel powerful instead of weak. It’s like he’s terrified of being anything else, of caring for anyone else. Of course, he does care about other people–and he’s still in the early stages of coming to terms with it, of having trouble admitting to it.

Jesper is a total sweetheart. His friendships matter to him, and he spends much of the book trying not to disappoint the people who matter to him–especially Kaz, whose trust he’s still trying to regain, and his father, who doesn’t know his son dropped out of school, fell into debt, and became part of a street gang. He struggles with a gambling addiction, which created many of his problems and is threatening to create more.

Wylan is the rejected child of a wealthy merchant, deemed an unacceptable heir to his father because of his dyslexia–despite being pretty smart and good at chemistry. He’s got a lot of internalized self-worth problems, where he’d been taught to doubt himself to the point where he finds it hard to blame his father for abandoning him. Some of his struggle is coming to terms with himself. Some of it is sorting out his feelings for Jesper. And the rest is figuring out a future that works for him.

Nina is recovering from the drug she had to take in the last book to save her friends’ life, and it isn’t an easy experience to get past. It changes her. It changes her power. Where she’d always been confident and happy with her abilities, she finds herself lost in how to handle them. Unsure if she can accept this change in herself.

Ironically, she gets support from Matthias, who’s been taught all of his life to hate people like her. Matthias’ story is about overcoming that conditioned hatred and becoming a better person. About doubting the things that he’d been told, and coming to see the goodness and beauty in what he’d thought was an abomination. He comes to want that same understanding for the people he’d left behind, the ones who still enveloped in that hate.

It’s just such a good story. There’s so much to love about it.

While each character has their own personal problems, those problems sometimes bleed out and affect their friends and the group dynamic. None of the characters are isolated from each other (even the ones who want to be), so their problems become part of a greater whole. It’s interesting to watch them sort out their issues with each other, or while pushing each other away–and all in the middle of a serious crisis.

Fantastic book. I loved it.

Favorite Quotes:

“You don’t ask for forgiveness…You earn it.”

“You could love something and still see its flaws.”

“What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls…? When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.

 

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Lost Village and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress: Two Spring 2016 Anime with Intriguing Ideas That Could Have Been Better Executed

Lost Village

A boy and a girl walking through a tunnel at night, with a bus heading towards them. The title reads "Lost Village".

Image via Crunchyroll

Genre: Supernatural/Mystery

Synopsis: A bus tour filled with people wanting to leave their old lives behind heads for Nanaki Village, an urban legend that may not even exist. And even if it does, those who go there don’t come back. Everyone has their own reasons for traveling to this mysterious village, but no one knows what they’re going to find. A new place to live out their lives in peace? A fake story about a place that isn’t real? Or a mystery that pulls forth the characters’ motivations and forces them to confront who they are?

Series: 1 season, 12 episodes.

I’ve Watched: The full season.

Verdict: Has interesting things about it–certainly enough to watch. Not quite sure if it’s good as a whole, but parts of it are good.

Available: Crunchyroll. 

Dub or Sub: Sub. Don’t think there’s a dub at this point.

Lost Village is immediately intriguing, which is especially notable given that it introduces over a dozen characters at once. It pulls this off by making those characters interesting as a collective instead of delving too deeply into one character’s perspective. They’re a disparate group of people with very different reasons for being on this journey, but they are all going on the same journey–to start over in a hidden village that doesn’t officially exist. This ties them together from the get go. The staging of the show’s beginning, with all of them on a bus in the rain traveling down a lonely highway, only heightens that.

It’s a classic horror set-up, with an isolated group of characters going towards a mysterious location, though the show is not particularly scary. (It’s more like supernatural therapy, really.)

Lost Village is a bit of an anomaly, because it still manages to be interesting with thinly-drawn  characters. It relies on atmosphere, a sense of mystery, and tension between its many characters to engage the audience. That sense of mystery continues to drive the show as things slowly happen, things that don’t quite make sense. And the characters–who don’t expect anything unusual–are left wondering what’s going on and what the other characters know, while the viewers speculate on the nature of the threat and how it’s going to unfold.

The show does a good job of pacing itself by not rushing towards the more stereotypically exciting parts of the story. Instead, it devotes itself to a good build up and the character conflict that comes with it.

As might be expected, when we actually start seeing something, it’s a bit anticlimactic. I definitely enjoyed the first half of the season more than the second. But it was still interesting enough to continue, if only for the thematic contrast to most Western media.  

Many characters never received much development, and at times the show veered a little too far into melodrama. I can’t even say that I actually liked any of the characters. Individually, none of them stood out as particularly interesting. But overall, it was an enjoyable experience with some cool ideas and themes.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Genre: Post-apocalyptic

Synopsis: Humanity survives the zombie invasion by holing up in several fortified cities. Armored trains are used to travel between them. But there’s a constant danger of these cities falling. Protagonist Ikoma is just a boy working to keep those trains moving. But he thinks he might have discovered something to help his people put up a real fight…

Series: 1 season, 12 episodes.

I’ve Watched: The first 3 episodes.

Verdict: Pretty decent, but not great–though with beautifully drawn settings.

Available: I believe this is exclusively on Amazon.

Dub or Sub: Sub. Don’t know if a dub is available yet.

Humanity is under threat from the Kabane–which are essentially super-acrobatic zombies.

In contrast to zombie shows in America, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is thematically different. Where American shows tend to be about making hard decisions and survival horror, this show is about holding on to the good parts of human nature in the face of crisis. It’s kinda refreshing.

It’d be wonderful if it didn’t go overboard with melodrama at times. Unfortunately, it isn’t subtle enough to really achieve that pinnacle of emotion.

This show does look really nice, though. I’m not usually a visual person, but the art is so good even I noticed. The scenery looks great, to the point where one of the best shots I saw is literally just the wheels of a train coming to a halt, covered in blood.

Our protagonist, Ikoma, starts off the first episode as a little abrasive. That’s because he doesn’t show any fear of the zombies or of the power structure in his own society, instead exhibiting an almost fanatical anger at these things. I do appreciate that this is what Ikoma is about–being compassionate even in the face of things that turn people selfish. But it isn’t until the second episode that he starts executing those ideas to more interesting effect.

Mumei, a mysterious and capable young girl,  is great right off the bat. She’s got this charismatic irreverence, that doesn’t quite go over the edge to indifference–we still see her treating some things with the gravity they deserve. Though she’s near the cusp of being overly aggressive.

Ultimately, this show has potential, but is perhaps not quite executed strongly enough for me to feel driven to keep watching it. I don’t feel compelled to see what happens next, or attached to any of the characters. 

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Agents of SHIELD S4-1: A Bit Slow, but Setting Up Future Excitement (Especially with the Awesome New Ghost Rider)

The cast of Agents of SHIELD standing in front of a SHIELD logo, including Coulson, May, Daisy, Mack, Fitz, and Simmons. The flaming skull of Ghost Rider looms over them.

Image: Marvel/ABC via Coming Soon

Genre: Action/Superhero

Synopsis:

S1: Agent Coulson is somehow mysteriously alive after dying during the Avengers crisis, and he’s putting together his own team now. It should be business as usual, but gradually the secrets within SHIELD catch up with Coulson, his team, and the entire organization.

S2: SHIELD is in tatters, with rival factions vying for power. As Coulson works to unite his SHIELD with another faction, a community of enhanced people (Inhumans) comes into play–and he and his new allies have vastly different ideas about how to handle them.

S3: Coulson has managed to put his organization back together as a covert force, and wants to establish a task force of people with powers led by Daisy, who can create vibrations. But the release of a compound into the environment is causing people to develop powers in violent and uncontrolled ways. While the team navigates a turbulent political landscape, HYDRA’s secret plans–to unleash a terrifying power upon the world–come to fruition.

S4: Daisy’s left SHIELD, working alone as a vigilante. She crosses paths with a new superhuman the likes of which she’s never met–Ghost Rider. Then Daisy, Ghost Rider, and SHIELD all end up investigating the same problem. With different goals and MOs, the lot of them have to stop a new threat while hopefully not getting in each other’s way in the process.

Series: Midway through the 4th season.

I’ve Watched: Everything that’s out so far.

Verdict: Good, though the first half of the 4th season felt a bit more disjointed, and like set-up.

(video)

This season was slightly (but only slightly) less engaging than most of the show has been for me. I feel like this is one of the first times the show didn’t quite successfully juggle its large cast, leading to insufficient development for everyone. It’s still a good show, and I still enjoyed watching it, but I was missing some extra emotional push. 

Daisy was in a bad place and overextending herself by going it alone, but the point of that story line became a bit muddled. That was especially disappointing, because I was really excited to see her tackle vigilantism. It always seemed like the natural option for her way back in season one, with her grassroots-style beliefs and distrust of institutions. Personally, I thought the only reason she got involved in SHIELD was because she wanted that sense of community, that sense of family, and was willing to give up some of her morality in order to get it.

But now that she’s finally on her own, having walked away from SHIELD, that isn’t touched on at all. Instead, she’s frantically trying to cut all emotional ties because of how much it hurts to lose someone–even after spending her life searching for those kinds of bonds. Maybe that still could have been an interesting story, if it wasn’t one that operated on her constantly failing.

Sure, her bones are breaking from the force of using her powers. She doesn’t have anywhere to go to for medical treatment. She’s completely on her own and without support, both physically and emotionally. But that didn’t have to turn her into a damsel in distress quite so often. The limitations placed on Daisy could have been a challenge placed in her path, something she has to get creative to deal with even despite the toll it takes on her body. Instead, those limitations exist as excuses for why she keeps being beaten.

In fact, there were four or so episodes in the beginning of the season where both Daisy and May stopped being the effective badasses we know them as (which lined up with when the next remaining female badass had to be rescued from a hostage situation). And yeah, maybe they had to break Daisy’s bones and supernaturally overstimulate May’s psychology to do it. But those things didn’t have to happen at the same time. It wasn’t enjoyable for me to have that overlap, where pretty much every female character is featured at her weakest. Usually, there’s more of a balance between male and female characters rescuing each other, and that’s what I want to see. So this was unfortunate timing in terms of plotting and character journeys.

That said, I have no doubt this will get better and that this was just a bad coincidence. Agents of SHIELD has usually been pretty good on this front.

The hyped addition to the cast, Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes, also has a lot of potential. There are plenty of things to like about him, and I’m excited to see where his character development goes. His dynamic with Daisy is fun, and his relationship with his brother Gabe is supportive if complicated–especially now that his brother knows the truth, which is something they still have to deal with.

But I feel like I’m still waiting for his character conflict to surface. We meet him as someone who’s very much an anti-hero, who doesn’t feel much remorse or responsibility for the people he kills as the Ghost Rider. He wants vengeance, and he’s willing to pay the price for it. By the end of the half-season, that’s still who he is. Maybe he’s more officially dedicated to it now, since he’s apparently cut another deal. But his goals and drive haven’t really changed or evolved. 

I’m sure this is coming–Robbie had a great moment with his brother when he tried to say he was getting revenge for Gabe, who ended up in a wheelchair because of the same event that made Robbie the Ghost Rider, and Gabe shut him down. Gabe told Robbie that he may not have asked for this, but he was fine, and Robbie couldn’t put those deaths on him.

But in the meantime, I feel like I’m waiting for Robbie’s character arc to take off. Which is part of that missing emotional push I was waiting for from this half-season. Still, I’m super-excited to see where his character goes.

And glad that we’ve got another Latinx superhero on the show–The Nerds of Color talks about it here. I also just found out that Yo Yo, who I’ve been wanting more development from, has her own digital series. Which I’ll be off to go watch now. Agents of SHIELD has previously received criticism for portrayal of racial diversity and appears to have listened, which is cool.

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Girl Genius: The Epic Adventures of Mad Scientists

A blond girl in raggedy garb standing on a floor made of skulls, with a monster behind her. Next to her is written, "Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones, A Gaslamp Fantasy with Adventure, Romance, and Mad Science, Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio."

Image: Girl Genius, Artist: Phil Foglio

Genre: Steampunk/Gaslamp fantasy

Synopsis: In a world where mad science is a superpower and those that have it–Sparks–rule cities and empires, Agatha Clay is a research assistant at a university. She thinks she’s just some girl with a penchant for headaches, until her locket is stolen–and she finds out the locket was somehow suppressing her own Spark. The person who gave her that locket–her uncle–must have been hiding her existence. But why?

Unfortunately for Agatha, she’s probably going to find out. Because the same day she loses that locket, Baron Wulfenbach–the Spark who rules Europa with an iron fist–and his son visit the university. These are exactly the sort of people a young lady in hiding should avoid at all costs, but Agatha is in real danger of coming to their attention.

Series: Some 16 or so volumes so far.

I’ve Read: Everything that’s up so far.

Verdict: Amazing.

Available: Here.

I’ve been a loyal follower of this webcomic for a long time. It’s so much fun, and it’s so unique. This is an epic story about a girl taking control of her own destiny in a world where every Spark vies for power. It makes great use of its mad science themes, where a lot of its humor comes from. And it really expands the mad scientist genre by moving beyond the trope to make many of the major characters–protagonists and antagonists, villains and heroes–into mad scientists.

Agatha is a fun character to follow. No one will give her the benefit of the doubt, because many of her relatives have been of the supervillain variety. Even the famous example of her father and uncle, known as celebrated heroes, doesn’t do much to offset that image of her. But if she isn’t the hero her father was, she certainly isn’t the villain plenty of her other relatives were, either. Agatha generally has a good set of morals, when she doesn’t get too excited to remember them.

And while being a Spark comes with a certain amount of flair, she can be pretty grounded too. It’s cool that this depends on the situation–sometimes she’s freaking out at other people’s antics, and sometimes it’s the other way around.

The adventures she gets caught up in, or even ends up launching herself, are entertaining, rollicking rides. Between escaping airships, traveling with a circus, and fighting off a siege–with a castle powered by an evil AI and a bio-engineered army, no less–the action is always captivating. The worldbuilding is rich, providing us with a railroad system run by monks and a republic of librarians in the Parisian underground

The cast is made of colorful, memorable characters. A Smoke Knight who insists she’s terrible at her job, even while demonstrating some serious sleight-of-hand skill. An adventurer who’s absolutely convinced he’s the hero of this story. An airshipman who manages to survive everything, even dragging the Baron to safety with a broken arm and leg. An ex-pirate queen who now works for the Baron, and can be counted on to gleefully attack his enemies (and sometimes his allies).

The story is so rich, and so sweeping, it’s hard to say much without giving too much away. I love this webcomic, though. Its characters are great, it manages to be genuinely funny, and the sense of adventure to it is captivating.

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Rejected Princesses: A Collection of Fascinating Stories from History, Folklore, and Mythology

rejected-princesses-cover

Image: Dey Street via EW

Genre: History/Mythology/Folklore

Synopsis: A collection of short biographical stories (accompanied by cool portraits) of women in history, mythology, and folklore who don’t fit the standard narrative–especially the Disney princess narrative, as the author, Jason Porath, comes from an animation background. The main focus is on telling a good story in each entry, so even though a lot of research has gone into them, they’re told in a colloquial style.

The book features characters both well-known and relatively obscure–Hypatia, the famous mathematician. Julie d’Aubigny, bisexual duelist and opera singer. Ching Shih, leader of a pirate fleet–along with some hundred others.

Series: Set of short tales, with many more like them available at the author’s website.

POV: Third person.

Preview: Several of the book entries are available on the author’s website–including Noor Inayat Khan, Julie d’Aubigny, Nzinga Mbande, and Ching Shih.

Rejected Princesses fits into the theme of my blog because, though a lot of history goes into it, the main focus is on storytelling. This is part of why the book is immensely entertaining. It’s supposed to tell interesting, unusual stories, and it absolutely accomplishes that.

It can be a bit hard to talk about in terms of plot and character like I usually do, because again, this is some hundred entries taking up a few pages each. Many of the people talked about in this book were real, which helps with them being complex and three-dimensional–real people generally are. But it’s not like I can take the time to talk about what makes each of these entries stand out–and it might even be faster to check out a few entries on the author’s website.

Tackling the project from the perspective of good storytelling instead of an academic write-up creates an interesting format, and maybe one that’s more widely accessible. Both are important to have, of course. But making a brief story out of a biography and using modernized language to talk about it can capture the imagination of an audience. An academic paper is usually focused on details and won’t have that breadth, while a full biography requires a lot of commitment. The entries in Rejected Princesses can build on the conclusions of much more detail-oriented academic works to ignite interest, pulling out the most interesting parts.

The author has become something of an amateur historian for this project, and while I won’t say everything is accurate or the complete picture–he even stated in a Reddit AMA that he wished he’d gotten more distance from one entry before writing it–he generally points out when the historicity of something is in dispute or when something is likely to be propaganda. The online entries especially get vetted and sometimes corrections are posted.

The book also works to include figures and stories from all over the world–here’s a link to a map showing the geographical spread of entries the author has covered. Disability and LGBT representation comes up in a few of the entries–not many, but a few.

(Also, note that despite the artwork, the book is primarily written for adults–it has content warnings in case the anyone wants to read it to children, but certain entries might be a judgement call even so.)

Overall, this is a collection of fun stories that, whether real or fictional, have existed in history at some point.

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