Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2016

Summary: It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Review: I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series. The books have their problems, there’s no denying that, but overall I find them a good set of stories that age along with the kids they’re intended for, have some good humour, and are just fun to read. It’s a universe I enjoy jumping back into every now and again, for the comfort and nostalgia that the books bring.

That being said, I opened The Cursed Child with some amount of trepidation. The story was pretty much over at the end of the original seventh book, plus this was all in screenplay format, and everything I’d heard said it was merely so-so.

And at the end? I rather agree with that sentiment.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is less the story of Harry Potter and more the story of one of his kids, Albus. Coupled with the cutest damn Malfoy to ever exist, Scorpius. After being sorted into Slytherin because of reasons that aren’t exactly adequately explained (seriously, most of the character traits that sound Slytherin-eqsue largely came about as reactions because he was sorted into Slytherin), Albus feels like he doesn’t really have a place within his family, nor does his father understand him. He has a strongly biased view of his father, similar in many ways to how Draco Malfoy’s bitterness toward Harry demonstrated through the core series. After overhearing a conversation between Harry and the ailing Amos Diggory, Albus decides that he can do something that Harry himself was never able to do: save Cedric. He thus drags Scorpius along on a time-traveling adventure to save Cedric from Voldemort.

And if that sounds like any number of fanfics out there, you won’t be far off the mark.

Be warned: from here on out there are going to be a crapton of spoilers for this story, because I have a lot to say about it and many things won’t make sense unless I talk in detail about the plot. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t highlight the invisible paragraphs. I also assume you’re familiar enough with how to rest of the series went, so if you’re not, then spoiler warnings for that too.

The whole thing is a quick read, thanks to the fact that all you’re reading is dialogue and stage directions, which is nice because it means you’re not actually sticking around too long within any given section that may or may not actually make sense. Albus and Scorpius decide that the best way to prevent Cedric’s death is to make sure that he doesn’t make it to the final task in the Triwizard Tournament, thus never encountering Voldemort in the first place. Solid plan. So they decide to use the world’s last Time-Turner to go back in time, and steal his wand in the first event, evidently ignoring the idea that this may result in him being roasted to death by a dragon anyway.

Accomplishing this sends them rocketing forward into a different timeline. One in which Ron and Hermione never married because they went to the Yule Ball with each other and realised after one dance apparently that it wouldn’t work out (ignoring every bit of jealousy Ron displayed prior to that event, and Hermione’s feelings to boot), Hermione turns into a clone of Snape in terms of personality (openly calling Albus an idiot in class, for instance, and this personality shift is never explained but I think we’re supposed to assume it’s because she’s secretly bitter about Ron marrying someone else, I guess…), and other minor changes to the timeline. Plus Cedric still died, so Albus and Scorpius take a trip back in time once more and try to head Cedric off at the second task instead.

And here’s where the plot starts to fall apart in a huge way. They decide to humiliate Cedric in that task, which evidently doesn’t sit well with him, because humiliation made Cedric decide to be a Death Eater. And to kill Neville. Who consequently never killed Nagini, and thus Harry couldn’t eliminate all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort survived and took over.

But here’s the thing: that sounds utterly unlike Cedric. We see little of him in the fourth book, but what we see doesn’t make me think that people laughing at him would make him go Dark. Also, this timeline’s existence relies on the notion that absolutely nobody but Neville could kill Nagini (this is Scorpius’s explanation for why Voldemort took over, which goes counter to something he says later about prophecy and destiny being mutable and able to be thwarted; you can chalk that up to it being his realization, but that means he was likely wrong about Neville being that sole key figure in Voldemort’s downfall, so then we’re back to the question of why that timeline happened in that way to begin with). Snape lives and is helping Hermione and Ron subvert Voldemort and his Dark government, which also makes no sense because a) Hermione and Ron have no reason to trust him that we can see (the reason they knew he was secretly working for Dumbledore all along is because of Snape giving his memories to Harry just before he died), and b) if we assume everything else played out the same except for Neville’s absence and inability to kill Nagini, then by the time that happened, Snape was already dead, killed by Voldemort to get the Elder Wand.

…Maybe Trelawney’s prophecy was secretly about Neville all along…

Then we get to the second half of the play, which involves — I kid you not — Voldemort’s daughter having manipulated this all along in order to fulfill a prophecy to bring back her father. This involves her going back in time in order to convince Voldemort to not attempt to kill the Potters, thus never causing the backlash that semi-killed him and created the protection around Harry, and thus preventing the creation of the only person that could apparently kill him in the future.

An interesting idea, but similar to the issue with Neville, it also assumes that nobody but Harry could ever have killed Voldemort. That nobody else could ever have discovered the secret of his Horcrux collection and worked out a way to destroy them. I’m sure it’s supposed to be playing on the idea that one person really can make a world of difference, but it comes off more like saying only that person can make a difference. Prophecies are flexible, but things are only ever supposed to work out one exact way.

And it may seem nitpicky to say, but this scene breaks with book canon, because everyone who traveled back in time to thwart the thwarting saw the Potters exit their house.

Their house that was established to essentially be invisible to anyone who didn’t expressly know where it was, as divulged by a Secret Keeper.

This bit makes more sense if all you’ve ever known of the story was what the movies told you, because that didn’t get brought up in the movies at all. But in the books, it was a huge plot point that the Potters knew they were targets, and so a powerful spell was cast on their home to make it secret. Peter Pettigrew knew that secret, and told it to Voldemort, which is how he knew where to go that fateful night. You could argue that because the spell wasn’t in effect when Harry found it during the book’s timeline, then it didn’t matter if anyone else knew about it when he told them, but at that point in the past, it was under a spell. It wouldn’t be a very safe sort of secret if people who already knew about it kept knowing. Then Voldemort could have just tortured their mailman for information. Nobody should have been able to see them leave the house at that point.

And yet…

The whole thing with Delphini being Voldemort’s daughter was just painful, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine Voldemort condescending to even do that, but according to the timeline Delphini admits to, she was born shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, which means that her mother (Bellatrix Lestrange) was heavily pregnant through many scenes she appeared in and yet nobody noticed. She also fought in that battle soon after giving birth, because apparently women bounce back from that like it’s nothing.

This is part of my biggest problem with the story in The Cursed Child. Not only does it make some truly impressive leaps of logic when it comes to the rippling effects of small changes to the timeline, but it also outright ignores established canon. It’s not the first story to do this. It certainly won’t be the last. But it’s extremely frustrating every time it happens, because I can never shake the feeling that if it’s a plot hole I can spot, the creator should have been able to spot it with greater accuracy.

Maybe it’s just easier to assume that this whole this canonizes multiple universes, and that bookverse and movieverse are both just canon on different timelines. That doesn’t erase my other issues, and it does call into question issues of canon within the movies themselves, but it at least can explain away this one problem.

As for characterization, well, some characters were fairly on point. Others? Not by a long shot. Ron gets turned entirely into the comic relief guy in the primary timeline; running the joke shop would be one thing, but figuring that a snack in the Hogwarts kitchens takes priority over finding his missing nephew? Cedric, when encountered in the maze during a time travel event, talks like a knight from a bad fantasy novel. When we see Snape in the Dark world timeline, he acts like he’s really Sirius pretending to be Snape. I already mentioned Hermione’s random personality switch; she acts like she’s really Snape not even attempting to pretend to be Hermione. Harry and normal!Hermione were pretty decent and recognizable, but I think the book’s biggest saving grace was that most of it surrounds characters who didn’t already have established personalities to begin with, so nothing about them really seems out of place.

For my part, I loved Scorpius. The word adorkable fits him perfectly. I enjoyed seeing more development of Draco, not just as an antagonistic counterpart to Harry but as a loving father and a grieving husband who made some monumental mistakes in the past but not without reason, and not without redemption. Albus may have been a bit of an emo teenager, but I could relate to him to a degree, that sense of feeling out of place around the people who are supposed to give you stability, feeling lost and alone and like only one person in the world actually gets you. I loved seeing the conflict between him and Harry, the rifts that come between people even in good families. I liked the idea that people can still love and support you even when you don’t always get along. So even while some characters were mere caricatures of the people I’d come to expect, there was still enough in other characters to make dealing with them a treat.

Then there’s the Trolley Lady. I just… good gods, the Trolley Lady. That scene was one long “WTF did I just read?” moment.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a story that was fun so long as you don’t think too hard about it. It had some plot holes you could drop a piano through, but it also had some good moments, and some lovable characters to discover. It’s worth reading for curiosity’s sake, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously, nor expect much of it, because it fails to deliver. I feel a bit saddened by the fact that I’m essentially saying you won’t be that disappointed if your expectations are low, but that really does sum up how I felt about this whole screenplay. It was okay, but not great, and not a patch on the core series.

SPFBO Review: The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2015

Summary: LIVE IN THE SADDLE. DIE ON THE HOG. Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs. Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs. When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.

Review: Every once in a while, you come across something that makes you sit up and take notice. You read a book and make a mental note that the book’s author is one to keep an eye on. Jonathan French is one such author, after having read The Grey Bastards.

Take a band of half-orcs, people typically born of interspecies rape, and give them a hard land that nobody else really seems to want. Tell them that they’re the only things stopping a second war between orcs and humans. Have then breed and ride very large boars as their mounts. Then throw in an idealistic young half-orc named Jackal who sees that his leader is making strange and unwise decisions, especially after a mysterious wizard arrives, and you get a story of action and intrigue that had me turning pages long past the time I should realistically have gone to sleep some nights.

It’s not a comfortable world that French sets up in The Grey Bastards. It’s full of violence, racial conflict, and if men treating women with anything but respect is something that rankles you, then you’re going to find a lot to dislike here. Women are often treated like walking genitalia, good for nothing but keeping a man’s sexual urges satisfied. Most of the female characters here are whores, with two exceptions: Fetching, a female half-orc who earned her place in an all-male band of fighters by not taking crap from anyone and giving as good as she got; and an elf named Starling, who says nothing in an intelligible language and doesn’t actually do much related to the plot. It’s probably not a book that will rate highly on the lists of those looking for books that feature equality between the sexes.

And I’m often pretty sensitive to that when it crops up in books. But for all that, I found myself really enjoying The Grey Bastards, even when some of the story (or rather, what some of the characters did and said) made me uncomfortable.

The story we get to see is from Jackal’s perspective, a half-orc who has ambitions of leadership but who doesn’t dare challenge the current leader, known as the Claymaster. That is, until the Claymaster starts making some very questionable decisions, and Jackal wonders if the old man is past his prime as is actually more of a danger to his people than a good leader. A newly-arrived wizard seems charming enough at first, but then begins having far too much influence over the Claymaster. Plans fall apart, they go nowhere, and Jackal decides it’s high time he challenged the Claymaster for leadership after all.

And here’s the fun thing about The Grey Bastards. Every time I thought an event would have a particular conclusion, it didn’t. I expected that challenge to go a certain way, and it didn’t. I expected a big reveal about a certain character, and it was about someone else. And those things made perfect sense in context; they didn’t seem designed to make a reader think one thing would happen while the author secretly mocks them for being unimaginative. French’s storytelling made everything flow well, with surprised working as well for the characters as they worked for the reader. It all kept me on my toes, and was a big reason I kept reading. I wanted to see what I’d be surprised by next, what expectations would be broken, and where the story would ultimately lead. The brutal world that French created had a certain charm to it, partly because while the Lot Lands of Jackal’s home are admittedly a wasteland between a rock and a hard place, Jackal loves them and is loyal to their defense and it’s hard to not let some of that rub off on you. You may not like the world or what kind of people it has helped to shape, but you can’t ignore that Jackal’s sentiments about it all have an effect as the story progresses.

The Grey Bastards put me in mind of something that Jeff Salyards might have written. The banter between characters is similar, full of crude camaraderie and foul-mouthed exclamations. The balance of idealism and experience is there, alongside the whole “things are far more complicated than they seem and you don’t know everything about everything” that I’ve seen in Salyards’s writing too. And my reaction to the works were so similar, making me think that while both Salyards and French are writing about things that you’d think wouldn’t appeal to me, given my other taste in novels, in the end I was surprised and impressed by just how much I’d enjoyed the stories contained within the pages.

So on that note, I can say that if you’ve read Salyards (or other authors like him) and enjoyed those books, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy French’s The Grey Bastards too. It’s a wild ride on the hog, filled with brutality, battle, and bravery. It’s coarse and crass and also loveable, and after this, I have high hopes for what French might do in the future. This was an excellent introduction to his work, and I’m pleased to have gotten it as part of my SPFBO book package. It’s a fine example of why you shouldn’t underestimate self-published authors or write them off as “not good enough;” The Grey Bastards is the kind of novel you dream of finding when you’re looking for underappreciated and worthy works.

On Being an Ex-Pat

I’ve returned from my trip to the UK. I’m sure you all felt my absence deeply. :p


I got back from the UK late last week, and for the most part, I’ve been trying to recover from jet lag and readjusting to a schedule that was different from what I got used to while I was there, which was different from what I lived before I left for the trip in the first place. Not an easy thing, let me tell you!

img_0354-2But this trip, while I did enjoy it, brought out some very strange feelings in me, and left me feeling more than a little adrift, unsettled. I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life, of course, but in my heart, I still considered myself British. I had — and for the most part, still have– little to no interest in getting Canadian citizenship; I’m relatively happy to remain a Permanent Resident. My heritage is something that is important to me, part of my identity, and even though England is not my home in the sense of being the place in which I reside, it’s something of a spiritual home for me, to the point that I still call it Home quite often.

I hadn’t been back in around 12 years. I went back this time to visit family, to relax and enjoy myself, which was a welcome break from the 2 previous trips back, which were both for funerals. It was high time I enjoyed myself in the place I called home, after all.

And I did enjoy myself.

But more than that, I felt comfortable.

It’s that kind of comfortable that I think many people take for granted. The kind of comfortable that comes alongside going to an unfamiliar place, walking down streets that only slowly become familiar, and thinking to yourself, “Yes, I could live here. I could do this every day.” Most of the time when people go elsewhere, they go as tourists, doing all the tourist-y stuff, sightseeing, all that. And I did some of that. But I also spent time just wandering streets, picking up groceries, getting on the bus to go visit my grandmother. In some ways, I did the mundane things that most people do when they live in a place, not when they’re visiting. And it felt very comfortable to me. Those little mundane tasks, those little slices of life that are so normal that we often overlook just what they mean about our level of comfort.

Plenty of people joked about me moving back to the UK for good. Some of those jokes, I know, were not jokes but actual invitations. Because people wanted me there. They missed me, and I missed them, and I knew full well that I could live a life similar to what I’m living now.

img_0480-2But here’s the thing: the life I’m living now is, in some ways, the life of an outsider.

And it would be just as much on the fringe there as here.

I moved to Canada when I was 5, after my father got offered a job here. I remembered some of what living in the UK was like, in that skewed way children experience things. My memories of England were of family, of eating a chocolate donut at McDonald’s, of misbehaving at school and being sent into the hall. My earliest memories of Canada were being made fun of my other children for having an accent. Constantly. Mockeries of the way I talked were common.

I quickly learned how to sound Canadian.

I can switch my accent back and forth, depending on who I’m talking to. People are surprised when I do it, when they haven’t heard it before. It was a survival mechanism. I started life here on the outside, with people knowing I was different. I grew up, and discussed my life with others, and as soon as they heard I was born in the UK, I became “the British one.” Suddenly the expert on everything different. “What do they call this thing in England?” “Do they have that in England?” Curious questions from people reinforcing, over and over again, that I don’t really belong here. That I’ll always be somewhat on the outside.

img_0400-2This trip back to the UK, seen through adult eyes, highlighted just how many little differences there were between what I know in Canada and what other people know in England. It’s a cashpoint, not always an ATM. “Nae bother” replaces “no problem,” at least around Newcastle. Taxis, not cabs. Shopping centres, not malls. Switch the wall socket on and off manually. Different climate, different units for measuring certain things. TV that wasn’t dominated by American shows. I was forever asking my mother, “So, how does this work here?” Little mundane things like postal service, paying rent, all the little things you do regularly that I was forever being confronted with that worked, in small ways, differently than I was used to.

(Please excuse me while I Barugh a little.)

It made me feel like even if I moved back there, started living in the place I have for years called my home, that I wouldn’t fit in any better there than I do here.

That’s the thing about being an ex-pat, I suppose. It’s so easy to feel like you have two homes and yet none. That you’re torn between heritage and upbringing, that anything you remember about before just holds you back from adapting to now, even when you’ve been out of that “before” place for decades. Assimilate or flounder, and oh, by the way, you’ll never really assimilate. At best, you’ll pass. If nobody looks too closely. And nobody questions why you’re using the wrong country’s term for something.

If I moved to England tomorrow (and I won’t be, for many reasons), in a lot of ways, life wouldn’t change for me. I’d still read SFF novels. I’d still be a textile artist. I’d still play videos games. I’d still write. I’d still have the same health, the same weight, the same appearance.

img_0425-2And I’d be struggling as much as I ever did as a child, desperate to hide the fact that even though I can talk with the right accent, I’m still using the wrong words, still unfamiliar with all the things everyone else has absorbed unconsciously through their lives because they haven’t lived elsewhere to have something to compare it to, to have that brainstorm that means conscious realization of cultural and linguistic habits.

And it hurts to come to this conclusion that neither places I have ever called home are really home to me. Both are equally comfortably and uncomfortable, both have a place for me and yet nowhere for me to turn.

I was a third culture kid. I am an immigrant. I am an expatriate. Literally, that means that I am out of my home country. A foot in two different places, different enough from each other to be confusing, divided, and to make me feel startlingly lonely and out of place in both.

Books on my Radar (October 2016)

Every month has a glut of books that look awesome and that I know — I know — I will never get around to reading, whether or not I have a copy. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth highlighting. So here’s a look at the books coming out in September 2016 that have caught my attention.

(Note – This is not a comprehensive list of all SFF books being released in this month. This is just a list of the ones that I have my eye on, for whatever reason.)

October 2016 SFF books

Closer to the Chest, by Mercedes Lackey
Amazon.com / B&N
October 04

The Rise of Io, by Wesley Chu
Amazon.com / B&N
October 04

The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu
Amazon.com / B&N
October 04

Faller, by Will McIntosh
Amazon.com / B&N
October 25

The Tourist, by Robert Dickinson
Amazon.com / B&N
October 18

The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko
Amazon.com / B&N
October 11

September 2016 in Retrospect

September has been a busy busy month for me. You wouldn’t know it to look at the posts here, but most of the busy stuff came from non-bloggish things. Like preparing for my trip to see my family in the UK.

This meant that not only did I have to make sure I had all my documentation, get packed, make sure I had clothes that had only an appropriate number of holes in them, and all that other normal stuff people do when prepping for a trip, but since I’m also part of Oddulting on YouTube, I had to have enough videos to cover my absense. This meant that in addition to recording extra episodes, I also had to edit and process them, which resulted in busy nights filled with editing, editing, editing, and in between the editing, trying to keep up with housework.

Oh, and also books. Still got to keep up with books.

I’m kind of glad to see the month end, to be perfectly honest.


The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz
Fix, by Ferrett Steinmetz
The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

SPFBO Review: Song of the Summer King, by Jess E Owen
SPFBO Review: Thread Slivers, by Leeland Artra

Other Stuff

Books on my radar for September.
Cover reveal for Ben Galley’s upcoming Heart of Stone.
I vented a little about, of all things, video game distributors misunderstanding how reviews work.
I also wrote about the way people misunderstand what science is, and how that contributes to people thinking that sci-fi is inherently more realistic and thus better than fantasy.

Next Month

Next month, the first 2 weeks will be pretty barren, since that’s when I’ll be across the ocean visiting family and wandering the streets of Newcastle taking pictures of stuff and hunting down virtual monsters in Pokemon Go.

But this trip features 2 flights that are almost 8 hours long each, and that’s ample reading time, so I plan to have a few books read by the end of that trip. And if nothing else, I’ll be reading the final 2 SPFBO books in my batch and announcing who I’ll be sending on to the final round (even if one of the reviews might come a teensy bit late… maybe…)

Take care, everybody, and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with lots of pictures and definitely-not-a-tan!

SPFBO Review: Thread Slivers, by Leeland Artra

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 25, 2015

Summary: She craves fame. He wants freedom. When their worlds crumble, even survival may not be an option.

The world is driven by wizards, gods, and an imperial space marine 20,000 years into our future. Fame-hungry female mercenary Ticca is willing to skirt the edges of her warrior’s code if it brings her the fame she desires. Her hopes of making a name for herself by spying on assassins are dashed when she’s forced to kill the assassin she was hired to watch.

Lebuin is a rich journeyman mage who’s just discovered his new rank involves actual journeying. He hires Ticca to help him advance to master and return to a life of comfort as quickly as possible. He’s willing to spend all he has to make it happen, but the mage and his mercenary get much more than they bargained for.

Trapped in the crossfire of a vast power game, Ticca and Lebuin must survive a battle between rulers, guilds, and gods. In a land of magic and technology, they’ll need to give everything to keep the world and themselves in one piece.

Thread Slivers is the first book in an epic fantasy/speculative sci-fi trilogy set in a distant future. If you like heroic, humorous, and exotic characters in a world that mixes elements of paranormal and hard sci-fi, then you’ll love this beautiful, original, and thought-provoking adventure.

Review: Ticca is a mercenary who wants to make a name for herself. Lebuin is a sheltered mage who finds himself targeted by people who want him gone. The two are thrown together, trying to uncover why a powerful mage was murdered and what secrets they both carry, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous people who follow them. Meanwhile, Duke, a powerful… werewolf-type person, has his own plans for the world, plans that involve taking down the reigning Princes and bringing back the history he once lived.

Thread Slivers is a complex story, or rather a complex mix of stories that all tie together in various ways. A good story should have more to it than just a straightforward and uncomplicated A-to-B plotline. And when it does all come together, it’s rather satisfying to see the way all the stories intertwine and become more cohesive. But I have to admit, at first, it didn’t seem like there was much cohesion at all. We start off from Ticca’s perspective, then later switch to Lebuin’s, and they’re the focus of the story for a while. Until other characters start coming in, and sections are chapters are told from their points of view, and I spent a good chunk of the book wondering who most of them were and why I ought to be interested in them, because their aspects of the story seemed almost incidental compared to what Ticca and Lebuin were focusing on.

But that isn’t to say those viewpoints served no purpose. They do. Without them, so many events and revelations would come from nowhere, and the story would come across like a big mess with poor planning. And that was, thankfully, avoided. But even so, it sometimes took long enough for it to become clear that the viewpoints were serving a greater purpose than just adding detail and flavour to the story, so I found myself often wishing that I could just get back to the main arc.

Especially because so many characters often engaged in monologues, both internal and external. Makes for tough reading sometimes, when you see it from every character you encounter.

But once you settle in for a slow build-up, Thread Slivers does end up pretty satisfying. It’s the kind of book that demands you put your expectations aside before you get going, I think, in part because while this appears at first to be secondary-world fantasy, it’s actually far-future fantasy, that kind of uncommon fantasy novel that takes place many centuries from now, a possibility of what may. But without knowing that in advance, some aspects of the novel seem a little sloppy, such as people saying Latin phrases. I admit I raised an eyebrow when a character said, “Semper fi,” because, similar to my reaction to Shakespeare being mentioned in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, I had to wonder what a thing specifically from this world and its history was doing so incongruously in a fantasy novel. It can take a reader by surprise, and the surprise isn’t always a pleasant one.

That’s something that strikes me more than it strikes most others, though, I think. For other readers, this mention may just be glossed over and won’t be thought of again. They jump out at me, however, and I had to take a step back to look over the book’s summary to see that it is indeed meant to be that way, the world is meant to be a far-future one, and it wasn’t just an unthinking oversight on the author’s part.

Thread Slivers is an interesting fantasy novel, once you get into it. It takes a long time to really get going (the first half of the book felt like little more than set-up for when the story actually began), but the characters are interesting and rather varied, and Artra’s writing style flows well. There was clearly plenty of planning and detail that went into the creation of this world, and it pays off in the end. Not one to go into if you’re looking for something light and quick, but if you’re into books that slowly sink their hooks into you, then this is one you ought to check out.

The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Listening to other people talk can teach you a lot.

Not only lately, I’ve been hearing more people talk about women in SFF, examining their role and place, the biases against them, the opinions of them, and so on. My reaction to this varies between, “Nothing new here,” and, “It’s about time more people talked about this,” depending on my mood, but something was recently brought up that tangentially made me think about the views of sci-fi and fantasy as genres themselves, and the perceptions thereof.

In Bronwyn Lovell’s article, Science Fiction’s Women Problem, she says the following:

There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction.

Which is absolutely worth paying attention to for the issues it brings up about gender, and I in no way want to sideline that conversation. I mention it as context for my thought process, the jumping-off point from which my brain went, “Hang on a second, there’s something else here that I want to think about too.”

It relates back to something an old friend of mine once said. She strongly disliked fantasy as a genre, because, in her mind, there were no rules. In fantasy, magic could just do anything. No rules, no consequences. No realism. It didn’t make sense. So she didn’t like it, because fantasy, by its very nature, was not grounded in reality.

And sure, some fantasy is like that. But in fairness, it tends to be poorly-written fantasy that falls into the category of, “Screw the rules, I have magic.” Not all fantasy even has magic: I’ve read more than a few novels that may as well been classed as historical fiction for all they involved magic and monsters (that is to say, not at all), and all that really placed them in the fantasy genre was that they take place in a secondary-world.

But Lovell does have a point that science fiction tends to viewed as superior because it’s supposedly grounded in fact, whereas fantasy can just spring from the fevered imagination of some nobody who doesn’t have to know anything about how things work because magic can take care of all that. Fantasy is seen as softer. Science fiction? Well, that involves science, which involves intelligence and understanding and curiosity, not just making things up at random.

Only that’s a huge problem of assumption. And not just because some fantasy novels don’t employ Magical McGuffins.

The way I see it, it boils down to the preconception that science fiction is more intelligent and thus superior because it involves science. Even if it involves science that doesn’t make sense. The assumption that most readers make, even unconsciously, is that if there’s technology involved that works even when our current understanding says it shouldn’t, that in the future we just figure out new ways of making it work. We bridge the mental gap because we assume that technology = science = always correct according to the laws of the universe.

We don’t give magic the same benefit. Even if it accomplishes the same thing. A teleportation spell will always be less realistic than a Star Trek-esque teleporter, because the world we know doesn’t have that kind of magic in it and probably never will. It may eventually have that kind of technology, and so that possibility makes it, to the minds of many, more grounded in reality.

But none of that erases the way fantasy is devalued. All that does is point out our flaws of assumption when it comes to science fiction. What about the science of fantasy?

First, we’re going to have to look at the definition of science:

a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general law; systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation; skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency; knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

That’s according to dictionary.com, which works as well as any dead-tree dictionary I could pull from my bookshelf.

So what prevents that definition from being applied to fantasy?

Absolutely nothing.

As many fantasy writers have demonstrated.

Again, it comes back to assumptions. Science is organized, and magic (and therefore all of fantasy) is chaotic. Uncontrolled, random, imprecise, because it’s nothing we can measure and confirm. But we can’t confirm and measure that future-tech teleporter, either, so that bias must get thrown out the window or else we must admit hypocrisy.

Let’s say you have a secondary world where people can do magic and accomplish great feats such as healing the sick or making rocks float or conjure invisible protective shields to save them from an assassin’s thrown dagger. Throw in a unicorn or two, for good measure, and a dragon, because everybody loves dragons. Typical fantasy fare.

Now let’s say that magic has been used on this world for the whole of recorded history, and people past and present have devoted time and effort to figuring out how it all works. They know magic’s limitations, they know its side-effects, they know what it can and can’t do.

Is that unscientific just because they don’t know that magic can light a candle by agitating the molecules in a certain area to create heat, thus igniting the candle’s wick?

Looking at our own scientific history, it’s easy to think, without really thinking, that anyone who hasn’t reached the conclusions we reached is ignorant, or undeveloped. But by the definition of science, it’s still scientific in nature for monkeys to know what plants make them sick after seeing other monkeys get sick from eating them. Observation and experimentation.

We too often conflate science with technology. Advanced technology, at that; looms used to weave cloth are technology, machines based upon scientific principles. Hell, Jacquard looms are basically some of the first computers, using punchcards to create patterns on a power loom (yes, the same kind of punchcard that used to be used in computer programming even in the 1980s). Jacquard looms were invented in 1801, back when science still considered disease to be caused by “bad air.” But often when we think of computer science, we don’t start that far back, and especially with textiles now being considered a typically “womanly” think to be concerned with, it seems almost uncomfortable to think that early computer technology was just being used to quickly weave the cloth for pretty clothes.

But science is so much more than calculators and rocket ships. Look at Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which deals with the biology of dragons. And I’ve read hard scifi that involves vampires who react badly to crosses. Having vampires in it didn’t make it less science fiction, nor any of the science it used less credible, but if we’re judging based solely on common content

Sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the bias.

I’ve noticed increasingly that “speculative fiction” is coming into its own as a category that seems in many ways to blend the two aspects of science and magic (or the supernatural, as we define it). If a book takes place in the future of this world, for instance, and involves magic or something similar to it, then it’s often classed as speculative fiction, that umbrella term for “what if” stories that don’t seem to fit into either science fiction or fantasy. It’s not science fiction, even if there’s technology more advanced than what we have now, because it doesn’t fit some classic sci-fi tropes, but neither is it fantasy, because it takes place in this world and doesn’t deal with either the present or the past.

(Which is another indicator I’ve noticed, actually. Sci-fi almost exclusively deals with the future, whereas something under the fantasy umbrella, if it occurs in this world, takes place either very recently or else in the past. There’s almost no historical sci-fi. There’s very little post-apocalyptic fantasy unless the technological advances in history were made by some very-long-ago civilization and nobody understand anything about it anymore. When something crosses those lines, it tends to be notable.)

But speculative fiction as a genre name sounds far more credible than fantasy. It sounds like somebody’s asking hard questions about what is, or what could be, in a way that we assume fantasy never even contemplates. It sounds more intellectual, and is more likely to be taken seriously. Not quite as seriously as science fiction, because it’s softer and more human and less sterile, but definitely more serious than fantasy.

But we might not even need such a category if we didn’t tend to dismiss the importance of fantasy as a genre quite so much. Fantasy might not have robots in it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tackle difficult topics. Is deconstructing racism more hard-hitting if it involves lizard-like people from another planet instead of lizard-like people from an island 200 miles off the south coast of Fantasia?

If life lessons are only worth learning now when robots are involved, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Magic can have clear rules and definitions. It is not by default some unscientific thing, so long as it’s approached scientifically. The technology in science fiction can come as much from a writer’s desire for convenience as any enchanted amulet. Science fiction and fantasy both have a number of interesting things to say, wonderful stories to tell; the same faults can be found spanning both. And it’s entirely unfair to dismiss one genre as superior to the other because of our strange assumptions about what science actually is.

The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2016

Summary: Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow into, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who harbor a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building start to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.

Review: Don’t read this book alone at night.

Let me repeat that. Don’t read this book alone at night!

That’s what I did. I kind of regret it, especially with the ending being what it is.

This dark and atmospheric novel isn’t my first dive into Japanese horror, though it’s definitely one of the better J-horror novels I’ve read over the years. The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm, tells the story of a small family moving to a new apartment they’ve just purchased in Tokyo, an apartment that sold for a low price because of its location next to a graveyard. It’s not an ideal place to raise their young daughter, but the price was right, and it’s convenient enough for work and school, so Teppei and Misao are fine enough with living there. That is, until strange events start occurring, and their daughter Tamao gets mysteriously injured in the basement, and everyone in the building begins moving away…

Koike’s writing brings Japan to life, and Boehm’s translation adds those little explanatory touches to some concepts that those in the West might not be so familiar with. Happily, those bits are few, and only when necessary, letting the reader absorb the culture and atmosphere contextually, which I vastly prefer compared to when translators feel the need to either hold my hand and explain absolutely everything, or else don’t bother to add appropriate notes at all. This combo allowed me to take a mental visit to the spookier side of Japan, and the little idiosyncracies of Japanese life, without leaving my house.

Even if you can’t necessarily identify with Teppei or Misao, you certainly do feel for them. They’re trying to live a normal life, to give their kid the chance to get a good education, live in a good neighbourhood, not spend more than they can afford, and for all intents and purposes they are an utterly average family. They’re not supernatural thrillseekers, nobody’s secretly a psychic or a medium, but neither are they stuck on denying the paranormal nature of events in the building once they encounter them. Teppei probably has the hardest time with this, denying Misao and Tamao’s feelings over the matter, until he’s forced to confront it, which seems to me like a fairly classic presentation in horror fiction: women encounter the supernatural first and follow their uneasy feelings about it, while men take longer to convince and their eventual acceptance is the tipping point where things start to get serious.

While it may bother some readers that the cause of the haunting was somewhat vague and largely theoretical (probably caused by initial construction disturbing the bones of those buried nearby, but that doesn’t explain everything behind the paranormal events that plagued the apartment building and its residents) or that the ending was so downbeat, personally, I rather liked that some of it was open to interpretation. The characters themselves only had hints about what happened before they arrived, and had to put pieces of the puzzle together on their own; the reader knows as much as the Kano family, and even they, right at the end, aren’t entirely sure of everything. As for the ending, well, at a certain point you start to realise that there are really only two choices for how the story will end: either some too-convenient thing will rescue the lone family trapped in the apartment building, or they don’t get out at all.

I don’t consider that too big a spoiler because the horror genre isn’t typically about feel-good endings. A feel-good ending would have been so contrived and counter to the tone in the rest of the novel, and as you flip through those final few pages, the odds of it happening get slimmer and slimmer until all that’s left is to figure out how it happens, rather than if.

And then there’s the very last page, and if it doesn’t send even a little tingle down your spine, you’re made of sterner (or more cynical) stuff than I.

Horror fans are really in for a treat when they read The Graveyard Apartment, especially if they’re horror fans with a taste for non-Western settings or like expanding their horizons to include other cultures. It has good tension in all the right places, has a fantastically creepy atmosphere, and is overall just a damn good ghost story. Seek it out and prepare to avoid basements for a long time.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Song of the Summer King, by Jess E Owen

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – July 12, 2012

Summary: Shard is a gryfon in danger. He and other young males of the Silver Isles are old enough to fly, hunt, and fight–old enough to be threats to their ruler, the red gryfon king. In the midst of the dangerous initiation hunt, Shard takes the unexpected advice of a strange she-wolf who seeks him out, and hints that Shard’s past isn’t all that it seems. To learn his past, Shard must abandon the future he wants and make allies of those the gryfons call enemies. When the gryfon king declares open war on the wolves, it throws Shard’s past and uncertain future into the turmoil between. Now with battle lines drawn, Shard must decide whether to fight beside his king… or against him.

Review: I judge YA novels a bit differently than I judge adult novels. That isn’t to say that I expect less of them; often I find that I end up expecting more, because so many YA novels recycle the same old story elements and tropes that I’m quite bored of by now, so my standards for a good YA novel have gotten pretty exacting over the years. But when it comes to writing style, for instance, there are different expectations for a YA novel than for anything else.

When I first started reading Song of the Summer King, I’d forgotten that it was a YA novel, and so at first the writing style came across as a bit stilted, a bit more juvenile than I’d hoped. It made for an awkward beginning, not because it was badly written, but because my expectations were skewed. I mentioned this primarily because that awkwardness was part of my overall experience, even if I came to realise my error pretty quickly.

But once I remembered that oh, right, different set of expectations at play here, I settled more firmly into the story and started to really enjoy what was playing out on the pages.

Shard is a gryfon in a conquered pride. He can’t remember his father, can’t remember a time before the conquerors came, and he is loyal to the current king, a red gryfon named Sverin. On Shard’s first hunt, he encounters a wolf named Catori, and despite wolves being enemies to gryfons, he listens to her advice and emerges victorious. Shard gains the attention of Sverin, and his place within the gryfon pride seems to be on the rise, but so too is his unease about that place, his past, and the future to come.

It’s rarer to find YA fantasies than it is to find YA urban fantasy or YA dystopias, so I tend to keep my eyes open for this sort of book. Maybe there’s the assumption that secondary-world fantasy just won’t appeal to teens, I don’t know; it sure would have appealed to most of the SFF-loving friends I know when they/we were teens. Extra points for me in this case, because I found four-legged creatures fascinating, so give me an entire book where all the characters are gryfons or wolves? Yes please!

I thought it was interesting the way the author pulled elements from Norse mythology to construct parts of the story. I’m no expert on that particular branch of mythology, but I know enough to recognise a few names and a couple of references to particular myths. That aspect of the story made me even more curious as to how it was all going to play out, especially in future novels. (This is the start to a series I definitely want to see through to the end; unlike a lot of YA I’ve been reading lately, I don’t feel burned out on the subgenre after reading Song of the Summer King, and that’s an increasingly rare occurrence for me!)

It’s a small world that Owen paints in Song of the Summer King, taking place on only a small handful of islands. There are hints at a wider world beyond, but so far Shard’s world is small, limited, a suitable backdrop for a character who learns that he has much to learn. Shard is inexperienced but not innocent; he can fight, he pushes his boundaries, he doesn’t meet the world with wide-eyed wonder but with confusion and aggression and the attempt to figure out how all these new things fit into his worldview. He’s actually an interesting character, a good one for the reader to ride along with, because he’s neither a blank slate nor somebody who just accepts the yoke of destiny that the universe places upon him. He doubts, he refuses, he makes mistakes. And by the end, his character growth is reflected in the world around him; the next part of the story seems like it will involve places much further away than the Silver Isles, and Shard will once again have to grow.

Some of the characters, however, I found a bit two-dimensional. Particularly the antagonists, which amounted to anyone who disliked Shard, really. Halvden didn’t like him because Shard was Vanir, born of the pride that was conquered by the Aesir. Hallr didn’t like Shard for much the same reason. Sverin seemed every inch the cold calculating king, and while Shard himself sought to prove his loyalty, Sverin turning on him was no surprise. It was an inevitable confrontation. Unlike the others, though, Sverin at least had the benefit of being a bit more ambiguous in his approach to Shard, until he let his hatred of the Vanir overtake him. But for the most part, if a character disliked Shard? It was obvious, and you weren’t meant to like them, and they weren’t meant to have any reason that didn’t boil down to general prejudice. That seemed to be the whole of Hallr and Halvden’s characters, really.

For my part, I thought Song of the Summer King was an enjoyable novel, fast-paced and fun and filled with adventure and discovery from an uncommon character. None of the characters here are human, or even humanoid; you’re dealing with a book filled with gryfons and wolves and birds, and exploring what lies between them and unthinking savage animals. Owen has hooked me on Shard’s quest, and I want to spend more time being entertained by the far-reaching adventures of these gryfons. This is a novel to pay attention to if you’re a fan of YA fantasy, and I expect there are quite a few people out there who will enjoy it just as much as I did.

Misunderstanding How Reviews Work

I don’t often talk about non-bookish things here on Bibliotropic, but yesterday I came across an article that’s about video games but has a lot in it that applies to what I do here. Please, take a moment to read over the article: Devs Concerned As Steam Makes Big Adjustment To Player Reviews.

Done? Okay, awesome.

So how does this apply to what I do, exactly?

It’s all about reviews. And about whose opinion should actually count.

For those who didn’t read the article, it’s all about how the company behind the popular gaming platform, Steam, has made the decision to by default only allow weight to reviews of games purchased through their platform. This is an attempt to cut down on instances of game developers giving out free redemption codes for their games in exchange for reviews.

Which sounds good on paper. Until you realise that there are a whole load of problems with this well-intentioned idea of theirs. The quote from Valve even makes mention of said problems:

An analysis of games across Steam shows that at least 160 titles have a substantially greater percentage of positive reviews by users that activated the product with a cd key, compared to customers that purchased the game directly on Steam. There are, of course, legitimate reasons why this could be true for a game: Some games have strong audiences off Steam, and some games have passionate early adopters or Kickstarter backers that are much more invested in the game.

In other words, they already know that there are a whole load of ways to get games on Steam that don’t require purchasing them through Steam. The popular site Humble Bundle often sells bundles of games at a great price, and Steam keys are part of said bundles. Now anyone who buys their games through Humble Bundle, either to take advantage of good pricing or because they also like to donate money to charity, now will have their reviews not count on Steam. Ditto anyone who supports a game through Kickstarter and gets a redemption key that way.

But the kicker for me is that Valve draws no distinction between “free game in exchange for review” and “free game in exchange for positive review.” And there is a difference.

For one thing, many reviewers, no matter what they review, end up getting free stuff for review, if they do it long enough and end up well-established. This holds true not only for books, but also for video games. The smaller the company, the more likely they are to reach out to smaller reviewers, too, so both sides of the exchange can benefit. “Please considering reviewing my game if I provide a complimentary copy for you.” Bigger companies do this too. I can’t tell you how many reviewers and Let’s Play channels I’ve heard drop mentions of getting games from gaming giants like Nintendo or Square Enix, either for review or for play, to drum up hype about their games. It happens more often than you may think.

Just look over a few random reviews of mine here. About 90% of what I review, I get as a review copy.

But according to Valve, reviews like mine don’t deserve to count. Because they can’t guarantee I wasn’t essentially paid off to say something good.

Even Amazon, with all their controversial decisions over the past decade, didn’t go that far. Yes, they weight more heavily the reviews written in connection with a verified purchase through them, but they don’t take away all the weight from reviews of products that are purchased elsewhere. When last I checked, if a book has a 5-star rating from a verified purchase and a 3-star rating from a not-verified purchase, the book will still have a 4-star rating. The written review from the verified purchase will show higher on the list than the other one, but the overall rating stays the same. What Valve did is taking that mentality up to 11, and saying that not only should verified purchases carry more weight, but they should carry all the weight.

So not only does this screw over people who get their games through Humble Bundle or by supporting things on Kickstarter, not only does it screw over developers who hand out complimentary copies in exchange for honest reviews, it also screws over reviewers in general who get their games a variety of ways. Valve has just made it harder for people who work hard and work legitimately to establish themselves, whether they’re establishing themselves as a good producer of games or as a voice that can be trusted to speak the truth.

This, in the name of cutting down the possibility to inflated reviews that might be related to buy-offs.

Let’s just say that I’m both unimpressed with this, and also very thankful that my own reviews aren’t treated with such disdain by the platform upon which I review.