SPFBO Review: Assassin’s Charge, by Claire Frank

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 10, 2016

Summary: A cold-hearted assassin. A boy with a price on his head.

Rhisia Sen is one of the Empire’s highest paid assassins. Living a life of luxury, she chooses her contracts carefully, working to amass enough wealth so she can leave her bloody trade. She is offered a new contract on the outskirts of civilization, and almost refuses—until she sees the purse. It could be the last job she ever has to take.

But when she reaches the destination, she discovers her mark is a child.

The contract, and her reputation, demand she kill the boy—if she can banish his innocent face from her mind. But another assassin has been sent to kill her, and a notorious bounty hunter is on her trail. She doesn’t know why the boy is a target, or why her former employer wants her dead. Saving the child could be her only chance at survival.

Review: Rhisia Sen, better known as Rhis, is an assassin. She’s not picky about who she kills, so long as she gets paid. When she’s offered a job with an extremely high payment, one that could let her retire comfortably, she takes the chance. Until she realises that her mark is only a young boy, and that she’s reached her limit: she can’t bring herself to kill a child. So she takes the boy with her to protect him from the people who want to kill her (probably the Emperor himself, but definitely someone within the Emperor’s palace), and in so doing she has to dodge others chasing the boy, chasing her in order to kill her, and generally making her moment of compassion prove very costly indeed.

Assassin’s Charge is definitely a quick-moving book, jumping from event to event pretty smoothly and pulling the reader along with a very strong, “What happens next?” feel to it. From the early scenes where we get introduced to Rhis’s profession, to her flight with Asher, to her multiple attempts to escape pursuit and gain her freedom, the whole thing is fairly fast-paced and it makes for a quick and engaging read.

But the book does have its weaknesses, and they’re both complaints I had through the whole novel. The first is that absolutely no conclusive reason is ever given for Asher’s contract. The Emperor wants him dead. The best reasons anyone can come up with is because he might possibly be descended from a race of people that the Emperor couldn’t conquer. Maybe. There’s a lot about Asher that has no explanation, and there are a lot of hints at some larger scheme, but nothing ever actually comes of it. It was extremely frustrating, and it felt a lot like there was no reason for it. Like the only purpose to someone wanting Asher dead was to lead Rhis on this grand adventure from city to city, trying to protect him. And that felt very flimsy.

My second complaint is that it was very hard to pin Rhis down as a character. From the first dozen chapters, she feels very solid in my mind, and I know who she is and how she feels when reading her. She does her job with cool efficiency, likes her comforts, doesn’t take crap from people. Then she has her crisis on conscience and refuses to kill Asher, coming up with this plan that I still don’t fully understand the logic behind that involves taking Asher with her as leverage to get the contract against her cancelled. As she spends more time with Asher, and with Rickson later on, she changes from someone who’s done years of assassinating with a relatively clear conscience and who doesn’t mind blackmailing people into someone who feels bad that her servants might not make enough money (which is something she previously and explicitly stated she doesn’t care about), and gets teary-eyed over reunions with people she hasn’t seen for a few weeks.

And I’m not saying that people can’t ever change in response to circumstance. They absolutely can, and do. But Rhis’s transformation seemed reminiscent of numerous other stories I’ve read and seen where children awaken some sort of “caring” ability in people. Often this is done as some attempt to state that being around kids makes people want to be parents, and thankfully this didn’t seem to be the case here, but it seems like the catalyst for Rhis getting in touch with her sensitive and emotional side does seem to be protecting the kid she has little reason to protect. It does from, “I draw the line at killing kids,” to, “I have to protect this boy no matter what, and along the way I’m going to develop relationships I previously didn’t want, and go out of my way to solve a mystery that really has nothing to do with me.” The driving force behind the plot stemmed from Rhis’s desire to do these things, but there’s nothing that really shows how she developed the desire. I think it’s just meant to be taken as a given that being in someone’s presence for long enough will make you care about them, but that isn’t true for everyone, and it doesn’t seem to mesh with the Rhis we see at the beginning of the novel.

The world in which this all took place seemed fairly fleshed out and developed, though, and that was nice to see. It wasn’t all a hue voyage of discovery, either, since Rhis has been quite a few places in her time and so wasn’t about to gape at the marvels of some new city. As such, new places weren’t given grand and overblown descriptions, though the detail given is certainly enough to get a basic mental image. I felt like this was a story that took place within a world, rather than a story that partly existed only to show off the worldbuilding skills of the author, if that distinction makes any sense. The worldbuilding was there, absolutely, but it was a backdrop to the story at hand, making it seem all the more real.

Assassin’s Charge is a novel I definitely have mixed feelings about. It’s not a bad novel. The author’s writing skill is evident, and Frank knows how to write something that will keep readers turning the pages. But for all that, I’d say its biggest weakness is that despite it being a fast-paced adventure, it lacks real motivation for any of that fast-paced adventure to play out, and the motivations it does give don’t really stand up well to being poked at. It works well so long as you don’t question anything, and just take what you’re told at face value. It’s a quick fun read on the surface, and really, it doesn’t have to be any more than that, though I do prefer my novels to have a bit more depth to them, and I think that’s why this didn’t resonate so well with me.

Tea Tuesday: Lemon Ginseng Green Tea, from Lipton

Green tea can be really hit or miss with me. I prefer black teas, really, since I get to add delicious milk and sugar to them and drink them by the gallon. (Not literally. …Not most days, anyway.) But sometimes I get cravings for green tea, and I’ve come across a variety over the years, ranging from really powdery bitter stuff that’s practically matcha, to very mild stuff that I find soothing and tend to drink completely plain.

71c44uvc9fl-_sl1500_I recently got a box of Lipton’s lemon ginseng green tea to try, and after a few cups, I think it’s safe to say I’m a fan. It’s not exactly mild, since there’s a slight bitter hit to it, but that’s balanced pretty nicely by the hint of lemon in the aftertaste. There’s also a strange flavour that I think must be the ginseng, that tastes vaguely herbal and also a bit like cereal grains. It’s a little difficult to describe properly, and it takes a little getting used to, but in the end I find I rather like it. For those who like their green tea a little sweeter, adding a bit of sugar diminishes a bit more of the green tea’s bitterness, too. Honey would probably do the same, and complement the subtle lemon aftertaste. (I’d have tried this already but I don’t have any honey at the moment.)

I now find myself looking forward to warmer months, because I think this stuff will make an excellent iced tea, without the hassle I previously went through to make lemon green tea (actually adding lemon juice, or sliced lemons, which was undeniably delicious but admittedly a bit of a hassle). For now, it’s a good wake-up drink, and I’m happy to have been given some to try.

Closer to the Chest, by Mercedes Lackey

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 4, 2016

Summary: Herald Mags, the King of Valdemar’s Herald-Spy, has been developing a clandestine network of young informants who operate not only on the streets of the capital city of Haven, but also in the Great Halls and kitchens of the wealthy and highborn. In his own established alternate personas, Mags observes the Court and the alleys alike, quietly gathering information to keep Haven and the Kingdom safe.

His wife Amily, is growing into her position as the King’s Own Herald, though she is irritated to encounter many who still consider her father, Herald Nikolas, to be the real King’s Own. Nonetheless, she finds it increasingly useful to be underestimated, for there are dark things stirring in the shadows of Haven and up on the Hill. Someone has discovered many secrets of the women of the Court and the Collegia—and is using those secrets to terrorize and bully them. Someone is targeting the religious houses of women, too, leaving behind destruction and obscene ravings.

But who? Someone at the Court? A disgruntled Palace servant? One of the members of the Collegia? Someone in the patriarchal sect of the god Sethor? Could the villain be a woman? And what is this person hoping to achieve? It isn’t blackmail, for the letters demand nothing; the aim seems to be the victims’ panic and despair. But why?

Mags and Amily take steps to minimize the damage while using both magic and wits to find the evildoer. But just as they appear to be on the verge of success, the letter-writer, tires of terror and is now out for blood.

Mags and Amily will have to track down someone who leaves few clues behind and thwart whatever plans have been set in motion, and quickly—before terror turns to murder.

Review: This is, I think, the eighth book to focus on Herald Mags. Which is a lot of books. Especially when you consider that a good amount of the first 5 consisted of him participating in entire chapters worth of sportsball Kirball. But compared to previous entries in the Herald-Spy series, at least, I think this one’s the best. It’s still not fantastic, it has quite a few issues, but the whole thing has a general feeling somewhat akin to that I got from Take a Thief. I feel like I’m actually reading about people dealing with complex issues and moral dilemmas and an uncertain situation, rather than feeling like I’m reading about an entirely foregone conclusion but am just waiting for the “twist” ending to occur.

In Closer to the Chest, we start the story with a new religious sect coming to Haven, one that focuses on a primary male deity and has definite ideas about the place of women in society. (Read: women are subservient to men.) Then women start getting letters from someone eventually nicknamed Poison Pen, letters which tell these women in no uncertain terms that they ought to stop stealing jobs and honour from the men who should rightfully have them, that they should die or have unspeakable things done to them to make them behave as proper women should, that they should under no circumstances ever make a man think he might get somewhere and then not put out. Religious orders run by women start to be attacked and vandalized.

I wonder if there’s a connection…

It’s not hard to see where Lackey took her inspiration for this story. You basically have to exist on the Internet these days to know that there’s that exact problem here, with men feeling like their place has been usurped by upstart women, that women need to be more compliant with male sexual desire, all that. Transplanting modern world issues into fantasy novels isn’t unheard of, or even rare, and sometimes that helps get the point across to people who are on the fence about something. Seeing the same thing play out without any real-world entanglements can clarify and condense an issue and help people understand what’s really going on. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But I think success or failure depends largely on presentation, and the presentation of this is far from subtle. This is something I’ve noticed about some of Lackey’s more recent novels: the moral message is blatant and strong, with no shades of grey, and occasionally to the point where it makes no sense in the context of the book itself. Fortunately the events in Closer to the Chest do make sense, and I can’t fault Lackey for taking a standpoint on this issues at hand, but it’s very heavy-handed. It’s easy to connect the new patriarchal religion with the misogyny in the letters. That part of the story’s mystery was no mystery at all; the only interesting part about that was the clear and definite statement that plenty of people in Valdemar who aren’t Heralds, Healers, or Bards can have Gifts, and watching Mags try to wrap his head around this idea was amusing. But the revelation that the Sethorite temple is at the heart of things?

Let’s just say I don’t consider that a spoiler, since it’s obvious from the get-go.

To Lackey’s credit, there’s more than just a basic transplantation of real-world issues here. She takes care to show that incidents can and do escalate if someone is fanatical enough: someone getting angry letters now might find themselves in real physical danger later on. She shows the lengths that people will go to in order to convince others of their cause, talking circles and defying logic (for instance, women are destroying their own shops because said shops were secretly failing and the women want an easy way out and sympathy from their neighbours, never mind that those last two things are far from guaranteed, and multiple women doing the same thing in close succession, all to the same purpose, where none did so before, is suspicious and doesn’t track with that explanation). She talks at length about the potential danger of denying harassers their chance to harass, debating whether or not the person in question will get bored if they don’t see reactions from people, or whether they will escalate to bring the reactions back. Closer to the Chest may have its faults, but I’m very grateful that it presented the situation as being actually dangerous, and that the solution wasn’t, “Just ignore them and they’ll go away.”

So unlike the previous two Herald-Spy novels, where the situations dealt with were dangerous in the sense of, “Things are happening that may result in war but then don’t,” Closer to the Chest deals with something is very small in scope but ends up being very hard-hitting. I never felt any actual threat from the situations in the previous two books, nor any real tension. They were problems to be solved that had potentially large consequences, but I never actually felt anything in regard to them. The books felt like the author tried to do something with far-reaching consequences and just didn’t succeed. But here, possibly because of my own experience with harassment, I felt the potential consequences. Valdemar as a Kingdom wouldn’t be changed, but the story was more about the people than the Kingdom, as opposed to Closer to Home and Closer to the Heart, which were also about people but people whose doings could apparently have Kingdom-wide disasters follow in their wake. It’s been said in previous novels that Valdemar is the people, not the land, and here I really felt that in a way that’s been absent in more recent readings, and it was great to feel it once again.

It’s also here that the running theme of this series becomes apparent. I complained in my review of Closer to the Heart that it and the book before it just felt like standalones masquerading as a series, since they had nothing in common with each other besides the main characters. But here, the pattern emerges. All three books involve fanaticism and the dangerous lengths people will go to achieve their goals. Closer to Home had a young man ready and willing to kill two noble houses to avoid getting married. Closer to the Heart had a man attempting to start a war because he didn’t agree with another country’s politics. Closer to the Chest has someone trying to avenge the death of his pedophile brother by ruining the lives of any and all women. That doesn’t make me like the previous two books more, but it does make me actually curious to see what’s done in any future books in this series, rather than anticipate them with a feeling of vague dread and preemptive disappointment.

I don’t enjoy Lackey’s books as much as I used to. It’s difficult to tell whether the change is in me, her storytelling, or a bit of both. But I enjoyed Closer to the Chest more than I expected to, despite its moments of unsubtle moralizing, and it made me feel a renewed interest in the series as a whole. That alone is something to be grateful for, so far as I’m concerned. As I said in the beginning of this review, it’s not a fantastic book, and it does have its problems. But it was a decent book, enjoyable and relatable, and after some initial awkwardness, I was happy to keep reading it.

(received for review from the publisher.)

Books on my Radar (December 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 December 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.)

December 2016 SFF books

Tempest, edited by Mercedes Lackey
Amazon.com / B&N
December 06

The Nature of a Pirate, by A M Dellamonica
Amazon.com / B&N
December 06

…Huh. Well, that was a shorter list than I expected. Now, that’s not to say there are no other books coming out in December that I’d want to read. It’s just that, evidently, only 2 of them have really caught my eye.

Well, I guess that gives me more time to read SPFBO stuff without feeling guilty, then!

November 2016 in Retrospect

Holy crap, November’s over, it’s almost the end of the year! What the hell? Where did 2016 go?

Oh, right. It went out of the nightmares of people and then crashed and burned. I think it’s somewhere in a smoldering pile under our feet.

…Welp, on that cheery note!

November wasn’t that great a month for me. Between battling bouts of apathy and trying to balance other areas of my life, I didn’t get much reading or reviewing done, and I felt guilty and lazy for it. I’m going to try and make December a bit better, but until then, let’s at least look back on what I did do this past month, rather than focus on what I didn’t.

Reviews

The Hidden People, by Alison Littlewood
An Import of Intrigue, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu

SPFBO review: The Music Box Girl. by K A Stewart

Movie review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Movie review: The Silenced

Other Stuff

As always I started the month by looking at the upcoming books I was excited about.

I wrote a post called Facing the Monster, which is about living with mental illness and how the “mental illness narrative” that appears in fiction doesn’t often match up with what happens in reality.

I only did one tea review this month, but it was still a delicious one: Bubbie’s Baklava, from David’s Tea.

Next Month

Huh… When I tally it up, it looks like I did more here this past month than I thought. Well, no complaints from me!

In December, I want to write another book review each week, which is what I’ve been aiming for this year in general. I also want to continue the project ideas I started in November, which is to review a different kind of tea each Tuesday, and a fantasy/sci-fi/horror movie each Monday. More and more lately I find I enjoy reviewing in general, and I really like tea and movies alongside loving books, so I thought it may at least amuse some people to hear me talk about them every once in a while too. Plus, at least where movies are concerned, wanting to review a movie each week gives me a great excuse for a little downtime, since watching movies — even when I’m watching them with a critical eye and a mind to review them — is far less intensive for me than reading a book with an eye to reviewing it. It feels like a break while also being productive, and I like it.

I’ll also take a look at some of my favourite books that I’ve read this past year, as I usually do when the calendar comes to its final page.

Happy upcoming December, everyone. I hope it’s better than your November!

Movie Review: The Silenced

I’m very much a fan of east-Asian horror movies, and so by luck and Netflix, I stumbled across an interesting-looking Korean movie not too long ago, called by its English name, The Silenced.

file_745983_park-bo-young_1430975083_af_orgSet in Seoul, then known as Gyeongseong, in the late 1930s, the story focuses on a sick young woman named Shizuko, sent to a sanitarium school. And if you noticed that I used a Japanese name for the character and not a Korean one, there’s a reason for that. At the time this movie takes place, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and one of the many societal changes that occurred then was to force the adoption of Japanese-style names instead of Korean ones, to bring the populace one step closer to accepting occupational rule by a foreign power. (For a brief overview of the occupation, there’s at least a Wikipedia page, which I recommend reading.) As someone making at least half-hearted efforts to learn Japanese, I can pick out the language when I hear it, and suddenly when a character just starts speaking a language I recognize when I expect a language I can’t recognise… I threw me off, and caught my attention, and made me want to learn more about the setting.

It also made me keenly aware of how much cultural time-period markers are not universal. In North America, we may associate the 1930s with a certain style of fashion, mode of speech, level of technology, and when we see movies set then, we don’t have to have a full history lesson to centre us in the moment. 1930s South Korea? I was forced to confront that I knew absolutely nothing about it. You don’t need a history lesson to appreciate The Silenced, though; reading a book on the Japanese occupation isn’t central to understanding the movie as a whole. But if you have an ear for languages and culture, you may be able to pick up on a few things that may confuse you if you’re entirely unaware that there was an occupation to begin with.

Anyway, Shizuko, who we later come to learn is also called Ju-Ran, is sick and sent to a girl’s boarding school to recover. Immediately she faces opposition, as she shares the same name as a previous girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The official story is that the previous Shizuko went home, but the girls there doubt that, as it was sudden and unannounced. The new Shizuko has TB, and is shown to barely be able to handle any exertion lest it send her into a coughing fit. She’s put on a new medication to try and combat the illness, and that’s where things start to get weird.

Shizuko starts seeing things. Creepy things. Things like one of the girls being twisted and jerky while crawl-shuffling under her bed.

netflix-horror-movies-the-silenced

Then that student disappears, and everyone’s told she just went home. Meanwhile, Shizuko finds a strange sticky clear fluid under that girl’s bed, and she’s sure she wasn’t imagining it.

This isn’t the only time Shizuko sees something and a girl disappears, leaving behind more of that clear goo. Shizuko also begins to show signs of recovery, her physical strength and stamina increasing to the point where she can run again and breathe easily. But it doesn’t stop there. Her strength continues to grow, as does her temper, and her resistance to pain.

It’s at this point where watchers start to wonder if the current Shizuko is possessed by the previous one in some way, if the previous Shizuko died and her ghost is lashing out not only at those who wronger her in life, but also those who wrong the girl who shares her name. It’s the sort of explanation that makes perfect sense in horror movies, especially East Asian horror movies where it all looks like a ghost story. But the truth behind this movie is even stranger than you might imagine.

And be warned, there are some spoilers a-comin’!

The problem turns out not to be a ghost but instead a program funded by the Japanese occupational government to create a race of super-soldiers. The medication that Shizuko has to take — indeed, all the students have to take medication provided by the school, and nobody questions it because everyone is there due to illness (though the vast majority are unspecified and unpresented…) — is part of that program, changing her into someone stronger, impervious to pain, someone capable of fighting for the Japanese government in times of need. None of them consented. Not all of them survive.

thesilenced4And what’s really impressive about The Silenced is that aside from the clear goo, everything actually ties together and makes sense. It shifts from seeming like a horror movie to a historical sci-fi thriller, and it does it fairly seamlessly. The transition makes sense, the story aspects fit together and get explanations, and given that all this happens within a massive tonal shift, that really impressed me. It’s not many movies that can do that and still stay cohesive. It’s a mind-screw for a while, trying to wrap your brain around how something switched genres right in the middle, and admittedly some of the special effects of Shizuko’s later superpowers were kind of cheesy, but on the whole, I’d say it was pretty well done.

The only loose end is the issue of the clear goop left behind after Shizuko sees someone losing control after they have a bad reaction to the chemical mixture that’s slowly changing them. There are a couple of things this could be, but nothing is really made of it; it seems like it’s there just to convince Shizuko that she didn’t image things, that there’s a physical source of the creepy things she sees. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that a movie which ties so many things together leaves that one hanging, with just potential reading between the lines to try and give it reason.

The Silenced deals with some very twisted and disturbing subject matter. There’s the obvious issue of the Japanese occupation and forced cultural integration, which I mentioned at the beginning of the review. There’s the issue of testing unknown treatments without informed consent, a process which is still relatively new in the field of medicine, and that’s depressing enough, but the movie stresses that part of the reason that the sanitarium/boarding school was chosen as part of the project is that it works best on adolescent women, and also because nobody’s going to question, “These girls are taking medication we give them because they’re sick, they have no parental supervision, and if any one of them dies, it’s easy to get rid of evidence and just tell everyone they went home.” It all works because people are kept ignorant. The movie’s primary antagonist hates her country and wants Japan to have greater control, hence her being complicit in the supersoldier program. There’s a lot that’s shown, not said, and The Silenced largely seems to respect the viewer’s intelligence enough to not spell absolutely everything else, to have a fanatical woman without a character commenting, “Wow, she’s fanatical.”

quilt

I have to say, if you’re into East Asian horror, this is one you should probably check out. Even though it’s not strictly a horror movie. The story’s certainly interesting, the acting fantastic (with a bonus helping of subtext along the way…), and I still can’t get over how well it was all put together. It’s disturbing and creepy in all the right places, atmospheric and tense without relying on jump scares, and has a lot to say about a very controversial time in Korea’s history. It’s on Canadian Netflix as of the time this review, so if that’s open to you, I recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy it.

Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu

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

Translator’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2016

Summary: Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.

Review: I want to start this review by saying that I am absolutely thrilled to be able to get my hands on sci-fi like this. More and more I become aware that my own view of the world is a very limited one, narrow and specific, and the chance to broaden my horizons and be able to read great stories by people who have experienced life entirely differently than I did is something I appreciate a lot. The more I read things like this, the more I become aware of, if nothing else, the myriad ways growing up in the culture I did has influenced me; I wouldn’t be the same person had I grown up in another country, another culture, another time. And though it’s a selfish way to begin this review, I think it bears saying. Invisible Planets takes Western readers outside a comfort zone they may not have even realized they were in, dropping them into the middle of futures imagined by people whose lives were shaped in different ways than our own.

Invisible Planets contains stories and essays from a variety of Chinese SFF writers, and all of them are good (despite one being the kind of story that I couldn’t quite wrap my head fully around, I could still at least recognise the quality of it). Though even by the end of it I wouldn’t be able to answer the question of what makes Chinese sci-fi Chinese, I can at least say that the stories in Invisible Planets had a feel to them that I very rarely encounter in Western-based sci-fi, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it and say, “This. This is what Chinese sci-fi reads like.” But even if I can’t properly identify it, I still enjoy it, enjoy the cultural and perspective shift that comes with reading something so firmly rooted in a culture I didn’t experience and absorb; Invisible Planets has a lot of that.

It’s at this point that I wish I was better equipped to dissect the stories and their origins more deeply. I feel like there’s a lot that could be said — and indeed should be said about the collection I just devoured, but I’m no authority on it, and I think half the things I might say might be influenced not only by my experience with reading the stories but also with my own cultural blindspots when trying to interpret another culture. Translator Ken Liu pointed out a few times through his notes in the book that it would be so easy to interpret some stories in certain ways that play to North American ideas of what China is, was, and might be like, but that’s not always a good idea. In one of the essays at the end of the book, author Liu Cixin comments that a North American author once tried to clarify some differences between Chinese sci-fi and the sci-fi we’re more familiar with here in Canada and America, but missed some points and fell short of the mark.

That said, though, my experience with this book, as someone who is admittedly ignorant of much of Chinese history and culture, is probably closer to what most readers will experience than those with more familiar backgrounds. Most readers of this anthology aren’t going to be able to pick out a dozen and one subtle cultural aspects that influence and make up the inspiration behind the stories told here. They’re just going to appreciate them for the stories they are. And there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that, so long as readers at least go in with an open mind and don’t expect to find stories exactly like the ones an American would write, nor something so outside our sphere of experience that we can’t understand it.

As with any anthology, some stories stand out to me more than others, the ones that made their mark a little deeper and that I’ll probably go back and read again in the future. Chen Qiufan’s The Year of the Rat is the story of young men attempting to combat mutant rats who have gotten out of control, and in the end is a story about genocide and uncertainty. Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence is one of the most chilling possible futures I’ve ever read about; when the State controls everything, including what you can and can’t say, where do people turn to express their humanity, and how far does either side go in pursuit of their goals? Liu Cixin’s The Circle is similar to one of the scenes from The Three-Body Problem that has always stuck in my mind, the creation of a human computer, moving from simple binary commands to more complex reactionary coding, in order to compute the digits of pi. And Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing was a true gem in this collection, in which economic castes are separated from each other by time, and one man will go to great lengths to assure his daughter a decent place in the world.

Folding Beijing was one that struck me very deeply. There are pieces, in each section of the city that Lao Dao visits, where people talk about how much money they make. Throwaway lines, worked into dialogue naturally, but they make a good point. While visiting Second Space, Lao Dao talks to someone who makes about 100,000 yuan a month. Lao Dao thinks to himself that in Third Space, where he lives, he makes a standard 10,000 yuan a month. While in First Space, a woman offers him 100,000 yuan, and comments offhand that she earns that in about a week. It reminded me so much of a previous job I had, working contract for a section of a credit card company where my clients all possessed the 2nd most prestigious card the company offered, and sometimes when things didn’t go their way, they’d complain of being treated like second-class citizens and how it was outrageous that they were being charged so much. These people, just in order to have the card, had to earn as much in a month as I would make in an entire year at that job, and I was earning almost 50% above minimum wage at the time. So Folding Beijing flashed me back to that time, talking with people who thought little about spending as much on 2 nights at a hotel as I would spend on an entire month’s rent, and it really was like we were from completely separate worlds that never would really touch. I felt that connection to Lao Dao, because in such a situation, what can you really say, when someone says that something utterly beyond you is no big deal for them?

Invisible Planets is absolutely a sci-fi anthology that I recommend, and to pretty much everyone who reads SFF. The perspective shift is refreshing, the stories top-notch, and the essays enlightening. Ken Liu has done a fantastic job in translating them for English-speaking audiences, and the whole experience has made me hungry for more. Go and pick this book up as soon as you’re able; I guarantee you won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Tea Tuesday: Bubbie’s Baklava, from David’s Tea

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows all too well how big a tea-drinker I am. Not just basic orange pekoe, but all kinds. I’m always on the lookout for new flavours. And I thought what better place to share my thoughts on the wonderful teas I try than here? Tea and books go together like… tea and books!

So every week, on Tuesday, I’m going to take a look at a different tea, and share it all with you.

~*~

Today in my mug, I’ve got some Bubbie’s Baklava, from David’s Tea. Now sadly this seems to be a discontinued flavour, which means once my little sample container is gone, I won’t be able to get my hands on any more, and that’s a real disappointment because it’s really tasty.

In addition to its base of oolong tea, it has a variety of fruits and nuts mixed in, giving it a really warm spicy that doesn’t quite smell like any baklava I’ve tried, but it does smell like it’d be amazing in a pastry either way. Ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom provide that warmth of scent.

tea_image_51780_bannerThis is the first tea I’d ever tried that looked like you could just eat it as a snack. The chunks of papaya and pineapple are decently big, as are the walnuts that are scattered in the mix. (I did actually try one of the walnuts. Turns out they get kind of chewy when stored in a canister of tea. Who knew?)

As for flavour, you do get the nice warmth of the spices that I mentioned earlier, with some hints of sweetness from the dried fruit. But what comes across in the aftertaste is a weird slight bitterness that I think comes from the nuts, especially the walnuts. I personally find this is balanced out really nicely by a bit of sugar, though it would probably be fantastic with the rich mellowness of honey instead. Either way, something sweet helps cut down on the bitter aftertaste.

Definitely no milk required. Milk would just ruin this tea, I think. It’s made to be drunk with just a bit of added sweetness and nothing more.

Bubbie’s Baklava is the kind of tea that perfectly complements a chilly fall night with a relaxing homelike scent. A good companion to some comfort reading!

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I was going to start this review by saying that I figured it would be fairly safe to assume that anyone seeing this movie was probably a fan of the Harry Potter franchise, or at least familiar with it. And really, chances are that most of them are. I certainly hope so, since understanding the wizarding world is pretty much a pre-requisite for Fantastic Beasts; the movie not only assumes that you have watched the Harry Potter movies to at least having passing familiarity with them, but also assumes you’ve read the books enough to remember, and oh, also, hope you’ve been enjoying Pottermore, because there’s some stuff that’s probably going to see pretty random if you haven’t.

That’s not to say that Fantastic Beasts is incomprehensible without this advanced knowledge. But it does make for a far better movie-going experience, and it feels like the directors banked on people having this information beforehand. It’s a movie made for those who are already fans of the series, essentially: if you’re looking at your local theatre listings and contemplating whether or not to see this because your friend says you really ought to finally get into this whole Harry Potter business, then I think a fair bit of the enjoyment to be had will not, actually, be had by you. It’s a side story to the franchise, and it expects you to know the franchise going in. The most egregious example is that all of the foreshadowing leading up to the movie’s big reveal with be entirely lost on any viewers that haven’t done their homework in advance.

But that being said, let’s dive into the plot of the movie! Let’s look at some fantastic beasts and see where we find them! (Warning: there will be spoilers ahead. Major ones will be whited-out so you have to highlight them to see, though.)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-movie-poster-homepage-size

The movie has 2 side-by-side plots, starting with New Scamander, fresh off the boat from the UK, enchanted suitcase filled with magical creatures in hand as he walks around New York City. Through happenstance, some of his creatures escape, and hijinks ensue as he tries to get one back before it steals all the shiny things (no, really, Nifflers love shiny things). In the mayhem, he accidentally switches his suitcase with that of a Muggle — excuse me, a no-maj; we’re in America now — and with the rather unwilling help of disgraced magic law enforcement, he has to get it back. Now, magical and non-magical people are utterly forbidden from interacting in America, apparently, so this guy who now has Newt’s suitcase, well, he’s in a lot of danger after he discovers that the world is not as devoid of magic as people would have him believe, but after developing a friendship with Newt (and a crush on a witch), he ends up helping Newt recover the remainder of his missing creatures.

The 2nd of the movie’s plots, and by far the more interesting one, involves a group known as Second Salem, who claims that witches are among us and that they must be wiped out. It’s practically a cult, led by a woman who seems to take in children and raise them to violently hate witches and magic. But one of the older kids in the group, Credence, is working with America’s magical community, trying to uncover the identity of a strong magic child whose suppressed power is getting loose and causing damage and terror around the city. Not only that, but Graves, the man that Credence reports to, promises Credence a place within the magical community once his task is complete.

I’m simplifying the plots a bit here, but for the most part, that gives you a decent idea of what stories the movie is trying to tell without getting into some of the more complex details.

As the movie goes on, the story shifts more from Newt trying to get his beasts back and focuses on the darker and more tense plot of cultish abuse and repressed power run amok. Which is where part of my problem with the movie arises. While it was great to occasionally step away from the darker themes in the movie and have a couple of more lighthearted moments, the whole subplot with New trying to get his magical creatures back made the overall story feel very loose in the first half of the movie. The Niffler chase scene, I can understand. The bit with the Occamy I can even understand, because it’s large enough to cause serious destruction and I can get wanting to rule that out as a possible cause of the dark magic roaming around New York City. But there were other scenes that felt like nothing so much as an excuse to try a little humour and to pad out the film’s runtime while showing off some CGI effects.

And to be fair, the CGI was great. The visuals on the magical creatures was awesome, and I kind of want to live inside Newt’s suitcase. It was a great chance for long-time fans of the series to see some of their favourite creatures come to glorious life, and I’m on board with that. But it led to me feeling like the plot could have been far tighter, and more than once I hoped for the movie to speed along a little bit so that we could get to what I thought was a far more interesting aspect of the story.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-niffler-slice-600x200

Especially once you get deeper into that plot. Turns out that when a witch or wizard suppresses their powers, it can turn dark and be unleashed as a violent force, which is called an Obscurus. That’s the force that’s been ruining New York buildings and cause chaos before Newt even arrived. It’s was a fascinating look at what uncontrolled fear and repression can do, taking a very real-world psychiatric issue and turning it into something physical, something to be seen and felt, as Rowling once did with depression and Dementors. That people in the know are sure the wizard or witch who produced the Obscurus is somewhere within the Second Salem cult just lends an even greater dose of pity to the problem; this person clearly hid themselves because they were taught, brutally, that magic is evil and people who do magic are terrible and should be obliterated, and who wouldn’t hide their true self under that kind of onslaught, even to the point of convincing themselves that they had no magic to begin with? I adored this aspect of the plot, because it said so much about repression and danger and self-expression while still staying entertaining and full of action that makes for good viewing on the big screen. It was a great melding of various elements, and that’s why I wish more of the movie had focused on this.

As it was, we were given our intro to this in dribbles in the beginning, hints that got overshadowed by Newt’s personal quest, and only after Newt’s quest is finished to we really jump into the story that could have and probably should have been the driving force behind the bulk of the movie, not just the second half of it.

As for the casting, I’ve got to say, the characters were played incredibly well. I can’t say they were true to any characters established in the booms, because none of them were actually in any books before this. But they were still great characters. Redmayne’s portrayal of Newt Scamander was great, managing to create a very awkward character who has his passions and interests and knows that other people find them uninteresting but doesn’t let that stop him. Dan Fogler playing Jacob, the man who finds himself suddenly surrounded by supposedly-impossible magic, does a good job of playing the everyman who finds out something fantastical; the right mix of shock and surprise and still trucking along with life because what else can you do? He’s enamoured of the magical world but not repulsed by it. And holy crap, Ezra Miller playing Credence was just… If you want to see an example of how to play someone who is painfully shy, neglected, afraid of himself and the world around him, then look at this performance. You could really feel what the character was experiencing, the way his eyes wouldn’t quite meet another character’s. the resigned way we walked through life, or handed his own belt over to an abusive cult leader in order to be beaten by it…

So here’s where I’m going to talk about the part that I really didn’t like about the movie, and it contains white-out spoilers, so be warned: Graves, the man that has been using Credence to find the source of the Obscurus, the man who seems to think that the ends justify the means, the one who is sick of wizards having to keep themselves secret from non-magical people, is revealed to be Gellert Grindlewald in disguise. And this, to me, was a huge weakness in the movie’s storytelling. It wasn’t enough that somebody could be a bad guy, they had to be the bad guy. It seemed so simplistic when you compare it to a lot of other messages about such things in Rowling’s books. Remember the great line about how the world isn’t split into heroes and Death Eaters? So it wasn’t enough that Graves by an actual person who was ruthless in his pursuit of the Obscurus, hoping to possibly harness its power to defeat Grindlewald’s forces in Europe, stepping over a child’s welfare to do it. No, he had to be the big bad himself, disguised as someone else, because apparently nobody could have those views other than someone we already know to basically be wizard-Hitler.

mv5bmtu1mti0ntizof5bml5banbnxkftztgwnjuymdewmdi-_cr51729743557_ux614_uy460-_sy230_sx307_al_This brings me back to what I mentioned about needing to do your homework before seeing this movie, though. The movie does admittedly open with some quick clips of newspaper articles talking about the atrocities Grindlewald is committing, and his name is dropped a couple of times through the movie as a reference to him being a bad guy, but the movie itself gives you precious little context for what that really means, who he really is. You don’t know that he’s basically wizard-Hitler. You don’t know that he was the most powerful Dark wizard until Voldemort came along. You don’t really get a sense of what he has to do with anything, until it’s revealed to all be about him. Fans who have read the books and watched the movies will get why this is important, but for those who haven’t, who are maybe just seeing this movie because people say it’s good, are not actually going to get the full effect of this reveal. Most of the movie’s watchers aren’t likely to pick up on this, because they already know his importance. Anyone else? Zoom, it goes, right over their heads.

It’s one thing to make a movie to appeal to fans. It’s another to make a movie with storytelling that only fans will appreciate, because the fans can fill in the faulty storytelling with their advance knowledge. This is a problem I had with the original Harry Potter movies as they went on. The stories got so complex that much of the actual story had to get cut out of the movie in order to reach the end without having a 5+ hour film to sit through. And so few people even noticed because they already knew what the blanks were filled in with beforehand. The 3rd and 6th movies were particularly terrible for this, for reasons I can and have gone on at length about.

I won’t spend too long discussing plot holes, though there were a few. Mostly in the form of unanswered questions and moments where you have to suspend disbelief a little too much. Why didn’t Tina say, “Oh hey, you’re blaming me for not telling you info that I tried to tell you the other day but you kicked me out?” How does the potion at the end affect anyone who wasn’t outside or conveniently in the shower when it was rained down on the city to help them all forget what happened? Unanswered nitpicky questions, over issues that make for great visuals and typical movie tropes, but these things are nitpicky, and they don’t ruin the movie. Just things for fans to debate in the future, probably, and I’m okay with that. No movie is perfect.

Despite having a couple of large problems with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I still have to say that I did, in fact, enjoy the movie. The visuals were great, and I, like many, loved seeing many of the magic creatures from the Harry Potter universe come to life. It was a fun movie, with a dark plot that tackled some hard issues, plenty to discuss between fans, and the acting was impressive. As I said, it wasn’t perfect, but most of those imperfections come to light only when you really look below the surface; without doing that, it can still be enjoyed and appreciated. It’s worth seeing, doubly so if you’re already a fan of the franchise, and I’m interested to see the story continue in future installments.

By Ria Posted in movie

SPFBO Review: The Music Box Girl, by K A Stewart

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 19, 2016

Summary: FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC

Steam and steel are king, nowhere more so than Detroit, the gleaming gem of the world’s industrial crown. A beacon of innovation and culture, it is the birthplace of the mechanical automatons, and the home of the famed Detroit Opera House. It is where people come with their dreams, their plans, and their secrets.

A young man with the voice of an angel and dreams of stardom.

A globe-trotting heiress with a passion for adventure and memories of a lost childhood love.

A mysterious woman with a soul made of pure music and a secret worth killing for.

Beneath the glitter and sparkle, something sinister lurks at the opera, and three lives will collide with tragic consequences.

Review: It only took reading a few chapters for it to start dawning on me just what this book was. It’s a genderflipped steampunk Phantom of the Opera. With robots.

Really, that could be the 2-sentence tagline of The Music Box Girl. If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, at least (I can’t say much about the original novel, as I haven’t read it), then just about nothing in this story will come as a surprise. There are a few pieces of curiosity here or there, such as wondering just what little differences there are between the book and Phantom, but beyond that, it’s all fairly set in stone from the moment you realise the story’s inspiration.

The Music Box Girl gives you three character perspectives from which to watch the story unfold. Anton, who starts off as an opera stagehand, quickly attracts the attention of a mysterious women — known to many as the opera ghost but who gets names Melody by Anton himself — who offers to train his singing voice, to get the skill that will allow him to replace the opera company’s ageing tenor. Bess, Anton’s childhood friend turned adventurous globetrotter who is at the centre of no few scandals, reunites with her friend and they kindle a romance that has lain banked since they separated so many years ago. But Melody takes exception to Bess’s arrival and Anton’s attraction to her, and jealously seeks to keep the two apart so that she and her plan for Anton can stay central in his focus.

Melody is, of course, not human, but in fact an automaton, gears and switches in a human shape, with all the strength that comes with being made of metal. In the steampunk Detroit that Stewart sets up, automatons are physically stronger than humans, which is why they were created in the first place, but require human assistance to stay active. They also possess what’s known as an aether core, which houses their memory, the sum of their experiences, but after a while, imperfect machinery being what it is, when an automaton has experienced enough to develop a personality of their own, those memories also begin to clog the core and become disconnected, erratic, and the automaton becomes dangerous. As such, aether cores are often wiped clean, preventing a personality from forming so that the automaton can stay an obedient servant to human needs without any pesky moral issues of slavery coming into play. Melody is unique, an automaton that has no need of humans to keep her running, but has thus developed that dangerous personality. She hears voices from those in her past who are no longer there, the memories accumulating in her aether core coming and going at random, and she strives to overcome that as she teaches Anton to hone his singing voice.

It was interesting to note the subtle ways in which Stewart referenced the original Phantom story, even when dealing with new elements. For instance, Melody’s face isn’t disfigured by scars or anything of the sort, as she’s made of metal, but instead one side of her face is warped and tarnished, a callback to the reason that, well, the mask is so iconic. Stewart provides a fresh SFF look at a story that has been ingrained in public consciousness for years, melding familiar content with new twists.

The Music Box Girl‘s main drawback, though, is that it doesn’t so much pay homage to its source material so much as it just rewrites it. It’s basically a retelling, albeit with a steampunk flair and some very good crisp writing. And as much as there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story, it does unfortunately come off as being derivative. It’s not a nod to a franchise that can be appreciated by fans in the know, but, as I said in the beginning, a genderflipped Phantom of the Opera, with robots. If that’s what you hear when going into this book, very little will surprise you. You’ll know how the story will play out, because you know the story of Phantom.

Do I think that means The Music Box Girl isn’t worth reading? Not by a long shot. Given the source material, I think this will appeal massively to fans of Phantom, and believe me, there are plenty. But even aside from that, there’s plenty to like here. Stewart’s writing style, as I said before, is crisp, with plenty of clarity and detail, and it flows smoothly. The characters all feel different when you’re reading about them, and more than that, they don’t feel like they’re just rehashes of someone else’s characters. It’s a fun journey, even if you know the destination. Seeing things from Melody’s perspective — the perspective of an automaton, gives opportunity for great lines like this:

One voice, though, one voice stood out to her, and some apparent malfunction in her glass eyes tinted the world red.

The classic descent into obsessive madness, as told by a robot. It’s interesting, and I think I enjoyed reading Melody’s sections most of all, to see the perspective of someone who is both victim and villain.

So overall? Yes, definitely read The Music Box Girl. It may not be the most original, but it brings original twists to a familiar story, and it’s a smooth-flowing tale of ambition and sacrifice, which is exactly what I expected. It’s quick and engaging, the characters are interesting and very much themselves, and it’s quite enjoyable, at least from where I’m standing. I can see steampunk fans enjoying this dive into musical pop culture.