The Good Place
The Good Place is a town where those who have been good throughout their lives go once they have passed away. Michael is the architect who oversees the town--and this is the first one he has been in charge of creating.
Eleanor arrives at the Good Place and realizes they have her name right, but everything else is wrong. She isn't meant to be there at all. With the help of Chidi, her soul mate, Eleanor tries to right her wrongs, seeking to finally earn her spot in the Good Place.
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This is officially my favorite comedy, and currently my favorite fantasy show, hands down. It is four seasons of absolute perfection.
It kicks off with Eleanor being told she's dead and now in the Good Place, basically Heaven, which she very quickly realizes is not where she's supposed to be. She spent her life as a human trashbag, stealing, lying, and cheating, all of which absolutely horrifies her soulmate Chidi. But she manages to convince him to teach her ethics, anyway, since he was an ethics professor in life and doesn't want to see her condemned to the Bad Place (Hell) if there's a chance of redemption.
What follows is a hilarious series of misadventures involving Eleanor and Chidi trying to dodge Michael (the Architect and all-powerful supernatural being in charge of everything), as well as the chaotic mess of the other major characters: Janet, Tahani, and Jason.
One of the greatest strengths of this show is its theme of morality. What--exactly--does it mean to be a good person? Eleanor isn't the only one who struggles with this, especially when later in the show the characters discover some major issues with the system of determining which souls go to which Place. Given the amount of scholarly debate surrounding ethics and morality in the real world, it's no surprise that the show plays around with several different issues, dedicating entire episodes to exploring major themes while progressing the plot. The general conclusion it comes to is that morality is subjective depending on the situation, and also comes from your connection with other people. All of the characters are horribly flawed and fall into bad behaviors when they're on their own. But when they're together they're an ethical, demon-fighting machine.
Another thing that caught my attention right away is the complete lack of toxic masculinity and abundance of women and characters of color. Though we never see her in a relationship with a woman, Eleanor is definitely bisexual. The show passes the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests for both women and characters of color. None of the leading male characters display the toxic traits seen in most other major male characters.
There are, in fact, only two characters who display toxic masculinity. One is a demon who helps run the Bad Place, and is 100% villain. The other is a soul we meet in season four who's destined for the Bad Place specifically because of his toxic masculinity traits. Namely sexism, racism, and self-centeredness.
The story itself is excellent. Even though all the characters start off dead, there's some real stakes involved. Namely, eternal damnation. All the subplots--even the romantic ones--are designed to further our understanding of the characters and/or contribute to the main story. And almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger. Which was bad for my health, because I lost quite a bit of sleep binge-watching this entire show in two weeks.
There is only one real criticism I have, and that's the frequent memory wipes. For one reason or another, several major characters lose their memories at the end of each season, which means they lose most of their character development as well. Story-wise, it makes sense. I won't get into the specifics because of spoilers, but this isn't the medically inaccurate soap opera amnesia. The memory wipes are built into the magic system and work well with the story. And when they happen, the story usually shifts gears to focus on the character(s) who don't lose their memories, allowing them to go through a new part of their narrative arc while the amnesiacs are brought up to speed.
But it can get a little tiring and frustrating to see the characters' progress suddenly get ripped to shreds, especially where Chidi and Eleanor are concerned. I'm not counting it as a spoiler: the soulmates have a romantic subplot and eventually get together. Several times. Because their memories keep getting erased. We'll see them get together, then someone snaps their fingers and they're strangers again. Get together, memory wipe. Get together, memory wipe. Get together, memory wipe...
Other than that...it's excellent. If anyone likes off-hand humor that dives into deep moral philosophy while telling an engaging story that will occasionally make you cry--especially in the season 3 and season 4 closers--then this is the show for you.
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"Worst Tropes" started as a playlist on my YouTube channel. I'm now also including it on my written blog. Basically I discuss all my least favorite tropes in speculative fiction and list ideas on how to do them right. Enjoy!
So. The title of this week's post might be a little confusing. After all, I’m a feminist. I like femme characters. I’m constantly advocating for more femme characters in positions of power. Why on Earth would I object to female/femme mentors?
I don’t object to them. I object to how they’re written.
For the most part, mentor characters in our speculative fiction media are men. When you hear “mentor character” in relation to sci-fi, fantasy, or other action-based genres, the first image that pops into your head is Obi-Wan, or Gandalf, or some other old white dude. Sometimes they get to be Asian or Black, in which case their already-slim chances of surviving to the end of the story drop to nearly zero.
Whatever the case, it’s usually a guy. And from a cultural perspective, this makes sense. Guys are “supposed” to be smarter than girls, and they're expected to be better or at least more experienced at all the fighting and survival stuff than the girls. Why wouldn't the action mentor be a guy?
Since it’s the twenty-first century, we’ve been getting better at subverting sexist tropes and ideas such as this. It started with “Why can’t a woman be good at fighting,” and has gradually been turning into “Why can’t she be the awesome mentor character that everyone idolizes and looks up to?”
And this is great! The idea of the female mentor is coming from a good place. There are so few of them out there that any writer who wants to give their mentor character a bit of estrogen should be encouraged to do so.
The problem is in the execution. Broadly speaking, male mentors are allowed to stand with their students, while female mentors stand behind them. Basically, and this is not exclusive to mentor characters at all, the guys are allowed to take a more active role in the story. And also aren’t shunted off into a romantic subplot with their protégés. That happens a lot, even when the female mentor is done right. (See, Avatar: the Last Airbender and Edge of Tomorrow.)
It’s difficult to find examples of this trope, simply because, as stated previously, there are so few female mentors in SFF. One of the more iconic examples is The Matrix.
Trinity isn’t actually a mentor per se, not the way Morpheus is, but she does help Neo navigate the ins and outs of the Matrix and the real world, so in the fundamental way, she counts. She’s got a great opener, she jumps out of helicopters, she helps Neo murder a bunch of innocent security guards in a lobby, all that jazz. She's your standard "strong female character" who manages to have a solid characterization and more personality than a brick wall.
And yet, her biggest contribution to the story is...kissing Neo back to life? And then cheering him on from the sidelines?
I get it, I get it, it’s Neo’s story, not Trinity’s. The fact that Morpheus also has to stand aside in the climax takes a lot of the sting out of it. But you can have an amazing movie centered around a guy who works with the women rather than shunting them off to the sidelines. Go re-watch Black Panther and you'll see what I mean.
But there’s this...thing...in modern media. It's not even really a trope, but we've all seen it. You've got an action movie that centers around Joe Average, an ordinary guy with an ordinary job and an ordinary life. Through a series of weird events, he ends up being caught in some sort of spy conspiracy theory or supernatural underworld or whatever. All well and good, until he's suddenly shooting terrorists and fighting vampires right alongside the people who have been training to do this very thing for years. Joe Average gets maybe one scene where he's in over his head, and then after a brief training montage he's James Bond.
It's a power fantasy, designed to delude the audience (particularly the male audience) that if they were plucked from their everyday lives and tossed into a death trap, they'd be totally fine. The best, even.
You can throw all the “chosen one” crap you want at me, but at the end of the day, you need training to win wars and battles. Years and years of it. Joe Average's fifteen-minute morning yoga ain't gonna cut it. Just make another James Bond sequel and be done with it.
It’s one of the reasons why I sympathize with Tiger in Kung-Fu Panda. She puts in a lifetime of work to become a great warrior, and then this guy—literally by accident—steals the title from her? And then after one training montage covering—at most—a couple weeks, he manages to defeat the big bad who defeated the five best fighters in the world?
No. I call bullshit.
An even better example of this is one of the most infuriating movies I’ve ever seen: Ant-Man.
I love Marvel, but I hate this movie, and this is the reason why.
Hope Pym is just better. At everything. She knows how to use the suit. She knows how to control the ants. She knows how to fight. She’s been in the company the good guys are trying to take down for years, so she knows the people, security, and weaknesses better than anyone else.
But no. Clearly the best person for the job is the random thief who broke in last week to steal the Ant-Man suit.
I can already see the comment section: “But Christina! She’s Hank’s daughter! How could you expect him to let her do something so dangerous as to break into a high-security facility run by a sociopath?”
First: “let her”? Let her?! She’s a grown-ass woman. Why is Hank treating her like a little kid who doesn’t know how to do jack shit?
Second: remember all those “chosen one” stories that center around a guy? It always seems to me that the other characters can’t get the boy out the door fast enough. “Well, son, seems you’re chosen for greatness. Who am I, your parent/guardian, to stand between you and a mountain of horrors and bloodshed that will, at worst kill you, and at best, traumatize you for life? Go fulfill your destiny, boy!”
More than often than not, the guy will be “burdened” with the chosen one thing, and the support characters will literally have to force him to take up the mantle because “no one else will.”
But if it’s a girl?
“No, she’s too precious and pretty to put at risk! How could you even think such a thing?”
Even Moana suffers from this. It's not an in-universe problem in her case, as her island culture practices excellent gender equity. That's more of a "this movie was created by Americans who don't practice such gender equity" problem. Moana has to jump through hoops that her male counterparts (think Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Neo, etc.) never had to deal with.
Here come the comments again: “But Christina! Marvel made a sequel that does make Scott and Hope equal! Ant-Man and Wasp.”
Hank had superior technology like wings and blasters and didn’t give them to Scott when they were all risking their necks—including the neck of his daughter that they made such a big point about protecting—to steal the yellow suit in the first movie? He made Scott fall through a tube toward deadly lasers without wings? What a dick! No wonder Howard Stark didn’t like him.
More comments: “But Christina! Ant-Man is about Ant-Man! It’s about Scott Lang becoming a hero! Not about Hope Pym. She’s just a support character.”
Well, that’s an easy fix. Take out Ant-Man.
I’m serious. They should have just made a Wasp movie. The primary tension would have been her strained relationship with her father. Hank has to come to terms with the fact that his wife chose to sacrifice herself, just as he was going to, and he has to respect the fact that Hope might do the same thing. (This is something that families and friends of enlisted soldiers could easily relate to.) While working on the heist, Hope will grow closer to her father, atone for the mistakes she’s made in the past, and be the one to go super-small to defeat the villain, just like her mother did.
Only unlike her mother, she gets to come back. And in the sequel, Wasp and Ant-Man, while she and her dad work to bring Mrs. Pym home, their technology is stolen! Some jerk named Scott is trying to sell it on the black market!
Then it turns out that Scott is only doing it to get back to his own kid, Cassie. And once he realizes what that stolen technology is for, he helps them, putting aside his own needs to reunite the Pym family, and become Ant-Man. With his mentor, the Wasp, showing him the way.
Also, this way Marvel would have beaten DC to the honor of “First Female Superhero Movie in Theaters,” and we all know how much Marvel loves beating DC.
Back to the original point. Female mentors in action genres are very few and far between. Which is why it hurts even more when their characters and arcs are botched. When they’re used just long enough to turn Joe Average into Joe Chosen One, and then tossed aside to cheer him on in the background.
If you’re going to create a kick-ass woman awesome enough to train your main character, then you can use her in the story beyond training the main character.
And here’s how to do that.
Female Mentors Done Right
Edge of Tomorrow--an awesome sci-fi action movie with an even better soundtrack--has a female mentor who trains unwilling time-traveler Tom Cruise to fight the aliens. What’s interesting here is that while Cruise’s character has the “chosen-one-ness” power of live, die, repeat, his mentor, played by Emily Blunt, used to have the same thing. By the time she’s finished training him and it’s time to take on the head alien, she doesn’t stand aside and let him do it alone. She goes with him. In the end, they’re both equal.
Doctor Strange also re-vamped The Ancient One as a woman, instead of keeping her as a man as in the comics, which is pretty cool. And, unlike Edge of Tomorrow, there is no romantic relationship between the Ancient One and Dr. Strange. Unfortunately it loses points for casting a white actor to play this Asian character, and also permanently kills her off so our dude hero can save the day, so I give it a B+ for effort, D for execution.
For our final example, let’s bring out the ol’ broken record and talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Of Aang’s three main bending teachers, two of them--Katara and Toph--are girls, both of them beautifully written, one of them with a major narrative arc and striking character growth. In addition, the writers practiced power balance within the group. Aang may be the "chosen one," the master of all four elements while all the other benders only get one element. But the other members of the group, especially Katara and Toph, specialize in certain abilities that Aang does not have.
Aang cannot use his powers to heal injuries, nor can he bloodbend. Katara can.
Aang cannot bend metal, a material used in abundance by their enemies. Toph invented metalbending, allowing her to crush entire ships.
This creates a power balance in the group as a whole, where each character remains vital to the quest because of their unique abilities. Katara and Toph can’t hang back and cheer Aang on as he fights the villain. Their specialized skills are mandatory for the team’s success.
In other words, while the story centers around a guy, if the Avatar writers had treated Toph and Katara the same way Marvel treated Hope Pym, the entire world would’ve been taken over by the Fire Nation.
Know any other good femme mentor characters in sci-fi and fantasy? Drop them in the comments so I can check them out!
One day, my roommate Sunny had a friend come over our apartment, and they decided to watch anime (Japanese cartoons). I, sitting at my desk in the corner of the living room, had every intention of tuning it out. I had my laptop and several books at my disposal, so I figured I'd get a bit of work done and be anti-social as usual.
That decision lasted all of two minutes.
To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts is one of those stories that is simple and to the point, but it sucks you in and keeps you in a vice grip from the very beginning. Our friend left after the pilot episode, but Sunny and I kept going. We ended up completing the entire first season in three days. After that, we read the manga (Japanese comic) which it's based on, and which is ongoing.
I'm not going to do an entire compare-and-contrast thing. So far, the manga and anime are very similar. But even though the manga is obviously farther along and is going deeper into the world-building and background--and despite my usual belief that the book/comic is almost always better than the screen version--I will say that as of the end of season one, the anime is better than the manga.
There are two key differences. The first is the presentation of the story. The manga opens with Schaal finding Hank--the man who killed her Incarnate father--and shooting him in the chest. It's ineffective, as Hank himself is an Incarnate, but it definitely gets the readers' attention.
The pilot episode of the anime, however, starts with the Incarnates' first battle during the civil war. There we see Hank as a leader, get introduced to some of the Incarnates, and watch their happiness and sanity fall apart. By the end, even though the war is over, Hank is hunting down and killing each of his former comrades as they all lose their minds and start killing innocent people. Episode two then goes into Schaal's backstory, how her father left for war a human and came back a dragon, which sounds cool on paper but is rough in reality. Hank shows up, kills him, and Schaal vows revenge. Her explosive introduction to Hank happens in episode three.
Because of this order, the anime has a lot more emotional weight than the manga. Hank and his unit were, ironically, very happy during the war. The Incarnates teased him about his love life, the doctor who created them took care of their injuries, and everyone was looking forward to a life of peace after the war. The difference between pilot-Hank and episode two-Hank is stark and brutal. He barely cracks a smile and only laughs once after the pilot. The flashbacks he has about each of the Incarnates he's trying to kill are physically painful, in large part because of the differences in him.
This is the other big difference between the anime and manga. Manga-Hank has retained some of his lighter attitude and is even a bit goofy, which causes a bit of a tone clash. And it's another reason the anime is better: by episode twelve, Hank and Schaal are friends on a mission. She's realized the severity of the situation and why the Incarnates need to be killed, and Hank, no longer alone, is able to smile and laugh again. It's really sweet.
The show's not perfect. You probably saw the busty blonde on the poster up top. I don't mind the author creating a sex symbol here, as Liza is a full character critical to Hank's mission and we get just as much shirtless Hank as we do sultry Liza, so it balances out. But there is a moment in both anime and manga were a boy yanks Liza's top down to reveal her breasts, says she was asking for it when she gets visibly upset, and goes unpunished. (He does get his ass kicked by a gargoyle for an unrelated event that same episode, but still, that rankled.)
The show also utilizes some power-of-friendship power-ups (cheesy, but fun) and the dead fridge trope (less fun). But otherwise, I'm counting the days to the end of 2020, which is supposed to be the season two release date. It'll be interesting to see where the anime goes once it catches up with the manga. That can be very hit-or-miss, and the track record for such projects isn't good (looking at you, Pandora Hearts). But given that this anime has already changed the manga in smaller ways to make the story better, this might be the lucky one.
Last time we talked about the classic story structure, The Hero's Journey. Today, we're talking about a more modern structure: the Beat Sheet. We'll be using Jessica Brody's book "Save the Cat Writes a Novel" (which every author should have on their shelf).
C. L. Polk
C. L. Polk is the author of Witchmark, which has been nominated for the Nebula, Lambda, Locus, and Aurora, and is the winner of the World Fantasy Award. You can read my review of this stunning debut novel here. Its sequel, Stormsong, came out on February 11th.
A huge "thank you" to Polk for taking the time out of her busy schedule to do an interview with me!
Interview with C. L. Polk
DZA: Witchmark and its sequel Stormsong take place in a sort of alternate universe where a land very similar to Victorian England has magic. Why did you decide on this particular aesthetic for your world, rather than the more standard settings like contemporary for urban fantasy or medieval for epic fantasy?
Polk: Honestly? It was the architecture. I am enamored with the aesthetic of city streets from the beginning of the 20th century. I was thinking about New York and Chicago streets - about how these buildings were getting taller, and the attention to the little details. I kept imagining a city with buildings like the Flatiron in New York - that look was what I wanted.
How long did it take you to write Witchmark, and what were the challenges you faced in getting it published?
I don’t really know how to begin counting. I had let the idea for the book percolate for a few months, and then I wrote a ragged, skeletal first draft in about six weeks in the late summer of 2014. I set it aside for a long while before I revised it, and I didn’t start looking for an agent to represent me until 2016. As for challenges, I think I had it pretty easy. I had to send out queries and wait, and that was all I had to do.
Witchmark’s main character, Dr. Miles Singer, made quite a mess at the end of the novel. The sequel Stormsong is going to be about his sister Grace dealing with the fallout. Why did you decide to change your POV character, and what unique challenges can we expect Grace to face?
Well, Miles was in no shape to run around and protag, and I couldn’t see myself skipping to a point where he had recovered sufficiently to run up four flights of stairs and get into bicycle chases. I had to pass the POV torch to someone else - and Grace was the person who made sense. There’s potential for a great deal of political upheaval, and this is what Grace was raised to do--she’s just doing it in the middle of a great disillusionment. She thought her efforts were protecting and enriching the people of Aeland, and now she has to figure out how to put out multiple fires while her worldview has been completely shaken.
I found Grace’s arc to be rather interesting in Witchmark. She starts the story thinking she’s an ally to people like her brother Miles, only to realize that she’s really not. Since throwing magic at the problem isn’t feasible in our world, how do you think we should handle fake allies like Grace in our lives?
It’s a difficult question, really. There is so much psychic shielding and base misinformation that people learn to swaddle themselves with that makes it so difficult to break out of. It’s a horrible thing to wonder, “Am I wrong? Am I not the good person I think I am?” What if you aren’t? Goodness, how wretched it would be if you weren’t. And so pointing out that an action or behavior is racist, or homophobic, or ableist is often taken at an insult that attacks a person’s core moral vision of themselves.
It’s genuinely frightening to consider, and so a lot of people will retreat back into that cocoon of ignorance and good intentions and flee the feelings (and the people) who upset them. It’s safe in there. It’s a hard prison to escape. I get it. But when it comes to dealing with people who are still centered on a fragile morality, I think that while everyone deserves your compassion, not everyone deserves your energy.
I’m more concerned with the people who are actually oppressed than I am the people who are simply scared of what they’ll see in the mirror. Would I like them to change? Yes. But I have to conserve my efforts. So I will spare what I have left over for the people who are fighting, and learning, and facing the mirror. Most of that is writing stories that I hope lead people to think about their own lives and their own struggles to put hope and justice into the world.
In Witchmark, you primarily go after two major themes: classism and mental health. In addition to The Kingston Cycle, you also have The Midnight Bargain coming out in Fall 2020, a fantasy novel that deals with reproductive rights, another major issue. Obviously these are very pressing and polarizing matters in the real world today. How do you use fantasy to contextualize these issues, and what are you hoping to communicate in these stories?
Really, I’m just angry about these issues. I cannot believe we still have to battle every day for the most basic right to control your own body just because it happens to have a uterus. But in 2019 I was thinking about some of the unspoken implications of a magic system where the ability is inborn and hereditary. I barely brushed on it in Witchmark, but I started seriously thinking about what happens to people who are equipped to carry children through a pregnancy in a world where magical ability is inherited from the parents - and it made the top of my head hot. How much autonomy, how much agency would child-bearing people have in that kind of world?
But I can’t just talk about that. I need a story. And so I took one of my favorite tropes, the springtime social season of London from regency and historical romance, and used that as the structural ticking clock that pushes Beatrice in her dilemma between choosing to scandalize society by becoming a magician, or denying her most heartfelt desire for magic by marrying the man she loves.
Both Witchmark and Stormsong feature LGBTQ+ characters and same-sex relationships as their romantic subplots. What do you say to critics who argue that incorporating same-sex romance limits your audience, and/or alienates the conservative half of your readership?
That criticism assumes a lot. In truth, I don’t have a conservative readership. They don’t want to read what I’m doing, so why exactly should I give a moment’s thought to people who aren’t going to like my stories anyway? And why should I shelve the things that I care about and want to express in my writing to pander to people who don’t like me regardless?
People who don’t want to read queer feminist SFF are not on my list of people who need my labor. I like my limited audience. My energy is for them. And some of them might like one book I write, but not another, and that is fine. I know some people aren’t going to be as jazzed about The Midnight Bargain because the romance is cishet. That’s okay. Catch the next one if you feel like it; I’ll have more soon.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing a sequel, and are you planning on writing any more books in The Kingston Cycle?
Writing Stormsong was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (please remember that I don’t have kids and I never went to grad school, so those might be harder, I don’t know.) When I was writing my fanfics and Witchmark, I was just me: some woman with a copy of Scrivener and a complex, all-consuming vision in her head. There wasn’t anyone checking for me. I was nobody. I had perfect freedom.
And then suddenly, there I am, trying to write a book to follow the surprising reaction people had to Witchmark, and suddenly I’m thinking about audience. About critics. About how I was writing a character some people loathed from Witchmark as the protagonist of Stormsong, and how that was going to be a hard sell. Those thoughts took up room in my head that I really needed for storytelling, distracted me from the art to yell about the commerce, and I had to do it all on a deadline.
I cried a lot. I went to therapy and cried. I went to my writer’s group and cried. I managed to write the book, though. And I don’t think any other book is going to be such a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. I got through the ordeal, and no other book is going to be a stress-fest like that again. but I wrote The Midnight Bargain because I really wanted to return to that feeling of just being a writer with an idea that was without any expectations or pressure or deadlines. It rejuvenated me. I will probably sneak around on my obligations with a secret book idea again.
As for Kingston, there is one more book. I passed the POV torch again, and Robin Thorpe is the protagonist who wraps up the series in Soulstar.
In addition to Witchmark, you also have a blog to help other writers with their projects. Can you tell us how that got started?
Oh, I should really update that! I started writing blog posts on writing craft because I’m a craft nerd. I like to talk about the craft of writing just as much as I like writing, and sometimes when I get going, I wind up with a gigantic essay and I take the answer and put it on my blog. I haven’t done it in a while, though.
You live in Canada. As someone who lives in Minnesota, I must ask: why?
I live in an area of Canada that doesn’t get the kind of winter Minnesota gets. I don’t know if they call it an Alberta Clipper down there like they do in Manitoba, but that bone-chilling, nostril-freezing cold wind from the west? It starts as a warm wind here. Yeah. Sorry.
And the geese? Yeah. Sorry about those too.
You can find C. L. Polk on her website, and on Twitter.
Headshot credited to Diane and Mike Photography.
Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle Book 1) by C. L. Polk
(Spoiler-Free) Book Review
TW for Witchmark: violence, murder, mentions of suicide and drug/alcohol abuse
All right, I'll admit it: I judged the book by its cover.
In my defense, the info on the back cover of my copy is very different from what I just copied and pasted from Amazon. It led me to believe that this would be a charming British tale with whimsy and a cute heteronormative romance. A nice break from Black Leopard Red Wolf, and ultimately forgettable.
This book is officially on my Favorites page. We have a murder mystery, gay fae romance, in-depth themes of classism and mental health, and an adorable cinnamon roll of a protagonist who is also a badass. Five stars. Love it. Pre-ordered the sequel as soon as I could.
The world is basically Victorian England ("Aeland") with magic. The only acceptable form of mage are the Storm-Singers, hiding in plain sight and exclusively upper class. They control the weather. Everyone else, that is, anyone whose magical ability is not in league with X-Men's Storm...well, if you're upper class, you get to be a Secondary, paired with a Storm-Singer as their personal battery pack. Any mage who isn't upper class is called a witch and sent off to an asylum because "witches" go crazy, but "mages" are totally fine.
(There's literally no difference. Except the difference in paycheck. I wasn't kidding when I said this book tackles classism like whoa.)
Unlike other books that pull this type of worldbuilding stunt, the copy-and-paste history is very limited. Our setting is the very British-like city of Kingston (London), in Aeland. There's a queen who bears a strong resemblance to Queen Victoria. Aeland is a new imperial power, just about to colonize Laneer. And...that's about it. There are strong elements of British history, but it's not cut straight from a textbook, especially since most of the focus is on magic and its impact on the country.
We're told the story through the first person POV of our protagonist, Dr. Miles Singer, who was born a mage into an upper class family. But, since his magical ability is healing rather than Storm-Singing, he is condemned to be a Secondary, basically slavery with golden chains. So, he ran away. We meet him after he's been "dead" for about a decade and acting as a psychiatrist in a veterans' hospital, trying to find out why so many vets suddenly snap and murder their whole families, then themselves. And since this is pseudo-Victorian England, he's not getting a whole lot of help.
Miles is a self-sacrificing, overly-polite gentleman whose biggest fear is being bound as a Secondary, a possibility that becomes more and more likely when he suddenly runs into his sister Grace, who is a Storm-Singer. Grace is an interesting character, because while she wants to help Miles and all the other Secondaries, she still wants Miles bound to her. She thinks the only way to help them is her way, that is having Miles bound to her but with a loose chain so he can continue being a doctor and living his own life.
Basically, Grace is toxic. But because she has good intentions and genuinely cares about Miles, nobody thinks she's toxic. She's just looking after her brother. What's wrong with that?
(Many things. There are many things wrong with it.)
There are several other characters--Miles's asshole father, the love interest Tristan, the patients and medical staff at the hospital--and they all feel real and distinct. The book itself is relatively short (300 pages) and very fast-paced. I finished the whole thing in about four days, and that was only because I had to work.
Overall, this is an excellent read, and I really hope the sequel lives up to it.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
(mostly) Spoiler-free Review
Where to start.
You know when you read a book that you don't particularly like, but it's still a really good book that needs to be talked about and read? That's the category I would put Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
This story has been called "the African Game of Thrones," and since I love GoT (before HBO ruined the last season, anyway), I picked it up. What followed was a harsh yet engrossing read, and I think what's got me so put-off about this story is that it doesn't have a happy ending. Matter of fact, it gives our lead character--Tracker--a happy ending, and then takes it away so he can spend the last two chapters on a vengeance quest. Because Marlon James is a very talented asshole.
Since we're told at the very beginning that the boy he's searching for is dead, and that Tracker is in a prison cell (he's the narrator, telling the story to a priest), we know that something bad happens. I was expecting him to fail his quest and then get betrayed, but as Bruce Banner so wisely said, "No, this is much worse."
Sue me: I want my happy ending. Doesn't matter how dark the beginning or middle of a story is, there should at least be a bittersweet tone in the end. And believe me, the middle of the story is very dark. We're talking torture and gang rape of the main character, frequent cannibalism by a variety of terrifying monsters, and the death of children. There are about eighty trigger warnings that should be put on this thing.
The worldbuilding is absolutely incredible. Each city and landscape has its own distinct culture and dangers. I am sorely lacking in education when it comes to the hundreds of cultures, mythologies, and histories of Africa, so I don't know how much of it is pulled from real life, how much is mythology, and how much is just James messing around, but it works, and all fantasy authors should take note.
The characterization is on point. Tracker is our main character and narrator, so everything we see is seen through his eyes (first person POV), and that man is a hot gay mess. Matter of fact, all of the major characters are hot gay messes. The Leopard, Tracker, Tracker's first boyfriend, Tracker's second boyfriend, they've each got a bouquet of issues. Mossi is the only one with any sense of emotional stability, and he doesn't show up until halfway through the story.
The pacing is slow. Though it's an intense read from beginning to end, Tracker doesn't even hear about the boy he's supposed to find until over a hundred pages in. This works, because there's a lot of information that needs to be given and processed concerning the world and Tracker himself. There are also frequent time skips and flashbacks, which can get confusing, but it also presents the story in a way to maximize the tension.
One of the most unique aspects of the story is the prose. If you've ever read Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death), it's similar to that, except with a lot more swearing. It's difficult to understand at some points, especially to a pasty-White reader like myself. But once you get the hang of it, it makes the story flow like melted butter.
So, yeah. African-based grimdark novel with excellent characterization and worldbuilding, with a ton of gay and a sharp, memorable story. It'd be one of my favorite books if James would just let Tracker have his happy ending, for fuck's sake.
I ask for so little, James. Christ.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!