Monday, February 18, 2019

CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell


Rating: A magically procured cranberry scone with extra butter

Highlight of note: What could easily have been a shallow Harry Potter rip-off actually took on life and substance in its own right.

Would you read more by this author? I plan to, yes. Although I am sad there's nothing else set in this world.

This book was recommended to me in an article of LGBTQ+ stories not to miss and I started it without knowing its background. That background is kind of important though. In another novel, Rainbow Rowell has a character who is obsessed with writing fanfic. Rather than use an existing fandom, she created one around Simon Snow, a wizard who goes to a school of magic and who is very hard to tell from Harry Potter.

While I haven't read that book yet (Fangirl) I've read other books that use imaginary fandoms that left me really wishing the thing were real, so I think it's pretty cool that Rowell went on to write an actual Simon Snow novel.

We start off in his final year of magic school with plenty of references to exciting things that have happened in the past, so it really feels like the final book in a series. I would almost ask why not tell the whole thing, but I think that would just be too much. Also, this final installment is largely a romance. One of the pair realized he was in love years ago, but the other one didn't even realize he experiences same-sex attraction until partway through this book, so early books would have had a different focus and Rowell appears to be like me in that she really only wants to write romances.

The parallels to Potter are many and I think it's inevitable that a reader would start off comparing the two. Oddly enough, it didn't take me very long to get sucked into this though. (Heh. I said "sucked." That's funny because one of the main characters is a vampire.) The characters seemed truly genuine and fully formed, the plot moved along nicely (especially after Baz's appearance), and the conclusion was satisfactory. I'll admit I foresaw some things that were probably supposed to be surprises, but I think most of the clues were subtle enough that someone reading more casually might have missed some of them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. Much more than I expected to a few chapters in while I was still going, "OK, so it's Harry Potter except Ron's a girl and is dating Harry? And Harry and Malfoy are roommates.... Gotcha." This could very easily have devolved into mediocre fanfic, but I was pleasantly surprised to really like it. In fact, I wish this was more in this universe about what happens after the novel's conclusion.

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers. (Although the 4% update is simply a catalog of similarities to Harry Potter  if you want to see what I mean about those.)

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Notes

4% So, they've dropped us into Harry Potter Book Seven... Or I guess maybe eight as they spend eight years at this school rather than Hogwarts' seven. Although it's established that weird exciting things have been happening since he started the school, we begin in Simon's eighth year.

The Potter parallels are many and obvious. An orphan of unusual power, an English school of magic, and an old wizard mentor who insists on sending kids home every summer even though they're in the middle of a war and thinks suffering in the non-magical world every summer is going to help our hero...

There's a Big Bad Guy. Apparently he can summon Simon and did just before summer break last term but not since, because he also works on the school schedule.

Simon has two good friends he hangs out with all the time. They're both girls, one whom is super-smart and the other of whom he's dating.

His favorite things about school include magically awesome food and sports, although at least he plays football rather than some weird made up sport with broken rules. (If you want a rant on the importance of game balance, we can have a discussion on how the snitch breaks quidditch.) Also, he's not a sports super-star, although his roommate is.

The roommate comes from an old magic family with snooty attitudes and a belief that people with inferior bloodlines and less magic power shouldn't be mixing with them. He's wanted to kill Simon since they met but apparently hasn't gotten around to it yet despite living with him for seven years.

And Hagrid is female and keeps goats instead of weird and dangerous magic critters.

So basically, it's Harry Potter except Harry plays football poorly, rooms with Malfoy, and dates Ron, who's a girl in this universe. Oh! And is willing to use the word "fuck."

I'm not sure how I feel about all of this. I think it's supposed to be a humourous take on everything, but it doesn't feel comedic.


5% Simon just beheaded a goblin can driver. So, certainly a higher level of violence than Potter. Also, the spells are apparently all based on song lyrics and movie quotes, which is interesting.

9% Chapter 6 is three lines from the perspective of someone named Lucy. We have no idea who she is.
10% The Mage says that the Humdrum only attacks while Simon is at school. Also, the Old Families are threatening to rebel against his rule. (He is not only headmaster of the school but whatever this universe is calling the Minister of Magic.)

12% The veil between life and afterlife is thinking and ghosts are crossing it. I'm guessing this explains Lucy.

13% Chapter 10 is one page from the Mage's point of view and is about how he's trying to figure out how to protect Simon. But he says "I could hide Simon from the Humdrum itself." Which implies he's letting the Humdrum find Simon over and over. Perhaps he's hoping Simon will come into his full power if threatened enough? Which leads to the question of what he wants that power for. (Also itself. Not himself. It's seeming more like the Nothing from Neverending Story than Voldemort. Although sometimes it looks like Simon.)

25% "I can't break up with Simon for a Tory vampire. My parents would disown me." Lol. And I'm sitting here wondering which is worse, the Tory part or the vampire bit? Because I could make an argument either way.

28% I don't think the Baz's mom's ghost came back. I think that was Lucy. And I think she's Simon's mom. Also suspecting Davey (aka the Mage) might be his dad. I'm less sure about that. I don't trust him though.

29% I can't tell if I'm supposed to or not, but I like Baz.

29% Baz just narrated that the Minotaur was trying to cow him. ::Snicker::

33% Baz is in love Simon! That's pretty excellent.

40% I've been wondering about these raids the Mage is conducting. Penny's mom connecting them to the Nazis helps solidify this distrust. I am far from convinced the Mage is the good guy. When you add in Lucy calling his rise to power a revolution, I'm starting to wonder if he killed Baz's mom... I'd suspect him of controlling the Humdrum too if it weren't for Chapter 10. The way he said he could hide Simon from it didn't sound like he was commanding it.

52% Um... The magic peeps at my know anything about Christianity and celebrate Samhain. So why do they observe Christmas? (And we did it take me so long to question that when it's been referenced before?)

57% "Kiss him? Kill him? Improvise?" Lol. I love Baz.

66% That was a fantastic first kiss!

72% " ...but their whole love-triangle dynamic is so persistently stupid, you can't blame me for blocking it out." Lol, Penny.

79% Arresting Ebb seems like it's going to cause the Mage a lot of trouble...

82% I think I'm understanding the link between Simon and the Humdrum. Simon is super powerful because he drains the energy from places. I'm not sure why the part of him that drains things seems to have a personality though.

85% I was right about the Mage being behind Baz's mum's death. Go me!

98% THE END It's a really sad that Simon never got to hear any of what Lucy was trying to tell him. He doesn't even realize who his parents were... But the rest of the ending made me happy. :)



Friday, February 15, 2019

KING OF SCARS by Leigh Bardugo


Rating: A roguish swagger and a shot of rum

Highlight of note: Nikolai Lantsov is one of my favorite characters of all time. I loved him from his other appearances in the Grishaverse and was absolutely thrilled to see him as the focus of this new duology.

Would you read the next one? ABSOLUTELY. Of course, I could have told you that before I started this book because I've loved everything else set in this universe.


This is the first book in the Nikolai Duology but the sixth novel be set in the Grishaverse, a world where magic users known as grisha hold great influence. (Nikolai is not grisha. His only super powers are charisma and wit.) I'm honestly not certain how this book would fare as an introduction to the world. I worry that perhaps some of the aspects of the Grishaverse and some of the character histories are explained too quickly and in insufficient detail for a newcomer. I could be wrong as I actually began reading the series at Six of Crows, which is the fourth book, and had no difficulty from there even if I didn't understand some of the history, but this new book has a lot of references to earlier events and characters. Oddly enough, I think you probably would understand things well enough if you skipped the first three books (The Shadow of Bone Trilogy) but I suspect the Six of Crows Duology would really help your comprehension.

The characters are the main attraction to any of the Grishaverse stories. Nikolai is a personal favorite (Take Han Solo, mix in some Jack Sparrow, then add a touch of King Arthur and a pinch of genuine compassion and caring. Stir well and let Oscar Wilde craft his dialog. If that doesn't intrigue you, then you and I have very different tastes in rogues.) but he's not alone. The cast includes a large number of bad-ass women, including Nikolai's adviser, who banters with him in a way that reminds me of Katherine Hepburn if Katherine Hepburn had ever played a someone who could kill you with her thoughts.

The world is expansive and detailed. It continues to grow in complexity in a way that is highly satisfying. As I alluded earlier, I'm not certain if there's enough recapping of things already established for a newcomer, but that means people who have had the other book don't have to skim over long explanations of things they already understand.

And the plot is compelling, particularly in the final act. While it's easy to get caught up in Nikolai, his is one of two main plots. The other focuses on a different character from the earlier books who is adventuring in a different country. Her story has a more solid ending, although it still leaves off with her starting something intriguing. Neither plot line is completed so much as left at a convenient stopping point. Having read all of Bardugo's other novels, this didn't surprise me at all. In fact, I considered waiting to read this book until the next one is out solely because I knew it would leave me desperately wanting to know what happens next. I don't regret my decision, but I was right to worry I would get frustrated at having to wait for the next installment.

So, to summarize, this book is excellent and anyone who likes fantasy should give it a shot. You probably want to read at least some of the earlier stuff first though.


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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes

3% I am totally still ridiculously and entirely in love with Nikolai.

10% Nina's still awesome too. I'd forgotten how much I dislike Fjerdan culture. Bardugo really did do a good job with that.

13% I'm highly curious whether Nina truly hears the dead or if she's hallucinating. In this world, it could go either way and she did develop necromancer type abilities at the end of the last book... I suspect that whatever they find in Gafvalle might be an indicator as she says the dead are calling her there.

14% I'm pondering how good an idea a one armed spy is. He sticks out a lot, but maybe people assume that no one who stands out that much could be a spy?

16% The end of Chapter 5 is straight up creepy. And it would appear that yes, the dead really did call Nina there.

18% Sometimes the witty banter between Nikolai and Zoya reminds me of Hepburn and Tracy. I love it. Despite the resemblance to the classic pair, I don't think they're going to wind up together, but damned if they can't play off each other.

21% Hmm... There apparently is something romantic between Nikolai and Zoya. Zoya's probably too sensible enough to let anything happen though. The kingdom needs a queen who gains them something they don't already have. Although kings do have mistresses...

23% People are worshipping the Darkling. That's some form of messed up there.

26% I'm feeling physically stressed worrying about what this monster is doing to Nikolai. And what did his voice sound like when he said Zoya's name in monster form? I really hope he's not channeling the Darkling.

28% Matthias's burial is heart breaking.

43% (How did I get it 43% already?) I'm really liking Hanne. And there's been some evidence Nina is bi... Could Hanne help heal her heart? It's okay if she doesn't. She's still awesome. But...

56% Oh... The people at the factory are giving parem to pregnant women... I assume to see if the babies are born with super powers. 

68% These Saints do seem to be helping, but I can't help but worry what will happen if they're freed. I don't trust them enough to believe they're just going be normal unmagical mortals.

71% I quite like this Shu princess and her collection of axes. I think Nikolai would like her too, although I'm not sure where he's going to end with Zoya. Isaac certainly likes her and it would certainly be a fun scandal for her to run off with a guard.

86% Well, crap. I'd hoped I'd been wrong about not trusting the Saints.

88% Zombie babies. Nice.

95% Whoa. The princess wasn't really the princess. Now why she could fight and the soldier couldn't makes sense. Two impersonators fell in love. If it wasn't for the dagger, it would be wonderful.

THE END (98%) As expected, I really want to know what happens next.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

THE DEVIL AND TOM WALKER by Washington Irving

Rating: a dismissive wave from the Devil as he rushes off to a fiddle contest

Highlight of note: Irving comes down very firmly on the side of abolitionism even though that would have alienated at least half the country in 1824.

Would you read more by this author? This is the third thing I've read by him and they all shared a lack of engagement, so probably not.


Despite being in a more modern style than the previous works in the collection I'm working my way through, it is still very evident that The Devil and Tom Walker was written in the past due to several cringe-worthy aspects of the story. The first one we come across is the character of Tom's wife, who is established to be a completely horrid person who tortures poor Tom so that he has no fear when he meets Satan, which had me wanting to rant against the harpy wife archetype. There's also an attack on money lenders that could be seen as antisemitic. And then there's the most obvious problem: the description of the Devil as a black man. But after some consideration I've decided that the absolute worst offender is the fact that the Devil claims, "I am he to whom the red men devoted this spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice." To be sure, he's also a patron of slavers, which is a nice abolitionist sentiment that would have been controversial at the time of writing, but I find it hard to forgive the assertion that the Massachusett peoples enjoyed worshiping Satan by setting fire to colonists.

Clearly, this isn't something that could be written today without widespread condemnation, but I feel we should remind ourselves of the era in which Irving lived and trying to give him credit both for being against slavery and for his allowing the Devil to express the sentiment that the colonizers were just as savage as the people they exterminated. These were progressive statements in 1824, and while I expect modern people to do go further than merely believing that enslaving people and committing genocide are bad things if they want to be considered decent human beings, I think we must also acknowledge that these were actually controversial beliefs during Irving's lifetime.

The Devil and Tom Walker is neither the first nor the last story to tell of a man who sells his soul to the devil. I've read several of them and seen many more on film. These tales are typically preachy and moralizing, but frequently either funny or frightening. This checked off preachy and moralizing just fine but didn't manage to hit either of the other two marks. Perhaps readers from a time before horror films found the mere act of meeting Satan scary; they're certainly more likely to have been impressed by the ending than I was.

I felt the opening of the story had a lot of potential. The first thing we are told is that there is pirate treasure to be found. Surely a story with both pirates and the Devil could have done a better job at holding my interest than this did, but there was little adventure or conflict. Tom meets the Devil. The Devil kills Tom's wife, something Tom is grateful for. Tom proceeds to sell his soul to the Devil now that his wife isn't around to benefit from it, refuses to become a slave trader because he's not that evil, and sets up shop as a loan shark instead. A life of greed and avarice is then described in a few paragraphs before Tom forgets to carry his Bible constantly and gets carted off by a demon horse, never to be seen again. At no point did I care about Tom, so I wasn't hoping he'd find redemption. Nor did I scorn him enough to be pulling for his damnation. It all just sort of happened, and I was told it had happened but didn't feel very entertained by the telling.

I dimly recall reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and having a similar reaction of underwhelm. I quite liked the Tim Burton film based on it though, so maybe if he directed a version of  The Devil and Tom Walker I would find it more compelling.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

THE PHILOSOPHER'S FLIGHT by Tom Miller




Rating: a sigil to allow one to fly

Highlight of note: Miller offers commentary on sexism through a reverse lens, offering us a male lead who keeps being told he can't do things because he's not a woman.

Will I read the next one? I'm first in the library holds line for it!


phi·los·o·phy
noun

the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline. 

"Philosophy" strikes me as an interesting word to use to describe what one is tempted to call magic. Through the discipline of empirical philosophy, practitioners in this alternate reality use powders to draw sigils that behave as spells. For reasons no one has really determines, women are in general better at this practice than men due to having more natural power, which led to an interesting divergence of history when philosophy came into popular use in the US Civil War. In this world, not only did Lincoln free the slaves, but he gave women the right to vote. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to have affected any of the presidential elections between then and World War I, but there is some mention of voter suppression that could explain that.

In this book, our main character, Robert (somewhat distractedly called Boober by his family) was raised the only male in a family of philosophers and began learning sigils before he learned how to write his name. He's nowhere near the best philosopher in the United States, but he may be the best male philosopher in the country. As the US begins to send troops to defend France from the Germans, Robert is accepted into a special program at Radcliffe College where he is one of a handful of male philosophers and the only male to be specializing in the flight-based area called hovering.

Although in this world women were given the vote earlier than in our world and there are females in Congress during the story, there is also ample evidence that misogyny is alive and well in Robert's United States. This is shown primarily through a group called Trenchers who argue against all use of empirical philosophy, using the arguments that it goes against the natural order of things and displeases God. They behave exactly as I would expect the real-world religious right to respond and are highly, almost depressingly, believable. I don't feel Miller glossed over the misogyny, although I'm not certain he shouldn't have given it more attention than he did. The reference to female votes being suppressed did take up multiple paragraphs, but it merely confused Robert, who said that didn't seem right but failed to appear truly angered by it even though he was subjected to so much sexism himself.

The anti-males-in-philosophy sexism in this story is a little problematic at times. Robert's dream since childhood has been to serve in an elite military unit specializing in rescue and evacuation. He's ridiculed about this at nearly every step, even by his own mother, a veteran of several wars who says repeatedly that she would never have allowed a man in her commands. There's a strong component at his school that don't think he has any business being at the school, let alone in the Rescue and Evacuation Corps, and an even stronger one at other schools that feel this way when he enters into a collegiate competition. While I supported Robert, the point I worry Miller fails at is in showing true understanding of why the women are upset. Yes, some of it is simple and ugly prejudice. But there is also a legitimate fear of losing safe spaces and female agency that is never acknowledged. Yes, women can be war heroes here, but I saw no evidence that this meant they could also study medicine or be soldiers without also being philosophers, or that levels of sexual harassment and rape were any lower than they were in our 1910's. But there was no sympathy shown anywhere about how Robert's presence could be seen as a herald of an influx of men who would would lead to women being possibly demeaned, abused, or devalued. Instead, the women who did not completely support Robert where portrayed as just as hateful and irrational as the Trenchers. I'm not saying that they were right to worry about male infiltration of the one professional sphere in which women were granted superiority, but I do think the matter could have been handled with a little more compassion. As it was, it had too great a feel of people countering the statement that misogyny is still a problem holding back young women in the United States with the assertion that we've done away with all-male colleges but still have women's ones.

Mixed feelings about the portrayal of the prejudice Robert faced aside, I really did enjoy this book. The writing is strong and engaging enough that I was immediately drawn in and my attention held throughout.

While it's tempting to say the setting is the star of this book, the cast is also well done. Robert's a good guy and I really wanted him to do well. He's easy and entertaining to cheer for. Meanwhile, the supporting characters are both interesting and vibrant. From the roommate who introduces himself by saying how many bow-ties he owns to the general who attends important meetings with her knitting in hand, I liked getting to know these people.

The plot contains several mini-climaxes and stays engaging throughout. There was one thing that puzzled me though. At one point, one of the characters has been repeatedly threatened and people are credibly trying to murder her. I would have been incredibly concerned and eagerly reading to make sure she was okay, except that she appears in some the quotes given at the starts of the chapters with a title that she clearly doesn't have yet, which makes it obvious she's going to survive. I am honestly perplexed why Miller did that. Otherwise, the story pulled me along the whole time. And while the conclusion leaves off at a point that leaves no doubt there is a sequel, it was solid enough that I'm not too frustrated that I won't be able to read the next installment until this summer. I've already put a hold on it at my library, where I am first in line when it releases.


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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes

2% I'm not sure why the sigils usage is refered to as philosophy rather than a form of science. I'm intrigued by the world though. The opening background story was highly engaging and didn't feel like an infodump.

15% I'm very happy he's introducing himself in Boston as Robert. People calling him Boober was distracting me from an otherwise enjoyable universe.

16% "Don't touch me, you ratfuck bastard!" RatFUCK not ratFINK. I like this Jake girl.

28% I'm not sure what's up with the dean being insane. I know uppercrust schools like famous deans, but surely functionality is also a qaulity to be desired. Also not sure why Rachael has her job when her incompetence is such that girls are being endangered. Is it just the famous aunt? Because I'm pretty sure wrongful death lawsuits existed in the 1910's.

30% I have no idea what Robert has just signed up for. And niether does he. But it sounds expensive.

32% I complete agree with Robert's mom about the flyers having a shitty chain of command. Rachael physically accosted Robert. If he wasn't so much bigger than her, that would clearly have been physical abuse. Of course, he is bigger than her and now I'm worried that merely throwing her off is going to get people talking about him being violent and dangerous. Although no one likes Rachael, so maybe not.

33% If Jake doesn't think she's woman enough for Robert, who does she think is? The war hero maybe?

36% War hero Dardanelles is about to kick Robert's ass. She'll probably be impressed by this new shielding technique though.

44% I'm really liking Robert's romance with Dar. The scene in the night club was particularly well done.

47% The details of the theater hand-holding are marvelous.

51% Whoa. Can I be like Gertrude when I grow up? Talk about one kick ass octogenarian!

64% I'm liking all the political protest tensions. They're very compelling. ... And it's always fun when the counter protest is so successful the original protesters show up late and in small numbers.

65% The Trencher bar is burning! Is it wrong of me to be pleased?

68% Not sure if I'm proud of Robert or disappointed in him for saving the head Trencher. I doubt the guy is going to be grateful when he wakes up and finds out what happened.

76% I would be feeling very worried about Dar's safety were one of the earlier snippets before chapters a quote from a Representative with her name. Which makes me wonder why the author did that. ... And Chapter 33 starts with another one, just in case we missed or forgot the earlier reference to Rep Danielle Noor Hardin.

77% Why the hell isn't Racael being expelled? She threw urine on a fellow student and then destroyed property worth hundreds of dollars.

85% He's in! Yay! And Dar's breaking up with him because of it. I can kind of understand. But alos kind of not. Breaking up with someone doesn't mean you stop caring about them.

90% Thier friends think Essie has a crush on Robert. I've been thinking that for a while too.

91% And Robert and Dar are back together. Kinda, at least. So there's an interesting conflict set up for next book.

END And the last 8% of the file is previews...

It was a good ending, solid. It leaves me looking forward to the next book being available but not driving myself crazy over a cliffhanger.