Friday 31 August 2018

Books Received in August, 2018

Many thanks to TOR for an advance copy of City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender, about a magical bomb squad. It sounds fantastic and comes out in November.

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn't control. An infestation that ate magic-and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.
Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.
Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she's the last-and only-sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

Thursday 30 August 2018

Shout-Out: All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault by James Alan Gardner

Monsters are real.
But so are heroes.

Sparks are champions of weird science. Boasting capes and costumes and amazing super-powers that only make sense if you don't think about them too hard, they fight an eternal battle for truth and justice . . . mostly.

Darklings are creatures of myth and magic: ghosts, vampires, were-beasts, and the like. Their very presence warps reality. Doors creak at their approach. Cobwebs gather where they linger.

Kim Lam is an ordinary college student until a freak scientific accident (what else?) transforms Kim and three housemates into Sparks-and drafts them into the never-ending war between the Light and Dark. They struggle to master their new abilities-and (of course) to design cool costumes and come up with great hero-names.

Turns out that "accident" was just the first salvo in a Mad Genius's latest diabolical scheme. Now it's up to four newbie heroes to save the day, before they even have a chance to figure out what their team's name should be!

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Video: Weldon Gray's Ancient Instruments

This video by Caleb Drew is about Weldon Gray, a Canadian luthier, who makes medieval and renaissance instruments and specializes in lutes. He studies images and then recreates them. He's remarkably talented. In this video he demonstrates several instruments including the oud, hurdy-gurdy, organistrum, and lute. He makes custom instruments too.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Book Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Pros: very fast paced, emotional punch, thought-provoking

Cons: minor things, slightly rushed ending

A year ago life changed for 50% of the US population. Women were kicked out of the workforce and made to wear bracelets that counted their words. When they reached their cap of 100 words, they received an electric jolts of increasing intensity until they stopped talking. Members of the LGBT community were shipped off to ‘camps’.

A year ago Dr. Jean McClellan was a top cognitive linguist researching Wernicke’s aphasia, an ailment that makes it difficult to form coherent sentences. Now she’s a stay at home wife, slowly watching her marriage crumble, her daughter suffer under the word restrictions, and her oldest son become a misogynist.

When the President’s brother has an accident that affects the Wernicke area of the brain, she’s asked to help find a cure, little knowing that there’s another reason the government wants her work.

The book is very fast paced and only look me 2 days to whip through. It’s first person narrative makes the world immediate and the clever use of flashbacks fleshes out the characters and how the US changed so quickly.

Loss of freedom is always an interesting plot device, and this book touches on real fears American women have during the present political climate. The book joins other US dystopian novels that focus on how women could be repressed like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Veracity by Laura Bynum, and When She Woke by Hilary Jordan.

There are some powerfully emotional scenes, some of which were rage inducing, while others made me want to cry. While I often didn’t agree with Jean’s choices, I could understand why she made those decisions and sympathized with her plight.

While the book explained that Wernicke’s aphasia impairs the ability to speak coherently, it would have been good to point out that it doesn’t always impair cognitive abilities outside of communication. I was left wondering if people who had it would be able to function or if they would have to be put into care homes.

There were a few minor issues that annoyed me, like cookbooks being banned when you would expect they would be needed. You can’t remember every recipe or learn new ones without some sort of help. There’s also a scene where Jean had just under 40 words remaining in her day and she had to make a phone call. She prepared her message in advance but used her whole allotment, even though several of the words she used were unnecessary. What if she’d had to respond to a question afterwards? She’d have had to stay silent.

The ending felt a bit rushed in that I would have liked a more complete telling of what happened. I understand why it wasn’t comprehensive, but it felt like the author could have provided an alternate viewpoint or arranged to have a witness describe the event in more detail.

It’s hard to call a book that does so many horrible things a pleasant read, but it was. Normally dystopian novels leave me horrified by how things could go in the real world while this one left me feeling energized, and feeling that the resistance can succeed if good people fight for their rights.

Friday 24 August 2018

TV Show Review: Gravity Falls

Pros: fun characters, siblings that fight and still love each other, intricate storytelling, great humour


Twins “Dipper” and Mable Pines are shipped to their great uncle’s place in the woods for the summer. Their grunkle Stan runs The Mystery Shack, a tourist attraction of bizarre made-up creatures and no refunds. When Dipper uncovers a mysterious journal he begins to see that there are real monsters and mystery in the town.

The show’s got a great supernatural overlay, making it feel like a kids version of X-Files paired with the weirdness and interconnected storytelling of Twin Peaks. There are hidden codes and astute viewers will see side characters pop up in strange places. It’s a great show for easter eggs and esoterica (if you don’t feel like solving all the mysteries yourself, you can find a lot answers/translated cryptograms online).

The characters are fantastic. I loved that the twins fight a lot but it’s clear that they also love each other and will do anything for each other. Quite a few episodes end with them working through their differences in order to save the day. The same goes for their friends and enemies. Each character has their own motivations, and work towards their own goals as the show progresses. As the two seasons are a continuous story, you really get to know everyone in town.

While it is a show for older kids, there’s a fair amount of adult humour. Not crassness, but jokes that will go over the heads of the kiddos that adults will enjoy. Most of these revolve around Stan’s being a con artist. So for example, in an early episode the kids are seen making counterfeit money as part of a family bonding activity. It’s also a show that gets better with each viewing. The first time through some of the characters/episodes annoyed me, but rewatching them I could see where the characters grew due to their interactions and how each story built into a larger whole. You’re also more aware of the various easter eggs and ongoing jokes peppered through the show.

Season one is basically monster of the day stories, while season two starts to tie the larger mysteries of the town together.

It’s great to find a show that’s so well written and brilliantly voice acted. The characters all seem real and the final episode really tugs on those heart strings. And when you finish watching, if you’d like more, there are some books that flesh out the world, including Journal 3. Gravity Falls is a wonderful rabbit hole to fall into.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Shout-Out: Annex by Rich Larson

When the aliens invade, all seems lost. The world as they know it is destroyed. Their friends are kidnapped. Their families are changed.

But with no adults left to run things, young trans-girl Violet and her new friend Bo realize that they are free. Free to do whatever they want. Free to be whoever they want to be.

Except the invaders won't leave them alone for long...

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Video: How music was made on a Super Nintendo

The Nerdwriter has made an excellent video about how video game composers wrote surprisingly complex music for a game system with very little memory or capacity for playing music.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Book Review: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Pros: unique magic system, intricate world-building, fascinating characters, interesting plot


Three years ago Sancia Grado was a slave. Now she’s a skilled thief, hired to pull off a very difficult job. The payout means she can finally get a physiquere to fix the scar on her head and remove the metal plate beneath it that was scrived to allow her to hear the thoughts of every object she touches. But the item she steals is connected to the Occidentals, also known as hierophants, those who became like gods, able to use scrivings to change reality itself. Suddenly the plate in her head’s the least of her worries.

This book was amazing. I’ve only mentioned Sancia’s plot thread, though there are several others that intersect with hers once the book gets going. She’s a thoroughly engaging protagonist, and while her scrived state makes her fairly powerful in some respects, that’s balanced by the pain speaking with objects causes her.

I absolutely loved Clef. He’s such a fun character, coming out with all the sarcastic, swearing, responses people would love to use but don’t because they want to be polite. The book does have quite a lot of swearing, which I sometimes found jarring and other times thought fit the situation nicely.

The worldbuilding was intricate and detailed, with several layers to it. The main setting is the city with it’s four campos and the commons, but other locations are mentioned. History comes mostly in the form of mythology - which different sources report in different ways.

The magic is unique and hard to describe in few words. It’s remarkably… logical, though it takes some time to wrap your brain around what the people are doing.

The plot is interesting, with several threads wrapping around each other. There is some downtime to get to know the characters and let them figure out their next moves, but the majority of the book is one daring break in or escape after another.

As I said, it’s an excellent book. If you’re looking for a unique fantasy novel, I highly recommend this.

Friday 17 August 2018

Star Wars Trading Cards 2

In last week's trading card post I mentioned that some of the cards had character information. These are the cards for Luke and Leia from the The Empire Strikes Back set:

Notice their ages are different? While I recognize that it's not the film writers making the cards, the card manufacturer was obviously given the information by the production company. And this clearly shows that Luke and Leia were not believed to be twins at this point (the kiss in the film also indicates this).

The cards also show that not all the dialogue was finalized in the film when the cards went into production. I wonder if this is how the scene was originally written in the script.

The cards also show some behind the scenes images, for artwork and filming.

It's really cool that these were made.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Shout-Out: The Last Witness by K. J. Parker

When you need a memory to be wiped, call me.

Transferring unwanted memories to my own mind is the only form of magic I've ever mastered. But now, I'm holding so many memories I'm not always sure which ones are actually mine, any more.

Some of them are sensitive; all of them are private. And there are those who are willing to kill to access the secrets I'm trying to bury...

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Video: The White Room

Here's a funny Chris and Jack video, where one of them is being interviewed in the afterlife...

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Book Review: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Pros: excellent setting, interesting characters, realistic depiction of trauma, great magic system 

Cons: muddled ending with confusing motivations

Maggie Hoskie is of the Living Arrow clan, born for the Walks-Around clan. She is Dine, living inside the walled reservation grounds after the Big Water disaster killed much of the outside world. Her clan affiliations give her blood lust, which made her the perfect apprentice for Neizghani, a monsterslaying hero/god.

Abandoned by her mentor a year ago, she’s uninterested in being a monsterslayer, but when new creatures start attacking villages, the local medicine man suggests it’s the work of a witch. So he partners her with his in-training grandson, a man with clan powers of his own.

This is a cross between urban fantasy (monsters/magic in the present day) and post-apocalyptic fiction. I loved the reservation setting and the descriptions of the houses, food, etc. I also enjoyed the hints of what went on to bring about society’s collapse. There’s a good number of Navajo words, but most of it’s immediately translated, so they added a nice flavour to the text without creating any confusion.

Maggie isn’t a particularly likeable character, though she’s very sympathetic once you learn her back story. She’s very no nonsense and kickass, but is also clearly emotionally stunted and can’t abide being touched. Her standoffishness and antagonism is off-putting, but are clearly coping mechanisms for the traumas she’s suffered.

Kai, the grandson, is really fun. While I wasn’t a fan of his fashion sense I loved how positive and considerate he is. I was surprised it took Maggie so long to figure out his clan powers, as they both seemed pretty obvious early on.

The Goodacre twins were probably my favourite characters despite only showing up towards the end of the book. Clive was awesome.

I thought the clan magic was handled well. I loved that Maggie is very powerful but that she can’t entirely control herself while in the throes of power, and that there was a time frame for how long she could use her magic and immediate consequences for its use.

There were minor romance elements that were handled well. The author subverted my expectations here, and I was very happy about that. I rolled my eyes when Kai was introduced but everyone was so over the top about trying to push them together that I loved Maggie’s responses to the pressure. I liked that the characters didn’t jump into anything and that their relationship developed fairly naturally. I was impressed with the author’s handling of Maggie’s trauma and how it impacted her ability to feel friendship and love.

Maggie and Kai team up to find the witch but there’s little work on the actual mystery. That is, they only actively search out one clue, after that the witch storyline seems to disappear for a while until someone points them to the next thing they need to do.

The ending left me with a lot of questions with regards to character motivations and actions. I’ll speak more about this in the spoiler section below.

Ultimately I wish the ending had been tighter and less muddled as it left me feeling unsatisfied with the book, even though there were a quite a few positive elements.

*** SPOILERS ***

With regards to the romance storyline, I was glad things went slowly as Maggie’s not in a position - even at the end - where she could be in a healthy relationship. She’s got a lot of healing to do and while I think Kai is a decent person and would be able to help her learn how to trust (even with that ending), jumping into a sexual relationship would likely do her more harm than good.

For the ending, as I said, I was surprised that Maggie didn’t clue in on her own that Kai has the ability to manipulate people into liking him. That was clear to me during his first conversation with Longarm. While I can understand her anger at finding out the way she did, it shocked me how poorly she took the revelation when it’s equally clear that he didn’t manipulate HER. Yes, he had ulterior motivations for seeking her friendship, but most adult friendships do (even if they’re just ‘I want to monopolize your time so I don’t feel lonely’). She seemed almost angry that he hadn’t manipulated her feelings of friendship and love towards him, which confused me. If he HAD manipulated her feelings I could understand, unless the idea that she has feelings is what scared her.

Maggie lived with Neizghani for years. Why was she so willing to believe that he would become a witch and create monsters? He’s the monster *slayer* after all. If the idea here was that if she could become a monster, than so could he, it needed to be articulated better. As a god, I assumed his personality would be less changeable than a human’s. So at the end when it was clear that Ma’ii was behind the monsters and her grandmother’s death, I expected her to team up with Neizghani to defeat them. I certainly expected her to refuse to follow Ma’ii’s plan to kill Neizghani.

Finally, I didn’t understand why Neizghani wanted to kill Kai. The book implied it was partly over jealousy (even though Maggie hadn’t really done anything with him yet) and partly because Kai was powerful and COULD become evil one day. Maybe as a god Neizghani assumed a pre-emptive strike was the best way to solve the problem, but it seems to me that someone stylized as a hero should have to wait until the man’s actually evil before killing him. Again, the motivations here could have been clarified.

Friday 10 August 2018

Star Wars + Trading Cards 1

One of my older sisters collected trading cards when we were kids. While I went on to get X-Men and other comic book based cards, she - several years older than me - collected movie cards. I recently dug up her old cards and am surprised by how many movies there were trading cards for. She had several sets of cards for Star Wars (all 3 films at the time), Raiders of the Lost Arc, E.T., even a few cards for movies you wouldn't expect to get cards, like Moonraker!

For the Star Wars cards, some had puzzle pictures on the back (you had to join 9 cards to make a larger picture) while others were stickers. While most of the cards had story elements on the back that applied to the front photos, some had movie facts.

The cards were also a great way to learn the names of random background characters and statistics about main characters.

Next week I'll post more about The Empire Strikes Back trading cards, which have some... unique information.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Shout-Out: Dreamfall by Amy Plum

A Nightmare on Elm Street meets Inception in this gripping psychological thriller from international bestselling author Amy Plum. Seven teenagers who suffer from debilitating insomnia agree to take part in an experimental new procedure to cure it because they think it can’t get any worse. But they couldn’t be more wrong.

When the lab equipment malfunctions, the patients are plunged into a terrifying dreamworld where their worst nightmares have come to life—and they have no memory of how they got there. Hunted by monsters from their darkest imaginations and tormented by secrets they’d rather keep buried, these seven strangers will be forced to band together to face their biggest fears. And if they can’t find a way to defeat their dreams, they will never wake up.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Video: Why did medieval buildings use jettying?

This is a video by Shadiversity explaining some of the reasons why medieval people used jettying (overhangs) on their buildings. It's a bit slow but does mention several factors involved both with regular houses and with castles.

There are so many things that influenced why people act the way they do. I don't know that I've ever seen a fantasy novel mention jettying or taxes on the ground floor square footage or... But these are fascinating aspects of life, and even if they're not cribbed exactly, it's the kind of stuff that makes a world feel real.

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Book Review: A Gift of Griffins by V. M. Escalada

Note: This is the sequel to Halls of Law, so the review below contains spoilers for book one.

Pros: fun characters, interesting magic systems

Cons: ending felt rushed

It’s been roughly six months since the invading Halians conquered the Faraman Polity. Jerek Brightwing, hiding in the Serpents Teeth mountains, has been proclaimed Luqs by the Faro of Bears and her soldiers, and is desperate for aid. He sends Talent Karida Nast and a small group to contact nearby potential allies who can help them fulfill the prophecy and retake the throne. Meanwhile the Halian Princess Imperial travels to Farama the Capital for her arranged marriage with the new mage controlled Luqs, Jarek’s father.

This is the second book in the Faraman Polity duology. This series has a lot of fun characters. Kerida and Tel’s relationship was great. I enjoyed seeing Kerida meet up with her sisters, family reunions complicated by Kerida’s being a Talent and therefore ‘not of the world’.

There are three groups of magic users (four if you count the griffins). The Talents and Feelers are all Gifted, with a single innate ability. Talents can ‘flash’ people and objects to see the truth of them. Feelers are varied, with some being able to speak telepathically across distances, healing, lifting objects, etc. The third human group are the Halian Shekayrin who use red faceted crystals to perform spells. Kerida starts out as a Talent but through a Griffin gains an extra power. I thought the author did an excellent job of showing her slowly learn how to use and then master her new abilities. Her progression felt earned even though she mastered things quickly.

I would have loved to learn more about the griffins, especially their history with the Gifted. Considering the prophecy and the reverence griffins are held in by the Shekayrin it seemed an unfortunate oversight to not give more background about them.

I thought there was another book in the series so I was very surprised when things suddenly wrapped up at the end of this book. While there was a good climactic fight that made for a great novel ending, I was surprised by how little series wrap up there seemed to be. More on this in the spoiler section below.

Ultimately it was a good book though I’d have loved a third volume that went into the difficulties of returning society to what it was and dealt with more of the social aspects the first book introduced.


The more I thought about the ending, the more questions I had about how things would continue after the final page. There’s so much work left to be done and a lot of questions left unanswered. Similarly, it didn’t feel like the prophecy was properly fulfilled. Yes, a small group of Feelers, Talents, and one Shekayrin did come together, but I have trouble believing that other Talents and Shekayrin would follow suit considering their long held belief systems. The majority of people in the Faraman Polity don’t even know Feelers still exist, and given how Feelers have been demonized and mythologized over the years, I suspect there will be a measure of panic once non-gifted people learn Feelers are real. Also ignored are the male soldiers and citizens of the Polity who accepted Halian rule without coercion, something that the first book dealt with really well but was largely ignored in this one.

Friday 3 August 2018

Book Review: Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe

Pros: nice overview on a large number of topics 

Cons: only a few photographs, mostly hand drawn illustrations, dated information

The book is comprised of an introduction and chapters on medicine, transportation, high tech, sex life, military technology, personal effects, food, drink, and drugs, urban life, working the land, house and home, communications and sport and leisure. Each chapter is subdivided, so under personal effects there are sections on mirrors, makeup, tattooing, soap, razors, perfume, wigs, clothing and shoes, jewelry, spectacles, and umbrellas. They’re followed by a shortened list of sources, a bibliography and index. The book covers a surprisingly large range of topics, and a large range of locations. While the majority of ancient artifacts are from the Middle East/Mediterranean, the book covers a fair amount of Chinese discoveries as well. South and Central America, Japan, India, and other places are also mentioned to a lesser degree.

Modern society tends to look down on civilizations of the past as being lesser in many ways. This book shows that a lot of habits and tools we think are modern have been around for a long time. Sometimes they’re lost and rediscovered, sometimes they have a long continuous history. The ingenuity of our ancestors is incredible and it’s fascinating to see the variety of things they invented.

Most of the images are hand drawn illustrations, which is fine when showing cross sections but odd when they’re meant as reproductions of historical items. I’m guessing they were unable to secure the rights to photographs and so did the next best thing, but it really would have been better to have photographs. And what photos the book does have are all black and white.

The book came out in 1994, so the information is already dated. That’s not to say it’s all wrong, just that you have to accept that not all of the conclusions mentioned here are still agreed upon. I do think the authors did a fantastic job of both showing how archaeological conclusions shift over time as new finds are discovered/researched, and also explaining that some mysteries may have different solutions to the ones proposed in this volume.

While the book has some limitations, it’s a fantastic volume if you want a nice overview of the breadth of human achievement throughout ancient history.

Thursday 2 August 2018

Shout-Out: SuperMoon by H. A. Swain

Sol is the month between June and July on the thirteen-month Moon calendar. It's the only time teenagers have to themselves between rigorous scientific training and their ultimate lab assignments in their colony on the Moon. Their families emigrated from Earth to build better lives; but life on the Moon is far from perfect, as Uma learns on the eve of Sol.
Uma meets an Earthen girl who becomes a fast friend, and much more. What Uma doesn't know is that the girl is assigned to infect Uma with a plague that a rogue faction of Earthen scientists hope will wipe out Moon soldiers. Will Uma be the cause of a pandemic? Whom can she trust, and moreover, whom does she love?

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Books Received in July, 2018

Many thanks as always to the publishers who sent me books this past month.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke - I was really excited about this book as it sounded incredible, but in the end it wasn't for me. I loved the main characters and the between chapters info on poisons, but the way background information was revealed (first in tiny, tiny portions, and then in a giant info dump) frustrated me too much.

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me... 
Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor's charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor's family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.
But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.

Gate Crashers by Patrick Tomlinson - This sounds like a fun SF novel.

The only thing as infinite and expansive as the universe is humanity's unquestionable ability to make bad decisions.
Humankind ventures further into the galaxy than ever before. and immediately causes an intergalactic incident. In their infinite wisdom, the crew of the exploration vessel Magellan, or as she prefers "Maggie," decides to bring the alien structure they just found back to Earth. The only problem? The aliens are awfully fond of that structure.
A planet full of bumbling, highly evolved primates has just put itself on a collision course with a far wider, and more hostile, galaxy that is stranger than anyone can possibly imagine.

Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang - This book sounds amazing.

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she'll take any job for the right price.
As far as Cas knows, she's the only person around with a superpower...until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people's minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world's puppet master.
Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she's involved. There's only one problem...
She doesn't know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.