TV Recap and Review: American Gods S01E01 – The Bone Orchard

Title: The Bone Orchard
Show: American Gods
Season: 1
Episode: 1
Sidereel Rating (Average): 4.06
Sidereel Rating (Mine): 4

Based on: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Notes: Series Premiere

Cast:

  1. Ricky Whittle – Shadow Moon
  2. Ian McShane – Mr. Wednesday
  3. Emily Browning – Laura Moon
  4. Gillian Anderson – Media
  5. Pablo Schreiber – Mad Sweeney
  6. Bruce Langley – Tehnicolor Boy
  7. Jonathan Tucker – ‘Low Key’ Lyesmith

Series Description: Shadow Moon is released from prison only to find that his wife and best friend are both dead. Broke and alone, he accepts a job working for Mr. Wednesday, a man on a mysterious mission, and is unwillingly dragged into a war between the ancient and modern gods of America.

Plot Highlights: A band of Vikings reach America, only to figure that they were not going to be able to survive on this new continent. Lacking the wind they needed to sail back, they make a series of blood sacrifices to bring the Allfather’s attention to them. In the present day, Shadow speaks to Laura about how he’s going to be released in five days. The next day, he’s told that he’s being released early because Laura died that morning. On the plane, he meets Mr. Wednesday, an enigmatic hustler who offers him a job. After he accepts the job, they travel to Laura’s funeral, where Shadow finds out that Laura and Robbie had been having an affair. After the burial, Shadow meets Technicolor Boy, and is attacked and lynched by his goons.

It is, of course, a given that an HBO show would be replete with sensationalist and unnecessary scenes of violence and nudity. That, however, doesn’t prevent me from wishing that they’d opted for a different route with American Gods. The plot is intriguing and interesting – and filled with enough sex and violence – to grab eyeballs. It’s poor form to consistently drag a good fantasy story down based on a cheap formula. The same goes for Game of Thrones, but that show is so far beyond help that there’s no point talking about it.

The opening scenes detail the story of Odin reaching America – and then being left behind there as the Vikings hightail it for home. The scene then shifts to the prison where protagonist Shadow Moon has been incarcerated.

Shadow is due to be released in five days, but he can’t shake a sense of foreboding. His premonition proves true when he’s released three days ahead of schedule so he can attend his wife Laura’s funeral.

“I feel like there’s a fuckin’ axe hangin’ over my head.” – Shadow

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Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon

Shadow’s sorrow and isolation hangs over the entire episode. He’s sullen, brooding, very silent. Shadow is essentially a non violent person, which is ironic considering he was in prison for aggravated assault and battery. Mostly, he’s a small time hustler and thief. He’s also very much in love with Laura, and her death hits him deeply. We see him be emotional only twice in the episode – once when he stops his car in the middle of a deserted road in the middle of nowhere to just scream. And then again, after the funeral, when he talks to Laura at her grave. He’s hurt twice over – by her death, and by the news of her infidelity. He asks her why she didn’t just tell him. “I could have taken it.”

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Emily Browning as Laura Moon

 

Mr. Wednesday’s character is one I cannot like at all. He doesn’t do anything to convince us that we should be on his side. He’s an oily swindler, capable of switching from doddering old man to seasoned manipulator and then to fast asleep in minutes, as it were.

Ah, you got more talent than me. I got two. One is I can sleep anywhere any time. The other one is that I usually end up getting what I want…on average, over time. – Wednesday

He browbeats and stalks Shadow until he agrees to work for him, skilfully using Shadow’s grief and loneliness as weapons in his manipulation. I cannot like manipulators, and therefore I cannot like Wednesday.

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Shadow with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane)

The leprechaun Mad Sweeney agrees with me. He doesn’t trust Wednesday, which gives him a lot in common with all of the gods Wednesday tries to recruit. But unlike those gods, who were only afraid of losing, I suspect that Mad Sweeney realizes that the victories Wednesday promises will only benefit Wednesday himself at the end of the day.

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Pablo Schrieber as Mad Sweeney

Mad Sweeney: Now that’s a coin trick for ya.
Shadow: How’d ya do it?
Mad Sweeney: With panache.

The humour is well distributed and keeps the episode from descending into dark, brooding boredom. One of my favourite lines was Mr. Wednesday’s reaction upon learning Shadow’s name.

“Oh, my boy, that is one outstandingly improbable name.” – Mr. Wednesday.

Unfortunately, the treatment of race so far has been remarkably tone deaf. Bilquis, the queen of Sheba is the only black woman (or WOC, for that matter) in the episode, and her portrayal had no depth, and indeed, seemed placed here only to fill the nudity quota.

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Yetide Badaki as Bilquis

And then of course, they managed to end the episode with Shadow being lynched (by Technicolor Boy, a personification of racist white trolls, among other things). They address this again in later episodes, but the only character on whom this seems to have made an unsettling impression is Shadow himself.

Technicolor Boy is also the first look we get at the apparent villains of this series – the New Gods. They represent the new forces that mankind believes in: television, the media, armament. Technicolor Boy is brash and rude, personified as a white teenager.

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Bruce Langley as Technicolor Boy

He’s a relatively young god, and dismisses Wednesday, the Old Gods and all their ways as irrelevant. And yet here he is, asking Shadow what Wednesday’s up to. Technicolor Boy’s motivations are rather confusing at this point, and really, the only reason he seems to be in this episode is to give the New Gods a face and show off what their world looks like.

American Gods starts off by being weird and grandiose and filled with unrelatable characters. In many cases, those characters are also profoundly unlikeable. The Bone Orchard also sticks close to the original story, without much room for further exploration. As a set up episode, it does a good job of hooking the viewer and building anticipation.

Next Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #1 – The Maze of Bones

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Book Review: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites

Title: Equal Rites
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: Discworld; Witches
#: 3; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spoilers for a whole bunch of Discworld books.

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Plot Description: Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

“You’ve given the world its first female wizard,” said the midwife. “Whosa itsywitsy, den?”
“What?”
“I was talking to the baby.”

Terry P. started his Discworld series off in an extraordinarily ambitious fashion. After investigating the philosophy and mechanics of magic, creation, astral planes and Rincewind in The Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, he now moves on to gender roles as they might pertain to magic.

The midwife’s name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.

Witches and wizards, being as powerful as they are, generally do not have leaders. As far as the wizards are concerned, the Archchancellor of Unseen University is regarded as “first among equals.” And among the witches, Granny Weatherwax is the most highly regarded of the leaders they didn’t have. And in Equal Rites, both Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle agree on one thing: Women are witches, and men are wizards. It cannot be any other way.

“Female wizards aren’t right either! It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?”

“There’s witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I’ve heard.”

“Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it. As for enchantresses,” she added. “They’re no better than they should be. You take it from me, just burn the staff, bury the body and don’t let on it ever happened.”

Contemporary gender studies would probably discuss this in terms of gender roles and socialization. Boys are encouraged to grow up with a particular mindset, girls with another. Boys who may show inclinations classified as feminine are pushed – or punished – away from them. Likewise with girls who show masculine inclinations. Granny Weatherwax’s reference to “jommetry” echoes something my mother believes – that men have brains better suited to logic and mathematics, and that female brains are better suited to emotional or empathetic fields. Wizards’ magic is “out of the sky” – a parallel can be drawn here to physics; while witch magic is out of the ground. It’s no coincidence that more women gravitate towards biology. No coincidence that in my home state, more women are successful in becoming doctors, and more men in becoming engineers. [Those are the only two acceptable career options in my home state.]

This state of affairs puts Eskarina Smith in the position of having to challenge two sets of gender roles. Ultimately, it makes her better at both witch magic as well as wizard magic. Her unique position enables her to see both kinds of magic without the blind spots that inflict older witches and wizards, which is how her abilities eventually trump theirs.

That being said, Terry P. has no pretensions as to which side he’s on. There’s no “I’m a humanist” nonsense in Equal Rites, and he’s the first to claim that, yes, all men. “Sure,” he concedes, “maybe not all men are thundering idiots, but, yes, all men are idiots. Maybe not all men are toweringly worthless, but really, the universe and women are just tolerating them.”

She stood up. “Let’s find this Great Hall, then. No time to waste.”
“Um, women aren’t allowed in,” said Esk.
Granny stopped in the doorway. Her shoulders rose. She turned around very slowly.
“What did you say?” she said. “Did these old ears deceive me, and don’t say they did because they didn’t.”
“Sorry,” said Esk. “Force of habit.”
“I can see you’ve been getting ideas below your station,” said Granny coldly.

This may seem like a stretch or an exaggeration, but the comparisons of wizard and witch magic show that while wizards are capable of very flashy magic that can interfere with the very workings of the universe, their primary objective – and this is something that has been repeatedly emphasized throughout the Discworld series – is to refrain from using their magic. The magic of men, if allowed to progress in an unrestricted fashion, will result in complete destruction of the universe. They are therefore not allowed to use their magic except in cases of absolute necessity (like when another wizard or set of wizards have already set about destroying the universe, and need to be stopped.) The wisdom and greatness of wizardry lies in doing nothing, which is why the greatest, strongest wizards do nothing but eat a lot and nap a lot.

The magic of witches on the other hand is perpetually in use. For the most part, witch magic is nothing but knowledge of herbal medicine, gossipping around a pot of tea, and what Granny Weatherwax refers to as “headology.” The witches are perpetual servants of society – they are midwives and healers, dispensers of justice, veterinarians. They tend to the elderly, the ones who have no one else to look after them. They take up the jobs no one else want, precisely because they can be so much more, and their power requires constant reminders of why it’s important to stay grounded.

And yet, social work is only one aspect of their skillset. They understand that magic is not to be used except in necessity, but when that necessity arises, there is no magic seemingly beyond them. The witches in Discworld achieve more – far more – than the wizards ever do. Equal Rites introduces only Esmeralda Weatherwax, but the women from the rest of the Witches series are no less notable than she. Midwifing for Time herself (Nanny Ogg), dragging souls out of the clutches of Death (Granny and Tiffany Aching), ensuring the stability of a monarchy (Granny, Nanny and Magrat Garlick) – and actually ruling it (Magrat), defeating a clutch of evil vampires by possessing one’s own blood before they drank it (Granny), defeating the Queen of the Faeries by Borrowing the mind of an entire bee Hive (Granny again), defeating the Queen of the Faeries for good (Tiffany), complete mastery of time travel (Eskarina Smith)… Perhaps the greatest of all these achievements, however, is the endless coming of age stories – Magrat, Tiffany, Agnes Nitt, and more. These witches see countless young women through the confusion of adolescence, guiding them so they turn out to be strong, confident and independent – young women who are as wise and powerful as their mentors.

It is perhaps very telling that the books about the wizards are collectively titled under the name Rincewind. There could perhaps be no “wizzard” less incompetent than is Rincewind, and yet he is, without doubt, the greatest hero the wizards can have. The number of times he has used magic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He is cowardly, comical, ridiculous. Yet he saves the day, literally every time.

In addition, it is seen that the wizards are incapable of doing anything close to witch magic – they are selfish, lazy and indulgent. This is not out of any innate or biological factor, but more due to the fact that women are, in general, willing to take on both the physical and emotional burdens of life. The witches shoulder the emotional burden of entire villages, while the wizards are completely incapable of even feeding their own selves. But the reverse does not hold true. The witches prefer to stick to non-magical methods…

A couple of wizards with a rather greater presence of mind had nipped smartly out of the door behind them, and now several college porters were advancing threateningly up the hall, to the cheers and catcalls of the students. Esk had never much liked the porters, who lived a private life in their lodge, but now she felt a pang of sympathy for them.
Two of them reached out hairy hands and grabbed Granny’s shoulders. Her arm disappeared behind her back and there was a brief flurry of movement that ended with the men hopping away, clutching bits of themselves and swearing.
“Hatpin,” said Granny.

…but if necessary, witches can do wizard magic, and do it exceptionally well, as is exemplified in Granny Weatherwax’s magical duel with the Archchancellor.

Cutangle stood with legs planted wide apart, arms akimbo and stomach giving an impression of a beginners’ ski slope, the whole of him therefore adopting a pose usually associated with Henry VIII but with an option on Henry IX and X as well.

“Well?” he said, “What is the meaning of this outrage?”

“Is he important?” said Granny to Esk.

“I, madam, am the Archchancellor! And I happen to run this University! And you, madam, are trespassing in very dangerous territory indeed! I warn you that – stop looking at me like that!”

Cutangle staggered backwards, his hands raised to ward off Granny’s gaze.

Granny’s eyes had changed.

Esk had never seen them like this before. They were perfectly silver, like little round mirrors, reflecting all they saw. Cutangle was a vanishingly small dot in their depths, his mouth open, his tiny matchstick arms waving in desperation.

The Archchancellor backed into a pillar, and the shock made him recover. He shook his head irritably, cupped a hand and sent a stream of white fire streaking towards the witch.

Without dropping her iridescent stare Granny raised a hand and deflected the flames towards the roof. There was an explosion and a shower of tile fragments.

Her eyes widened.

Cutangle vanished. Where he had been standing a huge snake coiled, poised to strike.

Granny vanished. Where she had been standing was a large wicker basket.

The snake became a giant reptile from the mists of time.

The basket became the snow wind of the Ice Giants, coating the struggling monster with ice.

The reptile became a sabre-toothed tiger, crouched to spring.

The gale became a bubbling tar pit.

The tiger managed to become an eagle, stooping.

The tar pits became a tufted hood.

Then the images began to flicker as shape replaced shape. Stroboscope shadows danced around the hall. A magical wind sprang up, thick and greasy, striking octarine sparks from beards and fingers. In the middle of it all, Esk, peering through streaming eyes, could just make out the two figures of Granny and Cutangle, glossy statues in the midst of the hurtling images.

Their duel is cut short by the fact that Esk and Simon, a young boy also newly admitted to Unseen University, are in danger. No victor could possibly announced under such circumstances. And yet…

One of the students had earned several awards for bravery by daring to tug at Cutangle’s cloak ….

And now they were crowded into the narrow room, looking at the two bodies.

Cutangle summoned doctors of the body and doctors of the mind, and the room buzzed with magic as they got to work.

Granny tapped him on the shoulder.

“A word in your ear, young man,” she said.

“Hardly young, madam,” sighed Cutangle, “hardly young.” He felt drained. It had been decades since he’d duelled in magic, although it was common enough among students. He had a nasty feeling that Granny would have won eventually. Fighting her was like swatting a fly on your own nose. He couldn’t think what had come over him to try it.

Simon, the other main character, is a brilliant boy with a terrible stutter and an inability to do anything right.

Simon did everything inexpertly. He was really good at it. He was one of those tall lads apparently made out of knees, thumbs and elbows. Watching him walk was a strain, you kept waiting for the strings to snap, and when he talked the spasm of agony on his face if he spotted an S or W looming ahead in the sentence made people instinctively say them for him. It was worth it for the grateful look which spread across his acned face like sunrise on the moon.

As an expert on theoretical magic, however, he far outstrips every fully qualified wizard at Unseen University. Esk and Simon share a mutual attraction that motivates her to save Simon’s life, also saving the entire universe in the process. Together they stare down the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions and return.

Eskarina Smith never appears in the Discworld series again… until I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series. [I seriously cannot wait to start talking about Tiffany Aching.] It is then explained that Simon’s brain was too much for his body to handle, that he became an invalid, his physical illness directly proportional to the brilliance of his theory. Esk’s training as a witch stands out in her decisions to take care of him until his death…

The young Eskarina had met at the University a young man called Simon who…had been cursed by the Gods with almost every possible ailment that mankind was prone to. But because the Gods have a sense of humour, even though it’s a rather strange one, they had granted him the power to understand – well – everything. He could barely walk without assistance, but was so brilliant that he managed to keep the whole universe in his head. Wizards…would flock to hear him talk about space and time and magic as if they were all part of the same thing. And young Eskarina had fed him and cleaned him and helped him get about and learned from him – well – everything.” – I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett.

Simon is apparently presumed dead in the Discworld universe, perhaps killed in a battle that takes place two books after Equal Rites. And by the time we meet Esk again, she has mastered the ability to travel through time, a secret she passes on to Tiffany Aching. After Eskarina, Tiffany is the only student witch to have equalled Granny’s level of skill in magic, and indeed to, have surpassed it, so perhaps it is very fitting that these two women should share a bond.

Next Review: The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rineheart

Next in this Series: Discworld #4 – Mort (Death #1)

Next in this Sub-series: Discworld #6 – Wyrd Sisters (Witches #2)

Book Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Title: The Fiery Heart
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.41
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Alert

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Plot Description: As Sydney’s sister Zoe is assigned as her partner on the Palm Springs assignment, Sydney finds her instinct to bond with her sister warring with her need to keep her new relationship with Adrian a secret. She continues to work towards finding a magical means of breaking the bond of compulsion used by the Alchemists on all their agents, and must keep from making any mistakes that might end with her sent back to Alchemist ‘re-education’.

Although Mead meant for this series to have two narrators from the start, The Fiery Heart is the first book to actually implement that plan. The first chapter takes place from Adrian’s POV, and the POVs alternate between the two protagonists after that.

For someone who’s already read the entire book (twice), the first chapter starts throwing off warning signs almost right away. Adrian’s made a huge impulse purchase on vinyl records, something he thinks is amazing. From here on out, the books take a very serious look at Adrian’s continuing struggle with spirit induced mental illness, which had until now manifested only in the form of occasional fits of poetry.

“Back at my apartment, I indulged in my one daily drink, hoping it would send me to a quick slumber. No such luck. In the old days, it usually took at least three before I’d pass out in drunken oblivion. Now, my fingers lingered on the vodka bottle as I teetered on the edge of getting a refill. I missed it. Badly. Aside from the bliss of the buzz, alcohol could numb out spirit for a little while, and although the magic was a pleasant addiction, a reprieve from it was nice. Self-medicating had fended off a lot of spirit’s negative effects for years, but this new deal was letting it start to gain ground.”

Sydney and Adrian have promised each other that they will both cut down on one unhealthy habit – Adrian’s stopped smoking, and isn’t drinking as much, while Sydney’s given up coffee and tries to eat better. Personally, I would have thought twice before proposing or agreeing to such an arrangement, because Sydney attempting to kick her caffeine addiction is nothing like Adrian going off both cigarettes as well as alcohol. As was first noted in the Vampire Academy series, Adrian deals with the depressive side effects of wielding Spirit by constantly self medicating. As a result, Fiery Heart gives us a picture of someone struggling with mental illness and addiction simultaneously. The more restraint Adrian exercises with regard to his vices, the deeper he descends into his depressive bout.

“My sober resolve didn’t result in inspiration, though, and when five o’clock came around, the canvas remained bare. I stood up and stretched out the kinks in my body, feeling a return of that earlier darkness. It was more angry than sad, laced with the frustration of not being able to do this. My art teachers claimed I had talent, but in moments like this, I felt like the slacker most people had always said I was, destined for a lifetime of failure.”

“I knew these fears eating at me were being amped up by spirit. Not all of them were real, but they were hard to shake.”- Adrian Ivashkov

Adrian’s story quickly gathers pace as he deals with a number of problems – the future of his relationship with Sydney, the fact that he had little to no money, his need to get her gifts, his inability to paint a self portrait for his assignment in college. It’s exacerbated by the spirit he uses – something he usually tries to avoid doing – and manifests as extreme highs followed by severe crashes.

No. No dinner, nothing in public. The thought descended heavily on me as I contemplated our future together. Could we have one? What kind of relationship was this, grasping at these stolen moments? She was too reasonable to do this forever. Eventually she’d realize it was time to let it go. Let me go. I put the cuff links back in their box, knowing I could never sell them and that I was in the full throes of a spirit crash.
It happened with these bouts of magic. I’d barely been able to drag myself out of bed when I’d brought Jill back. The toll of wielding so much life was just too great, and the mind crashed from the high. Well, mine did. Lissa didn’t have these dramatic ups and downs. Hers was more of a steady darkness that lingered with her for a few days, keeping her moody and melancholy until it lifted. Sonya had a mix of both effects.

I never thought I’d end up cherishing Bloodlines more than I do the Vampire Academy series – after all, sequels rarely live up to the expectations we form of the original. But Mead’s sensitive, no-nonsense portrayal of mental illness has made this series far more important to me than the first. Is it exhilarating to watch Rose Hathaway kick ass? Yes. But it is more heart-warming and affirming to find a character you can relate to. Most importantly, a beautiful balance is struck in the process of portraying Adrian’s struggles. His demons are depicted in all of their harsh reality, but through his perspective, the reader is taken smoothly along his highs and lows. What is happening to him seems normal, even when we know that it’s not. Mead’s writing allows the reader to perfectly experience what it’s like, and not once does that experience seem jarring or out of the ordinary. There is never any stigma, and no scene has the effect of ‘othering’ Adrian in the eyes of the reader.

He shook his head. “I tried. I tried to hold out. But when I swing up like that . . . well, eventually the pendulum swings back. It’s hard to explain.”

“I’ve been down before.”

“Not like this,” he said. “And I’m not saying that to be a smart-ass. The way I feel . . . it’s like the world starts crumbling around me. Every doubt, every fear . . . it eats me. It weighs me down until I’m swallowed in darkness and can’t tell what’s real or not. And even when I know something’s not real . . . like Aunt Tatiana . . . well, it’s still hard . . .”

In addition to showing us what it feels like to live with a mental illness like bipolar disorder (which is what Adrian is eventually diagnosed with), Mead also presents to us the experience of visiting a psychiatrist, of receiving the diagnosis, of struggling with the decision to take medication.

I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes. “‘Crazy’ is a term that’s used incorrectly and far too often. It’s also used with stigma and finality.” He tapped his head. “We’re all chemicals, Adrian. Our bodies, our brains. It’s a simple yet vastly sophisticated system, and every so often, something goes awry. A cell mutation. A neuron misfiring. A lack of a neurotransmitter.”

She addresses some of the nitty-gritty details, like the importance of speaking against the stigma, and the fact that dosages often require adjustment before they can properly take effect.

Some of the most heartwarming passages involved Adrian agonizing over the decision to take the medication, and whether it was the right thing to do. He carries internalized stigma, an aversion towards prescribed medication. He also worries that he will no longer be himself, no longer be able to do brilliant things in art, in philosophy, or with Spirit.

“Is it going to ‘stabilize’ me so that I don’t feel happy or sad? So that I don’t feel anything? No! I don’t care if they’re dangerous. I’m not giving up my emotions.”

“No one’s taking away your emotions. It’s what I said before: We’re all chemicals. You’ve got a couple that aren’t at the right levels. This will adjust them, just as a diabetic would correct their insulin. You’ll still feel things. You’ll be happy. You’ll be sad. You’ll be angry. You just won’t swing unpredictably into such wild directions. There’s nothing wrong with this—and it’s a hell of a lot safer than self-medicating with alcohol.”

“This is going to kill my creativity, won’t it? Without all my feelings, I won’t be able to paint like I used to.”

“That’s the cry of artists everywhere,” said Einstein, his expression hardening. “Will it affect certain things? Maybe, but you know what’ll really interfere with your ability to paint? Being too depressed to get out of bed. Waking up in jail after a night of drunken debauchery. Killing yourself. Those things will hurt your creativity.”

“I’ll be ordinary,” I protested.

“You’ll be healthy,” he corrected. “And from there, you can become extraordinary.”

With so many dysfunctional and downright abusive relationships being romanticized in contemporary YA fiction, it’s refreshing to see how healthy Sydney and Adrian are in dealing with all of their problems. A large portion of that credit goes to Sydney, whose foremost qualities continue to be her pragmatism and sensible nature. But Adrian’s kindness and compassion are on display in Bloodlines, in a way they never were in VA. His love for her, his willingness to try, to fight anything, even himself.

Two new characters are introduced in The Fiery Heart – Zoe Sage, Sydney’s younger sister, and Neil Raymond, a handsome English dhampir who attracts the attention of the younger girls of their group. Zoe Sage is stiff and cold towards the gang, and disapproves of the extent to which Sydney immerses herself in group dynamics.

“Speaking of priorities . . . have you ever thought that maybe what you’re doing with Ms. Terwilliger isn’t appropriate?”

I flinched, even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about magic. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know exactly. It’s just, you’ve already finished high school. You’re here to do Alchemist business, but you seem really into your classes—especially that thing with her. It seems personal too, like you’re just hanging out as friends. I mean, talking about her vacation? It wouldn’t be a big deal if it was just inside class hours, but you’re always doing work for her that doesn’t seem like work. Nothing wrong with wanting friends or social time . . . but you can’t do it at the cost of the assignment. What would Dad say?”

She is in fact a little like the Sydney we met in Blood Promise, and much as I’d like to judge Zoe and call her more uptight and evil than her sister had ever been, I don’t think that’s true. Zoe is young, and has been given more responsibility than she was ready for – partly because her dad wanted her on his side when she testified during the custody hearings. The divorce of Sydney and Zoe’s parents is an important subplot in this book, and clarifies the abusive nature of their father’s relationship with both of them. When Sydney finds out that her father would be coming to see him, she feels exposed and uncomfortable, as though a safe space was about to be violated.

Palm Springs had become a sanctuary for me, in which I tucked away all my secrets—not just my romance with Adrian, but also my true friendship with the others. And, of course, my illicit magic use. I kept all those things well guarded, but just knowing he would be here, in my territory, made me feel as though my entire life had just been exposed.

Both sisters fear him, and the he encourages competition and divisiveness between them, making them easier to manipulate. This book also hints that Sydney’s body image issues don’t stem entirely from her insecurity with respect to the Moroi. During the dinner, her father polices not only his daughters’ meals, but also remarks on the fact that Sydney has gained weight.

“You look like you’ve gained some weight too, so it’s smart to back off.”

I gave him a stiff smile, swallowing the urge to tell him I still fit firmly in a size four. I was just a much healthier-looking four, rather than a slightly malnourished one. Meanwhile, Zoe—who’d been about to set the menu down—quickly opened it again when she heard him rebuke me. She’d probably planned on ordering tempura, one of her favorite dishes, and now feared my dad’s ire over fried food.

Another heavy subject this book tackles is date rape – transposed in context as the drugging of human women by Moroi men so as to drink their blood without their knowledge and consent. More specifically, the fact that Adrian once drank from a human girl who was too drunk to understand what was happening. He confesses to Sydney when confronted, makes feeble excuses before quickly acknowledging that he should never have done such a thing. He apologizes, but doesn’t act entitled to forgiveness. In the end, it is Sydney who excuses his conduct as they reconcile, pointing out that he has changed, that he understands. Considering the gravity of the act, I’m not sure that such easy forgiveness is warranted. Unlike with Dimitri’s abusive actions towards Rose as a Strigoi, there is no defence here that Adrian can legitimately make use of. Dimitri was soulless, monstrous, a different species. The guilt he felt upon being restored was crushing. Adrian has always been the same person, and his act was criminal in every context.

But such is rape culture. We all grow up internalizing misogyny and other forms of bigotry. The more unfortunate of us actually end up acting on that bigotry because society implicitly condones and even lauds such behaviour, even as it explicitly criminalizes it. Ultimately, the best we can do is understand, change, make amends and move on. I think Mead could have handled this problem a little better, but ultimately, my conclusions seem to coincide with hers.

As far as the development of the plot in concerned, this book finally grasps the central conflict of this series by the stem, thorns and all. It also cements the status of the Alchemists as the primary villains, and the fear of “re-education” which has been hanging over Sydney’s head since the beginning of the series finally materialises. It also features scientific advancements in the Moroi world, such as the development of a “Strigoi vaccine”. The darker elements and atmosphere of danger is constantly offset by the light humour that pervades almost every line – Adrian’s habit of quipping seems to be contagious. My favourite line in this entire series has got to be when Adrian deflects an offer of alcohol by picking on Dimitri.

“I can send for some,” said Lissa. She started to turn toward one of the guards at the door, but Adrian waved her off.

“Nah, we’ve got to be all responsible and stuff to deal with the spirit problem, right? We can celebrate later. Besides, Belikov can’t hold his liquor.”

Dimitri looked startled at that, and I had to repress a laugh at Adrian’s deflection.

The romantic entanglements of the younger members of the group are entertaining, and I found myself being more irritated at Zoe when she was being a wet blanket about them, than for her conservative attitude or ultimate betrayal of Sydney.

To say my friends were living a soap opera was an understatement. They almost made my dangerous relationship with Adrian look boring.

The only bright side was that everyone seemed to be in a holding pattern. Trey’s conflicted principles kept him away from Angeline. Eddie’s resolve kept him away from everyone, as did Neil’s. And so long as Neil held true to that stance, Jill and Angeline would have nothing to act on. Maybe it would have been nice for everyone to have some sort of happy ending, but I selfishly had to admit that my life was a lot easier when the drama dial was kept on low.  – Sydney’s POV.

Trey and Angeline, Jill and Eddie, Malachi Wolfe and Jaclyn Terwilliger, Rose and Dimitri, Neil and Olive, Lissa and Christian, and of course, Sydney and Adrian. The book is filled with couples (sadly, 100% heterosexual pairings) and it’s helps maintain those standards that all YA novels everywhere aspire to.

Next: Bloodlines #5 – Silver Shadows

Book Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Title: The Waste Lands
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1991
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

You’ve Been Warned: Watch For Spoilers

the waste lands

Plot Description: Roland, Eddie and Susannah travel along the path of the Beam until they meet up with Jake Chambers, the boy whose death Roland had allowed to happen in The Gunslinger. Then they search for Blaine the insane monorail, who might be able to get them to their next destination.

What is it about this book? I almost feel like a failure for not liking it so much. Goodreads is filled to the bursting with glowing reviews. I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might have liked it more right after I’d read it, but since I binge-read the entire series at a go (and these are BIG books), the ending of the series as a whole spoilt most of the books that came before it. The only real exception to this rule is Book No. 4, Wizard and Glass. 

After all of the world building and game-board setting that the reader had to endure in The Drawing of the Three, Roland’s ‘ka-tet’ is almost complete – with the exception of Jake Chambers and Oy the billy bumbler, to whom we are introduced in this book. [The creation of the billybumbler? Pure genius]

The Waste Lands is a roadtrip book. The characters are constantly on the move, and their journey is peppered with notable incidents – gunfights, mental battles, even the odd sexual battle. (Yeah, that was pretty odd). It’s not a bad book, but it’s far too long and could have done with some paring down. It also ends on a cliffhanger, which as I understand it, wasn’t resolved for about a decade after this? That’s awful, and I’m glad I wasn’t a Stephen King fan living in the 90s.  Waiting two years for the next Harry Potter was torture enough, not to mention my current love-hate relationship with G.R.R. Martin. If you can look past the mangled language (or inexplicably happen to love it), and you don’t mind settling in for a long journey, then this is definitely the book for you. I’ve also begun to classify anything strange within the books as the natural consequences of Stephen King’s penchant for horror.

Next in this Series: The Dark Tower #4 – Wizard and Glass

Next Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Title: Prentice Alvin
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1989
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.76
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2.5

Watch for Spoilers

prenticealvin

Plot Description: After his adventures with the Native Americans, Alvin finally reaches his birthplace for the long promised apprenticeship. The blacksmith under whom he is to learn is understandably put off by the fact that he’s about a year late. In the meantime, Peggy (the Torch from the first book) is finally ready to stop protecting him full time and get herself a life of her own. The very day Alvin is set to return to Hattrack Town, Peggy runs away. A subplot deals with a runaway slave girl who is determined to ensure that her child is born a free man.

Prentice Alvin is undoubtedly where the Alvin Maker series begins to spiral out of control. For the most part, the plot is boring, dealing with Alvin’s trials under the ornery Smith, who finds it difficult to decide whether to be jealous or greedy. The people around him continue to react to him in predictable ways – unconditional admiration, or jealous loathing, but obsessive in either case.

The runaway girl’s son is named Arthur Stuart, after the King of England of the time and adopted by Peggy Guester’s mother in the place of the daughter she had lost. Arthur Stuart grows up to completely adore Alvin and has a knack of mimicking voices and sounds perfectly, along with an eidetic memory.

I spoke about the theme of white guilt pervading Orson Scott Card’s writing in Red Prophet, and this theme becomes even more pronounced in Prentice Alvin. Card goes out of his way to emphasize the foulness and vileness of slavery as a practice, as if to ensure that the reader is left with no doubt as to Card’s stance on the issue. Unfortunately, Arthur Stuart is a complete nonentity of a character, surrounded by privileged white characters who devote their time and energy to protecting him from danger. He is the first non-white character to have a major role in this series (yes, it took three books) and he barely does anything at all.

Card’s worldview as far as Native Americans and African Americans are concerned is similar to the Orientalist perspective on Asian countries. Factors that are considered indigenous to that culture are upheld and applauded, while attempts at integrating factors that were until then unique to white cultures are looked down upon. For example, he decries the decisions of the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes to integrate with the American nation, and in his alternate universe, the Native Americans move away to form their own nation, on which Whites may never set foot. As far as the rest of the country is concerned, the ‘greensong’ has all but died out there, and will never return. That land is considered dead.

The problem with a privileged party taking up the cause of an oppressed party as a means of assuaging their own guilt is that the voices of the oppressed are once again passed over in favour of that of a member of the privileged class. In addition to this, Card’s interpretation of history is still largely white-centric, for all his moral lecturing, and black characters are yet to become a major part of the story of Alvin Maker.

Moreover, I’m one of those people who think that scenes depicting graphic violence towards demographics that have traditionally suffered much violence, and who are still quite vulnerable to violence should be avoided unless completely necessary to the plot. This is one of the biggest reasons why I stopped watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a major criticism I plan to bring up when I eventually review the Alex Cross series by James Patterson. A lot of GR reviews talk about how the adult content in this book prevents them from reading it to their kids, and I think that while the scenes in Prentice Alvin still fall under the heading of ‘Adult Content’ and not ‘Completely Unnecessary Pornographic Sensationalism’ (CUPS?) they were perhaps not entirely necessary to the plot. I can think of a few other ways in which the same information could have been imparted to the reader without using the scenes Card did in this book.

My final criticism of Prentice Alvin (which extends to the rest of the series as well) is how obsessively the story centres around Alvin now. The lives of every character – most prominently that of Peggy Guester – has become about Alvin. In one of the final scenes of the book, Alvin uses his powers to create his journeyman piece – a plow made of living gold. While the fantasy genre is no stranger to wild, weird concepts, it feels out of place in this series which largely rests on an atmosphere of American folk magic.

P.S.: I really don’t like the Alvin depicted on the cover above. He looks awfully smug and arrogant.

Next Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #4 – Alvin Journeyman

Book Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Title: The Drawing of the Three
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

A Few Important Spoilers Here and There

drawing of the three

Plot Description: In this sequel to The Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead must meet three strangers who will help him on his quest – the Stranger, the Lady of Shadows and the Pusher. Together with new characters Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes, Roland journeys further along the path that he hopes will eventually lead him to the Dark Tower.

At this stage in the series, I was still pretty absorbed by the plot. This was despite the fact that the writing remained dry and cramped, and the whole time I was reading this book I felt like I was eating something completely tasteless out of some weird compulsion.

Fascination might actually be a better term for it, because in The Drawing of the Three, King actually introduces a few characters who are far more likeable and relatable than his Cowboy With An Extra Helping of Hero. The problem with Roland is that he’s presented as practically flawless – his only flaw is his singleminded determination to reach the Tower no matter what, and since that’s the whole point of the series, it’s not really considered a flaw. On the other hand, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes are both extremely flawed characters who must balance their personal struggles with helping Roland on his quest. This is despite the fact that both of them were pulled unwillingly out of their respective lives – lives which take place in different decades in our modern world – by Roland the Selfish Hero.

Roland was last seen waking from his conversation with his old enemy Merlin, only to find that ten years have passed since he sat down to talk to the wizard, and that the wizard is now dead. I mention these facts because they are completely out of line with the story presented in later books (plothole alert!) where it says that a hundred years passed while he was talking to Merlin, not ten, and that Merlin isn’t dead after all. As an afterthought, Merlin’s continued existence is ret-conned and we’re told he faked his death. What purpose was served by this entire rigmarole is something we readers will forever remain in the dark about, unfortunately.

Eddie Dean is the Prisoner represented in the first of the tarot cards Merlin draws for Roland during their ‘palaver’. (Old fashioned terms like this one are overused to the point of exasperation throughout this series). Eddie, it turns out, is not a conventional prisoner, but a junkie – a prisoner to heroin. Roland first encounters him as he’s endeavouring to get a couple of bags of cocaine through customs as a drug mule in 1987, and he eventually pulls Eddie out of our world and into his, where Eddie begins to experience withdrawal and is taught in the ways of being a gunslinger by Roland.

Odetta Holmes is a crippled civil rights activist from 1964 who suffers from multiple personality disorder brought on by multiple traumas in her life – including the accident which caused her to lose her legs. Odetta is educated, soft spoken and non violent, and thus the complete opposite of her alter ego, Detta Walker. Detta is extremely violent and dangerous, harbours a burning hatred for white people – especially white men, is delusional, and speaks in an exaggerated caricature of the stereotype of an uneducated Afro-American. Just as with Eddie and his drug addiction, Roland helps Odetta and Detta confront reconcile their personalities, thus creating Susannah Dean.

Both Eddie and Susannah (who have fallen in love and consider themselves married) prove to be ‘natural gunslingers’, picking up the knack of fast shooting and other gunslinger characteristics extremely quickly. This is despite the fact that neither of them have ever trained for any sort of active physical life, and considering it took Roland and his childhood friends a decade before they could be considered trained gunslingers, I find this premise unlikely (and therefore an example of shoddy and lazy writing). Eddie and Susannah are ‘natural gunslingers’ only because the plot demands it of them.

The final person Roland comes face to face with is Jack Mort, a lowlife criminal sociopath with murderous tendencies. Throughout his life, the Pusher has attempted to kill numerous people, either by dropping heavy things on them from above, or by pushing them – into traffic (as in the case of Jake Chambers) or into the path of an oncoming train (as in the case of Susannah Dean). When Roland realizes that Jack Mort is responsible both for Jake’s initial death in The Gunslinger as well as for the loss of Susannah’s legs and the development of her Multiple Personality Disorder, he kills Jack in revenge, and to prevent him from killing Jake (again). Roland’s actions here also set up for the return of an alternate version of Jake Chambers in the next book, The Waste Lands.

The vibrant and unique personalities of Eddie and Susannah Dean are what saved this book as far as I was concerned. Indeed, the further this series progressed, the more it became clear to me that of the eventual quintet, Roland was the least interesting, the least worth saving.

While The Drawing of the Three is still pretty good as far as novels go, the series is fast approaching decline, which is why I’d never recommend it to anyone. Unless they were stuck in Mid World with Roland of Gilead and had nothing better to do.

Next in this Series: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Title: Red Prophet
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

There’s Bound To Be A Few Spoilers

 red prophet

Plot Description: Following the events of the previous book, in which Alvin was injured severely and had to learn how to heal his own leg, he’s now been pronounced well enough to go back to Hatrack River, where his father has arranged for him to be apprenticed to a blacksmith. While he’s travelling with his brother Measure, they’re kidnapped by ‘Reds’ – Native Americans – who are purportedly feuding with the settlers. This is how Alvin eventually reunites with the ‘Red Prophet’, whom he had previously met in the first book.

This book might just be my favourite out of the Tales of Alvin Maker series, but that being said, I have two words that come to mind when I think of this book: “White Guilt”.

Any story set in Frontier-era America would have to feature Native American tribes, and the interactions of the settlers with them. Alvin Maker is no exception, set as it is against a backdrop of constant fighting between the white settlers and the ‘Reds’. In addition to their battles with Native American tribes, the white settlers themselves are multicultural – English, Dutch, French etc – in origin, and engage in battles amongst themselves as well.

Red Prophet features two famous historical figures in Native American history – Tenskwa Tawa and Ta-Kumsaw. The two are depicted as brothers, the former a pacifist and the latter a warrior. Tenskwa Tawa briefly appeared in Seventh Son as Lolla-wasiky, an alcoholic Native American whose addiction held a debilitating hold over him, and who was cured of the same by a chance encounter with young Alvin. Red Prophet expands on his journey and history, and his relationship with his brother, as well as his future as a ‘prophet’ for the Native Americans – one that counsels that they stay away from alcohol.

In its essence, Red Prophet is a revisionist history of the Battle of Tippecanoe, recounted from a Native American perspective as a massacre of pacifist Natives led by Tenskwa Tawa. Tenskwa Tawa and his brother also take on roles as spiritual mentors to young Alvin, to better help him understand his powers.

Stories about the Native Americans have always fascinated me, because it refers to a whole world of people I’ve never met. And that’s why I like Red Prophet. It is commendable that Card’s revisionism allows for an alternate history told from the perspective of the loser, and not the winner. The fact remains, however that Card is not Native American.

It’s always difficult and problematic to write from a perspective that is not yours. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t, but one should also remember to add the caveat. To remember that the subjects of your writing may resent you for attempting to take over their voices and tell their stories on their behalf – again (Because lets be real, that’s what happens when the winners write history).

As for the rest, Red Prophet is perhaps one of the better (or the best) books in this series. It’s decently written, suspenseful in all the right places, and has only minor plot holes. The subplots involving Governor Harrison, Tippecanoe, the curse of bloody hands, mystical whirlwinds that exist outside the time and space paradigm all fit right into the story. There are few, if any elements that jar the reader out of this world of magical fantasy and into reality.

Next in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three