Lodestar 2021 Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

We have a lot more reading time this year in the Hugo Awards than usual and I’ve found I’ve made some dents into categories I don’t normally get to. My biggest problem with longer fiction is that my reading time for novels is now almost exclusively when I’m exercising which means audiobooks. I’ve recently launched myself into reading Seanann McGuire’s October Daye series but that’s a post for a different day. The other foray has been into fiction for a younger audience in the other not-a-Hugo aka the Lodestar Award.

First book in that arena is Legendborn, a YA urban fantasy Arthurian romance and that’s a very nice cocktail of sub-genres. Chaste love triangles? It’s a Young Adult cliche, it’s how urban fantasy spawned paranormal romance but it is nothing new to the legend of King Arthur. The classic Matter of Britain is such a rich vein that Legendborn feels so natural a fit to its premise that I feel like it must have been done a thousand times before but I can’t think of any examples. It cleverly fills an empty niche and if it had done only that then Tracy Deonn would deserve plaudits if only for spotting an unfilled spot.

Clever sub-genre choices though aren’t what makes a book worthy of a not-quite-a-Hugo-but-yeah-really-it-is-a-Hugo-c’mon and the test is not picking a clever premise but doing clever things with the premise and I’m genuinely impressed with how Deonn works with the idea and then pulls out layers and layers while still delivering on the demands of the sub-sub-genre.

Bree Matthews is a bright student who gains acceptance to an “early college” placement at a notable college in a Southern US state. Her academic success though has been marred by tragedy — shortly after being accepted to the college, her mother died in a car accident. She now finds herself as a sixteen-year-old, in the quasi-adult world of university still grieving and with unresolved issues around her last argument with her mother.

On her face night, things get weirder when she encounters magical creatures and a clique of students who appear to have magical powers…

So if you want the magical school setting and the urban fantasy masquerade and all that stuff, Legendborn delivers from training montages to magical competitions and handsome but troubled young men. We quickly learn that (gasp) the legend of King Arthur is a cover story for a history of a secret war between magical initiates and invading demons. A historic secret society at the college is actually a front for an international society of descendants from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Each family of descendants of the knights have a chosen representative with the capability of gaining special powers matched to the lineage.

Clever stuff but…

Bree is Black and the secret society has all the baggage that you might imagine of a clique of wealthy families connected to a historic institution in America’s south. Legendborn isn’t a subversion of the standard tropes of its multiple genres but it does allow the plot and the character to dig into the history and assumptions of its own settings.

The mystery of her mother’s death drives Bree into involvement with the so-called ‘legend born but also leads her into looking into the history of her own family. There she learns not just about some of the deeper secrets of the secret society she has become embroiled in but also a different history and a different model of magic.

There are some really nice touches here and while I don’t want to give too many spoilers there are some subtle choices in the world-building. For example, in the Arthurian set-up, which is presented initially as the magical world in which Bree is initiated, magic is based on lineages and bloodlines. Inheritance and family are key aspects of having power. Later, as Bree taps into a different world of magic, family is still important but it is transmitted via oral tradition from grandmothers to granddaughters. The comparison and contrast between the idea of magic (and hence power) as a family legacy is very well done but it is subtle and woven into the more conventional narrative.

The novel is part of a series and the over-arching plot isn’t complete by the end but as a stand alone novel, it works and there is a good (and revealing) climax that shifts events and character relationships into a new state.

No big plot surprises but an excellent example of how to take what superficially looks like a by-the-numbers plot and do engaging things with it.

Review: The Tomorrow War (Amazon)

This “Amazon Exclusive” sci-fi action movie is not un-entertaining but rather than just being a big daft derivative movie with people shooting aliens it keeps feeling like it is on the verge of having an interesting idea. It is also an oddly disjointed film with distinct phases were it feels like somebody decided to make a very different movie.

The first act is the most interesting. Chris Pratt is implausibly a military veteran who is a scientist except he is a school teacher. He has a lovely wife (Betty Gilpin) and a precocious daughter who loves science. Their lives and the lives of everybody on the planet is interrupted when a big glowy space-time portal erupts in the middle of the world cup final (a nice touch) and out from it come time travelling soldiers from the future.

The soldiers bring a warning: in the near future Earth will be invaded and will lose a war against an alien menace. The situation is so dire that humanity of the future need to draft soldiers from the present to fight the aliens in the future. Now, that doesn’t make a heap of sense as a way of using time travel to win a war but go with it because the film does do something with this reverse-Terminator plot.

Not just anybody can be drafted or rather the people who get drafted are really just anybody. For time-travel plot paradox reasons, the eligible draftees are people who, based on future records, would have died in between now and the future war. The up shot of that is a clever subversion of military science fiction tropes. The barely trained invasion force are just a bunch of very everyday people of all ages and sizes in mix of uniforms and civilian clothes who get zapped into the future and dropped into a war zone in future Miami fighting aliens called White Spikes (which given how much that name sounds like White Stripes, you’d think they’d use Seven Nation Army as music but they didn’t).

I really liked this sequence because the set up is so obviously weird that it screams that everything is some sort of shenanigans and maybe the future war isn’t what it seems to be.

Except – spoilers…there isn’t a big twist about how its all some sort of weird plot. There is a twist about who gets to command Chris Pratt’s character and it is a decent one but not unsurprising. I shan’t reveal it.

After the big fight in Miami, the film shifts into a different gear and the whole idea of this kind of rag-tag army of suburban mums and office workers sort of gets forgotten. I’d like to have followed that idea. It’s also weird that Pratt often looks oddly like Tom Cruise rather than the less chiselled version of Pratt which would have fit the film’s theme better.

The aliens are just the zerg-rush tentacled killing machine style of creature that overwhelm bases etc etc. It’s a nice design but they add to the seen-it-all-before aspect of the film.

The other aspect of the draft premise is that the present draftees serve for seven days before being zapped back to the past. Chris Pratt survives his brief period in the future but returns home knowing that humanity is doomed. Can he save the future? Of course he can and the film shifts into a different gear as he, his estranged Dad and a guy he met when he was drafted go off to find the secret of the aliens because nobody else has thought to do that this whole time despite everything and the whole resources of the Earth being focused on winning a war against the aliens.

There are some good actions sequences and some touching moments. The plot makes no sense and sadly the original ideas are ones that the film itself doesn’t appreciate.

Loki doesn’t finish exactly (episode 6)

I’ll start with a minor spoiler, which I’m not hiding because it’s information people like to know before jumping into a series. Episode 6 doesn’t resolve the plot and is a set-up for season 2. I’d assumed Loki was a limited series but apparently not.

This episode sort of gets to an end point but not one that really resolves anything. There are revelations (some a bit info-dumpy) but it isn’t a finale as such. Entertaining but not as sparkly as the previous episodes. More detailed spoilers…

Continue reading “Loki doesn’t finish exactly (episode 6)”

Review: Loki Episode 5 – Journey into Mystery

It’s been a particularly chaotic redemption arc for Loki but despite the inevitability of making Loki not just likeable but good, I enjoyed almost every minute of this. Love, friendship, teamwork, camaraderie, sacrifice, boss fight against CGI monster — these are the classic virtues of Marvel shows. Inserting Loki into that mould is an unwise idea but if you are going to bring him around to love and friendship then doing it with a whole bunch of other Lokis is one way to attempt it.

The direction the episode took, runs the risk of taking all the bite out of the character. Short term, it made for a very entertaining episode. Kid Loki, Boastful Loki, Classic Loki and Alligator Loki were not the greatest superhero team but certainly one of the most novel ones of the MCU but I’m heading into spoilers…

Continue reading “Review: Loki Episode 5 – Journey into Mystery”

Hugo 2021: Best Series – The Poppy War by R F Kuang

Having already read three of the six Best Series finalists, 2021 was already looking like the year that I might actually have a well-informed opinion of the category. In the time since the finalist were announced, I’ve completed The Lady Astronaut series [https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/05/21/hugo-2021-the-fated-sky-relentless-moon-lady-astronaut-by-mary-robinette-kowal/ ] which left Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and R F Kuang’s Poppy War. Given the sheer amount of material for McGuire and the fact that the Covid years have shifted me to audiobooks (long story), the choice of “what’s next ” went to The Poppy War and it was a good choice.

Spoilers for the whole series in terms of broad plot arcs follow…

Continue reading “Hugo 2021: Best Series – The Poppy War by R F Kuang”

Loki Episode 3: Lamentis

Back to our favourite god of mischief but before we begin, we once again must preface a review of a Disney+ show with another entry in the annals of Disney being awful about copyright. This time the Mouse’s IP lawyers have become very possessive of the Norse god of mischief themself, which surely is tempting both fate and the gods. https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/disney-allegedly-files-copyright-claims-over-loki-fan-art/ So 1. pay Allan Dean Foster and 2. no you don’t own Loki (or Thor or Cinderella for that matter and even older Mickey Mouse cartoons should have gone out of copyright by now and if anything Loki should own Mickey Mouse).

It’s a shame because this would otherwise have been a squee heavy review for what was barrels of fun. This was the Missy+The Master Doctor Who spin-off show that probably exists in a variant timeline that’s better than this timeline. Not a great episode for Owen Wilson fans but Tom Hiddleston gets to bounce his banter off Sophia Di Martino aka the Lots of Asgard’s Have a North* version of Loki aka Sylvie.

Thematically and plot-directionally, I still have no idea where this show is going. It really does power along with charm, banter and a big visual effects budget. This week was tighter as an episode with something approaching a self-contained story as Loki finds himself (their selves in the plural sense) on a doomed moon with a doomed populace.

That setting is played beautifully and cynically but also cynically in a way that feels oddly sincere. Just like Pompeii in the previous episode, everybody is going to die and that’s the only reason why the pair of mischief makers end up on the doomed moon. Yet, it is a natural home for them. Everybody will die and nothing matters. Loki, by his underlying nature, is many things but Hiddleston’s version is a man consumed by his own solipsism. If nothing about the universe matters then he is the only thing that matters (except his mum). There are classically and narratively many ways to refute the self-centredness of a character but pairing Loki up with himself is a clever one.

The best episode of Doctor Who in years.

*Technically she’s from Nottingham, so the Midlands depending on where you draw the line on what counts as the North but the vowel contrast with Hiddleston was a nice touch.

Review: Loki Episode 1, Glorious Purpose (Disney+)

Marvel’s third series in their new foray into a televised shared universe features Tom Hiddleston as appropriated quasi-Norse god of mischief Loki. Hiddleston has always been entertaining to watch in this role even if the scope of the character was a bit limited in the first two Thor movies. For those who haven’t watched them, events from the Thor films, as well as the first and final two Avenger‘s movies are shown in this episode.

To recap: In the first Avenger’s film Loki was the archetypal bad guy bent on world domination using the power of infinity-MacGuffin known as The Tesseract (as well as an additional infinity-MacGuffin in his staff). Loki and the tesseract are captured by the end of the film but…in the final Avenger’s film Endgame, time-travel shenanigans by the heroes lead to Loki escaping with the tesseract. The new show launches at this point, which means the character we meet is the recently defeated quasi-fascist Loki rather than the more complex and occasionally heroic Loki featured in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War. And that’s all good really — the premise of the character is a being who is changeable, a trait emphasised with the chaotic shifting typography used for his name in the opening titles.

It is episode 1, so where the show goes and what it will be like remains unclear. There is a lot of setup and exposition to be done. We get to meet Marvel’s timeline police, the TVA along with key employees of the agency, Owen Wilson as Mobius, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ravonna Renslayer and Eugene Cordero as Casey (a TVA underling who has drawer full of infinity stones).

It is an entertaining episode mainly on the strength of dumping talented actors into a wacky setting. It’s not as strong as episode 1 of WandaVision but does a much better job of setting expectations than episode 1 of Falcon & The Winter Soldier. There’s nothing startlingly new here nor is the show commenting on the sources it borrows from but neither is it really re-hashing existing material from the Marvel movies despite pulling material directly from them.

Overall, promising and if the show does little more than let entertaining characters bounce off each other then I’ll enjoy it. You’d think nobody could really mess that up and yet Falcon & The Winter Soldier kept short-changing its audience on exactly this point.

Hugo 2021: Black Sun (Between Earth & Sky 1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

It is time for a big canvas, multi-character epic fantasy with duelling gods and political machinations. Rebecca Roanhorse follows four characters towards disaster as a holy city awaits a foretold solar eclipse.

The setting is a set of nations with a feel of pre-colonisation Americas, with influences drawn from multiple cultures. The alternating perspectives of the four protagonists make the world feel large and varied, with two people having to travel from other nations to reach the city of Tova and a third recently returned there. At the heart of the conflict is a generational crime in which the ruling Watchers murdered large numbers of the Carrion Crow clan many decades earlier. While the focus is on Tova and its religion, politics and magic, there is a strong sense of a bigger world with multiple cultures and languages.

Key to the world-building exposition is Xiala: an exiled sea captain who drinks too much and hails from the semi-aquatic Teek people — an all-female society of ocean-dwelling people of magical origin. Drawn into a contract to escape jail, she is tasked with taking a mysterious cargo across the sea to Tova, with strict instructions to get there before the capital-c Convergence. Xiala is a stranger to the politics and culture of Tova whereas the other three characters are already embroiled in events. However, each of the characters are to some degree outsiders.

Serapio (the aforementioned cargo) is a young man with mysterious powers over crows. Raised far away from Tova, he is heading home to the land of his mother. Okoa is a leading warrior of the Carrion Crow clan and like all the warriors of the Sky Made clans that mean he gets to ride a magical oversized version of his clan’s signature creature i.e. a giant crow. Pulled home to Tova by the death of his mother the matriarch of the clan, Okoa finds himself amid the lingering political and cultural tensions of Tova. Finally, Naranpa has found herself at the apex of Tova’s religious hierarchy as the Sun Priest but her lowly origin among Tova’s underclass leaves her far more powerless than her high office would suggest.

Magic, violence and cruelty run through the book but there are tender moments and the four characters are each out of their depth in quite different ways as long-laid plans draw them towards the same point in time. In particular, Serapio’s back story as a child is distressing, as he has been shaped into a magical weapon of vengeance. He is though, an excellent example of how Roanhorse makes use of the familiar tropes of epic fantasy and subverts them. Both he and to a lesser extent Naranpa have elements of the classic chosen-one trope of fantasy but neither of them in a wholly conventional sense and Serapio with a substantial sense of a dark force reborn.

The audiobook manages the frequent shifts in character perspective by using multiple narrators. That helps with the initial chapters where the reader is plunged into the rich world Roanhorse has created.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and despite the scale of the world-building, I found myself immersed into the setting very quickly. It is a book with a sense of bigness to it with quite different magical elements to it distinct to the individual characters. The growing tension as chapter by chapter we get closer to what will clearly be a very bad day for all concerned, is well executed and if I hadn’t been using the audiobook version I would probably have rushed through the final chapters.

I’ve enjoyed other works by Roanhorse but this is definitely a more skilful and mature work from a writer who started with a lot of promise. It sits in that sweet spot of delivering the vibe of the big magical saga but with enough innovation in setting and magic to feel fresh and original.

Good stuff…but we’ve also got to look at this as a candidate for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. That is a tricky question. Definitely deserves to be a finalist. I found it to be expertly crafted and original. It is an excellent example of what current science fiction and fantasy can offer a reader. However, it is also very much book 1 of a longer narrative and faces all the issues that epic fantasy has when competing in the Hugo Awards. Book 1 of a series can win Hugo Awards, in recent years Ancillary Justice, The Fifth Season, The Three-Body Problem are each the first book in a series and also stand-out winners in what is already a highly elite set of books. Yet, Black Sun really feels like we’ve stopped in mid-flight in a way those novels don’t. It’s more than just that there is more to come but that the immediate arc of the story is left hanging.

The book stops at a sensible point but it really is hard to evaluate the story as a complete thing in itself. Of the four characters, Serapio has the fullest story arc but Xiala is the most complete character. We learn a lot about Naranpa but I felt like I was only beginning to get a sense of her as a character. Okoa feels like his story has barely begun. The underlying questions of revenge for historic wrongs versus reconciliation have only partly been touched on by the end of the book. None of that is a criticism of Roanhorse’s craft, quite the opposite. The pacing of the character’s arcs here is a smart choice for building a complex multi-volume narrative. But…I feel like I’m back to the Tad Williams problem we discussed recently. It’s hard for epic fantasy because book 1 is only a beginning.

Is that unfair? Part of the negative aspect of the Hugo Awards is where we find fault in excellent books by judging them against unreasonable criteria. Gosh, Black Sun didn’t quite manage to pull off the trick that The Fifth Season managed to create a story that has the natural momentum of a beginning while the satisfaction of a complete novel! Fancy that – didn’t quite make all the elements of one of the most highly praised books of this century! Shocking! Yeah, it’s unfair and it is part of the unfairness of picking out the best-of-the-best-of-the-best. I’ll have no complaints if Black Sun wins, probably won’t be my number one pick but the Hugo Awards should reward writers showing consummate skill in the genre and Black Sun would be a worthy winner.