Audiobook Review: The Crystal Singer Trilogy

Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer Trilogy– Crystal SingerKillashandra, and Crystal Line might be the only space opera to feature an opera singer as the main character. In an opening scene that speaks to my music major soul, music student Killashandra Ree has failed a crucial test. She will not be able to realize her dreams of becoming an operatic soprano. Devastated but still in touch with her theatrical side, she flounces off campus, determined to find a new career and be the best at it.

Fortunately for Killashandra, singing has other applications in the Federated Sentient Planets. Space operas need interplanetary communication. That’s accomplished with paired musical crystals that resonate with each other across great distances.

This was the cover image on the box of cassette tapes I had.
This was the cover image on the box of cassette tapes I had.

Crystal singers are the highly trained, highly paid professionals who mine the crystals. The only job requirements are (1) perfect pitch, since singers use voice-controlled laser cutters (2) willingness to relocate to Ballybran, the only planet where the crystals occur. Killashandra has both.

Crystal singers attain a sort of rock star-superhero-politician status. They get paid ridiculous money for cutting crystal, and living in Ballybran’s unique ecology gives them heightened senses, accelerated healing, and an extended lifespan. That’s if they don’t die in the adjustment process. Oh, and the crystal affects their memories, essentially dooming all singers to forget their loved ones as they enter old age.

All that risk seems worth it to Killashandra, who is desperate to prove herself. The first book is really about her decision to remake herself and how she finds her place as a singer. By the second and third books she’s developed enough to be concerned about problems beyond her own (she investigates human rights violations and new sentient life forms on distant planets), but her own emotional growth is always paramount to the story.

What sets Crystal Singer apart from most space opera is the lack of a larger conflict. There’s no war, no resistance, no ideological struggle. Killashandra isn’t out to make the galaxy a better place. She just wants a sense of purpose, and if she gets rich and famous in the process, that’s fine too.

She pursues her goals with single-minded, mercenary dedication. Minutes after finding out that a senior singer has perished in a crash, she’s trying to track the location of the vein of valuable crystal he was mining before he died. When her peers grow jealous of her early success, she starts sleeping with her boss. Romance is generally an afterthought for Killashandra, who approaches her attachment-free flings like an interstellar James Bond.

Nice haircut, Killashandra
Nice haircut, Killashandra

I discovered this trilogy as a pre-teen, and revisited it many times in the next few years. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the books had to say about sacrificing your personal life for your career or the damaging effects of untreated mental illness. I was interested in Killashandra being a badass. She goes on adventures, frequently risking her life but always rescuing herself at the last moment. At least twice a book she leaves for a trip without packing, because she can just buy new stuff when she gets there. She orders a beer like she knows what she’s talking about. So cool, you guys.

After many listens, I lost track of the cassette tapes. However, some years later, they showed up on Audible.  The audio is sometimes scratchy, but still easy to understand. All three books are abridged, coming in under three hours. Usually I prefer unabridged books, but it’s never bothered me in this case. The only crystal book I’ve read on paper is Crystal Line, and I didn’t notice major omissions from the long version to the short. I think it’s nice to have an audiobook that I can finish in just a few sittings.

This is my all time favorite audiobook performance. Adrienne Barbeau brings just the right mix of melodrama, humor, and compassion to Killashandra’s story. Everyone is from non-Earth planets, so every accent works. She drawls, lilts, and purrs her way through the dialogue. Physical descriptions are kept to a minimum, usually one or two traits—red hair, wrinkles, tall and tan. I don’t know if that was the author’s stylistic choice or a victim of the abridging process. Still, the strength of Barbeau’s voice acting gave me a clear mental picture of how each character looked and moved.

This is my first focused listen-through in a few years (mostly I just pop one of these on when I want something to fall asleep to). There are things I never noticed before, like the lesbian space ship in Killashandra. It’s a ship with an all female-crew that only takes female passengers. The captain warns Killashandra not to flirt with any of the crew because most of them are already dating each other. No one wants that kind of drama when you’re stuck together in outer space.

Blond, all of sudden? I am also just becoming aware that the title of this is a play on "crystalline," good noticing, Andie.
Blond, all of sudden? I am also just becoming aware that the title of this is a play on “crystalline,” good noticing, Andie.

Oh, and then there’s the way that as soon as Killashandra gets to a new planet, she starts insisting that singers need to consume a certain amount of alcohol to keep their modified metabolism working. I’ve always taken that at face value, but it doesn’t come up until the second book. Now I’m not sure it’s not Killashandra trying to trick her hosts into buying her drinks.

Anne McCaffrey did have some musical training in her youth, so what she incorporates here is all factually accurate. Still, you don’t need to understand music theory or history to appreciate the books, since most of Killashandra’s singing is applied to crystals and not performing. There is one lightly tossed off joke about Beethoven in the second book that I’ve never liked, but I’m totally behind any universe where “I made a killing in dominant thirds” is considered a smooth pick-up line.

 

Review: The Xenogenesis Trilogy/Lilith’s Brood

Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis Trilogy consists of Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Imago, published as separate novels in 1987, ’88, and ’89. In 2000, the whole series was released in one volume titled Lilith’s Brood. In our internet and ebook age, it’s possible to find the series either way.

I decided to write one post to cover all three books. Each novel is distinct, but together they tell one story about first contact and the future of the human race. By the time I finished Dawn I knew I wanted to get my hands on the other two books and find out what happens next.

dawn cover
I almost posted a picture of a Lilith’s Brood cover but then I found some Palencar art for the trilogy, so that’s what you’re getting

Before reading the books, I had heard Xenogensis described as “hopeful” science fiction. Lilith, a human woman, wakes up on a spaceship with no idea how she got there. The ship belongs to the Oankali, aliens who rescued Lilith and other humans from a war-torn, dying Earth. The Oankali are willing to help restore the planet and bring the survivors back, on one condition—any human who wants to have children has to mate with the aliens, producing a new hybrid race.

At first Lilith is frightened by the Oankali, understandably so, since for the most part they’re gray humanoids with lots of tentacles and a varying number of arms. After living on the ship for some time, she comes to understand and even love them. It could be read as a parable about racism. We can become familiar with the unfamiliar. We can find common ground despite our differences.

That’s a great message, but I think there’s more to Butler’s vision. Racism isn’t about perceived differences and personal fears; it’s about power. I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of the significant human characters in these books are people of color. Before the war, Lilith is a black woman living in 20th century America. She understands what it means to feel powerless. After the war, the dynamics shift. Oankali have power over humans. They assert that power peacefully, and with the best of intentions. Nonetheless, they control the future of our race.

In cooperating with the Oankali, Lilith does what oppressed people have done for centuries. She survives at any cost. She assimilates into the culture of the oppressor in the hopes that she can help other humans. To break the system, she has to get inside the system.

This isn’t to say the Oankali are villains. They want to help, and they do, in their own way. Lilith does genuinely care for them, but sometimes she feels that she’s betrayed her own people. Then again, without the Oankali, humans would have gone extinct, so were her actions really wrong? It’s that kind of moral and emotional ambiguity that makes this series so much more than just a simple allegory.

The second and third books focus on Lilith’s part-human, part-Oankali children. In Adulthood Rites, her son Akin concerns himself with the plight of the humans who have chosen not to mate with Oankali. Imago is about Jodahs, the first human-oankali hybrid to develop into an ooloi, the Oankali third gender.

Introducing a third gender is cool, even as a science fiction concept. The ooloi can change their appearance and alter any living being’s gene structure. Still, the books treat sex and gender as immutable biological facts. Oankali society isn’t so much accepting of nonbinary genders as it’s…used to having another one, I guess?  Jodahs doesn’t read as gender non-conforming to me, it just has the body of an ooloi. Also, the use of the pronoun “it” for the ooloi seems dated, kind of like the hermaphrodites in the Vorkosigan Saga (which started around the same time period, The Warrior’s Apprentice introduced the world to Bel Thorne in 1986).

I have so many questions about the gender and sexuality politics in this series. What happened to all the gay humans? What happens to anyone who doesn’t want to have children? I don’t think the books create a believable representation of the range of human gender and sexuality, but it does introduce an alien culture that thinks about these concepts differently.

The Xenogenesis Trilogy came out right around the time I was born, but it still felt fresh and relevant to me. Sometimes the forward march of real life science and technology outruns science fiction and makes it obsolete. Even books that avoid being dated can seem diluted after a couple dozen other writers have remixed and riffed on the original idea. Maybe it’s because the science fiction I read mostly doesn’t have aliens, so I’m not familiar with the tropes. But maybe it’s because Butler took a truly unique idea and built a timeless world populated with complex characters.

Either way, these books deserve their status as classics. Highly recommended, especially if you love sci-fi but need a break from the bleakness. If you’re feeling dystopia fatigue, Xenogenesis might be the cure.

Review: How To Be A Woman

Emma Watson started a feminist book club on Goodreads a couple months ago. I joined. I will never pass down an opportunity to be in a club with Emma Watson, even if it’s an online forum and not an excuse to hang out in her living room and drink wine.

Every month, Watson picks a new feminist book for the group (which now has over 100,000 members) to read and discuss. I am a self-centered book club member, so I waited until the book of the month was also something already in my to-be-read pile. April’s book club assignment was Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which I’ve been eyeing since it came out.

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How To Be a Woman is part memoir, part feminist manifesto. Moran, a journalist and former rock critic, came of age in the UK in the 1990s. The book spans her life from her thirteenth birthday into her early thirties. The range of topics and emotions is broad. Lighthearted chapters about first love and high heels go alongside heavier ones describing Moran’s abortion and the difficult delivery of her first child.

The book has plenty of reviews, both good and bad. There’s one I need to address here, just to clear my palate before writing my own. Moran advocates politeness, so I will be as vague and polite about this as I can: it was written by a male author whose books I enjoy. Sometimes he has personal opinions, shared on social media, that I do not agree with. He quite enjoyed How To Be A Woman. His review praised Moran for not only being funny, but for being laid back. She doesn’t believe in a “secret conspiracy of the patriarchy.”

I’m also not sure how I feel about laid back feminists. A man complimenting a feminist for being “down-to-earth” sounds like a backhanded way of saying other feminists are irrational. Hey, most of those ladies are really uptight, but this one’s okay! She even laughed when I told her to go make me a sandwich. Being chill about sexism might make you popular with sexists, but it doesn’t tend to incite change.

I was delighted to find, then, to find that Caitlin Moran is not pandering to any misogynists. She proudly reclaims the term “strident feminist” and has, I am relieved to admit, zero chill where sexism is concerned.

If you had never read a word about feminism in your life, How To Be A Woman would be a good place to start. Moran outlines the basic goals of the movement, using examples from her own life to detail the inequalities and absurdities of modern womanhood.

And it is a funny book. Not that I ever believed strident feminism couldn’t be, but some people seem surprised. It’s raunchy, so if you’re bothered by cursing, sex, or drug use, maybe take a pass on this one. But if you, like me, are fascinated/amused by what other people nickname their vaginas (Moran did a survey on Twitter and shares the results in Chapter Three), this is perfect for you.

I didn’t agree with every idea that Moran put forth in the book. She’s a bit reductive on some subjects, like women in history and body image. But the wonderful thing about feminism is that it’s not a lockstep movement. We don’t all have to agree with each other about everything. We can be in the club even if we haven’t read all the books.

Some Completely Unasked for Feelings about Game of Thrones

This post contains spoilers for seasons 1-5 of the HBO series Game of Thrones (mostly 5 really).

I said I wasn’t going to write about Game of Thrones here. Wiser heads than mine have the recap thing on lock. I’ve been almost exclusively a show-fan for five seasons, and this is a book blog. But fate and inspiration intervened, and I wrote a lot of words. Here are some of them: 

The Show

It was a Tuesday night in the spring of 2011, and I had just gotten out of a rehearsal. After leaving rehearsal but before going to meet my friends, I stood on the steps outside the school auditorium and called my parents.

“There’s this new show called Game of Thrones,” my dad told me. “It looks like it might be your kind of thing. Want me to record it for you?”

I told him thanks, but I was actually on my way watch the first episode with some friends.

I didn’t expect much. I had never read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’d heard of it, and even picked up A Game of Thrones at a used bookstore once. I put it back down again. There was something about the series that said this is not for you.

Fantasy is my thing, for sure. But if Fantasy is a city, Game of Thrones was probably in a neighborhood far away from where I lived. Getting there would take a long subway ride. I would have to change trains and I’d probably get lost and confused.

I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong. In case the length of this blog post didn’t tip you off, I am a fan.

Favorite Characters

Game of Thrones has a giant ensemble cast. Naturally, everyone has favorites.

My top three characters are Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Sansa Stark. That’s list in chronological order of when I decided I liked them, not a ranking. Who gets to be my favorite favorite changes depending on my mood and what episode I’ve just watched.

In brief: I like girls with swords. I like girls with dragons. I like smart girls with agency and moral complexity and the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, or not. These three are ambitious, albeit towards different goals, and they’re survivors.

It’s disappointing, then, that as we head towards the sixth season, most people aren’t talking about them. Dany’s being held prisoner by the Dothraki, which is not that different from where she was early in season one. Arya’s been blinded by her illicit use of the Faceless Men’s mask, and it seems like her revenge quest is on hold for a while. Of my three faves, Sansa seems to have the most narrative mobility, having staged an escape from Ramsey Bolton with a very-damaged Theon Greyjoy in tow.

What everyone seems more interested in is Jon Snow. I don’t not want to talk about Jon Snow. He can be interesting. Stuff happens when he’s around. But I am worried about what it means that his plotline is getting attention to the exclusion of almost everyone else. Especially since we know he’s been benched (slabbed?) for at least a little while.

This reminds me of the last season of Lost, another ensemble cast show I loved. Lost wasn’t perfect, but it thoughtfully developed a variety of diverse characters throughout its run. In that last season, though, people were dying all over the place, and it looked like the sole survivor (or one of the few, anyway) was going to be Jack, the white doctor who was characterized mainly by alcoholism and man-pain. Despite previous efforts, the story was going to be about the same person it’s usually about, the good-looking white guy.

I’m having the same discomfort about Jon Snow. I don’t want him to be the only person who matters. I don’t want him to be the last one left on the island.

The Books

As soon as the first season ended, I put the first book on hold at the library. The waiting list was longer than the Kingsroad, but I ended up reading the first two entries in the series, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, before the end of the summer.

I liked the books, but I didn’t love them. Maybe I should have listened to the whisper of not for you that I heard in the bookstore.

When I watched the second season, I enjoyed it a little less. I couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that was saying, Wait, did it happen this way in the book? I know what’s coming next! My enjoyment in watching the show unspoiled was greater than my enjoyment in reading the books. I would put the series aside, at least until I finished the show.

Now, though, the show has grown into it’s own entity. I can’t really say I’m avoiding spoilers by avoiding reading. If anything, watching may spoil me for future books. I also have a tiny ray of hope that some of the problems I have with the show might not exist in the later books, that George R. R. Martin’s version will somehow fix the things I don’t like.

A Song of Ice and Fire seems like a series that rewards deep, concentrated reading. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that. I’m in such a different place now than I was five years ago, but is it the right place to read these books? Maybe the year when I’ve pledged to read more nonfiction and books by authors of color is not the time to get involved with a series of doorstopper fantasy novels by a white guy.

2016 has been a really good year for TV so far. I happily threw myself into The Magicians. I looked forward to every episode of The People vs. O.J. Simpson in a way I haven’t looked forward to a show since, well, the first season of Game of Thrones. I really hope the new season of GoT continues this trend.

I’ll let you know what I decide about the books. Please use the comments to talk about whatever you want to talk about, even if it is Jon Snow.

Dragons!

Game of Thrones is back on Sunday, which is very exciting. I’m sure there will be lots of things to talk about, both good and bad. Of all the stuff that happens on this show, dragons get the most yelling at our house. Positive yelling, that is.

As a fantasy reader, I am pro-dragon. There are plenty of fantasy books without dragons in them, but that’s not what this post is about. Here are four of my favorites, from middle-grade to adult:

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, Bruce Coville

My fourth grade teacher read this aloud to our class, and it was one of my first encounters with Bruce Coville. I loved the way the dragon lore was built up throughout the book. What would you do if you found out you had bought a dragon egg? Jeremy humorously and thoughtfully tackles the potential problems of dragon hatching and raising.

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Dragon’s Bait, Vivian Van Velde

I think I read every Vivian Van Velde book in the library when I was in middle school. Dragon’s Bait is about Alys, a young girl whose village tries to sacrifice her to a dragon. Fortunately for her, the dragon turns into a cute boy and helps her get revenge on her enemies. This one was memorable because it introduced me to the idea of magical creatures that were vulnerable to iron.

dragon's bait

The Realms of the Gods, Tamora Pierce

Daine, the protagonist of The Immortals Quartet, can speak to animals, both fantastical and ordinary. At the end of the first book she adopts an orphaned baby dragon named Kitten. While Kitten features in all four books, it’s not until the last one that Daine gets to her extended scaly family. The visit to the dragon realm was part of what made The Realms of the Gods my most re-read book in the series (the other part was a really good kissing scene, but my adolescent hormones aren’t pertinent to the topic at hand).

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His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik

I haven’t read all of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series yet, but I have been talking it up to everyone who will listen since I finished the first book. It’s the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons! There’s an alternate military history element, since England has been using the dragons as a kind of proto-Air Force/flying Navy. Captain William Laurence is an officer in the (normal, floating) Navy when he bonds with Temeraire, a newly hatched dragon. Dragons are valuable and very picky about who pilots them, so Laurence is drafted into the Aerial Corps. The books tackle imperialism, racism, and other heavy issues, and the heart of it all is the close relationship between Laurence and Temeraire.

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Those are my most memorable dragon books—what are yours?

 

Songs That Remind Me of Books, Fantasy Edition

Every once in a while, I’ll come across a song that reminds me of one of my favorite books. There be a particular lyric that resonates with the story, or the music might just capture a particular tone. I’ve collected a lot of these songs over the years, so I thought I’d share a few here. Below are four pieces of music that make me think of my favorite fantasy novels.

A note: I purposefully avoided songs that were directly inspired, in whole or in part, by a specific book. I think it’s cool when lyricists or composers do that, but you probably already know about that time The Police name-dropped Nabokov. This is about reader/listener connections made after the fact.

Books: The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Tamora Pierce

Song: “King and Lionheart,” Of Monsters and Men

Jonathan of Conté is one of those characters that fandom loves to hate. On an intellectual level, I get that, but I’ve can’t help but admire what a nuanced character he is. He’s too progressive for the conservatives and too conservative for the progressives. He’s the Hillary Clinton of Tortall and I love him. “King and Lionheart” makes me think of Jon’s relationship with Alanna. They’ve been friends for a long time. They’ve had their disagreements, but Alanna is ultimately willing to risk her life not just for Jon, but also for the ideals he stands for. (Unrelated to Jon and Alanna: I had never seen this video before writing this post, and I think I kind of like it. It has a steampunk/sci fi/fantasy storyline all its own.)

Book: Little, Big, John Crowley

Song: “The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel

When I hear “The Boxer” I automatically think of the section of Little, Big when Auberon is in New York City. Unseen magical forces have manipulated him and brought him to an all-time low. The woman he loves has disappeared, his writing career has failed to take off, he’s out of money, and he’s alienated himself from his family. He drinks to cope with his circumstances. Young man goes to the big city? Check. Fails to find fame and fortune yet remains too proud to go home? Check. Gets drunk, hangs out in train stations a lot? Check and check.

Books: The Black Jewels Trilogy, Anne Bishop

Song: “A Thousand Years,” Christina Perri

I’ve written about this one before, and I’ve acknowledged that it’s more commonly associated with another fictional couple. Still, I have my opinions and I think this one bears repeating. Listen to the lyrics! Daemon, enslaved and tortured, hears a prophecy about the queen who will save the realm. He decides in that moment that he loves her, and he dedicates his life to finding her. The problem is she won’t be born for another seven hundred years. Daemon is part of a very long-lived race of humans, but the long wait is far from pleasant or comfortable. All along I believed I would find you…ugh I’m getting kind of teary just typing this, and I’m not even drunk.

Book: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

Song: “Pistols at Dawn,” Seinabo Sey

First off, I really love this song. I mean, I wouldn’t have included anything on this list if I didn’t like it, but “Pistols at Dawn” is my favorite of this batch. I knew it reminded me of a story the first time I heard it, but it took me a while to figure out which one. I think it was the lyric “This burning sky witnessed the greatest of love” that made it fall into place—it’s about the Three. If you want to get literal, the lyrics could almost be either Enefa or Nahadoth addressing Itempas. But really, it’s more of a match in emotional tone. This song captures the pain of betrayal and the anger that comes in its wake. (Bonus: Another cool black-and-white-and-red video).

So, those are my fantasy book songs. I’ll come back soon with some other genres. Hope everyone’s having a good start to their week!

Review: The Full Cast Audio App and Into the Land of the Unicorns

A while back Full Cast Audio was doing a promotion for their new app. You could download a sample version of the app on iPhone or iPad and get one free audiobook. I love free stuff, so I downloaded the app right away and…waited a super long time to actually listen it. Sometimes even I am surprised by the depths of my own procrastination.

Some background: Full Cast Audio is Bruce Coville’s audiobook recording company. If you’re familiar with Coville, you know that he’s an incredibly prolific author. His books have been a big part of a lot of childhoods/young adulthoods, mine included. FCA records family friendly books, which means middle grade and a few young adult novels. The sample that I listened to was Into the Land of the Unicorns, by Bruce Coville himself.

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It’s a cool concept, although not a new one: each character is voiced by a different actor, with and additional person (in many cases, the author) narrating. Done well, it gives the book more depth and variety.

I never read Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles series when I was younger. I think I just wasn’t that into unicorns when I was a kid. I vaguely remember getting one of the Tanith Lee unicorn books out of the library, but that’s it. There were a lot of books about ghosts and witches; I was busy.

Into the Land of the Unicorns is a pretty standard fantasy, centering on Cara, a human girl who has been transported to the magical kingdom of Luster. She has an important message to deliver and a magical amulet that plenty of people want to steal. She meets a sarcastic teenaged unicorn named Lightfoot who agrees to help her on her quest. They’re also joined by the Dimblethum (a sort of man-bear hybrid), the Squijm (a hyperactive lemur-squirrel-cat) and Thomas the Tinker (a long-lived human).

Despite the dangers that Cara faces, it’s mostly lighthearted up until the climax. There’s not much violence, but there is some pretty heavy emotional stuff going on. There are three more entries in the Unicorn Chronicles, and from what I’ve read on the internet they get progressively darker and more complex. They certainly get longer, with the last book being over 500 pages thicker than the first.

I can only speak to the first book, but I think this audio version would be really fun for and an elementary classroom. A read-aloud, but without the resulting wear and tear on the teacher’s throat. Kids would like the mix of adventure and humor, and characters face a lot of moral dilemmas that you could spin into a great discussion or writing assignment.

Into the Land of the Unicorns and the performing cast both get an A from me. What about the app, though?

I tested it out under all the major conditions that I use audiobooks in, which are:

  1. Running or walking (I use these headphones when I’m exercising, in case anyone’s curious)
  2. Driving
  3. Riding in the car when Husband is driving and wants to listen to a podcast that I don’t want to listen to
  4. In bed, can’t sleep but also can’t read because I have a headache

The app performed well in all those circumstances. My biggest complaint is that it took up a lot of space on my phone. I couldn’t even get all the chapters to download at first, although once I started listening to the first chapter the problem took care of itself.

The thing is, I already have apps for listening to audiobooks. I use iBooks, Audible, and Kindle, and I recently downloaded Overdrive. The Full Cast Audio app functions pretty much exactly like the others, but it only lets me listen to books recorded by one company. Incidentally, all of Full Cast Audio’s titles are also available through Audible.

The real app (which is still free) has some advantages over the sample one I tried. The “tour” function on the sample showed some features like links to author bios and places to read up on the book’s historical context. There is some sort of Audible-like monthly fee plan that you can sign up for, but I couldn’t find a satisfactory description of it anywhere.

I can say that Full Cast Audio recordings are generally less expensive that Audible or Amazon, mostly around $15 rather than $20-$30. If you read a lot of middle grade books, or you have a kid or kids that do, this app could be worthwhile. Otherwise, skip it and stick to whatever else you’re already using.

The Magicians 1.13, “Have You Brought Me Little Cakes”

This post discusses sexual assault.

Before I get to the finale, I just want to say how happy I am that this series exists. I’ve had a blast watching the season and writing these recaps. This is the first time in years that I’ve engaged with a show’s fandom at this level, and it’s been awesome. I’m also really grateful for all the people who watch the show and/or read the books who have contacted me to talk about it. I have one friend in particular who messages me every week and lets me vent all of my book-fan nitpicking and all-caps TV yelling. You’re the best, thank you. I hope I have adequately answered the question of why there needed to be Ember jizz below.

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Onwards. “Have You Brought Me Little Cakes” was a hot mess, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the whole time. I don’t agree with all the decisions the writers made, but I was so entertained. This hour answered a few questions but raised a whole lot more, which is a good way to hook the audience’s interest for a second season.

I know I’ve whined about this roughly every other episode, but PACING. My biggest complaint is always that things feel rushed. I wish that SyFy could do what FX does and allow the show to run over an hour if they need to. A lot of episodes would have been so improved by just an extra ten minutes to flesh out the B plot. This finale could have used an extra twenty, at least. And I would have watched it cheerfully.

The structure of this episode was difficult, too. Quentin is writing down his experiences in Fillory, so a lot of the story is told through flashback with his voiceover. Flashbacks are tricky. They can provide necessary information, but they can also bog down the action. Even Quentin lampshades the technique—“Now I’m gonna do that thing I kind of hate, where the book rewinds to fill in all the blanks.”

The thing is, if you’re going to start in medias res, you need to start with something dramatic or intriguing. I’m not sure the scene in Ember’s Tomb qualifies. I think we all knew that Ember wasn’t going to be a pivotal figure; otherwise he would have killed the Beast on his own already.

Now that I’ve discounted Ember, let me write a whole paragraph about him. Even though he’s not pivotal in-universe, he’s thematically important. In the same way that Dean Fogg cannot be Dumbledore, Ember cannot be Aslan. He’s a god, but he’s not all-powerful. He’s not even very likable. I feel like Ember was deliberately made to be more of a Greco-Roman style god here. The gods of Mount Olympus has some very human foibles. They were obsessed with sex and they could be hurt or killed. Kind of a letdown for their worshipers, and in an indirect way, Quentin did worship Ember and Umber. The title of the episode made me think of ancient Romans using pastries as an offering to the gods. The choice to make Ember more of an animal-human hybrid and not just a talking ram (like the books) also recalls Greco-Roman myth, specifically the god Pan.

Interestingly enough, Pan is a trickster figure, like Reynard. In case anyone was confused, Reynard in classic folklore wasn’t actually a god, more of a legendary anti-hero. Think Brer Rabbit and Anansi at their most brutal and least Disneyfied. It makes sense in the context of The Magicians that he should have gained godlike powers at some point, though. If Martin Chatwin became more powerful than Ember and Umber in Fillory, it’s plausible that Reynard tricked his way into god-status on Earth.

The encounter with Ember establishes that gods can transfer their powers via semen. So as horrific as Julia’s rape was, she still came out of more powerful than before, which becomes a factor when facing the Beast. Although I have to wonder—did she just assume she was less powerful than the Brakebills, and therefore not try to touch the moonstone knife? Or did she touch it and get burned because Marina’s memory patch made her forget the experience? Am I stretching to cover an obvious plot hole because I like this show?

Now that I’ve brought up Reynard, let’s deal with the rape scene. Sexual assault is a difficult topic to handle. I don’t think I’m the right person to say if the show handled it well or not. I’m not a survivor or a mental health professional working with survivors. I can’t tell you if it’s tasteful or respectful. It’s not a call I can make for anyone but myself.

I’ll just say this: It was horrifying to watch, but it’s presented a way that I can live with. Both Julia and Richard/Reynard are fully clothed, which signals that this isn’t meant to titillate. Reynard inhabiting Richard’s body was devastating after Julia’s other sexual encounter with Richard was so tender and generous. That made in painful in a way I wasn’t expecting. Despite Julia’s best efforts and a hand from Marina, this event isn’t going to be brushed off or made insignificant.

Speaking of, I was both surprised and strangely pleased at Marina. I should have put it together when Jane said a hedgewitch had done the memory wipe. Julia calling Marina made sense, and Marina’s reactions felt real. We’ve established that she’s ruthless, but not devoid of all human feeling. I wonder if we’ll see her again.

Kady has never been my favorite character, but I’m curious about what’s going to happen to her next. She has no living family to speak of and she’s not welcome at Brakebills. All her friends are dead or in Fillory. What now?

Then there’s Martin, and the common ground Julia now shares with him. They’ve both been victims, so does she understand him now? Does she have the potential to become a monster too? Julia willing to bargain with the enemy was an amazing twist.

We had some tying up of emotional loose ends before the climax. Quentin and Alice aren’t back together, but they’re at least talking to each other again. Penny got to save Victoria, so that’s a big part of his emotional turmoil calmed, but she disappears with Josh so as not to cause further emotions, I guess. Eliot gets to help the cause by getting married to a stranger. I knew that he was eventually going to admit his life had hit the rails, and that Fillory was going to be the change he needed, but this is such an unsubtle way to do that. The marriage is also somehow an excuse for him to reconcile with Margo.

Maybe these moments of uplift are meant to carry us through the darkness. But would that last scene have been any less dramatic if the group had still be divided and distracted by their personal woes? Resentment and bickering among the heroes could have built tension for the final battle.

Speaking of that last scene, I was not prepared for any of it. I wasn’t even prepared for Penny’s hands getting cut off, even though it happens in the book. I wasn’t prepared for Alice. I know I’m not prepared for season two, and I can’t wait.

Book Review: Legend

When young adult dystopia became a big trend post-Hunger Games, I was really into it for a while. I’ve loved stories about people struggling to thrive in hostile future landscapes since I read The Giver in fifth grade, so when the dystopia boom came, I was eating them up. Then I got burned out, like you do. Lately I’ve been dipping back into the genre, and I’ve been generally enjoying the results. If you are also in the mood for teenagers fighting back against oppressive governments and Scary Capitalized Nouns, allow me to suggest Legend by Marie Lu, the first book in the Legend Trilogy.

legend cover

The premise is solid—many years before the book takes place, extreme climate change and natural disasters destroyed life and we know it. The map of the United States was redrawn, both physically and politically. Most of the East Coast is underwater, and the Western states have seceded to create the Republic. By the time Legend begins, good citizens of the Republic don’t believe there ever was a United States. All they remember is their seemingly unending war against the other states, now known as the Colonies.

The climate change element is what sells it for me. I’m so tired of speculative fiction where the evil fun-hating dictator takes over and everyone just goes with it. With so many resources wiped out, it’s plausible that people would have traded some freedom for a sense of security. Aside from the hurricanes and floods, there are also periodic outbreaks of plague to worry about. The government can cure that, of course, which helps to cement the people’s loyalty.

The story focuses on Day and June, two fifteen-year-olds living in Los Angeles. Day, the son of a poor family, was declared useless to the Republic when he was ten. After failing his Trial, an important aptitude test, he narrowly escaped being killed. The government murders children for not being smart/fast/useful enough, and that’s strangely not regarded as the worst thing they do. It’s not dismissed, but it’s not the Moral Event Horizon you’d expect (link to TVTropes, sorry not sorry).

Day has become a Robin Hood-like figure in the city’s slums, causing trouble for the city’s higher-ups and omnipresent military. His real concern, though, is caring for his mother and two brothers. When his younger brother, Eden, comes down with a new strain of the plague, Day is willing to take great risks to find a cure.

June, by contrast, was raised to wealth and privilege. After earning a rare perfect score on her Trial, she was accelerated through military school. All she wants is to graduate and serve her country alongside her brother Matias. Matias raised June after their parents died in an accident, and he’s the most important person in her life.

When Matias is killed in an attempt to capture Day, June’s whole life changes. Her first post-school assignment is to work out a new plan to apprehend Day, and she channels all of her grief into tracking down the boy she believes killed her brother. She goes undercover as a street urchin in order to earn his trust. Of course, this works out a little too well, and both June and Day wind up facing some difficult truths about themselves and the world they live in.

June and Day tell the story in the first person in alternating chapters. I should stop complaining about switching POV. I say I hate it, but maybe it’s time I admit that it’s just a technique, one that can be done well or poorly. It worked for me here, and I felt equally invested in both protagonists.

If I could ask for more of anything in this book, it would be romantic tension. I wanted more of a “will-they-or-won’t-they” pull. There’s a lot of emphasis on how similar June and Day are despite their different backgrounds. June has a lot more agency than your average uptown girl, but I was missing the conflict that could have come from that quarter. Wouldn’t June and Day have conflicting worldviews? Wouldn’t they butt heads over more than just misunderstandings?

There are two more books in the series, which hopefully explore their dynamic more. Legend has a satisfying ending, but certainly leaves enough mysteries unsolved and wrongs un-righted to fuel more stories.

It’s Not Good But I Still Like It

It seems like the internet will never tire of trying to make people feel bad about reading. Whether it’s reading the wrong things, or just not reading enough, you don’t have to dig very deep to find someone who will scold you for it. There are always thoughtful, well-written responses to this junk, but it would be so nice if we could just read and let read. It’s more exhausting than making fun of people for not liking the “right” kinds of music.

I’ll explore that music metaphor a little deeper. There are people out there who never listen to music for pleasure, but they’re in the minority. Most people will admit to listening to and liking some type of music. They have a preference for genre or artist. When asked, some people might say “oh, I like a little bit of everything,” but since everything is an impossibly broad category, usually what they mean is that they like the types of music that are commonly listened to in their part of the world.

(Aside: I hate it when people ask me what types of music I like. They usually ask right after they find out I have a music degree, so I feel pressured to come up with something intellectual-sounding. This isn’t their fault; it’s just my jerk brain making things harder than they need to be. I usually say something flippant or vague. I should try harder. They’re just making conversation, not asking me to defend myself.)

In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman writes about people who claim they like “everything except country” and how they are the worst people. Klosterman says a lot of stuff about music that makes me roll my eyes, but I tend to agree with him on this point. Aligning yourself in terms of what you don’t like is a cowardly move designed only to play you above the people who do like that thing.

There are probably more people who don’t read books than don’t listen to music, but among the people who do identify as “readers,” there’s infinite variety. I like mostly fantasy or science fiction novels. But that’s me! Some people prefer adult contemporary, or romance, or comics, or nonfiction. None of them are more or less capable of reading words than I am.

I don’t have a lot of high ground to stand on when it comes to the right kinds of books. I generally don’t bother with a lot of classic literature. I have also read and enjoyed a lot of the “wrong” books. I get that the Twilight Saga had a limited vocabulary and an appallingly irresponsible depiction of abusive relationships, but I finished Breaking Dawn in a day and I’m not sorry. It’s Not Good, But I Still Like It: The Andie Biagini Story.

There are other issues at play here. A lot of times the serious vs. not serious literature divide is a gendered one, with work by and for women being ridiculed while work by and for men is praised. Trying to make people feel bad for not reading enough can be classist—people who don’t have to work as many hours are obviously going to have time to read. It’s also really easy to equate owning books with loving literature when you have lots of disposable income.

I’m going to stop here, because I’m just adding to the noise. Maybe as a species we just won’t get past the urge to make ourselves feel better by tearing other people down. I can’t track down every self-important serious reader with an internet platform and convince them to change their ways. What I can do is promise that I will never bemoan the state of reading in America, and there will be never be any book shaming on this blog. It’s the least I can do.

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Reminder that you can follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, if any of those are your jam. A few hours after this gets posted I’ll be going on a long car trip. I don’t have to drive, so that probably means at least a few observational tweets about the different states we’re rolling through, so be prepared for that. Have a good weekend everyone!