Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

an-ember-in-the-ashes-by-sabaa-tahirAn Ember in the Ashes was a surprise. I was looking for (and expected) a fast, easy read that would help get me out of the reading slump I’d been in since breaking my foot in May. I don’t read much YA these days, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention and I could have sworn that I heard somewhere that it was basically a standalone, which would have been nice since I’m not looking to get into any more uncompleted series. I figured this would be a quick, shallow, fun read that I’d never have to think about again.

It turns out I was super wrong about everything except it being a fast read. I did manage to race through it in about a day, but that was because it was really, really good, not because it was light reading.

This book is not light reading.

An Ember in the Ashes opens with a gut punch and then kicks the reader while they’re down, for over four hundred glorious pages. It’s a wild ride from the very beginning, and it’s definitely the best YA novel I’ve read in a couple of years.

At the same time, Ember is a sort of strange book for me to review. It has several glaring flaws that would ordinarily be dealbreakers for for me, but that Sabaa Tahir manages to make work.

First, I don’t love the names of the main characters, Laia and Elias. They’re just too close to each other, too many L’s and A’s, and though I never found them confusing, these names are just a little too match-y for my taste. They’re also part of a general lack of consistent naming conventions throughout the novel. The fantasy world of the book is ostensibly based upon ancient Rome, but the character names are a mix of Greek, English, Gaelic, and other origins. This could work as a way to differentiate between different cultures in the book, but that’s not how it’s done here. Instead, it’s just a mishmash of names, some of which make sense, some which don’t.

This sort of naming convention mess is increasingly characteristic of YA fiction in general, and it always turns me off a bit. It’s only tolerable here because the story Tahir tells is so well-crafted and because, while the names are sloppy, they don’t inhabit the realm of just plain silly and absurd that some YA character names do.

My second major criticism is also sort of about names, but in the general worldbuilding sense. Frankly, if it didn’t all manage to somehow work, I’d think that Tahir had used this humorous article at The Toast as a serious writing advice. Everything is just awfully generic.

There are the Scholar people, who are peaceful artisans and intellectuals who were easily overpowered and enslaved by the warlike Martial people. Aside from these two major groups, there are also Tribesmen, Barbarians, Lake People and Wildmen, The live in places like “The Empire,” “The Southern Lands,” and “The Tribal Deserts.” The one major holiday we see in the book is just called the “Moon Festival,” another extremely vague and generic piece of the world Tahir has created.

Even the prophesying Augurs seem generic when surrounded by so many other generic groups of people, and this isn’t helped much by the use of the name “Cain” for the main Augur. It’s a name that is so loaded with hackneyed connotations of antiquity, mystery and villainy (or occasional anti-heroism) that it should basically never be used unless an author is literally referring to the biblical Cain. I have a special loathing for the use of mythologically significant names in lieu of actual characterization.

All that said, there’s a lot to like about this fantasy world. There are definitely some bits of ancient Rome in here, but this isn’t Rome the great empire and foundation of western society. The Martials are Rome the violent colonizing juggernaut, and the Scholars and Tribespeople are clearly representative of the great civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa. While I think that the conflict between the Scholars and Martials is a little simplistic, it also offers a refreshingly different and much-needed perspective than the pro-imperialist ones that are more common in high fantasy.

Though there is much about this fantasy world that is bland and generic, there is still enough detail to make it stand out from more standard fare. The incorporation of creatures from Arab mythology is nice and helps to solidify the reader’s sense of the story world as vaguely Middle Eastern as opposed to the usual vaguely Medieval European fantasy.

The one really original fantastical element Tahir introduces is the masks worn by the uncreatively named Masks, and I would have liked to see this explained and explored a little more. Because Elias’s mask hasn’t bonded to him, we don’t get any firsthand details on what it’s like for any of the characters to have a mask permanently affixed to their faces. The masks are also mentioned inconsistently throughout the book, and it’s never quite clear exactly what the masks look like. It’s too bad that we don’t learn more about the masks because they’re probably the most unique worldbuilding aspect we’re shown.

The things that make all of the above-listed mediocrity okay and turn An Ember in the Ashes into a highly readable piece of work are the well-drawn main characters and a meticulously planned and beautifully realized plot. It also helps that Tahir avoids some of the more obnoxious YA tropes and what tropes she does utilize are smartly chosen. Finally, I really appreciate that Tahir isn’t afraid to hurt her characters. The stakes feel high and the danger feels real throughout the book, but at the same time I never felt like the suffering was gratuitous or overdone. 

This book feels like it shouldn’t work as well as it does, and there are any number of things I can pick out of it that I ordinarily don’t care for. However, I really enjoyed it, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading its sequel. An Ember in the Ashes is a sprawling, challenging young adult fantasy that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “All the Mirrors of the World”

“All the Mirrors of the World” marks the halfway point of the miniseries, and, fittingly, it’s an episode that is heavily concerned with balance. More accurately, it’s an episode that deals largely with the ways in which things are out of balance and are not right with our characters.

The episode begins right where last week’s ended: with the chaos following Lady Pole’s attempt on Mr. Norrell’s life. We quickly learn that Lady Pole succeeded only in wounding Childermass and earning herself a trip to an asylum.

Childermass has a vision while he's inconveniently unconscious from his wounds.
Childermass has an ominous (and foreshadowing) vision while he’s inconveniently unconscious from his wounds.

The standout part of this whole sort of opening sequence is the interaction between Childermass and Norrell. It’s probably the longest we’ve gotten to see these two characters alone together so far in the show, and I think it’s been worth the wait. This scene finally manages to really establish the sort of relationship that exists between Mr. Norrell and his servant. Mostly, it’s a weird relationship, characterized by Childermass’s self-assurance and Norrell’s awkward reliance on Childermass. Indeed, while Childermass is incapacitated, Norrell is seemingly barely able to function. At the same time, though, Norrell is suspicious of Childermass’s use of magic, and Childermass has begun to mistrust Norrell as well.

Meanwhile, the Stranges seem to be in somewhat better accord now that Jonathan Strange has returned from the Peninsula. As Jonathan prepares to return to his apprenticeship with Mr. Norrell, he and Arabella are extremely cute together.

King George III.
King George III.

The first thing that Norrell and Strange do now that they’re back together is visit King George III, who is in the midst of his final bout of madness. They’ve been called to see the king by his children, who hope that they might be able to use magic in some way to help him. Norrell, of course, has already said that magic cannot cure madness, but Strange is more hopeful and even returns on his own after Norrell has already moved along from the matter. While Strange is unsuccessful in penetrating the king’s madness, he does get to see the king disappear into a mirror after having an odd conversation with someone Jonathan can’t see.

Lascelles and Norrell.
Lascelles and Norrell.

When Jonathan goes to Mr. Norrell to talk about what happened, Norrell is dismissive. Norrell is much more interested in promoting his own ideas, primarily through Lascelles’ book, which is nearly ready for publication. Strange is basically shut down entirely, and it’s becoming clear to everyone that Norrell intends to be the only magician in England whose opinions matter. Frustrated with Norrell, Strange takes his leave, returning to his home, where Arabella reminds him of the first spell he ever did–which warned him that Norrell was his enemy.

Segundus and Honeyfoot defend Lady Pole.
Segundus and Honeyfoot defend Lady Pole.

Lady Pole has been taken to Starecross, which Segundus and Honeyfoot have turned into an asylum since Childermass told them they couldn’t have a magicians’ school. Lady Pole will be their first patient, but she’s terribly unhappy about it. When she recognizes them as magicians, she’s convinced that they are Norrell’s men, only calming down when she observes them refusing Childermass entry to see her. It seems that Starecross may be a comfortable place for Lady Pole after all, and Segundus is even able to see the enchantment that has been placed upon her and Stephen Black, although he doesn’t know what it is.

Earlier in the episode, Arabella questioned her husband about a Miss Grey, who claimed to be learning magic from him, and Jonathan disclaimed any knowledge of the girl. While Jonathan is at a club with a couple of friends, however, he comes face to face with a pair of men who also claim to be his pupils. Clearly, someone is running a scam. When called upon to demonstrate his magic and prove his identity, Strange steps into a mirror, where he finds himself on the [Raven] King’s Roads.

The land behind the mirrors.
The land behind the mirrors.

Jonathan Strange uses the roads to travel to where Drawlight is; unsurprisingly, Drawlight is in the middle of duping yet another person out of exorbitant amounts of money, and Strange speedily puts a stop to the scheme. When Strange finally returns to his own house, Arabella has been worried, and she turns furious when Jonathan is dismissive of her concerns. I am pleased that the show follows the book in presenting Jonathan Strange’s inconsiderate behavior toward his wife as a fault, and they do a wonderful job here of showing this conflict between the Stranges in a way that is fair to both characters. Bertie Carvel is affable enough as Jonathan Strange that he’s lovable in spite of his sometimes glaring faults, and Charlotte Riley as Arabella captures such a perfect mix of loving concern and absolutely justified anger that there’s no reasonable way anyone could think her shrewish or nagging. Indeed, I think the viewer is supposed to be almost entirely on her side in this argument, and her feelings are treated entirely seriously.

Norrell insists that magic must be made respectable.
Norrell insists that magic must be made respectable.

Drawlight finds himself permanently exiled from Norrell’s presence and in a great deal of debt that is about to get him tossed into prison. However, this might be considered lucky, as Norrell is pushing to have some ancient magical court revived in order that Drawlight could actually be hanged–with the added benefit that such a court could be used to squash any opinions on magic that differ from Norrell’s. Fortunately, Sir Walter is there to, quite sensibly, put a stop to that idea, and he gets one of my favorite speeches so far in the show. This is also, I think, a really clever way of including material from the book without really including it. In the novel, there’s a whole thing where Norrell pesters Parliament for a while about reviving the Cinque Dragownes, and it would have been terribly boring to put that in the miniseries even though it’s a pretty important bit of Norrell’s characterization. This conversation, though, allows us to get that characterization in one short scene, communicating the concept from the book in a smart way. Also, it’s very funny.

Angry about Drawlight and upset that he won’t have his own personal court of law, Norrell turns to picking on Jonathan Strange, next, berating him for his injudicious use of magic. Strange argues, trying to get Norrell excited about the King’s Roads, but Norrell only insists that modern magic must be kept “respectable.” As Strange leaves in frustration again, he grabs a copy of Lascelles’ finished book, which he sets out to review when he gets home.

I am a little bummed that we don’t get the whole text of Strange’s scathing review, but I suppose that gives people a good reason to read the book after watching the miniseries. I did like seeing Lascelles rant about the review to Norrell, though.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell having very civil breakup tea together.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell having very civil breakup tea together.

Probably the most important thing that happens in this episode is the inevitable breakup between Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Following the publication of the infamous book review, Strange goes to visit his mentor and inform him of the end of their association. This scene is shot so perfectly and acted so sensitively that it actually made me a little teary. Norrell practically begs Strange not to leave him, and it broke my heart a little.

Lady Pole gets to be at least a tiny bit okay for about a minute.
Lady Pole gets to be at least a tiny bit okay for about a minute.

I would have been happy if the episode had ended here, but there are still a couple of things to be wrapped up. In the last few minutes, we get to see Lady Pole finally settled at Starecross, which is nice, although I think I would rather have seen this finished earlier in the episode. Mostly, I feel this way because Lady Pole’s fleeting contentment is immediately overshadowed by a sort of triple cliffhanger ending.

First, Jonathan Strange is called back to war when Napoleon escapes and starts causing trouble on the continent again. This throws a wrench in the Stranges’ plans to return to their country home, where Jonathan intended to retire and become a theoretical magician.

The moss oak is pretty freaky.
The moss oak is pretty freaky.

Second, Stephen Black and the Gentleman unearth a “moss oak” from a sort of bog. The Gentleman said that he needed the moss oak for his plan to take Arabella away from Jonathan Strange, and it turns out that the moss oak is a piece of enchanted wood, or perhaps a piece of wood that can be enchanted. In any case, and much to Stephen Black’s horror, the Gentleman peels back part of the wood, revealing Arabella’s face.

Norrell becomes Jonathan Strange's enemy for real.
Norrell becomes Jonathan Strange’s enemy for real.

Finally, the episode ends with Lascelles confronting Norrell about the breakup with Jonathan Strange. Apparently, they had a whole plan of how Norrell was going to browbeat Strange into retracting his book review and stuff, but Norrell didn’t do any of that stuff. However, Norrell is receptive as Lascelles encourages him to work against Jonathan Strange, and by the last ominous shot of the episode, Norrell is vowing to destroy his erstwhile pupil.

“All the Mirrors of the World” is the best episode of the show so far. It’s thematically consistent with its examination of how different pairs of characters balance each other, and it does a masterful job of breaking up the central pair of Strange and Norrell, who don’t know yet just how much they need each other.

As an adaptation, this episode probably hews closer to the source material than any episode yet. Though notable cuts have been made and we miss out on some of the book’s insights into the interior lives of the characters, this episode covers an enormous amount of story in a way that feels naturalistic and almost effortless. The shifts between story lines are smartly done and keep things interesting the whole time without being disorienting or confusing.

Overall, this was just a superb piece of television, and it’s exactly the sort of thing I hoped to see when I first heard this miniseries was in the works. I’m not sure how the whole series will stand up to the source material, but this episode at least definitely does it justice.

Terminator Genisys is fun, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense

Terminator Genisys is a kind of objectively bad movie, but I genuinely enjoyed it. Probably, this is because my only expectations when I went in were that I was going to see robots and explosions, both of which Genisys delivered in spades.

The biggest problem with Terminator Genisys is the time travel. The Terminator franchise has always been about time travel, so it’s no surprise that it features prominently in Genisys, but the implementation of it just sucks. Basically everyone is time travelling, but there are several different timelines crossing each other and everything just turns into a big old mess.

It’s not terribly convoluted, really, but the mechanism by which all this stuff happens just doesn’t make sense at all. Something something time energy or some nonsense. Terminator Genisys is the sort of time travel story where the writers seem to have realized (incorrectly) that by waving their hands and shouting “alternate timeline!” they could pretty much change things up however they wanted to. It’s absurd if you spend more than about two seconds thinking about any of it, but it does manage to make Genisys more of a reboot than a sequel, and I think it’s in some ways a successful reboot. Certainly, there’s plenty of room left at the end for sequels in this timeline.

 

With the casting of Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith as Skynet/Genisys, all this time energy and time being rewritten stuff feels a little too on the nose. At the same time, I think any Who reference being made is going to go right over the heads of most of Genisys‘s target audience, which is presumably people who know enough about Terminator to be interested in seeing this movie. I just don’t see there being a ton of overlap between folks who want to see Terminator 5 and Whovians. And, really, if they were trying to draw the Whovian crowd to the theater, I would have thought they’ve spend more time using Matt Smith in their promotion of the movie. Perhaps the reason that didn’t happen is because Matt Smith’s character is perhaps the least sense-making thing in the movie. He plays the physical-ish embodiment of Skynet, and he seems to know basically everything, with no explanation for how he knows so much. Other than plot convenience, of course.

hr_Terminator_Genisys_3Emilia Clarke is fine as Sarah Connor. Although she seems to be slightly exasperated throughout the whole movie, it’s certainly a much less wooden performance than she usually turns in as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. When it comes to the actual action scenes, she does a credible job of projecting a toughness that belies her tiny stature.

Jai Courtney is little more than a pretty face in the role of Kyle Reese, which is really all he needs to be. Jason Clarke as John Connor shows up. I love J.K. Simmons, so I was sad that his character wasn’t used in a smarter manner, and the same goes for Dayo Okeniyi, who is criminally underused. The real surprise for me was how well Arnold Schwartzenegger performed. Certainly he was greatly aided by CGI and body doubles,  but he was likable–even lovable. I’m not sure that terminators really ought to be lovable, but I think it worked here, and the couple of moments in the movie where I had feelings other than “cool explosion!” or “awesome robot!” were moments involving Schwartzenegger.

Terminator Genisys isn’t a good movie. It’s not a feminist movie, for all that it does include a pretty badass heroine. It manages to not be offensive in any particular way that I can think of, which is nice. However, the best thing I can say about it, if I’m honest, is that I had fun, and that is only because I purposefully kept my expectations low and chose to turn my brain off as much as possible.

 

Weekend Links: July 4, 2015

Funko is releasing Fifth Element Pop! Figures

David Bowie is Sci Fi and Fantasy Personified

Entertainment Weekly interviews Supergirl Melissa Benoist

A Neuroscientist’s Perspective on Inside Out

Zadie Smith is going to be writing a sci-fi movie

The New York Times asks “Do Genre Labels Matter Anymore?”

io9 talks about eight books you need to know about to understand this year’s Hugo Awards controversy

We’ve also got our first image of Bruce Campbell’s return as Ash from Ash vs. Evil Dead:

 

 

The Humble Weekly Bundle is Leading Ladies 2, looks awesome.

HumbleBundleLeadingLadies2So, I just bought this, mostly to get access to Sunset, which looks amazing. Gravity Ghost, Trine 2, and Lumino City are all gorgeous to look at. Hack ‘n’ Slash is an interesting concept, although I have some concerns about the execution. I’m not super excited about A City Sleeps or The Marvelous Mistake, but you get them if you pay enough for Gravity Ghost and Sunset.

All in all, it’s a solid bundle, and I really think it’s going to be worth $12 just for Sunset. Also, this bundle is supporting the Girls Make Games scholarship fund, which is a great cause.

Buy it here.

If you’re still not sure about it, watch the trailer for Sunset and then go buy it.

Inside Out is Pixar at its tear-jerking best

I knew that Inside Out was going to be a special film all the way back when it first announced, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what I saw when I finally got to the theater to see the finished product. The promotion for the film, including trailers, was deliberately vague on plot and focused til the very end on selling the concept, which is admittedly, well, not weird, but definitely unusual, especially for a children’s movie. It was a little bit of a frustrating tactic for me since I kind of love having as much info as possible before I see a movie, but in the end I was very happy that there were so many surprises in store for me–because they were all wonderful.

The framing of the film is simple: Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, and she’s got feelings about it. The real story, of course, is inside Riley’s head, where Joy has been in charge for almost twelve years and doesn’t know how to handle things when Riley’s other emotions–Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness–start to overpower her. Early on, we learn that most of what Joy does is try and manage Sadness, whose purpose she doesn’t really understand. Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters (get it?!) together, and the bulk of the movie is their journey back.

And it’s a pretty epic journey, when it’s presented the way Pixar has done here.

Visually, Inside Out is stunning, which is to be expected in any Pixar movie, but the attention to detail and the sheer amount of love and care poured into the work here is incredible. To create the mind of a child as a landscape is a task that could easily have turned hokey, but they’ve really nailed it here, building a place in Riley’s head that is both fanciful and grounded deeply in reality. I know that there are all kinds of experts praising the movie for its accurate portrayal of the interplay between Riley’s emotions, but I think the real achievement is in a depiction of a child’s inner life that feels intuitively correct and relatable for the average viewer. It’s not that things in Inside Out are real, but they feel like they might be, or maybe like they ought to be, from the islands of Riley’s personality to the enormous complex of memory shelves that wind around in a way that, when viewed from above, is vaguely reminiscent of actual brain matter.

The character design is excellent. The emotions are, in my opinion, perfectly realized, and I love how none of them are really quite solid. Rather, they seem to be made of millions of tiny, shifting dots mixed with glitter, granting them all a sort of ethereal presence. The characters that Joy and Sadness encounter on their journey are similarly well-drawn, and the use of textures is just amazing in general. The wide array of people that Riley interacts with seems purposefully intended to reflect the diversity of San Francisco in the real world, which is also nice.

All of the voice actors are well-suited to their roles. Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) are lovely together as these sort of polar opposite characters. I can’t imagine anyone but Lewis Black in the role of Anger, and Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader were wisely cast as Disgust and Fear. However, Richard Kind steals the whole show as Riley’s imaginary friend, who helps Joy and Sadness along their way.

Inside Out is one of those rare films that I really think everyone ought to see. It’s so much more than just a children’s movie; in fact, I would say that its prime audience will be ages ten and up. While little ones may enjoy the colors and the funny voices, the majority of Inside Out‘s ideas will go right over their heads. It’s a movie about growing up, laser-focused on looking at the particular moments in which we transition from being children to being adolescents, which makes it useful and informative for anyone going through that change right now and heart-wrenching for those of us who remember going through it.

Personally, I was crying within the first five minutes of the movie, and I’m not sure I quite stopped until the credits rolled. If you see only one movie this summer, make it Inside Out. If you have a tween-aged kid in your life, be sure to take them with you. Then, be sure to talk about it afterwards.

The second episode of Killjoys feels like the second half of a first episode

“The Sugar Point Run” still feels a lot like Firefly, but I do think we’re already starting to see Killjoys distinguishing itself a bit from its predecessor.

Unfortunately, to me, this episode feels almost more like a pilot episode than the first one did. There’s still a lot of verbal exposition going on, some of which is repeated from last week, and I would have liked the situation with Dutch, Johnny, and Dav to have ended up last week where it is at the end of this episode. Because of course that’s what has to happen in order for there to be a story here.

Nothing says “dystopia” like some skulls on spikes in a devastated, wartorn warehouse district in Toronto.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in “The Sugar Point Run,” though. It takes us deeper into the Company-run dystopia the characters are inhabiting, and there are some neat things happening there. I definitely came away from this episode with a better understanding of the politics of the Quad and what the killjoys’ role in things is supposed to be. I’m not completely sold on it all yet, but it’s still interesting enough to keep me watching. I’m hoping, though, that we’re coming to the end of this heavy handed info dumping so we can get on with learning more about the characters and seeing a real story play out.

Because the characters have a ton of potential. “The Sugar Point Run” shows us more of Dutch’s training as a child assassin, which is actually pretty harrowing, and we also see that D’avin is still having PTSD dreams, which isn’t explored at all. A big part of this episode was Dutch and D’Avin doing stuff together, which I liked, although I don’t like that it looks as if they’re headed for will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension town. They have nice chemistry, as beautiful people often do, but that’s just such a tired trope that I could really do without it, maybe, just this once.

Repairs aren’t going smoothly when you have to pull out a gun.

The other half the episode is Johnny hanging out with the ship, Lucy. We get to see Johnny being competent, which is good to establish, although he still feels a little too much like a comic relief character to me. While he’s repairing the ship, he does make a discovery that starts him to questioning Dutch, though, which introduces some more tension into their relationship.

I’m actually more interested in Lucy, though. We’ve seen a good amount of the human characters’ interactions with the ship, and it looks like they are definitely going to be developing the ship herself as a character. I’m not generally a fan of sentient ships, although I do think they can be done well. So far, Lucy has gotten some of the show’s best lines, but I think that’s a testament more to the overall weakness of the scripts than it is of how well the ship is being utilized as a character. Like the other main characters, though, Lucy definitely shows some potential.

All things considered, I am still enjoying Killjoys quite a bit, and I’ll almost certainly be sticking out the rest of this season. If the writers can move away from info dumping, get the series arc moving, and give the characters a bit more depth, I think it could be be a great show. And it could be that my impression of this episode as a second half of our introduction to the world and characters is exactly what the writers intended. If so, it’s not how I would have done it, personally, but it would mean that things will start getting really good this week with episode three. Here’s hoping.

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