WoB Talk

September 28, 2016

Review: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:28 pm

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First of all, I should say that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (the original 1962 novel) is one of the books that has most profoundly shaped my own writing, as well as my approach to literature. It’s not a perfect book–L’Engle was right at the beginning of her career when she wrote it, and it shows–but Meg Murry remains one of my favourite protagonists. I can’t tell you what a revelation it was for me as an awkward twelve-year-old girl when I picked up this book and saw a character who was just as stubborn, angry, tearful, and unfair as I often was. Meg isn’t sweet or pretty; she can be kind and compassionate, but not without a struggle. She’s real. And when she goes to fight IT the first time, the gift she’s given by Mrs. Whatsit is her faults. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the simple but profound lesson that passage taught me: that strong characters are not necessarily strong people, and that apparent weakness can be far more interesting than obvious strength.

I picked up the graphic version of the novel because I’d heard good things, but I was still worried, not because it was a comic–I am happy to defend comics to the death–but because it was an adaptation. I know the 2003 television-movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time didn’t turn out all that well. I also sort of felt that the story didn’t particularly need to be a comic. However, I tried it anyway because why not? At the very least, it seemed like an intriguing project to explore.

For the most part, the adaptation works well. L’Engle’s text is dialogue-heavy, and most of the words used in the comic are taken verbatim from the novel. One choice the adapter, Hope Larson, makes is to turn some of the narration into text boxes containing Meg’s first-person perspective. A few of these bits are taken from first-person thoughts Meg has in the novel; others shift the third-person commentary into the first person. The technique both works and doesn’t. It does allow Meg some of the interiority the comic-book format takes away from her, but it’s a bit inconsistent, disappearing and then popping back up again at random. The text boxes are most prevalent when Meg is alone, which makes sense, but when other characters are in play, Meg sometimes seems to fade into the background.

Luckily, Larson’s evocative drawings are especially effective when it comes to Meg’s expressions. She also differentiates well between the characters, with Meg’s pinched little face standing in stark contrast to Calvin’s teenage awkwardness and Charles Wallace’s big-eyed, cherubic intelligence. Meg’s black eye becomes a character in and of itself; when it is healed by Aunt Beast, the reader almost misses it. The designs of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which are also distinctive and full of personality. Perhaps the oddest thing about how the characters are drawn is that many of them seem to smile at inappropriate moments, but even these weird little smiles eventually become endearing and stand in contrast to Charles Wallace’s borderline evil smile when he’s under the control of IT.

The evil-Charles-Wallace segment alone is worth the price of admission. Larson takes her adorable Charles Wallace design and shifts his expression just enough that the angelic becomes demonic. The scenes in which IT is controlling Charles Wallace are, if possible, even harder to read here than they are in the original.

The graphic format sometimes works very nicely. At other times, the story seems choppy and abrupt, with Meg’s switch from screaming anger to smiling acceptance when she is being asked to go back for Charles Wallace alone being a particularly glaring example. The ending seems even more sudden here than it does in the original. However, all in all, Larson does a good job of letting L’Engle’s dialogue tell the story as she fills in the narration with images. The choice to use only the colour blue as shading gives the images a spooky feel that complements the mysteries of the plot.

While I don’t think this adaptation will be replacing L’Engle’s novel any time soon, and while I’m not entirely convinced that someone reading it before the novel will be able to follow everything that’s going on, the graphic retelling makes a good companion piece to the novel. It doesn’t really give us anything new, but it nonetheless offers a pleasing visualisation of an iconic work.

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September 24, 2016

Review: Claudia Gray’s A Thousand Pieces of You

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 8:03 am

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird, #1)A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up A Thousand Pieces of You because of its intriguing premise: most particularly, because the idea of a girl hopping from dimension to dimension to avenge the murder of her father sounded full of yummy sci-fi goodness. I still love the world of this novel and the vast potential inherent in the idea of interdimensional travel. However, the good old love triangle at the story’s heart weakens what could otherwise be a solid narrative with a great female protagonist.

The novel follows Marguerite Caine, the artist daughter of two brilliant scientists, as she joins one of her parents’ grad students, Theo, on his quest to catch the murderer of Marguerite’s father. They are chasing another grad student, Paul, who has apparently cut Dr. Caine’s brakes and sent his car into the water, then absconded with a piece of technology that allows him to leap into alternate-dimension versions of himself. Marguerite and Theo use the only two other versions of this technology in existence to follow, and Marguerite finds herself living the lives of a variety of other Marguerites, some of whose situations differ radically from hers (one is a Russian princess, and yes, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this). As she and Theo follow Paul from world to world, Marguerite begins to realise that the situation is not quite what it seems and that Paul may not, in fact, be her enemy after all.

The best aspects of the novel involve the exploration of the alternate dimensions. Gray’s many-worlds model has a built-in acknowledgement of what one character calls the possibility of “fate”; in other words, while the worlds may deviate quite widely from each other in some respects, the same people do tend to exist in all of them (as wildly unlikely as it may seem that exactly the same sperm would penetrate exactly the same egg even when the parents of the child are coming together in extremely different places, situations, and circumstances). The world in which Marguerite is Russian is especially fascinating, as its technology has lagged behind that of Marguerite’s own world, and everything is very nineteenth century, even while many of the people who exist in our twenty-first-century still exist there (for instance, Bill Clinton is around, wearing mutton chops, apparently). The first world Marguerite visits is also intriguing because it is more advanced than Marguerite’s and thus allows Gray to play with some inventive technological innovations.

Another strong aspect of the novel is Marguerite’s own musings–and eventual deepening confusion–about identity and relationships. In the various dimensions, she inhabits the bodies of Marguerites who both are and are not her. In one of them, she has an experience that, as she acknowledges later, the “real” Marguerite should have had herself; it’s an experience she can never have again. Even before Marguerite begins considering the ethics of what she’s doing, the reader may feel uncomfortable watching her make certain essential decisions that have the potential to profoundly affect the Marguerites whose lives Marguerite is borrowing. The strongest segments of the novel revolve around Marguerite coming to grips with the consequences of her actions. Her interactions with the various versions of her family are also well handled. In some dimensions, her father is alive, and Marguerite is put in the position of having to spend time with someone she loves and she knows is, in her world, dead. In other worlds, her mother is dead. Her sister sometimes exists and sometimes does not, and once, she gains three entirely different siblings instead. Loss itself takes on a variety of dimensions through Marguerite’s dimension-hopping adventure.

However, the love story is intrusive to the point of being overwhelming. Love stories in general do not make me leap to my feet in joy, but I can accept a good love story that has a reason to exist and moves the plot along. While it’s certainly possible to argue that the love plot in A Thousand Pieces of You is really the main point, it acts to weaken, not strengthen, Marguerite as a character. She seems to accept as a matter of course that the big strong men need to be there to protect her. Even when she’s at the point of the story where she finally realises exactly what’s going on, there’s a helplessness about Marguerite. She gets quite a few nice moments of agency throughout the novel, and she’s at her best when she’s alone and forced to rely only on herself, but whenever one of the guys turns up, she tends to defer to him. While this could absolutely be part of her character growth–an element she must recognise and eventually overcome–it actually seems to become more acute as the story progresses.

As well, the triangular shape of the plot is such a well-tread path that even with its various twists and turns, the story becomes rather predictable. Let’s just say (without giving anything essential away) that I was pretty sure what was up with certain characters long before the shocking truth was revealed, simply because that was how the love triangle demanded the story should go. There’s one small surprise that is pretty neat, but otherwise, everything pans out as expected. The mundanity of the love story detracts from the stronger world building and also, more harmfully, from Marguerite’s growth as a character. When she’s going all gooshy about being protected and looked after by someone who treats her like a fragile, breakable doll, she has less time to ruminate on consequences.

In the end, I’m happy enough with this book to pick up the sequel (and likely the third volume when it’s released in November), but I’m very much hoping that sequel will give Marguerite more of a chance to shine. Her character still feels incomplete: promising, but too bound up in being an object of desire to become an agency-driven subject.

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September 20, 2016

Review: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 8:34 am

Children of Earth and SkyChildren of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s books since I was thirteen or so. I’ve made my way through all of them, including his volume of poetry. Lately, however, I’ve had a harder time getting into the stories. For me, the pinnacle of Kay’s work is The Lions of Al-Rassan, in which he captures beautifully the idea of a war in which there is no right–and no wrong–side. Nothing since has quite measured up.

Children of Earth and Sky is, like many of Kay’s books, set in his not-quite-real parallel universe, which contains many historical similarities to our own world without being absolutely bound by actual history. The novels also contain some magic, though often only hints of it. This particular volume is farther forward in the history of this world than Kay has ever gone, taking place in the otherworldly equivalent of the Renaissance. Its setting covers much the same ground as the Sarantine Mosaic novels, though the works are set nearly a millennium apart.

This is where the first problem arises. I know Kay likes to build in little connections between his novels, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or at least not until the references start taking up nearly as much time as the narrative, and not always for much of a purpose. It’s nice to know what’s become of Crispin’s work and some of the places he visited, but a lot of this stuff seems to be here simply so people who have read the Sarantium books can go, “Hey…I remember that!” After a while, it begins to read as a little self-indulgent.

The characters here are also a bit more sparsely sketched out than they could be. Kay tends to go into great detail when he creates his characters, and the novel starts out promisingly, but the characters never truly grow beyond their own broad types. There are only so many times the narrator can tell us a character is “very young” (the narrator seems fixated on everybody’s youth) before we start wishing for less harping on age and more attention to character development. None of the characters does anything particularly surprising. They’re all smarter than the average bear and have a tendency to get out of scrapes by saying or doing exactly the right thing at the right moment (when they make mistakes, the narrator chimes in with, “It was a mistake,” or something similar). They’re also all the very best at everything. Danica is the best fighter, Marin the most clever merchant, Pero the greatest artist (eventually), Leonora the best [spoilers, but believe me, she’s the best at it]. No one is incompetent at anything. Consequently, even though the characters are quite far apart in their situations, stations, and occupations, they have a certain sameness. It doesn’t help that Danica and Leonora, the only two important point-of-view women, are both young, beautiful, and blonde.

Kay’s treatment of women sometimes bothers me, though certainly not always. Jehane of The Lions of Al-Rassan is, despite being stuck in a be-cursed love triangle, a well-written character with both strengths and flaws. Other female characters who manage to transcend the radiant beauty Kay almost always gives them (with one or two exceptions) do also pop up from time to time. However, many of these women are defined mostly by their sexuality. The argument that women’s power in a patriarchal society is often a manipulative one that works largely through sexual favours is, well, problematic to start with, but even if we accept it as true, we run up against the problem that in this particular story, the two major female characters are an exemplary warrior and a woman who eventually gains a type of power that has little, if not nothing, to do with sex. Why, then, the continual emphasis on these characters sleeping with various people (even, sometimes, having to sleep with various people)? If the same attention were paid to the sexual exploits of every male character, fine, but it’s really not. When Pero is forced into a sexual encounter, it’s framed as an uncomfortable and backward situation; when the same thing happens to both Danica and Leonora, we get to accept that as the way things are (plus justified because the men are kind). While both women are strong people, they’re not particularly strong characters because they’re both two-dimensional and seem to exist mostly for the male characters, even as they go around accomplishing extraordinary things of their own volition.

To be fair, most of the characters are weak here. I know I keep coming back to the characters, but the problem is that this novel is less character driven than it thinks it is. Things happen because the plot tells them to, especially where Damaz is concerned. Towards the end, the story becomes more and more abstract, with the narrator pulling right back from the characters and reciting what will happen to them years or even decades in the future. Kay does like to have these pulling-back moments, where he examines context and wider consequences, but he uses the technique so often here, especially later on, that he simultaneously yanks us out of the story and telegraphs the plot with lots and lots and lots of heavy-handed foreshadowing. I’d rather not be told point blank that X is meaningful.

That said, I did find the novel hard to put down once I was well into it. I read the second half all in one day while I should have been doing about twelve other things. Even if the novel as a whole is a bit disjointed and predictable, it contains some great set pieces, such as the last stand of a tiny band of raiders against a massive army or Pero’s conversations with the terrifying khalif he is painting (it would actually have been nice to have more of the latter). Danica’s dead grandfather is also pretty amazing. There’s plenty here to like, despite the problems.

I’ll continue to read Kay’s novels, but I’m still waiting for the next The Lions of Al-Rassan. As long as the characters continue to be broadly drawn and predictable, and as long as Kay continues his gradual slide back towards the sentimentality that characterised his early novels, I’m not sure I’ll get it.

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August 10, 2016

Person of Interest (TV): Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 4:15 pm

Person of Interest image

Sometimes, you just sort of miss an entire television series, then hear about it slightly after it has concluded from two different sources and decide to try it out. Person of Interest (CBS, 2011-2016) escaped my attention entirely until I came across an article calling it “essential science fiction television.” Shortly afterward, my friend Kevin asked me if I’d seen it. It looked intriguing, so I gave it a try.

Person of Interest is certainly essential science fiction television. It’s a well-written, character-driven show that starts out (as many shows do) as a relatively standard procedural before evolving into something much more challenging. In the process, it presents and develops a number of complex ideas about artificial intelligence and its implications. The show combines good storytelling with thought-provoking content in a way that is sometimes difficult to find on television but is a good example of how effective television can be as a medium.

In its first season, as many have observed, the show is already good, though still relatively ordinary. Its premise is the comfortable old people-with-a-secret-weapon-fight-crime-from-the-sidelines one that governs so many procedurals, not to mention so many superhero narratives. In fact, in its first season, POI is a superhero story in all but name, with ex-CIA operative John Reese recruited by mysterious billionaire Harold Finch to prevent crimes before they happen. The preventative nature of Reese and Finch’s work is the show’s first twist; the second is that Finch is getting his information about these potential future crimes from an AI of his own invention he calls only “the Machine.” He and a partner made the Machine for the US government, which uses it to prevent terrorist attacks. However, as it monitors everyone everywhere, it also detects “irrelevant” future crimes involving (as the narration at the beginning of every episode puts it) “ordinary people.” The government dismisses these people. Finch, who has, unbeknownst to the government, retained access to the Machine, does not. The Machine provides him with only their social security numbers, not indicating whether the “person of interest” is a potential victim or a potential perpetrator. Reese and Finch must help or stop the people of interest while avoiding the attention of a corrupt police department and, more particularly, Detective Joss Carter, one of the few good cops remaining. They also often call on the reluctant help of dirty cop Lionel Fusco, whom Reese has blackmailed into being his inside man.

The first season is, again, already solid, but with every subsequent season, things get more interesting. Carter eventually joins the team, and Fusco begins what will be a long journey to redemption and true investment in his new role of helping people; in the meantime, new players turn up, such as assassin/computer genius Samantha “Root” Groves, seemingly sociopathic Agent Sameen Shaw (who deals with the relevant numbers until she is betrayed by her employer), and an adorable attack dog named Bear with whom every character falls instantly in love. Characters who start off as antagonists end up drawn into the team, which becomes an intriguing collection of broken people fighting in frustrating secrecy to save the world. However, it’s the introduction of a rival AI, Samaritan, that truly tips the show over from “good procedural” to “holy crap, this is some great science fiction.” The Machine, coached by the compassionate Finch, has picked up morality along the way; Samaritan, with no such coaching, sees humanity as something to be “saved” through control, not compassion. POI gradually becomes a meditation on the nature of humanity and morality, control and free will, love and sacrifice, all wrapped up in a suspenseful TV-friendly package.

In my opinion, the best episode is Season 4’s “If–Then–Else,” which I won’t describe because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s one of those television episodes — like, for instance, House, MD‘s “Three Stories,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body,” and Doctor Who‘s “Blink” — that is simply a work of art in and of itself, an episode that is, plot-, theme-, and character-wise, a perfect storm of narrative effectiveness. Other episodes contain similarly powerful material, but “If–Then–Else” is fantastic from beginning to end.

If you haven’t come across this show yet but are interested in AI-themed stories that play with post-9/11 paranoia and its consequences, Person of Interest is worth trying out. One of its greatest strengths is also one of its greatest seeming contradictions: it tells the story of an AI far more intelligent than any human being by focusing not directly on the Machine itself but on the flawed humans it is working so hard to save without ever having been given a voice of its own.

August 2, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Rehearsal Script): Spoiler-Free Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:44 pm

I have some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I’m going to organise them into two documents, one without spoilers and the other with lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven’t read the script or seen the play, this spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, go find the spoilery document, in which I go into a lot more detail.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverOn July 31, 2016, the “special rehearsal edition script” of the dramatic production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which debuted in London on July 30, was released. A milder version of the excitement attending the releases of the previous Potter books played out, with people attending midnight releases and staying up all night to tear through the book (I was not one of those people, but mostly because I was out of the country on release day). There are, however, some differences this time around, and they’re worth taking into account.

Cursed Child is not a new J. K. Rowling book. Her name is prominent on the cover, but it appears under the much smaller words “based on an original new story by” and is followed by the names of her collaborators, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. The script’s playwright is, in fact, Jack Thorne (Tiffany directed the play).

Not everyone agrees that Rowling’s writing is stellar, but her storytelling style is imbued with a kind of magic that is lacking here. Yes, the format is very different; this is a play script, not a novel, and therefore, we mostly stay out of the characters’ heads, though we get glimpses of their thoughts via stage directions. We’re used, as readers of the Harry Potter books, to spending most of our time with Harry Potter; here, on the other hand, there seem to be at least three protagonists, and the most engaging of them isn’t a Potter at all. The script is not as polished as it could be, which makes a certain amount of sense, though as an English scholar, I’m a little less forgiving than many will be. Scripts do get published. It is not impossible to edit them. Good playwrights are amazing writers. Thorne’s script seems only so-so as a work of literature, and some of the lines are cringeworthy. I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary, for instance, for the characters to speak the moral of the story aloud. For that matter, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary for the moral of the story to be so obvious.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding the plot, as there are a lot of potential spoilers looming here, but to take you a few pages in (i.e., about as far as you would get in five minutes or so of reading): we pick up exactly where the novels left off, with Harry’s middle child, Albus, about to start his first year at Hogwarts. He is anxious he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and Harry tries to reassure him by pointing out that the Sorting Hat gives everyone a choice. On the train, Albus and his cousin Rose — Hermione and Ron’s daughter, who is barely in the play and seems little more than a carbon copy of Hermione — look for a compartment to sit in and come across Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son. This is a neat scene because Scorpius is such a great character: smart, anxious, funny, and sensitive to the social difficulties involved in his making friends with Harry Potter’s son. I would gladly spend a whole novel with Scorpius. How absolutely wonderful would a series of book revolving around Draco Malfoy’s son be? How amazing would it be to see Draco as a struggling father striving to come to terms with a child both brighter and kinder than he ever was? There’s almost endless potential here.

The problem is that Albus is not nearly as likable. Shy child Albus is quickly swept away as the play takes us forward, brief scene by brief scene, to Albus and Scorpius’s fourth year at Hogwarts, by which point Albus has become a sulky, self-righteous little brat. Harry isn’t behaving very well either; the two of them constantly misunderstand each other. Harry pulls away from Albus because he’s not as easy to connect with as his two other children, and Albus despises Harry because he’s constantly in Harry’s shadow and sees himself as a disappointment. I know the play was written considerably before The Force Awakens came out, but it’s sometimes difficult not to see young Albus Potter as having a lot in common with young Ben Solo.

Complications ensue, a villain emerges, friendships are tested, and members of both generations must go through some painful experiences, all in service of repairing (with luck) the rift between father and son. It’s a comfortable sort of plot, and there are some twists and turns along the way, but few of them feel unexpected to me. My favourite sequence still seems rather too familiar because I’ve seen this sort of thing before in other stories of the same type (sorry for the vagueness, but I’m attempting to steer clear of spoilers here). That bit, notably, focuses on Scorpius, not Albus.

Another problem is one that carries over from the novels, though it becomes even more noticeable in the play: where are the female characters? Rose seems at first to be important, but she quickly disappears. Ginny and Hermione both have their roles to play, but Ginny is there mostly to chide Harry gently for his lousy relationship with Albus, while Hermione is more or less a plot device. The emotional focus is on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. That’s great. Father-son stories are nice, as are stories of friendship. However, the Harry Potter stories famously focus on three friends: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They are equals in the friendship, and they go through their adventures together. Rose, here, appears to allow the playwright to replicate the triangular friendship of the older generation, but Rose herself is deprived of characterisation and agency and treated mostly as an object of desire. The other female character who could be seen as replacing her as the third angle of the triangle, Delphi, is the Repressive Love Interest Who Comes Between the True Friendship of the Male Leads. By the end of the play, it’s apparent that all the characters who matter as characters are male.

It is entirely possible this all works better on stage. Perhaps some of the awkward dialogue has been dropped or smoothed out. The special effects are probably amazing; the descriptions of them in the stage directions are certainly enticing. If the actor who plays Scorpius is worthy of the material he’s been given, that character is going to be wonderful to watch. I would love to see how the production manages spells, transformations, owls, and the Sorting Hat, not to mention the terrifying scene involving the Trolley Witch of the Hogwarts Express. I’m just not sure all the pyrotechnics will be enough to save the play. It’s got potential. The idea of Harry Potter’s and Draco Malfoy’s sons becoming friends is just begging to be played around with. However, when I’m reading through the script and am constantly being distracted because I’m reminded of things I’ve seen in The Force Awakens, the Very Potter Musical trilogy, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a distinct possibility the story itself may need work.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Rehearsal Script): Absolutely-Filled-With-Spoilers Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:40 pm


I have some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I’m going to organise them into two documents, one without spoilers and the other with lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven’t read the script or seen the play, the spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, you’re in the right place; this spoilery document goes into a lot more detail.




Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a stage play that debuted in London on July 30, 2016. The “special rehearsal edition script” was released one day later. This is not exactly normal for plays. Of course, the who Cursed Child phenomenon is not exactly normal for plays. However, play scripts do frequently appear in book form, so I’ll be applying the same standards to this one that I would to any other. It should be noted that the producers of this book seem to have been attempting to dodge these standards via the “special rehearsal edition script” label, which tells us we are obliged to be forgiving, as this is just a “rehearsal edition.” Granted, so is every other play published ever, but whatever.

J. K. Rowling’s name is the biggest one on the cover, but Rowling herself is simply billed as one of the three people who produced the “original story” on which the play is “based.” Of the other two, John Tiffany is the play’s director and Jack Thorne its playwright. Rowling’s signature humour and mystery-style plotting are not in evidence here. There’s some humour, and perhaps it works better on the stage, but it falls a bit flat on the page. The plotting is quite transparent. It’s possible to figure out what’s going on very early on. After that, most of the story plays out in a fairly predictable way.

The basic premise has some promise. As in the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we get young Albus Severus Potter, Harry and Ginny’s middle child, about to head off for his first year at Hogwarts. On the train, he and his cousin Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter, run into lonely Scorpius Malfoy, already an outcast before he even sets foot in Hogwarts. Rose quickly makes herself scarce; Albus, intrigued by this bright, sensitive boy, stays. The idea of Harry Potter’s son making friends with Draco Malfoy’s son is an intriguing one, especially in light of Scorpius being an instantly likable character. The whole situation becomes even more interesting when Albus is unexpectedly sorted into Slytherin. There’s your central conflict right there, and it’s virtually stuffed with potential.

However, the play skims briefly over the next four years, during which time Albus apparently undergoes a personality transplant. By his second year, he hates his father, is no longer on speaking terms with Rose, sees Hogwarts as a place of punishment, and has basically turned into Kylo Ren. Yes, this script would have been solidified long before the release of The Force Awakens, so this can’t be anything but an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s hard not to notice that we’ve once again got a famous-father-has-a-son-he-doesn’t-understand-and-drives-him-to-the-dark-side-via-neglect story here. True, Albus doesn’t go full Dark Side, but he’s unnecessarily nasty. Harry isn’t going to win any Father of the Year medals either. Neither of them is easy to identify with. Harry, in particular, makes some incredibly boneheaded decisions (including, at one point, bullying Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, into spying on Albus and forcibly separating him from Scorpius). Harry Potter may not be one of the world’s great thinkers, but he should assumedly have developed some common sense by the age of forty.

The main crisis of the story involves Amos Diggory’s desire for the Ministry of Magic to use a Time-Turner it has recovered from a Voldemort loyalist to save his son Cedric’s life. Albus overhears the conversation and decides to stick it to his father by dragging Scorpius off to steal the Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, Hermione Granger. They then team up with Delphi Diggory, Amos’s twenty-something niece, who has a plan for saving Cedric. As you can see, all the characters appear to have taken stupid pills at some point. The brightest of them all is Scorpius, who keeps pointing out how many things can go wrong in a time-travel story. No one ever listens to Scorpius.

The problems with the script are, at this point, multiplying like crazy. The raid on Hermione’s office leads to a pointless and profoundly icky scene in which Albus, all Polyjuiced up to look like Ron, maintains his cover by kissing his Aunt Hermione on the lips (twice) and talking about having babies with her. The time travel probably looks amazing on stage, and perhaps that helps distract viewers from the fact that it violates all the time-travel rules laid out in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Suddenly switching time-travel models because it’s convenient to do so is up there with giving a character a personality transplant because it works for the plot…which, incidentally, happens here too. The mucking about with time causes some changes. On the first go, they’re relatively mild (compared to what happens on the second go, at least), but they involve accidentally breaking Ron and Hermione up. Apparently, the two turn into entirely different people when they’re not together. When Ron marries Padma Patil instead, he loses his love for jokes and becomes a whipped husband (har har har). Hermione, on the other hand, transforms into a truly horrible person. Not only does she not become Minister for Magic, she ends up an embittered, cruel Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher who out-Snapes Snape to a ridiculous degree. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: all she needs is love! Sadly, this is not the play’s only fun misogyny, but it will do for now.

The trip to the past also erases Rose and her brother Hugo from existence, which Scorpius (still the one character who deserves to survive all this and go on to star in a seven-book series of his own and my God, I want to see a Scorpius Malfoy and the I Don’t Even Care Because Anything With Scorpius in It Will Be Awesome novel) points out, but it doesn’t really seem to register with Albus, who is all, “Cedric is still dead. Let’s go back and try again!” The second attempt is the best because it erases Albus from existence by causing a chain of events that ends in the death of Harry Potter at the Battle of Hogwarts and the triumph of Voldemort. Scorpius finds himself alone in a hellscape in which he is worshipped by the other evil Hogwarts students for his cruelty and his sudden proficiency at Quidditch. Luckily, Scorpius has kept his old personality, and he quickly finds the only person at this new appalling Hogwarts, in which students torture Muggle-borns in the dungeons and forget to wipe the blood off their shoes afterwards, he can trust: Professor Snape.

Hurrah for Snape, but you may be noticing something else by now: this story is dark. It’s unrelentingly dark. Dark can be good, but this much darkness in a Harry Potter story needs some comic relief that doesn’t fall flat, and there’s not much here. Snape provides a bit by being generally awesome and teaming up with post-apocalyptic versions of Hermione and Ron to try and fail to save the world, and frankly, this alternate-Hogwarts section of the play is its strongest part, partly because the mix of darkness and humour almost works here and partly because Scorpius is a much more appealing protagonist than Albus.

However, even this strong portion of the story has its problems. Chief among them is the fact that the eventual culmination of the sequence involves Snape, Hermione, and Ron sacrificing themselves so Scorpius can return the world to normal. I know I’ve seen this sort of thing more than once before in time-travel narratives, and it’s bugging me that I can’t think exactly where, with the exception of the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Cordelia ensures that Buffy never comes to Sunnydale and turns the town into the same kind of hellscape we get here, only with vampires. In fact, this part of the play follows that episode almost scene by scene, right down to the death of the character who causes the rift in the first place and the sacrifices of several important characters so that the hellscape can be erased. I know I’ve seen the trope elsewhere too. Oh, wait, here’s one: X-Men: Days of Future Past. The idea of killing off one’s protagonists gruesomely in one reality so they can restore another one has, in fact, been done. A lot. I like it, but there are too many echoes here.

Another problem with the play can probably be blamed on sloppiness. Scorpius mentions several times that the Cedric Diggory of this dark reality is a Death Eater, but we never actually see him get this information anywhere. Cedric never appears at Evil Hogwarts. Scorpius seems to have picked up the information offstage. Perhaps this problem is the result of a cut scene, but it’s quite jarring and should have been noticed by an editor.

Once Scorpius has saved the day, he sadly takes the same stupid pills as everybody else and holds on to the Time-Turner instead of giving it to the damn grown-ups, thus setting off the final part of the plot: the revelation that Delphi Diggory is actually the daughter of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange, and she’s mighty pissed that Scorpius destroyed her nice hellscape. Creating that hellscape has, of course, been her intent all along.

I don’t even know where to start with this bit. For one thing, I guessed who Delphi was and what she wanted way before I should have. Thorne doesn’t seem to be able to handle red herrings with Rowling’s skill. Having a female villain is a nice idea, but Voldemort’s daughter? Really? That sticks us right back in the “morality is inherited” box from which the play seems to be striving to escape by sticking a Potter in Slytherin and making a Malfoy delightful. Delphi’s villainy also highlights that fun misogyny again, not because women shouldn’t be villains — scheme away, evil women — but because she’s basically the only major female character who has the potential to be more than a plot device. Aside from Delphi, Hermione is the most prominent, but she’s at the mercy of the plot and well outside the story’s emotional core. Rose at first promises to provide the third angle of a triangle that will mirror the Harry-Ron-Hermione relationship, but she has almost nothing to do and eventually vanishes entirely, except as the object of Scorpius’s desire. Ginny has a decent-sized role, but she seems to exist entirely to encourage Harry to connect with his son. We never actually see her interacting with Albus. Minerva McGonagall has little to do besides scold, and Dolores Umbridge gets only a mercifully brief cameo. Delphi is so obviously the villain in large part because she immediately becomes the repressive force who threatens to divide true friends Albus and Scorpius. There’s nothing to like about her and thus no feeling of betrayal when she reveals her true intent. By the end of the story, our attention is all on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. This is a story of male relationships. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it would be nice if the women were more than window dressing and plot machinery. Hell…I don’t think the play even passes the Bechdel test, despite its several female characters.

Incidentally, one thing that does strike me about Albus’s friendship with Scorpius is that it plays out almost like a romance. I would be very surprised if there weren’t already some Albus/Scorpius slash fiction in existence. For a while, I genuinely thought the play might go in that direction. It ultimately provides a coda in which the playwright makes it very, very clear that Scorpius is really into girls, damn it (a cringeworthy line for you: “And yes, logic would dictate I should be pursuing Polly–or allowing her to pursue me–she’s a notorious beauty, after all–but a Rose is a Rose”) and does a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of thing about Albus’s attraction to older women (ha ha ha…it’s hilarious that a woman in her twenties took advantage of a fourteen-year-old boy!). So no same-sex relationship for us, despite all the hugging.

Eventually, father-son bonding saves the day, and everybody gets to go home. The climax involves both Harry’s generation and Albus’s, which is nice, but there are way too many characters, some of whom are clearly on stage just because we would miss Hermione, Ron, and Ginny if they had been left behind. Even Draco and Scorpius are more or less shoved aside during the final confrontation. One of the things Albus learns during the play is that not everything is about him, but the climax more or less contradicts that. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Thorne, you don’t need to have your characters state your moral out loud. Holy moly.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate this play with the fire of a thousand suns. There are some good elements. Harry’s confrontations with Draco often work well, and the reappearance of Snape is both amusing and touching. I’m sure the special effects are astounding. Scorpius Malfoy is the friend of my heart and needs to go on more adventures in which he quietly and logically saves the world while Albus indulges in emo sulking in the background. But the whole enterprise is uneven. In the end, the play just isn’t very well written.

May 20, 2016

In Which I Give Students Advice About Their Midterms but the Whole Document Gets Away From Me a Bit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 2:45 pm

Every once in a while, you set out to write an e-mail to your students, expecting it will be a pretty ordinary e-mail full of sober advice about midterm preparation and analysis. Then this happens.

Hello, everyone. This is really just a repeat of what we discussed on Tuesday, but I thought I’d put it in an e-mail for the visual learners. I’m not sure how it turned into a comedy routine, but perhaps it will be slightly more interesting to read that way.

How do I get an amazing mark on the short-answer questions?

Well, first, you need to define the terms. That shouldn’t take you too long. A solid definition will earn you 4/10.

That’s not very much. What if I make my definition really, really complicated?

Still 4/10, I’m afraid. The definition is just the first thing you need. Next, you must relate the definition to one of our course works.

So I say Term X means [whatever], and it appears in the Grimms’ “Cinderella” in [this way].

Yep. Thank you for mentioning which “Cinderella” you’re discussing, by the way. It’s essential that you differentiate between stories with similar or identical titles. Also, congratulations: you now have 6/10.

That’s still pretty low. What am I doing wrong?

Nothing. You’re missing an element.

What if I add another example of how Term X is used in “Cinderella”? Or in another story, even?

Still 6/10.


You’re piling on the evidence, but you’re not doing anything with it.

Oh, okay. So I need to say why it’s significant that Term X is being used in “Cinderella” in this particular way?

Exactly. You need your “so what?” element. Don’t just list evidence; tell me why it’s important.

So then I should explain why Term X’s use in “Cinderella” means that all fairy tales use Term X like this?

Nope. Just because Term X has this effect in one story doesn’t mean it will have exactly the same effect in all stories. You can draw on your knowledge of Term X’s general effect, but make sure you concentrate on the specific effect on the one story you’re actually discussing.

Will that get me 10/10?

It depends on the quality of your “so what?”. A weak (but present) “so what?” may earn you 6.5 or 7. A stronger one will raise your mark to 7.5, 8, or 8.5. A super-amazing, “Gosh-I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that-myself” “so what?” will earn you a 9, 9.5, or 10.

Does this mean it’s possible to get 100% on the essay portion?

No. English profs are notoriously cruel and don’t give 100% on essays because no essay can ever be perfect. Uuuuunnnnllllliiiiimmmmiiiiited poooooweeeeer.

That’s going to count as this e-mail’s Star Wars reference, right? I can relax now?

No. That reference was taken from a movie I refuse to admit exists.

What about the essay portion?

Actually, the same basic rules apply to the essay portion. The whole idea is to find one specific aspect of the works to discuss and approach it from a number of connected angles, not to list a bunch of evidence and go, “See?”.

It’s a comparison, though. Don’t I just concentrate on pointing out the similarities between the two works?

With a comparison, the most useful approach is generally to find the differences within the similarity. Listing similarities is going to lead you to leave out more specific details, as it will be in the specific details that the works differ. Instead, find one interesting specific similarity, then look at how the two authors treat this element in different ways, taking the stories in different directions, to different effect.

That’s really complicated. My brain hurts, and I’m worried you’re going to spring another Star Wars reference on me.

Hush. The first one didn’t count. It’s not as complicated as it seems. Think of it like this: A New Hope and The Force Awakens


Now who’s making Star Wars references? A New Hope and The Force Awakens follow very similar plot trajectories, to the extent that some people regard the latter as a rip off of the former. In addition, both Luke and Rey can be seen as “destined” heroes, shoved into their journeys by cosmic forces instead of choosing to take those journeys. However, the differences in the villains–with Darth Vader (in the first movie only; we’re not taking about Empire or Jedi Vader) as a distant, menacing figure who never has a physical confrontation with Luke and Kylo Ren as a more fallible, less controlled antagonist whose confrontation with Rey sees the two of them actually entering each other’s minds–sends the two heroes off on different trajectories. Luke’s path is a black-and-white one, an obvious struggle against obvious evil, whereas Rey is drawn into a more personal fight in which the fate of the galaxy is dwarfed by the pain of one particular family.

Well, that was unnecessarily long

I could have made it longer. At any rate, I started with a similarity, found one important difference, and examined the implications. The rest of my essay will drill down these implications.

This is an in-class paper, and I’m not Shakespeare.

I’ll be marking it as an in-class paper. I still need one excellent idea taken as far as possible.

I guess that makes sense.

Of course it does, non-existent student I have invented solely for the purpose of this e-mail. Do you have any other questions?

Probably, but I’ll only remember them once the midterm is over.

That’s the spirit.

I’d better go off and read those handouts you keep mentioning to us now. They’re in the “Useful Documents” folder on D2L, aren’t they?

It’s as if you can read my mind.

Thank you for answering my unexpectedly convenient questions.

You’re welcome. May the Force be with you.

Just stop.

I don’t think I can.

May 13, 2016

Double the Star Wars, Double the Fun: Wendig’s Aftermath and Gray’s Bloodline

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:51 pm

Every time a teaching term ends, I go a little crazy. I end up with actual free time, and I plunge right into doing all the things I can’t do when I have 250 students and no marking support. Most of these “things” involve reading. It needs to be fun reading that will allow my brain to recover from the towering stacks of papers full of comma splices and random leaps from present to past tense and back again. This time, a bit unexpectedly, that reading has concentrated on two Star Wars tie-in novels, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath and Claudia Gray’s Bloodline.

I’ve never really been one for tie-in novels. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t let me and my sister watch Star Wars, which they called “too violent,” so I never got into the Star Wars extended universe; by the time I finally viewed the movies, I was twenty-one and in the middle of an English degree, and I probably had a bit of a snobby attitude towards the tie-in books (I did love the movies very much). When I thought of this kind of literature, I thought of novelisations. I read a few of those when I was younger because I read basically anything book-shaped that came anywhere near me, and I didn’t like them; they seemed shallow and poorly written.

I’m therefore pretty unfamiliar with the conventions surrounding tie-in novels. I know they can vary in quality, and I know that the Star Wars EU novels (or Legends, as I suppose they’re called now) cheerfully contradict each other and take the stories off in all sorts of directions. The new canonical books are probably a bit more consistent…for the moment. At any rate, I wanted to try them out, and now that I have, I may as well review them.

Both novels are part of what is being billed as “the journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” with Wendig’s novel (the first of a trilogy) set not all that long after the battle of Endor, while Gray’s takes place 26 years after the same battle. Wendig’s novel was released in September of 2015, so yes, everyone has already commented on it, but Gray’s came out in early May of 2016. They make an interesting contrast, both in their writing styles and in the subjects on which they focus.

Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig (2015)

Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig (2015)Over the past eight months, I have caught rumblings about this novel online, but I haven’t read any of the reviews. I know some people love the novel, while others hate it. Few seem to occupy the middle ground. I can see the reasons for both the love and the hatred but may be venturing a bit out into the middle ground myself, albeit closer to “love” than to “hate.”

Aftermath follows several different characters, some familiar from the original Star Wars movies (and at least one from The Force Awakens) but many new, as they come together to deal with what seems to be one of the Empire’s last gasps before its fall. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, but the Empire is still lurching along, not acknowledging the authority of the “rebel scum” and exercising some power over certain worlds of the outer rim. A chance discovery by Wedge Antilles, who is hunting down rumours of Empire activity, sets off a chain of events that draws in Norra Wexley, a former Rebellion pilot, her angry genius son Temmin (who will become The Force Awakens‘ Snap Wexley), a bounty hunter named Jas Emari, and Sinjir Rath Velus, an Imperial deserter. We also get the point of view of Rae Sloane, who is trying to bring together a number of Imperial higher-ups in a last-ditch effort at unity, and we occasionally check in with Admiral Ackbar, who (amusingly, and no doubt deliberately) sees everything as a potential trap. The chapters in which the main story is told are intercut with shorter “interludes” in which we glimpse snippets of action from all over the galaxy, mostly the experiences of ordinary people affected by the war.

The book is a page-turner, especially early on, though the effect diminishes a bit as it progresses. One of its greatest strengths, the focus on many characters and thus the portrayal of the aftermath of the war as chaotic and far reaching, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Norra, the character with whom we spend the most time, seems a potentially deep well, but as the story goes on and more characters join the mob, less and less attention is paid to her. Wendig deals sensitively with her nightmarish memories of the war and her guilt over her abandonment of her son — an abandonment that the fifteen-year-old Temmin doesn’t entirely understand — but doesn’t have the space to develop her further. The same goes for the other characters. Temmin, Jas, Sinjir, and Rae all have interesting backstories, and their personalities are finely drawn enough to seem to be governing the plot instead of the other way around, but they all sort of crowd each other out, to the extent that it’s a little difficult to get invested in their fates. We ultimately don’t know them well enough to be on the edge of our seats about whether or not they survive.*

The interludes are part of the problem here, even as, again, they work in favour of the novel’s overall effect as a portrayal of the confusing period near the end of a long, vast war. While the interludes themselves act as nice little character studies, they also distract from the main story line and can seem like a nuisance to get through. Frankly, I’m a little torn on the subject of the interludes. Some of the characters covered in them are so intriguing that I wish they would get more than one segment each, but at the same time, I tear through them so I can get back to the protagonists. There is a tantalising glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who will be turning up again in the second novel in the series, Life Debt.

One thing that can be said for Wendig’s characters is that they’re diverse. The important characters are probably just about evenly divided between male and female, which is unusual enough to seem refreshing. It’s difficult to talk about racial diversity in the Star Wars universe, but the humans who turn up are certainly a variety of colours, and there are non-human characters as well. Same-sex relationships are simply accepted calmly in Wendig’s story; Norra’s sister is married to a woman, and Sinjir declines Jas’s matter-of-fact invitation to her bed because he prefers men. It’s also nice that Rae is not the same sort of cackling villain as Palpatine; she is ruthless but practical, and she has reasons for the choices she makes, even if those choices ultimately have problematic motives. Almost everyone here is a person, not just a character type, though, again, there are so many characters that some of the less important ones do descend into stereotype.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest weakness is that while the stakes of this story should feel very high, they kind of don’t. The representatives of the Empire involved in the big meeting just sort of bicker for hundreds of pages, and while the heroes have plenty of moments of derring-do, they rarely feel genuinely in danger, even in oh-no-Character-X-must-be-dead bits. A betrayal that should be completely devastating is waved off and swiftly forgotten, likely because the plot is crowding it out. Oh…remember that bit about the personalities of the characters governing the plot? That fades over the course of the novel. By the end, the plot is paramount, and characterisation seems incidental.

Fortunately, there are still two novels to go, so these characters will have the opportunity to grow beyond what is essentially an origin story. I’ll certainly be picking up Life Debt when it comes out in July, despite some elements of Wendig’s style that rub me the wrong way (for instance, his tendency to slip from the present tense into the past even when the story doesn’t call for it, and his even more grating but thankfully only occasional tendency to use jarringly inappropriate words as speech verbs). The whole idea of the Aftermath trilogy is an intriguing one, and the galaxy in turmoil Wendig has painted here is worth exploring.

Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray (2016)

Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray (2016)The existence of Bloodline is actually the reason I decided to try out the tie-in novels in the first place. I know nothing about Gray, but I do have an interest in her novel’s protagonist, Princess Leia. Leia fascinates me because of how little the films tell us about her. She’s an important character, but she’s not the Chosen One, though considering her origin story, she could be. She starts as a damsel in distress, if a feisty one, and slowly descends from action girl to pining love interest, then pops back up in The Force Awakens in an intriguing role that had better be explored more thoroughly in the next two movies (assuming she survives the first of them). The last time I watched Return of the Jedi, I was frustrated by how little she did, but that frustration extends to the other films as well. In A New Hope, Leia is tortured for hours by Darth Vader, then restrained by him as she is forced to watch her planet destroyed. Neither the torture nor the destruction is ever mentioned again; instead, Leia is the one who comforts Luke as they flee the Death Star. It just seems as if there should be a lot more to Leia than the films ever admit.

Gray appears to share my feelings. Her Leia, now in her late forties and a member of the New Republic’s fractious Senate, is a fully realised character who is still haunted by her memories of Alderaan and her inner conflict over Darth Vader being her birth father. Unlike Luke — who never appears here, as he is off somewhere with Ben, the latter of whom must be ominously close to his own turn to darkness — Leia can’t separate the idea of Anakin Skywalker from her memories of the man who tortured her and acted as Palpatine’s most brutal enforcer. The memory of Vader is also important to the story’s other characters, some of whom are too young to have been affected by him directly; he looms, Hitler-like, over everything that happens, representing for the people of the New Republic the worst of the Empire. At the same time, some of these people are beginning to forget just how bad the Empire was.

The story focuses mostly on Leia, who is a respected member of the Senate’s Populist faction (those who believe in the autonomy of individual planets). The Populists are mired in bickering with the opposing Centrists (who advocate for stronger government and a powerful military), rendering the Senate virtually ineffective. Leia, on the verge of quitting in frustration, instead initiates a fact-finding mission to root out what seems to be an increasingly powerful criminal cartel. She is accompanied by the ambitious Centrist Ransolm Casterfo, whose relationship with Leia gets off to a bad start when she discovers he collects Imperial relics and admires many aspects of the Empire, apart from Palpatine and Vader themselves. As the mission continues, Leia and Ransolm forge an unlikely alliance that slowly blossoms into genuine friendship, but it all threatens to come crashing down around them — along with the New Republic’s government itself — when a key piece of information about Leia’s own past emerges. In the meantime, the mission is revealing that matters in the galaxy are much less stable than they might at first appear.

This novel certainly has the potential to succumb to cliche and a concentration on action over character, but Gray avoids these pitfalls with apparent ease. Like Wendig, she has several protagonists, but this time, the number is not unmanageable. Key point-of-view characters such as Leia, Ransolm, scheming Centrist Lady Carise Sindian, Leia’s aide Greer Sonnel, and reckless X-wing pilot Joph Seastriker all get enough development to remain interesting throughout. Ransolm is an especially skilfully written character; he seems at first likely to be a caricatured foppish, ambitious snake-oil salesman, but our first impression of him turns out to be coloured by Leia’s mistrust. He is certainly flawed, and his internal conflict doesn’t always steer him in the right direction, but he’s also rational and passionate, and by the midway point, he has become a character worth caring about. It would have been easy to portray all the Populists as saints and all the Centrists as sneering villains, but Gray’s world is more complex. Though there are certainly some outright villains, one is also a point-of-view character whose perspective is explained with a certain amount of common sense. Leia’s own flaws are also important here, and her tendency to keep information from even those she trusts, exemplified in an early scene with Ransolm, later comes back to bite her.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this novel is a tragedy; in fact, I think the idea of it as a tragedy is essential to its effect. I’m not really talking about the plot here, at any rate. I’m talking about our knowledge of Leia’s future and how it colours our approach to the story. In ancient Greek tragedy, audiences already knew what was going to happen to the characters on stage; no one was surprised when Oedipus blinded himself. The point was not to be surprised but to live the inevitable tragedy along with the characters. This novel has a similar feel. It is doubtful that anyone who picks up this book will not already have seen The Force Awakens, which takes place some time after Bloodline,** and therefore, there’s a feeling of inevitability about everything that occurs in the novel. We know what’s about to happen to Leia’s son, whom she is still, heartbreakingly, thinking of as one of the people she loves and trusts the most. We know that Han and Leia’s relationship, here portrayed as comfortingly lasting, is going to end. We know all Leia’s struggles in the Senate are ultimately futile. We can see it all happening, and little of it surprises us, but Gray makes Leia so easy to sympathise with that we still want her to succeed, even though we know she can’t.

The most devastating moment of the story, which is foreshadowed by the cover and by some of the posters advertising the novel (avoid these posters if you want to be even slightly surprised, though again, surprise is not the point here), is one that drives to the heart of Leia’s struggle with her own past. Because of the posters, I knew it was coming, but I was still bouncing around in my seat going, “No, no, no!” Portions of this book are painful to read, not because they are badly written (the writing is smooth and clear throughout) but because events bear inexorably down on the reader.

All in all, Bloodline impressed me by working as a story and not just as a piece of the Star Wars universe, though it does that too. Gray fleshes out the active but more distant Leia of the films and gives her the inner life the films deny her. If you are a Star Wars fan, the novel is worth checking out.

Really, so is Aftermath. Of the two, I prefer Bloodline, which I see as better written and more successful at letting plot emerge from character, but Aftermath is also lively and entertaining, and it opens up a rich landscape of possibility for future stories. All in all, I would characterise this first experience with tie-in novels as a positive one, and I’m pretty sure Bloodline is going to be added to my books-to-reread-when-the-marking-is-everywhere-and-I-can’t-afford-to-start-anything-new pile.

*To be honest, the character for whom I was the most worried when I was reading was Mr. Bones, Temmin’s psychotic modified battle droid. Mr. Bones is phenomenal. I want one.

**Common wisdom says The Force Awakens is set around 30 years after The Empire Strikes Back, and math applied to certain characters’ ages (Ransolm, six when the Empire falls, is now 32) tells us that Bloodline happens 26 years after the battle of Endor, meaning that it really only takes place four or five years before The Force Awakens. I am very dubious about this timeline, as it implies that Ben will fall, Luke and Han run away, the First Order rise, and the Resistance become a major force in the galaxy in the course of about half a decade, and it puts Rey’s abandonment way before the slaughter of Luke’s students, but what do I know, really?

January 3, 2016

Wacom Pen Tablets: The Gift That Keeps on Taking

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 9:17 pm

Dear Wacom:

I know there are people who sigh sentimentally when they hear your name and gush about how they still use the first Wacom pen tablet they ever bought back in the Cretaceous or something, and it’s made of dinosaur bones and rainbows and has always worked perfectly. I am not one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong: I couldn’t get on without my Wacom pen tablet. That, in a nutshell, is the problem. Because I need the tablet every day, it all gets a little bit problematic when the damn thing goes mad suddenly and without warning. This happens far more frequently than it should.

Here is my Wacom history:

Wacom #1: Graphire (now discontinued). Worked for a year or two, then stopped.

Wacom #2: Bamboo (now discontinued; basically the same thing as the Graphire but with a completely inexplicable name). Worked for two or three years, then started behaving oddly. During this time, I had to replace the USB cable six or seven times, as after a few months of use, any cable would inevitably become loose and jiggly and lose its connection every time the tablet moved slightly.

Wacom #3: Another Bamboo. Worked for maybe two years, then died. Same problem with the cable.

Wacom #4: Yet another Bamboo (a quite old one, possibly even a Graphire, but bigger than the others I’ve owned), though to be fair, this one was inherited from someone else and was acquired after I had purchased Wacom #5. Wacom #4 lives in my office and still works…I think.

Wacom #5: Intuos 5 Touch. Technically a better tablet than the Bamboo, but had ever so many more problems. The cable still needed to be replaced every few months. In addition, the driver decided it did not like my computer, my copy of Photoshop Elements, or, in fact, me. A good quarter of the time, I would turn on my computer and get a “Tablet driver has stopped working” message. The only way to fix this would be to reboot, though that would only work occasionally. Sometimes, I had to reboot seven or eight times in a row. If I was using Photoshop, I would only be able to let my computer go to sleep once; if it did so more than that, the tablet would lose its pressure sensitivity, and I would have to reboot. Occasionally, Photoshop would simply “stop working” in the middle of a session. I know this sounds like a Photoshop problem, not a Wacom problem, but none of this happened when I was using the Bamboo.

Today, two and a half years into its reign, my Intuos decided that it was going to go crazy. It started clicking on everything, drawing random lines across my comics, and working only when it felt like it. I tried a different cable, and the problems remained. Though I really did not want to buy yet another Wacom (yes, I know Wacom does repairs, but I’m pretty sure that sending the damn thing out and paying for the work would take two months and cost about as much as a new tablet), I headed out to Best Buy to pick up:

Wacom #6: Intuos Pro. Luckily, of the three tablets in the store, one of them was an open-box item, meaning it was $90 cheaper than it should have been (all the contents were unopened and, in fact, looked brand new). It took me a good hour and a half to install the driver, as my computer didn’t seem to like it (surprise, surprise). I am not yet sure how this new tablet is going to interact with Photoshop, but we’ll see. The one bright spot thus far is that the damn cable is optional; the tablet is wireless.

Yes, I know I’ve bought too many Wacoms, and I find it kind of embarrassing. However, I do kind of rely on them to touch up and colour my comics. You’ve got a virtual monopoly, Wacom. Good for you. I realise you rely on gullible people like me, but I’m not entirely sure I would be so loyal to you if I didn’t have to be. Someday, someone is going to build a better tablet, and I shall wave you a not-so-fond farewell.

Oh…and have a happy New Year!

Yours behind deadline, mostly because of you,


January 2, 2016

I AM Going to Write Stuff This Year

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 12:16 pm

It’s January, which means that it’s time to make oneself all sorts of promises that one is eventually and inevitably going to break. I’ve never really been into the whole “resolutions” thing, but that’s okay. The truth is that I really need to write something new, but I never have time to do that. Therefore, I’m going to attempt  Debbie Ridpath Ohi‘s 250-words-a-day challenge, which stipulates that I must make an attempt to write at least 250 words a day at least six days a week. I’m aware that 250 words is less than a page of writing. It’s not my maximum; it’s my minimum. If I choose a higher goal (Debbie also has 500-words-a-day and 1,000-words-a-day challenges), I’ll be fine at the beginning but run into serious problems when the marking arrives, especially considering that I may have up to 291 students this term. 250 words a day should be doable. I’ve already exceeded the goal on January 1 and 2. Yes, I’m starting a new novel. No, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It could be terrible. It could be awesome. It could stutter to a halt in the middle of chapter eight. We shall see.


In honour of the writing challenge and the fact that I actually have had a novel accepted and can probably stop sneaking the word “writer” into my bio at the end of a list of the other things I do, I have finally created a “writing” page on my website. There isn’t much on it yet, but oh well.

Now I need to read some science fiction and clean a small portion of my terrible apartment. Have a fun Saturday, everybody.

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