Wednesday, October 07, 2015

My complicated relationship with The Flash

I have a complicated relationship with CW's The Flash. You see, I watched most of its first season with dedication because it appeared to be doing something interesting. Ha, surprise, turns out it wasn't doing that thing—it was doing something far less interesting. It left me wondering why I felt the way I did in that previous post but stopped feeling that way when the show went in a different direction. I'm good at recognizing when someone is telling a story that's not the one I would and respecting the story they want to tell.

But The Flash didn't go in a different direction so much as it fell apart after I stopped trying to fill in its gaps. Thus what our complicated relationship really is: I try to make The Flash make sense and it can't decide if it wants to make sense. That would be a great deal easier to accept and move on if it would commit to being nonsensical. Instead it lurches and stumbles, because all its gears are mismatched, but it thinks it's not broken.

I don't know why I'm writing another blog post about a broken show. Maybe it's the curse of recognizing something's potential and wondering why it stubbornly refuses to use it. Yes, it's probably that.

To be fair, the writers were surprised by the show's success and were caught unprepared. (From the articles/interviews I've read, there was a solid plot for about thirteen episodes and then they had to scramble when the full season was greenlit.) This is not to suggest that you can't pants your way through a narrative, but you have to set aside more time to revise and tidy up something when you don't know what you're going to do next. You end up with pacing issues and inconsistencies—and television is a lot less forgiving because when you get to the season finale, you can't go back and fix things. The other episodes have already aired.

Some characters, like Eddie, benefitted from the extra opportunity to shine. Others, like Joe, seemed to spin themselves in circles. (Seriously, Joe becomes worse at due process and respecting other people's agency.) There were moments when the show did things that were interesting or responsive—but they always came across as tagged on. It viewed like a rush job—like the cameras needed to roll—instead of a season that served a greater story arc.

Up to the reveal of Harrison Wells as Eobard Thawne, alternate fan theories about his identity scanned. They better explained visual consistencies happening on the show. (The fan theories were also more interesting.) After the reveal, the plot got sloppy—fast. The question of why does he look like Harrison Wells was answered with technology that appeared on Fringe. Then the writers wrote themselves into a corner with a paradox by erasing a character from existence who was the driving force of the backstory plot. But then... he's not gone because Cavanagh is a series regular for season two?

It's time travel! Parallel Worlds! Alternate Timelines! And none of those easy answers address how someone can be erased from existence without having any impact on the world/plot/characters. It's not a matter of do the producers have an answer—it's never been that, because they've always come up with one—it's a matter of their answers continually don't make sense when I think about them. In our social media dominated world of TV viewing, where the shows are discussed at length between episodes, asking the viewer to Not Think About It isn't a sustainable approach.

The Flash could really benefit from doing the deep-think about where it's going more than a season at a time, and the problematic underpinnings of its narrative. The show is bad with how it writes anyone who isn't a hetro-male. (It's not great with class or race or gender.) It's bad with respecting the agency of anyone who isn't the protagonist. (Its attempt in the season two premiere to give Iris more agency negated Barry's agency.) It's bad with understanding how consequences work. (You can't erase someone out of existence and have them still exist.) It's super bad at understanding why these problems persist.

They persist because season one of The Flash tells the viewers things to appease their concerns then fails to follow through with real change. Example? When the show told us Iris was upset about being lied to so it could tick that box and go back to everything being all right between her and the rest of Team Flash by the end of the episode. Could this patchjob approach to character development get addressed and resolved in season two? Sure, but it means spending season two fixing season one, instead of the forward motion that the show wants to pursue. (There was a speech with a toast and Team Flash made a pact. It was that kind of sweetly optomistic The Flash gets when it really hits its stride.)

So why did I keep watching? Because Tom Cavanagh played two different characters (three if you want to count the brief feature of actual Harrison Wells in one episode) with more apparent ease than most of the CW can play one. (The exception being Rose McIver on iZombie, who is amazing.) Harrison Wells was consistently the best part of The Flash, because he was the only character with any semblance of depth. Watching Cavanagh, you could believe Wells had an internal life; he was off doing things—probably crimes—when he wasn't on screen.

Here was the genesis of that comic book relationship of the archnemesis, the antagonist who respects the protagonist (even admires him a little) and pushes him to grow and become better. An antagonist who has a different approach and perspective, but the viewer can recognize legitimate motivations to all of the character's actions. That was neat. It was a thing worth tuning in for. It was a welcome alternative to watching a show where moral complexity means you like to eat people as part of your grimdark aesthetic. (I do not demonize Hannibal. That show stared into the abyss long enough to demonize itself.)

The problem was The Flash couldn't decide if Wells/Thawne was an exercise in empathy—someone with a character arc—or just a Bad Guy tricking the Good Guy. One episode would get the complex morality right—like when we saw Wells somehow complete the process that made Barry become the Flash—and then the next episode would undo it. The season finale undid it within the same episode.

Why would Wells/Thawne want Barry dead after telling us repeatedly that Wells/Thawne's goal was to get home? Why go out of his way to kill someone he no longer hated and felt a sense of paternal pride for? I know the easy answer is because Wells/Thawne only views the world through the lens of whether or not others and their actions benefit him. So he says whatever he needs to because he's soooooo evil. But that's not internally consistent behaviour with the character arc the show kept trying to insist he had.

Then we get season two's premiere. A video message from Wells delivers a confession to the murder of Barry's mother. It's the most emotionally impactful minute of the episode. (Maybe just for me.) I'd love to interpret this as some gift of kindness—the swell of sentimental music implies the show knows Barry's third dad loves him best. (Victor Garber is more like Barry's benevolent science uncle.) This won't make you happy, Wells says, but I'm going to give you what you want.

I don't even know what to do with that, because it's the same problem as the season finale. It's easier to torment Barry by not giving him what he wants, by forever keeping that out of his reach. It requires no effort from Wells to do so. It would be the crueler thing to do. But Wells makes the makes the effort. He even warns Barry it won't help in the long run. "I'm not the thing you hate," Wells says. "We were never enemies."

How even—but no, there was textual—WHUT. Ok. Ok. There's a video message from someone who was erased from existence? Was he taken from another timeline and we'll find out there were two of him lurking around the corners of season one—one smirking Bad Wells/Thawne and one helpful Good Wells/Thawne? Are we, the viewer, experiencing a shift to a new timeline that Barry fell into post-Singularity that is identical except for Wells/Thawne not being erased from existence? Are these character inconsistencies deliberate to indicate a bigger plot— oh, for fuck's sake this is beyond ridiculous.

Do you see? Because The Flash season one is the TV equivalent of publishing a messy first draft, it creates an additional frustration of never knowing which of its internal inconstancies it will decide were intentional. Manifesting something in season two that fixes season one is still bad writing. It's still a lack of consequences. If nothing sticks, nothing happens. It can always un-happen should it turn out to be an unpopular decision.

This is why I feel like I have to tap out of watching The Flash. It's not that it turned out to be a bad show—it might've always been one—but that I'm not a viewer who can just Not Think About It. I do think about it—and trying to make sense of it eats up time. It's an exercise in futility. I could be putting that thought into something that is going to give back.

So here's what we're going to, The Flash. I'm going to give you two more episodes to make a decision about what you're doing and commit to doing it. If this isn't back on track—and not just showing the potential that it might one day find its way—by episode three of season two, you go on that list with Doctor Who and Arrow of things I had to stop watching because I grew out of them.

Friday, October 02, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

In A Thousand Nights, E.K. Johnston builds a historical desert kingdom of sand and magic as she reimagines the framework for the A Thousand And One Nights folktale collection. Readers may be familiar with Scheherazade and how she outsmarted the tyrannical Shahryar by telling him stories; she left each story unfinished so that he would have to allow her to live to the next night so he could hear its ending. In many adaptations of A Thousand And One Nights Scheherazade's tales are often what get the glory. In A Thousand Nights, we know from the opening line that this is a story well-aware of the danger of being a woman under a blood-thirsty king's rule.

Like Shahryar, Lo-Melkhiin has had many wives. When he uses one up, he kills her and takes another. Some women last a night. Some a week. No one makes it more than a month. When A Thousand Nights opens, he's already killed three hundred women.

Against this backdrop, Johnston tells the tale of a young spinner—of thread and stories—who loves her sister enough to take her place as Lo-Melkhiin's bride. From the impactful opening line to the last page, this unnamed narrator's lyrical voice weaves a spell over the reader. By carefully selecting the right details and words, Johnston enables us to feel the danger/wonder of this kingdom—be it during a flash flood or a dictator's rooftop star-viewing party. The desert is a dangerous place, her narrator tells us, but there is also much life to be found there.

That perspective is the key to A Thousand Nights. This is less the story of how a brave young queen wins over a tyrannical king than the story of how women come together and draw on each other's strength. Ladies have each other's backs in this book, and it changes their world. There is a love story in A Thousand Nights; there is also a story about how much the sisters love each other, and a healthy, functional poly family. There is no shortage of love, but I wouldn't call this a romance.

We hear from various sources within the story that Lo-Melkhiin was once a good, kind prince. This changes when a supernatural force hungry for magic and power possesses him. Potentially this could create a reading that goes oh, his mental illness is to blame. However, it's less about mental illness and more about a toxic belief that people are disposable. What I appreciate is how A Thousand Nights holds him accountable—it addresses how he became complacent in these acts. His complacency motivated the demon within him to keep escalating things, to keep trying to get a reaction.

Complacency—from people, from the world—in violence against women is what allows the arrangement to be put in place that sacrifices daughters and sisters to keep the kingdom safe. Lo-Melkhiin does all these things and the men of his kingdom don't ask him to stop killing. They ask that the victims be evenly distributed among the camps. Even if reading the possession as mental illness, the book doesn't use it as an excuse. It's something that the kingdom is refusing to address, half out of fear and half out of how it doesn't directly affect them.

The catalyst for change in A Thousand Nights is its narrator and her perspective. She asks for what she needs, she listens to what other people need, and she respects their agency. The book consistently presents that being kind is an active choice; one that courageous people want to make. It suggests attitudes can be changed without resorting to violent measures or domination.

To help reinforce this, Johnston adds the concept of the small-god—a form of ancestor-worship practiced by the characters. It allows the book to explore the power of support, and the responsibility that comes with having power given to one. While Johnston explored this theme to some degree earlier this year in Prairie FireA Thousand Nights takes the use of world as metaphor a step further. She is obviously an author growing her craft, which promises more great stories to come.

This story, A Thousand Nights, is about the power of consent—and about how not respecting it is what makes people into monsters. It is full of superb world-building, women looking out for each other, and the occasional wisdom learned from goats. If any of those things sound interesting, then this tale is one you'll want to hear.

A Thousand Nights is available from Disney-Hyperion at your local bookstore,, and Kobo. Thanks to HGB Canada and Ardo Omar for the opportunity to read this as ARC.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Anatomy of Curiosity

Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff are three accomplished authors and critique partners who form the Merry Sisters of Fate. For four years, they alternated posting a short story each week online. Many of these are collected in The Curiosities, which doubles as an anthology and a look at the critique process that went into those stories. (Notes from the author as well as her critique partners introduce each story and are sprinkled through the text as footnotes.) In recent months selected stories have been shared on Tumblr, as part of the lead up to the release of The Anatomy of Curiosity.

Much like their first collection, this one can be read as a trio of novellas and as a trio of approaches to the writing process. Stiefvater focuses on characters, Gratton focuses on world, and Yovanoff focuses on the idea. The collection begins with an introduction of intent from the authors and their thoughts on the three elements. Additional material—notes on revisions, facing doubt, and the concept of "write what you know"— is also included.

Stiefvater's Ladylike is an elegant and dark tale of an unusual friendship between a shy young woman and a composed older woman. In addition to its intriguing and compelling characters, Ladylike also explores the idea of being—surprise—a lady. Who defines what beauty and refinement mean? Is the traditional notion of "dignified" behaviour a trap or a means to hide what we don't want others to see? Can it also be a way to reveal our best features? Ladylike is not so much a story of how one affects class, as it is a story of how one grows confidence. (There is a reading about who benefits from ideas of what is proper behaviour, but the author notes focus on the intent of overcoming shyness.)

Stiefvater is, frankly, a master of writing characters who are both awful and admirable—often at the same time. Her stories are frequent practitioners of complex morality; people who make bad decisions for good reasons—do the wrong thing with the right intent. However, they also possess a unifying undercurrent of people coming together, finding the good in each other, and growing positively through the support and strength their friendships provide. Ladylike expertly displays this kind of character growth while staggering its arcs to have the most impact through the narrative. I don't know that I would say Ladylike is a happy story, but it's an optimistic one about the valour of kindness.

Gratton's Desert Canticle is a richly imagined and well-crafted love story across cultures set in a desert landscape that is both dangerous and gorgeous. Gratton notes the story was inspired by IEDs (improvised explosive devices,) and the idea of magic bombs led to creating a world in which they would exist. A world where the desert hums with power and explosions are shaped like flowers. A world with its own food, beliefs, and linguistic tics. Gratton's strength is in how she doesn't settle for free-floating concepts of cultures; she sinks her worlds all the way down.

There's also Gratton's economy of prose in building her worlds. After finishing Desert Canticle, I felt like I had read an entire novel. Her process notes cover everything from creating tension to layering meaning to using the world details as reinforcement for the theme. She's so good at storycraft and presenting how it's done in a way that is easy to follow. This peek into how she writes these stories that make a reader feel good about the world—without ever sacrificing consequence—is invaluable.

Yovanoff takes a slightly different approach in Drowning Variations; she creates a fictional version of herself to tell the story of trying to write the same story over a number of years and through various iterations. The story she's using appeared in the first Merry Fates collection, but this retelling effectively shows her writing process. When considered as "look what you can do with structure to tell a story better," it's the strongest example in the collection.

The idea of the story that we are always telling, the one that grows with us—changes as we do—is something I find fascinating. Yovanoff manages to deconstruct what writing the story only you can means, as well as illustrating how revision is key to refining an idea. This fictionalized memoir through revision is a great example of how her work is often more than one genre knitted together in a way that makes it look deceptively easy to do. All authors take narrative risks, but Yovanoff takes them in an unconventional way.

I love the characters and the worlds and the ideas in all three stories; seeing the different approaches allows for a much greater appreciation of not only what Stiefvater, Gratton, and Yovanoff each do—but what they are learning to do from each other.

The other thing that unites these novellas is the ease with which all three authors convey a sense of wonder, of horror, of the world being awesome. While their stories tackle real issues in metaphorical ways, they never lose sight of how magic can be found in people and places and ideas. In the act of being curious enough to look for it.

The Anatomy of Curiosity is available from Carolrhoda LAB at your local bookstore,,, and Kobo. An ARC was obtained from the publisher at BEA thanks to Read and Riot and Lost In A Great Book.

Monday, September 21, 2015

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet's second novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, is a multitude of stories woven into one. It is a tale of two sisters struggling to keep the family farm. It's an exploration of how to build a courtship to be what it needs to be instead of what is expected. It's an epic fantasy novel that never leaves home. It's a discussion of war, its costs, and its aftermath. It's a blueprint for healing.

Hallie Hoffman, 16, is the younger of the Hoffman sisters. She and Marthe have been managing Roadstead Farm on their own since their father died. Historically speaking the farm has always gone to the older sibling, and Hallie lives with the memory of the night her father drove her uncle off. She fears if she isn't perfect, if she doesn't hold up her end, the farm will not only fail—she will be cast out by Marthe.

After Marthe married Thom, he and Hallie managed to work the fields and tend the goats together. But Thom was taken south to fight in the war against the Wicked God months ago. A war that ended victorious, but the men who fought it are haunted and broken. Tyler Blakely returned with a twisted leg and his eyes blasted from having looked upon the Wicked God. Thom has not yet returned. Marthe is pregnant with his unborn child, and the farm is failing. So Hallie hires on a veteran named Huron for the winter. Huron is quiet, starved for any kindness, and harbouring secrets and secret wounds of his own.

Then the spider-bird—one of the Twisted Things—appears on Hallie's windowsill one morning, and she knows the war with the Wicked God may have been won... but it's not over.

I can't be impartial about this novel, because I've read three times in various stages and it reduced me to tears each time. Because the characters in it are trying so hard to be better. To learn how to shoulder and share enormous responsibilities. To heal from wounds that go heart-deep.

An Inheritance of Ashes is one of those quiet books that tell vast stories, full of both farm chores and strange monsters. It's weird, wonderful, complex. I'd recommend it to readers of David Eddings or The Lord of The Rings, as they'll recognize the trope set that Bobet is pushing against. Instead of a young farm boy heading off to win the great war against the evil god/lord/demon, here is a young farmgirl who just wants to save her home.

If you're unfamiliar with epic fantasy, and more familiar with YA then I'd say An Inheritance of Ashes is for readers of Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races. While An Inheritance of Ashes has no horses, they are both novels tightly contained, intimate yet overflowing with emotion. Struggling with rural life and complicated family situations. Understanding that something like getting from one November to the next is no more simple than getting the crops in and the barely malted.

Much like The Scorpio Races, you can read An Inheritance of Ashes along the top two layers and be satisfied with it, but you can also read three, four, five layers down and be amazed. This and Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules are two of the most accomplished books I've read this year, and if you love one of them then you'll also love the other. An Inheritance of Ashes defies genres with the same fierce spirit its narrator uses to defy defeat.

It's also a very empathetic story. It manages to be distinctly the voice and viewpoint of this particular young woman, while allowing a reader to parse how none of the characters are strictly good or bad. It's a complicated, messy morality—just like our world. Hallie and Marthe grew up hard, and much of the story is about Hallie learning how to apply her hardness in ways that are forward-moving. How to see the world the way people who aren't her do, and learn that she and her sister don't have to be be their uncle and father. It's an empowering theme for readers who need it to hear that doing the hard emotional work will be worth it.

The book extrapolates a future version of our world, set after a never-defined catastrophe has rendered recognizable technology useless. People farm and barter and live in smaller-sized communities, because that's what sustainable life now looks like. (While a state is never explicitly named, the ruins of nearby Windstown are meant to be the former city of Detroit, Michigan.) As a result the world of An Inheritance of Ashes is populated by all of the races and religions and cultures that exist in our own. It's a book where a stable, loving marriage exists between two men. Where the Huang butchers come to help with the goats in the fall. Where a group of tinkers and scientists forms their own found-family/compound on the edges of town.

It's also a world haunted by spider-birds and fox-lizards, where a Wicked God made of sand and despair and burning wind might swallow a town whole. Where an wayward army searches for their missing hero, who slew that Wicked God. It's a little bit about the stories we tell ourselves to get through the night. It's more about the magic that ordinary people can do when they come together, when they choose to try. It's a very kind book, and a very brave book—and it does it all without ever having to leave the Shire.

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet is available from Scholastic Canada at your local bookstore, and Kobo. (You can also get it on Amazon.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: The last of 33

This is the last night of being 33; it passes quietly, after having finished running errands, getting supplies, and preparing to host some friends tomorrow.

Oh, 33. They do not lie when they tell you it's a year of trials. It's a year that demands you be brave and you grow. I got to it first, but I wasn't alone. Everyone I know who turned 33 this past year is being tested and having to stretch in different—and often very personal—ways.

For me, I had to learn how to be a person and how to live with other people. It was the first time in a long while that I had the space and emotional capacity to figure out what I wanted instead of relentlessly moving towards what it felt like everyone else wanted for me.

It was a year of learning that I could leave things. Stop doing them. Let them be someone else's responsibility. (I spent my time being 32 as not a lot more than the work I got paid to do.) After six years of customer service, of being the one who solved everyone else's problems, that kind of freedom can be bewildering.

It starts to feel counterintuitive to hold back and trust people will come to you if they need something. To remember it's no longer your job to be proactive for everyone else. It wasn't about learning how not to give a damn entirely, but how to conserve my damns—because they're a finite resource—and apply them in the best way for me and my needs. (It had been a long time since I got to use that power to do the things everyone else thought impossible for myself.)

I wanted to write, and I did. I wrote over 100,000 words spread between two projects. Some of those words are great; some of them aren't. What matters is I wrote them. I wanted to apply for literary grants, and I did. Not on the timeline I expected, but on the one that was best. I made an effort to blog more, and to not care whether anyone read it or not.

I went to two great concerts. I found new bands and read great books. I signed my best friend's marriage license. Showed up to help my other best friend with her newborn. Did my own taxes. And I got by—by wit, by sheer determination—without a fulltime job while I mastered learning how to look for and apply for new ones.

I spent a lot of this year telling people no, and I learned that it didn't end the world. I quit a terrible job three days in. I withdrew applications for others, because they weren't right for me. I unfollowed people I didn't want to see. I blocked others whom I didn't want to share my life or my content with.

I stopped being nice, because I stopped having to be angry all the time. I didn't have to rely on the bright, cheery niceness to keep my sword in my sheath. Instead, I got to be kind and to have full agency over who received that kindness. Which is not to say that I didn't get angry or that this year was without crisis or hardship. It was a struggle, but I made it through.

This past week has been its own challenge, because there are things I wanted to have accomplished by now and this isn't necessarily what I thought my life would look like on the eve of 34. Honestly, there was a large part of this year that was hijacked by someone else's crisis. Someone else's refusal to be brave and grow.

But it wasn't mine. This is the first birthday in two or three years that I feel like celebrating—and that I have time to celebrate. I feel like I'm gaining a year instead of losing the previous one.

And I already know what I want to do with it. I'm going to get a new job. I'm going to finish a writing project. I'm going to travel outside of the country before my passport needs renewing. I'm going to learn how to make tortillas and be unstoppable.

I'm going to be brave. And I'm going to grow. And I'm going to keep conserving my damns for myself and the people who deserve them.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Erin Bow books are novel-length poems—intricately crafted, gorgeously written, and always willing to give more to the close reader. The Scorpion Rules, her first foray into science fiction, is her best one yet. Think one part prairie dustbowl story, one part political thriller, and one part post-singularity nightmare with a dash of romance, complex characters, and a herd of goats; The Scorpion Rules lives on a shelf between classic dystopians like The Chrysalids and contemporary ones like The Hunger Games.

In Bow's third novel, she transports us four hundred years in the future to a compound—precepture four—in what used to be Saskatchewan and is now part of the Pan Polar Confederacy. Thoughtful extrapolation of current political tensions, resource scarcity, and technology creates an immediately believable world. Our narrator is her majesty Greta Gustafson Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. How did she come to be a resident of a prison camp in the middle of nowhere?

Well. Let's rewind, oh, four centuries. Because the question that begins The Scorpion Rules is what if the United Nations tried to implement an impartial third-party whose main goal was peace and it resulted in an AI dictator with control over all the weapons of mass destruction and no hesitation to use them to make a point? Well, if written by Erin Bow you get a story about when bad systems are the best anyone knows and how we might carve out some good to make things better. Why we should bother to try.

Borrowing a historical concept, Bow crafts a future where ruling families must send a child to act as a political hostage to the Greater Intelligence of the UN, Talis. When two countries go to war, their hostage children die. The thusly named Children of Peace are a metaphor for the cost of war paid by future generations made literal. A way to make the lives thrown away for power and resources immediate to readers—to challenge how society dismissively justifies these deaths as necessary for the greater good.

What is necessary for the greater good is but one of several themes Bow explores. Well-paced with balanced humour and horror, The Scorpion Rules is an intersectional story of morality, the complexities of relationships fostered during trauma, the value and valour of kindness, and the power of personal agency. It is an emotionally mature novel, as full of dignity as its stalwart narrator.

The Scorpion Rules asks these philosophical questions with a refreshing practicality that marks it as distinctly Canadian literature. It contrasts Canadian ethics with American ones to explore the difference and overlap between them. Are we peacekeepers or warriors, and when do we need to be either? More importantly, this is one of the first contemporary YA novels I've read that asks what happens after the uprising.

It's a welcome reply to years of rebellion tales with no sense of the aftermath, no attempt to tackle the complexities of restructuring society. The messiness of The Scorpion Rules is the efficiency of the uprising and the clean logic of the hostage system—and that it hasn't stopped nations going to war. What Talis has implemented doesn't work; he simply replaced one flawed system of power with another. A reader can conclude that peace is difficult and it's probably not going to be successful if created by force.

Populated by a cast of hostages from across global regions, Bow shows us a world as diverse as our own. There are so many characters to love. Greta, our narrator, who is the leader of their precepture despite never wanting the role. Xie, who is a living goddess to her people and her friends. Elian, whose violent arrival sparks a rebellion among the Children of Peace. Even the antagonists—most of whom are AIs—are depicted as messy, heartbreakingly human individuals.

It's also a book of minding goats, tending pumpkin patches, and how one would live day to day under these dire circumstances. There is an abundance of hope and love in The Scorpion Rules. It's also full of simmering anger—of deepest frustration that is only safe to be expressed in the sharp-tongued humour of Talis. You can hear the oh come on that undertones his dialogue; a mix of constant outrage and bitter disappointment. He has such a lovehate for humanity.

That's why I love Talis: He can safely say things we don't always want to admit we've thought. I love Elian, because he does what we all hope we'd be brave enough to do. I love Xie because she has the wisdom we need to guide us. And I love Greta because she's the strength we all long to have.

I've not been this pleased with the first story in a world since Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys. Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules is a gamechanger in the dystopian genre, and the best book I have read this year. I cannot recommend it enough.

My thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada, who sent an ARC for me to read early. The Scorpion Rules is available at your local bookstore,,, and Kobo.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

There's this thing Diana Wynne Jones books often do: Magic in the everyday. Determined characters who remain optimistic despite the odds against them or the darkness lurking in the corners of their world. Characters like Eric Chant of Charmed Life or Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

R.J. Anderson's A Pocket Full of Murder is also one of those books. Steeped in magic in the everyday and featuring protagonists who have adventures and fun even though the stakes are high and their lives are far from perfect. In the city of Tarreton spells power the lamps and the economy, while talkie-plays air on the crystal sets and nobles ride about in carriages. It's a deftly-crafted world (based on Toronto) that allows for explorations into class and racial tensions around a well-constructed mystery plot with two loveable detectives.

Also characteristic of this style of fantasy, A Pocket Full Of Murder takes a few chapters to build the world and introduce Isaveth. Her small business of spell-baking (SPELL-BAKING!) provides a grounding counterbalance to the murder mystery plot while guiding the reader through this new world. Alternating between the adventure and her responsibilities helps pace the story and endear the reader to the other members of Isaveth's family. By the end of the novel, you'll feel less like you've read about someone and more like you've made a new friend.

As for the mystery: Isaveth's papa has been accused of murdering a prominent member of Tarreton's academia. The evidence is an old argument between the two and the use of Common Magic. She's certain her father can't be responsible, and she teams up with an eye-patch wearing streetboy named Quiz to solve the crime and bring the real culprit to justice.

I appreciated how Isaveth is a capable character with a keen determination to do her best, but she also faces self-doubt. She's more than a kid detective trope; she's a real person. She cares for her family, explores her faith, and hopes one day to be a famous author.

Quiz is... well, he's ridiculous. He's also my favourite, because I love a trickster character. Anderson has managed to write one that balances being mildly suspicious without ever being cruel, and that adds to the kindness and hope that underwrites the story. The way that he and Isaveth interact and the growth of their friendship is one of my favourite aspects.

Another is the Lady Auradia talkie-play that runs as a side-plot through the book—what serves as part of the initial bonding for Isaveth and Quiz—and acts as a quiet commentary on how characters (historical, fictional, fictionalized, or otherwise) inspire us. Anderson has sprinkled samples of the story Isaveth is writing about Lady Auradia  throughout A Pocket Full of Murder, and when things get tough Isaveth wonders what Lady Auradia would do. It's a great extra layer that adds to the story without detracting from the mystery plot.

A Pocket Full of Murder is perfect for young or young-at-heart readers who are looking for some magic to go along with their sleuthing. Find it at your local indie bookstore,, and Kobo.