31 May 2018

Review: The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill

Hardcover, 374 pages
Published 2007 (originally 1924)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2017
Women's Suffrage Literature, Volume VI: The Call
by Edith Ayrton Zangwill
[B]old as it sounded, Professor Smee went on to say he was going to correct one of Sir William Leveridge's statements. Had they ever heard of the carter to whom another man said, "That there's a nice horse o' yourn. What be his name?" "His name?" the carter replied. "Why, he be a she and his name be Betsy." Now Sir William had spoken of a Mr. Winfield's work. "Like the carter," Professor Smee announced with a smile, "I say that this gentleman is a lady and his name is Miss Winfield. As Miss Winfield is here to-night, perhaps she will tell us something about her experiments." (23)
Ursula Winfield is 23 years old, upper middle class, and devoted to one thing: chemistry. The Call is a 1924 novel about a young female chemist, one who attends meetings of the Chemical Society, does experiments in a spare bedroom, and presents at meetings of the British Association despite pressure from her mother to marry and what we might now call "microaggressions" from her fellow (all male) scientists. It's a delightful novel-- the best part is when Ursula finally discovers a man to which she's attracted, and who is attracted to her. It's not all chemistry and romance, though: Ursula must also fend off the advances of an older, married scientist (in what Maroula Joannou has argued is a direct refutation of H. G. Wells's Ann Veronica), becomes a badass suffragette hunger-striker, and researches countermeasures to German chemical weaponry during the Great War.

Zangwill's mother was a physician, and the account of what it was like for a woman in science in the nineteen-aughts rings true for me; heck, it rings true with some elements of being a woman in science today. I don't know how many women of science there were in fiction in the 1920s, but in the nineteenth century they're an absolute rarity, and they're usually villains, too, so my continuing interest in the scientist in literature means I was very much fascinated by the depiction of Ursula here, especially as to how science interacted with her social and political lives. But it's not just academically interesting; it's got some good jokes and there's even a lab bench makeout scene!

One thing to definitely complain about: the book's original 1924 publication is an absolute rarity. Bookfinder identifies no copies for sale on the Internet, and Worldcat shows holdings in just eight libraries worldwide. I got it from interlibrary loan in a 2007 edition from Routledge, included as volume six of a reprint title called Women's Suffrage Literature. Only, for some reason, the six-volume set has a cover price of $1,850! And the book hasn't even been typset; it's just a (sometimes poor) facsimile of the 1924 edition. What the hell can that $308 per volume even be going toward? You could print-on-demand this thing for much, much less. Routledge really does take advantage of the academic library market.

30 May 2018

Hugos 2018: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Trade paperback, 613 pages
Published 2018 (originally 2017)

Acquired April 2018
Read May 2018
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

I haven't read a Kim Stanley Robinson novel since college, when I heroically worked my way through the "Color Mars" trilogy over a summer. New York 2140 is quite long, but also quite enjoyable. In some ways it made me think of reading a late Dickens novel, like Our Mutual Friend. There's no central character in New York 2140 and (mostly) no central plot line, just a cluster of eight characters from all different walks of life. Many, but not all, live in the Met Life Tower, and their lives sort of criss-cross one another at various points. The book is three things mainly: a piece of "cli-fi" (climate fiction, the sea level has had two dramatic rises in the next 120 years), an sf extrapolation of the global finance industry (Robinson's future has seen two more 2008-esque financial crashes, and a fourth is due), and a love letter to the city of New York (the book is filled with ruminations on the history and culture of the city). In all three areas, it's quite captivating. And I don't even like cities very much!

As I remember the Mars books being, it is long and slow, but I was never not enjoying it. This is one of those sf novels that's more about world and ideas than plot, and I was okay with that. Like, it's long... but I don't actually know what I would cut! I came to like this diverse cast of characters, and there was an awesomely audacious plot swerve about 400 pages in, even if it ultimately resolved a little too utopianly for my tastes. I'm glad I was forced to finally read more Robinson, and I ought to track more of his work down if it's anything like this.

29 May 2018

Review: Transformers: Windblade: Distant Stars by Mairghread Scott, Corin Howell, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2015)
Acquired October 2016
Read October 2017
Transformers: Windblade: Distant Stars

Writer: Mairghread Scott
Art: Corin Howell and Sara Pitre-Durocher
Colors: Thomas Deer and Yamaishi
Additional Colors: John-Paul Bove
Letters: Tom B. Long

The events of Distant Stars spin out of Combiner Wars: having reestablished contact with a couple lost Cybertronian colonies, the new Council of Worlds begins reaching out to more. Only, Windblade and Starscream have very different agendas, and so who makes contact with which colony first becomes of the utmost importance. Windblade earnestly believes that each struggling Transformer civilization can help each other, whereas Starscream has visions of a Transformer empire with him wearing the crown.
Prepare to have your idealism crushed, Windblade.
from Transformers: Windblade vol. 2 #4 (art by Corin Howell)

I like that, given that the series formerly known as Robots in Disguise has shifted its focus to Earth, Windblade continues to emphasize the difficulty of rebuilding postwar Cybertron. This feels much more of a piece with the first five volumes of Robots in Disguise than volumes 6 through 8 of Robots in Disguise actually did. The best part of the book is probably the cast of characters that Mairghread Scott has built up: not just Windblade, but a whole group trying to move beyond the Autobot-Decepticon conflict. There's racer Blurr who wants to run a bar where anyone can relax, Windblade's bodyguard Chromia, Optimus's old friend Ironhide who's just tired of it all by this point, and Wheeljack who's too idealistic for his own good. Scott also has a good handle on Starscream and Rattrap. I also enjoyed the exploration of the distinct Transformer colonies, like the movement-focused inhabitants of Velocitron, and the Beast Wars-influenced animal transformers of Eukaris.

Robots who love movement so much even their cities move!
from Transformers: Windblade vol. 2 #4 (art by Corin Howell)

On the other hand, it didn't entirely click for me: the idea that Windblade speaks for Metroplex is only paid lip-service to. It feels like no one really knows what to do with that concept on an ongoing basis. Additionally, the politics here are pretty unsubtle; apparently each planet will agree to side with whomever they speak to first, and Veloctitron's whole racing thing is a little too "planet of the hats."

The book's final story is kind of neat, even though I think it takes place first, which is confusing; I liked seeing Windblade and other naturally female Camiens interact with the artificially female Arcee. On the other hand, the last thing the IDW mythos needs right now is another combiner.

I do like the ongoing arc about Windblade's continual moral compromises: I hope it comes to some kind of interesting head.
from Transformers: Combiner Hunters #1 (art by Sara Pitre-Durocher)

In both stories, the art is strong. Corin Howell's cartoony work suits the sensibilities of Windblade well; it's very expressive. Sara Pitre-Durocher's more painterly work is reminiscent of Sarah Stone's original Windblade run, but more effective at conveying action I think.

Overall, this is decent, but it shows potential. Distant Stars was the second and final volume of Windblade, but the characters and concepts will continue into a new ongoing, Till All Are One, and I look forward to reading it, and hopefully seeing Mairghread Scott and company hit their groove.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... Verity Carlo discovers that not even Prowl can escape the Sins of the Wreckers!

28 May 2018

Review: Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell, Tom Raney, John Paul Leon, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010)

Acquired August 2012
Read February 2017
Black Widow: Deadly Origin

Writer: Paul Cornell
Pencils: Tom Raney
Inks: Scott Hanna
Colors: Matt Milla
Art & Colors, Flashbacks: John Paul Leon
Letterer: Cory Petit

Paul Cornell's Black Widow: Deadly Origin is one of those comics that takes the tangled history of a superhero character that's been jerked from status quo to status quo over the years, and tries to retroactively impose some kind of characterization on it all. Natalia Romanova was a super-agent of the U.S.S.R., a Russian superhero's wife, a spy in the West, a member of umpteen superhero teams, and a lover of umpteen male superheroes.

Matt Murdock lived in San Francisco?
from Black Widow: Deadly Origin #3 (art by John Paul Leon)

I don't think he really succeeds, unfortunately. If Natasha has her own core identity, I'm not sure what it is. Cornell's story alternates between the present day (where there's a plot to kill all those who she's ever loved) and the past (where we get snippets of her history). But there's either too many flashbacks or not enough of them. We never spend more than a page or two in any one time period, making it hard to get an emotional bead on Natasha at any given point. If they were expanded, they might work better. Alternatively, focusing on the present-day story might make Natasha's emotional throughline more clear. But as it is, it still feels more like a jumble of comic book continuity than actual story. I don't think I know Natasha any better as a person than I did before reading.

If you interpret creepy sex stuff here... you're not wrong!
from Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1 (art by John Paul Leon)

The art doesn't help. John Paul Leon's art for the flashbacks is nice and stylistic, but sometimes cold and hard to follow. Tom Raney's art for the present-day narrative, on the other hand, is often awkward, and his Natasha looks younger and more girly than Leon's in the flashbacks, which seems... misjudged.

Also, what mediocre faces!
from Black Widow: Deadly Origin #3 (art by Tom Raney & Scott Hanna)

My favorite part was when Natasha breaks into a Russian bunker to acquire some secret information, and all the young guys in the bunker are so excited to be defeated by her they just tell her everything she needs to know, and toast her with champagne as she leaves. The inclusion of Cornell's original pitch, including his editor's comments, is a nice bonus too.

Is it women's faces that trip him up? Faces drawn from angles? Something is always off, anyhow.
from Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2 (art by Tom Raney & Scott Hanna)

P.S. While writing this review, I came across this really nice review of the story from a feminist perspective on Fuck Yeah, Black Widow! A worthwhile read, and it helped clarify to this Black Widow novice what was preexisting continuity, and what was Paul Cornell's interpolation.

25 May 2018

Personal (lack of) Fitness

When I was in the fifth grade, I wanted to be an astronaut. (Maybe we all do.) My teacher told me that that would never happen: I was not fit enough.

Exercise was my eternal nemesis in the Boy Scouts. I think all of the first three rank levels have a fitness requirement? It's been a long while, I don't know where my The Boy Scout Handbook, tenth edition, is, and no one on-line seems to have duplicated this information.

I do know that I started the Personal Fitness merit badge at least three times. Alas, Personal Fitness was required for Eagle, and thus one of the reasons I never attained the rank. I would always start the badge at summer camp, but it required some amount of work on your own, and then a re-evaluation after some period of time (thirty days?), and I never had any follow-through. No discipline. I am by nature an undisciplined person, but can force myself to be disciplined when I need to (though I understood this about myself much less well when I was seventeen). Or perhaps "want to" would be more accurate, and I never wanted to.

(Why? This might require more introspection than I am capable of, but I feel like my main objection is that exercise is fundamentally boring. Or it seems to me that it would be, anyway, given I so rarely undertake formal exercise. As an adult, I have found that I do like swimming laps even though I am awful at it, and walking is always nice, especially if I have an iPod or a human companion. But I would rather be eaten by a bear than run.)

((I've always struggled to tie short-term actions to long-term goals (yet somehow decided it would be a good idea to get a Ph.D.), and I think that's part of my problem with exercise, with the added difficulty that my opinion about my physical fitness is basically that I'd rather not be dead, and that feels a long way off, and so it isn't a great motivation for exercising now.))

(((Maybe the real reason is that I am sure I will be awful at it, and if there's anything I abide by, it's never do things you're not going to succeed at, because then how can you be the best?)))

Stadium was not this nice in my day. Also I can't find a picture on-line with the track visible.

When I was in high school, we had to take a year of gym. I was miserable; Coach Rasso once pulled me aside during a volleyball game and worked with me one-on-one for like fifteen minutes. It didn't help. When we did our running unit, the climax of it was a timed six-lap run around the track. (I assume this equaled a mile, but I don't really remember.) Coach pulled a number of boys aside and said they only had to do five laps. And then he looked at me and said, "Mollmann, you only have to do four."

Well, so help me, I was elated. So elated, in fact, that I ran the fastest I had run that entire unit. With the consequence that when I finished my four laps, I was done so quickly, Coach didn't believe I'd really run four laps, and so made me run one more... which meant I was completely exhausted and finished in last, absolutely miserable. Oh well, I guess he tried to help.

Still, I'll take what I can get. My grade school gym teacher told me I was so bad at exercise I'd be dead by the time I turned thirty. Two years later, I'm still alive, so I guess I'm doing okay.

#528: How has exercise changed your health, your body or your life?

24 May 2018

Review: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle

So, I read for my Ph.D. exams many years ago now, from summer 2012 to January 2013. But because of the sheer amount of reading I did during that time, I fell hugely behind on my book-blogging, ending up in a hole it took me several years to get out of. Over five years, actually! Though from August 2015 to May 2017 I slowly reviewed most of the books I had missed during that time, the part of the "To review" pile still remaining were those books I read for my exams. Well, no more! With today's review, I finally slay that beast. All 103 complete books that I read for my exams have been reviewed! It's surely a bit belated to be writing up the last of your Ph.D. exam books after the end of the first year of your first full-time academic gig, but oh well. Five years is better than never!

Mass market paperback, 289 pages
Published 1976 (contents: 1891-92)
Reread January 2013
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle

There's a lot to like in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; what particularly piques my academic interest, however, is the vision of Sherlock Holmes. There are a lot of good stories here, but when I teach Holmes, I usually stick to three different stories from this volume, because between "A Scandal in Bohemia," "A Case of Identity," and "The Five Orange Pips," I think you get the whole Holmesian theory of vision in theory and in practice.

For my purposes it actually makes the most sense to handle these stories in reverse order. My scholarly interest is in "scientific sight," in the way that scientific reasoning is often figured as a literal visual power. Doyle makes the connection between Holmes's vision and science its most explicit in "The Five Orange Pips," where Holmes compares himself to the paleontologist Cuvier: "As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able to accurately state all the other results which the reason alone can attain to" (108). Holmes utilizes inductive reasoning (I think; I always get these things confused), moving from a part of the system to understanding the whole of the system, through observation and reason. Like Cuvier, he is a scientist.

Holmes sort of undersells himself there, though, because part of his prowess is that he observes the right thing, picking up on the little details that no one else notices. Holmes might be like Cuvier in that he can go from single bone to whole dinosaur, but the problem of other people isn't that they can't perform that inductive logic, it's that they don't even see the bone to perform induction on it! In "A Case of Identity," Watson complains that Holmes sees what is "quite invisible," but Holmes rebuts him: "Not invisible, but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. [...] Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method [...]. Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details" (61). Holmes then proceeds to enumerate a number of details of sleeves, nose, boots, and gloves that allowed him to induce (deduce?) a whole range of truths about the client.

Oddly, Holmes's ability to observe probably reaches its apex in the very first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia." To a degree, everything after this is anticlimax. But then, Watson does tell us from the story's first line that it is an unusual case for Holmes. Why Doyle started Holmes's (short form) adventures with an exceptional one I don't know, but it makes for one of the best Holmes stories in terms of entertainment, but also in terms of my interests. Again, the story emphasizes the distinctions between Watson's sight and Holmes's: both see, but only Holmes observes (4).

In this story, we're told that Holmes feels no emotions in this "cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind" and that he is the "most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen" (1). For Holmes, emotions "were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained observer to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results" (1). Holmes does not experience emotion in his observations because, like a scientist, he must remain objective in his work. But unlike (say) Star Trek's Mister Spock, he understands the emotions that he observes, and accounts for them in his reasoning.

However, something I often see in stories of scientific observation is that the keenest observers are able to observe the observations of others. I have a whole article in the Gaskell Journal actually, as regards Wives and Daughters, called "Observing Observation." That happens in "A Scandal in Bohemia": at the climax of the story, Holmes figures out where the incriminating photograph is by faking a fire and making Irene Adler look to where the photograph is hidden; he observes her observations: "The smoke and the shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully" (21).

But! It turns out that she was aware that Holmes was watching her, but he was unaware of this. In her letter to Holmes at the story's end, she tells him, "I followed you to your door, and so made sure that I really was an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes" (24). That is to say, Irene Adler was observing Holmes's observations of her observations! So she ends up winning, and Holmes is awed by her.

At the beginning of the story, like I said, Watson claims that Holmes experiences no emotion. But something I've noticed throughout my reading of stories about observation, is not only are keenest observers able to observe observation itself, but that there is a correlation between this and emotion; my Gaskell Journal article ends with the claim that "to observe others carefully is to love them." Watson claims that Holmes knows no emotion, but we know by the story's end that this is untrue. If to observe others carefully is to love them, then to observe others' observations is the highest form of love, and that is why for Holmes, Irene Adler will always be "the woman" (25).

22 May 2018

Review: The Transformers, Volume 8 by John Barber, Andrew Griffith, and Livio Ramondelli

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2015)
Acquired October 2016
Read October 2017
The Transformers, Volume 8

Written by John Barber
Art by Andrew Griffith and Livio Ramondelli
Colors by Josh Perez and Livio Ramondelli
Letters by Tom B. Long

There was no volume 7 of this series, you know that? I guess Combiner Wars: First Strike is being retroactively counted as volume 7, but that wasn't on the title page or cover. (Maybe it was on the spine; I'm reading the eBooks.)

Anyway, volume 8 primarily serves to confirm that the post-Dark Cybertron, Earth-focused approach of the series formerly known as Robots in Disguise is doing nothing for me. There's more obnoxious stuff about Prowl, continually making Optimus Prime the galaxy's most ineffective faction leader:
C'mon, dude, accept some personal responsibility. Optimus Prime was more convincing as a great leader when he wasn't actually leading.
from Transformers vol. 2 #42 (art by Livio Ramondelli)

Plus Galvatron does his evil thing, in a way that's incredibly obvious yet somehow his ideologically motivated followers fail to notice. I do like the focus of the post-DC era on Soundwave, as he's an interesting fellow, but he's also a bit of a patsy, especially considering his ability to monitor electromagnetic radiations. He should know better!

Spike cares as little about this subplot as I do.
from Transformers vol. 2 #45 (art by Andrew Griffith)

All the stuff with G. B. Blackrock and Alpha Trion and ancient Cybetronian artifacts is the complete opposite of what got me into More than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise: a serious exploration of the issues raised by a civilization that's undergone millions of years of war. This is just tedious cod-mythology, lots of mysteries where there's no reason to care about the resolutions.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... Windblade must make overtures to some Distant Stars!

21 May 2018

Review: Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages, 1985-1995 by Bill Watterson

Comic trade paperback, 95 pages
Published 2001 (contents: 1985-95)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2018
Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages, 1985-1995: An Exhibition Catalogue by Bill Watterson

My mission to read every bit of Calvin and Hobbes not collected in the Complete Calvin and Hobbes continues with this, a slim volume that puts Bill Watterson's original linework alongside the colored versions that appeared in newspapers for a selection of his favorite Sunday strips. Watterson also provides commentary on most of them. It's all strips you've (probably) read before, and many anecdotes you've (probably) read before too. But the large size of the book shows off Watterson's artwork better than the Complete Calvin and Hobbes books do, and it's great to have Watterson's commentary on the the comics form. He was an unsurpassable artist on the Sunday comics page even before the format change, and this book provides insight into the mind of a master.

18 May 2018

Professing: My First Year

Student bribe.
I'm writing this post at the last minutes, so I don't know that I have a lot to say, and I don't know that it's profound. But my spring semester has come to an end, and so too has my first year at UT-- my first year as a full-time college faculty member.

It's not exactly the job I always dreamed of having, but it is a good job. I like my colleagues, and I like my program. The Academic Writing Program (AWR) here is sympatico with how I learned to teach writing, and how I like to teach it. My first semester teaching 101 was rough, but these things often are, and I was able to channel my missteps into a better way of delivering 101 in the spring, and overall I was pretty happy with how those classes went. Probably at some point I can or might write a more detailed take on this, but having taught the class all the way through, I knew where I wanted my students to end up, and so I knew how to get them there better.

I do like teaching academic writing, when it works. A lot of people don't, I think, and certainly few people decide to go for grad school in English literature because they have a burning desire to teach academic writing, but you might end up doing it anyway. I believe that for all its formulas and constraints-- or rather because of them-- it really is a form of writing that generates new knowledge and new ideas in precise, nuanced ways unlike any other. And students really can say something new, even in a non-research class, and those moments make it all worth it. Sometimes, those moments happened this semester.

I can't say I came home happy every day. Four sections of AWR is a lot, especially if you have some kind of aspiration to maintain your reading and writing as well. A lot of grading means you have to be good at regulating your time, and I am not. Habits I built up in grad school that worked on 1-2 classes at a time do not scale up to 3-4.

Hopefully I can spend the summer processing my first year of teaching some more, to set me up for the fall and beyond, but this will have to be a start.

17 May 2018

Review: Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination edited by Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan

Outside the government, beyond the police! My reviews of three recent Torchwood stories, mostly from the "classic" era: The Death of Captain Jack, The Last Beacon, and Believe.

Hardcover, 371 pages
Published 1995
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination
edited by Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan

This anthology of critical essays is ranged around different aspects of the visual in the Victorian era, especially as regards literature: optical technologies, illustrations in novels, urban photography, portraiture of Queen Victoria, visuality in poetry, and so on. Like a lot of critical anthologies, I don't think it really coheres: you have essays on a wide range of very specific topics, making it hard to draw connections between them or see any kind of interesting conversation emerging. Like, an essay on John Millais's paintings of children is so specific to Millais that it become impossible to draw any kind of general inference or idea about the visual imagination from it, and thus it's very difficult to link it to a similarly specific article about the role of spectacle in Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Most of the writers aren't drawing outward connections, so why should you? The editors try to draw things together in the introduction, of course, but though what they say about the subjective/objective paradigm is interesting, it's very implicit in the actual essays.

There can still be the occasional worthy part, even if the whole isn't up to much. I enjoyed Susan R. Horton's "Were They Having Fun Yet?: Victorian Optical Gadgetry, Modernist Selves," which looked at various aspects of the Victorian obsession with looking at looking and watching their watching; Jennifer M. Green's "'The Right Thing in the Right Place': P. H. Emerson and the Picturesque Photograph," a fascinating discussion of how the photographer Peter Henry Emerson hired models to create his images of peasant life because the models were better at looking like peasants than actual peasants; Ronald R. Thomas's examination of the emergence of the detective in fiction in "Making Darkness Visible: Capturing the Criminal and Observing the Law in Victorian Photography and Detective Fiction"; and Margaret Homans's "Victoria's Sovereign Obedience: Portraits of the Queen as Wife and Mother," which shows how the appearance of limited political power expanded the Queen's symbolic power for the nation.

16 May 2018

Hugos 2018: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Hardcover, 449 pages
Published 2017

Acquired April 2018
Read May 2018
The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage marks Philip Pullman's first full-length return to the world of His Dark Materials since The Amber Spyglass in 2000. The book is a prequel to The Golden Compass, filling in some of the details on how Lyra came to be raised in Oxford by a bunch of academics. Lyra herself is an infant in this story, however; the protagonist is Malcolm Polstead, the son of a tavern-keeper in Oxford, who ends up discovering a spy network operating in Oxford, and doing his part to protect Lyra against the machinations of various forces vying for her, especially the Church.

The book is enjoyable, but not ground-breaking. I maintain that the original Golden Compass is "the most well-executed YA fantasy novel I've ever read"-- this doesn't come close. La Belle Sauvage fills in some backstory details (it made me wish I'd read the original trilogy more recently, because I didn't always remember it well enough for new revelations to be meaningful), but doesn't really deepen the world. The Golden Compass is magical in the way it unspools a new world for your enjoyment; this is a cozy return to an old world, as Malcolm's adventures are much more contained than Lyra's.

Like I said, I enjoyed it, but it didn't challenge or grab me. Malcolm is intensely likeable, and I enjoyed his adventures in Oxford. Pullman does a good job making him clever without making all the adults around him idiots. For most of its duration, reading La Belle Sauvage is like reading one of those cozy mysteries where you know nothing bad can really happen, and though I enjoyed the experience, when you finish reading, it seems a bit of a shame, because you know Pullman can do more.

That said, when the flood comes, the book really kicks up a notch; the book captures the surreality of natural disaster, with some magic sprinkled in. I really enjoyed this part of the book, and basically read it straight through in one sitting. The magic is interesting, and the violence in intense-- having set up Malcolm as a pretty ordinary boy, Pullman is able to use that to good effect as he, the tavern's kitchen girl, and infant Lyra flee for their lives across a devastated English landscape, facing perils both magical and mundane. It does cut off a little too quickly at the end, but I enjoyed it on the whole, and I look forward to seeing where Pullman goes in the next two books, which are supposed to move beyond the original trilogy, and I hope have deeper stakes than this one.

15 May 2018

Review: Transformers: Combiner Wars by Maighread Scott, John Barber, Livio Ramondelli, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2015)
Acquired October 2016
Read September 2017
Transformers: Combiner Wars

Story by Maighread Scott & John Barber
Written by Maighread Scott and John Barber
Art by Sarah Stone, Livio Ramondelli, and Marcelo Ferreira & Corin Howell
Additional Inks by Corin Howell, Brian Shearer, & John Wycough
Colors by Yamaishi & Thomas Deer
Letters by Tom B. Long

Combiners, man... I dunno. I'm sure they're awesome if you're playing with the toys, but I think their very nature is intrinsically antithetical to telling good stories about groups of them. I mean, I liked what was done with Devastator back in Robots in Disguise okay, but Combiner Wars needs to feature multiple combiners warring. Thus five different combiners, each of whom consists of five Transformers. That's twenty-five different characters in a six-issue story! Plus all the usual regular characters like Optimus Prime and Windblade and Starscream and Rattrap and Prowl and so on, as Combiners Wars is actually a crossover between Windblade and the subtitle-less Transformers comic (formerly known as Robots in Disguise). There's even some minor interplay with More than Meets the Eye; a group of Lost Light crewmembers were shown shuttling back to Cybertron at the end of volume 8, and here they become a group (the "Protectobots") in two seconds, then stand around in the background a lot, then become a combiner who just shouts and fights a lot. Which is typical of the amount of focus any of these characters can receive in a story like this.

The hours must fly by with jokes like that.
from Transformers vol. 2 #40 (story by Maighread Scott & John Barber, script by John Barber, art by Livio Ramondelli)

It could be an okay story, but like so many Transformers plots of late, it gets derailed by a character of whom I am growing increasingly sick: Prowl. How many times can he concoct a secret plan and charge into a situation and make it worse for everyone through his interference? It's repetitive, it's boring, and it makes the other characters look stupid for not being able to stop him from doing it. The more these comics focus on him, the less I like reading about him. C'mon dude, if no one can tell the difference between normal you and controlled-by-Decepticons you, maybe you should change up your approach. But no, we just get the same thing with him again and again and again. Optimus Prime, you are a bad leader.

Just kill him!
from Transformers vol. 2 #41 (story by Maighread Scott & John Barber, script by John Barber, art by Livio Ramondelli)

Everyone else kind of gets lost in the shuffle, but there are some potentially interesting ideas about the lost Cybertronian colonies, and I do like Rattrap and Swindle. But, overall, meh.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... something something something Blackrock!

14 May 2018

Review: The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book by Bill Watterson

Comic trade paperback, 208 pages
Published 1995 (contents: 1985-95)
Borrowed from the library
Reread October 2017
The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book by Bill Watterson

The only thing to dislike about the excellent Complete Calvin and Hobbes is that it has no room for the content of this book. Published for the strip's tenth anniversary (Watterson actually ended the strip during year ten, but the book refers to the strip in the present tense throughout), the book selects a number of individual strips and storylines from across the lifetime of Calvin and Hobbes with commentary from Bill Watterson on how he wrote and drew the strip. The commentary is great: Watterson explains how he devised the characters and their world, discusses his battles with the syndicate over what the strip could be, and goes into the minutiae of panel placement in Sunday strips (a thing I have remembered from this book since I read it at age 10).  

Calvin and Hobbes really is a perfect comic strip: it's hard to imagine it working in any other medium even if the medium mostly produces crap these days. In a way, the book is Watterson's passionate defense of the possibilities of the medium, which makes it even more jarring when he slams comic books as "incredibly stupid" (171). Like, dude, your whole thing is finding art in a "low culture" medium, to the extent that there's a whole strip about it, where you say, "I would suggest that it's not the medium, but the quality of perception and expression, that determines the significance of art" (202).

But anyway, the delights to be found here are many and manifold. Many of the best storylines, and it's interesting to see what Watterson perceives as the best ones, versus what ones popular consensus has latched onto. And it's nice to see one-off strips get some prominence, since they're easy to forget. Calvin and Hobbes is four months younger than me, so I've loved it my entire life, and I imagine I will continue to do so, and this book is a nice reminder why.

11 May 2018

Review: Sun Devils by Dan Jurgens, Gerry Conway, Steve Mitchell, et al.

DC was really pumping out its Star Wars-inspired space-opera limited series in the 1980s. Spanner's Galaxy's six parts were entirely published during the twelve parts of Sun Devils, an epic series that sadly remains uncollected. Sun Devils begins with daredevil pilot Rik Sunn, inhabitant of a human colony, who's about to begin his career as a diplomat. Rik believes a diplomatic solution to the expansionist Sauroids of the Triad Confederacy can be found, but is quickly proven wrong when his family and their entire planet are obliterated by the Sauroids. Rik travels to Earth to enlist and fight the Sauroids, but the Earth government is as complacent as he was.

Misadventures eventually take him to Centauri, where he becomes the leader of a crack team of fighter pilots / commandos called the Sun Devils, consisting of Anomie Zitar, a sexy gene-edited human escaped slave; Scyla, a sexy Belter smuggler; Shikon, a Sauroid slave who fights to free his caste; One, Two, and Three, cloned mechanics; and Myste, a sexy scientist turned into a noncorporeal being. The Sun Devils wear matching uniforms and work directly for the Prime Speaker of Centauri, trying to stop the Sauroids, especially when it becomes clear the Sauroids are developing a superweapon capable of exploding suns.

Sun Devils was originally developed by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, who brought aboard a young Dan Jurgens as artist. Thomas didn't have time to contribute, so the series was written by Conway, but as time went on, Jurgens's role increased; eventually he was doing the dialogue for Conway's plots, and by the end of it all he was writing and illustrating. Jurgens went on to a highly successful career, and this was his first big break-- some of his earliest comics art, and his earliest published writing.

It's easy to see why. Jurgens is easy to dismiss as workmanlike at times if you're ungenerous, but here he's clearly already a master craftsman. His layouts are dynamic, the action is clear, and the characters expressive. Big and small moments alike land perfectly. The art is aided by the fact that this is one of the 1980s' so-called "Baxter books," printed on high-quality paper that really make the colors pop, particularly the black inks. (To be honest, I think this is my favorite kind of comic coloring. Superior to the Silver Age stuff in quality and clarity, but not taken over by the more subdued "realism" computer coloring enabled in the 1990s.)

The twelve issues are divided up into four stories-- The Gathering (#1-3), The Rescue (#4-6), To Steal a Sun (#7-9), and The Last Battle (#10-12)-- each having its own beginning and end, but with a larger story running through it all. It's a nice structure, like maybe watching a four-part tv miniseries. In The Gathering, the team comes together; in The Rescue, they go to the Sauroid homeworld to rescue an imprisoned scientist; in To Steal a Sun, they try to build a superweapon; and in The Last Battle, they try to stop a Sauroid superweapon. There are some surprisingly complex and adult moments, but also it's a fun, action-driven series about a colorful group of characters.

Occasionally the plotting is a bit wonky (there's a bad guy introduced in the final three parts who doesn't really go anywhere, or there's one issue where the opening four pages are spent showing Scyla in a barfight-- a thing we've seen already!), and I found the last issue unsatisfying (the characters have an unrealistic level of trust in a bad guy, because they bizarrely overestimate the leverage they hold over him), but I enjoyed the story on the whole, and it's a shame there wasn't a sequel. I think the ending is setting one up, though I suppose it might be an "...and the adventure continues..."-type ending.

Dan Jurgens did continue the story, kind of, in a 1994 issue of Superman (vol. 2 #86). Even though Sun Devils clearly takes place in the future, a lost-in-space Superman runs into a spaceship piloted by an aged Rik and the daughter of Scyla, chasing down a surprise-not-dead Sauroid ruler. (There's a throwaway line where Scyla's daughter says she doesn't know what century they're in anymore.) I found it a dissatisfying conclusion, a bit too downbeat, and not really an organic outgrowth of where we left the characters in Sun Devils #12.

Sun Devils was originally published in twelve issues (July 1984–June 1985). The series was created by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Dan Jurgens; plotted by Gerry Conway (#1-9) and Dan Jurgens (#10-12); dialogued by Gerry Conway (#1-6), Paul Kupperberg (#7), and Dan Jurgens (#8-12); pencilled by Dan Jurgens; inked by Rick Magyar (#1), Romeo Tanghal (#2-4), and Steve Mitchell (#5-12); lettered by John Costanza (#1-6, 8, 12) and David Cody Weiss (#7, 9-11); colored by Tom Ziuko; and edited by Gerry Conway.

10 May 2018

Review: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

Mass market paperback, 147 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1884)
Acquired July 2008
Read January 2013
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
With Illustrations by the Author, A Square
by Edwin A. Abbott

Flatland is a clever book. It may be about two dimensions, but it works on more than one. Like a lot of the best science fiction, it allows us to imagine a world unlike ours while telling us something about the world like ours. At the same time Abbott through his obtuse (lol) narrator, A. Square, is telling us about this fantastic two-dimensional world he's constructed, he's also telling us something about our world; there's a lot of commentary on Victorian gender packed in here, for example. For example, the greatest men actually have what are technically feminine characteristics-- so a law has to be passed to make it clear that that characteristic is good in a man, but bad in a woman (55). Oddly, like in Bulwer's The Coming Race from a decade prior, women in the world of Flatland have enormous destructive power (27-8). There must be some kind of metaphor going on that I can't quite unpack; in Flatland, apartments are designed to prevent women from exercising their power (31), and that has to be some kind of commentary on the Victorian home, surely?

The best part of the book in my mind is surely the story of the Sphere who lords his extra dimension over A. Square, but cannot conceive of a four-dimensional world where he himself is less powerful. A. Square can extrapolate by analogy even though he has never seen such a world, but the Sphere cannot. To draw a connection to another late Victorian science fiction work, it puts me in mind of what Wells did in The War of the Worlds: the Martians were to the English as the English were to the Tasmanians, but until the Martians came, no one could conceive of a power with that relationship to us. By giving us a world with fewer dimensions than our own, Flatland prompts us to imagine that there must be a world out there with more, and that is its greatest cleverness.

09 May 2018

Hugos 2018: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Also: I review some new adventures for the Eighth Doctor for Unreality SF: with Charlie Sato in "Turn of the Screw" and with Liv and Helen in Ravenous 1.

Trade paperback, 391 pages
Published 2017

Acquired and read April 2018
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This book has an amazing opening and an amazing premise. A locked room murder mystery where all the victims and all the suspects are mindwiped clones. All six members of the ship's crew have just been killed and resurrected, but they don't remember which of their number did it because the memory backups of their lives on the ship have been erased. The opening, with the clones waking up amid the zero-g remains of their previous bodies, is incredible.

Unfortunately, the energy of the novel slowly dissipates after that point. Mystery is a hard genre to write, and Lafferty doesn't really succeed. I feel like the characters kind of wander around aimlessly instead of investigating, and the revelation of facts feels like information-dumping, not slowly unspooling clues. In a good mystery, when the killer is revealed you go "Oh........" as everything slots into place. In this one, unfortunately, you just go "Oh." because the reveal feels arbitrary. Any one of the main characters could have done it, and it would have made just as much sense, which is profoundly unsatisfying. I'd like to see someone else have a go at this premise, though, because it is irresistible.

08 May 2018

Review: The Transformers: Punishment by John Barber and Livio Ramondelli

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014)
Acquired and read September 2017
The Transformers: Punishment

Written by John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli
Letters by Tom B. Long

Given the plot of the book formerly known as Robots in Disguise seems to have permanently moved to Earth, I guess I'm grateful that IDW continues to update us on life on Cybetron, first with Windblade, then with the Cybertron-set single issue in First Strike, and now with Punishment: they definitely feel like their own sub-series, with the focus on Windblade and Starscream and the denizens of Drift's bar. In First Strike, Optimus Prime left Earth partway through to take care of something on Cybertron; in Punishment we see what that was, as he comes home to celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Matrix of Leadership, but ends up investigating mysterious murders in the Decepticon ghettos.

Don't go easy on him, Optimus.
from The Transformers: Punishment #4

It's okay. I like the continued exploration of an integrating postwar Transformer society on Cybertron, but the murder mystery is incredibly obvious. Like, could it be the never-before-seen* old friend of Optimus who's in the right place at the right time? What a surprise! Still, there are some nice moments between Optimus and Windblade, as she tries to come to grips with a planet emerging from a millions-year war, and Optimus tries to adjust to this brave new world. I particularly like the pair of moments above and below, where Optimus makes it seem like he suspects the Dinobots of being behind the murders. He's being deliberately misleading to draw the real culprit out (ah, that old chestnut), but as we find out, he's not exactly lying:
Always a laugh a moment with Optimus.
from The Transformers: Punishment #5

I like how this takes a heroic trait of Optimus that you could think of as naïve, and portrays it as more of a curse than a blessing, but also something Optimus can manipulate-- you don't get to lead an interstellar war for millions of years and not be as good as manipulation as Starscream or Prowl.

The art is also an above-average effort for Livio Ramondelli, with sharper linework than he usually uses and less muddy colors, well-suited to the story's vaguely noirish tone.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Caminus... it's time for planets to collide in the Combiner Wars!

* I guess technically he'd appeared in the IDW continuity before, but not as he'd register on you if you weren't the most hardcore of fans.

07 May 2018

Review: Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes by Linda Holmen and Mary Santella-Johnson

Hardcover, 188 pages
Published 1993
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes
by Linda Holmen and Mary Santella-Johnson
illustrations by Jan Roebken

When I read The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, I became intrigued/interested in those things relating to Calvin and Hobbes not contained in the omnibus strip collection. One such related book is Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes, a Holy Grail among Calvin and Hobbes collectors. The cheapest copy on eBay is $700, though looking through "Sold listings" I can't find any that anyone actually paid for, so maybe Internet sellers value this thing much more than people will actually pay for it. I got my copy through interlibrary loan; Worldcat indicates that only twelve libraries worldwide have a copy, and I wasn't allowed to take my copy out of the library. If you're considering dropping some big bucks on this book, hopefully my comments below will give you a taste of what it's like instead. I haven't found anyone on the Internet who really talks about it in detail; it's usually just alluded to as one of the very few items of authorized Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.

What it is is a textbook, or perhaps more accurately, a repository of worksheets and activities, for grades 4-8, using Calvin and Hobbes as source material. There are five story arcs from the strip (dubbed "The Binoculars," "The Find," "The Christmas Story," "The Bug Collection," and "The Report"), each of which is followed up by a set of activities for students, almost always on similar patterns: vocabulary exercises (synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and such for words used in the story), comprehension activities (question about the what and the why of the story's events, always including making some kind of "story map"), behavior worksheets (questions about things like imagination or being nice to people or whatever, vaguely inspired by the stories), humor worksheets (questions about, for example, sarcasm or stand-up), suggested activities (even more vaguely connected things, like learning what an entomologist is to go along with "The Bug Collection"), and finally creative writing worksheets (usually asking students to retell the story in a different genre, or from the perspective of a new character).

Do kids really know this much about stand-up comics?
If you don't read every word (and there's no need to), you can get through the whole book in an hour or so. I don't know if grade schools still do activities like these in language arts classes (e.g., write a very formulaic poem), but this is the kind of stuff I remember doing all the time in the 1990s. It's sort of funny to pair it all with Calvin and Hobbes because so much of it is the kind of formulaic, uncreative learning that Calvin and Hobbes rails against, something driven home by the two stories about Calvin failing to complete school assignments. Like, one of the activities is to come up with a list of things you can do to "con" your teacher, and suggested ones are things like "Don't slam your books shut when you're finished reading" and "Smile and greet your teacher each day." Are kids really dumb enough to be conned into thinking practicing required (i.e., Suzie-style) behaviors is "conning" your teacher? Calvin wouldn't be! I get why after students read about Calvin's poor behaviors the book would want to model good ones, but it reveals how Calvin and Hobbes's anarchic spirit is a poor match for 1990s worksheet-style education.

04 May 2018

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 at the SFRA Review

I've been trying to publish more recently, including in venues that aren't "scholarly" per se. The first of those publications is out, my review of Star Trek: Discovery's first season for the Science Fiction Research Association Review, the quarterly newsletter of, well, the Science Fiction Research Association, the world's nicest scholarly association dedicated to the study of science fiction. (Obviously this is scholarly in a sense, but it's not a peer-reviewed journal article; the SFRA Review is supposed to communicate to sf scholars where an item fits into the history and concerns of the genre and what kind of potential it has.)

Here's how it begins:
Star Trek: Discovery marks the return of the Star Trek franchise to its small screen roots for the first time since Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air in 2005. Though drawing on the visual aesthetics of the J.J. Abrams-spearheaded big screen reboot of the franchise (2009’s Star Trek, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, and 2016’s Star Trek Beyond), Discovery is set in the so-called “Prime timeline” home to the previous six Star Trek television shows and the first ten films. Set about ten years before the original Star Trek (1966–1969), the show focuses on the character of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a Starfleet officer on the USS Shenzhou and the human foster daughter of Spock’s father Sarek (James Frain). The first two-part story, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” chronicles Burnham’s involvement in the instigation of a Federation-Klingon war; the remaining thirteen episodes detail Burnham’s adventures on the USS Discovery under Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) during the war.
     The main story arc of Discovery is about the war, and like much Star Trek, it is a none-too-subtle mirror for our own times. The faction of the Klingons that instigates the war is led by T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), who employs nationalist rhetoric about the cultural, not military, threat of the Federation, arguing the Federation’s multiculturalism will assimilate and gradually eliminate traditional Klingon values. He sees “we come in peace” as more of a threat than physical attack. On the other side, the Federation in general, and Michael Burnham in particular, struggle with the ethics of wartime: Burnham initially proposes a violent course of action that her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) dismisses as conflicting with Federation values; later Burnham becomes the proponent of Federation values butting heads with the ends-justify-the-means attitudes of Captain Lorca. While at first Discovery seems like a “grim and gritty” wartime take on Star Trek, especially during its third and fourth episodes, which focus on Lorca’s dubious actions, the story arc’s trajectory ultimately serves as a refutation of Burnham’s initial impulses as well as Lorca’s utilitarian morality.
If you want to read the rest of the review, which focuses on how the show plays with traditional Star Trek tropes and the joys of franchises, it begins on page 23 of this PDF. There are some spoilers, though I tried to not go too far.

It turns out that 750-1000 words is not a lot of words to discuss a fifteen-episode entry in the television franchise about which I have the most feelings, so there's a lot that had to go to the side because of the focus I selected. I may ruminate on that here some day (I have a lot of opinions about sound design in Discovery), but I may not.

Issue #324 also contains reviews of N. K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti: The Night Masquerade, the film version of Annihilation, and Gothic Science Fiction, 1818 to the Present, a particularly dreadful monograph I reviewed for Science Fiction Studies a couple years ago (the SFRA Review reviewer agrees with me). Read it!

03 May 2018

Review: A Yellow Aster by Kathleen Mannington Caffyn

PDF eBook, 307 pages
Published 1894
Read May 2017
A Yellow Aster by Iota
"The whole scheme [of Christian religion] is very fine," she said one day; "it is a perfect idyll in its way, and divine from the mere exaltation and grandeur of it; but where any proof of a personal God comes in I can't see, any more than in any of the other creeds. They all seem to be chips off the same block. The ideal God seems universally human—this Jewish one with the rest. He is feeble and tyrannical, and He, in the old Testament, is so inconsistent; and in the New—well, after all, that is only rather a more modern reflection of the Old. As for Christ, we know so little of Him,—and then when all's said, His loveliest and best thoughts were also thought in the Vedas by the Brahmins. It is wonderful beyond comprehension to me how so many have lived and died for such myths. The greatest and divinest quality of God seem to me to be His inexorableness, and even that failed Him more than once at a pinch." (74-5)
This was a strange book, an 1890s romance novel by the then-prolific author Kathleen Mannington Caffyn, under her pen name of "Iota." The basic premise is that a married pair of amateur scientists, the Warings (Mrs. Waring being the earliest woman of science I know of in fiction except for Maria Gallilee in Wilkie Collins's Heart and Science), try to raise their children without religion, but lots of natural science, and then they'll be given the Bible when they're teens so that the parents can see what what objective decision they reach. The plan fails for a variety of reasons, but their daughter Gwen is still without religion, and with a scientific level of detachment, as you can in the passage above, despite years of tutoring by the local rector and his wife.

The book starts with the parents, but around the one-quarter mark clearly becomes Gwen's book. Gwen is beautiful, kind, and intelligent-- but unable to love thanks to her scientific upbringing. Men fall in love with her by the score, but she never with them. Finally one talks to her as an equal (opening up about his premarital sexual relationships, not a thing I expected to see happen in an 1894 novel), one Sir Humphrey Strange, a world traveler who reminded me of Sir Richard Burton. She agrees to marry him even though she does not love him, as an experiment.

As you might guess, A Yellow Aster is about the slow process by which Gwen's heart is opened to love and to Christianity. It's utterly fascinating, and it doesn't adhere to traditional morality as much as one might expect: for example, Gwen concludes it's better to have a child born of love outside of marriage than within an unloving marriage. Gwen herself and her wacky parents (who view children as a distraction from the writing of their geological magnum opus; Mrs. Waring refers to herself a "tortured woman" when her nursemaid asks her a question about disciplining the children (6), for example) are the real points of interest in the novel, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, in the way they're detached from everyday concerns. Gwen is a great precocious child, and becomes a reasonably precocious adult. Caffyn is, as far as I know, a largely forgotten writer now except within certain critical circles (I came across a reference to A Yellow Aster in a monograph about "New Women" novels by Patricia Murphy), and not good enough to really warrant recuperation outside of them, but if you're interested in Victorian concepts of gender, science, and education, it's a fascinating read.

02 May 2018

Hugos 2018: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Trade paperback, 416 pages
Published 2017

Acquired October 2017
Read November 2017
The Broken Earth, Book Three: The Stone Sky
by N. K. Jemisin

I found the conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy way less satisfying than the two books that preceded it. Maybe I was in the wrong mood, but it just felt like the first two-thirds or so was a lot of wandering around without clear narrative purpose. Neither Essun nor Nassun's stories were as captivating as they were in the previous volume; how much of Essun trying to integrate into a community and not doing too well at it do we have to see? I don't think a point was made in this part that wasn't better made in a previous part. Plus the interstitial parts about the history of the world I found disruptive, with a lot of what we might call thaumababble: I found it difficult to follow or care about the minutiae of how orogeny worked, especially once a second system of magic was introduced. The first two books were very strong, and the conclusion to this one was decent, but I was nowhere near as into it as I was its predecessors.