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Literally All The Feelings I Have About Voltron December 13, 2018

Posted by Erin Ptah in Erin Watches.
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Final season is about to drop, so…

I’ve actually been watching the whole time, but pretty sure I’ve never talked about it anywhere? Because I don’t have enough feelings about it to be worth venturing into the massive wankpit that is the fandom.

But I do have some feelings, and may as well put them down somewhere.

In no particular order, general thoughts:

  • First-season setup was good!
  • Classic dramatic “we form Voltron for the first time out of friendship+panic” scene, good comedy “wait, how did we do that? will it help if we stack all our lions on top of each other? …and I’ll form the head?” follow-up.
  • Pidge is cool. Yeah, my fave is the Velma/Nenene mashup, no surprise there. (I was unspoiled for the twist, and didn’t see it coming, which was nice.)
  • Fans who try to treat Pidge as Canon Representation of anything other than a standard “girl dresses as a boy to sneak into something” plot arc are…tiring.
  • Allura is also cool. Elegant space-elf princess who’s secretly a dork and turns out to be awesome at martial arts? Nice.
  • Favorite side characters: those two Galra henchwomen. Can’t keep track of their names (or what they’re doing most of the time, tbh), but if I say Purple Jasper and Purple Ty Lee you’ll know who I mean.
  • There’s a little too much “we can’t take Voltron into battle, the supervillains might get it!” angst, at least in the early seasons. What’s the point of having a legendary battle mech if all you can do with it is hide it?
  • The plot could be really all-over-the-place. I would watch a season, then come to the internet later and see people having deep discussions about a whole chunk I had totally forgotten, because it was so disconnected from the rest that it just dropped out of my mind.
  • Feels like that got more pronounced as the seasons went on, but I couldn’t swear to it, and I’m not rewatching them all to check.
  • Special note: that handwavey game-show filler episode, in the most recent season? That kind of thing is designed to be a recap, refreshing casual viewers on all the salient plot points and where the different factions stand, before diving into the finale. And this one was just…random. There were funny jokes, don’t get me wrong! But not much else.
  • Also, the clone subplot in particular was rough. Every twist seemed to come out of nowhere, and leave no broader worldbuilding consequences in its wake.
  • I’m sure Shiro will be happy with his shiny new battle mech, but it’s still kind of a bummer that he’ll never really be reintegrated with Team Voltron.
  • In spite of all this griping, I’m tuning in for the final season. It has its funny moments, and some good character stuff, and I’m sure we’ll get a heartwarming ending full of the Power of Friendship.
  • Also, gotta get the firsthand look, so when the wankbomb explodes I’ll have some idea what everyone is yelling about.

And, on their own special list, thoughts about shipping!

  • I figured Lotura was gonna crash and burn when Lotor was revealed as evil eventually, but the execution was really good. Lots of “wait, this thing he’s doing is actually helpful, and has no obvious ulterior motive” buildup. You can believe the characters were won over.
  • Allura sucker-punching him into a wall afterward (or was it a floor? or whatever) was Good Content.
  • Klance was never gonna happen.
  • Sheith had more plausible “romantic tropey setup” moments, but if it was gonna happen, TPTB never would’ve included things like “you’re my brother” and “here’s an on-screen shot of them meeting when Keith is 12.” (Note: this does not make it OMG Terrible for fans to ship it.)
  • Holtcest had…uncomfortable amounts of canon chemistry. It’s like someone decided “okay, everyone knows these two aren’t going to be a canon couple, so nobody will feel shipteased if we play them like they’re in a Folger’s commercial.”
  • Allurance is fine. Standard setup, the general tropes aren’t my thing and the execution isn’t doing anything new, but it’s not rushed or obnoxious, either.
  • Shiro having a male ex, in a serious relationship, was an awesome reveal.
  • The discovery that TPTB had secret backup “no homo” alt-scripts for their conversation highlights how precarious our representation still is. The team must’ve had to fight up to the very last minute to get it in.
  • Pulling a Bury Your Gays with the ex was a poor choice, but I have a hunch it was because didn’t have the stamina to fight with management for a second scene with him and Shiro, even a post-romantic “we’ve both moved on, but I’m glad you’re okay now” scene.
  • If Shiro is getting married off to a random new bf in the final credits? That’s cool bu me. More would be great, but when it comes to “m/m content in Western kids’ cartoons” this already is more than usual, and will raise the bar for whoever comes next.

(December talking meme.)

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Erin Reads: the Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisen December 11, 2018

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Some thoughts about this multi-Hugo-award-winning trilogy. The parts I liked, and the parts that mean I’m going to end up complaining anyway.

I’ll mark the point where the spoilers kick in.

The series takes place on a dystopian far-future Earth where geology has gone horribly awry, leading to a pattern of disastrous “Seasons.” Communities that still exist have developed long-term survival techniques like “maintain store-caches with a decade’s worth of food at all times.”

A subset of humans are born with the ability to sense and control earthquakes by redistributing energy. You would think this would be a great and useful skill that communities compete to attract, but nope, they’re hated and feared so much that discovery of the skill can prompt people to murder their own children. There’s an isolated training center that trains and controls them, and residents of that center are hired and tolerated — just barely.

Pros:

  • The writing is very good
  • The worldbuilding is cool and unique
  • Frank, unashamed inclusion of queer+trans characters
  • Lots of pretty stuff going on with magic rocks

Cons:

  • Don’t get too attached to anyone, because main characters keep dying right and left
  • [see spoilers]

One cool layer in the worldbuilding is how much disparate strands of culture are influenced by the worldbuilding. There’s no sense of religion, other than an anthropomorphization of the Earth itself as a malevolent force. All their swearwords are derived from rocks/dirt/geological events. Organized study of astronomy is gone, because everyone’s survival depends on looking down to such a degree that nobody has time to look up.

(Spoilers start here.) (more…)

Danger & Eggs review: It’s really good, but mostly not for the reasons it gets hyped for. August 10, 2018

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So I finally had a chance to watch Danger & Eggs, the Amazon Prime animated kids’ show. Only one season so far, 13 episodes, most of them consisting of two distinct 12-minute segments.

It’s a lot of cute fun.

You know how Phineas and Ferb is partly about mundane suburban family stuff, but the kids’ adventures keep pushing the bounds of fantasy and sci-fi, and meanwhile there’s a world of secret-agent animals fighting mad scientists that they keep intersecting with?

That’s the energy Danger & Eggs has. It centers around a city park where people walk their dogs, rent the clamshell for concerts, hold ren faires…and don’t bat an eye at the underground full of leftover experiments from a failed mad-science organization.

Our heroes are D.D. Danger, human girl whose father was a famous stuntman, and Phil, giant talking egg whose mother is a house-sized mutant chicken. D.D. is wild, energetic, and adventurous; Phil is nervous, quiet, and safety-conscious. They are Best Friends. The comedy writes itself.

And it’s never mean comedy, either. They appreciate each other’s differences! There’s an episode where they wander into a labyrinth controlled by a slightly-deranged AI, get separated, and the AI creates an “ideal” simulation of each of them to entice the other into staying forever. But its strategy backfires — holo!D.D. is quiet and listless, holo!Phil is reckless and hyperactive, and the real kids discover that this isn’t appealing at all, that their friendship works because of how they balance each other out.

So that’s the good part.

The bad part is, before I started watching, all I knew about the show was “it’s full of LGBTQ characters! It has such good gay and trans representation! The whole last episode takes place at a Pride parade!”

Which meant I got pretty let down as the stuff I was expecting…didn’t happen.

(more…)

Erin Listens: The Gateway July 11, 2018

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Just finished listening to The Gateway: a 6-part podcast series about “Teal Swan, a new brand of spiritual guru, who draws in followers with her hypnotic self-help YouTube videos aimed at people who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.”

(So if you don’t want to read a long post about those things, you should bail out here.)

I’d never heard of Teal before this, and I still don’t know anything about her beyond what’s in this report. But I do know a few things about psychiatry that aren’t in the series.

And based on that…I have complaints.

(more…)

I dread the day when the suffering of my fellow is none of my concern June 28, 2018

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I’ve had Grace Petrie’s “They Shall Not Pass” in pretty heavy rotation for a few days now, and wanted to share.

Stand up today that we might save tomorrow
Oh I know there’s a way that we might save tomorrow
Yes it’s late in the day but we might save tomorrow if we try

We shall not turn against each other, for our creed or for our colour
Nor the ones we choose our lovers, or our class
You that beckon us that way, you shall not pass

Erin Watches: Scandal, the final season, through the finale April 24, 2018

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So…that happened.

I didn’t binge-watch the back half of the season, just kept up every week or two, so no liveblogging this time. Instead you get a long stream of final thoughts.

Plus, a rec for The West Wing Weekly. It’s a WW recap podcast with Joshua Malina (Will Graham in TWW, David Rosen here in Scandal) as co-host, and tons of high-profile guests (like, up to “sitting US senator” level) and in-depth conversations. Episode 4.18 dovetails with the Scandal finale, and features some sweet behind-the-scenes stories.

I really miss the days when Olivia Pope and Associates were actually taking cases.

Only one guy showed up at the office asking for help this season. And his problem turned out to be that he was being framed by Olivia, to take the heat off herself and/or Mellie. Quinn and the others did absolutely nothing to help — their only advice at the end was “even though you did literally nothing wrong, all you can do is flee the country and start a new life. Somewhere without extradition.”

And that was basically the whole season. Our core cast arranging itself into shifting alliances and going after each other, helping no one, leaving a lot of innocent people as collateral damage along the way.

The show always had a theme of characters making Dramatic Speeches that weren’t backed up by the rest of the writing. Sometimes they were working on bad information; other times they had obvious reasons to lie; other times they had a motive and were running with whatever line of BS backed it up.

That last one came up during the How To Get Away With Murder crossover event, where Olivia made some stuff up to cover for whatever illegal thing she was in on. Never followed HTGAWM, so I don’t know how much eyerolling that protagonist deserves, but it was a relief when she actually managed to catch it and call Olivia out.

(My favorite example is that election-season episode when a bomb went off, and one of Still President Fitz’s primary opponents was on-site pulling people out of the rubble. Which of course is terrible publicity for your opponent to get…so Olivia was on the phone with TV stations, yelling things like “Your President is making a speech! That should be your top priority!” It’s the perfect combination of self-serving BS, protagonist-centered morality, and total lack of compassion for innocent victims.)

Anyway, I bring this all up because as of this season, they’ve overplayed the trick so hard that it’s lost all its power.

“He was my friend!” yells Dad Pope in anguish, over a guy he long-conned, manipulated, and just murdered. “Tell the truth — the truth will be your armor,” declares Olivia to Mellie with total conviction, before they discuss how she definitely can’t tell the truth about the election they all conspired to steal. It’s absurdist. It’s nonsense. All you can do is groan and roll your eyes and wait for them to get on with it, already.

As we roll into the last few episodes, the setup on the chessboard looks like this:

–Olivia, during her stint as Command of extra-evil-secret-CIA B-613, had a visiting head-of-state assassinated (on plausibly-deniable non-orders from President Mellie). She’s been covering it up ever since.

–Vice President Cyrus staged a cyber-hijacking of Air Force Two, which got him lots of attention and let him make a heroic “let us go to our deaths with bravery” speech that got filmed by the press on-board. He’s following that up by trying to frame Mellie for the hijacking and get her impeached.

–The firm-formerly-known-as-OPA ducklings are trying to expose Olivia. No, wait, they’re friends with Olivia again, they’re trying to expose Cyrus. All without exposing the fact that most of them have B-613 murders on their hands themselves.

–Dad Pope is officially retired from Command, but (as mentioned) still murdering people on his own time. Also, complaining a lot about white people.

–Jake has been shuffled around a variety of high-ranking positions based on whatever’s most convenient for keeping him in White House proximity. I think he’s officially Command now? And he’s siding with VP Cyrus in terms of who he’s murdering these days.

–Also, remember Jake’s wife, and how he seriously considered choking her to death in her sleep last season? Yeah, she’s dead now. Didn’t even get some kind of “intrepid investigator on the verge of exposing all his other crimes” storyline leading up to it. I feel like he just got tired of not murdering her.

We should also note that, at this point, B-613…does not appear to have any actual agents left. Frankly, I’m not sure they ever had more than 6 at a time in the first place.

Which you would think would kinda hamper their job as a super-competent ominous secret death squad.

So with all those pieces in place, Congress is holding special pre-impeachment hearings, trying to figure out exactly who to prosecute on what charges. (Everyone for everything? Wouldn’t be too far off.)

And…they actually get correct information! While investigating Mellie for the fake hijacking, they come across the real assassination, so that’s when Olivia decides to take full responsibility and out the existence of B-613 to the world. The rest of the ducklings follow along and testify about their own roles.

The person in charge of the actual prosecuting is Attorney General Josh Malina. So there’s this dramatic overnight when nobody knows what the committee is going to recommend to him, but the smart money is on:

–Throw out VP Cyrus for staged terrorism
–Put Olivia, Huck, Quinn, Quinn’s baby-daddy, and Jake in jail for the B-613-related subset of their crimes
–Nothing for Mellie, she’s cool.

This is when Cyrus calls the Attorney General and claims he wants to make a deal. So, naturally, the AG goes to his house and has a drink alone with him.

I cannot tell who in this situation is more wall-bangingly stupid — the AG, who thought this was safe, or Cyrus, who apparently thought “if the guy whose job is to prosecute me abruptly dies in my house with no witnesses, that won’t be at all suspicious!”

Except that…somehow…it…works??

Like…one of the last scenes is Olivia handing Cyrus a letter of resignation and saying “even though you’re not being prosecuted, you’re going to sign this now.” Why not?? He very obviously just murdered the AG on top of everything else! The Deputy AG could be dumb as a box of rocks and still get a conviction! I would put Cyrus away for life on that evidence even if the prosecutor was literally a box of rocks!

Also: Dad Pope makes a surprise last-minute appearance in front of the committee. Confirms the existence of B-613. Makes a grand speech about how it controlled who got the presidency, it set the value of the dollar, it secretly had all the real power in the US government. All handled by this cabal of as many as six (6) assassins at one time. Sure, Jan.

But…for some reason…that means…no jail time for anyone at all???

Dad Pope confesses to running the operation, and therefore none of the operatives are accountable for anything? Dad Pope was retired when Olivia committed her war crimes, but his presence means nobody’s mad about that anymore either??

How.

It’s not even…I mean, it’s the last episode. They know it’s the last episode. There’s no need to force the characters back to the status quo in preparation for next season! They could do a flash-forward, slip in a bit of exposition about how everyone’s served their time for crimes committed, and end on a reunion! A few hugs, a few tears, a profound sense of relief that they’ve finally taken responsibility for all their bad deeds and can start fresh, pan out on a nice sunny DC landscape, curtain.

And instead, absolutely everything fizzles.

Don’t get me wrong, Quinn finally getting a wedding (with Huck officiating! and her baby-daddy finally revealing his non-alias name!) was cute. But it didn’t make up for the otherwise-total dramatic kerflop.

During the time this season was running, I found out that Grey’s Anatomy was on Netflix, and managed to binge the entire back catalog. Didn’t actually realize it was a Shonda Rhimes show until a few seasons in.

You can see a bit of shared DNA — the same style of Dramatic Important Speeches, the engaging high-stakes drama, the mostly-underwhelming romances, the occasional physically-abusive man who’s supposed to be a sad woobie. But I would not have guessed they were connected without prompting, because most of the Grey’s characters…are decent human beings. They’re kind. Honorable. Genuinely trying to do good in the world.

Some of them are ridiculous, too. And I’m not deeply invested in most of the characters as people (except Christina — I would’ve been so mad if they killed off Christina — and Bailey — listen, writers, y’all better not do wrong by Bailey). But you know what, it is enjoyable and fulfilling to watch.

(Also: lesbian and bi characters! Who are described in those words! And have long-term romantic dramas like anyone else! And who are mostly still alive!)

Anyway, the point of this detour is that the later episodes of Scandal started coming with ads for her new show, Station 19. Which, as far as I’m concerned, was not a compelling advertising strategy.

But then someone on FFA said it was in the same mode as Grey’s, i.e. “noble melodramatic people” rather than “aggressively terrible people”, so I gave it a try. Turns out it’s straight-up a shared universe with Grey’s, crossover characters and everything.

(Also: gay man on the team! Who’s been comfortably out of the closet since long before the pilot episode, and nobody thinks twice about the fact that he had a husband!)

So, yeah. Scandal was a mess, but if you admire Shonda’s talent and would like to experience it in a less soul-crushing format, I recommend both of the above.

…and she’s also debuting a new legal drama, so if anyone wants to tip me off about whether We The People is written by Scandal!Shonda or Grey’s!Shonda, it’ll be much appreciated.

Erin Watches: Adventures with Tip and Oh season 3, part 2 March 5, 2018

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Just finished the back half of season 3! And I think this was the first time we had a real multi-episode arc plot. I didn’t even realize it was happening until we got to the full-length finale, and it started following up on elements that were established in earlier episodes. Even the solution was foreshadowed. (Maybe a little too obviously, especially since it’s not on a week-to-week release schedule where viewers might forget a plot from three episodes ago. But props for trying.)

Movie continuity shoutouts: Episode 11a involves Tip and Oh re-enacting the “interrupting cow” scene. Using sock puppets. It’s adorable. Episode 12a has Tip replace her mom’s profile pic on a dating app — a cropped screencap of the movie — on the grounds that “it doesn’t even look like her!” And the finale involves what I assume is a reference to the IRL controversy where they designed a cover for the DVD with no sign of Tip on it. (Someone releases a comic about the story, with a giant Oh dominating the cover and a tiny stick-figure Tip on the side, telling the story of “Oh And Some Human.” Tip is…not pleased.)

Gender stuff: Episode 9b has Tip and Oh start a spacegoing pseudo-Girl-Scouts group, open to all. Oh starts listing off identities that are welcome, including genders, including “boy, girl, boyboy, boygirl, boyboygirlgirl…” That last one isn’t a canonical Boov gender. Does that mean…growing awareness of non-septenary Boov? Or nonbinary humans coming up with their own variations on Boov gender? Or both?

And episode 12b really doubles down on Oh being a canon boyboy, huh. “Tip will be so proud when I tell her that I am being a brave boyboy now.”

Miscellaneous notes:

A few more episodes with repetitive themes. Tip makes a new alien friend and Oh gets jealous! Encountering a new group of Boov who haven’t interacted with humans, and treat us like exotic/scary animals (complete with “safari” through Chicago), until they make friends! At least one of them paid off in the finale.

I did like the running gag of “hot dogs are full of try-not-to-think-about-it.”

Episode 10b starts with Oh drawing AU fanart of Tip’s diary. And ends with Tip inventing a terrifyingly dramatic story in order to scare Oh away from messing with her diary in the future. It involves Sharzod and a team of Boov having a dramatic mall battle against Tip and a team of DieAnne-and-biker-friends.

Episode 12a reveals that Tip is a fan of something called Volcano Biker Cops 12. (In which “true love” is revealed to be “two misfit cops overcoming their differences before riding their motorbikes over a volcano.”) I’m so happy that there are 12 of them.

At some point in episode 13 we have this fabulous exchange: “Sharzod’s house is a spaceship!” “How did this never come up??” “I has told you many times.” Cue a sequence of strategically-modified flashbacks to earlier episodes. Much as I enjoyed the bits of the finale that were thoughtfully foreshadowed, that was a great gag.

Final thoughts: [spoiler] and Kyuubey need to make friends. [Spoiler]: “I wasn’t hiding anything! I would have told you [evil plot] if you’d simply asked!” Tip: “Who asks that.”

…Now I have to remember to draw Puella Magi Tip some time.

Erin Watches: Adventures with Tip & Oh, season 3 (part 1) January 31, 2018

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This has been out on Netflix for, like, months now, but I was holding off until I had the time to properly enjoy it.

I feel like we’re repeating a lot of the same themes and morals from earlier seasons. Tip hides something from her mother, and learns a valuable lesson about honesty! Oh takes some human concept to an extreme, and learns a valuable lesson about moderation! Tip gets wrapped up in social media, and learns a valuable lesson about online validation! Oh gets tempted by a prestigious role in Boov society, and learns a valuable lesson about how he’s happiest with his family! And so on.

Notes about episodes 1-7 (okay, mostly about Boov gender in episodes 1-7):

Episode 1b: DieAnne is back! And revealed to be a teenager of her species. (They’re called Roidians.) Tip and Oh show up at Roidian Prom, where it appears that adolescent female Roidians are about 1.5x as big as the males. And adult female Roidians, or at least DieAnne’s mother, are…giant flaming pit-monsters?

Episode 2a: Krunkle’s back! And is referred to as “she” now, even though that was “misgendering” when Tip said it earlier. Probably the writers just forgot, but I’ll be over here working on headcanons about concept drift/universal translator inconsistency/Krunkle coming out as trans.

Episode 2b: Tip and Oh celebrate their Friendiversary, including flashbacks to their first meeting. They redrew scenes from the movie in the show’s style. Very cute.

Episode 3a: A one-off reference to an individual Boov as “they.” (“There’s another Boov I hang out with, and they do nice things for me, and I look out for their well-being…”) Guessing that’s a boygirl or a girlboy.

Episode 3b: The whole plot hinges on “Oh learning to tell lies,” which, uh, is harder to headcanon away. He knows what lies are! One of the first things he said to Tip was “I will shoot forth the lasers from my eyes”! And the show hasn’t been doing the Boov emotional color-changing to begin with, but it’s especially notable here, where suddenly Oh isn’t turning green and it’s not a thing.

Episode 4a features a Boov singer named Chercophanie…who I assumed was doing a Cher impression, but nope, she was actually voiced by Cher. Who even did a song for them. Nice get, Netflix.

Episode 5a: Sharzod manipulates Oh into a date (they remember the continuity of the number-one date that ends with a bell-ring, at least), and at one point comments “I like a boyboy with a sense of humor.” I totally thought Oh was confirmed as a boy, not a boyboy. (Of course, Sharzod is always referring to Tip as a boy, so maybe she’s just bad with gender.)

Tip in this episode refers to Sharzod as “heheshe”, which is definitely a first. Right? (Lucy called her a boyboygirl earlier, but everyone’s used “she” pronouns.)

Episode 7a gives us talking cat-aliens. I’m surprised it took them this long, frankly.

Oh, and: there’s a standalone Christmas special! Which is…a very thin plot full of mildly-entertaining songs. Including a Jewish character who raps about Hanukkah. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but combined with the way it handled Christmas as a generic secular celebration of giving and togetherness, it did give off an odd vibe of “all religions and their winter holidays are basically the same, right?”

Not actively off-putting overall, just very skippable. Watch it if you’re a completist, but it’s no A Colbert Christmas, is what I’m saying.

Erin Watches: Scandal’s final season, episodes 1-7 January 7, 2018

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I got caught up on the currently-airing Season 7 of Scandal while working on comics. (Previous reaction posts: on Dreamwidth, on WordPress.)

Everyone is still terrible. With the possible exception of…uh…I guess Marcus. (President Mellie’s ex-affair, currently Ex-President Fitz’s minder.)

High points of terribleness:

  • Cyrus is Mellie’s VP, because heaven forbid we have new characters be important on this show.
  • In the first episode, B613!Olivia is told she’ll need to have someone (a captured spy) murdered for the sake of national security, and her reaction is “hOW could you think I would DO such a thing??!?” At the start of the episode, we recap how she murdered Luna Vargas. Over the course of it, she sends a sniper to threaten a foreign leader’s elementary-age children. Yes, Olivia, how can we suggest murder to you, that’s such an insult to your stainless honor.
  • A couple episodes later, she firebombs a plane carrying a Muslim foreign leader and his teenage lesbian niece. That’s our Olivia!
  • Republicans are championing a free-college-for-all bill. Democrats are secretly scheming to block it, even though they like the idea, because they wouldn’t be able to claim the win. Because Scandal takes place in Bizarro America.
  • When an obnoxious billionaire businessman says he might “drop a couple mill” and run for President, Cyrus gives him an impassioned speech about how the office is sacred and belongs to the people. This is the same Cyrus who got the last POTUS into office by voter fraud, and the current POTUS (and himself) into office by double-murder. Much sacred, very respect.
  • Olivia keeps giving Mellie these intense, passionate speeches about “you are not alone, I always have your back, I am the only one who’s with you, I will make you a monument.” Why it doesn’t immediately segue into them making out, I do not know.
  • Quinn puts together the pieces about Olivia’s secret firebombing, then goes missing on her wedding day. Olivia assumes Quinn went into hiding to plot her downfall…and pretends to lead the team on a fast-paced search, while secretly waging an even faster-paced campaign to plant false leads and erase evidence before they get to it. Turns out Quinn was kidnapped! All Olivia’s machinations only slowed them down from rescuing her! Our hero.
  • One of those false leads prompts Quinn’s not-yet-husband to kidnap and torture an innocent man. Goody.
  • Jake (who is now B16’s #2, remember) insists that the only villains here are the kidnappers, and urges Olivia not to blame herself. Really? Because I will totally blame Olivia.
  • Oh, almost forgot to mention — Ex-President Fitz is moping around his mansion in Vermont (Marcus describes both the state and the guy as “Cold. White.”), wallowing in how lonely and powerless he is. Go join Habitat for Humanity and build some houses, you whiny moron.

Review: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage December 18, 2017

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Finally got to La Belle Sauvage!

(Not to be confused with La Belle Sauvage, or a Progress Through the Beau-Monde, a pair of books published in 1803. Coincidence or inspiration?)

For people who liked HDM: would recommend.

It might or might not be a good jumping-in point for people who haven’t read any of the other books. Even though it’s the first in a series, it has a really hard case of “middle installment in the trilogy” syndrome — sets a bunch of things up, then abruptly stops. As a standalone work I’m sure the end would be pretty unsatisfying.

On the other hand…it does a lot of over-explaining. Every time there’s a new plot point (e.g. “the witches have some kind of prophecy about Lyra”), we get multiple scenes of it being repeated, in full, to characters who didn’t know it already. For me that was annoying, but now that I think about it, it’s a sharp contrast to the way The Golden Compass is pretty impenetrable on first go-through, and might make this book an easier way in.

So that’s the complaining out of the way. On to…

The Good Bits (spoiler-free summary)

The new characters are well-rounded and likeable. Mal in particular is a good combination of “impressive competence” and “eleven-year-old fancies.”

Hannah Relf is amazing in all ways and I would have read an entire book about just her.

Baby Lyra is precious and perfect. She and Pan are a nonverbal infant for the entire book, but she’s written with so much personality, and is so clearly the tiny version of the character we know and love in later books.

The prose in general is great. Not in the sense of Terry Pratchett, where you actively notice the cleverness, but great in the sense that it’s clear and fluid and gets everything across without getting in the way. (I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t read so many badly-written books lately.)

La Belle Sauvage is the name of Mal’s canoe. One of his friends pranked him by painting an “s” over the “v”.

New information about daemons!

New Daemon Lore (vaguely spoilery)

Unsettled daemons can take combination forms. When Mal is hanging out in a swamp, his Asta turns into an owl with duck feathers, so she can keep a distant lookout but still be waterproof.

Alice doesn’t seem stressed that her daemon Ben is unsettled at age 16, though she’s actively curious what he’ll settle as.

Daemons can be physically injured — there’s one that has a missing leg. (It’s implied that the injury was caused by its physically-abusive human, and that they are collectively pretty unhinged.)

Daemons can urinate. (It’s not described as a physical need, just an expression of contempt.)

There’s an ambiguously-magical woman whose daemon is a flock of butterflies. (!!)

Before they learn language, babies and their daemons will babble to each other. It’s suggested that this can turn into a rudimentary language of its own if you don’t teach them English (or whatever), similar to the way our-world infants will come up with proto-language if a group are neglected together.

At one point baby!Pan turns into a kitten and kneads Mal’s bare hand. He interprets it as “the taboo on daemon/human touching is learned,” but I think it’s more “Lyra really likes this kid.” Either way, it’s adorable.

A Proper Summary (here be spoilers)

Malcolm Polstead is a 10-11-year-old boy who works at his parents’ tavern/inn, where he hears all the local gossip. (One of his co-workers is 16-year-old Alice Parslow, a cousin of Roger.) He also helps out at the priory across the river. When the nuns take in baby Lyra, he gets completely starry-eyed.

Mal gets recruited by Hannah Relf as a junior informant, for a government anti-Magisterium spy organization code-named Oakley Street. (Coram van Texel, aka Farder Coram, is another of their informants.) They’re passing around secret messages about Lyra and alethiometers and the mysterious “Rusakov field.”

When they’re first introduced, Oakley Street is fascinating. The last trilogy was mostly through a kid’s POV — now here are the adults of the Resistance that had her back! Subterfuge, secret codes, undercover research, spying!

Hannah is doing research with the Oxford alethiometer, which means she gets short limited sessions with it, and uses some of that time for spy research. Later there’s a sequence where a branch of the Magisterium steals a different alethiometer, killing someone in the process, and Oakley Street retrieves it…but instead of returning it to its owners, they sneak it off and deliver it to Hannah, asking her to use it on their behalf full-time.

Did I mention I would read a whole book about her? Because I would.

But the group gets really worn-down by the book’s problem with over-explanation. For one thing, Mal gets let in on way more detail than he needs to know. (Seriously, why would you tell the kid you have a stolen alethiometer? His loyalty is still untested, not to mention, he’s a child.) On top of that, any time Oakley Street leaves top-secret information at dead-drops, that same info is also getting happily gossiped about at the tavern, and at the priory, and by random people in town.

We r serious spy team, this iz super sekrit.

The book’s recurring villain isn’t a Magisterium agent anyway. It’s Gerard Bonneville, a creepy disgraced physicist with a hyena daemon who thinks kidnapping Lyra will give him leverage to get the Church to fund his research again.

Partway through the book (I want to say halfway?), everything gets derailed by a massive flood. Buildings are flooded to the second story, that level of massive. Mal has a canoe, which got souped-up earlier by Coram to be extra-seaworthy, so he, Lyra, and Alice end up using it to escape.

At first their vague plan is to get to Jordan College. When the racing water takes them well past it, Mal decides they’ll deliver Lyra to Lord Asriel in London. They know he’s her father, and they also happen to know Mrs. Coulter is her mother, because literally nothing is secret in this book.

Up to this point everything has been well-grounded in reality. The canoe repair and navigation is expertly described, the locations around Oxford are developed in rich detail, the characters talk about practical issues of supplies and weather.

Three-quarters of the way through the book, we do a sudden genre shift, and now it’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Our heroes have a stopover on an enchanted island, where we meet Diannia, the possibly-faerie and definitely-unstable woman whose daemon is a whole flock of butterflies. Then another with a grand mansion in the distance, surrounded by an Alice-in-Wonderland garden that won’t let them get any closer to it. The place is full of partygoers who can’t see the children, but whose food they can get away with stealing — and then eating, because that sure sounds like a safe idea. They sail through an enchanted river-gate after Mal bluffs its guardian with news that Lyra is a princess, and they’re delivering her on the orders of the King of Albion.

Bonneville chases them the whole time. He murders at least one person along the way, so they end up killing him in self-defense, but then on one of the enchanted islands he’s back? And it’s not like they sailed into the afterlife, because we know what the afterlife looks like in the HDM multiverse. Lyra hasn’t even fixed it yet.

This whole arc had a lot of cool imagery, but felt really disjointed from the rest of the book. It would’ve made more sense if the fairytale elements had been integrated earlier, maybe foreshadowed by Hannah’s research.

Or if it didn’t get so fantastical at all. When Diannia was introduced, with her creepy demeanor and impression of being older than her youthful appearance, my first assumption was that she was a witch, who had taken off from her clan in grief after losing a daughter and was now fixating on Lyra for the same reason. That would’ve made more sense than “by the way, in Lyra’s world, faeries are suddenly a thing maybe.”

Finally the kids make it back to reality, re-kill Bonneville, and manage to rendezvous with Lord Asriel. He takes them to Jordan College, where he leaves Lyra for safekeeping.

This is the sudden cutoff point. Asriel takes off to do research in the North, though it’s not clear why thinks Lyra is safer at Jordan than she was at the priory in the first place. We don’t see Mal and Alice return home. It’s not like Mal’s parents were much of a presence, but it would’ve been nice to see them find out their kid was okay.

And we don’t hear anything at all from the Oakley Street crew. They were mentioned a couple of times in the back half of the book — Hannah tries to help the others work out where Mal would be taking Lyra — but got no resolution. The book really needed a bonding/reconnecting/debriefing scene with Mal and Hannah, and we didn’t get it.

(We do get Asriel warning Mal and Alice to keep the whole thing hush-hush, for the sake of protecting Lyra. Which, okay, but Mal should be able to trust Hannah with at least as much top-secret information as she entrusted to him. And both kids deserve an adult to help them decompress.)

Hopefully some of that will get retroactively dealt with in books 2 and 3. We know Mal grows up to be a scholar, and he and Hannah both tutor Lyra at points, so they’re still going to be connected.

And I’m looking forward to the next books in general. This one could be exasperating, but it wasn’t actively upsetting, and there were more than enough good and fun parts to make up the difference. If the rest of the trilogy is at least this good, it’ll be a satisfying read.