The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

Sword and Star – Sunny Moraine

Series: Root Code, #3
First Published: 21st May, 2016
Genre: Space Opera / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Riptide / Anglerfish

The rebel fleet is recovering after a major battle, but more losses are to come. This puts a strain on Adam’s relationship with his husband Lochlan. Meanwhile, Sinder has a plan to get rid of the rebels and save the Protectorate.

The book is told from the perspectives of several characters, though Adam is presented as the main protagonist. Adam is a former member of the Protectorate. Lochlan is from the Bideshi, a group of space nomads. The rebels are made up of a mixture of both. Previously, Adam had been accepted by the Bideshi and trained by their Aalim (people with powers) to use his own powers.

The core of the story focuses on character relationships. A lot of time is spent recovering from attacks, with the tensions that arise when the initial rush of action is over. I liked the general idea of that, but I wish it hadn’t mainly been romantic relationships. Friendships and other family relationships were pushed to the side, such as someone’s children being conveniently absent and only mentioned in passing. It was that odd feeling of a community made up of a series of couples, rather than having a range of relationships.

I did like the political elements, as both sides have to make alliances and plan strategies. Sinder’s sections were particularly good for this, as it explores the ways he convinces himself the end justifies the means. He enlists the help of Julius, an exiled Bideshi, and tries to ignore that there might be very good reasons for the exile.

The worldbuilding had some elements with potential. Bideshi ships have a forest inside and an alien race appears briefly. Those things didn’t appear as more than background detail though.

The characters are various races, such as Lochlan and others of the Bideshi being black, though culturally things are pretty Western. The story of Abraham is told in detail and Western history is remembered. But other cultures are down to a few names and a forgotten statue. The main relationship is two men, though the other relationships are men and women. So there’s some diversity, but not perhaps as much as I’d hoped.

Some areas aren’t handled well at all. The Aalim are blind, which is connected to their abilities. It uses the common trope of them having magical sight. Their blindness was also constantly reinforced, in a way that felt very othering. The characters couldn’t appear without some reference to them being blind. Their eyes were blind eyes. When they looked at things, it was emphasised that they weren’t really looking, because they were blind.

Julius is albinistic. He’s described as having unnaturally pale skin, and that it’s disturbing when he’s dressed in white as that matches his skin. It could be argued this is from Sinder’s perspective, but the narrative also reinforces it as being true. Julius has supernatural abilities gained through violent means (some of which is shown graphically). He’s portrayed as an irredeemable monster. This falls into the stereotype of the evil albino, with a side helping of blaming his evil on insanity.

There were other things that didn’t work for me, like describing Adam using his abilities as though it was rape, Lochlan almost hitting Adam, and the general white saviour feel of Adam’s story.

It’s not a bad science fiction story. I liked the political parts and the interactions between the antagonists. It could appeal to someone who likes a strong focus on romantic relationships during difficult times. But the parts that didn’t work for me really didn’t, to the point of putting the book down for long periods.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Love, Lattes and Angel – Sandra Cox

Love, Lattes and Angel CoverSeries: Mutants, #3
First Published: 12th April, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Piper is a dolphin-human hybrid, called a dolph. She and her friends are on the run from the scientist who created the dolphs. Her friends include her human boyfriend Tyler, her baby daughter Angel, dolph siblings Joel and Amy, and her human grandfather. Angel was recently created in a lab, from Piper and Joel’s DNA, and seems to have many new abilities. They’ll have to deal with strange storms, voodoo, and love triangles. Note that though it’s generally a light book, there are some scenes of medical torture.

I like stories centred around oceans and mermaids, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Dolphin-human hybrids sounded as though they could be interesting, even with a mention of a love triangle (which isn’t my thing) and voodoo (often handled very badly) in the description. Sometimes I regret my choices.

It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Piper and Joel. The book is not well-written right from the start. It has confusing and awkward lines, dialogue that doesn’t sound real, and paper-thin characters. The opening makes little sense, as it has Joel waking up from having his tracking chip removed. But no one considered that taking off the suppressor he was wearing would lead the bad guys right to them. There’s no obvious reason why the suppressor couldn’t be kept near the chip at all times during surgery, except that the plot couldn’t happen if they were sensible.

So Piper, Joel and Angel need to get back to the others immediately, as the bad guys might be on the way. That means time to stop for a swim, which mainly seems to happen so Joel can admire Piper’s long legs, flat belly and perky breasts. That’s obviously more important than getting to safety.

Piper doesn’t get to make her own decisions about the love triangle (with Tyler and Joel). It’s all about what the men decide to do, not about what she decides. They decide if it’d be wrong for her to have a relationship with them. They decide when it’s over. Piper is often likened in the narrative to her daughter. They do the same things, get the same gifts from Joel, and he thinks of them together as his girls… but Piper is an adult and Angel is a child. Everyone seems to forget that Piper is not a child, and should be able to make her own decisions.

At one point, Piper does complain that a decision was made for her. But the narrative is quick to confirm she’s just being silly, as Joel knows best and is doing what’s right. Later, Piper thinks of herself as being female and irrational. Thank goodness she has some rational men around to guide her and save her from danger.

Angel is the perfect child. She doesn’t smell like vomit, never needs her nappies changed, and is always cooperative. She is the best dolph of them all, as she can speak as a baby, swim faster, is telepathic, and knows the languages of all living creatures. I was waiting for some crack, but she remains perfect in every way. I suppose she had to be, because it’s not like her parents were about to come up with a plan before rushing into certain death.

This is science fiction that doesn’t realise it’s not hard science, so keeps trying to explain things in ways that break the suspension of disbelief. More handwaving the details would have gone a long way, because the science is magic.

For example, having DNA from a certain species wouldn’t magically give someone the abilities of that species. Only having the traits the DNA codes for would do that. But in this book, dolphin DNA means they can swim faster, without any fins, flippers, webbed hands/feet or anything of that nature. When Angel can swim even faster, they think she must have some fish DNA that causes that. But still no outward physical swimming adaptations.

What dolphin DNA does give them is a blowhole and the ability to hold their breath for a long time. It also gives them eyes the colour of the ocean, hot model bodies, wonderful body scent, and beautiful voices. Because dolphins are known for all those things.

There’s also the discussion about dolphin telepathy. Saying that dolphins are telepathic, and therefore that’s why Angel is telepathic, is the sort of handwaving that goes on in science fiction. However, it actually says, “Dolphins can encode information with their echolocation and whistles. Some folks consider that telepathic.” I encode information in sounds from my vocal chords all the time, which I like to call having a language.

On to the part I was concerned about from the initial description: the voodoo. Molita is a vodou high priestess, who does various rituals for them. Angel, of course, is wiser than anyone who practises vodou and teaches Moilta better ways to do things. Later, there’s a conversation between the characters to explain to the reader about vodou. The whole thing is awkward, and full of the white characters thinking of it as dangerous dark magic and the like. There is at least some pushback that it’s a religion, but I wouldn’t call this a good example of vodou. It’s about on a level with the rest of the book.

Amy is barely there as a character, until she needs rescuing. One of the bad guys is described as albino, which reinforces the trope of albinistic people being inherently evil. Everyone falls in instalove. There are just so many points where I regretted thinking dolphin-human hybrids sounded fun.

Bad writing, worldbuilding and characterisation mean there’s not a lot going for this. I can see people reading it to boggle at the badness, but there’s not a lot else to recommend it. I did like the pet chicken.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Texture Like Sun – Ils Greyhart

Texture Like Sun CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 21st March, 2016
Genre: Fantasy Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Liang is a painter who can pull colours from the world around him. Xerxes is an incubus, who visits people’s dreams to feed off their sexual energy. When Xerxes visits Liang’s dreams, he’s confused. All Liang wants to do is give him a comfy sweater.

Liang has been kept a prisoner for several years while he finishes a large commission. The early part introduces that situation, along with his gift of making paints from nature. But the painting plotline fades into the background most of the time. It’s mainly about his discussions with Xerxes, until it’s time for him to escape. I can’t say much about the setting as a result. The person hiring Liang is described as a Sheik. The guards wear veils. Liang comes from a country to the Northeast. There’s not a whole lot more depth to the setting, as it’s mostly glossed over and not described.

The potential unfortunate implications of the setup are mainly avoided. Incubi don’t aim to kill people. They visit dreams, have consensual dream sex for the energy, and the person wakes up tired the next day. So Xerxes isn’t running around mass murdering when he’s not visiting Liang. Xerxes also doesn’t try to force his interest after the initial advances are rejected. Once he decides he’s going to keep visiting, he accepts that it’s not going to be sexual as part of the deal.

Using exact labels won’t always come up in a story, but it would have been a lot less convoluted in this case. They have a discussion where Xerxes says he’s an incubus and explains it. Liang vaguely refers to people like him and explains it. Labelling the incubus and not the asexual person came across oddly.

It was a premise with potential, but I don’t think it hit it. I’d have liked the painting plot to have more development, including a little more action in the escape scene. The relationship was generally as cute as dressing an incubus in a sweater so he doesn’t get cold suggests it will be. But the initial humour of that imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole story.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]