The Foxfire Lights – Elizabeth O’Connell

Foxfire Lights CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #2
First Published: 26th August, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem and his brother Hal are called to break another curse. Lord Ransom’s youngest child is sick under strange circumstances.

The setup for this book is very similar to the first in the series. A child is cursed due to events in the family’s past. Jem and Hal have to uncover those events to understand the curse. It’s based on making deals with spirits, which is resolved in a similar way. It also repeats a fair bit of character development, as Hal goes back to not wanting to share his thoughts with Jem. This means there isn’t really any progress on the overall series story of figuring out what happened to Jem and Hal’s father.

There are some areas of improvement. In the first book, only magical disabilities were shown. In this, there is some sickness due to magic, but there’s also a disabled supporting character. Matthew, one of the sons of Lord Ransom, was born with a back injury and is non-neurotypical. There’s the suggestion that he doesn’t feel empathy (rather than just not showing empathy). It’s made very clear this isn’t magical, and a positive future is suggested for him.

Isabella, Lord Ransom’s wife, is from Argentina. She’s not particularly fleshed out as a character. I’d have liked more of her story, even if it wasn’t directly related to the local events.

A character is blinded in one eye towards the end, though it’s late enough that there’s not a lot to say about it in this book.

It isn’t a bad book and will appeal to people who enjoyed the first book. A lot of the things that stood out in the first are apparent here. The world is one where industrial magic is common. The curse breaking provides opportunities for interesting investigations. There’s folklore woven into the narrative. It just feels like it repeats too much from the first book, rather than building on that foundation.

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

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children, #1
First Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Nancy has spent the last few years in the Halls of the Dead, an underworld where stillness is valued. When she returns, she ends up at a boarding school for other teenagers like her, who are longing to return to their worlds.

Contrary to the book’s official description, it’s not about children who are spat out by their portal worlds when their potential is used up. Some can return to their worlds if they find another door. Some will go back and forth many times. Which is a pity, because I liked the idea of draining children of their miracle powers like some sort of portal world vampire, but there you go.

There’s obviously a deeper system going on here, with the worlds mapped out in directions like Nonsense and Logic, but this never really gets developed. Most of the interesting setup is dropped once the murder mystery begins. Speculative murder mysteries are my thing, but this one really didn’t work for me. I figured they’d go around finding out about everyone’s worlds, in the hopes of finding clues to the killer. What actually happens is they don’t do a lot of investigating, ignore the very obvious clues, then have the answer fall into their laps at the end. Note that this is a darker mystery, so the deaths are gory and the bodies are described in detail.

Nancy is a romantic asexual person. The book attempts to explain asexuality in basic terms, but in a way that is impersonal to Nancy. It’s like a definition for someone who hasn’t heard of asexuality. Which makes it a problem when asexuality is being defined as not having a desire for sex, rather than not feeling sexual attraction. This is true for Nancy, but not for all asexual people, so it would have been better if she’d made the description personal.

The discussion of romance is rather more confused. She makes it clear she did enjoy dating when she was young enough that there wasn’t pressure for sex. She directly states she’s not aromantic. Then she goes on to describe people as being like paintings, so she doesn’t want to date because she wouldn’t date a painting. In other words, she doesn’t get into romantic relationships with people she’s not sexually attracted to, which is no one, so therefore she doesn’t date. I’m not really sure what all that was about. Maybe Nancy was confused. Maybe the author was confused. I couldn’t tell which.

However, my biggest issue with her asexuality is that it’s portrayed as a bigger problem than having returned from the Halls of the Dead. Her parents push her to date and she thinks it’s inevitable in relationships that she’ll be pressured into sex. Nancy was put into sexually awkward situations just to show her being uncomfortable, like her roommate wanting to know if Nancy wanted sex with someone, and if she could masturbate whilst Nancy was in the room. The overall feel is that it would be impossible for Nancy to exist in society as an asexual person, and so she turns her back on society.

There’s an attempt to distance Nancy’s death and stillness from asexuality, by saying a lot of people in the Halls of the Dead were sexual. Which would work better if being asexual wasn’t a reason for her to want to return there and retreat from society forever.

Nancy states she doesn’t have an eating disorder, but that’s not how it looks. She’s attempting to survive on the food that sustained her in the Halls of the Dead. That means mostly fruit juice. It’s a fantastical eating disorder for an unusual reason, but she’s still restricting her portion sizes, and this is still going to kill her. However, as it isn’t addressed as an eating disorder, there aren’t any downsides. It’s shown as rather ethereal and mysterious, which was getting a little too close to glamourising eating disorders for my liking.

One of Nancy’s new friends is Kade, who is a trans boy. He was kicked out of his world when they realised he wasn’t a girl, his parents rejected him for it, and he also faces bigoted comments at the school. The anti-trans themes weren’t unrealistic, but were rather a downer, especially considering he’s the only one who couldn’t have the happily-ever-after of going back to his perfect world.

Jack and Jill are identical twins. It avoids some tropes (they’re not telepathic linked or treated as being identical people), but does fall into others (when one twin is good the other must be bad).

There are a few non-white characters. Sumi is Japanese. Christopher is Latino. The former doesn’t get much development time, it grated that she constantly called people stupid, and I didn’t like how her story ended. The latter has some development, though I noted his world was rather Day of the Dead, linking the world to his roots in a way that doesn’t happen for the white characters. These characters exist, but it’s the white characters who are centred.

There’s an attempt to make the school mostly being girls sound less binary by blaming it on imposed gender roles, but this didn’t work for me. Nothing about “boys will be boys” would stop them disappearing through a door in an instant. It’s possible this was intended to sound ridiculous, and Kade’s experiences would suggest the portal worlds prefer girls because they’re bigots rather than there being a real gender difference. But no character challenges this at all.

Also, I never did like the trope that adults are so vastly different from children, except for old people who are just like children. This is used to justify why adults (except for old adults) can’t cope with nonsense.

I liked the concept for this a lot more than the actual story. It’s a great idea. There’s some lovely writing in places and some of the worlds were very imaginative. But it doesn’t really come together as a whole. The inclusion reads too much like it’s there to explain terms for people who don’t know them, and has some implications I don’t like very much. This is tied up in a murder mystery that isn’t very mysterious.

Wonder Woman (Film)

Genre: Superhero / Film
Main Creative Team: Patty Jenkins (director); Allan Heinberg (screenplay); Zack Snyder (story, producer); Jason Fuchs (story); Charles Roven (producer); Deborah Snyder (producer); Richard Suckle (producer)
Main Cast: Gal Gadot; Chris Pine; Ewen Bremner; Saïd Taghmaoui; Eugene Brave Rock; Lucy Davis; Robin Wright; Connie Nielsen; Danny Huston; David Thewlis; Elena Anaya
First Shown: 15th May, 2017
Available: Cinemas

When a man arrives on the island with tales of a great war, Diana (Gal Gadot) believes it is caused by Ares and heads out to find him.

This film presents a much more innocent Diana. She’s grown up among the Amazons and only knows about the world outside from stories. She thinks stopping World War I will be as simple as killing Ares. Steve (Chris Pine), the man who landed on the island, knows the situation is a lot more complicated. He has information to get back to London about a new chemical weapon, which could threaten ongoing peace negotiations.

A lot of superhero films focus on heroes learning to harness their powers as the primary thing. Diana starts out ready trained. The focus is on her learning how to direct that training and work with others. This was a side of the plot I liked, as it gets away from having to believe someone goes from nothing to being able to save the world in a few days. There’s some subversion of the idea that defeating the big bad makes all the problems go away, but it doesn’t really commit to that completely. I thought it might be about to go there, and then it doesn’t, which is a shame. It’s possible to have dramatic finales and make it clear that life is a little more complicated.

Diana and Steve end up with a small team, with the purpose of infiltrating enemy lines. I generally enjoyed the team dynamics and how the representation was tackled. Starting with Diana herself, she’s played by a Jewish Israeli actress, which is a departure from previous Wonder Woman castings. This also meant other Amazons have similar accents to match, rather than having American accents.

Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is a Scottish sniper. It becomes clear that he has PTSD, which is treated sensitively by those around him. This is particularly poignant because mental health wasn’t an area where the military did well. It was poorly understood, and things like freezing in battle were likely to be attributed to cowardice, rather than trauma. So it’s important that Charlie’s trauma was accepted and understood by those around him.

Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) is French Moroccan. There’s a nod here to racism, as Sameer says he wanted to be an actor, but was the wrong colour. He does stray into some stereotypes, such as being lecherous. Though at times it’s also clear he’s playing up stereotypes knowingly. His name was shortened to Sammy, which was a slur against Indian people at the time, so that stood out a bit in a way I don’t think the creators realised.

Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is Blackfoot and initially speaks to Diana in Blackfoot. He is dressed sensibly and speaks fluent English (which is a low bar, but one a lot of media doesn’t get over). He tells Diana about colonialism, making it clear it was Steve’s people who did that. The thing I didn’t like was a brief moment, but it still stood out. At one point, Chief needs to signal them, so he sets a fire for stereotypical smoke signals. They’re separated into little rings like it’s a cartoon, because a regular smoky fire just wouldn’t do, I suppose.

Last but not least, the team have a coordinator back in London: Etta Candy (Lucy Davis). She’s a great character, but I felt she was underused. When Diana first arrives in London, Etta is there to help out, and has some funny moments and some resourceful ones when she realises something isn’t quite right. She does her coordinator thing, passing on valuable information. But I really would have liked more in the later part of the story. Etta and Diana are shown together in the aftermath, but they don’t have a conversation, which was a missed opportunity to show their relationship developing. Also notable is that Etta is fat, as she is in the comics.

Though I liked most things about the main team, I had criticisms when it came to some of the other casting and presentation, including the crowd scenes. Modern warfare meant a lot of injuries like amputation and disfigurement. People were getting body parts blown off and mangled in ways that hadn’t really happened on that scale before. This meant there were suddenly a lot of newly disabled people. The film shows them when it’s convenient for the plot. Diana sees returning veterans with their injuries, which is part of her realising the full horror of this war. But it doesn’t show them where it would be realistic, which is every crowd scene in London. The people who returned disabled didn’t just vanish, so there would have been a much higher ratio of disabled people than there is in London today.

This also relates to the issue with Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). She has facial disfigurement, which is covered with a prosthetic. There’s a history of using facial scars and disfigurement to mark someone as a villain. Covering injuries with masks or prosthetics is linked to hiding things, rather than showing them as improving the quality of life for the person wearing them. Nothing about Doctor Poison’s portrayal challenges those stereotypes, and there aren’t people with similar injuries in other roles. It’s especially noticeable to do this in a WWI setting, because there were so many people who had that sort of injury.

Outside of that issue, Doctor Poison really could have used more development. She had the potential to be an interesting villain, but she was overshadowed by General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). This was a bit of a reoccurring thing with women who weren’t Wonder Woman, as they didn’t get as much time and development as the men.

There are some non-white women with speaking roles among the Amazons, but they don’t have major parts, and weren’t a big component of the Amazon crowd scenes. The Amazons also tended towards slim athletic builds. I’d have liked more variety here. They recruited athletes and the like for these roles, but it’s clear there was a bias in which sort of athletes were approached. I did like that there was an age range, with Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright) being played by women in their 50s.

My criticisms don’t mean it was a bad film. It was a good superhero story and a vast improvement on DC’s previous attempts. There are good aspects of representation, starting with this being one of the minority of superhero films with a woman as the lead. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that could use improvement. I’d hope some of these are considered for future films in this universe.

The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

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

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

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