Blog: Fiction

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.


Last night we saw the Broadway tour of Hadestown, a musical retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (and Hades and Persephone). I'll assume my readers know (or will Google) the Greek myths, so in that sense there are no spoilers, but this show puts an interesting spin on it. Narrated by Hermes and with active participation by the Fates, we see both Orpheus and Eurydice "up above" and Hades' realm "down below", which is reached by a train. The train motif shows up in the music, the staging, and (I kid you not) the lighting. The company is smaller than many musicals and put to effective use. I enjoyed the music and don't have a good way to describe it.

Eurydice's and Oprheus's world is harsh from climate change, the program notes, though I might have missed that specific angle otherwise. Orpheus is focused on writing a song that will bring the world back into balance, but it's slow going. In this version Eurydice isn't bitten by a poisonous snake; starving and cold in the midst of winter and unable to find work, she is lured to Hadestown by promises of work and shelter. But the workers there toil away in misery in a factory, building fortifications for Hades' domain. ("Why We Build the Wall" resonates well beyond this show, I assume by design.) When Orpheus shows up to rescue Eurydice, the other workers are taking note too. Meanwhile, Persephone, whose marriage with Hades is rather rocky (shall we say), is also taking note of the power of love.

The story is a tragedy; we know it from the myth and we're told so by Hermes in the introductory stanzas of the show. But it has a positive vibe, too. I don't want to say more about that for people who haven't seen it yet.

Orpheus's music calls for falsetto in some key places -- whole passages, not just a note or two -- and the actor in this production pulled it off very smoothly. At the other end of that, uh, scale, I find myself wanting to catch a glimpse of the score, because Hades has some very low bass notes, also performed well in this production. C2 maybe???

I don't see a lot of Broadway-class shows so maybe this is normal, but I was very impressed by the staging and especially the lighting. There's one set, used throughout, that evokes the different settings just through the movements of small items (by cast members, not gophers) and changes of lighting. The lighting in this show is very active; I commented to Dani that the lighting operators deserved cast credit. It's that integral to the show, and it's not a small effort. One warning, though: there are strobe effects, and there were times when lights were pointed at the audience for brief periods.

There were some sound problems in the show we saw -- engineering problems, not cast problems. When things got loud, they spiked the levels and we got some distortion, making it hard to hear the lyrics in a few places. I'm told by somebody who sees a lot of shows there that this is not uncommon in that venue (Benedum Center), alas.

I enjoyed the show, even with those sound issues. I wasn't familiar with the show and hadn't heard the soundtrack before seeing it; this was very much an "I've heard good things about it" outing.

Spells of War (Gary McGath)

It's the middle of the 16th century in Europe. Magic exists, but is regulated and restricted to Christian men. Then Thomas Lorenz, a curious nerd trying to solve an interesting magical-scientific problem, figured out how to store magic. He had in mind practical applications like lights without fire; others had...other applications in mind. Nobody understands where magical power comes from, why some have it and some don't -- it comes from the World Behind, they know, but what that is is a mystery.

Martin Luther's reformation has upended Christendom from within, and the expanding Ottoman empire threatens it from without. Thomas is summoned from his university by the emperor -- one of Thomas's students is now making magical weapons for the other side, and he'd better get to work on countering that. Not only that, but they seem to have developed a weapon that can strip mages of their power, an existential threat to mages beyond the broader threat.

Spells of War by Gary McGath tells this story from several points of view. We follow Thomas and his associates as they try to understand the threat and develop counter-measures. We follow Petros, the student, and his associates who are pressed into service to the sultan. We follow soldiers who are plunged into new ways of waging war. And we follow Thomas's wife, Frieda, who pursues her curiosity about the World Behind while Thomas is away, while also caring for their two young children.

Spells of War is the sequel to The Magic Battery but stands alone. The Magic Battery starts with Thomas's apprenticeship and follows his explorations into stored magic and the ire of the church it attracts. I read and enjoyed both.

Spells of War tells an interesting story with characters I cared about. In both books, the author made me care about, and understand the inner struggles of, people who are on the "other side" -- the inquisitor in the first book and Petros and his peers in the second. Spells of War shows the devastation that war causes on all involved. I don't want to say too much about the Frieda arc for fear of spoilers, but it's engaging and gives us a very different perspective.

The world of The Magic Battery and Spells of War holds together logically. There's magic but it's not "oh, we have magic so we can do anything!"; magic has limitations, both technical and societal, and 16th-century Europe is plausibly altered to make room for magic but is still 16th-century Europe. But you can't just add magic and expect nothing else to change, either; adding magic changes society, and these two books show that well.

The Magic Battery has a satisfying ending that raises broader questions. Spells of War has a satisfying ending that raises more questions. I don't think a third book is coming (or not soon, anyway), but there's room for side stories, and one is linked from the author's web site.


I was a beta reader for both books in exchange for free copies with no expectations of reviews.

Fae shifter knights (Zoe Chant)

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, someone shared a link to a blog post from Zoe Chant, who -- because we were all suddenly in lockdown and dealing with extra stress -- offered a free e-book of hers to anyone who asked. I asked, she described a few options, and I chose Dragon of Glass, the first book in what would be the Fae Shifter Knights series. I loved it and got each of the following books as they came out. The fourth and final book just came out a few weeks ago, so I'm finally getting around to writing about them.

As implied by "fae", the knights (one per book) are from another world or realm. They're transported, one at a time, into modern-day Earth, and have to learn about magical cooling boxes and lights without flames and smartphones and television -- and social conventions. I enjoyed the fish-out-of-water aspect, laughing not infrequently. It would be easy for this to be overdone, but it's not.

The knights were one fighting band on the other side, where their world fell to evil magical beings. Somehow, during their final battle, they were frozen in glass and sent into our world. (That's explained, but it would be a spoiler.) Each knight has a corresponding person in our world, a "key", who can help unlock that knight's magic (which is greatly diminished in our world). Each of the four books focuses on one of the knights while contributing to the overall story. When I started reading Dragon of Glass I thought I was getting some light-hearted fluff, but there's more depth to the series and I found the larger story engaging.

As implied by "shifter", each knight has an alternate, magical form -- dragon, unicorn, gryphon, firebird. (When they were frozen in glass, it was in those forms, at the size of tree ornaments. The set got broken up; part of the quest for the knights and keys already here is to find the other ornaments.)

Aside: There is a whole genre of "shifter romance" that I was largely unaware of two years ago. These books, and many of Zoe Chant's other books, are in this genre. There are definitely romantic elements (and some sex scenes), but as someone who's not really into romances, I didn't find it overdone or intrusive. It was just part of the story -- not the reason for the story like (as I understand it) with some mainstream romances.

The knights have a leader and mentor, a "fable" -- not a fairy, as the character keeps insisting. (At a foot tall and with wings, you can understand the confusion.) As a reader I had more trouble connecting with this character than with the knights and keys, though the fable does get some funny, snarky lines. (Part of my problem is a personal one: the number mismatch of singular "they" trips me up as a reader, every time, even when I know who the referent is. My brain treats it as a runtime exception or something. I've tried to overcome it, but have not yet succeeded.)

The final book, Firebird of Glass, was heavier than the others (as was the end of the third book). The series has been building toward a final confrontation (the forces that took over the knights' world want ours too), and at times the book is sombre and grim. When I started the book I had predictions, expectations, of how this final confrontation was going to end; partway through the book I developed different predictions -- and in the end the author surprised me with something I never saw coming but that felt right.

I enjoyed the series, and I think some of my readers would, too.

Survivors: new chapters

In the late 1970s there was a BBC series, created by Terry Nation, called Survivors. A devastating plague has ravaged the world, killing almost everybody; the show follows small groups of people who survived that only to have to cope with the new state of the world. I enjoyed the show (much later, when I came across it on Netflix), though it started to meander as time went on. (I later learned that Terry Nation had left the show after the first season -- probably related.) Later there was a remake of sorts, with some significantly different plot points. Both versions ended before being resolved.

Terry Nation wrote a novel, presumably the story he had intended to tell. I read the book during this current pandemic, and yes, it's a much tighter story than the TV show. I enjoyed it. It has an ending. I will not spoil it in this post (no promises about comments if you click through to the source).

A few months ago I learned that there was a sequel to that novel, not written by Terry Nation. Genesis of a Hero, by John Eyers, logically follows Survivors and shows other parts of this post-apocalyptic world. I thought some things in it happened too quickly and too tidily, that real people are more complex than some of the ones we saw in the novel, but it was worth reading -- I enjoyed spending time as an observer in the world it portrays. It ended in a good place.

Forty years passed. And then John Eyers wrote a sequel to that, called Salvation, published a few months ago. If you liked Survivors, and if you read Genesis of a Hero, then, I implore you in the strongest possible way, stop there.

I don't know what led the author to return to the series after such a long time. I don't know why he decided to, essentially, tell a related-seeming story in a different world -- a problem which did not become apparent until after the halfway point. Much of this latest book deviates far too much from the baseline, some key plot points just do not make sense, and the story, characters, and writing are nowhere near compelling enough for me to overcome those faults.

He should have stopped at one sequel. Since he didn't, I should have stopped reading this one at the first improbable left turn instead of reading on to see how he would resolve it because surely he would, right? Uh... if you do start reading this book (or if you already have), when you get to that left turn, I urge you to close the book and do something you'll find more rewarding, like scrubbing your kitchen floor.

Stowaway (Netflix): meh

The premise of Stowaway, a new movie from Netflix, as shown in the teasers: a crew of three leaves for a two-year mission to Mars, and after departure discover an injured worker from the launch pad onboard -- not really a stowaway in that he didn't plan for this, but there he is. But the safety margins don't account for an extra person.

I immediately thought of "The Cold Equations", a classic SF short story. It seemed clear that there could not be a happy ending, but I was curious which of the several possible outcomes we'd get. IMO they chose the wrong one.

Spoilers below. Read more…

I don't think that's how consciousness works

I recently read Corey Doctorow's novel Walkaway. It's set in a post-scarcity world where the super-rich (zota rich, or just zotas) hold their power by stomping everyone else down. There's enough to go around, but people have to work (at crap jobs for crap wages) anyway, while the zotas sit back. Some people hate this and decide to opt out by walking away and forming their own communities off the grid. The book follows some of these walkaways, as they're called. (And no, the zotas are not cool with this.)

Another theme of the book is conquering death -- that's how the characters view it. More specifically, their goal is to be able to back up a human's essence, at which point if you get killed you can be restored from backup (initially as a digital simulation, eventually into a new body). This is an attractive idea in SF and this book is hardly the first to explore it, but I always get tripped up by the same issue, including in this book.

That issue is: sure, it'd be nice if I could back up my brain so that "Monica" would never have to cease to exist, but that doesn't mean that backup is me. It would think so, of course; it would have all my memories. But from my perspective, my body dies -- I die. If I'm dead, do I really care if there's a simulation of me running out there somewhere?

This is not conquering death. At best it's mitigating it. Which makes it hard for me to relate to stories where people say "great, ditch the meat body and come back digitally or in a robot or a perfect body or whatever". Would people really do that? I find that hard to swallow.

Despite this point, I mostly enjoyed the book. There's one place where there's a jump in time that I found rather abrupt, and the story is far more dialogue-heavy than I'm used to, with a lot of philosophy in that dialogue. (In other words, large blocks of philosophy-dialogue or exposition-dialogue, as opposed to short, interactive dialogue.) But many of the characters are engaging and walkaway-land sounds like a cool place to live, when the zotas aren't trying to quash it.

Added in a comment:

And then there are the problems of forking (this comes up in Walkaway) and restoring to older versions to erase part of your life (which comes up in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which Walkaway is a prequel for and which I have now read). I'm me, but is each of the dozen independent sims of me also me? And how much of a "restore" is me if there's been selective editing? Can you cherry-pick commits too?

Magic 2.0 seems to have jumped the shark

A couple years ago somebody recommended Scott Meyer's Off to Be the Wizard, the first book in the "Magic 2.0" series. The premise is geek-fantasy: the point-of-view character, Martin, is a hacker who discovers a file (out there somewhere) that, when you edit it, changes reality. In other words, it's the file that defines the world and everything in it. After experimenting a bit (always meant to drop 20 pounds, that kind of thing), he decides to improve his quality of life by altering his bank balance. That's fine because he's creating money, not actually stealing it from anybody, right? No, not such a bright move, and soon he finds himself making a temporal change to escape the feds. His plan is to flee to medieval England and pretend to be a wizard. He's not the first person to think of that, or the last -- the other wizards put him through trials to decide if he can join the guild or if they'll revoke his access and send him back to his time to deal with the feds. It's a fun read.

I also enjoyed the sequel, Spell or High Water, in which we find out more about where female wizards (sorceresses) go, medieval England not being so great for them. We see more interactions among the main characters, and of course some problems they need to solve together. Another fun read.

The third book, An Unwelcome Quest, was less fun, in large part because of the setting. This is the first book where we don't see much of the world the wizards are in; an enemy wizard has caught the gang in a trap and most of the book is spent trying to escape it. Because my reaction to this one was solidly mediocre, and also because the next one existed only as an audiobook for a long time, I didn't go further. Recently I noticed that two more books were available on Kindle.

The fourth, Fight and Flight, starts with the wizards making a stupid mistake with consequences, which they spend the rest of the book cleaning up. The humor (including some actual laughing out loud) of the first book was back, and the resolution of the problem seemed to start down a good character-development path. On the basis of that, I read the fifth.

Out of Spite, Out of Mind was a major disappointment. Many of the characters' actions are just stupid, and in a not-fun way. That growth suggested at the end of the previous book is nowhere in evidence. The plot also revolves around some time-travel paradoxes that have been there since book 2 and always been a little annoying, but now they've taken over. In book 2 we met Brit the Younger and Brit the Elder, who are really the same person at different points in their personal timeline because bad things happen when you time-travel and meet yourself. They don't agree that they're the same person, by the way, and arguments about predestination break out. In this book that all ramps up, and we meet Brit the Much Elder and Angry Brit and Brit the One Hour Older and I think there's one more running around in there... and y'know what? I never liked Brit all that much to begin with. And in the process of messing with the Brits, the author messes with some characters I like and then ends with a very obvious setup for a sequel at the expense of resolving a major thread. I kind of feel like the author broke the contract with the reader here, especially since the earlier books all at least resolved even while leaving openings.

I see the sixth book is coming soon. I won't be reading it.

(By the way, I've read two other books, not in this series, by this author that were fun. Perhaps he does better with one-offs?)

Captain Marvel (short, no spoilers)

I'm never going to look at my cat the same way again. Just saying...

The Orville: Primal Urges

All of the humans in The Orville seem to have a shared fascination with late-20th-century American pop culture, which is pretty lame for a show set in the 25th century. I mean, do you and your coworkers all share an interest in one specific historical period several centuries ago? Unlikely.

Until last night's episode I didn't realize it ran deeper. (Maybe it was a subtle clue!) Their ideas about computer security also run to the late 20th century. shudder

Sheesh. First I wanted to yell at the officer who did the moral equivalent of plugging in a USB device of unknown origin labelled "free porn!". Then I really wanted to yell at the ship's IT department for what came next.

Kids, don't learn security practices from those guys. Just don't.

(So far the new season is at "eh, wait and see". It's nice to see followup on that one controversy from season one and I realize that all episodes can't be "Majority Rule"- or "Mad Idolatry"-quality, but I was hoping for a stronger start.)

I've avoided spoilers in this post, but if you're on your own for comments.

Between (Netflix)

Over the last few days I watched the Netflix show Between, which ran for two (six-episode) seasons. (It was a collaboration between them and some other studio.) When looking for some stuff about it online I came across several "where is season 3?" threads -- apparently they never formally cancelled it but the last episode came out in 2016.

I, on the other hand, am fully satisfied with the ending, and while there's definitely more story that they could tell, I think another season would feel like a bolt-on taking things in a different direction, kind of like that terrible telepath plotline that filled half of Babylon 5's fifth season. I'm glad they seem to have decided to leave well enough alone here.

Between is set in the fictional town of Pretty Lake (um, ok); they don't say where, but it feels like the midwest. (I thought Ohio because we see Mennonites, but a government official is Minister so-and-so, so maybe Canada?) A plague strikes, killing all the adults (and making me immediately think of Jeremiah), and the government quarantines them. The show takes place in the weeks that follow. Some of the characters start out rather two-dimensional, but we see growth, especially in the second season. There's the spoiled rich kid who sees himself as the natural person to lead the town now, and the smart kid who tries to figure out what's really going on (and learns he has a special connection), and the farm kid who turns out to be a paladin to the detriment of his younger sister, and the druggie and the brother who tries to protect him, and the gangs, and the pregnant teen with the sanctimonious sister, and the guy who's locked in prison when the outbreak hits. And there is the infrequently-glimpsed government that isn't playing straight, which plot develops more in the second season.

There's a saying, I can't remember where from, that civilization is seven meals away from breaking down into chaos. That's very evident here; we have a quarantined town that has only the food they had on hand, and the conflicts between the "I've got mine (and will defend it violently)" folks and the "we need to help everybody" folks (and the "we need to break out of here" folks). This town is full of teenagers, so we get the angst that goes with that too.

I found that I very much needed to suspend disbelief on the plague itself; without spoiling things, let me just say that so far as I know, biology doesn't work that way. No, really, some of this does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny. If you watch the show you just have to roll with that.

It's a decent show, not a great show; the characters take some time to settle in and the acting isn't great. For me that broader plot scenario laid an interesting-enough foundation, and there good strong moments and arcs within the larger show. It's about a 9-hour investment to watch the whole series, which I found worth it.

In response to a comment about biology:

I might have been insufficiently clear. During the show we find out more about how the plague works, and biology really doesn't work that way. The disbelief you suspend for the initial premise isn't the only disbelief you'll need to suspend, I'm afraid. :-)

There was a show about 15 years ago written by JMS (of B5 fame) called Jeremiah, which had a similar starting premise, but the plague there was not contained. That show was set 15 or 20 years later, after civilization has largely collapsed and competing groups are trying to rebuild it. I quite enjoyed that one, which focused on the societal aspects and didn't get into much detail (as I recall) about the plague itself. So it was still a "wait, really?" premise, but easy for me to set aside.