Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper


Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island’s whalers safe at sea, but her mother has forced her into a magic-free world of proper manners and respectability. When Avery dreams she’s to be murdered, she knows time is running out to unlock her magic and save herself.

It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Salt & Storm, because everything wowed me. The beautiful prose, the complex characters, the haunting magic system, the vivid emotions, the richness of the world… it’s a truly stunning book. And every line of it hums with female power.

The novel explores the relationships between different generations of women — the young not-yet-a-witch Avery, the magic-hating mother who keeps her hostage, and the witch grandmother she longs to return to, but who may not want her back. All three of these women play vital roles in the story, and they all have different personalities and expectations and dreams and powers of their own. Each female character has different definitions of happiness and freedom and love, and the exploration of those differences is what drives the novel.

Avery’s relationship with her mother is particularly fascinating. Avery’s mom hates magic, despite having the ability to control love herself, and she’s determined to prevent Avery from becoming a witch at any cost. Unsurprisingly, the relationship between Avery and her mother is full of hate and resentment, with Avery desperately fighting to set her own destiny. But Avery’s mother is probably the most interesting character of the novel, with a heartbreaking story of her own, and the exploration of her relationship with Avery and why she acts the way she does leads to some of the most compelling scenes I’ve read in a book in a while.

Avery herself is also a fantastic protagonist, not least because she’s not always likeable. She’s a very angry, short-tempered and often selfish main character, who makes mistakes, misjudges things and hurts others with her words as often as she hurts herself. She’s volatile and passionate, and her dedication to her island and her magic drives the story forwards. She feels incredibly real, both powerful and vulnerable, and even when she’s making bad choices or being cruel, I can’t help but like and support her.

At its heart, Salt & Storm is a novel about choices, and about accepting that sometimes you can’t choose. Avery struggles for freedom throughout the novel, saying she’s do “anything” to win her powers, and the novel then goes deep into what “anything” can really mean, and whether the “freedom” she fights for is really freedom at all. Gorgeously written and emotionally compelling, Salt & Storm is my favorite book of 2014 so far. Highly, highly recommended.

The Falconer by Elizabeth May


I am so in love with this book.

The Falconer is a fast-paced, action-packed highly addictive Victorian fantasy novel, full of fighting and vengeance and fae and apocalypses and steampunk weapons and the occasional ball. Set in an alternate 1840s Edinburgh, The Falconer follows Aileana, a high society inventor, who has dedicated herself to killing fae after one of them murdered her mother. In between her attempts to salvage her tattered reputation, she develops new weapons and patrols the streets of Edinburgh with Kieran, a mysterious ancient fae who hunts his own kind. Her only goal in life now is to find the fae who murdered her mother and get her revenge, but things are complicated slightly when the wards trapping the most dangerous fae under the city begin to break.

The Falconer somehow manages to be both high-stakes action/drama AND quirky and funny and fun. A comparison to Buffy isn’t quite fitting, as The Falconer is a lot darker in tone, but they do have similarities. They’re both apocalyptic with a sense of humor, and The Falconer follows Buffy’s lead in exploring the impact that secret demon fighting has on your life, your relationships with family and friends, and your social standing (perhaps the 19th century version of getting expelled). Add in the forbidden supernatural romance, and you’ve got a book that will definitely appeal to fans of the show.

And Aileana is a fantastic female protagonist. She’s incredibly intelligent and a badass fighter, but she’s far from the kickass stereotype some people might expect. She was emotionally broken by her mother’s death, and the hate that drives her is far from a strength. In fact, her “strength” as a character isn’t that she can fight fae, but all of the other traits that struggle through her darkness. Her loyalty as a friend. Her genius for inventing. Her determination to succeed, whatever the odds. Her sense of humor, her resourcefulness, her emotional insight. Mix all of that with the desperate desire to find and kill her mother’s murderer, whatever the cost, and you’ve got yourself a fascinating protagonist.

Meanwhile, the plot is full of brilliant twists, and the secondary characters are all so vivid and layered and compelling that you’ll find it a difficult book to put down. The one downside to the book is that it ends with one of the biggest cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. It not only finishes mid-scene, it practically finishes mid-sentence. And although that’s dramatic and gasp-worthy and will have you scrambling to find out when the next book comes out, it might also be beyond irritating when you find out that Book 2 isn’t out until next year.

But otherwise, The Falconer is a really fun, twisty, half-Gothic, half-steampunk adventure, with great characters and lots to keep you turning the pages until the end. Highly recommended!

Doctor Who: Listen


I was so ready to have nightmares from this episode.

One-off scary episodes are what Steven Moffat does best. There are no long-term plots to manage, or emotional arcs to develop. The episodes don’t even have to be internally consistent. They just have to be absorbingly, atmospherically creepy, playing on subconscious childhood fears. It’s small scale, deeply focussed, characters-in-the-basement-while-the-light-flickers stuff. We don’t have to know or care about anything beyond this particular moment and how terrifying it is.

Which is why Listen only half-worked. Half of the episode is about hiding under the bed while an unseen monster may or may not lurk in the room, while half of the episode attempted to go grand scale, confusing-character-timeline, big picture story. And the two halves just didn’t click.


Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood


Now that was a fun episode.

The plot only made sense in a “don’t think about it” sort of way, but after things Got Serious last week, it was really fun to have an episode that was all historical figures and running jokes and banter and peril that isn’t really perilous at all.

Everything about this episode said “don’t take me seriously.” The main conflict was the bickering between the Doctor and Robin Hood, the disguise during the archery contest was so obvious that it was literally just a hat, and the Doctor engaged in and won a swordfight with a spoon. It actually reminded me a bit of Merlin — it’s so ridiculous that you’re either going to love it, or think it unbearable dumb. I was glad to be in the first group.

It also showed the potential of a grumpy, less friendly and adventurous Doctor. While Capaldi’s Doctor had hints of whimsy this week, it was also great to see how the Doctor can be funny and entertaining without being the “timey-wimey” speaking figure of recent years. I feel as though the first episode tried too hard to show how the Doctor was more distant, and the second episode was determined to make him dark. Here we finally got to see the more light-hearted and human side to him, and finally see a Doctor that someone would actually want to adventure with.

If only the episode hadn’t made him so stupid. Considering that the Doctor is a supposed genius who has seen all of time and space, the show often struggles to show how any other character could possibly be useful. Often, it goes the road of “emotional intelligence,” with the companions providing the voice of reason, or just plotting things so that the Doctor isn’t around to help the companions out. But sometimes, as with this week, it seems to decide that the only way to have companions be the hero is to turn the Doctor into a temporary idiot. Clara was definitely the hero of the week, and the only one to keep a level head, but this is weakened slightly by the fact that everybody else was utterly useless. They’re too busy bickering to come up with a plan. They’re too stubborn to see what’s going on. The Doctor refuses to accept that Robin Hood could be real for no apparent reason. And he’s shown to be pretty much useless without his sonic screwdriver.

Which is all fine and fun for a light-hearted episode. But then, should the joke be that the guys are idiots and Clara’s the one handling everything after all? Does it have to be “the boys are useless, thank god Clara’s a badass”? It’s fun in a 1990s Girl Power kind of way, but shouldn’t we be able to do better than yoyoing between “underdeveloped secondary character” and “Outspoken Strong Female Character” here? Can’t we have a female character be awesome without everyone else having to be an idiot to make it happen? Please?

And, side note: “I’m just as real as you are”? Please tell me that’s going to be as ominous and plot-relevant as it sounds.

Doctor Who: Into the Dalek


Now here’s a surprise: Into the Dalek was a pretty darn enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. Painfully cheesy at times, with some rehashed material from other Dalek episodes, it still managed to be fun and dramatic and intriguing, while asking interesting questions about bot the Daleks and the Doctor.

Compared to last week’s confusion, it basically deserves an Emmy.


Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas


Lost and broken, Celaena Sardothien’s only thought is to avenge the savage death of her dearest friend: as the King of Adarlan’s Assassin, she is bound to serve this tyrant, but he will pay for what he did. Any hope Celaena has of destroying the king lies in answers to be found in Wendlyn. Sacrificing his future, Chaol, the Captain of the King’s Guard, has sent Celaena there to protect her, but her darkest demons lay in that same place. If she can overcome them, she will be Adarlan’s biggest threat – and his own toughest enemy. 

While Celaena learns of her true destiny, and the eyes of Erilea are on Wendlyn, a brutal and beastly force is preparing to take to the skies. Will Celaena find the strength not only to win her own battles, but to fight a war that could pit her loyalties to her own people against those she has grown to love?

I was so excited to read this book. This series has a real addictive quality, and Heir of Fire was no exception to that. Some readers might be jarred by the fact that Calaena spends the book in an entirely new place, with an entirely new cast of characters around her, but Heir of Fire is less about the shippiness and revelations of the king’s evil, and more about Calaena herself. She has to come to terms with all that has happened to her and with the past self she has suppressed, and she needs to learn how to access her repressed powers in order to become who she was always meant to be. It’s a book of self-discovery for Calaena, and it’s empowering in part because of how challenging that self discovery is. Calaena works for every scrap of power and self-confidence she gains, and she faces many set-backs and failures along the way.

Celaena is actually pretty unlikeable in this book, in a really compelling way. She’s been pretty much emotionally destroyed by the events of the last book, and the result is a character who’s despairing and self-loathing, who lashes out at others, and who is motivated by rage when she’s motivated at all. In a first book, this would be unbearable, but here it gives Celaena a lot more depth, and helps to deconstruct the “sexy assassin as badass female character” trope. Celaena has been through a lot of trauma and is pretty much broken as a person, and Heir of Fire digs deep into that and what that means for her future.

Of course, it sometimes also means that readers might want to shake Celaena, or hate the way she approaches her responsibilities and interacts with others, but she feels incredibly emotionally real throughout the book. Her thoughts and actions aren’t always good, but they’re believable, and the emotional history provided by the series means that they’re incredibly compelling as well.

Not to say that this is a really serious book. It’s YA fantasy adventure, and it has all the popcorn-munching pacing that readers might expect from this series. We’ve got the epic showdowns, the requisite moments of self-affirming awesome, the introduction of a new hot guy, plus shapeshifting, monstrous flying beasts, and as much magic and intrigue as you could want. It’s a great deal of fun, but its main focus is Calaena and her much-needed emotional journey, and that means that the book has a lot of weight as well.

A great third instalment. Just be sure to refresh your memory of book two before you pick this one up, or you’ll be as lost as I was when I began!

Women as Background Decoration in Video Games

Sometimes, you don’t see how bad things are until the evidence is laid out in front of you.

I don’t always 100% agree with Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis on Feminist Frequency, but her latest video on Women as Background Decoration in video games is pretty hard to argue with. In it, she gives a rundown of how violence (and especially sexual violence) against women is used in video games as a kind of “mood setter,” to give a sense of grittiness or allow the player to play the hero.

Just one of these examples would be horrific. And Anita has enough to fill an entire half an hour video. The bulk of the video isn’t analysis or explanation. It’s just clip after clip after clip, paired with descriptions of the role this moment plays in the game. And it’s pretty stomach-churning stuff.

Of course, not everyone is happy with her expose. Anita Sarkeesian was driven out of her own home earlier this week because of serious threats against her and her family, and she’s previously reported that she gets abuse every single day from irate gamers because of her videos. And why, exactly? Because she criticizes video games? Because she wants them to be more inclusive for women? The irony, of course, is that in threatening and abusing her, these gamers are simply proving her point that video game culture is incredibly sexist and needs change. When people attack her for daring to suggest that gamers might be misogynistic (which she does not even do — she comments on the content of the games themselves), they reveal all the misogyny that fuels them. It could almost be amusing if it wasn’t so terrifying.

I would like to think that people react so horrifically because they feel like she’s criticizing them for liking video games, and because they don’t want their games to be represented by these “blips” of sexism. But it’s hard to believe that. It seems like the people reacting so strongly to Sarkeesian value the misogynistic elements under discussion, especially the ones shown in this video. Why else would a huge chunk of the mods available for Skyrim involve making women in the world more scantily clad? Why else would there be “realistic rape mods” (yes seriously) for the game? People are willing to work hard to add these elements to games that don’t already include them. They enjoy them and want them to be there. And by simply pointing out the existence of this attitude and how pervasive it is, Anita Sarkeesian is threatening their fun and making it seem like it could all be taken away.

#notallgamers, of course. And not all games. But the attitude does exist, and it needs to be tackled. Because when simply mentioning it leads to a woman being driven out of her home, you know you’ve got a problem that runs far too deep to be ignored.

Zombies! Run and Counting the Women


A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be at the Zombies! Run panel at the Nine Worlds Geekfest. Mostly I was there to fangirl the game that turned me from somebody who could barely run for 30 seconds without dying into someone genuinely considering doing a 5K. But during the panel, I actually learned a lot about writing a truly balanced and inclusive game.

In short, good intentions are not enough. All of us have internalized sexism and racism and many other isms, and so we can’t simply trust ourselves and our inclusive leanings to get it right.

Many people are now familiar with the study from the Geena Davis Institute that found that women only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in movies. Viewers have therefore been trained to see a split of 17% women and 83% men on screen (or in person) as 50/50, and a presence of 33% or more women as women dominating the space.

Which leads to a rather unnatural-feeling conclusion. As creators (and maybe even as viewers), we have to feel like there are “too many women,” like female characters are dominating the story, in order to have anything close to equal representation. We have to feel like we’re being too feminist, and allowing female characters to take over the story with our feminist agenda, to even see close to as many female characters as male ones. And that is uncomfortable and challenging, even for the most determined among us, but it needs to be done.

So Zombies! Run headwriter Naomi Alderman literally counts the women in this game. And when she finds out that there are more male characters than female ones, as is often unintentionally the case, she flips the gender of originally male characters until the split is equal. And, interestingly, she changes nothing else about the characters except their gender. She doesn’t change their role in the story or their personality or background. She keeps all of their relationships exactly the same. She just changes “he” to “she,” and finds a good female voice actor to bring the character to life.

The result is not only a stronger presence of female characters, but also more varied and well-thought-out female characters, along with the extra bonus of more same-sex relationships into the mix. Because again, for all a writer’s good intentions, it can be far too easy to let internalized sexism influence characters, especially when it comes to background and their role in the story. In fact, Zombies! Run writer Rebecca Levene revealed that she finds it helpful to write characters as male and then flip them on purpose, as way to get around all that internalized BS.

I have to admit, I hadn’t realized how many of the voices in the first season of Zombies! Run are female until it was pointed out to me. And that’s probably a sign of how well the game has been handled. The writers take the responsibility to make people feel safe in the game environment very seriously, and so inclusiveness, including a gender neutral perspective, is their main priority. They didn’t want to have your radio operator be the stereotypical flirty female voice, so they made sure the radio operator was male. They didn’t want the typical “one man, one woman” radio show setup for their Radio Abel feature, and so they made them a gay couple. And in response to all of these male voices, they made pretty much everyone else in the first season of the game female, including the Major, the doctor, and the fellow runner who’s scarily handy at dealing with zombies with a shovel. And it just works.

Or mostly works. Apparently the game developers have received many emails from male players saying that they seem to have downloaded “the girl version,” because the radio operator was a man and they picked up sports bras among the other supplies they collected on their runs. Because even running from zombies must be gendered, and if girls are included, it must instantly be something solely for girls, right?

And I have to admit, even I am sometimes surprised by how “girl-oriented” this gender neutral game really is. With “girl-oriented” actually meaning “not solely male-oriented,” when I think about it more carefully.

Which is depressing, but I think ties back into that first point. Good intentions are not enough. Trusting yourself to be a good judge of balance won’t cut it, and feeling inclusive and being inclusive are not necessarily the same thing. Our internalized sexism can trick us. And so we need to start by counting the women, and relying on fact, not feeling, to move us to a more gender-balanced place in our stories.

Doctor Who: Deep Breath


I wasn’t going to watch Doctor Who season 8. I really wasn’t. But my old love for the show combined with curiosity over Capaldi’s debut meant that I ultimately couldn’t resist.

Sadly, the episode was pretty “meh.” Not fantastic, not terrible, just… “meh.” And although Capaldi is a talented actor, I had some pretty major issues with the way he fits into the show. He’s taking the Doctor in a new direction, and the writing simply isn’t strong enough to support that.

And, unfortunately, most of the problem lies with Clara.


ABC’s Selfie


The pilot of new ABC sitcom Selfie has gone up on Hulu, and since it stars the adorable Karen Gillan and fantastic John Cho, I had to check it out!

A modern-day retelling of My Fair LadySelfie stars Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan as Eliza, a successful social media addict who realizes that, for all her likes and retweets, she has no real friends, and John Cho as Henry, the stuck-up marketing genius she convinces to help fix her life.

The concept is pretty ridiculous, and all the attempts to show Eliza as a “social media addict” are cringeworthy at best, but Karen Gillan and John Cho are both adorable as the show’s leads. The show struggles to find its feet, especially when it tries to hammer home any references to its plot conceit, but the final scene in particular is sweet and genuine and promises good things to come.

The show also manages that seemingly impossible feat of introducing diversity into a sitcom world. John Cho plays the (inevitably romantic) male lead, both the boss and the secretary are African American, and we actually get the rare sight of two non-white characters on screen at the same time, talking to one another. Add in Eliza’s plot-important conversations with said secretary and her time with her frenemies in her apartment block, and we’re comfortably into a traditional Bechdel pass as well. Even better, the neighbors that Eliza thinks she hates actually turn out to be nice human beings, with a genuine friend dynamic including book discussions and random singing of Lady Gaga.

But there’s one big question hovering over the entire show: should there be a modern-day retelling of My Fair Lady? The entire show is based on the idea that Eliza needs a guy to teach her how to be a not-horrible person, and although Selfie tries to suggest that Eliza will help and change Henry as much as he helps and changes her, the set-up is still incredibly uncomfortable. Eliza is a shallow, vapid, self-absorbed woman addicted to a supposedly vapid and self-absorbed form of communication — social media — and in the pilot, Henry not only teaches her to focus on the real world and be nice to people, but also how to “de-slut” in order to be “suitable” to attend a wedding. While Henry feels like a normal human being who is slightly uptight and judgemental, Eliza is 100% caricature, and although Karen Gillan gives the character some heart, she can’t change the fact that Eliza is the walking embodiment of many negative, exaggerated stereotypes about modern twenty-something women. Sure, Henry is clearly going to fall for her, and she’s going to influence him too, but while she teaches him how to loosen up and have fun, he teaches her basic principles of being an acceptable human being. It’s hardly equal, and the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable it becomes.

And perhaps I’m being stubborn, especially as the show has a very tongue-in-cheek tone, but I don’t see why Eliza has to change as much as the show suggests. Yes, she doesn’t know how to make friends and is self-absorbed, but can’t she work on that without changing every single thing about her appearance and personality? She could be a really fun and interesting female lead… but only if the show respects her as a character and allows her to continue to be bold and confident and somewhat brash. If she’s diminished into somebody who’s smaller and so seems more acceptable, it’s going to be a real mess of a show.

But if you just don’t think about that stuff, the show is rather bright and light and cute, and it has potential. It’s not laugh-out-loud, at least for me, but it’s a cute show. If it can get over its forced concept and avoid the problems its created, it could even be a good show. But those are going to be some pretty big hurdles to cross.

The pilot is available on Hulu if anyone wants to check it out.

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