TV Show Review: Avatar: the Last Airbender: Book One: Water

Two years ago, in March 2015, I purchased and binge-watched the entire the Legend of Korra and so it only seemed fitting to watch Avatar: the Last Airbender. I started with the first season, Avatar: the Last Airbender: Book One: Water which was produced by Nickelodeon.

“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless fire benders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the war. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow the Avatar will return to save the world.”

The first season of Avatar: the Last Airbender has twenty episodes, the Boy In the Iceberg, the Avatar Returns, the Southern Air Temple, the Warriors of Kyoshi, the King of Omashu, Imprisoned, the Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1), Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2), the Waterbending Scroll, Jet, the Great Divide, the Storm, the Blue Spirit, the Fortuneteller, Bato of the Water Tribe, the Deserter, the Northern Air Temple, the Waterbending Master, the Siege of the North Part 1, and the Siege of the North Part 2.

The first thing that I’ll say is that Aang is not Korra. I guess I’m one of the awkward people who watched the Legend of Korra before even touching Avatar: the Last Airbender so it’s very different for me watching Avatar: the Last Airbender. In a lot of ways, it’s interesting because I’m getting some of the history that was mentioned in passing from watching Korra. But it’s also very, very different because Aang is a very young, very immature boy and Korra, while young, is not nearly as immature as Aang. Aang does a lot of things that are beyond immature, but I guess that’s part of the charm and part of the character arcs. It allows Aang to learn and grow as a character.

There are a lot of really great characters, especially Katara and Sokka. It’s fantastic to see siblings as the heroes of a story. They disagree about all the things that siblings would disagree about, but they are also there for each other without fail. They also have completely different strengths. Katara is a symbol of hope in one of the biggest ways and Sokka is dedicated in a way that’s rare in any character.

Sokka has a very strong character arc, even in just the first season. In the fourth episode, the Avatar crew gets ambushed by the Kyoshi warriors, who just happen to all be women. Sokka feels like he is supposed to be some sort of macho man and that no women could possibly have defeated a great warrior like him and he challenges them, very disrespectfully. When they kick his butt again, he goes away in shame. But then, he realizes that being a great warrior isn’t dependent on gender. He apologizes in the most fantastic and humble way possible. He comes back into their practice area and admits that he was wrong in the rude way he treated them. He shows them the absolute maximum amount of respect and admits that he should have showed them that respect from the very beginning. He also requests, extremely politely, for them to train him. They agree to do so, but in return, he must abide by all of their warrior traditions, including attire and weapons, which he does. He respects their culture and their traditions and learns to be a warrior on their terms. This is absolutely one of the best examples of seeing and admitting your own weaknesses, admitting you have a lot of work to do, accepting other people who are different than you, and learning how to be a better person. Sokka doesn’t have any special abilities but he’s determined that hard work and dedication will demonstrate tangible results and he’s absolutely correct.

Katara is also a fantastic character for a variety of reasons. It’s interesting to me to see her always taking care of the camp. She gets the groceries and mends the clothes and is always considerate of others while the boys on the team lounge around and complain about how hungry they are. Katara also runs into a lot of sexism and she just goes with it, which is kind of frustrating. She isn’t allowed to learn how to water bend with Aang because she’s a woman and all the women of the Northern Water Tribe learn the healing arts and not how to be a warrior. Katara has to earn her right to learn to be a warrior, which Aang didn’t have to do because he’s the Avatar and he’s male. Katara also appears to be serving as the Avatar’s love interest, which is sometimes done in a cute kind of adolescent way and also kind of a creepy way. Since I’m not much of a fan of romantic subplots, I would rather that people could just travel together and save the world without romance being a thing. But I realize that my being asexual is different than everyone else who enjoys seeing romantic and sexual plots and subplots in absolutely everything.

Overall, I’d say this first season is a solid three on my rating scale. As unfair as it is, I really like the Legend of Korra a lot better and I’ve been judging this series and season against that. So it’s still a good series, but I really do like Korra better.

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Book Review: How to Train Your Dragon: How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm by Cressida Cowell

On Friday when I was waiting for the installation of new tires on my vehicle, I read the seventh book in the How to Train Your Dragon series How to Train Your Dragon: How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm (Young Adult 253 pages) by Cressida Cowell.

“Hiccup has three months, five days, and six hours to win the annual Intertribal Friendly Swimming Race – which he must do by coming in last. Along the way, he’ll have to discover America, battle Polar-Serpents, defeat his nemesis Norbert the Nutjob, and get back to the Isle of Berk. It’s a tall order for a short Viking. Can he do it?”

So it appears as though I haven’t read anything in this series since early September 2016. I was using the series as books to read while I was at the gym on the stationary bike, but my workout has since changed to be a lot more rigorous and intense, which means I don’t usually just hop on the stationary bike for 10+ miles anymore. After this book, I only have two more left in the series that I actually own which means that I will need to make a decision about whether to buy more in the series or just stop with what I’ve got. But I suspect that will be a decision for another day.

Even though it’d been several months since the last time I read anything in this series, the characters and world-building are easily remembered, as are most of Hiccup’s adventures so far. It’s important to remember the previous adventures because this series is cumulative, meaning that each adventure builds on the ones prior, as do the characters.

Something I hadn’t thought of before with any of these particular books or with the reviews I’ve written of these books is that if you were so inclined, there are a lot of black and white drawings throughout all the books and you could actually color if you wanted to. I know there are some book lovers and collectors out there that probably just read the previous sentence and cringed or freaked out or made insults involving words like “blasphemy” or something along those lines, but the truth is that treating everything we encounter as sacred or unchangeable is probably detrimental to our ability to interact with our world. Things are meant to be used. Books are meant to be read and loved. And if you are the parent of a small human who likes to color and likes these books, it seems to make sense to me that they could create their very own heirloom books by making them theirs. Maybe that would mean coloring them. Maybe it would mean taking the book everywhere with them so the book is abused and water-stained. I definitely have some books from my childhood that I treated very poorly, but that I still have fond memories of, maybe because I still have the worn, rabbit-chewed books. Obviously, I don’t have any small humans myself, nor do I ever intend on having small humans. But if I did have small humans to raise in my life, I would teach them to be respectful of things that don’t belong to them, to not destroy those things which do belong to them, and to not feel uncomfortable with taking ownership of those things in their lives. After all, things are just things, and as much as we’re taught otherwise, things really can be replaced. People can’t. And I think that somewhere, we’ve lost that.

Anyway, back to the book.

For all that these books are marketed towards a much younger audience, there’s a lot of really good knowledge and a lot of really deep points that you can find if you’re open enough to see them. For example, on page 250: “Maybe all Kings should bear the Slavemark, to remind them that they should be slaves to their people, rather than the other way around. And to help them never to forget what it feels like to be a child … to be small and weak and helpless.” This entire section focuses on thoughts about how Hiccup has decided that there is no such thing as a perfect world and that it’s his responsibility to instead work to make his home of Berk into the ideal he often dreams of, in regards to the value of people, lives, and ideas. He understands that he can’t just abandon his people because something else out there looks prettier or shinier or easier. In order to truly benefit the people, he has to be willing to be a leader to show them a better way and he knows it won’t be easy, but he’s still willing to make those individual sacrifices in order to bring a better life to his people.

And that’s really what being a true leader is to me. It’s not about posturing and making speeches and thumping your chest; it’s about doing what’s best for the people. It’s about putting the needs of your people before your own.

Overall, this book is a solid three on my rating scale. I’m glad I own it and I’m certain I’ll read it again at some point in the future.

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Movie Review: The Butterfly Effect

I guess I’m on a kick where I want to watch depressing movies. Today’s movie was The Butterfly Effect.

“A young man struggling to get over disturbing memories from his childhood discovers that he is able to travel back in time and alter events in his past. However, every change he makes transforms his life and that of those around him, often to unexpected and disastrous consequences.”

There is a lot of really horrible stuff, especially in the earlier parts of the movie with the younger versions of the kids.

I guess I just am spoiled in my life in that my exposure to the horrible things people can and often do to each other has been severely limited in my life. I wasn’t in a position when I was growing up where I was exposed to other kids who thought it was a good idea to torture or hurt other people or animals. I wasn’t exposed to situations where people thought it was okay to knowingly and willing hurt other people. Not that everything in my life has been perfect, but my life has certainly been a lot better than any of the situations portrayed in this movie.

But one of the key points of this movie is that messing with the past and messing with people is a really bad idea. For every time Evan went back in time to fix something he messed up, he very distinctly makes things much, much worse. He messes with people’s lives, all to try and give himself a better life. And eventually, he learns about the cost of what he’s doing to others and works to make a decision to help everyone.

Would you sacrifice potentially having the love of your life actually in your life if you knew that your absence from their life would make their life happier and better? I think that’s one of the reasons I actually own this movie and rewatch it every now and again, and one of the key lessons I’ve learned throughout the last several years especially. You have to live your own life to the best of your ability. You can’t build your life around other people and what you think is best for their lives. The only people who can choose what’s best for their lives is those individuals themselves. At the same time, though, you should work to be the best person you can be, to treat the people in your life with dignity and respect and to be a positive influence in the lives of those around you. You should never be afraid to love with all your heart, especially your family and friends.

Overall, I’d say this movie is probably a two on my rating scale. While I do watch it every now and again, I think one of the reasons I watch it is to make sure that I’m living my life the best I can and to remind me to be thankful for all the people and things I have in my life. My life right now is filled with a lot of amazing and fantastic people and I’ve met some of the most gorgeous and talented people in the last several years. People with dreams of becoming comic book artists, people who want to make a positive impact in the world, people who are teachers, writers, service men and women, construction workers, salespeople, entertainers, students, welders, homemakers, cooks, and every other pursuit of happiness on the planet, and I am thankful each and every day for all of their presences in my life, even if I rarely hear from them, if we talk every day, or if we aren’t on speaking terms, I am thankful for each and every one of them. I also live in a nice apartment with a comfortable couch and am surrounded by books. I don’t have to worry about buying food or paying rent because I’m financially stable and I often use my extra finances to help others who are not in such a stable place in their own lives. So while The Butterfly Effect isn’t like to be a movie I would recommend very highly to other people, it does make me remember to be thankful for what I have in my own life.

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Movie Review: Ex Machina

Not really sure what to do with my night, I decided to watch Ex Machina, which is a movie I know absolutely nothing about.

“A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breath-taking humanoid A.I.”

I think that I am absolutely stunned by this movie and I’m glad I had no knowledge of it before watching it. I sometimes think and feel that previews ruin movies and I imagine that any preview I could have seen for this movie might have given away plot points or character arcs and I’m much better off for having known absolutely nothing about the movie before watching it. I think my lack of knowledge made the movie more suspenseful and more intriguing. This was also one of the very few movies that made me feel very stupid, which is also a very good thing. The discussions about programming and artificial intelligence and how all that works were just detailed enough to feel authentic and not so much that I had no clue what Caleb and Nathan were talking about.

There’s a lot of really advanced stuff in this movie. Programming, coding, linguistics stuff. And a lot of really in-depth stuff about interpersonal relationships and communications. It’s not very often that a movie makes me feels stupid. Or confused about what I’m watching. I didn’t know if this movie was supposed to be horror or sci-fi or a comedy or a drama or what. This movie was very dark, quiet, and creepy, but all in the best ways.

One of the most intellectually interesting parts of the movie for me was the discussion on heterosexuality. And additional thoughts on sexuality in general. Which brings up the portrayal of women in this movie. Obviously, Ava is an Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and Caleb’s role in the movie is to function as the human component of the Turing test. Caleb is specifically chosen by Nathan to participate in this test, for reasons that are clearly identified later in the movie but which I won’t reveal here in case someone is reading this movie review and wants to have as little about the plot and characters revealed as possible. Nathan also specifically creates Ava to be attractive because, as the quotes I linked to indicate, creating “something” perceived to be attractive increases the odds of “its” functionality, usefulness, and empathic responses in the humans.

This movie is extremely manipulative in the sense that it highlights a lot of ethical and moral dilemmas concerning life, the value of life, men who play gods, and what it means to discover the world for yourself. I’m glad I watched this movie and overall, I would say that it’s at least a solid three on my rating scale. I’m not sure how much I will rewatch this movie in the future, as it was uncomfortable in how manipulative the characters were and how well done this movie was concerning setting the tone and making me take a really long look at society. Plus, I have my own baggage with the movie, as Ava looks a lot like someone I used to know but still care about greatly. So overall, it’s a great movie and because it messed with me so much, I have no idea how I feel about watching it again in the future. Which kind of says a lot of how well this movie was done.

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Book Review: Storm Breaking by Mercedes Lackey

I finished the third book in The Mage Storms trilogy, Storm Breaking (fantasy 464 pages), by Mercedes Lackey yesterday, which was my next book in my Heralds of Valdemar marathon.

storm_breaking“As mysterious, magical onslaughts ravage Valdemar and the kingdoms of the West, the western allies have traveled far to locate the ruins of the Tower of Urtho, Mage of Silence, and excavate his legendary Vault, hidden stronghold of some of the most power magical weapons ever devised. They now know that the mage storms are an ‘echo’ through time of the prehistoric Cataclysm which permanently warped their world more than two thousand years ago. If they don’t find a way to stop these magical vibrations they will culminate in another Cataclysm – this time destroying their world for good. But Urtho’s Vault is not the only thing buried below the Dorisha Plains, and camped in the ruins of what was once the workplace of the most ingenious mage their world has ever known, the desperate allies soon realize that their solution may lie beneath their feet. The saving of their world just might be accomplished by the work of a man who has been dead for millennia!”

I think I would consider this entire trilogy a lot of really good insights into the way positive religions should actually work. All three of the books in this series have a lot of heavily religious commentary, but I think that this is probably my favorite series of books that deal heavily with religions. The world-building flawlessly incorporates a very diverse cast with vastly different belief systems who all learn to work together and also who all learn how to open their hearts and minds and work towards understanding why people believe the way they do. The whole premise of the Valdemar books is that there is no one, right way and that everyone should be able to live together and work together without discrimination.

The character arcs throughout this series are incredibly accurate. Karal demonstrates what devotion looks like, which shows his own internal questions about faith and those who are supposed to be the spokespeople for those faiths. An’desha learns to walk his own path and how to be grateful for all the experiences that led him to the path he’s on and that feelings can change depending on circumstances. Firesong sees what life is like without people around to admire him and he learns about how easy it is to slip into a pattern of thoughts and behaviors harmful to others and that some people have to work extra hard to not walk those paths. Tremane’s character development is always focused on finding a just and honest answer in a world built on duplicity and treachery, but he always finds a way to take care of the people with him. There are so many characters who are alive and have their own perceptions that they could never be confused for any other character in the story, which is kind of amazing to me sometimes, that an author would be able to make so many realistic people in one world without any duplicates.

I also really like the view of history in this series. On page 273, Lyam’s passion for history is almost a tangible thing. He talks about every day objects, such as the brushes found in Urtho’s work room, with a reverence and a passion that I often find lacking in many of the popular books I read these days. How many of the popular genre books out there have romantic or sexual interests and you just don’t feel any chemistry? For me, it’s most of them. But the way Lyam talks about history and the presence of history in just this one section makes you feel so strongly about simple things like the note-taking equipment of a servant, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Overall, I’d say this series is a solid three on my rating scale. I’m glad I own it and I will very likely reread the whole series, including this book, again in the future.

Works cited: Lackey, Mercedes. Storm Breaking. New York: Daw Book, Inc., 1996.

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Book Review: Storm Rising by Mercedes Lackey

I actually read the next book in my reading marathon of the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey during this past week, which was Storm Rising (fantasy 412 pages), the second book in The Mage Storms trilogy.

storm_rising“The dire threat of war with the powerful, sorcerous, Eastern Empire has forced the kingdom of Valdemar into an uneasy coalition with its traditional enemy, the neighboring kingdom of Karse. But now, mysterious mage-storms are wreaking havoc on both Valdemar and Karse, plaguing these lands not only with disastrous earthquakes, monsoons, and ice storms, but also with venomous magical constructs – terrifying creatures out of nightmare. As Valdemar’s Heralds and Karse’s Sun-Priests struggle to marshal their combined magical resources to protect their realms from these devastating, spell-fueled onslaughts, the still fragile alliance between these long-hostile lands begins to fray. Only the personal intervention of Solaris, the High Priestess and ruler of Karse, can defuse what is rapidly becoming a dangerously explosive situation. But Solaris also confirms the worst fears of the Heralds – that these storms come from a mysterious, unknown source. And unless Valdemar and Karse can locate and destroy the elusive and enigmatic cause of these storms, they will see their entire world demolished in a final magical holocaust.”

I think one of the oddest things to me about this second book is that the ending really felt like it ought to be the end of the series. Having read this series before and also owning all three of the books in the series, I knew there was a third book in the series, but the ending of this book really felt like it was or could have been the end of the storyline.

This book is interesting in the sense that it clearly demonstrates that the people wouldn’t have gotten to where they did without an incredibly diverse group of people working together to solve a common problem. Solving the problem in this book required a variety of different religious backgrounds, a very diverse selection of races, ethnicities, genders, and even different career fields. Magic and science had to work hand-in-hand, as well as religious leaders from very different belief systems, and even humans and non-humans. Everyone had to contribute a piece of the solution and because of this diversity, they were able to find more information and more resources than each set individually had access to. There’s even a section on page 379 that specifically discusses the role of diversity in finding solutions to this particular concern: “After all the tumultuous months of bickering, near-blood-feud, fear, derision, and anger, they held more than just nebulous hope in their hands. Inventive minds, people of different cultures and backgrounds, had come together and despite the friction between them, had held on to reason.”

I think this is really important, especially with everything that’s going on in the world right now. Diversity is very important and without it, we are lacking in our ability to positively impact the world in which we live. People can be different from each other in absolutely every way imaginable and still not only become friends but create something wonderful together.

Also in the realms of diversity is the continued view of different religions being complimentary to each other. An’desha is particularly amusing on page 220 where he is discussing his hopes that Jarim will have a more open mind when dealing with the other council members: “As if being singled out by Avatars made me any wiser! If anything, I suspect it only proves that I am a bit slower than others, and need the extra help!” This section actually made me chuckle out loud because I often feel that way, as though being singled out only really shows that I need more help than others who can accomplish their tasks without assistance. Especially things like math, which is one of my greater struggles.

I really wish that the world religions could get along like they do in Valdemar. Not to say the fictional world is without its faults, but their rules are enforced for everyone, including their religious laws. Page 64 has a really great description of the religions of Valdemar: “The single rule that each of them must obey if they wish to continue practicing in Valdemar is ‘live and let live.’ You can proselytize as much as you wish, but you may not persecute, harass, intimidate, or otherwise make a nuisance of yourself. The secular laws of Valdemar take precedence over the dictates of every religion. No matter how deeply your religious feeling is offended by something allowed according to the religious practices of your neighbor, you have no right to force him to live by your rules, and no right to try to.

Overall, this book is also a solid three on my rating scale. Karal is a very average character and even though he isn’t supposed to be someone special, his dedication to his duties, his faith, and his mercy and concern for others make him someone easily worthy of being considered a true hero. And, in a lot of ways, he shows us that true heroes are those who work day-to-day to make the world a better place and who genuinely care about the well-being of everyone.

Works cited: Lackey, Mercedes. Storm Rising. New York: Daw Book, Inc., 1996.

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Book Review: Storm Warning by Mercedes Lackey

I actually read the next book in my reading marathon of the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey last weekend, which was Storm Warning (fantasy 428 pages), the first book in The Mage Storms trilogy.

storm_warning“Karse and Valdemar have long been enemy kingdoms – their peoples filled with mutual prejudice and mistrust. Only the vile deeds perpetrated on both kingdoms by Ancar of Hardorn, and the subsequent emergence of the armies of the Eastern Empire in the wake of his defeat, have forced these two so-different lands into an uneasy alliance. For the Eastern Empire, which has long been isolated and shrouded in mystery, is ruled by a monarch whose magical tactics may be beyond any sorcery known to the Western kingdoms. Forced to combat this dire foe, not only must traditional enemies unite, but the Companions may, at last, have to reveal secrets which they have kept hidden for centuries … even from their beloved Heralds.”

The story follows Karal, a mere secretary to the envoy from Karse. He is the first character in the Valdemar books who doesn’t really have any inclination towards being at least trained as a fighter. He is dedicated to his job and that is remarkably admirable because being a secretary isn’t one of those glory-filled and sought-after jobs, but it’s still something that has such a huge impact on the rest of the story. He takes notes during meetings and uses those notes to help shape and impact the way the other people involved see the problem. Karal is probably the most relatable of all the characters because he isn’t a skilled fighter, he doesn’t have a hidden magical ability, he isn’t himself the envoy; he’s a secretary. He goes to meetings and take notes.

Having read this entire series before, during this reread, I actually thought about how much talent as an author it takes to drop just enough hints so the reader can learn about the world-building and the details that the characters wouldn’t know but that exist throughout the story. I also thought about how this entire Valdemar series is definitely a wish-fulfillment kind of fantasy, where readers are shown what a world could look like if the leaders were just and fair and if the people of the land cared about each other. One example I have of this are specifically from this book and how the information carefully placed in this book indicate exactly how religions can get warped over time.

Early in the story, Karal is having a discussion with Rubrik, the Herald who came down to escort Karal and Ulrich up to Valdemar. During the discussion on page 98, Karal vaguely remembers that in the older works of his religious texts, that Vkandis, his sun god, had a goddess-consort and somewhere between the oldest records and Karal’s present day, the priests removed all trace of that goddess. There are little tidbits throughout the whole book that Vkandis and the Star-Eyed are a matched pair of beneficial guardians and the hints are dropped so subtly that by the end of the book, the reader has a sense of intuition that Vkandis and the Star-Eyed are not only on the same side, but that they have the same outlook or rules that govern how they interact with humanity. They go to great lengths to ensure true freedom for the intelligent beings in the world. Another hint that supports this shows up on page 180 where Karal is reading through the original journals of one of the earliest Sons of the Sun, the leader of Karal’s religious sect. “When had the order of the Priests of the Goddess Kalanel – the consort of Vkandis – disappeared, for instance?” Which is then later corroborated on page 241 where An’desha uses the Star-Eyed’s name, Kal’enel, when thinking about what it would be like to have the full attention of a deity. It was blatantly obvious to me in all the previous time I’ve read this particular series, but this time, I actually took the time to see where all the clues were so that as I progress as a writer in my own career, I can see what was successful in setting up the ground work for allowing the reader to intuitively understand parts of the world-building without having to suffer through an information dump.

I really like the way religion is handled in this book. The book shows the devotion of a variety of different people to their different faiths and that none of those faiths are wrong. The Valdemar books in general go to great lengths to mention that there is no one, right way and that good done in the name of anyone or anything is still good. I think it’s summed up the best in Karal’s own thoughts on page 380: “We have free will, all of us, and Vkandis interferes very little in our life in this world, Ulrich had said. He does not play with us as a child plays with toy soldiers or dolls, nor does He test us to see what we are made of. He allows us to live our lives and make our own choices, and only after we cross to join Him does He judge us on the basis of what we have and have not done with the life and free will we were granted at birth – and how well we have kept our word in promises made to Him. What we choose to do intersects with what everyone else in our lives chooses to do; sometimes those choices mean joy, sometimes sorrow, often a little of both. That may be why good things sometimes happen to evil people. Most assuredly, with no cause by the Sunlord’s hand, bad things sometimes do happen to good people.

Another example of things that can and easily do relate to our own world from these books is the behavior of the Eastern Empire’s army stuck in Hardorn, and how accurately that portrays universal military concepts. The passage on page 279 talks a bit about things that impact all military people, whether in fantasy, science fiction, or real life: “Disciplined troops couldn’t cope with an enemy that wouldn’t make a stand, who wouldn’t hold a line and fight, who melted away as soon as a counter-attack began. They couldn’t deal with an enemy who attacked out of nowhere, in defiance of convention, and faded away into the countryside without pressing his gains.” Then, in the next paragraph on the same page: “The farmer who sold the Imperial cooks turnips this morning might well be taking information to the resistance about how many turnips were sold, why, and where they were going! And he could just as easily be one of the men with soot-darkened faces who burst upon the encampment the very same night, stealing provisions and weapons, running off mounts, and burning supply wagons.”

Overall, I’d say this is a solid three on my rating scale. I’m quite glad I own it and I am positive I will be reading it again at some point in the future.

Works cited: Lackey, Mercedes. Storm Warning. New York: Daw Book, Inc., 1994.

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Book Review: Unburied Fables edited by Creative Aces Publishing

unburied_fablesThings have been a little busier than normal in my life and I’ve been thrown off track for the last couple of weeks. To help me get back on track with my reading goals and to give me some happy stories to combat the severely depressing world in which we live, I picked up Unburied Fables edited by Creative Aces Publishing.

“This collection enlisted talent around the world. From students to seasoned professionals, these writers came together to raise awareness and reinvent classic stories. While they showcase a wide variety of origins, styles, and endings, all the tales in this anthology have one classic element in common: a happily ever after.”

I’ve heard that there’s a lot of discourse going on in the queer areas these days. One of the most common tropes is the Bury Your Gays trope, wherein it seems as though queer characters on mostly straight-character dominated shows or movies are at a higher risk of being killed off. As I tend to ignore people who have the inability to be positively contributing members of society, I don’t have much personal experience with the current discourse. While I am aware of the hatred and discrimination happening in the world today, I will not perpetuate, encourage, or otherwise participate in hatred or harmful behavior towards others.

With that said, Unburied Fables is the exact opposite. All these stories are positive and uplifting and some were downright cute. This anthology is exactly what I needed to see in my world, especially since all of the stories were fairly short and I could read a story between other tasks.

Handsome and the Beast (20 pages) by Laure Nepenthes. “This story is based on ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ written more or less as we know it by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and adapted many times since.” One of the really great parts about this story is that Handsome’s family are merchants and they are shown to be very caring and hard-working folks, even though it seems like tragedy after tragedy strikes them. They maintain a positive demure and always keep working to get back on their feet to the luxuries they enjoyed. Even when they find the castle, they are remarkably polite about the entire encounter and I really wish more people were like this in the real world – honest, polite, and hard-working. As for Handsome and the Beast, this was definitely a story with an ending that brought a smile to my face, as their own heart’s desire is pretty much my own favorite daydream, to share my life with someone I love, reading, sharing life, and adventuring.

The Grateful Princess (16 pages) by Rachel Sharp. “This story is based on the Estonian fairy tale ‘The Grateful Prince.’ Though the origin is a subject of some mystery, a version appeared in Andrew Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book, published in 1901.” I wasn’t particularly familiar with the story The Grateful Princess was based on, but it was definitely a very cute story, and also involved a lot of cleverness, which I very much appreciated. I have to say that this is also a story that is very much like a daydream for me, again, to share my life with someone I love and to also be able to make a difference in the world.

Odd (13 pages) by Amy Michelle. “A retelling of ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ a fairy tale first recorded by the Brothers Grimm but suspected to be much older in origin.” I think one of the interesting patterns I’ve noticed about this book so far is that many of the characters have parents and families who are very supportive of the main characters. In this story, Sofia’s father tells her that she can marry either the prince or the princess, whichever she prefers, and the king also makes the same offer. Handsome’s family in the first story also is offered the hands of whichever gender is preferred, but the interesting part is that, as accepting as these families are, they really just want their children married. This is also very understandable because the fear of ending up alone is one of the biggest fears I, myself, have, especially since I’m asexual. It’s very difficult to find a compatible partner and sometimes you do find that one in 9 billion person and things fall apart because you were self-destructive and unstable. So these stories are hitting really close to home because my family is also very supportive and also worries about me ending up alone. And this story is also a very positive ending that ends with productivity and companionship, which is all I could ever ask for.

Expectations (18 pages) by Bec McKenzie. “In a way, this is many fairy tales, but may be best described as a vignette from ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’ a story by Mark Twain.” This story was not as much to my taste as the previous three have been, but this is the first one that I found humorous with some sense of the ridiculousness of fairy tales and a pun or two. I guess this story shows you that there are different things that make different people happy and that everyone can find their own place in the world without sacrificing who they are. That’s definitely a theme with this anthology, not just with happy endings, but also with acceptance of the different things that make people happy, and also the acceptance of the people in the characters’ lives.

Li Chi and the Dragon (13 pages) by Saffyre Falkenberg. “This story is a retelling of the Chinese fairy tale ‘Li Chi Slays the Serpent’.” This is probably one of my favorite stories in this anthology. The story shows that you really can do anything if you have a plan, even a mildly crazy one, and that things work out with enough courage. I think one of the most interesting parts about this story is that we often don’t take into account the way our actions impact the lives of those we care about the most. Sure, Chi offers to sacrifice herself in order to save the life of Yanmei, but how would that make Yanmei feel, knowing that someone she loves left her alone in the world? In kind of a round-about way, this story made me think about depression, and how certain types of depression make you honestly believe that those you love are better off without you, which is absolutely false and completely opposite of the way most people feel. It’s been my experience that being gone would cause so much hurt to those you care about the most, which is often not part of the rational thought-process when you suffer from depression. When Chi goes off to face the dragon, she does so with the knowledge that at least Yanmei will be safe for another year, but she also faces the dragon with the sense of not wanting to die. And so she fights, not so much to save her own life, but to save the life of someone she loves, and then also of all the other girls in the future. This story definitely gave me a lot to think about and as much as the ending is also on my list of potential daydreams, I think I like the story because of the depth of thought inspired by the story itself.

Satin Skirts and Wooden Shoes (12 pages) by Moira C. O’Dell. “A variation on ‘Cinderella,’ a story recorded by the Brothers Grimm but commonly said to be of French origin. Interestingly, the oldest known version of this tale comes from China.” This was another story similar to Expectations, only in this story, the main character has a home and a shared living environment with someone who acts as a caretaker and a mentor. The ending is something I sometimes wish we could do in the modern world, but finding true acceptance like this seems rather difficult at times. Still, a very heart-warming tale.

Match Sticks (8 pages) by Minerva Cerridwen. “A variation (and, indeed, an evolution) of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’.” This is another of my favorite stories in this anthology. I liked how one of the first stories of true love is the happiness of the two women when the Match Sticks confirmed their love, as though the magic showed that love is love, no matter who. This story shows how true love affects all of us and it absolutely ended with yet another of my daydreams.

The Princess of the Kingdom of the Dark Wood (7 pages) by Dominique Cypres. “Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale ‘The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,’ this story has gone by many names. Most will find it familiar.” Something that struck me immediately about this tale is that the tailor in the story is a man. For decades in the western world, we’ve been conditioned that sewing and such is more a womanly task, and yet, here is this male tailor in this story. This anthology does a really great job with a variety of sexualities, romantic orientations, and even genders, and it really is wonderful to see such positive representation.

Damma and the Wolf (9 pages) by Kassi Khaos. “This retelling is based on the European fairy tale commonly known today as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.” While this story does have a happy ending, it also has a little bit of a dark and unhappy undercurrent. I suppose that’s to be expected with a story from “Little Red Riding Hood”, especially when magic and creatures of the forest are involved.

Beauty’s Beasts (11 paes) by Elspeth Willems. “Another story – this time a vignette – based on ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ The original tale also has roots in much earlier depictions of unexpected compassion, such as that of Cupid and Psyche.” I think one of the strengths of this particular story is the ambiguity of the sexual and romantic orientations of all of the characters. The story is written in such a way that it doesn’t really matter how people are attracted to each other and it doesn’t really matter what other people think of people who don’t prescribe to society’s version of “normal.” This story has a lot of the bigotry associated with people who think that families consist of a husband, a wife, and children, and the villagers represent all that bigotry. This story is a little different from some of the others in this anthology in the sense that the families of the main characters aren’t accepting of the queerness of their children, and the other villagers certainly aren’t accepting, either. So while the story itself does have a happy ending, there are definitely less happy undertones in this story, as well.

Glass Mountains (14 pages) by Will Shughart. “This story is based on ‘The Black Bull of Norroway,’ a fairy tale from Scotland retold in print since 1870.” I think it’s fascinating that this anthology uses such a variety of different areas for the source content. This was also a really sweet story that showed love is worth overcoming all obstacles and that anything worth doing truly takes time. Looking at how long this story took to unfold, not in pages read but in the actual mentions of time in the story, this isn’t a story with an instant happy ending. Boots has to work every day to earn another chance at his heart’s desire, and I find that to be the most true part of this entire story. Any love worth having requires hard work, dedication, a good deal of faith in better things, and time, as well as tenacity and the ability to learn and grow over time.

Brenna (10 pages) by Emmy Clarke. “This story is a version of ‘Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful,’ another German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.” This is a neat and adventurous tale which was a lot of fun to read. While I’m not familiar with the original version of this fairy tale, this version is a very happy one and I think any other version than this one might ruin it for me. Though, I’ve lived this long without seeing anything about the original, so I should be safe, I would think.

The Last Lost Boy (19 pages) by George Lester. “A retelling of ‘Peter and Wendy,’ more commonly known as ‘Peter Pan,’ by Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie.” Oddly, this is probably the one fairy tale in this anthology that I have actually read. I’ve even seen the live play, watched the Disney cartoon, and even the movie Hook. One of my friends from several years ago really liked the entire Peter Pan mythology and I think it was inspired by the lack of wanting to participate in “normal” adult behavior – things like having a job and paying rent and living your life alone. And oddly, this is the one story in this anthology that made me actually tear up a little bit. This is probably the best modern version of a fairy tale that I’ve seen and it was probably more emotional for me because there’s someone out there who I love and care about more than anyone in the entire world, and that person has disappeared from my life. Even with modern technology and the ability to keep in touch over the greatest of distances, people we love and care about can still voluntarily disappear from our lives. But if someone we love and care about choses to go and doesn’t want us there, we have to respect their wishes. We can miss them all day every day, with every breath we take and every drop of blood in our bodies, but we have to let them go and travel their own paths. Maybe that’s the part about this story that moves me the most – the hope for the passing of time to heal the wounds developed by time apart. That time apart, though, is where we grow into who we’re supposed to be, so that when we come back into each other’s lives, we are better prepared to be equal parts of a greater whole. This is the story I would choose to see for all my exposure to Peter Pan in the future. It’s got a happy ending, even after so much time has passed between them.

Dark Matters (9 pages) by Tiffany Rose. “A retelling of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ this story adds a modern twist, as well as combing two of the best known versions of the tale.” This was another really great use of modern technology with mythology and lore. I also really liked the puns used in this story and I was amused at some of the “gay” humor in the sense of queer folks making jokes about themselves. I found the jokes to be rather amusing. This was also a really great story and one that was oddly moving, in the sense of finding a place that feels like home may not feel like the kind of home you’re used to.

The Suns of Terre (18 pages) by Will J. Fawley. “This spacefaring fairy tale is a version of ‘Prince Darling,’ which made its first known appearance in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, published in 1889.” This was the only science fiction story in the anthology and I think it was a fitting ending, as it showed that even in the future, people will tend to find ways to discriminate between or against other people, but that discrimination isn’t appropriate at all. We are, all of us, people together. No matter what our race, gender, ethnicity, sexual or romantic orientation, cultural or societal upbringing, we are all human together, and we are stronger for it.

Overall, this is a very easy collection of stories to read. There truly are different styles and different stories, which really just means that there’s a story for everyone. There are queer stories of every variety and it makes this book a very easy and happy anthology to read. I would probably rate the entire anthology as a low four on my rating scale, as there are several stories that I am definitely going to reread and I’m very happy that I own this book.

Works cited: Creative Aces Publishing. Unburied Fables. Middletown: Creative Aces Publishing, 2016.

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Book Review: Winds of Fury by Mercedes Lackey

The next book I read in my reading marathon of the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey was Winds of Fury (fantasy 423 pages), the final book in The Mage Winds trilogy.

winds_of_fury“Valdemar is once again in peril, threatened by Ancar of Hardorn, who has long sought to seize control of the kingdom by any means at his command. Yet this time Ancar may well achieve his goal, for by harnessing the power of Mornelithe Falconsbane, the Dark Adept, he has set into motion a magical strike against Valdemar the like of which hasn’t been attempted in more than five hundred years – not since Vanyel, the last Herald-Mage, shielded the kingdom from attack by the deadliest of sorceries. And with Valdemar’s ancient spell-generated protections finally breaking down, Queen Selenay, Herald-Princess Elspeth, and their people could soon be left defenseless against an enemy armed with spells no one in Valdemar has the knowledge to withstand. But as the long dormant magic of Valdemar begins to awaken, Elspeth finds that she too has a mysterious ally – a powerful spirit from the long-forgotten past.”

This is probably my favorite book in this series, and I think that’s mostly because everything happens in this book. Elspeth, Gwena, Skif, and Cymry finally return to Valdemar and they bring such an interesting array of friends and allies with them that all of the interactions in Valdemar had me chuckling. Everything from when the entourage first arrives back in Valdemar and how their hosts aren’t properly prepared for the entourage’s arrival and how the Heralds themselves are amused by how flawed the communication was between the arriving group and the hosts to the magic lesson taught in Valdemar itself was expressly amusing to me.

So many parts of real life are represented in this book that it’s hard to pick out particular portions and point to only those portions as the reason I enjoyed this book so much. The issue of sexism is often discussed in a variety of ways, including Elspeth’s treatment by all of the noble folks of Valdemar and their gossip into her personal affairs and into Nyara’s fears about whether or not Skif would continue to love her if she wasn’t exotic and sexualized. I think Nyara’s sexualization shows how much of a fine line it is between women knowing how men view them as sexual objects and how women can take charge of their own lives and their own bodies to live the lives they choose for themselves instead of the lives chosen for them by the men in their lives. This kind of deeper issue is only present if you take the time to think about and it’s certainly not an overwhelming part of the book, but rather presents something a lot deeper to think about if your mind is open to thinking about the societal roles pushed by the current western culture.

One of the best parts about this book is the clear demonstration of a variety of positive relationships.

Elspeth and Darkwind eventually pair off, but I’m fairly certain that it’s been standard practice in the fantasy publishing world to have some sort of romantic pairing, especially amongst the main characters. While I think this potential genre troupe is changing in our world right now, I think back in the 1990s when this book was published, romantic pairings were officially or unofficially required as part of the storyline. Granted, Elspeth and Darkwind work very well to show what a true, equal partnership should look like. They are both individuals with completely separate personalities and also different strengths and weaknesses, but they work very well together. The sum of their parts is greater than their individual components, but they are both fully capable of living their own lives and making their own decisions. They work together, not with their own separate agendas, but with the full understanding that they each have oaths and a driving purpose to serve something bigger than themselves. They trust each other to take care of things they each need to do and then to stand together when it’s time. If one of them slips or falters, the other will help.

Even Skif and Nyara have a very healthy relationship. Back at the end of Winds of Change, Nyara makes a conscious decision to work towards being her own person so that she can be a true partner for Skif. Need has a lengthy discussion with Nyara to help her realize that Skif is looking for a partner who can hold their own and perhaps even save him once in a while. Nyara has to work towards seeing her own value and not just the value of her physical and exotic beauty and that’s hugely important.

This book also has unpartnered people such as Need. Granted, Need is an old mage-smith whose soul is contained within a magically enchanted sword, but even before she bonded to the sword, she had no interest in mating or life-partnering. Need is as close to a true asexual in any of the earlier fantasy books I’ve read. While these days, it’s common for authors to attempt to include greater diversity in their stories such as increasing diversity by offering characters with a plethora of ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual identities, this is true representation in the fact that it wasn’t written just so the author could play a “diversity card” with their work. This is the first book in the Valdemar series where Need has a lengthy physical description and it all fits her personality perfectly, and in all of the books where Need is a true character, even though she doesn’t have a normal, human body, a sexual partnership just isn’t on her list. She soul-bonds with her users and that is a very tight bond where she functions as a teacher, mentor, experienced warrior, or mage, depending on what her bearer requires, and I would say she deeply loves all those she bonds with and wouldn’t want a sexual partnership even if she had a human body to have one with.

There’s a passage on page 112 that specifically discusses lifebonds and how someone who has a tendency towards deep depression is more likely to develop a lifebond and that lifebond will help that internally burdened person focus on someone other than themselves, which helps them get through things in their lives. Maybe it’s because of my own constant internal turmoil that deepens my feelings for the people I care about in my life and that’s why this entire section struck me as extremely powerful and right on the mark.

Overall, I’d say this book is probably a low four on my rating scale. I’m absolutely happy that I own this book and will definitely read it again in the future. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain the main reason I read the other two books in the Mage Winds trilogy is so that I can read this book with a more in-depth understand of what was going on and why.

Works cited: Lackey, Mercedes. Winds of Fury. New York: Daw Book, Inc., 1993.

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Book Review: Winds of Change by Mercedes Lackey

The next book I read in my reading marathon of the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey was Winds of Change (fantasy 472 pages), the second book in The Mage Winds trilogy.

winds_of_change“With Valdemar in dire peril – threatened by the malevolent spellcraft of Ancar of Haldorn – Princess Elspeth, Herald and heir to the throne, has come to the Vale of the Tayledras Clan to seek Mage training among the magical Hawkbrother Adepts. But instead of finding a haven, she is whirled into a maelstrom of war and sorcery as the Vale is attacked by a mysterious Dark Adept from out of the ‘Uncleansed Lands.’ And when the Heartstone, the source of magical power for the Clan, is warped by evil sorceries and turned into a dangerous rogue, disabling the most powerful of the Hawkbrother Adepts, Elspeth – still only a half-trained Mage – and the renegade Hawkbrother-Adept Darkwind must struggle to tame the rogue Heartstone before the next strike of the Dark Adept, risking the perils of the unknown in a desperate bid to save both their peoples.”

As with most trilogies, the second book contains most of the character development and the “middle” stuff, which means it’s not the beginning where everything is new and the characters are in vastly different situations, but it’s also not the end with all the page-turning action.

There are some very interesting passages in this book, as I’ve found in all of the Valdemar books so far. There was a section on page 114 that really stuck out with me because of the way our world is right now. “To be effective, one who would betray others must be likable and plausible – while all the time being something else entirely. He must be a supreme actor, projecting warmth and humanity, while having a cold, uncaring heart. Someone who is a criminal is likely to be all of these.” I’m constantly amazed at how authors who write about fantasy and science fiction are often more capable of teaching us about human nature than our own leaders. I’ve learned so much about how to interact with people better and to see things through other people’s eyes just by reading science fiction and fantasy than by reading or exposure to any of the “literature” so often forcibly taught. The interesting parts about the Valdemar books is that they are a clear separation between good and evil, how evil can’t create anything on its own and wants to possess things instead of make the world a better place; how evil only pretends to care in order to serve its own greedy, selfish desires of gaining more power and wealth. And we see this evil growing more and more powerful every day in the modern world we live in. And yet, Elspeth, Darkwind, Skif, Nyara, Treyvan, Hydona, and all the different people who live in and around the Vale continue to strive against all odds to fight back that evil.

As the book progresses, Elspeth enjoys the luxury of the Vale and thinks about how it would be so easy to become much lazier and spend more time on “frivolous” activities. But life outside the Vale is harsh and she realizes that all of the “luxuries” in the Vale are ways to make a harsh life more bearable, not a way to encourage any sort of shirking of their duties.

There was a line in this book that made me absolutely laugh out loud on page 392: “One did not pick quarrels with edged wit or edged weapons.”

Overall, this book was interesting and the character development was good. I’m more excited to continue reading and getting to the next book where everyone travels back to Valdemar and how interesting it will be to have so many different cultures introduced to each other. I would probably rate this book as a solid or low three on my rating scale. I’m glad I own it and I’m positive I will read it again in the future.

Works cited: Lackey, Mercedes. Winds of Change. New York: Daw Book, Inc., 1993.

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