A Review – Dark Currents: Agent of Hel by Jacqueline Carey

I’ve seen worse paperback cover art, too.

Jacqueline Carey is my favourite author in the epic fantasy genre; not only because the setting of her Phèdre series is unique, complicated and lacking Tolkienian cliché, but also because the characters are full and believable. So, when I heard that she was branching into my favourite genre, urban fantasy, I felt equal parts excited and apprehensive.

Being the first in a new series, Dark Currents: Agent of Hel has the unenviable task of introducing characters, locations, conflicts and an internal supernatural logic along with telling its own story. As with the beginning of any “genre” series, it must do all of these things with enough strength to sustain its successors. This is where many authors fall down – particularly in urban fantasy.

While Carey’s first novel – Kushiel’s Dart (my review of which can be found here) – was equal parts criticised and applauded for its in-depth world building, Dark Currents drip-feeds us information as the story progresses, allowing us to really get in on the action even in chapter one. The main character, Daisy, is perfectly poised between the magical and mundane to present information on either when the situation arises.

Of course (and at the risk of losing the rest of your day on TV Tropes), there is a certain element of “our monsters are different“. Each species has to be not only introduced, but also seen in action in order to make Carey’s modern monsters distinct from those on the same book store shelf. Nonetheless, this is done with care and is not overly distracting. There isn’t too much contrast with popular culture, for example.

As a caveat to that point, though, I have to admit a little smirk at the “offensive term” for the vampire nest being “Twilight Manor”.

The mystery is gripping enough that even without the supernatural elements it could make a compelling crime novel in its own right. As an element that many urban fantasy writers neglect, I found it rather pleasing that I was mentally working on the puzzle on the few occasions I wasn’t reading.

I found the mix of Christian and Norse mythology to be compelling, though the interaction between the two is not deeply explored. After the atypical theology of her Kushiel series, I would have preferred an approach more from further outside the box, as many supernatural series (including Supernatural) feel the need to use Abrahamic religion as a baseline. Nonetheless, there’s enough non-Christian stuff to sink my teeth into, and I’m sure Carey will address it more in future books, considering her protagonist’s back story.

As an introductory novel, it works well, and I’m sure it will go from strength the strength as the series progresses. It isn’t a stand-out of the genre in the same way I consider Kushiel’s Dart to be, but it is certainly deserving of a place beside Butcher, Hamilton and Harris. If this is your genre, do add Dark Currents: Agent of Hel to your collection.

(The same review on Goodreads is here)

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30 Days Challenge: Day 29: Future plans/goals

I find myself in the mood to whine and winge at be generally depressive at you. Instead, I’m going to do the next 30 Day question, which is much more cheerful.

Career

Professionally, I want to continue to teach – particularly adults or small groups of children. I’ve become rather jaded towards school teaching and I don’t think it’s really my wheelhouse. Teaching adults and business English, on the other hand, is really something I can see myself doing for the rest of my working life. I’m not a perfect teacher; I have a lot of personal development and growth to do, but that is something I really want to put my time and attention into. Long-term, I see myself going into academic management and/or teacher training.

Career 2

I want to publish a book. I’m about halfway through some British urban fantasy (being that I’m British and I like urban fantasy). Even if it’s not this attempt or the next or the next, I’d like to see a book with my name on it in a mainstream bookstore (assuming they still exist in twenty years’ time, of course). This is a goal I’ve held unwaveringly since I first held J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit at around age 9. Maybe earlier. It won’t change until it happens.

Geography

This is the big question, I suppose. I have no great desire to return to England permanently, and as I begin to lose family members, that need or want will grow less and less. I also have a strong desire to live in  more countries before (and if) I decide to set down permanent roots somewhere. Unless something significant happens in the next nine months or so, I think this will be my last year in Mexico.

Romance

Well, I guess that’s kind of affected by the previous paragraph. I want to be in love again*, but I also know that it makes me make lots of stupid mistakes. It might make me stay in Mexico longer, but not forever. I want to see the world. Whoever I found would have to be okay with that as part of what they’re getting when they say ‘yes’ to getting me.

So far as marriage and kids go, I think they’re things I want in the future, but I’m not there yet. Marriage I could take or leave, but I’d love to have kids one day. I’d love to have polyglot kids one day. The romance thing has to come first, though. And last.

Anyway, those are my plans for the future. I’d also like to further my Spanish and at least one other language. I want to be the kind of man with the kind of life that 12 year old Andy could be proud of becoming.

 

 

*On some days I want it a little too much.

30 Days Challenge: Day 7: Your crush

First off, I’m going to post about celebrity crushes in this post. There are two good reasons for this:

  1. I post this blog on every social network I have access to.
  2. I’m as subtle as a brick with learning disabilities. Whoever he, she or they is/are, they already know.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about my crushes. In for a penny and what have you. I’m
not going to bother with a lengthy discussion post because I’m neither:

  1. 13 years old
  2. A pervert

That said, here’s a gallery:

 


   

So, in summary: odd, quirky and charming actresses and Chris Hemsworth. Don’t look at me like that. I don’t care how into women you are, I defy you not to like Thor given an appropriate opportunity. I defy you. Yes, you.

 

 

 

A conversation I had about a year ago relating to why we put ourselves through so much crap relating to dating. It’s linked to a conversation we’re having in the comments section:

30 Day Challenge: Day 1

Hello, WordPress. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that. I’ve had a very interesting and complicated Summer sans Internet. Maybe I’ll talk about it as part of this thing I’ve decided to do:

Completely stolen from a lovely lady who blogs over here. I figured it’d be a good way to get back into writing and blogging without having a big, long emo-post. So, here we go.

30 Days Challenge:

Day 1: 5 interesting facts about yourself.
Day 2: The meaning behind your name.
Day 3: About your friends.
Day 4: About your family.
Day 5: A photo of something you really hate.
Day 6: A song that makes you cry.
Day 7: Your crush.
Day 8: Something you hate about yourself.
Day 9: Your definition of love.
Day 10: Your best friend.
Day 11: A letter to one of your exes.
Day 12: Your favorite female group.
Day 13: Your least favorite female group.
Day 14: Something you love about yourself.
Day 15: What you would if you were pregnant or got someone pregnant.
Day 16: A photo that makes you smile.
Day 17: A photo that makes you want to cry.
Day 18: A letter to someone you miss.
Day 19: A habit you wish you didn’t have.
Day 20: A letter to your parents.
Day 21: Short goals you wish to fulfill by the end of the month.
Day 22: Your nicknames & why you have them.
Day 23: What you would find in your bag.
Day 24: A song that makes you smile.
Day 25: How you found out about blogger & why you made one.
Day 26: First 10 songs to play on shuffle on your iPod.
Day 27: Your fashion style.
Day 28: What attracts you to someone.
Day 29: Future plans/goals.
Day 30: Who are you?

I’ll try to do this every day, but I know me. I probably won’t. Anyway:

Day 1: 5 interesting facts about yourself.

Well, here’s the one I usually keep in reserve for questions like this and drunken nights out:

I. I have been in a romantic relationship that included three other people. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of how it works. Here’s the Internet oracle if you’re curious. The basic philosophy of poly is that anything goes so long as it’s open and agreed upon beforehand.

I was 22 and just out of a 6-year relationship. I had this friend who I’d had a sneaky little crush1 on for years, and after an overly self-indulgent mourning period, stuff started to happen between us.

When it became apparent than it was a less-than-casual relationship, I was introduced to her slightly scary husband and eventually his girlfriend. Now, if you think things are dramatic in a relationship with two emotionally unpredictable people, just try it with 4.

Although I do believe that with the right mix of people with the right attitudes, it is a relationship model that can work, I’m not sure if I would ever do it again. Ultimately, my self-worth was torn up pretty badly by that whole experience, and I’m not eager to repeat it.

Let’s move on to something a little more cheerful, shall we?

II.  I’m writing my first novel. It is taking years as I tend to dip into it around procrastination, work and relationship drama.

It’s a story about a girl2, Laura, who is just coming out of a shitty relationship – the latest in a long line. Not too long after (following an inadvisable nightclub dalliance), she finds herself dating her boss, George, who she’s had a crush on for all the years she’s been working at his magazine. Unfortunately, things take a turn for a worse, as it seems that he’s involved in a violent power struggle with creatures that just aren’t really real. Right? And even then, Laura’s journo-sense tells her that there’s still more to George than meets the eye…

I’ve always wanted to write, and my dissertation was around the evolution of vampires in modern fiction (pre-Twilight, thankyouverymuch). I want to see one book with my name on it before I die. It’s the one ambition and dream I always come back to. It’s slow going, but I’m making it happen.

III. I don’t really understand hetero-normative men. Not even a little.

That isn’t to say I don’t have the same drives or desires as your typical hombre. Quite the reverse. Nonetheless, ever since I was a little boy I’ve felt very much apart from the strongly-masculine, football-loving, beer-swilling stereotypes I was exposed to. I’ve always had female friends while being completely baffled by representatives of my own sex.

I get a lot of pleasure from romantic comedies. If you say please, I’ll let you laugh at my “Rainy Tuesday” guilty pleasure movie.

I react to things (everything) with emotion. Where society perhaps suggests that a man should react in anger or aggression, I’ll react in sadness and half a chocolate cheesecake. It has led to my being “friendzoned” or taking the “gay friend” role in the life of some wonderful women, but then I have some amazing friends. You win some, you lose some.

It’s just the way I am, really. That amongst other things make me not quite fit in the little mining town I was born into, and so I travel. Which leads me to…

IV. I’m an Englishman in Mexico teaching English to Mexicans.

At the risk of being too navel-gazy about it, I think I’m running away from the very settled, local life that my brother and family still enjoy. Much as I love my family, I get terribly claustrophobic in that environment. I wanted to experience things, go places, meet people and have the kind of life I’ve read about in books. So I am. I’ve always had an affinity for words and language, so this is how I chose to do it.

Eventually, I want to have kids who have a life that is incomparable to their grandparents’. I want my grandchildren to do more still. I want my life to have made an impression on the world, even if it’s just an ant’s footprint.

V: I’m a geek. It’s perhaps not the most interesting thing to put into one of these, but it’s a huge identifier in who I am. On any given evening I will be procrastinating from housework, paid work or novel work with any one of the following:

Video games, science-fiction and fantasy anything, comic books, comic book movies, book-books, roleplaying (given an English-speaking geek community), blogging (hi!), watching YouTube videos about the above, Supernatural, The Big Bang Theory, posting on forums, Doctor Who, LARP, card games, board games, anything with Felicia Day in it… the list goes on.

Meddlers

This fact comes with this extra bonus fact: I used to be really fat.

I didn’t set out to be geeky, but when I hit university, I tried all  the things that seemed cool to me and kept doing them. I don’t really care that they’re not mainstream, or even that some are. I pretty much bumble along doing what I enjoy, making mistakes and hoping for the best. Hell, it’s why I’m sitting on my bed in Latin America rather than getting ready to go to my call centre job in South Yorkshire. Plans are for wimps. 😉

I hope you feel enlightened by all this. Comments welcome. Tune in again tomorrow!

______________________________________________________________

1 Although I say “sneaky little crush,” I am aware that subtlety and emotional guardedness are not weapons I hold in my arsenal. It’s was almost certainly common knowledge long before anything happened.
2 See Fact III.

Review Triple-Bill!

I promised you a post about entertainment, didn’t I? Well, here’s three! I’m so good to you.

Anyway, I reached a point where I had watched everything on Geek and Sundry, a YouTube channel from Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton. This is a channel that includes:

  • The Guild – a hilarious and sometimes uncomfortable web comedy about a group of online gamers meeting IRL.
  • Tabletop – Wil Wheaton playing different board games with a range of (geeky) celebrity guests.
  • The Flog – Felicia’s video blog where she does random things (blacksmithy, ice sculpture) and talks about the things she likes.
  • Sword & Laser – a formerly audio-only book group that specialises in sci-fi and fantasy. They also have a pet dragon.

Tabletop has been a lifesaver for me, allowing me to get my geeky gamer fix far away from the nearest English-speaking dungeon master.

I was railing around for something else to watch, when I came across Vaginal Fantasy on Ms. Day’s personal YouTube channel. Basically, the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout is a four-woman book group hosted on G+ (then uploaded to YouTube). They discuss books which have both strong romantic and/or sexual subplots and exist within “genre fiction” such as sci-fi, fantasy or steampunk.  As a fan of both genre fiction and the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton (not to mention Felicia Day), I knew it was for me.

The hangouts themselves are silly, disorganised and regularly slide off-topic. This makes them a hell of a lot more fun than your traditional book review show, and allows for more honest and varied opinions on the books they read. Even if you don’t read the books, I recommend you tune in and have a laugh.

Because it made me laugh, not because I believe it.

This month’s primary pic is Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, which is the third item in our three-part review today.

Kushiel’s Dart is the first piece of high fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed for quite some time1. The world-building is thorough, as one might expect from the genre, based loosely on a medieval cum Renaissance version of Europe.

I loved the world-building. It really allowed me to immerse myself in a world I could see myself living in, rather than the worlds of other fantasy authors, whose worlds seem to be entirely bereft of normal, everyday people.

Beyond this, though, what kept me reading were the characters and the unpredictable story. Although it is a long book (over 300,000 words if my Google-related sources are correct), it allows for so much story to happen in that space of time.

Although I know the world building put some people off in the early chapters, but it drew me in so completely – I was utterly immersed once the plot got moving. It’s one of those epic fantasies where you have to pay attention, I think. I understand the paper edition has a character list and map in the front, which would make it a little easier. Please don’t let this put you off. I totally intend to go back to Terre D’Ange as soon as possible.

I found the motivations of the main characters very realistic and relatable. Putting aside the Machiavellian machinations of the powerful characters (which I also enjoyed), characters are driven by money, freedom, love and evangelical belief. They have flirty frissons, sacrilegious temptations and regrets for lost loves. A love triangle that emerges towards the end kept me wrapped while they were trying to save their world.

Phédre, the main character, is born into a life of religiously-sanctioned prostitution in a highly-cultured society. Marked as imperfect by the red mote in her left eye, she is saddened to think that she will never enter the service of one of the 13 Houses (ancient, high-class brothels).

It turns out that she’s been marked by the angel of punishment as someone destined to take it and enjoy it. She discovers this when she’s beaten for having an adventure outside her House at night. Te mote in her eye is the nominal Kushiel’s Dart.

I won’t tell you about the plot any more, as it twists and turns in unexpected ways. The theme, I think, is one of female strength. Although she is a prostitute and a professional victim, she becomes one of the most influential people in the world. At one point in the book, a character receives a prediction:

That which yields is not necessarily weak.

I think this is very much the message of this piece.

One thing that the Vaginal Fantasy ladies have picked up on in past reading efforts is the lack of gay or bisexual relationships in the romance genre. In Kushiel’s Dart, sexuality is a non-issue. Men and women are trained as prostitutes for the preferences of whomever choses them. There is no stigma or stereotype attached to choosing someone of the same sex, save some parents despairing that their children will have no heirs (a concern very real to some members of the LGBT community). In a society where their religion decrees “love as thou wilt” they really mean it. Totally respect to the author for that.

Honestly, I loved this story. There have been some criticisms in the Vaginal Fantasy Goodreads Forum which I’d like to address.

“The opening chapters are boring”, “too much world building and not enough action”, etc. I discussed this a little above, but I want to reiterate: The world building does take up a lot of the early part of the book. You’ll either enjoy that or not, but it’s definitely worth sticking with it in my humble opinion.

I think this criticism comes in comparison to other “vaginal fantasy” books, which focus much more solidly on action and romance. In Kushiel’s Dart, the focus is more on the world, politics and how a lowly prostitute could possibly (eventually) affect it. The sex comes later, the action later still and the romance yet later. The slow politicking is the story and a big part of the plot. That’s why it’s a big part of the novel. Perhaps it could have been spread out more, but personally I loved it.

Kushiel’s Dart is epic fantasy with a courtesan as the main character. It’s like Lord of the Rings if it had any characters who weren’t asexual.

The BDSM was “too much”. Yeah, BDSM and punishment are big parts of Phédre and her story. This is not playful handcuffs and light spanking. This is torture with sex thrown in. If those are things that will completely turn you off to a character or story, then this isn’t for you.

If you do know a little about BDSM, however, this is a great book to see how it can be handled in a responsible way. Consent and a safe word are contractually agreed upon before anything happens. They are massive issues that are highlighted regularly. These are issues that needn’t be referenced by a fantasy author, and yet become a central part of the plot on occasion. For that, Carey gets more respect from me.

In conclusion: this is epic fantasy with sex and certainly not the other way around. Be prepared for world building and BDSM, but if you can get into them, prepare to be absorbed by an original, yet recognisable world and one lowly courtesan’s  journey through it.

To finish, gratuitous pictures of Felicia Day dancing in an elevator in a recent episode of Supernatural2:

   

 

1 Don’t argue with my definition. Wikipedia says I’m right:

High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

2 Yes, it’s a cliché, a self-proclaimed geek having a crush on Felicia Day. So sue me.

Not a music fan?!

You’ve got to be kidding me!
(I love this movie)

As I write this in my Rosetta Stone notebook1, I am sitting in a house… somewhere near Mexico City. I’m accompanying my lady friend to a rehersal of her band. I am surrounded by so much equipment that I don’t know whether they’re going to make music or launch this lovely antique-filled home on a mission to Mars.

Dolly Parton

This’ cool, right?

I love music. I do. I enjoy rock, pop, country, jazz, ska, soul, Motown and more. My regular playlists are so eclectic and varied that no two songs played back-to-back seem to gel at all. From Deep Purple through the Supremes via Dolly Parton, I love all kinds of music2. It seems, however, that I l love music less than almost everyone else I meet. This rules goes double for anyone I happen to sleep with.

I don’t know if anyone else has had this experience, but I never give a correct answer when it comes to favourite bands; I can’t name a guitarist from a single riff3, and I don’t know which band started which monumental movement that should have changed my life.

They guys I’m listening to now are great. Really, they are. I won’t have to put on my boyfriend-wow face and fake enthusiasm. It’s good stuff. I’m even pretty sure I can name all the instruments. After I finished this bit of scribbling, I also helped with the tambourine (badly) and some English grammar in the lyrics! I’m quite proud.

That said, I’m not really sure what genre their music is, nor which bands might have inspired it. I feel like Knives Chau being mesmerized by something I know nothing about4.  I just don’t have the language to discuss music, just like a non-linguist wouldn’t have the words to talk about phonemics, the Proto-Indo-European language or diphthongs. In the broadest possible strokes, I can say if I enjoy some vocals, a guitar solo or lyrics. I kind of know that Bowie was a New Romantic and Marvin Gaye was Motown. Regardless of any of my other traits or interests, this seems to make me a lesser person; I’m less cool and less interesting.

Case in point: on my journey to Mexico City last week, I was flicking through the poorly catalogued music collection on the bus. I came across a song I really enjoyed, with a lead singer whose accent really appealed to me4. I was berated by lover and ex alike for never having heard of the Cranberries. It was a name that I sort of recognised, and when their hits were yelled at me, I did recognise some. Nonetheless, they weren’t a band that was ever really on my rader until I accidentally listened to a  mislabelled song on a Mexican bus.

The song in question:

Right now, I’m surrounded by people who are enjoying making great music. I’m enjoying listening to it while I write. Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t that be enough?

I have no issue with musical culture or how much it means to some people. I just don’t really understand it. It is, I suppose, the same way that other people don’t understand my passion for Doctor Who, the BBC’s Sherlock or Supernatural6, for example. What does bother me, however, is the ‘indie elitism’ that one sees far too often. The “my music is better than you music” mentality is what put me off looking outside the mainstream for the majority of my teenage years (another girl’s influence, as it happens).

I like music, but I know nothing about it. What’s wrong with that?

Please comment if you’ve had the same experience. Maybe you’ve got your own story of non-musicista prejudice? Let me know. Tell me I’m not alone.

1 The British Museum’s finest.
2 I know, I know. I’m sure you’re already rolling your eyes at my examples.
3 Except Queen’s Brian May.
4 If you don’t get the reference, do yourself a favour.
5 My weakness for accents is a whole topic in and of itself. The next time I do something stupid for a pretty accent, I’ll let you know. Refer to this post for reference to my summer spent chasing Belarussian crush I had entirely thanks to the pretty, atypical way she spoke.
6 If you don’t know them, look them up. Seriously.

Supernatural at the End of Season 6 (Slight Spoilers)

SupernaturalIt’s been a while since I’ve written about Supernatural (all here, actually.), but as my viewing has brought me pretty much up to date, I thought I’d talk about the evolution the show seems to have undergone. When last I wrote, I had just started watching season 2. At that point, the show was still very much in the ‘monster of the week’ vein and only superficially attended to issues of global or theological import. The focus was very much on the Winchester family and the things that affect them personally. We were only just beginning to see the wider hunter world.

At the end of season 6, currently the last completed season, we have seen demons by the dozen with a variety of powers and motivations. We’ve also seen angels, gods both pagan and modern, vampires, werewolves, dragons, ghosts, ghouls, the Devil, the Christian god, and even the four horsemen. For forty-something episodes now, the fate of the world has been in the balance. Some angels want Armageddon, while others just want humans to be their playthings. Meanwhile, demons are knocking around causing their usual mischief.

As with many long-running sci-fi/fantasy shows, Supernatural has been overtaken by the prospect of bigger and bigger arc-plots. We begin with the Winchesters, then the Winchesters as part of a plan that grows and grows, ultimately passing through the Apocalypse and Heavenly civil war. The stakes go from familial to trans-dimensional almost as soon as John is dead, gone and never coming back. With the new status of a regular character changing, I can only see the stakes being even higher in season 7.

So the question remains: is this a good thing? Well, I do recall a point in the first couple of seasons when everyone had sold their soul at least once, and had had revelations about members of their family at least half a dozen times. I could feel interest and creativity waning in the family angst of the main characters, since they had thoroughly discussed their issues on a near-weekly basis. The further expansion of the world and crises was not only inevitable, but also necessary for the continuation of the series. Had the show ended when Dean went to hell, or when John died, then to limit it to the family would have been enough. As it is, though, they had to begin to deal with the larger world outside of the ‘monster of the week’ episodes.

The battle against Lilith and her literal demons and Sam with his metaphorical ones were the beginning of the long, Judeo-Christian Journey we’re on now. It has introduced the Biblical mysteries and the amorality of the wrath of god. Every time Castiel appears, I feel like something interesting is going to happen. The family angst is still their, but it is something to be dealt with while bigger issues are at hand. Sam and Dean are now world players, and their actions affect millions of people, rather than a few families.

One thing that has almost disappeared from the show, however, are the episodes that deal only in the moment. Every recent episode has had some impact on the wider plot. There are no pesky ghosts or vampires that do not directly correspond to what’s going on in the wider universe. I think this is a bit of a shame, as the travelling and meeting new people was a core part of what the show was about. I simply think it would be nice to step away from the Abrahamic mythology to see some random, non-Western monster causing havok. Arc-plots are important to keep people watching, but it’s important not to move too far away from what people originally tuned in for. A light, non-arc hunt could really lighten the tone of the universal threats that are near-constant in the Supernatural Universe at the moment.

One of the main criticisms of Russell T. Davies’ run on Doctor Who is that the stakes were always at a global level. Every week, a monster would threaten to destroy the planet, solar system, galaxy or solar system. It got old. Even those episodes which gave us a break from that tended to be comedic in contrast to the dark, threatening monsters of other weeks.

I’d like it to be clear that I absolutely love Supernatural. It is my favourite show at the moment, and I wouldn’t want to appear to be completely down on it in this review. I only want to continue to see variation in its episodes and menagerie; perhaps a return to a point where I don’t know what will happen in this week’s episode. In Season 6, I knew that demons would be tortured and/or killed, Castiel would say something cryptic and the hunters would debate the evilness of the plan they’d been trying to defuse for weeks.

Sometimes, you just want to see a Wendigo eat some hikers.