Monthly Archives: August 2017

Empress of a Thousand Skies, by Rhoda Belleza

Empress of a Thousand Skies

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Soap Opera, Youth Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • Princess Rhiannon Ta’an is the last survivor of her assassinated dynasty. Upon her coming of age, the world expects her to take her throne. She intends to take vengeance. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This is a more plot and setting focused story, but thankfully the characters weren’t neglected. The chapters jump back and forth between Rhee, the princess, and Alyosha, a soldier who gets caught up in events. Rhee was a real surprise to me. The author wasn’t afraid to let her get dirty, both physically and emotionally. She goes through shit, she reacts badly, she is impulsive and well, a teenager. It was fascinating to read teen royalty who, instead of being wise beyond their years, was wise at exactly-her-years, and awfully banged up inside to boot. And despite, how raw and angry she was, I still cared about her. Alyosha, meanwhile, was also wounded and naive in his own ways, but a bit sweeter and more mature. He was a unique person, but had a more familiar protagonisty flavor The two perspectives complimented each other perfectly; Alyosha kept the book from being bogged down while Rhee kept surprising me. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Exciting! It was one of those books I got through in just a couple days, because I was too eager to find out what happened next.
    • It is the first of a series, and leaves some unanswered questions at the end. But thankfully it wasn’t one of those that felt like it just stopped before the last scene. The characters went through real change, the questions that could be answered were, and the ones left were the ones that really felt too big to be satisfactorily resolved in a single book.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The technology in this is not only cool, but well used. I’ve seen too many stories where something with mind-boggling implications is just used in one limited context, and the rest of the world has never heard of it. In this book, there’s a bit of tech that I thought was just background world building, but it keeps coming up again and again. Not only was it used in multiple ways throughout the setting, but the ethical issues and potential for abuse ended up being key to the ever deepening layers of conflict. I really loved it.
    • Dwarf planets! She uses dwarf planets to justify the single-biome tropes, and also throw in some cool stuff with gravity and weird geography. I’ve been wanting to see people embrace dwarf planets as a new and cool thing instead of a travesty inflicted on Pluto, so this made me really nerd-happy. 
    • The plot justified itself well. By which I mean, I’m used to tolerating a certain degree of coincidence to get through a story, especially when an author clearly wants to have fun, but in this one there kept being a perfectly thought out explanation, even when I was prepared to expect that there wouldn’t been.
  • Content Warnings
    • It’s an action adventure book, so there’s some fights. A few of them are pretty brutal, which I actually liked. In this story, violence isn’t just a video game. It not meant to be glamorous; it’s scary, and has real impacts on the character’s lives.
  • Quotes
    • “If all we are is what people think we are, then we’re all screwed.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Tales of Moderation

Welcome to my second themed series. This one is on stewardship, which is a term I haven’t heard outside of my old evangelical Christian circles, though I’ve certainly encountered the concept. It encompasses discipline, financial responsibility and proper use of one’s talents. In Adventures in Odyssey, and other Christian media, these values were bundled together by the idea that we are all stewards of God’s gifts. In the last series, on mental health, they sometimes made good points, but overall failed to address the most important realities of trauma and emotional pain. Let’s see how they do with this one.

The episode opens with Connie helping Whit clean out his garage. Well, no, I lie. It opens with her praying, and thanking God for her amazing friend Whit, and then stating that he (God) is probably wondering why she’s bringing this up. Apparently she missed the memo on omniscience.

Anyway, while Whit and Connie were working, Connie rather self-consciously brought up a personal question. Whit owns Whit’s End, which he does not make a profit on. He also owns a publishing corporation, and has a hand in a few other businesses, here and there. In other words, he’s wealthy. Yet he lives in a house that Connie thinks isn’t much better than hers. Why doesn’t he live in luxury?

Whit admits that he once did live much more extravagantly, but he found that a simple life of moderation suited him better. Connie can’t imagine how that would be, and as an answer, Whit gives her a book of short stories that he claims will explain his reasons better than he can. At his urging, she takes a break and starts reading.

The first story is about two farmers. Their names are Bill and Ted and I have completely forgotten which one is which. I could go back and listen again, or I could just call them Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude.

So Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude both have an incredible harvest. They meet up in town to discuss what they’re going to do with their bounty. Farmer Woah declares that he’s going to live it up. He’s worked hard and he is ready to party. Farmer Dude, on the other hand, is going to divide up what he gets. Some will be saved, some donated to the poor, some donated to the church, and he will keep about a quarter to live on. Farmer Woah laughs at him, and Farmer Dude patiently says that he hopes Farmer Woah has a good time.

Farmer Woah certainly does. He eats out every night, throws giant parties, and buys a shiny new truck; one with all the impressive car words, like V-8 and turbo-charged. Farmer Dude settles for meat and potatoes at home, celebrates the New Year with his family, and repairs his old pickup.

The next year, the Blights show up. The Blights are a family of insects who, after politely introducing themselves, devour every single one of their crops, leaving Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude with nothing.

Farmer Woah is penniless. He loses his car, dumpster dives for meals, and finally has to take advantage of the charities Farmer Dude has supported. Farmer Dude, having saved so much of his previous bounty, gets to spend the year exactly as well as he did the year before. The point being, shit happens. Don’t blow all your luck at once.

Whit comes to check on her, and she says she liked the first story, though the moral was pretty obvious. Whit comments that common sense usually is. Not unkindly, but man, that was an unexpected burn. It’s not often that he turns on the snark. Next Whit asks if Connie knew what the moral was before she read it, and she admits that she didn’t, despite how obvious it seems in retrospect. He laughs and says maybe the next one will be a little less obvious. The whole scene is actually a pretty great bit of banter. This is early in Whit and Connie’s relationship, and the back-and-forth is just barby enough to show they can pick on each other without crossing a line. In other episodes I’ve complained that the Whit/Connie relationship has uncomfortably blurry boundaries and squicky power dynamics, but this time, they don’t have that problem.

The second story follows a young man who defines happiness as complete self-sufficiency. When he comes into a lot of money, he puts it all into having an up to date, fully automatic home. All goes well, until the morning his toaster starts talking to him. The shiny new gadget has, somehow, turned into a stained, crumb filled mess. It’s almost like we exist in a universe where entropy increases or something. If the young man wants good toast, he needs to periodically scrub out his toaster. And it’s not just the toaster who has a beef with him. Every appliance, from his razor to his TV to his personal shower massager has issues.

Let the record show that all the appliances have male voices except the personal shower massager. I would consider that sexist and unfunny, except there is no way in hell AIO intentionally made a masturbation joke. They don’t try to slip things past the censors. This show is where good little censors go after they die. The writers probably just figured practical things are male, froofy unnecessary things are female, and who needs more than one female character amirite? Still sexist, but the fact that they have no idea what they just did is hilarious.

Anyway, at first the young man complies with the machines’ requests, but soon he finds that he is spending more time cleaning his products than enjoying them. He snaps, hollers at all of them that if they don’t figure out a way to serve him without even the slightest inconvenience, he will turn off their electricity and gas. Which… I’m sure will be very convenient for him? Yeah, if there’s one thing established about this character, it’s that he’s a little short on foresight. He hops smugly into his car, intending to give them all some time to think it over. And, well, no sooner does he turn the engine on, but his car and garage come to life, with full throated gangster voices, asking just where he thinks he’s going.

As Connie says, it’s another fairly obvious moral, but I am constantly surprised by how many people in real life get excited about some new gadget, only to discover that shit breaks. Or needs maintenance. Or is just likely to get outdated. None of that has to be awful. Plenty of new tech is worth the upkeep. It’s just good to remember, when you’re about to get something new, that more stuff never simplifies life in the long run. When you forget that, you get clutter, not convenience.

The third story is a retelling from the Bible. It opens with a young prince who strives to be a good person. He faithfully keeps each of the Ten Commandments, and yet he still goes to every religious teacher and asks, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” All of them confirm that he does not steal, does not murder, does not lie, does not covet, and therefore he has already done everything he needs to do. The prince is satisfied, but only temporarily. As soon as he hears of a different teacher, he must seek them out.

One day, he hears word of another teacher, and finds him preaching in the streets. As the prince draws close enough to listen, he is convinced that this man truly is the greatest of all of them. He asks his question, and confirms that he has kept all the commandments since he was a child. Instead of saying that he is surely guaranteed eternal life, the teacher tells him that one thing remains. He must sell everything he owns, and give it to the poor.

The prince makes excuses to himself, which he doesn’t even seem to quite believe, and leaves in a haze of sorrow, unable to surrender his wealth.

The teacher, of course, is Jesus, and the story is taken from Matthew 19:16-24, which is also where we get that saying about a camel having an easier time going through the eye of a needle than a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven. This is one of those cases where atheism made a Biblical story resonate more, not less, with me. As a child, I just thought, “well, he’s too attached to his material possessions to listen to Jesus, and that’s bad!” Now I see another layer to it. I see the real cost of extravagant wealth. I see what happens to nations where there is a great divide between the wealthy elite and the rest. I see my own country headed that direction, when it was once supposed to be the land of opportunity. It’s not bad to live comfortably; able to fulfill your needs and be free of fear for the future, while having enough left over to pursue your passions and do things with your loved ones. It’s another thing to have more money than you know what to do with, to buy bigger and bigger houses and more and more things just to have something to do with all your money, to accumulate things you won’t ever really use or appreciate, yet be terrified of losing the status attached to your hoard of objects.

And I think there’s another layer to the prince’s story. Everything he does right is an example of goodness by omission. He’s being good by not cheating, not stealing, not dis-respecting people. That’s all well and good, but apart from not harming it, how is he making the world better? For someone who has little influence, avoiding doing anything bad might be the best they can do, but for someone of great power and wealth, goodness has to mean more than just not being an asshole. In fact, it’s poverty and vulnerability that make not being bad costly; when you have the resources to buy whatever you need, how hard is it to not be an awful person? Jesus is asking him to stop worrying about how to avoid doing things that will get him barred from heaven, and start thinking about how what he has can be used to make actual human lives better.

Connie closes the book, and Whit reveals that he’s finished the cleanup on his own, because he felt that Connie was doing something more important. You know, I want to mock this, like by saying that this must not have been a big job, given that an old man finished it alone over the course of a 20 minute episode. Or that he could have always just loaned it to her. But I’ll be honest; this moment got me right in the feels. I’ve mentored kids before, and I know how sometimes you get a sense that they’re about to have a meaningful breakthrough, and you change every plan you had to make sure that breakthrough happens. They captured the feel of that mentor moment well. Connie starts superficially flippant, but the initiative to ask the question, and keep asking for a better answer, shows a deeper hunger to understand something. What’s more, this initiative shows that the hunger is coming on her terms, not on Whit’s. At the end, she doesn’t react with a lot of loud promises to always live in moderation and never be greedy, but by quietly processing the answers she has received, in a way that suggests they will stay with her in the long run.

Final Ratings

Best Part: There’s a lot of great material here, but honestly, I love the last story. I love that it’s simple, that it doesn’t bring in any twist beyond putting you in the mind of the prince, making you share his moment of weakness, and feel for yourself the difference between doing good and doing not-bad. 

Worst Part: Despite how unintentionally funny, I’m gonna go with the female shower massager. Somebody really needs to explain the Bechdel Test to AIO.

Story Rating: I think this triple fable structure was a good choice. Much of quality storytelling comes from knowing yourself. What are you trying to do with your story? How do you prioritize that? AIO cares more about theme than plot, and when they own that, they end up telling better stories. The second frame device is effective; interesting enough to draw you in but not distracting. Each individual story makes time to have fun as it makes its point, and the couple of off moments aren’t big enough to ruin the overall impact of the story. B+

Moral Rating: I like the way the messages of the three fables interact. One goes into the straightforward, practical cost, one into the emotional cost, and one into the moral cost. As Connie stated, these are all common sense, but the effect of the stories is to make that common sense memorable. These fables aren’t about convincing, but reminding us of something we already know. A+

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing With Dragons

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • To escape an unwanted engagement to an insufferably dull prince, Princess Cimorene volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. This turns out to be a great career move. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This book has some of the most likable characters I’ve ever read. Special shoutout to Princess Cimorene. She was the first spirited, non-traditional princess I read, and most who came afterwards haven’t lived up to her. Too many authors aim for rebellious and hit spoiled brat. Cimorene is someone you would want to invite over for a dinner party, and wouldn’t mind asking to grab some chairs or watch the grill while you get the drinks set out. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Adorable and goofy and really, really fun. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Morwen. She’s a sensible, scrupulously neat witch who keeps nine cats, none of which are black. All the traditionally warty witches think she’s a hopeless mess and Morwen gives zero shits.
    • Negotiations with an accidentally freed genie; one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read.
    • Patricia C. Wrede uses a great mix of famous and obscure fairy tales. When updated-fairy-tale-mashup stories rely too hard on the ones everyone knows, it gets really easy to see where everything is going. She included some that even I hadn’t heard of before, which kept things interesting.
    • So many feminism metaphors. And, you know, just straightforward feminism.
    • If you like it as much as I do, there are three more books in the series.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good
  • Quotes
    • “Well,” said the frog, “what are you going to do about it?”  “Marrying Therandil? I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to my parents, but they won’t listen, and neither will Therandil.” “I didn’t ask what you’d said about it,” the frog snapped. “I asked what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.”
    • “Then they gave me a loaf of bread and told me to walk through the forest and give some to anyone who asked. I did exactly what they told me, and the second beggar-woman was a fairy in disguise, but instead of saying that whenever I spoke, diamonds and roses would drop from my mouth, she said that since I was so kind, I would never have any problems with my teeth.” “Really? Did it work?” “Well, I haven’t had a toothache since I met her.”  “I’d much rather have good teeth than have diamonds and roses drop out of my mouth whenever I said something”
    • “No proper princess would come out looking for dragons,” Woraug objected.”Well I’m not a proper princess then!” Cimorene snapped. “I make cherries jubillee and I volunteer for dragons, and I conjugate Latin verbs– or at least I would if anyone would let me. So there!”