I am thankful for Tammy Pierce

In which I hero-worship her. Because I haven't done enough of that already.

I first read Song of the Lioness when I was 13, and everything else shortly afterward. The Trickster and Beka Cooper series as they were published. I have read them all innumerable times, and own them all. When some unknown person stole (ie borrowed and never returned) my Lioness Rampant, I sort of grieved for it. These books are my comfort bedtime reading, and as a result, I have most of them sort of memorized. I thought I could never love them any more than I already did.

And then Mark-who-reads started reading them.

And then suddenly, they were ten times more fabulous. Because if there's one thing I love about Mark's chapter-by-chapter reviews, it's his insightful commentary on something so new to him, and so beloved by the rest of us.

Because at age 13, there was a lot I took for granted. I found it awesome that a girl could disguise her gender for eight years to train to be a knight, but I didn't realize just how revolutionary that was -- for 1983, that is. There was nothing like it in the 90s, and in fact, I don't think there's anything like it even now. When I was growing up, if you wanted female protagonists, you had to choose between Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Drew, or the American Girl dolls, all of which are dated, in their times and their attitudes towards women in the world. Books that cheered girls for being girls were few and far in between, and books that showed a character cross-dressing? Well, others like that haven't really been written yet.

And surprise surprise, living as the opposite gender is hard. Particularly when Alanna is going through puberty, and she has to figure out how to hide and bind her boobs. Not to mention how much she freaks out when she starts bleeding, because no one tells a boy what a period is!

Lurking beneath it all is Alanna's constant sense of inferiority, her fear that she is weak, that she will fail and be revealed, that she's not as good as the boys she's training with. She works hard to combat that -- learning street fighting to beat a bully and practicing twice as many hours as her peers with a heavy sword -- but it's still something that nags at her. Her feeling that she's not special, she's merely masquerading as a boy takes years to overcome. As someone who has always been very short (I stand at a grand 5 feet tall) and always wrestled with a feeling of insignificance stemming from that, Alanna was my life-saver.

And meanwhile, there's a love triangle. Yea, that's right, two men love a woman who's been masquerading as a boy, just for who she is in her own right. But Tammy never lets those loves define Alanna. She is always awesome, and always free to make her own choices. She's also free to make no choice at all, because she's quite frankly scared of love, attachment, and sex. And that's okay.

For all her formative years as a boy, Alanna doesn't really know how to live as a woman. So she spends some of her free time secretly shopping for dresses and makeup, practicing the manners of the gender she doesn't know. Admitting she's ignorant of women's world and work isn't easy, nor is learning it from scratch. And as Mark points out, it's full of wonderful queer subtext.

When her gender is finally revealed to the world, it's done so through a slash and a bang (literally). Alanna leaves court, partly to get away from the scandal, but partly because that's what she's always planned. She is an independent knight, who is bound to strike out on her own. Almost right away, she gets bound up in another culture of desert-dwellers, whose restrictions on women are even stricter than what she's used to. As a legend, she manages to turn a tribe upside down, impressing upon them the idea of feminism in some spheres, yet leaving them to their discretion in others (such as the matter of wearing hijab-like veils).

Simultaneously, she realizes that as much as she may love one man, love isn't good enough for marriage, and certainly not for years of it, especially to royalty. And she realizes that any man she marries needs to take her at her word, especially when it comes to big decisions, like a proposal. That's a powerful realization. And in the end, she proves that such arguments aren't the end, because she saves her country for that man.

Yes, this book is about women being just as strong, and stronger than men. But you know what? Alanna doesn't have to reject her femininity to do that. Her fears, her emotions, her loves, her tears are just as much a part of her as her swordplay and her magic.

I always thought it significant that when she first appears formally at court as a woman, the first female knight in 100 years, bringing home an object of immense power, she decides not to wear pants or a dress, but instead rocking a short-skirt-breeches outfit that she designed herself. Because if there's one thing you learn in four books spent with Alanna, it's that you can't put her in a category, or in a box. She is herself. The Lioness. And she will always surprise you.

So on this Thanksgiving, I say thank you, Tammy. I am so grateful. In writing the books you always wanted to read, you empowered a whole generation. Love you.

Show some Mercy please, Moffat

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration
SPOILER ALERT for Doctor Who series 7, episodes 1-3. 

September has arrived, and with it, a new season of Doctor Who. And it’s been great to have our beloved show back on the screen. We’ve liked these past three episodes. Really. They’ve been solid works of television. We’ve laughed at the funny lines, and enjoyed these last few moment of Amy and Rory. But we’re so used to Doctor Who being the the fandom of our hearts, to making us react viscerally, to sparking the type of passion that we always associate with our favorite stories. And that’s simply not there when we watch these episodes.

The big issue is, well, that the big issues aren’t there. That is to say, they’re beneath the surface. Seriousness is lurking behind the funny facade of each of these stories. But it’s either ignored, or treated quickly and dismissively, so that we can get back to saving the universe and do a good bit more running. And that’s not what our favorite show is supposed to be. We love Who so much precisely because it takes time away from the action to treat seriously and deeply with very real, emotional issues. It may not happen every single episode, but it is part of the new show’s legacy, and so far, this season has not shown signs of carrying on that legacy.

Asylum of the Daleks

When, at the end of the Pond Life mini-series, we discovered that Rory had left Amy, we were awestruck. We were sad. We were impressed -- with Steven Moffat, that is. It seemed a bold move, separating our two beloved characters before the season even properly started, and it seemed to promise some excellent character moments, and some phenomenal storytelling. The tension between a divorced couple, and the tension between them and the Doctor, could have been so brilliant. It could have provided so much conflict, so much plot, such a dose of reality for the Doctor. Because the Ponds have been living in the ordinary world, where there are misunderstandings, arguments, irreconcilable conflicts. And he isn’t always around to fix all the problems for his companions, and sometimes there are things he can’t fix.

Boy, were we disappointed. Forty minutes after appearing back in the Doctor’s life, they were back in love with each other, and it was as if the separation had never happened. Any element of reality that the show had ever tried to cultivate was squashed right then and there by the massive helping of happily-ever-after.

And that doesn’t even reach into the latest incredibly sexist plot point that Moffat has invented. We can almost hear people saying “Moffat, sexist?” and our answer is “Where have you been?” Because Amy’s life has, quite frankly, sucked. It’s been altered and manipulated beyond belief. Before we’d even really met young Amelia, an alien had accessed her house, killed her parents, and altered her thoughts -- none of which she knew about. And that was before she spent twelve years being told she was crazy for believing in a man with a blue box -- time that she also spent with a girl who she didn’t know was her daughter from a pregnancy that she didn’t know about or even got to experience, a daughter that she never got to know because the daughter was kidnapped directly after birth, and no amount of time she spends with that daughter as an adult is ever going to get those years back. And now, during that unknown pregnancy, when her mind was basically disconnected from her body, not only did they steal her child from her, they rendered her somehow biologically unable to have children. So basically, Amy has never had the power to make a basic decision about her life, her health, her mind, her body, or her well-being. And as gyzym has pointed out, that’s really fucking sexist. And therefore, the reason that she “gave Rory up,” a reason that was supposed to be so powerful to bring them back together so quickly, is rendered essentially bullshit.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

This was clearly supposed to be the fun episode of the bunch, and that’s ok. Really, it was fun. It was almost like a wild fan idea, where late one night at the pub some guy said, “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool for the Doctor to meet some dinosaurs?” and then his friend said “What if the dinosaurs were on a spaceship?” and then they sat down and wrote until 4 in the morning. The problem is, it felt like it was never edited, the way it stumbled along. The extra characters were great, but we wanted to get to know them, to see them really interact, but we never did.

We really loved Rory’s dad, and the way he went from clueless bumbling father to flying the spaceship that saved the day. And having him accidentally come along was a great idea -- a great idea that again, lacked in execution. It could have been a great opportunity to see how the Ponds are dealing with balancing their normal life with their Doctor life. It could have been a great opportunity for us to get to know Brian Williams. It could have been a great opportunity to really discuss how the Ponds feel about their lives -- but instead, all we get is a throwaway line about how it’s been 10 months since they’ve seen the Doctor, and an unanswered question about him “weaning” the Ponds off him. Sure, you could say the Doctor is doing what he’s always done, leaving companions behind before they grow old, but that’s not good enough anymore. That trope has been brought up again and again in the new series, and if you’re going to bring it up, Moffat, you deserve to give it some actual consideration and discussion. Forget the element of surprise -- we all know the Ponds are leaving. So use that point. Build on it, explore it, make it tangible and real. Don’t just slough it off. If you do, you’re going to end up with another hastily-written-in appearance like that of Mels’ upbringing with the Ponds. And we don’t need to discuss how messy and heavy-handed that was.

A Town Called Mercy

You know, we could pick apart the casual sexism thrown about again (“You’re a mother, aren’t you?...there’s kindness in your eyes” dear god gag me with a spoon), but that’s not where the real problem lay here. In its opening moments A Town Called Mercy looks to be a big romp, another “fun” episode even if it’s dealing with a town trapped by a one-eyed cyborg--but that changes the moment we find out about Jax’s past. Suddenly things become very serious--or at least, dealing with very serious themes: violence, justice, mercy, forgiveness. But it’s carried out so tritely. And I’m tired of Doctor Who dealing with these types of things in a trite way.

I’ve seen on Tumblr several gifsets comparing Mercy with Midnight--”give me a Dalek any day,” because humans are such awful, screwed-up creatures. The difference between A Town Called Mercy and Midnight, however, is that Midnight is given the gravity it deserves. It’s an episode about the Doctor, but it’s not really about the Doctor--it is, indeed, about just how terrible humans can be. And that episode fucked me up when I saw it, left me haunted for days. It deals with weighty, heavy themes, but gives them the time and respect that they deserve. It’s science fiction at it’s best: we’re given a mirror into our own humanity, and we’re not supposed to like what we see.

Here, however, we’re given a similar theme--just how far people can sink, into the depths of experimentation and genocide and playing with lives--but it’s not treated with the same respect. Rather, big, empty words like justic and mercy are bandied about by the Doctor and Amy, without any real meat or consideration behind them. It becomes a vehicle for the Doctor’s own self-righteous guilt and pain. I’m not denying that there’s a time and place for that, but it was not this episode. We’re given very serious themes, things that could fuck us up, things that should be deeply weighed and considered, but it’s lost amid the romp of a Western. And that leaves us deeply frustrated and unsettled.

A Geeky Soundtrack

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration
SPOILER ALERT for endings of Doctor Who series 2 & 4, and Battlestar Galatica generally. 

So what if you leave us in floods of tears? That's good television. That's great television. 
Benjamin Cook, in Doctor Who: A Writer’s Tale

If there’s one thing we love, it’s a movie or show that tugs at our heartstrings, that almost begs us to love it. Of course, there are many of these pieces, and many ways to do it. But we would argue that there is one absolutely brilliant way to do it -- and that is through music. Movies or TV with marvelous, inspiring soundtracks are still not an everyday occurence, so when the brilliant ones come along, we take note. And these are ones that deserve much notice.


Doomsday by Murray Gold

In terms of number of tears shed, it’s hard to beat the series 2 finale of Doctor Who. And a good portion of that is due to Murray Gold’s stunning work here -- so simple, yet so elegant and effective. Starting with a simple piano keeping time alongside vocals perfectly accompanies the devastating moment when the Void closes, the Doctor trapped on one side and Rose on the other. You can almost see their faces pressing up against the wall that won’t let them through. The bass added provides a gorgeous segue to the time that passes for Rose, the driving, the final meeting with the Doctor on Bad Wolf Bay, and the utter heartbreak that happens there.


Song of Freedom by Murray Gold

But Murray Gold can write happy music as well. And if there's anything happier than this, well, I don't know it. The universe has been saved. All the Doctor's companions are flying the TARDIS back home with him. There are hugs, smiles, laughs, and for one moment, one shining moment, you can believe that everything will be alright, and that this show won't tear our hearts to pieces again.


Concerning Hobbits by Howard Shore

Professor Tolkien, always known for his brevity, wrote ten pages at the beginning of the trilogy concerning hobbits. This track of the same name manages to do all that Tolkien did and more, in less than three minutes. From it's opening notes, the music itself takes you skipping and running through the lush green forests of the Shire and jumping into Gandalf's arms. It's homey and whimsical sounds fade to more serious themes as Gandalf begins to worry, and then to the simple joy of children, and of being alive and home at Bag End.


The Return of the King by Howard Shore

Such a grand tale as the Lord of the Rings does not end neatly, nor all at once. It's the beginning of the end, the start of a new age, a grand day of coronation, as the splendor of Gondor is out in full force with grand orchestration. But all instruments drop away for the key moment -- Aragorn's invocation of Elendil's words when he set foot upon Middle Earth -- splendidly sung by Viggo Mortensen. Arwen's theme returns for her entrance and acceptance, and then it returns to the gorgeous sweeping theme of the Fellowship as the king, and thus the entire kingdom, bows to the four honored and surprised hobbits. The journey back again takes place under Frodo's narration, with the flute theme of "May It Be" coming in as they enter the Shire once more. Sitting in the Green Dragon together, it's almost a sad moment as the four hobbits, who have been through so much, toast amidst their fellows who have seen so little. That is, until Sam spots Rosie, and the familiar bouncy theme of the Shire comes back, and all is well with the world.

The Ballad of Serenity by Joss Whedon

One can argue that this isn't a soundtrack, it's a theme song. And you'd probably be right. But I don't care. Because in the beauty of this simple, Western-sounding ballad is the struggle to survive. Firefly does not pretend to meet with noble people, to see great battles, to do grand deeds. There is no claim to conquer the universe, no attempt to tame the wild, no desire to boldly go where no man has gone before. All there is is a yearning to be free, in the sky. As Mal says, "We're still flying." Simon replies that after all that's happened to them, "That's not much." But, "It's enough."

Roslin and Adama by Bear McCreary

I'm usually not one for love themes. Far too often they're cheesy, over-the-top, what have you. But Roslin and Adama deserve--and receive--so much more than that. This is simple, haunting, tragic. It conveys the extent to which these two care about each other, the yearning that they have for each other even as they're confronted by Roslin's illness or any crisis of the day they face as Admiral and President. And, in the end, it conveys the simplistic beauty of their love. I think about it whenever I think about any of my OTPs, nowadays. And it still gives me chills every time.

Will and Elizabeth by Klaus Badelt

Pirates of the Caribbean music is so much fun, you guys. Every time this soundtrack comes on my iPod I get into a fantastically swashbuckling mood. But I think this one is my favorite, if only for the swordfighting scene it accompanies. "And I practice with them...three hours a day!""You need to find yourself a girl, mate."


Fireworks by Nicholas Hooper

If any song were to describe the Weasley twins, of course it would be this one. It's madcap, and fun, and speaks so well to all the things we love about the Wizarding world. Because of course, if you can't stick it to Umbridge in a serious way, you're going to do it with explosions, sparks and color. And this captures that so well.

The Pointy End by Ramin Djawadi

Again, I love the entirety of the Game of Thrones soundtrack, but this is my absolute favorite, if only because it so accurately conveys what it should be like for Arya, the water dancer, to learn swordplay from Syrio Forel. It is lilting, slow, but oh so very deliberate. It is a dance, and a deadly one. Gorgeous.


Wander My Friends by Bear McCreary

F*ck you, she's awesome -- Part Two

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration

Because our first edition was so successful, and because you can never do enough to cheer for these women.

Also, as we said in the first post--any ladies you think should be on our ever-growing list? Which other women are too awesome for words? Share with us! 

Laura's list


4. Eowyn of Rohan

The original shieldmaiden, Eowyn was one of the first women in fantasy to openly complain about being constrained by gender roles. In the dark hopeless world of an approaching end to Middle Earth, hardly anyone wants to wait at home, tending their elderly and sick bewitched relatives, or worse, watch as those relatives recover and then sentence them to stay home again. Not to mention sticking around all those years while being sexually harassed by her uncle's advisor. And so she takes things into her own hands, disguises herself in the time-honored manner, and rides to war. Oh, and she strikes down the King of the Nazgul. No big deal. Some people see it as a betrayl, when she falls in love with Faramir, and then decides to hang up her sword. But I see it simply as a change in personality. She was born into and lived through a world of conflict and war, and fighting was the work that needed to be done. Now that Sauron is defeated, the world needs to be healed. And she recognizes that she is right for the work that needs to be done. There are other fish in the sea besides Aragorn, and a man who is king perhaps is not really right for her. She realizes glory is not what lasts. But her work does.

3. Hermione Granger

There are so many things I could say about my favorite member of the Potter trio. I could talk about how much she changed and matured from the know-it-all of Sorcerer's Stone to the talented, capable friend of Deathly Hallows. I could talk about her development as a witch, about her relationship with Ron, about her gradual rebellion. But what I think makes her so awesome, and such a valuable friend to Harry and Ron is her insistent love for both of them. If these seven books have taught us one thing, it is that Harry and Ron are both idiot teenage boys. They both have the capability of being incredibly callous and cruel, and are to Hermione on multiple occasions--the entire second half of Prisoner of Azkaban being the most prominent example. And yet, her love for them never fades or diminishes. No matter how irritated or angry she might get at either of them, no matter how awful their fights are, she never stops loving. She never stops caring. She is the one who remains behind with Harry in Deathly Hallows, who stays with him--saves his life on multiple occassions--when things reach their lowest, awful point. That kind of friendship and love is something to be valued, cherished, held on to tight. And Harry and Ron are so incredibly lucky to have her in their lives.

2. Keladry of Mindelan

If you'd think that the second lady knight of the realm would have an easier time of it, you'd be wrong. Alanna faces immense challenges, to be sure. But though the law might be on Kel's side, tradition is not. She faces down daily pranks, attacks, and incredible sexist hatred thrown at her by everyone from the servants to her peers to her training master. I could not have borne all of this, much less starting at the age of ten. But she perseveres through all of it, finding friends in the oddest places, from animals to outcasts to the powerful. She becomes one of the realm's best tilters, and in the process, encourages dozens of other women to enter the ranks of Tortall's fighting forces, no matter the obstacles. It's no accident that she's put in command of a fort at the age of eighteen, as a newly made knight, and defends its people with everything she's got. She more than rises to every challenge she's given. Keep being awesome, Kel.

1. Martha Jones

Martha has the unfortunate happenstance to run into the Doctor at a really rough time in his life. There's little he can focus on besides the gaping loss of Rose, and much the same can be said for the viewers. And ultimately, this accounts for the general dislike or indifference towards her as a character. And people often forget just how fantastic and talented this woman is -- and simply put, how capable. She is by far the most accomplished of all the new companions -- well on her way towards becoming a doctor. She's not only older and independent, but is close to her family, and is the mediator that all of them turn to. She falls in love with a gorgeous, fantastic guy who is blind to it all -- but aren't all of us in love with the Doctor? She knows how amazing this guy is, and wants to stay friends with him, even if it means being brushed aside for Rose, because she knows just how much he has changed her life, and how much she loves the life she lives now. She supports him through all the emotional turmoil he goes through, she takes care of him as a human, and during that long year, it's her that walks the ravaged Earth, telling people about him -- about how amazing this man is, this man that they must believe in, this man that will never love her. The Doctor might channel the psychic energy, but ultimately she saves the world. And that year teaches her that it is time to get out. And she does get out. And learns that she can be amazing and brilliant on her own.

Suz's List

4. Adele DeWitt

We have yet to have a villain (or, villain-esque figure) on this list, but Adele DeWitt is a good first choice. Whatever your opinions are on Dollhouse (and oh, I have several), it's worth watching purely for Adele. The head of the L.A. Dollhouse, she makes no apologies for her line of work or what she does. She is a stone-cold businesswoman, and it doesn't matter to her if that business involves making Dolls out of people. She will run her business, and she will do whatever she deems necessary to make sure it is run efficiently. She's tough, she's ruthless, and she refuses to allow anyone to intimidate her (good lord, that episode with Dominic in season one where she got shot and just STOOD THERE...). And yet, she's lonely. She's desperately lonely, and Miss Lonelyhearts shows us a side of Adele that none of her co-workers get to see. But she'll shut that side down when she needs to, and she refuses to allow it to continue when she feels it might interfere with her life. She pushes through, but she also does have her scruples, choosing eventually to side with the Actives over Rossum. Whether or not you agree with her ethics or what she does, she will fight for her interests to the death. And she will not let anyone stand in her way.

3. Natasha Romanov

Natasha was the great pleasant surprise of the Avengers for me (well, her and Bruce Banner). I hated her character in Iron Man 2, because it was epitome of what I like to call the “vapid strong woman” stereotype. Sure, she kicked ass, but there was nothing there. And even though I knew that it was the fault of that shitty script, it still irritated the hell out of me, and I was not excited to learn she was going to be the primary lady of the Avengers. Oh, Suz of little faith.  Thank god for Joss Whedon and the rest of the people in charge of that script, for the Natasha Romanov of the Avengers is one of the most complex, intelligent, badass lady spies I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Even though it’s clear from her conversation with Loki that there are far too many skeletons in her closet, too much red in her ledger, she remains in control of the situation the entire time. She decides the terms and conditions under which these parts of her life are dealt with and revealed. She doesn’t allow her demons to dominate her life, or to even try and get in the way of doing her job. She’s absolutely fearless, until she is confronted with the one rage machine who she can’t out-shoot, out-smart, or out-fight. But again, even though her fear of the Hulk is evident, she works through it and past it to the point where it doesn’t even matter, in a way that is so deeply admirable. She is smart as hell—let’s never forget that she was the one who figured out how to close that portal. She is consistently in control of herself and her surroundings, whatever those surroundings may be. And of course, she fights with a grace and style that I will envy from here to eternity.

2. Lirael

As demonstrated in the first volume of the Abhorsen trilogy, Sabriel, the primary strength of Garth Nix’s leading ladies is their ability to learn on the fly: to be thrown into a situation where they know nothing (Jon Snow), and yet the stakes are so high that the fate of the world is held in their hands. The Abhorsen sisters each rise to their respective challenges tremendously, but I want to talk about Lirael’s journey, because she came from a much, much lower place in her life to get to where she is at the conclusion of Abhorsen. She doesn’t fit. She’s grown up in an environment where she’s consistently been an outsider. She looks different; she never gains the abilities that are her supposed birthright. And Nix doesn’t shy away from showing us how much it tears her apart inside—within just a few chapters she is on a cliff, contemplating killing herself. Even when she finds a friend in the Disreputable Dog, she is not confident in herself and has a self-loathing to rival the best of us. Yet when her journey begins she rolls with it as best she knows how. She refuses to shy away from the difficulties that face her, and when she discovers that her true calling is something entirely different than what she’s been brought up and trained for, she stands up to face it. She claims her birthright as her own, and though there is nothing that is going to stand in her way. When you see her final, desperate sacrifice at the conclusion of Abhorsen, there’s little to remind you of the girl we first met. She has grown into her own skin, prepared to do anything to save the world. And that growth is beautiful to read.

1. The Badass Beifongs

 [Yes I am squeezing two ladies into one number, BITE ME]

If you ever want an unstoppable force of a mother-daughter pair, look no further than Toph and Lin Beifong. Two women who are so very different, yet have the same core of loyalty and badassery that clearly runs in the family. To start with Toph...you know, it took awhile for her to grow on me. There's too much of Katara in me for it to be any other way. But part of what makes all these women so great is how flawed all of them are. Sure they're awesome, sure there is nothing you can say to prove otherwise, but they are all so deeply human. Toph's spent her entire life being treated differently and sheltered because of her blindness. She's determined not to let it define her, though, and she's determined to make her own way in the world. All of this makes her tough, so very determined to do everything for herself, and while that is so very admirable, it gives her an abrasiveness that makes it difficult for her to gel with Team Avatar at first. But I so appreciate that that's a part of who she is, that no matter what happens you just Do. Not. Mess. with this girl. She's got a sense of humor that can send me into peals of laughter, and she constantly uses her wit to call people out on their bullshit. She fights with her friends, but is so very loyal to them. She is the greatest earthbender who ever lived, who learned metalbending where no one before ever had.

A newbie's belated review of The Avengers

I did not queue up opening weekend to see The Avengers. I saw it a few days later. And I did not read the comics, follow the rumors and blogs, or wait in anticipation at all. In fact, I wasn't sure whether I even wanted to see it. But Suzanne told me I should, so off I went.

And I'm very glad I did. And therefore, I can say, if you are like me -- if you do not read comics, if you don't always enjoy excess violence, if you think that action movies have to have a heart -- you will like this movie anyway.

The main reason? It was written by Joss Whedon. And in case that isn't reason enough for you, I'll expound: Joss does things right. I may not have seen even half the things that he's famous for, but I know that much.

And one of the things he does best is clever, whip-snapping, funny dialogue. It's practically a Whedon requirement. And here Tony Stark gets most of it, and of course delivers it brilliantly, with the requisite amount of sass and sarcasm. There are also great visual gigs -- from Grand Central station getting destroyed and no one seeming to care, to the Hulk punching Thor's hammer, to the fantastically awkward post-credits scene. Not being familiar with source material, I don't know what this movie would have been in different hands. But one thing is clear -- that when Joss came on board and grabbed the script to do an unrestrained rewrite, things got exponentially better.

Personally, I need my movies to have heart. A lot of superhero movies fail in this regard -- I can't seem to summon the desire to care about the problems of the guy who has the ability to fix it all. And this movie absolutely had heart. Each character had a struggle, and each struggle felt authentic and real (except for Thor. What was his struggle, really?). Captain America's perpetual displacement was clear every time you looked at his face. The torture that Bruce Banner has put himself through is heartbreaking. Tony Stark's vulnerability, which he manages to hide so well behind the wisecracks, really gets a chance to come out. Black Widow and Hawkeye are both aware that they are minor players on a larger stage, and almost have to justify their struggles. Even Agents Shield and Coulson feel human.

And true to Joss Whedon, this movie never feels safe. Beloved characters are killed, others almost so. And though you know that the Avengers have to save the world, until they all arrive in New York, there's never a guarantee that they all will put aside their own differences to work together. And that conflict is what makes the movie so good. Because for all it's long running time (143 minutes), it never lags. Characters are built up, and struggles are engaged. Scenes never fall flat. Dialogue is fantastic, action is snappy, and gags are always present.

A few particular shout-outs. To Chris Evans, for making a distant olden character present and relatable. To Mark Ruffalo, the guy everyone's talking about, for a fantastically mild-mannered Bruce Banner. To Scarlett Johansson, for being the most kick-ass female superhero -- without superpowers. Sure, she's sexy and can kick ass, but she's also got brains, humor, and feelings of her own. Her opening scene was phenomenal.

And of course, to Joss Whedon. You made this movie infinitely more enjoyable.

C2E2 - The dream I didn't know I had

I’ve never been to a con before. Why, you ask? The big comic-cons are on the coasts, much too far away. The Harry Potter cons that I thought about going to were always during the summer. All of them are pretty expensive. I always wanted to go -- I was beyond jealous of Suzanne when she made it to the NY Comic-con this year. And yet, when the matter of going to my own comic con came, I was hesitant. I don’t read comics. Would I find anything to enjoy?

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. Three days at C2E2, Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, were some of the best geeky times I’ve ever had. By far the best decision was going in costume. I’d never cosplayed before, and never really dreamed I could. My sewing skills are hopeless, and neither my budget nor my ambitions are big enough to spend the months and hundreds that some people spend gathering together the perfect outfit. So it was a stroke of luck when a wonderful friend, Jorie (who made herself a fantastic Venetian Hooker Dress), offered to make a costume for me less than two weeks before the con. After an evening of brainstorming, we had an idea. A week of late nights of packing and sewing and ironing later, I had a sari.

A TARDIS sari. I rocked it. And my boyfriend rocked the Tenth Doctor suit.

And here is my advice about cons: cosplay. Because there is nothing like people asking to take your picture to make you feel confident and amazing. Over 5 hours on Friday, at least 50 people took our picture. That was before we entered the costume contest, and counting became impossible. And it was equally as enjoyable to admire the costumes that everyone else was wearing. There were plenty of Doctors (Four, Nine, Ten, Eleven), Amy Pond, Craig Owens, and a TARDIS or two (who were not as cool as I was). There was Katniss, Effie and Haymitch, a few Kaylees, a Gandalf, a Princess Tiana, and a Captain Jack Sparrow who looked exactly like Johnny Depp. And those were just the ones that I knew. Hundreds of other people were cosplaying video game and comic characters that I couldn't begin to identify.

But of course, there was way more to this than cosplay.

There was the show floor, with more geeky memorabilia than you could ever want. There were big displays by DC and Marvel, and a huge one for the actual props from Captain America, a bunch of which were auctioned off on Saturday. Even though I'm not at all a comics person, it was a pretty amazing display.

And there were plenty of things that were up my own fandom alley. There was a booth with corsets (as well as one with kilts). There was a booth that sold gorgeous custom-made gaming tables that I could never afford. There was a booth that sold monocle-like mustaches, complete with a chain. There was the official Doctor Who booth (it was so hard to walk away from that without buying anything), as well as plenty of unofficial ones. There were towers of t-shirts, lines of comics, and piles of memorabilia. There was the Artists' Alley, where hundreds of independent artists were hawking comics, original art, and fan-based art. I bought more than a few pieces. And there was the bakery that made 3 foot-tall custom fantasy cakes, and was selling TARDIS cookies. When a TARDIS ate a TARDIS, I'm surprised the universe didn't implode.

There were some great panels, too. My boyfriend enjoyed those on writing for TV, and we both had a great time at The One Ring.Net's Hobbit news headlines, but my favorite by far was called The Geek Girl and the Artist: Women's Perspectives on Geek Culture. Led by six amazing Chicago geeky women of all different walks of life, from photographers to lighting designers to writing professors, it was a fantastic discussion of personal experiences of women's part to play in a heavily male (and often sexist) nerd culture. Objectification, exclusion, inclusion, and acceptance were talked about, and stories of strong female characters and courageous female fans were told. It was late in the day on Friday, and I was quite tired, but it was a panel well worth staying for. I think these conversations are overdue, and I was proud to be watching them happen.

There were so many other things I wanted to make it to -- the panel by Nerdist Industries, the one with StarKid, the troupe that did the Very Potter Musical. There were also some pretty big names present. Anne Rice was there, as was John Cusak and Val Kilmer. Anthony Daniels, the man behind C-3PO, did a panel and signings. A last minute addition to the event, who autographed on all three days, was Sean Astin. I decided not to get his autograph, but I walked past his table quite a number of times, and definitely started squeeing when I saw Samwise Gamgee sitting 20 feet from me.

But the highlight of the weekend was John Barrowman. I missed his panel on Saturday, which I deeply regret, but it was beyond worth it to come back the next day for an autograph. The lines were much shorter on Sunday, and we were only waiting for about an hour and twenty minutes, but it was time well spent, and honestly, very much enjoyed. We saw a lot of fantastic costumes, met some great people (one of whom wrote an equally wonderful article about the con for a Northwestern publication), and had some wonderful conversations.

The closer we got to John Barrowman, the more I had to remind myself to breathe. The best news: he is just as hot in person as he is onscreen. But even better, is that he's just as funny and charming and real, even when you know he's been signing his name and hearing the same things about how great he is over and over for the past four hours. He smiled, he laughed, he listened to everyone, he took a picture with all. After a guy a few ahead of us in line who was cosplaying Marvel mercenary Deadpool knocked on his own codpiece (to the surprise of everyone present), Johnny B asked "Can I try?" and promptly reached over the table and did so. I couldn't have hoped for better.

When we finally got up to him, both Greg and I were tongue-tied. We got a signature and a picture, and said something about how we loved him, and then our time was done. Somehow, it was enough. As someone at the Women in Geek Culture panel said, "John Barrowman is the great equalizer." So true.

My first con -- SUCCESS. Hopefully many more to come!

Why I Love Downton Abbey -- and why there's nothing wrong with that

In spite of its success, Downton Abbey has been maligned by critics on both sides of the Atlantic this year. Some of it is just criticism -- Season 2 had an awful number of poorly done plots. But much of it has been directed at this firestorm of controversy asking -- why do we love such a classist show? Isn’t it a bad thing, to be nostalgic about it? And aren’t we bad for liking it?

I can only speak from personal experience, but I will say that I did not decide to start watching the show, or start loving it, because it was glamorous. Glamor is all very shiny, but it has to have a heart and soul. And however much the cares of the characters at Downton can sometimes feel trivial, they represent something deeper that we all care about. Sure, to change clothes three times a day, to wear a tux or a custom-made dress to dinner every day seems superflous. But don’t we spend a lot of time buying our clothes or perfecting our appearances? Perhaps the Earl and Lady Grantham’s reaction into losing their half their spacious home to soldiers seems overblown -- but don’t we all value our personal space? For the Grantham ladies, fighting the entail is not trivial, it’s fighting an unjust law that regulates their future.

To answer the first question, we love it because it is, for the most part, a really good story. The cast is large, and we manage to care about them each in our own way -- to hope for Gwen’s employment, to cheer on Anna and Bates, to boo Richard Carlisle, to wish for Matthew to stop tormenting himself, to hope for Daisy’s independence, to shake our fists at Thomas’ schemes, to laugh at the Dowager Countesses’ quips.

If the opening sequence features a smooth-running house being spotlessly cleaned by an army of happy servants, the show itself is different. We see, first-hand, that the servants downstairs aren’t always happy nor perfect. Thomas and O’Brien scheme, Mrs. Pattmore goes blind, Gwen plans to get out, Ethel flirts with soldiers, Jane kisses the earl, and Bates gets arrested for murder. Sure, Mr. Carson’s idea that the honor of Downton requires everything to be held to the highest minute standard can seem obsessive, but that same obsessiveness is what makes him good at his job, and what allowed him to rise, presumably, from a footman.

And if it is a little nostalgic? Any show set in the past which does not damn the period, in a way, encourages a fond remembrance of it. The fact is, nostalgia is in all our souls. Things were so much simpler back then, is a thought that, however untrue, has crossed all of our minds at some point. And if we can’t deny that we are nostalgic, what’s wrong with enjoying it?

Though a period expert could spend all day picking out the historical inaccuracies (whether objects, actions, or phrases like “step on it”), that seems to me a waste of time. Even as a history major, I prefer to enjoy the show for what it is. For there are things that it does do extremely well. The limited position that women hold, for instance. The naievete leading up to the Great War, and the horror of it. The divide between the upper class, and everyone else. The tenacity and precarious nature of the self-made man. And yet, the equally precarious titled wealthy class, whose old life has been slowly stripped away, and will continue to be in the next season, and next few decades. That is what I’m looking forward to seeing.

That, and the dresses. Or as a friend calls them, the ultimate in garb porn.

And the Games begin

SPOILER ALERT for the Hunger Games. Obviously. 

Whatever else people might say about the The Hunger Games, no one can deny that it is an extraordinarily addictive trilogy. Though Laura read it a year ago and Suzanne read them last week (very late to the party), we raced through them alarmingly quickly, both staying up far later than healthy to find out what happened next. I think it’s safe to say we haven’t read a book this quickly since Harry Potter was last released. We could write an entire post just reviewing the books themselves, but once again, Mark of Mark Reads basically shares all our opinions on everything. Essentially: we think that the trilogy has its flaws. We noticed these flaws throughout, and there were always certain bits we felt were missing or could have been fleshed out more. Did that prevent us from enjoying the books IMMENSELY? Not in the slightest.

 We definitely have Harry Potter to thank for preparing us all too well for this movie. If you look at our Lord of the Rings posts you will note our deep problems with, perhaps one would say resentment of, the Harry Potter film franchise. They are not good adaptations. They have constantly disappointed. But they did teach us one thing: Never go into a movie adaptation of a book you love with high expectations. And we didn’t, here. We had read a bunch of advance reviews saying it was a fabulous adaptation, but we weren’t going to believe it. We were excited, but kept telling ourselves not to get our hopes up.

 To say we were pleasantly surprised doesn’t capture the true emotion in the slightest. Like the books, they weren’t perfect adaptations. There were quibbles we had. But was it a frakking fabulous adaptation that we am looking forward to watching again and again? Hell to the motherfucking yes. We knew they had filmed most of the movie on location in North Carolina, but it’s one thing to hear about it and another thing to actually see District Twelve. Those few moments when Katniss walks through town and into the forest were beautiful. Seriously. In just a few shots, we got a sense of the immense bleakness and poverty of everything, and it was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Even we weren’t a huge fan of the handheld camera motion, it was just so incredible. And even though we are Team Peeta from Catching Fire until the end of time, we did still love seeing Katniss’s friendship with Gale. It gives you such a perfect sense of who she is--was--before the reaping changes everything, and you get to see her in her true home. And though we could emphasize this at any and all points of the review, we just take this moment to say HOW PERFECT JENNIFER LAWRENCE WAS FOR THIS ROLE. She...was Katniss. In every sense of the character. She was so grim, so quiet, so determined, so alone. And yet so fierce and lovable at the same time. Her silence filled volumes. And as so many reviewers have said, she made it seem like she wasn’t acting.

But really, all of the actors chosen for the characters were just perfect. Like Prim, for one. She was the definition of the kind, scared little girl she’s supposed to be, but you also get a sense of who she will grow up to be by book three. Her bits at the reaping scene were so very powerful, and we all JUST ABOUT LOST IT when she tucked her little duck tail in. The reaping on the whole definitely packed a punch, as did Katniss’ goodbyes, especially when she told her mother not to tune out again.

And then Cinna, everyone’s absolute favorite gorgeous man stylist, was of course gorgeous and just how I pictured him. But more importantly, he was the supporter and friend that Katniss never expected to find amidst the alien residents of the Capitol. Every scene with Lenny Kravitz was beautiful, and not just in looks. Haymitch, though a bit more sober than we would have liked, still conveyed that blase attitude that no one else has. Effie was wonderfully shallow as we like her, and Caesar and Claudius were also nice over-the-top figures. And then there was Seneca Crane... and his beard (which is definitely a whole different creature). It was quite interesting to step out of Katniss’ head and into the Gamemaker’s workshop, as well as Seneca’s conversations with President Snow -- it definitely gave a humanizing element to his character that we hadn’t expected to see, but sets things up quite nicely for Catching Fire. Although Donald Sutherland’s acting skills are quite up to par, his previous turn as Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice made him probably the wrong choice for this role. Disturbing murdering dictator cannot overrule image of kindly if misguided father.

As for the Games themselves -- the producers did a fabulous job. They brought the audience right into the brutality and insanity and sheer desperation. From the Cornucopia to the fireballs to the tracker jackers to ordinary moments with Katniss in the woods, they made the arena feel so real, so immediate, and yet not at all contrived. Rue, of course, was adorable, and we wish she’d had more screen time and lines with Katniss. There was not a dry eye in the theater for her death. And the District 11 rebellion, though it was added for the film, was really fantastic. It was such a great release of tension, such a great conclusion to Rue’s death and Katniss’ tribute to her, such a way to make the audience FEEL just how dark and wrong this all is.

As the end game came, everyone in the theatre began freaking out, and the hands of the poor people sitting next to us likely had fallen asleep from us gripping them too hard. We come to the feast, where Clove nearly killed Katniss, and Thresh killed Clove. And half the audience applauded. And that, dear readers, was when the audience became no better than the Capitol citizens watching the show. Obviously the impulse is there. Obviously Thresh telling Katniss he did it--and that he was going to let her live--for Rue was beautiful in its own right. Obviously Clove was a terrible, vindictive person. But we forget that she is not there by choice. She might be a Career, she might, but she is a product of the world she lives in. When the audience, our audience, forgets that, starts applauding deaths in the arena, for whatever reason, you know that they've missed the point entirely.

Yet in the end, the obvious criticism of the books -- that the Capitol is using reality tv as a weapon of tyranny -- gets lost on the screen. It was alive and well at the reaping, with the silent defiance of District 12, and made a bit of a comeback in District 11’s rebellion. But the implications of the arena itself disappeared -- the implications of image. Not only is the Games a bloodbath of tyranny, it fuels the Capitol’s lust for wealth and entertainment. The Hunger Games is a circus, where Capitol citizens watch mass murder, while getting their hair done. And Suzanne Collins presses that point home, as Katniss, though not good on the interview stage, is very aware of how she presents herself in the Games themselves. And yet, very little of this idea comes across on screen. Without Katniss’ inner monologue on the acting she has to do, the days of her and Peeta cuddling in a cave are frankly rather boring. And with the cutting of the scene at the end where Katniss reveals to Peeta that her love for him was a show for the audience, moviegoers leave the theater the same way that the Capitol audience ends the Games -- believing that Katniss Everdeen really did pull out those berries because she couldn’t stand to live without Peeta Mellark. And in cutting that scene, we lose not only a large and important chunk of the story, but a huge part of Katniss herself.

So, like the books themselves, we recognize that the movie is not without its flaws. But again, this did not prevent us from LOVING IT. We may have had issues--minor and major--but that did not prevent us from deeply enjoying a really wonderful adaptation of a compelling story. We only wish that they had gone deeper into the implications of the story and the heart of Katniss herself. Regardless, we’re psyched. When does Catching Fire come out?

Beauty in the Mystery: The Magic of The Night Circus

“This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world, and what's worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them. They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence.”

I did not realize just how lacking the word magic was until lately. Until I read The Night Circus.

For here is a novel that, while written in English, seems to point out the utter failure of the language to describe all that goes on within its pages. Visitors to the Le Cirque des Rêves -- as well as followers, performers, creators -- none can really seem to describe what the circus really is. One character is called a magician, though he does no magic in the showy sense, and all his work happens from a distance. Another titles himself the Enchanter. A third is the illusionist, though her performances are far from illusions. So many of the synonyms for magic -- conjuring, sorcery, divination, witchcraft, to name a few -- seem to point out the trickery, the falseness, the suspicion of magic. Even enchantment, the most positive synonym in the thesaurus, can carry negative connotations. Magic is often misunderstood -- it is scoffed at, hated, or feared, and sometimes all three at once.

Yet in the world of fantasy, it is not only understood, but systematic. Pick your novel or series, and if magic is prominently featured, it is sure to be the domain of the protagonist. The main character discovers their abilities, and must learn to use them -- usually with the help of a school, books, or a mentor. The audience reads what they read, hears what they hear, learns what they learn, and so begins to understand the system of magic that a particular author has designed for their world.

This is not true of The Night Circus. Which is not a circus in a traditional sense. There are no elephants, no clowns, no big top, no ringmasters. It is a circus open from dusk till dawn, with endless winding paths between dozens of small tents. There are contortionists, and fortune tellers, cat acts, and illusionists. But there are also gardens of ice that regrow in front of your eyes, mazes that defy the mind, carousels that defy gravity, and halls of mirrors that never end. Neither the visitors to the circus, nor the performers themselves can seem to describe what causes it, or how it is done. Even its creators puzzle over the words.

“What do you call it?”
“Manipulation. I called it magic when I was younger. It took me quite some time to break that habit, though my father never cared for the term. He’d call it enchanting, or forcibly manipulating the universe when he was not in the mood for brevity.”

Yet the circus was not created to delight. It was created to serve as a venue, an arena, for a competition more binding than most can imagine. Two old acquaintances, two old rivals, masters in the arts of manipulation, of illusion, yet who do not compete, themselves. They train two young prodigies to do it for them. Marco and Celia, together creating and holding the circus and its performers together through tremendous acts of will, taking part in a game that is rather deadly.

I won’t spoil any more of it for you. Suffice it to say that despite the hype (a debut novel hovering on the bestseller lists, and everyone raving about it) that tends to put me off, it is worth it. Worth the hype, and well worth the read. I read avidly and voraciously, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve read something so quickly. The story is captivating, the characters fantastic, but most of all, the language is gorgeous. Though every author aims to take their reader into their world, never have I felt more able to simply step through the pages of a book. Never have I felt more longing for a place to be real, than I did this circus. Magic is inadequate a word. But it is the best that the English language can do. So: this book was pure magic.

Timey Wimey: How Fantasy Taught Me About History


I was a history major. I studied it for four years. So it’s somewhat shaming to admit that there are many things I don’t know. Not that I could ever know everything about history, because that’s just not possible. But that there are big things I didn’t know, really big things, is sort of embarrassing. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that by college, sick and tired of learning survey US History, I decided to concentrate in European history, which left me with a great understanding of Europe’s complex politics, but a lack of in-depth study on the issues that had been skated over so many times in survey classes in elementary, middle, and high school.

Individual issues are one matter. A general understanding of history is another.

Ironically enough, it was fiction that helped me understand this. To be specific, fantasy -- Tamora Pierce’s fantasy. Those of you who are Tammy fans will know that a major focus of her Tortall books is female empowerment. For those of you who haven’t... well, they all started with Alanna, who wanted to be a knight, not a lady. So she disguised herself as a boy, switched places with her brother, and went to become a page. She spent 8 years disguised as male, and her sex was only revealed shortly after she attained her knighthood. But one female knight, even a legendary one, didn’t stop all sexual discrimination in the realm. Daine, a country girl who has an unusual connection with animals, faces plenty of gender discrimination merely for not wearing skirts. Ten years later, Kel is the first woman to legally become a knight, and is faced with hazing, bullying, and even a probation year from the training master.

Tammy’s most recent set of books chronicles the life of a lower-class girl in Tortall’s police force, a rough enough life without choosing duty in the worst district. Beka lives 200 years before Alanna’s time, so it was a surprise to me that she faced relatively little opposition in becoming a Dog. There are comments from some women (usually maids, and mostly her sisters) about the unsuitability of her profession, but relatively few. And then we were introduced to Lady Sabine, a female knight. And not the only female knight, either. So if Tortall had a good few lady knights, and plenty of women in the Provost’s Guard, what happened in the two hundred years between Beka and Alanna? We were only recently given the answer.

Turns out it was a religious movement. Typical. Called the Cult of the Gentle Mother, it claimed that with the wars over, there was no need for women to be aggressive and violent, and they should concentrate on the home and the family. And over two hundred years, it grew more and more powerful, creating enough dominance over a realm to force women out of the Provost’s Guard and out of the ranks of knights. It is because of this cult that Alanna was forced to become Alan for eight years, that Thayet’s subjects didn’t take her seriously, that Lalasa’s family beat her, that Kel still faced taunts about being a prostitute even as a knight. (Sounds exactly like what the three major Western religions have done to women, actually.)

But what it means for history of our world is also interesting. History, all over the country, and even at the college level, is taught as a progression of cause to effect. What happened then led us to where we are today. It’s a straight line. And so if it’s a straight line, it’s left to students to assume that things must have gone from worse to bad to better to good. But that’s not how it works. Life for women didn’t get better from Beka’s time to Alanna’s -- it got incomparably worse. Women weren’t the most oppressed in ancient times, and have slowly gotten more freedom -- they probably had more freedom in 1600 Germany than they did in 1860 Kentucky. Blacks in the south had a far greater degree of freedom, autonomy, and safety in 1870 than they did in 1924.

We like to think that “progress” was a straight line to the present, because it makes us feel like the heroes that have finally brought things to justice and made the world right. But we have to stop fooling ourselves. We have to stop falsifying history in order to make ourselves look better.

Have we really come that much farther in basic civil rights since the death of Dr. King? In all the civil rights history I did in elementary school (and I did a lot), that question was never asked. It was always assumed. The legal changes regarding race, from the Constitution through the Civil Rights movement, have allowed textbook writers to frame the progression and acceptance of those who have darker skin as something that slowly improved over the decades and centuries, making us into the perfect Americans we are today. But of course, we’re not perfect. 

The women’s movement reached its high in the 1970s. But can an accurate, careful historian can argue that things have immeasurably improved for women since then? Though doubtless there are fewer brick walls, there’s most certainly still a glass ceiling -- on advancement, on some occupations. There is plenty of cultural objectification of women’s bodies -- and don’t get me started on the freedom that women should have over whether they choose to have children or not. (Insurance companies cover Viagra, so why don’t they cover the pill?) If anything, the injustices of sexism have been swept under the carpet, marked as “just life” and “something that “doesn’t happen anymore.”

History is complicated. It’s not all a straight line. Most of it doesn’t connect. The majority of it is unjust to the majority of people. It moves backwards and forwards, up and down, left and right, and diagonal. It does not operate according to our notions of “progress.” And ironically, it was fantasy that helped me realize this. So I use the word “timey-wimey” not in the whimsical sense that Doctor Who fans have come to know it, with Moffat’s mind-bending tricks of manipulation, but in the sense that nothing in the past is so simple, and nothing is ever the way it seems to be. Don’t take it for granted.

There’s your real-world fantasy application for today. Thanks, Tammy.

Twelve Months and Counting

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration

Eight months ago, we began this blog with a post to celebrate the start of the filming of The Hobbit. Now, as the year draws to a close, we are given something even more special to celebrate. The more geekish corners of the Internet exploded with glee on Tuesday night, as Peter Jackson released the first official trailer of The Hobbit. As he did, we knew with incredible, delightful certainty: this is real. This is actually happening. And, to quote a friend, this entire trailer just wakes up the Tookishness in you to a fabulous degree. I want nothing more right now than to catapult into Middle-Earth and join Bilbo on all the adventures we know he is going to have.

It begins in a wonderful, sweet, familiar place, as Ian Holm whisks us off from the Shire we know to the Shire of seventy years previous, with his younger self being extremely reluctant to deal with thirteen intrusive dwarves, not to mention a wizard who proposes the preposterous idea of an adventure. The dwarves, far from appearing completely identical as they did in the prologue to the Fellowship, are incredibly distinctive -- in costume, in prosthetics, and in personality. It’s wonderful to see that Peter Jackson & company are really making an effort to make them thirteen distinct characters, each very much their own person, rather than lumping them together as “Thorin and the others,” which is often the case in the book.

And though we’ve been excited for a very long time at the choice of Martin Freeman, we can finally see that indeed, his endearing manner coupled with the ever-present touch of awkwardness make a perfect match for Bilbo, the hobbit whose reluctance turns to daring and then to pride, as he becomes far more than he ever thought he could be. For at its core, The Hobbit is about Bilbo Baggins being whisked off on an adventure he doesn’t quite understand, and giving in to his Tookish side perhaps a little more than he intended. Bilbo is so on his own on this adventure, and he is going to be a BAMF-y, Tookish hobbit whether he wants to or not.

But larger things are happening here. The glimpse we get of him in Rivendell, as he looks upon the Shards of Narsil--we can’t know if he realizes it, but we realize that there are so many other things at work than the Dwarves’ and Bilbo’s quest. We’re given scenes of the other characters that depict the gravity of Middle-Earth’s situation at this point in time--I want to know what that conversation between Galadriel and Gandalf is about!!! We see Dol Guldur, which I had completely forgotten about, but it looks about as perfect as can be.

Tying it all together is Howard Shore’s gorgeous new score, and the breathtaking shots of our protagonists journeying across the mountains of New Zealand -- I mean, Middle Earth. And it’s absolutely clear from this trailer that the movies are going to be every bit as brilliant and wonderful as we’ve come to expect from Peter Jackson. He knows we’re waiting, and have been waiting patiently through all sorts of nonsense. And he’s giving us a brilliant, perfect glimpse of our Middle Earth.

Ten years ago, The Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters, and a whole new world opened up for us. The discovery of Middle Earth came at a defining time in our lives -- the infamous middle school years. In 2001, it was cool to be obsessed with Lord of the Rings. We were far from the only ones. But few of our peers continued to love it over the years -- while they moved on to the next cinematic fad, we rewatched the movies, re-read the books, or wrote fanfiction. The popularity of Middle Earth is sure to explode in a year’s time, once again. But we are proud to say that we stuck with it throughout. We never truly left Middle Earth. But it is so, so fulfilling to know we are going to be back to it fully in a mere twelve months.

The Brilliant Creation That is Mastiff

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration
SPOILER ALERT for the Beka Cooper books, and Tortall books in general. 

It took me awhile, but I finally realized why it took me so long to warm up to Beka Cooper. She is the first Tortallan protagonist who I (Suzanne) genuinely see a lot of myself in--and when I was reading Terrier and Bloodhound, I did not like what I saw. The terrible shyness and fear of speaking in front of large crowds, the strident adherence to guidelines and rules, the tireless dedication to work, the taking of everything far too seriously. It hit too close to home. These are all traits that I possess, and they are things that I do not necessarily like about myself. It was difficult seeing them on the page. It was difficult to accept that someone so similar to me could be a hero in one of Tamora Pierce’s stories.

And yet, by the time we get to Mastiff, there is no question that Beka is indeed a hero.

Tammy doesn’t wait for us to catch up to Beka, in the three years since we’ve seen her. She doesn’t wait for us to get to know her fiance. For if we ever thought that Tamora Pierce lacked gusto, nerve, or oomph, we are proven wrong by the first sentence of this book:

We buried Holborn today.

Just check that out, ladies and gentlemen. To quote Mark Oshiro (of Mark Reads and Watches fame), Shit has gotten real. On the first page. Wow. She just killed off the main character’s fiance before the first page. A fiance the audience doesn’t, and will never know. And the fact that it wasn’t a happy engagement but rather a rocky relationship that should have ended awhile ago, adds further strength to the story. Strength that is only built upon when Lord Gershom shows up twelve hours later with a Hunt for her that so secret that even he doesn’t know the details.

Here is where Beka truly comes into her own in a way that I never would have thought possible. In the three years since we last saw her, she has developed a reputation of being one of the best young Dogs in Corus, a reputation that has surpassed even her own expectations. She is far more self-assured and confident, and she is not afraid in the slightest to make sure shit Gets Done. The scenes with the followers of the Gentle Mother cult reveal this best for me--she never loses her temper or is unnecessarily rude to the nobles, but she refuses to back down from her position, and articulates it so perfectly. She is calm, collected and consistently in control, even when she discovers that Tunstall--her mentor, her partner, one of her best friends--has done the unthinkable and turned traitor.

More than anything else in the book, that was the scene that gutted us the most. I will not lie, I was sniffling and crying on a Metro North train as I was reading this, not caring that I was in public, only caring about the pain and the loss that Beka, Sabine, and the rest of them were facing. Yes, they achieve a victory in the end--but whatever happiness they might gain from that knowledge is marred by the betrayal and loss of one of their own.


And maybe that’s what I love most about Tammy Pierce. Her endings are never happy and rosy. There’s always some tragedy, some sadness, mixed in. She writes in the world that she knows. When I (Laura) asked her about Tunstall’s turning traitor, she said she always knew he was going to betray Beka and the Dogs. “Some people do the wrong thing for love,” she explained. “I understand,” I told her. “And I don’t mean to sound callous, but it does make the book rather more epic.” Tammy looked at me, sort of sadly. “Yes. I suppose some victories require a high price.”

And indeed, the price is high, higher than we’ve ever seen before. And it’s more than Tunstall’s betrayal and death. There’s more that Beka doesn’t talk about, only hints at. The Tortallan kingdom, which we’re so used to being ruled by Jonathan’s strong-willed, morally sound and just family, is not strong at all. In fact it’s weak, divided, and ready for anything to tear it apart, leading to anarchy and war. The rescue of the prince avoided that war, but only narrowly. It’s going to be a long, hard road working up to a stable country. Though a wonderful and noble and just act, the abolition of slavery is tough. It’s not instantaneous, but a long and painful process. We don’t know how the king fares among his nobles, but one can only hope that he dies a natural death, and that his kingdom mourns him. If the four-year-old Gareth is any indication, his son will be a great ruler for Tortall indeed.

Yet though the kingdom may be headed for better, more stable times, sometimes stability is not in favor of all. And in this case, though slavery may be ending, the subjection of women is just beginning again. Not that there isn’t sexism in Beka’s time -- we hear ample evidence of how difficult it is to be a lady knight from Sabine. But she became one legally, and there are others. And for the most part, female members of the Provost’s Guard are taken seriously. In comes the Cult of the Gentle Mother, teaching that “the world has changed, the wars of old done with, and [women] must change with it.” It enforces a patriarchy so strong, so powerful, so all-encompassing that two hundred years later, a girl named Alanna is forced become Alan in order to follow her dreams. And while we were delighted to finally receive an explanation for the disappearance of lady knights, we were saddened to learn the course that Tortall’s history had taken.

But as much time as Beka spends with nobles and monarchs, in the end, that’s not what this story is about. It’s about a girl who became a legend, sure, who was revered by her descendants for being a heroic Dog. But it’s really about that woman, as a person, what she really went through, and who she really was. In these five hundred-plus pages, she proves to the world that someone shy, someone with a reputation for perhaps taking life a bit too seriously, can become a legend and hero in her own right. Her internal struggles to cope with her shyness and interact with people never really goes away, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It does not prevent her from finding people she loves and cares about, and it does not prevent her from becoming a legend whose name will live on for centuries.

And therein lies the beauty of the thing. Therein was what finally won us over to love Beka Cooper unconditionally, shyness, warts, and all. To know that a girl so similar, so identical, so clever and quick-thinking and yet shy as anything, could be a hero, is what heartened us here. After two books of not wanting to connect with a girl I found to be too similar to myself, I found myself incredibly touched and grateful that Tammy had written such a character. And I am proud to identify with her. If Beka can become a hero, maybe there’s hope for us shy people after all.

Turning My November Around

Being a recent college grad is hard. Being a recent college grad since the economic shithole in 2009 is torture. Being a recent college grad since the economic shithole in 2009 who has no idea not only of life plans, but of any employment prospects in general, sucks.

This is where my life was a month and a half ago. In general, I was bored. Not a great place to be.

And then I stumbled upon NaNoWriMo’s website. I’d vaguely heard about the challenge, called National Novel Writing Month by those not in the know, to write 50,000 words in 30 days. And on a whim, I decided to do it. After all, if I couldn’t find time to write 1,667 words a day when I was dissatisfied with life, when would I be able to do it?

I already knew that I wanted to do historical fiction. So I combined two sparks of ideas I’d gotten while reading books on the 19th century into one woman’s life. And with eleven days to go before November, I began. I started researching railroads, clothing, and decades online. I took out primary source journals from the library. I bought an unlined fancy notebook and a nice pen to go with it, exclusively for NaNo. I looked up the oldest census records and made lists of the most common names. I prowled the historical fiction forums, trying to find others who were writing the same period. I stared at hundred-year-old maps, trying to piece them together in my mind. I sat on the train, drawing out a family tree for my main character, brainstorming period occupations, and trying to decide on a way to kill off a character. I even downloaded writing software (which is pretty helpful and rather awesome. It’s called Scrivener).

And then it was Halloween night. And I was writing. It went pretty well. I got the words out, and they were pretty good words. I had a pretty good idea of where my story was going. 1,667 words a day was hard, but not impossible. And then came the 5th day, when I struggled to get out 600 words of crap, and felt like I could never do anything.

Luckily, the next day, I went to a write-in. Which, when you describe it as eight people in a cafe typing away at their own laptops, sounds pretty dull. But it’s probably the most brilliant part of NaNo. I can write on my own, sure. But I long for social interaction, and writing, unfortunately, is a solitary endeavor. But as I learned in college, there’s nothing like camaraderie to make you feel better about something difficult, and nothing like peer pressure to make you keep going. It’s hard to articulate how much word sprints boosted my word count, and how cheered I felt about the massive task ahead of me when I left the weekly write-ins I attended. I wish I could have made it to more. But even that was amazing.

I’m proud to say that I was a pretty constant writer. Take a look at my word count graph if you don’t believe me. I tried to stop myself from researching -- well, researching too much. I ended up researching some really weird shit anyways.

Except that consistency didn’t just happen. I feel no shame in admitting that it was hard, pretty much every bit of the way. There were days when I didn’t know what was happening, and days where I didn’t want to know what was happening, and days where I just plain hated my novel. And even on the good days, getting to 1,667 words was a slog in which I spent a lot of time staring at my word count bar. If there was one thing that kept me going, though, it might have been the pep talk written a few years back by my new favorite person, Neil Gaiman:

By now you’re probably ready to give up. You don’t know why you started your novel, you no longer remember why you imagined that anyone would want to read it, and you’re pretty sure that even if you finish it it won’t have been worth the time or energy and every time you stop long enough to compare it to the thing that you had in your head when you began it falls so painfully short that you’re pretty sure that it would be a mercy simply to delete the whole thing.

Welcome to the club. That’s how novels get written.

You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

And what can I say? I wrote. Not that I can say I wrote anything marvelous or wonderful, because I didn’t. Sure, there were some things that I thought were good, and some unexpected developments that I liked, and some characters that I grew to love. But on the whole, I stopped reading the previous day’s work because it made me shudder.

But I wrote, and that alone is something. Something of a tremendous accomplishment, actually. The last fictional thing I wrote ended up being 13,000 words -- but it took me four months. Before that, my last work dates to 2009. I have folders on my hard drive filled with Word documents from over the years with a completely brilliant first paragraph and then... nothing. I wanted to write a novel when I was 13. I ended up revising the first four chapters endlessly.

I made it to 50,111 words. I won. I actually won. I still haven’t quite gotten to the ending, though it’s planned and in sight. With any luck, I’ll finish it before Christmas, and put the file away for a long time before I can think of revising and really, rewriting. Publishing? I’m not planning on it, not yet. But who knows?

So my job still bores me, and my internship is still frustrating. But those boring, frustrating times, I’d think about what I’d write when I got home. And for thirty days, I felt like I was part of something bigger, something with meaning. I felt like I was doing something grand. I had a purpose, a drive, a schedule, a mission. And by chance, just as I got busy, things in my future started to fall into place. Maybe it’s a cliche and an exaggeration to say NaNoWriMo saved my life. But it certainly made me feel worthwhile. And that is not something to be lightly tossed aside.

Books That Have Changed Our Lives

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration

For geeks like us, it’s easy to list our favorite books. Well, not easy -- there’s always plenty of competition between them -- but doable. We may not have an exact ranking, but we compare without even noticing we do it, and the things that we love are well-noted.

But this isn’t about favorite books. This is about books that have changed your life, which is something far different. We love some books, but can we honestly say they made a large impact on the course of our lives? It’s an exercise in hindsight and selectivity, and really depends on where we think our lives have been, and where they might be going. Without further ado:

Laura’s List:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling

If reading the first book about a boy my own age, a downtrodden, abused boy who discovers there's a world out there where he really has a home, didn't change my life, I don't know what did. Harry Potter meant a lot to a lot to a lot of people. It was not the first series I ever got immersed in. But it was the first one that was widely read, widely discussed, widely advertised. I wasn’t strange for wanting to chat about Harry Potter, in fact, people were excited to join. And to an outcast kid, that meant all the world to me. I can't imagine a world in which Harry Potter wasn't published. What would I have obsessed over?


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

I like to think of this as, in 8th grade, my first real foray into adult reading. If so, it was a success. Not to say that I understood everything (it took me years to get the Jesus joke, not to mention the Ford Prefect gag), but it resounded. In the confusing hellhole that was middle school, the bizarre world of Vogons and Improbability Drives and mice that commissioned the Earth made as much sense as anything else did. It taught me that weird was ok, and bizarre was its own sort of fashion. Oh, and the awkward brave British soul, Arthur Dent, bewildered about everything around him, was my world.


To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Freshman year English made a change from middle school - I didn't necessarily like a bunch of the books we read. Except for this one, which I loved. It seemed to say everything that was important in life, all in a succinct and beautiful story, and convinced me there was always something worth hanging on to. It made me feel young and old, naive and world-weary all at the same time. It made me change my behaviors, take different paths, and look at my house from the other side of the street sometimes. And so I bought my own copy, and hung onto it. It's moved with me lots of places - it even got taken to Alaska, from which it bears visible damage of waterlogging. I like to think it's love.

Suzanne’s List:


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling. I was nine years old when I picked up Harry Potter for the first time, and I hadn't a clue what it would do to me. What it still does to me. Unlike a lot of kids my age, Harry Potter was not the book that got me excited about reading. I had been gobbling up books faster than the library could throw them at me since age six. Nor was it the first book that got me excited about fantasy--Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron wins that particular award. It was, however, the first book that I would read again, and again, and again, until the cover fell apart and I literally had to duct-tape the book back together. Harry Potter and the world of Hogwarts have been constant presences in my life for the past twelve years. I grew up with it, it grew up with me. And as Laura said, its immense popularity helped me to have one obsession that did not mark me as an outsider. I was not an oddball geek for liking Harry Potter. I was part of a generation. And it would be impossible, really, to sum up in one paragraph exactly what that means (Which is why we made an entire post about it in May). To sum it up briefly: If Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione and Jo did not change my life, I don't really know what else has.


The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander.. I always forget how young I was when I found this book--I think I must have been only seven or eight when I first checked it out of the library. And because I was so young, it made such an enormous impression on me, in so many different ways. This was the book--before Harry Potter, before Lord of the Rings-- that introduced me to fantasy as a tiny child. I lived in this world when I read it. Prydain was real. Taran, Dallben, Coll, Adaon and Eilonwy were all real. It was magical and wonderful. Strangely, though, it was also the first book that taught me that stories have tragedy and death, not just happy endings. Horrible things happen in this book. The dead are reborn as murderous zombies, Adaon dies a horrible death, and even the "happy" ending comes as a result of terrible sacrifice. But these were important lessons to learn, and I learned them alongside characters I adored. And it sparked a love for the fantasy genre that has never, ever died. It led me to Rowling, to Tolkien, to Gaiman, to Pierce--the list goes on and on. So thank you, Lloyd Alexander, for your extraordinarily underrated Chronicles of Prydain. Don't quite think I'd be here without them.