Category: Opinion

First Impressions: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I saw Solo on the weekend! Yay.

First thought: I saw a Star Wars film on opening weekend and the theatre was only 30% full. That’s… odd.

Second thought: Holy smokes. I liked it. A LOT.

Admittedly, I went into the viewing with middling expectations (despite being a HUGE fan of The Last Jedi). This was due to a lot of factors, but mainly I didn’t like the idea of recasting one of the iconic characters from the original series. Han Solo is Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford is Han Solo.

So, imagine my surprise when, thirty minutes into the film, I was enjoying the hell out of it. Everything I love about Star Wars is there and works brilliantly. The film’s production hell is well documented, and the fact that Howard was able to make not only a watchable film, but a goodfilm is remarkable.

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First Impressions: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Earlier this year, I was blown away by Sam J. Miller’s debut YA novel, The Art of Starving. It was a beautiful, raw, warm, funny, and heartbreaking experience. I was already familiar with Miller’s short fiction, but that did little to prepare me for the emotional rollercoaster of protagonist Matt’s journey of self-discovery, super powers, and overcoming the perilous challenges of teenagedom.

Finishing The Art of Starving was like adding rocket fuel to my anticipation for Blackfish City, Miller’s debut adult novel. As soon as it released, I bought an audiobook copy, and, boy howdy, Miller’s outdone himself. Blackfish City is a tour-de-force of incredible, prescient worldbuilding, lush prose, and characters that are achingly real.

The eponymous city, called Qaanaaq, is a floating refugee city ruled by crime syndicates and landlords. It was constructed in the Arctic Circle, post climate change-fueled worldwide flooding, and, like any city populated by people fleeing dead or dying cultures and societies, is rich and diverse, but also suffers from many challenges. Blackfish City follows four people—Kaev, Soq, Fill, and Ankat—and their intertwined conflicts. Life in Qaanaaq is disrupted by the arrival of the Orcamancer, a woman riding an Orca, accompanied by a polar bear, and it soon becomes apparent that the lives and fates of Kaev, Soq, Fill, and Ankat are entwined with the mysterious visitor’s arrival. It’s a story about privilege and self-identification, hope, colliding cultures, and oppression. Like all of Miller’s work, it has a lot to say about the state of the world, and the dangers we face moving forward if things don’t change.

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First Impressions: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It kills me to write this post, but I bounced *hard* off of Tchaikovsky’s lauded SF novel, Children of Time. I picked it up during an Audible sale several weeks ago, and coming off of Brandon Sanderson’s excellent (but looooooooooong) Oathbringer, it seemed like the perfect palate cleanser. Relatively short, totally different, and I’d never actually read anything of Tchaikovsky’s before.

However, this is one of those times when I can honestly look you in the eye and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” There’s nothing egregious about Children of Time—in fact, I was immediately taken in by the generation ship aspect of the story (because I’m a sucker for social conflict generation ship stories), and Tchaikovsky’s writing and storytelling were clear and effective. There were other eight-legged reasons.

Children of Time is split across two converging plot lines. The first is a traditional generation ship/survivor story. A group of humans crash lands on an alien planet and has to learn to survive. The other half is about spiders. Imagine Spiderman. Now, imagine if Spiderman, instead of being a human who gains spider-like powers, was a spider who gained human-like sentience and intelligence through rapid, viral evolution. Sounds cool, right? Alongside the survivors are a group of intelligent, social spiders. A lot of people *loved* this aspect of the book, but I hit it like a brick wall and bounced off super hard.

So, if that concept sounds interesting (and I’m told it’s executed very well), jump right on in. Just wasn’t my cuppa.

My loss, I know.

First Impressions: Crash Override by Zoë Quinn

Like everyone online, I watched Gamergate crash through gaming culture with a look of horror and surprise on my face. In its wake is an industry and community that is still reeling from the vitriolic hatred that hid itself under the guise of an ethical crusade.

After listening to Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) (impressions here), and finding myself intrigued (and once again horrified) by her recounting of abuse during the Gamergate campaign, I wanted to find a more in-depth exploration of the events.

At the centre of Gamergate was a young independent video game developer named Zoë Quinn. Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate is both Quinn’s memoir, and also a handbook for how to understand the culture—both on the Internet and off of it—that led to Gamergate, and continues to shape much of the sociopolitical landscape around the globe.

Where Quinn goes above-and-beyond is the way she’s able to pick the movement apart, piece-by-piece and analyze the way it acted as a canary in a coalmine for the events leading up to and preceding the 2016 US election. I’ve looked back on Gamergate, and also the Sad/Rapid Puppies campaigns that took aim at the Hugo Awards for several years, and often thought to myself that they were a warning of what’s to come. Quinn, in the bullseye, had a clear view of the events, and her analysis is bought thoughtful and well-grounded.

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First Impressions: The Skaar Invasion by Terry Brooks

It’s no secret that I’m a big Terry Brooks fan. He and his work mean a lot to me for many reasons—foremost that his Shannara novels cemented my love for the type of storytelling that I discovered via Tolkien. Every year, I look forward to the next Shannara volume, so it was a bit of a shock when Brooks announced a couple of years ago that his latest series, a four volume set beginning with The Black Elfstone, was the conclusion to the long-running epic fantasy series.

The Shannara books are all over the place quality-wise—some legitimately terrific, like The Elfstones of Shannara and Witch Wraith, others disappointing and derivative of Brooks’ earlier work, like The Gypsy Morph or Bearers of the Black Staff. Lately, they’ve been pretty good. The Black Elfstone, which I reviewed for Tor.com, managed to be nostalgic without being too derivative, and added back a lot of the meat that was missing from Brooks’ novels  in recent years. It felt, for lack of a better word, appropriately epic considering its place as the keystone in a conclusion to a 40+ year series.

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First Impressions: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s been near impossible to ignore Catherynne M. Valente’s meteor-sized Space Opera on its collision course with Earth. Since it’s announcement, excitement for Space Opera has reached fever pitch, and early impressions and reviews from readers and critics have been glowing. Unlike the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, though, Valente’s book is like a glitterball of good feelings that, on impact, will cover the Earth not in ash and darkness, but a dance party so vivid, so wild, so loud, so bright, so deathly important that nuclear fission will pale in comparison.

It’s dark days right now, scary thoughts and anxiety about the future are hard to ignore. From its opening pages, it’s clear that Space Opera is a specific antidote to these fears. It’s impossible to read without also smiling, laughing, and, literally, dancing your ass off. In a modern speculative fiction genre that often rewards nihilism, blood, guts, grittiness, and grim dark visions of the future, Space Opera is a much-needed reminder that science fiction can be positive, uplifting, and forward-thinking.

And, man, wait until you read Valente’s hilarious-yet-savage takedown of 21st century human society in the second or third chapter. You’ll never be so entertained, impressed, and horrified all at once again.

As enjoyable as Valente’s writing and storytelling is, it’s elevated to another level by a boisterous, delightful, and varied narration by Heath Miller. He brings life to all the characters, and does a wonderful job giving unique, living voices to each of them in turn.

Valente’s books are always rich and layered, her prose gorgeous, her characters balancing on the razor’s edge between too-human to be fantastical, and too-fantastical to be human. Space Operais hilarious, biting, generous, and impossible to put down. 

Things I Love: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

Since finishing Sam J. Miller’s incredible debut novel, The Art of Starving, a few weeks ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’ve often found that the best way to let go of things, or, rather, to move on, is to talk about them out loud.

The Art of Starving is the story of Matt, a gay teenager who mistakes his anorexia for super powers. As we follow Matt along a path that threatens to tear him apart, the  relationships between him, his family, and fellow students become ever more complex, layered, and interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of Sam J. Miller’s short fiction. All authors write about other people, but Miller is one of the rare breeds of writer, the best of the best, who pours himself into every word he writes. Not just because some of the elements and story beats from The Art of Starving match experiences from his own adolescence, but because each word, each phrase, every theme seems to reveal a piece him. There’s so much passion, energy, and emotion packed into his stories. The Art of Starving is no different. It’s not always an easy book to read—in fact, most of it is heartbreaking, gut-punching—but you feel so keenly attached to Matt that it’s impossible to put down. 

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Things I Love: The Sedins

I don’t really talk a lot about it on my public social media accounts, because I like to focus on SFF, which I think is what most people follow me for, but I’m a huge hockey fan. Like, a fanatic. Over the years, I’ve had the alternating privilege and curse of being a Vancouver Canucks fan. I won’t go into details about this roller coaster ride, but I do want to briefly discuss an element of being a Canucks fan that’s been a tremendous pleasure: watching 18 years of Daniel and Henrik Sedin play hockey.

I was 15 when they were drafted, so their playing career started almost exactly when my more active fandom began. (I’ve been a hockey fan since childhood—despite not coming from a family that plays or even watches much hockey—but most of that period was spent following Wayne Gretzky from team-to-team. I became more engaged with the sport in high school, when I switched allegiance to the Canucks.) They were a curiousity when they were drafted, but promised to be interesting, if nothing else. Looking back, they were not only interesting—approaching the game like no other players before them or since—but intensely skilled and dedicated to the sport. Throughout the early years of their career, they were consistently called the “Sisters,” even on national broadcasts by journalists and other “professionals,” and yet they came out to every game (Henrik holds the sixth-longest Ironman Streak in NHL history), put up points, outsmarted and outscored their opponents. Night in, night out. They led the team to the Stanley Cup final in 2011. They were beautiful to watch on the ice.

On Saturday, they will play their last game in the NHL before a well-deserved retirement. If I had it my way, their jersey’s would be raised to the rafters before that game.

By all accounts, as good as they were at ice hockey, the Sedins were even better people off the ice. They contributed a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to the hockey community and to the British Columbia. In 2010, shortly after signing a big contract, they donated $1.5 million to BC Children’s Hospital. They are an inspiration.

During the heyday, I’m not sure if we Canucks fans knew how lucky we were two watch them play. It was an embarrassment of riches. Now, looking back, with the bittersweetness of their retirement ahead, it’s clear that we had the privilege for 18 years to watch the two greatest Canucks of all time play hockey.

Onwards and upwards, Daniel and Henrik.

Thank you.

First Impressions: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Despite his suspect opinions about art and entertainment, I’m a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his brand of science-made-easy. Watching Cosmos with my infant daughter sleeping on me has become one of my core memories (if you’ll allow me to steal an Inside Out reference.) I’ve always been interested in science, especially cosmology (not to be confused with cosmetology, an area I have very little experience in beyond plucking stray eyebrow hairs), but don’t always have the time/brain space/IQ to deeply interact with it.

Lately I’ve been reading more science books. Stuff like Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, or, most recently, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon. The commonality that exists between these books is that they bite of a chunk of science and open it up to readers who didn’t pursue the field past high school. Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry fits right in.

It’s a slim volume, but jammed full of information, all of which is delivered in Tyson’s trademark approachable style. Whether It’s learning about the origins of the big bang, dissecting the geeky roots of element names, or understanding how the CMB allows us to understand where we’ve come from and where we’re going, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry makes you feel smart even when you’re not.

First Impressions: Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer

I adored Ilana C. Myer’s debut novel, Last Song Before Night. It took a familiar concept—hodgepodge group of youngsters sets out to change the world—but, by channelling her best Guy Gavriel Kay impression, and adding many of her own twists, including *gorgeous* prose, Last Song Before Night ended up being a unique and welcome take on epic fantasy. To say I was excited for its standalone sequel, Fire Dance, was a major understatement.

At this point, though, I’m sitting here with mixed feelings.

All of the elements that made Last Song Before Night are still there: a familiar world that feels like our own, but not; labyrinthine politicking; layered relationships between the characters; Myer’s beautiful prose. But, for whatever reason, one that could totally be my own, it’s not quite coming together for me the way the first book it.

Myer is careful and considered in her prose, to the point that it’s lyrical and rich, but also sometimes tips over into meandering. This works for me sometimes, when I’m looking to curl up and get lost in a book, but it comes at the expense of the plot unfolding at an almost glacial pace. Half way through the book, I’m only just getting an idea of its overall shape, and its conflicts seem secondary to exposition about the world, and inner monologuing by the characters. This was the case in Last Song Before Night as well, but there the central mysteries (specifically the world’s missing magic) and the various plot lines were more outwardly compelling, making the window dressings more palatable.

Fire Dance is being promoted as a standalone novel, and it *is* for the most part, with only a few characters crossing over from Last Song Before Night, but sometimes while reading, I feel like I’m supposed to already be familiar with the characters and the world—there’s a *lot* of politicking that goes over my head, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m not reading as closely as necessary, or because Myer chooses to drop readers into her world without preamble or set up, and challenges them to keep up. This will work better for some readers than others.

On the flip side, I really hope we start seeing more standalone novels and sequels. I love the idea of dropping back into a fantasy world and exploring new corners and conflicts.

I’ll have a full review on Tor.com when the book releases next week.