Competence: The Custard Protocol

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about books, but I wanted to talk about this one because I enjoyed it so much.

I read a lot, and one of the reasons I read a lot is because I love to lose myself in another character, to feel their emotions for awhile instead of my own. Writers talk about “hacking” our readers, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re fiddling with your brain chemistry to help you see things a different way.

When you read a lot, there’s a chance that you will become inured to that fiddling. Of course, there are also those masters that always manage to bring it out in you – laughter or tears or, if you’re very lucky, both. One of those authors that can evoke laughter in me is Gail Carriger.

I first read Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series about ten years ago now, and devoured the rest of the books in that series. Alexia’s practicality – which sometimes bordered on insanity – was something I could commiserate with utterly. Perhaps that is why I so enjoyed this new installment of the follow up series the Custard Protocol, Competence. Whereas Prudence and her method of going off half-cocked was annoying, Primrose with her deep practicality, was someone I could get behind. And the core emotional conflict of the story – that practicality can sometimes cause you to make choices that are harmful in the same way trying to walk in too small shoes is harmful – was something that I felt deeply.

This story is a coming out story of the best kind. It deals with not only attraction, but with the broader implications of coming out – the costs, both perceived and actual, and how those are not always the same; the embrace of family, both found and otherwise; and the joy of finally being yourself and letting go of the ideas of who you should be. It is absurd, as all of Ms. Carriger’s books are. It is also kind. In short, I recommend it.


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A breath of fresh air: Kamisama Kiss

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved anime and realized that there was endless amounts of it on Hulu. She promptly subscribed, and got lost in anime for months. This is not her story.

This is the story of Momozono Nanami, who accidentally becomes a god.

One of the things I loved so much about Kamisama Kiss was that Nanami has a very distinct personality. From the start of the anime, she’s plucky and angry and stubborn. In fact, she borderlines to tsundere status – but Nanami is also gentle and infinitely honest and open about her feelings. She’s a complex person, which is rare enough to see on the anime screen. Women in anime are too often put into very specific boxes – the gentle, childlike love interest, the boyish tomgirl, the insane seductress. They’re stereotypes that parallel but do not overlap American patriarchal concepts of women. If you are sexually confident or open, you must be unhinged. If you are too loud, you should be available.

How rare, then, to see a loud, self-determining woman who is comfortable with her attraction to the main love interest but who nonetheless is not overly sexualized? Nanami has been betrayed continuously by men in her life, but chooses to give them second chances – on her terms. She balances strength and kindness, force and compassion, and stays true to herself, all while growing into a power. All of this while navigating a world of magic that is mostly foreign to her, full of demons and gods and every kind of creature between.

In short, I definitely recommend the main series of Kamisama Kiss, especially the first season.

However….

I do not recommend the OVA. Let us pretend the OVA never existed.

As often happens in anime adaptations of stories originally told in manga, pacing and plot resolution becomes an issue in Kamisama Kiss. We see this clearly with such classics as Fruits Basket, where an ending was tacked onto the anime that made no sense, all the way up to one of my favorites, Akatsuki no Yona (Yona at the Blush of Dawn) which just…ended without any resolution. In Kamisama Kiss, they managed a little bit of both. The ending of Season Two had far too many plot threads dangling in the wind. In order to fix these, a three episode OVA was made. It does succeed in collecting and resolving the major plot threads (though not all of them) but it fails to leave Nanami as a powerful individual at the end. She is forced to give up her god power and her new way of life in order to save Tomoe, the fox demon who has been acting as her familiar.

Questions about how they will survive together – and whether Tomoe successfully becomes human, a key requirement according to the dialogue – are never fully resolved on screen. Overall the ending seemed rushed and generally unsettled me, especially when Tomoe threatened to rape Nanami while she was incapacitated, an incident whose emotional repercussions were never fully addressed. While knowing what happened helped to sooth some of my feelings of being cheated at the end, the hopeful and emancipatory emotional resonance of the series was largely spoiled by the OVA plot.

Nonetheless, Kamisama Kiss remains one of my favorite recent shoujo forays and will intrigue those with an interest in Japanese mythology as well. Give it a watch.


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Heroes and Dreamsnake

We’ve lost a lot of people in the past few years.

Perhaps it just feels that way because there are so many other bad things, and so the losses hit harder. Perhaps it is just part of growing up. I’ve just recently entered my third decade. It’s probably about that time. But you’re never ready to let go of your heroes.

Carrie Fisher was a hard one for me. So was Mary Oliver. This week, we lost Vonda McIntyre.

If you’ve been reading science fiction for a while, you’ve probably heard of Vonda McIntyre. Her book, Dreamsnake, is one of those canonical works that become their own entity, irrespective of author, almost separate from the author. Though no work could or should be separated from the one who made it, Dreamsnake has its own weight within the world of science fiction.

I first read this book in middle school, where I found it in the school library. I’m not sure who made the decision to stock that book in the middle school library of a small town in Southwest Virginia. It was shelved alongside Redwall and Jane Yolen, and I picked it up all unsuspecting. I have not read it since. I remember it so clearly, nonetheless. The desert landscape where the book begins, the craters from a long ago war, the idea that there were some things that could not be healed and that, sometimes, the only peace that could be given was sweet dreams. The found family Snake accrues in her travels, and the joy of discovery, the hope that remains a core of the story despite all of the darkness that inevitably fills a post-apocalyptic world. The book showed me what fiction could be. In some ways I have always been aspiring to do to others what that book did to me at twelve.

If we are lucky, we lose our heroes to death. Not to controversy, or an unkind word when we needed or wanted their kindness, not to villainy, but to death, which takes us all eventually. So though each of these losses makes the world feel smaller, I am grateful.

Look, if we’re lucky, we’ll leave some small mark in the hearts of those we meet. If we’re very lucky, it will be a mark like Dreamsnake left on my heart.


In less somber news, you can catch me this weekend at Roanoke Author Invasion from 10 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Stop by and tell me about your heroes.

Cover reveal!

It’s that time!

I’m so excited to finally be launching this serial. It’s a slow burn, a feminine horror in the truest sense. I first knew I wanted to write this story or something like it around the time I wrote this post on the term.

You see, when I was pretty young and cassettes were still a thing, my parents got my little brother and I each a fairytale recording for Christmas or Easter or some other holiday. My brother got “The Tinder Box”, a story about a morally gray soldier who lies and murders his way to being king with the help of a magical matchbox. I got “Bluebeard” the story of a girl who is too curious and so gets murdered by her husband.

To be fair to my parents, I’m not entirely sure they were familiar with either story.

Every since, I have always been fascinated by Bluebeard tales. Now, at last, I get to tell my own. It’s called Veridian, and I hope you enjoy it.

Scroll down for the cover reveal, and an excerpt!

Continue reading “Cover reveal!”

News, mostly news

There’s been a lot going on this spring! For those who missed it, I had a short story published through Luna Station Quarterly on March 1st. “At Love’s Heart” is a tale about grief and love and ice. You can get it, and all of the other lovely stories in Issue 37, on Amazon or directly from the magazine.

Also notable news! April promises to be a busy month. We’ll see the first installment of the Black Roses novella go up on the Patreon on Monday, April 1st. $3 and up backers will receive pdf, mobi, and epub installments every week. Check out the synopsis below.

It’s grief that drives Lorelai to Vermont, a land of mountains and hidden lakes and deep snow. She wants to forget everything she’s lost. Ethan Locke seems like the perfect man to lose herself in.

But every lover has ghosts…

I’ve made a new banner for the Patreon, and I like it a lot better. Tune in April 1st for a cover reveal and an excerpt of the first installment!

Last bit of news! Roanoke Author Invasion is right around the corner on April 6th. I’ll have copies of all my books available and free swag, as always. The event is free, so come visit!

No post this coming Friday, but I’m excited for everything coming up in April and I hope you are too!


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Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement

Happy one week anniversary of one of my favorite recent superhero movies. Let’s talk about Captain Marvel.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m not a reader of the Marvel comics. I’m not much of a comic book reader in general. So my introduction to all Marvel superheroes is generally the one I get with the movie. I’m not averse to that – I think that, consistency aside – some of these movies have been absolutely excellent from a storytelling perspective, and that’s what I talk about when I do reviews of them. This movie was one of those movies.

Spoilers, goes without saying.

Continue reading “Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement”

Anime Corner: Sexual violence in Dororo and Banana Fish

So I’ve been watching a lot of anime lately, due to having more than doubled my streaming services. I’m actually thinking about making a shoujo corner a regular feature of the blog just because I love shoujo so much. But I also occasionally watch stories outside of that genre.

Anime watching, for me, contains a lot of conflict. I fully understand that anime exists in a cultural context that is Not Mine, and in fact that’s a lot of why I find some of these stories so moving. Japanese humor is nearly the only humor for me – with the exception of Brooklyn 99, I rarely find American stories funny. Japanese tragedy is delicious and overblown and I love every second of it. I recognize that I come into each interaction with anime, despite having watched it from a very young age, from a place that is outside. I may get most of the jokes, but I’m always going to be carrying around my own context as a rather-odd-but-nonetheless-American duck.

Still, a lot of anime’s take on sexual violence is really stifling to me. This occurs both within and outside of shoujo, but I find it especially pervasive in anime which might be classified under the action subgenre. Yet, as you might imagine, I love this kind of anime, too. As Roxanne Gay stated about her love for rap music in her eponymous essay collection, I, too, am a bad feminist.

Enter Dororo and Banana Fish, two anime with lots of action, tragedy and tension, both of which feature a mostly male cast. So far I have absolutely loved these two shows. But both neither of them deal with sexual violence particularly well. Trigger warnings for sex, sexual assault, and violence. Spoilers for both. I do not own these IPs, or the images used herein to discuss them, but you can find them on Amazon Prime.

Let’s start with Dororo, mostly because I started watching it first.

Dororo is a story set in a fantastical feudal Japan, wherein the main character runs around fighting demons with his sword arms. It is pretty far away from Banana Fish, a story set in modern day New York City where the main character is a gangster with a gun. Yet both Hyakkimaru and Ash are marked by betrayals and are fighting against monsters much bigger than them at great personal cost. In Hyakkimaru’s case, his father traded all of his body parts to demons for power. In his quest to regain the parts of his body, Hyakkimaru grows connected to those around him. We largely see Hyakkimaru’s conflicts through the eyes of his companion Dororo – and it’s Dororo with whom we commiserate the most.

Hyakkimaru meets a woman around episode five who, so far, is the woman with the most weight to the plot. She is caring for several wounded war orphans, mysteriously vanishing every night and returning in the morning with food and needed goods. It is very obvious from the first moment that she is shown on screen, washing herself in the river, that Mio is engaging in sex work with the neighboring militaries in exchange for food. However, the other characters seem mostly oblivious to this fact – until Dororo follows Mio, and we witness her subjugating herself to those men in a scene I found very disturbing. At first I couldn’t place myself on what, exactly, disquieted me so much about this scene. It took watching Banana Fish to clarify it for me.

I mentioned that Ash, the lead in Banana Fish, is a character who is marked by betrayal. Specifically, Ash was kidnapped and made into a sex slave at a very young age. It is obvious that these sex acts are not a source of pleasure for him. They are something he has had to do to survive, just as Mio has. But as viewers, though we are clear that Ash has had these experiences – continues to have these experiences, even, throughout the narrative of the story – we don’t see the assault directly until the final arc of the anime. This is simply a thing that has happened to Ash. It is part of who he is, but it doesn’t rule him. Ash kills or outlives everyone who took from him in this way, though in the final arc we see that he cannot fully escape his past and his legacy of violence except in death.

One of the questions that comes up for me so strongly in these two narratives is the nature of consent and the part that the storytellers and viewers play in it when these kinds of stories are shown on screen. I’m sure that many more erudite folks have opined on this, but it seems to me there are two layers worth analyzing with these stories. The first is the consent of the character. The second, the consent of the audience.

Both Mio and Ash die, but Mio’s death is notable because it happens at the hands of her assaulters. Her attempt to use sex to win her way free of starvation is not rewarded by the narrative, despite Dororo’s attempts to say that she triumphed in death. She is murdered by the very men who used her. But more importantly, we are forced to witness, as an audience, Mio’s stripping of dignity in the scene where naive Dororo witnesses her passively being penetrated by a group of samurai. We become complicit in this depiction. Any act of violence leaves scars, but we are made to see Mio’s. She is a footnote in Dororo‘s larger story, a motivation for the main character, a tragic backstory displayed.

In contrast, Ash is the main character. His violation is alluded to and witnessed by other characters, but never shown on screen. Though he loses often to the people who perpetuated his assaults, he never ceases fighting. He is depicted as a power – as more than a power. He is something to be feared by those who have hurt him. The fear of him is what drives them to continue to attempt to hurt him, and their desire of him is what makes them make mistakes. Yet, Ash, too, dies at the end of Banana Fish, which raises the question: are survivors of sexual violence not allowed to have futures?

The exception to this (very tentative) rule is Jessica Randy. Banana Fish can hardly be held up as an example of decent representation for women, given that there are may two or three developed women that are given speaking lines. However, it’s important to point out that the woman who does experience sexual violence in later episodes of this anime, Jessica Randy, receives more dignity and resolution in her small plot than either Ash or Mio. She is shown after the assault, but the act of it is never depicted on screen. And she achieves a happy ever after with her husband despite everything.

There is a lot more to unpack here, and I still recommend both of these anime for a watch. They are both tight, fast pace, and interesting stories. That said, I do question their treatment the very real trauma of sexual assault and the grey areas of consent that come when a character is forced to parlay undesirable uses of their body for survival. While it’s important to recognize narratives of sexual violence, some of these can be more harmful than others. The audience should not be required to participate in the act in order to continue forward in the story. I hope that we can continue to see more approaches to dealing with the realities of sexual assault that maintain respect for the characters in question and for audience members, in anime as well as in other forms of visual media.


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MystiCon Recap: Shakespeare Edition

Hey folks! MystiCon last weekend was a blast, but it’s got me pretty wiped out this week. I’ve been scrambling to keep up with all my obligations, which is nothing new. Happily, I had some free time this morning to knock out this blogpost for you this week!

I had a great time at MystiCon this year, largely because some friends joined me and I got to do a lot more of the weird social stuff. I still did lots of writer things, too, though, including being on four panels! My favorite panel, surprisingly, was our discussion of Shakespeare and the Supernatural late Saturday night. We had some great conversation, which I will attempt to describe here.

My exposure to Shakespeare has largely been as a watcher and reader, and I’ve had relatively little wish to analyse Shakespeare’s work. I wouldn’t say I’m the most widely read either – I have seen The Tempest, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (multiple times), Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. I’ve acted in A Comedy of Errors, and seen and read a good portion of Hamlet. One time I visited Stratford-upon-Avon. So that’s my whole Shakespeare career, pretty much. Everything after that is cliffnotes. Yet I was blessed to be part of a group that had apparently read a LOT of Shakespeare critique and analysis. They had the cultural context for the life of the poet I lacked. It made for some great discussion!

One of the things that we came away with during this panel was the Shakespeare’s time was very different than our own. Superstition was pretty rampant – the King at the time had a treatise on the supernatural and witches that he had made up, and witchcraft was a crime punishable by death and tried in the courts. So it makes sense that witches were generally bad people in Shakespeare’s works. If nothing else, he would have been run out of the country otherwise. The exception to this, possibly, is Prospero – who is, for all intents and purposes, a witch. We didn’t go into this too much, except that it’s fair to say that Prospero is a bit of an anti-hero in the Tempest. Your sympathies are somewhat with him, but mostly they are meant to be with Miranda, the young innocent, and her Ferdinand. I think this is why so many adaptations of the Tempest focus on her story, and not Prospero’s, but I digress.

Spirits and faeries, on the other hand, are the fun characters. They are forces of nature more than people, and so they aren’t subject to the same rules of morality as the human characters on the stage. Like nature, they often throw the humans around them into chaos, and can be either benign of malignant. Think of Oberon changing his wife’s lover into a donkey, or Puck being…Puck.

Lastly and most forbiddingly, we have the ghosts. A witch is bad news, but a ghost spells certain doom for the main character. They are the embodiment of fate, and all fates end in the cutting of the cord. We had a long debate on if ghosts were more or less “real” to people in Shakespearian England. I personally think that, despite our modern ideas that ghosts are just psychological echoes of our own trauma, ghosts are still a real thing, but I felt like other people in the room were a little less superstitious than me. They felt that views had changed pretty drastically on ghosts since Shakespeare’s time, and they were probably right. One thing we agreed on was that within the play Shakespeare’s ghosts were their own elements – they existed independently of the characters’ psyches, despite their impacts there.

I hope everyone goes out and reads some Shakespeare after this! It’s so much fun to get to dive back into the words of a person who was so prolific in their time.

Until next year, MystiCon!


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MystiCon!

Early post because this weekend is MystiCon! I’ll do a recap post next week, but in the interim please stop in and say hi if you’ll be there. I’d love to meet you!

You can use MystiCon’s handy scheduler to find out more about where I’ll be. I’ll mostly be around during Saturday’s sessions, but I will have one panel that I’m moderating on Sunday. It should be a great time!

Saturday I will also be doing a signing in the hall at 4:00pm, so if you have a book you need signed or just want to chat about my work, this is the time.

I hope you all have a great MystiCon!


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