1 August 2014

Merchant of Dreams

Merchant of Dreams
Anne Lyle





Mal Catlyn can't stay in the English court much, having made enemies in his previous adventures, so he's been living on his family's estates in France. With him is his trusty valet Coby Hendricks, in actuality a young woman who has been secretly living as a man. Mal's life is complicated by his connection to the skraylings who have come to Europe from the New World, he and his twin brother share the soul of one of these ancient and mysterious people. This connection leads Mal to Venice, where he an his companions must figure out how to undertake their covert work in a foreign city.


As with The Alchemist of Souls this is an entertaining and well-written historical fantasy. The action moves from London to Venice - and various places in between - and the setting is well-researched and varied, expanding the Elizabethan backdrop of the first book to a wider European setting. There also is development of the skraylings, an interesting invention of the author that are unlike other non-human races I've encounter in fantasy. With Mal's brother now reunited with the people of his soul (if not his current body) we learn more about Skrayling culture and also the various factions within that group. 

The characters feel realistic, even when they're going through unlikely things, and we're able to empathise with most of them even when they are at odds with each other. Mal is still the hero, but though he displays bravery and compassion he also does things I did not approve of. Coby's complex relationship with her gender is explored, as she ends up having to try and be female after years of living her male disguise. She also comes into a fuller understanding of her feelings for Mal, but is able to keep to her principles and beliefs even when these are not important to those around her. Ned and Gabe's relationship has deepened between books, but both still have their jealousies and insecurities, and Ned in particular has an attitude that refuses to be cowed.

I'm never quite sure what to expect from this series, and again the story took twists and turns I hadn't seen coming. The pace of the story worked well, and the various complications experienced by the characters all made sense even if I did not see them coming. The setting is familiar, but the premise is different to Elizabethan fantasies I've read before and so my expectations and preconceptions are limited. I think I have a greater understanding of how Skrayling rebirth works, and some of the wider story elements that will appear in the final book, but there's still plenty of room for Anne Lyle to surprise me.

22 July 2014

Deja Q

Episode: s3, ep 13

The Enterprise is helping a planet that is endangered by its falling moon. Geordi says there's slim chance they can do anything, but Riker wants to try. Problem solving discussion is interrupted by Q appearing in midair then falling to the floor of the Bridge. The crew assume that Q is responsible for the moon problem. Q says he doesn't know anything about it. He's angry about being given grey clothing, about being there, and about being human. He's been punished by the Q-continuum for being chaotic and was forced to chose a mortal shape for himself. Q asks for sanctuary. Data and Troi believe him, but no one else does.
A bright light enters the Enterprise and scans the ship. Picard interrogates Q, who tried sleep and finds it scary. Q maintains he had nothing to do with the falling moon, but offers to lend his vast expertise to the problem. He doesn't have powers anymore, but he still knows a lot. Data is assigned to be Q's chaperone and they discuss becoming human. Geordi outlines his plan for the moon, Q doesn't think it'll work and suggests they just redefine universal gravity, he used to do. Q is in pain and Dr Crusher diagnoses back spasms. Thinking about it Geordi reckons he can try to make the moon lighter.
In 10 Forward Q and Data discuss eating. Guinan is super amused by Q's situation. A cloud appears and surrounds Q. Geordi adjusts the sheilds to block it. Q falls to the floor and cries for help. The alien cloud has a grudge against Q because of his past cruelty. The senior officers discuss what to do. Q asks to join the crew, Picard is hesitant, but tells him to help Geordi with the moon. When Geordi lowers the shields to try moving the moon the cloud returns and surrounds Q again. Data saves Q, and gets damaged. Everyone but Q is worried about Data. Q visits Picard and confesses that he didn't understand what Data did for him and he's terrified of everything without his powers. Data recovers. Q leaves the ship in a shuttle. He truly hates being human and figures his death will be better for everyone.
When Picard realises what Q is doing he hesitantly orders for the shuttle to be returned, but they can't move it. Q awaits death when some guy comes in through the wall, it's another Q. They've been watching him and wonder if this is truly self-sacrifice. Other-Q doesn't understand why the humans are still trying to help him. Q doesn't get it either, but it seems he's learned a lesson, so his powers are returned. Just as Picard thinks Q has been destroyed he appears with a mariachi band, celebrating the return of his powers. He offers Data a gift, allowing him to laugh uncontrollably for a moment. Q leaves. The planet hails the Enterprise and thanks them for returning the moon to its rightful place, saving them all. It must have been Q.


Guest Star
John de Lancie returns as Q. I just saw the episode of the West Wing he's in. He plays a pollster who thinks the President will get reelected if he comes down on flag burning. It's a less amusing role.

"This is getting on my nerves, now that I have them."

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard is doing his famous facepalm as Q says he's the closest thing he has to a friend. Lucky Picard.
It takes Picard a while to understand that Q isn't lying. He's determined to brush off all Q's attempts at familiarity or eliciting sympathy, even while he defends the human capacity for compassion and empathy. Then again Q is openly mocking that same capacity while relying on it for his survival. It's only when Q goes to end his existence that Picard believes and he's rather grudging about trying to save Q. At the end when Q returns, triumphant in his reinstated powers, Picard is grim and unamused.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management
Riker is suspicious of Q throughout. Whatever bond they may have had (or Q may have imagined) before is clearly gone. At the end Q wants to give people gifts and makes two scantily-clad human women appear either side of Riker.

Riker: I don't need your fantasy women.
Q: Oh, you're so stolid. You weren't like that before the beard.

Q may have a point. Back when he granted Riker the Q-powers in Hide and Q (before the beard) Riker tried to gift Worf with a fantasy Klingon woman, which just freaked Worf out. Then again the point of that episode was that Riker had gone mad with power (as much as a Star Fleet officer is allowed to do so in Trek). Here Riker doesn't really look at the girls pawing him, he just looks offended, which is a cool reaction. Riker is often painted as a ladies man, and he is, but he's rarely sleazy or disrespectful of women. In fact at times when he's offered sex on unequal terms he rejects it, both here and in The Vengeance Factor. It's characterisation I can get behind.

Does Not Compute
"An irony. .. You have achieved in disgrace what I have always aspired to be."
Q and Data discuss humanity as outsiders with very different perspectives on the species. Q asks Data about eating, Data eats something that sounds like specialised motor oil. Data observes that Troi eats chocolate when she's in a bad mood, Q feels dreadful and orders 10 chocolate sundaes.
Data lectures Q on interpersonal skills and how he will need to develop some if he's going to stay. Q claims that omnipotent beings do not work well with others, makes you wonder why his people threw him out?
After Data recovers from saving Q the former-immortal praises him for the wonder that he already is, but also says that Data is a better human than he is.
At the end Q offers Data a gift. Data refuses and offer to be remade as a human (just as he did from Riker in Hide and Q). Q says he would never give Data such a curse. Instead Q gives Data a few moments of uncontrollable laughter. It's great to see the initial confusion on his face give way to utter hysterical laughter. Then it fades back into Data's customary expression.

Klingon Warrior
Worf and Q's mutual antagonism is amusing. Worf suggests Q can prove his humanity by dying and Q asks if Worf has eaten any good books lately. Q contemplates the many minor irritations of humanity, Worf doesn't care. Then Q suggests that he should have chosen to be Klingon, tries to get Worf to speak to Picard on his behalf, but continues insulting Worf, presumably from force of habit. Worf is stoically amused by Q's predicament.

"How the mighty have fallen."
Guinan's Hat: Red-brown and glittery
Guinan is grimly amused by Q's situation, he was not looking forward to seeing her. When Data says many of the crew do not believe Q she stabs him in the hand with a fork "Seems human enough to me." It's very funny, I suggest you google it.
Q is scared of her and tries to talk tough, but backs away from her and calls her dangerous. She points out that Q is defenseless and he's made a lot of enemies in his considerable time. She advises he listens to Data, because Q is a pitiful excuse for a human and he's only going to survive by relying on others.


Staff Meetings: 3
1. Picard and Riker discuss the Q situation. They're both convinced he is behind the moon problem and it's all one of his jokes. Though Picard is willing to accept the possibility that he's telling the truth.
2. After he is attacked by a cloud that holds a grudge Q is questioned by Picard and Riker. The Captain realises Q has purposely come to them so they will protect him from his many enemies. He doesn't want to spend his time dealing with Q's problems. Q says he can help and be useful. Data point out that Q as been useful to Geordi so far. Data is to chaperone Q while he helps in Engineering.
3. Q visits Picard, admits that he's entirely selfish and -in his flippant way- says he cannot continue like this. Picard points out that he's not Q's confessor and does not want to deal with his issues.

The End
After Picard has shut down the mariachi party, Q's left, and Data's had his first real laugh, the planet hails the ship. Their moon has returned to it's old, steady orbit, they thank the Enterprise for saving them. Picard is confused. After checking the moon presents no further danger Picard grudgingly concedes that perhaps there is still some humanity in Q. A smoking cigar appears in Picard's hand and Q appears in the smoke, "Don't bet on it, Picard."




12 July 2014

New Job

At the end of this month I'll be leaving my current job to work in support/admin role a local university. It is exciting and also a bit nerve-wracking.

I've been working in the contact centre for a year and three months now. There's a great team of people there and they're supportive. I've learned a lot and done well while I've been there. Also I've proven to myself that not only can I get a new job, but I can thrive in different environment and rise to meet challenges. It's been a good time for my confidence and has helped me develop a thicker skin. I wasn't actively job hunting this time, I applied because I saw the job advertised and it caught my interest.

I'm quite looking forward to working at the university. It's where I studied so I know the area, the campus is a nice environment. From a practical point of view it's closer to where I live, which will cut down my commute dramatically. Also I think the work will be something I'll enjoy more than my current role, it'll involve more responsibility. Plus the university, by the nature of the kind of institution it is, has a lot of good facilities. The facilities include a large library, which I'm sure will encourage me to read more non-fiction.

It took a bit of decision-making to make the change. I had solid prospects with my current employer and felt comfortable there. However I'm pretty certain I've made the right decision. It's good to have a new challenge.

As a weird coincidence the job offer came just a few days after I'd completed the novel first draft, which has a main character who works in a support role at an education/research institution. So now I'm thinking maybe the next novel should be about someone who unexpectedly comes into a fortune. :)

29 June 2014

First Draft

On Friday I finally completed a first draft of a long form story. A little over 60,000 words covering a beginning, middle and end. I've been working on this particular draft since September, though I have had some breaks for other things in that time.

Completing a first draft is something I've tried to do for years. I've tried with other stories, and though I've written more words in the past they haven't added up to a full story before.

I know that the draft I've written is full of bad writing and some scenes aren't complete. I have no intention of letting anyone see it, but it's a starting place and I can build from it. I've already had some ideas about what to add and what to improve. I expect the next draft will be longer. However I'm going to wait a while, get some distance from the story before I try rewriting. I'll spend the time working on projects, perhaps getting back into short stories.

21 June 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I really enjoyed Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (despite how hard it is to type the full name correctly) and I'd like to talk about why. Given its place within the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) there are spoilers for this and other works, but I have taken care to separate these so that folk can read on a little spoiler-free.


Spoiler-free section
The programme started pretty lightweight and... not fluffy, because properly bad stuff went down, but perhaps somewhat frothy. It was soon clear that it was not all superheroes all the time, or even mostly superpowers. Agents of Shield was largely a light-hearted spy show, which threw in the tech, powers and alien-magic that existed, but was not explored, in the cinematic universe. I get that some people were expecting different things from content or tone and gave up early. It's unfortunate that the rocky start to it means people have missed out, but nowadays there are many options to catch up if you receive a good recommendation. I hope some of you will consider this that recommendation. After all events in Agents of Shield are tied to a wider universe, so the pacing has to work around the films. It's better reason for a slow start than other series have.

The early episodes were mostly standalone and set up themes/arcs/mysteries for later. There was a thread running through several episodes, but it didn't always take centre stage. They also introduced the main characters, focusing on who they were and what they could do. The team were put into situations where their knowledge and skills could be used for what they were told was the greater good. Some main characters were more likeable/interesting than others, and there were usually guest characters who were similarly variable.

The series started to join up with the films after Thor: the Dark World, although the connections were not strong there was a sense of being part of a bigger universe. Episode quality improved. There were more arc plots involving the main characters and certain of their back stories. Plus allies and enemies reoccurred, and we learned more about SHIELD as an organisation (it is what they are agents of after all). The peril grew, the stakes raised and mysteries deepened. There was a sense of greater things coming as the series built towards something, and I was intrigued.
 
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened and changed the game. Episodes after that were amazing, full of suspense and intrigue and great character moments. The tone became darker and more serious, but still not gritty and with some great comedy moments in the mix. The characters I was less keen on became more interesting, and the ones I'd always liked became great. The new elements introduced were real game-changers and set the show on a whole new path that's only just started. I can't wait to see what series 2 brings.


Spoilers!
Spoilers for Agents of Shield and Captain America: the Winter Soldier (vague spoiler for Iron Man 3 and one spoiler for Thor: the Dark World)

My favourite characters are Simmons, May and Coulson. I mostly like Fitz, though his attitude to Simmons towards the end of series seemed unnecessary. Skye is fine I suppose, but I rather suspect her backstory will prove to be more interesting than she is. It's not that there's anything wrong with her, but I think it could be that Skye is meant to be our gateway character and I don't feel as though I identify with her. I never liked Ward, and after Turn Turn Turn I felt pretty vindicated. Ward was never likeable or interesting, though I now wonder how much of that was because he was basically a facade all along.

It's interesting to see how the various types of 'power' from the films are used here. It's balancing act that Avengers was a bit too busy to deal with. The fact that the mystery baddie was called the Clairvoyant, and no one knew if that was an accurate description of what they could do, tells you the kind of stuff this team are dealing with.
The extremis tech/science from Iron Man 3 is misued as part of the Centipede project. Centipede initially looks like it'll be the big bad, but of course it's only a tiny part of what's going on. It's cool how many of the antagonists seemed separate but are linked in ways even they don't know (many heads of the Hydra), all building to the reveal we didn't know was coming. The Asgardians on Earth provide the magic and mythology (yes, yes, I know its supposed to be very advanced alien tech really, but it looks like magic and I say it's sufficiently advanced so therefore indistinguishable). They're more separate from the Hydra stuff, coming from another world as they do. I really liked the episode when Sif showed up, she didn't get enough space in Thor 2. The antagonist's power over men could have been explored more (Does her power work on gay men? Lesbians? Is it to do with desire or a Y-chromosome? Why didn't they just send all the men far away?) and is a bit of a dodgy trope. I now realise that the episode may have been foreshadowing the danger Ward becomes later. Plus Sif mentions that she was sent by Odin to retrieve prisoners after the Asgardian jail break. Having seen the end of Thor 2 I really want to know about what "Odin" is doing.


The episode where they break into the mysterious mountain to save Skye, and Coulson sees what saved him had me on the edge of my seat. The mystery of Coulson's return to life is a good one - though I don't understand why my DVD of Avengers Assemble took out the tip of the spear from Coulson's death scene, the show agrees that he was impaled.
I also liked the episode in the SHIELD Academy (if Simmons is science-Hermione then the Academy is science-Hogwarts). It's the only institution in the MCU that could have a similar to feel the Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, which of course Marvel can't use on screen. I hope they made it through the rise of Hydra.
Speaking of which, how good was Turn Turn Turn? I didn't know who was on which side for about half an hour (even with my husband telling me what alignment some characters had in the comics), and it was great. The introduction of Koenig was good, and his death saddening. The end of the series was excellent and I liked how there was comedy amongst the darker stuff.


Simmons would want the TARDIS on a desert island, best answer ever! I love her.

"This is just me being honest, Phil"
"No John, this is you being a psychopath."

Those symbols Garrett drew after he went even more crazy, and that Phil started drawing too (in his sleep?) have appeared before. Ward sees them on a blackboard when he breaks into that facility in Eye Spy. Also something that looks a bit like them appears in Coulson's weird flashback. This is clearly being positioned as an ongoing myserty for next series, as is Skye's parentage. It's long been clear that Skye is some kind of dangerous McGuffin, or was treated as such as a baby, and I suspect she may not be fully human. What that makes her I have no idea. Still it'd be cool to have someone with powers on the team. Then there's the appearance of the Koenig twins? Clones? Doubles? I expect we'll find more about that fairly quickly.

Great costumes, plus extra geek-glasses

18 June 2014

Dangerous Waters

Dangerous Waters
Juliet E. McKenna


I've been meaning to read this book for a while. My husband kindly got a copy signed for me from a convention over a year ago, but my TBR pile wasn't too organised then*. Plus I wanted to finish the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution (reviewed here previously) first. It was good that I did finish that first, as an early part of Dangerous Waters features a character who dies in the previous series (though I half forgot that as I was reading) showing that there is some definite overlap in time. It's clear that McKenna is always building upon events in her world with each book, and so the events of one series have consequences for things that happen later. Some of the action of this book takes place in the southern archipelago, which was introduced back in Swordsman's Oath and is the setting of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet (of which I've only read the first book). Not that you have to read each series in order, the author takes care to give you the relevant information without infodumping.

As I have come to expect with Juliet E McKenna's books this is a story which deals with people's lives and how changing situations, decisions and external forces affect them. Lady Zurenne is the widow of a noble with modest resources, after her husband's death she was held captive in her own home by a sadistic man and is desperate not to be ruled by any man again. However her society is one which clearly has no time for women's voices and Zurenne is a product of this. Despite her inner turmoil and growing resolution she is not daring or bold enough to ask for what she wants or challenge authority set before her, so she ends up making poor decisions in order to quietly get into a better situation. Her eldest daughter shows a little more spirit, probably because of her youth and what she's been through, but I cannot blame Zurenne for being what she was always expected and trained to be. Soldier Corrain served Zurenne's husband and was captured by southern slavers after his master was betrayed. His grim determination to escape and seek vengeance carries him through the first part of the book. Corrain is a very flawed character, driven by his loyalty, he's also misanthropic and apparently unable to see value in other methods of doing things. Quick to dismiss the foreign, even when seeking help from other lands. His fellow captive, a youth called Hosh, is able to adapt to their situation, where Corrain doesn't even try. His story is one of relentlessly seeking his goals, a questing figure with none of the romance that word implies. He shows no flexibility in his viewpoint and has little else in his life besides revenge. Much like Zurenne he is a certain way due to his upbringing and life experiences and seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to break from the role he has imagined for himself.

The other main group of characters are the wizards. Hadrumal is the hidden island of the elemental mages, and so in a series called the Hadrumal Crisis you expect them to play a big part. Magewoman Jilseth works for the Archmage to protect the name of wizardry on the mainland. After her actions in the Lescari Chronciles she is trying to clear up the mess left by a renegade mage. In opposition to Zurenne Jilseth does not consider her gender a setback and is confident in her own abilities. The two women do not get on, but Jilseth must stay with Zurenne for a while as part of her work. In Hadrumal the debate about whether mages should get involved in mainland politics and conflicts rages on, with each side stating their opinions, and tensions rising, though not yet spilling over. There's a group of mages, Jilseth and her friends, that support the Archmage's policy, and then there's a group of mages who hold a different view. Neither side is painted as bad, and there much debate and argument with reasoning set out in conversation. Hadrumal has a collegial atmosphere and while there are rivalries and personal disagreements everyone conducts themselves in a mature way. However when an unexpected magic user appears from the west, not bound by any of the decrees or rules of the Archmage or Hadrumal, and suddenly the future and reputation of magecraft look far from certain. I'm glad that though there are disagreements in the wizards' community everyone behaves like adults even when they aren't happy about the situation. I also liked that the book explores the repercussions of wizards not getting involved, not just through discussion, but through the actual events of book. There's also stark demonstration of how magic can change the outcome of any encounter, and why that's sometimes necessary and often dangerous.




* It's not much more organised now, but it is mostly one pile rather than books spread across the house.

12 June 2014

The High Ground

Episode: s3, ep12

What Happens
The Enterprise brings medical supplies to a non-Federation planet with a trading relationship. There's civil unrest and internal terrorism from separatists, so away teams are armed. Crusher, Worf and Data are on the planet when a bomb goes off. Crusher helps the wounded and refuses to beam away though Data and Picard want her to. A separatist appears, grabs Crusher and disappears. Data later explains that Crusher wasn't beamed away so they can't trace her. Picard won't let Wesley go to the planet, but asks him to help figure out how the kidnapper jumped away. Riker visits the local Police Chief, she tells him the terrorists have been translocating without trace for two months.
Crusher is in a cave and initially refuses to communicate. Her captor wants a Federation doctor to help his people. He claims the Federation have taken sides by bringing supplies to the government, Crusher refutes this. She's given stolen Federation medical supplies and shown a room of sick people. She tries to help them, but they're dying from warped DNA. The separatist leader says it was caused by their dimension-shifting device, but they won't stop using it. Riker is shocked by the police crackdowns on suspected separatist-sympathisers, the Chief says it was worse before she started. Data, Geordi and Wesley examine a terrorist device and realise it's a harmful transporter-alternative. They may be able to track it, but need more info.
Riker tells a sympathiser in custody that the Federation will negotiate for Crusher's return, which annoys the Chief. Crusher argues with her captor about his methods. Picard and Data discuss the moral issues of using violence for political change. Riker's message is passed to Leader, who says Star Fleet are working with the police and organising mass arrests. He tells Crusher that they'll strike against the Enterprise, and he isn't sympathetic to her motherly concern, his son died in a cell at 13. Separatists jump onto Enterprise, they can't be stopped by forcefields or bombs. They kill an engineer and put a bomb on the engine. Worf is shot in the leg and Picard is snatched. Geordi removes the bomb just in time.
Picard and Crusher are reunited and argue about whether she should have beamed away at the start. The cave has no exits, you can only beam or jump to it. Crusher has some sympathy for her captors, but Picard disagrees. The leader again accuses Federation of taking sides, Picard won't cooperate. Leader delivers an ultimatum to Troi, in 12 hours they'll harm the hostages unless the Federation enforces a trade embargo. Wesley tracks the jump to the cave, and Riker and Chief plan a raid/rescue mission. Leader tells Crusher he may kill Picard, this angers her. Picard tells Crusher to use Leader's regard for her to help them escape. The police and away team beam into the cave and start arresting people. Chief shoots Leader just as he's about to shoot Picard. A separatist kid pulls a weapon on them, but Crusher convinces him to let them go.


Oh Captain My Captain
Picard wants Crusher to beam back immediately, but she won't let him order her back. Picard understands and respects her motives, even though it causes him a problem, and I expect that is why he doesn't have her beamed back, though the option is discussed. Even later when they are both hostages Picard says he should have beamed her back and they argue about following orders and what are reasonable orders.
Picard is pretty untactful when telling Wesley his mother's been kidnapped. He even refers to her as a potential bargaining chip. I know it's something he has to think about, but maybe don't speculate like this in front of Wesley. He sensibly doesn't let Wes go to the planet (what would the kid do there?) but he does use Wesley's skills to aid the rescue attempt.
When the Bridge is invaded by terrorists Picard fights the leader until he's jumped away.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
Riker's discussions with the Police Chief present a counter-argument to Crusher's interactions with the terrorist leader. He objects to some of the oppressive police methods, but the Chief tells him that she's improved things, under her predecessors suspects often didn't survive their time in custody. She clearly has a deep hatred for the separatists, and this has developed since she was posted there and seen the atrocities they've committed. She was more moderate when she was elsewhere, but now she just wants to return to a more peaceful life. She's become hard, suspicious and worn down, and knows this, but that's what she had to do in the situation. She suggests that Federation tech would help them with the problem, but knows Riker's answer must be no. This demonstrates that the Federation are holding themselves aloof from the conflict specifically.
Riker is told that the terrorist organisation itself is small, but there are many sympathisers in the area. Riker, impatient and annoyed with the police methods, tells a sympathiser that the Federation will negotiate to get their doctor back and has him report that to his people. This angers the Chief, but she has little choice as she knows the Federation are only interested in getting their crew back.
At the end when the child who was going to shoot her is taken away the Chief observes that a new generation will just take the place of those they've stopped. Riker has more hope and points of that the kid put his gun down and that's how change starts.

Doctor Doctor
Crusher's immediate instinct is to run into danger to help others, because she's amazing. She won't allow Picard to order her back to the ship, and though she later regrets that she still argues with him about whether she should follow his orders if they're unreasonable. Beverly can get away with this kind of thing because she and Picard are old friends and they respect each others viewpoints even when they don't agree.
Crusher initially refuses to communicate with her captor or take food, and though this changes by necessity he doesn't find out her name until Picard shows up and blurts it out. She's in a scary situation, but courageously doesn't allow her fear to affect her. She follows her instinct to heal every time, but still holds herself apart. Her discussions with the leader explore her disgust for his actions, and his justification. He has researched Earth history (for some reason) and compares himself to George Washington, doing what he has to in order to oppose tyranny. There are times when he is presented as a sympathetic figure, his talent for drawing and obvious respect for Beverley aid this. However at other times he is ruthless and extreme. He kills and is unrepentant about what he does, putting himself and his people in danger by using the device that is killing them. He tells Beverly he'll destroy her ship (and son) and shows no concern about it. However he points out that her arguments come from a utopian viewpoint and he doesn't have that option. He's a complex and changeable character, probably to present several different faces of a complicated argument.
Picard suggests that Beverly can use her position in their captor's esteem to aid their escape. The leader draws pictures of her, though I'm not sure whether that's meant to represent romantic feelings/attraction, or something more complex. Certainly Crusher isn't sure how to react to it, but her reactions to him flip-flop as she sees different sides to him.
As she's rescued Crusher convinces a child from trying to shoot the Chief, which would lead to his death.

Blind Engineering
Geordi avoids being shot when terrorists arrive in Engineering. He has trouble removing the bomb from the engine. It can't be detected by the transporters because of the terrorist's tech, but Geordi gets around this by attaching his comm badge to the bomb and telling the transporter room to lock onto that and fling it into space.


Staff Meetings: 1
Data briefs senior crew on Crusher's abduction. Mostly the meeting is to make clear that we're dealing with something besides transporters

Security Breach
Should there be security personnel in Engineering? Seem worth considering, because this is the fourth time Engineering has been invaded. I don't even know how much security there is, or what they usually do. 

Future History
When Data is talking to Picard about terrorism he cites how often it works. His list includes the Irish Unification of 2024. It will be no coincidence that Ireland came up, when this episode was created the IRA had been planting bombs in Britain for a long time. Possibly the writers thought that was something that would keep happening? Before the 'War on Terror' post-9/11 attitude to terrorism, it wasn't something that the US seemed that concerned about, probably because they weren't really experiencing it. I wonder whether a similar episode written in 2000s could have presented so many points of view? I mean having a terrorist compare himself to George Washington, it surprised me.

Death By Space Misadventure
We are told that 3 crew are dead and 4 are injured in the attack. We see one engineer shot in the attack.

The End
Returned to the Enterprise, Beverly hugs Wesley and says she hears he helped with the rescue. Wesley says it was a team effort. Picard orders the ship away. It's an upbeat ending, but not jokey. There's nothing about what's happening on the planet now.

6 June 2014

Clovenhoof

Clovenhoof
Heide Goody & Iain Grant


The Devil gets the sack and is sent to retirement in Birmingham. Taking on the name of Jeremy Clovenhoof the confused former-Prince of Lies tries to navigate life on Earth, discovering a liking for lambrini, a talent for heavy metal, the trials of finding a suitable job and eventually that things aren't quite right in both Heaven and Hell. Joining Clovenhoof are his unfortunate neighbours, introverted Ben and calculating Nerys. In a book that features spying angels, heavenly bureaucracy, cannibalism, murder and a lot of booze, no one is quite what they seem.


Clovenhoof is set very firmly in the city I live in, which I've known from the start, but is still a little odd to me.* I was lucky enough to buy a paperback copy from a local writing event last year. Most of the action takes place in the north of the city (Boldmere and Sutton Coldfield, for those who're interested), an area I'm not familiar with. However there is a heavy metal show in the Town Hall, which I do know and so I amused at the idea of the Devil booking it and just blithely handing out tickets. Local interest aside Clovenhoof is a pacy and witty read, as long as you're a fan of dark comedy. Clovenhoof starts as a strange, slightly tragic, figure who is forced to live a life he never expected and knows nothing about. Despite his selfishness and anger he is very amusing and certainly makes things interesting, and you even start to feel sympathy for him at times, even though he does things that would be inexcusable for most characters.

The other main characters are Clovenhoof's neighbours. Ben is a stereotypical geeky character, who is bad with people but good with books and wargaming miniatures. Clovenhoof certainly livens up Ben's life, though it's reveal that Ben had a strange dark side even before the Devil came to live next door. Nerys, who lives in the flat above with her old aunt, is a somewhat calculating young women, always trying to plan her life, especially her lovelife, with lists and charts. She seems a bit shallow at first, but proves to having a caring side, even if it can be hard to see. Then there's the Archangel Michael, who keeps an eye on Clovenhoof and manages to get him out of trouble at first. Michael is calm, considerate, moral and turns out to be a bit of a smug git. The supporting cast includes a satanist man-child, a pair of suspect old women, a perceptive bartender, Joan of Arc, a female vicar, St Francis, and an obsequious assistant.

The premise of the book is silly, and that holds up throughout due to the light tone and quick pace. The characters' flaws and oddities add to the tone and create a strange comedy within a setting that is real. The odd events on Earth are interspersed with Heavenly committee meetings, showing that there's something rotten in the Kingdom of God, and flashbacks to Satan's time in Hell and how he was manoeuvred out of his position. There are occasional reflective moments in the book, but they are unusual and madcap adventures are the main staple of the story.

Clovenhoof is available as an ebook on Amazon and is published by Pigeon Park Press.


* Birmingham is the second city of the UK, and the most underrepresented city in UK media. It does not often feature in books, especially not SF ones.

30 May 2014

The Hunted

Episode: s3, ep11

Imagine if Captain America was sent to prison. In Space!

What Happens
The Enterprise visits a planet applying for entry to the Federation, the society successfully rebuilt itself after a terrible war. A violent prisoner escapes from a lunar colony and the Prime Minister asks if the Enterprise will intercept him. It should be easy, but the prisoner cleverly uses an asteroid and the magnetic field around the pole to evade detection. Data figures out what he's up to and he's beamed on board from an escape pod. The fugitive viciously attacks security and Worf has to restrain him. He's taken to the highest security cell. The PM says the prisoner is incredibly violent and suggests he is sedated until they can fetch him. He is somehow able to mask his lifesigns, so sensors can't detect him. Troi senses the nightmares of the prisoner and goes to see him. They have an odd conversation and he states that he killed 3 men to escape, but Troi is convinced that despite his actions he is not really a violent man. Troi and Data check the records the planet gave them as part of their application, the prisoner has no criminal record and he was a decorated soldier.
Troi's research and conversations with the prisoner reveal that he enlisted during the war. He and other volunteers were altered to become super-soldiers. They're normal until the programming kicks in, then they will ruthlessly fight any perceived threat. When the war ended they did not fit into peaceful society and were ordered to the lunar prison and left. Data talks to the prisoner about being programmed and whether it can be reversed or changed. Picard speaks to the PM, who claims the prisoner told them half-truths and refuses to discuss the matter, saying it's internal business. Picard tells the prisoner he has no right to keep him from the authorities, and the prisoner warns that he will do whatever is necessary to escape.
The prisoner somehow resists being transported and escapes with a phaser. He escapes and roams the ship, getting into tubes that belong to some guy called Jeffery, which are the starship equivalent of vents (he's in the vents!). He takes out security teams and causes distractions by setting phasers to explode, it looks as though he's heading for a shuttle. He seems to be trapped in a cargo bay, Picard orders gas to be pumped in. When Worf goes to retrieve him it looks as though the prisoner has stolen a space suit and gone outside. While attention is focused on the shuttle bays the prisoner, unaffected by the gas, beams away using a cargo transporter.
Prime Minister Hoggett calls to say the prisoner attacked the penal colony and released other prisoners who are now on the planet and heading to the capital. Their people are not equipped to deal with violence, that's what they programmed these soldiers for. Picard agrees to come and takes Data, Worf and Troi. Riker tells Worf that he is personally responsible for the Captain's safety. The PM is shocked by the small away team, government officials are nervously being given weapons. The away team tell the PM it's his responsibility for making the soldiers what they are, and ask if the process can be reversed, it's clear that hasn't really been tried. The soldiers burst in and surround the frightened officials. Picard tells everyone to remain calm; the soldiers are only conditioned to kill if they're threatened. The soldiers demand to go home, they refuse to be imprisoned anymore. The PM tells Picard to do something, and Picard says the only thing he can do is leave, this is internal business after all. Picard suggests that their society is likely to change rapidly in the next few minutes, and when that's settled they can reapply for Federation entry.

That'll do super-soldiers, that'll do.
Guest Star
It's Farmer Hoggett! I mean Zephram Cochrane, inventor of the first human warp drive. Er, I mean actor James Cromwell plays the Prime Minister.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard likes the planet, they are rational folk who go on about intellect, which Riker finds a bit stuffy. I think Picard sees himself as something of an academic, and fancies the idea of a life of the mind. However if he actually lived such a life he would probably miss the excitement of being a starship captain. Picard is happy to help when the PM asks them to detain an escaped prisoner, seems easy enough.
Despite being inclined to like the people Picard trusts his staff -especially Troi- in their judgement about the prisoner. When the PM refuses to discuss the soldiers who were modified in the war Picard wisely says "Matter for internal security. The age-old cry of the oppressor." It's a difficult sentiment to argue with.
Picard personally tells the prisoner that they have to return him to his own people, showing an appreciated level of respect. Despite Picard's obvious disapproval of this particular aspect of their culture, the PM contacts the Enterprise to help them when the escaped soldiers go to the capital. Picard realises that the situation with the soldiers needs to be resolved and the best thing he can do is nothing.

Does Not Compute
When the sensors can't pick up the prisoner's life signs Picard suggests he's an android and Data points out the sensors can detect artificial life. I expect I imagined the disgruntled note in Data's voice, but seriously if anyone is going to account for an android it's Data.
On learning that the prisoner has been programmed Data talks to him about that. The prisoner is one of the first people in the series not to realise what Data is straight away. Though are yellow eyes so unknown in all of the humanoid species that the prisoner feels the need to ask about that? During their conversation Data reveals that he's been programmed with military strategy, which was how he was able to catch the fugitive, but that he is not programmed to kill. I wondered if Data is Three Laws compliant? Then realised he wasn't. I don't think he's ever harmed a human, but I do think that he has by inaction allowed a human to come to harm. Does not being programmed to kill mean Data can't? Is his phaser always set to stun? I suppose we don't really know what Data can do until he does it, so perhaps he could kill but his programming discourages it? It's probably best to discourage death-as-a-solution in a being that has no feelings and would therefore feel no regret.
Besides if you were creating an android for combat you would totally put weapons in there somewhere, like maybe laser-eyes. Data doesn't have anything cool like that.

Klingon Warrior
Worf is the best at tracking the escaped prisoner through the ship and scuffles with him a couple of times. When the prisoner's cunning is revealed Worf wonders if he has Klingon blood. I'm never sure if Klingons are supposed to be cunning, or if they're supposed to be straightforward. This guy is actively avoiding combat, which seems distinctly un-Klingon and in a previous episode Worf claimed that Klingons don't bluff. So are they master strategists keen to get the upper hand in a situation, or are they warriors who like the simplicity of direct confrontation? The show can't seem to decide, but hey maybe Klingons are in fact people who have a variety of different traits.

Counsellor Pointless
Troi senses the nightmare of the prisoner, it's strong and strange enough for her to go and see him. He's understandably suspicious of her; the people who altered him were also called counsellors. He plays mind games and is very angry, but that's no surprise. In these interactions Troi realises that her sense of him is entirely at odds with what the PM said and with what he has done. Her insistence leads to the prisoner revealing what was done to him. In a staff meeting Troi insists that he is not inherently violent and that he doesn't demonstrate what would be found in a criminal personality.
I don't consider violence or criminality to be inherent, it strikes me as a dangerous idea. But if they are, what happens (or should happen) to those who do have those qualities? The prisoner admits to violence and murder, but yet something about him means that Troi can't believe his crimes. The outcome seems to be that he should be judged on his personality rather than his actions. This seems like an attitude that should be explored, but it isn't. I suspect Troi's lines aren't meant to carry the weight that they do. Then again she says 'inherent' twice in a few lines, and that feels at odds with what I thought the message of the programme was.

Poor O'Brien
When transporting the fleeing prisoner from his escape pod the transporters are able to disable his weapon, but he still takes out the 2-man security team sent to fetch him. When O'Brien tries to get him into a headlock he is attacked and stunned with a stolen phaser.


Staff Meetings: 1
1. Troi explains that the prisoner was an ordinary man who volunteered to fight in the war, but wasn't told what that would mean. At Troi's request Crusher has examined the prisoner and found that he has been altered physically and chemically as well as psychologically, which is why his life signs can't be detected. His own government altered him and other volunteers to make them perfect soldiers, including programming them to survive at all costs and attack whenever a threat is perceived. After the war he was sent to the lunar colony with his comrades, they couldn't be safely reintegrated into society. Apparently no one tried to reverse the alterations

Security Breach
Someone besides Worf emphasises that high security needed, and that's accepted for the most part. The guy's lifesigns are masked, so the Computer and sensors can't track him, making him a greater threat than most visitors. They don't go as far as sedating the guy, as the PM advised. Worf gets to be suitably suspicious and sticks security teams anywhere the prisoner is going. If only that had been enough. It's like these guys aren't used to people attacking and trying to get away from them.
The most secure cell on the Enterprise doesn't look so bad. There's a supply of water and a sink and mirror. I get the feeling they aren't concerned about suicides.
The prisoner manages to take out Geordi and the rest of Engineering single-handed. I guess that the crew in that area don't have weapons, even after the events of Heart of Glory.

The End
Picard returns to the Enterprise and tells Riker to update the report to say that if the government survives the night the Federation will help them reprogramme their veterans. Picard seems confident they will choose to survive and orders Wesley to take the ship away.


24 May 2014

The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M. Harris


In this book Joanne Harris (with added M) retells various Norse myths from the viewpoint of the much-maligned trickster Loki. It goes from the creation of existence (which Loki did not personally witness), to Loki leaving chaos, coming to Asgard and his various tricks and adventures there, through to ragnarok. Loki narrates the whole thing in first person with his own acerbic, personal take on things in a modern voice. This isn't a comprehensive retelling of Norse myths, but it sets up the world of Norse myths and deals with the bulk of those stories that involve Loki


I was expecting something a bit more revisionist than what I got. At the start of the book the suggestion is that we've all heard is the official version, whereas Loki is going to tell us the truth, or at least his version. The book is a retelling of Norse myths, with the spaces in between vaguely filled in with the prose equivalent of pages flipping off a calendar to mark the passage of time. Loki skips over the boring periods of his time in Asgard, which is fair enough. Even interesting bits (like him giving birth to an 8-legged horse) are skipped over. It felt as though if it wasn't in Norse myth, then Harris isn't interested in talking about it.* There's no suggestion of Loki doing things differently to what the myths say he does, or of the stories being purposefully manipulated by Odin. The real change is the tone, going from the usual serious, epic legends, to some guy talking conversationally about his life. I kept expecting a twist or trick, which didn't come.

I found it amusing that although the entire book takes place within the context of Norse legend, there's a modern feel to the sense of humour and the way Loki narrates. For example his wife is described as wearing aprons and making a lot of sponge cake. There's no sense that the narrative voice feels it's necessary to keep to period appropriate language or imagery, meaning that the legends feel removed from time and space, which I assume is purposeful. However this approach made me think that the story was going to extend into modern times, with updated/modern-dress versions of Norse myths going on in the present day. Or perhaps a here's-what-happened-next type of story. So I was a little  disappointed to find that all trips to Midgard, even in the late stages of the book, seemed to be early-medieval Scandinavia. Again I think I had different expectations of what the book would be.

The voice of Loki was entertaining, there are a lot of cynical and amusing asides that are highlighted in each chapter heading. However Loki was not written to be likeable. In fact once I stopped reading I realised that far from setting out his own point of view and explaining why his motivations might be different or alien to the usual narrative, he was mostly whining. The fact that the story doesn't deviate from the myths that have been handed down to us** means that Loki does a lot of bad stuff. His main motivation for any/all of it seems to be that no one liked him, that he's chaos and so it's in his nature, everyone refused to acknowledge how great he was because he was different, so it's not his fault. If you think these sound like the excuses of a child, or very self-involved adult, you'd be right. There are times when Loki clearly realises, as he's telling his story, that he did stuff that was foolish or rash or plain wrong, but he always finds a reason why we shouldn't blame him. I am entirely convinced that this was intentional on Harris's part, and she trod the line well, making Loki unlikeable but still interesting and amusing.

I do not know Norse myths as well as I know Greek ones, but I've read various bits and pieces in the past. I think there was a roughly 60/40 split between stories I already knew and ones I'd not heard before. I'd never had much direct information about Ragnarok before, I knew it was all about prophecies, and there are references to it in various other things I've read, but this is the first time I've seen it described. I thought it was meant to be the end of the world, but I'm not sure it's that clear cut and I was interested to hear about it.

If you are expecting anything like Marvel's The Mighty Thor, don't. Marvel have always taken huge liberties with the source material. If you are expecting something like what you read in a children's collection of Norse myths, that's pretty much correct. Joanne M Harris has made it all sound a lot less educational and a lot more entertaining and fun.


For a fantastical and modern(ish) version of Norse myth try Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones. It's children's book first published in 1975, but it really works.



* I could be wrong here, as I said I'm not familiar with all of Norse myth, but it didn't feel like there was much that stepped outside of the collected myths I'm aware of. My husband knows more about Norse myths, and he thought roughly the same thing, though he didn't read the entire books.

** The Norse myths that we have are largely from post-Christian sources, meaning that the earlier pagan beliefs may well have been altered by time or design - but that's a different topic and not addressed in this book other than occasional lines that equate Loki with Lucifer.