Thursday, May 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightning (Sixth World, #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

I was skeptical that I would like this book because it was characterized to me as Young Adult (YA) but I was still interested, especially when Trail of Lightning became one of the rare debut novels to be nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula award.

Trail of Lightning is an interesting combination of urban fantasy, dystopian fiction, romance and Native American mythology. And it has a female protagonist and an unusual, culturally diverse cast of characters.

The main character is Maggie (Magdalena) Hoskie, who lives in Dinétah (formerly a Navajo reservation) which has survived an apocalyptic event called the Big Water which basically killed off several billion people worldwide and reduced the populated United States to the area around what used to be the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah (or the Exalted Mormon Kingdom). In this new land, the gods and spirits of the Navajo have come to life and certain people also appear to be manifesting powers that are associated with their tribal lineage.

Of course  our main character Maggie has powers (Super Speed and Ultra-Violence) that allows her to kill “monsters” that show up every now and again and prey upon the people. For this reason she is known as a monsterslayer. In fact, our introduction to the character in the very first chapter is Maggie being hired to find and rescue a little girl who has been abducted by one of these monsters. Maggie beheads the monster, and then because the girl has been infected, has to decapitate the girl as well. Clearly Maggie is "hardcore" but we also learn that she has had a VERY difficult early life and has a reputation for being “violent and antisocial” on the Rez. Later on in the story she meets Kai Arviso, an absolutely gorgeous guy who happens to be the grandson of her only friend, an ancient medicine man known as Tah. Kai and Maggie decide to go find the MacGuffin (an immortal whom they think has probably been creating monsters like the one Maggie had to kill earlier in the story) and along the way of tying to complete this task they find out more about themselves and establish a relationship.

Trail of Lightning has a very strong sense of place and both Kai and Maggie are very well-developed and interesting characters. The Native American element feels very authentic (there are lots of untranslated Navajo words used to describe various concepts and spirits). It’s also a very quick read (chapters are very short and the plot develops at a very fast clip). Another strong aspect of the book is the diversity of the characters. The main characters are Native Americans (of course)  and the supporting characters include a musclebound gay guy, an interracial (African American and red-headed) set of twins and two(!) godlike or at least near-immortal individuals. But the book revolves around Maggie, who is deadly, damaged and delightful.

Overall, I am very glad that I read Trail of Lightning. There's definitely romantic tension between Kai and Maggie (all presented in first-person from Maggie's perspective) but I would not characterize the book as YA or even romance. I’ll almost certainly read the sequel Storm of Locusts  (there's a huge cliffhanger at the end of Trail of Lightning) and the still untitled third book in what Rebecca Roanhorse is calling the Sixth World trilogy.


Title:  Trail of Lightning.
Rebecca Roanhorse.
Paperback: 287 pages.
Date Published: June 26, 2018.
Date Read: May 15, 2019.

★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

2019 FRENCH OPEN: First Round Complete (Kerber, Kvitova, Wozniacki, Medvedev, Ceccinato, Shapovalov OUT!)

The first round of the 2019 French Open is complete and the upsets have been few and far between. ON the women's side 5th seed Angelique Kerber (who I predicted to get to the final--oh well!) lost in straight sets to the hard-hitting youngster Anastasia Potapova. Injured 13th seed Caroline Wozniacki also lost in the first round despite bageling her opponent Veronika Kudermetova   to begin the match. Petra Kvitova withdrew from the tournament with a forearm muscle tear a few hours before her first round match, 18 year old Felix Auger-Aliassime also withdrew while his best friend and countryman (and 20th seed) Denis Shapovalov lost to Jan-Lennard Struff. On the men's side the highest seed to lose in the first round was 14th seed Daniil Medvedev lost a 5-set thriller to Pierre-Hughes Herbert while Nicolas Mahut eliminated last year's French Open semifinalist (and 16th seed) Marco Cecchinato in another 5-setter.

Some big names had close calls: World #1 (and #1 seed) Naomi Osaka lost her first set in a bagel and was two points from defeat down a break twice in the middle set but after pulling out the tiebreaker was able to run away with the decider. #10 seed Serena Williams lost her first set 2-6 but then turned it around and was dominant in the rest of the match, losing only one game. Close calls were not limited to the women. #5 seed Sasha Zverev took over 4 hours to subdue John Millman and #4 seed Dominic Thiem was basically being outplayed for two sets but managed to dismiss American Tommy Paul in 4. Even last year's champion Simona Halep lost a set in her first round but also won relatively easily in 3.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

2019 FRENCH OPEN: Draw Analysis and Predictions

The 2019 French Open in Paris starts tomorrow. A year ago I was on my vacation and attended the opening day session (and was in the 2nd row to watch Venus Williams lose to Qiang Wang and Sasha Zverev demolish ). The defending champions are Rafael Nadal (d. Dominic Thiem) and Simona Halep (d. Sloane Stephens). However, the top seeds are World #1 Novak Djokovic  and Naomi Osaka, who have both won the last two major tournaments (2019 Australian Open and 2018 U.S. Open) while Djokovic is going for his second career "Nole Slam"!

The draws have been released and these are the projected quarterfinals


  • N. Djokovic [1] versus A. Zverev [5]
  • D. Thiem [4]     versus J. Del Porto [8]
  • R. Federer [3]  versus S. Tsitsipas [6]
  • R. Nadal [2]     versus K. Nishikori [7]


  • N. Osaka [1] versus A. Barty [8]
  • K. Bertens [4] versus S. Stephens [7]
  • S. Halep [3] versus P. Kvitova [6]
  • Ka. Pliskova [2] versus  A. Kerber [5]


  • Aryna Sabalenka [11] versus Dominika Cibulkova
  • Victoria Azarenka versus Jelena Ostapenko
  • Venus Williams versus Elina Svitolina [9]
  • Feliciano Lopez versus Ivo Karlovic
  • Mischa Zverev versus Richard Gasquet
  • Taylor Fritz versus Bernard Tomic
Men's Final: Djokovic d. Nadal.
Women's Final: Halep d. Kerber.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

2019 NEBULA AWARDS: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal Wins Best Novel!

The 2019 Nebula Awards ceremony occurred over the weekend (in Los Angeles County) and the winner for the Best Novel is Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars! The nominees were:

  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
  • Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
  • Witchmark by C.L. Polk ( Publishing)
  • Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)
Of these nominees I have read Witchmark (see review) and Trail of Lightning (review forthcoming soon) and have already purchased a Kindle copy of The Calculating Stars due to strong buzz on Goodreads. I also hear good/interesting things about Blackfish City so I will probably get around to reading that eventually. I am not a very big Naomi Novik fan so I don't really intend to read Spinning Silver. I wasn't a very big fan of Uprooted even though it won the Nebula award in 2016.

Monday, May 20, 2019

EYE CANDY: Gerardo Gabriel (3rd Time!)

Gerardo Gabriel is a Latino bodybuilder with an immense following on Instagram (1.4 million @gerardo_gabriel). He has appeared as Eye Candy twice before (April 3, 2017 and July 4, 2016). His abs are incredible and the rest of him is not too bad either!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

GAME OF THRONES (S8E05) : "The Bells"

The episode contains the final resolution of the fight between Daenerys and Cersei for control of the Iron Throne and the leadership of the Seven Kingdoms. "The Bells" is the penultimate episode of the series and so a number of important characters meet their ends. The ones that come to mind are: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Euron Greyjoy, Sandor Clegane, Gregor Clegane, Maester Qyburn, and Lord Varys.

The most prominent deaths of the episode are of the Lannister twins, Cersei and Jaime. Many, many viewers were very disappointed that the most villainous character in the story (Cersei) was killed not by another character, but by falling rocks. It was an interesting detail that Cersei's death did follow the prophecy that "the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you." The valonqar is the younger sibling, which everyone (including Cersei) took to mean Tyrion, but in the end it was Jaime who had his hands around Cersei's throat as they were both crushed to death. Of course, ultimately it was Dany who killed them, by raking the Red Keep with so much fire that it collapsed, but it was a hollow death, since we didn't get to see any direct or indirect interaction between the two central characters.

The Lannisters' death came after Jaime had killed Euron Greyjoy, whose Iron Fleet had been completely destroyed by Drogon's fire. (Some people who watched the show were very annoyed that one episode after Rhaegal was killed by Qyburn's ballistas that suddenly the flying spears were completely unable to prevent Dany and her remaining dragon from dominating the airspace of King's Landing.) Regardless, the hand-to-hand combat between Euron and Jaime and the fact that they both were able to land fatal blows on each other was an important scene.

Meanwhile Dany was incredibly effective on Drogon, as she basically destroyed both the Iron Fleet and the Golden Company by herself, breaching the walls of King's Landing to allow her remaining troops (Dothraki and Unsullied led by Grey Worm and assembled forces of the North led by Jon Snow) to enter the city.

It's the scenes inside the city which make the episode so harrowing. Once they get inside and the defending Lannister forces realize that Dany can basically kill anyone from the sky they reluctantly surrender their weapons, but once the bells start to ring out and Dany continues her devastating fiery pillage of the city that animates Grey Worm who throws his spear directly at an unarmed Lannister killing him, that sets off the sack of King's Landing and the murder and rape of thousands of innocents. Jon slowly realizes that his attacking forces are committing horrible acts against the defensive forces and tries (unsuccessfully) to prevent the worst of the war crimes, going as far to kill a soldier from the North as he is attempting to rape a woman.

For much of the episode we (the audience) is following Arya, who tries to escape King's Landing while the two armies are battling each other and Dany is dropping dragon fire from the sky indiscriminately. Arya experiences the destruction of King's Landing from the perspective of the women and children of the city and it is terrifying, confusing and amazing. After all the important deaths (mentioned earlier) in the final scene of the episode we see Arya covered in grey ash with multiple injuries and improbably she finds a white horse nearby ready to be soothed and she uses it to ride out of the city to safety. How will she use the fact that she is alive and everyone on her kill list is dead? Only one episode left to find out!

The highlights of this episode were:
  • The best line of the episode is Lord Varys' heartfelt "I hope I deserved it. Truly, I do. I hope I'm wrong. " This is what he says right before he is executed by Drogon on Daenerys' command after Tyrion confesses to her that Varys doubts that she is the best person to sit on the Iron Throne.
  • Another important quote in the episode was also done by Varys: "They say that every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath." The implication is that 50% of Targaryen's may be insane, which is problematic when Targaryens have been in the ruling class of the Seven Kingdoms.
  • The direction by Miguel Sapochnik (who also directed the more controversial "The Long Night") was absolutely stunning.
  • The aerial shots of King's Landing as the town was being devastated by Dany and her dragon were incredible. It's even more amazing that instead of filing in Dubrovnik as usual, the producers created a brand new set in Dublin just so they could destroy it!
  • Cleganebowl!
The only lowlight of the episode was that we didn't get to see the face of Daenerys as she decimated King's Landing, thus we were provided any insight into her thought processes for killing so many people and destroying so much property after the bells rang out and (presumably) the city had surrendered. This result shocked a lot of people (not me) so hopefully we do get some kind of explanation in the series finale.

Grade: 10/10

Friday, May 17, 2019

CELEBRITY FRIDAY (BONUS): Rise, Sir Andy Murray!

Andy Murray, former World #1 and 3-time major tennis champion, finally received his knighthood from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace this week. The honour had been announced in December 2016 after Murray won Wimbledon a second time as well as a Gold Medal at the Rio Olympics and finished the year at World #1 in the rankings.

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Black Mirror Season 5 Out June 5!

The fifth season of Black Mirror is coming out in 3 weeks, on June 5th, on Netflix! The season will consist of (only) 3 episodes but will star bug names such as Miley CyrusAnthony Mackie (who will also be appearing in another Netflix show, season 2 of Altered Carbon) and Anthony Scott (from Big Little Lies and Parks and Recreation).

Thursday, May 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Fleet of Knives (Embers of War, #2) by Gareth L. Powell

Fleet of Knives is  the second book in the Embers of War trilogy, and the sequel to Embers of War. This series is clearly space opera; it features an interesting cast of characters: first is a sentient space ship called Trouble Dog with a misfit crew. The Trouble Dog's captain is Sal Konstanz, with crewmembers Alva Clay (a seasoned war veteran), Preston Menderes (the very young ship medical officer who dropped out of medical school and was assigned to the ship due to his admiral father) and Nod (an alien with faces in the palms of its six hands).

The other important character in this book is Ona Sudak, which is the alternate identity for Captain Annelida Deal who was introduced in the first book right before she began carrying out a genocidal order to incinerate a planet-straddling sentient forest in order to bring an intergalactic war to a sudden end.
In the beginning of the second book, Sudak is moments away from being executed when she is suddenly rescued because the Marble Armada wants to work with her. The Marble Armada is a fleet of one million alien ships (which resemble white knives) that were discovered at the end of Embers of War

In Fleet of Knives the Marble Armada uses Ona Sudak to help them implement their overarching mission, which they repeatedly say is to prevent humans from engaging in interstellar war again. However, this means that the fleet of knives ends up destroying lots of ships and structures that directly results in many collateral human casualties. The reason for their actions, the Fleet says, is that they are trying to prevent humanity from getting the attention of even more vicious aliens who exist in hyperspace and whom the Fleet seems afraid of.

We get introduced to a new cast of characters in Fleet of Knives after a ship called Lucy's Ghost is attacked by a curious hyperspatial creature and crash onto a huge dormant alien artifact. Unfortunately there are viciously murderous aliens that resemble crawfish that attack (and kill) multiple members of the survivors of Lucy's Ghost.

Trouble Dog is the strongest character in both books and eventually she comes face-to-face with the fleet of knives whom for some reason seem particularly interested in making sure that she is either destroyed or has her weapons deactivated.

I think I actually liked Fleet of Knives more than Embers of War even though it ends with a pretty substantial cliffhanger. The tension between the fleet of knives and Trouble Dog is also not resolved. However, I feel more invested in reading Book 3 (the still unnamed sequel to Fleet of Kniveswhen it comes out next year than I felt invested in reading Book 2 after finishing Book 1. Embers of War won the 2018 British Science Fiction Award for best novel, so it will be interesting to see the overall critical reception for Fleet of Knives, which is arguably a better book.

Title: Fleet of Knives.
Gareth L. Powell.
Paperback: 416 pages.
 Titan Books.
Date Published: February 19, 2019.
Date Read: May 9, 2019.

GOODREADS RATING: ★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (3.83/4.0).


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

TENNIS TUESDAY: Big 3 Are All Top 3; Tsitsipas Beats Nadal; Djokovic Wins Madrid; Kiki Beats Halep

The big 3 first occupied the Top 3 spots at the top of the rankings on July 9, 2007 (when Djokovic joined Nadal and Federer). Last week, Federer returned to the Top 3 where Djokovic and Nadal were holding down the two top spots. Together the three players account for an astonishing 792 weeks at #1, with Federer owning the record 310 weeks, followed by Djokovic with 251 and Nadal with 196.

The Madrid Masters ended with Rafael Nadal suffering his 3rd consecutive semifinal loss in a clay court tournament in 2019. He lost to Fabio Fognini (in straight sets) in Barcelona, to Dominic Thiem in Monte Carlo and he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid! This is the first time since 2004 that Nadal has reached this point in the season without having won a title. His last chance at a clay title will be Rome, where both World #1 Djokovic and (surprisingly!)  World #3 Federer are also playing. The key take-away from Madrid though is despite being just 20-years-old Tsitsipas already has wins over all of the members of the trivalry and is up to World #7 in the rankings. He beat Federer in the 4th round of the 2019 Australian Open, he beat Nadal in Madrid and he beat Djokovic in Montreal last summer.

Surprisingly, Kiki Bertens became the first player to ever win the Madrid Open without dropping a set when she defeated 2-time champion (2016 & 2017) Simona Halep 6-4 6-4. Bertens had lost the final last year to Petra Kvitova but she has had some of her best results in her career in the last year, including a win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon. With the biggest title of her career she becomes the highest ranked Dutch player ever, rising to World #4 this week!

For the first time this year, the person who beat Nadal on clay did not win the tournament. Less than 24 hours after beating Nadal, Tsitsipas had to face Djokovic in the final, and was fairly easily dismissed, 6-3 6-4. Djokokic had more trouble in the semifinals against Dominic Thiem, whome he defeated in two tiebreak sets despite being down a service break in both sets! With his win, the World #1 cements his place at the top of the rankings, especially considering he has won the last three major tournaments in a row and now has tied Nadal with 33 Masters shields. Federer lags behind with 28.

Roger Federer hit another career milestone by winning his 1200 match in Madrid (by coming from behind to beat Gael Monfils). After losing a tight 3-set match to Dominic Thiem (despite holding two match points) he decided to play Rome for the first time since 2016.

Monday, May 13, 2019

EYE CANDY: Nathan Mozango (reprise)

Natahan Mozango is a bodybuilder and Instagram thirst trap (@nathanmozango) who has appeared as Eye Candy only once before (May 29, 2017).

Saturday, May 11, 2019

GAME OF THRONES (S8E04) : "The Last of the Starks"

This episode begins with a funeral for all the dead who fell in the previous epic episode "The Long Night." We see all the survivors, looking sombre, about to set alight the pyres of their friends, lovers, brothers, sons, fathers, etc. However, afterwards, we see a huge feast occurring in the great hall of Winterfell, with everyone  (except Arya, who is called "the hero of Winterfell" in her absense) drinking and eating and making merry. Everyone in attendance is happy except for Dany, who notices how people seem to gravitate around her nephew/lover Jon Snow, even though an objective analysis would show that he did not acquit himself with much impact in last night's battle between the living and the dead. You can see the realization on her face that she could very well lose her claim to the Iron Throne to this guy. So she calls out Gendry Rivers, gets him to confirm in front of everyone that he is indeed Robert Barratheon's "bastard son" and declares that he is now Gendry Barratheon, Lord of Storm's End (the Barratheon homestead). It's a nice moment and everyone in the hall applauds the new Lord's good fortune. Lord Gendry, continues his search for Arya, who he finds alone, practicing her archery marksmanship. Being the silly dude he is, Gendry gets on one knee and asks Lady Arya Stark to marry him. She lets him down easy. "You will make a great Lord and you deserve to have the love of a great Lady. But I am not a lady. I never was, and I don't intend to be." Although we see the end of one couple in this episode we also see the consummation of the relationship between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, two episodes after he knighted her in "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms."

The title of this week's episode is "The Last of the Starks," presumably because of the scene with Jon, Sansa, Arya and Bran (the four surviving Stark children) meeting in the Weirwood, where Jon defies Dany (as everyone knew he would) and reveals the secret that only 4 people in the world know: his real name is Aegon Targaryen, so in fact he is not their adopted brother, he is their cousin (the son of their father's sister Lyanna Stark). Before he tells them he makes them swear not to reveal what he is about to say and then he tells Bran "tell them everything." Curiously, the reveal happens off-screen, as does the second reveal when Sansa tells Tyrion, who has come to try and convince the Lady of Winterfell to trust in his judgment that the Dragon Queen will be a just ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. "What if there were someone else?" Sansa asks him.

This cuts to the first of two pivotal scenes where Tyrion and Varys debate who should be the ruler of Seven Kingdoms that would benefit the most number of people. Tyrion, as one would expect from the Hand of the Queen, makes his case for Daenerys, while Varys, who having reached the inner corridors of power without ceding his connection to the common folk, wonders aloud if it wouldn't be better to have someone sit on the Iron Throne who has to be convinced to do it, instead of someone who believes it is their (her!) birthright. It's an interesting philosophical question which has echoes of modern day politics.

However this is a brief respite from the mayhem of the rapidly approaching battle for the Iron Throne. Many of our heroes set off by ship and Dany and her dragons are flying above them. Suddenly they are ambushed by Euron's fleet of ships and we see huge flying spears whizzing through the air, barely missing Dany on Drogon and connecting with Rhaegal in the wing. Two more spears come by and they catch the dragon in the throat, and he falls into the ocean, suddenly dead. Could Drogon and Dany be next? Happily they survive but it means that Dany is now down to one dragon. The new weapons by Qyburn not only can take dragons out of the sky, they can blast ships from several hundred feet away as well. Tyrion and Grey Worm barely survive and it turns out that Missandei is captured by Euron's company.

The inevitable showdown between Dany, Varys, Grey Worm, Tyrion outside of the walls of King's Landing as they watch Cersei, Qyburn, Euron, and a captured Missandei occurs at the very end of the episode. Even though it was very clear there was no way she would survive the situation, it was still shocking to see Mountain chop her head off as her lover watched. The look on Dany's face as she stormed away from the scene where one of her closest confidants was murdered as she mourns the death of one of her children was enough for us to know that the penultimate episode of the season (and show) next week will be the epic battle for the Iron Throne we have been waiting for since the show debuted in 2011.

The highlights of this episode were:
  • The best line of the episode (and maybe the season so far!) is Tyrion's response to Varys as they debate who they think really would be the best ruler of the Seven Kingdoms: "I don't think a cock is a true qualification." 
  • The second best line is probably Jaime's "I've never slept with a Knight before." Of course Brienne's response is "I've never slept with anyone before."
  • Most valuable player of the episode is Tyrion, who risks his life by trying to speak directly with his sister, Queen Cersei, to attempt to reach some human compassion at her core in order to try and avoid the bloodshed and horror he knows will result if the two Queens of the Realm battle for supremacy. He fails (of course), but the attempt was valiant. I was quite surprised he survived the effort. A close second would probably be Qyburn, who of course designed the new weapons which were used to devastating effect by Euron's navy to not only kill half of Dany's surviving dragons, but also obliterated a significant fraction of her existing naval power as well.
  • The love scene between Jaime and Brienne was great, because it was a payoff for a relationship that has been in existence for several seasons. However the sight of Brienne in tears, dressed only in a nightgown, begging Jaime not to give in to his "bad" side and return to his evil sister/lover was heartbreaking. 
The primary lowlight was the fact that Rhaegal was taken out of the game so abruptly and brutally. There's no question that 6 episodes is simply not enough time to wrap up a story as complex and complicated  as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.

Grade: 9/10.

Friday, May 10, 2019

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Serena Williams Slays At Met Gala (Again!)

The Met Gala happened this week (first Monday in May) and Serena Williams was one of the four hosts of the event, organized by Vogue editor (and huge tennis fan) Anna Wintour. Just like 2 years ago, Serena and her (now husband) Alexis Ohanian) rocked the red carpet. This time the 37-year-old mom and tennis phenom slayed in yellow!

Thursday, May 09, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Witchmark by C.L. Polk

Witchmark  is the first published book by C.L. Polk and is nominated for this year's Nebula award for Best Novel, which is quite an accomplishment. It is an unusual melange of various forms: romance, fantasy, murder mystery and an Edwardian story of manners. 

The central character is Christopher Miles Singer, who is a former military surgeon serving as a psychiatrist treating veterans of the war he was also in for “battle fatigue.” Miles also happens to be gay and a witch. He lives in Aeland where both of these identities are heavily stigmatized and must remain secret because even though magic is highly regarded, it can only be wielded by high-status mages. All people discovered to be witches are believed to eventually go insane and are sent off to asylums. Similarly, since Aeland is modeled after Edwardian England, the cultural expectations of men and women are centered around heteronormativity and rigid gender roles. 

The book begins with Miles being present when another witch dies (having been poisoned) and gives his soul (and associated powers) to Miles, providing him with a second "witchmark." This is the primary event which animates the plot because Miles spends the rest of the book trying to discover who killed Nick Elliott. He is assisted in this investigation by a handsome stranger, Tristan Hunter, who has secrets of his own.

Pretty early on we learn that Miles ran off to join the military to avoid his family’s expectations and plans for his future as a “Secondary” to his sister Grace, who is a mage. Apparently mages get their power from using bonded (some might say enslaved) Secondary witches as sources. The plot thickens as Miles reconnects with his family and the threads of the story begin to connect as Miles and Tristan discover links between why veterans with battle fatigue appear to be going crazy and murdering their families, what Nick Elliott discovered about witch asylums that got him killed and why Miles’ family is so keen to have him conform to their expectations that he be "seconded" to his sister.

Overall, I would say I was pleased with the gay romantic elements of the story but frustrated with the plot holes and the pacing of the story resolution (everything is revealed in a headlong rush in the last couple chapters). The primary weakness is the world-building. The reader is given lots of information (primarily through Miles’ thoughts) about the constricted cultural mores of the Aeland society and glimpses of the magic system and magical hierarchy of Witchmark’s world. But this is not done in a way that really gives the reader a fair chance to solve the mysteries of the plot and, in my case, distanced me from the book. I (sort of) care about Miles and Tristan, but do I really care that Aeland society is based on a lie and that it’s war with Laneer is so horrible that their enemies have planned a devastatingly deadly revenge? Not really.  Also, it is not really explained clearly enough (to me) why Miles is so invested in finding out who killed Nick Elliott, especially initially before his connection to a bigger conspiracy is known. I think the source of most of my nonchalance towards “Witchmark” is the Edwardian setting, which is something we have seen before many times yet is simultaneously off-putting.

RATING: 3.5 STARS, rounded up to FOUR for the degree of difficult involved in writing a gay romantic steampunk fantasy debut novel.

Title: Witchmark (Kingston Cycle, #1).
C.L. Polk.
Paperback: 318 pages.
Date Published: June 19, 2018.
Date Read: April 30, 2019.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.42/4.0).


Monday, May 06, 2019

GAME OF THRONES (S8E03): "The Long Night"

The third episode of Game of Thrones is called "The Long Night" and features the final battle between the Army of the Dead raised by the Night King and the assembled forces of humanity who have gathered around Winterfell. Speculation and anticipation before this episode was at a fever pitch and it did not disappoint in the level of drama and excitement.

The direction of this episode was very well done. The Army of the living seems huge: there's the Dothraki hordes, rows and rows of Unsullied, the assembled forces of the North, and Dany and Jon with their dragons watching from on high. We get a signal that things are not going to go well for the living when even though the Dothraki all have flaming curved swords (thanks to an assist by Melisandre!) they are routed by an enemy we can't even see.

When we finally do see the army of the dead they have overwhelming numbers and relatively quickly are able to use those numbers to breach the defenses of Winterfell, despite the clever use of fire by the good guys, both as deployed by Dany's dragons from the air and by Melisandre at important points in the battle.

Arya's fighting prowess is showed multiple times, but even she is almost killed due to the large numbers of undead wights that stream into Winterfell. Interestingly, after what seemed like the better part of an hour, one of the best sequences in "The Long Night" was when Arya was tiptoeing around a library infested with several undead creatures who suddenly appear to have superhuman sensitivity to sounds.

A quick word about Jon and Dany, who do not acquit themselves well. Dany abandons the plan of waiting for the Night King to appear and try to kill Bran once she sees the Dothraki massacred. This results in a thrilling (but also confusing) aerial dragon fight between Dany (and Jon) on Drogon and Rhaegar and the Night King on undead Viserion. She ends up putting herself (and Drogon) into mortal danger when she is stuck in the middle of the battleground after Drogon's fire appears to have no effect on the Night King despite sustained, direct application. Eventually Ser Jorah Mormont has to put forward a heroic performance to protect Dany from a multitude of wights, dying in the process.
Jon doesn't fare much better. He gets thrown from Rhaegal after a bout with the Night King atop Viserion and despite seeing two of his friends (Samwell Tarly in particular) in mortal danger, he continues forward into Winterfell to try to protect Bran and (presumably) kill the Night King. But Jon is thwarted repeatedly by the undead dragon Viserion, who is inside of Winterfell's main yard.

Of course the most important scene of the episode was the amazing (and surprising) death of the Night King at Arya's hand, who appeared to come out of nowhere, just as he was about to kill the Three-Eyed Raven (Bran) after dispatching Theon, by thrusting an obsidian dagger into him which effectively destroyed the entire army of the dead, including Viserion. Victory!

The highlights of this episode were:
  • The most memorable line of this episode was this exchange between Melisandre and Arya: "What do we say to the God of Death?" "Not today!"
  • The second best line of the episode is also Melisandre's. As she approaches Winterfell, she says: "There's no need to execute me, Ser Davos, I'll be dead before the dawn." 
  • Another memorable line is Bran's "Theon, you're a good man, thank you." This was said to Theon right before he redeems himself by charging the Night King and dying a noble death.
  • Most valuable player of the episode is of course, Arya for killing the Night King and causing the concomitant destruction of the Army of the Dead. When it happened I stared at the screen with my mouth agape and then cheered. At that point, it didn't appear that the living were going to prevail and it really seemed like everyone we know and care about on the show (Jon, Tyrion, Dany, Sansa, Brienne, Grey Worm, etc) could possibly be dead soon.
  • Another notable highlight of the episode was the way that Lady Lyanna Mormont died. Amazingly, as one of the smallest characters on the show, she was able to take out and destroy one of the biggest, an undead Giant, who she stabbed through the eye with dragonglass and then crushed her to death as it collapsed. 
The lowlights of the episode were

  •  Although I didn't have a problem with the lighting of the episode I did have difficulty at times discerning what was happening at times during the more frenetic sections of the battle scenes. I saw the episode in HBO NOW using Spectrum wifi on a Roku-connected 55" plasma TV in a darkened room.
  • What the heck was Bran (The Three-Eyed Raven) doing during the Battle for Winterfell? Warging into a raven? To what end?
  • A slight lowlight is the fact that although there were deaths, none of them were of "top line" characters. The most significant is probably Theon's, since he was an adopted member of the Stark family, but the show has made him a bigger character than he is in the books. The other characters who died are: Lyanna Mormont, Jorah Mormont, Dolorous Edd, Melisandre, Beric Donddarion and The Night King.
Grade: 10/10.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Shatter The Bones (DS Logan McRae, #7) by Stuart MacBride

I love how MacBride is constantly raising the stakes for his main character DS Logan McRae. Shatter the Bones is the seventh book in the best-selling police procedural, murder-mystery series set in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The case this time is truly insane: a mother-daughter duo who are leading a televised American Idol-style reality show are kidnapped and the public is being extorted for the ransom. To goose the pot the kidnappers are releasing videos and bits and pieces (i.e toes) of their hostages every few days. leading to wall-to-wall media coverage and general public hysteria. The pressure on the police to solve the crime and capture the perpetrators is intense.

Meanwhile Logan is making very bad decisions as he works on other cases, and that eventually ends up producing life-changing consequences for him and his current girl friend Samantha (who works in the Coroner's office) who he has only recently committed to fully.

One of the entertaining aspects of the books is that Logan is not one to follow the rules and the ways that he forges his own path while solving every case he faces is lots of fun. MacBride does a very effective job of injecting humor and near-farce into Logan's professional interactions with his nominal boss, the morally questionable DI Roberta Steel and his amusing sidekick, DC Simon Rennie. If it takes a village to solve a crime, Rennie is the village idiot. As usual with the high-profile cases Logan finds himself ensnared in,  there is someone from a rival police force who is brought in to assist Aberdeen's Finest; the professional jousting and office intrigue are a wonder to behold.

Overall, the Logan McRae mysteries are some of the most enjoyable British police procedurals in the mystery crime-thriller genre: amusing, action-packed and always very clever.

Title: Shatter The Bones.
Stuart MacBride.
Paperback: 438 pages.
Date Published: January 6, 2011.
Date Read: October 22, 2017.

★★ (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (3.67/4.0).



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