Thoughts on “The Terror” by Dan Simmons

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD TO SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. 

The Terror and her flagship, Erebus, are stranded in the arctic.

Their food source is contaminated.

Sickness is rampant.

Their ships have been ravaged by ice.

And no rescue is expected.

…….Oh, and, also, there’s an immortal polar bear demon that can only be appeased by allowing it or someone else to play another human’s vocal cords like a flute.

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What I liked: 

The characters. I thought Simmons did a pretty stellar job distinguishing between each crew member which is saying quite a bit considering how many characters there are in this thing. As someone who often struggles with remembering who is who in most stories (another reason why I have yet to actually read the Game of Thrones series) his repetition when describing each character and their physical features and rank was very much appreciated. While many other characters could have used a bit more development, I believe he did a good job of making them come alive, especially Crozier, the Captain of The Terror and Erebus‘s Goodsir, the anatomist who remains one of my favorite characters.

The attention to detail. It’s obvious that Simmons did a lot of research with this piece from boat geography, to describing an arctic landscape without just using the word “ice” over and over again, to the ranking system. It’s impressive to read. You actually feel like you’re there, freezing along with them. Before reading this book I had no idea how awful scurvy really is, not to mention the other illnesses the crew had to suffer through. And make no mistake, this book does not skimp out on the gross details or give the dying any sort of dignity. It reports on how they crapped themselves, screamed, bled and farted. While this can be tedious to read it does a fantastic job of conveying the pure hopelessness of their situation which made this piece all the more engrossing.

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Historically accurate attitudes. While it is a bit cringy reading bits where characters go on racist or homophobic diatribes, at the very least I can say that it is historically accurate for that time period and I’m glad Simmons didn’t try to politically correct the characters in order to make them more sympathetic or likable.

Crozier’s second sight. While I didn’t think all of his visions were strictly necessary I loved the reoccurring dream he had where he is forced to partake in communion with his eccentric grandmother. It painted a perfect picture of what was to come and provided the audience with beautifully creepy imagery.

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The surprise ending. I admit I nearly quit reading this book because of the sheer hopelessness of it all. I knew that it real life none of the crewmen survived so watching them furtively cling to life in what essentially would be an exercise in futility seemed like a chore. However, I didn’t give Simmons nearly enough credit and he ended things on a note I had not expected.  Turns out my favorite character, Captain Crozier, survived after all and made a family amongst the natives.

What I didn’t like: 

It’s too damn long. I’m not opposed to slow burns, but this book went on waaaaaay longer than it needed to. I, personally, think they could have cut out maybe 100 to 200 pages or so and it would have been just fine. I actually thought about giving up on this book just because it was such an uphill climb.

Not enough monster. At a certain point in the books, after the crews decided to abandon their ships and go it alone, the monster attacks just…stop basically. And for no discernible reason. I guess it’s because the story would be over with too quickly? I’m not sure but it’s absence is sorely missed and hard to explain. In fact the monster more often than not appears as a sort of McGuffin. If you look at the story itself you wonder if the book even needs a monster at all. It’s not as if the crew didn’t have enough problems already. I mentioned the starvation, the intolerable atmosphere and the spread of illness. Then again, I did like the creature and the mythos surrounding it so I guess I can excuse it.

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Some of the character perspectives are pointless. Not many of them, you understand, but I’m still trying to figure out where Simmons was going for when he wrote the part where one of the oldest shiphand was talking to a former lover of his about the chances of rescue and Darwin and whatnot. It wasn’t a badly written scene or anything, I just don’t see why it needed to be there. Especially when neither of the characters present for that scene had that much of a part to play in the grand scheme of things.

Overall opinion: 

So, in spite of this book’s foibles, I did enjoy it quite a bit and even consider it one of my favorites now. I’m hoping to sample more of Simmons’ work in the future and hope his other pieces are just as entertaining as this one.

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Once Upon A Time: How The Dark Curse Made Everyone’s Lives Better

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR ABC’S ONCE UPON A TIME. 

Ah…Once Upon a Time….a show once so wondrous and imaginative now a collection of overused tropes and timeline retcons.

I remember back in the day when I was first introduced to this show and how much I enjoyed the colorful characters, the intriguing plot lines, and the level of heart that went into the making of this show.

However, now that I look back on it there is something that wasn’t quite right with the premise from the off.

For those of you who don’t know, Once Upon A Time is about story-book characters who are ripped from the pages of their fairytales by the Evil Queen from Snow White and placed into “our world” where they live in complete obliviousness as to whom they used to be. Only the world-weary daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming can break the curse and restore everyone’s memories.

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Now, it’s an interesting concept and, arguably, season 1 has the best plot. However, there is one issue with it that has bugged me about it for years: The curse itself.

Taking into account nobody remembers their past triumphs this seems like a good curse, right? Regina is large and in charge with everyone under her thumb and the Charmings are kept apart.

This was totally a good plan, wasn’t it?

Uh…..no…..not really.

Here’s the thing: While Regina took away a lot of things, she gave them so much more.

1. The townsfolk now have access to modern medicine. From what little we’ve seen of The Enchanted Forest, it seems like they were mostly dependent upon shamans and midwives for their healthcare. Sure, some of the higher-born characters likely had physicians to attend to them but the peasants would have appealed to someone like Rumplestiltskin to end their suffering, and, as the imp is fond of saying “magic always comes with a price.” Even if he did end their woes temporarily it is very likely it would come at the cost of something (or someone) very valuable to them.

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Without the curse many townsfolk would have died in childbirth or any other illness but now that they live in a modern world with a fully-operational hospital that likelihood has been drastically reduced. Thanks, Regina.

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2. Electricity and other modern appliances. No more chopping down firewood in the dead of winter or broiling in the summer heat. I can’t even imagine how many house fires have been avoided because of the lack of unattended candles or poorly doused furnaces.

Electricity allows for so much like communication, entertainment that doesn’t involve watching people being executed, and much faster methods of producing food.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Activities that used to take people weeks to do now take a matter of hours or even minutes. They now have machines that do the clothes washing for them. They have horseless carriages to tote them around. They have leisure time which, back in the middle ages, was considered unheard of.

Also, indoor plumbing.

Need I say more?

3. Access to supermarkets and fresh food. Hunting can result in a lot of deaths. Back in the day you often ran the risk of becoming lost, being shot by an errant arrow, or even being gored by the very creature you were hoping to make your prey. However, thanks to Regina, the townsfolk no longer have to concern themselves with this. Now they can simply go to the store and purchase it at a reasonable price. As an added bonus, they no longer have to worry about famine or plague destroying their crops which would have lead to their deaths in The Enchanted Forest.

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4. They have free public education. There’s no question that public education has it’s foibles, but just consider how much of a boon it is for society. It’s difficult for us to comprehend now, but there was a time when more than half of the population couldn’t even read and that was considered the norm. Without Regina’s curse, most of these people probably wouldn’t have had anything more than a first grade education, if that. Most of them would have been relegated to working on the farm/mill/shop until the day they dropped with no hope of bettering their circumstances without the aid of magic.

That brings us to our final point.

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5. No more magic. Emma can attest to the fact that the world is a hard and painful place even without spells or cantrips. However, once you add magic into the equation, the amount of suffering you can put someone through is limited only by your imagination. Ruby murdered her own boyfriend as a result of her magical condition that turns her into a werewolf, Geppetto’s parents were turned into puppets, Ursula had her singing voice taken away, Merlin was stuck as a tree for hundreds of years, and these are only a handful of examples. Magic seems to be the main cause of strife for many of our protagonists and Regina essentially “trapped” them in a world without it. How is that bad for anyone besides Regina?

I know some people may argue that Regina made them forget their loved ones, which is obviously a bad thing, but here’s the issue: they didn’t know they had forgotten them. It’s like torturing someone but then having them drink a memory potion to forget what they have been through. What is the point?

She didn’t curse them.

She gave them 1st world problems.

Honestly, I could go on and on about all the benefits that come with living in a modern society, nevertheless, I think I’ve made my point.

Regina is officially the unsung hero of Once Upon A Time and may have saved everyone’s lives long before she made the journey to the good side.

So bow down, peasants, before your true Savior.

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And don’t forget to eat your apples.

Thoughts on “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK OUTLANDER AHEAD.

Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a long review. Then again this was a long book, so what do you expect?

What I liked: 

The great characters. I didn’t always like Claire, but she always felt like a person and not just a vassal through which the author could carry out the story. Everyone had an interesting backstory and their own distinct personality, which really helped me get into the spirit of the novel. The dialogue was very personalized as well and I was impressed at how each character was able to give lengthy exposition without it sounding too unnatural. I also found that, despite the Game of Thrones level number of characters, it was easy enough to remember who each one of them were because of how unique Gabaldon made them.

The immersive environment. It’s very easy for a reader to lose themselves in this book. The way Gabaldon is able to describe the lay of the land is impressive and I never had any difficulty wondering where exactly these people were or what the environment looked like. What I can appreciate is the environment isn’t just a backdrop, it’s engrained into the story itself.

Sexy times for all. While the romance between Jamie and Claire may have been a bit rushed, what with Claire still having a husband back home, I believe the chemistry between these two is strong. The fact that they’re both well-developed characters helps me care more about their relationship and I think Gabaldon writes sex pretty well. She doesn’t explain so little that you can’t tell what’s happening, but she also doesn’t explain so much that it comes across as mechanical and weird.

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The historical accuracy. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and as someone who has tried to write historical fiction with mixed results, I can really appreciate her efforts. The details she put into this really help the story come alive, especially when she writes about the environment and costumes people wear. She also doesn’t shy away from describing the abominable odors that persist in these types of places back in the 18th century. I was doubly impressed when she went into details about which herbs to use for healing and how to describe how someone would properly attend a wounded man back in those days.

What I didn’t like: 

The focus was all over the place. I don’t think I would be out of line for saying that this book is by and large plotless. While there are many obstacles that the lead characters run into, there is no centralized conflict. For the most part, the structure of the story is “this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened.” It didn’t ever seem to be leading up to anything. On the one hand it left me guessing as to what would be the final outcome of the story, but on the other hand it made me wonder just what the point of all of this was. This is a shame because there were so many points of interest such as Claire missing the modern world, Jamie’s outlaw status and, I think most importantly, the inevitable doom that is to befall the Highlanders.

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Claire’s unrealistic reactions to killing. The book makes it clear on several occasions that Claire is accustomed to seeing people dying because of her position as a nurse during the War. However, I’d like to point out that there is a huge difference between watching someone dying and actively participating in their murder. In my humble opinion, Claire’s reaction to having murdered someone is disturbingly understated. Granted the person she murdered was trying to sexually assault her, taking a life is an unnatural act and a psychologically stable person would be horrified at having to do so. Especially one who swore an oath to always preserve life in any way she can. I thought they would explore this more after she was forced to murder a 16 year-old in order to save Jamie, but even then she doesn’t seem to feel that guilty about it. What makes this even more difficult for me to swallow is that this boy really didn’t do anything wrong. He was just a young lad who was trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He just happened to be on the wrong side.

It went on for too long. I think much of this can be attributed to the fact that this book lacked a plot so the author just went along with the story until she felt like stopping. While I enjoyed this book, most of this story didn’t actually need to happen in the grand scheme of things and I’m actually shocked at what they left out. For instance, the final battle to collect Jamie from the infamous Scottish prison….happens off screen…….

We spent pages and pages talking about Claire fighting a wolf (a conflict that I don’t believe even needed to exist since it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot), but when it comes to the climax, the great escape, the novel’s main villain dying….it happens off screen…….

There was no reason to cut that part out. There were so many other pointless scenes that could have been scrapped. They did not need to cut the one part that needed to be in there.

I admit, I’ve gone into this fandom totally blind so perhaps Black Jack comes back with a cyborg eye and there will be a real show-down. I don’t know. I’m just judging this book by its own merits.

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What the hell is up with Chapter 39? So the scene where Claire tries to save Jamie’s life after his torture at the hands of Randall while they’re at the monastery….Can anyone tell me what happened in that scene? I think she was trying to rekindle his will to live but…that should not have worked. Mind you, I only have a passing knowledge of psychology when it comes to PTSD related events, but I’m pretty sure forcing a patient to relive a traumatic event literally days after it happened in an uncontrolled environment would not result in a sudden miraculous turn-around in their mental behavior. Particularly when they are at death’s door to begin with. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that should have made him keel over.

Jamie’s torture. I’m gonna be honest, I thought it was overkill. The extent of his injuries and psychological torture should have left him a completely unresponsive husk of a man or dead. At least if this had stayed as true to life as it had been before. One of the most interesting aspects of his torture was left, for the most part, unexplored. While recounting the horror he faced while against Randall, he lets slip that the sight of Claire makes him ill because Randall basically conditioned him so every time he thought about Claire he would either be beaten or worse. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the whole book, he tearfully explains that he doesn’t want to see her again because just her being there reawakens all of these awful memories.

Me:

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Wow. That is dark. More than dark, that’s completely and utterly heart-wrenching.

Aaaaaaand after Claire’s Most Awful Idea Ever, he’s totally fixed and ready for some bairn-making.

Ummm……

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There’s no reason why this should have worked. You can’t just undo classical conditioning.

Mrs. Gabaldon, you seem like a smart lady and all, but I don’t think you understand how psychology works. Sadly, once a mind is screwed up that badly, the damage is usually permanent. If not, it takes a looooong time for an individual to overcome it.

I think that Jamie’s aversion to Claire would have made an excellent jumping off point for the next novel and would justify a book of equal length, especially if she found out during this debacle that she was pregnant with his child. Not only would Claire have to deal with the impending slaughter of the Highlanders and the Dragoons looking for Jamie, she would also have to confront the possibility of raising a child in a foreign country in the past alone. That’s more than enough conflict for a book, in my opinion. But instead we get a miraculous recovery from Jamie and they all live happily ever after. At least for now.

Overall opinion: 

I enjoyed reading this novel and I’m more than a little interested in reading the next installment. However, I also believe this book could have been so much better if some things were cut and if the story had been given more focus. It was interesting just watching them go about their daily lives, but I think actually giving it a plot would have raised the stakes a considerable amount.

Why I’m Disappointed By Neil Gaiman’s “Trigger Warning”

Perhaps I’m just whingeing over semantics here, but I had to get this off my chest.

When I purchased the audiobook for Neil Gaiman’s book on short stories I was very excited. Not only am I a fan of Gaiman’s writing, I am also a big fan of his narration. His dulcet tones and faint English accent make him a perfect narrator.

I was preparing myself for another boring day of organizing charts upstairs at the dermatology clinic where I worked and I needed something to listen to in order to keep the monotony from reducing my brain to yogurt.

So I placed the charts on a table, plugged in my earbuds, and I began to listen.

Gaiman gave a perfect introduction into this collection, explaining how he’d come to discover the term “trigger warning.” He conceded that, while trigger warnings may be well intentioned, sometimes we need to read things that make us uncomfortable, that force us to ponder imponderable things, see the world in darker hues.

He warned us readers (or listeners in this case) that what we were about to read would likely disturb us.

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I listened for several hours, nearly finishing the book in it’s entirety during a single shift. It was interesting, imaginative, captivating, visceral, everything a book should be. However, there is one thing that it was not: triggering.

I loved the stories, loved the narration, but I kept listening with a growing sense of expectation. Is this the story that’s going to trigger me? Is this the story that’s going to challenge my preconceptions about life and put me on a 2001: A Space Odyssey styled journey to self-discovery?

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The answer to that would be a nope.

Again, I loved the stories, in fact I consider this the best short-story collection I’ve ever read.

But with a title like Trigger Warning you expect something a little more…triggering. That’s not to say they weren’t disturbing. There are stories with murder, revenge, cannibalism, monsters, stalking, etc. They’re horrifying and dark with lovely twists and turns, but nothing I wasn’t expecting from something written by Gaiman.

And they were not what I was advertised.

Now, it’s not Gaiman’s responsibility to make sure that I, specifically, have all of my desires met. He is perfectly entitled to write what he wants and I believe he he does an excellent job of it.

However, let me explain why I was a bit disappointed.

There has, I think, been a shortage of books and stories in recent years that truly push the envelope. Books and stories that challenge ideas and behaviors that we see routinely in our day-to-day lives.

In our new easily-offended world there are any number of taboo subjects that deserve to be explored, but it would seem as if  no one has the nerve to tackle them in a literary capacity in a long while, lest someone get their grandma panties in a wad.

I was hoping that Gaiman, in his uniquely stylized way, would touch upon such subjects or, at least, ignore the restraints that these perpetually offended people insist writers use. Nonetheless, there wasn’t much in his book that would truly “trigger” someone, provided that person doesn’t live in a perpetual state of duress.

I just wanted something a little more challenging. I wanted Gaiman to approach the likes of Lovecraft or King and throw down the gauntlet, saying, “No, gentlemen, this is scary.”

I’ve read a handful of the Sandman comics, I know what he’s capable of.

I only wish he’d gone balls-to-the-walls the way he did with that series.

Or Coraline.

Now that would have been truly triggering.

The Short Guide to World-Building for Noobs

For some people creating new worlds is easy. For others it’s a bit more difficult. Here are a few things I’ve learned from experience:

Write more information about this world than you will use in the story. 

Get out a notebook and write down as much about this world as you can: the landscapes, the history, the language, the climate, the people, everything you can think of. However, keep in mind that most of what you are creating will not make it into the finished product. People don’t like being bogged down by too much information. Nonetheless, it’s important that you have this background information so that it feels more organic. You don’t want the reader to feel as if you’re making it up as you go along.

Remember where you live affects who you are as a person. 

Regardless of how you may dislike where you live or the customs you grew up with, it’s undeniable that where you are born affects your view of the world. The same should be said of your characters. For instance, people who live in less forgiving climates tend to be tougher than people that don’t. Think about your character and how their environment shaped their personality. Did it embolden them? Make them fearful? What side of the mountain they came from can make a difference in their development.

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Travel. 

Exploring new lands, tasting new food, and mingling with strangers is the best way to get your creative energies flowing. This is especially true when it comes to world-building. Traveling can broaden your horizons and inspire you to create new worlds that may nor may not resemble this one. You can look up photographs on the internet about certain landmarks, but it’s no substitute for being there yourself.

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Read about other cultures. 

This doesn’t mean you should directly or disrespectfully rip off of other cultures and their beliefs. However, exposure to new ideas (or at least ideas that are new to you) can inspire you to create your own. Study different religions and sciences. Read short story collections from other countries. Do as much research as you can about different environments.

Good luck!

Are Fairytale Reimaginings Becoming Unimaginative?

If you have perused a YA section of a bookstore in the last three years, then you’ve likely come across the cover of a fairytale reimagining.

Perhaps one book tells the story of Cinderella, a valiant warrior, who loses her magical boot in the middle of a battle and an infatuated warlord must return it to her. Or maybe another centers around a wolf-hunter named Red who falls in love with a werewolf that killed her father, the huntsman.

Regardless, I once thought reimagining fairytales was a creative thing to do.

I loved Wicked in my tween and teen years and all the interesting questions it posed about how history can be biased towards the victor.

But it seems like there’s been an overload of “new” fairy tales in the last few years and it’s made me question if most of them are even truly necessary.

Are most of these books actually trying to improve upon or modernize great stories, or are they just using fairytale references as a crutch to make a quick buck because they don’t think these novels could stand on their own?

In truth, it depends on the book.

If there are nods to the classics here and there, it’s tolerable. However, if it follows the exact same path as it’s predecessor, just with more feminism and modern sensibilities, then it becomes predictable and a drudgery to get through.

Because we already know what’s going to happen. 

I think the creative drought in pop culture also feeds into this crisis. The publishing and film industry are so paranoid about losing money that they are just rehashing stories that they know work. Fairytales have been around for centuries so, in theory, stories that feature classic characters should turn a profit.

I’m not saying we should completely do away with reimaginings. Maybe we could just take a break from them for a decade or so and come back to them later.

Perhaps writers could create their own warrior princesses that have absolutely nothing to do with any previous fairytale.The princess could have a sentient sword or a best friend that was turned into a battle stallion or something. Maybe she could fight her wicked stepfather for a change.

That’d be cool, right?

Could someone get on that?