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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Reading/Watching Log #21

I made September "Finish What You Started" Month, which meant I had to track down all the book series I had started and never finished. And there were quite a few – I only made a small dent in the large pile of library books currently stacked against my dresser.
It was also time to play catch-up on the viewing side of things, with me heading all the way back to the Nineties to finally put the first season of The X-Files under my belt. I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena Warrior Princess as a kid, but this is my first introduction to Dana Scully, the third great feminist icon of that decade. It feels like I missed out on a formative experience, though the show was a bit too scary for me back in the day.
Oh, and I watched the first seasons of two shows that the entire world has been urging me to watch: The Handmaid's Tale and Stranger Things. They couldn't be more different, but now at least I can join in the conversations at the water cooler at work.
The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
The fourth book in the sequel series of the original Percy Jackson saga (got all that?) sees our collection of demigod heroes continue their quest to defeat the rising forces of Gaea. Only now they've got a tough choice to make: return a protective artefact to the place where they hope to make their stand, or rescue Percy and Annabeth from Hades, where they plummeted at the cliff-hanger end of the previous book.
I trust it's not too much of a spoiler to say the kids pick their friends over the greater good, but the journey that follows is a little formulaic. In a way Riordan bites off more than he can chew with this story; juggling seven different point-of-view characters and attempting to give each of them an arc in the scant amount of chapters afforded to each of them.
As Percy and Annabeth struggle through the dangers of Tartarus to the rendezvous spot, Jason, Piper, Leo, Frank and Hazel each get their individual challenges to face on board the Argo. Yet Riordan's trick of updating various Greek monsters/deities and setting them against his protagonists is wearing a little thin at this stage, and the solutions found to defeat them aren't quite as innovative as I remember.
As such, this felt more like a "filler" instalment than most, especially as the penultimate book in the series.
But you have to admire the man's commitment to diversity: not only are his assorted heroes Latino, Chinese-American, African-American and First Nation, but a recurring character is revealed to be gay and harbouring a secret crush on the saga's main character. None of it is self-congratulatory or preachy; these kids are simply allowed to be themselves without judgement or comment.
Year I read the previous book in series: 2015
Hidden Huntress by Danielle L. Jenson
This is the second book in what's known as the Malediction Trilogy, preceded by Stolen Songbird and followed by Warrior Witch (you have to admit, those are catchy titles). In many ways it's a typical YA offering: spunky heroine, drop-dead gorgeous prince, kingdom in crisis, assortment of friends, political intrigue with a fairy tale air – but the prose is solid and the plot has a couple of nice surprises.
Set in an unspecified time period (possibly the turn of the eighteenth century?) it deals with the conflict between human beings and a kingdom of trolls living beneath the mountain. These trolls have been trapped underground for centuries due to the curse of the witch Anushka, though in the last book they made an attempt at Loophole Abuse in the spell by marrying their prince Tristan to a human girl called Cecile (it's complicated, but their union was meant to destroy the barrier keeping the trolls entrapped).
Despite being kidnapped and forced to marry a perfect stranger, Stockholm Syndrome does its job and Cecile and Tristian soon fall in love – so much so that Tristan can't bear to see Cecile suffer, and so frees her from Trollus. Hidden Huntress opens with her back in the human world, living with her difficult mother and working as an opera singer.
But she's still under duress by the tyrannical troll king: to find and kill Anushka (thereby freeing all the trolls) or feel Tristian die painfully (they share a psychic bond). It's a pretty good predicament to explore, with no positive outcome for Cecile should she succeed or fail. Meanwhile, Tristan is attempting to mobilize his own allies in the face of mistrust and fear, hoping to outwit his father and uncle when it comes to the future of Trollus.
The YA genre having exhausted vampires, werewolves, angels, shapeshifters and even zombies as viable love interests for teenage protagonists, Jenson turns to trolls as her supernatural creatures of choice. Hilariously, the entire race is described as hideously deformed EXCEPT for Prince Tristan, who gets the inevitable "too beautiful to exist" line, and is your typical tortured YA male.
Okay, this summary is extremely snarky, when the truth is that it's a pretty good book. Cecile is a good protagonist, and the switching between her and Tristan's POVs works surprisingly well. There's a twist involving the identity of Anushka that is nicely foreshadowed, and enough moral dilemmas to elevate the material above the usual YA fare (especially compared to the ethical black hole that was Twilight, in which the heroine was perfectly okay with vampires chowing down on innocent people as long as she didn't know them).  
Year I read the previous book in series: 2014
The Youngest Templar: Orphan of Destiny by Michael P. Spradlin
Another trilogy with a protagonist called Tristan! However, this was the last book in a series that skewed towards a much younger audience, focusing on a Templar squire tasked with the responsibility of finding the Holy Grail and returning it to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. Having found the Grail's hiding place in the previous book, all that remains to him is to see it brought to safety.
A mash-up of Templar history and Robin Hood lore, Tristan is joined in his quest by Robard Hode and a young Assassin called Maryam, who are obvious stand-ins for the legendary couple. In fact, most of the story's second act involves setting up the origins of the Merry Men and their conflict with the Sheriff of Nottingham, including cameo appearances from Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck and Allan Dale.
To be honest, it's been so long since I read the previous book that it was difficult to get re-invested in Tristan's tale, and the villainous Sir Hugh doesn't make for a particularly compelling antagonist. But it's well-suited to the target audience, with plenty of attention to historic detail, an interesting take on the Robin Hood legends, and a surprisingly poignant ending.  
Year I read the previous book in series: 2010
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Like all Marvel films, I felt pretty ho-hum about this one. Don't get me wrong, they're all entertaining and funny and creative, but my world has never been rocked by any of them. In saying that, I've never been disappointed by one either – general wisdom is that Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron and Thor The Dark World are the duds, but honestly, I've enjoyed every movie to more or less the same extent. (The only really boring one is The Incredible Hulk, and the franchise mostly pretends it doesn't exist).
So this was ... fine. Pretty much what I expected, though I admire James Gunn's ability to give each of his five guardians (plus two villains, a supporting character and a brand new character) their own story-arc and character development. Peter meets his father Ego, who naturally turns out to be more sinister than first appears, while Gamora sorts things out with her sister, Rocket teams up with Yondu to overcome his mutinous crew, Drax strikes up an odd sort of rapport with Ego's servant Mantis, and Groot is the most adorable baby tree you've ever seen.
I can't say I was hugely compelled by Peter and Ego's story, as the latter's evilness is apparent from the moment he first appears (if the brief prologue with Peter's mother doesn't give it away, Mantis's body language whenever she's near him will) and I'm still not sold on Peter/Gamora as a couple – though to be fair, none of the ships in the Marvel Universe really interest me. They still haven't kissed yet, so it's a slow burn as far as movie franchises go, but it's still a by-the-numbers girl/boy hook-up that's deeply reminiscent of Crichton/Aeryn without Aeryn's gradual de-brainwashing.
That said, I loved that her arc was mostly to do with her sister Nebula, who became a much more interesting character this time around. Dare hope the two of them will play a pivotal role in Infinity Wars given their inside knowledge of Thanos?
One last thing: there's been plenty of discussion over the Running Gag that Drax finds Mantis physically unattractive and isn't afraid to say so. I'm not sure how I feel about it: I get the joke (it's funny cos she's gorgeous) and Dave Bautista's delivery is often hilarious, but the fact that Mantis is such a naïve innocent makes it a little cruel at times. And when she wakes him up in a panic and he assumes she's after sex and starts retching – come on, there's such a thing as taking a joke too far!
As long as they never hook up in the future (which doesn't seem likely since at one point he compares her to his daughter) I'm not going to overthink it too much.
The X-Files: Season 1 (1996)
Yes, I finally did it: I watched the first season of The X-Files for the very first time. The show was such a phenomenon back in the Nineties, but despite seeing a few glimpses of it here and there (my dad watched it) it was considered too scary for me. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized the cultural impact it had, not only in the Scully Factor (more women entering STEM fields), but the emergence of the "supernatural procedural" genre and the portrayal of male/female teams across fiction.
These days it seems a cliché to have the male character as emotive and intuitive whilst the woman is rational and logical (just off the top of my head: the duo in Bones) so it's easy to forget that such a pairing was an innovation in 1993.
More than that, the alternating between Monster of the Week episodes and a convoluted Myth Arc created a template that is now commonplace – not to mention all those one-off storylines that would go on to be recycled in everything from Supernatural to Sleepy Hollow to Charmed. While watching it I had to keep reminding myself that this was the show that did it all first: the parasitical insect episode, the Native American werewolf episode, the creepy Mormons/Amish/Evangelicals episode, the creepy possessed child episode, the ongoing government conspiracy episode – it all started here.
And it's amazing the amount of familiar faces that show up – albeit twenty years younger: Seth Green (Oz!) Susanna Thompson (Moira Queen!) Donal Logue (Harvey Bullock!) Felicity Huffman (Lynette Scavo!) Brad Dourif (Wormtongue!) and Mark Sheppard (this guy has been in everything, from Supernatural to Warehouse 13 to Firefly).
It's fascinating to watch the show move from intriguing-but-average to its first good episode (Ice) to its first great episode (Beyond the Sea) and though there are a few wince-able aspects by today's standards (a transgender villain, the cliché portrayal of First Nation people), the showrunners certainly caught lightning in a bottle when it came to the chemistry between Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny – even if their acting is oddly stilted to start with.
I've been warned not to get too involved in the Myth Arc, knowing that there was never any grand plan to wrap it up satisfactorily, but I'm oddly excited to be at the beginning of this journey, even knowing that I'm nearly twenty years overdue.
Cleverman: Season 2 (2017)
I feel bad about admitting this, but I watched the second season of Cleverman more out of a sense of duty than enjoyment. Set in the not-too-distant future of Australia, it mingles sci-fi with a typical Chosen One narrative and the mythology of the country's Indigenous people. Living among ordinary humans are those known as Hairies: a long-lived and super-strong species, easily identifiable by their excessive facial and bodily hair. They're the mutants of this particular story: hated and feared by the general population and struggling to live out their lives in the face of overwhelming prejudice.
That they're a fantastical version of the Aboriginal people is unmistakable, though they don't preclude the existence of actual Aboriginal people in the story. Our main character is Koen West, a mixed-race young man who inherits the mantle of the Cleverman – a leader, a conduit and a superhero of sorts, imbued with the power of accelerated healing, shape-shifting and insight into the past and future. His arc takes him from feckless youth to wise leader, learning to harness his abilities and use them in defence of the Hairy people.
He's up against the hate and fear of society, embodied by two individuals in particular: Jarred Slade, who wants to exploit the DNA of Hairies and cultural history of the Aboriginals for his own scientific discoveries, and Waruu West, Koen's half-brother who once fought for the rights of the above-mentioned, only to be swayed by his own ambition and resentment. Cue the cultural genocide, eugenics experiments, forced integration, menial labour, and ultra-violent SWAT teams.
It's an original setup, if not in fundamentals then in details. Nothing like this has ever come out of Australia before (at least as far as I know) and it has plenty to say about the issues it raises. The problem is that it's just not that compelling. Despite being only six episodes long, very little seems to happen, it has no idea what to do with its female characters, and even though it's managed to land some impressive actors, the characters aren't particularly interesting. (Even the show itself seems uninterested in them, given the tendency to kill so many of them off-screen).
But perhaps I'm just mentally exhausted by the subject matter. There's so much relentless suffering on display, so much violence and despair, so little in the way of hope or compassion (Koen has no long-term plan to secure the Hairies' rights; he just roams the streets like a super-powered vigilante). Such things are on the news every night – given I also watched The Handmaid's Tale this month, I feel I've reached my capacity to absorb it all.
Stranger Things: Season 1 (2017)
After so much buzz from critics, fandom and my sister, I finally watched the eight episodes of Stranger Things. And ... it was a little overhyped. Don't get me wrong, it was well made, well-acted, and a delightful love letter to the Eighties (especially Stephens King and Spielberg) but my mind wasn't totally blown by anything it had to offer.
Very much like a combination of E.T. and The Goonies – and probably a dozen other films I haven't seen – the story centres on a group of boys (that may as well be called the Losers Club) who lose one of their own in strange circumstances, and just as quickly gain a new member: a girl with a shaved head and a tattoo that identifies her as Eleven.
In trying to find their friend Will they utilize Eleven's incredible telekinetic powers, though subplots involving the town sheriff, the older siblings of the pre-teens, and the shadowy government agents hunting Eleven gradually begin to merge.
Like I said, there's nothing hugely innovative in its tale of government conspiracies, shadowy monsters and meddling kids who can't separate their petty jealousies and rivalries from whatever life-or-death situation they find themselves in, but there's a refreshing depth to the characters I wasn't expecting – it's not to the same extent as The Handmaid's Tale, but the villains get moments of humanity and the heroes make some selfish mistakes (Jonathan takes some unsolicited photographs of a pervy nature, Nancy is indirectly responsible for her friend's death, the younger boys are constantly squabbling...)
It's obviously heavy on nostalgia, with deliberate focus on the fashion, technology and pop-culture of the decade, and my fuzzy memories of the era can definitely vouch for the colour palette: everything a hideous shade of brown, orange, cream or puke green. Oh, and Winona Ryder, poster child for the Eighties. Bless her, she's like Nicolas Cage in that she hopelessly overacts, yet does it with so much conviction that you're happy to just go with it.
The Handmaid's Tale: Season 1 (2017)
Well that was depressing. Also riveting, making this one of those shows you don't regret watching, but which leaves you in a grim state of mind. I suspect even those who haven't read Margaret Atwood's 1986 novel knows the premise: after a fertility crisis decimates the population (in North America at least – more on this later), the country's remaining child-bearing women are rounded up, sent to a re-education facility, and distributed among the homes of the elite as "handmaids."
Garbed in red gowns with Puritan-style headdresses, the patriarch of the house attempts to impregnate his handmaid every month in what's known as the Ceremony. It's rape dressed up in religious doctrine and civic duty, with severe punishment dished out if a handmaid doesn't comply.
The most chilling thing is that everything in the novel has historical precedence, from the clothing to the punishments to the religious justification. It doesn't make for particularly cheerful reading, though it's hard not to get engrossed.
The biggest difference between the book and the television show is naturally one of perspective: the strength of the text is in Offred's limited point-of-view: told in first person narrative, we know only what she knows – and she knows virtually nothing. Who can she trust? What's happening in the outside world? She has no idea. 

Like Sansa Stark in the early seasons of Game of Thrones, she can make no decisive moves of her own; only use docility, obedience, and the value placed on her own body to maintain simple survival – even her ambiguous rescue at the end of the novel is entirely outside her control. Though this all makes her an extremely passive protagonist – one worn down by fear and suspicion – Atwood is such a master writer that even long stretches of Offred's mind-numbing boredom and paranoia are made suspenseful.
So from a very narrow perspective, in which only snatches of information reach Offred (much of which is questionable, contradicted, or not much use anyway) the series expands and explores the world, adding context and detail, and making the audience privy to things that Offred is not. This is no doubt extremely gratifying to fans of the book that have waited thirty-two years for answers on the fate of characters like Luke and Moira, on how and why Gilead was formed, on what's going on across the rest of the world – even Offred's true name: June Osbourne.
But it turns out to be a double-edged sword. Naturally I appreciated a fuller, more in-depth look at Gilead, though oftentimes the show makes a few clumsy mistakes. This time around, the fertility crisis seems to be world-wide (or at least in Mexico) instead of just America, leading to a trade deal between Mexico and Gilead: resources for handmaids. But unless there are more handmaids than the three dozen or so seen on-screen, would Gilead really give up their most precious commodity?
There are also some questionable rules at the Red Centre: Janine loses an eye for backtalk, but June only gets her feet whipped when she's recaptured after an escape attempt. Why the disparity in punishment? It's also extremely strange that Gilead would opt to execute Janine given she still has a viable womb – or how the Aunts could possibly imagine the rest of the maids would turn on one of their own after giving them matching clothes and a traumatic bonding experience.
So naturally the show is at its best when it skews closer to the book, covering most of its content and highlighting the cruelty and hypocrisy that lies at the heart of any totalitarian government. That said, it manages to brings some nuance and even a little sympathy to almost all the characters: Fred Waterford is a vile hypocrite who clearly enjoys the power he has over the women of his household, but in flashbacks you can see the journey he takes from an ordinary guy to a sleazy power-tripper (and late in the game, his is the voice that gets Offred where she needs to be to save a life).
Serena Joy is neither serene nor joyful, and it's fascinating to watch the grim resignation in her face each time she's reminded of the part she played in building a world that prevents her from doing what she loves – only for any sympathy to be obliterated when she crosses a line in her obsession to be a mother. And her single-mindedness makes sense: motherhood is the reason she gave up everything else that gave her life meaning.
Even Aunt Lydia (perhaps the only true believer in Gilead) who heaps unspeakable cruelty onto the young women she's prepping for sex-slavery, can occasionally demonstrate kindness ... though this naturally makes her evil all the more chilling. It's the humanity of our villains that make them so terrifying – a reminder that evil isn't done by demons or devils, but ordinary people.
Finally, there's the race issue. I'm not going to go too deeply into this subject, as I don't feel qualified to do anything but point it out, but it's worth saying that Atwood's novel was populated entirely by white characters. This may have been because she (like me) felt under-qualified to explore the subject, but there is a clear indication in the book that a. the fertility crisis only affected white people, and b. whatever torment the white handmaids had to endure, it was even worse for black women.
The show on the other hand takes place in a post-racial society, for even though there is rampant misogyny and homophobia, all the characters act completely colour-blind, with black children and handmaids considered just as valuable as white ones, and Moira able to disguise herself as an Aunt escorting a white handmaid through the streets without batting an eye. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of this decision, and I've noticed more than a few comments arguing that it's a false note in an otherwise tight depiction of what Gilead hierarchy would be like.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Of all the despicable characters on display throughout the show, it's naturally Luke – the decent but hapless (and in light of the above comments, black) husband of June – that gets the most criticism on the message boards. Oh fandom, you never disappoint me in how disappointing you are.
That said, the true love story of the piece is between June and Moira, undoubtedly the emotional centre of the show that gives us some of its most powerful scenes. That June gives Moira back some of her fighting spirit, after Moira provided the inspiration for June to do the same for so long, provides perhaps the first glimmer of light in what has been relentless darkness up till this point.
The horrid Putnams are surely named after the equally horrid family in The Crucible. Nice touch.
Perhaps my favourite line, the one that encapsulates the show in its entirety, is when Aunt Lydia is instructing the girls to take a stone from a pile that'll be used to kill one of their own: "don’t be picky, just take one!" Along with the imperious delivery, the line brilliantly captures the infantilization of the women and the horrifying normalization of the horror they're about to inflict. More than anything, these are the things Atwood's tale is warning us against.

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