So I only finished five things this month. Five things. That's terrible! In my defence I've been reading/watching a lot more than this, I just didn't manage to finish any of them in August. In any case: one good book, one bad book, the conclusion of a great show, the middle of an entertaining one, and the penultimate offering of a frustrating one.
The Diviners by Libba Bray
Libba Bray is best known for her Gemma Doyle trilogy (starting with A Great and Terrible Beauty) and though I haven't read my copies yet, I've been under the impression that they're a fairly lightweight YA fantasy/girl's boarding school adventure. Having read The Diviners, I may have to rethink that assumption.
The Diviners is a surprisingly macabre book, being larger in scope and darker in content than I anticipated. Set in 1920s New York, there's a serial killer on the loose who's murdering his victims in particularly gruesome ways. The reader gets up close and personal with the victims, as Bray ensures that each one is humanized before they die screaming. Sounds like fun, right?
It's therefore almost a bit jarring that our protagonist Evie O'Neill is a vivacious teenager (so vivacious that she teeters on the edge of obnoxiousness) who comes to New York in search of jazz, booze and dance halls. Okay, technically she's sent there in disgrace by her parents after she embarrasses them in public, but she's delighted to be in the Big Apple, even if it means staying with her uncle in the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult.
As the museum's curator, it's only a matter of time before Evie's uncle is called to assist in the murder investigation – and Evie isn't far behind. She possesses the ability to divine people's secrets by handling their personal belongings, and after getting too close to some of the victims, she's hit with insight as to who murdered them...
But threaded throughout this central narrative are several subplots involving a whole range of different characters, most of whom are diviners themselves. As the story continues they're gradually drawn together, and the thickness of the book is a testimony to their interconnectedness. The next book in the trilogy is bound to fulfil the potential of them pooling together their individual talents for the greater good, and I'm here for it.
Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright
Every now and then there's a Tumblr post that mocks the specific shortcomings of male writers, and though I got a laugh out of them, a part of me always thought they were a little exaggerated. I mean, could anyone really be that bad at writing women? Then I read this book, and yup – they can.
I picked it up at some second-hand book sale or other, no doubt thinking it would be a biography or fictional account of King Richard I. Instead it was a novel about a man called Richard (named for the famous king) who follows a paper trail of clues involving Templar Knights transporting the True Cross (or at least what they think was the True Cross) from the Holy Land to Europe.
Again, that doesn't sound so bad. But along the way Richard is helped or hindered by an array of female characters. He sleeps with most of them, even though they're emotionally unhinged basket-cases. We're told with relish how they cheat on their partners, throw themselves at our protagonist, and get drop-kicked by karma when their decisions bite them in the ass.
That's not even going into the fate of his fiancée (yes, he has a fiancée while he's sleeping with all these other women) an investigative journalist who goes undercover, gets gang-raped, and eventually commits suicide after finding out she and Richard are actually half-siblings. Seriously, I'm not making this up. It's so ridiculous it's almost comical.
So much time is spent on these women, none of whom has anything to do with Richard's investigation into the True Cross, that it's hard not to think the author isn't projecting some of his own women-issues onto the text.
The Clone Wars: Season 6 (2014)
The sixth season of The Clone Wars, which filled in the gaps between Episodes II and III, vastly improving on the source material as it did so, was also its final one. I don't have a huge hate-on for the prequels the way most do, but I'm still acutely aware of the problems inherent in those films, not to mention the terrible waste of potential. Where The Clone Wars excels is in taking the good ideas and concepts only hinted at in George Lucas's films and fleshing them out over the course of several mini-arcs.
It's a truncated season due to the fact Disney had just taken control of Star Wars and was quick to put a stop to projects outside their control (or something like that, I didn't look up the details) and a couple of the episodes are negligible placeholders, but on the whole the show manages to squeeze out a few final stories that continue to highlight the magnitude of Palpatine's plan and the complicity of the Jedi in allowing it to happen.
Perhaps the best arc this season is the one in which a clone goes berserk during a mission and ends up killing a Jedi. Troubled by what he saw and heard, his brother-in-arms follows him to Kamino to find answers. We the audience can guess what's happening: the Order 66 chip in the clone's head has malfunctioned and triggered his instinct to destroy the Jedi, but what follows in the show itself is a desperate scramble: from Sidious to hide the truth and the renegade clone to expose it. That we also know the outcome to this attempt only adds to the sense of desperation and futility.
The middle episodes are pretty average (more Jar Jar Binks, really?) but it ends on a reasonably high note with Yoda undergoing his own spiritual journey in a bid to prepare for the dark future ahead. It reminded me of the Mortis trilogy in season three – perhaps a little too heavy on the portents and foreshadowing, but filled with beautiful imagery and juicy Jungian symbolism.
Poldark: Season 3 (2017)
Its seventh episode had aired before I realized Poldark had returned, so I had the pleasure of watching it all in one go instead of week-by-week. Having found the second season a little repetitive of the first, I was pulled back into the storytelling by what was on offer here: Ross grappling with his responsibilities to the community, Demelza being romantically tempted by a young officer, the rescue effort to liberate Dwight from a French prison, and the sweet love story between Morwenna (Elizabeth's cousin) and Drake (Demelza's brother).
George Warleggan remains loathsome, Geoffrey Charles is delightful, and Great-Aunt Agatha continues to get all the best lines. Though I was initially disappointed by the way Elizabeth was written (she enables George's horrible decisions and eventually turns to opiates – which only helped justify fandom's hatred of her) she improves in the final stretch of episodes and gets the chance to stand up for herself and others, though overall the writing has been pretty rough on her.
That said, I don't expect much from my period costume dramas; so long as the scenery is pretty and the plotlines soapy, I'm a happy viewer. In that respect, Poldark delivers.
Game of Thrones: Season 7 (2017)
How do sum up the seventh season of Game of Thrones? It was equal parts exciting spectacle and sloppy writing, and your enjoyment no doubt rests on which part you felt eclipsed the other. As a casual viewer I was pretty satisfied, though there's no doubt that had there been a little more attention paid to things like transportation and travelling time (or heck, just three more episodes as per usual), the season would have felt a little less like the abridged "greatest hits" cut.
It can all be whittled down to "great pay-off, garbled set-up", which is a little strange since you usually see the exact opposite occur. But it's no better seen than in the Winterfell plot involving Sansa/Arya tension and Littlefinger's downfall. The denouement is immensely satisfying, with Littlefinger being outplayed by his own student, executed with his own dagger, and killed with just enough pathos that you feel a smidgeon of pity for him.
There's even a beautifully executed line from Sansa in which she points out that Littlefinger operates by turning women against one another: he did so to Catelyn and Lysa, but failed to achieve the same end with Sansa and Arya. That a show so heavily drenched in misogyny could make this point – that dividing women is a sure-fire way of attaining power (just look at any female voter who preferred the pussy-grabber to the qualified woman as their president) but one the Stark sisters would not fall prey to – was a damn near miracle.
The sight of the two sisters standing together on the parapets of Winterfell, talking quietly and openly with one another, was everything I've ever wanted for the two of them. But to get to that point we had to wade through several episodes of complete nonsense. Why didn't Bran consult them earlier? What was the deal with their confrontations? Were they playacting for Littlefinger's benefit, even though they appeared to be conversing in private? What tipped them off to his manipulations? And what was Littlefinger's game anyway? What did he have to gain from setting the two sisters against one another? Why did Sansa send Brienne away? And is Arya at all sorry (or Sansa at all upset) that she threatened to cut her sister's face off? Cos...uhh... that was a pretty horrific thing to say.
So instead of a satisfying "aah" when the trap was sprung, the reaction was more of a "huh". None of the build-up led to the conclusion that the girls were playing Littlefinger, and if they had been taken in, we're given no indication of when the tide turned (at some point Sansa must have approached Arya and the two of them gone to Bran, but naturally it all happens off-screen so as not to destroy the "twist").
It's frustrating, as with a little more care, this could have been something truly incredible.
The other big talking-point of this season was the Jon/Daenerys hook-up. *takes deep breath*. As it happens, I don't have any attachment to the ships on this show (though I certainly wouldn't mind Missandei/Grey Worm and Samwell/Gilly getting out alive – those kids deserve some happiness) but in my honest opinion, I definitely don't think Jon and Daenerys are going to get married, share the Iron Throne and live happily ever after.
First of all, Game of Thrones has always been about subverting the familiar fantasy tropes, and the fact that Jon is a) of super-special-secret parentage, b) the chosen one of prophesy and c) the rightful heir to the throne (that's not going into the pet wolf, affinity with dragons, and at least one resurrection under his belt) makes him such a fantasy cliché on so many levels that there has to be a twist coming. There's absolutely no way he's going to sit on the Iron Throne, marry the silver-haired princess, and have beautiful children with her. It's the absolute antithesis of what this whole story has been about.
Second of all, the show is already hinting at a bittersweet outcome. That their love scene was intercut with scenes of Rhaegar and Lyanna – another doomed romance whose very existence makes Jon and Daenerys aunt/nephew – is a pretty clear indicator that this relationship is similarly going to go down in flames. Not to mention Tyrion's ominous expression outside the door. And that the whole progression of the Jon/Dany relationship has felt more "inevitable" than "epic." There was no slow burn, no first kiss, no afterglow – just two attractive people on the same side, with the same goals, in close quarters who fall into bed together.
For what it's worth, I can buy that. Chemistry is subjective, but (like I said) the show captured the inevitability of their union. Right from the start of the show, fire and ice were always destined to come together – just as they'll be forced apart once the incest secret is revealed. And fact the two are now in direct competition for the Iron Throne. And the complications of Daenerys's forthcoming pregnancy, because hoo boy did they signpost that every twenty seconds.
That "bittersweet" ending George R.R. Martin once described will involve the two of them being forced to go their separate ways for the greater good (to contrast how Rhaegar and Lyanna plunged the Seven Kingdoms into war) – if the show doesn't end with them dying together, which is also a pretty big possibility.
Of course, this doesn't mean the Jon/Sansa shippers should start celebrating just yet. In the aftermath of the season finale, this post crossed my Tumblr dash:
I couldn’t have asked for a better sex scene between Jon and Daenerys. It was perfunctory. It was a flat sex scene that lacked romance, passion and spark. I am so happy right now. Jonsa is confirmed. Jonsa is happening in season 8.
Does anyone else get aggravated by this kind of passive-aggressive self-satisfied obnoxiousness? I get that it's my responsibility to ignore it and leave them to their eventual disappointment/meltdowns/fifty page metas on how the embroidery on Sansa's cloak was obvious foreshadowing that she was destined to marry Jon Snow so how could the showrunners betray me like this??!! but I'll just never understand why people let themselves get so engulfed by shipping that it ruins their enjoyment of a story.
(How do you even make the above leap anyway? Jon/Dany is doomed so Jon/Sansa is 100% guaranteed to happen? Buh?)