Fire by Kristin Cashore

So, to recap, I read and enjoyed Graceling. so it stands to reason I would get around to its sequels when possible.

Fire is not quite a sequel; in fact, chronologically speaking, it’s a prequel, and thematically, it’s just a shared-world story. But it’s the second book in the Seven Kingdoms series, which makes it presumably a followup book to Graceling. Certainly the one notable connection between the two books only makes dramatic sense if they’re read in the publication order.

To start with the good, Fire is excellently written, with the right level of detail and interesting themes. As in Graceling, women struggling with the burdens of power in a world unwilling to accept female empowerment is a major theme. The particulars are different enough to make the exploration from another angle rather refreshing: Katsa and Fire are very different personalities, having internalized quite different notions of responsible use of their power, guilt, and sexuality. Both are tempestuous, strong-willed characters, but they seem to be driven by nearly opposite forces. Having extensively explored emotional inhibition in her previous work, Cashore now deals with the perils and struggles of a far-too-open personality. So, thematically, Fire definitely works as a companion to Graceling, providing both counterpoint and common ground.

However, even so, the weakest aspect of Fire turns out to be its comparison to Graceling. It is somewhat less engrossing of a page-turner, and I might qualify it as significantly weaker in plot. Some of its weakness might derive from its shared-world aspect, as there is a peculiar cul-de-sac of a subplot which seems to have no real place in the story except in order to kludge in a character from Graceling (no details, as such would be a spoiler for Graceling, but it’s obvious from the prologue who I’m talking about).

The shared-world aspect in fact creates more problems than it solves, even above and beyond the dubious choice to try for character continuity. After all, the eponymous Seven Kingdoms of the series were entirely described in the first book; the addition of an extra kingdom and a region of roving sea pirates, both of which are cut off from the rest of the world by a conveniently impassible mountain range (which apparently gets passed twice, one of them in this story), feels a bit contrived. The presence of fantastical mind-controlling animals on this side of the mountains is also a bit problematic: in Graceling, mind control was a weird, exotic, and terrifying power, all while just on the other side of the mountains, shielding one’s mind from the commonplace seductive telepathic beasts is a basic survival skill. It’s weird from a worldbuilding point of view, and it’s weird from a population-genetic point of view.

But these are mostly places where Fire falls short of, or fails to properly mesh with, its predecessor work. Taken on its own merits, it’s really very good, except for the aforementioned shoehorned-in character. I remain favorably impressed by Kristen Cashore’s talent for a good story with intriguing characters, and I’ll read Bitterblue when the chance arises.

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The Short Victorious War, by David Weber

I’m afraid that I continue to self-harm with David Weber’s long-running mil-SF series. That’s not entirely fair, actually: On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen were authentically good in their way. Certain admirable aspects of those works continue in this, the third Honor Harrington book. For instance, Weber still has a pretty coherent, self-consistent way of how space naval battles might work (in a way suspiciously similar to the way that, say, actual naval battles worked in the 19th century, but, hey, at least he goes to the trouble of trying to make his contrivance make sense). However, in terms of plotting, character development, and suchlike, I can’t help but feel that Short is coming up, er, short.

Both Basilisk and Honor were set on worlds which were in themselves unusual and provided grist for the plot. This work, by way of contrast, is set on wholly unremarkable Manticorean worlds, with wholly unremarkable Havenite foes. There are a few technological twists, but neither of them are quite equal to the gender politics and religious subplot of Yeltsin or the native uprising plot on Basilisk. The weight of the story thus falls on Manticore and Haven themselves, and not only are they not terribly interesting, but the places Weber shows interest come across as political potshots.

For instance, previously, Haven was just the designated black-hats. They were skirmishing with our designated heroes, and that was enough to give them the role of guys-we’re-rooting-against. Also, they weren’t front-and-center in previous stories, and the central villains (particularly the Masadans) were loathsome enough that we didn’t need to delve very far into who the Havenites were and why we should be rooting against them. But here Weber decides to actually spend some time on world-building Haven, and it’s awful. The premise, which I suppose we’re supposed to take seriously, is that the existence of social welfare has developed the majority of society into a nonlaboring underclass on the dole, with the result that the economy is wholly unsustainable except by relentless pillaging. It’s like a bad parody of Communism blended with a strawman version of the US’s welfare system. With transparent references to revolutionary France that seem frankly a bit cheesy and unworthy of a work that wants me to take it seriously. Manticore itself is not terribly well-developed, but they come across as basically a fantasy-UK. One without the dole.

So the basic premise of Haven is this weird bit of socialism-bashing, and the unfriendliness to liberalism doesn’t end there. Remember Houseman, the straw bleeding-heart diplomat from Honor that didn’t understand that sometimes force was necessary? Well, his cousin’s in this story. He basically does nothing and has no impact on the plot, but he’s present so that every 50 or so pages we can get a reminder of just how weak and stupid he was.

So, yeah, there’s another Honor Harrington story here (spoiler: she wins), which unlike the last two, doesn’t do much to develop her character. She gets a romance subplot and faces some fears, but all in all she feels pretty static here. A lot of energy is devoted to worldbuilding, and the world built is so incomprehensible and crafted to score cheap political points that it was quite hard to actually view the page-count spent on it as worthwhile.

Idiots and Angels

[Screenshot]This is a rather odd creature: a silent, honestly fairly technically crude little allegory about good and evil, and how gifts are used. Because the art’s not deeply expressive and the characters don’t speak, emotion and attitudes have to be pretty simple and simply presented, so at any given point, each character is basically an archetype, and these archetypical modules get plugged together to form a story, which actually mostly works. It’s simplistic, but somehow rather affecting in its simplicity. It feels perhaps a bit long for what it is (in spite of not being all that long by feature-film standards) simply due to a certain monotony of style and slightness of story, but in spite of its crudity, there’s a sense of effectiveness about it in delivering its little fable. The lack of details creates a certain ambiguity in characterization and motivation at times, which perhaps serves to create a certain amount of suspense early on: what’s wrong with these people, we might wonder, to make them act as they do? All in all, this was an absorbing and quite imaginative take on animation-craft, and worthwhile. Bill Plympton is apparently best known for his shorts, and it kind of shows here, in that it starts to drag slightly, but his art is fundamentally sound.

A side note: Netflix really wants movies to have a cast, and was kind of flummoxed by the lack of either voice actors or body actors, which may be why they decided that this movie starred Tom Waits and Pink Martini.

See also: IMDB.

Cerebus the Aardvark, volume 1: Cerebus, by Dave Sim

Dave Sim is a polarizing figure. On the one hand, he’s a giant in independent comics publishing, and his accomplishment of viably sustaining a self-published comic series over a long and ambitious series of plot arcs makes him an undeniable and significant part of any conversation about independent comic books.

On the other hand, he’s a raving nutbar, given to misogynistic rants and fulminations against liberal attitudes. He’s kind of like a more independent and more gender-oriented Frank Miller, in that he has earned both acclaim and scorn from the comics-reading community at large.

Cerebus is the first of a great many “phone books” which collect his magnum opus, the 300-issue megaseries called (straightforwardly enough) Cerebus the Aardvark. At this point in the game Sim’s hot-button topics hadn’t come to the fore, so it can be enjoyed for what it is, which is a spoof of the wealth of Conan-derivative comic properties. Although, with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but wonder how much of his future lunacy was visible at this point in his career (comparing him, unavoidably, to Frank Miller, whose present-day “lovable quirks” were actually quite detectable themes even in his early work).

Based only on the 25 issues collected in this work, it’s hard to see where either the criticism or acclaim comes from. At this point the work was still very much in a finding-its-footing mode, with affectionate parody of the whole Howard-derived Conan mythos and related works (e.g. Red Sonja) forming the core of the work. Unfortunately for my review, I’ve not had much experience directly with the whole Conan mythos, so I can’t really offer much commentary on the extent to which the parody hits the mark there, and when he does stray out of the genre, his parody is a lot more uneven: the characters of Elrod, the Cockroach, and Charles X. Claremont don’t seem to bear any particular similarity, except for the broad lampooning of names and appearances, to their progenitors: as an example, Elrod of Melvinbone is a flamboyant extrovert who for some reason talks like Senator Claghorn, a far cry from Michael Moorcock’s mopey albino.

Artwise, it’s still finding its place as well. It’s mostly black-and-white pen work, with a notable exception in the gray fill used for Cerebus himself, making him stand out on the page. The art is generally solid but sometimes action is a bit muddled, and the lettering suffers badly from “P”s that look like “D”s, which is a particular problem in the not-infrequent wall-of-text pages. Even pages which have a full series of panels often have about a paragraph of text at the top, so this is a very texty work, to some extent not making the best use of the drawn image to tell its story.

And as for those early warning signs of crazification I was looking for? Well, they’re mostly not actually present, which is OK by me. There’s a modest amount of institutionalized sexism which is somewhat unavoidable given the subject matter, since any pastiche or parody of Howard has to engage or mimic his fairly loathsome gender issues (mercifully steering clear of his equally loathsome racial essentialism). There’s a certain amount of skeeviness in the handling of Red Sophia, but since her schtick basically boils down to, “ha ha, those womenfolk, always yammering and driving the men around them crazy”, it’s well-trod ground already pretty well established by newspaper comics, so I might give Sim a tentative pass here.

But while there’s not much to inspire disdain yet, there’s also not much to inspire praise. The art is pretty decent for its style, but the story thus far is pretty uninspired, and the humor is awfully hit-or-miss. I’m given to understand that the overall style of the work eventually changes in a way which makes it more interesting, but if you go into reading this particular volume wondering what made Dave Sim a significant figure in independent comics publishing, you might not actually find that question being answered.

Trader Joe’s Spring Onion Rice Noodle Soup Bowl

Guess who finally got to the Louisville Trader Joe’s! “These are great,” the clerk assured me as he rung up my three noodle soups. They have both microwave and boiling-water instructions on these things; I went for the boiling water route.

Subjective snapshot

Quality: 2.5/5 stars
Spiciness: 0/5 chilis

Review

The noodles are maybe too short: trying to fish the etceteras packet out I spilled some of them, which typically wouldn’t happen with full-length rice sticks. That having been said, I’m always a fan of the rice-noodle soups, and thought it initially looked like there weren’t enough in here, looks can be deceiving. The flavor was quite mild, which could be a plus for some folks but I found it a bit unexciting. I wouldn’t entirely characterize the flavor as “spring onion” either; garlic was the dominant note, but maybe I’ll have a better handle on it after I try the other two flavors. The dehydrates were rather indifferent; corn didn’t quite work as a complementary flavor and texture on this one, although the carrots did well enough.

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Nissin Bowl Noodles, Rich and Savory Chicken Flavor

This might be the latest incarnation of what used to be called the “Souper Meal”; it’s got about the same form factor and the same “Finishing Touch” packet in the shrinkwrap, but the noodles seems to have been changed. I picked this up as a single unit: Nissin and Maruchan stuff is rarely exciting enough for me to really fathom eating a whole case of it. I also prepared it wrong; it apparently wants to be microwaved, same as the Yakisoba, and instead I just filled it with boiling water. The result was actually fairly palatable in spite of it. Also, for science, and for you, my loyal readers, I tried making it as directed. It honestly came out about the same, although the noodles were more evenly cooked.

Subjective snapshot

Quality: 2.5/5 stars
Spiciness: 0/5 chilis

Review

The noodles were pretty decent; they’re a cut above the usual awful freeze-dried stuff, with a big more of an egg-noodle flavor and heartiness. The actual broth was actually pretty dull, I’m afraid, blandly chickeny and short on hooks to make the meal remotely interesting, although it did have a lingeringly brothlike mouthfeel absent in a lot of soups whose broths feel (if not taste) watery. The freeze-dried veggies were tolerable but far from extraordinary: the cabbage helped give it some textural and flavor variety, but the carrots and corn were not exactly raising the bar. All in all, it’s not a terribly adventurous bowl but it’s a pretty decent variant on the timid everyday American bowl, and for people who aren’t looking for excessive spice, it might be more pleasing than the often fiery adventurous fare.
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Maruchan Yakisoba, Spicy Chicken Flavor

This one was another one-off purchase, although I picked up a cheese flavor yakisoba, which I’m sure is vile, at the same time. It’s kind of cheating from the point of view of my mission: this one isn’t reconstituted with boiling water, but is filled with cold water and then microwaved, so it’s not one that can really be done with just a kettle (take note in the unlikely event that you’re using my reviews to find food for camping or for a particularly sparsely furnished office).

Subjective snapshot

Quality: 3.0/5 stars
Spiciness: 2/5 chilis

Review

The order of operations on this one is a bit odd: I was instructed to add the spice packet after microwaving, when there wasn’t much liquid, so the flavors ended up rather inconsistently distributed. However, in spite of that, this one was pretty good: the noodles were a bit rubbery but not actually tough, and the dehydrates were if not actually adventurous at least well-chosen (I maintain that you can’t go wrong with cabbage, and this had a fair bit of cabbage in). The powdered flavoring had enough heat to earn the “spicy” moniker but not a particularly brutal level, and a certain undertone of sweetness which worked pretty well. It was generally satisfactory if unambitious, and I imagine these noodles would be even better if I’d actually prepared them properly, by sprinkling the powder and folding the noodles over, mixing as I poured, instead of dumping the packet out and stirring in a vain attempt to distribute the spices.

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