“Death Note”

“Now, supposing a god and his world existed, even then I’d stop and think for myself. I’d decide for myself whether his teachings are right or wrong. After all, I am just the same as you. I put faith in my own convictions as to what I believe is right, and consider them to be righteous.”

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show as fast as I watched Death Note last week – I don’t have an exact time, but it was in under 48 hours. That alone speaks to its quality, but let’s jump into the specifics of this brilliant anime.

Based on the Japanese manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, this 37-episode, single-season anime follows 17-year-old Light Yagami, a gifted but bored and slightly jaded high school student as he stumbles across the Death Note, a magical notebook that automatically kills anyone whose name is written inside of it, so long as the writer also knows the person’s face. Light soon learns that the Death Note belongs to a Shinigami (a god of death in some Japanese mythologies) named Ryuk, who deliberately dropped it on Earth out of boredom to see what would happen.

Light soon decides that he will use the Death Note to eradicate criminals and create a world where he uses his superior mind to rule as Justice. As more and more people are inexplicably dying, the mysterious killer the public has monikered “Kira” still baffles police and government officials. They are forced call upon the brilliant detective L, who has never revealed his identity in public, but has solved every case he’s ever been given. So begins an intricate game of cat-and-mouse between geniuses.

The art for this show is absolutely stunning. I’m not an artist myself, but as a viewer (and an often picky one), the use of specific colours to code characters and their intentions during asides or inner monologues was so appealing, as was the idea to draw Light and L as visual foils.

Even though Death Note is more cerebral and focused on elements of suspense rather than fast-paced fight scenes (think chess as opposed to a boxing match), the creators managed to make things as simple as writing in a notebook or having a conversation feel as exciting and action-packed as a combat scene. The only other shōnen anime (a label for stories geared towards teen boys, generally with a male protagonist and lots of fight scenes) I’ve watched didn’t hit the mark for me like Death Note did, and it did it with displays of intellect instead of brute force badassery. Very cool.

Some of my complaints about other animes I’ve watched before this one were incomplete or two-dimensional characters and awkward dialogue. Once again, Death Note delivers big where other shows simply don’t. Not only does it avoid both of these issues, but it provides several complex characters whose motives I had so much fun dissecting and analyzing. There aren’t really any good people in this show either; if you’re all about those morally gray characters like I am, this show is for you.

I also can’t go without talking about the plot – I mean, talk about intricate. The cat-and-mouse game between Light and L has so many layers and watching them think ten moves ahead, plan their attacks against and escapes from each other, and deal with unforeseen variables as they surface in lurching, unexpected twists was a genuine treat. I was constantly fully attentive, dying to see what they were going to do next.

Along with the constant strategizing between the two, the overarching narrative is dealing with some very tough, complex topics and questions: specifically, what does justice really mean?

All this to say: I fucking loved this show and I plan on re-watching it for sure. If you like suspense, mystery, fantasy, police shows, or serious anime, Death Note will not disappoint you. I’d recommend this even to non-anime fans, including the people who think cartoons can’t be serious or are just for kids, because this show will prove you wrong in the best way.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I talked about the broad points of Death Note above, so I really want to take this section to talk about some of the more specific things that absolutely made fall in love with this show (and maybe a few that I didn’t like).

First of all, I was absolutely devastated when L was killed off. I expected that either he or Light might die because the story had been building to something huge like that, but I definitely didn’t think it would happen as early as it did. As much as I mourned him, so many moments leading up to his death were so well done (that rooftop scene in the rain and the ensuing moments on the stairs… fucking incredible) and I definitely think that ultimately, L dying was a good plot decision. It was a gutsy way to resolve the mounting tension and it hurt, but it had to be done. It was good pain.

However, I was bit less keen on Near and Mello. I hear they’re more well-developed in the manga (and considering Ohba and Obata’s character work on Light and L, I believe it), but their introduction into the anime storyline felt a bit rushed to me and I just never latched onto either of them in the way that I did with L. It seemed like they didn’t know what to do with Near’s character; they tried to make him a lot like L to try and scoop up the remaining hype from him, but there were just enough differences (and not enough new substantive character work) that Near felt signficantly subpar.

Close to the final confrontation, when Light says something like “it was always going to come to this, a one-on-one with L” or whatever and they show L’s face, I remember kind of rolling my eyes and feeling a bit disappointed, because they clearly wanted it to feel like Light versus L, but it didn’t because obviously it was actually just Near that was there. He had potential; I did like his seemingly genuine commitment to justice (rather than just entertainment in L’s case). I wish we’d gotten more insight into why he was like that. Maybe that stuff’s in the manga.

Anyway, even though I didn’t love Near and Mello and my overall excitement did drop for the post-L arcs, the show didn’t get bad by any means. I think that’s largely thanks to the incredible character work on Light. The intersection of his boredom, brilliance, and god complex to eventually show us that absolute power corrupts absolutely was perfect. I especially loved when he lost his memories of the Death Note and we got to see what he could have been without it, including his friendship with L.

I get chills just thinking about that moment when he’s in the vehicle with L and he gets the Death Note back and his memories flood him, and it zooms in on his face and he just goes “I’ve won” – best moment in the whole show (except maybe for the final minutes of the last episode). The writers’ ability to create dread, thrill, and suspense like that is something I haven’t seen in a while and that I honestly didn’t expect to find in Death Note.

From the bit of fandom discourse that I’ve read, it seems that people are torn on the ending, understandably I’d say. I personally think a full circle like that is fitting and I loved witnessing Light’s downfall from the careful, strategic genius to a reckless, paranoid, insane mess. Apparently this made some fans angry, especially fans of Light, who say he “shouldn’t have lost/died” because it “wasn’t realistic/accurate to the character” that he was fooled by the whole Mikami-fake-Death-Note situation, but as someone whose favourite character is also Light, I personally think they’re wrong. It’s totally accurate, because by the end of the show, Light was shutting down and going completely crazy. Long before the warehouse scene, he was frantic, all over the place, clinging to the last shreds of his power as Near was closing in. Maybe I feel that way because I knew Light needed to be stopped (despite rooting for him) but either way, I don’t think this was lazy writing and from the moment Light realized he had lost, his death was a given. Again, it came back to what Ryuk had told him at the very start: that he would write Light’s name in his Death Note one day.

Speaking of Ryuk, this isn’t a criticism of the show, but I do wish we could have seen more of the Shinigami realm. I liked the addition of Rem to the story, but I really wanted to learn more about how the Shinigami operate and what their realm is like. I know that’s not what the story was about, and I’m thankful that it wasn’t because Light and L’s tale was much more fascinating, but I still crave more worldbuilding in that area.

My one criticism of the show is its treatment of women. Death Note definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel and there’s some pretty sexist dialogue (I think at one point, Misa says something like “I just want to be happy at home, where a woman should be” or something like that). Yikes.

Also, every female character (except for that one random FBI agent at the end) is or ends up being at least one of the following:

1) killed
2) otherwise severely victimized (kidnapped, traumatized, or sexually assaulted)
3) unrequitedly obsessed with a male character to the point that she has zero personality beyond that or motivations of her own
4) a stay-at-home wife and/or mother

I was initially excited by the appearance of Misa, because thus far everyone had just assumed that the Second Kira was a man, and I thought this was a really good opportunity to bring in a strong female character to subvert their expectations. However, any promise Misa had beyond a plot device was quickly stifled by the choice to make her a ditsy, obnoxious love interest whose only personality was venerating and obeying Light.

This isn’t to say Misa doesn’t do cool stuff (her role in the Yotsuba arc in particular was fun to watch) but objectively, she’s just not good female representation and there’s absolutely none in this show. I get that that’s pretty standard for shōnen, but for an anime that surpassed or subverted every other shōnen element and expectation, I hoped Death Note would do the same with sexism and misogyny. Oh well, you can’t have it all.

Ultimately, Death Note is an excellent show. Combining incredible characters, pacing, and art with deep topics and an awesome story, it’s no wonder that this is an anime staple that is still recommended and watched as often as it is, fifteen years after its creation.

“The Queen’s Gambit”

“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just sixty-four squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”

I try to keep Reading, Listening, Vieweing limited to media I’ve recently consumed so as to get my most visceral thoughts on each work I cover, but I had to make a small exception for The Queen’s Gambit. While I finished this show back in mid-December, it’s still spinning around in my mind, because that’s just how awesome it was.

This Netflix miniseries based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name follows the life of young chess prodigy Beth Harmon as she navigates the male-dominated 1950s-1960s American chess scene. Over the course of seven episodes, we watch as she hones her gift, from learning to play chess in the orphanage basement to becoming a skilled tournament player.

Alongside her chess career, however, we witness Beth’s maladaptive coping with the serious trauma she experiences before, while, and after growing up in an orphanage where tranquilizers are distributed to all the children, and she develops a long-lasting addiction. As we wait on the edge of our seats for the outcomes to her brilliant chess matches, we’re biting our nails, asking ourselves when she might just collapse from the weight of all the misfortune and misery that have befallen her life.

Before anything else, The Queen’s Gambit is an amazing character study. Beth is a complex and nuanced character, and although opinions on her are apparently mixed, I personally loved her instantly.

As I’ve said before, I love character-driven stories, including ones that only feature one prominent character. However, in my opinion, for such a story to work: 1) the character must be well-developed, 2) the worldbuilding or setting has to be airtight and appealing, and 3) the story must know and capitalize on the fact that it’s a single-character study.

That last aspect is crucial, because nothing bothers me quite like a story that clearly thinks itself far-ranging and filled with multiple complex character arcs, but that can only really deliver one (maybe two) good character(s) (for more on that, see last week’s blog post on Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, which suffered from this very problem).

The Queen’s Gambit fulfils all three of these “requirements” easily, and I respect the fuck out of it for never trying to be something it’s not. The show doesn’t try to bullshit you by pulling you in ten different directions other than Beth’s; it’s honest about the story it’s trying to tell and what it wants to make you feel, and as a result, you get a great character-driven story.

The acting and soundtrack are strong as well, and thinking back, I still marvel at the fact that so much great material was fit into a miniseries without major pacing problems. I don’t recall ever feeling like we were rushing through a phase of Beth’s life, or that we took too long on another.

That being said, The Queen’s Gambit is not an action-packed show geared towards viewers who like drama and excitement. It has lots of dramatic and exciting moments for sure, but ultimately this show is a slower-paced character study about a chess prodigy who is trying to cope with her issues and be the best she can be. If you’re not that kind of viewer, you might find yourself bored or disappointed. I recommended the show to a family member because he likes chess, but I should’ve known that as a fan of action-packed media, he wouldn’t get past the second episode.

All that to say, you know yourself as a viewer, and if this description of the show’s vibe resembles what you usually watch, then I can confidently say that you’ll love The Queen’s Gambit, because it’s just so well-done.

(Also, if you’re a writer, which I know some of my readers are, this show is a brilliant example of how to write a complex character – I’ve also heard that it can apparently be understood as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl archetype (stock character?) which I didn’t notice myself while watching, but in hindsight totally agree with, so that’s pretty cool).

*End of spoiler-free section*

From that opening scene where we’re introduced to Beth as she scrambles to get out of bed for her match against Borgov, I knew I was going to like this story. When I learned soon after that that was a snapshot of the future and that we were going to be shown exactly how Beth got there, I knew I was going to fall head-over-heels for The Queen’s Gambit.

(I’m an absolute sucker for the “starting on a flash-forward and the story builds up to it” device, I just think it’s so smart when done right).

In terms of the show’s highlights, as discussed already above, Beth’s character is number one. I love that every quality of hers has a realistically offsetting flaw. She’s brilliant, but perfectionist in a toxic way, where she’s desperately trying to maintain that very specific and difficult-to-attain self-concept, and she’s doing that through substance use.

She’s pleasant to talk to and be around in everyday situations, but as soon as she has to be vulnerable, she goes cold and she infuriatingly pushes away those who want to help her. She’s resilient, but she also mistreats people who don’t necessarily deserve it, like Harry and Benny, and she refuses to confront her personal problems, like her addiction to tranquilizers, her grief, her loneliness, and her abandonment issues, and instead she lashes out at others and hurts herself.

Yet I couldn’t help but empathize with her in almost every situation and think “well, no wonder she’s doing that” because each of her actions and personality traits can be so directly linked back to her trauma. That doesn’t excuse the way she hurts others and herself, and yet the painful, bitter realism of it all is what really made me feel for her.

Moving on so as not to beat a dead horse, I found the chess match scenes to be really well done. Even though you know Beth is often the smartest and the best when she sits down to play, the scenes are always tense, because she’s so unpredictable. You know she could win pretty much any match, but can she, at that given time, in that given mental state?

Using Beth’s flaws as the source of her own problems in chess matches to create tension was a great idea. If they hadn’t done this, the scenes wouldn’t have been as tense, because again, we know she’s the best and she could win anything. This helped up the ante even more every time she played Borgov and in the final matches at the world championships in Russia, and it makes her final win that much more satisfying.

Even though there were a ton of good memes making fun of it, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where Beth would play chess in her mind on the ceiling. It was a cool way to show the extent of her visualization skills on-screen.

I was so happy when she eventually realized that she didn’t need the drugs to help her visualize or uphold that idealized fantasy version of herself, because she’s always been good enough. It was a powerful moment.

Another aspect I loved was the nuance in the final message: while you don’t need your blood-related family or even a tight-knit “found family” to be whole or good enough to achieve what you want, that doesn’t mean you can’t lean on other human beings in a time of need or that you shouldn’t make strides towards vulnerability and healing.

The story encourages the viewer to process trauma and to have some kind of support system by showing that these things are beneficial to Beth, but the narrative doesn’t shame her either in the moments where she craves solitude and chooses to process her emotions alone. It’s not framed as the best thing to do considering her alcohol and drug problems, but I think it’s a refreshing change from the usual urgency of the “you need to be vulnerable now or you’re doomed” message, because I find that that often lacks nuance. (Hopefully that makes sense).

This sort of brings me to the ending, with which I’m absolutely enamoured. I think it’s perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love that Beth goes off alone, finding peace in what she loves to do and in herself. She’s still a bit of a lone wolf, but she’s leaning on people now rather than drugs.

What better way to end the series than to come full circle like that and simply play chess in the park, for the fun of it like she used to with Shaibel, without that pressure and that damn drug-fueled self-concept demanding she be this impossible level of genius? Just beautiful.

All this to say, I absolutely loved The Queen’s Gambit. An excellent combination of a great, complex character and amazing execution on the story, setting, and message made for a miniseries that I will definitely be rewatching and that I think will stand the test of time.

“Tearling” trilogy – Erika Johansen

“This, I think, is the crux of evil in this world, Majesty: those who feel entitled to whatever they want, whatever they can grab.”
— “The Invasion of the Tearling”

Okay, I have a lot to say about the Tearling trilogy, so let’s just get right into it. In first book of this series, The Queen of the Tearling, we meet Kelsea Glynn, who was raised in a secluded cottage by her adoptive parents reading a novel a day, exploring the outdoors, but most of all, learning how to be a fair and just queen. Now that she has turned nineteen, she must now ascend to the Tearling throne. This fantasy-dystopia hybrid begins with Kelsea taking the treacherous trip across her poverty-plagued nation alongside her loyal Queen’s Guard to the Keep, the only place in the world where she will be safe to begin her rule.

Upon her arrival in New London, however, she finds out that her mother, the previous queen, made a deal with neighbouring enemy nation Mortsmesne to keep the Tearling safe — one which goes against Kelsea’s deepest moral convictions. Her first test as the new Queen.

I was recommended this trilogy by a friend because Kelsea is one of her favourite characters of all time, and honestly, I can absolutely see why. She’s well-developed and imperfect in highly realistic ways, while still being loveable and worth cheering for. Over the course of the series (especially books two and three, The Invasion of the Tearling and The Fate of the Tearling), I got extremely attached to Kelsea.

Unfortunately, this main character is one of few saving graces for a series that while filled with promising ideas and enjoyable prose, was riddled with massive problems and huge lost potential. In fact, when looking up online reviews of the series, I was personally shocked by the number of reviewers I saw who felt that this series, which has a decent amount of online hype, was grossly overrated. For the most part, I can’t help but agree.

Now that I’ve had a couple of days to process the final book, here is my consensus: I wouldn’t say that these books aren’t worth the read, but I’m also not giving them an enthusiastic recommendation.

Let’s get into the why of it. I have so much to say that I’ve divided this post into parts (and I’m covering three novels here, give me a break).

*End of spoiler-free section*
Please note: the following contains spoilers for all three Tearling books.

I – Positives and mild related criticisms

I want to begin with some positives, because if you couldn’t tell by the tone this post has already taken, I have lot of issues with these novels. As I mentioned in the beginning, Kelsea is an absolutely brilliant character. The way she chastises her own mental shortcomings and mulls things over a lot in her mind was very relatable to me and made her come off as a protagonist that fundamentally just wants to do what’s right. This made her sympathetic right off the bat. She is strong in her convictions, willing to stand up to those who challenge her, and best of all: when she acts, she genuinely suffers the consequences of those actions, good and bad.

I mean, the entire plot of the series stems from her initial decision to stop the shipment of slaves to Mortsmesne. For me, it was really refreshing to see a main character actually have to deal with the consequences of good-faith decisions to such an extent. I think that was a compelling way for Johansen to set up the events of the next two books.

Throughout The Invasion, I enjoyed Lily’s chapters even though they weren’t super relevant to the plot. While it was nice to get a glimpse into the past and get my dystopia fix, I just don’t think Johansen truly executed on the message she was clearly trying to send with Lily about mistakes of the past coming back to haunt the present (and I also didn’t love Lily).

The Katie chapters in The Fate were stronger. I enjoyed them for the most part because honestly, they provided a good break from Kelsea’s (which were just dreadfully boring for the entire first half of the book). Even though the pacing was off at times in this series (in The Queen when it took fucking ages to get to the Keep, in The Invasion with Kelsea kind of just sitting around the Keep), in the end, I enjoyed the way it was structured. I thought it was creative, if inconsistently executed.

I enjoyed a lot of the social commentary as well, despite some of it being either half-assed or super over the top. The general critiques of capitalism and sexism throughout the series were good, but the commentary on religion, for instance, got old fast. While I think the ideas were pretty spot on (that religion promotes dogmatic thinking, that anyone can use religion to their advantage to manipulate others into violence, etc.), so much of The Fate (and parts of The Invasion) were dedicated solely to shitting on religion, to the point that it came off as just a cringy attempt to pwn the Christians. I mean, if a very queer, very highly anti-religion person like myself who genuinely loves to see bigots get their asses handed to them, thought it was a bit over the top… it was probably a bit over the top.

You might be noticing a bit of a pattern: I have something nice to say, then I follow it up with something that irked me about that same thing (the only untouchable element is Kelsea — she’s excellent, full stop). Unfortunately, that’s a great way to sum up the entire series for me. So much of this story was half-assed ideas that with better execution, could have been brilliant.

Anyway, as for the general storyline and prose, they were both good. Not great, not bad — just good. I enjoyed reading about the two warring nations and most of all about Kelsea as she dealt with her inner demons, her fugues, and her royal duties. For the prose, there was a decent amount strong, quote-able lines, so that’s always appreciated.

That about sums it up for the positives, but I want to make one thing clear before I proceed to get pretty negative: I was invested in this story. I enjoyed reading it and I was genuinely curious for how it would all come together at the end. Something about Johansen’s writing (Kelsea, I mean I cannot praise this character enough) drew me in and kept me reading for the whole series (I’m stubborn, but not enough to finish something I don’t genuinely have fun reading, so there you go).

II – Some iffy character work

Alright, into the criticisms. I’ve talked a ton about Kelsea already, so you’re probably wondering “so, about the other characters” and well… I only cared about two characters: Kelsea and the Red Queen, the antagonist for the first two books. I eventually got a bit attached to Katie in book three as well, but not significantly enough to be sad to see her go at the end of the series like the other two. I’m actually going to miss those two.

As a character-driven reader, that’s a massive problem for me. Only two characters I genuinely cared about? I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a series where I couldn’t be bothered to care about a even single important secondary character after three full books (the Mace, Pen, Javel, Hall, Andalie, Aisa, Father Tyler, the Fetch, the entire Queen’s Guard).

I’m a bit picky with my characters, I’ll be the first to admit it, but it’s not even that I dislike all of these (actually, from that list, only the Fetch and Javel); rather, it’s that most are such flimsy or incoherent characters with little driving motivation outside of Kelsea and the main plot that I just can’t get attached to them as individuals. If every character is pretty much only there to serve the MC or oppose them as the villain, it bothers me and I’ll be hard pressed to give a shit when they die.

Speaking of antagonists, we need to talk about Row. I feel like this is maybe an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think he’s a good character at all, and it’s such a shame because he had so much promise. When he and Katie would talk in The Fate of establishing a meritocracy in the Town, that was fascinating to me, because I kept wondering how Johansen was going to reconcile Row’s ideas with Tear’s, when clearly both had such interesting things to say, and whether there was going to be this big showdown. I was so curious about how Row was going to devolve from slightly cruel and petty but ultimately harmless teenager to, well, the Orphan.

Unfortunately, his ideas are never challenged head-on. Tear conveniently disappears from the story around this time, and Row decides to rally the growing religious movement so that he can take control of the Town. Fine, but rather than take the issue of the Town’s authority to a vote that he knows he can win, he builds an entire underground prison under the church, digs up dead bodies to create zombies to serve him (eventually moving to luring children to his magical prison so he can make more zombies), and crafts himself a crown that lets him time-travel? And this is supposed to be a smart character who wants what’s best for the Town?

I don’t know, the move from wanna-be authoritarian Town leader to pure villain who’s evil just because is poorly executed and in my opinion, immediately ruined the little of Row’s character that Johansen had by then built up. By the end of The Fate, does Row even know why he’s attacking the Tearling? The Red Queen’s dead, so that little revenge quest is settled. After three centuries of prison, all he wants is his crown, so that he can… rule the world, I guess? What world, though, if he’s telling his zombie children to murder everyone in sight? We soon found ourselves in Dark Lord, Evil Just ‘Cause, Big Bad territory, and that’s just unoriginal, poor character work to me. I think it hurt even more because Row could’ve been amazing. She could’ve given us another fascinating, nuanced villain like the Red Queen, but unfortunately she missed the mark with Row.

III – The infamous ending

I’m torn on the ending. I like it and I don’t.

I like it because I think it’s a great demonstration that a “happy ending” or that “saving everyone” is not always actually happy for all, especially those doing the saving. It’s absolutely devastating to see Kelsea walking around, unrecognizable to everyone she loves, and forced to move forward into the world she saved but lost everything for. My jaw stayed wide open from the moment she woke up in that room to the very end of the novel, and I loved that absolute devastation Johansen instilled in the readers; I mean, talk about bittersweet. The world is saved, perfect, utopian, but the MC we have come to care about so deeply is now utterly alone. Yeah, ouch.

I also don’t like it though, for a number of reasons, and I think ultimately, those outweigh the brilliance of the devastation the author caused. For one, it was a bit of a deus ex machina situation with the crown and I’m really not a fan of the whole “time travel saves everything” trope, because, well, it’s a cop-out. This one’s no exception, really — just because it’s a ballsy ending and Johansen did a good job of making us hurt along with Kelsea doesn’t completely get rid of that slight feeling of cheapness, of “what was the point?” It’s a cop-out from having to deal head-on with the complex ideas she brought up about the Tearling and humanity and utopia; the author conveniently gets to leave a lot of that behind with the world she spent three books building up, and it feels lazy.

I also hated like being told exactly what the Better World looked like. It felt unduly prescriptive, and took away from the sort of hopeful whimsy the author had created before when it came to utopia and our quest for it. We strive for the Better World and it’s sort of implied the whole time that it’s maybe never going to be possible, but it’s always worth fighting for.

Except… all of a sudden it is possible? And it’s simply America x the UK but slightly more socialist? That’s iffy. And it has police? Don’t know about that one either. In my (and many other people’s) Better World, I’d say we’d definitely have grown past the need for police.

Does that sound far-fetched and unrealistic? Well, exactly. Because, sorry to break it to you, but that’s what utopia is. The whole message of the book is that the Better World is inherently worth fighting for in spite of its futility, that even though we will likely never make it to some kind of utopia, progress is always worth it — and I fucking love that message. It’s so hopeful amidst the bleakness of it all. Maybe I’m just too jaded to believe that the fight for a better world could actually end happily for humanity.

Further yet, the fight being over because one person was killed? I don’t buy it. Again, a big message in The Fate was that Row became one of many problems, that conflict within the Town was already festering before he ever did anything, that his meddling was effective because of pre-existing issues. Are these issues ever actually addressed in the novel?

Of course not, because after some cheap talk about the butterfly effect, we’re somehow supposed to believe that every problem in the world of the Tearling was solved because Row was killed (and honestly, this contributes to Row coming off as this Big Bad — the book literally ends in utopia just because he was killed) and yay time travel.

Again, sorry, I don’t buy it, and for a story that was at times very good with its nuances, this felt like a slap in the face.

IV – A list of more brief, miscellaneous complaints that I didn’t want to get into too much detail about. These might seem nitpicky, but each of these was enough to leave a really bad taste in my mouth.

a) Kelsea being constantly described as plain
It’s nice to have a less attractive MC for a change, but not when it’s shoved in your face constantly (in The Queen in particular). I know it kind of had bearing on the story later in The Invasion, but it was still annoying, very “look at how unique she is, she’s *gasp* unattractive!”

b) Anti-climactic deaths for Brenna, the Red Queen, and Aisa
Need I say much more? So much hype and development for all of them, their powers, their potential, and then… nothing. It would be fine if there had been any kind of grieving or mention of them more than one page after they died, but there wasn’t, so learning about these characters ended up feeling like a huge waste of time. It frustrates me just thinking about it.

c) Katie’s stone
This thing pops up out of nowhere in Kelsea’s cell in Demesne and ends up having zero bearing on the plot. It’s like Johansen forgot about it.

d) The Fetch
I’ll just say it: this character was badly written. How has he barely changed in three hundred years? He still carries some form of religious dogma within him, he’s defensive (rather than resigned or truly guilt-ridden) when confronted by Kelsea about his past mistakes, he spends his time stealing, and he apparently tests rulers to see if they’re “worthy” because I guess he thinks he’s worthy of doing that? We see no actual work to improve the Tearling on his part, despite being told that this is what he does with his never-ending life curse — it makes no sense. He’s barely changed in three hundred years, and given what’s happened to him and what we’re told about him, he realistically would and should have. Also, Kelsea’s crush on him was so weird and did not line up with either of their characters (she’s too smart for him, he’s not even a complete character).

e) Ewen’s “saving the day” moment
I can’t take full credit for this one because I saw it on Goodreads (here) as well, but this reviewer brilliantly articulates the general uncomfortable feeling I had when reading this part as well: “[W]hile I liked the thought of Ewen being able to save the day, I didn’t really care for the explanation given about Ewen not having experienced pain in the same way as others… It kind of implied that “slow people” aren’t capable of deeper emotions.” Yeah, not great. With his whole arc being about believing in himself and proving that he was capable of being a hero for the Tearling and for Kelsea, this definitely soured the moment for me.

f) The presence of religion in the Town
It’s made quite clear that Tear disapproves of religion and would rather it not exist in the Town, but was only choosing not to ban it completely because that would be dictatorial. Fine, but then why let it into the Better World in the first place? If he were truly trying to create a utopia, which to him that meant no religion, then why wouldn’t he only carefully select non-religious individuals to accompany him on the Crossing? Tear clearly had no problem excluding other people from his utopia on the basis of other characteristics he deemed antitheses to utopia, but I guess he just didn’t do it in the case of religion? That makes no sense, and it seems like it was only done so the plot could later use the extremists as antagonists.

g) William Tear
There was so much opportunity to critique him, to break the bubble of mystery around him, and to make him a well-rounded, imperfect character. Instead, we get little direct challenge of him and his ideas, and his one “flaw” or humanizing moment is when we learn that he left Row’s mother while she was pregnant to be with Lily instead because he saw her in a vision. It’s a shitty thing to do, but nothing else in Tear’s character indicated to us that this might be something he actually would do — he was dedicated to his cause, but was also only shown making hard decisions for the purpose of achieving this cause. This is why his choice to abandon his wife for Lily and disown Row on the basis of a vision seems so out of character; we’ve never known Tear to make a decision for purely selfish reasons. His entire character is that he is unselfish, giving himself to his cause, and I guess I just wanted more than one shitty thing he did out of nowhere when it came to humanizing him. It just doesn’t line up with what we knew of him at the time; it wasn’t a moment of shock and “oh wow that makes sense” but rather, a total “what the fuck” moment. Johansen either needed to give him a flaw that lined up with his character (maybe a god complex, or an “ends justify the means” mentality), or needed to expand on him so that ditching his wife and Row actually made sense. The author did neither, and that bothered me because Tear had a lot of potential.

h) Poor queer representation
I mean, this is a problem in so many books that I read and still enjoy a ton, but I definitely expected more than two gay guards, one gay priest, and one lesbian woman from the flashbacks (all side characters with very limited backstories, the latter two of which ultimately die at the hands of religious zealots, an all-too-familiar form of anti-gay violence). I know having a queer character in the main cast is a lot to ask for in most books, but I think it’s fair to expect better from a self-proclaimed feminist book that spends so much of its time critiquing sexism and pushing anti-religion, anti-capitalist, and politically progressive messaging.

i) Poor representation of people of colour
I want to give Johansen the benefit of the doubt, I really do, and yet this representation is just brutal. Why are the POC relegated to the southern nation of Cadare, who is conveniently uninvolved in our story? Why are there seemingly no black people in the Town (or the Tearling, three hundred fucking years later) when it was supposed to be a socialist utopia created by Brits and Americans (half of whose population is black)? Why are the only three black characters we see 1) a mostly irrelevant side character (Lear), 2) a chauffeur who is only there to help Lily realize that she’s a privileged idiot and who is killed off as soon as his purpose is fulfilled (Jonathan), and 3) a misogynist who wants to marry Kelsea off to his King (Cadarese ambassador)? Again, a “progressive” book shouldn’t have these types of issues. When no excuse is given for the exclusion of whole groups of people in a fantasy-dystopian world — a world that came from her imagination — you have to wonder why that is.

j) Unrealistic depictions of self-harm
In book two, we witness how Kelsea self-harms using her magic. She describes it as something she does to feel as though she is in control, to keep her anger in check, and because she feels she deserves it. I really thought we were going to be on the right track with this representation of self-harm, because so far so good, but then one day, she decides that she’s done, just like that, and she stops. This may simply be because it’s at odds with my personal experience and knowledge (and I’m not trying to say that mine was the only true or valid experience or anything like that), but generally-speaking, when you latch onto a toxic and/or addictive coping mechanism, you can’t get rid of it that damn easily. You often need to unlearn it and, most importantly, replace it with a healthier coping mechanism — and this is often very difficult to do without outside help (I’m painting with broad strokes, but you get the point). Not for Kelsea, apparently; she can just stop whenever she wants because self-harm is bad and she knows she should stop, even though the source of her anger hasn’t yet been addressed and she’s done nothing to cope more healthily with it. It’s just not super compelling, and it was a bit jarring to me.

All this to say: I have a lot of problems with this series, and it’s a miracle that so few of its elements (mostly Kelsea’s great character arc) have still managed to leave a lasting impact on me. I think I’ll genuinely miss the MC and that shocking ending, and maybe the story a bit, but as this post has demonstrated… the rest, not that much.

“Hello, It’s You” by Bearings

Lovely lovely
Do you love me?
I find it hard to believe
Lovely lovely
Do you love me?
Life ain’t nothing but a dream
So shine your love down on me”

To go from making my last Listening post on global pop star Taylor Swift’s evermore to now making one on Ottawa-based pop punkers Bearings’s sophomore effort Hello, It’s You may seem like a bit of a dramatic jump, but hear me out, because I’m telling you: this record is just as worthy of your listening time as any of last year’s big releases.

Few artists can, in my opinion, fundamentally nail that which is called “pop punk” — if you’re not familiar, it’s a genre of music that sounds exactly like it says, but many bands have put different spins on it, leaning more heavily on one element or the other. It happens to be my favourite genre of music, but because it’s a bit more niche these days than when it used to be (say, when Blink-182 was mainstream), it’s very easy for it to fall into a few slightly irritating tropes: (1) very similar lyrical themes (usually about some girl rejecting the singer and him being butthurt about it), (2) the songs all sounding the same, and (3) an unwillingness by many of these more “serious” bands to really lean into their pop side. It’s like they’re scared it’ll turn their music shallow or something.

Bearings, however, advances with no fear on Hello, It’s You, completing what I consider a perfect blend of “pop” and “punk” elements. They craft something that sounds new and unique without losing their essence, which can be summarized beautifully in lead vocalist Doug Cousins’s slightly gritty voice that is still full of soul and pop sensibility.

I first heard of Bearings a little over two years ago and I’ve had the chance to see them live in concert twice since (they killed it both times). They’d been touring to promote their debut album Blue In The Dark (which I also highly recommend you check out, along with their entire discography, it’s all so good) and I was eager to support such a great Canadian band.

From the moment the single Sway hit streaming platforms, I knew this album was going to be something special. I wasn’t initially a fan of the two tracks So Damn Wrong and I Feel It All (which I was frankly a bit surprised to see on the final record since so much time had elapsed since their release (in 2019, I believe) but they’ve grown on me since) but with Sway my excitement returned tenfold. There’s something about that pause before they launch into the chorus, which is a great piece of songwriting:

You’re swimming in my veins
Around your room
And it’s not the same without you
To something blue
She bases what she’s drinking on the place and time of day
Says that she loves California but she hates LA, okay

— “Sway”

Cool, easygoing, tongue-in-cheek writing — some of my favourite I’ve encountered in a while in pop punk. Coupled with those bouncy drums and that bright guitar riff, this song just makes me want to jump around; I can never sit still when I listen to it and I can’t help but smile at the thought of how awesome it’ll be in a live setting (one day).

I think it’s also poppy enough that even if you don’t usually like rock or punk, you might still enjoy this song. In fact, if I could only recommend one track from this album to you, Sway would be it, without a doubt.

To be fair, to the seasoned pop punk listener looking for something super fresh, Sway might not stray too much into new territory, I’ll give you that (I promise it’s catchy though). However, several other tracks on this album definitely push the pop punk genre’s boundaries.

Consider The Band CAMINO-esque Super Deluxe, or the guitar-driven emo rap track Dreams, or the nostalgic, bright rock song Better Yesterday: each make an effort to create something different within pop punk, and I personally see a ton of value in this type of experimentation from artists within a genre prone to oversaturation with the same damn material. It’s not that Bearings are selling out to more popular genres (I’ve seen people accuse them of this, especially with Dreams); it’s that they’re finding ways to inject some new life into their music, without losing their essence either. Each song still sounds so distinctly theirs.

Aside from being able to write bangers in various genres and innovate in a variety of sonic directions while still creating a highly cohesive record, Bearings also manage to create a no-skip listening experience with Hello, It’s You, which I always appreciate.

If I really had to pick a least favourite track, it’d probably be Love Me Like You Did. There’s nothing “wrong” with it per se, but I don’t love Cousins’s vocal performance on it as much as on the other songs, and it strays pretty heavily into a few of those basic pop punk tropes I mentioned earlier. Still, I definitely don’t dislike it enough to skip it, in part because it feels like it has such an integral place in the structure of the album.

And I know the album format in general is dying and while that makes me a bit sad, I understand why. The thing is, though, I love singles too and I’m excited by the prospect that some of my favourite bands might move to a more singles-focused music making/release strategy. All this to say, I can’t help but love when an artist or band can create both great singles and great full-lengths; it’s no official benchmark of talent or anything, but I still find it impressive because it means they can fulfill both sets of criteria that go into making singles and albums. As Hello, It’s You and the album’s single beautifully exemplify, Bearings is clearly one of these highly capable bands.

Ultimately, it’s the awesome songwriting, the innovation, and the cohesive but varied listening experience that keep me coming back to Hello, It’s You over and over again. I highly, highly recommend you check out this album, and if you do/did, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

“Bridgerton” (season 1)

“I am looking out for myself. I am ensuring my own future. Because I know… in my heart… I know that there is no one else who ever will.”

After finishing a pretty heavy show a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were looking for something a bit lighter and funnier to watch: enter Bridgerton, a period drama created by television giant Shonda Rhimes and based on the popular Regency romance novels by Julia Quinn.

The show follows the Bridgertons and a couple of other aristocratic families as they begin the London season, where young debutante Daphne Bridgerton is making her entrance at only the fanciest high-society events, with one goal in mind: finding a husband. Soon, she meets Simon, the Duke of Hastings, who is handsome, but a notorious “rake” (womanizer).

In an entertaining combination of mild enemies-to-lovers and the well-loved fake dating trope, we experience their banter and watch their tumultuous relationship develop over the course of the season, all the while keeping up with several side characters and micro-plotlines. We also have an overarching story about the mysterious Lady Whistledown, an anonymous writer who prints “society papers” filled with the gossip of the season and the aristocracy’s most well-guarded secrets.

The development of the main romantic relationship, particularly the banter, was pretty good, and I was kind of rooting for Daphne and Simon. As the show progressed, however, I become pretty indifferent towards Simon and I even began to hate Daphne. Neither is a very realistic character (their motivations are often vague and inconsistently depicted) and though the better of the two is definitely Simon, that’s not saying a whole lot. The plethora of enthralling supporting characters was a saving grace for a show that, while entertaining and well-produced, left me underwhelmed and with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

The show’s strongest aspect is its setting. I think that something many writers of the Regency romance micro-genre often forget is to emphasize and really toy with the glamour inherent to this setting (or at least, viewers’ romanticized perception of it) when crafting their narrative. It’s about more than just nice ball gowns and dancing with handsome men (though that’s certainly a fun part of it); it’s also about the intricacies of the aristocratic gossip, the charming mores of London high society at that time, and honestly, the ubiquity of the social struggles of non-conforming women across class lines. Maximizing the setting to serve the narrative is not something Bridgerton ever shies away from, and for that I was thankful.

I also want to mention the pretty diverse cast. I didn’t read the books, but this has Shonda Rhimes written all over it, and thank goodness, too. Historical romance is always overwhelmingly white, and Bridgerton‘s diversity is a nice change. I really like that they gave a historical justification for the presence of people of colour within London high society while not making the story entirely about race either. I ultimately think they actually ended up having the opposite problem; they didn’t really dig into race enough at all. Here’s a really good article that provides an astute race-focused critique of Bridgerton.

If you like steamy romance with lots of playful banter and any of the tropes I mentioned earlier, you’ll likely enjoy this show. Even if you’re like me and you prefer a romance that branches out a little more, Bridgerton’s hint of social commentary, its humour, its intriguing overarching plotline, and its memorable supporting characters will likely make it appeal to you as well, even if it does come off a bit soapy. If you’re looking for a nuanced romance with realistic, consistent characters you immediately latch onto and root for… frankly, Bridgerton might just disappoint you.

All in all, it’s worth a watch if you’ve got little else to do (and it’s pretty quick, with only ten or so episodes) but in all honesty, it’s not worth going well out of your way for if you don’t already have a soft spot for this genre. Also, content warning for sexual assault in the show.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I’ve already provided quite a bit of criticism of Bridgerton, but I still expect that I’ll continue with it when more seasons come out. This is primarily because the showrunners did a great job of making me care about many of its supporting characters, and based on the general feel of the last couple of episodes — what with Daphne and Simon having kids and apparently solving all of their problems that way — it seems like there’ll be less focus on their story moving forward (or so I hope). From the academically-driven Eloise Bridgerton, to the coy Lady Danbury, to the clever and beautiful Marina Thompson, I was definitely invested in their lives way more than in the main romantic pairing’s, and I’m excited to know what they’ll do next.

As a brief aside, I also find Daphne to be a huge waste of potential as a character. A calm, highly feminine character who genuinely aspires to be a wife and mother in a historical period where doing so was often the only available path for women could have made for really interesting character work. There’s power in many traditionally feminine traits, and Daphne could’ve showcased that really nicely.

Instead, we got “rape-your-husband-and-then-he’ll-change-his-inconveniently-stubborn-ways-and-forget-a-decade-of-childhood-trauma-and-have-babies-with-you.” (Can you tell that bit bothered me?)

Before I launch deeper into my three main criticisms of Bridgerton, I want to emphasize a couple more positives so that this review isn’t solely negative, because I really did have some fun watching this show. The banter between Daphne and Simon was good, and I thought there was a good amount of chemistry between them. I also loved the exchanges between Eloise and literaally anyone (but especially Penelope) and I thought the showrunners did awesome at prolonging the suspense and mystery when it came to uncovering Lady Whistledown’s identity. Finally, as mentioned earlier, I loved the setting. While I’m picky with my romance, Regency (if well-done) is a soft spot of mine and I thoroughly appreciated the costumes, the dialogue, and the delivery of most of Bridgerton‘s cast. Pretty typical of big-budget Netflix series, but I don’t want to take anything away from the actors and writers either.

The problem, I think, is the story itself. Again, since I haven’t read the books and don’t plan to, it’s hard to say what can be blamed on Quinn and what can be blamed on Rhimes and company (just trying to clarify that I’m not trying to shit on one specific person either, because I literally don’t know who made what choices or how faithful the show was to the books). Anyway, I personally had three main issues with the story.

#1 – When Daphne rapes Simon
I don’t think I need to talk about this one much since so many others have written great think pieces on this topic already. I didn’t like that rape was used purely for dramatic shock value and I think that its onscreen depiction (apparently made “better” by the fact that he said “wait” rather than “no” like in the book) is harmful, and perpetuates the idea that when men get raped, it’s not to be taken as seriously. It instantly made me completely write off Daphne as a character (whereas I only disliked her before). That action clashed so drastically with her initially sweet nature with little explanation that it just felt like poor writing to me.

#2 – Simon’s recovery from childhood trauma
The show started off well by demonstrating that much of Simon’s childhood trauma was still affecting his adult life because he had never coped with it healthily. In the last few episodes though, the show throws all of that out the door. Simon suddenly seems to get over all of his issues (after being recently raped by his wife!) all because his dearest Daphne wants children and will be sad if he doesn’t do the one thing that he has been traumatized into never wanting to do. Now, it’s obvious that Simon is not blameless in the way he chose to deal with his trauma in adulthood or in some of the ways he treats Daphne (pretty serious lying), and it’s clear to the viewer that his concerns about becoming like his father are misguided because he’s fundamentally a better person, but the fact remains that this idea that loving someone enough will fix all of one’s deep-rooted personal traumas is just false and feels like a cop-out for actual character development. Daphne remains inconsiderate of everything Simon has gone through, and because plot demands it, I suppose, he caves to her every demand while she does nothing to try and achieve a compromise with him or tend to his needs in any way. And I get that it’s romance, so things get romanticized, but in romanticizing Simon’s trauma and giving him an unrealistic recovery, Bridgerton flushed all of his good character development down the drain while actively perpetuating harmful myths about how men handle mental health difficulties.

#3 – Whistledown’s identity reveal
Finally, I was not a fan of Penelope turning out to be Lady Whistledown, purely because of the way they handled the “investigation”. What I mean with this is that we considered Penny as a potential suspect, then the show explicitly had us rule her out in favour of Mme Lacroix (for whom the Lady Whistledown identity made perfect sense), only to, at the last minute, yank us back to Penny. Clearly, the showrunners wanted a last minute, shocking twist for that final scene with the carriage leaving, and it totally would’ve worked if it had been, you know, someone we hadn’t actually considered and been clearly told to rule out. I personally felt cheated by this; the scene was being hyped up and I was thinking “oh my God, I thought I knew it was Lacroix but it isn’t, oh my God, who is it?!” only to then be shown a face I had been told it wasn’t (“oh.”). It took away from the drama of it all, drama that had been building up for the entire season. I have no problem with Penny being Whistledown plot-wise, but the execution was off for me. She should’ve been avoided entirely as a suspect earlier as it would’ve made the surprise all the more rewarding and effective.

In the end, clearly I have a lot to bitch about when it comes to Bridgerton. It had a lot of potential, but in more areas than not, it fell short of the expectations I had for it. I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to have a Regency romance blow up on Netflix in the way this one did, but without all of this show’s significant pitfalls.

“Altered Carbon”

“Humanity has spread to the stars. We set out like ancient seafarers to explore the limitless ocean of space. But no matter how far we venture into the unknown, the worst monsters are those we bring with us.”

For this first installment of Viewing, I figured I would talk about a TV show I finished just a week ago, because well, what a show it was. I am of course talking about the sci-fi space drama Altered Carbon, based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.

In this show, immortality has essentially been achieved through the use of stacks, an electronic device that can preserve the human consciousness indefinitely, allowing humans to be transferred to a different body. This is an extremely expensive process, but the hyper-wealthy, known as Meths, can change bodies (“sleeves”) several times, make a bunch of clones of themselves, and essentially live forever. Earth has also expanded its rule to other planets, now thriving human colonies, one of which we spend some time on in flashbacks and in season two, Harlan’s World.

In this show, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up from serving a prison sentence of a couple hundred years in a body that is not his own. He learns that he has been re-sleeved and commissioned by Meth Laurens Bancroft to solve a murder that occurred in his home in exchange for a full pardon for Kovacs’s crimes, which included being part of a rebellion movement against the Interstellar Protectorate. Kovacs accepts, and while he makes some allies in the form of ex-soldier Vernon Elliot and detective Kristin Ortega, he soon realizes that there is a lot more to the case than initially meets the eye.

The setting is dark, gritty, high-tech sci-fi, with lots of violence, gore, sex, and overall badass-ery. While it sometimes overdid it with those elements, the show was still appealing and its setting generally did not hinder plot or character development; if anything, it enhanced it. Such a setting was needed for the story the show tried to tell, so I was generally unbothered with its heavy use of R-rated elements. However, if you are sensitive to any of this stuff, I would definitely consider watching a different show.

The characters are well-rounded and their motivations are complex and fun to unpack. The character-driven viewer will have just as much fun watching Altered Carbon as the viewer who simply wants a cool sci-fi/cyberpunk story with lots of fight scenes. With me being the former type of viewer and my partner being the latter, we often have different tastes in TV shows, but when it came to this show and its characters, our differences didn’t stop either of us from thoroughly enjoying it. I truly think that most people who try Altered Carbon will find something to love about it, and so I highly, highly recommend that you check it out.

On a final note before I get into the spoiler-filled section, if you’ve read the book (which I haven’t), what I gathered from scanning the Wikipedia page is that a lot was changed for the show, including completely re-writing several key plot points and characters within the original story. If you’re expecting a 1:1 adaptation, you may be disappointed, so viewer beware.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I was honestly a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. I never really thought space sci-fi could be my thing, since I don’t really love Star Wars (yeah, I said it, sue me) or anything similar, really. I think the technological setting especially, elements of which one might find in an urban fantasy or a dystopian work, really caught my eye. I loved the use of virtual reality as a tool for torture, covert meetings, and sex-capades — it felt extremely realistic, and I think that the show adequately made use of it as a compelling plot device. I really enjoyed the tension created both visually and narratively in every single scene done in virtual.

In terms of the plot, I personally preferred season two to season one. While I will admit that the familiarity of the “solve a murder” plotline helped ease me into the world at first and was ultimately a good choice on the part of the showrunners for that very reason, it was not nearly as original and compelling as what came in season two with the search for Quell, the politics of Harlan’s World, and the whole Elder struggle, in my opinion. The attempted quashing of the Quellist movement, the many flashbacks, Kovacs’s original DHF coming back in the OG sleeve… just brilliant stuff.

I think I preferred many of the non-main characters of season two as well. Danica and Trepp felt so much more complete than Ortega and Vernon, for instance, although that isn’t to say that those two aren’t well-done either; just not as well as season two did its side characters. I think my preference for the season two characters is purely personal and subjective, though, and ultimately, both seasons made great use of their characters, pimping them out to the plot, if you will, in really pleasant ways.

I want to emphasize this through a couple of examples. First, Elizabeth’s transition from traumatized victim to self-confident woman ready and willing to defend herself was not only really entertaining and heartwarming to watch unfold, but was also a clever way to further flesh out Poe’s character and help us better understand his abilities as an AI.

A second great example is Trepp, a great addition to the cast in season two. Rather than just being a jaded bounty hunter, the show provided her with a concerned wife, a child who was re-sleeved after a tragic accident (the financial consequences of which Trepp is still paying and which provide further commentary on the structure of the world), and a Quellist brother who mysteriously disappeared. These were all plot-relevant ways to not only weave Trepp into the story and develop her character, but to enrich the story and the show as a whole. But for those elements, the story would not have advanced as smoothly, and Trepp’s return at the end to help the group wouldn’t have felt so rewarding.

It’s this idea of everything being purposeful, every aspect of each character being made to pertain to the plot, to relate to the setting. Writers of any kind know this principle well: it’s what makes a story and its characters feel complete and compelling. And Altered Carbon does it brilliantly.

This dedication to properly fleshed-out characters outside of just Kovacs was a huge bonus for me personally in part since I was a bit back and forth on whether or not I liked him. As his near-fanatic obsession with Quell grew over the course of season two and he seemed to lose some of his sassy, aloof edge in favour of a slightly more mean-spirited version of himself, I grew a bit bored and annoyed with him. The Quell thing especially bothered me because it felt a bit like he was objectifying her by holding her up as this god-like figure, which I think was part of what the showrunners were trying to demonstrate (that he was unhealthily obsessed with her and that she was incredibly charismatic and brilliant, but still only a human being), but it still annoyed me.

I think that my one gripe with the show was Rei — while there is something to her character, I do think that her vengeful obsession with Kovacs was a bit overdone and not as justified or realistic as I think the showrunners hoped it to seem. She came off a little too much like a “big bad” that couldn’t really be empathized with or related to in the same way that other villains (for instance, Danica) were for me, even though you could probably successfully argue that Rei had more reason to be angry and turn evil than Danica ever did. It’s not necessarily about just slapping a tragic backstory onto a character, or of making their motivations seem justified in some fucked up way, though; it’s about making them relatable, and for me personally, Rei’s character failed to do this successfully.

Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon did an excellent job by combining effective characters, plot, and setting to create a highly cohesive and immersive story. It made particularly good use of the technology present in the show (virtual reality, cloning) and brilliantly used its characters as effective “chess pieces” or plot devices to drive various aspects of the plot forward. I absolutely loved this show and was left wanting more at the end of its second and sadly final season.

“Warbreaker” – Brandon Sanderson

“Protect a flower, destroy pests who wanted to feed on it. Protect a building, destroy the plants that could have grown in the soil. Protect a man. Live with the destruction he creates.”

Going into this fantasy standalone by such an acclaimed author whose work I had never read before gave me high expectations, but to say that Warbreaker met these expectations in stride would be insufficient, since it truly exceeded them.

In Warbreaker, we follow two Idrian princesses as they enter the capital of Hallandren, an enemy nation, with different missions: Siri is sent by her father to marry the terrifying God King as per an old Idris-Hallandren treaty, and her older sister Vivenna follows her soon after to try and save her from this fate, which was initially intended for her. All the while, war between both nations is brewing.

The story feels at once familiar and fresh, as it takes several common character and plot tropes (princess being married off to an opposing kingdom, the brilliant but tormented anti-hero, two warring nations with one that has an obvious, massive advantage over the other, etc.) and turns them on their heads by adding an unexpected aspect to each of them. In this way, Sanderson creates something that you know and love, without some of the elements that you’ve maybe seen a few too many times and are getting sick of.

The greatest feature of this novel, however, is its hard magic system. Awakening is the main magical skill, and it is the process of transferring BioChromatic Breath (a form of power that gives holders various qualities, like perfect pitch, perfect colour recognition, etc.) to inanimate objects to give them life. I’ve never read anything like this system. It’s elaborate and complex and at times a lot to keep track of, but so rewarding to see play out on the pages before you.

This story is action-packed with great character arcs, a couple of unexpected twists, and mind-blowing magic and worldbuilding. If you like high fantasy with lots of action, this book is for you.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I’m still reeling from being completely enamoured with this story, and despite having read Warbreaker pretty recently, I don’t think that feeling is going to really go away with time. This book hooked me and didn’t let me go until its end, and as a pretty critical reader, I was shocked that I had so few negative things to say about it.

The main aspect of this novel that I think really struck me was the characters — you might notice this becoming a consistent theme with me in these posts, as I tend to be a character-driven reader and viewer. More specifically here, for Warbreaker, I was particularly enthralled by Vivenna. Watching her arc unfold from obedient, dutiful princess to a more open and daring version of herself after all the hardships she experienced — I especially enjoyed her huge existential faith crisis — was a treat. Everything with her dedication to Austrism and her initial opposition to Awakening, and how she thought through those issues, had me hanging onto Sanderson’s every word and loving Vivenna more and more.

I get annoyed when people say that they’re sick of “good” characters, or that good heroes are overdone. I love me a good anti-hero or morally gray character (or a villain too, of course — hi Denth) but personally, nothing hits like a well-done hero just doing their absolute best to be good. True, heroes can get basic and be easy to fuck up, but Vivenna is an awesome example of a fundamentally good person who still comes off as realistic because she’s also flawed. She’s become one of my favourite characters of all time, and I hope to see more of her (I could be wrong, but I’ve heard that the world and characters of Warbreaker might become a series).

I appreciated Siri’s arc as well, which serves as a great counterpart to her sister’s, but for me it wasn’t quite as great and as visceral as Vivenna’s. I think it’s because I personally relate to Vivenna a lot and not so much to Siri, and I’ve seen arcs similar to Siri’s in other books, but I don’t want to take anything away from it either because it was done well. I especially liked the romance with Susebron; their dynamic felt really unique and genuine to me.

I feel like I should briefly touch on the two other points of view in the book, since the story doesn’t just revolve around the two princesses and since one perspective did comprise of one of my only two gripes with the story: Lightsong. While I found Vasher very enjoyable to follow around and hear from, whenever a Lightsong passage would come up, I would find myself dreading it a bit. Almost every stopping point I took while reading Warbreaker was at the start of a new Lightsong passage. I acknowledge that he was well-rounded and had a nice arc (I was actually a bit sad to see him die, I’ll admit) but overall, I found him pretty insufferable. His “wit” was too much, not really funny most of the time, and just so damn excessive.

My other minimal issue was the twist with Denth and Tonk Fah actually having been against Vivenna the whole time. I felt like it wasn’t quite hinted at enough (although it could totally be that I just didn’t pick up on the hints well enough) and for whatever reason, it rubbed me the wrong way. I think I felt cheated from the lack of hints, though part of it was definitely hurt at their betrayal, which I suppose means Sanderson did his job right to an extent. Their constant mercenary humour kind of missed the mark for me as well, and I feel like we were robbed of more significant scenes of actual conversation with Denth in them — definitely some missed potential there, in my opinion, since I took quite a liking to him early on.

Ultimately, those are some pretty minor and nitpicky complaints, which shows you just how much I loved this book. I feel like I didn’t discuss the plot too much, but I think it’s because there’s not much to say; it’s pretty standard, though not bad by any means. Where Sanderson makes it shine is in his characters, magic system, general worldbuilding, elevating this story from good to truly excellent.

The compelling nature of Vivenna, Siri, and Vasher’s characters alone makes it worth the read, so you can imagine how everything else only enriches the brilliance of Warbreaker.

“evermore” by Taylor Swift

“My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand
Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another
Oh, I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland
My house of stone

Your ivy grows
And now I’m covered in you”

Kicking off this re-vamped version of my blog on the first day of the new year feels like a fresh new beginning for me, which is honestly exactly how I would describe evermore, the newest project from Taylor Swift. Mixing her pop sensibility with a hint of her country roots, a modern folk sound, and her god-tier songwriting, she truly delivers on this project, causing myself (and many of her fans) to continue listening over and over again.

Now, I’ll be honest: I’ve never really been a Swiftie, despite always having respected and admired her artistry since the start of her prolific career. Her music never really resonated with me personally even though, again, it’s easy to see why it resonates with so many other people. I was impressed with the production on reputation and Lover especially and I found folklore alright, but still, I felt like I didn’t really “get” Taylor like others did.

All of that changed when evermore came out less than a month ago. Somehow, when the opening notes of willow rang out in my ears, I knew I was going to love this project. The chorus of this track is just sublime from a songwriting and production perspective.

“The more that you say, the less I know
Wherever you stray, I follow
I’m begging for you to take my hand
Wreck my plans, that’s my man”

— “willow”

The excellent songwriting is probably the most consistent aspect of evermore (which is saying something, because this is a very cohesive project on many levels) and what personally made me fall for it. It’s more elaborate, raw, and prose-ish than anything she’s ever put out, in my opinion. The storytelling nature of a lot of folk or general “guitar” music is mixed with pop song structures and catchy choruses, as seen on the country-tinged no body, no crime (feat. HAIM) which is among my favourites on the album. The more complex lyricism is poetic without sounding stuffy or as though Taylor is “trying too hard” in any way. It feels so honest, in a way that I personally never saw coming from Taylor on an acoustic album. Something about quieter music brings out the emotion for me in a way that pop songs like those which can be found on albums like reputation just don’t (I still really like reputation though).

Don’t get me wrong, folklore was strong in the songwriting department as well, and didn’t come off as dishonest or anything, and I’m not saying it wasn’t emotional and well-done. However, I do think that it missed the mark a bit when it came to the instrumentation; too many songs blended together, and for me, this resulted in much of the emotional message getting diluted. I was zoning in and out because the instrumental aspects weren’t interesting enough for me (exile (feat. Bon Iver) is an absolute masterpiece though; it makes me want to learn piano just to play it).

This is an issue that evermore avoids entirely, in my opinion, and so when Taylor’s incredible lyricism and songwriting skills met the proper instrumental backdrop, it felt like magic to me. It still does.

I honestly don’t think there’s a song I dislike on the album. Of course, I have favourites (willow, champagne problems, no body, no crime (feat. HAIM), ivy) and least favourites (happiness, coney island (feat. The National)) like with any album, but to make a project unique and cohesive enough in a genre you haven’t touched in a while without a single dud is impressive.

I think another reason the album personally really got to me was not only the pain in the lyrics, but the refinement with which it’s addressed. There’s a sort of class in the way she phrases things and in the way she discusses her hardship. Take these lyrics from Shake It Off, from her album 1984:

But I keep cruisin’
Can’t stop, won’t stop groovin’
It’s like I got this music in my mind
Sayin’ it’s gonna be alright

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

— “Shake It Off”

Then, from the title track from evermore:

Gray November
I’ve been down since July
Motion capture
Put me in a bad light
I replay my footsteps on each stepping stone
Trying to find the one where I went wrong
Writing letters
Addressed to the fire

— “evermore (feat. Bon Iver)”

There’s something to be said about her incredibly wide range of expression; not just that she feels the different emotions expressed in those two songs, but that she can make them both into great songs. However, when I personally look at those two examples, I definitely gravitate more towards the latter, not just because the lyrics are sadder and I’m an emo idiot, but because of the ethereality she creates with her words. It’s a mixture of lyrics and instrumentation of course (putting the poppy beat of Shake It Off with these lyrics wouldn’t create that same effect, and vice-versa), but still. At the risk of sounding too vague, I read that, and I feel like I’m floating in a shifting pool of emotion; as opposed to having it bluntly presented to me, I get to be thoughtful and reflective as I am slowly immersed into the waters of Taylor’s and my own mind.

evermore is the perfect mixture of a large range of emotions, and as a work by Taylor Swift, it feels at once fresh and familiar. It’s beautiful, and it continues to be highly impactful for me each time I listen through. I highly recommend you check it out.