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Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, by Lauren Esker

A completely adorable paranormal romance about the forbidden love between a werewolf boy and a weresheep girl.

The Capshaw sheep shifters and the Wolfe werewolves have carried on a feud for generations in their small town. It’s less murder in the dark, and more avoiding each other, getting in fist fights, and bringing up thirty-year-old fender-benders at inopportune moments. But Julie Capshaw and Damon Wolfe secretly befriended each other as little kids, until it ended disastrously when their families found out.

Julie went off to college, while Damon stayed home. But her English literature degree was about as profitable as one might expect, so back she came to help out at the family farm. Her future stretched before her, long and dreary and full of potatoes.

Needless to say, Julie and Damon’s childhood friendship turns into a very adult romance. But can they overcome his abusive father who rules the pack with an iron fist, the asshole alpha of a neighboring pack angling for an arranged marriage with Damon’s sister, and millennia of bad blood between wolves and sheep?

Of course they can! It’s a romance! But a romance that takes some rather unpredictable turns in the middle, giving it excellent narrative drive. In other unconventional elements, it has a lot of focus on the families rather than just on the main couple, and not just on characters who can be paired up in later books. I especially enjoyed the rifle-toting sheep grandmother.

And, of course, there’s the sheep. The worldbuilding is sketched in lightly but convincingly and originally for both species, from the different ways that sheep eyes work to the different cultural attitudes toward romance. And all the descriptions of sheep running around being heroic and the heroine’s little sheep hooves clattering over the floor never failed to crack me up.

If you enjoyed my Mated to the Meerkat, you will enjoy this – it’s funny and sweet, instant comfort-reading. If you generally dislike romance, this is not the book to sell you on it.

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing was written under a pen name by Layla Wier, aka Sholio/Friendshipper. (This is not a secret.) She’s a friend of mine, but I promise you that I would have adored this book anyway.

Only 99 cents on Amazon. I’m sure you could get an epub copy upon request.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1198077.html. Comment here or there.

Baahubali: The Beginning

In brief, AMAZING. If it’s playing anywhere near you, run and see it immediately. (It only has about two more days left in the USA.) If not, see it on DVD when it comes out.

This is a difficult movie to review because I don’t want to give too much away. It not only has several surprising plot twists, but also a lot of gorgeous imagery that’s wonderful to see for the first time, when you don’t know it’s coming. So I won’t say much about the plot.

Baahubali is an original historical fantasy that plays out like it was based on an ancient myth. Though it doesn’t have the complexity of character or moral ambiguity or intellectual heft of The Mahabharata or Ramayana, those epics and other the ancient tales of India clearly inspired its epic scope, archetypal themes, and magical imagery.

Classic tropes from Indian legend – the boon, the rivalry between princes with disastrous consequences, the humble but loving mother who adopts a son with a destiny, the mountain in the clouds, the war formation the enemy doesn’t expect, the woman wronged who demands bloody revenge – all make appearances here, and are given their proper, larger-than-life weight. The hero reminded me of Bhima in personality and physique, but a number of incidents were clearly inspired by the life of Krishna. For instance, the baby held above the waters echoes Vasudeva crossing the flooded Yamuna to hide away the infant Krishna.

The song I linked in the last post is a version of a hymn to Shiva, the Shiva Tandava Stotram, which is attributed to Ravana. I’ll quote some of it because even in translation (by P. R. Ramachander), you can feel its power and beauty and sensuality. (Remember how magnificent it sounded in Telegu.) That is the sort of ancient writing, still living today, which inspired this movie.

The celestial river agitatedly moving through his matted hair,
Which makes his head shine with those soft waves,
And his forehead shining like a brilliant fire
And the crescent of moon which is an ornament to his head,
Makes my mind love him each and every second.

He, with the shining lustrous gem on the hood
Of the serpent entwining his matted locks,
He, who is with his bride whose face is decorated
By the melting of red saffron kumkum,
And He who wears on his shoulder the hide
Of the elephant which was blind with ferociousness,
Makes my mind happy and contented.

A lot of the movie walks the fine line between magnificence and camp, but even when it’s ridiculous, it’s gloriously ridiculous. This is what you get when you put together an extremely talented director steeped in Indian myth, a brilliant cinematographer determined to tell the story visually so even people who don’t understand the dialogue will love it, and a totally committed cast, and have them all go for broke. Sometimes this results in "Did somebody order a LARGE HAM?” hamminess. More often, it captures the larger than life spirit of myth.

When a woman reveals her secret plan for revenge, a strong warrior staggers backward from the force of it. A desperate prayer to Shiva is answered with a boon that allows a dying woman to walk underwater. A man whose destiny is to climb the unclimbable mountain falls a thousand feet, only to rise to climb again. A sleeping warrior on a riverbank, her arm dangling in the water, is seduced by a prankster lover who swims through schools of bright fishes to paint a tattoo on her hand. If you ask why he was in the river and where he got a set of underwater paints, you’re missing the point.

A lot of the power of myth is in its lack of naturalism. Events occur and choices are made not because of the realistic motivations of ordinary humans, but because archetypal stories are playing out. If Baahubali had been more realistic and less theatrical, it wouldn’t be half as magical.

It was the most expensive movie ever made in India, and while the CGI is occasionally a little shaky, it uses its budget to the max. When CGI first came upon the scene, I thought it would be used to create fantastical worlds and creatures – sense of wonder brought to sight. And sometimes it is, but more often it’s used to create big, pointless, repetitive explosions. Baahubali uses CGI to create beauty and wonder. Just look at the waterfall and the city in the trailer. The entire movie is like that.

(Plus blood-splattering battle sequences and bull-wrestling. I’m glad they put the disclaimer that no animals were harmed and all animal falls are CGI at the start of the film rather than the end, because otherwise I’d have been concerned.)

Though I’ve emphasized huge! Epic! Grand! In my review, there’s also lots of nice little touches. Many of the characters have marks on their foreheads, like bindi, which helpfully identify them when you’re trying to distinguish Magnificent Warrior Dude # 1 from Magnificent Warrior Dude # 2. (This isn’t usually difficult. They all look quite different, and also have different Magnificent Moustaches. But given my general terrible facial recognition skills, I appreciated it.) The hero has a coiled cobra, the mark of Shiva. A pair of princes are marked with a sun and moon. There’s a complete throwaway bit, lasting maybe five seconds, where a pair of bull-masked dancers butt heads, that is SO COOL. I also enjoyed the funny-on-purpose moments.

My only real criticisms are political rather than artistic. There’s a song/dance number where the hero melts the warrior heroine's icy heart via stylized fighting and pulling off her clothes. It’s clearly meant to be about him breaking her emotional barriers with his sincerity, sensuality, and passion. But, well. Not to mention the unfortunate implications of what was actually intended, where she embraces her femininity and warmth… and then totally forgets how to fight so he can rescue her. And then there’s the attack of the dark-skinned barbarians, with its own set of unfortunate implications.

In a more enjoyable use of traditional gender roles (traditional in India), there is not one! Not two! But THREE awesome middle-aged moms! One is a loving mother raising a son she doesn’t quite understand. One is a total badass who rules a kingdom with cool authority after taking on a regency with a baby in one hand and a bloody dagger in the other. The third initially seems passive, turns out to be anything but, and has one of the best scenes in the entire movie. (For the benefit of my one reader who’s actually seen Baahubali: a handful of twigs.)

Be warned: Baahubali ends on a very dramatic TO BE CONTINUED!!! Well, it is subtitled “The Beginning.” But I ate up all three hours and would have happily sat through three more. The first hour, especially, is pure magic. I haven’t felt so transported in a movie theatre since the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Rings.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1197696.html. Comment here or there.

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My Favorite Movie of the Year: Baahubali

I will write a real review later, but in brief, this is a south Indian historical fantasy that plays like a myth transferred straight to the screen. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, is full of moments straight out of legend, has a fantastic score and amazing action sequences, and also has a number of surprising plot twists.

It's only playing in the US for about two more days, and should be seen on the big screen. I haven't enjoyed a movie this much in literally years.

Trailer. (Not subtitled, but the movie has English subs.)

One of my favorite songs.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1197338.html. Comment here or there.

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TA-DA! Mated to the Meerkat

Meerkat Final large

Curvy reporter Jasmine Jones is thrilled when she’s hired to investigate the charismatic but sinister lawyer campaigning for mayor of Los Angeles. It could make her career, but there’s a catch. She has to partner with Chance Marcotte, the annoying (and annoyingly hot) paparazzi with a history of popping up unexpectedly and ruining her scoops.

But when they’re supposed to meet for a stakeout, Chance never shows up. Instead, an adorable, injured meerkat scurries out of the bushes and collapses at her feet. A sucker for cute little animals, Jasmine takes him home to tend his wounds. The next morning, she gets the surprise of a lifetime when she awakens to find an unclothed and bandaged Chance.

Can an ambitious reporter and a curious meerkat shifter stop bickering for long enough to defeat a law firm of evil cobra shifters, get the scoop, find their happily ever after, and have lots of hot sex? (Spoiler: the hot sex is a definite yes.)

A screwball comedy novelette by the author of the "Werewolf Marines" series.

This story is exactly as serious as it looks. I had lots of fun writing it. I hope, if you read it, that it brightens your day. Email me if you'd like an epub.

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I HATE zombies. And body horror creeps me out. And child-in-danger stories are usually annoying and manipulative. So I can’t believe I am actually recommending a child-in-danger zombie novel that is chock-full of disturbing body horror… but this one is really good.

It opens with a heartbreakingly charming narration by Melanie, a bright little girl who adores her teacher, who secretly slips her a book of Greek myths. Melanie loves the story of Pandora, the girl with all the gifts. But she doesn’t understand why her beloved teacher often seems so sad, or why she and the other kids have to be tied to chairs to attend school. Why is almost immediately clear to readers – it’s after the zombie apocalypse, and she’s the rare intelligent zombie that scientists are experimenting on in the hope of finding a vaccine or cure – but there are many other mysteries that are less obvious.

The first section and denouement of the novel are the best parts; the first because of Melanie’s narration, the last because it’s an absolutely perfect climax, satisfying on the all levels. In between is a more standard but well-done zombie novel. In particular, the mechanism of the zombie apocalypse is pleasingly clever and well-worked out. But the beginning and the end really make the book.

Right from the start, Melanie is explicitly compared to Pandora, so it's clear that in some way, she will unleash horrors upon humanity, but also hope. And all through the book, she does, in ways that change as she changes, learning more about the world and herself. It's beautifully done.

I don’t often like horror. When I do enjoy something marketed as horror, it’s often despite rather than because of the genre. For instance, I love the author’s voice (Stephen King) or prose style (Tanith Lee) or psychological insight (Melanie Tem) enough to get me past that horror is a genre of emotional atmosphere, and the specific emotions of horror – fear, dread, horror, disgust – aren’t ones I usually enjoy.

But there’s another emotional state that horror can evoke, which is something akin to Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. It’s horror as transcendence, where terror and horror are also beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s probably not coincidental that the authors I mentioned above hit that mark for me – not always, and not in everything they write, but sometimes. C. L. Moore’s stories “Black God’s Kiss” and “Shambleau” are like that, too: creepy and disturbing, but also seductive and full of sense of wonder.

The Girl With All the Gifts hits that mark, off and on, until coming to a conclusion that’s viscerally horrifying but also beautiful and transcendent. The characters other than Melanie are sketched in, plausible types rather than three-dimensional characters, and a late reveal about the teacher’s past is reductionist rather than revelatory. But the beginning is brilliant, the middle is solid, and the ending is haunting in the very best way.

The Girl With All the Gifts

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1196663.html. Comment here or there.

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Apollo wants to understand why Daphne would rather be a tree than have sex with him. Athena wants to find out what would happen if she took everyone throughout time who has ever prayed to her to let them live in Plato’s Republic, gave them a doomed island, a bunch of robots, and children to raise as per Plato’s ideas, and told them to go for it. A young Victorian lady named Ethel renames herself Maia and devotes herself to the Just City. Two children, taken from the slave markets and given to the Just City, come to opposite conclusions about its worth.

Out of all of Jo Walton’s strange premises, this one takes the cake. Even more than “Framley Parsonage, but everyone’s a dragon.” But I love that she thinks of ideas like this, has the chops to carry them out, and is supported by a publisher who will publish whatever bizarre book she chooses to write. The Just City is a terrific book that I can’t imagine anyone else writing.

It’s a novel of ideas in the very best sense, full of complex and interesting questions with no easy answers, and populated by three-dimensional characters who care deeply about and are profoundly affected by the issues at play. (The issues include but aren’t limited to consent, free will, nature vs. nurture, whether the ends justify the means, and how idealistic movements and planned communities succeed and fail.) Since I grew up in a planned community, I found the book particularly interesting. It does not escape Walton that one of the most toxic issues in a planned community or progressive movement is the willingness to sacrifice vulnerable members for the supposed good of the whole, nor that the same community can be a utopia for one person and a dystopia for their neighbor.

This is the first of a trilogy, but comes to a conclusion that’s open-ended yet satisfying, shocking but inevitable in retrospect. I guessed where it was going in general, but was completely surprised by the details.

You don’t need to be familiar with or care about Plato’s Republic to read this. The book explains everything you need to know. It’s much more about larger issues of utopia/dystopia than about the Republic specifically, though the actual specifics are from the Republic. Note that it contains rape, slavery, child harm, and other disturbing things, and also characters endorsing all sorts of terrible opinions. This is not a book to read if you want the voice of the author interjecting to assure you that terrible things are terrible. It’s very much a book where many opinions are presented and it’s left to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

If you intend to read this, avoid reviews. There’s several plot twists that will be more satisfying if you don’t know about them in advance. Spoilers are fine in comments.

The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, is out now.

The Just City

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1196533.html. Comment here or there.

The US now has same-sex marriage nationwide!

ETA: Wait, this one's even better. Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi celebrate.

I look forward to summer weddings and news outlets filled with photos of happy couples.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1196144.html. Comment here or there.
Rebel_Brown_Smith_Final

Welcome back to Las Anclas, a frontier town in the post-apocalyptic Wild West. In this perilous landscape, a schoolboy can create earthquakes, poisonous cloud vipers flock in the desert skies, and the beaches are stalked by giant mind-controlling lobsters.

The tyrant king Voske has been defeated, but all is not peaceful in Las Anclas. Ross's past comes back to haunt him, Jennie struggles with her new career, Mia faces her fears, Felicite resorts to desperate measures to keep her secrets, Kerry wonders if Las Anclas has really seen the last of her father, and shy Becky Callahan may hold the key to a dangerous mystery.

In Rebel, long-held secrets of past and present are revealed, family ties can strangle as well as sustain, and the greatest peril threatening Las Anclas comes from inside its walls.

On Goodreads.

I will answer questions if anyone has any, but reserve the right to say, "That's spoilery."

Turbulence, by Samit Basu

Whether or not you will like this playful novel about Indian superheroes depends largely on how much you like its distinctive voice. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

#

In 1984, Group Captain Balwant Singh of the Indian Air Force’s Western Air Command had dangled his then three-year-old son Vir off the edge of the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, nearly giving his gentle and hirsute wife, Santosh Kaur, a heart attack in the process. With the mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot, Captain Singh had tossed his son up, caught him in midair and held him over the railing for a while, before setting him down safely.

His son’s future thus secured, Balwant had turned to shut off his wife’s uncanny impersonation of a police siren with the wise words, “Nonsense, foolish woman. See, my tiger is not afraid at all. He is born for the sky, just like me. Vir, say ‘Nabha Sparsham Deeptam’.”

Vir had not been in the mood for the Indian Air Force motto at that point, his exact words had been, “MAA!”

All these years later, Vir still remembers that first flight with astonishing clarity: the sudden weightlessness, the deafening sound of his own heart beating, the blur of the world tilting around him, the slow-motion appearance of first the white dome of Sacré Coeur and then a wispy white cloud shaped like Indira Gandhi’s hair behind his flailing red Bata Bubble-Gummers shoes. His father had said that moment had shaped his destiny, given him wings.

But his father isn’t here now. Flight Lieutenant Vir Singh is all alone in the sky.

#

Vir, like the other superheroes, got his powers on a commercial flight to Mumbai; why and how this occurred is never explained and doesn’t matter. The powers derive from the characters’ deepest desires, so Vir, an all-Indian hero, became Superman; Uzma, a British-Pakistani aspiring actress, is loved by everyone she meets; Tia, a discontented mom who wishes she’d made different life choices, gets the ability to generate copies of herself. (One guy gets the power to control weather based on the condition of his stomach, but exactly what this power means to him is not explored.)

The characters’ knowledge of superheroes and the fact that most of the superheroes they know of are not Indian provides a lot of the comedy and social commentary of the book, as they discover that all the good superhero names in English are taken, and the Hindi alternates are incomprehensible or unpronounceable to a global audience. (Vir’s suggestion, based on the highest Indian military decoration, is shot down due to no one who isn’t in the Indian Air Force having heard of it.) And is a giant superhero battle with lots of property destruction the inevitable climax of any superhero story?

The characters are lightly but vividly sketched. They’re types rather than well-rounded characters, but they’re fun types. My favorites were Uzma, who just wants to be famous, Tia, whose power is more badass than it sounds, and the super-baby, or rather the hilariously bonkers cult following attracted by the super-baby. But the wry narration was my favorite part of the book, tossing off quips and references like a never-ending shower of brightly colored confetti.

There is a sequel, which I will definitely read, but this book ends conclusively. I think the sequel takes place several years later and mostly involves different characters.

Turbulence

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1188899.html. Comment here or there.

Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

In Dresediel Lex, an alternate Los Angeles once ruled by Aztec Gods but now taken over and colonized by undead corporate wizards, Caleb, a gambler and risk management expert embarks on a risky love affair with Mal, a reckless parkour player… and discovers a deadly threat to the city.

This book is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, but in a different part of it and involving different characters. They can be read independently.

I didn’t like this quite as much as Three Parts Dead, because it had less of the charming dark humor of the latter and I didn’t like the main characters or their relationships quite as much. It’s still an excellent book, the funny moments are really funny, and it’s perhaps the only book I’ve ever read that actually has something interesting to say about human sacrifice.

Caleb is the son of Temoc, once a priest to the old Gods, now an outlaw and terrorist/rebel against the new corporate overlords his son works for. One of my favorite parts of the book was their fraught relationship, consisting almost entirely of Temoc unexpectedly materializing, Temoc and Caleb squabbling and guilt-tripping each other, and then Temoc de-materializing when he either gets too frustrated or the people chasing him getting too close. Temoc is a terrible person and worse father, but he has his good side and was probably my favorite character. He was also responsible for my single favorite line in the entire book. It’s at the climax and involves a ghastly eldritch horror, and you’ll know it when you get to it.

The ideological divide between father and son involves human sacrifice. Temoc makes the very valid point that Caleb’s corporate bosses are also sacrificing people, just minus the altars and knives: they oppress the poor for the benefit of the rich, they steal water from outlying areas to quench the thirst of their desert city, and they enslave the old Gods. So rather than the simple (and dull) point that human sacrifice is bad, the book raises a much more interesting and relevant set of questions: how much human life and pain is worthwhile to keep a society functioning? Is there any moral difference if the people being sacrificed are consenting to some degree or another? Is it possible for a society to exist without oppressing someone? Are there options beyond walking away from Omelas?

These questions are woven into an excellent, atmospheric novel, full of cool bits. Though I wasn’t that into the main romance, I loved Caleb’s non-romantic relationships. In addition to the father-son one, he also had a lovely friendship with Teo, his co-worker, who in turn had a fun romance with an artist named Sam. (Since I realize the names are ambiguous, that’s a lesbian romance.) The structure is good, and the climax is excellent. I especially liked how even the bit characters had agency and individuality.

Max Gladstone reminds me a bit of China Mieville in the inventiveness of his worldbuilding, exuberance of his prose, and concern with injustice and inequality, but with a more optimistic and humane perspective. His characters may be hurt, physically or emotionally, but they are never punished or shamed for trying to do the right thing. They fight against heavy odds in an unjust world, but even the worst of them have moments of human kindness and concern. That includes not only Temoc, but also the evil overlord skeleton sorcerer.

Spoilers below! Read more...Collapse )

Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence)

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1188777.html. Comment here or there.

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