29 June 2014

First Draft

On Friday I finally completed a first draft of a long form story. A little over 60,000 words covering a beginning, middle and end. I've been working on this particular draft since September, though I have had some breaks for other things in that time.

Completing a first draft is something I've tried to do for years. I've tried with other stories, and though I've written more words in the past they haven't added up to a full story before.

I know that the draft I've written is full of bad writing and some scenes aren't complete. I have no intention of letting anyone see it, but it's a starting place and I can build from it. I've already had some ideas about what to add and what to improve. I expect the next draft will be longer. However I'm going to wait a while, get some distance from the story before I try rewriting. I'll spend the time working on projects, perhaps getting back into short stories.

21 June 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I really enjoyed Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (despite how hard it is to type the full name correctly) and I'd like to talk about why. Given its place within the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) there are spoilers for this and other works, but I have taken care to separate these so that folk can read on a little spoiler-free.

Spoiler-free section
The programme started pretty lightweight and... not fluffy, because properly bad stuff went down, but perhaps somewhat frothy. It was soon clear that it was not all superheroes all the time, or even mostly superpowers. Agents of Shield was largely a light-hearted spy show, which threw in the tech, powers and alien-magic that existed, but was not explored, in the cinematic universe. I get that some people were expecting different things from content or tone and gave up early. It's unfortunate that the rocky start to it means people have missed out, but nowadays there are many options to catch up if you receive a good recommendation. I hope some of you will consider this that recommendation. After all events in Agents of Shield are tied to a wider universe, so the pacing has to work around the films. It's better reason for a slow start than other series have.

The early episodes were mostly standalone and set up themes/arcs/mysteries for later. There was a thread running through several episodes, but it didn't always take centre stage. They also introduced the main characters, focusing on who they were and what they could do. The team were put into situations where their knowledge and skills could be used for what they were told was the greater good. Some main characters were more likeable/interesting than others, and there were usually guest characters who were similarly variable.

The series started to join up with the films after Thor: the Dark World, although the connections were not strong there was a sense of being part of a bigger universe. Episode quality improved. There were more arc plots involving the main characters and certain of their back stories. Plus allies and enemies reoccurred, and we learned more about SHIELD as an organisation (it is what they are agents of after all). The peril grew, the stakes raised and mysteries deepened. There was a sense of greater things coming as the series built towards something, and I was intrigued.
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened and changed the game. Episodes after that were amazing, full of suspense and intrigue and great character moments. The tone became darker and more serious, but still not gritty and with some great comedy moments in the mix. The characters I was less keen on became more interesting, and the ones I'd always liked became great. The new elements introduced were real game-changers and set the show on a whole new path that's only just started. I can't wait to see what series 2 brings.

Spoilers for Agents of Shield and Captain America: the Winter Soldier (vague spoiler for Iron Man 3 and one spoiler for Thor: the Dark World)

My favourite characters are Simmons, May and Coulson. I mostly like Fitz, though his attitude to Simmons towards the end of series seemed unnecessary. Skye is fine I suppose, but I rather suspect her backstory will prove to be more interesting than she is. It's not that there's anything wrong with her, but I think it could be that Skye is meant to be our gateway character and I don't feel as though I identify with her. I never liked Ward, and after Turn Turn Turn I felt pretty vindicated. Ward was never likeable or interesting, though I now wonder how much of that was because he was basically a facade all along.

It's interesting to see how the various types of 'power' from the films are used here. It's balancing act that Avengers was a bit too busy to deal with. The fact that the mystery baddie was called the Clairvoyant, and no one knew if that was an accurate description of what they could do, tells you the kind of stuff this team are dealing with.
The extremis tech/science from Iron Man 3 is misued as part of the Centipede project. Centipede initially looks like it'll be the big bad, but of course it's only a tiny part of what's going on. It's cool how many of the antagonists seemed separate but are linked in ways even they don't know (many heads of the Hydra), all building to the reveal we didn't know was coming. The Asgardians on Earth provide the magic and mythology (yes, yes, I know its supposed to be very advanced alien tech really, but it looks like magic and I say it's sufficiently advanced so therefore indistinguishable). They're more separate from the Hydra stuff, coming from another world as they do. I really liked the episode when Sif showed up, she didn't get enough space in Thor 2. The antagonist's power over men could have been explored more (Does her power work on gay men? Lesbians? Is it to do with desire or a Y-chromosome? Why didn't they just send all the men far away?) and is a bit of a dodgy trope. I now realise that the episode may have been foreshadowing the danger Ward becomes later. Plus Sif mentions that she was sent by Odin to retrieve prisoners after the Asgardian jail break. Having seen the end of Thor 2 I really want to know about what "Odin" is doing.

The episode where they break into the mysterious mountain to save Skye, and Coulson sees what saved him had me on the edge of my seat. The mystery of Coulson's return to life is a good one - though I don't understand why my DVD of Avengers Assemble took out the tip of the spear from Coulson's death scene, the show agrees that he was impaled.
I also liked the episode in the SHIELD Academy (if Simmons is science-Hermione then the Academy is science-Hogwarts). It's the only institution in the MCU that could have a similar to feel the Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, which of course Marvel can't use on screen. I hope they made it through the rise of Hydra.
Speaking of which, how good was Turn Turn Turn? I didn't know who was on which side for about half an hour (even with my husband telling me what alignment some characters had in the comics), and it was great. The introduction of Koenig was good, and his death saddening. The end of the series was excellent and I liked how there was comedy amongst the darker stuff.

Simmons would want the TARDIS on a desert island, best answer ever! I love her.

"This is just me being honest, Phil"
"No John, this is you being a psychopath."

Those symbols Garrett drew after he went even more crazy, and that Phil started drawing too (in his sleep?) have appeared before. Ward sees them on a blackboard when he breaks into that facility in Eye Spy. Also something that looks a bit like them appears in Coulson's weird flashback. This is clearly being positioned as an ongoing myserty for next series, as is Skye's parentage. It's long been clear that Skye is some kind of dangerous McGuffin, or was treated as such as a baby, and I suspect she may not be fully human. What that makes her I have no idea. Still it'd be cool to have someone with powers on the team. Then there's the appearance of the Koenig twins? Clones? Doubles? I expect we'll find more about that fairly quickly.

Great costumes, plus extra geek-glasses

18 June 2014

Dangerous Waters

Dangerous Waters
Juliet E. McKenna

I've been meaning to read this book for a while. My husband kindly got a copy signed for me from a convention over a year ago, but my TBR pile wasn't too organised then*. Plus I wanted to finish the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution (reviewed here previously) first. It was good that I did finish that first, as an early part of Dangerous Waters features a character who dies in the previous series (though I half forgot that as I was reading) showing that there is some definite overlap in time. It's clear that McKenna is always building upon events in her world with each book, and so the events of one series have consequences for things that happen later. Some of the action of this book takes place in the southern archipelago, which was introduced back in Swordsman's Oath and is the setting of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet (of which I've only read the first book). Not that you have to read each series in order, the author takes care to give you the relevant information without infodumping.

As I have come to expect with Juliet E McKenna's books this is a story which deals with people's lives and how changing situations, decisions and external forces affect them. Lady Zurenne is the widow of a noble with modest resources, after her husband's death she was held captive in her own home by a sadistic man and is desperate not to be ruled by any man again. However her society is one which clearly has no time for women's voices and Zurenne is a product of this. Despite her inner turmoil and growing resolution she is not daring or bold enough to ask for what she wants or challenge authority set before her, so she ends up making poor decisions in order to quietly get into a better situation. Her eldest daughter shows a little more spirit, probably because of her youth and what she's been through, but I cannot blame Zurenne for being what she was always expected and trained to be. Soldier Corrain served Zurenne's husband and was captured by southern slavers after his master was betrayed. His grim determination to escape and seek vengeance carries him through the first part of the book. Corrain is a very flawed character, driven by his loyalty, he's also misanthropic and apparently unable to see value in other methods of doing things. Quick to dismiss the foreign, even when seeking help from other lands. His fellow captive, a youth called Hosh, is able to adapt to their situation, where Corrain doesn't even try. His story is one of relentlessly seeking his goals, a questing figure with none of the romance that word implies. He shows no flexibility in his viewpoint and has little else in his life besides revenge. Much like Zurenne he is a certain way due to his upbringing and life experiences and seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to break from the role he has imagined for himself.

The other main group of characters are the wizards. Hadrumal is the hidden island of the elemental mages, and so in a series called the Hadrumal Crisis you expect them to play a big part. Magewoman Jilseth works for the Archmage to protect the name of wizardry on the mainland. After her actions in the Lescari Chronciles she is trying to clear up the mess left by a renegade mage. In opposition to Zurenne Jilseth does not consider her gender a setback and is confident in her own abilities. The two women do not get on, but Jilseth must stay with Zurenne for a while as part of her work. In Hadrumal the debate about whether mages should get involved in mainland politics and conflicts rages on, with each side stating their opinions, and tensions rising, though not yet spilling over. There's a group of mages, Jilseth and her friends, that support the Archmage's policy, and then there's a group of mages who hold a different view. Neither side is painted as bad, and there much debate and argument with reasoning set out in conversation. Hadrumal has a collegial atmosphere and while there are rivalries and personal disagreements everyone conducts themselves in a mature way. However when an unexpected magic user appears from the west, not bound by any of the decrees or rules of the Archmage or Hadrumal, and suddenly the future and reputation of magecraft look far from certain. I'm glad that though there are disagreements in the wizards' community everyone behaves like adults even when they aren't happy about the situation. I also liked that the book explores the repercussions of wizards not getting involved, not just through discussion, but through the actual events of book. There's also stark demonstration of how magic can change the outcome of any encounter, and why that's sometimes necessary and often dangerous.

* It's not much more organised now, but it is mostly one pile rather than books spread across the house.

12 June 2014

The High Ground

Episode: s3, ep12

What Happens
The Enterprise brings medical supplies to a non-Federation planet with a trading relationship. There's civil unrest and internal terrorism from separatists, so away teams are armed. Crusher, Worf and Data are on the planet when a bomb goes off. Crusher helps the wounded and refuses to beam away though Data and Picard want her to. A separatist appears, grabs Crusher and disappears. Data later explains that Crusher wasn't beamed away so they can't trace her. Picard won't let Wesley go to the planet, but asks him to help figure out how the kidnapper jumped away. Riker visits the local Police Chief, she tells him the terrorists have been translocating without trace for two months.
Crusher is in a cave and initially refuses to communicate. Her captor wants a Federation doctor to help his people. He claims the Federation have taken sides by bringing supplies to the government, Crusher refutes this. She's given stolen Federation medical supplies and shown a room of sick people. She tries to help them, but they're dying from warped DNA. The separatist leader says it was caused by their dimension-shifting device, but they won't stop using it. Riker is shocked by the police crackdowns on suspected separatist-sympathisers, the Chief says it was worse before she started. Data, Geordi and Wesley examine a terrorist device and realise it's a harmful transporter-alternative. They may be able to track it, but need more info.
Riker tells a sympathiser in custody that the Federation will negotiate for Crusher's return, which annoys the Chief. Crusher argues with her captor about his methods. Picard and Data discuss the moral issues of using violence for political change. Riker's message is passed to Leader, who says Star Fleet are working with the police and organising mass arrests. He tells Crusher that they'll strike against the Enterprise, and he isn't sympathetic to her motherly concern, his son died in a cell at 13. Separatists jump onto Enterprise, they can't be stopped by forcefields or bombs. They kill an engineer and put a bomb on the engine. Worf is shot in the leg and Picard is snatched. Geordi removes the bomb just in time.
Picard and Crusher are reunited and argue about whether she should have beamed away at the start. The cave has no exits, you can only beam or jump to it. Crusher has some sympathy for her captors, but Picard disagrees. The leader again accuses Federation of taking sides, Picard won't cooperate. Leader delivers an ultimatum to Troi, in 12 hours they'll harm the hostages unless the Federation enforces a trade embargo. Wesley tracks the jump to the cave, and Riker and Chief plan a raid/rescue mission. Leader tells Crusher he may kill Picard, this angers her. Picard tells Crusher to use Leader's regard for her to help them escape. The police and away team beam into the cave and start arresting people. Chief shoots Leader just as he's about to shoot Picard. A separatist kid pulls a weapon on them, but Crusher convinces him to let them go.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard wants Crusher to beam back immediately, but she won't let him order her back. Picard understands and respects her motives, even though it causes him a problem, and I expect that is why he doesn't have her beamed back, though the option is discussed. Even later when they are both hostages Picard says he should have beamed her back and they argue about following orders and what are reasonable orders.
Picard is pretty untactful when telling Wesley his mother's been kidnapped. He even refers to her as a potential bargaining chip. I know it's something he has to think about, but maybe don't speculate like this in front of Wesley. He sensibly doesn't let Wes go to the planet (what would the kid do there?) but he does use Wesley's skills to aid the rescue attempt.
When the Bridge is invaded by terrorists Picard fights the leader until he's jumped away.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
Riker's discussions with the Police Chief present a counter-argument to Crusher's interactions with the terrorist leader. He objects to some of the oppressive police methods, but the Chief tells him that she's improved things, under her predecessors suspects often didn't survive their time in custody. She clearly has a deep hatred for the separatists, and this has developed since she was posted there and seen the atrocities they've committed. She was more moderate when she was elsewhere, but now she just wants to return to a more peaceful life. She's become hard, suspicious and worn down, and knows this, but that's what she had to do in the situation. She suggests that Federation tech would help them with the problem, but knows Riker's answer must be no. This demonstrates that the Federation are holding themselves aloof from the conflict specifically.
Riker is told that the terrorist organisation itself is small, but there are many sympathisers in the area. Riker, impatient and annoyed with the police methods, tells a sympathiser that the Federation will negotiate to get their doctor back and has him report that to his people. This angers the Chief, but she has little choice as she knows the Federation are only interested in getting their crew back.
At the end when the child who was going to shoot her is taken away the Chief observes that a new generation will just take the place of those they've stopped. Riker has more hope and points of that the kid put his gun down and that's how change starts.

Doctor Doctor
Crusher's immediate instinct is to run into danger to help others, because she's amazing. She won't allow Picard to order her back to the ship, and though she later regrets that she still argues with him about whether she should follow his orders if they're unreasonable. Beverly can get away with this kind of thing because she and Picard are old friends and they respect each others viewpoints even when they don't agree.
Crusher initially refuses to communicate with her captor or take food, and though this changes by necessity he doesn't find out her name until Picard shows up and blurts it out. She's in a scary situation, but courageously doesn't allow her fear to affect her. She follows her instinct to heal every time, but still holds herself apart. Her discussions with the leader explore her disgust for his actions, and his justification. He has researched Earth history (for some reason) and compares himself to George Washington, doing what he has to in order to oppose tyranny. There are times when he is presented as a sympathetic figure, his talent for drawing and obvious respect for Beverley aid this. However at other times he is ruthless and extreme. He kills and is unrepentant about what he does, putting himself and his people in danger by using the device that is killing them. He tells Beverly he'll destroy her ship (and son) and shows no concern about it. However he points out that her arguments come from a utopian viewpoint and he doesn't have that option. He's a complex and changeable character, probably to present several different faces of a complicated argument.
Picard suggests that Beverly can use her position in their captor's esteem to aid their escape. The leader draws pictures of her, though I'm not sure whether that's meant to represent romantic feelings/attraction, or something more complex. Certainly Crusher isn't sure how to react to it, but her reactions to him flip-flop as she sees different sides to him.
As she's rescued Crusher convinces a child from trying to shoot the Chief, which would lead to his death.

Blind Engineering
Geordi avoids being shot when terrorists arrive in Engineering. He has trouble removing the bomb from the engine. It can't be detected by the transporters because of the terrorist's tech, but Geordi gets around this by attaching his comm badge to the bomb and telling the transporter room to lock onto that and fling it into space.

Staff Meetings: 1
Data briefs senior crew on Crusher's abduction. Mostly the meeting is to make clear that we're dealing with something besides transporters

Security Breach
Should there be security personnel in Engineering? Seem worth considering, because this is the fourth time Engineering has been invaded. I don't even know how much security there is, or what they usually do. 

Future History
When Data is talking to Picard about terrorism he cites how often it works. His list includes the Irish Unification of 2024. It will be no coincidence that Ireland came up, when this episode was created the IRA had been planting bombs in Britain for a long time. Possibly the writers thought that was something that would keep happening? Before the 'War on Terror' post-9/11 attitude to terrorism, it wasn't something that the US seemed that concerned about, probably because they weren't really experiencing it. I wonder whether a similar episode written in 2000s could have presented so many points of view? I mean having a terrorist compare himself to George Washington, it surprised me.

Death By Space Misadventure
We are told that 3 crew are dead and 4 are injured in the attack. We see one engineer shot in the attack.

The End
Returned to the Enterprise, Beverly hugs Wesley and says she hears he helped with the rescue. Wesley says it was a team effort. Picard orders the ship away. It's an upbeat ending, but not jokey. There's nothing about what's happening on the planet now.

6 June 2014


Heide Goody & Iain Grant

The Devil gets the sack and is sent to retirement in Birmingham. Taking on the name of Jeremy Clovenhoof the confused former-Prince of Lies tries to navigate life on Earth, discovering a liking for lambrini, a talent for heavy metal, the trials of finding a suitable job and eventually that things aren't quite right in both Heaven and Hell. Joining Clovenhoof are his unfortunate neighbours, introverted Ben and calculating Nerys. In a book that features spying angels, heavenly bureaucracy, cannibalism, murder and a lot of booze, no one is quite what they seem.

Clovenhoof is set very firmly in the city I live in, which I've known from the start, but is still a little odd to me.* I was lucky enough to buy a paperback copy from a local writing event last year. Most of the action takes place in the north of the city (Boldmere and Sutton Coldfield, for those who're interested), an area I'm not familiar with. However there is a heavy metal show in the Town Hall, which I do know and so I amused at the idea of the Devil booking it and just blithely handing out tickets. Local interest aside Clovenhoof is a pacy and witty read, as long as you're a fan of dark comedy. Clovenhoof starts as a strange, slightly tragic, figure who is forced to live a life he never expected and knows nothing about. Despite his selfishness and anger he is very amusing and certainly makes things interesting, and you even start to feel sympathy for him at times, even though he does things that would be inexcusable for most characters.

The other main characters are Clovenhoof's neighbours. Ben is a stereotypical geeky character, who is bad with people but good with books and wargaming miniatures. Clovenhoof certainly livens up Ben's life, though it's reveal that Ben had a strange dark side even before the Devil came to live next door. Nerys, who lives in the flat above with her old aunt, is a somewhat calculating young women, always trying to plan her life, especially her lovelife, with lists and charts. She seems a bit shallow at first, but proves to having a caring side, even if it can be hard to see. Then there's the Archangel Michael, who keeps an eye on Clovenhoof and manages to get him out of trouble at first. Michael is calm, considerate, moral and turns out to be a bit of a smug git. The supporting cast includes a satanist man-child, a pair of suspect old women, a perceptive bartender, Joan of Arc, a female vicar, St Francis, and an obsequious assistant.

The premise of the book is silly, and that holds up throughout due to the light tone and quick pace. The characters' flaws and oddities add to the tone and create a strange comedy within a setting that is real. The odd events on Earth are interspersed with Heavenly committee meetings, showing that there's something rotten in the Kingdom of God, and flashbacks to Satan's time in Hell and how he was manoeuvred out of his position. There are occasional reflective moments in the book, but they are unusual and madcap adventures are the main staple of the story.

Clovenhoof is available as an ebook on Amazon and is published by Pigeon Park Press.

* Birmingham is the second city of the UK, and the most underrepresented city in UK media. It does not often feature in books, especially not SF ones.