Welcome back to season two of Dungeons and Flagons. Nori and Syldi spend time talking to the Investigator about the thug who was killed in the jail. And Von’thre finds out some information from the dragonborn at the Queen’s Retreat. If you have questions for…
Month: February 2018
Alright, friends, get ready for some good ol’ fashioned fangirling! Today, I want to talk about my latest book obsession — Chemistry, by C.L. Lynch.
As one glance at the book cover will tell you, Chemistry is a parody of Twilight, but with zombies this time instead of vampires. Or at least, that’s how it started out — as the author notes in her Goodreads profile, she set out to write a book that was the exact opposite of Twilight, and the characters took on a life (er…undeath, in some cases) of their own. What is on its surface a goofy satire of Twilight that plays for laughs is in actuality a book with more depth, heart, and well-rounded characters than I’ve chanced across in quite some time.
Our heroine is Stella Blunt, a tall, curvy, brash, and supremely confident junior in high school. After Stella’s mom gets her dream job, Stella is forced to move across the country (Canada, in particular) with her parents, to Vancouver, British Columbia. To Stella, the move might as well be the end of the world — to say she doesn’t make friends easily is a vast understatement, and she dreads trying to fit somewhere into an unknown social sphere. At first, it’s just as bad as she fears — the students at her new school bully her relentlessly from the start (not that she puts up with it in the slightest, but this doesn’t even seem to slow them down). But then, she comes across Howard Mullins (known by all as Howie) in her chemistry class, and life as she knows it changes still further.
As soon as Stella sits down beside Howie, he can’t keep his eyes off her. His relentless yet unassuming adoration intrigues Stella, and she forms a tentative, curious friendship with him. She discovers that he is unfailingly sweet, if a little slow when he hasn’t eaten in a while, and full of an old-fashioned charm the likes of which she’s never seen. His pallid complexion, monotone voice, and lurching gait confuse her at first, so she does some research — and finds out that Howie, along with his father, brother, and sister, are all zombies. They eat brains (from animals only, of course) and inject themselves with formaldehyde on the reg in order to stay functioning/semi-normal, and to keep the virus from progressing or making them contagious. Naturally, Stella finds this beyond strange, but by the time she finds out, she’s gotten to know Howie well enough to know that he’s a rare gem, virus or no virus — and that she’s crushing on him, hard. Love quickly blossoms between them — but will it be enough to carry them through all the dangers and difficulties that lie ahead?
As I mentioned, this book is indeed a parody of Twilight, but to limit it to that would do it a disservice. More than just a feminist response to Twilight, Chemistry is a compelling feminist work that can stand on its own two feet. Thus, to my thinking, reading Twilight before reading Chemistry is only necessary for deriving maximum enjoyment from the jokes throughout the book — certainly not for enjoying the book as a whole. Not only does the story take every potentially questionable part of Twilight and stand it on its head, as well as elegantly fill in every plot hole that tripped up Twilight, its characters understand what feminism really is (i.e., what true equity, agency, and respect really mean) — and it manages to communicate this without sounding preachy, which was refreshing as all get-out.
Beyond this, the characters in this book are just fantastic. I believe we’ve noted in past reviews that there seems to be a trend among a lot of fiction these days where the protagonist of the story is totally flat and uninteresting, while being surrounded by loads of great side characters, all of whose stories we’d much rather read than the main character’s. So much of the time (especially with stuff that’s written in first-person POV), the protagonist is nothing more than a benign lens through which to view the story happening around them. That’s definitely the case for the material Chemistry is inspired by, and it’s something I’ve run into more times than I care to count. Because of this, finding a protagonist who actually feels like a real, multi-faceted, actually interesting human being in a book that I expected to be all goofiness and absurdity, well — it blew my tiny little mind, you guys.
And Stella, magnificent as she is, isn’t the only great character in this story. Howie is an absolute delight (beautiful cinnamon roll too good for this world, too pure), and is the kind of sweet, respectful, capable male protagonist I want to see way more of. Almost all of the side characters have a compelling persona and backstory, everybody’s motivations feel well-founded and understandable, and the majority of them go through some level of believable character development.
As much as I could continue gushing about this book for ages, I do have a couple of critiques — the most prominent one, for me, was the way Stella’s new classmates take to brutally bullying her right away. Like, they are instantly peppering her with fat jokes and mean, snide comments. Now, it’s been a little while since I was in high school, so maybe the memory is slightly less seared onto my brain, but it seemed a little implausible coming from students who didn’t know Stella or have any sort of history with her. I’ll grant you that kids can sometimes be jerkwads for no reason, and for the purposes of this story, it worked okay, but it felt like a lot to swallow at some points. This behavior is partially explained by the fact that Stella draws attention not so much because she’s tall and plus-size, but more so because of the sheer force of her personality (which is considerable). Basically, her peers are threatened by her way of owning whatever room she walks into, so they lash out at her. This goes some distance toward explaining why Stella’s classmates are so hostile, but it still felt over-the-top to me at times.
Another thing I noticed is that the reader is sometimes asked to suspend disbelief just a smidge too far, or sometimes a moment goes a step past the point of no return in terms of cheesiness. These moments are few, and easily forgivable in the larger scheme of the plot, but there were a couple of points where it was enough to give me pause and pull me back out of the story a bit. But then I reminded myself I was reading satire, and that it all serves the larger purpose, and I dove back in to the amazingness.
Lastly — and this isn’t a flaw so much as a heads up — the content often veers toward the very mature (swear words and sex talk and violence, oh my!) — I didn’t find it too much to swallow, but some readers might, and it was enough that I’d be hesitant to call this book a straight-up Young Adult novel, even though it’s billed as such. I would maybe recommend it to a mature 17- or 18-year-old, but that’s a pretty hard maybe. Basically, use your judgement–if this sort of stuff tends to be a bit much for you, approach with caution.
Despite these things, though, I pretty much enjoyed every minute of this book. The powerful combination of fantastic characters I wish I could befriend in real life, a ton of refreshing themes, and a pace that doesn’t let up, this book was exactly what I wanted to read right now, and nearly impossible to put down. It had so many of the tropes and themes I want to see more of, like the soft action boy (listen, I know this is barely a thing, but I’m trying to make it a thing, so there), the BBW, great platonic friendships, and some really great, non-token-y representation. Basically, it did a lot of the things I love to see a story doing, and beyond that, it was a straight up blast, and I already kinda want to re-read it (and I definitely want to do fan art of it).
After finishing Chemistry, I was beyond stoked to find that History, the second book in the series, is out now too, and I promptly devoured it as well (I may do a separate review of it later, but I’m still deciding…with the way it plays out, it’d be a challenge to review it without dropping some major spoilers, and I am morally opposed to spoilers). There’s a third book, Biology, in the works as well, but Chemistry just came out in 2016, and History in December of 2017 (fresh as fresh gets, y’all!), so needless to say, it’ll be awhile. And I shall be waiting with bated breath until it’s out!
Love or hate Twilight, would you read Chemistry? If you’ve read it, what did you like and/or dislike about it? What popular book would you love to see someone do a parody of?
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We had some people from Minneapolis, Minnesota reach out to us about their Sci-Fi story podcast. They heard about our podcast, Dungeons and Flagons, and asked if we’d be interested in sharing anything about theirs as they are currently doing a Kickstarter for additional money…
I’ve been writing a lot of articles focused on products, games, shows, and things like that, and this one will mention a number of them, but I wanted to write an article more about a concept that popped into my head last night. It has been something that I’ve noticed while Kristen and I are watching shows or movies or if we are reading the same books. I often figure out the twist, solve the mystery, make the connection before she does. That got me thinking — how does that affect my enjoyment of a story, and do I enjoy it less because I’ve figured out the twist?
To answer that question immediately — no, I don’t think I enjoy it less. There’s a sense of excitement about figuring out a twist in a story before it happens, to connecting two things that seemly loosely connected but then really matter. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a show that is built on these loose connections, and connecting those dots before the characters do is fun, because the show does a good job of keeping these things somewhat hidden from the viewer. So, making those connections is fun, and it doesn’t take away from the story.
However, I do think it can for some people. When I’m watching something like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or Dark, I’m not what I would consider actively looking for these clues. The shows are built around twists, turns, and mysteries, so as I think about the show, I naturally think about those things. And if you’ve read some of my board game reviews, you know that I enjoy puzzle-y type games, and that I love trying to figure out what clue to give in Hanabi or what cards to play in Gloomhaven to get a perfect score or beat the dungeon. I just naturally think about these patterns.
On the other hand, I know people who actively are searching to make these connections. Their enjoyment is often fulfilled, like mine is, by figuring out these connections, but figuring them out too early or not figuring them out at all can ruin their enjoyment of a story. The hunt is what is enjoyable to them, and once that has passed, it isn’t enjoyable anymore, and conversely, if they can’t figure it out, they don’t enjoy it as much because they felt like the story tricked them or didn’t give them enough to figure out the secret, and they could feel like they are slow because of that.
Finally, there is the type of person who isn’t wired for figuring these clues out, and I think that this can be split into a couple of ways as well — those who don’t care, and those who simply enjoy the story. When Kristen and I watch Dirk Gently, it isn’t as if Kristen is getting less enjoyment out of the show because she doesn’t figure it out ahead of time. She enjoys it as much as I do; I’m just bouncing up and down on the couch because I’m pretty sure I figured something out, and she’s shaking her head and laughing at my antics. That is how it should be — being able to enjoy the story as a story, even if you aren’t picking out all the twists and mysteries as soon as the other people you’re watching it with are.
However, there’s an opposite side of this as well, where someone might feel like they are missing out because they can’t figure the story out as quickly as other people. This shouldn’t be the case, because stories are worth enjoying on their own even if you don’t pick up on the secret before it’s revealed. A fine line can be drawn as to how someone can “help” in this situation, as there are some chance that a person could make it worse. If you are figuring out what is going on before someone else, it can come across as patronizing if you try and say that it is just okay that someone else didn’t figure it out. A better route would be to, when talking about the story, focus on the story itself and what it meant to you, not when you figured out the twists and turns, so that everyone can enjoy the story.
As I started out this post, this was an interesting concept to me. There isn’t a right way to engage with a story as long as you are enjoying it. Remember — even if you figured out the twist in the first scene, don’t spoil it for the rest of us, and let everyone enjoy the story in their own way. To quote what the RPG Academy says (they’re talking about RPGs and how to play them, but I think it’s very appropriate here, too) – “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right.”
Welcome back to season two of Dungeons and Flagons. After a weeks time, Nori has become attuned to her sword. She finds out some interesting things about it at the Wizarding School Von’thre used to work at. What does it all mean, and where did…
Another article on a concept that I’ve been tossing around for a while is how to write time travel, and what generally makes for the most effective time-travel stories. This is going to be focused more heavily on writing about the time travel side of things, but it is an interesting concept that hopefully most people will enjoy.
There’s a lot of media out there about time travel, and there are two directions that time travel stories usually go — the first is more lighthearted time travel stories like Back to the Future, where the whole concept is pretty goofy. The second is the heavier time-travel stories such as Primer or Dark. In the lighter stories, the way time travel works isn’t all that important, everything works out in the end, and there’s a lot of comedy or goofiness; writing time travel in that way is much simpler. But for the heavier time travel stories, you have to think a lot more about how the time travel works, so that’s the one I’m going to be focused on.
Time travel and time itself, when written well, are characters themselves in the story. Even if it is just used to send a character backward or forward in time, time is something that the characters have to interact with. Often, when you watch something like Primer or Dark, time is something that the characters are interacting with and pushing against. In both of those examples, it is actively the antagonist in the show, and while Dark has another antagonist, time itself is the larger concern in many ways for the characters. Time is actively trying to stop the characters from getting what they want, because if they get what they want, then it changes the timeline from what it should have been in the first place.
I want to delve into that more, the idea of time being a character and what sort of character time is, but that’ll come later. Right now I want to deal more with the mechanics of time travel.
There are a number of questions you need to ask yourself when thinking about time travel. For example, is it limited in the direction and distance it can go? Dark has a time loop with very specific time frames you can go to. In Primer, the characters can only go back in time. Steins;Gate has rules about how much information can go back in time. In Back to the Future, it’s a free-for-all. The level of structure the means of time travel in the story has in terms of limits and direction influences how much a character can use time travel to change things.
How much can a person actually change? I won’t go too much into examples, but different shows handle this differently. Is time basically a linear path so that the fact that you’ve jumped back in time has always happened and you therefore can’t really change anything, or is it a situation wher, each time you hop backward in time, you are causing a new timeline to branch off of the one that you started on? This will come into play later as I talk about time as a character again.
Does your time travel send things backward or forward? In a show like Dark and the movie Primer, they are sending their whole bodies back in time. In Steins;Gate, characters are just sending information backward in time that then influences what happens in the future (though that model does change partway through Steins;Gate. Back to the Future handles it differently with the DeLorean, which travels with its characters back in time.
Do you need to worry about running into yourself? What happens if you cause a paradox? This often strays into the goofier side of things — for example, in Futurama, Fry becomes his own grandfather. But there are often more serious consequences for this, as well. For example, in Harry Potter, if the characters run into themselves while using the Time Turner, it can drive their past selves insane (if I’m remembering correctly). Some stories even explore the idea of whether a paradox caused by two versions of the same person being in the same place at the same time would cause everything to end and the universe to implode.
Final question: How easy is time to reset? Can you go further back in time than you did before to reset the timeline to what it had been before you even went back in time in the first place? In Steins;Gate, they deal with this by showing that, when someone goes back in time and takes a different action than before, there is then a divergence from the timeline that they were on, and they explore how far away from the original timeline you have to get in order to jump into a new one. Dark deals with this concept by showing that the things that have happened have already been determined to happen one way or another, no matter how the timeline is manipulated (or at least from what we can tell thus far). But can you go farther back than you were before to reset onto a new timeline and undo everything that you’ve done up to that point?
This brings us back to time as a character itself. If time is portrayed as an antagonist that is actively working against you, how do you deal with that? Time can be used basically as an omniscient power. So often you see in stories that when someone goes back in time to change something and then comes back to the future, the thing they tried to change is even worse. They figure out what might have caused that problem and they repeat it again, and it still isn’t better, and so on and so forth. To me, that’s the most interesting way to handle time, because it opens up an interesting dilemma — namely, how can you beat time? If it takes whatever you’ve done a few years in the past and changes it to something worse in the future, how can you really beat time?
I think that’s where seeing time as a character is interesting. Either time is truly omniscient and controls the outcome so that you will never get the outcome you want and you have to figure out how to get it back to the original, good-enough state, or there’s some way to actually beat it and change the timeline. But how do you beat something that has that much power/control? I think you normally have to cheat it to win. There is generally some outside factor, some twist of logic that needs to be employed to actually beat time itself; otherwise, it keeps piling on and on. So how do you cheat time? This is where seeing time as a character helps. If time is an active antagonist, what are its weaknesses that you can exploit, what are the blind spots it might have, and what won’t time be able to handle because it doesn’t make sense in the flow of time?
I don’t have answers for you as to what those should be — maybe time truly can’t be beat. I’ve written a story where there was a way to beat time, but not one that was good for the character; it changed the rules of the problem the main character wanted to solve, and that’s how they cheated time out of what it had done before and how it had messed up their life. It wasn’t a happy story, but heavier time travel stories rarely are.
What are some of your favorite time travel stories? How do the characters get around time screwing them over?
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