Sunday, December 27, 2015

TRIPLE BOOK REVIEW: The Chaos Born Trilogy / Drew Karpyshyn

Hang on to your hats everyone, because here comes a TRIPLE BOOK REVIEW! This is a new thing
for me... I've never reviewed multiple books in one post before. And it's for two reasons 1) I have serious series ADD, so it takes a very, VERY special series to keep me interested enough to pick up the sequel (even when I enjoy Book 1) and 2) When I do find that special series, I usually don't read all the books at once. Either because the series is relatively new and the sequels haven't come out yet, or because that ADD tendency kicks in, and I need a break between books.

Well, Drew Karpyshyn's Chaos Born trilogy was different. This was a series that demanded to be binge-read, and so I read all three books back-to-back within the span of two weeks (would have read them faster if it weren't for that pesky day job, the holidays, and the distraction of the new Star Wars movie... which, of course, demanded the marathoning of the existing movies, multiple rewatches, and much internet obsessing and theorizing). I actually read the first book, Children of Fire, several months ago, though it was while I was in the middle of a million other things, so it was a chapter one week, a chapter another... That kind of broken-up reading ain't ideal, especially when the story's as complex and richly plotted as this one. So I knew I'd want to read it again, and I knew I'd want the sequels waiting when I was done the next time. The nice thing about having a memory as terrible as mine is that rereading the book, I'd forgotten a lot of the details, so it felt like I was reading it for the first time.

Anyway, onto the reviews!

SERIES TITLE: The Chaos Born
AUTHOR: Drew Karpyshyn
AVAILABILITY: Purchase links on the author's website

Fantasy - Dark fantasy/High fantasy


In a world born from Chaos, the Gods chose a hero to protect the mortal world from the demonic
Chaos spawn - monsters and creatures who would destroy all life if given the chance. He was Daemron, a great king, warrior, prophet, and wizard, and he was gifted with three Talismans of power: the Crown, the Ring, and the Sword. But, corrupted by the power he wielded, Daemron rallied the Chaos spawn and betrayed the Gods, waging a great war. The Gods sacrificed themselves to defeat him, trapping him and his monsters behind a barrier called the Legacy and scattering the Talismans across the world.

Centuries later, Daemron senses that the time for his return is near, and he enacts a ritual that touches four mortals born under the Blood Moon with the essence of Chaos. Children of Fire, the first book in Drew Karpyshyn's Chaos Born trilogy, follows these four from the unusual circumstances of each of their births through the first twenty years of their lives. There's Keegan, mild-mannered and physically frail but gifted with immense magical power. There's Cassandra, who's training with the warrior monks who vow to protect the world from Daemron and Chaos at all costs. There's Scythe, a tough and quick-tempered fighter who grew up on the mean streets of a pirate harbor. Then there's Vaaler, a prince born to a kingdom that reveres magic but lacking magic of his own. And they're surrounded by a rich cast of characters from all corners of this richly developed fantasy world--fanatical monks, tribal warriors, wizards, royalty, demons, and more. The big picture goal of the story is for the protagonists to obtain the Talismans, but along the way, so, so much more happens.

512 may sound like a lot of pages, but considering how much Karpyshyn packs into this world, this book's not long at all. I sat down one Saturday to read a few chapters... and ended up sitting on my couch for a good 8 hours or so, tearing through 400 pages in one sitting. The worldbuilding is truly phenomenal -- the different civilizations and cultures, the magic system, the various powers at play... It all fits together in a way that makes this fantasy universe come to life and feel real and lived-in. You learn the history of this world bit by bit through various scenes and character revelations, so that by the time you're done with the whole trilogy (and really, you should read it back-to-back), you feel like you've lived there. Of course, the downside (as a reviewer) is that the three books are blending into one big one in my head, so some of this review might touch on points explored in later books (but no spoilers, I promise!).

The book sets up the stakes right from the beginning, with the threat of Daemron's return, and as it winds its way through the lives of four characters in four different parts of the world, weaving pieces from other forces at work, the pacing never slows. It's really quite amazing how so many different story lines not only fit together, but are presented so memorably that it's easy to keep track of what's what. The plot is complex and multi-layered, but never confusing. And throughout, it kept me with the feeling of imminent danger, like each and every action these characters took, no matter how mundane-seeming, was leading toward a great destiny.

This story is told from the POVs of multiple characters -- heroes, villains, and those who are in between. There are too many interesting characters for me to describe all of them in a review, so I'll stick with gushing over my top three. Scythe quickly became my favorite, with her confidence and snarkiness. Yet behind the hard exterior, there's a compassion and vulnerability she never lets the world see. She's loads of fun to read and a thrill to watch in action, and her rather skewed sense of morality makes her POV fascinating. I also found myself drawn toward Keegan's character--first when he was introduced from his father's POV as a somewhat creepy kid, and then when he starts becoming his own person, which is difficult for him since, of the four Children of Fire, he's the most aware of his destiny. Thanks to a fanatical monk's vision, he's believed to be the Savior--a role he accepts but isn't certain of. Earnest and naive, he doesn't always do the right thing, but he certainly tries (unlike Scythe, who's a survivalist and often seems amoral). Then there's Vaaler, a noble spirit who was born to royalty and works hard to be the perfect student, but, tragically, will never be good enough in the eyes of his people due to his lack of magic.

An overarching presence in the book is the dark wizard Rexol, who's both creepy and mesmerizing in his arrogant, power-hungry ways (he's also the book's cover boy). He winds up interfering in the lives of three of the Children of Fire, setting them up, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, for their ultimate destiny.

There's something Tolkein-esque about the world and the overarching ideas, and yet it's also very different. For one thing, women have actual roles as heroes and villains who drive the story rather than love interests and side characters (huzzah!). And there's racial diversity too, which makes me very happy. Also, there are no deus ex machina-type easy resolutions to anything. While the forces of fate certainly are at work, nothing is simple for these characters. In fact, one of the central points of the worldbuilding is "backlash", meaning that for every spell cast, the chaotic essence of magic will cause something bad to happen. The story is also considerably darker. I've seen this book categorized as "horror" in some places, probably because of the gruesome demonic rituals, bloody battles, and the horrors of war. Evil is evil for a reason...

Suffice it to say, this book was a fast-paced, gripping read that left me begging for more. Good thing I had the sequel on standby...


The Scorched Earth, the second book in Drew Karpyshyn's Chaos Born trilogy, picks up where Book
1 left off. Generations ago, the Gods sacrificed themselves to trap the evil Daemron behind a barrier called the Legacy, but now, the Legacy is crumbling. Now, four mortals touched by Chaos -- the force from which all magic in this world is derived -- race to fulfill their collective destiny and keep Daemron from returning and unleashing his hordes of monsters upon the world. One problem: they aren't certain what that destiny is, only that it involves the three Talismans that Daemron once used to make himself immortal. Namely, the Ring, the Crown, and the Sword.

These four were born through a ritual Daemron enacted to set forces in motion that would someday free him, and each embodies an element of himself from back when he was a mortal hero: king, warrior, prophet, and wizard.

Keegan, a young wizard with amazing power but a frail body, appears to have the clearest destiny. Guided by a fanatical monk whose visions spurred him to rebel against his own order, he's believed to be the Burning Savior, the one who will prevent Daemron's rise. Though he's successfully obtained the Ring, he finds that he can't control it... and in trying to, he unleashed a flood of dark magic upon the Danaan people. He's easily one of my favorite characters in the series -- earnest and well-meaning, though also flawed, vulnerable, and under enormous pressure.

Vaaler used to be the crown prince of the Danaan... until he chose to help Keegan, a longtime friend, steal the Ring from his mother, whose family had owned it for generations. Though Vaaler believes in Keegan's destiny and believes his actions will ultimately save the world, his people believe him to be a traitor, especially given the devastating consequences of Keegan's actions. Now in exile, Vaaler knows only that he must help Keegan save the world--even if it means fighting his own people. Yet his natural leadership skills bring him new allies, and though he no longer has a land, he is still very much a king. I loved reading about his internal conflict and turmoil as he's torn between his people and his broader mission. He's also grounded and wise beyond his years -- a much needed role in this chaotic world.

Accompanying them is Scythe, the warrior. A fierce and somewhat amoral fighter who previously cared only about survival, she's only helping Keegan because her lover, the noble-hearted Norr, believes in the young wizard, who once used magic to save Norr's life. The fact that she doesn't believe like the others is part of what makes her such an intriguing character to read about. Her quick temper and temperamental nature make her somewhat unpredictable. Plus, I love her cocky attitude... she's my personal favorite :-)

On the other side of the world is Cassandra, the prophet. Raised by warrior monks to defend the world against Daemron and the dark magic of Chaos, she now finds herself running from the very order she once served. She has the Crown, which the Order had guarded for generations, and the order will do anything to get it back. While she believes she's meant to have the Crown and use it to save the world, the Order sees her as a traitor and begin a horrifying Inquisition in order to flush her out. Not only that, but her old master, the dark wizard Rexol, has found a way to penetrate her mind, and so she regularly wrestles with having his voice in her head. 

We're also introduced to Shalana, a leader among the barbarian tribes (and a member of Norr's former tribe). She's a powerful presence who very quickly makes her mark on the saga (and she's also this book's cover girl).

All the various forces at play, each with different motivations and tactics, make this a difficult book to sum up. Reading these plots is like watching a giant game of chess... well, a version with at least four or five players. Yet, despite the complexities, it's not a hard story to follow. Each character has such a clear point of view that it's easy to see what they want and why they're doing what they're doing. The minions of Daemron are following his orders to guide the Children of Fire on a path that will lead them to set him free. The Danaan people pursue their wayward prince in order to reclaim a national treasure and punish the one who wreaked havoc upon one of their towns. The fanatical Order sees any and all magic, which draws from Chaos, as a threat, and, in their zealous efforts to save the world from evil, end up terrorizing the very world they're supposed to save.

The questions of right and wrong become plenty muddled as opposing forces, each believing themselves to be in the right, clash over the fate of the world. Other than those who follow Daemron, it's hardly ever clear who's good and who's evil. These moral complexities, coupled with the intricate, intertwining plot, are part of what make this book so riveting. After eye-guzzling most of the first book in a day, I dove straight into this one and spent every spare moment eye-guzzling it as well.

The feel and pacing of The Scorched Earth is different from Children of Fire because while Book 1 covered 20-odd years, Book 2 takes place over the course of a few months. The pacing isn't as break-neck as in the first one; this time, the story takes its time in depicting the rich cultural fabric of the world. And yet it never felt slow either, with all its battles, chases, fights with demons, and tense diplomacy. Also, this is dark, dark fantasy... not for the faint of heart, with its demonic rituals and the devastating horrors of war. I'm usually pretty squeamish, but I really liked the darkness in this book because it gave the story a visceral feel. It ends on something of a cliffhanger, and I'm just glad I had the third book nearby so I wouldn't have to wait to find out what happens next...


Chaos Unleashed is the third and final installment in Drew Karpyshyn's dark fantasy trilogy, The Chaos Born. It picks up where the last book left off. The evil Daemron, banished behind a barrier called the Legacy generations ago, is on the cusp of return, and when he does, he will unleash hordes of monsters and horrors upon the mortal world. Most of the monstrous Minions he dispatched to help the Children of Fire, who are unknowingly part of his plan to bring the Legacy crashing down, have been defeated, but the most dangerous remains active.

Meanwhile, the four Children of Fire, born through a ritual Daemron enacted and touched by Chaos--the uncontrollable supernatural force from which magic is drawn--continue on their journey to stop Daemron's return. The prophet, Cassandra, has stolen the Crown, one of the three Talismans that Daemron once used to achieve immortality and flees an order of fanatical monks determined to take it back. The Order, hell-bent on catching her and destroying anyone who even dabbles in Chaos, has spread terror across the world in the form of a horrifying Inquisition. The wizard, Keegan, and the warrior, Scythe, have obtained the other two Talismans and seek Cassandra to fulfill their collective destiny (Scythe and Keegan are the ones depicted on this book's cover... huzzah for a woman of color in a high fantasy novel!). And the king, Vaaler, having protected Scythe and Keegan from the army seeking the Talismans, believes his part in this journey is over and travels with Shalana, the tribeswoman whose people helped the Children of Fire on their journey. But, it turns out, the forces of fate aren't done with him yet...

Like the previous two books, Chaos Unleashed depicts several intertwining plot lines all tied to the same overarching goals: either to stop Daemron's return or to facilitate it. I loved how every single event, no matter how small or insignificant-seeming at first, has a purpose. The book is told from multiple points of view, from the principle cast to bit characters who turn out to have an important role to play as well. It all ties into the themes of destiny and chaos... and how seemingly chaotic events fit into one overall fate for the world. 

Each character has a distinct voice, and I liked that this book took the time to explore their inner conflicts and thought processes. While the plot centers around huge, end-of-the-world-type situations, it's still a story about people... their motives, strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities. The ones who stood out to me were Scythe (my personal favorite), who was left broken-hearted after the events of Book 2. Always so quick-tempered and tough, she's finally fighting a foe she can't strike down. And Keegan, who wrestles with how best to do the right thing in a world with no easy answers. 

These character moments happen between some truly amazing action scenes -- battles and duels and more that culminate in stunning final battle full of vivid imagery. The descriptions throughout pull you in with visceral language while the character voices create an emotional connection that makes the book spring to life. By the time you're done reading, you feel like you've been there and seen it all yourself. Really, this is a trilogy that should be binge-read all in a row as one big book. Pieces set in motion in Book 1 come together in Book 3, leading to a satisfying conclusion.

I know I've loved a book when I find myself spending ages attempting to write a review that, no matter what, just never seems to say enough. There's just so much to enjoy in this whole trilogy, which has the grandeur and rich world-building of Tolkien and yet is written with a much darker tone... and with more relatable characters. And yes, that is me daring to say that Chaos Born might be better than Lord of the Rings...


Drew Karpyshyn is the New York Times bestselling author of Children of Fire, The Scorched Earth, and Chaos Unleashed, as well as the Star Wars: The Old Republic novels Revanand Annihilation, and the Star Wars: Darth Bane trilogy: Path of Destruction, Rule of Two, and Dynasty of Evil. He also wrote the acclaimed Mass Effect series of novels and worked as a writer/designer on numerous award-winning videogames. After spending most of his life in Canada, he finally grew tired of the long, cold winters and headed south in search of a climate more conducive to year-round golf. Drew Karpyshyn now lives in Texas with his wife, Jennifer, and their pets. Visit his website.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hey Star Wars, let's get intersectional!

Warning: possible mild spoilers ahead.

Star Wars is basically my favorite thing ever. Hell, I even marathon the prequels now and then. So of course I got early tickets to see The Force Awakens in theaters. And of course I saw it again three days later. And of course I read every scrap of internet discussion I could dig up, from speculations and fan theories regarding the various questions left open-ended by the end of the movie to thinkpieces about what the new Star Wars' cultural impact.

There's been much celebration about Rey, and rightfully so. Finally, a female Star Wars lead! Much as I love Princess Leia and Padme Amidala (in the first two prequels), they were ultimately side characters. Important side characters, but side characters nonetheless (especially Padme, who gets reduced to a weepy mess who needs her man to tell her what to do in Episode III and dies for no reason after he's mean to her. Ugh). Rey, on the other hand, seems to be poised to be the new trilogy's Luke Skywalker – the hero who goes on the hero's journey and the new chosen one to save the galaxy from evil. So huzzah for Rey! Huzzah for girl power and feminism!

There's just one thing that bothers me though. In all the promo for The Force Awakens, it was implied that Finn might be the next chosen one. He's the one who gets the lightsaber in the posters, and he features just as heavily as Rey (if not more so) in the trailers. Having seen the movie, it's now clear that the filmmakers were throwing us a curveball. Let us believe that Finn is the next Luke and Rey is the next Leia or Han—the important helper character. Though I was a little annoyed that it appeared the girl was once again going to be denied a lightsaber (I remember fiercely wishing that Padme would get one before the latter two prequels came out), I was pretty thrilled at the idea of a POC lead. While we had Lando in the original trilogy and Mace Windu in the prequels, they, like Leia and Padme, were ultimately side/supporting characters. Let's face it: Star Wars—and most sci-fi/fantasy—is pretty damn white. And while there certainly aren't enough heroines on screen yet, I daresay there are more white heroines than POC heroes (either male or female) in popular SFF – Hermione, Katniss, Black Widow, Mystique, Tris, River Tam, Elizabeth Swan, Furiosa… not to mention Princess Leia and Padme Amidala. Wouldn't it be cool if the new Luke Skywalker figure was a POC? 

Then the poster was revealed with Rey front and center and Finn, though holding a lightsaber, off to the side. Early reports about the movie came out that the character with the most screen time was Rey, followed by BB-8 and Han Solo, followed by Kylo Ren and Finn. Wait… Finn comes after BB-8?!

While Finn undoubtedly has a central part to The Force Awakens, he's kind of the new Han figure – the important helper. Which is still awesome, and I loved his role in the film. But there's been a lot less Internet celebration about him – probably because he's a him. People are gushing about how Rey is changing the world and breaking boundaries, and yes, she is. But you know what? So is Finn.
And you know what would be even more revolutionary? A WOC as a central character. Hey, there are still two more Star Wars movies (main ones, not spinoffs) in the making. Maybe the next Lando – the character who shows up halfway through the trilogy but makes a huge splash – will be both female and non-white. Which would be a long time coming, because dammit, there are NO WOMEN OF COLOR AS ACTUAL CHARACTERS IN THE OTHER SEVEN FILMS. They only exist as background extras (though at least they exist at all). And before you say "Maz Kanata" – she's an alien. Lupita Nyong'o voices her, yes, but she's hidden behind an orange CGI critter. 

The term "intersectionality" was coined by legal scholar KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, who discussed the plight of black women who sued General Motors for discrimination in the 1970s. One set of jobs was for blacks, one was for whites.  One set of jobs was for women, one set of jobs was for men. But black jobs were for black MEN, and women's jobs were for WHITE women. So a black female applicant couldn't get a black job because she was female, but couldn't get a woman's job because she was black. Yet the court dismissed their claims because hey, there were jobs for blacks and jobs for women. WELLP.

Back to Star Wars. Hooray for Rey, our (white) female central character! Hooray for Finn, our (male) POC important helper character! Now, can we get some WOC in here?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Allow me to fangirl for a moment (BEWARE OF STAR WARS SPOILERS)

So when I first decided to start this blog, I told myself I was going to keep it to books and writing-type stuff only. But as some of you may know, I'm a HUGE Star Wars nut, and I've got these fan theories burning a hole in my head that I need to release somewhere. Well, it's my own dang blog... and it's not like I haven't fangirled plenty of books in my reviews ;-)

Alrighty, here are my theories/predictions/hopes-and-wishes for the new Star Wars trilogy... BEWARE OF SPOILERS. ALL THE SPOILERS. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Here's what I think happened after Return of the Jedi. Some of this is pure speculation, and some is based on other theories/background info I've discovered while obsessing on the interwebz.

  • Luke offered to train Leia as a Jedi, but Leia opted out. Partly because she was comfortable in her position as a politician and military leader, and partly because she had a feeling she'd turn Dark Side if she tapped into her Force powers. When we meet Luke, he's an innocent, idealistic little farmboy who's been raised far from the machinations of interstellar politics. As my author friend Josh Pritchett, pointed out, he's kind of like Superman. He has all these great powers, but he was raised with a strict moral code about right and wrong, and that's why he's able to wield the Light Side the Force and, while tempted to go Dark Side, ultimately resists. Meanwhile, Leia was raised in the Alderaanian court. By the time we meet her, she's already a cunning leader and a shrewd strategist. She's very practical and does what needs to be done, even when it costs her. In other words, she'd be willing to do things Luke wouldn't be. After Return of the Jedi, she continues to fixate on the remnants of the Empire, which are reorganizing into the First Order. She's dismissed as an alarmist by the New Republic, and instead of following due process and relying on democracy to do the right thing, she goes rogue to get her way, bypassing the will of the people. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty selfish thing to do, but ultimately needed to be done. And is a very Vader-like tendency. It's great for a rebel leader, but could be fatal in a Jedi. So she opted out of Jedi training, knowing that if she went down that road, she'd end up just like her father. Her somewhat ruthless instincts would also explain why Obi-Wan insisted that Luke was the only hope for the Jedi (other than plain ole sexism) while Yoda disagreed. Perhaps Obi-Wan, having been scarred by Vader, believes Leia's too much like her father, whereas Yoda thinks she can unlearn what she has learned. Leia, practical and levelheaded as always, gave up the opportunity to learn the Force for the greater good... a very Leia-like thing to do.
  • Leia, knowing she has these Vader-ish tendencies in her, didn't trust herself to raise her son Ben in a way that would keep him from turning Dark Side. So she persuaded Han to let Luke, the ultimate Good Guy, raise Ben instead, hoping Ben would turn out like Luke and be able to resist the Dark Side. Both Luke and Leia sensed how strong Ben was with the Force and thought that someday, he'd be the new leader of the Jedi order who'd usher in a whole new era of Jedi... the next coming of Yoda.
  • For the first several years of Ben's life, he was the family's star. Everyone would go on about how he was basically a chosen one and how he's destined to be great. He was also the apple of his family's eye... everyone loved him, and he felt special. Luke started his new Jedi academy, and Ben was the star pupil. While Ben enjoyed being the favorite, this also put a lot of pressure on him. He was expected be the perfect Jedi, raised from birth with all these great powers and expected to fulfill a mighty destiny. Which meant he wasn't allowed to screw up, causing him lots of secret angst and anxiety.
  • Meanwhile, Luke falls in love (and maybe gets married). His wife/lover bears little baby Rey, who's even more Force-strong than Ben. In fact, she makes Ben look like a weak-minded Stormtrooper in comparison. And she's Luke's own daughter. Suddenly, Rey is Luke's favorite, and even Ben's own parents seem to think she'll be the next great hope for the Jedi. Ben was abandoned by his parents to live with Luke, and now, he's abandoned by Luke, his surrogate father. Over the next several years, Ben continues training with Luke in hopes of proving that he IS as special as they made him feel when he was littler. But no matter what he does, Rey is just SPECIAL.
  • Ben grows into an angsty, depressed, and angry teenager. He both resents Luke and his parents and yearns for their approval. Meanwhile, he resents Rey for displacing him, even though she's just a little kid. She's already showing her Force powers, accomplishing feats that no one that young should be able to do. People keep talking about how she's stronger than Ben, which drives Ben insane. Meanwhile, the Ren Knights, an ancient order of Dark Side practitioners (though not necessarily fighters), sense both his strength and his anger. They turn to Snoke, who's not one of them but is a Dark Side ally, to recruit him. 
  • Ben's anger and frustration makes him ripe for seduction to the Dark Side. Snoke persuades Ben that he could be stronger if her tapped into the Dark Side, reminding him that his grandfather, Vader, was stronger than Luke will ever be. Ben uses the Dark Side to accomplish more magnificent feats of the Force. Luke senses Ben's turn and tries to stop him, but this only fuels Ben's resentment, since Ben thinks Luke is trying to hold him back in favor of Rey.
  • Angry, depressed, lonely, and resentful, Ben decides he'd rather feel nothing than wrestle with all this pain and conflict. He longs to become a force of pure evil, a manifestation of sheer power with no conscience or humanity to hold him back or torment him. So he delves even deeper into the Dark Side, until he ultimately renounces his name, joins the Ren Knights, and reinvents himself as Kylo Ren. He dons the mask both as a tribute to Vader and to hide his humanity--to make his outward appearance a reflection who he hopes to be inside: an evil, inhuman being incapable of feeling anything, including pain.
  • Kylo Ren turns on the Jedi academy, leading the Ren Knights on a raid that slaughters his former schoolmates. But his real goal is to be rid of Rey... He wants to prove that he's the most powerful wielder of the Force ever and rid himself of his perceived rival. Luke, sensing this, fakes Rey's death and flees with her.
  • Luke doesn't seem like the type to abandon his kid. His devotion to those he loves has always been his weakness... He went to Cloud City despite Yoda's warnings because he feared losing Han and Leia, and though he wouldn't turn to the Dark Side to save himself, he called upon when Vader threatened his sister. However, Leia has always known what has to be done, no matter how hard it is. She was willing to sacrifice Alderaan for the sake of the Rebellion Imagine what would have happened even if Tarkin hadn't pulled the trigger right away... they would have found that Dantooine was not the Rebel base and destroyed Alderaan to punish Leia. This must have crossed Leia's mind before she lied, and she lied anyway. The most she could hope to do was buy Alderaan some time while protecting the Rebellion. Therefore, though Luke wanted to take Rey into hiding with him, Leia persuaded him that Rey would be safer if he left her, since Ren would undoubtedly come looking for him. Luke's wife/lover agreed with Leia.
  • Knowing that Ren would kill Rey if he knew she were alive, Luke suppresses Rey's memories and Force abilities so she won't accidentally reveal herself and draw Ren to her.
  • Luke, at this point, is pretty wrecked. His father destroyed the Jedi, and when he tried to rebuild the order, his pupil destroyed them again because he failed to train him well. And now, he has to abandon his daughter. So, much to Leia's dismay, he vanishes and goes into self-exile, thinking the galaxy is better off without him.
  • Leia and Luke's wife/lover take Rey into hiding. Luke's wife/lover, who isn't Force-strong and therefore wouldn't be sensed by Ren, plans to stay with her. And they weren't heading for Jakku... they were heading for Naboo or some other little far-off world that's nicer. But, pursued by Ren and the First Order, they're forced onto Jakku. Leia realizes that the only way to protect Rey is to draw off the bad guys. Ren at this point has zeroed in on Luke's wife/lover and suspects that Rey might still be alive and with her. So though it pains her, Leia persuades Luke's wife/lover to leave Rey behind while the two of them escape Jakku and lead Ren and the First Order away. Note that Rey says "my family," not "my parents," and "they'll be back," implying multiple people left her... possibly her mom and her aunt.
  • Rey's mom intends to go back for Rey right after shaking Ren and the First Order, but is killed in battle. Though Leia longs to go back for Rey, she knows that Ren and the First Order are following her closely, so going back to Jakku would lead them right to Rey. So Leia, as always, does what she believes is right, even though it pains her. Note that Leia immediately embraces Rey when they finally meet... without saying a word. Almost like she recognizes Rey as family, right?
  • When Han meets Rey, he has a sneaking suspicion that Rey might be his long-lost niece, which is why he seems drawn to her and offers her a job. He has no proof and thinks he's probably wrong, but can't help his gut feeling. 
  • When Ren meets Rey, he recalls that his pursuit of his aunt (Luke's wife/lover) and his mom led him to Jakku. He recognizes all the amazing feats Rey has accomplished as being something only someone who's Force-strong could do. So when he meets her, he suspects she might be his long-lost cousin. Though he's still resentful, he's spent the past ten years or so in turmoil... unable to complete his transition to the Dark Side yet unable to return to his family, whose approval he still secretly yearns for despite all his efforts to quash that instinct. This has also left him incredibly lonely, since he has no one he loves he can turn to, and he though he seeks Snoke's guidance, he knows he's ultimately a pawn on Snoke's chessboard. His plan is to become all-powerful and eventually surpass Snoke, but until then, he's dependent on Snoke and completely alone. So when he approaches Rey in the interrogation room, he finds that he no longer wants to kill her, but instead wants her to join him so he'll finally have a true ally.
  • Ren takes off his mask in hopes of gaining Rey's sympathy, but Rey clearly doesn't give a crap about him (understandably). So Ren tries to force her to reveal Luke's location. Though Rey doesn't know what she's doing, she deploys everything she has to defend herself--and awakens the Force within her. Her Force powers surface, though her memories remain suppressed. This is how she's able to manipulate that Stormtrooper so easily... she'd learned how to do this as a little kid, and but it was only because of Ren's actions that she was able to awaken her dormant abilities.
  • Ren and Snoke believe that Ren's conflict will be eliminated if Ren can do what Luke couldn't: kill his own father. Though Ren knows in his head that he has to kill Han Solo, some piece of him hold him back. When Han calls to him on the Starkiller Base, Ren is mentally unprepared for the confrontation. He's caught between the Dark Side, demanding that he Force-grab Han and strangle him (which, as we saw, he could easily do), and the Light Side, reminding him that Han is the father who still loves him. That's why he pauses on the platform--he's paralyzed by equal but opposite forces. Unable to do anything else, he lets Han approach. When he says, "I'm being torn apart. I want to be free from this pain. I know what I have to do, but I don't know if I have the strength to do it," Han takes that to mean that Ben (not Ren) wants to renounce the Dark Side and come home. What Ren (not Ben) really means is that he wants to kill Han. But he's still paralyzed by the opposing sides of the Force as Han draws closer.
  • Ren pulls out his lightsaber, unable to decide if he wants to stab Han or hand the weapon over. Then Han tries to take it. It's the symbol of Ren's power, and Ren finds himself unable to let go. He manages to ignite the lightsaber, killing Han. But it's not the moment of Dark Side triumph Ren thought it would be. It's a very passive way to kill someone... almost an accident. So instead of feeling a surge of Dark Side power or feeling his pain disappear, Ren is attacked by sudden sorrow and even guilt. He's so confused and distracted that he loses track of everything else around him, which is how Chewie is able to shoot him (even though we saw earlier in the movie that Ren can stop blasts mid-air even when they're coming at him point-blank). 
  • The physical injury shakes Ren awake just enough to keep going and keep trying to fulfill his Dark Side duties, but his unexpected grief and guilt, as well as the physical pain, hold him back. This is why Finn is able to get a shot or two in, despite being unfamiliar with the Force and with lightsabers (though he did have training with staff weapons, like the Stormtrooper he dueled earlier). 
  • Still shaken, Ren is unprepared when Rey rises and Force-grabs Luke's lightsaber (using the ability she doesn't remember learning but knows instinctively that she has from her early Jedi training). And still tormented, Ren doesn't really want to kill Rey. What he really wants is for her to join him. That's why he just stands there while Rey closes her eyes and calls on the Force... he's hoping she'll change her mind about him. But instead, she uses the Light Side of the Force to defend herself. She has a clear goal and knows exactly what she wants: to stop Ren. Meanwhile, Ren is still conflicted... he doesn't know if he wants Rey dead or if he wants her as his ally. This is why the untrained Rey is able to defeat the super-powerful Ren.
  • Rey leaves the Starkiller Base secure in herself and knowing she wants to find Luke and become a Jedi. Ren leaves more conflicted than before. He was hoping that killing Han would destroy the last shreds of goodness and humanity in him. Instead, it left him caught between being guilt-stricken and triumphant, especially since Han's last action was clearly one of love (that look in Han's eyes totally said "I love you, son, and I forgive you.")
  • Episode 8 will have Rey training with Luke, who will effectively be her Yoda, while Finn and Poe go off on some Resistance adventure (much like Han and Leia did in Empire). Meanwhile, Snoke aims to complete Ren's training by sending him to kill Leia.
  • I really hope Ren is redeemed and doesn't die right away, Vader-style. Much as I love the throwbacks to the original trilogy, that would be TOO much. It would also be really boring and cliche if Ren were to go completely Dark Side, and Rey killed him in a prolonged battle. The most interesting outcome would be if Rey, possibly with Leia's help, manages to reach Ren and bring him back to the Light side, turning Ren from a villain into an antihero. Luke, Leia, and Rey forgive Ben despite him killing Han, which helps pull Ren back to the Light (Finn and Poe still have their issues with him, but listen to Rey). Then Ben Solo would unite with the Light Side heroes--Rey, Finn, and Poe--to defeat Snoke, the Ren Knights, and the First Order. 
And now, to sleep until 2017, when we'll find out if any of these crazy thoughts/theories/speculations/wishes are right...


This is the first shot we see of Rey in The Force Awakens:

This is the first shot we see of Luke in The Empire Strikes Back:

Both pull down their masks the same way moments later... THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS!!!

Saturday, December 19, 2015


An interview with Kathy MacMillan, author of the amazingYA fantasy Sword and Verse, which will be released precisely one month from now! Click here to preorder.


Congrats on your debut novel, Sword and Verse! What was the inspiration behind the book?

The seed of the idea came when I was doing research about ancient libraries and book burning.  I came across a reference to libraries composed entirely of letters.  In the margin of my notes, I scribbled, “What if they were letters to the gods?”  That was the beginning.

Literacy (or lack thereof) is a major theme in your book. Knowledge is restricted by the ruling class, and the penalty for teaching or learning the forbidden language is death. What led you to write about this subject?

I am a librarian and an American Sign Language interpreter – both fields that are centered on access to knowledge and communication.  I have always been horrified by the idea of burning knowledge, and all the ways that various groups of people have suppressed knowledge through the ages.  None of the political maneuverings or uses of religion to justify the oppression of others in Sword and Verse are far-fetched, unfortunately. 

Raisa, the heroine of Sword and Verse, is a slave girl selected to be one of the few in the kingdom allowed to learn the highest form of language. She may not be physically powerful in the usual fight-y way, but she exhibits a quiet kind of strength. What was the inspiration behind her character?

I’m so glad you asked this question! Raisa is based on my mother.  She is one of the strongest people I know.  Like Raisa, she may appear somewhat meek on the surface, but she has strong convictions and when pressed, reveals a will of iron underneath.  There are so many ways to be a “strong” woman – I was really interested in exploring a character who wasn’t brash, wasn’t a fighter, but who found her place of power by being true to herself and the people she loves.

One of the things that stood out to me about your book was the world building—complete with its own written language! How did you go about setting up this fantasy realm?

Through so, so, so many revisions! The things that were there from the beginning, though, were the language, the library, and the story of the gods.  They were absolutely central to the way the cultures developed and the way the characters interacted.  I always knew that learning to write was going to be the key to Raisa’s growth. I also, admittedly, am a huge language geek, so researching different types of script and developing the scripts that play a role in the story was a blast!

When did you first start working on Sword and Verse? What was the spark that led you to go, “I’m gonna write this book”?

The idea had been rattling around in my head since the late 1990s, but I didn’t actually write the first draft until about 2004.  It was actually the fourth or fifth novel that I completed, but it was the one that got me an agent.  I was definitely in a “keep on writing while you wait for the stuff you sent out to get rejected” place at that point, so the spark was that it was the next idea up on my list and I had to keep writing or go crazy!

Few people realize how much goes into the editing process. How much has Sword and Verse changed between the very first draft and the hardcover hitting the bookshelves?

The first draft of the story was very, very different from the final version – there were multiple timelines and two main point of view characters.  Maybe one day I will post it, to show how much happens in the revision process!  When I started working with my agent, I got some drastic revision suggestions that involved rewriting most of the book, but I decided to jump in with both feet.  And I am so glad I did.  I recently reread the first draft, and while it was far from terrible, it’s nowhere near as strong as the final version.  (Plus, one of the most beloved characters in the final version was actually a murderer in the original!  Horrors!)

Pardon the movie terms, but… Was there anything left on the cutting room floor that you’d include as a “deleted scene” in a special edition if you could?

There are so, so many deleted scenes – that happens when you rewrite the whole thing and go through six major revisions!  Also, a big part of my writing process is writing scenes from other characters’ points of view to help me sort out plot and character, so I have lots of extra scenes.  I am planning to post many extras on my website!  I guess the deleted scenes that are my favorite are the slow buildup of Mati and Raisa’s feelings for each other during her first year as a Tutor.

What was the most surprising part of your publishing journey? What was the most challenging? And what was the most rewarding?

Most surprising: How long everything takes, even after you find an agent.  Sword and Verse will be published exactly 7 years and 6 days after I got the first call from my agent offering to work on a revision with me.

Most challenging: Keeping the faith.  It is very easy to succumb to self-doubt, especially when so much of the publication process involves sitting around waiting for something to happen.  And even though we all know that a lot of it is subjective, it’s hard to believe that.

Most rewarding: When someone tells you that they were unable to complete everyday life functions because they couldn’t stop reading your book!

What are your writing habits like? Do you have a particular process? Is there a particular nook you like to write in?

My favorite place to write is at a little desk in the corner of my living room, with my cat curled up in my lap.  I freelance in my day job, though, so a lot of my writing time is in cafes in between interpreting jobs.  When I am drafting, I aim for one thousand words a day at least six days a week.  Slow and steady is the only way I know how to do it.

Sword and Verse is getting a sequel! What can you tell us about it? Does it have a title? When does it come out?

I never intended for there to be a sequel, but last year when I was trying to determine what to submit for the second book on my contract, Soraya Gamo stepped up and got very insistent about having her story told!  So, while Sword and Verse does function as a standalone, the second book will pick up not long after it ends, and will be from Soraya’s point of view.  It’s essentially about the challenges of the new order established at the end of Sword and Verse, and the consequences of choices made in the first book come back to haunt everyone.


This cover makes me *swoon*
In a sweeping fantasy that award-winning author Franny Billingsley calls "fascinating and unique," debut author Kathy MacMillan weaves palace intrigue and epic world-building to craft a tale for fans of Rae Carson and Megan Whalen Turner.

Raisa was just a child when she was sold into slavery in the kingdom of Qilara. Before she was taken away, her father had been adamant that she learn to read and write. But where she now lives, literacy is a capital offense for all but the nobility. The written language is closely protected, and only the King, Prince, Tutor, and Tutor-in-training are allowed to learn its very highest form. So when she is plucked from her menial labor and selected to replace the last Tutor-in-training who was executed, Raisa knows that betraying any hint of her past could mean death.

Keeping her secret guarded is hard enough, but the romance that's been blossoming between her and Prince Mati isn't helping matters. Then Raisa is approached by the Resistance--an underground rebel army--to help liberate the city's slaves. She wants to free her people, but that would mean aiding a war against Mati. As Raisa struggles with what to do, she discovers a secret that the Qilarites have been hiding for centuries--one that, if uncovered, could bring the kingdom to its knees.


Kathy MacMillan is a writer, American Sign Language interpreter, consultant, librarian and signing storyteller. She holds National Interpreter Certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Her diverse career includes working as a children’s librarian at public libraries, working a school librarian at the Maryland School for the Deaf, leading the Eldersburg Library Bookcart Drill Team, and performing as Scooby-Doo, Velma, and a host of other characters at a theme park. Kathy presents American Sign Language storytelling programs through her business, Stories By Hand, and also runs the storytime resource website Storytime Stuff. She is a volunteer director and board president of Deaf Camps, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides camps for deaf children. Kathy holds a Master of Library Science from the University of Maryland, a Bachelor of English from the Catholic University of America, and a Certificate of American Sign Language Interpreting from the Community College of Baltimore County. She lives in Owings Mills, MD with her husband, son, and a cat named Pancake.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Just Visiting / Dahlia Adler

TITLE: Just Visiting
AUTHOR: Dahlia Adler
PUBLISHER: Spencer Hill Contemporary
AVAILABILITY: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Young Adult - Contemporary

Just Visiting is told from the first person POVs of two best friends, Rae and Vic, who are both eager to get out of their small Kansas town, albeit for different reasons. Living in a trailer park with a freeloading mom who doesn't seem to give a lick about her, Rae yearns to escape poverty and start fresh at college. Vic, meanwhile, dreams of being a fashion designer and hopes that in college, her Mexican heritage won't make her stand out. In their last year of high school, Rae and Vic go on a series of college visits together, but eventually learn that their wildly diverging paths and the secrets they've kept from each other might tear them apart.

First of all, can I just say how amazing it is to read a book that's all about a female friendship? Rae and Vic's relationship is the heart and soul of the novel, and the two go through many ups and downs and twists and turns... as many as any romantic couple. There are plenty of stories out there about male friendships, but I think this is the first time I've read a book that's all about a female friendship, and damn, it was awesome! That isn't to say there isn't romance in the book. During the first college visit, Rae meets an adorkable Indian American boy named Dev (who introduces himself as Dave in an effort to make his Indian-ness stand out less... boy, can I relate!) and finds herself falling for him despite herself. The romance doesn't take up a lot of page-time, but when it's present, it sure packs a punch, whether the two are making adorkably awkward conversations or dealing with the fallout of their decisions. 

Anyway, Just Visiting is one of those books I almost didn't want to review because I knew that, no matter how much I gush, I won't do it justice (especially since I don't want to give out any spoilers, but a lot of the stuff I love comes after the twists!). Rae and Vic are both amazing protagonists (and they really are co-protagonists - both have equal prominence) with kickass voices. Both are super sarcastic (which made me laugh) and strong-willed, and it's easy to see why they'd be best friends... and why their fire-and-fire combo would eventually clash. The writing is truly amazing - quick-witted and clever in some places, evocative and poignant in others. And totally addictive. Once, I forgot to eat because I was too busy reading. Which is kind of ironic because I kept reading about the bacon tuna melts Rae serves at the diner she works at. Every scene comes to life on the page and just feels... real.

I also loved the diversity in this book -- not just racial (through a Mexican co-protagonist, and Indian love interest for Rae, and an Asian possible love interest for Vic) -- but socioeconomic as well. As a white girl in America, Rae possesses a certain degree of racial privilege, but at the same time faces a lot of hardships that come with being poor. Because she has to work and count every penny -- not to mention deal with a mom who not only won't support her, but barely seems to care that she exists -- she has to grow up a lot faster than most teenagers would. Which also means she has to deal with a lot of adult issues she's sorely unprepared for. It's not a perspective that's often explored, and it was fascinating to read.

Just Visiting alternates between light-hearted teen fun and profound explorations of human emotion... how the past can haunt you, how difficult it can be to figure out what you want. Being a teenager is a tumultuous time, and Adler perfectly captures it on the page through her two protagonists. I tore through this book and loved every moment. I was pretty sure I'd enjoy it before I started, but I found myself unexpectedly addicted (like I said, I forgot to eat at one point). And I came out of it with that satisfying feeling of, "Damn, that was a good book!"

Dahlia Adler is an Associate Editor of Mathematics by day, a blogger for B&N Teens by night, and writes Contemporary YA and NA at every spare moment in between. She's the author of the Daylight Falls duology, the upcoming Just Visiting, and Last Will and Testament, as well as over five billion tweets as @MissDahlELama. She lives in New York City with her husband and their overstuffed bookshelves.