Friday, July 19, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episode 8 — The Acolyte

The last episode of the season puts in overtime to wrap up the loose threads, and we get a couple of A-list cameos and more stellar lightsaber choreography

Remember last week when Osha put Qimir's helmet on? It's got some serious power, and it enabled her to see the future. She sees Mae kill Sol—and she knows she's gotta stop her. As we know in the Star Wars universe, though, always in motion, the future is. Qimir asks her if she'd ever consider training with him, and she gives a final no. (Also a note: I've referred to Qimir as the Master, and he's sometimes called the Stranger. I'm using Qimir for convenience sake.)

As they depart, an evil-looking alien figure watches their ship leave the atmosphere. Who is this guy!?! The internet seems to be fairly sure that this is Darth Plagueis the Wise! There have to be two Sith, obviously, but this was a fun surprise. Is this where he learns how to create and save life? Or was it he that instructed the witches that created the twins?

Meanwhile, Sol and the kidnapped Mae are above Brendok, and he wants to contact Master Vernestra to inform her that the vergence on the planet that created the twins is in fact real. As they're talking, though, Mae escapes and jets off the Jedi ship in a fighter, and we get treated to a pretty awesome chase sequence through the fine particles of a planetary ring. She crashlands and Sol sets off after her.

Back on Coruscant, Vernestra speaks with Senator Rayencourt, a politician who's heard there's a murder investigation concerning several Jedi. He reads the Jedi to filth, and calls the Order a "massive system of unchecked power posing as a religion." He questions their rejection of emotionless calm, as it's only a matter of time before someone snaps. Of course, he's right.

He admits that he's reported the Order's lack of transparency to the Chancellor, and Vernestra realizes they're in some deep bantha fodder. She summons her aide to collect as many Jedi as possible without causing suspicions—they've just received Sol's emergency beacon and are headed to Brendok.

Qimir and Mae are approaching Brendok as well, so it appears the showdown in this finale will happen where it all began. Qimir approaches Sol and they begin dueling in some more of the most awesome lightsaber choreography we've seen in years.

We also learn why Osha left the Order: she failed because she could never quell her negative emotions over the loss of her mother. Mae counters that it's Sol that failed, as he's the one who killed their mother. This angers Osha, and she's driven to attack Mae. Mae, on the other hand, is mad that her sister believes that the Jedi are in any way good people.

Mae intercedes in Qimir and Sol's duel, and Qimir instructs her to strike him down to finish her training. Like a certain Skywalker in the future, she refuses. Instead, she wants Sol to face the Council, the Senate, and the Republic to answer for what she believes are his crimes from 16 years ago.

It's then that we get the bombshell that Osha and Mae aren't twins—they're the same person, created somehow by the vergence on Brendok. Mother Aniseya used the Force to create life. (Sidenote: I like the idea that there may be multiple vergences throughout galactic history. Perhaps that's how Shmi Skywalker gave virgin birth to Anakin?)

Sol confesses to killing Aniseya (though the circumstances were clearly not murder), and Osha is in disbelief. He admits that he didn't tell her (or anyone else) because they would have taken her out of Jedi training. Overcome with anger, betrayal, and sadness, she begins to Force choke him, and ends up killing him. Is this a Dark Side act? Or is it simply human vengeance? Where is the line drawn for individuals in this universe?

Qimir hands her Sol's lightsaber and it turns red—she's bled the crystal! A bit on the nose, of course, but it shows what's she now capable of. Mae convinces her to escape as the Jedi begin storming the fortress.

These poor girls had their lives upended years ago by a tragic and unfortunate misunderstanding, and they've been manipulated for years by both light and dark Force users. They need to get out there in the universe on their own. They reconcile, and it's about damn time. It doesn't last long, however.

Qimir finds them, and Osha has to make a choice. She agrees to train with him if he lets Mae go. He agrees, and says he'll attempt to erase Mae's memory of both Osha and him so the Jedi can't use her to find them. They leave, and the Jedi arrive to arrest Mae.

On Coruscant, Mae has lost her memory, indeed. Vernestra reveals the truth to the Council about Sol's actions, and the Council wants to start the external investigation. Rather than frame as it as proof that the Jedi need some work when it comes to oversight, she states that it's just the actions of one bad man.

Mae's memory is so wiped that she doesn't even know she has a sister. Vernestra says that she needs help finding someone—a pupil of hers before he turned to the Dark Side. So that's who Qimir is! We get a final shot of Osha and Qimir on a distant planet, master and acolyte.

The season ends with Vernestra walking up to none other than Yoda as she asks for advice. And that's it!

I don't know why I didn't think about the fact that Yoda was alive during the High Republic—of course he was! He's nearly a millennium old by the the time we meet him in the prequels. But what this means is that the Sith hadn't actually been extinct in the Old Republic era. But, as we're learning more and more, the Jedi aren't perfect.

That, it seems, is one of the themes of The Acolyte. I know a lot of folks have taken issue with the dethroning of Jedi (first with Luke in The Last Jedi, and now this), but I think it makes sense. They're just people; they're bound to be imperfect. And especially with this show, it helps build up the explanation of what happens to Anakin Skywalker and Darth Sidious.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Six Books with Gareth Powell

Gareth L. Powell is the author of 20 published books. He is best known for The Embers of War trilogy, The Continuance Series, the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, Light Chaser (written with Peter F. Hamilton), and About Writing, his guide for aspiring authors. He has twice won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (previous winners include J. G. Ballard and Arthur C. Clarke) and has become one of the most shortlisted authors in the award’s 50-year history. He has also been a finalist for the Locus Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Seiun Award, and the Canopus Award.

Today he tells about his Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka (translated by Sam Malissa). Five killers find themselves on the same train from Tokyo to Morioka. Why are they all on the same train, and which of them will survive the journey? The book was recently adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt, so I’m curious to understand that process by reading the original story and seeing what was changed and what wasn’t.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

My wife Jendia Gammon and I both have several forthcoming books we’re really excited about, including ones we’ve written ourselves and an anthology of work by other authors that we’re publishing through our own imprint. But if I’m not allowed to choose one of those, I’ll go for The Mercy of Gods by James S. A. Corey. I enjoyed The Expanse and am looking forward to seeing how they tackle a far future space opera setting.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

I read Dune as a teenager. I think I bounced off it a couple of times before I really got into it, but I remember enjoying it. Now, having seen the recent movie adaptation, I’d like to re-read it so that I can go on to read Dune Messiah, but it’s such a hefty brick of a book, I’m not sure I can commit the time and attention it requires, as there are so many great books out there I haven’t read yet.

4. A book that you love and wish you yourself had written?

I have re-read Excession by Iain M. Banks at least half a dozen times. Inspiring, fearless science fiction that’s so inventive and so much fun, you sometimes have to take a step back to realise just how creative and skillful it all is. Excession follows an “Outside Context Problem” from the perspective of the Culture’s hyper-intelligent ship Minds. As all the ships have long and witty names, it can be hard to keep track of which ship is which, but the gradual uncovering of a vast conspiracy drives the plot unstoppably forwards.

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

I found this book in the school library at the age of eleven. It was the first adult science fiction I’d ever come across. Up until that point, I’d been reading books aimed at children, such as Brian Earnshaw’s Dragonfall 5 series for younger readers, which used their otherworldly settings as backdrops for rollicking adventures. The stories in Of Time and Stars were different. A lot of people talk about science fiction having a “sense of wonder”. The stories in Of Time and Stars blew into my brain like a whirlwind. To this day, I can still remember the awe I felt as I read “The Nine Billion Names of God”, “If I Forget Thee O Earth”, “All the Time in the World”, and “The Sentinel”. Sitting there in my school uniform, clutching the paperback, I felt my mind expand and the scope of my imagination widen. Suddenly, I knew that it was possible to articulate strange philosophical questions; that ideas could be communicated through fiction; and that the world was larger and more outlandish than I could possibly have hoped. I only read the book once, but it was an important turning point for me; it was my own personal Damascus moment, and it set me firmly on the path that would eventually lead to me writing my own science fiction. It opened the door of my imagination and showed me wonders, and I was never quite the same after that.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome?

I have two books coming out from Titan next year. There’s a new standalone space opera called Future’s Edge, that comes out in February, and in September, a short story collection called Who Will You Save? I’m very excited about both these books and can't wait for people to be able to read them. However, if you can’t wait that long, my most recent release is Descendant Machine, also from Titan. It’s set in the same universe as my earlier novel Stars and Bones but is a standalone story. You don’t have to have read the first one in order to read this one (but obviously, I hope you do!). In Descendant Machine, humanity has been banished from the Earth and set adrift to roam the universe in a fleet of a thousand sentient arks. When Nicola Mafalda’s scout ship, the Frontier Chic, comes under attack, she’s left deeply traumatised by the drastic actions the Chic takes to save her. Months later, when an old flame comes to her for help, she realises she has to find a way to forgive both of them in order to stop a giant machine from destroying history.

Thank you, Gareth!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Review: Fantasmas

A loud, cheerful satire of the roles the world demands we play

From the same mind that produced the horror/comedy show Los Espookys and the heartfelt immigration dramedy film Problemista, the new HBO Max series Fantasmas dials the surrealism up to eleven and makes the screen explode in possibilities.

Fantasmas is set in a world where colorless crayons are a hit idea, where an expressionless robot can become a talented actor, where a performance artist stays in character 24/7, where the letters of the alphabet have distinct personalities, where you can send your dreams to a lab for interpretation, where all men of a certain age secretly share a bottle collection hobby, where doctor appointments last exactly 90 seconds, where Santa Claus is sued for exploiting his workers, where customer service agents are subject to karmic justice, where the TikTok algorithm is a jealous goddess with no love for her faithful, where mind uploading is a viable treatment for a skin condition, where a fashion designer specializes in listening to toilets and dressing them, where gay hamsters have their own dance club, where water speaks, where gossipy mermaids hate Halloween, where an evangelist Smurf made of ceramic is a social media manager, where all online influencers live in the same house, where a portrait of a corgi hosts a trapped demon, where a goldfish runs a private detective business, where a reality TV producer keeps his mother's living brain in a jar, and where being hit by lightning gives you special perceptive powers. Somehow, all this fits in six half-hour episodes.

None of this is treated as strange or unusual. This is the hallmark of magical realism: the noteworthy thing about the social media manager is not that she's a ceramic Smurf, but that she's mediocre at her job and her fees are outrageous. The fact that a demon is trapped in a portrait isn't as interesting as his lack of success on Grindr. We're not expected to focus on the impossibility of a goldfish detective, but on the fact that she's mean to her assistant. This constant realignment of perspective is a requisite for the message contained in Fantasmas. In this world, false things are transparently portrayed as false, even though they continue to have their effects. The absurdity of bureaucracy is highlighted by the way IDs are called: "proof of existence." You can be standing right in front of a potential employer, landlord or doctor, and still they'll ask for your proof of existence.

The set design for the show goes out of its way to draw attention to the artificiality of institutions: the interior of a corporate office, an apartment, a hospital, a school, a courtroom, a restaurant, a jewellery shop will be shown from a wide angle so you can see the false walls that delimit the set. On the other hand, exterior shots use an obviously painted background to represent the streets of New York, another sign of artificiality. The fictitious spaces where the story happens don't bother hiding that they're fiction. Accordingly, this version of New York is populated by image-obsessed aspiring celebrities, Instagram junkies jumping through the hoops of brand promotion, fake friendships, performative social advocacy, commodified identities, staged drama, plastic surgeries, and the occasional murder. It's a voracious place where survival requires compromising more and more parts of your true self.

Which leads us to the hidden heart of the show: a teenage student who resorts to bullying to hide his insecurities about masculinity. By reinforcing in himself the expected norms of male behavior, he's put himself on the road to becoming another bearer of falsehoods. The narrow mental trap he's living in doesn't let him notice the vigorously queernorm milieu that is the adult world. This character has very few scenes in only half of the episodes, but his arc is the whole point of the story.

It takes a while to notice this, because the narration in Fantasmas has an extremely unconventional structure. The random appearance of a secondary character will often prompt a prolonged digression about their personal life and worries and quirks. The trick is that these digressions are so interesting that the viewer never notices that the episode's pacing has been broken. Many of these disparate subplots converge in the season finale, in a manner that may land a bit too conveniently, but the sweet earnestness makes up for it. In the middle of such fierce competition for likes and gigs and sponsorship deals and other substitutes for human validation, the world of Fantasmas still has spaces where true self-expression can flourish.

There's a meaningful blend of magical realism with queernorm in Fantasmas. Latin audiences will recognize the deadpan casualness with which robots, ceramic Smurfs, talking hamsters and incorporeal people coexist with the rest of New Yorkers. Magical realism is all about close familiarity with the fantastic in everyday life. But in addition to it, Fantasmas takes this acceptance of difference and paints it queer: the fact that people of all body types interact without creating arbitrary hierarchies means that there's no single mandatory way to exist. Fantasmas proposes a world where no one raises an eyebrow because your cab driver dresses more fabulously than anyone else in the city, where the undocumented worker delivering your dinner also happens to be the world's most talented tailor, and most importantly, where you shouldn't have to prove to others again and again that you exist.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Review: MaXXXine

Ti West's final installment in the X trilogy is an '80s-soaked spectacular with nods to classic Hollywood and horror films with absolutely immaculate vibes, but something about the third act just falls flat. (No spoilers)

It's around 97 °F here in steamy Atlanta, Georgia, and as a horror and Halloween enthusiast, I'd been looking for a new entry in my slasher summer series. Maxxxine, the third installment in writer/producer/director Ti West's X trilogy and yet another Mia Goth vehicle, hits the spot.

Slasher summer is a vibe/aesthetic that seeks to encapsulate the hot, sweaty, horror nostalgia of '80s scary movies and TV. Think Stranger Things, rewatches of Friday the 13th, and retro clothes you'd find in the 1983 classic Sleepaway Camp.

Maxxxine fits the bill on so many accounts, and I knew it from the minute I saw the first trailer a few months back. But, as a caveat —and I don't recommend you do this— I saw Maxxxine first last week without having seen any of the other movies in the trilogy. I was suitable impressed though, so I then watched Pearl and then, finally, X. (This is right up my alley; I saw Infinity War after only having seen like 4 Marvel movies).

But seeing all of the X movies out of order gives me an interesting vantage point to analyze them, and I do think they work well together. Being introduced to Maxine as a tough survivor on the precipice of success (albeit with an intense and nearly sadistic propensity for violence) before having followed her through the physical and emotional trauma of the Texas Porn Star Massacre gives you a new appreciation for the baggage that we all carry hidden deep inside.

Maxxxine finds our heroine about to star in her first major non-porn feature film, a horror sequel directed by a classy auteur played by Elizabeth Debicki, who aims to mentor the young porn star. As shooting begins, Maxine's friends are being murdered by an unknown figure, masked and leather-gloved in a nod to old giallo films.

The year is 1985, and the Los Angeles vibes that West manages to evoke on camera are absolutely stellar. He always hires good music supervisors, but this film truly outdoes itself with gems that capture the mood, ranging from Judas Priest to New Order. Gritty and nostalgic shots of the Strip, the Hollywood hills, and classic videotape rental stores dot the background. Most scenes are punctuated with late-night TV news updates about the ongoing Nightstalker murders and the killer behind them. There is so, so much cocaine.

We're kept in the dark about the killer until the very end, but his go-between is a Louisiana private investigator played by Kevin Bacon in a comedic role straight out of Coen Brothers central casting.

There's a lot you could write about this movie, from a wide selection of themes: nostalgia, repression, paranoia, history, and Hollywood. I'll keep this review short, but lots of undergrads in coming years will write many a paper on this trilogy, Maxxxine especially.

Hollywood and the desire for stardom, in particular, is probably the most prominent theme, and one that runs through all of these movies. Pearl wanted to be a dancer in the Follies in 1918 and had a pet alligator named Theda (after Theda Bara, the silent film star). Maxine, as a struggling actress reaching for respectability, stubs out a cigarette with her shoe on Theda Bara's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Maxine evades her pursuers on various lots throughout Hollywood studios, at times even taking refuge in the Psycho house overlooking the famed Bates Motel set. Hollywood loves nothing more than homages to itself and show business.

By the end of the movie, we get a reveal of who the killer is, but something about it just falls flat. It's got a tie-in to the other movies, though honestly it would have been better if maybe it didn't.

The problem, I think, is that the movie spends so much time focusing on character performances and overall (killer) vibes that I think it just didn't have energy left over to stick the landing.

It's still a fun watch. I find Ti West's movies compulsively watchable and never boring. If you like the other movies, you're probably going to enjoy the hell out of Maxxxine even if you're less than blown away by the finale. There are some gore scenes that I am still thinking (and shuddering) about, that had the entire audience slack-jawed. But that's show biz, baby.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10.

Bonuses: Elizabeth Debicki steals the scene in every shot she's in; it's a love letter to Hollywood, which Hollywood loves; the classic horror Easter eggs are fun to catch

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Review: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell

An easy-to-read military space opera attempting to have a deep discussion

Military SF as a phenomenon tends to attract authors with military backgrounds, and I find it fascinating to compare their approaches to things like military tradition and discipline with the approaches taken by authors with other backgrounds. Without in any way trying to suggest an association (I don’t read enough military SF for that), it has nevertheless not escaped me that an author whose non-writing career was ‘lawyer and antique dealer’ was really keen to have his spaceship captains execute mutinous crew members for the sake of discipline in a crisis. Meanwhile, Jack Campbell, author of The Lost Fleet series, which begins with Dauntless, was a navy officer before becoming a writer, and his spaceship captain tends to chuck mutinous people in the brig and then have a lot of meetings. The frequency of all-fleet meetings in this book convinces me as nothing else does that Campbell knows whereof he writes.

In fact, one of the strongest elements of this book is Campbell’s reflection on military traditions. He’s very pro-them, but not in a fascist way. And he gives himself the opportunity to reflect on that through a rather ingenious plot device. John Geary, commander of an Alliance Fleet ship, acclaimed fame and honor when the neighboring Syndicated worlds (‘Syndics’) launched an attack on the Alliance, kicking off an unending war. Although Geary was lost in the battle, his selfless sacrifice ensured that his crew escaped safely and lived to tell his story. He was granted a posthumous promotion to captain, and his memory lives on for the next century in the legend of ‘Black Jack’ Geary, the one man who could get out of any fix, win any battle, lead any mission to brilliant success.

Except he wasn’t lost; he made it into a damaged escape pod at the last minute and drifted in suspended animation until, a century later, he is picked up by an Alliance ship, thawed out, and learns what has happened in the last few decades. And it’s not great. Besides the century of constant war, he learns that the military has also degraded in a variety of ways, some of which were not quite believable—more on that later. They’ve adopted a more democratic system of decision-making, in which ship commanders all vote on proposed fleet actions (this is bad); they’ve apparently lost all their tactical training (this is very bad), and they’ve even given up saluting (this is astonishingly bad).

Fortunately, Geary’s prompt posthumous promotion means that he has built up a century’s worth of seniority as captain, so when the rest of the fleet’s senior staff are executed by the Syndicates during an ostensible negotiation that was apparently in no way an obvious set-up for a betrayal, Geary ends up in charge of the fleet. The task: to escape Syndic space, carrying with them the MacGuffin—excuse me, I mean the access key to the Syndic hypernet transport system—back to Alliance space. And, through the power of remembering former, better tactics and traditions, and also knowing how to salute, he does.

I mean, I assume he will. This is a six-book series, and I’m partway through book 3 at the moment, but it’s pretty clear that he will. Which is also kind of the problem.

See, Geary’s main character arc is his struggle with being a man: John Geary, who is seen as a legend, Black Jack Geary. He is regarded by many of his deeply religious crew as a gift from the Living Stars and their Ancestors (a firm cultural tradition of ancestor worship, which was a rather nice touch) to come rescue them in their time of need. ‘I’m only human!’ he thinks, at excruciating length. And yet, every time something goes wrong, every time he needs to outthink the Syndics, outguess them, outfight them, he always wins. There is never a situation in which he makes a mistake, gives the wrong order, guesses wrong, or in any way is responsible for anything bad happening. And this badly undermines the attempted discussion of man vs. myth that Campbell is trying to have here. It’s as if, in his desire to work through the mechanics of space battles and supply runs in enemy territory, Campbell forgets that sometimes the cool plans might not work.

And that brings us to something else that doesn’t work terribly well here: the discussion of military tactics. I’m going to comment solely from the perspective of a reader, since I know nothing about actual military tactics (and, to be fair, no one knows anything about space tactics). But a huge part of the plot has to do with the idea that Black Jack’s legend has almost single-handedly been responsible for a shift in military culture away from thoughtful, clever tactics, instead encouraging ship commanders to be thoughtlessly, stupidly aggressive. Black Jack mythically was super-duper aggressive, and so in copying his example, modern spaceship captains end up seeking the credit for individual wins, rather than engaging in disciplined joint action to ensure a successful encounter overall. The result is a staggering loss of ships and a death count that produces a real dearth of seasoned, experienced commanders. So one challenge that Geary has to overcome is re-training this fleet under his command to stop using Bad New Tactics and start using Good Old Tactics again.

Now, I suppose I could accept this shift in tactical culture, even though it requires me to accept a transitional period during which the Bad New Tactics are taking over and causing enormous losses, despite which no one says, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be fighting battles this way?’ But the problem with this plot point is that it requires the Syndics also to adopt the same Bad New Tactics, otherwise there would be no way for the centuries-long stalemate to persist. It’s pretty clear from Geary’s successes that, if the Syndics had stuck with the Good Old Tactics that Geary is re-introducing, they’d have won all the encounters with the Alliance, and that means they would probably have won the war pretty quick. So why did the Syndics shift in the first place? The Alliance shifted to be like Black Jack, but the Syndics don’t care about Black Jack. He’s not their hero. So they must have just decided to start being bad at fighting, which is hard to swallow.

That being said, there are some good bits in these books too. First, Campbell is really good at gender equality. Captains and leaders are equally likely to be men as women, and there isn’t even any tedious self-congratulatory lampshade hanging on it. It’s just part of the world-building. There’s also a certain pleasing rhythm to Geary’s problem-solving, as he thinks through some objective, such as where to resupply the fleet, or deciding which route to take back to Alliance space, or confronting antsy ship commanders who object to his methods.

And finally, there’s also a careful attention to the relativistic effects of long-distance space battles. Campbell never loses track of how far people are from various events, such that whatever they see five light-hours away (or however distant) actually happened five hours (or however long) ago. This consistently structures all the space battle scenes. When the fleet magically-FTL-wormhole-materializes (or “emerges from Jump space”) into a star system, they can see the precise number of Syndic ships already there as of five hours ago, and start planning the engagement accordingly. Meanwhile, the Syndic ships and cruisers aren’t even going to know that the Alliance fleet arrived for another five hours. Every encounter is built around this sort of light-speed limited thinking, which works well.

The antsy ship commanders who don’t like Geary’s leadership offer an opportunity for some thoughtful internal tension in the book. They serve as a counterpart to the hero-worshippers that make Geary so uncomfortable, but the source of their antagonism is the same: The reason they disagree with him so vehemently is because they’ve subscribed wholeheartedly to the ostensible Black Jack philosophy of fighting, and don’t like the real John Geary telling them they’re wrong. Whether supporters or detractors, the Black Jack’s legend affects how everyone views Geary’s command.

In practice, though, the Bad Commanders form another point where I have difficulty believing, because—remember—Geary never loses battles and never does anything wrong. And it’s not as if these captains have any better ideas; they simply want to cause difficulty for him by being dumbheads. At some point, aren’t they going to have to face facts and realize that they’re wrong?

Or maybe not. Maybe the most realistic part of this book is how dumbheaded some dumbheads are, even when their lives and futures depend on it. But if that's what it takes to make a book realistic, then I'd rather skip the lived experience of ex-soldiers and let a better writer tell me a more entertaining tale than the best that reality has to offer.


• Gender equality
• Careful attention to space battle tactics
• Kind of dull

Nerd coefficient: 6: still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore

Reference: Campbell, Jack. Dauntless [Ace Books, 2006/Titan Books, 2011].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at

Friday, July 12, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episode 7 — Choice

This episode transports us back to the past to learn exactly what happened the night Osha and Mae were separated on Brendok, and the Jedi were pretty terrible. 

We're flashing back in this week's episode, and we see the foursome of young Sol, Kelnacca, Indara, and Torbin exploring the vast planet of Brendok for signs of life. They've been there for two months, and young and impatient Padawan Torbin is homesick and itching to get back to Coruscant in a very teenage and Anakin-like way. (Shout out to Kelnacca roasting up some poultry a la Chewie grilling porgs in The Last Jedi — Wookiees gonna Wookiee.)

The Jedi are investigating why the planet, which was categorized as lifeless for years, is now thriving. They suspect a vergance, which is a concentration of Force power around a location that could allow for the creation of life. 

While Sol is wandering, he stumbles across young Osha and Mae in the scene we saw the first time in episode one. Not only is Brendok experiencing a resurgence in plantlife, it's also home to what is clearly Force-sensitive individuals. 

This episode is the Jedi perspective of what happened that fateful night everything went down, and to be fair it does paint everything in a slightly more nuanced way. Sol truly feels concern for the twins and their seemingly harsh treatment from a coven of witches. Does that mean he's right? Of course not. But as we so often see in Star Wars, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Indara agrees to go investigate what's going on, and the team show up at the Ascension ceremony. It's so damn good to see Mother Aniseya again, as every time she's on screen she's absolutely entrancing. 

While Aniseya and Indara are exchanging pointed but veiled insults, we learn what really happened to Torbin when his eyes went black and became incapictated in episode one. Somehow, while simultaenously talking to Indara, Aniseya gets into his mind and low-key begins tormenting him with promises of returning home, preying on his fears and anxiety. That's some dark Force stuff, there, I think. 

And while I'm always on Team Force Witch, viewing this episode through a space cop's eyes does give me a little bit of pause. Maybe it's not the best and safest choice for a pair of young girls? Sol worries if the Jedi aren't looking out for beings like this, who is? I'd never thought of the Jedi as a Force DFACS, but maybe they were!

Aniseya agrees to let the Jedi test Mae and Osha the next day. Indara thinks it's just a good idea from Sol to buy them time so they can talk to the Council about the situation. But he's being honest — and he's doubling down by admitting that he feels drawn to Osha and that she should be his Padawan, despite the fact that she's already too old to join the Order. 

Osha passes the test, while Mae deliberately fails. Torbin takes some blood and talks about how their M-count is through the roof. I found it interesting that they don't even say the dreaded M-word (midichlorian) but yet still reference it as a benchmark against which to measure a Jedi's potential. Not only that, the twins have the same symbiont. Something powerful enough to split one consciousness into two bodies. Only a vergence could do that. 

Torbin, upon hearing that, says that's it! That's the proof we need, and he rushes off toward the Coven. In his desire to finally leave the backwater planet, he starts putting everything at risk.

Indara also finally reaches the Council, and they put the kibosh on Sol's plan to bring the girls to Coruscant. And it's true — they've already interfered enough with the inhabitants of this planet.  

Back at the coven, Mother Aniseya speaks with her sisters about Osha's desire to leave with the Jedi. Everyone but her seems against it, but she seems surprisingly understanding about the young girl's desire for a different life. They prepare for battle as the Jedi approach. This is going to get ugly.

Mae locks the outer door so everyone is stuck, and starts the fire that we know will soon encompass everything. When the Jedi arrive, Torbin this time isn't affected — but the Wookiee Kelnacca is, and we witness a pretty awesome Jedi fight of him versus his companions as he's possessed.

As Mother Aniseya threateningly turns to smoke, Sol panics when he sees a witch use dark side magic he's not familiar with and impales her with his lightsaber. As she falls, she admits that she was going to let Osha go with him. Sol's attachment to Osha is the primary cause of this tragedy — and the ultimate death of all the coven — a lesson we continually learn again and again in Star Wars. 

After the witches all pass out (Did Indara kill them? Or are they sleeping?), she instructs Sol to go get the girls, despite their being directed not to. How are the Council going to react when they show up with these essentially kidnapped children?

Sol rushes into save the girls, and we are presented with a literal Sophie's choice scenario: Osha and Mae are on opposite sides of a bridge cut in half, and he only can save one. He rushes for Osha, while Mae falls (he believes) to her death. 

The Jedi take Osha and flee the planet on their ship, discussing what they're going to say to the Council. Indara, here, cements her tortured legacy when she calmly gives the plan: They're going to lie. Here they are, faced with a massacre on a strange planet and a direct violation of their orders by carrying Osha away. 

Sol wants to confess and come clean, but she say no — we're not doing that. In a way, she's right. This is a terrible situation that no one could have predicted. They're going to say that Mae burned down the fortress and everyone died. In a way, she's right. Osha has lost everything. There's no point in taking away her only other thing, her desire to become a Jedi. 

But also, telling the truth could have worked out alright — this was a tragedy by all accounts with some terrible luck. As we've seen from Master Vernestra, though, throughout this season, the Jedi are very, very loathe to admit when they're wrong or behaving in ways that may embarrass the Order.

I imagine next week we'll see Mae's rescue by Qimir, and the path that she's set on as she grows up. I'm still appreciating this deep dive into Jedi history and the constant complications that arise time and again because they're simply people. Maybe the dark side is a more inherently natural way of using the Force, since it allows for the use of emotions that are completely normal for living creatures. Striving for monk-like calm and emotionless living is nigh on impossible, as we keep seeing.


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: Proto speeder bikes (touring editions with lots of room for cargo); another glimpse of Mother Aniseya; we get further proof that the Jedi are jerks sometimes; a Mother Koril bad-ass fight scene.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

6 Books with Suzan Palumbo

Suzan Palumbo is a Trinidadian - Canadian, dark speculative fiction writer and editor. Her work has been nominated for the Nebula, Aurora, World Fantasy and Locus awards. She also co-founded the Ignyte Awards with L.D. Lewis. Her debut dark fantasy/horror short story collection Skin Thief: Stories is out now from Neon Hemlock. Her queer, Caribbean, space opera novella Countess will be published by ECW Press on September 10th 2024. She is represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. When she isn’t writing she can be found gardening or being a goth.

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’ve just begun Witch King by Martha Wells. The opening has grabbed me by the throat. If an author writes the words: “…a drop of his blood hardened into a red pearl buried in her heart…” on the first page of their book, I am going to sit up and be ready to be told a story! It’s a super goth line!

I recently got to meet Martha while she was in Toronto at a signing event. She was incredibly gracious. I’ve been a fan of Murderbot for some time but I’m excited to read a fantasy book about revolution by her. I think she will deliver a narrative I don’t expect and I’m a big fan of people surprising me. Throw me a curve ball and I am happy.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I’m excited to read Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera. My mother practices Hinduism and the concept of reincarnation was one she spoke about a lot while I was growing up. As a result, I’m always keen to read speculative work about transmigration by writers who grew up with similar belief systems. I think Vajra’s book is going to be epic, profound and thought provoking. Again, give me the unexpected and the unpredictable. I’m here for all of that!

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

I tend not to re-read many books these days, though I did reread books often when I was younger. I read 1984 several times as a teenager. If I do re-visit a book now, it’s to look up a paragraph or phrase that struck me as well written, insightful or pertinent to a situation I’m encountering in the present. Sometimes, I’ll reread a text for research purposes.

A friend once said, “We only have the capacity to read a certain number of books during our lifetime.” That struck a chord with the absurdist in me. So, while I’m all for everyone re-reading generally, I tend to always be working on my new TBR pile so I can experience as many new books as possible. After Witch King, I plan to read The Wings Upon Her Back by Samantha Mills.

4. Is there a book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. I have to preface this by saying I don’t think I could write The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I think what Vo accomplished with that novella was stunning and unique and only she could have done it. What was so revolutionary about it for me was Vo’s ability to tell the stories of characters who are often given little space or notice. She showed how ordinary people can have a profound impact on the course of history and she did it so elegantly. It is probably the best novella I’ve ever read.
5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that holds a special place in your heart?

I read Jane Eyre when I was fourteen and it blew my mind. I had never before related to a character as strongly as I did with Jane. Her hopes, struggles and loneliness seemed so visceral to me. I was shocked that I could connect with a book that was written almost one hundred and fifty years before I was born. That book’s earnestness informs all of my work. The writing felt so confessional and heart wrenching. It is indelibly part of who I am as a person and writer.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome?

My latest book, Countess, is a queer, Caribbean, space opera novella with a gothic arc at its core. It is full of Caribbean food and culture as well as romance, space chases and curses. It is also a deeply anticolonial story about a Trinidadian descended lieutenant in the future who must come to terms with what she has been taught about empire and the self-hate empire has fostered within her.

I’ll add that the protagonist, Virika Sameroo, is one of the first, if not the first (I could be wrong), femme Indo-Caribbean space officers to be written and published in a novella or novel. I have never encountered a character from my demographic in this type of story before. Virika is passionate and has a temper but she also has a good heart and she cares for her community and people. Her story isn’t an easy one but she is brave despite the odds. That is what makes her and the book awesome. I hope Countess will resonate with those who have never, or rarely, seen themselves and their point of view represented in science fiction and space operas. I hope everyone walks away from the book with indomitable hope in spite of the odds.

Thanks so very much for having me here and letting me talk about some books I love, Paul!

Thank you, Susan!