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Sea of Shadows by Kelly Armstroing

Kelly Armstrong’s Sea of Shadows is a very refreshing young adult fantasy featuring great characterization, a relatively unique setting, very well done romance, and an intriguing storyline.

The story has two main characters, the twin sisters Ashyn and Moria. They have been given two very important roles in their village. Ashyn is the Seeker. It is her duty to find the spirits of the dead and lay them to rest. Moria is the Keeper of the village. It is her duty to guard the village and to make sure the Empire is never overtaken. However, just as Ashyn is undertaking her duties for the first time, an army of spirits of the dammed are released and accompanied by a thief named Ronan and a mysterious member of the warrior cast named Gavril Kitsune. They flee to warn the Emperor.

The setting of the book is relatively unusual for a medieval fantasy. The Empire that all of the characters belong to has a very interesting caste system, with people of different castes not being allowed to participate in other castes’ activities. For example, no one but the warrior caste is allowed to wield a weapon, the only exception to this being the Keeper and the Seeker. The Empire itself is unusual for a young adult fantasy setting in its moral ambiguity. On one hand, it provides protection from the spirits around them and the other enemy nations while on the other hand both the system and the way it is enforced can be very harsh. For example, the twins’ mother was killed for trying to hide what they were from the government. It is also somewhat complicit in the dammed spirits existence. People who have committed crimes, including relatively minor ones like theft, are sent to the Forest of the Dammed where if they die they are likely to rise as angry spirits. If they can survive the winter they are allowed to leave, but they are just as likely to become infected by the spirits and as a result the majority of them are killed. The tensions between the various castes are also explored. For example, the area’s arrogant governor feels undermined by the two girls’ power and tries to cause them trouble early in the book.

The book is a very quick read despite being a bit longer than the average young adult novel. The earlier chapters have a lot of set up and world building, but the world and characters and setting are interesting enough to keep the reader engaged. Then as the spirits are unleashed the pace quickens considerably. The book is very difficult to put down.

The two main characters are also the viewpoint characters. The two characters are frequently split up and as a result the reader spends a great deal of time with one of them before focusing on the other. This is often done with the use of a cliff-hanger which requires the other sister’s help. This can be slightly frustrating at times, but fortunately both sisters are compelling enough that the audience is quickly pulled into the story of whoever the current viewpoint character is.

One of the greatest strengths of this story is its characters and Ashyn and Moria are two of the best. The two sisters are very different. Ashyn is in many ways very idealistic and naïve, but is also very determined empathetic. It is easy to see why she has the duty of looking after the dead souls. She is very kind and empathetic and is also the more diplomatic of the two sisters, often doing a very good job of defusing potentially dangerous situations. On the other hand, she is much less capable as a fighter than her sister, and her idealism can at times sabotage her. Moria is a little more cynical since her duties often have more to do with protecting the village and she has more often dealt with the villagers’ problems. As a result she has seen a bit more of humanity’s dark side than her sister and is more cynical. This does not mean that she is not noble or compassionate; she has both of those traits in spades. However, her solutions are often less diplomatic and also more likely to break the rules. For example, early in the story there is a very brief line of dialogue that suggests she sometimes gives her knife to abused wives so they can defend themselves. This shows that she is still very compassionate, but also has a harder edge than her gentler sister.
But the element of the storytelling that really makes them both work as main characters is the fact that neither character is shown to be wrong for being who they are. For example, there is a scene later in the book where they are talking about their respective love interests. Moria who is more interested in casual sexual relationships that won’t get in the way of her duties, says that she can’t enter a relationship with Gavril because she respects him too much. The more romantically inclined Ashyn says that respect is the most important part of a relationship. Moria tells her “you keep your notions of romance and I’ll keep mine.” Now since there is a powerful element of romance in the books it is likely that by the end of the series her opinion will have changed, but what is important here is that the narrative does not judge her for her belief. A lot of series would have one of the sisters be shown in a negative light to make the other one look better, but this story doesn’t. Both sisters are good people; they are just good people in different ways.

Two other very important characters are, of course, the love interests. I personally have read a lot of very good young adult fiction with very lacklustre romance plots. Most frequently, I have seen a lot of books that try to create a very artificial love triangle where one of the men is completely unlikable and nasty, while the other one is written to be seen as nice, but instead comes off dull and lifeless. Fortunately, Armstrong’s novel creates a much fresher romance for both of the main characters. Both of the love interests have a number of negative traits, but also are likable and in very different ways. Gavril Kitsune is a disgraced member of the warrior caste who is highly critical of Moria. He is capable of being extremely bullheaded and stubborn, but is also very honorable and noble. He and Moria slowly but surely develop mutual respect over the course of the book. Part of what makes them so compelling together is the fact that despite taking her duties very seriously Moria can appear roguish and can sometimes bend the rules in order to do the right thing, while Gavril is a very strict and rules oriented person despite the fact that he is from a disgraced family and she has what is ultimately a very respected position in the Empire. Ronan is a thief who is trying to provide for his family. He is roguish, somewhat untrustworthy and occasionally even selfish, but he is also charming, resourceful, fiercely loyal and surprisingly romantic. He is much more cynical and experienced than Ashyn is and teaches her many of the ways he has learned to survive. In turn, she brings out a much braver and nobler side to his character. The relationship is reciprocal with both characters learning and growing with each other. It is both very romantic and a breath of fresh air.

The book is also very emotionally powerful. I have already talked at length about how well the romance works. Another emotion that is present in many areas is fear. The spirits are very frightening. A particular reason for this is in the way they twist normal people into tools for their anger and wrath. In some cases the characters have to face people they care about who have become dangerous and bestial. Another major character who brings this emotion is the sadistic mercenary commander Barthol who works for the mysterious villain. Of the villains he and his band are the only human ones to appear with the main villain remaining in shadows. He holds a village hostage and uses the main characters’ empathy to keep them prisoner. He is very calm and calculating, but at the same time clearly enjoys the power his heinous actions give over the heroines. The book combines fantasy tropes and those of horror very effectively.

Sea Of Shadows is a very refreshing fantasy story that avoids many of the problems typical both in fantasy and in the YA market. It has very well developed characters, an interesting setting, and a plot with more than a few twists and turns. It is highly recommended and I will be looking forward to its sequels.

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Sir Terry Prachett: a Eulogy

Today one of my all time favorite authors Terry Prachett ha died. I remember reading my first Discworld book, It was called The Last Hero and while reading it I was just amazed that any book could be at the same time so brilliant, dramatic and tragic but at the same time so funny. I tore through book after book because of this.

Sir Terry Prachett is still one of the only book writers were I can’t read his books in a library because they make me howl with laughter. At the same time his book were always great at capturing the essential humanity of his characters.

Sir Terry Prachett’s main characters were always fascinating because they were in many ways defined by a negative emotion or idea, but they channeled it towards something good. Sam Vimes was similer to Prachett himself in how he was defined by anger, but this was an anger towards injustice that he channeled towards justice. Granny Wetherwax was defined by her ego, however she uses this to get people exactly were they need to be.

When I think about it now, much of my beliefs and certainly much of my writing has been shaped by this single man’s stories. To me Prachett will always be one of the best not just of fantasy or of humor, but of all time in any genre. Goodbye Sir Terry Prachett. The universe will be a little colder and less magical without you.

White Ribbon: Masculinty in the Media

Today marks the first day of the White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women. In the campaign men from now until the sixth of December wear a white ribbon to symbolize their pledge to never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women. It is a positive campaign to change masculinity into something more positive. This is a really great campaign that has the potential to do a lot of good for society. To celebrate this event I will be looking as I always do at the media. Most portrayals of men in the media reinforce dominant negative gender roles. We will be looking at either more positive male characters or ones where the negative roles the characters fall into are deliberate.

MADD Haunted House 2013

The MADD Haunted house is always the highlight of the Halloween season and this one is no exception. Every year there is a theme to these haunted houses. On the first year I went it was ancient Egypt. This time however there were new elements to the genial formula that made the house even more interesting. For example in all the houses that I’ve gone to before the characters in the house stand perfectly still in there poses and move slightly every so often. This has worked extremely well in the past but the haunted house opted to do something else this year by having all of the characters move around and interact in various ways. This is a good idea for a number of reasons one of them being that it gives the audience more to look at and it gives them time to like the various characters which makes it seem more terrifying when things take a turn towards the spooky. as the play section begins there is a quite frankly beautiful rendition of “this is Halloween” by Danny Elfman. I am going to avoid speaking all that much further about every element of the show although I will say that I was grinning the whole way through and the climax is appropriately scary.

The videos that are put on before haunted house are all very good doing a great sending up an earlier era of film. Most of these silent films do a good job of highlighting the silliness often involved in the genre, but there are a couple that are actually very haunting and disturbing particularly an adaptation of a “a Picture of Dorian Grey and Swinging into madness. Both show something that is often forgotten which is how creepy some silent films could be when they tried.

But none of the things I have discussed are nearly as important as the house itself which I am happy to say was as scary as ever. this time instead of being separate variations on the houses theme the rooms are tied together by an overarching story involving grief, madness, and the consequences of meddling in that which we do not understand. Although all of these houses have scared me I don’t think I’ve ever screamed this much in any of them, and I think the sense of urgency the story brings is part of the reason for this. The other reason is the character of the ghost. How the vindictive spirit go’s about hunting down the inhabitants of the house many of which are her family is very chilling and the actress who plays her is absolutely terrifying in the role.

Overall the MADD haunted house is a fun terrifying ride that captures the feeling of Halloween perfectly. If you want to celebrate the freighting and the ghastly than I highly recommend that you let this be the haunted house you go to.

You Should Have Stayed at Home: the G20 Story

You should have stayed at home the G20 story is the most important play I have ever reviewed. It tells the real story of what happened at G20, from the perspective of Tommy Taylor whom many of you will know from his famous facebook message regarding the event.

The stage is very minimalistic consisting of a table, a laptop that Tommy Taylor uses to protect an image that serves to introduce the subjects he talks about, and an indoor outhouse with no door. The last of these things was in fact what was actually at their cell. It showcases just how little effort was put into giving the prisoners basic human dignity.

Tommy Taylor tells how he went to the freedom park during G20 out of curiosity. He ended up taking part in his first protest in support of grandmothers who have to adopt the next generation of their family because that generations parents had died of AIDS. The next day he his girlfriend and her best friend decide to see what’s going on. After a serious of events they end up trapped in a police circle and arrested for no good reason. The rest of the play is Tommy Taylor telling what happened to him and the other prisoners. despite how brutal and harrowing it is there is also a strange comedy that runs through the play such as when one of the other prisoners produces a condom that they blow up and use as a ball to entertain themselves. He tells the others that he’ll tell people “being in prison with 30 other guys was terrible until one of us found a condom.” However as the play goes on these comedic bits give way as he explains how even the most basic human rights were denied to each prisoner. One of the more haunting scenes in the play is when a crowd of volunteer actors enter the theatre and represent the prisoners. They all sit around staring at their empty cups which represent that besides everything else the prisoners were even denied water for a long time.

After the play there was a Q&A session that revealed even more information including the fact that only two of the officers involved have been charged and that two of the more high ranking officers can never be charged under our current laws because they retired. It also notes other ways our basic human rights have been slowly chipped away in recent years.

Before this play the only way I knew about these events was from the Fifth Estate coverage of it, but this was a much stronger emotional experience. I will never forget the events portrayed in this play nor should I. This was one of the worst human rights violations in Canada during the 21st century and something has to be done. The play will be in Whitehorse for two more days and then will be moving to the following cities at the following times
Vancouver, British Columbia: Firehall Arts Centre, Sept 24 -Oct 5, 2013
Toronto, Ontario: Aki Theatre, Oct 16 -27, 2013
Montreal, Quebec: Mainline Theatre Oct 30 – Nov 2, 2013
Ottawa, Ontario: Arts Court Theatre, November 13-16, 2013.
If you have a chance to see this play or indeed to be in it since volunteering is still open I would recommend that if there is only one play you see this year, let it be this one.

The Stratford Files: Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit is a very witty character-based comedy. It is very reminiscent of what Whitehorse residents might see in a Guild production. In fact I believe that the Guild did do a production of the play in the 90’s. The play offers a lot of character-based humour and looks at a sacred subject in an extremely irreverent manner, in this case the subjects of marriage and death. The main difference between this particular production and something that could be seen in the Whitehorse is probably the very pretty and grand stage. The story follows Charles, a novelist whose first wife died seven years ago. Two years later, he married his current wife Ruth. In preparation for his newest novel about a phony medium, they invite a medium to their house to summon a ghost. The medium accidently summons Charles’ dead wife Elvira whom only he can see. Each act ends with a twist that causes more and more chaos. As the chaos intensifies, the characters who early on all seem quite positive reveal a darker side. Charles, who early on seems to be an extremely witty novelist and a loyal and reasonable husband, is revealed to be a rather childish and irresponsible man who clearly wasn’t ready for ether of his marriages. Ruth, who appears to a classy and witty woman, as well as a good match for Charles soon shows a much more domineering and temperamental side, taking out her anger at her situation on the other characters. Finally, Elvira who initially seems to be at the very least a loving wife and very loyal to Charles is revealed to be rather cheerfully amoral and unfaithful character. Despite the seeming seriousness of these revelations the play remains extremely humorous and light.
Ben Carlson is very funny as Charles doing a very good job at showing the character’s affable charm early on and his frustration as the play continues. Sara Topham is phenomenal as Ruth, capturing both the dry wit and elegance that the character exemplifies early in the play, while also showing the character’s steadily building rage and as the play continues, displaying increasingly hilarious explosions of anger which make for one of the best performances in the play. Michelle Giroux magnificently portrays Elvira’s capricious and chaotic personality showing how she can both be extremely charming and likable, but also destructive and self centered. Seana McKenna is great as the eccentric Madame Arcati. Her content excitement about the supernatural events is very endearing and her dancing around in her trances is very charming and funny. However, the standout performance is, without a doubt, Susie Burnett as Edith, the overly excitable maid. While all the other actors are great, she is without a doubt the funniest. Her constant nervous energy is absolutely hilarious.
The play is not the best that I’ve seen in Stratford although this may be partially because I’m more used to this type of play than the much more grand ones that are frequently seen in Stratford. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad play: it actually has a surprising amount of depth along with its humour, certainly more than The Three Musketeers had. The humour is good, not only because it is very witty and made me laugh several times, but also because it is all based around the characters and their personalities rather than just coming from random gags. Blithe Spirit is recommended.

going to stratford

I’m going to be going to Stratford Ontario for the Shakespeare festival for the next two weeks. I’ll be at a campground for most of the stay so while I’ll try to write reviews of the plays I go to I may not be able to get them posted here until I get back. I apologize for the inconvenience.