I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but I’ve been having some hardware trouble. My computer is a Surface Pro 2, which I bought in early 2012, and has served me well and faithfully for all that time. However, the keyboard/cover, is a bit more touchy, and now it won’t let me type the letter “i” “o” or use the backspace button. o_O

So I have a new one on the way, but in the meantime I’m typing on a rather challenging wireless keyboard, and don’t really have a working mouse. This time, let’s blame my typos on that.

A month or so ago I read Arcadia by Iain Pears with my book group. It’s the first book of his I’ve read, though he’s most famous for The Instance of the Fingerpost. Like many of his books, Arcadia has a rather complicated structure, switching between several POVs and four(ish) different timelines.

It begins with the following events:

  • An Oxford professor tinkers with his fantasy novel setting, but never really gets his plot off the ground
  • A psychomathematician in a dystopian future plots her escape
  • A young boy in a pastoral world has a strange encounter

Eventually all of these characters and plotlines intersect and recombine, exploring time travel, history, the effects of events on the future, the truth behind the beautiful Arcadias, for of course et in Arcadia ego. Along the way, it pays homage to J. R. R. Tolkein, Aldous Huxley, Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and John Le Carre, among many others I’m sure I’m missing.

One of the things I really loved about Arcadia was how it played with the notion of history, causation, and time travel. It posits time as a string, you can move a piece of string around, but it is always connected to the rest of the string. If you change past, the future will change, and if you change the future, the past will have to change to accommodate the cause and effect that connects future and past.

I’m sure someone could poke holes in that, but it is a pleasing way of handling time travel in a narrative. In many narratives, like the TV show The Flash, time travel is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. Traveling in time to fix things has challenges, and causes unforeseen problems, but those problems often do not feel organic to the plot; they feel levers the writers can pull whenever they want.

But because Arcadia insists on cause-and-effect chains connecting future and past–in both directions!–the narrative feels much more satisfying. It also makes the book a special pleasure for a novelist to read. As I work on The Golden Wolf, and have a handful of events for which I need to come up with interrelated causes, I feel just like one of the characters in Arcadia, creating an effect in the future and then watching causes line up to create that effect.

The characters are also rather charming, especially the three main women, a plucky lass in 1960s Oxford named (of course) Rosalind, our psychomathemetician from the future, and a noblewoman in the pastoral fantasia. For a book that explores some dark possibilities, the experience of reading it is rather humorous and lighthearted. It sends up some aspects of pastoral fantasy (and Tolkein’s fantasy), though in an affectionate way, asking why a psuedo-medieval fantastical world would endure for millennia when in the real world, technology tends to progress. The answers make sense but are not always pleasant to contemplate. I recommend this book for any thoughtful reader of fantasy or dystopian SF.

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The Mists of Avalon is Real! (Sorta)

I was a child who never stopped pestering my parents for books to read, and after running through everything in the house remotely targeted toward kids or teens by the time I was eleven, I asked my dad for a book, and he handed me The Mists of Avalon. I imagine, he figured 800 pages of Arthurian legend would keep me busy for a little while.

And it did, because I became obsessed. There are books with tighter plots, more sympathetic characters, characters who spend less time moaning about their cruel fate. There are books written by authors who haven’t had fairly horrific child abuse allegations made against them, but there is probably no better book to give to an imaginative pre-teen growing up in the middle of the woods. If I could have stepped through a patch of mist into Avalon, and become a priestess of the Goddess, I would have done it in a second.

Now that I write historical fiction, and have done a good deal of research about Early Medieval Europe (i.e. The Dark Ages), I can appreciate the difficult task Bradley had creating a world full of Arthurian romance, while also trying to be true to the times. She doesn’t dwell on the mud and stench of turf fortifications, but neither does she shy away from the dark and difficulty of travel, the superstitions, or the bondage of women to tasks of making fabric.

It is also made difficult by the face that so much of the Arthurian legend was written long after the time it purports to describe. Nothing about King Arthur appears in the historical record until the 9th century Historia Brittonum, but some of the characters identified as his contemporaries have better historical attestation. One of those is Urien of Rheged, (married to Morgaine in TMoA), who is praised in the Welsh Manuscript The Book of Taliesin. However, until recently the location of the kingdom of Rheged was unknown.

All of which is preamble to this news: the kingdom of Rheged has been found.

“…new archaeological evidence from the excavation of Trusty’s Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway now challenges this assumption.

‘What drew us to Trusty’s Hill were Pictish symbols carved on to bedrock here, which are unique in this region and far to the south of where Pictish carvings are normally found,’ said Ronan Toolis of GUARD Archaeology, who led the excavation which involved the participation of over 60 volunteers. ‘The Galloway Picts Project was launched in 2012 to recover evidence for the archaeological context of these carvings but far from validating the existence of ‘Galloway Picts’, the archaeological context revealed by our excavation instead suggests the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration for the local Britons of Galloway around AD 600. Examined in the context of contemporary sites across Scotland and northern England, the archaeological evidence suggests that Galloway may have been the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.’

The excavation revealed in the decades around AD 600, the summit of the hill was fortified with a timber-laced stone rampart. Around the same time supplementary defences and enclosures were added to its lower-lying slopes transforming Trusty’s Hill into a nucleated fort, a type of fort in Scotland that has been recognised by archaeologists as high status settlements of the early medieval period.”

And if this is true, a part of me can still hope that, in a world divided from our own by a misty lake, the priestesses of Avalon still weave their magic and keep the old religion alive.

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Visual Aids

I have a marketing meeting (my first!) with my publisher today, and I’m bringing some visual aids that I thought you might enjoy also. (Credit for most of these photos goes to my husband Seth Miller.)

First some pictures from Strongman competitions I’ve done. While 9th century vikings did not pull trucks, they did some of the Strongman events that are seen in competitions today. For instance, the Husafell stone carry, which today is usually done with an object that looks like a small metal coffin, was originally done with a 418-lb Icelandic stone. (That is more than I can lift–usually I use a 200-lb stone.)

Me pulling a 17,000-lb truck
Me having gotten a 150-lb atlas stone to my shoulder for the first time.

Then some pictures from my research trips:

Out sailing at the Viking Ship museum in Roskilde


The site of this Norwegian farmhouse was settled in the 1100s; the building on the left dates back to the 1700s


Great views from up at the farmhouse


Suitor Falls in Geirangerfjord, Norway as seen from the farmhouse across the way where we camped


The Oseberg ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.


Decoration on a cart at the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.


Detail from a Viking-Age Icelandic vertical loom at the National Museum of Iceland. It would take more than a day to weave a yard of cloth.


One of the Faroe Islands, seen from a helicopter.


Sheep! More specifically, Faroese sheep that welcomed us back to earth after our helicopter ride.


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More announcements!

First, check out this spiffy draft of my Dutch cover! I’m gathering that “The Half-Drowned King” does not translate particularly well into some European languages, so the Dutch title is “The Legend of Svanhild”. And the German title is “Crown and Fire”.

I had a great meeting with my agent last week about marketing and publicity, so this is where I start spamming you every few minutes with reminders to…wait, where are you going????

Nope, this is NOT where I start doing that. No matter how much I love an author’s writing, I end up annoyed if they spend all their time prodding people to buy their book. I’ve done some rearranging of this website, and will do some more, but this will continue to be a space where I write about my life, what’s on my mind, what I’m doing, and what I care about.

I have made some changes to the website based on my agent’s feedbac:

  • The landing page is now my books page
  • My bio page now has more pictures of me
  • I have links in the right nav to pre-order the books from all major booksellers
  • I now have a Goodreads author page–where you can ask me questions!

Some people have been asking what you can do to help the book’s success:

  1. Pre-order it! Amazon | B&N | Google Play | IndieBound | iBooks | Kobo
  2. But even if you don’t, you can set it as “Want to Read” on Goodreads and that helps
  3. If you have read it *waves at my mom and dad*, please leave a review, or even just a star rating on Amazon
  4. If you have a book blog and you’d like an Advance Reader Copy so you can read and write about it, please let me know

Thanks for being here with me on this journey!

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Please pitch in

Doing a little City Council lobbying with some other SURJ volunteers and rock star City Councilperson Carlos Menchaca

I’ll have some cool book news tomorrow, but today I want to talk about activism. I went to the Women’s March in NYC the other weekend, and it was so heartening to see so many people out marching in person, and all around the country and the world. We’re going to need that good energy over the next few years.

I sprained my ankle Tuesday night, and was very upset that I couldn’t go and protest with people at airports on behalf of my immigrant friends, and my friends with immigrant parents, some of whom can no longer go home to visit their family. But it was also heartening to see so many people protesting, and it made a difference.

Speaking of which, I haven’t been updating my Making A Difference blog, not because I am not doing anything, but because I am doing too much to write about all of it, and in this case I feel like my effort is better put to doing things than documenting them. I am doing things. Every day.

And I want to ask you to do something as well. I have my own priorities that I’ll go into below, but I want to ask you to step up, and be active for a cause you care about.

It doesn’t have to be the exact right cause. You don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity to come along. You don’t need to know it will work. It might not, but you will learn something for next time. Or the way it works may be too small and subtle to see now. Try something, see how it feels, and then try something else. Take a little time out to rest, and then help some more. I have listed some suggestions below.

We are going to lose a lot of battles, probably even most of them. But no matter what happens, in two, four, eight years, wouldn’t you rather look around and say you tried to help?

Some things that are keeping me going:

  1. Getting into informal groups, in person and online, with like-minded people. I don’t love Facebook for this, but it’s better than nothing. My more motivating online groups are through Slack. My most motivating groups are my in-person friends who I’ve organized, and who have organized me.
  2. Getting involved in local, in person efforts where I can learn from people who have been active longer than me.
  3. Doing things that get me out of my comfort zone, like going to protests, and doing things that leverage my skills, like project/product managing Sister District
  4. Limiting the amount of time I spend consuming or disseminating bad news rather than trying to do something about it
  5. Looking at good news, like the news collected in this twitter stream.

I used to be scared of activism, because I worried I’d get something wrong. But I’ve decided that I’m just going to keep trying to help where I can. If I get feedback, I will try to do better, but I’m not going to stay away for fear I’m going to get bad feedback. And though I will accept critique from people who have been in the fight for longer than I have, I am not going to pay attention to people standing on the sidelines critiquing those of us who are actually trying to help.

You can’t do everything, but you can do something. I think it helps to commit to a number of hours or number of events you can do in a week or month, make it achievable with your schedule, and do it. If you have more time, do more. I am giving a couple of hours a day to this from hom, and as soon as I am on my feet again, at least two in-person events per month, and likely more.

It also helps to choose one or two issues to focus on. Other people will be focusing on different things, and that’s fine. Our safety is under attack from so many directions, we need people focusing on a wide variety of issues.

Here are my priorities:

  • Helping people in New York, often times following SURJ’s leadership on issues of racial justice, immigrant justice, etc.
  • Getting the GOP out of power as soon as we can, including at the state level, which is where we can fight voter rights infringements. I’m volunteerng with Sister District.
  • Environmental justice–here I’m focusing on the NoDAPL efforts right now, and the plastic bag legislation in New York State

Here are some sources of ideas for things to do if you’re not sure. You can go beyond calling and emailing and signing petitions, though. There is no substitute for being with like-minded people trying to make a difference.

If you’re upset about the way this country is going, if you see people who are hurting, if you are afraid of the future, please do what you can to make a change. Nothing is helped by panic and despair, though it is understandable, and I give into it more often than I like. You are not alone and there are many groups that need you, whatever your skills and abilities. Your country and your world need you.

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I started book 3, and other news

Have a picture of a shaggy seal in the Orkney Islands! Book 3 will have quite a bit of action set here.

The Half-Drowned King is in Goodreads!


I added some blurbs and praise to my Books page. Check it out to read what authors Paula McClain and Madeline Miller have said, as well as Luit van der Tuuk, the Conservator of the Dorestad Museum in the Netherlands.


A few weeks ago I started working on Book 3, The Golden Wolf, which I think is going to be harder than Book 2–it covers more time, and has two separate climaxes. The beginning is certainly hard. I haven’t settled into a routine yet. I have some new POV characters and I’m not sure what’s going on with them. My previous POV characters are older and more settled but they still need to grow and change. It’s taking a little longer to get into this book than the last one…I think. I’m not sure. It’s hard to compare.

This time my process for getting it off the ground is:

  1. Put all the major historical and narratively necessary events/proposed chapters into Aeon Timeline. So far that’s 25 items. The previous two books have 39 and 38 chapters, so I know there will be more, stemming from various subplots. Create those chapters in Scrivener as well. (Aeon and Scrivener work very well together.)
  2. Start writing 500 words a day. This is a pretty small number of daily words. The main point is to put my mind in the world and characters; it is not as much about making forward progress.
  3. Do a lot of longhand writing in my notebook to ask myself questions about plot and characters and answering them. I find this incredibly helpful at any stage in the process. Whenever I feel slightly stuck or blah about characters or story lines, I write to myself about them longhand. I will write down, “Why am I bored of character X’s story line?” and then write down anything that comes to mind as an answer. I can’t recommend doing this enough.
  4. Recently I upped my daily word-count goal to 1000 words a day. This is still pretty small, but it’s important to me to end each writing day with a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the next day, and that means stopping well before I’m written-out. I think next week I will up it to 1500 words. I max out at 2000 or so.
  5. At this stage I’m still working on whatever story lines and POVs that seem the most fun, to keep my momentum going. At some point I will end up working more linearly. Still, the previous book, the first chapters were some of the most vague, written later, rearranged frequently.

It all feels like pulling teeth right now, and I’m just trying to trust that it will come together and gain momentum like the last book, that the more I work on it the more clear it will be and the more my brain will solve plot problems without me consciously thinking about it.

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Engaging Honestly

Or, Why Captain America: Civil War did not work and Rogue One did. Spoilers for both.

I did not like Civil War. There were enjoyable parts of it (Spiderman), but mostly I couldn’t stand it, and the thing that bugged me the most is that the script refused to engage honestly with the central problem: should superheroes have to be registered and overseen by some kind of representative government?

I only read some of the Civil War comics, since they are spread over almost every character in the pantheon, often imposed on the storyline in a way that feels inorganic, and tend to derail the arc of each character when it intersected with the Civil War story. And since the “event” was so clearly a ploy to try to get you to read other comic lines that you might not be in, it was annoying, as blatant cash-grabs often are.

But at least in the comics Tony/Iron Man has legitimate reasons to be in favor of superhero registration, versus Steve/Captain America, who is against it as registration as its enforcement becomes more and more draconian and fascist. Registration is anti-freedom, as far as he is concerned, more about who the superheroes are than what they do. Steve and Tony both come at a difficult question from different perspectives, and address it in ways that are more or less true to their characters.

In the Civil War movie, the conflict is much more one sided. After several horrific missteps and attempted genocides by people with superpowers, the government wants some oversight. After The Age of Ultron, in which several of the characters are walking weapons with nuclear-bomb-level destructive capacity, it seems like they should not simply be independent actors who get involved with global conflicts whenever they feel like it. And in the movie, Captain America is against having oversight because governments want to bring Bucky Barnes, who has murdered a lot of people, in for questioning.

Captain America is proved right through the laziest storytelling possible: the government is both corrupt and being suborned by this Zemo character, so it actually is better for the world, and more fair to Bucky, for Captain America to win. But he “wins” because the story entirely undercuts his character and the central conflict. It’s a narrative cheat. In an internally consistent world, with the conflicts set up by previous movies, some civilian, government-driven oversight of superpowered individuals would be highly preferable to superpowered vigilantes and terrorists who rarely think through the consequences of their actions, even if they intend good. Heck, maybe just coordinate with local medical facilities if you’re going to risk injuring people. Governments aren’t always right, but at least in theory, they represent the interests of the social contract and hopefully the majority of their citizens.

A more interesting conflict would have been if Tony wanted full out registration and control of superheroes, and Captain America wanted consequences only if superheroes violated laws. Perhaps control versus cooperation and guidance. Or a question of whether governments should care about who people are or what they do.

If you want to tell a story about corrupt governments, that’s fine, but that is not the story Civil War set up; the corruption was tacked on to stack the deck for Captain America’s side. Winter Soldier was a much better telling of basically the same story: the helicarriers’ mission was wrong because that much government intrusion and targeting people because of who they are or who they have the potential to be is inherently wrong–made worse when it’s controlled by Hydra, but wrong in and of itself.

Engaging honestly with a premise is one of the reasons that I thought Rogue One worked, even after with any number of storytelling missteps and missing scenes. Most of the characters were paper thin and hard to connect with, but the movie engaged honestly with both the idea of war and what it requires of individuals, as well as the consequences of going up against a bigger and stronger foe.

The reason people are saying that it’s the first Star Wars story that felt like a war story is because it is the first one that acknowledged that even if you’re on the moral side of a war, it will still exact a terrible price from you. Cassian Andor has murdered for the Rebellion and hates himself for it. The Rebellion may be right, but his actions eat away at him. He is the cost and consequence of war writ small. (Saw Guerrera is possibly supposed to be another example of that, but he had way too little screen time.)

And the end, in which everyone dies, engages more honestly with the premise of the final act than I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie before. I was sure that at least Jyn and Cassian would be saved, but no. They went up against impossible odds and they died. We’re so used to seeing suicide missions where side characters die, maybe even beloved side characters, to make it feel “real”, but by the conventions of blockbuster storytelling, our heroes will never die. So endings lack punch and real stakes. Rogue One never pulled any narrative punches. People die in war; not just the plucky comic relief, or the guy who’s already lost his whole family so has nothing to lose. Many people die. Good and bad people. Doing the right thing is its own reward, not something that earns a happy ending with the romantic partner of the character’s choice. The fact that Rogue One killed off all of its main characters shows astonishing narrative honesty, and elevates this film far above any of its problems.

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Viking Women’s Work

I’ve loved yarn and fiber arts almost as long as I’ve loved reading. My mom knit me many sweaters and even more pairs of mittens (which I frequently lost, sorry Mom). A family friend taught me how to crochet when I was eight, in my teens I had an apprenticeship at a weaving shop, and over the years I’ve learned how to:

  • Crochet
  • Tat (make tatted lace)
  • Do macrame and make friendship bracelets–even had a little business selling them in middle school
  • Knit
  • Weave on a floor loom
  • Spin yarn (insert joke about spinning yarns here)
  • Nalbinding (a precursor to knitting–samples have been found in viking camps)
A drop spindle with a hand-dyed merino silk blend

There’s something very satisfying to me about creating something from nothing, from raw materials to finished fabric. Spinning is one of the more recent addition to that list. I decided to learn about five years ago, starting with a drop spindle, which is a much cheaper way to begin than buying a wheel.

I’ve always wanted to learn to spin with a drop spindle, because Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon was always going into trances when she spun with her spindle–I might secretly be a sorceress! Viking women used drop spindles; the spinning wheel wasn’t invented until around 1500. Making yarn with a drop spindle is time consuming. Icelandic women were rated as potential wives by how many yards of fabric they could produce in a year. I believe that 40 was a very respectable number.

My wheel

After spinning up about a pound of wool on my drop spindle, I knew I liked spinning enough to purchase a wheel, which is a bit more of an investment. And so much easier. Still, it takes a few weeks of spinning an hour or so a day for me to turn 4oz of fleece into 400 yards of 3-ply yarn. I can hardly imagine spinning enough yarn to weave the fabric for a sail. From, “It is estimated that about 35 hours of labor was required to make the thread required for one day of weaving.” Kings might be able to afford imported silk, but most ships had sails made of wool.

And I usually start my spinning with combed top, which is cleaned and dyed, and all of the fibers are facing the same direction so they can easily be spun directly with no further processing. A friend of mind recently sent me some raw wool, which I will have to wash several times, pick through to remove vegetable matter, and finally card into rolags for spinning–far more work than I do with my lovely combed top.

Raw (barn-scented!) fleece

Not only did women spin and weave fabric for nearly every sail, they also clothed their families from birth to death, in wool that had to keep out the harsh Norse winter. Sagas rarely tell of their deeds, but the Vikings would not have been able to cross the North Atlantic without the work of thousands of anonymous women. I’m glad I can spend months spinning and knitting 4 oz of prepared fleece into a beautiful shawl instead.


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Resistance Reading: Hope in the Dark

Before the election I read lots of political news. I knew it wasn’t just “to keep myself informed” but because it was interesting in a horrible way, and because the outrage and sense of being right that I get when I read angry, articulate people who agree with me, is enjoyable, if maddening.

It still is. Not attractive, right? Not being my best self.

But after the election I resolved to read political news only with the purpose of figuring out what I could do. And I’ve been more politically active in the last month before than in the rest of my life combined. Something that has kept me motivated is reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. She writes about the importance of taking action, of organizing for justice and progress. She writes about how small actions influence others and have consequences that we may not see for many years, if ever. She writes about a small group of anti-nuclear protesters standing in the rain outside the Capitol, and how a statesman saw them, and thought that if women with so little support, in terrible weather, felt this strongly about the issue, it was maybe worth more thought on his part.

She tells many stories like that. Some have come to ill, like Venezuela’s change in leadership. Some have been invisible; as she notes, a species saved from extinction is a preservation of the status quo–nothing looks different.

She also illuminated the difference for me between hope and optimism. Optimism may be false and even dangerous right now–things may not work out for the best, in fact they probably won’t for many people. Hope is a different thing; it is a spark that lights the darkness. When Pandora opened the box, and found hope inside as well, it did not negate all the evil that had been let out. Rebecca Solnit’s version of hope means “another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

She argues for activism as a lifelong pursuit. Battles may be won and lost, but the war is never truly won, and ground gained is not kept except with action. The mistakes we–I–have made as an inactive person with progressive ideas, are mistakes of inaction, of believing that because women have reproductive rights now in the US, that cannot be taken away, it does not need to be defended, and even expanded. Or if it does, that work should be done by someone else, career activists, people other than me.

One could get discouraged by the never-ending nature of the fight for more equality, better outcomes for everyone, social justice, but I think that can be a source of hope as well. I see so many well-intentioned progressive writers saying, “Don’t focus on that, focus on this, because that won’t work.” Well, that might not work, but we can learn from it, and if you don’t try, it definitely won’t work. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. People are capable of focusing on more than one thing at once, of trying one thing, taking a stand–which is not invisible–and then standing for the next thing.

As the early example of the small protest in the rain shows, standing up is important in and of itself. It gives questions to some, and courage to others. It says: “this matters”. In a country where oil companies that cause oil spills that contaminate the water are not called criminals, but those protesting that contamination and trying to prevent at are, it is important to point out that is wrong, as loudly as possible.

In Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit looks at long-term changes in societal norms, and how those came about. Gayness used to be barely whispered about in polite society, within the memory of many living people. But gay people and their allies said you must pay attention to this, this is important, and over a generation, it went from a dirty secret to widely accepted, almost inconceivable–at least in certain circles–that gayness has anything wrong with it, though there is still far to go there too. These issues always move from fringe “crazies” agitating about an issue, through to the mainstream, and that movement is made of individual choices, conversations, protests, letters, droplets of water that carve a new path in rock.

Finally, Solnit points out that in times of crisis, people do not, actually, behave as The Walking Dead, and so much pop culture, would have us believe, with people taking advantage of lawlessness to harm one another. Instead, workers in the World Trade Center carried a paralyzed accountant down 70 flights of stairs, even fearing that the building could collapse under them at any moment. Boat owners from all around the Gulf went to New Orleans to rescue people stranded on their roofs, in defiance of the coast guard. As Solnit reminds us, no one said: if I can’t save everyone, there’s no point. They knew there was a point in saving one person. If this election showed us that we are worse than we think, perhaps it can also remind us that we are better than we think, that crisis can bring out the best in us if we let it.

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Doctor Strange was pretty good!

(Mild spoilers herein, but no spoilers for the ending or major conflict.) As hard as it is to pay attention to anything but our new Russian overlords, I actually have done a few things besides fret about politics and bug my reps in the past week. Like hang out with my dad in Manhattan and watch the new Marvel movie Doctor Strange. The character of Doctor Strange was my first exposure to Marvel comics, and I still have a soft spot for him, and the latest movie was far more fun than I had any reason to expect.

I am still annoyed that Oded Fehr didn’t play Strange (a common fancasting on tumblr), and thought that maybe switching Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting would have made for a more interesting movie. I’m still not sure what to think about casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. The Ancient One in the comics is a bald-faced Asian stereotype–the inscrutable zen master–and it was pretty cool to have all the men in the movie looking up to a woman instead. On the other hand, the world does not need more white-washing.

I was also not thrilled about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange because while I think he is both charming in interviews and a good actor with more comic chops than he’s usually allowed to show, he is a bit typecast as the arrogant jerk whose arrogant jerkiness is valorized because he’s good at his job (House, Sherlock in the new incarnations, a million cable news dramas), but the movie undermined that and taught him humility and how to be less of a jerk. Critics have said that Dr. Strange is a low rent Tony Stark, but I think this is a far different character and story than that. When has Tony Stark ever learned humility?

The movie has a low-grade humor that reminds me a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy, and a high-grade weirdness that reminded me of what Inception could have been, had it been more truly about dreams and less of a heist movie. The humor, though, really helped sell it for me. This movie has a goofy premise, and the humor keeps it from feeling too portentous. Perhaps the writers made it funny on purpose to avoid it being unintentionally funny–whatever the reason, it worked, and made this odd world seem more lived-in.

They also remade the character of Wong, another Asian stereotype (this time the pidgin-speaking, totally loyal servant) into a good character in his own right, who is in no way subservient, or even serving, Strange. Rachel McAdams was also wonderful as Strange’s former love interest. She evinces a lot more self-respect and understandable reactions than female love interests often do in Marvel movies. I love me some Pepper Potts, but in the first Iron Man movie, she’s fairly foolish about Tony, and Jane Foster in the Thor movies is cartoonishly silly sometimes. McAdams’s character gets hilarious reactions to the bonkers stuff going on around her that don’t diminish her in any way.

The weirdness in this movie is so great. Fairly early on, The Ancient One forcibly sends Strange on a vision tour that is incredibly trippy and unsettling. CGI often makes movies feel sterile to me; this used CGI to do things that are mind bending and impossible.

There is a fantastic fight scene between a powerful villain and Strange when he is still very much a beginning sorcerer that is so much better than, say, a fight between Iron Man and Captain America, for one because you are actually rooting for one of them, and, more importantly, because the character you’re rooting for is over-matched.

I liked how this movie provided a reason for a wise sage to want to train the arrogant former surgeon who barely believes in magic. It’s not out of the goodness of her heart. In too many stories, jerks find their teachers and their teachers mold them into better people out of the goodness of their hearts, or because, as we’re told but rarely shown, the jerk has a heart of gold somewhere under his prickly exterior. Instead, the Ancient One trains damaged people with nowhere else to turn, making them into her army that holds back chaos and destruction. She doesn’t save people because they deserve it, or save them at all. She takes people who have no other meaning, and gives them meaning so they will serve goodness.

The movie was not without its problems–some pacing issues, and some personal transformations that felt vague or un-earned. Still, it was better than it had any right to be, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m hoping Doctor Doom vs. Doctor Strange: Triumph and Tragedy, one of my favorite super-hero comics of all time.


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