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Game of Thrones Recap: No One

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

GoT has really kept a good pace this season, maybe the quickest ever. We got some resolution on a few things and a setup for the final two episodes of the season. Let us turn to the setups first:

RIVERLANDS

The Blackfish died fighting. Lady Brienne’s pleas failed, although he helped her and Podrick escape. In the end, he was too angry and stubborn to leave. Jaime played the manipulative asshole perfectly. He really is a clever schemer. Edmure, a coward, was threatened with death and the murder of his sort-of family. With the castle surrendered, it seems Edmure is free of the dungeon and will get his family back but I imagine he will be under some sort of house arrest in Riverrun. The Tullys and any rebels in the region are done.

House Frey is back in power. The Lannisters ended a rebellion effectively. Of course, the whole Sparrow problem back at King’s Landing remains.

That leaves Jon Snow, outnumbered. Without Littlefinger and the knights of the Vale I do not see victory. Ramsey has all of the advantages and when it comes to tactics, seems to be pretty good. If he loses in the field, he can hide behind the tall walls of Winterfell.

The next episode will resolve the Stark-Bolton War I believe.

THE EAST

The Masters double crossed Tyrion. A fleet of ships arrives in the harbor and attacks Meereen. The unsullied and second sons may be able to defend the pyramid but Grey Worm does not think they can defend the whole city.  Luckily Daenerys shows up with a dragon. The dragons do not seem to take orders or commands but operate on instinct. What instinct will tell them to fry a fleet of ships? Hopefully her Dothraki army is not far behind.

Tyrion has lost some credibility. I am not sure of Daenerys will keep him around if he keeps giving bad advice. Then again, he has an excellent track record despite the attack. My guess is he will admit his mistake and take responsibility.

Varys is off to Westeros to build relationships with the Great Houses. As I have been saying for a while, Daenerys will need friends, no matter how big her army is. She might be able to conquer King’s Landing but without friends, she will not be able to hold it.

KING’S LANDING

The Sparrows tried to get Cersei to come back to the High Septon. The King was okay with their presence in the Red Keep. She refused to go and we watched the Mountain rip a guy’s head off…literally. Unfortunately, the High Sparrow made another shrewd move and convinced the King to ban trial by combat. Cersei will have an old fashion trial instead.

Her advisor hints at some rumor going about the city or the kingdom. Not sure what that is about but it is a set up for how all of this will go down. Cersei has been very stoic about her situation, which makes me suspicious. She isn’t exactly the best schemer but something about the look on her face. Either that or she is trying very hard not to scream out in frustration.

This conflict is probably resolved before end of the season.

THE HOUND

He gets his revenge on the men responsible for killing his friends. The Brotherhood without Banners offers him a job. They are worshippers of the Lord of Light and believe the biggest threat to the kingdom is from the Night King. If so, what the hell are they doing so far south? Why aren’t they helping Jon Snow and the Wildlings? Instead, they fight House Frey. Why?

Their numbers seem to be small, no more than an irritant. Not sure what their plan is or if Hound will actually join. There was also some full frontal nudity, entirely gratuitous. GoT has done this with female characters a bunch of times so I guess this is just evening the score. Still, seemed to be an afterthought of the writers.

BRAAVOS

Miraculously, Arya kills her tormentor and declares her desire to go home. Can it be? Is Arya Stark truly going to return to the North and reunite with her family? It has been five full seasons since she last was with any of her brothers or sisters. She was there at the Red Wedding but never got to see Robb or her mother. The Hound saved her.

Sansa is a Bolton, by law, but Arya is a true Stark. Assuming Rickon is dead and Bran continues to be absent, Arya actually has a legit claim to Winterfell and the North. Not that any northern lord will follow a girl. It is more likely Arya returns to Westeros to finish off her list: Walder Frey and Cersei Lannister. Walder Frey would be the more convenient target to start out with.

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Game of Thrones Recap: Broken Man

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

No fucks left to give

No fucks left to give

Another steady advance episode with one cool reveal. We learned a few new things about a couple characters and some foreshadowing of what is to come next. Oh yeah, and yet another character returns form the dead…

THE NORTH

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark struggle to build an alliance among the minor houses of the North. Although a few join, there aren’t many soldiers. The Wildlings are the largest contingent and the overall strength is around 2400 soldiers. Not enough to break Winterfell., which could have up to 5000 soldiers. Sansa realizes she must ask Uncle Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish for help. It is in his self-interest, and part of his plan, to aid her and end the Boltons. He’ll help, I’m pretty sure.

Sansa thinks many will rally to her cause simply because of her name. It is naive, which is generally the story with her. I thought she was wisein’ up a bit but I guess not. Jon Snow knows no more help is coming but his political skills were shown to be lacking. Ser Davos plays his role well but is only a knight.

Without help from the Vale, this battle won’t end well. Is Rickon alive? What about Bran??? Sansa is a Bolton until Ramsey is dead. Without one of the kids, House Stark doesn’t have much of a future.

Another possibility: Brienne convinces the Blackfish to march north…

RIVERLANDS

Blackfish Tully did not disappoint in his return to the screen. He is old and has no fucks left to give. He saw the threat to Edmure was a bluff. Riverrun is ready to resist a siege but it surprises me he let himself get cornered there. Maybe he does have an escape route and only wanted to wear the Lannisters and Freys down for a while before vanishing into the woods.

Clearly he isn’t a master strategist looking to resurrect his house. He wants to kill as many Lannisters and Freys as possible. It is hard to tell though, he’s got a great poker face.

Lady Brienne is on her way there and may have a reunion with Jaime Lannister. Is there a chance at some sort of peaceful resolution here? I doubt it. Blackfish Tully sees all of them as enemies. He will not forgo a chance to hurt them. Brienne might be able to persuade him of a higher purpose other than blood but he looks pretty intent on his current course. There is also the rational argument that he can’t beat the Lannisters or Freys but certainly has a chance to wipe out the Boltons.

The only play here is to convince him to give up the castle and head north. He still has a niece and a nephew alive. Will Jaime allow him to withdraw knowing he will simply attack a different ally of King Tommen? Brienne would have to convince him that a reconstituted House Stark at Winterfell would not be a threat. Seems to me there is no one left to seek revenge on in House Lannister. Joffrey and Tywin are dead. Cersei remains but had nothing to do with the execution of Ned or the assassination of Robb. Lady Sansa may be content to have her home back and be rid of Ramsey. Jon Snow doesn’t want to fight a war with King Tommen either.

Good to see Bronn again. He definitely wants to retire from all this knighthood, duty and hardwork.

KING’S LANDING

I knew Queen Marjaery was not taken in by this religion. She is playing the High Sparrow. Her paper message to her grandmother is proof. Olenna is a target and will leave the city with the army. Her halfwit son might remain on the small council but he is pretty worthless. That leaves Cersei to lead the fight against the Sparrows. Olenna let her have it about her failures, which was incredibly satisfying.

With the King in his pocket, only a covert attack on the High Sept will succeed. Cersei is a mediocre strategist and schemer. When it comes to subtlety, she isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is. Without the Tyrells or Bronn, she has no play other than brute force.

GREYJOYS

I don’t know where Yara and Theon are so this section is named Greyjoys. Surprise, surprise, Yara is a lesbian, or at least bi. That makes it difficult for her to be a Queen. Queens need to produce heirs. Guess she’ll need to just have to improvise that. Theon certainly cannot produce one.

She knows she must rebuild Theon, he has not fully regained his sanity and confidence yet. The emotional scars from his torture will remain but Yara must try to find some semblance of strength in him. Otherwise, he is a worthless servant. She wants him to be more. As crass as she is, I think she has the right idea.

Can she make a deal with the Breaker of Chains? Euron wants to make a deal with her as well. I doubt she wants to get married to any Greyjoy. Yara can’t marry her but I don’t doubt she’ll fall in love with Daenerys. Unfortunately, gay marriage isn’t legal in Westeros and doesn’t produce heirs.

She might make an alliance with Yara but there will be no marriage. Half of a Great House isn’t enough. She needs more allies in Westeros. Dorne perhaps? The stormlands? Starks? The Vale?

BRAAVOS

The Faceless Men made an attempt on Arya’s life. She is severely wounded and in great danger. She is my favorite Stark and really hope she survives. If she does, she desperately needs to get the hell out of that city and return to Westeros.

THE HOUND

Sandor Clegane aka the Hound survived! The show got tired of killing so many characters it decided to bring a couple back including Jon Snow, Benjon Stark, and now the Hound. He tried to stay out of trouble but now shit is about to go down. Look for him to reenter the fray.

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Game of Thrones Recap: Blood of my Blood

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Game of Thrones Blood of my blood

Well, we got a few developments but no breakthroughs or big twists. As far as I’m concerned, this episode was laying groundwork for the big one coming in a week or two.

BEYOND THE WALL

Well we found out how Bran is going to survive: a little help from the undead. The dead warriors found them but they were saved by none other than Uncle Benjon. A ranger of the Night’s Watch, he was lost beyond the wall on a raid to find and eliminate the white walker threat. Tree man and his tree nymphs turned him into a thinking white walker, one who is dead but his mind is still intact.

It was all a little too convenient for me but I guess there was no other way for this little subplot to play out. Not unless we were going to see Bran savagely killed.

So what next? Bran’s destiny is either to extinguish the white walker threat or to return to Winterfell and take his place as Warden of the North. Given his physical disability and magical powers, he doesn’t seem a good fit for political power.

Maybe there’s a magical battle to come…

RIVERLANDS

Walder Frey is frustrated that he has lost Riverrun. Blackfish Tully is a legendary knight and leader. Clearly the less than capable Freys are over matched. He thinks he has a trump card because he has Blackfish’s nephew, Edmure, in his dungeons. The plan is to use Edmure as blackmail to get him to end his insurrection. “Surrender or Edmure dies!” Frey has also called King’s Landing for help and King Tommen has ordered Jaime to lead their armies north to put down the rebellion.

A couple details came out. A minor house and the brotherhood without banners are also fighting the Freys. With Ramsey Bolton preoccupied in the north, the Lannisters are his only real ally left.

Brynden “Blackfish” Tully and Edmure are last remaining heirs to House Tully. Technically Edmure is the head of the house, which is preferable given that he is already married, albeit to a Frey. In terms of leadership, Blackfish is the far better choice. Only he has no wife and no children.

This subplot could become the most interesting going forward. I definitely want to see more of it. If victorious, Blackfish would almost certainly align with Jon Snow and Sansa in the north. If Petyr stays in the fight, there is the makings of a legitimate force to challenge King Tommen or at least have the strength to declare themselves independent kingdoms.

KING’S LANDING

The big showdown never came to be. Marjaery never made her walk of atonement thanks to King Tommen’s pledge to support the Sparrows. Tommen is now a pious man who wishes to strengthen the alliance between crown and High Septon. Jaime and Cersei have lost their hold on their son. On the bright side, Marjaery is free and returns to his side. Is she a convert? I highly doubt it.

Using religion, Marjaery could become the closest confidant to the king, while his parents are pushed farther away, thanks to their godless ways. Olenna Tyrell thinks they lost the showdown in front of the temple but I think they have actually found a way to increase their influence and marginalize the Lannisters. Remember, King Tommen is technically a Baratheon. The political struggle to date has largely been the struggle to influence King Tommen. On one side is his mother and father/uncle. On the other: Marjaery.

Jaime reluctantly marches north, while Cersei seems unphased by the events in front of the temple. The fate of Ser Loras is unclear. Since he is the future of House Tyrell, Olenna cannot possibly be satisfied. She needs her grandson out as well.

Consider this play: Cersei and Olenna plot to take down the Sparrows, freeing Loras. Both want the Sparrows gone. To avoid reprisals from the king, Tyrell soldiers with the help of Bronn will take covert action, so that Tommen will not know who to strike. Cersei can claim ignorance, while Tyrells leave King’s Landing with Loras.

Even if Tommen suspects the Tyrells, they will be long gone while Marjaery will obviously pressure him to not risk war to punish them.

REACH

For those that don’t know (I didn’t know until I looked it up yesterday), the Reach is the name of the southwestern corner of Westeros, ruled by the Tyrells. Samwell Tarly’s home, Horn Hill, lies south of the capital Highgarden.

Samwell brings Gilly to his home, hoping his compassionate mother and sister would take care of her. Unfortunately, his asshole father discovered Gilly is a Wildling. He hates Wildlings. Convinced she would not be welcome, nor safe, Samwell wants Gilly to come with him to the Citadel.

THE EAST

Queen Daenerys gives a display of power, riding her dragon in front of the Dothraki warriors. They are enthusiastic in her support as she declares all of them her blood riders. All of them vow to help her conquer Westeros.

However, she acknowledged one of her major problems: no ships. No solution there yet.

BRAAVOS

Arya cannot kill the actress from the plays. She respects her and sees the other players as jealous. By preventing the murder, she has crossed the Faceless Men yet again, sealing her fate. With her sword needle, she intends to flee Braavos and the Faceless Men. Given the subject-matter of the play, I think she intends to return to Westeros and seek revenge on her remaining enemies: Cersei Lannister and Walder Frey.

 

Okay, so here is my own little power rankings of the lords of Westeros:

King Tommen Baratheon (Lord of the Seven Kingdoms)

Olenna Tyrell/Mace Tyrell (Warden of the South?, Small Council)

Kevan Lannister (Warden of the West, Hand of the King)

Petyr Baelish/Robin Arryn (The Vale)

Walder Frey (Riverlands)

Ramsey Bolton (Warden of the North)

Euron Greyjoy (Iron Islands)

Brynden “Blackfish” Tully (Rebel of the Riverlands)

Yara Greyjoy (Rebel of the Iron Islands)

Jon Snow (Rebel of the North)

I don’t really know who is the ruler of Dorne or the Stormlands (ancestral home of the Baratheons, and previously ruled by Renly).

Now, if Queen Daenerys was in Westeros she would likely be at the top. Her combined forces of Dothraki blood riders, unsullied, and second sons is probably a stronger force than any individual great house of Westeros. However, the great houses are likely to unite in the face of a foreign invader. My guess is Baratheon, Lannister, Tyrell, Frey, and Bolton would unite and create a force greater than hers.

As far as allies, it looks like the Greyjoys and Dorne may come to her side. An alliance by marriage would be necessary. There is no male heir of Dorne I am aware of. Euron is going to make a marriage proposal.

Fans would love to see a Daenerys/Jon Snow marriage but he is a bastard. He would have to be legitimized as heir to Winterfell. To move up in the rankings, Jon needs to link up with Petyr and launch a full scale attack on the Boltons and their allies.

 

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Irradiance by David Bruns

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Irradiance

I’ve been looking for a self-published/indie novel that could break through the relative malaise in the sci fi market. If you check the best sellers lists, you’ll find numerous classics along with a few titles that are several years old. Nothing from the past year or two has been able to really get much attention. Irradiance by David Bruns was recommended by Goodreads. After reading the premise and a couple reviews, I was hopeful. Unfortunately, the dystopian novel just doesn’t deliver. While it has some good moments and a few good ideas, it spends too much time laying the foundation for the series rather than trying to be a good novel in its own right.

Maribel is a young astronomer living in a telepathically-linked totalitarian society on a planet called Sindra, sometime in the future. All citizens are required to communicate telepathically through a crystal implant placed on their forehead. The crystal is also a mood ring, changes color depending on feelings of the wearer. Maribel and her partner Reese get two children, both genetically engineered and birthed via surrogates or some kind of in vitro system (Maribel did not carry them). As time passes, Maribel discovers an awful truth: the sun is reaching the end of its life cycle. The world is coming to an end and they must escape with their children to a new world.

For a young adult audience, there is some good action and interesting main characters. It has the feel of a TV pilot, laying a lot of the plot elements out, trying to get you hooked for the next episode. The author wants to get you interested in the Dream Guild Chronicles series, but, in my opinion, did not focus enough time on making a quality pilot episode. Maribel is the only character that gets any development, while the rest were fairly one-dimensional. The ending was also too open ended, leaving a little too much for the next novel.

The premise and summary seem pretty straightforward in terms of a dystopian drama but the novel tries to develop a number of themes simultaneously. For example, the personal and societal impact of telepathic communication. The crystal telepathy is explored in places but not with much depth. It also felt at times as if the characters cannot read the crystal colors or sense anything from one another. Characters routinely lie or conceal the truth despite this new ability.

The primary conflict of the book wasn’t touched on very often. At times, it  seemed the characters were forgetting the biggest revelation of the whole book: their world is ending!!! Everything they know is going to die, yet they are largely preoccupied by their personal lives, careers, and avoiding scrutiny from the government. Their ultimate plan for escaping Sindra and finding a new home is cobbled together quickly and is executed with surprising ease. It was difficult to believe such subversive acts could be done in a telepathic totalitarian society.

As for the dystopian society, the author borrows heavily from The Giver with some bits taken from Logan’s Run. I love dystopian fiction but am always disappointed when an author chooses to copy and paste previous established bad societies, then avoid the social commentary or philosophical discussions.

A little subtlety would’ve helped as well, rather than a clear black versus white conflict. The good guys are smart, compassionate and attractive while the bad guys are stupid, malicious, and ugly. Also, for some reason, they do everything themselves, without any henchmen, guards, soldiers, etc.

Young adult dystopias have been in all the rage for nearly a decade now but most have failed to make an impression. Personally, I prefer dystopian fiction that has some social commentary and unique thought-provoking elements. YA fiction tends to have neither. Still, there is no denying that some titles have had significant success. I guess I am just not the intended audience.

Younger readers who love the subgenre might enjoy the book a lot more than I did. The telepathic crystals is an interesting element that might hook a few more into reading the sequel. At the same time, I think the underwhelming ending and lack of character development might discourage some young readers from continuing on to the sequel.

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Flowers for Algernon

My second classic of the month was Flowers for Algernon. My experience with this book was much different than Scanner Darkly.

Flowers for Algernon is one of the best, and most disturbing, novels I have read in my life. Many people read it as an assignment in high school or sometimes in college but not me. I read it just this year, so my perspective may be a little different than those who read it as teenagers.

Usually I give a summary here but it hardly seems necessary. For the sake of tradition: a mentally disabled man named Charlie Gordon has a procedure done to make him smart. It works. He keeps a journal of his experiences.

Charlie Gordon is one of the most sympathetic protagonists you’ll find. You feel sorry for him, living a simple life with people he thinks are his friends but really aren’t. Most treat him with benign negligence while others have tons of fun at his expense. Only a couple demonstrate they really care for him and want to make sure he can live a comfortable life.

Charlie’s view of the world is very limited and simple, and you just feel that he is in for a rude awakening when he begins to see and understand more of it. As the story progresses, you sense his intelligence rise, largely through improved spelling and grammar, but also his clearer understanding of what is happening around him. Most of it does not make him happy. In fact, through most of his intellectual progress, he becomes steadily more miserable.

The lesson: higher intelligence can make you unhappy. Ignorance is bliss.

It is like going from childhood to adulthood in a few months with no time to adjust. Charlie becomes extremely intelligent, but emotionally is still very immature. As he puts more of his own past together, his personal identity transforms. He realizes he has repressed memories of his childhood and early adolescence. Even his current life is shattered. Rather than being a man with friends and a good job, he is a man with only one or two real friends and an existence on the edge of society. Even worse, he becomes aware of the many injuries he has received at the hands of others, particularly his family.

The realizations of his childhood abuse sends him spinning. As he navigates through the emotional torrent, his intelligence rises to new heights. At his peak, he is unable to relate to anyone, including the woman he loves. It was amazing to read about a character with incredible intellect still afraid of his Mother. For example, he was severely punished for looking at his sister or demonstrating any curiosity towards girls or sex. As a result, he developed a subconscious fear of intimacy. His mind associated sexual impulses with pain. Whenever he gets close to Alice, his love interest, he has an anxiety attack. As much as he wants to be close to her and knows it is perfectly normal, his mind and body are still reflexively trying to avoid punishment.

Daniel Keyes wants to show us that psychological trauma and disorder can trump knowledge. Charlie knows his Mother cannot hurt him anymore yet still fears her. Many victims of child abuse have similar feelings even as adults. The fear is imprinted into their brains through learned response, sort of like muscle memory for emotions. The mind reacts to a stimulus the same as it has countless times before. Overcoming the reflex is difficult.

Then the hammer drops: His own study of the matter confirms that the procedure’s effect on his brain is only temporary.

Charlie’s fall from genius back to mentally disabled is depressing. It is similar to one of my great fears: to one day lost my mind or have it so damaged or weakened as to forget all that I’ve read, learned, and understood about the world. To read about the descent of a person from first-person perspective was truly terrifying for me. Charlie sees it as a death sentence, the day when his intelligent self will die and the disabled Charlie returns.

Is life worth living if you know you are gradually losing your mind?

Much of the book is an indictment of how society treats the mentally disabled. The book is several decades old, and in some ways our approach to has improved, but there is a lot of room for more improvement. While a select few are compassionate and genuinely love Charlie, most are cruel and see him as nature’s mistake.

In the novel, Charlie is somewhat satisfied with the Warren House Institute, where he will live once his IQ collapses again. While overcrowded and underfunded, the people there care deeply for the residents. In the real world, this is often not true. While individuals may be compassionate, institutions often concern themselves with the bottom line and satisfying the needs of the administrators more than the patients.

On the negative side, I’d say his romantic relationships were ridiculous. The way Charlie tells it, women just seem to throw themselves at him. While his primary love interest Alice was more complex in the early parts of the book, towards the middle and at the end, she seemed to offer herself physically and emotionally to Charlie as if that was her sole purpose for existing. His casual relationship with the enigmatic Fay falls right into his lap, no pun intended, without him having to so much as invite her over for coffee. From the moment she meets him, it seems as if she is dying to get into bed with him as soon as possible.

In my experience, smart guys do not get that kind of attention from women. So unless Charlie was also incredibly handsome, this part came off as unrealistic. The author probably wanted to show Charlie’s slow emotional development via romantic relationships but didn’t want to bother with the flirtation, courtship, etc. Since it is an epistolary novel, it may be that the immature male narrator did not want to include those details or was perhaps a bit delusional about how chicks totally want to jump on him.

In the end, Flowers for Algernon had a profound impact on me. It is a MUST READ for absolutely everyone. Luckily it is often assigned in high school English courses.

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Game of Thrones Recap: The Door

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Hodor

Wow!

Just when you think you’ve become a cold-hearted GoT cynic, the show finds new ways to make you cry. The Door advances us deeper into the Bran story line and gives us one pretty big, and sad, reveal.

BEYOND THE WALL

I will start here. Usually, I like to withhold big reveals or plot points to the end of a recap but this one is just too heavy.

The White Walkers found Bran and attacked the cave. During the retreat, tree man and his tree nymphs were killed. To help cover their escape Hodor goes into a trance but it doesn’t seem like Bran was controlling him. Usually Bran’s eyes go white and he is unconscious but in this scene Bran is in the past and witnesses the present. Hodor holds the door closed behind the White Walkers as he yells “hold the door!”

In the flashback that Bran is visiting, Hodor has a seizure and yells the same thing decades before in Winterfell. His yelling shortens from “hold the door” to “hodor” hence the name. The trance broke the space-time continuum and scrambled his brain while Bran was visiting him in the past. Hodor’s sacrifice allows them to escape at the cost of his life.

It seems time travel is possible.

In any event, it was an amazing twist, beautifully executed, and heartbreaking. Well done by the people of HBO and George R.R. Martin. I don’t know if this is in the novels but wow, that was a great little reveal.

We also learn the little tree children created the White Walkers. Back when the cave and tree were in the middle of a temperate climate, they did a human sacrifice and transformed him into the leader of the White Walkers. They did it to stop the advance of the first men into their land (Westeros). It makes me wonder if the wall itself was designed to hold them back and not the Wildlings. Maybe the Night’s Watch and the people of Westeros simply forgot its original purpose and assumed it was to keep the wild tribes back.

Bran has to be put on deathwatch. He and the girl are out there alone with an army of White Walkers behind him. There is no way he makes it back to the Wall. Unless there is something or someone else that intervenes, he is in serious trouble.

As for the magical events taking place, I have no idea where it is going. I don’t like magic fantasy that much and really get annoyed when there seems to be no boundaries to all this stuff. How does a crippled kid and a girl survive up there? Seriously?

THE NORTH

Petyr “Littlefinger” meets with Sansa to apologize and pledges to help defeat the Boltons. Sansa does not accept his apology, and lays down the gauntlet, describing what happened to her. Brienne was there and ready to cut him down. While he pleads for his life and pledges his aid, Sansa refuses. He lives but she doesn’t want his help.

Totally understandable but probably not a smart move. It may be that she will never trust Petyr and doesn’t want him to get any kind of grip on the North. She wants it for her family without his meddling. Still, if Petyr returns to the Vale they lose a powerful ally.

The mystery of Littlefinger is starting to clear. It looks like he simply made a mistake, and misjudged the Boltons. As Sansa very eloquently laid out: “if you didn’t know you’re an idiot, if you did know you’re my enemy.” He has to know she will probably never forgive him or trust him again. Still, his strategy was to set up the Boltons then knock them down so my guess is he will stay in the North, help Jon and Sansa, and try to cement some sort of alliance between them, Blackfish, and Robin Arryn.

For his power play to work, the Vale needs allies. He needs the North and Riverlands on his side, so I think he will stay there. Going home gains him nothing.

Stark, Tully, and Arryn combined is a pretty substantial force against King Tommen. Given the Iron Islands seek independence and Dorne is in chaos, Westeros looks more and more like it will be partitioned into three or four kingdoms instead of one ruled by the Iron Throne.

We also get news of Blackfish Tully, finally! I’ve been asking about this guy ever since the wedding. According to Littlefinger, he has raised an army of Tully loyalists and recaptured Riverrun from Walder Frey. He is an ally of the Starks and wants to destroy everyone responsible for the Red Wedding. Sansa will send Brienne to seek him out.

Jon Snow wears the dire wolf sigil, and leaves with Sansa, Brienne, Davos and the Red Priestess. Their plan is to unite the North houses that have yet to support Bolton. The major houses are largely on Ramsey’s side but most midlevel and smaller ones are simply neutral. Sansa is optimistic they will rally to avenge her father but Davos has doubts. I do too. They won’t join a faction unless there is a chance of success. Plus, nobody in the North likes Wildlings.

So, Ramsey Bolton is still the strongest force in the North and has the advantage. The knights of the Vale (Littlefinger) is likely second with Jon Snow third. Combined they should be enough to retake Winterfell. As long as nothing happens to either of them while they are separate.

IRON ISLANDS

As expected, Euron Greyjoy wins the Ironsmoot and becomes king of the Iron Islands. After promising to execute Euron, Yara flees. As Euron is anointed, she and Theon escape with much of the fleet. Euron wants to build a new fleet to go after them and kill the pretenders to his throne.

Euron won because he is a guy and had a plan for ensuring their power and independence: he would marry Daenerys Targaryen. Her armies would arrive in his service to help destroy King Tommen and any other challengers in Westeros. In effect, he will provide the ships that will bring her, at last, to her promised kingdom.

Only, will she accept the offer? Will she leave Meereen as is?

THE EAST

Queen Daenerys learned of Jorah’s disease and orders him to find a cure then return. Very touching scene. Her new army marches south.

Attacks from Sons of the Harpy are down and order is restored, thanks to Tyrion’s deal with the Masters. He sees that the queen needs to take credit for the move, not him. So he invites a Priestess from the Lord of Light. The Light people (I don’t know what else to call them right now) believe she is their messiah and eagerly want to elevate her to mythic status. With their help, the people will see she is responsible for the peace and all great things to come.

Just as the Sons of the Harpy are a religious sect with political backing, Tyrion realized they needed their own religious component. The Lord of Light was setback with the loss of Stannis but still believe in messiahs. The very sexy priestess (with that magical necklace that probably makes her sexy), believes firmly in Queen Daenerys. Varys is skeptical with good reason, they steered Stannis to disaster and, oh yeah, it was a Red Priest who castrated him.

I am curious to see if Queen Daenerys will shrewdly accept support and adoration from them, or will be careful not to adopt any new religious titles or monikers. The intermingling of political and religion can augment both or undermine both. My impression is she will be agnostic. There is also the question of whether she will carry out Tyrion’s deal or use her new force to eliminate the Sons of the Harpy and their financiers.

BRAAVOS

We see Arya going out again, slowly returning into the good graces of the Faceless Men. Her combat skills are still not elite but are getting better. We also got some full frontal, male and female, during one of the scenes. I guess this was thrown in to give a little balance to the nudity time. Women seem to get naked eight to ten times more than men in the show, and I think HBO is under some pressure to even things out.

 

My guess is the North war will drag on between Ramsey and Jon. Blackfish is the key. Will he advance north or stay in the Riverlands and finish off Walder Frey? The Greyjoy storyline might go on pause for a while, since nothing imminent will happen. It is possible Yara and Theon attack their uncle and supplant him but not likely.

The next episode will show us the final battle between the Sparrows and the Throne. I think Marjaery lives but Loras will die. A civil war may proceed but I think King Tommen has the edge over the zealots. If Loras lives, the Tyrells will make sure he does not spend another day in King’s Landing. Take him home and marry him off. Get an heir! He’ll just have to keep a boyfriend on the side.

GoT has picked up the pace in the past couple episodes. I am having a harder time predicting what will happen next. Can’t wait til Sunday!

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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Scanner Darkly

I dug back into some old school science fiction this month. While I’m not a big Philip K. Dick fan, I wanted to read a little more of his work and see if maybe I just wasn’t reading the right books. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and We Can Remember it for you Wholesale, were enjoyable but neither blew me away. In the end I chose A Scanner Darkly to see if maybe it would be the difference maker.

As background, I love reading about American History and used to have a passion for learning about the 1960s and 70s counterculture, including their obsession with mind-altering drugs. In my youth I experimented a bit as well but never adopted the lifestyle. Looking back, I am glad I didn’t. After reading this novel, it seems PKD feels the same way.

A Scanner Darkly is set in the future, about twenty years ahead of when it was published (1977), but as I read it, it felt more like a contemporary piece. There are some futuristic technologies mentioned but, for the most part, this isn’t much of a science fiction novel anymore. It is a combination of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (entertaining movie, terrible book) and Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger movie, not the Colin Farrell dumpster fire).

Fred, aka Bob Arctor, is an undercover narcotics agent posing as a dealer and user in a futuristic Orange County. He is trying to find the biggest dealer of Substance D, a hallucinogen that causes permanent brain damage. It damages the structure that links the left and right parts of the brain, causing an irreversible split in the person’s psyche. In a sense the person becomes two completely different people with differing memories, skills, and desires as the two hemispheres compete with one another for dominance.

While posing as Bob Arctor, he lives in a house with two other guys, smoking joints, dropping acid, and ingesting several unique substances that may or may not have Substance D in it, also known as blue death or death. He becomes infatuated with a young dealer named Donna. Being with her becomes his only real purpose in life. Meanwhile, Fred watches security feeds of Bob Arctor (himself) gradually struggling to remember or be aware that he is Bob Arctor. Through the scenes where he is Fred, you see his gradual descent into what is best described as drug-induced dementia.

Scanner Darkly is semi-autobiographical, meant as a tragic memorial to Philip’s friends that died or suffered permanent brain damage from drug use during the 1970s. The characters in the novel are accurate portrayals of the immature nature of habitual users of the most potent narcotics. In the author’s note, he argues their crimes or faults do not match the severe punishment they received; at the same time nearly all of them continued using without regard for the future. It is the same for the characters in the book. Even as they steadily became less functional, they continued to use. One of the characters even concedes she does not intend to live long, she thinks the afterlife will be better than her terrible life.

There is a common theme of wanting to escape reality and everything that goes with it. None of them are capable of coping with the most basic responsibilities, preferring to live life on their own terms, in a trashed house. All of the users desperately want to live in fantasy worlds, or trips, getting money through menial jobs or through stealing.

Fred/Bob’s loss of sanity and detachment reality is a difficult trek to follow and at times tediously boring. There are numerous scenes with meandering dialogue that didn’t make much sense and had no real impact on the plot. It was placed there to demonstrate the erratic, incoherent thinking and uselessness of each character.

PKD bluntly and directly claims addiction is a decision, not a disease. This sentiment is controversial to say the least. From my own experience, some individuals don’t care if substances are addictive or are destroying their lives. They simply don’t want to live a normal life in our reality. Others start off experimenting and spiral into addiction without realizing it. As they approach rock bottom, it is extremely difficult for them to reverse course, even if they want to. There is evidence of a chemical or genetic predisposition toward alcoholism but I am not sure if that same mechanism extends to other substances.

When it comes to hallucinogens, I am inclined to agree with PKD. No one can credibly argue habitual use of LSD, MDMA, or other potent mind-altering drugs is safe or beneficial. Unless you have someone who is completely ignorant of these substances (in the modern era, I doubt it is possible for any adult to be that ignorant), everyone knows what they are getting into when they decide to take a hit.

Of course, it depends on the drug. For example, I would absolutely not put marijuana in the same category as the drugs mentioned above. Caffeine is far more addictive, and alcohol more harmful. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of marijuana users remain functional, assuming that is the only drug they habitually use.

The novel also explores the duality of undercover police work and its sometimes morally ambiguous nature. In a group of four users, two of them were undercover agents. I’ve read some research into government task forces that lean heavily on UCs, and in some cases they are the instigators of illegal activity. One could argue their investigative and enforcement techniques inflict greater societal harm when compared to the underlying criminal activity they are targeting. When half of the criminals in question are actually cops, one has to wonder exactly how big the problem truly is and whether the government may be inadvertently (or intentionally) feeding it.

One of the purposes of law enforcement is to deter crime through apprehension and punishment of those that break the law. If they are encouraging private individuals to break the law then they are doing the exact opposite of deterrence.

There is also the depiction of the potentially counterproductive role of treatment centers. In the novel, the treatment center is actually having patients help grow the plant that yields the precursor to Substance D. Although fictional, many people believe certain institutions are promoting the activities they claim to treat or prevent. In recent years, people have called into question for-profit detention and treatment centers. There is a perverse incentive to encourage illegal and socially harmful activity in order to fill more cells and beds.

Unfortunately, this element is only explored for a few pages at the end with limited insight.

While poignant and timely in the 1970s, Scanner Darkly is not impressive when compared to other works in drug-themed fiction. Numerous movies, TV shows, and books have come out giving accounts of the dark side of the drug culture. PKD’s version is somewhat dull in many respects, with meandering dialogue, utterly boring pointless scenes, but an ending that catches your attention. The prose is rough, with some mediocre descriptions, which was disappointing.

I appreciate the personal, honest nature of the novel, but I think others have been able to hit on this in a much more provocative and compelling way. I cannot recommend this novel, unless you are fascinated by the drug culture, specifically hallucinogens and some of the old school counterculture references of the 1970s. Not one of PKD’s best works.

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Game of Thrones Recap: Book of the Stranger

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Book of the Stranger

We got our breakthrough as predicted, we finally got some plot progress in a number of areas. Let’s get started.

THE NORTH

Jon Snow and Sansa are reunited, and the potential feud between Brienne and Davos has come forth. There was no fight but there is definitely opportunity for blood. Brienne, Davos, and Melissandre remain on deathwatch. Sansa wants to reclaim Winterfell and resurrect her dynasty. Jon is ambivalent, not wanting to fight. A letter from Ramsey changes that.

Jon agrees to an alliance with the Wildlings, who face annihilation at the hands of the Boltons and their allies. Sansa believes the Northern houses will unite behind Jon and her, but so far we see houses abandoning their prior oaths. Are there any loyal houses in the north? I doubt they’ll want to help anyone who lets Wildlings through the wall. Jon needs help.

Bran is the heir but until he decides to leave the cave, Jon must assume the mantle as leader. He cannot inherit, so his role is of a general who serves the House. If Bran dies, it goes to Rickon. If Rickon dies, it falls to Sansa, who is married to Ramsey. Obviously, Ramsey must die.

The episode explains the Boltons have the larger army. Did Jon inherit his father’s tactical talents? Is he like Robb, a war prodigy? The battle at the wall suggests he could be. Still, he needs help.

THE VALE

Littlefinger returns to the Vale and meets with his stepson Robin. The kid is still a weakling and a spoiled brat. Littlefinger spins a lie about being beset by Bolton’s men and Sansa being forced into marriage. Now the knights of the Vale are going to move. Ramsey now has enemies to the north and south. It is this move that could end the Bolton reign over the North.

Ramsey is not a master strategist. Although clever, he knows nothing about great power politics. He knows he needs Sansa back but sending a threat to Jon was a horrible way of going about it. It gave them warning and offered no reasonable terms for surrender, just horrible threats. He also did nothing to communicate his actions or his aims to the other Great Houses in the north: the Freys, Greyjoys, and Arryns.

Walder Frey’s alliance was with Roose and Tywin. Both are dead. Why would he raise a finger to help a bastard? Robin Arryn, who listens to Littlefinger, will try to maintain the Arryn/Stark relationship. Littlefinger used Sansa to orchestrate a war between the Arryns and Boltons, suggesting he is willing to put Sansa in danger for political gain.

Still not understanding him. I suppose as long as he ends up with Sansa in the end, he doesn’t care about her struggles.

THE IRON ISLANDS

Theon returns and pledges to help his sister Yara claim the throne of the Iron Islands. Apparently the region has an elective monarchy, where the leaders have a conclave called an Ironsmoot, where they pick. Yara and Theon have a claim but Theon has no influence there. No one will vote for him. Yara is a leader but is also a woman, which usually means she is not a popular choice for successor. As such, the Ironborn will probably go with one of the King’s brothers, like Euron.

The North and Iron Islands are at war. Yara seeks to end it and remain an independent realm. For that to be realistic they desperately need an alliance. None of the Great Houses would be interested. Tyrells, Boltons and Freys are loyal to King Tommen. Dorne and Stormlands (Baratheon realm) are in chaos. One possibility is a new alliance by marriage between Greyjoys and Starks, where Starks recognize Iron Islands as independent and in return Ironborn fight to destroy the Boltons and their allies.

With the knights of the Vale heading north, this hardly seems necessary for the Starks. A marriage between Lord Robin Arryn and Sansa makes more sense. I doubt she would agree to such an arrangement again though. Her hope is that one of her brothers rises to become the heir.

THE EAST

Queen Daenerys used her immunity to fire to trap and kill all the Khals. A very clever and awesome move. She emerged from the Dosh Khaleen unharmed from the flames, naked (clothes burned off), and sees the hordes kneel before her. She now has a second army with, which to return south and end the rebellion of the masters and the Sons of the Harpy.

Tyrion makes a deal to end the Sons of the Harpy attacks, allowing slavery for seven more years in Yunkai and Astapor but Meereen is liberated. Grey Worm and Missandei are very unhappy but back his play. Daenerys might not be happy with this arrangement, but it was the right move. It buys time for her to return and resume her crusade against the masters. Until she returns, they are vulnerable. Much of the loyalty to the new regime is to her personally, not to the regime itself.

KING’S LANDING

Cersei and Jaime finally come up with a plan to free Marjaery and Loras. Marjaery is about to take her walk of atonement, although she seems ready to hold out. Loras is weak seems ready to confess. During the walk, the Tyrell army will attack once Marjaery is out in the open, freeing her and slaughtering the Sparrows.

King Tommen revealed that Marjaery was to have her walk of atonement, which is the opening Cersei needed. Both sides (Lannisters and Tyrells) now see their rivalry has been an obstacle. King Tommen was afraid to act, Lord Kevan had no idea what to do, and Olenna Tyrell would not risk losing the future of their house with a direct attack.

Of course, if her grandchildren are out in the open then a rescue attempt is possible. Unfortunately, it sounds like Ser Loras will not be in the open when the move is made. The Sparrows may kill him as retribution. And so, he is on deathwatch.

There will be a religious war in King’s Landing although from what we’ve seen of the city, I do not think that many will join the religious fervor. These are not a pious people.

 

The War for the North is set finally. The battle for succession in the Iron Islands is also set. The plan to take down the Sparrows finally comes forth!!! The Mother of Dragons is free and with a new army. I love plot progression!!!

I have faith in Jon Snow rallying the Wildlings to victory but the war will take a while. I do not expect Rickon to survive. The Northern houses will in all likelihood join the Boltons for fear of the Wildlings. Unless some sort of alliance can be made, the war will go on and on with heavy casualties. It will take a while for the knights of the Vale to get to the North but I think in the end, they will break the stalemate and turn the war in Jon’s favor. Littlefinger will do anything to help Sansa, who now sees Jon as her only friend left.

I’d bet on Yara losing the Ironsmoot election but scheming to kill her uncle Euron.

Daenerys wants to end slavery, that means war with the Masters. However, she needs a political solution or a plan for after the war. Sound familiar? Her previous ones did not work. Count on Tyrion to think a good one up.

The Sparrows are all on deathwatch. I do not think they survive more than one more episode.

 

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Game of Thrones Recap: Oathbreaker

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Arya

Unfortunately, this last episode was one of those slow build ones where nothing happens. Fans know what this means: shit is about to go down, either in the next episode or the one after it. I hope so. This season has thus far been a disappointment.

THE NORTH

This story line has been slow with a few minor surprises. However, there was one development that bodes ill for House Stark (shocker). Rickon Stark and Osha are captured and taken to Ramsey. The dire wolf is dead. This is extremely bad news for Stark because it confirms the northern lords have little desire to avenge Ned or Robb. They are out for themselves. Some have sworn allegiance to Ramsey Bolton, including the Karstarks, but some have not. The North holds together by an uneasy truce, it seems, but it is becoming clear the Starks have no friends. As of now, the only thing that can take down Ramsey Bolton is Ramsey Bolton.

Jon Snow gets his revenge then resigns from the Night’s Watch. About damn time! If he leaves, he will be joined by Melisandre and Ser Davos. My hope is the writers do not have Sansa and Brienne miss them like what happened with Sansa and Arya at the Vale. That is extremely frustrating and makes for bad TV. Can we just get a Stark/Snow reunion and maybe get some idea of whether this family has any chance, any at all?!

BEYOND THE WALL

Bran and tree guy are having vision quests through the past. Tree guy suggests Bran has a future beyond the cave but must learn “everything” before leaving. He will then be part of some great destiny in the south. All very ominous, and tantalizing. Considering Bran is the Stark heir, crippled as he may be, he will need some sort of magical help if he ever plans to retake the North.

We are getting some pretty significant prologue from Bran’s visions. He saw his father and his family at Winterfell and then witnesses a sword fight before a small fortress in the middle of nowhere. Ned is nearly defeated when one of his servants kills a Targaryen knight with double swords. He makes his way into the fortress when Bran yells his name. Ned seems to hear it for a moment. Interesting…

We are meant to assume Ned’s sister Lyanna is in the fortress after being kidnapped by Rhaegar, son of the Mad King. She dies tragically. When Ned returns home he arrives with his bastard Jon Snow.

Some are wondering if Jon Snow is perhaps the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, heir to the Iron Throne, and Lyanna Stark. The usurper, Robert Baratheon and Lyanna were betrothed but I am not sure if they actually married and consummated the marriage, which could open the possibility that Jon Snow is his heir.

The question is, if Jon Snow is not Ned’s bastard, why keep his parents’ identity a secret? If he was Robert Baratheon’s heir and legitimate son, there is no reason to conceal his true parentage. Robert, who loved Lyanna, would in all likelihood want to declare a product of their relationship his heir, not to mention solidify his alliance with the Starks.

One response to that: he wanted the Iron Throne. To help sow together the Seven Kingdoms after the death of Lyanna, Robert needed to marry into one of the other Great Houses, which would not be interested in an arrangement unless a product of the marriage was the undisputed heir. So Robert, sadly, had to disavow Jon Snow.

Robert had an opportunity to see and speak with Jon Snow in the first season and did not. Either he does not know, or more likely, he is not his son.

If Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, then there is plenty of reason to keep his parentage a secret. It is highly likely the new King Robert would kill Jon, angry at the physical evidence of Lyanna’s rape, and his own failure to protect her. As a bastard, Jon has no claim to anything whether his father is Rhaegar (who was married at the time he kidnapped Lyanna), or Ned. Queen Daenerys is the last surviving child of the Mad King. That makes her the heir to the dynasty.

As the theory goes: Ned, being the chivalrous knight that he is, swore to his sister to protect the child despite his dark origins.

Jon resembles a Stark, notably his uncle Benjen. He also looks a lot like Robb. There is no hint of Targaryen, although Baratheons have dark hair and strong build. Of course, he could’ve inherited all his looks from his Mother Lyanna and got nothing from the father.

Right now, the scenario with best odds is Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna. Other than some family drama here, I don’t think this changes anything.

THE EAST

The Masters of the various Slave Cities have allied themselves with a religious cult called Sons of the Harpy to overthrow Queen Daenerys. Apparently she did not eliminate them in her march through Astapor and Yunkai. Without her around, the unsullied must stay close to the capital for fear of rebellion. If they leave, it is doubtful the city would accept the rule of a foreign dwarf. They need Daenerys back!

Daenerys has arrived in Vaes Dothrak where her fate is not necessarily known. Since she abandoned her Khal and did not return to the capital as required by their customs, the other Khals may decide she should be executed. Either that, or become some kind of Dothraki nun. Jorah and Daario have to rescue her, and I imagine her big fire-breathing friend will also help.

Arya got her vision back along with some combat training. No surprises here.

KING’S LANDING

King Tommen might be a good person but he is also an idiot. He seems terrified to use his power for anything. His uncle Kevan, the Hand of the King, holds small council with the Tyrells all trying to figure out how to get out of this mess. Jaime and Cersei want a seat at the council table but are refused. Neither of them have any talent for politics, strategy, or intrigue. Their dynasty is in deep shit. All this time passes and no one seems to have any idea how to fix this situation.

Nothing really happened in this plot, other than some small talk between Tommen and the head of the Sparrows.

 

We don’t know the deal with Dorne, or the Iron Islands. I imagine we will see some of these plot lines in the next episode or two.

For now, the big events are in the north and the Stark survivors.

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Skybreach by Mark R. Healy

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Skybreach

The third installment in the Reach series delivers with nonstop action on the unique and compelling premise. From that perspective Skybreach is more than worthy of its predecessors. At the same time, it comes up a bit short in other areas.

Knile, Talia, and Roman are reunited and somewhat safe (no one in this series is ever really safe). They join forces with Silvestri and a group calling themselves Skybreach. Their mission is to get off Earth, just as Knile has always wanted. Their allies include a former Consortium security officer or Redman, named Lazarus, and a group of hackers and brawlers. Standing in their way is the Consortium, Redmen, Enforcers, and a radical religious cult that wants to blow up the space elevator that can take them off world.

Skybreach is nonstop action taking place in a unique setting: a mile-high arcology with a space elevator on top. The structure is called the Reach, with railcars that travel up the wire to Habitat One, a space station in orbit. Escape requires our heroes to fight through to the top of the Reach once again, this time together as a sort-of family. The Skybreach group was an interesting addition to the series as was the religious fanatics, known as Children of Earth. A lot is revealed at the end, which lays a captivating foundation for the next book, Sunspire. There were also sequences that were somewhat difficult to follow. More description would’ve been helpful in some instances, but for the most part the action is strong.

At the same time, Skybreach is missing the character development and family drama of the first two novels. Knile, Talia, and Roman are a pseudo family but their family dynamic doesn’t evolve or come into play much. The secondary characters are solid, but largely this novel is plot-driven and not quite as dynamic as the previous novels.

Like in the previous novels, the main characters possess tremendous maturity and insight, somewhat contrary to their background and origin stories. There was a scene or two when Knile and Talia sounded like sitcom parents rather than ex-criminals. Roman and Silvestri also demonstrated incredible maturity and poise, which didn’t seem to fit their character.

The Duran plot line was underwhelming until the second half where it intersected with Skybreach. Ursie’s story intersected as well, uniting the events of the series into one. There is a lot to follow towards the end but it is largely satisfying to see things come together.

The world-building is strong, although the post-apocalyptic themes faded into the background. The Reach and Habitat One are the setting, both large pieces of futuristic technology that are falling apart. The series has largely shifted away from the depressing post-apocalyptic opening towards straight action, survival, and space travel.

The ending was amazing, with a great lead in to the next novel. The author excels at giving satisfying endings while generating a lot of excitement for the next book.

Overall, Skybreach delivers for the Reach Series when it comes to sci-fi action and great world-building. The main characters didn’t drive this one as much and the themes have changed a bit but this book is well worth it.

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