Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, David J. Schwartz

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, David J. Schwartz

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, David J. Schwartz

David J. Schwartz’s Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib is a serial in what I consider a more traditional format that of The Human Division: that is, each segment is not a self-contained story but is instead clearly a chapter in a longer piece.  Additionally, the episodes are coming out at a slower rate (every two weeks) and the overall cost of the story is lower. A major disadvantage is that it’s only available for Kindle. I’m not sure if it’ll be available in print or not when it’s complete.

The first four episodes–a total of five chapters–have been released so far and it’s a lot of fun.  Joy Wilkins is an undercover agent in the federal Bureau of Magical Affairs and she’s investigating the disappearance of a professor at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic as well as teaching her classes–the disappearance may possibly be related to a series of bizarre murders known as Heartstoppers.

There’s a pretty large cast of characters–all delightfully weird and quirky–and while it can be a bit difficult to pick up the thread of the story between episodes, there’s just enough clueing in happening so one isn’t completely lost.

This is a combination of a police procedural with magic but in a slightly more serious vein than Ben Aaronovich’s Peter Grant books. There’s also a whiff of Harry Potter but if Harry Potter were about the professors instead of the students. The setting feels very solid and everything is clearly well thought out. The main character is really interesting in no small part because she’s face-blind so her POV sections are entirely free of descriptions of what people look like and concentrate more on their auras, voices, and clothing. It’s a fascinating choice for a protagonist and I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop.

Lots of neat things going on–there are characters who are literally haunted and cursed, there’s apparently a whole discipline of magic related to libraries which I just love.

I’d definitely recommend this if you’re looking for, well, this kind of thing.

The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above, John Scalzi

The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above, John Scalzi

The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above, John Scalzi

And we’ve come to the end of line with John Scalzi’s The Human Division. “Earth Below, Sky Above” is the final episode and I’m going to say that Scalzi mostly stuck the landing. If I this were a gymnastics competition, imagine that I am the East German judge and I’m holding up scorecards that read “6.9”. A diving competition would probably be a better metaphor considering what happens here but I can’t be bothered to look up how they score diving. And yes, I know, the gymnastics scoring system has changed and it’s no longer a 10 point scale but it’s not like East Germany’s around anymore either.

Anyhow.

This is mostly successful. Tons of great stuff happens in the episode, characters are put in peril, there are heroics and giant space explosions and technology so advanced that it’s more or less magic.  Lots of really wonderful narrative tension. Basically everything that is great about space opera.

However, there is no resolution of what’s been driving this whole thing–to wit, the mysterious conspirators who have been stealing spaceships and wreaking havoc on the CDF’s clumsy attempts to patch things up with Earth are still mysterious at the end of it all.

Which makes me a bit cranky because I am not a fan of unresolved plots in novels, especially one as big as this one; in fact, one could argue that this is the central plot of the text and to leave it hanging is sub-optimal. In my not very humble opinion.

So it comes as no surprise, then, to see an announcement of a “second season” in which, it is to be devoutly hoped, that there’s a bit more resolution.

That said, how did the serial format work? From a story-telling perspective, I don’t think The Human Division holds up as a coherent work–however, Donna has plans to read it in its entirety sometime soon, so she’ll be able to weigh in on that front. I think as a marketing ploy, though, it was brilliant. I don’t know if Tor would have been able to pull this off without an author without the social and commercial capital that John Scalzi has. I suspect not–and I suspect that they wouldn’t have been willing to risk it, either.

And I’ve discovered that I rather enjoy reading shorter pieces of fiction and serial novels, so I’ll be seeking out more of those for myself. I’ve said for years that I don’t have short story brain, but it seems that may be changing.

First up will be David J. Schwartz’s Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, which has four parts out and of which I’ve read two so far. And there’s oodles of short fiction online, too: Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And that’s just for starters.

And so, I close out this series with one last image of Ivanova. I present Ivanova with a fantastically dubious look on her face. And a sex toy (do not click this link if you are at work or otherwise subject to internet filtering). I am, for the record, endlessly amazed that they were able to get this item on television uncensored. YOU ARE ALL WELCOME. I am to educate, after all.

This is used...where?

This is used…where?

The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads, John Scalzi

The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads, John Scalzi

The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads, John Scalzi

Woo, more plot! How exciting!

Okay, okay, I’ll stop being a facetious jerk. For at least a little while.

This is a B plot episode…or is it?

Danielle Lowen, who you may or may not remember from episode 9, “The Observers”, is the main character in this, the next the last episode of The Human Division: “The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads”.

Lowen has been sent by the Secretary of State, who just happens to be her father, to the Brazilian consulate in New York where they have been told that the Brazilian government will provide them with all the information they have on Luisa Carvalho, last seen messily exiting an airlock sans space suit (will not travel). She’s given the runaround by a minor diplomatic functionary and he pisses her off to the point where she basically tells him that if he doesn’t get her what his government promised her that she’ll cause a diplomatic incident. She gives him half an hour to comply, heads to a nearby shop for a snack, and the Brazilian consulate explodes.

PLOT. YAY. (Sorry.)

Since Lowen’s been trained as a doctor, she helps the injured and becomes a bit of a minor celebrity in the way that the US media likes to make people celebrities. After the initial furor dies down, she heads back to her home in the DC suburbs and goes out to get a drink at what we like to call yupsteraunts in my household. While there, she orders a drink as big as her head and as she’s preparing to drown her woes (and possibly herself) in it, she’s approached by a man who claims to be a pharmaceutical salesman. As they talk, she mentions her little problem with how a person as boring as Luisa Carvalho becomes a killer and he just happens to suggest something that would work–and then drops a few hints at her and disappears.

So maybe we might actually see some resolution in the next episode but unless it’s an extra long episode I’m having a hard time seeing how all the loose ends are going to be wrapped up. I guess we’ll see.

And I’ve been waiting WEEKS to post this when we came to the next to last episode of the serial (because I am nothing if not utter predictable)–

The ball is in your court, Mr. Scalzi.

The Human Division #11: A Problem of Proportion, John Scalzi

The Human Division #11: A Problem of Proportion, John Scalzi

The Human Division #11: A Problem of Proportion, John Scalzi

Oh hey! Look!  IT’S THE PLOT.

HI PLOT, I MISSED YOU.

That’s right, in this, the eleventh episode of John Scalzi’s The Human Division serial, “A Problem of Proportion” and after a handful of episodes that felt more or less like filler (although they’re probably not) we finally–finally!–get some forward momentum on the whole conspiracy plot.

So maybe Scalzi can stick the landing. We shall see!

The first thing about this episode is that we’re still on the A plot and I am hoping that this is the case for the last two episodes as well.  It starts with the Clarke being shot at by what they think is a Conclave ship but which turns out to be an ex-Conclave ship.

We’ve got the whole crew here–Coloma, Schmidt, Wilson, and Abumwe as well as some wary but not entirely unfriendly Conclave aliens–notably Werd who is awesomely sarcastic.

There’s also another alien in this story, Rayth Ablant. What happens to him is heartbreaking and yet, I think, provides the emotional core of the story (finally). Through Rayth we find out exactly how far the mysterious foe is willing to go in their aggression against both the Conclave and the CDF and the terrible cost their patsies play–because Rayth is a patsy and a weapon and he is also Wilson’s friend and Wilson does a great service for him. He tells Rayth the truth and, at the end, he helps Rayth the only way he really can.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this episode–we find out a lot more about the mystery antagonist and the CDF and Conclave are coming to realize that they have a common enemy–and possibly more in common than that, too.  It’s a solid episode and it comes just in the nick of time.

I am still not convinced that the book is going to hold together, but we’ll see.

And I’m glad that neither of my predictions for this episode came true: Schmidt doesn’t die gruesomely and the story doesn’t turn into a fevered hentai-dream sequence. Both those things are, naturally, still possible.

The Human Division #10: This Must Be The Place, John Scalzi

The Human Division #10: This Must Be The Place, John Scalzi

The Human Division #10: This Must Be The Place, John Scalzi

So in this episode of John Scalzi’s The Human Division, “This Must Be the Place”, not a damn thing happens. Seriously.

I am starting to get really annoyed.

This is a B plot installment, this time in the form of Clarke lackey Hart Schmidt’s trip home for Harvest Day–or what appears to be more or less an American-style Thanksgiving. Schmidt arrives home, enjoys some modern conveniences, then travels to his family’s home–where it is revealed that his father is a super-powerful politician and that they have live-in servants who are mostly treated like members of the family but not so much that they actually get to eat the Harvest Day meal with them (although it’s not clear that they’d want to, either).

Let me sum up what happens:

Hart goes home for ThanksgivingI mean Harvest Day.

He talks to his family’s driver who is also an award-winning poet. We get some backstory about Hart’s family and his family’s relationship with their servants.

Hart then exchanges jibes with his siblings, then goes to see his dad and gets a paternal lecture.

Hart then goes to hang out with the driver for a little bit and gets some perspective.

Then it’s time for dinner and there is bickering over who is going to say grace and Hart takes the opportunity to give a big speech about what he’s been doing on the Clarke and how awesome it is and how he loves his job.

The end.

I honestly cannot figure out how this has any relevance at all to the main plot except for the fact that Hart’s dad is connected enough to be in the loop on the reports about the various missions Hart’s been on. I can’t even tell if there is a main plot anymore because this is a bunch of short stories that are kind of linked but don’t really cohere (at least not yet). There is no center to this book, no emotional arc, no real character development–and that’s frustrating.  I cannot see how this is going to come together in the 20,000-30,000 words left in the book.  There’s no structural integrity here–a bunch of clever vignettes in search of a plot does not a novel make.

So why on earth am I still reading? I’m still reading because I have a feeling that Scalzi might be able to pull it off and I want to see if he’s able to stick the landing.  And taken separately, each of these episodes is entertaining enough on its own except for maybe this week’s which feels like more of a placeholder than the dog episode was.

I’m not even going to BOTHER with an Ivanova GIF this week because this sort of nonsense doesn’t DESERVE one.