Reasonable Response in a Time Beyond Reason

Over the last year, I’ve resolved to make political statements less often on social media. My reasoning is that it adds to the noise. If there’s a loud cacophony of people saying similar – but not the same – talking points, it becomes incoherent. The message gets clouded and unfocuses, and I’m often not the most eloquent at expressing those concerns. I let others more skilled in communication do the talking, and I try to speak with my actions.

I resolved to act. I signed up with the American Red Cross to serve my community. I worked the polls on election day to preserve the integrity of our elections. To stay apprised of the current news, I subscribed to reputable newspapers from different sources to view issues from other angles. Instead of arguing with my family about what they’re saying, instead of demeaning their opinions, I resolved to listen to why. To ask questions instead of shouting. I wanted to understand.

But the events of Jan. 6 are beyond understanding.

I didn’t know the exact date the MAGA crowd was planning on rallying, but I knew something was coming. They’ve been posting about civil wars on social media, conservatives and liberals have been buying firearms at unprecedented rates. We knew this was coming – or anyone who paid basic attention did.

Calling the attempted coup d’etat on Jan 6, 2021, a coup is the first step to recognizing the seriousness of the situation. That was a violent attempt to overthrow a seated government and place our impeached-President at the helm. An act of insurrection and domestic terrorism. And the events on Wednesday were foreseeable.

The news has us focused on imbeciles like “Q Shaman,” and former WV representative Derrick Evans, but it’s also important to realize that there were individuals there for a man-hunt. There have been pictures of individuals dressed in paramilitary gear toting around zip ties. Gallows were erected on the West Side of the Capitol Building. Police and federal officials found bombs in the Capitol building. One insurrectionist even died by his own taser. They were out for blood.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

And still, the Republicans and the Trumpists will deny their involvement. They already have. They’re attempting to lay the blame anywhere but at their own feet, claiming BLM and ANTIFA involvement. Any article that challenges that, they decry “Fake News,” attempting to further erode trust in American democracy. Instead, managing to further shorten the fuses on those who’ve had to put up with them for the last several years.

I don’t have any new perspectives or original news, but my resolution to act compelled me to write, to condemn, and to offer responses.

Respond

  1. Write to your congresspeople. Senator, Representative, State-level legislators. Write to them ALL. Let them know you’re done with the rhetoric and the attempts to undermine the election results. Trump said he wouldn’t go peacefully, so make it less peaceful. Encourage your legislators to impeach and remove him from office.
  2. Stay informed. Take a break when you need it, but know what’s happening. Check out IsThisACoup.com and ChooseDemocracy.us for some action items as the situation continues to evolve. Also, take some time to read Hold the Line, a Guide on Defending Democracy for thoughts on where we go from here. Be ready to mobilize if the situation requires it.
  3. Report. If you have any tips on the insurrection in DC (like you know someone who participated in the violence, or you’ve seen that officials are looking for an individual and you know their location), share them here. If you have any information on potential future violence from family members or friends, also share that with federal officials as potential terrorist threats.
  4. Resist. Instead of punching Nazi’s (I know, it’s tempting), recognize that non-violent means of protest and civil disobedience are the methods through which real change is created. Commit to that. Don’t get angry and react – think through your response and resist. Coups fail because regimes don’t have the support they need. Deny them that support and watch them crumble.
  5. Be ready for the next time. By now, anyone who paid attention to this election cycle knows who Stacey Abrams is. Over the last decade, she’s served Georgia as a spearhead of several grassroots campaigns to get out the vote and reduce voter suppression. The blue wave in Georgia can be attributed to her, those she’s worked with, those she was inspired by, and those she inspired. But Georgia is not unique. The same can happen where you are. Organize. Volunteer in your community. Make it your mission to listen to the needs of that community, and serve those needs. Develop trust and work in the best interest of that community to foster real, systemic change.

It’s been a stressful 5 days, I know. I believe the Doctor says it best: “Darkness never sustains. Even though sometimes it feels like it might.” We’ll get through this. Together.

Gemina by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff & Marie Lu

Gemina is the second book in The Illuminae Files, and the authors added Marie Lu as a contributor to this high-adrenaline sequel.

While the people of Kerenza IV are running for their lives in a hobbled spaceship, the messages they send to the Heimdall way station are being intercepted. Life is continuing as normal at the wormhole, and the WUC base built around it. Hanna Donnelly thinks living here with her father is so boring, she might die. She doesn’t expect that the day it gets exciting, she actually might die.

Hanna Donnelly and Kady Grant are the same. While we’re at it, Nik and Ezra are also the same. Don’t get me wrong, I like them. But they’re stock characters. Spunky, sassy teens with little substance behind them. This both works and doesn’t. Typically, I find a change in perspectives between books disorienting; I get attached to characters, which is probably why I like books in series. But a switch in characters is hard because I don’t know these new folks. Why do I care what’s happening to them?

In this case, I care because Kady & Hanna and Ezra & Nik are the same people. They make the same jokes, have the same sense of humor, and have the same determination. The difference is in their Tragic Backstory ™. Even Isaac Grant comments that he’s terrified for the day Hanna and Kady meet. This is helpful, in a way, because it provided the continuity I like.

I want to know what these authors’ obsession with the nightmare fuel is? WHY? And they narrated it through AIDAN. Which is also terrifying because he’s terrifying. Writing about/worshiping the lanima in verse did not make it suddenly palatable. Looking at them as the perfect predators through a demented, killer AI’s mind made it even spookier.

These authors do not shy away from violence, and they’re pretty clear about what’s happening. If that’s bothersome, consider whether to read this series. I understand Kady’s revenge mission, I do. The assault BeiTech planned was unimaginable and horrific to begin with, and it went even worse than it should have. On its own, BeiTech’s acts were a war crime. In the end, it turned into genocide.

For me, the hardest part of reading this book was thinking about what happens after. The point of this book was surviving a hit-team on the Heimdall station, but I kept thinking about the people who were killed. It felt like the characters had no one left at the end, which was hard to conceptualize. For me and the characters. The reader can see Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik all grapple with the reality that many of their loved ones would not survive this attack. It all felt so heavy and impossible.

Regardless of how painful this book can be to read, I find myself needing to know what happens next. What is left for them on Kerenza? What does their supply level look like – will they even make it back to Kerenza alive? Does BeiTech have any other nefarious act planned for the refugees? So I’ll be looking forward to finishing out the series with Obsidio.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

The BeiTech corporation reached out to The Illuminae group to compile available information about the attack on Kerenza IV. They want to know exactly what evidence they’ll have to face when the corporation goes to trial over the botched mission. The Illuminae files are this collection of transcripts and files.

BeiTech attacked an illegal mining colony of its competitors. They killed innumerable men, women, and children of the colony, but they didn’t expect a dreadnought of the United Terran Authority to come to the rescue of the colony. Now the Kerenza refugees aboard three space ships are on the run from BeiTech’s Lincoln.

This group of ships cannot catch a break. It kind of felt like an amalgam of never-ending troubles was used to up the stakes. Don’t get me wrong, it worked. I was tense the entire time. But it was a poorly veiled, in-your-face tactic. First, they have to deal with the destruction of their home. They become refugees aboard ships that are damaged beyond repair and not designed to transport that number of people. Second, they’re being chased by one of the still-functioning enemy ships. And she’s gaining on them. Third, BeiTech released a viral bioweapon that’s running rampant on one of the ships. And a virus is really not something you want to have to deal with in such close quarters. Fourth, they’re dealing with a homicidal AI.

I loved the formatting. At first, I found it disorienting, and the opening interviews were not the strongest start, but once the reader gets the hang of it, it helps characterize the situation. The video file transcripts were transcribed like regular stories, with clipped on commentary to offer context. AIDAN’s typography added a lot to the mania of the AI’s contribution to the story. His photos and illustrations were beautiful, and AIDAN had a surprisingly poetic voice. He wrote like he understood the vastness of the universe, and the tiny insignificant speck he was protecting.

Actually, I just really liked AIDAN (apparently I’m not alone if the authors are writing a novella about AIDAN’s system damage). He’s damaged data, but it’s made him a little more… real? Not exactly human, but enough to question his sentience and what it means to be alive. Is he alive? Regardless of whether he’s alive, he’s the most nuanced and interesting character in the entire book.

AIDAN’s core directive is to protect the fleet, and through the course of the book, he makes decisions based on calculated probabilities that contradict that core directive when taken at face value. It’s an interesting conversation starter on global compassion. Is it worth cutting the loss of the few to protect the many? Do you make the active choice to kill a few unlucky people, or do you passively let fate take its course with an entire population? Classic trolley problem, but put the trolley in space with higher stakes.

Kady and Ezra are exhausting. So what if he doesn’t want to go off-planet? Go without him. Jeez. I get that this is a YA novel, so there have to be confused teenagers, finding themselves in the middle of all this chaos. But the clip-in notes are right, they’re trying to survive a deadly assault and space-chase. Find something useful to do with your illegal chat platform.

This entire book read like a disaster novel. Everything that could go wrong, did. There’s little pick-me-up to look forward to at the end. I kept getting overwhelmed by the thought that these kids have no one left but each other. It’s a war story, and it’s haunting. Like war stories are supposed to be. Here’s to hoping Kady and Ezra find some peace in Gemina (but probably not).

Phone apps that help me find my focus

We live in an increasingly virtual, connected world. This can get overwhelming. I’m constantly being pinged with feedback from friends and family on social media. News outlets bombard my email with notifications of awful, stressful worldwide events. Not to mention the constant communication with colleagues and bosses that take place via cell phone.

But it can also be really useful. I have a wealth of information at my fingertips, and I’ve never felt more prepared to play Jeopardy! With my phone, I can also plan out my life and keep track of tasks in a more streamlined, effective way. Using technology intentionally is integral to my ability to work in society.

These are the most useful apps I keep on my phone.

1. Canvas. If this isn’t your school’s online learning management system, you can ignore this recommendation. If it is, the phone app is incredibly helpful for quick glances at the calendar, keeping an eye on due dates, and quick & mobile review of material. If your school uses a different management system (ie. Blackboard, Ctools, etc.), and they have an app available, be sure to download it and explore its capabilities.

2. Flora. Flora is a forest-building app. You build your personal forest by putting your phone down and leaving it alone. At the beginning of the semester, I deleted most of my social media apps (Facebook, gone. Twitter, gone), but sometimes I still find ways to be distracted on my phone. Checking emails via my phone creates a false sense of productivity. Or I log onto some of these other apps and call it “work.” Flora helps me carve out time and space away from my phone to focus on other things.

3. Plant Nanny. This application is less about productivity, but one of my health-based goals is to drink more water. In the app, the water that I drink contributes to the growth of my own garden of adorable plants. There are also badges to earn, and you can buy different pots and pets to make your garden your own.

4. Habitica. This is a nerdy app, but I love it. It’s a multi-player role-playing game that incentivizes habit formation. As a character, you create tasks for yourself and complete them to earn gold and dropped items like eggs and potions. If you need some inspiration for your goals and tasks, you can join challenges and compete with other players. For a more social gaming experience, invite your friends, create a party, and go on quests to defeat monsters and enemies of productivity.

5. Anki. This is both a desktop application and a phone application, but the two can be synced for an easy transition. The guiding principle of Anki is spaced repetition: brains commit information to long-term memory storage by repeated learning and recall. The more times a piece of knowledge is remembered, the longer it’ll be before the brain forgets it. Normal flashcards get the repetition and recall down, but Anki automates the timing. For example, if I make an Anki card and show that I learned it today, Anki will show me the card again tomorrow. If I remember it without a problem tomorrow, Anki won’t show me that card again for another 4 days. Ideally, I still know the information on the card, and the interval continues to increase.

6. Headspace (or the free MyLife application). I’ve used both applications before – right now I get Headspace for free because I volunteer with Crisis Text Line, so that’s what I use. But MyLife can be used as a completely free meditation resource. The point of using either of these apps is to take a minute to clear your head or practice intentional focus. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can be a really helpful tool for you to find some cool calm when you need it.

These apps have been great at helping me focus, find my grind, and stay healthy. If you’re a student and your collection is different from mine, tell me more in the comments!

Resist by Sarah Crossan

We’re finally getting back to the world of Breathe, by Sarah Crossan, and taking a look at its sequel, Resist. We open after the destruction of the Grove and see what new paths the characters decide to pursue. Alina & Grove co. are on their way to the sister resistance colony, Sequoia, managed by Petra’s sister, Vanya. Predictably, things go wrong. Bea and Quinn have taken temporary custody of Jazz, who is immediately seriously injured. They’re trying to meet back up with Alina, so they’re also heading to Sequoia.

On the inside of the Pod, the riots have been quelled, but there’s been a massive loss of life due to the unrest, and people are still on edge. The Ministry is gathering its special forces, Roland Knavery among them. He’s the late Pod Minister’s artist son, participating because his father made him. Horrified by the assault on the Grove and the killing of the trees, he wants out. And Jude Caffrey will give him that out. But only if he heads to the Outlands, finds Quinn, and brings him home.

If you remember my first review of Breathe, I didn’t love it, and nothing much has changed. There’s no real attachment I feel toward any characters, so there’s no emotional impact to this novel. One bad thing after another happens, and I’m not tense or sad or affected in any way. The novel is filled with poetic sentences like, “and there’s nothing he can do to sweep away the cinders of grief anyway,” that mask the fact that the characters’ real feelings are never addressed.

Jazz’s injury early in the novel serves no purpose except to illustrate that Roland is a nice boy. They were already on a time crunch because they’re attached to oxygen tanks, so it’s not like the injury made them move faster. We knew the author wasn’t going to let a child die – because she didn’t in the first novel. This was really just the catalyst to get Quinn out of the picture so Bea could meet Roland and realize he wasn’t going to hurt them. Which is fine, I suppose, but it was continually hammered home that he was. There’s also this strange arc between Vanya and Jazz that’s largely left unresolved. As a character, Jazz is largely reduced to a plot point in this novel.

Niamh as a villain makes little sense. I don’t understand what’s motivating her – I mean, I get that she’s livid about the death of her father. And I understand that she and her father were much closer than Roland and Cain, but she’s painted from the beginning as privileged and shallow. I find it difficult to believe that she’d work for someone who so directly undercuts her ideas of her own self-worth. As a reader, I needed to know more about her and how she felt, and what she thought of herself to believe her conviction. Otherwise, I see Bea and Roland giving up on her and am confused about why they don’t think she can be persuaded.

Jude Caffrey is… also confusing? In the first novel, he displayed no interest in his son beyond the continuation of his legacy. Now he’s ready to become a turncoat and overthrow the government that’s made him a venerated hero because his son thinks they’re mean? Sure.

Abel’s return was a nice hearken back to the opening of Breathe (though I admit, I forgot who he was at first). It added an interesting point and was also useful in illustrating that perhaps Sequoia isn’t the safe-haven we hoped our heroes would find, which should have been obvious from the welcoming party. Speaking of fishy goings-on at Sequoia, what is wrong with Dorian? I get that he wanted to be safe somewhere, but he was so loyal to Petra. We know that Vanya left because of major differences between her and Petra’s leadership style and ideas, so I’m finding it difficult to believe he would automatically fall in line at Sequoia. Did they brainwash him in that first meeting?

My issue with Resist comes down to one major problem: the characters are under-developed. We know things about them, but we don’t know who they are, what they believe, or what they feel. Without any of that supporting information, characters aren’t people, they’re plots. If the reader doesn’t understand their motivation, nothing the characters do will be believable. I had hoped Resist would feel better than Breathe, because we’ve spent more time with the characters and gotten to know them better, but they still fall flat.

If you’ve read Resist and have some other thoughts on the conclusion in the duology, let me know in the comments. I’d love to discuss.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is the thrilling conclusion to The Broken Earth Trilogy. It’s time for Essun to finish what her mentor and one-time lover started – she must catch the moon. But first, she must help her get her comm to safety in now-abandoned Rennanis. And she’s not anticipating racing agains her daughter, Nassun, accompanied by Schaffa and her own stone eater.

Where before, the purpose was posing our problem, the second book characterized the nuances of the problem, this book wraps up all our conflicts and ties up all the loose ends.

I finally understand why the book is written in the second person. I don’t usually like to read books written in the second person because I find them… creepy. Like someone is looking over my shoulder. But the epilogue does a great job justifying the second person decision, along with the actions of Hoa and the other stone eaters during the story. It’s really rewarding to finally see Hoa and Steel/Gray Man. To see who they are and their motivation for the things they’ve done.

It feels like we (the reader) understand. We can grasp the full extent of the problem and the length of time it’s been problematic. The storyline in Syl Anagist feels at first like it might be too much. There’s a new civilization to explore and understand. But they have the same problems our characters have been facing for the entirety of the series. As opposed to an additional storyline, the Syl Anagist plot runs parallel to Essun’s. It’s a genuinely clever way to illustrate the root cause of our strife.

This series all had a bit of a hopeless ring to it. Essun had the slimmest chance of succeeding to begin with. Nassun was actively working against her. The stone eaters wanted Essun to fail. And Essun was sure to die at the end. Not to mention all the loss she’d already endured to this point. The ending of this book, in contrast, was hopeful.

Yes, we lost Essun (I don’t feel bad saying this because we were headed this way the whole time). But she died protecting Nassun from the obelisk gate. She left her daughter with a community to which she could return and a family to keep her safe. Nassun leaves Corepoint with an idea of how to improve the plight of orogenes all over, without making the mistakes of the past. Out of all this strife, there is hope.

There’s this overlying concept of sacrifice for her daughter: she wasn’t always kind to her, so there’s the sacrifice of their relationship to keep her safe. Making sure Nassun has a home and a family to come to after Essun is gone. And the sacrifice of her mission, saving the world, because refusal to do so would destroy Nassun. Another interesting facet of this subplot comes from the world’s belief that Essun will be the one to save the world. She’s the Fulcrum-trained orogene, powerful enough to control the obelisks. But Nassun, made of Essun, but also more than Essun, can command the Obelisk Gate with a strength and creativity Essun can only dream of. This concept of legacy, of parents paving the way for their children to be more, drives home in The Stone Sky.

Back to front, The Broken Earth trilogy is a ride. It’s emotional, it’s raw, and it’s well-built. If you’ve ever enjoyed Sci-fi/Fantasy, this trilogy will not disappoint. I can’t recommend it highly enough: please pick it up from your local bookstore. I hope to have some thoughts on Jemisin’s other works in the near future, but there are so many books in this world, and so little time to enjoy them.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The world has already ended. The people of the world don’t quite realize that it won’t be starting again. Nassun is alive. Jija and she fled the town of Tirimo after Jija killed his rogga son. Now Nassun has to survive his hatred of what she is. But what does that matter. She’s already survived her mother. Speaking of Essun, she has found a kind-of-home in Castrima-under. The peace between the roggas and the stills is… not-quite-fragile. They need her (orogenes, not Essun specifically). They certainly don’t need her crippled and dying long-lost mentor Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the Stillness. But she. He has to teach her how to catch the moon before he finishes turning to stone.

If the purpose of The Fifth Season was to set the stage for our grand conflict, the purpose of this novel felt like a characterization of the problem and task at hand. The stakes feel less determined and defined. The world’s already ended, and Essun’s basically given up on finding Nassun. We know how Essun came to be, but all the relationships that destroyed and built her have vanished, so I was unsure why I cared if everything got worse. This created what felt like a pacing problem. I wasn’t sure what was driving the story anymore.

The Castrima comm provides such an interesting illustration to the world as we know it. Castrima-under is encased in a geode powered by orogeny. The water, lighting, entrances, etc. None of it works without living orogenes. Which is why in Castrima, the use-caste rogga exists at all. Even more startling (to Essun, at least) is that the Leader of Castrima is an orogene. This isn’t actually all that different from the world above them. The Stillness is volatile, always changing (definitely a misnomer). Without the orogenes of the Fulcrum, the node maintainers, and the Guardians, the Stillness wouldn’t survive Season after Season. But in Castrima, the relationship seems to be mutually beneficial, while in the Fulcrum, the relationship is exploitative at best.

And Essun learns so much from the Leader of Castrima. This, again, characterizes the absolute control the Fulcrum has over its charges. The Fulcrum trains them, yes, in a specific form of orogeny. It molds their minds to think in a way that serves the Fulcrum.

There can be no teamwork, they’re told. It’ll be a battle of wills that leaves one of the competitors dead. Then why is feral Ykka able to parallel scale? It’s a skill that Essun has seen only Alabaster do before, so it seems impossible for an untrained woman to do it successfully. Why does she know how to work the magic that Essun has just learned exists at all? The Fulcrum and the Guardians assert the danger and difference of orogenes, and because they do, they can justify their absolute control over their charges. They control how they think, feel, and react in every situation.

Schaffa’s development is also interesting. In the book, Schaffa is “corrupted.” We’ve seen this before in The Fifth Season when Damaya discovers the socket. In The Obelisk Gate, we get to see it happening in real-time. But corrupted by what? What does that even mean? And what about Schaffa actually changes? He still doesn’t care if he kills, and he still kind-of-but-not-quite loves his orogene charges. Is the difference that he has to take the so-called silver from the orogenes? What is the implication of that?

This leads to one of my main points: I’m still not sure I understand entirely what’s happening. Father Earth is angry because the Moon was pushed away, sure. I even kind of understand that Father Earth wants to kill all humans because of it. But if he’s sentient enough to recognize that the moon is gone, and to want that destruction, I suppose I don’t understand why he’s not sentient enough to understand that some people are trying to fix it? I suppose he doesn’t care. He’s angry, he’s hurt, and he refuses to let humans take advantage of him again. Maybe I do get it.

But the merit of this book – and this series – isn’t in it’s plotting or its subtext. It’s in the visceral emotion used to create a specific response to the events taking place. The imagery of the node maintainers that are constantly evoked, Jija’s prejudice against his own daughter, the Father Earth losing his son story, the Fulcrum and Guardians, Alabaster. These all create this big, overwhelming sadness and anger that consumes the reader. That’s the real power of the book and this writer. Emotional impact.

I’m really hoping to find the clarity I’ve been looking for when I read The Stone Sky. This series is impactful and stunning. Second-book woes are not abnormal, but the series finale is sure to thrill.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve been told so many times to read this Hugo Award Winning novel. This is one of the few books that I’ve purchased, and I’m really glad I did.

The world is ending. It’s ended before, but this time it’s different. This time it’s going to last forever.

First, you find your child dead in your home. Killed by his father, and your daughter kidnapped. Then you feel the shake. The shake that forms the Rift that breaks apart the continent, destroying the capital of Imperial Sanze and spitting out ash and lava until the sun hides behind it. Of course, you’re no stranger to shakes – orogenes like yourself can cause them, still them, or harness them for energy.

I don’t often read adult fiction, but when I come across novels like The Fifth Season, I have to wonder why. Part of the reason I have trouble with adult stories is that they’re so often less about a character and how they change, that it becomes this plot-driven adrenaline ride. Or an attempt at it. But Essun’s, Syen’s, and Damaya’s journeys are ever-changing and developing. While the events of the story drive much of how the characters adapt to this world, at its root, the story is about who they are and what choices they need to make. The delicate balance of what happens and how the characters react weave together epically. It’s complex, multi-faceted, and it expects a lot from the reader.

Most of the time, this expectation of the reader works out well. It’s possible to come to a conclusion and be proud of the aha! moment. But sometimes developments aren’t spelled out well enough to be sussed, and it leaves the revelation feeling flat.

Jemisin’s writing and world-building are remarkable. With most high fantasy stories, I’m always amazed at an author’s ability to come up with names. Seriously, I don’t know why, but naming things is one of the hardest tasks I can picture doing. My quirk with names aside, Jemisin’s ability to dismantle the Earth and build a new one is mind-blowing.

Something to know before you pick up The Fifth Season: this novel is not what I’d call “fun”. There’s no blissful escapism baked into this story. This may be a fantasy novel, but it’s analogous to the reality we live in and are headed towards in a lot of ways. Reminiscent of X-men’s thinly veiled gay rights argument, The Fifth Season is less a persuasive piece and more a grappling of what it’s like to live as an “other” in the world. In The Fifth Season, the power that orogenes have is also the rationale used to trap and oppress them. Orogenes are dangerous, but with the presence of the Guardians, they can’t use that power to fight for more.

From the first page, it’s encapsulating. As I read, I found myself unable to stop, and even when I put the book down, my mind was still consumed by Essun’s story. Upon finishing The Fifth Season, I placed an order at my local independent bookstore for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate. Reading these books is getting in the way of my studies and my sleep, but as you learn in the Stillness, everything has its price, and this is a small one.

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

Alessandra is the second daughter of a Duke (I think), which makes her practically invisible. Both in the eyes of her father, and the world. But she has a plan: now that her sister is engaged, she’s free to court and pursue her own future husband. She’s not going to settle for just anyone, though. Alessandra has her eyes set on the Shadow King. She will be the first woman to catch his eye, they’ll court and get married, and then she’ll kill him and take his kingdom. And she’ll never be invisible to anyone again.

A lot about setting this novel is done well. The complexity of court and social class and positioning is described really well, and the misogyny ingrained in the court system is also well characterized. The descriptions of the palace and people are detailed and woven into the story in a way that doesn’t detract from what’s happening. But also some problems with setting and timeline are distracting.

More specifically, when I was reading, there were times when I had to stop and ask if we’d resolved a thread yet (example: the Rhouben/Melitta side plot). And how did a semi-automatic rifle make its way into this book? We’re still wearing petticoats and the king fights with a sword, but I’m expected to believe the assassin has a semi-automatic? I recognize that this book does not take place in the real world, but if you’re going to set it in the equivalent of Victorian England, go all the way. That wasn’t the lone instance where I questioned the world-building, but this was one point that stuck with me to the end.

I like Kallias. I want everyone to react to “major revelations” like he did: like they don’t matter. It didn’t matter to Kallias that Alessandra had slept with other men because he’s slept with other women. He doesn’t care that Alessandra killed Hektor. He admits that it saved him the trouble of sending someone else to do it for her. She spends so much of the book trying to hide who she is and what’s she’s done, and she doesn’t need to.

In one of the early chapters, the king asks her outright what she wants, and that was a smart play by the author. It gave her the opportunity to explain why becoming queen was important to Alessandra, and it characterized how we can expect Kallias to react when the rest of her problems come to light. And the author followed through on those characterizations time and time again. A lot of authors make revelations like these a big problem, even making them centerpieces of relationship conflict for their characters, but I’ve never understood why. Kallias knows exactly who Alessandra is. None of this should matter.

Alessandra reminds me of Adelina in The Young Elites (I’m sure other characters in other books, too, but TYE is what’s coming to mind). They’re both out for power after they’ve been wronged. While I may not agree with their choices, they’re strong leaders who rule with an iron grip. It’s definitely and over-correct, but there’s something to be said for someone who wants their due justice and is willing to take it. But maybe that’s just the Slytherin in me. Regardless, the characterization of Alessandra is well done.

Which is to say nothing of the paranormal element of this book: Kallias, as The Shadow King, is himself, made of shadows. As the book goes on, you learn more about the history of the (literal) shadows in the royal family, and I’m not going to spoil that for you. But it does create this interesting dilemma for Kallias. He has this power that keeps him eternally young and alive, but loving Alessandra and keeping her near him means giving up that power. He has to decide if that’s worth it, or if a life without love is worth it.

I enjoyed The Shadows Between Us, by Tricia Levenseller: it’s soapy and dramatic, with the right amount of heat. Just the way I like my royal YA novels. Levenseller’s character work is masterful, showing us who they are and what they believe from the beginning, and allowing those traits to guide the character’s actions through the story. If you’re looking for a plot-based novel, you’re going to be bored: it’s all about Alessandra and her propensity for planning, scheming, and ruling. The Shadows Between Us is a testament to what character-driven novels should be about. It’s the strengthening of relationships, the development of characters as whole people, and the overcoming of a central misbelief that’s been keeping a character from happiness.

I was excited for this book to hit the shelves, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Levenseller’s other YA offering: The Daughter of the Pirate King.

The Art of the Exam Debrief

Experiential Education is the act of teaching through experiences. Often, this looks like performing an activity and then talking about it. You can talk about what happened, why it matters, and how it changes things. If reading this has you thinking, isn’t that how all learning happens? you might be on to something. A lot of behavioral learning happens through a sort of informal experiential education, and we can use those principles to reflect on behaviors and skills to improve.

Typically, in school you learn a set of information. As a student, your job is to chunk, recall, and apply that information to a series of problems in the form of a quiz or an exam. Analogous to group-based action-reflection modeling, the experience in school is the test and I’m looking to learn from my performance about my study habits. What did I do? Did I study well/thoroughly enough? Did my methods of studying effectively help me learn the material? Should I do more chunking, retrieval practice, or application rehearsal on the next block? What should I change looking ahead?

Reflection like this helps me think about my process – an act called metacognition – and learn from it.

There are a couple of ways to go about this, but I like structure, so I start with a pre-defined list of questions. I like Dr. Richard M. Felder’s exam review questions, but many people and professionals have published their own set of reflection questions. My program even sends out a short survey after the exam with a brief subset of similar questions. Do an internet search and take your pick.

I choose this resource because we don’t have access to view our exams after the fact and this list focuses on the results rather than the subject matter. It consists of 12 yes/no questions to ask yourself – especially if you didn’t like the outcome. This list was originally published as a column in Chemical Engineering Education (1999).

  1. Did you make a serious effort to understand the text?
  2. Did you work with classmates on homework problems?
  3. Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution before working with classmates?
  4. Did you participate actively in homework group discussions (contributing ideas, asking questions)?
  5. Did you consult with the instructor or teaching assistants when you were having trouble with something?
  6. Did you understand ALL of your homework problem solutions when they were handed in?
  7. Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problem solutions that weren’t clear to you?
  8. If you had a study guide, did you carefully go through it before the test and convince yourself that you could do everything on it?
  9. Did you attempt to outline lots of problem solutions quickly, without spending time on the calculations
  10. Did you go over the study guide and problems with classmates and quiz one another?
  11. If there was a review session before the test, did you attend it and ask questions about anything you weren’t sure about?
  12. Did you get a reasonable night’s sleep before the test?

If you answer no more than yes, you know where to make course corrections before the next test. I also expand a bit to include some more memory-based questions because that’s relevant to my coursework.

Here’s an example of my Exam 1 Debrief in my bullet journal. What methods do you like to use when you debrief learning experiences? Do you find that helpful in learning from and modifying your behavior? Let me know in the comments!