Review: Jason by Laurell K. Hamilton

Some time ago, author Laurell K. Hamilton came out as polyamorous and bisexual. This information is for all the people out there who don’t read the highlights of her life… lucky jerks.

Normally I wouldn’t comment on the personal life of an author in a review of one of their books, but that almost impossible to do that when it comes to Hamilton’s second Anita Blake side-novel, “Jason.” This novel is effectively part of Hamilton’s ongoing fictionalization of her real life. Unfortunately, that means it’s full of “kinky” and “edgy” sex as imagined by a sheltered evangelical Christian grandmother who only vaguely knows what BDSM is.

Jason has a problem — he’s in an open relationship with his lesbian-leaning bisexual girlfriend JJ, but she’s not fulfilling his BDSM wants. She is totally okay with him having someone else do that for him, because she isn’t into that. Yeah, the “problem” in this book isn’t really a problem, but for some reason we’re supposed to think it is. The real issue that is a single person in the vast far-reaching web of Anita’s lovers’ lovers is NOT into BDSM orgies. God forbid!

And of course, since JJ is bisexual, she needs to have both male and female lovers. Because we need one of the most harmful stereotypes of bisexuals, presented casually as a fact.

Jason wants Anita to educate JJ on how sex in the Anita Blake series works, which is that everyone must like the sex that Anita likes. So Anita is going to have sex with JJ, among other people, while also forcing her lover Jade to do things that terrify her, then blaming her when she doesn’t like them. Effectively, Anita now has a white girlfriend, so she doesn’t want the Asian one anymore.

Here’s the problem with “Jason,” as well as most of Hamilton’s recent books — nobody is allowed to be anything but what she is. According to her, you are an awful person if you are monogamous, monosexual (in practice or in sexuality), don’t like painful sex, aren’t okay with “sharing” or don’t want to participate in orgies. God forbid she accept that different people express their sexuality in different ways.

It also takes place in a parallel universe where all people ever think or talk about is sex. Seriously. One character laments that she doesn’t like taking showers because “you can never take a shower without a man thinking you want sex.” Maybe on Hamilton’s home planet that is true.

And anyone hoping for vampire hunting in this “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” novel will be bitterly disappointed. The characters spend the book either:
A) Having sex
B) Talking about sex

Both of these are absolute torture, especially to anyone who doesn’t like Hamilton’s very specific fetishes (such as having her private parts “worried” as if by an angry terrier) or her tendency to talk about sexual body parts with the passion and eroticism of a half-asleep octogenarian schoolmarm. And it’s full of cringeworthy things that she thinks are cool — for instance, after some group sex, Nathaniel and Jason fist-bump like a pair of frat boys.

And you could play bingo with the tired, overworked Anita Blake tropes on display — casual misogyny, biphobia, hatred of blondes, random rage, bashing Richard, Nathaniel being creepy, Anita whining about her dead mom/ex-fiance/looks/anything imperfect like Jason not drinking his coffee, and pages and pages of descriptions of clothes and hair.

But the most hideous part of the book is how the character of Jade is treated — since Jade is wildly androphobic and won’t “get over it” for Anita’s convenience, Anita decides to FORCE Jade to have sexual contact with males. She does this, sobbing and terrified. So we learn that Anita wants a girlfriend to emphasize how she’s “edgy” (in the pop music “I kissed a girl and I liked it” sense), but doesn’t want to be bothered by actually caring about an abuse survivor. If ONE therapy session doesn’t “fix” her then she clearly isn’t willing to be fixed.

Needless to say, Anita now comes across as more evil than your average Bond villain — all she needs is a shark tank for people who have displeased her. Anyone not “therapied” into a happy polyamorous Stepford wife is tormented, and she now demands that people sit in order of how much she likes them. Most hilariously, she has to be massaged into sexual bliss to avoid blowing up during a conference. She’s like a mad monarch, but less impressive.

“Jason” manages to be disgusting, unintentionally hilarious AND grotesquely boring — an impressive feat for any paranormal romance, especially one that doesn’t even have a plot. Dodge this silver bullet.

Review: Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1: Ryomen Sukuna

There are a lot of ways that shonen manga heroes get their powers or abilities… but I don’t think anyone before Yuji Itadori gained them by swallowing a decayed finger.

But it definitely allows “Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1: Ryomen Sukuna” to stand apart from the pack. Gege Akutami’s breakout fantasy/horror manga series doesn’t stray too far from shonen tropes here, but it does distinguish itself with some nimble humor, a likable protagonist, an intriguing villain, and a promising supernatural world of curses to explore.

Supernatural occurrences in our world are caused by curses (which look like weird, very imaginative monsters) manifested by cursed energy. The most powerful of these was the malevolent Ryomen Sukuna, whose twenty fingers are capable of causing all kinds of chaos. The only ones who can destroy these curses are jujutsu sorcerers, who use their own cursed energy to exorcise harmful curses.

Which brings us to Yuji Itadori. When his friends accidentally unwrap one of Sukuna’s fingers, they’re attacked by powerful curses that first-year jujutsu sorcerer Megumi is unable to deal with. To save his friends, Yuji swallows the finger. Not his brightest moment. But surprisingly, he turns out to be one of the rare people who can control Sukuna, rather than being killed or possessed.

So the eccentric Gojo manages to get a deal for Yuji: the jujutsu sorcerers will allow him to live until he consumes all twenty fingers, which will allow them to kill Sukuna once and for all. Yuji transfers to the Tokyo Prefectural Jujutsu High School, where he’s in the same class as Megumi and the pushy Nobara. But none of them are prepared for just how nasty things are about to get.

“Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1” has various familiar tropes of an urban-fantasy shonen series – you have the secret magical organization that fights evil stuff, various monsters needing to be slain, an eccentric but powerful teacher, a tough but big-hearted teenage hero and his complementary friends, and so on. None of this is bad, mind – it’s more important for a story to be good than to be wholly original, and Gege Akutami’s opening chapters are pretty solid work.

Of course, the introductory chapters are a little rough, but still very effective, and Akutami has a knack for tugging the heartstrings, comedy (the punching stuffed animals) and bloody fight scenes. He has a real talent for generating creatures that are grotesque and unnerving, such as the grinning fish-man or the stretched-face creature asking about receipts. Whenever a curse appears, even a weak one, there’s a sense of grinding dread that can only be dispelled by its exorcism.

The art is similar to the writing – it’s a little rough, but effective. Akutami’s style is lanky and angular, with lots of detail and greater realism given to his fight scenes and monsters. The guy has talent, and it should be rewarding to see how his art evolves over the course of the series.

Yuji Itadori is a pretty classic shonen hero – he’s a teenage boy who isn’t the brightest, but is ridiculously strong and has a will of iron. He’s also given a personal goal (to make sure people have good deaths), but isn’t unchallenged in his goals: one of his fights has him freaking out and lamenting that he doesn’t want to die, which is painfully relatable. The rest of the main cast is also pretty solid – Megumi is reserved and uptight, but has a more compassionate side; Nobara is brash and capable; Gojo is the weird and cheerful mentor figure.

For those who have enjoyed series like “Bleach” or “Kekkaishi,” “Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1: Ryomen Sukuna” is a solid beginning to the hit series, leaving you hungry for the next volume.

Review: The Modern Faerie Tales

Over the past few decades, many urban fantasies with a similar theme came up – some girl discovers that she’s part/all faerie and becomes enmeshed in that world. Success varied.

But of particular note is the trilogy that helped popularize that trope – Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside,” a darkly glittering collection of clever, entrancing urban fantasies that spin up spellbinding stories of the fair folk… and then add a little grime and blood to the mix, without sacrificing any of its beauty.

“Tithe” introduces us to Kaye, a young girl who has spent years traveling with her mother’s rock band… until one night when her mother’s boyfriend/guitarist tries to stab her. With nowhere else to go, Kaye and her mother return to her grandmother’s New Jersey house for the time being, which brings back memories for Kaye of the imaginary faerie friends she had as a child.

… except it turns out that faeries are very, very real, as she finds a wounded faerie knight named Roiben, whose life she saves. Soon Kaye finds herself enmeshed in the secret world of the faeries, and discovers a shocking fact about her own life – she is a changeling, a faerie girl swapped out with a human baby, under a glamour so strong that no one knew what she really is. Unfortunately, finding out who she is comes with a lot more danger.

You might be expecting the second of the Modern Faerie Tales to deal with more of Kaye’s adventures, but instead “Valiant” switches the narrative over to Valerie Russell, who runs away from home when she discovers that her mother is having an affair with Valerie’s boyfriend. She makes her way to New York city, and falls in with a gang of teenage subway-dwellers.

She also finds out about the magical underbelly of the city, since it turns out the kids are friends with a troll named Ravus, who makes a mysterious drug that makes faeries temporarily immune to iron… and allows humans to use magic. Unfortunately, a lot of faerie exiles are being poisoned, and Ravus is suspected of the crime. Only Val can save him by uncovering the true murderer.

“Ironside” returns the action to Kaye and Roiben, as the faerie knight is about to be crowned. But when a drunken Kaye declares her feelings for him, he gives her an impossible task – find a faerie who can tell a lie. Devastated, Kaye tells her mother the truth about what she really is – and then begins a personal quest to find the “real” Kaye Fierch, who was kidnapped as a baby.

Meanwhile, Roiben has become tangled up in Silariel’s schemes, and so Kaye also becomes involved in a forthcoming battle for the throne of the Unseelie Court. In order to be together with the man she loves – even if he seems cruel to her at first – Kaye will need all her wits and strength – but even that might not be enough to stop the Bright Court’s queen.

The Modern Faerie Tales are stories that very much deserve the label “urban fantasy,” primarily because Holly Black’s writing feels like a genuine blend of the fantastical and the gritty. Faerie ethereality and glamour is mingled together with grime, wire and subway tunnels of New York; there’s both a delicate timeless beauty to the stories, and a sort of raw rough punk aesthetic.

The same goes for Black’s writing – it’s dark, it’s wild, and it’s studded with moments of poetry (“red and gold flames licked upward. A sea of burning oil and diesel fuel spread to scorch everything it touched”). And she never turns away from the uglier facets of her world — the faerie courts contain casual brutality against the weak and helpless, and Val ends up addicted to a magical drug.

Her heroines are no less compelling, even if they have little to do with each other. Kaye starts the story feeling a little too edgy, fey and immature, but Black smoothly causes her to grow up as she learns who she truly is, and demonstrates her selflessness and love for her family and Roiben. Val is more of an awkward tomboy than a rock’n’roll girl – a wounded girl losing her way and herself, as she struggles to find a place to belong. And there’s a variety of likable supporting characters, like a hunky troll, the icy knight Roiben, and the nerdy gay friend Corny.

Amongst the stories about “I’m a faerie and never knew it,” Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside” stands out as one of the best – darkly glittering, dramatic and perfectly blending the urban and the ethereal.