Book Review: The City Darkens (Luka's Chosen) by Sophia Martin

The City Darkens (Luka’s Chosen) (hereunto CD) is a diselpunk novel set in a theocratic dystopia. It features country-dwelling Myadar who, with her son Bersi, is reluctantly whisked away to the city of Helésey by her domineering mother-in-law – the first of a succession of snotty characters – to join Myadar’s cold husband for the coronation of the konunger. The husband, Reister, lives in the city and seldom sees Myadar (who, by the way, is not snotty at all), but has summoned her to this coronation because, as Myadar soon finds out, court life is like high school on steroids, and jarls are expected to show up with their respective counterparts. And then the unexpected occurs, but such intriguing events are too wonderful for me to spill in a book review, because y’all should go read it for yourself and BE AMAZED. (Or read a slightly wordier blurb on GoodReads.)

CD may be Sophia Martin’s debut in high-fantasy*, but her talent for world-building attests to what must be a finely tuned fluency in such genres. Her descriptions of Helésey’s people and architecture, as well as the 1920s fashions floating around court, are thorough and immaculate – quite different from her Veronica Barry series, which is set in the very much not fictional city of Sacramento. The reader’s transportation to Helésey is further aided by strange titles for royalty and nobility – konunger/konungdis , jarl/jardis, etc. – but nothing for which a glossary is required. I found that the foreign words were successfully woven into the context of the narrative, so they did not break the spell or leave me puzzling over their meanings.

All the rich detail, however, does not drag down the plot. Perhaps because CD began as a serial novel, none of the chapters can afford to slow down for too long to luxuriate in sensory description. Each section of prose is dynamic with the increasing action of the novel: a well-paced whirlwind of the good, the bad, and the sexy that keeps turning corners until the very end.

More points of interest include airplanes, robots, female empowerment, and gay love – albeit, of all the sex acts in the novel, there is far more hetero than homo. Fans of Norse mythology will delight in the abundance of references to assorted gods and goddesses.

CD is only available in ebook format, and can be found for purchase on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

* A term I have little authority in wielding, so I hope I didn’t wield it too inaccurately.


“A-holes, a-holes,” the student says, “everyone is an a-hole.”

This winter term, Shakespeare has taken its toll on me. In-class discussions about characters and their motives daily confirmed the vast and ultimately unfair blanket statement (in my head) that everyone is an asshole. (Mind you, my classmates haven’t been a-holes during these discussions. It’s the characters – rounded specimens of the human creature that they are.) Day after day, I have left the classroom with my psyche stagnating in a coal-black cloud, humorless and ruminating. I eventually stopped any effort of in-depth reading on my own, lest the blanket statements inflate beyond my capacity and smother any sliver of contentment left in me. Then I’d come home and sit at the dinner table with my parents, who would patiently endure my dry, repeated utterances of, “Assholes. Everyone is an asshole.”

I do know better than these relentless blanket statements. I catch and correct them in my head. It’s not true that everyone is an asshole – not by a long shot. In fact, in my mental index of acquaintances, gone and current, I can’t come up with any assholes to speak of. There are two or three who I have particularly intense, unresolved, negative feelings about, but at the end of the day, they aren’t assholes either.

Sometimes I figure that these discussions of assholes will prepare me for the next phase of life beyond this collegiate one, because everyone there will be an asshole.

…but, like I said, that’s simply not true.

My problem with the Shakespeare plays that I’ve been reading is not just that everyone is an asshole, but that when the play ends they are still assholes. That, or they’re dead and their earthly capacities for being an asshole have been smothered like those last few slivers of contentment in my coal-black, first-world brain.

Last Sunday, the associate pastor at my church asked me how school was going. I told him that I’m relieved that I only need to take Shakespeare once because, “Everyone’s an aaaa…jerk,” and it doesn’t get better.

“Sounds like Ecclesiastes,” the pastor said.

Which is preferable, it really is, I said, “Because the end of Ecclesiastes says to love God.”

“Oh, you finished it?” he said.

Which made me I wonder how many people give up on Ecclesiastes midway through because they get so tired of hearing about how everything is futile/meaningless/pointless that it’s not worth sticking it out until the end. Sort of like when my parents tried to watch King Lear to get a taste of what I’ve been complaining about, and they couldn’t even finish it. What would have been their reward for sticking it out? Nine dead bodies.

Nine dead assholes?

No. Nine dead humans.

Even if I really believed the broken-record rhetoric about how all people are assholes, what satisfaction would there be in the death of an asshole?

I need to know that it will get better. I guess I’m just human like that.

UPDATE (January 22):  There is some redemption in Lear, it’s just easy to miss with all pronounced dreariness; like when food is too spicy, only with literature.


Exploding Cannibalistic Babies: A somewhat-complicated cautionary tale on how NOT to approach The Faerie Queene. With lists.

DISCLAIMER: foul language. And technically, maybe spoilery tid bits toward the end.

Back in the day, there was a dude named Edmund who decided that England needed an epic poem. Empires of yore had their own mythologies and epic poetry, so with England being the up-and-coming empire on the block (btw, this was in Elizabethan times), it only made sense for (1) someone to sit down and pen the thing, and (2) that someone to be a total bad ass. After perusing his mental index of bad ass acquaintances, Edmund came to the conclusion that he was, indeed, the biggest bad ass he knew, and that’s how we got The Faerie Queene.

Alas, this post is not about The Faerie Queene – hereinafter FQ. It will not explore biographical embodiment of Elizabeth I in the character of the Faerie Queene herself. There will be no carefully articulated summation of the knight Redcrosse’s journey. It won’t even dedicate sentences to pay homage to the embodiments of Queen Lucifera (pride) and the other Seven Deadly Sins, and it won’t explore the poem’s Chaucerian influence.

No, no, no. This blogpost is about me. Because I live in an empire, too, and our anthem is individualism.


My sincerest apologies if you feel led on at all.

Let’s start over.

Back in the day, there was a tutor named Kathryn – hereinafter “I” and “me” – who walked into the back room of the English lab at her local community college to discover her fellow tutors, Anita and Hero, engaged in jovial banter regarding God sex (for the Margery Kempe portion of this program, click here) and exploding cannibalistic babies (that’s FQ). Seeing as I was on another pharmaceutical planet when I took my lower division survey class several years ago, I had no knowledge of FQ’s content despite it being assigned. Without previous knowledge, my brain sculpted its expectations of exploding cannibalistic babies in the following fashion:

1. The poem’s got “faerie” in the title. Therefore, it must be riddled with faeries, and faeries are all… quaint, in the contemporary meaning of the word, and appear on greeting cards and assorted kitsch.

Think: Cicely Mary Barker illustrations.
(click for image credit)

2. There would be blue sky and flowers as tall as the faeries. 

3. The cannibalistic babies in question would have a stereotypically cherubic appearance, but with little fangs (now I’m thinking of Sunny Baudelaire, but the faeries I was expecting were in no way Series of Unfortunate Events-ish, seeing as my FQ palate was more cheerful), and from the little fangs would be driblets of blood, seeing as the babies had been consuming humans.

4. These adorable, cherubic cannibal-babies would glut themselves on people (who also looked like faeries, because it didn’t even occur to me that non-faerie creatures would appear in FQ) to the point that they would explode.

5. When these babies exploded, they would take off like fireworks and explode in the sky into a glittery mess.

6. Glittery because they were faeries, and where there are faeries, there’s dust.

Got it? Exploding cannibalistic babies.

Alright, so now that those expectations were cemented in my tutor-y brain, lo and behold, I was assigned excerpts of FQ for my upper-division survey course. I dove into the poem with happy anticipation of my expectations being consummated. Which led me to inquire of Hero, the next time I was in the tutoring lab, “Ummm… where are these exploding cannibalistic babies?”

Hero squinted at the bank of fluorescent lights in the ceiling, “Book 1…Canto 1?”

“Really?” I said. “I read Book 1, Canto 1.”

Hero then shanghaied (or maybe she just “took” it. I really wanted to use the word “shanghai”) my copy of Volume B of the emasculated Norton (as opposed to the doorstop), and briefly flipped the pages until, “Oh, yes, here it is… stanza 25…” and proceeded to read me a passage that had nothing to do with quaintness and glitter and my unconsummated expectations of the text, and everything to do with Error.

Error is a half-woman, half-serpent creature who looks too monstrous to put on a greeting card. When the knight Redcrosse goes to slay Error in her cave, she’s got a litter of Error-babies, which are not cherubic. After Redcrosse beheads Error, her surviving litter “flockéd all about her bleeding wound, / And suckéd up their dying mother’s blood”.

Hero then skipped to the next stanza, where, “Their bellies swolne he saw with fulnesse burst, / And bowels gushing forth: well worthy end / Of such as drunke her life, the which them nurst.” (A quick note on the spelling: being a product of his time, it’s how Edmund writes. Not my fault.) That was it for the babies, saving Redcrosse the moral dilemma of whether or not to kill them too, because (1) they were the spawn of evil, and (2) having one’s mother killed right in front of them will mean a world of mental health bills later in life.

The first draft of this post was peppered with outrage. It was disappointing and annoying for the cannibalistic babies to turn out to be nothing like I wanted them to be. However, I’m sure there will be far more outrageous surprises in my life, and I may not live to experience them if I get inconsolably riled up over the likes of literary characters and have a heart attack before I complete my bachelor’s degree in English literature. A lack of blue skies and glitter are not enough to disown the notion of reading FQ in its entirety. The length, however, might be. One must really, really want to read FQ to slog through all of it. I’ve seen people toting copies of FQ around campus, as well as a fat stack of them in my professor’s office, and they’re so epically enormous that they put the full-on Norton doorstop to shame.


The Kitschy Commerce of Conversion

I have a friend who does clerical work for a big utilities company, and among her job responsibilities is putting incoming bill-payments into a bill-sorting machine. When one pays a bill to this company, there are specific instructions on how one should do it. Not everyone follows them. For example, one must not employ the use of staples or tape to adhere the bill stub to the check because the machine will spit out the whole envelope. My dutiful, clerical-working chum – we’ll call her the Clerk – will then have to go through what the machine rejected and remedy the error of the original bill-payer, a phrase which here means removing the staples or tape or foreign objects that have been unadvisedly inserted into the envelope.

Foreign objects like tracts.

Ya know, those little pamphlets that get forced into your hands by the most friendly, well-intentioned people in the world. Tracts are conversion devices that they say things like, “Do you ever feel like nobody cares?” and inside will be a bunch of Bible verses selected to answer that someone does care, and that someone is Jesus, and he wants you to accept him into your heart lest your soul be swallowed in fiery, eternal torment, and, well, no one likes to be barbecue, do they?* Or, they will announce a “great public meeting you will have to attend”, and inside the small pamphlet it’s all about Judgment Day and it gives a version of the Sinner’s Prayer for all those who are interested in not going to hell.

It’s not like they’re in every single envelope that the bill-sorting machine spits out, but they do come up: several, scattered, mystery proselytizers, with the most lovingly-intentioned care, seal a tracts in with their utilities bill, with the noble hopes of converting the unconverted and sparing one more soul from the inferno that awaits them. Some unconverted soul, perhaps, like the Clerk, who does not spend her Sunday mornings in a pew will come across this tract, and say, “Yes, I would like to know more about the saving power of Jesus Christ”, and will end up saying the Sinner’s Prayer. Right there in the mail room. Posthumous-soul-barbecue averted.

Or that’s what one might hope (if you’re the well-intentioned proselytizer who stuck the tract in the envelope).

However, when the Clerk comes across these tracts, she thinks, “OMG, KATHRYN IS A CHRISTIAN, SHE’LL THINK THESE ARE GREAT!!!” The Clerk will then pocket them and the next time we convene for another irredeemably low-grade slasher flick (because we ran out of Twilight movies), she will excitedly offer me these paper conversion devices, the logic being that they are hilarious and Jesus-y, and so am I.
I’m not the intended audience (the tracts might not be intended to be funny either, come to think of it). As far as tract-theology goes, I already have my Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free ticket. If no one new recited the Sinner’s Prayer because of the tract, and the tract now merely sits with all the other tracts collected from the bill-sorting machine in a pile my desk as if they were a bobble-head Jesus or some other token of Christian kitsch, has the Mystery Proselytizer failed?

You made us smile, Mystery Proselytizer. And that’s pretty cool.

* Tell that to cows.