Archive for March, 2009

‘Battlestar Galactica’ review: The angels walking among us

Posted in Battlestar Galactica, Fantasy/sci-fi, TV shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

The epic, emotionally draining “Daybreak: Part 2” ends not with a bang or a whimper, but with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. The last scene of the two-hour “Battlestar Galactica” finale takes place in modern New York City, apparently the hub of the universe, even in the sci-fi—or should I say syfy—world. Head Six and Head Baltar are strolling through Times Square. They stop to peer over the shoulder of Ronald D. Moore as he reads a magazine article about the discovery in Tanzania of Mitrochondrial Eve, who’s presumably the grown-up Hera Agathon. About to play in the background is Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.”

It’s a cheeky conclusion, almost flippant, followed by videos of real-life technology meant to show the correlation between a civilization’s progress and its downfall. Forgot WALL-E, ladies and gentleman. In the dark, dismal world created by Moore and fellow executive producer David Eick, the dancing robot is not as innocuous as you think. Someday between doing back flips and the moon walk he’ll plot to overthrow you.

Despite its disappointments—and there are a few—the culmination of four seasons of one of television’s most moving, thought-provoking and extraordinary shows of any genre crosses its celestial finish line with both gusto and grace. I’m not sure if the last couple minutes measure up to the whole series or even most of the last episode, but TV shows of this caliber are rare, and I’m just delighted that most of this swan song resonates on just the right note.

By the second half of the finale, the colonial humans have settled on Earth, or a planet they name Earth, where the natives are primitive but compatible with their DNA—a scientific find that leads Gaius Baltar (James Callis) to remark they can breed with them and William Adama (Edward James Olmos) to joke that he has a one-track mind and, when the doctor takes offense, no sense of humor. But amid the bantering arises a crucial question: How did we naturally evolve on a planet a million light years away from the Colonial humans? A reformed Baltar points to divine intervention.

Religion plays a strong role in the finale. Who are the spectral Baltar and Six? Angels. (And let me add very seductive, debonair, well-dressed angels.) Who is behind the visions of an opera house shared by Six, Athena and Roslin? God. How does Starbuck get the fleet to the new Earth? She’s an angel too. And why did she lead them to the other Earth, the destroyed Earth, before? Is that why the hybrids call her a harbinger of death? Unfortunately, still no answers there, and we’re not likely to get any now that the show’s over.

We do know this much. The survivors of the assault on the Colony, along with the those of the fleet (who mysteriously end up in the right place at the right time), explore the fertile, grassy plains of Africa and are happy to call it home. Heeding Lee Adama’s warnings about technology and its perils, the Colonial humans decide to live in different parts of the world without taking any of their gadgets and gear with them. The good Cylons—the Twos, the Sixes and the Eights—conform to this plan, as do the the remaining members of the Final Five. Hence the visually arresting scene with Sam Anders (Michael Trucco) leading the abandoned Galactica and fleet ships into the sun. The survivors of the Final Five set free the Centurions who fought on their behalf and give them the Baseship to find their own destiny. Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) hopes it’s enough to break the cycle of violence. So do we all.

It’s impossible to view the last episode ever and not recall some of the greatest, most powerful moments in this series. I’ll never forget Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) tenderly holding his wife, Ellen, and telling her he understands even as he poisons her for betraying the resistance movement on New Caprica. I’ll never forget Gaeta’s (Alessandro Juliani) eerie singing in the sickbay after his leg has been amputated. I’ll never forget the chemistry between Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Apollo, whether they’re frakking or fighting. I’ll never forget Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) shielding Gaius from the nuclear explosion on with her body—or her endless supply of flattering, form-fitting outfits. I’ll never forget the first time President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) orders someone—the Cylon Leoben (Callum Rennie)—thrown out of the airlock. And I’ll never forget Cavil’s (Dean Stockwell) eloquent, impassioned tirade against the limitations of his puny human body.

Really, is this television, or an insightful glimpse into our future as well as the darkest recesses of our hearts and minds? Only time will tell.

A toast to the ultimate toaster battle

There is some heavy toaster-on-toaster action in this penultimate episode. The sight of the army of rebel Centurions with red paint slashed across their chests—to differentiate them from Cavil’s lobotomized forces—is impressive enough to instill an almost patriotic pride in Cylon haters everywhere.

The first half of the finale is what we’d expect: a spectacular showdown between Adama and Cavil. The fight scenes have some of the finest special effects I’ve ever seen, on the small or big screen. The level of technical genius as the Galactica jumps to where the Colony is and then plows into its side is riveting. The images of the ships attempting to navigate the swirling asteroid fields, enormous guns on either side firing on each other and the Centurions brawling in the ships’ corridors are exciting and chilling in equal turns. It’s a deadly ballet set in space with civilization-altering consequences.

The rescue mission is almost too easy. The assault should have been a futile exercise in bravado, but against incredible odds, Adama and his rag-tag crew succeed in infiltrating the Cylon stronghold and overcoming Cavil’s forces. And yet the enjoyment of viewing “Battlestar Galactica” derives not just from the challenges the fleet faces, but the drama along the journey. So I didn’t mind when they got Hera and escaped, because I could not have endured more misery and tragedy among the crew.

I’m sure every critic has gone into great detail about the battle sequences, but what left the most indelible mark on me is the opening shot of Adama and Tigh whooping it up in a strip club. Here, with strobe lights, pulsating music and scantily clad dancing girls, are the commercialism and decadence that doomed Caprica. You think you’d too distracted to follow everything, but the focus here is on the personal conversations taking place amid all the pomp and porn.

The strip club is a visually appealing scene with dual purposes. First of all, the flashbacks partly show how Adama arrives at his decision to helm Galactica and unwittingly put himself in the grueling position of saving humanity’s last survivors. Secondly, they provide further insight into the complex but undeniably strong relationship between Tigh and Ellen. Because just when you think Adama and Tigh are having a boys night out, perhaps even dabbling in infidelity, Ellen pops up behind her husband’s shoulder, cackling wildly, swinging from him like he’s a set of monkey bars, and downing drinks like the crazy woman we remember from earlier seasons.

The Tighs are having a lot of fun at the strip club; Adama is not. It’s pretty clear whose idea this is. And later on, when Adama is sprawled on the ground and puking on himself, you feel like you’re witnessing something you shouldn’t, especially when in typical “Battlestar Galactica” grim-and-graphic detail, you see his vomit spew out. Adama starts laughing as he gazes up at the stars, and this undignified but genuine display of human error is a stark contrast to the somber admiral making his last stirring speech to the crew before their present-day attack on the Colony. (Of course, present day is a relative term here, given that the final battle is supposed to have happened 150,000 years ago!)

There’s a critical message embedded in this scene: Adama is not a machine. He will fail from time to time. But what makes humanity special is not our ability to succeed so much as our capacity to learn. And Adama, despite being an old dog set in his ways, still has it in him to learn new tricks.

Best part of the past: Tigh continually yelling “YEAHHHHH!!!” several times at the strip club. You just have to see it for yourself to know what I mean.

Baltar to the rescue?

One of the most rewarding character arcs in the last half of Season 4 belongs to Baltar, former president of New Caprica and onetime reluctant executioner of his people. As everyone left aboard Galactica shifts into combat mode, Baltar experiences great inner turmoil. Perhaps in response to Lee’s earlier challenge, he is contemplating a selfless act: Risking his life to save Hera, the half-human, half-Cylon daughter of Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) and Athena (Grace Park). We saw him wrestle mightily with the decision on last week’s episode in the hanger deck, only to be shamed by the feeble, cancer-stricken Roslin making her way to the fighting side.

But I think his eventual decision to give up the creature comforts of his harem and stay and fight on Galactica precedes that episode. I trace it back to when he escaped to the Cylon Baseship during the recent mutiny, only to realize not even sex can distract him from the feeling he has abandoned his people and that he needs to find a cause and stand behind it for once in his life. That’s when the Baltar we’ve all come to know and often loathe grows and develops into a decent human being who can someday perhaps make up for the mistake of selling out humanity for love. (And good riddance to the Cult of Baltar. Talk about annoying. I chuckled gleefully when he says, “They’re all yours, Paula. Enjoy them.” I can picture Paula subsequently forming one of the first matriarchies on Earth.)

Baltar’s presence on the battlestar especially comes in handy when he manages to bamboozle Cavil, doing what he does best: bullshitting. With his talk of angels, God, destiny and the meaning of existence—all of which, I’ll grant, he seems to honestly believe in—he convinces Cavil to stop fighting and leave Hera alone. I don’t know if I consider it plausible Baltar could reach Cavil when no one else could, including Ellen, but maybe even the evil Cylons have grown tired of this war and Baltar’s words simply come at the right time. I wanted Ellen to duke it somehow with the monster of her creation, but her weapons are her mind and her feminine wiles, not her fists or firepower.

Baltar’s character has truly come full circle at the end when he tells Caprica Six he has spotted terrain that would be good for cultivation. The intellectual snob who was once embarrassed of his unsophisticated father and humble background acknowledges his farming roots to the person who now matters most to him. It’s a tender moment between them, and the tears in his eyes come across as genuine and not a means of manipulation.

The relationship between Baltar and Caprica Six also has come full circle. Without a doubt, these two are made for each other. I can’t think of a cuter sight—and there’s not many of them on a show as bleak as “Battlestar Galactica”—than the Amazonian, bare-armed Caprica and the petite, heavily protected Baltar preparing for battle. They were in love before, and they fall in love again as Caprica tells Baltar she’s proud of him for the first time. And, despite being on the brink of danger, they share a passionate kiss. But the real reason they’re made for each other—other than their impressive libido? They’re literally haunted by each other.

A tale of two Sharons

I have no qualms admitting to my thirst for blood when the recipient is more villain than victim. When Boomer twists Simon’s neck with a loud crunch to prevent him from conducting more tests on Hera, I cheered. It was a satisfying sound. (If only Cavil had been around too for Boomer’s brand of justice.) We haven’t seen much of Simon (Rick Worthy) during the series, but I feel a mixture of disgust and horror when I recall his central role in using human women for breeding experiments, with Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) being one of his many test subjects. I’m not against all Cylons, but Simon merits any fate involving termination. Unfortunately, Boomer only kills one, not the whole line.

Despite this redemptive act, Boomer’s status is still shaky. Although I’m glad to see Athena has finally pulled herself together, she and the other Sharon now have this kind of Harry Potter-Voldemort conflict, where one can’t live while the other survives. Just when she’s finally embraced her humanity and returned Hera to her mother’s arms, Boomer is riddled with bullets by the still-angry Athena. Park has done a phenomenonal job portraying all the different Sharons, especially the evolutions of Boomer and Sharon. She might have originally wanted the role of Starbuck, but depicting the Eights has allowed her to really showcase her acting abilities.

One example of Park’s range is that I was both inconsolably saddened by Boomer’s death and frustrated at Athena’s obstinate desire to shoot anyone who poses a potential threat to her daughter—and it’s the same person in both roles! I know Boomer’s options were limited. She couldn’t return to Cavil, and she couldn’t expect to be welcomed back into the fleet. But there had to be another way, or so I mulishly hoped. She and Chief—once he got over her deception and if he managed to keep his hands off her neck—could have found some small corner in the universe to carve out a life together. I don’t think I’m the only viewer who wanted Boomer safe from the punishment I envisioned Athena, Cavil or even the duped Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) inflicting on her.

Surprisingly, Boomer’s last memory is not of her onetime lover. It is of Adama back when she was a rookie pilot. In this flashback, he and Tigh are harshly reprimanding her for her mistakes while landing a Raptor, but the commander allows her to remain a pilot. From their well-rehearsed insults, I gathered that this verbal thrashing was a natural and somewhat enjoyable part of the job for Adama and Tigh. When their censure is over, Boomer tells Adama she owes him one, and that when she pays him back, it will be meaningful.

“Tell the Old Man I owed him one,” she says, just before Athena executes her. “We all make our choices. Today I made a choice. I think it’s my last one.”

Boomer has carried that memory—and that promise—for a long time. It’s a touching tribute to the character.

The opera house blues

I always knew the opera house was a symbol for another place, but I imagined something cooler than the CIC. I pictured it being on Earth, or a planet very like Earth. I thought it would be a real opera house, even if only the ruins, or an ancient structure of some sort. Still, the reenactment of the visions shared by Athena, Roslin and Caprica aboard Galactica is pretty powerful stuff, and “Battlestar Galactica” has a thematic history of melding technology with the mystical. As Caprica, Baltar and the ailing Roslin contribute in different ways to Hera’s survival long enough to reach the CIC, where the Final Five are waiting, the music and lighting add to the well-orchestrated experience.

The one false note in the scene is that even as he and Caprica see with their own eyes all the enemy combatants still present and struggling to fight, Baltar sets Hera down. Within seconds Cavil has scooped her up and is holding a knife to her throat. Really, Gaius, don’t you know possession is nine-tenths of the law? And when you have something as desirable as Hera in your possession, you keep a tight grip on her.

So many replays of the opera house visions in previous episodes have led up to this moment, and you expect something significant to happen. It does, but not in the way you think or hope. In a rare move—rare because he does it without seeking Adama’s approval first—Tigh barks out the promise to provide Cavil with resurrection technology to seal the tentative truce Baltar has managed to gain, causing Ellen to cry out his name in consternation.

We learn Ellen was telling the truth in “No Exit.” Rediscovering the knowledge requires the efforts of each of the Final Five. Even before Ellen explains to them they must open themselves up to each other and share their memories as part of the process, I was shaking my head no and furiously waving my hands. Those of us who have faithfully followed the series already know that an ugly truth is about to be revealed: Tory’s role in the death of Tyrol’s wife, Cally (Nicki Clyne). Not long after the mental joining all of them see Tory ejecting Cally from a Viper launch tube, and Tyrol reacts brutally.

Here is yet another vicious scene in the finale, but there’s far less sympathy shown toward Tory (Rekha Sharma) when Tyrol strangles her and then snaps her neck than, say, Athena’s treatment of Boomer as a firing range. For one thing, there is no reflection on the character afterward. The truce with Cavil has been disrupted, and that’s where our attention immediately shifts. I consider is a deliberate move. Tory has never been portrayed as a likable character, either before or after learning of her Cylon heritage. She becomes especially weird right after learning the truth: walking around with unkempt hair, talking about Cylon superiority, starting a relationship with the still-married Anders, sleeping with the enemy Baltar—remember, she was a presidential aide to Roslin and should have kept her distance. Tory really goes the wrong way about embracing her Cylon heritage, and she pays for it. Bad taste in men and grooming do not a Cylon siren make.

Although I don’t bemoan the loss of Tory, especially this late in the game, I’m troubled by Tyrol’s atrocious behavior and everyone’s collaboration with it. No one takes Tyrol to task for what taking the law into his own hands; Tigh tells him he’d do the same if someone had killed Ellen, perhaps forgetting his own role in his wife’s onetime death by poisoning.

Tyrol might not have strong memories of their relationship, but Tory is the same woman whom he loved and was engaged to marry 2,000 years ago. Now, I understand Tory is a murderer and that the justice system is not the top priority when Cylons are shooting at you, but I don’t condone female abuse, and Tyrol’s character has a history of it. His courtship with Cally begins after he pummels her face so badly she ends up in the sick bay. I know he didn’t intend to hurt Cally; he was having a bad dream and she unwisely tried to wake him up. I think it’s a good idea that when they reach our Earth, Tyrol chooses to live in isolation. He doesn’t know how to trust—or be trusted—with women.

Tyrol’s emotional outburst, to put it mildly, moves the plot along, though, in the direction the show’s creators wanted. Everyone is placed in jeopardy as Cavil, Simon and Doral (Matthew Bennett) resume fire until they die. (I’m still deciding whether I think Cavil’s suicide following the death of Simon and Doral is cowardly or just typical of his hard-core personality.) The writers are able to work in a line from “All Along the Watchtower” as outside of the Cylon stronghold, Racetrack’s dead hand accidentally launches her Raptor’s nukes at the Colony, and Adama orders Starbuck to jump. Kara mutters, “There must be some kind of way out of here,” and punches in the notes to her father’s song for jump coordinates.

Starbuck in (permanent) flight

The Kara Thrace thread is by far the most unsatisfying aspect of the finale and entire series. No answers are really given by the end about the cockiest pilot this side of the cosmos. I’m sure many fans like me feel let down and thwarted by the producers’ refusal to untangle the mystery surrounding one of the show’s most complicated and beloved characters. In her final scene, she might have had a look of peace on her face—a very unusual look indeed for the volatile Kara Thrace we know and love—but we’re left to be content with a puzzle. I, however, want closure.

The lusty, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping Starbuck is not what anyone would imagine the heavens would employ to save humanity. If she’s indeed an angel like Head Six and Baltar, why could everyone always see her? Why wasn’t she aware of her true nature like the other two? Why doesn’t she appear in the finale scene with the spectral Six and Baltar? I’ve even heard that some consider her to be a Jesus figure who ascends—or goes on to her next assignment—once her mission with the colonial humans is complete. Or that at least the new Kara—the one sent back to the fleet—is Jesus. I have a hard time fully believing any of the theories, and I can’t understand why the series would end leaving so much up in the air about such a main character.

I wanted a more down-to-earth existence for Kara; I would have liked her to end up with Lee. Throughout the show, these two have always had a torrid connection, whether they’re making love under the stars on New Caprica or beating each other bloody in a boxing ring aboard Galactica. The flashbacks to their first meeting and their nearly frakking on the dining room, while Zak lies passed out on the couch, reveal they have been drawn to each other from the beginning. Even later, when they’re both married to other people—he to Dee (Kandyse McClure) and she to Anders—they can’t keep their hands off of each other. But much like their interrupted sexual encounter in Caprica City, the scenes are just a tease. Because once the Cylon threat is gone, they have no future together. One moment Starbuck is standing near Apollo, asking him what he wants to do on Earth, and the next she’s gone, like she never existed.

Kara has a more proper farewell with her husband, Anders, still only functioning as a hybrid. He is hooked up to Galactica’s systems once again, and his one clear, logical statement since becoming the Cylon equivalent of a Rain Man-like seer is a “See you on the other side” to Kara after she walks away. She sheds a few tears, kisses him and tells him she loves him, but I don’t buy it. I know Kara has affection for Anders—she was furious when neither Roslin nor Adama would greenlight a search-and-rescue team back to Caprica—but they aren’t convincing as “star-crossed” lovers. After he joins the fleet, she often ignores Anders or treats him like a sex toy. She obviously marries Anders to avoid making a real commitment to Lee, who would have challenged her. Her dedication to Anders since he received the head wound during the mutiny doesn’t seem right or fair to the material.

Perhaps I’m having trouble letting go of the idea of Starbuck and Apollo because I’m having trouble letting go of Kara Thrace herself. She has fulfilled her purpose, but she hasn’t answered any of our questions.

The president and the admiral

If Starbuck and Apollo represent the turbulent passion that can exist between two people, Roslin and Adama represent the calm that comes after the storm. Through hardship and sacrifice, this man and this woman have more than earned the serenity you see in their domestic scenes toward the end of Season 4. Unfortunately, their joy together is short-lived.

The bond between the stalwart admiral and the shrewd president is one of the most poignant and compelling elements of the series. I wouldn’t have guessed from the beginning they were meant to be lovers, not after Roslin disobeys him time and time again and especially not after Adama puts her in the brig that one time. But I clearly recognized the respect they start to feel toward each other early on, and when they become allies instead of perpetual sparring partners, I knew the fleet had a chance at survival. Their slow courtship is gentle and sweet—in a world where those qualities are in short supply and low demand.

I’m glad Roslin is able to see Earth for herself, or as much of it she can with her diminished senses, but how bittersweet the end of the fleet’s journey is also the end of her life’s journey. Her final flight—the aerial sightseeing tour Adama takes her on after bidding good-bye to Kara and Lee—is one of the most heartrending yet romantic moments in the show. He’s talking to her about the cabin they’ll build—the one they discussed on New Caprica—when she takes her last rattling breath.

Watching as Adama turns his head toward her and realizes she is no longer alive brought tears to my eyes, particularly when he takes his wedding ring off and slips it on her finger. I wish he had made the gesture sooner, when Roslin was still alive. His decision to live alone, with Roslin buried nearby, speaks volumes about his commitment to her even in death. People mostly comment about Adama the military leader—his powerful strength of character, his strategic acumen and his fierce charisma—but I enjoy Olmos’ fine acting just as much in his quiet scenes with Roslin, conversing in his quarters on Galactica or hers on Colonial One.

Much like Kara, Roslin is at peace with herself near the end. She has fulfilled her destiny of being a dying leader who, if not exactly being the conduit that led her people to a verdant new world, still played a critical role in the continued survival of the colonial humans. Her flashbacks in the finale are perhaps not as effective as the others—they show her blind date with an eager former student and eventual decision not to play Mrs. Robinson to the younger man on a regular basis—but they show the exact moment when she decides to do something more with her life. And that late-night phone call to join a mayoral campaign is what sets her on the path to the presidency and eventually into Adama’s arms.

Even outside of her love affair with Adama, I’ve always found the development of Roslin’s character intriguing, given her rise from Secretary of Education to President of the Twelve Colonies. I remember Tigh once telling her sometimes he thought of her just as a schoolteacher and other times he thought she had ice in her veins. In her reign, she’s sacrificed thousands of innocent civilians, abolished reproductive choice, killed enemy combatants without trial, almost stole an electiona and tricked Sharon and Helo into believing their baby was dead. Even though she comes across as formidable and sometimes even ruthless, she’s never without sound logic on her side. McDonnell has always portrayed her character with razor-sharp intelligence and steely grace.

Friday nights will never be the same without “Battlestar Galactica.” I’ll be eagerly awaiting the DVD release of the second half of Season 4—and keeping an eye on emerging technologies that can think for themselves.

Last thoughts

— Really, what’s up with Hera always running off? Everyone on the battleship is trying to save her, and she practically leaps into the enemy’s arms any chance she gets. You’d think with all the technology these people have, someone would have invented a simple device to keep her from leaving her parents’ side. Like a rope.

— I don’t know who the Hoshi dude is, and I don’t care. They had to put someone in charge of the fleet, and anyone of any import with the exception of Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes) had to go on the rescue mission. But the ethically challenged Romo Lampkin (Mark Sheppard) as president? Sorry. I haven’t stopped laughing.

— Where has Leoben been all this time? He’s been in hiding ever since discovering with Kara her dead body on the destroyed Earth. I would have liked for him and Kara to have a final scene together. He owed her that much, after keeping her his prisoner and plaything on New Caprica.

— I haven’t studied a biology or anthropology textbook in decades, but doesn’t making Hera Mitochondrial Eve mean that only her survivors have lived on? Meaning she truly was the key to human and Cylon survival? Good thing Adama changed his mind about rescuing her.

— I hope Hollywood casting agents won’t pigeonhole the stars of the show, because many of the leads—McDonnell, Olmos, Hogan, Sackhoff, Park and Callis, among others—would be an asset to any kind of television series or movie.

What are your thoughts on the series finale?

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‘Galactica’ review: It takes a battlestar to save a child

Posted in Battlestar Galactica, Fantasy/sci-fi, TV shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

My first thought when Friday night’s “Battlestar Galactica” began with a look at Caprica City before the fall: What the frak? This is the second-to-last episode, and I want to know what’s going on now. I want to watch what happens as humanity’s last survivors say goodbye to the ship Galactica, which for fans has as much sentimental value as any of the beloved characters.

But as these vignettes unfolded, I became drawn into the deceptively happy lives of Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) and Gaius Baltar (James Callis) before the Cylon nuclear attack reduced the planet’s population to a mere 50,298. A healthy, youthful-looking Roslin throws a baby shower for her pregnant younger sister. A blissful Kara plays domestic goddess in the kitchen for dinner with her fiancé Zak and his brother, Lee. Gaius embarks on a high-class seduction of Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer), complete with stretch limousine and loads of liquor. Eventually, Lee staggers home quite inebriated from his first meeting with Kara, only to swat at a pigeon fluttering around his apartment.

The serene snapshots don’t last long. We learn that Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos) didn’t want the job of helming Galactica. Roslin receives the news from police that her father and two sisters were killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. In between bouts of womanizing, Gaius takes care of his cantankerous father, who has just stabbed his nurse with a steak knife. We recoil as an angry, embarrassed Gaius insults his father, with Caprica Six as distressed witness before he asks her to leave.

Why are we being shown these poignant scenes? Because to arrive at the end, often we must reflect on our beginnings. And despite the epic nature of the TV show—“Battlestar Galactica” is such a harbinger of our future, it’s a frakkin’ United Nations panel discussion Tuesday—David Eick and Ronald D. Moore know that it’s the small moments in life that define us. And in a move evocative of the storytelling device that makes “Lost” so compelling and successful, the episode continues to cut between the present and the past.

“Daybreak: Part 1” functions mostly as a setup to next week’s two-hour season finale, where Adama and those brave enough to follow him undertake a mission to rescue the daughter of Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) and Athena (Grace Park). Since Hera’s abduction by the duplicitous and increasingly torn Boomer, we haven’t seen much of Helo and Athena, but the occasional peek into their private quarters divulges just how devastated they are by her loss, and how broken their relationship is. I’ve always liked Helo—his sense of intregrity is part of his charm—but I feel for Athena, who was forced to be a voyeur while Helo and Boomer played where to house his Raptor for the night. It’s understandable that Athena’s not quickly getting over this unintentional betrayal, especially when her husband’s infidelity led to the loss of their child.

Another important moment takes place in the brig between Helo and Chief (Aaron Douglas), who sought punishment for his role in Boomer’s escape. Helo is trying to convince Chief that even though they look alike, the Number Eights are not carbon copies of each other. A bitter Chief tells Helo all the Sharons are the same—machines you can’t trust. “She’s a blow-up doll, Karl,” he says.

Ouch. These two men once came together to save Athena from rape, but they’re on opposite sides of the brig now, as well as on opposite sides of the argument about whether Cylons are capable of having human emotions. (I vote yes. Athena and Caprica Six are just as emotionally vulnerable as the rest of the fleet, and anyone who doesn’t see that is a frakkin’ idiot.)

It’s interesting to note that while giving his speech to the assembly on the hangar deck—and certainly we don’t hear the full speech—Adama doesn’t appeal to philosophical questions about humans and Cylons. He simply states a child has been abducted from the ship recently. He didn’t sanction a search mission because he considered it impractical. But through gossip in different parts of the ship, it’s revealed that Adama has discovered where Hera is being held. During a scene the rest of the fleet isn’t privy to—only Starbuck—Adama learns the Colony’s location by questioning Sam Anders the hybrid (Michael Trucco).

Chief may now view the Sharons as duplicates of each other, but Adama knows better. He has grown to love and trust Athena, much as he once loved and trusted Boomer before she shot him. He’s a man who’s had to evolve and grow at an alarming rate in this late stage of his life when he should have been retired, and he has the kind of valor that we normally associate with warriors of old. But Adama is a fighter with a heart. It’s a photo of a smiling Athena hugging Hera on the wall—left behind—that directs Adama on his path, the path that Laura Roslin has been gently nudging him toward since last week’s quixotic “Islanded in a Stream of Stars.”

Like President Roslin, Admiral Adama has a way with words—even simple ones—and he manages to stir enough of the crew to carry out what he himself deems a one-way trip. Most of those who cross the red taped line to join the rescue force aren’t much of a surprise: Lee, Ellen (Kate Vernon) and Tigh (Michael Hogan), Caprica Six, Chief and Tory (Rekha Sharma). Kara is already standing there, and I’m assuming that although you don’t see him, Helo is not going to sit this one out; I’m not so sure about Athena, who is shattered and hopeless. These are the people most vested in finding the half-human, half-Cylon Hera. But I didn’t expect Hot Dog (Bodie Olmos, youngest son of Edward James Olmos) or Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes), whom Adama sends back. Even the greatest military leader in the fleet knows they can’t afford to lose a doctor.

Once Caprica Six crosses over, she and Gaius seem to share some significant glances. It makes sense that they still have a connection. Gaius may have have never dreamt about the Opera House, but we know that he is there in the visions, along with Hera, Athena, Roslin and Caprica Six. In the aftermath of his heated discussion with Lee, where he petitions for a seat on the Quorum, contending the sheer numbers of his faction warrant it, and Lee asks him to name one selfless sacrifice, you expect Gaius to step over the red line. He doesn’t. You can see his internal struggle—he even moves a shoulder in the right direction—but it looks pathetic when you watch the visibly ill Roslin slowly make her way to the front after leaving the sick bay.

Still, this is the only episode where I felt anything for Gaius other than disgust or reluctant amusement. I felt pity as he is forced to deal with his belligerent parent. The debonair Gaius is out of his element when it comes to controlling his father. “Now shut up! You’re in enough trouble already!” he screams before turning to the nurse, who is leaving. “I’ll take away all the knives. He’ll be on a liquid diet forever.” But for all his verbal flogging of his father, Gaius sends Caprica Six away because he doesn’t trust his father to be on his own all evening. He loves him. And that capacity for love—real love, not just a sexual one—may be Gaius’ one redeeming quality in the days to come.

Last thoughts

Watching the crew strip down Battlestar Galactica was painful. It was like watching Carrie Bradshaw pack away all her clothes in “Sex and the City: The Movie.” (Yes, a girl can enjoy sci-fi and strappy sandals.)

What’s going on with Hot Dog’s baby? He’s very large, like the Bamm-Bamm Rubble of outer space. Are we sure it’s not Chief’s?

Does anyone else think it’s weird that Adama’s most trusted advisers now include, besides Lee, Kara and Tigh, who make sense, Ellen, Tory and Chief? Especially on this last mission? What about Hela and Athena?

One of the creepiest scenes: Little Hera, surrounded by her scary new playmates. With the exception of Boomer, she’s in the company of the most unattractive Cylons: Cavil (Dean Stockwell), Doral (Matthew Bennett) and Simon (Rick Worthy). Maybe that’s why they’re so intent on destroying humanity. They’re upset with the genetic cards they were specifically dealt.

“Dots, lots and lots and lots of dots,” Cavil observes as Hera draws, obviously not connecting the dots as Kara now would. Hera’s drawings obviously mean something. “Let’s get a tube in her and get her ready.”

The scene ends with a sound akin to the drill at the dentist, and you start to really worry about the lengths to which the three Cylon ogres will go to uncrack her genetic code. I guess we have to wait until next week to find out. Frak.

‘SATC’ withdrawal not getting any easier after five years

Posted in Fashion, Sex and the City with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

So they’re filming the next cinematic installment of “Sex and the City” this fall. Can’t say I’m too excited. Yes, I adore Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her three New York glamazons—and of course I’ll make a trip to the theater to see the movie—but it’s just not the same when three of the four main characters are married. Unfortunately, I don’t have any alternatives. Those of us who long to view candid, funny, and occasionally poignant depictions of female single life have been sorely disappointed by what’s come after the “SATC” TV show.

In the five years since the series ended, its fans—women who love their shoes as much as professional advancement and who believe female empowerment includes sexual freedom—have had to endure such inferior tripe as “Lipstick Jungle” and “Cashmere Mafia,” neither of which really made it past one season. I wonder what made the shows fail more: the lack of chemistry among its female leads or the PG rating its writers had to abide by. Bill Cosby might disagree, but trying to honestly convey the messy, complicated but thrilling lives of single women without swear words or sex scenes just isn’t possible.

sex-and-the-city-tv-p99

I turned on “My Boys” once, which has its core a strong female character surrounded by guys—hence the title—but I was turned off by the lanky Jordana Spiro. She doesn’t have the stellar fashion sense, introspective musings and “everywoman” appeal of SJP, who has been charming audiences since her days on “Square Pegs.” (Spiro also has an oddly gruff voice that makes her sound like one of the boys too.)

I regularly tuned into “Desperate Housewives” in its first season but eventually grew bored of the domestic struggles and family life. This is “Sex and the City” after the honeymoon; it’s the kind of existence you picture Laney Berlin (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) from “The Baby Shower” episode leading in the well-to-do suburbs of Connecticut. I’d rather, as Samantha (Kim Cattrall) does in that episode, throw an “I don’t have a baby” shower party. Another flaw on Wisteria Lane? “Desperate Housewives,” which spawned an annoying reel of reality show knockoffs, lacks the heart that elevates “SATC” above other she-centric television fare.

If I were a decade younger, “Gossip Girl” could be considered a contender with its fashion-forward focus and bed-hopping socialites, but like Samantha being alarmed by 13-year-old Jenny Brier and her over-sexed friends in “Hot Child in the City,” I’m a bit taken aback by adolescent sex addicts on basic television. “Gossip Girl” is aimed at the tween and teen set, and although the actors are undoubtedly older than the characters they are playing, I have no desire to engage in this kind of voyeurism. Plus, all the backstabbing is unattractive. I’ve already lived through “Beverly Hills, 90210”—the original—and still haven’t recovered from the betrayal of Kelly (Jennie Garth) seducing best friend Brenda’s (Shannen Doherty) boyfriend, Dylan (Luke Perry).

On the occasions that I tuned into “Girlfriends,” which centered on four African-American women in Los Angeles, I found the show to be tolerable, even amusing sometimes, but it’s more parody than dramedy. There may be some stereotyping on “SATC,” but Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) are not caricatures. Ever.

Despite the multitude of storylines involving sex, love and relationships, “SATC” is not a soap opera. Carrie and her gal pals may be seeking many of the same things—well, actually, Samantha is only ever on the lookout for her Next Good Time—but they’re not stepping over each other in their high-heeled Jimmy Choos to achieve them. They’re the best of friends. And that’s what I feel like I’ve lost: a best friend.

‘Battlestar Galactica’ review: Adama, Starbuck finally wake up

Posted in Battlestar Galactica, Fantasy/sci-fi, TV shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

It’s comforting to know that even when the end is near—the end of a journey, the end of a battlestar, the end of the best frakkin’ TV show out there—alcohol will be available. Adama (Edward James Olmos) basically opens and concludes this third-to-last episode of “Battlestar Galactica” with a drink in his hand. “Islanded in a Stream of Stars,” although not as powerful as “Sometimes a Great Notion,” action-packed as “Blood on the Scales” or illuminating as “No Exit,” delivers in that it actually moves the story along. And we need the pacing to pick up, because only two episodes remain before this four-season series goes off—hopefully none too gently—into that starry night.

A quick recap: Hera, the only Cylon child, is gone, taken by the duplicitous Boomer (Grace Park). Liam, the son of Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer), died in the womb. Ellen, the last member of the Final Five to be revealed, was resurrected and has rejoined the fleet. Anders (Michael Trucco), shot in the head during the uprising attempted by Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) and Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch), remains catatonic. Oh, and in addition to earth turning out to be an inhabitable wasteland—and the graveyard for Starbuck’s body—Galactica is falling apart.

“Islanded in a Stream of Stars”—really, what a gorgeously poetic name—starts off with an impromptu gathering: Tigh, Ellen (Kate Vernon), Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Tory (Rekha Sharma) trying to convince Adama and Lee (Jamie Bamber) to go after Hera. But this would mean a confrontation with Cavil (Dean Stockwell), and Adama has had enough of destiny and prophecy. He’s seen the bitter disappointment it’s created in his lover, President Roslin (Mary McDonnell).

Much like his ship, Adama is exhausted and beat-up. He still hasn’t recovered from the shock of seeing Boomer again—the Eight who shot him twice in the chest and nearly killed him. He would rather smoke weed in the hospital ward while visiting Roslin (who at least does it for medicinal purposes) than think of ways to solve the problems before him.

At least Roslin has her head on straight. Or maybe it’s the pot’s influence. She doesn’t come across as much of an authority figure lying in the hospital bed—who can forget Laura “I’m coming for all of you” Roslin?—but her words still carry weight with Adama. “I know you love this ship—you probably love her more than you love me—but Bill, if you don’t get us off of this ship, you may lose both of us at the same time. Why don’t you give us a chance?”

Cylon sacrifice

While working on repairing the ship’s hull, two people get into a verbal altercation: a male human and one of the Sixes. Ironically enough, it’s an Eight who puts a halts their bickering. But seconds later, such squabbles become meaningless as a hole in the hull rips wide open and people literally have to hold on for their lives. It’s a Cylon—the very one insulted by the male human—who saves his life and offers up her own in exchange for the salvation of everyone else. That’s an important act of bravery here, as well as a sign of hope for better race relations, but Adama doesn’t single it out for recognition during the funeral for the 61 dead crew members. Maybe he’s not ready to look too kindly upon his new allies. Or maybe he’s unaware of what happened. Maybe the show’s writers want to make the point that great deeds often go unrecorded and unrewarded.

We’re left to wonder: Does the Cylon give up her life because her race is accustomed to working for the greater good of their species and not taking into account individual choices or desires? Or is it simple as she forgot she can no longer resurrect?

Throw him out of the airlock already

I might be in the minority, but I wish someone would toss Gaius Baltar (James Callis) into space. I’m tired of his limpid, weepy eyes and the spiritual drivel he spews nightly on his wireless communicator to his flock and whoever else is willing—and weak enough—to listen. His attempts to reach out to Caprica Six, who apparently has no home after the return of Ellen and the loss of Liam, are construed by her as him trying to resume their previous relationship. But Caprica Six has come a long way—does anyone else remember when she murdered that baby in the market during one of the early episodes?—and she rebuffs his advances, not wishing to join his “harem.” This coming from Six, the Cylon model most associated with sexual manipulation? I almost jumped to my feet and applauded.

But I’ll admit Gaius has a useful function in this episode. It’s easy to forget amid all his rambling excuses and pathetic yet successful schemes for self-preservation that he is a very intelligent, talented scientist. When Kara tells Gaius in the bathroom that she saw her own dead body on earth—for reasons that don’t make sense other than the fact she must have been bursting to let the news out—there is both annoyance and relief. Annoyance she chooses as her confidante the man who betrayed his whole race for a few good romps in bed; relief that she finally shares her secret with someone other than Leoben, who witnessed the eerie scene and then ran off. (Where is this particular Cylon, by the way? We haven’t seen much of him since then.)

During the funeral services for the workers, Gaius announces you don’t have to be a Cylon to come back to life and points to Kara Thrace. We now know Gaius tests the blood on the dog tags Kara gives him and discovers that while the DNA is indeed her blood, it comes from a dead body. While Adama yells at everyone to disband and threatens to throw Baltar in the brig, Kara marches up to Gaius and slaps him—an unusual reaction from the Never Miss Dainty Starbuck. We expect Kara to stick a knife in his ribs, or at the very least slug him. But a slap? I guess you have to improvise when there isn’t a martini glass nearby. Kara should have stood closer to Adama; she could have flung the contents of his flask in Baltar’s face.

See? Boomer’s got a heart

I wondered when Boomer would start showing her true self. I wondered when we’d catch a glimpse into her soul. I wondered if she made up the dream house with Chief (Aaron Douglas) just to trick him into helping her to complete her mission, or if she had always used that fantasy landscape as an escape. Tonight, I got some answers.

In the beginning Boomer is cold and callous to Hera. She threatens to drug her again to stop her sniveling; Hera keeps tearfully repeating she wants her mommy. But just as Boomer is about to stick the needle in her, she decides to tell her about this place where she goes to make herself happy. She learns that Hera can follow her into this alternate reality, that she can project. She softens, and for the first time ever, she seems to look upon Hera as the daughter that could have been hers, the daughter that she wanted with Chief. And, for the first time ever, we learn that, in addition to having strange curly hair and abnormally rosy cheeks, Hera possesses powers similar to the full-blooded Cylons. This aspect of the show hasn’t been explored before; it’s only been hinted at, with Roslin, Caprica Six and Athena sharing the visions of Hera running around in an opera house. The show will undoubtedly culminate in such a setting (and it’s going to sound like a rock concert if “All Along the Watchtower” is the background music).

I had hoped Boomer would turn the raptor around and return Hera to her parents, but that was maudlin thinking on my part. Boomer can’t go back; she can only go forward to Cavil (Dean Stockwell) and aid him in his vile plans. If she flew the raptor back to the fleet, this time the Adama-Roslin administration really would execute her, and she’s not courageous enough to walk to her own death. We saw that in the first season, when she knew something was wrong with her but she didn’t tell anyone.

Burning question: Will Boomer be to Hera what Wormtail was to Harry Potter? J.K. Rowling was able to show us that a moment’s hesitation can make a big difference in which side wins the war. Boomer hands Hera over to Cavil, but she doesn’t want to.

Creepy factor: Since his tirades against humanity and his own human form in “No Exit,” Cavil has left an indelible impression on audiences. Stockwell plays the part well; he’s no longer that helpful hologram I remember from “Quantum Leap.” The sight of him holding Hera makes me shudder. What exactly does Cavil mean when he tells Hera she’ll have all sorts of playmates soon? Will he clone her? Or is he talking specifically about resurrection technology? Do any of his machinations involve killing her? And I can’t help but remember Ellen’s taunt to a pregnant Caprica Six that Simon would love to get his hands on her baby. Simon sided with Cavil and must be aboard the ship. Those two men should never be allowed to be around children. Ever.

This is the end

Two people awaken from their self-induced comas tonight: Starbuck and Aadama. Starbuck, because her secret coming to light frees her in a sense to do what she needs to do. Adama, because he always knows what is the right thing to do, even if it’s not his first instinct to do it. The point is, these characters, who in the past have excelled in emergency situations, are both doing something instead of walking around in a drunken daze, as they have throughout most of the second half of the fourth season.

Lee comes over to Starbuck as she stands by the wall covered with photos of dead people—the casualties of this war with the Cylons. He gives his support to her, as he’s always done, and she smiles—she smiles in such a heartbreakingly sweet way that you’d think Lee would now know enough to be suspicious. His wife, Dee (Kandyse McClure), smiled at him like that, even kissed him, before going into the locker room and shooting herself in the head. If he doesn’t remember that, the show’s writers want to make sure we do. After Lee walks away, Kara pins a photo of herself on the wall next to Dee.

Starbuck has no intention of killing herself, though. She’s first and foremost a fighter. What she wants to do, though, may risk the fleet. She visits Sam, who aboard Galactica has been hooked up to the main power grid of the ship like they do with hybrids. She reconnects him to the main power grid, not caring that Tigh ordered him unplugged so he wouldn’t jump the ship, as the hybrids are prone to do when sensing danger. She wants to solve the mystery of “All Along the Watchtower”—the song Sam supposedly wrote, that her father taught her to play in her childhood, whose notes Hera drew on a piece of paper that otherwise looks like a string of stars. Kara doesn’t always do the smart thing, but she doesn’t shy away from action. We want the mystery solved too. We want to know who Kara is and what her role is in the greater scheme of things. We’ve been waiting for answers ever since Kara rejoined the fleet.

Adama has his own epiphany of sorts, an emotional upheaval that leaves him clear of thought and sure of purpose. He has a breakdown, where he starts flinging white paint on the walls and himself and eventually slides down to the floor crying. It’s a weird scene, perhaps unnecessary, but briefly giving up control provides a much-needed release for the tightly coiled Adama.

After his emotional hailstorm, Adama washes his face in his bathroom and when he looks up, his second-in-command is there: Adama briskly informs Tigh he’s made some decisions. He doesn’t reveal them all—some are implied—but he states he’s stopping all the repairs on the ship. They’re abandoning ship, he says. Tigh, who earlier argued with Ellen over where his true loyalties lie, doesn’t want to give up on Galactica, but he bows to Adama’s wishes. After all, Adama has just called him the finest friend and officer he’s ever known. The words probably made Tigh tingle in a place we don’t want to know about.

When Adama pours them drinks and says they are going to send her off in style, Tigh knows exactly what he’s talking about. And the previews for next week’s episode hint that Adama will fight Cavil over Hera and the fate of humans and Cylons alike.

“She was a grand old lady,” Tigh remininisces.

“To Galactica, the best ship in the fleet,” Adama replies.

Hear, hear.

Women’s History Month: Good time to catch up on good reads

Posted in Books, Fantasy/sci-fi with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

There’s something immensely satisfying about knowing the most popular book series of all time—I’m talking about Harry Potter, of course—was penned by a woman. Oh, I can already hear the naysayers deploring that “these are only children’s books, so who cares?”—they’re not—or that “accomplishments shouldn’t be categorized by gender.” Well, they shouldn’t, but they are.

We don’t live in a genderless society, here in America and, well, most of the world. We live in a male-dominated one, and many achievements are considered such because they can be attributed to a man. Why? Because for centuries, men were the only citizens with power.

I celebrate Women’s History Month because it’s a noble attempt, however limited in scope, to promote awareness and recognition of female contributions, at least for the duration of March. One of the most powerful vehicles any individual can have is a voice, and that’s why I prefer to show my support for my fellow women by investing in their work. In other words, I buy books written by women. I buy books written by men as well, but I make a concerted effort to seek out female authors year-round. I especially pay attention to fantasy and sci-fi, as female characters play a prominent role in these worlds (just think of Starbuck and President Roslin in “Battlestar Galactica”).

So here’s my list of my top fantasy/sci-fi books, written by women but hopefully not exclusively for female enjoyment. I like to think good literature can be appreciated by both sexes. I have not ranked these books, since the job would prove extremely difficult for a bibliophile such as myself.

Mary Doria Russell
“The “Sparrow” and “The Children of God”

Despite the recognizable premise—first contact with an alien civilization—this two-part series set in the future resonates on an anthropological scale level besides making a worthy contribution to the sci-fi genre. One of the main themes is how cultural misunderstandings between well-intentioned people can result in tragedy, which makes even the idea of an ethnography study sound too perilous to ever pull off. The central character, Father Emilio Sandoz of the Jesuit order, is the only one from the original crew to return to earth, although he is greatly damaged in body and spirit. The first book alternates between the story of the expedition and Sandoz’s interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest. The second book gives even more insight into what really happened on the planet Rakhat and further underscores Russell’s central theme. Russell is obviously a brilliant woman with extensive knowledge of music and mathematics, and she writes with clarity and understated elegance. But here’s a warning: These books are emotionally wrenching. When I gave it to a former boss years ago for Christmas, she told me she would have to take a break before tackling the sequel.

Mary Piercy
“He, She and It”

Fellow feminist Marcy Piercy is a poet, novelist and social activist. Be prepared to be challenged by her provocative thinking. “He, She and It”—quite possibly one of my favorite books, along with Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”—examines gender roles, human identity and artificial intelligence, environmentalism and the economy, through a love story between a human woman and the cyborg created to protect her hometown from corporate raiders, all of which takes place against a backdrop of post-apocalyptic America. Yes, it’s that deep and compelling. In contrast to this futuristic vision of the world and the role the Internet plays in it are interwoven elements of Jewish mysticism and the legend of the Golem. I think that’s what I like best: a conformity-oriented, corporate-driven society juxtaposed with a rich cultural history steeped in ethnic tradition and mythology. It’s a road we’ve already started on, with the emphasis we’ve given to the business world. Perhaps the only thing keeping us human in the future will be an ancestry that corporate America will be continually trying to obliterate. 

Rosemary Kirstein
“The Steerwoman’s Road”

 
If you ask, she will answer. If she asks, you must reply—or face a lifelong ban from her and her sisters. What a wonderful concept. I love the idea of these Steerswomen—and some Steersmen—traveling the world in search of knowledge, with the goal of sharing information with anyone for free. Now that’s democracy. “The Steerswoman’s Road,” which includes the first two volumes of the series, follows the highly intelligent, inquisitive Rowan on her journey as she seeks to discover the truth behind a small blue gem. Her curiosity about this geological oddity lands her in life-threatening trouble quite a few times, as well as gains her the loyalty and companionship of Bel, a warrior poet from a barbarian land known as the Outskirts. These women are strong and courageous in different ways, and they will easily find a place in your heart.

Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley
Whatever they pen (that’s not the title of a book, it’s just a statement of fact)

Whenever one of these women comes out with a book, I buy it regardless of what any reviewer writes. In fact, I’ve stopped reading reviews for them. They’re that good. From a writer’s perspective, McKillip is simply the most astonishing author I’ve ever read. Her writing is so gorgeous and graceful, I feel like every sentence is a lyrical gem. I love all of her books, but my favorites include “Alphabet of Thorn,” “Od Magic,” “Ombria in Shadow, “Winter Rose” and “Cygnet.” This woman could probably make a laundry list or bowel movement sound captivating and poetic. As for McKinley, I’ve followed McKinley’s her career since devouring within days “The Hero and the Crown” and then “The Blue Sword.” Much like McKillip, McKinley’s books have fairy tale elements. “Deerskin”—an unflinching tale of incest and rape, survival and recovery—in particular comes to mind

Kathleen Duey
“Skin Hunger”

Harry Potter, this is not. There’s plenty of danger and excitement in the Harry Potter world, but there’s also hope and love. In Duey’s darkly atmospheric, morbid novel, the first in a planned trilogy called A Resurrection of Magic, there is no hope and there is hardly any love. The children forced to attend this school of wizardry are starved to death if they can’t conjure up food or learn their lessons properly. The book centers on two characters told from different time periods: Sadima, a young woman grappling with her powers and her yearning to be loved and accepted, and Hahp, an unwanted son of nobility born generations later. You’ll find “Skin Hunger” in the young adult section, but it seems more appropriate for a funereal section, given the amount of death and despair between its pages. That said, I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, “Sacred Scars,” which is expected to come out in August (one month after the next Harry Potter movie is released—it’s going to be a good summer!).

J.V. Jones
“The Barbed Coil”

A magical ring known as the barbed coil transports shy, troubled Tessa McCamfrey from her present-day life here on earth to an alternate reality filled with magic and peril. With the help of Lord Ravis, she navigates the Kingdom of Raize, meets Cameron of Thorn and becomes involved with the other two in a mission to save the land from the armies of Garizon. What really makes this book stand out is the use of art—specifically magical illuminations like those of medieval manuscripts—to cast spells. The descriptions of these illuminations are fascinating and make you wish the book was illustrated. I also highly recommend The Book of Words trilogy by Jones.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman
“A Fistful of Sky”

 
Set the story around a frumpy young woman overshadowed by her siblings, throw in some magic in an otherwise conventional reality, and you have an enchanting formula in this offering from the prosaic Nina Kiriki Hoffman. The Lazelle family of southern California can do magic. In their teen years, they undergo a process ominously dubbed The Transition: a severe illness that will either kill you or leave you with magical powers. If you’re lucky, you gain a talent like shape-changing or wish-granting. If you’re not lucky, you die. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Gypsum Lazelle hasn’t undergone The Transition yet. She resigns herself to a boring, magic-bereft existence as a college student—one day she becomes gravely ill while her family is away. It’s a delightful coming-of-age story for those of us who want our adolescent angst made even more complicated by the presence of magic.

Sharon Shinn
Samaria series

Picture a world where angels abuse their power, swear and have sex. If that’s not an interesting premise, I don’t know what it is. Sharon Shinn has created a land where angels not only live beside humans, they cohabitate with them. Contrary to what some believe, angels are mortals—just genetically enhanced ones. They live on Samaria, a planet settled by colonists from a different planet some time ago. The colonists journeyed to Samaria on a spaceship named Jehovah, which possesses artificial intelligence and can modify weather patterns, send medicinal drugs or rain down death, giving the illusion of an omnipotent god. Eventually Jehovah is worshipped as a deity, with only a select few knowing and discovering the truth. In this religion, angels are considered superior beings because they can fly close to the heavens and sing the populace’s needs to Jehovah. From the very first couple—Gabriel and Rachel—to the last—Obadiah and Rebekah—I found myself fascinated by the romantic entanglements between angel and human. Shinn has a nice way with words and is particularly skilled at creating intriguing and endearing characters.

Edith Pattou
“East”

Edith Pattou’s “East,” set in Norway,” is a charming retelling of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” combined with elements from “Beauty and the Beast.” I love a well-told fairy tale, especially reimagined ones. Told from multiple viewpoints, “East” focuses on the adventures of Nymah Rose, the last daughter of eight children born to a poor mapmaker and his superstitious wife, as she leaves home on a dangerous quest to learn love, lose it and rediscover it through perseverance and resourcefulness. Pattou, whose works include “Hero’s Song” and its sequel, “Fire Arrow,” shows a new maturity and richness in her writing here.

Cecilia Dart-Thornton
The Bitterbynde trilogy

This is a phenomenonal series reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—I can picture LOTR purists groaning, but Dart-Thornton’s creation is that epic, if not that originalset in the world of Erith, where an unnamed and unknown character falls into a thicket of paradox ivy and becomes horribly deformed. Rescued by an old and bitter woman, the foundling is then raised as a slave in the Isse Tower. But in this world, where faerie reigns supreme, nothing is as it seems, and as the ill-made mute discovers its real identity—and gender, for that matter—the story deepens in complexity and richness. Dart-Thornton has a vivid imagination as most fantasists do, and although I haven’t liked her subsequent books as much as I have “The Ill-Made Mute,” “The Lady of Our Sorrows’ and “The Battle of Evernight,” I will forever own this trilogy