book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.

Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.

I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.

One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.

Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.

So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).

game review: pandemic

Friday was our last SLAIS potluck for a majority of the cohort of students I began library school with, and our friend Jonathan (who isn’t graduating just yet) brought boardgames. He always brings games. It’s good to have him around. One of the games he brought was Pandemic, a game of trying to save the world from ravaging epidemics through science and cooperation (you do not need to be a scientist to play Pandemic).

There are four strains of disease which are spreading around the world. To win you have to cure all four strains while keeping the diseases you haven’t cured from spreading around the globe. The board is a map of Earth, with major world cities as the sites of infection. One side effect of this play area is that there’s a bit of an American bias, since they get a pile of cities to cover North America, while Asia gets about the same number. So it’s not quite as realistic as it might be. It didn’t bother us too much, except when we noticed the casual disregard we had for certain areas (“Meh, Justin can handle Asia” was a common comment). Also, the assumption that we’re all American researchers from the CDC in Atlanta is a little ethnocentric.

In the game, every player has a different role and special rules. I was an operations manager, which meant I could build research stations more easily, and you need research stations to research cures to the diseases. Megan was a dispatcher, helping move our scientists around to hotspots, Kerry was a troubleshooter, and Jessie was a generalist so she just got a few more actions per turn.

The way the game works is a player does some stuff, draws some mostly helpful cards (which if they run out means you lose the game) and then flips cards that tell you what cities have been infected next. Every time a city is infected, it gets a cube of the disease’s colour. To cure a disease you need one player to have 5 cards of the disease’s colour in the same city as a research station. This makes the game a careful balancing of shifting people around and collecting cards. You never have quite enough resources to do everything you need to.

While some players are working on collecting cards to cure a disease, some people need to be temporarily getting rid of disease cubes in infected cities. You need to keep those numbers down because if a city has three disease cubes of the same colour and a fourth needs to be added, it instead spreads to all the cities connected to it. If that would push any of those cities over 3 cubes, disease explodes again. It’s fucking terrifying.

Adding to the stress is the way Epidemic cards make you reshuffle the cities that have already been infected and put them on top of the deck to draw more from. These epidemic cards come up randomly and can have a huge impact in making you see a city get infected a pile of times in what seems like a row (our early hot zone was Milan). It’s a great mechanic for upping the tension and Pandemic is definitely filled with tension. I completely loved it.

It’s difficult. We ended up winning, but discovered we’d been cheating by having a few too many expansion cards in our deck, which gave us a few extra cards worth of time to cure all the diseases.