Review: The Crimson Campaign

The Crimson Campaign (Powder Mage, #2)The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This trilogy is definitely turning out to be one of those 1 book broken up into 3 trilogies than a series of stories following the main characters. The last book was a slightly cleaner break, but still ended with a lot still unresolved. This one, on the other hand, ends on a cliffhanger….well on a cliff….a mountain. Almost nothing is resolved in this book. Although one of the plots was, thankfully, resolved; that’s a good thing because I don’t think the protagonist involved in that plot could take much more.

As the middle of a narrative, it’s hard to write a review that isn’t spoiler-filled, but I’d like to focus on a few things that I think this book does very well compared to a lot of other fantasy and military fiction I’ve read. First of all, I like that this book deals with PTSD in more of a realistic way than most fiction. It’s not normal to just kill lots of others and get through that trauma without issues. I don’t know what happened in the Greek and Roman times, but in more modern times, most men (and, later on, women) haven’t had an easy time of it. One of the ways to cope is with drugs and McClellan has a character spend time in an period-appropriate fantasy equivalent of an opium den. I don’t think all our media needs necessarily have all the characters get shell-shocked, but having some more representation is a good thing. If anything else, it tempers some of the “excitement” that can end up being glorification of violence.

Second, I think McClellan does a good job of making use of a world that doesn’t have cell phones or even telegraph lines. A lot of the characters find themselves in plots that wouldn’t happen if everyone had perfect knowledge of what was happening around the world. It was quite the reminder of how spoiled we’ve become. (And makes me think of this article from 9 years ago about 10 classic Seinfeld episodes that fall apart if they have cell phones: https://gizmodo.com/10-classic-seinfe…)

Finally, a topic that has been discussed over the past 10 years (or more?) – rape narratives. There’s a tension in writing a violent narrative. On the one hand, rape is a real thing that happens to real people (both men and women) and if you see the phrase ” _____ and pillage” you know what the first word is. It’s a real issue during wars – both ancient and modern. But, on the other hand, writers have been so lazy for so long: Does your Hero need a reason to be moved to action? Rape or Kill his significant other! (see women in fridges: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.ph…) I *think* McClelland does a good job balancing things across these two entries in the trilogy. It’s a real threat that a few of the women characters deal with (including wondering if the cost of being helped is an expectation to bed the helper), but it’s not something that ends up happening. I think that keeps it realistic while not having to resort to tired tropes or retraumatize readers who may have gone through that in real life. I could be way off base here, but compared to other similar situations I’ve read in other books where the writers took the lazy out, I prefer this way.

Overall, McClellan continues an exciting war narrative in a world full of magic that is in a period of transition from monarchy to some kind of Republic or Democracy.

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Web Browsers Update: Vivaldi on Windows Part 2 and Firefox

This post continues a series on exploring new browsers:

Vivaldi

I’ve been meaning to get to this post for a while now, but the recent Vivaldi update blog post spurred me to go ahead and write it. Vivaldi continues to do a decent job for me on Windows. As I’ve been planning on posting, I don’t do much web browsing on Windows. It’s mostly just uploading videos to YouTube and looking up various sites related to the games I’m playing. Pretty much any browser could fit in there. That said, in Vivaldi’s blog post they have a video demonstrating their new pause mode and before they pause things, they have the tabs tiled. I had completely forgotten that was a thing! It would have changed the way I did my FunkWhale vs Ampache video. That is, of course, a common issue with Vivaldi (and its predecessor, Opera). It has a million features and if you aren’t always making use of them, it’s easy to forget about them.

A grid of 3 Vivaldi tabs

Firefox

One of the big themes with Opera was always being the first (or one of the first) with various web features (like tabs), but having them made famous by others. Looks like the trend continues with Vivaldi (Opera’s successor – although Opera does live on as a Chinese company). I mentioned in the video from my Vivaldi Part 1 post that Vivaldi had the ability to send a video to another window like Picture-in-Picture in the original “Big Screen TVs” (back when I was a kid and what is a normal size TV now was HUUUUUGE). Then in July I got an email from Firefox that led to this blog post. Firefox had added Picture-in-Picture. I wonder if Vivaldi will continue to be the browser that comes up with all the features, but gets none of the love (in terms of user percentage).

That said, Firefox recently had to lay off a bunch of folks, leaving the future of Firefox, the Rust Programming language, and many other initiatives in limbo. I went to use Firefox Send the other day and found it disabled.

Where do we go from here?

While I continue to really enjoy Vivaldi, I’m not really taking too much of an advantage of its features on Windows. I think I’m going to move on to Brave on Windows to see how that fares. After that will be the new Cromium-powered Edge. I’m not in a rush and things are picking up at work as we move to normalize things as COVID-19 cases continue to fall in the state. But that should be the next update. As I mentioned last time, Vivaldi was more performant on my Laptop, but the twins have mostly been using my laptop to play Stardew Valley with each other (laptops and our HTPC) and so I haven’t had as much time on the laptop. My main desktop is my powerhouse, so I haven’t yet made any real changes there. I do have all the browsers installed on here, I just haven’t taken the time to mess around with them yet. I may save that for after I settle on my Windows default browser.

FunkWhale vs Ampache

One of the categories of software people often go to /r/selfhosted to ask about, is for software to host music. This has become even more important with the dissolution of Google Music and Amazon and others removing the ability to upload your own music to listen to. I’ve got some experience with both FunkWhale and Ampache, so I decided to create a video to compare and contrast the two.

Review: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those issues where I liked every story and every non-fiction essay. Read below for my thoughts per story.

A space of one’s own: a whimsical dystopia that reminds me of the Terry Gilliam film Brazil. I’m a world of overcrowding buildings can be resized and reconfigured.

Vault: another dystopia. This time there is a bit of a video game metaphor (at least to me) in the fact that the protagonists gain energy based on how many athletic tricks they do while traversing a planet. Explained away as causing their suits to collect more sunlight. The climax comes late, but could be an interesting universe for more stories.

The cosmonaut’s caretaker: An alternate future where the USSR still exists in a space-faring universe. The story takes some time to do world building, but expertly so, with practically no info dumps. Then it gets to the main thrust of the plot which involves our Captain’s current job when his post catches up to him. Didn’t want to stop reading until I was done.

Your multicolored life: this story definitely went places I didn’t expect with each of its protagonists, but it won me over by the end.

Heron of Earth: A post-human story unlike any I’ve ever read. It’s not about the trials and tribulations of becoming post-human. It’s not about whether we should do it. It’s more of a story that takes place after all that is over. It’s a short journey and I’m not even sure if it fulfills the MICE criteria. But it reads like a meditation and I’d like to see more of this world.

The Deeps of the Sky: An alien world in which insect-like creatures mine metals from a storm. It seems to take place on a Saturn or Jupiter-style planet where everything needs to live in the atmosphere and if there is a surface, it’s below a crushing amount of atmosphere. Another of those short stories that makes me desire more stories in the same universe.

Meridian: A SF version of what happens when a kid is put into the adoption system and it fails him. Made me sad to realize it’d probably continue to be a problem in the future. A good ending that doesn’t pander to the reader.

Non-Fiction:

The Effects of Space and Other Worlds on the Human Body: Going deeper than many popular articles I’ve read on the topic of the effects of space on the human body, it looks at how many different aspects of physiology and even baterial adaptation could affect our ability to expand beyond planet Earth.
Book covers, Moorcock, and The Mexicanx Initiative: A Conversation with John Picacio: A conversation with an artist who does book covers as well as other art about his history and his process.

Another Word: The Future, Ordinary: Cat Rambo takes some time to celebrate the SF that adheres to the trope “15 Minutes into the Future”. She talks about what we can take away from it, how it can help us think about how we structure society, and how it can make your stories out of date before they’re even published. As usual, Rambo’s prose does an excellent job of making me think and makes me think it would be delightful to have a conversation about SFF with them.

Editor’s Desk: A eulogy for Gardner Dozois, who, among among other things, was the reprints editor at Clarkesworld.


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Review: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those issues where I liked every story and every non-fiction essay. Read below for my thoughts per story.

A space of one’s own: a whimsical dystopia that reminds me of the Terry Gilliam film Brazil. I’m a world of overcrowding buildings can be resized and reconfigured.

Vault: another dystopia. This time there is a bit of a video game metaphor (at least to me) in the fact that the protagonists gain energy based on how many athletic tricks they do while traversing a planet. Explained away as causing their suits to collect more sunlight. The climax comes late, but could be an interesting universe for more stories.

The cosmonaut’s caretaker: An alternate future where the USSR still exists in a space-faring universe. The story takes some time to do world building, but expertly so, with practically no info dumps. Then it gets to the main thrust of the plot which involves our Captain’s current job when his post catches up to him. Didn’t want to stop reading until I was done.

Your multicolored life: this story definitely went places I didn’t expect with each of its protagonists, but it won me over by the end.

Heron of Earth: A post-human story unlike any I’ve ever read. It’s not about the trials and tribulations of becoming post-human. It’s not about whether we should do it. It’s more of a story that takes place after all that is over. It’s a short journey and I’m not even sure if it fulfills the MICE criteria. But it reads like a meditation and I’d like to see more of this world.

The Deeps of the Sky: An alien world in which insect-like creatures mine metals from a storm. It seems to take place on a Saturn or Jupiter-style planet where everything needs to live in the atmosphere and if there is a surface, it’s below a crushing amount of atmosphere. Another of those short stories that makes me desire more stories in the same universe.

Meridian: A SF version of what happens when a kid is put into the adoption system and it fails him. Made me sad to realize it’d probably continue to be a problem in the future. A good ending that doesn’t pander to the reader.

Non-Fiction:

The Effects of Space and Other Worlds on the Human Body: Going deeper than many popular articles I’ve read on the topic of the effects of space on the human body, it looks at how many different aspects of physiology and even baterial adaptation could affect our ability to expand beyond planet Earth.
Book covers, Moorcock, and The Mexicanx Initiative: A Conversation with John Picacio: A conversation with an artist who does book covers as well as other art about his history and his process.

Another Word: The Future, Ordinary: Cat Rambo takes some time to celebrate the SF that adheres to the trope “15 Minutes into the Future”. She talks about what we can take away from it, how it can help us think about how we structure society, and how it can make your stories out of date before they’re even published. As usual, Rambo’s prose does an excellent job of making me think and makes me think it would be delightful to have a conversation about SFF with them.

Editor’s Desk: A eulogy for Gardner Dozois, who, among among other things, was the reprints editor at Clarkesworld.


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New Dishes I Cooked in August 2020

chicken cacciatore

Just one new dish in August. We had lots of repeat foods, but only one new dish. As far as I know, I didn’t have it until I was an adult and visited my sister-in-law in Long Island. At their favorite Italian restuarant / pizza joint I ordered it once when we were on the restaurant side. This America’s Test Kitchen version was very tasty and I would definitely make it again. Danielle liked it too, but it wasn’t a MUST COOK AGAIN dish with her.

Review: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140 (Clarkesworld Magazine, #140)Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice balanced collection. My favorite was Cold Comfort. Below are my per story reviews and/or thoughts.

——-


A Vastness: A very interesting story of what we do when we’re so driven, we are willing to risk everything. And a great ending that was very unexpected. It felt a bit shorter than these usually are, so it was extra neat to have it work so well.


Not Now: A story about how messed up the media can be and how uncaring about those they’re covering. It focuses specially on how it can tear families apart.


Fleeing Oslyge: a war narrative about the psychology of attackers and victims by making the attackers aliens. Pretty harrowing and really makes me think even more about the consequences of war.


Farewell, Doraemon: A pretty deep story about growing up in the middle of nowhere, consequences of actions, and relationships. It takes place in China so the details are different, but it definitely has a lot of similar themes to American stories of going from the sticks to the big city and back. The SF elements are somewhat tangential to most of the story. So if you read it without wondering when it’s going to get SF, you’ll get more out of it.

Cold comfort: A story about a scientist willing to do what it takes to get their anti-climate change research to work. Had a surprisingly neat ending.

In panic town, on the backward moon: an alternate universe detective story on Mars. Fun prose and style.

Metallic mayhem in the movies: a history of Mecha in film and tv

Spies, radios, and the afterlife: The conversation goes a number is interesting places: what it’s like to be a bilingual author and have your work translated by someone else, the odd situation in the 1917 Russian revolution, and the afterlife.

Another word: Chinese Science fiction going abroad: a survey of the history of the translation of Chinese Science fiction. What I thought was interesting considering the size of China was how long it took Chinese SF to be translated and published outside of China. And after that it’s crazy how long it took to snowball in popularity.

Editor’s desk: a look at how Neil is working to increase the author pool for clarkesworld to be more diverse across national boundaries and other dimensions.

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Review: Rave Master Vol. 9

Rave Master Vol. 9Rave Master Vol. 9 by Hiro Mashima
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While this continues the shonen tropes of the hero who can’t be beaten just because of his “can-do” attitude, Mr. Mashima increases the stakes and gives a compelling story behind the rise of Demon Card and the paths of the two Gales. It even has a silly joke to make up for the ridiculous name “Demon Card”. Apparently it was supposed to be “Demon Guard” and a typo messed it up. I wonder if it’s one of those katakana/kanji jokes or not.

As for the plot, I found myself wondering how we could be at this point in the story at volume 9 out of (what i know in the future compared to when Mr. Mashima was writing it) 33 volumes. Turns out he was thinking about ending the story here so that he could work on another project. Then he decided to explore more of the world and continue the story. We’ll see if the new and different stakes make the plot work better, worse, or just the same.

Onto Vol 10….

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Review: Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2)Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m a huge world-building junkie. It’s one of the reasons I love science fiction and fantasy. And, as I realized while writing the previous sentence, it’s also why I love history non-fiction books and podcasts. I love learning about the society and what drives people to act the way they act. Humans are all human and have always had the same desires, but how those manifest and how we react to them are defined within our cultural contexts. An insult that might have demanded a duel in 1800s America might now simply result in a screed on Twitter. So, I loved the first book’s building up of Radchai culture. In the first book, the plot was almost incidental. It was a TRUE trilogy in that it reads, in retrospect, as the beginning of an incredibly long book.

This book, being the middle, proceeds with quite a bit stronger plot presence. It is STILL very strongly about culture and the intersection of colonialism and the conquered. It is STILL very much about how a strongly regimented etiquette system (as I’ve seen depicted in historical Britain and, to some degree, modern Japan) regulates what people can say and do in ways that Ms. Leckie uses to great effect. But the plot moves forward in a much more straightforward manner. Kind of….

Because this entry in the series is essentially a political thriller in a Robert Ludlum sense. Breq is sent on a mission by one half of Anaander Mianaai to a planet where he is unfamiliar and has no idea who to trust. Within that context a series of smaller mysteries have to be solved in the service of the larger mystery – all with very large consequences for the space station, the planet it orbits, and the system at large. (view spoiler)

As I mentioned in one of my status updates, between the insistence on drinking tea and the intense feelings of superiority of the Rachai over those they’ve conquered and their inability to even attempt to distinguish various subcultures in the planets they’ve conquered, draws a stark parallel with the British and the way they wreaked havok on the world that we’re still reaping the consequences for; namely the way they created random countries in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian Sub-continent. Although, their constant use of “Citizen” also feels perhaps Roman. And it does seem that they are having trouble due to over-expansion, as the Romans did.

If there’s one final thing, it’s that it was incredibly spooky to read this book in the wake of the George Floyd protests. This book was published in 2014, which means it was probably done writing and in the publisher’s hands at the beginning of 2014 or end of 2013. And yet, it had the following parts in it that each made me almost drop the Kobo in shock as if Ms. Leckie was reaching into the future when she wrote the book.

First scene, one of the minorities on the station had an interaction with the cops for painting on an unauthorized wall. Things escalate and then Breq has this line:

“That hold,” I interrupted, “is not suitable for use on citizens. And it’s entirely possible to suffocate someone by kneeling on their back that way.”

WHAT!?!? HOW!?!? Then 12 chapters later:

Breq is having a conversation with the Governor:

“…I suppose you know her field workers are threatening to stop working unless she meets a whole list of demand?”
“I only just heard a few hours ago.”
“And by dealing with them in such circumstances, we are rewarding these people for threatening us. What do you think they’ll do but try it again, since it go them what they wanted once already? And we need things calm here.”
These people are citizens.” I replied, my voice as calm and even as I could make it… “When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?”

Damn. This book isn’t for everyone. If you aren’t a world-building nut, you may find a lot of that tedious. If you hated the first book, I wouldn’t recommend this one either. But if you were even luke-warm on that first book – it was place-setting so that this one could hit so hard. Read this book and experience the amazing work of Ms. Ann Leckie.

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Review: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139 (Clarkesworld Magazine, #139)Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice, solid collection this month. Here are my per-story thoughts:

Carouseling: An extremely sad and touching story about a couple and an experiment at a CERN-like lab. Wonder if the story was written/conceived back when everyone was afraid the collider would make a black hole. (That’s not what happens, but I could definitely see it as an inspiration).

What will we do without exile: I’ve read many stories, both fiction and non-fiction about exiles from war. This is one of the first that deals with the friction between the new and old exiles. As someone who’s the child of exiles (as is my wife), this story really hit home.

Violets on the Tongue: Another tale of exile, but this time it becomes more of an existential tale and eventually morphs into a mind-bending trip. Fun to read, though.

Logistics: Most fun opening sentence I’ve read in a short story in a while. This story was a bit tough to read in the middle of COVID-19. But I enjoyed the tone and it was different from the usual post-apocalyptic story in a few interesting ways. Fun to see how the genre is evolving.

The Wings of Earth (translated): I would say it’s kind of a Chinese 2001: A Space Odessy. It’s interesting in how the narrative flows. It’s a little different that what I’m used to. But it was still a very interesting story that kept me guessing until the end.

The Baby Eaters: A very neat examination of another culture and their norms by using an alien race. I thought the alien culture was well conceived and the story flowed quite well. I’d read more in this universe.

Kit: Some Assembly Required: Kit Marlowe keeps appearing in various stories. I wonder why he has such a hold on writers. He was in the first book that gave me a deep dive into the Sidhe (or perhaps the second, I read them within the same year, I believe) as a character. Here once again as an emergent AI. This short story has an interesting structure where the narrative of the story is intermingled with a narrative that seems to me (who still knows nothing of Marlowe) to be autobiographical. It’s an interesting story and an interesting take on emergent AI when there seem to be more and more of these stories as we get closer to potentially achieving the goal of AI. I was quite amused.

Non-Fiction

Inspiring Writers with Four Scientific Breakthroughs: The author guides the reader through a series of technologies that are currently in early stages and can serve as a basis for inspiration for near-future SF stories or extrapolated out to further future stories.

Quarks, Colonialism, and Alternate Realities: A conversation with Vandana Singh: This one was less about any individual story of Ms. Singh’s and more about how her life and culture shape her outlook and her stories. I found it fascinating. Both types of interviews work well, but when I’m not familiar with the author, I really prefer this type of interview because I love learning about how other people see the world.

Another word: Breathing Life into Characters: One of my favorite readers to do work for Escape Artists explains how she gets into the head space of the characters.

Editor’s Desk: Nine, Three, Six: A little about anthology releases and then a little about some Hugo nominees who’d appeared in Clarkesworld.

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Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book that had me saying “wtf?” in a good way from the get-go. The first chapter is like The Princess Bride in that it sets up what I believe is a fictionalization of the author, but not as a forward or introduction – as the first chapter. So for the first few pages I have no idea what’s going on. Once I get it, it’s pretty interesting – especially given the title page and the fact that, apparently, this is officially Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade.

After that it jumps into Billy Pilgrim’s story and that’s got a mix of a Catch-22 and Hitchhiker’s Guide vibe. It’s incredibly sarcastic and full of dark humor as we bounce around Billy Pilgrim’s life. The craziest part is the way in which it is a science fiction novel. Originally, I’d never read the book because I just thought it was about World War II. And, in a lot of ways it is. But both in the way Billy is bouncing through time and the other more “foreign” plot, it is also an SF novel.

Speaking of the bouncing around – frankly I’m surprised that Christopher Nolan hasn’t made this into a move or a TV show. It seems right up his alley. Maybe it’s what originally inspired him to be so focused on out of sync narratives.

Anyway, this is turning into a partial ramble and all you need to know is that if you have somehow avoided this book (like I did until now), you need to rectify that and read this book. (At least if you’re into the writing styles mentioned above)

I forgot I’d wanted to mention this in my original review: (view spoiler)

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Review: Bound

BoundBound by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a much more beautiful Cinderella story than the Disney one and a much less gruesome one than the original German one, even if there was still some foot destruction. First of all, this is my second fairy re-telling by Ms. Donna Jo Napoli, having read Sirena last year or the year before. Both times, she was a master at putting us in the head space of her protagonist and creating a compelling story.

Why did I find this story to be more beautiful than Disney!Cinderella? Well, because the whole fairy godmother thing is just a bit of a deus ex machina and her step-family is just comically villainous. One can’t blame Walt and his writers too much for that because complex characters are a more recent phenomenon. (At least in pop culture – I’m sure throughout modern history there were some complex protagonists and antagonists) Meanwhile, in Bound, Xing Xing’s family is much more believable – although it probably helps that her sister is her half-sister (was this the case in Disney?). Her sister has many moments of bonding with her and her more spoiled actions and words seem more a reflection of her mother’s bad parenting than an inherent evilness. While her mother is incredibly selfish (I love the late scene where she almost goes nuts trying to appease the ancestors in the face of her duplicity), she also has moments where she is truly nice to Xing Xing. She even does not forbid her from going to the equivalent of the Prince’s ball and makes her a beautiful dress. That said, she is Mother Gothel (from Tangled) levels of manipulative to both Xing Xing and her daughter. As for the godmother role, it’s couched more in the tradition of Chinese ancestor worship (see Disney’s Mulan for a semi-accurate idea). So it makes a lot more sense – it’s also never explicitly stated. It’s not like a Mushu-equivalent comes and makes her a special dress for the ball or whatever. It’s more akin to both what modern Asians do when talking about ancestors or any religious person talking about their gods, angles, or saints – they pray and things go their way and they say it was a result of their prayers. It ends up being more of a “realistic” story that way and it works better to me than the fairy godmother who (if I remember correctly) Cinderella is surprised to know exists.

Outside of that, the book is a great little trip through Ming China – the medicine man interlude is a lot of fun. The book is written for a YA audience so it has some allusions to the dangers that could befall a maiden traveling through the countryside on her own, but there isn’t any direct mention of the word rape. So it ends up being realistic, but if the kid is too young or too sheltered, it’ll go over their heads.

Final thoughts: I know that to this day there is still a preference of boys over girls, but I don’t know if people speak as plainly as they might have in the time period in which this book takes place. A lot of that stuff makes me so sad – that a whole 50% of the population should be made to suffer. Same with the foot binding. The interesting thing about that is that it seems like such a dumb thing – why would you want to make your female household members useless? It must be a sign of wealth? I’m so rich that I don’t need everyone in my house to be able to do work? At least the foot binding makes more sense (and was less of a horror movie feel) than the German version where the step-sisters cut up their feet to try and fit in Cinderella’s slipper. I also enjoyed some of the things like fatter people being smarter – that would definitely be a fun tradition to track down. Some large dude had some position of influence once, I guess?

Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot as an adult and I recommend to anyone who’d like another version of Cinderella that’s also authentic.

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