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Socials

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

The rise of X

Twitter—I mean, X—my favourite social media platform, which I’ve been using since October 2008 (i.e. 15 years, which means it predates my children) is slowly going down the toilet. Every day I think it can’t get any worse, and then it does.

It definitely started when Elon Musk took over as CEO. I wasn’t as pessimistic about that as other people I follow on the platform, because I thought Musk loved Twitter too.

Boy, was I wrong.

Musk tried to institute Twitter Blue, which was supposed to replace the verification check mark that told you whether or not an account was authentic. I’m all for a paid service for Twitter, but why couldn’t he have made it something that has real value, rather than something that few people would ever pay for?

Then Musk fired a large number of staff—including many moderators. This made the site quite shaky. In Australia and New Zealand, at various times, it stopped working entirely. The number of bot and spam accounts has soared since, and online harassment has continued unchecked—to the point where now the ABC is mostly leaving Twitter because of the abuse their journalists have been facing.

Then Musk turned off the public API and made it a paid service. This meant third party apps and clients stopped working. My primary way of viewing Twitter was through Tweetbot, a fantastic client that served Twitter users for 12 years and made the place seem like much less of a dumpster fire than it is. Tweetbot didn’t have a “For you” tab; it only showed you who you were “Following”, it stripped out all the ads, and it allowed me to read my feed the way I like it: in chronological order, where I scroll forwards until I reach the top. It would also usually remember where I was up to the next time I logged back into the app.

Musk has also talked about restricting access to Tweetdeck, its dashboard tool, to paid subscribers only. That was supposed to start 1 August, but it hasn’t happened yet, thank goodness. I think without Tweetdeck, the user experience of Twitter will be drastically worse, and I expect that many users will finally leave the platform if/when that happens.

Musk’s changes and stance on moderation and free speech caused a mass exodus, which included many of the people I follow—people I’ve been following for years. They’ve left calling cards on their profiles, saying where you can find them elsewhere (on Instagram and Mastodon mostly; most Twitter users aren’t really into Facebook). But of course it’s not the same, and when you don’t like a particular platform, it’s hard to be on there just for the sake of people you’re keen to hear from.

Then Musk rebranded Twitter as “X”—a move that I consider phenomenally stupid and nothing more than ego-building, given Twitter’s current state of global brand recognition. “Tweet” is already in the Merriam Webster as “a post made on the Twitter online message service”. Why would you mess with that?!

Finally, I read recently that Musk is going to use public data from X to train his AI for in-house projects. There’s no word on whether you can opt out.


Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

See you on socials?

All this is making me reevaluate the way I use social media. I heard a podcast episode recently in which one of the panellists said that people follow other people on social media for one of three reasons:

  1. To be inspired.
  2. To be educated.
  3. To be entertained.

The speaker was a social media consultant, and she was encouraging book authors to make sure everything they post hits one or more of those goals to “add” value to their followers.

I don’t know about you, but I look at that list and immediately feel icky. It’s so consumerist. Granted, there is a grain of truth in it: I do follow some people because I find their work inspiring and interesting. I also like that I learn things from the people I follow—not just random facts I didn’t know about the world, but also industry news. Following comics people kept in me in touch with the comics industry. Following writers, editors and agents helped me understand more about the state of the book publishing industry (and what a dumpster fire Amazon is). Following both groups also meant that I have been following the current WGA (Writers Guild of America) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) strikes. Twitter (which I am refusing to call X for the duration of this blog post) definitely serves me news that I am unlikely to glean from the ABC. (I know this because I’ve been asking Siri to give me the day’s headlines as I fold laundry.) And certainly Twitter at its best is wonderfully entertaining: the Barbenheimer memes, for example, have been a continual delight.

But I look at that list and all I see is what’s missing: the social side. Where is the relational aspect? For me, social media is about relationship. I first joined Twitter in 2008 because of this in-depth piece by Clive Thompson in The New York Times: “I’m so totally, digitally close to you” (5 Sept 2008). He was examining the rising phenomenon of microblogging, the next step forward after the rise of blogs (yes, I recognise the irony of writing this in a blog post!) and trying to understand why people would engage in it. He wrote,

For many people —particularly anyone over the age of 30— the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

But as he looked closer at the trend of “ambient intimacy”/“ambient awareness”, he started to understand:

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.” Yet it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.

It was the “novel-ness” of Twitter that I became addicted to, I think. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which lean heavily on algorithms to serve you content (see my September 2021 post, “The problem with BookFace”), Twitter was just one scrolling reverse chronological feed—a feed that I read in its entirety as much as possible. (I realise I am an outlier; most users don’t do this.) Twitter was an ongoing novel that connected me to the world.

Of course, I didn’t follow everyone. I curated my feed relentlessly. I only followed the people I liked following. I followed people I know IRL. (It’s worth noting, though, that some IRL people are very different online and may not be interesting to follow.) I followed people I met at conventions and other events as a way of keeping in touch with them, and sometimes they would follow me back (though I was never fussed if they didn’t). I followed certain media outlets—like publishers, podcasts and websites publishing interesting content. I also followed, as I said before, comic creators, writers, editors, agents and even the occasional actor or musician I love.

I soon found that the best people to follow—or rather, the people I found the most interesting to follow—were comics people. There’s something about working in the marriage of two mediums that makes comics people extremely interesting. They don’t just promote their work and talk about their current projects; they also talk about what they’re interested in—creative works (books, music, movies, TV, podcasts), but also politics, humour, even their day-to-day lives and how they feel about things.

I loved the “novels” that came from comics people. Over time, I really did build up a novel-sized picture of the people I followed. I got to know them on a level above that which you’d get with a mere acquaintance. Sometimes they would even reply to me if I tweeted to them about something. Once I asked a couple of my favourite comic creators about something to do with the comic they had created; they responded straight away. Another time (though I can’t find the tweet now), Neil Gaiman, who is one of my most favourite authors ever, told me that Diana Wynne Jones, who is another one of my most favourite authors ever, based the character of Chrestomanci on him.)

Remember, these are people I followed for years—some from the very beginning of my Twitter journey. When they began to leave the platform, I felt like I was in mourning for those relationships. It was painful. I tweeted, “it’s like a thread between you snapping”. Recently I took a little time to look over my follow list and remember all the people I followed—all 587 of them. I wonder sometimes what happened to some of them.

I know that might sounds nuts—to be so concerned for people I don’t know personally. However, that’s the nature of the internet, isn’t it: following people on Twitter may not be a “real” relationship (in the sense that it’s one-sided and doesn’t go both ways), but it’s still something. The people I follow may not know my name (though some do, after all this time, which is lovely), but I still know them.

And now?


Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The possible future of socials

Well, now there is currently nothing that completely replaces Twitter. Meta launched Threads in July, but I don’t enjoy using it because it retains the most irritating things about Instagram—namely, the algorithm. It shows you the people you follow first (but not necessarily in chronological order), as well as (most maddeningly) people’s replies to accounts you don’t follow. Then when it runs out of content from the people you follow, it serves you content from people you don’t follow in the hope that you’ll follow them too. Also, there’s no web interface.

The best thing about it, though, is definitely the Art Gallery of NSW account, which has taken with gusto to posting long art—that is, art that doesn’t get cropped by Twitter’s image requirements. They also encourage others to do the same, and so you see this wonderful curated exhibition of images you wouldn’t normally see.

As for the other offerings, Mastodon is too complicated for the average user. Spoutible barely has anyone I follow on it. Hive Social? I have no idea what’s happening on it; barely anyone I follow talks about it.

And then there’s Blue Sky. It came from Twitter and it operates a lot like Twitter. It has a reverse chronological feed. It shows you the people you follow—and their replies to other accounts, but you can turn those off. It doesn’t always remember where I’m up to, but that’s okay; I just scroll back, and I’m not following a huge number of people for it to be a problem. Also, it’s still just invite-only, which means you need a code in order to join. (Massive thanks to Seumas for giving me mine!)

The best thing about it is that most of the comics/writer/agent/editor people I used to follow are on there, and they are active. They are doing the things that made me enjoy following them in the first place. The social/relational aspect is alive and well over there, so at the moment, it feels a bit like a gated community—like the early days of Twitter.

I know it won’t last. Human nature always has a way of ruining things (yay, the doctrine of total depravity!) So far, Blue Sky isn’t any better at managing spam/bot accounts, and who knows how they’ll handle the trolls when they arrive.

But so far, I am enjoying being there.

I’m still on Twitter. There are still a lot of people/accounts that haven’t made it to Blue Sky yet (though there is the possibility that they may never join). There are lots of IRL friends who would probably join if given an invite, but invites are dispensed sparingly; I won’t have any to give away until I’m on the platform for longer. Blue Sky doesn’t quite cater to all my interests the way Twitter does: there is little about Australian comics, KPop, podcasts and evangelical Christianity. There are also question marks concerning Blue Sky’s ownership: it’s independent, but it’s still tied to Twitter and Musk in some way, which means that it could potentially disappear without warning.

I may be on Twitter until it dies once and for all. At least with Blue Sky, I feel like there is somewhere to go where I can still be inspired, educated, entertained, but most of all, maintain the online relationships I’ve got with the people I’ve been following for so long.

Even so, I do wonder about the future of social media. Will all this upheaval result in a bit of a backlash? Will it die? Will more and more people get themselves off it in favour of other things? So many people see it as a waste of time anyway; the multiplicity of platforms and lack of engagement may be the impetus they need to leave.

I still believe there is a place for the sort of ambient awareness/aggregation as a novel that microblogging makes possible. When I post, it’s with that in mind (which must make it super confusing for people who only see my content through algorithms). I still think there is a place for social media in maintaining relationships—connecting people across time and space in a way that is one of the boons of the internet and something that wasn’t possible several decades ago.

But I acknowledge the limits of that. Online relationships have boundaries. They don’t function the way IRL relationships do. It should be said I invest in those too: I make time to catch up with people. I make regular time to catch up with the people who are important to me. The limitation for IRL relationships is me and my creatureliness, though: there are only so many people I can catch up with in person. There is only so much time I have for that sort of thing. There is only so much emotional energy I can expend. Unfortunately being human means I don’t have the capacity for infinite relationships.

But God does. I don’t know if being made in his image means that in the new creation, we will have an infinite capacity for relationship. I’d like to think that that might be possible—that in exchanging our mortal bodies for imperishable, glorious spiritual ones (as it says in the language of 1 Corinthians 15:42-49), we might also exchange our human limitations for limitless divine ones.

Obviously this is all wishful thinking and speculation far beyond what the Bible actually says. But one thing I know will definitely be true: we will not need social media to relate to one another then. There will be no spam. There will be no trolls. There will be no online abuse. There may not even be any online. There will just be relationship.

And I, for one, am looking forward to it.

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The Dating Program: Covers

So The Dating Program has been out for about two months now and I have completely dropped the ball on promoting it. (You can tell I’m a writer by how much I suck at marketing.) I did have grand plans and half-formed blog posts bubbling in the back of my brain once Book Fair Australia was over, but December and, somewhat unexpectedly, much of January has steamrolled all that.

Still, the worst thing about not promoting a book is continuing not to promote it (right?) So in an effort to get back on this very lame horse, I thought I would post about cover design.

That said, you should know that I am not a professional graphic designer. I have absolutely no training in art or design. Everything I know is based on what I like and what I’ve seen other people do, and I am completely self-taught on InDesign. I know the cover is important and perhaps given its importance, I should have budget for a more professional cover. But I decided to do it myself.

As I wrote in my last post, I used Lulu.com to create a dummy copy—partly for beta reading purposes and partly to see how Lulu handles self-publishing. In terms of cost and speed, Lulu were incredible: from memory, one copy cost a mere $3 to print and $6 to ship (twice the unit cost). In terms of print quality, I realise that Lulu does digital printing, but I do think the quality could have been … better.

But I digress. Even dummy copies need a cover. So I threw this together:

Dummy/beta reader version cover

(Note the old title!)

It was deliberately simple. The background pattern was intended to resemble the interior decor of a restaurant that serves as the setting for one of the dates. I used Futura for the title because it’s one of my favourite typefaces, and because I thought I needed something to contrast with that (a serif font with a sans serif font), I used Baskerville, which is another one of my favourite fonts. I think I probably spent 15 minutes on it tops, fiddling with the font size, the positioning and the kerning. Fitting for something that was intended to be a test.

When it came to the “real” thing, though, I decided to create a few options and poll the Australian Speculative Fiction (ASF) Facebook Group for their opinions. I posted the dummy cover as well as these two:

and the blurb:

In the near-future, concern about an increasingly workaholic corporate culture and the falling birthrate causes the government of one metropolis to institute GoDate, a city-wide summer dating program for people of a certain age. Players are sent on a series of ten different dates, during which they are matched with potential love interests via algorithms.

Petra, a 24-year-old highly introverted graphic designer, isn’t sure she’s ready for a relationship, but isn’t entirely happy with singleness either. Encouraged by her co-workers and driven by a strong desire not to live with regret, she decides to participate in GoDate for the very first time. But as GoDate takes her on all manner of dates—both good and bad—Petra is forced to question what it is she actually wants.

The responses were interesting: each of the three had their fans (and for different reasons as well). But the overall response was that the cover wasn’t quite matching the genre/market placement of the novella. The one with the birds apparently screams YA (young adult fiction), whereas the dummy cover with just the pink and purple background didn’t signal anything at all and could also have been mistaken for self-help. This probably reflected my own uncertainty too. I wrote in the comment thread,

I’m not quite sure where would be best to position it in terms of genre. While I was writing it, I always thought of it as a romcom. But even though the story has romance elements, a relationship isn’t the main focus of the thing. It’s more an exploration into the whole subject of dating and relationships—how to find The One in a city of 12 million, what makes two people connect, whether algorithms actually work for human relationships, etc. But all wrapped in a slightly futuristic setting of server bots, self-driving cars, architecture designed for single people, and of course a government-run dating program. So I guess I’d call it spec fic. But it’s supposed to be lighthearted and fun, rather than dystopian, hence the romcom bent.

The good people of ASF gave me some helpful advice and pointers, including incorporating some digital elements to indicate the speculative fiction side of the book as well as more “romantic” elements to highlight its romcom side.  Some also said I should flag that it’s a novella. This resulted in these two revised covers with digital circuitry and some “lovebirds” (human and otherwise):

I sent these to Dan Hanks, my editor, along with my manuscript, and asked his opinion. Before he worked on the MS, he told me liked the bird one with the London-ish skyline better. But when he had finished the editing, he preferred the park bench one as he felt it fit the novella better and shaped reader expectations more appropriately. So I went with the bench. And then adjusted the titles (with the new title!) accordingly.

Final cover

Of course, the thing about covers is that when you have settled on the front, you still need design the back. I probably should have thought about this earlier, but remember I’m a n00b. My solution was to Google some gorgeous front-and-back cover designs, get depressed and then try to take some of those design principles and make it work with mine.

Immediately I ran into the problem of the awesome background I had chosen: it was too busy to put the back cover blurb over the top, so how was I going to make it stand out? I tried a ghostly white box:

Version 1

It looked sort of amateur-ish. (I am an amateur, but I don’t want to look like one.) Also, it was a bit weird having the black silhouette of the ground, the park bench and the people just going nowhere. What if I continued the strip of black along the bottom? That would also help with the barcode. I tried it and rather liked the effect, and stretching the white box out across the whole of the back cover into the black strip seemed to work.

That just left the question of the patterned background. I thought perhaps flipping it might be fun, so I tried it:

By this point, I had completely lost all perspective, so I ran the cover by Ben and a couple of friends. They preferred the up-and-down triangles, so I went with that. I think I would have been happy with either, but I like how the background has remained essentially the same since the dummy design.

Anyway, if you are judging my book by its cover, please check it out. You can read an excerpt in PDF. You can grab the e-book from these fine e-retailers:

But if you prefer your books in print, order yourself a copy from my beautiful online store.

Enjoy!

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The Dating Program

The number #1 question that many writers are asked is the perennial favourite, “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is usually “It depends.” But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to spell it out for you concerning one particular project.

Genesis

In 2016, I went to Canberra to attend ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival). Ryan K Lindsay was running a workshop there. I think it was on generating ideas or some such thing. He took us through an exercise that I found really helpful—so helpful, in fact, that I pinched it and used it in a couple of workshops that I ran later that year. (Sorry and thank you, Ryan!)

Ingredient 1: Love

I used the exercise at a workshop I ran for the Sydney Comics Guild about writing short comics. But I made the participants at this workshop generate ideas around the theme of love. I chose this theme because I thought it might help the participants to start with something, rather than nothing, and also because I have, in the past, toyed with writing an anthology of comics on the subject. (NB: I never made this anthology.)

Why “love”? I would say that I’m a bit of a sucker for love stories, but that’s not exactly true: I’m also highly critical of them too. If you will pardon the poor use of the expression, I have a bit of a “love/hate” relationship with romcoms. I watch them, but I don’t enjoy most of them because they also annoy me. Take You’ve Got Mail: Tom Hanks’s character is rude to Meg Ryan’s character the first time they meet in person after he’s figured out who he’s been corresponding with, and he humiliates her in public. Why, then, is she so quick to forgive him later on?? Or Clueless: what is so attractive about Paul Rudd’s character in the eyes of Alicia Silverstone’s? Or 10 Things I Hate About You: Heath Ledger’s character never actually apologises to Julia Stiles’s character for concealing the fact he was paid to take her out. He just buys her the guitar she’s always wanted, and all of a sudden they’re kissing in the parking lot at the end of the movie.

For me, there has to be an element of believability in the love story—less in terms of the characters’ circumstances and the plot of the movie, and more in terms of what the characters see in each other, what draws them together and how they make each other better. Like Tong Yao and Lu Sicheng in Falling Into Your Smile, or Hong Ra On and Crown Prince Lee Yeong in Love in the Moonlight: the relationship has to make sense in some way. It’s that journey—whether it be from acquaintances to boyfriend and girlfriend, or enemies to lovers—that fascinates me. What makes two people fall for one another? Furthermore, what makes their relationship survive?

Ingredient 2: Games

The Pokémon GO logo

I also ran Ryan’s ideas exercise later in 2016 at Bezerkacon. This time, because Bezerkacon was a gaming and pop culture con, I made the workshop participants generate ideas around the theme of games. At the time, Pokémon GO had exploded onto the scene and while I wasn’t playing it myself, an awful lot of people I knew were. As an outside observer, I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating: here was a game that was actually making a difference to people’s lives, getting them out of the house and exercising, walking around their neighbourhoods looking for Pokémon, and even connecting and socialising with other gamers. Furthermore, it was resulting in positive social benefits: consider this viral story about an autistic boy who began to engage more with others through playing the game. It made me wonder what other positive social benefits could be reaped from playing games. It made me wonder what if there was a Pokémon Go-type game that people played in order to meet other people and fall in love?

Ingredient 3: Dating

Taken Out

I confess I don’t have that much experience with romantic relationships. Ben and I married young, and before that, we each had had only one significant romantic relationship.

That probably explains why we were both rather fascinated by the show Taken Out, which aired on Australian TV during 2008-2009. Unlike Perfect Match, which aired during the 80s, Taken Out featured more contestants: it starts with a single person—the candidate—being introduced to 30 other single people of the opposite sex. In the first round, the 30 are asked if they are in or out based on their initial impression of the candidate. The 30 indicate their preference by either turning out their light or keeping it on. In the second round, the remainders watch a short video package in which the candidate talks about himself or herself. At the end, they are asked again if they are in or out, and those who opt out turn out their lights. In the third round, the remainders watch a short video package in which the candidate’s friends and family are interviewed about the candidate. Once again, the remaining singles are asked if they are in or out. The fourth round is the final round, and this time, the candidate gets to choose three singles from the remainders. He or she then asks these three people two questions. Based on their answers, the candidate then selects one of the three and they go on a date together. If they decide they like each other and want to progress the relationship further, they meet up later at the top of this tower overlooking the city.

The Australian version of the show was short-lived, but it inspired other versions of it around the world—the most famous of which is arguably the Chinese version, If You Are the One, which some people in my social circles watched rather obsessively.

Modern Romance

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg (cover)

2016/2017 was also around the time I was reading Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg (or rather Aziz Ansari was reading it to me; I was listening to the audio book). I was reading it partly because of my idea and partly because I enjoyed watching Ansari in Master of None. Modern Romance was born out of Ansari’s obsession with how romance and technology interact and it’s absolutely fascinating. The early chapters outline a history of romantic relationships that contrast sharply with the later chapters, which detail how everything has changed. In the “olden days”, people usually ended up marrying people who were in close physical proximity to them—the girl next door, the boy down the street, etc. Then society became more mobile, with young people moving interstate for college or work, and forging relationships with people who grew up further away from them. The rise of the internet and internet dating opened up things up even further: suddenly the pool of potential romantic partners was seemingly infinite.

However, with more choice came a kind of decision fatigue. Ansari talked to multiple people who complained about feeling burnt out by internet dating because of the amount of “work” it generated for them—vetting candidates, answering messages and setting up dates. Sometimes during his live shows, Ansari would ask audience members to log into their internet dating accounts, which were then displayed for the rest of the audience on large screens. One fairly attractive young woman logged into her account and the audience were aghast to see the number of messages she was receiving from potential matches. She said she felt bad for the guys who were messaging her, but there was absolutely no way she could keep up and respond to all the messages herself. I found it interesting that, because of this sort of thing, Tinder became hugely popular: in a sense, it brought dating back to the “olden days”, restricting the pool of potential candidates to the people around you.

In the final chapter of Modern Love, Ansari tries to put into practice some of the things he’s learned about dating and how to do it better. He asked his friends to set him up with people they thought would suit him. He focused on taking the same girl out on multiple dates, rather than taking multiple girls out for just one date. He varied what they did on each date, because doing the same thing—like dinner and a movie—each time is boring, and when you do different things together, you get to see a whole other side of a person you might not normally get to see. Ansari wasn’t necessarily saying that one way of dating is better than other ways of dating; instead, he felt like he was increasing his odds of finding someone by doing these things, rather than subjecting himself to the chaotic, wild jungles of internet dating.

Combine and stir

I asked myself, “What if there was a Pokémon Go-type game that people played in order to meet other people and fall in love?” The result was a novella that I initially called The Dating Game.

Beta reader copies of The Dating Game

(Side note: A novella is roughly half the size of a novel. Most novels are 80,000-100,000 words [unless you’re George RR Martin; then they’re 150,000 words]. Most novellas about half that. Mine is just under 40,000 words.)

I spent most of 2018 writing it. Curiously, I did a lot of work on it during the six months that Ben and I were separated. (It sounds odd, but writing a love story is actually a good anti-depressant for when you’re down.)

After I finished the first draft, I sent it to a flock of beta readers to see what they thought. I decided to have a go at using Lulu.com’s print-on-demand service and created the print copies pictured above as a test run. (The shipping actually cost more than the books did.) I submitted the manuscript to a small independent publisher who were doing a callout for “seasonal” novellas. Unfortunately it sat in their slush pile for the better part of a year before ultimately getting rejected. (Also most unfortunately, that indie publisher didn’t allow simultaneously submissions, which meant I couldn’t send the manuscript elsewhere while it was in their slush pile.)

Then at the beginning of 2020, I decided I really needed to do something with the story. I had pretty much given up on getting it traditionally published as there is a very limited market for novellas, and it didn’t really fit into the sort of boxes publishers are looking for, being not quite completely speculative fiction (even with its more futuristic elements) and not quite completely romance either. I decided to fall back on what I’ve always done and publish it myself.

I got it professionally edited by Dan Hanks, who I met on Twitter. Dan really seemed to get what I was trying to do with the story, and gave me some helpful advice on how to fix the parts I felt weren’t working.

I also made a couple of mock-ups of potential covers and put them up for feedback in one of the Facebook writers groups I’m a member of. Lots of people gave me some very helpful advice, which I used for the next round of options.

Then the pandemic hit and, like many people, I lost momentum.

Finished is better than perfect

Fast forward to this year (2022). The novella had been sitting around for so long doing nothing that two other books with the title The Dating Game came out in the interim. I decided I really needed to do something about the manuscript—that I really needed to actually finish it. Because I was going to table at Book Fair Australia on the 26-27 November and because I wanted to have something new to sell, I figured I should really use that event as the impetus to get the job done. After all, I can’t sell an unfinished book, and I still need to make back what I’ve already spent on production.

So over the last couple of months, I went back into my drafts, the feedback my beta readers sent me, and Dan’s editing notes, and I started revising and redrafting, editing and polishing. When I was satisfied the manuscript was as good as it was going to get (continually reminding myself that “finished is better than perfect”), I worked on the layout. I typeset and proofread the whole thing myself. I created the cover based on previous iterations and feedback (with input from some trusted friends). And for obvious reasons, I changed the title.

My printer sent the finished copies last week and they look marvellous:

I’ve done a very limited print run using print-on-demand. The unit cost was a little higher than I was expecting, but there’s a paper shortage, which is affecting the entire publishing industry in a big way, and the pandemic has made everything a little more expensive these days.

Introducing: The Dating Program: A novella

So I am very pleased to introduce to you The Dating Program: A novella:

The Dating Program: A novella (cover)

In the near-future, concern about an increasingly workaholic corporate culture and the falling birthrate causes the government of one metropolis to institute GoDate, a city-wide summer dating program for people of a certain age. Players are sent on a series of ten different dates, during which they are matched with potential love interests via algorithms.

Petra, a 24-year-old highly introverted graphic designer, isn’t sure she’s ready for a relationship, but isn’t entirely happy with singleness either. Encouraged by her co-workers and driven by a strong desire not to live with regret, she decides to participate in GoDate for the very first time. But as GoDate takes her on all manner of dates—both good and bad—Petra is forced to question what it is she actually wants.

I would call my novella speculative fiction, but it definitely skews more towards the romance genre than the speculative fiction genre. It’s certainly not dystopian in the slightest! Instead, I think of it as being a comfort read—something to turn to when you’re feeling down, or when you just want something light and fluffy to escape into for a little while.

If you like to read your books in print, you can order yourself a copy from my shiny new online store:

(If you know me personally, get in touch with me for a special coupon code so that you aren’t charged shipping, and I’ll give you yours the next time we catch up. Also, I will have copies at Book Fair Australia.)

If, however, you like to read your books electronically, the e-book of The Dating Program is now available on Kindle:

It’s also now available for Apple Books:

I’m currently working on getting it into Google Play, but there are problems I need to overcome. (I really should have started the process with those earlier. Did I mention how inexperienced I am with this whole self-publishing prose thing?)

If you think The Dating Program might be your cup of tea, I encourage you to check it out. And if you like it, please tell someone else about it; you’d be surprised how much word of mouth sells books.

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Review: Falling into Your Smile

Netflix, 2021

(31 episodes/39-54 min ea)

Sorry, my poor blog; it’s been too long.

Every now and then, I need a break from K-dramas and return to C-dramas. Whereas K-drama episodes are usually 60-90 minutes long, the average C-drama episode is 40-50 minutes long. This makes for long seasons (The Rise of Phoenixes clocked in at a whopping 70 episodes), but arguably the run time is about the same.

Falling Into Your Smile is a very respectable 31 episodes, making it comparatively short and sweet. And for all those who wished The King’s Avatar contained a romance, this series is for you, combining an e-sports/sports plot/journey to the top with romantic comedy set in an alternate 2020 where COVID doesn’t seem to exist.

Tong Yao (played by Cheng Xiao of South Korean-Chinese girl group WJSN) is a young woman in her early 20s who has finished university and is at a crossroads in her life. She also happens to be very good at playing Onmyoji Arena.

Onmyoji Arena (which is a real game, by the way—unlike Glory in The King’s Avatar) is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game in which two teams of five players compete against one another to take out the opposing team’s castle. The setting and many of the characters/Shikigami (of which there are over 100) have been plucked straight out of Heian-era Japan. (The game’s publisher is Chinese though.)

Tong Yao’s speciality is a Shikigami named Tamamonomae, and she currently ranks #1 on the Chinese server playing that character using the online handle “Smiling”. (I think that is referenced in the title of the show, but I have no idea if that’s an accurate translation of the original title. From what I can gather from some very cursory online research, the show is based on a novel, but I’m not sure if the novel and the show share the same name.)

Because of Tong Yao’s gaming abilities, she receives an invitation to join the Onmyoji Arena e-sports team ZGDX. (I have no idea what those letters stand for, if anything.) At first, she is unsure the offer is real. But then the team bring her to Shanghai to watch the team at the Spring Playoffs, and she ends up accepting their offer and becomes a professional e-sports player, much to the dismay of her more conservative parents.

This means moving in with the rest of the team into the ZGDX home base, which is located in Shenzhen. (Fun fact: this is the area my ancestors are from.) Initially, not everyone is welcoming of her, particularly as she is the only female pro player in a league dominated by guys. This is so for some of her fellow team members as well as for the fans, who like to gossip about all things league-related on the E-sports Farm forum. But over time, and as she proves she has what it takes to be in the league and to be a professional, their opinions about her begin to change.

In addition, now that she’s a public figure, Tong Yao’s romantic history is put under the spotlight: her ex just happens to be Jian Yang, captain of CK, a rival team, and he seems to be still carrying a torch for her. But her eye has been caught by Lu Sicheng, the brilliant, handsome and so-rich-he-drives-an-Aston-Martin captain of ZGDX. (Cue hijinks.)

Of course, being an Asian drama, the series involves much more than just the romance plot; the cast is still an ensemble, after all. Tong Yao needs to learn to work with the rest of her teammates as much as they need to learn to work with her so that they can actually function as a team and progress through the tournament. In various episodes, teammates have little subplots that complement the main romance/e-sports plotlines—for example, K (my favourite character, played by the way-too-pretty Gao Han) has a fraught relationship with his parents, which provides a direct contrast to the normal parental disapproval surrounding young people entering e-sports as a profession.

In addition, various episodes explore the relationship between ZGDX and other professional teams in the league. Tong Yao’s best friend Chen Jinyang (not to be confused with her ex-boyfriend Jian Yang; I’m sure the distinction is clearer in Mandarin) is in an on-again-off-again relationship with Ai Jia, a member of rival team YQCB, leading some to question whether their relationship affects Ai Jia’s performance, and whether pro players should be allowed to have romantic relationships at all.

Also, YQCB has just hired a South Korean player named Lee Kun Hyeok (online handle: Hierophant) who used to be Lu Sicheng’s teammate back when they were both part of the South Korean team TAT. (Lee Kun Hyeok is played by Wang Yi Jun, who is Chinese but who is represented by South Korean entertainment company YG. I think all the Korean characters are actually played by Chinese actors, but it seems like some of them do speak Korean during the Korean bits, whereas Lu Sicheng’s Korean sounds dubbed.) The rivalry between Lu Sicheng and Lee Kun Hyeok makes for some interesting gameplay as ZGDX and YQCB progress through the tournament.

The presence of Korean players in the Chinese league also brings up all sorts of issues regarding privilege and game strategy, as well as the relationship between pro players and their fans. One subplot involves a South Korean pro player named Kun of the team FNC who was also a fellow teammate of Lu Sicheng’s during their time in TAT; who is known for being a bit of a flirt and having numerous girlfriends; and who develops a romantic interest in Tong Yao. Another subplot involves a South Korean DQ Five player named Xu Tailan who is cheating on his long-time girlfriend with a fan and who becomes enraged at Tong Yao for refusing to cover for him.

Surrounding all this is e-sports media and the online gossip mill, with various fans expressing their opinions about various things through forums or even during the livestreams that pro players must engage in as part of their contracts. It doesn’t take much for public opinion to turn against a player, and when it does, it can affect a player’s performance quite significantly.

Things I liked about the show:

  • The character of Tong Yao. I like how she develops resilience and grit as the series goes on, learning to keep a check on her temper and not to be swayed by what people say about her online. I like that she is actually good at what she does and she makes a number of meaningful contributions towards the team’s game play, solidifying her place as a key member of ZGDX and proving to others that girls can be good at e-sports.
  • The way the male characters support and even champion Tong Yao. Although at times she is sidelined for her gender, once she proves her worth and even makes a difference in the lives of other pro players outside the game, they become her strongest advocates. This goes for her fellow teammates, but also for other players in the league whose lives are touched by her in some way.
  • The Complementarianism on display throughout the series as Tong Yao and her teammates learn to work together to dominate in Onmyoji Arena. I feel like that’s not something we see very often on television.
  • The romance: it is seriously cute! Lu Sicheng in love is stupidly adorable and also really funny; his attempts to kiss Tong Yao had me in stitches. There are some scenes that are a little ridiculous, but overall, I like the way the romance plays out. I understand what he sees in her and how she makes his life better. I also like that the romance doesn’t dominate the show to the exclusion of everything else but is kept in its proper place without sacrificing the rest of the show’s elements.
  • The character of Lu Sicheng: in some respects, he is a lot like other romantic male leads in C-dramas—for example, Xiao Naihe in Love O2O, Xu Feng in Ashes of Love and even Ye Hua in Eternal Love). They’re all brilliant, handsome, clever, wealthy, a little cold at first, and ever so slightly authoritarian in almost a fatherly way. If there’s a problem, they go and take care of it, and they don’t seem to need anyone or anything. Lu Sicheng starts off that way but doesn’t continue, and it was refreshing to me to see a character like that admit that he isn’t perfect, that he was in the wrong and that he needs others.
  • The CG animation and action during some of the Onmyoji Arena fight scenes: it is glorious and beautiful, and it makes the game battles so much more interesting than what‘s actually on the players’ computer screens.
  • The recurrence of some of the minor characters. For example, in episode 1, Tong Yao and Chen Jinyang meet a female ZGDX fan while waiting in line outside the stadium when they are heckled by some male fans who poke fun at them and accuse them of being idol fangirls who know nothing about the game. Tong Yao puts them in their place, and once she joins ZGDX, that female fan is spotted at all their games, cheering her on.
  • The humour: oh my goodness, this series made me laugh so much! I loved the interactions between the characters—particularly Lu Sicheng and Tong Yao (who Lu Sicheng calls “Dwarf” or “Shorty” because she is smaller than him. I find that a little disturbing as she is actually a little taller than I am and I have never ever been called “short”), as well as between fellow team members K and Cat. (Cat never seems to understand what’s going on, whereas K understands perfectly but knows to leave well enough alone.) There is a joyfulness to the script that is similar to Love in the Moonlight.
  • The representation of different kinds of Asianness, which I realise might sound a little strange, but you must remember that China is predominantly a monoculture and (as least in my foreigner eyes) doesn’t do well with multiculturalism. Merxat, who plays Ming, coach and former player of ZGDX, stands out because of his Uighur heritage. There are scenes in which characters speak Korean to each other—sometimes in front of characters who don’t understand it, sometimes in Korea, sometimes in China. The game the characters play is thoroughly Japanese, and during fight scenes, the music is too, featuring the distinctive sound of the shamisen. It’s really refreshing to have different kinds of Asianness portrayed in juxtaposition with one another.
  • The soundtrack: I don’t listen to much Mandarin pop, but I liked most of the songs.

Things I thought could have been improved:

  • The body shaming: Cheng Xiao is super cute and pretty, but Tong Yao is only considered “average” in looks, and she is slammed for her appearance by online trolls, and is further shamed for buying a beauty camera for livestreaming. One member of ZGDX is named “Chubby” or “Fatty” and is usually shown eating. In contrast, K refuses food because he is worried about putting on weight. (Of course, all the talk of appearance and weight does not stymie the number of food-related scenes in the show; this is an Asian drama, after all.)
  • The costumes: I don’t know if 80s fashion is currently trendy in China, but I got a bit sick of the oversized brand name T-shirts and distressed denim the majority of the characters seemed to wear. Also, I don’t see why Tong Yao had to wear a short skirt as part of her team uniform when the others got to wear pants.
  • The realism: Tong Yao lives with six guys, and yet the ZGDX base is always as neat as a pin and no one complains about BO. There is, however, a scene when Tong Yao is flattened by period pain and the others are very understanding.
  • Xu Tailan’s treatment of Tong Yao: perhaps I am oversensitive to it, but when a female character is forcibly restrained by a male character in a C-drama (like Bai Qian by Ye Hua in Eternal Love and Jinmi by Runyu in Ashes of Love), sirens go off in my head. There is a scene where Xu Tailan confronts Tong Yao in a corridor, threatens her, and refuses to let her leave by grabbing her by the wrist and pinning her to the wall. I thought it might just be me, but I showed it to Ben and he was also disturbed by how menacing Xu Tailan was. Tong Yao gets out of that situation using her own wits, but she is punished by Lu Sicheng for how she does it later. Even though, in his own way, Lu Sicheng gets back at Xu Tailan for his treatment of Tong Yao later, I feel like had Lu Sicheng known what Tong Yao was facing in that scene, he would have been less judgemental of her and more vindictive towards Xu Tailan. Also, given the situation, the whole team should have rallied around Tong Yao to make sure she was never left alone.
  • Some of the subplots could have been developed more. I would have liked to have gotten to know some of the minor characters a little better—particularly the other team members. That’s something that was done very well in The King’s Avatar, but that series had 40 episodes in which to do it, whereas this only has 31.
  • There were contradictions in the script—for example, just how old Tong Yao is and whether players are allowed to date/date their teammates.
  • The gaming battles: at least in The King’s Avatar, the game avatars resembled their live action counterparts. In this, I was often confused about who was playing which Shikigami. This is also because the players change Shikigamis every game. To be fair, I think the director(s) did what they could to help the audience along, but I think they could have done a bit more. In addition, unless you know Onmyoji Arena, it was a little difficult to follow the game play. I thought the script and the dialogue did a decent job of helping the audience understand the big picture of what was going on from battle to battle, and how certain battles were different. But often it was bewildering trying to follow exactly what was actually happening on screen.

Although there is potential for Falling Into Your Smile to have a second season (the plot thread involving South Korean team TAT remains tantalisingly unresolved), it doesn’t sound like it’s going to get one. Which is a shame as I will have to look elsewhere to have my Asian e-sports drama itch filled.

I don‘t suppose there are any e-sports K-dramas out there …?

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Review: Hwarang

Netflix, 2016

(20 episodes. 58 min each.)

It’s been a particularly busy month lately, with various things drawing upon my time and attention. I feel like I’ve been composing this review in my head for about a month, but it’s only been 18 days since I last blogged. (Bless me, Father.)

Anyway, the focus of this post is a review of yet another K-Drama, but this time we get out of the Joseon era and instead spend some time in a much earlier period of Korea’s history in the kingdom of Silla (which existed from 57 BC to 935 AD). At the time, Silla was the smallest of the three kingdoms (the other two being Baekje and Goguryeo/Goryeo; the name “Korea” comes from the latter). Furthermore, the influence of China is more pronounced during this period than in the Joseon era: you can see it in the clothes and the hair.

This gives Hwarang quite a distinct look: unlike the Joseon period when men wore their hair tied up and fastened in place with a manggeon/circular headband, the men of Hwarang mostly wear their hair long and out. Unlike the Joseon period when aristocratic men and women wore hanbok (blouse shirt/jacket with full skirt for women; shirt/jacket with loose-fitting trousers for men), the clothing in Hwarang was more influenced by hanfu (the traditional clothing of ancient China).

But I’m getting ahead of myself (and a word of warning: minor spoilers follow). Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth is a TV series about the formation of the Hwarang or flower knights, an elite group of male warriors who fought on behalf of the kingdom, during the reign of King Jinheung of Silla. (Some historians say they had a key role in the formation of a unified Korea, but others say that’s debatable.) But while the premise of the show is rooted in history, the execution is most decidedly modern in flavour.

Although Hwarang has quite an ensemble cast, much of the storyline focuses on a young man named Dog Bird. He’s called that because he’s a bit like a dog (i.e. scrappy mongrel-ish) and a bit like a bird (i.e. able to leap massive distances in a single bound; let’s not think too hard about that one). He also has no family and therefore no name. But he does have a best friend—another young man named Mak Moon, who he grew up with in a little village in Silla.

Unlike Dog Bird, Mak Moon remembers his family and knows that he was separated from them. He thinks they’re in the capital, so Dog Bird accompanies him on a trip to go look for them. The problem is, it’s dangerous: if you’re in the capital, you need to have the credentials to be there, and if you’re a peasant and you’re found to be without credentials, you will be executed.

This is all part of the bone-rank system that undergirds Sillan society. (I have no idea if “Sillan” is the right adjective, but I’m using it anyway.) At the top are the so-called “sacred” bones: the royal family, and at this time, Queen Jiso is regent in place of her son, King Jinheung, who has lived most of his life in exile and is almost of age. Jinheung, who returns to the capital in the dead of night, is keen to take the throne, but his mother doesn’t feel that he’s ready and wants him to wait. Unfortunately the relationship between mother and son is strained so it’s not clear whether the queen is just trying to hold onto whatever power she already has or whether she is trying to stabilise the kingdom for when he ascends.

Certainly Queen Jiso has plans: she wants to form the Hwarang/the flower knights—an elite fighting force of beautiful young men (though it is never explained why they need to be beautiful) drawn from the children of the court officials (who are the “true” bones and head ranks) who will serve the king, and fight on behalf of him and the kingdom. She elevates Lord Kim We Hwa (who was a real person) from his lowly status and enlists him to train the Hwarang. But he, having no love for the queen, bears his own agenda.

Dog Bird and Mak Moon, wandering around the city, conducting their investigation into Mak Moon’s family, run into trouble at Okta House, the local “nightclub” where they run afoul of the aristocratic youth—the sons of the court officials. There’s two gangs—one led by Kim Su Ho, whose family supports the queen, and one led by Park Ban Ryu, whose family is dominated by the Prime Minister Park Young Shil, who secretly wants to overthrow the queen. Mak Moon gets into trouble when he thinks he has spotted a girl who might be his sister, and Dog Bird fishes him out of it.

Unfortunately Mak Moon’s bad fortune doesn’t end there: he happens to glimpse King Jinheung’s face, and because the Queen has made a decree that anyone who sees the King’s face must be executed, Mak Moon is hunted down and killed, despite Dog Bird’s efforts to protect him. And of course, this happens right at the point when their search finally unearths Mak Moon’s family, and Mak Moon’s father, Kim Ahn Ji, finds both his dead son and an injured Dog Bird, and takes Dog Bird in.

Kim Ahn Ji used to be an aristocrat/true bone, but was driven into poverty and now spends his days treating peasants with his formidable medical skills. He has a daughter named A Ro—Mak Moon’s sister—but because his children are the offspring of a servant woman (i.e. they don’t even rank in the bone-rank system), they are regarded as being “half-breeds”. (I find it interesting that this designation is not about race, but about caste.)

Kim Ahn Ji asks Dog Bird to stay with him and live as his son, taking his son’s name (Seon U) and being a brother to A Ro. Dog Bird accepts out of guilt, but also because he is consumed with thoughts of avenging Mak Moon and wants to track down the king who got his friend killed. But his actions land his adopted family in hot water with the Queen, who basically blackmails him into joining the Hwarang.

This is also basically how the sons of the officials also end up in Hwarang—through some behind-the-scenes machinations by Lord Kim We Hwa that I thought were rather clever and amusing. Furthermore, King Jinheung, sick of waiting around, decides he’s going to do something and cajoles Lord Kim We Hwa (who doesn’t know that he’s king) into letting him join too, much to his mother’s displeasure. This brings all the key players together in Hwarang House, where they must live, learn and train together to become the fighting force the Queen desires. (It should be noted that it’s at this point—when most of the cast are dressed in uniform—that figuring out who is who becomes a little more difficult.)

So I’ve spent roughly 1,000 words setting up the premise of the series and I’ve recounted about five episodes worth of plot (with a lot that I haven’t mentioned, by the way). It takes that long to establish the different characters—which is fair enough, given its size, but it is completely worth it. The thing the show does well is pit the characters against each other, putting them into situations where you understand the conflict and the stakes in context, and you see the characters grow. There is a love triangle (which I’m not going to talk about because I found it a little frustrating and couldn’t understand what the guys saw in the girl as she cried a lot and pouted like a child, which therefore meant I was never rooting for the main couple and largely didn’t care whether or not they ended up together). There are themes to do with caste and class that I found interesting and that work themselves out around what happens to Dog Bird, as well as a B storyline involving the brothers Seok Han Sung and Seok Dan Se. There’s the politics—not just internally in Silla with the Queen, the scheming Prime Minister and the court officials, but also with the neighbouring kingdom of Baekje. And there’s the camaraderie that develops between these young men from very different backgrounds who end up really banding together and forming the Hwarang of Queen Jiso’s dreams.

Given that this is essentially a show about beautiful young men, the cast is definitely full of eye candy. (There is even a scene in which people flock to the playing fields because beautiful people are playing beautiful soccer, as well as another where the Hwarang perform a dance that could have been lifted straight out of its K-Pop soundtrack.) Park Seo Joon as Dog Bird walks that fine line of dumb-peasant-who-just-happens-to-become-really-good-at-everything-he-puts-his-mind-to quite well. Go A Ra as Ah Ro is competent, although occasionally annoying. (She is fantastic as a storyteller, working hard to hold onto her audience, but her medical skills are a bit odd: I don’t understand how blowing on bleeding wounds helps anyone.) Park Hyung Sik of the KPop group ZE:A Five is charmingly vulnerable as the young King Jinheung. Sea Yea-ji as Princess Suk Myung is essentially playing her character in It’s Okay Not to Be Okay, and Kim Ji Soo as Queen Jiso did a fabulous job at playing a woman who was both sympathetic and also utterly infuriating in the way she manipulates the people around her.

But it was the other Hwarangs who stole the show for me: Do Ji Han as Park Ban Ryu; Choi Min Ho of K-Pop group Shinee as the adorable Kim Su Ho (who wears some very cool earrings as part of his costume, and one of the things I really enjoyed about the series was the bromance between him and Park Ban Ryu); Jo Yoon Woo as Kim Yeo Wool, who seems to enjoy challenging the sexuality of the other guys in his room; and Kim Tae Hyung of BTS as Seok Han Sung who has a half-breed brother in Kim Hyun Jun’s Seok Dan Se. Indeed, I thought, given the ensemble nature of the cast, it could have continued for several more seasons and I would have watched it, happily getting to know the other Hwarang and their complex relationships, familial and otherwise.

The other thing I really loved about the show was its production design—some of which you can view in the videos on the network’s show page. The costumes of the upperclass are gorgeous, of course, but some of the sets—the palace, Hwarang House, Okta House, the Dayiseo department store, even the Sutabaksu tea house—made the capital look like a beautiful, cosmopolitan place where I wouldn’t have minded living if I had been born as an aristocrat then. (Well, aside from the plumbing issues—though there are a couple of shower scenes where hot water is sent through bamboo pipes that had me questioning some of the show’s the historical accuracy).

Also, I found the ending satisfying-ish—as in I was about 80 per cent satisfied with it, and the other 20 per cent just had to do with a few plot threads and character arcs that don’t get resolved completely (which is why the show should have another season!) Things for the main trio—Dog Bird, A Ro and King Jinheung wrap up nicely in a way I wasn’t quite expecting (but was hoping for); it’s just some of the minor characters who are left hanging.

Two final things to finish this review: firstly, one of the reasons I really liked Hwarang is that some of its content and themes dovetail nicely with my novel. I’m writing about a residential magic school in an Asian-influenced fantasy world, and there were certain details that I made up because obviously there is no such thing in real life. But in this show, I got to see what a residential Sillan school might have been like—with combat training conducted in the court yard; bunk beds in the dormitories (did ancient Korea have bunk beds?!! It’s not that farfetched, is it?); students carrying little wooden trays with legs to their table in the dining room; students having to do their own chores—like washing their clothes in the river or mucking out the stables (so funny watching King Jinheung retching at the smell!); and students being given leave to visit their families every ten days (why ten?)

Furthermore, Dog Bird’s journey is similar to my protagonist: because he’s a half-breed, the other upperclass Hwarang don’t want him there. Plus he’s illiterate and bad at everything at first. The scenes were A Ro teaches Dog Bird to write were instructive as I have never been taught how to write with a brush. Also, it’s interesting how they sort of gloss over the fact that he only knows a very limited number of (Chinese) characters and has to master a lot more in order to master basic reading. (He thinks there are only 200 in the world and is quickly disabused of that notion.)

Second and final thing: around the time I was watching the show, I was also reading through 2 Samuel and some of the Psalms of David concurrently as part of the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. Some of King Jinheung’s experiences—of having to hide his identity from others, and of being King only in name and not in authority—resonated with King David’s experience of having been anointed King of Israel by the prophet Samuel, but instead of ruling, he had to flee from King Saul, and live in hiding and in exile. That in turn led me to thinking of the David—King Jesus, who inherits King David’s throne, who was crowned with glory and honour at the cross (Heb 2:9), but who is not yet recognised and acknowledged by all as the true ruler of the world. Obviously the similarity ends there: King Jesus is very different to King Jinheung in that he experiences no doubts or insecurities about his role and his relationship to his subjects. But it was just interesting to think about the “now and not yet”-ness of the world and how the Son of God might be experiencing that now.

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Review: 100 Days My Prince

Netflix, 2018

(16 episodes. 67-85 min each.)

Life has been super crazy lately, but I haven’t forgotten my desire to review the third Joseon-era K-drama I’ve been watching lately (the first two being Moon Embracing the Sun and Love in the Moonlight, though perhaps I should also be counting The King’s Affection).

Like the dramas I’ve mentioned above, 100 Days My Prince (also known as Hundred-Day Husband) has a lot of the same roles. There is a King, but he is a shady character who stole the throne from his brother and whose first wife died as a result of the usurpation. There is a Queen—the King’s second wife—who has a son by the King and who is keen for that son to become Crown Prince, so she schemes behind the scenes. There is a Crown Prince (Lee Yul), but he is cold and resents his father for what he did, blaming him for the deaths of both his mother (the King’s first wife) and his first true love (more about her later). There is also a Crown Princess who is married to the Crown Prince (though he disdains her and refuses to consummate the marriage) and who also happens to be the daughter of the Prime Minister. And there is a Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim again), who orchestrated the King’s path to the throne and who holds the entire court in his iron grip.

(Oh, there’s also a bodyguard, childhood friend of the Crown Prince, but he doesn’t have a very significant role and isn’t on screen for that long.)

100 Days My Prince begins when the Crown Prince was a child and was not the Crown Prince: instead, he was just Lee Yul, nephew to the previous king, who preferred to play than study, and who liked to bully the peasant kids around him. But a girl named Yoon Yi Seo intervenes, sticking up for his victims and rebuking him for his behaviour. Struck by her wisdom and compassion, Lee Yul turns over a new leaf and applies himself to his studies, vowing to one day marry Yi Seo.

Unfortunately for the childhood sweethearts, tragedy strikes: in the upheaval that results from Lee Yul’s father seizing the throne, Yi Seo’s father, the general and right-hand man of the previous king, is killed at the hands of Kim Cha Eon (who becomes Prime Minister Kim). Yi Seo and her older brother, Seok Ha, flee and are pursued. Lee Yul’s father ascends as King, his mother is killed (presumably also at the hands of Kim Cha Eon), and Lee Yul himself becomes Crown Prince against his will.

Fast forward 16 years. Lee Yul is now married to Prime Minister Kim’s daughter, Kim So Hye, the Crown Princess. But he has never forgotten Yi Seo, even though he believes her to be dead. Furthermore, he resents Prime Minister Kim so much for what the Prime Minister did that he refuses to consummate his marriage with the Crown Princess. He also keeps getting sick, and his discreet investigations into the cause of his illness point to the Prime Minister for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

For her part, Yi Seo is now living as a peasant girl named Hong Shim in Songjoo village. She has been adopted by a kind commoner man named Yeon who is a widower, his wife and child having died a while ago. (If you’ve seen Love in the Moonlight, you’ll recognise him as Hong Ra On/Sam Nom’s father.) The night of the coup, Yi Seo was separated from her brother, but because they had promised to wait for each other at this particular bridge at the full moon, every month she makes the trek to the capital to search for him.

It is during one of these pilgrimages that she is spotted by the Crown Prince, who thinks he might be seeing a grown-up Yi Seo. She also comes to the attention of a lowly official and son of a concubine named Jung Jae Yoon, who, despite suffering from prosopagnosia or “face blindness” (which basically means he can’t recognise faces), seems to remember hers and therefore begins to fall for her. (Cue love triangle. You know there has to be one! Also, the prosopagnosia is an important plot point.)

Meanwhile, the Crown Prince is facing pressure from the royal court to consummate his marriage, with many officials suggesting that him doing so will break the terrible drought the country is facing. The Crown Prince is rightly sceptical and decrees that if that’s what it will take to bring rain, all the single people in the kingdom must get married within the month or face the consequences.

Unfortunately this has consequences for Yi Seo/Hong Shim, who is the oldest spinster in her village. The local lecherous nobleman makes her an offer to become his fifth wife, but she turns him down, hoping for another solution.

The King sends the Crown Prince to officiate a ritual for rain, but on the way, he is attacked by assassins and flees, accompanied only by his bodyguard. To keep the Crown Prince safe, the bodyguard switches clothes with him and leads their pursuers away. But the Crown Prince has an accident and ends up wounded and unconscious near Songjoo village.

He is found by Yeon, Yi Seo/Hong Shim’s adoptive father, and nursed back to consciousness. But as he is now suffering from amnesia, Yeon takes the advantage of the situation and tells him that he is actually a young man named Na Won Deuk, who is betrothed to marry Yi Seo/Hong Shim. Thus the two of them save Yi Seo/Hong Shim from getting flogged. Yi Seo/Hong Shim and the Crown Prince/Lee Yul/Na Won Deuk actually get married. But their relationship is far from harmonious, with the Crown Prince proving himself to be a rather useless peasant, landing himself in enormous debt (thanks to his upper class tastes!) with the local money lender not long after the wedding.

Meanwhile, the palace is in an uproar, trying to locate the missing Crown Prince, even though some factions within wish him dead. Jung Jae Yoon is pining for Yi Seo, even as he secretly investigates the Crown Prince’s disappearance and is unexpectedly made governor of Soongjoo Village. And Yi Seo’s older brother, Seok Ha, comes back on the scene—only now he seems to be at the beck and call of Prime Minister Kim …

There’s a lot of things I enjoyed about this drama. I liked the way the plot combines a number of Joseon drama/romance tropes into one coherent storyline: there’s the Prime Minister controlling the court, trying to undermine the king; there’s a romantic lead with amnesia; there are hidden identities; long-lost/childhood lovers are reunited without them realising (also a feature of Moon Embracing the Sun); there’s a marriage of convenience; and there are enemies who become lovers (watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo bicker is very entertaining, as well as instructive about how marriages were supposed to work under Confucianism). I liked that this drama focused on the lives of the peasants and how hard things were for them under the heel of the nobility. (I really felt for Yi Seo, anxious over the financial stress the Crown Prince’s bad decisions cause her family.) The minor characters are delightful and humourous, and do well to portray village and community life where everyone is so reliant on one another. And I liked watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo gradually fall for one another and discover the truth about each other, even as they try to deny their feelings. (There’s also a sly dig at romance novels, with the Crown Prince taking a job copying out works of popular fiction—including a volume titled Fifty Shades of Mr Gray.) Although there are aspects of the main story and the subplots involving some of the minor characters that are grim and tragic, these are balanced by the lighter fare in both the romance storyline and the villagers. Furthermore, justice comes to those who deserve it, the love triangle does not end badly, and the ruse the King pulls that finally brings about the Happily Ever After was, I thought, rather satisfying as it brought aspects of the story full circle.

The one quibble I had with the drama was the final scene: although it hints at the Happily Ever After and tries to tie up everything in a neat bow, I still wanted a little bit more. Unlike Moon Embracing the Sun where we’re given a glimpse of life several years later, 100 Days My Prince just ends. There were a couple of plot arcs and character threads that I felt were unresolved—such that the final episode left me unsatisfied and full of questions. It reminded me a bit of how Eternal Love ends: the lovers are reunited and get their Happily Ever After, but their union is not quite established in community the way it should be—which wouldn’t matter if Lee Yul and Yi Seo were just commoners, but he is the Crown Prince, for goodness’ sake.

I realise this sort of thing might only bother me. But if you happen to watch this one, let me know what you think and whether this annoys you too.

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Review: Love in the Moonlight

Netflix, 2016

(18 episodes; 59 min each)

So following on from my review of Moon Embracing the Sun, I wanted to talk about Love in the Moonlight, which is a much lighter, happier show. I’m not a big fan of the title and don’t see why the translators couldn’t have just stuck to the original title of the book from which the series is derived: Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (by Yoon Yi Soo and Kim Hee Kyung). The image is a metaphor: in this case, the moon is the King and the clouds are the people, and the idea is that of a King “drawn with the will of the people”.

This is important to remember, because at first glance, Love in the Moonlight seems like another Joseon-era romance. Oh, it certainly has the trappings of a palace drama much like Moon Embracing the Sun. But it’s not just that. There is a King on the throne, but he’s a bit unstable, having been very affected by the peasant uprising 10 years ago that left thousands dead. There’s a Queen, but she’s a second wife, daughter of the Prime Minister; the first Queen, mother of the Crown Prince, passed away under suspicious circumstances. There’s the villain of the piece—the Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim, this time), who pretty much controls the court and prevents the King from doing any good. There’s a Princess, sister to the Crown Prince—Princess Myeong Eun, who is portrayed by one of the few plus-size actresses to appear in a K-Drama (though—spoiler: she undergoes a makeover). And of course, there’s the male lead: the Crown Prince—Lee Yeong—who is based on a real person: Crown Prince Hyomyeong, who lived 1809-1830, who was famous for being a very talented writer, composer and choreographer, and who died very tragically at the age of 20. (His death is not part of this drama though. I wonder why the authors decided to use a real historical figure instead of just making one up.)

In addition, the Crown Prince has a handsome bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who grew up with the prince, as well as with Kim Yoon Sung, the only male heir of Prime Minister Kim’s family (the third side of the love triangle). When they were children, Yoon Sung was once the Crown Prince’s best friend. But now that they are older, they are estranged because of Prime Minister Kim and the Prime Minister’s suspected involvement in the death of the former Queen.

“But what of our female lead?” I hear you ask. Good question! In this drama, she’s a young lady named Hong Ra On who has spent most of her life disguised as a boy named Hong Sam Nom. It’s for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, but her mother said it had to do with her safety. Now at 18 years old, she has lost her mother and is living with a travelling performer who found her just after the peasant uprising 10 years ago and took her in. But he’s sick and feels guilty for being such a burden on her. She makes money by writing novels, giving out relationship advice (for which she has a particular talent) and even writing love letters for people. However, she’s also in debt with some very bad people.

The series opens on the Crown Prince, who isn’t really taking his role as the monarch’s heir seriously. But when he finds out that his sister, Princess Myeong Eun, has been receiving love letters from a stranger, he resolves to put an end to what he sees as an unsuitable relationship. The thing is, Hong Sam Nom has been writing those letters, and her patron begs her to go meet with the Princess (who she doesn’t know is the object of his affection) to call it off and to apologise for falling for her in the first place. Even though Hong Sam Nom is a commoner, she dresses up as an aristocrat to attend the meeting and runs into the Crown Prince, who is in disguise. This confuses her initially as she thought she was going to meet a woman. For his part, the Crown Prince is suspicious of Hong Sam Nom and wants to find out what noble house she belongs to. To extricate herself from the situation, Hong Sam Nom causes them both to fall into a deep hole, and the only way out is for the Crown Prince to hoist her up on his shoulders so she can climb out and go for help. She doesn’t, though: she leaves him in the pit, promising that if they should ever meet again (and you can tell she doesn’t think they will), she will do whatever he says.

Unfortunately Hong Sam Nom’s matchmaking activities have gotten her in trouble and there are people after her. While on the run, she encounters Kim Yoon Sung, grandson of Prime Minister Kim, who works out pretty quickly that Hong Sam Nom is a girl and not a boy, and who helps her. (He also falls for her later, though he pretends not to know her secret.) This respite is short-lived; her debt collectors catch up with her and she is sold to the palace as a eunuch. (The scene where she manages to avoid castration is both hilarious and mildly horrifying in that this is what they used to do to people.) And then when she is forced to enter the palace, she runs into the Crown Prince again (not knowing he is the Crown Prince). He, remembering her promise to him, makes it his mission to help her pass all the eunuch examinations so that she has to stay. And then over time, she and the Crown Prince begin to fall for one another …

Of course, no love story is easy, and there is plenty of drama and heartbreak as their relationship unfolds against the backdrop of palace intrigue/Prime Minister Kim’s machinations, the return of the peasant uprising from 10 years ago, and the truth about Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s identity, which threatens to split the two lovers apart.

There is a lot I love about this show. The leads are absolutely adorable: Kim Yoo Jung (who plays the younger version of Heo Yeon Woo, the female lead in Moon Embracing the Sun) is gorgeously expressive, regardless of whether she’s doing a comedic scene or a dramatic one. She doesn’t quite pass for a boy (everyone keeps going on about how she’s too pretty), but she does a decent job at playing one, and clearly seems to relish some of the freedoms that passing as a male gives her.

Park Bo Gum, who I had never seen before in a K-Drama, makes a wonderfully handsome Crown Prince, and the way he brings out the prince’s emotions throughout the course of their turbulent love affair makes him very deserving of the awards he won for that role.

The chemistry between those two are part of what make the series so very addictive, and I could watch the scenes where they come to know the truth about each other over and over again, and not get sick of them. (The scene when Hong Sam Nom learns that Lee Yeong is the Crown Prince is absolutely hilarious!) Also, unlike Jung Ji Woon, the male lead in The King’s Affection, the Crown Prince, in the midst of falling for Hong Sam Nom/Ra On does actually seem conflicted about the idea that he might be gay, instead of glossing over the issue (though that doesn’t last very long).

The leads aside, my favourite cast member is Kwak Dong Yeon (who makes a brief appearance in very memorable episode of It’s Okay Not to Be Okay as the son of an assemblyman who has been diagnosed with mania). Dong Yeon plays the bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who is trusted and valued by the Crown Prince but who is also secretly working for the resistance. Although he doesn’t say much, he does a lot of acting with his eyes and his body, and you can really see how conflicted he is, torn between his loyalty to the cause, and his friendship with both the Crown Prince and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On. (There’s a lovely scene at the end of the second episode when the three of them are enjoying a chicken dinner outside, sitting on a pyung sang—that is, one of those square wooden benches found in the yards of Korean houses—and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On is waxing lyrical about how unpopular the Crown Prince is among the palace staff while Byung Yeon is trying not to laugh and failing, much to the Crown Prince’s disgust.) Also, the way Byung Yeon puts out candlelight—and the way Hong Sam Nom/Ra On complains about it—had me in stitches.

The other minor characters are also terrific and well-rounded. I particularly liked Cho Ha Yeon, daughter of Minister Cho, who becomes Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s rival, but not in a way that reduced her to a two-dimensional stereotype like the Queen in Moon Embracing the Sun. In addition, if you’ve seen Moon Embracing the Sun, you’ll notice some of those actors popping up in this—for example, the actor who played the King and the actress who played the Chief Shaman.

Secondly, I appreciated seeing palace life from the perspective of the eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting—something that was not really present in Moon Embracing the Sun. These are the people who work closely with the royal family, tending to their needs and carrying out their wishes. But I’d be willing to bet very little is known about them and their inner lives. I liked learning small historical details about them—for example, I did not know that women who serve in the palace are considered property of the King and are not allowed to have relationships with other men. There were little shots of what the palace kitchens were like (I find it interesting that the food is usually cooked outdoors). Also, there’s a couple of attempted poisonings, and you can see why Korean royalty were paranoid and ate off metal tableware using metal chopsticks in the hopes of detecting dangerous substances.

Thirdly, I liked how the romance plot tied in so well with the larger story about the kingdom and the different factions wrestling for control of it. The lovers’ suffering always feels organic instead of forced, and at times, I did wonder how on earth things were going to result in a Happily Ever After.

That said, there were two things that made me unhappy. Firstly, as usual, the love triangle doesn’t end well. I don’t know if that’s a spoiler, but it never seems to end well for the extraneous side—which is a shame, because I really liked Kim Yoon Sung, and he could have had a happy ending. Secondly—and this is my main critique of the series—I liked the way the whole thing unfolded up until the very last 20 minutes when everything felt really rushed. Apparently the network wanted the creators to make 20 episodes, but the actors had only been booked for 18, so they only made 18. I think they could have used at least one more to tie up all the loose ends. This is why the ending feels less like a Happily Ever After and more like a Happily For Now, and I found it less satisfying than Moon Embracing the Sun. That said, perhaps my expectations were wrong: this is not solely about the core romantic relationship, but also about the King being drawn by the will of the people. In that respect, at least, I guess it sort of lived up to its title, and perhaps I am just being greedy in wanting a little more.

Final thing: apparently this drama is leaving Netflix on 15 May, which is sad. You can also find it on Viki Rakuten, but not if you’re in Australia (or at least not yet. Perhaps that will change once it leaves Netflix). If you do check it out, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once

I don’t think I have ever seen a movie as absolutely insane as Everything Everywhere All At Once.

If you were to go to a producer and say, “I want to make a movie with dialogue mostly in Mandarin and broken English about a middle age Chinese woman named Evelyn who gave up everything—including her parents’ acceptance—to migrate to the US with her husband Waymond and run a coin laundry, where they raise their daughter Joy, who is clearly struggling with living as a child of two worlds and who seeks wider acceptance for her relationship with her girlfriend—particularly during the family Chinese New Year celebration, when Evelyn’s super traditional and rather frail father has come to stay, but of course, this is happening at the same time as Evelyn and Waymond are being audited by the IRS, plus Waymond is filing for divorce and trying to talk to Evelyn about it, and then Evelyn gets drawn into a crusade by the Alpha universe to save the multiverse from the evil schemes of a shadowy figure named Jobu Tupaki, who looks suspiciously like Joy and who wants to destroy it all—and by the way, there’s a universe where everyone has sausages for fingers, as well as a universe where no life evolved, though there are a couple of talking rocks, and also, could we get some googly eyes?”, I reckon no movie producer in their right mind would ever have wanted to make this film.

And yet somehow, the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) got it made and it is BRILLIANT.

First of all, the cast is phenomenal. Michelle Yeoh makes the seamless transition from down-on-her-luck so-very-Chinese-in-only-the-way-Chinese-mums-can-be Evelyn to absolutely awesome take-the-room-apart kung fu master of the multiverse. Stephanie Hsu matches her as Joy, undergoing more over-the-top costumes changes than a Lady Gaga concert. The one who blew me away the most, though, was Ke Huy Quan as Waymond, making the leap from mild-mannered/painfully submissive and pathetic Waymond to take-charge/swoon-worthy Alpha Waymond sometimes multiple times within the one scene. (Special mention should be made of Harry Shum Jr, whose scenes could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor but were among the most enjoyable, even as they were crazy. SO CRAZY!)

Second of all, although the film is a high-concept save-the-multiverse science fiction action adventure, it is also a rumination on the roads less travelled and the choices that make us who we are AS WELL AS being a smaller drama about one particular family struggling with their own very particular problems that span generations, encompass cultural issues and are characteristic of the Chinese American migrant experience, where east clashes with west. If that sounds like a lot, it is. And yet the script never loses the details, it never simplifies the issues, and it never lets go of the tension, even in the midst of the more ridiculous scenes that had me in absolute stitches, gasping for air. In the hands of other directors, things could have easily spun out of control, leaving the audience lost. Not here: you know exactly what’s going on at all times, even during scenes that cut rapidly back and forth with other scenes—other universes.

Thirdly and finally, although there is a lot of violence and some amazing martial arts on display, the way the plot is resolved is as unexpected as it is beautiful, tying together everything I’ve just talked about—the science fiction elements to do with saving the multiverse, Evelyn’s feelings about her life and where she has come to be at this point in it, and even the conflicts in the core relationships between the principle characters. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” comes together in a neat bow that is both emotionally satisfying and hugely poignant. I couldn’t have asked for more.

5 stars.

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Review: Moon Embracing the Sun

Netflix, 2012

(20 episodes; 63-72 min each)

I’ve been escaping reality lately by watching a whole slew of Korean Joseon-era dramas. Sometimes I think watching period dramas is a lot like watching fantasy: everything is different enough to seem like a completely different world—from the clothing to the social structures to the food to the customs and so on. (Certainly Bridgerton is pure fantasy that seems to completely ignore Britain’s colonial history.)

There are three that I’ve completed recently and I thought I’d review them over subsequent blog posts. (Sorry Facebook friends: I’m posting these reviews to my blog because my blog is way easier to search than my Facebook page.) I did consider putting all three reviews into one post, but that would make it waaaay too long. Nevertheless, I’m hoping I can still compare and contrast them, because I find the commonalities between them quite interesting. I don’t know if the Joseon K-Drama is an actual genre the way that wuxia and xanxia novels/films/TV shows are in Chinese culture—it probably is and I’m just ignorant—but it’s interesting identifying some of the tropes and how each series uses them.

The Joseon era of Korean history (from my very meagre knowledge of the subject) lasted for about five hundred years—1392 to 1897. From what I can gather, it was a pretty turbulent time, with Korea existing as a vassal state to China, on the one hand, and being invaded by Japan on the other.

Moon Embracing the Sun was adapted from the novel by Jung Eun Gwol and contains many of the trappings of a Joseon K-Drama: a King is on the throne, but his rule is unstable due to various factions within his court—the largest one led by one particular court official with a lust for power, who often is/becomes the Prime Minister; the King’s successor, the Crown Prince, is usually the romantic male lead in the A plot, who often clashes with his father because their desires and goals do not align; there is a Queen, who may or may not be the Crown Prince’s mother (though in this particular drama she is); there’s a Crown Princess, who is not necessarily the romantic female lead (more about her later; it’s complicated); there’s a Princess, the Crown Prince’s sister, who carries the B plot; and there’s the third side of the love triangle involving the romantic leads (though depending on the drama, there can be multiple triangles involving various characters).

Moon Embracing the Sun begins with a bit of a prologue: the Queen, concerned about her son’s succession to the throne, orders the assassination of her stepson, the King’s son by a concubine, and enlists Lord Yoon Dae Hyung to help bring it about. Unfortunately the hit is witnessed by A-ri, a shaman of the Royal Astrology House who grew up with the stepson and knew that the bastard prince had no interest in becoming King.

A-ri is discovered and pursued, and in her flight, she runs into the pregnant wife of the Chief Scholar, who helps her and hides her. In return, A-ri vows to protect the unborn child and prophesies about the child, who she claims will have a noble, but tragic fate. Here’s where the imagery of the series title comes into play: the “sun” is the King; the “moon” is the Queen. But there can only be one sun and one moon. Two suns spells instability for the kingdom; two moons spell instability for the King. She predicts a bloodbath in the palace, and the rest of the series plays out in the shadow of this prophecy.

Unfortunately A-ri is captured, tortured and sentenced to be executed. Before her death by dismemberment (definitely not a nice way to go!), A-ri enlists her best friend and fellow trainee at the Royal Astrology House Jang Nok Yeong to look after the Chief Scholar’s child in her stead.

Fast forward 13 years. The Chief Scholar’s child is born: Heo Yeon Woo, a girl of great beauty and singular intelligence and wisdom. (As a 13-year-old, she’s played by the absolutely adorable Kim Yoo Jung, who goes on to do Love in the Moonlight, which I will review next.) Jang Nok Yeong ascends to become the Chief Shaman of the Royal Astrology House and therefore at the beck and call of the former Queen, who is now the Queen Dowager. In the absence of any competition, the Queen Dowager’s son has become King and has sired three children: a son by a concubine (Prince Yang Myung), the Crown Prince (Prince Lee Hwon) who is two years younger than Prince Yang Myung, and Princess Min Hwa. In addition, the Queen Dowager’s murderous accomplice, Lord Yoon Dae Hyung, has become Prime Minister (Prime Minister Yoon).

(Hopefully you’re still with me after all those names! For the purposes of the A plot, the most important ones you need to remember are Heo Yeon Woo, the Chief Scholar’s Daughter, and the Crown Prince.)

One fine day, Heo Yeon Woo goes to visit the palace with her mother because her older brother, Heo Yeom, who came first in the academic exam, is being honoured, along with the other graduates of the civil service examination. (This includes Kim Jae Woon, who came first in martial arts and who was childhood friends with Heo Yeom and Prince Yang Myung. I only mention him because he eventually fills the role of the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Strangely enough in these dramas, the bodyguard is the only male at court who doesn’t wear a manggeon/circular headband, and his wild hair usually makes him appear more attractive. See Kim Ga On, the bodyguard in The King’s Affection.)

During the ceremony, Heo Yeon Woo becomes distracted by a butterfly and decides to chase it, which takes her into another part of the palace grounds. There she runs in the 15-year-old Crown Prince, Lee Hwon. (The younger version of him is played by Yeo Jin Goo, who was the hotel manager in Hotel Del Luna.)

At first, Heo Yeon Woo thinks that Crown Prince is a thief, because he’s carrying a bag full of stuff and is trying to escape the palace by climbing over its walls. He seeks to defend himself, saying that he just wants to go visit his brother, Prince Yang Myung, who has been sent to live outside of the palace—perhaps by the Queen Dowager, who is concerned, again, about the line of succession. But the Crown Prince does not reveal his identity to Heo Yeon Woo—at least, not at first, fearing that if he does, she would change the way she is treating him. Instead, he begins to fall for her, thanks to her intelligence and wisdom, and very strong sense of what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, before she leaves the palace grounds that day, he finds a way to send her a note with a riddle that causes her to work out who he is.

Now for the love triangles—of which there are two: not only does the Crown Prince fall for Heo Yeon Woo, but his older brother Prince Yang Myung is also in love with her, having been acquainted with her through his friendship with her older brother, Heo Yeom. For her part, Heo Yeon Woo has no interest in Prince Yang Myung, but instead develops an affection for the Crown Prince—so much so that when the time comes for the Crown Prince’s marriage to be arranged, she willingly becomes a candidate, even though she knows that if she fails to become the Crown Princess, she can never marry.

Of course, Heo Yeon Woo isn’t the only candidate, and there are forces at work behind the scenes, trying to make sure that the future Queen is someone who can be controlled—who can influence the future King in the “right” direction. The Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon put forward Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, Yoon Bo Kyung, who takes one look at the palace and decides she wants to live there. She and Heo Yeon Woo are placed in the company of Princess Min Hwa to befriend there, but there’s a rivalry between them from the start—particularly as Princess Min Hwa favours Heo Yeon Woo because she is in love with Yeon Woo’s older brother, Heo Yeom. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong sees immediately that the two girls are the two moons who will bring instability to the King.

The Crown Prince is desperate to marry Heo Yeon Woo, but unfortunately he has no say in the matter as royal marriages are usually decided by the Queen Dowager. The way he gets around this is quite inventive, though, and fortunately for the two young lovers, Heo Yeon Woo passes all the tests and becomes the Crown Princess.

This does not please the Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon, though, and they enlist Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to curse her with magic. The Royal Astrology House is dependent on the patronage of the Queen Dowager for its survival in an age of Confucianism, you see, and so this places Shaman Jang Nok Yeong in a very difficult position. On the one hand, she needs to appease the Queen Dowager or risk the destruction of her order; on the other hand, she made a promise to A-ri to watch over and protect Heo Yeon Woo. Her solution is to pull something of a Romeo and Juliet: she casts evil spells on Heo Yeon Woo that make her seriously ill—so ill that she is forced to leave the palace, much to the Crown Prince’s distress—and then she gives her a potion that makes her seem dead. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong hopes to give her a fresh start, and at first, things certainly seem that way—particularly as, after Heo Yeon Woo is revived, she loses all memory of her former life and is taken away by Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to become her apprentice.

Fast forward eight years to episode 7 (and I promise I’ll stop recounting the plot in a moment). The entire cast changes and that’s quite disconcerting as you then have to get used to who the new actors are playing. The Crown Prince has now ascended to the throne as King. He has been married against his will to Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, but he disdains his Queen and refuses to sleep with her, despite of the pressure his court places on him, because he still mourns for Heo Yeon Woo. Prime Minister Yoon controls his court and works against him, on the one hand; the Queen Dowager, who is still alive, also tries to manipulate things behind the scenes from her end. Prince Yang Myung still isn’t that welcome in the palace, and the relationship between him and the King is strained. (The Prince also still mourns Heo Yeon Woo and has also not moved on.) The King’s only friends are his chief body guard, Kim Jae Woon, and his chief eunuch. (His interactions with his chief eunuch are one of the few moments where the series feels more lighthearted; otherwise, it’s all very serious and tense, much like The King’s Affection.) Princess Min Hwa, however, has been given her wish and has married Heo Yeom.

The Prime Minister, sensing the Queen Dowager’s influence is waning, is seeking more power for himself. The Queen Dowager, for her part, is keen to establish her dominance, and summons Shaman Jang Nok Yeong back to court. This brings Heo Yeon Woo (now known as Shaman Weol) back into the palace—and back into the orbit of the King, who has never forgotten her. But it’s been eight years and she still has amnesia …

Moon Embracing the Sun, much like The King’s Affection is a very tense drama. There’s not a lot of lightheartedness to it, aside from a few of the interactions between the characters. (The King, for example, likes to tease his chief eunuch by implying that he and his chief bodyguard are romantically involved.) That said, I thought the cast was excellent: the younger actors in the lead roles were particularly charming, and I could see why both the Crown Prince and Prince Yang Myung fell for Heo Yeon Woo in the first place, and why they mourned her for so long. Their older counterparts do a good job, and I did like Kim Soo Hyun who plays the older Crown Prince/King, even if he does get a bit shouty and impatient at times. (Kim Soo Hyun was the male lead in It’s Okay Not to be Okay, which, unfortunately, I have never reviewed on this blog, but it is excellent. Also, not a Joseon K-drama. I think Moon Embracing the Sun was his breakout role.) Ha Ga In is lovely as Heo Yeon Woo/Shaman Weol (though, in my opinion, overshadowed by her younger counterpart), and while the amnesia plot is somewhat frustrating, it’s also very satisfying in the third act when the truth finally comes to light and the suffering of the leads is vindicated. The more minor characters I have not mentioned here are also terrific because they are fully fleshed out with their own smaller arcs, and at times, they are even given more to do than just aid the leads.

The court politics were not that interesting to me, though they did spur a lot of the tension that plays out in the backdrop of the A plot love story. I did like that much was made of the morality of characters’ decisions, with those decisions determining whether they will walk the path of righteousness or no, and therefore whether justice will be eventually be served (even K-dramas can’t escape fate!) Princess Min Hwa’s arc in particular was very well done, though devastating.

The part that disappointed me was what happened with the extraneous sides of the two love triangles: the Prime Minister’s daughter/Queen Yoon Bo Kyung never really stands a chance, and Prince Yang Myung never finds happiness (though his actions are very heroic).

But I did like that the series tied things up well at the very end, particularly as not all K-Dramas do that: after all that tragedy, you do actually find out what happens to all the characters. There is a reckoning, there is forgiveness and there is even redemption. But there is also peace and the re-establishment of order. Things are made right in the end, and while not everyone gets a happy ending, there is still a happily ever after.