“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

My Kindle Mocks My To-Read Shelf: Machine Learning, Bestsellers, and the Future of Publishing

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This short (>8min) Vox video on machine learning is terrific. It’s a fascinating look at the way work is being automated.

It also reminds me of last month’s post about the academics who created an algorithm to analyze books to see if they’ll become bestsellers or not. Brief summary: they subjected thousands of books to several kinds of analysis in order to identify traits that the bestsellers had that the non-bestsellers did not. They found nearly 2800 distinct differences.

The algorithm couldn’t create a bestseller, and in their book the academics were clear the technology was a long way off, if it was possible at all.

The video above explains why that is, and why the software’s ability to teach itself is so interesting. Recommended.

Since that last post, the academics who developed the algorithm and wrote the book have opened a consulting service. Of course, right? It’s the natural next step. As an author, I guess I’m supposed to find this threatening/a sham/the end of literature, but I don’t. It’s just information. The only real question is whether it’s good information.

I won’t be worried until the day editors stop reading manuscripts my agent sends them unless they’re accompanied by an Archer-Jockers Score(tm). And I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

But no, seriously, that’s an interesting video up there.

As I write this, The Twisted Path has eighteen reviews on Amazon. My short fiction collection, which includes a 20P novelette, has eleven. It would be extremely useful if those numbers could be boosted to twenty-five. Fifty would be even better. Amazon has algorithms of its own, and works with a number of reviews that pass a certain threshold get more prominent placing in search results.

It’s all pretty opaque, but what it boils down to is more reviews=more visibility. If you read and enjoyed either of those works, please consider dropping a review for it.

SPFBO, The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off

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Have you guys heard of this?

Author Mark Lawrence, in an attempt to help self-publishing authors publicize their work, created a Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. The system is simple: He recruited ten reviewers with blogs, solicited 300 fantasy novels from self-published authors, and distributed them. Each reviewer picks one out of their 30 to move to the finals. Then the reviewers choose a winner.

The Way into Chaos is one of those finalists.

The winner gets an award, but most importantly, a publicity boost, which is a big hurdle for self-published work. Last year’s winner also landed a publishing deal with Orbit.

So, if you’ve been thinking you’d love to try some indie fantasy but don’t know where to start, snag one of these finalists (right after you read mine).

Speaking of snagging one of mine, did you know that I’m trying to revive my Twenty Palaces series with a new novella that picks up where Circle of Enemies left off? Grab a copy today.

Where Things Stand with The Twisted Path after One Whole Day

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Let’s see:

The Twisted Path has its permanent reference post up on my blog. I also added the cover art to the front page in the Twenty Palaces section. (That felt good.)

I posted a download link for Patreon supporters, and sent messages to patrons who quit the service after their quickly reverted rate changes.

At nine-thirty-ish last night, I started sending out the newsletter announcing the book was available. As I type this at about three o’clock the next afternoon, it’s going to be another eight and a half hours before they finish sending. (To prevent throttling by my ISP, they go out at a rate of only 50/hr) So far, only four unsubscribes, which is pretty good considering it’s been a year and a half since the last one.

The first Goodreads and Amazon reviews have appeared. I’ve sent a copy to someone who may post a review on a high-traffic site (fingers crossed). I’ve sent a copy to Booklife, who gave The Way into Chaos a starred review and will maybe consider reviewing this one.

For the moment, the Amazon sales rank is below 1800, which is a very nice place to be.

In the reference post mentioned above, I reminded folks about the Twenty Palaces novelette “The Homemade Mask”, which was part of my short fiction collection. I thought I hit the 20P connection pretty hard back in 2014 when it came out, but in today’s sudden surge of new sales, about 10% have been the collection. The frontlist drives the backlist, I guess.

I also realized that I’ve spelled “The Homemade Mask” many different ways, including “The Hand Made Mask” at least once. Oops.

iBooks keeps kicking back the files I upload, giving me impenetrable error codes that are deciphered by Apple support through an exchange of emails. Not exactly timely.

B&N have finally posted the book for sale, but as of two seconds ago, without the cover. If I look at all the books written by people with my name, the cover art is there. If I click and go to the dedicated page, it’s “Image not available.” And email has been sent on that issue, too.

Did I mention that Nook has the most infuriating ebook uploading system? Worse even than iBooks. Centered text isn’t centered, and if you go into their manuscript editing section and manually set the text to be centered, it still isn’t centered. Have internal art? Set the size to very small and watch nothing happen. The world needs more skilled coders because the ones we have are making my blood pressure shoot through the roof.

Smashwords remains hilariously demanding for the amount of sales it provides. I’m not reading a fucking style guide for a couple of dozen sales. The epub is fine. Just accept it.

Amazon remains the center of book sales, and an odd duck. I uploaded the file from my own author page, but the book isn’t connected with my other works yet. I had to ask for that to be done separately, and it should take a few days. I’m also not sure how well the new book is connected to the rest of the series. I listed it as the fourth 20P in the information page as I was uploading it, but it doesn’t show. I also just noticed that the paper version of the prequel novel, Twenty Palaces, is listed as part of the series, but the Kindle edition is not.

Also, in the past I refused to give Amazon permission to sell my books in Mexico, India, Japan, and Brazil. Those are big markets, but unless you sell exclusively through Amazon, they won’t take a 30% sales commission. Instead, they take 65%. I’d rather not sell in those markets than be leaned on for a sixty-fucking-five percent commission, but the book wouldn’t publish unless I signed up for them. Which is annoying. Wish I could opt out.

In the middle of all this, I tucked my 27″ iMac into a canvas bag and took a bus out to the Apple store to get them to repair a dead ethernet plug. In the end, dude fixed it by rebooting and holding down a special combination of keys that reset the peripherals. Voila, the ethernet appeared in my network preferences again. Which meant I spent two hours, three-quarters of that on a bus, to do something I could have googled up at home. Go me.

Thank you to everyone posting reviews, talking about it on social media, dropping notes on reddit, and spreading the word in places I don’t even know about. Your enthusiasm is what makes this work.

Now to wrestle with iBooks again.

The Twisted Path

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Connolly’s Lovecraft-ian/Geiger-style lore and world building is amazing. I have enjoyed all of his novels and novellas, but none have been as anticipated as The Twisted Path.
— Jason Weisberger, BOINGBOING

Most of you reading this know that, a few years back, I said I was setting the Twenty Palaces stories aside due to a lack of sales. Readers were unhappy (although not as unhappy as I was) but I think they understood, for the most part. You understood. I wanted a growing readership that spread across the land and the seas and conquered all, but 20P wasn’t going to be that. Not for me.

I didn’t want to abandon it, but I’m not prolific enough to write a Ray Lilly book and a non-Ray Lilly book every year. Could I grow my readership by self-publishing more 20P, and only 20P? Clearly not. Even with Del Rey behind me, sales dwindled.

That extremely nebulous plan I had for the overall series went onto a back burner.

However, it wasn’t long after that I heard about other authors supplementing their series with novellas. I could do that too, couldn’t I?

The answer turned out to be No. I knew what came next in the series, but I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. After I finished The Great Way trilogy, I took a stab. I tried again after I revamped A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark. Both times, the story felt dead in the water. I was getting nowhere with it.

Then I talked it over with my son. I told him that the pacing was all wrong and the whole thing felt lifeless. He recommended I restructure it in an unusual way, and I’ll be damned if his advice wasn’t so on the nose that I took it verbatim. If you read the story, you’ll see what I mean.

Are you new to Twenty Palaces? This isn’t the place to start.

The Twisted Path picks up shortly after “The Homemade Mask,” (included here) which is set only a few days after the end of Circle of Enemies. This is the true beginning of the next phase of the Twenty Palaces story.

Yeah. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned that extremely nebulous plan? The first three books were meant to be about Ray working with Annalise against the predators. The next set digs deeper into the society itself and the spell books that pre-date the human race. That’s why the title style has changed from “[Noun] of [Noun]” to “The [Adjective] [Noun]”. When this series of stories wraps up (assuming things go well) Ray and Annalise will move on to the next phase, and the titles will change again.

But while the first four books were written so that readers could jump in with any of them, this one won’t be much fun unless you know what’s come before. I’d recommend starting the series with either Child of Fire, or the prequel Twenty Palaces.

Does that mean there will be more Ray Lilly stories after this one? I hope so. Circle of Enemies came out in 2011, more than six years ago. Is there still interest? That’s the real question. Time (and the Amazon.com Author Dashboard) will tell.

Which just means that, if you read it and like it, please spread the word.

Pick up your copy here:

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

New Twenty Palaces Novella Coming Soon

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I’ve been talking about this here and there, so let’s hit the topic one more time, but with art.

The new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, will be released soon. I just got the copyedit back, so sometime in the next few days, I guess? Being a novella, it’ll be ebook only, and I hope you’ll buy yourself a copy for Christmas.

Here’s the photo the cover was created from and the original.

My wife took that picture in the public square in Evora, Portugal. My son adjusted the image (in GIMP) and I did the text. I’m pretty happy with it.

And I’m pretty happy with The Twisted Path too. I’ve come at this story several times over the last few years. It was only this last effort where I feel I “solved” the story.

Of course, you guys will be the final judge of that.

If you want to hear about the novella as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter right there in the sidebar.

Seeing the Forest for the Algorithm: a Review of Past Edit Notes and a Hard Truth

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In which the author makes an embarrassing confession

One of my little secrets is that, in between projects, I’ll sometimes read a book about writing. It’s always useful to reinforce the basics, and seeing how other writers approach the blank page gives me insights into my own work.

Sometimes I get the impression that I’m supposed to be past all that, but I’m not. I’ve never really felt that I’ve mastered this craft. Some aspects of it, maybe, but I still struggle.

And since I’m brainstorming something new, I took another writer’s casual mention of his favorite book about writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, and borrowed it from the library. I had barely started when I heard a discussion of a different book over the radio. You can listen to that here, if you really feel you have to. It’s not an interview with either of the authors, and the interviewee’s Wired article is more interesting and informative with fewer dopey questions.

The book is The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. Maybe you remember when it came out last year, or maybe the title is enough to guess what the book’s about. The authors created an algorithm to analyze a variety of modern novels, then ran all sorts of books through them: bestsellers, non-bestseller, midlist books, self-published, the whole deal. The algorithm noted the differences, then sorted out the ones that were strongly predictive of bestsellers. According to the authors, their “bestseller-ometer” was capable of predicting whether a book would be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.

It’s correlation, sure, but the authors found nearly 2800 factors that were present in books that made the NY Times list but not present in the ones that didn’t. Yes, the NYT has issues with the ways it manages it’s list and it’s not a true sales meritocracy, but it is a powerful cultural signifier, and Archer, a former Penguin UK editor, wanted to better understand the differences.

The Bestseller Code is an exercise in finding meaning in those differences.

I don’t know if you remember when the book came out last year, but I do. I scoffed at it. Computer analysis? Of a creative endeavor? Please.

But that interview, flawed as it was, piqued my interest, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
It turned out to be interesting stuff.

What we talk about when we talk about luck

First, I want to say that the technology Archer and Jockers deployed—sentiment analysis, topic modeling, and more—was pretty impressive. The field is more advanced than I would have guessed.

Second, it turned out that the way they applied those tools, and the conclusions they drew from them, were entirely unremarkable. (Bolded because I want folks to take note.)

It’s common for folks to talk about success in the arts as part skill, part talent and part luck. I’ve talked at length on this blog about my opinion of “talent”, and at a little less length about “luck.” The effects of luck have been proven experimentally.

My question is always: what are they calling “luck”? What confluence of choices and incidents brought about this fortunate outcome? Because, to me, “luck” is what you call a series of events you don’t understand well enough to predict or control.

But what if we had the tools to look at things more closely? What if we had a better understanding of the differences between what people want to read and what we’re offering? What if we could narrow that gap?

Data doesn’t frighten me. Nihil veritas erubescit.

Besides, I’m a published writer with starred reviews and even, if you can believe it, fans. I already have the skills I need to break through to a larger readership, don’t I?

This is where my agent comes in

As I was reading The Bestseller Code, I kept thinking My agent could have written this.
Let me take an example. Using topic modeling, the algorithm breaks down what each book is “about.” Maybe a certain percentage might be concerned with crime and police work, and a smaller percentage for domestic matters. The next smallest percentage would concern, say, hospitals and medical concerns.

It seemed weird to me that algorithms are sophisticated enough to manage this task until I remembered Pat Rothfuss talking about programs that could handle the task five years ago.

Anyway, the books that sold well had fewer topics (around four), and those topics offered opportunities for dramatic contrast. Books that didn’t sell as well had more topics (around six, if I remember correctly). The subjects were more wide-ranging, less unified.

What’s more, one of the most important predictors of success was that a book devoted a certain amount of time to human interaction and connectedness. If one of the four topics was characters being with the people they cared about, living their lives and dealing with each other, that was a strong indicator of good sales.

Guys, my agent has been trying to teach me these lessons for years. For my whole career, I’ve been trying to establish relationships between characters the way a movie would: with a single, significant gesture or remark. She has been telling me, book after book, to give them more time on the page. To let them relate to each other. To let them bond. It turns out that human interaction in fiction is incredibly powerful, and I’ve been giving it short shrift.

She has also told me—many times—that I need to simplify. Often times I have too many storylines, plot turns, or characters. Especially characters. Too many “topics.” Maybe my work would reach a larger audience if it was more unified.

Another thing the algorithm does is generate plot curves through sentiment analysis. When the language of the book is full of upbeat words, like succeed, kindness, rest, and peace, the plot trends upwards. When it’s full of words like loss, failed, grief, and pain, it trends downward.

What surprised me is that, when the algorithm studied bestsellers, it produced plot curves very similar to the ones writers see all the time. One is quite similar to Freytag’s Pyramid; others matched different but fairly common models.

I’ll admit that I was startled to see a computer pull the old tried-and-true plot diagrams out of bestselling books, and how non-bestsellers seemed so flat. It made me question how well I manage the rise and fall of a plot curve and whether the language I use is appropriate for it.

There were other findings beyond those, obviously. The data was all descriptive, and it covered books that were popular but critically derided as well as popular but prize-winning. Except for a few surprises, like the need for scenes of human connection and a general distaste for sex (::shakes fist at America::) it’s standard stuff. Create a character who really wants something. Have them go after it. Make the plot turns powerful. Keep things focused. Write in a naturalistic style. Hook them in the first few pages.

Honestly, my agent could have written this advice, and as I was coming to the end of the book, it occurred to me that she sort of already had.

In which I step back from my edit notes to examine my edit notes

Just last week, my agent got back to me about a book I’d sent her. The news was bad, I don’t mind admitting, and of course she had some notes to give me.

As I was thinking about how closely the advice in Archer’s and Jocker’s book matched what my agent told me, I got the idea to go back through all her editorial notes for all of my books and look for patterns.

I’ve been happy to take her input—I signed with her, in part, because I knew she’d help make my work better—but I’ve been looking at them case by case. Book by book. It never occurred to me to look for trends.

To be fair, there was usually a year in between each new book, and sometimes more, and I’m a forgetful, disorganized person. It’s easy for me to carefully study a bunch of trees without once considering the forest.

So I opened all my old emails from my agent to review the notes she’d given me. My first thought was that past-me really needed to be more practical with his subject lines. My second thought was that I’d always thought of myself as a slam-bang thriller writer, a guy who could spin out an exciting story. It occurred to me that I wasn’t being exciting enough, because that self-conception wasn’t matched by outside reality. The work I was doing was earning fans and selling books (by my estimation, The Way into Chaos, which was self-published, has sold a little over 13k copies, which would be a fine, fine number for most NY genre publishers) but I wasn’t breaking through to the larger world.

What if I had placed myself in the “Good But Not Good Enough” category, and was missing out because I wasn’t really addressing persistent flaws in my creative choices?

So what were those persistent flaws? Obviously, each book had its unique problems, but there were several that popped up over and over.

Here they are:

  • Book started too slowly
  • Too many characters/plot complications/names
  • Characters not sympathetic enough/don’t have time for personal bonding

The hook must come sooner. More unity. More time for the characters’ relationships.

Honestly, I thought I’d already learned all the skills The Bestseller Code suggested I would need. I thought I was already working at that level. It’s pretty clear that I’m not.

The nice thing is that I’ll have a chance to be mindful of these persistent issues as I start a new book. Will it help? Shit, I hope so. I have ambitions, you guys, and I’m not meeting them.

My agent will still have notes for me, but maybe she won’t have to tell me the same old things she’s had to tell me every other time.

There’s more to say on the subject of computer analysis and the services various tech companies offer publishers, but that’ll have to be next time.

(If you thought this post was interesting or useful, why not share it?)

Justice League (no spoilers)

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Okay. I wasn’t going to see it until next week, but reviews said it was sorta good, so I caught a 7pm sneak tonight.

The theater was mostly empty, a very bad sign.

The movie itself was “pretty good for superhero movies” if that’s any kind of rating that matters. They finally got the heroes right. The villains were still cgi ciphers for a supers plot, with three macguffins that have to be gathered and joined to end the world, etc etc. The parademons were effectively animated but Steppenwolf was an empty shell.

Still, this is the first time I genuinely liked Cavill as Superman. He’s always looked the part, but I never really felt he was playing the Superman I grew up with. Affleck was terrific as Batman, and the others were excellent. Gadot especially. I’m glad they skipped the origin stories and I’m glad they cast charismatic people.

As action movies go, it was exciting, if a bit repetitive. Next time I hope they mix things up more.

Honestly, I can’t decide if this is the power of low expectations, or if I just had fun. Now I’m honestly looking forward to movies for these individual heroes.

Anyway, it’s a quarter after 11 at night and I’ve got a pint of black coffee beside me. THE PUNISHER starts in 45 minutes, and I’ll be sitting up to binge it.

Randomness for 11/8

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1) Why you should crack an egg in your coffee grounds.

2) “Why these all white paintings are in museums and why mine aren’t”

3) Dungeon Hobo Signs

4) Five Tips for Preventing Sexual Harassment We Apparently Need

5) An expanded list of Netflix genres, with links: “Dramas starring Virginia Madsen,” “Gritty Biographical Music and Concert Documentaries,” “Successful Korean Revenge Movies”

6) “Optimization is a form of calcification”: Cory Doctorow on a decade and a half of life-hacking.

7) Every Batman: the Animated Series Villain Ranked from Worst to Best.

Mohawks, Barrel Fires, and a Few Nice Shots: a highly qualified defense of episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS 2

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This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:

a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.

Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)

Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.

The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.

And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.

As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.

Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.

Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.

But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?

First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.

Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.

One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.

I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.

The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)

This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.

Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.

Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.

STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.

It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.

Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.

The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.

Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.

Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.

So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.