Monday, July 30, 2012

Vaccines are a good thing.

News of the recent whooping cough epidemic in Canada has me putting on my raging boots for another science rant. Anti-vaccination rhetoric is an unfortunate consequence of insufficient science literacy and, in some cases, religious dogma. It is difficult to touch the religious crowd with respect to their beliefs, but there are plenty of others out there who are anti-vax simply due to ignorance and misinformation.

Most of the furor over the possible autism-vaccines connection stems from a 1998 paper published by Andrew Wakefield et. al. in the medical journal The Lancet. The paper suggested at a causal link between the MMR vaccine and ''regressive autism" -- autism that develops over time in children that were seemingly neurotypical before -- in 12 young patients. The paper has been thoroughly debunked, and was completely retracted by Lancet in 2010. Wakefield himself has been found guilty by the British General Medical Council of "serious professional misconduct" and struck off the medical register, effectively banning him from ever practicing medicine in the UK again.

As scientists, we don't just stop there. We conduct independent investigations. And what have we found? The Institute of Medicine, over the years, has conducted several in depth reviews of the medical and scientific literature as it relates to all varieties of vaccines and adverse health outcomes. Though in rare cases, their studies have found side-effects of some vaccines in individuals, again, there is no suggestive link between vaccines and autism."But there are side effects!" Well, yes. Of course there are. Just like how some people are allergic to shellfish, and some people experience side effects from, well, any other medication on the market, and any other substance on the planet, some people have reacted poorly to vaccines.

It is truly disappointing to me that concepts of statistical risk and social responsibility, ideas that most people generally seem to understand, suddenly seem to vanish when the subject is vaccination. Some people actually don't know about herd immunity (though everybody should,) but even some who do know still cross their arms, cover their eyes, and insist that they have the "right" to decide what is best for their child. And of course, they do. But when all evidence points to vaccination being what is best, this line of logic indicates nothing other than ignorance, and even hubris, on the part of these parents.

So, what can the rest of us do to combat conspiracy theorists, protect ourselves and others, and raise awareness?
  1. Get vaccinated, obviously, and make sure your family is vaccinated too. As adults, do you know that some of your vaccinations lose their effectiveness over time? Have a blood draw and request a titer test be done to check for your immune status against diseases covered by the regular vaccine schedule. Consider the Tdap booster as an adult, which covers tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis (whooping cough.)
  2. Educate yourself about estimated herd immunity thresholds in your community, and talk about vaccinations in your social circle. Are your friends vaccinated? Are their friends vaccinated? Are their friends' and families' children vaccinated?
  3. And as long as you are going to be talking with other people, be armed with factual, science-based information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines both at the individual level, and at the community level. The links I provided above are a good start, but feel free to dive into primary sources if you are comfortable with scientific jargon. Avoid as sources websites that have an obvious agenda, and that present "evidence" in the form of links to other websites with a similar agenda. You can follow these arguments around in circles and find a lot of charismatic people saying persuasive things, but if they don't back their words up with peer-reviewed, medical evidence, be wary.
  4. If you care for anyone who is particularly at-risk for any of the vaccine-controlled diseases, make sure your home is a safe space for them by only having vaccinated guests. This is awkward and tricky, but it protects the health of your loved ones. And if enough people do this in practice, it can have the effect of exerting social pressure on those who aren't vaccinated for dubious reasons.
These things may be small, but misinformation often spreads between friends and acquaintances in meatspace (offline.) Parents are fanatical about their children, and sometimes a persuasive bad idea, left unchecked, can transform otherwise rational people. Make sure that doesn't happen to the people you know!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Book review: The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan

Amazon: “Beijing, sometime in the near future: a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the Chinese nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core. It is a message that will astound the world.
A kind of Brave New World reflecting the China of our times, The Fat Years is a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future.”

This book is allegedly banned in China, and no wonder: it’s a chilling story that blends fiction and reality to construct an image of modern China, and if not China of exactly today, then the China of ~5 years from now. The novel introduces several characters with a range of lifestyles, motivations, and adaptations to the realpolitik of the Communist Party. The protagonist is not himself prone to revolutionary ideas, but he finds himself “taking the red pill” when he chooses to pursue a woman who has gone into hiding out of protection from the Party. He is one of those who has “forgotten” the lost month, but the woman he loves and a few other friends from the past remember vividly the crackdowns and fear that the government appears to have completely erased. When he falls in with them, he doesn’t begin to remember with complete clarity what happened, as they do, but he better understands his periodic feelings of unease and disillusionment with the seeming happiness and naiveté around him.

As a psuedo-documentary, this book works really well. The characters are fictional, and the specific conflict in the story (alleged government orchestration of an entire month being erased from public consciousness and history) is also fictional. However, the suggestions of power hierarchies and international political maneuvering are 100% believable, if not based in literal truth — and they might very well be, but I can’t consider myself suitably well-informed on  the interactions of the Party and middle-class Chinese to know for sure.

As a fictional novel, the pacing and structure are a little lacking. The “big reveal” when the characters kidnap the Party leader takes place as an enormous infodump that spans close to twenty pages (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s quite a lot,) and though it’s effective in the “pseudo-documentary” format I mentioned above, as a climax to the story it’s too overwhelming in scope to be punchy and effective. The characters do get the answer to their question, and then essentially the novel ends, but when “the answer to the question” reads like a senior thesis on contemporary Chinese politics, the effect on me at the end of the book was like “What just happened?”

Overall, I’d recommend this book as it was absolutely interesting and revealing. Be prepared for the quick shift from fiction to (alleged) nonfiction at the end, though.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Book review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

From Amazon: "A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.
With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition."

Okay, I did not have an easy time with this one. It's another one where critics are falling all over themselves to come up with attention-grabbing superlatives about how much of a genius the author is. Sometimes, novels with these kinds of accolades end up being wonderful, breathtaking novels, and sometimes they are The Flame Alphabet. Four adjectives to describe this book are: pretentious, confusing, depressing, and disjointed. I had a really hard time getting through it. The narrator is canonically 'unreliable,' and though I wouldn't call him misanthropic, he's at the very least cynical with regard to most human interaction. Sometimes his suspicions are justified, but mostly I felt myself wondering if his family members and acquaintances actually did all treat him as awfully as he described?

The plot is, itself, more or less easy to follow. There are, however, attempts to be "creative" with the linearity and pacing that contributed to my inability to enjoy The Flame Alphabet. The main conceit here is a pandemic of language, and its resulting illness and isolation. I don't think this theme really benefited from jarring the reader's sense of time, and it really didn't benefit from the absolutely bizarre sideplot about an imagined form of  mystical Judaism. Basically, the narrator and his wife are members of a secretive sect of Judaism that receive sermons in  individual huts from cables that are wired through the ground, and the story's main antagonist believes that the Jews are the cause and the solution to the pandemic? I think? Anyway, it's really, really strange (and for me, barely understandable.)

I had read a lot of mixed reviews for this before I picked it up, but I found the premise intriguing enough that I eventually decided to add it to the reading list. I don't regret reading it, per se, in that "I wish I had those days of my life back!" kind of way, but ultimately I feel that it tried too hard to be too different. If the author could have explored, more simply and with less distraction, the consequence of losing language, and expressed more chillingly the fear and paranoia inherent in pandemic situations, this would have, I feel, been a much better book. Instead, major conflicts play out with the help of a deus ex machina that allows our characters to speak to each other in the thick of the illness (circumstances which should have killed them both.) Weak emotional connections to seemingly indifferent family members provide the only heart in the book, and as a result I barely cared about any of the characters.

Based on my experience, I can't recommend this book, but there are others out there who did like it, so if you're curious go ahead and give it a read, I suppose.

Equivocation and inconclusive science

I was disappointed to read a recent post from a feminist/skeptic blogger who I usually like. Stephanie Svan's post, Broken Chromosomes and Damaged Brains, refers to comments made on a panel that discussed gender differences (broadly.) Here is the question that prompted the post:

The first statement, called sexist by many viewers, was Heina Dadabhoy’s comment that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome. The other, called outrageously sexist, was Greg Laden’s statement that the male brain is a female brain that has been damaged at various times throughout development by testosterone. The question is, however, are these statements true?
Fair enough premise. The post first investigates the claim regarding the Y chromosome, using this article from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as its reference. The evolution of the Y chromosome essentially stems from a series of self-inversions that left it structurally different from the X; these drastic differences left the X and the Y unable to recombine. Without these recombinations, the Y then was subject to a series of deletions that left it smaller in size. Given this evidence, the post claims that indeed, it is not factually incorrect to say that Y is a "broken" X:
This [evolution] has undesirable consequences for male humans[...], at every stage of development. A short sex chromosome means that males have only one copy of some genes. Sex-linked hemophilia is one of the specific vulnerabilities of males caused by this arrangement. There are plenty of others, and there are a number of vulnerabilities that we’re still not sure to what degree are sex-linked and to what degree our screening processes and social expectations make it more likely that males will be diagnosed. Some of those may also turn out to be attributable to having a Y chromosome.
So, yes, the X chromosome is the original in this situation, and the development of the Y chromosome both depleted the X chromosome and did so in ways that are not helpful to those who carry it. It is a broken X chromosome.
In my view, there are some problems with this argument. Simply evolutionarily speaking, the Y chromosome has stabilized and has only lost 1 ancestral gene over the last 25 million years. Additionally, the Y chromosome contains close to 100 unique, functional genes, and it shares more functional genes with the X.

Scientifically, then, I don't think it's as factually accurate to say that Y is "broken" as it is to say that Y is simply "changed" or "altered."

With regard to the comment about "damaged" male brains, the post says: is very difficult for us to tease out what causes the differences observed between male and female brains. There does seem to be a role for testosterone (used generically for androgenizing hormones) during gestation in the establishment of gender identity...
The best information we have suggests that any differences between the function of male and female brains tends to be quite small and unimportant relative to the vast similarities in the capabilities that we find when we compare the two. It is decidedly not enough to account for the large differences we still see in opportunities and performance between men and women.
Essentially, the role of testosterone in brain development is pretty murky. We're not really sure what the role of testosterone is, period, so using loaded terms like "damage" is an inflammatory supposition. The post defends the term, though, with the following:
There may, in fact, be some skills that men are better at than women by virtue of masculinization of a female brain due to the presence of higher levels of testosterone in males.
However–and this is a very important however–Greg’s statement about testosterone damaging female brains to make them male is true to exactly that same degree...
If you have a complex system that is capable in a general sense, and you retool it to specialize, you lose some of that general capability. In other words, you have damaged the ability of that system to generalize.
To make this more specific to hypothesized sex-related differences, if you take a cooperative system and retool it to be more competitive, you have damaged its ability to cooperate. If you take a highly verbal system and retool it to a more spatial system, you have damaged its verbal abilities. If you take a “female brain” (whatever precisely that is) and, through the application of testosterone, retool it to act like a “male brain” (whatever precisely that is), you have damaged its abilities as a “female brain”. How can you have done anything else?
Svan is saying, more or less, that a testosterone-induced male brain is not damaged in general, per se, but it is a damaged female brain; it's damaged in its ability to be whatever female brains are. She is making this semantic distinction, and arguing in favor it it, because of the implicit, unchallenged assumption that men are people, and women are a different, specialized kind of people (for a fun post that illustrates this idea using bathroom signs, check out this post about how men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts.) Referring to biological standards of maleness as 'damaged' and 'broken,' she theorizes, satirizes the common rhetoric that maleness and masculinity are improvements.

Now, I'm going to editorialize. For starters, though I'm critical of this post, I'd like to state that I infinitesimally small levels of sympathy for men who loudly shout down women who experience tangible, real-life, day to day sexism (for instance, sexual harassment) but scream "MISANDRY!" over an abstract comment about the Y chromosome. Obviously, I have no issues with people who look critically at sexism against men and women, because that's what we all should do.

Primarily, I'm critical of the choice of language because I really don't think there is the scientific merit to back the language up, just like I don't think there is scientific merit to demonstrate male brain superiority at math, for example. As one commenter said, "When certain forms of feminism is (sic) shown to be without scientific merit, we should abandon them for more evidence-based forms of feminism, not zealously defend them as obviously true by substandard arguments." Svan has sidestepped this criticism in the comments by suggesting (my interpretation, not her words) that the post isn't really about the science, but about the satire. The science, here, merely establishes that the accused statements are not factually incorrect. The intent of the language is more important.

I understand her point, but I think it's gotten too esoteric for its own good. She's doubling down on words that may not have been carefully chosen (or they may have been, but by Svan's own admission, in the context of a panel discussion, elaboration on the intent of the language wasn't possible) and creating an advanced-level discussion out of some pretty casual statements. As another commenter said, "The fact that two throwaway sentences had to have pages of text written to justify them, seems to be an admission that most aren’t going to get it on first blush. What of the people who hear that line, but don’t get the benefit of this massive footnote explaining the language choice?"

Because I like her general idea of satirizing the concept of male superiority, I might have constructed the whole argument focusing just on the semantic aspect. Personally, though, I wouldn't try to justify the statements, because as social justice types always say, "Intent isn't magic." I would, using the responses as evidence, make the point that "Isn't it interesting, that when maleness is presented as a lesser form of femaleness, men don't like that very much? Could they maybe see how, when the reverse occurs, as it often does, women don't like that very much?" I wouldn't care so much about trying to demonstrate through the scientific aspect that "it's kind of true!" I'd want to focus on how these men seem to be very perceptive of pervasive sexism when it's directed at them, but have no problem silencing women when they speak out about the same. I'm not interested in defending problematic language; I'm interested in getting people to explore their empathy by recognizing problematic language even when it doesn't apply to them.

Friday, July 20, 2012

My data file will be too big

You know what I don't love? "Integrated" comments sections.

I don't mean this in a post-Civil Rights movement kind of way.

I mean it like this:
Yesterday we rolled out an upgraded commenting system, making it easy to include your Facebook and Twitter friends in your comments. Our new system allows for email notifications and you can see what your friends are up to as well. Managing your account is now easier than ever through My Voice Nation, where you can create your own personal profile for LA Weekly by connecting with Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo or Google.
That's from an email I got today from LA Weekly, a place I've commented probably once. But really -- what is all of this nonsense about needing to "include" my friends in my comments? I need my Facebook friends following me all over the internet about as much as I need another Facebook layout change.

I don't understand the necessity of my entire internet being integrated. I don't need my Facebook contacts involved in every little thing I do online. Do I drag my friends all over my real life with me? No! Do I tell my friends every time I have a comment to make to someone or something? No!

Services like this are usually opt-out, so I don't have to share everything, but the more and more that I see these services, the more and more I feel like the internet is moving in that direction, and I'm going to be pretty old school if I don't want to invite ~350 Facebook friends along for my daily road trip through the tubes.

So... it was building up to this: INTERNET, GET OFF MY LAWN!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Amazon: “Jeff Winston, forty-three, didn’t know he was a replayer until he died and woke up twenty-five years younger in his college dorm room; he lived another life. And died again. And lived again and died again — in a continuous twenty-five-year cycle — each time starting from scratch at the age of eighteen to reclaim lost loves, remedy past mistakes, or make a fortune in the stock market. A novel of gripping adventure, romance, and fascinating speculation on the nature of time, Replay asks the question: “What if you could live your life over again?”
This was a really enjoyable read, and as such I raced through it in about a day. I think Grimwood hit on some really poignant human truths here, in terms of one’s experiences adding up to shape their future, and how one would change their future if they could. On his first replay, Jeff pursues wealth. He finds himself in a mostly loveless marriage, but with enough money and enough of a loving connection to his daughter, he seems to more or less enjoy his life. On his second replay, he is profoundly affected by the loss — or non-existence, really — of his daughter, but places more importance on the value of human connection over massive wealth. By the third replay, he becomes cynical, having lost so many lifetimes of meaningful companionship, and his early existence is marked by careless hedonism and somewhat destructive behavior. It is during this “lifetime” that Jeff experiences a crucial turning point, which I won’t give away, but it lends stability to the rest of the novel by grounding Jeff.

The writing here was simple but affecting, and the pacing was good. The characters, as I implied above, were believable, and given extra dimensionality by the opportunity to meet them several times under different circumstances. This one is a definite recommendation from me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Of course I believe in gender equality, but I'm not one of "those feminists"

I like to take every opportunity I can to point out that feminism is not a scary thing, and feminists are not scary people (as a general rule.)

This post from a blog I read regularly (and you should too, if you are interested in skepticism, anti-racism, and anti-sexism) is a great collection of thoughts, both from the blog author and via the inclusion of a video from Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency called "The Straw Feminist." A play on the logical fallacy "strawman," the Straw Feminist is the stereotypical militant scary feminist that people always seem to think of whenever feminism is mentioned.

From the post:
As I’ve said before, my feminism (like my anti-racism) is simply one expression of my general skepticism. You could call it ‘gender skepticism’ if you wanted to. It’s a philosophical and methodological approach to evaluating claims made about differences between sexes and the social constructs built around them. Are women more nurturing? Are men more naturally assertive? Is gender a binary state? How does biology inform a gender role?
These are questions about which evidence can be gathered and appraised, and in the absence of which it is reasonable to assume the ‘null hypothesis’ (i.e., that women and men are equal). We can reject ‘tradition’ or ‘common sense’ or assurances that “it’s obvious” as persuasive arguments and demand something better. We can observe systematic forces and recognize their influence. We can find reasonable rubrics by which to measure inequality. And when anti-feminists (or simply those who think that the whole exercise is unimportant or ‘overemphasized’) trot out their creationist-like claims, we can reach into our bag of common refutations.
Can you spot the militant radicalism? No? Cool, because I can't either.

And, you know, I get it. A lot of people will be turned off from feminism, regardless of how level-headed or well-reasoned some of these arguments can be, simply because it pushes back on the status quo, and that makes people uncomfortable.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled–and her twin sister dead.
Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off…

This was a really interesting book; reading it felt like an adventure. I don’t think it can be accurately described as ‘magical realism,’ at least not in the way I usually think of it, where magical/supernatural occurrences are presented as being the reality of the setting. Rather, this is the story of a girl who is so deeply connected to fantasy and science fiction stories that she applies the fantastical possibilities therein to her own world. Her magic, she explains, isn’t like the magic we read about though, with its spells that are cast from grimoires. It’s more like a re-arranging of the world and time so that things come to pass. If she wishes for the bus to come early, magic makes it so that the bus actually did leave earlier so that she perceives it coming to her earlier. Or when she wishes for friends, the universe doesn’t just make people start liking her; instead, she finds out about a book club that meets weekly to discuss SF.

It’s written in a diary format, and in addition to the ‘entries’ about what is actually happening in her life, we also get witty, insightful, and amusing reflections on the books Mori is reading, and her thoughts about the authors. This is a protagonist that lives to read and gain wisdom from these stories. This book has been called “a love letter to SF books and those who read and write them” and, more generally, “a book about books.” It’s true — these novels are Mori’s solace, and when she talks about any of your favorites (and if you read SF, she WILL mention at least one of yours) you’ll feel a connection and spark of happiness that somehow seems more substantial than the passing bemusement of having your fandom namedropped. You just know she takes it seriously.

Beyond all of the meta SF adoration and in jokes, the sections about Mori herself, and her family, and her interactions with other people, are hilarious, touching, sad, wistful, and suspenseful. This was one of those books that, like Angela’s Ashes, manages to turn some pretty depressing scenes and themes into something altogether different — transcendent, in a way. And yet, even though I just made the Angela’s Ashes comparison, this book is really nothing like that book, or any other book I’ve read. I highly recommend it, and especially if you’re into fantasy and SF, but even if you’re not, because it’s just a good story with a strong literary voice.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Stuff my neighbors listen to

I don't live, currently, in what one might call a "quiet" neighborhood. It's been the 4th of July here since approximately June 23rd, and I expect the holiday to continue probably until the end of the weekend. Lest you think I'm being obscure, what I mean is that I've had nightly fireworks shows for the past week and a half.

Anyway, one of the other joys of living in a loud neighborhood is never having to turn my music down, because everyone else's is so damn loud. Here is a short list of the recognizable music heard around my building recently:

  • Arcade Fire
  • Mariachi, assorted
  • Nero
  • Deadmau5
  • T.I.
  • Washed Out
  • "Call Me Maybe"
  • Bob Marley
And that's what's recognizable. That aside, I pretty reliably get people driving down the street in blacked-out Audis and Lexi, reverberating their untz proudly into their surroundings. One of these days, I'm going to Shazam some of the Mariachi, assorted so that I can put together a legit Block Party playlist.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book review: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Amazon: “Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle–disguised and alone–to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.
Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.”

Okay, I just impatiently barreled through the whole Graceling trilogy (as it currently stands — is Cashore planning a fourth? Or is she creating some new adventure? All I know is I want in) and I wish there were more! To me, Kristin Cashore is a total badass. I can’t believe it took me 3 years to hear about this series (thanks again, CBR4!) In this trilogy, she’s created three female protagonists with complete personal agency. They are flawed, of course, as all human beings are, but they are also sympathetic and relatable. I’ve made this point in my reviews for Graceling and Fire, so I don’t need to belabor it again, but it seems to be such a wonderful thing that an author has made it a priority to explore so many different women and make them real people.

Anyway — about Bitterblue. This was a very different story, thematically, from the prior two novels in the series. Whereas its two predecessors had a lot of adventure and travel and a more epic scale, Bitterblue was more focused on the political machinations of one kingdom viewed from the microcosm of her base town, Bitterblue City. It’s a bit more of a mystery and detective story rather than action-adventure, as Bitterblue (the character) works to undo the layers of deception that keep her kingdom in a state of apathy. As with both Katsa of Graceling and Fire of Fire, much of Bitterblue’s motivation has to do with setting herself apart from, and making reparations for, her father/predecessors. She is determined to do right, even as in her immaturity and inexperience she is forced to rely on a network of staff that have been selected for her, rather than by her, with her trust. For some readers, the smaller scope of this novel may make it less *exciting*, but I found it to be a refreshing change of pace — Bitterblue is the first protagonist in the series that is not Graced or gifted with some kind of supernatural power. Though she does request the help and expertise of her Graced friends, her strength is in her natural intelligence, empathy, persistence, and leadership.
Overall, I couldn’t recommend this series more highly to anyone.