I'm a huge fan of this "stair stack" arrangement, featuring three long headline entries in the middle. Stair stacks live and die on three regions. Listed from most important to least, it's critical to get zinginess from and cleanliness around:
1.) the middle stair stack
2.) the long entries in the NW / SE
3.) the medium to longish entries in the SW / NE
Oddly enough, the difficulty level doesn't correspond to this at all! Life is funny like that.
1.) The middle stair stack is of moderate difficulty, sort of the baby bear of the grid. Seems like it should be the hardest, but this is usually where constructors start, the blank slate giving maximum flexibility.
I thought Lily shined here. CONTROL FREAK is dynamite, GENDER ROLES is nice, with its clue making fun of classic sitcoms ("Three's Company," anyone?). And ZILLIONAIRES is awesome, throwing me off when I put in BILLIONAIRES.
2.) The long entries in the NW / SE, those are the papa bear, too easy to make sing. Even after fixing the middle into place, there's usually enough flexibility remaining that these sections aren't so bad. Lily even sections them off a bit with a black square in between ADS and LANDO, to make them even easier.
Here, I thought there was room for improvement. Although ORIONS BELT, PEACEMAKER, and ERROR PRONE are all fantastic, when you only leave yourself four long slots like this, it's imperative that all four sing. When you factor in the Maleskan SERE plus SSE (and SMS) in the SE, it's not a great corner overall. I would have liked another attempt there, maybe even with the black square between LEMMAS / SSE removed.
3.) The medium to longish entries in the SW / NE, those are the mama bear, too tough to fill with much color usually. It's so hard to convert 7-letter slots into great material. My expectations are never high for these regions, so I was pleasantly surprised by ZIP IT UP! (although, is "zip it!" more common?), WANNABES, even BAFFLE.
But overall, solid work and Lily shined in that critical central featured region. With more practice and ITERATEion, I see future POW!s for her.
Debut! Neat to see a newbie constructor pooh-pooh the usual "four sets of triple-stacked 8s or 9s, one in each corner" pattern and use a difficult "stairstack" arrangement. I wasn't familiar with A HUNGER ARTIST — not nearly as famous as "Metamorphosis" — but it's definitely legit. CHANCE MEETING and PLATELET COUNT complete the stairstack well.
The stairstack is nicely held together without a lot of crossword glue, LET US the only one that sticks out to me. Great to see RIGHT ANGLE, PAPER THIN, AEROSOL CAN, and DEFEATIST running through it, too! Great bonuses.
I often worry about puzzles featuring 7-letter answers, since those are tough to convert to great material. Stuff like ASPIRES is often much easier to work in than snazzy material like BIT PART. So I really enjoyed seeing TINA FEY, MOCKERY, AM RADIO. Good use of those mid-length slots.
Sectioning off the top left and bottom right is not ideal. I got stuck in the bottom right mini-puzzle, a tiny chunk that felt like a sub-puzzle disconnected from the rest. Didn't help that LAMOUR and ALBA were clued so they were in two of my areas of weak knowledge — that's Dorothy LAMOUR of the "Road to …" movies and Goya's "Duchess of ALBA." If only either Louis L'AMOUR or Jessica ALBA had been used (sad what that says about me ...).
Love the tricky ALAS clue, [Start of a Hamlet monologue]. I imagine I wasn't the only one to fill in TO BE.
A couple of little dabs of crossword glue in ITAL, ENG, but they were so minor. All in all, quite a bit of good material with not a lot of subpar fill. Looking forward to more from Lily!