Monday, December 11, 2023

Review: The Betrayals, by Bridget Collins

An intimate exploration of weak, flawed people doing small, right things

Cover design by Micaela Alcaino

We are all familiar with those moments of self-doubt that plague us in the dark of night. Degrees of triviality vary, from Did I have parsley in my teeth all through dinner? to Will the planet be safe for my children? The nature of our worries is as varied as our characters. But for those who have held an academic position—or indeed spent too much time sequestered in the studies of esoterica at college—the moments of self-doubt tend to take a more common form: Does my life mission matter? Does anything I do really matter?

Such concerns are the central theme of Bridget Collins’s novel The Betrayals. It focuses on a school, Montverre, a school whose sole concern is the study, creation, and development of the grand jeu, the national game of an ambiguously French-flavored European country. All the best government officials have a Montverre education; an acceptance at Montverre—either through demonstrated achievement at the grand jeu or family influence—is a ticket to future success. Montverre is a big deal. The grand jeu is a symbol of the nation, and Montverre is the heart of the grand jeu.

Yet the precise nature of the grand jeu is left as vague as the nation’s identity. We don’t learn how to play it, and, indeed, as one Magister at Montverre explains, the first place one goes wrong in playing the grand jeu is in playing it as if it were a game. The truly enlightened know that it is so much more than that. It combines principles of literary analysis, mathematics, and music, in wildly esoteric complexity, such that the Magisters of the school swear oaths of celibacy and dedicate their entire lives to exploring this discipline.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the nation is turning fascist. Léo Martin is a minister for culture in the government, a loyal Party member, until one day he isn’t—not quite, not enough. A bit too lukewarm in support of Party efforts to maintain cultural purity, it seems, and a bit too zealous in writing memos against them. In short order he is told that he is going to resign his post, effective immediately, and retire to Montverre, to devote himself to the study of the grand jeu, his true passion in life, which he had set aside in a desire to serve his country,1  but to which he now welcomes the opportunity to return. Such are his instructions. Oh, and Léo, while you’re there, would you be willing to keep in touch with us? Send us letters, let us know how you’re getting on, what’s happening inside Montverre, be a good chap.

Within the walls of the school is Claire Dryden, the Magister Ludi, unique in being the only woman who has been hired as a Magister for the school, due to a short-lived experiment with blind hiring. Everyone is a bit weird about it, not least Léo, who has spent 32 years being a full-throated good old boy. Oddly, she has in her possession Léo’s school diary, which relates the sequence of events in his boyhood that led him to win a gold medal for his second-year game assignment. As we learn, her interest in Léo is not a coincidence: Léo became quite close to a fellow student, Carfax, during this period, and Carfax was her brother. This makes things quite awkward between them, because the year Léo won his gold prize, Carfax committed suicide, under circumstances that have led Claire to blame him. And, indeed, Léo to blame himself.

The Betrayals alternates the past and present, showing us through Léo’s diary the past events that led up to the gold medal and Carfax’s suicide, while tracking the present political developments as the country descends further into fascism. Everything is filtered, remote, because the school is so withdrawn, but it’s impossible to miss the signs. Léo’s girlfriend goes missing, and it’s not clear whether she was disappeared or simply fled because she was Christian. Surely he must have known about her religion, a friend says. Wasn’t her name Christina? (No, Léo says, Chryseïs. As if that matters.) The one Christian boy at the school—the one who has to wear a star on his robes--is summoned by the police, ‘just to check some paperwork’.

There are trains.

Through all this, Léo writes letters to his former colleagues at the Ministry for Culture, just to keep his hand in the game, in case it’s possible for him to return from banishment. Although he tries hard not to say too much about the Magister Ludi (whom he feels quite drawn to, given his past history with her brother), he does give an awful lot of details about the entertaining disputes among the other Magisters. Disputes in which they discuss, for example, politics and government policy. As he eventually learns (to no surprise to the reader), the school’s remote isolation from worldly concerns is not enough to protect it from the political developments of the nation. You can’t hide from fascism.

The particular brilliance of this book is the way it avoids easy moral decisions. Yes, it would be a rousing tale of good against evil if Léo stood up to the government, took a stand, joined a resistance, recruiting from the Magisters and students to turn the grand jeu, that noble national game of this country, into a symbol of all that is good and right. We are not fascism; our game represents FREEDOM. And so on.

But this isn’t that book. The alternate history is only very slightly offset from our own, not enough to make it possible for one brave gang of rebels to defeat the not-quite-Nazis on the rise. This timeline is going to follow the same path our own Europe did. Fascists gonna fash.

And even if it were possible for a plucky gang of rebels to turn the tide of history, the people in this book are not those people. Léo is not a strong or a brave man. As a student he willingly took part in some brutal bullying of Carfax, and only changed his ways when forced, grudgingly, to work with him. Their last interaction before Carfax’s suicide can be read as an act of friendship, but it can equally well be read as a betrayal (see title), which more or less directly led to the tragic outcome.

As an adult, Léo is similarly slow and hesitant to do the right thing. Yes, he stands up to the Prime Minister, but only by writing a memo that he didn’t really believe would spell the end of his career. If he had, he would not have written it. When he has the opportunity to shield a Christian boy from being put on a train, he does it in the smallest, easiest way, that inconveniences him the least. When he writes his letters about the internal workings of Montverre, he shields the Magister Ludi, but he doesn’t even consider what his other statements might do. He always wants to keep his options open. He’s eager to return to government, even having seen from the inside the direction it’s going. (He’s also rather a misogynistic dick.)

So, no, this is not a book about heroes. This is a book about flawed, small people because righteous moral heroes are in short supply. We make compromises to survive, since stiff-necked rigidity can deprive us of friends and allies and comrades. We build connections with the people who are there, because in a growing hellscape, we need those to survive.

Heroes do The Right Thing. But in some circumstances there isn’t The Right Thing to do. There is only a lesser, smaller right thing. And sometimes that’s enough, and sometimes it isn’t. You can’t hide from fascism, and the people in The Betrayals are not the sort of people who can beat it. But by doing enough small right things, maybe they can survive it. 


Readers of Herman Hesse will recognize a heavy influence of The Glass Bead Game in this novel's conceit.


Nerd coefficient: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention.


  • Academics being insufferable
  • Rising fascism
  • Ivory tower angst


Collins, Bridget. The Betrayals. [The Borough Press, 2020].


CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and a calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at

Friday, December 8, 2023

6 Books with Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith has published over fifty books, one of which was an Anne Lindbergh Honor Book; she's twice been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and once a Nebula finalist. She teaches writing at Viable Paradise Writing Workshop on Martha's Vineyard,  and  has a Patreon, where she posts a chapter a day.

Though known primarily as a fantasy writer, Sherwood along with author Dave Trowbridge  collaborated on Exordium, a five-volume space opera, with Rachel Manija Brown on the young adult "hopeful dystopia" series called The Change, and with Andre Norton on four books listed elsewhere.

Today She tells us about her Six Books

 1. What book are you currently reading?     

The Kuiper Belt Job, by David D. Levine. Combine heists with science fiction, and you’ve got me interested. Add complex characters and a large dose of found family, and I am hooked. I’m not done yet, but so far it’s a terrific read.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

What Monstrous Gods by Rosamund Hodge

 No spoilers, as this book is coming out next year. From the blurb; “Born with a miraculous gift, Lia's destiny is to kill Ruven and wake the royals. But when she succeeds, she finds her duty is not yet complete, for now she must marry into the royal family and forge a pact with a god-or die.

To make matters even worse, Ruven's spirit is haunting her.”

 Rosamund Hodge always goes for the unusual, with intense emotions and lavish visuals. This twist on “Sleeping Beauty” is very, very twisted in all the best ways.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to read again?

Code of Conduct, by Kristine Smith. One of my favorite narrative tropes in adventure stories is the protagonist living under an alias. Another trope I enjoy is interesting aliens, and a third is chases, and also characters you're not sure are villains or friends. This tightly written, vivid SF novel has it all.

Jani Killian is a "document examiner"--an interesting profession that seems a natural given the high tech of this future. There is quite a bit of flashback action as she tries to recover her extremely traumatic past, as she figures out why she's being hunted. Past meeting present accelerates like a runaway train, leading to a tense, gripping climax.

This is the beginning of a series that just keeps getting more interesting. I plan to reread them all when the new one comes out next year.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about - either positively or negatively?

I’ve been reading for a long time, so it’s inevitable that there will be books with elements that were everyday back then that now make me wince. But talking about those is like shooting squid in a barrel—we all recognize a lot of them, and it feels like virtue-signaling to claim to have become Enlightened. Much tougher is to come up with books I’ve come to appreciate that I once was negative about. One of these would be Rudyard Kipling’s KIM, which I did not read until adulthood, and, yeah, I found the “Orientalism” and casual racism to be pretty cringy. But I reread it a couple of decades later, and though it is still very much a book of its time, as I read more slowly, and appreciated the long, vivid sometimes elegiac descriptions of the India Kipling had known when young, I realized that this book is his love letter to India, in spite of its Western-Imperial POV faults. And I think it can be appreciated for Kipling’s love for all the complexities of life in India at the end of the nineteenth century—they truly shine through. 

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that

has had a lasting influence on your writing?

A negative influence was Enid Blyton. I devoured her Adventure books as a kid, reading them over and over. Blyton was an instinctive storyteller, and possibly a visual writer, as I am; she clearly didn’t see the clunky, cliché-ridden prose she told her fast-moving, vivid stories in. I picked a lot of that up. When you see a movie in your head, you want to write as fast as you can to stay with the pacing of the movie. That means tossing down any words, because of course they’ll evoke the movie. News flash! They don’t, something I had to learn painfully late, and equally painfully had to begin the process of unlearning. I still am learning. I also read and loved many gracefully written books, but it took years and years to see the difference between good and mundane prose. Both evoked vivid movies for me.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome? 

I firmly believe the author is the last person anyone should trust about the relative awesomeness of their books—of course we believe passionately in their awesomeness or we wouldn’t write them. Nobody sets out to write a crappy book, whatever readers might feel! So I’ll confine my remarks to the next book to come out, which will happen December 12th, from the authors’ consortium Book View Café.  (Now celebrating its fifteenth year.) The book is a fantasy called Tribute, set in a world whose background draws heavily on various Asian cultures—(northern Chinese, Tang Dynasty, mostly, and Jurchen). It’s about culture clash, family, trust, friendship, and the cost of power as warp, the weft being music.

Thank you, Sherwood!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Review: Silent Night

John Woo shows that silence is golden

So the old saying goes, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” John Woo was quite eager to point out that the aforementioned proverb does not preclude brutally murdering the people about whom you can say nothing nice, all the while saying absolutely nothing. That is what he shows off to you in his 2023 action movie Silent Night, released December 1st, written by Robert Archer Lynn, and starring Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi, Harold Torres, and Catalina Sandino Moreno.

The movie begins in medias res, as Brian Godlock (Kinnaman) pursues criminals through the streets of Las Palomas, New Mexico. He fights them, to a point, blood covering his sweater with a reindeer on it, for it is Christmas Eve. But then he is shot in his neck, and hastily hauled to the hospital. He survives, but his vocal cords are destroyed.

You then realize that, earlier on that seemingly bucolic Christmas Eve, he and his wife Saya (Sandino Moreno) are playing with their little son in their yard. Father and son tussle, making memories for a lifetime. However, at that same moment two criminal gangs are having a gunfight-cum-car chase through the streets of Las Palomas, bullets flying every which way—and into Brian’s son, felling him right there. This is what prompts the chase, and the injury that would render Brian mute.

Then you come to understand the central gimmick: this is an action film with none of the dialogue, none of the wit, none of the jokes that other films of this genre would. There is only sweat, tears, grunts, bullets, blood, and death. It is an interpretation of the genre that takes its tendency towards grit, already nigh-canonical, and strips it down to the bone. There are no belles-lettres to dignify any violence, no heroic speeches to justify it, no loving words exchanged to soften its perpetrators. That renders the experience very, very raw.

There are some words spoken, but never by a named character. You hear radios with pundits pontificating about interest rates or police officers during a firefight, mourning their dead. There are also written words, mostly text messages, and it is in those that so much of the pathos comes from; you see Saya trying to comfort Brian, that sort of frantic texting that happens when you’re stressed and perhaps can’t think straight.

Brian’s rage festers through the coming year, the passage of time marked by a calendar, particularly emphasizing each holiday. You get the impression that the very idea of a ‘holiday’ is now stained in this family. Months after that fateful Christmas, you can still see the tree they had put up, gifts wrapped in gaudy colors in their living room. It’s a potent metaphor for their grief, as they almost approach something resembling normalcy after this crime, only to be reminded that some days are supposed to be special, yet that specialness has forever been marred by bloodshed for them.

Of course, this being an action movie, Brian seeks to take revenge in an appropriately violent way. He trains by himself in his garage, learning firearms and martial arts from instructors, and everything else from the internet. That last bit stands out to me; I haven’t seen many action movies taking advantage of the digital world like that, but it’s very believable, in our world of 3D-printed guns and terror manifestos spread through nasty internet fora.

Woo and company show Brian’s descent into hell, into more bloodshed, into rage, with heightened realism. His wife leaves him to live with her family, overwhelmed by his monomaniacal pursuit of revenge. This feeds Brian's vicious cycle: his obsession alienates her, she stays away, this makes him angrier, and he commits more to the course of action that she rejected. He is later seen in his car, watching her painting in the apartment building where she apparently now lives. It’s more than a little stalkerish and uncomfortable, but very believable as Brian descends further into his abyss and you wonder if the abyss itself is a little perturbed by the experience.

As you may expect from the absence of dialogue, much of this movie conveys emotions through body language. You have to recalibrate your senses for this experience, for Woo makes you lurch ever closer to muteness, giving you what must (of course) be only an approximation of never being able to speak yourself. You become focused on expressions, on gestures, on the way people move, to a degree most movies never really give you reason to, for words are far more direct. Here gesture does not ornament dialogue; it is dialogue. I’m impressed by the entire cast being able to do this; I’m also impressed by how the characters who are not directly hurt by this evil act also never speak, and it never feels forced. This would be gimmicky had a lesser director tried it (and inevitably failed), but Woo and company pull it off. I’m reminded of Aneesh Chaganty's 2018 film Searching, which also has a gimmick, but doesn’t let it feel like one.

The violence, then, is not prettified by the doublespeak sometimes used to make murder sound acceptable. It is bullets flying, oil burning, people dying in sprees. It is a wild, animalistic violence, the sort of carnage you would expect our prehistoric ancestors dealt on a regular basis, long before humanity fashioned its grunts into tongues. Even as cars ram into each other and machine guns are fired on full automatic, the movie is primal, refreshingly and enjoyably so.

The portrayal of the villains is interesting; they are street criminals, gangsters of the type that occur in many American cities. It is through opulence that they are characterized, especially their boss, with his glitzy suite adorned by something resembling a massive chandelier dominating the space. He gets a scene where he dances with his lover, a woman who herself gets in on the action in a spectacular sequence involving a stairwell. There’s tenderness here, of the sort that is evidence of a finely honed skill of dissociation, of trying to separate the nice things he can afford from the considerably less nice work that allows such luxury.

I do wonder, though, about the casting a bit. As in many action movies, the hero is white, while the goons who killed his child and whom he then hunts down are of many races. On the other hand, his wife is portrayed by a Colombian actress, and the good police officer is Black. I don’t know how good this is, but something about the whole thing irked me a bit. Not enough to ruin the movie, and I don’t think it was anything intentional (although I could certainly buy an executive demanding a white male lead for it to go through), but it felt unfortunate, on well-trod ground that need not be trod again.

All things considered, Silent Night was an invigorating experience. This is action cinema without the flourishes, without the frippery, with only the animalistic instinct that leads to taking each other’s lives senselessly and without reason. This is a film that is, on some level, honest, even if there are undoubtedly layers of Hollywood-ese in it, as Hollywood does. It’s the most unique action movie I’ve seen in a long time, and I recommend it for anyone interested in this genre.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

Highlights: one particular action scene involving cars.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

Remember Wish? Yes, that happened this year

The worst possible way to celebrate Disney's 100th anniversary was to release a movie as unimaginative as this

From a studio that is so starved of new ideas that it's decided to recycle all its back catalogue, now comes an even more cynical distillation of that formula: take all the typical Disney tropes and glue them together into the Disney-est movie possible. The ne plus Disney of cinema. The ur-Disney. Put all the princesses of this franchise in a blender, strain the mush through a colander, add half a pound of evil sorcerer and half a pound of wish-granting stars, whip it vigorously with the yolks of sixteen dozen hundred Easter eggs, mix thoroughly for the duration of a generic power ballad, sprinkle with every talking animal in every fantasy movie ever, apply an unhealthily viscous layer of treacle, and you'll get the unpalatable, half-baked nothingburger that is Wish.

Once upon a time, Disney fantasy movies used to be an Event. Such timeless achievements as Snow White and Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and Frozen incontestably defined their respective generations. But the magic has run out. It's been barely weeks since the release of Wish in theaters, and it has failed to leave any lasting impression. It's hard to imagine today's kids beginning a habit of rewatching Wish for the next several decades of their lives, the way their parents grew up endlessly rewatching their Disney classic of choice. Wish is not only a disappointing movie, but a mediocre way of celebrating the studio's centennary. After a long legacy of highs and lows that nonetheless survived and came up with new tricks to reinvent itself and often led the way for the entire tradition of animated cinema, Disney seems to have once again fallen into a crisis of creativity. We're living through one of those recurring tragic periods during which Disney productions can't possibly become classics.

It's a pity, because there are a few good qualities to highlight in Wish. The hand-drawn appearance of the backgrounds is stunningly gorgeous, evocative of old fantasy book illustrations. Unfortunately, the art style used for the characters is too simplistic, a cast of basic 3D models indistinguishable from the same basic 3D models you get from less über-wealthy studios. The result is that the viewer's attention is continuously attracted more to the background of a scene than to the characters doing the action, which is the opposite of the effect you want to create in an animated movie. It costs extra mental load to try to follow what the heroine is doing when the viewer is too distracted by how much better drawn the wall behind her looks.

In terms of plot, the forced familiarity crosses the line of bothersome and falls right into insulting territory. Wish tries to replicate the Pixar Theory by inventing painfully shoehorned backstories for several recognizable elements of earlier Disney movies, but none of those moments contributes to the actual telling of the story. And when considered on its own, apart from the innumerable links to what we'll apparently have to start calling the Disney Cinematic Universe, the plot of Wish is filled with absurdity. We have a magocracy where the king forbids anyone but himself from practicing magic, but he only uses his magic to capriciously grant one inconsequential wish every month. The price for the kingdom's protection is that everyone must forget what their wish was. Why the founder of this transparently dystopian regime wasn't guillotined before he completed even one year on the throne is never explained.

The collective uselessness of a populace is the necessary subtext of every savior story, but Wish doesn't bother trying to hide it. The evil of the king's hoarding of magical gifts and tampering with the people's memories is so bleedingly obvious that our heroine figures it out within minutes of talking to him, but the viewer is supposed to believe that in decades of unopposed rule she's been the first to raise any objection. By adopting a Great (Wo)Man Theory of History, Wish squanders the abundant symbolic potential of a setting where citizens effectively delegate their will to a head of government who is then charged with executing the will entrusted to him. The movie's inexplicably underutilized metaphor for representative democracy could have been further developed into a plot with urgent relevance to its historic moment. We are in the middle of an existential crisis for democratic systems, instigated by unaccountable strongmen with brazenfaced authoritarian aspirations. With a more consistent script, Wish could have had the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the principle of the consent of the governed, which wouldn't really be an unprecedented move for Disney if you remember how Zootopia and Elemental talked about racial prejudice and Tangled and Encanto talked about family abuse.

Instead of relying on human effort, our heroine depends on a magical star whose influence makes animals talk and sing. In other words, Wish is arguing that the way out of this dystopia is the Disneyfication of the world. That's a bleak position, especially coming from a movie that dedicates two whole songs to the "we are all made of the same stardust" ethos, but it's fully consistent with Disney's goals of total cultural phagocytosis. Much in the vein of other nostalgitic embarrassments like Space Jam: A New Legacy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Jurassic World: Dominion, Wish is not a movie that tells a story. It's a self-congratulatory pat in the back by a studio that is too afraid to venture outside the tried and true. If all that Disney has to show for itself as the culmination of a century of artistic evolution is a timid rehash of past glories, the studio's going to need to pray to a star if it intends to keep making history for another century.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Interview: Monalisa Foster

Alex Wallace sits down with Monalisa Foster, author of Threading the Needle

What made you start writing?

Some sort of mind virus, I think. I caught it some time back from a Heinlein juvenile, I'm not sure which one. I'm somewhat kidding, but not really. I think all of us get exposed to it at some point, and given how many people are out there writing "The Great American Novel," it's apparently quite contagious. I think it comes from getting hooked on the little hits of dopamine and serotonin we get while reading and then figuring it's time to level up and become our own dealers. So we sit down and give it a try because we're looking for a particular hit and just not getting it.

That's a roundabout way of saying that I wanted to read certain kinds of books written in certain ways and that, since I wasn't finding them or finding enough of them, it was time to write my own. My first exposure to this "need" was in high school. I think what cured me then is that I produced this awful thing I'm glad no one ever saw. Then I got re-contaminated in college, and between summers I wrote another novel, and I remember that one never saw the light of day because I couldn't afford the postage on the self-addressed, stamped return boxes we used in the late 80s. Then I got too busy with a career, marriage, and family, and they were an immunizing force until about 2015 or so when I realized that the virus had only gone dormant and was lying in wait to catch me unawares, which it did.

It was activated again on a trip to the library for my kids where I ran across a book called The Samurai by [Stephen] Turnbull. I was already reading a book on genetic engineering for work and had recently revisited some of the old science books I'd held onto from college. The idea for my other space opera series, Ravages of Honor, which is a far-future one with feuding noble Houses and genetically engineered samurai that does NOT fade to black, was born out of that trip. I started dabbling (that means writing when the muse struck) and realized very quickly that the mind virus was back and this time it was particularly virulent and refused to be displaced. Fortunately, since my kids were older, my life had gotten to the point where I could indulge it.

So I started to write books like the ones I wanted to read, and here we are.

What books/other media have been the most influential on your writing?

Heinlein's books in particular were very influential. I started out with his juveniles, using them to teach myself English. I did this by sitting down with them and a dictionary and copying down the words and their meanings, writing them out ten times to learn the spelling, and then translating them back. I would fill up an entire notebook and then erase it and start over. Besides the language itself, I learned about individualism in a way I had never been exposed to before, as well as about a future I could never have imagined. After exhausting Heinlein's juveniles, I moved on to his grown-up books.

There were others as well (Lester Del Rey comes to mind), but it's Heinlein that really stayed with me, that was the most memorable.

And then there was Lois McMaster Bujold. I remember discovering her debut novel, Shards of Honor, with a science fiction book club subscription, and I was hooked. I got hooked very hard. I had gone through a rather long period where I didn't have time to read any fiction of any kind, but Bujold got me reading it again. As she added to her Vorkosigan Saga, I would read through it every year. I've destroyed several physical copies of Barrayar.

Series like Babylon 5 were also very influential. I loved the characters, the storyline, the way it violated physics less than other shows, the way it made telling a good, character-driven story a priority. I loved Firefly for the same reason—characters, characters, and oh yes, characters.

I also don't limit myself to scifi. I read historical fiction, women's fiction, romance, thrillers, and literary works as well, taking from each what I find works best for my craft. And I continue to read as much, if not more, non-fiction as well (probably why my scifi tends to be crunchy).

What gave you the inspiration for Threading the Needle?

I grew up with pirate and cowboy films, mostly bad dubs in Hungarian or Romanian, black and white and very grainy, and often very censored. So I knew Errol Flynn and John Wayne as characters from the start, even though I wouldn't learn their actual names for years to come. Same with Yul Brynner, Maureen O'Hara, and Olivia de Havilland.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the John Wayne classic El Dorado. Leigh Brackett—whom I knew from her writing credits for The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars movie IMHO—had also written that screenplay and I became fascinated with it, particularly the idea of two friends who were war veterans coming together after many years apart to fight on the same side, both of them reluctantly, both of them with ghosts from their pasts, both of them determined to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing, rather than the easy and popular thing, is one of those recurring themes that drive me to write.

So I started thinking about what Brackett had done, going from Westerns to scifi and how space opera itself was initially a derisive term for "horse operas in space" (i.e. Westerns in space). So it seemed only natural to do the same thing, take a concept like the settlement of a new frontier, and play with it. I didn't want a mindless retelling of El Dorado, but something that paid homage to its spirit instead, while making it my own, making it unique via characters, setting, and conflict.

One of the most striking things about your novel is Talia’s prosthetic arm. Unlike in, say, Star Wars, it is integrated into the plot and into her characterization in a more than cursory sense. What inspired this element of the story?

I'm so thrilled to hear you say that. Thank you. I was hoping it would hit some people that way.

Remember me saying that we all write, to an extent, because we can't get enough of something we want to see? That plays into this.

In a lot of movies we see things like people getting skewered through the shoulder and then just moving on as if nothing was wrong a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days later. Verhoeven's Starship Troopers comes to mind, for example. People bounce back from losing limbs as if it was nothing, as if their physical reality is not actually a part of their identity. I get why it's done that way, but it's always bothered me a bit, or a lot, depending on the film/book.

A notable exception was Battleship, where they cast Col. Gregory D. Gadson in the role of Mick Canales, an amputee who was still dealing with the loss of his limbs. Here was a pulp film with lots of action and high entertainment value, a movie based on a kids' game of all things, and it was dealing wonderfully with something that is often neglected. I love this movie, as silly as some of its premises are (good thing I know zip all about fighting a battleship). It was just pure fun, yet balanced with "soul" for lack of a better term. Unlike Verhoeven's "walk it all off because we're badasses" characterizations, it had soul. It was science fiction with heart, which is how I describe my work. For me, characterization is what makes or breaks a story, and I was determined to write, first and foremost, characters who had depth, who were so much like real people that you'd want to go back again and again to spend time with them.

Talia especially had to have depth. She wasn't worth writing in any other way, so I put myself not just in her head, but in her heart, so I could see her soul. And she had the soul of a fighter and a survivor who knew that what she was was not all that she was. So, while she may have been a sniper, a veteran, a survivor, she was also someone with scars and wounds and a past and someone with incredible strength of will. In other words, she was not someone born on the first page of Threading the Needle. She is more like Leigh Brackett's heroes in that she's deeply aware of her own moral transgressions, which everyone forgives her for except herself (to quote Michael Moorcock).

Losing the very hand that allows one to do her job would have been quite impactful to a sniper. And it was a job that she did because it allowed her to save lives. This was a very important part of who she was, of her identity. I couldn't see her walk it off and pretend it was nothing like she was in some Verhoeven movie.

Which is why her phantom, which is the mind-space that is occupied by her phantom limb (i.e. she can still feel the presence of flesh that is no longer there) became, in a way, its own thing, something that is both integral and separate from her. Then I asked myself, what would it be like to have a brain-implant put in to control the prosthesis, and having it occupy that same mind-space? Once I put myself in her head, in her body, in her heart, the prosthesis and the phantom became what they are in the book.

Unlike many space opera stories, this one is confined to a single planet. What made you go with that choice?

I'm not sure it was entirely conscious, to be honest. I knew that I had to keep this space opera on the lighter side, no more than 120k words or so. So, in order to do that, I did two things: I made it single-viewpoint, something I've never done in a novel before; and I limited its scope, partly via the setting.

Planets have multiple environments. A habitable planet that is just an ice planet or a dessert planet may be a trope in space opera, but a planet that was already very much like Earth, i.e. Gōruden, would have to share the diverse climes of Earth. So I didn't see a particular need to have this story span across multiple planets. And once I settled on the terraforming aspect of it, particularly in regards to the dispute, there was no story reason to have it span across multiple planets.

Focusing on one world that already had several biomes and corresponding climates allowed me to flesh out the island of Tatarka, the town of Tsurui, the city of Sakura, in a way that, I hope, gives them a very real, very lived-in (and crunchy) feel.

How did you explore the Western setting of the novel? Is there any particular historical situation that influenced the plot?

If you mean based on any real historical situation, no. What I did was borrow from the "myth" of the samurai in a cowboy world. I'm sure I'm not the first to note the similarity between cowboy and samurai movies, and both of these types of movies have been an influence. I would even count the Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe movie The Last Samurai as an influence, even though it was more of a cowboy in a samurai world, and highly inaccurate historically, which is one of the reasons I loved it. If I wanted actual history, I'd go read a history book or watch a documentary. We also see this myth at work in other mixed-genre works like Westworld and Firefly/Serenity.

You can also see the "myth" aspect (rather than any historical one) via the terraforming component and the genetic engineering aspect that dwells in the background in Threading the Needle.

It is not history yet, but I suspect it might be (this is the extrapolation aspect of this science fiction), that there will be people not just willing, but eager to return to or maintain a lower level of technology in exchange for freedom and self-determination. If someone were to attribute self-determination and a yearning for freedom solely to the genre of Westerns set in the Old West (or even during the Meiji Restoration), then I guess they might see it as having a "historical" influence, but I don't. I find both the desire for self-determination and the yearning for freedom to be far more widespread both in time and place.

What was the trickiest part of writing this novel?

Keeping my desire to vomit everything about genetic engineering and terraforming onto the page. I work really hard at keeping myself off the page, while also writing both tight and deep perspectives. Keeping author-narrator voice out and making everything come from the character herself, all while having just one viewpoint, was definitely the hardest part of this. It required a lot of discipline, and there were several moments when I was really tempted to make it multiple viewpoint and just make it easy for myself.

I struggled with the crunchiness of the science because I didn't necessarily want a men-with-screwdrivers story. The men-with-screwdrivers component had to be there so it wouldn't be just a cowboy/samurai story with a thin scifi veneer, so I had to be careful to balance it and not have it overwhelm the story.

I really wanted it to appeal to several audiences, including the adventure seekers, those looking for a fun story with interesting characters. I wanted to keep a sense of wonder and discovery that would appeal to anyone that enjoyed space opera as well as Westerns or samurai movies.

And most importantly, it had to make sense, it had to work without asking the reader to completely shut off the logical part of their brain. So, while I'm sure it will make geneticists cringe, it shouldn't make the average sci-fi, space-opera, or mil-sf reader cringe at all.

The main character is an immigrant to this planet, and in your introduction you talk about being an immigrant from Romania. Did this feed into Talia’s characterization?

Maybe a little. As I said, I really try to remove myself from the story. While there are always aspects of ourselves we bring into a story, we are not our characters. As a reader I am particularly critical of writers who use their characters as mere mouthpieces. I work quite specifically at NOT doing that. This is why I said that removing author-narrator voice, the need to intrude and tell you how much research I did or how hard I worked at overcoming any and all objections, the need to explain things to the reader beyond the scope of what the character herself would know or be able to explain, or would say, is so very hard.

Since Gōruden is a planet of colonists, pretty much everyone is an immigrant from Earth. The first colonization effort failed, and those original settlers were wiped out, so while there are people on Gōruden who were born there, like Logan, Maeve, and the younger characters, it is a planet of immigrants, first and foremost.

There are story reasons for this, rather than personal ones, i.e. I did not set about to write a story about what it's like to be an immigrant. For one, there was no language barrier for Talia to overcome, and not much of a cultural one either. There were some class divisions, of course, in that Talia is not part of a ruling class. Being an outsider, whether one is an immigrant or not, did, however, inform the writing, just like the lived experience of being a cop would inform a story about cops written by a cop. Or a firefighter or a soldier or whatever. And I think we all identify as outsiders to some degree or other at some point in our lives.

Some of the war stories I overheard from the men in my family, the ones they told as we huddled around our illegal radio in the cellar, did make it into Talia's flashbacks, so if anything, she is a composite character based on their lived experiences rather than my own.

There’s a lot of humor in this book. Was there any difficulty balancing that with the rest of the plot?

I can't tell you how happy I am that you found humor in this book. Thank you.

Balancing the light and the darkness in my stories has always been a challenge. My idea of dark is somewhat different than most, I have come to find out, so this is another aspect of that idea of taking myself out of the story.

What was interesting about writing Threading the Needle was the snark. I don't tend to write snarky characters or sarcasm in huge degrees. I don't go for "silliness" as a matter of course. But all those things somehow made their way into this book.

My other work tends to focus on heavier, weightier subjects, and I think that has a tendency toward darkness. I ask big questions that have no easy answer, no easy solutions.

Threading the Needle is simpler (not simplistic) and lighter in mood and tone, and I think that's reflected in the characters, especially with the robotic dogs and the supporting cast.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on the fourth book in my Ravages of Honor series, asking big questions with no easy answer or easy solutions, and I'm researching a potential hard-sf novel set on the Moon while trying to figure out what happens next on Gōruden. I wrote a short story called Relics (available gratis on the Baen Books website) in the same universe as Threading the Needle, and a number of plot squirrels sprouted from that, and I've been trying to stay on target with things I've already started, which is much harder than it should be. If readers want to stay up to date with what I’m doing, I hope they will subscribe to my newsletter via my website.

Thank you, Monalisa!

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

The Wheel of Time Reread: A Crown of Swords

Welcome back, dear readers, to The Wheel of Time Reread. Today we’re going to talk about A Crown of Swords, the seventh book in the series.

We’ve been on a *journey* thus far, but we’re here at the midpoint of the series (not counting New Spring as part of the main series, though we may well include it in the Re-read, either at the end or in publication order after Crossroads of Twilight) and it’s been a wonderful journey. My memory of A Crown of Swords is that this novel is square up in the midst of the “not much happens” part of the series (beginning with the previous novel, Lord of Chaos) - though this re-read will tell me if that’s actually the case.

In order to figure that out, though, I need to actually start the conversation and work my way through the book. Along the way there will be spoilers. It’s all spoilers at this point. For everything. .

One thing I’ve noticed reading A Crown of Swords is that Robert Jordan’s prologues are basically the “Cold Opens” from television shows. Some of the earliest prologues would give a significant scene from a part of that story that we would not typically get as part of the narrative, but now it’s “let’s just spend more time in Elaida’s head” - which is effective and obviously comparing anything to the “Dragonmount” or even the one with Bors in The Great Hunt is a loser’s game, but it does lessen the “specialness” of the prologue, for lack of a better term.

A Crown of Swords offers the fallout from Dumai’s Wells, which is happily not nearly as long as the upcoming novel length fallout of the climactic event of Winter’s Heart - which needed to happen, but there is certainly a bit of lessened impact because we’ve already seen Dumai’s Wells and now we’re recapping it from the perspectives of other characters. The end result, though, is Aes Sedai are prisoners and others have sworn loyalty to Rand and are furious and confused about it because they certainly didn’t plan to do so but were ta’verened into the whole thing (not to mention Mazrim Taim’s iconic “Kneel and swear to the Lord Dragon, or you will be knelt” - which is from the end of Lord of Chaos but plays out here).

The real fallout from Lord of Chaos and Dumai’s Wells is that Rand is so intensely focused on the need to be “harder” and unbending to face what’s coming and to never trust again. It’s about as pleasant to read as it sounds, which is why I also really appreciate every time the novel steps away from Rand. It’s kind of fascinating how a series can be so successful for me when everything I like about it is NOT the protagonist. That owes a lot to the story structure because there really isn’t a single main character. This is all ultimately about Rand and being the Dragon and facing the Dark One and the Last Battle and Using Capital Letters but the only way any of that occurs is because of everyone else. It really takes a village to save the world. Thank you, Emond’s Field.

But, to return to Rand’s quest to become an unbending stone, let’s talk about Cadsuane.

Cadsuane! I’m fairly certain that I really didn’t like this character when she was first introduced, but now all I can do is fantasy-cast Shohreh Aghdashloo as Cadsuane because she would be absolutely fantastic if the show gets deep enough to introduce Cadsuane. That’s how I read the character now and my brain rejects any interpretation to the contrary. To the book character, though, we have one of the most powerful Aes Sedai who will not settle down into strictly political power because she believes in the work she’s doing out in the world. She’s a bit of an analogue to Moiraine without the interpersonal baggage that Moiraine has with Rand, and that might have been another issue I had with the character back in 1996 when this was first published.

Now - I dig how she swoops in with very little build and bullies herself into such a prominent role. To compare to the show one last time, the show has at least introduced her name multiple times so that if she appears they’ve been seeding her for a future appearance. This obviously has nothing to do with the book, where we’re blindsided by Cadsuane’s appearance / introduction.

She’s brash (but not brassy) and is absolutely in control of any moment she places herself in. I almost said “any moment she finds herself in”, but Cadsuane doesn’t find herself in particular moments, she commands and controls those moments. She is a legend of an Aes Sedai, long rumored to be retired, if not dead, longer lived than most Aes Sedai, and up until the time of the series the most powerful channeler in perhaps a thousand years.

Cadsuane straight up forces herself into Rand’s orbit with a stated goal to teach him to remember laughter and tears. She knows what’s up and what is needed and even though she’s a terrible bully she doesn’t have time for anyone’s shit.

To further that, there is Min’s vision:
It's Cadsuane. She is going to teach you something, you and the Asha'man. All the Asha'man, I mean. It's something you have to learn, but I don't know what it is, except that none of you will like learning it from her. You aren't going to like it at all.
The funny thing is that Cadsuane is not as large of a part of A Crown of Swords as the time I have spent on the character would suggest. She looms large.

In things that have nothing to do with Cadsuane, the Mat and Tylin “relationship” begins, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s played for humor (and I think I enjoyed it when I was younger) but that’s fully gender based. If this was flipped and Mat (or some king) was pushing his attention on a younger woman it would correctly be viewed as assault. Especially since we mostly see these scenes from Mat’s perspective and he’s uncomfortable with what’s happening.

I really enjoy Elayne coming more into her own as an Aes Sedai - this is different from Egwene’s journey because Elayne was trained into leadership and raised with an expectation of authority, but learning authority is different than using it and being accepted into it. So when Elayne finally uses her command voice and talks down the Aes Sedai in Ebou Dar and controls the expedition - it plays really well - which while leading directly towards The Bowl of Winds, it’s the gathering of the Kin, cast out and never made it wilders and those not permitted to train as Aes Sedai - with dwindled numbers, there are as many Kin as there are full Aes Sedai out in the world.

Reading The Wheel of Time is an experience of encountering fantastic moments, and it’s always a question of how much you enjoy the journey. Elayne being accepted as an Aes Sedai and bringing the Kin into the fold of the White Tower (albeit the rebel White Tower with the assumption that Egwene and Salidar will prevail) is a journey that I absolutely enjoy. Also, the way that Elayne and Nynaeve discover the Kin when it’s been an otherwise open secret for The White Tower is significant - and it’s probably as significant of a future change for the Aes Sedai as anything that happens in this series (I mean, besides actually winning The Last Battle).

A Crown of Swords is also the book where Nynaeve finally breaks her block that prevented her from channeling unless she was angry and it’s given sufficient time to breathe. Nynaeve is almost killed, and how she was about to drown is what settled her to enough peace that she could just focus and get to work on channeling and then Lan is there - finally - and she can freely channel now and has no chill and pretty much married him on the spot and it’s all a whirlwind but the sequence is what the character needed.

I do also appreciate the moments of Forsaken plotting amongst themselves, though it’s always frustrating when a character leans in to tell someone else their grand plot, and Robert Jordan cuts away from that revelation. The most we get is something like “let the Lord of Chaos rule”. Thanks, Mr. Jordan. Thanks.

It’s all incredibly vague, but those glimpses are still appreciated. Plus, we have the path and punishment of Moghedien after her escape from Salidar (with help of Halima / Aran’gar). Additional chances are given by the Dark, but there is a significant cost and consequence for those failures.

I’ve also ignored, to this point, the arc of Egwene working to solidify her authority as Amyrlin. I have thoughts about how this might be introduced as a concept in the show, but really what’s happening is a mirroring of Rand’s plotline with individual Aes Sedai swearing an oath of loyalty to her as Amyrlin.

On this re-read, some ten years after I last read any Wheel of Time, I’m enjoying the experience - especially on the stretches when it corresponds with watching the tv show. The combination of reading the books while watching the show really has me fired up about Wheel of Time.

Next up, The Path of Daggers, in which things happen (probably). Plus: Tedious kidnappings, reclaiming a throne, weather magic, armies clash, betrayals, oaths are given.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Ignyte Award Finalist. Minnesotan. He / Him

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Review: All the Hidden Paths by Foz Meadows

Treading similar political and emotional ground to the first story, and defying narrative conventions to remind us that people are fundamentally people, and that change is an incremental thing.

The sequel to A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, where nobleman Vel is sent to marry across the border, but on the eve of the move is discovered in flagrante with his - male - lover, and so goes to marry the brother of the intended betrothed (and political shenanigans ensue), All the Hidden Paths sees the same protagonists (and a bonus third) head deeper into Tithena, and its politics, as they are called to the capital. There, they must discover who's been trying to attack them and why, as well as hope their fledgling relationship can stand up to these new stresses, as well as the lingering hurts of the first book.

I've seen a number of reviews discuss this book, and highlight specifically what they consider a flaw - that the story "artificially" recreates some of the parameters of the first book so we can essentially redo the same plot and the same character dynamics over again, rather than have to take things in a new direction. However, I disagree.

At the end of the first book, our protagonists are married and have feelings for each other, but have known each other only a handful of weeks. There is camaraderie, lust, fellowship and romance, yes... but there's not a longstanding relationship and trust and reliance. They care for each other, they want each other and they want to work together for the good of their marriage and their situation. But they don't know each other, not fully. And this is much of the crux of the second book, and of the issues many reviews I've seen have had with it. Because this lack of knowledge that Foz Meadows takes such pains to remind us of, leads them to doubt. Not the good intentions of their husband, no, but the strength of their still-new relationship. Of course they have doubts! One of the two protagonists, Vel, is brilliantly portrayed in the first book as having pretty severe anxiety. Of course he's worried his husband is going to find him annoying, or care about other things ahead of him. Of course he's worried that his lack of grasp of the politics of the country he's only just moved to is going to hinder them. It's who we've consistently been told he is, and honestly, they're perfectly reasonable doubts to have in the circumstances. Yes, they leave us with a reiteration of the dynamic of "oh god am I annoying Cae? He's going to get sick of my bullshit isn't he?". But to me, this is a strength. Just because they won in the end of the first story and are married and fancy the heck out of each other doesn't magically solve trauma and anxiety and self-esteem issues and the longstanding habits of existing in a culture where gayness is extremely taboo and so any relationships are fleeting and secret and dangerous and desperately fragile things. One hot guy from a culture that's a bit more open is not a panacaea, nor should it be, and it is, in my opinion, a great strength of the book that Meadows has not caved to the narrative inertia to make it so.

The other great part of this is giving us a new character from Vel's home country, and another gay, aristocratic man at that. In Asrien, we have someone whom we might assume, from his identical context, would approach things in a similar way to Vel - would have the same fasciation with Tithenai culture, the same disdain for their shared Ralian mores and homeland. But he doesn't. Despite all that his country does and thinks about people like him, Asrien cares about it. He prefers the food. He disparages Tithena and its way of doing things in moments he thinks he can do so. He hates what it has done to him, but doesn't hate it, and has not quite left it behind, in sharp contrast to Vel's wholehearted embrace of his new home.

Because we have Vel and a Tithenai man as our primary viewpoint characters, this attitude isn't taken well, but when you fit it into the broader context of the story, and of Asrien's behaviour and backstory, it's really well done, and a source of great sympathy for his character from the reader. Much like his approach to trauma and anxiety, Meadows has done a really great job of giving us the multifaceted nuance and complexity of how someone oppressed by their culture can feel all sorts of ways about it, no matter how inconsistent or illogical they may seem to someone on the outside. He gets that feelings are feelings and people are people, and consistently shows us that in all its variety.

With these two points, there's a lot of strength to the book to compare to the first - people, personalities and interpersonal relationships are always beautifully crafted and nuanced. Beyond that, Meadows has a fantastic way with descriptions, especially of food (I have some intensely clear ideas of what Tithenai food is like and I want to eat all of it) and of fashion. We always know what Vel, Asrien and Cae are wearing, its colour and texture and cut and not only does it make the novel deeply visual, but it adds to the characterisation. Vel particularly clearly thinks about fashion, and when we have his viewpoint telling us about it, it shows us more of him, more of how he looks at the world around him and presents himself in it, and more of how the culture of the world presents itself. It's unusual for a story to have such a neat grasp of fashion as social language, and there's a really great moment - only a snippet really - where Vel wonders what to wear to a foreign court he's never been to, how he makes the impression they need to make, and in that tiny bit of discussion we get a whole swathe of... not even context, but just the acknowledgement that the context exists, even if our characters don't even know it themselves. And I love it. I love subtle, thoughtful worldbuilding like this, and it's been an absolute strength in both books.

And, building on that in something not quite so present in the first - in All the Hidden Paths we do get some critique of Tithena, that felt, by that point, much needed. Cae loves his country and Vel has thrown himself into his adopted homeland in exile (understandably), and so in both of their views, it's been very easy to see it as a perfect, equalitarian utopia. But nothing is ever so perfect, and people are always people, and in showing us the internal politics of the court of the capital, Meadows has done some great work undercutting that perfection without completely bursting the bubble. We still understand why Vel likes it, why Cae cares about his home, but we begin to see the odd crack appearing, and revealing it to be just as realistic-feeling a country as the far more flawed Ralia.

Alas, not everything can be perfect though. While the world-building and culture-crafting is impeccable, the politics leave something to be desired. There's a lot going on in the last third of the book - and a lot of players we've never met before - and there's simply not enough time to get to know everyone and everything necessary to feel emotionally connected to it all. The shenanigans make sense on a logical level, the solution is comprehensible, but they don't have the gutpunch that the ending of the first book did, simply because we've not had enough time getting to know all the players to really care about them, outside of our viewpoints characters.

Some of this is simply a pacing issue - a huge early chunk of the book is spent on the road with not a great deal happening (beyond some perfectly decent character work for Vel and Cae and some dangerous occurrences), and so when we flip to court politics, there's a big tone shift and pace shift, and there's just not enough book to accommodate everything we need at the speed we might need it. But beyond that, the court politics is just much less close to our main characters - geographically and emotionally. It's not their home town, their family, their closest people anymore, and we feel that as the reader in how the characters approach the problems... and we feel the lack. We're just not invested in the same way. There's a lot of potential in what's there, but without the feeling to go with it, it just rings a little hollow by the ending. If we could have just spent a little bit longer, and known the people involved a little bit better, it could have been really wonderful.

There are also a few small but niggling unresolved threads throughout, things that were hinted at and then never picked up on. A character is remarked upon as strange several times, another character tells us that if we don't know they're not going to say it aloud... and then... nothing. Don't leave us hanging like this Foz! Another character is looked for, has their absence noted, is sought for by some, but never turns up and their absence again feels just a little odd. Is there going to be a sequel? Are these things we'll learn more about then? I don't know! I don't mind hints that stretch across books, but they have to feel like things that might get resolved, rather than just forgotten threads never quite tied off, and at the moment, all the ones I noticed felt like the latter.

That said, while there are flaws, they don't ultimately get in the way of what is, at its core, a story very truly about people in the best way possible. It's not quite as impactful or as bittersweet as A Strange and Stubborn Endurance but nonetheless All the Hidden Paths is also a story about healing and personal change in the wake of both acute tragedy and the long term harms of a stifling, oppressive culture. Its strength lies in how authentically Meadows portrays this, and how humanly - it's so easy to feel deeply for both protagonists, and even more so than its predecessor for Cae, who now has his own hurts from the events of that story. If you loved the characters in the first book and want to see them continue to struggle and grow together, the sequel is fulfilling and worthwhile, and I harbour a hope that there will be a third book to tie off all the loose ends, and give a fully satisfying series the close it deserves.


The Math

Highlights: authentic approach to mental health and personal growth, two main characters who are both absolute numpties in the best possible way, some really beautifully described fantasy fashion

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Foz Meadows, All the Hidden Paths [Tor, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea