Thursday, January 27, 2022

Microreview: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

 Natalie Haynes retells and reframes the story of the end of the Trojan War and its aftermath by grounding the story in the perspective of the women of the saga.

Sing, O Muse of the story of A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, of the sorrow of Hecube, of the determination of Andromache, of the grief filled prophecies of Cassandra, of the patience of Penelope, of the tragedy of the Amazon Penthesilea, who sought death for the horrible accident she caused. Sing O Muse, of this look at the women of the Trojan WAr by classicist Natalie Haynes.

Looking at the Trojan War and its aftermath from the women’s perspective is. In fact, not new. One of the major source materials for these books is Eurpides’ play The Trojan Women (as well as another play by him, Hecuba) among other sources and perspectives. And recent tellings and retellings of Greek Myth (such as the trilogy of Greek Myth books done by Stephen Fry) have done much better in bringing female perspectives to the myths than earlier writers and translators. What Haynes, a classical scholar, brings here is telling of the fall of Troy and its aftermath entirely from female perspectives.

The book is laid out thusly: Starting with the sack of Troy, the main narrative follows the female survivors of the Horse being pulled into the city, and their ultimate fate as chattel to be parceled out among the victorious Greeks. As the Trojan Women await and are subjected to their various fates, the narrative breaks off to other female perspectives that fill in the story both past, present and forward. So while the fate of the women inexorably comes, we divert here and there to other perspectives and stories in the entire arc. 

Thus, while we get the story of Andromache, Hecube, Cassandra and the other survivors (including, yes, Helen) and that is the core narrative, we get so much more that really reframes and reorients the events from their perspective. We get Penelope, both in the present and in the “future” (from the perspective of The Trojan Women( writing letters to Odysseus. While much of this is a recapitulation of Odysseus’ ten year voyage home, it gives us Penelope’s perspective on Odysseus and his (mis)adventures, and has some rather pointed and choice words, and deserved ones at that. Even more interesting is Calliope, who is our frame story.  Just like the Epic Poems invoke “The Muse” at the beginning, here we have the invoked Muse herself, Calliope, commenting on the narrative, commenting on the characters, the poet she is inspiring (a close reader can figure out who she is inspiring) and basically declaring that these stories WILL live on, someday. It oddly reminded me, of all things, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, and I wonder, given the author’s background, if that wasn’t deliberate. 

The lack of male points of view means that this story of the Trojan War doesn’t have much on-battle action exploits that books, movies and other media of the Trojan War focus on, and when it does describe these events, it is generally from a second hand telling of those events. The big exception of this is Penthesilea, the Amazon. Drawn to Troy because of an accidental death she has caused, we do see her and her Amazons wade into the conflict, but it is a brief affair. Haynes focuses instead on other matters in this narrative, trusting the readers will pick up what they need to frame and re-see the story.

That is a strength and something to note for this book. The question is this: Can you as a reader unfamiliar with Troy and the Trojan War follow what happened in that conflict? Yes, it’s a difficult task, and Haynes’ narrative does focus on things other than combat, and some things are just not going to come on a screen that focuses on the women. (Diomedes, who is that?). But would someone who thinks Ajax is only a kitchen cleanser connect enough with this material in order to enjoy it? That I am not so sure about. As a side matter, I find the whole idea of “assumed cultural knowledge” for some works that rely heavily on them to be a fascinating problem, especially as the focus of what is taught and emphasized changes over time. 

For readers that are more than passingly familiar with the Trojan War, though, there is a lot in this book to unpack and enjoy. It does, after all, provide perspectives that aren’t often told, and done so in a holistic way.In that way, it also reminds me of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which twists a lot of stories together to tell a long epic. Here, Haynes uses the marriage of Thetis and Peleus as its inciting incident and anchor point along with the war itself. But we go to the reasons for that marriage, through the war itself, all the way to the return of the Greeks from the Trojan War.

There is also the matter of invention and versions of myths and legends. The low level reader of Greek Myths might not be aware that a couple of the myths and legends around the Trojan War here have been changed and reinterpreted. A medium level reader of the myths and legends are going to find the differences, and may be outraged at Haynes 'inventions and decry the changes she makes. (Predictably these complaints can go hand in hand with those calling the book ‘woke’).  However, the more I’ve read Greek Myths and Legends and read about them in other texts, I’ve come to learn what full Classicists know: there is no one single canon of Greek Myths, and there are plenty of divergences, alternatives, differing versions of every Greek Myth out there. Even things like the 12 Labors of Heracles--there are some differing lists of those, and how he completed a couple of them varies. If you want a cinematic sort of look at this--look how different Perseus’ story is in the original Clash of the Titans movie and its remake.  So Haynes' own reinterpretations and changes from what you might have read as canon are ones I took in a delighted stride, seeing yet new ways to look at Greek Myth.

\And that is the takeaway here. Greek Myth and Legend is an endlessly fascinating and changing kaleidoscope of stories that can be told and retold again and again (why Hollywood, in its thirst for franchises, hasn’t done a “Greek Myth Cinematic Universe” frankly BAFFLES me.) Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships provides yet a new and well written view in that kaleidoscope that only enriches and enhances the original stories and source material.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 fort excellent use of female perspectives that is not “woke” but rather tells the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath in a new and engaging way.

+1 for the unexpected humor, especially in Penelope and Calliope’s chapters

Penalties: -1  Not certain the story works for those uninterested in the Trojan War, period.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 

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

Reference: Haynes, Natalie, A Thousand Ships  [Harper, 2021]

Questing in Shorts, January 2022: Saturation Part 1

This month, I attempted to read all of the short fiction.

Well, no, not all of it all of it, but I decided to get as close as I could to reading all the back issues of the stuff I was subscribed to in 2021. As I didn't read much short fiction at all in the first six months of the year, and I don't tend to get through everything I'm subscribed to, this ended up being 205 stories across 42 issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Augur, Strange Horizons, Apex, Giganotosaurus, Uncanny, Constelacion, Fantasy, Mermaids Monthly, The Future Fire, Fireside, FIYAH, and Anathema Magazine, and a bit of cheeky anthology reading on top.

As with any arbitrarily reading challenge, the first thing I have learned from this intense period of taking in new material is: reading is supposed to be fun, and anything that detracts from that fun by overloading you, causing anxiety or otherwise pulling you away from other priorities is actually not a very good idea. There are no medals for quantity of short stories read, and I can't even say I now feel "well read": what I choose to read is such a tiny proportion of the genre as a whole, and I know I'm missing gems from places like Escape Pod and Podcastle, stuff I've taken "out of rotation" like The Dark and Clarkesworld, all the print magazines I don't have time for, and a whole heap of venues I'm not familiar with at all. I physically can't do much more reading than I do right now, and so it is up to me to accept those gaps, just like I accept that there's plenty of novels that are, by all accounts, amazing, but which I never get to read, because time sucks.

The second thing I have learned is that I'm pretty happy with my "pull" list. I'm sad that Mermaids Monthly is not continuing, so that won't be on my 2022 list, but otherwise I feel like I'm getting a great balance of the stories that I like, told by new-to-me and favourite authors whose work I like being exposed to. I think I have a gap for a science fiction publication focused on big ideas by diverse authors (if you have recommendations, go hit me up on Twitter - Clarkesworld is an option but I want to explore alternatives first). More generally, I'm happy with my reading model of "subscribe to a few things and read most of what they put out", and I rarely find myself reading a story that I just don't like. Sure, I know there's a lot more out there that I'm missing, but... see point 1.

The third thing I have learned is that, WOW, there is a lot of great writing out there. Kind of... too many to write in a single column. So, this is going to be a two-parter! I'm going to cover stories from Apex, Augur and Strange Horizons here, and follow up next week with some of highlights from the Unfettered Hexes anthology, top stories from the rest of the publications I read, and probably a bit more navel gazing too.

Let's go:

Apex Magazine, Issues 123 and 126

Apex Magazine wins this month's prize for making me cry too much, thanks to some powerful stories in Issue 123 and 126. Issue 123 has "Throw Rug", by Aurelius Raines II, which throws out one of the most powerful final lines I've ever come across: fitting, for a story about a scrawny Black boy taking up wrestling and learning to become a champion, despite the obstacles - including racism - thrown in his path. There's a riff on Samson and Delilah, a ton of exploration of race, masculinity, success and perseverence and a really interesting documentary framing that gives different characters - including the young wrestler himself - space to offer perspectives. The issue also contains "Mishpokhe and Ash" by Sydney Rossman-Reich, the story of a Hungarian Jewish family and the golem their daughter creates, trying to survive the influence of Nazi Germany over their country and create rules for survival in a world that is seeking only their destruction. And "This is the Moment, or One of Them" by Mari Ness really captures that "vaguely dystopian technology but make it wistful" vibe that Apex does so well, featuring someone using a time altering device to try and change past events around a former lover, working out which moment needs to change to keep them safe.

The Indigenous Futurism issue spans from luxury space station resorts with substandard working conditions, to Coyote shenanigans during a St Patrick's Day celebration, but the story that smacked me in the face most effectively was "Marked by Bears" by Jessie Loyer, a story about reparations by humans towards different intelligent animal groups after human society collapses. Somehow, Loyer balances the "red in tooth and claw" aspects of this new accord with some very human meditations on justice and balance. On the one hand, the actions that take place in the story feel monstrous, but on another... it works? Certainly one to read the content warnings for: but if you can handle it, it's thought provoking stuff.

A bonus mention here for "O2 Arena" by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, originally published in Galaxy's Edge and reprinted in Apex 129. Ekpeki's story (the 2 in "O2" should be subscript, and no, for Londoners, it's not about the Millennium Dome) provides a scathing dystopian future where the speculative elements only serve to underscore existing inequality. It's firmly grounded in Lagos, in a world where climate change has killed off phytoplankton and made the oxygen in the air unbreathable, forcing humanity to rely on filters and gas cylinders or, for the rich, comfortable climate-controlled sealed environments. Its protagonist is a student just about making things work on the edge of wealthy society, but his best friend's illness forces him to seek less savoury methods to put together the oxygen credits that will allow her to survive. While the first person narration occasionally becomes a little too perfect (I struggle on principle when male characters are able to see through patriarchy when their female friends can't, even though I know it does happen), on the whole it's a really powerful look at just how extractive capitalist society can become.

Augur Magazine, Year 4

I like that I can sit down and appreciate Augur's entire 2021 output in one dedicated afternoon. I would like this even more if they offered more reading options than just PDF: yes, this enables some interesting typesetting for a few of the stories ("In the Shadow of the Field" by Anastasia McCray uses it to great effect in issue 4.1), but I struggle to read on a computer screen and it would be nice to at least have the option to read more flexibly on an e-reader, you know?

But we're here to read stories, not whinge about file formats. Augur does a great range of diverse fiction with an emphasis on Canadian authors, and a lot of stories really capitalise on their sense of place, whether that's Canada or further afield. "African Meeting House" by Kate Foster (Issue 4.1) features two Black sisters who move back to their small town, and put the ghosts of their antecedents to rest in the house where they grew up, and the latter is a diaspora story in which a girl buying stuff from a convenience store gets told the story of a mango which turns out to be more relevant to her than she expects. In "The House at the End of the World" by Ashley Deng (Issue 4.1), protagonist Yi and her family have what they need to survive provided to them by their magical house, even as the world falls apart and starves around them: when she disobeys a directive to never go into the attic, Yi figures out the secret behind the house's generosity and her family's code when it comes to maintaining it (it's grim, but not gratuitously so, and I appreciate that.) I also really enjoyed the weird world and the meaty takes on power from L. Chan's "It Takes a Village" (Issue 4.2): in a world where the rich can create sentient dolls, a travelling magistrate with a reputation for dealing with doll-related cases is sent to the village where unwanted ones live to deal with a strange murder case.

Finally, let's talk about "Purgatory is High, Low and Inside me" by Emily Carrasco-Acosta (Issue 4.1), about Mariana, a young woman with diabetes who has to deal with being able to see ghosts when her blood sugar is too low or too high. It's a meditative story, one which delves into the feelings of its protagonist around her life and how precarious being chronically ill can feel, especially when that illness comes with such a weird direct link to death. We follow Mariana as she deals with her gift, and the relationship she builds with another woman, and when that turns out to be impermanent we feel the ache of that loss even as it changes Mariana's perspective on life into something, tentatively, for the better. Really good stuff.

Strange Horizons, May - December 2021

Art for All Us Ghosts: Johnny Anger

While I moan about having to read Augur in PDF, I must also lament not having had an ebook edition of Strange Horizons to read since last May, but this minor inconvenience was no match for my will to read good stories and I have therefore read some more things on my computer. Please send my medal soon, OK? (Also, because I read these in one big glut and did not take good notes of dates, the initial version of this post is not going to include dates - if you're not reading this sentence, it's because I've gone back and edited them in later.)

Anyway, it was fine, because it's Strange Horizons and Strange Horizons does some of the best stuff out there. Of particular note was their sexy interactive fiction special, Strange Lusts, featuring two hypertext games by Natalia Theodoridou and Anna Anthropy. "Pockets", a game about post apocalyptic survival centring a queer couple, is excellent, but "Heat from Fire" by Anna Anthropy is something else: a super steamy choose-your-own-tentacle adventure (I think the tentacles are optional but I did not feel the need to explore the no tentacle branch) featuring a trans witch alienated by her TERF-y coven and seeing comfort by summoning (and sexting) a very hot lady-shaped version of Asmodeus. It's sexy and it's also a really fantastic story about belonging and what gets treated as transgressive. Like all hypertext fictions, playing through more than once is encouraged.

Moving on from the sexy stuff, Kola Heyward Rotimi's "An Exploration of Nichole Otieno's Early Filmography" blew me away with its travelogue-as-academic-text framing and its take on colonialism and academia and how one studies something that resists the idea of permanence. I'm really into travelogue stories at the moment and this is really, really good. Also amazing? "The Constellations are Unrecognisable Here" by Andrew Joseph White, set on a medical spaceship that picks up survivors in decimated colonies in the aftermath of a galactic war. Amavon is a trans boy, trying to deal with the aftermath of terrible injuries and trauma as well as trying to convince his caseworker to approve top surgery; while travelling, he builds a relationship with Jenea, another trans survivor and burn victim, and the two end up affecting each other in an intense and not entirely healthy way. White's story tackles really difficult stuff in a light touch, generous way, and I found myself really rooting for both kids even as Amavon, in particular, makes some painful decisions. And there's some great anti-capitalist stories: "Thread Count", by Cynthia Gomez, is about a mysterious spate of deaths among the Fortune 500 rich list, in ways which turn out to be powerfully tied to the exploitation that made their fortunes. And then there's "All Us Ghosts" by B. Plade, whose protagonist Jules is a gig worker for a company that allows parents to invent and control all of their young adult children's social connections through virtual university. Jules divides his time between being every adult friend and girlfriend that rich kid Cam has ever had, dealing with his actual IRL crush on Cam, and campaigning for greater rights for the workers who have to take on this kind of labour; when the streams cross and Cam becomes involved in activism against the company, the gulf between the exploitation Cam perceives and the exploitation Jules has lived through throws the entire clusterfuck of a system into relief.

Also, I can't talk about Strange Horizons without talking about the highlights of its sister publication Samovar: the undisputed highlight of the two issues I read was "Ensign", by Soyeon Jeong, with its take on spacefaring indenture. The colonists of the planet where the story is set are bound to a deal made by their grandparents' generation, which says that they can choose whether to stay on the world, even as its infrastructure starts to crumble and life begins to get harder, or they can sign up to be relocated when the company that settled the planet needs them elsewhere: whether that be in the next week or in 40 years' time. Hajeong and Yuna are partners, but when it comes time for each of them to set their decision in stone by their 30th birthday, the gap between what each of them wants becomes an enormous strain on their family, and Hajeong, as the one who wants to stay behind, tries to live with her partner's inexplicable choice and the uncertainty it brings to their life together.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Nanoreviews: Scales and Sensibility, The Bone Shard Emperor, Velvet Was the Night


Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

This highly entertaining regency romance kicks off a new trilogy in a new world for Burgis, and it's very like our own but for the recent "discovery" (as far as Western society is concerned) of dragons. Said dragons have led to some intriguing new research directions, but mostly their presence in English society is as a trainable pet status symbol for wealthy ladies, and as poor cousin in a house of awful rich relatives, Elinor Tregarth has to look on as her nasty cousin Penelope Hathergill tries to train hers in time for her coming out ball in a week's time. Unfortunately, while Elinor thinks of herself as a sensible, patient sort, and has put up with a lot at Penelope's hands, watching animal abuse turns out to be her limit, and she ends up running away from the house with poor Sir Jessamyn in tow, only to bump into a charming fortune hunter on his way to her a cousin, spend a night getting to know him (in a very proper sense!) in the local inn, and then accidentally triggering Sir Jessamyn's secret magic to transform herself into fearsome socialite Mrs DeLacey, whose strength and courage Elinor wishes she had. Penniless and stuck in another woman's body, Elinor decides her best hope of survival is to accompany charming Benedict Hawkins back to her aunt and uncle's house, and pose as Mrs DeLacey come to help Penelope's debut while helping Benedict with his seduction plan and figuring out her own next move.

Scales and Sensibility absolutely delights in its farcical set-up and all the opportunities for misunderstanding, misdirection, slip-ups and drama it creates: there's barely a chapter that goes by without a terrible coincidence occurring in the final sentences, and Elinor is constantly pulled between trying to maintain her disguise (which slips if anyone physically touches her, and is made more complicated by the fact that her dragon looks exactly like the stolen one except for a few magical facial markings), keep Sir Jessamyn out of harm's way, keep Benedict Hawkins ahead of Penelope's other, wealthier suitor and his conniving sister, squash her own feelings for Benedict Hawkins, try and figure out what's going on with her dragon with the help of Benedict's quiet dragon-scholar friend. In-keeping with the Austen homage (Elinor Dashwood is the "sensible" sister from Sense and Sensibility), Elinor Tregarth thinks of herself as a sensible, steady, boring sort of person, but there's not much space in this story for "sensible" decisions, and Elinor is at her best when she's throwing caution to the wind and really inhabiting the persona she's built up as Mrs DeLacey: a no-nonsense, daring, strong-willed woman who won't hesitate to speak her mind even when other people are against her. The romance is great - and well handled alongside the hidden identities - and the ending does well to reward to all the characters we're rooting for while avoiding too much punitive nastiness against those we weren't. And, if my assumptions about the romantic lead in the next book are correct... well, let's just say I can't wait.

The Bone Shard Emperor

The Bone Shard Daughter was a really entertaining fantasy debut, creating an intriguing archipelago ruled by an insular emperor who maintained power through constructs powered by magical shards of bone from living people. While it had a number of engaging points of view - Jovis, the smuggler with a heart of gold who adopts a magical otter-kitten-pet, was a firm favourite - the heartbeat of the book was with Lin Sukai, daughter of the emperor who is struggling  to cope with mysterious memory loss and pass her father's increasingly bizarre tests while putting her own plans into motion to move the succession along and come out ahead of her rival. Lin's story centred around the workings of bone shard magic, which is essentially a form of blood-magic coding which creates more or less complex automatons that run on the life force of the people whose shards are used. Lin's story was full of unique magic and tense twists, and at the point where The Bone Shard Daughter ends, it left her teamed up with Jovis, ascending the throne, and unable in good conscience to continue using the magic that had defined the series to this point.

That puts Bone Shard Emperor in an interesting narrative position, but luckily there's plenty of other interesting elements seeded throughout Bone Shard Daughter that come to the fore here. Stuck leading an empire that has no idea who she is and only tolerates the power of the Emperor as far as it offers magical protection (which it doesn't), Lin needs to consolidate her power while trying to stay true to her own ideals, seeing off independence grabs from the islands and the machinations of the revolutionary force trying to unseat her while seeing off the invasion of a rogue construct group (who will be very familiar to readers of book one). Jovis, and his magical kitten-otter (actually an ossalen, now very big and very talkative, and still the best character) is now working alongside Lin, but with conflicted loyalties and ghosts from his past to deal with. Meanwhile, islands keep sinking and the looming supernatural threat - the rise of the Alanga, a magical race that the Sukai dynasty claimed to be able to hold at bay - seems to be much closer than expected. Lin and Jovis' travel gives the opportunity to see more of the empire and the worldbuilding here continues to be top notch, especially around the various factions vying for power around the new emperor.

There are also some elements that don't work as well. The secondary storyline with Phalue, governor of one of the islands, and her wife Ranami, is entertaining but still feels quite distant from the primary storyline, and its independent payoffs felt even more limited despite their actually meeting with Jovis and Lin this time. that said, Phalue and Ranami's story adds more depth to life on the islands, and I'm invested in how the two come through as a couple, and I am very excited to see more of Ayesh, their orphan-adoptee, in the next book - so perhaps I'm just out of practice with parallel stories in this kind of fantasy storytelling. There is also a romantic connection between Jovis and Lin that doesn't have much time to incubate before bursting out as a "every time they accidentally touch we get sentences about how a-flutter they are" type deal. There are elements of both characters' experiences that make it more understandable why they'd fall in love so fast, but it feels uncomfortably like it happens because that is what is supposed to happen when two characters like this spend time together in this story, rather than it flowing organically. Still, those are minor elements in what's overall a very enjoyable continuation of the series.

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

It's been too long since I read a book with a good, ready-made soundtrack and, if you like reading to music, Velvet Was the Night pretty much demands that you put on its 60s-rock soundtrack, and will even reward you with rare moments where the music lines up with one of the many songs referenced within the text itself (for me, this happened in the "White Room" scene, to great effect). Velvet Was the Night is a noir set in Mexico City in 1970, at the beginning of the "dirty war", where government sanctioned violence against communists and other dissidents led to widespread political repression. Into that scene steps Elvis, a mid-level thug who aspires to be more than a two-bit goon even as he idolises his commander and the work they do, and Maite, a woman who spends her life fantasising about romance and building an extensive record collection. When Maite reluctantly agrees to look after her neighbour Leonora's cat, only to have Leonora disappear, she's motivated to start an investigation that soon takes on a life of its own; Elvis is also sent to pursue Leonora, while learning more about how to command his squad and learning that all is not well in the political ecosystem that keeps him employed and useful.

Velvet Was the Night is packed with atmosphere and intrigue, and while there's nothing particularly engaging about Leonora herself - she appears to be in possession of incriminating photos which have gone missing, and has left behind not one but two mooning exes, but her politics are done more interestingly by other characters - there's certainly a lot to enjoy about Maite and Elvis' respective investigations into her, and the way that their paths intertwine as they get closer to tracking down the truth. There's a frequent grimness to these happenings - as you'd expect from a noir centring the political underworld - and it's underscored by the small-mindedness of both leads: we might sympathise with Maite's singleness and how awful her family are about it, but her obsession with status and appearances and her callousness towards people she doesn't consider worth caring about (including the cat) are very unpleasant traits, and Elvis' contempt for his fellow enforcers and mooning over the cultist honeypot he fell in love with before joining the gang is equally eye-rolling. But that all adds to the atmosphere, and, again, it's that atmosphere - and the intricacy of politics behind it - that make Velvet Was the Night a fantastic noir read.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Microreview [Video Game]: Nexomon by LimeTurtle Inc

A flawed Pokémon alternative

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Game Freak must feel LimeTurtle Inc’s puckered lips against their perfectly manicured toes. Nexomon is a blatant Pokémon ripoff that does its best to meticulously adapt its story to the classic monster-collecting formula, but in the process loses many potentially unique traits.

In Nexomon, you play as a young tamer on a journey to follow the Nexolord and put a stop to his evil deeds. The Nexolord plans to resurrect the original nexomon, Omnicron, who is hellbent on destroying mankind and it’s the player’s responsibility to discover why. Aided by Atlas, your robot friend who tells awful jokes and isn’t given much backstory besides that he was created that day, you embark.

I won’t lie, the sound editing, voice acting, and stilted dialogue are laughably bad most times and endurable at best. The few narrated sequences made me cringe, and the repeated use of the same booming explosion sound effect grated against every fiber of my being. Considering the first exposure the player has to Nexomon is a narrated backstory, one would think that the intro would do its best to draw the player in, but instead invites thoughts of mediocrity. The game then proceeds to follow up on that with a mediocre experience.

This isn't to say that Nexomon is all bad. The art style works well for the game and is reminiscent of the older 2D Pokémon games. There aren’t any pesky HM’s that lock you into certain monster choices, which is wonderful. Many of the monster designs are magnificent and unique, though some are obvious copies of well-known Pokémon, and some are quite ridiculous or uninspired.

Instead of following the traditional Pokémon template of eight gym leaders followed by the Elite Four, Nexomon employs the Nexolord’s overseers and champions. The overseers are Nexomon’s version of gym leaders, and the champions are similar to the Elite Four. In lieu of having to obtain badges, the player must find each overseer for more information on the Nexolord. Some overseers are friends and some are foes, the champions are all enemies and frequently jump into the narrative for a surprise fight. This alters the traditional pace of the Pokémon plot blueprint but doesn't create any meaningful change to the genre.

But what about the collecting aspect? Well, Nexomon does a decent job here. Every monster can be found in the wild, which reduces some of the challenge and variability when obtaining unique monsters. There is no trading aspect, which is nice for completion-oriented players who don’t have access to the internet or who do not wish to include others in their play sessions. Everything in the game can be acquired alone and with one copy of the game, a fresh change from the many Pokémon games that force you to buy two copies or find a friend who also owns a copy of the opposite version.

There are two types of nexomon traps: regular and gold. A regular nexotrap is similar to a Pokéball while the gold is like a Master Ball. There is no in-between. Golden nexotraps are scarce throughout the main game but are littered throughout the postgame. This removes the challenge of catching the end-game legendaries. Speaking of legendary monsters, by the time you’re able to catch them, the incentive to level them up and use them is nil. They become simple database (Pokédex equivalent) fillers, which is quite unfortunate because I enjoyed some of their designs. Legendary monsters felt like an afterthought which was a shame and a massive misstep by LimeTurtle Inc.

The UI is the worst aspect of this game. There are no options to remove battle animations (though thankfully they are quick) or speed up text. The database is a nightmare. There is no sorting whatsoever. Imagine trying to find one in three hundred-ten monsters without any filter. It’s odd because you’re somewhat able to sort through your nexomon inventory, though the options are limited.

Nexomon is an incredibly easy game. There are only seven types of monsters, each has two strengths and two weaknesses versus other types (except the normal type which is neutral). There are no dual types for more complex matchups, so everything is straightforward. It’s also easy to over level your monsters and wipe everything out without a second thought. There are no badges or level requirements to prevent your monsters from disobeying you, so you are free to train to your heart's content with no repercussions. The game does allow a tamer’s monster to attack if it’s relieving a fainted ally. This creates a different strategy from Pokémon games where the battle is reset upon the entry of a new monster. I appreciated this difference, as it made me have to change my monsters out more frequently than in the traditional Pokémon battle system. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end game that I actually needed to employ any strategy, as the main game was undemanding.

While many aspects of Nexomon are underwhelming, the game as a whole is a functional alternative to those who have exhausted all of their Pokémon options. The collectible aspect is enjoyable, and the ability to choose which attacks your monster can have equipped at any given time is a great option (even if the UI behind choosing said attacks is awful). In the end, I enjoyed my time with Nexomon even if I sometimes wished it would get out of its way. If there’s a Pokémon game you haven’t played yet, I would recommend that over this. But for ten bucks, you could do worse than Nexomon.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 4/10

Bonus: +1 for some cool monster designs, +1 for allowing players to catch all monsters without a second copy of the game, +1 for no HMs.

Penalties: -1 for awful UI, -1 for not using the deviation from the traditional formula to any meaningful effect, -1 for being overly simple.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Blaseball Mondays: Short Circuit Finale Time!

Hello! It's the final Blaseball short circuit! People who read this column and keep up with Blaseball will notice that there was a circuit back in December that I didn't cover: somehow, I missed the start of the season and then couldn't find my way back in between day job priorities and other day job stuff.

The nice thing about short circuits is that I don't feel I've missed too much by being out of action for what turned out to be a somewhat uneventful two-week season. There was winter weather! And a really drawn out game schedule! There were some Peanut shenanigans, but the Peanut was mostly well behaved and apart from remaking the Ohio Worms in its image, nobody had anything particularly horrible happen to them. And congratulations to [goes to look it up] The Canada Moist Talkers for taking home an icy victory! Someday soon the Blaseball community is going to wake from hibernation and immortalise the winners of its first two-week season as the fine team of well deserving players that they are. Were. They're gone now.

Credit to @clip_ny for the screenshot

But enough about what happened before. Let's talk about what's happening now. This circuit is another two week long season, but where the theme last time was ice and peanuts, this time we are enjoying a big ol' party! The divisions have been renamed (Uptempo has bop and jam subdivisions, Downtempo has dirge and ballad), the regular season matches have been interspersed with special prize games, where two teams get to duke it out for a fancy item while playing in glitter weather, which occasionally awards prizes of its own. Having a period every few hours where your own team probably isn't playing, but there's something to watch and bet on, is a nice way to break up the hours and make breaks from the splort a little bit easier, even when things are tense and exciting.

According to the very elaborate short circuit calendar, there's plenty more planned, including daily elections for "squid gifts": that's right, Blaseball's chilled out squid god of the underworld, the Monitor, seems to be taking on the role of hypebeing for this party themed adventure, handing out confetti cannons and more fun and/or dangerous stuff throughout the week. And to keep things interesting in the middle of the season, there's a "Fiesta" planned: where the bottom twelve teams will play against each other in a tournament to see who can remain in party time for longest. Party time, for those who are only just picking up Blaseball, was previously a rule that enabled teams that were mathematically eliminated at the end of a season to pick up random stat boosts for their players: in the Expansion Era having a terrible season meant getting to Party Time earlier and potentially turning your mediocrities into superstars for a comeback seasons later. While the eventual effect of this was to inflate player stats to unsustainable levels, its exciting to see Party Time come back as a mid season leveller, paving the way for some really interesting shenanigans next week... what I WOULD say if the Georgias weren't actually kind of good this season. Our current team of randoms are OK at hitting! They are OK at pitching! And, on the "less obvious but actually really important" side, the lineup has some serious defensive skills between them, meaning fewer runs being scored against us and better chances of victory. For this reason, and because we are currently first in the Downtempo Dirge division and tied for wins, I am wishing all midseason fiesta teams a very mediocre party time, with all of my love from under the sea.

Finally, that two week schedule contains some of the most exciting words in Blaseball: redacted ones. While we have some idea how the next few days are going to go, next week's adventures include the random awarding of [blank] to the winner of the midseason tournament, followed by regular games to allow the holder of [blank] to defend it against other lower-placed teams, as well as a whole entire [blank] Tuesday event, some tantalising "however, [blank]" shenanigans in the Postseason, and... whatever is going to happen at the end of the season. Nothing bad has ever come from uncovering a redacted word in this game, and I sure am excited to learn what these ones are while we pursue victory. Shenanigans will be had, and they will probably be annoying: what else do we watch Blaseball for?

Fiesta! Go see the reasonable-sized original at

Microreview [Film]: Colossal

A singular, underappreciated gem. 

Whenever I tell people that one of my favorite films of the 2010s is Colossal, they usually don’t know what it is or laugh at me. Not so different from how I suppose the giant monster within the film would be reacted to in real life. Its hulking size might be imposing, but its low-budget, wacky CGI makes it so you can’t help but disdain or smile at its awkward hilarity. The film’s tonal shifts are jarring but in a way that I found engagingly – not unenjoyably - abrasive. The plot falls apart under scrutiny but soars if you join the film’s wavelength. Its themes don’t have a thread extending through the whole film—it’s more like threads end, more threads come in, and old threads reappear in a distorted form – but all those threads are emotionally impacting, despite their disparate length and attention. Colossal might not be an objective masterpiece, but it has so much warmth and charming conviction to be original that watching it feels like the giant monster within the film is giving you a friendly hug.

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an unemployed writer dealing with alcoholism. After her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) who owns their place breaks up with her, she returns to her hometown in Mainhead, New Hampshire. At Mainhead, she reunites with old friends, including Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Things are going all right until she starts to believe with evidence that a giant monster occasionally appearing and causing destruction in Seoul is tied to her.

Every character here is a mess, but for the most part, those flaws underscore humanity rather than depravity. The villain is a very pointed exception. For a while, the antagonist appears to be Gloria herself. It’s a lighthearted first half where the stakes aren’t dire, and the tone is something of relaxing lunacy.  But as Gloria deals with her own baggage, she’s tossed something far worse. The reveal of that antagonist is where the rug is pulled from under the viewer and the dramatic elements become more prevalent than the comedic.

A tonal shift so extreme could’ve been bungled, but because the film’s dealing with very eccentric elements early on, the reception for Colossal going almost off the rails wasn’t the crash into awfulness for me that it would’ve been in films that started more conventionally. By introducing a gleeful cavalcade of eccentricities, the film opens the doors to big narrative swings that would’ve been a foul rather than a home run in other cases.

I love Colossal. I love its characters—both the half-baked and fully-formed. Its over-the-top climax. Its valiant ending that quickly turns pessimistic. I love that its twists and turns are so special that I would never think of spoiling it for anyone. I especially love its monster’s design. It might get laughs and jeers from the audience but it bounces off like the bullets that are ineffective against it. For all of Colossal’s ridicule, it’s a film unabashedly itself. It’s so confident that you might mistake its resolved stature for a giant.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 For an unforgettable climax
                +1 For an underrated Jason Sudeikis performance.

Penalties: −1 For not fully utilizing a couple members of its talented supporting cast

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!

Monday, January 24, 2022

Microreview [film]: The Unforgivable

 Not "Unforgiven" like the Metallica song, or the Clint Eastwood classic. FYI.

This may be slightly different fare than we usually cover here, but I nerd out over thrillers, so I reserve the right to cover them. Plus, it's set in Seattle, where I live, so I feel a certain obligation to.

Smart-aleck comments aside, The Unforgivable comes in with a fairly unique premise: We follow Ruth (Sandra Bullock) as she is released from prison following a 20-year stint for killing a Sherriff when she refused to vacate her foreclosed-upon family home. Her sister, who had been in her care, is 5 at the time of the shooting, and has since been adopted into a Nice, Loving Home(tm). She has a comfortable life, is a piano prodigy, and has no memory of her big sister.

The two sons of the murdered Sherriff find out of her release, and begin plotting their revenge because she is "walking free with no consequences", and for the things that are actually pretty good about this movie, it's sentences like that which make it fall sort of flat to me. 

Because, as we follow Ruth - struggling to get a job, connect with people, and generally have a life after losing 20 years of it in prison - she definitely has consequences, so the whole revenge plot (which is central to The Twist, so I won't spoil it) seems hollow.

Which is then my second problem with this movie - it severely lacks for sympathetic characters. Ruth obviously garners our sympathy, if nothing else by being the protagonist and looking generally sad, but that goodwill is erased by her generally unhinged efforts to get in touch with her sister, and manipulation of people in order to do so. And when we flashback to the day of the murder, she is clearly in over her head taking care of her much younger sister in the wake of her parents deaths, but that doesn't make killing someone a sympathetic act. Maybe that's the "unforgivable" part, but I would have liked someone who is a major player in this movie to be more likeable.

All of which would probably land better if the time we spent with things that are trying to make us feel sorry for her addressed, say, the effect the American prison system has on people and leads people right back in, instead of a couple on-the-nose comments about it, after which we never hear about it again.

Lastly (I am realizing I didn't like this movie as much as I thought I did), characters just... disappear for really long stretches. The brothers are just... not there for a while, and then, oh hey, they're trying to kill her. It also seems like they forgot they cast Jon Bernthal, because he shows up, seems like he is going to be a major part of the story, and then disappears. I expected him to pop back up like a lot of other characters, but nope, he's gone.

Finding something nice to say, though: The casting was great (even if they forgot about Bernthal). Vincent D'onofrio and Viola Davis are excellent as always. I am always torn about Sandra Bollock (especially since this is like the third or fourth film where she plays this type of character), but she fit the role well.

My absolute favorite part is when they are driving into Seattle at the start of the film, and then it starts to rain, so you REALLY know it's Seattle, and then it never rains again for the entire movie. Also, there is no way you can get from Seattle to Snohomish on bus and get back in time for your shift.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 6/10. I didn't hate it, even though I ragged on it quite a bit.

Bonuses: +1 for an excellent, tight cast

Penalties: -1 for overall clunky pacing, -1 for the twist being way too predicable (you probably figured it out just from reading this)

Overall: 5/10. That feels about right.

Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories (which should be on YOUR summer reading list). You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog. When not holed up in his office writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.