Friday, June 2, 2023

6 Books with Matt Wallace

Photo by Edward Earl Newton
Matt Wallace is the Hugo nominated author of Rencor: Life in Grudge City and the Sin du Jour series, and he won a Hugo Award alongside Mur Lafferty for the fancast Ditch Diggers. He’s also penned more than a hundred short stories in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth, he traveled the world as a professional wrestler and unarmed combat and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full time. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki.

Today he tells us about his Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I just finished an ARC of Premee Mohamed's debut short story collection No One Will Come Back for Us and it's just everything I love about short stories and collections and dark fantasy and SF. Premee has become one of my favorite authors of near-future stuff, alongside Dr. Malka Older and Eliot Peper, but Premee brings and weaves horror elements to her near-future fiction in a unique way. She's a scientist, and she focuses a lot on climate change fiction and themes of colonization. Her stories feel frighteningly relevant and wholly possible, and terrible things usually happen, but I find something oddly hopeful about her work, too. 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Chaos Terminal by Mur Lafferty, the second book in her Midsolar Murders SF/mystery series, which is like Murder, She Wrote in space with aliens and a sentient space station. The first book, Station Eternity, is the best SF novel Mur has ever written, in my humble opinion. It comes out in November and Mur hasn't sent me an advanced copy yet, because she secretly hates me (she is one of my best friends and podcast co-host). I've got The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw on the top of my TBR pile. Cass is one of the most singularly exciting voices in the game for me. No one uses language quite like them to create mood and character and atmosphere and their worlds. Their perspective on reality is as unique as their voice, too.

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?

Kristopher Landis wrote this amazing oral history of WMAC Masters, my favorite kids show from the early 90's, called Quest for the Dragon Star. WMAC Masters was a live-action Saturday morning series based around this fictional martial arts tournament that was kind of quasi-sci-fi, like a combination of pro wrestling and a tournament fighter video game. It had ninjas and strong moral lessons and, for the time especially, pretty stunning rep of both women and people of color and starred every martial artist actor and stuntperson from the era, including most of the O.G. Mortal Kombat cast, using their real names and playing fictionalized versions of themselves. There was nothing like it, it only lasted two seasons, and it ended on a massive cliffhanger that's been gnawing at me for thirty years. Anyway. Kris interviewed the entire cast and crew, the creators, assembled all of this behind-the-scenes archival material, and wrote this utterly exhaustive-in-the-best way history of every single episode in chronological order. My friend, author Hector Acosta, gave me a copy as a gift when it was first published, but I recently ordered a signed copy from Kris just to support the cause (he not only put the whole project together on spec, but he also published the book himself) and because I wanted it. So, it's on my nightstand right now, waiting to be reread. I was also talking to Alex Segura recently about The Godfather and it made me want to reread that for the first time since I was a teenager.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about - either positively or negatively? Or A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

I don't know about a book I've changed my mind about, at least a more recent one. With the second Dune movie coming out I've talked a lot with friends and readers and other authors about how my perception of that original book has changed over time. It's still one of my very favorite novels (it ends with a literal knife fight over the fate of the universe, and if you know me you know that is extremely my shit), but I see the flaws in the writing style and Herbert's perspective on things now that I didn't see when I was a kid. So, when anybody criticizes the novel I'm basically like, "Yeah, you're right." But I still love what I love about it.

As for a book I wish I'd written myself, one of my favorite current fantasy series is C.L. Clark's Magic of the Lost. The first book, The Unbroken, did a lot of what I was trying to do with my novel Savage Legion, only Cherae did it way, way better. It made me extremely jealous while being grateful it exists because it's such a good book and such a "me as a reader" kind of book. The latest in the series, The Faithless, is also spectacular. Everyone should check out the series if they haven't.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

I was just tweeting about the Dragonlance novels, which Ursula Vernon calls "extruded fantasy flavor," and she's not wrong. But I found a secondhand paperback copy of Dragons of Spring Dawning under my desk in language arts class in like, sixth grade? It smelled like someone had spilled a bottle of cheap cologne on it. Anyway, it was my entry into the fantasy genre, for good or bad, and it planted the seed of wanting to write my own sprawling epic fantasy series. It also occurred to me recently that when I say I "found" the book I very well might've just stolen it. Some kid from another period probably forgot it, and when they came back to look for it the book was gone. Sorry, kid.

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

My latest novel is Savage Crowns, which is the third and final book in my Savage Rebellion Trilogy. It's awesome, to me, because I've completed my very first epic fantasy series. The idea was to write kind of a "self-aware" epic fantasy. Like, what if an epic fantasy story had learned from other epic fantasy stories and tropes, and that formed the basis of their world. I think I accomplished what I set out to do. The series had a difficult publishing journey since it was acquired in 2018, and that journey influenced me negatively in a lot of ways and the writing of the later books, but we both persevered and crossed the finish line and they all came out. So, I'm proud of that.

Thank you, Matt!

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

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Review: Hybrid Heart by Iori Kusano

An intimate look at the interior life of a pop idol in a near future world where technology only makes the competition fiercer, and more isolating.

Cover art by Natsujirushi 夏じるし
In Hybrid Heart, we follow Rei, a solo pop idol in a near future Japan. For her, the pop landscape is filled with online avatar singers, competing against their more flesh and blood counterparts. Rei must be the most perfect, most precisely planned version of herself, workshopped and marketed and calibrated by her record label and manager, to try to keep her niche of success against them... or at least so she is told.

This is a story primarily of her emotional journey in response to this situation, rather than the events themselves. Things happen in the story, absolutely, but they are not the focus. Instead, they are backdrops through which Rei is prompted to examine her situation and herself, and begin to question how she's got to here, how she truly feels about it, and what she wants from life.

And for that, I love it. I love a story willing to detach itself from a focus on events, on action and drama, and instead dedicate itself to something else, whether that be atmosphere, emotion or, as in this case, character. To do it well, it of course relies on the character being a compelling one, but there's no concern on that score here - Rei is easy to love and easy to sympathise with, right from the start.

What this book truly manages well is the intimacy of Rei's interiority. We get so deep into her worries and her fears and her hurts. We feel truly embedded in how her manager manages every part of her existence, how he's driven her to extremes of food management, body consciousness, even just scheduling, and the technology that is such a subtle part of the narrative most of the time really helps to emphasise this. We feel, as she feels, how tiny and lonely and trapped her life is, and we cannot help but love her and hurt with her in that.

And it does this again with her relationship with her previous best friend and co-idol, Ririko. I adore how well Iori Kusano has managed the feelings Rei has - the realisation that she may have been in the wrong, and how her biddability, her desire to be the good girl, may have robbed her of her friend who was right all along. I love how they leave us with that sadness, the openness of the consequences, as well as the hope. We don't know exactly how it ends, ultimately, just that Rei has started to make the necessary steps on her journey. She knows the consequences of her time as an idol aren't gone or forgotten, and she must figure out how to live with them, and the choices she made, and that's in many ways a more satisfying ending than a neatly wrapped happy one could ever be, because it feels that much more realistic. It's an ending we can truly believe, and come out of hoping her journey keeps on going from here, one step at a time - exactly the sort of optimism needed, while still being grounded in the sadness that came before. It's beautifully, carefully, and wonderfully done, and I loved it.

We also see her reaction to her manager taking on a new - younger - talent alongside her, and begin to question what this means for her own career. And what this might mean for the young girl stepping into this world.

One of the most heartbreaking and lovely parts of this is Rei's instinctive reaction here - wanting to protect her young would-be rival. She wants to keep her from the hurts her manager has inflicted on Rei, and yet knows that she cannot. We see her fail, and make choices that result in different outcomes than she hoped. And again, this feeds back into how well-constructed a character Rei is. We still love her when she fails and fucks up. It only makes her more real, when her good intentions don't pan out how she hopes they will.

As may have become clear, this is a story with very heavy themes - body image, disordered eating, abuse by a mentor figure, stalking - and not a happy read through them. It's always difficult to tackle emotional topics like these, but Kusano does so with tremendous grace and care, so the narrative never strays into feeling like the torment is there only for enjoyment. Every decision feels like it serves the story precisely, and is presented from that intimate, internal perspective in a way that never feels voyeuristic. We are simply observing what it would be like to be with her, as she experiences all this. That restraint makes it all the more impactful and human. Rei feels, more than anything throughout the story, intensely tired, and so unable to truly process the magnitude of the wrongs done to her, and what reaction is more human than that?

If there's any flaw to the story, it is simply that you must be willing to just... be along for the ride of "what's happening with Rei". Which isn't to say that there's nothing else of value here - that's entirely untrue, and the light touch world-building of this near future full of biotech is well done - but it all loops back so closely to focus on Rei and her emotions, that you cannot escape that aspect of it. If you want pacey plot or deep world-building exploration, or even on-page character conflict and dynamics, this isn't the story for you. But if you are willing to roll with what it's giving you, to inhabit that character and watch as her life changes, and she changes with it? It is so absolutely worth the experience.

Personally, I'd be thrilled if we had more stories like this one, with such a care and interest in people and their being... people... while still responding to more SFF-flavoured worlds and experiences. Until then, I'll just savour this one all the more. 


The Math

Highlights: beautiful character study, interesting light touch worldbuilding, hopefulness 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Iori Kusano, Hybrid Heart, [Neon Hemlock, 2023]

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Review: Suzume

A universal coming of age story that resonates across cultures

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, Suzume is the journey movie we need right now. The trailer may evoke the idea of a romantic adventure, but Suzume is instead a compelling coming of age story of friendship and loss, echoing classics like The Wizard of Oz.

Suzume Iwato is a high school student, raised by her stressed aunt after the death of her mother many years ago. On her way to school one day, she meets Souta, a young man who asks if there is a door nearby. She directs him to the local ruins of an old resort area. Curious, Suzume heads to the area herself and finds a freestanding door upright in the waterlogged destruction. When she opens it, she can see into another dimension filled with stars. A cat statue staked into the ground catches her attention, then comes alive and flees after she picks it up. Once she gets to school, she sees a red, smoke-like creature rising from the ruins in the distance. No one else can see the phenomenon, but earthquake warnings shriek on all of her classmates’ cell phones. Suzume races back to the ruins and finds an injured Souta desperately trying to close the door against the violently escaping red storm. By working together, the pair are able to close the portal. While Suzume bandages his arm at her home, Souta explains that the doors he seeks are portals that form in places of loss. The stormy red phenomenon is a “worm” that will cause catastrophically lethal earthquakes if let loose. Souta is a Closer, part of a secret society of people who monitor the portals to keep everyone safe. The strange cat from the ruins appears and turns Souta into a living version of a broken, child-sized chair in Suzume’s room. 

The escaped cat, Daijin, is one of two “keystones,” objects keeping the worm phenomenon under control. Without the keystone, the worm starts to unleash earthquakes across the country. Suzume and Souta (in his changed chair body) must team up to stop the disasters and recapture the keystone. Otherwise, as the creepy cat reminds them, “a lot of people are about to die.” 

There is so much to like in this tale. Suzume is appropriate for most ages but still deals with heavy issues of family and loss. The film has several key elements which make it particularly enjoyable:

Allies. In her journey, Suzume meets Chaki, a student; Rumi, a single mom of twins; and Serizawa, Souta’s college classmate. They are all strangers who help her in her quest. In many current adventure films, the good Samaritan characters tend to fall into two categories: 1) not really a good Samaritan or 2) future victim of the villain/antagonist. In Suzume, we instead see the value of connection, compassion, and mercy. Not just in stereotypical lifelong friendships but in the kindness of humanity towards each other—a thing that can seem lacking in society lately. The idea of Suzume helping the changed Souta is an ongoing theme reflected in the allies Suzume encounters. Later in the film, after Suzume is wounded by a traumatic event, the kindness of her allies is contrasted with phone-obsessed onlookers in the crowded city who comment on her injuries and disarray without offering help.

Technology. Suzume is heavily grounded in very current technology. In particular, the film shows the way our everyday technology borders so much on magical that it is able to operate as a believable explanation for otherwise fantastical happenings. Suzume and Souta are able to hunt for the spirit cat Daijin by tracking social media posts. When Rumi’s twins notice Souta’s chair form moving and talking, Suzume easily convinces them that it is a robotic AI. Although no one but Suzume and Souta can see the red phenomenon, everyone’s cell phones alert them to coming earthquakes.

Animation style. I don’t normally see anime on the big screen, but this was worth it. The scenes of bridges soaring over landscapes are worth the price of admission. Even a passing scene of travel through a brightly lit highway tunnel is beautiful in its simplicity and authenticity. The film’s music is also gorgeous and integral to the story, from sweeping lush pieces to the pop songs Serizawa sings along to on the radio. Suzume’s first encounter with Souta is filled with beautifully drawn facial expressions. When Suzume observes that Souta is beautiful, the comment feels more aesthetic than romantic (and becomes ironic when Souta is transformed into a broken chair).

Emotional connection. We get a glimpse of Souta’s normal life through his close friend Serizawa, who is worried that Souta has missed the college exam to become a teacher. Later, Suzume and her aunt Tamaki, who externally appear to be happy together, have a fraught conversation about their forced relationship, including Tamaki’s bitterness at the sacrifices she has made to raise her niece and Suzume’s anger at her aunt’s smothering. Despite the fantastical chaos around them, the story drills down to complications of close relationships.

Collective loss. Suzume explores the loss and sorrow caught up in a place rather than a person. This concept evokes the idea that a location can hold the emotions and memories of those who inhabited it, long after they are gone. We see the spirituality of physical spaces as we mourn the loss of a community. These themes connect us across cultures and countries—the sorrow at the loss of a beloved, or perhaps just familiar, space due to natural disasters, human conflict, or economic devastation. In Suzume, everything from a closed amusement park to the potential destruction of a city of millions pulls us up the emotional ladder of loss.

Personal strength and maturity. Unbeknownst to Souta, his fate is sealed early in his encounter with Daijin. Each day he has an increasingly difficult time waking up and feels further and further from his humanity. In a pivotal scene, Suzume is forced to make a terrible choice regarding Souta. She miserably looks for an alternative but ultimately has the strength to make the heartbreaking but inevitable choice. The tone of the film takes a more somber turn and it becomes clear that this is Suzume’s journey story.

Despite Suzume’s appeal, there are things I could do without. Does anyone like a Cheshire cat? We have one throughout most of the film. We also have the trope of the person who inadvertently unleashes disaster. Shouldn’t life-altering talismans be more secure or at least have a “don’t touch” sign? I’m also not the biggest fan of anthropomorphized objects—why isn’t Souta’s cursed form a wolf or a cat? But somehow, the broken chair manages to be less annoying than I feared.

Overall, the themes of community, loss, compassion, and friendship make this a movie with wide appeal. Suzume is an out of the ordinary movie that celebrates the ordinary in a way that will have you smiling as you leave the theater.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


  • Gorgeous animation and music
  • Annoying cat…
  • A story grounded in real-life sorrow

Posted by: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Master of Samar by Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott’s Master of Samar brings us a rich story of a secondary world Venice.

You can’t go home again. Or maybe you can, but you have changed, your home has changed, and your hometown has changed. This is what Gil Irichels feels as, as the last person in the once great House Samar of the city of Bejanth, he is summoned back to his ancestral home. But with a lover that many will not accept, and a profession others would also disdain, Irichels soons finds that his homecoming is even more fraught. Especially when a threat to his House, the titular Samar, turns out to be a threat to the city of canals itself.

This is the matter of Melissa Scott’s Master of Samar.

First and foremost, as you might expect from a Scott novel, are the characters. Our main character Irichels is an outsider to the city he comes back to, on two grounds. First, he is a cursebreaker, a magical profession that has a mixed reputation in Bejanth for reasons that Scott slowly dribbles out through the book. And second, he is queer. His relationship with his beloved, his heart, Envar, is one that in Scott’s world is frowned upon and the pair feel real and tangible prejudice for it. Joining Irichels and Envar are a variety of secondary characters, ranging from Arak, a bodyguard bound to Irichels and fiercely loyal, to Innes Manimere, the formidable head of her House, a House with, it turns out, a history with Irichels’ own.

The other strong element to this novel is the worldbuilding. This takes the form of two elements that, as the plot emerges and unfolds. First up is the city and setting itself. Samar is pretty explicitly and directly modeled on Renaissance Venice. This is a city where canals are more prevalent than streets. A city where every house has a “water door” exit to the canal system, useful for escaping when the authorities have come knocking, or just receiving deliveries of sundries. A city that is a precarious oligarchy of fighting and feuding noble families. A city that is an entrepot, one of the cities that “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. As of the time of the writing of this review, I have still never been to La Serenissima in person as yet but my appreciation for the city and its variants in print and film, painting and photography have given me a foundation for what to expect and how Venice should feel.

Bejanth evokes that in spades. We do hit the beats you’d expect. Canals including fights and chases in the canals. Mucking around with secret doors. Political intrigue among the great houses for power and authority. Intimate small scenes in Bejanth Houses, dread secrets below the water line, and of course the halls of aristocratic power. A focus on art and beauty and wealth and it’s display, from having it to faking it until you make it, and the need to keep up appearances even in a decaying House.

It’s not a full on expy of Venice, though. There are elements of the city that aren’t really represented here. We never get a good sense of how Venice interacts with the rest of the mainland or its overseas possessions, colonies, vassals, friends, and enemies. There is stuff here about piracy but Bejanth never feels like the entrepot that historical Venices and many fictional Venices jazz on. Sure, Venice is the city on the Lagoon, a city of intrigue and adventure, but it is a city that is always connected to the rest of its world. It can’t help but be very interested in what is happening elsewhere. Venice is on islands, but Venice is no island. Bejanth, by comparison, diverges from the Venice model by being far more self contained and self interested, which I think is a missed opportunity with these missing elements.

The other half of the worldbuilding on display here, that makes up for the city that is missing from the aforementioned “missing elements” is the magic system. The magic of this verse is at the bottom a legal one, based on contracts with extradimensional entities for power, demons in name and indeed. You might enter into such a contract for power, or use such a contract in order to fight, say, a curse that has been laid upon you or other calamity. Just like legal contracts in the real world, the legal ramifications and ramshackle agreements can get rather dicey and messy.

Add into this people who can cut a swath through some of this, the cursebreakers and you can already see and have your wheels turning, I bet, how plot can arise from a city of trade and commerce on the sea, with demons and curses, and a cursebreaker coming back to his ancestral home. Scott makes good use of all of this in her plotting and backstory for Irichels, and Irichels’ backstory and the history of his House tie into Bejanth and the plot in a quite polished fashion. Scott is an excellent craftswoman at setting the stakes, the characters, making us care and bringing us through the plot in a page turning fashion.

Going back to the beginning of this review and Irichels and his beloved Envar, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of queernorm worlds. Queernorm worlds are secondary worlds (or future worlds from ours) where queerness is a completely and utterly accepted fact. There seem to be gradations to even that in books I’ve read. There are books where non heterosexual people are just accepted as who they are and who they love (or in the case of aro/ace characters, who they don’t). There are also books where it seems that everyone is queer and attraction isn’t a function of gender at all and you find characters attracted to both sexes.

As I read Master of Samar, one of the questions I kept asking myself was: could this have been a queernorm world? Would the novel have been better or worse if the author had gone in that direction. The problem of Irichels’ posterity is a real one, since if the last scion of House Samar is eliminated, the House falls, and the consequences (which as seen above and as the plot emerges is much more than just a personal problem). The previously mentioned prejudice that Irichels and Envar get for their relationship goes hand in hand with the tenderness found in their relationship and there is a real “us against the world” approach to their relationship. And it's clear that Irichels will do his duty even if his heart is elsewhere. A last heir of a House in possession of a decaying fortune must indeed be in want of a wife.

And there is something to be said for not only writing the worlds we want to see, but writing a world as it is to hold up a mirror to it. By not making the Samarverse queernorm, it gives Scott a chance to write a world that she can use to reflect and refract our own world, where queer rights, representation and acceptance are under threat and siege.

So, I am not entirely sure if the world of Bejanth could be queernorm or not. But I do note for myself as reader, reviewer and critic, ten years ago, I’d have considered this issue in fantasy worlds at all and would have accepted Bejanth as is. Maybe you can’t go home again after all, because in the end, you change.

Melissa Scott’s The Master of Samar, in the end, is an immersive and character driven city state fantasy whose strong use of contract magic, old secrets and the lies we tell each other and ourselves shapes the past, present and future of the characters and the city-state that they are bound to. It is an immersive and enthralling read.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Scott, Melissa, Master of Samar, [Candlemark and Gleam 2023]

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

Festival View: Fudgie Freddie

Creators and Creations are deeply tied, and sometimes it gets dark...

One of my all-time favorite musicals is 1990’s City of Angels. It’s an amazing story of a mystery writer and his detective creation. The story goes that the writer is watching his work being adapted into a film, and lo and behold, he hates it. The detective in the story that Stine is writing, Stone, is also disgusted with the way that Stine is writing the story and how it’s coming along. There’s a song, a masterful piece of lyricism by the great Cy Coleman and David Zippel, called “You’re Nothing Without Me” which is the declaration of the writer that his creation wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for his writing him, and the creation saying that it is only his existence that has made his creator matter at all. This is, in essence, a battle of wills between God and Man, and they eventually reach détente. 
Let us flash-forward to a time called a little time called recently. I’m watching short films for Cinequest, and going over the database where the other viewers are rating movies as well. There was one title that I thought sounded fun: Fudgie Freddie. I have no great, grand reason to have thought that it would be a masterpiece; I actually hoped it might be something along the lines of a documentary detailing the life and times of the Carvel creatures: Cookie Puss, Fudgey the Whale, and Hug Me The Bear.  

I was wrong, but Fudgie Freddie was truly brilliant and more than a little terrifying. 
The story begins at the start of a live-stream. An animator, Vic, starring down the last hour of his crowd-funding push, is trying to drum up business. He’s no amateur, in fact, he’s previously created an absolute smash-hit of a creation: the sentient, Looney Toons-esque ice cream cone, Fudgie Freddie. The character has defined his whole career, but now, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock on top of the world, he’s decided to push his creation over Reichenbach Falls and move forward with his passion project: a Star Trek-like science fiction animation that he knows will set the world on-fire! 
The world, it seems, is not so sure.
He streams and the fundraising is going poorly. So poorly, he’s having to call his mom to give more money. He really believes that this is the animation that will finally break him free of the spectre of Freddie that looms over everything he wants to do. He’s had this vision in his mind since he was six, and if it holds him so thoroughly, it will clearly have the same effect on the viewing audience, right. 
A viewing audience that really only wants more Fudgie Freddie. 
A well-heeled donor appears in the feed. They start asking for concessions towards the Fudgie Freddie character in the new creation. Our hero gives in, happily, then pushes back against the recommendations, but eventually relents. This brings in fast money, but also more and more requests for Freddie in the new series. He gives an inch; they demand an entire spaceship. As he gives in, our animator finds himself becoming more thoroughly tied to his earlier creation. It actually becomes a part of who he is. 

And not just metaphorically.
This is a fantasy short film, and it’s really a piece of body horror. The transformation of Vic’s vision of his work leads to a transformation of his corporeal reality. This is a literal transformation, and it’s super-creepy, but it’s also very painful to anyone who has worked on life-long passions only to find that they can not break away from their past. The idea that Fudgie Freddie is a part of Vic that he is trying to suppress is clear, and I think there’s a lot there to explore. Freddie is one of those early 2000s Flash-style silly animations (think Radiskull and Devil Doll or Homestar Runner) and one that’s clearly not particularly mature in nature. Vic tells us he created Freddie when he was 18, and now, he wants to bring that old vision to life instead of delving back into his sophomoric work on Freddie. He’s so determined to get this vision done that the early asks by his anonymous donor are done with joy and no questions. It’s only when they start to impinge on the vision that’s lived in his head for so long that he begins to push back. 
And, spoiler alert, he loses. 
The fact is creators deal with this constantly, and while we like to think that the removal of the studio from many of the most popular animation projects frees the creators from interference, it’s still not the case. Frequently, artists still have to try and drum up funds from people who want their vision represented in the projects their funding. Working with festivals, I’ve heard many of these stories, though none that would evolve into this sort of bodily transformation. 
We try and say that we are not our projects, that we hold healthy boundaries between our creations and ourselves. So many of us fail this, or at least play a version of Let’s Deny The Reality. Creators, especially those who have to stump to make their creations happen, often begin to live the gimmick. Those that make hard right turns out of those creations often fight against returning because they fear the frequent fate of returning to what they managed to break away from, to become what they were instead of what they want to be. Vic may recognize that he is far more mature than Fudgie Freddie, and we wants to express that, but he knows that if he turns back, he will become the monster he created. Again. 
And all of that, the deep thoughts, are only benefitted by direction, cinematography, and especially sound design that only amplifies every beat. The effects are clean, and fairly simple. The way it’s shot is claustrophobic, amping up the tension. The sound has a sort of disquieting unnatural resonance that it allows the ordinary sounds, the ring buzzing and the message arrival notifications, to feel as if they are intruders instead of the anticipated sounds of daily life.
The only acknowledgement to the outside world are a phone call and the text messages and money transfers that we see play out. In other words, the only world outside is completely mediated through one kind of screen or another. That message stuck with me, because it also speaks to the loneliness of Vic in particular and creators in general. In recent times, and especially during COVID’s early period, so many writers, artists, and especially animators, have lived reality. I can remember an early proponent of crowd-funding saying during a panel at LoneStarCon in 2013, ‘I didn’t see the sun for weeks on end, but at least I made my goal and then some.’ Sometimes, you must sacrifice vitamin D for cash. 
Fudgie Freddie is a great film, and when Cinequest returns to San Jose in August for the in-person festival, it’ll be playing in our Mindbenders program. You can likely find it playing more festivals as well, though it doesn’t appear on my recent searches. You can learn a bit more about the film, and the team behind it, at and check out 5-Second Films ( where director Joe Salmon and Brian Firenzi have both done a ton of great work!
Apparently, this is also a proof-of-concept for a feature film called Ice Cream Man, and if it can maintain the intellectual power and impressive technical filmmaking of the short, I’ll be sure to see it. 

POSTED BY: Chris Garcia - Archivist, curator, and professional wrestling enthusiast. @johnnyeponymous

Friday, May 26, 2023

Nerds of a Feather is an Ignyte finalist for the Critics Award!

On Wednesday evening, Nerds of a Feather was nominated for the Ignyte Awards, in the Critics Award category “for reviews and analysis of the field of speculative literature.” To say we are thrilled would be a heck of an understatement.

Our fellow nominees for the category ―Aigner Loren Wilson, Bogi Takács, Christina Orlando and Nerds of a Feather contributor emeritus Charles Payseur― are all fantastic, talented people, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be named alongside them here, not to mention the phenomenal work on display in the rest of the awards.

It means a great deal to us to be recognised for the work we do at Nerds of a Feather to dissect and discuss SFF media, a vehicle of human expression we care deeply about. It’s a cluster of genres we all love, and part of that love is being able to engage in criticism of it ―sometimes in both senses― and so to be recognised for those efforts absolutely reinforces our commitment to keep on doing it. Critics ―and criticism in general― are such a key part of the media landscape, and of the relationship between fan and content, that to have a critics award specifically called out within the Ignyte Awards makes it all the more special to us to be included in this fine company.

The prestige of the Ignyte Awards fills us with a paradoxical blend of pride and humility. We’re proud of our writers and of the stellar job they do in exploring their passions and sharing them with the rest of the internet. And we’re humbled by the crucial mission of Ignyte (and FIYAH) in lifting up the marginalized voices of geekdom, a cause to which we wholeheartedly wish to keep contributing.

Of course, this is something that can’t be laid at the feet of any single member of our flock. It is of note that, for the first time in the four years of the Ignyte Awards, the Critics category nominates a collective. With our many diverging perspectives and tastes, we have managed to become, truly, nerds of a feather. This nomination spans the combined work of everyone who wrote and thought and analysed and critiqued for us, whether in books, films, games, tv, comics or any other medium, across 2022:

Paul Weimer
Arturo Serrano
Adri Joy 
Joe Sherry
Roseanna Pendlebury
Elizabeth Fitzgerald
Joe del Franco
Phoebe Wagner
Mike Newhouse-Bailey
Sean Dowie
Dean E.S. Richard
The G
Vance Kotrla

So from all of us to the Ignyte nomination panel: thank you! And to all of our fellow nominees, within our category and across the rest of the awards: congratulations and good luck!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: A Clockwork River, by J. S. Emery

 A rambling, Dickensian stroll through a world of secrets, intrigue, and hydraulics

Cover design by Micaela Alcaino

Some books are flirts, entertainers, beggars for attention. They are constructed to keep the reader engaged at every moment, throwing in chases, cliff-hangers, romances, and explosions to sweeten any necessary exposition and keep the reader from getting bored. They are a tight 70,000 words, aware that they are competing with TikTok and Snapchat and all those other much-maligned services of modern connectivity for the reader’s attention.

Other books self-consciously reject that approach, indulging in massive door-stopper world-building, or deeply literary prose, or obscure explorations of structure that, if you are in a kindly mood, betray a trust in the reader’s erudition and ability to appreciate such a writerly approach—or, if you tend toward peevishness, showcase nothing but the writer’s navel-gazing indulgence in spewing out such turgid sludge.

Then you’ve got books like A Clockwork River. It comfortably tops 700 pages, and has a plot as meandering as its titular river, and yet somehow feels like a comforting warm bath of genial chaos. Its events center around the river Rhumb, which powers all of the city of Lower Rhumbsford via an ancient mechanism that has, over the generations, been slowly winding down. But the people of Lower Rhumbsford have lost the knowledge to maintain and repair the hydraulic marvels that were the foundation of its historical magnificence, and the city has been quietly crumbling and decaying, ceding more and more of itself to watery decrepitude. In response, the city leaders have hatched an ill-conceived scheme involving building a dam upstream to revitalize the river—one which the hydraulic engineers urgently warn against. This all sounds very grand and intriguing, but if it you take it as a plot synopsis, you will be quite surprised. The dam project is not so much a plot as a general suggestion of a direction toward which an enormous variety of unrelated events all generally end up coinciding. Forget the mighty Mississippi and consider instead the Louisiana Delta: Water eventually gets to the sea, but it encounters a lot of channels and backwaters and a certain degree of hydraulic infrastructure along the way.

At this point I should hasten to reassure you that meandering backwaters and branching channels of plot are not in the slightest bit a bad thing. Each one of the branching channels offers something new and charming. We have channels involving kidnapping, explosions, floods, theatre troupes; we have long lost family, imposters, political intrigue, sewer-dwelling hydraulic engineers, and house spirits that monitor floorboards for dry rot; we have romance, magic, mystery, villainy, heroism, Dickensian sentimentality and Shakespearean farce. My favorite subplot involved the exploits of a club of lock-fanciers who turn out to be very skilled at wreaking havoc in the best possible way, but if that’s not to your liking you’ll find many, many other options on offer.

The genial chaos of the narrative is well supported by the genially chaotic approach to narration. The point of view pronks from character to character, many of them secondary or tertiary figures, who may or may not reappear later in ways that may or may not turn out to be important. The narrative is chummy, conspiratorial, and a more than a littlee absent-minded. It’s like a retired uncle who loves to tell stories about his past that you’re pretty sure he’s embellishing, but you don’t have the heart to challenge him on them, because they are so entertaining, and he’s having such a good time telling them. Sure, he occasionally wanders from the point, but even then he does it quite charmingly, Consider, for example, this meditation on the nature of homophones:

One of the uncomfortable peculiarities of language is that sometimes two words will sound exactly the same even though they relate to completely different objects . . . Such coincidences are so commonly encountered, and communication proceeds so swimmingly despite them (in fact they demonstrably enrich the language through that charming class of jokes we know as puns), that only a great pedant would bother to belabor the point.

This sequence continues at some length, before concluding:

I fear I have lost track of the point I was trying to make; the devil knows what it was; perhaps you can make better sense of it than I.

The two homophones in question are lock, the gadget you use to secure doors and other openable objects, and Locke, the name of the family whose adventures form the core of this narrative. I suppose at this point I should describe our two main characters; but one rather irritating quirk of this tale is that the main characters are some of the least interesting people in the entire book. Sam Locke is a young man with a passionate interest in locks, possessing the finest collection of antique and unusual locks in Lower Rhumbsford, which he promptly must leave behind when he is mugged on the street for one of them and forcibly enlisted in the army. He spends much of the rest of the book being the subject of various plots and intrigues—all of them enormously entertaining, but very few of them the result of any intentional action or initiative on his part. People do all sorts of things to him; he does very little for himself. At the beginning of his adventures his clothes get swapped out, and it seems that the possibility of recovering his trousers is the only thing that can wring some intentional action out of him. I found myself having a much better time during the bits where his friends in the Lock, Key, and Fob Club took over the focus of the narrative, disrupting auctions with exquisite legal shenanigans, and breaking into jails as only a large group of lock aficionados can do.

Sam’s sister Briony is another main character with very little agency. She is a chemist, and brews up potions in her bedroom closet, for which there is plenty of room now that her family’s failing fortunes have shrunk the size of her wardrobe. You’d think that someone who can brew up love potions and death potions would be able to contribute to the turbulent froth surrounding her in all sorts of active, intentional ways, but like her brother, Briony is someone that the plot happens to. The Briony-related bits are lots of fun, to be sure: a mysterious doctor arrives and quickly takes control of her family for purposes that remain obscure and kept me guessing for much longer than I thought they would; a city official decides he wants to marry her for reasons that are so self-evidently sinister that it’s quite frustrating how passive she is about asking key questions; her friend Fanny bullies her into participating in all sorts of activities involving imposters and duels, allowing Briony’s potions a long-denied opportunity to unleash havoc among people other than the house mice. (Fanny is a wonderful agent to chaos, and made all sorts of plot happen to Briony.)

In sum, this book is lively, friendly, and full of activity, if lacking in direction. It fully lives up to the promise of the first few pages. If you open it up and find the narrative voice entertaining and the approach to setting and exposition charming, you’ll have a good time. If you find yourself getting restless and looking for meaning and direction—well, you’d be better off finding yourself a Mississippi River of a book. Here in the Delta, water moves differently.



Nerd coefficient: 7, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

Many, many different parallel, intersecting, merging, and splitting plot threads

Entertaining narrative voice with a decided personality

Hydraulic engineering at its finest.

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 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

Reference: A Clockwork River. J. S. Emery. [Head of Zeus, 2021].