Thursday, May 6, 2021

Microreview [book]: Water Horse by Melissa Scott

A fully immersive epic fantasy with deep notes of character, worldbuilding and magic making for a wonderful and engaging story.

In a world of myth and magic, of prophecy, religious war, and twisty politics, Esclin Aubrinos, Arros of the Hundred Hills has a problem. The Riders, followers of a monotheism, The Burning One, very different than the diverse traditions predominant in the hills, riverlands and forest, have come in numbers across the narrow sea. This time, instead of raiding, they are in great numbers and seem set to not just pillage, but to stay and conquer. With such a diverse group of independently minded communities, keeping his friends and allies together to face the Riders is a challenge--and it may not even be enough to stand against their power.

This is the matter of Melissa Scott’s epic fantasy, Water Horse.

Water Horse is epic, mythic, and expansive fantasy in a mold that explicitly invokes for me, things like the First and Second Age of Tolkien, Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering, or Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series. This is a novel that stands in the space where there are deep and abiding personal relationships, realpolitik, and strongly passionate and drawn characters. It stands apart from the traditions of low magic fantasy like in Westeros and instead uses deeply rooted magics and powers and a world full of magic, heroism, clashes of arms, deep connections and abiding senses of place to provide a tapestry for the story.

So what is it all about? We are presented with the challenge of the Riders, who have upped their game and decided the Hundred Hills and the nearby lands are not just for raiding, but would make fine lands for conquest. This provides a next-level challenge to the wily Esclin and his allies, who are used to the normal back and forth of Rider problems, its so long standing and the cultural ties are bleeding over so much that believers in the Burning Eye are among his subjects at this point. 

The whole Burning Eye and the monotheism of the Riders is just one element, one strand of magic in this novel. The novel has deep and intensive worldbuilding on so many levels, from language, to names, to customs, and of course magic. There is the Riders, but there is also the magic of the Mistress of Fire, and of the Wood, and other magical abilities which come to the fore. This is a complex and mythically rich magical world. The very title of the book, Water Horse, refers to a kelpie like creature, a symbol of Esclin's House, and the titular being does become important to the narrative on a number of levels. Scott has managed the trick of setting a great and rich stage of people and their customs and doings that follows the iceberg rule of fantasy and leverages it.

But it is relationships and people at the center of why this conflict is coming and what can and should be done, on both sides. This is not a novel of impartial, unseen forces driving communities and nations to conflict, it is people, personalities and their deeds The Riders are not invading casually, they have been given sign and portent to their new commander, their Lord Paramount, and defying a God’s sign and will is never a good idea. Too, Esclin, in trying to manage the people in his coalition has to be mindful of his relationship with them, and their beliefs, and even a prophecy. The conflict is never pieces on a Risk board in Scott’s novel, what people do and how they do it always feeds back to the characters and their relationships.

As mentioned above, relationships, both platonic and sexual, really drive the narrative. This is a novel where queer relationships are the norm, and the relationship between Esclin, the arros, and the smith Kelleiden is one of the center personal stories of the novel. w. Besides the relationship above, the bonds of relationships are an engine that is equal to plot considerations for making the story go. It is relationships, be it social and personal ones, or political ones, that prove to be levers for character actions, reactions and plot. It’s a nicely complicating factor for the lines of the overall plot and conflict as well. Sure, we are presented with the locals of the Hundred Hills and the Westwood, and the realms of the Riverholme defending against the adherents of the Burning One, the Riders. Sure, it seems like in the end it's a simple binary, Esclin versus the Lord Paramount, local faiths and beliefs versus the invaders. A casual reading might give that impression, but reading further and deeper brings things further.

Scott knows well to leaven the binary and complicate it. There are already adherents of the Burning One within the realms overseen by the Arros, and coming to terms with their worship and their power starts with the personal rather than the global, and those relationships make the “Burning One adherents bad, locals good” binary a non-factor. This is not to say that the characters themselves on both sides don’t feel this pull and tension. In the course of events, Viven Harper is captured by the Lord Paramount’s forces, and we not only learn about the limits of the power of a Harper, but also the binding of their oaths, to their harps and other entities, but how she has to manage her beliefs while in the midst of the army of adherents of the Burning One, who have their own ideas on what the Harper should and should not be able to do, and where her beliefs should be turned.

In terms of that, there is a wonderful set piece where the captured Harper, Viven, is made part of a solstice ritual that the Burning One adherents are performing. The Lord Paramount seeks to mold the Harper and use her power as part of the ritual; she naturally is resistant to lend any of her power in this cause, and yet,as a prisoner, is under severe threat if she is not seen contributing to the cause (something that later extends to the Rider’s army campaigns). But there is beauty and poetry and power that we the reader, and Viven herself sees within the solstice rite that her mortal enemies also have not only power, but beauty and culture as well.  

This is not to say though that the Riders and the Burning Ones are not clearly the antagonists here. We don’t get any real sympathetic point of views from them, although there are sympathetic characters that interact with our heroes. And that is something I want to emphasize here about the novel. While we get to see the Burning One’s Riders for what they are in their complexity, they clearly are the aggressive invaders, the antagonists to Esclin and his allies resisting their attempt at invasion and hegemony. This is decidedly not a grimdark novel (not that I can imagine well what a Melissa Scott Grimdark novel would be). This is a novel of heroes, hard choices, ugly choices, but also heroism, people stepping up (and characters of all ages, too, from children to the eldertly) and wanting to stand up against a threat to themselves, their loved ones, their communities. This is a world not only of the aforementioned magic, and deep character, and rich worldbuilding, but it is also a world where people can be big damn heroes, people of all stripes. That is a positivist message for this day and age. While Scott puts her characters through hell (and that sword of damocles of a prophecy that Esclin suffers under and Viven’s captivity being just two examples), the novel provides a framework and exemplar of a story where heroism, valor, strength of character and rising to the occasion are not trampled and mocked, but can save a city, a people, a land. 

Melissa’s Scott’s Water Horse is a rich and deep epic fantasy full of the deep worldbuilding, immersive writing, intriguing magic, and strong characters that I come to expect and crave in her writing. Just as importantly, the novel provides a framework and exemplar of a story where heroism, valor, strength of character and rising to the occasion are not trampled and mocked and denigrated as in some grimly dark regions of the Grand Duchy of Fantasy. Instead, in The Water Horse, they are virtues that can save a person, a city, a people, and a land. That's a message, and thus a book stunningly well suited to our times.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for deep and memorable characters in an inclusive, queer friendly, engaging world

+1 for a positivist heroic viewpoint for its fantasy

Penalties: -1 A couple of metaplot beats don’t quite resolve entirely satisfactory.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10  Very high quality/standout in its category

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

Reference: Scott, Melissa. Water Horse  [Candlemark and Gleam, 2021]

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Thursday Morning Superhero

In this month's installment I wanted to focus on the comic book streaming content that is landing on your television for May and June.  Invincible reached its upsetting conclusion and the Falcon and the Winter Soldier finally gave us the Captain America I have been waiting for since Steve hung up the shield.  Invincible, despite the upsetting ending which I anticipated after reading the series, has been renewed for two more seasons and I couldn't be more excited. 

Sweet Tooth:

Last week Netflix surprised us with an official trailer for the upcoming series based on the phenomenal series Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire.  When it was first announced I was very excited, but am always concerned when a series I love gets adapted. Sweet Tooth tells the story about a hybrid kid named Gus who is raised during a mysterious plague.  Humans who catch the disease are dying and there isn't a cure, but a new breed of part human and part animal children are being born and are immune.  Gus is part human and part deer and quickly learns that life outside of the sheltered farm his dad raised him on is much more complex.  This is possibly my second favorite comic book of all-time and I really hope that it is as good as it looks.


The next Marvel series that is hitting Disney Plus is Loki and is much different than I expected.  Launching in June, Loki is tasked with traveling through time to undo the damage done during Infinity War.  The cast features Owen Wilson and feels oddly similar to a certain time travel episode of Gravity Falls. That is intended as a compliment and I can't wait to see what Easter eggs are sprinkled throughout.

Jupiter's Legacy:

It has been a long time since I read this series, but I remember enjoying it.  Mark Millar books tend to be hit or miss with me, but you have to credit his ability to get his work adapted for both the small and large screen.  Most of his work that has been adapted (Logan, Kingsman, and Kick-Ass) has been enjoyable and I am curious how much of this series I remember.  It hits Netflix this Friday so I am not sure I will be able to locate the correct long box to check it out, but I am still excited to fill the void that the end of Invincible and Falcon and the Winter Soldier left.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Microreview [Book]: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

A skillfully crafted fantasy story that's as ethereal as its spirits.

Our bodies can often seem possessed. To most people, that possession occurs in a metaphorical sense. Dogma possesses us, as it’s hammered down from society until it sticks, nailed down to our core whether we like it or not. And that dogma can deviate from what we want deep down, like how family values dictate who we can and can’t love. Black Water Sister explores that possession, and with clever skill, it combines it with literal possession. A family spirit inhabits the protagonist, while they’re dealing with family interference from all sides. It’s a compelling story that’s quality is heightened by witty dialogue, a pacey second half, and vibrant characters.

Jess is a college grad, moving from America to Malaysia—where she once lived until toddlerhood. But a new location isn’t even one of the top five things nagging her. She has a girlfriend that she’s frightened to disclose to her parents, fearing homophobia. And most prominent is that the spirit of her maternal grandmother – Ah Ma – has inhabited her mind. Ah Ma wants something from Jess, which sparks a journey full of betrayals, gods, gangsters, and a slew of other obstacles.

We’re introduced to Jess at an active time of her life, where she’s juggling closeted sexuality, family spirits, and a change of location. But despite the interweaving of several high-stake plot threads, the story takes its time getting going. There’s always some momentum – the story never wades – but there were times in its early goings when I wanted to speed through the proceedings a little quicker. Just before the halfway mark, however, the story comes together, as all the aforementioned threads are fully realized, bouncing off each other in frenetic but readable thrills.

A great asset that encompasses every section of Black Water Sister is its impeccable dialogue and voice. Zen Cho fires off clever one-liners with such rapid fire and skillful consistency that it seems easy. The characters come alive from it, too. Even side characters who have minimal roles have brief, concise lines that exude a distinct personality with verve, getting at least a couple memorable scenes. To top it off, the prose never meanders into over-description or lack of focus. Every sentence is fluid and calculated, giving me the feeling that I was riding on a train track that every rail had been polished, checked, and rechecked, so I would arrive exactly at my destination exactly as intended.

As fun as the one-liners are, that’s not the storytelling’s only great quality. There are moments of engaging drama that become more apparent as the story progresses. Those moments interlace the verve with tension of the romantic, familial, or spiritual variety, making the moments of pep full of relief. And those relieving instances are peppered through the story to not overload it with frivolity or vice versa. Heartbreak from one relationship is counterbalanced with affection in another. Internal conflict is counterbalanced with external rewards.

Those rewards take a little patience as the novel sets up its world--but those rewards are more than worthy of a slow but still fascinating start. Black Water Sister taught me that possessions aren’t just from family dogma and literal supernatural possessions. Literature has a possessive quality, too. Like the most interesting books, Black Water Sister inserted itself firmly in my mind, as I experienced visceral reactions for the characters and genuine shock for its many twists. It’s an ultimately propulsive story that didn’t leave me with internal angst or spiritual agitation. Instead, it took up gratifying space in my brain, and thanks to the characters and a story that I couldn’t get enough of, I hope it never leaves.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 For consistently terrific dialogue.

+1 For an un-put-downable second half.

Negatives: -1 For a slightly slow start.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Cho, Zen. Black Water Sister [Ace Books, 2021].

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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Short Fiction Round Up: March and April 2021

Hello readers! I’m back with a short fiction round up spanning two months, as I was absent in March due to a death in the family. So…please enjoy some short stories that helped me grapple with grief.

Deadlock by Aimee Ogden (Fireside Magazine)
Ogden’s prose is always clear, sharp and laser-focused. It is on display at it’s best in this small 800 word flash piece published in Danny Lore’s amazing issue of Fireside. I actually had to stop myself from adding other stories from this issue here, but I highly encourage you to read them all! It’s such an excellent collection! Now, back to Deadlock: Ogden’s apocalyptic piece about climate change leaves a reader breathless as it balances anger, despair, and resignation. But as always, in true Ogden fashion, it ends with a little glitter of hope.  

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine)
Pinsker’s newest short story is structured to mimic an internet conversation analysing the lyrics of an "old English ballad." Throughout the story, a group of internet users discuss the meaning and origin of the titular "Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather" ballad. Pinsker crafts horror atmospheres slowly– the creeping sense of dread comes from unspooling a mystery masterfully hidden between the lines of her work, until you reach the end, and feel as if you – and the characters – were always going to end up here. I especially loved the touch of adding small "intra-community" forum discussions as part of the story, as I felt it added depth to this already complex and powerful story. 

Things I Learned Today by Kyle Aisteach (Daily Science Fiction)
Aisteach’s hilarious little flash story about toddlers, Zoom, cats, and dark magic is a perfect story for 2021. It begins with the line "Any toddler who manages to pick up a full gasoline can immediately gains the power to run at the speed of light and to pass through walls simply by turning the gas can upside down," and just gets better from there.

Our Nomadic Forest – J. S. Alexander (Hexagon Magazine)
While the whole Spring issue of Hexagon Magazine is a delight, this story really stood out to me with it's originality. The short story follows a romance between two members of different tribes who live in a forest. The story is set during an important historical moment for both communities, namely a moment in which the (nomadic) forest is moving around the village. The romance -- both between the two lovers, and between the characters and their natural environment -- is beautiful, and gives this story amazing weight. 

So your grandmother is a starship now: a quick guide for the bewildered by Marissa Lingen (nature)
Lingen's flash fiction is genuine, multi-layered, and nuanced, even in only a couple of hundred words. Her celebration of women's agency by challenging our assumptions about -- especially older-- female characters is couched in the style of a perfectly crafted brochure, whose comedic questions such as "Can I stop her from becoming a starship?" receive cutting and clear answers ("no"). 


POSTED BY: Elisabeth R Moore is a writer, birder and grad student living in Germany. When she's not writing strange stories about scary plants, or reviewing short fiction, she can be found crocheting, hiking or biking. She tweets at @willowcabins.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Interview: Sue Burke, Author of Immunity Index

photo by Daniel Lewis
Sue Burke is an author and translator who has lived in Madrid and Milwaukee, and currently resides in Chicago. Her newest novel, Immunity Index, comes out on May 4th.  She is also the author of the novels Semiosis and Interference,  her short stories and non-fiction articles have appeared in Asimov's, Clarksworld, Slate,, Supersonic, and elsewhere, and she has translated multiple novels and short stories from Spanish to English. Along with many translators and linguists, her dream is to talk with aliens

Her forthcoming novel, Immunity Index, takes place in the not so distant future on Earth, yet much of what happens feels like it could have happened in the last year: a pandemic that leads to uncertainty and chaos, scientists racing for information, political protests, and people realizing that anything can be weaponized.  And since Burke writes science fiction, there are also secret sisters, a woolly mammoth, and a whole population of clones who are sick of being treated like second class citizens.  If you're a fan of Orphan Black and What Happened to Monday, you'll likely enjoy Immunity Index.

Burke was kind enough to chat with me about where she got the ideas for this novel, how to stay safe when you've just found your secret siblings, that the customer is not always right, her hopes for the future, and that even megafauna get hangry from time to time.  To learn more about Burke and her fiction, translation, and non-fiction, visit her website at, or follow her on twitter at @SueBurkeSpain.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: What can you tell us about your new novel Immunity Index? What's the elevator pitch?

Sue Burke: The United States is on the verge of a mutiny, human clones are second-class citizens, and three young women discover they are clones and sisters. When a sudden epidemic produces chaos, a scientist begins to unravel what’s really happening. Each of the women must fight to survive. One is an essential worker who hates her job, one is a rebellious college student, and one is caring for a genetically engineered woolly mammoth doomed by the chaos. Amid the mutiny and epidemic, their quest for freedom will lead them to each other. 

NOAF: Secret sisters, a geneticist studying illegal technology, and a deadly virus. What inspired this story, and how did all those elements get into the story?

SB: The initial central question of the story is identity. What makes us the same and different? Some of it is genetics, and some of it is life experiences. What makes those differences stand out? People show their true nature in a disaster. Because the story is about genetics, I brought more genetics and more disaster into it. The elements posed a lot of questions, and the story resulted from one set of answers.

NOAF: When the three women meet each other and realize everything they have in common, how do they react to learning who they are? Are they surprised? Had any of them been suspecting this truth? Is there any sisterly bonding that happens?

SB: The women manage to find out about each other well before they meet, but as a kind of sisterly bonding, they also don’t contact each other to keep each other safe. I don’t want to say much more and give away the plot.

Each one reacts differently, though, because they are different people. Life prepares all of us to deal with surprises in different ways. The same thing that seems like a disaster to one person can be an opportunity to another. What if you had a sister you never knew about? Your reaction would depend on everything that has happened to you so far.

NOAF: Who was your favorite character to write? What made that person so interesting to you?

SB: One of the sisters works in customer service, and I’ve done that too. She must be subservient and pleasant to all the customers all the time … until, in the chaos, she can finally speak her mind. She says things that I and every customer service worker have always wanted to say.

NOAF: I hear there is a woolly mammoth in this book? Tell me more!

SB: Two words: charismatic megafauna. These are the big animals that we love to love, like tigers, elephants, whales, and gorillas. What could be bigger and more lovable than a six-ton hairy mammoth? I realized that I could bring one back, at least in fiction, so I did. But I had to be honest about it. This would be a demanding, cranky beast that would eat everything in sight, need constant care, and do poorly in captivity. Still, he captures the heart of one of the sisters, and eventually, she gets to ride him!

NOAF: What is your writing process like? Do you plot everything out ahead of time, or do you just start writing and see where the story goes?

SB: Many writers praise the creative, organic exhilaration of “pantsing” or writing by the seat of their pants without an outline, uncovering the story as they go along. So, I thought, I’ll give it a try. It didn’t work for me. My first draft was limp and only half as long as it needed to be. Nine complete re-writes later, I had the final version of Immunity Index. And I learned a lesson. Planning saves time and trouble for me, although maybe not for other writers; whatever works is the right method for you. Now I’ve gone back to my old ways. I use an outline detailed enough to serve as a roadmap, and I discover a lot of interesting sights and stops along the way.

NOAF: You were recently at the virtual Capricon41 Science Fiction convention, and you hosted a few panels. On your blog, you mentioned that the theme of the convention was “Creating the Future We Want”. What is the future that you want? What do you hope to see in the next 5 years, the next 20? 

SB: I would like a quiet future. Slow but sure, we work through our problems. We make decisions that save us from dramatic disaster. People get opportunity, equity, and a chance to be their best and to lead good, productive lives. We bring climate change to a halt, and we live more lightly on the Earth.

I don’t actually expect this to happen, though, at least not in the next five to twenty years. Instead, I hope for noise — good noise, to paraphrase the late Senator John Lewis. Most of all, as we create this future, I don’t want to leave anyone out. We’ve done that in the past, and we’re living amid the wreckage.

NOAF: Thanks so much Sue!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

6 More Books With Gareth Hanrahan

Gareth Hanrahan’s three-month break from computer programming to concentrate on writing has now lasted fifteen years and counting. He’s written more gaming books than he can readily recall, by virtue of the alchemical transformation of tea and guilt into words. He lives in Ireland with his wife and children. Follow him on Twitter @mytholder.

Today he returns and shares Six (more) Books with Us...

1. What book are you currently reading? 

The collected Sherlock Holmes. I had an idea for a Holmes-inspired story, and want to see if it’s feasible. 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

John Higgs’ William Blake vs the World. I’ve loved his other books on the KFL and Watling Street, and Blake’s a fascinating figure.

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

Not so much reread as reattempt, but as soon as I have the brainspace, I must attempt Alan Moore’s Jerusalem again. The start of the pandemic really disrupted my reading – I must try Jerusalem again, and also reattack Jeremy Szal’s Stormblood.

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

I did a really long, in-depth dive into the writing of The Lord of the Rings last year, going through all the History of Middle-earth books with an eye to examining Tolkien’s approach to the actual craft. What struck me was how ramshackle a lot of the worldbuilding is – Tolkien gives the impression of having this brilliant, cohesive history, but it’s all built ad hoc and filled in afterwards. At the same time, that close reading gave me a much greater appreciation for Tolkien’s skill at prose – he could throw off a really lovely line without effort. 

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 suspect that Dave Morris’ Knightmare tie-in novels form a deep stratum of my aesthetic. I loved Knightmare as a kid – for those unfamiliar with the Greatest TV Show Ever, it was this fantasy game show where one kid was sent into a dungeon wearing the blind Helm of Justice (so they couldn’t see the green-screen) and had to be guided by their advisors via a magic CCTV monitor. The novels took that game setup and treated it with way more gravitas and grandeur than it probably deserved, but definitely, “taking absurd fantasy and treating it very, very solemnly” is one of my things.

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

The Broken God (Book 3 (of 5) of The Black Iron Legacy) explores the aftermath of the peace treaty – and the deicide of the war goddess – that ended The Shadow Saint. Carillon Thay’s off looking for a way to help her friend Spar, whose mind is fragmenting after he was transformed into a living city. On her quest, she runs into – and from – figures from her past, and if there’s one thing that’s defined Cari so far, it’s running away from her history.

Meanwhile, back in Guerdon, the focus is on the Ghierdana – think organised crime, if the Godfather was a dragon – taking advantage of the divided city. Intrigue, mad gods, and a desperate mission of mercy.

Thank you, Gareth!

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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Marvel isn't doing anyone any favors by dancing around the ugliness of America

A Black Captain America shouldn't have needed an entire season of justification

By the end of Avengers: Endgame, Sam Wilson has Captain America's shield and blessing, and there's no question that he's the right choice.

By the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson has Captain America's shield and blessing, and there's no question that he's the right choice.

Why did we need six episodes to get to a plot development we'd seen already?

Sometimes the inner journey is the one that counts, but even that kind of story needs a good justification to end exactly where it started. The Falcon Captain America and the Winter Soldier does not deliver. It presents immensely relevant questions it can't admit it's terrified to answer. It opens the door to letting superheroes deal with refugee camps, American hypermilitarism, historic and present racism, xenophobia, rogue states, and the rebuilding of society after mass catastrophe. As a superhero story, it was an ideal setting for a serious treatment of the abuses of power, yet this show managed to artfully waste the impressive hand it was dealt, because God forbid the children watching hear one bad word about the US military. Instead, it paints activism in the most unfavorable light possible, it refuses to seriously question America's right to patrol the world, and it tries to fix racism with a museum display and toxic nationalism with a speech.

Let's start with the designated bad guys. In the comics, the original Flag Smasher was the type of joke villain that often arose from a simplistic reversal of the hero's ideology. Doing away with national borders and creating a single human community is actually a worthy goal, and it can only conceivably define a supervillain if your hero is the most annoying tool of patriotic propaganda—which is why the Flag Smasher was designed as an enemy of Captain America and not of, say, the Hulk. In the process of adapting the Flag Smasher to the MCU as a loose organization of clueless anarchist teenagers, the same ideological confusion was kept. The slogan "One World, One People" is the farthest thing from a sinister evil master plan, so the writers had to make Karli Morgenthau randomly bomb relief workers, because otherwise our heroes wouldn't have a compelling reason to fight her. What she's trying to do is fix what politicians are admittedly incapable of fixing: after the Reverse Snap, it turns out the world's resources can't cope with that many people, which is... exactly what Thanos was trying to prove. The one thing you should never do in the MCU is accidentally concede a point to Thanos.

The true villain of the show is negligence and status-quo bias, not activism. If the writers had given the Flag Smashers more than the briefest thought, we wouldn't have ended up with a stereotypical terrorist group that also had the moral high ground. Karli is right to be shocked that Sam has adopted the title of Captain America, because right now the country he represents in a comically bulky suit has no business posing as one of the good guys.

If the character of Captain America functions as an incarnation of the country's values and choices, one could expand that exercise and read every major character in the show as one possible way for America to be. Sam is, of course, the part of America that feels disappointed and frustrated, that is only now unearthing the ugly truth about cases like Isaiah's, and that nonetheless wants to bring to reality the principles that the country claims to live by. Maybe it's not entirely unintentional that the costume doesn't quite fit.

John Walker is a more honest representation of who America is these days: at the same time insecure and entitled, traumatized by his own choices but criminally lacking in self-awareness, drunk with power, and somehow immune to consequences. As the public face of the country, John Walker is quintessentially Captain America. This is most noticeable during his disciplinary hearing: the proverbial slap on the wrist he gets for the brutal murder of a surrendered enemy brings to mind the many times the US has shrugged off international condemnation for, oh, let me count the ways: Canicatti, Biscari, No Gun Ri, My Lai, Son Thang, Dasht-i-Leili, Operation Condor, Grdelica, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Amiriyah, Guantánamo, Haditha, Damadola, Haska Meyna, Wech Baghtu, Azizabad, Granai, Uruzgan, Tarok Kolache, Khosrow Sofla, Mahmudiyah, Panjwai, Khataba, Tokhar, Sangin... we could be here all day. John Walker is just one soldier, guilty of (as far as we're shown on screen) just one victim, but his character encapsulates the true face of America as seen from the outside. This character did not deserve a redemption scene in the final episode, but it's perversely fitting that he gets one.

Through the same lens, Bucky represents what America could be if it were more honest with itself: he can't deny his bloody past, he can't simply choose to live like it didn't happen, but he's making an effort to be good now. He's just going about it in a less than productive way. He's more interested in calming his own feelings, and he doesn't realize the inefficacy of his approach until the part of America that has endured lifelong trauma patiently explains to him that what he needs to do is be fully open and vulnerable. Repairing the harm he's caused is not about him.

Of course, the characters-as-sides-of-America metaphor is not completely applicable to Bucky. He spent years as a brainwashed killer zombie; he is a victim too. But this angle lets us speak of the damage that military training inflicts on its own members. Every country that keeps and trains a standing army is guilty of a serious moral crime against its own young people, but the case of America is off-the-charts worrying. As a society, it is alarmingly comfortable with the use of violence. This puts the character of Bucky in an interesting parallel with that of John Walker: both have committed atrocities, but Walker refuses to admit he acted purposefully wrong, and the plot rewards him for it, while Bucky is taking responsibility for things he was forced to do, and therefore has to go down a harder road. America (and every country with an army) has an ancient debt with itself regarding the lasting damage that military training inherently causes. For the purposes of this point, it doesn't matter one bit that Bucky's years as a mindless assassin were in the service of an anti-US organization; see above about Marvel's reluctance to criticize the US military. On any side of any conflict, to learn to kill is a dehumanizing experience.

(The response to this point is so predictable that it can be replied to in advance: if it doesn't bother you that your government teaches immature young adults with an incompletely developed psyche the art of killing, the corruption of militarism has gotten to you too.)

Sharon is the America with a pretty public face and a shady list of contacts, the America that poses for inspiring photos while signing deals with human rights abusers, the America that cries on camera but doesn't believe in its own ideals anymore. Sharon was obviously inserted here to pave the way for future installments; the plot of the show could have flowed better without the whole Madripoor detour, but since it's there, let's address it. In the comics, Madripoor was created as a pirate kingdom that somehow survived outside of international law until the present day. Its adaptation into a show that aims for realism brings another ideological mismatch, because its defining features are no longer shocking. If you search for a prime example of a country that refuses to follow international law, funds mercenary armies, and has an obvious demarcation between the very rich and the very poor, it's America itself. Madripoor is the America that has renounced the dream, where it's impossible for people to trust each other, where a bullet is the only language that gets things done. When Sam receives a call from his sister in a country that shouldn't even give his phone a signal, it feels like he never really left home.

Finally, Isaiah is the America that is just tired of trying. He literally gave his life for an institution that saw Black people as tools. He wasn't given power with the expectation that he would use it, but only to learn how to give power to the blond poster boy. This is a character that should have had a larger impact on the plot, but he's here just to talk to Sam and tell him not to do what we all know he will do. With such a fascinating character on its hands, the show chose to keep him inconsequential. No, the scene at the museum doesn't repair anything. Oppressed minorities shouldn't be treated as relics; they're a living part of the world that should be acknowledged and integrated, not placed on a shelf for visitors to gape at. We can understand Isaiah's choice to remain officially dead as a strategy of self-preservation, but then we have to fault Sam for doing nothing to correct the institutional forces that keep pushing Isaiah to stay hidden in the first place.

"Sam does nothing" is, in fact, the core problem with Captain Black Falcon America and the Winter Soldier. His painfully cheesy speech in the final episode is supposed to be the solution to the world's problems, but instead it puts blinking neon lights on the show's unwillingness to explore sincerely the Reverse Snap's consequences or to say anything about its plot's parallels with real life. We're not here to follow our convoluted metaphors to their logical implications; we're here to advertise a new action figure.

As said before, Sam begins the story with the shield and ends it with the shield; that he would continue the legacy of Captain America was always a given. To justify six whole episodes of roundabout angst, the show tried to convince us that the shield acquired an uncomfortable meaning on the arm of a Black man, but Sam's choice to donate the shield is made before he learns of Isaiah, so it couldn't have been about the army's mistreatment of Black soldiers. If anything, Sam is a spectacularly successful Black soldier.

Do you want to know what would have been a truly radical statement about the place Black heroes deserve? To have treated a Black Captain America as the most normal thing in the world. To have showed Sam carry that shield without reservations since the instant he was handed it. In Avengers: Endgame, his reluctance is normal, because he's sad to see a friend go, but that argument doesn't work in the show. His misgivings about being Captain America come off as contrived, and undermine the message that he deserved the shield. He should've had no doubts. And then we could have learned of Isaiah's story, and Sam could have used his position to do something about it. What we got amounts to much drama with no tangible effect.

And that means that this is a show that didn't need to exist. Fans have already seen Sam be Captain America in the comics, and Marvel shouldn't have felt the need to spend an entire season arguing the merits of the case for the viewers who objected. Marvel's fear of upsetting people has prevented it from telling a good story.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +3 for Carl Lumbly's acting skills, +1 for Wyatt Russell's casting as the perfect punchable face, +2 for turning Sam Wilson into an interesting character for the first time in the MCU, +1 for giving Bucky's character enough time to explore the aftermath of his trauma, +0.001 for paying the slightest amount of lip service to acknowledging the worldwide consequences of US military policy, which is light-years beyond what the MCU had been willing to risk pointing at in all its previous productions.

Penalties: −0.001 for pretending that the Power Broker's identity was ever a mystery, −3 for not addressing its topics in any meaningful way, −2 for the bad design of the new Captain America suit, −3 for a horrendously unprofessional portrayal of mental healthcare, −1 for an unnecessarily meandering plot, −1 for going out of its way to scream "no homo!" every time Sam and Bucky have a moment of closeness.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

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