Thursday, March 21, 2019

6 Books with Eyal Kless

Eyal Kless enjoys a triple international career, as a performing violinist, teacher in the Buchmann Mehta school of music and an author of novels. Eyal regularly performs solo and chamber music concerts. He is the founder and principle of Israel Haydn Quartet, performed with various leading orchestras in Israel as well as recitals. As an author, Eyal published his first novel in Hebrew, Rocca’s Violin (Korim Publication 2008) and has debuted the first of a sci fi/fantasy novel series, The Lost Puzzler with Harper Collins Voyager publication (English) and Blanvalet Publications (German).

Today he shares his six books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading?

Right now I am between several books (yeah, I am one of these kind of readers….).There and now and Then by Mike Chen is a very gripping story about time travel, and I am revisiting Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. And, because I am a violinist in real life, I am also reading the Cambridge Companion to Franz Schubert.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about? 

I received an early copy from Harper Collins Voyager of The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers, and I think this book will make some waves as it deals with an alternative history of Jerusalem and a very exciting heist. Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds is next on the list. Clayton Taylor Wood is about to publish a great fantasy novel named A Brush with Magic, which is about an interesting mix of art and magic. I’ve read only a few chapters of the first draft and the main idea is so great, I can’t wait for him to publish it.

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

Ian Banks’ Player of Games because, well, what an awesome universe! And anything by Terry Pratchett, the one and only.

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

Clayton Taylor Wood’s work, because reading his books changed my mind about self-publishing. When I was trying to publish myself, I harbored the “not good enough for normal publication” stigma about self-publishing.

I was blessed that, after a long search, I was found by my current agent, Rena Rossner (Deborah Harris Agency). About a year later, Harper Voyager signed a two-book deal. Even though I made it to publication, it was a long and quite harrowing experience. I was getting rejected for a variety of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with my writing and more with the current situation of clients and books about to be published. I understand now why some people get frustrated by the process and decide to go on their own. Some of them, like Clayton, produce very good stories that could have easily made it to the “mainstream” publication.

 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 think Dragonlance was my first real fantasy setting book series, and the first I managed to read in English. It had a profound effect on me, but I guess the books that changed my life was Gary Gygax’s Dungeon & Dragons books. I was an avid Dungeon Master and the game honed my abilities (and need) to come up with new adventures, build worlds and bring out characters and conversations that are memorable to my players. Terry Pratchett’s Guards Guards was the first one in the series I read and it changed the way I look at fantasy as a tool for discussing modern moral issues and the use of sophisticated humor.

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

The Lost Puzzler”came out in January and so far, it has been well received. I read all the critiques, even the few that are not in favor of the book, and learn what I can from them. It seems people really like the world that is created in this book and the variety of memorable main and side characters. It took me more than 20 years to finish the book, and then I had to write a second book. I admit I was very anxious when I began working on the sequel, but it helped that The Lost Puzzler was still in the editing process, so I could begin threading the stories together in subtle but satisfying ways. The Puzzler’s War took less than a year to complete and it is now in the process of being edited. I believe it is going to be even better than the first novel!

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Microreview [Movie]: Captain Marvel

It might be years overdue, but Captain Marvel finally provides a great first outing for its unapologetically powerful main character.

I'm relatively late and slow on the Marvel cinematic universe, and the fact that they've spent ten years and twenty movies without having a female-fronted superhero film is, let's be honest, quite a big part of that scepticism. When you're a woman interested in the stories of women (or, let's be honest, anyone who isn't the same muscly white man seventeen different times), it's hard to get enthusiastic about a franchise with high barriers to both entry and continuation which doesn't want to speak to you. As a space opera fan, I've seen (and liked) both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and I tried the original Avengers, but it wasn't until Black Panther came on the scene that I started looking into what I've been missing. I'm still very much behind on the main arc, ignorant of everything that happens in Infinity War and a lot of the previous instalments too (who's this Bucky guy anyway?*) and currently weighing up whether to catch up on that main story in time to see the next Avengers in cinema or just to let that milestone pass me by.

Luckily, with the exception of a post-credits scene I probably shouldn't have stayed for anyway, none of this matters with Captain Marvel, which has a couple of returning faces but mostly blazes its own trail in a mid-90s setting that both capitalises on elder-millennial nostalgia for that decade and conveniently avoids any tricky "so why hasn't this woman been around in the 20 previous films" questions in-universe. This lack of baggage does more than make the film accessible: it allows it to build its own themes and turn this into a convincing, enjoyable and kickass origin story for the Captain to take centre stage.

Not that you'd realise it from the movie's beginning: Captain Marvel starts in the middle of a story that it feels like we should already be clued up on, though it does bring us up to speed and justify the decision pretty quickly. Vers, soldier on an alien planet, has been having nightmares that seem to be about a past she can't remember. She's been enlisted into Starforce as the Kree - an advanced civilisation run by an AI - fight a galaxy-spanning war against the Skrull, green-skinned shapeshifters who can mimic the form and voice of anyone they see. Vers' old life was apparently wiped out by a Skrull invasion, and Starforce are now moulding her and her interesting magic-fist powers into a level-headed fighting force via the mentoring of Jude Law's Yonn-Rogg, and is ready to do her bit to protect the rest of her people. After being captured and forced to relive some odd memories, including those of a "Wendy Lawson" on Earth, Vers decides to take matters into her own hands and go looking for Lawson against Yonn-Rogg's orders, with a sense that she might be tracking down something from her own past in the process.

If you've seen the posters, you won't have trouble figuring out "hey, this Vers lady is the one on the posters", and it's not going to come as a surprise to any but the most precious of filmgoers that Vers' memories are from her pre-Kree life on Earth: one in which she was Carol Danvers, ace pilot for Project Pegasus. The extent to which Captain Marvel's plot surprises is going to depend very much on how well-versed you are with the character's comic history and her wider place in the Marvel universe. Having picked up, like, 3 issues of Kelly Sue DeConnick's original Captain Marvel run - which entrenched the character's promotion from her previous iteration as Ms Marvel and made space for the rise of Kamala Khan in the process, I had very little background for the Kree-Skrull war and the history of characters like Yonn-Rogg and Lawson. Since watching the movie and doing a bit more research, it looks like the roles of these characters pay service to, but don't exactly follow, their comic book iterations. It also looks like we missed something great by not having the Kree wandering around in rainbow-coloured Captain Planet uniforms, as was apparently a Thing in the comics for a long time?

Hello. (Image: Marvel)
Whether it's wandering confidently around mid-90s Earth in a "laser tag" uniform, or reflecting her character's emotional journey as she tries to unpick what has been done in her past and understand how to move forward, Larson does well with the material she's given, although the emotional journey stuff isn't quite as exciting to watch as her lighter scenes, and I hope that comedic potential is played up more in future outings. What's refreshing is that Captain Marvel is explicitly shown as an ass-kicking sensation from the moment the movie begins, winning brief friendly victories over Yonn-Rogg by power-fisting him across a room, fighting her way out of an entire ship of Skrull with her arms encased in metal, and then getting a finale action sequence that felt like an absolute dream of well-realised power. Carol Danvers is an unapologetically, uncomplicatedly strong character and while that makes me a little worried for how she's going to be used in future, for this story it's just a joy to watch. The emotional journey is also extremely well backed up by the supporting cast, especially young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Danvers' best friend and platonic life partner Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) as well as Maria's daughter Monica, who needs to get her superhero upgrade in the MCU sooner rather than later.

Because it does many things well, the blind spots in this movie do become more obvious. One huge one is the role of Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva, the only other woman on Vers' Starforce team and haver of many close-ups and few lines. None of the characters on the team get much development but having Chan's character apparently exist only to be kind of bitchy and indifferent to Vers is deeply frustrating, especially because the rest of the Kree are so dude-heavy. It's also frustrating, in a movie that gives such interesting roles to black characters like Fury and the Rambeaus, that the only rep for Asian women is painted blue and consigned to a flat role in the sidelines. I felt Annette Benning's role as Wendy Lawson also didn't live up to its potential, which would have been to really build up between the older Lawson and her pilot protegee. As it is, it's made competely obvious that Danvers feels that way about Lawson without actually giving the two the screen time to play it out for an audience. And while I do think Brie Larson knocks it out of the park in the role, especially in her 90s grunge girl aesthetic, I would just love to live in a world where the first movie-carrying woman could be something other than white and conventionally attractive. There's still so much to unpack here about who does and doesn't get the opportunity to shine, and while I welcome this as a good baby step, it still is one and it's hard to get too excited about the glacial progress of representation on film.

Captain Marvel is a great film, and as every woman led film outside of "chick flick" genres needs to be a great film in order to justify its own existence, that's something that we can all breathe a sigh of relief about as well as celebrating. Its smart message about self-belief, regardless of the limitations people feel entitled to stick on you, is one that works particularly well for a female superhero, and is overt about sexism without it overtaking the narrative or overshadowing her unique journey or the fact that she's probably the strongest and best thing I've seen happen to this franchise. I came out of Captain Marvel immensely pleased that I'd made the time for it, and up to 7.6% more likely to watch Avengers: Endgame next month: a victory all round.

*Note: this line is just for effect. Please do not write to me explaining who Bucky is.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Floats elegantly on the sea of male tears; +1 The 90s are back!

Penalties: -1 There is still so much to be done to ensure diverse representation beyond a white woman and some black supporting characters.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri 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.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Microreview [Book]: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Thrilling political machinations, alien yet relateable characters, and a compelling space opera aesthetic combine for the start of an epic new series.

Art by Jaime Jones
Writing long form book reviews is sometimes very hard. Sometimes, that's because there's not much to say about a book, or because life is busy and finding time to bash out a thousand words on recent reading is a struggle to manage. Occasionally, though, it's because it feels like there's nothing to say about a book except "I loved it, I loved it, I loved it," which while not totally uninformative for a prospective reader, probably isn't going to be terribly useful either (unless you really trust me).  Somehow, in these moments, more words must be found, somehow, from somewhere.

So, A Memory Called Empire. I loved it.

This is the start of a new epic science fiction series from Arkady Martine, an author who is new to me, but already has a very interesting short fiction bibliography. In it, we follow new ambassador Mahit as she is posted from the stations of Lsel to the Teixcalaanli empire, a hugely powerful neighbour where conformity with social norms is everything. Luckily for Mahit, Lsel has perfected the creation of the "Imago" - imprints of personalities from deceased people which impart their users with the skills and understanding of their predecessors. Less luckily, Mahit's predecessor Yskandr hasn't updated his imprint for fifteen years - long enough for fashions to go out of date, political movements to change course, and for his networks and, more importantly, the identity of his apparent murderer to be a total mystery. Both Lsel and Teixcalaan have problems greater than the death of a single man, though, as the former finds itself under threat from a larger alien power, and the latter gears up for a potential succession crisis once the current Emperor dies. At least Mahit should have the first few years of Yskandr's experience and his company to rely on! But, nope, her imago malfunctions almost immediately on arrival, leaving her almost entirely alone in the tensest of political situations.

Fans of Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee (not to mention the Hainish cycle) will find Martine's worldbuilding an absolute delight. It's in the same vein, of spacefaring human cultures that take in the full richness of human potential to create worlds that are utterly alien to each other and to us as readers, while not being derivative of anything specific from those other examples. In Teixcalaan, people smile just by widening their eyes; parties get exciting when everyone gathers around for impromptu poetry about station cleaning methods; peoples' names are all made up of a number and a noun; and it's impossible to so much as open a door without a "cloudhook", a wearable personal computer only issued to citizens. Though we don't spend much time there, Lsel's culture is a little more recognisable in its hard-nosed spacefaring utilitarianism, but there's uniqueness injected here too, particularly the "imago lines" passing down generations of skills and personality in expert industries, as well as some fascinating (though thankfully not heavily explored) references to ritual cannibalism.

The dynamic between the huge, outwardly glorious Teixcalaanli empire and Mahit's own culture - Lsel station itself holds just 30,000 people - is also very well played out. Mahit is desperate for friendship and connection with the Teixcalaanlitzlim, having grown up steeped in the culture and art from afar, but is also all too aware that, to them, she is a "barbarian", who will at best be humoured for her inability to ever fit in. It's left ambiguous how much of this is Mahit's own hangups and how much is genuinely coming from the people around her, but Teixcalaan's sense of cultural self-assurance is vividly present in all aspects of the worldbuilding, particularly the city's language and technology. At almost every turn, Mahit's already complex circumstances are further complicated by being an outsider in an empire that simply doesn't know how to accommodate difference: not through malice, simply through the weight of internal homogeneity. That her perceptions of being an outsider are confirmed not by the malice of those around her, but by ignorance, makes the whole situation that much more heartbreaking.

With all the weirdness and tension, the world of A Memory Called Empire could have become quite a dry, unpleasant affair, but Martine completely avoids that fate. Indeed, what surprised me most about the novel is how imbued with humanity and compassion it is, despite the subject matter and the relative isolation of the protagonist. Much of this is down to the interactions between the core characters: in particular, all the scenes with Mahit (a competent but fallible young woman in politics, my favourite), her cultural liaison Three Seagrass (previous parentheses also apply), and her childhood friend Twelve Azalea bursting off the page with life and feeling at every turn. Because Mahit's outsider position is such an integral part of the plot, there's a careful balancing act to be done between demonstrating that outsider status and the very real shortcomings of the Teixcalaanlitzlim in addressing it, while also imbuing the rest of the characters with their own alien-but-recognisable motivations, sympathies and responses, and it's pulled off remarkably well.

Plotwise, the novel also delivers, although Mahit is a very particular sort of protagonist: a young woman with a non-violent skillset who is completely out of her comfort zone, whose sense of agency is calibrated accordingly. Again, I think this is a feature rather than a bug, both in terms of Mahit's specific characterisation and in having an immensely human-driven narrative. For example, in one section, our heroes are caught up in action and unable to sleep for 30+ hours, and the sense of exhaustion and tiredness is so very well realised, in the decisions that the characters make and the way the situation is described, that I could literally feel the discomfort leaping off the page. There's something wonderful about an author developing an "alien" city of far-future humans, and then having some of those humans sit on a college green far too early in the morning eating ice cream and napping off two days of exhaustion, without making either element seem out of place. If I have a criticism, it's that the weight of the "institutional" threats can't quite keep up when the personal isn't involved; that's not such a problem when the threat of civil war is looming large over characters' emotional and physical well being, but it does make the long-term threat to Lsel harder to connect to.

Still, at the end of it all, I came away from A Memory Called Empire feeling very, very lucky to be a reader right now; I'm so grateful that this particular brand of smart, interrogative, fun fiction is being written and published and put in conversation with similar work, right here and now. This is a hugely exciting work - hopefully the start of something big and equally exciting - and I highly recommend you offer it a space on your 2019 TBR.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 10/10

Penalties: -1 Room for growth in the wider plot with the looming alien threat.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri 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.

Reference: Martine, ArkadyA Memory Called Empire [Tor, 2019].

Monday, March 18, 2019

6 Books with Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

Today she shares her 6 books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading? 

Since I’m in the last stages of drafting a novel, my reading has shifted to be almost 100% non-fiction right now! This almost always happens: when my brain is too full of my own fictional narratives that need to be woven together into a whole, my reading habits shift over into nonfictional narratives. I’ve just finished The Death of Innocents, by Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan, which is a magisterial and horrific investigation of infanticide, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, medical research and its all-too-common dependencies on fashionable theories and charismatic personalities, and a set of murder trials. It’s a fantastic mix of medical history, true crime writing, and investigative journalism. Next up is Midnight in Chernobyl, the new investigation by Adam Higgenbotham on the Chernobyl disaster, which I am anticipating diving into as soon as I can liberate our copy from my wife the nuclear history nerd.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

Max Gladstone and Amal el-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War (Saga Press) is a book I’ve been anticipating since I learned that Max and Amal were working together – it’s an epistolary time-travel love story, with complex social-ethical what-sort-of-future-do-we-want elements, and that’s essentially catnip for me. Especially written by these two authors, whose work is consistently amazing.


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

Two, actually – it’s just about time for me to take another trip through Stephen King’s Duma Key, which is one of my favorite books of his (I reread it every few years; I do this with a lot of King’s work, actually. They’re a sort of spiritual/literary homecoming.) Duma Key has these incredible landscape descriptions, and is all about the possessing nature of place, and it’s genuinely, viciously scary in ways that make me happy. You say drown her back to sleep to me and I get the shivers, still. And I also just got my hands on a not-destroyed-by-time vintage paperback of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, which is one of my favorite generation-ship books which I’ve been meaning to revisit recently.

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

When I first read Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah as a kid, after being fanatically obsessed with Dune in the way only a newly-aware-of-politics thirteen-year-old can be obsessed with Dune, I was so disappointed that all of the victories that seemed to have been accomplished at the conclusion of the first book were undone or made more complicated by Dune Messiah. But now, as an adult who has spent a lot of time working on, studying, and writing about empires, I see Dune Messiah as the deeply necessary real conclusion to Dune – the part which shows how savior figures are not actually saviors, and that there are no simple conclusions or right answers to enormous, systemic problems.

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

It’s possible that I shouldn’t have read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana as early as I did – I think I was twelve – but that book continues to resonate enormously for me and has shaped a lot of my own interests as a writer. The politics of memory, power, and desire are central to my own writing. As are unwise, difficult, and uncomfortable but incredibly real love stories, personal sacrifices for social or ideological gain, and lush, lyrical descriptive language. (I think I’m always writing some version of Brandin and Dionora, and I probably always will be…)

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

My latest book – my very first book, in fact! – is titled A Memory Called Empire, out from Tor Books on March 26, 2019. It’s a political thriller space opera (my publicist called it House of Cards in space and she isn’t really wrong), about an ambassador from a small, fiercely independent mining station who comes down to the capital of an interstellar empire to a) figure out why the person who used to have her job has disappeared; b) prevent the empire from annexing her home, if possible. Of course, she rapidly gets involved in a succession crisis, a murder investigation, backalley neurosurgery, a plot-bearing poetry contest, and a long and somewhat dubiously successful attempt to keep the imperial culture from colonizing her mind, even though she loves its literature and art more than she knows she should. It’s a book about continuity of memory, assimilation, poisonous beauty, and cultural preservation, all inside the structure of a spy novel a la Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Microreview [book]: Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

Polaris Rising starts a new romance space opera series set in a corporate feudal future with a strong focus on character beats and development 

In the far distant future, Ada Von Hasenberg is a space princess on the run and has been for some time. We meet her as she has been captured, her run from her father seemingly ended. But a chance to escape, with the help of a notorious criminal that she finds herself attracted to, Ada Von Hasenberg soon discovers that there is something more important than continuing to run from her family--finding the secrets behind a special FTL ship she has just stolen. A ship that she has renamed Polaris.

Ada’s story is the driving force of Jessie Mihalik’s first Consortium Rebellion novel, Polaris Rising.

The novel does revolve around the two poles of its main characters, Ada, and Loch. The novel takes pains to give the characters competence and skill, Ada’s time on the run having given her a set of skills to make her capable of taking care of herself, as well as some connections to her family. In RPG terms, she definitely has advantages from the House connection, but also entanglements and disadvantages from that connection. Disadvantages such as the primary antagonist of the book, Richard Rockhurst. Richard is not quite her fiance, as they were not officially engaged, he certainly has the idea that they were de facto engaged, and seeking to make it de jure married in the course of events.

Beyond this, Ada makes for an appealing main character. No one’s fool, and definitely not someone to be sidelined or let others take the risks (even given the fearsome Marcus Loch available to do so), Ada boldly takes risks, forges relationships and is a general force of nature whose story is appealing to follow. No damsel in distress, and yet she is a very human character who is far from perfect, either. She does sometimes bite off more than she can chew. Ada also does have a genius for connecting with other people, and Marcus and Ada do wind up getting a few unexpected allies in their journey together.

The novel does play the genre conventions of romance more than it does the conventions of science fiction. The plot and character beats fall into a relatively conventional pattern, but they are well executed and they mesh well with both the characters and the space opera universe. Readers who come to the novel for the romance plotline between Ada and Loch should be well satisfied with the storyline. Since this is a first novel set in a greater universe, I suspect this would be classified as a HFN (Happy for now) rather than strictly a HEA (Happily ever after) conclusion.

On the other side of the ledger, however, some sloppiness in the science fictional aspects of the novel.. Yes, this is a novel that is more interested in the emotional depths and journeys of the characters than the details of its FTL drive. And yes, this is not meant to be something along the lines of super net up science fiction, and for the most part it does what it sets out to do in the bounds that it is given. But, personally, I am thrown out of a story which is apparently set in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy, but the Gates that enhance FTL travel beyond its usual limits are casually mentioned as being capable of jumping millions of light years, which would be far enough to get to several other galaxies beyond our own. There is absolutely nothing else in the worldbuilding that supports a canvas that large.

Another such major science head scratcher has the characters visit a tide-locked planet, specifically visiting a city set at the light terminator, where the light is always twilight, never changing. On  a tide locked planet, this is the perfect place to stick a city, even if all of the hours of the day are going to be all the same. The climate is going to be the most moderate at such a place. However, the society of the planet sticks to a standard and universal clock of sleeping and waking. I could not believe that the city would restrict itself thusly in time, with all of its waking hours so identical, especially given that  incoming ships might come at any hour of the day anyway.

The rest of the SFnal worldbuilding, as given, is solid enough. A corporate feudal future, with three major families scheming against each other made me think of the "tripod" structure of Dune's future world. It makes for intensely personal and personalized conflicts between the major characters and their factions.

The author’s focus on character seems to be her intent, the next novel in the sequence is slated to be Aurora Blazing, featuring two characters we meet in this volume--Ada’s older sister Bianca, and Ian, head of House von Hasenberg.  I think that readers who enjoyed Polaris Rising more than I did will likely find more rich character based romance science fiction in store from the author.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for a strong main character, excellently drawn and a solid cast of characters.

Penalties: -1 for some glaring problems with the science and technical aspects of the worldbuilding.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore

Reference:  Milhalik, Jessie, Polaris Rising Harper Voyager, 2019]

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

The family and I are going on a much needed vacation next week so I am going to have to come up with a non-traditional Thursday Morning Superhero post for next week. I am attending PAX East at the end of the month, but that is for professional reasons and I am not sure I will be able to cover it properly.  I am excited to learn more about the world of esports and will hopefully sneak in one or two board games.

Pick of the Week:
The Batman Who Laughs: The Grim Knight #1 - This week we are introduced to the Grim Knight, a Batman from another world with a violent past. Having the same motivations as our Batman in terms of stopping crime, but differing on the methods employed to achieve similar results. It almost feels as if this Batman found the Death Note that Ryuk dropped and is using it to cleanse Gotham. The Gordon from this world is like L trying to track down who this mysterious killer is, despite the good intentions. I have fallen behind the main series, but this issue has me intrigued and motivated to return to a Scott Snyder Batman book and see what the Batman who Laughs, the one corrupted by Joker, has in store for Gotham.

The Rest:
Star Wars Age of Republic: General Grievous #1 - I learned something new about one of my favorite, if not my favorite, Star Wars villains.  George Lucas had bronchitis during the recording sessions and the sound editors thought it would be fun to include. This issue, and I'm not sure if it is a one-off or an ongoing, reads like the fusion of Indiana Jones and General Grievous. Watching him work his way through the Jedi Temple, dodging booby traps and outsmarting those who laid the path before him, was extremely satisfying and I am blown away at what an amazing job Luke Ross did capturing the mannerisms of this being and made him jump off the page. I hope this is an ongoing series as I am always thirsty to learn more about Grievous and who he was prior to the machine hybrid he became in the films.

Transformers #1 - We are treated to a new Transformers series courtesy of IDW publishing. Set in a time before the war between the Deceptions and Autobots, I was intrigued to learn more about life on Cybertron.  This is before Optimus Prime was a prime and was on pretty good speaking terms with Megatron. They are far from friends, but this issue hints at the beginning of what sparked the great war. Overall this book, despite it being a blast of nostalgia, fell a little flat. The art from Angel Hernandez and Cachet Whitman is stunning and they do an incredible job paying homage from a popular franchise.  I am not giving up on this series yet as author Brian Ruckley appears to be setting the stage for something big, but I'm not quite sold.

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The True Queen by Zen Cho

It's back to magical Regency England - and beyond - for the long anticipated and worthy sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown.

Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favourite books of 2015, the year when I first started getting deeply into adult SFF fandom and voting for the Hugo awards, so perhaps it isn't surprising that it's so very close to my heart. Returning to this world in The True Queen feels like going to a reunion of smart, politically active, take-no-prisoners friends, where you're taken straight back into the action despite the intervening years. Most of the best characters of Sorcerer to the Crown are back - albeit more in the background - and it's lovely to see them all on top form, in a title which expands and deepens the world of the first novel in smart and satisfying ways. Although it could stand alone, there's significant spoilers for the plot of the first book here, and the thematic progression between the two means that it's best to start from the beginning: we'll wait.

Like its predecessor, Zen Cho's magical regency is one that's inextricably tied to the real history of Empire, and while irrepressible mixed-race magical prodigy Prunella Wythe (née Gentleman) might have taken up the Sorcerer Royal's staff, the undercurrents of white supremacy and misogyny still run deep in this version of the British Empire. Into this world comes Muna, a girl found on the shores of Janda Baik: a still-independent island in the middle of the Malacca straits protected by powerful witches, including returning character Mak Genggang. Muna, and her sister Sakti, have been the victims of some sort of curse which has robbed them of their memories, and while both are taken in by Mak Genggang and Sakti is tutored in witchcraft (Muna has no magic), when she starts literally disappearing it's decided that the pair might have to call on backup to figure out what's going on. That backup is, of course, best found in the form of England's scandalous Sorceress Royal, especially when an initial magic spell proves there might be an English connection to their curse itself. It's decided that this will be done by sending the pair to Prunella's newly formed academy for magiciennes, now founded in opposition to all good taste and propriety in London.

Of course, Sakti and Muna's plan goes sideways very quickly. Sakti disappears during the crossing through Fairyland and Muna is left to take her place despite her lack of magic. This quickly proves the least of her worries, as she's thrown into the ongoing dispute between the mortal world and faerie, all tied up in the loss of the Queen of Fairie's "Virtu" - a magical artifact containing a powerful spirit which was entrusted to the Threlfall family of dragons. Together with Henrietta, Prunella's former schoolmate and now teacher at the academy, Muna ends up at the forefront of the mission to untangle this drama, save her sister, and avoid bringing the wrath of the Fairy Queen down on England.

The characterisation in The True Queen is a big selling point, and there are some truly wonderful new characters to balance out the returning favourites. Muna, in particular, is a great addition: smart and resourceful when given the slightest opportunity to be, but out of her comfort zone and with a habit of deferring to her magical older sister which makes her hesitant to show her talents to her true extent. Muna's growth over the course of the novel is lovely to watch and makes the book's climactic scenes all the more tense. Sakti, her sister, is significantly less compelling, but she's absent for much of the book and it soon becomes clear that her callousness and the lack of behaviour that justifies Muna's desperation to be reunited are all part of the plan here. The growing relationship between Muna and Henrietta (yes, this book has substantial representation for same-sex relationships along with its other representation) is also great, and Henrietta's understated but clear progression from being Prunella's less talented and under-trained schoolfriend to being confident and assertive about her abilities is very nicely done. Because Henrietta and Muna are a little less outrageous than Prunella, and the latter is more in the background in this outing, I did occasionally miss her inimitable presence, but overall I felt that the balance between new and returning characters was handled very well, and I hope poor Zacharias Wythe enjoyed his break from the spotlight this time.

Where this novel really shines, however, is in balancing the humour, absurdity and melodrama of its dense plot with the more serious topics of colonialism, oppression and marginalisation which nearly all of its characters have to grapple with in one way or another. There's some truly majestic comedy in here: notable is the entire section in the Threlfall dragon estate, involving dragon-turned-affable-dandy Rollo and his formidable Aunt Georgiana Without Ruth, though the scenes with Henrietta's family trying to deal with her awful simulacrum are also right up there. These moments of fantasy fun share their tone with less savoury moments, like Muna's discovery of a racist talking portrait of a former Sorcerer Royal, but this balance is handled very carefully: it's always clear that the joke is on the racism and small-mindedness of the reactionaries, and not on the content of what they are saying. Of course, the representation of Janda Baik's culture is taken completely seriously, and occasional moments of humour from cultural misunderstandings, like Muna's assumption that Henrietta could become Zacharias' second wife to resolve her marital woes, are handled in a way that avoids portraying Muna's understanding as limited or "uncivilised". Zen Cho herself is a Malaysian living in the UK, and obviously knows what she's doing with this thread; overall, it's a masterclass in subverting the colonial assumptions that still drive our narratives of the "real" history of this period.

More so than Sorcerer to the Crown, The True Queen is interesting in that the conservative aspects of society are not represented by characters with any power to speak of: Prunella and her friends are running the show, now, whether the old boys like it or not (spoiler: they do not) and the brief moments of specific threat from reactionaries are very quickly dealt with or pushed to one side. Cho doesn't understate the effect of having a talking portrait of a racist dead man shouting at your visitors, but nor does she allow George Midsomer (it's always those pesky Midsomers!) to score any points over the characters who, after all, have things to be getting on with that aren't proving themselves to him. This balance of power stands in contrast to the portrayal of Faerie, which is powerful and threatening and alien, and which contains a large number of denizens who are quite enthusiastic about the prospect of eating humans for their magical strength.

In short, if you liked Sorcerer to the Crown - and I'm not sure why you've read this far if you didn't - then you'll almost certainly like Zen Cho's second outing in this world. The True Queen is smart, funny and sweet, regularly all at the same time, and I continue to be in awe of the author for creating such a compelling world that combines the best of cutting Regency drama with a ruthless subversion of some of the period's most unsavoury aspects (especially those which are still going strong today). I already suspect this book is going to be one of my strongest of 2019, and I'm excited for the prospect of more.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 My pretend literary best friends from 2015 are all back; +1 scathing Regency-style wit deployed against colonialism, white supremacy and difficult grandmothers alike.

Penalties: -1 My pretend best friends from 2015 could have had a couple more scenes...

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri 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.

Reference: Cho, ZenThe True Queen [Ace (US); Macmillan (UK), 2019].