Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Microreview [book]: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

a gorgeously evocative book ... that is not to be missed and won’t soon be forgotten

Image result for the changeling victor lavalle

Last year, Victor LaValle wrote one of my favorite books of the year (The Ballad of Black Tom—which I reviewed here) and he also has written one of my favorite novels of all time (The Devil in Silver). This year, he tackled a novel based on one of my favorite fairy tales. Basically, I was pretty damn excited for The Changeling.

The Changeling reimagines the changeling stories—updating them to modern day New York and focusing on the father of the baby (the majority of variants I’ve read of this story have focused on siblings and mothers). The father, Apollo Kagwa, nurses the memory of his own disappeared father and is determined to be a father who stays and who protects and cherishes his own child—baby Brian. Apollo’s wife is the strong-willed Emma, who seems to be suffering from a severe post-partum that is making her a stranger to herself. When she does something horrifying (and it is horrifying enough that I had to set the book down for a bit after reading that part, so be warned), Apollo must reevaluate everything he knows about his wife, his life, and his child.

What LaValle does amazingly well here is in his weaving of fairy tale qualities subtly into the story—the slight bits of magic that edge through the reality, the storyteller’s voice occasionally shifting to a chattiness directed at the reader, the way characters tell stories to each other within the larger story. This book is both a story that feels like a fairy tale should and like a beautifully imagined and realized novel, a harder balance to find than most books manage to do. Done as equally well is the blending of the modern and the ancient—where magical islands can exist next to iPad apps and Starbucks can play a critical role in a quest. Instead of reading like a gimmick, these moments feel true to the story and world that LaValle has so lovingly crafted.

One other thing that must be mentioned is how much this is a book for people who love books and stories. Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (a book I read so much as a child that I can still mentally go through the pages in my head) plays a crucial role and Apollo’s career is as a used book salesman (Emma is a librarian). This is a story about stories, about the power of narrative, about the truths we find there.

If there are issues in the book, they are small ones. One moment has continued to confuse me days after reading the book (I’m not sure if it was a snarled bit of editing or if I missed something subtle—in which case, it was too subtle). The other issue is that it’s a book that begs to be read in one sitting, as a fairy tale should be told in one, but not everyone gets the chance to do that and taking breaks out of it make the pacing feel more ragged than if you can just breathlessly race through it. For this reason, though, it’s probably a book that will reward multiple rereadings when you can sink into the story and its mood.

Ultimately, LaValle has done it again—crafting a gorgeously evocative book that brings up age old questions of family and love and sacrifice alongside more recent questions about privacy and technology. This is another book that is not to be missed and won’t soon be forgotten.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for book love inside it

Penalties: -1 for some pacing issues

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 “
well worth your time and attention


POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016. Twitter: @PintsNCupcakes

Monday, June 26, 2017

6 Books with Sebastien De Castell

Photo Credit: Pink Monkey
Sebastien is the author of the acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats. His debut novel, Traitor’s Blade, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy and the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats. 

Today he shares his six books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading?

I just picked up The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein, author of the fabulous Code Name Verity – one of my favourite books of the last five years. The Pearl Thief is a mix of mystery and adventure set in Scotland in the years leading up to World War II. Wein's writing is always fluid and engaging and her protagonists full of with mixed with subtle pathos. This is one of those books you begin with complete confidence that you'll enjoy the ride.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

The first Book of Dust (which I believe is titled, “La Belle Sauvage.” When I heard Philip Pullman was revisiting the world of His Dark Materials, I became instantly curious as to where he'd take the story. It's hard to overstate how brilliant and daring Pullman's characters and themes come together. I can't wait to see what he does with The Book of Dust.

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

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro starts out as a kind of detective novel only to gradually slide into a meditation on memory and self-deception. I remember reading it almost seventeen years ago and being taken aback by Ishiguro's smooth transformation of his detective first into a hapless victim of the circumstances of war, and then into the prime suspect in the question of who's to blame for our intense uncertainty over what's true and what isn't in the story. However reviews from the time are more ambivalent about the novel, so now I'm keen to go back and see for myself whether Ishiguro's version of the unreliable narrator is as deep and thoughtful as I thought, or whether, like his protagonist, I've allowed nostalgia to shape my memories of the book.

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

I was asked to write a review of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens for some magazine or other recently. Going back over the book – which I primarily remembered as a relentless onslaught of hilarious characters and insights – I found myself entranced instead by its profoundly humanist point of view, articulated through its evisceration of those who seek to divide the world into “good” and “evil”. I'd read the book two or three times in the years when it first came out, but never picked up just how powerfully it makes the case against the very polarization that seems to characterize the twenty-first century.

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

Jhereg by Steven Brust was the first fantasy novel that showed me you could write a book set in an alternate world without making it sound like one of those Hollywood historical epics in which everyone – regardless of the country or time in which it's set – speaks in thees and thous with an anachronistic British accent. I loved that Brust's world seemed constructed as the perfect foil for his character, rather than trying to be a kind of extended Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Brust was, and I think continues to be, a big influence on my own writing style.

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

I have two books out right now: Tyrant's Throne, the final book in the Greatcoats Quartet. I think that if you like your swashbuckling adventure mixed with heartache and idealism, or if you ever thought The Princess Bride would be even better if there was just a bit more blood, then you'll enjoy the Greatcoats. As to why it's awesome? Simple: you finally get to find out not only how Falcio beat Kest to become the First Cantor of the Greatcoats, but also how Kest defeated the Saint of Swords with a dirty joke. My other book that just came out is Spellslinger – a young adult magical western full of tricks, traps, and a larcenous talking squirrel cat. Why is it awesome? Did you not hear me when I said, “and a larcenous talking squirrel cat”?

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.

Friday, June 23, 2017

FIRESIDE CHAT with Aaron Vehling of Vehlinggo

Welcome to the first installment of a new post series, Fireside Chats! In essence, Fireside Chats are a mashup of interview and conversation involving a nerd of a feather and a guest who is well positioned to discuss the issues and topics we hold dear. Sometimes this will be creator, and other times a critic or commentator. In all cases, it will be someone awesome. 

Today's guest is Aaron Vehling, editor and primary writer for Vehlinggoa website dedicated to showcasing synth scores, synthwave, synthpop, disco, house, and more. Please join us as we talk about synth music and its connection to the broader ecosystem of science fiction themes and retro aesthetics. -G 

Thanks for “sitting down” with me! To start, how did you get into music blogging?

I'm actually standing right now, but much obliged! To answer your question: Through a series of fits, starts, periods of self-doubt, moving half-way across the country, and a healthy dose of Bell's Two Hearted IPA. [Ed - you mean "hangover city."]

Here's some background for you: I've been writing about music on and off since 2000, and have used the "Vehlinggo" name since 1990, but didn't start setting up a plan for Vehlinggo as a synth music blog until 2012. And I didn't actually pull the trigger until 2014, when not long after I launched the blog David "College" Grellier and Nola Wren helped give me a boost.

When I was still living in Minneapolis, I originally had in mind a blog devoted solely to everything related to Drive—news, reviews, interviews related to the soundtrack artists, the stars, the filmmakers, etc. Basically a Drive fan blog that had branches into the realms of Italians Do It Better, the Valerie Collective, Kavinsky and Record Makers, Cliff Martinez, Nicolas Winding Refn, etc. (It kind of is this now in many ways, but not the 100% Drive blog I had designed). But I didn't do anything — I was a city editor of a newspaper and managed a non-profit journalism program, so my time was limited. I did barely any substantive extracurricular writing, although I did mess about on my Roland Juno Di synth some.

By the time I moved to New York in 2012, I had a different job, a new outlook on life, and a bit more focus. I drew up an outline and started planning to expand into synthwave, modern synthpop, Italo, house, etc. Had it all ready to go, and 2013 was gonna be my year. I was fresh off a Chromatics/Glass Candy show in which I got to see my various favorite artists again and had a fire in my belly. But then not too many months after I got laid off and had to get a new job, which was an awesome, but very stressful and all-encompassing daily, big-city, legal journalism gig.

By the time I felt like I could do my day job well and have a side jam, I hit PUBLISH on Vehlinggo in November 2014. My first post was a review of "Save the Day," the awesome cut from College and Nola Wren — although my review is not as great as it could have been. But it was a review of their show in Chelsea, NYC, a couple weeks later that sealed the deal for the blog. College and Nola both shared the post, and it affirmed in me that I was doing something right and it also gave my blog credibility as a music entity. When the Valerie Collective's art director, Alex Burkart, gave my logo-less blog the logo people wear on shirts today, the stage was set for some awesome times. I never looked back, although I have changed my focus a bit over the years.

How would you describe Vehlinggo to the uninitiated?

The Velvet Underground of music blogs — highly influential but with a small, dedicated audience. Specifically, it's a place for interviews, reviews, and essays about synth film scores, synthpop, disco, synthwave, house, and all that other stuff that makes you laugh, cry, and fall in love.

Vehlinggo cut its teeth on synthwave. So let me pose this question to you: what’s driving the genre’s popularity, such as it is? Or, to put it another way: why synthwave, and why now?

Synthwave was certainly a part of my coverage from the start, that's true.

If synthwave is popular — and it certainly is among a small group of people — it would be because of Stranger Things, primarily, along with non-retro films and TV shows that have Tangerine Dream/John Carpenter-influenced synth scores. They dig that stuff and then go down the rabbit hole.

This kind of happened with Drive, although in a different way. As I discussed with the people who made the music for that soundtrack, this wasn't a terribly retro film; however people read that into it.

Either way, whether its Stranger Things or Drive, or more on-the-nose fair like Turbo Kid or Kung Fury, these monuments come along and jump-start the interest in synthwave (or whatever people lump under synthwave).

How has the scene changed over the past few years?

What I'm about to say is both very negative and very positive. It's my own thoughts, but it's also what people tell me all of the time.

The scene itself is becoming noisy and impersonal. There is a whole new generation of artists who, instead of coming up with the pioneers, are inspired by them. This isn't always bad, but it's becoming a situation in which you have dozens of artists taking what seems like an hour to create a Miami Nights 1984 or Perturbator clone track, throwing it up in the Synthetix group and expecting miracles--"perhaps Michael Glover (aka Miami Nights 1984) will see my track and I'll be signed to Rosso Corsa!" It's all about self-promotion now, but not in a strategic way. It used to be you'd be in the Synthetix group and you could just talk about the music you loved and the scene's elements. Now the groups are filled with people tooting their own horns.

This is where I think the genre is a bit in its Third Eye Blind phase. If you recall, Third Eye Blind, or Creed, or Lit or whatever, were apparently mostly influenced by the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins — they were tapping into an established vibe that was in itself an amalgamation of inspiration. Those pioneers were influenced by 7'0s and '80s hard rock, post-punk, indie rock, glam, etc. So now we have certain artists who are influenced by Miami Nights 1984, who himself was influenced by the real '80s.

I think at least one reason for this is because of Stranger Things and the like, but I also think that the quality control that synthwave pioneers like MN84, College, Lazerhawk, Mitch Murder and FM Attack employ — it's several years between albums, because these are all meticulous professionals — leaves open a vacuum that few can truly fill. Thank the universe for folks like Timecop1983, who have kept up the quality with more regularity.

Another factor is that supporters like Rick Shithouse (Synthetix.fm), Marko Maric (Synthetix Sundays), Axel Ricks (Neon Vice) are each on a hiatus that I'm not convinced is temporary. And I've been moving away from synthwave for some time. So the tight-knit group that I entered in 2014, and that Axel helped contribute to by entering a year earlier, has faded away. We are now, to reference a Maethelvin song, "Lost in Big City."

That said, there is room for optimism. On the plus side, labels like Lazerdiscs and newer outfit TimeSlave Recordings, which function like real record labels but without the exploitation, are key curators of quality. You know what you're getting with them: The stuff will be well-written, well-recorded, well-mixed, well-mastered, etc. It's no surprise that folks like Cody Carpenter or Robert Parker would work with Lazerdiscs.  Lovely label and lovely people. Also, I read recently that TimeSlave is releasing a compilation featuring The Midnight.

Rosso Corsa is the same way, in terms of quality and people skills, although the label could use some help with marketing. FM-84 is also a bright, shining beacon of hope. I know for a fact the man has a deep sense of quality control and perfectionism.

All of these people I've mentioned are also very personable, humble, and friendly people, which helps keep alive the sense of community we once took for granted.

What I think is also helping the scene greatly are folks like John Bergin, the art director for Lakeshore Records, and Ivan Castell and Javip Moreno, the guys behind The Rise of the Synths documentary. Bergin actively watches the scene looking for artists of immense quality and professionalism who could be part of Lakeshore's original artists roster. His A&R work has led to Mega Drive's latest album and Rise's companion EPs ending up on the same label that has released the Drive soundtrack, Stranger Things, Mr Robot, and everything else. In fact, Bergin's A&R talent is why SURVIVE ended up doing the Stranger Things score, if I'm not mistaken. Bergin is a real hero and a real human being and an absolute legend in music, art, comics, and film.

Castell and Moreno have helped, because their documentary, even though it's not even complete, has managed to shine a light on the supremely talented artists in the scene, while also paying homage to pioneers like John Carpenter and Giorgio Moroder and synthwave pioneers like Com Truise, Lazerhawk, MPM, College, Maethelvin, etc., and synthpop gems like Electric Youth. Castell and Moreno over the past year have created an extraordinary momentum that works in tandem with Lakeshore, Invada, and Death Waltz releasing things.

Those folks above, even though they represent the dissolution of the smaller community in some ways, are in fact helping to keep it alive through the way they genuflect to it. It's nice.

Visual media have played a central role in that story, from high-profile stuff like Drive or Stranger Things to “in-scene” flicks like Kung Fury and Turbo Kid. And you have the prevalence of YouTube channels like NewRetroWave and Luigi Donatello, which play an outsized role in the scene. Is synthwave a fundamentally “cinematic” genre?

Depends on the branch of synthwave, but in general I think the instrumental nature of the genre obviously lends itself to cinema/TV.

Then of course there are those who dabble in synthwave, but aren't 100% synthwave who are definitely cinematic. OGRE and Dallas Campbell are most certainly cinematic — after all, they make soundtracks for fake films. However, I'd put them in the same category as Antoni Maiovvi (co-owner of Giallo Disco Records), who also makes scores (for both real and fake films), albeit with more of that Goblin/Argento flare. Syntax certainly gets his share of work with scores.

What about the connection between synthwave and science fiction?

You can thank Blade Runner for that.

Absolutely. But why that particular film? I mean, it's awesome, but it's nearly 40 years old. And I think the cultural influence of science fiction is wider than just the cyberpunk-ish stuff like Perturbator or Makeup and Vanity Set. Timecop 1983, for example--even the name is science fictional. And that's something to think about, like, why do we find outmoded visions of the future comforting? And what does that say about where we are right now?

I've never asked Jordy if he got his name from the Van Damme movie, which I loved growing up, because I love all things related to time travel. But to your point: We love outmoded visions of the future not because they would ever actually happen. We love them for the same reason we love the idea of heaven, valhalla, whatever. It's like Sir Thomas More's Utopia with scifi, perhaps? There's something to aspire to, perhaps a better, more fairer society, or cooler gadgets that make life easier or more fun, or perhaps new worlds that are better than our own. There's something cathartic even about dystopian futures. Those are comforting because they make our current world better and give something to aspire to not do.

The reality is that, other than certain technology like the internet, we never have major technology advances anymore. The future dreamed up in the '30s, '50s, and even the '90s, doesn't really match where we are today. Sure we have video phones and on-demand movies, and all sorts of information on a pocket computer (aka a smartphone), and we have drones that fly around and shoot video! But video phones are still just phones and movies are still movies and drones are just tiny helicopters. Our cars have technology in them that allows for autonomy, but they're still more or less the same car as 30 years ago. We are in a world of incremental changes—incremental changes that will diminish to even more incremental changes as the political situation worsens and progress declines. Where are we right now? We're on Twitter mocking typos while the world burns. That's where we are. In light of that, I'll take a faux future utopia any day.

Over the past year, Vehlinggo has broadened its musical focus to include synth pop and indie artists. What music are you most excited about right now?

I have to correct you a bit. I've always covered synthpop and indie — if you go back almost three years, synthwave is about 40 percent of what I've covered and you'll see synthpop, indie, trap, R&B, funk, etc. I basically have always written about stuff I like that's in the synth realm, and tried not to write too much about synthwave. Which kind of shows in the music I'm excited about right now.

1. Com Truise — His new album, Iteration, is going to be awesome. Trust me.

2. Nite Jewel — Her new album, Real High, taps into an early '90s Janet Jackson vibe — you know, the Flyte Tyme sound — and crosses it with a contemporary, funky feel that makes for one of my favorite albums of the year, so far. She's a revelation always.

3. Hoops — New album Routines is jangly and lofi dreampop, like the C86 of early Wild Nothing. 

4. Radiohead — I've been listening to "I Promise," an acoustic- and strings-driven OK Computer outtake they released to those who bought the 20th Anniv. edition boxset. It's gorgeous.

5. Anoraak — His new EP, Black Gold Sun, is absolutely stunning. I love Anoraak's blend of club, synthpop, and synthwave, generally — did you hear last year's *Figure* that features Slow Shiver? — but this new work is an exercise in transcendence. 

6. Syntax — James Mann (aka Syntax) sent me an advanced stream of his forthcoming LP, The Space Tapes. I've been listening to it constantly while pretty much doing everything, whether sitting idle, walking to work, working at work, or writing fiction. It's this mind-opening experience that truly represents the concept of space. Syntax always opens my mind in ways that end up benefitting me. James should be scoring films, working with Com Truise and Tycho, etc. Ghostly needs to sign him.

7. Sepehr — This is some great techno off Monty Luke's Detroit house/techno label, Black Catalogue.

8. Johnny Jewel — His new Windswept album, which features some of his score work for Twin Peaks along with a some vocal pop tracks and other things, is a pleasing blend of smoky jazz and emotive, noirish synths. There's also a really killer Desire cut on there. Meg's vocal melody is soothing and catchy. Johnny and Meg are married, so I think their deep personal connection lends itself to creating such a warm, soulful number.

9. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN. Because he's a genius. Listening to a Kendrick album isn't a passive act. It's a powerful experience that binds itself to your soul. The man is extraordinary.

10. OGRE. Always.

These are a few. I'm shortchanging a bunch of people, I know.

Where do you think synth music is headed in the next few years? Where should it be headed?

I see synthwave and even more modern synthpop incorporating more guitars. Since synths became popular there has been a social contract between synths and guitars (or their players) — sometimes we synth and sometimes we rock; and sometimes they mix it up a bit and create heavenly moments like we saw with New Order and The Cure, or Smashing Pumpkins' Adore, or, later, Bloc Party's A Weekend in the CIty. So I see synth music as we know it bringing the guitars back. To make it easier: Wherever Chromatics are headed, that's where it's headed. And where should it head? I have no idea. We need to let that be an organic growth.

One that that's always frustrated me is the lack of a DJ culture. DJs and DJing play an important role in other forms of dance music. Club nights generate interest in the music, for one. And they generate income for producers beyond record sales. But most of all, they're fun. Techno, for example--it's designed to be played out, and for people to dance to it. Not all music needs to fit those parameters, but synthwave especially--it already has the right beats for it. Yet people aren't releasing DJ-friendly 12" edits or organizing nights where people go out to dance. Instead you get the occasional live show that's structured like a concert--the producer is on a stage, there are pauses between songs and everyone is facing forward and watching. That's good and meaningful, so I'm not knocking it; but I think for synthwave to take a step forward, it needs to expand its audience, and creating the infrastructure for regular club nights is one promising way to do that.

These exist in limited fashion in cities like San Francisco and NYC — and I know they have them in France and Holland. The only artist I know who releases 12" mixes is Diamond Field, but I'm sure there are more. I think what's going on is that most synthwavers are bedroom or basement producers and haven't developed the performance muscle — whether it's a liveshow or a DJ set. You see that the Valerie Collective hosts parties fairly regularly and they have a College DJ set plus Maethelvin performance (which is seamless) and another collective member behind the wheel DJing -- like Pierre De La Touche. Or, also from France, Lazerdiscs' Absolute Valentine hosts retro-themed parties. These are all people who were already more or less performers and DJs before becoming known for retrosynth and synthwave. I guess I'm rambling, but I think my point stands: It doesn't happen enough because people aren't comfortable doing it. That should change and I believe it is slowly but surely changing.

I've thought about hosting Vehlinggo parties and having capable DJs. The problem is I don't know anything about organizing such an event and don't have the capital. But if I had one, it would be of the variety you're lauding.

Thanks for having this chat, Aaron--lots to think about!  

For sure! I'm sure I'll sound very cranky and lose even more cachet in the synthwave scene because of this.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

San Diego Comic Con is officially one month away.  As I prepare for what I think is my ninth year attending, it seems that things have scaled back a bit, and that is a good thing.  The off-site calendar isn’t filling up as quickly as it used to, the waves of exclusives seem to be smaller (Funko is the exception of this), and the overall buzz seems a bit quieter.  I am not sure if this is due to the growing convention industry or due to companies not seeing a return on their SDCC investments. 

Pick of the Week:
Royal City #4 – This series continues to get better and better as we explore a family that is haunted by the loss of a child/brother.  I am not sure there is another author who better captures the emotions of family and struggle like Jeff Lemire.  He hinted at a big shift in this series at issue six and I am completely intrigued.  Patrick Pike is still struggling with his return to his hometown following his father’s stroke.  He was a successful author, but his second book was a flop and he isn’t making any progress on his next book.  His family has a wealth of issues they are dealing with as well, but the central theme of the loss of Thomas, when he was only 14, is haunting every family member.  They all have visions and communicate with him, hoping that he can provide guidance as they struggle to recapture what they had back when he was still alive.  I absolutely love Lemire’s more personal titles and cannot recommend this one enough. 

The Rest:
Darth Maul #4 – I love the twist that Cullen Bunn provided in the last issue.  Maul was successful in kidnapping the Padawan from auction setting up what sounded like a fun duel, only to be duped by the host of the auction who shot down their vessel and invited the other attendees to hunt them for sport.  Maul is forced to team up with the Padawan and the two make quite the impressive team.  It only serves to make Maul even hungrier to kill the Padawan, but there is no question that a feeling of mutual respect lies between the two.  Despite this, Maul understands that he must not risk being found out and spoiling the fact that the Sith have returned.  It looks like we might finally have our duel soon.

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #4 – I continue to really enjoy Gerry Duggan’s run with this group of misfits.  I will admit that I know little about The Collector, but from what is revealed about him in this issue I have high hopes that he will have a meaningful appearance in one of the MCU movies in the near future.  We learned that a piece of Gamora is trapped in an infinity stone and in this issue she strikes a deal with The Collector in hopes of tracking down the elusive stone.  Drax is still not destroying and Rocket is getting quite fed up with the rest of the crew.  Throw in what transpires at the end of this issue and I am beyond thrilled to see where this is headed.  This series is a lot of fun and one that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoyed the films like I did.

Daredevil #22 - The second issue that serves as a bridging Daredevil back to New York and Hell’s Kitchen reached its conclusion today.  Daredevil successfully took the stand at a trial without once again revealing his secret identity to the public undoing what the Blue Children had done for him.  While it is a simple little issue that was ok, it serves as a nice transition to the return of Kingpin and a return to what seems like old school Daredevil.  Charles Soule has done a great job writing this series and I am looking forward to his take on classic Daredevil.

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Microreview [book]: The Guns Above, by Robyn Bennis

Pure flintlock awesomeness!

I adored this novel. The Guns Above has heart and gumption and sass and a brilliant leader in Captain Josette Dupre.

I went into The Guns Above not knowing much outside of flintlock + airship + military. Now, I want all things Dupre! Basically, The Guns Above reads like the first episode in a series you wish you could binge watch all weekend.

Garnia is at war with Vinzhalia over the territory of Quah. Garnia has been at war for generations, so long that many have lost sight of the real reasons they are even fighting beyond the pride of winning.

Recently promoted Senior Lieutenant Josette Dupre is made captain of the airship Mistral, a new and untested design, due to unwittingly making a splash in the newspapers after a particularly epic air battle where Dupre and a sergeant are the only survivors and managed to help turn the tide for the infantry on the ground.  The Aerial Signal Corps is often mocked by the regular army and Dupre's headlines make an enemy of General Lord Fieren, the army's commander.

Aside from the insult of an airship taking the battlefield glory, a woman gaining all the recognition is too much for Lord Fieren. Giving Dupre command of the Mistral, a chasseur class warship built to withstand cannon recoil, Fieren hopes to prove her unfit and unworthy of all the praise. He even goes so far as to plant his nephew, Lord Bernat Manatio Jebrit Aoue Hinkal, a spoiled, flirtatious aristocrat, as an observer (read spy) to report directly to him on Dupre's actions.

We enter the story mid-war right after a very recent battle where Dupre has little time to do much else other than dust herself off after waking in the hospital before having to report to Lord Fieren for what she fears will be her end. Instead she finds her new found newspaper fame has earned her a Royal promotion to Senior Lieutenant, a rank never before held by a woman. Dupre engages Sergeant Jutes, the other survivor from the now infamous crash, to help her take the Mistral in the air.

Dupre lives and breathes all things airship. With a a mere touch she knows what her ship is telling her even before her crew can call it out. Her expertise is unparalleled but being the first woman to have earned the rank of Senior Lieutenant ever as well as being the first woman given an airship command, she has a lot resting on her shoulders to prove to her crew and fellow airship captains.

Despite Lord Hinkal's privileged, and very sheltered, status he does eventually worm his way into the heart of the Mistral's crew. He is a pompous man and we see him towing the line on every possible stereotype for women serving in the military and in command. But Dupre's skill and courage prove to Hinkal she's more than worthy.

The back-and-forth between Hinkal and Dupre are a vital pulse point within the novel. We see Dupre having to suffer the uppity aristocratic attitude in stride as he is a civilian and she is under orders from Lord Fieren to give him unrestricted access. By turn we also see Hinkal getting to experience life outside his normal cushy digs for the first time. Both are incredibly witty with razor-sharp wit causing many humorous exchanges where I found myself laughing out loud.

What I love most about the relationship forming between Hinkal and Dupre is that Bennis leaves it at a friendship level. There isn't the weight of potential romance hanging in the air. We get to see characters flourishing in their element as individuals and as part of a crew. It was refreshing.

More than anything else, The Guns Above is a supreme adventure story. I mean, Bennis has put epic naval battles in the air, talk about taking it up a notch or four. In the sea, if there was a man overboard, there might still be a chance to pick them back up. In the air, a man overboard pretty much means certain death. The battle scenes, even smaller ones, are thrilling and I couldn't help but hold my breath.

Bennis hits it out of the park with this series opener and I can't wait for the next installment. I am thrilled to have Robyn Bennis joining the flintlock adventure ranks.

The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 8/10  

Bonuses: +1 for amazing lead character

Penalties:  N/A  

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 - This book is pure flintlock awesomeness! 

Our scoring system explained.


POSTED BY: Shana DuBois--extreme bibliophile and seeker of raindrops.
Reference: Bennis, Robyn. The Guns Above [Tor, 2017]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Microreview [film]: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman opened to much ado, and critics are raving, at least in the SF/F realm, saying Wonder Woman is the superhero you’ve been waiting for, even going as far as to call it a ‘love letter to feminism'. Look, I get it, we’ve been waiting a reeeeeely long time to see a female superhero smash box office numbers, but just because it now exists, doesn’t mean it’s the one.

(Mild spoilers may follow)

The film opens with young Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons, and Zeus (I assume you know who he is), desperately wanting to train as a warrior but forbidden to do so by her mother. Like a good little bad ass, she sneaks out and trains anyway, until her mother finds out many years later and dictates that fine, she can train, but she must be trained harder and fiercer than any warrior before her. The final training scene ends with Diana displaying a show of power she didn’t know she possessed. Shortly after, a WWI plane breaks the protective barrier surrounding Themyscira and Diana (Gal Gadot) rushes out to save the drowning pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). From him she learns that the outside world is involved in a terrible war, and knowing that the god Ares is bound to return to reign destruction, Diana sets out with Steve, against her mother’s wishes, to kill Ares and end the war.

This is where the movie becomes rather contrived at times. Of course, in the ‘real world’ Diana is the stereotypical fish out of water, and incredibly reminiscent of Leeloo Dallas – beautiful and innocent and guided through society by an obvious love interest, but incredibly fierce and independent at times. And while the initial battle scene at Themyscira was magnificent to watch, the fight scenes throughout the film were far too Matrix-esque, down to the often rubbery-looking Diana. Wonder Woman herself is very sexy, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but the film seemed to be mostly shot from the male gaze, with many upward body shots of Diana in her short armor. This was especially disappointing since the film was directed by a woman.

Overall, Wonder Woman was a decent superhero film. It was flashy and entertaining and Gal Gadot stole every scene she was in. Chris Pine was fantastic as well and the chemistry between the two was a pleasure to watch. I agree with most of fandom when the say it was exciting to see a solo female superhero finally grace the big screen and shatter box office expectations (Wonder Woman wasn't even playing in the Big D, IMAX-like room at my local theater, I assume due to low turnout expectations), and Diana had some great one liners like ‘what I do is not up to you’ directed at Steve Trevor, but it very much falls short of being the female representation we’ve all been waiting for. As my wonderful partner (who is often exasperated by my relentless critique of pop culture) pointed out when the credits rolled, she still needed the man to save the world at the end – just like Leeloo, and Furiosa, and the many other ‘strong female leads’ that came before.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for showing haters that a female led and directed movie can be highly successful, +1 for the few, but great, scenes where Diana's independence is highlighted (e.g., 'what I do is not up to you') 

Penalties: -1 for needing the love of/for a man to recognize her true potential, -1 for the male gaze thing

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 - an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

Posted by: Tia  nerds of a feather contributor since 2014

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nanoreviews: American War, City of Miracles, Recluce Tales

Bennett, Robert Jackson. City of Miracles [Broadway Books, 2017]

Oh, this is so good. With each novel of The Divine Cities, Robert Jackson Bennett raises the bar - to the point that going into City of Miracles I was nervous. Yes, it was well established that Bennett is a fantastic writer, but could he hold that level of excellence for one more novel and truly stick the landing. He does, and then some. He opens the novel with Shara's murder and nothing about what follows is expected. All of it is great. All three of the Divine Cities novels were excellent. City of Miracles is outstanding and a near perfect ending to the series. My only regret is that this closes the book on the series.
Score: 9/10

El Akkad, Omar. American War [Knopf, 2017]

The most disturbing thing about American War is that I can see the seeds of that future, not even one hundred years from now, and it's frightening plausible. It feels closer than that. American War is the story of one particular family central to the Second Civil War. With suicide bombers, refugee camps, drone strikes, torture, secession, assassination, and the nastiness of a guerilla war, American War is a grim look at a future that's all too possible. It's a well told story with some deep darkness threaded through its characters. I just hope that it's not prescient.
Score: 7/10 


Modesitt, Jr, L.E. Recluce Tales [Tor, 2017]

Recluce Tales is a series of snapshots across the nearly two thousand year chronology of the Recluce series of novels. Though I've read all of the published novels, it's been a growing number of years since I've read most of them - so I'm pretty sure I missed some of the connections between the stories in this collection and the novels. For example, until I looked at a timeline, I didn't realize that the Lephi mentioned in "Heritage" was the brother of Lerial in Cyador's Heirs - so now I can orientate that story in my head and connect it to characters and events I remember.  There is a lot to like in this collection - though for me it is the stories that connect most to the novels I remember best that I appreciated most. So, "Sisters of Sarronnyn, Sisters of Westwind" was a standout - both because it is a good story but because Towers of the Sunset is my favorite (and first) Recluce novel and that story ties in closely. The collection as a whole is a bit of a mixed bag, but it's Modesitt and it is Recluce, which means that it's comfort food for my fantasy soul. If you've enjoyed the Recluce novels, this is a perfect collection to dip into. If you've never read Modesitt, most of the stories here should work just as well (though "Songs Past, Songs for Those to Come" and "Fame" may not hold the same resonance).
Score: 7/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.