Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Forbidden Stars by Tim Pratt

The adventures of the White Raven crew come to an end...

Image result for the forbidden stars

The Forbidden Stars
is third in Tim Pratt's Axiom series, which began with The Wrong Stars back in 2017. If you're interested in the series of a whole and only want one book worth of spoilers, you may be interested in my review of the second book, The Dreaming Stars, which also includes a summary of what to expect from the first book if you add it to your TBR. In that review, I expressed a wish for the Axiom to be one of those neverending speculative series, where everything feels like a pivotal TV episode with its own satisfying wrap-ups as well as a contribution to a wider, slow moving plot arc. Alas, The Forbidden Stars confirms that the White Raven's adventures are ending at the trilogy point, and this is therefore the climax of their story.

All the core characters from the book 1 are back: Captain Callie Machado and her ancient (in the sense of cryogenic freezing, anyway) girlfriend Elena; Ashok the amiable if slightly emotionally unintelligent cyborg; Drake and Janice, survivors of what should have been a fatal crash and a subsequent phsyical rebuild by aliens without a proper blueprint for what humans should look like; and Shall, the ship's AI. Also on the mission is Lantern, member of the alien race called the Liars which originally gifted humanity the stars in a limited form, in order to prevent them from stumbling across the secrets of the Axiom. As it transpires, the galaxy that humans have come of age in is a galaxy that's controlled by a genocidal, warlike species convinced of its own superiority - that's the Axiom themselves - and while most members of the species are now in hibernation or otherwise out of action while they wait for some of their pet projects to come to fruition, they're not going to be happy that their place has become infested with another (vaguely) successful spacefaring species while they've been away. Though its fun to get back to the core cast, I missed some of the previous characters, and there's not really anyone new to love - the new robot pal Kaustikos, sent to join the crew by their mysterious Benefactor, has some fun moments but is mostly engaged in unsympathetic whining, and there's not a lot of time for any of the in-system characters to really shine.

The action here takes place in the Vanir System, which was initially one of the twenty-nine opened by the Liars but which closed a century ago under mysterious circumstances. With a ship that just so happens to have the only free gate-creation technology in human hands, the White Raven crew go to investigate, discovering an oppressive system controlled by a faction of Liars still loyal to the Axiom who are using the human population of the system for increasingly unpleasant biological experiments. The crew, understandably, take issue with this, and there's a series of sequences in which they (well, mostly Callie and Shall, with the others pitching in from behind the front lines) take down various facilities and bases controlled by the system's elite, while trying to figure out the aims of the system's authorities and how the Axiom themselves fit in to the whole thing.

Compared to The Dreaming Stars, this is definitely a more action packed book, though while most of the characters - aside from Elena, who spends a lot of time in the background or having pre-sex conversations with Callie - get a moment to shine. In particular, the resolution of Janice and Drake's arc, while a little out of the blue, is a really lovely payoff for this pair of hard-done-by characters. The action veers towards the formulaic at times - find an Axiom base to target, Callie and a version of Shall go and kick butt, maybe some other people and/or robots help, they find the base leader and tell them off for doing all the crimes, get more information out of them and then give them their comeuppance, and then move on to the next liberation. Its a formula that's a bit prone to "this setback that a character is experiencing turns out to just be a misunderstanding that is resolved in the audience's mind by a POV shift next chapter", but the action itself is well crafted and Callie is a brilliant character to spend more time with, making up for the lack of similarly cool stuff for her girlfriend to do.

With so many action sequences to pack in, an entire system to liberate, and the overall arc with the Axiom to tie up, it's almost inevitable that the ending of The Forbidden Stars gets a bit rushed. There's nothing particularly unsatisfying about the events that transpire, but once things kicked off for the finale I found myself looking sceptically at the number of pages I had left to go, and one character in particular gets the short end of the stick when it comes to revealing their ending. It also relies on the audience accepting, after a trilogy which has followed one very individualistic crew, that actually these world-ending alien things are best handled by the authorities - a realisation which feels both very sensible and kind of lame. Those elements aside, it does mostly pull off what it needs to do to offer a narrative closure for the White Raven crew even in a galaxy that is, after all, still full of an enormous, unknowable threat to humanity, and there's a nice epilogue-like sequence that basically gets the entire band back together to see off the trilogy.

This is perhaps a pickier review than it needs to be, for a book and a series that I immensely enjoyed and which I was sorry to see end. For all the small ways I'd have liked to see this series evolve, this has been one of the best recent series for combining consistently fun space action with light-touch but ever-present threats of the unknown, and of humanity's position in the face of it - and putting diverse, queer characters at the heart of it all. If Pratt were ever to revisit this galaxy I'd most certainly be in line for more action in the world of the Axiom, and I definitely recommend anyone who hasn't already to get acquainted with Callie, Elena and the crew of the White Raven.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 super fun action sequences which centre an awesome protagonist.

Penalties: -1 An ending that feels too rushed for the trilogy.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Reference: Bear, Elizabeth. The Forbidden Stars (Angry Robot, 2019)

Monday, November 18, 2019

Mondays on Mandalore: A New New Hope

Welcome to Mondays on Mandalore. Unlike Mandalorians, this will not be a quiet, stoic affair. It will, however, discuss The Mandalorian, and in doing so, assume you have seen same. So there are spoilers.

What, at its heart, is Star Wars? In 2019, that is not an easy question to answer. There has been nearly endless media dedicated to it - books, comics/graphic novels, video games, TV shows and, ya know, movies. But what make Star Wars Star Wars, instead of.... not?

Personally, I think a huge thing that when Star Wars gets it right, it gets it very right, is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. The prequels messed this up, badly. They were Very Serious About Themselves, and they are garbage. Star Wars is about space wizards in the future-past, and sometimes it's silly, sometimes it's fun, but when it says "hey, I am more than I am", it stops working.

But then... it's also more than the sum of its parts.

Going back to its roots, back in the actual New Hope days, that is what Star Wars is. Even amidst galactic conflict and high stakes, there is silliness and, well, life.

All of this is to say that The Mandalorian is Star Wars. There are tons of moments that make you laugh - even at its most tense. The stakes don't seem high, at least until the end of the first episode, even for our helmeted protagonist. In my semi-humble opinion, that is where stories are the best - we know the Mandalorian himself will survive, but what will that cost?

[seriously - spoilers]

When he discovers the Yodling (not Baby Yoda, Yodling), that is a "I am your father" level twist. But it is a twist that can go any way. He could let IG-11 just end it, and then the story goes on in a different direction. Just like a bounty hunter, allowing the fate of the universe to play out without much regard for it... except our hero, such as he is, ends IG-11 instead.

That, my friends, is a pretty monumental moment! It tells us so much about him, about the universe, and what we are in for, but along the way... so many silly moments.

I have written before about heart being an essential element of story. The Original Trilogy is a pretty straightforward good v evil story, the plucky rebels, armed only with justice and the strength of their courage against the evil empire, that is... well, evil. They blow up planets 'n stuff. But within that is a lot of heart. Han Solo finds his heart, Leia is an inspiring leader, Luke sucks, etc.

The Mandalorian is... not that. It is an exploration that can only exist because of the cultural touchstone Star Wars has become. There are a billion good v evil stories out there that we don't wonder what the grey areas look like. They are popcorn movies/shows/books which we consume, enjoy, and then move on with our lives. Star Wars is part of our lives, and part of our culture, so at a certain point we start go "wait... life isn't like that."

So The Mandalorian - like other recent Star Wars media, most notably Rogue One - dives into those grey areas. But what it managed to do was keep the heart of Star Wars - human moments, funny moments that underscore the actual stakes at hand.

The best example of this is in the moments after the firefight at the end of the first episode. Our hero and IG-11 have a door they need to get through, and a big gun to get through it with. The simultaneous realization and turn to the gun is a great, funny moment.

But a few seconds later, we have a critical moment, as they discover their quarry is a Yodaling (which is a way better name than Baby Yoda, make it happen). Here's where I really felt like this show nailed it: We didn't know what was going to happen. We had a pretty good guess, but it wasn't 100% certain that he was going to save the Yodaling.

We still don't know where, exactly, the show will go, or its impact on the Star Wars universe, but the early results are promising, and it looks to be full of heart (and cuteness).

Target Practice:

  • I want to write more about it later, but in case I don't... I love the pacing of this show. It's tight, there is nothin superfluous or wasted. In an age of bloated shows that drag on, The Mandalorian zags, and is better for it.
  • Seriously, how cute is the Yodaling? Disney is printing money at this point.
  • For all that I appreciate about the limited cast of the first couple episodes, I really want more of the Star Wars criminal underworld. 


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

The Hugo Initiative: The Novels of 1999: A Retrospective: A Preview of My Genre Future (2000, Best Novel)

1999 was a banner year for me. A couple of years (at the age of 28) into starting to read “seriously” in science fiction, I had been subscribed to Locus for a couple of years now, I was reading past and current Hugo nominees and Nebula nominees and winners for a couple of years, and I had decided, in that fateful year, to do something I had not done previously: Vote in the Hugo Awards. I was pretty disconnected from any sort of organized fandom, I had only been to one con, but I dutifully became a member of the 2000 Worldcon (held in Chicago, but I didn’t have the temerity to actually attend), and proceeded to vote in the Hugo awards for books in 1999.

The Hugo nominees for the 2000 Worldcon were as follows:

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge [Tor, 1999]
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold [Baen, 1999]
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson [Avon, 1999]
Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear [HarperCollins UK, 1999; Ballantine Del Rey, 1999]
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling [Bloomsbury, 1999; Scholastic, 1999]

At the time that Hugo voting had ended, I had read four of them, and voted on that basis. (I had not yet read any Harry Potter and did not feel inclined to read through the series, I would feel different several years later) 2000 was about the first time I started to dip my toes into getting review copies, but it would be many more years before I got my “break” in that regard. I fondly remember getting an ARC of Darwin’s Radio, it was quite the surprise and delight.

So without further ado, let’s look at the Hugo Finalists (called Hugo Nominees then) for the year 1999.

A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

At the time I was just so delighted to have another novel in the “zones” verse of A Fire Upon the Deep, even if it was a very loose prequel, just having Pham as the only link between the two novels. Still, the ideas of the Zones from an outside perspective, thanks to the conceit of a solar system right on the edge of the boundary, and the idea of  a three way first contact situation, this was the kind of SF I ate up with a spoon. A Deepness in the Sky was exactly what I thought that modern science fiction should be about, this was fueled by at the time of a renaissance of space opera after a fallow period for the subgenre.

Now, looking back, like its predecessor , some of the technology and assumptions feel a bit dated. There are some interesting conceits here, and the weird high concept of Unix versus Windows except expressed as polities and their operating parameters was something I just didn’t get, then, but I sure see now. Those frameworks do not hold up quite as well for me in 2019 as they did in 1999. Technology and the modes of computers are a very different beast in this day and age. The computing world was a smaller place, then, and now, for many people, operating systems and their fundamental principles just aren’t relevant. I also think, now, in this day and age, the Spiders could have been handled a bit better. Perhaps I have been spoiled by writers like Adrian Tchaikovsky, but Vinge’s spiders do not seem alien *enough*, and the revelation that they have been secretly in on a lot of the communications and spying on both sides could have been foreshadowed or flagged earlier in the narrative for best effect.

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

Deep within the Vorkosigan series, A Civil Campaign is the “Romance novel” of the set, as the plot revolves around Miles Vorkosigan trying to win the heart of Ekaterin, who met Miles, and  in the course of events became widowed, in the previous novel, Komarr. Miles fell head over heels for Ekaterin, and while Barrayaran customs mean that she should not be openly courted so soon after her husband’s death. And since Ekaterin’s husband’s death is tied to Miles’ investigation, there are all sorts of political and social landmines in Miles way. Meantime, Barrayar is a changing, with a sex change to make a woman eligible to inherit an estate, and another putative heir to another estate may have Cetagandan ancestry.

And then there are the butterbugs, the most fun part of the plot. So this novel is relatively light on the sciences, and strong on the manners and courtship. There was a movement in novels back there, particularly in fantasy, called “mannerpunk”, where works by writers like Sherwood Smith were a noticeable theme in Fantasy. At the time, I saw ACC being an SFnal version of the same. So, I didn’t think too much of the novel at the time. I wanted more Miles as Lord Auditor, not Miles as moonstruck young man (disclaimer, I was in a rough place, relationship speaking, at the time)

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

By this point, I had read Stephenson’s Snow Crash, because it seemed to be the thing to do. I had really really liked The Diamond Age, because I felt I kinda understood the basics of computing thanks to the primer within the novel. At the time of Cryptonomicon, I was also somewhat interested in codes and cyphers and always have been, really. So when Cryptonomicon dropped into my lap in 1999, it was very much a dive into delight. Paralleling time frames, lots of historical characters, a ton of detail and research that comes out onto the page, I think then and now, it’s clear to me that the novel is the first “modern” Stephenson--a big sprawling book that reflects the author’s desire to go down deep deep rabbit holes and take willing readers with him. At the time, I definitely was a willing reader.

Today? I’ve cooled quite a bit on Stephenson’s work and it doesn’t quite excite me to the level it once did. Oftentimes thee days, I want something more than the rabbit hole, and frankly, reading Stephenson these days is a big investment in time and effort that for me doesn’t always pay off as it once did. The digressions sometimes are “get to the POINT” rather than “oh nice, here we go down a mini rabbit hole within the rabbit hole. In Cryptonomicon itself, I am thinking particularly of the erotica side story within the novel.

Sometimes you need an stronger hand from the editor.

Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

Back in the 80’s the Eon sequence brought Greg Bear to my attention (Blood Music came later). Novels like that sequence, Songs of Earth and Power, Moving Mars, Slant...I didn’t get a good sense of his real range until a couple of years before Darwin’s Radio, when he popped up with an alternate history YA novel, Dinosaur Summer. I began to see that Bear had a wide range indeed to his pen.

 But even so, when I dived into Darwin’s Radio, I read it with the wrong protocols, at the time. I kept expecting this to be a science fiction novel, or a hard science fiction novel, in any event. I was underprepared at the time and kept waiting for the hard SF to kick in. I didn’t quite realize until relatively late in the novel’s narrative (which involves “junk DNA” turning out to be not so much junk and instead a mechanism for speciation of Humans into a new species) is really a technothriller with a lot of biology, rather than a science fiction novel. I was expecting something far more akin to Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain and didn’t get it in the book, which was confusing to me at the time.

These days, having read more technothrillers and understanding and grokking the form and style, I can see what Darwin’s Radio is and what it’s trying to do much better now. It is a technothriller with an extra dollop of SFNal setting and backmatter, something that I have decided since is not usually to my taste. Bear’s writing, and Darwin’s Radio are an exemplar of the form, however. If you were an SF fan who wanted to step into Technothriller waters, The book would be a good choice. (Coincidentally, the more recent and unrelated The Darwin Elevator by Jason Hough also would qualify in that regard).. Whether a novel that is mostly Technothriller something that should be nominated, or win the Hugo award--I am in favor of a big, broad tent. But I can see how some people might demur.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

At the time of the 2000 Hugos,as  mentioned above, I had not read any of the Harry Potter series. I had seen the first three movies, and enjoyed them, but my feelings about MG and YA novels had not evolved to the point that I had felt inclined to pick up the books for myself. (This would eventually change with the release of Half Blood Prince, whereupon I decided I would dive into the series). I did find Prisoner as a movie to be intriguing because of Cuaron’s directorial style.

As far as the novel, when I did read the book, I felt that the movie was the first where they really started to have to excise whole rafts of the novel in order to fit the plot into a 2 hour movie. When I read the book, and then rewatched the movie after, I was impressed how much the movie captured the overall spirit of the book, even as I realized how rich the book was. I began to see how much young teenage readers were in having the series at hand, Books of Gold for readers to try genre fiction. I may not see it as the best book of 2000 but I can see why it broke through the nomination list and became a finalist.

In the end, A Deepness in the Sky won the 2000 Hugo. Did Hugo voters get it right? Did I get it right for myself? I think that it really did. Even with the nits above, its head and shoulders better than the other nominees.

What I voted then:
1. A Deepness in the Sky
2. Darwin’s Radio
3. Cryptonomicon
4. A Civil Campaign
5. Left Blank

(I didn’t understand the real nuances of No Award, I just stopped my list at four. What I probably meant at the time was to put No Award as my fifth.)

What I would vote today:
1. A Deepness in the Sky
2. A Civil Campaign
3. Darwin’s Radio
4. Cryptonomicon
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 

What other books in 1999 did the Hugo voters miss? That I missed?

Walter Jon Williams’ catastrophe novel, The Rift, came out in 1999 and sank without a trace. Pat Murphy’s retelling of The Hobbit in space, There and Back Again, also came out, and I missed that one for years, too. Judith Tarr teamed up with Harry Turtledove for their novel Household Gods, a time travel novel in the tradition of Lest Darkness Fall, but with a female protagonist. I read that one at the time and liked it. I think it’s even stronger today. Dragonshadow, by Barbara Hambly, was also a strong novel. But in that day and age, fantasy was rarely on the Hugo ballot, Harry Potter being an outlier in that regard.

Did I keep voting and nominating in the Hugo Awards? Well, reader, sadly life sort of got in the way. I voted in 2001, but then 9/11 and its aftermath led me to a path that caused me to leave New York, forestall my nascent reviewing chops for a while, and I would not get myself settled in that regard and begin reviewing, or voting in the Hugos, for several more years. But in retrospect, the 2000 Awards, and the year 1999, was a preview of my genre future.

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

Friday, November 15, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

A dense, twisty and satisfying West African-inspired fantasy with a great magic system

Image result for kingdom of souls

Kingdom of Souls continues the recent run of great West African-inspired fantasy, with a mystery that quickly becomes something greater, driven by the whims of gods and monsters. Its central character is Arrah, a woman who, despite having family with strong magical bloodlines on both sides, has yet to come into her own magical powers - a subject of increasing frustration to her and to her mother, Arti, whose expectations for her daughter are far greater than Arrah has any hope of living up to. After another failed magical ceremony, Arrah returns to the city of Tamar, only to get caught up in a plot in which children are disappearing - what follows is a hunt for answers that quickly brings Arrah and her family into the orbit of the powerful demon king, prevented from being with his now-lost Orisha lover an age ago, and now back for revenge on both the Orisha and humanity as a whole.

Although I had fairly limited assumptions about Kingdom of Souls' plot going in, its a book that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short time, at least once the relatively slow set-up begins to pay off. It takes a while to establish all the relevant pieces in Arrah's world: her mixed tribal heritage, and the traditions of both her mother's Mulani people, and the Aatiri tribe of her father and grandmother; the ceremonies of the tribal lands and Arrah's frustrated participation in them; the different reactions she receives among the Mulani and Aatiri compared to the more diverse and ostensibly less magical circle of friends in Tamar, and her relationship with forbidden love interest Rudjek. On top of that, there's the mixed system of belief and Gods - the Mulani worship only Heka, the God who brought magic to humans, while others worship a pantheon of twenty Orisha (not to be confused with the "canonical" Orisha of Yoruba myth - these are entirely Barron's creation), and a whole set of legends around the Demon King and his desire for human souls. Putting all of this together, setting the wheels in motion for the kidnapped children plot, and setting up the decision whereby Arrah decides to become a "charlatan" - someone without inherent magic who trades years of their life in order to cast spells - takes around a third of the book. It's an impressive amount of set-up and my suspicions that it was being done for a series rather than a book were proved correct when the ending resolved some, but far from all, the plot threads that get built up from this start.

Once the plot gets going, its done in a way that pulls the rug out from reader expectations more than once. For one thing, the inciting incident of the missing children gets an answer much sooner than expected, although its a gut punch of a reveal. From there the story twists into something quite different, which is difficult to describe without spoilers but much more than I expected on the relationship between Arrah and her mother Arti, and the trauma that her mother suffered which contributed to the choices she made for Arrah and for her entire family's future, as well as involving the demons and Orisha mentioned above. It makes for a story that offers a much broader perspective than the average first person teenage protagonist fronted story (although Kingdom of Souls is definitely in "crossover" rather than firm "YA" territory), forcing Arrah to look beyond what she wants (acceptance, to be with her love interest, not having the world destroyed by soul-sucking demons, making sure all her loved ones are OK) to the motivations and desires and difficulties of other people - be they humans or... well, soul-sucking demons. Despite that, it definitely doesn't let anyone off the hook for their terrible choices, and trust me there's some terrible choices happening here.

There were definitely elements of this that I liked more than others - despite the necessity of the set-up, the first third of the book dragged for me, and I also didn't have much time for the doomed love affair between Rudjek and Arrah, due to their parents' rivalry and other magical factors that become clear later on - perhaps because I wasn't paying enough attention during the parts of the book this was initially set up, I just didn't have a whole lot of time for their particular brand of relationship within a novel that already had plenty of nuanced, engaging, non-romantic relationship stuff going on. Rudjek also felt upstaged by Arrah's magical friend Sukar, who I felt I could have spent much more time with.

All in all, this debut kickstarts a series which has some serious potential, both in terms of worldbuilding and direction, and while this first volume has a lot of work to do in putting it all together, it pulls it off in an inventive way which mostly maintains the pace that a story of this urgency needs. Worth digging into, especially for those looking for an interesting take on magic, love and coming-of-age in a very well-realised fantasy world.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 A twisty plot which doesn't go in the expected directions

Penalties: -1 Lots of worldbuilding to get through makes for a slow start

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Reference: Barron, Rena. Kingdom of Souls (Harper Voyager, 2019)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Disney Plus has arrived and it has been a joy to see all of the fun my friends are having streaming various Marvel and Disney content.  I did sign up for a game of Disney Plus roulette and think I need to watch the Secret of the Wings per Dean's list.  Not sure I am looking forward to that, but I am pumped to finally check out the Mandalorian with the family.

Family Tree #1:
 There are a lot of great books out this week, but this new book From Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester really stuck with me and had me thinking at the end of the night. While an end of the world story isn't particularly ground breaking, the slow approach that this book is taking reminds me of Sweet Tooth, another gem from Lemire.  While Sweet Tooth focuses on children that are born during this time, Family Tree focuses on some sort of infection or rash that literally causes plant growth on humans.

This story centers around Loretta, a single mother, and her family.  She has a daughter who appears to be 9 or 10 years old and a son in high school who has a tendency to get in trouble. Lemire's books tend to have strong father like characters in them and I am curious if this book will follow that trend or if Loretta will break the mold.  She clearly is struggling as a single parent, but genuinely cares about her kids and is extremely strong willed and not shy about her beliefs.

This debut issue does a nice job of establishing an interesting cast of characters that have no idea that they are about to be confronted with an end of the world scenario. I look forward to learning more about the infection that is spreading and the curious individuals who seem to know something about it and are seeking out Meg (Loretta's infected daughter).  It reminds me of the individuals in Sweet Tooth who sought out hybrids for medical research.  I am definitely intrigued and cannot wait to read more of this series.

The rest of the pull list:
In addition to the stellar Family Tree, Folklords from Matt Kindt told the story of Ansel and his desire to seek out the Folklords.  In his town, when children come of age they go on a quest with the guidance of a mysterious cult-like group of librarians. When they hear people speaking of the Folklords, they are clearly upset and it forces Ansel to embark on this mission with the help of a friend in secrecy.  This book was a lot of fun and it is always nice to have a new Kindt story to enjoy.  The Target Vader series also made the cut again this week and remains an impressive highlight reel of what Vader is capable of.  Lemire's other book that came out this week, Gideon Falls, demonstrated why it was the Eisner for best new series of 2019 and was one of the more disturbing books I have read in a while.  I mean that in a good way and cannot recommend it enough.

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

A YA thriller with a warm fuzzy digital heart

Image result for catfishing on catnet

Fresh from stealing our hearts away in various pieces of short fiction, including the Hugo Award winning and highly zeitgeisty "Cat Pictures Please" and this year's Hugo finalist "The Thing About Ghost Stories", Naomi Kritzer is back with her first published novel in some time - and her science fiction debut - the much anticipated Catfishing on Catnet. Although my primary fandom is dogs, I also maintain an ongoing interest in cat-related media, and having been lucky enough to pick up a Catfishing on Catnet fridge magnet (yes, apparently some books have fridge magnets now!) this has been a very highly anticipated release for me, one which I'm pleased to confirm doesn't disappoint.

Catfishing on Catnet follows Steph, a teenager whose life has been defined by her mother constantly moving her to escape an abusive father she knows almost nothing about. Steph's mother claims that her Dad is an arsonist, who tried to burn down the house with them in it and is now hunting them down. Steph has no reason not to believe this (her Mom carries a laminated version of the article with the information in, after all) but is still not enamoured with having to change schools every few months, and the only real life friend she ever made was a girl she hasn't seen or heard from in over ten years. Luckily, Steph has friends that go with her everywhere she moves - the buddies she's made on an online chatroom system called CatNet, which only requires payment in animal pictures to use its services, and organises users into "Clowders" based on what Steph thinks are fancy algorithms, but what is actually the engineering of a benevolent AI trying to make its human users' lives better.

The AI of CatNet is, of course, the same AI from "Cat Pictures Please": a story which deals with the misadventures of an all-seeing intelligence trying to make humans happy while also learning how humans actually work. The kinds of actions taken by the AI in that story are reflected in some early scenes here: a bad teacher at Steph's school, for example, resigns after a delivery drone "accidentally" drops a load of books on how to quit your job and guidebooks for a city where her friend is conveniently hiring for a position in a totally different career. However, most of the time the AI - called CheshireCat by Steph and her Clowder based on its screenname in their group chat - is focused on the more serious issue of Steph's father, and the mystery surrounding both her parents. As CheshireCat becomes more invested in both the mystery of Steph's past and her wellbeing as one of its friends in its "favourite" Clowder, its actions start to increasingly expose its own identity, raising issues about trust and acceptance based on who we choose to be online.

What plays out from this is almost a sort of cosy thriller, starring some great mystery solving internet teens, as Steph's mother comes down with an illness and Steph becomes increasingly involved in piecing together the story of her family. With the support of her Clowder and CheshireCat, Steph also starts befriending a couple of girls at school, notably Rachel, an artistic prodigy who offers a rare note of non-internet friendship in her transient life. At around the halfway mark, the tone switches gears and Steph's "IRL" and "internet" spheres start overlapping, as events converge on the town of New Coburg and the risks to discovering the truth start to increase for everyone involved. Because of the book's mystery elements and the way its structured, there's not much I can say about the plot without starting to give things away, but I will note that despite the book's cover zeroing in on an ominous "how much does the internet know around you" tagline, Steph and the Clowder's suspicions never fall on CheshireCat, and neither are we directed to suspect it as readers (it is after all the first point of view voice we meet in the book). The focus in Catfishing on Catnet is quite definitely on the positive and negative ways in which humans use technology, rather than scaremongering about technology itself, and the focus never wavers from the fact that there are real, human people involved in this at every stage.

The rest of Steph's clowder - especially her best friend Firestar, and regular Clowder members Marvin, Hermione and Icosahedron - are great characters in their own right, with enough characterisation to bring their bonds with each other to life and make the AI's intention in bringing them together clear, without being too saccharine or co-opting the story. Catnet itself is portrayed as a niche app, which goes some way to mitigating the sense of anachronism of a group of near-future teenagers using a chatroom with handles and a complete lack of emojis and gifs. I should be clear that I can't speak to how much Catfishing on Catnet will actually speak to the internet of teenagers now, rather than the inner teenager of a millennial in her 30s, but I'd like to hope that its hitting on something timeless. Subcultures of people forming bonds exclusively online, rather than using the internet to augment connections with their existing friends, is perhaps niche enough anyway that Catfishing on Catnet doesn't need to be about the evolution of AirDrop and TikTok into whatever teens will be using in the era when their sex ed classes are being taught by awkwardly programmed robots and self-driving cars are a real, but not uncontroversial, development.

Overall, Catfishing on Catnet offered a great reading experience, blending together insights on internet culture and use of technology with a thriller-esque plotline that kept me turning the pages without overstaying its welcome. Though I can't speak to how particular cultural elements will land with people actually within the YA age bracket, its characters feel real and sympathetic and their use of an internet chatroom - albeit an extraordinarily well curated one - makes sense within the context of their respective lives.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Great interactions between teenagers, AI and adults which takes online friendship seriously

Penalties: -1 Not as many CheshireCat antics as the original short story

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Reference: Kritzer, Naomi. Catfishing on Catnet (Tor Teen, 2019)

Watchmen Wednesdays: Episode 4

Watchmen Wednesdays! 

Buckle in for maybe the weirdest one yet.

In episode four, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” more characters are introduced and few mysterious solved. The episode opens with the introduction of Lady Trieu (excellently portrayed by Hong Chau), who wants to buy a farmer’s house and land—the payment? A baby that is biologically theirs due to leftover genetic material from when they medically tried to have a baby years ago. Of course, this seals the deal—just in time as something crashed onto the farmland they just sold, thus making it Lady Trieu’s.

Lady Trieu and the baby payment

We don’t know much about Lady Trieu, but here’s what we do know: she’s from Vietnam, she’s uber-rich, she bought Veidt’s/Ozymandias’ company, and she’s building the first wonder of the “new world” (ie something that can withstand the climate crisis). She’s also the one who took Angela's grandfather Will Reeves.

Over in Veidt wonderland, we did receive one answer—where do the clones come from? Wellll, apparently Veidt fishes them out of a lake like crab babies and then somehow grows them at a painfully quick speed (as demonstrated by the horrible screaming). Was anyone else as horrified by this as I was? It fits with the true weirdness of Veidt’s world but, dang, that was pretty awful. We aren’t given any time to recover from that weirdness before the newly grown clones are ushered into the dining hall to clean up their own clone massacre. Veidt admits to killing them all. That’s a big yikes from me, mate.  

They get rid of the bodies by catapulting them.

When it comes to Angela and Agent Blake, the episode mostly featured a stand off. Angela is trying to keep Will Reeves a secret (as much as she resents him for screwing up her life) even while Blake takes over the investigation of the dead chief. I can only assume their relationship is going to explode pretty soon.

A few new mysterious pop-up or are remembered. First, the squids. No new information but the episode reminds us about them. Second, another new superhero appears—Lube Man—but all he does is run away from Angela and slide into a sewer. The object that crashes on the farm is never revealed, either, and Lady Trieu comes with a host of her own mysteries. Plus, the very end of the episode features Will Reeves repeating the “tick-tock” that has been associated largely with the white supremacist terrorist group the Seventh Kavalry (who were largely absent this episode).

For the reasons listed above, I gotta say this wasn’t my favorite episode. Last week, we got some answers and the return of a favorite character (and Agent Blake as played by Jean Smart is still brilliant and wonderful). This episode just created so many more questions that I worry aren’t going to be resolved in five episodes. I definitely trust showrunner Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame/infamy). He’s given us an amazing opening for a difficult show and got a nonfan pretty invested in this world. I’m down to see what he’s going to do with the remaining episodes.

Here’s what some other folks are talking about:

FIYAH poetry editor and writer Brandon O'Brien on Tom Mison

Speculative Writer Victor LaValle on Episode 4
Speculative Writer Brooke Bolander on the Veidt babies

My predictions for next week: the squids are gonna come baaaaaack, and I have a theory that Veidt is trapped in Lady Trieu's statue of himself. 

Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.