Friday, May 29, 2015

Microreview [book]: A Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

"Eventually a cloud hid the moon. Smug thing. And Auri took the chance to scamper back into the Underthing."

It’s been a couple years since my last Kingkiller re-read, and I guess I forgot how fantastic a storyteller Patrick Rothfuss is. I did read Bast’s short story in Rogues, and that was a fun don’t get me wrong, but I was utterly blown away by A Slow Regard of Silent Things.

If you are unfamiliar with Rothfuss’ work, he is the author of the acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicles, which essentially is the autobiography of Kvothe, a legendary magician and musician (this of course is a very butchering and abbreviated summary). I highly recommend this (as of now unfinished) series. A Slow Regard of Silent Things takes place in the Kingkiller world, a world we recently learned was called Temerant. It follows a week in the life of Auri, a secondary but memorable character. If you’ve read Kvothe’s story you’ve already met Auri and know a few things about her, but not much, as she remains quite enigmatic. You do know, for example, that she is reserved and childlike, and lives in the underbelly of the University, and of course that she assigns names and emotions to things. But, you could figure this much out even if you haven’t read the Kingkiller Chronicles, which brings me to my one major complaint about the novella: the Author’s Foreword. Rothfuss claims that if you aren’t familiar with Kvothe’s world you shouldn’t read Auri’s story. I couldn’t disagree more, and I think Rothfuss really sells himself short here.

A Slow Regard of Silent Things is truly a work of art. It is an entire novella bereft of dialogue and the vast majority of the characters are inanimate objects. But it is riveting and heartwarming. It is hard to put down. It is the story of Auri yes, but it is also the story of her silent things, as they (and by extension Auri) try to find their proper place in this world. The narrator tells the story as Auri would, assigning names and emotions to objects in a way that wraps a hand around your heart. For example, the sense of worry and despair I felt when Auri dropped her light was for Foxen (the light) not for the prospect of Auri being left in darkness (at least superficially).

The week in the life of Auri is all in preparation for a visit from “he”. If you’ve read the Kingkiller Chronicles, you know who “he” is it adds a whole other level of significance to their relationship. If you haven’t read Kingkiller, then you may be wondering if “he” is even real. You will also be wondering who Auri is, if she’s a child or an adult, where she came from to know the things she does, and how she got this way. Out of context, the Underthing becomes the world that it built, and it is built beautifully. As we run with Auri from room to room we can almost feel the change in temperature and see the change of light. Then, unexpectedly, we get glimpses of the outside and in-between worlds and the mystery just adds another level of joyful complexity to the story. That coupled with the beautiful illustrations scattered throughout make A Slow Regard of Silent Things a true pleasure to behold.

Reading this I thought maybe I would discover something more about Auri and her past, but what really happened was I re-discovered the power of storytelling and how brilliantly and successfully conventions can be broken. Rothfuss is right when he says A Slow Regard of Silent Things “doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to,” but he’s wrong when he says “you’re probably going to feel pretty lost” if you haven’t read his other books. Honestly, I think the relevance of this novella as a piece of art is stronger when taken out of context. I’ve tried to be vague regarding Auri and Temerant in this review, because I really want someone unfamiliar with the Kingkiller Chronicles to read A Slow Regard of Silent Things and tell me if I’m wrong.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 capturing the audience with 0 dialogue, +1 characterization of Auri through inanimate objects

Penalties: -1 for limiting audience with Author’s Foreword

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "very high quality and standout in its category"


Reference: Rothfuss, Patrick. A Slow Regard of Silent Things [DAW, 2014]

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

This week Pinnacle Entertainment Group launched a Kickstarter for a Sixth Gun RPG!  Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt and  RPG author Scott Woodard teamed up to bring us this adventure that includes new comic content.  I can't wait to get my gaming group together and embark on a quest for the six guns!  It has already funded and smashed through three stretch goals at the time I wrote this.  My hope is they will unlock all of the stretch goals and add some new ones!  It also includes some amazing miniatures that I would love to add to my collection.  Check it out here.

Pick of the Week:
Chew #49 - (Chew has its own Kickstarter worth checking out too!)  The master plan has been unveiled and I have learned to trust John Layman.  That will ultimately lead to my demise, but decisions I questioned in regards to this series is setting up an epic conclusion.  The Collector may be the most formidable villain that has ever graced the pages of a comic book.  If he existed with other superheros and villains, they would likely have to team up to take him down and the movie rights would sell for millions.  In this world, the only one who was capable of taking him down, Poyo, was tragically killed a few issues back.  At the time I questioned it and wished a plague of Mega Blocks upon Layman.   After this issue, I have learned that Layman knows what he is doing and would make a bang up spiritual guide.  Guide us oh wise Layman!

The Rest:
The Infinity Gauntlet #1 - Quick background.  Secret Wars has given birth to Battleworld, a world comprised of fragments from worlds that no longer exist.  This story begins in one of those fragments, a world that was overcome by enormous bugs.  While the setting isn't too important, it serves as a nice backdrop.  While I haven't been enjoying this event, as a fan of the original Infinity Gauntlet, I wanted to give it a try.  Of the Secret Wars books, this is by far my favorite.  Gerry Duggan and Dustin Weaver tease us with the first Infinity Stone and I am very excited where this will lead.

Old Man Logan #1 - I guess I am now starting to see the value of Secret Wars.  Bringing in these fragmented worlds from the past is fun to revisit.  If they can manage to link them together cohesively I will be very impressed.  It was fun to revisit Old Man Logan and see what this grumpy cowboy is up to.  He has been  busy, taking care of Danielle Cage and attempting to maintain peace among the area gangs.  Things change when he finds the head of an Ultron in what must be the link that will bring him to join the others on Battleworld.

Fight Club 2 #1 - 19 years after the groundbreaking novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club has returned.  The comic, penned by Palahniuk, is a true sequel to the book.  10 years after the failure of Project Mayhem, we rejoin our troubled narrator as he attempts to live a normal life.  Amidst his failing marriage, his son who is building bombs, and his drug addiction, he sees flashes of Tyler Durden.  I am not sure what to think after the first issue, but I will most likely check out the next to see how the story progresses.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Microreview [TV] : Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2015)

The winner of the 2005 Hugo for Best Novel and described by Neil Gaiman as "the finest work of English fantasy written in the past 70 years", Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was a runaway success when it was published a decade ago, and continues to captivate new readers today. A complex yet vivid depiction of an alternate Georgian Britain where real magic exists, Clarke's debut found itself a happy recipient of the post-Potter hunger for fantasy literature, and in this case enormously-deservedly. Not just an enjoyable and absorbing tale, but one told with such a wide understanding of the era and the literature of the time as well, in a voice morphing between Austen and Dickens.

A filmed adaptation had been in the works for a while, but I found myself surprised to see it on British telly so quickly (America must wait a couple more weeks) and more so, this successfully. The author wrote in the Guardian newspaper about how visiting the set during filming became unnerving as characters from her story walked around in front of her, and that is how it feels watching them all now.

If you don't know the plot outline then that's what Wikipedia for, and nor do I want to give away spoilers, so I will stick to what worked and what didn't. I recommend however just jumping straight in and research no more beforehand.

First up, the set design and sound and lighting are superb. Some scenes feel very slick and soft but actually it connects you to what could otherwise be distancing historical landscapes, and for something shot with a relatively limited budget, it looks grand and epic in scale. The effects are more, well, effective, too.

Secondly the acting is some of the most enjoyable and confident I have seen on television in a while. The first two episodes are all that have been shown of series so far but if some of the cast don't win come awards season. Eddie Marsan is my standout as Norrell - a seasoned actor yet one who seems tireless in his originality. Enzo Cilenri glowers powerfully yet wittily as his manservant Childermass, and Marc Warren captivates the lens (and the sound mix) with his mythical faerie. In fact, unlike most costume dramas (and this falls into that camp from a casting point of view at least) there isn't a bum note there. 

Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange

Finally, we must come back to the big triumph of the series so far - to adapt a novel without losing its heart and flavour. The script writer has done excellent work on Wallender (the UK version) and saved with great dialogue a tricky Doctor Who ep, and plenty more besides, and it is pleasing to see the ongoing high standard of work by director Toby Hayes who has done some decent Who episodes and began one of my favourite recent series Being Human. Both they and the whole crew do superb work, taking something that could have frankly become a laughable mess and make that rare thing - a literary adaptation that stands on its own.

So, it may not to be everyone's tastes - its fantasy may put off history and costume drama fans, and its long scenes of 19th century nobles pontificating in pretentious ways about 'society' may put off spec-fi fans. But if you enjoyed the book I can't see you disliking this abridged film version (... well, maybe let's see how they manage the ending first, perhaps...), and if the story means nothing to you, you'll be hopefully swept along away. I just hope North America can handle those Yorkshire accents...

The Math

Baseline Assessment : 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for surprisingly decent CGI for a BBC production; +1 for frequent humour within the intensity

Penalties : -1 for an awkward first episode that lurches a little between the various plot lines 

Nerd Coefficent : 9/10 'very high quality and standout in its category'

Written by English Scribbler, failed street magician and NOAF contributor since 2013

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: A Song Called Youth by John Shirley (1985-2012)

Today we present the first guest dossier, which comes to us from Jason McGregor--a longtime science fiction reader whose special interests include first-wave cyberpunk. He doesn't often review novels, though he does review short fiction for Tangent Online.

Dossier: Shirley, John. Eclipse [Questar, 1985], Eclipse Penumbra [Questar, 1988], Eclipse Corona [Questar, 1990]; revised as A Song Called Youth [Prime, 2012].

Filetype: Book(s).

File Under: Cyberpunk.

Executive Summary: In the original version (all that will be discussed here), it is 2020 and the Soviet Union has invaded Europe, but has stalled and been pushed back in a conventional war. In the chaos that follows, a right-wing "police organization," the "Second Alliance" (SA) has risen to power in Europe. This is the story of the opposition of the "New Resistance" (NR) to this new world order.

In a way, the key to the story is given in two passages. In the first, Dr. Rimpler describes the "web of conceptions" people build as they age through which they convince themselves their options are limited. In the second, Hard-Eyes names Rickenharp's song "Youth": the rebellion of the unlimited.

High-Tech: Given that this is partly a (very strange and unusual) form of military SF, there is natually some military tech, ranging from drones to Jaegernauts (giant tank-like vehicles) to gene-specific bioweapons. Given that it's cyberpunk, there is naturally some invasive, paranoia-inducing, and/or computer tech, ranging from memory reading/extraction/erasure (on to full mind control, unsurprisingly) through biometric clothes, full ID database systems, cerebral/cybernetic interfaces, and "the Grid" or a sort of SuperWeb. Given that it's Shirley, the Grid takes on mystical, metaphysical properties (the Entelechy) and there are also new drugs, "dick tinglers," and a remarkably prescient anticipation of FOX News (here called Worldtalk, which exercises some of the available mind control techniques on its employees). Despite it being Shirley and cyberpunk, a significant chunk of it is also set on a space station (FirStep) which many people struggle to control at one time or another.

Low-Life: Virtually everyone in this trilogy is a low-life in one of two ways. Either they are thieves, drug addicts, perverts, and/or killers, or they're the bad guys. Which is to say, those thieves, drug addicts, perverts, and/or killers who are also rich genocidal fascists who try to control the world. Smoke is a sometimes crazy NR recruiter, Hard-Eyes is a sometimes kinky NR recruit who becomes pretty good at killing people, Dr. Rimpler is a kinky guy whose daughter turns out to be pretty omnisexual. Rickenharp enjoys the occasional illicit substance and becomes almost as handy with a gun as with his guitar. Rick Crandall is a neo-nazi preacher and Ellen Mae is his equally wholesome sister while Watson and Sackville-West are spiritual kin to Himmler, Goebbels, et al. And there are the triple-mohawked techniki who speak in their own hyper-compressed dialect and numerous double and triple agents. And those are just a handful from the larger rogues gallery of just the first book.

Dark Times: As mentioned in the Summary, a Soviet invasion has stalled. Europe is controlled by militaristic fascist thugs whose plans for the new world order have only just begun. Groups larger than a couple of people are spied upon with drones, the media brainwashes the masses generally while mind manipulation techniques can brainwash on a more targeted level. Weaponry has advanced on a simple bloodbath-in-the-fields level and weapons of mass-destruction both old-fashioned and around-the-corner are in play. Poverty, hunger, destruction, and death abound.

These are indeed dark times. Every book, after all, includes "eclipse" in the title, which is explained to a child preacher (and us) by our friendly neo-nazi in terms that recall Goebbels explaining how to get the people to do their leaders' bidding: "You see, the war works in our favor merely by being there. It acts as a kind of... a kind of eclipse that blocks out basic values, conventional morality, leaves people open to consider extremes they wouldn't consider any other time..."

Legacy: It is difficult with Shirley in general, and with this sequence in particular, to accurately assess its legacy. Shirley never seems to have had the impact of a Gibson on mass-consciousness but is an influencer of the influencers, so to speak. However well- or little-known, it is probably Shirley's best known work and certainly merits being widely known.

In Retrospect: A Soviet invasion in 2020 may sound incredibly dated but it's not at all. Shirley began this in 1985 and, by the end of the trilogy, the beginnings of perestroika and glasnost had already caught up to the series. Shirley simply projected a hardliner reaction to that movement. History has shown that, while he missed the actual collapse of the "Soviet Union," he also foresaw the rise of the "neo-Soviet" Russia that has invaded and annexed the Crimea and is currently at work in the Ukraine. He accurately describes how war can lead to an eclipse of basic values, such as Americans complacently allowing their fellow citizens to be spied on or executed without trial today. He foresaw (or just saw) the rising profile of the neo-nazi and radical right movements in Europe.

In many ways, this is quintessential cyberpunk but, in many ways, Shirley (as he so often does) blazes his own trail. Unlike the stereotypical image of cyberpunk, he sets this story in Europe rather than Asia; focuses on military more than corporate matters; and has a space presence in addition to a ground-based computer focus. Aficionados of cyberpunk will find much to like while people tired of the "same old same old" will find much that is fresh.

There is also a welcome focus on exercise of state and military power, though the state has essentially abdicated power and authority to the fascistic Second Alliance Security Corporation (SA). This marks the trilogy as unique among first-wave cyberpunk novels, most of which focus on small groups of individuals finding "space" in societies dominated by megacorporations. This trilogy deals instead with individuals banding together to fight back against an oppressive state and the nexus of military and corporate interests that control it.

This is not a story for the sexually uptight, the pacifist, or the fascist, as Shirley revels in sexual kinks, ultraviolence, and freedom. It is a tale of sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, and mass destruction. (It should be noted that, while this work is drenched in violence, it is never glorified for its own sake and the costs are shown in great detail and with great pathos--but it is also seen as sometimes necessary and is also used for full dramatic purpose.) It is an uncommonly gripping, tangible, and compelling read whose magnificent first book (in which he attempts an ending so daring and bold that it's a miracle he pulls it off) provides enough velocity to carry one through the still good, but increasingly haphazard, final two installments.

Finally, as mentioned, there are two versions of this: the original, which I'm familiar with, and the 2012 version I'm not familiar with. There is much that is "dated" here in a superficial sense but it all still works in a thematic sense so I don't know that the revision was truly necessary but perhaps it preserves all the excellence of the original while updating details. Also note that three (at least) stories (and those among his best) are incorporated into this including, fittingly enough, "The Incorporated" and "Freezone" in Eclipse (though the latter is actually extracted from the book rather than incorporated into it) and "Parakeet" in Eclipse Penumbra.


The first book is a 5 both then and now, but the trilogy average is given below.

For its time: 4/5.
Read today: 4/5.
Cybercoefficient: 8/10.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Microreview [book/movie combo]: The Man Who Fell to Earth

How to adapt a sci-fi novel? Add rock stars. And sex. So much sex.


Walter Tevis' brief 1963 novel is a heartbreaking examination of self-doubt. In it, an alien calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton lands his spaceship in a remote field in Kentucky with a mission and a sheaf of papers containing specifications for scientific breakthroughs unheard of on this planet. The scientific ideas he turns into patents, which he turns into an extremely profitable company called World Enterprises, which he uses to fund his mission. Pretty smart.

Seemingly the one person out there in the general public who catches on that all this technology coming out of this new company may be alien in nature is a heavy-drinking, burnt-out college chemistry professor named Nathan Bryce. Even the lawyer Farnsworth who helped Newton set up World Enterprises and runs the day-to-day operations doesn't have the same inklings Bryce develops regarding the reclusive Newton. So Bryce seeks Newton out and manages to talk his way into a job at World Enterprises. This new success leads Bryce to put the bottle down, and re-commit himself to chemistry.

But Newton finds himself in very different mental, emotional, and spiritual circumstances. After an unfortunate run-in with Earth's gravity leaves him convalescing, Newton befriends his de facto nursemaid, Betty Jo, who happens to be a Scotch-addled souse. His home planet of Anthea (the native name for either Mars or Venus) is a wasteland after global wars reduced the population to only a few hundred survivors, and it is Newton's responsibility to develop a space-going ferry to bring them to Earth. The stress upon him is tremendous, as is his profound loneliness, so the introduction of wine and Scotch whiskey come as a welcome diversion and sedative, but his increasing dependence on them threaten the success of his mission.

Walter Tevis himself was descending into alcoholism as he wrote the book. Although, as he discussed in interviews years later, he seems to have not realized it at the time. It's stunning, then, how the writerly part of his brain fundamentally understood and could successfully transpose onto the narrative ideas and experiences Tevis' conscious mind was keeping at arms' length. As much as this book is about alcoholism — and it is — it seems more fundamentally about failure. In the book, alcohol is the medicine that failures self-prescribe to forget their disappointment at having not become what they felt they might have if...whatever happened to them hadn't. 

Despite a relatively slight page count, this is an engrossing book unafraid of very big questions. Beyond failure, beyond alcohol, friendship and loneliness, it also seems resigned to the fact that we'll one day blow ourselves up and wipe ourselves out. There's some thematic overlap with Nevil Shute's On the Beach, and I found myself having a similar reaction to The Man Who Fell to Earth.


Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth has a troubled history, with the film's American distributor chopping some 20+ minutes out of the movie for its initial release because he apparently didn't understand it. But Criterion has released the full version in a characteristically wonderful edition with a bunch of wonderful special features.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of the most interesting book-to-film adaptations I've come across because it is actually quite a faithful adaptation, but very quiet about it. Roeg doesn't spend a lot of time explaining what's going on, but communicates the story with true visual mastery. It is a true testament to how much the oft-quoted mantra "show, don't tell" can really accomplish. It's also easy to see, however, how someone might find themselves utterly baffled by what's going on in this movie. 

One thing that is going on, without a doubt, is gettin'-it-on. The source material is almost entirely asexual. Newton is essentially sexless, Bryce is too old to be interested in sex, and Betty Jo is presented as dumpy and matronly. Boy, not the movie, though. David Bowie has rock star magnetism to burn, Betty Jo becomes the lithe and oft-naked Mary-Lou, who introduces Newton to a helluva lot more than just alcohol, and the aged Bryce is reimagined by Rip Torn as a student-shagging professor who only seeks out World Enterprises after it becomes clear his exploits will likely cost him his spot at the university.

But like Tevis' Cuban Missle Crisis-adjacent book, Roeg's film is one for its time. The sexual revolution had happened and TV had proliferated, so Roeg's version of T.J. Newton simply has more options at hand when it comes to losing himself. 

In the end, both versions stand alone as engrossing works taken on their own terms. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the way each telling uniquely captures its time; +1 for the character of T.J. Newton, and the ways in which his trial of pretending to be something he isn't remains moving in both tellings 

Penalties: -1 for the total lack of outside scrutiny World Enterprises receives until very late in the proceedings

Nerd/Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attentions.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

I think I am in the denial phase right now.  I don't want to confront the fact that a lot of books that I care about either just ended (Ghosted) or are racing to its conclusion faster than I wound prefer (Mind MGMT, Sixth Gun, Fables).  As I reflect on these series and Locke and Key, possibly my favorite series of all time, I wonder how much value is there having a defined beginning, middle, and end to a series.  I think having a finite number of books in which to tell a story forces the creators to be more mindful with their decisions and efficient in their storytelling.  While it is going to be hard to say goodbye to some friends this summer, at least we'll always have the memories.  Hopefully some deluxe trades as well.

Pick of the Week:

Ghosted #20 - It is with mixed feelings that Ghosted came to an end this week.  It felt right, made me feel happy for Jackson, and inspired me to revisit this series from its first issue.  It also concluded with a heartfelt letter from creator Joshua Williamson.  It is easy to assume that writers we look up to have an easy life and a dream job.  Who doesn't want to write comics for a living?  Williamson pulled back the curtain on his own life and we learned that Ghosted was a reflection of some demons he was dealing with in his own life.  I don't know if he had this conclusion figured out when he originally pitched the story, but it seems fitting given the direction Williamson appears to be headed in this industry.  Close the door on a story with a rough start, and begin a new journey with endless possibilities.  May Jackson Winters resist the temptation to abuse the power of his new role and may Joshua Williamson continue to write amazing stories for his new and larger audience.  Congratulations on an amazing run with Ghosted.   

The Rest:
Mind MGMT #33 -  Meru has her team assembled and just got the advice of a master strategist trained in the Mind MGMT ways.  The final assault is here and it looks like Meru has a fighting chance.  It was thrilling to read the squad break down different lines of defense, but the highlight was Meru seeing her foster parents one last time.  Curse you Matt Kindt for putting something like this in a book that reads like a summer blockbuster.  Speaking of which, when is the Mind MGMT coming out?  I would watch it.  It is both sad and thrilling to see this epic story work its way to the grand finale.  I am worried Henry won't survive.  I have good feelings about Meru.

Daredevil #15.1 - After discussing two amazing books that are ending soon, we move to a new leaping on point for Daredevil.  Waid shares his storytelling role in this one-shot that includes a few stories from Daredevil's past.  If you have been wanting to hop on the Daredevil bandwagon this would be a nice start.  It provides a good retrospective of the man with no fear.

Star Wars #5 - When I first heard that Boba Fett was going to get his own movie I had mixed feelings.  He is without a doubt one of the most iconic characters in Star Wars, but he is such an unknown.  After reading this issue, assuming the movie can be as good, I am all about a Boba Fett flick.  After being hired by Darth Vader, Fett has tracked Luke to Tatooine and isn't pulling any, and I mean any, punches in finding out the information he needs.  Just when things really pick up we are left to wait until the next issue for the confrontation.  Well done Marvel.  Well done.

Skylanders #9 - The first major arc of this series reached it conclusion in a satisfactory manner.  I am a big fan of redemption, particularly in books my son reads, and the notion that characters make mistakes and can be forgiven for past transgressions.  That was the theme in this issue and I appreciate characters that have depth and serve as good talking points to kids.  Not my favorite all-ages book, but one I highly recommend if your child plays Skylanders.  If you are an adult who enjoys the game (I'm talking to you!) then you will enjoy this series as well.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

An exciting new silkpunk fantasy...

The Grace of Kings (Book 1 of the Dandelion Dynasty) opens in as exciting a manner as imaginable. The young and reckless Kuni Garu--one of the heroes of the tale--goes to an Imperial Procession held to memorialize Emperor Mapidere's unification of the kingdoms of Dara. While there, Kuni witnesses a bold assassination attempt on Emperor Mapidere. A man, riding a battle kite (yes, a battle kite!), suddenly dives at the Throne Pagoda and launches a ball of fire at the emperor. The quick thinking of the Captain of the Guards saves the emperor, and after a few more failed attempts punctuated by brilliant theatrics, the would-be assassin flies off toward the city of Zudi. This assassination attempt leaves an indelible impression on the young Kuni Garu, who would later play a central role in the re-unification of Dara archipelago.

The true story, however, begins years later, with the death of Emperor Mapidere. In the wake of Mapidere's death, palace treachery causes the empire to split up. In this tumultuous period, two young men quickly assume the leadership of a broader rebellion: Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu. Both men are polar opposites. Mata Zyndu is a man bred to rule. The proud son of a deposed duke, he holds static notions that rulership is best left to the "legitimate" old nobility. And he emerges as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, blessed with martial valor by the gods themselves. Standing side-by-side with Mata Zyndu, however, is the rather unlikely character of Kuni Garu. Born with no noble ties, Kuni Garu is a restless commoner ne'er do well, one who has dreams of greatness to be gained through his charm and wit. The relationship between Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu holds the key to the future of the entire land of Dara. 

The Grace of Kings is Ken Liu's attempt to retell the rise of the Han Dynasty in China in epic fantasy form. Liu takes as his inspiration not only the history of the Han dynasty (as told through the Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian), but also such classics as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He builds off such major themes from Romance as virtue versus vanity, nobility versus cruelty in unique and interesting ways. But Liu looks far beyond historical China for inspiration. Although Dara is based off Han dynasty China, The Grace of Kings features in equal part influences from Greek and Roman epic poetry and theater traditions. The storytelling often brought to mind Homer's Iliad, and the plays of Aeschylus. The gods in the Dandelion Dynasty serve as members of a Aeschylean Greek Chorus (minus the dancing and singing, of course), and help to highlight the tragic elements in the story and to reinforce the novel's emotional mood. And the gods do not refrain from covertly aiding their champions, whenever possible.   

In many ways, The Grace of Kings delivers in grand form: it is intelligent and engaging from start to finish. Liu writes with a crisp and engrossing prose. He creates a wonderful cast of characters, some of whom are defined by a decidedly mercurial nature. Both Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu change with the political life of the times, and are impacted not only by their own values and mores, but also by the actions by others. It is this continuing, shifting character development that kept my avid interest throughout the entire volume. 

What Liu does with extraordinary verve is to show the morally debilitating impact of power. The Grace of Kings, after all, is a story about power. Quests for power bring young men like Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu (and in some cases, women) together in the bonds of friendship. Assumption of power, however, proves divisive, disruptive, and destructive. Once power is gained, erstwhile friends find themselves divided by ideals, by mistrust, and by divergent philosophies of governance. Some of the most interesting sections of the novel deal with reflections on the use of power, as when Kuni Garu reflects on the "tyranny" of Emperor Mapidere.  

Despite the novel's distinct strengths, however, I ended up with mixed feelings. This is why it has taken me so long to upload this review! Granted, it is beautifully written, and Liu has done a wonderful job of marrying the Romance of the Three Kingdoms with the classical  traditions of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. But the major issue for me was its focus on a much more expansive cast of characters than what felt necessary. Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu were the only major characters around for the entire tale. Numerous other characters made brief cameos, told their tales, gave their biographies, faced a difficult choice, then faded away from the story only to be replaced by the next cameo role. To give but one example, the Kikomi story provided a wonderful narrative arc on virtue versus vanity, but did it add anything that couldn't have been told in the main story line? I wonder. Granted, including a huge cast of narrative arcs (like Kikomi's) is very much in the tradition of the epic poems and epic tales that Liu used for inspiration. So although this is not a weakness in his writing style, it kept rubbing me the wrong way. The true irony here is that what I love about the concept (the marriage of epic fantasy with historical epics) ended up as a distraction for me. I wanted to like the execution of the story more than I actually did.    

Still, this doesn't take away from Ken Liu's achievements. The Grace of Kings is an intelligent and engaging retelling of the rise of Han dynasty China. And it feels both old and new at the same time. With The Dandelion Dynasty, Liu has crafted a promising new silkpunk fantasy that I would recommend without reservation.

The Math 

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the wonderful melding of Greek, Roman, and Chinese literary traditions.

Penalties: -2 for the successive narrative arcs of characters who "arrived," told their stories, and faded away...

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

POSTED BY: Jemmy, a SF/F fanatic, a failed wall gazer, and a Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Microreview [book]: All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

An alternate history of science fiction...

All That Outer Space Allows is the fourth and final installment in the Apollo Quartet, Sales' series of speculative novellas--each of which rests, as the name implies, on an alternate history of the U.S. Apollo program. I'm a big fan of the series, and think Adrift of the Sea of Rains and The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself in particular embody a science fictional ethic that is increasingly rare in this age of "exhaustion."  I found the third installment, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, a bit uneven in comparison--pairing, as it does, a compelling tale of female test fighter pilots facing institutional barriers to the astronaut program to an entertaining but poorly connected narrative about deep sea exploration. So I was curious to see how (or perhaps more accurately "if") Sales would tie the series together in the penultimate volume.

All That Outer Space Allows tells the story of Virginia "Ginny" Eckhardt, the fictional wife of fictional astronaut Walden Eckhadt, and a moderately well-known science fiction author. The alternate historical conceit is that science fiction is a literary space reserved for women, and a mode of escape for housewives laboring under the sexist mores of American society in the 1960s--thus playing a similar role to romance literature in our world. The narrative begins at Edwards Air Force Base, where Walden is a test pilot trying to gain entrance to the prestigious astronaut program; after he is accepted, the couple move to Houston, where Ginny is inducted into the Astronauts' Wives Club (now subject of a network television series), thus becomes something of a public figure. The new role subjects her to intense social pressure--to be a model housewife and to thereby reflect well on the program and, hopefully, increase Walden's chances of being assigned to one of the upcoming Apollo missions. But the pressure, and Walden's increasing absence, make it increasingly difficult for Ginny to write. So she decides to learn first-hand about the Apollo program, in the hopes that this will provide the creative spark she needs to revive her writing career.

Throughout the traditional third-person narrative, Sales interjects anecdotal commentary--written in such a way as to suggest the editorializing of a historian, but which is in actuality an equally fictional narrative about "V. G. Parker" (i.e. Ginny Eckhardt) navigating the institutional sexism of SF as it actually existed in the 1960s. The main narrative and this "annotational" one come together in the story attributed to Eckhardt/Parker, "The Spaceships Men Don't See," whose "housewife heroines" and mild explorations of sexism in the astronaut program are said to provoke a negative (and realistic) response from the male readership of Galaxy. Sales presents the story within the text, a literary trope dating back to Hamlet, and which serves to literalize Ginny's frustration at how the subservient position ascribed to women shackles her dreams.  

Given this formal and thematic complexity, I think it's fair to say that All That Outer Space Allows is the most ambitious entry in the Apollo Quartet. It is also significant for its commentary on the field of science fiction. As a critic and fan writer, Sales has dedicated himself to recording the "secret" history of female-authored SF, and to bring attention to the many unrecognized, underappreciated and out-of-print female-authored SF novels published over the past century. All That Outer Space Allows is, fundamentally, an attempt to explore this history through fictional device, and it by and large succeeds. Ginny is an strong, well-realized character, and Sales does a great job evoking period and place--reflecting a meticulous level of research. There are, of course, some moments when it's clear that the author is not American--Ginny referring to the family vehicle as "the Impala" rather than "the car," as Americans would when there is only one to choose from, or the narrator referring to Ginny as having "finished her toilet"--a phrase that doesn't make sense in American colloquial English. But these are relatively infrequent; at most points one forgets that Sales is British. 

I've gone back and forth on the breaking of the fourth wall, however. Initially I found it distracting, but at some points it seemed to work beautifully. In the end, though, the cost of shattering perspective is just too high. Formally, I think I would have preferred the commentary to come in the form of footnotes, as one might find in an academic edition of a novel. That would allow the reader to choose between reading the text on its own or shifting to the notes as they come up--an arrangement that would also, I might add, incentivize re-reading. Moreover, at times the "annotational" narrative is too blunt a tool, hammering in messages that are already clear in Ginny's story. At the same time, I do appreciate the experimentation, and found both the "annotational" narrative and story-within-a-story to be worthwhile endeavors. I'm just unconvinced by the mode of presentation. 

Taken together, this marks All That Outer Space Allows as the most difficult volume of the Apollo Quartet to quantify. It is absorbing and undeniably powerful, and takes risks that I wish I encountered more frequently in the genre. But the biggest risk, at least as far as I'm concerned, doesn't quite pan out. Perhaps it's a testament to the things this novella does well that I nevertheless recommend it in the strongest possible terms.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for general sophistication; +1 for writing "hard" social science fiction.

Penalties: -1 for breaking perspective with in-line annotations when footnotes would have been better; -1 for making an obvious message a little too obvious.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

Read about our scoring system here.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator
Reference: Sales, Ian. All That Outer Space Allows [Whippelshield Books, 2015]

Monday, May 18, 2015

Microreview [book]: Jinn and Juice by Nicole Peeler

Add one part urban fantasy to one part paranormal romance. Stir well. Serve over ice.

I will admit to being drawn to this book because of the alcohol pun on the cover. And make no mistake, the characters in this book certainly know how to drink (really expensive booze), so I was not disappointed. Nor was I disappointed in the premise, that a thousand-year-old human-turned-jinni named Lyla who works as a dancer at the world's coolest burlesque club gets drawn into some dangerous and dramatic intrigue just as the curse that turned her into a jinni is set to expire. Of course, the curse is only lifted if she can manage to stay un-Bound when the curse expires.

On the surface this is a story that seems...problematic at best. Most of the conflict, after all, centers around the fact that Lyla can and does become enslaved by a Magi, a special kind of human who are the paper to the Jinn's rock. However, the book does take a lot of care to take a story-line fraught with consent issues and...actually deal with consent in an open and forthright manner. With a very diverse cast of characters and a story that provides plenty of action and huge stakes, the book managed to succeed in convincing me, at least, that it could deal with sexuality, consent, and attraction in a way that, while not perfect, was still much better than most paranormal romances I've read.

And I suppose I should talk about genre a little bit here. Jinn and Juice is obviously playing with genre in a lot of ways. Just look at the cover. I look at that and I don't know what to think. The color and title make me think paranormal romance. But the image leans a bit more urban fantasy (ASIDE: UF works tend to feature women on the covers while PR works tend to focus more on men but appealing to the female gaze. The general message being that PR books are more about the man as sexual creature and the UF books more about the woman as an active and sexy badass. Obviously this is just my impression, and based solely on my own reading experiences, but it is what I've observed). What's inside is a nice blend of the two (and here I would say that most UF and PR books are blends of similar plot elements and tropes but this book seems more consciously a blend). There is the focus on the relationship between Lyla and the man who effectively enslaves her, Oz, and yet there is no sex. Yes, the book subverts expectations enough to have a book that features a woman who works as a dancer in a burlesque club not having any sex while being completely sex positive. Not to say there is no sexual tension (there is plenty), but the book does more than pay lip service (absolutely no pun intended) to consent (okay, maybe a little pun intended).

And the cast, as said, is quite diverse. Aside from Lyla herself, who is from the Middle East of a thousand years ago, there is an entire cast of great characters who make up the rest of the staff at Purgatory, the burlesque where Lyla works. Not that all of the depictions completely escape feeling a bit cliche, but I think that at the very least a great deal of care was put into the depictions of the characters and I think the author did a good job of making them all complicated, giving them all more than just a surface coat. The world building is also very well done, revealing a world with paranormal forces boiling just below the surface. There is a unique and clever use of setting with Pittsburgh, and while there isn't a great sense of the place beyond a few locations, there is definitely a sense of its mood, its presence. I might not really know what the place looks like, but the book does show how it might feel to have an enormous source of tainted magic coursing through the rivers and streets.

The story, too, has its moments. There is a nice mystery to the whole affair, and though Oz comes across as a bit impossible at times, he at least is not shown to be always right, always the one saving the day. Lyla is still the most active agent, and though she is helped by her friends and by Oz, the book takes care to have her retain her agency. Of course, the villains of the book are a little...obvious and while some attempt was made to give at least one of them a little depth, mostly they are cardboard cutout villains, bad guys who are angry and lashing out and not really willing to listen to reason at all. So that aspect of the book was rather a let down, having Lyla and Oz's complicated relationship pick up the slack.

And in the end I think that the book mostly succeeds at being fun while trying to be more diverse and subversive. Certainly it's better than most of the paranormal romances I've read in how it treats consent and sex and attraction. And the setting and world building are solid and there is a lot to enjoy about the story. At the same time, while it subverts the Master/slave dynamic that make a great many paranormal romances incredibly problematic, I was still uncomfortable at times with the set up. Yes, Oz is a "good" guy. He doesn't use his power for sex or abuse. But the story can still be read that he should be rewarded (with Lyla) for being "good." And there really should be no expectation of reward for that good behavior. So it's not quite as subversive as it could be. Still, it does manage to do a lot right and it was quite fun to read (also, I love all the drinking that goes on). So that's something. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for managing an artful mix of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, +1 for dealing with consent in an open manner

Negatives: -1 for some rather flat villains

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "A mostly enjoyable experience"
(check out our scoring system to see why a 7/10 is quite good indeed)

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: Peeler, Nicole. Jinn and Juice [Orbit, 2015]

Friday, May 15, 2015

AiIP: Let's Talk

Grab a seat. We need to talk. It's about something I usually avoid talking about, for a variety of reasons. But it's something that should be addressed, so we're going to talk about it.

First, though, story time. This is a third hand story, so take it with appropriate grains of salt and/or the spice of your choice.

Back before 3024AD came out, I was talking to a co-worker at that time, telling him about my goals. He related the story of a relative who wrote a book, and was offered a book deal with a solid five-figure advance- on the condition that the protagonist was male- not female, as she had written. She refused, and her book remains unpublished.

For a lot of people, for a five-figure advance, they would change their main character to a cucumber. Hell, if you've sent off fifty or sixty queries, you might do it for a whole lot less than that.

There is a lot to be said about the cons of self-publishing- I've covered a ton here, and on ye olde Deanfortythree(e) blog- editing issues, cover art, overall stories- but there are some definite pros, and this is one of them.

Hear Cap's immortal line "I'm always picking up after myself!"
Because- for whatever reason- there is a fantastic lack of diversity in publishing. The optimist in me (he's in there, I promise) wants to think this is unintentional, just coincidence, but... come on. People will talk about how we should read more diverse authors (correctly), but walk into a bookstore and grab one hundred random books. How many are written by non-straight-white-men? Twenty? Maybe forty if you grabbed a bunch from the romance section? The problem lies higher up than the reader, or the bookstore. It lies with publishers who select what gets published, what gets marketed and how much. The ones who decide that, no, that protagonist just won't sell.

But if you're publishing your own work (or working with a smaller press), you don't answer to those people. You answer to yourself, and to your readers. You can write what-who-ever the hell you want.

Because, here's the thing: I'm a straight(ish) white dude. I'm kind of (totally) in the majority here. But I can't change that, and I'm not going to stop writing, either, so what can I do? The same thing anyone can- write something. Write something diverse, something other than the same thing that's been written for a looooong ass time.

I'm probably not perfect at this, but I doubt there's a perfect formula at all. Stories and books will lose a lot if all you worry about if the literary equivalent of affirmative action. But stories will gain much more if authors take a few moments and make their characters more diverse. It will make for richer backgrounds, deeper characters and better books.

And no one will tell you to change it.


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. 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.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

This past week I got The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past graphic novel in the mail that I forgot I preorderd.  It is a beautiful collection of a 1992 manga that I am looking forward to reading soon.  When I begin to question the influence I have on my two kids, Henry and Zelda, I need look no further.  Henry is in first grade and has to read 30 minutes independently each week.  I can't help but wonder how she is going to react that Henry read an old Zelda comic this week.  He is really enjoying it and I just hope it is appropriate for an 8 year old to read.  I guess I will find out when he finally lets me have a turn.

Pick of the Week:
The Auteur: Sister Bambi #1 - The Auteur is back and I had no idea how much I missed the insanity Rick Spears pours into each issue.  Following the destruction of President's Day, Nathan T. Rex is desperate to find some funding for his next masterpiece.  Not concerned about where the money comes from, Rex finds himself in the compound of Nazi triplets who want to force Rex to create a Women in Prison Nazi Propaganda film.  Spears crams this follow-up series full of the usual low brow humor, over the top gore, and pure insanity that fans of the first series are sure to enjoy.  Definitely one of the most unique and entertaining comics I have read for some time.  Welcome back old friend.

The Rest:
Darth Vader #5 - Oh what a tease.  It seemed as if we were going to witness Vader in all of his glory with each turn of the page, but we will have to wait until the next issue.  Vader is out to kill anyone he suspects of being his successor.  He quickly learns that Luke isn't the only one who doubts the value of the Force and thinks its nothing more than a hokey old religion.  Apparently the Emperor has enlisted the help of an android who feels progress is the future and the Force is the past.  Very much looking forward to the battle royale that will open the next issue and still enjoying Marvel's handling of Star Wars.

Saga #28 - This issue stressed me out.  As a father it was very stressful to see Hazel taken away and Alana incapable of doing anything.  Why do you do that to us Brian K. Vaughan?   Nothing seems to be going well for anyone I care about in this series.  Marko and his crew are under attack, The Will is dying, and Hazel?!?!  On the positive note, I learned that The Stalk has a brother who is more concerned about raising his family than getting involved with this nonsense.

Secret Wars #2 - I decided to give Marvel's latest Universe changing event one more try and wish I had my $4.99 back.  I will say they packed in enough content to warrant the hefty price, but it just isn't my scene.   The reveal at the end was pretty cool, but it felt like a ploy to launch a new series called Battleworld.  That's right, the duking it out to see what Earth survives is taking place on Battleworld.

Birthright #7 - Very interesting issue of Birthright from Joshua Williamson.  It didn't take itself very serious and some humor was injected along the way as we grapple with the relationship with Mikey (who is possessed) and his brother Brennan.  Things were quite disjointed and surprisingly light until Williamson drops the hammer on the last panel and reminds us that this is a serious tale indeed.   This issue almost felt like a magic trick and at the end we learn that things aren't as easy as they seem.  Good series that warrants starting at the beginning.

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Microreview [film]: 4D Man

Pseudoscience be damned, this is a 50s B-movie worth seeking out

This one's pretty fun.

After the breakout success of The Blob, producer Jack Harris and director Irvin Yeaworth teamed up again the following year for 4D Man. In it, young scientist Tony Nelson is kind of a screw-up, and starts the film by accidentally burning down the whole building his borrowed lab is in while trying to ram a pencil through a block of steel. You know, like you do. Meanwhile, Tony's successful older brother Scott is developing a material even stronger than steel for possible military applications, with the help of scientist Linda Davis (a pre-Batman Lee Meriwether), upon who he's crushing pretty hard. You see where this is all going right?

So now Tony's out of a job, and goes to see his big brother just as Scott perfects his impenetrable metal, which is a huge success for the company he works for. Scott, though, becomes nearly enraged when the head of the company can't even remember his name at the press conference announcing the metal. Poor Scott. Linda's already falling in love with younger, more virile Tony (who's way more into penetrating things), who lets Scott in on his secret ambition to pass one material through another using "amplified brain waves." It's no fun inventing an impenetrable material when your little brother wants to show you can just stick a pencil through it by thinking really hard. But little does anyone know that older brother Scott's brain waves have been permanently altered by his experiments — altered in such a way that allow him to pass through any object using only the power of...his mind! (dun-dun-dun)

There's actually a neat idea at the center of 4D Man, and that idea is change over time, based very, very loosely on the idea of solid-state diffusion. The (totally, totally flawed but, hey, pretty fun!) premise is that given enough time, two objects will sort of melt into each other. In real life, this is true of things like pitch dropping but that may be about all. Nevertheless! Scott discovers that he can pass his body through any material — mailboxes, bank vaults, slutty girls at bars, that kind of thing — but it takes a tremendous temporal toll on him, making him age rapidly. Lucky for him, he also accidentally discovers that by touching other humans — like the aforementioned heavy drinker in a low-cut dress — he can suck the life out of them and replenish his's not clear, exactly. Life force, maybe? What follows is your basic The Invisible Man or The Man With the X-Ray Eyes sort of descent into madness, in which longtime TV actor Robert Lansing does quite a nice job, especially when confronting Lee Meriwether's Dr. Linda Davis.

Stylistically, this movie reminded me a lot of Gog, which I thoroughly enjoyed. 4D Man is less socially aware than that film was, but it does a surprisingly credible job of telling a human story about two brothers who are each a little jealous of the other for different reasons...and the unfortunate and terrible cost of that rivalry when really, really strong brain-waves get involved.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for Lee Meriwether's character being a scientist (a scientist who's maybe a little too eager to help the guys type stuff up, but a female scientist onscreen in the 1950s, nonetheless), +1 for stronger character development and acting than most of its filmic peers

Penalties: -1 for some quite disjointed sequences, like a bizarre cameo from Patty Duke as a little girl who appears to be headed to a Frankenstein-style fate, but then simply disappears from the movie, never to be mentioned again.

Cult Film Coefficient: 7/10, which is actually a little better than you may be thinking.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since before the pitch last dropped.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Microreview [board game]: Kingsport Festival

It is safe to say that the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft has hit a point in mainstream consumerism where you question anything that is using this "hook" to sell a product.  Like the zombie craze, I tend to be a bit skeptical of products that appear to be cashing in on a trend.  It pleases me to say that the theme in Kingsport Festival is not an afterthought and was done with respect to the horrors that H.P. Lovecraft created.

Based on the short story, The Festival (you can read it for free here), players assume the roles of cult leaders and attempt to invoke the powers of the ancient ones and invoke unthinkable horrors in this bizarre celebration of the occult.  In addition to competing over what Gods to invoke and what buildings to occupy, players must deal with the threat of raids and losing their own sanity.  Investigators will periodically lead raids on the villages in an attempt to stop the actions of these cults and players must combat these raids through special abilities and spells.  The game supports 3-5 players and each game lasts just over an hour.  Players must strategically acquire unique spells, occupy specific buildings in town, and balance their ability to maintain sanity and prevent raids over a series of 12 rounds.

Each round takes place through six different phases (turn order, invocation, concession, expansion, raid and time). The breakdown of each round into these phases makes the game accessible and efficient.  Throughout these phases, you will earn a variety of resources from the different Gods in an attempt to harness the power of a variety of buildings.  This provides a worker placement feel, but based on your dice rolls and what Gods you evoke your strategy will change each round.   To me this game shines during rounds in which a raid occurs.  It mixes up the gameplay and adds an additional element of strategy in selecting which buildings to occupy.  The choice in selecting what building to occupy is further enhanced by balancing your needs vs. blocking your opponent's needs.  I feel this game plays best with four players, but has been an enjoyable experience each time it has hit the table.

The components in this game are top notch and the artwork is stunning.  The wooden bits are satisfying to place over the map of town and the cards help immerse you in this horrifying world.  Passport took great care in delivering a game with a high production value that is respectful to the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  My only complaint would be the wooden dice.  While they fit well with the other bits, I prefer my dice to have a bit more heft.

Kingsport Festival is a combination of strategy and the luck of the dice.  This balance makes it accessible to new gamers, but provides enough depth to bring it back to your table for multiple plays.  One of my favorite aspects of this game is how each round is truly unique.  What Gods are at your disposal and what order you are allowed to invoke them changes every round.  Players must think on their feet and be willing to adapt.  If you are an H.P. Lovecraft fan than this is a must own game.  There is something satisfying playing on the same team as Cthulhu.  While I have enjoyed other games playing as an investigator trying to stop the elder gods, it is very satisfying to leverage these gods to invoke unspeakable horrors.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 flipping the script and allowing us to side with the ancient ones.

Penalties: -1 for light wooden dice.

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

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

PERSPECTIVES IV: Death and Video Games

Welcome to Perspectives IV, in which we do something completely different. Okay, a little different. 

Here’s how it works: an editoral, opinion piece or critical essay written by an external blogger, critic, journalist or creative person is presented by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by other regular 'nerds of a feather, flock together' contributors. Crucially, each respondent will also respond to each preceding respondent. This episode's cast o' characters:

brian is a contributor at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together. He loves video games, maybe too much.

Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. 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.

EPISODE 4: In which we contemplate death, video games, and death in video games...
Death is a nearly unavoidable aspect of video gaming, and yet exceptionally rarely given any weight. In this episode of PERSPECTIVES, the Nerd of a Feather, Flock Together respondents take a whack at it in response to "I'm afraid to die in games" by Gita Jackson.

brian’s response

I am a sore loser. My first gaming experience, like many children of the 80’s, was Super Mario Bros., played on the neighbor’s Nintendo. It wasn’t mine, so I never got to spend a lot of dedicated time with it. I’d play it for a life or two, but then I’d have to hand it over. Dying in Mario was never a big deal because I never got very far in it. Not much loss of effort or time.

As I got older, my favorite games were Wolfenstein 3D, Mechwarrior 2, and Doom 2. But by this time my sore loserness was setting in. I couldn’t stand dying in these games, and I wasn’t about to take death lightly. I could defeat these games; I had cheat codes. For several young, impressionable years, my method of gaming was to search for cheat codes on Yahoo, apply cheat codes, play the game on the lowest difficulty, and metaphorically walk from beginning to end. Of course, I’d still participate in the game. I’d shoot the thing that should be shot. Collect the items. Finish the level. Feel like a winner.

When I was much younger, I had almost the opposite reaction of the author. Death in games held no meaning for me. I can’t die. I have all the weapons. I can walk through walls. I can skip levels. I’ve beaten this game because I’ve circumvented the challenge.

I eventually realized that these were hollow victories. I didn’t really accomplish anything. I started to play games on “normal” difficulty, and really enjoy them for the challenge they provided. I had to learn how to actually play video games because I’d been doing it wrong for so long. Nowadays, I forget that cheat codes exist sometimes, not only because they are a thing of the past in the world of video game achievements, but because I don’t want to win that way. I want to earn my victories and accept my defeats.

The lesson death in video games taught me was not that I was a failure when I died, but that time is short. I’m going to die eventually, so I should be happy with what I can accomplish, always try to do better, but never beat myself up for past failures. That’s a metaphor, by the way.

Dean’s Response

Woof, there is a lot to unpack in that article, not the least of which is there are a lot of people who take videogames far more seriously than I do. In fact, I rarely play them. There are several reasons for this, usually that things which are not books, or the creation thereof, rarely manage to hold my attention very long.

There is also the violence/death... thing.

This I find interesting, because in a book with which you may or may not be familiar, one character basically... guts another. This doesn't bother me in the least. Writing it didn't, nor did a very strongly implied torture scene later in the book (I will not include literal depictions of torture in my writing). But during Super Bowl week, two football players played the new Mortal Kombat, and I was out of the room, wondering what kind of monster was entertained by that.

I'm not going to say violence in video games causes violence in real life, but damn if it isn't obvious that is desensitizes people to it (just look at the GamerGate crowd- more than willing to threaten people with despicable acts for little or no reason). There is a lot of carry over from what we are entertained by to the real world, but interestingly in Gita's case, it goes both ways.

Usually we look at video games and say "it makes life cheap, since you kill- and die- over and over and over". But the potential lesson of failure=finality is very interesting. But at the same time, what's to stop you from going back over and over and over until you get it? That's not a good lesson, either, as far as life goes. It's not like you get to screw up infinitely at work and keep your job- nor does one C in a subject the vast majority of humanity despises doom you to minimum wage for eternity.

Now for the Freudian aspect. My dad loves to hunt, and man, would he love for me to hunt. But the whole thing is completely repulsive to me (even though the birds ARE delicious)- I hate killing things, I hate violence, save apparently, for in my own writing.

Besides all of that, what really fascinates (and confuses me) is that I have never understood the point of video games to keep my avatar alive. Death is an accepted part of the journey, and maybe it hurts but (worst analogy ever in 3...2...1…) it’s kind of like working out. Maybe it hurts, but that’s how you’re getting stronger. Your character dies, you learn not to do that and you go back and start at the last save.

I hate failure as much (probably more) than anyone, but living in fear of failure will make for few successes. 


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014.