Monday, November 30, 2015

ComiXology's Cyber Monday Sale

ComiXology has just announced a giant Cyber Monday sale. Buy one/get one free on all DC comics and a ton of quality trades from Marvel, Dark Horse, Image and others for under $5. Details:

Cyber Monday:
DC Comics Buy One, Get One Free Sale - Use promo code DCBOGO at checkout
            • Offer good on all DC Comics and Vertigo titles released digitally before 9/1/15
Dark Horse Sale - 30 trades for $2.99 each
VIZ Sale - 10 volumes for $2.00 off each
Marvel X-Men & The Black Vortex Sale 
Continuing Black Friday Sales:
Image Comics 50% off Sale- Use promo code IMAGE at checkout
Marvel Black Friday Collection Sale
Marvel Spider-Verse Sale
Kodansha 99¢ Black Friday Sale including Attack on Titan Vol 1

Microreview [video game]: GALAK-Z: The Dimensional by 17-Bit

Pressing the Right Buttons (If You're the Right Person)

I didn't finish this game. Let's get this stated right from the start because, to some people, not finishing the game means you can't provide a well-rounded opinion of it. If you're one of those people, please stop reading. I wanted to finish it, I did! But there's a point where timeliness and necessity intersect. Would my opinion change about the game if I put in three times as much time as I already have to get to the end credits? In some cases, sure, but I don't think this is the case with GALAK-Z. It's made for replayability. The gameplay is why it exists, not the story or end goal.

GALAK-Z's influences are extremely obvious, right from the start, and they hit a lot of nostalgia buttons for me. It's a blend of arcade gaming, Macross, Voltron, and some Halo. When it starts, it looks like an arcade cabinet booting up. You control a space ship that can transform into a robot. The levels are all randomly generated, with a randomly selected objective, and they're delivered in groups of five episodes (levels) per season. Each season ends with a boss fight and some story narrative. It's all very Saturday morning TV. Nostalgia is what works best in this game.

What works second best is that replayable gameplay loop. In order to finish each episode, there are enemies and environmental hazards everywhere. This is where the Halo influences come in. It looks like a twin-stick shooter, but your ship is more survivable, and so are the enemies. Movement is extremely important, as you can face, shoot, and move in any direction, but you can also jump over shots and enemies. Enemies are numerous and you will die repeatedly. In "Rogue" difficulty (the default), death means you start the season over. Everything you've found and unlocked is wiped clean, with some minor exceptions.

In a Rogue Legacy twist, there's an item shop between episodes and you can find blueprints, which make upgrades available in that item shop. You can also find permanent upgrades that survive death. There is also a currency that you find by destroying enemies and it can give you either more credit in your next life, or another attempt at an episode you failed. In Rogue difficulty, early levels are spent gathering as many upgrades and credits as you can, because failure means you don't lose much. When you're three or four episodes deep, you get a lot more cautious so that you don't lose an entire season over a bad decision. In "Arcade" difficulty, you don't lose an entire season over death, just the current episode you're on. The difficulty hasn't changed, but the punishment for failure is less harsh.

It's this punishment that brings me to my love/hate relationship with GALAK-Z. I love everything that it's doing. It's nailing a lot of little design stuff in games that I think is great. It's a difficult game, and it's a rewarding game, but it hurts to lose so often. I'm a fairly determined person, who wants to see a game to the end, and I'm not sure I've got what it takes to ever finish GALAK-Z. It doesn't feel like it's unfair or completely random, but I've had seasons end in one dumb move. The levels are short so it's not hard to catch back up, but when I do complete a season, it feels less like I'm doing well, and more like I'm getting lucky. Even the Arcade difficulty isn't much of a saving grace because it means you get to beat your head against the same level over and over until you push through, or give up and start a new run in the hopes that you get better upgrades next time.

I never made it more than 15 minutes into any particular run on Rogue Legacy. By contrast, I've finished almost two seasons of GALAK-Z, out of five. GALAK-Z is a lot of fun, but you have to either be great at it, or a glutton for punishment if you expect to get anywhere. You almost have to love GALAK-Z to want to see it through to the end, or else you might not have the commitment it needs to get you there. It's a well thought-out design that is going to press buttons for the right people, and completely turn off a lot of others.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 great, 80's anime look and feel, +1 perfect controls

Penalties: -3 high punishment for failure necessitates either great skill or long commitment

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


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

Reference: 17-Bit. GALAK-Z: The Dimensional [17-Bit, 2015] 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Microreview [book]: A Prospect of War, by Ian Sales

First-rate space opera "spaction"—a new epic adventure begins!

Sales, Ian. A Prospect of War. Tickety Boo Press Ltd., 2015.

Said book can be bought right here!

Best of all, this space opera is way more interesting than real opera, because there’s just a whole lot more going on with a lot less (practically none, really!) full-throated warbling whilst striking dramatic poses on stage. Seriously, how many operas have you seen? Be honest: you secretly (or perhaps openly!) think opera is pretty dumb, right? But I’ll bet most of you totally like the idea of (outer) space, especially when there’s ships blowing up and people getting impaled on swords and everything!

So how did we get the term ‘space opera’? Space is way cooler than opera. But I don’t want to be a complainer, so I’m here with an alternate suggestion: spaction! That’s exactly what A Prospect of War is: major action, involving spaceships and brief stops on planets and conspiracies against an ancient, seemingly stable empire. Plus, Sales took a hint from Frank Herbert’s brilliant innovation to combine spacefaring civilization with swords: the technological explanation is similar, something along the lines of projectile weapons being ineffective against personal shielding gizmos so all high-class people master the sword.

The most interesting innovation Sales brings to the spaction is the seemingly harsh neo-feudal system in place throughout the enormous empire. Society is stratified into the noble class (hardly any), the yeoman class (an elite few), and proles (the 99%).  The difference between the two elite classes is tiny compared to the rigidly enforced gulf between the proles and the higher-ups. That said, among the epic cast of characters, several yeomen-class figures end up impersonating proletarians, with varying degrees of effectiveness (coaching from a linguist helps one yeo(wo)man temporarily shed her haughty aristocratic speech patterns and accent). It’s fascinating to consider a multi-planet empire that has devolved in its social system to a complicated feudal monarchy, and not necessarily implausible either.

However, it seems to me it would be all too easy for people in such a universe to fake it—both ways (assuming they have the means to acquire a suitable costume). Right from the beginning of the story, it’s so tremendously useful for elites to use the giant world of the underclass that despite their classist distaste for the idea, they keep doing it. Obviously the reverse is a lot more destabilizing to the social order, and there are a few offhand comments by characters suggesting (that they believed) any prole who dared attempt such a revolutionary act would be caught instantly (and it’s an offense punishable by death, which would provide a healthy deterrent for most, to be sure!).

This is by way of saying that the sociopolitical system, while interesting on an intellectual level, sounds a couple of gentle pushes from total systemic collapse (and to be fair, this is the first part of a larger series which will certainly explore the weaknesses of the seemingly eternal empire). Aside from this quasi false note, however, the rest of the story and its characters are quite engaging (though Casimir’s journey to maturity was quite a jerky, abrupt roller coaster), and I’m looking forward to the subsequent installments! To Ian Sales, and in honor of Thanksgiving: I'm thankful for A Prospect of War (which sounds pretty weird unless we all understand it's a book title!).

The Math

Objective assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for rocking the spaction formula

Penalties: -1 for a degree of implausibility in the idea of a neo-feudal space-faring civilization

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 "something pretty awesome this way comes" (see stuff on scoring here).

This message brought to you by Zhaoyun, spaction-lover and reviewer at Nerds of a Feather since 2013. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

 If Dan Brown rebooted HBO’s Rome 

The Shards of Heaven is an alternate history set in Ancient Rome and Egypt (Alexandria), shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar (Et tu Brute?!). It follows Juba, an adopted son of Caesar as he attempts to collect a series of magical objects, called the shards of heaven, to give him the power needed to avenge the death of his father (former King of Numidia). The story also follows the now legendary centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo who are serving Mark Antony in Egypt.

Pullo and Vorenus
The Shards of Heaven truly is a wonderful book. The writing is superb and has the feel of a seasoned veteran. The story is fast-paced and gripping and the imagery is vivid and imaginative. I know there are mixed opinions of Dan Brown’s work, but it’s hard to deny that his books can be impossible to put down and leave you with a sense of wonder for history, artifacts, and travel. This is how The Shards of Heaven made me feel. It also made me miss HBO’s Rome something fierce.

With a few exceptions, character development is on point. Characters appear with a range of external and internal diversity, and even many of the characters that don’t have a POV are still well rounded and multi-faceted. And while we have varying skin tones and personality-types throughout the story, I am left wanting for gender diversity. The lack of an adult female character that speaks is stark, especially with respect to Cleopatra. She speaks briefly in the prologue, to express her indebtedness to a man for saving her child, and does not speak again until roughly half way through the book. On the few occasions where she does speak, it is always regarding her children, except for one time where she says “do this” (not a direct quote). The fact that we don’t have a POV for her is not an excuse. We have no POV for Antony, but still he is built as a lush and vibrant character. Anytime a character muses about Cleopatra, it is always about her beauty or stoicism, and she is seen as the seducer of two Roman generals first, and the Queen of Egypt second. This is very disappointing, because from what I understand Cleopatra was an intelligent and well educated woman. I also understand that it was not her looks that were the most appealing about her, but rather her affect. We get none of this.

Cleopatra and Antony 
Potential lies with Selene, Cleopatra’s 10-year daughter, though we still don't get her voice until about 100 pages in. She is adventurous and independent and makes her own density, despite the limitations presented to her. There is still too much emphasis on her appearance and budding beauty for my taste, but I am excited to read the next book in this series to see how she develops as a character. 

And I can't forget to mention how much I appreciate that this story does not ignore the Hebrew mythology that is often so overlooked during this time period. It was a breath of fresh air.

All in all, The Shards of Heaven is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. Its only flaw really is the stark lack of gender diversity. I know women did not have a ton of rights in the time that this story is set, but that does not mean they must be silenced. Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt for Bast’s sake!

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for sophisticated and gripping writing style, +1 for cultural diversity

Penalties: -2 for silencing adult female characters, - 1 for reducing Cleopatra to a cold, sexual object

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



Reference: Livingston, Michael. Shards of Heaven [Tor Books, 2015]

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Introducing...NERD MUSIC!

Yes, we are tinkering with the formula once again--only this time we are mixing our unidentified yellow liquids with our unidentified blue liquids to produce a new post series on music!

Artist's Rendering

Music, you say? What's nerdy about that? Oh, just about everything. But in keeping with our mission, we are going focus specifically on what you might call "nerd music"--that is to say, anything that relates, directly or thematically, with the nerdy stuff we already cover. Cult film soundtracks? Check. Video game music? Check! Science fiction or fantasy-themed music? You know it.

Note: this isn't a review series, per se. Rather, each post will profile an artist, record or style we think you'll want to know about it. And we'll embed links to streaming services that pay artists per play (and also include links for purchase) so you can check it all out for yourself with a minimum of hassle. Hope you're excited--I know I am!


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Monday, November 23, 2015

STRANGER THAN FICTION: Masters of Doom by David Kushner

The Two Johns in Prose

Growing up, I was an enormous id Software fan. For me, it started with a pirated copy of Wolfenstein 3D on my Packard Bell 386, but Doom 2 was really my jam. I spent countless hours finding and playing user-made levels and modifications. I lived through the split, when John Romero broke from id to form Ion Storm. I anxiously awaited each new game. Even now, hearing a Doom alum worked on something gives me enough reason to take a look at it. I thought Masters of Doom wouldn't contain much I didn't already know, but I was quite wrong.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture primarily follows the two Johns of id Software, John Romero and John Carmack. Though the narrative involves all members of the id team, it starts with the two Johns. Masters of Doom follows their lives from early adulthood, through the formation of id Software, their formal split, and closes shortly after the release of Quake 3: Team Arena. It's primarily focused on the early days of id, Doom, and Doom's impact on the company.

Masters of Doom is a excellent look at the wild days of 90's game development. I'm talking about when a team of less than 10 can make a game that changes the game industry and makes them bazillions of dollars, which is precisely what id did. Even more incredible, they did so without much of a plan beyond "make games" and "have fun". When you consider how video game hits today are made, it's shocking to me that they got as far as they did. Sure, we occasionally get a Minecraft, but most games are done with teams of hundreds.

What is also surprising is how much internal strife occurred along the way. id made big moves, and stepped on a lot of toes along the way. It's arguable that they didn't even properly utilize the resources they had, with people instrumental to their games' development either half-hearedly doing so, or outright unhappy with the games direction. When Romero split from id, it was huge and public because Romero was a huge, public figure in the gaming community, but there were equally important and devastating losses throughout id's history.

If you're not a fan of Doom, or id Software's games, or game development in general, there might not be a lot of reasons to read Masters of Doom. It knows its audience, the 90's PC gamer, and its audience should know something about the time before heading in. However, if you have any interest in those things, Masters of Doom is truly compelling for providing an inside look at one of the most important video game developers of all time.


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

Reference: Kushner, David. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture [Random House, 2003] 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Microreview [Novelette]: The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper by Carlie St. George

Fairy Tale Noir. If it wasn't a thing before, it is now.

The world is full of fairy tale retellings. There is a certain nostalgia at seeing characters popularized by the Grimms and later sugarcoated by Disney for mass consumption in stories once again very much for adults. Such stories are not rare, either. Fables took the premise and ran with it, and there are a number of television shows and movies that work with the same basic idea, though in much different ways. I can safely say, though, that The Case of the Bloody Glass Slipper manages to innovate the trope and create a living and breathing second world fantasy-noir that had me charmed from the start. Indeed, part of what makes this story stand out is that it divorces the characters from the actual fairy tales. Jimmy Prince, the hard-boiled private eye, is not the actual Prince Charming. Instead the story reinterprets the characters in a 1920's industrial setting where sickness is rampant and the divide between rich and poor is wide indeed. 

This story focuses on Jimmy's search for a missing woman, one he shared a single dance with. What follows is a delicious subversion of the Disney tales, where Cinderella and her sisters are assassins at large, the Fairy Godmother runs an upscale brothel, and Snow White is a damaged heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Jimmy himself is a bit of a black sheep, one uncomfortable with the upper class he hails from because of what he's seen during a time when disease was so prevalent that people wee being burned alive to prevent it spreading. He works as a private eye with his sidekick Jack, a young street kid. The story manages to capture the feel of noir without falling for a lot of its pitfalls. Women here, while they often come off as femme fatales, whores, and victims, are nuanced and complex, and as it turns out it's Jimmy, much more than any of the women he's after, who ends up as the damsel in distress. 

If there's a complaint to be made about the story it's that Jimmy isn't exactly the most capable of main characters. Which completely makes sense given his background. His privilege shows as he barely-successfully navigates the dark underbelly of the city. He pushes forward, putting himself and others in danger, and only through the competence of the women around him does he manage to not end up populating a shallow and unmarked grave. Of course, this only further subverts tropes and expectations, but it does raise certain concerns over whether he should be the main character of the story at all. I'm very hopeful that future visits to the setting and characters (there are at least two more to be released over the next month) will see Jimmy grow a bit more into himself and his role and maybe able to find his sea legs, as it were. 

What's here, though, is very fun. There's an impressive amount of world building going on, and the action keeps things moving along in classic noir style, with kidnappings and gunfights and smoke and whisky. The stage was quite effectively set and there's a lot left to explore, politics and unrest rumbling in the background. The seeds of future stories were planted in the form of characters that, while not central to this story, made an appearance with the promise of more to come. The dynamic between Jimmy and Jack was strong and compelling, and I'm definitely interested in seeing what kinds of trouble they can get into. To make a long story short (or I suppose to make a short story shorter), this made a very nice first act of a larger story. It stands on its own, yes, but at the moment it feels like we've only just dipped our toe into this world, and assuming it's not chopped off by an errant stepsister, there's a lot of depth yet unexplored. 

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for subverting the hell out of fairy tale tropes, +1 for building an entirely original and complex world to house the action and characters

Negatives: -1 for surrounding Jimmy with characters who feel a bit more interesting than Jimmy himself. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "how long do I have to wait for the next one?!" see our full rating system here.

The story is available in its entirety here.


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

REFERENCE: St. George, Carlie. The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper [The Book Smugglers, 2015]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

 This week we are gifted a wonderful new superhero from Mark Millar.  Apparantly Millar was traumatized by the actions of Super Man, and inspired to create a superhero that wouldn't frighten people, but inspire them to do good deeds.  On top of that there are three stellar titles from Jason Aaron and things get a bit dicey in the latest issue of Beauty.

Pick of the Week:
Huck #1 - Mark Millar launched a new title this week, his take on a Superman type hero named Huck.  Huck was left at an orphanage as a baby, and it quickly became apparent that he was special.  The town's little secret, Huck was raised to do one good deed per day.  We get a glimpse into how he accomplishes this, and sometimes it is as simple as buying someone lunch, while other times it involves using his super strength to lend a helping hand.  Millar does a great job of building an instant rapport between the reader and Huck, and I cannot wait to learn more about him.  In celebration of his beloved character, Millar launched #DoaGoodDeedToday on Twitter and is sending 10 people signed comic books.  I love a good book that has the ability to create a positive impact like this.

The Rest:
Star Wars: Vader Down #1 - The first event from Marvel's Star Wars began this week and it was quite enjoyable.  Written by Jason Aaron, Darth Vader tracks down Luke Skywalker to a base on Vrogas Vas and all hell breaks loose.  One things that Marvel really nails in its Star Wars comics, is a sense of scale.  Vader jumps out of hyperspace in the middle of multiple X-Wing squadrons working on manuevers.  The ensuing battle is truly epic and once again we are treated to how powerful Vader is.  I never fully appreciated his power in the movies, but the comics have dramatically changed my perspective.

The Mighty Thor #1 - I have not remained in the loop, but couldn't resist reading the re-boot of the re-boot, so I gave this title a whirl.  The new Thor, Dr. Jane Foster, has cancer and is dying in her human form.  In an interesting twist, when she takes hold of Mjolnir and becomes Thor, the cancer treatment in her body is purged.  On top of that, she is unwelcome in Asgardia, as many accuse her of stealing Mjolnir, and Odin has gone insane.  Whew.  That is a lot of personal drama to mix in with the impending war of the realms.  Not sure I am up for taking this title on, but it was an interesting read that should be worth your time with Jason Aaron penning it.

Star Wars #12 - I have to hand it to Jason Aaron, who wrote three of the five books I am reviewing this week, for delivering one of the most wonderful scenes that has ever hit the pages.  Chewbacca wielding two lightsabers.  R2D2 raided Grakkus' personal stash of lightsabers, and delivered them to Luke, Chewie, Han, and Leia, following an E.M.P. that disabled all other weapons.  Using the lightsabers, they are able to free Luke from the Gamemaster and once again slip through Vader's fingers.

Beauty #4 - Calaveras once again launches an attack Detective Vaughan and his team.  The plan was  to leak the story to a popular beauty television show, but Calaveras, who we learn is not to be messed with, launches an attack that the three are barely able to escape.  We learn a bit more about the beauty and the chain of command at those who are behind it, but much remains a mystery and I look forward to seeing where this one is headed.  Definitely one of the best new series of 2015.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Void & Meddler, Episode 1

Bathed and Confused in the Neon Rain

Though our Cyberpunk Revisited series is largely finished, this new release necessitated its revival. After all, it's a: (1) cyberpunk-themed; (2) point-and-click adventure game; that is (3) published by Mi-Clos Studios, who gave us the exquisite space survival game Out There. In some ways, I guess you could say I've been waiting my whole life for this game--or, at least, the thirty-odd years since I first played Manhunter: New York. Could this title possibly live up to my expectations? The answer, as far as Episode One is concerned, is "yes and no."

In Void & Meddler, you star as Fyn--a hardboiled DJ who has lost her memory of the past two years and wants it back. So you search for clues across a city that feels a lot like what New Yorkers might have imagined the future to look like in 1980. In other words, gritty, grimy and bathed in neon rain.

The art design draws inspiration from both the warm, cartoon-like style of Broken Sword and pixelated Sierra and LucasArts classics. But Void & Meddler also features some of the best use of color I've ever seen in a video game--buildings are bathed in the proverbial neon rain, while raindrops pitter and patter on a virtualized camera lens. It is absolutely stunning, and manages to feel nostalgic and progressive at the same time.

Unfortunately, the puzzle design doesn't evoke the same feelings. In the classic point-and-click mold, you basically move Fyn from place to place, picking up and interacting with objects for use in one of the game's many puzzles. Void & Meddler gets extra credit for creating multiple solutions to its puzzles, which means you don't have to spend hours just trying to find that one thing, without which you can't proceed.

On the other hand, there's no narrative momentum--something games like Gemeni Rue, Lost Echo or Stasis all use to great effect. Instead, you just click on anything--in the hopes that you might be able to accomplish something that is, at best, vaguely defined. Simply put, it's never really established why we should care about Fyn getting her memories back, and never all that clear how the things we do in the game relate to that endgoal. That formula might have worked for King's Quest, but it's not 1984 anymore.

Still, the game has enough style to keep my interest. I do, however, hope for more dynamic puzzles and a clearer sense of story from Episode 2.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 the color; +1 in the neon rain.

Penalties: -1 for retrograde puzzles; -1 for narrative issues.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."

Our scoring method explained in full.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather editor/blogger since 2012.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Microreview [TV]: Ash vs. Evil Dead

Hail to the king, baby.

Since Army of Darkness was released twenty-three years ago, fans have been clamoring for Evil Dead IV. But did we *really* want that? Remember the sequels to The Matrix? Remember the Terminator franchise after Terminator II: Judgment Day? Remember the Star Wars Prequels, for Yoda's sake? And we're all collectively about to find out if we *really* wanted J.J. Abrams making more Star Wars movies (remember Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness?) as much as we think we do right now. So it's entirely possible that the often-rumored-never-made Evil Dead IV could have done nothing more than besmirch the memory of something many of us held dear.

Evil Dead 2 was particularly important to me. Not only is its stamp of comedy all over the no-budget monster movie I made a dozen years ago, but the Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell success narrative was empowering and aspirational. I say all of this to explain why I waited until the first three episodes of Ash vs. Evil Dead had aired before I took a look. I wanted to be able to have a sense of the show beyond just the pilot, and temper my expectations, if need be.

And having caught up now, I have to say, it's pretty badass.

We catch up with Ash thirty years after the events of Evil Dead II (remember, even though that film and Army of Darkness were released five years apart, AoD begins on the same day EDII ends). He's still working in retail at a big box store, he's fifty, living in a trailer, and picking up women with the story of how he lost his hand selflessly saving a young boy from an oncoming train. He's a deadbeat. One night, while high and pressed for some poetry to read to a potential conquest back at the trailer, he grabs the Necronomicon Ex Mortis and they read out an incantation or two. Whoops.

So now the Deadites are making their way back into our world, and they're gunning for Ash. They're not the only ones, either. There's a state police officer, Amanda Fisher, who realizes that Ash is caught up in a string of bizarre deaths, so she's on his trail. Lucy Lawless plays Ruby, a mysterious character with a lot of knowledge of these Deadites, and she's after Ash, too. Bruce Campbell and Lucy herself kind of ruined the surprise of who she is on their Colbert appearance recently, but for now the show's keeping Ruby's true identity secret, so mum's the word.

But for once, Ash has help. Pablo and Kelly, two of his co-workers, get sucked into this battle against the Deadites, and by the end of the third episode, they're officially a team. These two, played by Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo, respectively, are maybe the best part of the show. They both bring tons of personality, and have a great rapport with Campbell's swaggering blowhard of a middle-aged Ash. And in maybe five minutes of total screen time so far, Lucy Lawless is already amazing.

Starting in the third episode, the show begins expanding the world more, and expanding out the range of evil entities that the Necronomicon has access to. A lot of people will probably grouse about that (and make legitimate complaints that the first demon we see looks like he was lifted directly from Hellraiser or Pan's Labyrinth, but it's absolutely necessary for the demands of a TV show, and I personally thought it was cool to see our first glimpse of something other than a Deadite. 

What it comes down to, though, is that so far this show is a worthy successor to the films. There's fan service — check out the last moment of the pilot, for instance — but there are new elements and compelling characters that offer more beyond Ash's catchphrases, and there are even hints that Ash himself may be on the first steps of a character journey. Also, there are gallons, and gallons, and gallons of blood, and the humor is plentiful and legitimately funny. It reminded me why I loved the films so much in the first place, and I kneel at the feet of the folks who do this particular thing — still — better than anybody.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the new cast of regulars; +1 for not letting me down (and convincing me to subscribe to Starz)

Penalties: -1 for many of the digital effects. The practical effects look great, but a lot of the digital blood effects show their edges, as it were

Nerd coefficient (so far): 9/10. Groovy.

Posted by Vance K -- cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, and five-time Bruce Campbell in-person screening attendee.

Monday, November 16, 2015

6 Books with Fantasy Author Karina Sumner-Smith

Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the (excellent!) Towers trilogy, all three of which have been reviewed here (and here) at Nerds of a Feather. The combination of dystopian post-apocalyptic elements with fantasy aspects (most notably, magic and ghosts) is not to be missed! In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a small dog, and a large cat. For more info, you can peruse her website ( or follow her on Twitter, @ksumnersmith.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’ve just started Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I like reading a range of novels, but this one is actually a selection for a science fiction and fantasy book club that I attend in Toronto on a semi-regular basis, despite the 3+ hour drive required to get me to meetings. (That drive does seem a little ridiculous, but they chose my first novel as their first club pick and—seeing that they have such excellent taste—I’ve been going back ever since.)

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Julie E. Czerneda’s This Gulf of Time and Stars. After six books and countless re-reads, I’m fully invested in the Trade Pact universe and can’t wait to see how the story continues in this new trilogy. I was also lucky enough to hear Julie read a section of the book at the Ad Astra convention in Toronto this past spring, and have been wanting to find out what happens next ever since.

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

Mockingbird by Sean Stewart. I fell in love with this book when I first read it more than ten years ago, and it’s stayed with me ever since, whispering in the back of my brain. I’d say that I’m a bit haunted by Mockingbird, but it’s certainly a comforting haunting: a collection of happy sense memories and odd thoughts about lizards and strange magic and sister/friend relationships. (Well, and that bit about botulism, which comes back whenever I make pickles, but really, let’s not dwell on that part.)

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

Not just a book, but an author. I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry when I was a teenager, and was frustrated by those books beyond belief. Because of that early experience, I steered clear of his novels for years—more fool me. Returning to his work, I was taken aback by the sheer poetry of his language, the depth of his world-building, the painful believability of his characters. In spite of what my sixteen-year-old self thought, Guy Kay has become one of my favorite and most trusted authors.

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

Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn utterly fascinated me.  The writing was captivating—clean and elegant, swift and tense—but it was the story’s moral ambiguity, and the conflict I felt reading it, that truly captured me. Much of my early reading in science fiction and fantasy had much clearer lines between Good and Evil—clear lines, too, between the characters we were to think of as the protagonist, and those who were their enemies. With Dawn (and, truly, the rest of Butler’s writing), I remember wrestling for the first time with the idea that the “good guys” weren’t all good, and the “bad guys” weren’t all bad; that maybe they were all just people, dealing with their own hopes and hurts, struggling to deal with their situations as best they could and sometimes only making things far, far worse. Her books made me uncomfortable—and I still love them for that.

I studied Butler’s writing for years, trying to learn from her work. From Dawn I learned that novels could wrestle with big questions in subtle ways, to try to see the story from all sides, and remember that every character in the story (no matter how little they appear on the page) should be their own person.

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

My book is Towers Fall, the third and final novel in the Towers trilogy, and it’s the book where everything explodes. (I mean, you can’t have a novel about a city in the sky, call it Towers Fall, and not have some truly drastic things happening.) This one’s about living cities, the crash of a magical economy, ghosts dealing with disasters and surviving social upheaval—but, at its heart, it’s about two young women who change everything by saving each other.


This message brought to you by Zhaoyun, who has been enjoying the reviewing of dystopian scifantasies like Sumner-Smith's here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

STF: Finding Serenity

It's often hard to cope when a life is cut tragically short. Of course, none of us want it to happen at any point, but after a long run, we can often nod once youth and beauty have faded, look at a frail shadow of what once was and say "its time". Not so when they are taken in their prime- we look at all the energy and potential and forever dream of what might have been.

I am, of course, talking about Firefly.

To say I miss Firefly is nothing special. I was one of the eight or so people who watched it while it was on TV (SciFi being one of the few things my dad and I agree on, so we watched anything SF we could together). They were amazing and special, even with Fox doing their best to ruin them.

Turns out the fans aren't the only ones who miss it. Finding Serenity is a collection of essays edited by the incomparable Jane Espenson (writer, Buffy, Once Upon a Time- she chimes in with fantastic insights and anecdotes about Firefly and Joss).

The essays cover a variety of topics, from the significance of facial hair in firefly (which will completely change the show for you) to existentialist, examining the meanings and concepts Joss explores in the show to the use of race in the Firefly universe.

Finding Serenity is a fantastic piece for this Stranger Than Fiction, because it encapsulates everything about Firefly- the cast, crew, production as well as the characters, concepts and meanings. It is fantastic in manifold ways, and is a must-read for Browncoats.


The D is for
 He is also an aficionado of good drinks (extra dry martini; onions, not olives), good food and fine dress. 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.

He also has an unhealthy obsession with old movies and goes through phases where he plays video games before kind of forgetting they exist.
He lives in the Pacific Northwest and likes the rain, thank you very much.
You can buy his debut release, 3024AD: Short Stories Series One here: Kobo | Nook | Amazon

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

Today we bring you a jumbo-sized edition of Thursday Morning Superhero.  There were more titles I wanted to read, but hit my limit in the eight I present below.  Truly a great week of comics with many stellar issues.  This week we are given a new series from Image that is promising, an astounding debut of a new Wolverine, and once again declare that Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale should be creating new Captain America material until they retire.

 Pick of the Week:
Captain America: White #4 - This might be my favorite issue in this series to date.  Not only do we get some quality time with Herr Skull, we learn more about the complications surrounding Bucky and Captain America's relationship.  The two cared for each other, but almost to a fault and it is very rewarding to read these stories with the addition of Cap's narration.  It feels like watching one of your favorite movies with the commentary.  You enjoy a classic story, but gain valuable insights from those who lived it.  I hope this becomes an ongoing series.  I could read old Captain America stories from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale until the cows come home.  

The Rest:

All New Wolverine #1 -  Not sure if you remember, but Wolverine is dead.  Fans speculated he would return, and he still might, but for now his cloned daughter will be carrying the torch.  X-23 is the new Wolverine and her debut issue was a treat.  She is a natural fit to carry on the legacy and from this debut, it appears to be in good hands.  In this issue, she is tracking down assassin who turns out to be a clone of her.  There are other clones out there, and it appears that the journey to track them down will be an entertaining one. 

The Walking Dead #148 - Oh Rick.  Why would you turn to that.  I know that things aren't going as
planned and the skinwalkers have everyone on edge, but no.  You can't do that.  It was correct to move Lydia.  She wasn't safe.  I still fear for Carl and the others at Alexandria with her being there, but you need to be the better man.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, but not this.  You are opening Pandora's Box and it isn't going to end well.

Batman #46 - While I am still not 100% on board with Jim Gordan as Batman, Bruce Lee with amnesia, and some of the new gear Batman has, I am completely down with Mister Bloom as one of my favorite super villains.  He is an intriguing fella.  He has opportunities to kill Batman, but holds back and is also aware that Jim Gordon is currently wearing the suit.  Robin may have uncovered a secret about Mister Blook, but he will need to escape the Penguin's clutches first. 

Darth Vader #12 - This series does a great job of demonstrating the power of Vader juxtaposed with how vulnerable he can be.  When we last left, it appeared that the inquisitor Thanoth was going to prove that it was Vader who stole the Imperial credits.  Just when we think that Vader is going to suffer more humiliation, he is able to convice Thanoth to leave Aphra alone and pursue a lead on a nearby Rebel squadron.  It is brilliant in how simple it is, and when they pursue the Rebels we once again witness the sheer strength of Vader.  Using only his lightsaber and the force, he is able to stop an escaping Y-Wing in a glorious scene.  Following this victory, he may be entering a trap as the new event surrounding this comic is "Vader Down."  This series remains must read material for Star Wars fans.

Birthright #11 - We are treated to an entire issue in Terranos and learn more about Mikey's tragic downfall.  While the Nevermind has control of him now and Brennan has a big burden to bear, Mikey's time in Terranos was no easy task.  He was taken away from his home, instructed that he was the chosen one, and forced to train and battle demons that he couldn't have fathomed in his previous life.  He tells his brother the tale of the time he saved a girl from Kallista, a woman who was possessed by the Nevermind and now served Lore.  This issue almost tricks us into once again trusting Mikey, but we learn that hope lies with Brennan and he is the hero we need.

Southern Bastards #12 - A trippy issue takes us through the vegetative state of Tad Ledbetter, a friend of Earl Tubb who finds himself at the wrong end of a beating from Coach Hogg's thugs.  The only shimmer of light is Materhead, an assistant coach under Hogg who is starting to crack.  He thinks that Rebel, a god who should be long dead, is haunting him at each of his wrong turns.  This sprinkle of the supernatural works well in this dark, yet entertaining series.

The Goddamned #1 - Jason Aaron gives us a new series on the life of Cain, thousands of year after his birth.  The rage that existed when he killed his brother remains, and he has some sort of Wolverine-esque healing ability.  Not sure what to make of this extremely graphic debut, but there was something visceral that was appealing.  I will check out the next issue, but am not sure if I will be sticking with it.

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

MEGABLOGTABLE: Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz (1970)

Back in June I was struck by the sudden urge to re-read Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series. This had been one of my favorite fantasy series in my early teenage years (before I discovered edgy literary fiction and temporarily abandoned genre). I remembered it as more grounded in actual history than most fantasy, with great characters and an appealingly minimalist approach to magic. After re-discovering fantasy via A Song of Ice and Fire, some years later, I often found myself wondering how these books would hold up now, reading them as an adult. So after reading Kari Sperring's essay on the Deryni series, I decided to give it a shot (and loved it). Not long after, I wandered into a conversation among several of my twitter friends: Joe Sherry, Rob Bedford, Paul Weimer, Jonah Sutton-Morse and Fred Kiesche. Turns out we were all reading the first book! So we decided to have a little fireside chat about Deryni Rising, how it holds up after all these years and its influence on more modern fantasy. I offered to host the chat, and the rest is history. Here is the record (questions in bold)...

[The G] I think it’s fair to say we all really liked Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz--I know I did. But what is it, exactly, that makes this novel hold up so well? I mean, it’s more than 40 years old, but it feels quite modern in many ways. Am I right? Why or why not?

Rob Bedford: In large part, it is Kurtz’s ability to build up the narrative tension as the novel ramped up to the confrontation with Charissa. Good, gripping storytelling survives and continues to draw people in because it keeps people from stepping away from the story. I think it is the simplicity of the story and how elegantly Kurtz constructs the story.

Jonah Sutton-Morse: I think part of it is that the concerns are political.  The emphasis is on characters interacting, with the world and magic in many ways in the background.  It seems almost as though the concerns of fantasy have come back around to Kurtz after drifting away for a while.  Also it’s well paced.  There’s always a new mystery (aggressively signposted!) to keep moving forward.

Joe Sherry: Two things stand out for me. One: How quickly Kurtz gets into the action of the story and how tight the timeline is here. Everything that happens is so immediate,  but it feels appropriate with the political risk of Kelson being able to hold on to a crown he is barely prepared to accept because he is only about to hit his legal majority all the while he is about to face a challenge from an external threat with an internal agent. I’m not sure that stuff really gets old when it’s written so smoothly. Two: This may be colored by how I feel about some of the later novels, but what I like is the minutiae, the details of how things work behind the scenes - the Council sessions, the rituals of the church, the tidbits on Deryni history.

Paul Weimer: I agree with Joe. Kurtz drops us into things without as much of that ramp up as one might expect, especially given the era in which it was written. We also get very clearly defined stakes pretty early on and can follow Kelson’s line clearly. No meandering for the sake of meandering.

Fred Kiesche: My copious backstory on how I found the book might explain why I still think it holds up. I first encountered the book as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (get your mind out of the gutter, Rob, “adult” in this case means “not for children” not “boom-chicka-wah-wah”). That was a series that Ballantine Books ran from the (roughly) mid sixties to the (roughly) early seventies.

Rob: Thanks for the vote of maturity Fred! Seriously, I was aware that this was part of the BAF, and the only wholly original title in the program.

Fred: In those dark times there was scarcely an original fantasy market. Sure, you could score reprints of Conan (Ace Books!), find hardcovers in yard sales or even your library (Arkham House, for example), but most of the original paperbacks (and the marketplace was mostly paperbacks in spinner racks in drugstores and the like, the town I grew up in originally—Teaneck, NJ—did not get a bookstore until 1969 and the town that I then moved to—Kinnelon, NJ—did not get a used bookstore until around 1974 and a “new stuff” bookstore until 1976) were science fiction. Occasionally DAW Books would do something by Lin Carter that was “sort of” fantasy (much in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs), but for the most part there was almost no fantasy.

So: No Brooks, Donaldson, Weis, (fill in your favorite author here). Tolkien and Lewis and a few “classics” were around but not known (my mother took Fellowship of the Ring out from the library for me in 1969 and the introduction stopped me cold).

Betty Ballantine brought out some collections of the art of Frank Frazetta that sold like hotcakes. The Ace editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard (with Frazetta covers and “expanded” by such people as L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and Poul Anderson—this was years before some unknown named Robert E. Jordan started doing them!) sold well. Ace Books came out with an “unauthorized” edition of The Lord of the Rings (an interesting story in of itself) and Ballantine came out with the “authorized” edition (and sold very well because of promotion and the fact the author blessed it). Ballantine Books brought some other (older) fantasy works into print (William E. Morris, E.R. Eddison) which also sold well.

So they had the brilliant idea...why not an entire line of fantasy stories aimed at these adults (mostly college students) that were snapping them up? So the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series was born, run by Lin Carter.

The line was mostly reprints. In addition to those names mentioned above, Carter brought back into print (or into paperback) names such as Fletcher Pratt, Mervyn Peake, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, Hope Mirrlees and others.

And also, an original book: Deryni Rising, which appeared in the BAF series in August of 1970.

I don’t recall how early on I came across that. I know that during the summer of 1970, I tried the hardcover of The Lord of the Rings and bounced off of it. Then I found the Ballantine edition of The Hobbit, loved it, made the connection with The Lord of the Rings, read that again, loved it, and then started hunting down anything from Ballantine (they thoughtfully provided a list of titles in their books).

Some titles I found in those aforementioned spinner racks. Some were found in yard sales or garage sales or tag sales or rummage sales (names varied according to region visited). Some titles I grew to love as much as The Lord of the Rings (Mervyn Peake has no magic, is borderline “fantasy” at best, but the story and the setting...especially the middle!), other books were stilted and archaic and difficult to get through (William Morris, E.R. Eddison and David Lindsay come to mind).

Then there was Deryni Rising. When I encountered it, I knew that it was a newly-written original book (Lin Carter wrote introductions for many of the books that were printed while he was running the line in addition to writing some non-fiction books and anthologies). It was short (when compared to  Peake and a few others).

But it was amazing. It took place over a short period of time, in a relatively small number of locations. There were no elves or fairies or the like, other than having powers (which could be manifestations of forms of telepathy for that kid who mostly read science fiction), there were only people in the book. The setting “could be” Europe (other than the rather strange proximity, it seemed to me of one desert locale; even then I thought about how topography would affect the land). There was a religion that I could recognize (there’s debate over what Kurtz based this one, but other than a lack of a Pope, it seemed Catholic to me!), no words that I stumbled on.

And… murder and plots… and secret meetings and magical rites ...and even a duel between wizards!

Before fantasy movies, before fantasy games, before a “fantasy genre” practically, this book had so many of the elements that we encounter and love again and again. Does it hold up now? You bet! It holds up because it is, in many cases, the “source code” (along with a few other works mentioned here, but also people like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber and Ursula K. Le Guin).  Yes, there are some weaknesses. Yes, there is some cracking plaster from where subsequent volumes were added to the series (and shoved up against the original foundation). But...reading it again, after decades, it kept my attention and has (once again) made me want to read the rest of the series.

[The G] My big issue with the book was its treatment--or perhaps, more accurately, its non-treatment--of women. Charissa is a fairly cardboard villain, while Jehanna arguably embodies the negative stereotypes of women as petty, vain and overly emotional. Did this bother you guys as well? And were there other ways in which you felt the book didn’t age well?

Rob: It [the treatment/non-treatment of women] was noticeable, mainly because of how much discussion is currently going on in the genre in terms of gender parity. On one hand, it makes sense for Jehanna to have the feelings she does towards Morgon as well as the hesitancy about her son. On the other, Charissa could have easily been a man in the role she played and it wouldn’t have changed the story. The “treatment” of the women characters in the novel didn’t bother me too much, to be honest, but it was perhaps the only aspect of the novel that felt a bit dated. How does it compare to other novels of the time, in terms of treatment of women characters? Not saying that makes it acceptable. If anything, the mildly surprising element of the treatment of the women characters is that the book was written by a women.

Jonah: yep, the treatment of women generally sucks, and I don’t feel that Jehanna comes across well.  Charissa is noticeable in part as the person interested in sex.  Men with men don’t think about it.  Men with women do, which was also frustrating.  Mostly, I just didn’t feel that either Charissa or Jehanna were real characters, though I think I’d extend that critique more broadly - I think that most characters are playing a role (some almost literally - Morgan the Dark Defender, Duncan the reluctant wizard-priest, Kelson the superman with his trusted Uncle).  It’s just that Jehana got to be the crazy emotional queen & Charissa the Dark Seductress which are even more unpleasant character types than the others.

Joe: Can I just agree with Rob?

Paul: To be fair: The portrayal in women in general in epic and secondary world fantasy has been evolving over the last two decades. I think if they were being published for the first time now, a lot of reviewers would excoriate them harder. It’s not excuse, but its explanation. To Rob’s point, this goes to the whole “writing to a male audience” that a lot of writers, women and men, engage in.

Fred: The treatment of women is no better or worse than any other contemporary fantasy novel. Kurtz was a new writer at that point and I don’t know if she was just shadowing the norm or was pushed in that direction by her agent (or editor or publisher). Given how few female characters are in the books of the time (or the books in the BAF series), she did, I think, a good job with several female characters playing major roles. And, I think, as the series grew, so did the role of women (think of—spoilers, sweetie—the role of the daughter’s of a certain person in a certain prologue series!).

Jonah: I’m willing to agree that standards have changed and reviewers would highlight this more, but  I stand by the assertion that the women are a symptom of not-very-fleshed-out characters. What do you guys think?

The G: You may be right, Jonah, but I read the female characters as poorly drawn relative to the male characters. I mean, Morgan, Duncan, Kelson, Ian, Brian--they are all capable, and all save Ian are also relatable. And they all have at least some depth. Of the female characters, by contrast, only Charissa is capable, and "none" are relatable. Why the scare quotes? Because there's only one other female character in the book--Jehanna, who basically exists to annoy Kelson and Morgan (and, by extension, the reader). Okay, I lied--there is one other female who appears momentarily, a courtesan who Morgan basically slaps out of her "female hysteria." This may be a sign of the book's age, but it doesn't read well today. Actually I found it very frustrating.

[Jonah] This book had me thinking a lot about inheritance & traditions.  Kurtz acknowledges debt to Dune, and having read that, the parallels jumped out.  Lots of political undercurrents, Kelson the superkid groomed to rule, even little things like the Stenrect crawler in the garden that he has to stay perfectly still to avoid.  Similarly, when I read The Goblin Emperor with it’s elaborate coronation rituals, court full of titled characters (the Supreme of Howicce!), and concerns above all with political undercurrents, I got strong echoes of Kurtz.  (All three books also arguably mostly posit good characters behaving honorably, a few obvious villains, and then a single traitor to show the danger of trust, while mostly reinforcing their main character’s interest in trust & showing good faith).  I don’t think I’d put these three books in the same genres, but I do think that each is very much inheriting from what came before (which I’m always nervous of because it tends very close to trying to interpret the author’s thoughts rather than the text).  Thoughts? Are there other books that you’d group here, or other inheritors of different aspects?

Fred: Given the setting (based strongly on England during the Middle Ages), the use of inheritance (the land is ruled by a king and administered by other men who inherit power) using traditions (a combination of practice and law). There’s the strong presence of a church (more traditions, a different ruling base) and magic (more tradition and ritual). There’s also a nice sense of time (with things having been lost, think of Strider in The Lord of the Rings being the representative of a lost culture or Old Ben Kenobi in Star Wars being the last of a once proud profession).

I never thought of any parallel to Dune, myself. Kelson is “groomed” but so would the son of any king, whether magical power was involved or not. This is, I think more of an aspect of any cycle of stories, which could be fantasy, set in this sort of society. Think of Mordred in L’Morte D’Arthur and the other stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; he was “groomed” to rule and to get revenge.

The G: I’m not entirely sure how to answer this question, but here goes: some of what you are picking up on, I think, is the common influence of medieval Romances and of nonfictional accounts of court intrigue. And, of course, it’s quite likely that Katherine Kurtz read Dune before publishing, and that Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette read both. It’s not entirely certain--after all, when I finished The Black Company, I was certain that it had been a major influence on Joe Abercrombie. Later I found out that he had not, as of a couple years ago (and possibly still), read the series.

Similarly, a lot of people who read Old Man’s War when it was first published assumed that Scalzi was responding to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. It’s true in the first instance, but not in the second--like Abercrombie, he hadn’t read the book that seemed like such a big influence on his own work (until some years later). I’d guess that Addison/Monette has read Deryni Rising anyway--she may even be making reference to it, a la George R. R. Martin to Tad Williams, Roger Zelazny, etc. But the more important linkage is, I think, the common approach of recontextualizing the medieval Romance and historical accounts of court intrigue within the fantasy form.

Rob: This question couldn’t be timed more serendipitously. As chance would have it, I went back to another “modern classic*” of Epic Fantasy, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince (DAW, 1988), the first novel she published and the first in the “Dragon Prince” series. Over the first seven chapters I have been especially struck by just how damned similar Rawn’s novel is to Deryni Rising, in terms of story beats. You’ve got a royal hunt (in Rawn’s case, a Dragon hunt); a ruler mortally wounded in said hunt; the chosen Prince as inheritor who many think is ill-equipped; the chosen Prince acting counter in some ways to how, in historical context, he should behave; hints of powers beyond what is normal for him; and a scheming nemesis.  These similarities could be that Kurtz and Rawn are pulling from a similar well of tropes and story beats, but I would be very surprised if Rawn didn’t read (at least once) Deryni Rising.

*Classic being subjective term, of course, but Rawn has a pretty big readership and is a doing a re-read of the books..

Rawn handles the gender roles more fairly, although the “women-folk” still stay at home while the men hunt, the main female character shows signs of being proactive and more than just a prop for the Prince’s reign. Again, only about 140 pages/7 chapters into the book as of this writing.

I read The Goblin Emperor before Deryni Rising; I’ll just say that Deryni Rising was far superior reading experience for me on nearly every level. Sure both stories/novels had court intrigue and an heir that many believed to be inept, but for me, that’s where the comparisons end. Connecting Deryni Rising forward to The Goblin Emperor never entered my mind until our twitter conversations and Jonah mentioned them both on his podcast.

Joe: Keep reading, Rob. While there are some “traditional” roles in Rawn’s work, many of the female characters are quite adept at wielding their own personal power and taking charge in their lives.  Back to Deryni!

[Jonah] Le Guin’s famous essay "Elfland to Poughkeepsie" situates the Deryni books firmly in Poughkeepsie: books with magic but where the enchantment has been drained away along with some of the peril of elfland. She relies heavily on stylistic critiques, but I think the point is equally valid just thinking about how the story is told and the ways the plot is concerned so much with politics and relationships. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the book, which I loved, but does raise some interesting questions about where it fits in the fantasy tradition & other books that are closer to the perilous enchantments of Elfland. (A Song of Ice and Fire looms large here, but the bits of magic are so *mysterious* that Martin is probably closer to occasional intrusions of Elfland than Kurtz?) I guess at it’s most basic, my question is: do you agree that Fantasy often has (or aspires to) bringing in the enchantment of a distant & mysterious land, and that Deryni rising mostly fails at this? with the follow-up of what does it say that it’s so successful despite not hitting that mark? but feel free to jump off other things.

Joe: I’m not sure I really care. I mean that in the best possible way. Again, I’m colored by having read all of Kurtz’s Deryni work, especially the earlier Camber-era novels so I’ll try to limit this to how things are presented in Deryni Rising. In Deryni Rising the magic appears to be somewhat mystical (with really awkward rhyming battles - somehow I think Alan Dean Foster should pay royalties to Kurtz for Spellsinger) - the methodology of the magic isn’t explained and Kelson appears to use it by instinct. But I’m not sure I agree that the enchantment of the magic is drained away - unless we take this to mean that because it is otherwise a low-magic world and the magic users are generally feared and persecuted in Gwynedd so that there isn’t “magic” in the magic. So - okay, I’ll grant that. But are we taking this as a negative? There is magic in ritual. You see this with the ward cubes, but it becomes much more evident later.

To answer your question, I’m not sure that we can narrow “Fantasy” enough to say that it does or does not aspire to the enchantment of other lands, Elfland if you will. Some of it does, sure, but just as much does not. I’m not sure the categorization is important, now or when Le Guin wrote her essay. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is set in 1980’s Minneapolis. I’ve been to a number of the locations she writes about, I’ve seen shows at First Avenue. But Bull ties in faerie and a supernatural conflict that is very much a “perilous enchantment” - so what do we do there? Does it matter?

Paul: I definitely want to unpack The Goblin Emperor and Deryni Rising in my own question to the group, so I will reserve talking about that here. I do think Deryni Rising is definitely working on the mechanics and nuts and bolts in a Dune like way--and that’s why Dune reads like an epic fantasy much more than a space opera.

As far as fantasy and enchantment, fantasy is, as has been said, the largest, broadest category of fiction that there is. By comparison to mimetic fiction, or even science fiction, the potential range of fantasy, from Amber to Deryni to War for the Oaks to Jim Butcher to Wizard of the Pigeons to Tolkien is vast. In fantasy’s house, there are many mansions. The enchantment of other lands, and Elfland argument sounds to me, like an argument made in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy about the diminishment of magic as being a major concern in fantasy. I think that was true, once. But I think it’s a leftover of Tolkienian “Fourth Age” concerns.

The G: Well, I’ve always thought of fantasy as this: take a plausible world (whether secondary or this one), then add some element of magic and/or concretized metaphysics that makes it different from the actual world we live in. The degree of variation between the created fantasy world and ours is, to me, unimportant. Both books where the magic and metaphysics are light, such as Deryni Rising, and ones that are positively dripping with the stuff, like The Black Company, work for me.

More to the point, I’m not sure why the degree of fantastical elements should measure “success” or “failure” at being fantasy. In fact, I’m tempted to suggest that even the basic definition of fantasy as dependent on some degree of magic or metaphysics is too restrictive. I mean, imagine a book set in a secondary world but without magic. What would you call that, if not fantasy? Regardless, if we do accept magic as integral to fantasy, for the sake of argument at least, then it’s better to think of Deryni Rising as embodying a specific approach to fantasy than to judge that approach as a qualitative indicator of how successful it is as fantasy.

Fred: Much like science fiction, fantasy is anything I point at and say is fantasy. I’ve used a lot of terminology in the past, some taken from Carter, some taken from Le Guin, even some developed by people like Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski in their Fantastic Imagination series of anthologies.

Kurtz “fits into” fantasy as much as any other book in the field. The amount of magic does not matter, the proximity to Elfland does not matter. It share so many tropes used throughout the field, mining the same traditions that “more elvish” books mined (be it Shakespeare or the or the Prose Edda or the Epic of Gilgamesh) and it been the genesis itself of so much subsequent telling of tales (be they other books and stories or people running roleplaying games) that we cannot exclude it from fantasy.

Rob: I’ll mostly borrow Joe’s earlier response: “Can I just agree with Joe?”  I think of, at least Deryni Rising as historical fantasy. There’s enough supernatural/magic in a non-real location it to place it outside of historical fiction I don’t see this book (not sure about the remainder of the series) as “bringing in the enchantment of a distant & mysterious land.” If anything, I see this the opposite: bringing enchantment to a familiar land (or at least a land that resonates with historical, real places, but renamed) with closer ties to Arthurian Myth.

[Paul] Right, so my question: Deryni Rising feels like it comes from a somewhat different timeline of fantasy novels, or one that is an undercurrent. The emphasis on the process of politics and the *lack* of autarchy and the division of power.  Just as in the novels of Sherwood Smith and also in The Goblin Emperor, the politics of Deryni felt more complex than most epic fantasy. How did you find it? Did you like it?

Fred: Could this be an artifact of the age of the author? Or the time she was writing in? Deryni Rising was published when she was 26, so relatively out of college (or possibly still in graduate school) in 1970. You have a combination of both the time when most people are at their most political plus a year when younger people in the United States were (ahem) agitated over many things (civil rights, Vietnam, the then President). It would be very easy for “politics” to leak in.

I don’t think, however, that Kurtz was leaking her politics into the story or the politics of the time. As I said earlier, it appears, to me, that she was possibly just as influenced by a number of other literary sources (Shakespeare, etc.) and injecting the politics as part of the court and kingdom drama she was shooting for.

As for if I liked it, it is part of the charm of the book for me. Just as one of the books I read this year (The Goblin Emperor) would have been very much the poorer without politics, the same with this.

The G: It’s fairly sophisticated, and as I was re-reading the book, I kept thinking of A Game of Thrones--the first novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, that is, and wondered if Martin might have been responding to Deryni Rising in much the same way that he’s responding to other landmark fantasy series.

I mean, both novels are similarly preoccupied with the process of politics, with conspiracies and so forth. They’re obviously quite different, but I did feel that, whereas Kurtz presents a fairly Romantic view of royal and aristocratic politics (altered, of course, for a world that hews closely to medieval history but is made-up and features the limited use of magic), Martin is digging up the dirt to show ugliness for what it is (in a similarly constructed world). Charissa is evil, true, but no one in Deryni Rising is arbitrary in their use of power, whereas just about everyone in A Game of Thrones is--Ned Stark excluded (and we all know what that got him).

Whether Kurtz’s idealized or Martin’s anti-idealized visions of medieval politics is “more realistic” is another story. But I think it’s clear that Martin is trying to be “more realistic” (however misapplied that term is). And the lack of political process fantasies between the Deryni series and A Song of Ice and Fire makes me think that it’s not coincidental. Martin is very widely read, and the Deryni novels are, I think, rightly considered to be on the highbrow side of the genre. I’m sure he’s read them.

Rob: Well, the primary setting of the novel is a court and the challenge the prince has in ascending the throne so I’m not sure, like Fred says, the novel would have been as strong – or even worked – had politics not been part of the novel/story. To answer the basic question, I thoroughly enjoyed nearly every aspect of the novel. Kurtz did an incredible job of pulling off the story in such a competent fashion at a relatively young age and for her first novel. I haven’t read any of Sherwood Smith’s work, but I’ll say everything Addison tried to do in The Goblin Emperor was done much more effectively and enjoyably (for my reading sensibilities) by Kurtz here in Deryni Rising. (If it hasn’t become clear at this point, I wasn’t a fan of The Goblin Emperor)

Jonah: I think it’s best that I just echo Rob’s sentiments on Deryni Rising and The Goblin Emperor (since it was reading The Goblin Emperor for Rocket Talk many moons ago that prompted me to pick up Deryni Rising leading indirectly to this chat) and move on.  I want to return a bit to my question which I think I phrased poorly.  I feel like there are some fantasy novels where the geography and magical systems are systematic and predictable - the rules and laws of the world may be different from ours, but the general notion that things are more or less deterministic & predictable still holds.  In others, to borrow Tolkien’s language "You step into the road and if you don't keep your feet there's no telling where you might end up."  With the reference to Elfland above I meant mostly to suggest that Kurtz is on the predictable side of the Fantasy spectrum, but I did so very clumsily. This does, though (to circle back to Paul's question), get at politics.

I don't think that the magic of Kurtz's world intrudes to provide the tension & plot. Nor is there an easy all-encompassing good and evil to fall back on. Instead, it's the people (characters shading into stock tropes) that drive the book - the Grasping Councillors and Superstitious Churchmen seeking to fill a Power Vacuum and opposed by the Young King and his Loyal Allies.  I do feel that many of the characters aren't fully fleshed out, but I don't feel that detracts from the tension of the political machinations.  I think comparisons to Goblin Emperor & Game of Thrones are both apt (the main difference I see in how each book plays out is how reliable trust is), and I've already mentioned I'd include Dune in that lineage (as Kurtz did in her intro)

As for how I find this - it's not my ideal fantasy. I prefer novels with a bit more enchantment in the setting & correspondingly less complexity in plotting, but the book still grabbed me & pulled me through, and it's held up incredibly well. I am always happy to reread Deryni books. I think partly this is because Kurtz's medieval setting is so closely modeled on a time I'm particularly interested in, and she actually takes religion seriously as an important and complex motivating force (spiritual & secular).

Joe: Being a long standing fan of Kurtz’s Deryni work, one of the things I have appreciated most *is* the political aspect and the details of the trappings of power. Compared to some of her later novels, Deryni Rising is rather light on the political aspects (the wonderful council scene notwithstanding). But move on to the earlier set novels and you’re intensely enmeshed in politics and more interestingly to me, religious politics. Kurtz’s use of the church in this series is hugely important.

[Rob] My question is a simple one. Given the length of the series, the legacy, and overall acclaim, isn’t about time that Katherine Kurtz was a recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement? Why do you think she hasn’t received such an honor?

Jonah: I know nothing about the award, but she seems like an extremely worthy candidate.

Paul: The same reasons why lots of worthy people haven’t gotten SF Grandmaster awards: The limited amount given out in a given year, the lack of shortage of worthy candidates, and the bias in genre awards toward male winners. Things are getting better but there is a lot of catchup up to do.

Joe: Despite how passionately we started a discussion on twitter (#deryni) and the fact that she is still publishing new work, Kurtz seems to be a borderline forgotten fantasy author. She seldom comes up in discussions regarding the genre and I’m not sure how much that hurts. But I don’t know what the politics of the selecting a Lifetime Achievement award for World Fantasy are. There are a number of writers I would love to see recognized, many of the major names of the 80’s who I grew up reading, but Katherine Kurtz is very much near the top of that list. I hope she receives the award soon.

Fred: The awarding of status to professionals by professionals is a crime. See Harlan Ellison’s crusade in the 1990’s. Things have changed...hardly at all. Still too many people dying before getting recognition from the SFWA or the World Fantasy. For pity’s sake, give out enough awards each year to catch up. Run a damned Kickstarter if you need funds.

[Joe] Now for the most important question: You’re all going to read more Deryni, right?

Jonah: Eventually? Rereading book 1 coincided with a crapload of really good SFF dropping that I'm still trying to get through, plus I want to finish Kate Elliott's Crossroads trilogy before Black Wolves lands. But it gives me great pleasure to know that the Deryni trilogies are waiting when I'm ready for them.

Paul: Eventually, yes. In my copious free time.

Fred: I’ve read ‘em before and I’ll read ‘em again. I was thinking of going right to the middle book of this trilogy, but I’ve changed my plans. One of my earlier comments talked about the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. I think I’m going to make that a (re)reading project and start with the first books published for that series (which actually predated the official name of the series. That way I’ll pick up the Deryni “in order of publication” amongst the other volumes of the series, plus revisit Tolkien, Peake, Munn and many others.

I wish the publisher of the Camber books would get their act together and come out with new editions (including eBooks). The same with the second Kelson trilogy. Back in print! Please!

The G: Absolutely! But my TBR pile has reached the near-insurmountable stage, so I don't know when. I've got the old SF Book Club omnibus of the first trilogy, though, so it's a near certainty that I will--eventually--get around to it.