Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Microreview [book]: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

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

Image result for the changeling victor lavalle




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

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

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

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

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

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


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for book love inside it

Penalties: -1 for some pacing issues

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

***

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

6 Books with Sebastien De Castell

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

Today he shares his six books with us...


1. What book are you currently reading?

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




2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

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





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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Friday, June 23, 2017

FIRESIDE CHAT with Aaron Vehling of Vehlinggo

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



How would you describe Vehlinggo to the uninitiated?

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


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

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

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

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

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

How has the scene changed over the past few years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


What about the connection between synthwave and science fiction?

You can thank Blade Runner for that.



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

10. OGRE. Always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

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


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

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

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


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




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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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

Pure flintlock awesomeness!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 8/10  

Bonuses: +1 for amazing lead character

Penalties:  N/A  

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

Our scoring system explained.
 


*** 

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Microreview [film]: Wonder Woman


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



(Mild spoilers may follow)

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

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

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

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

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

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

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

----
Posted by: Tia  nerds of a feather contributor since 2014

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nanoreviews: American War, City of Miracles, Recluce Tales


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

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



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

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


 

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

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


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

Friday, June 16, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 05/2017


 Welcome back! You look tired. Our ongoing dystopia got you down? Well I can’t say I have a cure for what ails you, but I do think I might have something that will take the edge off. Six stories, hand selected as my favorite pieces of short SFF from May 2017. These are stories that inspire and soothe, that provoke and unsettle, but there’s a beauty in all of them, and a strength as well.

June seems to have put me in the mind of settings that drag at a person, that try to push them down. Most of the stories in this month’s flight feature worlds—cities, planets, houses, closets—that oppress. And so they feature characters dealing with worlds that let them down, something I’m sure most people can relate to. How those characters react to that disappointment, to that injustice, is what makes the stories beautiful and fortifying. These are works of art that can inspire us to reach out in kindness to those in need, and in righteousness against those who would seek to use systems of oppression to exploit the vulnerable.

So sit down and shake off what burden you can. Let me pour you something...

Tasting Flight - May 2017

“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: The first impression is dominated by a pour like molasses and a strange, otherworldly aroma that breaks into flavors of hope underscored by hardship, strength that cannot be crushed, but cannot be truly free.
Pairs with: Barleywine
Review: Zee was made with a particularly good spring, one that allows them more turns than average—turns that must be used to complete actions, to do work, to travel, to live. It’s something that gives Zee hope when they are young, when they seem to be able to do so much, and the world seems open. And yet as they age and partner and have a child and that child has a spring that can’t handle many turns, that hopeful optimism transforms into something else. This story is dominated by the presence and absence both of the maker of the clockwork people who inhabit this world, this closet. Things are designed and yet things are not fair—if anything they keep most people barely getting by, looking out for themselves. The feeling they have as children that they can change the world, that they can even change their fates, is one that comes crashing down under the weight of what they must do, their burdens and responsibilities. It’s a wrenching story that takes a close look at ability and care, sacrifice and what makes life worth living. It’s tender and heartbreaking, revealing a system that’s broken and the reality that true reform is impossible while everyone refuses to use their turns for others. There is such love in the story, and care, and moments of relief and joy, but at its core, to me, it is a tragedy, albeit one that reveals something beautiful. Zee’s story is the story of many people who find they have to give up so much of themselves in order to do what is right by others, who give and give and give because the system is not built to support its people and so stigmatizes disability and places the burden of care solely on those who care about those with fewer turns, and rewards those who don’t care.

“They Will Take You From You” by Brandon O’Brien (Strange Horizons)
Notes: A nose of citrus and sunrise burn with a bitter fire, revealing a taste like banishing doubt, like a painting of reds and oranges and yellows, colors of heat and hope that cannot be contained.
Pairs with: Double IPA
Review: The Benefactors are aliens who have arrived on Earth in order to cultivate art. To encourage humans to create beauty and meaning and complexity. But they are also there to own that art, and even more than that, to own the artist after their death. The main character of the story is living in this world touched by these alien beings who seem to be collecting a lot of geniuses all at once. People mourn as geniuses are taken, and what’s more than that, images of some of those geniuses are beginning to appear, showing black geniuses bleached white. It is a shocking and dark beginning to a story that revolves around art and ownership, around the idea of benefactors and cultural imperialism. The main character is an artist himself, raised by his grandmother, who might or might not be a genius. Who gets recognized, after all, is still very much a question of race and privilege, and many geniuses are never acknowledged during their lives, only when they die and the Benefactors arrive to take the bodies. The story swirls around this, the way that great artists are consumed by the dominant cultures, by the colonizers, their art twisted to fit a narrative that benefits those who were often instrumental in exploiting and oppressing the artists. The feelings that the main character feels toward the Benefactors are complex, and part of the question is how much the Benefactors actually help. They claim to make geniuses, and yet the main character wonders how much of this way of thinking erases the human genius at work in art. That the Benefactors might give a bit of help at a key moment, but that it shouldn’t mean they have ownership of the artists, and by extension their art. It’s a story of mystery and doubt, violence and art, and it provides a startling and fascinating look at how art and artists are often colonized and redefined after their deaths to provide comfort to those they meant to provoke.

Art by Sam Schechter
"The Heart's Cartography" by Susan Jane Bigelow (Lightspeed)
Notes: Bright and with a lifting fizz that brings a smile even as the deep taste and intricate layers form a ladder of flavor to a better place, one crystal clear and golden.
Pairs with: Belgian Ale
Review: Jade is a young transwoman living in the shade of nature, in the expanse of a large forest, which serves as her refuge in a world that, while not always outwardly violent, is still far from being truly accepting or affirming. When another family moves in who just happen to be time travelers, Jade makes friends with one of them, a young girl named Sally. And in a story that has a great vision of what time travel could be, the real crux of the piece is friendship and acceptance and the power that comes from having control over your own story. For Jade and Sally both, the world isn’t exactly what they want it to be. Sally is constantly moving, constantly being forced to give up her homes, her friends. And Jade is constantly reminded of the ways that she doesn’t fit in, the ways that she is alone. I love the way the story makes this difference between loneliness and setting, though. Jade’s isolation is not in that she lives in a less populated area. She doesn’t want to move to a city, and being on her own in the woods isn’t a terrifying prospect. Instead, her loneliness comes from having no one to share the space with, no one to really understand her or interact with her. Until Sally. The two find in each other exactly what they were missing, and yet their time together seems doomed because of the nature of Sally’s family. Through it all, though, the story maintains a charming voice and a heartwarming sincerity that speaks of hope and acceptance even in a sea of uncertainty.

Art by Galen Dara
“Read Before Use” by Chinelo Onwualu (Uncanny)
Notes: Sharp like betrayal and tinged with the tastes of metal and blood, the flavor sinks and rises, flashing with joy and resilience while remaining bittersweet and complex.
Pairs with: Red IPA
Review: Satelight City runs on free energy designed by builders long dead, whose technology works despite the current population not really understanding how. At least, it’s been working up until recently. And really, there is one person who might not know how the technology works, but does have a good idea on where to look to find out. Alia is a scholar and teacher from a foreign land, a fact that makes her an outsider in a city ruled by a tight cadre of aristocratic psions. Despite her credentials and achievements being impeccable, her position is in jeopardy and in order to gain some security she needs to do what no one else has done—find the key to fixing the failing technology that allows Satelight City to exist inside a dome. And the story does a great job of showing how this city forces those born outside the ruling elite to compete with each other, betray each other all in an attempt to get what scraps are offered. That the city lives under a dome and with seemingly unlimited energy are things that some might think would lead to utopian conditions, but what the story shows is that corruption and tyranny can find a way. That it’s not enough to have plenty. That what’s really at stake here is power, and people like Alia find themselves continually running after approval in order to be safe, in order to be allowed to stay, to study, and to live. Outside of the psions, the conditions of the city might be better than outside the city dome, but only enough to motivate people to hold to what they have and not question the demands of the psions. It’s a tightly paced adventure of a story with twists and turns, victories that turn to ashy defeats. Alia is someone with power inside of her, with the ability to use fire magic, and yet even that becomes a liability because the psions fear those with power outside of their control, and the tragedy of the story is that ability and potential are squandered, knowledge lost, because the system does not truly care about merit, only upholding the status of the psions.

“The Stars that Fall” by Samantha Murray (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: With a pour like searching the night sky and a taste nearly sweet and nearly terrifying, the profile built is one of vast distance and bold intimacy.
Pairs with: Black Lager
Review: Everyone has a death, and it’s waiting for them in space. A small rock that will fall as a meteor and take them, obliterate them. For the main character of the story, this is something of a horror, to know that this might happen at any moment, to have seen it happen to old and young alike. For their friend Sara, though, it’s exciting, and the two of them spend a lot of time together looking up at the mass of rocks, searching for their death. The story unfolds in an isolation where the main character pursues this interest not because they’re incredibly into it but because it gets them close to Sara. That closeness offers comfort but also danger, the possibility that it might all come unraveling. The way the story builds these rocks in space, each one engraved with a name, is interesting and almost morbid. But I also love that not many people care about looking up. They all want to keep their attention on the ground, on what’s going on around them. Partly this is healthy, because it stops them from being fixated on that one point, the unknown death. Partly, though, it’s also rather careless, because there are things to learn from the sky, as the main character discovers. And what they learn provokes them to take chances that they might not have, to try and build something before it’s too late. The story becomes about living in the shadow of something but not being defined by it, not being limited by it. Because in many ways we all live under shadows, under the reassurances of our mortality, and yet in the face of that we create beauty and life and laughter. Things that are ephemeral and temporary but also things that are worth fighting for, worth living for.

“Bear Language” by Martin Cahill (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: Notes of sweet honey bring light to to a pour dark brown like matted fur, like damp wood, like a home that is no longer safe, and delivers a balanced and rich flavor that lingers on the tongue.
Pairs with: Honey Bock
Review: Joanna and Oliver are staying with their father while their mother deals with a family emergency. At least, that’s the story they are told. Meanwhile, they have something of an emergency of their own to contend with when a bear walks through an open door into the house and the three humans retreat upstairs, to a room defined by the fear of the children and the slowly crumbling psyche of the father. I love the way the story contrasts the father and the bear. The bear, who is so patient and who Joanna can communicate with, who begins to teach Joanna the language of bears and the proper ways a parent watches over their child. Meanwhile the alcoholism and abuse present in the father become more and more apparent, and his treatment of the his children makes the story toe the line between fantasy and horror. Between bear and man, it’s not difficult to tell which is beastly and which is civilized, the bear offering for Joanna and Oliver some measure of protection and control, though it’s also not really an ideal situation. But the story examines how this family tries to fit together and might ultimately fall apart. It doesn’t flinch away from the anger of the father and the toxic masculinity that he showcases, the need to threaten and dominate to hide his own lack of control—in the situation with the bear but also larger than that, in the way he doesn’t control his drinking or his relationships. The story shows how Joanna learns to stand up against the shadow of her father and show a fierceness that she, and he, didn’t know she had. It doesn’t erase the damage done, or even really fix what’s been broken, but it does leave room for hope that the harm will not continue, that freedom and security are still possible.

---

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Listening to the Hugos: Fancast

Welcome to another edition of Reading the Hugos! Though, since we're talking fancasts today we've temporarily rebranded to Listening to the Hugos! The exclamation is entirely optional and can be excluded if you're not feeling the excitement at any given moment.

This is my second year listening to podcasts and much like last year I have not listened to many SFF themed podcasts, especially since Rocket Talk and Midnight in Karachi seem to have gone on hiatus - which is a pity. As such, you'll see that none of my nominees are on the final ballot. Half of this year's finalists are familiar to me from previous years (Tea & Jeopardy, Rageaholic, Galactic Suburbia), two I have listened to on and off over the last several years (Coode Street, Fangirl Happy Hour), and one was completely new to me (Ditch Diggers). This is a much stronger ballot than what was on offer last year and I was happy to give all of them another listen.

On to the finalists!


The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan
Ditch Diggers, presented by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace
Fangirl Happy Hour, presented by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, presented by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch
The Rageaholic, presented by RazörFist
Tea and Jeopardy, presented by Emma Newman with Peter Newman


The Rageaholic: I'm going to recycle much of what I said last year regarding The Rageaholic because everything I said then applies in full this year: "While I think The Rageaholic could work as a straight up audio podcast, I'm not sure I really want someone yelling at me for ten to twenty minutes straight. If I wanted that I'd put The Rageaholic on in the background and not watch the screen. I appreciate Razorfist's passion and ability to pull out a ten plus minute rant seemingly without pausing to take a breath. I'm exhausted just listening to the man. I'm slightly curious how much of this is off the cuff brilliance or if he scripts up enough talking points to pull it off. Either way, the man has the ability to just blow and to do so with some profane eloquence. These video game rants, even on the stuff he loves, isn't entirely my cuppa (assuming I actually drank a cuppa, which I do not), but The Rageaholic comes with a fresh (and angry) perspective"

The difference this year is that The Rageaholic is up against a much stronger lineup of podcasts, and I vastly prefer an audio podcast over a video fancast. I sampled two of Razorfist's videos (my personal minimum for this category. My opinion was set after one episode, but it's always best to make sure) and this just isn't for me.

Tea and Jeopardy: My problem with Tea and Jeopardy is the framing device Emma Newman uses. The conceit here is that Newman is inviting a guest to her garden for a spot of tea. While I get that this is only a small part of the podcast, it is enough to completely put me off from subscribing. The episodes with Kate Elliott and Charlie Jane Anders were otherwise great conversations when Newman and her guests were not engaging with the framing device. It's just that the framing device is a complete turn off for me.  Since I've only listened to two episodes of this year's run, I'm can't be sure, but I think there Newman is also telling a serial story as part of the framing device - and this should interest me, but it really doesn't. I'm unlikely to listen to another episode unless Newman interviews an author I simply can't miss.

Galactic Surburbia: Winner of the 2015 Best Fancast Hugo. For this one I only sampled one episode, the year's end wrap up episode. I find my opinion on the conversation to be much the same as when I considered the category the year they won, which is simply that it was unable to grab my interest. Two years ago I struggled to get into any podcasts.  This time around I listen to many, but I'm going to pass on Galactic Suburbia. Since this is a five time finalist and one time winner of Best Fancast, I am clearly in the minority here.

Fangirl Happy Hour: I love the energy and passion that Ana Grilo and Renay Williams brings to the table (or, to the microphone, as the case may be). Grilo is part of the editing team behind the Hugo Finalist Semiprozine Book Smugglers (which was also a 2014 Finalist for Best Fanzine), a publisher crushing it with a number of very well regarded short works. Williams is one of the editors for Lady Business, now twice a finalist for Best Fanzine. I've listened to at least a third of the 2016 episodes, so I didn't give the primer episode a go. Williams and Grilo wear their fandom on their sleeves and make no bones about ranting on what bothers them about books and the shenanigans of genre or ranting in joyful excitement about the stuff they love. They get deep into what's going on behind the scenes of a story, bringing a serious level of depth and theory, examining why something works or in what way a novel might have failed while otherwise being an entertaining story.

The Coode Street Podcast: Back in my "I don't listen to podcasts" days, I tried The Coode Street Podcast and bounced off it much as I bounced off of every other podcast at that time. As a finalist for this year's Hugo Award it was time to give Strahan and Wolfe another shot and this time it stuck. Coode Street brings the perspective of an editor producing some of the finest anthologies today (Strahan) and a reviewer who's been doing the work for years (Wolfe). Coode Street feels like a conversation that has been going on for years and we're getting the chance to listen in. It's good stuff and the focus is on the parts of genre I tend to love. I listened to a wider cross section of episodes than the recommended ones.

Ditch Diggers: Despite not being a writer and not having much intention in becoming a published writer, I find myself fascinated by the Ditch Diggers podcast. Matt Wallace and Mur Lafferty drop a whole of truth about the reality of being a published writer and doing the work - or, as they refer to it, digging the ditches. They're not talking about the glamour of being an "author", they're talking about the work of being a professional writer. I listened to their recommended episodes (22: Guide to Absolute Failure, 26: Kameron Hurley and Hannah Bowen, 27: Madeline Ashby) and then I kept going.


My ballot
1. Ditch Diggers
2. The Coode Street Podcast
3. Fangirl Happy Hour
4. Galactic Suburbia
5. Tea and Jeopardy
6. The Rageaholic


Our previous coverage:
Novella 
Novelette
Short Story
Graphic Story


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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Microreview [book]: The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

All great things must come to an end.


I've agonized over how to write this review, of the final chapter in a fantasy series that I can say without hesitation is the best I've ever read. To be frank, I'm not even sure I could adequately summarize the plot--not without giving something away that's best left to the joy of discovery. But here goes nothing.

The Lady of the Lake is the fifth and final volume in The Witcher Cycle, a series first published in Polish and then translated into Spanish, French, Russian, etc. Though an international sensation, English readers are getting it late. The only reason we are getting it at all is because CD Project Red adapted the series into a successful game franchise.* As they say, though, better late than never.

The book begins with Geralt on the trail of his erstwhile protege Ciri, the prophesied "destroyer of worlds." She is also being pursued by agents of the Nilfgaardian Empire, who seek to marry her off to the Emperor; renegade sorcerer Vilgefortz and his henchman, Bonhart, who seek to harness her power for their own nefarious ends; and the Lodge of Sorceresses, who seek to restore a balance of power between the Empire and the Northern kingdoms (presently in the midst of a cataclysmic war). Ciri enters the Tower of the Swallow and promptly disappears...

...and ends up in an Elven dimension that exists in parallel not only to the Witcher's world, but also to our own. The elves have their own designs on Ciri, namely, to give birth to the child that will restore elven greatness. She escapes, with the help of interdimensional telepathic unicorns, who help Ciri discover that her true gift is, essentially, the power to melt spacetime.

Yes, you read all that correctly.

Once back in the real world (not ours, but the Witcher's), the main actors in this drama begin to converge on Stygga Castle, where Vilgefortz holds both Ciri and Yennefer captive. As this unfolds, the Imperial and Northern armies meet in a battle so intense and bloody that it makes the Blackwater look like a back alley slap fight. I'd say more, but you really should just read the damned thing.

The Lady of the Lake is an immensely gratifying yet deeply unnerving conclusion to the series. There are moments when it is touching, romantic, funny and just plain fun. At others, it is unbearably sad and utterly terrifying. It is a deeply political book, as I've discussed earlier. Sapkowski deconstructs the archetypes of good and evil that Tolkein modeled for the genre, but without resort to the tired "everyone is terrible" canard. Racism plays a central role in the narrative, as does misogyny. In both cases, it feels like Sapkowski is way ahead of the curve for 2017; then you remember that these books were written 15 years ago.

Another appealing element of the book, and the series, is the moral ambiguity of its powerholders. Nilfgaard is an oppressive, autocratic and megalomaniacal power; yet the Northern kingdoms--which would be coded as "Western" (and thus "good") in traditional fantasy, are monstrously violent and cruel places, where nonhumans are forced to live in ghettoes where they are defenseless against pogroms and other, more mundane indignities. Meanwhile, the Elven Scoia'tael, who resist by force of arms, are straight-up terrorists who seemingly take joy from violence against defenseless civilians. Does this dynamic sound familiar? It sure does to me.

Sapkowski clearly draws from the darker side of Polish and European history, using his fantasy setting to explore various aspects of human behavior (sociological, psychological, etc.) in a strikingly sophisticated manner. Like I said, this is a smart book.

The Lady of the Lake is not, however, the kind of monotonically grim fantasy that has proliferated over the past decade. There is goodness in the world, as well as in all but the very worst actors in this drama. And people surprise you--just when you think you've got things figured out, someone does something unexpected. It may be an unexpected kindness from a character who has hitherto appeared cold and calculating; or someone Geralt or Ciri came to trust demonstrates why trust, in this world, should be conferred selectively.

The overarching theory, then, isn't that the world that is inherently dark and foreboding, and human nature irredeemable in the face of naked self-interest. Rather, it is of corruption by ignorance, jealousy and the pursuit of power, and redemption through personal bonds of friendship, love and loyalty. These are timeless concepts, and by no means original to the series; yet they are striking nonetheless, by virtue of their flawless execution, and the degree to which we come to care about what happens to Geralt, Ciri, Yennefer and the others.

The Lady of the Lake is also stylistically daring. As in The Tower of the Swallow, narratives are often fragmented across several timelines and character perspectives. However, it works better this time. The epic Battle of Brenna shifts between the perspectives of various combatants, and the doctor running a field hospital in its midst. Throughout Sapkowski intersperses vignettes, often centered on peripheral characters, which themselves may link back to events occurring elsewhere. Keeping everything straight can be a challenge, but when the book concludes, the payoff is considerable.

The book ends on a curious note, which I will not mention. But suffice to say it raises as many questions as it provides answers. I have my theories, but will have to read the cycle again in order to see how they are borne out.

I could go on, but in the interests of brevity, let me just say this: The Lady of the Lake is, without any doubt, the best and most profound fantasy novel I have ever read. It is hard to put down, yet also a challenging and deeply rewarding book. And it is genuinely moving. I have never read a fantasy series like this, and suspect I never will again.

*Note: the games have a different plot from the books. It has been suggested that they are a sequel to or alternate version of the Saga, though Sapkowski says this is not possible.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 10/10.

Bonuses: None. You can't top perfection.

Penalties: None.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10. "Mind-blowing/life-changing."

***

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


Reference: Sapkowski, Andrzej. The Lady of the Lake [Orbit/Gollancz, 2017]

Tabletop Pile of Shame: New Year's Resolution Update

Moving forward I need to make all of my New Year's Resolutions board game related.  One of my
resolutions this year was to play 10 games from my pile of shame and I am happy to report that I am writing my third entry in this series and have crossed the half-way point!

In my first entry I played Abyss and Colt Express, my second entry featured Carrotia and Codenames, and I am pleased to report that my third entry features Just Desserts and Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City.  Hopefully I will be able to chime in soon that I have played games number seven and eight.



Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City by Pandasaurus Games -If you have read any of my board game related posts then you should be aware that my family and I are a big fan of the Machi Koro series.  I have included it previous holiday guides and feel that it should be on everyone's shelf.  It is, in my opinion, the best gateway game on the market.  About a year ago I saw that Target had an exclusive version of Machi Koro and was curious, but was good with our current copy and expansions.  Bright Lights, Big City is no longer exclusive to Target and should be available at your FLGS.  Even though I never planned on picking up a new version of Machi Koro, I heard in various gaming groups and from some friends that this was the definitive version of Machi Koro.  After having a copy for a few months, I decided to give it a whirl with my 9 year old son and we instantly fell in love it.  It takes all of the good elements from the expansions, eliminates some of the cards that can get overpowered, and introduces some new elements to provide a quicker, more polished Machi Koro experience.  The experience reminds me of the first time I played the base game with the Harbor expansion.  Bright Lights, Big City randomizes what cards are available, but organizes them in a way to provide a balanced pool of cards to select from.  It also introduces the third dice, which is an absolute game changer.  Some people are bothered by randomization, which I feel Machi Koro hedged effectively from the beginning, and the Moon Tower grants you even more control.  It also allows you to pretend that you are in Dazed and Confused and that everything is alright, alright, alright.



Just Desserts by Looney Labs - My wife got this game for Christmas and it sadly collected dust on my pile of shame for nearly six months.  I had heard this was a light card game that was a good filler, and I thought that she would enjoy the dessert theme.  In the game, you assume the role of a server trying to provide desserts to your guests.  There are a series of guests of different suits with dietary needs, and you collect cards on your turn to try to gather the necessary ingredients to serve them up a tasty treat.  There are bonuses if you have the specific dish they are looking for, and you can try to focus on one particular suit of guests or serve a variety of hungry patrons.  Just Desserts is a good filler game that is appropriate for the entire family.  I would recommend it if your family is just starting to get into the hobby or are looking for a quick game to take on the road or play during a busy game night.

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