Friday, December 29, 2017

Contributor Profile: Phoebe

Welcome to the newest member of our flock, Phoebe! Phoebe will be covering YA books, but in true nerds of a feather tradition, she will also be writing on, well, whatever she likes! Please join me in offering her a hearty welcome! 

NAME: Phoebe Wagner AKA Phoebus AKA Bigfoot


NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): YA/Young Adult, Fantasy, Folklore

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Need more women, diversity, LGBTQ+ rep


RIGHT NOW I'M READING: White Cat by Holly Black

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo and Strange Angels Series by Lili St. Crow.

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: Midnight Taxi Tango by Daniel José Older and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: My favorite superhero will always and forever be Wolverine. Does Loki count as a super-villain? 'Cause I also love Loki.

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: Shape-shifting. Hence the werewolves.





EVERYONE SHOULD SEE Thor: Ragnarok BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE (Seriously, not just because of Loki)


WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: I'm a bit salty about this. It's totally Lost. Why is BSG even on here? WHY? -starts sobbing-



Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

After taking a few weeks off I am happy to return to our regularly programmed Thursday Morning Superhero just in time for one last post in 2017. Upon reflecting on the year in comics, we really had some outstanding books to read, including Redneck, Saga, Dept. H, Paper Girls, and a collection of some pretty rad Star Wars titles. Hopefully 2018 will be another banner year for comics with some awesome surprises.

Pick of the Week:
Star Wars Adventures #5 - No book has surprised me more this year than this all-ages Star Wars title. This issue includes the conclusion of The Trouble at Tibrin and another short story about Porgs. The Porgs may have influenced my love of this issue, but in all seriousness this is must read material for Star Wars families. I really enjoyed how the script was flipped and in The Trouble at Tibrin features Leia rescuing a captured Luke from a Star Destroyer. Complete with the trash compactor monster, we are reminded that Leia was a force to reckon with. This short story really showcased how intelligent and fierce Leia was and reminds me that she was a character that was well ahead of her time. The second story in this is all about Porgs! Porgs! Porgs! Porgs! Did you know a group of Porgs is called a murder? How cool is that?  I love Porgs! They are Puffins that were digitally turned into Porgs after filming!!!

The Rest:
Redneck #8 - We are only in the second issue of the new arc and it has already hit the fan. Redneck might be my favorite new book of 2017, and this issue is a great example of why that is the case. The southern Baptist notes mixed with family loyalty and sprinkled with special powers makes for an intriguing read. If you are looking for a horror title to add to your pull list look no further than this series. The creative team of author Donny Cates, artist Lisandro Estherren, colorist Dee Cunniffe and letterer Joe Sabino deliver one helluva book.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - The Storms of Crait #1 - Not sure if this is an ongoing or a simple one-shot, but this issue is a self-contained story of the rebels attempting to secure a base on the mining planet Crait. Following The Last Jedi, it is natural to feature a story on the mining planet and this one accomplished that task. A fun, if forgettable, issue that I enjoyed and have no plans of revisiting in the near future. Much like the planet of Crait.

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Yet Another Spoiler-Filled Take on The Last Jedi

This is now the third take on The Last Jedi we’ve posted. First, there was Dean’s ebullient review of the film, followed by Joe’s tempered praise. Now I enter the fray, Tarken-like, to rain on everyone’s parade.

I jest, of course. I didn’t hate the film; I just didn’t love it either. To me, The Last Jedi is perfectly mediocre. Indeed, if I were to rank all the Star Wars films, I’d put it third from the bottom, beating only the execrable Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Thankfully, The Last Jedi isn’t that bad of a film. It is, at least, good at being a film. It's just not great at being a Star Wars film. As far as the Disney franchise goes, I prefer both The Force Awakens and Rogue One by a significant margin.  

WARNING: spoilers.

First, what I did like: the characters. The core trio of Rey, Finn and Poe are likeable, relatable and well developed, while Kylo Ren’s angry-teen-with-issues adds a unique and compelling new villain mold to the Star Wars pantheon. I also enjoyed Phasma’s limited screen time and of course love BB-8 (who doesn't). This is a good cast, and Rian Johnson does a solid job of putting the actors in position to succeed. This contrasts with the prequels, where the new characters were either bland (Bail Organa, Qui-Gon, Padme Amidala), offensive (Jar-Jar, the Trade Federation), criminally underused (Darth Maul, Count Dooku) or weighed down by poor acting (Anakin).

At least it wasn't this
I also enjoyed Luke’s arc. Here we have the former hero, whose training you will recall was cut short by crisis. Now he is the master, and clearly could have used a bit more of Yoda’s wisdom and patience. Tthings don’t go well training a powerful and troubled Ben Solo, akin to how they didn’t go well for Obi-Wan training a powerful and troubled Anakin. Luke reacts poorly, creating a crisis; he becomes so consumed by guilt that he abandons the cause he once championed.

This was a smart take. “Power corrupts” is a cliché, but we don’t often dwell on those who grow uncomfortable with wielding great power, or the burden it places on the individual. His ultimate redemption is, in my opinion, the high point of the film. The way it plays out is genuinely surprising, and packs an emotional punch.

Unfortunately, those are pretty much the only things I liked. It's worth mentioning that only some of my issues with The Last Jedi are specific to the film, while others are legacy issues from The Force Awakens. A third category are likely casualties of the switch from mystery-box-loving JJ Abrams to the decidedly unsentimental Johnson.

Some of my just-this-film issues are also scene-specific. Space Leia is cringeworthy, while the detour through Canto Bight feels tacked on and half-baked. I’m also decidedly not a fan of salt Hoth, which simply reshoots an iconic scene from Empire with cute dog-like creatures and far less majesty. Luke’s denouement aside, the whole scene feels lazy and derivative. Oh, and I wish they'd done a better job writing new character Rose Tico. I like Kelly Marie Tran in the role, but the screenwriters don't give her much to work with--a more compelling pathos would have been appreciated.

The Last Jedi as Episode VIII

The rest of the film, if considered on its own, is fine. But you can’t just consider it on its own; it is part 2 of a trilogy, and part 8 of a nexus. And it is in this framework that Episode VIII failed to impress me.

The Force Awakens presents viewers with two mystery boxes: (1) who are Rey’s parents and (2) who the fuck is Snoke. The answer to (1) works for me—it goes against the grain of Star Wars tradition, but it’s not a tradition I put much stock in. It’s nice to see that she’s basically a nobody, and that nobodies can be heroes too. But the answer to mystery box (2) is deeply unsatisfying, because it isn’t an answer.

Granted, the tie-in novels tell us that Snoke is a Sith dude floating around the Outer Rim, who had standing orders from Palpatine to come lead the fight in the event of the Emperor's death. But who reads the tie-in novels? One percent of the people who watch the films? Two? Bottom line, this really should have been answered in the film, and failing to do so essentially tells hardcore fans that they were wasting their time thinking about it over the past two years. Worse, developing the mystery surrounding Snoke would have been a fantastic opportunity to imbue the film with an air of enchantment. Johnson could easily have taken out the tedious detour to Canto Bight, or the downright awful Space Leia scene, and given us some extended Snoke exposition—something that would have made his death climactic rather than anti-climactic.

This could have been so cool
My biggest gripe with The Last Jedi, though—or rather, with the Disney trilogy as a whole—is its lack of vision. The original trilogy, of course, tells an old story, one that’s common in global mythology as well as central to fantasy literature: the rag tag band of plucky individuals who confront immense power and triumph against all odds. This is now thoroughly cliché in sci-fi film. I mean, think about the major YA franchises of the past decade—Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc. They are all deploying the Star Wars formula. So it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t a cliché yet in 1977. There are also extra layers to the story, which give it richness--about the arrogance that military power breeds and the redemptive power of love, specifically, that of a father for his child.

For all their many faults, the prequels also house a compelling vision: of how—in pursuit of security—free societies underwrite their own demise. There’s been a lot written over the past year on how citizens in democratic states can recognize creeping authoritarianism. Whenever I read these, I am reminded of Padme’s line toward the end of Revenge of the Sith: “so this is how liberty dies; with thunderous applause.”

This has--and is--happening in many parts of the world, as elected officials consolidate power in their persons and stack the deck against would-be opponents. There are many Palpatines in our world, most of whom do not take power so much as convince their citizenries to give up freedoms and protections in the name of security, prosperity and the chance to blame some bogeyman or another--usually ethnic minorities, foreigners or class enemies--for every slight, real or imagined. Lucas put this to film a full decade before most Westerners realized the danger was also a danger to us, and not just to "those people over there." Too bad, then, that the prequels are so bad at being movies.

This brings us to the on-going Disney trilogy, which so far has presented a vision of...the exact same one as the original trilogy. Actually, there is a mild subversion of the original trilogy’s meta-narrative, but one so mild that it's barely a critique. Once again, we have a rag tag group of plucky individuals who confront immense power and (are sure to) triumph against all odds. And the films hit you over the head with the referential frying pan. Starkiller Base from The Force Awakens is the Death Star, but bigger! Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, but emo! Luke’s island is Dagobah, salt planet is Hoth, casino planet is Cloud City and so forth and so on. It's the same old same old, only with crappier design and little romance--the kind of thing dreamed up by corporate executives with checklists in hand and theme park rides in mind.

Why bother designing a new battle sequence when you can just re-use an old one?
The creative decision to track the original trilogy isn’t just unimaginative; it's also a missed opportunity to use the Star Wars platform to make a statement. Think back to where we are at the end of Return of the Jedi. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are dead, the new Death Star has been destroyed and much of the Imperial fleet is toast as well. As both the now moribund expanded universe and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath novels describe, this is followed by a period of intense chaos, where the New Republic steadily gains group against a demoralized and scattered rump Empire, which is increasingly relegated to the outer systems.

There are residual elements of this narrative in The Force Awakens. We learn that the New Republic is disinterested in a new confrontation. The First Order make their move against the New Republic anyway, committing planetacide, only to be stymied by the Resistance (i.e. the rag tag band of plucky individuals), who blow up Starkiller Base and First Order HQ (and presumably a lot of First Orderinos). Thus one assumes that the First Order has been dealt a significant blow and the New Republic is now aware of the serious threat they pose. Thus we might expect a shift of focus to the New Republic--weak and fractured, but still the biggest player in the game. What challenges might the Resistance struggle to overcome? A risk-averse, war-weary leadership? Incompetent governance, or an inability to mobilize a restive galaxy? Perhaps a traitor in the midst, sowing discord from within? Nope, nope and nope. Instead, in the text crawl that introduces The Last Jedi, we learn this:

The FIRST ORDER reigns. Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy. 
Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stand against the rising tyranny, certain that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will return and restore a spark of hope to the fight.

So. The New Republic is inexplicably gone, and the First Order reigns supreme, despite its seemingly catastrophic losses. This serves one purpose, and one purpose only: to make sure we understand that this series is about a rag tag band of plucky individuals who confront immense power and (are certain to) triumph against all odds, and none of that other stuff.

What bothers me most is that I don’t need to see this story again, not when it’s been done so many times (and, in my opinion, done better in the original trilogy). What I really would have liked to see is a story that takes place amid the New Republic’s struggles to consolidate its authority, to present a more just and equitable system than its predecessor—and to do so in a context of deep economic uncertainty, institutional collapse and an ongoing insurgency.

This story is common in our world. Think about the various outcomes of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, from the mostly successful introduction of democracy in Tunisia to the retrenchment of military rule in Egypt, civil war in Syria and utter chaos in Libya. There are a few references to this kind of context in The Force Awakens, but only the tiniest glimpse of it in The Last Jedi (i.e. the allies who never show up). Yet this could have been the centerpiece in a unique and compelling grand vision, namely, how difficult it is to build something just in evil’s wake, and not accidentally underwrite new forms of dystopia.

I can’t help but wonder if the recourse to "fighting tyranny against all odds" reflects a peculiarly Western gaze, one in which there is only liberty (good) and tyranny (bad). The reality is infinitely greyer. There are party states, which take the form of democracy but whose elections are neither free nor fair; and elected strongman systems, where the skeletal form of democracy legitimates illiberal forms of governance. There are rational authoritarian states that do a better job delivering services than most if not all democracies; there are democracies that just seem to work, despite the deck seemingly being stacked against their long-term survival; and there are states that regularly swing back and forth between democracy and military authoritarianism. Even Western democracies, long been assumed to house stable institutions and robust systems of checks and balances, seem a lot less stable and a lot less robust than they once did. In fact, we all some insterstitial space between idealized liberty and demonized tyranny.

...but wait: why does Star Wars have to adopt a “realistic” morality? Isn’t it inherently about archetypes of good facing those of evil? Can't we just enjoy those kinds of stories for once?

To a degree it does, disembodied voice—but less that some people presume. Darth Vader exists in the grey area between good and evil, as does Kylo Ren. So, one might argue, do Luke and Rey—tempted as each has been by the dark side (even if, ultimately, they reject its siren call). In the end Star Wars still is mostly about good and evil, just not quite as starkly as it is sometimes framed. It's about good people with good intentions making difficult choices and not always choosing right, but finding a way in the end through sheer force of will and love for the people who love you back.

There is, of course, some of that in The Last Jedi. I just wish the new films explored those choices from the perspective of the power holders in the post-Imperial period, those burdened by the exercise of power and lack of clear-cut choices. Imagine how well that would have complemented the other two trilogies. It would have been original, it would have been compelling and it might just have been something we'd still revere thirty years from now. Perhaps I'm just yelling at clouds here, but to me that would have been a story worthy of Rey, Finn and Poe...


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


Microreview [TV Show]: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: Season Two

Does season 2 live up to season one's charm?

I enjoyed the first season of Dirk Gently quite a bit. It was an occasionally frustrating, but often charming and strange show with a focus on friendships that I appreciated. So I was looking forward to season two quite a bit. Did it live up to the promise of the first season?

Mostly only in the frustrating parts. The show throws everything from fantasy tropes into the blender and adds it into the world of Dirk Gently to mixed results. The season follows a new case—one where Dirk must find “a boy.” The reasons he needs to? There’s a witch, a house with portals to a fantasy land, knights who use scissors as weapons, and a mighty battle set to begin. Some of this works very well: the incorporation of childhood fears and imagination into the fantasy kingdom and some work not at all.

On the plus side, the set of characters from the first season are back. Samuel Barnett is particularly excellent in this season as Dirk. His blend of over confidence that hides a supreme lack of confidence is played with a skillful, madcap balance. Alongside him, Jade Eshete is still a stand out as Farah and Fiona Dourif is given a little more room to take Bart in compelling directions. However, there’s so much going on that all of the characters end up feeling as if we’ve spent barely any time with them and the relationships so carefully built in the first season are shaken up with not such great results.

The humor this time around often falls flat as well, going too far into being weird for weirds sake rather than the more careful balance of weird and funny that the first season had (and which was somewhat more in keeping with Douglas Adams’ sense of humor.)

Additionally, the villains in this season range from supremely uninteresting to one character (who becomes a villain) that just pissed me off that that’s where the character’s direction was taken in.

Are there elements to enjoy? Certainly. Again, the acting is excellent. The music choices are spot on and the visuals are often strangely delightful.

Ultimately, this is a second season that feels like it should’ve been saved for a later season in the show—when these risks might have felt more earned for the characters. I was really rooting for Dirk Gently to succeed, but having heard that BBC America has chosen to cancel it, I can see that it was a few risks too many. That being said, definitely check out season one which (save for the last few minutes) works well as a stand alone mini-series.

 The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the corgi returning, +1 for Samuel Barnett

Penalties: -1 for aggravating character decisions, -1 for being somewhat of a mess

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

Microreview [video game]: Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus by Machine Games (developer)

Let Freedom Ring

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is not Wolfenstein: The New Order. That much should be obvious from the title, but I want to make it perfectly clear. If you go into The New Colossus expecting more of the tone or content of The New Order, you will be disappointed. I know this because for the first half of the game, I was disappointed.

The New Colossus picks up immediately after the events of The New Order. You’ve dealt the Nazis a defeat, but not a killing blow, and they’re still in charge. But instead of liberating Europe, you’re moving on to free America. America surrendered after the Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on New York City, so you and your team of misfits are going to start a new American revolution.

I think maybe I have rose-tinted glasses when thinking back to The New Order, because I recall handily beating that game on “I am Death Incarnate” difficulty (the highest you can start with) and loving it. I started The New Colossus the same way and immediately died over and over until I realized that this isn’t fun and dialed the difficulty down to their version of “medium”. Even with the difficulty turned down, the game is still very challenging because you die very quickly if you don’t have armor. Even when you do have armor, there isn’t much indicating you’re being shot or where you’re being shot from until that armor has evaporated, and then you’re essentially done for.

However, the shooting and action does feel great. Enemies visibly react to being shot, weapons all have an appropriate punch to them, and heavy weapons can make you feel invincible. When you’re not sneaking around (which is still an option), you can run, dodge, shoot from cover, and melee, all of the options you want from an solid action game.

Thematically, The New Colossus is about revolution, and not the dour, grim game that The New Order frequently was. It rapidly switches from Nazi oppression and fascism on display to humor and humanity. It’s more rollercoaster than whiplash though, handled in a manner that few games can pull off. It’s a game that will shock you sometimes, but the shocks aren’t meaningless. They serve a purpose.

I’ve heard plenty of other people say that anyone wanting to play Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus should turn the difficulty down to easy and run through it, which I don’t particularly agree with. The action is fun and worth engaging with, even though it does suffer from lack of feedback. And running through the levels to get to the next cutscene neglects the wealth of background information in the well-done collectibles as well as the beautifully designed levels themselves. Maybe take one approach or the other, but play it. It doesn’t quite live up to The New Order, but it’s still an excellent addition to the series.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 If you thought The New Order did some wild stuff, you're in for more surprises.

Penalties: -1 Difficulty spikes and lack of feedback when you're being shot.

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


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

Reference: Machine Games (developer). Wolfenstein 2: The New Colosssus [Bethesda Softworks, 2017]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Television review of 2017 - the year it beat cinema

This was finally the year I admitted to myself that I preferred television/streaming dramas to feature films. The level of production quality has risen, at least in the small perspective I have had, to such a point that these novels of the small screen have succeeded big screen entertainment as the most vital and compulsive form of getting a story fix. We could repeat the old argument of film versus books and short stories, and I think the merits of both remain matching enough that the conclusions remain the same. I admit, meanwhile, almost no knowledge of the gaming world's large strides in the area of telling tales, and offer opportunity to those with that experience to shoot my viewpoint down. However, small-screen drama has done several things to transcend traditional short-comings of televisual story-telling.

The rare hallmark of exceptional TV drama in years past (the Six Feet Unders, the Crackers, the Wires, the Sopranos, the older world of miniseries like Roots and Edge of Darkness) was defined by not being full of what most were - mediocre dialogue, small budgets, bland shots, near-amateur acting. This is now an expected norm in many countries, especially in most of central and northern Europe, and the US and Canada. Given my UK-USA bias, I'll stick to works in those countries. And given the abundance of series out there, I'll stick to the few I've seen this year, with the strong proviso that I avoid shows like Westworld and Game of Thrones because they are on Sky TV here, and that is too much Murdoch for me to stomach.

In short, it's probably not a bold bet that most of you reading this were more moved by and emotionally invested in long-form in the last twelve months than by what you saw in the cinema or later. I'm not saying that feature films at their best aren't still to my eyes and ears the finest pinnacle of story-telling outside of a novel, I'm just saying that the little cousin has caught up, and in such volume as to overwhelm features. I frown to think back on the new films that blew me away this year - perhaps three or four - and realise that this is because I no longer make the time and money investment of cinema visits. Whilst parenthood has been partly the cause, it's more because I fail to believe much can trump  (I will still use that word in its rightful context despite the shudder) the incredible dramatic experiences this year in particular has brought me on the TV, and, yes, on my phone, often on public transport (as books once did, I'm often sitting amongst other viewers, with a smile or a tear on their face). Sure, I went to see The Last Jedi  this week like everyone else with the inclination and ability to do so, and it was wonderful. But it felt like, well, a box of popcorn in nutritional terms compared to the hearty vegetable stew of series below. So in no particular order, here is a very personal, haphazard list of series I have been amazed by. Whilst they don't all quite fit into the classic Nerds Of A Feather, Flock Together genre areas, all share a spirit and flavour with the incredible works highlighted on these pages (I have left out other standouts like Transparent, Peaky Blinders, Homeland, Ozark, Line of Duty, Catastrophe and many more, for those sort of don't).

(1) Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Originally feeling like a compelling yet shallow computer nerd version of Mad Men (all mysterious arrogant male protagonist dipped in retro nostalgia), this series became, long before this astonishing forth and final season, one of the most accomplished and daring dramas of this decade, and culminated in the best conclusion to a series I've seen since possibly Six Feet Under (a work to which this owes much debt). Nothing else this year matched the emotional impact of seeing these five colleagues and friends arrive at a finish line that for once was allowed to be set with purpose and patience by the creators. The setting and subject became less and less relevant (though no less enjoyable) as the masterplan of the writers emerged - that this, like all the greatest tales, was about emotional connections and the rewards that they bring, and the tolls they take. The last three episodes made my smile and cry more than any film, book or other show this year. Exemplary acting, music, sound, cinematography, dialogue to wallow in... superb.

(2) Mr Robot (USA Network)
The talk of the town online is that this third series had some acceleration issues, yet managed to bring the tale of Elliot and co back from the nervy and stalled second series' worrying lack of popularity. 'Worrying', because the idea of this being cancelled by a less assured network like USA was not unimaginable, as so few get to go out how they want to, like Halt was given reign to, and the thought of what I'd unreservedly call the most stylish and daring show in the English-speaking world at this moment being axed is almost unbearable. What Sam Esmail manages in the central section of this propulsive, confusing, depressing, amusing and compelling season is to bring back the sheer excitement the first season had in spades. Indeed, in the 'one-shot' middle episode and its kinetic immediate follow-up, he and the mind-boggling talented crew and cast delivered perhaps the finest cinematic moments of the year, outside or inside of a cinema. And as with my number 1 pick, this has had more influence on my music listening than any radio show or music blog .

(3) Preacher (AMC)
Coming in a close second to Robot in the cinematic ambition stakes, this adaptation of the comics really hit its stride in a sophomore season that felt like a different and better beast to the opening one. At times it and its downbeat understated protagonist tried the patience, but like a drunken master, could suddenly wow with scenes and performances so audacious as to make me laugh out loud. Violent for the sake of it, yes, and perhaps a little to content with itself, Preacher nevertheless did more outrageous and rebellious things even in its cold opens than most features have the bold guts to do over two hours or so. And all whilst British people do bad American accents. Seriously, doesn't it annoy you all? It's like Bruce Willis playing a cop on Sherlock (and he knows a bad accent when he hears one - R.I.P. Alan Rickman, by the way).

(4) Godless (Netflix)
Staying with hats, guns and whiskey, and wonky accents by people from England, Godless was a late but welcome surprise. The Western hasn't exactly gone away, and a lot of what this new minseries did was cliche and in the shadow of Deadwood and Hatfield and McCoys et al. At times, indeed, when a hat was tipped against a sunset once too often, Godless wobbled on the edge of self-parody. Yet what brought me to it (the cast, the ambition of the shooting format, the promise of those big skies I grew up dreaming of) stood firm against these flaws, and began to take off into those big skies when the score swelled and the actors were given room to breathe (seriously, why are Brits still stealing all the roles? When the kid from Love Sodding Actually is superbly playing a deputy sheriff, you know your industry is in trouble). The long finale had major plot issues but beguiled bloodily with the sight of tens of determined women shooting up their own town in defiance of fate.

(5) Turn : Washington's Spies (AMC)
Set even further back in time, this series ended with its head held high and looking to the future (and gave me another tear in the eye), having been saved by the passion of its small following and the dedication of its makers to display as accurate a rendering of the Revolutionary War as John Adams but with a much smaller budget. As with Halt, it was a joy to see the central characters' stories play out to the end, and as with Godless the teetering on the edge of worthy cliches made the moments of clear human truths and excitement all the more rewarding. I admit this one stretches the genre remits of this site beyond standard limits, but given its huge liberties with the timeline of historical occurrences and real people's actual actions, it could be fairly labelled as Alternate History Fantasy, right, editors...? ;)

(6) The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
Perhaps the most widely celebrated of this list, the crisp visuals and unwaveringly-committed performances wove a hypnotic web across the eyes, managing the feat of letting Atwood's mad nightmare seem like something that could almost actually happen, very soon (I'm still not buying the bonnets or reliance on rape in an age of IVF, but still...). As with Robot, the unfortunate shadow of the current Republican administration was a benefit to the underlying messages of the story, and no other drama this year felt quite so urgently in need of being heard, whether for its defiant championing of diversity, sexual equality and political freedoms, or for its simpler and deeper call for individual spiritual freedom. Elisabeth Moss was just astonishing, and this is the first time I have tolerated watching something with Joseph Fiennes in.

(7)all the ones I haven't even seen yet!
American Gods, Legion, Twin Peaks, and Stranger Things - those all sprang to mind without even looking. Some of these have been covered already on this site recently, and I aim to catch up on Gods in the new year, when we will also have a new Dark Materials adaptation to (hopefully) savour. The embarrassment of riches out there is astounding. There really isn't enough time unless you are single, unemployed, a very light sleeper, rich, stoned or a combination of those. Whereas features are increasingly struggling in the face of relectant ticket buyers like me, increasing production costs, and an over reliance on franchise action that can play well across the world. But still the stories come... next year Netflix will release a film twice a week... whoever said all the stories have been told already had never seen so many told so well, and in such number, as this.

written by English Scribbler, occasional contributor since 2013

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Some Extended and Spoiler Filled Thoughts on The Last Jedi

This should go without saying, but please do not read this article if you have not seen The Last Jedi and have any intention of going into the movie without having everything spoiled. I'm about to spoil everything. If you want a non-spoiler review, please check out what Dean has to say.  If you want something specific and non-spoilery from me, let's just say that I thought it was great and I'm trying to sort out just how high to rank the movie based on one viewing and spending too much time thinking about it. Alright. Let's do this.

 When I walked out of the theater two years ago I was giddy and energized by just how much I loved The Force Awakens. I'm not one to bag on the prequel trilogy, but The Force Awakens was refreshing for how much it felt like Star Wars and brought back all of the joy of discovering Star Wars as a child and watching the movies over and over again. It may have been a touch on the nose for echoing the original movie, but the joy of Star Wars was back.

There are far worse comparisons to make for The Last Jedi than The Empire Strikes Back given that Empire is one of the greatest films of all time, one whose reputation continues to grow with each passing year. I'm not quite so bold as to claim The Last Jedi will be regarded on the same level as The Empire Strikes Back.  Only time will give answer to that question. I do wonder, though, how moviegoers felt walking out of the theater having just experience The Empire Strikes Back for the first time. It's a bit of a downer tinged with just enough hope that maybe our heroes have a chance to overcome the Empire, even if there's no clear path to victory.

The Last Jedi is something like that. The Resistance has been crushed to just a handful of survivors and while there is hope and belief flames of a new rebellion will fan from the embers this one, but things may be as dire as they've ever been. So dire, in fact, that my assumption is that Episode IX will take place a number of years, if not at least a decade, later. The Republic is gone. The Resistance is in tatters. If The Resistance was a sports team, reporters would describe them as being in rebuilding mode. They'll hope to contend in a number of years with some additional draft picks if they can keep the nucleus of the team intact.

Something I find interesting is despite being the second movie in a trilogy, The Last Jedi resets the deck for the Star Wars story. This is something we can argue should have been done in The Force Awakens, but that movie was a reintroduction and a making the old new again. The Last Jedi turns the franchise into something subtly different.

For seven movies Star Wars has been the Skywalker Family Saga. For all the galactic war and cool shit blowing up and lightsaber battles and Yoda flipping around like a muppet on speed and stormtroopers having the least precision aiming skills around and everything else, Star Wars is really about one family and their oversized impact on the galaxy. Even in The Force Awakens we're left with a pining for Luke to return and Kylo Ren anguishing over being able to live up to his grandfather's (Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader) legacy of darkness.

The Last Jedi takes that, and twists. Kylo owns his own darkness, destroys Supreme Leader Snoke and wants to destroy the remnants of the Jedi, Sith, and any other legacy of Stars Wars past. Luke, on the other hand, is a somewhat broken Jedi who wants nothing more than to live out his life on an isolated island on an isolated planet and die alone, one without the Force. Luke's recognizes his legacy of being a near mythological "legend" and rejects it. He knows that legacy brought him nothing but failure and a moment where he was so confident of his rightness that he considered murdering his nephew in his sleep in fear than young Ben Solo could turn into another Darth Vader. That moment of being so perfectly wrong shaped the rest of Ben's life into embracing Snoke's teaching, murdering his fellow students, and eventually murdering his own father, Han Solo. Everything Luke feared came to pass, except it was Luke looking down into the eyes of a frightened young man who saw his beloved teacher and uncle with murder in his eyes. Yes, Luke knows about being a legend and he's done with it.

But those years of isolation have turned Luke into his own version of Yoda, bounding up and down a mountainside, milking some animal with a half impish / half mad glint in his eye, taunting Rey with his mastery of that island. We see Luke's X-Wing under the water, echoing its burial at Dagobah, but the teachable moment here isn't Rey lifting it for future use.

The role of the legend of Luke Skywalker here serves two primary purposes. The first is for Luke to finally figure out how to live with that legend after all these years without letting it define him. It takes most of the movie, with nudges from Rey and a renewed Force connection with Leia. When Luke truly returns he is as close to being at peace as he possibly can, which gives his confrontation with Kylo Ren to have echoes of the Darth Vader / Obi-Wan Kenobi confrontation in the original Star Wars. It is one of many echoes to earlier movies running through The Last Jedi, except each of those echoes are being subverted. Luke tells Kylo "strike me down in anger and I will become more powerful than you can imagine" and throughout that entire fight sequence we're waiting for the mirror of Vader striking down Kenobi, and then when it happens it's not what we thought.

Luke doesn't embrace his own legend, but he comes to peace with it and recognizes that it can be used as a tool. Stories of that fight with Kylo are spreading throughout the galaxy and the Crowning Moment of Jedi Awesomeness is that Luke wasn't even there! Luke was meditating on his island, projecting himself onto the salt planet and he was such a bad ass Jedi that nobody knew, except perhaps Leia. The legend becomes a tool, used to help continue the Resistance and foster a new spirit of excitement and defiance.

And then. The legend dies, fading away with only a Jedi robe whipping into the wind. It's a fitting end for Luke Skywalker, better than we could have asked for and better than we dared hope for.

This is also where I stop focusing on Luke because I did claim The Last Jedi wasn't about the Skywalker Family Saga, and then spent an additional six paragraphs talking about THE Skywalker.

Where The Last Jedi truly reshaped the focus of Star Wars is that, Luke's return and demise aside, ALL of the heroes of the movie are women. Rose Tico, the maintenance engineer who has spent her time in service to the Resistance working with her head down fixing pipes and keeping stuff running? She's also spent her time stunning deserters trying to steal escape pods and, when finally faced with one of her heroes (Finn), has to stun him, too, when she realizes that her hero is a deserter. From that, Rose herself becomes a hero of the Resistance, adventuring with Finn to Canto Bight (more on this later) in a last ditch effort to find the only bit of hope left for the survival of the Resistance and even there, it is her empathy and skill and sacrifice that even gives them a chance to be successful in their mission.

Then there's Rose's sister, Paige Tico. Paige was a bomber on a run to destroy a First Order Dreadnought. In the end, it was her heroism and sacrifice of her life that ultimately won the battle and saved the Resistance from being eliminated right then.

We'll come to Leia at the end, because there are a lot of things to say about Leia, so let's talk about Leia's second in command Vice Admiral Holdo. Holdo steps up when Leia is incapacitated (much more on that later), assumes command, and immediately earns the scorn and derision of Poe Dameron, our otherwise heroic X-Wing pilot and burgeoning leader in the Resistance. He recognizes her legend, but comments on her appearance and then when her apparent plan of inaction doesn't meet his approval, he verbal reprimands her in public and eventually mutinies. We're so trained as viewers, and perhaps as Star Wars viewers, that because Poe is a hero, he is correct and right and she is wrong. That Vice Admiral Holdo is the ineffective leader that will lead to the slow destruction of the Resistance. That's the story the movie is setting up, and also what predicates Rose and Finn's mission to Canto Bight. Despite Leia's leadership throughout this movie and the last, there is also a sense of "here's the man correcting the woman once again".

Readers, Vice Admiral Holdo is not wrong and Poe is not right. It is Poe's continued impulsiveness that several times almost costs the Resistance everything and both times has weakened the Resistance, despite achieving a minor victory. Vice Admiral Holdo does not explain the minutiae of her plan to Poe Dameron because, well, she simply does not need to as befitting her rank compared to his and the crisis situation at hand. Holdo's heroism is quieter, but powerful and in the end, sacrificial.

We see Maz Kanada in a cameo appearance giving the Resistance hope while engaged in her own fight. We see the women in all levels of the Resistance, from the pipe fitters to the pilots to communications experts to a powerful Force user and the General holding the whole thing together. They are not just props and window dressing, either. They are given prominent and important roles, and more importantly - screen time and character development. Their actions on screen matter.

I'm not sure if Rey is the heart of the this new trilogy of movies and Leia is the soul, or if Leia is the heart and Rey is the soul. Either way, the combination of these powerful and important women is the driving force of both The Force Awakens as well as The Last Jedi. Leia is the rock around which the Resistance exists. She has spent her life fighting. Every moment Leia was on screen was one rooted in command and power and heart, and knowing this was the last movie we have of Carrie Fisher playing General Leia was a weight over the movie. There was a sadness and a wistfulness that I felt the first moment of each of Leia's scenes, never knowing what the last one was and needing to savor each moment.

Rey, on the other hand, is the driving force not only behind getting Luke to even show up again but also pushing her own need to do something that matters. She knows that with Luke on the sidelines, she's the one who has to step up and put down Kylo Ren and Snoke. She's the one with the ambition to return Ben Solo to the Light, with the dedication to rebuke Snoke to his face. She's the light the Resistance will be following for years as the legend of Luke Skywalker fades even deeper into the past.

I think that's why Kylo Ren's reveal that Rey's parents were nobody important and they just abandoned her is so important. This is where the Skywalker Family Saga turns. It doesn't matter that Rey isn't a Skywalker or a Solo or a Palpatine or the daughter of Mara Jade. Or, rather, it does matter that her parents were nobody of consequence because The Resistance is a meritocracy. Be good enough, care enough, step up when everyone else steps aside and you can rise and do great things. As we saw throughout The Last Jedi, anyone can be a hero. Despite Kylo Ren having taken over the First Order, you don't need to be a Skywalker to make a difference and to matter. Anyone can dream even if they don't have the right name.

Someone else can write an essay about the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. They are, in some ways, mirrors of each other. Kylo, as Ben Solo, had everything (on the surface). Famous and powerful parents, presumably love in his life, an uncle committed to teaching him. Rey had none of it. Abandoned by her parents, she lived on stories of legends and scrapped to survive. But Rey was committed to doing right and Ben, seeing his master and uncle betray him, went the other way. Rey's story is of the plucky underdog with a strong sense of justice and the power to do something about it, if only given the opportunity. The Last Jedi is that opportunity.

Let's go back to the closing shots of the movie. I'm not thinking so much the last shot of the boy force grabbing a broom and looking into the sky dreaming of the legend of Luke Skywalker and of a rebellion already in his heart, but the scene just before centered on Leia and Rey having a quiet moment with all of the noise around them. It's that scene which showed the heart of The Last Jedi is the women, Leia and Rey, but also Vice Admiral Holdo who faced down the insubordination and mutiny of the generally heroic Poe Dameron, and also Rose, the engineer who twice kept Finn on the right path.

Of course, we do need to talk about the biggest bit of what the fuckery in the entire Star Wars saga, and that includes Bea Arthur's singing bartender in the Holiday Special, which is Space Leia. After the bridge of the command ship is attacked and destroyed, Leia is ejected into space and is, presumably, dead. We see her body freezing and Leia is still. Leia is dead. Leia is gone. I'm processing all the emotions I can in as quick a manner as I possible can while sitting in the theater and then, Leia opens her eyes - which are magically not frozen. And then she force pulls herself back into the ship in time to be rescued and then slips into a coma (leading to Holdo's ascension).

Seriously, what the hell was that? I have a more than healthy suspension of disbelief in most movies and even greater than that in a Star Wars movie - but vacuum survival seems unlikely given there is an extended period of time between the attack and when we see Leia revive herself long enough for self rescue. While I loved having more Leia in the movie and the reunion scene of Leia and Luke, Space Leia felt so out of place, even for Star Wars and the use of the Force. This, more than anything else, was my biggest problem with The Last Jedi.

My smaller problem with The Last Jedi is the entire sequence at Canto Bight, which is either a casino planet like Coruscant is a city planet, or is just the name of an intensely exclusive casino. The Canto Bight subplot seemed to fit more into a side movie out of the main Star Wars sequence. Finn and Rose are a wonderful pair (and if Finn needs to have a romantic relationship at all and it's not with Poe, it might as well be Rose), but it was a complete digression from the main thrust of Rey / Luke, Resistance Proper, and First Order ship. There was perhaps one more storyline in The Last Jedi than the movie could hold and the movie might have been better served with tightening it. The scene with the boy and the broom at the end would have worked just as well without most of Canto Bight.

With that said, Canto Bight did provide a small bit of nuance to the movie. It suggests that the ultra wealthy are all war profiteers, which seems unlikely, but notes that at least one of them are selling to both the First Order AND the Resistance. The profit is in continued war and raises a small question if part of the rise of the First Order could have been supported by arms dealers besides just the rise of the remnants of the fallen Empire.

That small nuance isn't quite worth the rest of the Canto Bight sequence. We get more than enough of that nuance in the Rey / Kylo Ren relationship as well as Luke's character development. Canto Bight is visually interesting, and I love the fathiers (the horse creatures) and how they appear to be far more sentient than they are treated, but the real exploration of Canto Bight I would like to see will take place in the recently published story collection and perhaps in an off-year movie (or future animated series). Here, it's a distraction.

The Last Jedi wasn't the Star Wars story of giddy excitement and renewal (that was The Force Awakens), but it built and weaved the threads of story into something that was far stronger than the initial thirty to sixty minutes of the movie suggested it could be. It pays just enough homage to the past while showing off what Star Wars is likely to look like going forward. Only time will tell if The Last Jedi will share a level of esteem and regard anywhere near that of The Empire Strikes Back, but it was definitely on the right track of reshaping the vision of Star Wars and doing it exceptionally well.

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, December 19, 2017

Nanoreviews: Into the Drowning Deep, Treachery's Tools, The Wrong Stars

 Grant, Mira. Into the Drowning Deep [Orbit, 2017]

Forget everything you think you know about mermaids. This isn't a Disney movie and there's nothing cute about this novel. In her 6 Books Interview with Nerds of a Feather, Mira Grant said that Into the Drowning Deep "does for mermaids what Jurassic Park did for velociraptors." Reader, it does. These mermaids are terrifying, compelling, and all too plausible as Mira Grant spins the story. Into the Drowning Deep is the sort of novel you need to read one more page, one more chapter, and keep reading deep into the night. Into the the Drowning Deep rocketed up my list of the best novels of 2017. It's terrifyingly good.
Score: 9/10

Modesitt, Jr, L.E. Treachery's Tools [Tor, 2016]

This tenth volume in the Imager Portfolio picks up some thirteen years after Madness in Solidar (my review). Alastar's command of the Collegium is fully established, he is married with a ten year old daughter, but the threats to the Collegium and the stability of the nation have not lessened. There are plots to upend hundreds of years of legal structure to restore ancient power to landholders and reduce power to everyone else. This is a Modesitt novel and that means deliberate pacing with much of the drama built up piece by piece through the every day lives of the characters. Like Madness in Solidar, when the plotting comes to a head we have explosive action. As with many Modesitt heroes, Alastar does not act until he absolutely has to - though he is a bit more threatening and just tired of everyone's crap in Treachery's Tools than he was in the previous novel. Treachery's Tools is a solid Modesitt novel. You know what you're going to get and Modesitt delivers.
Score: 7/10

Pratt, Tim. The Wrong Stars [Angry Robot, 2017]

The Wrong Stars is a charming and breezy space opera with some big action, a looming galactic threat, and a whole lot of fun. The Wrong Stars is reminiscent of the science fiction of Becky Chambers and John Scalzi. Pratt has that smooth and easy storytelling down and there's no real barrier to entry here.  There are a few downsides. First, there's the opening moves to a sex scene that borders on the absurd and I think firmly lands in the bad sex category, though I'll acknowledge that I may not know what a good sex scene looks like. Pratt is also a bit over the top with casual pop culture references that are apparently holding up 500 years in our future. Some of those are overt and part of the storytelling, others are throwaway reference lines that distract from the otherwise good job Pratt is doing. Those are both minor quibbles. As a whole, The Wrong Stars is a delightful space opera and I'm excited to read what comes next.
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.

Monday, December 18, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 11/2017

As 2017 nears its end, November gives us a chance to look back. Not just at the past year, but at history, both personal and societal. Perhaps that’s why all the stories in this month’s Round come with a look at the past, whether it’s the tragedies of war and politics or those of family, love, and death. The stories all share a sense of characters dealing with the weight of their inheritances, whether it comes from their ancestors, their friends, their lovers, or themselves. As winter begins to take hold and the chill to set in, it’s time to look back to remind ourselves both what we’re still fighting for, and how far we’ve come.

So please, take seat. The flavors on tap this month are perfect for those looking to unwind by the fire, to shed a tear for those who have not made it this far, and to reaffirm a commitment to pushing forward, into a future that is not mired by the same harms and dangers as the past. Each pint today comes with a special side of memories and a tendril of shadow creeping just out of view. The only remedy is to drink deep, and share the moment with those you care about, and look for ways to escape the familiar cycles of hate, loss, and fear—together.


Tasting Flight – November 2017

Art by Psychoshadow
“The Summer Mask” by Karin Lowachee (Nightmare)
Notes: With a color of sepia, of forgotten pictures of forgotten faces, the nose is dust and the smell of old books, the flavor equal parts longing and sacrifice, grace and betrayal, bitterness and hope.
Pairs with: Session Ale
Review: David is an artist tasked with making masks for soldiers who survived massive war bearing physical scars. He meets Matthew, a man who can barely see and who has massive facial damage, and sees in him something beautiful and captivating. It’s a story of obsession and sacrifice, love and miracles. And, of course, beauty. The story does an amazing job of showing how these two men come together, Matthew because his injuries have made him an outcast and dependent on others, David because his nature and his drive to create something beautiful. And so much of what I like about the story rests on how it treats this idea of beauty, not as something redemptive or healing, but as cold and in many ways cruel. What the two men share while each is flawed might not be physically beautiful, but it comes from his place of care and love. And David, in trying to give a beautiful face to what they have, ends up inviting a distance and darkness on himself, and proves that beauty doesn’t need to be compassionate, doesn’t need approval or permission or justification. And in that it reveals a dark heart of beauty, the difference between beauty that can be captured in stone or clay, and the beauty that exists in human interaction and love. It’s a difficult and complex story, but one that captures the shape and fragility of beauty, and the price it can carry.

Art by Tomislav Tikulin
“The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt” by L Chan (The Dark)
Notes: Everything old is new again, ancient methods creating a heavy and dense profile that still crackles with static and electricity, the past crashing into the present with violence and storm before calming into something beautiful and delicately sweet.
Pairs with: Ancient Ale
Review: A nameless ghost boy shares a haunted space with a number of other forgotten spirits in this story, which explores memory and connection. When a new ghost appears on the scene, and from a most unlikely place, the main character is suddenly faced with the world outside his home, even as those around him have...mixed reactions to the prospect of freedom. The story shows how history anchors people in place, tying them with bonds that hold even after death, even after everything else has been lost and forgotten. It traces the ways that loneliness and cycles entrench harm, the ways that these ghosts reenact the same things over and over, maintaining the status quo for those in power and never able to reach beyond their prison. Until something comes from the outside in, allowing the main character to attempt to break the cycle, to reach for something new and freeing. It’s a story about change and the possibility of change, especially for those who are isolated, who can find no way to escape a physical place. The story looks with hope at the power of technology to bring people together across vast distances, to allow people to throw off the chains of their imprisonment, and to map new frontiers into a future suddenly full of possibilities. It’s a story that carries with it a heaviness, the oppression of the situation dragging at the main character and what he can do, but there’s also the hope that the drag can be overcome and escaped, and that even death is not enough to stop progress.

“Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang (GigaNotoSaurus)
Notes: Fusing flavors and styles, sweet and tangy and bitter and all points in between the pour in a muted tan tinged with pink, like a few drops of blood were added for good measure, creating an experience that is triumphant, fun, but undeniably complex.
Pairs with: Grapefruit IPA
Review: Isabel, a blind Chinese Canadian woman, works as a cook in Montreal, where food has always been the family business. When her brother brings in a man with a strange curse and holes in his memory, though, it’s her magic that she has to lean on in order to figure out what’s going on and if she can do anything about it. Not that cooking and magic are different spheres—with a culinary god for a father, food and spice, legacy and magic, all sort of roll together. And I love the way the story handles inheritance and the weight of family and culture, how decisions parents make for their children create burdens that are passed down, that can settle and rot. Isabel has to balance the various parts of herself, the different skills and experiences she’s had as well as the cultures that have created her, staying true first and foremost to who she is but striving not to lose sight of where she’s come from (especially since literally losing her sight when she strayed too far from honoring who she is rather than who some of her family might want her to be). The story builds a great relationship between Isabel and the man she’s trying to help, Elias, and creates a subtle romance while managing some stunning parallelism between his mysterious affliction and Isabel’s own demons. The tone is fun and swift, Isabel having no patience for fools and a drive toward justice, even when it means some uncomfortable reunions. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and I think there’s a great mix of action, world building, and plenty of emotional moments to make the story memorable and satisfying.

Art by Gregory St. John
“A Pestilence Come for Old Ma Salt” by Dayna K. Smith (Lackington’s)
Notes: With a bitterness that almost sticks in the throat and a pour inky and concealing, the flavors are a rush of spice and stars, the taste of secrets being dragged into the open and the truth blooming in the night.
Pairs with: India Black Ale
Review: Ma Salt is a healer for an insular mountain community, their first and last stop for most maladies, supernatural or otherwise. It’s a place where many people go when they want to get away from the rest of the world, which means that it has its share of loners and more than its share of secrets. When an infant comes down with a cough that turns out to be much more than a simple cold, though, Ma Salt is challenged in ways that push her secrets out from the shadows. The story explores small communities in an interesting way, looking at how the relationships become so twisted, the water so muddy, that it’s often difficult to see what’s right in front of you. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, or at least they seem to, which means people prize their secrets all the closer, the little ways that they can be private in a place where privacy is a precious thing. At the same time, it explores how those secrets can act as seeds of corruption, eroding at the very thing that communities need in order to function and survive—trust. And trust built on lies and misdirection is no trust, which is something that Ma Salt has to confront as she struggles to save the life of her community’s newest member. The story also shows how sometimes rumor is more dangerous than anything, and how even when the truth is hard, or shameful, it is often surprising just how much people have the capacity to forgive, and to accept, and to help those who might stumble, and to celebrate those things that make people themselves. It’s a great voice the story establishes, and I like how the plot follows a sort of exorcism—of deception and prejudice, so that the community can come together stronger than ever and so even the most vulnerable can be accepted and cared for.

Art by Max Mitenkov
“An Unexpected Boon” by S.B. Divya (Apex)
Notes: Pouring a dark brown rimmed with gold, the first sip is deep, subtle and smoky like dreams burning, only to reveal newer, sweeter tones underneath, a future still bright despite loss and danger.
Pairs with: Honey Bock
Review: Kalyani is a young (probably autistic) girl who experiences the world quite differently from the rest of her family. It’s something that Aruni, her older brother, finds quite difficult to handle, especially when his parents have left him in charge while they are away. For Kalyani, though, it’s the rest of the world that doesn’t make as much sense, that overflows with threats and dangers, that never makes as much sense as the order of her own mind and the quiet solitude of her thoughts. When a passing holy man observes her quiet, he gives her a gift, an insect that communicates with her, and gives her a tool to help decode the rest of the world. When a different holy man passes through with a much different outlook, though, Kalyani and Aruni find themselves at the center of a situation that could destroy them, especially if Aruni doesn’t trust his younger sister. And for me, the story is about family and about communication, about trust and value. Everyone treats Kalyani like she is defective, like she can’t survive in this world mostly because everyone else accepts the corruption and dangers of the systems they live in, which make Kalyani even more at risk for being a girl, for now knowing the unspoken social contracts that reinforce all levels of society. For all the darkness that the story uses as its base, though, the story rejects a trajectory toward tragedy, and the prose shines with the resolve and skill of Kalyani, her ability to function and act even as Aruni despairs, certain of defeat. To me it’s a story of the value of being able to see the world differently, to be able to come up with solutions that work for everyone, which might only be possible if first you refuse to accept the dominant narrative of the way things are. It’s a sweet and moving story full of magic and grace.

Art by Julie Dillon
“Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller & Lara Elena Donnelly (Uncanny)
Notes: The past reaches forward into the present with a taste of loss and memories bleeding together, a cloudy pour obscuring a golden shine, a mix of spice and distance and old wounds opening to an almost floral finish, a flower placed on a grave of a unknown soldier finally revealed and put to rest.
Pairs with: Abbey Ale
Review: Borrowing from the historical story of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, this story paints a picture that connects two men across time and across tragedies, as both seek to make sense of a world that refuses to make sense, where who they are makes them vulnerable, and who they must become in order to live in the world makes them monsters. The story is told through letters, letters from Wilfred Owen from the battlefields of World War I to Sassoon, who is dealing with a much different situation in the run up to the second world war. For both men, though, they must deal with their desires and the situation that life has thrust them into—the chaos of war, the dangers of men looking for a “cure” for them. The letters are (to me incredibly fittingly) one directional, neither man truly able to express himself to the other, time and war and death getting between them, cutting short what they could have meant to what another. What remains are the bruises, the scars, the injuries that never really heal—both on the bodies of those who remain and on the world as a whole, these losses weighing heavier than stone, just as crushing as any military defeat. For me the story is about loss and about cycles, about how compassion and love becomes something else when all safety is gone, when discovery and death are so near, and all these men want is to live, to be free. And it becomes in many ways about breaking that cycle, or trying to, of stepping out from safety and trying to learn from the past so that the same injustices do not continue, or grow. It’s wrenching and it’s difficult and it’s heartbreaking, and you might end up a sobbing mess, but it is a gorgeous story about history, love, and war.


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