Friday, October 19, 2018

6 Books with Sabrina Vourvoulias

SABRINA VOURVOULIAS is an award-winning Latina news editor, writer and digital storyteller. Her news stories have been published at The Guardian US,,, NBC10/Telemundo62, Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia Magazine, and City and State PA, among others. Her journalism has garnered Edward R. Murrow, José Martí, Keystone, Pen & Pencil Club, and New York Press Association awards. Her short fiction has been published by, Strange Horizons and Uncanny, GUD, and Crossed Genres magazines, as well as in multiple anthologies, including the upcoming Kaiju Rising II, Sweet and Sugar Tooth, and Sunspot Jungle.

Today she shares her 6 books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading? 

Confession: I haven't read Lovecraft before, but after reading and loving the Victor LaValle and Ruthanna Emrys novellas that recast and subverted Lovecraft stories, I decided to bite the bullet. My daughter had a copy of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft (edited by S. T. Joshi) on hand, so I started. Another confession: Even biting the bullet, I don't know how far I'll get.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

Exile by Lisa Bradley. I've long admired Lisa's poetry and short stories — hers is a distinctive and sharp Latinx voice and I just can't get enough of it — so I'm really looking forward to her novel. I'm also looking forward to Teresa Frohock's Where Oblivion Lives, the next installment in her Los Nefilim series set in 1930s Spain. I'm a sucker for historical dark fantasy with magical or paranormal resistance at its heart, and Frohock does that uniquely and excellently.

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

Kiini Ibura Salaam is one of the finest stylists in speculative fiction and her book of stories, When the World Wounds, is quite spectacular. I'm really haunted by two of the stories in the book, "Because of the Bone Man" and "Hemmie's Calenture," and think I might need to reread them as a master class in how art can confront our deepest societal wounds.

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

When I watched the first season of the TV version of American Gods I found I actually couldn't remember much of the novel, which I had read when it was first published. But I did remember I had liked it, so I went back to reread it. I was less enamored the second time around. I realized that the characters were far more compelling and engaging on screen than on the page, and the most memorable moments (Vulcan's gun-toting and gun-loving "Make America Great Again" town, for example) were TV moments, not book moments. Plus, I don't know what "America" Neil Gaiman was touring when he wrote the book, but there is no American U.S. — much less the Americas — without Latinxs in it. Maybe I was a more forgiving reader back when I first encountered the book, but I don't have time for that sort of exclusionary worldbuilding these days.

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

No one book, but I started reading poetry young, and poetry from Spanish Golden Age Epics to Warsan Shire continues to be the deepest influence on my work. Cadence is everything, even in prose, and I write out loud...

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

My latest book is the new edition of my novel, Ink, from Rosarium Publishing. A near-future immigration dystopia originally released in 2012, Ink opens when a National Identity bill becomes law in the US, marking immigrants and children of immigrants with biometric tattoos and tracking chips. The novel explores how ordinary folks, both "inked" and not-inked, sidestep and resist the ensuing, and escalating, repression. Ultimately, the novel celebrates the power of resilience, ingenuity and community. In the years since it was first published, my imagined dystopia has become increasingly relevant, and I'm really grateful to Rosarium for its commitment to reissuing it at this exact moment — when anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx rhetoric has reached fever pitch. Rereleases aren't usually money-makers for small presses (or even large presses), so I think the reissue is a act of resistance in and of itself. And what a lovely act of resistance it is! This edition of Ink is beautifully laid out, has a gorgeous new cover by South African artist Vincent Sammy, and includes a thoughtful new introduction by renowned Latina writer, Kathleen Alcalá. Author and physicist Vandana Singh has called this both "a page-turner" and "a book for our times" — so how much more awesome can you get?

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

This is a warning that we are less than 10 days away from Halloween ComicFest!  I preordered three packs of the Johnny Boo comic to pass out on Halloween and am looking forward to swinging by my local comic book store to pick up some other books. To find a participating store near you click here.

Pick of the Week:
Gideon Falls #7 - After the cliff hanger at the end of this issue I am not sure I am going to be able to wait for the next issue! Norton is so close to opening the door of the Black Barn, but I am not sure that it is a good idea. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino have done a masterful job weaving together multiple mysteries that are all centered in Gideon Falls. In addition to Norton's story, there is the issue surrounding Father Fred and the juxtaposition of the mystery deep in the city of Gideon Falls and the one in the country is truly jarring. This is definitely one of the creepiest books I have read recently and it is a perfect book to pick up during the Halloween season.

The Rest:
Shuri #1 - As someone who has not read many Black Panther comics, it is nice to learn more about Shuri. I was unaware that she spent some time as the Black Panther and of the spiritual journey that she recently embarked on granting her additional powers. In this debut issue, T'Challa is sent through a wormhole into space and has been missing for nearly two weeks. While Shuri tests her latest inventions, she interacts with a mysterious individual who has hacked her computer and a council of female leaders plan on her taking on the role of Black Panther once again. It was great to see snippets of her childhood and I am very excited to learn more about Shuri and Wakanda following this captivating first issue.

Daredevil #609 - If you are looking for a jumping on point for Charles Soule's Daredevil now seems like a good time. In another death of a superhero arc, Matt Murdock opens up this issue by getting hit by a truck and sent to the ER.  I am curious what is going to happen with the death of Daredevil, but this issue sets the scene for the new arc.  Daredevil and his team are declaring war on Kingpin and his rigged election, but that takes trust. The kind of trust that includes Murdock letting the cat back out of the bag and informing more people about his superhero alter ego.  Curious where Soule is going with this one and who the mysterious person was throwing bone knives at Daredevil. I'm on board for this one.

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Microreview [Book]: Temper by Nicky Drayden

Temper soars precariously, like a skyscraper made of playing cards, presenting a fast paced -- if occasionally messy -- reading experience.

So, here's a problem that most prolific readers will recognise. I got a copy of Temper, the new book by Nicky Drayden, almost two months ago, and at least a month before the UK release date: an extremely exciting development which also let me cancel the second preorder I'd accidentally made in enough time to avoid getting it twice. Despite that excitement, however… two months have gone by without my reading it. How does this happen, dear readers? How are we not able to drop everything and find time for every "OHMIGODSOEXCITING" book that comes our way? Anyway, this delay was finally rectified this week, as Temper's time in front of my eyeballs finally came.

If you're familiar with Drayden's previous novel, The Prey of Gods, you might have some idea of what to expect in Temper, though this is a very different world in most respects. The worldbuilding is rich and largely cohesive, hanging primarily on the premise of a sort-of-South Africa where nearly everyone has a twin, and every pair of twins exchanges genetic material in the womb and then comes out with seven virtues and their corresponding vices divided between them. The twin with more virtues gets labelled the "greater" twin, while the one with fewer is "lesser", and destined for a lifetime of discrimination and low expectations. Twins balance each other out when in proximity and suffer physical and mental effects if they stray too far away from each other, with much of the resulting urban environment addressing the problem of how to split off "greater" and "lesser" twins while still maintaining that proximity link.

Into this world come Auben and Kasim, born in the "comfy", a slum area separated from surrounding suburbs by a giant C-shaped wall. The pair are unusual in that Kasim has come out with six out of seven virtues - only missing charity - and Auben has six vices (including, obviously, Temper). Despite being literally branded as having an inferior personality, narrator Auben is smart, personable and driven, and the brothers have managed to maintain a strong relationship despite the inherent inequality in privilege. Less promisingly, Auben has also started hearing a voice in his head compelling him to evil, and its up to him and his brother to try and figure out what to do about this apparent demonic possession, learning more about the dominant religion of their society, which they have been raised outside of, as they go.

What follows is a story that will have you reaching for the Ron Burgundy memes, as Auben and Kasim go from awkward teenage antics with their respective crushes to the world-altering centre of a long-running supernatural conspiracy. To say more would be to do a disservice to readers who want to experience Temper in its absurd, glorious entirety, but I'll just say that the last quarter of the book, in particular, did not go at all where I thought it would. Even Auben, towards the end, notes that particular things he was worrying about at the start of the book seem trivial from his later vantage. That said, in hindsight, every escalation of Temper's plot and stakes has a logical progression to it, and the story itself is very easy to follow. The book becomes a richer experience for its unpredictability and Drayden's willingness to push her premise to its absolute limit.

That's not to say that I agreed with everything that happened here. In particular, there's a lot of violent action by our protagonists - including something one scene it's hard not to interpret as sexual assault and another that is basically rape with an incest/mistaken identity element (not explicitly described) - which the narrative glosses over and really doesn't make the boys answer for. It's notable that the one functional, continuous intergenerational relationship is between the boys and their uncle, who is coping with his own mental health issues and some serious internalised baggage around sex. While Kasim and Auben interact with plenty of women, sympathetic and otherwise, on their journey, it would have been nice to see them called out for their misogyny when dealing with some of them, especially when love interests start to arise. I'd also have liked to see more acknowledgement of how societal misogyny and dynamics would play out in a world where half the population are functionally intersex: different-sexed fraternal twins whose genetic sharing in the womb makes them "gender chimeras" or "kigen". These characters mainly use "ey/em/eir" pronouns and form most, though not all, of the queer representation in Temper. Based on the acknowledgements, it looks like a fair bit of sensitivity reading went into getting this right, and while it isn't my place to say the extent to which it's successful (individual readers will no doubt draw their own conclusions), I didn't notice anything that made me feel it wasn't well handled.

I also think Temper could be a technically tighter experience without losing its unpredictable charms. For example, there are a fair few story threads where lack of back story means that reveals seem to come from nowhere: like Auben and Kasim's mother, or Nkosazana and Ruda, or the entire secular movement. Other plot points, like the reveal of Auden and Kasim's father, don't seem to add anything to where the story ends up going, and could have been dropped without losing anything from the overall story direction. I could easily see the basic story covered in Temper turning into a trilogy in another author's hands, with subplots galore and a slower escalation to the eventual end state (which would fit quite nicely into three volumes, structurally speaking). That Drayden handles the story in one turns this book into wild ride it is, and it works brilliantly as a standalone, but I'm definitely going to be looking out for longer volumes and potential series from her, as I think she could develop a longer story to great effect.

I normally describe The Prey of Gods as "a hot mess in the best possible sense", and Temper feels like a natural progression from that: a more focused story which instead channels its energy into a plot that soars precariously, like a skyscraper made out of playing cards holding up despite gravity saying otherwise. I came away from Temper entertained, impressed and more than a little confused, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes their high tech fantasy with a heavy dose of inventive unpredictability. Just remember to make the time to actually read it!

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 A fast-paced plot that never quite goes where you expect, but makes great sense anyway

Penalties: -1 Teenage boys still get away with too much; -1 A few too many stray story threads

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Reference: Drayden, Nicky. Temper [HarperCollins, 2018]

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Frankenstein at 200: An Outsider's Love Song

We never forget our first loves, yeah?

Sometime in the mid-to-late-1980s, KTXH Channel 20 — the local UHF channel in Houston, Texas — showed 1931's Frankenstein and Dracula. I could not yet have been ten years old, and I don't know why I wanted to watch these two movies, how I'd heard about them, if I had seen them before, even — nothing like that. But I remember being excited to watch them, I remember finding them in the TV Chronilog (the Houston Chronicle's broadcast TV listings), and to this day, I remember sitting down on the floor of my parents' bedroom to watch them.

Me, as I type this.
This was when colorization of black-and-white movies was an abomination a new thing, but these prints weren't colorized in that sense. They were tinted, as some prints had been upon initial release. I remember Frankenstein being green, and Dracula being primarily blue. I don't recall what my impressions of the films were beyond 1) I liked Frankenstein more, and 2) I now believed old movies to be super, super awesome. In addition to kicking off my lifelong fixation with classic films, Frankenstein has stayed with me as a key inspiration for much of what I have explored as a fan and created as a musician in the three decades since. But I didn't realize until Worldcon 76 published their schedule, featuring a panel on Frankenstein at 200, that 2018 was the bicentennial of Mary Shelley's novel's initial publication. That seemed as good an excuse as any to take a detailed look back at the themes underlying this work, which became a foundational text for both science fiction literature and horror filmmaking, and how those themes continue to resonate today.

* * *
Since Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus anonymously in 1818, re-tellings and adaptations of her vision have abounded. From stage to screen, there are almost certainly too many versions to count. And I've seen a lot of them...all the Universal versions from the 1930s and 40s, Young Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and God help me, Lady Frankenstein, Flesh for Frankenstein, and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter.

But for our purposes, I'm going to focus on discussing Mary Shelley's novel and the two films James Whale made in 1931 and 1935, respectively, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. I feel like the novel (specifically the original 1818 edition) and Whale's film adaptations are all excellent, and these incarnations capture the thing that has kept me so fascinated by the story since...well, literally since I can remember. If I can boil that attraction down to a single sentence, it is this:

The "monster" is not the monster.

I have long believed that the creature is more like me than not, that I have more in common with "the other" than I have in opposition, and that I have in my power the opportunity to cause great harm in another's life if I am unwilling to see that person as they truly are, beyond any outward appearance. These are lessons that have stuck with me, courtesy of Frankenstein, and throughout this series, I intend to look at these themes and others that still find resonance across two centuries.

* * *
In many ways, I believe Shelley and Whale were both outsiders, and however intentional or not, I believe their work to be a celebration of the misunderstood and the outcast. Shelley was a woman living among the intelligentsia of the late Regency Era in England, the daughter of a trailblazing feminist writer (Mary Wollstonecraft) and a progressive thinker and writer critical of society's structures (William Godwin). James Whale was openly gay throughout his Hollywood career. I cannot speak to the pressures either Mary Shelley or James Whale felt, or their experiences with belonging to traditionally marginalized groups. But that belonging has been in my awareness of Frankenstein for at least the last 20 years, and I have felt for all that time that these two storytellers may have had good reason to identify more with the misunderstood, underestimated "monster" at the heart of this story than with the landed gentry and prosperous, "civilized" individuals like Victor Frankenstein.

In my reading of Shelley's novel and my interpretation of Whale's films, I find these to be subversive works released via mainstream outlets. In both, I don't think it's an accident that I empathize the most deeply with the "monster." But from the way that they told their stories, I believe that both of them crafted their presentations in a way that gave audiences cover for not getting it...allowing them to miss the point and still enjoy the work. Neither novel nor film paint the masses of humanity in a pleasant light, so it follows that the underlying message might have sailed right over the heads of most of their audience.

First, a quick look at the key differences between these works. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus begins as an epistolary novel in which an adventurer and ship's captain named Robert Walton recounts to his sister his attempt to procure a ship and a crew in order to try to be the first to reach the North Pole. As they cross into the Arctic Circle, they find a man struggling in the water, his team of sled dogs having drowned, and they rescue him. This is Victor Frankenstein, and he begins to recount to Walton his tale, in which he has a happy childhood, is presumed from a very early age to be engaged to his cousin Elizabeth, and heads away from his hometown of Geneva to attend university. While there, he distinguishes himself in the fields of chemistry and natural philosophy, and embarks on a secret quest to reanimate dead tissue. He succeeds, creating a giant, human-like creature, but is so repulsed by the creature's ugliness upon its awakening that Frankenstein abandons it, and the creature disappears. The creature slips through the woods, slowly coming to understand life, and hides himself in a small outbuilding behind a household consisting of a brother and sister, and their gentle, blind father. From close observation of this family, the creature learns language, and then complex ideas on life and morality. (If you haven't read the book, more than likely you're not familiar with the creature becoming extremely eloquent.) Eventually, he tries to introduce himself to the family, having been their secret benefactor for many months, providing firewood and other aid. But upon seeing him, the brother attacks him and drives him from the home. The creature then heads toward Geneva in search of Victor, with the demand that Victor make for him a mate — a female creature as rudely formed as he — that he might no longer be alone. Frankenstein refuses, ultimately, and the creature hastens the death of all whom Frankenstein loves, prompting Frankenstein to chase the creature to the ends of the Earth...or, at least the pole.

Between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, if taken as a single whole, the film adaptation is pretty faithful. Certain characters are pared away or consolidated, and there is the strange addition in Bride of Frankenstein of an eccentric character named Dr. Pretorius, who takes it upon himself to teach the creature language and help make the case to Frankenstein (inexplicably renamed "Henry Frankenstein" in the films) that "the monster demands a mate." There is no Captain Walton, no North Pole, and Frankenstein does finally consent to make a female creature. But the broad strokes are more or less the same.

In the book, Walton and everyone in Victor's life praise him to the stars as all that is noble and good in mankind. But his actions don't bear out this celestial approbation. Upon his creature waking, Victor is so revolted that he runs headlong into the street, bumps into his friend Henry, and reluctantly returns to his apartment and laboratory. Finding the creature gone, he feels relief, and then never seems to give it another moment's thought. "What happened to that giant creature I created from spare parts? Well, he's not here, so oh well, not my problem!" Later, his refusal to grant the creature's wish is rooted entirely in the creature's physical appearance. He listens to the creature's words and entreaties, decides to acquiesce to the request, and then literally looks at him and changes his mind. This happens repeatedly. And finally, on his deathbed in Walton's ship, Victor berates the crew members for not willingly dying in pursuit of impossible folly. He has learned nothing, it seems, and as he looks back at all that has happened, he finds himself blameless in his dealings with his own creation. He seems like kind of a dick. But as the novel's main character and principal narrator, Shelley allows her reader to invest in and empathize with Victor, should they want to. And the other characters in the book help make the case for him...but I don't think Mary Shelley believed he was blameless, or noble, or just.

Similarly, Boris Karloff's monster was sold as an absolute horror. Audiences were expected to recoil from the abomination, and hide their eyes behind their popcorn buckets. But James Whale didn't shoot him as an abomination. The lingering shot of Karloff reaching for the sun the first time he sees it, the playfulness and naivety that lead him to a deadly mistake with the young girl Maria, and the suffering the monster endures at the hands of a torch-waving Fritz all serve to humanize Frankenstein's creation, and these moments abound likewise in the second film. I don't think James Whale thought the creature, despite its billing, was a monster.

And nor do I. To me, in their own ways, these are works that signal to other outsiders that you may be different, but you are still worthy of understanding.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, Emmy-winning producer, writer of two songs about Frankenstein, and author of at least one unproduced script inspired by it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Nanoreviews: War Cry, Outcasts of Order, The Broken Girls

McClellan, Brian. War Cry [ Publishing]

Brian McClellan is best known for his excellent Powder Mage trilogy, which is a bit of flintlock fantasy / military fantasy. War Cry marks his first time (to my knowledge) stepping away from that Powder Mage milieu. The results are mixed, perhaps because the lead character, Teado, is fairly one dimensional.

War Cry takes place during a decades (longer?) long war, a war that has gone on so long that few of the fighters remember why they are fighting, only that they are born to serve and fight and die and repeat the cycle through generations. Teado's squadron is in a remote outpost, struggling to get supplies, struggling to make a meaningful strike at the enemy.

What is most effective in War Cry is the desperation of the soldiers, the not quite hopelessness but the raw exhaustion. That, and the climactic battle sequence, which is also extremely well done. The problem is that the characters, including Teado, are mostly just names and cutouts. The stakes feel lessened because of that. I don't know that McClellan has a novel worth of story to tell in this setting, but a bit more room to let the characters breathe and develop and take shape would certainly be worthwhile.
Score: 6/10

Modesitt Jr, L.E. Outcasts of Order [Tor]

Outcasts of Order is the middle volume of Modesitt's Recluce trilogy focusing on Beltur, a black mage who can't seem to find a safe and stable home, despite just wanting to keep his head down and live a quiet life. After functionally being a war hero fighting the White Mages of Gallos, Beltur is back trying to earn a living assisting the local blacksmith in forging some super rare material that hasn't been seen in hundreds of years. The forging goes well, the living a quiet life part does not. Beltur is targeted time and again by the powers of Elparta until he is forced to flee.

At this point, it is impossible to discuss a Recluce novel without talking about how it has become comfort reading. It is. I suspect that I'm a bit more generous with these later Recluce novels and with Outcasts of Order in particular - but I think the deliberateness of this novel is a bit more tedious than I find it in most Recluse novels. I am looking forward to that deliberateness in The Mage-Fire War because of how that novel is set up, but despite the comfort part of the reading it's definitely waiting for plot movement (though every time Beltur is forced into action, it's incredibly effective)

As a side point, in the last novel, I thought Modesitt leaned to heavily on the idea of Beltur being a "mongrel", not a true black mage according to the leading mages of Spidlar. With Outcasts of Order the overused concept is weather related. It seems like everyone here is talking about a storm being (or not) a "northeaster". Maybe a little less of that, if possible. I'll still read every Recluce novel Modesitt puts out, though.
Score: 6/10

St. James, Simone. The Broken Girls [Berkley Books]

I started to read The Broken Girls just before bed one night, got less than twenty pages in and decided that it would be a book better off read during the daylight hours. From those first pages I knew the haunting in the novel would be one that would linger into my dreams and that's just not something I need with two small children already waking me up in the middle of the night. This was the right decision.

The Broken Girls is a seriously unsettling novel. This isn't specifically a ghost story, but a haunted boarding school is at the center of the novel being told across two eras. Both storylines are compelling, though I more often wanted to be back in the 1950's at Idlewild Hall - there was something extra wrenching and terrifying about that era. That's not to say that the present era isn't powerful in its own right because there are emotional ghosts and buried secrets that all begin to tie together with Idlewild. But Mary Hand? Friggin creepy and disturbing. As long as the lights were on, I didn't want to put this book down.
Score: 8/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Friday, October 12, 2018

6 Books with Rachel Fellman

Rachel Fellman is an archivist in Northern California. She writes sharp, painterly science fiction and fantasy about her various preoccupations: art history, extreme survival, toxic love, queer identity, and terrible moral choices. Most of her protagonists are great at exactly one thing and are continually prevented from doing it. The Breath of the Sun is her debut novel. She does not climb mountains.

Today she shares her 6 books with us....

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I'm rereading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I did a Twitter riff the other day about Books I Loved (i.e. "I loved reading this, but I won't be going back") vs. Books I Love (i.e. "A part of my brain is always running a simulation of this"). That's what got me on this train. Brideshead Revisited is a Book I Love, with a bit of a Book I Hate tacked on in the second half. By the final chapters, the author and I are on completely separate tracks -- Waugh thinks it's a book about a man finding God, and I think it's a book about the corrosive power of the closet -- but before that, I think we both agree that it's about family, in the same way that The Lion in Winter is about family. I've never scammed a friend into loaning me his car and driven out to the countryside to drink rare wine with my Oxford lover, but I've definitely met many versions of the Flytes, with their competitive and unnerving charm.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

The Hchom Book by Marian Churchland. It's hard to explain Hchom, an art blog about obsessive wanting (the perfect wedge of bread, the perfect knife, the perfect gender, the perfect piece of quartz) -- it captures what's gorgeous and painful about wanting, in a cranky, unpretentious way. I am an archivist, and a librarian by training, and so I tend to be very picky about which books I buy, but I have to have The Hchom Book the day it comes out. I want it!

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

The Great Gatsby. The other week I was on a bus and started tearing through the sizeable academic canon of queer readings of Gatsby, and now I'm so ready to reread it -- the only reason I started with Brideshead is that Brideshead had to go back to the library sooner. I reread Gatsby every few years, it's my lifelong template for structural perfection, and I will defend it against all comers.

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

I'm cheating a little, because I didn't finish it the first time, but Elif Batuman's The Possessed. I bounced right off of this in my twenties, when it first came out -- bounced so hard that I was flailing off the walls for days. I was violently allergic to Batuman's literary persona. Then, this year, I ran across a section online and read it without noting the author's name. I loved it. It was so funny and wry and changeable, with something nervous and morally serious visible underneath like raw canvas. I realized that everything I'd thought I hated about this author was just envy, which my mind had translated badly into various languages. Batuman is real and important. Try to catch one of her readings if you can, and stay for the Q&A.

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

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles. This has been a hard one, because there were books that obsessed me more, and there are prose writers who've influenced me more, but Bradbury (with his DON'T THINK sign over the typewriter) taught me that there's no contradiction between writing SFF and writing adventurous prose. They're both different ways of exploring the Mars inside of us, the pearlescent alien worlds that we make when we're irritated. I reread this a few years ago, and it didn't hold up for me, but matches are single-use too, and they start the biggest fires.

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

It's called The Breath of the Sun. (The title has been used before; I didn't check, and this fact has killed me.) It's awesome because it evokes mountains very well, and because it's surprisingly funny for a book about constructed religions, and because it gets away with a weird structure that keeps switching back on itself. It's got women who are done being young, and women who are scientists, and women who are queer, and women who are terrible friends, and women who exist only in footnotes. If I were reading it as a stranger, that's what I'd notice.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

Now that we are officially in the Halloween season it is the perfect opportunity to stock up on some spooky comics. There is an amazing horror anthology that just popped up on Kickstarter that I backed and you should check out. Cullen Bunn Presents: A Passage in Black features 11 tales of terror from an amazing group of creators. It is a throwback to the old horror comics Bunn read as a kid and if you are familiar with his work you know that this is right in his wheelhouse.  Onto this week's books! 

Pick of the Week:
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #37 - It appears that Squirrel Girl is dead after helping save New York from a giant krakken. All of the superheros are attending her funeral dressed in their finest black costumes. Packed with the usual witty banter, we learn that Squirrel Girl is in attendance of her own funeral incognito. She needs to understand why everyone thinks she died and who is behind it. Upon reviewing the footage of her death at her funeral (who doesn't want to share the video of their death at their funeral), she determines that the only group behind such a stunt is a certain alien race known for their shape shifting ability.  Hmmmmmmmmm.  I should also add that you can buy a Squirrel Girl costume at Target!!

The Rest:
Star Wars Adventures: Tales from Vader's Castle #2 - Just in time for Halloween, this Star Wars series reads like an old horror comic complete with giant spiders, mynocks, and an infected crew member who turns into a monster. Count Dooku is the host on the planet Mustafar to a Rebel crew who crash landed on it during a secret mission. Definitely not as all-ages friendly as its counterpart, but still a lot of fun and an entertaining read.

Birthright #32 - An interesting issue moves us on to the next chapter in this saga that allows us to see more of what Mikey experienced when he was kidnapped as a child.  I will admit that I need to give this series a re-read to fully understand all of the story lines, but this was a powerful issue to see what Mikey has been through throughout this entire ordeal. His wife had to sacrifice her wings to fully save him from the Nevermind and now they need to focus on saving his younger brother, Brennan. The thing about younger brothers is that they tend to make mistakes and often make things worse. This issue did a good job setting up a new arc that will show us the dangers of playing with magic.

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Eco-Speculation #4: Interview with Eric Fisher Stone

To wrap up these posts about animals in speculative fiction, I chatted with the poet Eric Fisher Stone, a passionate lover of all living things.

PW: Great to have you, Eric. Could you introduce yourself and your work for the folx at home?

EFS: My name is Eric Fisher Stone. I’m originally from Fort Worth, Texas where I went to public schools and college at Texas Christian University. I volunteered at a nature center where I cared for captive wild animals that couldn’t be released, and worked in different retails jobs while the economy slowly recovered, until I applied to MFA programs. I was accepted at Iowa State University, which is for the best, I think, due to the program’s emphasis on place and the environment, which also reflects my creative work. My work is mainly poetry.

My poems usually range from narrative poems, formal and informal lyrical poems, and they usually delve into an otherness larger than humanity, and certainly larger than the self. That otherness can be nonhuman animals, like snails or deer, or in my most recently published book, The Providence of Grass, the affirmative driving force behind the cosmos—what makes gravity happen, what causes the stars to burn, not simply a causal “equal and opposite reaction” to inanimate forces, and not a supernatural intelligence hierarchically greater than matter, rather, my poems celebrate the earth and the cosmos as miraculous, living realities. Rather than bemoan the demise of species, and possibly humanity during the Anthropocene, I want us to appreciate the miraculous revelation of the world. If we can’t appreciate what’s left, how will know what has value, and why we should save it?

PW: What was your path to environmentalism? Any books play a part in that journey?

EFS: As a kid my parents took me out west on camping trips to Big Bend National Park, on the border of far southwest Texas and northern Mexico where there are very large forms, open skies of glittering stars, mountains and boulders, canyons and rivers. I learned to love the Chihuahuan Desert Ecosystem, but I also became acutely aware of my parent’s backyard in Fort Worth, where I’d upturn rotting wood and cinderblocks just to stare in wonder at the insects, worms and pill bugs. I became entranced with not only the sublime immensity of mountains and big skies, but also what Blake called “a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” I got a microscope for my birthday and discovered worlds without end.

As a child I read lots of atlases and field guides to animals. During my teen years I thought writers were supposed to be grownups—a mistake to be sure!—so I read American realist fiction like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, DH Lawrence, from which I learned a lot, but only Lawrence seemed as mystical and romantic as me. I had a better aptitude for poetry, and in my late teens I read the English Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, (I couldn’t get that deep into Lord Byron as his vision seemed more personal than universal) where the imagination and the sublime were not discarded as irrational, childish ideas, but integral to a fuller experience of the world, and allows people to be more sensitive and ethical. Of course no list of mine is complete without Walt Whitman, because I am a US American, it’s impossible for me to be a romantic without being a disciple of Whitman. I read Spanish language authors later, Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Borges’ labyrinthine fantasies of the mind and spirit, and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. It’s hard for me to come with a complete list because so many writers have been influential to me in different periods of my life. But these are among my favorites, but not my only favorites. I have many more, well beyond the limited demographic of dead white males I listed. I like Yusef Komunyakaa, Mary Oliver and Luis Alberto Urrea. Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road is a spectacular piece of magic realism most Americans haven’t read. And I love everything I’ve read by Haruki Murakami, both realist and fantastical.

PW: I didn’t read The Wind in the Willows until I was in my twenties, but even though it’s a “kids” book, I still read it at least once a year. What books about animals did you love as a kid? How about as an adult?

EFS: I loved and still love Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White’s tale describes the durability of true friendship that even survives death. I like how Watership Down by Richard Adams uses rabbits to create a new mythology, a mythology of and by rabbits. Surely other creatures have language. Our species in its arrogance will sometimes dismiss whale song or bird chirping as mere sound. It’s pretty clear midway through Melville’s Moby Dick that the white whale is not the villain--it’s American industrial capitalism, and the monster is us. My best friend growing was a male tricolor collie named Jamie (a male collie, my parents named him after a Scottish Doctor Who character) so I loved to read Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight in my early teens. When I began to read Orwell’s Animal Farm, I really wanted the animals to succeed in their revolution, and became sad when I realized the pigs were merely representations of human folly.

PW: Many science fiction and fantasy stories personify animals (or nonhuman beings in general). Brian Jacques’ Redwall series for example. Do you think there is value in personifying animals in literature?

EFS: Yes! But there is a fine line between personifying animals as stereotypes for people. Perhaps that’s why I never got that into Aesop’s Fables, because the animals aren’t there on their own terms, rather than foxes and snakes and turtles, they’re humans dressed as those creatures. Jack London also seemed to project his own brutalist vision of nature onto Buck, the dog, in The Call of the Wild. Richard Adams makes the rabbits more than just abstract representations of people in Watership Down and that’s why I like it.

PW: When you write about nonhuman beings in your work, what do you hope the reader feels?

EFS: I hope the reader experiences wonder, the exuberance of being and sharing the world with animals like deer, coyotes and the myriad species of mollusks, and other animals we have not discovered. I hope my readers experience joy and that I can help readers realize that happiness doesn’t come from achieving the right goals, it comes from appreciating the miracle before us. I mean, we share a planet with cute razorback musk turtles. That’s amazing!

PW: Any book suggestions for our readers?

EFS: American Primitive by Mary Oliver, The Book of Gods and Devils by Charles Simic, South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, and because too many people think Pablo Neruda only wrote love poems, Canto General translated by Jack Schmidt.

PW: Wonderful, thanks for virtually hanging out with me here at Nerds. Where can our readers find your work?

EFS: My first full length poetry collection just came out. Here it is on Amazon.

My poetry has been published in about 20 or so journals, including, but not limited to Poets Reading the News, Modern Poetry Quarterly Review, The Hopper, The Lyric and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review.

PW: And finally, what is your favorite animal?

EFS: My favorite animal is a collared peccary, more commonly known as the javelina!

Posted by Phoebe Wagner. She can be found writing in the high desert and on Twitter @pheebs_w or

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Microreview [book]: Infinity's End, by Jonathan Strahan (editor)

Infinity's End is a fitting and excellent way to close the book on a solid anthology series.

I asked the writers creating new stories for this book to try to open up the solar system, to look again at its vastness, its incredible scale, and at how humanity in different ways might fit successfully and happily into its nooks and crannies. - Jonathan Strahan, "Introduction"
One thing that helps to center my reading of one of Jonathan Strahan's Infinity anthologies is what he has to say in the introduction. I take the stories as they come and as they are, but that introduction discussing the central idea of the anthology and the intended perspective Strahan was looking to achieve is vital to how I view the overall success of the anthology.

As with previous volumes in Strahan's Infinity Project, Infinity's End is a fine anthology of science fictional short stories with a couple of standouts, one or two that just don't work for me for whatever reason, and the rest are just good stories that collectively build a solid anthology that may not be fully spectacular but still consistently enjoyable.

Before getting into the stuff that I liked, I'd like to quickly hit on the two stories that didn't work for me. Or, quite possibly, I didn't work for the stories. Lavie Tidhar is a renowned writer, critically acclaimed. I've come to realize that for not any particular flaw in the fiction or the writing of Lavie Tidhar, that I'm just not the right reader for Tidhar's work. I just so consistently bounce off of Tidhar's work that there's nothing really that "Talking to Ghosts at the Edge of the World" can do for me as a reader. It's an interesting thing, though, to come to the realization that I'm just not the audience rather than it's the story.

Likewise, "A Portrait of Salai" was not to my taste. Hannu Rajaneimi definitely stretches the idea of getting into the nooks and crannies of the universe - it's an odd story that talks about "earth like planets" and dyson spheres, but almost seems to be taking place on a super small scale (or, alternately, on a super large scale that dwarfs imagination. Honestly, I can't tell). There's a symphony built from throwing comets at a planet. "A Portrait of Salai" most effectively hits the scope of what Strahan is looking for while simultaneously not being one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Unlike with Lavie Tidhar, I'm not familiar with the work of Hannu Rajaneimi -  I'm aware of it and recognize the acclaim his novels have received, but I haven't read him before.

Much more positively, one of my favorite stories in Infinity's End is Seanan McGuire's "Swear Not by the Moon". It's the dual story of the rise of a woman named Wendy May, a woman so wealthy that she bought a moon with the goal of terraforming it into something habitable and a tourist attraction, along with the story of a family visiting Titan. The success of the story isn't so much the pushing forward of the "present" as it is the somewhat more didactic Wendy May sections. It's just so fascinating and scratched an itch that I didn't realize I had.

Other stories feature such oddities of a velociraptor investigating a murder (Justina Robson's "Foxy and Tiggs" and trust me, this is a futuristic story), one set so far in the future the solar system is being used for tourism and humans are so long lived they are functionally immortal - this one is the sort of story I used to love and now comes across as more travelogue than story ("Death's Door, by Alastair Reynolds). There's a Quiet War story from Paul McAuley. Generally, I appreciated and enjoyed most of the stories in this anthology.

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch I'd like more stories of Colette, a super smart kid solving problems before the authorities. I'm always happy to read anything from Stephen Baxter and "Last Small Step" does not disappoint.

"Intervention" from Kelly Robson is all heart. It features a woman who self exiled herself from her Lunar base home because of the Lunar prejudices against children and especially creche born and those who want to care for them. Jules dedicated her life to raising children, being a creche mother. Generation after generation. "Intervention" is a deeply moving, powerful, and personal story. As meaningful as the work Jules has done for decades has been, the resentment and borderline hatred she feels for Luna still seeps through at the barest mention of the moon. It's great and I highly recommend it.

My absolute favorite story from Infinity's End is Linda Nagata's "Longing for Earth". It is simply a beautiful story of Hitoshi, one of the oldest humans in the universe, taking his one thousandth journey, a trek on another artificial world. "Longing for Earth" is not a travelogue, per se, but it is a gentle and peaceful story of one man's hopes and dreams and the peace of travel and exploration. It's a beautiful story and is one of my favorite stories in this anthology. I appreciated the internal conflict between family who has chosen to upload themselves to a Virtual Layer with those family members who have stayed behind in "The Temporal Layer", which is what we might consider "the real world" - except that both existences are equally real, they're just different. "Longing for Earth" is a true standout and the highlight of an already strong anthology.

I'm sad that Infinity's End is the purported final volume in Jonathan Strahan's Infinity Project of anthologies. The theme has always been loose, no matter what Strahan has stated in the introduction (and I'm not sure he'd truly disagree with me here). He's just looking for science fiction which stretches the bounds of humanity living in the wider universe. The success is that Strahan has a great idea for good stories and each of the Infinity Project anthologies hits the mark for top notch stories. While I hope that Strahan will revisit the Infinity brand again several years from now (and if so, the anthology should maybe be titled Infinity's Rebirth), Infinity's End is a fitting and excellent way to close the book on a solid anthology series. Reading each volume and reading Infinity's End has been a delight.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the soaring heights of Linda Nagata's "Longing for Earth"

Penalties: -1 for the weirdness of "Kindred" (Peter Watts). You really need to know your Philip K. Dick to appreciate this one.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10, "a mostly enjoyable experience" See more about our scoring system here.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Microreview [Book]: The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera

Their Bright Ascendancy continues with a slower volume that focuses on its queer women protagonists to the near-exclusion of everything else.

I've been looking forward to The Phoenix Empress, second in the "Their Bright Ascendancy" series by K. Arsenault Rivera, for a while: as a sequel to The Tiger's Daughter, a book that I very much enjoyed despite its flaws, I was intrigued to see where the author would take both the plot and the form of this queer romance-heavy fantasy trilogy. Structurally, The Tiger's Daughter is an odd book, told mostly in the form of a second-person letter from Qorin warrior Barsalai Shefali to her wife, Hokkaran O-Shizuka (better known by the time the letter is written as Empress Yui). Shefali effectively retells the story of her childhood with Shizuka, moving between the steppes on which the Qorin people live and the royal Hokkaran palaces, their cross-cultural friendship enabled by the close relationship their own mothers had at the time of their birth. Shefali and Shizuka fall in love in a society where same-sex relationships are more or less taboo, particularly in Hokkaran culture, and their battles include the fight for acceptance as well as some actual battles with a plague of black-blooded contagious zombies from north of Hokkaro. Spoilers for The Tiger's Daughter will follow, so if you're not caught up, and you want to try a slow-burning epic fantasy with a same-sex relationship between women at its heart, this is the book for you.

The Phoenix Empress pick up almost exactly where its predecessor leaves off, and while the "present" takes up more of the narrative in this volume, there's still a substantial story-within-a-story as Shizuka fills Shefali in on the events that led to her becoming empress, not to mention developing an alcohol addiction and a severe phobia of water. Shefali has returned from her own travels even more changed, following events in that have led to her being contaminated by black blood but not succumbing to the usual progress of the illness, and now expects to die on her next birthday in four months' time. A great deal of the book is therefore based on learning each others' secrets and renewing their relationship, as well as working out what the wider implications of Shefali's return are for the future of Hokkaro and the black- blood plague.

I suspect that the unusual structure of these novels is playing an important trope-subverting role as well as being a narrative choice. It allows Rivera to incorporate a long, traumatic separation into Shizuka and Shefali's story without turning the relationship itself into a tragedy, particularly during the ending of The Tiger's Daughter (Shefali's letter ends with the separation of the two lovers; the plot of the frame narrative, eight years later, with their being reunited). By averting a "bury your gays" moment, Rivera definitely wins my trust as a reader on one level, but it does also change my relationship to the tensions in the novel. Despite Shizuka's trauma and Shefali's impending doom, part of me is convinced from a meta-narrative sense that we are reading a story where the pair will triumph in the end, and all that matters is how. Unfortunately, there's not much in The Phoenix Empress that really invests me in that question, and I suspect this is largely due to the happy couple themselves.

Shizuka and Shefali are entirely consumed by each other, and while in The Tiger's Daughter that made for an interesting romance plot, by The Phoenix Empress, this feels more like family drama than the trials of star-crossed lovers. Their relationship blazes so bright that a lot of other story elements are obscured or left blank, with worldbuilding and characterisation outside of the pair often feeling sketchy and two-dimensional. It's worth noting that some concerns were raised about cultural appropriation in the Tiger's Daughter, and while I'm not personally sure how fair that claim is - this is a secondary world fantasy, after all - I don't think there is any change in The Phoenix Empress that will mitigate that concern, and there's a lack of overall depth to the world Shefali and Shizuka inhabit in this volume which is likely to frustrate readers invested in these aspects. Insofar as Hokkaro, Xian (a former territory of Hokkaro recently given independence) and Qorin are undergoing their own political transformations, this all seems to happen off-screen, or in the time between Shizuka's past and Shefali's present. There's also almost no queerness represented in The Phoenix Empress beyond the main pair: our elite battle wives find themselves in a world that's otherwise oppressively heteronormative at every level. In addition, some elements of Shefali and Shizuka themselves - like, say, the fact that they are both superpowered Gods - is taken bizarrely at face value by the narrative.

What frustrates me most is the treatment of Shizuka's past arc, which involves her precipitating a major un-natural disaster after a narrow escape from a river spirit whose agreement she breaks. On its own, the tragedy of this story doesn't prevent us from being sympathetic to Shizuka, who is horrified and traumatised by what has happened and was only trying to do her best to protect her people from the black-bloods. However, the narrative treats this as if the most important thing for Shizuka to gain is Shefali's forgiveness, and through that, her own peace of mind. I couldn't help but compare the way this element was treated to the atrocities which take place in R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War, where the first-person protagonist reacts to war crimes in a way that is personal but centres the crimes and the death themselves - a distinction which is even more important because Kuang is writing about fictionalised versions of real historical events. In The Phoenix Empress, the tragedy isn't really allowed to stand on its own: it's all about how Shizuka and Shefali's reconciliation might be affected by its aftermath.

At this stage, it feels uncomfortably like I have been railing at a book for not being what I wanted, rather than not being "good". I have to acknowledge that, while I love a queer romantic subplot, the slow burning soap opera at the heart of The Phoenix Empress was always going to be a hard sell for me. However, if that is a selling point for you, there is definitely an accomplished and unusual story here, and Their Bright Ascendancy is still a valuable addition to a still-too-small canon of wlw fantasy novels. There's an intriguing quest set up in the last chapters of The Phoenix Empress and while the jury's still out on whether I'll be along for the ride, I'm very glad that Shefali and Shizuka will be setting out on their final adventure together regardless.

The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 The world needs more books like this; +1 Pulls off an interesting story-within-a-story structure without diminishing my interest in either tale

Penalties: -1 Everything that isn't Shefali or Shizuka is washed out by the intensity of focus on the pair.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Reference: Rivera, K. Arsenault. The Phoenix Empress [Tor, 2018]