Friday, November 15, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

A dense, twisty and satisfying West African-inspired fantasy with a great magic system

Image result for kingdom of souls

Kingdom of Souls continues the recent run of great West African-inspired fantasy, with a mystery that quickly becomes something greater, driven by the whims of gods and monsters. Its central character is Arrah, a woman who, despite having family with strong magical bloodlines on both sides, has yet to come into her own magical powers - a subject of increasing frustration to her and to her mother, Arti, whose expectations for her daughter are far greater than Arrah has any hope of living up to. After another failed magical ceremony, Arrah returns to the city of Tamar, only to get caught up in a plot in which children are disappearing - what follows is a hunt for answers that quickly brings Arrah and her family into the orbit of the powerful demon king, prevented from being with his now-lost Orisha lover an age ago, and now back for revenge on both the Orisha and humanity as a whole.

Although I had fairly limited assumptions about Kingdom of Souls' plot going in, its a book that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short time, at least once the relatively slow set-up begins to pay off. It takes a while to establish all the relevant pieces in Arrah's world: her mixed tribal heritage, and the traditions of both her mother's Mulani people, and the Aatiri tribe of her father and grandmother; the ceremonies of the tribal lands and Arrah's frustrated participation in them; the different reactions she receives among the Mulani and Aatiri compared to the more diverse and ostensibly less magical circle of friends in Tamar, and her relationship with forbidden love interest Rudjek. On top of that, there's the mixed system of belief and Gods - the Mulani worship only Heka, the God who brought magic to humans, while others worship a pantheon of twenty Orisha (not to be confused with the "canonical" Orisha of Yoruba myth - these are entirely Barron's creation), and a whole set of legends around the Demon King and his desire for human souls. Putting all of this together, setting the wheels in motion for the kidnapped children plot, and setting up the decision whereby Arrah decides to become a "charlatan" - someone without inherent magic who trades years of their life in order to cast spells - takes around a third of the book. It's an impressive amount of set-up and my suspicions that it was being done for a series rather than a book were proved correct when the ending resolved some, but far from all, the plot threads that get built up from this start.

Once the plot gets going, its done in a way that pulls the rug out from reader expectations more than once. For one thing, the inciting incident of the missing children gets an answer much sooner than expected, although its a gut punch of a reveal. From there the story twists into something quite different, which is difficult to describe without spoilers but much more than I expected on the relationship between Arrah and her mother Arti, and the trauma that her mother suffered which contributed to the choices she made for Arrah and for her entire family's future, as well as involving the demons and Orisha mentioned above. It makes for a story that offers a much broader perspective than the average first person teenage protagonist fronted story (although Kingdom of Souls is definitely in "crossover" rather than firm "YA" territory), forcing Arrah to look beyond what she wants (acceptance, to be with her love interest, not having the world destroyed by soul-sucking demons, making sure all her loved ones are OK) to the motivations and desires and difficulties of other people - be they humans or... well, soul-sucking demons. Despite that, it definitely doesn't let anyone off the hook for their terrible choices, and trust me there's some terrible choices happening here.

There were definitely elements of this that I liked more than others - despite the necessity of the set-up, the first third of the book dragged for me, and I also didn't have much time for the doomed love affair between Rudjek and Arrah, due to their parents' rivalry and other magical factors that become clear later on - perhaps because I wasn't paying enough attention during the parts of the book this was initially set up, I just didn't have a whole lot of time for their particular brand of relationship within a novel that already had plenty of nuanced, engaging, non-romantic relationship stuff going on. Rudjek also felt upstaged by Arrah's magical friend Sukar, who I felt I could have spent much more time with.

All in all, this debut kickstarts a series which has some serious potential, both in terms of worldbuilding and direction, and while this first volume has a lot of work to do in putting it all together, it pulls it off in an inventive way which mostly maintains the pace that a story of this urgency needs. Worth digging into, especially for those looking for an interesting take on magic, love and coming-of-age in a very well-realised fantasy world.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 A twisty plot which doesn't go in the expected directions

Penalties: -1 Lots of worldbuilding to get through makes for a slow start

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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: Barron, Rena. Kingdom of Souls (Harper Voyager, 2019)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Disney Plus has arrived and it has been a joy to see all of the fun my friends are having streaming various Marvel and Disney content.  I did sign up for a game of Disney Plus roulette and think I need to watch the Secret of the Wings per Dean's list.  Not sure I am looking forward to that, but I am pumped to finally check out the Mandalorian with the family.


Family Tree #1:
 There are a lot of great books out this week, but this new book From Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester really stuck with me and had me thinking at the end of the night. While an end of the world story isn't particularly ground breaking, the slow approach that this book is taking reminds me of Sweet Tooth, another gem from Lemire.  While Sweet Tooth focuses on children that are born during this time, Family Tree focuses on some sort of infection or rash that literally causes plant growth on humans.

This story centers around Loretta, a single mother, and her family.  She has a daughter who appears to be 9 or 10 years old and a son in high school who has a tendency to get in trouble. Lemire's books tend to have strong father like characters in them and I am curious if this book will follow that trend or if Loretta will break the mold.  She clearly is struggling as a single parent, but genuinely cares about her kids and is extremely strong willed and not shy about her beliefs.

This debut issue does a nice job of establishing an interesting cast of characters that have no idea that they are about to be confronted with an end of the world scenario. I look forward to learning more about the infection that is spreading and the curious individuals who seem to know something about it and are seeking out Meg (Loretta's infected daughter).  It reminds me of the individuals in Sweet Tooth who sought out hybrids for medical research.  I am definitely intrigued and cannot wait to read more of this series.

The rest of the pull list:
In addition to the stellar Family Tree, Folklords from Matt Kindt told the story of Ansel and his desire to seek out the Folklords.  In his town, when children come of age they go on a quest with the guidance of a mysterious cult-like group of librarians. When they hear people speaking of the Folklords, they are clearly upset and it forces Ansel to embark on this mission with the help of a friend in secrecy.  This book was a lot of fun and it is always nice to have a new Kindt story to enjoy.  The Target Vader series also made the cut again this week and remains an impressive highlight reel of what Vader is capable of.  Lemire's other book that came out this week, Gideon Falls, demonstrated why it was the Eisner for best new series of 2019 and was one of the more disturbing books I have read in a while.  I mean that in a good way and cannot recommend it enough.

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

A YA thriller with a warm fuzzy digital heart


Image result for catfishing on catnet

Fresh from stealing our hearts away in various pieces of short fiction, including the Hugo Award winning and highly zeitgeisty "Cat Pictures Please" and this year's Hugo finalist "The Thing About Ghost Stories", Naomi Kritzer is back with her first published novel in some time - and her science fiction debut - the much anticipated Catfishing on Catnet. Although my primary fandom is dogs, I also maintain an ongoing interest in cat-related media, and having been lucky enough to pick up a Catfishing on Catnet fridge magnet (yes, apparently some books have fridge magnets now!) this has been a very highly anticipated release for me, one which I'm pleased to confirm doesn't disappoint.

Catfishing on Catnet follows Steph, a teenager whose life has been defined by her mother constantly moving her to escape an abusive father she knows almost nothing about. Steph's mother claims that her Dad is an arsonist, who tried to burn down the house with them in it and is now hunting them down. Steph has no reason not to believe this (her Mom carries a laminated version of the article with the information in, after all) but is still not enamoured with having to change schools every few months, and the only real life friend she ever made was a girl she hasn't seen or heard from in over ten years. Luckily, Steph has friends that go with her everywhere she moves - the buddies she's made on an online chatroom system called CatNet, which only requires payment in animal pictures to use its services, and organises users into "Clowders" based on what Steph thinks are fancy algorithms, but what is actually the engineering of a benevolent AI trying to make its human users' lives better.

The AI of CatNet is, of course, the same AI from "Cat Pictures Please": a story which deals with the misadventures of an all-seeing intelligence trying to make humans happy while also learning how humans actually work. The kinds of actions taken by the AI in that story are reflected in some early scenes here: a bad teacher at Steph's school, for example, resigns after a delivery drone "accidentally" drops a load of books on how to quit your job and guidebooks for a city where her friend is conveniently hiring for a position in a totally different career. However, most of the time the AI - called CheshireCat by Steph and her Clowder based on its screenname in their group chat - is focused on the more serious issue of Steph's father, and the mystery surrounding both her parents. As CheshireCat becomes more invested in both the mystery of Steph's past and her wellbeing as one of its friends in its "favourite" Clowder, its actions start to increasingly expose its own identity, raising issues about trust and acceptance based on who we choose to be online.

What plays out from this is almost a sort of cosy thriller, starring some great mystery solving internet teens, as Steph's mother comes down with an illness and Steph becomes increasingly involved in piecing together the story of her family. With the support of her Clowder and CheshireCat, Steph also starts befriending a couple of girls at school, notably Rachel, an artistic prodigy who offers a rare note of non-internet friendship in her transient life. At around the halfway mark, the tone switches gears and Steph's "IRL" and "internet" spheres start overlapping, as events converge on the town of New Coburg and the risks to discovering the truth start to increase for everyone involved. Because of the book's mystery elements and the way its structured, there's not much I can say about the plot without starting to give things away, but I will note that despite the book's cover zeroing in on an ominous "how much does the internet know around you" tagline, Steph and the Clowder's suspicions never fall on CheshireCat, and neither are we directed to suspect it as readers (it is after all the first point of view voice we meet in the book). The focus in Catfishing on Catnet is quite definitely on the positive and negative ways in which humans use technology, rather than scaremongering about technology itself, and the focus never wavers from the fact that there are real, human people involved in this at every stage.

The rest of Steph's clowder - especially her best friend Firestar, and regular Clowder members Marvin, Hermione and Icosahedron - are great characters in their own right, with enough characterisation to bring their bonds with each other to life and make the AI's intention in bringing them together clear, without being too saccharine or co-opting the story. Catnet itself is portrayed as a niche app, which goes some way to mitigating the sense of anachronism of a group of near-future teenagers using a chatroom with handles and a complete lack of emojis and gifs. I should be clear that I can't speak to how much Catfishing on Catnet will actually speak to the internet of teenagers now, rather than the inner teenager of a millennial in her 30s, but I'd like to hope that its hitting on something timeless. Subcultures of people forming bonds exclusively online, rather than using the internet to augment connections with their existing friends, is perhaps niche enough anyway that Catfishing on Catnet doesn't need to be about the evolution of AirDrop and TikTok into whatever teens will be using in the era when their sex ed classes are being taught by awkwardly programmed robots and self-driving cars are a real, but not uncontroversial, development.

Overall, Catfishing on Catnet offered a great reading experience, blending together insights on internet culture and use of technology with a thriller-esque plotline that kept me turning the pages without overstaying its welcome. Though I can't speak to how particular cultural elements will land with people actually within the YA age bracket, its characters feel real and sympathetic and their use of an internet chatroom - albeit an extraordinarily well curated one - makes sense within the context of their respective lives.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Great interactions between teenagers, AI and adults which takes online friendship seriously

Penalties: -1 Not as many CheshireCat antics as the original short story

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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: Kritzer, Naomi. Catfishing on Catnet (Tor Teen, 2019)

Watchmen Wednesdays: Episode 4

Watchmen Wednesdays! 

Buckle in for maybe the weirdest one yet.

In episode four, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” more characters are introduced and few mysterious solved. The episode opens with the introduction of Lady Trieu (excellently portrayed by Hong Chau), who wants to buy a farmer’s house and land—the payment? A baby that is biologically theirs due to leftover genetic material from when they medically tried to have a baby years ago. Of course, this seals the deal—just in time as something crashed onto the farmland they just sold, thus making it Lady Trieu’s.

Lady Trieu and the baby payment

We don’t know much about Lady Trieu, but here’s what we do know: she’s from Vietnam, she’s uber-rich, she bought Veidt’s/Ozymandias’ company, and she’s building the first wonder of the “new world” (ie something that can withstand the climate crisis). She’s also the one who took Angela's grandfather Will Reeves.

Over in Veidt wonderland, we did receive one answer—where do the clones come from? Wellll, apparently Veidt fishes them out of a lake like crab babies and then somehow grows them at a painfully quick speed (as demonstrated by the horrible screaming). Was anyone else as horrified by this as I was? It fits with the true weirdness of Veidt’s world but, dang, that was pretty awful. We aren’t given any time to recover from that weirdness before the newly grown clones are ushered into the dining hall to clean up their own clone massacre. Veidt admits to killing them all. That’s a big yikes from me, mate.  

They get rid of the bodies by catapulting them.

When it comes to Angela and Agent Blake, the episode mostly featured a stand off. Angela is trying to keep Will Reeves a secret (as much as she resents him for screwing up her life) even while Blake takes over the investigation of the dead chief. I can only assume their relationship is going to explode pretty soon.

A few new mysterious pop-up or are remembered. First, the squids. No new information but the episode reminds us about them. Second, another new superhero appears—Lube Man—but all he does is run away from Angela and slide into a sewer. The object that crashes on the farm is never revealed, either, and Lady Trieu comes with a host of her own mysteries. Plus, the very end of the episode features Will Reeves repeating the “tick-tock” that has been associated largely with the white supremacist terrorist group the Seventh Kavalry (who were largely absent this episode).

For the reasons listed above, I gotta say this wasn’t my favorite episode. Last week, we got some answers and the return of a favorite character (and Agent Blake as played by Jean Smart is still brilliant and wonderful). This episode just created so many more questions that I worry aren’t going to be resolved in five episodes. I definitely trust showrunner Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame/infamy). He’s given us an amazing opening for a difficult show and got a nonfan pretty invested in this world. I’m down to see what he’s going to do with the remaining episodes.

Here’s what some other folks are talking about:

FIYAH poetry editor and writer Brandon O'Brien on Tom Mison

Speculative Writer Victor LaValle on Episode 4
Speculative Writer Brooke Bolander on the Veidt babies

My predictions for next week: the squids are gonna come baaaaaack, and I have a theory that Veidt is trapped in Lady Trieu's statue of himself. 



Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Nanoreviews: The Red-Stained Wings, Trapped in the R.A.W., How Long 'Til Black Future Month?



Bear, Elizabeth. The Red-Stained Wings [Tor, 2019]

The Red-Stained Wings is the second volume in Elizabeth Bear's Lotus Kingdoms trilogy, a different part of the same world as her acclaimed Eternal Sky sequence. Not to lean too heavily on this old statement, but The Red-Stained Wings comes across as more of a middle volume than anything Bear has written before. It's very good, of course, and beautifully written as we've come to expect from Elizabeth Bear - but it's a siege novel. The story of The Red-Stained Wings is a simmering rage waiting to explode, but the explosion doesn't much happen here.

The real story and the glory of the novel lies in its characterization. The Dead Man is as richly drawn as any character can be, and his life and romance inside the besieged palace is some of the best writing Bear has done (which is saying something). The Gage is mostly absent from this novel, though serves to introduce a character likely to be a major player in the forthcoming third volume. As beautiful as the writing is, and as enjoyable as the reading experience was, The Red-Stained Wings was more a chapter in a larger novel than a truly complete entry in its own right.
Score: 7/10 



Boyes, Kate. Trapped in the R.A.W. [Aqueduct Press, 2019]

Some novels are a bit more interest in the concept than in the execution, and unfortunately Trapped in the R.A.W. is one of those novels. The idea is that there is an alien invasion and a young woman barricades herself into a university library while the aliens kill every human they find. The story is told through journal entries as the woman documents what is going on from her limited vantage point. It's a great concept, but it mostly doesn't work for me because the story is being told from too much of a distance. 
Score: 6/10



Jemisin, N.K. How Long Til Black Future Month [Orbit, 2018]

With the massive popularity of her novels, it is easy to forget that Jemisin was publishing short stories for a number of years before The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was in a glimmer in the reading public's eye. How Long Til Black Future Month serves as a reminder that she's been writing and publishing short fiction all this time and her stories have been consistently excellent. Two of her stories have been a finalist for the Hugo Award, both are included here. Where How Long Til Black Future Month is a raging success is that collection showcases the wide range of her talent - from tightly urban environment to deeply rural communities. According to the publisher, Jemisin's fiction offers "thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption that sharply examine modern society" and that's just about right. This is just about as good as it gets from a short fiction collection.
Score: 9/10


POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1977, Best Novel)




Dossier: Wilhelm, Kate. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang [Harper & Row, 1976]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: The novel opens with the gradual (and then rapid) collapse of civilization due to environmental issues, radiological attacks, falling birth rates, and global disease. One family forms an isolated community and because they're wealthy and have strong scientific education and access to equipment, manage to clone themselves with the hopes that after a number of generations humans will be able to biologically reproduce and the species can be saved even though it may be only this one family. 


Cloning, of course, provides its own difficulty and after several generations it is clear that the clones view themselves as a more evolved species of humanity and the surviving original family members find themselves pushed out and the difference between the clones and "natural" humans is in stark contrast and conflict.


Legacy: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, was a recipient of the Locus Award for SF Novel, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as the John W. Campbell Award for Best SF Novel. By the time of Wilhelm's Hugo Award she had already been a ten time Nebula Award finalist (with one win) and a previous Hugo Award finalist. 

When Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977, it was only the third novel written by a woman to be so awarded. The other two were The Left Hand of Darkness (1970) and The Dispossessed (1975), both by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is generally considered a classic of the genre, though it is not often discussed today as some of the Hugo winning novels in the years before and after still are.



In Retrospect: Through the clones in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm examines the idea of what it means to be human - though without most of humanity around to interfere with that conversation. Is one individual more important than the overall health of the community? What is individuality worth within a community? 


Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a bleak novel, not just because it is post apocalyptic and borderline dystopian but of how the breakdown of technology over the decades without new parts and training for how to make the repairs impacts the community at the same time that later generations of the clones are becoming less and less recognizably human. Each subsequent generation of clone becomes more and more specialized in what tasks they are suited for and lose the ability to truly creatively think for themselves. At the same time, any deviation from the "norm" is severely punished. Women who can't intellectually benefit the community are primarily used as breeding stock.

Actually, that may be the dystopian part that makes the novel so bleak. It's fairly disgusting.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not as smooth as more modern novels are. The style reads as somewhat older than it is (40+ years old), but the concept of the novel and the storytelling resonate very well today.

I don't have a scientific background, but the idea of cloning leading to a group telepathy is absurd on its face (though not an unusual concept in fiction regarding twins and possibly also clones), but the breakdown through generations of cloning the clones makes perfect sense. 

As a whole, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang still holds up more than forty years after its first publication. There are problems and problematic elements (a lot of incest and the abduction of women at the end of the novel for reasons, just to name two), but there is power in Wilhelm's writing.



Analytics

For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 9/10 



POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Friday, November 8, 2019

6 (Middle/Standalone) Books with Heather Rose Jones


Heather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-
era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy,
and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy Grail, Sword and
Sorceress, Lace and Blade, and at Podcastle.org. Heather blogs about research into lesbian-
relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast
covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio
fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an
industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals. Find her on Twitter here.

Today, she shares with us six books that are either midpoints or standalones within their series!

1. What book are you currently reading?

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal. The Glamourist Histories may all be released but I’m still working my way through the series. There was a time in my life when I would binge-read an existing series once it caught my attention. Now I like to spread them out a bit more. I’m tickled to death that “Regency fantasy” has become an identifiable genre, and not only because my own Alpennia series can be carried on that tide. Alpennia isn’t technically Regency, not being set in England, but it was inspired by the Regency romance genre. I’m steeped in Jane Austen’s works--perhaps “pickled” would be a better term, since I use audiobook versions of them as a sleep aid--so it was fun to identify the familiar Austen characters and tropes in Shades of Milk and Honey. But the series moved beyond those origins in successive books and I enjoyed seeing the books engage with topics that the premise seemed to beg for. (Like the potential industrial uses of glamour, and the human toll that would exact.) Each entry in the series tackles a new aspect of the magical premise as we take the Grand Tour through Kowal’s version of early 19th century European society.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

A Jewel-Bright Sea by Claire O’Dell. Technically this isn’t “upcoming” since it’s been out for a month, but it’s upcoming for me, since I haven’t started it yet. Taking a sharp new turn in an existing series is always a risk. Starting a series under one name (River of Souls by Beth Bernobich) and following the same characters and setting under a new pen name and series title (Mage and Empire by Claire O’Dell) must be nerve-wracking. Fortunately, following the author means I didn’t lose the thread of connection between the previous works (which I loved) and this adventure of pirates and magic. With the characters in the various books tied together by linked re-birth across the ages, the series is inherently non-linear and every book has the potential to be the middle of an endlessly ongoing story. The next Mage and Empire book is in process and I hope to anticipate more after that.

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

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold. I suspect every fan of the Vorkosigan series has their own favorite. Given my love for Georgette Heyer romances, one might expect mine to be A Civil Campaign. But if you judge by the elapsed time between completing the first read and starting the re-read, then the clear winner for me is Memory. (Elapsed time: about 5 seconds.) It misses out on being the book that I’ve re-read most often across my entire lifetime primarily because it can’t compete as a comfort read with Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. How’s that for an odd juxtaposition? I love Memory because it shows powerful characters at their most vulnerable. I find it hard to love characters who wield immense privilege and autocratic power, leaving vast swathes of the population at the mercy of their sense of honor and good will. Honestly, from a political point of view, I find my enjoyment of the Vorkosigan series highly problematic. But that vulnerability isn’t the only reason that Memory is a regular re-read for me. I love a good puzzle and a carefully set trap. I love seeing women’s power--even from a minor side character--recognized and rewarded. And, quite frankly, I rather enjoyed seeing Miles get a long overdue comeuppance, even though he improbably lands on his feet and climbs even higher because of it. In my opinion, the series peaked with this book, with the following pair of Komarr and A Civil Campaign delivering a nice relaxing coda. But sometimes a “middle book” can deliver the hardest punch of a series.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. Kushner’s Riverside stories aren’t so much a “series” as a pinboard of postcards delivered from various locations in Riverside’s sprawling history. In terms of writing sequence, The Privilege of the Sword is either the end of the Riverside novels (if you count the Kushner-authored ones) or the middle of an ongoing saga (if you count the group-authored serials that fall two generations earlier in timeline). When I first read The Privilege of the Sword it exploded my heart into a thousand pieces. It came so close to being the novel I had lived my whole life waiting for--the fantasy adventure in which brave, daring, sword-wielding girls rescue and fall in love with each other--then it fell short in ways that left me devastated. It took me an entire decade--and writing my own first novel--to be able to come back to The Privilege of the Sword and appreciate it for what it always was. It isn’t that my opinion changed positively or negatively, only that I was able to step back from my own needs and hungers and see the book more clearly.

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

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. It’s always surprising to remember that The Dark is Rising is a middle book--the second in the five-book series. (Although it was literally the middle book in the series when I first read it in the mid-1970s. The fourth and fifth books hadn’t been published yet when I read it.) What I took away from The Dark is Rising is that magical forces are all around us, lying dormant in the landscape and infusing every bird and tree. Even the most ordinary of eleven-year-old boys (or girls) might suddenly find they were part of a larger story with ancient lineage. When I was eleven, I had the life-changing experience of living in Prague for a year--an experience that led directly to my life-long love of history and language. That was a year when mystical things could have happened. Later, when I began Cooper’s series, everything I had experienced took on a different color. The series is oddly structured. One can begin either with this book or with Over Sea, Under Stone. The young protagonists of the two books have no overlap, and it would be easy to miss the connection of the mentor figure who appears in both stories. When all the protagonists are united in the third book, Greenwitch, the reader may agree with them in wondering just whose story it is, anyway. The Dark series also taught me that you can lead your readers through a massively changing landscape, from the domestic to the mythic to the epic, and if you play your cards right, they’ll follow you anywhere.

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

Floodtide: Can an ex-laundry maid and a dressmaker’s daughter outrace the rising waters and bring a miracle to the forgotten people of a stricken city? The Alpennia series is a Regency-era Ruritanian romantic adventure, following a found-family of women caught up in a growing magico-political conflict. As I approached the middle of the planned seven-book series, I decided to risk a major shift of gears. Instead of the previous focus on wealthy and aristocratic characters whose actions affected the fate of the country, I took up the story of a young working-class girl who has nothing in the way of mystical powers and whose challenge is how to survive when she’s dismissed from her employment with no prospects. Oh, she knows a few magical charms--the ordinary house-charms that everyone knows for their work. But her newfound apprentice-sister Celeste draws her into the world of the charmwives. Through an unlikely collection of allies, Celeste’s charms may offer the only hope for Alpennia’s forgotten poor when floodtide comes out of season in the wake of a magical battle. Floodtide is an “independent onramp” to the series, offering new readers a taste of Alpennia without the daunting prospect of working through the three previous volumes. My hope is that they’ll love it enough to circle back and read the rest!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

I am going to mix things up a bit for today's entry in an attempt to try something new here on Thursday Morning Superhero.  My write-up/review will focus on what I consider one of the bigger books for the week followed with other brief recommendations. If you have any thoughts on it leave a comment below or tweet at me (@newhousebailey).



Undiscovered Country 1:
Set in 2059, the book opens with a crew on a helicopter entering US airspace for the first time in 30 years.  A plague called the Sky Virus threatens life as we know it in the US and there is a possible cure somewhere within its border walls.  The bigger question is how did we reach a point where the US has cut itself off from the world?  

When you rack up as much debt as the US has, things tend to get difficult when your creditor wants you to pay up.  In 2021 China called on the US to pay back its debt and it triggered what would eventually be called "The Sealing".  This lengthy process ended with a massive wall surrounding the US and "Air Wall" technology that was developed by DARPA and is some sort of electric barrier that is invisible to the naked eye.

Given this history it is understandable that there was a lot of tension as this team embarked into uncharted territory and as this story progressed the crew had no idea what they would find within the walls of the US.  It certainly caught me by surprise and I am looking forward to learning more about the competing factions, the interesting creatures that have appeared, and who is really behind the message the recruited this team from the outside world.

This book arrived on my pull list with a lot of hype, but given the A-list talent that is collaborating on this book it isn't surprising and might not be fair.  Co-authors Scott Snyder and Charles Soule have been blowing up my Twitter feed promoting this book and the duo of Ciuseppe Camuncoli and Daniele Orlandini absolutely crushed the visuals. Round that out with colors by Matt Wilson and lettering by Crank! and it is not surprising this was released with much fanfare and 1,325 variants.

I am really happy that this lived up to the hype and promises to be an interesting take on what our future might look like.  Sadly given our current political climate it seems all too realistic.

The rest of the pull list:
My pull list featured six books this week and sadly saw me not pull the trigger on Doctor Aphra despite my excitement towards the new arc.  The new Locke and Key was the first book I read this week, and while extremely enjoyable, it was more of a tease setting up the big event for later this year. It was a cute one-shot with a very good doggie. While a bit darker than I expected, I was pleasantly surprised with the new Yondu book from Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler. I continue to enjoy the current Daredevil arc and Gerry Duggan's Dead Eyes.  If you pick up one title this week outside of Undiscovered Country, you can't go wrong with No One Left to Fight by Aubrey Sitterson. It features the best looking pages and colors on the stands this week from Fico Ossio and Raciel Avila.  It is really one of the best looking comics I have ever seen from a color standpoint which is not something I say often. 

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


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Introducing Watchmen Wednesdays

Introducing Watchmen Wednesdays!

Regina King plays Angela Abar/Sister Night.


After seeing the first two episodes of HBO’s adaption of Watchmen, I’m itching to write about it. First, I’m going to be upfront and say I’m not a huge fan of the comics or the Zack Snyder movie (2009). Of Alan Moore’s work, I preferred V for Vendetta or Swamp Thing for the commentary on environmental issues and governmental power whereas Watchmen felt more so for fans of comic book superheroes, which I still struggle to engage with due issues of social justice, particularly sexism (though with writers like Saladin Ahmed, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nalo Hopkinson, and so on, comics are becoming more aware of social justice issues for sure). So, when the trailer came out for HBO’s adaption, I was interested but not overly so. I figured I’d give it a few episodes and see. The trailer suggested a strong political undertone—which made sense for Watchmen as a whole—but I worried it wouldn’t go far enough and just be some neo-liberal commentary that pretends to solve racism by the end of the first season.

Not so! Episode one, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” begins with the massacre at Black Wallstreet in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. The opening sequence of scenes depicts the KKK on a killing spree and destroying property. While intense and difficult to watch, the show was quickly praised on Twitter and other media websites (see Leah Schnelback’s wonderful write up for Tor.com here) for representing a moment in history often forgotten by (white) history books. This sequence sets the tone for the first two episodes in a timeline that has diverged from our present. Instead, Robert Redford is president, Vietnam is a state, reparations are enacted but called Redfordations, and police wear masks.

Sister Knight and Looking Glass walk with yellow-masked police.


 The story revolves around Angela Abar (played by Regina King), a police officer injured during an attack that caused all police to wear masks afterward. Rather than just the yellow bandanna many police wear, Angela becomes Sister Knight, working alongside Looking Glass (also called Wade and played by Tim Blake Nelson) and Red Scare (played by Andrew Howard). With the police at their backs, they work to take down a violent white militia who wear Rorschach masks and go by the Seventh Kavalry. After a black police officer is killed by a Kavalry member, the force is galvanized into taking them out.

The Seventh Kavalry in Rorschach masks.


Now, this storyline is reasonability straightforward—cue the weirdness. Jeremy Irons plays an unnamed character (that is maybe Ozymandias?) with servants that seem awfully android-like. Or maybe clones. Regardless, they do not act fully in tune with human society. Little is revealed of Iron’s character, but we know he is writing a play and one android, Mr. Phillips (played by Tom Mison of Sleepy Hollow fame) gives him a watch as a present.

The episode ends with death of the white police chief, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). He’s lynched and the person who calls to tell Angela about the chief’s death is an elderly black man in a wheelchair, sitting by the body. As the episode ends, it’s clear this man, Will Reeves (Louis Gosset Jr.), is a survivor of the Tulsa Massacre. 

Episode 2, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” (no, I have no idea what the title means) mainly focuses on three plots: investigating the murder of Chief Crawford, Jeremy Iron’s character and his play, and discovering how Angela is connected to the elderly Will Reeves. While interrogating him, Will tells Angela that the police force has skeletons in the closet, which prompts her to go investigate at the memorial for Chief Crawford, even though he was her longtime friend.

In nicely cinematic moment, Angela enters the Crawford’s bougie house and as she passes through the mourners, it becomes clear she is the only person of color in the room. If the viewer can catch this pointed shot, then what follows next shouldn’t be too surprising: Judd Crawford has a KKK hood with a sheriff’s star in his closet.

Meanwhile, in an effort to stop the cop killings, the police force raid the local Seventh Kalvary hangout at a white trailer park. The scene is a brutal reversal of police violence so often depicted on the news today, whether it’s against BLM protestors or the Hong Kong revolutionaries. Angela hesitates to become involved in the violence until a white guy with a bat attempts to take out her friend Wade/Looking Glass, which prompts her to beat the man bloody.

Jeremy Irons' character with Ms. Crookshanks and Mr. Phillips.


Interspersed between these incidents of police brutality is the weirdness of Jeremy Irons’ character. In his storyline, we see the play he was writing performed by his possibly androids Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks. The play depicts the creation of Dr. Manhattan’s powers (which has prompted new fan theories that Irons is Dr. Manhattan, who according to the show, is living on Mars). As part of the play, one of the Mr. Phillips clones/androids/who knows is burned alive while Irons’ character yells at Ms. Crookshanks to cry real tears. It’s horrifying in that surreal arthouse kind of way. After Mr. Phillips burns up, another Mr. Phillips—painted blue and, you guessed it, naked—lowers from the ceiling. The sequence ends with little more understanding of Irons’ character, except to blur whether or not he is Ozymandias.

The episode ends on two threads. A documentary that has been discussed throughout the first episode is aired (and watched by some characters). It seems to depict the original “heroes” of the Watchmen comic and their origin stories. The second thread is Will Reeves. Angela is about to turn him in and puts him in her car when a giant magnet attached to a helicopter steals him away (and her car). All we know is that Will doesn’t seem surprised and winks at Angela.

Episode three, "She Was Killed by Space Junk," returns to familiar territory. The episode starts with Laurie Blake (an excellently cast Jean Smart), who now hunts vigilantes for the FBI. Not only that, she's rather good at it. She's sent to Tulsa to investigate the murder of Judd Crawford and teams up with Agent Petey, a former PhD in History turned agent who provides the historical context for the characters since the end of the comic book (or if it's been awhile for the viewer since reading Watchmen). Most of the episode allows for the heroes to be seen through the jaded eyes of Laurie Blake, yet again adding layers of complications, such as police violence portrayed behind the mask, as Blake says: "Do you know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante? Me neither."

Following in the footsteps of introducing Blake's character, Jeremy Irons is revealed to officially be Ozymandias. Yet, as soon as this mystery is cleared up, another is produced: the Game Warden, which Ozymandias calls his adversary.

The episode ends in a call back to episode two, as an SUV falls out of the sky, apparently the same one that Will Reeves escaped in. While a little slower paced than the previous two episodes, the introduction of Blake sets the stage for Alan Moore's creation to become more involved in this latest adaptation. And, Dr. Manhattan continues to be teased--can they get away without actually putting him and his iconic crotch on screen? We'll see.

For the rest of the season, I’ll be providing episode recaps, diving into some theories, and writing about my own ideas (will we get a cameo from Robert Redford?). So far, Watchmen has provided an interesting cultural critique of the violent, nationalist time we are experience, complete with commentary on police brutality and forgotten racially-motivated violence. There’s a lot of our own forgotten history to be explored through this lens.



Posted by Phoebe Wagner, a PhD student reading and writing out of Reno, Nevada.