Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Microreview [Movie]: Captain Marvel

It might be years overdue, but Captain Marvel finally provides a great first outing for its unapologetically powerful main character.



I'm relatively late and slow on the Marvel cinematic universe, and the fact that they've spent ten years and twenty movies without having a female-fronted superhero film is, let's be honest, quite a big part of that scepticism. When you're a woman interested in the stories of women (or, let's be honest, anyone who isn't the same muscly white man seventeen different times), it's hard to get enthusiastic about a franchise with high barriers to both entry and continuation which doesn't want to speak to you. As a space opera fan, I've seen (and liked) both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and I tried the original Avengers, but it wasn't until Black Panther came on the scene that I started looking into what I've been missing. I'm still very much behind on the main arc, ignorant of everything that happens in Infinity War and a lot of the previous instalments too (who's this Bucky guy anyway?*) and currently weighing up whether to catch up on that main story in time to see the next Avengers in cinema or just to let that milestone pass me by.

Luckily, with the exception of a post-credits scene I probably shouldn't have stayed for anyway, none of this matters with Captain Marvel, which has a couple of returning faces but mostly blazes its own trail in a mid-90s setting that both capitalises on elder-millennial nostalgia for that decade and conveniently avoids any tricky "so why hasn't this woman been around in the 20 previous films" questions in-universe. This lack of baggage does more than make the film accessible: it allows it to build its own themes and turn this into a convincing, enjoyable and kickass origin story for the Captain to take centre stage.

Not that you'd realise it from the movie's beginning: Captain Marvel starts in the middle of a story that it feels like we should already be clued up on, though it does bring us up to speed and justify the decision pretty quickly. Vers, soldier on an alien planet, has been having nightmares that seem to be about a past she can't remember. She's been enlisted into Starforce as the Kree - an advanced civilisation run by an AI - fight a galaxy-spanning war against the Skrull, green-skinned shapeshifters who can mimic the form and voice of anyone they see. Vers' old life was apparently wiped out by a Skrull invasion, and Starforce are now moulding her and her interesting magic-fist powers into a level-headed fighting force via the mentoring of Jude Law's Yonn-Rogg, and is ready to do her bit to protect the rest of her people. After being captured and forced to relive some odd memories, including those of a "Wendy Lawson" on Earth, Vers decides to take matters into her own hands and go looking for Lawson against Yonn-Rogg's orders, with a sense that she might be tracking down something from her own past in the process.

If you've seen the posters, you won't have trouble figuring out "hey, this Vers lady is the one on the posters", and it's not going to come as a surprise to any but the most precious of filmgoers that Vers' memories are from her pre-Kree life on Earth: one in which she was Carol Danvers, ace pilot for Project Pegasus. The extent to which Captain Marvel's plot surprises is going to depend very much on how well-versed you are with the character's comic history and her wider place in the Marvel universe. Having picked up, like, 3 issues of Kelly Sue DeConnick's original Captain Marvel run - which entrenched the character's promotion from her previous iteration as Ms Marvel and made space for the rise of Kamala Khan in the process, I had very little background for the Kree-Skrull war and the history of characters like Yonn-Rogg and Lawson. Since watching the movie and doing a bit more research, it looks like the roles of these characters pay service to, but don't exactly follow, their comic book iterations. It also looks like we missed something great by not having the Kree wandering around in rainbow-coloured Captain Planet uniforms, as was apparently a Thing in the comics for a long time?


Hello. (Image: Marvel)
Whether it's wandering confidently around mid-90s Earth in a "laser tag" uniform, or reflecting her character's emotional journey as she tries to unpick what has been done in her past and understand how to move forward, Larson does well with the material she's given, although the emotional journey stuff isn't quite as exciting to watch as her lighter scenes, and I hope that comedic potential is played up more in future outings. What's refreshing is that Captain Marvel is explicitly shown as an ass-kicking sensation from the moment the movie begins, winning brief friendly victories over Yonn-Rogg by power-fisting him across a room, fighting her way out of an entire ship of Skrull with her arms encased in metal, and then getting a finale action sequence that felt like an absolute dream of well-realised power. Carol Danvers is an unapologetically, uncomplicatedly strong character and while that makes me a little worried for how she's going to be used in future, for this story it's just a joy to watch. The emotional journey is also extremely well backed up by the supporting cast, especially young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Danvers' best friend and platonic life partner Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) as well as Maria's daughter Monica, who needs to get her superhero upgrade in the MCU sooner rather than later.

Because it does many things well, the blind spots in this movie do become more obvious. One huge one is the role of Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva, the only other woman on Vers' Starforce team and haver of many close-ups and few lines. None of the characters on the team get much development but having Chan's character apparently exist only to be kind of bitchy and indifferent to Vers is deeply frustrating, especially because the rest of the Kree are so dude-heavy. It's also frustrating, in a movie that gives such interesting roles to black characters like Fury and the Rambeaus, that the only rep for Asian women is painted blue and consigned to a flat role in the sidelines. I felt Annette Benning's role as Wendy Lawson also didn't live up to its potential, which would have been to really build up between the older Lawson and her pilot protegee. As it is, it's made competely obvious that Danvers feels that way about Lawson without actually giving the two the screen time to play it out for an audience. And while I do think Brie Larson knocks it out of the park in the role, especially in her 90s grunge girl aesthetic, I would just love to live in a world where the first movie-carrying woman could be something other than white and conventionally attractive. There's still so much to unpack here about who does and doesn't get the opportunity to shine, and while I welcome this as a good baby step, it still is one and it's hard to get too excited about the glacial progress of representation on film.

Captain Marvel is a great film, and as every woman led film outside of "chick flick" genres needs to be a great film in order to justify its own existence, that's something that we can all breathe a sigh of relief about as well as celebrating. Its smart message about self-belief, regardless of the limitations people feel entitled to stick on you, is one that works particularly well for a female superhero, and is overt about sexism without it overtaking the narrative or overshadowing her unique journey or the fact that she's probably the strongest and best thing I've seen happen to this franchise. I came out of Captain Marvel immensely pleased that I'd made the time for it, and up to 7.6% more likely to watch Avengers: Endgame next month: a victory all round.

*Note: this line is just for effect. Please do not write to me explaining who Bucky is.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Floats elegantly on the sea of male tears; +1 The 90s are back!

Penalties: -1 There is still so much to be done to ensure diverse representation beyond a white woman and some black supporting characters.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

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.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Microreview [Book]: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Thrilling political machinations, alien yet relateable characters, and a compelling space opera aesthetic combine for the start of an epic new series.

Art by Jaime Jones
Writing long form book reviews is sometimes very hard. Sometimes, that's because there's not much to say about a book, or because life is busy and finding time to bash out a thousand words on recent reading is a struggle to manage. Occasionally, though, it's because it feels like there's nothing to say about a book except "I loved it, I loved it, I loved it," which while not totally uninformative for a prospective reader, probably isn't going to be terribly useful either (unless you really trust me).  Somehow, in these moments, more words must be found, somehow, from somewhere.

So, A Memory Called Empire. I loved it.

This is the start of a new epic science fiction series from Arkady Martine, an author who is new to me, but already has a very interesting short fiction bibliography. In it, we follow new ambassador Mahit as she is posted from the stations of Lsel to the Teixcalaanli empire, a hugely powerful neighbour where conformity with social norms is everything. Luckily for Mahit, Lsel has perfected the creation of the "Imago" - imprints of personalities from deceased people which impart their users with the skills and understanding of their predecessors. Less luckily, Mahit's predecessor Yskandr hasn't updated his imprint for fifteen years - long enough for fashions to go out of date, political movements to change course, and for his networks and, more importantly, the identity of his apparent murderer to be a total mystery. Both Lsel and Teixcalaan have problems greater than the death of a single man, though, as the former finds itself under threat from a larger alien power, and the latter gears up for a potential succession crisis once the current Emperor dies. At least Mahit should have the first few years of Yskandr's experience and his company to rely on! But, nope, her imago malfunctions almost immediately on arrival, leaving her almost entirely alone in the tensest of political situations.

Fans of Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee (not to mention the Hainish cycle) will find Martine's worldbuilding an absolute delight. It's in the same vein, of spacefaring human cultures that take in the full richness of human potential to create worlds that are utterly alien to each other and to us as readers, while not being derivative of anything specific from those other examples. In Teixcalaan, people smile just by widening their eyes; parties get exciting when everyone gathers around for impromptu poetry about station cleaning methods; peoples' names are all made up of a number and a noun; and it's impossible to so much as open a door without a "cloudhook", a wearable personal computer only issued to citizens. Though we don't spend much time there, Lsel's culture is a little more recognisable in its hard-nosed spacefaring utilitarianism, but there's uniqueness injected here too, particularly the "imago lines" passing down generations of skills and personality in expert industries, as well as some fascinating (though thankfully not heavily explored) references to ritual cannibalism.

The dynamic between the huge, outwardly glorious Teixcalaanli empire and Mahit's own culture - Lsel station itself holds just 30,000 people - is also very well played out. Mahit is desperate for friendship and connection with the Teixcalaanlitzlim, having grown up steeped in the culture and art from afar, but is also all too aware that, to them, she is a "barbarian", who will at best be humoured for her inability to ever fit in. It's left ambiguous how much of this is Mahit's own hangups and how much is genuinely coming from the people around her, but Teixcalaan's sense of cultural self-assurance is vividly present in all aspects of the worldbuilding, particularly the city's language and technology. At almost every turn, Mahit's already complex circumstances are further complicated by being an outsider in an empire that simply doesn't know how to accommodate difference: not through malice, simply through the weight of internal homogeneity. That her perceptions of being an outsider are confirmed not by the malice of those around her, but by ignorance, makes the whole situation that much more heartbreaking.

With all the weirdness and tension, the world of A Memory Called Empire could have become quite a dry, unpleasant affair, but Martine completely avoids that fate. Indeed, what surprised me most about the novel is how imbued with humanity and compassion it is, despite the subject matter and the relative isolation of the protagonist. Much of this is down to the interactions between the core characters: in particular, all the scenes with Mahit (a competent but fallible young woman in politics, my favourite), her cultural liaison Three Seagrass (previous parentheses also apply), and her childhood friend Twelve Azalea bursting off the page with life and feeling at every turn. Because Mahit's outsider position is such an integral part of the plot, there's a careful balancing act to be done between demonstrating that outsider status and the very real shortcomings of the Teixcalaanlitzlim in addressing it, while also imbuing the rest of the characters with their own alien-but-recognisable motivations, sympathies and responses, and it's pulled off remarkably well.

Plotwise, the novel also delivers, although Mahit is a very particular sort of protagonist: a young woman with a non-violent skillset who is completely out of her comfort zone, whose sense of agency is calibrated accordingly. Again, I think this is a feature rather than a bug, both in terms of Mahit's specific characterisation and in having an immensely human-driven narrative. For example, in one section, our heroes are caught up in action and unable to sleep for 30+ hours, and the sense of exhaustion and tiredness is so very well realised, in the decisions that the characters make and the way the situation is described, that I could literally feel the discomfort leaping off the page. There's something wonderful about an author developing an "alien" city of far-future humans, and then having some of those humans sit on a college green far too early in the morning eating ice cream and napping off two days of exhaustion, without making either element seem out of place. If I have a criticism, it's that the weight of the "institutional" threats can't quite keep up when the personal isn't involved; that's not such a problem when the threat of civil war is looming large over characters' emotional and physical well being, but it does make the long-term threat to Lsel harder to connect to.

Still, at the end of it all, I came away from A Memory Called Empire feeling very, very lucky to be a reader right now; I'm so grateful that this particular brand of smart, interrogative, fun fiction is being written and published and put in conversation with similar work, right here and now. This is a hugely exciting work - hopefully the start of something big and equally exciting - and I highly recommend you offer it a space on your 2019 TBR.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 10/10

Penalties: -1 Room for growth in the wider plot with the looming alien threat.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

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.

Reference: Martine, ArkadyA Memory Called Empire [Tor, 2019].

Monday, March 18, 2019

6 Books with Arkady Martine



Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

Today she shares her 6 books with us...


1. What book are you currently reading? 

Since I’m in the last stages of drafting a novel, my reading has shifted to be almost 100% non-fiction right now! This almost always happens: when my brain is too full of my own fictional narratives that need to be woven together into a whole, my reading habits shift over into nonfictional narratives. I’ve just finished The Death of Innocents, by Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan, which is a magisterial and horrific investigation of infanticide, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, medical research and its all-too-common dependencies on fashionable theories and charismatic personalities, and a set of murder trials. It’s a fantastic mix of medical history, true crime writing, and investigative journalism. Next up is Midnight in Chernobyl, the new investigation by Adam Higgenbotham on the Chernobyl disaster, which I am anticipating diving into as soon as I can liberate our copy from my wife the nuclear history nerd.


2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

Max Gladstone and Amal el-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War (Saga Press) is a book I’ve been anticipating since I learned that Max and Amal were working together – it’s an epistolary time-travel love story, with complex social-ethical what-sort-of-future-do-we-want elements, and that’s essentially catnip for me. Especially written by these two authors, whose work is consistently amazing.


 

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

Two, actually – it’s just about time for me to take another trip through Stephen King’s Duma Key, which is one of my favorite books of his (I reread it every few years; I do this with a lot of King’s work, actually. They’re a sort of spiritual/literary homecoming.) Duma Key has these incredible landscape descriptions, and is all about the possessing nature of place, and it’s genuinely, viciously scary in ways that make me happy. You say drown her back to sleep to me and I get the shivers, still. And I also just got my hands on a not-destroyed-by-time vintage paperback of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, which is one of my favorite generation-ship books which I’ve been meaning to revisit recently.


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

When I first read Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah as a kid, after being fanatically obsessed with Dune in the way only a newly-aware-of-politics thirteen-year-old can be obsessed with Dune, I was so disappointed that all of the victories that seemed to have been accomplished at the conclusion of the first book were undone or made more complicated by Dune Messiah. But now, as an adult who has spent a lot of time working on, studying, and writing about empires, I see Dune Messiah as the deeply necessary real conclusion to Dune – the part which shows how savior figures are not actually saviors, and that there are no simple conclusions or right answers to enormous, systemic problems.


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

It’s possible that I shouldn’t have read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana as early as I did – I think I was twelve – but that book continues to resonate enormously for me and has shaped a lot of my own interests as a writer. The politics of memory, power, and desire are central to my own writing. As are unwise, difficult, and uncomfortable but incredibly real love stories, personal sacrifices for social or ideological gain, and lush, lyrical descriptive language. (I think I’m always writing some version of Brandin and Dionora, and I probably always will be…)


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

My latest book – my very first book, in fact! – is titled A Memory Called Empire, out from Tor Books on March 26, 2019. It’s a political thriller space opera (my publicist called it House of Cards in space and she isn’t really wrong), about an ambassador from a small, fiercely independent mining station who comes down to the capital of an interstellar empire to a) figure out why the person who used to have her job has disappeared; b) prevent the empire from annexing her home, if possible. Of course, she rapidly gets involved in a succession crisis, a murder investigation, backalley neurosurgery, a plot-bearing poetry contest, and a long and somewhat dubiously successful attempt to keep the imperial culture from colonizing her mind, even though she loves its literature and art more than she knows she should. It’s a book about continuity of memory, assimilation, poisonous beauty, and cultural preservation, all inside the structure of a spy novel a la Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.



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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Microreview [book]: Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

Polaris Rising starts a new romance space opera series set in a corporate feudal future with a strong focus on character beats and development 





In the far distant future, Ada Von Hasenberg is a space princess on the run and has been for some time. We meet her as she has been captured, her run from her father seemingly ended. But a chance to escape, with the help of a notorious criminal that she finds herself attracted to, Ada Von Hasenberg soon discovers that there is something more important than continuing to run from her family--finding the secrets behind a special FTL ship she has just stolen. A ship that she has renamed Polaris.

Ada’s story is the driving force of Jessie Mihalik’s first Consortium Rebellion novel, Polaris Rising.

The novel does revolve around the two poles of its main characters, Ada, and Loch. The novel takes pains to give the characters competence and skill, Ada’s time on the run having given her a set of skills to make her capable of taking care of herself, as well as some connections to her family. In RPG terms, she definitely has advantages from the House connection, but also entanglements and disadvantages from that connection. Disadvantages such as the primary antagonist of the book, Richard Rockhurst. Richard is not quite her fiance, as they were not officially engaged, he certainly has the idea that they were de facto engaged, and seeking to make it de jure married in the course of events.

Beyond this, Ada makes for an appealing main character. No one’s fool, and definitely not someone to be sidelined or let others take the risks (even given the fearsome Marcus Loch available to do so), Ada boldly takes risks, forges relationships and is a general force of nature whose story is appealing to follow. No damsel in distress, and yet she is a very human character who is far from perfect, either. She does sometimes bite off more than she can chew. Ada also does have a genius for connecting with other people, and Marcus and Ada do wind up getting a few unexpected allies in their journey together.

The novel does play the genre conventions of romance more than it does the conventions of science fiction. The plot and character beats fall into a relatively conventional pattern, but they are well executed and they mesh well with both the characters and the space opera universe. Readers who come to the novel for the romance plotline between Ada and Loch should be well satisfied with the storyline. Since this is a first novel set in a greater universe, I suspect this would be classified as a HFN (Happy for now) rather than strictly a HEA (Happily ever after) conclusion.

On the other side of the ledger, however, some sloppiness in the science fictional aspects of the novel.. Yes, this is a novel that is more interested in the emotional depths and journeys of the characters than the details of its FTL drive. And yes, this is not meant to be something along the lines of super net up science fiction, and for the most part it does what it sets out to do in the bounds that it is given. But, personally, I am thrown out of a story which is apparently set in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy, but the Gates that enhance FTL travel beyond its usual limits are casually mentioned as being capable of jumping millions of light years, which would be far enough to get to several other galaxies beyond our own. There is absolutely nothing else in the worldbuilding that supports a canvas that large.

Another such major science head scratcher has the characters visit a tide-locked planet, specifically visiting a city set at the light terminator, where the light is always twilight, never changing. On  a tide locked planet, this is the perfect place to stick a city, even if all of the hours of the day are going to be all the same. The climate is going to be the most moderate at such a place. However, the society of the planet sticks to a standard and universal clock of sleeping and waking. I could not believe that the city would restrict itself thusly in time, with all of its waking hours so identical, especially given that  incoming ships might come at any hour of the day anyway.

The rest of the SFnal worldbuilding, as given, is solid enough. A corporate feudal future, with three major families scheming against each other made me think of the "tripod" structure of Dune's future world. It makes for intensely personal and personalized conflicts between the major characters and their factions.

The author’s focus on character seems to be her intent, the next novel in the sequence is slated to be Aurora Blazing, featuring two characters we meet in this volume--Ada’s older sister Bianca, and Ian, head of House von Hasenberg.  I think that readers who enjoyed Polaris Rising more than I did will likely find more rich character based romance science fiction in store from the author.

---
The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for a strong main character, excellently drawn and a solid cast of characters.

Penalties: -1 for some glaring problems with the science and technical aspects of the worldbuilding.


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


Reference:  Milhalik, Jessie, Polaris Rising Harper Voyager, 2019]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

The family and I are going on a much needed vacation next week so I am going to have to come up with a non-traditional Thursday Morning Superhero post for next week. I am attending PAX East at the end of the month, but that is for professional reasons and I am not sure I will be able to cover it properly.  I am excited to learn more about the world of esports and will hopefully sneak in one or two board games.


Pick of the Week:
The Batman Who Laughs: The Grim Knight #1 - This week we are introduced to the Grim Knight, a Batman from another world with a violent past. Having the same motivations as our Batman in terms of stopping crime, but differing on the methods employed to achieve similar results. It almost feels as if this Batman found the Death Note that Ryuk dropped and is using it to cleanse Gotham. The Gordon from this world is like L trying to track down who this mysterious killer is, despite the good intentions. I have fallen behind the main series, but this issue has me intrigued and motivated to return to a Scott Snyder Batman book and see what the Batman who Laughs, the one corrupted by Joker, has in store for Gotham.

The Rest:
Star Wars Age of Republic: General Grievous #1 - I learned something new about one of my favorite, if not my favorite, Star Wars villains.  George Lucas had bronchitis during the recording sessions and the sound editors thought it would be fun to include. This issue, and I'm not sure if it is a one-off or an ongoing, reads like the fusion of Indiana Jones and General Grievous. Watching him work his way through the Jedi Temple, dodging booby traps and outsmarting those who laid the path before him, was extremely satisfying and I am blown away at what an amazing job Luke Ross did capturing the mannerisms of this being and made him jump off the page. I hope this is an ongoing series as I am always thirsty to learn more about Grievous and who he was prior to the machine hybrid he became in the films.

Transformers #1 - We are treated to a new Transformers series courtesy of IDW publishing. Set in a time before the war between the Deceptions and Autobots, I was intrigued to learn more about life on Cybertron.  This is before Optimus Prime was a prime and was on pretty good speaking terms with Megatron. They are far from friends, but this issue hints at the beginning of what sparked the great war. Overall this book, despite it being a blast of nostalgia, fell a little flat. The art from Angel Hernandez and Cachet Whitman is stunning and they do an incredible job paying homage from a popular franchise.  I am not giving up on this series yet as author Brian Ruckley appears to be setting the stage for something big, but I'm not quite sold.



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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The True Queen by Zen Cho

It's back to magical Regency England - and beyond - for the long anticipated and worthy sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown.


Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favourite books of 2015, the year when I first started getting deeply into adult SFF fandom and voting for the Hugo awards, so perhaps it isn't surprising that it's so very close to my heart. Returning to this world in The True Queen feels like going to a reunion of smart, politically active, take-no-prisoners friends, where you're taken straight back into the action despite the intervening years. Most of the best characters of Sorcerer to the Crown are back - albeit more in the background - and it's lovely to see them all on top form, in a title which expands and deepens the world of the first novel in smart and satisfying ways. Although it could stand alone, there's significant spoilers for the plot of the first book here, and the thematic progression between the two means that it's best to start from the beginning: we'll wait.

Like its predecessor, Zen Cho's magical regency is one that's inextricably tied to the real history of Empire, and while irrepressible mixed-race magical prodigy Prunella Wythe (née Gentleman) might have taken up the Sorcerer Royal's staff, the undercurrents of white supremacy and misogyny still run deep in this version of the British Empire. Into this world comes Muna, a girl found on the shores of Janda Baik: a still-independent island in the middle of the Malacca straits protected by powerful witches, including returning character Mak Genggang. Muna, and her sister Sakti, have been the victims of some sort of curse which has robbed them of their memories, and while both are taken in by Mak Genggang and Sakti is tutored in witchcraft (Muna has no magic), when she starts literally disappearing it's decided that the pair might have to call on backup to figure out what's going on. That backup is, of course, best found in the form of England's scandalous Sorceress Royal, especially when an initial magic spell proves there might be an English connection to their curse itself. It's decided that this will be done by sending the pair to Prunella's newly formed academy for magiciennes, now founded in opposition to all good taste and propriety in London.

Of course, Sakti and Muna's plan goes sideways very quickly. Sakti disappears during the crossing through Fairyland and Muna is left to take her place despite her lack of magic. This quickly proves the least of her worries, as she's thrown into the ongoing dispute between the mortal world and faerie, all tied up in the loss of the Queen of Fairie's "Virtu" - a magical artifact containing a powerful spirit which was entrusted to the Threlfall family of dragons. Together with Henrietta, Prunella's former schoolmate and now teacher at the academy, Muna ends up at the forefront of the mission to untangle this drama, save her sister, and avoid bringing the wrath of the Fairy Queen down on England.

The characterisation in The True Queen is a big selling point, and there are some truly wonderful new characters to balance out the returning favourites. Muna, in particular, is a great addition: smart and resourceful when given the slightest opportunity to be, but out of her comfort zone and with a habit of deferring to her magical older sister which makes her hesitant to show her talents to her true extent. Muna's growth over the course of the novel is lovely to watch and makes the book's climactic scenes all the more tense. Sakti, her sister, is significantly less compelling, but she's absent for much of the book and it soon becomes clear that her callousness and the lack of behaviour that justifies Muna's desperation to be reunited are all part of the plan here. The growing relationship between Muna and Henrietta (yes, this book has substantial representation for same-sex relationships along with its other representation) is also great, and Henrietta's understated but clear progression from being Prunella's less talented and under-trained schoolfriend to being confident and assertive about her abilities is very nicely done. Because Henrietta and Muna are a little less outrageous than Prunella, and the latter is more in the background in this outing, I did occasionally miss her inimitable presence, but overall I felt that the balance between new and returning characters was handled very well, and I hope poor Zacharias Wythe enjoyed his break from the spotlight this time.

Where this novel really shines, however, is in balancing the humour, absurdity and melodrama of its dense plot with the more serious topics of colonialism, oppression and marginalisation which nearly all of its characters have to grapple with in one way or another. There's some truly majestic comedy in here: notable is the entire section in the Threlfall dragon estate, involving dragon-turned-affable-dandy Rollo and his formidable Aunt Georgiana Without Ruth, though the scenes with Henrietta's family trying to deal with her awful simulacrum are also right up there. These moments of fantasy fun share their tone with less savoury moments, like Muna's discovery of a racist talking portrait of a former Sorcerer Royal, but this balance is handled very carefully: it's always clear that the joke is on the racism and small-mindedness of the reactionaries, and not on the content of what they are saying. Of course, the representation of Janda Baik's culture is taken completely seriously, and occasional moments of humour from cultural misunderstandings, like Muna's assumption that Henrietta could become Zacharias' second wife to resolve her marital woes, are handled in a way that avoids portraying Muna's understanding as limited or "uncivilised". Zen Cho herself is a Malaysian living in the UK, and obviously knows what she's doing with this thread; overall, it's a masterclass in subverting the colonial assumptions that still drive our narratives of the "real" history of this period.

More so than Sorcerer to the Crown, The True Queen is interesting in that the conservative aspects of society are not represented by characters with any power to speak of: Prunella and her friends are running the show, now, whether the old boys like it or not (spoiler: they do not) and the brief moments of specific threat from reactionaries are very quickly dealt with or pushed to one side. Cho doesn't understate the effect of having a talking portrait of a racist dead man shouting at your visitors, but nor does she allow George Midsomer (it's always those pesky Midsomers!) to score any points over the characters who, after all, have things to be getting on with that aren't proving themselves to him. This balance of power stands in contrast to the portrayal of Faerie, which is powerful and threatening and alien, and which contains a large number of denizens who are quite enthusiastic about the prospect of eating humans for their magical strength.

In short, if you liked Sorcerer to the Crown - and I'm not sure why you've read this far if you didn't - then you'll almost certainly like Zen Cho's second outing in this world. The True Queen is smart, funny and sweet, regularly all at the same time, and I continue to be in awe of the author for creating such a compelling world that combines the best of cutting Regency drama with a ruthless subversion of some of the period's most unsavoury aspects (especially those which are still going strong today). I already suspect this book is going to be one of my strongest of 2019, and I'm excited for the prospect of more.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 My pretend literary best friends from 2015 are all back; +1 scathing Regency-style wit deployed against colonialism, white supremacy and difficult grandmothers alike.

Penalties: -1 My pretend best friends from 2015 could have had a couple more scenes...

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10


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.

Reference: Cho, ZenThe True Queen [Ace (US); Macmillan (UK), 2019].

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

6 Books With Sarah Pinsker




Sarah Pinsker's short fiction has won the Nebula & Sturgeon Awards, and she's been a finalist for the Hugo and numerous other awards. Small Beer Press will publish her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, in March 2019, and her first novel, A Song For A New Day, will be published by Berkley in September. She's also a singer/songwriter with three albums on various indie labels and a fourth on the way. She lives with her wife and dog in Baltimore, Maryland.

Today she shares her 6 books with us...


1. What book are you currently reading? 

The first thing you should know is I'm a slow reader. I'm pretty sure I'm about to give the same answer I gave to another blog a month ago. Time-travel in a forward direction will occur, and the blogs will come out around the same time, and it will seem like I gave the same answer in two places because I answered around the same time, but actually it's a month later. In between the two interviews I read a great SF novel I'd promised to blurb and Vandana Singh's wonderful collection "Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories," and now I'm back to the same novel again.

The book is Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat. It's a lookalikes/trading places novel, which is a trope I love. A man meets a stranger who looks uncannily like him, spends the evening drinking with him, and wakes up in a hotel room in the other man's clothes. The tension is great. Will the narrator be found out? Is he better at being the person he's replaced than that man was at being himself? What's making him keep up the ruse? Du Maurier's style is so effortless, and I love her descriptions. There's no reason for this book to be taking me this long.


2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

Molly Gloss's new collection from Saga, Unforeseen. I will read anything she writes. Her characters and settings feel so real and lived in, no matter how short a time she gives us with them. Like Le Guin, I'll follow her into any genre: SF, fantasy, western. The collection has three new stories, and a few great ones that I've read before like "Lambing Season" and "The Grinnell Method," and a bunch I look forward to reading for the first time.




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

I'm not a big re-reader, but I've been meaning to read Parable of the Sower again. I read it years ago on a midnight interstate bus, and I had this overwhelming joy at the evidence around me that a social contract still existed. Then a few years later I saw the workshopped version of Toshi Reagon's musical version, which was the musical highlight of that year for me. I want to see the finished musical and to reread the book again at some point, but all the climate change denial right now makes me terrified that if I read it again I'll see that it's come even closer to true.


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

This is a tough question. Hmm. I had this really weird relationship with The Left Hand of Darkness for a long time. It was on my parents' shelves, but I never read it there. Every summer from the time I was maybe twelve to twenty I took it out of the library, read the first page, renewed it once, then returned it. I had some strange block going where the first page turned me off. In my twenties, I borrowed my father's copy and finally had the idea to jump to the second page, at which point I kept going and read the whole thing and loved it.. I've never figured out what it was that kept me from reading it for all those years. I'd read other Le Guin novels and loved them, but I just wasn't ready to read this one yet.


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

There are a lot of things I could probably choose here, but I'm going to say "Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse," which was a picture book by George Mendoza, in which a mouse architect designs homes for all the other animals. The houses are all perfectly appropriate for the animal asking. I don't even remember if it had words to go along with the pictures of cozy mole-tunnel kitchen nooks and modernist lily pads, but I wrote stories into every room. I internalized everything about it: the fantasy animals, the fantastic architecture, the tension of a mouse building houses for animals that could turn around and eat her. This may be another answer about a social contract, really.


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

My first collection, "Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea," comes out on March 19th. It's awesome to me because it's my first book ever and it has my name on it and I got to work with Small Beer Press. They have an amazing ability to put out books that seem to be catered to my taste. At most cons where they're selling, I walk away with everything new from their catalogue. To have my book on their table is an unbelievable honor.

Why is it awesome if you're not me? The stories are set in tree houses and prairie towns and ports and changing cities and generation ships and art cars. They feature musicians and farmers and insurance investigators and murder-house-model-makers trying to make their way in situations that have gotten weird.

I've had about fifty stories out in magazines and anthologies over the last few years, so it's really cool to see about a quarter of them collected here (and one new novelette), and to have a book with my name on it. This isn't a "best of" compilation. We chose stories that worked well together, but we had to leave out a lot of stories I love. The pieces make an interesting whole beyond the component parts, but to me a collection is a weird beast that you look at as both a whole, presented in a certain order, and simultaneously as individual parts, because I don’t get to choose how you read them, and they all existed on their own before this collection.

Anyway, I'm really proud of these stories and this book.

Also, PS, I haven't even talked about the cover by Matt Muirhead, which I love to pieces. Or the fact that it has a strangely amazing bookfeel; why is the cover soft and pettable? I don't have an answer.



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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Anthem by Bioware (developer)

Out of Tune


Anthem is a mess. There's no nicer way of putting it. I can't recommend it in any form today. The good(?) news is that it's essentially unfinished but it's a part of EA's games-as-a-service strategy. Like so many other games-as-a-service shlooters (that's loot-shooters, games like Destiny and The Division), it's being patched frequently with new features, quality of life improvements, and bug fixes. The outstanding questions are can they fix this game post-release and do they have the will to keep working on this game?

You play as a freelancer, someone who has a Iron Man-esque suit of armor and a partner to guide you through your contract missions. Beyond the usual wildlife threatening Fort Tarsis, an enemy nation is seeking to take control of the "anthem of creation", the source of all life. You have to stop them and confront the deadly events that lead to the downfall of the freelancers.

This is a wild oversimplification of an overly-complex plot. In Bioware fashion, they've crafted a world and breathed life into it but this may be one of the clumsiest introductions they've ever done. This is, above all, an action game and you are thrust into the action first. All of the shapers, relics, anthem of creation, javelins, and other such periphery is either spouted by non-player characters that stand around in the hub world between missions or, more frequently, dumped into an in-game encyclopedia for you to read at your leisure. It's all fluff but it makes the missions you go on really nonsensical. They throw all the lore and technobabble at you while you're elbow deep in enemies and none of it informs your actions. It can all be ignored so you can safely enjoy the action game without thought. It's really odd that Bioware, a company that built a reputation on its writing and characters, has made an action game that doesn't need any of that.

The game itself is serviceable at the very best. The open word is big and you get to fly around it like Iron Man and that's pretty cool. But the shooting doesn't feel particularly great and the world itself would be extremely difficult to navigate if it weren't for the objective markers. It all really looks the same. The missions themselves aren't that different from other shlooters, but they lack flavor. I know when I land at an objective, I'm going to defend a spot, look for slightly hidden items, or just kill a few waves of enemies. There's a distinct lack of compelling antagonists, so everything feels less like heroism and more like routine pest control. All of this is preceded and proceeded by terribly long load times. The load times so long that you can put down your controller and play with your phone for a minute.

Alright so there's no flavor in the gameplay and the game world is both incomprehensible and utterly optional, but the game is also plagued with bugs. When I started this game (on Xbox One, on retail release day) I spent the whole series of opening cutscenes staring not at what was happening but at a tiny aiming reticle and a HUD compass that were obviously misplaced. The day after, I couldn't login for a couple hours because they pushed out a patch that made it appear to many people as if they were banned from the game. That was fun to sort out on my own. Throughout the game, in the opening mission that was strictly single player and in routine coop multiplayer, I've experienced a lot of movement stuttering and rollback because the networking code can't keep up with the action. I've started missions to find I've been added to someone else's mission in progress, so I don't even get a chance to listen to the briefing dialog, and the game is very aggressive about not letting anyone stray too far from the group. Fall behind for any reason (like picking up collectables or harvesting crafting materials) and it'll give you 10 seconds to catch up before warping you to where everyone else is. I've even been dumped out to the start screen from the single player hub world for no obvious reason.

I've finished Anthem's main mission branch and I don't feel like I need to see much more for the purpose of this review. Anthem, at best, is a functioning video game and too frequently it isn't. Other shlooters have improved over time, and sometimes made radical changes to address problems. I don't know if Bioware can turn this game around. They've communicated a roadmap that extends to May and beyond but it's all new missions, items, and features to be added. Recall that Mass Effect: Andromeda also released in a disaster state with a slate of paid addons planned, and those plans were canceled. They made the game work and dropped everything else to do it. Anthem may never significantly improve on what they published on day one.

What they've released is a mess. I'm a glutton for punishment and I will be keeping tabs on Anthem's progress. I expect to come back in a year and revisit this review. Today, no one should waste their time with this game. I don't hate Anthem or EA but I'm terribly disappointed that this was pushed out in the state it arrived. It feels like it needs another year in the oven to get to an acceptable state.

If you still think you want to brave Anthem's current state, here's a selection of images and videos I've captured to highlight some of the bugs I've seen.

---

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 Nails the flying around in a suit of mech armor aspect

Penalties: -1 vestigial plot, -1 riddled with bugs, -1 barely fun

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 (just bad)

***

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

Reference: Bioware (developer). Anthem (Electronic Arts, 2019)

Friday, March 8, 2019

Microreview [film]: The Last Woman on Earth (1960)

This movie is hot garbage


The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price (1964) follows the lone survivor of a global plague, as he does resourceful things to survive, fight off hordes of zombie vampires, and try to work out a cure to the plague that might allow others to live. He's pretty active.

By contrast, The Last Woman on Earth is about two jerks who fight over Evelyn (get it? "Eve"?), one of the jerks' wife, while asking her to make breakfast and coffee, and she reads books about having a baby. I kept waiting for her to realize that these guys are dipshits and come into her own — and at one point she even said something along those lines — but Friends, I waited in vain. I fell asleep with five minutes left in the movie, while the two jerks were duking it out over "possession" of The Last Woman on Earth, and when I woke up, I rewound the movie to actually see the last five minutes, watching for the moment where Evelyn steps out and tells them both to go to Hell. Friends, I rewound in vain.

This movie was written by Robert Towne! Academy Award-winning writer of Chinatown! Astute readers of this site will know that I am a huge Roger Corman fan, and though this film was produced and directed by Roger, there is literally nothing I can recommend about this movie.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: What's the mathematical equivalent of blowing a raspberry at the screen?

Penalties: -1 for there being entirely too goddamn many dudes in a movie called The Last Woman on Earth, -1 for literally everything else in the movie

Cult Film Coefficient: 1/10. Really, really bad.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.

6 Books with Catherine Lundoff

Photo Credit: Ben Zvan

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis, where she lives with her wife and the cats who own them. Her books include Silver Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories, A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace and Other Stories, Night’s Kiss and Crave. She is also the editor of the anthologies Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades and Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) and coeditor, with JoSelle Vanderhooft, of the anthology Hellebore and Rue. In addition, she is the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a genre fiction publisher specializing in fiction from out of this world.
  

Today she shares her Six Books with us!



1.What book are you currently reading?
Well, as per my norm, several books at the same time (not including Queen of Swords Press-related reading), but I'll pick Point of Sighs by Melissa Scott to highlight. This is the 5th volume in the author's Astreiant series. These are deftly spun mysteries with fantasy elements, featuring Pointsman Nicholas Rathe and his lover, Phillip Eslingen and their adventures in a city where astrology can determine your fate. They are beautifully written books that you can lose yourself in and I heartily recommend the entire series, including this volume



2. What upcoming book am I really excited about?

There are so many! One of them is definitely The Poison Court by Amanda Downum. This will be an indie-published sequel to her novel The Bone Palace and continues the story of Savedra Severos, King’s mistress, skilled politician and one of the best transwomen characters that I’ve read in a fantasy novel so far. I’m also excited about Wireless and Other Steam-Powered Adventures by Alex Acks, which I’m editing now and will be publishing in a couple of months. And I’m eager to read P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which is a sequel to his terrific A Dead Djinn in Cairo as well as Craig Laurance Gidney’s A Spectral Hue, which is a contemporary ghost story set in an African-American multi-disciplinary artist collective. Both of those are due out this year too.


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

I’m in the middle of a slow reread of P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath series so I can get caught up with the latest volumes in time for the new book to come out later on in 2019. I’ve just finished rereading God Stalk and Dark of the Moon, so Seeker’s Mask is next. It’s been rereleased a few times but this remains my favorite cover. If you are looking for a really splendid high fantasy series with a darker edge, intricate worldbuilding, a complex heroine and fascinating cast of characters, this is one of the best around.




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

When I was a teenager, I read and read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on a regular basis. The Nine were my imaginary companions and Eowyn was one of my favorite characters. They probably shaped my reading more than anything else (until I discovered Le Guin), but I’ve found that the books no longer appeal to me the same way as I’ve gotten into other kinds of fantasy. I think my tastes as well as my needs as a reader have changed and I don’t see them amongst the books that I’m excited about rereading any more.



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

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas was one of my favorite books when I was growing up. I read a lot of Dumas and it and The Count of Monte Cristo have always been amongst my favorite reads. I would say that its influence shows up in my enthusiasm for a good story with highly memorable characters, heroes as well as villains, and of course, swashbuckling adventure. Along with that, I would say that I am drawn to it as a struggle against injustice, despite overwhelming odds. A lot of my favorite books touch upon this as a theme or a subtheme, when I stop to think about it.


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

My latest book is the fantastical pirates anthology Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), which came out in December from Queen of Swords Press. It’s awesome because it’s the first anthology from Queen of Swords Press, it includes terrific stories by authors from eight different countries, and those stories are all about pirates! There are historical pirates, pirates in outer space, capybara pirates and pirates who sail on fantastical seas, as well as pirates from a range or different time periods, gender identities and orientations. This has definitely been the most fun that I’ve had editing anthology so far.


POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

I am very excited to check out Captain Marvel this weekend, but was alerted to this upcoming "superhero" film that is flipping the script a little bit. It reminds me of Joe Hill's "The Cape" in some ways, and I am very intrigued.  The trailer is not for the feint of heart so consider yourself warned.



Pick of the Week:
Black Hammer '45 #1 - The incredible team of Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, Matt Kindt, Sharlene Kindt and Marie Enger are bringing us all back into the Golden Age of superheroes thanks to this new title from Darkhorse.  The Black Hammer Squad spent their time making the world hell for the Nazi's. They stopped them in the air, on the ground, and in the sea. Despite some of the supernatural creations of the Nazi's, The Black Hammer Squad had little to fear.  The book opens with with members of the team, now in their 90's, getting together because of something significant about the date. We are treated to some thrilling flash-backs, but an ominous final mission seems to be at the heart of this series. This book jumps off the pages thanks to the incredible work by the Kindts and it is always easy to get on board when it comes to superheroes defeating the Nazi's. The creative team behind this series is a powerhouse and I cannot wait to see what went wrong in the final mission and what the team is getting back together for on that fateful day.

The Rest:
Paper Girls #26 - The four girls have been sent to the four corners of the "cube" and find themselves in different timelines all posing their own problems. One of the highlights for me was the Michael Jackson zing that must have been a last minute add that was particular timely. As this time-traveling sci-fi wave of nostalgia races towards its conclusion (it is ending in a double-sized issue #30) the girls appear to have one last chance to return to 1988 and save the world. I am curious if the issues will continue to feature all of the girls or if we will have one issue per girl and the second half of the finale brings it all together. Brian K. Vaughan appears to set the stage for each girl to have their own mission in their current whereabouts and an ally to assist. I fail at revisiting this series when new issues drop and I really owe it to myself to start this series over. Vaughan weaves a complex tale that spans multiple timelines with competing factions that has me scratching my head trying to understand how it all fits together.

Star Wars: Vader - Dark Visions #1 - Marvel unveiled a new mini-series that focuses on some of Vader's side quests. In this on-off, Vader finds himself on a planet that has seen better days. The people of this world live underground after their planet was ravaged by a shark looking Kaiju known as the Ender. People will scavenge the surface for food, but always have a quick route underground should the Ender awaken. Vader's Tie-Fighter crash landing on the planet has awakened the great beast and the sole individual who remained on the surface is treated to quite the epic duel. This felt pretty mindless and cheesy, but entertaining.  It is like a direct to DVD film that is worth checking out on Netflix, but you understand why it didn't make it to the big screen. I will likely check out the other issues in this series if they are as entertaining as this book was.

Batman #66 - Batman remains trapped inside his own nightmares, and his current plan of escaping isn't going to well thanks to the stubborn nature of the woman being interrogated. For some reason Batman feels if he can understand truly why Catwoman, Selina Kyle, truly loves him he will be able to escape.  This issue is an interrogation of Ms. Kyle as we walk through the complicated history the two have and try to gain a sense of their attraction to one another. I find it funny how intense the covers feels compared to the walk down memory lane Catwoman provides throughout this issue. Reading this right after Black Hammer made it feel even more retro than intended. I remain impressed with Tom King's current arc for the Dark Knight and am happy to be back on the Batman Train.  Choo-choo!


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

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Ingenious by Darius Hinks

The Ingenious never quite capitalises on the promise of its worldbuilding, but it offers a fun, fast-paced adventure with a surprisingly sympathetic antihero. 


Art by John Coulthart
I'm considering adding "secondary world fantasy cities" to my list of "favourite genres that aren't really genres". Cities that go beyond just being a spot on the map surrounding whatever medieval-ish castle the kingdom's monarchs live in; cities with their own magic, with recognisable neighbourhoods, with immigration patterns and multifaceted politics and secrets known only to kids who pay attention (but don't spend enough time in school). From Bulikov to Sharakhai to Janloon, there's a ton of great epic fantasy whose urban settings are just as much characters as the people within them.

With that in mind, it's easy to see why the blurb of The Ingenious, a book about Exiles trapped in the city of Athanor. Unfortunately for them, Athanor operates on inequality and deeply creepy magic, and leaving is a far from certain proposition. Rather than staying in one place, it moves through space and time using that magic, apparently leaving a path of wholesale slaughter and destruction everywhere it goes. Brought into the city years ago, Isten and her group are Exiles from a land called Rukon, where they were on the verge of revolution against their emperor. Now, they're unable to leave the city let alone return to the land which rejected them. Isten herself has been raised up to be a saviour for her people, and is still looked to as a leader by the rest of the Exiles despite being an addict, a criminal and a general mess of a human.

Enter Alzen, an elite mage (or "Curious Man") who, even by the deeply creepy standards of the city, really pushes creepy to a new, murderous, self-serving level. Alzen realises that Isten can be manipulated to his own ends, which involve introducing widespread drug addiction into the city and then pulling people's souls out through a weird skin monster, all in pursuit of power. Although his partnership with Isten is initially reluctant, he quickly discovers that despite being a commoner and an outsider, Isten may have power of her own that complements his ambitions. In return, Alzen offers Isten a chance to refocus her people's efforts around improving their position within the city - where they are outsiders surviving on the criminal margins - albeit at the cost of her long-term plans for escape.

I see from Hinks' bibliography that his previous work has been Warhammer tie-in fiction, and although my experience with that franchise is limited, I know enough to see the influences here. It's echoed in some of the plot beats, and in the grimdark elements of the setting, especially the ageless, quasi-religious aspects of the city's leadership. That said, The Ingenious definitely feels first and foremost like its own thing, though the worldbuilding is probably best described as serviceable: it gives Athanor depth and history, and the set-up of the Curious Men and the city's wandering nature adds a decent amount of novelty, but there's nothing that really leaps out upon reading. In theory, Athanor is full of various unique fantasy races, but these only turn up in passing, which feels like a missed opportunity. Instead, we get a laser focus on the two specific groups the novel comes into contact with - the exiles and the Curious Men - and while both do interact with (and sometimes murder) people from other groups in the city, the trials of the rest of this enormous city aren't explored outside a general "inequality is bad, overthrow tyrants" message that winds up being interchangeable for both Rukon and Athanor.

Likewise the personalities of the exiles, and their own troubles in the city - there's machinations around gang warfare, but none of the characters on either side were particularly memorable, and Isten spends so much time focused on running errands for Alzen that the elements with her family fade into the background at times. It doesn't help that it's hard, as a reader, to believe that Isten really wants to retrench as a drug lord: it's a trope that's so often used to distinguish "actually bad" criminals from "noble" ones, so it's a tall order to slot a sympathetic character in that role, and despite her many shortcomings Isten remains sympathetic throughout. The issue here is not so much the predictability of Isten's change of heart - the narrative wouldn't be at all satisfying without it - but my struggle to suspend my disbelief in what the character thinks she wants. It's a small niggle, but it was enough to underscore my indifference in these plot elements, which becomes a problem when we pivot back to the fate of the Exiles, and Isten's integrity as a leader, in the final act.

What The Ingenious does do well is managing its action and tension, particularly the relationship between Isten and Alzen, helped by the fact that the latter literally sits in the former's head for their missions together. Isten's growing understanding of how the city works outside her limited outsider perspective, coupled with the taste of power her deal with Alzen brings, makes for a solid character arc that kept me rooting for her even through the messiness and  flirtations with drug-pushing supremacy. The action sequences are all well done - a highlight is the segment in which Isten disguises herself and sneaks onto a boat leaving the city, all while being mentally directed by Alzen and trying to avoid suspicion despite the fact that neither of them are very good at the subterfuge.

All in all, this is a solidly crafted read which could easily fill a spare evening; fans of dark but not entirely amoral fiction, of well-built fantasy cities, and of the kind of elite vs. underdog political machinations found in books like Bradley P. Beaulieu's "Song of Shattered Sands", should find elements here that appeal. While it never rose above the level of diversion for me, and I miss the opportunity to have really dug down into the genuinely diverse fantasy city that's glimpsed in the background of this narrative, I think The Ingenious does what it sets out to do, and that's plenty.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Isten is quite likeable for an aspiring all-powerful drug lord; +1 Entertaining action scenes

Penalties: -1 Diversity of the main characters never quite reflects the promise of the city's worldbuilding

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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Vela, by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon and S.L. Huang

Serial Box's new space opera is an action-packed, politically-driven adventure written by an impressive author lineup.


The Vela, the latest exercise in collaborative serialised fiction from Serial Box, brings together an all-star quartet of science fiction writers: Yoon Ha Lee, creator of the mindbending mathemagical Hexarchate series; Becky Chambers, who brought the best kind of slice-of-life into space with the Wayfarers series; Rivers Solomon, Campbell nominee and creator of An Unkindness of Ghosts; and S.L Huang, whose action-packed Cas Russell series is being republished by Tor after an initial self-published run. Together, they take on a space opera that touches on the strengths of all four of these works, while being something very different. Welcome to the system home to Khayyam, Gan-de and Hypatia, where the careless extraction of hydrogen by wealthy inner planets is causing the slow collapse of the sun and the death, over centuries, of all inhabitable worlds - beginning, of course, with the blameless, impoverished outer worlds. Mix in a hardened soldier-for-hire who is herself an escapee from the dying worlds, and her naive non-binary sidekick, and you've got an indisputable recipe for success, right?

Pretty much. The Vela is written to be read in short novella-sized chunks over a period of time (although I managed to devour most of it in one sitting without losing interest) and the pattern of tension and plotting that goes with that style makes for a compelling, twisty experience that is more reminiscent of good quality TV than conventional literature. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the model - Serial Box releases its titles in "seasons" for a reason - but it's still an initial adjustment when reading, and those new to the format might have to experiment a little with how best to engage. The plot kicks off with Asala Sikou, the aforementioned refugee soldier, who is brought in by the leader of the wealthy, still-comfortable world of Khayyam to take on an unusual mission: locate the Vela, a ship carrying the last refugees from the latest world on the system's outskirts to have become uninhabitable, and do it with his child, Niko, in tow. Given that the slow extinction crisis has produced a ton of ships full of refugees, the mission to find one particular set of them is odd from the outset, but it soon becomes clear that this is more than a token gesture for a politician's election campaign. Khayyam is not the only political force interested in the Vela and what it carries, and soon the militaristic leader of Gan-De - the closed-off world closest to the refugees - and rebels from the barely-habitable orbiting stations which said refugees are forced into are all involved in a struggle for the system's already tenuous future.

As you'd expect, what follows is a mixture of fast-paced action, fundamentally irreconcilable political showdowns, and some highly entertaining twists and reversals, as Asala and Niko find their way in and out of trouble, make their way across the system, and uncover the true reasons behind the Vela's importance and what it means for their future. The lead pair have a great dynamic and there's plenty of other interesting characters too, representing a diverse, ethically messy version of humanity which contrasts individual capacity for kindness with a hopeless lack of positive collective action. The cultural differences between the different worlds are understated compared to the inequality and political tensions between them, but the touches are there to make these worlds feel lived in. The text also uses its science fictional elements to underscore the sense of inequality between the haves and the have-nots: interplanetary travel is technically accessible to most, but for ordinary people it depends on once-a-decade planetary alignments which allow ships to use gravity rather than burning expensive fuel; only the very wealthy can afford to transport themselves directly under normal circumstances.

In its treatment of interplanetary politics, there's a strong comparison to be drawn between The Vela and The Expanse, which takes place on a similar scale and with similar questions about privilege and inequality. Indeed, while I'm a big fan of The Expanse's current trajectory, The Vela comes stronger out of the gate with its political machinations and its representation, in contrast to the somewhat less inspiring "hardboiled bros in space" feel of Leviathan Wakes. Like The Expanse, The Vela manages to satisfyingly balance the sense of huge, irreconcilable political realities that the refugee crisis is creating, which is beyond the power of Gan-de and Khayyam to solve, and the individual personalities at the helm of some of those forces. I do enjoy stories which push hard on the tension between "good people" and "people working towards good things" (some of whom are terrible), and there's plenty of that here without descending into outright misanthropy.

That said, there were times when I was expecting a little more from The Vela, in terms of its plot and characterisation. In particular, I was frustrated by the tight focus on a few, relatively privileged characters. Asala's presence as the main character should, of course, be the counterweight to that, but despite the exploration of her past as a refugee, her characterisation is strongly shaped by an early display of indifference towards a ship of illegal refugees, which underlines the position of power that she has reached in a way that makes it uncomfortable to view her as representative of the powerless masses at the heart of The Vela's universe. Other than Asala, and a couple of characters who turn up in individual chapters, ordinary people are seen only in nameless glimpses, and that feels like an odd decision for the authors to make in a story of this kind. Additionally, while there's a cracking couple of climactic chapters here, which really blow the possibilities for future instalments wide open, the closing moments of the story leave things on a frustratingly massive end-of-season cliffhanger, and I'm already nervous about the lack of announcement for a sequel. There is enough thematic closure to still make this season a satisfying investment on its own, however, and if you're bothered by excessive cliffhangers then Serial Box's model may not be the one for you anyway.

All in all, The Vela has got a lot going for it, and I do want to take a moment to appreciate the fact that a space opera collectively written by an author team that is mostly queer and mostly people of colour not only exists, but is being published as a headline event with an objectively all-star creative team. If I'm being truly honest, I have to admit I'm a victim of my own high expectations for this title: I feel like this team could produce an Indisputable Best Book Of The Year for me, which this doesn't quite live up to despite its strengths. However, taken with realistic expectations, The Vela is a wonderful adventure, and this is, I hope, just the start of our adventures with Asala, Niko and their broken, beautiful world. I'll definitely be signing up for future instalments.

The Math:

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Satisfying interplanetary political machinations without an easy answer in sight.

Penalties: -1 A frustratingly elite cast for a story based on a refugee crisis.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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.