Thursday, January 31, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

If you haven't heard the good news, Cullen Bunn is teaming up with Cat Farris for an all-ages graphic novel! The story centers around the friendship between an 11-year old boy and a ghoul named Lavinia!  Read more about The Ghoul Next Door here!  Bunn is one of my favorite authors, but his work is often a bit too dark for my kids so I am pumped to have a spooky tale to share with them.

Pick of the Week:
Captain America #7 - Steve Rogers is suspected of murder following a secret mission gone wrong. Following the takeover of America by Hydra by a Rogers look-a-like, Captain America was able to overthrow Hydra and a new threat took over. The Power Elite has successfully framed Rogers with murder and he is forced to turn himself over to the authorities. He has an ace up his sleeve and it involves Sharon Carter and his shield.  This book harkens to the Ed Brubaker days and effectively highlights the inner struggle Roger faces serving his country when he doesn't believe in the direction it is headed. It is a bit too familiar with a struggle we are all currently facing, but has me very excited about a Captain America book for the first time in a while.

The Rest:
WWE Forever #1 - Boom! Studios delivered a fresh wave of nostalgia with a book featuring the professional wrestlers of my childhood. The timing of this book, right after the recent Royal Rumble, was right on the nose and I loved pouring through the five short stories featuring Brett the Hitman Heart, Andre the Giant, the Million Dollar Man, and others. If you are a fan of wresting, make sure you check out The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling, but also pick this up as it will pull on your heartstrings in all of the best ways.

Man Without Fear #5 - Matt Murdock, via a flashback from his father during his recovery after he lost his sight, informs us that pain is a great motivator.  He channels his father as he seeks the motivation he needs to complete his rehab so he can walk again. While that is helpful, the white elephant in the room is his confrontation with the fear inside of him. Murdock realizes that he doesn't need to be the man without fear, but the man who controls fear and instills it in his enemies. In a series that felt like a passing of the torch, Daredevil was more of the phoenix who rises from the ashes and is ready for a new day. This was a great transition to the new creative team and I am ready for a new journey with Daredevil.

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Adventures in Short Fiction: January 2019

As we wave goodbye to the first month of 2019 (I know, right? what even is time and why does it move so fast) I'm back with more thoughts on some recent short fiction, and I'm happy to announce that this is going to be a regular feature! At the end of each month, I will be taking some time to run through the rotating selection of mostly-recent magazines and anthologies that have recently crossed my eyeballs (and hopefully also my brain), and sharing some of the highlights and general impressions with you.

As I mentioned in my "pilot" roundup last month, short fiction is a new area for me and I'm still trying to establish how I can best engage with some of the amazing writers and publications in this space. I hope, therefore, that this monthly column will be useful not just for those interested in finding good stories, but especially for fellow readers who find themselves stuck in endless "I should read more short fiction but what and how" thoughts. I'm here for you, friends; let's do this together.

Without further ado, let's jump in to this month's stories:

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings ed. Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (2018).

This is an anthology of Asian fairytale retellings by Asian authors, bringing a range of folklore, legends and ghost stories from across the continent into new perspective. Most of the authors in this collection are new to me and while I was expecting variety in the myths and cultures represented ("Asia" encompasses over half the world's current population, after all), what I didn't anticipate was the even wider range of genre and angles of adaptation taken here. There's several straightforward retellings, which take place in recognisably "fairytale" settings even as they change the voice and agency of the story's characters ("The Crimson Cloak" by Cindy Pon leaps out here). However, there's also several stories that play with science fiction and speculative futures, including "Steel Skin" by Lori M. Lee with its take on artificial intelligence; urban fantasies like "Code of Honor" by Melissa de la Cruz with its melding of Aswang and western teen vampire stories; a take on time travel from a deeply mundane perspective in "Spear Carrier" by Rahul Kanakia; and even a spot of lovely female-friendship centred contemporary YA in "Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers" by Preeti Chhibber.

There's also a strong thread of diaspora experience running through many of the stories, including Chhibber's tale mentioned above, as well as an interesting ghost story from Alyssa Wong, "Olivia's Table", which sees a woman taking on the mantle of her mother in catering to the needs of spirits congregating on an Arizona hotel. This category also includes my favourite story overall: "The Land of the Morning Calm" by E.C. Myers, which translates multiple narratives from Korean folklore, particularly the Chasa Bonpuli, into a tale of identity, loss and online gaming, as a young woman processes the death of her mother at a video game conference and the imminent shutdown of the server where her entire family used to immerse themselves in the world of the titular Land of the Morning Calm game. The speculative elements transition nicely between the real world and the world of the game, and there's a lot of interesting and complex emotional material here.

The stories are followed by short explanations talking about the original myth and the intention behind the adaptation, which is a feature I really like in anthologies. Here's it's helpful for really understanding the background and context to the adaptation; when the intention is to bring stories from outside mainstream western cultural consciousness to the attention of a wider audience, it's great to have space to really understand what the author intended to achieve and where it's coming from. Overall, this is a highly recommended collection (and one which, as a 2018 original anthology, is eligible for Hugo nominations now now now!)

Rating: 8/10

Strange Horizons: October and November 2018. (Read Online - Links Below)

I read Strange Horizons through their Patreon subscription issues, which are a handy way to get each month's content in an easy e-book format. Useful as this is, the drawback is that each month's "omnibus" only comes out partway through the following month, which means I am always quite far behind compared to the weekly output of new issues on the site. Also, this roundup doesn't include the fundraising drive stories which came over this period, which have been collected for backers in a separate ebook and are also available online. The silver lining to this delayed coverage is, of course, that all the original stories here are eligible for Hugo awards right now, should you wish to check them out (and also they didn't stop being good, relevant stories just because they were published three months ago.)

There are three original stories in the October edition, encompassing very different voices with strong sense of place and a running theme of death and loss. Fans of Aliette de Bodard's 2018 short novel In The Vanishers' Palace will find a rather different-feeling woman-dragon relationship in "The Palace of the Silver Dragon" by Y.M. Pang (1 Oct), a story which really leans into its protagonist's feelings of grief and frustrated lack of agency both in her present and in the memories of her past. The sea-dwelling slave-descended folk of "De MotherJumpers" by Celeste Rita Baker (15 Oct) - playing on a longstanding Afrofuturist concept similar to the society in Clipping's The Deep - provide background for a similarly dark and grief-heavy tale of loss and how it stretches ties within a community to breaking point. Isabel Yap's "Asphalt, Mother, River, Child" (8 Oct) deals, to devastating effect, with the deaths of innocents in the Philippines as a result of the country's destructive, discriminatory "war on drugs", bringing a fantastic sense of place and character (including use of Filipino vocabulary, for which the story provides a glossary at the end). After all that, the two reprints in the 29 October issue are a welcome shift into lighter storytelling, including the possibly-too-smutty-for-me-but-still-excellent "Fisherman" by Nalo Hopkinson.

November also brings some strong material to the table, including Chimedum Ohaegbu's weird fairytale, "Toothsome Things" (19 Nov), and the sweet "Missed Connections" by Alena Flick (12 Nov). However, it was "Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions)" by Debbie Urbanski (5 Nov) that most successfully broke my heart. It's the story of an asexual woman trapped within an unsupportive family, who is encouraged to create a better version of herself through technology in order to provide them with the love and attention they "deserve". The protagonist's attempts to communicate her wants and needs and to push back against the one-way expectations levelled at her are contrasted with the total resignation with which she starts and ends the story, a resignation which is framed as generational but more fundamentally asks "why shouldn't we just be someone easier for our loved ones to manage?" It's a question which, among progressive communities that encourage self-identification and acceptance, we're not supposed to ask in seriousness, but in presenting a speculative "solution" Urbanski drags that unspeakable doubt into the open, and forces us to confront it in a difficult but compelling way.

Rating: 7/10

Clarkesworld Issue 147 (December 2018) (Read Online)

Clarkesworld is a publication that's been on my radar with the occasional - usually excellent - story for a long time, and this year I've cemented my commitment to reading their work by taking out an ebook subscription. The first issue I got through this was actually the last of 2018, but it's a good place to start as it squeezes an extra new story in, with just a single reprint from the six overall pieces. It's a rollercoaster of interesting science fictional concepts, from the slightly skewed augmented reality tech of D.A. Xiaolin Spires' "Marshmallows", to the supposedly empathy-generating implants given to the young protagonist of "The Names and Motions" by Sheldon J. Pacotti, to the commodified air and its international impacts, told through a breakneck international conspiracy, of "Bringing Down the Sky" by Alan Bao. What these stories share is a sharp, effective focus on the speculative elements and the parts of the story (be it character, place or plot) that bring out the most interesting (and, in this issue, generally negative) implications. My personal favourite of the issue was "When We Find Our Voices" by Eleanna Castroianni, which deals with the relationship between "Sons of Man" - a group of all-male humans - and an "Adapted" race of bird-like people with three genders and complex, human-compatible reproductive abilities. At the point of the story, humans have managed to subjugate and exploit the Adapted. It's told through the relationship between two Adapted - a third-gendered "Etu" whose role in reproduction is to bring together genetic material from the other two partners (I had some strong Octavia Butler feels here), and their male partner, who is forced into a marriage (technically they both are) with a human man in order to give him a child. Both characters' increasing dissatisfaction and questioning of their society and the things they are forced to do plays out in different ways, and I could easily have read twice as much about these characters and the fascinating, if grim, world they inhabit.

As many readers will know, Clarkesworld has an ongoing focus on bringing Chinese science fiction in translation to the English-language market, and this issue brings “Master Zhao: The Tale of an Ordinary Time Traveler” by Zhang Ran, translated by Andy Dudak. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this one initially - it doesn't help that it's not a super smooth translation, although I'm confident it gets across the message of the original - but by the end I was very invested in the story of Zhao, who finds himself constantly travelling back to points in his own timeline - generally after disasters befalling either himself or his chronically ill wife - and can make different decisions to try to bring about a better outcome. Zhao's story is being told within the narrative to Zhang, an unemployed 30 year old living rent free in Beijing, and that framing is used to explore the practicalities of Zhao's ability (there are many diagrams involved). But I think the story's most compelling aspects lie in how it exposes the sense of inequality and hopelessness in which Zhao, a working class man in a country with no social safety net, is forced to repeatedly confront the limitations of his own position and his inability to find better support for his wife.

Rating: 8/10

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issues 268 and 269, January 2019 (Read Online 1, 2)

I'm also new to Beneath Ceaseless Skies' subscription, but I've consistently enjoyed the fiction I have read from them and this pair of issues (they release two stories biweekly, I think?) was a great start to my more regular commitment. The first kicks off with "The Blighted Godling of Company Town H", by Beth Cato, in which an abandoned guardian struggles to protect her people from decay and destruction, in a world where the company that originally formed them is clearly long gone. "The Beast Weeps With One Eye" by Morgan Al-Moor is a story of ravens and havens. To be more specific, it's about people finding havens to save them from ravens. To be even more specific and perhaps a bit less flippant, it's a neatly situated fantasy story about the last of a tribe, the Bjebu, who have fled destruction only to find they need to make an offering of three sorrows to the Father of all Ravens. It's worth spending the time on, and as a debut author Morgan Al-Moor is one to add to your Campbell watchlists.

I liked "La Orpheline" by Jordan Taylor, a historical urban fantasy with an operatic setting, but the story that really struck me in Issue 269 was "The Deepest Notes of the Harp and Drum" by Marissa Lingen. What I love about this tale is how matter-of-factly amoral it is: the narrator tells us within the first page that she has killed her sister over what can only be described as dubious provocation, and the story is mostly about her and her new partner attempting to escape any repercussions from those past crimes. The women recount their struggles in a way which is so reflective of the way we expect wronged parties' troubles to be addressed in fairy tales that it's very hard not to root for them, and the "moral" that the creatures of the wider world have better things to do than pay attention to humans, even when they are murdering each other for fun and (maybe) profit, is neat on one level but introduces some real "wait... what?" moments on further consideration. It's fascinating to have the trappings of this kind of story used to tell "here's a couple of complicated but frankly Not Great people making peace with their consciences and getting away with murder", and assuming it was an intentional subversion, I really like the food for thought it brings.

Rating: 8/10

Uncanny Issue 26, January-February 2019. (Read Online)

The last couple of Uncanny Magazine issues have knocked it out of the park to the extent where it almost feels unfair to compare this issue to what's gone before. That said, I did struggle somewhat to connect with some of the fiction here, in which every story appears to be an involved family drama, or a quiet post-apocalyptic moment, or an involved family drama after the apocalypse. That might be my failure as a reader to give every story enough space to sink in as a distinct entity, but the only imagery that really stood out was Fran Wilde's story, "A Catalog of Storms", which brings her trademark skill at weird worldbuilding and applies it to a tale of sentient storms. It's safe to say I am a guaranteed customer for Wilde's future short story collection as and when it comes out, but even the story here didn't make a huge impression on me beyond the "hook". Beyond Wilde, I did like some of the other things in here too: "The Willows" by Delilah S. Dawson is a really creepy, claustrophobic tale of haunting in an isolated farmhouse, and Dustdaughter by Inda Lauryn recounts the story of a young girl coming into her power against her mother's wishes and is also pretty great. There's also a reprint of "The Duke of Riverside", an Ellen Kushner story which recounts a pivotal moment in the Tremontaine-Riverside saga. Overall, though, I came out of this feeling like the juxtaposition of this particular group of similar, quiet tales left me struggling to do justice to each story in turn - perhaps they'll work better for me on a revisit someday.

Rating: 6/10

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, January 29, 2019

Review Roundtable: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

The escalating havoc and ultraviolence of Vigilance holds an effective, if culturally specific, mirror to violence and fear in the US.

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses gun violence throughout, and includes references to child death. Also, we're discussing the whole novella, so BEWARE SPOILERS.

Vigilance, the new novella from Robert Jackson Bennett, is out today and it's a searing look at gun violence in the US. In this near future dystopia, John McDean is tasked with running "Vigilance", the nation's favourite reality programme, which releases real shooters are released on unsuspecting locations with military-grade armaments, and the resulting carnage is broadcast as a "lesson" in how to protect oneself. McDean and his crew at ONT station think they have the variables of Vigilance down to a fine art, but in the novella's ensuing escalation find themselves taken down by one of McDean's own blindspots, to dramatic effect.

We've got a lot of Bennett fans on our team here at Nerds of a Feather and when this novella came to our attention, lots of us were interested in reading it to review. That's why, instead of taking it on alone, today I, Adri, am joined by Paul Weimer, Brian, and Joe Sherry to unpack Bennett's highly topical novella and our reactions to it.

Adri: Vigilance is a novella about a near-future America that “from the beginning, … had always been a nation of fear”. In it, the perception of internal and external threats has given rise to a reality TV show (also called Vigilance), where state-sanctioned shooters are let loose in public spaces with the subsequent carnage broadcast for entertainment and “education”. Was Vigilance what you expected going in?

Paul: I want to begin with something I saw on twitter from the author, Robert Jackson Bennett. In talking about the novella, he said:

When I picked up the novella, which was before these tweets, I went in with the expectation that it was aimed at gun violence and gun culture. That's how it had gotten sold to me. That's how the novella overtly sells itself, as judging the book by its cover: full of guns, and with an icon of a gun between the title and tagline and the author name.

As I read it, my mind went to The Running Man (both the novel and the movie) more than anything else. Sure, there are plenty of guns and the insanity of a heavily armed society, but the theme of the entirety of America as a high-ammo Truman Show where at any moment, people might get caught up in gun violence made this a very surreal and uncomfortable experience to read.

Joe: Not at all. Like Paul, my initial assumption was that this was going to skewer (in some capacity) America’s obsession and glorification of guns, gun culture, and violence. I missed Bennett’s comments, so I went into Vigilance with those initial assumptions firmly in place.

Those assumptions were challenged fairly quickly when Bennett pushes the idea that this, all of this, is really about fear. The extended quote from Vigilance is awfully telling.
"The heart of the matter was that, from the beginning, America had always been a nation of fear. Fear of the monarchy. Fear of the elites. Fear of losing your property, to the government or invasion. A fear that, though you had worked damn hard to own your own property, some dumb thug or smug city prick would either find a way to steal it or use the law to steal it. This was what made the beating heart of America: not a sense of civics, not a love of country or people, not respect of the Constitution - but fear.”
Bennett pushes that farther and baldly states that America’s love of guns, America’s mythologizing of guns is directly tied to that fear which is then tied to the monopolizing and capitalizing of that fear. It’s also tied to the idea that a good man with a gun can save the day and that if the bad guys are armed, and you know they will be because by golly, they don’t respect laws, then we’ve all got to be armed, too. It’s irresponsible not to be.

Of course, Vigilance is a novella about fear and complacency, which is also strangely tied together.

brian: No, though, to be honest, all I needed to see were “Robert Jackson Bennett” and “dark science fiction” for me to jump into Vigilance. I went into it almost blind, just a fan of Bennett. I was not expecting Vigilance to be quite so near future, nor so close to a possible reality that I could smell it. It was hard for me to read Vigilance when I sit in an office all day that has a TV set on a cable news station that increasingly resembles ONT. It was hard for me to read when Vigilance’s “Ideal Person” is not only people I’ve met, but people I work with, and people I am related to. I was expecting something grim, but I was not expecting something real.

Adri: And it’s interesting that, from a reader perspective, that fear is so transparently co-opted: something that is ostensibly directed at the elite, is then used by the elite, to put at risk everything but the elite, with just enough confusion over ownership to allow plausible deniability from both the media and the government. On the whole, it’s quite a concept to pack into novella length, although I suspect most of the target audience will be coming pre-invested to the line being taken here.

Even The Hunger Games were hosted by a real human...
Another thing I noticed about Vigilance was how well the characterisation fit with the wider themes of the novella. As you’d expect from the subject matter, there are no heroes here, and almost nobody who is genuinely sympathetic. Beyond that, though, there’s a constant sense of watching “personas” rather than real people. Indeed, the first character we are really introduced to is John McDean’s “Ideal Person”, supposedly the target audience for the Vigilance programme (which is hosted by fabricated CGI personas). From the power fantasies of the “actives” selected to carry out the shootings, to the highly scrutinised survivor role Delyna resists but is ultimately forced to play, to the more overt deceptions that come into play at the end, there’s a pervasive sense of unreality even outside the game world. What did you think of Bennett’s characters - did any leap out for any reason?

Paul: McDean is ostensibly our main character, the one that we use for the majority of the novella in setting up the scenario. He’s hardly sympathetic, I think he is deliberately drawn to be that way. We can look at him as the Richard Dawson's Killian analogue. I am not sure that I hated McDean but I definitely wanted to see him taken down a peg by the end. Comeuppance on a personal level was one the expectations that I had for the story, and we do get that on an emotional level with him, when he sees what he has helped midwife come into fruition.

I am not entirely happy with the blurb on the back, because the promise made there for him is only really paid off at the end, In a sense it gives away the ending.

Adri: I felt that about the blurb too! It sets you up to be looking out for something to happen to McDean and his team from what feels like a too-early point, although the “how” of it did come as a surprise to me. But then, how the does the arc of the “secondary” PoV character, Delyna - a young black woman working in a bar where the Vigilance show is being screened - affected the sense of payoff for McDean’s comeuppance?

Paul: That last scene with Delyna does underscore just how futile the addition of more and more weapons into a charged environment does anything except escalate matters. I do think it’s a “take that!” directed squarely at the “good guy with a gun” and the other narratives here in the US, which promote the idea that the only way to solve gun violence in schools and other places is to arm everyone. As Delyna sees and witnesses, all it does is up the body count. A society where everyone has weapons isn’t a safer and more stable society, it’s a more vulnerable and fragile one.

Joe: I’d argue that Delyna is a sympathetic character and probably the closest to the reader’s “ideal” stand in character. She speaks up and speaks out when the easy and safe answer is to leave the television on. Of course, that’s followed by a Tarantino-esque standoff and then escalation after escalation.

I think you’re on to something with your larger point that we’re watching personas act out their roles rather than following fully realized characters. I don’t know if you’ve read Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, but his skill at characterization is absolutely top notch. I think it’s a deliberate choice here. The game show nature of Vigilance lends itself to that unreality, as if we’re never sure if we’re ever out of the game world.

Paul: Joe, I have read and loved the Divine Cities trilogy, and I think you are right here, Bennett is crafting these characters as roles to deliberate affect. It’s a bold stylistic choice, that goes with the whole unreality of the world.

Adri: Agreed on Divine Cities too.

brian: I’m definitely feeling the roles over characters, particularly since I can more clearly remember the function of each team member in the Vigilance production team over their names.

With that said, the character that stood out the most to me was Ives, the social media wrangler. We know our social media vessels such as Facebook and Twitter are primed and almost designed for spreading misinformation, and here we have ONT using bots and other social media shills to steer the flow of communication and interaction to Vigilance. A lot of words have been typed about how dangerous it is for social media disinformation campaigns to disrupt political power, so it’s almost quaint that ONT is using these tools in the manner they were designed to benefit: advertising. #brands #engagement #howdoiescapethishellihavecreated

Adri: As the token non-American in this group, I also have to ask about the elephant in the room: how US-specific is Vigilance? The idea of citizens living in fear of their own government clearly isn’t tied to a single nation or identity, and neither is the manipulation of crime or fear of the “other”. Yet, perhaps because artificiality is such a running theme through the novella, I found it hard to personally connect to the satirical elements of the text. Many of the points felt either very on-the-nose or too far-fetched, with little in that sweet spot where reality is distorted but all the more recognisable through the satirist’s lens. What were your experiences? Am I just too far away from Bennett’s “Ideal Person” in this case?

brian: Terribly US-specific? Let’s go with terribly. Fear of government is so ingrained into American culture that we wrote the right to give ourselves the means to violently overthrow the government into our constitution. Every year, maybe every month, we suffer a violent outburst that involves someone using a firearm to shoot innocent people. Time after time, we decry the tragedy and refuse to do anything to address the cause, which is the wild proliferation of weapons in the US. Instead, we put bulletproof plates in childrens’ backpacks, drill on what to do during an “active shooter” incident, and wait for our turn at our own Vigilance. I can’t recognize Vigilance as satire. I see the conditions that lead to Vigilance happening too often for it to be anything but a glimpse into our future.

Adri: Wikipedia suggests in 2018, mass shootings happened in the US on an almost daily basis...

Joe: I’d like to be able to say that the main aspect of Vigilance I found too far fetched was the mass shooting competition itself, but even though we joke about how The Running Man and The Hunger Games could never actually happen and would never be broadcast, I’m feeling a little cynical this morning. I’m not so sure. Besides, that mass shooting competition, the “vigilance” of the title, is the hook of the novel. There’s more than enough of a literary and film tradition to hang a story on.

I’d really like to be able to say that Bennett’s commentary on America’s indifference to school shootings and murdered children is far fetched, but that’s just cooked into the fabric of American society right now.

I don’t know if he originated the idea, but British journalist Dan Hodges wrote in 2015:
Sandy Hook, if you don’t remember, was an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut where twenty students between the ages of 6 and 7 were killed in a 2012 shooting, as were six staff members who died trying to protect the kids. (Also, as the father of a now four year old who is shockingly close to being old enough to go to school, that was honestly one of the most difficult sentences I’ve had to type.)

Hodges was not wrong. America’s legislative response was silence. Thoughts and prayers. Inaction. Indifference.

Also, if you want to really depress yourself about America, spend some time reading through a list of school shootings in the United States. 

But, Adri, you said that you found the satire either too on the nose or too far fetched. Can you expand on that a bit more? For me, the stuff that was on the nose was generally just accurate and perhaps a bit sad / painful in the “it’s painful because it’s true” paraphrase of The Simpsons.

Adri: I might be setting the bar too high, but I think that fully communicating satire across cultures is a challenge for both reader and writer, because it’s inevitably going to be the more subtle elements that are lost. And when a high action story like Vigilance stops communicating its subtlety, it just becomes a relentless gore-fest; incidentally, this is also how I feel about Tarantino films, and there’s definitely similarities here, and also I know lots of mostly-male English friends who who love Tarantino for what are almost certainly very similar reasons to their American counterparts, so this is not some impenetrable cultural barrier in general - perhaps just an aesthetic one.

Paul: Is Vigilance satire or prediction? I think it’s just implausible enough to be firmly satire, but I am very uncomfortable, and was very uncomfortable as I read it, as to just how plausible a US that was sinking lower and lower by the day would turn to fear cannibalizing on itself, and America being okay with it. Fear may be the mindkiller, as Dune taught us, but Fear sells. Fear motivates people to do very terrible things in an effort to placate and ameliorate that fear. I think of Security Theater at airports--restrictions on liquids, and shoes just as simple examples of “being seen to address the fears” is meant for public relation, and oh at the same time reminding people of the danger.. Or the fears stoked up this fall and winter over the migrant caravan. But can we get from here, now to the world of Vigilance two decades hence? I don’t think we can logically and rationally get there from here, but I think we could get disturbingly closer. So Vigilance is still Satire, and not Cautionary Tale. But it’s a close run thing.

Adri, you brought up before the idea of this being a US-specific book. Is there anywhere else in the world that you think a story like this could have been written? Brian, Joe and I swim in this water, and unless one widely travels, it’s hard to escape seeing that water as being anything except “the way things are”.

Adri: My experiences are far from universal, but I don’t think you could write about this particular response to fear -- the state sanctioned libertarian arms race --  in any of the places I’ve lived. It’s interesting that Joe mentions Sandy Hook as a potential turning point above; because I grew up partly in Australia with British parents, I have the massacres in both Dunblane and Port Arthur (which happened within 2 months of each other in Scotland and Tasmania respectively; Dunblane in particular had heartbreaking similarities with Sandy Hook, over a decade later) in my childhood consciousness. Each prompted fundamental changes in gun control and the perception of guns in those countries, which were treated as completely self-evident. Over twenty years later, it means I now live in a city where outrage and grief is directed towards the level of knife crime, which is also awful, but doesn’t create the same level of destruction and collateral damage as guns do. It’s hard to get past my own ingrained bias that safety means fewer machines designed to kill you in close proximity, and that being “vigilant” and “safe” always means de-escalation except where absolutely necessary. And while I’ve also worked in conflict resolution, meaning I’ve met plenty of people for whom that bias isn’t true, that was a very different context to the relationship most Americans - particularly the ones most likely to be vocal about gun ownership - have with their national government.

To me, this loops back to the point about what Vigilance is about: it’s not just a story poking fun at gun-obsession through a lens of ultraviolent absurdity, but one about the fear that brought this society about, and that it feeds back into in turn. While some elements of US national fear and the rhetoric around it do get replicated elsewhere - like the language around the war on terror, or immigration - the context around the Second Amendment, the NRA, the inaction and victim blaming and everything around it is so specific that you could only tell this story in the US. And, while many of us outside that context have news consumption and Twitter feeds that constantly bring us into contact with this debate, I do feel there’s a fundamental gap in what can be understood from an outsider perspective. To me, the ultraviolence and the fear of oppression feel equally speculative, even though I intellectually know they aren’t supposed to be. It means on an emotional level, Vigilance functions much more along the lines of The Hunger Games, a series which also marries both violence and fear to great effect but whose worldbuilding “how did we get there from here” gaps are tricky to intuit, than as the satirical "close to home" text it’s intended as.

Speaking of international influences, I wanted to discuss the very left-field ending to the plot. In a nutshell, the thrust of the story is that McDean's crack team (who have enough power to be targets) spends so long thinking about internal threats that they forgot about external security, and in particular how threatening China is. This is a mistake that proves fatal not just to ONT and company but, apparently, to the entire audience of Vigilance. Again, this is a combination of "frighteningly plausible" - America is taken down by a combination of cyber security leaks and sexual exploitation of interns - and "not going to happen" - China would benefit from the US declining in power relative to itself, but probably not from instigating mass death.

Paul : Was the out-of-left-field meant to be a deliberate writing technique on Bennett’s part to show that people were focusing on the wrong things, so that when “Tabitha” makes her reveal, it is a “Wait, what?” moment for reader and audience alike. The whole bit about Americans not paying attention to the fact that there was an international crisis going on for days--sadly, that’s not really very much satire any more, not here in the US, and the obsessions and blinders of the news media, now.

brian: What I found interesting about the twist was the difference between McDean/ONT and the Chinese. ONT is using high technology to craft their fakes, and the Chinese used actual people. Infiltrating an organization using people isn’t high tech; it’s the oldest, most basic technique available. It still works, and it’s why we’re talking about what impact Marina Butina may have had on the US government by infiltrating a powerful gun advocacy lobby.

But what McDean and ONT do to the American population, the Chinese did to McDean/ONT. They know their “Ideal Person” (McDean) and use his personal taste to manipulate him into doing what they want. He becomes so hyperfocused on sexual release with Tabitha that he installs some unknown phone app that ends up giving the Chinese a backdoor. He’s also so enamored with Bonnan (the Vigilance contestant who is also a literal Nazi) that he has to put him in the next episode. ONT is so focused on the shootings and violence that they don’t even consider that you don’t need a weapon or a threat to manipulate people. You can use something alluring and they will do what you want anyway.

Adri: Any final thoughts before we wrap up this review?

Joe: The comparison is to classic novels like The Running Man, Battle Royale, and The Hunger Games and I think the thing I am most curious about is whether Vigilance will have that sort of staying power or cultural impact. That level of impact is doubtful, but Vigilance does hit those buttons in very accessible terms. It may well surprise us. At the very least, it’s led to a great conversation here and hopefully similar conversations in other spaces.

One thing that I wanted to note, that didn't come up earlier in the conversation is that as much as a primary focus of Vigilance is on the intersection of American gun and fear culture and how that it is monetized and weaponized, Bennett does make a point to very briefly bring race into the conversation. Race comes up in McDean's Ideal Person and it comes up sideways in aspects of how that fear culture is consumed, but it is dealt with firmly with the character of Delyna and in her family background. Delyna is black. I'm not sure how this plays outside the United States, but Black Lives Matter is a major movement inside America and police shootings are woven into the racial fabric of America. In the novella Delyna's father was a police officer killed in the line of duty, but he was killed by a fellow police officer, a white police officer who, instead of seeing another cop, saw a black man with a gun and opened fire. I don't have a larger point in bringing this up, except that I didn't want it to go unmentioned, and it could easily be the spark of another larger conversation. Hell, it could easily have been the spark for an alternate universe version of Vigilance.

Thank you for putting this together, Adri.

Paul: Thank you for putting this together, Adri. I agree with Joe, will this have the long term cultural impact of previous efforts in the genre? Will it be seen as an artifact of our times, or a dark prophecy of what could happen “if this goes on...”. Hard to tell. Bennett’s writing is certainly strong and sharpened toward a goal and social goal. In that, it has a hell of a lot of ambition--more so than The Running Man. It may not completely succeed at entertainment, but I don’t think Bennett wrote the book with that aim. I will be interested in how others view this, both within the SFF genresphere and as a more general conversation.

Adri: You're welcome - thanks for participating, all, and thanks to everyone reading!

The Math

Adri’s Verdict: 6.5, rounded up to 7. I understand what it's trying to accomplish but the particular blend of ultraviolence and satire didn't quite strike me right.

brian’s Verdict: 7. It works for me because it’s a future I can grasp that I do not want. Observations about roles/stereotypes over characters are completely valid though. They’re not quite cardboard cutouts, but not far from it either.

Joe’s Verdict: I’m between a 7 and an 8. Vigilance almost completely worked for me. I get that most of the characters are more outline than breathing, but that’s part of why the story works so well. It’s about the ideas Bennett is playing with. Occasionally didactic, but done so well that it is remarkably effective.

Paul’s Verdict: I’m somewhere on a 7.5. It’s nearly succeeded for me at what it was trying to do, but there were some pulling tensions between having characters as archetypes and a story that don’t quite mesh with the dialectic that Bennett was aiming for all the time. For all that, when it was “on”, it was terrifyingly effective, dark and chilling. If that was Bennett’s intention, then at points he succeeded to very strong effect.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Nanoreviews: The Prisoner of Limnos, Pocket Apocalypse, The Consuming Fire

Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Limnos [Spectrum Literary Agency, 2017 / Subterranean Press, 2019]

With The Prisoner of Limnos, Bujold brings to a close the major story arc of the Penric and Desdemona novellas, that being the gradual romance of Penric (temple sorcerer and host of the demon Desdemona) and Nikys (widow, interesting person in her own right). The plotline is the rescue of Nikys's mother, but the beating heart is Penric's somewhat awkward courtship of Nikys.

This isn't the Penric novella to start with. While I recommend all of them, at least start with Penric's Mission followed by Mira's Last Dance to get the Penric / Nikys storyline. But, with the background and emotional story. beats of the characters already set, The Prisoner of Limnos is a wonderful novella. Bujold is a grandmaster.
Score: 8/10

McGuire, Seanan. Pocket Apocalypse [DAW, 2015]

With Australia on the verge of a lycanthropic outbreak, Alexander Price returns in this fourth Incryptid novel from Seanan McGuire. Shelby Tanner, another crytopzoologist and Alex's girlfriend, asks Alex to come home with her and help her family and her organization protect the continent from an outbreak they may not be equipped to control.

Despite the overwhelming aggression of Shelby's family towards Alex, Pocket Apocalypse is an entertaining and satisfying read. Seanan McGuire set a strong standard of expectation with the first two Verity Price novels, but has succeeded to raise the bar with her two Alex Price offerings. Pocket Apocalypse opens up a new continent, widens the cryptid world, and reminds us that the Aeslin Mice truly are one of the greatest creatures in fantasy fiction.
Score: 7/10

Scalzi, John. The Consuming Fire [Tor, 2018]

If the Collapsing Empire moved at a breakneck pace, Scalzi slows down the narrative of The Consuming Fire just a touch. The Flows between the worlds are still collapsing, few believe it is happening, and Emperox Greyland II is preparing for both her Empire's survival of that collapse as well as from the internal threats moving against her. There's a lot going on, and Scalzi manages it all with his trademark wit and skillful ease of storytelling.

I expected a bit more Flow collapsing to occur in this novel and for that part of the story to progress faster and further than it did. One of the remarkable achievements of a series featuring the impending disappearance of rapid interstellar travel is that Scalzi manages to open and widen that universe in new and interesting ways that offer unexpected directions for this series to go. If you've read Scalzi before, if you've enjoyed his novels and were delighted by The Collapsing Empire, you should expect to be equally delighted by The Consuming Fire.
Score: 8/10

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

Friday, January 25, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

Jenn Lyons’ The Ruin of Kings boldly offers a debut epic fantasy novel with a wide canvas focused on an unwittingly pivotal figure in a complex and multifaceted world.

Kihrin is a thief, an apprentice musician, and a resident of the Capital. He’s also possesses a rather powerful artifact whose provenance he does not quite understand, one that is difficult to take from him except by his free will. Even more than this, Kihrin and his artifact are pawns in a long simmering plot that would see him as key to the destruction of an empire. Instead of being a prophesied hero come to save the world, Kihrin’s role is seemingly destined for a much darker fate, unless his patron goddess, the goddess of luck, Taja, really IS on his side.

This is Jenn Lyon’s epic fantasy novel, The Ruin of Kings.

The novel’s structure, whose provenance is not clear at the beginning and could have used a tad more clarification, settles down into alternating chapters. Lyons uses voice and point of view and tense here quite effectively to tell two narratives at key portions of his life in flashback with Kihirin already imprisoned by the antagonist. It is an effective variant on “How did I get into this mess?” to interest the reader from the get-go and also provide clues to events that unfold in the narrative.

From Kihirin himself, we get the story of him being sold as a slave, and subsequent dealings with a dragon, Gods and more on his way back to the Capital. This is done in a sharp first person perspective. This is a Kihrin at the height of his powers, and while he is still in a sink-or-swim situation, he has some competencies and experience under his belt. In the other chapters, we get Talon, one of his jailors, telling Kihrin his own story from an earlier point--the path that eventually leads to that slave block. That story, done in a third person perspective, has the real meat and potatoes of the classic rags to riches story, where Kihrin discovers and is discovered to be far more than a thief working in a brothel, and is in fact, of noble blood origins. His reluctance and resistance to this fate is the major tension of those chapters, as it makes it absolutely clear that being a secret prince of House D’Mon is not exactly a fairytale revelation. Kihrin is skeptical of this from the first, and with good reason. After all, the reader knows that Kihrin is going to wind up on a slave block.

There’s even more to unfold here than just this. The recitations of the twin narratives is itself being collected, and being commented on by a third party. The beginning makes it clear that the story is being documented for posterity by one Thrurvishar D’Lorus.. In addition, the novel has footnotes by Thruvishar, who has all sorts of opinions on what Kihrin and his jailor have to say about each other. The fact that the annotator himself enters the events of the narrative gives this a strange meta-feel, when he comments on actions that Kihrin witnesses. It’s a lovely literary conceit. The only issue I have with it is that e-readers, in their current form, do not handle footnotes well. The footnotes are not plot-essential but they do enrich the narrative and the world that the author creates, and their trangressive, disruptive nature to a narrative enriches the story. The Ruin of Kings is a book best read in paper, then, with the Kindle edition a paler shadow of it.

With these twin narrative threads, the author effectively avoids the pitfalls of a novel that is one single shot flashback or just a straightforward recitation of events. Seeing Kihrin in two time frames gives us a chance to get to know him at two key periods in his life, when he is completely ignorant of the dealings of the Noble Houses, and then later, when he has enough power and self-knowledge to know what he wants to do with that power. Or, more importantly, what he *needs* to do.

It’s a rich world that Kihrin inhabits as well, with some nice twists on the usual tropes and ideas. The Emperor is not as one might expect the head of one of the noble families, but rather could be anyone who manages to win the crown in a battle royale that is setup the moment an Emperor is killed (they have functional immortality otherwise). This avoids any easy possibilities of barracks Emperors or assassins declaring themselves Emperor after killing the old one. This is not to say that there are potential loopholes in this setup, but it does mean that the noble Houses are far more interested in consolidating their temporal power over their spheres of influence than trying to grab the crown.

In straight up Epic fantasy fashion, there is plenty of magic, magical creatures and all of it of various types. Elder race ruins (which become plot relevant), Dragons, Shapeshifters, Demons, magical spells and research, powerful artifacts. Magic is a powerful tool in Lyons’ world, but she manages to balance the power of magic with other skills, neatly sidestepping the trap of some epic fantasies where the magicians are in the end the only characters that matter when the stakes are on the line.

The novel makes me think of a 2018 novel, Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths, with it’s playing with narrative, voice, information control and point of view. Like that novel, I am intensely curious as to where the author goes from here. In addition to being curious about the character and the state of the world at the end of the book, the narrative frame used here so ingeniously would be difficult to pull off again in succession. Where the author goes in her evolution and growth is something I am eager to know about.

For readers who want an off-ramp, however, The Ruin of Kings does come to a satisfactory close, with an ending that does indicate that it is a beginning to a longer story, it would be relatively easy to close the book on the series here if they wanted to one-and-done. I appreciate that in a book, especially the beginning of a series, because time IS finite and one finds it difficult to continue every series that one comes across, no matter how good the first volume is. For me, though, I am well invested in Kihrin’s story enough to want to see where the author goes next in this milieu.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a rich world
+1 for an effective narrative structure to illuminate and contrast points of the narrative

Penalties: -1 for a few first-novel rough edges and the disadvantages of the format of the book for an e-reader

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

Reference:  Lyons, Jenn, The Ruin of Kings, Tor Books, 2019]

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

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

If the Academy Award nominations tell us anything, which they probably don't, it's that there is no denying that comic book based movies are far from the niche titles they were many years ago and are evaluated on par with other films. Black Panther is a deserving nominee for Best Picture and I hope that Spider-man into the Spiderverse rides its Golden Globe to another piece of hardware.  As I reflect on the movies I saw in 2018 I am not sure that any movies had a greater impact on me than those two.

Pick of the Week:
Guardians of the Galaxy #1 - I was initially going to pass on this title until I saw that Donny Cates was writing the first arc at a minimum. I am definitely happy that I saw the tweet as he is taking over at an interesting time for the Guardians. Thanos is dead and just announced, via a hologram, that his conscious has been transferred into another being. There is some Voldemort type of action going on here as the Mad Titan took severe measures to ensure he could cheat death. There is a mad scramble to figure out and kill that individual. He or she must be strong enough and capable enough to survive the process and it is unclear who it is, but it is likely someone we all know.  The Guardians are dealing with their own issues when The Black Order steals Thanos' body.  This was a phenomenal debut and I am very anxious to see who is in possession of Thanos' head and also intrigued by the artistic choice to have Groot speak in a manner we can all understand.  No more "I am Groot" and I am somehow ok with this choice.

The Rest:
Star Wars #60 - After summoning help to the moon of Hubin, Luke has unwittingly alerted the Empire to his location and brought the Scar Squadron to the surface. The Scar Squadron, an elite group of stormtroopers, is led by the light saber wielding Kreel. The leader of Hubin is not happy with this development and forces Luke and Kreel to duel to the death. Much like when Harry faced Voldemort in the graveyard, Luke knew a quick escape was better than a confrontation at this time. His brave actions impressed the ruler's daughter and enabled the people of Hubin to understand that the Rebellion was a force of good in the universe. I am not sure what to make of the last panel, but it looks like the escape might not be going as good as Luke and company realize.

Man Without Fear #4 - We are nearing the end of Matt Murdock's stay in the hospital and learned more about the confrontation that put him there thanks to an unpleasant visit from Kingpin. Since we are on a Harry Potter reference kick, Murdock laying motionless and forced to listen to what Kingpin said reminded me of Harry petrified on the Hogwarts express taunted by Malfoy. I was surprised to see how much snow threw off Daredevil's radar, but it makes sense and the tension of Kingpin gloating over Murdock pretending to sleep was glorious. This has been an odd mini-series, but one that is well worth checking out if you are a Daredevil fan.

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

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

The Wolf in the Whale takes its time to get going but becomes a compelling, if violent, high-stakes historical fantasy.

Content Warning: This book contains several scenes involving rape and sexual violence, including one which is used to humiliate and forcibly "detransition" a character.

It's my first "proper" winter in five years, and that means it's time to rediscover blankets and thermal leggings and to read all the cold, cosy books I can get my hands on. And it doesn't get much chillier than this! The Wolf in the Whale is a historical fantasy set in what is now Baffin Island (or Qikiqtaaluk) in north east Canada, where spring arrives in June and the sun doesn't appear at all in December. Jordanna Max Brodsky has used the available historical evidence about the Inuit arrival on the island over a thousand years ago, and of the Viking settlements in Vinland (now Newfoundland) at the same time, to weave together a meeting of these two groups, and of their respective mythologies and destinies. The result is a rich mixture of myth and of the realities of survival in one of the most unforgiving locations on earth - a perfect setting for a fireside read if there ever was one. (I should note, for the record, that southeast England does not get as cold as Baffin Island, but that's never stopped me complaining before.)

Back to the book. The Wolf in the Whale takes its time getting started, introducing us to the rhythm of a small, precarious Inuit camp through the eyes of Omat, a child who carries the reincarnated soul of his father since birth. Raised by his grandfather, an Angakkuq (spiritual leader), and by his aunt, Omat grows up expecting to become a man who can help hunt and keep his family fed, and hopes to succeed his grandfather and become an Angakkuq himself. However, we soon learn (very soon, if you've read the blurb) that Omat has a female body, and the decision to raise him as male is not without controversy among the rest of the camp. Omat himself clearly identifies more with a male role in these opening chapters, although once the option is presented to him he becomes more interested in the identify of an "Uiluaqtaq": a female bodied person who doesn't menstruate and hunts as a man.

(Note: Having given it some thought, I am choosing to use male pronouns for Omat, as I think this best reflects the identity the author has him adopt throughout most of the book. I'm aware this goes against the book's own publicity materials, which refer to Omat as "she", but this usage makes me feel uncomfortable for reasons related to the violence I talk about below.)

Once Omat's gender identity is introduced as a point of narrative tension, it becomes fairly obvious that we are going to have to watch him fight for it in some way, even if it's just to understand his own relationship to femininity. Although Omat respects the women in his life - especially his aunt and foster-mother Puja - it's clear the kind of masculinity he has been raised in views women's work as inferior. Coming to terms with the extent to which he identifies as female, and how this interacts with his more outwardly expressed masculine identity, makes for an interesting set-up. And, as the setting requires, this is all handled in an Inuit cultural context, though I can't speak to the sensitivity of this portrayal. Nor have I  come across any own voices reviews of this book yet, but I'd encourage readers to seek them out, and I'll be sure to update this review to link any that I find.

Unfortunately, The Wolf in the Whale instead chooses to kickstart the "gender" element of the plot by tearing Omat's gender identity away through rape and forced marriage, taking him away from his family and into a section of living with his rapist and the rapist's other wives as they travel south to hunt whales. The way this scene plays out effectively links the sexual violence to the trauma of losing acceptance of his chosen gender identity, and turns his female body into a symbol of that loss of power, and of general inferiority. Although this early scene is the only rape that actually happens "on-screen", the theme of sexual violence and gendered power runs throughout the rest of the book. This includes later exonerating an otherwise sympathetic male character for their role in mass rape as a war tactic (including the unfortunate decision to narrate a rape scene from his perspective), as well as repeated mentions of a myth in which the moon rapes the sun. As these things go, it's not poorly handled or voyeuristic, and there are some satisfying elements of revenge and healing in the book's conclusion. However, the interaction of sexual violence with the gender identity subplot is frustrating, to say the least, and I know I'm not alone in being tired of all rape in fiction. Anyone for whom that is the case will probably want to give The Wolf in the Whale a pass.

Once through Omat's childhood, and the sequence of his "humiliation" travelling south with his rapist's family (which together take up around a third of the book), the narrative picks up significantly as the Vikings come onto the scene. Here, at last, the stakes become clear, and it's great to see Omat regain some motivation and start actively working to change the fortunes of his community, now under threat from the Vikings and, more insidiously, the Christian myth that has arrived with them. The introduction of wolf dog puppies at this point is extremely welcome, as is that of Brandr, Omat's adopted Viking guide. Once the issue of communication is magically resolved, Brandr and Omat's interactions become generally very entertaining - not least because there isn't a threat of sexual violence - and the bond that develops between them becomes one of the most compelling in the book. As the political machinations of the Vikings and their gods come into conflict with the already precarious position of the few Inuit on the island, things escalate into a climax involving both humans and gods. Omat gets to use every resource at his disposal - including things he learns from his captors, especially their powerful non-combatant female leader - to save his family from what he's convinced will be disastrous contact.

As noted above, I'm not Inuit (or trans), and I can't speak directly to the portrayal of these elements in the novel, although I note that Brodsky spent time with Inuit communities in order to research the book. I'm also mindful that The Wolf in the Whale portrays not an Inuit community from today, but one from over a thousand years ago, which I think changes the onus on the author when it comes to representing another culture. I think there's an interesting analysis that's beyond the scope of this review (and probably this reviewer) about the impact of juxtaposing historical cultures that were cotemporaneous, but where present day marginalisation makes it problematic to treat them as equivalent in fiction. I felt this particularly in parts where The Wolf in the Whale deals with Inuit spiritual traditions alongside Viking mythology: the latter are now treated entirely as fictional characters in our culture, right down to their inclusion in the Marvel superhero universe, whereas the former has ongoing spiritual significance for cultures which still exist on the margins. Again, I say this not to suggest Brodsky handles these elements insensitively - her characters interact with Inuit gods who, with one notable (rapist) exception, are treated as sympathetic and powerful even when their interests don't align with Omat's - but to highlight my limitations as a reviewer when handling a text like this.

From my incomplete perspective, therefore, I found The Wolf in the Whale a slow but worthy read, which built up into a compelling story of interaction between cultures and the people who, willingly or otherwise, find themselves caught in the middle of these momentous meetings. Having had so many trials put before him, I was very satisfied with where Brodsky chose to end Omat's tale, doing justice to the themes and to the historical "reality" of the story while also rewarding both character and reader. I'm glad that writers like Brodsky are putting in the work to put out nuanced, researched historical fantasy narratives that aren't about Western Europe, and I hope that this is a successful example of that work paying off. While I - like the overwhelming majority of reviewers this book is likely to reach - don't have the tools to assess how sensitive this portrayal is, and I am hesitant to recommend any book whose plot relies on rape to the extent that this one does without making that reliance very clear, I personally enjoyed The Wolf in the Whale. While it might not sound like the most natural comfort reading, this book gave me plenty of material to see me through some (admittedly less-than-Arctic) winter nights.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Interesting setting and character choice reflecting a theme of cultural duality and change

Penalties: -1 Takes a third of the book to really get going; -1 sexual violence which is used to "detransition" Omat and treat their first interactions with femininity as inherently humiliating and traumatic

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.

Reference: Brodsky, Jordanna Max. The Wolf in the Whale [Orbit, 2019].

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Microreview [TV Series]: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

This is not the sitcom-version you remember--hail Satan.

One of the big surprises of 2018 came from the Netflix show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I watched it on a whim one night after a hard day of PhD-ing and ended up binging it. Since then, I’ve championed the series to different folks. If you like family dramas, witches, Appalachian gothic, or smashing the patriarchy, I’d give it a watch.

On the week of her sixteenth birthday, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) seems like your average high school student at Greendale. She likes to watch classic horror movies with her friends, she is in love with her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), and she wants to start a new club to support young women facing harassment.

But as soon as she steps into her home—also a mortuary—she becomes Sabrina Spellman, half-witch. Raised by her aunts Zelda and Hilda (played by Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis) and her warlock cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), Sabrina is about to become initiated into the Church of Night and leave her high school behind to study magic. Part of becoming a witch on the night of her sixteenth birthday is cutting ties with her mortal friends, but Sabrina struggles with the idea of leaving behind her friends to serve the Dark Lord. As Halloween and her birthday approaches, Sabrina must decide between her friends and her family heritage.

This decision propels the remaining episodes of the series, which expands into the world’s lore and Sabrina’s heritage as a witch. I don’t want to give too much away because the expanding world was a delightful aspect of the series. While the show focuses on Sabrina and her friends (and is YA appropriate in terms of low sexual content and profanity, though at times very violent), I’d encourage anyone to watch it, particularly for fans of Harry Potter or SyFy’s The Magicians.

In addition to balancing the magical aspects of the show, multiple episodes explore issues of feminism, smashing the patriarchy, race, sexual orientation, disability, and bullying. Through Sabrina, these becomes issues of her world rather than political statements. While TV shows at times have issue-driven episodes that seem to be responding to the political climate of the previous six months, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina focuses on the lives of the characters, and since this is part of their lives, of course Sabrina is going to help them. That being said, especially early in the season, it at times felt a little white-savior as Sabrina works behind the scenes with magic to help her friends.

Overall, Sabrina was a big surprise in 2018. I fell in love with the show and look forward to future seasons. For those still stuck on Salem the puppet cat from the sitcom, this reboot is far from Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, but as of now, the reboot seems timely.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for all the supportive friendships trying to smash the patriarchy, +1 for not appropriate witch-y magic.

Penalties: -1 for some weird special effects in the first few episodes.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 “Well worth your time and attention.” Read more about our scoring system here.

Posted by Phoebe Wagner

Monday, January 21, 2019

Joe's Books of 2018: Part Two (July - December)

Good morning, and welcome to the second half of a feature listing out everything I read in 2018.  It's a lot. Also, this isn't exactly everything because I have a separate list for comic books / graphic novels that I generally don't talk much about comics on Nerds of a Feather. I leave that for the experts (like Mike). This is my opportunity to catalog all of the books I read in a year and it all down in one place. Well, in two places, because one post for all twelve months of reading might be a little overwhelming.

It seems that every year is a good year for reading, and once again I have been fortunate to read some pretty spectacular novels. Mary Robinette Kowal's One-Two punch of The Calculating Stars (my review) and The Fated Sky (my review) is nearly impossible to beat. And, as nearly impossible as it seemed to me for a novel to even compete with Kowal's duology, R.F. Kuang's debut fantasy The Poppy War (Phoebe's commentary) was a striking and bold announcement of a major new voice in the genre. Kuang goes hard in The Poppy War and she doesn't relent. Another major debut was Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Paul's review). Prior to this novel, Roanhorse was best known for winning the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer all on the back of a single story ("Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience"). Trail of Lightning had a lot to live up to. Paul had this to say: "Trail of Lightning is an electric debut with a post-apocalyptic world, a kickass heroine, and her adrenaline-fueld ride through that landscape". Folks, it's a damn good book and you should absolutely go seek it out before Storm of Locusts is published later this year.

In somewhat of a downcycle for me, I only read ten novellas from Publishing between July and December of this year (but 17 during the first six months of the year). That's a relatively low number of novellas, but I also read seven more that were not under the umbrella and that brings me to a more comfortable level for the form. I appreciate that I read more from non-Tor venues, but my novella reading still does not have a very wide base. Publishing makes things easy, affordable, and convenient - plus they tend to put out some very exciting books. I still really need to venture out and discover new writers from different publishers.

If you follow the endless "best of the year lists" (hey, check out mine!), you may have noticed Witchmark (my review) showed up on a lot of them. To quote myself: "It's a war novel focused on the home front. It's a mystery. It's a romance. It's queer. It's quietly fantastic in most senses of the word". It's delightful. Alice Payne Arrives (my review) is a breezily serious novella with time travel and a biracial working as sort of a robin hood figure robbing from the rich to pay off her father's debts. It's everything that I didn't know I wanted and I wanted more of it. Seanan McGuire's In An Absent Dream (my review), on the other hand, is everything I already knew I wanted and McGuire and she hit the mark from the start.

One of the major initiatives we launched at Nerds of a Feather is Feminist Futures, our look at feminist science fiction with a slight focus on the works of the 1970's and 1980's. If you missed it, here's the introductory essay. My reading for the project was bookended by Pamela Sargent's seminal anthology Women of Wonder (my review) and The Future is Female! (my review), Lisa Yaszek's survey of short fiction written by women. Both were excellent. More than just for the stories Sargent collected, Women of Wonder is notable for being one of the first (if not the first) anthologies of science fiction with stories entirely written by women. The Future is Female! is a much more recent anthology, published only last year. It covers much the same ground of Women of Wonder, only from a somewhat wider date range. Both show the range of feminist science fiction from the early days of science fiction. Not every story was explicitly feminist, but in some ways, the very existence of those stories is feminist in nature. Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (my review) could have been written this decade. There is a timeless aspect to the novel that has more than held up over the forty years since its original publication.

Fresh off posting my fifth Reading Deryni essay on King Javan's Year in July, I made a strong push to read two more of Katharine Kerr's Deverry novels and finally get my second Reading Deverry essay finished. Days of Blood and Fire and Days of Air and Darkness close off Kerr's sequence, mostly staying with Rhodry as Kerr explores the history and culture of the Elves (and dwarves) and reintroduces dragons back into the world. It's easy to forget that there's a lot going on in other parts of the world when Kerr was previously so tightly focused on the events in Deverry. It's good stuff, and I hope to make a serious push on the next three Deverry novels in 2019.

Typically, I have a goal to read more nonfiction and I didn't do a very good job of it in the back half of 2018. I read all of the finalists for the Related Work Hugo Award, of which Liz Bourke's essay / review collection Sleeping With Monsters was a notable and standout release. At the very least, I expanded my "to read" list immeasurably. Completely changing subjects, I recommend Dennis Evanovsky's Lost Ballparks to any baseball fan with an interest in baseball history. This is a photography book and while it includes photos of some of the legendary ballparks that are long gone, there are also pictures of places that may have otherwise been forgotten, like a ballfield in Alaska where play was subject to the tides (high tide would flood the field). One of my nonfiction highlights was Dessa's autobiography / essay collection My Own Devices. Like her music, My Own Devices was powerful, moving, and whip smart.

Despite what the appearance of Nerds of a Feather might suggest, I don't exclusively read science fiction and fantasy (just, mostly). I venture outside of the genre from time to time. My wife and I subscribe to Book of the Month, a book club of sorts where five curated selections are presented at the beginning of each month. It's been a good way to broaden our reading just a touch, though we often find ourselves finding consensus with thrillers of various sorts. One of my favorites of the year is Luisa Luna's Two Girls down, a novel that I can only hope turns into a series featuring Alex Vega (with or without Max Caplan has her partner / sidekick). My main general literature reading project each year is The Tournament of Books. I talk about it more in the first half reading essay because most of my reading for that comes in January and February each year. I find it somewhat of a fool's errand to try to predict what books will make the tournament, so stacking my reading throughout the year in an effort to lessen the load just before the tournament starts is something I try to avoid doing. But, with that said, I did successfully guess that Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room would make the tournament and even better, the good people at The Morning News actually released the short list in early December, so I'm getting a jump on it now - which has led me to read Elaine Castillo's excellent novel America is Not the Heart. It may well be one of my favorites of the tournament, but there are still some heavy hitters that I still need to read next year.

And, as much as I wish it were otherwise, there are books that just don't work for me. This isn't to say that they are bad (though sometimes I wonder), but every reader is not right for every book. Despite my enjoyment of Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp novels, they've taken a bit of a turn since Flynn passed away in 2013. Kyle Mills has a mostly solid handle on the character, but they're just not connecting with me as the ones written by Flynn did and after Red War, I think I'm about done with the series. Likewise, as much as Feminist Futures expanded my understanding and appreciation of science fiction and fantasy, The Wanderground (Sally Miller Gearhart) was a book that I just couldn't appreciate. If I recall correctly, I'm not the only one of our writers to have bounced hard off of that one, which is why we didn't have commentary on the novel / collection / whatever it is. It's not that we needed to be endlessly positive about every feminist work we encountered, but we struggled to have something constructive to say about The Wanderground. It's a book that seemed to be the author working out some ideas rather than telling a story. Finally, one of the books I read this year in the hopes that it would make the Tournament of Books was The Incendiaries. I appreciated R.O. Kwan's novel of college life, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism more than my wife did, but there was so much praise and hype for this novel that my expectations were far higher than the novel had a chance to meet.

Finally, I would like to take a look at my reading statistics for 2018 as it relates to gender. This is something I've been thinking about and working on for a number of years now and I have found that I tend to do a better job at meeting my goals when I check in after every month and continually monitor my progress. Even with four years of thoughtful reading choices, it is so easy to find myself reading fewer women than I would like.

It should go without saying, but I know there will be misunderstanding if I don't. This isn't about denying one set of books (written by men) for another (written by women). It's not. This is about embracing as much as possible. This is about discovering new favorite books and new favorite authors that I never would have discovered if I didn't make a point to see out authors I've "always meant to read" but never have. How many of these women have written my favorite books, if I only I took the smallest amount of effort to find them?

Ultimately, I want to read everything. All the books.

If my count is correct (and I have been known to miss a book or two, despite my obsessive list making), 104 of the 152 books I've read were written by women (68.42%). That is a significant step up from any previous year and is perhaps even more notable because I was still at 59.42% (41/69) through June.

I should also note that I am only counting those writers who use female pronouns in my count of female writers versus male. Any mistakes in this count are mine alone and I apologize for any misunderstandings I may have propagated.

Here are my stats from the last four years for a point of comparison
2017: 51.50%
2016: 56.21%
2015: 58.59%
2014: 45.92%

Now, on with the lists!

70. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden
71. Witchmark, by C.L. Polk
72. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
73. Rock Manning Goes for Broke, by Charlie Jane Anders
74. A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan
75. A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff
76. Half-Off Ragnarok, by Seanan McGuire
77. Sleeping With Monsters, by Liz Bourke
78. The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells
79. Impostor Syndrome, by Mishell Baker
80. Days of Blood and Fire, by Katharine Kerr
81. Phoresis, by Greg Egan
82. The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
83. The Expert System's Brother, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

84. Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold
85. Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna
86. The Skaar Invasion, by Terry Brooks
87. Head On, by John Scalzi
88. If Tomorrow Comes, by Nancy Kress
89. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse
90. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
91. Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon
92. Infinity's End, by Jonathan Strahan (editor)
93. Static Ruin, by Corey J. White
94. The Broken Girls, by Simone St. James

95. War Cry, by Brian McClellan
96. Outcasts of Order, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr
97. Days of Air and Darkness, by Katharine Kerr
98. Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
99. Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold
100. Mem, by Bethany C. Morrow
101. The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner
102. Before She Sleeps, by Bina Shah
103. Prime Meridian, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
104. Temper, by Nicky Drayden
105. Impostors, by Scott Westerfeld
106. Census, by Jesse Ball
107. Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher
108. Finding Baba Yaga, by Jane Yolen
109. Women of Wonder, by Pamela Sargent (editor)

110. The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
111. Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee
112. Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
113. My Own Devices, by Dessa
114. The Gate to Women's Country, by Sheri S. Tepper
115. The Grand Conversation, by L. Timmel Duchamp
116. Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
117. Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente
118. The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwan
119. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, by Justine Larbalestier
120. Jade City, by Fonda Lee
121. The Female Man, by Joanna Russ

122. Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice
123. Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
124. Science Fiction Culture, by Camille Bacon-Smith
125. Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
126. State Tectonics, by Malka Older
127. Red War, by Kyle Mills
128. Lost Ballparks, by Dennis Evanosky
129. Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy
130. The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal
131. Kingdom of Needle and Bone, by Mira Grant
132. Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield
133. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang
134. The Wanderground, by Sally Miller Gearhart
135. The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin
136. In An Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire
137. Elevation, by Stephen King
138. Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells
139. The Future is Female!, by Lisa Yaszek (editor)
140. Pocket Apocalypse, by Seanan McGuire
141. The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi

142. The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
143. The Cobbler's Boy, by Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison
144. There Before the Chaos, by K.B. Wagers
145. The Prisoner of Limnos, by Lois McMaster Bujold
146. Armistice, by Lara Elena Donnelly
147. Vigilance, by Robert Jackson Bennett
148. The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea
149. Severance, by Ling Ma
150. America is Not the Heart, by Elaine Castillo
151. Call Me Zebra, by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi
152. Chaos Choreography, by Seanan McGuire

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