Friday, March 29, 2019

Microreview [book] The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P Djeli Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is another fantastic story set in the world of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”



19th Century Egypt provides an interesting place to put a Jonbar hinge, a point of divergence in an alternate history from our own. In our own history, 19th century Egypt made an attempt to embrace the industrial revolution and escape the colonial deprivations that Europeans ravaged on the African continent. And if that wasn’t enough, a religious-focused insurrection led by a figure known as the Mahdi severely threatened British hegemony in the Sudan and the rest of the region.

So what if both occurred, thanks to the magic returning? What if the region had a revolution based on the re-discovery of magic, and used it to not only free itself from colonial control, but to start a new revolution of magiktech that made Cairo a leading city in the world and Egypt an envied world power. This is the backstory for P Djeli Clark’s “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and, now, his second story set in that world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. The new novella vastly expands and re-iterates the world of the previous novella, which is not necessary to read in order to enjoy the latest story, but one can read it online for free.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 takes place in the same alternate Cairo as the previous story and as opposed to Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi , we get a pair of different investigators from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Agent Hamed Nair, paired with new agent Onsi Youssef give us a pair of investigators to bounce off of each other, and I think that this already makes it a narrative stronger than the already rich prior story. Both investigators get called in, just as the title promises, to investigate a haunted tram car. The alternate Cairo of 1912 has a tram network the envy of anyone who has played Mini Metro, especially as they are powered by Djinn.

However, not only is the tram car haunted, it is a rather obscure and powerful spirit that lead the investigators to the door of the sheika Nadiyaa. In addition to her importance to the narrative of the main problems of the narrartive, she provides a perspective on yet another change that this alternate Cairo is dealing with: the question of women’s suffrage. Clark seems to be following the theory that technological change and development is a spur to social change, and it is natural that a powerful, technologically advanced Egypt would be a front line for such changes for women. I do think she could have been used a beat or two more than she was, however.

The haunting itself and what is really going on and why shows his invention, and the narrative speeds along as the agents and their ally seek to defeat the haunter. The action and adventure beats are richly done, with an excellent eye for action and adventure, just as in The Black God’s Drums. I do think the earlier issues I had with the narrative of that volume have been improved here, I did not feel quite as cheated, especially since this story does end on a more solid conclusion.

And also just like his The Black God’s Drums, in a very limited space, the author gives readers a view of a seemingly endless and rich world with ideas and stories everywhere. His alternate Cairo, like his alternate New Orleans, is a place I would love to visit and explore, and with an economy of words, Clark brings us there. In the epilogue of this story, the mission concluded, Hamed gets told a story by a fellow agent of what they have been up to themselves lately.. This is accomplished in a short paragraph of a equally interesting story to the novella we just read that in and of itself could have been an entire novella. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a rich and inventive story, in a world that is designed for many more such stories. I’d be delighted to read them. More, please!


***
The Math
Baseline Assessment 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for an immersive and rich world

Penalties : -1 for the slight underuse of a character who could have been used even more.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention

***
Reference:  Clark, P. Djeli:  The Haunting of Tram Car 015 [Tor.com, 2019]


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

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

This might be blasphemous, but I decided not to drop $9.99 on issue 1,000 of Detective Comics. Reaching this milestone is an amazing accomplishment and it is hard to fathom that people have been enjoying this title for 80 years! DC did an amazing job rounding up a group of talented creators to contribute to this landmark issue, but it wasn't in the budget this week. I did, however, pick up the new Sabrina the teenage witch comic!


Pick of the Week:
Star Wars: Vader: Dark Visions #2 - This was one of the most surprising and entertaining Star Wars stories I have read. It felt like an animated short that would have fit in well at the Spike and Mike's Animation Festival. Brian Level absolutely killed it on the art in this issue and watching Tylux stressing over dealing with Vader and his desperation to capture a Rebel Spy had me rolling on the floor. The issue is all about the aftermath of dealing with Vader. We are treated to a story about a General who failed to capture a spy, and upon learning that Vader is en route to pick up the spy goes to extreme lengths to try and deliver said spy. I cannot recommend this issue enough and want to applaud Marvel for allowing the creators to take such creative risks in telling a story about Darth Vader. 

The Rest:
Sabrina The Teenage Witch #1 - This week I was treated to this delightful title penned by Kelly Thompson.  If you need a refresher, Sabrina Spellman is a witch who lives with her aunts and Salem, a warlock trapped in the body of a mischievous black cat. Thompson lays out some fairly routine issues that teenagers deal with when they move to a new town and start attending a new school. Sabrina navigates this awkward stage and isn't too shy about using her magic to steer things a bit in her direction. This issue does a nice job introducing us to Sabrina's world and to some of the characters I am sure we will get to know a bit more. It currently reads as a great all-ages title, but with teenagers and high school romance who knows what the future holds.

Doctor Aphra #30 - Aphra and Triple-Zero have less than three hours to reach their destination if they hope to defuse the proximity bombs that are keeping them close together.  After dealing effectively with an Alliance ambush that sought to use Aphra for propaganda, it appears that Aphra and Triple-Zero are close to becoming friends again.  After torturing the Alliance group that captured them, Triple-Zero reveals that Aphra's former romantic partner, Tolvan, is alive and working for the Rebellion. In a moment of kindness, Aphra returns the memories to Triple-Zero that he has been searching for and it appears to have back-fired.  This issue does a nice job furthering the Running Man narrative and planting some seeds for the next arc in which I hope Aphra and Tolvan are reunited.

Daredevil #3 - Chip Zdarsky delivered one of the most surprising Daredevil issues of recent memory. This issue picks up after Daredevil had been shot by a detective after he was found at a crime scene for a murder that he is being framed for. The detective is not one to mess with, and Daredevil finds himself being pursued by someone who has a slight upper hand. The last issue felt a bit cliche, with the hero being framed for a crime he didn't commit, but the payoff that Zdarsky delivered and the surprise guest at the end of this issue was well worth the wait. I am 100% on board with the new creative team and am going to have a hard time waiting for the next issue.





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

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Adventures in Short Fiction: March 2019

March has been an interesting month on several fronts, and there have been more distractions than usual from reading - some good (i.e. involving dogs) and some less so. With the Hugo ballot deadline, awards shortlists starting to be announced, and a peak month for exciting novel releases in what's already feeling like an overwhelmingly good year, the habit of keeping an anthology or some stories going on the side has been trickier to maintain. Also, awkwardly for this column, for most of the month my go-to short fiction fix has been Worlds Seen in Passing, the enormous collection edited by Irene Gallo which collects many of the highlights of Tor.com's outputs over its first ten years. Around 75% of the stories are ones I haven't read before, and the quality is as high as you'd expect, but after over a month on the unicorn nightstand I'm still only just halfway through (it doesn't help that it's a 550-page doorstop hardcover that's impossible to read while commuting). Reviewing half an anthology is not the direction I want to take my life in just yet, but luckily I've also managed to put a few other things in my eyeballs between sled dog updates this March...

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issues 270 - 272

I've been loving my Beneath Ceaseless Skies subscription so far, and these three issues - covering February and the first half of March - maintain the streak of stories which hit the right notes of worldbuilding, narrative and characterisation in a limited space, while always feeling like they're a window into so much more. Rating especially high on this front is Alix E. Harrow's "Do Not Look Back, My Lion" (Issue 470), in which Eefa, a woman who plays the stay-at-home husband role to her soldier wife struggles against the martial constraints of her society which threaten to destroy everyone else in her family. The casual reordering of family roles and decoupling from gender expectations reinforces the sense of an empire rich in its own history, tradition and bias which constrains Eefa and leads to her increasing desperation to try and protect those she loves. "Adrianna in Pomegranate", by Samantha Mills (Issue 471), also deals with families and grief, following a "calligromancer" in a world where written words hold power, and his attempts to overcome prejudice against his magic - as the ability of men to effectively practice calligromancy in this society is routinely called into question - and to recover his lost child. In both cases, the focus on small family dramas in a magical setting is also welcome, demonstrating that not every story in a sweeping fantasy setting needs to be a world-changing quest: the lives of ordinary people and families, away from dramatic events, are just as compelling.

In Issue 472, "The Boy Who Loved Drowning" is a fascinating story, about an apprentice to a diviner whose job is to dive to the bottom of a lake and capture true answers to questions. This method of divination is dangerous and antagonistic, with diviners trained to fight against the lake and its dangers to find their answers: at least, until Kal comes along. Unlike his master and her peers, Kal learns how to work cooperatively with the lake to find answers, but his ability is inevitably seen as a threat by the older generation and leads to the lake providing an answer that's as inevitable and fitting as it is brutal.

Rating: 8/10
Fireside Magazine, January - March 2019 (mostly) (read online)

This quarter of Fireside packs a big punch into its short-side-of-short fiction offerings. The vast majority of stories here are well under 1,000 words - the shortest don't even stretch two pages on my e-reader - but even when they're just fleeting images or brief moments between characters, these pieces often leave an impression that goes way beyond the space they take up.

Having said that, the story which stuck with me most from this selection is one of the longest: "By the End of the Week", a fabulously subversive magical girl story by Brandon O'Brien. O'Brien sets up expectations in his first section - a high-performing student forced to do a group project with a girl he sees as lazy and fixated on partying - and proceeds to completely turn the set-up on its head by revealing that Kelly is not lazy, but trying to save the world from aliens without compromising her secret identity or failing at school. It's a great piece of coming of age 2.0: a text that focuses on self-actualisation milestones like establishing self-worth and boundaries, and understanding when you need to let another person make their own choices about you and focus on doing what makes you satisfied rather than seeking approval from those not disposed to give it. Derek doesn't come around at all to Kelly by the end, and seems to learn nothing from the experience of working with her, but the narrative is nevertheless fairly gentle with his perspective even while it shows up the unreliable, limited perspective of his narration, and gives the ultimate victory - with just a hint of bittersweetness - to Kelly and her ability to make it through the week.

Of the flash fiction-length pieces, the first pair in March were particularly memorable: "Parasitismo", by Alberto Chimal and translated into English by Julia Rios, is a deeply unsettling take on the psychology of myth involving brain-eating mermaids, and "The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Within" by Karen Osborne, a lush story about women sacrificed to a dragon who find something rather different in the cavern they are sent to find it. Special mention must also go to February's "Symphony for the Space between the Stars", about a spaceship trying to fulfil its directives and keep its crew happy long after the crew themselves have departed. The theme reminded me of the achingly creepy Soviet short film of "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury, but it's nowhere near as hopeless, and the journey to understanding and connection which the ship takes is well-realised and delightful.

Finally, a bonus from the archives: since it became a Nebula finalist, I finally got around to reading "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington". P. Djeli Clark's story takes one line from a Mount Vernon historical record - the purchase of nine "negro teeth" for George Washington's dentures - and spins a myth of personhood and the subversion of control which takes place against an unfolding magical alternate history. As the tale of each tooth is told, the story goes from ascribing them to archetypes ("a blacksmith"; a "Bonny Lander") to offering up names, histories, hopes, dreams, alternate dimensions, and lives lived with as much humanity as possible under the constraints of slavery. In contrast, the famous wearer is given no agency or development and is a passive recipient of each tooth's strange magical powers. I had to revise my Hugo short story nominations after reading it, and you should certainly check it out too.

Rating: 8/10 (with a 9 for "The Secret Lives")

FIYAH literary magazine: Issue 9

This is the first unthemed issue of FIYAH and its stories weren't quite as memorable for me as those in the two preceding it, although there's still plenty of cool concepts, especially in the stories that focus on illness and death. This issue's novelette is by Nicky Drayden( a Nerds of a Feather favourite): called "The Rat King of Spanish Harlem", it dives deep into a concept combining body horror and societal change, through the eyes of Alicia, a woman working for a debt collection agency who wants the world to be a kinder place but isn't prepared for it to happen as a viral epidemic which she herself is resistant to. The disease, which affects people at work as well as her husband Javier, turns formerly mean people into kind, collaborative individuals (yay), then causes them to grow tails (hmm) which become intertwined with other infected people (nope) in ways which affect their identities and bodies still further (NOPE). For Alicia, watching this change happen from the outside, and particularly the way it affects her relationship with a husband who she was ready to leave before the infection, is a deeply complex experience: one which brings benefits and horrors in equal measure which she has no power to control. It's a weird, well-executed story with no easy answers.

Similarly good, though dealing with much darker and more difficult subject matter, is "Notes on the Plague" by Shamar Harriott, which tells of a world in which black men suddenly start coming down with a mysterious, fatal illness which only affects their group. It's a premise that draws as much on the AIDS epidemic as it is of the racist devaluing of black lives, particularly those of men, in our own societies, and the protagonist - a queer black man who watches his friends and lovers start to disappear - sits in a heartbreaking front seat to watch the devastation the epidemic causes with no compassionate response from the authorities.

Rating: 7/10
Clarkesworld Issue 150 (March 2019) (read online)



There's a hefty dose of death and decay and adaptation at extraordinary costs in Clarkesworld this month, including a reprint of Catherynne M. Valente's fantastic "The Future is Blue", set on a post-apocalyptic trash island, as well as a story of failed birth and hopeful exploration in D.A. Xiaolin Spires' "But, Still, I Smile", the slow death of a former astronaut in "When Home, No Need to Cry" by Erin K. Wagner, and a world so dystopian that the inhabitants have literally forgotten to laugh in Rich Larson's "Death of an Air Salesman". The last focuses on a pair of characters who both rent the same sleeping cubicle for a few hours a night, and their attempts to actually get to know each other like human beings in a world where such behaviour has been all but forgotten. It's impressive how the naively sweet romance between the protagonists is maintained despite the constant stream of small, awful details of their lives: the narrator has no cultural referents beyond gory cartoon images or hardcore pornography, and in their first experience of sex the two are unable to pay for the privacy settings necessary to not have their encounter filmed and, presumably, broadcast. Grim but rewarding.

"Treasure Diving", by Kai Hudson, also contains moments of hope within its precarious society, this time an aquatic people reliant on energy from a radioactive substance which kills their workers even as it keeps their homes alive. And then there's the gleeful carnage of "The Thing with Helmets", with its casual death-bringing aliens and accidental roller-derby inspired first contact and glitter-infused helmets of unimaginable power and corruption. Put together, it's not exactly an uplifting issue, but there's enough points of light to make it a great read even when you're caught in the midst of its miserable themes.

Rating 7/10
The Inconvenient God and The Lilies of Dawn (Annorlunda Press)


Annorlunda Press is a small independent publisher which releases standalone short fiction in both e-book and print form. In a shameless "judge a book by its cover" exercise, I treated myself to paperback copies of the two stories that come with cover art by Likhain: Vanessa Fogg's The Lilies of Dawn, from 2016, and The Inconvenient God by Francesca Forrest, published in 2018. Sure enough, both are gorgeous (if I'm being picky, The Inconvenient God's cover is a little darker than the screen version above, but it's still amazing and The Lilies of Dawn comes in such a fetching pink that it all balances out). Potential readers might like to know if these novelettes recommend themselves beyond the pretty covers, and I'm delighted to report that they very much do! 

This pair of stories are both about the mortal world's dealings with gods, though the similarities end there. The Inconvenient God begins with an official arriving at a university to "decommission" an annoying minor God of mischief: a process which usually ends up with the God becoming mortal, unless they already ascended from mortality to godhood in the first place. From there, it jumps off into a beautifully constructed tale of empire and assimilation, asking pointed questions through its narrative developments about how our institutions define and alter their own histories, and who gets to decide what is worth remembering. Like the stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies mentioned above, there's a beautiful balance here between presenting a narrative that works at novelette length, while providing a window on a world that feels real and complex and full of untold potential.

The Lilies of Dawn
accomplishes a similar feat, although there's a core of sadness and loss here which, somehow, feels more irreparable than The Inconvenient God's matter-of-fact treatment of lost languages and forgotten pasts. The protagonist, Kai, is the daughter and heir of a woman tasked with looking after a beautiful, god-touched lily field, whose plants provide medicine and healing but are now under threat from an army of cranes. When a mysterious visitor shows up promising to save the flowers, Kai has to balance her hopes for the future of her family, her people and her now sick mother with caution about what this stranger represents - which, sure enough, turns out to be much more than he had initially told her, and somewhat less than he promised. It's a story which provides no answers to its conflicts even while it shows us the sympathetic side of everyone involved, and there's a tragic inevitability to its conclusion which hurts in the best possible way.

Ratings: 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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Reading Deryni: The Bastard Prince

Welcome to the final installment of a six part series of essays focusing on Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels (you may find the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth parts here). As I am physically incapable of actually reviewing these novels with any semblance of objectivity because they've imprinted themselves deep into my heart, what I am going to do instead is write about the aspects of each of the "Camber Era" novels which have stuck with me throughout the years and which I find intriguing today. Shall we conclude?



Okay. It's been not quite a year since I wrote about King Javan's Year, my entry point into the Deryni universe and still the Deryni novel of my heart.

I've always been reluctant to read The Bastard Prince. I'm not sure if it's because I've always preferred the this era of the Deryni novels and this is where Katherine Kurtz brings the era to a close, or if it is't because I was so emotionally drained after King Javan's Year (and the four preceding volumes) that going once more into that breach is one novel too many. Also, it is a little jarring to go from Javan's story in the previous two novels to Rhys Michael. It's never been a statement on the quality of the novel for me, just a general reluctance.

I often describe The Bastard Prince as of the Deryni novels I've read the least, although I'm not sure that is entirely true. I've only read the second Kelson trilogy twice and I know I've read King Kelson's Bride and the Childe Morgan novels just once. The Kelson novels have never held the same appeal to me, so if I'm going back to read Deryni, I'm revisiting the old friends and the old horrors of this era of the Haldane restoration and the deryni purges. But, I don't go back to the sixth novel without re-reading the first five. The other novels were formative, this one was not.

It's been six years or so since the events of King Javan's Year and everything is still awful. Everything may be even more awful than that. Rhys Michael Haldane is king in name only. Alroy's former regents, having conspired to murder Javan, are now ruling Gwynedd in fact. To say that Rhys Michael and his wife, Michaela, are chafing under that presumption of authority would be a gross understatement. They know they are puppets, but they also know that open defiance is a death sentence. Producing heirs to the throne is a death sentence. Not producing heirs will result Michaela's rape in order to produce a presumptive heir, and then a death sentence. Everything is awful.

It is on the back of that awfulness that Torenth (the long standing rival kingdom to the East) has invaded, taking a border town and killing its lord. But, it is not just Torenth that invaded, it is a man named Marek, the son of the deryni king deposed by Camber and his cohort way back in Camber of Culdi. Marek has never ceased his claim to the throne of Gwynedd and this mini invasion is one that must be answered by the king, in person. The less awful bit here is that it relaxes (somewhat) the leash on Rhys Michael, but we (and Rhys Michael) are constantly reminded how tenuous that relaxed grip is.

We know from Deryni Rising that the authority and actual rulership of Gwynedd does eventually return to the Haldanes, and this would be a bleak novel indeed if there was no hope of that occurring here.

The thing is, The Bastard Prince is a bleak novel.

It's been a long, long time since I've read this book and I remembered that the crown of Gwynedd is freed and restored to Haldane rule. What I didn't remember is that Rhys Michael doesn't live to see it happen. I thought he was the one to restore the throne, but the infection from his hand that was wounded in battle with Marek eventually killed him without healing, sped along by the medicinal "bleeding" he was subjected to by the Custodes Fidei and the regents at the at the very end of his life.

Of course, it was the actions of Rhys Michael that made the recovery possible, the "codicil" to his will putting loyal men permanently on the regency council guiding his son Owain to his majority. It cost his life (maybe the bloodletting wasn't entirely medicinal and was perhaps punitive in nature), but it saved his children.

The Bastard Prince ends with a significant exhale as the evil (I don't use the word lightly) former regents are all dealt with, most end up immediately dead, and even though the Status of Ramos that caused such immediate persecution of the deryni are relaxed if not rescinded, and the harshest of the laws are eliminated (except, notably, the one dissallowing deryni in the priesthood, this does lead to an excellent later set story, "The Priesting of Arilan").

***

Throughout the Reading Deryni project, I've considered the nature and application of deryni magic and I find myself coming back to it again in my reading of The Bastard Prince. Throughout the six novels set in the "Camber Era" of the Haldane Restoration, the use of magic has been subtle, often with ritual and mysticism. Magic has been used to read the truth of words, to suborn the will of another with a touch, to ward against sound, to communicate without speech, to heal, and to travel through the use of magically constructed portals. Except, perhaps the ability to fast travel, the use and application of that magic is internal. The consequences are visible, but the action of that magic is not.

Some two hundred years further down the timeline of this world, in the era of King Kelson, there are epic magical duels using spoken (and rhyming) spells and the visual results are spectacular.

The Bastard Prince seems to begin to bridge that gap between the first five novels of this era against what we are first introduced to in Deryni Rising.

"Miklos stabbed a gloved forefinger at the ground behind Rhys Michael. Sudrey screamed as flame leaped up from the very ground and began to trace a curved fiery line around to the side and then behind Miklos, laying down a containing circle."

***
"Without further preamble, he raised his right fist and thrust it toward her with a muttered Word, opening out his fingers with a snap. The gesture launched a fist-sized ball of fire that roared toward her like an inferno, growing as it came"

***
"A Word of command conjured heavy cloud above the flames, weeping moisture that changed to steam as the fire below was quenched"

Not that I would ever recommend a reader begin reading Deryni with The Bastard Prince, but for readers who are now (at least) five novels deep into the series, the change in how magic is used is a bit jarring. Or maybe I've just spent too much time thinking about deryni magic and ethics and use. Regardless, I am quite happy that Kurtz did not reintroduce rhyming magic battles to this world.

The fire and blasts are a more much external use of magic, and I'm now wondering if and how magic is used in this world is a cultural thing. It is only in clashes with the Torenthi (Charissa, Marek) that we see that sort of battle magic. I can assume that since Torenth is ruled by deryni that overt displays of magic is culturally accepted and the Torenthi magic schools are teaching different magical arts. The Gwynedd magic schools were in various monastic traditions and focused on the more contemplative traditions we've seen across the previous five Camber-Era novels.

We only have glimpses of Torenth, but now I wonder about the wider world the novels never touch on. What is the Chinese analog in this world and how do they handle deryni magic and culture? What about African deryni? Peruvian? There's no answer to those questions, but I'm now I'm curious.

Speaking of the use of magic, but since I'd like to beat this horse one final time, I'm continually interesting in the slippery slope of the ethics of how deryni use their magic.
"It can be argued that since he didn't agree to the changed terms we're imposing, his death won't technically be suicide anymore. Call it an indirect execution if you prefer. Personally, I would as soon send his unrepentant soul straight to hell, b ut my office as a priest forbids indulgence in vengeance. I salve my conscience with the knowledge that at least he's going to have a chance to make some restitution before he dies - even if he's forced to do it"
That is Bishop Niallan talking about Dimitri, a deryni agent of Torenth who voluntarily had a "death trigger" to prevent revealing his true loyalties, but who has been suborned by the Camberian Council on behalf of Gwynedd ad who now has his will forced to do the bidding of his new implanted orders and the death trigger altered to prevent *that* knowledge from getting out. The argument, I suppose, is that this is essentially war and the survival of a race dependent on a sympathetic Haldane regaining the crown in truth, but it is part of a continual pattern of how far the "good guys" will go to justify their actions. Their cause is just in opposing the murderous regents, but it is a continued example of exactly why many humans fear the deryni.

This is a point that I've hit on again and again throughout my reading of these six novels of the Deryni written by Katherine Kurtz, that though readers are rightly sympathetic towards the deryni and find the persecution of the deryni abhorrent, the magical actions of the deryni towards humans are often absolute violations. If you don't spend much time thinking about ethics and just enjoy those fleeting moments of our heroes getting the upper hand, it is so easy to slide past the implications. It is absolutely a matter of life or death for the deryni and the Haldanes, and it is absolutely wrong.



***

One final thing I would like to discuss, and there hasn't been space for it the previous Reading Deryni essays, is what the hell happens in the future? I know, that's a vague and misleading statement. We know what happens two hundred years in the future. Kelson becomes king and Katherine Kurtz writes seven books about Kelson. With her Childe Morgan trilogy, Kurtz takes a slight step back in time to the reigns of Kelson's grandfather and father.

What I want to know about is what happens in the immediate twenty years after Rhys Michael dies and Owain takes the throne as a four year old boy. One of my favorite things about this series is the inclusion of various appendices at the end of most of the books. There is a "Partial Lineage of the Haldane Kings" and "Partial Lineage of the MacRories" and those genealogies tell a story. They tell a story of Owain Haldane dying in the year 948 at the age of 24. That's young, and the early deaths of Alroy, Javan, and Rhys Michael suggest that dying young while king should be viewed with suspicion.

But then you look at the MacRorie family tree and something jumps out at you. Joram dies in 948 at age 70. Okay. His son Tieg, the healer, dies in 948 (age 34). His nephew Ansel dies in 948 (age 48). His cousin Camlin dies in 948 (age 42).

What happened in 948?

Besides the king, these are all members (formal or informal) of the Camberian Council. That is a council formed by Camber in exile in order "to prevent flagrant abuses and to discipline those we can't prevent" and it will be "Deryni sitting in judgment of Deryni" (quotes from Saint Camber). It's more than suspicious that so many of these characters died in the same year, there's a story in those genealogies and it is one that I have been waiting more than twenty five years to be told. Unless Katherine Kurtz is working on that 948 novel now, I don't expect to ever get it.

Between a 948 novel and an Orin and Jodotha novel, there are so many questions raised both in the genealogies and in tantalizing hints in the novels themselves. After Owain dies, his brother Uthyr reigns for more than thirty years and, presumably, offers an era of relative stability. But Uthyr's three sons all die relatively young and have short reigns of three years, two years and nine years. What happened then? Tragically, Michaela (Rhys Michael's queen and regent mother of Owain) buries both of her sons and two of her grandchildren.

***

Even though the actual content of these six Deryni novels have been increasingly unpleasant, it has been a delight and a joy for me to revisit this series. I am continually waiting for Katherine Kurtz to be named a SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master and / or receive a Lifetime Achievement from World Fantasy. Either would be more than well earned and well deserved. One day?

Thank you for going on this journey for me, hopefully it has been as much fun for all of you as it has for me. I know there are ten deryni novels I haven't included in this re-read, plus two short story collection (one written by Kurtz, one edited by the author), an encyclopedia, and a book about the working of the deryni magic that I suddenly wonder if I should look at just to answer some of those questions I have about the differences in how magic has been used in this series; but I just don't see another round of essays happening. Never say never, but maybe don't hold your breath for very long.

Read Katherine Kurtz. Read Deryni.


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

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Space between Postcolonial Literature and Epic Fantasy

Hi all! Like so many folks, I was anxiously awaiting Marlon James' African Game of Thrones. While I hesitate to review it, I did want to write about it and have a long essay for your thoughts and enjoyment. Thanks for sticking around!



The Space between Postcolonial and Epic Fantasy


After the success of A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), acclaimed writer Marlon James declared his next novel would be an “African Game of Thrones” (VanderMeer). In 2019, Black Leopard, Red Wolf hit the shelves, though speculative fiction reviewers immediately distanced the book from Game of Thrones. Instead, Victor LaValle suggested James was taking on J. R. R. Tolkien’s cementation of the mythic European quest tale but that James “is here to kill that noise” (LaValle). The novel feels more in conversation with Tolkien than George R. R. Martin, particularly in the focus of a quest, but also in the frame. Technically, The Lord of the Rings is written as a continuation of Bilbo’s There and Back Again, which is published as The Hobbit. James also incorporates a frame (or frame upon frames) in telling Tracker’s quest. Jeff VanderMeer’s review reminds readers that James represents a generation of writers killing the noise around Tolkien and white-centered fantasy: “It’s just plain lazy to compare this novel with, say, works from the last decade by Nnedi Okorafor or David Anthony Durham or [N. K.] Jemisin or Minister Faust or Nisi Shawl or Kai Ashante Wilson” (VanderMeer). A cohort of authors have helped make Marlon James’ book possible, but his book remains so unlike these novels that grouping them together feels inept, as VanderMeer writes. Indeed, this novel would not be grouped with Okorafor or Durham on the bookshelf, even though it very much requires a knowledge of speculative fiction to successfully read. While these authors engage with postcolonial themes, I argue that James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf subverts the postcolonial tradition through epic fantasy but by relying on oral storytelling, the novel joins texts like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. By using Italo Calvino’s narratology theory (the study of the function and structure of narrative) of the levels of reality, this epic fantasy can be read as post-post-colonial, as James once labeled himself, while still being illuminated by postcolonial theory (Mayer).

The repeated orality in signature postcolonial texts suggests a reclamation of the oral that expands beyond the novel. First, the novel form is not ideal for oral stories. While many writers have used an oral framework to great acclaim—Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for example—the novel undermines these frameworks by its very form of print or when the orality calls attention to the form of the novel, thus dispelling the illusion. The amount of oral frameworks in postcolonial novels suggests a revolutionary tendency, that telling stories holds power over the oppressor. As Helen Young writes: “Colonisation and imperialism silence the voices of the colonised, rendering them spoken for and about, to such an extent that one of the foundational questions of postcolonial theory was ‘can the subaltern speak?’” (116). Oral frameworks reclaim the silenced voice, but the orality also creates a truth for the reader as a witness, thus accessing the genre of the testimonio.

The testimonio connects to the reader through an empathetic narrator telling the atrocity. While linked to Latina/o/x literature, John Beverly’s description of the testimonio encompasses literature beyond place: “By testimonio I mean a novel or novella-length narrative in book or pamphlet (that is, printed as opposed to acoustic) form, told in the first person by a narrator who is also the real protagonist or witness of the events he or she recounts, and whose unit of narration is usually a ‘life’ or a significant life experience” (31). This description adequately contains a novel like Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, which fictionalizes the lives of the Mirabal sisters under the Dominican dictator Trujillo, but what happens when magical realism injects the text, such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? Technically, Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf functions as a testimonio, but it is not a testimony of history. As more postcolonial writers use speculative elements to engage with their stories, the use of oral frames to create a fantasy suggests a unique intersection of speculative, postcolonial, and narratology studies. Black Leopard, Red Wolf represents this intersection by reaching past the colonial to classical oral epics.

The postcolonial epic fantasy novel may not search for a national literature of a certain place but rather to create a space on the page, and the community around the page, where the traditional fantasy reader—often imagined as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, man—is not the ideal audience. In the article “Devices of Evasion: The Mythic versus the Historical Imagination in the Postcolonial African Novel,” Wole Ogundele recognizes this shift in the goals of earlier postcolonial texts and the current engagement with African myth:

This new genre has not only been explained in terms of cultural hybridity, but has also been traced back to African oral-mythic narratives. These causal explanations are fine, but they do not fully relate the novels to the primary concerns of the main genre(s) of postcolonial African novels that were produced, roughly, between 1958 and the early 1980s. The concerns may be summarized simply as culture and nationhood. The one implies myth, folklore, etc.; the other, history and politics. (125)

While focused on African literature, Ogundele captures the opposite ends of the spectrum between speculative postcolonial and literary postcolonial—respectively, a focus on imagining alternate pasts or new futures versus recording or fictionalizing history. For example, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy creates a fantastical world where the colonizers become the colonized, allowing space for a detailed exploration of power structures and systems of oppression. Black Leopard, Red Wolf sidesteps even this exploration of colonization as James creates a fantasy world filled with the universal rather than the historically specific.

While the world may be universal in the sense it does not engage with a specific imperialist moment or methods of decolonization, the narration explicitly places the reader in Tracker’s world. The first sentences explain the occasion for the story’s telling: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know” (1). Considering that over six hundred pages remain in the story, this paradox begins teaching the reader how to read the book, as Tracker’s story contains riddles, lies, and impossibilities. The main character, Tracker, narrates the story to the Inquisitor, who records it in written form. Tracker’s name comes from his nose and his ability to track a scent no matter the distance. As Tracker says: “Let me remind you that my eyes are ordinary but it has been said that I have a nose” (6). His nose earns him a place on the quest to find the child mentioned in the opening line. While a gross simplification of the novel, this description places it among the scores of Tolkien-esque quest fantasies. James immediately complicates this idea through the levels of narration. Rarely does the novel proceed in a linear plot, but spirals into Tracker’s stories, memories, or stories of other people telling stories. A further level of narration occurs at the beginning of part two when Tracker reads a summary of the Inquisitor’s account of his tales (97). This narrative layering points to an older epic style than Tolkien, as described by Italo Calvino in “Levels of Reality in Literature.”

In regarding the novel as a world of its own versus the novel as a product in a physical reality, Calvino writes: “We have to consider the work as a product, in its relation to the outside world in the age when it was created and the age when we received it. In all periods and  in all literatures, we find works that at a certain time turn around on themselves, look at themselves in the act of coming into being, and become aware of the materials they are made of” (103). Calvino presents a formula for “connecting links between levels of reality in the works of literature” (109). Ultimately, Calvino defines the goal of this exercise so as to understand that “literature does not recognize Reality as such, but only levels” (120). These levels carry a set of rules or believability, such as Tracker’s reality where a man can become a leopard, which is separate from the Inquisitor’s reality, who compares the tales to “reciting nightmares” (98).  Calvino’s formula reads: “I write that Homer tells that Ulysses says: I have listened to the song of the Sirens” (108-9). The Sirens’ song, or the inside of the frame, represents another level of reality separate from the other layers represented by “I,” “Homer,” and “Ulysses.” Black Leopard, Red Wolf can be formulized similarly: Marlon James writes that the Inquisitor records that Tracker says: “The slaver nodded to his date feeder and the date feeder cleared his throat and began. ‘This woman, her story, very strange and sad’” (139). While this formula might aid with comprehension of the novel, Calvino argues for a collective power in such a narrative: “With all of them, in the ‘I’ of the writing first person one can distinguish one or more levels of mythical or epic reality that draw material from the collective imagination” (107). These oral stories within oral stories within the novel become reflective of not only Tracker and the Inquisitor, but of a mythic collective underrepresented in epic fantasy, thus returning to the earlier point by Calvino that at times works “become aware of the materials they are made of” (107). Eventually these frames might spiral into silence, just as Tracker speaks the last line: “Tell me” (620). All realities are silenced, waiting.

In conversation with the testimonio, James’ novel could be read as allegorical for the historical atrocities of imperialism on the African continent (much as Tolkien’s work can be read as allegorically anti-fascist), but through Calvino’s formula, with each level of reality containing its own believability, the novel becomes pure epic fantasy, as described by Tolkien: “The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you” (147). This freedom aligns with the anti-imperialist aims of postcolonial literature, but if postcolonial literature often emphasizes the political and the historical, as Ogundele says of African literature, then is there space for epic fantasy in the postcolonial mode? Akshya Saxena defines postcolonial studies in 2018 as “one of surfacing histories and forms of empire in the globalization of capital” (317). This definition troubles the idea of a postcolonial epic fantasy as it either forces the epic fantasy to be read as an allegory or risks dehumanizing the survivors of atrocity through the lens of sword & sorcery. A third option appears if one views a postcolonial epic fantasy as undermining the empire of traditional fantasy.

Much of the novel surpasses Eurocentric epic fantasy, but readers unaccustomed to such literature have two terms to latch onto: the Tracker and the Inquisitor, both common tropes. Jeff VanderMeer relates the idea of Tracker to the sword & sorcery genre, the less literary offshoot of epic fantasy: “[Sword & sorcery] features some down-and-out adventurer who takes on some task with little enthusiasm and maximum cynicism about the outcome and who may be little changed by the experience, which becomes murky to the point of not even being sure who employed you” (VanderMeer). This description matches Tracker’s attitude, particularly as he engages with the Inquisitor, who ultimately controls Tracker’s story. As one level of reality, the Inquisitor remains thin. His character is largely revealed from Tracker’s responses to unrecorded questions. In the opening of part two, the Inquisitor gains a voice as Tracker reads an account of their talks. When Tracker says the torture the Inquisitor used was not accurately recorded, the Inquisitor’s frame becomes a power structure (100). The Inquisitor controls the narrative to some degree, even through the questions asked to prompt Tracker’s storytelling. He also controls Tracker physically, determining when the story will end. Returning to Calvino’s formula, each level of reality has a different form. While Tracker’s level contains the most traditional narrative structure, the Inquisitor’s is marked by absence and when present, becomes epistolary and scriptlike:

A lie is a tale carefully told if allowed to be told, and I would seek to break [Tracker’s] untruth by asking him to tell a different part of the tale. So I asked him not of the first search or the second, but of the four years in between.
            INQUEST: Tell me of the year of our King’s death.
            TRACKER: Your mad King. (98)

The format separates the levels of narrative, but also the sense of authority. While Tracker asserts his voice in the narrative, the Inquisitor controls the presentation and how the story is received, particularly by those in power. Indeed, this frame represents the most direct relationship to postcolonial literature by focusing on who controls the story and what stories are told or suppressed. While plenty of speculative fiction explores ideas of colonialism, James’ novel remains a traditional epic fantasy in its lack of engagement with “forms of empire,” as Saxena writes. Speculative postcolonial often focuses on, as Grace L. Dillion describes, “the destabilizing effects of internal colonization on cultures that for good or ill welcome advanced technologies and first-world hypercommodification while overlooking tricontinental economic interests” (220). Again, this is not the story Tracker tells.    

The story Tracker tells remains fantasy in more ways than one. Whether it’s the outward product—James’ African Game of Thrones—or the Inquisitor’s belief that Tracker tells tall tales, the monsters that populate the lands, both human and other, feel unique to James’ world rather than stand-ins for a historical event or strictly African culture. As Priya Joshi asks: “For how many years after empire ends does writing have to be ‘post’ before it can become itself” (233)? In an interview with The Guardian’s Alex Preston, James expresses a similar sentiment: “As people of colour in the diaspora, we’re particularly interested in stories that go beyond slavery. I’m tired of that being seen as the furthest in the past we can go or that swords and sorcery aren’t available to us” (Preston). To that end, the stories Tracker does revel in are often brutally violent, sexual, traumatic, and riddling. Immediately, Tracker establishes his prowess as a fighter by describing how, after an exhausting trek, he’s jailed with five men—only one left the cell alive. He tells the Inquisitor: “The other four. Make record as I have said it” (5). The following description is the longest paragraph in the first chapter as he describes the kills with vivid, sensory details such as “I heard his heart pop” and “[I] bashed his head until his face smelled fleshy” (5). James links this early description of violence with the overarching oral frame narrative when Tracker explains why he left one of the men alive: “I let the half-blind man live because we need stories in order to live” (5). Indeed, Tracker lives by stories as his work often comes because somebody heard about the prowess of his nose. Stories about Tracker eventually lead him to join the quest for the lost child, the story he tells the Inquisitor.  

Like the griots invoked throughout the novel, Tracker becomes a story-carrier. Unlike the narrators of other postcolonial texts with oral frameworks, Tracker’s stories do not unite a nation or uncover a forgotten history but turn the relationship between a shape-shifting man and a tracker into a violent epic. While not all postcolonial literature engages with nation-building or fictionalized history, Tracker’s story seems uniquely post- such concerns. The impact of postcolonial literature can best be seen through the power imbalance between Tracker and the Inquisitor, particularly due to who controls the story. James has described Black Leopard, Red Wolf as the first part in the Dark Star trilogy, with each novel retelling the same quest for the boy but from different viewpoints (Preston). Thus, more layers of oral complexity, and levels of reality, can be expected. For now, Black Leopard, Red Wolf remains an epic fantasy first and foremost but can be illuminated by postcolonial theory.  


Works Cited

Beverley, John. Testimonio: On the Politics of Truth. U of Minnesota P, 2004.

Calvino, Italo. “Levels of Reality.” The Uses of Literature, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1982, pp. 101-121.

Dillon, Grace L. “‘Miindiwag’ and Indigenous Diaspora: Eden Robinson’s and Celu Amberstone’s Forays into ‘Postcolonial’ Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Extrapolation, vol. 48, no. 2, 2007, pp. 219–243. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3828/extr.2007.48.2.3.

James, Marlon. Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Riverhead Books, 2019.

Joshi, Priya. In another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India. Columbia UP, New York, 2002, doi:10.7312/josh12584.

LaValle, Victor. “Gods and Monsters.” Bookforum, 2019, https://www.bookforum.com/inprint/025_05/20622. Accessed March 9, 2019.

Mayer, Petra. “Marlon James Wins Man Booker Prize.” NPR, 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/13/448397179/marlon-james-wins-man-booker-prize. Accessed on March 9, 2019.

Ogundele, Wole. “Devices of Evasion: The Mythic versus the Historical Imagination in the Postcolonial African Novel.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 33, no. 3, Fall 2002, p. 125-139. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2979/RAL.2002.33.3.125.

Preston, Alex. “Marlon James: ‘You have to risk going too far.’” The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/17/marlon-james-interview-black-leopard-red-wolf. Accessed March 9, 2019.

Saxena, Akshya. “A Worldly Anglophony: Empire and Englishes.” Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, May 2018, pp. 317–324. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1369801X.2018.1443830.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-stories.” The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 109-161. 

VanderMeer, Jeff. “Marlon James’ ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ unleashes an immersive African myth-inspired fantasy world.” LA Times, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-black-leopard-red-wolf-marlon-james-review-20190103-story.html. Accessed March 9, 2019.


Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, Routledge, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/knowledgecenter/detail.action?docID=3570197.


Phoebe Wagner can be found studying in Nevada. Follow her on Twitter @pheebs_w.

             

Friday, March 22, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Sisters Mederos by Patrice Sarath

The Sister Mederos focuses the author’s skill and penchant for worldbuilding and character into a new world and new series involving two scions of a fallen merchant house determined to revive their family’s place.



House Mederos has seen better times. Much better times. After the sinking of a fleet, that may have been secretly the doing of the younger of the Mederos sisters, the family is impoverished and cast out of the society of Port Saint Frey. Yvienne and Tesara spent years in a horrid boarding school for the impoverished. But now they have returned, and now have the opportunity, as they try to help their family recover their fortunes. House Mederos has been reduced to near penury, but that status will not remain forever if the sisters have anything to do about it. Even if it takes questionable acts, in ballrooms and nightly doings alike, to accomplish the feat.

This is the story of The Sisters Mederos by Patrice Sarath

There is a very good sense of geography and place in the book. The book lacks a map, and might have been better with one of the city. However the author clearly have a sense and a perspective of where everything lies in the city and how that terrain and layout are important to character and plot. Port Saint Frey has a real weight of location, and I am sure that if I asked the autho about where I should stay and eat were I to somehow visit the city, that the iceberg of her worldbuilding of the place would allow her to immediately give me recommendations of places that don’t even appear directly in the narrative. Port Saint Frey is a character of its own, a port town, with a tech and social mix that mainly feels like Regency England, with some anachronistic cultural bits that feel about a hundred years ahead of that time. I appreciate the mix and match here, showing that fantasy cultures do not have to be exact replicas of a time and place on Earth.

The sisters themselves are an interesting pair of characters. The book seems determined to ask and explore the question: “Can the siblings trust each other?” even as both hide secrets and plans from each other, and especially from the family. They make for a classic pair, given their dire straits, the golden child who is (now was) the hopes of the family, and the younger “screw up”. The author does an excellent job in not only exploring these tropes and ideas, but undermining them by the actions and choices Yvienne and Tesara make in the course of the story. Going in, I was certain as to which sister was which as depicted on the cover art, given the base personalities, but was soon proven very wrong. Along with the worldbuilding, it is the personalities of the sisters and their character development that works the best in the novel.

The writing trends toward relatively short and sharp chapters, flipping between the points of view of the two sisters at various junctures. The style and layout and the overall writing skill from the author encourage a “just one more chapter, they are short” sort of pull through on the reading, which makes the book a rapid, pleasant read.

As strong as those elements are, I did unfortunately find a few weaknesses in the novel. I wasn’t entirely certain about the subplot regarding Tesara and her eldritch powers--the novel takes a while to make definitively clear that they are real, but was the question of her sinking the fleet meant to be a real question, or just one in her own mind? This subplot does get in the gears a bit of Yvienne’s nocturnal exploits and investigations of the family misfortune, and I wonder if that subplot only really best serves as an alternate thread rather than one more fully formed. And I admit to a bit of a “Fridge moment” once the antagonist’s plot and full scale of how and why they did what they did came to light. Overall, the setting and character development are much stronger than some of the plot elements.

Although there is a sequel now out (Fog Season), the novel does have a strong off ramp for readers who want to make their stay in Port Saint Frey a one and done. In point of fact, the book is rather aggressive in wrapping up the plot threads by the end of the novel. This briskness in tying up loose ends, too, might be a bit abrupt and neat for my taste. Overall, though, the overall experience of The Sisters Mederos is a positive one, and I enjoyed my visit to Port Saint Frey and its characters.

---

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong worldbuilding in sense of place and location

Penalties: -1 for some fridge moment plotting issues

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10: an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws


Reference:  Sarath, Patrice, The Sisters Mederos, Angry Robot Books, 2018]

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

Thursday, March 21, 2019

6 Books with Eyal Kless



Eyal Kless enjoys a triple international career, as a performing violinist, teacher in the Buchmann Mehta school of music and an author of novels. Eyal regularly performs solo and chamber music concerts. He is the founder and principle of Israel Haydn Quartet, performed with various leading orchestras in Israel as well as recitals. As an author, Eyal published his first novel in Hebrew, Rocca’s Violin (Korim Publication 2008) and has debuted the first of a sci fi/fantasy novel series, The Lost Puzzler with Harper Collins Voyager publication (English) and Blanvalet Publications (German).

Today he shares his six books with us...


1. What book are you currently reading?


Right now I am between several books (yeah, I am one of these kind of readers….).There and now and Then by Mike Chen is a very gripping story about time travel, and I am revisiting Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. And, because I am a violinist in real life, I am also reading the Cambridge Companion to Franz Schubert.








2. What upcoming book are you really excited about? 

I received an early copy from Harper Collins Voyager of The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers, and I think this book will make some waves as it deals with an alternative history of Jerusalem and a very exciting heist. Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds is next on the list. Clayton Taylor Wood is about to publish a great fantasy novel named A Brush with Magic, which is about an interesting mix of art and magic. I’ve read only a few chapters of the first draft and the main idea is so great, I can’t wait for him to publish it.





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

Ian Banks’ Player of Games because, well, what an awesome universe! And anything by Terry Pratchett, the one and only.










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

Clayton Taylor Wood’s work, because reading his books changed my mind about self-publishing. When I was trying to publish myself, I harbored the “not good enough for normal publication” stigma about self-publishing.

I was blessed that, after a long search, I was found by my current agent, Rena Rossner (Deborah Harris Agency). About a year later, Harper Voyager signed a two-book deal. Even though I made it to publication, it was a long and quite harrowing experience. I was getting rejected for a variety of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with my writing and more with the current situation of clients and books about to be published. I understand now why some people get frustrated by the process and decide to go on their own. Some of them, like Clayton, produce very good stories that could have easily made it to the “mainstream” publication.


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

I think Dragonlance was my first real fantasy setting book series, and the first I managed to read in English. It had a profound effect on me, but I guess the books that changed my life was Gary Gygax’s Dungeon & Dragons books. I was an avid Dungeon Master and the game honed my abilities (and need) to come up with new adventures, build worlds and bring out characters and conversations that are memorable to my players. Terry Pratchett’s Guards Guards was the first one in the series I read and it changed the way I look at fantasy as a tool for discussing modern moral issues and the use of sophisticated humor.


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

The Lost Puzzler”came out in January and so far, it has been well received. I read all the critiques, even the few that are not in favor of the book, and learn what I can from them. It seems people really like the world that is created in this book and the variety of memorable main and side characters. It took me more than 20 years to finish the book, and then I had to write a second book. I admit I was very anxious when I began working on the sequel, but it helped that The Lost Puzzler was still in the editing process, so I could begin threading the stories together in subtle but satisfying ways. The Puzzler’s War took less than a year to complete and it is now in the process of being edited. I believe it is going to be even better than the first novel!



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

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.