Monday, May 20, 2019

George R.R. Martin is Still Not Your Bitch, and other stories

When Neil Gaiman wrote his famous and infamous essay "Entitlement Issues" (most well known for the pull quote "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.") in 2009, it had been four years since the publication of A Feast for Crows and it still would be another two years before Martin published A Dance With Dragons.

In his essay, which was really more a response to a reader question, Gaiman noted that Martin (or any author) is not working on contract to the reader, that buying an earlier volume in a series does not entitle the reader to a later volume at any time other than which the author is ready to produce it.

I'm sympathetic to both the frustrated reader as well as the frustrated writer. I've been online for too long as I've gotten older and I'm aware of many of the issues preventing writers from getting that next book out, whether it is health issues, publisher issues, or just that book just being really fucking difficult to write, I get it. As much as someone can who doesn't actually write fiction can get it, I get it. It can still be frustrating for the reader when the next series volume doesn't come out when previous books were on a more predictable timeline.

It has now been eight years since the publication of A Dance With Dragons and in that time HBO will have begun and finished all eight seasons of Game of Thrones, the television show based off of Martin's novels (on the off chance any reader of Nerds of a Feather was not aware of the show or its source material)

I'm not here to legislate a single thing regarding what GRRM should or should not do with his time, how long it should take to write a book, or make any demands. I've seen the comments readers make online when Martin dares to mention Wild Cards or any ancillary project he might be working on or even any aspect of his personal life that doesn't involve the completion of The Winds of Winter. Frankly, those readers as assholes and I want no part of their vitriol. It is toxic. It is unhealthy. It is not what I'm about.

Ever since the show surpassed the books, I've been in the same place as every other reader who is watching Game of Thrones - uncertain as to how closely the show will mirror the novels and in what ways the show and books will be different. Will the series end at the same point the show does? Does Arya still kill the Night King? I've already lamented (in private) the difference in Sansa's storyline from the book to the show, and many readers have been disappointed by the absence of Lady Stoneheart in the show.

I still want to know how those stories will resolve, perhaps now more than ever. How close is the show to Martin's original plan? Assuming Danaerys putting King's Landing to the dragon was GRRM's idea, will the (mostly) vitriolic response to "The Bells" change Danaerys's story arc in the books at all?  Does it matter?

Of course, waiting for the next book in a series is nothing new to genre readers. In the eight years
since A Dance With Dragons, I've lost much of my eagerness and rapt anticipation for The Winds of Winter (which is not to say that a real announcement won't ratchet my excitement level up to eleven in a third of a second). It's been eight years since Patrick Rothfuss published The Wise Man's Fear and I've seen the same frustration (and hate) online directed at Martin also directed at Rothfuss. But fans of Melanie Rawn have waited twenty two years for The Captal's Tower, the concluding volume in her Exiles trilogy. The Mageborn Traitor was published in 1997. Even twenty two years isn't all that unusual in the genre, though.

It's not the most of original thoughts to say that even though I'm (fairly) patiently waiting for The Winds of Winter and The Captal's Tower and that year 948 Deryni novel from Katherine Kurtz that she hasn't even announced she's working on, I'm not really waiting for them. There's a LOT to read out there. I'm working my way through this year's Hugo Award finalists. I finally caught up on the Vorkosigan novels from Lois McMaster Bujold, which only means that I have three more Chalion novels and all of the Sharing Knife to go. Also, do you have any idea how far behind I am on Kate Elliott's work? Feminist Futures has reshaped what I want to read and when, and there's an ocean of great stuff out there.

I'm not saying that it isn't worthwhile to be frustrated when a favorite writer is taking longer than you'd like with your favorite series. I get it. But I also tell my four year old son that throwing a fuss isn't going to make the time go by faster. If he knew how to spell and type, he'd probably be on twitter complaining that having to wait three days to see grandma is an excessively long time. Everything is relative.

I've long disagreed with Gaiman, at least in part, with the idea that purchasing book one in the series only entitles the reader to that one book purchased. I agree with Gaiman that purchasing a book is purchasing a book and that yes, you are only entitled to the one book you purchased. There is, however, an implicit promise by the author that when a book is "Book One of The Gibbelhead Fountain" that there is an intent to deliver a complete story that provides an ending.

For those keeping score at home, I don't include a series where each novel stands on its own even if it is building a larger world and gradually a greater story on top of the individual discrete stories of the novel. Think Seanan McGuire's Incryptid or Diana Rowland's White Trash Zombie series.

This should go also without saying, but tied to that implicit promise is that besides the reality of the entire publishing industry is an understanding that life is a very good reason for a novel to not come out when "expected" - whether it is health, family, or simply because writing a novel with excellence is really fucking difficult.

What I don't care about is how long it takes for my favorite writer to publish the next novel in my favorite series.

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

Friday, May 17, 2019

Microreview [book]: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

The City in the Middle of the Night proves an intriguingly interested canvas to tell a story of survival, contact, social issues and much more.

The planet January is a tidally locked planet of ferocious extremes. On the day side, there is heat that can boil oceans and kill life. The dark side, for humans anyway, is almost impossibly cold. The terminator line, where the world always hangs on the edge of night and day, is the place where human colonists have settled. Like the badly programmed space probes of Niven’s Known Space, the colonists have found a habitable area, rather than a completely habitable world.

On this world , the author focuses on two characters. First is Sophie, a young woman of the city of Xiosphant whose early choice to protect someone she loves leads to her exile and an amazing encounter with the indigenous inhabitants of the world that changes her life forever. And then there is Mouth, whose darker history as a itinerant traveler along the terminator only slowly emerges in the narrative. Sophie and  Mouth’s stories, and the story of the ultimate fate of a world,  is the story of Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night.

The novel’s strength is the worldbulding and the canvas on which the author places the human characters. Tidally locked planets can be tricky depict in a realistic fashion. The author has put a lot of thought, however, into how you could have a human-habitable zone between two very inhospitable extremes and the science feels solid and real, although perhaps it is a mite exaggerated for narrative effect, especially the sea where you have boiling on the day side, and implacable glaciers on the other.  . A question I had about some of the climatological consequences of a tidally locked planet, it turns out, get answered later in the novel, showing the depth of thought she has put into her work.

Anders uses the base geographical facts and builds societies, both human and alien, that make it work The cities of Xiosphant and Argela are painted in brush strokes both large and small, the tyrannical and autocratic Xiosphant contrasting with the anarchic rule-by-mob families Argela, with explorations of the varying cuisines, fashions, societal customs and social pressures. Both are very flawed societies, both are backsliding from previous highs as a planet not really suited to humans constricts and erodes their way of life. That erosion is a constant societal pressure that gives room for the protagonists not only to change their own life, but the fate of a world.

The aliens also come in for a deep dive into aliens that are far from rubber forehead aliens, or even aliens with a vastly different biology and physiology, but still act and communicate in very human ways. The “Crocodiles” (who get rechristened by Sophie as the Gelet as the novel progresses) have to build a society, right from the base of how do they communicate on such an inhospitable world where speech would be difficult if not impossible in many areas outside the Terminator zone.

And for all their alienness, they still have relatable goals,ideas, wishes, and histories as well. There is a real sense of histories to this world, not only for the human societies, but the Gelet as well. And the novel is very interested in the social history and future development of the aliens as much as it is concerned with the humans. There is a real sociological and anthropological exploration of the various societies we see here, both in their internal workings and weaknesses as well as their external relations with each other.

For me, however, I found myself far more invested in the story of Sophie than of our other point of view character, Mouth. While the characters do eventually braid their stories together, particularly in the middle and later portions of the novel, I found myself wanting to return to Sophie and her journey again and again. It is through her eyes and her experience that the rich development of cities, of geography and of course the aliens comes through the clearest. I can see why, in the tradition of “viewpoint solves everything” why the author chose and even needed to break Sophie’s point of view in order to tell the entire scope of the story. It is that I was much more invested in Sophie’s eyes and perspective. But I do note that the author is very interested in flawed characters who often make impulsive, bad decisions, and feel extremely human and real for their strengths, flaws, and character traits.

I should note that the novel begins rather tellingly and interestingly with a mention that the document is a translation into “Peak English” which is used “Across several worlds and space nodes”. It is a very subtle way to suggest where this story might be going, especially given the sliding backward paradigm that we see throughout the novel. Both of the major polities are flawed and slowly failing cities on a planet that does not reward weakness in the least. But this translator’s note implies a happy ending for the planet right off the bat. This is therefore a novel where, if one reads carefully,  the balance of the anticipation lies in the “how” rather than the “if” this world can be saved. But yet, in the reading of the novel, it is easy to put that translator’s note out of mind and wonder if the world can indeed be saved. For, like its protagonists, this world is “broken, but still good.”.

While the denouement and the ending of the book is a bit weak and doesn’t quite connect the dots and complete the “Frame” that starts the book, I walked away from the planet of January, Sophie, , and the rest of the inhabitants quite satisfied with the world that Charlie Jane has made here. Tidally locked planets provide an amazing place to set stories, the kinds of planets that might really be out there, and the author has shown that amazing stories, intriguing aliens and interesting societies might develop on such a world. 

Further, the author seems invested in telling stories about worlds having to change to survive, a theme that her All the Birds in the Sky used for Earth, as a pair of protagonists tackle the problems of Earth in completely different ways. The City in the Middle of the Night continues that tradition, although the framing and the process is very different. The tone is very much darker than the prior novel, those looking for the breeziness of the first novel are going to have expectations dashed picking up this book. Overall, though, I look forward to more exploration of a theme that is clearly an abiding concern of the author, in her subsequent novels.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong and interesting worldbuilding on a tidally locked planet!
+1 for intriguing and non-rubber-forehead aliens

Penalties: -1  for a somewhat imbalanced set of protagonists
-1 for a somewhat wet firecracker of an ending

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

Reference:  Anders, Charlie Jane, The City in the Middle of the Night, Tor, 2019

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Thanks to a work trip I managed to work on my New Years Resolutions.  On my flight to the Boston area I managed to watch Aquaman and it was delightful. It was definitely a new tone that was much needed in the DC Universe. It is clear that James Wan had a lot of fun with the character and I thought that Jason Momoa was brilliant as the titular character. It invoked a lot of the tongue in cheek humor that Chris Hemsworth breathes into Thor and I look forward to watching it with the family in the near future.

Pick of the Week:
Daredevil #5 - Daredevil has reached his breaking point and there is something incredibly humbling watching the Man without Fear struggle with his own identity. Following his skirmish with the Punisher, Matt unknowingly dons a Punisher t-shirt as he attempts a suicide mission trying to take down a gang on his own.  Whiskey is his go to pain medicine and he is in desperate need of an intervention to get him on the right track. He still is struggling to deal with his internal demons after he accidentally killed someone.  Watching him struggle with what is right and wrong and what role superheros play in the big picture paints him as someone overtly human. This introspective arc has been extremely rewarding and I am looking forward to how he can get his groove back.

The Rest:
Gideon Falls #13 - We are learning more and more about the power of the Black Barn and the entity that possessed Norton Sinclair.  The Black Barn has opened up a connection between alternate realities, and the priest is attempting to track Sinclair to kill whatever it is that has possessed him. The change in pacing in this series has really ramped up the fear factor in this series and the shift is welcomed. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino spent the first arc building up to a climax and have delivered in a big way.

Captain America #10 - Cap remains behind bars after being framed for a crime he didn't commit. There is a certain novelty of Steve Rogers imprisoned with those he put behind bars, and the humor is not lost on the creative team of Ta-Nehsi Coates, Adam Kubert, and Frank Martin as we are treated to Steve playing poker in jail with the likes of Bane. I will admit that I don't know anything about Thunderball, but apparently he used to be a bad dude that is looking to atone. This makes him a good candidate to hatch a scheme from the inside to help bust Rogers out of jail. Unfortunately this is likely to free some other individuals as well.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Novel

Welcome to the first article in our Reading the Hugos series, 2019 edition! I often joke that the Hugo Award Season is eternal and that is only half of a joke because there is only a small breath between the announcement of the winners in August and the end of the year when we start thinking about what the best books of the year may have been, and that leads directly into submitting our nominating ballots and the cycle begins anew.

Today we are going to take a look at the six finalists for Best Novel. This year three of the finalists were on my nominating ballot and I had named The Calculating Stars my top novel of 2018.  This is also a rare year in which I have already read all of the novels on the ballot before the finalists were announced, which is awfully convenient for me to put together my own Hugo ballot.

In a sense, this year's Hugo race is wide open because after N.K. Jemisin's Best Novel trifecta, she does not have a novel on the ballot, though everyone except Mary Robinette Kowal and Rebecca Roanhorse have been Best Novel finalists before. Kowal, of course, has three Hugo Awards in other categories, Roanhorse has one, and both Kowal and Roanhorse are previous winners of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Suffice it to say that this category is stacked.

Let's take a look at the finalists, shall we?

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Record of a Spaceborn Few: I dig that each of Becky Chambers' three novels have reasonably been standalone stories. Record of a Spaceborn Few focuses on that segment of humanity that took to the stars, but then never left the ships when so many then spread to new stars. A tightly contained story, Record of a Spaceborn Few deals with the responsibility of the individual to a community. This is slice-of-life science fiction. It could be set anywhere, but is far more interesting when in a more austere environment, especially one which failure for everyone to do meaningful work could cause the failure of a system.

I thought this was a much stronger novel than A Closed and Common Orbit (A Hugo Award finalist in 2016) and a pure delight to read. The only thing Record of a Spaceborn Few has working against it is that this is an incredibly stacked ballot.

Space Opera: Space Opera has been described as Eurovision in Space and as a spiritual successor to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is a hell of a lot of expectation to live up to. For the most part, Catherynne Valente hits her mark. In some ways, I admired Space Opera more than I loved it. It's been a while, but I remember the opening of the novel to be a touch longer to get going than I was looking for. Once it does and we get to that Intergalactic Grand Prix, though, Space Opera is a pure delight through and through. (my review)

Revenant Gun: Yoon Ha Lee's Hexarchate novels are a looser trilogy than I would have expected. There is a larger story in play, but Revenant Gun picks up some nine years after the events of Raven Stratagem and shifts the viewpoint to Shuos Jedeo (the infamous dead general) reborn as a seventeen year old with no memories of who he would become - which is interesting because it raises a question about whether inherent genius is enough to accomplish a goal or whether it is the sum or later experiences that exploits and develops that genius.

Revenant Gun is a strong ending to a truly unique series. In some ways the closest comparison I have is Ann Leckie's Ancillary novels, but that doesn't line up exactly. This is a fascinating novel and extremely strong conclusion to the trilogy. I'd be curious how well Revenant Gun would stand on it's own. It's one of two third novels in a series, but the only one that is not a true standalone (Record of a Spaceborn Few is a standalone in a series). It may not fully standalone, but Revenant Gun is a standout. (Adri's review)

Trail of Lightning: I've mentioned this before, but if "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" was the announcement of Roanhorse's emergence on the scene (it did win all of the awards after all), Trail of Lightning was the exclamation point confirming that she was a major talent. It also marks a rare appearance of urban fantasy on the Hugo ballot and a well deserved one.

Trail of Lightning is a badass novel, full of driving energy and it was a raw delight to discover Roanhorse's Sixth World. (Paul's review)

Spinning Silver: Despite being a fairy tale retelling written by Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver shares almost nothing in common with Uprooted. Tonally, thematically, and stylistically, these are distinct novels as different from each other as they can be. The one thing they truly share is that they are excellent and one of the best novels of their respective years.

As part of her review, Adri wrote "As a technical accomplishment, it's excellent (except for the awkwardly stereotyped autistic-presenting character), hitting a perfect fairytale tone that weaves multiple character's lives together in a compelling way. There's plenty of kindness and positive relationships, especially between women and across cultures, to keep a reader company even during the story's darker turns. I recommend picking up Spinning Silver with eyes open and critical faculties engaged: much like that dark forest at the edge of the town, its not a place to be taken lightly, no matter how lovely it may look from the outside." (Adri's review)

The Calculating Stars: When I wrote about The Calculating Stars last year, I said that "More than just achieving a sense of wonder, the science of The Calculating Stars is magic. Kowal brings the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and into readers' hearts." There were plenty of excellent novels published last year and every novel on this ballot is worthy of recognition and are among the best of the year. For me, for my money, The Calculating Stars is the class of the field.

Also from my review, "It's not just Elma overcoming everything stacked against her that makes The Calculating Stars such a fantastic read, it's the completely thrilling mundanity of a countdown towards a launch. It's the checklists and the waiting. It's tremendous and exhilarating. We've been on this journey with Elma for some four hundred pages and The Calculating Stars is beyond a sense of wonder. I'd say that it's magic, but it's science. It's near perfection." (my review)

My Vote:
1. The Calculating Stars
2. Spinning Silver
3. Trail of Lightning
4. Revenant Gun
5. Space Opera
6. Record of a Spaceborn Few

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Shadowblade by Anna Kashina

An action packed lost heir story with a refreshing focus on autonomy and consent.

Another day, another book with a lady with a sword on the cover. In the case of Anna Kashina's new novel, we are treated to two swords! Winning a place in my heart over the "just a knife on its own (or maybe a snake)" cover trend, the promise of a lady with a sword, especially one striding so impactfully towards the reader, is one that's hard to resist even for an action-agnostic reader like me. Who is this lady in comfortable footwear and a practical haircut (and subtle but unmistakeable decorative boobplate, but let's gloss over that for a minute)? She's holding one of those swords like I would hold the one supermarket bag I'd accidentally put all the heavy tins into, but despite that she seems to know what she's doing, and I'm excited to learn exactly what she's got going on.

This, we soon learn, is Naia. Naia has been training to be a member of the Jaihar, a stratified order of elite warriors who are drawn from orphans and other children pledged to them at a young age, and trained from birth in various martial and mystical arts. Naia is uncannily good with a blade, but has apparently made a lot of enemies in the lower camp where she's been trained, and is on the verge of being kicked out for a mysterious insubordination incident: she's attacked an instructor and has curiously little defence for herself. Luckily, fate intervenes, as the head of the Daljeer, scholarly order shows up looking for a young woman at just the right age to impersonate a mythical princess from the murdered Challimar dynasty. After a few tests demonstrate that Naia's natural abilities significantly surpass the training she's been given so far, she's given a second chance in the upper camp with the Jai, and put on a path to engage in political machinations which, we note in an aside, she might actually be born to do...

Naia's training and her mission to impersonate Princess Xarimet divide Shadowblade neatly into two halves. The first half, in which Naia goes from near-outcast to prodigy of the upper camp, sets out an interesting and refreshing take on the concepts it is dealing with. Although Naia is set up as the only person who can set out on the particular mission she is being trained for, and that she could be more than the impersonator which the Jaihar officially want her to be, Shadowblade returns again and again to Naia's agency and her own desire to learn and train with the Jai. The Har section of the camp where she has come from is defined, at least in the limited views we get of it, by brutality and bad eggs, with the incident that almost led to Naia's expulsion soon revealed to involve her stepping in to protect a servant almost being beaten to death. The Jai, the elite warriors, instead come across as being defined by respect for each other and for their students. It's fascinating to watch Naia go from being beaten down and undervalued to training with people (mostly men - unfortunately this is a pretty dude-heavy story, with only two living women of particular note) who respect her, encourage her to reflect on her performance and identify her own weaknesses. There's a constant prioritisation of consent in Naia's narrative which could so easily be absent from a story like this, especially once the romantic tension with Jai master Karrim starts.

Naia's training goes by in a series of montage-like chapters which take us through multiple years of weapons training, understanding her own weaknesses, and learning more about her Chall heritage from Mehtab, a mysterious woman from the Daljeer order who quickly becomes one of Naia's most trusted tutors. She also introduces her to the magical in-universe reasons for decorative boobplate, which involve iron-calling properties that throw off everyone wielding conventional weapons, and... that bit is fine, I guess. The building up of trust and agency in the first half of the book plays right through into the political action of the second, where a fully trained Naia is sent off on her mission to challenge for the Empire's throne in the wake of the old Emperor's death, removing the unpredictable son who has seized it in favour of a more pliable - though uninspiring - candidate favoured by the Daljeer. The deeper threat to Naia comes from a slightly different angle and builds up into a climax which really pays off the themes of consent, autonomy and learning to trust one's own judgement and surround oneself with people who respect it. There's not much that's surprising about how this plays out - the twists are well signposted in the narrative and the general thrust of what's going to happen was fairly easy to see unfolding - but this is a narrative that's more about the "how" than the "what", and the unfolding of Naia's victory not just within the terms of her mission but against those in the background who are setting her up to be a pawn.

Shadowblade is a book which seems to know exactly what it's doing and what it wants to prioritise, and how to make the other elements of the story work towards that goal. The focus is on delivering an action-packed story true to its blade-twirling hero, and that means the political plot, the empire's history with the Chall and the betrayal of a generation before which led to Naia's coming into the Jaihar are all just fleshed out enough to carry her story. There are vaguely Asian, desert-culture trappings to Chall and Zeg which aren't really fleshed out, but there's honestly not much recognisable "culture" in Naia's sheltered corner of the world - we could be anywhere, and I'm fine with that. The lack of women in Naia's world outside Mehtab is odd and frustrating despite the narrative attempts to wave it away, but there's a core of central characters who, with the exception of a few interchangeable seniors, are all distinct and interesting with believable quirks and motivations. Shadowblade leaves itself open, though not in need of, a sequel and it will be interesting to see whether some of these worldbuilding aspect get explored further in future instalments.

Action-driven novels are hit and miss for me but this one was satisfying on a level that I wasn't expecting it to be. While Naia's world is not the deepest or most fleshed out you're likely to visit this year, this entertaining, driven story does what it sets out to do while centring consent in a way which most narratives of this trope have no time or space to do. If the confident, blade wielding woman on the cover of Shadowblade is calling to you, I recommend you pick up her story and give it a try - it does what it says on the tin, in ways that I'd like to see a lot more of in future. Just, maybe we can go with plot relevant full body armour next time, please?

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Weaves consent and autonomy into a destiny driven story; +1 Satisfying action with a great payoff

Penalties: -1 Brilliant woman protagonist is surrounded almost entirely by men in, uh, plot relevant decorative boobplate...

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Reference: Kashina, Anna. Shadowblade [Angry Robot, 2019].

Monday, May 13, 2019

Nanoreviews: In the Shadow of Spindrift House, Middlegame, Assassin's Price

Grant, Mira. In the Shadow of Spindrift House [Subterranean Press]

In the Shadow of Spindrift House seems like a blending of the storytelling of Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire, not quite fitting the expectation of either persona. It is horror, though, and that says Mira Grant. Certain aspects of the novella reminds me of a weird unholy blend of Gormenghast (if I actually liked Gormenghast) and Lovecraft, with the storytelling touch that is all Mira Grant.

This isn't as easily accessible as a more traditional Mira Grant novella. There is an interstitial that feels like Grant is stretching what it means to tell a Mira Grant story (although, Into the Drowning Deep did that, too). The introduction of Harlowe, her friends, and the central mystery of the novel is pure Mira Grant, and then the creeping existential dread and horror hits.
Score: 7/10

McGuire, Seanan. Middlegame [ Publishing]

Middlegame is perhaps the most ambitious novels from Seanan McGuire and is a showcase for her skill at telling a good and complex story. Twins, math, alchemy, murder, time-bending, family, secret organizations, impossible powers, and just about everything McGuire can throw into this wonderous novel. Seanan McGuire has blended together as much as she possibly could stuff into one novel and she makes the whole thing work.

Middlegame is a novel about separated twins struggling to come together and the people that are keeping them apart in order to better build them into something that can open a road to an Impossible City that will grant unbelievable power. The novel is grounded in what seems like an almost normal reality of Roger and Dodger, the two incredible intelligent and gifted twins mentioned previously. It is that grounding that allows the rest of the novel's structure to work, the hints that there is more to the story than we're even seeing through the different viewpoint characters. Seanan McGuire goes big with Middlegame and she hits the mark.
Score: 8/10 

Modesitt, Jr, L.E. Assassin's Price [Tor]

Few of Modesitt's fantasy novels feature a non-magic-using protagonist, but this is one. Charyn, son of the Rex Lorien and tired of waiting for his father to give him responsibilities of a proper political education to prepare him for future rule, has taken it upon himself to get that education. Meanwhile, threats and attacks against Rex Lorien's family have begun and the political situation have worsened.

For all that Assassin's Price is the eleventh novel in Modesitt's Imager Portfolio series and the third in a subseries, it might actually be a reasonable place for a reader to pick up the series. Charyn is a new viewpoint character (the previous two books have featured Alaster, an incredibly powerful magic user) and while knowledge of the events of Madness in Solidar and Treachery's Tools might help for a richer background, Modesitt gives more than enough to fill in the blanks.

The success of Assassin's Price for a given reader lies entirely with how much the reader appreciates Modesitt's house style of slow burn, slow burn, slow burn, big reveal and action. The atmosphere is built and the story is told through the smallest of every day actions. Modesitt is a master of the form, but readers need to appreciate the form. If they do, Assassin's Price is a fully satisfying novel.
Score: 7/10

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

Friday, May 10, 2019

6 Books with David Quantick

David Quantick is an author, television writer and radio broadcaster. He wrote the surreal thriller The Mule and the comic scifi novel Sparks as well as the critically-acclaimed TV drama Snodgrass, currently being developed into a feature film, and he’s just written Dickens In Rome, a new play for Northern Stage. His new novel is from Titan Books, All My Colors

Today he shares his six books with us.

1. What book are you currently reading? 

Readymade Boddhisatva, which is a brilliant collection of Korean scifi stories by various writers. I’ve just finished writing a scifi novel set in Korea, so I thought I’d better see how it was done properly. Korean scifi is superb, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s introduced me to a whole world of new writers.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

It’s been out for a bit, but it’s upcoming to me because I just ordered it - The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. I love the feeling of getting a new book by someone who’s new to me and this one sounds very exciting and interesting.

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

I think The Separation by Christopher Priest.  I love his work, but this particular book, with its themes of slipstream, World War Two and twins, is my favourite.

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

The one that comes to mind is Iain M Banks’ Walking On Glass. I didn’t exactly dismiss it first time round, but I was feeling very miserable at the time I first read it and that gloom affected my reading of the book. When I reread it, I realised what an amazing book it is. The title image is one of my all-time favourites.

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

Prince Caspian by C.S Lewis. I remember my primary school teacher, Miss Ashby, reading it out loud to the class, and the chapter where the Pevensies realise they’re in the ruins of Cair Paravel and that hundreds of years have elapsed since their last visit is probably the moment I realised what stories could do.

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

It is called All My Colors, and its awesomeness is mostly down to the songs playing in my head when I wrote it – Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf, More Than A Feeling by Boston, Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. It also has a scary story about a jerk called Todd Milstead who realises he’s the only person who’s heard of a very famous novel (called All My Colors) and decides to write it from memory – with terrifying consequences. It’s fun to write a book where the hero is a jerk because then you can hurt him more.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

I cannot fathom that Free Comic Book Day is behind us and we are already well into May.  The San Diego Comic Con news has been steadily dripping and it sounds like Conan is officially confirmed for a return. With the new format of his show, fans were speculating that he might be ending his run at SDCC and it is a great day for SDCC attendees that he is returning to San Diego. Even before he brought his show to SDCC he has long had a memorable presence in various off-site ventures.

Pick of the Week:
Doctor Aphra #32 - We have a new arc for Aphra and it does a great job shining some light on her childhood and what is currently motivating her and her quest for ancient artifacts. We are also introduced to Vulaada, a young woman who Aphra has taken under her wings. The two are seeking an artifact that will fetch them 200,000 credits when Aphra discovers a rare Jedi weapon that is likely worth millions. This attracts a lot of attention and Aphra is confronted with someone she hasn't seen in a long time who thought Aphra is dead. I won't name names, but you can likely figure out who she meets that is going to make this arc a must read.

The Rest:
Star Wars Age of Rebellion: Boba Fett #1 - I don't envy anyone who has the responsibility of producing content on Boba Fett. The mysterious bounty hunter who captivated audiences in The Empire Strikes Back, has long been a fan favorite and some people who claim to be Star Wars fans are a bit critical of content they don't like. It brings me joy to report that this is a fun title that features Boba Fett riding in on a robot horse, tracking down fellow bounty hunters, and reminding us why he is so freaking cool.  I definitely look forward to watching Boba Fett track down additional bounties in what will hopefully lead up to his capture of Han Solo.

Star Wars Adventures #21 - This week we are treated to another delightful pair of stories.  The first story features Han, Luke and Chewy when they are dispatched on an important mission to purchase supplies.  Tempted by an opportunity to gamble some of the credits, Han puts the entire mission at risk. The second story features the cutest little alien and her attempt to pulling off a heist after hearing about an impossible mission.  I hope you managed to pick up the FCBD issue of Star Wars Adventures and enjoy these fun little stories set in the Star Wars Universe.

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review Roundtable: Avengers: Endgame

At the end of April a little movie came out called Avengers: Endgame, which has been getting something of a buzz in genre circles, seeing as how it brings together ten years of big budget Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) storylines in one big action-packed conclusion. Here at NoaF HQ we’ve been following the ups and downs of the MCU for some time (some longer than others), and have many capital-F Feelings ranging from excitement to confusion to mild bafflement about this culmination of an era.

Today I’ve gathered Brian, Mike, Phoebe and Vance to chat about our Endgame reactions: what made us punch the air in glee and what had us sliding down in our seats in frustration. Needless to say, all the spoilers are ahead and you really shouldn’t be here unless you’ve had a chance to see the movie first.

Adri: So, Endgame! That was fun. Even more fun than I expected after, you know, all the dead people and the feelings about them.

Brian: First impressions are that I thought this was a great conclusion to all of the movies that came before it. The MCU could stop here (it won’t, but it could) and I would be completely satisfied.

Vance: The woman seated next to me -- and I’ve never experienced this in a movie theater -- started taking deep, centering breaths the moment the lights went down. And I love her for it. Infinity War was a gauntlet for fans, yet she was there opening day for whatever came next, no matter how gutting. Turned out the movie was a lot of fanservice, so she made it through. As did I!

Phoebe: I’m going to date myself by saying I was fifteen when Iron Man came out and I thought it was the coolest movie I’d ever seen (beside Lord of the Rings of course). I’ve seen every MCU movie in theaters except Ant Man and the Wasp, which I regret because I loved that movie. I grew up with these movies, and this just totally satisfied me eleven years later. I cheered, clapped, laughed, bawled, and said thank you.

Mike: I definitely enjoyed the movie and look forward to watching it again, but it felt very slow as they tracked down the stones in the previous movies. I felt there was too much humor and not enough action. Although I greatly appreciated Captain America joining the Hydra agents in the elevator in what I expected to be a brawl, only to lose it when Cap whispers “Hail Hydra” and proceeds to simply walk out with Loki’s staff.

Brian: I’m with you on the plodding pace. I can string together the important moments in my mind, and they don’t really add up to three hours of movie. But I watch at least three hours of terrible TV weekly, so I’ll take “great but a bit slow” without much complaint. Agree that the elevator scene is a great subversion of expectations, and also just the tiniest hint at the Secret Empire story. Not that I want them to put that story on screen.

Adri: I thought the combination of humour, emotions and action built into something incredibly cheesy, but I don’t mean that in a bad way at all: it really works. There’s quite a long first act of feelings which is mostly engaging and builds off dynamics that are a decade in the making. With the exception of expecting us to care about Hawkeye’s family which is… hmmm...

Vance: Hawkeye’s dumb farm family is the thing I have always hated the most about the MCU. Asking us to care about it all of a sudden is akin to asking us, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, to suddenly care about one of James Bond’s bedfellows. The ship has sailed, I don’t buy in. That said, I at least believed it as a motivation for Hawkeye going batshit before we get into the real meat of the movie.

Adri: Farm family out of the way, we get into TIME TRAVEL, which lets us go on a mostly-greatest-hits tour of some of the other films, underlining how far some of the Avengers have come along the way. Once things start to coalesce into a climax, there’s a really satisfying pay-off to each of the beats. Yes, it means you can see some of them coming from a mile off (time travel plus Captain casually stopping by Peggy’s office in a midpoint scene adds up to a pretty obvious decision for his “retirement”) but that just makes it even more gratifying when those moments hit. Obviously I have lots of time for subversion in fiction too, but it’s so enjoyable to watch a story that’s already had its twists and turns and is now going to milk every moment out of the one path to its conclusion. It also makes it feel like an actual movie structure - despite the fact it starts in the immediate aftermath of Inifinity War - with well-managed tensions, rather than the big messy action-fest that was its predecessor.

Brian: The choice to immediately deal with Thanos and then flip to undoing what he had done was more interesting than I expected out of the film. It’s also a little funny that, in a world where magic exists, the solution was scientific, even if the science is pretty magical. But wow, how many cans of worms did they open with the introduction of time travel to these movies? I appreciate that the basic premise is things changed in the past can’t affect the future, and they spin off their own timelines. But if the Sorcerer Supreme (thank you for returning, Tilda Swinton) controls the Eye of Agamotto and knows Strange isn’t around until five years after the New York invasion, wouldn’t she also know that Thanos is going to dust half of the galaxy’s population? Time travel always opens a lot more doors than it closes.

Vance: Hat tip to my friend Caroline for sharing this article that offers a really game explanation of the time travel dynamics. TL;DR: the time travel actually does kinda makes sense, but just go with it. It’s fun. It’s fine. Leave it alone.

Mike: While I was expecting this to be emotional, I was not surprised for how powerful it was for the characters to travel back in time and connect with individuals they had previously lost. My favorite of these meetings was Thor and his mom. I love the way she talked about his current condition and wanted him to make things right for himself and not to worry about her. I also love that other Asgardians call Rocket Raccoon ‘rabbit’.

Adri: Remember how I told you all I’d seen all of the canon movies except the second Thor and I hoped that one didn't turn out to be in any way important to the plot here? All I can say is OH COME ON. His Mum died? Natalie Portman went to Asgard? I still appreciated this moment - Full use of Chris Hemsworth's comic abilities was appreciated, and despite the fat jokes I actually thought Thor’s arc was probably the most satisfying of the core group, given he didn’t have quite as obvious a place to go as Iron Man and Cap did. But I did spend ten minutes squirming and hoping not to be spoiled.

Brian: I am a Thor: The Dark World hater and I guess, yeah, it’s a little important to the complete narrative. Still wouldn’t recommend anyone pressed for time to watch it though. Ragnarok is a lot better and literally sets up Infinity War.

Vance: I like Thor 2, and don’t apologize for it (because like what you like, folks! It doesn’t matter if your co-contributors think you’re dumb!). Kat Dennings is a joy in it. But that aside, from Ragnarok through Infinity War through Endgame, Thor’s story is truly, deeply moving. My heart breaks for the character. Again, it would be better if his weight weren’t played for laughs, but his descent into oblivion is a) a strong choice by the filmmakers b) totally understandable, and c) fertile ground for setting up his final confrontation with Thanos.

Phoebe: I love all the Thor movies due to the Norse mythology (one of the reasons I started researching Norse myth was because I saw the first Thor and thought, hmm, that’s not right.) I’m also a HUGE Loki fan--which was one way that Endgame disappointed me honestly. They did so little with Loki, didn’t resurrect him, and didn’t let time travel Thor interact with his dead brother who he’d reconciled with at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. To follow up on the fat phobia, while I was disappointed the few times it was obvious we were supposed to laugh at his fatness, I actually wonder how much of the fat phobia comes from the audience. It was immediately obvious to me that it was a symptom of PTSD and, surprisingly, he never returned to washboard abs Thor, the usual end to such a trope. He remained “fat Thor” even when he fought Thanos, and he looked way more badass and viking-y. If anything, the audience response showed how much farther we need to go as humankind to accepting different types of people and recognizing suffering.

Vance: I’m with you. I wondered how much of the fat-shaming was more on the audience than the filmmakers. I thought it was a strong choice and I appreciated it.

Adri: I mean, to me having one fatphobic joke is one too many and I completely understand why many people don’t want to “look past that” to whatever the filmmakers intended, even if it sort of came good in the end with the Viking aesthetic and his arc, and eventual alignment with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which has been a few movies coming.

Adri: While I’m on the complaints train: the “scene of women” does not make the lack of representation over ten years right, Marvel. Especially because the vast majority of those women just show up with no emotional arcs at the very last minute. I also had no time for the sacrifice of Black Widow, and while I know Scarlett Johansen is a bit frustrating as an actor it’s such a shame Natasha Romanoff never truly got the development she deserved up to this point, even though she turned into a brilliant character without that focus. It’s really telling that what we’ve lost by the end is mostly women and a robot, and the funeral we end up going to isn’t Romanoff’s.

Phoebe: I’m going to jump in here to comment on the “women assemble” scene as I’ve been calling it. I totally agree that it doesn’t end the bad representation throughout the series, but to be honest, I cried during that scene. Was it patronizing? Probably.

Brian: Thank you for articulating better my complaints about that 5 second scene, Adri. I’ve seen a lot of people (idiots) bandying about that Marvel ruined the movie by going full SJW, and this is literally not it. Those characters and the women playing them deserve better.

Mike: My biggest gripe was Black Widow’s death. My wife disagrees with me, but I felt it was cheapened by her and Hawkeye fighting over who would sacrifice themselves (obviously it was going to be her because of his family). Her death hit me a bit harder when Hulk talked about trying to bring her back when he wielded the stones.

Adri: What I hated most about this - and there are many aspects I hate - is that this movie really drives home the fact that Natasha’s family are the Avengers, and that of all the characters she is the one that has poured the most into relationships with the rest of the group over and above any outside attachments. I think we’re supposed to accept that Hawkeye has more reason to live because he has a flesh-and-blood family but, in a narrative that’s about the Avengers where those characters are completely on the side, it feels cheap and unearned and utterly disrespectful to her character and the things that are important to her, undermining the actual sense of sacrifice which this scene was supposed to set up.

I’ll push back a tiny, tiny bit here. I don’t take issue with anything you’ve said at all, but just offer a slightly different read. I think Hawkeye is willing to sacrifice himself for his flesh-and-blood family, but Nat is willing to sacrifice herself for her adoptive family. I’m not certain the audience is asked to accept that one has more right to go on living than the other. It’s certainly a valid read of the scene, but what the filmmakers *intended* is murky. I think whatever an individual audience member takes away from it is 100% valid. I just don’t want to step on the landmine of saying “the filmmakers intended zyx,” when that really can’t be known without talking to them. For me, I hated to see Nat go, and I very much questioned why we were being asked to accept that, but the movie itself didn’t give me a clear-enough answer to really speak to it. I felt like both Nat and Gamora going off the Soul Stone cliff made me uneasy...but it’s hard to unpack, personally, what I thought the movie was asking of me. I mean, I think the farm family is dumb, so for sure I’d rather Nat have stayed topside.

Adri: I guess the thing is, in the genre which literally coined the concept of “women in refrigerators”, setting up a subplot like the unavoidable Soul Stone sacrifice and then having two women go off that cliff with similar lingering death shots shows, at the very least, a disappointing lack of self-awareness of this trope and its impact on female representation.

Mike: My favorite arc over this epic event is Nebula’s. She grew a great deal in a limited number of films from a villain with a troubled past who would stop at nothing to please her father to someone who confronted her demons from her childhood, made amends with her sister, and finally got closure from her father only to have Thor ruin the moment by chopping his head off.

Adri: I agree that Nebula’s a great character here. She also gets an interesting arc with Gamora and her past self, which really underlines how far Nebula has come (although underscoring that by killing her past is… hmm) while also suggesting that Gamora’s development over the past movies, and especially her role in Infinity War, never mattered to her as a character? I guess I see where that’s coming from, but it drives home the fact that Nebula is really the only Guardians of the Galaxy character with any interesting emotional depth. More Nebula!

Vance: I love how they’ve taken Nebula from a 100% baddie to a 100% empathetic central character. I’m curious to see where they take Gamora going forward. I loved the TV show Chuck, which ended with one of the two love interests having their memory wiped, and the open question of “What happens next between them?” There are no more Chuck episodes, but I like the narrative space created by the question of “Will these two misfits fall in love again under different circumstances?” Again, I had problems with the Gamora/Soul Stone element in Infinity War, but I’m intrigued by the narrative possibilities this suggests for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Adri: Any other favourite moments people want to share? Captain America making full use of Thor’s hammer got a loud “WHAAAAAAT” from one particular lad at the back of our cinema, joined by the rest of us cheering in appreciation. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but in the moment it’s so epic I don’t really care. (Insert Doctor Horrible Captain Hammer joke here). Also, Wakanda turning up first in the ending battle was a big hit!

Mike: My favorite moment in the entire film may have been old man Cap passing his shield to Falcon. I went into this film expecting Captain America to die and prepared myself for that reality, but loved the fact that after returning the Infinity Stones he went home, had his dance with Agent Carter, and lived a normal life.

Another moment that really hit me emotionally was Iron Man hugging Spider-Man after they reunite. I often don’t like humor during certain emotional scenes, but Peter telling Iron Man “this is nice” during the long hug was very sweet and hit close to home as a father.

Brian: Yeah, I’m pretty heartless and this moment really hit me. It was a nice wrap around from Tony watching him turn to dust in his arms to returning to finish the fight.

Vance: I told my daughter, “You know how Infinity War starts on Earth with Tony telling Pepper he wants a kid...and you know how through the whole movie he calls Peter ‘Kid’?” And her eyes bugged way out. I thought this moment was a really nice moment for both of them. It’s the kind of fanservice that I feel like we’ve all earned...and I guess the characters have, too.

Brian: Iron Man was the beginning and the end of this cycle of movies, and my favorite Iron Man moment, possibly my favorite MCU moment, is the bits in Iron Man 3 where Tony has to come to terms with the fact that he threw himself into a gaping void with a nuclear weapon to defeat an alien invasion of Earth and survived. Selfless acts weren’t Tony’s thing but he did it, and again, in the conclusion of Endgame, he did something he knew could end badly for him personally without hesitation. He came out of a very comfortable, happy retirement to save the world one more time. The whole Tony Stark arc is well done.

Vance: Seconded. Tony Stark’s last words are, “I am Iron Man,” which is such a perfect punctuation mark on these 10 years of filmmaking for all of the reasons Brian just pointed out.

Brian: Also, I was very excited when Captain Marvel came out of the sky to punch holes in Thanos’ giant spaceship. She’s very good at that. I expected and did not get more Ronan the Accuser, which is weird because Captain Marvel seemed to go out of its way to make that character cooler than when he was just some bland antagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Adri: So, now that it’s over (except that it’s not): any last thoughts? Mine is that I now have to round off my MCU "first ten years" experience by catching up on, er, Thor: The Dark World...

Vance: Do it. Kat Dennings is hilarious, and it’s the buffest Hemsworth ever got, which is really saying something!

Mike: Overall the movie and all of the movies in the MCU were a monumental success. I loved the simple twists this finale provided, learning early on that the Infinity Stones were all turned to dust by Thanos, Loki making off with the cosmic cube, Thor’s current state, and was truly not sure what to expect next. I even enjoyed how they managed the time travel and had some funny jabs at Back to the Future. I’m not sure where I would rank it among the MCU films, but it is likely in the top 5. It provided a fitting end that my entire family enjoyed.

Brian: Looking forward, I guess we know some of the direction of future MCU movies with Spiderman: Far From Home and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 on the horizon, but nothing about the overall future of the series. I’m guessing some of that is up in the air as Disney now owns the X-Men too and could integrate them and their rich history into these stories. I’m excited for that future.

Vance: If I can be permitted to wander a bit into the weeds, I would like to address how we have never in the history of cinema seen anything like this. I distinctly remember sitting in the theater during Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, when the armies are massing at the Black Gate, and thinking, “I have never, ever seen anything like this.” Like all works of artistry that move a medium forward, those innovations, once realized, become relatively easy to copy. We see scenes like that Lord of the Rings moment routinely now. But I had the thought before Endgame, “I wonder if I’ll have another moment like that?” I did, kind of, but it wasn’t visual -- it was narrative. This is essentially the season finale of the most expensive TV show in history. Endgame is the coherent final product of 16 directors and at least 35 writers. The script alone for Infinity War and Endgame (which were reportedly shot simultaneously) would’ve had to be around 400 pages long. The scale of the production is mind-boggling. So while there was certainly visual spectacle on display in Endgame, I do want to take my hat off to the complexity of the undertaking that Marvel just delivered. Universal Monsters died on the vine after only one film, and DC’s best movie (by far) has been Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. Marvel has moved the goal line for cinematic storytelling, and I’m just glad as a fan I got to see Iron Man opening day, and now Endgame all these years later.

Adri: Thanks for joining me today, all, and I look forward to our next chat!

Nerds Assemble:

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.

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

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

Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake.

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Microreview [Book/Stage]: The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams

Unexpected journeys in godhood and sports

The Half-God of Rainfall has been an exercise in the unexpected for me, though perhaps it shouldn't have been. First, I'd been rather dense in picking up that this book, by poet and playwright Inua Ellams, is in fact a story in verse. On that discovery, I had the standard concerns about whether I was really qualified to read this book I'd committed to review, or whether daring to have an opinion on some words that sometimes rhyme is inherently beyond me as a prose reviewer. Then I calmed down and opened it up. Lots of pages later, I get to the last line and think "Cool, now time to review something new and interesting that expands my horizons beyond the world of prose". However! No sooner do I start starting said horizon-expanding review when a google search teaches me that The Half God of Rainfall is not just a poem by a playwright, but a poem that is about to be staged in London. In the spirit of "why broaden one horizon when you can broaden two", what follows is therefore my thoughts not just on The Half-God of Rainfall in its written form, but of the performance that brought it to life in the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn in May 2019.

The Half-God of Rainfall is a story of ancient deities and their impact on the lives of mortals, told through a distinctly modern lens. Its hero is Demi (Kwame Odoom), the child of Zeus and a mortal woman. His mother, Modupe (Rakie Ayola), was given the protection of Osún, the Òrisà of rivers, only to have that protection fail due to a contest between the Òrisà's God of Thunder and Zeus, with a mortal of the winner's choice as a prize. Demi, half-god of rainfall, is born immediately from his mother's rape and grows up knowing both her love and grief, and his own uncontrollable powers. We meet him by the side of a basketball court, barred from play because of his tendency to literally flood the land when he cries, at the moment he turns his ability to "make it rain" from a literal ability into a figurative one and begins his rise to the top of world-class basketball - and attracts the notice of both the Òrisà and the Greek pantheon.

The language of Half-God is gorgeous, full of rhyme and flow that demands to be "voiced", even if you're just talking in your own head on a packed train carriage. On the page, it's subtle and fluid, and the transformation and feeling of "discovery" as each of those rhymes and lyrical moments appears in sound is one that I delighted in. Running through this is an exploration of dialect and narrative mode, from lines of dialogue that feel lifted from classical translations or myth retellings to more modern vernacular, like the exploration of "Nigerian tongues round American accents" on the children's basketball court. It makes for a rich reading experience that translates as well as you'd expect to stage, where it falls on just two actors to play out this range of voices and to differentiate the revolving set of gods and mortals of these various pantheons for the audience's benefit.

Demi's journey from crying child to vengeful young man happens quickly, and it feels like his character gains most going from page to stage, allowing us to follow as he goes from from excited child to confident, self-assured demigod to an inevitable path to hubris and downfall. Of course, it's inherently a bit absurd to watch a tall adult man play a child on stage, and like Philip Hamilton, the other major example I've recently seen, our amusement at Demi's character is abruptly cut short when we realise he's grown up to match his actor's physicality, and we have to start taking his ambitions and their possible destructive results seriously. Because Kwame Odoom doubles as other characters, most notably Sàngó, Òrisà of thunder, who is definitely not powerless (although he spends much of the story claiming he is), the ability to sell Demi's youthful journey is even more impressive.

While the title is ostensibly about her son, it's Demi's mother Modupe who (intentionally) steals the show. Unlike the older myths it riffs off, where women are included simply to be owned and use by men and to suffer without agency, this narrative galvanises her as a woman whose life has been shaped by male violence and impunity, but never taken from her. Despite all their powers and schemes, the male characters all ultimately end up as fuel for her arc, rather than the other way around. It's interesting to contrast the text, which puts her at the head of a chorus of similarly wronged women who were assaulted at the hands of Zeus or other men who used their power to take what they wanted from the women around them, and the stage show, which with just a single woman centres far more explicitly on Modupe's individual rage. It's reflective of Modupe's relative isolation throughout the entire play: because of the way the character doubling falls out, Rakie Ayola plays a lot of secondary characters at the point they intersect with Demi, as well as being the Zeus and the Osún to Odoom's Sàngó. It means that, at pivotal moments where Modupe interacts with these characters, she's in fact alone on the stage, her protectors and her attackers all embodied within the same actor and our reactions to them all seen through the lens of her telling. It's powerful stuff which puts her firmly in charge of her own story as far as the audience is concerned, even while she grapples with the higher powers who act on her life in the narrative itself.

In poetic form, Half God of Rainfall took very little time to put me under its spell; on stage, it takes a little longer, with deceptively light-hearted initial scenes at the start; it's not until the gods take to the stage that the production really gets to show off its actors' talents and the versatility of its storytelling mode. Once you're hooked, however, it's a riveting and immersive experience, with production values to match - an abstract but depth-y lighting backdrop sets the scene for both mortal and godly realms, and a stage which resembles the cracked earth of the original basketball court becomes something more by the end. The non-linear narrative is easy to follow, although the time period between Demi's birth and the moment on the court is a bit blink-and-you-miss-it in both mediums. That said, criticising an epic poem for starting in media res and not quite explaining all the facts about getting there would be a serious misunderstanding of the genre, and the emotional facts are sort of all we need to know about Demi and Modupe's relationship before his rise as the Rainman.

The inevitable constraints of time and space are such that, for most of you reading this, it's not going to be possible to check out the Kiln's staging of this fascinating work - though if North London is in your radius before May 17, I urge you to check it out! - but for me it was an unusual opportunity to experience a text that already pushed me out of my comfort zone in a new way. Anyone interested in explorations of myth and epic form with a focus that goes beyond the well-trodden world of European legend would be well served by checking out Ellams' work, and if you ever get a chance to see it staged? Even better.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Expanding my horizons, and the horizons of epic poetry in general, in the best possible way

Penalties: -1 Gods exist outside of time, but this stage production does not... sorry, future review readers.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Reference: Ellams, Inua. The Half-God of Rainfall [Harper Collins, 2019].