Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Hugo Award 2019: My Final Ballot

Now that the deadline has passed and I have done all the Hugo reading and consuming that I am going to do this year, the final ballot I submitted is below.  The full list of nominees can be found here. I have provided links to my articles covering each category where available.

For reasons which should be fairly obvious, I declined to write about the finalists for Fanzine. Speaking specifically for myself, I am very happy that Nerds of a Feather was able to share a ballot with some really excellent and awesome fanzines who are showing off the breadth of what a fanzine can be and are doing so at a remarkably high level of quality. We continue to be over the moon about being a finalist for the Hugo Award for the second time. It's been a dream of ours for a long time and I'd like to refer everyone back to the initial Thank You note we shared when all of the finalists were announced. 

Novel (my thoughts)
1. The Calculating Stars
2. Spinning Silver
3. Trail of Lightning
4. Revenant Gun
5. Space Opera
6. Record of a Spaceborn Few

Novella (my thoughts)
1. Beneath the Sugar Sky
2. The Black God's Drums
3. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
4. Binti: The Night Masquerade
5. Artificial Condition
6. The Tea Master and the Detective

Novelette (my thoughts)
1. Nine Last Days of Planet Earth
2. The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
3. If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again
4. The Only Harmless Great Thing
5. The Thing About Ghost Stories
6. When We Were Starless

Short Story (my thoughts)
2. A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
3. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington
4. The Court Magician
5. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters
6. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society

Series (my thoughts)
1. October Daye
2. Wayfarers
3. Machineries of Empire
4. The Centenal Cycle
5. Universe of Xuya
6. The Laundry Files

Related Work (my thoughts)
1. Astounding
2. An Informal History of the Hugos
3. The Mexicanx Initiative Experience
4. Archive of Our Own
5. The Hobbit Duology
6. Conversations on Writing

Graphic Story (my thoughts)
1. Abbott
2. Saga
3. On a Sunbeam
4. Black Panther
5. Paper Girls
6. Monstress

Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (my thoughts)
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
2. A Quiet Place
3. Black Panther
4. Annihilation
5. Avengers: Infinity War

Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
1. Dirty Computer
2. The Expanse: Abaddon's Gate

Professional Editor, Long Form
1. Beth Meacham
2. Navah Wolfe
3. Diana Pho
4. Sheila E. Gilbert
5. Anne Lesley Groell
6. Gillian Redfearn

Professional Editor, Short Form
1. Lee Harris
2. Julia Rios
3. Neil Clarke
4. Lynn M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas
5. E. Catherine Tobler
6. Gardner Dozois

Professional Artist (my thoughts)
1. John Picacio
2. Galen Dara
3. Victo Ngai
4. Yuko Shimizu
5. Jaime Jones
6. Charles Vess

1. FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction
2. Fireside Fiction
3. Uncanny Magazine
4. Shimmer
5. Strange Horizons
6. Beneath Ceaseless Skies

1. Nerds of a Feather
2. Quick Sip Reviews
3. Lady Business
4. Journey Planet
5. Galactic Journey
6. No Award

Fancast (my thoughts)
1. The Coode Street Podcast
2. The Skiffy and Fanty Show
3. Our Opinions Are Correct
4. Fangirl Happy Hour
5. Be the Serpent
6. Galactic Suburbia

Fan Writer
1. Charles Payseur
2. Foz Meadows
3. James Davis Nicoll
4. Alasdair Stuart
5. Elsa Sjunneson-Henry
6. Bogi Takacs

Fan Artist (my thoughts)
1. Mia Sereno (Likhain)
2. Grace P. Fong
3. Sara Felix
4. Ariela Housman
5. Meg Frank
6. Spring Schoenhuth

Art Book
- No Vote

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book (my thoughts)
1. Dread Nation
2. The Cruel Prince
3. Children of Blood and Bone
4. The Belles
5. Tess of the Road
6. The Invasion

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (my thoughts)

1. Rivers Solomon
2. R.F. Kuang
3. S.A. Chakraborty
4. Katherine Arden
5. Vina Jie-Min Prasad
6. Jeannette Ng

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

Reading the Hugos: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2019 Edition! Today we're going to look at the writers up for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

I know. I know. The Campbell is "Not a Hugo". It is only "administered" by the World Science Fiction Society. It is sponsored by Dell Magazines. But, beyond those technicalities, I'm not sure I really care much about the distinction. It's not a Hugo. It's totally a Hugo. It's not a Hugo.

The Campbell is an award for a writer whose "first work of science fiction or fantasy was published in a professional publication in the previous two years." See here for eligibility rules, but it mostly follows the SFWA definition of professional publication or professional rates above a nominal fee. With the vagaries of publication, short story writers can be somewhat disadvantaged if they get one story published professionally and then years pass before they are truly noticed or place additional stories. Novels often make larger splashes, even if there is only one published in the eligibility window.

It is not unusual to have some overlap year to year, but a cursory glance through the last several decades of finalists suggests that it is unusual for four of the finalists to be the same from the previous year. With that in mind, I am going to recycle some of my thoughts from last year, making minor changes where appropriate.

Let's see how big of splash everyone has made over the last two years. It's a weird category.

Katherine Arden
S.A. Chakraborty
R.F. Kuang
Jeannette Ng
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Rivers Solomon

Jeannette Ng: Ng is one of four writers on the Campbell ballot on the back of a single novel, which for a novelist is not necessarily unusual because there is only a two year eligibility window. Under the Pendulum Sun is Ng's debut novel. In Victorian England, a missionary who journeyed to the realm of faerie in order to proselytize and bring the fae to Christ, has disappeared. Catherine Helstone, his sister, undertakes her own search of faerie and the estate of Gethsemane to find him.

Under the Pendulum Sun is beautifully written and atmospheric as hell. The weight and weirdness of Arcadia shines through on every page. The novel feels Victorian without bogging the reader down with faux Victorian prose. The only problem, and this is quite clearly my problem and not Ng's is that there is something about the novel that I struggled to engage with and care about. There was a distance growing between me and Under the Pendulum Sun and it wasn't one I cared enough to overcome. It's a weird dichotomy, understanding the novel is a beautifully written piece of fiction and still not being able to fully appreciate it. Even so, that's where I'm at with this.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad: Prasad is on the Campbell ballot on the strength of four stories. Two of them, "A Series of Steaks" and "Fandom For Robots" were finalists last year for the Hugo Awards for Novelette and Short Story, respectfully. "Portrait of Skull with Man" (Fireside Fiction, 2017) and "Pistol Grip" (Uncanny, 2018) were not Hugo Award finalists.

It continues to be a difficult and uncomfortable thing to compare and rack and stack writers against each other. The stories, yes, but this is an award for Best New Writer. Are Prasad's four stories stronger than the single novels of Rivers Solomon, Jeannette Ng, R.F. Kuang, and S.A. Chakraborty or the two eligible novels from Katherine Arden?

That's the real challenge here. Both of the Hugo finalist stories are quite good and show an author I want to follow and read more from, the story from Fireside is a trippy bit of goodness, and I really have no idea what to say about "Pistol Grip". The stories are all high quality, but for this award, I'm not sure that they truly measure up to the best of the novels.

Katherine Arden: Arden is eligible for the Campbell following the publication of her novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl and the Tower. Comparatively, it is more similar to Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun in that the prose is more deliberate and beautiful on a sentence level than City of Brass or An Unkindness of Ghosts. That’s the only worthwhile comparison to the other novels because they are all so different in tone and function and story and emotion. The Bear and the Nightingale touches on Russian folklore and is a tight family story mostly set in remote regions of Russia.

I absolutely want to see more from Katherine Arden (and hey, she’s written two more books in the Winternight sequence that began with The Bear and the Nightingale). She’s an author to watch and follow and I’m as excited to read The Girl in the Tower as I am to see what she’s doing ten years from now. The Bear and the Nightingale is the announcement of a major new talent. It’s a slow burn of a novel, but it pays off and it sucks you in.

S.A. Chakraborty: Oh, how I regret having waited so long to read City of Brass. The novel had been on the periphery of my attention since it was published in 2017 and I'm not sure if I would have picked it up if not for Chakraborty making the Campbell ballot this year. I would have missed out. City of Brass is a spectacular debut and is damn near an instant favorite. Chakraborty blends 18th century Cairo with fantasy, the magic of the djinn are very real and there is a culture at war with itself and sometimes with the human world. I don't have the words to describe City of Brass in a way that the beauty of the novel comes across as deeply as it hit me from the start. Chakraborty's writing is smooth as silk and it draws the reader in to one hell of a story.

City of Brass would have been on my Hugo ballot had I read it upon publication, but I appreciate that I have this one more opportunity to recognize Chakraborty's novel. S.A. Chakraborty is a novelist to watch and I'll be there for this year's Kingdom of Copper (not eligible for consideration as part of Chakraborty's Campbell nomination, if you're more fortunate than me and have already read it).

R.F. Kuang: The age of a writer has no particular bearing on her ability to produce outstanding work nor does it say much about the amount of time that writer has put into learning her craft. A writer in her fifties may have only one or two years into developing as a writer while a writer in her twenties may have been writing every day for more than a decade and working to improve and tell better stories. Which is to say that I did a small amount of research to figure out who the youngest winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer was out of curiosity. R.F. Kuang was 22 when The Poppy War was published and when the Hugo / Campbell Award finalists were announced. She is now 23. As near as I can tell, the youngest winner of the Campbell was Lisa Tuttle, who was 21 when she tied Spider Robinson in the voting for the Campbell in 1974 (though I *think* E Lily Yu was fairly young when she won in 2012) . This really isn’t much more than an interesting data point because there is no one path to professional publication and the window for a Campbell nomination is so small for a writer to get noticed. It’s the sort of trivia I find interesting, if not particularly meaningful.

The Poppy War is an extraordinarily accomplished novel. It has echoes of a coming of age story set in a military academy, except that your average coming of age story doesn’t go a fraction as hard as R.F. Kuang goes with The Poppy War. Kuang is unrelenting. When I wrote about the novel in wrapping up my Top 9 Books of 2018, I wrote that “there’s a very real sense of ‘if this is what I did to get here, what do you think I’ll do to stay here?’ It’s brutal from the start.” That also means that even the part of the book that is about training and school is flipped on its head when the hinted war breaks out. At that point The Poppy War almost feels like two different novels, similar to how Full Metal Jacket plays out. It’s a difficult task to decide between R.F. Kuang and Rivers Solomon as the “Best New Writer”, though that difficulty is definitive of how good the new class of writers coming up is and I can’t wait to see what Kuang (and Solomon) have in store for us in the coming years.

Rivers Solomon: Solomon is here on the strength of An Unkindness of Ghosts, a debut that is as much a novel as it is a statement and announcement of arrival. I have long loved the concept and often the execution of a generation ship, but I have never read anything quite like An Unkindness of Ghosts. It is not uncommon to read a generation ship novel that focuses on the divide between the more affluent privileged class and the poor workers living in squalor in the underbelly on the ship. It is uncommon to read a generation ship novel that takes that conceit and drives a knife straight in the gut by running the ship like a plantation. The white overseers are in the upper decks and have significantly greater freedom and luxury. The darker skinned workers are exploited, stigmatized, and brutalized for their very existence.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a deeply uncomfortable novel to read, but every time I put the book down for the night I immediately wanted to pick it up and keep reading deep into the night. Solomon describes their novel as "a science fiction meditation on trans-generational trauma, race, and identity" and if you take that into the novel, you can see what they are doing. Slavery and trans-generation trauma is central to the storytelling of Unkindess of Ghosts, but so is that idea of identity. Through the generational trauma, so much family and personal histories have been lost. Characters barely know who their parents were, let alone grandparents or farther back. More, Solomon's writing of their protagonist, Aster, is so vital and central to the novel. Aster's voice and characterization of a neurologically atypical narrator is so incredibly well done and distinctive that it is almost impossible to imagine the novel written any other way.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is an almost impossibly accomplished and incredible novel and marks Rivers Solomon as an essential writer to watch.

My Vote
1. Rivers Solomon
2. R.F. Kuang
3. S.A. Chakraborty
4. Katherine Arden
5. Vina Jie-Min Prasad
6. Jeannette Ng

Our Previous Coverage
Short Story
Related Work
Graphic Story 
Dramatic Presentation, Long and Short Form
Professional and Fan Artist 
Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Questing in Shorts: July 2019

This edition of Questing in Shorts is brought to you by "Adri is tired and overestimated how much review writing she could get done during a weekend where she was also attending YALC." YALC - the UK Young Adult Literature Convention - was wonderful: a great mix of stuff to engage with and the benefits of attending a con slightly outside one's core interests mean there's lots of horizon broadening stuff and also no need to get too worked up about getting in for early giveaways or hopping between endless desirable authors. The fact that the con is held concurrently with London Film and Comic Con also means there's the occasional celebrity guest wandering around, and this year Jason Momoa was adopted as the con's unofficial mascot due to very regular walkthroughs on the way to and from his signings.

Enough of the unrelated Momoa intrusion. July has been a slim month for me in terms of magazine reading, but I've still got plenty of anthology goodness plus a dip into some serialised fiction from your friendly neighbourhood Serial Box. Shall we dive in?

Meet me in the Future: Stories by Kameron Hurley

Art by Carl Sutton, design by Elizabeth Story
Because Hurley is such a prolific essayist as well as a fiction writer, and is so open about many elements of her writing journey, I already knew that short fiction hasn't been her natural habitat as a writer, and it's ground that gets covered again in the opening to this collection. It's an admission that might seem odd at the start of a short story collection for many writers, but fits with Hurley's reputation as someone who has got where she has through putting in the work: something that's very much on display in this high quality short story collection.

Hurley's forte generally involves scenarios with senseless and claustrophobic violence, full of plague and rot and viscera, and when collected into one short burst of death energy after another, it can get quite relentless. The bludgeoning effect of each story's brutality is only occasionally balanced out by characters whose fates we can really get invested in, and it can really start to add up, meaning that this is a collection that's worth offering a prolonged spot on the bedside table to be dipped into occasionally. I was also surprised not to encounter more stories set in the same world, which I had picked up on as a feature of Hurley's work from previous engagements (I've been a Patreon subscriber of hers on and off for years, which is where quite a few of these stories come from). The world of Nev, a corpse-jumping former soldier trying to survive, turns up in both "Elephants and Corpses" (excellent) and "The Fisherman and the Pig" (fine), as well as a story in the world of The Stars are Legion and the original short fiction version of "The Light Brigade" (still brilliant on its own as well as read in conversation with its novel cousin). However, I could easily have spent more time - and am fairly sure there's more stuff - set in the world of stories like "The Red Secretary", and plenty of other worlds (like "The Plague Givers") which could hold much more. Perhaps its because its the worlds of these stories and not their characters or plots that stay with me that I'm always keen to spend longer in them - and I'd love to see Hurley take on a more mosaic style novel with her worldbuilding skills and short story expertise. Regardless, the stuff that is in this collection is near universally strong, and if Hurley's novels are up your alley then this is one to look out for.

Rating: 7/10 March/April 2019 (Download)

This set of five stories - packaged for subscribers to the free ebook bundle in late May - bookends an "issue" permeated with explorations of death and grief with two stories about intelligent dogs. Of these, "Knowlegeable Creatures" by Christopher Rowe takes the form of a period murder mystery in a reality where certain types of animals are "knowledgeable". Connolly Marsh is an investigative dog who bites off more than he can chew when he gets brought into a case of blackmail and murder by none other than the perpetrator of the murder. It's an entertaining mystery with a satisfying edge of Victorian horror to it. At the back of the collection, "Mama Bruise" by Jonathan Carroll is the deliciously weird story of a couple who realise that the family dog has been imbued with the spirit of the woman's dead father, with increasingly bizarre and dangerous consequences for both them and the dog. 

Sandwiched between them, and lumped here into the category of "not about dogs", are some equally strong tales. "One/Zero" by Kathleen Ann Goonan takes a powerful look at the effects of war on young children, offering a tenuous and painful thread of hope in its speculative future among the exploration of grief and loss. "Blue Morphos", by Lis Mitchell takes on questions about belonging and autonomy, in the story of a woman who joins a family whose members all take on a "second life" as other objects or creatures when they die. Despite pressure from family members, including her partner and other women who have married into the family, the narrator is firm in her decision not to take on a second life, but struggles to have this respected and to explain the decision to her daughter. I was reminded during reading of Zoe Medeiros' "My Sister is a House", which has similar ways of looking at family relationships through non-human reincarnations, but tonally these are very different stories and they explore quite different surrounding mythologies and family structures. Rounding off the group is Rich Larson's tale of a reluctant killing machine superhuman, "Painless". Rich Larson is a prolific author but one who crosses my path surprisingly little, and I enjoyed this story without being blown away by it. Taken together, this is a collection that hangs together thematically despite probably not being planned that way, and I still think the option to read stories in ebook (provided you're not too worried about reading them as they come out) continues to be a good option. Despite the strength of the individual stories, however, I'm unimpressed that chose not to feature any short fiction from authors of colour over this two month period.

Rating: 7/10

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

A year after the release of Raven Stratagem, it's time to go back to the world of reality-bending calendars and the military technologies they make possible! This collection is, as the title would suggest, entirely set in the Machineries of Empire world; stories range from "The Chameleon Gloves", set in the pre-Heptarchate era, before the system of factions became what it was, to "Glass Cannon", a direct sequel from Raven Stratagem which brings Shuos Jedao and Ajewan Cheris back in a fun and explosive way. Between these longer pieces (the post-trilogy story is a novella) is a whole bunch of flash fiction ranging from poetic worldbuilding exercises ("How the Andan Court") to cute sidelines about the clean-up of cat hair in space, ("Irriz the Assassin-Cat"), to more emotionally resonant moments, mainly involving Jedao, offering additional snapshots and the occasional "what-if" about the characters' inner lives.

While there's lots to love about the world of the Hexarchate and much of that is on display here - "The Robot's Math Lessons" a story about how young Cheris originally learns machine language and starts befriending robots is particularly endearing - this is a collection with Jedao at its centre, and those who don't find the character compelling are likely to find themselves skipping forward. Though I'm generally a fan of the lad (and was really impressed by the direction taken in "Raven Stratagem", I did get a bit sick of him during the sequence of flash pieces focusing on his human life; it was nice to reach "The Battle of Candle Arc" and the turning point around then, and things get a lot more varied at that point. Even if you're skipping through some of the flash fiction, however, Hexarchate Stories is worth picking up for its longer pieces alone: Hugo finalist heist "Extracurricular Activities" is here and still brilliant, and "Glass Cannon" is practically essential reading for anyone who enjoyed the novel trilogy, and forms an intriguing potential bridge to further Hexarchate adventures. Kudos also for the design and curation of this collection, which includes author notes after every story that help elaborate on the process and intention behind each piece. It'll only work if you've read the novels, but if you're following along, this is going to be a welcome addition to your Hexarchate experience.

Rating: 8/10

Alternis: Season 1 by Andrea Phillips, Maurice Broaddus, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and E.C. Myers.

Cover artist not credited
Alternis marks the first time I've followed along with a Serial Box serial as it's being released, and it was an interesting experience to follow Tandy Kahananui through her trials as the newest member of Team USA in a very high-stakes video game. We are introduced to Tandy as she attempts to troubleshoot some bugs in her game, Alternis, a fantasy MMPORG that she's poured a decade of solo work; however, when she's sucked into an alternate version of her game which appears to have been directly taken from her design, she soon discovers that a super-secret version of her game that has been set up as a virtual political arena, with each nation entering its own team and competing on a leaderboard in a pact that is supposed to reduce conflict in the real world. Having stumbled upon the secret, Tandy is quickly scooped up to play for her country, whose members - elite gamer Dante, military veteran Ben, and team leader Etta - all have varying reservations about bringing her up to the level needed to contribute to their missions.

Alternis is literary RPG, meaning that there are trappings of game design within the prose: characters have hit points, experience levels and need to keep track of their spells and abilities, just like a real game. One of the benefits of Serial Box's productions is the ability to switch between prose and audio, and the sound for Alternis is particularly good: Summer Glau's narration is engaging and enjoyable (particular kudos for the male voices), and a range of specifically-composed music and sound effects add realistic depth to the game conceit, especially for more heated action scenes. I was glad to discover the additional dimension the narration provided, especially for tense scenes where the sound design really lifts the writing up a notch. Of course, it's matched by solid writing from a talented team, and I felt the respective author styles here melded well together, with only subtle differences in tone from chapter to chapter. Jaqueline Koyanagi's "Quickened Soup for the Soul" was a particular highlight, focusing on a deeply weird, interesting aspect of the game in some depth - to say more would be a spoiler, as it's quite far in, but it's great fun.

Where Alternis didn't work for me was in turning its genre conceit into a story whose wider stakes felt genuine and interesting. While the character arcs improve with time - starting from a bizarrely juvenile point given that these are supposed to be elite operatives on a high-stakes political mission - the story never really sells the idea that the work of Tandy and co. is to secure the USA's position on a global stage, or indeed that them losing to the likes of Canada and South Korea could actually translate into a rebalancing of the world order towards countries which seem to have the same resource and population size (and national stereotypes) as they do in our world. The episode in which other teams start making an appearance - including the aforementioned South Korean team, who are all super-synchronised ninja-types, as well as a Russian team made up of three beefy dudes with one smart, cold, calculating woman - is particularly excruciating for its reliance on tropes, and despite flashes into what's going on in the real world, the political plot remains frustratingly weak. While I enjoyed Alternis for what it gets right, and I can see the attraction of LitRPG, the weaknesses were hard for me to ignore, and I'm not sure this is a serial I'll be continuing if it moves into another season (as it probably should, given that ending!)

Rating: 6/10

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


Monday, July 29, 2019

New Books Spotlight

Welcome to another edition of the New Books Spotlight, where each month or so we curate a selection of 6 forthcoming books we find notable, interesting, and intriguing. It gives us the opportunity to shine a brief spotlight on some stuff we're itching to get our hands on.

What are you looking forward to? Anything you want to argue with us about? Is there something we should consider spotlighting in the future? Let us know in the comments!

Brennan, Marie. Turning Darkness into Light, by Marie Brennan [Tor]

Publisher’s Description
As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.
Why We Want It: Turning Darkness Into Light is a follow up to Marie Brennan’s Hugo Award finalist Memoirs of Lady Trent series featuring the granddaughter of Isabella Camhurst and that’s really all that I need to know about it. I’m overdue to finish the Lady Trent novels, but Turning Darkness Into Light is a must read when I do.

DiLouie, Craig. Our War [Orbit]

Publisher’s Description
A prescient and gripping novel of a second American civil war, and the children caught in the conflict, forced to fight. 

Our children are our soldiers. 

After his impeachment, the president of the United States refuses to leave office, and the country erupts into a fractured and violent war. Orphaned by the fighting and looking for a home, 10-year-old Hannah Miller joins a citizen militia in a besieged Indianapolis.

In the Free Women militia, Hannah finds a makeshift family. They’ll teach her how to survive. They’ll give her hope. And they’ll show her how to use a gun.

Hannah’s older brother, Alex, is a soldier too. But he’s loyal to other side, and has found his place in a militant group of fighters who see themselves as the last bastion of their America. By following their orders, Alex will soon make the ultimate decision behind the trigger.

On the battlefields of America, Hannah and Alex will risk everything for their country, but in the end they’ll fight for the only cause that truly matters – each other.
Why We Want It: Our War is a novel painfully reflecting some of America’s greatest fears – that a President once impeached will refuse to leave office and America descends once again into a Civil War. It’s a story that could be ripped from the headlines of five minutes from now. While I hope Craig DiLouie’s novel is not prescient, it looks to be a searing near future worst case scenario of a novel that I both can’t wait as well as slightly dread reading.

Jones, Gwyneth. Joanna Russ [University of Illinois Press]

Publisher’s Description
The creative original who helped open the door to feminist SF 

Experimental, strange, and unabashedly feminist, Joanna Russ's groundbreaking science fiction grew out of a belief that the genre was ideal for expressing radical thought. Her essays and criticism, meanwhile, helped shape the field and still exercise a powerful influence in both SF and feminist literary studies.

Award-winning author and critic Gwyneth Jones offers a new appraisal of Russ's work and ideas. After years working in male-dominated SF, Russ emerged in the late 1960s with Alyx, the uber-capable can-do heroine at the heart of Picnic on Paradise and other popular stories and books. Soon, Russ's fearless embrace of gender politics and life as an out lesbian made her a target for male outrage while feminist classics like The Female Man and The Two of Them took SF in innovative new directions. Jones also delves into Russ's longtime work as a critic of figures as diverse as Lovecraft and Cather, her foundational place in feminist fandom, important essays like "Amor Vincit Foeminam," and her career in academia.
Why We Want It: Part of The University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction Series, Gwyneth Jones’ look into the life and the work of Joanna Russ is essential for readers looking to get a bit deeper into one of science fiction’s most notable and important writers. I read Paul Kincaid’s commentary on Iain Banks from the same series when it made the Related Work ballot last year, which brought the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series to my attention. This may well be the single volume of the series so far (though I’ll be looking forward to forthcoming works on Ursula K. Le Guin and Roger Zelazny as well)

Kuang, R.F. The Dragon Republic [Harper Voyageur]

Publisher’s Description
Rin’s story continues in this acclaimed sequel to The Poppy War—an epic fantasy combining the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters 

The war is over.

The war has just begun.

Three times throughout its history, Nikan has fought for its survival in the bloody Poppy Wars. Though the third battle has just ended, shaman and warrior Rin cannot forget the atrocity she committed to save her people. Now she is on the run from her guilt, the opium addiction that holds her like a vise, and the murderous commands of the fiery Phoenix—the vengeful god who has blessed Rin with her fearsome power.

Though she does not want to live, she refuses to die until she avenges the traitorous Empress who betrayed Rin’s homeland to its enemies. Rin’s only hope is to join forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who plots to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new republic.

But the Empress and the Dragon Warlord are not what they seem. The more Rin witnesses, the more she fears her love for Nikan will force her to use the Phoenix’s deadly power once more.

Because there is nothing Rin won’t sacrifice to save her country . . . and exact her vengeance.
Why We Want It: The Poppy War was a revelation. A debut novel and one of the best of 2018 (it was on my Hugo ballot and was my runner up for the best novel I read last year), the novel deserved every bit of praise it received. In a year filled with major releases from some of my favorite authors, not to mention a surprise sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dragon Republic is one of the top two or three novels I’m looking for this year. The Poppy War was that good, and I have no doubt The Dragon Republic will live up to the promise of Kuang’s debut.

Modesitt, Jr., L.E. The Mage Fire War [Tor]

Publisher’s Description
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., continues his bestselling Saga of Recluce with The Mage-Fire War, the third book in a story arc which began with The Mongrel Mage and Outcasts of Order. 

Once again, prejudices against the use of chaos magic force Beltur and his companions to flee their refuge in Axalt. The rulers of nearby Montgren have offered them sanctuary and the opportunity to become the Councilors of the run-down and disintegrating town of Haven.

Montegren lacks any mages—white or black—making this seem like the perfect opportunity to start again.

However, Beltur and the others must reinstitute law and order, rebuild parts of the town, deal with brigands—and thwart an invading army.
Why We Want It: The Mage-Fire War is the 21st Recluce novel from L.E. Modesitt, Jr and the third to feature Beltur as a protagonist. If my math is correct, this is the first sequence to feature the same main character for three books. Otherwise, we’ve had a number of two book sequences. While offering few of the delights and discoveries of the earliest Recluce novels, the Beltur sequence has been solid fantasy fiction and Recluce is a series I will always come back to.

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Gods of Jade and Shadow [Del Rey]

Publisher’s Description
The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld. 
Why We Want It: Each of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s three previous novels have been stupendous and as different from each other as can be. It has come to the point that it doesn’t matter to me what the book is about as long as I know it was written by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. With that said, a novel featuring the released spirit of the Mayan God of Death seeking help to get his throne back? Yeah, I’m there for that, too.

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

Friday, July 26, 2019

Microreview [book]: There Before the Chaos, by K.B. Wagers

K.B Wagers’ There Before the Chaos returns to her Indranan War space opera universe with the start of a brand new series where she is not afraid to “Blow up Vulcan”

The Indranan War series[Behind the Throne, After the Crown, Beyond the Empire]  introduced us to Hail, green haired gunrunner. She also happened to be a Princess of the Indranan Empire who had fled her birthright for a life in the wider galaxy. That first series is about her forcible return to the Empire by agents of her dying Mother, as threats from without and within threatened to pull the Empire to pieces. The series ended with her as Empress in her own right, and the threats, external and internal, quashed, at costs both personal and empire-wide.

Now, in There Before the Chaos, Empress Hailmi Mercedes Jaya Bristol finds that uneasy lies the crown indeed, especially with a galaxy on the verge of fiery conflict.  The novel picks up not long after the events of the first trilogy. The Empire is in the slow process of rebuilding after the previous conflict and attempted usurpation. The Saxon Empire, their neighbor and antagonist, are still coming to terms with Hail’s outmaneuver of their expansionist efforts, all part of the grand scheme against Indrana.

The heart of the novel comes, however, with the Farians. The Farians, introduced in the first series, are a secretive ancient alien species and have astonishing powers to heal or kill with what are basically psychic powers, as well as an apparent ability to foretell the future. Revealed in this book for the first time, the Shen have had a long standing conflict with a splinter faction of their species, the Shen. After thousands of years of conflict, that conflict is rising in tenor and volume and now starting to spill into Human space. Both sides look to Hail as a possible intermediary to help solve the conflict, seeking to have them promote their point of view.  And then there is the Farian healer Fase. Fase, the Farian we saw in the original series, who performed the unspeakable and forbidden--bringing back someone from the dead, is in a faction of her own, convinced that there is a different future at stake--one that Hail is also a part of.

Character beats are a strong part of why I love this series. Readers really should read the first series  before starting here, because while the author does summarize events pretty neatly in the pages, the character beats are where this novel shines, and it is the character development that relies on the first three novels, and then bridges beyond them, that the novel really does best with. Hail has been through a lot, personally, in the first three novels, and this novel doesn’t pull any punches in showing the psychological effects of those events in her life, now. She is Empress, but she has been changed, even damaged in some key ways from her experience, and this novel is all about the consequences of what she has been through.

The other strain that the novel explores hearkens back again to the original trilogy and is an interesting reflection of it. Hail’s return to the Empire, as mentioned above, was a forced and unwelcome one, Hail was quite happy to have left the Empire behind forever. When she left, after all, she had older sisters, a healthy mother and in a real sense was supernumerary and surplus to requirements. The machinations that caused her mother to bring her back and her eventual rise to the throne changed all that. But once on the throne, you can take the gunrunner out of space, but can you take the space out of the gunrunner. Both internally and externally, the novel explores Hail’s relationship with her role as Empress--does she really *want* to be Empress? Would a chance for her to escape that role and life be something she might be tempted by? Is Hailimi at heart a Gunrunner, adventurer, freebooter, or the Empress of Indrana? This central character question is at the heart of this book.

Above and beyond Hail herself, though, the character development and interactions between Hail and “her people” are a key thing that drives through the novel. From her former gunrunning mentor Hao, to her Ekam (head bodyguard) Emmory, to the rest of her team, they too have been through a lot, and we get to see character tension, interaction and growth within them, between each other and between them and Hail in a realistic and often painfully true way. Uneasy lies the crown, and Hail’s found family is part of that unease. There is a key passage where one of Hail’s people makes a key choice, one that cannot be taken back, and the consequences of that choice are huge, personally, and otherwise. This choice winds up driving plot. Wagers’ style of using personal motivations, ultimately to drive drama and plot are crystallized and exemplified in this choice.

The novel doesn’t have quite as much action as some of the previous novels, which is a bit of a weakness, since action beats are something the author works rather well.. This is a novel a little longer on the political machinations and beats rather than more traditional action beats. Hail is trying to keep her Empire together and rebuild it after the events of the original trilogy. The tension is still there, the life that Hail led as a gunrunner marks her, marks her style, and marks those who would deal with her on a political basis. The politics of the galaxy of the Indraran War universe are interesting, complicated and multi sided. Readers who want Politics in Space and thrill at the idea of various polities maneuvering diplomatically as possible preludes to war or other action are going to love these sequences. There are also internal politics as well, as Hail learns how to reign as well as rule the Empire, and all are not happy with her on the throne.

The novel does conclude, though, with an absolutely amazing set piece action sequence that has come out of and is because of all the other stuff that has happened previously. The political machinations, the carefully laid character motivations, the galactic reactions to those character beats all combine into a sequence that kept me turning the pages at the back of the book, absorbed in a sequence that could have come out of Mass Effect. This firecracker ending, too, shows that Wagers is willing to really upset the status quo of her universe, and, like the 2009 Star Trek movie, make a radical “Blow up Vulcan” approach.  This is how you end a novel in a series if you want the reader to salvate and want to read the sequel (out in several months at the time of this writing) immediately.

I do think that the novel tries to stand on it’s own with summations of the plot and the basic premise and setup of what has happened is enfolded well. With a character focused drama like this, however, I don’t think that Wagers’ attempt succeeds. Her style and her universe rely on those deep character beats and without having read the first three novels, the central questions of the novel, I think, don’t quite have as solid an impact on readers.

Especially for existing readers, though,There Before the Chaos convincingly and winningly starts a new series of novels with one of my favorite Space Opera characters in recent years. Especially given its firecracker of an ending, I am eager to read the next novel, Down Among the Dead, when it comes out. Long live the Empress!

The Math
Baseline Assessment 6/10

Bonuses : +1 for very strong character beats and character development
+1 for willing to shake up her universe and explore the ramifications.

Penalties : -1 for not quite successfully standing on its own compared to the previous series. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention (If you have read the previous novels), 7/10 otherwise.

Reference:  Wagers, K..B, There Before the Chaos, [Orbit, 2018]

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

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero: SDCC 2019 Recap

What may have been my final San Diego Comic Con wrapped up on Sunday and I was fortunate enough to share it with my kids (my daughter joined me on Sunday). SDCC celebrated its 50th birthday with some amazing panels, surprises, merchandise, and off-site events.

Best Panel:
Locke and Key Spectacular
Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez returned to SDCC to talk all things Locke and Key. The two friends discussed the new one-shot issue that was released last weekend, the upcoming Netflix series, and potential upcoming comics. Hill spoke about a series that would follow the Locke family set in periods of wartime and then cut to the present to see how the past still influences the present. The series is called World War Key and the first book, Revolution, is due out in 2020.  The Locke and Key series has wrapped filming season one and Hill has watched the first eight episodes. You can even search Locke and Key on Netflix! There is a lot of great news for us Locke and Key fans and it is always a delight to see Hill and Rodriguez together.

Best Offsite:
Brooklyn 99
NBC pulled off one of the most immersive and entertaining off-sites that I have ever experienced. Teams were first led into a briefing room where they were tasked with a heist similar to the Halloween episodes on the show. After receiving instructions, teams entered the Brooklyn 99 office. After a brief tour of the desks of Captain Holt, Boyle, and other 99 favorites, the teams raced to complete a series of tasks in order to open a safe that held the heist championship belt. In addition to the great cast of supporting characters that were sprinkled throughout the office (one actor in the holding cell offered to watch my son as we competed), the Brooklyn 99 cast made special videos that we enjoyed throughout the offsite. Boyle dressed up as Detective Pikachu was especially entertaining. It didn't hurt that my son grabbed the winning flag seconds before another team did, but this one was worth the wait and was a truly memorable experience.

Hottest Merch:
The Loyal Subjects
If you went to The Loyal Subjects booth during one of its limited drops you were sure to be met with a line. While I was most excited to finally get my hands on the new TLS Hot Wheels, Ghostbusters and My Hero Academia brought the crowds that led to most of the exclusives to sell out quickly. If you were unable to catch a Ghostbusters or MHA drop it was likely sold out by the time you made it to the booth. I have been collecting TLS for a few years and it is great to see it get the reaction it had at SDCC.

Best Escape from the Chaos:
Stern Pinball Lounge
I once again had the pleasure to visit the crew at the Stern Pinball Lounge and my son and I enjoyed some free games of Pinball on some of the best boards in the market. The big announcement from Stern related to its new Star Wars machine they are calling Star Wars Pin. The new machine is designed for home use and has had some of the mechanics for accepting coins removed to allow Stern to give people an arcade pinball experience at a lower cost. I had the chance to play this machine and the art and video features are pure retro glory. I got nostalgic just walking up to this game and had it not been pointed out to me that there were some slight modifications made to the machine I would have never known.

Biggest Surprise:
Top Gun: Maverick
My son needed to have at least one Hall H experience at SDCC so we decided to file into the room for the 20th anniversary of Batman Beyond.  We got there early, as all good con attendees should, and were pleasantly surprised to see Conan boasting about a huge celebrity we would soon encounter. This ended up being Tom Cruise and we got to enjoy the world premiere trailer for Top Gun: Maverick with 8,000 of our closest friends. It was an electric moment and my son is now hyped about seeing this film. Not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Top Three Exclusives:
I ended up with quite a few items from various booths around the floor, but my top three are my Toucan Funko Pop!, my Loyal Subjects Hot Wheels Bone Shaker, and my SDCC exclusive Locke and Key book Nailed it.  While the comic is brief, it has insights on other Locke and Key rumblings and I cannot get enough of Rodriguez's art.

Final Thoughts:
After around 12 or so trips to SDCC I am officially calling it quits. It has nothing to do with the enjoyment I get from attending or the quality of the programming (I think CCI and its employees and volunteers do an amazing job), but more that I am simply tired. Being able to bring my son the past two years has been great to experience it through his eyes. My daughter even joined us on Sunday and we met DJ Lance!! It will be tough to watch from the sidelines moving forward, but I look forward to getting a bit more sleep during the summer months.

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Lodestar

This is the second year of the Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel and, from the perspective of a reader who isn't much of a YA reader, the Hugo nominators have done a solid job each year in finding a worthy lineup of finalists.

For reasons of time and priority, the only novel from last year's ballot I read was the one I had already read prior to the announcement of the finalists (Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, for those keeping score at home), but I made a point this year to read the full ballot.

Unsurprisingly, the novels here are consistently excellent.

I do wonder a bit about the choices I make as a reader. I don't want to make this more of a general point, so I'll keep the focus squarely on what I can speak to. As a general rule I am not a YA reader, mostly because there is so much I am interested in reading and even though I read somewhere between 100 and 150 books in a given year (sometimes more, seldom fewer), I still need to make choices as to what to read and there is just so much I am excited to read in the adult SFF sphere that doing any sort of deeper dive into YA is something that would take away from the other other books I am looking to read.

Generally, it takes a novel that breaks out of the YA spaces and gains visibility in some of the more SFF communities that I engage with (see, Children of Blood and Bone) or has some aspect that catches the attention of those communities (see, Dread Nation) or are beloved by commentators I deeply admire and respect (see, Tess of the Road). Also, I almost said the "wider SFF communities", but that would not have been correct because YA publishing and readership is absolutely huge and has a significant overlap in science fiction and fantasy that should not be understated.

This is all to say that I was familiar with three of the novels on the ballot, and I was excited to read everything here to see which novels would break out into my list of new favorites. At least one, and let's find out which.

The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

The Invasion: The novel least on my Hugo / YA radar is also my least favorite of the Lodestar finalists. The Invasion is the second volume in a sequence began with The Call, and I went into The Invasion blind. O’Guilin gives new readers enough to pick up what the story is and how everything fits together well enough that even though there is surely nuance and important references missed, The Invasion stands fairly well on its own despite being very much a continuation of a larger story. It’s a mixup of Irish mythology, survival horror, and faerie. It happens to be one of two novels on the Lodestar Shortlist dealing with faerie. Unrelated to the awards, I’ve read a surprising number of novels this year touching on faerie.

The Invasion is a solid novel, and one which I would normally be interested in reading more of, but this is a really solid class of novels on the Lodestar ballot and The Invasion doesn’t hang with the others. It is also perhaps not surprising with this year’s Worldcon being held in Dublin that a number of voters from Ireland would nominate a novel from their country, which is as it should be.

Tess of the Road: I was nervous to read Tess of the Road because I know how passionately Adri loves the novel, how hard she has championed it not just for the Lodestar but also as a potential contender for Best Novel. What if I don’t like it? What if I hate it? It’s not that our reading tastes line up perfectly anyway (she doesn’t love The Calculating Stars and I don’t understand), but still. So, with a small amount of trepidation and a moderate amount of excitement, I started to read Tess of the Road. Friends, I didn’t love it. It was only because of Adri’s enthusiasm that I pushed through beyond the midpoint of the novel because those first chapters, even up to nearly the first half of the novel, were not working for me. I had decided to not re-read Adri’s review of the novel because I didn’t want to have someone else’s take fresh in my mind, but I was curious what she saw in Tess of the Road.

I kept reading and something changed around the point we got to the road crew and the old nun. I think it was where we saw more of Tess’s change, where Tess had fewer moments of raw desperation to survive or escape and more time forming into the woman she would become. That’s where I began to be sold on the novel. The first half of the novel is necessary for the second half to have meaning (or to even be understandable), but I was fully engaged and excited during that second half and completely disinterested in the opening section of the novel. I do recommend you read Adri’s thoughts on the novel for another perspective. Also, there is a moment very late in the novel that functionally amounts to a recounting of most of what Tess did during the novel and it shouldn’t work. It’s a summary in the form of conversation, and it’s a beautiful capstone to Tess of the Road, a novel that I appreciated far more by the end than I ever thought I midway through the story.

The Belles: It is a sign of the strength of the Lodestar category this year that The Belles ranks as far down my ballot as it does, because Dhonielle Clayton's novel was engaging and a painful delight. As a general rule, I appreciate and enjoy YA novels which feature some alternate world with a major societal change to divide citizens in some way - Uglies, The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. The Belles is that sort of novel, one where Beauty (capital B) is vital - most people are drab and gray, but the power of the Belles is transformative - defining beauty standards and changing drab gray individuals into vibrantly bright realized humans. The Belles is over the top, like Effie Trinket on steroids and multiplied hundreds of times.

The novel is a commentary on beauty and how the external becomes self worth, told through the lens of an absurd concept of a society and magic system and it is absolutely delightful.

Children of Blood and Bone: One of the biggest novels of 2018 was Tomi Adeyemi’s epic fantasy debut Children of Blood and Bone. It’s a YA novel and, from my perspective, much of the conversation lived in YA circles until the novel’s momentum and importance on the year had built so much that it could not be ignored by the more “traditional” genre sphere. I put “traditional” in quotes because I think that is becoming an increasingly outdated way of looking at genre conversation and I also recognize that I may also be inadvertently be considering the small space that I occupy and can see from as “traditional” and others that I’m not aware of as not part of the usual / historical places that genre conversations are occurring and I suspect there is a good chance that I was wrong. With that said, it still *feels* to me that Children of Blood and Bone broke into the genre conversation from a YA base.

Of course, we are considering Children of Blood and Bone as a finalist for the Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel with a need to decide how it stacks next to the other finalists in the category. Children of Blood and Bone is the only finalist I had read prior to the announcement of the ballot and it remains a favorite of mine and a very strong debut for Adeyemi. The novel is inspired by West African mythology, though more than that I can’t say, and hits hard on racism, oppression, and slavery. With that, Children of Blood and Bone is very much an epic fantasy with a quest and it hits those familiar and welcome beats for fantasy readers. It’s a strong debut and I can’t wait to see what Adeyemi does with the follow up.

The Cruel Prince: Holly Black is the most accomplished writer of the finalists for the Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel. She is the author of nine Young Adult novels (including The Cruel Prince) and co-author to some fourteen middle grade novels (including the Spiderwick Chronicles), if my count is at all accurate. Black is a previous winner of the Andre Norton (Nebula) Award for Best YA Novel. The Cruel Prince is the first book of a new trilogy (The Folk of the Air) that is related to a previous series which began with the novel Tithe. No knowledge of those previous novels are required (nor did I have any), though I suspect long time Holly Black readers will nod familiarly at old friends and enemies appearing in this volume.

The Cruel Prince is a very engaging novel, though as with many stories of faerie, not a very pleasant one. Jude and her sisters are brought to faerie when her parents are murdered and they are raised by the murderer (the father of Jude’s oldest sister). The Cruel Prince is a novel of betrayal after betrayal, trickery and plots, of rebellion and desperation to belong. It’s delightful, which is a word that I over-use when describing things, but The Cruel Prince is an absolute delight to read. Jude is an engaging protagonist, as relatable as can be for a character now younger than half of my age. Her relationships with her sisters, with Cardan (the presumed “cruel prince” of the title), with another character better left discovered, are all so well done and well written that Jude is a fully realized character. Children of Blood and Bone may be the more important novel in the long term, but The Cruel Prince is the better book. Holly Black is a master storyteller.

Dread Nation: The American Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It ended because the dead rose during the battle of Gettysburg and fighting a zombie uprising was more pressing than fighting the living. Slavery has been abolished, but in its place is the Native and Negro Reeducation Act and other laws like requiring non-white children to attend “combat schools” to better learn how to more effectively kill the dead.

Justina Ireland is doing so much work in this novel, and likely so much more than I can even recognize as a comfortably upper middle class white male approaching middle age. I fully recognize there are parts of the novel that aren’t written for me and that I don’t have the lived in experience to even see, let alone viscerally feel to my core that other readers will. Dread Nation is a post apocalyptic zombie novel that deals with race, gender, class, and I have no idea what else. There is action, ass kicking, violence as near ballet, violence as dehumanizing brutality, a clear recognition that slavery isn’t dead but just going by a different name, surprising allies, expected enemies, continued legal oppression, and a searing rage permeating the novel.

Dread Nation is absolutely spectacular. If I had read it earlier, it may well have found a slot on my Best Novel ballot. This is as good as it gets.

My Vote
1. Dread Nation
2. The Cruel Prince
3. Children of Blood and Bone
4. The Belles
5. Tess of the Road
6. The Invasion

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night by 505 Games (Publisher)

Shattered Glass

Koji Igarashi was responsible for a handful of my favorite games, namely Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. When he left Konami and landed on Kickstarter with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and a promise to deliver an Igavania game like he’s given us before, I was 100% on board. Symphony is over 20 years old now, but it’s a timeless classic, and his other Castlevania games could be spoken of in the same breath. Could Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual sequel to a beloved classic as we’ve seen crowdsourcing attempt to replicate countless times before, live up to those sorts of expectations? The answer is no but it’s complicated.

Crystal shards, demons, a person wronged, and a labyrinthine castle; those are the ingredients of Bloodstained’s story, which is wholly ignorable for 99% of players. It’s just not particularly interesting nor is it the focus. This is an action platformer in the same exact vein as previous Iga-produced Castlevania games, but more namely, the Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow games. Both of them have a mechanic that’s copied almost wholesale into Bloodstained, which is the collection of enemy abilities and enhancements. Killing enemies will sometimes result in a “shard” ability. Sometimes this means you will be able to replicate an enemy’s attack, like throwing a bone. Sometimes it’s a stat boost. Sometimes it’s a little familiar that floats along with you and helps in some way. Regardless, beyond the collection of weapons, armors, consumable potions, food, and crafting ingredients, this shard collecting gives the game a “gotta catch them all” feel as you repetitively slaughter these demons to collect their goodies.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night delivers on the promise of a Koji Igarashi style Castlevania game with an intellectual property that isn’t owned by Konami. You could do a few name swaps and this game would feel right in line with that series. The game itself feels like those prior games. The platforming and action are tweaked just right to rarely feel loose or cheap. It’s got responsive platforming, lots of enemies to kill, and lots of ways to kill them. It’s got the soundtrack that’s fairly close to those games and the gothic feeling and look. It’s 3D on a 2D plane done with Unreal engine, which sort of gives everything a shiny look. It comes off as a bit cheap when compared to how rich and expensive the fully 2D Symphony of the Night looked, but it’s far from bad. Stripped to its bones, the core gameplay is fun. Platforming, tons of weird enemies, and a lot of nooks and crannies to explore are what make these games enjoyable.

There’s a whole raft of non-gameplay bits that don’t have too much effect on that core loop. There are three side quest paths that simply involve getting particular items or killing particular enemies for item rewards. There are two crafting systems; one for items, another for food. Enemies drop ingredients for both systems, and they’re both of dubious return. I found that the weapons and items dropped by enemies alone were mostly sufficient to make numbers go up and get through the game. The food grants one-time permanent stat boosts, and some repeatable boosts by eating it, but I was collecting ingredients solely to complete the food side quest. Some of those ingredients are painfully rare. There’s also a ton of appearance customization options that you can only get by finding style books and delivering them to an in-game barber. I made a few changes when I found the barber the first time, didn’t make note of where he was, and never found him again. I spent the rest of the game running around with a pocket full of unused style books. This stuff exists, and it’s almost entirely optional.

Where the game stumbles is in this particular labyrinth. It just doesn’t seem to flow as neatly as previous games. As usual, progress is gated by a collection of core gameplay upgrades (like a double jump), but there were times where the way forward wasn’t clear and wasn’t gated by some kind of obvious upgrade. There was one particular obstacle that halted all progress and it was gated by finding and killing the right demon, but there were some extra steps in between. In other places, progress is simply slowed by throwing a ton of high damage, high hit point enemies in a long path to the next save point. The last third of the game really suffers from this.

The game also has the Stink of Crowdsourcing, which is stuff in the game that otherwise wouldn’t be there if it weren’t crowdsourced. The most obvious of these are paintings with the faces of Kickstarter backers, but the Kickstarter campaign sold a lot more:
  • Backer gets a special message in the credits
  • Backer face as a painting in the castle
  • Backer designed weapon
  • Backer pet as enemy in the game
  • Backer designed enemy
  • Backer designed hidden room
Going over this list, the least noticeable were the backer designed weapons. This game is so jammed full of weapons that I couldn’t tell if I ever used one that a backer designed; they simply blend in. Backer designed enemies also didn’t really pop out at me. But the backer faces as paintings were super obvious, and the pets as enemies were rather out-of-place. Is someone really that excited to know that I killed a digital representation of their dog a dozen times so I could get its shard? The backer designed hidden rooms were almost always exceptionally tough, optional boss fights. They weren’t necessarily bad, but often out of place with their location, and gated by finding a key somewhere in the rest of the castle. This key gating is itself out of place with the style of these games; I can only think of one particular key needed in all of Symphony of the Night. I was feeling like the night janitor with my ring full of keys by the end of Bloodstained.

I put down Bloodstained for a few days in the last third of the game because I got frustrated by the labyrinth. I couldn’t tell whether I was moving in the right direction, and this style of game still uses hard save points. Dying during a long exploration run means losing all that progress, and it sucks. I had very mixed feelings about the game at this time: was it really any better than those previous Igavania’s? Is this game fun and I am bad at it or does this particular labyrinth suck? I went back and pushed through to the end, and I’m glad I did. The game ends in spectacular, classic Castlevania fashion. But it’s not quite enough to pull it up to greatness.

What I hope happens is that the team of studios that made Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night can take this momentum to make a better sequel, absent of the muddy last third and silly crowdsourced additions, and Bloodstained 2 is a great game. Today, I’m glad I’ve got one Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night but it’s a flawed experience. It’s a good game that looks cheaper than it is, has a pile of bolted-on distractions, and really loses itself in the last third.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 if you wanted That Game, you (mostly) got That Game.

Penalties: -2 weak final third, which is an awful lot of game to be not-great

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


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

Reference: ArtPlay (developer). Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night [505 Games, 2019]

Monday, July 22, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Excellent characters and well-crafted adventure make this historical fantasy take on Mayan mythology a highlight of the year so far.

Cover illustration by Daniel Pelavin
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an author I'd follow into almost any genre, and that's a good thing given how varied her career has been so far. From the 80's nostalgia-heavy Signal to Noise to the romance fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones, to the criminally underrated sci-fi novella Prime Meridian and even the editorial work she does on The Dark Magazine (a recent addition to my short fiction rounds), Garcia brings talent, nuance and a particular eye for female characters challenging overwhelming imbalances in power over the forces against them. Now, in Gods of Jade and Shadow, Moreno-Garcia brings her talents to a historic fantasy where 1920's Jazz Age Mexico meets the gods and monsters of Mayan mythology, taking protagonist Casiopea Tun on an unexpected but long-dreamed-of adventure with a deposed Lord of the Underworld.

Casiopea's character is rooted in a satisfying set of tropes, and the novel wastes no time in establishing her position in its opening paragraph: "Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament". Living in her Grandfather's house after the untimely death of her father, who her mother had previously eloped with, Casiopea suffers all the indignities of a poor relation, scorned by her extended family and community for the circumstances of her birth and for her mixed heritage, and particularly suffers at the hands of her cousin Martín, himself jealous and insecure about his position in the family as a toxic patriarch in training. Despite the misery of her situation, it's clear from the start that Casiopea is something special, and she's armed with both a heavily practical streak and a core of stubborn strength and self-belief which prevents her from being totally ground down by circumstance. While the character isn't inclined to romance, it's clear to the reader that the small, conservative town of Uukumil on the Yucutan Peninsula is unlikely to hold her for long.

Just as Gods of Jade and Shadow doesn't waste any time in setting up Casiopea's circumstances, it also doesn't waste any time in bringing her out of them (two chapters, to be precise). In a fit of frustration after an unjust punishment, Casiopea opens a mysterious forbidden chest in her Grandfather's room, and out comes Hun-Kamé, formerly Lord of Xibalba, who was deposed and imprisoned by his brother Vucub-Kamé decades before. As a condition of his awakening, Hun-Kamé leaves a shard of bone in Casiopea's finger, and it quickly becomes clear that the only way the two can untangle themselves from this new connection is for Casiopea to help the God to regain his former power - held in body parts which his brother has relieved him of and left with various other supernatural creatures - and challenge his brother for control of the underworld. Despite her concerns about eloping with a God without any long-term plan, Casiopea agrees, and the two set off on their adventures; once Vucub-Kamé realises that his brother has escaped, he descends on the family and sends Martín on his own, more reluctant, quest to stop them.

The result is an adventure that reads at times like a more adult-focused version of a Frances Hardinge novel, allowing its practical heroine to take in and respond to the changing, complex and sometimes hostile world around her, both in its natural and supernatural forms; and at other times like a lush mythological retelling, with Casiopea, Martin and the God siblings providing a sense of character-driven continuity between the historic and supernatural elements of the plot. The fact that it's a Mayan mythology being explored, rather than any of the Western European mythologies (or Egypt) which have had already had plenty of SFF expended about them (including a significant amount which transplants European mythologies directly into North America with no recognition of the continent's native belief systems), is treated matter-of-factly but accessibly, and there's plenty of recognition within the worldbuilding about the situation of Mayan Gods in an early 20th century Mexico now primarily caught between Catholic religious conservatism and a more agnostic state of modernity. Moreno-Garcia uses a writing style which morphs sparingly but effectively out of limited third-person perspective to provide descriptive flavour or character insights, giving Gods of Jade and Shadow a timeless-feeling narrative voice which is well suited to the context. As Casiopea and Hun-Kamé progress from Uukumil to Mérida (the capital of Yucutan, and formerly the locus of Casiopea's dreams of escape) and on to Mexico City, El Paso and the realm of Xibalba itself, so too do Casiopea's hopes and fears, both for the short term quest, and for her future in general, become increasingly complicated by the experiences on the quest, and particularly her feelings for Hun-Kamé, who is now becoming increasingly human through their connection, and equally taken by her charms in turn.

While this isn't a romance in the strict genre sense, the romantic elements of Gods of Jade and Shadow are prominent and key to the character development, and the speed of the connection between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé is satisfying to watch unfold, while also adding an interesting complication to their quest - Casiopea will die if she can't return Hun-Kamé to his normal state and remove the shard of his bone from her finger, but the human side of him which allows him to love her won't survive the transformation. The connection between the two characters, and the no-win situation they find themselves in, also allows Casiopea to explore her own powerlessness in the face of the various demons, ghosts and other entities they come across, and in the direction of their quest in general: while Hun-Kamé relies on her humanity to perform certain types of ritual and, as their connection deepens, to contribute more godlike powers of her own, it's clear that Casiopea has mixed feelings about how her escape from Uukumil has come about, her lack of agency on a quest that's entirely driven by Hun-Kamé's needs, and the lack of options for her post-quest future in a world that's still driven by patriarchal expectations about the roles of women. In the end, the fact that Gods of Jade and Shadow doesn't take a romance-genre driven approach to Casiopea's happiness means that there's more freedom to explore these themes without assuming that her connection to Hun-Kamé can provide a solution, and Gods of Jade and Shadow's final act is all the stronger for it, turning into a full-on mythological quest before offering the characters a satisfying resolution which remains true to the themes of humanity and freedom that permeate the text.

Moreno-Garcia didn't need any further cementing into my "auto-buy" list, but if I needed further convincing about her talents, this novel is it. Read it for the satisfying take on coming-of-age tropes in a fast-paced historical adventure; read it for a sweet take on the connection  between a Lord of the Underworld and a stubborn young woman that avoids most of the squickiness that so often comes of that kind of thing; read it because we desperately need more diverse mythologies in mainstream SFF and this delivers; read it because the cover is amazing and people on the train will look at it and be intrigued and probably think you are a very interesting and cultured person for reading such an attractive book. Throw it on the ever-mounting pile of evidence that we are living through an outstanding time for SFF writing. Yet again, this is the real deal, and I can't wait to see what Moreno-Garcia comes out with next.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Brilliant adventure which blends mythological storytelling with nuance that does justice to its 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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference:  Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Gods of Jade and Shadow [Jo Fletcher Books, 2019].