Monday, August 19, 2019

Microreview [video game]: RAGE 2 by Avalanche Studios and id Software (developers)

No One Asked For This


 
I’m terribly disappointed in RAGE 2 so before I go on and on about why I think it sucks, here’s what I liked, in bullet point form:
  • Enemy heads have a huge hitbox and pop in a satisfying manner
  • The ground punch attack feels great
  • It looks good and there’s no loading once you’re in the world
  • The cars sound meaty
  • Exploring the world can be fun even if a lot of the map markers are just boring “kill everything” activities
The game starts off okay, with The Authority (the primary antagonist in RAGE) razing your fledgling community. After this tutorial (and honestly, who needs a tutorial in a FPS anymore?), you’re given a car and an open map and set to work. The work is meeting three characters that will help you overthrow The Authority. You gain their support by completing open world activities.

Minus the grinding to build support, the game is more or less just 7 story missions. It’s amazing how short the story is. There was just so little in the narrative to keep me interested. The open world activities are mostly just “kill everything”. There’s one ally whose support is gained through search and recovery missions, which I found to be not only the most interesting but the most rewarding. There are arks scattered across the world, where the game dispenses either a new weapon or a new ability. Since they’re so rewarding, they’re well worth searching out and they build your support with one ally. I finished the game with that ally’s support maxed out and all the others only half full because their missions are just slogs through enemy nests that give you resources to buy things. 

The problem with dispensing abilities and weapons through open world activities is that if you never find that ark, you miss out on something that makes the game more fun. When I finished, the map revealed the rest of the arks I hadn’t found and I finished the game without three weapons and two abilities. Considering I found use for almost every weapon and ability I did have, it’s baffling that the game was perfectly happy with letting me finish it and not give me the tools to make the game more enjoyable. I specifically sought out arks because they give gameplay-affecting tools, but I guess that was my bad because I could’ve finished it with just a pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun. I’m really curious what the bare minimum of this game you have to play before hitting the credits.

Beyond taking away the things that make the game fun and hiding them on an enormous open world map, the travel between points was worse than boring, it’s a waste of time. Driving from one area to another in an open world wasteland should be more dangerous, but I was rarely attacked, and everything that attacked me was easily shrugged off or ran away from. At one point I unlocked a flying motorcycle that just hovered high enough above the ground to make all ground obstacles pointless and I couldn’t be attacked, so I was making straight line flights from one point to another. I may as well have had fast travel.

So most missions are a grind, exploring isn’t necessary, and travel is a waste of time, but how’s the shooting? It’s okay. Nothing has the id Software signature feel to it. Enemies are mostly bullet sponges unless you aim for the head, which is comically easy to hit. It’s like bullets are magnetically attracted to their skulls. I found that most fights boiled down to whether I shoot them in the head at a distance with the assault rifle, or run up to shotgun them in the torso. I had a rocket launcher that was useful for big enemies, and a pistol that shot rounds that would catch on fire that I didn’t find particularly useful, but, again, I didn’t find three of the weapons in this game. Maybe they were super cool. I’ll never know!

The worst part of RAGE 2, the unforgivable part of it, is the bugs. Holy hell. One location never flagged as 100% complete because I opened a chest, died, and the chest remained opened but the counter locked it at unopened. There were a handful of times when the game just hard locked. Once the game crashed my OS. One time I beat a boss but died at the same time. It played the “you beat the boss” cutscene, but I came back dead and had to quit to restart it.

I didn’t think RAGE would ever get a sequel, and I question what this is doing for anyone. The original wasn’t a great game by any stretch but it was better than this one in almost every measure. There’s a lot more to do in RAGE 2 and the open world aspect might appeal to some people, where RAGE was more of linear game, but more to do isn’t a benefit when what you’re doing isn’t fun to begin with.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 the bullet pointed list adds up to one bonus point

Penalties: -1 baffling weapon/ability scavenger hunt, -1 grinding for rep is the bulk of the game, -1 BUGS

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (not very good)

***





Reference: Avalanche Studios and id Software. RAGE 2 (Bethesda Softworks, 2019)

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

Friday, August 16, 2019

6 Books with Alexandra Rowland



Alexandra Rowland is the author of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS (2018) and A CHOIR OF LIES (forthcoming, September 2019) and, occasionally, a bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of their feline quality control manager. They hold a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University, and they host two podcasts, Be the Serpent and Worldbuilding for Masochists. Find them at www.alexandrarowland.net, and on Twitter and Patreon as @_alexrowland.

Todsy they share their Six Books with us...



1. What book are you currently reading? 
Oh man, so much of my TBR pile these days is taken up with homework for my podcast! Right now I'm reading one of the fanfics that we're planning on talking about on an upcoming episode (can't tell you which one, no spoilers! ;D), and I'm making my way very slowly through a book of the collected poems of Pablo Neruda, which are of course unspeakably beautiful. Next up on my list is a nonfiction book, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast and This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?
The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood, which comes out next year! It has a super fascinating female main character who starts out as the sacrificial bride of a creepy death god -- I'm only a couple chapters into it, but the descriptions are lush and vibrant, and I'm already really invested in the characters. I've heard it gets super queer :D

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?
Good Omens. The miniseries gave me buckets and buckets of nostalgia, and the fandom has really exploded into a Renaissance. The book itself was super formative for me when I was about fifteen, and I really want to revisit it. My copy is battered and dog-eared and very very well-loved, and 15-year-old-me left a couple nearly-faded margin notes in pencil that are now totally indecipherable because I was trying to be as gentle with the book as possible, and that meant extreme brevity. (Self, why did you feel compelled to write merely "!!" beside that paragraph? What was going on in your head??? You could have said more!)

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?
I first read The Lost Years of Merlin (TA Barron) when I was about fourteen and I adored it. I tried rereading it again when I was about twenty and was enormously dismayed to find out that it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered. I try not to think about the reread--I want to remember it as that great book from my childhood!

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?
Oooh, I don't know if I can pick just one! No matter what, the first and best influence has to be by Diana Wynne Jones. I get a lot of my sensibilities about voice and character from her -- all her secondary characters kind of have their own thing going on, their own complex inner lives, and that's something I think makes a book really rich and interesting. (And, an easter egg: the Chants in my books are named after Christopher Chant from her Chrestomanci series!)

I began reading Terry Pratchett when I was about fifteen (after Good Omens introduced me to his work, as mentioned above) and from him I got philosophy and a good hard look at The Way Humans Are, and an idea of how you can write about both those things in a really forthright way. Pratchett put the idea into my head that characters--even protagonists--can be deeply flawed humans, not always kind, not always brave, not always smart, and that none of those things matter as long as you plant your feet firmly on the side of Doing Good and refuse to budge.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome? 
WELL. Speaking of characters, voice, philosophy, and doing good, let me tell you about my upcoming book, A Choir of Lies! :D Choir is the sequel-but-you-can-read-them-in-either-order to my debut novel from last year, A Conspiracy of Truths. Conspiracy was a fantasy novel about fake news and the destructive power of stories; Choir is about fantasy tulip mania and the constructive, healing power of stories. It's about trauma and grief and recovery, and it's extremely queer.

Three years ago, Ylfing watched his master-Chant tear a nation apart with nothing but the words on his tongue. Now he's all alone somewhere new, brokenhearted and grieving, but a Chant in his own right. He finds employment as a translator to Sterre de Waeyer, a wealthy merchant of luxury goods, while he struggles to come to terms with what his master did, with the audiences he's been alienated from, and with the stories he can no longer trust himself to tell.

That is, until Ylfing's employer finds out what he is, what he does, and what he knows. At Sterre's command, he begins telling stories once more, fanning the city into a mania for a few shipments of an exotic flower. The prices skyrocket, but when disaster looms—a disaster that only the two of them recognize—Ylfing has to face what he has done and decide who he wants to be: A man who walks away and lets the city shatter, as his master did? Or... something else?

A story can be powerful enough to bring a nation to its knees, certainly. But in the right hands, a story can rebuild a broken dam, keep the floodwaters back, and save a life—or ten thousand lives.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Kids are starting to go back to school and my first assignment is to read The Boyz.  I learned that the first four volumes are on ComiXology Unlimited and are also currently on sale on ComiXology for around a dollar an issue. Hopefully I can plow through the books and start binging the series on Amazon by Sunday.



Pick of the Week:
Gideon Falls #16 - Andrea Sorrentino produces some of the most stunning two-page spreads that really immerse you in this creepy and surreal universe that he created with Jeff Lemire. The ending of this issue sets the scene for a showdown that is likely going to leave a lot of people changed. We learn a big secret about Norton Sinclair that has me asking more questions. It turns out that his real name is Daniel and he was taken from his family to Gideon Falls when he was only nine. His dad also investigated the existence of the Black Barn and it is going to see the two of them shed some light on what happened back in the day. This book, from the colors by Dave Stewart, letters by Steve Wands, art from Sorrentino, and story from Lemire is truly a masterpiece and a book that I need to re-read with the most recent development. I always have more questions than answers, but it is a good thing that drives my interest in this series.

The Rest:
Silver Surfer: The Prodigal Sun #1 - Prah'd'gul recalls the story of what caused his exile many years ago. He is a character that reminds me a lot of Star Lord, as he is brash and has powers beyond what you would expect. We learn about an encounter he had with Silver Surfer and Galactus that didn't go as he planned. Surfer hinted that his father was someone other than himself, before besting him and sending him to a different planet to allow Galactus to feast on the world he just landed on. Vowing revenge, Prah'd'gul is saved from his exile by Surfer and is seeking revenge on his brother with the help of Surfer. I have not read a lot of Surfer books in my day, but this was one of the more entertaining I have read.

Star Wars: Target Vader #2 - Since we are in the middle of back to school season this title evokes a much different feeling in my brain.  I have thoughts of tax free weekends, rows of folders, and a savings of 5% with a Red Card.  In this series, the Hidden Hand has put out a hit on Vader and he is well within his power to put an end to it. Beliert Valance, a cyborg, is heading up the team against Vader and he is almost as insane as Vader himself and has no concerns with the collateral damage that occurs when you draw Vader out from the shadows. This has been an entertaining side story, but I am starting to feel that Marvel is watering down the watch Vader kill people who are trying to kill him.



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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Dragon Prince Re-Read

One of the most formative reading experiences I had as a teenager was my discovery and devouring of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince. I had favorite novels before Dragon Prince and I certainly have had favorites since, but Dragon Prince has maintained a preeminent place in my imagination and in my heart and my love and appreciation for these novels have not waned. This has been so much the case that when Netflix developed a show titled The Dragon Prince, I was confused that it wasn't based on Melanie Rawn's novels but rather a new series from the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Now that I've seen both seasons of the Netflix show, I'm still somewhat confused and surprised every time that this isn't a show about Rohan and Sioned and Roelstra and because of that, I wanted to revisit Melanie Rawn's novels.

This re-read is perhaps somewhat unique in other re-reads I have done in that when it is complete it will have taken place over a period of ten years. The first four essays here are adapted from previously published essays that I began writing in 2010 and chipped away at over the years. The adaptation is something that may otherwise have been invisible to readers here, but it is worthwhile to be up front about. The foundational essay for this series can be found here.

When I began re-reading Dragon Prince and writing about the series, I wondered if the novel would hold up to the esteem time and memory have given it. I wondered if I would still be inclined to read the other five novels set in this world.

The short answer is yes.


Oh, and the cover art? That cover is the reason I pay attention to cover art and who the artist is. Michael Whelan’s cover is striking and it made the younger me take notice of his work. I also remember Whelan’s work with Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II album. They are inextricably linked in my memory. This is the iconic fantasy cover of my history.

One thing to note: there is an excellent chance of spoilers in the below conversation. This is my re-read and not whatever I might consider to be a “proper” review. If you are looking to avoid being spoiled for certain events of the novel AND the series (though I’ll try to limit series spoilers on a per novel basis), please just know that I think Dragon Price is a fantastic novel and that it remains one of my favorites of the genre, and that you should probably go read it now.

So. Shall we?

Melanie Rawn is not a writer afraid to do terrible things to her characters; her heroes in particular. Let’s just get this out of the way from the start: bad things happen to the characters we care about, and sometimes they do bad things themselves. Dragon Prince opens with concepts of black and white and gradually shades greyer and greyer as the novel progresses. It isn’t so much that the concepts of “Right” and “Wrong” are in question, but that the question of whether it is sometimes necessary to do what is wrong to accomplish a greater good arises. This is made stark late in the novel when, despite all of his dreams and visions for a better future, Rohan is confronted with his capacity for barbarism while still holding to a dream of a more civilized world.

Much of Dragon Prince is a political dance as, through the first half of the novel, Rohan plays the simpleton to gain concessions from the High Prince Roelstra and cleverly builds advantage for the Desert.

Roelstra, it must be said, is one of the great villains of fantasy literature. His primary concern is power, whether it is exercising it over vassals, coercing others, or acquiring more by devious means, Roelstra is about power and he is not a benevolent ruler. This puts Roelstra in stark contrast with Rohan. Rohan wishes to build peace by law and ultimately change the political power structure of the land, but every step Rohan needs to make he knows that Roelstra will oppose.

This conflict is one of the two primary conflicts of the novel. The second is Rohan’s internal conflict of his desire to be a good man and his growing realization of what he will do to make his world a better place.

One of the more impressive aspects of the novel, besides the parts in between the front and back covers, is the magic system Melanie Rawn developed here. Now, I am not normally one to talk about magic and how it works and how it plays into the novel, but this is fairly inventive. It isn’t called “magic”, but the people with special talents are called Sunrunners. They are able to weave part of their consciousness on the sunlight, communicate over long distances, and use the light of the sun in a variety of other ways. The faradhi are specially trained emissaries to each Princedom and work and serve all over the continent. They report back to Lady Andrade at the Goddess Keep, and with a network of faradhi who can communicate by sunlight, Andrade attempts to manipulate Princes and protect her people and her family.

Dragon Prince is a very strong, powerful, and thrilling debut novel from Melanie Rawn. There is battle, but the beauty of Dragon Prince is in the political scheming at the Rialla and in the goals of Prince Rohan. Power and how it is used is a central concept to Dragon Prince and Melanie Rawn explores it well. This should be considered a must read novel for all fans of fantasy.

One final thing to note is that the trade paper edition of Dragon Prince seems to have done away with the genealogies and extra information I remember fondly from the mass market edition of my youth. I mourn the loss.


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

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman, translated by Daniella Zamir

Emotionally driven queer romance set against a backdrop of magically-driven political unrest in alternate Tel Aviv

Cover design by Francesca Corsini
The Heart of the Circle, by Keren Landsman, was originally published in Hebrew last year, but this month it's coming out in an English translation from Angry Robot. Finding english-language urban fantasy that takes place outside of American or British locales is pretty unusual, and with its promise of an unusual social role for magic coupled with the Tel Aviv setting, this was a book I was intrigued to pick up.

The main character, Reed is an empath, also known as a "moody": a type of sorcerer living in a world where magic powers are regularly manifested but treated with different levels of discrimination. Living in Tel Aviv, in a society that's apparently known for being more tolerant of sorcerers while still forcing segregation and exclusion on most aspects of their lives, he's torn between the increasing political unrest affecting the city, and wanting to live his life along with his (mostly sorcerous) friends and ("normie") family. Tension in the city is ramping up as sorcerers become the target of murders by the Sons of Simeon, an extremist group, and Reed becomes increasingly embroiled in their plot. Complicating the whole thing are the presence of "damuses" - seers - on both sides, with the Sons of Simeon attempting to manipulate the streams of his future and force him into sacrificing himself and the movement for the sake of his friends. Living with all this, and trying to care for his damus best friend Daphne, would be hard enough if Reed's ex hadn't shown up with an attractive single "moody" ex of his own in tow, who comes with his own extensive baggage about the treatment of sorcerers in this world's equivalent of the USA, and misgivings about starting a relationship with a doomed man.

It's that romance between Reed and Lee which forms front and centre of the plot of The Heart of the Circle, and if the fact that its a doomed relationship between two empaths didn't clue you in, let me explicitly note that there are quite a lot of feelings involved from start to finish. There's the trauma of long-term oppression and their short term situation; complex webs of guilt around their respective powers and, in Lee's case, socialisation around not sharing emotions in general; pre-emptive grief over the Reed's impending doom and the predictions about what it will do to Lee's own life; and obviously all the giddy romantic stuff you could ever possibly want. Because Reed and Lee can feel each other's feelings - and Reed can directly manipulate emotions in others, although this comes with its own taboos - everything gets amplified and dissected and the emotional impact of their situation is generally at the very core of everyone's response. It makes for difficult, slow reading at points, particularly towards the end, but it also feels like an interesting take on its subject matter, placing the character's emotional arcs front and centre while still maintaining the fantasy aspects as a core part of the experience.


Because its told through a narrator who is completely wrapped up his own feelings and direct situation, worldbuilding is delivered in a way that's often painfully subtle. Offhand remarks, meaningless to the characters, clue us in to the existence of a "Confederacy" in North America, or the craters across the entirety of Europe, or the fact that sorcerer's can't vote in Israel despite its reputation as a "safe" city for them - which show how commonplace they are to him, while coming as a complete surprise and shakeup to a reader in our world. The general effect is of a world that's even more wartorn, unstable and unequal than our own, but it's deliberately left in the background, brought up by a character who doesn't find these elements particularly remarkable. The lack of focus on areas of worldbuilding which are commonplace to Reed but novel to the audience also stretches to the magic of this world, which is split into elemental sorcerers (not super explored but in control of air, water, fire and earth respectively) and psychic empaths and seers. Psychics in particular seem to have a lot of weapons at their disposal for altering reality and there's some fairly complex scenes where powers end up weaponised either for practice or in a real life-and-death scenario. Although Reed and Lee's different backgrounds allow for some time exploring different talents and introducing some of the verbal and gestural slang used by the sorcerer community, the mechanics of a lot of what they do is left deliberately vague. Of cousre, there's a sense that this is true for the characters as well as the audience: the use and development of magic powers has been greatly constrained by society's prejudice and fear, so while Reed can hone his abilities to project emotions onto the printed word, there's clearly a great deal of untapped potential which sorcerers are unable to openly share despite the support mechanisms in their communities.

Reed and Lee's romantic relationship is backed up with a nuanced though occasionally uneven group of characters forming that wider community, including said awkward ex Blaze, his new girlfriend River, and a group of younger sorcerers who Reed volunteers as a mentor for, as well as more distant Providing a counterweight to much of the group is Reed's non sorcerous brother Matthew and Sherry, a police officer he's (possibly) in the early stages of dating, and who happens to be a "pebble" or earth sorcerer. Both offer a link to the more "mainstream" - Matthew because of his status as a "normie", Sherry because she has successfully broken in to a more mainstream job despite being a sorcerer - and the book does a reasonable job of showing, almost entirely through sympathetic characters like Matthew and Reed's colleague Daniel, why the prejudice and fear against sorcerers exist in the first place.

Treating magic as a stand-in for other marginalisations is not a politically neutral act, and I suspect The Heart of the Circle is going to raise some eyebrows in translation over its treatment of segregation (introduced in the form of bus seats, which to an English speaking audience is about as real-world-US-South-racism-coded as it gets) in a narrative which otherwise doesn't have anything to say about race. Some sorcerers share talents with their family members, but others, like Reed, have "normies" for relatives and are even more reliant on the "found family" of the sorcerer community. There's no stigma attached to Reed an Lee's same-sex relationship either, meaning that the fantasy angle is carrying the full weight of the oppression storylines here - not to mention the religious discrimination angle which the Sons of Simeon bring to the table. To unpick what this means would go beyond the scope of this review, but it's a narrative choice I feel many readers might want a heads up on beforehand. Of course, as a translated work, The Heart of the Circle was not written with English-speaking readers or context in mind, and that's very much worth noting too.

Ultimately, I don't know that I enjoyed reading The Heart of the Circle. It's a hard story, and fraught romantic feelings tend not to be my personal jam. That said, it's a book that's absolutely stayed with me afterwards in its portrayal of everyday life under oppression and trauma. As a reader, what you take out of The Heart of the Circle is going to very much depend on the extent to which you care about the things Reed cares about - his romantic life, his close friends and family, taking care of himself in an oppressive society that has wrung him out while still being invested and trying to help with the future of the next generation. Despite his absorption in his own life and future, its hard not to sympathise with his position and that of the wider community, and it makes for an intriguing, emotionally-driven fantasy of the kind I'd like to see more of.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Effortless creation of an alternate, urban fantasy Tel Aviv

Penalties: -1 Feelings on feelings on feelings can get a bit much; -1 Some of the secondary characters deserved more

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: Landsman, Keren tr. Daniella Zamir. The Heart of the Circle [Angry Robot, 2019]

Monday, August 12, 2019

Second Opinion: The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Magician is a highly entertaining far future heist novel with excellent worldbuilding and character voices that make for an entertaining read.




It’s the 25th century and Humanity has spread out to the stars. Thanks to some often highly suspect genetic experiments, Homo sapiens is not the only branch of humanity extant. One branch, the Homo Quantus, has an ability to process information and see things on a quantum level, which makes them fascinated with the search for knowledge and unlocking information. Belisarius, or Bel as he usually is referenced throughout the novel, is atypical for a Homo Quantus. For him, an ivory tower life of research is not suited to him. No, he’d rather be pulling off cons, and he has a whopper of a one involving a fleet, a fantastic space drive, several others of the branches of humanity, and of course a plan within a plan for his heist.

This is the story of Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Magician.

The novel’s strength lies strongly with the world that the author presents. It’s a world very much in the model of novels like the works of Hannu Rajaniemi, there is a high density of new concepts, worlds, polities, future history, technologies and ideas packed in a relatively slim novel. There is a very international feel to humanity in the 25th century that isn’t just “America in space” that a lot of authors  fall into the trap of. Francophone polities feature strongly in the novel, for instance, and there is a multilingual feel to the depicted future that I really appreciated and really liked.

The author also does a great job with the con artist himself, Bel. Making him an atypical, and sometimes labeled as a “failed” Homo Quantus means we get the best of both worlds, especiallty once Bel gets another Homo Quantus on his team. We see what a Homo Quantus should be like, and how Bel stretches as a rope between baseline humans, and the more typical members of his species. He comes across as a mostly very human character, but with his occasional descents into a fugue state, shows just how far along a new evolutionary path that he has gone. This is also true of the other human species we see, the Homo eridanus, who live in cold, pressurized environments, and the Puppets, small bodied humanoids who have been genetically engineered to worship a particular group of humans. Kunsken takes this extremely touchy and prickly idea and looks at it from an ethical point of view in a nuanced and thoughtful way.

The heist itself is best described in general and vague terms,especially the heist within the heist. Bel is approached with being asked for help in moving a fleet of advanced warships through a tightly controlled wormhole. Bel’s payoff for this would be a ship outfitted with the groundbreaking space drive that the fleet itself has. Such a craft would be worth millions, even split with a team. The author gives us a cross section of humanity in the 25th century with Bel’s team: An enthusiastic explosives expert. The aforementioned second Homo Quantus. A sweary Homo eridanus. A Puppet, and a descendant of the humans who created the Puppets (the territory that the fleet must move through is controlled by the Puppets, making them the “inside men” of the operation). An artificial intelligence of a very idiosyncratic sort.

And Bel has a plan within a plan for this gathered team to gain something even more out of the situation. And as you might expect, this being a heist novel, once the heist gets going, things do not always go smooth, and not always falling to Bel’s backup plans. Improvisation and a bit of scrambling to salvage a bad situation is a feature of even the most perfectly executed heist, and the Quantum Magician leverages that for excellent plotting.

I consumed the book in audio format, narrated by T Ryder Smith. I think he did a fantastic job as a narrator. He ably captured the different characters with distinct intonations, cadences and expressions of modulation. In some cases, like Stills, I can’t imagine how I could mentally improve on reading the Homo Eridanus’ dialogue in my mind much better than how Smith as a narrator brings him to life. The other characters, too, really are rewarded by the narrator’s audio work.  The complex jargon and ideas come across well, and I was consistently entertained throughout.

My major criticism of the novel is something that a lot of SF heist novels share and that is the need for a long ramp up before the actual heist can get itself up and running. How the author manages to show us how the team is put together and why we should care about them even as we don’t know much about the other team members takes a very deft touch. In a couple of cases, the author manages to bring us into the character’s world and personality rather quickly, but for a couple of the members of the team, they just don’t quite leap off the page. This does hurt the novel in the second half, as the heist proceeds, since it means there is a bit of unevenness in how I was invested in the various parts. of the team and the scheme.

Overall, however, The Quantum Magician is a promising debut, and it appears to be the first in a series, with The Quantum Garden coming in October. Based on this first novel. I would be happy to read it. I would be happier still to listen to it, should T Ryder Smith provide the narration again in an audio format.

***
The Math
Baseline Assessment 6/10

Bonuses : +1 for an intriguing and interesting future world. +1 for the goodness of a heist chassis for the SF novel.

Penalties : -1 for a few of the heist members and their subplots being less well imagined and presented than others.

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

Adri's Math: 5/10

***
Reference:  Künsken, Derek: The Quiantum Magician  [Solaris, 2018]

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

Friday, August 9, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Queen of Crows, by Myke Cole

Queen of Crows is an entirely successful sequel to The Armored Saint which develops both the world and compelling central character at the heart of Cole’s dark medieval mecha universe.

---


In Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint, he introduced Heloise, a  young woman in a medieval fantasy setting who strikes a blow against tyranny by taking control of a war machine, a medieval, magical mecha. Fighting both a devil and the oppressive government that put her on the path of resistance, Heloise, at great physical and personal costs, struck a blow for freedom for her and for the people of her village.

In Queen of Crows, author Myke Cole explores the burning question: Now what? A blow for freedom has been struck, yes, but the Sacred Throne, and in particular, the Inquisition-like Order is not going to take this lying down. Heloise may well be a saintly figure, possibly even a holy  Palatinate, but her actions are not an unalloyed good. The Empire will, indeed, Strike Back, and it is only a question of time before overwhelming force is brought to bear on Heloise and the people she has sworn to protect. This leads to Heloise and her people going on the road, meeting others who have not done well under the Empire’s tyranny, and asking hard questions about oppression, revolt, tyranny, resistance, prejudice, and at the same time providing solid medieval fantastic action.

The novella’s heart is when it is engaging those hard questions. Cole introduces the Kipti, The Traveling People, a group of people very much like medieval Romany, and uses them to probe and ponder questions of prejudice, fear, freedom and tyranny. It won’t be a surprise and not much of a spoiler to reveal that Heloise’s goals and actions do align with the Kipti, but it’s not a simple matter of the Kipti giving up their own identity and becoming subsumed by Heloise. Instead, we get to see a side of the Empire from the position of the truly oppressed, showing that even with Heloise’s rebellion aside, even given the disgruntlement on far flung portions of the Empire, there are plenty of people, often ignored when not actively despised, who suffer under the tyranny of the Empire, here and now. The costs of tyranny and the costs of acting against it openly versus just shouldering the burden and getting along are deeply explored, and the Kipti are a major part of the exploration of those questions in the novel.

The novella’s soul, though is when it is engaging in its action beats. Cole has cut his teeth on military fantasy and military matters in general, and his set piece encounters are excellent. The highlight of the book is an  extended multichapter sequence where Heloise and her villagers are confined within a walled town that they have captured. The Empire’s forces have caught them there, and the manpower to mount a strong defense, even with Heloise and her war machine, is dangerously weak. It is another example of engaging in those hard questions, but also gives us the action beats that Cole’s work is known for. The novella could be sumed up as “Come for the action with a medieval mecha, stay for the exploration of social questions that elevate the novel from a straight up medieval fantasy action into something that speaks to our time and situation.

The novella, like its predecessor is dark and perhaps even more so. The title, The Queen of Crows, is very well earned indeed (and possibly meant to evoke GRRM's A Feast for Crows). The costs of war, physically, emotionally, socially are not shirked from. This is not grimdark in the sense that there are morally grey characters and there is really no one to root for. As flawed as she is, Heloise tries to work for the side of right and light. But her journey is not a light read, and the subjects that the novella engages in and the world that Cole builds is not a pleasant one. It’s realistically so--this is not a “dirt covered peasants” sort of nonsense, but the realities of a medieval land at war are depicted and even in a fantasy medieval world, they are rather unpleasant, and some readers may understandably want to shy away from it.

The Queen of Crows is about 20% longer than The Armored Saint, and I found that extra wordcount was put to good use. The Armored Saint was almost a bit too brisk and short for its own good for what it was trying to do. The Queen of Crows’ extra wordcount allows the writer, I feel, to explore these questions, build a world, explore Heloise and her role and place, and still hit those action beats. In that way, I think it is better than its predecessor. Bring on The Killing Light! I am very eager to see how Cole resolves the conflicts, external and internal, physical, emotional and diplomatic that make The Sacred Throne Trilogy

***
The Math
Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for deep exploration of social questions, lifting a medieval fantasy action novella into a work that speaks to our times.

Penalties : -1 for maybe being a bit too dark. Realistically so, but even so, the author’s ruthlessness is perhaps not for all readers.

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

***
Reference:  Cole, Myke: The Queen of Crows [Tor Dot Com Publishing, 2018]

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

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Now that I have finished my re-read of N0S4A2, I am looking forward to watching the series on A&E.  I watched the first episode the other day and was surprised at how different it was from the book, but I am going to maintain an open mind about the changes as television is a much different medium than a book.  Thinking about this series, the upcoming Watchmen series, Amazon's The Boys, other comic book based series, and the fact that we have a future Locke and Key series and Y: The Last Man, reminded me that we are truly in a golden age of comics (and comic adjacent books) reaching the small screen. Streaming platforms have embraced comics after the success of The Walking Dead and I am all for it. I am sad The Sixth Gun series wasn't picked up, but would love to see Sweet Tooth and Mind MGMT on the small screen in the future.


Pick of the Week:
No One Left to Fight #2 - This series from Aubrey Sitterson and Fico Ossio is quickly becoming one of my favorites. It is a book that I would recommend to my friends who have an interest in comics, but think that all books are about superheros. Sitterson and Ossio do an incredible job focusing on the complicated relationships between characters in the first two issues. Vale is a hero who saved the world a few years ago. He has returned to join his old classmates and visit the site of his battle and connect with his old teacher. Timor, a former friend and classmate, measures his worth compared to Vale and is having a hard time seeing his warm reception. Ossio's color palette and art in this book feel like a fusion of Saga and anime and immerse you in this fantastical world of interesting people and creatures. Vale is also suffering from some sort of condition and there is a shady looking being who was spying on them as they ventured out to meet their teacher. I fear that the individual is going to return to Timor's home and attack his kids. This is a great time to hop on board with this series as the first issue got a reprint so picking up issues one and two from your local comic book store should be a breeze.

The Rest:
Babyteeth #15 - Donny Cates and Garry Brown got me good on this issue.  It has been a while since we have visited Sadie and Clark, but it looks like they have escaped back through the portal due to the literal wrath of God.  God shows up and kicks ass in a chaotic and thrilling fight that is a delight to read. Sadie's father appears to be redeeming himself and it looks like he is finally putting his daughter's needs before his own. After Sadie and crew made it through the portal I was not prepared for what happened next and am beyond thrilled for the next issue.  This made me want to go back and read issues 1-14 again.


Daredevil #9 - Matt Murdock is asking some pretty big questions as he ponders God and why humans exist on this planet we call Earth. Talking to a nun about understanding signs from God, Murdock learns about a missing boy. In addition to this he is currently trying to understand why Mindy Libris, of the Libris crime family, called a hit on him. She is a sweet person who is tangled in the drama of her family and only wants a simple life.  After helping out with the missing kid, despite wanting to retire from being Daredevil, Matt finds himself in Mindy's bookstore. With the current arc being penned by Chip Zdarsky you can guess where this is heading.




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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Microreview [music video]: Deutschland by Rammstein


(Content warning: Discussion of possibly disturbing visual material, violence, sex and the Holocaust.)




With new material from the German industrial metal/rock/NDH band Rammstein in nearly a decade, pretty much nobody expected anything safe-for-work — at least nobody familiar with the grand scheme of Rammstein videography. Videos of lead singles of their past albums have included, for example, Pussy, a collection of hardcore pornography clips featuring the band members, and Mein Teil, a smorgasboard of fighting and copulating bodies with a fellatio performed by an angel who is later eaten.


Fortunately, instead of NSFW (or in addition to it, depending on one's coworkers' appetite for concentration camp visuals, cannibalism and kissing severed heads), Rammstein delivered some amazing SFF this spring with their music video Deutschland, the flagship song from their new self-titled album.


Let me argue why the video directed by Specter Berlin is definitely something to enjoy from an SFF perspective (and maybe even consider when filling out the Hugo nomination ballot in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form next year so that we could have the first non-English finalist in this category for the first time in 18 years).





Well, depending on one's appetite for a number of things, as the case always is with Rammstein.


For those unfamiliar with the band, it's a musical act from Germany, probably best known for their Du Hast hit which was included in the original Matrix soundtrack back in the 90s. The band has had a long career, though, even if nothing they have published since has done quite as well in global terms. In Europe, however, it is a massive cultural force, seemingly becoming more and more popular even without publishing new music for quite some time now. Their new album has topped the album charts in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland (in addition to being #2 in Spain and Sweden).


I'm not a huge fan of the band's music per se, but on the other hand I'm not sure that the music is what they have been about for some time now. In interviews, the members often joke about how everything in music has been invented already and they are not skilled enough to play anything else than their style of monotonous, ramming, sample-heavy metal. Their last fifteen years since Reise, Reise came out have been a slow slog towards somewhat more accessible (if at times uninspired) rock while their edgier creative energies have went to dreaming up crazy flame thrower and missile pyrotechnics for their tours. Rammstein gigs are state-of-the-art horror circus, basically like Eurovision song contest with all the songs not about love but hate, perversions and cannibalism with some over-the-top silliness (like keyboardist's treadmill on stage) and sex antics thrown into the mix. On a US tour, performing Bück dich ("Bend down") with the customary slime-throwing dildo skit even got singer Till Lindemann and keyboardist Flake Lorenz arrested.


In addition to the bizarre sex stuff, Rammstein has been in some sort of trouble over their aesthetics and politics for numerous times. They took some heat after using footage from Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propadanda film in their music video of Depeche Mode cover "Stripped", and some more after it has been reported that fans of theirs have perpetrated a number of violent crimes. Apparently a favorite band of several school shooters and right wing extremists, they even decided to do a song about the fact that, when push comes to shove, they are politically on the left: the chorus of Links-2-3-4 ("Left-2-3-4") states: "They want my heart in the right place, but when I look down, it beats left". Not to be confused with any sort of politically correct or culturally sensitive Anglo-American left, of course.





However, it's an open question whether the actual lyrics make any difference when most listeners are not fluent in German. Similarly, the language barrier makes it kosher to casually listen to songs about sadomasochism, abuse, sexual violence, necrophilia, cannibalism and related topics (at least when there are no Germans, Austrians or Swiss people present), so there's a tremendous amount of irony around Rammstein to appreciate.


As far as the Deutschland video is considered, there has been some criticism over the inclusion of concentration camp imagery, but for Rammstein's standards, the song and the video are probably some of the least provocative ones in their disco/videography even if Holocaust is definitely as sensitive a subject as it gets in Germany. In contrast, their previous album's second single (after the X-rated Pussy) Ich tu dir weh ("I want to hurt you") was blacklisted by German officials due to violent content for some time so that the album had to be rereleased without it and only an instrumental version of the song could be played on tour.


This time around, the habitual record publishing constroversy is a little more nuanced — and what's better, involves some science fiction.


The song Deutschland itself is a mundane rock anthem discussing the love/hate relationship Germans have with their country and its history for obvious reasons. In the chorus, between rhythmic DEUTSCHLAND chants, the I of the song announces their desire to love and condemn a thing at the same time with a flaming heart.


"Deutschland
Mein Herz in Flammen
Will dich lieben und verdammen
Deutschland"


Lindeman's lyrics are a mishmash of dark, megalomaniac metaphors delivered with ominous rolling r's, which are both his trademarks. It's an extremely catchy song trying very hard to get the listener throw their fist in the air during the chorus, as many characters do on the video, or at least nod their heads during the Deutschland shouts.




Still, the song is probably not of interest for the Nerds of the Feather readers out there. All the science fiction content is found on the visual track of Specter Berlin's video. While the track addresses the nation's dark past on symbolic terms without much in the way of specifics, Berlin's dramatization adds more of them than one can easily digest.


Black actress Ruby Commey plays the part of Germania, the embodied nation who is also a space amazon of some sort, coming from the futuristic space age to unearth or relive the past. With her, we take a tour through German history starting from the wars between the Roman empire and Germanic tribes 2000 years ago, focusing mostly on the violent bits: with jarring synthesizer effects on the background, Germania saws off the head of Till Lindemann's corpse and faces the attacking Roman legionnaries. At this point, the song and the fast forward time jumps really start.


We see glimpses of Germania with astronauts in space, her organizing a fist fight between two moustachioed gentlemen during (perhaps) the Weimar-era, at the scene of a Medieval battle clad in a golden armor, in a GDR office with Stasi operatives, and other times and places. A memorable segment features gluttonous monks with a serious rat problem feasting on Germania's body while a BDSM party is taking place under the table — everything is symbolically turbocharged.


There's guns, dogs, flames, crashing Hindenburg zeppelin, antique cars, prisons, protests, police brutality and V2 rockets taking off until we get to the concentration camp scenes which have caused some controversy in Germany. An SS commander (guitarist Richard Kruspe if I'm not mistaken) executes some of the other Rammstein members while Germania, this time wearing a Nazi uniform and an eye patch, looks on and Lindemann delivers the National Socialist "Deutschland Deutschland über allen" quote for good measure. It's difficult to fault Holocaust survivors' criticisms about it, but to be fair, the camp is only a part of a tapestry of violent events taking place in the German history and leaving that out would have been quite odd considering what the song is about.


Later, Baader-Meinhof Group gunmen from the violent 70s exchange fire with police and the monks burning Germania's body at stake meet and greet NSDAP goons burning books in the 30s until we get to the more apocalyptic visions. Concentration camp prisoners, knights, riot police and laser guns from space take part in the same epic fight scene and Germania in transformed into an mechanical angel, gives birth to puppies and is shot into space in a casket.


Your guess is as good as mine as to what the hell it is supposed to mean (if it is in fact supposed to mean anything) but I rather enjoy the mind blowing collage and insane production values.





Some of the elements are swipes from previous Rammstein videos. The band crawling on all fours towards the camera is also seen on Mein Teil and the casket holding Germania's body is quite similar to the one in which midgets place Snow White after she OD's in the video of Sonne — and the a piano version of the song is also heard during credits. Not to mention Till Lindemann's flame-throwing angel wings he uses when performing Engel. Recognizing these easter eggs is not necessary for enjoying the ride, though.


All in all, Deutschland lives up to the Rammstein motto of "Do you own thing — and then overdo it!" For anybody who read this far, I heartily recommend watching the video below.


(Apparently, the video cannot be embedded here — you have to sign in to YouTube to verify your age and conform that you really really want to see it. So, heres a link.)


***


The Math



  • Base Score: 10/10
  • Bonuses: +1 for overall craziness and production values
  • Penalties: -1 for the song being probably not that good (even if it's way better than the horrible Pussy), -1 for shock aesthetic getting inflated eventually
  • Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 – "Very high quality/standout in its category"


Reference: Rammstein. Deutschland [2019]

Song written by: Richard Z. Kruspe, Paul Landers, Till Lindemann, Christian Lorenz, Oliver Riedel and Christoph Schneider

Video directed by: Specter Berlin


***

POSTED BY: Spacefaring Kitten, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Pop Up Gen Con!

Last weekend was Gen Con, which is “The Best Four Days in Gaming”, except there’s only one problem. It’s in Indianapolis. But if you couldn’t make it to Indianapolis this year, your FLGS might have been host to a Pop Up Gen Con, where some of the Gen Con exclusive demos would still be played for a much reduced registration fee. One of my local game stores ran a Pop Up Gen Con, and here’s what I played!

We’re Doomed

First and probably most fun was We’re Doomed, a game where the world is ending and the governments of the world (each government is a player) need to jointly construct a rocket ship. However, if you don’t get enough resource tokens into the project by the end of the real-time 15 minute timer, there won’t be enough seats on the rocket and your own hoarding of influence tokens will determine whether you get a seat or are left on the planet and a “dead loser”. We’re Doomed was a lot of fun because of its frantic pace and cooperative/competitive nature. The 15 minute timer is run by an hourglass so everyone’s watching the time tick by, and while some are selflessly throwing all of their resource tokens into the project, some of us were building a mountain of influence tokens to ensure we wouldn’t be left behind. Each round an event card would be played and these often radically altered the game. On turn 1, one player was “killed by committee” and could not board the rocket, but he wasn’t out of the game, so he could still help or hinder the rest of us. At one point, an event card led to me being chosen “executor”, which meant that I picked the order of who got on the rocket at the end, which was awesome power until someone else nuked me and I was a dead loser. The game ended with more than enough resources for two people to seats on the rocket, but only one player left because the nukes. We’re Doomed is great.

Medium

Medium is a game about mind reading. Each player has a hand full of words. One player plays a word, like “gum”. The player to their left then plays a card from their hand, like “brain”. The goal becomes for both players to think of the same word that is somewhere between the two they played, count down from 3, and then say that word out loud at the same time. In this real example, I played “gum”, the other player played “brain”, and we both said “pink” and scored a point. However, if you don’t say the same thing, then the two words you did say become what you’re using to get to the common word, and you get more points for reaching the medium. You get three tries before you have to move to the next pair of words, and it’s played round robin, with the highest scoring pair winning. What I found interesting was that the decks of words were part of a set with the game containing something like 20 sets of words. It wasn’t just a word pile but a group of words that were meant to be played with each other. Since you’re trying to read the other player’s mind, I thought it would be a game where two players that knew each other well would have an advantage, but I played with two FLGS employees and I was better paired with each of them than they were with each other.

Bargain Quest

Do you want to be a RPG item shop owner? Do you want to pawn off your goods on complete suckers I MEAN your heroic customers? Bargain Quest is for you! This one is far too involved for a summary of the mechanics, but the gist of it is that you get a handful of item cards, use them to lure in wandering hero cards, empty their pockets of gold tokens by selling them your stuff, and then send them into battle against monster cards. You get victory points for the amount of money you acquired at the end and for hero success (wounding a monster, surviving an attack). There’s some drafting element to the game, too; the start of a round is everyone pulling four cards from the deck, keeping their favorite, and passing the rest to the left. I liked Bargain Quest but it’s a bit involved and I’m not sure that all the decks of cards really enrich the experience. I also found the selling of items to be wholly mechanical and missing the fun of selling. Obviously, you can’t haggle with a card, but if there were some elements of item trades between players, it would’ve been fun to haggle with each other.

SWAG

There was pretty much no swag, but you do get a Pop Up Gen Con badge and pin. And it wouldn’t be Gen Con if I didn’t spend a Gen Con amount of money on new games.



The second edition of Pathfinder launched at Gen Con this year and I’m excited to try it out! No Cyberpunk Red starter, which I guess was too much to hope for but it’s available digitally. I know that The Burning Wheel won’t ever be released on PDF due to author predilections and my FLGS had these beautiful gold editions of The Burning Wheel and The Burning Wheel Codex. Those were an easy pickup. 

Pop Up Gen Con, while a much smaller scale event, was still a fun afternoon. It’s not “The Best Four Days in Gaming” but worth a show up to play some new game demos and support your FLGS. Thanks to Mox Boarding House for hosting!


***

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

Microreview [book]: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Science, aliens, and optimism in the face of an overwhelming universe.


It's hard to know when to pick up a high-concept Becky Chambers book, even one as short as this. On the one hand, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (named after a quote from UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's speech on the Golden Record sent with Voyager) is a novella that's being lauded for its big ideas: in particular, the way in which humans might adapt themselves for future interstellar space travel, and that suggests that it's a novella that will require careful attention to get the most out of it. On the other hand, Becky Chambers is an author most known for bringing radical comfort fiction to space, delivering a series in The Wayfarers that rejects ideas of necessary conflict or drama between diverse people while offering some great adventures and characterisation. To Be Taught, If Fortunate definitely delivers on both sides of that equation and requires engagement from its reader at the same time as it offers a fundamentally optimistic outlook in the face of the universe's many challenges.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate focuses on the voyage of four humans, sent to explore a set of four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from earth. The narrator, Ariadne, is the flight engineer for the Lawki 6 mission, part of an ecological survey sent to various exoplanets in the early 22nd century, joined by xenobiologist Elena, geologist Jack, and botanist Chikondi. The novella wastes no time in establishing the context in which Ari's mission has been launched: humans spent most of the 21st century confined to Earth as global problems increased, but never stopped sending probes to explore the wider solar system, and by the time of Ariadne's birth, the fact of life outside that on earth has been well established. The narrative, told in the form of a communication back to earth by Ari, details the crew's mission to each of the planets in the system: icy Aecor, life-rich Miribalis, ocean-covered Opera and extreme, tidally-locked Votum. Although she's not a scientist first, Ari is utterly devoted to the scientific value of the mission and eager to fold in both the technical and scientific elements of the mission to her narrative; it soon becomes clear that the reason she's doing that, and the underlying tension in the book, is the lack of communication from Earth for much of the mission, and the fear that their home planet has lost the ability or the will to respond to their work.

Because of all the science, the novella ends up being slow and almost meditative, and there's plenty of pages which are pure worldbuilding: from the scene-setting history of the first pages to a long discussion of molecular chirality and its implication for the origin of life at the end, there's a lot of descriptive content here, and it's not always obvious what purpose this information is serving. The blurb of the text makes a lot out of one particular technological feature, which are the genomic adaptations the crew undergo at each planet to adapt them to it, from general adaptations like increased radiation tolerance to world-specific changes such as increasing muscle mass on a high gravity world. This idea doesn't go anywhere direct, but it provides a compelling background, albeit one which never explores the ethical complexities behind it, particularly when it comes to the "baseline" corrections almost all of the characters receive - there's a lot of eugenic implications to unpack here which this narrative simply doesn't have the space for. That aside, there's clearly a lot of love and interest that's gone into the scientific elements, which are made narratively relevant by having a protagonist who is equally engaged. I'd suggest that the real highlight here is the weird and wonderful non-sentient life on each planet visited and the writing does a brilliant job of transferring the excitement of the crew with most of their discoveries - be it a garden of otherworldly vertebrates or a confirmation of microscopic life - onto the page and offering it to the reader.

The interpersonal relationships also very much as you'd expect from a Chambers novel, which is to say they're a completely refreshing delight. Because the novella spends its time focused on a small crew, Ari, Jack, Elena and Chikondi all feel fleshed out and nuanced, and Ari narrates the challenges of being in close proximity with just three other humans while being matter-of-fact about how they accept each others' quirks and give each other both the support and space they all need. It's impressive how convincing this claustrophobic group's interactions are, and while I definitely did not come away from it feeling that I would want to hop in a spaceship with three other people for years on end, this nevertheless feels like a very real crew. The elements of connection with Earth and with other missions are brief but also believable.

Even with so many individual ingredients available, I have somewhat mixed feelings about what To Be Taught, If Fortunate adds up to. The overt plot is simple and episodic, as the quartet travel to each planet on their list in turn and then consider their next move in the face of an uncommunicative Earth. Different challenges on each planet affect the group more or less - a "contamination" incident on Miribalis, for example, is given huge weight while it's happening but then doesn't affect anything further, and there's also a lot of tension around the departure from Opera that is resolved as "actually it was all fine". On one level, this constant release of tension from individual incidents is quite nice - no need to worry about Chekov's gun on the mantlepiece, in this universe it's going to stay right where it is. However, it also means that the link between individual incidents and the emotional arc of the novella - as the characters grapple with their place in the universe, without a link to Earth calling them back - is either subtle or non-existent, depending on how generous one feels. The discussion of chirality (whether a molecule is "right handed" or "left handed" and why it matters in biological terms) that almost closes out the novella is a big example of this: on an overt level, the connection between Lawki 6's molecular discovery and their decisions about whether to return to a possibly-dead earth are tenuous, but it adds an interesting data point as the characters consider their position in the universe. There's just so much going on that I found the lack of explicit connections and resolutions to be slightly frustrating, even as the individual elements as delightful as expected.

Ultimately, I suspect that To Be Taught, If Fortunate, is going to delight most of Becky Chamber's existing fans, while probably continuing to confuse anyone who isn't on board with her writing. Regardless of how you feel it adds up, it's a novella that packs a huge punch in a relatively small space, and it certainly delivers on the big ideas in spades without compromising on any of what Chambers' writing is known for. Whether those two elements totally work together will be a matter of personal taste, but there's certainly plenty here to keep a reader thinking.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Packed with brilliant ideas folded into a strong epistolary narrative

Penalties: -1 mileage may vary on whether this is more than the sum of its parts

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: Chambers, Becky. To Be Taught, If Fortunate [Hodder & Staughton (UK)/Harper Voyager (US), 2019].

Friday, August 2, 2019

6 Books with Julie Czerneda



What is magic? As imagined by Julie E. Czerneda, it’s wild and free, a force of nature and source of wonder. She first explored this theme in her Night’s Edge series, starting with the award-winning Turn of Light. In The Gossamer Mage, Julie goes further, envisioning magic not only as integral to landscape and history, but well aware what we’re doing with it. That tie between us and other, the profound changes we make by connecting, have always informed her work, be it fantasy or science fiction.
Mage is Julie’s twentieth novel published by DAW Books, and she couldn’t be more proud to belong to this esteemed publishing family. For more about Julie and her work, please visit czerneda.com.


Today she shares her six books with us.


1. What book are you currently reading?

A Play of Shadow. Yes, it’s my own, but I’m annotating it with notes for an upcoming sequel. I’m writing a special enovella called “A Dragon for William” that follows on the heels of Play in terms of plot. It comes out in December. I’ll confess revisiting Marrowdell is delightful. Oh, those house toads!






2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

That’s easy! I’ve just seen the cover of C.J. Cherryh’s Resurgence, the 20th installment in her Foreigner series from DAW. It’ll be released in January 2020 and I can’t wait. I reread all, or most, of the preceding books before each new one. Treasures! I’m so excited…







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

I’ve recently bought a hardcover (SFBC) edition of Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh. I haven’t reread that one in years, but now it’s sitting right there on my shelf, calling to me! It was the first CJ I read. I spotted it at the university bookstore and blew my budget (at the time) to buy it at once. First contact, from the alien pov? I was hooked.






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

Hmm. Written in Red, by Anne Bishop, Book One of The Others. When I first read it, I enjoyed the story. Anne’s an amazing storyteller, after all. But when I reread it, as is my wont when a new book in a series comes out, I discovered depths I’d somehow skimmed over and have become, well, smitten.






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

Andre Norton’s Star Rangers (re-released as The Last Planet). Not only the first SF I ever read, but formative as well. Her interplay between several alien species, biologically/culturally different yet able to become comrades and friends, to bring out the best in one another? A vision I took to heart then and have continued in my own work.





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

My latest is a standalone fantasy called The Gossamer Mage. In it, I imagine a world in which magic is alive and aware. I wanted to look at why we value magic, what it is, and what we’d sacrifice for it. Mage is intimate, dark, and a story I deeply love, even when it makes me cry. Maybe especially then.









Thursday, August 1, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

It feels good to slide back into a regularly scheduled Thursday Morning Superhero now that San Diego Comic Con is behind us. SDCC motivated me to return to Joe Hill's books and I have recently been enjoying re-reading N0S4A2 in preparation of finally watching the series on AMC.



Pick of the Week:
Paper Girls #30 - Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, and Matt Wilson's epic nostalgic time traveling adventure reached its conclusion this week. This issue brings us back to where it all began and with the girls delivering papers on Halloween and is really sweet. I won't spoil anything, but it had a very Terminator meets Stranger Things finale that somehow works really well. I particularly enjoyed the cameo of the guardian angel and it was fitting to have such a simple ending to what was a truly surprising story. I would not have imagined the world that Vaughn was bringing me into after the first issue and love that the girls have lived so many different lives in just 30 issues. This is without a doubt a series that you should check out and one that I will revisit every couple of years.

The Rest:
Joe Hill's The Cape: Fallen #4 - I first read The Cape many years ago and it always stuck with me. Based on a story by Joe Hill, the comic followed Eric who, upon learning that a cape is giving him superpowers, uses those powers to seek revenge against anyone who has wronged him. In the original series Eric vanished for three days as he attempted to understand his powers.  This series informs us of what happened during that time. After returning to his childhood cabin, Eric stumbles across a group of accepting LARPers and he enacts his final vengeance in the finale of this mini-series as he goes full evil before setting up his plans that were in the Eisner nominated series. If you enjoyed Brightburn, this series is going to be right up your alley and I will admit I enjoyed the original series far better than Brightburn.

Captain America #12 - In his attempts to fight the Hydra propaganda machine, Captain America is seeking justice on the streets, but people aren't sure what to make of it. They are fully convinced that he is enemy number one and he needs a better plan. While Rodgers is getting the help from an old friend and a team of female supers, Nick Fury is trying to locate Rodgers to see if it really is him behind the mask. I am curious how he is going to navigate becoming a public figure again and how he can take down Hydra, and mayor Fisk.





Manor Black #1 - A new horror series from Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurt!  There are a lot of competing interests to consider in this first issue, but there appears to be a young woman on the run from a powerful group of magic wielders who will stop at nothing to achieve their means. They already murdered four other magic users and a local police officer. The young lady made it on the property of Roman Black, a powerful sorcerer on his own who is currently considering a new heir to his magical throne. Very curious to see where this is headed and thrilled that Hurt and Bunn are together for a new story of the occult.




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