Monday, September 16, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Control by Remedy Entertainment (developer)

Bigger on the Inside


Control had some work to do right out of the gate. Quantum Break wasn’t exactly an unqualified success and Remedy’s relationship with Microsoft seemed to disintegrate from it. Now back out on their own and paired with 505 Games, Control is a bit of a return to form for Remedy. Smaller in scope than Quantum Break, but doing more with less.

Control is a third person shooter with mind powers. You play as Jesse Haden, a woman who walked into the Federal Bureau of Control, and assumed leadership by bonding with the weapon of the former director. If that sounds weird, we haven’t even scratched the surface. The FBC is charged with protecting the nation from supernatural threats, and it’s been invaded by a threat called The Hiss.

Control is a pitch-perfect blend of creepypasta, Lost, and The X-Files. There’s lot of talk in memos and audio logs about containment and neutralization of Altered Items and Objects of Power. Jesse can bind with some of these OOPs to get new powers, starting with the ability to throw stuff with her mind. Littered all over this game are collectibles describing the supernatural effects of these items and how the FBC are working to contain them. There’s also a series of videos that look like someone took the Dharma Initiative videos from Lost and made their own. These all star the same guy who played Alan Wake. Speaking of Alan Wake, there’s also a series of videos starring the guy who voiced Max Payne. This whole game is stuffed with creepy fiction and Remedy all-stars and I loved it.

The gameplay is also well suited to the atmosphere. This is no cover shooter. Jesse has the archetypal shooter weapons: pistol, shotgun, sniper, etc. Augmenting these are the mind powers, with the first and most useful being Launch, which throws stuff. Essentially every piece of set decoration can be picked up and tossed at the enemy. It does a healthy amount of damage right out of the gate and it’s extremely satisfying. More abilities trickle out later, but Launch is a mainstay through out of the game. Both weapon ammo and mind powers are on a delayed recharge, so combat is usually a matter of emptying one of those meters, and then emptying the other while the first recharges. Enemies also explode with health pickups when they die, so it makes no sense to sit in one place and shoot things in the distance. Eventually you need to get up close to heal. There’s a good variety of enemies, so the mix of weapons and mind powers have plenty of uses and combat essentially never gets boring.

There are two things that take away from Control, and that’s the environments and difficulty spikes. The whole game takes place in the same extradimensional building (think House of Leaves or the Tardis from Doctor Who), and eventually I noticed that it’s an awful lot of poured concrete. It’s good looking and well designed but there’s just so much grey I can look at. Jesse is also fairly fragile, and I found numerous points in the game where difficulty spiked really hard, to the point that I sometimes just walked away from a mission and did something else, or quit out of the game entirely from frustration. There’s a brutal section near the end of the game that took me at least a dozen attempts to get past, and required that I play the game differently from how I spent the rest of the game playing it. It wasn’t fun. Even now, there are a couple side missions I may not finish because I’m past the ending and they’re annoyingly difficult.

Despite these fairly minor quibbles, I absolutely loved Control. It’s creepy, it plays well, and it looks great. Control is an excellent storytelling game.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 collectibles worth collecting, +1 gameplay that punishes inaction

Penalties: -1 same-y environments after a while, -1 brutal difficulty spikes

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)

***
 
Reference: Remedy Entertainment. Control (505 Games, 2019)

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

Friday, September 13, 2019

Microreview [book]: This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This is how you lose the Time War is a moving story of a professional rivalry a love story, and a meeting of perspectives told through world-changing time travelers’ letters




The idea was inevitable, and originated relatively early in the history of time travel narratives. If one person can invent a time machine, and if history can be changed, then more than one person is going to invent a time machine, and the goals of those forces are going to not be congruent. From Jack Williamson and Fritz Leiber to The Terminator, to recent novellas like Alasdair Reynolds’ Permafrost  and Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives, there is a lot of mileage to the idea of a Changewar, where different time traveling factions seek to change history

Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War takes this subgenre of a subgenre in a new direction by telling the story of two agents from opposite sides, who find something in each other, greater than the causes they separately serve..That in itself would be an interesting enough concept to pin down a novella, but the authors have an additional, dellightful wrinkle: The agents do not meet, but rather communicate in letters to each other.

In a world of twitter, and direct messages, and texts, and instant social media, long form letters are a delightful retro technology and form. Epistolary novels and stories, never the most common of forms even when letters were dominant as a means of communication, are exceedingly distinctive just by their format in this day and age. It’s a bold choice by the authors to have the two agents, Red (from a technological end state utopia) and Blue (from a biological super consciousness utopia) to start their correspondence and to have their letters (which take increasingly unusual forms as described in the narrative) be the backbone of the action. Every chapter has one of the principals in action, and a letter from the other principals, giving a harmonic balance for the reader as far as perspective. But it is within the letters themselves that the novella truly sings and shows its power.

Those letters, those perspectives, the shift from adversarial relationship to something more, as the two best time agents in all of history find in each other something more in common than in their own sides, Agency and Garden, that this novels runs on. I was half expecting, going in, a narrative more like Leiber or Anderson, or the like, where jonbar points are displayed and fought over, and changed back and forth as the two sides change history. And there is some of that but it is in the most general of senses, with lots of references to alternate strands and timelines. The worlds that were and what might be,and could be are really just smoke and reflections, pale ghosts compared to how Red and Blue bare their souls and hearts to each other. So this is not a story for deep explorations of how saving Archduke Ferdinand or giving Genghis Khan a longer life might change the timelines. Sure, there are handwaves in the direction of changing things here and there, but those are not the point. The novella is not really oriented toward pulse pounding action, either, although there is a culminating sequence toward the end of the novella where the style does change a bit to allow for it.

What this novella provides, and the target readers, are an extremely literary focus. There are clever bits with wordplay, allusions, references, and even a book recommendation mixed in with that. The letters, starting as boasting and admonitions that each side is going to win, slowly change and evolve, as the adversarial relationship finally turns to respect, and then love. The power and the strength of the letters become richer and richer as the novella continues, as Red and Blue really start to really understand each other, and themselves, that the novella truly shines with the full power of the writers. The seamlessness of the two writers writing is also noteworthy--I can make a guess as to which writer might have written which side more predominantly but I cannot possibly be sure of that. Like Red and Blue themselves, the two sides blend into each other, and while I may slightly prefer the letters of Blue to Red, the beauty and poetry of both sides’ letters, especially in the latter portion, is magical.I was moved deeply by the slow burn love story that unfolds in the words in their letters.

My only real quibble is something that I have tried to make clear in this review, this novella being difficult to capture in words, like a letter being consumed in flame even as you write it. My quibble and it is not really for myself but for others is that it is an extremely narrow and specific kind of story that is going to appeal to a particularly stratum of readers, and probably be of absolute no interest to many more. Even if you are a big fan of time travel and Changewar stories, if you are expecting something like a cold or hot war of temporal changes and conflict (again, something I wondered if we would see in the novella, and we do not), you are going to come away disappointed. This is a character focused story, a love story between two women who are opposing agents in a time war. It's heartbreakingly, movingly good at what it does, but that thing is a narrow interest.

There is a line in one of the letters, “All good stories travel from the outside in”, and This is How You Lose the Time War fulfills that promise for me as a reader.
---

The Math


Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for heartbreakingly excellent prose

Penalties: -1 for a style and format that may not be appreciated by every reader.

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



Reference: El-Mohtar, Amal and Gladstone, Max, This is How You Lose the Time War [Saga Press, 2019]



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

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

The first book for the return to the world of Locke and Key has a name and has a release date. On October 16, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez are bringing us back to the Locke family in a book entitled Dog Days.  Rodriguez teased some art on his instagram and I couldn't be happier!  Just over one month to go!



Pick of the Week:
Trees: Three Fates #1 - Fresh of getting a television adaptation of the original series, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard have returned to the world of trees. This books takes place in Russia, where the trees fell 11 years ago and the residents of this small town are still adjusting. Things take a dark turn when Klara Voranova, a police officer, is alerted to a dead body.  The mangled body was found near one of the trees and it appears that there is a lot going on behind the scenes in this small town that Klara doesn't know about.

The Rest:
Babyteeth #16 - Five years have passed since Sadie's father sacrificed himself in order to save everyone.  We cut to five years later when Sadie is still trying to make everything right and is currently separated from her daughter and recording videos.  If I remember correctly, this is where we started in issue #1.  She is telling the video of how they escaped from the devil and made it out of Hell.  It is nice that this book has come full circle, but Joshua Williamson is keeping the reader on its feet as the bomb that is dropped on Sadie when she decides that she should head home was quite shocking.



Daredevil #11 - Matt Murdock better get his stuff together quickly or a lot of people in Hell's Kitchen are going to get hurt.  Not only is he not offering them his protection, despite Electra wanting to help, imposter Daredevils are taking the law into their own hands and don't have his restraint. It also looks like Mayor Fisk's power might be nearing its end thanks to Owlsley.  An attempt to get Owlsley out of Hell's Kitchen for a period of time, Fisk is betrayed and severely underestimated Owlsley and the reach of his people.  There was a nice cameo from a certain web slinger to boot!  What I love about Daredevil is how real Murdock has always been and how he isn't shy of admitting the struggles he faces day in and day out.  Murdock is a character a lot of people can relate to and look up to, even when he is feeling down.

Star Wars Adventures #25 - I took a short break from this series and based on seeing Princess Leia on the cover decided it was probably a good time to come back. The story follows Leia with one of her oldest friends Amilyn Holdo on a short adventure on Coruscant.  Holdo is learning how to drive and taking Leia on a tour of the shady underbelly of Coruscant where Leia makes a surprising discovery. Tales of friendship like this are something that the Star Wars Universe needs more of. It is nice to see stories that are more run of the mill, while still set in this fantastic environment.  As I note almost every time I write about this series, it is a fun all-ages series that I highly recommend.




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


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Nanoreviews: The Stiehl Assassin, City of Brass, Jade War


Brooks, Terry. The Stiehl Assassin [Del Rey, 2019]

There will undoubtedly be many more Shannara novels as Terry Brooks continues to flesh out the history of The Four Lands, but The Stiehl Assassin is also the penultimate volume in Brooks' push to close out the main line story arc of the Shannara Saga. The Four Lands are facing the invasion of the Skaar, though that invasion does not feel to be the same world breaking danger as the demons from the Forbidding in previous novels, mostly because though there is an invasion it has been a tightly targeted one.

The relative quality of Shannara novels has been inconsistent at best over the decades, and any time readers thought that Brooks might have turned a corner would result in several workmanlike volumes before a "return to form", though Brooks has never since been the careful writer he was in the 1980's and early 90's. With that in mind, The Black Elfstone (the first Fall of Shannara novel) felt as much like a return to form as we've seen in recent years with only a small step down withThe Skaar Invasion. The Stiehl Assassin mostly takes another step back for much of the novel, with loose storytelling and a sense that Brooks is dancing around something larger that needs to be told, that he could do better with fewer larger volumes than the racing pace of these relatively short fantasy novels. Where The Stiehl Assassin largely succeeds is when it does get to those larger issues - the reasons behind the invasion, the impact of technology and battle, as well as begin to answer lingering questions deeper in the series since at least 2013's Witch Wraith (which is only 6 years ago but there have been 5 books between that and this novel).

In the end, The Stiehl Assassin doesn't have enough to recommend it beyond being a continuation of a series many have been reading since the beginning or at least for as long as they've been reading genre.
Score: 6/10



Chakraborty, S.A. The City of Brass [Harper Voyager, 2017]

When I wrote about the Campbell (now Astounding) Award finalists back in July I lamented that I missed out on reading The City of Brass when it was first published in 2017 and had I read it then, it would have immediately made my Hugo Award ballot for Best Novel. The City of Brass is a spectacular debut novel.

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.
Score: 8/10 



Lee, Fonda. Jade War [Orbit, 2019]

The ongoing conflict between the No Peak and Mountain clans is the core of the story Fonda Lee is telling first with Jade City and now with Jade War, but the heart of the novel is the interplay within the Kaul family of the No Peak clan. The dynamic between Hilo and Shae as siblings and also Pillar with his Weather Man is painfully and perfectly drawn out. It is nearly impossible to not reference The Godfather (either Puzo's novel or Coppola's film) when discussing Jade War because Lee's novel has that feel of family and crime tinged with legitimacy and vengeance and hints of what it looks like from the wider world. It's not a one to one match and comparisons between characters are facile at best.

Jade War fulfills the promise of Jade City and then raises the bar once again. The novel expands beyond the island of Kekon and Fonda Lee's rich description makes brings each new location alive with the smell and feel of the city and Kekonese in exile. The world and the novel is so much bigger, and once again Fonda Lee has delivered a spectacular novel.
Score: 8/10 


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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

LET'S FRIGHTEN CHILDREN! Vincent Price & Scooby-Doo

You’re a parent. You love horror. But horror is scary. So how to share this love of horror with your young, innocent, in-love-with-the-world child?

Sure, you can Google “best horror movies for kids,” and get the usual results, which you kinda already knew anyway. But for myself, as a parent who has tackled this question four times over, I’d like to take a deeper dive into this idea. So today I’m introducing our “Let’s Frighten Children!” series, which I hope will at least prompt some discussion about how we grown-up nerds can indoctrinate our tiny replicas into the genre we love, without sending them, screaming, into therapy.

Over the years, I have documented on this site the way I came to love horror, which was through screenings of classic Universal monster movies on over-the-air TV back in the 1980s. But the world has moved on. No 21st-century kid is getting their creepy from UHF channels, so how do we, as loving, responsible parents who know the joys of floating skeletons and disembodied laughter, bring our little kids with us into the warm embrace of darkness?

Friends, I have ideas.

The Language of Horror

For me and my family, the first step to introducing horror was to introduce the language of scares without, really, the fear. It’s hard to be a little kid. You are tiny, and surrounded by giants. Nothing makes sense, and every outcome is uncertain. Mom’s leaving...Will she come back?! How long is an hour?! It’s unknowable. And worse, there might actually be a monster under the bed. Or in the closet — you just don’t know.


This is where Vincent Price and Scooby-Doo came in handy. It’s pretty unlikely any kid is going to be legitimately frightened by an episode of Scooby-Doo. And yet, there are ghosts, goblins, witches, vampires, werewolves, creepers, and more, all running about. I’m actually not a huge Scooby fan, but I found the Cartoon Network Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated series to be excellent. I watched a big chunk of it with my kids, who were five and seven at the time. They loved it, and still do. We re-watch episodes regularly. In a world where asking a kid who has grown up with an iPhone to watch Bela Lugosi’s Dracula seems like a bridge too far, this is a show that is fast-paced, conversant in horror tropes, dabbles in grotesque/frightening imagery, and is funny, smart, and good. It’s also a show that prominently features Vincent Van Ghoul, who is a not-at-all-disguised representation of Vincent Price.

I think the world of Vincent Price. And while you might shy away from some of his 1970s work when it comes to screenings for young kids (things got pretty bloody), he spent the majority of his career as a boogeyman in a system that shied away from realistic violence. The result is a trove of movies that are neck-deep in Gothic imagery, but that aren’t actually frightening. I showed my daughter the Roger Corman/Vincent Price The Pit and the Pendulum when she was five, and she was all in. Several years later now, I’m taking her to theatre performances about the life of Edgar Allan Poe, and she’s reading her first Stephen King novel.

Introducing horror tropes in a way that wasn’t actually threatening helped to get my kids familiar with mythologies, characteristics, and images that would come to have more meaning later on as they got a little older and began seeing more things. Bride of Frankenstein is, believe me, easier for a kid to understand after they’ve seen Edward Scissorhands (featuring, of course, Vincent Price).

Recommendations

If you have little kids and want to introduce them to horror iconography in a relatively subdued presentation, you’d do well to consider the various iterations of Scooby-Doo and the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe films of the 1960s.

Every kid is different, and what excites and engages my kid might not be perfect for yours. But one of the lovely things about starting with the sillier end of the horror spectrum is that a kid can experience the fun of a Halloween vibe without actually getting scared out of their wits. After all, not everybody is going to graduate to enjoying The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist or The Babadook, but everybody can enjoy a creepy, spooky aesthetic on their own terms.

For young kids, I recommend:
Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
The Haunted Palace
Fall of the House of Usher
House of Wax
The House on Haunted Hill
Ghostbusters

Posted by Vance K — Emmy-winning director and producer, cult-film reviewer and co-editor of Nerds of a Feather since 2012.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The Queer NecRomantic Murder Mystery You've Been Missing All your Life

Cover art by Tommy Arnold

To say that Gideon the Ninth, the debut novel from Tamsyn Muir, has been the subject of some hype is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a bit wet. The hype about this skeleton-based queer adventure has been slowly taking over my Twitter feed since the end of last year, and its regularly felt like the universe was divided into those "lucky" few who had already read it (and were therefore falling over themselves to talk to the rest of us about skeletons) and everyone else waiting for the release to roll around. At last, dear readers, I have graduated into the ranks of the skeleton analysts.

Was it worth it? Oh, very yes.

Gideon is an orphan raised in indenture to the Ninth House, a crumbling ruined cult living on a nigh-uninhabitable planet, now facing total extinction. Ignored by most and openly tormented by the only other girl her age, Reverend Daughter Harrowhark, Gideon has been plotting her escape for years and on her eighteenth birthday, now finally has her chance to make her way off planet and into a marginally better life. On the verge of making good on her escape, Harrow outwits her at the last minute, only to instead offer to take her as a "cavalier", a sworn bodyguard to the House's necromancer, on a very different sort of quest. The First House - that of the Emperor - has offered a challenge, enabling a representative from one of the houses to ascend to the Emperor's services if they can successfully complete a task on the deserted First House planet. Left without a choice (and clearly intrigued and also maybe a bit into Harrow) Gideon takes on the challenge, taking a crash course in what it takes to be a cavalier before setting off to a crumbling house for an uncertain contest with the other seven houses. And then, of course, the murders begin.

In its worldbuilding, Gideon the Ninth takes a particular kind of claustrophobic gothic sensibility - one that's embodied in speculative work like Gormenghast and Under the Pendulum Sun - and applies it on an interplanetary scale whose mechanics are vague but also irrelevant. There's an empire, which we don't get a whole lot of information on, but whose leadership appears to be at the least chronically absent from the house structure its created. These houses specialise in upholding different aspects of the empire, ranging from practical services like "being soldiers" or "managing the library" to more nebulous professions like "being likeable", "thinking you're good at diplomacy but you're not, actually", "dying of attractive forms of consumption" and, of course, "skeletons". There's definitely an evolution to be drawn here from the districts of the Hunger Games or factions of the Divergent trilogy (and before those, the Hogwarts Houses) to this distinctly non-YA portrayal of a dysfunctional and yet internally meaningful classification system; in practical terms, the houses allow Muir to introduce a lot of characters and give them motivations in a relatively short space of time, and to allow the representatives of the Ninth House their own pre-existing prejudices and conflicts with those houses, while still maintaining them as outsiders to civilised company. Almost all of the supporting characters grow beyond the stereotypes of their house depiction (the main exception is the soldiers of the Second House, but they play their role and further nuance is not really missed), creating a highly satisfying political-necromantic soap opera which gets more desperate as the body count starts to build.

At the centre of it all are Gideon and Harrow, and their deeply dysfunctional relationship, all told through Gideon's lens. Muir may have written Gideon the Ninth in third person but it's most definitely Gideon's voice, and the portrayal of someone who has spent so long putting up with overblown spooky bullshit that she has no more fucks or reverence to give is utterly hilarious. Though Gideon makes no explicit cultural references to anything but her dirty magazines (and those play less of a role in the narrative than you'd think), her voice is imbued with what in other mediums would be referred to as "easter eggs": occasional memetic pop culture references to things like Mean Girls, which don't detract from the text if you don't read them as such but add to the idiosyncratic irreverence if you do. Because the atmosphere is so well defined beyond Gideon's perception, it makes for some highly amusing moments where Gideon's internal descriptions contrast with what's objectively going on: for example, her enforced vow of silence in early chapters allows her to come across as a creepy, mysterious hooded-and-painted skull figure to the rest of the group, even as she's walking around being internally rude, judgemental, and bored. The fact that the atmosphere isn't really dented by Gideon's irreverence is testament to Muir's skill in balancing the tone of what could have been a very uneven book. Instead, it all meshes together to create something that feels unique and fresh with a wonderful character voice, and a strain of heartbreak that really creeps up on you under all the hardened sword-wielding snark.

Another point of skill is the way that Gideon and Harrow's enemies to "it's complicated" relationship unfolds (complete with multiple complications including the aforementioned attractive consumptive necromancer), completely against the intention of either character, against a backdrop of general queerness despite their being very little in the way of explicit romance. Although I found it mildly frustrating that the few more "established" couples seem to be heterosexual, the way queerness is incorporated normalises it in a way which then enables Gideon and Harrow to be utterly obtuse about each other without it coming across as "baiting" or textually ambiguous that they could jump each other's bones (I promise that's the only skeleton pun that's going to make it in here) (but only because I'm kind of tired and don't expect any more low-hanging fruit). It's an important balance to strike particularly in a book like this where the trajectory is not towards an uncomplicated happy ending for the disastrous duo, because if lesbians are going to end the story unhappy and/or out-of-action, I need an author to have earned my trust along the way. However, this is a point where individual mileages may vary, and if you're a reader steer clear of "bury your gays" in the broadest sense then it may be worth seeking out a more spoiler-heavy review to work out if Gideon the Ninth is a book you want to invest in.

For me, therefore, this book has certainly earned its pre-release buzz, and I expect the community excitement is only going to increase as more people get to experience the world and characters Muir has created here (there was already a Gideon cosplay wandering around Worldcon one day, which I was pretty excited to see even before getting to read the book). In a strong year, Gideon the Ninth has effortlessly risen to near the top of my 2019 reads, and while its combination of gothic-grimdark worldbuilding sensibilities and post-Potter Millennial teen snark isn't going to work for everyone, it certainly does capture a genre zeitgeist which I was thoroughly delighted by. Best of all, there's just so much more of this bizarre world to see, and it sounds like we won't be waiting long before the next adventures of our skeleton faves in Harrow the Ninth.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonus: +1 Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone; +1 I could probably write a second review on all the other necromancers and cavaliers and my feelings about them (except the Second House)

Penalties: -1 Worldbuilding is a bit light on everything that doesn't play into the "Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone" aesthetic

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: Muir, Tamsyn Gideon the Ninth (Tor.com Publishing, 2019)

Friday, September 6, 2019

6 Books with Brian Naslund


Brian Naslund  had a brief stint in the New York publishing world but quickly defected to tech in Denver where he does internet marketing. You can find him online at www.briannaslund.com, on Twitter as @BrianNasl.

Today he shares his Six Books with us.

1. What book are you currently reading? 
I’m currently reading The Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler, and loving it. I was a big fan of his Shadow Campaigns series, but this one is a big change from his “flintlock fantasy” stuff. The book features an Asian-inspired world that’s full of magic, criminals, and a mysterious, massive ship that’s crammed with exiled mages, mushrooms, and horrific sea creatures.I’m only about halfway through, but as soon as I’m done writing these answers, I’ll definitely be going back to it and probably staying up past my bedtime reading it.



2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Like a lot of “grimdark” fantasy readers, I’m fired up for Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred. The First Law universe is one of my favorites, and I can’t wait to see what he does with old and new characters. Also, once it’s out, I can finally stop re-reading my favorite scenes from The Heroes to get my Joe fix.





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

I actually saw Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in a bookstore window the other day, and seeing the cover sparked a strong desire to dig up my old copy (it’s deep in a box from my recent move, but this is good motivation to finish unpacking).
His descriptions of the truly insane flora and fauna of Area X are intimidatingly good. It’s one of those books I love to re-read, but also wind up feeling a wee-bit inadequate as a writer myself because he did such a brilliant job




4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?
This is going to come out of left field, but "ttyl" by Lauren Myracle is a book I scoffed at when I heard the premise, but wound up absolutely loving it.

It's a YA novel centering around several friends entering 10th grade, and the entire story is told through their instant messages to each other. My sister was reading it, and after my initial cold-shoulder when she described it, I picked it up and read the first few pages. Cut to two hours later and I can't put it down. Meanwhile, my sister is yelling at me to give it back. Ah, siblings.




5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?
The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell probably had the biggest influence on me as a kid. His books are different from mine in many ways, but there are two big similarities: swords are involved, and Cornwell took these legendary figures from folklore (Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere) and pinned them down in a realistic world full of dirty fingernails and intimate details.


I'd never read anything like that before, and it has stuck with me as I've populated by own stories with dragons, living legends, and epic quests, but never forgotten to sew it all together with a lynchpin of gritty details.



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


My debut fantasy novel is Blood of an Exile, the first in the Dragons of Terra series, out now from Tor Books. It's part Wolverine, part Games of Thrones. The story follows the Flawless Bershad, a former lord who was sentenced to be a dragonslayer-a vocation that typically ends in death within a week. Bershad's managed to last fourteen years, and has become a grumpy and cynical living legend because of it. Then the king who sentenced Bershad to his fate gives him a chance at redemption. Kill a foreign emperor and walk free forever.

Why's it awesome? Well, I mostly wrote the type of book that I would want to read, which is a fast-paced adventure fantasy with a lot action, interlaced with humor, some serious bits, and lots of complicated characters with interesting relationships. I'm a little biased, but I think the book succeeds on all fronts.

There's also one really cute donkey named Alfonso.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is officially September and things are starting to get a little bit spooky. My wife and I saw Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark over the weekend and quite enjoyed it.  With It Chapter Two coming out this week it only seems appropriate to start the Halloween reading a bit early this year.


Pick of the Week:
Something is Killing the Children #1 - When I saw there was a new horror book written by James Tynion IV it jumped right to the top of my pull list.  Something is Killing the Children is about....something...that is killing the children. James is the only survivor from the first incident in Archer's Peak when a mysterious creature the size of a tree killed a group of teenagers. The police and town folk don't believe James, but a mysterious stranger, who is going from town to town killing monsters, says that she is there to kill it. It is a pretty simple premise, but the character design from Werther Dell'edera and fast pace of the first issue hooked me immediately.  It will be interesting to see how James attempts to confront both his inner demons and the very real one he has volunteered to help kill. I am also intrigued to learn more about the young lady who has already established herself as a cold blooded monster killer in this issue. I cannot wait to read more of this book as the weather cools off and Halloween decorations start to pop up in the neighborhood.

The Rest:
No One Left to Fight #3 - Hell hath no fury like a woman with magical powers scorned.  Winda finally makes her move on Vale, but his heart belongs to his sister-in-law and Winda does not take kindly to it and takes it out on Vale.  As he is recovering outside from the beat down, and from whatever is currently impacting his powers, he runs into The Hierophant, a dark being who offers to heal Vale and turn him into a being similar to him.  It was interesting to meet a new character and to see a bit more of how the condition is impacting Vale, but the overall issue was a bit slower than the previous two. This book is still a lot of fun and one I highly recommend checking it out. Fico Ossio is absolutely killing the art in this book and is bringing some radical color with the help of Raciel Avila.

Redneck #23 - Desperate times call for desperate measures.  After failing to convince Greg not to join forces with Carrona in an attempt to take down the Parliament of Vampires. His dad passes down a special revolver that has been in the family for generations that was forged from an old church tower, was consecrated, and is a vampire killing machine. It has never been used, but it is the emergency plan that might save, or take, Greg's life.  Perry is on the road to recovery and wants to make sure that Carrona never gets a chance to kills her brother Greg, his pregnant sister, or his father.  She decides to team up with the only vampire who can outmatch her telekinetic abilities, Evil, in a desperate attempt to save her brother.  What could possibly go wrong in unleashing the very being that blew up Bartlett's wedding.  Things are about to get extremely messy and I am all for it.



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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Questing in Shorts: August 2019

The eagle eyed among you will note that this August edition of Questing in Shorts is, in fact, coming out of September, and with a jam-packed September on the cards, its going to have to serve the purpose of two columns in one. August has been a great month for buying short fiction, especially in anthology form, but a less successful one for reading it and a particularly unsuccessful one for making sure I have comprehensive notes to hand on what I've read, meaning that there's been a lot of swift rereading to get up to speed this time around, and a lot more general impressions than story specifics. Incidentally, if anybody has any bullet journal type hacks for keeping track of short fiction thoughts (with bonus points if they'll work on a train commute), do hit me up on the Twitter place, as I'd love to hear how other people manage it...

The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez. 

With a title like that, I'm surprised I hadn't heard of this collection before it came to me in the Latinx Storybundle last year. In this set of stories, Hernandez marries together humour and weirdness in a collection with a ton of heart, following largely sympathetic characters as they deal with upheaval, and displacement both cultural and temporal, and the occasional grimly hilarious body horror. Highlights of the latter are the trio of stories featuring Gabby, an investigative journalist whose stories include a far-too-realistic VR panda sex experience ("The International Studbook of the Giant Panda"), an encounter with a trans-dimensional unicorn in an area known for poachers ("The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory") and the custom piano of a newly dead pianist, which may or may not now hold his soul ("Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#Minor"). Overall, its a collection that balances the funny and the poignant well, and allows its characters to get into some distinctly awkward and embarrassing situations without depriving them of respect and agency - definitely one to look out for.

Rating: 7/10

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

This collection is Singh's first in the USA, and it's a demanding gem of a book: full of stories which shift effortlessly in time and place, drawing narrative lines between the incomprehensible cultures of far future spacefarers and South Asian mythology and storytelling. This isn't a collection that can be rushed through, as each story requires attention to the parallels and changes in the text. But it's well worth the effort: a book that's very different from any science fiction I've ever read, and one of the most rewarding collections in its postcolonial vision of what humanity's distant future might look like. Standouts for me were the titular "Ambiguity Machines", a weird, beautiful set of linked stories with a framing device in the form of an examination text and "Somadeva: A Sky River Story", in which an 11th century poet becomes a spaceship AI. And rounding out the collection beautifully is Requiem, a foray into climate science fiction which draws parallels between the warming of the arctic and the loss of culture it means for native communities, and the relationships with animals who are themselves trying to survive in a changing world. Its all told through the lens of an Indian woman visiting the community following her father's death. I'm so glad I spent the time with this one, and there are stories here I expect I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.

Rating: 8/10

Uncanny Magazine Issue 29

I found this issue of Uncanny a delight from start to finish, from the creepy flash fiction budget shopping trip in Greg Van Eekhout's "Big Box" to "On the Impurity of Dragon-kind", a story by Marie Brennan in the Lady Trent canon, which offers a funny, world-expanding take on her son's religious confirmation told through the lens of his speech at the ceremony. There's a creepy new Sarah Pinsker story about a supernatural murder in the woods during a writer's retreat, and although the climax to this one is a little more "infodumpy" than I'd consider ideal, it's still a conceptually strong pay-off for a neat mystery set-up, and the fact that it boils down to the relationship between two women is all good by me. Hitting all the buttons with technical accomplishment as well as concept was "The Migration Suite: A study in C Sharp Minor", a story which traces the various migrations of Black people through prehistory and early civilisations, through to escapes from slavery and 20th century migrations, and then on to a final "movement" into space. The use of the musical metaphor - which allows Broaddus to talk about movements in a dual sense - satisfyingly brings together elements that could otherwise feel very disparate, offering changes in mood and tone as a composer might direct their notation to be played. And the speculative future it offers is one that meshes grim and hopeful in a complex, powerful way.

"Compassionate Simulation" by Rachel Swirsky and P.H. Lee, and "How the Trick is Done" by A.C. Wise, both offer heartwrenching narratives which grapple in different ways with patriarchal powers and modes of resistance, even in the most grim of circumstances. Finally, the reprint here is a story that previously only had limited release on Patreon: A Champion of Nigh-Space by Tim Pratt, in which a man finds out that the odd parts of his otherwise brilliant relationship have a far more dramatic, superhero-esque . I also enjoyed that the relationship between the main characters is unapologetically kinky without any on-the-page erotica or a sense that this detail needs to be at the heart of the story as a whole. On the whole, this is a fantastic issue, and a great note on which to celebrate Uncanny's latest win in the Semiprozine category.

Rating: 9/10

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 11.

It's another unthemed issue of FIYAH this quarter, and one featuring one of my favourite short fiction writers in the novelette slot. Though I haven't read much of Michele Tracy Berger's writing, the stories of hers I have experienced all weave together creepy, compelling science fictional narratives (the alien contact gone horribly wrong, the miracle product that isn't) with historically Black struggles at the points at which she's writing, centring Black experiences and the everyday horror of structural racism in familiar tropes. The novelette here, Doll Seed, is another great example of this: taking the idea that toys come to life when humans aren't looking, and that their purpose is to make the lives of children special, she tells the story of Chevella, a Black doll who ends up in a toy shop in 1950s America and her experience of racism experienced through her own personhood and her identity as a symbol of race. Forgotten toy narratives are generally heartbreaking and this one definitely doesn't let up on the emotions, while also containing some pretty horrifying moments.

The short fiction in this issue is also great. Omar Sow's "Ibrahima and the Green Fishing Net" is a short, queer, emotionally resonant tale of love lost and found in the ocean, sweeping the reader along in a non-linear narrative to its inevitable conclusion. "Pimento" by Dean-Paul E. Stephens tackles concepts of artificial personhood in its depiction of a future Kingston which has ostensibly given equal rights to androids (but still treats them as second class citizens), and a restaurant owner who is offered the chance to cater for an Emperor of a planet which still treats them as slaves, and chooses to use it to promote the skills of an android on his own staff. With the relationship between the narrator and Ivan - and the narrator's confronting of their own internalised prejudice and expectations - at the heart of the story, its one where the characters will stay with you long after the words run out. Rounding out the issue is "When You Find a Dragon, Name Them For Me" by Tamara Jeree, an atmospheric quest story which again has a relationship (and a memory dragon!) at its heart.

Rating: 8/10

Beyond the Line of Trees by Vida Cruz.

This gorgeous illustrated collection offers four short stories from Vida Cruz, a Filipina author and former Tiptree fellow. I hadn't come across any of these stories before (one is a winner of the Writers of the Future contest, which despite the controversy surrounding that particular event is an amazing achievement!) and jumped at the chance to pick up one of these super-limited first printing chapbooks to familiarise myself with Cruz's writing. I was not disappointed! The stories here deal with the intersection of supernatural forces and of human societies grappling with traditions and change in many forms. Its hard to pick favourites, but the standouts for me were "The Song of the Mango", the story of Saha a woman whose brother is killed and turned into a magical healing mango tree, sending her on a path from being a dissatisfied handmaid to the village leader to a grumpy mango witch in a forest, to her capture by conquering forces and eventual escape. Saha's narration - told in the past tense from a significant distance, which adds to the mystery of the story - is gloriously bad-tempered, and the worldbuilding is detailed and interesting, making me wish I could get a mango worth eating without getting on a long haul flight!

The final story, "Odd and Ugly", weaves a non-linear love story into a fable with strong overtones of Beauty and the Beast, with a story between a kapre, or tree spirit, and a young woman who invites herself in as his housekeeper. As the tale unfolds we learn more about the kapre's history (an african slave brought over to the Philippines during the colonial occupation), and the heartbreaks past and present of both of the main characters. Sadly this initial printing is already sold out but if you're interested in Cruz's work, I'm told that a second run in the works and will be available from the lovely folk at Portal Bookshop in future.

Rating: 8/10

Bonus Round: Zine Adventures!

One of the things I picked up at Worldcon was a chapbook of Japanese flash fiction pieces in translation, called Intelligence: Artificial and Human, put together by the AIxSF project. I don't think I'd read anything from the eight authors contained within and it made for an interesting, if quite cursory, exploration of various topics of artificial intelligence from some of the authors who are thinking about this at the moment. Because the focus is on the practical intersection of human and artificial intelligences, many of the stories feel like a snippet of a longer narrative rather than a more fully fleshed out idea at the particular length (a format which I think is more effective when things are... weirder) and for several stories, particularly the one by Taiyo Fujii, I think the length was an obvious constraint. I'd love to see a slightly more fleshed out version of this, and while at the moment I think it's a Worldcon exclusive, if the material ever makes it online it'll definitely be of interest to fans of translated fiction.

This was also the month I finally got around to reading Hope in the Dark, a zine from Fireside Fiction which I backed during its kickstarter last year. This cute illustrated DIY collection, of six stories which are all available online from Fireside fiction, brings together some very different (and again very short) pieces around the unifying theme of hope in the most difficult of circumstances. Of these, the first was a particular standout, positing a post-apocalyptic world in which people's willingness to help each other is a unifying characteristic.


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.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Wolfenstein: Youngblood by Machine Games and Arkane Studios (developers)

Anemic


Let’s make a recipe to describe Wolfenstein: Youngblood:

Take Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

Chop it in half

Move it along from the 1970’s to the 1980’s

Triple the collectibles

Give it to the people who made Dishonored

Add an extensive weapon mod system

Add two player coop

Add microtransactions

And take out the story

There. That’s about right.

Youngblood is a new non-sequel in the Wolfenstein series, much like The Old Blood wasn’t a sequel to The New Order. It’s smaller in scope, taking only about 10 hours to complete. It’s meant to be played in coop but I played almost the entire game solo. It wasn’t terribly burdensome, though, of course, the AI wasn’t quite as useful as a human player.

It plays an awful lot like how I remember The New Colossus playing. Stealth is an option and sneaking around to silently murder Nazis is extremely satisfying. But, more often than not, you’re going to get caught and have to shoot your way out of an area. All of the weapons have that signature Machine Games look and feel. They sound great, they look great, and they’re very effective! Except that Youngblood added a layer of armor to almost every enemy. Some armor is broken with the shotgun and submachine gun (squishier targets), but most armor is broken with heavier stuff, the assault rifle and pistol. At first, I was annoyed by this system, and it never quite felt great against big enemies, but it does force you to use different weapons in different situations. My biggest problem with it is that there are more weapons for squishy targets than armored targets, but there seemed to be more armored enemies than squishy, so I didn’t get to have as much fun with every weapon.

The structure of the game is very reminiscent of Dishonored. There are a small handful of mission areas, and the bulk of the early game is visiting these areas repeatedly to complete short-ish tasks. For example, you’ll go in to one area, make your way to the mechanic’s garage, find an item or kill a particular enemy, and then you can either pick a new mission in that area and do it, or go back to the hub safe area. The result is that a bulk of the game is doing small missions in the same areas repeatedly. There were four major assaults on Nazi strongholds, and those were the big missions. Still not a whole lot of narrative to them, and once I completed them, I was handed another small mission to go back to them. Even the big mission areas get reused. The New Colossus did this too (sending you back to maps you’ve already finished to get more XP or currency), but it was a much bigger game.

The two places where the game fails is in the narrative and failing to exploit the setting. There’s a lengthy cutscene at the start, a lengthy cutscene after you finish three of the five major missions, and a short cutscene after you beat the boss. That’s it. In between, there isn’t a whole lot of motivating narrative to the little missions you’re doing before taking on Nazi strongholds. This is a fairly sharp contrast to The New Order and The New Colossus, both of which were rather competent in their storytelling. It’s particularly painful to have such an uncompelling and absentee antagonist when those prior games had great (well-written but awful) antagonists.

It’s also nominally in the 80’s. I don’t expect it to be all shopping malls and aerobics and new wave, but you can’t just throw around some 3D glasses, VHS tapes, and cassettes as collectibles to make it 80’s enough. The 1980’s in Nazi-occupied Paris should be absolutely fascinating, but instead it’s indistinguishable from any other game depicting a fascist occupation. Rubble, concrete, big Nazi robots. There’s not even radios playing the fascist pop music they made for this game. You only get to listen to it by finding the cassette collectibles and listening to them in a menu. This doesn’t fly for a coop game. Give me a Walkman!

Now let’s get to the ugly. Microtransactions. There are two currencies in game: silver coins, and gold bars. You can find silver coins all over the place in small quantities. You get silver coins for finishing missions. You have to purchase gold bars for cash. Silver coins are what you use to upgrade and modify your weapons, but all the cosmetics in the game (weapon and player skins) can also be purchased for silver coins or gold bars. There’s no lack of silver coins in the game, but for practical purposes, you’re going to spend those on your weapons, not looking good. I know this is a coop game and you can show off your good looks for strangers, but I really don’t understand why they jammed in this second currency. It’s not loot boxes, but it’s greedy and needless.

If I sound down on Youngblood, it’s because I kind of am. It’s the daughters of BJ Blazkowicz fighting Nazis in Paris in the 1980’s, and it’s just okay. This is a concept that could’ve been a full Wolfenstein game rather than a half-step before the next full sequel. I liked it but didn’t love it because I want it to be more than it is.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 the excellent gameplay loop you expect from Machine Games

Penalties: -1 doesn't do anything cool or notable with it's notably cool premise

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

***

Reference: Machine Games and Arkane Studios Wolfenstein: Youngblood (Bethesda Softworks, 2019)

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