Monday, September 30, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Mind Meld: Favorite Best Novel Hugo Winner

Editor’s note: For years, the essential sci-fi blog SF Signal published Mind Meld, a regular column that featured a weekly roundtable discussion of the tropes, themes, politics, and future of genre fiction. The Mind Meld solicited answers from writers, editors, readers and fans on a rotating basis. After the closure of SF Signal, this feature was picked up and continued for a time by the Barnes and Noble Sci Fi Blog. We at Nerds of a Feather are proud to honor those traditions today as part of our Hugo Initiative.

Today’s Mind Meld question is the following...

What is your favorite winner of the Hugo award for best novel? Why?

Charlie Jane Anders is the Hugo Finalist co-host of Our Opinions are Correct, as well as the author of All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is my favorite Le Guin novel, and I think about it all the time. The story of a physicist who travels from a dirt-poor socialist anarchist world to a decadent capitalist one, this book asks so many important questions about money, property, scientific progress, and the balance between the individual and society. And even better, it doesn't really give us any easy answers. Le Guin probes the flaws in both Urras and Anares with great precision, while managing to make both worlds feel real and lived-in. And when you read all of her Hainish novels and stories in one go, as I highly encourage you to do, you start to realize that this novel's hero, Shevek, has an impact that extends far beyond these two worlds --- Shevek invents the Ansible, a instantaneous communications device that provides a crucial plot point in many of the other Hainish stories. The natives in Le Guin's "The Word For World Is Forest" are only really saved because of an Ansible, and it also helps in many other stories to provide a crucial connection to the wider universe. For all its focus on the fate of two worlds and the never-ending clash between ownership and collectivism, The Dispossessed ends up being a story of how technology can connect us to many other worlds and help us to realize that we're all connected.

Casey Blair writes speculative fiction novels including the cozy fantasy web serial Tea Princess Chronicles, which is available online for free. She lives among the forests of the Pacific Northwest and is most frequently found trapped by a cat. Follow her on Twitter as @CaseyLBlair, or visit her website at

On one hand my answer is N.K. Jemisin, particularly The Stone Sky for the glorious, visceral thrill of such a brilliant author and series being uplifted by the voters to stick a metaphorical finger in the eyes of racist naysayers by winning three times in a row. Every book in the Broken Earth series is unflinching, and reading the truth Jemisin lays bare in it and knowing people have recognized the value of her work is incredible. It was a powerful series to read, and it was powerful to see it win every single time.

But for me it is also Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls, which was my first encounter of a fantasy book that centered an older woman and mother who still gets to experience adventures. Bujold's work is always stunning, but this one in particular mattered for me to read: among a great deal of heavy narrative lifting, it was also a dream of a future for women where we exist, and are relevant, and can have fun past our early twenties or past bearing children. Reading that masterfully wrought story and realizing how rare this aspect was and is in our fantasy changed how I thought about the genre, the world, and what it mattered for me personally to do in both.

Cheryl Morgan is an editor, critic, publisher, radio presenter, occasional writer of fictions, and
possibly a few other things that she has forgotten. Most of her writing can be found via her blog,
Cheryl’s Mewsings and she is on Twitter as @CherylMorgan.

I have often been asked to pick my favourite science novel. That’s not an easy question, but it is actually easier in some ways than picking my favourite Hugo winner. After all, people rarely agree on which novel is the best of the year. If they did there would be no point in having the Hugos. So in many years my favourite book fails to win the Hugo. Indeed, quite often it doesn’t even make the final ballot (Cathrynne M Valente’s Radiance being a case in point). As a result, the exercise of picking a favourite Hugo winner becomes more a matter of picking a favourite among a bunch of books that I thought were a bit meh, or even actively disliked.

Thankfully there are some years in which books I did like were winners. I still have a soft spot for China Mièville’s The City and The City, for example. I also love Ancillary Justice, and the whole of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. (Are the Hugo winners getting better, or at east coming closer to my taste?) But I’m slightly nervous of picking something recent in case it doesn’t pass the test of time.

A case in point is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It is a book I loved when it came out. It also
kickstarted the entire cyberpunk genre. It is clearly a very important book. But is it still a favourite, now that we live in a world in which cyberspace has proved very different to the one that Gibson imagined? The real internet is far more like something out of Pat Cadigan’s Synners than out of the Sprawl Trilogy. Of course, there are also books that I haven’t read. And there are books that I read so long ago (The Demolished Man, for example) that I have no idea whether I still like them or not. I have this year’s Hugo reading to do, so I’m not going to be re-reading the backlist for this project. So where does that leave me? Well, there are a handful of absolute classics of the genre on the Hugo Winner list, and among those I am fortunate enough to find one of the books I often mention when people ask me for my all-time favourite science fiction novel. That book is The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin. What is so special about The Dispossessed? Well to start with it is by Le Guin, who is as close to a  genius that our genre has produced (and note that Gene Wolfe did not win a Hugo with any of his novels, nor did Octavia Butler). But the main reason I love it is that it does a thing that many science fiction novels try; and does it superbly well. The Dispossessed is a Utopian novel, harking all the way back to Thomas More’s original. Whereas More’s Utopians dig a channel to separate themselves from the mainland, the people of Anarres have gone to live on an entirely separate world. They have, in classic Utopian manner, tried to create a perfect society. And, just like everyone else who tries this, they fail. Le Guin understands that one man’s Utopia is another man’s Dystopia. What suits some of us does not suit all of us. Also, humans are naturally competitive, and any attempt to create a totally egalitarian society is doomed to failure. Someone will always find a way to make themselves seem better than everyone else, even if that is only “better” by their own definition. As a result, The Dispossessed is less of a political polemic and more of an extended analysis of the merits and demerits of different forms of social organisation. It is a book that debates with itself, and makes a very good attempt at doing so neutrally and fairly. Obviously there are those who think that the book is a stunning portrayal of the evils of Capitalism, and others who think it is a stunning portrayal of the evils of Communism. I think both of those groups are wrong, and I think Le Guin would be disappointed in their reaction as well. This attempt at a balanced political analysis puts The Dispossessed head and shoulders above so many other science fiction novels that have attempted to portray utopian societies. (I’m thinking in particular of Sheri Tepper who kept trying to enforce correct behaviour by various sorts of mind control.) I wish there were more books out there that admitted that they don’t present a solution to problems of mankind, and indeed that no such solution is possible. People are individuals, cultures are individuals. Attempting to impose a one-size-fits-all solution will always be a disaster for a lot of people. We need that lesson more than ever right now.

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of 30 novels and over a hundred short stories, and her hobbies of rock climbing, archery, kayaking, and horseback riding have led more than one person to accuse her of prepping for a portal fantasy adventure. 

She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, writer Scott Lynch. 

“Favorite" is a hard question, and probably changes depending on my mood. But I can tell you the most formative one for me, which is John Brunner's STAND ON ZANZIBAR, a dazzling and difficult novel that manages to be cyberpunk before cyberpunk was a thing. I read it when I was very young, and I've reread it at intervals since. The actual metric of whether science fiction is any good or not is not whether it manages to predict the future, and yet STAND ON ZANZIBAR and its companion novel THE SHEEP LOOK UP manage to predict algorithm-targeted advertising, fake organic food, spree killers, and a number of other issues that feel pretty relevant today. Stand on Zanzibar is very concerned with overpopulation as an "if this goes on" kind of issue, which sometimes makes it feel a little dated, but the concern with corporate control of media, fake news, and the management of what people think and feel through information siloing are eerily prescient.

The book's written in a non-trad format that was radical enough for its day that there's actually a note at the beginning explaining how to read it, but any modern reader who can handle recent Hugo-winning novels (or Alfred Bester or Ursula Le Guin, for that matter) won't find it too daunting, I think.

Michael J. Martinez has spent 20 years in journalism and communications writing other people's stories. A few years ago, in a moment of blinding hubris, he thought he'd try to write one of his own. So far, it's working out far better than he expected. Mike currently lives in the Los Angeles area. He's an avid traveler and beer aficionado, and since nobody has told him to stop yet, he continues to write fiction.. His latest novel is MJ-12: Endgame.

I’m extraordinarily pleased to be doing another mind meld and I hope this feature finds a permanent home soon. I’m less pleased about having to actually choose my favorite among the Hugo Award winners for Best Novel. It’s honestly not fair. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War? The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin? Dan Simmons’ Hyperion? I mean, Neuromancer is on this list! We got several Connie Willis books, some Kim Stanley Robinson novels, we got Neil Gaiman, Ann Leckie’s awesome Ancillary Justice, John Scalzi’s too-much-fun Redshirts and N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant landmark Broken Earth trilogy in a historic three-peat. I almost went with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke, which remains one of my favorite books and was a true pleasure to read. But if I’m truly honest, I need to go with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

Right? I know. I’m the last guy to get all literary, believe me. I’m not necessarily a fan of Chabon’s other works. But this book in particular stuck with me, made me think, opened some doors in my head and is a tiny bit to blame for my own career. I’d had an interest in alternate history and historical fantasy works for years, going back to The Guns of the South by the iconic and amazing Harry Turtledove, as well as Fatherland by Robert Harris. I liked the intellectual exercise of plotting history based on changes to these wonderful inflection points. They planted the seeds that would bloom in my brain years and years later and lead me down a similar road. Chabon did all this, of course, in developing the community of Sitka, Alaska, turning that sleepy little town into a bustling haven for the Jewish people during and after World War II. He imagined a very divergent post-war society with all kinds of cool details only alluded to in the book. But what he did so well, and what truly captured my imagination, was not his political alternatives, but his cultural ones. Here, he took Jewish culture and used his setting details to truly make it a living, breathing thing, divergent and strange but yet recognizable and comfortable all the same. And he populated the story with truly memorable characters and a resonant story. All of this combined to make Chabon’s alternate history truly immersive. In some alt-histories, I find myself still comparing the divergences in history as the story moves forward. But in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I surrendered completely and utterly to the story. The brilliant setting was yet another character, permeating the narrative perfectly.

Did I have more fun reading Strange and Norrell and Redshirts? You betcha. But Chabon was perhaps the most brilliant example of the kind of alternate history that I aspired to write years later.

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. What makes it stand out among so many excellent Hugo winners? First of all, it's the second book in a series, following up the excellent Curse of Chalion. As much as I loved that book, however, Paladin resounded even more for me because of its heroine, Ista. She's an older woman who has lost her husband and child. Other people underestimate her, assuming her to be fragile and insane after all she has endured. Ista is a woman who wants to escape and truly live again, and as someone with major anxiety and depression, wow, can I relate. This is one of those books that I wished would never end. Fortunately, there ARE more books in this setting; in particular, the Penric novellas are cozy and wonderful, and I am woefully behind in reading the rest of them. I should correct that. Thank you for reminding me to do so, Mind Meld.

Marguerite Kenner is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to live and work with her partner, Alasdair Stuart, in a UK city named after her favorite pastime but pronounced differently. She manages her time between co-owning Escape Artists, editing its YA imprint Cast of Wonders, lecturing, grappling with legal conundrums as a lawyer, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games), and curling up with really good books. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.

My favorite best novel Hugo winner is from 1982 -- 'Downbelow Station' by C. J. Cherryh. I still own my first copy of it, a dog-eared, well-loved paperback. Captain Signy Mallory was the first 'unlikable woman' protagonist I remember resonating with, and I think I still know all the words to the filk song...

Sara Megibow is a literary agent with kt literary out of Highlands Ranch, CO. She has worked in publishing since 2006 and represents New York Times bestsellers authors including Margaret Rogerson, Roni Loren, Jason M. Hough and Jaleigh Johnson. 

My favorite winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel is THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi. It was 2010 and I was a newbie agent only four years into my publishing career. My local sci-fi con is MileHi Con in Denver and Paolo Bacigalupi was one of the guests that year. Way before the con (and before the Hugos), I read THE WINDUP GIRL and fell in love with it – the writing, the characters, the mind-expanding nature of the world – all made for an amazing and memorable read. What made this book extra special for me, though, was the opportunity to hear the author speak in person. I can’t quote the panel accurately all these years later but I do remember how Mr.
Bacigalupi described imagining the concept and creating THE WINDUP GIRL from there. Listening to him speak about his work helped me appreciate the nuances and conflicts in his book even more. Cons can be expensive but if it’s in the budget they are an amazing experience! THE WINDUP GIRL sits on a place of honor on my bookshelf because meeting the author in person after already having fallen in love with his book was such a wonderful experience.

Jaime Lee Moyer is a writer of fantasy and science fiction, herder of cats, occasional poet, and maker of tangible things. Her first novel, Delia's Shadow, was published by Tor Books, and won the 2009 Literary Award for Fiction, administrated by Thurber House and funded by the Columbus Arts
Council. Two sequels, A Barricade In Hell and Against A Brightening Sky, were also published by Tor. Her new novel, Brightfall, came out from Jo Fletcher Books on September 5, 2019.

In 1979, Vonda McIntyre’s novel, Dreamsnake, won the Hugo for best novel. I didn’t discover the novel until years later, one of the few books I hadn’t read in the paperback rack at the library. The three racks full of paperbacks were a constantly changing treasure chest of SFF books, and Dreamsnake was definitely a treasure. I remember falling in love from the first word. The protagonist of this novel is Snake, a young healer who relies on her three snakes, Grass, Mist, and Sand, to heal the people who seek her out. Grass is her dreamsnake, rare and precious and hard to come by. When a desert tribe asks her to heal a very sick little boy, Snake knows these people are afraid of her, and afraid of her snakes. What she doesn’t realize is how deep that fear runs and what it will cost her. Snake blames herself. McIntyre painted a vivid picture throughout Snake’s travels of what it means to be different and other, to be needed and feared at the same time, and did so in a way that felt emotionally true. I saw so many parallels to the real world. Great characters, and excellent worldbuilding, suck me into a book every time. This book made a lasting impression on me. Not only is Dreamsnake my favorite Hugo winner, it’s in my top ten list of all-time favorite novels.

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

The Hugo Initiative: An Introduction

The Hugo Awards are commonly known as “science fiction’s most prestigious award”: a bold claim by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) but it is also one which generally holds up. Though the Nebula Awards should map closer to the Academy Awards as a peer given award because the voting body of the Nebulas is the membership of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), it is The Hugo Awards which have the wider notoriety and a slight edge in relative importance. Many readers grew up seeing a small Hugo Award rocket on the front cover of some of their favorite novels and the phrase “Hugo Award Winner” remains a mark of significance, even if that significance for a given reader may change over time. Winners of the Hugo Award are remarked upon outside the bounds of science fiction in fantasy in ways that most other genre awards are not.

One of the reasons we love the Hugo Awards here at Nerds of a Feather is that it is one of the few awards which allows fans to participate in the nomination and voting process in a meaningful way. For the cost of either attending or being a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), it is fans who are the driving force behind the Hugo Awards. It has been that way from the beginning.

Every year we nominate and argue and debate and celebrate all of the wonderful novels, stories, artists, writers, and fans who make the final ballot and then do it again when it is time to vote for the winners. For the last three years we have been honored to be included on that ballot. We are proud to be part of the history of the Hugo Awards, to have our names among those who have made science fiction and fantasy the genre that we so love.

It is with that in mind that we look back at the history of the Hugo Award.

A Bit of History and Perspective

As a fan given award, The Hugo Awards are subject - as everything is - to the combination of relative quality mixed with the vagaries of taste and what is in fashion at the time. It is also an award given by a particular community: those who attend or support a given year's Worldcon. While we value the Hugo Awards as one of the most significant awards for science fiction and fantasy, if not the most significant, we recognize the Hugos exist as part of a wider community and in conversation with that community. So, when L. Ron Hubbard's novel Black Genesis was a finalist for Best Novel in 1987 and it became apparent that it only made the final ballot due to a nominating bloc with the sole purpose of getting that work on the ballot, Hugo voters responded by voting it below No Award.

No Award has been used over the years as a form of protest, as a statement about the worthiness of a particular finalist, as a political response, and as a combination of any or all of the preceding. This is not the time nor the place to recap the Sad and Rabid Puppy years, except to note that Hugo Award voters were quick to surgically vote No Award as a rejection of a political attempt to game the Hugo Awards. Worldcon members then also utilized the multi-year process to amend the WSFS Constitution to make that particular sort of hostile takeover of the Hugo Awards more difficult in the future.

The ability of the community around the Hugo Awards to protect its values and traditions, through the recognition of both "pro" and "fan" achievements across a range of media, has been one of its strengths, but it can also be one of the award's most controversial aspects. There is a tradition of gatekeeping across the history of the Hugo Awards, whether in how particular rules are applied (see Ariela Housman's eligible work in Fan Artist, 2019) or in how new categories are created (see the existence of Fancast, and even how Nonfiction Book changed to Related Work), not to mention how some long time fans respond to particular finalists (see An Archive of Our Own). Less hard to pin down, but perhaps even more influential, are the biases at play at all levels - including in publishing and fan spaces - which lead to the promotion of some works and lack of attention to others. It is these biases which have kept women's presence on the ballot largely confined to a small sample of popular names, while keeping all but a handful people of color and other marginalized creators out of mainstream fandom entirely.

With The Hugo Initiative we do not expect to dive deeply into any particular instance of the Hugo rules, or speculate on what might have been had works by more diverse creators been given equal weight, but we do believe it is worth exploring what we get from engaging with past works through the lens of what a particular community of fans found noteworthy at the time. This is an approach we find valuable, but its far from an objective look at genre as a whole: there are shortcomings in the history of the Hugo Awards, not in the least of which is that the awards have been very white and very male for much of its history.

2012 Hugo Award Trophy. Base designed by Deb Kosbia. Photo Credit: Deb Kosiba

The Initiative

Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom has often been accused taking the contradictory positions of both spending too much time focusing on only the newest and most exciting works coming out today while being unwilling to look away from the grand masters of yesteryear.

We'd like to follow our love of the Hugo Awards to a middle ground of looking across the decades of Hugo Award winners, with a particular but not exclusive focus on Best Novel. We may discuss works from those Grand Masters, but we will also look at less discussed novels and less discussed authors. We are going to look at the history of the Hugo Award mostly through a cross section of winning novels across the decades, from the earliest Hugo winners in the 1950's all the way into the 2000's.

The Hugo Initiative will be a mix a dossier reviews, roundtable conversations, and retrospective essays. We will examine some of the most significant classics of the genre and consider if they hold up. We will rediscover works that have seemingly been forgotten and discuss whether those novels should be remembered.

The Dossier Reviews for The Hugo Initiative will have the following subheadings to focus our commentary

File Type: The Hugo Award Category of the work
Executive Summary: Plot summary
Legacy: What is the influence and importance of the work in question?
In Retrospect: An editorial commentary on how good / not good the work is from the vantage point of 2019.

Through the dossier reviews and essays, we look to engage with the history of the Hugo Awards and contrast their importance of some of the winners when they were first published (as best we can figure out) to how they read from the perspective of 2019. It'll be fun. Essays will run weekly on Mondays.

Welcome to The Hugo Initiative.

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

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.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Perfect Assassin, by K A Doore

In K A Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, a reluctant young man, trained to be an assassin in a time where such work seems to be a thing of the past, learns that his skills become necessary when a death threatens the social fabric of his home city-state of Ghadid.

Amastan would rather be buried in scrolls and the written word. Unfortunately for him, he was born into a family that has for generations provided a rather deadly service to the powers of the city, assassinating those who have transgressed the laws in a way that their death is necessary. Amastan doesn’t want to be an assassin and is openly relieved that their services have not been engaged in years. And still, he has trained and perfected his skills in the hope that they never actually come to pass. This works for him as a life until an assassination occurs. Worse this assassination was deliberately done in a horrific manner: The body was not laid out for people to find quickly. What this means is that the spirit of the dead person was not consecrated properly, an act that not only is impious but also produces a supernatural creature, the Jaan. The malevolent Jaan is capable of possessing and driving people mad. It’s a legitimately terrifying creature.

Amastan and the rest of his fellow assassins are under suspicion for the murder, and so, to save himself and his family, to catch an assassin, you must set an assassin. Amastan, being a witness, and for other reasons as well, is chosen to be the lead person to investigate the murder. And so Amastan delves into the role he never wanted, to save himself and his family. And perhaps his city-state in the process. Amastan is the protagonist in K A Doore’s  debut novel The Perfect Assassin.

The center of the novel is Amastan’s story and we get the entire novel from his point of view. He is a historian, a records keeper, someone immersed in documents and research, whose ability and skills as an assassin makes for, at first, a really strange “cross-class”. However, the novel does make it clear that his ability to run down information becomes important, and attention to detail, research and deep diving are important to properly doing the job as an assassin in the Basbowen family. We get a good perspective of Amastan’s life, his thinking, his emotions and passions, His conflicted nature over what he has been tasked to do, and how it intersects on a personal level once he "becomes involved" is very well done. We get to see how conflicted he is about his job, especially as a relationship with Yufit, a person Amastan investigates to get more information about the murders, starts to deepen and become more serious.

I also did like how Amastan was situated, not only within his peer group, but within his family, and the city as a whole. There is a really well thought out relationship map here of the various people in Amastan's life, who have their own agendas and perspectives that, while we only see them from Amastan's point of view, come across as agents of their own narratives. They are a diverse group, in terms of gender and sexuality (including but not limited to Amastan himself), and Doore' book easily and effortlessly makes a world where queerness is casually accepted.. I am really enjoying how writers like Doore are making that more and more something I expect in my reading.

In addition  Doore’s witing does provide a very sensory-rich look at his life. From the feel of the paper of scrolls to how his shoulders ache after a particularly hard bit of movement, the writing effectively brings the experience to a reader. I appreciated the vividness in the text.

The worldbulding is both interesting and just slightly frustrating at the same time. Ghadid is set on supports hundreds of feet above the desert floor below. The reason for this, the xxxxx that roam the desert, as well as providing physical security, gives the city a Middle Eastern feel but with inventiveness and invention unique to the author. The use of water as a currency is a logical extension of it, and the ticking clock of the city trying to hold out until the yearly rains arrive is an interesting mechanic, story wise, to use for the novel. It also shows quite nicely how precarious and how life in Ghadid is, at times of the year, quite marginal. There is also some good worldbuilding baked in that shows that such a community in the end only works if it acts and works as a community, people working together and supporting each other. However, when the water simply is not there, it simply is not there. Resource management is important in a desert city, and resource depletion is keenly important, and the novel conveys that.

In addition, I liked the idea of the Jaan and the metaphysics around them. From a plotting and mechanics and worldbuilding standpoint, it almost feels like it’s the main bit of worldbuilding that much of the rest is built around, including the plot. If someone dies and is not properly cared for, you get an jaan, which is an existential threat to all and sundry around them. This partially explains some of the facets of how the assassins work and operate (leaving a body so that it is not found is a big no-no, hence the driver of the plot), to a reason why the city is built to stand above the desert floor, to events that occur to Amastan as part of the plot. There are hints.of deeper and more dangerous variants, but those references and that strand is a bit scanty.

And along that line, the  world building Doore presents did frustrate me a bit in that it raised questions about how the city works that the novel doesn’t address. I strongly wanted to know more about how some facets of the society worked and aspects of the metaphysical portions of the universe. Although the book does linger at points on building the world, I think at some points the text is much more of a veneer and obvious trompe l’oeil than fantasy novels always effect in a reader.

There is a significant amount of roughness in the plotting and pacing I found. It was mostly upon reflection, after thinking about the book that the flaws in it were a bit more apparent and glaring. The worldbuilding and the characters, particularly, were the two engines that propelled through the novel, and it wasn’t until after the fact that the areas where the novel could have been stronger became much clearer in my mind.The novel IS a murder mystery much more than flashy action, but even given that chassis, the pacing and plotting could have been much smoother. Readers who want a clockwork jewel of a murder mystery plot are going to be disappointed on what is offered here.

The other thing to keep in mind for some fantasy readers is that while Amastan is an assassin in his own mold, and ethos, and style, and personality, it is not precisely the least tread ground these days. I wouldn’t directly compare him to a lot more Grimdark infused protagonists except for the most basic and fundamental level. It is, as they say, what precisely is on the tin. And yet it is something more, and tries to be more. It doesn't always succeed as much as I'd hope but I see the potential here.

Based on the characters and the world presented, however, I am interested in continuing to follow Amastan’s story in subsequent volumes from the author. (The Imposible Contract, a sequel to The Perfect Assassin, comes out this fall)  Doore has put a lot of work and thought into her world and her characters, and that enthusiasm, as expressed on the page, makes me want to learn and experience more with them.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for excellent and inventive worldbuilding, a unique and interesting fantasy city.

Penalties: -1 for roughness in plotting and pacing. 

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

Reference:  Doore, K A, The Perfect Assassin  [Tor, 2018]

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

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is nearly October which means that Halloween ComicFest is around the corner!  You can find out what books you can snag and what stores are participating here.  If you enjoy handing out comics on Halloween you probably want to get to your local comic book store and place your order for a mini bundle or two. I plan on doing that this weekend and hope I'm not too late!

Pick of the Week:
Criminal #8 - As we get closer to the big heist the curtain is getting pulled farther back on Teeg and his family. This issue focused on Jane, the women Teeg is currently with and the excitement and fear she has on the upcoming job. She quickly realizes that the dread she feels is associated with Teeg's son, Ricky, who is still adjusting to life outside of juvenile hall. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips do a wonderful job of making all of the characters feel real. Jane, despite the fact that she is on board with this heist and has a bit of a troubling past, is not a bad person and has redeeming qualities.  While there are people who make bad decisions in these books, it feels like there aren't any bad guys or gals.  Criminal remains one of my favorite series of all-time and I am so happy we are in the middle of another brilliant run.  

The Rest:
Bloodshot #1 - My guess is due to the pending Bloodshot movie, Valiant wanted to give readers a nice jumping on point for their nanobot infused superhero. Bloodshot is now free of the covert military group that created him and he is seeking to right the wrongs he may have caused earlier in his life. The first issue establishes this fact with a quick story of Bloodshot doing some good and demonstrating how powerful he is. Bloodshot has always felt like a 90's comic in all of the best ways and I am looking forward to this run.

Captain America #14 - Steve Rogers continues to work with the Daughters of Liberty as his public relations campaign continues. This issue features him raiding a Watchdog Militia site that is trafficking citizens somewhere via a mysterious portal. Things are going well until the crew runs into Sin, Red Skull's daughter, and she quickly makes a quick escape. While they couldn't save everyone, they still rescued a lot of people and it wasn't a complete failure. This current arc has been entertaining as Rogers works with an interesting crew fighting against some familiar foes, all while trying to remain outside of the reach of Nick Fury. 

Star Wars: Target Vader #3 - The bounty hunter Valance and his crew have set a trap with the goal of eliminating Darth Vader. Vader makes his crash landing at the site in this issue as this series continues to bring the action. What I enjoy about this series is that it doesn't pull any punches and comes across the page like a summer action flick that you have been anticipating since you saw the trailer drop at Comic Con. Valance is an interesting character and he teams up with familiar faces like Dengar as he attempts the impossible.  We all know that his plan isn't going to work, but it is going to be fun watching it go up in flames. 

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

6 Books with Elle Katharine White

A textbook introvert who likes to throw out the textbook every once in a while just to see what happens, Elle Katharine White grew up in Buffalo, New York, where she learned valuable life skills such as how to clear a snowy driveway in under twenty minutes and how to cheer for the perennial underdog. When she's not writing, she spends her time drinking tea, loitering in libraries and secondhand bookshops, and dreaming of world travel.

Today she shares her Six Books with Us.

1. What book are you currently reading?

Right now, I’m working on A CROWN OF WISHES by Roshani Chokshi, which is the second book in her Star-Touched series. If you’ve never read anything by Chokshi, two questions: how close is your nearest library and what in the world have you been doing with your life? Opening one of her novels is like sitting down to a sumptuous meal, each page packed with every flavor imaginable: sweet and savory, spicy and tangy, bittersweet and satisfying. In A CROWN OF WISHES she starts with a delightfully ferocious heroine, adds a slow-simmering romance, plenty of danger, supernatural intrigue, and a splash of mythology, and voila! A story well worth devouring.

2. What upcoming book are you excited about?

It may be cheating to call this book upcoming (though I really hope I’m wrong), but I can’t wait for THE DOORS OF STONE, the last installment in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. His first two books blew me away in every possible way. The richness and depth of his worldbuilding, the loving attention to the art of storytelling, the careful and ingenious reversal of so many hero tropes . . . I wouldn’t say the Kingkiller Chronicles are perfect, but they’re awful close, and I NEED to know how Kvothe’s story ends.

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

I just finished VITA NOSTRA by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (translated by Julia Hersey) and I’m already psyched to read it again. It’s a dark modern metaphysical fantasy that made me question everything I ever accepted about reality, and I would happily deal with a second existential crisis if it meant I got to spend another few days with these characters.

It’s difficult to describe the plot without giving too much away, but suffice to say that if magic were real, VITA NOSTRA would be the most accurate depiction of the effects it would have on the minds and bodies of the people brave enough—or desperate enough—to learn it. This is the story of a girl slowly ceasing to be human, and it’s beautiful and dark and heartrending and thrilling all at once. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?
While I love science fiction, I’ve never been a hard sci-fi fan, so when I picked up Peter Watts’ BLINDSIGHT I had my reservations. I wanted to try something new, though, and thought what the heck, I’ll give it a shot.

Oh. My. Goodness. I didn’t think it was possible to read a 300+ page novel in one sitting. BLINDSIGHT proved me wrong. Watts managed to combine hard science, psychology, and philosophy with a pulse-pounding plot and characters who, despite their technological and biological augmentations, felt searingly real. I loved every white-knuckled moment I spent in that book.

Also, there are space vampires. And they’re terrifying. That’s a win in my book.

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

Ella of Gail Carson Levine’s ELLA ENCHANTED was and always will be the heroine of my heart. Hers was the first fantasy story I remember reading in which a young woman (awkward and insecure, just like me!) took the reins of her story and went out and happened to things, rather than allowing things to happen to her, and all this against the overwhelming disadvantage of a stupid fairy’s curse. She was just the kind of brave, feisty, compassionate, flawed-but-tenacious young woman I’d love to know in real life, and every time I read that book I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend. It’s my hope that a little of Ella’s spark will live on in my heroines.

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

FLAMEBRINGER is the last in the Heartstone trilogy, which began with a simple ‘what if.’ What if Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice took place in a fantasy world where all sorts of magical creatures lived alongside humans? And what if Mr. Darcy, instead of being the master of Pemberley, was a dragon-riding monster hunter? What would that story look like? The first book in the series, HEARTSTONE, answers that question. The sequels, DRAGONSHADOW and FLAMEBRINGER (coming soon!) follow our fantasy Darcy and Elizabeth as they fight to save their kingdom from an ancient awakening evil, all while navigating the tribulations of married life as professional monster hunters. Look for FLAMEBRINGER in stores in November!

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


Now that I've looked at some entries in the more mainstream family horror canon, I'd like to take a side-trip through the overgrown, ominous field alongside the road here to peek at some less-conventional but still easily accessible options for sharing frightening entertainment with kids.

By and large, I'm still thinking about this issue with young kids in mind. When I was growing up in the 80s, it was the era where even grocery stores had large VHS rental operations (and, with Redbox, we see all that is old is new again). Depending on the clerk at the counter, you could be 10 years old and rent any of the (as a friend of mine recently called it) unholy trinity of horror movies -- Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and any of their attendant sequels. So while I saw things like RoboCop or The Dead Zone at what was almost certainly too young an age, I don't think I'm any worse the wear for it. As a parent, you know your kids best and at a certain point, regardless of what the MPAA thinks, you're more than welcome to sit your tiny clone down on the couch and say, "Hey! Lemme show you something that scared the ever-loving shit out of me when I was your age!"

These are titles that kept popping up in my imagination as I thought about this series of posts, but that didn't conveniently fit in another post.

The Twilight Zone

Welcome to TGI McScratchy's, where it's constantly New Years Eve! Here we go again!
The Twilight Zone is on Netflix. Almost all of it. That means every day in your house can be New Year's Day, but even better, because you don't have to sit through the same three commercials on the SyFy Channel for however many hours you binge the show during their annual marathon. Something really fantastic happened in my house after I introduced the kids to Rod Serling's anthology masterpiece: the kids started asking me to tell them scary stories. But what they really wanted me to do was re-tell them the stories of the episodes. For a while there, I was really good at telling versions of And When the Sky was Opened, Mirror Image, Twenty-Two, and Little Girl Lost. The creepiness of so many of the episodes, from the uncanny to the paranoid to the unexplained, was a great way to introduce unsettling narratives into their media diet, and a lovely (for me) antidote to the Disney Channel. And the contained nature of each story makes them easily digested and easily understood. It was, and remains, a great thing to put on every now and again...if I can keep the kids from fighting about which episode to watch.


I spent a lot of time talking about animated features in the last installment of this series, but one of my favorite, favorite cartoons growing up was Disney's short The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I don't recall how I watched this so many times, separate from The Adventures of Mr. Toad — the two were originally presented back-to-back as a feature film — but I can only assume I taped the Ichabod Crane segment off the TV at some point and watched it repeatedly from that homemade VHS recording. I'm so pleased that this film is now part of my family's annual Halloween viewing programme. One of the neat things about it is that the whole thing is told in voice-over by Bing Crosby. There's very little diagetic sound in the segment, apart from the Headless Horseman's laughter and some sound effects.

The same decade that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was produced, the Disney Animators Strike resulted in a whole bunch of animators heading out on their own to create their own studios. The most accomplished of these was almost unarguably UPA, which is now probably best remembered for Mr. Magoo. UPA was a titanic force for animation innovation and experimentation, and one of my favorite of their films is 1953's The Tell-Tale Heart, directed by Ted Parmelee. It's so creepy, and so wonderful.

And it's very difficult not to love a film that pulls all of the posts in this series together, which is Tim Burton's short film Vincent, about a little boy named Vincent who idolizes Poe, and which is narrated by Vincent Price. It's simply a joy.


The Best Ways to Ruin a Vacation

Here are a couple of good ways to ruin a vacation: 1) come to learn there's a man-eating shark in the water, or 2) decide that your new neighbors are serial killers. Either one of these scenarios will wreck a couple of weeks for you.

In the first case, I'm clearly talking about Jaws. This isn't a traditional horror movie, I guess, but it's the movie that gave us blockbusters, and it's been making people scared to go in the water since longer than I've been alive, so it's probably a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser for your home. The thing about Jaws, I think, that makes it such a great choice for young audiences is that even though there are frightening sequences, it's such a propulsive adventure tale that it's hard to not get caught up and just fall in love with the ride, even if parts of it scare you.

When it comes to Joe Dante's The 'burbs, it's a similar equation with different variables. It's tough to be too scared when you're laughing, and who's going to thumb their nose at a David S. Pumpkins/Princess Leia team up? In this comedy-horror that doesn't show up on nearly enough listicles these days, Tom Hanks' Ray decides to do a staycation during the same week his idiotic neighbor friends Art and ex-soldier Rumsfeld decide that the Klopek family, who just moved in to the cul-de-sac, are a bunch of murderous psychopaths. While there is plenty of gentle satire about suburban America and fan service to some lesser-known horror titles, the bottom line is this movie makes me laugh a lot, while sitting in a sandbox full of horror movie toys. If it's been a while since you've seen this one, give it another look, and see if it might be a good way to get your kids to laugh at some familiar horror tropes.

But Then, There's No Place Like Home

Finally, I have to mention one of my favorite-ever movies, and another title that I watched until the iron oxide started falling off the homemade VHS recording: The Wizard of Oz. They used to show this movie every Easter on network TV (Easter? Why? Network TV? I didn't have cable.) and one year I taped it, Maxwell House commercials and all, so I could watch it over and over and over and over again. The only other thing I'll say about this movie is that the flying monkeys have traumatized every generation of Americans for the last 80 years, so why shouldn't they traumatize your kids, too?


The Twilight Zone
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Tell-Tale Heart
The 'burbs
The Wizard of Oz

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather since 2012, Wizard of Oz devotee since...well, for much, much longer.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Blair Witch by Bloober Team (developer)

Dark Woods

I’m the rare person who likes everything about The Blair Witch. I like Book of Shadows. I like Blair Witch. If I had a chance to play the first trilogy of The Blair Witch games, chances are that I would have liked those too. Imagine my surprise when the game Blair Witch was revealed at E3 this year. It had what I wanted. Woods. Darkness. Dilapidated buildings. Even a dog! But, much like my feelings about 2016’s Blair Witch movie, this game doesn’t quite coalesce until you get to the end.

Blair Witch is a first person horror game in which you play Ellis. You have volunteered to scour the Black Hills forest for a missing boy. You brought your dog Bullet and little else. As you make your way through the woods, you find a trail of breadcrumbs that lead you closer to the boy and further into the forest.

Blair Witch follows Bloober Team’s recent forays into horror, namely Layers of Fear (a haunted house) and Observer (a cyberpunk haunted house). Layers of Fear‘s did a lot with atmosphere and loud noises because there wasn’t a whole lot of capital G Gameplay, but Observer added in some monster avoidance sections, ala SOMA, in which you could run face first into some kind of monster and die. Blair Witch throws in some portions where you are expected to look where your dog is barking and blast tree monsters with your flashlight. It’s clear that Bloober Team is trying to expand their horror horizons, but this felt kind of hokey. These parts weren’t terribly difficult or frequent, just sort of annoying.

If most of the gameplay is a progression of Bloober Team’s prior works, the rest is carried by the Blair Witch movies, namely wandering around in the woods and spooky rundown buildings. There’s no map and the feeling of being lost in the woods is really effective. Minus the hokey tree monsters, the horror mostly works. It builds effectively and, even with a companion dog, it’s hard to feel safe. This is what Bloober Team did well in Layers of Fear and Observer.

Where this game falters is in its narrative. Ellis never really becomes a sympathetic character and the story is built around slowly revealing his dark past and whether or not he can be saved. Bullet is a more sympathetic character here, and he’s a dog. The game also sort of relies on the player having seen some parts of the movies, leaning heavily on the most recent film. I knew what was going on because I’ve seen all of them, but I think a non-fan would be rather confused about a lot of the things that go unsaid. There’s also a laundry list of collectibles, and no way to go back through the game after you’ve beaten it to collect them or alter your ending. You can make game saves mid-game and return to those, but there’s no chapter select. Once you finish it, you’re going to have to play it again from the start if you’re chasing achievements.

I’m a tad disappointed. I saw a little Silent Hill 2 in the trailer, and I see a sliver of it in this game, but it’s not quite there. Hard to recommend for those who haven’t seen the Blair Witch movies, which I obviously enjoyed, but even fans may not enjoy this because of the weak antagonist and silly tree monsters. The scares are here, the tension is here, but it’s far from perfect.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 captures a lot of what makes The Blair Witch Project scary

Penalties: -1 doesn't really sell its story

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


Reference: Bloober Team. Blair Witch (Bloober Team, 2019)

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

Friday, September 20, 2019

Microreview [book]: Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone

Empress of Forever is a rollicking, audacious, technicolor space fantasy opera that fully embodies its aesthetic and ethos while providing an over the top adventure.

Max Gladstone’s  novel begins with Vivian Liao. Vivian is a Elon Musk type tech billionaire who has made far too many enemies among various governments. So, a retrench and reboot and a plan to come back stronger are in order. But in the course of her escape, Vivian is captured and brought to a far future (or is it just far away in space) in a universe with strange monks, killer robots, pilots who can bond with their ships, space pirates and much more. Including, and most importantly, the titular Empress of Forever.

After that measured beginning, setting up Vivian on Earth briefly enough to rip her away from it, Vivian’s plunge into an outer space world is a wild ride from the moment she lands on the Mirrorfaith ship and meets Hong, one of the other main characters of the novel. From being under attack by robots, to freeing an extremely dangerous space pirate  who has been locked up for a very long time, Vivian goes down the rabbit hole fast. Her goals are straightforward at first--to find the Empress who has brought her to this time and space, and find a way to get back home. In entangling herself with Hong, and  Zanj (the aforementioned very dangerous space pirate), Vivian’s path, if not goals,  go off course almost immediately. In that tangled new course, Vivian meets new allies, new enemies and in the end, finds out the truth of the Empire and why the Empress has brought her here in the first place.

For all of the technobabble that the novel has, from the start as we learn about Vivian’s life on Earth in a couple of short set up characters, through the major facets of her universe, like the hyperspace Cloud, there is a definite science fantasy feel to all of the proceedings. Not only is it technology indistinguishable from magic (which the novel has in plenty) but there are whole portions of the novel that feel like they are even more closer to the fantasy section of the spectrum. Vivian and her friends, for example, landing on the ruined planet of Orn, find themselves in a post-apocalypse society and a problem that, as the author handwaves with Vivian’s thoughts, straight out of Beowulf. Later in the novel, as the author cranks things up to 11, the science as magic really does feel more and more like magic. The science fantasy nature of the novel reaches its zenith.

And on that way, we get a space opera/space fantasy universe that is full of sights, sounds, impressions, set pieces and environments.  Overall, I could see how Empress of Forever could and would play out on a screen--but as an animated feature, i think. This novel would bust the budget of any studio with trying to do practical effects and CGI with human actors. (Think Jupiter Ascending, to a square or cube power). Between the environments, the cinematic writing at the end, the larger than life characters, and the sheer inventiveness that the author brings means that this novel really works well for visual readers. If you are the kind of reader who relishes in those details, sights, sounds and experiences in your head as you read, Empress of Forever, after that early portion on Earth is done and Vivian is on the Mirrorfaith ship, the novel is most definitely for you.

That said, however, the novel, like many of the author’s novels, lives and grows on the strength of the cast. Taking the aforementioned Vivian, and Hong, and Zanj (space pirate for the win!), we have characters like Xiara, a preternaturally good space pilot and Gray, a graygoo creature, to fill out Vivian’s found family/team. They squabble, they fight, they come together and all have interesting character arcs, developments and growth. In a sense, I think Vivian, even though she is our Earth viewpoint character who we can relate to the most, is not even quite the most interesting character in the book. Given Hong (who feels in a sense to be the author’s most beloved character, since he gets to say a phrase that I’ve heard the author say himself in real life), Zanj (Space Pirate!) and Xiara (space pilot from a post apocalyptic world), the novel is rich with protagonists whose stories and personalities resonate. They are the heroes of their own stories.

And then there is the titular Empress herself. Most of the novel is experiencing and reacting to her from various points of view, various reactions, impressions, and even legends and myths for what people think of her. This gives her a larger than life quality that reminds me of the hints we get about Thanos in the early Avengers movies, until he actually starts to take action himself. The Empress’ goals, enemies and motivations are, to remain as non spoilery as possible, extremely grounded and well thought out. Even as Vivian and her friends oppose her and all of her works, what the Empress is really after, once it becomes clear, is logical and makes sense. She IS the hero of her own story, too.

The author keeps us mainly in Vivian’s point of view, but we get sections with the other characters, giving us a very good understanding of who they are, what they are about, and why as a reader we should care enough to follow their stories. In the last portion of the novel, as all actions and moves go to a conclusion, the author tries a little more cinematic of a technique, cutting between points of view to show us different portions of a wide ranging conflict.

The major thing again to keep in mind about Empress of Forever and deciding if it is for you really ties back into the expectations of the novel. This is not the hard space opera that you might be expecting or wanting. It’s side step into more fantastical realms, putting it in more the mind of space opera-science fantasy. However, this does not always quite work. The novel goes sideways phantasmagorical at times with an over the top world that the author is trying to describe, and sometimes, the author does exceed his grasp in that regard. Early on in the novel, before things get truly and utterly weird, the novel is on point, beat perfect and flawless. As the novel progresses, and as we get a sense as to what really is going on, and the universe becomes more defined, the action and events, paradoxically become just a tad fuzzier than I’d like. It’s minor, but it was noticeable for me.

That said, however, Empress of Forever is what you get if you decided to marry a traditional Space Opera narrative with Flash Gordon, Journey to the West, numerous Anime properties, Farscape, Jupiter Ascending, and most centrally, I think, Guardians of the Galaxy. When it works, Empress of Forever is  one of the best novels I have ever read. When it slips from that exalted mark, it is “merely” one of the very best books I’ve read this year.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for excellent and inventive worldbuilding, a unique and interesting verse
+1 for an intriguing and varied set of main characters. 

Penalties: -1 for not always hitting the science fantasy mark.

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

Reference:  Gladstone, Max  The Empress of Forever  [Tor, 2019]

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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Pick of the Week:
GI Joe #1 - This review will contain some minor spoilers so keep that in mind as you read this. Cobra has occupied most of the world and the individuals who are trying to take back what Cobra occupies are facing an incredibly uphill challenge. Right off the bat, this is clearly a book for fans of the original series and is much more mature than the cartoon I watched as a kid. It is much darker and violent, but had me hooked early on.  Early in the book, a courier witnesses Major Bludd assassinate Duke. A character I grew up admiring was shot execution style and it was truly upsetting. This motivated the courier to fight back after he is tracked down by Scarlett after he found a thumb drive that is important for the rebellion.  I am really digging the more mature take on this and hope that somehow Duke isn't actually dead, although I have my doubts.

The Rest:
Star Wars Age of Resistance: Rey #1 - I have enjoyed the few Age of Resistance books I have read in preparation of the new film coming out this December and this one is no different.  We follow Rey on a quick stop in which she tries to overthrow an evil dictator on her way to find Luke Skywalker. Rey has quickly become one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars universe and this issue highlights how strong of a character is and how much she grew in The Force Awakens.  This book opens with an incredibly moving scene between her and Leia and has me stoked to take my family to the final movie in this saga in a couple of months.

Doctor Aphra #36 - I admit that I had the wool pulled over my eyes and did not expect this arc to end the way it did. Aphra was surprised to learn that Voor was planning on overthrowing the Emperor. As shocking as that was, the convoluted plan that she was using to surprise someone as in touch with the Force as the Emperor seemed destined to fail. Voor was relying on the actions of too many people and learned quickly that you need to search the Wookiee and Aphra remained one step ahead of her. The conclusion of this arc has me incredibly excited as it appears that she is about to once again team up with Vader, which was how we were introduced to her in the first place.  It looks like her character has come full circle. 

Napoleon Dynamite #1 - This past year we shared the film Napoleon Dynamite with my 12 and 9 year olds and it was a huge success. They enjoyed the quirkiness and bizarre characters as much as I did when I saw it many years ago. This comic picks up right after the film in Napoleon's, Deb's, and Pedro's senior year. There is an attempt to make what worked well in the film translate to paper, but it just doesn't connect for me.  I can hear the characters voices as I read the dialog and Jorge Monlongo's artistic take on this series is phenomenal, but I don't know if we need a sequel, even if one of the characters is under suspicion for murder. This is a four book series and I'm not sure if I will pick up the next issue to see if it improves or not.

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Dragon Prince Re-Read: The Star Scroll

Last month I wrote about Melanie Rawn's debut novel Dragon Prince, which has long been one of my favorite fantasy novels and one of the very few which I occasionally come back to and re-read. When I considered beginning this series of essays, I knew that I loved Dragon Prince and that I liked most of the other novels, but it had been a long time since I last read any of them and I was curious just how I would feel about the subsequent novels.

As with Dragon Prince, this entry will be less of a proper review and more about my overall impressions of the novel and what it evokes in me, especially this being the fourth or fifth time that I have read it. As such, spoilers will abound, though more for this particular volume than the rest of the series. You have been warned. My memory of the rest of the series is incomplete. It may be worth noting that this is the first time I have read Star Scroll in at least ten years. If not longer.

If you're on the fence, don't be. Don't read what's below, just go read Dragon Prince and continue on with The Star Scroll. This is top notch fantasy.

One thing that jumped out at me more from re-reading my writeup of Dragon Prince is that The Star Scroll does not have that prominent villain to latch on to that Dragon Prince did. Dragon Prince had the High Prince Roelstra, one of the great villains in fantasy literature. I will argue that point all day long if necessary. The Star Scroll has hidden sorcerers. Oh, there is plenty of villainy to be found here, but it isn't the same. I would suggest that it is less necessary because now we are fully invested in the characters. Rohan and Sioned are familiar and comfortable and their dreams as rulers are our dreams as readers. We want them to succeed and build that peaceful society and make their world better. The nature of the conflict is different.

There is a discovery of several scrolls on the island nation of Dorval, the ancestral home of the Sunrunners (for lack of a quicker description, this world's magic users - see my previous post). The scrolls tell of long lost history, of a war against sorcerers who ruled the mainland, of a different sort of forbidden magical power.

It is not this discovery which sets events in motion, Melanie Rawn is far too good of a writer to do that. But, this discovery is a way to inform the reader as the characters are learning about a bit of history that might not be completely in the past. The scrolls are a set up for the reader, a hint that Rawn is changing the nature of the game here.

But, back to the villains. There are two, really. One is a character named Masul, who is claiming to be the son of long dead Roelstra, and thus having claim to the princedom claimed by Rohan for *his* son, Pol. Masul is a bit of a prominent villain, but the underlying one here is Mireva - one of the sorcerers looking to reclaim some power and completely upset the current order of things in the world. She is working multiple plots at once, attempting to subvert the Sunrunners, remove Rohan and family from power, and to set up a puppet of her own as the real power in the land in attempt to bring the long dormant sorcerers back into the light. That is a gross simplification.

Only one of those two storylines is resolved in The Star Scroll, the other (that of Mireva) will continue on into Sunrunner's Fire. To be honest, I really couldn't remember how that part moved forward, though I did remember it being a big thing. It's just not what you hang the book on. We're not reading to see how that particular storyline develops (as we were with the conflict between Rohan and Roelstra). We're reading to see how our heroes (as a generic term) rise to the occasion, to see how they develop, how Pol grows.

One of the best storylines in The Star Scroll is actually that of Andry, the son of Chay and Tobin (sister to Rohan). To quickly reduce all sorts of stuff, Andry is young (perhaps 20), and is tapped to be the next Lord of Goddess Keep when the current Lady, Andrade, dies. Andry, like Andrade, has all sorts of family ties to the ruling family, but as a Sunrunner, he has other loyalties. From the rotating tight third person perspectives in this novel, we see Andry go from fondly thinking about his "beloved older brother" to becoming almost estranged from his family when Andrade is killed and he is still given the full rule of the Sunrunners at such a young age. We can see the drift, and perhaps because I knew it was coming I can notice more those earlier moments when Andry is trying to hold on to his family and just be a brother and a son - and I know that the estrangement is coming. I know that the change is painful, and it is heartbreaking to watch happen even though you get the sense that Andry is kind of a dick, but he's also young and immature. Which is awkward for the man who is now a major power in the land.

The other great bit (in a book filled with great bits) is Sioned and how she is using her powers to initially touch, and then communicate with a dragon - something that had never been even considered. It isn't a major point of this novel, but it's so beautifully done and frightening and thrilling that it just has to be mentioned.

I don't love The Star Scroll in the same way that I do Dragon Prince, but from the start this is a gripping fantasy that from the first word I fully immersed myself into and did not want to stop until I had turned the final page. From these first two books, Melanie Rawn is a master and should be mentioned far more often as one of the great fantasy writers.

As a side note, given how much I love the Dragon Prince cover and that it was one of the first pieces of fantasy art that made me actually notice fantasy art, the cover for The Star Scroll is fairly disappointing. It shows an important scene of the book, but it doesn't really differentiate this as being any different of a book than, say, Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels (which are very good, but not at all the same sort of thing). Of course, Michael Whelan did do a number of the covers for The Dragonriders of Pern and McCaffrey herself did blurb Dragon Prince, but still. The cover here lacks that sensual and exciting feeling of that awesome piece of art he did for Dragon Prince. Perhaps it is not a fair comparison, that is, after all, one of my favorite book covers of all time.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


When I saw Coraline in the theater, I thought, “Nope nope nope. This is way too scary for kids.” I loved it, but the movie was legitimately unnerving. Buttons for eyes, sewn-up mouths, dead kids, a spider-lady. But then I heard an interview with Neil Gaiman where he was asked basically the same question — why did you write such a scary thing for kids? His response was wonderful (I mean...Neil Gaiman), and it was that things that are scary to adults are not the same things that are scary to children.

I think about this a lot, and try to take it into account when thinking about what to show my own kids. At the bottom of it all, the way I understand Gaiman’s meaning is that what’s *truly* frightening is the notion that the world ultimately doesn’t make any sense and isn’t governed by any rules that can be understood. As a kid, you’re always finding yourself in trouble or with aggrieved parents for reasons you don’t understand. The great hope is that one day the world will make more sense, and the feeling of careening between invisible, unfair obstacles will lessen.

It's a lovely fantasy. We don’t want to burst their bubble too soon. There is a pervasive mindset that runs throughout much of horror, which is that evil is omnipresent, its application is essentially random, and it is unstoppable. This is a universal feeling and one that older audiences are generally forced to reckon with beyond the confines of movies. One of the great gifts of horror stories to audience members is these tales allow the listener/watcher to confront their very real fears of an impersonal, uncaring, and brutal world in a safe environment. But for kids, the concerns are not yet of that nature. They are personal, dealing largely with one's place in the world. And these fears, too, are more-or-less universal.

The good news is that there are a ton of films that address these fears in a family-friendly way. And by and large, they’re the films you’re probably already familiar with.

Stranger Things

This is probably more of a no-brainer today than I give it credit for. I had some mixed feelings about showing my kid the breakout pop-horror title of our moment, but then I got the, "EVERYBODY at school has seen all three seasons and I'm getting SERIOUS spoilers" treatment, so now we're plowing through.

After Stranger Things, Season 1, I weighed in on this site about what I thought was a bizarre co-opting of...well, pretty much all the other titles I'm going to mention in this series. But here we are, two seasons later, and if kids today don't have time to read/watch every single thing me and the Duffer Brothers read and watched a million years ago, well, who can blame them? If Stranger Things is what steps into the breech, I can think of far worse things.

Tim Burton and LAIKA

At some point, everyone feels alone. Everyone feels like an outsider, or an imposter. Everyone feels un-understandable. This makes sense -- we each experience the world discretely from within our own literal shell. We are unique, separate beings, and each of us experiences the world in a singular way. It's scary. When you get right down to it, it's terrifying. It's only through shared experience and through story that we begin to recognize our own experiences in the experiences of others. Many of us are lucky in that we overlap in many ways with those around us, and begin to recognize these shared impressions almost before we are conscious of them. I guess this is what's called "fitting in." But some of us take a long, long time to encounter another or others who make us feel like we're not the first ones to fight these particular battles.

Artists are generally outsiders. Otherwise, we'd all be businesspeople. Growing up, we're often bullied or shunned. The weird kid. The oddball. The quiet one. Like Tim Burton, who famously idolized Vincent Price as a child and struggled to fit in, yet grew up to put a stamp of weirdness across the whole of popular culture that continues to invite other oddballs to feel ok about standing out. As a creator under the ubiquitous Disney umbrella, it's probably easy these days to shrug off Tim Burton. But I don't. This is, after all, the man who directed Ed Wood. He's more than earned his place on my Mount Rushmore.

The first two horror-adjacent films that my kids loved and re-watched again and again at a very young age were The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. But there's a funny thing about the movie that is billed as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas — Burton neither wrote nor directed it. Henry Selick directed and Caroline Thompson wrote the script. Now, Caroline Thompson's a helluva writer. She also wrote Edward Scissorhands, and The Addams Family, and The Corpse Bride, among many other titles in her 30-year-and-still-going career.

Henry Selick later moved to LAIKA and directed their first feature film, Coraline. You're sensing a pattern, I know. ParaNorman was the studio's second feature film, and is, to me, an indispensable family horror film. There is a lot of very dark thematic material in it, particularly when we learn about Agatha's backstory, but that character, like the rest of the film, is handled so empathetically and with so much care that I never hesitate to recommend the movie. Plus, the zombies are no scarier than Scooby-Doo villains, and are often played for laughs.

I mentioned how the film treats Agatha with empathy. This is a common thread in so many of these films. Norman himself is an outsider, someone who is misunderstood both at home and at school. Like Edward Scissorhands. Coraline is ignored, and feels invisible. And Jack Skellington is someone who seems cool and the guy everybody else wants to be like...but he feels out-of-place and like something's missing. For kids (and, let's be honest, most adults), these films model a way of existing in the world that resists being governed by the fear of not fitting in, encourages being open and welcoming to others who may be different, and highlights the fundamental human connections that bind us.

These are powerful messages, and they run counter to so, so many of the messages that kids receive on a daily basis.

If we can encourage our own little weirdos to be themselves and support each other, and we can do it with ghosts and spider-ladies, isn't it kind of incumbent on us to do so?


For kids, I recommend:
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Edward Scissorhands
Stranger Things

And though I haven't seen them, I have had good friends with kids recommend the more recent:
The House with a Clock in its Walls

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