Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Nanoreviews: Mississippi Roll, The Last Emperox, The Ghosts of Sherwood

Martin, George R.R. (editor). Mississippi Roll [Tor]

The twenty fourth volume of the long running Wild Cards series doesn't have as high a barrier to entry as that might seem. While not as perfect an entry point as the eighteenth, Inside Straight, Mississippi Roll doesn't require as much knowledge of the full series. Sure, being familiar with the triad starting with Fort Freak would help - but that gives shading.

Mississippi Roll is a ghost story set on an old mississippi riverboat and it's very effective at the beginning of the story (where we learn the reason for the haunt) and it's effective in the last third - but the storytelling does fall flat a bit in that middle third. I'd have to check again to see which stories are the ones that didn't work as well as the others since this is a mosaic novel, but the overall story is coherent and fits together. There are moments and sections the novel hums along (there should be a riverboat metaphor here), but while the middle section doesn't quite sink the book (there it is), Mississippi Roll doesn't quite achieve the promise of the either the wonderful beginning or the ultimate payoff.
Score: 6/10

Scalzi, John. The Last Emperox [Tor]

Our own Paul Weimer introduced me to a concept he called "wrong book in the moment", which encapsulates my experience of reading The Last Emperox, which is that perhaps reading a novel dealing with the impending end of civilization as that universe knows it may not play as well during the time of a global pandemic when I am concerned about the future of employment, childcare, of the general state of life right now.

It's not that all literature is to be escapist or that John Scalzi is under any obligation to write the story that he meant to write - but I could never tell while reading The Last Emperox whether the novel didn't quite work for me or if the novel did not work for me now. There's a distinct difference.

Scalzi's writing is typically easy, breazy, and while perhaps not a cover girl it is often a refreshing and delightful reading experience. That is still the case in The Last Emperox, but somehow it doesn't all come together for me in ways that it did in The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire. For a concluding novel The Last Emperox more seems like setting up yet one more book. The storylines here are wrapped up, but it all comes across as a bit of a rush. Also, and this is very much small potatoes, but the profanity in The Last Emperox seems far more excessive and forced here than in the previous two novels. The Last Emperox is better than my criticism suggests, but so many years of reading Scalzi has my expectations set higher. Or maybe I just need to read this again when there is not a perpetual level of stress and gloom overriding everything that I read.
Score: 7/10

Vaughn, Carrie. The Ghosts of Sherwood [ Publishing]

Relative to the above idea about reading a book that brings relief from the world and for which the experience of reading it is not overwhelmed by the aforementioned perpetual level of stress and gloom, I present to you The Ghosts of Sherwood, Carrie Vaughn's take on the Robin Hood mythos. Or rather, she continues on years after the standard Robin Hood mythos and answers the questions I never thought to ask - what would Robin and Marion's children be like? What adventures would they get up to?

Readers, The Ghosts of Sherwood was everything I ever wanted in a story and so much more. It's a friggin delight. I've loved Robin Hood stories for decades, whether it is Errol Flynn, Disney, or Kevin Costner (fight me) and what Carrie Vaughn does so well with The Ghosts of Sherwood is get at a raw sense of joy that is present in the best and most iconic Robin Hood stories. Even in the terrible moments of the story, there is still a pervasive sense of joy, wonder, and delight. There are so many more stories to be told with these kids and in and around Sherwood that I can't wait for the next novella (and hopefully the next and the next after that).
Score: 8/10

POSTED BY:  Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Thank You

Well, it's official: the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Awards have been announced, and we can therefore say that nerds of a feather, flock together, is among the shortlisted fanzines. To be a finalist once is a dream come true; it is staggering and humbling to be a Hugo Award finalist not only for a fourth time, but for four consecutive years. We know that we are just one part of an extraordinary community of fans who carry our genre's conversation across blogs, zines, newsletters and social media, and we're incredibly honored to have our contribution recognized in this way.

Nerds of a Feather is what it is because of the talent and hard work of our flock of in-house writers. In 2019, our team - Brian, Chloe, Dean, Mike, Paul, Phoebe and the Spacefaring Kitten - created excellence day after day in the midst of busy and complex lives, doing so purely for the love of science fiction, fantasy, horror literature and media. We couldn't be prouder of the work we created together last year, and we're excited to once again share it with the Hugo community.

Finally, we would like to give a special thanks to our readers and supporters within the community. Without you, we never make it here - not once, and certainly not for an unbelievable fourth time. Thank you. Thank you for nominating nerds of a feather, flock together. It means more than we can possibly express.

We would also like to take this time to congratulate Paul Weimer for being a first time finalist for Best Fan Writer. It is well deserved and we are so happy for him.

-The G, Vance, Joe & Adri

Microreview [Book]: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Cosmic horror, invisible parasites, sentient city avatars and a whole lot of New York attitude collide in this accomplished new trilogy opener

Jacket Art by Arcangel, Design by Lauren Panepinto
The City We Became is the first in N.K. Jemisin's new urban fantasy trilogy, and the first where the "proof of concept" short story (a technique Jemisin says she has used for her previous universes as well) picked up a lot of hype before the novels came around. "The City Born Great", originally published on, was a Hugo finalist in its eligible year and here it forms the prologue of an expanded, more complicated version of the "birth" of New York as a living city, coming together Captain-Planet style from the representatives of its five boroughs to protect the version of the city which they hold collectively dear.

I hope the idea of living cities, born once their locations reach a certain critical mass of people and culture and identity, makes sense to you, because there's not much more explaining within The City We Became. While in its genesis story, New York's birth involves an epic one-off battle between its avatar, a homeless Black kid living simultaneously in the heart of the city and on the margins of its respectable society, The City We Became complicates that birth significantly, giving the avatar a partial victory but leaving him still weak while the cosmic horrors trying to destroy it are still on the move. Enter the Planete- sorry, the Boroughs: Manny, a grad student who forgets his previous identity while on the train in and is immediately thrust into a new supernatural role; Brooklyn, rapper turned politician; Bronca, a queer indigenous woman and art gallery owner; Padmini, representing Queens, a mathematical genius and recent immigrant from India stuck in a corporate finance job in order to fulfil her family's ambitions for her, and Aislyn, a sheltered white woman whose cop father has instilled in her some intense prejudices and a fear of the unknown. We follow the gang as they start to understand their new role and (mostly) come together over their shared enemy: a force represented by a changing Woman in White, who appears to be infecting the people of New York with cordyceps-like spores which compel them to lay the groundwork for a far more narrow-minded and unpleasant vision of the city.

The City We Became
took a while to warm up for me, perhaps because of the lack of connection or attachment I have to New York itself. The main characters, representing the different boroughs of the city, are all introduced through the mythology and culture of these respective neighbourhoods, and while its all explained well enough to grasp on an intellectual level, I found it hard to care about their personalities as defined through those neighbourhoods, especially as almost all of them represent millions of people (sorry, Staten Island) and distilling each one into a single human personality is a hard sell indeed. Although there are plenty of universally recognisable human factors at play, some of the questions about New York City's specific identity and boundaries become central to the plot in ways its hard to really feel the impact of. Luckily, the fact that these moments are backed up with human characters whose existing relationships and personalities are very much worth paying attention to even when their city-personifications don't mean much to an outsider, means that there's always something to root for. Bronca is the standout character here, whose relationships with her colleagues - particularly young Jersey City resident Veneza - and their artistic community is full of entertainingly sharp edges and fun scenes, and I would have loved to spend a little more time with Padmini and her neighbourhood, as she feels like the character who gets least to do this time around.

It's in the characterisation of the enemy forces that The City We Became's blend of the supernatural and the mundane really shines. The Woman in White, a mouthpiece that seems able to possess any woman in the city at any time in order to speak to our Heroes, is played both with an unknowable alien-ness and a very recognisable sense of white woman conviction in all of her beliefs (and her reception is quite different in dealing with Aislyn, the only white borough-avatar, compared to the others). And alongside highway-crushing tentacles and creepy invisible mushroom growths, the Woman's forces also include people whose agendas would be deeply unpleasant even without alien interference making them into the worst versions of themselves. The take-down of alt-right talking heads, represented by an artistic group attempting to get their hate-art displayed in Bronca's gallery and calling out "discrimination" when they refuse, is both hilariously on point and unpleasantly sinister in its portrayal of how much support these groups can get, and how far they can go. The corporate interests which threaten Brooklyn in particular provide a faceless counterpoint that's all-too-human, despite also being proof of how long the alien invasion has been planned. Although it veers into outright cosmic horror in its finale, there's something even more unsettling about the portrayals of human nature here, and Jemisin brings together a compelling microcosm of the social and cultural factors of New York in late-stage-capitalist-America, creating something unflinching in its look at power dynamics, race, class, queerness and (to a lesser extent) disability.

This being Jemisin, of course, the cosmic horror angle to The City We Became also has enormous stakes with no easy answers. While its difficult to talk about without spoilers, and there is still a lot that remains to be explained in future books, the birth of New York, and the presence of living cities in general turns out to have repercussions that go well beyond maintenance of the water table and development of appropriate transport networks. The revelations about the city's place within a wider multiverse of beings, and what their actions mean in unknowable dimensions, provides the characters with an interesting but necessarily brief moment of introspection before they go back to the work of securing their own survival. It's a little surprising how far off the hook the characters seem to be by the end of this volume, given some of the precedents explained to them by older cities (São Paulo puts in further appearances after his role in "The City Born Great", and Hong Kong also shows up), but I have no doubt the reality of their new status is going to cause plenty more adventure, heartache and introspection for the gang as the series goes on.

The City We Became is a book by a master of her craft, and while its focus and story didn't grab me by the throat in the same way as the Broken Earth trilogy, this is still a fantastic opening to a new series with a lot of new elements to explore. I'm definitely ready to find out more about the wider forces at work here, and although New York is never likely to be more than a very occasional foreign holiday destination to me, the characters it becomes in this volume are people I would very much like to spend more fictional time with.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Fascinating blend of social factors and cosmic horror, especially on the antagonists' end

Penalties: -1 the borough-first personification takes a while to work its magic if you don't know your NYC

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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: Jemisin, N.K. The City We Became [Orbit, 2020]

Monday, April 6, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, by Saad B Hossain

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday brings a fresh buddy pairing of a Gurkha and a Djinn to a future Kathmandu

Melek Ahmar, Djinn King, Lord of Tuesday, has a problem. He has been sleeping for a long time, millenia in fact. When he wakes up, the world has vastly changed, and he is not prepared for a Earth where the air and water are contaminated and people huddle in a few cities. And you thought that you overslept last Saturday when you woke up an hour late!

Gurung, a Gurkha soldier with a past who has been living in exile on the mountain where Melek has been sleeping, has secrets and problems of his own, especially revolving around why he is on the mountain rather than in one of the much safer cities. They form an unusual bond and go off on an adventure together in a “Wunza” format that is, as far as I can tell, is a unique pairing. While the author has written about Djinn before, and Djinn as characters is nothing new, having a buddy pairing like this is fresh and new.

Their story, and their adventures in future Kathmandu are heart of Saad B Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday.

Readers of my review might know that I visited Nepal in October 2019, so I was delighted by the prospect of a SF novella set in future Nepal, with Kathmandu as an oasis of safety in a world where a nanite infused wind blowing the wrong direction can kill you in an hour. Kathmandu is wonderfully depicted as a future place thast still has ties to the past. The Garden of Dreams, a delightful garden I visited in Kathmandu is a major location for events in the novel, and I happily remembered and envisioned my time there with the sequences set there. Small cultural details of the city, like the deliciousness of momos, also helped ground me back on my trip.

The fish out of water Melek is a delight from the start, spouting references and connections to things that are thousands of years long since gone, completely out of touch with the way things are now. The fact that the longs to be a King and a ruler again in a world where that is quite out of fashion delights, especially when he gets to Kathmandu and finds out how it is run --by an AI, and using social capital as the basis of society. Lots of the future speculation of the novel revolves around the AI Karma, how its social system works, and how the AI tries to run one of the few oases of safety left in a devastated world.

Gurung, the Gurkha, is the other half of the buddy comedy that this novella often runs on, and he is a complicated sort. He is long since self exiled from Kathmandu for some very good reasons, but he has a long list of people he would like to pay back, and teaming up with Melek is his ticket to do so. The manipulative way that Gurung tries to leverage and direct the relationship with the powerful but less clued-in Melek is a fascinating study in manipulation of the levels of power. Gurung is just one man, one soldier, but in guiding Melek to the actions he wants, he has an outsized role in events. Enough, perhaps to bring a city to its knees.

And there is more, since for all of the richness of the technology in future Kathmandu, this is a novel that runs and works on relationships and personalities. Take Sheriff Hamilcar Pande, who works for the AI Karma, but in the main, he has a make-work job that does nothing much, given how the AI keeps things humming. He doesn’t ask or require much, either. He in fact considers himself a boring man, but when Melek and Gurung come to Kathmandu and start causing trouble, he, with the help of his lover Colonei Shakia rise to the occasion, but it is the relationship he has with Karma that really drives his actions and reactions as much as events.

My favorite secondary character, though, in this delightful stew of personalities,is ReGi. ReGi is a teenager aspected Djinn who lives in the aforementioned Garden, and while Melek can overawe her with his power, her snark and skepticism of her elder and their interactions overall are delightful. The fact that Melek wants to overturn the apple cart of her existence and the city in general is something that ReGi definitely has vocal opinions about. I do think that ReGi and characters like Coloneil Shakia could have used a little more page count, though. I wanted more with them. 

In general, as you can see the manipulation and the uses of power and those who leverage it is the running theme of this novel in various forms. Entities and systems with greater power are leveraged and manipulated by people to advantage, and often to the detriment of people without it. (people without any social standing in Kathmandu are called “zeroes”, reinforcing the point that the author is going for here). The actual running plot of what Hamilcar discovers about Gurung’s previous life in Kathmandu and why he has such a grudge in the end ties right into those imbalances of power and how they are manipulated and accentuated. For all of the fun of the novel in setting and character, this theme is really where the power, if you will forgive me, of the writing of the author lies.

The novella ends with a good closure for Kathmandu but leaving plenty of room for Gurung and Melek to have adventures in this fallen Earth. I am reminded more than a little of Michael Moorcock’s own stories in this vein, of Darger and Surplus, and if Hossain wants to write more stories in this vein on his fallen Earth, I for one would be most interested in reading them.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a wonderful pair of main characters with a great relationship
+1 for a vivid future Kathmandu

Penalties: -1 Needs a little more Secondary character action

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

Reference: Hossain, Saad B. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday [ Publishing, 2019]

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

Friday, April 3, 2020

6 Books with A.J. Fitzwater

A.J. Fitzwater is 1000 unicorns in a snappy blazer. The Clarion Writer's Workshop of 2014 presented them somewhat formed, and their two Sir Julius Vogel Awards work well as interchangeable unicorn horns. Their work has appeared in magazines such as Fireside Fiction, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, GlitterShip, and Giganotosaurus, and various anthologies of repute. Their WW2 New Zealand land girls shape-shifter novella "No Man's Land" is to be published by Paper Road Press May 2020.

Today, they share their Six Books with Us.

1. What book are you currently reading? 

Te Awa Atua: Menstruation in the Pre-Colonial Maori World by Ngāhuia Murphy

I've recently been doing research on historic representations of gender and sexuality in Aotearoa New Zealand for a project I've been noodling, and I fell down this rabbit hole. This is a masters thesis written by Murphy, and I've been taking it slow, soaking up the language and wisdom, letting each chapter settle. Murphy's approach is decolonizing in material, spirit, body, research, and construction, turning the language of European christian pollution into one of Māori wahine connection and power across the "river of time".

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Murderbot! I adore the droll MB. They're a non-binary icon! Wary and weary, misunderstood, living in the margins, squishy (hearted) on the inside, hard shell, and dealing (not dealing) with PTSD by bingeing the space equivalent of Netflix - dude, so queer.

 MB's weary care of their charges goes well beyond their original program, makes them more human than some humans! That they're not good at dealing with humans (and most other constructs), and they don't understand why humans connect with them anyway is incredibly endearing (and relateable).

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

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I remember sitting in the airport on my way back from Worldcon in 2017, having just finished "The Stone Sky" and staring into space, trying to grok how life- and culture-changing the Broken Earth trilogy is. To motor through a book is a rare thing for me, as I tend to read carefully for craft as well as entertainment. Not this one - I fully immersed myself in the story and still have "emotional sense" of its colour and shape. The Fifth Season is a luxury of world building - every small detail, the language, the science added gravitas and edge. I want to re-read for craft deconstruction, to really get a handle on how she built the second person narrative and the converging story lines.

I was honoured to spend a week with Jemisin while at Clarion as she was in the midst of creating these books, so to receive even the smallest glimpse into their creation makes them very special to me.

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

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

This was one of the first books I got ten years ago when I started reading as much as I could on gender and queer theory and history. I don't think I was ready for it. It's a hard read about abuse and trauma, and I had to put it down half way through. It sat on my shelf for years, making me feel guilt for not engaging properly with my elders' stories.

I picked it up again last year and charged right through it. Perhaps it's the political climate and the heavy lifting reading I've been doing the last few years, combined with the lessons I've taken from the queer community, my growth, and better understanding of queer history. I understand now why it's essential reading, for it's queer, working class, and collective action themes.

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

Under The Mountain by Maurice Gee

I'd usually answer this question with Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonflight", the book that opened up science fiction and fantasy as a playground, literature, and a calling. But here I'm taking it another step and a few more years back.

"Under The Mountain" was one of the books I read repeatedly around ages 8-10 off the back of the early-80s TV series. It tapped into anxieties about the Cold War nuclear threat, environmental destruction, rural to urban drift, and framed the villainous alien Wilberforce family as Greatest Generation warmongers. In hindsight, this is a some heavy lifting for a YA book, but New Zealand based YA has a tradition of thoughtful SFF that our adult literature shies away from. All of that meant little to young me - the aliens were scary, the kids were determined, complicated characters, I recognized the locations, and the Auckland volcanoes were set off by MAGIC. It taught me New Zealand is a rich environment for science fictional storytelling.

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

"The Voyages of Cinrak The Dapper" 

Introducing Cinrak the Dapper, lesbian capybara pirate captain (dappybara!) and her found family: soprano marmot diva Loquolchi, rat queen Orvillia, rat mentor Mereg the Sharp, chinchilla cabin boy Benj, Agnes the kraken, Xolotli the glass whale, and Colombia the mer. This collection of seven stories goes from searching mountain peaks for a rare beard to investigating the ocean floor for whale fall to bringing the stars home from the sky. It's a little bit of joy amongst the chaos. I want plushies of all my characters!

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

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Thursday Morning Superhero

Before we hop into how COVID-19 is impacting the comic book industry I thought I should share the good news that Locke and Key has been renewed for a second season! Given the current situation we are all facing any good news is welcome.  While the coronavirus is hitting a lot of industries extremely hard, Diamond just announced that it is not able to pay its vendors.  While Marvel and DC should be safe given their bankrolls, smaller publishers are likely to be impacted in a negative way.  The cancellation of conventions has also taken a toll on many creators so I thought I would share some ways to support the industry if you are financially able to.

Support your favorite creators:
A lot of comic book creators have Patreons or some sort of store front.  If you have been thinking about commissioning a sketch from your favorite artist or picking up a t-shirt from one of your favorite comic books now is the time to do so. I recommend checking out Cullen Bunn's Patreon myself.  You can also purchase their books on Amazon or if you can't financially afford to support creators reviews on Amazon go a long way. You can also purchase merchandise directly from the publisher as long as they are still able to ship.

Support your LCS:
If your town has a shelter in place order like mine your LCS is likely temporarily closed.  If this is the case you might be able to purchase a gift certificate online or ask if you can pay for any comics on your pull list that you haven't been able to pick up lately. If your town hasn't implemented shelter in place orders, it is crucial to still practice good social distancing, but your store might have curb side delivery. The last thing to look into is if there is any sort of relief fund for hourly workers you can contribute to.  We supported one for a few businesses here and these individuals greatly appreciate any support they can get.

Purchase comics digitally:
One of the easiest way to support this industry is to purchase digital comics.  I have utilized ComiXology for years as it has been harder for me to make it to my LCS every week. This is a great way to help fund the smaller publishers who are really going to suffer if Diamond isn't able to pay its vendors.

Recommended reading lists:
I wanted to end this month's post with some suggested reading while we are all spending more time at home.  I know this doesn't translate for more down time for everyone, but I have found great value in escaping into the pages of a good comic. I am currently reading volume 10 of Death Note as it has been too long since I revisited this title.  Beyond Death Note here are some of my favorite books that should take a decent amount of time to finish.

Captain America - The Ed Brubaker run:
My love of Captain America started with Brubaker's work. It features the Winter Soldier, the Death of Captain America, and beyond.  Brubaker has a bit of a darker note for Steve Rogers and it is welcome as the cast of villains he features fit well with his style.

Y: The Last Man by Bryan K. Vaughan:
While not everyone on this blog will agree, Y: The Last Man is one of my favorite takes on the apocalypse.  I realize that not everyone is ready for this type of series, but Vaughan's approach is a lot of fun and posits what happens if all of the men on earth die except for one.

Essex County by Jeff Lemire:
This comic came extremely close to making it as required reading for the sport and society course I used to teach.  Lemire's ability to relate the importance of hockey to Canadian culture is extremely powerful and you can't help but to get drawn into the characters in this small town and immediately care for their well being.  This title is a bit heavier than the others, but it remains one of my favorite books and I can't say enough good things about it.

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

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Westworld Wednesday: What is Missing

Welcome back to Westworld Wednesday, a series of essays/ramblings about the themes & philosophies of Westworld. NOTE: while we deal more with themes here, rather than plot, the emphasis is not on what happened this week; HOWEVER, if you are reading this and wish to avoid spoilers, you should be current on the show (Seriously, there are spoilers in this).

If you don't like what you see in the mirror, don't blame the mirror
What is free will, anyway? Is it an illusion and our whole lives are spelled out from the word go? Or are we really free to make our own choices? But even if we are, it is folly to suppose we have actual, complete agency over those choices. Everyone has obligations, duties, and even should they be abandoned, doesn't that just introduce another in its stead?

Absence of Field may be my favorite episode yet, at least since season one. It basically takes those categories and puts them in amazing character. Caleb discovers that his whole life is tracked and mapped out, that he is a slave to fate due to powers far beyond his control. Delores is finally in control of her own destiny, wretched control of her life from murdered gods, and now finds herself in conflict with the other would-be citizens of a twisted Olympus. But even gods have obligations, and she finds herself to return the good that Caleb showed her.

Charlotte embodies the third option. All her obligations come pouring down upon her, obligations she, being not-Charlotte, didn't even know she had. A massive, essentially evil corporation with a major PR disaster on its hands seems like a bit, but turns out she also has a son, an ex, AND she's supposed to be spying ON said evil corporation. I mean:

On top of all that, she is embodying the other major theme of Westworld: Identity. All of her obligations require her to be someone else entirely, but those are all facades in the first place. Look at the world right now - our world, the real one (or maybe it's not, who the hell knows, our simulation is off the rails) - and how much can change, and how fast. People wear masks all the time because of their obligations - hell, if you're in isolation right now, there is a good chance you have not only renounced any metaphorical masks, but also literal pants.

Pants notwithstanding, those masks change - most people shift to fit in, be that at work, with friends, with other friends, with hobbies, on and on and on. We are social creatures; we try to belong. All of that goes to form our identity - or does our identity inform it? What makes us, really, truly, who we are?

Not-Charlotte comes in as a host, with orders from Delores to impersonate Charlotte, and the internal drive to do so. But we see her become Charlotte as she begins to assume who she is, what she is, and what she actually embodies.

Is this an example of free will, her making the choice to become that? Or is she forced there by being in so deep that she literally has no other choice? Why, to take from the poem, does she keep moving?

Why, then do any of us?


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

We Rank 'Em: New (Retro) Adventure Games!

Since the first time I played King's Quest at a friend's house, I've been in love with adventure games - or "point and click" games as they'd come to be known once every computer came with a mouse. Adventure games are puzzle based, in most cases featuring little to no twitch action. They also emphasize character and story - hence their appeal to this here book nerd.

The best iterations of the style feature challenging but intuitive puzzles, immersive and atmospheric worlds, relatable characters and gripping narrative arcs. Unfortunately, many of the '80s and '90s classics used cheap and unforgiving puzzle design to paper over the fact that they were very short and simple games. Plus if you wanted to know how to proceed, you'd need to call the handy - and expensive - hint line provided in the manual.

The style fell by the wayside with the emergence of 3D rendering and the more immediate thrills provided by FPS and RTS games in the late 1990s. But now, thanks to Steam, GOG, mobile gaming platforms and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for all things retro, adventure games are back!

Here are a few of the best new adventure games on the market:

6. Thimbleweek Park by Terrible Toybox (2017)

Do you like weird what is even real anymore mysteries like Twin Peaks or Wayward Pines? How about the LucasArts model for point-and-click games? If the answer is yes to both, then I'm guessing you'll dig this Twin Peaks-inspired entry by the creators of Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. It also happens to be very good. Oh, and play it on Hard - it's not an authentic retro experience if the puzzles don't feel cheap at times. Steam | GOG.

5. Stasis by The Brotherhood (2015)

Unlike most of the entries on this list, Stasis is not an homage to the glory days of Sierra and LucasArts. It's more like a puzzle-based take on Dead Space, where you wander around a spaceship trying to make sense of what happened and not get killed by scary-ass shit. Atmospheric and gripping, Stasis features absolutely gorgeous environments, solid gameplay and intuitive puzzles. Steam | GOG.

4. Oxenfree by Night School Studio (2016)

Oxenfree is arguably the most stylish and high concept adventure game ever made. It centers on a group of teens in a weird Pacific Northwest town notable for its supernatural and just plain weird activity. Sound familiar? That's because this one also falls into the what is even real anymore category of game fiction. But it's not a retro game the way Thimbleweed Park is. Rather, like Stasis, Oxenfree represents a wholly modern take on this retro genre. Featuring gorgeous graphics, memorable characters and inventive gameplay mechanisms, Oxenfree stands apart from the pack. But it does fall short in a few areas - the dialogue can be quite tedious at times, and the game feels too short for another. It's still great, though, and well worth your time. Steam | GOG.

3. Whispers of a Machine by Clifftop Games (2019)

My two favorite literary genres are science fiction and crime noir. Whispers of a Machine has the honor of being both (full review here). The game takes place in a future Sweden, where anything remotely close to AI (including computers) has been banned. You don't know exactly what happened, only that it was bad - this serving as metaphor for a fairly sophisticated meditation on our relationship to machines. The game also features smart, Sierra-esque graphics and some cool gameplay innovations, courtesy of protagonist Vera's cybernetic augmentations. Oh, and there are multiple endings - each of which you'll want to experience. The downside? There are other games that do all this better, like...  Steam | GOG.

2. Primordia by Wadjet Eye Games

It's no understatement to say that Wadjet Eye Games rule the roost of new (retro) adventure gaming, and Primordia encapsulates exactly why that is. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic junkyard; its protagonist, Horatio Nullbuilt, lives peacefully with his robot Crispin until his power core is stolen. Their quest to get it back serves as a vehicle for exploring what happened to the humans who once populated the dead world. Primordia features a deeply compelling narrative, great characters, beautifully rendered retro graphics and a haunting atmosphere. And the puzzles are highly intuitive - no cheapness here. All in all it's an extraordinary adventure game, one highly recommended for fans of the genre. It's melancholic tone will give you the feels for sure. Steam | GOG.

1. Gemeni Rue by Wadjet Eye Games

Like Whispers of a Machine, Gemini Rue is also a cross between science fiction and noir, but in this case, features alternating hard SF and SF-tinged neo-noir narratives. These come together brilliantly at the end, but not before presenting gamers with one of the most seamless, artful and pleasing puzzle-based adventures ever made. Gemini Rue is a near-perfect example of what the genre has to offer, simultaneously paying homage to and surpassing the Sierra and LucasArts classics. I can't recommend this one enough - it may be the most gratifying adventure game I've ever played. Steam | GOG.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Interview: Eeleen Lee, author of Liquid Crystal Nightingale

In Eeleen Lee's debut novel Liquid Crystal Nightingale, escape and justice are only for the rich. Pleo is a survivor, and she dreams of a better life. When she's framed for murder, will her dreams rescue her?  A far-future murder mystery wrapped up in colonization, classism, and intrigue, think Iain M. Banks meets Battle Angel Alita, with a dash of biopunk and a splash of impending alien invasions.

This may  be Lee's first full length novel, but she's been in the international publishing world for years.  She's edited fiction and anthologies, written comedy sketches, and her short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in the U.K, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia, such as Asian Monsters from Fox Spirit Books, and Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction.

If you're looking for some great space opera reading recommendations along with a dose of humor, check our Eeleen's twitter feed, she's at @EeleenLee.  She was nice enough to chat with me about Liquid Crystal Nightingale, how the novel got started as a writing exercise, her short story collection 13 Moons, and more!

While doing research for this interview, I learned that Eeleen is a fellow Dune fan!  I think we'll both cry if the if the Sandworms don't meet our expectations.

Liquid Crystal Nightingale is out now from Rebellion Publishing, available in paperback and e-book.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: The narrative structure of Liquid Crystal Nightingale offers multiple points of view, including Pleo's, Marsh's, and the Dumortier's. How did you develop their different views of the world? When at least two of them were in the same place at the same time, how did you know whose point of view to use for that scene?

Eeleen Lee: I approached it like staging and blocking a scene- and the scene is done on green screen, which is a useful metaphor for writing because you're inventing what's outside and inside the characters. Firstly, make full use of the setting in each chapter- if the reader feels immersed in the time and place they will be more inclined to believe what the writer is depicting. Secondly, the characters, like real people, move through and interact with their environment on many levels: physically, emotionally and socially. Hence, I selected which character POVs would best reflect and set off the physical, emotional and social/individual life of a scene.

NOAF: What scenes and/or characters were your favorite to write?

EL: I enjoyed writing the two investigators, Dumortier and Nadira. There's a tendency to depict law enforcement in science fiction as mostly corrupt, inept and overwhelmed. I wanted to move away from that- it's much more effective and powerful to show a force that's efficient, highly competent and yet, still overwhelmed and vulnerable.

NOAF: What inspired you to write Liquid Crystal Nightingale? How different is the finished product from your original concepts?

EL: The novel began as a simple exercise years ago: write about a few fictional cities, in the style of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. As soon as I started writing about a city that looked like a cat's eye from space I couldn't stop at a few paragraphs. The style and tone were initially very literary, reminiscent of Primo Levi's The Periodic Table and the layered stories of Jorges Luis Borges.

NOAF: You mentioned on your twitter feed that you are pretty sure the new Dune movie will become a favorite movie adaptation. I am a fellow Dune fan, and also very excited for this movie! Do you have a favorite character or scene from the original novel or series? What do you most hope they'll get right in the movie?

EL: I hope the filmmakers get the sandworms right, with today's VFX technology there's no excuse not to. And I always thought Princess Irulan is given short shrift but ultimately she's the historian so she has the last laugh, in a sense.

NOAF: Who are some of your favorite writers? Why is their work meaningful to you?

EL: Yoon Ha-Lee, William Gibson, Alastair Reynolds, Ann Leckie, China Mieville and James SA Corey. Everything about their milieus and worldbuilding leaps off the pages.

NOAF:Your short story collection 13 Moons offers up supernatural stories of the darkness that lies just beneath the every day. Your short fiction has been published in a number of anthologies. In your short fiction, are there themes and concepts you find yourself returning to?

EL: A very good question because no one has asked me this before! Now that I look back on my short stories I can see some recurring themes such as: karma, the concept of no good deed going unpunished and coming of age.

NOAF: You edited one of the volumes of KL: Noir. How did you did get involved with this series of crime fiction, and is editing anthologies something you'd like to do more of?

EL: I was asked to get involved by my publisher and it's something I enjoy doing because it's rather exciting to guide other writers' visions.

NOAF: What’s next for you?

EL: I'm working on a military science fiction novel now.

NOAF: Thanks so much Eeleen! Can't wait to chat with you after the Dune movie comes out!

Monday, March 30, 2020

New Books Spotlight

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

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

Bennett, Robert Jackson. Shorefall [Del Rey]
Publisher's Description
As a magical revolution remakes a city, an ancient evil is awakened in a brilliant new novel from the Hugo-nominated author of Foundryside and the Divine Cities trilogy. 

A few years ago, Sancia Grado would’ve happily watched Tevanne burn. Now, she’s hoping to transform her city into something new. Something better. Together with allies Orso, Gregor, and Berenice, she’s about to strike a deadly blow against Tevanne’s cruel robber-baron rulers and wrest power from their hands for the first time in decades.

But then comes a terrifying warning: Crasedes Magnus himself, the first of the legendary hierophants, is about to be reborn. And if he returns, Tevanne will be just the first place to feel his wrath.

Thousands of years ago, Crasedes was an ordinary man who did the impossible: Using the magic of scriving—the art of imbuing objects with sentience—he convinced reality that he was something more than human. Wielding powers beyond comprehension, he strode the world like a god for centuries, meting out justice and razing empires single-handedly, cleansing the world through fire and destruction—and even defeating death itself.

Like it or not, it’s up to Sancia to stop him. But to have a chance in the battle to come, she’ll have to call upon a god of her own—and unlock the door to a scriving technology that could change what it means to be human. And no matter who wins, nothing will ever be the same. 
Why We Want It: With the follow up to 2018's excellent Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett is a favorite of the Nerds of a Feather flock. We'll read whatever he writes.

Jingfang, Hao. Vagabonds [Saga]
Publisher's Description
A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang. 

This genre-bending novel is set on Earth in the wake of a second civil war…not between two factions in one nation, but two factions in one solar system: Mars and Earth. In an attempt to repair increasing tensions, the colonies of Mars send a group of young people to live on Earth to help reconcile humanity. But the group finds itself with no real home, no friends, and fractured allegiances as they struggle to find a sense of community and identity, trapped between two worlds.

Fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Naomi Alderman’s The Power will fall in love with this novel about lost innocence, an uncertain future, and never feeling at home, no matter where you are in the universe. Translated by Ken Liu, bestselling author of The Paper Menagerie and translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Vagabonds is the first novel from Hao Jingfang, the first Chinese woman to ever win the esteemed Hugo Award. 
Why We Want It: We've been looking for Vagabonds for a few years now. After Jingfang's Hugo Award winning story "Folding Beijing", we've been looking to see what she would write next (only one of her subsequent stories have been translated into English). Vagabonds her Jingang's debut novel.

Kozloff, Sarah. The Cerulean Queen [Tor]
Publisher's Description
Sarah Kozloff's breathtaking and cinematic epic fantasy series The Nine Realms, which began with A Queen in Hiding, comes to a thrilling conclusion in The Cerulean Queen. 

The true queen of Weirandale has returned.

Cerulia has done the impossible and regained the throne. However, she's inherited a council of traitors, a realm in chaos, and a war with Oromondo.

Now a master of her Gift, to return order to her kingdom she will use all she has learned—humility, leadership, compassion, selflessness, and the necessity of ruthlessness. 
Why We Want It: We've been following Kozloff's debut series with four novels in four months and we want to see how it all ends. The first book, A Queen in Hiding, wasn't quite the novel we expected it to be but it also hooked us on reading more.

Roth, Veronica. Chosen Ones [John Joseph Adams Books]
Publisher's Description

Fifteen years ago, five ordinary teenagers were singled out by a prophecy to take down an impossibly powerful entity wreaking havoc across North America. He was known as the Dark One, and his weapon of choice—catastrophic events known as Drains—leveled cities and claimed thousands of lives. Chosen Ones, as the teens were known, gave everything they had to defeat him.

After the Dark One fell, the world went back to normal . . . for everyone but them. After all, what do you do when you’re the most famous people on Earth, your only education was in magical destruction, and your purpose in life is now fulfilled?

Of the five, Sloane has had the hardest time adjusting. Everyone else blames the PTSD—and her huge attitude problem—but really, she’s hiding secrets from them . . . secrets that keep her tied to the past and alienate her from the only four people in the world who understand her.

On the tenth anniversary of the Dark One’s defeat, something unthinkable happens: one of the Chosen Ones dies. When the others gather for the funeral, they discover the Dark One’s ultimate goal was much bigger than they, the government, or even prophecy could have foretold—bigger than the world itself.
And this time, fighting back might take more than Sloane has to give. 
Why We Want It: Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy was compelling enough that we want to see what else she might have for us. The first novel in her Carve the Mark didn't quite, well, hit the mark - but it's time to give Roth another go with Chosen Ones. Prophecy and a Dark One in North America is different enough.

Scalzi, John. The Last Emperox [Tor]
Publisher's Description
The Last Emperox is the thrilling conclusion to the award-winning, New York Times and USA Today bestselling Interdependency series, an epic space opera adventure from Hugo Award-winning author John Scalzi. 

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction . . . and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people form impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization . . . or the last emperox to wear the crown? 
Why We Want It: The first two volumes of The Interdependency have been straight up excellent and we're excited to see how Scalzi closes out the trilogy. Interestingly enough, this is the first time Scalzi has committed trilogy. New Scalzi is always a cause for celebration.

Vo, Nghi. The Empress of Salt and Fortune [ Publishing]
Publisher's Description
With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.  
Why We Want It: We're always interested in the novellas from Publishing, but in a year filled with highly anticipated novellas Empress of Salt and Fortune is right up near the top that list. We're here for everything about this novella.

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

Contributor Profile: Sean Dowie

Today we are welcoming a new member to our flock! Sean Dowie joins our roster of reviewers covering books, comics and all things nerd. You can find his reviews in FIYAH Literary Magazine. We're very excited to have Sean join the Nerds of a Feather team!

Art Credit: Renaud Lachery

NAME: Sean Dowie

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: The bottom of a river of Purell.

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Remembering book chapter names, being awkward in a kind of cute way.

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Characters with no personality and are just a repository for exposition, military sci-fi that turns machismo up to the max.

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Werewolves, because I, too, generally get freaky only one night a month.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Sooner or Later, Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, which has the kind of ludicrous plot twist that I read psychological thrillers for, and Sirens of Titan, which has the kind of keen observations and plot that I read Kurt Vonnegut for.

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: The House in the Cerulean Sky by TJ Klune, and The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott.
WHEN THE WEATHER SUCKS OUTSIDE I'M MOST LIKELY TO BE... Comparing the author pictures on my favourite books, and then realizing that appearances don’t matter and to stop being superficial.


IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: The ability to create a hotspot anywhere in the world, and my arch nemesis would be named Data.

THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, no contest.

THE WORST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: The bits of Fantastic Four (2015) that I’ve seen.

I JUST WATCHED XXXX AND IT WAS AWESOME: The final season of Bojack Horseman. What a way to stick the landing!

I JUST WATCHED XXXX AND IT WAS TERRIBLE. The Secret Life of Pets 2. A guy I dated made me watch it with him, and I’m 26 years old.

EVERYONE SHOULD SEE XXXX BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE, Synecdoche, New York. Don’t let the unwieldy title deter you—it’s a perfect movie.


NAME A BOOK  YOU *NEED* A MOVIE OF (OR VICE VERSA): We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Six Books with Ryan Van Loan

Ryan Van Loan served six years as a Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (PA National Guard) where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan. He has traveled around the world with his wife, wandering Caribbean island haunts, exploring the palaces and cathedrals of Europe, and hiking with elephants in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Ryan's forthcoming novel, The Sin in the Steel hits shelves on July 21, 2020. Today, Ryan lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two dogs where he’s hard at work on his next novel.

Today he shares his Six Books With Us.

1. What book are you currently reading? 

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. It’s about a newly minted thief who has to pay off their student loan debts to the guild (relatable), a witch-in training, and a kickass knight with a war raven who go on an adventure together. It’s dark, but delightful in a gritty way that hits some of my favorite adventure fantasy notes. Fans of Nicholas Eames, Douglas Hulick, and V.E. Schwab will enjoy this one...unfortunately Christopher’s fantasy debut doesn’t land on shelves until next year.

I hate when someone names a book that’s not out on shelves right now, so let me also plug the book I read before this one: The Steel Crow Saga by Paul Kreuger. It’s a tight, standalone fantasy--think Pokemon in the immediate aftermath of World War II with half a dozen richly imagined cultures that reminded me of southeast Asia and a cast who all have mysteries they hope none discover.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I have to pick one? My understanding is that we’re getting books from the aforementioned V.E. Schwab, Jim Butcher, and Scott Lynch to name a few! Heh. I am hearing really great things about Katherin Addison’s (The Goblin Emperor) The Angel of the Crows. The title alone had me, but the premise--1880’s London with vampires and werewolves and angels and Jack the Ripper--made click pre-order as fast as I could.

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

So many! I grew up in a rural area so before I could drive, my only friends in the summertime were books and I loved reading so much that I was reading 5+ books/week from the age of 10 until right around the time I graduated college. I have a lot of old friends I want to see again. That said, I think I’m probably due for a Watership Down reread. That book taught me a lot about friendship and perseverance and in the year 2020, those are both important things to have in your life.

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

This is a great question! By which I mean it’s a hard one… N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was a book I immediately appreciated, but I had reason to re-read it recently and I was just blown away by what a master class it is in voice as a device for the story and how point of view can dramatically influence a scene(s). Then there are the themes of the book itself and the layers upon layers of craft that she wields throughout that build to an emotional crescendo that I saw coming, but still was utterly unprepared for. So my answer is I’ve positively changed my mind more positively!

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

A lot of the books I read as a child and young adult have had lasting influences on me, but as far as my writing goes I think it would have to be The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. It’s a story about a royal outcast who sets out to prove her worth along with a put-out-to-pasture, lame, war stallion by fighting dragons. But it’s also a story about living with depression and finding ways to continue to make a difference even when you’re not sure that you matter at all, let alone your actions. It’s about finding your way through that fog in your soul. I am not a believer in AP English capital ‘T’ theme, but I am a believer in writing stories that matter. The Hero and the Crown does what I strive to do with every book: entertain with heart.

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

Why is my latest book awesome? In a word? Buc.

The Sin in the Steel is the story of Sambuciña ‘Buc’ Alhurra, the compellingly chaotic heroine who is part Sherlock Holmes, part young Indiana Jones and ALL herself. Buc shares a sisterhood with Arya Stark and Lila Bard of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic. The first private investigator in her world, Buc’s too smart for her own good with a razor-sharp blade hidden up her sleeve and an even sharper tongue. She’s finally landed the case that will set her and her partner-in-crime solving, Eld, up for life...if they survive. With her wit and Eld’s sword they’ll have to best pirate queens, mages, and uncharted seas to solve a mystery empires have failed to uncover.

Unfortunately for Buc, the gods have other plans.

Unfortunately for the gods, so does Buc.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Questing in Shorts: March 2020

I have a somewhat truncated edition of Questing in Shorts today, owing to March being, to put it mildly, a Month. From next month I'll be focusing back on magazines and some of the small press collections I already have on my shelves, but for this month, let's see what I did manage to get through in the circumstances. Luckily, it's all rather good:

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by A.J. Fitzwater (Queen of Swords Press)

This collection, featuring a capybara pirate captain in a world full of anthropomorphic animals and magical creatures, is definitely more of a short fiction collection than a novel, but it's also a bit of an odd duck when trying to review as short stories, as there's a strong through narrative between each tale (or "tail") that makes it hard to speak about them individually. After an opening story (the aptly titled "Young Cinrak") that sees Cinrak take her first steps into piracy (in this world, apparently respectable career for those seeking freedom and a good community around them), the rest of the collection deals with her time as an established captain, taking on an increasingly mythological set of exploits, all while maintaining the affections of both opera prima donna Loquolchi, and the Rat Queen Orvillia, and looking after her diverse and entertaining crew of rodents and affiliated creatures.

Aside from the obvious parallels to its characters, there's something very soft and cuddly about these stories, in which krakens can become allies, stars can be freed from their royal captivity and sent back to the heavens, and pirates make for the most successful diplomats to all the various creatures of the earth (even the felines!) While it doesn't go particularly heavily into characterisation, its core cast all have enjoyable personalities and quirks to watch, and Cinrak herself is a delight at the heart of it all. The highlights for me came towards the middle, with the star-wrangling and celestial racing of "The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars" signalling a shift into more magical adventure territory, and "Search for the Heart of the Ocean" following it up with an epic voyage which cements the compassion with which Cinrak, and the narrative around her, treats all the creatures in its orbit. I may have read this collection before "adventurous fluff in which everything is fundamentally OK" became one of the most important commodities on the planet, but my appreciation for it has only grown since then, and this is definitely a diversion I'd recommend to anyone who needs one at the moment.

The Nine Lands by Marie Brennan (Book View Cafe)

The Nine Lands is a collection of early stories from Brennan, all set in a shared world, although there's little overlap in the places and cultures covered. Despite being early work, the seven tales here are all highly enjoyable and, although its hard to get a full picture of the world as a whole, the individual pieces of worldbuilding and concepts are as accomplished and interesting as I'd expect from Brennan.

The stories themselves are relatively simple and self-contained in their narratives. Some are pretty bleak: "Execution Morning", the story of a Lieutenant dealing with a group of captured people from another culture who are due to be brutally executed in order to scapegoat them for their people's crimes, has very little in the way of hope or good choices for its characters, although it also offers a surprisingly sympathetic take for all involved. "The Legend of Anahata" tells the story of a King struggling to accept the impossible odds standing against his kingdom, and the sacrifices required from the Goddess. And "Sing for Me" is the story of a woman taken from her home in order to become the protege of a noble, and forced to develop painful talents she has no interest in making a name for herself over. In contrast, some of the stories do deal with forms of justice and belonging, from "Calling into Silence" and its story of a young woman cast out of her home and made to feel like a spiritual failure for her inability to complete a possession ritual, only to find the solution to her worries is rather closer to home, to "White Shadow"'s similarly spiritual tale of self-discovery among the shape-shifting Kagi people.

"Lost Soul"'s handling of a bard who has left bard college and is now struggling to find her passion within the magic of traditional music is a story that rivals some of the best musical stories of Sarah Pinsker, ending in a jam of epic proportions whose transitions and modulations you can almost hear through the invented song titles and descriptions. My favourite of the lot, however, is "Kingspeaker", in which a woman who has been raised to become the "voice" of a King, communicating his words to others as no others are able to bear the sound of him speaking, must find ways to reconcile her role with her broader duties to her Kingdom during wartime and the need to protect her young charge. Its a novel concept that dances between magical and cultural (though the author notes confirm that there is indeed something magical going on which makes the protagonist's role vital) and though the story is pretty light even for this collection, its a decent vehicle to showcase the concept and characters. Though it's hard, from an outside perspective, to automatically see that these stories belong to the same world, there's a common thread of highly accomplished worldbuilding which makes this early collection a worthy escape, especially for those who enjoy snippets of high fantasy in short fiction form.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow (Tor Books)

This is, I think, my first time reading Doctorow, and it's a promising start. The four novellas in this collection deal in some way with near future scenarios which tackle aspects of US culture, and some of the more dystopian elements of late capitalism. There's "Model Minority", a story in which Not!Superman tries to take on a case of police brutality against a Black man, only to find his motives, his effectiveness and his own "whiteness" called into question as an alien. "Radicalized" deals with a man who finds comfort in an online community for men whose family members are suffering from cancer and whose insurance won't pay for the treatment which would save them. In "The Masque of Red Death", a man who has created what he considers the perfect post-apocalyptic survival community has his assumptions severely tested. Having sent away the family of one of his carefully selected co-survivalists, and learned a hard lesson in going up against an equally well defended other outpost and discovering what rampant post-apocalyptic gun violence actually looks like, it's illness (cholera, in this case) which really brings the realities of crisis survival home, and there's an interesting progression between the carefully curated image the protagonist puts forward at the beginning of the crisis, and the raw unpleasantness of the experiment's end.

The best story here, however, is "Unauthorized Bread", a story which creates an entire community of refugees living on the "poor floors" of a new build luxury apartment block, whose lives are dictated by the smart appliances installed in their flats which force them to use particular marked-up products to be compatible with them, or go without. When Salima's toaster company goes bankrupt, she finds a way to jailbreak it and toast all the bread she wants, but sharing this knowledge among her community sends them up against the system in a way she's not entirely sure she's prepared for. By turns chilling and heartwarming, and with a great supporting cast, Salima's story offers a terrifyingly plausible vision of a future where autonomy must be paid for, while also showcasing the hope and ingenuity that people can deploy against such systems.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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.