Friday, January 31, 2020

Microreview [Book] Gamechanger, by L.X. Beckett

Gamechanger by L. X. Beckett (a pen name for Alyx Dellamonica) manages to avoid the pitfalls of near future SF and rises to tell a story of hope, survival and explores what a near future world might be like.

The time is May 2101. After the Setback, when social and environmental problems in the 21st Century very nearly sent humanity into a death spiral extinction-level event, society has reorganized itself. The world is still rebuilding but the Bounceback generation is optimistic,growing and trying to make a better world,  something than more than the mere survival their parents and grandparents had to deal with. Rubi Whiting, gamer, public defender, has been given a doozy of a case--Luciano Pox, an anti social person with some very dark ideas about trying to rebuild Earth. As Rubi takes the case, the mystery of Luciano’s true nature, and those who are seeking him, launch Rubi into virtual games and a lurking plot that could save or doom the world. No pressure, Rubi!

This is the story of L X Beckett’s Gamechanger.

Adversaries with tension socially and sexually is a powerful character trope that in the right hands can be a powerful focus for character drives and action. Beckett puts this as one of the driving forces of the novel with the main character, Rubi Whiting, and her adversary, Gimlet. This really gets into gear in the last portion of the novel, as their tension and their conflicts come at cross purposes. Even as the possible fate of the world’s future hangs, and a VR game pits them against each other, their adversarial chemistry fills the space between them. It’s a potent character relationship and it’s handled very well indeed.

Beyond that, the real highlight of this book is the world that Beckett creates here. How have the Setback. Clawback and now Bounceback generations dealt with a world careening on the edge and fighting back to a new paradigm? This book explores that. Yes, 21st century Capitalism as we know it winds up in the fires of a burning and climate ravaged planet, replaced with new models, new systems and new ways of doing things. Beckett gives us a tour of that world, from the gamification of work, to social capital, to virtual realities and worlds. Depicting a near future world also requires, I think, at least some bridges from our current world. It’s pretty straightforward that someone is going to want to know--okay, how did the world GET this way. Beckett manages this too, rather well, hitting enough of the beats without a history lesson that we can get a good sense of just how her 22nd century world got from where we are. And no, it’s not pretty at all. The bounceback generation might be optimistic and doing their best but they are in the shadow of some dark days indeed.

The plotting of the novel combines elements of a mystery with a thriller. The inciting incident of the oddness of Rubi’s client gives way to a bold claim on his part, and the ever tightening noose of forces that would react, and respond and take advantage of him--whether or not he is telling the truth. This is working gear in gear with Rubi’s own goals for planet reclamation, as well as Gimlet’s plans, and other, more mysterious characters as well. There is always a good sense of where these wheels are turning at any given time and in the last portions of the novel, the author builds up the tension and the various countdown clocks expertly.

The author’s skill on a line by line basis and in layering all of this together is positively masterful. The book has room to explore the plot, character and setting, but for all of that, the book does not suffer from sprawl. Beckett has a heck of a lot of work to do in depicting an early 22nd century world, and provide enough context and background to give readers a good sense of how we got there from here. And in so doing, the author has to keep the character development and actions going, and also keep the worldbuilding from being indigestible lumps that stop the momentum flat.  Gamechanger manages this in spades, giving us this world, its characters within it, and a good sense of how we got there without stopping the flow of the book in the process and instead letting the reader come out on the other hand fully buying into that world.

The book that Gamechanger reminds me of also came out this year, and that would be Beckett’s fellow Canadian author Karl Schroeder in his novel Stealing Worlds. That book also has a short to medium future where the issues of our present and are being addressed with. Virtual reality, the gamification of work, and restructuring society are also on Schroeder’s menu for how we get out of the mess we are in. Schroeder’s work is more focused on artificial intelligences and exploring that as something more established and an accepted thing than the subplots of Gamechanger. Stealing Worlds is also much more of a “down the rabbit hole” sort of novel, where Gamechanger uses a thriller model chassis and sending its heroine into an uncertain situation, but the terrain is firmer beneath her feet. It’s just things going around her and what she deals with, less than an Alice in Wonderland approach that Schroeder uses in his novel. Both books are absolutely worth reading and both are top notch and excellent, with them being allied but of distinct flavors for your reading preferences.

Overall, Gamechanger is an excellent look at a near term future that really could happen. Status quo ante until a hideous death following the same old ways of thinking and living is far from a given and guaranteed thing. Above its character beats, above its inventive and excellent worldbuilding, above its prose and readability, Gamechanger shows its readers a vision of a world that could very well be--if we were willing to fight for it. It’s not a perfect world, but its a worth that the novel’s characters certainly think is worth fighting for, not preserving in stasis, but adapting and building to a better future. Gamechanger is, ultimately, a novel built on the most fragile and precious think in Pandora’s box: Hope.

It’s one of my favorite novels of 2019.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for strong and inventive worldbuilding
+1 for a  memorable and deep bench of characters centered on Rubi and Gimlet
+1 for the HOPE that the novel begets.

Penalties: -1 for a little bit of roughness in the thriller gear plotting

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

Reference:  Beckett, L.X.   Gamechanger, Tor 2019]

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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Questing in Shorts: January 2020

Hello, friends, and welcome to a new year of short fiction adventures! I'm back after a little unplanned hiatus at the end of next year, and ready to tackle what 2020 has in store - ready, that is, once I've finished with the desperate project of reading all the things for 2019. As a result, this roundup is going to mostly be a selection of stuff I've been reading to round out my experiences of last year's shorts, and having made a few sloooow novel choices recently (*glares at Black Leopard, Red Wolf*) I've found a lot of time to pick up magazines and anthologies in the time between, or in the middle of, longer works.

I'm expecting to jump into 2020 fiction with a vengeance next month, and to that end I'm in the process of mixing up my short fiction subscriptions for this year, partly for variety and partly to realign what I want to read and by whom. One big part of this is that I'm actively seeking out publications whose editorial staff are PoC and/or LGBTQIA+; if you have any favourites that you'd like to shout out, please do so in the comments below. I should note that I very rarely manage to read magazines that don't have some form of ebook available, so if you'd like me to check something out, that's sort of a prerequisite, but I have a few things on the radar that I'm going to attempt to make exceptions for.

Without further ado, let's get into the things:

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 12: "Chains"

Of all the magazines I've kept up with over the last year, FIYAH delivers one of the most consistently enjoyable experiences, and this issue, "Chains", is another delight. As you'd expect, the issue takes a sensitive and resonant topic for Black speculative fiction and offers a quartet of stories which interpret it in  different and unexpected ways, with three short stories and a long novelette. Of the short stories, I very much enjoyed "The Midnight Hose", a creepy rural ghost story by Gregory Neil Harris in which two kids trying to take a shortcut through their weird neighbour's fields at night (what are you doing) come face to face with the legacy of sharecropping in a rather literal way. It takes all their adventurous resourcefulness to get themselves out, and to grapple with the ghosts of the farm's past (metaphorically and literally), in a story which brings a satisfying children's horror aesthetic and takes it to a more sophisticated level. Of equal note is "Reclaiming Tess", a more meditative story about a woman considering her family legacy after inheriting a bond with a minor god from her grandmother despite being considered the "weakest" candidate among her relatives (grandmother included). Tess' journey is heartbreaking, but the story does a brilliant job of showing us, in a relatively short space of time, where her true support network lies, while also painting the deeply complex emotions she has about the members of her family. "Corialis" - a story about exoplanet colonisation which deserves to be up there with "Semiosis" and "To Be Taught, If Fortunate" in the conversation about human adaptation for space - and "An Irrational Love", a retelling of the minotaur myth, round out the experience. I say it every time I review them, but: don't sleep on FIYAH, folks.

(Incidentally, I like to choose the first review based in part on which book or magazine cover I want showing up on our Twitter previews. Sometimes this is a tricky decision, sometimes an arbitrary one, but never have I been so sure about a choice than I am about putting Sophie Zarders' gloriously weird cover art for this issue. What on earth is going on there? I don't know, go with it)

GigaNotoSaurus: 2019 Selection

GigaNotoSaurus took a couple of breaks last year, but I've been slowly making my way through the six stories they published in 2019, and I'm halfway there. Of the three stories I've read so far, December's is particularly worthy of note: "The Devil Squid Apocalypse", by Alex Acks, tells the story of an elderly woman playing in a teen rock band when aliens happen to invade earth, destroying much of the population and leading the rest into internment camps. From its opening countdown - a device whose omniscient narration feels straight out of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett - this is a wild ride of a story, and Marcia, the character at its heart, is just wonderful. As an asexual Latina woman who has spent her entire life working hard for very little, Marcy has earned every last one of the fucks she doesn't give, and her post-retirement career as a rock guitarist comes about after an impromptu audition for her teen weed dealer's new band. The rest of the band, Cameron, Darnel, and Lang, all get their moments too, particularly once the invasion itself is over and they find themselves in an internment camp with a bunch of humans who have brought rather too much of the old order with them. Acks' story blends the terrifying, pulpy thrills of a hostile alien invasion with the very real social prejudices and hierarchies that come out when humans are under pressure, and distilling through the lens of a character who is bone tired of all of it makes for a tense, hilarious story that will keep you reading until the very end.

At the other end of the year, "Hand-Me-Downs" by Maria Haskins is a shorter-than-usual story for the publication, but it packs a huge punch into short story length. Tilda is a troll, the child of migrants who has grown up amongst humans who, while generally accepting, are all too keen to remind her of her differences even when ostensibly trying to help her celebrate her culture, and among whom she is warned that she can never practice her natural magic. As a talented dancer, Tilda is preparing to dance in a show which could be her gateway to a professional career, but everything about the performance she's being encouraged into feels stereotyped and wrong, and Tilda is caught between trying to pursue her passion at the expense of her integrity, or bowing to her father's demand that she stop dancing entirely in order to protect her dignity. As an audience, we're never in too much doubt about what Tilda's ultimate choice is going to be, but its still wonderful to watch her make it, and there are bonus points for a fabulous grandma who comes in at exactly the right time to help move things along.

Strange Horizons: Brazilian Special Issue (September 30)

Strange Horizons' Brazilian issue, developed as a 2018 Patreon reward, dropped at the end of September, but the magazine's ebook production has been a bit delayed recently and I've only just got hold of it in my preferred reading format. I thus spent quite a while admiring the slice of life scene depicted in the art for "Replacement" (story by Isa Prospero, art by Juliana Pinho) without knowing much about the story itself behind it. The heartbreak of these kids' story perhaps even had more impact thanks to my familiarity: Marcos and Jô are kids from the favelas of Sao Paolo, in a future where the poor often make ends meet by selling limbs and body parts to the wealthy. Its a circumstance that entrenches discrimination against them, as their replacement limbs mark their status, and while Jô  has more or less resigned himself to his life, Marcos has managed to avoid most replacements until circumstances make it impossible for him to stay away any longer. As an extension of the very real poverty traps which exist in our world today, its a plausible and challenging science fictional world, told through a pair of characters its impossible to not want the best for.

"Replacement" sets a high bar for the remainder of the issue, but its a strong one from start to finish. "Progression" by Heitor Zen and "Spider" by Sérgio Motta are both weird as hell and great for it, and "Ajé" by H. Pueyo offers an outwardly gentle but deeply challenging story of love and magic, both lost and found, with a father and son visiting an old friend of the father's only to discover that this friend has lost her connection to magic and gained an abusive relationship. In trying to find a way out for both her and her daughter, the story explores themes of connection, self-actualisation and intergenerational sacrifice, ultimately having its characters make choices that are both frustrating and sadly believable. The quiet heartbreak of "Ajé" is followed by the delightfully snarky flash piece "High Hopes" by Kali de los Santos, which offers a fast-forwarded look at the development of Brazilian society following the introduction of flying cars. Its a great way to tie up a really strong set of prose stories, and this is a collection of work that I'd certainly recommend to anyone looking to increase the geographical scope of their reading to include a scene that rarely gets much coverage in English-language publications.

Clarkesworld: Issue 157 (October 2019)

Most of Clarkesworld's October issue was underwhelming for me: there are several stories that end with final lines that skirt very close to "there was so much work to do", which is by far my least favourite trope in short fiction and guaranteed to make me very grumpy about the story that preceded it. Even the ones that don't, like "The National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity" and "Song Xiuyun" end in some pretty depressing, final places, and while I appreciated the quiet, stoic desperation of these stories and their technologically advanced but emotionally stunted futures, both left me feeling pretty miserable. I persevered, however, and was rewarded at the end of the issue by the excellent "How Alike Are We", by Bo-Young Kim, Tr. Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar. This is a novella about a rescue mission to Titan which goes wrong when something ends up fragmenting the crew. What makes this novella compelling is that it's narrated by the ship's Crisis Management AI, which has been downloaded into a human body at its own request but, due to a memory fault, now can't remember why it would have made the request in the first place. The claustrophobia of the shipboard setting and the unsettling insistence of the AI that there's "something missing" from its understanding - something beyond the memory issue - add up to a tense mystery whose resolution, when it comes, is at once strikingly simple and surprisingly powerful. It's a story that has grown on me the more I think about it, and well worth the time - although it carries a content warning for attempted sexual assault.

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. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Microreview [Comic]: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest

The Last Headscratcher

Alan Moore is finished with comics. A scent of nostalgia in the air suggests that he may have announced something similar before, but this time it seems final. The British comics writer legend and his co-creator, illustrator Kevin O'Neill, are both ending their respective careers with the final six-issue instalment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen saga which hit the stores last year and is about to be published as a graphic novel any time now.

In short, the series goes out with a headscrathing boom – a nice way to end anything, be it comics or careers.

It's incredibly hard to sum up the 20 years of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in any meaningful way for those who are not familiar with it. The crossover steampunk adventure comic with established Victorian characters and literary jokes quickly evolved into a tale incorporating scenes of harrowing sexual violence, wild experimentation and the most abysmally awful film adaptation of a comic in living memory. (Speaking of confusing ways to end careers, the movie was the last screen appearance of Sir Sean Connery who took the job after feeling bad for not agreeing to play Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.)

In 1999, the first miniseries Volume I laid the foundation for an intriguing storyworld: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, H.G. Well's The Invisible Man, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and numerous other Victorian fictions are actually situated in the same alternate history. In this steampunk world, the British government assembles a team of operatives with extraordinary abilities to deal with exceptional threats to the empire. Wilhelmina Murray (or Harker), Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, the shapeshifting Dr. Jekyll and an invisible sex criminal form something of a Victorian-era Justice League to fight off Dr. Moriarty, an invasion or Martian tripods and what have you.

Along the way, the comic commented on Victorian attitudes, played with metafictionality and propagated Moore and O'Neill's distaste for authorities and superheroes. The first two miniseries published in 1999-2000 and 2002-2003 were mainstream successes – even if the metafictional play becomes quite complex sometimes, they are highly accessible stories. After all, reading Moore's episodic prose bonus features describing wonders from different corners of the storyworld and weaving together elements from hundreds if not thousands of myths, stories, novels and other sources from Moomins to House of Leaves were not necessary for enjoying the main storyline.

After Volumes I and II Moore and O'Neill could probably have kept milking the steampunk cow for a long time, but they chose to move the story in new directions instead. In the graphic novel Black Dossier (2007), they jumped to Britain in the fifties after the downfall of Orwell's Big Brother government, and in the album trilogy Century (2009-2012) they race through the 20th century, visiting Jack the Ripper years, the trippy sixties and ending up in the 2000s with computers, endless wars in the Middle East and Harry Potter who has become Antichrist.

In addition to the crazy plot points, Black Dossier and Century experimented with the comics storytelling. For the Black Dossier, Moore wrote a "disappeared" Shakespeare play in Shakespearean pentameter and recorded early faux rock and roll songs for a vinyl record to come with the album, whereas O'Neill's drawings representing the magical dimension of Margaret Cavendish's proto scifi novel The Blazing World have to be read with red-and-green 3D glasses. For the first Century album, they decided to go with a comics adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's socialist agit prop musical The Threepenny Opera – you may want to read Century: 1910 in case you're interested in why one of the characters is called Pirate Jenny in the new Watchmen TV series (but don't fall off you chair when the comics final apocalyptic fight scene turns into a burlesque cabaret show).

So, this sets the scene for Volume 4: The Tempest, the final volume in the series.

It starts where Century trilogy ended up: satanic Harry Potter is defeated, the misogynist MI5 agent and Black Dossier's antagonist James Bond is old and debilitated and the last remnants of the League – Mina Murray and genderbending Orlando from the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name – are adventuring together again. They are joined by MI5 leader Emma Night (from the British TV show Avengers) who chose to switch sides and team up with the good guys instead of government spooks.

To sum it up, all seemed to be more or less in order in the storyworld, all thinkable storytelling fireworks were shot in the previous volumes and the contents of most of the classics of imaginative fiction have already been crammed somewhere in the series. The obvious question was "is there anywhere left to go now?", but it seems that we didn't really have to worry about that.

After going through Victorian adventure fiction in Volumes I and II, a mishmash of earlier cultural history, Orwell and detective fiction in Black Dossier and occult stuff and children's fantasies in Century, Moore and O'Neill tackle the history of comics and superheroes, especially British ones.

It's an interesting choice for sure. Mostly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has steered clear of the cultural history of its own medium, even if it has taken a deep dive in the cultural history of practically everything else. Of course much of Moore's bibliography has been thematizing comics history extremely hard – think of works like Watchmen, Miracleman (formerly Marvelman), Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Supreme and Tomorrow Stories – and a great chunk of Kevin O'Neill's body of work consists of brutal, polemic satires of superheroes and comics heroism like Nemesis the Warlock or Marshal Law (frequently created with writer Pat Mills). There is no shortage of comics going through the history of American superhero comics with some kind of a meta sensibility, but outside US there's still new ground to be covered, it seems.

Also, it turns out that discarding the super-misogynistic "Jimmy" Bond as a key threat was too quick a conclusion. Agent 007, even if he is barely alive and glued to a wheelchair and a breathing apparatus, is able to take back control of MI5 and raise some serious hell. He tracks the hero trio's journey to Africa where they take a dip in the magic pool of R. Rider Haggard's stories restoring their youth. With his henchmen (who are actually the Bond actors from different James Bond movies), Bond follows them, regains his young and able body and, being the murderous and sleazy character that the original Bond is, blows up the pool with a nuclear bomb, butchers Night's allies within the agency and gets ready to attack The Blazing World with weapons of mass destruction.

The plot is again a convoluted mess with Murray, Orlando and Night visiting different magical realities, meeting fictional characters like Prospero from Shakespeare's Tempest and teaming up with original Nemo's great-grandchild Jack Nemo. We see fairies performing the fictional Shakespeare play of Black Dossier, have to again tinker with 3D glasses and get to try to make sense of extremely obscure intertextual references. Which is what one would expect of the finale of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I guess.

On the one hand, it's hard to not think that the comic goes a bit overboard with this stuff if you practically have to read it with a commentary website open, but the weird storytelling levels actually work out quite well and the series stays enjoyable if you're not allergic to scratching your head here and there.

The best parts of the narrative are not the plot twists – Prospero and the fairies might actually be out to wipe out humanity turning everything that came before in the series into a perplexing hoax scheme – but different comics pastiches. Some Bond sequences are presented as James Bond newspaper strips whereas other scenes are meticulous parodies of British girls' comics magazines and children's comics à la Beano. The last issue where we leave Earth takes the form of a 2000AD issue – it's the legendary British science fiction magazine which was instrumental in launching both Moore and O'Neill's careers, so it's a neat meta way to finish their time in comics business. In order to really get the meta levels up, the creators also enter the story in the last issue to attend a wedding ceremony with the art swiped from the Fantastic Four annual in which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried to get in to see Invisible Girl marry Mister Fantastic.

This time we don't get bonus prose features at the back of the comic books. Instead, there's a black-and-white comic-book-inside-a-comic-book thing which mimics a cheap British rip-off of early American superhero comic with characters who are actually real British rip-offs of early American superheroes. It's harder to explain than to read and enjoy, really, and I can't believe nobody had told me about the ice-cream powered superhero Tommy Walls who is actually a thing. Well, now I know!

I'm not sure if they will be included in the graphic novel but the comic books begin and end with editorials and letter columns by "Al and Kev" who shed light on forgotten British comics talents and answer letters (probably 99% of which are ghost-written by themselves). It's fun stuff in its own right and if it is dropped from the graphic novel I suggest you try to hunt the original floppies.

Twenty years from now when the present culture wars have been long forgotten, future readers will scratch their heads with letters like this but maybe it goes with the rest of the confusion:

"Dear Al and Kev: As a middle-aged conservative incel sitting wedged behind my keyboard, trolling Alexandra Ocasio Cortez with my Batman T-shirt covered with Pringles, can I just ask, with a straight face, why you're leaving the comics business? Yours,
Hiram J. Comicsgate III"

The Math

Baseline: 8/10

Bonuses: +5 for weird, weird, weird pastiches and other irresistibly crazy things from the dustbins of comics history.

Penalties: -5 for the fact that trying to spot references and obsessing about it takes a toll on the reading fun.

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

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

Reference: Moore, Alan & O'Neill, Kevin. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 4: The Tempest #1-6 [Top Shelf & Knockabout Comics, 2018-19]

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

So much for fantasy temples covered in snow: The Unspoken Name is a queer, world-hopping grimdark delight.
Image result for the unspoken name
Cover art by Billelis
Starting off 2020 with a bang, The Unspoken Name is an epic fantasy debut from A.K. Larkwood which centres queer relationships in a grim but compelling world. Though I'm not a big reader of the Grimdarks, I'd been intrigued by this one, since hearing about it, and I embarked on its journey with an open mind - and, of course, the promise of Orc warrior lesbians was far too intriguing to pass up.

Csorwe has been raised in a remote temple to the Unspoken One, a god which requires a sacrificial "bride" every fourteen years, raised from birth. As the chosen sacrifice, Csorwe has never really questioned her role in life until it comes close to the time of her ceremony - and its then, when a mysterious stranger from another land called Belthandros Sethennai shows up, asking questions of the senior priestesses about a particular relic that's been lost to time. Not just a relic but a reliquary - a box belonging to an ancient being which will give the bearer immense magical powers if found. Weeks before her scheduled sacrifice, Csorwe suddenly realises there's much more potential to her life then she's ever been allowed to imagine, and when Sethennai turns up at the moment she is entering the catacombs to face her doom, offering a position with him if she decides to escape, she takes the obvious choice to join his cause.

Based on that set-up, you're probably not expecting me to continue by saying that Csorwe and Sethennai use a ship to enter a portal and traverse a between-space called the Maze, re-emerging in another world. So much for fantasy temples covered in snow; this world-hopping turns out to define much of The Unspoken Name, embedded into the fabric of the world and not treated as a surprise or novelty beyond the excitement of a new method of travel for sheltered characters like Csorwe. It turns out that before our duo can recover the reliquary, they first need to take back Tlanthothe, the city (and/or world) that Sethennai used to rule. The opening quarter deals with this reclamation, taking us swiftly through various traumatic scenes and level-up montages in Csorwe's upbringing as she evolves, in an appropriately safe but edgy third location, from the determined but sheltered cult sacrifice into a bright, if worryingly unquestioning, right hand to an increasingly mysterious master. After training in swords, languages and other less savoury skills with Sethennai and a rotating group of tutors, Csorwe is ready to play her part in the recovery operation, although the infiltration she's required to undertake is a dangerous one, involving a brutal warlord and an even more terrifying giant snake. Ultimately - as you'd expect, as we're not yet a third of the way in - Csorwe proves her worth, though not without suffering some traumatic injuries, and confirms her position with Sethennai. Once all of this is set up, Csorwe's story gets a little less tortuously grim, though no less full of tough decisions and brutal moments, and this is also the point where I really started enjoying the twists of her episodic journey.

That's likely due to the narrative evolution around this quarter mark, when the third main culture in the book is introduced - the Qarsazhi empire, which protects its worlds and territories through a strict but powerful system of training mages. On visiting one of the "precursor" worlds in search of the reliquary, Csorwe and her on-and-off rival Talasseres come across a group of Qarsazhi conducting a survey on the dying planet, including Shuthmili, a young adept hoping to advance in service before long, current remote posting notwithstanding. Once Csorwe and Tal start investigating, they discover - to nobody's surprise - that Csorwe's old sect is also heavily involved in seeking out the same artefact, and the subsequent stand-off between themselves, the Qarsazhi, and rogue librarian Oranna, leads Csorwe into making a decision between maintaining total loyalty to Sethennai and his mission, and rescuing Shuthmili and making up for her failures at a later date. Naturally, the previously obedient Csorwe makes the narratively interesting choice of helping Shuthmili, bringing the two women into each others' orbits and starting a series of encounters, rescues, betrayals and reversals with their growing relationship, and its tension with Csorwe's hitherto unquestioned loyalty, at the heart of it all.

It's hard to go further into the plot of The Unspoken Name without giving some of its reveals away, but the theme underlying all of this is that of loyalty, when and how it can be earned, and how to be true to yourself in the face of much greater powers who only see you as a tool to be used. That choice is particularly obvious for both Csorwe and Shuthmili, who find themselves in situations where those in power are strongly pushing them towards a particular agenda, and learning to question that agenda turns out to be more complex than simply trusting people who allow you to escape it. It's a narrative that acknowledges how difficult these choices can be, and how hard it is to do anything other than go along with the least worst option (and, to be fair to Sethennai, despite his use of Csorwe and especially Tal he generally is more benign than most of the other power players in The Unspoken Name), and while this leads to an exhausting number of from-frying-pan-to-fire-then-back-to-frying-pan style reversals, the fundamental investment we develop in Csorwe, Shuthmili, and (though your mileage may vary) trash child Talassares, who goes through the most in The Unspoken Name, the majority of which is self-inflicted.

The action here is fast paced and unrelenting, and the narrative style switches effortlessly from formal dialogue, Csorwe's more or less polite internal narrative, well-described and brutal fight scenes and the delightfully irreverant sweary sass from characters like Tal. The language use extends to the different naming conventions for the three cultures depicted, each of which have distinct linguistic traditions and systems which, while not heavily developed, are distinct and fun. Of course, it's helpful to have a pronunciation guide (Csorwe like the "ks" in "books" plus "oorway" in "doorway") to demystify some of the more unusual consonants and the emphasis in particularly long names, but each one ends up rolling off the tongue once the pronunciation guide is deployed - Csorwe, for example, has the "cs" sound at the end of "books", and rhymes with "doorway" - and I ended up whispering a lot of them to myself to listen to the way that the sounds were being deployed.

The differences in the language are matched by physiological differences in the characters, which generally match up to known fantasy races but aren't labelled as such - so Csorwe and her kin are large and grey-skinned with tusks (i.e. orcs) and Sethennai and Talassares are dark-skinned with long, "leaf shaped" ears that move with their emotions (elves). The Qarsazhi are harder to pin down, but are described by the other races as short and angular (and, notably, no tusks). The narrative treats these differences matter-of-factly, addressing Csorwe's tusk growth and describing ear movements without making it into something that the characters define themselves by. It's a nice touch that sidesteps any weird fantasy racial essentialism, as well as avoiding any cross-species implications in any of the potential romantic pairings. The people of this world don't really think of themselves as different races, just as looking different based on where they come from, and given that we're talking about portal-hopping between worlds here, that all makes quite a bit more sense than the average high fantasy world.

All in all, The Unspoken Name is a great debut, one which overcame my worries about its grimdark content and offered a world with plenty of complexity and interest - and the hope for better things to come, for characters who definitely deserve them. If you're after a book that takes care to subvert and redefine the tropes of their genre, and offers a brilliant adventure into the bargain, A.K. Larkwood has your back - may it only be the beginning of some brilliant reading in 2020.

The Math

Baseline: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Lesbian orcs with moral dilemmas about hot ladies!

Penalties: -1 A bit of a montage-heavy first quarter to get the action where it needs to be

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: Larkwood, A.K.. The Unspoken Name (Tor Books, 2020)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Bone Ships, by R.J. Barker

The Bone Ships by R J Barker is a jump from low power and small scale fantasy into full and blazoning epic fantasy in a world where dragon bones provide the construction material for naval conflict and action.

Joron has been sentenced to a Black Ship, a ship crewed by the condemned in the Hundred Isles, an archipelago of islands in a world where ships are built out of dragon bones. His precarious and brief role as shipwife (captain) ends quickly upon the arrival of Bloody Meas, a famous captain who, too, has been sentenced to the Black Ship. Now under her control, the sorry state of The Tide Child and the sorrier state of Joron and the rest of the crew will be put to the test as they search for something that has not been seen in many a year: A dragon.

This is the story of The Bone Ships, first in Barker’s new The Tide Child fantasy series.

First and foremost, this is a rich and well developed words whose complexity and depth filled me with joy to read. Right on a language level, Barker uses words, constructions and names of places and things to convey worldbuilding. Even in the space of an epic fantasy novel, the author carefully deploys his worldbuilding to  make an immersive and deep feeling world. Given the iceberg principle, we do feel the weight of the ice of the world that Barker has built beneath the surface, and he is generous too in what is above the waterline. This is epic fantasy in the mold of a complicated world that the author wants to show you, and also wants you to infer and think about. I came to some interesting conclusions and thoughts about the world about some aspects of it that Barker doesn’t hit the reader over the head with, but instead provides the background for the reader to come to their own realization about.

Take the central conceit of the novel. This is a world with very dangerous and tumultuous oceans, and is a water world, so there is more water than land in the world. Sailing the seas effectively requires the bones of the seagoing dragons, and so it is invaluable as a construction material. Now, take it that none have been seen in a long while leads to all sorts of implications and consequences that the author definitely has thought about and puts his mind into building into the world.

The characters that Barkers bring to life are colorful and complicated. The author uses the main character and his relationship with Bloody Meas as the main thrust to explore the character relationships that she develops. This starts with the crew of the The Tide Child, as Meas establishes her position, and Joron must establish and maintain his new position. Their relationship to each other, as mentor and mentee did remind me of the strength of the bond of the relationship between Girton and Merela in the Age of Assassins. And like that series, developing and growing that relationship is the key to the lock of other relationships in the book as well. There is a range of relationships we see, from Meas and her very important and powerful mother, to the bond that Joron makes with the inhuman guillaime, and much in between. Character conflicts and relationships were a bedrock of the action beats in the Age of Assassins series, and even on a larger canvas, Barker does it here as well.

I want to mention the strength of theme in this novel. As mentioned above, the conflict of this novel is driven by the potential for more dragon bones. In this world, dragon bones are priceless and a limited resource, and a new dragon means new ships. And so the race for the dragon is just more fuel for the fire of the longstanding conflict between the powers. The precarious nature of war and the potential for peace, or for renewed and even more devastating war and conflict, is a theme that pervades the novel and the author really brings to light in his setup and plotting.

The big wide canvas has along with it a big plot, adventure and spirit of action that comes across the page. Taking command of a condemned ship, sailing the seas in search of a dragon, something thought extinct, Barker has Meas, Joron and their crew have all the action beats and adventure one could want--once the novel gets going, that is. There is a tendency in a lot of fantasy fiction to avoid the slow burn and try and hook the reader from the start in sharp action and relief. Hook the reader early, or lose them, is not just a cliche, it is a common practice. Barker has an inciting incident early on, but its not quite the same, and readers who want to be thrown onto the treadmill from the get go are going to be disappointed. Barker takes patient time in building his characters and his world, setting up everything with care before unleashing hell.

And does he ever unleash hell. Sea battles, land marine actions, sieges, and single combats punctuate the novel, In between all of the worldbuilding and character building and establishing of the ship, it’s customs and nature, Barker has his sharp action moments and uses those very well indeed to propel character and move the narrative along. But the early part of the novel has the action beats a little sparser than when the mission of the Tide Child really gets going. Until that point, some patience from action-oriented readers is needed.

That said, however, The Bone Ships for me worked  deliciously. Barker has learned from his previous Age of Assassins trilogy, moving to a larger canvas, a larger story and a more complicated narrative. And he succeeds in this very well indeed. The novel is the start of a series and this novel doesn’t quite give a good off-ramp for readers wanting a one-and done experience.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for strong and intriguing worldbuilding in a new and unique world
+1 for strong use of the themes of resource depletion, war and conflict
+1 for very strong and well done characters

Penalties: -1 The slow start might turn off some impatient readers
-1 for the lack of an offramp for one and done readers

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

Reference:  Barker, R J,  The Bone Ships [Orbit, 2019]

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

Friday, January 24, 2020

2020 Nerds of a Feather Hugo Awards Recommended Reading, Part 4: Institutional Categories

Welcome to the fourth and final installment of the Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together 2020 Hugo Awards Longlist! (Parts 12, and 3.)

This time we are looking at what are, for lack of a better term, the "nonfiction and institutional categories": Best Related Work, Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine and Best Fancast. Now, those who follow this blog know how cranky The G can get on the subject of certain categories and their bizarre eligibility guidelines--and we've got two of them today (Best Semiprozine and Best Fancast). Nevertheless, I will do my best to stay calm and stick to the rules, frustrating as they can be. We reserve the right, however, to get a little snarky and passive-aggressive in the process.    

There are, however, some sticky issues that made putting this list together a bit difficult. Knowing what does or does not constitute a "fanzine" in the era of blogs, for example--and given that we may already be on the downward slide of that era, it only promises to get more difficult as time passes. Nevertheless, we have tried to create clear and consistent guidelines for inclusion in this category. Thus, to qualify, a fanzine: (1) must be a fan venture (i.e. must not generate a significant amount of money, or pay professional rates for work); (2) must publish a lot of content in a given year; and (3) must publish "award worthy" content. We did not discount single-author blogs from consideration, but criterion #2 makes it difficult for most single-author blogs to  merit consideration. Consequently, while a couple made it, most did not--including some very good ones.  

We also feel obliged to mention that 'nerds of a feather, flock together' is eligible in this category, but whether we belong on anyone's list (short, long, good or bad) is another story, and part of a conversation we aren't inclined to join. We'd much rather talk about all the other sites we like to read (and which meet the criteria outlined above). 

The category Best Fancast also presented issues, namely, on the question of whether podcasts hosted by profit-making websites were still fancasts. The issue here comes down to whether the podcasts qualify (given token-level payment for the podcasts themselves) or do not (given that the parent companies can employ at least some people full-time). There were internal disagreements on this question, but in the end we decided to include the podcasts in question, but make note that they may not meet the eligibility requirements. I personally encourage you to vote them in that category--both because they belong there and, consequently, because a rule that keeps them out is dumb. But that's just me. It is also worth noting that in the past 8-4 Play was a finalist for Fancast, and 8-4 Play is hosted by 8-4, a professional video game localization company. If 8-4 Play is eligible, and passed the vetting process of the Hugo committee, than so should most everything else. But that's just our opinion.

Before moving on to the recommendations, a gentle reminder that this list is not and does not intend to be a comprehensive survey of genre or fandom. Rather, these are recommendations we suggest you consider alongside whatever other candidates you have in mind.  - G & Joe

Related Work
Becoming Superman, by J. Michael Straczynski
Broken Places and Outer Spaces, by Nnedi Okorafor
The Dark Fantastic, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press)
The Hugo Initiative, by Joe Sherry. Adri Joy, Paul Weimer, Michael Newhouse-Bailey
Lady from the Black Lagoon, by Mallory O’Meara
Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Desirina Boskovich
The Magical Readathon 2019 by Book Roast
Monster She Wrote, by Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendelsohn
Shapeshifters: A History, by John B. Kachuba
They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin by Arwen Curry

Anathema Magazine
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The Dark Magazine
Fireside Fiction
FIYAH Literary Magazine
Strange Horizons
Uncanny Magazine

The Book Smugglers (Ana Grilo and Thea James)
The Full Lid (Alasdair Stuart)
The Hugo Book Club (Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne)
Lady Business (Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, Susan, eds.)
The Rec Center (Gavia Baker-Whitelaw and Elizabeth Minkel)
Runalong the Shelves (Womble)
Quick Sip Reviews (Charles Payseur)
The Quiet Pond (CW)
Reading the End (Jenny Hamilton)
SF in Translation (Rachel Cordasco)
SFFReviews (Sara Uckelman and Sarah Grace Liu)
SFFWorld (Dag Rambruat, Rob Bedford, Mark Yon, and Nila White, eds.)
Women Write About Comics (Kayleigh Hearn, Kat Overland, Claire Napier, Kate Tanski, Wendy Browne, eds.)

Aces and Jokers
Axe of the Blood God
Books and Pieces
Bree Reads Books
Claire Rousseau
Coode Street Podcast
Ditch Diggers
Fangirl Happy Hour
Females in Fantasy
Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men
Kitty G
New Books in Science Fiction
Our Opinions Are Correct
SFF Yeah!
Skiffy and Fanty
Sisters of Sci-Fi
Sword and Laser
Two Chairs Talking

Thursday, January 23, 2020

2020 Nerds of a Feather Hugo Awards Recommended Reading, Part 3: Individual Categories

Welcome to the third part of our presentation of the Nerds of a Feather 2020 Hugo Award Longlist (see parts 1 & 2). Today we take a look at the categories recognizing individuals for their body of work during 2019:  Editor (Short and Long Form), Professional Artist, Fan Artist, Fan Writer, and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer

As before, we here at 'nerds of a feather, flock together' are presenting a collective longlist of potential Hugo nominees that we think are worthy of your consideration. These selections represent the spectrum of tastes, tendencies, and predilections found among our group of 11 writers.

As a reminder, this list should not at all be considered comprehensive. There are some truly outstanding editors, writers, and artists who will not make our longlist because they did not produce enough work for non-paying / non-professional venues, did not write enough genre focused work, or for the very simple reason that we are not just familiar with what work they did produce during 2019. We encourage you to think of this as a list of candidates to consider alongside works which you are already familiar, nothing more and nothing less. 

In an effort at brevity (you may scoff) and perhaps at propriety, for these categories we have decided to simply list the individuals we are collectively recommending as part of the longlist, rather than detailing why each person listed below is awesome.

Finally, in the interests of being transparent, while it may worth noting that we, the writers of Nerds of a Feather are individually eligible for the Fan Writer category; because it is a conflict of interest, it would not appropriate to include any of us on our formal longlist (feel free to check out our Awards Eligibility post, though).

Editor, Long
Nobody. But, we recommend that when you put together your final nominating ballot that you also look at who the editors were for your Best Novel selections and consider them for nomination for Editor, Long Form

Editor Short
John Joseph Adams (Lightspeed, Nightmare)
Scott H. Andrews (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld)
Michael Matheson, Andrew Wilmot, & Chinelo Onwualu (Anathema)
Vanessa Rose Phin (Strange Horizons)
Julia Rios (Fireside Fiction)
Jonathan Strahan (Mission Critical,, Publishing)
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damien Thomas (Uncanny)
Sean Wallace & Silvia Moreno-Garcia (The Dark)
LaShawn M. Wanak (GigaNotoSaurus)
Troy L. Wiggins and DaVaun Sanders (FIYAH)

Professional Artist
Tommy Arnold
Geneva Benton
David Curtis
Galen Dara
Maurizio Manzieri
Stephan Martiniere 
John Picacio
Greg Ruth 
Yuko Shimizu
Will Staehle
Magali Villeneuve
Alyssa Winans

Fan Artist 
Iain J. Clarke
Caleb Hosalla
Ariela Housman 
Jemima Malkki 
Elise Matthesen
Layla Rose
Anna Steinbauer

Fan Writer
Emmet Asher-Perrin (previously writing as Emily Asher-Perrin)

Astounding Award for Best New Writer
Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood and Bone)
Rena Barron (Kingdom of Souls)
K.A. Doore (The Perfect Assassin)
Isaac Fellman (The Breath of the Sun)
R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War)
Paul Krueger (Steel Crow Saga)
Jenn Lyons (The Ruin of Kings)
Alexandra Rowland (A Conspiracy of Truths)
Nibedita Sen (short fiction)
Tasha Suri (Empire of Sand)
Emily Tesh (Silver in the Wood)
Amelie Wen Zhao (Blood Heir)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

2020 Nerds of a Feather Hugo Awards Recommended Reading, Part 2: Visual Work Categories

Welcome to our continuing presentation of the Nerds of a Feather 2020 Hugo Award Longlist (see part 1 here). Today will look at Graphic Story and the two Dramatic Presentation categories.  

As before, we here at 'nerds of a feather, flock together' are presenting a collective longlist of potential Hugo nominees that we think are worthy of your consideration. These selections represent the spectrum of tastes, tendencies, and predilections found among our group of 11 writers.

As a reminder, this list should not at all be considered comprehensive. Some outstanding works will not make our longlist for the simple reason that we have not seen or read it. We encourage you to think of this as a list of candidates to consider alongside works which you are already familiar, nothing more and nothing less.  


Graphic Story

Gideon Falls – Vol 3: Stations of the Cross, by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino and Dave Stewart
Invisible Kingdom, Vol 1, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward
Mare Internum, by Der-Shing Helmer
Magnificent Ms Marvel, Vol 1: Destined by Saladin Ahmed and Minkyu Jung
Monstress, Vol 4: The Chosen by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Ms Marvel, Vol 10: Time and Again by Saladin Ahmed, Hasan Minhaj, Rainbow Rowell, G. Willow Wilson, Elmo Bondoc, Gustavo Duarte, Nico Leon and Bob Quinn
Paper Girls, Vol 6 by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson
Sabrina the Teenage Witch,Vol 1, by Kelly Thompson, Veronica Fish and Andy Fish
Skip, by Molly Mendoza

Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Note: this year there were a number of great TV show seasons which deserve consideration as a whole, although individual episodes for all of these are also eligible in short form. For ease of consideration, we've separated movies and shows in the list below.


Ad Astra (20th Century Fox)
Avengers: Endgame (Marvel Studios)
Captain Marvel (Marvel Studios)
Fast Color (LD Entertainment)
Frozen 2 (Disney)
Joker (Warner Bros Pictures)
Parasite (Barunson E&A)
Prospect (Gunpowder and Sky)
Spider-Man: Far From Home (Marvel Studios)
Toy Story 4 (Pixar)
Us (Monkeypaw Productions)


TV Seasons:
The Dragon Prince: Season 3 (Netflix)
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
The Expanse: Season 4 (Amazon Prime)
Good Omens (Amazon Prime)
The Mandalorian: Season 1 (Disney Plus)
Stranger Things: Season 3 (Netflix)
Undone: Season 1 (Amazon Prime)
Watchmen (HBO)
The Witcher: Season 1 (Netflix)



Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
The Good Place Season 4, Episode 4: Tinker Tailor Demon Spy (NBC)
The Good Place Season 3, Episode 10: The Book of Dougs (NBC)
The History of the X-Men (Marvel)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Season 3, Episode 3: "Once Upon a Time in the Waste" (Netflix)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Season 4, Episode 13: Destiny Part 2 (Netflix)
Steven Universe Season 5, Episode 29: Change Your Mind (Cartoon Network)
Watchmen Episode 8: A God Walks Into Abar (HBO)