Friday, May 29, 2020

Second Opinion: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Murderbot jumps to a full novel length adventure in Network Effect, the latest Martha Wells story of a sentient SecUnit seeking a place in a world where it must hide its renegade nature. 

Since its self emancipation (as detailed in All Systems Red), Murderbot has had a number of adventures. Finding time and space to mainline new and classic shows like Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, but its own evolving consciousness and his bond with humans means that Murderbot is still working as a security consultant. Now in Network Effect, fifth and latest adventure, an attack and kidnapping of his human friends while guarding them leads Murderbot to not only act decisively to help them, but to reunite with an old friend as well.

There is plenty of more fleshing out of the world that Wells has been building over the previous novellas. We’ve seen pieces of this corporate dominated interstellar civilization before, and get an even better sense of how to survive in this world, and the challenges not only Murderbot has, but ordinary people do as well. The previous novellas have slowly built up an image of a series of frontier worlds and hubs under the control of various corporate entities. More traditional political entities have very little real power. We’ve seen how these corporations employ and abuse people to explore and exploit worlds, and how those corporations conflicts with people and each other causes lasting harm and danger. In Network Effect, we get a lot more detail on that as well as alien artifacts, legal structures, and much more. Given the space of a novel, we get a lot more of how Wells’ universe works and this novel answered a bunch of questions I’ve had about this verse. At the same time, it opens up even more possibilities for future corners of the verse to explore and use as setting.

The heart of the novel, like all of Wells' writing is not the excellently rendered world, or even the crackerjack plotting. It’s character. Murderbot and their interactions with those around them is delightful. Not only their humans, but there is the return of ART, the transport seen in a previous Murderbot adventure, Artificial Condition. ART and Murderbot’s prickly, fractal and interesting relationship goes through a lot of stress and change throughout this novel. In a real sense, it becomes a plot driver, the character development and changes between the two driving actions by both as much as by external events. While the human characters in Network Effect aren’t quite as there as Murderbot and ART, the strong duo of ART and Murderbot represent a hub of character that drives the novel.

And those two characters are so relatable to readers, both ART and Murderbot. That really is the secret sauce of Network Effect. Murderbot is a very introspective character, they are by design. It is an introverted SecUnit who would rather just consume shows than do just about anything else. Sure, Murderbot is capable, intelligent and when it takes drastic action, it takes drastic action and give no excuses. But they would rather now, and would rather just be left alone. We get a lot of time in its head as they debate courses of action, ponder what show to read next, and then finally decide, yeah, humans are stupid but no one is going to hurt THEIR humans. We also get some excellent ladling of a prior event that Wells doles out in dollops that Murderbot recalls that turns out to be crucial to current events. The use of this as a device helps keep character tension and action percolating nicely, a real fine bit of writing.

I am not sure I’d want to spend time with Murderbot and Murderbot would never really want to spend time with me. The A in ART’s name, similarly, points that to a character you wouldn’t really want to spend a lot of time with. On the other hand, I would want both on my side when the chips go down. And when facing pirates, a rogue corporation and (maybe!) alien technology, Murderbot and ART are pushed to new limits in order to defend those squishy pain-in-the-butt humans.

What also, ultimately, makes the Murderbot series so readable and so appealing is the modular, serial nature of the four novellas and now this fifth book, a full novel. Wells masterfully tells us everything that you need to know about Murderbot and its world, and while you certainly in my opinion should read them all, you could read All Systems Red and jump right here to Network Effect without any issues at all. In fact, I think you probably could start right here if you wanted and with Wells’ excellent writing, get the gist of who and what Murderbot is, what it wants, and hit the ground running. That’s uncommon in these days of series that are carefully and inexorably building up like precarious towers, depending, for good and for bad, on all of the previous works for a reader to appreciate the work in question. Aside from knowing Murderbot’s nature (in All Systems Red) and ART’s reappearance (from Artificial Condition) the adventure here is very self contained. It IS like jumping in on episode 35 of Sanctuary Moon and figuring things out from there without spending the spoons and time to read up to this point. While the previous volumes are delightful and I commend each of them to readers, if you, reader have not yet tried any of the Murderbot series and want to “jump in with the last”, I can confidently say: Yes, you can. And you should.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for a very strong central character; +1 for immersive writing that allows new readers an entry point into the series here.

Penalties: -1 for human characters that aren’t, and perhaps can’t, match Murderbot

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

Adri's Math: 8/10

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

Reference:  Wells, Martha. Network Effect [ Publishing, 2020]

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Questing in Shorts: May 2020

Well, I promised May would be a magazine-heavy month, and I've met my targets on that front, catching up with some of the 2019 issues I wanted to from my favourite publications and starting in on some 2020 backlog. With big resolutions, however, comes the pressure of living up to them, and I'm realising there's a point where I may have to shelve back issues in order to read the new stuff as it comes out instead. It's hard to give myself permission to just not read things which, in many cases, I've paid for, or otherwise feel I've made a commitment to by putting it on the e-reader, but accepting that one cannot read all the things, not even all of the things one is subscribed to, is a necessary part of being a reader stuck in linear time. Besides, it's not about what you don't have time to stuff into your eyeballs, but about the great things you do, and oh boy were there some awesome things this month:

Uncanny Magazine Issue 33

There's a running theme of memory, both ancestral and personal, and of self-actualisation in the face of overwhelming forces trying to drag the various protagonists down, in this issue of Uncanny Magazine. For one thing, the reprint is "Harvest", the Rebecca Roanhorse story about the Deer Woman myth originally published in the New Suns anthology, and just as powerful and raw the second time in its treatment of a dangerous, angry mythological creature whose complexity isn't addressed in stories that focus only on her role as a temptress. There's also the astonishingly good "The Sycamore and the Sybil", by Alix E. Harrow, a story told by a tree who used to be a woman and who is forced to watch as another young woman attempts to escape a predatory man in the woods. The story's reversal is, on one level, delightfully simple, but on another it turns every patriarchy and mythology driven assumption about who holds power on its head, and it ends with a powerful moment of hope and sisterhood which barely felt possible at the start of the story.

The rest of the story's issues are similarly strong, from the beautiful prose and worldbuilding of Christopher Caldwell's "If Salt Lose Its Savor" to the intriguing, increasingly weird breakdown of "Georgie in the Sun", Natalia Theodoridou's story of Dracula and his bride on a far future generation ship mission which starts to go bizarrely wrong. L. Tu's "If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough" annoyed me during its midpoint for its notes of sexual exploitation, as a younger protagonist in a school run by her colonised deals with the ghost of one of her people out in the forbidden woods of her home. But when the extent of the atrocities perpetrated on her people become clear, protagonist Aida is offered - and takes - her own choices in retaliation for what is done, and it becomes something more powerful and bigger than any of its individual characters. I happened to read The Best of Uncanny Magazine collection this month and I could imagine any story in this particular issue within that collection - testament to the quality this publication brings to each and every edition.

The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler

Tobler's latest Apex publication is a collection continuing the world explored in the novella The Kraken Sea - although, full disclosure, I have read but don't particularly remember the plot of that origin story, so this review is not going to provide any insight on that front. The stories exploring the various destinations and characters of Jackson's Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade - a carnival which appears to travel through both space and time, appearing to pick up some who benefit from its protection and others who certainly don't, and changing the lives of all who encounter it.

It may have been a quirk of my mood at the time of reading, but I found that the more hopeful stories landed more successfully with me than the forays into horror. "Blow the Moon Out", the collection's lengthy centrepiece, was a particularly enjoyable story for me, telling the weird journey of four girls to the circus, their meeting with a strange dog along the way, and the ways each finds what they need from their experiences at the circus. While each girl's self actualisation feels very much bound to that particular moment in time - their escapes from various forms of patriarchy, in particular, feel like they won't last beyond their return home - there's a feeling of timelessness within its conclusion that makes everything feel right in a brief, almost nostalgia-tinged sort of way. Homegoing is also the theme of the collection's first story, "Vanishing Act", in which a girl finds herself on the tracks in front of the train, is taken in by the circus, and attempts to find her way back to her distant home with the help of a man who can make things vanish, but not reappear.

I found less in the collection's more unpleasant and brutal stories, like the owned children of Maman Floss in "Artificial Nocturne" or the visceral, dark horrors of "We, As One, Trailing Embers", the story of conjoined cannibal twins who find ways to meet their needs while travelling in the circus - but the fact these stories come earlier in the collection, and others, like the tale of the circus' Marmalade maker Beth ("Lady Marmalade") are later - is a clever stroke, forcing us to accept the circus and the world around it in all its flaws before being invited to see more of its human angles and what it might offer. And the stories that go to truly strange places - like "Ebb Stung by the Flow", the body hopping narration of a disaster which seems to offer answers to how the circus gets to its many destinations, while also making things so much weirder - underscore what an interesting setting this is on multiple levels, with a feeling that there are so many more stories waiting with Jackson and the crew somewhere on the tracks. Fall collection

This set of Tor stories seems to be cliffhanger themed, with a ton of stories that set up and explore their idea but fade to black just as a narrative emerges. Regular readers of this column may have established that this is not my favourite story structure, no matter how effective it can be in driving home its message - and this is a bindup, so you can be assured that all the stories land very effectively - so it did colour my overall enjoyment of the collection.

Included in this group is newly-minted Hugo finalist "As the Last I May Know" by S.L. Huang, a secondary world story set during a war which could be ended at any point using  weapons of mass destruction; however, following previous wars, the culture at the centre of the story has set it up so that the only method for the president to use these weapons is by murdering a ten-year-old girl, Nysa, who becomes part of his staff at inauguration. Huang explores that concept from multiple angles, juxtaposing the man from the Order which brought up Nysa and the president himself and their different methods of attempting to protect and/or own her, and Nysa's own complex self-realisation and articulation of her desires. Its a story that fits well into the canon of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and other sacrifice stories, twisting the slightly-too-convenient setup into something that's very believable in how it deals with public opinion and the uncertainties of conflict. Even if you're not reading for the Hugos this year, this is one that's well worth checking out.

Firmly in the "I wish you hadn't ended it there but otherwise that was great" category, Greg Egan's novelette "Zeitgeber" involves a world where many of the young people (and some adults) become "free riders" in time, with an internal clock that moves differently to actual times of day, sending them out of sync with the world around them and with each other. It's a weird idea that becomes increasing compelling as Emma, the main child of the story, and her father, deal with well meaning but ultimately ignorant pressure from the rest of society about what is "best" for these children, and the passion and talent we are willing to sacrifice to achieve conformity. Brenda Peynado's post-apocalyptic pandemic story "The Touches", in which a woman living in a world that's been rendered uninhabitable outside of designated "clean" spaces and humans live completely isolated from each other in their own microbiomes rediscovers the concept of human touch in its terrifying, messy and comforting forms, is another delight. And while I haven't yet read Adrian Tchaikovsky's Made Things, the prequel story "Precious Little Things" in here makes me even more intrigued about this world of homonculi and their unknowable magical creator.

Clarkesworld Issue 159 (December 2019)

I'm still reading Clarkesworld at significantly less than the "one magazine per month" rate which would stop the backlog from growing in my unread magazines folder, and if anyone on the internet wants to give me permission to move some of the older issues out of my to-read-soon list and into my giant unread folder of death, that would be much appreciated. But anyway, here's December 2019's issue, as read by Adri in May 2020. We kick off with the haunting "Such Thoughts are Unproductive", a dystopian future America, where surveillance is used to push people into totalitarian conformity with anti-scientific opinions; the plot revolves around the video conversations the protagonist has with her mother in a rehabilitation camp, which she knows aren't real but can never fully disprove. "Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet" is a story about musicians on a generation ship, which is a premise I'd be happy to read an entire anthology of someday. The story switches between the five members of the quintet (though it appears to be narrated by an "us" who is all of the members at once, which is an intriguing conceit) as it tells the story of their final performances, before their respective lives take them in different directions.

"Eclipse our Sins" by Tloto Tsamaase is another challenging story, whose take on a post-climate crisis earth and the wrathful-earth-worshipping religious society which evolves within it feels very quintessentially Clarkesworld,  Then there's this month's translated Korean story, "Symbiosis Theory", which is a bit of an odd one, going through an intriguing initial vignette into a story of scientists working on infant communication who discover the strange presence of an additional voice within young childrens' neurological patterns. It transpires that young humans may play host to another consciousness which in turn has uplifted the human species. it's a concept that could end up being pretty damn creepy, but author Cheoyop Kim plays it softer than that, turning it into a story about togetherness and connection which hit me particularly in the feels at current circumstances.

 Anathema Magazine Issue 10

This issue of Anathema contains plenty of gods and superpowers brushing up against mortal lives, in ways that are traumatic and transformative. S. Qiouyi Lu's "This House is Full of Faith" deals with a widow whose husband was killed when his body was taken over by an angel during the war they have been fighting, who is deeply sceptical of the new angel who turns up her doorstep claiming to have answered her daughter's prayers but who ends up letting this new woman into her family and beginning, slowly, to heal. In "Thunder Only Happens When It's Raining", a girl and her sister try to survive a viscerally sticky, bug-ridden summer alongside her older brother, who has returned from the school for "gifted" children he spends his year at; but he keeps bringing rain and lightning indoors and won't speak to his sisters and keeps stealing beer from the fridge, and its clear that his experiences at the school have been traumatic beyond anything the narrator can really comprehend. The claustrophobia of the story - embodied with a literal "itchiness" as the protagonist narrates her mosquito bites and the pain and pleasure of scratching, or not scratching, at various points - makes the silence of its central character even more excruciating, and it all adds up to something which, while not a pleasant read, is certainly an accomplished and atmospheric one. "The Future in Saltwater", by Tamara Jerée, also has Gods at its heart - this time, saltwater creatures which latch on and make a request of their bearers at a coming of age ceremony. Luo's God has asked them to take it to the ocean, despite their fears that their sick parent, Cheypa, wouldn't be looked after if they made such a long and treacherous journey. When Luo decides to defy their God, it leads to consequences and to an eventual reaffirmation of faith that causes loss and heartbreak but also a new role and a departure that, we hope, will not be as challenging as those which Luo and Cheypa have weathered before.

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, May 27, 2020

6 Books with Sarah Chorn

Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is an SFF editor, author, and reviewer, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books.

Today she shares her Six Books with us.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m a bit off my reading game right now because *glares at the entire world* so I’ve turned to Great Courses lectures for the time being. I’m currently listening to a Great Courses class called Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mezoamerica Revealed by Professor Edwin Barnhart. I’m ashamed to admit that I know next to nothing about the Maya, Aztec, or ancient Mezoamerica. This entire lecture series is nothing short of fascinating, and it has given me some absolutely wonderful world building ideas. I think it’s kind of tragic that I haven’t learned more about this portion of world history before now. Better late than never though, right? 

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence. I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on this book. Mark Lawrence is one of my favorite authors, and just a really good person in general. His books always floor me, not just with the plots and characters, but I really love his prose. Mark always manages to take a really good idea, and sort of twist it and then turn it on its head to make it uniquely his, and I absolutely love how he manages to fuse unforgiving plots with powerful emotion and atmosphere. So yes, this one is on my “can’t-wait-to-read” list. 

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

Okay, this is a bit out of character for me (who tends to read dark fantasy and nonfiction history almost exclusively), and I think it’s probably just because of everything going on right now (pandemic and earthquakes). I just need a mental vacation. I really, really want to re-read the Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs. I’m usually not one for urban fantasy and werewolves and what have you, but this series is great and I will stand by it forever. I love Mercy, and I adore the setting and the writing. It just works for me. It’s a series I can kind of turn off the world and just immerse myself in, and I think that’s exactly what I need. 

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time - either positively or negatively?

Pandora’s Star did absolutely nothing for me the first time I read it. I’m not sure why I bounced off of it, but I did. Hard. Then, a few years later, I randomly downloaded the audiobook from my library and started listening to it at work and I fell in love with it. I’m not sure if it was due to the narrator bringing the story to life, or maybe I was just in a different headspace, or a combination of both, but I really did just love that book. Currently, I think it’s one of his best books (though I will always love The Reality Dysfunction the most). Pandora’s star is a really gripping SciFi book, and I think he’s one of the best hard SciFi writers out there. 

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

I found Carol Berg books when I was in high school, and I fell in love with them. Carol Berg has a way with creating tortured characters who really get the holy hell pummeled out of them emotionally, and yet still manage to be amazing. She’s one of the only authors who makes me hurt so good when I read her books. Her characters in Transformation have stuck with me since I first read them all those years ago. They are just fantastically done, and the world is so unique. Carol Berg showed me that emotions in fantasy are not something to shy away from, and she really is one of the main reasons why I love playing in an emotional playground so much when I write. 

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

Of Honey and Wildfires drops on April 28. This book has me really, really nervous (and excited)… but nervous. Of Honey and Wildfires is set in a secondary world largely based on the Wild West. The magic system I’ve crafted was largely based on the oil and coal industry of the late 1800’s. I had to do a lot of research on how oil was used before people knew it could be used for machines and what have you. Like, did you know that people used oil as medicine? They’d straight up drink the stuff. Delicious, right? So I tried to take all this weird information I found out about the oil and coal industry, and how it impacted industry and resource rights and even child labor and what have you, and made a magic system out of it all, which I call “shine.” And yeah, I kind of think shine is really freaking awesome and it was an absolute headache to create and required a ton of research, but I do love the idea of it. I think it qualifies as unique. 

Thank you, Sarah!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? 2020 Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer. @princejvstin

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Microreview [Book]: A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

Secret supernatural abilities and misogynoir combine in this contemporary urban fantasy

Cover artist not credited in reveal
A Song Below Water feels like it sits somewhere between contemporary and urban fantasy YA: a story with significant, interesting supernatural elements that isn't so much interested in using them as a worldbuilding tool, but as an additional plot hook to talk about the challenges of teenhood, specifically for Black girls growing up in a white part of the USA. Its Morrow's second book, after the alt-historical meditation on personhood that was Mem, and its one I've been excited to read since learning of its existence a few months back.

In A Song Below Water, people with supernatural abilities are just part of the fabric of humanity, although many have to deal with stereotypes and myths around their powers which make it hard to be out about who they are. Tavia is from a group particularly affected by that: she's a Siren, able to use her voice to "call" in different ways. Sirens as a group have found themselves increasingly vilified, especially as the powers now only appear to manifest in Black women. The murder of a young woman whose trial ends up hinging on whether her boyfriend killed her because she was a siren drives home how precarious Tavia's existence is, and the web of lies and challenges she has to face every day to make it work. Tavia's closest friend and confidante is Effie, a girl who spends her summers working as a mermaid at a Ren Faire and who has been living with Tavia and her family since the death of her mother. Effie didn't believe she had any particular supernatural powers, but has been at the centre of a number of mysterious happenings, including having a group of her friends turned to stone by sprites when she was younger. Now she's trying to focus on her upcoming season as Euphemia the mer, while battling dry skin and strange blackouts and, of course, supporting her bestie.

From this set-up, we follow Tavia and Effie across a number of different threads. Tavia struggles to maintain secrecy and meet her father's particularly stringent expectations, while the murder trial - and the revelation that her favourite natural hair YouTuber is also a Siren - loom ever larger in the political landscape, as well as trying to maintain her chill around the Eloko girl now dating the feckless ex who ghosted her the previous summer. Effie, whose life at the Ren Faire becomes increasingly bananas the more we learn about it (there's a website dedicated entirely to fanfiction of her character and the other performers, which she regularly reads?), starts to show increasingly worrying powers and has to deal with separating out her real life from her fictional existence. What's more, both need to deal with the gargoyle that's taken up residence on their roof. Both girls' attempts to maintain normal teen existence get increasingly challenging as things escalate, and in the end it's Effie's story which drives the novel's tense showdown and conclusion.

Morrow's previous book, Mem, was set in an alternate Ontario with a black female protagonist and told a story in which racism (deliberately) played no role; A Song Below Water, on the other hand, puts misogynoir front and centre of all the challenges Tavia and Effie face. The backdrop for all of this is Portland, an ostensibly liberal but overwhelmingly white city, and Tavia and Effie's lives involve everything from frustrating microaggressions to wry cultural asides to the very real and persistent threats to their safety, wellbeing and self-fulfilment. While there's not a huge amount of lore or worldbuilding around the number of supernatural creatures who exist in this world, Morrow does include some other kids in Tavia and Effie's orbit: most are Eloko, a central African myth about a cannibalistic creature able to tempt humans with its bells. In A Song Below Water, the presence of a number of Eloko characters who are envied and adored by their peers and adults despite having such unpleasant myths attached to them underscores the hypocrisy with which Sirens like Tavia are treated, and makes it very clear that discrimination against them is an intersection of racial prejudice, and not just fear of magic being used as a stand-in for racial discrimination. Eloko, in contrast to Sirens, can be any race or gender, and one of the toughest betrayals that Tavia faces is the refusal of one of the Black girls in her support network, an Eloko, to help support her after her traffic stop.

With so many threads to follow, A Song Below Water feels a bit disjointed at times, as some plot elements get left behind and others become important beyond what felt signposted as the story reaches its conclusion. Because Morrow offered so many elements of supernaturally-tinged misogynoir in the novel, there's a bit of expectation management to be done in terms of what was simply there to properly tell the story of Tavia and Effie's life and challenges, and what is particularly relevant to the coming-of-age element to each girl's plot. It's Effie who gets the more overtly transformative ending, as the mystery of her dry skin and blackouts resolves in a reveal I didn't see coming but possibly should have. Tavia's ultimate growth is a bit more subtle, and it takes some reflection to really draw the lines between her traffic stop, her engagement with other sirens being demonised in the media, and where her life ends up. This makes the reading experience a bit strange, like the pieces don't quite add up into the narrative that they are supposed to, but all of the elements are strong individually, and the only genuinely frustrating note is the treatment of Tavia's relationship with her father, which isn't really addressed in terms of its toxicity and how it affects the girls.

If you enjoy both contemporary and fantasy YA, A Song Below Water has the best of both worlds in many ways: interesting supernatural happenings grounded in a deeply political tale of growing up Black and female in a white supremacist patriarchy. It's not quite the perfectly formed knockout that Morrow's previous book, Mem, was for me. However, its still an enjoyable and highly relevant read, and one I'd very much recommend checking out.

The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 A great pair of characters in a not-sister relationship; +1 compelling take on misogynoir in a White liberal setting

Penalties: -1 The whirlwind of events sometimes gets too intense

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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: Morrow, Bethany C. A Song Below Water [Tor Teen, 2020]

Friday, May 22, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Retellings of the Inland Seas, Edited by Athena Andreadis

The Romans called it Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea” but the centrality of the Mediterranean  goes far beyond the Romans and the Eternal City. In point of fact, long before the Romans, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians sailed the seas, and they themselves are newcomers to the Greeks, the Minoans, the Egyptians. A variety of cultures and peoples, with a wide variety of myths, stories and legends have grown up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Some of them you know--some of the details of the Odyssey, for instance, are unforgettable. Others have been sadly obscured by time and distance.

In Athena Andreadis’ anthology Retellings of the Inland Seas, Andreadis brings together a variety of authors to remake these old stories into new guises for the modern age.

The lineup:

Into the Wine-Dark Sea — A.M. Tuomala
Sirens — Melissa Scott
Hide and Seek — Shariann Lewitt
The Sea of Stars — Genevieve Williams
Between the Rivers — Judith Tarr
Calando — James L. Cambias
One Box too Many — Christine Lucas
The Fury of Mars — F. J. Doucet
Out of Tauris — Alexander Jablokov
Little Bird — Kelly Jennings
Wings — Elana Gomel
The Crack at the Border — Dimitra Nikolaidou
Unearthing Uncle Bud — Athena Andreadis

The ending of the anthology has Andreadis reveal what was the originating myth/story that inspired each of the stories. As I was reading through the stories, unaware of this revelation at the end, I played a game with myself trying to figure out what the story was bringing forward for a modern reader. This added a layer of intellectual interest and study to the generally excellent stories themselves, and I recommend readers do not “skip” forward and try and discover and become engaged with the narratives on their own terms, first, before being colored and influenced by the expectations of knowing what the particular story’s template is.

The stories are universally strong and well written. There are no repeats, and the use of the source material by each of the authors is subtly different. So we wind up with a variety of settings and milieus for the well crafted stories, overall. My favorite story of the set has to be F.J Foucet’s very creepy and effective “The Fury of Mars”. The title does give away that the Greek Furies are the inspiration for this story of a Judge on a Martian colony who discovers that her own past, and her own crimes, have not been covered up and forgotten quite as much as she thinks they have been, It is this story that best represents the power and the guiding principle and the point of Andreadis’ anthology: to bring these powerful ancient myths, stories and themes and bring them into a modern day readership.

The volume is relatively slim, so that avoids the problems of repeating themes and ideas, and it gives the authors and their stories their own space. I appreciate a good editorial hand in the anthologies that I do read and Andreadis really hits the mark here. I think this volume really stands well with her previous volumes, To Shape the Dark and The Other Half of the Sky. The stories here, although not as science focused as those volumes, still shows the anthologist’s commitment to science fiction in short form.

In Athena Andreadis’ anthology Retellings of the Inland Seas, a variety of SFF stories take us from the seas of space to aliens visiting ancient Greece. With a guiding light of the stories, cultures, and mythos of Mediterranean cultures, the authors in this anthology rediscover, remix and reforge classic themes from this wide swath of peoples and places.. The stories in this anthology take classic, often familiar narratives and present them in modern forms that recapture and re-empower stories long obscured, polishing them into gems on the shore for readers to pick up and discover.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for excellent editorial work and choice on the part of the anthologist, +1 for a strong set of stories whose authors hit the theme and guiding principle of the anthologies

Penalties: -1 As always with an anthology, not all stories and authors are going to work for a particular reader

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

Reference: Andreadis, Athena. Retellings of the Inland Seas [Candlemark and Gleam 2020]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? 
2020 Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer. @princejvstin.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Providence by Max Barry

Providence largely centers on inaction, yet manages to feel more propulsive than most space operas.

When people think of space operas, some of the staples they envision are blinding lights and explosions amidst expansive space, in which what lies ahead holds near infinite possibilities and liberty. It’s a subgenre in which the reader feels unshackled by terrestrial rules and limits. Providence is not that kind of space opera. It juxtaposes the vastness of space with constriction by positing that many of the things the cast of voyaging characters do is predetermined. That their choices, however idiosyncratic and nuanced they can be, are not exactly their independent concoction. The characters can be seen as puppets, and if they explore too far along the grandeur of space, their strings pull them back.

Providence follows four people who are enlisted to be on a powerful, AI-controlled ship, called a Providence to defeat a group of aliens nicknamed the salamanders, who through a damning, murderous video that shows their ill intent, has become anathema to humanity. The cast of characters are Anders, a reckless, rebellious type—Beanfield, an incredibly emotionally astute and conciliatory person—Gilly, the most scientific and technical of the bunch--and Jackson, the officer who exudes importance and dignity, but has flaws laying beneath.

Seems like a good enough motley crew to work together and kick alien butt, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, they have no control over the Providence. Instead, just like some people believe divine providence dictates how we act, this Providence ship dictates how it vanquishes enemies and jumps to different locations, controlling the trajectory of the humans on board the ship, whether they like it or not. The people aboard are merely faces to attribute to the mission—a dash of personality to add human elements for the people watching their video feed from Earth, to what is really a clinical operation.

Max Barry has done a tricky feat in Providence. It could be so easy for a book about people who are aboard a ship with little agency to have stagnancy and lethargy. But while the militaristic actions of the humans throughout most of the book are static, their interpersonal relationships are dynamic. Whether it’s the relationship between Anders’ heady and boisterous personality locking heads with Jackson’s want to keep order and decorum, or all of the characters opening up to Beanfield who bears an interestingly strong ability to tap into the substratum of people’s souls. Despite how feeble humanity’s power looks throughout a large part of the book, the story is also a rallying cry for how humanity might not have complete dominance over more powerful beings, but they are at least more fascinating than them. And this dynamism that's exhibited from the characters sets the book to be all the more powerful, once the foundation is shaken and some of their constrictions are released.

If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that even though the book has a unique underlying theme, outlining the basic plot sounds really mundane. Most of the hard-hitting events are in the smaller moments of the book, while the intermittent space battles feel like typical space opera fare, no matter how well-written those sequences are. The action carries more weight in the latter part of the book, once the plot shakes up a bit, but still doesn't reach the highs of the intimate moments. But maybe it’s appropriate that these people struggling to break out of their preordained limits are trapped in a story that's constrictive template and limits bear many similarities to the sci-fi of yore.

Providence shouldn’t work. It has well-trodden tropes, and periods of purposeful inaction and ennui. But the characters that pop out of the screen, writing that’s unceasingly clear and incisive, and a theme that wraps around the tropes to give it a veneer of distinctiveness, makes it something well-worth reading. It’s a novel that has the best sci-fi has to offer—positing thought-provoking questions, without falling into the pitfalls of having cardboard characters and overly descriptive technical jargon. Max Barry has proven that he knows what he’s doing.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 There shouldn’t be a strong whiff of freshness to this kind of story, but this book manages it.
+1 The science is laid out descriptively without ever halting the momentum of the writing.

Penalties: -1 A couple character choices only make half-sense.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!"
Reference: Barry, Max. Providence [Hodder & Stoughton 2020]

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

6 Books with Rowenna Miller

Rowenna Miller, a self-professed nerd from the Midwest, is the author of The Unraveled Kingdom trilogy of fantasy novels, Torn, Fray, and Rule. She’s one-third of the podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. When she's not writing, she enjoys trespassing while hiking and recreating historical textiles.

Today she shares her Six Books With Us:

1. What book are you currently reading?
I just started Sam Hawke’s City of Lies. It’s been on my TBR since it came out, and just a delight—exactly the kind of immersive reading I needed this spring.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?
I’m ridiculously excited about HG Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians! I loved her debut, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heap, and French Revolution but with magic is 100% my jam. Plus it includes the Haitian revolution which is so underexplored in fiction it’s almost criminal.

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

I’ve been thinking about CS Lewis’ Til We Have Faces a lot lately—it’s a book that spans the lifetime of the protagonist but centers on one relationship and one defining moment in that relationship. There’s a fascinating dynamic between the public legacy that the protagonist leaves and how that relationship defines her in ways most people don’t know about.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?
How about a book that changed my mind? I’ve never been big on nineteenth century lit—there were books I liked here and there but so often they were just…dull. There, I said it. But I read Dickens’ Hard Times a couple years ago and it was such fun—witty and tongue-in-cheek, with obvious but not moralistic commentary on ethical issues—and found families and the circus! I’m finding that some of the lesser-known, non “canon” lit, and especially short fiction, from that period ticks more of my boxes than I realized.

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?
So many. I was that kid who was reading constantly, so I basically marinated myself in influences. But I’ve been digging through my old books to find new reading material for my seven-year-old daughter, and rediscovered The Farthest Away Mountain by Lynne Reid Banks. It’s a slim little fairy tale book about a flawed female protagonist, with a little bit of Beauty and the Beast transformation flair and a lot of “things aren’t always as they seem” magic. It put down roots in my writing soul that girls don’t have to be perfect to dive into their own adventures, and that making mistakes is part of life and therefore part of a good story.

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

Rule [out on May 19th] is the third and final book in the Unraveled Kingdom trilogy, and I’ve had a blast dragging these characters through the wringer. The series follows a seamstress caught up in a struggle against an un just monarchical system, first through grassroots revolt, then attempts at political reform, and finally full-blown military campaigns—and her ability to cast charm and curse magic influences those conflicts. I got to write about eighteenth-century artillery and textile industrialization and exploding apples (really), and I hope it’s as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer! @princejvstin.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant

An updated Les Misérables with some wonderful sisterhood relationships at its heart... but how do you make a 21st century book less queer than its 19th century source?

Ah, Les Misérables. Decades before Hamilton was making musical revolutionaries cool for middle-class theatregoers, we had the all-singing all-dancing French Revolution June Rebellion of 1932, and quite some time before that we had Victor Hugo's Heckin' Chonker of a meditation on the nature of poverty, love, redemption, and oh my god so many pages about the daily lives of nuns. Now, bursting in to shake up Hugo's rich cast of characters comes debut author Kester Grant, with a book which imagines what the cast of Les Mis (at least, the ones who make it to 1932... sorry Fantine) might be getting up to in an alternate world where the French revolution failed and the "Court of Miracles" - the mythical shadow government said to over Paris' underclasses and which Anglo readers may only recognise from Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (hey, also based on a Victor Hugo thing!) - plays a huge role in many people's lives. At the centre of this is Éponine, daughter of Les Misérables' most unpleasant and opportunistic criminal, whose canon position between the two worlds of the narrative makes her perfect for this new imagining.

Alternate history aside, the biggest shift that The Court of Miracles makes is this focus on Éponine (called "Nina" here), and in removing the character of Marius, on whom she wastes most of her adult emotional energy in the original. Instead, the focus is on Nina's relationships with her sisters, and her growing antagonism with Kaplan, "The Tiger", a slaver who has taken over one of the court's Guilds and is now using it to buy women who catch his eye. When Nina's father Thénardier decides to sell his older daughter Azelma, her last act is to buy Nina the protection of the Thieves' guild through her connection to the Court's Messenger, Femi. Passing the test for entry with ease, Nina starts making a name for herself and widening her circle of contacts and influences within the Court's guilds, but she never gives up on rescuing her sister - and, when a botched attempt at doing so leads to her meeting Ettie (i.e. Cosette), she takes the younger girl under her wing as well. Her adventures also take her into the palace, where she meets and captivates the Dauphin; and into the orbit of a group of students led by the exiled Enjolras St Juste.

Aside from the obvious Les Misérables parallels, Grant also points to strong influences from the Jungle Book in the text, particularly when it comes to the history and mythology of the Court. Interspersed within the narrative are tales about the historical conflict between Ysengrim and Reynard - characters who also make an appearance in the book's in-universe swears - and an allegorical story of mice and snakes representing the failed revolution forms a key plot point in Nina's  most notably in The Tiger as well as some of the other characters within the Court. It's the interactions between these two elements, and the new dynamics introduced here, that provide a lot of the novelty in The Court of Miracles, and set it apart from being a straightforward alternate universe fic.

Nina herself benefits hugely from this new framing, which gives her a "home turf" that isn't simply avoiding the worst excesses of her criminal father and offering her at least a couple of connections that she can make on an equal footing, which in turn strengthens how her less equal relationships with the students and the nobility play out. Grant takes Éponine's hopeless devotion and transforms it from a tragic flaw, directed at a boy who never does much to deserve it, into the foundation for a morally complex but ultimately relatable hero, who puts all of her cunning and skill at the disposal of sisters who she can be assured would do the same for her. The other major change is Cosette, who is significantly younger than Nina in this version and becomes just as invested in her adoptive sister's safety and wellbeing, as well as getting some of her own fun quirks and moments of glory.

The strength of the bonds between women in The Court of Miracles are highly welcome (like, they can actually talk to each other without dying or dishing out abuse!), but there are relationship tweaks that I liked a whole lot less. Foremost among them is the removal of huge swathes of canonically queer subtext from male characters in the original story, lea. Over the course of the story, Nina has not one, not two, but three boys swooning over her, including the Dauphin (who kind of replaces Marius by being a lonely thoughtful-but-privileged twit who is far too ready to fall in love with girls after five seconds in their presence), Montparnasse (here a master of the Assassin's Guild and actually kinda cool) and (prepare yourself) Enjolras St Juste. Yes, that's the Enjolras who, in Hugo's canon, is specifically said to not be interested in women and to love nothing but the revolution, while his buddy Grantaire cares about nothing but him.

Instead, in The Court of Miracles there's nothing textual to suggest Grantaire's feelings for St Juste go beyond camaraderie, while St Juste himself is all up in the "YA love interest" tropes with Nina. Does he stand too close to her in order to earnestly express his political ambitions while she gets distracted by his closeness? Yes! Does someone walk in on them sneaking around a party so they have to pretend they snuck away to make out? YEP. To not put too fine a point on it, St Juste's arc here very much reads as straightwashing, and I don't think a reversal in later books is going to change how problematic this is. On top of that, there's also the decision to genderbend Inspector Javert and then heavily hint that she and Valjean were formerly lovers and that her obsession with bringing him to justice is her response to being jilted. Given that the Court of Miracles is allegedly invested in showing a more diverse version of Paris, and Nina herself is a woman of colour, the removal of all queer content - and this is a removal, since there is less here than in a novel from 1862 - is a bizarre and disappointing choice.

And this is a particular shame because The Court of Miracles is otherwise a great experience - intense, action-packed, full of difficult choices and moral grey that still leaves the reader with characters to root for, and above all super engaging. That makes it a hard book to sum up for me - I'm sure for plenty of readers, the straightwashing won't really figure in their experience (it's just a few scenes after all! And the sister relationships are so wonderful!) and, for readers without knowledge of the source work, specifically the novel, the lack of queer content isn't going to be more than a not-unexpected annoyance. At the end of the day, though, I did not plough through hundreds of pages of translated classic literature to see het!Enjolras swoon over Éponine and Javert turned into Valjean's jealous female ex. In 2020. To which I can only conclude: what the heck, Court of Miracles?

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Nina and Ettie and everything that springs from their relationship

Penalties: -3 for the straightwashed, thirsty-for-Nina Enjolras St. Juste that literally nobody asked for

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10 (And yet we could have had it all...)

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: Grant, Kester, The Court of Miracles [Harper Voyager, 2020]

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Modern Nostalgia of Dragon Quest XI: A Conversation

I've been mulling over the idea of writing *something* about Dragon Quest XI for several weeks / months now without having a firm plan of attack. Should this be a formal review, an essay, something else? I've appreciated and enjoyed Aidan Moher's video game writing, in particular, his focus on the nostalgia and legacy of older and classic RPGs and that's what had me almost inspired to write about Dragon Quest.

Adain and I go way back to the ye olde days of blogs, to a time when single author blogs were on the rise and starting to make a splash in genre conversation, long before we could even dream one of our blogs could actually win a Hugo Award (first SF Signal, and then Aidan's A Dribble of Ink in 2014 - has it already been six years).

I'm not sure how this conversation started, but I can only imagine that I made the mistake of mentioning that I wanted to write about the nostalgic of Dragon Quest XI where Aidan could see it and he thought it would be a great thing to talk about. How could I resist? Aidan's perspective and writing about the same video games I loved growing up has been top notch and it was time we had a proper chat like we did oh so many years ago. This may not be dueling essays in conversation with each other, but we each have some thoughts about Dragon Quest XI, a 2017 release from SquareEnix on the Playstation 4 and last year released on the Nintendo Switch.

Joe: At the moment I’m some 70-75 hours into Dragon Quest 11 and it’s a nostalgic delight. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve really sat down and played a classic JRPG on a console and it is everything I didn’t know that I was missing. I believe you said that you were right around the same point, just about ready to finish up the game.

Aidan: Yeah. I've just finished up the majority of the post-game content (which, really, is the game's third act and adds a ton of necessary context and story) and will face off against the final boss soon. About 95 hours for me.

"Nostalgic delight" is an understatement. I'm flip side of the coin because I've been playing a TON of classic console JRPGs over the past 2-3 years--from Chrono Trigger to Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete to Final Fantasy VII--and Dragon Quest XI feels like the natural evolution of those 16- and 32-bit JRPGs. It's like it just ignored everything that happened in the space during the past decade or two, which is totally up my alley. I'm fascinated by the way I can feel nostalgia for something brand new.

Joe: Recently (and by recently I mean over the last few years) I’ve played through Dragon Quests 1-3 on my iphone and that’s really rekindled my interest in JRPGs. I used to LOVE that style of game, but as my family has grown and the amount of gaming time I have has decreased, I’m really not up on today’s JRPGs. I’ve followed the genre, but the move to games like Fallout and Skyrim (let alone Dark Souls) has passed me by.

Until Dragon Quest XI, I would have told you that I don’t have the time nor the inclination to sink 100+ hours into a video game anymore. Give me a nice 15 hour story, preferably action packed and not excessively difficult and I’m there. And then Dragon Quest XI came along and hit every button I didn’t know I still had.

The thing, I *like* turn based and menu driven combat. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing video games for 30+ years and as such don’t play at the same level I did 15-20 years ago, but it’s reassuring and it is comforting and for how I am playing Dragon Quest right now - it’s the right speed for me.

Does the silent protagonist bother you? I love so much about Dragon Quest XI, but with every other character with voice acting and having the hero just nod and wave his hand is not my favorite thing.

This is about as much personality as the hero gets, though sometimes he also looks determined.
Aidan: Silent protagonists come under a lot of heat, but they've never really bothered me in older games. As the level of fidelity and detail grow, however, they make less and less sense, and it feels particularly odd in Dragon Quest XI. With so much voice acting in the game, every time the protagonist (who I'll call Eleven) responds by awkwardly staring into space or making a weird little gasp feels uncanny. The characters all behave as though he's this magnetic hero type, but so much of that is personality and charisma—and Eleven has none of that.

I recently replayed Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (and a bit of Grandia before that) and one of the things that really stood out to me in those games was the personalities of the protagonists really shining through. By emphasizing their personalities, they felt like much more engage and proactive heroes, compared to, say, Crono from Chrono Trigger or Eleven from Dragon Quest XI. Those silent types require others to push the story forward and they act as sort of a… defining element for the protagonist's actions and motivations. It's almost like they're the splash of paint revealing the invisible protagonist.

So as we're talking about nostalgia, I think there are some elements that work in older games, where the player is already doing a lot of heavy lifting to visualize the game world thanks to less detailed pixel art graphics, but falls apart in a modern game like Dragon Quest XI.

It's interesting to me that you brought up Fallout and Skyrim, though, as those aren't JRPGs, but are western-made. There was a major dearth of JRPGs during PS3/Xbox 360 era outside of the handhelds, and though I spent a lot of time playing games like Skyrim, it was also the console generation that I spent the least amount of time gaming during. Even now, with kids, a full time job, etc., I squeak out the time to play long JRPGs, even if it takes me months.

Another thing I've noticed is that 100+ RPGs are more of a modern thing. Going back and playing a bunch of SNES JRPGs, I found that they're all generally less than 40 hours, and even something like Chrono Trigger took me less than 20 hours on a fresh, non-New Game+ playthrough. They started getting longer during the PlayStation era, but even then, I just finished FFVII, did most of the optional content outside the Weapons, and it took me 45 hours. Those were different times, though, and we didn't have resources like the Internet to help us power through something like Final Fantasy VI, causing it to take longer to beat then than now. The length came more from the unknown and having to figure out everything on your own or with the help of your pals on the schoolyard, rather than just pure content.

Joe: See, that’s why I brought up Fallout and Skyrim. They are two of the most prominent “western style” RPGs that defined that PS3 and early PS4 era. I tend to think in terms of Playstation because that was the console road I went down. I missed out on a lot of Mario and Zelda, but that’s a separate conversation.

Stylistically, I don’t enjoy playing them. I’m basing that on Fallout 3, mostly - and the whole concept of the 100hr game. I think some SNES and early playstation games felt longer because they *could* be longer. If I only get two games a year because I’m a kid with limited (at best) income, I’m going to do EVERYTHING. I’m going to level all characters to 99 and max out my Espers and find all the secrets because what else am I going to do. My impression of modern RPGs, right or wrong, is that they require 100+ hours and I don’t have time for that.

But even that is apparently wrong as I close in on 75 hours of Dragon Quest 11, a game that while long does not feel excessively padded.

I think that’s part of what is getting to the nostalgia we’re talking about. It *feels* like a game made twenty years ago but - silent protagonist aside - is far smoother in gameplay mechanics. This Dragon Quest plays like our best memories of many of those older games.

It also feels like a Dragon Quest game. That’s not something you necessarily get as Final Fantasy has evolved. Dragon Quest XI has the bones of every Dragon Quest that has come before. I’m shocked that it is ten years old at this point, but Final Fantasy XIII at best uses the wallpaper of the series.

With all of that said, and to loop back to the silent protagonist - where I completely agree with you is that Eleven seems to have none of the charisma of other silent protagonists and definitely lacks that of characters who have a defined personality. I don’t want to map myself on the hero. That’s not how I play anymore, if it ever was.

Aidan: Thanks to stuff like Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Trials of Mana, and Link's Awakening, I've been thinking a lot about remakes, reimaginings, and remasters. And how as a generation of older gamers, many of us now with kids, developers and publishers are using nostalgia as a marketing tactic. Though Dragon Quest XI is an entirely new game, in a lot of ways it utilizes nostalgia and our affection for the older games we used to play as kids in the same way as a remake.

No really, this is Dragon Quest 11
What's particularly remarkable about Dragon Quest XI is not only does it feel like someone time warped a classic Dragon Quest title into a modern wrapper, but they actually included a full-fledged 16-bit version of the game with the Switch version. It's like you get the original game and the remake in one package. It reminds me of how Square Enix finally, after over two decades, finally released a localized version of Seiken Densetsu 3 in Collection of Mana, only to release a from-the-ground up remake the following year. You get the fuzzy golden feeling of the original, and the polished modern version of the remake all wrapped up in one.

Without going too far into spoiler territory, the game's true ending, which you get after beating the option content in act three, really doubles down on the nostalgia by basically implying that, without realizing it, you've just played through a bit of series lore that stretches all the way back to the series' earliest days on the NES. The way it's split into three distinct parts also replicates the trilogy structure used by the older games in the series. Sure, it's 100 hours long, but it's also like three games in one. Or six games, if you count the 3D and 2D versions separately.

Joe: The thing about nostalgia as a marketing tactic is that it’s effective. Despite somehow never playing Secret of Mana, I’ve played the less successful sequels (not to mention similar games like Secret of Evermore and Illusion of Gaia) and I’m just about as excited for Trials of Mana as I am for any modern game - notwithstanding the new Spider-Man game calling my name. I need more Mana in my life. Hell, Kingdom Hearts 3 works solely on nostalgia for the first two games because the story makes no damn sense and the gameplay mechanics are not significantly improved in the fourteen years since the last main line game. If I had a Switch, I’d be ALL OVER Link’s Awakening.

I’m less excited about Final Fantasy VII Remake and it’s entirely because the gameplay mechanics are not a polished modern version of what we knew before, but a complete revamping. It’s an expansion of the story, but it’s not the same sort of game. Not really.

Dragon Quest XI, to get back on topic, is exactly that. And since I haven’t finished the game yet, I will say that I’ve been suspicious for quite a while about “Erdwin” and how close that name is to Erdrick. It’s not a road we need to go down right now, but it’s one of those echoes that is similar to how Final Fantasy re-uses names except that right now Dragon Quest is using the nostalgia more effectively. Or, more accurately - Dragon Quest is using nostalgia more purposefully and with greater intent.

We’re both steeped in the traditions and the history of JRPGs, you perhaps a little more deeply than me, but we’ve grown up with these games and they’ve been formative in our lives. How do you think a game like Dragon Quest XI works for newer and younger players? My son likes watching me play, but he’s 5 and the colors are bright and the monsters are relatively cute and less frightening - so I’m not sure he is representative of anything beyond a boy who likes to spend time with his dad.

Dragon Quest's legendary hero, referenced in the first Final Fantasy
Aidan: Oh, dude, Joe. Hang onto those thoughts about Erdwin/Erdrick for a bit longer, and then maybe we do a sequel to this conversation.

My eldest is also five, and we've spent more time playing games like Pokemon Sword and Animal Crossing than we have Dragon Quest XI. That being said, gaming is interesting because it's such a new medium compared to theatre, books, music, and even film. Within our lifetime (or at least that of our parents, with Bertie the Brain in the late 50s), we've literally experienced the entirety of videogaming history. And what I take from that is that even our modern games, including remakes like Final Fantasy 7 and games that aren't quite remakes but are built of the same stuff like Dragon Quest XI, is very much built on the same foundation as the games we grew up playing 20 or 30 years ago.

Like a lot of people our age, my parents weren't into videogames as anything more than a novelty (besides my mom's GameBoy Tetris obsession), but they supported us when we wanted to rent an NES and Marble Madness from the video store for a weekend. Back then, games were like toys, something for kids, and I picked out whatever seemed cool at the video store. Nowadays, as kids are raised into families that have a long history of gaming, we, as parents, inform what they're exposed to, and that in itself starts to build bonds and nostalgia. I have fond memories of watching Star Trek with my mom, and my daughter will have fond memories of playing Pokemon with me. Nostalgia's huge right now, but it's still only a generation old, and there's so much more room for it to find its place in the market. What's going to happen when these kids who grew up playing Animal Crossing with their mom become game developers? What sort of heights of love and creativity will they reach? It's cool to think about.

I didn't actually discover the Dragon Quest series until Dragon Quest 8 on the PlayStation 2, but even that game (though it was the last non-MMORPG, home console game in the series) is already 16 years old. So I think what I'm most impressed about when it comes to Dragon Quest XI's use of nostalgia is that it makes me feel like a kid again. It doesn't look like the SNES games I used to play, but it does look like the adventures as they played out in my head. It's particularly interesting to play the Switch version because it includes the SNES-style "demake" of Dragon Quest XI right on the box. It really doubles down on nostalgia, and highlights how structurally similar the game is to 16-bit JRPGs.

Joe: My five year old also likes playing Lego Jurassic World with me, which is nice.

I do find it very interesting that you came to Dragon Quest so late in life. On one hand, you missed out on Dragon Quest (then Dragon Warrior) on the NES - which means you missed out on having your saved game erased ALL THE TIME. Though, to be fair, was the case with so many battery based games. I’m not sure there was a battery based game that didn’t have erasure issues. If there was, I don’t remember - probably because it didn’t cause my childhood eternal pain.

With that said, I also jumped from Dragon Quest 1 to Dragon Quest 7 on the PSX and never made it that far with 7, then stepped back to 4 on the Nintendo DS. It’s just that Dragon Quest has been so ever present in my life - always at least somewhere in the back of my mind or just looming as a game I want to play.

Dragon Quest XI has brought all of that together - the memories and the nostalgia, and wrapped it in a just-modern-enough package that, at least for me, it works.

You know what, though? I really like the idea of our kids having those fond memories of playing games with us - whether is Pokemon, Dragon Quest, Animal Crossing, or whatever Lego game. I remember watching Matlock and Columbo with my father, and a show that nobody remembers called Brooklyn Bridge with my mother - and those are really nice memories. Much better than the memory of watching White Men Can’t Jump with my parents when I was 13, only for everyone to be very uncomfortable with the ONE partially nude scene in the movie. That’s a different conversation, though. But the thought that Andy will look back on playing games with me as a formative part of his childhood - that’s really nice. I like that.

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

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He continues to write about video games with his column, Insert Cartridge.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Microreview [book] The Book of Dragons Edited by Jonathan Strahan

The Book of Dragons by Jonathan Strahan fuses together his strong and abiding editorial eye with the talents of numerous luminaries in fantasy, complimented by Rovina Cai’s stunning art.

Dragons. It had to be Dragons. After numerous anthologies, especially Science Fictional oriented ones such as his Infinity Project series, and his Best of the Year anthologies, in The Book of Dragons, Strahan turns his focus to a fantasy heavy focused anthology with the classic of all fantasy creatures, the Dragon.

The lineup of the anthology is a highlight of some of the best authors in SFF today, with the anthology featuring both poetry and stories.

“What Heroism Tells Us” (poem) Jane Yolen
“Matriculation” Elle Katherine White
"Hikaya Sri Bujang, or The Tale of the Naga Sage” Zen Cho
“Yuli” David Abraham
“A Whisper of Blue” Ken Liu
“Nidhog” (poem) Jo Walton
“Where the River Turns to Concrete” Brooke Bolander
“Habitat” KJ Parker
“Pox” Ellen Klages
“The Nine Curves River” R F Kuang
“Lucky’s Dragon” Kelly Barnhill
“I make myself a Dragon” (poem) Beth Cato
“The Exile” J Y Yang
“Except on Saturdays” Peter S Beagle
“La Vitesse” Kelly Robson
“A Final Knight to her Love and Foe” Amal El-Mohtar
“The Long Walk” Kate Elliott
“Cut me another quill, Mister Fitz” Garth Nix
“Hoard” Seanan McGuire
“The Worm of Lirr” (poem)  C.S.E. Cooney
“The Last Hunt” Aliette de Bodard
“We Continue” Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky
“Small Bird’s Plea” Todd McCaffrey
“The Dragons” (poem) Theodora Goss
“Dragon Slayer” Michael Swanwick
“Camouflage” Patricia McKillip
“We don’t talk about the dragon” Sarah Gailey
“Maybe Just Go Up there and talk to it” Scott Lynch
“A Nice Cuppa” (poem) Jane Yolen

The bracketing of the anthology, bringing us in and taking us out with a poem, really shows the commitment of the anthologist to making the poetry the equal to the fiction in the anthology. There has been a rising tendency toward this in some quarters of the SFF world, and this anthology lays claim to being part of that trend. My own experience with SFFnal poetry is limited. That said I enjoyed the poetry on offer here.

As far as the stories, go, as always with an anthology  even with the top tier authors of the day in it, some stories worked wonderfully for me, some were all right, and some stories did not work for me at all. I was delighted by the wide range of themes, and use of Dragons in the anthology, in a surprising to me number of contexts. There are fewer traditional uses of dragons than I was expecting, and I think that is a strength and a testament to the authors and the anthologist rather than a drawback. It is worth noting though for readers who are hoping for a more straightforward approach to the topic from the anthologized authors.

Out of the set of stories, I had a few favorites that I think represent the best of what the anthology has to offer.

Michael Swanwick’s “Dragon Slayer” is a lovely twisty story, and wonderfully evocative piece that also has a delightful time travel element embedded in it. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Last Hunt” takes place in the same verse as her “In the Vanishers’ Palace”, once again featuring the Dragon Vu Con, but set long before the events of that prior story, giving us a glimpse into the past of her devastated post apocalyptic world. Kate Elliott’s “The Long Walk” hits upon some familiar themes and topics I’ve come to expect and hope for in her fiction--the role of women in society, how that role might be shaped, changed, and subverted by characters who are unwilling to accept an unjust state of affairs. Her main character Asvi shines out like a beacon and takes her place among her many other outstanding characters. Scott Lynch’s “Maybe Just Go Up There and Talk to it” felt really resonant in an age of limited supplies to fight the global pandemic, as towns, cities, states and the country fight a rearguard and often diminishing action against the return or just plain eruption of Dragons into the modern world. Kelly Robson’s “La Vitesse” features the appearance of Dragons in the Canadian Rockies, and the most metal schoolbus chase I’ve ever read in fiction. Patricia McKillip brings her poetic and evocative pen to life in a magical educational setting in her story "Camouflage".

Other stories take Dragons in all sorts of directions, ranging from Dragons with colony collapse syndrome to Dragons on extraterrestrial worlds.

I do encourage you to pick up this volume, because, as I keep harping on, the wide range of stories really goes give a lot entry points and stories to love for a wide variety of readers.

And I have to say that the pencil style artwork by Rovina Cai is wonderful. Not only is the cover art arresting to look at, but there are plenty of line drawings within the volume itself that bring visual appeal to the reader. That said, this artwork is something that is lost in electronic versions of the book, which is a real shame.

Art by Rovina Cai. Poem by Amal El-Mohtar

So, Mr. Strahan,now that you’ve conquered Dragons how about an anthology of other Fantastical Beasts. Griffins, Medusae, Rukhs, and more need your editorial eye, too!

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for an excellent set of authors, both on the poetry and fictional fronts
+1 for a strong use of art in the anthology that makes this much more appealing in physical rather than electronic form.

Penalties: -1 As always with an anthology, the wide rangeness of the anthology means that some stories are going to work much less well for a reader than others.

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

Reference: Strahan, Jonathan The Book of Dragons [Harper Voyager, 2020]

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