Monday, February 28, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy by Eidos-Montréal

Get your Walkman ready for this one.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy begins with our eclectic heroes attempting to make a name for themselves. In typical Guardians’ fashion, they try to achieve this in a way familiar to them; by breaking the law. As one can imagine, this leads to conflict with the Nova Corps officials. After that, well, things get a little wild. At one point, with the protagonists entrapped, I found myself using the singing voices of the Guardians—to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin—to compel/repel a space llama to eat some wires so that we could free ourselves from our rooms. Yes, I typed that correctly.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
isn’t just ‘80s classic music, hair metal, massive explosions, hordes of religious zealots, vicious wild beasts, dogfights in space, intergalactic travel, and well-timed jokes sprinkled throughout a video game. Those things are all included, to be sure, but that only scratches the surface of this wonderful narrative-driven superhero game by Eidos-Montréal. Under all the wild theatrics of the galactic threat, the game digs into the trauma of each protagonist, fleshing out each character in the process (except for Groot who repeats the same three words). The game shows that no matter how jagged or irregular puzzle pieces are, if flipped around enough times, they may just be a perfect fit.

In contrast to many big-name superheroes, the Guardians' main draw is that they’re a team. The Guardians have the initial instinct to run when they need to deal with their problems, but find solace when they turn to their companions. Some of the best moments in this game come from the tender interactions between all of the Guardians, not only does the team become stronger as a whole, but so does the narrative. Overcoming personal hurdles unlock in-game abilities that can be used in combat. These abilities lead to more options while taking down the wild beasts and promise-driven enemies encountered throughout the adventure.

While the narrative has a great arc, there are some minor technical gripes I had throughout my journey. Stiff and sometimes janky animations lead to the ruining of some serious moments. For example, every time Peter Quill has a one on one conversation with one of his crew-mates, it ends abruptly with them quickly doing an about-face and exiting the room. They could have just discussed their years of enslavement or the death of their family, and then they quickly exit the room. It's an awkward animation that was overlooked, or worse ignored, by the developer. This game is also guilty of having button prompts in which the player unknowingly advances the narrative. This can sometimes be frustrating for someone who wants to explore an entire area before moving forward.

But what about the gameplay? Unfortunately, this is where the game loses most of its luster. The traversal is hindered by pedestrian platforming mechanics that don’t feel great when using them, not to mention the lack of a sprint button. While Star-Lord does have jet boots to boost forward, it’s irritating to have to constantly press the button every second to increase movement speed.

I am thankful for the puzzles, simple as they were, as they add a fun bit of variety that takes advantage of the different Guardians’ abilities. Groot can build bridges and lift platforms with his roots, Gamora can cut through certain objects or help boost Peter up to platforms he couldn't reach otherwise, Drax uses his strength to move otherwise immovable objects, and little fuzzy—sorry Rocket—can hack things and climb into small openings. This represents Peter Quill’s position as leader, as the player issues these commands wherever necessary to advance.

In between all the fun story beats and puzzles, there are some enemies to kill. If I’m being honest, the combat wasn’t the best part of the game. While no means awful, the combat doesn’t reach the heights of other great superhero games like Marvel's Spider-Man or Batman Arkham Asylum. Serviceable, unmemorable. You can use Star-Lord’s blasters and elemental abilities to take down enemies, as well as a few special abilities which can be unlocked through leveling up or spending some of the in-game collectible currency. In addition to Star-Lord’s abilities, the player can command the other Guardians to use their abilities in combat scenarios. There are moments of fun to be had to be sure, but I would sometimes get stuck in the command menu while trying to fight enemies, which in turn would ruin the combo I had. Over time, I figured out what was going on, but it wasn’t initially intuitive.

I give Eidos-Montréal credit for ensuring the game had a plethora of enemies to be overcome with different strategies that consistently force the player to use their newly unlocked elemental and stagger abilities. When the team is down and out (or when you accidentally press the wrong buttons), Star-Lord can rally everyone with the Huddle ability. Here, the other Guardians come to Star-Lord with eager enthusiasm for the current battle or come to complain about their predicament. It’s up to the player to choose the correct dialogue option, a failed one only gives partial benefits, while the correct one excites the team. At one point, Drax told me that my speech made no sense, and then we launched into battle to the tune of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. I couldn't help but laugh aloud.

Speaking of laughing, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a treat when it comes to witty banter and well-timed punchlines. Drax’s consistent barrage of impeccably placed dialogue is commendable. I can’t count the number of times he made me chuckle, not to mention the rest of the team yelling at each other across the Milano. The fastidious writing team at Eidos-Montréal succeeded in capturing the comical essence of this ragtag group with utter proficiency.

In addition to the dialogue choices mid-battle, there are other areas of the game where choices are presented. Throughout the journey, Star-Lord is given options in how to respond to his teammates. Should he boost up the morale of the whole team, or give in to the melancholy to try and relate to how they’re feeling? Should he back Rocket or Gamora? Join in on the teasing or make everyone back off? Even better yet, there are some sequences in the game where the player choice will change the entire level that must be navigated. While they don't have any impact on the overall story, they do offer some extra replay value for a second run.

What would a comic-book-based video game be without references to its source material? Guardians has many unlockable costumes hidden throughout the game, some that reference the comics, others the MCU films. These are a nice nod to the other media appearances of these heroes while also contributing a little background info. Other collectibles include items that can be used to trigger unique dialogue with different members of the team. Finding these items was always great because I knew I’d get some more character lore once I got back to the Milano.

For all that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy gets wrong, it does a lot more right. While the combat and platforming can be lackluster, the writing team deserves a lot of credit for lifting this game above its mechanics. The story, characters, music, and jokes are the heart of this microtransaction-free super-hero adventure and I look forward to seeing more Guardians games in the future.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for well-placed dialogue throughout the entire runtime. +1 capturing the essence of the Guardians of the Galaxy. +1 for Lady Hellbender.

Penalties: -1 mediocre gameplay. -1 for odd and janky animations.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Microreview: Quantum of Nightmares by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Quantum of Nightmares continues the story started in Dead Lies Dreaming, as the fallout from the events of that book wraps up Eve, her brother Imp, and continues to show how life in Britain under the New Management is proceeding apace.

With a change in government, elsewhere as well as in Britain, especially a Britain adapting under an evolving Case Nightmare Rainbow¹ situation, the rise of widespread magic, there are going to be changes to society.  Speed cameras now sport skulls of those who break the law. Superheroes and Supervillains are real, although mental parasites from other worlds will eat their brains if they aren’t careful in the use of their powers. Locks and defenses now include magical wards as well as more mundane physical and electronic locks. And there are cults and societies who are seeking to use the new facts on the ground to bring their own patrons and powers to full flower.

Welcome back to Britain under the New Management of Nyarlahotep, in Quantum of Nightmares. Quantum of Nightmares is the second novel following Dead Lies Dreaming, a new entry point into the Laundry Files verse, and is overall the 11th book set in the series. This review is going to mention events in Dead Lies Dreaming, as a throughline of the novel does follow the consequences of that book. Caveat Lector!

At the end of Dead Lies Dreaming, things looked pretty good for siblings Eve and Imp. Eve is, was, the former assistant to a powerful billionaire lost in an alternate world that he himself had contracted Eve and company to find an important magical book. Eve can possibly just move into her boss’s shoes, since his style of management was “delegate to Eve”.  Eve is also a pretty talented sorceress. Imp has forgotten most of his training in magic they both received, he relies on his superpower of incredible persuasion.  Eve is trying to cement her own power in the wake of Rupert’s departure, but she soon finds that Rupert has snookered here. So she must deal with the fact that Rupert is, oddly enough, a real feudal lord of a tiny (fictional) island in the channel...called Skaro. She doesn’t find Daleks there, but what she does find and have to deal with is bad enough--cultists of an entity called The Mute Poet.  And they have a Plan.

Bringing in Imp means bringing in his team of supervillains and associated people, such as the superhero semi professional thief taker Wendy Deere, who is trying to build on the burgeoning relationship that she started at the end of Dead Lies Dreaming with one of Imp’s crew, the Deliverator Rebecca. Though I should know that  Imp’s crew, although crucial to connecting the various threads in multiple directions, get a little less focus individually in this book than in the first. 

The two other threads, and how they connect with this thread and storyline from Dead Lies Dreaming and how it all fits together in the end shows the skill and patience of the author in making this book come together. Even as there are a dozen books in the Laundry Files verse now, Stross is always trying new techniques, forms, motifs to alloy into his genre-aware and genre-referential style and writing.

One thread involves a branch of a grocery store chain, Flavrmart. Amy, the assistant to the head of HR, Jennifer, is much put upon by her boss and by events in the store. Jennifer is demoing and debuting a rather disturbing technique on the workers in the store, but it is the shenanigans of the meat printer technician that sets the ball rolling for Amy to find out just what Jennifer, the technician and others are up to. I’ve worked in a grocery store in my time, so the scenes here are painful, funny, and (for being set in the Laundry Files verse) still ran very true to me. 

The second thread is Mary Macandless. Ostensibly she has been hired to watch a set of children while their high flying parents are on vacation. But both sides are keeping secrets. The children’s parents are Superheroes, and the children themselves are manifesting rather alarming superpowers of their own. On the other side, Mary’s real goal is the kidnapping of the children, and she has a rather special handbag in her possession to help her. If you are thinking of a demented Mary Poppins at this point, you will be gratified that Stross leans into this, delightfully.  As you might expect, the planned kidnapping goes oh so very wrong, with a road trip across Britain that is perhaps the funniest part of the book, hands down. 

In general, though, although there is a lot of peril and a whole lot of things going oh so wrong, the overall tone of the book, like the previous book, Dead Lies Dreaming, is relatively light and fun. For all of the attempted (and succeeding) human sacrifices, cultists, things brought from other dimensions, and surprises I will leave you the reader to discover, it's all pitched on a page-turning addictively fun plane. The implications and the horror of some of the events are sneaked in through the sweetness of the deceptive surface candy shell of the way Stross is telling the story.  Given how, as I have mentioned before, Stross likes to have a variety of styles, its a way that keeps a twelve book series going strong.  

I wondered how The Laundry Files would do as a series and world once the original protagonist, Bob Howard was mostly gone from the scene (due to his power level as much as other things). Now that we’ve had a few novels without him, I can happily report that, yes, for me, the series and world and premise still work without Bob Howard at the center of events or even in the picture at all. 

I wouldn’t start here, even if Stross makes it clear what you need to know from Dead Lies Dreaming, especially as Eve learns just how screwed she is by what her former boss has set her up, but readers of that first book, a new entry point into the Laundry Files verse, will find lots to love. Just a word of advice, in the Britain of the New Management: Never, ever, come to the attention of the Black Pharaoh or those who scheme and work under him.

¹Given previous events in the series, a true Case Nightmare Green has been tempered and altered by a partial Case Nightmare Red of the refugee/invasion of the Alfar as described in the novel The Nightmare Stacks. Also, this novel (and a couple of previous ones) make it clear that things are still shaking out).


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a lot of well needed humor in this day and age

+1 for good playing out from the first novel in showing how what seemed like a settled situation just has led to Eve and Imp with new problems.

+1 For more interesting worldbuilding and showing how to keep calm and carry on in Case Nightmare Rainbow.

Penalties: -1 There is a lot in this novel, and sometimes a few characters and ideas sadly get short shrift. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference:  Stross, Charles  Quantum of Nightmares [, 2022]

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

Adri and Joe talk about books: The 2021 Locus List

Joe: This year feels especially weird to me because we just got done talking about last year’s Hugo Awards, which means that we were actually talking about work published in 2020. Now we’re sliding right from that into talking a bit about some of the best of 2021, albeit in a somewhat different format than our Best of 2021 chat.

It’s the 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List and it’s time to stuff our faces full of all of the glory that is all of the books and maybe start thinking about this year’s awards races. No rest for the weary, eh?

Adri: Maybe a bit of rest, since we’re doing this a couple of weeks later than usual, a fact which is partly about how intense it has been going from 2021 awards season into 2022 this year, and partly because I got the new Pokemon game and disappeared for a week to complete my Pokedex.

Let’s be honest: it’s also partly because the time I would have spent getting excited over the list when it first came out instead got taken up by frustrations over what happens lower down in the Locus Awards ballot, and especially by their longlist of Best Magazine candidates that, when originally published, included some fanzines that hadn’t updated since 2018 (and earlier), while only two fanzines from the last 5 years of Hugo Best Fanzine shortlists were represented. There were also other notable exclusions, like YA speculative fiction magazine Cast of Wonders, which, along with the biased and limited selection of sites and magazines that Locus chooses to collect demographic data about, adds up to a picture of prioritising old-school fandom voices and systemically overlooking newer ones. The team at Locus have since gone some way to rectifying that (you can now vote for Nerds of a Feather without writing us in, if you are so inclined!) but it makes it difficult to get enthusiastic about the list overall when parts of it are so… disappointing.

That said, we’re here for Locus Recommended Reading List, not the Locus Awards themselves, and the list IS fun. So: what books are you excited to see here?

Yes, books! I always have to remind myself that Locus breaks out First Novels from the main Science Fiction and Fantasy categories - so Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun is there and not in fantasy (and, I still *really* need to read that one).

Is it weird to say that some of the books that I’m most excited to see on the list are the ones I haven’t read yet because the second year of the pandemic hit my reading habits differently than the first? It’s the reminder that these are books that I really need to pay attention to and not let slide for another six years until I forget why I was excited about them in the first place.

So - from that weirdly specific category, I’m excited to see
You Sexy Thing
(Cat Rambo), The Actual Star (Monica Byrne), Light from Uncommon Stars (Ryka Aoki), and Jade Legacy (Fonda Lee). I was always going to read Jade Legacy as soon as I can get my hands on a copy, but the other three have been floating in and out of my consciousness for months now. Also! I’m long overdue to read Cherie Priest again and her latest novel, Grave Reservations, is on the Recommend Reading List. As an added bonus, it’s urban fantasy and this is going to be a big year for reading urban fantasy here at Nerds of a Feather (future hint, future hint).

For novels that I’ve read and loved, I am not at all surprised but am absolutely thrilled to see A Desolation Called Peace (Arkady Martine), We Are Satellites (Sarah Pinsker, who can do no wrong), Out Past the Stars (K.B. Wagers), The Wisdom of Crowds (Joe Abercrombie), and Soulstar (C.L. Polk). I may not have read nearly as many new novels last year as I might have wanted to, but the ones I did were damned good.

“Not surprised but very happy” covers a lot of my favourite books that made this list. I have read The Actual Star, Light from Uncommon Stars and Jade Legacy and all rank among my favourite books of 2021, as do books like The Jasmine Throne (Tasha Suri), Soulstar (C.L. Polk), Black Water Sister (Zen Cho), and Sorrowland (Rivers Solomon).

This isn’t the first year I’ve said this, but the First novel category is also particularly stacked. P Djeli Clark (A Master of Djinn), Nghi Vo (The Chosen and the Beautiful), Cassandra Khaw (The All-Consuming World) and A.C. Wise (Wendy, Darling) all have significant, high profile careers in shorter fiction, and two of the three works from the fan favourite “sapphic trifecta” (The Unbroken by C.L. Clark and She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan) are also in here.

Like you, there’s also several books I badly need to get around to reading: Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson has come very heavily recommended to me, The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey and We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker both involve authors I don’t like to miss, and I’m long overdue checking out Gautam Bhatia’s The Horizon (and, indeed, its predecessor The Wall).

: And now I’m adding to my impossible to-read list because I’m with you on wanting to read Guatam Bhatia, obviously starting with The Wall.

The flip side of talking about all of the wonderful novels that were recommended by the various reviewers at Locus is that there are equally wonderful novels left off the list. I’d almost call out those misses as snubs because I’m in the middle of Academy Award commentary and that’s an overused buzzword in that sphere, but we’ve put together our own list for a number of years now and frankly, we miss really great stuff ourselves and we don’t even have the same sort of rules in play that Locus does in terms of needing a certain percentage of recommendations to the make the list.

With that said, the miss that stands out the most to me is Savage Bounty from Matt Wallace. I’m a big fan of Matt’s writing since Envy of Angels exploded angel nuggs into my brain and everything I’ve read since has been absolutely stupendous. Savage Bounty is the second of his Savage Rebellion epic fantasy series. I know Locus doesn’t often go for big budget epic semi-traditional epic fantasy (Joe Abercrombie notwithstanding) - but Wallace is doing a whole lot in these books and punches readers in the gut in the best possible way.

Adri: I agree. I think Savage Legion also got overlooked, and it’s a shame because the series is doing fantastic things in its subgenre, and I wish it was more well known! I read the first book on your recommendation and I have no regrets about doing so.

: It did, Locus missed it last year.

Adri: At the risk of just listing everything on our recommended reading list that isn’t the Locus list, there are a few things I’d have liked to see here. There are several literary fiction “crossovers” on the list, but no love for Several People are Typing by Calvin Kalsuke, a hilarious novel in chat log form about a man who accidentally uploads his consciousness to his work’s Slack channel, and all the weird and wonderful workplace happenings that surround that. I also think that Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Destroyer of Light has been very underrated this year: a retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth from the perspective of a newly colonised, tidally locked planet struggling with resource inequality and violence, it plays with time and space and intertwining paths in a really interesting way.

It also surprises me that there isn’t more love for the Rick Riordan Presents line in Young Adult. Yes, it’s a Middle Grade imprint. No, Middle Grade is not the same as YA. I have wonderful friends who advocate for the recognition of YA SFF and prefer people like me stopped crossing the streams when it comes to those two age brackets, and I see the argument for not doing so even as I personally like broad categories and chaos. But, what is relevant here is that Darcie Little Badger’s book is also middle grade and made the Locus Young Adult list, so I’d have loved to see it joined by the likes of City of the Plague God by Sarwat Chadda, or Tristan Strong Keeps Punching by Kwame Mbalia. Just saying.

Joe: That might be the case of Darcie Little Badger being known to the adult fiction reviewers (as well as the YA reviewers), so she has the visibility. You’d think that the Rick Riordan Presents line would have that visibility as well, but I think it’s still tied to who the author is. I believe Rebecca Roanhorse’s Race to the Sun from Rick Riordan was on the 2020 list but Roanhorse is a known quantity in this particular quantity and perhaps that’s what we’re seeing.

That’s a whole separate conversation about identifying blind spots, but that’s my takeaway for what you’re seeing. YA and Middle Grade are one of my blind spots, for now and until my kids age into those categories, but I’m not representing the field either.

Do you want to talk about Novella and Short Fiction? I don’t have much to add to it this year, but you are more than welcome to monologue for a bit.

: Always! The thing about short fiction (especially short story, but to a lesser extent novelette as well) is that there’s just so much good stuff: even as someone who reads well above the average amount of short fiction, the whole category can feel like one big blind spot. I’m really open about my own limitations and preferences, and while I wish I had time to regularly read more publications, I’ve accepted that it’s not going to happen without giving up something else that I’m not willing to part with (or getting a paid full time “read short fiction for a living” job offer which… lol.)

So, there are plenty of stories on here that I’m like, yes, that one! (e.g. everything by Kel Coleman, "Quintessence" by Andrew Dykstal, "Meditations on Sun-Ra’s Bassim" by Yah Yah Scholfield," Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather" by Sarah Pinsker… and so, so many others) there’s also a lot of stuff that I haven’t read or don’t remember as well as I want to. It’s so easy for stories even by favourite authors, like C.L. Polk or Elizabeth Bear, to pass me by if they’re not in a magazine I’m paying attention to. It’s sad, but that's the life of a short story aficionado. 

Quickly, I’ll also mention two things I think should be on here as well: one is Malka Older’s fantastic story in Constelacion, “The Badgers Digestion”; and the other is anything by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko, who had a fantastic year of work in Podcastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere and is also Astounding Award Eligible.

In Novella, I’m delighted to see Lagoonfire by Francesca Forrest here: this is a great little universe about a decommissioner of gods working for a repressive government, and sadly it looks like this is going to be the last of small press Annorlunda’s works, so I hope more people pick it up and that Forrest finds somewhere to continue writing these stories. In terms of publishers, it’s also a significantly less Tor dot com dominated list than previous years, with a significant number of magazine published novellas making the cut as well as all four works in Neon Hemlock’s 2021 novella series (justifiably so: it’s an amazing set). I’d have liked to see The Future God of Love by Dilman Dila, published by Luna Press Publishing.

I’m a little surprised that Elizabeth Bear’s A Blessing of Unicorns is here, having originally been published in audiobook only in 2020: I thought we had collectively moved past the idea that audiobook publishing isn’t “real” publishing after the nonsense with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novelette, but I guess the upshot of that is that the story did get nominated for its first print appearance, so as far as Hugo precedent is concerned that makes it the “real” point of eligibility. Then again, we almost included the story in our list and would have done based on quality alone, so I don’t hate that it’s here.

Now I’ve successfully monologued, I think it’s time for our favourite activity of these roundups: vaguely authoritative shortlist guessing. What are your thoughts on the books we’re likely to see in the Nebulas and, of course, the Hugos?

: My very vague sense for last year is that it was perhaps not the highest profile of years in terms of new authors breaking through or more established writers writing novels that are getting a lot of attention. It feels like a quieter year, which doesn’t at all mean that last year wasn’t another high quality year. Do you agree with that or is it just a symptom that I wasn’t as plugged in as much as I wanted to be and as I usually am?

But, with that in mind, I think the Hugo and Nebulas are going to be chaos in regards to predictions.

The Nebulas have their own particular flavor which only partially overlaps with the Hugos. A possible Nebula ballot could look like this:
  • A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine
  • Soulstar, by C.L. Polk
  • We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker
  • A Master of Djinn, by P. Djeli Clark
  • She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan
But, I could make a strong argument that Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful or Helene Wecker’s The Hidden Palace picks up a nomination, possibly Hummingbird Salamander (VanderMeer) or The Witness for the Dead (Addison) or The Echo Wife (Gailey). It’s absolutely wide open.

Equally wide open is the Hugo Awards. Give me another month to finalize my actual Hugo predictions, but right now I might guess something like this:
  • The Galaxy and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
  • A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine
  • She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan
  • Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
  • The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey
  • Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson
I don’t feel strongly about the Neal Stephenson, it could be akin to my Ministry for the Future prediction last year, though Ministry was a much stronger potential nominee in my mind (and which I still think should have made the ballot). I really only feel good about 3 of these and if I’m wrong there then I really have no idea what’s going to make the ballot. Possibly the P. Djeli Clark? Something that I’m not even thinking about?

The Chosen and the Beautiful feels more like a Nebula novel as a Gatsby retelling, but Vo just won a novella Hugo last year. So, what do I know? What do you think?

Adri: I agree with you on the Nebulas, except my top 5 prediction would substitute either Soulstar or We Are Satellites for Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. There are some things that just feel like Nebula things, and that’s one of them.

My thoughts on Hugo ballot prediction are not as well-formed as yours, but I think you are correct in that I have fewer books with “yeah, that’s definitely going to be on a Hugo ballot” vibes this year. Since the quality of my own reading didn’t drop off, I think that’s a sign that there’s actually a lot of stuff that would feel right on there, and I really like that things feel less predictable.

That said, there are still two novels that I’d be surprised to not see on the ballot: A Desolation Called Peace and The Galaxy and the Ground Within are both sequels of previous Hugo winners (Desolation for best novel and Galaxy for best series), from authors that continue to be very much in the Hugo conversation, and they’re both great books. I also think that Light From Uncommon Stars and She Who Became the Sun are ahead of the pack as buzzy debuts. I’d really like to see The Unbroken up there too, and I hope at a minimum some of the fantasy-specific awards recognise how good it is.

I’m not sure what we’ll see in the last two spots. Maybe The Echo Wife, but Magic for Liars wasn’t a Hugo finalist. Maybe We Are Satellites, but Song for a New Day wasn’t. The Witness for the Dead doesn’t seem to have captured hearts in the same way as The Goblin Emperor did (I also wasn’t sure what to make of it, though I’m looking forward to the sequel). I also don’t think we’re going to have a Neal Stephenson book this year, for no reason other than that I didn’t realise he had a book out in 2021.

So, if I’m locking in predictions, let’s go for two books I hope will be up there in Hugo voters’ consideration: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark and The Actual Star by Monica Byrne. The latter is one of my favourites and it’s the kind of thing that would be right at home in the Clarke shortlist (please don’t sleep on it, Clarke Award judges), but I want it to be on a Hugo ballot too, so here is me speaking it into being.

And that’s it! Any final thoughts before we wrap this up?

Joe: As you said, I would not be shocked at all to see The Chosen and the Beautiful on the Nebula Ballot and I am fully on board with A Desolation Called Peace and The Galaxy and the Ground Within as Hugo finalists. Those were my two near locks.

I wanted to put We Are Satellites on my pre-prediction and maybe it’ll make it there for the real prediction next month, but I do agree that the lack of nomination for the more topical (and somewhat more buzzy) A Song for a New Day kind of hurts. Sarah Pinsker can do no wrong in my book, but if I’m making predictions about what I *think* will happen and not what I want to happen - I’m not sure it’s going to make it with the Hugos.

The tricky thing is that one metric to use in predictions is whether a writer has made the novel ballot before. That doesn’t apply to debuts, but once we’re on to a second or third novel and it isn’t a real “breakout” compared to the earlier ones, it’s the best we can do in guessing the nominating habits of others.

One book that I wonder if we’re overlooking, at least in regards to the Hugo Awards is Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. The Martian wasn’t eligible when it broke out because it had been previously self published and Artemis was a let down after The Martian - but Project Hail Mary hits a lot of the same buttons as The Martian and I think has a real chance in a year that isn’t as locked in as others. That’s why Neal Stephenson was my outlier prediction. Four time finalist, one time winner, most recently on the ballot in 2016 for Seveneves. I don’t think Termination Shock has the same buzz as Seveneves but if nominating is more diffuse it could still make it.

By the time I make final predictions, Project Hail Mary will probably overtake Termination Shock, but I won’t be, well, shocked if it happens.

Adri: You make a good point, and there are probably people out there who are shocked we’ve forgotten an Andy Weir book came out last year! After Artemis, I can’t say I’m rushing out to read more of Weir’s work, but he hasn’t been on a best novel ballot before and having new things to read is always a good part of the Hugo experience.

And with that, there’s nothing left to do but wait for some ballots to drop!

Posted by: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him

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, February 23, 2022

Microreview: The Art of Broken Things by Joanne Anderton

A new collection of short stories from one of Australia's hidden treasures will break your heart and mend it back together with gold.

Australia has a wealth of horror writers, authors of dark fantasy and science fiction. This is particularly the case with short fiction. Many readers outside of Australia will know of Kaaron Warren and Angela Slatter, while locals know to also watch for the work of Kirstyn McDermott, Claire McKenna and Kyla Lee Ward. The Art of Broken Things shows that Joanne Anderton is one of the best of them, tugging at the heartstrings with a skill few can match.

This is the author's third collection, containing thirteen stories, most of which were previously published between 2013 and 2020. Two of them ("Wreck Diving"; "Bullets") won Aurealis Awards (Australia's premier juried award for speculative fiction), with two more shortlisted (in the case of "Loose Stones" in more than one category).

One of the delightful things about collections is that they make the preoccupations of the author wonderfully clear. This is most certainly true of The Art of Broken Things. Many of the characters in these stories are outsiders, some literally living on the outskirts of town, others simply strangers in a foreign culture. They are people facing grief or toxic relationships, people who are desperate and despairing.

Being a horror anthology, there is some dark material among these stories, including domestic violence, paedophilia, sexual violence and rape. The author does a skilled job of presenting these as looming threats, not present on the page itself, but happening off screen. Still, readers for whom these are triggers should tread carefully. 

Of all the stories, I found "Street Furniture" particularly unpleasant. In this story, a teenage girl trades items of furniture to a goblin in exchange for protection for her brother from her mother's abusive boyfriend. This is perhaps one of the darkest, bleakest stories in the collection, illustrating how poverty and violence can affect multiple generations. It also takes some inspiration from the iconic 80s movie Labyrinth in a way that is not at all rose-tinted.

However, it was the stories with a modicum of hope that were among my favourites. Of them all, "Warabi Mochi" stuck with me the most. This was one of two new stories written for the collection, the other being "Three on a Match". "Warabi Mochi" tells the story of a young Australian woman who has come to Japan to teach English and is struggling to adjust to the culture and make friends. The speculative elements of this story take a little while to kick in and mostly take a backseat to the relationship that develops between Jess and Mieko, the young Japanese woman that co-teaches Jess's classes. The exquisite longing to belong was breathtakingly poignant and really stuck with me.

While I found complex and well-observed characterisation to be a key part of the collection, setting was also a strength. Japan was evoked in two other stories of the collection: from the perspective of a tourist in "Ten Thousand Gates" and from the future in the post-apocalyptic "Traces". Each shows a beautifully contained framework for the story while nevertheless giving the sense of a wider world just out of sight.

The stories set in Australia are just as effective. The opening of "Bullets" had me catching my breath in recognition, as I wager it would for anyone who has lived in close proximity to bushfires, particularly in rural communities. The story goes on to offer some interesting subversions of classic selkie folklore and other animal-wife tales.

"Three on a Match" was another distinctly Australian story, this one showing the claustrophobia of a small town. Life revolves around the pub and achieving escape velocity from this dead-end black hole is harder than it looks. It's a story that taps into toxic relationships, much like "Street Furniture".

Even "Wreck Diving" -- a story not specifically set in Australia -- had recognisable elements; the asteroid miners reminded me of the fly-in-fly-out workers so characteristic of Western Australia (and, no doubt, elsewhere). This Aurealis-winning story was an excellent opening the collection. I very much enjoyed this subtle portrait of a marriage crumbling under the weight of opposing outlooks on life. It perfectly illustrates through events both mundane and extraordinary how cracks present in the start of the relationship widen into an uncrossable chasm. This is not ideal when you're on a space walk through the wreck of a generation ship.

There's something thought-provoking to every story. "2B" is a story about the control of fertility in the hands of a council of men told from the perspective of an infertile woman. "The Last Tiger" subverts ideas about the fragility of the natural world. And the title story uses AI as a lens for examining problematic thinking about whether living creatures can be "fixed" and if that's preferable to creating something new.

If I had one quibble about the collection, it's that a few of the stories end rather ambiguously. However, this is largely a matter of personal taste and in many ways I appreciated that the author didn't feel the need to spoon-feed the reader or wrap everything up in a tidy bow.

Although this is a modest collection in terms of page length, I found myself reading it slowly. There are veins of gold here that deserve to be treasured.

The Math

Baseline Assessment:  8/10

Bonuses: +1 for complex and well-observed characters, +1 for evocative settings.

Penalties: -1 for a few too many ambiguous endings.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. An outstanding collection.

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz


Anderton, Joanne. The Art of Broken Things [Trepidatio Publishing, 2022]

Henson, Jim. Labyrinth [Henson Associates Inc, 1986]

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan is fine, if you can tolerate the utter lack of diversity

Mistakes were made

 A lot of people are going to really dig this book. A lot of people are going to find in this the exact sort of thing they read fantasy for, with all the character archetypes and plot twists and cool moments and fantasy worldbuilding they want to see in their stories. For me, however, there are several fundamentals of a good fantasy novel that are missing from this one, and I need to talk about them before I start talking about anything else:

  1. I don't like fantasy books with "man" as the default gender, and The Justice of Kings is very. VERY. full of men. Men who are soldiers, men who are nobles, men as senior political figures, men as religious leaders, men who are fathers or sons (no living mothers here), men as villains and assassins. There are a few women, fewer still who wield any sort of power and aren't there to be mad, servants, or dead. One is an antagonist who plays one specific role and then is never seen again. Yes, the narrator and sort-of protagonist is a woman, but that doesn't excuse the rest of the representation. The most mentioned category of women in this book is "whore" - but, of course, there's no sex workers with names or dialogue (silly me for even bringing that up as an option!).
  2. Related to 1: I do not like fantasy books which kill off their most interesting or powerful woman to further man pain: a technique known as "fridging". Guess what happens here. Yeah, sorry. Bonus negative points for "dead family" being the entire backstory of a second man as well.
  3. I don't like fantasy books where everyone is cisgender and heterosexual with no mentioned exceptions. In The Justice of Kings, the concept of homosexuality is brought up once, to assure us that the main character is not a homosexual.
  4. I don't like fantasy books where everyone is white. In The Justice of Kings, the existence of people of colour is brought up once, to explain to us that one of the main characters from a specific part of Fantasy Not!Europe is just a bit tanned, not actually a person of colour. As the setting here is very much "conservative backwater frontier of fantasy Not!Europe", I'm more inclined to let this one go from a worldbuilding perspective, because not many people choose to migrate to conservative backwaters. But it's still a choice and I'm still not into it.
  5. I don't like fantasy books without disability representation, and, yay! The Justice of Kings has some on-page disability rep, and includes mobility aids! Sure, they're minor characters, but that means it's not a total wipeout, right? Hmm.

So, uh, what can you do when you've got through a book like this, written on purpose in the year of our Zag 2022? If you're still here, either you're waiting for a comment section so you can explain to me how wrong my criteria are (sorry, we don't have one, but you can go collect a free block on Twitter if you like), or you're wondering why I'm bothering to talk about this book at all. So, let's talk about why I tolerated the above and came out still feeling somewhat entertained, I guess?

The Justice of Kings is, technically, the story of Helena Sedanka, an orphan from a conquered territory who is now a legal clerk to one of the Emperor's Justices, a sort of itinerant lawyer/judge/executioner. Helena's narration is told as a memoir, as she looks back on the events from the perspective of an old woman and occasionally gives ominous proclamations about how bad things are going to get, and significantly more charming proclamations about how dense her nineteen-year-old self is. Helena's account is dry, and it takes time for her to open up about herself or talk about the emotional state of other characters, and its through this style of narration that we get to know the real star of the show (and the front cover): Sir Konrad Vonvalt.

(Adri, you read a book with a protagonist called "Sir Konrad Vonvalt" and you were SURPRISED you got almost zero diversity? Yeah, look, I already said mistakes were made. I'll know better next time.)

Sir Konrad, as Emperor's Justice, is tasked with wandering around mainly in the frontiers of the Empire - territories it often just finished conquering a couple of decades ago, in the "Reichskrieg" war - and dispensing justice according to the Empire's Common Law system. With the weight of the emperor's authority, Vonvalt is empowered to hand down sentences from one penny fines up to and including death, with the only real oversight being his own conscience and his accountability to the Order of Justices. As part of his training, he has access to two magical arts, one which allows him to compel the truth from anyone he asks a question of, and one which allows him to speak to the dead, though both come with a high price tag. He's also a talented swordfighter. And handsome! At the point we first meet him, Vonvalt is portrayed as a fair and upstanding person, willing to overlook the letter of the law if he can dispense justice with a minimum of bloodshed. By the end of the book's events, he's done a lot more sword-waggling than fine-levying, and Helena's ominous older self makes it clear that that's the trajectory of things to come.

With its magistrate protagonist, The Justice of Kings wants to be taken seriously as a story of political upheaval through the lens of order and justice. My expectations when it comes to stories dealing with the rule of law are super high, particularly when it comes to administration of colonised places, but I think this story hits a lot of the right notes even if there's a lot more to be explored. There's a lot of showing how the law is inconsistently applied, particularly when it bumps up against the military strength of the church and local nobility, but we see less discussion of the enforcement of "Common Law" as a whole, and how that works in places recently acquired by an expansionist, assimilationist empire. 

In particular, we never see Vonvalt or Helena really grapple with the implications of legal events of Rill, the first location in the book, where Vonvalt uncovers widespread "draedism" (i.e. religious heresy), and goes to great lengths to avoid having to record it as a serious crime, instead levying minor fines for villagers to "renounce" their heresy and avoiding any major charges towards the Lord and Lady who are clearly also involved in the old religion. It's transparently the right thing to do: the reader knows it, all the characters except the shitty Empire religious leader know it, and the village itself is reluctantly grateful for being given just enough room to back down without total capitulation. But it's a case of Vonvalt bending the law as far as it will go to ensure justice, and it gives rise to a lot of questions about just how fair and universal this Empire's common law is, and also how far Vonvalt really deserves the characterisation of "upstanding lawman guided by impartial justice and not by his own whims" at the start of the book, and calls into question how much he really changes over the course of events. Of course, we only have Helena's analysis that he has changed, and while her narration is dry and detached in a way that makes it feel trustworthy overall, there's also a strong sense that her judgement around Vonvalt isn't exactly... unbiased. If there are aspects of Vonvalt's behaviour that are being de-emphasised or glossed over in Helena's chronicle, that sets the series up for some interesting potential twists later, but for now that's just one potential direction in a series that's still, as of the end of this book, setting the scene.

Am I going to be back to see this play out? See points 1 - 5 above: that is to say, probably not. Life's too short to read annoying books, and while I see a ton of potential in The Justice of Kings, I just don't think anyone in 2022 writes about this many straight white dudes by accident, you know? I'm sad to have to let go of a series with such an intriguing focus on law, but I'm sure there will be plenty more to pique my interest, and I won't have to play "mad, dead or unimportant" bingo with the handful of women in them.

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

Monday, February 21, 2022

Microreview: Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore

This is the most fascinating concept I've seen in years, but its style is not for everyone

Some titles are an insta-buy. One cannot see a novel called Battle of the Linguist Mages and not buy it. So it has that going for it. However, this novel is very specifically geared toward its own inimitable combination of tastes. You'll need to sustain a high tolerance for a bright neon nightclub aesthetic and extensive speculations on theoretical linguistics and an RPG-style narrative structure with quests and milestones and leveling up and trippy journeys to extradimensional battlefields made of pure abstraction and perennially snarky dialogue that goes out of its way to make every electronic music pun English will allow and nobly principled anarchist rebel fighters who never stop reminding you how so very nobly principled anarchist rebel fighters they are.

It starts great, don't get me wrong. But unless you're inured to the taste this book requires, it can quickly become too much.

Our protagonist is Isobel Bailie, an Extremely Online young woman who prides herself in crushing the leaderboard at the MMORPG Sparkle Dungeon. She slays rainbows; she battles bejeweled assassins; she rules benevolently over the dance floor that is her domain. But the musical spellcasting system in this videogame is secretly the training grounds for an ethically contortionist ad agency that has discovered a way to weaponize the building blocks of language. You just give them some time and, with enough cleverly phrased messages, they can take over the world.

To me, it makes every sense that the shady corporation in a punk rebellion story with wordplay-based combat happens to be an ad agency. As the holder of a business degree and half a communications degree, I can definitely confirm that marketing is the Dark Side of rhetoric. So when our heroine is recruited by this company as a junior project manager, it doesn't take long for her to be embroiled in a breakneck political conspiracy with vast repercussions for the whole cosmos.

To give you just an example: in a fairly early scene, we learn that the punctuation marks are an incorporeal alien species that has lived in the human mind since before civilization. And that's not the half of how weird this book gets from there.

To quote Illidan Stormrage: you are not prepared.

The early chapters show us Isobel learning to use a repertoire of difficult magic words that twist human perception and thereby alter reality. But her rise in the world of corporate verbal manipulation and subliminal political campaigning is thwarted by an independent faction that has devised its own magic words and opposes what it sees as humankind's bondage to an alien intelligence. With lightning pacing, Isobel's adventure takes her from our world to the realms of tangible thoughts and written code. When language is your weapon, anything you can describe in the source code of reality can be spoken into existence. Soon the limits between what is real and what is merely imaginable are blurred with indelible glitter.

The concept is so mindblowing that I didn't mind the sheer length of infodump this novel threw at me. I was so fascinated by the possibilities of its magic system that I ate up every scene of exposition. I must warn, however, that Isobel's first-person narration takes a good amount of getting used to. The prose here must be commended for producing the most convincingly girly girl I've seen emerge from the pen of a male author, but her inner monologue is supersaturated with pop culture references and deflecting irony and genre-savviness and multiple meta-layers of internet lingo and, for some reason, strongly opinionated remarks on dance subgenres. If that's your jam, you'll absolutely fall in love with Battle of the Linguist Mages. As for me, I had to take frequent breaks to breathe. I'll say this for Scotto Moore: he succeeds at making Isobel's voice an intense presence throughout the book. I just felt it turn too intense at times. Maybe I'm old.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is, quite appropriately, built on metaphor. The cosmic enemies of our brave anticapitalist warriors are, in one corner, an uncaring force of insatiable consumption, and in the other corner, a self-proclaimed lord who feeds on the strength of the masses. The plot presents interesting scenarios about the human cost of hoarding power in too few hands and the inherently corrupting effect of tools of dominance. But Moore can't resist the impulse to turn his world-ending scenario into material for joke after joke after joke until it's hard to believe in the threat anymore.

Even the last chapter, which is written in the strongest voice of the book, ends too quickly. This is a common pattern here. Once Isobel becomes a being of bits and ideas, her invincibility comes off as cartoonish, and there's no longer any reason to fear for her. At the end of the novel's repeated succession of, frankly, low-tension battles with no real losses, the truly epic climax promises a resounding bang, and instead deflates without even a moment to savor the heroine's victory. This would have been easy to fix by writing more transitional material, but instead the impression that remains in my mind is that of a gorgeous multicolored soap bubble that pops, and that's it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a brilliant and original concept, +1 for devoting an entire chapter to a poetic first-person description of the existential confusion of teleportation.

Penalties: −1 for tonal inconsistency, especially its often misplaced sense of humor, −1 for battles that resolve too neatly and never really convey a sense of danger, −1 because Isobel's rivals turn to her side too easily. As a pacifist, I'll applaud any heroine who makes allies out of her enemies, but the way those conversations are written lacks sufficient tension to make each change of mind land with the weight it calls for.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Moore, Scotto. Battle of the Linguist Mages [Tom Doherty, 2022].

Friday, February 18, 2022

Microreview [game]: Halo Infinite by 343 Industries

Sometimes you just don't want to go home

After a year of failure, this December I finally managed to procure an Xbox Series X. As a longtime user of the platform, going all the way back to the original Xbox, I naturally had to get my hands on Halo Infinite - the latest entry in the venerable series. 

Halo Infinite is in many ways the perfect launch vehicle for the new console. Featuring crisp, high-resolution graphics and excellent gameplay mechanics, you'd think this would be Microsoft's veritable ace in the hole. The reality, however, is more of a mixed bag - a melange of good, bad and ugly. 

First, the good. Halo Infinite is gorgeous to look at and looks amazing in 4k. The multiplayer is everything you want it to be, operating in the middle ground between Call of Duty's frenetic action and Battlefield's more languid pace. The maps are tight, the various modes fun to explore and the encounters as tactical as they were when Xbox first went online. I also appreciated the post-rock lobby music - a nice and unexpected touch. Matchmaking can be a little buggy, but once it gets going, the game is a lot of fun. 

The campaign starts strong as well, setting you on an open world island where you can wander about, capture forward operating bases (FOBs), eliminate notorious enemies, free imprisoned marines and - when you feel like it - initiate and complete various missions that advance the story. You also have a series of special moves that you can level up with Spartan Points, which you find scattered across the island. There's a grappling hook, threat detector, thruster and drop shield, all of which are useful at various points in the game. 

The open world dynamic is a lot of fun, particularly as you can approach the tasks in a number of different ways: going in guns blazing, using vehicles or picking enemies off from a distance with the sniper rifle or skewer. There are also enemy bases and bridges to capture, which are very tactical but still frenetic affairs. At this early stage in the game, I figured Halo infinite would end up one of my 2 or 3 favorites entries in the series. 

Unfortunately, the denouement of the campaign is...well, calling it "forgettable"would be a kindness - because it's memorable for all the wrong reasons. 

Let's start with design. As mentioned above, the open-world segment of Halo Infinite features tight gameplay mechanics and intriguing tactical battles, which force you to think as well as twitch. But once the game shifts into the more traditional linear corridor model, its weaknesses quickly become apparent. Throughout the game you are basically facing 4-5 enemy classes, each with a few variations. The lack of variety or evolution is masked by the openness of approach that you can take. However, once we're back in the corridors, you're struck by the fact that you're just doing the same thing over and over again, against the same baddies, in more or less the same environments. 

Then there are the boss battles, which to a tee incentivize the "keep running in circles" tactic. Boss battles should feel epic and thrilling, not like a chore you just want to get over with so you can do something that's actually fun. 

Finally, the story - which has to be one of the worst I've ever encountered in a game. First off, it's incoherent. The game starts with Master Chief almost dying at the hands of a Brute named Atriox, who leads a breakaway faction of the Covenant called the Banished. Then it turns out he's dead. The guy who replaced him? Completely indistinguishable from Atriox. And for the record, both come from the tired genre of "ME STRONG, YOU WEAK" barbarian baddies. Sleeping emoji. This villain, whose name I can't remember and don't especially feel like googling, shows up periodically to announce some variation on the "ME STRONG, YOU WEAK" line. Eventually you fight him by running around in a circle for what seems like years. What a game! 


There's also something about Cortana, your erstwhile manic pixie dream girl AI companion, who has been replaced by "Weapon," your new manic pixie dream girl AI companion. Weapon is mostly notable for her facial expressions. Cortana is mostly notable for something about a Halo Ring and Atriox. 

And then there's the pilot, who exists mainly to tell you that everything is useless and you should just give up - even when things are clearly going well for the Master Chief. When the pilot is captured and tortured by the Atriox clone, I wondered if there was a way to progress the game without rescuing him. Alas, there is not. Oh, and there's another villain who I guess is some kind of ancient alien and killing her is just as annoying as killing "ME STRONG, YOU WEAK." 

To conclude, despite a strong multiplayer mode and an enticing open world dynamic, it's hard not to see Halo Infinite as a massive disappointment. This is supposed to be Microsoft's marquee franchise, one that is not only supposed to extol the virtues of the company's hardware, but provide a truly memorable experience. Halo Infinite fails to meet those standards, providing gamers instead with a glimpse of that, until it devolves into a tedious and repetitive slog.  

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the open world segments and tactical gameplay; +1 for a balanced and fun multiplayer experience

Penalties: -1 for such a godawful story; -1 for repetitive enemies, weapons and environments;  -1 for the worst villains -1 really the story is as bad as I've ever seen in a video game

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Microreview: The Green Man's Silence by Juliet McKenna

 The Green Man's Silence continues the story of Daniel Mackmain, changing up him, and the entire series.

When last we left Daniel Mackmain, things had been looking up for him. After his adventures in the Cotswolds, he has a sort of relationship going with Finele, the swan may he met on his adventure there. Now, visiting her and her family back in their coastal home, Daniel finds that a new problem affects them--and him. An entitled heir is riling up the supernatural denizens of the Fens, with doubtless no good purpose. And the Green Man, Daniel’s patron, is mum on the matter. Loner Daniel is going to have to forge new relationships to face this latest problem.

The Green Man’s Silence is the third book in Juliet McKenna’s Green Man series.

As the series has progressed, from The Green Man’s Heir  through The Green Man’s Foe, and now to The Green Man’s Silence, McKenna has been expanding the sphere of her urban(rural) fantasy verse. More lore about the supernatural universe. More about Daniel’s history and background. Building on previous episodes to enrich the relationships and worlds that Daniel finds himself in. As the son of a mortal man and a dryad, and the agent of a mysterious entity known as the titular Green Man, we have a protagonist who has one foot in our world and the other foot, as the series progresses, crosses more and more into the supernatural world.  

Take this third book, The Green Man’s Silence, as illustration. In the first book, Daniel starts off gamely enough as his mother’s son, but living a most regular life otherwise, until events push him into the supernatural outside of the context of his mother. He steps further into the borderlands of faerie, as it were, but its clear that while he knows more than the average person, he is still way in over his head. By this book, Daniel’s ties to the supernatural have gotten deeper and more permanent.It’s not just his burgeoning relationship with Finele, although associating with her and her family (many of whom are of her swan man nature) but it is also the base assumptions and the water that he swims in is significantly more supernaturally aspected and focused.

That is a strength, and perhaps for some readers, a mild drawback of the book. This book amps up the supernatural lore, plotting and ties significantly. There are many more moving parts to the supernatural world and Daniel, and us, get meshed in with those as he struggles to deal with the problems Finele and her family are having with the local would-be-magician causing problems for them and for the rest of the local supernatural population. The choice to, as the title suggests, keep the Green Man offstage paradoxically gives the author room to introduce a lot of other elements and powers within the supernatural realm for Daniel to negotiate with. These entanglements in order to deal with the antagonist do complicate the narrative. 

In a sense, too, they also crowd out the villain a bit. Although in the previous books, the antagonists do not take large swaths of pages, the focus on Daniel meaning necessarily that they do not appear over much, in this third novel especially, the would-be magician really is offstage for good rafts of the book, personally. His actions and effects are outsized, and are always a threat, but this is a novel where his actual presence on screen, as it were is a little more limited. I don’t know if this novel heralds a tonal and textual shift in the series, and I will be curious as to where The Green Man’s Challenge goes in this regard. 

One thing is clear though, and that McKenna is not content to simply repeat the formula of the first book and just come out with christmas cookie cutter shaped narratives of Daniel’s story in different settings. As he gets ever deeper into the woods (or the fens, if you take Finele’s perspective) of supernatural doings, the author is willing to make changes to how the stories run, and what Daniel has to deal with. This book, then, after the first two, feels like some of a very transitional book, or one might say, given its setting, it’s a Esturarial book--a book sitting in the in-between zones of two different worlds. I know a bit about estuaries from my college days--Estauries are between the sea and the land, between salt and fresh, a zone ever and always changing, with inhabitants who are only successful if they are ready to adapt to that change. But estuaries, for all that, are some of the most fecund regions on the globe, rich places for life to develop. 

So, too, is the richness of this book. It’s a transitional book, its a book where the text, the plot and narrative, the worldbuilding and yes the main character himself is in this borderland and liminal space, and it is richer for all of it. Daniel building a real relationship with someone who is not his Mom and Dad and navigating that space. The wealth and welter of supernatural creatures and their relationships with each other. The sense of place that the Fens, our third locale in this series, provides, especially showing how deep the history of the area really goes. 

I look forward to the next book to see where McKenna continues to go with Daniel and his ever changing world.


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for a rich estuary of character and worldbuilding as she changes up Daniel and his narrative

 Penalties: -1 The novel is definitely a gear shift, and readers new to the series will not find traction here. 

 Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 Reference: McKenna, Juliet.The Green Man’s Silence (Wizard Tower Press, 2020)

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

Microreview [Book]: Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Inspired by the legend of Chang’e, a story of a girl’s quest to free her mother from prison on the moon, despite the opposition of the imperium of heaven.

Illustrator: Jason Chuang
Designer: Ellie Game
Chang’e, goddess of the moon, has been imprisoned by the Emperor and Empress of Heaven, alone and far from all immortals and mortals alike. Little do they know, she has a daughter, the child of her husband Houyi, with whom she was pregnant when she ascended to godhood. Chang’e has kept Xingyin’s existence a secret from everyone, but as her daughter’s abilities grow and develop, this is becoming impossible. When a sudden burst of power draws the attention of the rulers of Heaven, Xingyin is pushed out of the home she has always known, and into the wide world of the immortals, full of inequalities, cruelty and power struggles. She must navigate this, keeping her true identity secret, to try to find a way to free her mother from her prison, and return home herself.

This was a novel that felt like it didn’t start strong, and didn’t really seem to get better, but somehow grew on me as I read it, so when I look back, despite remembering being quite ambivalent about it, I have a great deal of fondness. I think it’s a book that would do well out of a second read, not because it would provide new twists or foreshadowing you didn’t catch the first time, but simply because you’d have settled into the tone and pace of Sue Lynn Tan’s writing. There’s a quality of the traditional fairy tale or myth to her prose that’s a little alien to a lot of modern fantasy novels – a level of distance from the protagonist, and remoteness to how we see inside their thoughts – that is a tad difficult to embrace at first, but which slowly becomes familiar, until you don’t really notice it at all. By the end of the book, I liked it a lot, and I was deeply embedded in Xingyin’s point of view and emotions, but at the start, it felt difficult to get a grip on her, and to have a grasp on how she felt about things, especially when the start of the book is, in many ways, some of the most emotionally tumultuous.

However, it never felt hard to keep reading, because despite that slightly distant tone, there was a lot to recommend the rest of the book to keep you going, not least the physical descriptions. Tan did a great job of giving you a sense of the clothing and the atmosphere and environments of her setting, and so looking back, I’m able to conjure up a vivid visual memory of several of the locations throughout the story. Even while the abstract felt a little ill-defined, the concrete was always perfect and palpable.

This also comes through in Tan’s descriptions of the other characters outside of Xingyin – we know how they dress, their mannerisms, for instance, and they all speak in noticeably different voices – yet all patterned within that slightly remote, cold tone. It’s as though Xingyin has a level of personal calmness, a remove, from which she is narrating, that at first implies she’s not particularly emotionally affected by the story. As you read through, and see through her actions how deeply she feels some of what happens, this reveals itself to be untrue, and you come to a familiarity with her character perspective, and so a comfort with the style, and hopefully an enjoyment, that was somewhat elusive at the start.

That being said, there are still a few rough edges. Some of the less prominent secondary characters are extremely one dimensional, even though the two main ones are well fleshed out. The romantic relationships early in the book were extremely obvious, pretty much from the moment each character is introduced. Tan does well to build some real tension into them, but it feels an uphill battle after the blatantness of the introductions.

There’s an equally inevitable feel to Xingyin’s progression into the imperial court. Once again, Tan does a great job of trying to give us tension and drama in each individual moment – and there are some lovely, well-drawn, memorable moments created – but the overall feel of the arc is one of inexorable success. We all know she’s going to make it to the court, we all know she’s going to turn out to be strong, and talented, and that takes some of the fun out of it. Even if, in most stories, we know, the story does enough work to make us doubt it, and so you get some actual drama along the way. Here, although Tan tries, the initial setup makes it feel just too much of a done deal, and possibly that feeds in to why, at first, the book didn’t hook me in.

But the middle and final thirds of the book do cast doubt on some of the assumptions you make – while her initial goals feel inevitable, the later parts of Xingyin’s journey do have that tension and that drama, and so as the story progresses, it gets easier and easier to be sucked in, and to wonder what comes next. Some things do still feel inevitable, but enough rugs have been pulled, or minor twists in the path, that you start to wonder, and that makes the whole thing that much better.

All in all, Tan has created a lovely, fairytale-like story, in a beautiful, richly described world. The beginning may be slightly stilted and predictable, but by the time you reach the end, you are willing to forgive it at least some of its flaws, because a lot of the rest of the journey more than made up for them. It’s an enjoyable read, and one that suggests future books – and I believe a sequel is forthcoming – may well be worth looking into.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 beautiful world descriptions

+1 actually nailing the mythic/fairytale feel

Penalties: -1 for being a little hard to get into at the start

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

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea

Reference: Daughter of the Moon Goddess Sue Lynn Tan [Harper Voyager, 2022]

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: Returnal by Housemarque

Can you break the cycle?

Hurtling through the atmosphere of a foreign planet, Helios crash lands onto the surface of Atropos. From it’s ruins steps our protagonist. You are Selene, tasked with finding the White Shadow and making an escape from this far off hellscape. But what is this mysterious White Shadow? And why are remnant corpses of Selene littered across the surface of Atropos?

Returnal throws you into its unforgiving world with the promise of a well crafted story. The initial moments made me feel like I was in for some slow cooked, properly placed reveals that would leave me with my jaw agape and hands ready for applause.

The first taste of gameplay reminded me just how great the dualsense is. The haptic feedback is used to its full potential. Each rain drop pitter-patters across your fingertips oh so delicately, making Returnal the best use of the controller’s feature set since Astro’s Playroom. The adaptive triggers are used to good effect, with L2 being multipurpose. Lightly depressing L2 zooms in while a further press will activate alternate fire. This may not sound like much, but in the heat of battle, one less finger movement can be the difference between continuing your run and having to start anew.

Each gun in Returnal has it's own unique personality. From the shotgun like Spitmaw Blaster to the poisonous single shot Rotgland Lobber, each weapon offers different strategies that can be used for specific situations, though well rounded guns like the Tachyomatic Carbine can be used in every encounter. As I increased my weapon proficiency level, each gun had perks that I could unlock and upgrade by playing with it. This reminded me a lot of the Ratchet and Clank games: a diversified arsenal with strange abilities that can be upgraded through use. The Thermogenic Launcher on full auto almost makes the games easy.

Controlling Selene is a smooth experience. This was an absolute must from Housemarque considering the stakes of each run. The frenetic gameplay demanded well polished controls and the developer delivered. There is a vaulting mechanic (which occurs when Selene reaches an edge that she hasn’t quite cleared) that can sometimes interrupt the flow of the combat. It seems slow when compared to the action all about you and can cost the player their precious adrenaline streak. Any control that leaves the player’s hands, even if briefly, feels like forever in Returnal, especially when vulnerable to enemy fire.

Not only does the game play incredibly well, but looks and sounds fantastic too. The six biomes in the game are varied and detailed while always feeling somewhat fresh due to the nature of procedural placement. The visual effects when in combat, especially the boss battles, are a sight to behold. The bullet hell spectacle is astounding and all runs at a steady frame rate with very few drops throughout my time with the game. The amount of particles and effects on screen at once is impressive.

Along with the stimulating visuals, the audio was a phenomenal accomplishment. 3D audio is applied expertly in Returnal, allowing the player to hear exactly where enemy fire originates as well as the enemy’s proximity to the player. This helped me plan my next move without visual confirmation and got me out of many a tough battle.

Though I did face some challenge throughout the game, especially in the containment rooms, I never found myself stuck. Returnal didn’t have me restarting very frequently, and only once in my first run of the game did I die to boss. I actually beat the final encounter with no healing consumables and only half a bar of my original health. While the fights are an enjoyable spectacle, the lack of adversity amongst bosses creates a deflated sense of accomplishment. What should have been a relief and a triumph had me thinking, “That was all?”

This isn’t to speak of the enemy designs themselves, many of which feel like they could be found in a Lovecraft tale. While the boss fights were underwhelming—though still exhilarating—the lockdown rooms and containment gates lifted the game high, keeping me on my toes, at peak awareness.

Being conscious of Selene’s physical presence isn’t quite as taxing as dissecting her mental state. Each victory gets you closer to a piece of Returnal’s lore, and though the final cutscene had me scratching my head after three acts, I know Housemarque’s deliberate reference to mythos serves a purpose. The names of Greek deities are intertwined with this mysterious narrative. Selene and Helios, gods of the sun and moon, drawing their chariots across the sky in a continuous cycle. It’s this type of storytelling that, while not immediately satisfying, brings me to question every aspect of the story. I have to believe this was the developer’s intention, otherwise any semblance of story falls apart under close inspection.

My time with Returnal was a positive one. Though there were a few issues that reared their ugly heads, like the occasional invisible ceiling enemy or a random sound error (resulting in a loud static burst), they were incredibly rare and were nothing more than momentary annoyances. What the game does best is create a great atmosphere and enticing gameplay, sucking players into Selene’s mysterious adventure—even if you’re not always sure what’s going on. When a game makes me want to go for just one more run at two in the morning, I know the developer must have done something right. Housemarque’s latest is a great game on it’s own, but it’s also a showcase for the potential of this nascent console generation and a solid building block for future triple A rogue-lites.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonus: +1 for engrossing atmosphere and strong sense of mysticism. +1 for great gameplay.

Penalties: -1 for unclear story beats/ending. -1 for easy bosses.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Orignally posted at: