Thursday, March 31, 2022

Microreview [book]: Azura Ghost by Essa Hansen

A multiverse spanning space opera where the legacy and power of mysterious progenitors is the central contention

Nophek Gloss introduced us to Caiden. Grew up on a colony planet, completely unaware of the colony’s true nature and purpose--a feeding ground for the Nophek, a predator creature whose brains concentrate Gloss, one of the most important substances in the universe. Escaping the death trap of the euphemistically labeled ‘Harvest’, Caiden found himself plunged into a multiversal world caught between several factions vying for control of a universe fractured into many worlds with slightly different physical laws and properties. His discovery of the Azura, a ship with abilities and powers far beyond this diminished age, makes him a target seeking to use him.  The end of Nophek Gloss has caused an upset in the balance of power, and with Caiden on the run.

Now, ten years later, Caiden and the Azura are legends, a one man, one ship, and one young Nophek crew doing good across the multiverse, staying ahead of the forces of Unity led by Abriss Centre, and dreading what will happen if her equally dangerous brother escapes his imprisonment. It’s getting harder for Caiden to escape Abriss’ traps, especially when Abriss has a trump card up her sleeve, one guaranteed to slow down Caiden enough to capture him and his remarkable ship...his long lost sister.

Welcome to Azura Ghost, the second Graven book from Essa Hansen.

Starting ten years after the first book, in many ways, this book is an even deeper ice bath plunge into a complex and complicated world than the first novel. The first novel had the advantage of starting in a remote region and then bringing Caiden into greater realms; here, Hansen goes for the deep end approach to big scale space opera (or epic fantasy) of immersing the reader into the setting and letting them find their footing. Hansen’s time jump of ten years, then, levels the playing field a bit for readers old and new. Readers who haven’t read Nophek Gloss and those who have loved it alike are a bit backfooted by Caiden’s new state of affairs, and what he has been up to. Also, starting small again, with him, his ship and his Nophek does start the reader at least the beginning, with a toe in the water.

This continues with the addition of the point of view of his sister, Leta, giving us a new and hitherto unseen view into Abriss’ Centre’s world of Unity, as well as a lot of technology, ideas, worldbuilding and the character of Leta herself. If the first book was an explosion of ideas and worldbuilding, this second novel ups the game right from the start, introducing Leta, her compatriots and their technology (especially the “remote controlled” Proxies)  for the reader to discover and comprehend. Although Leta was teased at the end of Nophek Gloss, having her as a full fledged character, in many ways more of a pawn than Caiden feels he is, she provides a good parallel perspective to events, especially once she intersects with her brother.  By this point, though, you have been dunked into the deep end.

Continuing on the theme of character, Caiden and Leta both go through some rapid growth, change and tests of their mettle, skill, and the drive of their beliefs. Hansen’s high octane plot, which I will speak on more in a moment, really puts the accelerator to what the siblings (although we learn that term is not quite completely accurate) must go through as they need to come to terms with each other and with the greater powers above them. Both are high wire acts...Leta’s personality and nature not only have to be established within the pages, affirmed, and then have to go through the wringer and make her character arc plausible. In a parallel vein, Hansen has Caiden have to be re-established as a 10 year older version of himself, then throw him onto the pyre of the revelation of his sister’s survival, work that relationship, work the events both wind up going through, and make his twisted and complicated and often agonizing character arc work and make sense. I felt a lot for Caiden throughout this novel, he goes through a *lot*...even as the fate of the Multiverse is partly on his shoulders. I especially loved, though, when he reunites with his found family from the first book. Caiden NEEDS his community, and this novel. Is an argument that a man cannot stay alone, forever, and thrive.  But its a hard pull to write.

In other words, when it comes to character, doing a time jump of 10 years, introducing a major new relationship and then putting both characters through the wringer is a difficult task, and Hansen pulls it off.  This is all in a matrix of, as mentioned before, dunk in the deep end of the pool of worldbuilding. There is a lot here. Space Opera universes are complicated enough, but when you have worlds and universes cheek by jowl, it amps up what you need to deliver to the reader. From Abriss Centre’s Unity all the way to the Casithen, there are a lot of worlds, places, concepts, ideas and technology to unleash. The true nature of Azura. The Proxies that Leta and her compatriots use at the behest of Abriss. The technology of the Graven that various factions in the book are trying to cobble together, use and recapture who and what they were...past informing and reflecting the shattered present. I wouldn’t say that the current multiversal world is a fallen one, mind, but there is a real feel in this book, as described and discussed, that the current state of affairs is a “fall from grace”, something the first book didn’t touch on at all. And of course, there are competing views on how and why you would want to reach for a state of the past, and we investigate that in a number of ways. 

Finally, though, what makes the worldbuilding go down smooth, what makes you root for the characters and wince and clench your fists, is the visceral, immersive, and sensory driven plot and action sequences that keep the reader turning. It’s one thing to build a big world with lots of detail, lore, history, and aspects. It’s another to communicate that world to the reader on all senses, to put the reader there, to make the worldbuilding, the character beats into a framework, a narrative that makes you not only turn the pages, but keep them within the story, even when they close the book. Hansen does this with immersive, all-sensory writing that makes us feel Leta both in and out of her Proxy, for Caiden as he is desperate to rescue his sister, for the sheer way one makes a multiverse come across. Describing a universe and world is hard, a series of worlds harder, but with a setting where the rind between universes can lead to a completely different universe is difficult to make it all feel different and immersive. There is a very cool and well done “Fractured verse” feel to Hansen’s verse, and even more than the first novel, that really comes across here. 

The action beats, including the physical combats really also inform the character. It may be a cliche that “action can inform character” but Hansen really does make it work here, especially in how and why and when characters will or won’t fight, as much as the “punches they throw” and the “powers they use”. None of the combats wear out their welcome, there is no punching for the sake of having characters punch each other. And the blocking and description of the combats are top notch. 

While there are many “set piece” locations throughout the novel. I think the planet of Melynhon is where this is best shown and described. Melynhon is a planet on the borders between two universes, Unity, and another universe. That sort of split between two worlds makes Melynhon a key place for Abriss’ plans, and brings home to the other characters, as well as the reader, the dangers of Abriss’ plans to real people, and at the same time, show the practical effects of a universe split into a multitude of universes in an immersive way. The set piece on the planet really brings together all the virtues of what Hansen is trying to do on all axes. 

The most impressive thing is that this is a middle book in a trilogy that tries new and interesting things, propels the overall narrative of the trilogy, the characters and the worldbuilding. If I have a criticism of it, I think Caiden’s shipmates do get a bit of short shrift compared to all of the new characters we get, but even for a thick book, there is only so much that the author can do in order to squeeze more character beats in for everyone. But that’s my takeaway for the book, that I have reiterated before and will reiterate again. Azura Ghost is a lot. It’s the kind of space opera that builds on the first book in the series, throws even more at you than the first book did, and has a writing style that immerses you all into the world, plot and characters. I look forward to how Hansen tries to wrap up the mystery, adventure, plot and character beats in the third novel.  More, please.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for strong immersive writing

+1 for a complex and complicated Space Opera multiverse that is as widescreen as you can get.

Penalties: -1 Readers who don’t like the “drop you in the deep end” are going to find this a tougher read than even the first.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 

Reference: Hansen, Essa  Azura Ghost [Orbit, 2022]

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Review [Video Game]: God of War by Santa Monica Studio

Be Better.

How do you craft a primary combat mechanic that remains as enjoyable after thirty hours of gameplay as it did after its first use? Ask Santa Monica Studio. How do you ensure that every side quest is weaved into the overarching plot, ensuring nothing feels superfluous or overstays its welcome? Ask Santa Monica Studio. How does one create a narrative that engages the player over its entire runtime, rarely ever skipping a beat? Sony’s Santa Monica Studio has the answer. How do you masterfully employ a single shot camera technique in a video game without having past games to reference? Again, Santa Monica Studio can tell you how. How do you take a broken god and help him overcome his generational trauma without ever making him break character? I think you know where I’m going with this.

God of War
(2018) elevates the franchise that began in 2005 by rebooting everything we knew about the old games and transitioning to adapt to the ever-evolving industry. The gameplay is one of the biggest deviations from the original series of games. The camera has switched from a fixed camera that changed with every encounter to a third-person single-shot camera that never leaves our hero (outside of cutscenes). This has made the game more intimate. Boss fights like the massive scale Cronos showdown in God of War III are a thing of the past, as the camera never zooms out during gameplay to show such a scale. That being said, there are some massive beasts and bosses to fight in God of War, and the new camera makes them feel all the more dangerous and exciting. The spectacle isn’t abandoned, but some of it is sacrificed for the sake of a more grounded experience. And it exceeds expectations.

The primary combat mechanic sees the player use Kratos’ Leviathan axe to dispatch foes. There are light axe swings, which are quick but do less damage. There are heavy attacks, which are slower but deal more damage. And then there's the axe throw, the most enjoyable mechanic in the game. The player can aim Kratos’ axe and send it flying at enemies, then recall it mid-flight to continue to use it in combination with other moves. Imbued with ice, the Leviathan axe can freeze foes as well. If Kratos charges his axe throw he can bury it into a foe, freezing them for a short time while he follows up with his fists or turns his attention toward another enemy. Throughout the game, new abilities are unlocked along with runic attacks that keep the gameplay fresh and the combos exhilarating.

To add a layer of depth to the combat, Kratos’ son, Atreus, assists with his trusty bow. This mechanic is controlled by the player and allows for more strategy within each battle. Do you use Atreus’ shock arrows to do more damage to a group, or do you use his light arrows to stun one enemy and set them up for an instant finisher? Atreus can also summon ethereal beasts with his bow that take on the abilities of whichever bow type (shock or light) you have equipped. The game mechanics are seamless and enjoyable, even when the limits of player skill are tested. God of War bests its contemporaries in the gameplay space, this includes the famed FromSoft games.

The modified combat is a beautiful partner to the new camera. During gameplay, it follows Kratos closely, but outside, it’s a seamless single shot. There are no “cut-to” scenes in God of War which make the game all the more immersive, bringing every event closer to the player which creates no jarring transitions that we find in traditional cutscenes (which are necessary for scenes happening in other locations). To avoid the common camera, the game sticks with our main protagonists throughout the entire journey and it’s something special to see it employed so well à la 1917. It was a huge risk for Santa Monica Studio, but boy did it pay off.

Settled and hidden in the Norse wilds, Kratos and Atreus have been tasked by the late Faye (wife and mother to our protagonists) to spread her ashes upon the highest mountain in all the realms. What proceeds is an emotional journey that spans many human issues, but at its core, never strays from the plot; the growth between a father and son. God of War’s laser focus on its themes intertwines into every aspect of the game, making every side quest and errand feel like a cohesive whole like I would have missed out on something important if I’d have skipped it. This is deftly done by employing smooth facial animations and natural dialogue between Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir, not to mention the occasional appearances of the Witch in the Woods, Brokk, and Sindri. Each character’s voice actors do a fantastic job of making these characters feel unique and lifelike. The performances cannot be overstated. The slightest shift in Kratos’ demeanor is monumental and praiseworthy, sometimes raising the hair on my arms or bringing a tear to my eye.

Kratos, abandoned by his father at birth, and later betrayed by said father employing a massive sword through the chest, doesn't quite have the best paternal figure to look up to when raising his son. The only thing he knows is that he won’t do to his son what his father did to him, but other than that, parenthood is a frightening unknown that he’s left to his wife, Faye, for most of Atreus’ life. Kratos would sooner kill gods than show vulnerability. Raised as a Spartan, Kratos was raised to know only fury, combat, chaos, and bloodlust but throughout God of War, we see him issue restraint, to be better than he was. To only use combat when necessary. His organic growth is perfectly paced and sprinkled throughout the narrative.

God of War’s pacing is yet another massive praise I have for Cory Barlog and Santa Monica Studio. In an open/hub world, it can be difficult to maintain a steady pace due to all the distractions a game throws at you, but this game sidesteps this problem. Main story missions will cut off side quests when urgency is needed to follow the path of the quest, despite being able to traverse the world.

Traversal is carried out in three ways; by foot, by boat, and through the Mystic Gateways (God of War’s fast travel method). Dialogue is written for all three of these traversal methods, especially via boat and gateways. Mimir fills these gaps in exciting gameplay with lore, keeping the player engaged and invested in the world. If the player exits the boat before Mimir is done telling a story, he simply resumes it the next time you jump in the boat with a “Where were we?” Mystic Gateways bring our protagonists across the map in a fraction of the time. To avoid putting the player through a loading screen, Sony Santa Monica takes our heroes through the roots of Yggdrasil and has Mimir tell them a tale. This fast travel area is a brilliant cover-up that distracts the player while the level loads. In doing this, Sony Santa Monica essentially eliminates load times throughout the games, with the player only ever having to look at a loading screen upon boot up and when reloading after a death.

While on foot, combat is accompanied by puzzles that range from timed axe throw sequences to finding hidden runes to unlock chests. The puzzles add a nice change of gameplay that never frustrates, but sometimes take a few moments to figure out leading to fun aha! moments. All of the written lore is also discovered on foot. Since Atreus is the only one capable of reading the runes, Kratos tasks him with keeping the journal, his youthful snark evident in the words. Jotnar shrines, lore markers, and scrolls are the main forms of lore delivery throughout the realms, unlocking some of these will prompt more stories from Mimir!

What would a God of War game be without intense, frenetic boss fights? Well, this entry has you covered. Each boss is unique and engaging, from the Stranger to the Valkyries, God of War never lets up. The Valkyries are optional bosses but are the most challenging in the game. Beating them all unlocks the ability to fight the queen Valkyrie, Sigrún, and is she a doozy. One of the most challenging fights I’ve experienced in a game, so make sure you bring your best armor. To upgrade gear in the end game, the player must travel to Niflheim and Muspelheim to have a chance against their toughest foes. Muspehlheim offers combat challenges issued by Surtr, while Niflheim offers a rogue-lite-esque timed challenge, but both realms offer more world lore revelations and welcome distractions from the main quest.

In addition to the masterful character animations, each realm is carefully crafted and oozes beauty and history. Alfheim is a sight to behold, the land of the elves is just as mystical and entrancing as the elves themselves. Helheim’s haunted frost can be felt upon entering its gates, with Hræsvelg looming ever so dauntingly in the background. The main gameplay area, Midgard, is a gorgeous place to explore, with The Lake of the Nine an excellent anchor for the game’s hub world. Years after its release, God of War is still one of the best-looking games thanks to the vision of its art team.

Toward the beginning of God of War, there is a moment where Atreus is tasked with shooting a deer. In his haste, he misses, frustrating Kratos and causing some tension between them. Atreus immediately apologizes, to which Kratos responds; “Do not be sorry, be better.” This game takes this mantra and expands on it, from Kratos’ personal growth to the abandonment of misogynistic tropes employed in the earlier entries. God of War doesn't apologize for its past. It accepts it and uses it to change both the franchise and its main character in a way that benefits the series, the player, and storytelling in the game industry as a whole.

It is rare to see a game like God of War in today’s video game industry: a micro-transaction and DLC free single-player narrative that doesn't overstay its welcome with superfluous padding. Four years ago, when I played God of War for the first time, I remember thinking that I wished more games were like it. Four years later that feeling remains. God of War isn’t just a phenomenal game. It’s a blueprint for the industry, a benchmark that developers have, and will look to embrace in the future in some aspect or another, and that’s quite an incredible thing to experience.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 10/10

Bonus: +1 for some of the best cinematic, engrossing boss fights. +1 for seamless use of single shot camera. +1 for excellent pacing. +1 for natural character development.

Penalties: If anything, I would say that the game could use more basic enemy types, but it never hindered my enjoyment of the game and was only ever an afterthought.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Review: Until the Last of Me by Sylvain Neuvel

The saga of the Kibsu continues in this second installment with literally astronomical stakes

In the first novel of this series, A History of What Comes Next (which I reviewed for this blog last year), we learned that the progress of science on this planet has always been secretly guided by the Kibsu, a humanlike species of superstrong, supersmart aliens whose genetic line split at some point in antiquity, with the female line dedicated to developing mathematics and teaching it to humans, and the male line sworn to hunting down their female counterparts as punishment for some supposed treason no one remembers anymore. For centuries, these aliens have been spreading both knowledge and death as each lineage pursues their mission while hiding in plain sight among us. The title of the series is Take them to the stars, but in that first novel the full meaning is revealed as Take them to the stars before we come and kill them all.

The newly released continuation, Until the Last of Me, displays the hallmark signs of Middle Book Syndrome: the plot gets a bit repetitive in the early chapters, feels a bit directionless toward the middle, and is suddenly hijacked at the end by the need to put all the pieces in position for the upcoming final confrontation. Instead of the intricate web of goals that the characters had in the first book, here the daughters and the sons of the Kibsu are each obsessed with a single puzzle quest that makes the story feel smaller this time. The Kibsu women try to learn more about their past by researching the cryptic message engraved on a hunting bow that belonged to one of their earliest mothers, while the Kibsu men follow obscure archaeological clues to the location of a buried machine that might end their exile on Earth.

In a way, this narrowing of the focus was necessary. The timeline of the series has now reached the space age, the time when humans became finally capable of exploring the solar system without any more alien help. The author is aware of this shift in priorities, and lets it influence the character's inner monologue: now that humans can build their own rockets and calculate their own travels, what's the point of the Kibsu? So it makes sense for the narrative to now start swerving away from the cool equations and toward finally resolving the core mystery about these people's arrival on Earth and their original intentions.

However, this sequel does not have a gentle start. The author perhaps wished to "hit the ground running;" the problem is that this kind of story requires training wheels. Your familiarity with the previous novel and its revelations is very much taken for granted. In the chapters that follow the Kibsu women, you're expected to already understand why this single mother is keeping a low profile yet plotting interplanetary trajectories while her daughter is a natural-born hand-to-hand fighter; in the chapters about the Kibsu men, you're thrown head-first into an abusive family situation where creepy identical brothers struggle with monumental daddy issues.

Now that the story has revealed more about these aliens, one can attempt to infer thematic intentions. The first novel was, for the most part, a spy/survival/heist thriller. But this entry contains deeper psychological twists about the hunters and the hunted, and about the toil their legacy has left on them. For the first time in a hundred generations, both sides seem willing to put an end to their murderous game. For the first time, there will be a set of Kibsu descendants without the knowledge of their ancient mission, without the burden of guiding the humans to space.

I keep thinking back to a sentence near the ending, a brief line that hides volumes: "Despite the uncertainties about the sun, what everyone agreed on was that it was doomed to die and everyone with it, which, in Annie's mind, made understanding how it worked a moral imperative."

That is the foundation of this entire series. Doing science is not just an expensive pastime. It's not a prestige thing you do to impress people at parties. Doing science, especially in the painstaking, unglamorous way portrayed in these novels, is how you take care of civilization. In the individual journeys of the handful of unrecognized scientists that make up half of the Kibsu lineage, the author has condensed in speculative form the very real collective responsibility to learn and to grow. And in the obsessive persecution perpetrated by the other half of the Kibsu, one can discern the multiple historical forces that have been hostile to our development.

When the story picks up, the rules of the game will have changed. Humankind has made its giant leap into space. The mission of a hundred Kibsu daughters has been fulfilled. But the repercussions of the sons' mission will complicate everything in the next book.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for meticulously crafted puzzles. They are the guiding throughline the whole book relies on, and they get the job done.

Penalties: −2 for the same reason as the earlier book: the characters change countries and assumed identities far too easily and too often to be believable without at least some explanation. Several times in the story, the protagonists on both sides of the chase give up their entire lives and start anew, but we don't learn what they do for a living or how they afford their frequent intercontinental hopping. They get away with murder, leave everything behind, and somehow start from scratch at a new address. This is the main point of pressure on the reader's suspension of disbelief, and by this point it's leaking water. It's like the author forgot that the pleasure of watching a spy thriller is not only in seeing how the ruse is executed, but also how it's planned.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Reference: Neuvel, Sylvain. Until the Last of Me [Tordotcom, 2022].

Monday, March 28, 2022

Microreview [book]: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

A perfect novella for our time.

And Then I Woke Up
is a terrific book that shows how facts are often unsatisfying and dull. They frequently offer nothing but emotional flatlines. Stories are where semblances of believability merge with engaging happenings. Those stories can be so appealing that people are willing to shun reality to either tie all the loose threads in their life in a meaningful bow, create exciting heights in their life, escape their confusing and inextricable ruts, or all of the above. And this story does it so, so well.

Stories can improve one’s emotional intelligence and expand their imagination. It can also be weaponized. It’s never more apparent than today, when a quick look at the comments section on a webpage is rife with conspiracy theories that often are counterintuitive to reality and one’s health. People stage insurrections and die from viruses because of unfounded stories posted online. It’s no coincidence that as our world is increasingly collapsing, people are jumping ship to get away from it. They create their own world, where everything is seemingly afloat, and those sinking are seen as unsavable sheep that are too far gone. The more pain in our world, the more people try to alleviate it, and nothing is more powerful than dismissing all the pain as an illusion and replacing it with an idea in which you’re enlightened and special.

Spence is a dishwasher enamored by a waiter named Macey. Meanwhile, many people’s susceptibility to believing what once were unbelievable is increasing. Spence and Macey get swept up in it, as Macey’s charisma and elocution convince Spence that a zombie apocalypse has started. Some people aren’t buying it, however. Deaths ensue from both his and the opposing side, leading Spence to eventually be hospitalized. What follows is a beautifully written, emotionally intelligent exploration of how and why we craft and absorb beliefs.

The three main characters – Spence, Macey, and Leila – are developed with aplomb. I really felt like I knew these characters inside and out. All their motivations made sense. All their changes of heart felt earned. The other characters were less developed but still felt crucial to the narrative. And the writing moved at a great pace, taking some breaks to philosophize which never came close to being boring or feeling like a tangent. This is a story that’s so engaging that those people susceptible to being overtaken by narratives would eat it up in a heartbeat.

As much as I would love to unwaveringly assert a certain narrative of what Devlin was aiming for in this story, that would be counterintuitive to this tale’s message. To me, it feels like it was inspired by how charismatic figures have wielded their strengths and used it against people susceptible to Qanon, antivaxxers, and other conspiracy groups. However, I can see another reader see what I see, and attribute this book to exploring psychosis, too. As someone with schizoaffective disorder who experienced psychosis before being properly medicated, let me be the first to say that Devlin nails the concept of delusions whether it be from a want to have their reality change, or from neurochemistry out of their control. I think the road to arriving at those delusions are different, but the destination is the same. There’s a simplicity to them that’s comforting where everything you see fits in perfectly with the next, because you are the creator of your world, rather than inhabiting the randomness of reality. Just like how an author writes a story.

Sometimes the best stories are those that are benign. Relaxation can be just as alluring as electrifying purpose. And Then I Woke Up isn’t just a perfectly crafted story, it’s a steppingstone to filter fact from fiction and to make those be on alert of the diversity of appealing lies. As a book reviewer, not many people see the value of stories as much as those of my ilk. And Then I Wake Up sees it even more clearly. It excises the monotony of reality and replaces it with something fresh and compelling. Stories go down like treats, and we should continue consuming them. We just have to make sure, from time to time, to eat our veggies.

The Math

Nerd Coefficient 10/10

Devlin, Malcolm. And Then I Woke Up [ Publishing, 2022]

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!"

Friday, March 25, 2022

Microreview: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

All the virtues of Kate Elliott’s work, in a new world, at concentrated novella length.

Fellian is the titular Servant Mage. Her lot is a hard one, for a crust of bread and some meat scraps and a place to stay, she uses her fire magic talents for the purposes of lamplighting, for the Republic that has overthrown the mage-dominated monarchy. Her indenture is involuntary, and seemingly designed, like a company store, to last forever--even to take a bath adds to one’s term of service. A failed attempt at escape could doom her to decades more in service. So when a group of rebels offer her her freedom in exchange with help in rescuing some pro-monarchist refugees trapped in a mine, Fellian’s choices are not as easy as one might think, and her goals and powers are more than anyone believes, including Fellian.

This is the story of Kate Elliott’s latest novella, Servant Mage.

The worldbuilding and development of the same is something I read for in Elliott’s work as much as the characters (and when I first started reading her, I focused exclusively on that, and only a bit later realized--hey, these characters are really well done TOO). I like to see where I perceive resonances and influences in people’s worldbuilding.  In Servant Mage, the historical/sociological perspective of the world kept dragging my mind to both the English Civil War of the 17th Century and the French Revolution of the 18th Century. The newish head of the government that has toppled the old Monarchy is called the August Protector, but the Nobility has suffered greatly in a “we are all equal” (except for the Mages of course, who must serve) in status and rank. The very culture itself is being rewritten in a way reminiscent of some of the odder consequences of the French Revolution. The Monarchists are a constant threat (or perceived threat) but there do not appear to be any concerns about threats outside the borders. Fellian’s origins and home ground, to me, feel a lot like the highlands of Scotland, held only loosely by the central government.

Where Mages fit into this history and culture is one of the hearts of the novella’s worldbuilding. While the previous monarchy does not appear to have been a full on Mageocracy, Mages clearly were in high roles of power, authority and also used to support the royal regime and the nobility, so that when the revolution came, the role of mages was cast down to servants, close to outright slavery in some cases, and clearly trying to diminish and harness their power. We don’t get an outright sense of how many people are born mages in this world, but the simpler magics (such as Fellian’s lamp lighting) are woven into the assumptions and practices of the world. We get a story of where magic reportedly comes from, and much more.

The magic itself is of a five part Western Classical Elemental (Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Aether) at its base, with some additional elements involving spirits and demons. There is much discussion and debate regarding the nature of magic, and its nature does wind up driving some of the plot, as well as the character development. With the mages stuck in the asylum, and rogue mages considered dangerous, I got a bit of a Dragon Age bit of feel in how magic is used, viewed, and feared, especially in this brave new world of the Lord Protector. I also got a bit of the Exalted Dragon Blooded as well sort of feel in how magic can be potentially combined by practitioners.Having Fellian, who only is really aware of, much less using, a fraction of her potential, as our viewpoint character, gives us a perspective that is mage-centered, but also provides for a lot of opportunity for the reader, and Fellian, to learn.

One interesting commentary Elliott puts into the worldbuilding is the nature of story and how events are transmitted. (With commentary on information, its control, and who is taught and what are they taught).  Fellian learns/is told a couple of perspectives on a historical event--the fall of the last Monarch, and judging how things actually happened is left for the reader to sort through the sides to the story. This is difficult enough to do with multiple points of view, but here Elliott walks a tightrope in collapsing it into a single person’s mind and perspective. This subsequently makes me wonder about a few of the other things we are told, and how much truth, lies, falsehoods and false hopes are contained within those as well. 

So let’s jump to the characters. Our story is a single POV from our titular Servant Mage, Fellian. Right away from the beginning Elliott lays down the essentials of her nature, her ability, and her drives. If character traits can be said to be Chekov’s Guns, all of them that we see early in the novella, before she winds up on the road, are primed, and eventually fired. Strongly defined women with multisided and complex personalities as our viewpoints and guides into a world and story IS Elliott’s jam, and Ferrian brings that in spades. Elliott uses her knowledge and ignorance in helping to flesh out that aforementioned worldbuilding, but even as a young Mage backfooted by events, she wastes no time in trying to take command of her own destiny, her own wants and desires. I’ve read too many series and novels, maybe you have too, where the main character, especially a young one, gets buffeted and dragged about with a lack of agency for a lot of the book. This is especially true of female characters and by authors who shall remain nameless and should know better.  Not so with Elliott’s work.  Fellian may be in a position of weakness, being a servant/slave at the beginning,  but she is no passive passenger in her own story. 

The remainder of the Mages that Fellian winds up with are a diverse and interesting lot. We get a prickly relationship with the leader of the group, right off, as Fellian’s attempts to negotiate the price of her help runs straight into his needs and wants. The remainder of the mages each get their moments, not only to show what their magic can do, but how they fit in with society, and with each other. There are plenty of revelations about the characters which makes it difficult to talk about them without being spoilery; Elliott’s characters wonderfully and vividly fitting into the story, plot and world. But, given Fellian is our only POV, it is she that we learn most of, and best. 

Elliott’s work is generally of longer, even doorstopper length. Having her work in a novella is like going from the rich wine of her regular work to something more like a distilled liqueur, the alcohols of her character, worldbuilding, and writing concentrated all the more. I had a tension between racing through this, heady and joyful at reading it, and wanting to slow down a bit and savor the complex flavors brought to the palate. I freely admit my biases here. I've been reading Elliott’s work for a couple of decades now, so my enthusiasm for her work is also well known.

In the end, Servant Mage feels like the opening to another world and series, and its ability to stand alone is a bit precarious, I feel. There is a balancing act between providing an offramp to readers who want to end with the one story, and providing rope for readers who might want more, and need to be persuaded and urged to salivate at the prospect of a second or more stories with the characters and the world. For all that written fiction is hundreds, thousands of years old, these balancing acts are like approximate solutions, and what works for one set of readers may not work for another. 

However, as I look at it from as objective a position as I can, there is a complete story here, the goals of Ferrian as we see them at the beginning of the novella are met. There is a fillip in the book where a reader might think she would take a different course, but Elliott’s strength of writing character and consistency of characters and their needs, wants and goals is something to hold onto throughout the novella. That said, the achievement of her goal and the revelations of same leads to a whole new set of possibilities and may be an ending, but it really feels more like the first “book” in a longer piece and the ending makes no bones about it. So there is an offramp for readers who want to stop here, but it's a relatively thin and mild one. As for me, I will be continuing down the road, awaiting more from the author in this world, with Fellian as her main character (although I would not be admiss to more perspectives. Even today, a single POV is a bit unusual and different for me to read in an Elliott work)


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong and vivid worldbuilding, concentrated into a novella length.

+1 for excellent characterization of our protagonist, managing a multisided perspective from a single point of view.

Penalties: -1 Is there an offramp for readers who want to one and done this? Not quite certain. 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10  

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

Reference: Elliott, Kate. Servant Mage [Tordotcom, 2022] 

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Eye of the World

I wasn’t all that interested in doing a re-read of The Wheel of Time, let alone writing about the series again, until I watched Amazon’s adaptation earlier this year, promptly fell right back in love, and immediately wanted to read the books again. So here we are.

The last time I read The Eye of the World was in 2008 when I started a major push in a full series re-read leading up to the publication the next year of The Gathering Storm, the first volume co-written by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s passing. When I started *that* Wheel of Time re-read, it felt like goodbye. I assumed I would revisit the series one day, but I knew it would be a long, long time coming when I did.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. - The Eye of the World
The book and the show are very different things, different turnings of the Wheel if you will, and I am absolutely delighted to be back in this world. I wish the world had a better name than “Randland”, but Robert Jordan never named the continent beyond the Aiel calling it “the wetlands” and it seems weird to call it Europe - though that is something we can come back to much, much later.

Despite my pure and complete love for the book series, there is perhaps no show that I was more apprehensive about than Amazon’s adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Even seeing promotional photos and watching the initial teaser trailers, I wasn’t sure that Rafe Judkins and the production team could pull it off. Those first images *looked* good, but would they be able to capture the core of The Wheel of Time? I didn’t think it was possible.

An adaptation is not the book. That should be obvious, but there is a delicate balance between “getting” what the book is about, an overly faithful retelling of the book, and missing the point all together.

Most likely, this is the only part of the Wheel of Time re-read that will compare and contrast with the television series. The first season of The Wheel of Time only covers the events of The Eye of the World and some of the parts of this first book that will make the transition into the show have been pushed into the second season and, frankly, I’m going to read the books a whole lot faster than it is even possible to make the show. But, if you want an actual evaluation of the show, please read Arturo’s essay. Since I’m not formally writing about the show, I’ll just say now that I absolutely love the show. It made me fall back in love with the books and excited me to read them again, but I really love what they are doing with the show as its own thing. It’s a different turning of the wheel, but it is absolutely wonderful.

Let’s get into The Eye of the World. Let’s go.

The Dragonmount prologue chapter is still incredible even though the raw emotion is completely divorced from the rest of the book. Probably better than any other possible opening to the series, it really sets up the horror of what “The Dragon” did at the breaking of the world - not how badly his actions broke the rest of the world or what the rest of the world might be going through - but that in his madness from the taint on saidin, he slaughtered his entire family. His wife, his children. Anyone who loved him and anyone he loved. He killed them all - but worse, his home became a kaleidoscope of horrors where his victims were pushed into walls, into the floors, that the foundations of his home were warped with the murders. There is also a face off with the Dragon’s antagonist, a man called The Betrayer of Hope (and that’s an incredible name to have earned) who claims that this is a battle that will rage over and over again throughout time until the Shadow wins.

So when Rand later wonders in the early chapters how bad things would have to be to need help from the Dragon to be born again, who is prophesied to destroy the world again in order to save it - this is what he means.

The Eye of the World is a slow novel, and perhaps even slightly slower than I remember. This isn’t just in comparison with the show, which rushes at a breakneck speed that would shock Robert Jordan and also excises large chunks of the book - the journey which Rand and Mat take between Shadar Logoth when they separate from the group to Caemlyn takes almost half of the novel. The moments on the ship are well paced, but readers feel the length of the journey from village to village to village to village on the way to the big city.

The funny thing is that I’m reading this as a single volume ebook of all 14 books in the main line series (New Spring is not included), so tracking my progress is hilarious. “You are on page 63 of 10,250” aaaaaaah! - so other than ballpark memories of how long The Eye of the World is, I was never certain how much I had left. That’s something that will only get worse as the series progresses and I have to do the page count math when I don’t remember the placement of all of the landmarks. It’s oddly fun when I read fifty pages and the overall percentage doesn’t change.

Robert Jordan seeds this first book with SO MANY things that will come to play later. Min’s visions, Jain Farstrider (one of my favorite bits with Noal Charin later in the series, even though this is small potatoes), large crystal spheres mentioned, the Sea Folk and the Coramoor, various bits with the royal family in Caemlyn, all the bits about the Aiel, the Green Man’s throwaway line about Rand and the Children / People of the Dragon, and that’s not even talking about the Horn of Valere at the end.

As much as I enjoy the journey in The Eye of the World before we really know what the shape of the series is going to be and when all the characters are trying to find their place in the tapestry, and in some cases avoid the paths that are going to be laid in front of them - one of my favorite bits from the novel and probably the series is the speechifying info dumps.

It’s not all Moiraine, though most often (but not always) that info dump comes from someone who has reason to know all the things and I am here for it.

I love the deep history, like the story of Manetheren and how Moiraine uses it as a reminder of who and what Emond’s Field and the Two Rivers were and puts them into a historical context and also foreshadows the rebellion and steadfastness of the village later in the series - almost as if the story seeps into the heart of Emond’s Field (this in in contrast for how the show puts “Weep for Manetheren” on the road and separate from Emond’s Field). But also the history of Aridhol and Loiol explaining how the Ways were created. It’s one of the reasons The Shadow Rising is one of my favorite books in the series, because of the glimpse of the past that we get. It’s also why that flashback in the show was so cool, when we meet Lews Therin for the first time and see how advanced his time was.

What I didn’t remember from The Eye of the World was the timing of when Mat started yelling phrases in the Old Tongue. I had thought it was after he had the dagger and possibly after he was healed from it - but here it is already his battle cry on the way to Aridhol / Shadar Logoth, though he doesn’t know how or why he was yelling it. Later in the novel (after a partial healing) he yells even more of the Old Tongue. It’s explained as the blood of Manetheran coming through the generations, but it very deeply ties into Mat’s future.

Random Thoughts:

The introduction of Thom Merrilin in the book is vastly superior in the book compared to the show, both because you get the true gleeman bits and him training Rand and Mat, as well as how he responds to Moiraine when he first sees her. Plus, even though Moiraine is playing the Gandalf role here, Thom has a LOT of early playful Gandalf in him. TV-Thom is a grump and there is no real sense of him getting barroom crowds excited and drinking more. The show has him sing one dirge and calls him a gleeman.

The farm kids still have a slight sense of adventure and a sense of wanting to go home. They don’t really grasp how big this is (hey, there’s another thirteen books of adventure, kids!) and how big the threat against them is - not to mention just how important they are to become. It’s not a lark (most of the time).

I appreciate Rand being so excited at the end that he killed the Dark One that he keeps saying “Shai’tan is dead” and Moiraine is all “yes, dear, that’s nice, please hush, stop scaring the children” because she knows there’s no way that’s actually true.

The Nynaeve / Lan not-a-relationship moves pretty quickly here since most of what we see on the page is furtive glances and appreciation for each other’s tracking skills.

The Eye of the World directly introduces two of the Forsaken, promptly kills them (but don’t forget about Aginor and Balthamel because while the grave may be no bar to the Horn of Valere’s call, it’s also no bar to the Dark One bringing back his dead generals) but also reveals that Ishamael, the Betrayer of Hope himself, is also free and that others may be free as well. The novel sort of taunts the idea that the fellowship might have won the battle but Robert Jordan seeds more than enough to know that the battle is barely just begun.

There is so much to come and we’re going to start to quickly move away from the fairly “traditional” (read: Lord of the Rings) journey of this first book into something far more interesting and compelling.

That’s it for The Eye of the World. Next up is The Great Hunt, where a quietly foreshadowed invasion occurs that kind of changes everything. Oh, you think the Dark One is Randland’s only problem? Plus, portal stones.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Microreview: The Aurora Cycle by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

A stylish teenage space opera offers action and adventure.

After throwing shade at Jay Kristoff in my very first review for Nerds of a Feather, it seemed only fair that I offer a more measured take on one of his works. The Aurora Cycle is one of his less controversial works, perhaps because it was co-authored with Amie Kaufman. 

The trilogy begins with Aurora Rising.  On the eve of graduating from training as an intergalactic peacekeeper, Aurora Academy's top student, Tyler Jones, can't sleep. When he heads out for a little flight time to settle his nerves, he comes across a survivor in a space wreck over two centuries old. Of course, he does the noble thing and rescues her, but it costs him his first-draft pick of squad members. He's left with the dregs of the Academy, who he must somehow whip into a coherent crew in time for their first proper mission. What should be a straightforward delivery of humanitarian aid turns out to be more complicated than expected, first by the political situation, and second by the rescuee who stows away onboard. When Aurora Jie-Lin O'Malley begins to display strange powers, Tyler and Squad 312 realise that she may be the key to uncovering a new threat to the galaxy.

Kaufman and Kristoff's first series The Illuminae Files, made them the darlings of Australian YA thanks to their blend of epic action, horror and romance. For the Aurora Cycle, they tone down the horror and amp up the space opera while still maintaining a nice blend of action and romance.

The story is told from multiple first-person perspectives, allowing each member of Squad 312 (and Aurora) some time in the spotlight. For books two and three, humorous recaps are given by Magellan, Aurora's uniglass/pocket computer, a lifeline I always deeply appreciated.

The cast is reasonably diverse across a number of axes, albeit in ways that tend to be quite surface level. Aurora has Chinese heritage, with a few very minor nods to the culture throughout the trilogy. Zila, the squad's science specialist, is Black but seems devoid of any Black cultural elements. This contrasts awkwardly with the two alien species on the squad, whose culture tends to be foregrounded. This is particularly the case with Kal, the resident space elf.

Similarly, a couple of members of the squad are not heterosexual, but the one same-sex relationship that develops takes place largely offscreen while the remainder of the squad get paired up like they're heading for Noah's Ark. There's a same-sex kiss that is played for comedy and some interpersonal dynamics that verge on queerbaiting. Characters from beyond the gender binary didn't seem to exist. On the whole, I found the queer representation rather disappointing, despite it being a step up from the authors' previous work.

Lastly, Finian, the squad's gearhead, is disabled, largely relying on a powered suit to get around. Of the diversity portrayed, this was perhaps handled the best (though I am perhaps not best qualified to judge). He is never left helpless and there are many times when we get to see him as confident and capable. We also get to see how Finn's disability challenges him, and how he needs to be accommodated, without it ever side-lining him from an action-packed adventure. 

And what an adventure it is. Space battles? Check. Bank heist? Check. Infiltrating a masquerade ball? Check. Caught in a time loop? Check. Space walks on ship wrecks? Check. Escape from captivity? Check, check, check. The pacing is brisk, but allows for quiet moments of character- and relationship-building. It sucked me in and kept me turning the pages. 

On that note, I have a ethical responsibility to mention that Aurora Burning, the second book in the series, ends on a terrible cliffhanger, so if the series sounds like your jam it's best to have the whole lot handy, if possible (the problem with reading them as they come out is having to wait an entire year to find out what happens. Fortunately, Aurora's End was released in November 2021 and the trilogy is now complete -- no waiting around).

The plot is a little wobbly in places. Unlike many YA books, it offers a fig leaf as to why the characters are so young (something, something, cumulative impact of space travel on the mind, something). The relationships are built well with clear arcs and moments of connection. The twists are a bit hit and miss. The ending to Aurora Rising bore some striking similarities to Kristoff's series LIFEL1K3 published around the same year, making it feel rather predictable. I also wasn't sold on a few of the changes of heart that were necessary for the ending of the Aurora Cycle. These tended to be big on feelings, not so much on logic; style over substance.

Speaking of style, that has always been a strength of the authors. Their debut trilogy, The Illuminae Files, was framed as ephemera such as military reports and diary entries. It utilised some experimental formatting to create and emphasise parts of the story to excellent effect. In the Aurora Cycle, they have mostly eschewed the ephemera in favour of first-person narration, though each book is broken into parts that begin with an informative Wikipedia-style entry from Magellan. The stylistic quirks have also been pared back, though they crop up a bit more at the end of the series to emphasise the chaotic and fragmented nature of events. Style also used in a more subtle way to distinguish between narrating characters. For example, Zila's chapters tend to be quite short, sometimes no more than a page, in keeping with her direct personality and implied neurodivergence. Plus no space opera is complete without some dramatic scenery and action sequences. And while I may grump about heteronormativity, the authors certainly know how to write a good kiss.

Even though the books can feel a bit lightweight sometimes, they did offer a few things to chew on. The use of the fated mate or red string of fate trope -- perhaps more common in the romance genre, but certainly not unheard of in YA -- came up a couple of times, offering some contrasting examples. Being a romance trope, it's often viewed as romantic. However, the authors pushed back on this idea by having this be an unwelcome development for almost all the characters that experience it. While it develops into a beautiful relationship for some of the characters, that's not shown to be a universal experience, even developing into abusive relationships in other cases and thus not something to be idealised. It also tied in nicely with the trilogy's examination of the places where violence, love and consent intersect.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for skilled use of style, +1 for fun action adventure

Penalties: -1 for a general lack of depth

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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


Kaufman, Amie. and Kristoff, Jay. Aurora Rising [Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019]

Kaufman, Amie. and Kristoff, Jay. Aurora Burning [Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2020]

Kaufman, Amie. and Kristoff, Jay. Aurora's End [Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021]

Kaufman, Amie. and Kristoff, Jay. Illuminae [Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015]

Kristoff, Jay. LIFEL1K3 [Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018]

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Microreview: Here Lies by Olivia Clare Friedman

A close-up look at the personal consequences of necropolitic decisions

In a near future where global warming has brought devastating storms and dying ecosystems, and the rising oceans have swallowed the coasts of the world, humankind has gotten so desperate to make every available piece of land usable for agriculture that the U.S. has abolished cemeteries. Corpses are now routinely cremated and stored as government property. If we thought the climate crisis would drive humanity to prey on itself, this scenario shows a horrific extension of that forecast: it's a future where human beings have no say on their final resting place.

However, Here Lies is not here for the academic and juridical debate that its premise seems designed to invite. It's not a story of legislators or social reformers. It's the story of an ordinary citizen with negligible power, a tiny statistical point in a faceless wave of dehumanization. Alma, a recently orphaned young woman living in Louisiana, is navigating the arcane rules of bureaucracy to try to reclaim her mother's ashes from the government. The narration follows her everyday routine without toning down its dryness and hopelessness. She depends on unemployment checks, only has one friend, can't keep track of the cat she inherited from her mother, and spends her day between the TV and the computer screen. The world is an uncertain place, she doesn't see a place for her in it, and all she wants is to have her mother's remains in a place that at least is known to her. This is a remarkably tiny scope for the plot of a whole novel, but the author guides us to a rich vein of emotional depth inside Alma. Here Lies makes reference to big ideas, but it wastes no time in abstractions. It's primarily concerned with how those ideas impact real people. It's a novel where the political truly becomes personal.

While Alma struggles with paperwork and procedure, we see her adopt a new friend into her house: pregnant teenager Bordelon, who has also lost a family member, but is resigned to not being able to recover the ashes. The plot establishes a parallel between Alma's desire to hold in her hands the recipient where her mother is kept and her reluctance to touch Bordelon's pregnant belly. The fact that both "containers" yield their "contents" at the same time reinforces the analogy suggested several times in dialogue between the freedom of choice regarding childbirth and the freedom of choice regarding burial. It's an apt symbolic device: if political theory derives from ethical theory, then laws express notions of a preferred way of life. In Here Lies, the government's version of the preferred way of life extends to a preferred way of death. A government that can constrain your childbirth decisions can also seize your remains and keep them hidden.

The tension between the personal and the political is the main focus of Here Lies, to the point that not much attention is given to the believability of the worldbuilding. It doesn't really matter that the abolition of cemeteries is an extremely unlikely result of land scarcity; it doesn't matter either that a law banning all manner of funeral rites would never have a realistic chance of being passed. That's not the point. The author's effort is not invested in making an accurate forecast of the future, but in exploring the inner strength that's still available to the powerless when they rely on each other.

With its reduced cast and limited timespan, Here Lies is a very small story, but it's written with a quiet lyricism that reveals a protagonist with a vastly rich inner life. She's not trying to change the world or overthrow the system or liberate the downtrodden, however much her world screams for such drastic changes. No, sometimes it's enough for a story to concentrate on the lives we neglect because we assume they're of no consequence. Someone like Alma means nothing to the wide world. But getting her mother's ashes means the world to her, and that conviction sustains the entire story.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

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

Reference: Friedman, Olivia Clare. Here Lies [Grove Press, 2022].

Monday, March 21, 2022

Microreview: The Adam Project

 Do you like Ryan Reynolds playing Ryan Reynolds? Boy, do I have a movie for you.

My favorite thing about Ryan Reynolds is probably his jawline. It's exquisite. Trailing that is how self-aware he is that he has an exquisite jawline, among several other physical features that I won't go into on a family-friendly website, as well as charm and charisma just... oozing (can I say oozing?), yet somehow manages to do that without coming off as egotistical. 

My point is, Ryan Reynolds is who he is, he knows who he is, so every movie he is in right now (particularly ones he produces), is just him playing himself in a vareity of settings. you had video-game Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy (which was great, go watch it), superhero Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool, Indiana Jones Ryan Reynolds in Red Notice... you get the idea.

"But you forgot the OG superhero Ryan Reynolds," you say. "What about Green Lantern, you idiot? Do you think Ryan's cheerful-yet-brooding eyes could make us forget that atrocity?"

I mean, I hoped.

This is the redemption arc for that. Ol' RR plays Hal Jordan Ryan Reynolds Adam Reed, a pilot in the year 2050, which we don't see much of, because we get dropped in the middle of him stealing his own time-travelling jet while under hot pursuit and makes it to 2022, which isn't where he wanted to go. 

Here we meet young Ryan Adam, who, my god, is Walker Scobell a dead ringer for Ryan Reynolds, at least in his voice and delivery. So for those of you who wanted more Ryan Reynolds, you get it, in the shape of a undersized*, asthmatic** 12-year-old. It's hilarious and I love everything about it.

Before we get to the meat of what happens, I want to refer back to Reynolds knowing who he is, which is nowhere more apparent than his acting and the characters who he portrays. He also, at least publicly-facing- is very heartfelt and caring. That really shines through in his movies - I should write about Free Guy, which honestly blew me away by being a lot more than the sum of its parts. I'm not sure that happens here, but he*** takes a time-travel popcorn flick and injects it with a lot of feeling, making it about relationships and choices.

Those relationships take center stage as the second act begins. Adam lost his father 2020-ish, so young Ryan Adam and his mom are still dealing with that trauma. We shortly learn that Ryan Adam had a wife, who was also a time-travel-pilot-person (they did not give them a cool name, like chrononauts or something) and she disappeared going to 2018, which is where he is trying to go.

Those of you who can subtract see where this is going. 

But, like I said, at this point, those relationships are at center stage. The film does a great job of putting our protagonists in jeopardy, without feeling heavy. I wrote in this space about the need for healthy male relationships in media, and this film does a great job with that - The two Ryans Adams relationship, as he pleads with his younger self to, basically, not be 12. His younger self gives him perspective on their father, and how he managed his grief over losing him.

Mark Ruffalo is pretty great as well, as the dad, who is also asked to examine his own priorities and values, as well as what he is going to about being potentially gifted the ability to prevent his own death. Likewise, Zoe Saldaña is excellent as Laura (uh, spoiler, she's not actually dead), and both her and older-Ryan Adam have to decide between finding and keeping a lost love, or ya know, saving humanity. 

Again - still a popcorn flick. None of this is, like, Sophie's Choice or whatever, but they did a good job of taking a fairly standard formula, and doing something other than the standard love interest and leaving it at that. Plus.... Ryan Reynolds.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.


+1 for being tremendously heartfelt

+1 for a tight cast & plot


−1 for making a big deal about the dad's jacket, and then jacket game being very weak. I care too much about jackets, I know, write your own review.

-1 for basically sticking Guardians of the Galaxy and Back to the Future in a blender. Although that could also be a positive.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

*He is very normal sized

**This just kinda... goes away

***I'm not sure it's him, but it's his production company, and a thread in these movies

Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories (which should be on YOUR summer reading list). You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog. When not holed up in his office writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Heirs to Heresy

In this edition of Roll Perception Plus Awareness, I reintroduce the column in a new space, and take a look at Heirs to Heresy from Alan Bahr and Osprey Games.

Once upon a time when the Internet was young, there was a place where I built up my skills and techniques as a reviewer, interviewer, Mind Melder, and critic. That place was SF Signal. Among the many things I did there was something I haven’t continued on in other venues such as the Hugo Award Winning Nerds of a Feather here, and that Roll Perception Plus Awareness¹.

Roll Perception Plus Awareness is a column that I did at SF Signal that focused on my passion and love for roleplaying games. I’ve been playing RPGs of various sorts for nearly as long as I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy, from First Edition Dungeons and Dragons, to, most recently, games like Root the Roleplaying Game. I’ve played and play RPGs in person, in Tabletop Simulator with friends, streaming to viewers, and currently GM  two play by email games. So I am going to bring this experience to you, the reader, with games I buy and read, and games I play at the table. 

So let me switch into the game for today, and that is Heirs to Heresy: The Fall of the Knights Templar, written by Alan Bahr and published by Osprey Games. It is a hardback book of approximately 190 pages.

The Concept of the game is one that is familiar to conspiracy theorists and the History Channel, as well as a number of movies of varying quality: The Knights Templar. Bahr spends a chapter, after the “What is a roleplaying game and what you need to run this one” giving a potted history of the Knights Templar from their origin in 1099 to the “present day” of the game in 1307. The game generally starts on a fateful Friday the 13th, October 1307. The King of France declares the Templars heretics and traitors to France. Many are captured, others killed. Thirty of them escape the initial attack, surrounded by enemies, unsure of who or what to trust.

As players, you play one of the thirty survivors of this attack. You are entrusted with the fabled (especially on the History channel) Templar treasure, and are to take it to safety. But where is safety in a world where the King of France has turned against you? 

In the RPG Sorcerer, designer Ron Edwards came up with the idea of a “Bang”, an event in an roleplaying game that sets off the action for the character(s). It is an event in the game, often but not always the inciting incident in a campaign or scenario, that the player and character simply cannot ignore. Heirs to Heresy uses the events of October 13, 1307 as the “Bang” for the characters and their players to face. They are deep within hostile territory, with enemies all about, many of their friends, companions, leaders are dead or captured. 

There are three basic questions the GM and players must consider, which provides a variety of axes to play and set up the game and customize to to suit a particular RPG table’s needs and wants. Bahr goes into detail into these choices, so that a gaming group cane come with one of a variety of scenarios and campaigns of varying lengths to suit their taste. 

What kind of treasure do the players carry?  Is it simply gold, jewels and material wealth, or is it a holy relic, or is it something with actual magical power? (You can customize your game to have as much magic as you and the players want. You can play it straight and gritty, or mystical and esoteric, or take a middle ground)

What are the truths of the Templar Order? This is a question more for the GM to come up with and to think about, and for the PCs to discover, uncover, use, or rebel against. Just what was the Templars plan? To form a polity of their own? To continue to amass wealth and power and affect the course of Christian Europe?  To crusade against literal demons and the forces of darkness? Or, are they actually corrupted from within already?

Where are the players going?  They’ve been given a treasure, they need to escape the French assault, but what is their final destination? What is their goal? Like Michael Moorcock’s Tanelorn, Bahr uses a neologism for the ultimate goal and destination of the PCs: “Avallonis”. Depending on the style and nature of the campaign, Avallonis can represent any number of places: England, Portugal, Malta, the remnant of Outremer in the Holy Land, or a city in faerie that the knights must battle to reach the portal to access. Avallonis is, as the book puts it, whatever and wherever the PCs need it to be, a destination informed by the journey.  Depending on the game, Avallonis may be just an aspirational goal, one never actually reached in game, a shining beacon of hope, all alone in the night, but never quite in reach. 

The Mechanics:

Heirs to Heresy uses the full range of standard polyhedral dice, plus uses a “token in a bag” system to handle initiative. The basic test of a skill is rolling 2d10, adding attributes and skills (which generally range from 0 to 4 or 5) versus a difficulty. Trivial tests require a 12, difficult ones require a 20 or higher. A critical success (which provides advancement points) occurs when both dice have the same number, AND the test is successful. Critical successes also allow for additional damage in combat, or a flourish in a non combat situation. Both players and GMs alike can call for skill tests. 

Other PCs can aid tests, if they have enough skill to do so, and if another party is actively trying to stop you, the test instead of being against a set difficulty is against the GM rolling the opposition. Or, if two PCs are in active disagreement with each other, the other player rolls just as the first one does to determine the outcome. 

There are no fumbles in the game, only success, failure, and critical success.  Bahr’s philosophy is that failure should always lead to an interesting and compelling narrative, not stop the flow of the game. 

There are no non-combat stats for opponents in the game. Combat is a different story. Rolls for the opposition are based on the initiative system of tokens,and are dangerous according to whether they are Mobs (Mooks in the Feng Shui parlance), or Fearsome Foes. Both kinds of enemies can have specific qualities as well, such as “Brutal” (do more damage on critical rolls). Keeping the enemies from having out of combat stats means that there aren’t huge stat blocks dominating the book. 

Overall, the combat is relatively straightforward and narratively based. It uses a Fate-like “zones” system to determine placement of PCs and opponents and add some mental narrative crunch to combat. One does not need to use miniatures and a terrain map to run combat in this game, given enough narrative information and imagination on the part of a GM and players, although a running fight by the PCs through a castle could certainly be one where pushing minis on a map might be quite fun indeed. 

The Execution

For a 190 page book, the book is succinct and comprehensive in offering up things to the players and GM alike. Rules for travel, opponents, the “Pursuit Point system” (which is sort of like a doomclock in how much “heat” there is on the PCs at a particular moment).

The book and rules are as inclusive as a story about the Templars can be. There are some limitations made by history--Templars need to be Catholic knights, for example, but it does not insist that Templars need to be white men of deep Catholic faith. If you want a converted Berber woman who is Catholic but mostly secular in her outlook as your Templar can do that. The RPG is historically informed and infused, but it is not hidebound to it. 

The rules for esoterica (magic) are a bit firewalled from the rest of the book, because, as mentioned above, you could play a straight gritty game without a hint of Baphomet in it. There are three types of Esoterica, and a campaign run by the GM might have none, or any or all of them in it. Magicks are straight up spells, learned by studying relics. This ranges from a healing spell all the way up to binding angels and demons. It’s made clear that even in a high magic game, magick is dangerous and is a great way to get the Inquisition to want to hunt you even more. Blessings, the second type of magic, holy gifts from saints. The short list of saints, it is pointed out, can be supplemented because of the sheer number of saints in the Catholic Church, even as of 1307 AD. The third kind of esoterica is martial focused, and ranges from striking quickly to Wuxia-adjacent running up of walls. 

That last thought brings up the toolkit aspect of the book. In addition to all of the Templar hooks a GM and players could want to devise, this system could be used for parallel situations, both real and imaginary, to tell stories of a small band under threat, trying to survive or reach a distant, dangerous goal while beset by enemies on all sides. With just a few tweaks, for example, one could do a riff on Xenophon’s The Ten Thousand. There are rules for mass combat in the books, so having a band of Greek Mercenaries try to fight their way out of the Persian Empire, pursued and hunted--Heirs to Heresy could be used as a system for that. Or, say, moving forward in time, a group of Byzantines trying to escape the fall of Constantinople with some holy relics, trying to reach safety in the West, or perhaps a more mystical location. Or, say, a group of Buddhist Monks trying to escape the persecutions of Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei.

The Verdict on Heirs to Heresy at this time is incomplete as, inevitably in this day and age, I have not yet actually given it a try as GM or as a player. Based on the writing and presentation in the book, and the mechanics as mentioned above, this is a game I definitely way to give a try and see how it runs in practice. My fecund imagination in thinking about this game tells me this is a game I’d love to run or play.  The strong presentation of theme, the excellent nods and moves toward inclusivity and welcoming players of all stripes, and the overall tone of the book are extremely positive for me. In addition there is much that Bahr could do with further books given this foundation.  I imagine an expansion for, say, a Quest for Prester John, easily. There is a solid foundation and chassis here for GMs and players to tell stories.

¹For those wondering how I came up with the column name: In the World of Darkness games, rolling a stat and a skill is the usual way to do something. In the Roleplaying game Exalted, which I have GMed a lot of, in order to “spot something”, you roll a dice poll of your stat Perception and your ability Awareness. 


Reference: Heirs to Heresy, Osprey Games

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