Friday, April 29, 2022

Centireview: Inheritors of Power by Juliette Wade

The third book in the Varin sequence, brings the series to bear in its central problems and themes.

Juliette Wade’s previous Varin novels, Mazes of Power and Trangressions of Power, introduced us to the very human, but also very alien, human societies of the Varin. The Varin are an extremely caste-stratified society that primarily lives underground due to the threats on the surface, primarily the will-o-wisp like Wysps. Over the last couple of decades, as seen in those two novels, the society of the Varin have faced challenges, and a flawed and paranoid tyrant, Nekantor, has achieved the ultimate power in their society and done much to cement that power, even as his very siblings work to try and curb it. But the problems the entirety of the Varin face are not going away. 

Inheritors of Power continues the story of the Varin, but from new perspectives, and a sharp heightening of the central problems the Varin face.

Inheritors of Power’s weakness, and its strength, is that it absolutely cannot be understood on anything more than a superficial level if one has not read and grokked the previous two novels. Wade does an excellent job in making readers new to the Varin as comfortable as possible- using the classic technique of having one of our viewpoint characters (Akrabitti Meetis) be from a perspective she herself has not explored and so does a lot of heavy lifting for herself and for readers both old and new readers familiar with a slice of Varin life we’ve just never seen before. Our other primary viewpoint, Imbati Catin, is a viewpoint we’ve seen before in a secondary capacity, but we get a lot more of the Imbati perspective than we’ve seen in the previous two novels.

That all said, however, as much as Wade can prepare a reader new to the world to the complexities of the Varin and their very alien human society, this is a novel that really relies on knowledge of the previous two books, both on a high worldbuilding and also on a character level to really succeed. With the basis of that two novels, though, it is clear to me here, that this is a rich and deep and complex story that I get the feeling Wade has wanted to tell from the beginning, and from this point. 

There is a theory in writing that one of the keys to writing any work of fiction is to know where the story begins and to start the story at that point,. In some ways, the rich story of this novel, of which I will speak shortly, seems to be the story that Wade has wanted to tell since the beginning of Mazes of Power. In Wade’s case, however, and for the readers, this story only really can work as a story if you have the background of the first two novels in order to get the full force and impact of what happens here. 

In the first two Varin novels, Wade’s focus has been on the top two castes of society, The aristocratic Grobal and the militaristic Arissen. Mazes of Power introduced us to the world and society of the Varin from that elite, aristocratic perspective, Mazes of Power is in the end the story of how Nekantor gains power and becomes the head of society. We get to know him and his brother Tagaret, and see how manipulations, maneuvers and desperate gambits result in Nekantor’s ascension to Heir.  And yet the seeds that show not all is well in the world of the Varin, the deadly plague particularly is wreaking havoc on the Grobal, even as it has a much lighter touch on the rest of the population. (although the book was not written in the age of vaccine denial, I can’t help but now think of the Omicron variant of Covid and how it affects the unvaccinated versus the vaccinated). There are also hints that there are other cracks in society as well.  

In Transgressions of Power, we get to see the inflexibility of Varin society and see the smallest of safety valves--the Fall, whereupon a member of a caste can forever drop in caste to a lower caste. (the reverse *never* happens).  Pyaras story in his Fall, and why he feels that it is his own option to become an Arissen work hand in hand with Tagaret’s (and his partner Della)’s story in seeking other and new ways for the Grobal, and working toward that goal. And, then there is the “shadow” story in how Nekantor seeks to cement his power among the Grobal by jumping from Heir to Eminence, and what he is willing to do in order to do that. And then there is Adon, Tagaret’s and Nekantor’s youngest brother, and the dread secret of his true identity and nature.

All of this is necessary backstory, foundation and support to understand the plotting, maneuvering and the state of affairs here in Inheritors of Power. This carefully constructed edifice, and the plight of the Varin comes to the fore, and comes to challenge. As mentioned above, Wade does her best in setting this up for a new reader, but this book relies on the previous two novels in a fundamental way.  

Let’s take Imbati Catin for an example. Bright star of the Academy, she is recruited into a scheme to become the next servant for Adon, as a way to support him and put a check on Nekantor...or is it to put a check on Nekantor’s own servant, Xinta? Nekantor’s penchant for secrecy and power mean that what is really going on in the Eminence’s household is a black box, and the strains on the already strained Varin society are beginning to show. Something Must Be Done, and so Catin finds herself in a web of plots and power as she tries to be a loyal and well working Imbati for Adon, and yet fulfill her objectives. The strain on Catin, given her caste, given her training, are a reflection and a contrast that work best if you’ve already read Mazes of Power and have encountered Aloran and so can understand Catin much better. Having that grounding in the Imbati not only helps understand Catin’s story, but also Xinta’s. 

Xinta, as Nekantor’s servant, gets a few point of view chapters himself. In fact, Wade does a most clever thing in running sets of chapters in succession in switching points of view and following different characters and points of view, providing a good treadmill to carry the reader through the narrative. This technique means that a couple of points, we need to get into Xinta’s head, into Xinta’s point of view. Thus, we as a reader understand the whole of the Varin and what is going on much much better than any individual character, and it provides a rich tapestry. But, again, understanding Xinta and what he does without bogging down the narrative relies on having the background on Nekantor for the last two novels. There is also a subplot in this novel involving one of Tagaret’s children that only makes sense if you know about Nekantor’s disability, as seen in the first novel.  

And then there is the fragile nature of Varin society. A major theme of this novel is when the lights literally start to go out, when things fall apart and cannot be easily repaired, how does one carry on and what does it say about a society that is just trying to keep things running, and trying to stay one step ahead of entropy? Having leadership like Nekantor, having an inflexible society as developed in the first two novels only makes the problem more acute. Society is suffering both on a tangible and a sociological level. This sort of exploration is Wade’s jam and she makes a lot of good hay out of it.

Having Akrabitti characters, Corbinan and particularly our major viewpoint character of Meetis. show us the lowest rung of Varin society, one barely even mentioned in the pages of the first two novels, as focused as we were on the top three castes. The Akrabitti are an undercaste of undercastes. Even the merchant Melumalai caste, ostensibly the caste just above them, are an unapproachable gulf of power, authority and rights above the Akrabitti. We’ve seen Melumalai before, and we see here how much they are below the other castes in rank. As far below the Grobal, 5 castes above them, the Melumalai are, the Akrabitti are below the Merchants. Although we’ve seen how the Castes work in the previous two novels, having Akrabitti characters really shows the Castes and how they work. 

In addition, continuing that worldbuilding theme, we get to see how the “rest of society” gets on, society between the exalted Grobal and the low Akrabitti. This novel is the most successful yet in showing the entire spectrum of Varin society by giving us the perspectives of poor Corbinan, and more to the point, Meetis.. We’ve changed our tight lens on the top of society and their concerns, a perspective that has given us deep insight into Grobal and Imbati (and to a lesser extent, the Arissen) and now see much of the society and how it gets on--and how it, too is fraying. The sense of entropy in the Varin world, both in terms of the center cannot hold, and the weaknesses of the caste system itself, really comes to the fore from a “ground level perspective”. 

And then there is the ‘secret’.  I’ve had vague ideas about the secret for the last two novels, but only in the sense of wondering about the worldbuilding of the entire world.  (Recall, Wade’s interest in Worldbuilding is deep and abiding, having had a long running show on the subject). In this novel, a secret of that worldbuilding is revealed, a reveal that is only shocking and really has an impact if one has been immersed in this world for two and a half novels. It's an extremely tricky thing that Wade tries here, but I think in terms of the whole Varin narrative, this is the place in the sequence where that reveal makes the most sense to do it, if one is going to do it, because it really is a pivot point for the entire future of the Varin to have the revelation, here. The thing that Wade does here that requires two and a half novels to really get is not to spring this revelation on the readers, but to also spring it on the characters who discover the secret. Frankly, the power of the revelation really would not be there for the characters as filtered into the readers and how the characters deal with it, if this was the first novel in the sequence. And yet, looking back and seeing how Wade has seeded things, this revelation is what Wade has had under wraps ever since Tagaret mused about music in the first line of Mazes of Power. 

And so that is where this book sits. Wade finally reveals her ace in the hole, after two and a half books of buildup. It is, though, a reveal that only works in full if you’ve read those book, and if you haven’t, it is going to land without its full impact. 

Three books in, I find that I get the themes of the entire first three novels (and dare I say, perhaps the entire sequence), now. It’s a grand tapestry of theme and exploration of that theme that runs across characters and events in the three novels. We see it with Aloran in the first novel, in the second novel with Pyaras’ story, and the start of what Tagaret and Della are doing, and we see it here in the third novel, with Catin, Adon, and Meetis. The boundaries of caste, how levels of society are never as firm as one thinks, and what happens when those Boundaries of Power are Transgressed, from the Mazes to the Inheritors. It’s a grand theme that DOES take multiple perspectives and novels to express and I look forward to how Wade continues it in the next book. The cover artist for the three novels, Adam Auerbach, clearly gets this as well and the unity of cover art for the first three novels leans into this quite effectively.

So I find myself in the very strange position in this review of recommending not the book I read, but Mazes of Power. Things being as they are, if you’ve read Mazes of Power and Transgressions of Power, all you need to know from me is that the novel holds up those two novels and builds upon them and you hopefully preordered it already. In Nerds of a Feather terms, that’s not a Microreview, or even a Nanoreview, that’s a Femtoreview. But I think the entire Varin sequence is one of the most intriguing and important sociological SF series out there today, and I want less people to sleep on it. Inheritors of Power proves and provides Wade’s skill at bringing her world to life, and what those characters, that world has to say about its own world and our own is important and very much worth your time. 

The heart that is valiant triumphs over all.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for “The Secret”. 

+1 for a strong leveling up in showing how Varin society works, top to bottom

+1 for strong thematic resonances and continuances from the first two novels.

Penalties: -1 A couple of revelations and subplots are a bit too subtle. 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  Wade, Juliette. Inheritors of Power [Daw, 2022]

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

Thursday, April 28, 2022

6 Books With Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the Hugo Award winning author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera trilogy and multiverse adventures Doors of Sleep and Prison of Sleep. Today he tells us about his Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

Anthem by Noah Hawley, a near-future story about a global plague of teen suicides. I'm only about a third of the way in, and it's tough to read (as the parent of a teen!) but very ambitious. Hawley is one of those annoyingly over-talented people, creator of great TV series like Fargo and Legion, and ALSO a very accomplished novelist. I really loved his book Before the Fall, which is sort of literary, sort of a mystery. 


2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Sara Gran's The Book of the Most Precious Substance is coming up in my queue. I love her work, especially the Claire DeWitt mysteries beginning with Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (they are not typical mysteries; they're very occult and metaphysical). Her demon-possession book Come Closer is compelling too. I know almost nothing at all about her new novel, and I like it that way.

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

Oh, it's almost time for my every-couple-years re-read of The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. That novel is woefully under-read, but when its name comes up in the company of other fantasy writers, there are often widened eyes and excited nods. He's only written the one book so far, and it's a glorious, weird, moving puzzle box of a novel. I could have never written anything like it, and I always find new things in it. I know from looking at the author's website over the years that he's written at least one other novel, and I live in hope to read it someday. 


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

When I first picked up The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey I bounced off it almost immediately. I thought the (very distinctive) narrative voice was affected, and it distracted me from the story. But other people kept recommending it, and I picked it up again a couple of weeks later. Wouldn't you know it: this time, I got on board with the voice, attuned to its rhythms and idiosyncracies, and fell right into the world. I was just in a lousy mood or something the first time I tried it. I ended up being one of the judges who put it on the ballot for the Philip K. Dick Award that year. 


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

I have to pick one? I guess The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King, though really it's the whole Dark Tower series. That book includes many tropes and themes that recur in my own work: magic doors, the multiverse,  snark, banter, found family. Throw in the following book, The Waste Lands, and you've got over-the-top villains who love to monologue, too. 


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

Prison of Sleep, the sequel to my multiverse novel Doors of Sleep, is out, and it includes... the multiverse, found family, snark, banter, and an over-the-top villain, a being known as The Prisoner, and I will not say more, because its nature is best discovered in context. (The magic doors are metaphorical.) Prison of Sleep has everything I liked about the first book -- mainly the core characters, tricky point-of-view stuff, and a whole myriad of alternate worlds --  plus an expanded cast of supporting players and drastically higher stakes (like the fate of all realities). And some kissing. 

Thank you, Tim!

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: Horizon Forbidden West by Guerrilla Games

Fighting robot dinosaurs in San Francisco has never been more fun.

It’s been four years since the release of Horizon Zero Dawn and it seems that Guerrilla Games has learned a lot in that time. Almost every aspect of Forbidden West improves on Zero Dawn’s formula, from the gameplay to the side quests, from the animations to the visuals. Anything great in Zero Dawn is better here, and anything that wasn’t has gotten some love and attention paid to it.

In Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy seeks to rid the land of a red blight that’s running rampant through all of the southwest. She discovers that the answers that she seeks may be further west and, never one to dawdle, takes action. Before the player is released into the open world, they are given missions in a smaller part of the map called the Daunt. This introductory sequence takes around eight to ten hours to complete. Suffice it to say, this is a big game.

Immediately upon starting the game I was astounded by Horizon’s graphical prowess. The detail is so incredible, from Aloy’s character model to the lush, vibrant flora, Forbidden West is a triumph in visual splendor. No detail was spared when creating this game’s textures and animations. This is probably the best-looking game I’ve seen yet. The special effects on every body of water are top tier, and each cauldron is vivid and striking. The underwater sections are vivid and teeming with life and make diving under the waves a complete treat. I can’t count how many times I said “wow” while playing, but I can count the number of times that I put the game into camera mode to take some pictures, and it was more than any other game I’ve played.

Many would argue that visuals aren’t that important, and for the most part, I agree. However, in Forbidden West, my opinion has been altered a bit. The visual fidelity and animations for each character in the game are intricately detailed. So much so that I’d argue that even many NPCs look better than the main character of many other games. The NPCs of errand quests have been given as much attention in this game as any of the main characters. In combination with the writing, this made each quest and errand even more engrossing than any other open-world action RPG that I’ve played. I’m sorry The Witcher 3, but I think your side quests have finally been topped (don’t worry though, yours are still amazing).

There are many side quests to do in the west, and most of them are well thought out. Zero Dawn had the problem of creating too many fetch quest side missions, but in Forbidden West, Guerrilla sidesteps this problem with better quest design and writing, creating a more natural flow to the game’s side activities. In doing this, the developers were able to explore sensitive material within their quests, and a more personal relationship between the player and the game’s characters. Many themes are explored throughout the game, including dealing with grief, dementia, and blindness, the internal conflict of family vs tribe, becoming whole after losing a limb, the burdens of leadership, living with and communicating with an autistic family member, and questioning and reevaluating one’s faith among others. These missions are acted out by a diverse and inclusive cast of characters, more so than any other game I’ve seen.

None of these side quests would be as strong without the characters that propel them, and the same is true of the main story. Aloy’s snark and disinterest in any romance thrown her way are still appealing, but it’s her friends that elevate and push her. Kotallo and Zo are two of my favorite personalities in the game. Zo, an Utaru gravesinger, brings peace to those in her final hours. But she is also a fierce warrior and protector of her people and of those she loves. Kotallo is a Tenakth marshall, a fighter through and through. He is reserved but is forthcoming with those he trusts and respects. He deals with a personal conflict that the player gets to help him through and watching his personal growth is one of my favorite parts of this game. This is not mentioning the ever-infectious positivity of Varl or Alva’s never-ending pursuit of knowledge. Aloy’s surrounding cast is a good bunch, though I’m still not sold on Erend. Of course, none of these characters would be as impactful if it weren’t for their voice actors. In addition to a plethora of fantastic performances, the dialogue is almost always on point (though there is some stilted dialogue here and there with awkward exit animations). The sound design outside of voice acting, including the wonderful score, compliments the visuals and performances at every turn.

But what are all these wonderful animations and graphics and characters without good gameplay? Horizon Forbidden West stands tall here. The controls are tight, like the original game. There are a few new weapon and damage types as well, which add more variety to a player’s strategy. I particularly liked the spear thrower’s massive damage output despite its slow trajectory. High risk, high reward. My go-to was the warrior bow, useful in almost every situation. The resistance provided in the Dualsense’s adaptive triggers is great for bow and arrow gameplay and contributes greatly to the game’s feel on the controller.

Though the game’s enemies are more aggressive than in Zero Dawn, Forbidden West has offered compensation. You can further upgrade your gear to increase concentration and Aloy’s increased melee ability to help offset this. Concentration slows time to let you get a better shot at your enemy and is an invaluable ability. Whereas Zero Dawn’s melee combat was unsatisfying and underdeveloped, Forbidden West has a much more robust, though not overly complex melee system. Melee is satisfying and works well for the most part, but there were a few instances where uneven ground made me miss my swings, and sometimes the combos don’t line up perfectly. Otherwise, jumping off of an enemy to shoot an activated resonator blast feels satisfying. In addition to stacking concentration and a superior melee system, six skill trees allow the player to upgrade Aloy as they see fit, and with enough playtime, every skill can be unlocked, so there’s no need to worry about being restrained to a single build.

There are many new enemies in the game, like the Dreadwing and the Tremortusk (both of which are massive hulking machine-beasts). The design of each enemy is immaculate and gorgeous. It would be nice to look at them for a bit longer if they weren’t trying to rend the flesh from my bones, but I suppose that’s what photo mode is for. Like its predecessor, Forbidden West makes it just as enjoyable to systematically dismantle a machine for parts. Some parts are simply removed by shooting at them with tear arrows, while others require a certain part to stay intact. For instance, some machines’ weak points contain items that you need. You have to then avoid destroying that part and make sure it’s intact when downing a robot-dino. Some enemies are challenging, deciding between exploiting their weak spot for damage or machine parts is quite difficult.

Though every aspect of the game has been elevated, the one area where players may differ in opinion is over the story. While by no means bad (it’s quite good in fact), it lacks the impact of the Project Zero Dawn reveal. The big moments in this game are better placed and more evenly spread out, though none quite reach the heights of the highest point of the original game. This is not a criticism so much as an observation. I prefer the overall pacing of the Forbidden West.

Though much of Horizon Forbidden West is an amazing experience, there are a few gripes that I’d like to see addressed in a sequel. For one, the jumping mechanic doesn’t always feel great. It can sometimes feel imprecise, causing me to miss jumps I know I should have made. There was also a weird animation that would sometimes occur on Aloy’s feet when she jumped they’d get all wonky before fixing themselves. Sometimes that uncanny valley rears its ugly head (usually with a character’s eyes when it does happen), though, for the most part, the art design is distinguished enough to avoid this. And while Aloy has increased climbing capabilities, I’d like to see even more. There were also a few moments when I had to reload a save because I’d encountered a glitch. It was more frustrating when I was doing a puzzle because I thought I just hadn’t figured out the puzzle yet, but it turned out something was amiss. And as mentioned previously, the melee could use a bit more fine-tuning, especially in the melee pits. Over my ninety-one hours with the game, however, these are small gripes.

Horizon Forbidden West
doesn’t necessarily do anything new in the gameplay space, but what it does, it does better than most of its contemporaries. Horizon picks from some of the best parts of all open-world games and makes them their own. From solving Tallneck puzzles to reveal parts of the map to sending the player on engrossing quests, Guerrilla has cherrypicked from the best of the best, and it shows. For anyone looking for an engaging, sci-fi action-adventure open-world RPG, stop. You’ve found it.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 9/10

Bonus: +1 for broad and inclusive cast of characters. +1 for improving on everything from the original. +1 for best in class visuals.

Penalties: -1 for making the best overide available at the end of story mode. -1 melee and jumping glitches. -1 for some occasional awkward animation/animation bugs.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

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, April 26, 2022

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Great Hunt

Welcome back to my Wheel of Time Re-read, where I try to figure out how much I actually remember about books I’ve read a whole bunch of times but not for almost fifteen years. Today we’re going to talk about The Great Hunt, which is the second book in the series and the one which begins to break away from the Lord of the Rings thing that The Eye of the World was playing with.

The Eye of the World was less of an LOTR clone than, say, The Sword of Shannara (and please don’t try to convince me to do a Shannara re-read when I’m in the middle of two different huge re-reads that will take me the better part of a couple of years, I really don’t need to do three even though I’d like to talk about Garet Jax, the introduction of the Wishsong, and the Heritage tetrology). But back to the original point of The Eye of the World being less of a clone - there were still plenty of echoes of Lord of the Rings and in light of the rest of the series, I think that served to ground The Wheel of Time in a particular epic fantasy context before Robert Jordan gently and gradually changed those expectations for what sort of story this was and also just how damned big it was going to be.

Alright, let’s do this thing.

Spoilers, ho!

While the Dragonmount prologue to The Eye of the World is, in my view, the most iconic of the series and the most important by far, I remember The Great Hunt’s prologue far more clearly than I would have anticipated. It’s the “Bors” prologue, the first time we meet a Gathering of Darkfriends and Robert Jordan gives readers a greater suggestion that there are Darkfriends in High Places and that they are in nations all across the world and among the Aes Sedai (Black Ajah, y’all). That’s quite a bit different than having the random assortment of villagers chasing Rand and Mat. This is bigger and the stakes are bigger. And, even though we haven’t been introduced to the Seanchan yet, we know there is something going on out west and one of the Darkfriends is supposed to ignore them.

As with The Eye of the World, this is a slower moving book, especially at the start. In my memory these early novels moved much faster than they do - but that’s more of an acknowledgement than it is a complaint because what I’ve found beginning this re-read is that revisiting The Wheel of Time is revisiting old friends. Even if they are young and I want to shake them.

The main storyline of The Great Hunt is that Padan Fain steals the Horn of Valere and Mat’s dagger. For the world and a hope to defeat the Dark One, recovering the Horn of Valere is the most important thing because it is noted that the Heroes of the Horn will follow whomever blows the horn and not just fight for the side of Light - though I wonder if any of the turnings of the wheel have had the Shadow blow the horn and if that’s been tested. For Mat and Rand, recovering the dagger is paramount because even though Mat has been partially healed he will die if he is separated from the dagger for too long. Basically, they’re still chasing a plot coupon.

So - half of the novel is a chase across the land to get the dagger (and the Horn) back from Padan Fain, and Rand is being an absolute jerk because he doesn’t want to tell Mat and Perrin that he can channel (and that he’s probably the Dragon, but more on that later) but it eventually comes out and their friendship is strained because they’re all teenagers. It’s not as much fun to read as I remember, but then portal sones are introduced and we meet Selene (Lanfear) and we’re off in a different really cool direction.

If I was asked what the three most memorable bits of The Great Hunt were, my answer would be the introduction of the Seanchan, portal stones, and the blowing of the Horn.

Portal stones is probably the least important part of the novel and it’s the bit that is the least explained because they are from the Age of Legends and most everything from that time is lost - but it’s one of my favorite little bits in the series. The Portal Stones are described as Worlds of “If” - it’s a multiverse accessible by magic and rock. For example, in one of the worlds there is a “wispy streak crawling across the sky like a line drawn with cloud. The lines were too straight to be natural…”, which suggests either aircraft or missile. This is a low probability world of either humanity losing the Trolloc Wars or Artur Hawkwing losing something - but if the Dark won (not the Dark One) and this is contemporaneous world to ours that has technology, where did the technology come from?

I also love the later travel by portal stone that adds months to the passage of time (but spares Mat from the ravages of actually living that time without the dagger from Shadar Logoth) because when Rand uses saidin to travel, he very briefly lives life after life of alternate paths, it’s the flicker flicker flicker and I win again Lews Therin that gets me. One of my favorite bits.

Also - Lanfear / Selene is in this book way more than I thought. I thought it was just the scenes with portals and then she disappears before Cairhain, but she comes back again in the city. She’s clearly trying to appeal to Rand’s sense of glory - which, at this point, he doesn’t have. He’s all about helping Mat, the Horn can take care of itself.

This is the exact opposite of Ingtar, who has warring frustration and obsession of finding the Horn. There’s a line in the book which suggests that Ingtar is chasing the Horn like his hope of salvation depends on it. We learn, of course, that’s likely true because Ingtar is a repentant Darkfriend filled with regret and his moment near the end when he confesses to Rand and then charges into battle is, if not a moment of awesomeness, at least a nice moment of poignancy.

Given that I consider The Great Hunt to be “The Seanchan Novel”, I should really get around to talk about the Seanchan. Because I had just finished a re-watch of The Wheel of Time on Amazon and (spoilers for that, too) the first season ends with the arrival of the Seanchan ships I had the Seanchan on my mind and I was slightly surprised that the book takes longer to truly introduce the Seanchan than I remembered. They are hinted at and alluded to, so that when they do show up it’s a big deal.

I originally planned to open this re-read essay with the idea that the Seanchan are going to steal your daughters and mess you up, which is true, but became less important as a concept by the time I got to the Seanchan in the book. But - despite everything else that happens in The Great Hunt, I do think that the Seanchan is the big thing that tells us that this series is going to do something different than the Lord of the Rings thing that The Eye of the World was playing with.

Obviously, there is far more in this book than Tolkein ever considered. I’d have loved to seen what Tolkein would have done with portal stones and Padan Fain’s evolution is far removed from anything in Lord of the Rings - but where the Eye of the World criticisms are valid in how it echoes Lord of the Rings - The Great Hunt begins the transformation into something different.

Okay, brief notes on stuff that I found interesting.

*The Great hunt gives us our first real introduction to Aes Sedai politics as the Amyrlin Seat and Liandrin visit Fal Dara. My image of Liandrin is now firmly actress Kate Fleetwood from the show, which is interesting because I have dueling versions of Moiraine - Rosamind Pike and then a much shorter version, and both work in my head. Siuan Sanche is mostly Sophie Okonedo now, though I’m really curious how the show will handle Siuan’s being stilled and looking far younger than she did as Amyrlin.

*The novel also introduces Verin, one of my straight up favorite Aes Sedai across all the novels. We’ll ignore that she’s friggin Black Ajah because even when Robert Jordan finally pays off Verin straight up lying about Moiraine sending her Verin is still a charming delight. I remember reading the message boards and the theory boards when the series was ongoing and how much was made of that detail. It was debated right up until the final reveal.

*In The Eye of the World Bayle Domon mentioned that giant statue holding a globe on one of the Sea Folk islands as one of the weird wonders of the world. Here, Rand and company run across the other one in the middle of the continent. It’s not yet named the Chodean Kal, but re-readers know what it is and the one Rand finds is the one made for men to use and it calls to Rand, has him drawing saidin in and even Selene / Lanfear is frightened of what might happen if Rand doesn’t get away from it since she knows exactly what it is. I always appreciate when, to get across just how scary something is, that an overpowered character is frightened. While I’m doing the Wheel of Time re-read, I’m also re-reading Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and when McGuire wants to get across just how big of a deal something is she notes that it frightens The Luideag. Here, if one of the Forsaken is scared - the Chodean Kal is a really big deal.

*Daes Dae’Mar (The Great Game, or The Game of Houses) is lightly introduced as a concept here of how people in Cairhain treat politics and getting ahead as a national pastime, moreso than even how everyone else does politics.

*There is a visit to House Damodred, the ruler of which is functionally second in power and prestige in the country and a rival to the King. He’s also a Darkfriend (before he’s killed, of course). Worth noting, this is Moiraine’s family. I don’t remember if it ever comes up that she discovered he’s a Darkfriend. Likely not. Moiraine is in a weird role in this book.

*Egwene and Nynaeve are split up from the boys in this book, first on their way to The White Tower for training (and to break Nynaeve’s block), meet Sheriam (later to be revealed of the Black), meet Elayne at the Tower, traipse off to Falme with Liandrin (bad idea, that), are turned over to the Seanchan, and eventually escape. For all that Rand’s journey across the continent feels like it takes three books, once Egwene and Nynaeve start moving, they *really* start moving. I would have said that they were prisoners and collared for half the novel but that’s not the case.

*Also, the introduction of the a’dam and the collaring of anyone who can channel. Absolutely horrifying and this will come back again and again and again.

*Thom is back! And quickly found an apprentice, Dena, who is promptly murdered / fridged to get Thom moving again.

*Introduction of the Illuminators (fireworks guild). They eventually grow in importance to the point that it will change warfare. More on that in a later book.

*Something that gets me is Mat blowing the horn, just before they are about to be crushed between the Seanchan and the Whitecloaks. And just like that, Mat’s destiny and path is changed.

*When the heroes of the Horn are finally called, we meet Birgitte - pay attention to that one. In the show, a little girl who is killed by a Fade (probably) has a Birgitte doll.

*There is a moment when Artur Hawkwing turns to Hurin and suggests that perhaps he could be added to the Heroes of the Horn in the future and Hurin felt like Hawkwing offered him a crown. It’s such a cool little moment when one of the greatest legends of that world thinks Hurin could possibly be of the same stuff to join that company

*One of my favorite blessings in the series - “The Light shine on you, and the Creator shelter you. The last embrace of the Mother welcome you home.”

Next up, The Dragon Reborn - where Rand really truly is the Dragon this time. Plus, bonus Aiel and the Sword That is Not a Sword.

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

Monday, April 25, 2022

Mind Meld: Best Game or Interactive Fiction

Welcome back to the Mind Meld, where I ask a number of people in genre, fans, writers, podcasters, agents a single genre related question and collate the answers for you. 

Today’s Mind Meld question is the following...

The 2021 Hugos featured a special category for "Best Video Game", won by Supergiant Games' Hades. But despite proposals to make a permanent category for games and interactive work, there is no such category this year at the 2022 Hugos, to be held at Chicon. But what if there were? If there was a "Best Game or Interactive Experience" Hugo for 2022, for games released or substantially updated and modified in 2021, what would YOU want to see on the ballot, and why?

Mur Lafferty is an award winning podcaster and writer and “…one of the worst-kept secrets in science fiction and fantasy publishing.”

2021 didn't fully exist for me. I couldn't even think of what came out last year, and had to look them up. 
I played a lot of games in quarantine, of course, but most of them were continuations/replays from 2020 or earlier (Hades, Blaseball, Animal Crossing, Horizon Zero Dawn etc). However, I did watch a lot of gameplay on the Twitch platform, which is free, requires no skill, and you can distance yourself from emotional wear and tear, and got to see some incredible new games. 

If there was a 2021 Hugo for Best Game, Life is Strange: True Colors would be a contender for the top. Life is Strange games famously feature real world problems (in this case, mine explosions and corporate cover-up and the heavy grief families suffer) with the main character having one special trait (time manipulation, telekinesis) to navigate the conflicts. In True Colors the main character Alex can see and absorb the emotions of others, and uses her power to figure out what happened in the mine explosion that killed her brother. 

The game is gorgeous and the decisions are heart-wrenching. It was something I didn't want to play, but some folks enjoy depressing-as-hell stories and games (see last year's nominee, the laugh-riot The Last of Us 2) and watching the game narrative was enough to impress me.
The new Pokemon Snap was also fun to watch people play. It had much less emotional carnage. Seriously, who wants emotional carnage in these times? 

Sharang Biswas is a writer, artist, and game-designer based in New York. He has won numerous awards for his games, while his writing has appeared in publications including Eurogamer, Dicebreaker, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. He currently teaches game design at Fordham University and the NYU Game Center.
I think Jason Cordova's The Between is one of the most interesting games of 2021. Cordova builds off of the system he designed for 2020’s Brindlewood Bay: in both games, clues to a mystery are randomly selected by the game master, which players subsequently use to create rather than discover the solution to a mystery.

This time, the game is set in a supernatural, Victorian England, à la The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Cordova has introduced a heap of new mechanics and playable character types to immerse players in a seedy, macabre London filled with echoes of gothic horror.

Ira Alexandre is the primary campaigner behind the Games Hugo, a contributing editor at two-time Best Fanzine Hugo Award winning blog Lady Business, and a Co-Chair for WisCon for the second time. They live on Twitter at @itsjustira and, in the real world, with four cats and a corgi.

I have a confession to make: Even as I've been campaigning for a Games Hugo, 2021 was not a good year for me actually playing games. I know, it's weird — and bad — but one of the games that I did play actually gets at this very dilemma. Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a game about creativity, responsibility, depression, mental illness, burnout, and dismantling systems that no longer serve the communities they're meant to structure and support. But it's also a game about people who are so overwhelmed by a responsibility they've taken on that they don't get to enjoy what that work centers around. In Chicory, you play a (never gendered) dog who is the janitor for the titular Chicory. Chicory is current Wielder of the Brush, a powerful artifact that lets you bring colour to the otherwise colourless world. But Chicory buckles under the constant pressure to create art to serve those around her. She shuts herself away, at which point the player character, untrained and unchosen but eager, picks up the Brush — and discovers the darkness that has overtaken Chicory. The game looks like a digital colouring book, because it is one, and you can colour the world however you want, either for your own pleasure or to solve puzzles and deal with obstacles. The style, delivery, writing, and gameplay are all very gentle even as they grapple with truly dark and complex ideas. The game is not easy, with tricky puzzles and challenging boss battles. In the end, I found a lot of meaning in playing this game with my partners (it has a wonderful co-op mode) even as I worked on the Games Hugo campaign, getting a chance to actually enjoy the very sort of work I was championing. Now, working on the campaign in 2022, I'm learning to lean on my fellow campaigners and be gentle with myself to avoid burnout — and leave room for the very source of joy that I want our community to reward.

Anyone who's allowed me to talk about games for more than a minute will have heard that I love Outer Wilds, and the 2021 DLC for the game, Echoes of the Eye is... perfect. We're very lucky to have such a stellar example of what a Hugo-worthy "substantial modification" of a game could look like. Outer Wilds was a game so complete within itself that I could not imagine how a DLC could possibly work without undermining the structure and themes of the base game. And yet — Echoes of the Eye not only manages to preserve everything extraordinary and meaningful about the original game, but it actually builds on it and is even more clever and wonder-inducing. The environments are stunning, the secrets surprising and fascinating, and the atmosphere spot-on. Much as with the original game, saying basically anything about it takes away some of the joy of discovery, but I can say that the developers seemed to ask themselves, "What mechanic have we not yet thoroughly explored?" and then built not just an entire new gameplay paradigm, but an entirely different genre onto the base game. Incredible.

Honourable mentions to titles I haven't played: Speaking of time loops, Deathloop looks fantastic! I'm replaying Psychonauts because (a) of all it's awesome and (b) of all Psychonauts 2 sounds GREAT. And I absolutely cannot wait to try Inscryption, because games about games, games that interrogate the nature of gameplay, of play, of narrative, like The Stanley Parable and Bioshock, are pure catnip to me. I am so excited to check out these great 2021 titles and the others recommended here!

Joe DelFranco is a 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.
Three games come to mind when I think of the best games of 2021: Returnal, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, and It Takes Two. If I were to look at 2021 as a whole, I would say that I didn’t see or experience anything that I would consider transcendental, but some great titles were released. 
Returnal did a wonderful job with fast-paced, frenetic, high stakes gameplay in a procedurally generated sci-fi atmosphere that exuded beauty and danger in equal measure. It fell short of being phenomenal because of its lack of boss difficulty, and vague/unsatisfying story conclusion, but it was still a great game overall and something I'd like to see a sequel to in the future. A great foray for rogue-lites in the AAA gaming space.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart was a great continuation of a two-decade-old series. Impressive visuals in cartoony sci-fi worlds have never looked better, and the game delivers fun gameplay with exciting new weapons and weapon upgrades. While the game never tries to reinvent the wheel, they do well with the formula they've become comfortable with. Rift Apart delivers a good story with fun characters and is more than worth checking out. It's also a great example of the power of the new generation of console hardware.
It Takes Two is a wonderful co-op title that spans all different kinds of genres during its 12-hour runtime, not only story genres but gameplay genres as well. By constantly changing things around, It Takes Two keeps things fresh for players. The game is a mandatory cooperative experience with a heavy emphasis on couch co-op. In a world so divided, it was nice to have a game that did its best to bring people together. Some bugs and weird story beats/characters, and over-simplicity kept it from being perfect, but it was a ton of fun with a partner and highly recommended to play with a partner or close friend.
There are some other games I missed out on like Deathloop and Psychonauts 2, but I intend to get to some of them when I have time, Deathloop in particular. It was a great year for games, even if there were no earthshattering releases. Looking forward, 2022 will be a significant year for video games with the releases of Horizon: Forbidden West, Elden Ring, God of War Ragnarok, Starfield, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2.

Gregory A. Wilson is an author of speculative fiction and TTRPG adventures and supplements, a college professor of literature and creative writing, a lead singer and trumpet player in a progressive rock band, the lead writer of the video game Chosen Heart (currently in development), and a long time game master of TTRPGS of every type and description. You can find him at his own website,, on his Twitch channel,, on his actual play podcast Speculate!,, and on Twitter at, as he gears up to launch his new Grayshade IP (with novels, a TTRPG, and an audio book) in June.  

Here's the thing about the current video game landscape: as opposed to the 1980s and 1990s, when games came out less frequently and were more universally played, in 2022 there are so many thousands of games produced every year, from one person indie studios to AAA studios with hundreds of employees and budgets to match, that it feels like an awful lot of hubris to think I can come up with one best game for the year. But I do play a fair number of games on both's and my own Twitch channel, and I've interviewed a number of developers and writers for these games, and of all the work I played, saw, or read about in 2021, there's one game I'd want front and center in a Best Video Game Hugo for 2022: Metroid Dread.
The Metroid series has always had a special place in my heart, with its blend of exploration, wonder, revealed lore, and challenging play. (It's also got Samus, one of the most iconic protagonists in video game history, which doesn't hurt.) The brilliant thing about Metroid Dread is that it understands this history without being weighed down by it. The typical play conditions of Metroid games are all here: no weapons, and thus a very limited area of travel, followed by the gradual opening of more areas as more weapons and equipment are discovered. As usual, the satisfaction of seeing previously inaccessible areas become available to explore is unmatched by almost any other game, and the feeling of growing power--balanced by the growing threat of increasingly dangerous bosses and environments--is as enjoyable as always.
But Dread goes further, both by introducing the (almost) unkillable EMMIs, which can only be defeated by getting to the weapons which can break their defenses, and by giving further backstory information about the mysterious Chozo, the source of Samus's weaponry and training. This is a completely new game, not a remake in the style of the brilliant Final Fantasy VII Remake, which redefines how such projects should be done. But it understands its own history, and gives those who spent much of their childhood wondering about that history a reason to again become fascinated in its own lore. You don't need to have played previous Metroid games to enjoy Dread, of course…but if you have played others, this Metroid game will hit even more strongly.
Dread isn't completely perfect; there are a couple of difficulty spikes which seem to come out of nowhere, and the early experiences with the EMMIs can be frustrating. But it's extremely, extremely good, and reflects an understanding of both the past and present of Metroid games and fans. If this is any indication of the care with which Nintendo and its affiliated studios are managing the franchise, the series is in good hands, and the upcoming Metroid Prime 4 will be a true tour de force. In the meantime, Metroid Dread is an incredible game, and well worthy of a Hugo award.
Dr. Shaun Duke is an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D in English from the University of Florida and a B.A. in Modern Literature from University of California, Santa Cruz. He studies science fiction, postcolonialism, Caribbean literature, spatial theory, fan cultures, and social media.
It figures you asked the guy who has been trying to play his entire Steam catalogue in alphabetical order, which has the effect of ensuring that I almost never play anything released after Biden became President... But here goes in no particular order:
Vampire Survivors (poncle): Released in March 2021, this action roguelite game has everything you could want in something designed to take away your entire evening: a fast-paced game with fairly simple mechanics but an easy-to-understand-but-kinda-complex strategy element. It's addicting and so much fun!
Riders Republic (Ubisoft): I am a sucker for any "racing, stunt, whatever you wanna do" game which gives me something other than a car or a motorcycle. Riders Republic is basically just Steep but with mountain bikes (same studio and all) and a lot more style. And it's a lot of fun. You can get competitive if you want, or you can just be a dork doing bonkers tricks for funsies. It's a good way to spend an afternoon! 
Sable (Shedworks): What else am I a sucker for? STYLE, baby! And Sable is stylish as hell and absolutely beautiful to look at. In a lot of ways, Sable reminds me of AER: Memories of Old (Daedalic Entertainment) with its lowkey quests, emphasis on exploration and discovery in an open world, and a general chill (and stylish), non-linear play format. It well worth checking out.
And here are some games that probably would get nominated by people other than me: Metroid Dread, Monster Hunter Rise, It Takes Two, Hot Wheels Unleashed, Shin Megami Tensei V, Back 4 Blood, and Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl.

Do with this knowledge what you will...

Michael R. Underwood is the author of over a dozen books across several series, from dimension-hopping story heists in Genrenauts to found family space opera Annihilation Aria. When not writing, Mike streams games at and podcasts with the actual play show Speculate! and occasional appearances on The Skiffy & Fanty Show.

2021 gave me one game that stood head-and-shoulders above the others. Combining Roguelikes and Deckbuilders (a pairing that I've loved since 2017's Slay the Spire), Inscryption by Daniel Mullins games opens with incredible aesthetics - moody music, an evocative art style, and clear base mechanics. The game evolves as the story unfolds, revealing Inscryption to be much more than expected several times over. I had the great pleasure of playing the game entirely on-stream, sharing the twists and turns with friends, colleagues, and viewers.
Another surprising favorite was Eidos-Montreal's Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, which delivered solid combat and beautiful art stylings alongside very effective dialogue and character work. This version of the Guardians clearly draws from the James Gunn film versions without being fully constrained by the MCU versions. I'm very fond of single-player games with solid storytelling that don't overstay their welcome or pad out the game with endless busywork or uninspired side-quests, and thankfully, Guardians is as tight and propelling as a classic rock tune.

Adri Joy (she/her) is co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, a reviewer for Strange Horizons, and a dog owner. She lives in East London.

I've always been that person who fills half my Best Dramatic Presentation: Long ballot with video games (no I will not be getting into theoretical eligibility debates at this time), so last year's whole ballot of video games was a super exciting experience! That said, last year was more of a year for past favourites (i.e. Fire Emblem Three Houses) and catching up on the ballot with my shiny new Playstation than mainlining new game releases. Luckily, the 2021 game I sunk the most time into is one that would be perfect for a theoretical Hugo award ballot: ZA/UM's Disco Elysium: The Final Cut.

In Disco Elysium (which originally came out in 2019 but easily passes the substantial modification requirement with its 2021 content, which added full voice acting and several plot-relevant new quests), the player explores a tiny corner of a strange, epic world through the eyes of an amnesiac, addict detective on the brink of total mental collapse. Unfortunately for you, there's no time to wallow in the misery of your broken life: there's a dead body at the back of the hotel you're staying in, a simmering conflict between the local dockworkers' union and the international owners which is threatening to turn into a bloodbath, and your new partner Kim Kitsuragi keeps patiently but persistently expecting you to get your shit together and solve the case with him.

Disco Elysium does a great job giving the player just enough choice for each run to feel different - you make early choices about your detective's skill distribution and get to level it up accordingly, making some things trivially easy and others impossibly difficult depending on what kind of skillset you have - while telling a compelling, if sometimes deliberately anticlimactic, story about love, loss, and what humans cling to in the face of colonial destruction and a slow apocalypse. It balances humour with passionate political statements and some utterly haunting existential one-liners, all delivered through The Final Cut's excellent voice acting that brings all the weird denizens of Martinaise to life. That you get to do it alongside one of the best sidekicks in gaming history is the icing on the cake. Seriously, Kim is the best, and the alternate Hugo for Best Video Game or Interactive Experience should absolutely be his. No furhter questions.

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

Friday, April 22, 2022

Microreview: We Are the Song by Catherine Bakewell

A kindhearted allegory about the social responsibility of art in times of tyranny

When the placid land of Cadenza finds itself without a ruler, the neighboring kingdoms of Basso and Acuto battle for control of it. More than the agricultural bounties of the region, the claimed justification for all this violence is to take care of the holy site where the creator goddess Caé fell to earth and sang reality into existence. As hostilities worsen, the twelve Singers of the Goddess, divinely gifted performers whose voice can work miracles, roam the lands offering hope and succor to the powerless. After young Singer Elissa uses her magic to clear a roadblock on a town's only supply route, she gets dragged into the ambitious schemes of successive politicians who wish to turn her into an instrument of war. Will she allow her gift to serve harmful ends, or will she dare defy the most powerful people in the world?

We Are the Song presents an interesting scenario of religious conflict that author Catherine Bakewell uses to inspire young readers to question overreach of authority, the weaponization of art, the distortion of religious doctrine for political motives, and the concept of "holy land." In an apparent echo of J. M. Straczynski's celebrated line, "If sacred places are spared the ravages of war, then make all places sacred," this novel argues fervently against the use of faith as an excuse for atrocities.

The treatment of magic, music and prayer as the same force creates incredibly fertile avenues of interpretation. Ordinarily, an ethical allegory would focus on the danger of magic in the wrong hands (i.e. weapons of mass destruction), or the danger of putting art under government control (i.e. censorship and propaganda), or the danger of blending religion with politics (i.e. inquisitions and holy wars). Bakewell's effort to tackle all three problems at the same time is a bold bet that, for the most part, yields a rich payoff.

This book's success relies on the believability of its protagonist, and twelve-year-old Elissa is a solidly built one. Her inner conflict as a musical prodigy raised in seclusion and tasked with more responsibilities than any child should have to handle adds thick layers of dramatic potential to her personality. What she lacks in political education she compensates for in innate gentleness. It's hard to be an optimist during a world war, but Elissa's determination to see the good in people and her uncompromising adherence to pacifism make her the heroine her world needs.

We need the protagonist to be this strong, because the epic quest at the core of the story is essentially about planning a divine intervention. That's right: Bakewell assigned herself the near-impossible task of pulling off a deus ex machina, the riskiest gamble in genre fiction, and without a personality as compelling as Elissa's, the whole endeavor would have come off as transparently contrived. Fortunately, Bakewell's strategy of making us experience the story through Elissa's feelings helps the climax arrive organically. This may be a book where flowers transform into birds, but its whimsical aesthetic never fails to respect the reader.

Hard questions about justice, suffering, inequality and corruption get a serious treatment suitable to the intended readers' level of maturity. One wouldn't expect a story targeted at middle-grade kids to attempt an answer to the problem of theodicy, arguably the most challenging topic in religious studies, and the solution suggested in We Are the Song isn't a very sophisticated or satisfying one, but it fits the internal logic of the setting and provides the emotional resolution that its protagonist was always headed for.

We Are the Song is a potent plea for the independence of artists. Storytelling, both secular and sacred, employs human emotion as its tool. At a time when politicians are becoming so expert at storytelling, we need more stories that challenge that kind of misuse of our innermost drives.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for translating the convoluted ethics of religious war into a form appropriate for child readers.

Penalties: −2 for a less than skillful handling of disability. Both the miraculous healing of disability and the imposition of disability as divine punishment are highly sensitive plotting choices that this novel doesn't address with enough thoughtfulness.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Reference: Bakewell, Catherine. We Are the Song [Holiday House, 2022].

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Adri and Joe Read Books: 2022 Hugo Award Edition

Joe: Hey! The Hugo Award finalists were just announced and I am so excited for everyone! 

This is also a pretentiously ridiculous thing to say that I hope comes across the way it is intended, but it’s weirdly relaxing to not be nominated this year. We’ve been pushing so hard the last five years and then we actually won (!!!) and recused ourselves from consideration this year and I am just so happy to be sitting on the sidelines cheering because this is a really great lineup of finalists. 

Also! Congratulations to Paul Weimer for being a finalist for Fan Writer for the third time! 

Adri: Agreed on all fronts! Congratulations to Paul, and all the finalists, and wow I’m enjoying not being one of them this time around. Being part of the Hugo lineup is such an honour and it’s one I hope I have again, but there’s really something to be said for low stakes enjoyment.

Joe: Low stakes enjoyment is a really excellent way to describe it. I hope to be on the ballot again, would also be beyond honored if a project we’re launching this year is considered for Related Work, and there’s no promise that we’ll ever make another ballot but right now, having the privilege to be able to step back and enjoy the Hugos without actively being a part of it is surprisingly nice. We’ll just ignore the massive stack of book length Related Work finalists that all just came in from the library at the same time. 

We should talk about our predictions, which this year was formally sent to each other via e-mail a day before the announcements.

Adri: Anyway, yes, let’s talk about the predictions, and let’s talk about how I have evidence of you once again predicting 6 out of 6 best novel finalists the day before the ballot was announced. Which is funny, because neither of us were as confident as previous years about how the ballot would turn out, especially with a Nebula list that diverged significantly from our expectations!  How does it feel to be that plugged into the zeitgeist?

Joe: It’s really weird to have predicted all 6 finalists twice in three years. What I’m seeing here as a trend is that I need to fire off last minute predictions rather than sitting down and overthinking the whole thing in an article for Nerds of a Feather. 

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t overthink the whole thing in the months prior to making the last minute prediction, but the quick e-mail method allows me to wave my hands in the air and say “aaaaah, Andy Weir” rather than trying to justify exactly why a Neal Stephenson novel that you haven’t heard of (and which is apparently 700 pages) is going to make the ballot. 

I’m not sure if this is two beers you owe me or if we’re back to one - but either way - what are your initial thoughts on this year’s Best Novel finalists?

Adri: It’s a ballot I like very much, on the whole. When we spoke, I said I couldn’t imagine this ballot without The Galaxy and the Ground Within or A Desolation Called Peace, and I think both are very well placed here. But the books that most excite me are the debuts: Light from Uncommon Stars is an outstanding piece of writing, She Who Became the Sun is one of the most entertaining, thoughtful pieces of historical fantasy out there, and Master of Djinn is pure, brilliant fun from start to finish.

Oh, and Andy Weir is here too. That’s the only one I have to put on the reading list from Best Novel, and as long as it takes more after The Martian than Artemis, I’m sure it will be an enjoyable enough experience.

So, yeah. I can honestly say this best novel list is one of the most exciting categories on the ballot for me this year. I have some… opinions… elsewhere.

Joe: I’ve read three of the Best Novel finalists and it’s the three debuts that will also be new to me - which is a whole lot of fun. I try to be so plugged into the genre that it’s a rare year that I’m not deeply involved in all of the major works - but a consequence of having no attention span last year for new things is that I haven’t read Light from Uncommon Stars, She Who Became the Sun, or A Master of Djinn

I would lament that, but as finally reading Rage of Dragons four years after publication reminds me, discovering a spectacular novel that I had missed is a joy and an opportunity - so I’m thrilled to dive into the debuts. 

Project Hail Mary is much more The Martian than it is Artemis. Had it gone the other way, I don’t think it would have sniffed the ballot even in a less certain year like this is, but so much of what worked in The Martian works here. 

I’ll wave my hand at the Novella finalists. I’ve read 4.75 of them (I’m almost through The Past is Red and will be in the next day, which means it’ll be 5 by the time this goes live). They’re good. I also don’t think we have anything new to say about Tordotcom Publishing’s dominance here that we haven’t said in the past. This is the second straight year of Tordotcom completely sweeping the ballot. They’ve had strong representation each year they’ve been around and fairly consistently publish strong novellas and they are the most prominent novella publisher - but 2020 was fairly refreshing with only two from Tordotcom on the ballot and not the winner. Before that, it was 5 out of 6 for the prior two years. This reminds me that I need to go throw money at Neon Hemlock for this year’s novella series. 

Adri: Do! The Neon Hemlock novellas are consistently a highlight of my reading and I am already very hyped for their 2022 lineup. They also put in a great showing on the Nebula Ballot, although I would have liked to see & This is How to Stay Alive by Shingai Njeri Kagunda sneak on there, as it was my favourite of the year.

Beyond publisher politics, though, these feel like three very safe short fiction categories, with a lot of the same names from previous years and across different categories in the ballot (Catherynne M. Valente is represented three times, in novella, novelette, and short story, and Seanan McGuire is a finalist in novella, novelette, series and, somehow, fanzine). There are important exceptions: Blue Neustifter’s awesome, medium-busting "Unknown Number" is here, placing another trans woman in the Hugo canon (alongside Ryka Aoki in the novel ballot, and I’m sure others too!) Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki picks up his first nomination - and the first for an African author in Best Novelette - for "O2 Arena", which is also an excellent story. I’m excited to see José Pablo Iriarte’s "Proof By Induction", and I think this is their first nomination too? But on the whole, this is not an exciting ballot for me, and I think it’s especially light on outstanding stories by authors of colour in general, and Black authors specifically. We gave FIYAH an entire Hugo but none of their stories were the best of the year, again? Come on.

This isn’t intended as a criticism of any specific authors: we’ve been returning entries on the ballot too, in a category which has also had valid critique of  “well this isn’t anything new” thrown at it, and I know that it kind of stings! Lack of diversity or freshness isn’t something any individual finalist can fix, or should feel obliged to take into account when accepting their nomination, and being recognised for multiple stories makes sense when you’re an author at the top of your game. But the overall effect, over 18 mostly repeated and returning white nominees, is one that I don’t think does justice to the full excellence and diversity of genre right now. 

But, this isn’t the first time I’ve been uninspired by a Hugo ballot and I suspect it won’t be the last - so let’s move on! I think you have some feelings about Best Related Work?

Joe: I do want to talk a little bit about Related Work! I love the variety of work that has been on the ballot over the years (and I remain super happy that the work you did with the ConZealand Fringe was recognized with a nomination) but I’m a fairly basic person and I really appreciate when more non-fiction books are on the ballot in Related Work. 

As such, this year’s Related Work is fairly stacked. I’m not prepared to do a Related Work predictions competition next year, but I’m not at all surprised to see work from Elsa Sjunneson or Charlie Jane Anders on the ballot - they are significant works from writers very popular with Worldcon. I’ve started reading the essay collection Dangerous Visions and New Worlds - which seems like exactly the sort of thing this category is built to recognize. 

If anything surprised me (and that only a little), it was Camestros Felapton epic series of articles detailing the culture wars inside and outside of fandom centered on the Sad and Rabid Puppy years - and that surprise is only that I wasn’t sure how widely it was read by nominators. It’s also 1000 pages on my Kobo. 

I’ve only read one of the Related Work finalists (the Vox article “How Twitter Can Ruin a Life”) - so this is a fantastic opportunity to read a bunch of genre related non-fiction.

Adri: I think this looks like a great set of finalists, but I’m disappointed that it’s shaken out so traditionally this year and I can’t help feeling that this is a backlash to how varied the category was last year in particular. My big hopes in this category (alongside Our Arturo, who I am sad to not see here!) were FIYAHCON 2021 (an amazing event) and the Magical Readathon, a wide-scale annual event which last year transitioned from a Harry Potter theme to all original content with a ton of thought and detail put into creating an experience that everyone can feel welcome participating in. There’s no point making predictions about trends from just one year, but I hope this isn’t a permanent swing towards the “traditional”.

There’s lots I’m keen to read in this category, though the amount of reading will make it challenging to get through it all (particularly the 1,000 page Debarkle!) Similarly, I’ve probably got too much to get through in the dramatic presentation categories, seeing as how I’ve only seen Encanto in long form and nothing in short form. Perhaps this is the year I catch up on the Expanse, finally?

Joe: I also hope it’s not a permanent swing, despite appreciating the bookishness of it all. I wonder if, for the conventions, that you’re only going to get something new and significant. Like - the first FIYAHCON was significant, but I don’t know if you will (or should) see sustained nominations year over year in the category. Fringe was a singular event. The Magical Readathon sounds like maybe that’s something that could have been considered if there was any sort of sustained community conversation around it (I have no idea, maybe it placed 7th in voting). I’m sure there will be some sort of documentary next year - whether theatrical or a youtube doc. I’m sure our upcoming blog series will be very well respected and will receive more nominations than any work in this category ever. Never mind, I can’t type that with a straight face.

Because I watch a lot of movies and stay up on particular things, the only Long Form finalist I’m missing is Space Sweepers - which had been on my radar for a fair while and I’ll probably watch it in the next couple of weeks. Short Form is a longer shot for me because I never got around to watching For All Mankind when I had Apple+ (though I’m getting a new Apple TV 4K as a reward from work so  I wonder if activating that will give me another 3 months of free content) and right now I’m just not going to pay for more, so I will probably miss that episode, I’ve never seen Star Trek Lower Decks and likely won’t start now. I’ve heard really good things about Arcane, so maybe this is a good time to start. Plus, it’s on Netflix so that’s easy enough. 

I have seen Loki and frankly I didn’t like the show or think much of it, but I LOVED The Wheel of Time. I actually re-watched the full first season and could probably talk myself into doing that a third time before Season 2 airs presumably later this year. There’s no question that’s the top of my ballot. I do like The Expanse, but it’s never been essential / appointment watching for some reason (despite the novels being appointment reading) - so I’m chipping away at Season 6. 

But where you say you might have too much to get through on the Dramatic Presentation - I’m doing fairly well on Best Series. I’m complete on The Kingston Cycle, Merchant Princes, and Wayward Children. I have the last Green Bone novel out from the library right now (and I was always going to read that). T. Kingfisher’s World of the White Rat is new to me, so that’s exciting to have a new series to discover. I didn’t much get into Too Like the Lightning, so I’m going to call that a loss and not try again. It’s a category where if you haven’t already read some of the finalists that can be incredibly daunting. 

Adri: Best Series isn’t too bad for me, with 3 series finished and Wayward Children almost finished (and I’ll have to read the sixth book for the novella category anyway). Merchant Princes and World of the White Rat are slightly tricky because they’re both series formed of multiple works, without a single obvious entry point. Merchant Princes has 6 older volumes and than a much newer trilogy, which is where I intend to start reading: I dislike the Laundry Files so I’m not expecting to be particularly keen on this one, hence why I’m making it as straightforward as possible for myself. World of the White Rat consists of a duology (The Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine) which I’ve read, and a standalone (Swordheart) and a trilogy (the Paladin books) which I haven’t, but I’ve seen the most love for the Paladin trilogy so that’s the reading I’m hoping to get done during the award period.

I’ve also got three books to read for the Lodestar: Chaos on Catnet is on my immediate TBR pile, A Snake Falls To Earth looks fantastic and I can’t wait to get hold of it, and I am both indifferent to The Last Graduate and irritated about this series continuing to take a place on the Young Adult award ballot. Yes, fine, it has crossover appeal, but the book is emphatically not categorised as YA by the publisher or the author and I wish that the administrators had been more hardline, or Novik had been more altruistic, while the Lodestar category is finding its feet with WSFS voters.

Joe: I’ve just begun both Chaos on Catnet and Iron Widow, so I know there’s good reading ahead. I generally enjoyed A Deadly Education, but I fully agree that this is not a YA series and I would have liked to have seen Novik decline the nomination. Though - I suppose if I’m feeling gracious I’d go with how the Hugo administrators tend to act in other situations - if the voters feel a work belongs in X category, then that’s the category in which it belongs (excluding hard word count limits for the prose categories). That’s how we had the entirety of The Wheel of Time show up in Best Novel (that’s a year I really wish Best Series existed because the category was absolutely made for that and despite my love for The Wheel of Time I’m not convinced the nomination should have happened the way it did and this ignores that I’m currently re-reading the series in a single volume omnibus ebook edition) and other very much edge case nominations that I’m not sure there is value in re-litigating. 

Do you have anything else you want to get into regarding this year’s finalists? If not, I’d like to close by saying just how great of a Hugo ballot we have this year and that I’m super excited to read and watch and listen to all the things. Congratulations to all of the finalists, especially the first time finalists! This is such a cool thing to get to be a part of. And - I’d like to offer a bonus extra congrats to my friends at the Hugo, Girl podcast! I’m so thrilled to see them on the ballot!

Adri: Yes, congratulations to all of the nominees - especially Hugo, Girl, The Full Lid and all our other buddies on the ballot this year. It’s going to be another great season of Hugo reading!

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

Adri (she/her), 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