Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Thursday Morning Superhero: Essex County Edition

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

The amount of comic book adaptations that have flocked to the small screen has been welcome, if not surprising in what titles have been selected.  The most recent news that has me incredibly excited is the upcoming adaptation of Essex County by Jeff Lemire. Lemire is a masterful storyteller and Essex County had a profound impact on how I view the comic book medium.

Essex County is set in Canada and features interconnected storylines associated with a farming family with an underlying hockey theme as it explores themes of grief, isolation, family, and was very close to making it on the required reading list for the sport and culture course I used to teach.

While the story centers around Jimmy LeBeuf, a former professional hockey player whose career was cut short, but we meet his brother Lou, an imaginative child named Lester, and his Uncle Kenny who he resides with after the death of his mother.

The series is an emotional ride, but Lemire’s ability to evoke emotions from his art draw you in and connect you with the characters who often say very little.  Hockey as a metaphor for theses characters life in Canada is front and center and demonstrates how we structure sport as a reflection of the society for which it resides.  As a sports and comic book fan, this book is the perfect marriage of why I elected to study sport academically.  It is beyond the wins and losses, but how it impacts people on the human level, provides an escape from the pains of daily life, and is a universal language with the ability to connect us all.

The six-episode miniseries was announced by CBS and it is estimated to debut in the Winter of 2023. It will be a long wait, but at least I have Paper Girls and the final season of Locke and Key to help tide me over.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Microreview[Novel]: A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

A playful tone, witty banter and a nautical lesbian murder mystery underscored by a keen awareness of gender in the Edwardian world make this romance almost as delightful as the previous book.

Following on from A Marvellous Light (in which our unmagical Edwardian protagonist discovers the secret magical society of Britain, which in a shocking coincidence needs his help in a matter of the highest stakes) and the discovery that Robert Blyth can see the future, and may need to use this power to help British magic, A Restless Truth picks up with Maud, his younger sister, who has followed his visions and investigations to fetch an elderly woman (another member of the Forsythia Club) from the USA so that they can safeguard her piece of the Last Contract. Of course, this does not quite go to plan, and instead of a leisurely cruise across the Atlantic back to England, Maud finds herself trying to solve a murder and elude thieves, all while trapped in a boat and uncertain whom to trust.

Where its predecessor rushes us throughout magical Britain on a somewhat whistlestop tour of the world Marske has created, A Restless Truth slows things down a little. The scene has been set, the stakes made clear, for what's going on in the overarching plot of the series, so there's time to leave our new protagonist Maud all at sea (wahey), and allow us to get to know her a little better. In fact, as Marske has Maud point out several times, the time spent travelling aboard ship is a liminal one, and the story plot mirrors this large - it embraces wholeheartedly that it's a middle novel in a trilogy, and instead of trying to alleviate the problems that normally brings, instead, it leans in hard.

And, for the most part, this works. It's not a book trying to be a dramatic start or end. Instead, it's a story that's all about how the pieces fit together, how beginnings become ends, discovering and changing. There's still a proper story to it, of course - Maud has her murder to solve - but in terms of where it fits into the metanarrative of a trilogy, Marske has embraced the middleness, the necessity of taking those fledgling ideas of Book 1 and fleshing them out, using them to lay the groundwork for the dramatic ending piece, and made a conceit of it. It is, overwhelmingly, a book about contextualising information we already have, or expanding it, with a murder mystery as a way to hold it all together, but somehow, because we're in on the joke, it doesn't feel all that clunky. And the information is really well integrated into the story as it's told - there are a number of characters who feel the need to tell Maud things about how the world works, but each time it feels very natural, very of the moment and necessary, and so it's easy to let that flood of information pass by unremarked.

Of course, part of the reason it feels so natural and necessary is that Maud is painfully naive. Where Robert as the protagonist of A Marvellous Light is ignorant of magical society, he is at least relatively worldly beyond that sphere - he confidently inhabits the world as he knows it in exactly the way you'd expect someone from the Edwardian nobility to do. Maud, however, is younger, more sheltered, and obviously a lot more female, and so her experiences of the world outside her parents, her brother and her close friends are... limited. Which is great, because it means she needs to be told things about magic, about the society she lives in, that we, as readers need to know. But it's also not great, because it doesn't always make her a fun character to live inside the head of. She has a number of "oh sweetie no" moments throughout the plot, and they're all very realistically done, I can see exactly how things lined up such that we'd be where we were... but that realism made them awkward and uncomfortable to read.

Luckily, Maud is balanced out by our other protagonist. Much like Edwin's magical expertise and introverted personality existed in A Marvellous Light as a pleasant contrast to Robert's labrador-jock energy, so here Maud's naivety wrapped over a core of solid self-belief and determination are counterbalanced by the very worldly, scandalous, but (unsurprisingly) haunted and insecure Violet. Violet has run away to the US in a flurry of gossip and is returning to Britain to claim a fortuitous inheritance. Violet is absolutely determined to be thought of as a strumpet and a scandal, and delights in knowing what's what - magically, societally and indeed, romantically. But this is where some of the awkwardness comes in. While Edwin is a shy love interest, he comes into the story knowing himself, his preferences, his sexuality, and so it's about them both realising there's a mutual interest. In A Restless Truth, we need to watch Maud... discover lesbians are a thing. And how sex works. And how porn is sometimes unrealistic. It's... a lot. Mostly well-managed, and with a surprisingly good use of what felt like period appropriate language to communicate what was being discussed (although, warning for those of a delicate constitution, the c-word gets dropped frequently and with casual abandon). But even the best handled version of the story still has a fairly short amount of time (the boat journey is less than a week) for someone to go from nought to romance. On the whole, I think it's good, and in some ways the ending has a pleasing realism that is often lacking in this kind of story, but it doesn't have quite the impact Marske manages for the romance between Robert and Edwin.

Outside of the dynamic between Maud and Violet, there are some wonderful characters and interactions - the curmudgeonly, dickish Hawthorn from A Marvellous Light makes a return, and even gets a genuine character arc, as well as all the best dialogue lines. There are also several old ladies who do not get relegated to the background, and in fact have interesting and genuine impacts on the plot, in ways that older female characters rarely manage, which was a delight.

We also get one relatively major character who isn't from the British nobility, and while we could have done with more of his dialogue and general story, Marske does use him to undercut some of the upper-class-overwhelm she's created, and remind us all that most of the cast of characters are living lives of extreme privilege. It's not entirely enough, but it is there, and when he does speak, Alan Ross brings something entirely necessary to the page. I'm hoping this is something we see more of in the third book of the trilogy. Alas, the same can't be said of race - one black American character (a singer) is introduced extremely briefly, but her page time is negligible, and the hint that we get when she's introduced that more might be done with her role in the story is quickly abandoned.

What does come through pretty hard, and that was mostly missing from A Marvellous Light, is an awareness of gender and gender roles in Edwardian society. Some of it is the bits you'd expect - Maud is a keen supporter of suffrage and wants to go to university - but some of it is also the flip side, with both Maud and Violet at times weaponising their femininity to get what they want from other people. At one point, Maud does so to one of the people working on the ship, and we see the scene through Violet's eyes, with an appreciation and a disdain for the manipulative nature of it all. Likewise, we get Violet's story of a woman "ruined" by sex and scandal, and going from British high society to being an actress in America, and how that impacts her day to day, how she is seen and how she has to curate her image, and critically, how she is fully aware that her survival in the role of strumpet is only possible because of the fortune she's inherited. None of these are the focus of the story, but they demonstrate Marske's interest in having us really inhabit the protagonists' realities, and they're all details I thoroughly enjoyed.

As well as these themes, the major one that runs through not just Maud's story but Violet's and even Hawthorn's as well, is the idea of how our families make us who we are - whether by example, by force or by leaving us determined to be the opposite of their expectations, and how different people reckon with that as they grow, or how they are unable to do so (because magic can make abstractions entirely real, for exciting heavy-handed metaphors). Within the major plot, there are a lot of threads about legacy, about what we leave behind, and the people it's left to, and about coming back to the things that made you who you are, and maybe realising you missed some truths, or assumed things unfairly as well. What we got in A Restless Truth was really well done on these, but the fullness of it won't be seen until we get the resolutions in the final volume.

On the whole, A Restless Truth is a good sequel to A Marvellous Light - deciding not to do entirely the same thing all over again (which would have been so easy to slip into), but instead embracing the need for a more settled, character and exposition-focussed interlude, before we presumably resume the action in book three. It lacks some of the impact and charm of its predecessor, but still manages enough joy and sparkle to be entirely worth the read, and makes me just as keen as I'd hoped to be to read the final volume of the story.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for old ladies in a story with actual agency and influence on the plot

+1 giving a previously shallow and unlikeable character depth, hints of backstory and some incredible one-liners

Penalties: -1 could have done with expanding some of the points on class into more fully realised plot threads

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

Reference: A Restless Truth Freya Marske [Pan Macmillan, 2022]

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Everything Else

: Alright, let’s do this thing. Adri, you and I had planned to cover at least two more categories this summer than we actually did and had hoped to cover even more than that. But, you know, life is hard and schedules are harder and we just didn’t quite get there.

By the time this chat will go live Hugo voting will have closed, and if I’m being perfectly honest with our faithful readers, Hugo voting will have closed before we finish this conversation as well. And you know what? That’s okay! Hugo reading and Hugo chatting is supposed to be fun and is, in fact, fun and we should get on with it.

Adri: Hugo voting has closed as I write this. Life does indeed get in the way of SFF reviewing and Hugo conversations, and that’s something we all have to live with.

That said, this has been a really good year for me in terms of actually reading and watching Hugo things - with the exception of one series (For All Mankind) in BDP short and a few volumes in Best Series, I actually got to pretty much everything on the ballot

Joe: This is going to be a lot less focused than our specific category conversations because there we’re talking about, well, a specific category. I expect we’re going to be all over the place here because there are categories I didn’t quite finish reading / watching everything for (sorry Dramatic Presentation Short Form and Lodestar Awards) and at least one more where I just don’t have anything constructive to say for various reasons that we discussed offline that I don’t think would be productive for anyone to bring online. That’s vague for our readers, but it’s probably the right decision.

Where I think I want to start is with the Lodestar Award, which I just admitted to not finishing. I do plan to read the ones I haven’t gotten to you but I still wanted to highlight Iron Widow, Chaos on Catnet, and Victories Greater than Death. It’s only half of the category, but what a lineup!

Iron Widow absolutely blew me away. The novel wasn’t on my radar at all and I could not put it down once I started. I think I read it in three sittings, maaaaaybe two. It’s one of those books where you pick up any time you have a spare minute and just keep going well past where you planned to stop and forget about normal sleep schedules. Loved it. Adored it, for all its brutality.

Adri: Iron Widow was a very easy favourite for me in this category too - it’s one of three of my nominees to make the final list. That said, there wasn’t much between the four other YA works for me - Chaos on Catnet ended up as my fifth choice but I enjoyed reading it just as much as Redemptor, which was my second. Apart from Iron Widow, the only other easy choice was ranking The Last Graduate 7th out of 6 - not because I didn’t enjoy it (I did, far more than I expected to) but because it’s an adult novel and I would like this YA award to be subject to at least that basic level of curation.

Joe: Iron Widow is Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut novel, which also finds her on the Astounding Award ballot for Best New Writer and that, THAT is a murderers row of up and coming writers. Actually, scratch that. It’s a murderers row of writers who are already here. I hate to make a reference to a 34 year old movie, especially given that the context is that the person saying the line is a bit of a dumb ass about it, but everyone on on that Astounding ballot has announced their presence with authority. These are the writers to pay attention to. Not next, but right now. Xiran Jay Zhao is the real deal and so is everyone else on the Astounding ballot.

Seriously - Shelley Parker-Chan is up for Best Novel for She Who Became the Sun, which is is an absolute tour-de-force. I was enthralled last year with Legendborn from Tracy Deonn. A.K. Larkwood’s The Thousand Eyes was one hell of an epic fantasy debut. Most recently I finished Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell and oh, my heart! I’m not going to compare year over year finalists, but this, this is a group of new writers that I’m excited to follow over the next decades.

: I’m a little sad every year we don’t have short fiction writers on the Astounding Award ballot, especially in a year where I don’t think there are any Astounding eligible authors on the novelette and short story ballots (side note: go look up fiction from Kel Coleman, Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko and P.H. Low and be amazed, please) but I can’t fault any of the writers who have ended up on the ballot this year. Winter’s Orbit is wonderful, Legendborn is an absolute gem, and The Space Between Worlds didn’t get nearly the level of recognition it deserved. And The Unspoken Name has Csorwe and Tal’s toxic workplace dynamics, which is a recommendation all on its own. As you say, these are writers who have already had a big impact in genre and while there is, of course, bias towards long form writing in the kinds of books that get that buzz, it doesn’t make this list of authors any less awesome. Or, if you will, Astounding.

While we’re on the subject of long form fiction, let’s talk about the longest form of them all: Best Series! (Note: this was a less contrived link than trying to go through Ada Palmer’s past Astounding win). I was happy to start with a decent chunk of these already read, and I only really had to form new opinions on two series: World of the White Rat, and Merchant Princes. Three world-hopping thrillers later, and I’ve confirmed that my dislike of the Laundry Files sadly stretches to all of Stross’ work - there’s nothing I think is particularly bad (aside from a couple of dated 2000s moments in the early books), but absolutely nothing I cared to read on for. And then there’s World of the White Rat, which is actually an ongoing fantasy romance series, a quest-y duology and a standalone all bundled together in the same trenchcoat. It’s T. Kingfisher, so it’s excellent (the romance involves the leads being a little too dense for my liking, but still great), and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books I didn’t get to, but it hasn’t troubled my absolute favourites at the top of the category: The Kingston Cycle and The Green Bone Saga.

And, like, you’ve expended a lot of words about this endless debate on how Best Series “should” work, and we’ve spoken about it before, and no doubt that debate will get plenty of airplay at the Chicago business meeting, but overall - and despite having one series I don’t care for (Merchant Princes), and one I’ve got mixed feelings about as a series despite loving some individual works (Wayward Children), I just think that this is a great ballot in a great category, and the inclusion of two of the most groundbreaking trilogies of recent SFF, works which haven’t had individual Hugo nominations despite being decently recognised in other awards, really proves the value of Best Series for me. More importantly, these works don’t need special measures that artificially take other authors out of the running to get that recognition. I assume Ada Palmer’s Astounding win wouldn’t take her out of contention for the Terra Ignota series, but it also belongs here and the fact that the first volume has the possibility to win a Hugo back in 2018 doesn’t lessen the excellent (and bizarre) things she did with the series after that first volume.

Joe: Series is an interesting one for me. I didn’t read Terra Ignota because I bounced off the first book and never had the desire to give it another shot to find out if it was the book or if it was me or even just where I was when I tried the first book. I could write an essay about my relationship with Charles Stross’s fiction - but I’ll simplify and say that it’s very hit or miss and for the most part his Merchant Princes series and the Empire Games follow up series was a solid read but never quite came together to be something great.

I am absolutely with you on the top of this category, though - The Green Bone Saga and the Kingston Cycle are really the cream of the crop. In particular, The Green Bone Saga is really something special - one of the best new series I’ve ever read and I’d put it right up there with the most notable series of recent years, and I’m talking the Imperial Radch and The Broken Earth levels of good.

I’m generally happy with the finalists for Graphic Story, though I only *just* got a copy of Strange Adventures from the library now that voting has closed. I’ve never been interested in Green Lantern, but I certainly wasn’t surprised that I liked N.K. Jemisin’s Far Sector. The biggest surprise for me, though, is Lore Olympus. That’s a book and series I want to read more from.

Adri: I had the opposite reaction to Lore Olympus, unfortunately - I was interested in checking it out, since I used to be really into webcomics back in the 2000s and I’m intrigued by the apparent resurgence of webtoons which now seem to fill that niche. Unfortunately, I’m not the right audience for “physically tiny, naive, vulnerable woman attracts the attention of much more experienced, more powerful guy”, and I found the execution of Lore Olympus to be irritating and occasionally the wrong side of creepy. This isn’t me making some grand point about “problematic” romance power dynamics, since all the characters are immortal gods and all, but it’s very much not for me.

Then we’ve got Monstress, which I enjoy very much but is enough of a Hugo fixture that I’m not super excited to see it on the ballot again, and two Kieron Gillen-written comics which are also later issues of previously nominated series. My issue with Kieron Gillen, I have established, is that I quite like his premises in theory, but the particular brand of bleakness and horror-tinged action that he brings to the execution are really not my jam.

That leaves the two DC comics, and here’s where I was really blown away. No thanks to DC itself, I add - neither of these works were made available in the voter packet and I had to spend a lot of effort tracking them down in different London libraries - but, as a non-superhero reader with minimal prior exposure to DC properties in particular, I was really blown away by how good and accessibly written both of these were. Jemisin and Campbell’s Far Sector was a particular favourite: a take on a new Green Lantern who takes on a mission in a very far-off part of the galaxy where three species of alien are keeping up a fragile truce, it combines great worldbuilding, an intriguing mystery and a Black woman hero whose past is rooted in the USA’s current race politics and who draws on that experience to interesting effect. And Strange Adventures - featuring Adam Strange, a character I knew nothing about before now - takes apart a particular “boy’s own” portal fantasy-type adventure trope with scathing precision, with Strange trying to maintain a particular, highly colonial, image of his military victories on the planet Rann as Earth begins to suffer its own invasion, and those around him start to notice his story doesn’t add up.

Joe: I have perhaps less to say about Related Work, but I was incredibly impressed with Abraham Riesman’s True Believer. I won’t go so far as to say it was a takedown of Stan Lee, but it was a revealing of who he was and consolidated a lot of what was out in the world into one book where readers who are not fully engaged in all the dealings with comic books and its history might have missed - the Stan Lee story is far more complicated and ultimately tragic that I think most readers would have expected. Certainly it was more than I had ever known.

Adri: True Believer really surprised me too - I read it far quicker than I was expecting to, and it shone a light on a figure I’d never known much about, beyond that he was “the nice old man who did all the movie cameos”. The reality is, as you say, far more complicated, and full of a lot of tragedy for Lee himself and sadly also for a lot of the people who worked alongside him. On the whole, I enjoyed everything on this ballot - Charlie Jane Anders’ Never Say You Can’t Survive, which I read in audiobook, was a real highlight (Anders comes across as such a great person to have in your parasocial corner), and I was impressed by Dangerous Visions and New Worlds as well. This is a very non-fiction and memoir heavy ballot after the “a bit of everything” ballots of the last few years, and while I hope we see a return to broader nominations (there are some great video essays that would have fit well amongst the works here), this is the first all-written BRW ballot that I’ve been able to read everything in, and I think this is a great list in itself.

: Regarding the fan categories, our own Paul Weimer is up for Fan Writer again for the work he has done here at Nerds of a Feather and pretty much everywhere else because Paul is ever-present in genre fandom. If my count is correct, this is third time on the Fan Writer ballots and he has also thrice been formally on the Fancast ballot for The Skiffy and Fanty Show.

I would be more than thrilled to see Paul pick up a Hugo, though as with most years this is a very impressive line up of fan writers. In particular, I am most familiar with the writing of Jason Sanford through his investigative Genre Grapevine columns and also with Chris Barkley, who is another of those writers and individuals we see in many fan spaces.

Adri: Plenty of wonderful folks to choose from this year, as always, and I’m not going to express any preferences! But I’m particularly thrilled to see Alex Brown here, which I think is largely for their writing at I don’t want to derail this chat into another Hugo politics subject, but I’m very much opposed to attempts to define fan writing as “strictly no money involved”, because it doesn’t match the realities of how good fan critique is made and published these days. From paid zines like Tor and Locus, to individual artist Patreons, I think it’s not just valid but actively important that writers who can’t, or don’t want to, give their labour for free are nevertheless recognised as fan creators in the way that I think is most important - that is, people offering critique and reactions and recommendations and generally keeping a community alive around works that they love.

Joe: In Fancast, I am beyond thrilled for Hugo, Girl - more than anyone else, I might have actually cheered out loud when I saw they are on their first Hugo ballot. I love their podcast, it’s one of the few I make a point to listen to the day it drops on my podcatcher of choice - and I got to meet Lori and Kevin at Discon last year and they were absolutely delightful to share a meal with. I also immediately pushed my Hugo at Lori following the Hugo ceremony last year because I was mentally staggered by how heavy the thing was and needed other people to share in that weight. But really, Hugo Girl is just about my favorite podcast these days and they would be an eminently worthy recipient of a Hugo Award.

Adri: Hugo, Girl is excellent, and like you I’m so glad that they’re represented this year!

Joe: The Coode Street Podcast is another favorite of mine and I was thrilled for Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe to win after 8 times on the ballot (it’s 9 this year). That’s another can’t miss podcast for me. Likewise, I’ve come to appreciate Octothorpe this year. I believe I started listening after the Hugo ballot was announced, they just hadn’t hit my radar yet - but they are a very fan-community focused podcast (that also talks about various books and media). Good stuff, there.

We’re not on the ballot for Fanzine this year, and you and I have discussed previously about how it is weird and privileged to say that it is and was refreshing to be able to engage with the Hugo Awards without being a part of the Hugo Awards (though I certainly hope to be a part of the Hugo Awards in the future) - and that’s where this is a fun category to think about - though these are also our direct peers and and the relatively few of those peers who I have met have been collectively wonderful people, so I also don’t want to do any sort of a deep dive on our friends.

The only previous winner on this ballot is Journey Planet, though I had to double check that it wasn’t Journey Planet’s win which led to an acceptance speech being on the ballot the following year for Dramatic Presentation Short Form and it is not, I’m thinking of Drink Tank’s acceptance speech - though both Drink Tank and Journey Planet are led by Christopher Garcia and James Bacon so at least that was a reasonable error to make (Journey Planet also has a larger editorial team for each issue, if I’m being accurate). They’re quite good.

This is either the last year or the next to last year that Quick Sip Reviews can be reasonable recognized by Hugo as Charles Payseur is now reviewing for Locus and, I believe, attempting to step back from the prodigious writing pace he has had at Quick Sip. I should note that Charles used to write for Nerds of a Feather, though his nominations over the years for Quick Sip and as Fan Writer are all his own. He has carved out a unique and particular and beloved space as a short fiction reviewer and champion and has earned each one of his nominations. I’m also biased.

Alasdair Stuart is a force for good in our community and his Full Lid that he edits along with Marguerite Kenner is excellent, and one of the few newsletter fanzines to catch on with Hugo Voters (along with Jason Sanford’s previously mentioned Genre Grapevine and The Rec Center a few years ago).

I am a big fan of what Olav Rokne and Amanda Wakaruk have done with The Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog and Olav’s presence and writing on twitter, I think, is intrinsically tied up into the identity of the blog. I have also shared a meal with Olav and Amanda, and they were likewise delightful.

I am less familiar with the work of Galactic Journey and Small Gods, though I was more familiar with what Galactic Journey has done as a concept (and Gideon Marcus has also published two Rediscovery anthologies shining a spotlight on the women science fiction and fantasy writers of the 1950’s and 60’s, similar in concept to what Lisa Yaszek did with her seminal The Future is Female anthology - and while those anthologies don’t have anything to do with what Galactic Journey is eligible for in regards to, they do add to the zine’s reputation in my eyes). Small Gods is a, well, smaller project from Seanan McGuire and Lee Moyer. It’s quite different from what we tend to think of as “fanzines” but it is a fun little quirky tumblr with blips of stories from McGuire and beautiful art from Lee Moyer.

Adri: I don’t have anything to add to your summaries, except that it’s nice to see a fanzine ballot where I go “there’s some great stuff in that category” even without me being specifically in it. I’m not terribly keen on Small Gods being here, because, again, I would like to see “fan” categories recognise people who build conversation and support a critic community in genre, and I don’t see this project as doing so in the way that all five others do.

As to my personal choices, I would really like to see the Hugos give some well deserved recognition to The Full Lid or Quick Sip Reviews. Both are labours of love done by people who are constantly putting good things into the community, and I’d love to see Charles win for the tireless work he does for short fiction reviewing AND also I would like Alasdair’s force for good, as you put it, to be recognised and rewarded and for fanzines to put a newsletter winner into the mix of “things a fanzine can definitely be”. That said, I’d be happy to see any of the non fiction zines take this home, and I’m hopeful that whoever wins, it will be based on the merit of their work and not on the rather uneven star power that Seanan McGuire’s nomination brings to a usually lower-voted-on category.

: Unless there’s anything else we need to dive into, I think that wraps up our final Hugo chat and just in time before the Awards are given out. One category that we missed was Novelette, for which I heartily recommend Oghenechovew Donald Ekpeki’s “O2 Arena”.

Adri: I forgot we didn’t cover Novelette, but that’s very much seconded! I hope that everyone attending Worldcon this year has an amazing time, and I will eagerly await the Hugo announcements so we can start reacting and, even more excitingly, creating reading lists for next year’s fun.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. 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

Friday, August 26, 2022

6 Books with David Towsey

David Towsey is a graduate of the Creative Writing programmes at Bath Spa University and Aberystwyth University. Born in Dorset, he now lives in Cardiff with his girlfriend and their growing board game collection. Together, they write under the pseudonym of D.K. Fields.

Today he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

Right now I’m reading The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines, who also wrote A Kestrel for a Knave that was filmed as Kes. The Gamekeeper is a pretty detailed and vivid account of life as a gamekeeper on an English country estate. I’m toying with the idea of setting a book on such an estate, so I’ve picked up a few reference texts – both fiction and non-fiction – to get a feel for it. Hines really captures the working relationship between people and animals, which at times can seem coldly functional (even cruel) but at other points feels so caring and sensitive. I’m also learning a lot about the breeding and maintaining of pheasants, which is something I never thought I’d say…

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

This is perhaps a cheeky answer, but I’m really excited for people to read Shauna Lawless’ debut novel, The Children of Gods and Fighting Men. I got a chance to read an advance copy, and absolutely loved the mix of Irish mythology, history, fantasy, and political intrigue. It’s the first in a trilogy, so I can’t wait for the next one!

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

Oh, that’s a great question. In interviews and events for Equinox, I’ve been mentioning Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy as an inspiration, and it’s been a while since I read those fantastic books. The trilogy tells such a beguiling story. I remember when I first read it, I felt like I was trying to catch smoke in my hands – just when I thought I had a grip on it, something in the story would shift and the whole thing slipped through my fingers. A lesser writer might make that a frustrating reading experience, but I think Vandermeer handles it masterfully. I’d love to re-read it this summer!

4 A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

Yikes, it’s hard to pick just one book – there are so many novels I love and wish I’d written. But if pushed to choose only one, it would have to be Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Not only is it a brilliant story, with such a great ending – something I think is one of the most challenging parts of writing a novel – it’s been hugely influential in the SF/F and horror genres. I can only dream of one of my texts having such a long-lasting legacy.

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 came quite late to reading as a kid. The book that really hooked me was, like so many children, The Hobbit. It opened up the world of fantasy for me, and I then read most of the mainstream titles around in the 90s and 00s. I think of all those genre staples I devoured as a kid, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb probably had the biggest influence on my writing. Until I read that book, I’d mainly experienced high fantasy or sword and sorcery – usually through big series like The Wheel of Time, or David Gemmell’s many works. But reading Assassin’s Apprentice was the first time I felt the emotions of the main character were just as important as the worldbuilding, the magic, and all the action.

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

 My latest book, Equinox, is a dark fantasy novel all about a witch hunt. The big twist in this world is that every physical body has two people in it – one that lives during the day, the other during the night. This, understandably, changes a lot about how people behave, how they manage their lives and relationships, and how they keep their secrets. Special Inspector Christophor Morden is sent to a remote village to find a witch. As his investigation uncovers the darker elements of this close community, his day-brother, Alexsander, falls in love with one of the prime suspects. Like the awesome cover for the book (thanks to Head of Zeus for that), there’s more than meets the eye to this world full of doubles and dualities.

Thank you, David!

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

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Review: The Sleepless by Victor Manibo

An intriguing thought experiment that turns more complicated than it needs to be

In the 2040s, a worldwide plague of insomnia has made around two billion people permanently Sleepless. After a confusing period of panic and uncertainty, the economy has adjusted: those who are Sleepless rent smaller apartments with no bedroom, work three or four shifts without resting, or use the extra hours to learn new hobbies. No one is sure how the plague started (some speculate that artificial coffee may be the culprit), but the rate of contagion seems to have plateaued, and for the moment, things seem manageable. Some people sleep, and some don't. Some businesses are open for extra hours, and some cities spend more on lighting.

And that would be the end of it, were it not for the extremist clandestine militias that claim Sleeplessness is a superior stage of human evolution, and the other extremist clandestine militias that want to limit the civil rights of the Sleepless, and the shady corporations that want to create a tireless workforce, and the secret assassins that have been kidnapping top neurology researchers, and the biohacker labs trying to induce artificial Sleeplessness, and the other biohacker labs trying to cure Sleeplessness, and the tech bro billionaires trying to benefit from the controversy either way, and the news broadcasters struggling to maintain some independence in the middle of so many unpredictable changing winds.

This plot is dense, folks. Try not to doze off.

Our protagonist, investigative journalist Jamie Vega, has become Sleepless on purpose, to avoid the nightmares he's been having since a close friend died. But when he finds his boss dead at the office, just before they were supposed to publish an exposé on a corrupt politician, all his suppressed emotions resurface, and he's quickly embroiled in a web of conspiracies and betrayals and double agendas that converge on him as the prime target of multiple factions in a secret war with global stakes.

The novel opens as your standard detective mystery, with consecutive scenes of interrogating and revisiting previous locations to gather clues, but as our protagonist gets closer to the truth, the action escalates drastically. The final third of the book breezes by like a breakneck spy thriller that unfortunately hits the brakes too abruptly for an extended discussion scene where all the secrets are painstakingly explained to the reader. There is more action after this, but the momentum has been ruined, and then the denouement is a bit too long. But this clunky pacing is a necessary evil: there's just too much information that the reader needs to receive in order to fully comprehend the mammoth conspiracy that the author has concocted, so the bulk of the book is spent in page after page of backstory or dialogue.

The page count devoted to explaining the intricate machinations of our antagonists detracts from what would have been really interesting in this novel, which is to address the human-level implications of its premise. We get only scattered descriptions of what normal life looks like when people no longer need to sleep. There's some mention of the ethical risks of 24/7 work and the environmental threat of 24/7 consumption, but the narrative is focused mostly on our protagonist's chase against time to solve the mystery of who killed his boss, and we don't get enough opportunities to experience his world with him.

This is a regrettable combination of setting and theme: we take it for granted that sleep is an essential part of human nature, and the consequences of such a radical alteration of our biology could have been explored in much more compelling ways than in a corporate/political crime thriller. When the villain's full plan is revealed, it feels like the plot has lost sight of its theme and has turned into a typical Big Bad Company story. The central mystery turns out to hinge on the outcome of a corporate board vote, which is a massively unsatisfying reward for all the adrenaline we've spent in getting there.

To its credit, The Sleepless introduces a unique concept that on its own merits makes the reading worthwhile. But the way its premise is developed takes after too many familiar detective tropes, as if the writer is having more fun with the police procedural structure than with the psychological repercussions that a story like this demands. This is undeniably a fun adventure, but it shouldn't have needed to be one. The vertiginous experience of Sleeplessness itself would have made for a powerful hook; the hidden mics and poison bottles feel rather like an unwelcome distraction.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for achieving the difficult writing feat of describing the sensation of anomalous forgetfulness from a first-person perspective.

Penalties: −2 for endless scenes of exposition.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

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

Reference: Manibo, Victor. The Sleepless [Erewhon, 2022].

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Microreview [book]: Troy, by Stephen Fry

Sing, Muse of the Retelling of the story of Troy, as told by the bard Stephen Fry.

The first two volumes of the Mythos project by Stephen Fry looked at the foundational myths of Greek Myths, from creation all the way through the Olympians, through the elder cycle of heroes and demigods, and then to the succeeding generations of demigods and heroes. It’s a complicated nest of relationships, characters, and events that still puts things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe to shame, and Fry ably brings it all together, if anyone can, in the previous two books.

Now in Troy, Stephen Fry caps it off by looking at the Trojan War. 

The Trojan War, standalone, is eternally popular, with even an early Doctor Who episode taking a crack at it, as does Shakespeare. It was odd to me when I first read the Iliad, though that we have a war that lasts 10 years, the Iliad only covers a short period in the ninth year of the war. Where was the Trojan Horse that I had heard about before ever reading the Iliad, so infused as it is in our cultural DNA? Why doesn’t Troy fall at the end of the Iliad? I later (when I read The Odyssey) saw that the ending of the War is contained there. And while I knew the Golden Apple story and the abduction (or flight) of Helen with Paris, what happened in years 1-8 of the Trojan War was and has been vague and not well defined.  Perhaps this is the same for you, reader. 

And all of these names and people to keep straight. I’ve heard the Iliad and the Odyssey described as the OG Sword and Sorcery and Epic Fantasy books, and there is a point to that. We’re dropped into the middle of things, with names and characters being thrown at you and an entire book in the Iliad (The Catalogue of Ships)  being basically a list of the “who’s who” at the battle. 

In any event, Fry is here to help you. He starts at the beginning, as to how Troy was founded, and why, and brings its history up to date as it were. The delight in the depth of research and scholarship he brings is tha there is a fair chunk here I didn’t know about. Fun fact, the Trojan War is not the first time that Troy gets attacked in its mythological history, and you will never guess who did it before the Greeks got it into their heads to take back Helen, nor why. 

Once we get to the story of Paris, I was on fully fleshed ground and I highly enjoyed Fry’s interpretation of his abandonment on Mount Ida, his being raised as a shepherd, the fateful judgment of Paris (giving the apple to Aphrodite) and on through into the War itself. Fry does not do the Catalogue in full but he does lay out the combatants, the names you do want to pay attention to and remember. When and where they are important to the narrative, and who they are to each other. Like the American Civil War, there are tangled distant family and friendships and acquaintances on both sides of the battle. And frequently (especially among the Greeks, and indeed, the inciting incident of the Iliad), the people on each side are at odds with each other. Long before there was Tony and Steve in the MCU, there was Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Menelaus, Ajax, and others. 

There are many versions of the Iliad, and people have their favorites. Fry is not trying to be Robert Fitzgerald, or Lattimore, or Fagles, or Caroline Alexander. He doesn’t recite the Iliad, but tells its story in prose, in his own way. All the details are here, though, the pathos and the wonder, the terrible slaughter. He looks at the book with the eye of someone who loves and respects the story but can also see it’s faults. There is a fascinating bit where Fry metatextualizes a portion of the Iliad that, unbeknownst to me, he reveals that scholars think is a late addition, as it stylistically and otherwise does not match up with the rest of the poem. 

Another portion of the book that greatly interested me especially is after the death of Hector, and up to its fall. What had always been a little hazy for me is why Troy didn’t capitulate after their best hero, Hector, falls. In chess terms, they’ve just lost their queen, and are down material, and white is pushing hard against them.  Fry tells the story of the reinforcements Troy gets, which does not change the outcome, but it does stave it off, and it buys Troy time for Paris to land his fateful shot on Achilles’ heel (or was it with the help of Apollo?). Also some of the other events leading up to the Horse were new to me (Helen’s complete disenchantment with Paris, and Paris’ death, and the Greeks nearly getting Troy to crack before the Horse itself). The fact that Helen remarries was completely a “what?” moment for me. 

Another thing that struck me about this book as compared to the previous two is the lack of variations and the need to tell about alternatives to the main line of the myths and stories. Early on in the book, when the book discusses the founding of Troy, there are a few bits here and there, but in the main, the narrative of the who, and the what, and the why of the events of the Trojan War are much less braided and multivalent than in Mythos and Heroes. This is not particularly a fault, mind, but after two books where we get a host of alternatives to the stories of Zeus, Athena, Atalanta, Jason and Heracles, there is a much more unified picture as to what happened on the plains of Ida, what happened to the topless towers of Ilium. This is of course because our sources for the Trojan War and the stories of what happened at Troy once Paris and Helen arrive there come from Homer and sources that agree with Homer. 

I do think that while there are certainly a few more “stories” to tell of the Greek Myths, the Trojan War, the events at Troy are the last hurrah, the last great gathering of Gods and Heroes on both sides. To use a Norse reference, in a way, Troy is a Götterdämmerung, and we are left with a world where the heroes and the Gods themselves fade away, leaving a world of mortal men, and just the stories of what happened in these three books. 

In a real sense, then, when Eris threw her golden apple into that fateful marriage party, she had, in effect, doomed herself and all the Gods, with the Trojan War to be their final hurrah, their last battlefield. This gives the whole book a sense of tragedy, of foreboding that this is going to be the end, and it better had be a blockbuster smash. One last party, one last gathering.  Fry prefigures this idea with the marriage party of Peleus and Thetis, he states it is the “last great gathering” of these beings, and he is right. There is an almost faerie-like feel of diminishment in that, that the world is going to turn from the age of gold and silver and bronze to hard, cold, iron. (rather appropriate, in that the Trojan War might be thought of as the last hurrah of the Bronze Age)

And in that, Stephen Fry has completed very ably the project he began with Mythos. I do think that although the books are footnoted, always a hazard for listening to books, the sheer enthusiasm, love, respect, and intense fascination Fry has for these stories really comes through on the audio renditions. Like Homer himself, these stories here, of Paris’ choice, of the Rage of Achilles, of the Tragedy of Hector, the cleverness of Odysseus, are in the end well received in one’s ears, just as well as reading them in print. 

With people like Fry reading and reinterpreting and retransmitting the stories of the Greek Myths, I do hope, and I think, that these stories will find new readers, new transmitters, and new interpreters. While Fry does a fairly good job in providing a balanced and enlightened and nuanced viewpoint to these stories, another thing that struck me as I was listening to Troy (and indeed all of Mythos) is how much room there still is and is for readers and writers who are not of different backgrounds to take these stories and reinterpret, reinvent, and reuse them. 

Troy is the capstone of a whole cycle of Greek myths and stories that writers like Maya Deane (Wrath Goddess Sing), Madeline Miller (Song of Achilles), Natalie Haynes (A Thousand Ships) and others are picking up the banner and running with their own ideas and interpretations for. Fry provides a modern “baseline” for writers such as these to rediscover these stories, and then go on and tell and make them their own, providing ever new interpretations and (keeping in mind what I said before) new variations, too. That is my hope: With this work to introduce readers to these stories and myths in an accessible way, more people will want to take them and make them their own. I still dream of a Greek Mythology Cinematic Universe, but that is probably just a dream.

And with that, this review, as well as the Trojan War comes to a close. I'd humbly suggest that Fry tackle the (sadly) much poorer and thinner canon we have of Norse Mythology yet, but we HAVE that book already, ably written (and narrated) by Neil Gaiman. Readers who want more mythology ably written and imagined as in these three books might turn to that volume, next.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Microreview [Novella]: High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson

 Sometimes answers are overrated, and vibes are all you need. That’s definitely true of High Times in the Low Parliament, where a weird setting and eccentric interpersonal drama vastly overshadow the plot – and to great effect.

According to the blurb, High Times in the Low Parliament is the story of Lana, a scribe from Aldgate, forced into service in the Low Parliament at a time of crisis, where continued hung votes may risk a return to endless war, and the fatal flooding of parliament itself. There, along with some unlikely friends, she must do what she can to prevent such a fate.

According to the author, it’s a “lesbian stoner buddy comedy”.

Both are very much true, but neither fully capture the compelling strangeness of it all.

At the start of the story, it does feel like a prosaic tale of a person from a humble background going off into a dangerous situation where they may end up changing the world. But as things progress, as more and more details of world-building, of the situation Lana is in, of the fairies and the politics and parliament and all that’s afoot become more apparent, the further we stray from anything so mundane as a traditional narrative. By the end, the story has unmoored itself completely from the reader’s expectations, and become something else entirely.

Parliament is revealed to be a place of driftingly hallucinogenic strangeness, peopled by tired scribes, argumentative deputies from a variety of European locations and a plethora of disgruntled fairies, all of whom are caught up on the issue of the frequent hung parliaments. It is revealed early on that if parliament continues as it has been, the fairies will unleash the sea to drown the humans failing to reach agreement, leaving themselves as the only ones alive in the aftermath. But why is that so critical? We see hints, and fairies here and there reveal their fears about what humans could do, along with references back to an old agreement that they’re keeping humanity to. But this is a parliament – and a story – far more inward than outward focussing. Why does it truly matter what happens here? What are the real-world ramifications? How does what the deputies argue for or against actually impact people outside of parliament (or does it at all)? These are not questions Robson has concerned the narrative with beyond the odd wisps here and there in passing.

But nor is she concerned with giving us a deeply rooted world, a clear picture of this strange Angland – a distorted mirror on English history. Again, we see hints here and there, or increasingly meaningful absences (where are the men? Are there any men? Wait, babies come from where?), but again, answers are not forthcoming. The questions merely hang in the background, with clues only adding to the layers of mystery and confusion. The more you learn, the more you wonder. Is this an alternate timeline, split off after some critical, possibly fairy-fuelled, event? Is this a complete rewrite of history, are the changes meant to simply be facets of the world? Is this meant to be a critique of the various “what if women were in power” stories that crop up frequently in SFF? Is this about Brexit? Are we just mocking politics as a process? Critiquing human nature in all its fractiousness? There are no answers here.

So what is there instead? For a start, there are characters. Lana Baker, the protagonist scribe, is a gloriously happy-go-lucky chancer, eager to flirt with pretty much any woman – human or fairy – who crosses her path, and determined to find joy in her life despite reality and circumstances conspiring against her. Her persistent flattery of literally everything that moves is strangely endearing, precisely because it is without any sort of selectivity, and because it seems at all times to be entirely sincere. There is very little guile to Lana, nor planning, plotting or thoughts beyond the present. She lives in the now, fuelled by drink and mood-altering yeast, and is so entirely content with this state of affairs, it’s hard not to be charmed by her along with everyone else.

The cast of secondary characters are all viewed through the lens of Lana’s jollity and hedonism, but we get occasional hints of their interiority by their interactions with each other, little glimpses of what this world might look like at a step removed from Lana. Bugbite, the moody overseer of the scribes, slowly warms to Lana’s charms, and reveals herself to be an outcast among her fellow fairies, desperate for companionship but so overcome with concern for the impending doom of parliament she can’t help but take her agitation out on her scribal charges. Eloquentia, a French deputy of the house, meanwhile seems distant and aloof, her concerns about the goings on of politics completely divorced from Lana’s focusses on life and joy and comfort and romance, but her sharpness and wit comes through in snippets, in her observations of Bugbite’s behaviour and Lana’s approaches. We see enough of them to know both would approach – and have – their problems in a totally different way to the progression of the story, but Lana steamrollers everything around her, whether simply because the story is told from her perspective or because she truly does pummel reality around her to behave as she wants it to, and so we can only theorise about who the other characters would be without her influence.

In some ways the story feels a little like what would happen if Tamsyn Muir’s Coronabeth Tridentarius got a novel told from her own perspective – a sheer force of cheerful optimism banging at the doors of the narrative until it gives up and lets her have her own way. Lana has that same solidity of belief in the way the world should be, she hammers it into shape as the story progresses, seemingly without even trying all that hard.

The other thing the story has – and in absolute spades – is vibes. Atmosphere. That weirdness and nonsensical ruleset that you don’t know until you read the tale (and then have somehow internalised and make a peculiar sense) that proper fairytales have. Why are things like this? Not a question anyone cares to answer. But by the end, it sort of, maybe, kind of makes sense? If you look at it side on. It feels right, even if the mysteries are endless and the logic somewhat ungraspable. And that feeling, that charming oddness, is what really drives things. It’s what sucked me in and kept me reading, and will, I suspect, be my abiding memory of the book in 12 months’ time.

But a huge part of the atmosphere is built on the foundation of no answers. This is not a book for people who need their magic spelled out, the rules of their worlds carefully delimited. It is a book that rewards coming in with an open mind, and a willingness to roll with everything it throws at you. Because if you can? The lingering questions are a huge part of the fun. I am thoroughly enjoying sitting here and wondering exactly how everything worked, how things came to be and why and what, and knowing that I won’t get any answers to any of it. It is a sort of delicious ignorance that fuels imagination, rather than the frustrating lack of answers.

That High Times in the Low Parliament restricts itself to novella length is a blessing – its strangeness and absolute commitment to answering none of its own questions are glorious at this length, but I feel like a novel length would start demanding more sense, more clarity than are available at present, and a great deal of the story’s charm would be lost in getting those answers. A novella gives it the space it needs to be precisely itself, no more and no less. And what that is is delightful, if you’ve a mind to meet it there.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 impeccable vibes

Penalties: -1 would have been enjoyable to see a little more of the secondary characters

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference:  Kelly Robson, High Times in the Low Parliament [Tordotcom, 2022]

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

Monday, August 22, 2022

Microreview: Waking Romeo by Kathryn Barker

Juliet Capulet teams up with Heathcliff Ellis to bounce through time on a quest to revive her comatose husband in this award-winning YA sci-fi novel.

In my last review (of Mykaela Saunders' groundbreaking anthology This All Come Back Now) I mentioned that Lisa Fuller's short story "Don't Look" won two categories in this year's Aurealis Awards. It was not the only work to do so. Waking Romeo took out Best Science Fiction Novel and Best Young Adult Novel, suggesting it was worth a look. And it certainly was.

The year is 2083. It has been two years since the events of Romeo and Juliet. After their double suicide attempt, Romeo remains in a coma while Juliet survived with an impressive scar and a paralysed arm. She visits the hospital every day and writes her version of events while sitting by Romeo's bed.

But a comatose husband isn't Jules's only problem: the world is literally falling apart around her. 2023 saw the invention of time travel pods. These were flawed inventions that could only move forward in time. They were also unable to travel through space, which led to a grisly outcome for the occupant if they happened to materialise in the same space as an existing object. Despite these limitations, the world's population took to them in droves to avoid climate catastrophe and the general drudgery of life. So many people jumped forward in time that soon there wasn't enough people to sustain the current society and it began to collapse. No one stuck around to make the future better... so the Travellers kept jumping forward until they died.

Juliet belongs to the Settlement, a group of people who refuse to time travel... but they aren't exactly working towards a better future, either. They live off stock-piled food and clothing, toss their waste over the Wall, and even run the school like back in the old times. Juliet isn't exactly well-liked in the Settlement after the drama of her affair with Romeo and the resulting fallout. Nor is Jules interested in being liked, preferring to be a brooding loner marinating in her angst.

Then one day she meets a Traveller from the future.

Heathcliff Ellis (yes, that Heathcliff... more or less) was born in 1800 and is 18 years old. After being pushed off a cliff by an angry mob, he is rescued and is now living near the end of time with a group of other teenagers who call themselves the Deadenders. They have a superior form of time-travel that allow them to move freely through time and space. They carry out missions given to them by an AI called Frogs. Ellis's latest mission: wake Romeo.

As you might have gathered, the plot is absolutely bonkers. It's difficult to discuss without spoilers, thanks to all the twists, turns and time-travel shenanigans. Despite that, I didn't find it difficult to follow and I don't think it will be a problem for any science fiction fan.

The book is written using first person perspective, with chapters alternating between Jules and Ellis. These dual perspectives really help with the time travel elements of the book. There's a lot of jumping around through time, but the dual perspectives serve to drive the action forward so that the plot is always advancing. It also shows the way in which Jules and Ellis are often in different stages of their relationship with each other; whereas Jules may have barely met Ellis, he knows her quite well or vice versa. The contrast makes for some poignant moments.

The characters really made the story for me. Juliet isn't a sweet young girl in this story. Rather, Jules is angry and rebellious. She's constantly slouching around in hoodies, using the front pouch as a makeshift sling for her paralysed arm. She's a person of courage and action who is good at keeping things practical.

Ellis makes a good contrast. Although he's not exactly the most cheerful of people either in the beginning, he has some of the sweetness that Jules is missing. Time hasn't treated him well -- as he points out, there is never a good point in history to be Black -- but any resulting bitterness is a shallow thing more directed at himself than at others.

There are a lot of hefty themes within the book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a lot of musing about our relationship to time and also love. It pushes back against instant love, maintaining that love -- and even friendship -- needs time to develop.

However, the book is also a lot about personal responsibility, of facing the difficult things and sticking around to fix them. It does an excellent job of showing this on both the big picture and the small, through the collapse of society and its commentary on climate catastrophe, as well as through life after Juliet's suicide attempt.

Another theme is about rewriting your own story. In order to cope with events, Juliet writes the version of her life that we all know and are familiar with. She loves Shakespeare and mimics his language and setting to distance herself from the events. But her memories bleed in around the edges, giving us a glimpse of a version less romantic (if you consider Romeo and Juliet romantic in the first place).

Ellis, meanwhile, shows the theme from an opposite perspective. He is haunted by Wuthering Heights, which isn't exactly the romanticised version of his life that Romeo and Juliet is for Jules. Rather, Emily Bronte shows the worst possible version of him, leaving Ellis feeling both betrayed and wracked with guilt.

This is a book that loves literature. In addition to playing with Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, it also riffs off Hamlet, especially in relation to Juliet's parents and their generation. From here, the second half of the book develops a theme of action vs inaction. To me, this felt a a little late to be flagging a theme, but it tied in nicely to its exploration of personal responsibility.

Lest you think it all highbrow with its references, the sharp eyed will catch a few nods to Taylor Swift and other more or less contemporary musicians.

As mentioned, it covers some dark content, though it does a good job of keeping the worst of it off the page. I would give content warnings for suicide, gun violence, racism and mob violence.

While I enjoyed the book immensely, it wasn't without its flaws. Readers hoping for an explanation of how time travel works will be disappointed; the focus is more on the characters and plot.

Ellis's ragtag Deadender friends were a charming motley, so I was disappointed there ultimately wasn't much done with them. They seemed largely around to make sure the plot moved forward.

But ultimately, this was a crazy rollercoaster of a story and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the satisfying development of themes, +1 for excellent use of time travel

Penalties: -1 for the underdevelopment of the Deadenders

Nerd Co-efficient: 8/10

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


Barker, Kathryn. Waking Romeo [Allen and Unwin, 2021]

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights [Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847]

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet

Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet

Friday, August 19, 2022

6 Books with Michael Merriam

Michael Merriam is a writer, performer, poet, and playwright. He is the author of the steampunk series Sixguns & Sorcery, and his essays and stories have appeared in such magazines and podcasts as Uncanny Magazine, Cast of Wonders, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. His scripts have been produced for stage and radio, and he has appeared in the Minnesota Fringe Festival and StoryFest Minnesota. Like most artists, he has worked a variety of odd jobs over the years, including short order cook, late night radio disc jockey, and manager of a puppet troupe. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his wife and two cats. Visit his website at

Michael Merriam
Michael Merriam, Photo credit Paul Weimer

Today he tells us about his Six Books


1.What book are you currently reading?

A Snake Fall to Earth
by Darcie Little Badger. I picked it up on the strength of her previous book, Elatose, which I read on a long car ride to a vacation cabin we’d rented up near the Canadian border. I’m really enjoying both the story of Nina and Oli and structure of story itself. I suspect, like Elatose, it will be one I give to people as a gift.

2. What upcoming book am I really excited about

I’m going to cheat just a little because this book came out last month, but I’m really looking forward to When Women were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill. I’ll pretty much read anything Kelly Barnhill writes. Both her use of language and her ability to weave a surprising narrative brings me back to her works time and time again.

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

I am planning to reread City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett in preparation of reading the entire trilogy in one go. I’ve only read this first book and then right after it came out. I was dazzled by the world building and character growth and look forward to immersing myself in that setting again.

A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

Anyone who’s known me for more a few days will be able to guess my answer will be a book by Roger Zelazny, the trick is figuring out which book! Most would probably guess A Night in the Lonesome October and that would be a good guess, but I really wish I’d written Roadmarks. The incredible interweaving of the stories and use of a non-traditional structure (Are you getting a sense I’m a sucker for unique narrative structure?) all brought together in the end where everything makes perfect and logical sense – it’s an amazing book.

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

Watership Down by Richard Adams. In so many ways this was my gateway book as both a reader and a writer. Watership Down taught me you can write from a different point of view (Rabbits!), that the primary hero can win though being clever and wise (Hazel!). It taught me about creating a mythology that felt real, and I fell in love with the idea of a big ensemble cast of characters.

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

Queen of Swords Press is publishing a reprint of my novel Last Car to Annwn Station. This will be the first time the book is in print and I’m super excited. It features Welsh mythology, phantom streetcars, a race to save an endangered child, bargains with Death, and a Sapphic romantic subplot, all told over the course of one week. It is a love letter to my adopted home of Minneapolis. At the core, this is a story about the power of love, be it romantic, platonic, familial, or something else entirely.


Thank you, Michael!

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