Thursday, December 29, 2022

Microreview: Notorious Sorcerer by Davinia Evans

Davinia Evans’ Notorious Sorcerer features a would be sorcerer caught in a city on the cusp of magical change that he inexorably becomes the center of.

Siyon Velo is an alchemist. He’s not one of the sorcerers of the Summer Club, the high end of the magic world in the city of Bezim, really the only place in the known world where magic even works, and it is highly restricted and distrusted even so. Siyon delves into the other three realms of existence for alchemical reagents he can sell to the real sorcerers who can make true use of them. But when he does an impossible act that could qualify him for their ranks, it is also a signal that the balance of the planes themselves are under threat, Siyon is going to have to step up and in an impactful way to be the Sorcerer he always wanted to be.

This is the story of the titular and eponymous Notorious Sorcerer.

In Notorious Sorcerer, Evans provides us with, first and foremost from my perspective, a diverse, rich and interesting city with a culture, society, history and geography (in a number of axes). Bezim, the one city in the world where magic reliably works, a city riven by class and social division, is in itself a character on its own. From patrols of inquisitors sniffing out illegal use of magic, to the rooftop routes that the bravi (more on them shortly) use in their perambulations, the city feels alive, interesting and always something new around the corner. Entrepots like Bezim are full of activity and life, and there is a lot here that we don’t see, mainly because our primary titular character has tried to escape his life in Dockside. A particular recent touchstone for me in envisioning Bezim is the city of Nadežra from M.A. Carrick’s Rook and Rose series. Also, Maradaine from Marshall Ryan Maresca’s series also comes to mind, and, also recently, Erin Evans’ Empire of Exiles. We get to see the higher class areas of Bezim, the nobles (azatani) as well as well as the much more precarious hand by mouth existence that Siyon inhabits.

And yet there are blurrings and overlaps, even here, in the creation of the bravi, and they are, I think, one of the central creations in the book and deserve some separate discussion. They are sword-swinging street gangs, sure, but gang is perhaps not quite the right word for them, they are a type of voluntary association that appears to cross class lines--as one of our other main characters, Zagiri, is about to make her social debut as an azatani, and yet is a member of the Little Bracken bravi in good standing. Her older sister and her family have opinions about Zagiri’s time as a bravi, but the framing that the book goes with, and what I find interesting and compelling about the bravi and what marks them as as a creation of a different sort is that it is not “how could you associate with that gutter trash, I forbid it!” sort of reaction and more of “it’s time for you to put away childish things and be an adult” (she is eighteen) and time to be a true Azatani). And its made clear that Zagiri is hardly the only person in her social class in one of the tribles of the bravi. This gives the bravi a much more universal presence in the city and less of “The bravi are a plague that must be extirpated at all costs). (it does allow our meeting of the protagonists in the first chapter to help set up the social web for the rest of the book, mind). In any event the brawling colorful bravi are the social feature of the city and they are a wonderful creation.

Moving on from the bravi to the Azatani, we find the upper crust of the city, but it is not an overwhelming control of the city, either. The politics of the control of the city are very much from the top down and mostly out of the picture except as a force upon it, and even the Azatani wind up bowing to the inquisitors and the social forces that run the city. They have power to deflect some of what the inquisitors of the government can do, but that power is not overly large. The Summer Club does get harassed and even raided by the inquisitors, and with a swath of scions from the noble families there, they are helpless to stop it. It does draw into question how the politics of the city does run, but again, the inquisitors, mostly (Evans is careful to have a non viewpoint character who has tangled with Siyon before to keep the political personal and relatable) act against the bravi, the Azatani and the rest of the populace. If I do have a worldbuilding criticism of the book, is that I think some of this could have been a little better explicated, perhaps even with a point of view character to help round out the perspective a bit.

Speaking of points of view, the other major point of view we get in the book is Zagiri’s older sister, who IS a full Azatani and part of that society. Xxxxx is a character who clearly is written as counterpoint to Zagiri and yet also in harmony and resonance. Her sister may not have fully entered society, having not been married into another aristocratic family and doing the respectable business of her class, seeking to retain her freedom, but the novel quickly makes us discover that xxxx is also a character seeking freedom, having put away childish things, but feeling the strictures and restrictions of society and finding them not at all to her liking. While the main thrust of the book is Siyon’s quest, and it is a testament to the rich characters in the book that I’ve been discussing the sisters here in society much more than he to this point in this review, the quest for xxxxxx to find a place for herself, to recapture a bit of freedom and to do what she wants, is a theme that has a strong presence in the narrative.

I haven’t talked about the magic system much here, so a few words about it now. Given that Siyon is an outsider to “real sorcery”, his education, after his act of sorcery, allows us the reader to catch up and learn about magic as he gets his own crash course in the finer arts. Doing double duty, that education and Siyon’s research now only allows us the reader to better understand the setup, but the research itself, and what Siyon finds, eventually becomes very plot-relevant.

So, let’s go back to Siyon, then, since I’ve almost neglected our main character in this review thus far. He is from humble origins in Dockside, but part of the conceit and part of the narrative of the book is that he is very cagey about that past, and prefers himself to focus on the present, his attempts to live day by day, trying to save a little bit of money, to get himself ingratiated and into the society of the real practitioners of magic. It is delving into other planes for magical ingredients (and needing an anchor person) that brings him into contact with Zagiri, and it is saving her with an impossible sorcerous act that launches him into contact with xxxxx, with the Summer Club on a better footing than just the guy who gets alchemical ingredients for others, and the plots of the novel are off and running. Siyon is a reluctant hero, at best, he just wants to do what he can do to get ahead, and it is circumstance, choice and events that propel him forward to become the titular character, and get involved with the *real* problem with magic in the city.

One thing I did note though, in the discussion of Siyon, is that his background, his deep history does come up in the novel directly, but only at the end. In some ways, it reminds me, oddly, of the Octavia Butler novel Wild Seed, where a key fact about the character, a key piece of his background, only comes up on screen at the end of the book to help complete our view of him, and where he came from. The past that he left behind does finally come back to be confronted, just as he is ready to take a step into the future. I am not entirely sure it precisely works as intended, but I recognize the careful character development and the care that Evans puts into Siyon and his story here. Siyon provides us a slow burn and very touching queer romance in the book, as well. In point of fact, given his would be lover and his quest and his goals (which to say much would be more than a bit spoilery of major events in the plot), it is a bit of a heartbreaking romance as well. I am glad that, given how things stand at the end of this book, that this IS the first book in the series, because that is an unresolved thread that I do want to see more of,

And that is part of the magic, in the end, of the story of Notorious Sorcerer. Yes, its ostensibly a story about a magical disaster waiting in the wings, trouble that might have been accelerated, or at least put a spotlight on, by Siyon’s impossible act of magic that makes him that Notorious Sorcerer. Even through this existential threat, however, it is his drive and his personal story, the story of his relationship, the struggles he undergoes, that really brought me as a reader to turn the pages on the novel. And to bring the sisters back again, the aristocratic counterpoints, their struggles to do what they want, being restricted by society and custom, it is compelling work that Evans has put into the characters and onto the page for the readers. While I do want to know more about a lot of how the city works, the focus on the characters kept my eye and thoughts, as I was reading the book, firmly where the writer wanted me to focus.

Now that is sorcery, and no mistake.

Baseline Assessment: 7/10


Bonuses: +1 for a diverse (on all axes) and inclusive, and interesting world and canvas, including the magic.


+1 for very strong notes of character development and focus on a set of characters to intensely follow and feel for.


Penalties: -1  Some of the worldbuilding and the design decisions are not crafted with the same loving care as some of the others, or the aforementioned strong web of  relationships,


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10



Reference: Evans, Davinia, Notorious Sorcerer [Orbit, 2022]


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

Microreview[Novel]: Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid

 A dark reimagining of a fairytale that tries to show the real impact living in a folktale might have on those who experience it.

Cover illustration: Darling Clementine

Content warnings: discussion of sexual assault, child abuse, antisemitism and eating disorder

At what point does darkness in a book become less about realism, or stakes, or a sense of danger, and more about having all the horrible things simply for their own sakes? This is the question I am left with most pressingly after finishing Juniper & Thorn.

It's a retelling of The Juniper Tree - though a rather loose one, drawing on broader themes rather than necessarily any specifics, and filling gaps or making changes to suit the novel format. And indeed, not only is it doing that, but it attempts to interrogate the strictures and the form of the fairytale as it goes along. The protagonist is very aware of what genre of story she's in, and what that might mean for her and those around her. We follow Marlinchen, youngest of three daughters of the last wizard in Oblya, a city sprung up from the steppe, obliterating the magic that lingered there before. She and her sisters live with their cruel and cursed father, trying to get by without sparking his rages and scrape together a living with the few customers he considers worthwhile seeing. He hates the city and the modern world, and will not let them out into it for fear of what might happen to them, but the girls long for freedom and, of course, sneak out. At the ballet, Marlinchen sees a beautiful dancer with whom she is smitten, and everything begins to spiral out from there. We watch as Marlinchen begins to develop her taste for rebellion and escape, and exactly what she has to grapple with at home to reach for what she wants in life.

In the broad strokes, it definitely has that fairytale feel - three daughters, cruel father, a mother that was turned into a bird years before - but the difference lies in the detail. Fairytales, by their nature, don't tend to delve into the psychological reality of living with a cruel, controlling man in a world that is rapidly leaving him behind. But in Juniper & Thorn, Ava Reid does exactly that. As the book goes on, we see more and more of exactly what Marlinchen has grown up with. She starts the book seemingly just a mousey waif, but as we see through her eyes and her memories, it becomes much darker and more twisted. We learn about the abuses she suffered as a child from her father and from others that he knew about but didn't stop, some of it sexual in nature. But what we learn most is how she actually sees the world, and how it feels to be the third daughter in the sort of fairytale where the eldest is the pretty one and the middle is the clever one, and the youngest is simply the youngest.

And it's pretty grim. It's a world of being told she's not as pretty as her sisters. That she's plain, stupid, simple, ugly, fat, useless, and being ignored and pushed around. And because Juniper & Thorn is dedicated to showing what this might actually do to a person, we see how much she hates her own body and face, how much she's internalised the idea that her sisters are pretty and she is not. We see her forcing herself to throw up her food after eating so she can be thinner. We see her completely unable to comprehend that someone might find her attractive, let alone someone she think is as ludicrously beautiful as Sevas, the book's ballet star love interest.

Sevas is someone else whose insecurities and hardships are laid bare for us to see. While beautiful, he's also shown early in the narrative using alcohol as a coping mechanism, and then soon after to be controlled and abused both physically and verbally by his "handler" Derkach. While he knows he's beautiful know, he is obsessed with the idea that by thirty, he'll be too old and ugly for the ballet and thus worthless, and so he throws his life away in the now because what's the point of hanging onto it? We don't see the story through his eyes - we are very securely rooted in Marlinchen's perspective - but even with only what he tells her, we see the cruelty and harshness of being who he is in the fairytale (and also not-fairytale) world.

And it's an... odd world. Because you have the fantastical and the mundane lying so close side by side, with the wizard and his family representing the "Old World" from before the city came, there is a constant disjoint between people and ideas moving between the house and the rest of the world. We have penny presses and phrenology and day workers in factories alongside a wizard whose wife was turned into a bird and who has an old god satyr living in his garden. And no attempt is made to reconcile these two. If anything, the contrast is the point, because the contrast is the conflict - the magical and mundane worlds, at least to the wizard's eyes, are irreconcilable, and the presence and growth of the city is an active detriment to magic and those who practice it. Marlinchen has grown up with this worldview, and it is part of why her life is so restricted, to keep her away from the evil, encroaching, destructive, immoral city and all its problems and horrors.

Which brings us to one of the potential issues with the book. Marlinchen's father Zmiy is profligate with his hatreds; nearly anyone involved in or related to the city is likely to be the subject of his ire. However, because the world is one that is a thinly veiled copy of some aspects of our own, this brings up some slightly iffy points. The story itself is set in a fantasy Russia-esque place - we have references to the tsar, and the steppes that existed before the city encroached - but the city of Oblya is home to others as well. There are Ionik people mentioned at several points, clearly an analogue to the Greeks, but the group that comes up most often is the Yehuli, who are equally clearly an analogue for Jewish people. The problem comes with the fact that we only ever see the Yehuli talked about in the book by those who hate or distrust them. Zmiy hates them, and accuses them of all sorts of vices. But it isn't just him - Sevas is Yehuli, and his handler Derkach takes every opportunity to remind him that he is "only" a Yehuli boy pulled from the slums. A character who comes up at several points is a phrenologist, who is noted to have discussed how the Yehuli have prominent areas of their anatomy associated with capitalism which gives them an "advantage" at it, such that the leaders of the city have had to legislate to prevent them using this unfairly. None of the characters who espouse these views are people we are meant to like or trust, but at the same time, we see almost nothing of the Yehuli from the mouth of someone positive or even neutral towards them, let alone a Yehuli themself. Even Sevas only touches on being Yehuli briefly when talking about his mother. It is not so much that I wanted the story to erase the obvious historical antisemitism that is being evoked here - it was real, constant and pervasive and that obviously deserves its own page time - but when we had a Yehuli character so prominent, it seems a shame to have only the opinions of those who hate him on the page, never his own, especially when so many of those hatreds are so caricaturedly ugly. It would have been nice to have a little of his own experience of himself or his people, as a brief glimmer of contrast against all the bigotry.

But then again, it's not a book concerned with having nice things or happiness. Which is somewhat the other of its problems. On the one hand, that it shows the grim psychological reality of living with an abuser, and the mental toll it might take on someone to have lived that life, is to be praised. Fairytales and their retellings so often gloss over the nastiness, surprisingly so when many of the stories upon which they're based contain murders, cannibalism, gruesome transformations and more. But we're expected to believe that Hansel and Gretel cope fine after pushing the witch into the oven, because to deal with anything otherwise isn't the point of the story. And so it feels worthwhile to have one that explores this aspect of things, especially given that the tale it draws inspiration from is so dark, as a much needed point of contrast to many of the other versions that exist. 

However. The darkness in the story is so unrelenting and particularly some of the descriptions of it so lingering, so closely described, that there are, at times, moments where you feel that we've stepped out of simply exploring the emotional impact of fairytale happenings, and instead are maybe just here for the darkness for its own sake. There are repeated motifs, including one based on a character's trauma from preteen years of someone touching her inappropriately, particularly on her nipples. We see flashbacks of that scene multiple times, and there follows a recurring theme of her imagining nipples - her own and other people's - being chopped off with garden clippers. That the scene focuses so much on this image, especially the feeling of his hand on her skin, how it looked, could easily either be a testament to its lingering impact on her, or something less wholesome. When taken with so many other scenes in the book - which is generally quite concerned with the physical and bodily reactions to events - it is easy to be uncertain. Which way it goes is likely an individual decision for the reader.

My final criticism is one that can be laid at the feet of many books. Juniper & Thorn is described in many places as a feminist retelling, but in truth, I don't know that it is one. It is a retelling that centres a female experience, and one in which the female experience is an oppressive one, but beyond that? I'm not sure. Especially given the predominance of female perspectives in fairytale retellings, simply putting a woman in the front seat doesn't feel sufficient for a feminist label.

On the whole, Juniper & Thorn is a book of ambiguity. Much of what it does could land, or could utterly fail for any given reader just based on their particular take on it, their background and their own experiences. If it has a failing for me, it is that the doubt exists at all. And while I found some parts of it refreshingly original, others strayed too much into darkness that felt like it served neither character development nor plot, and simply existed to be able to say just how dark a book it was. That being said, it definitely earns the distinction of being quite unlike most other fairytale retellings, and that it attempts at several points a critique of the genre is definitely a plus. The moments of awareness by Marlinchen of being in a story, and what that means for her, were particularly interesting, and if anything could have been developed further into something more concrete. But they weren't, and in the end, while it distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre, the problems it has while doing so ultimately hold it back from truly excelling.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10


Penalties: -1 the grimness gets very, very overwhelming

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference:  Ava Reid, Juniper & Thorn [Del Rey, 2022]

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

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

Godly. What a sequel should be.

As Kratos’ snow-flecked fur sways in the Midgardian Fimbulwinter winds, he holds the pouch that once held his wife's ashes. The look of loss and longing, of deep undying love comes across in every crease of Kratos’ face. I could feel his pain, his wistfulness at a glance. Upon hearing his son return, he puts the pouch away and regains his composure. This opening moment is but a sign of things to come. Through clever writing, phenomenal animation, and god-tier performances, God of War Ragnarök successfully executes all the themes it sets out to explore and more.

Atreus, no longer a boy, is obsessed with the prophecy of Loki and wishes to understand more about his heritage and the role he will play come Ragnarök. The character progressions of Kratos, Atreus, Mimir, and other characters remain here and are bolstered by situational dialogue carefully crafted by Santa Monica Studio. From the outset, God of War Ragnarök is fueled with adrenaline-inducing sequences balanced with grounding moments to build character relations that pull the player further into the narrative. It’s an assault on two fronts, and both are handled exceptionally. You want the combat and the epic boss battles, but you also want more of the heartfelt story. The equilibrium is divine and is a prime example of Santa Monica Studio’s quality and attention to video games and storytelling composition.

God of War
and God of War Ragnarök are two parts of a whole. Each game has its own focus. While God of War focuses on the journey and growth between Kratos and Atreus, Ragnarök is about building trust and subverting prophecy. Both games have a similar core, but Ragnarök doubles down on what was introduced at the beginning of 2018—the game tasks the heroes to be better. To be better than what the world expects of them, and to be better than their history would reveal of them. This is not only for the main characters, but almost every supporting cast member from Kratos to Mimir, and from Birgir to Byggvir these characters set to right the wrongs of their past and make for a better future.

Sony Santa Monica achieved this (and excelled) by writing breathing characters with goals that fit within the narrative. Kratos would normally not help a wandering spirit, but once explained to, he may change his mind and sees the benefit or go along with a companion just to spend some time with them. Or, maybe he is trying to ingratiate himself with another character. In some cases, he sees the plight of another in himself and wishes to help. Character motivations are consistently present throughout the game, and it drives the phenomenal main story, but especially the side quests.

When it comes to side quests, God of War Ragnarök has some of the best around. They make sense and fit perfectly into the story. They feel natural and most content in the game feels well connected to the core—the task of being better. The side quest feels like primary content, creating a wonderful tapestry of game design. Even some of the side content feels anchored in the world. The draugr holes are optional but see the player continuously taking down a draugr that returns over and over again. With a few simple lines of dialogue from Mimir and a page of lore in the notebook, the game gives this side distraction some life, elevating it above the simple “go here, kill this”. There’s almost always a reason for it, and I loved that aspect of this game. There are a few things that seem superfluous—like the treasure maps and some realm tears—which feel like they were included because the prequel had them. But that’s about it, everything else feels like a moving part that works together to drive the experience forward.

Every aspect of God of War Ragnarök is masterfully done, including the award-winning score, which represents each character perfectly. From the simplicity of Kratos’ heavy, powerful theme to Atreus’, which exudes a sense of adventure and questioning—each musical element seized my attention as it melded with the adventure at hand and the actions taking place within it. Bear McCreary’s leitmotifs are implemented impeccably for an engrossing score that carries as much of the emotional heft as the character performances. Ragnarök’s soundtrack is one of the few I’ve listened to after I completed the game.

Speaking of the character performances… Wow. Eric Williams (the game’s director) ensured there were no tertiary characters. Each character has a purpose and backstory. Even those with minimal dialogue—especially those you find in a certain Vanir god’s camp—are memorable and worth spending an extra moment with to listen to their optional dialogue. But where the game shines most is in its primary characters and their stunning performances. Christopher Judge’s Kratos and Sunny Suljic’s Atreus are both wonderful, powerful characters that play off of one another so well. Different performances that contrast, yet work in tandem with such grace that I was moved to the brink of tears on multiple occasions. But that isn’t where the powerful performances stop. One scene involving a certain character (character name absent to avoid potential spoilers) left me hollow, the character’s pain became my own and I almost broke down. The empty feeling of helplessness, of grief and misery, was so perfectly enacted that I could do nothing but put the controller down, reflect, and applaud Adam John Harrington for his line delivery. This isn't speaking of Freya and Mimir, who add to these delightful performances. The game is full of so many incredible, affecting moments that it’s difficult to pick the most memorable.

Considering this is a cinematic-heavy game, vocal and motion-capture performances are principal aspects of Ragnarök. The allies aren’t the only characters that put on a dazzling display, but so too do the villains. Thor and Odin were both flawless casting choices. My initial impression of Odin was that of a used car salesman, which at first didn't mesh well with the Odin I had crafted in my mind. But Richard Schiff’s Odin consistently pulled me into his lies, convincing me that he meant to do good, that he only sought knowledge, a way to make the world better. He was sly, slimy, and impeccable. The themes that apply to the heroes, specifically the task of being better, apply to the villains as well. It’s brilliant to see these characters, while at odds, attempt these similar goals.

The beauty in the character arcs of these deities is in their humanization. It was difficult to empathize with Kratos from the original trilogy. He was a bloodthirsty savage that accidentally killed his own family. But the new Kratos practices restraint and tries to listen to others and understand their plight. He struggles with the fear that he may never truly change. Thor, verbally abused by his father and used only for his muscle, takes to drink to drown away his pain. Freya, coping with the death of her son reflects on her role in it. These human traits ground the experience, and how they affect others makes Ragnarök s tapestry all the more beautiful.

The characters and writing aren't where the beauty ends. Ragnarök’s art direction is splendid. The visuals are crisp and each of the nine realms is realized with fastidious care. From the lush fauna and deadly flora of Vanaheim to the glistening waters surrounding Asgard, and through the rough deserts of Alfheim, no detail is spared. Some areas are massive, eclipsing the explorable areas of the prequel. Midgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, and Alfheim all have explorable areas with optional quests and side activities to get lost in, making this the largest God of War game of all time. Despite that scope, however, the developers never sacrifice visual fidelity. All visuals are honed to a fine point and add to the absorbing nature of the title. This includes all of the character models and the animations that bring them to life. It doesn't hurt that Santa Monica Studio did their best to make the world of Ragnarök feel much more lived in, Svartalfheim being the prime example.

The expertly crafted animations are seen in every facet of this game, from the cinematic sequences to the combat, and from enemy movements to the boss battles. The animation team at Santa Monica Studios are experts in their field and are matched by very few in the industry. The fluidity with which the combat appears on the screen is sublime. The timing between combat combinations combined with the animation sequences that accompany them is an absolute joy to play around with. It’s the most fluid and enjoyable combat system that has come out this year. The weapon play is a blast and kept me coming back for more. More crucible challenges, and more optional boss fights. The balancing between the multiple weapons in the game will be familiar to anyone who played the prequel. Ragnarök is an even better game mechanically and forces the players to familiarize themselves with the combos and controls, specifically the higher you go on the difficulty.

The challenge in the game is ever-persistent, though isn't unforgiving. Managing Kratos’ multiple weapons at different distances maximizes the player’s options, creating new fun ways to play, and constantly unlocking new abilities the more you level up. In 2018’s God of War, pressing the triangle button simply recalled the axe. In Ragnarök, the triangle button uses a weapon's special ability that imbues the weapon with elemental capabilities. Playing around with these options was the most enjoyable aspect of the gameplay. But not the only good one.

I loved the puzzles. They were balanced and gave the pace of the game a constant flow. I was never stuck for too long and enjoyed trying to figure out what to do with the elemental effects of my weapons and how to time my axe throws. Combining the fire effects of Kratos’ blades with Atreus’ sigil arrows also created fun encounters of their own, both of the puzzle and enemy variety. I was delighted to see the Nornir puzzle chests make a return. I never found myself irritated with a puzzle, the game keeps them balanced. There were times when one of my companions would give me the occasional hint to solve a puzzle when I didn’t want it, but those moments were few and far between.

The main complaint many had with the prequel was a lack of enemy types. Ragnarök addresses this and then some. So many enemy types have been added to this sequel that I constantly found myself engaging in new combat experiences. I enjoyed fighting enemies that challenged my gameplay style, forcing me to use a new weapon differently, or swapping out my shield type to help me deal with the type of attack that they delivered. The alligator-like dreki were enjoyable and challenging, quick and deadly. So too were the hunters and many of the other additions to the enemy variety. Ragnarök replaces the search for Valkyries with a different optional challenge quest: Berserkers. These enemies are the toughest in the game and present different challenges to Valkyrie counterparts. Some of them are capable of summoning more enemies into the match, while others have siblings to fight alongside them. While I enjoyed the splendid design and combat of the Valkyries more, I preferred the Berserker side quest that Kratos partakes in on behalf of Mimir.

It’s difficult to pick issues out in this game. I ran into one bug in my fifty hours and it was purely aesthetic (and fixed itself within a moment). As mentioned, my companion gave me hints before I wanted them every so often. In a few instances, I discovered some lore that would trigger another codex unlock. I would then have to search through the codex to find what I was looking for; a slight inconvenience.

When the final lines of the main story are delivered, the characters’ emotions became my own. Their intent and delivery set an example for any developers in the industry who want to create cinematic games with strong, believable character arcs and a wide, emotional story. The visions of Cory Barlog and Eric Williams come to life over fifty hours and don't let go even after the credits finish rolling. The developers even go so far as to ensure that no big lore questions go unanswered. When I finished God of War in 2018, I thought that there was no way that it could be topped by its sequel. But once I finished Ragnarök, I realized that Santa Monica Studios did the incredible; they subverted my expectations and delivered a sequel that not only equaled its predecessor but surpassed it in many ways. God of War Ragnarök is the rare sequel that, like Kratos himself, strives to be better than its past iterations and deftly succeeds. Ragnarök is my favorite experience of this console cycle. It’s a shame I’ll have to wait another four years for another game from this sensational studio.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 10/10

Bonus: +1 for phenomenal animation and VO performances. +1 some of the best side quests in a video game. +1 for engaging, enjoyable gameplay. +1 for fantastic character development. +1 for vibrant, contrasting art style with high quality visuals.

Penalties: -1 for minor UI annoyances.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

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

Monday, December 26, 2022

Six Books with Tim Akers


Tim Akers grew up in rural North Carolina, and now lives in unrural Chicago, with his wife and about a million unwritten books in his head. He is the author of the Veridon series, Knight Watch, and the forthcoming Wraithbound

Today he tells us about his Six Books 

1. What book are you currently reading?

 I tend to read more than one book at a time. First is Destroyer of Worlds, by Larry Correia. It's a grand Sword & Sorcery tale set in an India-inspired world. Great fun, though I have to laugh because it's Larry. Guns have just made an appearance in book three, and everyone's like GUNS ARE AMAZING. Yes, Larry, guns are amazing. But I'm here for the swords and the sorceries.


The other book that I'm reading is Garden of Empire, which is the second book in JT Greathouse's Pact and Pattern series, the first of which was Hand of the Sun King. This series really flew under the radar, and I think it's the best fantasy to come out in the last decade. It's simply breathtaking in its scope and ambition, and Greathouse delivers.


2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

The Lost Metal, the next Wax and Wane novel from Brandon Sanderson. That's a pretty obvious choice, but for me, they hit that sweet spot between epic and urban fantasy, between high fantasy and steampunk, between comedy and grimdark. It's a difficult balancing act, but a real joy to read.


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

 I don't reread a lot of books. There are simply too many good books being written. The only time I really reread a book is to study its structure, or sometimes to prepare to read the next book in a series when there's been a really long delay. So at the moment, no, nothing I'm dying to go back to.


4. Book that I love and wish I'd written...


I certainly feel that way about The Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham. Another series that really fell under the radar. It had one of those truly brilliant magic systems, heavily based in character development, rather than a complicated game of world building and math. It might be the best magic system I've ever seen. And because of the way it was developed, it gave rise to some of the best characters in a fantasy series.


5. What's one book that has had a lasting impact on your writing style?


Unquestionably Neuromancer, by William Gibson. It changed the way I think about stories in a fundamental way, and his style impacted me so heavily that it took nearly a decade before I could write something that wasn't just an obvious rip off of Gibson's works. I've strayed away from that a bit, especially with the Knight Watch stuff, but there will always be a port somewhere, tuned to the color of a dead television


6. What's your latest book, and why is it awesome?


My next book is Wraithbound, out in April 2023. It's awesome because the main character accidently binds the ghost of a murdered mage to his soul, drawing the attention of an apocalyptic cabal of demon worshipping assassins. The world has already fallen to Chaos, other than a narrow bubble of civilization preserved by Order magic, but the very magic that protects them is slowly strangling them. It's a story of conspiracies, murder, high magic, low crime, sharp wit and blunt force trauma. Also there are airships.

Thank you, Tim!

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

'Puss in Boots: The Last Wish' comes to terms with death

Existential anguish has never been this funny

Your favorite fearless hero is back, and he's going through a crisis. After eight feline lifetimes cultivating fame and glory as a daring bandit/swashbuckler/adventurer, Puss in Boots is suddenly confronted with the hard reality of death. He's down to just one life, and for the first time, he's terrified.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a surprising entry in the Shrek franchise. After the end of a century of fantasy dominated by Disney, the first Shrek's acerbic irony made it feel fresh—even if it soon became its own type of stale. Fortunately, The Last Wish doesn't follow that formula. Snark and detachment are thrown out the window (and good riddance!), because this is a movie about death, and to deal with death, you can't do less than open sincerity. With commendable transparency, the movie shows us a hero confronted with his vulnerability, stripped of the pretense that his popularity can keep saving him. The invincible monster slayer is finally afraid, and that makes him feel more real.

Of course, the fact that you're making a movie that takes its theme seriously doesn't mean you can't also make a gut-burstingly funny movie. And here too, the writing deviates from Shrek's juvenile style. The Last Wish goes through the usual repertoire of slapstick violence, but at key moments, it uses its comedy to enhance the point it's making. Unusually for this franchise, in this movie the jokes do a big part of the telling of the story.

In the first act, once our protagonist has been forced to acknowledge his mortality and admit that his hedonistic lifestyle was nothing more than a denial mechanism, his first choice is to hide in a cat shelter. Everything is provided for him: he has a roof, abundant food, warm mittens. But, as he soon realizes, that's no life worthy of the name. The answer to the dread of mortality cannot be to give up agency and let all your choices be made for you. In a joke that tells more than it seems on the first hearing, he's forced to stop using the human toilet and promptly shown the litter box. His line at that moment is, "So this is where dignity goes to die."

Dignity is the key idea here. When we're faced with our state of cosmic abandonment, we may feel what Søren Kierkegaard called the dizziness of freedom, and owning it takes a degree of moral fortitude we're not usually taught to build. When Puss in Boots retreats to the cat shelter, he's taking one of the easy ways out: the abdication of choice. But you cannot cease to make your own choices without also ceasing to respect yourself. The prohibition of using the human toilet can be read as a snapshot of a bigger truth: if you renounce responsibility for your life, you're also renouncing your humanity. An ideal place where you don't have to make any effort is not a place suitable for humans. The safe, comforting refuge will not satisfy you.

This takes us to another key theme of the movie: satisfaction. The writers made the perfect choice of villains for this story: Goldilocks and Jack Horner, archetypes of perpetual insatisfaction. Goldilocks has enough, but she always finds something to criticize. Jack Horner has everything, but he's always greedy for more. Both represent anomalous strategies for coping with the irresolvable insatisfaction of finite life. And both fall into the same mistake when they decide to chase after the wishing star. For Puss in Boots, this is an attempt to replace mundane hedonism with transcendent hedonism—to pray to the heavens for more chances. But it's not a solution: there's no magical fix that will make everything just right. The problem is not that you haven't found your wishing star. Goldilocks is unsatisfied because she has impossible standards. Jack Horner is unsatisfied because he's never needed to make an effort. Puss in Boots is unsatisfied because he can no longer keep telling himself that he'll always have more time. The three of them are looking for the wrong remedy to a nonexistent problem.

I call it nonexistent because the finitude of life is not a new calamity that suddenly befell us; it is the way reality is. It is the normal. It is what is. As existentialist philosophers pointed out, mortality only becomes a problem if we delude ourselves into thinking we can change it. Try as you might, you can't outrun the icy hand of death.

In his essay Summer in Algiers, Albert Camus spoke about the finitude of human life in these terms: "if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have." Our protagonist's quest to regain his nine lives with a miracle is a Quixotic impossible, a desperate last recourse to regain the ability to delude himself. But having his gaze fixed on a star has distracted him from the mundane beauty he already has. He has allowed his legend to supplant his facticity, and now he's unhappy because he can't live up to an idealized self-image that he knows is false.

A brilliant way Puss in Boots: The Last Wish integrates existentialism into humor for children is in the device of the map to the star. Each character sees a different map, with a different emotional tone. This is an effective way of symbolizing how, even if we have similar ideals of happiness, the road to get there is unique to each of us.

What our hero learns at the end of his personal journey is that the quest for perfect satisfaction cannot be completed in a finite world. Death only stops being an adversary when you stop trying to deny it. That's the key to contentment when all you have is one life. And that's how you speak to children about death: with the maturity and honesty that the topic demands.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 because we should celebrate every time a story targeted at children is unafraid to talk openly about death, +1 for the beautiful art style, designed with a resemblance to expressionist brushstrokes that enhance the emotion of each battle by making it feel intensely personal.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Camus, Albert; Kennedy, Ellen Conroy [Translator]. Lyrical and Critical Essays [Vintage Books, 1970].

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Six Books with Rem Wigmore

Rem Wigmore (they/them) is a speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand, author of the solarpunk novels Foxhunt and Wolfpack, both from Queen of Swords Press. Rem’s other works include Riverwitch and The Wind City and their short fiction appears in several places including Capricious Magazine, Baffling Magazine and two of the Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies. Rem’s probably a changeling, but you’re stuck with them now. The coffee here is just too good. Rem can be found at or on twitter as @faewriter.

Today, they tell us about their Six Books

1.What book are you currently reading?

I just finished & This Is How to Stay Alive, by Shingai Njeri Kagunda, which is profound and lovely. I had to take it slow since the subject matter's quite close to home.

2. What upcoming book am I really excited about

Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh's debut novel.  I love Tesh's novellas, and this sounds like it has an utterly terrible female protagonist (morally speaking), which is my very favourite thing.

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

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice! Wild that I've only read it once when it's so full of tea and gender feelings! Seivarden, my beloved!

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

Sarah Gailey's American Hippo duology, River of Teeth especially. We love a buck wild premise taken to its logical conclusions. Also, hippo heist with a lively ensemble cast and a m/nb romance? Absolutely the kind of thing I would write.

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

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss! Both in terms of having a lot of the things I like to explore-beautiful prose, unreliable narrators, fae, bards-and because it's the book I read at sixteen that crystallised me: I had been someone who wrote as a hobby for fun, and after that, I knew I wanted to be an author. I wanted to tell stories as lovely as that.

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

So glad you asked!   

Wolfpack is set to release in early January, completing the duology that began with Foxhunt. The series is my queer solarpunk imagining of a better world and the price paid to get there, full of ecoterrorist assassins and glimmering greenery-covered cities.

Without spoiling the first book too much, Wolfpack features conservation, rewilding as a romantic gesture, and a young man finding friendship after he escapes from a cult. Ensemble cast! A gene bank heist! Every terrible decision one woman can make! I love this book passionately, I hope you do too, and I'm proud of all the work we've done.

Thank you, Rem!

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

Microreview[Novel]: The Stars Undying by Emery Robin

 Billed as "queer space Cleopatra", this delivers not only on that promise, but on beautiful prose and genuinely thoughtful interstellar politics, along with the players and how they think of their own stories.

Cover illustration by Marc Simonetti

The Stars Undying was sold to me as "queer space Cleopatra for people who liked A Memory Called Empire". This is both a high bar to reach for, and one that the book absolutely crashed through with carefree abandon, fulfilling both parts of that recommendation and a good deal more besides.

The story follows Altagracia, princess and prophetess of a planet called Szayet, as she fights a civil war against her twin sister to regain her throne, and deals with the politics of her planet spinning out into the attention of the interstellar Ceian Empire, who hold their debts and to whom they are a client kingdom, bound in precarious autonomy at the leisure of the more powerful empire. It's a story of politics intertwining with the personal, and people navigating the complex webs of loyalties, beliefs, cultures and legacies to survive, thrive or dominate within a hungry empire. It is also a story about rulership, about religion, and about power.

We have as our viewpoint characters Altagracia herself, our pseudo-Cleopatra, and Ceirran, the Ceian Empire's answer to Julius Caesar. While they are interesting characters for their (often obvious) call backs to their historical counterparts, this rapidly becomes less of the focus, simply because both of them are written to have distinctive and incredibly compelling voices. They are both deeply interesting, thoughtful and above all clever people in whose heads it is fascinating to reside. And this is one of the things Emery Robin does so well - it is surprisingly rare for characters to be declared as very clever and for it to be clear and plausible on the page. It's a hard thing to write for a reader to really, emotionally believe. But Robin has absolutely done it. This is part of what makes the book so reminiscent of A Memory Called Empire (alongside and intertwined with the politics), but the way in which they are clever, the quickness and the wry wit, calls to mind nothing more for me than Tom Stoppard plays. You could put Altagracia and Ceirran in Arcadia or The Real Thing and make them fit without too much wiggling - their dialogue would slide easily into that quick, riffing fluidity that Stoppard's characters have. And it's this easy intelligence, and grace within it, the self-confidence of two people who know they're smart and show the reader it's true with every word, who bounce off each other with constant smiling challenge, that gives them their chemistry with each other, and to the reader. They feel, as soon as you meet them, like two people who've finally found a person who's challenge enough for them, and are drawn inexorably to the challenge as much as the person behind it. And, because we see each through the eyes of the other, we see how that attraction - in the literal as well as the romantic sense - resolves over and over again with how their situation changes.

But they are bound together by more than that attraction. Both characters exist in a complex political situation, inspired by and mapped at least partially onto the political situation of the end of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and the aftermath in Rome and the Roman world. It's an unstable time after a vicious and bloody civil war, and a time in which much sits on the brink of change. A perfect time for a novel to be set in, then. And by being inspired by this existing political narrative, the author has a ready made set of plausible relationships and motivations to work with - no need to invent a political climate from whole cloth. It's a tactic that works well in many novels, and does so perfectly here.

Which isn't to say what's being done is easy. Robin has clearly and beautifully embodied those politics, making them real to the reader while we see how they affect the characters, rather than with the distance of history. It isn't just that Ceirran has fought Quinha, this universe's Pompey, but that he has also loved her as his friend and mentor, and we see throughout the story his complex feelings on her as a person as well as her place in the political landscape. Likewise, while there is the obvious feeling and magnetism between the two protagonists, they also have to reckon, constantly, with their respective political positions, and that they do so so naturally is a testament to Robin's skill and deftness with them - the political side of things never feels crammed in, or awkward alongside their personal feelings. They are both, constantly, political creatures who cannot and would not choose to escape that side of themselves, and so we see it in everything they do and say, page by page, just as much a part of their character as Altagracia's love of poetry or Ceirran's feelings about his scar.

As much as this is a testament to handling the real politics of the ancient world with clever grace, it is also a testament to the art of deciding to mess with things for the sheer fun of it. The best reimaginings of history as speculative novels are willing to bend, break or twist their source material for the sake of a point or a good story, to see it again through a new lens or make it give us something different to the original. They use the original more as a starting point than a destination. And The Stars Undying does likewise. There are superficial changes - many characters have a different gender than their original, not least Ana Decretan, a swaggering, queer woman who embodies her inspiration Marc Antony as well as any straight historical retelling - but there are some significant ones too. The timeline of Roman history gets a serious bashing for the sake of tightening the plot's focus, and allowing the author to make clear the points that are the core themes of the story. Figures and events have been concatenated or left out entirely, for the service of a better told plot. Where authenticity to history would obfuscate the plot, it has been thrown out of the window, and where it does the plot justice, kept in, and the story is a better one for it.

A part of this is the synthesis of kingship and religion - the story is deeply concerned with both, and their effects on people, on rulers, on belief and justice and personal action, and in order to make this abundantly clear, the Roman discomfort with kingship in all its forms has been replaced with a Ceian distaste for organised religion. Altagracia is then, in her role as not just a queen but the living prophet of the undying soul of a historical god-conqueror (a part of the world-building that is fascinatingly done and drawn out through the story), playing into a huge pile of cultural fears for the empire she's bound to. Ceio is deeply disestablishmentarian, banning religion and religious accoutrements in all forms, and sneering at those who believe within its evergrowing empire. It also tightens the narrative in its focus on power, and how power affects people, what lengths they are willing to go to for it - when rulership and godhood are intertwined, the stakes become that much higher. To get this synthesis, and all the good it does for the story, you have to play fast and loose with a lot of historical events, and so even for someone with a fairly deep knowledge of the period of history at hand, there remain the stakes of uncertainty - just because it's not what happened in history, doesn't mean it couldn't happen here.

That being said, the knowledge of history is played on too. The story isn't light on foreshadowing, and there are parts where it feels deliberately drawing the reader in, knowing they know what could happen next. Altagracia particularly as narrator is occasionally prone to dropping in a bit of hinting before we are drawn back to Ceirran's perspective, and leaving acknowledged absences in the narrative with a promise to fill them later and just enough doubt to make it genuinely tense.

It comes up in the world-building too. The planet of Szayet, an analogue for ancient Egypt, has been inverted into a flooded world, full of treasures of its long history drowned under the sea but rich in something desperately wanted by the Ceians and others. It is both the opposite of the historical Egypt and yet still evocative of it. Likewise Ceio, the empire-planet-city that mirrors Rome is depicted as both a modern, technological and concrete place, while also bringing to mind much of what it draws on. Where Rome conquered peoples, cities and countries, Ceio talks of systems and arms of the galaxy. That being said, aside from what is needed for the political storyline, which is absolutely the focus, the worldbuilding is very light touch, even for space opera. We have no knowledge of how the ships work, how travel between planets or systems functions. The only hint we get as to the complexity of an interstellar empire at all is an amusing aside about aligning calendars between worlds with different orbits and how this relates to annual taxation. Like the use of history, the world building exists purely to serve the plot, and where it does so, it does so well - landscapes particularly are evocatively described and detailed, and especially the weather while characters experience it - but it is not a story in the least concerned with the nitty gritty of creating a realistic technological backdrop for space travel. But it never feels implausibly sparse. It's not so much an absence as a lack of interest - it never affects the characters nor is relevant to their problems, so it never comes up. And because we're so deeply entwined in their perspectives for the story, this feels far more natural than trying to wedge in some understanding of wormhole mechanics might be. They exist in the world, it works, why would they need to explore or explain it in those terms? Especially Altagracia, as a person and from a people whose focus is far more directed to the past than the present. Despite being over 500 pages, this lends a feeling of economy that balances out the occasional deviation into (beautiful) descriptive passages, and allows the story not to overbalance itself by looking outside of its core concerns.

All in all, it's an incredibly thoughtfully told story, both in terms of its use of historical material and in how its characters approach the events of the novel and each other. There is a distinct voice for every character, their cultures are well-drawn and considered, and there is a playfulness with the source material and the plot itself underlying everything that occasionally warrants a laugh. It is witty and clever and beautifully told, with prose that manages to be quietly lovely when you pause to examine it without it every dragging attention away from what it's telling, and that leaves you with a lot of lingering thoughts about people and their legacies. It is a phenomenally accomplished book, and one of the best things I've read in a crowded field this year.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 Marc Antony as the swaggeringest, fightiest queer woman is a joy and a delight

Penalties: none

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference:  Emery Robin, The Stars Undying [Orbit, 2022]

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