Friday, May 27, 2022

Microreview [book]: Aspects by John M. Ford

The final, and incomplete, work by a master of science fiction and fantasy.


John M Ford, reviewed here previously by me, was a writer of singular and broad talent, with a focus on wordplay and language that comes through all the many splendored and varietal things that he had written. This is also true of Aspects.  Aspects is a epic fantasy novel, unfinished at the time of his death, that has not been completed by someone else, it is instead presented here, edited, as much as we have of it. 

If reading incomplete books is not your cup of tea, if the fact that this story does end abruptly without resolution, then, honestly, you probably don’t need to continue on with this book review and can go, read The Dragon Waiting or something else. I admit that it poked and prodded at my brain, but I think the book and what it does, what we have of it, is worth discussing, even in an incomplete stage. Inside baseball, perhaps, but it is akin to being shown the first chapters of a book or part of a novella from a friend writer, asking for what they think of it and what works and what does not.

In that spirit, then, for those of you who have not closed the browser tab, let us proceed on, and forthwith.

The world’s analogue, Lescouray, goes to 19th century Britain, a Britain that is modernizing, with analogues to the telegraph and the railroads, a society moving forward toward what we would recognize as modernity. There are clear harkenings to the Renaissance, the Medieval period, and an ancient all conquering Empire that are clearly expys of the Romans.  There are filips to this, however. For example, Lescouray has recently gotten rid of its monarchy entirely. This is a country now ruled by its Parliament, particularly by its aristocratic lords, Corons.

That last bit bears some notice. Many fantasy novels default to empires, kingdoms, and other such hierarchical systems of government. And even rarer, when we do have political systems that are not monarchical, such novels and stories rarely engage heavily with such representative (even if its aristocratic) governments. Aspects is a novel where two of the major characters are in the Parliament (as are a couple of secondary characters), and legislation and the sausage-making of getting bills passed is important to the plot. The fact that this country is still trying to make its way with its Constitution and figuring out what to do with itself, politically (including thorny foreign affairs) is part and parcel of this universe. 

Oh, and this is a world with magic. What and who sorcerers are and what they can do is left deliberately blurry (and there are discussions in the text about trying to make a science of magic and whether that is possible now, or ever, or just a folly). Still, there are definite kinds of magic and kinds of magicians, and we meet several magicians in the book. Foremost among these or most prominently, is Lady Agate, who is a magician of poetry, with an intense bond to one of our two protagonists. But some are truly frightened of sorcerers and the dangers they can pose, if untrained. And even a trained mage is a danger and a threat to others.

Aspects, though, focuses on two characters set in this world, their meeting, their parting (and one can predict their reunion but the book is incomplete).  On the one hand is Varic. He is a Coron who at the start of the novel is dodging attempts to kill him by means of being challenged to duels. (The novel in fact, starts with such a duel). This world may be struggling toward what we recognize as modernity, but it is still sharp and dangerous and harkens back to an earlier time. He mostly lives in the central city of Lystourel although his second home is not his home Coronage, but rather, the strange and wonderful Strange House of which I will speak anon.

On the other hand is Longlight. Another Coron, she is from a wild, more isolated and bandit plagued part of the country, where even roads are few, and the Ironways stops well short of her holding. If we are going with British Isle metaphors, she is a noble from an isolated Scottish or Welsh dominion. The Ironways haven’t gotten there yet, hers is a world which is working toward modernization but it is a slow and expensive process. Longlight also has trouble on the homefront, now, with her budding relationship with the aforementioned , her current partner is not going to take this well. The thickets and thorns and entanglements of relationships of all kinds is a running and abiding theme of the novel as we have it, and whither the relationship between the two Corons, no one can say. The end of the text is followed by a couple of sonnets, presented as showing the possibilities of what might be with the characters.

I did mention wordplay earlier on, and readers of other works of Ford will expect it, and in Aspects, he delivers. There is poetry, sonnets, plays on words, mostly wonderful and inventive use of language. He invents or repurposes Latin to express concepts where he doesn’t use our words. It feels like, no surprise, he delights in this invention. It’s not to the level of the sometimes nearly impenetrable Uncleftish Beholding by Poul Anderson ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncleftish_Beholding ) but everything has enough context for you to pick up any meanings and, hopefully, delight in his invention. He certainly didn’t have to do it this way, if he used railroads instead of Ironways, I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye. It is however, a very Ford thing to do.

The best portion of this unfinished novel is a long set piece in Strange House. Strange House is all of a place that people wishing to escape into novels and their worlds and characters could wish for, and Varic taking Longlight there to his friend’s estate for the winter holiday is a highlight of the book. Varic is a longtime visitor, and well known to its master and those who inhabit it, but Longlight is new, and we get to meet the characters who inhabit this island and place of respite with fresh eyes. From books, to food, to even wargames, Strange House is one of those locales in fiction that readers will wish were actually real to go there. And yet it is not all saccharine, as the budding relationship between Corons is tested by Varic’s longstanding relationship with Lady Agate. But I know I would love to visit such a place for the holidays, and meet the people who have congregated there in a rich and wonderful found family. 

Ultimately, though, the book is an opportunity to read more of Ford’s work that, unless you were very lucky, you’ve never seen. It’s a frustratingly incomplete fragment of a book, but it is an incomplete meal, a poem unfinished, a movie whose ending has been cut off. Can you accept the fragment for what it is? If you can, then you will love Aspects. I suspect I am preaching to a choir here--if you are a Ford fan, you already want this. And if you aren’t a Ford fan already, this is absolutely and positively NOT the place to start reading him. There are questions in the genresphere of “who a book is written for” and whether books need or should even be for everyone. I feel that ASPECTS is not for everyone. This is the John Ford book when you are in a drought of Ford, and want a little more of the gold of his writing, untimely unfinished as it is.

Rating: Because this is an unfinished novel, I ultimately cannot give it a score.

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Microreview: The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade

Octavia Cade offers a short but brilliant meditation on humanity's relationship to nature in The Impossible Resurrection of Grief.

Cover art and design by Rachel Lobbenberg.

In the near future, ecosystem collapse is endemic. This has brought with it Grief, a kind of severe depression in humans that leads to madness and, ultimately, suicide. Once it has infected a person, the decline into death is inevitable.

Although Ruby is a marine biologist working in conservation, she has so far managed to escape Grief's grasp. This is in part because her beloved jellyfish are thriving in the warming oceans. Her friend and colleague Marjorie hasn't been so lucky. After Marjorie commits suicide, a bundle of her letters is delivered to Ruby, kicking off a series of encounters with other Grief-stricken individuals.

The Impossible Resurrection of Grief packs in a lot in under a hundred pages. There is, of course, the climate change aspects and humanity's relationship to nature. Grief is the central expression of this: the exhaustion and despair of watching the Earth die around you (especially that element you are particularly attached to -- be it a species of small bird or the Great Barrier Reef) and not being able to do anything about it, seeing only the futility of your efforts. Anyone with a background in ecology or conservation, or with even the smallest interest in the natural world, will find this relatable.

However, Cade is not interested in presenting uncomplicated pictures. Throughout the story, she reminds us of humanity's capacity to compartmentalise. We ignore what doesn't directly affect us -- or even what affects us only indirectly. It allows us to continue on more or less as normal while the world slowly dies around us. Ruby is a prime example of this. On an intellectual level, she understands that things are dire -- which is why she has elected not to have children. She works hard on helping her colleagues obtain vital research grants to support species that are rapidly disappearing. However, on an emotional level she remains unaffected, caught up in the wonder of her jellyfish and a worldview that could be seeing the silver lining or could be toxic positivity.

The concept of Grief also acknowledges the colonialist aspects of ecological disaster. We're told that rates of Grief are higher amongst indigenous and First Nations people, reflecting their deeper ties to land. The story also discusses the near extinction of the Indigenous populations of Tasmania. While it is in many respects deeply problematic to put Indigenous people on the level of animals (a troublesome pattern that continues to crop up particularly in Western SFF), the author is at pains to show how rhetoric of white settlement equated them and used the same tactics to achieve annihilation.

But again, this perspective is not allowed to be uncomplicated; indigenous people are not a monolith. In this case, Ruby's husband George provides a counter example. Of Maori descent, George left behind his homeland in Aoteroa to immigrate to Australia. Like Ruby, George is good at compartmentalising and is untouched by Grief. In fact, he still hopes to have children, which is why he and Ruby are undergoing a very amicable divorce.

The relationship between Ruby and George may strike some as a little underdeveloped, but that seems to me to be a very intentional decision. In fact, many apparent flaws of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief are, on closer inspection, actually features. Ruby and George's relationship is a microcosm of humanity's position in the world: a comfortable habit lacking in deep affection that will have to be let go in order to move on to something truly worthwhile.

The structure of the story is another example. The opening and ending focus on Ruby's relationship with her friend Marjorie, and these bookend three encounters Ruby has with other Grief-afflicted characters. The transitions between these sections can be a little jarring, particularly as Ruby travels from Tasmania to New Zealand. However once again, I feel this is by design. After all, it so aptly reflects the compartmentalisation that is an important central theme of the story.

Criticisms of the story as needing to be longer are patently ridiculous. What more is needed? Certainly not worldbuilding. The world of the story is just a breath away from our own, where crown-of-thorns starfish plague the Great Barrier Reef and species extinction and endangerment are rising rapidly in Australia after a record summer of bushfires.

This is a difficult story to discuss without spoilers, and the ending especially so. Consider this your warning and feel free to skip to the end of the review.

The ambiguity of the ending may not be to everyone's taste, but fits the Little Mermaid motif that runs through the story, stealing away Ruby's voice just as Anderson's Sea Witch does. It also serves to make Ruby's choice our own. Are we going to compartmentalise this as just a story and continue on our usual way? Are we going to succumb to despair? Or are we going to take our grief and anger and forge it into a weapon to fight back for nature?

The writing style was excellent and the uneasy atmosphere it invoked reminded me of Kaaron Warren at her finest. This was particularly the case during Ruby's encounter with Granny, a scientist who has managed to resurrect the extinct thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger. It was also particularly present in Ruby's final encounter with the Sea Witch, as her friend Marjorie has become. It gave a real sense of humans as predators, giving a glimpse into a world where any separation that might have existed between humans and nature has been obliterated, allowing the use of human technology to help nature fight back against humans. The veil is pulled back and we see how these predators have camoflaged themselves, preying on the humans who have ruined the world and setting a trap for Ruby.

I find myself wanting to give this book to everyone but aware that, like Marjorie, I have to pick my targets carefully.

The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is on the shortlist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, Aoteora's premier award for speculative fiction -- and where it will go up against Cade's own Scales, Tails and Hagfish in the category of Best Novella/Novelette. While I'm pleased to see it being recognised in the author's home country, it seems an oversight that it hasn't received the same recognition on international stages.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for managing a nuanced perspective of a complicated topic in such a short story

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Nanoreviews: The Entropy of Loss, Folklorn, Leviathan Falls

The Entropy of Loss by Stewart Hotston (Newcon, 2022)

Sarah Shannon is having a weird evening. She's visiting her wife, Rhona, an artist  in the final stages of a terminal illness, when she gets a call from her colleague Akshai. That call pulls her back to the lab where she works on black hole research, to look at some strange data which suddenly throws them into a weird, reality-bending first contact situation. To make things more complicated, Sarah has been dealing with her grief over Rhona's imminent death by having an affair with Akshai, and when Rhona becomes trapped in Sarah's newly transformed lab with the new entity, Sarah's grief and her work become inextricably linked.

The Entropy of Loss has a lot to set up in its opening pages, and it ends up feeling quite artificial, although it's hard to see how Hotston could have done anything differently in novella length. Thus we bounch from hospital - to establish Sarah and Rhona's dynamic and Sarah's emotional state - then to the lab to set up Sarah, Akshai, and the black hole simulation, and back to hospital so Sarah can have Rhona want to come back to the lab again, so she can become trapped with this new alien life. It's easily the weakest part of the book, and that's a shame because once the scenario is established, this becomes a great novella, intertwining an engaging science fiction scenario with the complex emotions of its protagonist. We're long past the cliche of "scientists don't have emotions because science is too rational for feelings" in science fiction, but by making Sarah's emotional investment in her breakthrough (and its security implications for campus) extremely personal, and filtering the first contact communication itself through Sarah and Rhona's relationship dynamics, The Entropy of Loss creates a rich story that hits much closer to home than your average action-packed alien visitation. Just go with the set-up stuff and you'll be rewarded with a really intriguing novella that's well worth checking out.

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur (Erewhon, 2021)

Reviewing has been hard recently, and I'm sorry to say that Folklorn sat unloved in my "to read and review" folder for far longer than this strange, thoughtful story deserved. This is the story of Elsa, a second generation Korean American physicist working at a Swedish university who we meet when she is finishing a research trip to Antarctica. Feeling out of place as an Asian woman in a white-dominated environment, and working through the emotions of finishing her research and leaving Antarctica - and a boyfriend who will be wintering over, which she assumes (correctly) will be the end of their relationship - Elsa begins connecting things around her to the stories and myths her mother (who has been unspeaking and catatonic since Elsa's teen years) told her as a child, and to a "friend" she had at the time, a girl the same age who nobody else could see. It's the re-emergence of her imaginary friend which pushes Elsa into a reckoning with her family legacy, in a journey that takes her from Antarctica to Sweden and back to her family home in California.

While the ghost on the ice, and a later death in the family, provide catalysts for Elsa's journey, it's her internal emotional factors which really drive the narrative, making for a slow read with a lot of introspection. The biggest force here is intergenerational trauma: Elsa's parents lived through the Korean War, and Elsa has grown up with stories about missing relatives and disappearing Aunts, as well as a sister born between her and her brother who, allegedly, died at birth. Unpacking her family's legacy, and her relationships with her parents (both of whom have been abusive in their own ways) and her difficult, mentally ill brother, becomes a huge task, one which Elsa tackles through the lens of myth, uncovering a lineage of disempowered women in Korean folktales through her mother's writing and tying her story to theirs. Elsa is herself a challenging protagonist, at turns lashing out or ignoring help from those around her, and centring her own emotions at the expense of others, but it's done in a way that will feel very familiar to those who have experienced certain kinds of mental illness, and Folklorn's diagnosis feels redemptive: forgive the family who hurt you, especially if they were hurting themselves, but don't let them stop you from growing past the trauma. It's powerful stuff, told in a haunting, affective way.

Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey

What is there to say about a book that wraps up 9 volumes of one of the genre's most influential space operas? Leviathan Falls brings to a close the story of The Expanse, a generation-spanning narrative about human expansion in the solar system and beyond, and the political struggles that accompany these changes in the structure of human civilisation. From relatively humble (and very dudebro-oriented) beginnings in Leviathan Wakes, the series has encompassed space-faring revolutions, potential extinction events, the arrival of terrifying new alien technologies, and finally an intergalactic war for the future of humanity, with the crew of the spaceship Rocinante at the heart of the action at every step. Now, after seeing off the series' second most unpleasant charismatic dictator (sorry Duerte, but Marco will always have you beat), the final chapter is about the moment that has been brewing ever since the protomolecule came into human hands in Leviathan Wakes: when wil humanity need to reckon with the unknowable alien technology at the centre of its galactic expansion, and with the alien force that wiped those super-advanced predecessors out?

This is an extremely important question, but it does mean that Leviathan Falls is working firmly in the territory where (in my opinion) the series has been weaker: the "weird alien shit" plots have never hit the highs of the "political shenanigans" plots, which is why Cibola Burn is inarguably the weakest book of the series and Nemesis Games is the best (don't argue, you won't win). But Leviathan Falls overcomes that, for two reasons: first, because we are at the endgame and there are finally some answers to what, until now, have been unknowable events; and second, because after a generation of research on the rogue fascist world of Laconia, the weird alien shit is inextricably linked to human technology and ambition. Building on the first two books in the "Laconia" arc, we therefore get a satisfying inversion of the series' consistent "adapt or die" theme the solutions for adaptation presented by Laconians are awful, the results of decades of unthinkably unethical research, but nine books has taught us that one can't magic easy third solutions out of thin air in this series. And, sure enough, there's a powerful and fitting ending here, one that puts the focus back on Naomi, Alex, Amos and Holden as, once more, the wildcards in determining the future of humanity. 

There are some elements that don't work as well as others. The series' strongest supporting characters, Bobbie and Avasarala, are gone, and Aliana Tanaka, the Laconian officer who becomes the book's main human antagonist, is fine but not particularly exciting for the amount of time we have to spend with her (Elvi and Teresa are great, though). On the whole this is a strong end to a series that, despite its ups and downs, has firmly earned its place on my all-time favourites list.

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

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Chip 'n Dale not-reboot dissects the dangers of nostalgia

No one was asking for this movie. That's exactly the point

Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers presents a surprisingly clear-eyed view of the anxious trend we're witnessing where past glories get reanimated as hollow echoes of themselves. Instead of being a direct sequel, set in the same world of detective adventures as the massively popular 1980s show, the film introduces the conceit that its titular chipmunks are retired actors, and that their series has been left in the past, all but forgotten, and now they need to make peace with the bittersweetness of aging fame. When a former costar is kidnapped in relation to a clandestine cartoon mockbuster operation, our not-heroes must use all their not-expertise to save the day while making mordant commentary on the state of IP-based moviemaking.

The inward gaze that this film casts on our ongoing nostalgia binge is even more interesting coming from a Disney production. The film itself could be counted as another entry in the studio's slate of immensely ill-advised live-action remakes, which so far range from morally confused to culturally ignorant to not even an adaptation in any sense of the word. Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers doesn't waste any of your time pretending that it can recapture the charm of the original thing. But it doesn't go to the other extreme of trashing everything that came before with Shrek-like derision. Instead, what it does is more sincere, more mature, and more valuable: it honors the stories that made your childhood special, but warns against the impulse to retreat back to imagined better times.

The Chip 'n Dale show is an animation classic from a time that already had a complicated relationship with animation classics. It became a hit just as the Disney Renaissance was gaining momentum, when the studio was eager to recover the prestige it had once earned with the likes of Cinderella. Just before The Little Mermaid proved Disney could wow audiences again, there was a discernible anxiety in the television part of the equation. The Chip 'n Dale show is part of the same trend as DuckTales and Goof Troop, which revived legacy characters by making them feel fresh and new to the Millennial generation. One of the fascinating details about this era is that, in the same years that Disney was trying to regain its old position, over at Warner Brothers, Animaniacs was providing priceless meta commentary on classic animation with the criminally underappreciated character of Slappy Squirrel.

In-universe, Slappy Squirrel was a retired actress with a long career in slapstick comedy, and her segments in Animaniacs would retread the same tired routines with genre-savvy variations. So the narrative device of making it explicit to the audience how the Golden Age of Animation had exhausted all the tricks in the book was already known at the time of the Chip 'n Dale show, in the late 80s/early 90s. So what could this new movie add to the tradition of cartoon characters throwing shade on cartoon tradition?

In this new adaptation, the older versions of Chip and Dale are still coasting on their one hit, bitter about having been forgotten, and going through an aimless post-friendship phase. In fact, Slappy Squirrel would feel at home in the terminally self-aware universe of the Chip 'n Dale movie. She never experienced the frenzy of online celebrity culture, but she was old enough to have learned and improved upon all of Bugs Bunny's tricks, knew firsthand the struggles of movie stars who live past their prime, and saw right through any attempt to tell the same jokes again. That's basically the role old Chip and old Dale play here: the enemy they fight is literally a classic animation metaphor for stunted development.

By now it's beyond commonplace to call nostalgic fans manchildren. It's an added level of meta-awareness to cast the quintessential archetypal manchild, Peter Pan, as the incarnation of misplaced nostalgia. This is, of course, by no means an original trope, but this time our villain doesn't scheme to bring back the good old times: his operation is simply to dismantle the cartoon industry by stealing its stars and making his own movies with it.

One possible (and very cynical) reading of this plot choice is that Chip 'n Dale is a movie about the evils of copyright infringement, and by equating bootlegging to human trafficking, Disney wants to teach kids to only buy original Disney productions. But there's more going on here. Disney knows fully well that it doesn't own characters like Cinderella. Those characters and stories belong to the collective memory of humankind; as long as you don't use any of the plots or costumes from Marvel, nothing prevents you from making and selling your own Thor movie.

No, the threat that Chip 'n Dale warns against is not the wish to compete with Disney, but the wish to rely on Disney's past to keep selling reheated leftovers. Even the bad guy in this movie understands that there's no way to repeat the successes of the past, but still he hopes to get something close to it by shameless imitation. In our legacyquel-infested times, it feels like a gust of fresh air to have this honest take on the problem with remakes, one that the film turns even more literal when our villain morphs into a monstrous smorgasbord of beloved characters with no logical or thematic connection.

Sure, Chip 'n Dale has lots of cameos, and they can get distracting in crowd scenes, but they're never used as a substitute for having a story to tell. It doesn't reach the degree of visual overbloat of Ready Player One, and has none of the desperation that oozed all over Looney Tunes: Back in Action (starting with its title). The titular duo has exactly the right dynamic you expect from a buddy comedy, the interaction between the toon-sized characters and regular humans is the most seamless since Roger Rabbit, and the story never makes itself any illusions that this is some sort of starting point for a new franchise. No, Chip 'n Dale is done, and the movie knows it's a good thing it's done. This story is not meant to make you long for your childhood; it's meant to help you part with it in good terms.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the synergy between the script, voice acting, and animation for Chip, who comes off as an emotionally developed character with a believable list of regrets, and whose style of comedy manages to be barbed without falling into the facile quips that plague scripwriting these days.

Penalties: −3 for the monumental tastelessness it takes to give Peter Pan a villain origin story that mirrors the real-life tragedy of Peter Pan's voice actor, which seemed to foreshadow the turbulent trajectories of multiple subsequent Disney child stars.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

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

Friday, May 20, 2022

Microreview [book]: Rise of the Mages by Scott Drakeford

A mostly traditional epic fantasy whose good writing doesn’t escape or transcend  its cookie cutter roots.

Emrael Ire has a problem. He just wants to be a weapons master and a member of the Legions. His father is missing and getting a leadership post in the Legions would give him a chance to try and find him. So instead of heading to the mysterious island nation of Ordena with his mother (a native to those shores), he stays within the United Provinces, studying the sword at the Citadel. But when a mysterious power play leads to his technologically talented younger brother being captured and Emrael is forced to go on the run, he is forced to not only deal with the political legacy of his bloodline, but the legacy of his own magical talents.

This is the story of Rise of The Mages, first in Scott Drakeford’s Age of Ire novels.

Rise of Mages is a classic, down the old straight track of a young man who finds that he has power he didn’t know or suspect he has, gets himself a mentor with whom he has a sometimes frustrating relationship, gathers other companions (including a love interest) and finds himself leading a force to rescue someone he cares about, sometimes impetuously. The fact that his mentor is a woman (and NOT the love interest) and the drive to rescue  his brother are variations on the classic backbone of the tale. 

There are some first novel roughness in the plotting, though, which can sometimes feel like it doesn’t shift the gears smoothly. The pacing just feels off again, and again, and it is painful that the opportunity sometimes gets stepped on in the process. It’s a well thought out world, even if it is along the usual lines. I have to give Drakeford good marks for imagining a fantasy world that is not a stasis frozen in amber and where the only discoveries are re-discoveries. There are people seeking not only the lore of the past or lore from outside, but making new discoveries of their own (particularly Ban, Emrael’s brother). Societies are never static, there may be forces slowing progress and change, but the “everything has been the same way for a thousand years” is a trap that Drakeford avoids, on cultural, social and technological axes. 

There is some good interesting bits in how he constructs his magic system. Drakeford takes the classic technique of having his protagonist clueless about how it all works (complete with me? A Magician? Nonsense!), and also being somewhat trangressive of the rules and understood properties of it. We get a good sense of what magic does, and did and what it can do (and what Emrael can do). It appears to be of the magic as a branch of science school of magic, especially in it’s more practical applications. 

The best writing in the book is the action sequences and we get quite a lot of them. From one on one combats, to sieges, infiltrations and chaotic scrums of fighting, the novel shines best in the thrill and glory of combat and conflict. Drakeford knows to show how combat and conflict builds and illuminates character and we get a sense of Emrael as a person through the conflicts he engages in. 

However, I feel that this book shares many of the traits and issues that Adri highlighted in her review of Richard Swan’s The Justice of Kings. (Review here: http://www.nerds-feather.com/2022/02/the-justice-of-kings-by-richard-swan-is.html).  This is perfectly straightforward and reasonable epic fantasy.  It is an epic fantasy that shows that the writer has skill for a first novel (with some aforementioned issues) but it is an epic fantasy that is of an earlier generation. I have not read Swan’s novel, and only have Adri’s detailed analysis to go on. However, it seems that while Drakeford avoids some of the pitfalls that Adri calls out in that novel--the trio of female characters here aren’t fridged and do have power and skills and agendas, this book does focus on men all the same. The major focus, as mentioned before, is Emarel’s quest to free his brother. (this, following on the heels of his quest to find his father) He is very nearly to the point of monomania on this point, and both Elle (the healer/noble/love interest) and Jaina (The Obi Wan) both have to drag him from a single minded drive to save his brother again, and again, and again.  Emrael winds up getting dragged into the plot, and its course, kicking and screaming. And I never quite got the best feeling why his monomania for his brother struck him so. I *think* I know why, reading between the lines, a strong educated guess, but we don’t get enough to really understand his motivations in that regard that it becomes this all consuming passion for him.

And I think this world could easily have been a queernorm world, if the author had put some effort toward that, but in the end, he did not. I think that is a missed opportunity in this day and age, where building worlds that are inclusive is something that I am trying to look for and cultivate in my fiction reading. I admit that this sort of active searching and looking for these things takes learned practice, and I am still trying to cultivate that in my reading of a text, and more pertinently here the selection of texts. I can only hope and encourage writers to do that in their own writing. 

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The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for executing the expected beats of an of epic fantasy, magic system, combat and more in a strong fashion for a first time novelist.

Penalties: -2 for a large number of missed opportunities in transcending those norms.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10 

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



Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Lakelore by Anna-Marie McLemore

A lyrical, magical realist story about accepting the difficult parts and learning to love yourself.

two young people emerge from a lake with hills in the background. Butterflies flutter around their faces.


Lakelore by Anna-Marie McLemore focuses on what’s above and below not only the surface of the titular lake, but also the two point-of-view characters, Bastián and Lore. In this magical-realist, young adult novel, Bastián, Lore, and the lake all have trouble fitting into society’s designated roles. Bastián and Lore are both neurodivergent, trans, and Latinx, so they are often made uncomfortable by those around them and struggle with what to do with these feelings. When they meet, they find kindred spirits in each other and work to understand the other’s unique way of experiencing the, often magical, world. Bastián and Lore find solace in each other, even though that means developing a certain level of trust they don’t share with many. Over the course of the novel, their attraction turns to love in a slow, touching way that reminded me of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. But their friendship and burgeoning love is threatened by their secrets and the pain stored beneath the lake.

As suggested by the focus on the world under the lake, much of the novel centers the interiority of the characters, demonstrating how Bastián and Lore understand themselves and their places in the world. While not a coming out story—both characters are very established in their trans identities—Bastián and Lore are figuring out when their bodies feel true, such as Bastián taking testosterone and Lore fluidly changing whether they present more masculine or feminine. While these moments are sometimes painful, such as remembering when they’ve been misgendered or scenes of bullying that could be triggering for some readers, there’s also a lot of joy in being accepted, particularly between Bastián and Lore, such as a delightful passage where they talk about making a “gender forecast” for each other. Bastián describes the day’s gender as “a perfectly folded T-shirt,” which feels absolutely accurate for them that day. As Lore says, “Sometimes you can’t separate the hard things from the good things” (213).

Similarly, McLemore doesn’t shy away from describing Bastián’s life with ADHD and Lore’s dyslexia impacting their schooling. According to the author’s note at the back of the book, this is an own voices story as the author is writing from their lived experience being neurodivergent (with both ADHD and dyslexia), nonbinary, and Mexican American. In the novel, the ADHD and dyslexia feel integral to how the characters experience the world rather than simply being tropes or tags. Through the novel’s alternating POV structure, McLemore shows how Bastián and Lore each adapt, spending time describing how each character feels inside their head. While developing their friendship, Bastián and Lore describe how their brains work to each other, which creates a greater depth of understanding, regardless of whether the reader experiences ADHD or dyslexia or not. 

A highlight of this book is certainly the lyrical prose. While the description can be skimpy at times, McLemore focuses their writing prowess on the lake and its magical moments. For instance, one of my favorite moments occurs after Bastián gives Lore a glitter jar. The lake’s underworld spills its shores and imitates the colorful curves created by the glitter, as McLemore writes: “High above us, [the bubbles] break like they’re reaching the surface, the glitter spreading out and sticking there in constellations of cotton-candy pink and deep green, pale blue and copper” (177). Such lyrical passages provide a balance to the passages of interiority. 

While the novel accomplishes the goal of capturing the characters’ successes and struggles, the structure of the novel made it harder to sink into a single character. Alternating between Bastián and Lore as point-of-view characters often feels unnecessary because the characters are together and experiencing the same things. Where the POV switching is effective is when they are having separate experiences that speak to their own identities, pasts, or passions. For instance, the scenes where Lore meets with an education specialist about their dyslexia or the scenes where Bastián is creating alebrijes (sculptures of mythical beasts made from papier mâché). In contrast, switching POV when Bastián and Lore are having similar experiences with the lake or are in the same location feels jumpy and scattered. Additionally, the chapters are usually the length of a single scene, and sometimes that scene is less than a page. Especially in the beginning of the novel, I struggled to engage with both characters because of the constant switching after only a page or two, even when the characters would be together in the next scene, thus making me question why we’d switched POV to begin with. 

The short chapters and switching POV between the characters could help keep a young reader hooked in what is, in many ways, a slow, character-driven story. Rather, I found the structure works against this issue because it doesn’t allow the characters to really develop until much later in the book. Because this novel is more character-driven than plot-driven (what’s happening with the lake is not so much dangerous as spooky and beautiful), hooking the reader with these thoughtful, brave narrators is necessary.

All that being said, a voracious young reader would probably blow right past that opening, and for a young person who identifies with Bastián and Lore, the passages that detail their experiences with adapting to a system that their brains work against, their identities, their passions for art, could help a reader feel seen an understood, which is what the best young adult literature accomplishes.  
_________

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10 

Bonuses: +2 for lyrical prose that can describe an alebrijes-filled lake and living with ADHD and dyslexia.

Penalties: -1 for a novel structure that felt jumpy and undermined getting to know the characters

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

Reference:  Anna-Marie McLemore, Lakelore [Feiwel and Friends, 2022]

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and ecology. She tweets as @pheebs_w.

'The Innocents' is a disturbing look at how evil is born and nurtured

It's all fun and games until you possess your neighbor to commit murder

The Norwegian supernatural thriller The Innocents, shown last year at Cannes and available now on video on demand, is a much-welcome palate cleanser in the middle of the flashy superpower extravaganza we're currently enduring, and also an understated exploration of the limitations of the cultural trope of childlike innocence.

The story hooks early, with an immediately fascinating protagonist in Ida, a nine-year-old girl whose older sister, Anna, has nonverbal autism. Ida has never experienced consequences for her casual cruelty toward Anna, and that has taught her a seriously warped pattern of behavior. When her family moves to a new apartment complex, Ida forms a dangerous friendship with Ben, a boy with quickly growing mental powers and a similarly twisted sense of fun. At first, they move pebbles in the air and snap branches. But soon they graduate to animal torture and petty acts of revenge. When they're joined by their neighbor Aisha, who can read minds, the games escalate into psychic duels and puppeting people's bodies. Are these kids innocent, or is there something rotten underneath?

Scandinavia is frequently cited as the world's best place to raise children, and the Nordic model of parenting is famously based on trust-building and gentleness. The parents we see in this film are likewise kind and understanding, and strive to teach responsibility and independence with realistic boundaries. This cultural trait is even more curious if one recalls that Scandinavia was traditionally ruled by Protestantism, one of whose core doctrines is the inborn depravity of humans.

Almost as if to complete the counterargument, The Innocents plays with this widespread belief that Nordic childhood is idyllic, and complicates it in thought-provoking ways. It's not from her parents that Ida has learned to mistreat Anna; it's Anna's silence which leaves open a space that Ida uses to indulge her impulses at leisure. She even seems aware that what she's doing is wrong, but we never get a sense that she acts from actual malice. This makes Ida an exceptionally complex character for her age, and the actress does a fantastic job of conveying a sinister side at the same time as pure playfulness. Interestingly, after Aisha's mental powers give Anna a channel for communication, Ida goes through a gradual change that brings her closer to Anna and in opposition to Ben.

Ben's case merits attention for its own reasons. He's on a trajectory parallel to Ida's, one where raw id is unhindered by morality, but what fuels his cruelty is his mother's abuse. He has actively been taught to cause harm. We can more readily understand why he's the way he is, but when paired with Ida, we are made to wonder how children of such drastically different parents can become equally monstrous. The spark of the whole conflict is precisely Aisha, whose superpower is what the other kids lack: empathy.

The movie achieves all this with incredibly few lines of dialogue. Most of the weight of the storytelling is carried by the camera, handled with confidence to make a shiny forest creepy, a boring building ominous, and a clear pond loaded with tension. With such versatile skill for shot composition, lighting, framing, camera angles, and the sheer brutal power of great acting, the need for visual effects is minimal. The Innocents proves you don't need to spend a whole nation's GDP in digital imagery. The most nail-biting combat scenes in this movie have two kids standing still with fists closed. It's all about the craft.

The Innocents is a deeply chilling story about the formation of moral subjects in what are supposed to be the best circumstances. It contains a strong subtext about the struggles of Black and Brown immigrant families in Norway, on which I'm not qualified to provide analysis, but it's important to be aware of it in order to read the social dynamics portrayed. And it adds sorely needed variety to the genre of superpowered coming-of-age dramas.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the spectacular casting of these child actors.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher once again brings down to earth magic to a fantasy story.

Cover by Natasha MacKenzie

Fairytales, especially brand new ones, not just rewrites and reinterpretations, are pretty hard to get right. There’s a hard-to-define quality to fairytales, the ones that really feel like fairytales, that seems somewhat at odds with how modern novels are written. If you go back to Grimm, for instance, the stories seem pretty light on characterisation and even lighter on explaining things beyond the first level. Why did the fairy godmother curse the child? Because she wasn’t invited to the party! It’s an answer, sure, but it’s hardly… substantive. There’s not tonnes of motivation going in there. Things tend to be simpler, magic tends to be assumed and unexplained, and a lot of the rules of the world as we know them are just suspended without notice and we just have to accept it. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but when you try to turn that into a novel, you’re going to run into issues. People have expectations of how a novel works, people expect things to make at least a little bit of sense beyond the superficial, and for the characters to feel at least a bit like real people, making real choices in a world that, even if it’s different from ours, behaves in a way that at least implies it has some sort of sense to it. It’s a difficult needle to thread – do you try to find logic for things that don’t necessarily have them, or do you just roll with it and hope your audience suspends disbelief along with you?

T. Kingfisher has absolutely nailed it – to mix a metaphor – with Nettle and Bone. It feels absolutely like a fairytale, and absolutely like a novel. And I loved it.

It tells the story of Marra, the third princess of a small kingdom with a useful harbour, trapped between two larger kingdoms. Less politically savvy than her older sisters, she’s been sent to live in a convent out of the way of court – and of the risk of marriage. But when her second sister turns out to be in danger in her marriage to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, Marra has to do something about it… and that something ends up involving a witch, an ex-knight rescued from the night market, and a fairy godmother with only intermittently useful powers.

Marra’s journey to save her sister is a winding one, but for all its relatively slow start and meandering direction, it never feels like it lacks pace. I wanted to keep on reading and keep on reading every time I picked it up, and the big reason for that was the characters – Marra is an incredibly compelling protagonist, not least because she’s not the sort of character we’re used to seeing in the starring role.

T. Kingfisher has a good track record, in my experience, of putting people in her central character roles who aren’t usual protagonists. In the Saint of Steel books, her paladins and their love interests tend to be older, and have different attitudes and experiences to what you might expect from a more traditional fantasy. The mentions of sore backs, mysterious aches and general age-related maladies are often played for jokes – very much laughing with, rather than at, I hasten to add – but they are also just delightfully present, and cementing us in the reality of, for example, someone who has been fighting in armour for a lot of his life and is now in his late thirties. Nettle and Bone takes a different direction on this, though much in the same spirit. Marra is a more typical protagonist age, the youngest of three girls of marriageable age in fantasy medieval Europe, but aside from that, she’s remarkably… average. And this is absolutely a strength. She laments often in the book that she’s a bit slow to catch on to people’s double meanings, or things others pick up on quickly, that she’s not clever like her mother and sisters. She’s not an unattractive person, but nor is she a great beauty (incidentally, I dislike intensely when someone is described as being plain in something like this and then by the end of the book umpteen people have declared them to be actually drop dead gorgeous). She’s good at weaving and sewing – though not to a magical extent – and she’s willing to help out when people need her help. She doesn’t like being coddled particularly, though not to the extent of being headstrong and untameable. She’s just… a person. A nice person. A person it’s easy to like.

What drives her through the plot isn’t some wonderful, intrinsic quality of goodness or intelligence, but instead that she comes to see that something is wrong with her sister’s situation, something that other people knew, or suspected, but that she hadn’t noticed, and realises that she cannot stand to let it continue. She doesn’t necessarily like her sister, but she will not see her treated badly by someone for whom there can be no consequences, and so she sets out to right this wrong.

And she solves her problems by being determined, by being willing to try, by having no other options, and by finding friends and allies where she can, and being willing to trust them, at least a little bit.

And it’s really refreshing to have a character like her, who struggles and fails and has to ask for help, who doesn’t magically solve the problems by being brilliant. You feel like you could meet her in real life, have a conversation with her, and she’d be a genuinely real person who could exist in the world.

And outside of Marra, though they get much less focus, the secondary characters are just as compelling – the gravewitch is delightfully practical about magic, demons and other people, the broody ex-knight manages not to be irritatingly broody (and has a source of his sadness that is entirely compelling, and not one with an obvious solution the reader can be exasperated he didn’t choose to take), the fairy godmother is the slightly scatterbrained friend everyone has met. They all have their flaws, and their flaws make them. They react to each other in a delightfully human way. You can imagine them having casual chats about things that don’t matter, even as they go about some pretty large-scale, sometimes dark adventure.

That darkness is also one of the book’s great strengths – that the problem at the core of the story isn’t a dragon (that might be a metaphor for something) but instead a man who has been allowed too much power gives all of the conflict that much more strength. The reason he has that power is both temporal and magical, but the effect of it is entirely human. He’s a bad man, a man who will not stop himself, who will continue to hurt people, and so he must be stopped. It’s also a sparing darkness, not delighting in giving us any more grim detail than we need to see to understand the gravity of the situation. I find that some fantasy gets too bogged down in emphasising the grimness, not to make a point, but simply to revel in being gritty and dark, and this isn’t this. Kingfisher uses it sparingly, and makes it thus all the more prominent – we don’t need to keep on seeing it on the page for the story to revolve around it.

In a slightly counterintuitive contrast to this, humour is one of the story’s other great strengths. It’s not laugh out loud funny, there aren’t jokes, but it has a thread of wry wit undercutting a lot of it, especially in the dialogue, that reminds me of Iain M. Banks. I rarely laughed reading a Culture novel, but I was often amused.

And this counterbalance – the darkness and the humour, the fantastical and the human – and the way that all of it is managed so seamlessly, is what makes Nettle and Bone, and T. Kingfisher’s work more generally, great. This is a difficult comparison to make, but it’s one I genuinely believe – her writing has the same quality of humanity, of encompassing the earthy and the magical, the funny and the awful, that Terry Pratchett managed so well, and I come away from reading them with the same sense of comfort that I do from a Discworld novel. They are both people who write people, and write them in all their faults and failings, and whatever story they tell, however fantastical, both of them do always come back to people being just… people. And that’s what Nettle and Bone really is. That it weds this so naturally to an intrinsically fairytale story is a great mark in its favour, but it’s the people underneath it that make it worth its while.

---

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10 

Bonuses: + 1 for once again making a Dragon Age reference in a T. Kingfisher book that suggests a tonne of opinions going on in the background

Penalties: I can't think of any

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  T. Kingfisher, Nettle and Bone [Titan, 2022]

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


Monday, May 16, 2022

The October Daye Reread: Ashes of Honor

Welcome back, dear readers. Today we’re going to revisit the sixth novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series: Ashes of Honor. We assume you’ve been reading along with us because this will be rife with spoilers for past books and also for future, including a really significant spoiler. You have been warned.

These days, no matter how unhappy I may sometimes be about it, I know I’m a hero.
Ashes of Honor starts small. Etienne’s daughter has gone missing. Etienne is Toby’s former Knight at Shadowed Hills, very stiff and formal. But - in the dark years when Toby was turned into a fish and Luna / Rayselline were gone, Sylvester was an absolute mess (aka, he lost his damn mind). To cope, Etienne would occasionally escape and met a human woman (who also happened to be a folklore professor, the situation was far more of a complicated and sympathetic situation than it might sound), and unbeknownst to him, they had a child. That child, Chelsea, is now beknownst to him and she is missing, which brings us to Toby because she finds missing children. She’s a hero. Plus, there are complications for why Etienne is not asking his liege, Sylvester.

We’ve already done missing children with this series, though. Refer back to An Artificial Night.

Okay, Etienne’s daughter is also a teleporter (because she’s his daughter and that’s what the Tuatha are) - but she’s also a rare changeling whose powers outstrips her fae parent and is that even more rare individual who has all the power but none of the control and as a result she is ripping holes through the normal realms of faerie and into the deeper realms of faerie that were locked by Oberon before he disappeared - which is a completely different story that I’m going to both get to and spoil in just a little bit, in case the earlier spoiler warning wasn’t enough. But there are consequences to opening all of those gates and transporting - the worlds the firstborn made, and the deepest parts of faerie, don’t want to be locked away and those holes may not stay shut when the portals close and it’s enough that it scares the Luidaeg and if the Luidaeg is scared, it’s not good.

US Cover

Also, it’s kind of fascinating that even though the Luidaeg is frightened of what will happen if Chelsea is not found and stopped, she still sends Toby off to take care of it. Like, you’re Firstborn. You’re the frigging Luidaeg. More than just giving out spells and plot tokens (really cool plot tokens), why can’t she more actively go sort it out? But maybe the Luidaeg views herself as more of a blunt hammer even though we can’t really describe Toby as being a subtle knife.

But back to Oberon - this is technically the second appearance of Officer Thornton in the series. The first was as an unnamed cop in Late Eclipses who assisted Toby, but now he has a name. His name is Officer Thornton. Nevermind. I’m not sure Fight Club references are as much fun as they were in 1999. It’s not the same. Regardless - Officer Thornton happens to be the human aspect of Oberon, who has been hiding for hundreds of years. Presumably it’s not the only one, but it’s the only we we know of. I have a lot of questions, but pretty much none of them have been answered through When Sorrows Come. I expect some of them will start being answered soon, but that’s neither here nor Ashes of Honor. It’s only a digression. Officer Thornton = Oberon. Holy shit.

What we know in Ashes of Honor, though, is that Officer Thornton is nosing into Toby’s investigation and has all sorts of suspicions about what is going on and that doesn’t end well for him because it gets him transported to a deep realm of faerie, completely freaked out, and then left there!
”Purebloods make knowes, Firstborn make worlds…what did you think my parents made?”

“They made Faerie,” I said

“They did. And Faerie misses us.”
I’m somewhat obsessed with the deep realms of faerie because of how everyone reacts when they realize where Toby has been. Luna’s reaction to Annwn is stark. I’m waiting for a much longer story arc paying off the introduction of the heart of faerie worlds in later novels (later, meaning books that haven’t been published yet. Toby does go back to recover Officer Thornton / Oberon) once Oberon starts talking and explaining himself. There’s a lot of explaining to do. Toby is going to be all up in Oberon’s business and that’s going to be fascinating especially with how wary everyone is of Firstborn. Oberon / Maeve/ Titania will be a whole new level of intensity (once Maeve and Titania return).

I digress. Moving on.

Following another detour into Annwn to rescue Raj, I love Toby’s insistence that she will always come for him because he’s family. She says “we”, including Tybalt, but she means herself especially since there was an internal aside earlier saying that if she had to choose she would save Raj over Chelsea even if it means that Chelsea would wreck faerie with her punching holes through reality in ways that apparently shouldn’t be done. I do wonder if this is a bit of a reference to that earlier prophecy from Oleander in Late Eclipses (“You’ll see the end of us all, and you won’t be content until you know the gates are locked and sealed”)? About how Toby will be the destruction of faerie. Hmmm. Either way Toby collects strays and builds a very tight knit family. I love the idea that she wants to find a way to make Raj her squire. This, after loathing the idea of even having Quentin as a squire, now she wants two.
”I did,” I said. “I mean, I do. I mean…I don’t what what I mean.” I mean, I don’t know why you’d want to court me. I mean that I don’t know how to court you. I mean that I don’t know whether I want to be courted.
When I wrote about Late Eclipses, I noted that McGuire had stated that every third book is an emotional pivot point and if Ashes of Honor falls into that pattern - presumably it would be Tybalt and Toby each professing their love for each other. Before we actually get to that pivot point, it has become increasingly clear that Tybalt had very strong feelings for Toby even as she processed her grief for Connor (in self destructive ways) - and their relationships and conversations are very striking with Tybalt’s honesty and Toby’s avoidance. He’s come a very long way from the first two books of the series and it’s earned. It’s also been evident that Tybalt was going to be far more important because any other relationship, casual or Connor, always seemed to be in service to Tybalt’s story. Maybe that’s hindsight.

What I’m going to leave us with, rather than a fun reference to Toby’s grievous bodily injuries, is more of a question as to how many Dochas Sidhe there actually are. August and October seem to be the only ones, but there shouldn’t be a reason this early in the series for The Library to know much about the Dochas Sidhe.

”Dochas Sidhe?” Li Qin frowned. “That’s familiar somehow.”

“What? Where did you-”

“I don’t know. I think…The Library.”
Toby thinks she is the only Dochas Sidhe because right now she doesn’t know about August, but would August be the Dochas Sidhe documented in the Library or did Amandine have earlier children?

Open roads and kind fires, my friends.


Oh, nevermind. I can’t resist.

”I assure you, I am less injured than I appear,” said Tybalt. “I am simply conserving my strength while I recover from the effort of holding October’s intestines inside her body.”



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

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Microreview [book]: Nightwatch on the Hinterlands

New characters, new ideas, and a big new problem for K. Eason's science fantasy world



In Eason’s  How Rory Throne Destroyed the Multiverse (and its sequel, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge), the author took some of the tropes of fantasy, including a princess with gifts from Faerie, and blended it into a space opera universe, firmly planting a flag in that ephemeral and shifting realm between science fiction and fantasy. Rory Thorne’s universe had faeries, and formalized mathematics based magic (arithomancy), and some traditionally fantasy found  governmental forms of government alongside high powered weapons, space craft, space stations and other trappings of space opera. I thought for me the first novel’s enthusiasm and joy and inventiveness did not quite translate and continue successfully into the second novel, however. 


It was with a little skepticism, and only moderate interest, that I heard that Eason was returning to the universe with new characters, setting, scenario, and oh yes, more genre blending, but in a quite different way than the previous two novels. But I found myself in the mood for science fantasy, that elusive hinterland between science fiction and fantasy, where the rules are not always clear. And so I came to Nightwatch on the Hinterlands, which is science fantasy, but has in the end a completely different feel and setup than the first two books, even as it keeps up the overall style of the author. Let’s dig in.


The story of Thorne and the conflicts therein are in the rearview mirror. Things have happened, lots of things have happened and we are far away from the events and conflicts of the first two novels. Instead, we are on the plane Tanis, which is on a border in more ways than one. In this future of Thorne’s world, a war has ended in a defection between sides, a splitting of one side, and the terrible use of two weapons. The first is the Riev, who are augmented, created battle mecha soldiers leftover from the last war.  The peace is uneasy, but their very existence in the post-war period make a LOT of people nervous. They themselves have a complicated existence even to themselves, they are a collective without individuality, like Borg Drones...or are they? They should be harmless. Threatening looking, but they were designed to fight a war against an enemy not present, so they should be all safe, right? Right?


Butthen there is the Weep. In that aforementioned war, a rip was made in the multiverse, a fissure in space and time that is still there, and creatures from those other dimensions, the Brood, come through. The planet Tanis has a small rift of the Weep on the planet, and that is enough to raise this from a completely ignored planet to one that has some military installations to watch that small rift...just in case. But it's really a quiet duty, for Lt. Iari, a veteran of that war who is now peacekeeping for the Aedis on Tanis. And it's a quiet duty for Gaer.  Officially, Gaer is an ambassador for the Five Tribes, the part of the Vakari who split off and helped end the war thereby. Unofficially, but widely suspected, Gaer is also a spy sending information back to the Five Tribes. He’s spent quite a while on this obscure planet, with nothing to really show for it.


But when Riev does the impossible and  kills a resident of the planet, and indications that contamination of the Brood may be involved, politics, action, intrigue and the streets of Tanis turn suddenly mean. And so we are off and running into the novel, with a pair of unlikely protagonists. Readers familiar with the old “Wunza” formula for tv shows and movies (One’s a soldier, one’s a diplomat and spy. Together they fight crime), will see that Eason is using that formula, here. Although Iari feels somewhat human, and is meant to be our surrogate in that regard, she is not (her superior  is, however), and Gaer certainly codes as very non-human. 


No, the way I found to think about this, and the visuals and feel I kept getting throughout this novel, investigations by Iari and Gaer (who hold the bulk of the point of views of the novel, sometimes trading off in the middle of a scene to provide parallax in perspective) is Mass Effect. Vakari are not exactly Turians a la Garrus, and Gaer in particular is not the hard charging warrior that Garrus is--he is a diplomat ostensibly, a spy definitely, and most importantly, an arithomancer first and foremost, with some rather developed skills in that area, particularly military hexes and formulae. Imagine Garrus except as a Vanguard and you are kind of in the right ballpark for how it was resolving in my mind. That would make Iari a Femshep, and one that is very much a soldier, and a rather good one at that.


And for a solid chunk of the novel, then, this novel feels like one of the side quests in Mass Effect where Shep and the squad are trying to dig out a mystery. Fights and violence and combat, for sure, but also a lot of legwork, talking with people connected, having some of those people die, having a person from Iari’s past show up and become a POV character of their own, and secondary characters joining the squad (and not always surviving the experience, mind). And of course the interplay between characters, dealing with superiors, other power brokers trying to get a sense of what is happening, and sometimes, things going completely sideways. 


The interesting thing, something I don’t discuss enough in these novels, is the question of style. Rory Thorne had a distinctive style, cadence, flow of words and writing that marked it off right away as Something Different. It ambitiously tried to make a style of its own and as I mentioned before, I think the first novel did better than the second in that regard, too. This novel feels more conventional on that axis, in terms of some of the literary techniques and devices. This novel in many ways is more approachable in that regard and readers who might have tried a bit of Rory Thorne.


However, in terms of how the characters act, and react to each other, the sharp edges to conversations and prickly social conflicts, the internal running dialogues in characters' heads giving readers a good sense of what the characters really are all about--that’s all here. With multiple points of view, we really get in deep with Iari and Gaer and really see what makes them tick. And they play off each other rather well, especially as they get to know each other’s secrets and backstory. For as much as I enjoyed exploring Tanis and this time and space in Eason’s verse, Iari and Gaer and the characters around them really shine, just like in the previous novels.


But what about the fantasy elements, you might ask at this point? What about that magic? Where is the blend? The previous two novels (and the first more than the second) leaned into this realm, this verse, having a generous dollop of fantasy along with the science fiction. Here, the arithomancy is very much treated as a science, a defined and codified field of study more than a rawer and more chaotic magic.  Gaer’s skills, and the other arithomancy Gaer and Iari encounter throughout the novel are essentially spells, yes, but they are something that, in theory, can be defined, and known and studied and replicated, in theory, anyway.  However, Eason makes it clear that different species have different types of arithomancy, which helps move it somewhat from outright *being* a science as opposed to being treated like a science. 


Where the novel also bleeds into fantasy is where it also bleeds into horror, and that is with the threat of the Brood. Horrors coming into our world from extradimensional rips in space and time are not necessarily fantasy per se, mind you, but they do add a note of something else from elsewhere to the straight up high tech Wunza formula. The Weep and the threat it presents, the extra dimensional wound in reality brings to mind novels such as Adam Christopher’s The Burning Dark, and the two Outside novels of Ada Hoffmann, particularly the second, The Fallen. Unlike that second, particularly, the danger of the Weep and what is beyond it is an unalloyed threat, the Brood is a danger to all, and when the knowledge of their eruption becomes known, the novel adds additional politics and power plays to Iari and Gaer’s efforts to now not just investigate, but to put down a threat which is rising rapidly. 


So, then, if genres are a spectrum, and science fantasy is itself a spectrum, Nightwatch on the Hinterlands (which appears to be a first in a new series) is more toward the science end of the science fantasy spectrum than Eason’s previous two novels. I also think, if this review has not made it clear, that for me, this is a far more effective novel in reaching its goals than How the Multiverse Got It’s Revenge, and in some was, this is a better novel for many readers to be introduced to Eason’s work than How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse.  Along and on the mean streets of Science Fantasy, this novel has an easier handle for a wider range of readers to grab onto, and start to explore the talents of the author. I want to see where Eason goes with this multiverse, here, Eason has picked a time and place where things are changing, trouble is brewed, and there are battle hexes to arrange, mysteries to solve, and dangers to fight. 


---

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Definitive and strong improvements over the previous novel on every axis.

+1 A better starting point for readers to this verse than the first novel in the series.

Penalties: -1 This novel does lack some of the joy of the style that the previous novels engage in.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Reference: Eason, K. Nightwatch on the Hinterrlands [DAW,  2021] 


Microreview [Book]: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

A feminist exploration of the events leading up to the Ramayana attempts to do a few too many things and can't quite live up to its main character's promise.

Cover art by Lisa Marie Pompilio

Kaikeyi tells the story of, well, Kaikeyi (shock twist), a wife of Rama’s father Dasharath, and her role before the events of the Ramayana. In the original tale, it is she who causes Rama to be exiled from Ayodhya for fourteen years, and her own son, Bharat to sit on the throne in his place, while the story follows Rama’s exploits accompanied by his other brother and his wife, Sita . Kaikeyi, however, begins much earlier, in the childhood of Kaikeyi herself, beginning with the exile of her mother, leaving her the sole woman in a family of men.

This is meant to be a deeply moving, sad childhood, of this poor girl surrounded by her brothers, and a father who does not care for female children, so leaves her to her own devices. Because the story is told from Kaikeyi’s perspective, we get a lot of her feelings of how terrible and unfair and awful it is, that she should be ignored as she is, and how horrible her life has been made. And at the beginning, that feels very genuine – the parts about the loss of her mother and her confusion at not being told why feel very real. But as the story progresses, we see Kaikeyi flourish with little supervision, learn the arts of war with her encouraging brother, and develop magical powers that allow her to manipulate those around her to get what she wants nearly all of the time. But while this is happening, the story still focusses on how sad her life is, rather at odds with the events as we see them described. At one point, a maid who has been close to Kaikeyi refuses a request, and highlights how others in the world have things much worse than the princess, and it looks like a moment that may actually get through to her, and that she’ll see that though she has her struggles, the lot of many of those around her makes her seem extremely privil- oh, nope, she regrets it for a bit but then continues on her merry way.

And it’s difficult to read and feel like this, because some of her struggles are entirely present and sympathetic – I can hardly say that I wouldn’t object to having no say about my life and marriage either. But so much of Kaikeyi’s life sits in contrast to the serving women she spends much of her time with, especially the maid Manthara, that it’s hard not to feel a touch of exasperation at her.

It doesn’t help that we spend a long, long time with young Kaikeyi doing… not a great deal besides being sad about life and training alone or with her brother. The book suffers from a serious issue of pacing, where around 2/3 of it feels like prologue, and so by the time we get to Ayodhya and Kaikeyi’s marriage to Dasharath, we’ve been sitting with her for what feels like an age.

It is only when we reach Ayodhya, however, that most of the real happenings of the book begin. We get to see Kaikeyi deprived of her relationships and the power they bring her in her native Kekaya, and the struggle with this lack of influence, only broken when her maid Manthara shakes her out of it, practically dragging her to the market. And after a few visits there, she begins to come back to herself, kickstarting her efforts to make friends with Dasharath’s other wives, and also to see that there exist women in the world less fortunate than herself. 

If this realisation had come earlier in the book, I think the entire tone of the novel would have been different for me. But because it feels like we have spent so, so long with young Kaikeyi, it’s very much a situation of too little, too late. Doubly so, because the initial realisation on her part is somewhat overshadowed by, in this part of the book, her going off to war with her husband and being great at charioteering, which wins her a role as a minister in his government.

Eventually, the thread of Kaikeyi’s championing the poor women picks up again, and she and the other wives do what seems to be genuine good for the women of Ayodhya. And this (finally) brings us to one of the central conflicts of the story – Kaikeyi and her assertion that women can exist equally to men in the world, and the faction of traditionalists in Ayodhya, alongside whom the young Rama numbers one.

But this conflict loses some of its weight because of the way we’ve got there. For all that the reader agrees with Kaikeyi (I hope), it seems often that her argument is less one of principal, and more one of self-interest – Kaikeyi enjoys having power, having influence, and the traditionalist faction threatens that. So even when Kaikeyi is in the right, I found myself struggle to be completely sympathetic to her.

That being said, the latter third of the book, with this conflict and a lot more action, is by far a much better story than much of what came before, to the extent of almost feeling like a different book. There’s a sudden explosion of turmoil, where all the various threads that have been floated around throughout the beginning of the story suddenly all become relevant and dramatic at once, and while it was enjoyable to read, it threw the stuff that came before into even worse contrast – why couldn’t it have been like this all along?

And I’ve barely even touched on the magic yet – but like the various other aspects of the story, the relevance of the magic Kaikeyi has to her life, and to the progression of the plot, waxes and wanes constantly. Sometimes it feels like a critical element that will make or break the entire story, and sometimes it feels almost an afterthought, not used in situations where it might have made sense to include it.

On the whole, there’s a simultaneous sense of too many ideas being put together in one book, so none of them get the time or development they deserve, while at the same time a very slow, ponderous start without much in the way of drive to get you through the buildup to what feels like the actual story at the end. It’s a shame, because a lot of the concept here is really appealing, and I feel like Kaikeyi as a character, and as an actor in the story of the Ramayana, has a lot to recommend her, and it’s just not really drawn out here. Despite living inside her head for the whole book, I felt kept very much at a distance to her actual thoughts, and this didn’t help my already limited sympathy for some of her struggles.

In many ways, Kaikeyi struggles with the same thing Madeleine Miller’s Circe does – taking an incredibly compelling character from myth, with a lot of scope for exploration… and then somehow managing to make her less compelling than she is in the source material. There’s a lot of promise, a lot of potential redemption of an antagonistic female figure demonised for wielding power… but then a lot of navel-gazing and self-absorption, rather than the drama the original myth might promise. Both I think are novels where in an effort to make the protagonist more sympathetic, more relatable, they’ve defanged them and lost what made them exciting in the first place.

That being said, the last third of the book was genuinely a fun read, and once I got there, it had the pace and the excitement that I really wanted to keep on going. If the whole thing had been like that… it still wouldn’t have been my favourite book of 2022, but it would have had a lot more to recommend it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10 

Bonuses: +1 for taking controversial female figure of myth and attempting to retell from her perspective

Penalties: -1 for very self-involved main character and her somewhat inconsistent focus on the problems around her

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference:  Vaishnavi Patel, Kaikeyi [Redhook, 2022]

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