Wednesday, November 23, 2022

6 Books with Keith Ammann


Keith Ammann has been a Dungeons & Dragons player and DM for more than thirty years. He has been writing his fifth edition D&D–focused blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing since 2016. He lives in Chicago.

Today, he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?


I’m in between books at the moment, in large part because lately I keep picking up books, reading a couple of chapters in and then deciding I’m in the mood for something else. But over the past year, I’ve read and loved Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton and the third book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty saga, The Veiled Throne.











2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I have N.K. Jemisin’s The World We Make—the sequel to The City We Became—and Erin M. Evans’ Empire of Exiles on preorder, and I’m also psyched to read the fourth and final Dandelion Dynasty volume, Speaking Bones. I can’t overstate how much I love the Dandelion Dynasty saga. Also, I just learned that Ian McDonald has a new one coming out, Hopeland. That’s another I’ll be picking up for sure.











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

Not “itching” per se, but I’ve been thinking recently that I ought to go back and reread Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, to see how much of the mind-blowing quality of reading it for the first time I can recapture—and also to try to pick up on details I missed or have forgotten about, because, let’s be honest, that book is more than a little bit disorienting.











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

The first time I read it, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians left a bad taste in my mouth. Sometime later, I read it again with the understanding that the characters in it are not good people and that I shouldn’t be rooting for them or even sympathizing with them at all. That realization made it a much better book.












5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that holds a special place in your heart?

I first picked up the 1977 Del Rey edition of Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist as a teenager in the ’80s and have read and reread it every several years since. It’s a masterful mélange of high fantasy, sociopolitical satire, cold-case murder mystery, and commentary on life and death and art, written in a cheeky, Austenesque voice. As more of a remixer than an original creator, I’m drawn to a good mashup, whatever the medium, and this one remains my favorite book of all time.









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

How to Defend Your Lair is about rethinking the way we design locations in tabletop roleplaying games to reflect how people defend themselves and their assets in the real world: focusing the most attention and resources on whatever’s most valuable and vulnerable; examining the different types of value that assets can possess; and making sure that detection, deterrence and response measures are all included. Because we have to work within limits and can’t eliminate risk entirely, lair owners have to make informed guesses about where to focus their defenses—and players then have to figure out where the weak spots might be. 





Thank you, Keith!

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Microreview [book]: Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller

Ghost Bird is a uniquely Australian young adult novel that examines the intersection between Indigenous and Western perspectives.


Ghost Bird belongs most comfortably in the genre of the YA thriller. A certain subsection of this genre likes to play coy about the presence of supernatural elements. Examples include Black by Fleur Ferris, Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein and Flight of the Fantail by Steph Matuku. By the end, each of these books definitively answers whether the speculative elements played with are considered real within the story’s world. Ghost Bird also has definitive answers, making it very at home in this subgenre. However, its identity as an Indigenous Australian Own Voices narrative makes it difficult to call the story a speculative one. After all, referring to what may be a part of a living Indigenous tradition as fantasy or speculative seems neither respectful nor accurate.

Cleverly, this tension between Western and Indigenous thought is one of the central themes of Ghost Bird. The story is written in first person present tense from the perspective of Stacey. She is intelligent, rational and takes her education very seriously -- too seriously, according to some of her family, who feel she should be paying more heed to traditional ways. However, the death of her grandmother left Stacey disillusioned with those teachings, and so at first she brushes off her dreams about her missing twin, Laney. After all, they’re probably just a product of her worried subconscious, right? And the secrecy with which her elders treat certain important information hinders Laney’s rescue, adding to Stacey’s frustration (and is much in keeping with the trope of useless adults in YA). It is up to her to do the research, interview the people and put together the clues. Thus, the dichotomy between Western rationalism and Indigenous teachings is not shown as a clear-cut matter, with both ways having their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, Stacey needs both to succeed.

Clearer cut are the lines of race that divide the town. The book is set in a small Queensland town with a long history of conflict between the Indigenous population and the white settlers. This conflict is shown in a number of ways throughout the story. Most obviously, certain extremely racist members of the township serve as the manifest villains of the piece. Laney goes missing after she and her boyfriend make a raid on their property and it’s not immediately clear whether this was due to the farmers or to something sinister living in the taboo caves on the corner of their property. These characters also represent a physical threat to Stacey and her friends as they go to investigate. However, racism is also present in less direct ways. The readers are shown the contrast in how the police handle missing persons cases based on race. We’re also told about the effective segregation in place at the local pub and even to some extent the town as a whole.

In addition to the conflict around race, we also get to witness the divisions in the Indigenous population of the town. Stacey’s family had been feuding with the Miller family since time out of memory. Which becomes a problem when Stacey suspects Mad May Miller has some understanding of what’s going on.

All of this conflict is balanced out with a large and affectionate family. Certainly, Stacey has her issues with both her sister and her mother, but they stem from a deep and genuine love and there’s nothing she wouldn’t do to protect them. We also get to see her relationship with her grandparents, full of small gestures that speak of love. And her cousin Rhiannon provides some much-needed company on Stacey’s adventures. In many ways, Rhiannon serves as a stand-in for the absent Laney, being close in both age and affection to Stacey. She also provides a boldness that Stacey lacks, inciting her to break the rules in ways Stacey might not otherwise have considered, thus moving the plot along.

There is the suggestion of romance present in the narrative, barely there by the standards of most YA. This light touch worked well, given the story’s strong focus on family. Other relationships took priority.

Since its publication, Ghost Bird has received some critical acclaim, winning the Norma K. Hemming Award for Long Work (alongside From Here On, Monsters by Elizabeth Bryer), the Queensland Literary Award’s Young Adult Book Award, the Readings Young Adult Book Prize, and receiving Honours from the Children’s Book Council of Australia. However, there are a few things that may mean some readers struggle to find it accessible.

Foremost among these is the time in which it’s set. This is not a contemporary story, but occurs back in 1999. This is a curious choice, but may have been made to circumvent the advent of mobile phones, making it more difficult for Stacey’s often absent mother to check up on her. It also relieves the need for the author to update the pop culture references made. While it may be very nostalgic for readers of a certain age to moon over Tupac or bop along to TLC’s Waterfall, it may also make it a little harder for a contemporary teenager to relate.

There’s a further stumbling block for non-Australian readers in the use of Australian dialect. Most of it is fairly easy to intuit, but there are one or two instances that may prove more arcane for some readers. Relatedly, a stylistic choice has been made to skip using apostrophes to denote abbreviations related to dialect, for example “Ya could always go and help im.” I found this lack a mercy, since their inclusion often makes for cluttered lines. However, I once again acknowledge it may make things more difficult for some readers.

This is not a book that tiptoes around delicate sensibilities. There’s plenty of swearing, a bit of violence, an attempted sexual assault on screen and the implication of domestic violence off it.

Despite all that, my final criticism of the story is that it is just a shade slow-paced in the middle. Stacey spends just a little too long waiting for news and not putting pieces together.

However, on the whole, it is a thoughtful and engaging work -- an excellent debut novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +2 for a nuanced view of Indigenous and Western perspectives, +1 for strong but complex family relationships, 

Penalties: -1 a bit slow paced in the middle

Nerd Co-efficient:  9/10


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


References

Fuller, Lisa. Ghost Bird [Queensland University Press, 2019]

Ferris, Fleur. Black [Random House Australia, 2016]

Epstein, Sarah. Small Spaces [Walker Books Australia, 2018]

Matuku, Steph. Flight of the Fantail [Huia Publishers, 2018]

Monday, November 21, 2022

'Slumberland' won't spark your dreams, but it will put you to sleep

It's a pity that a film based on Winsor McCay's daring visual innovations ends up looking so conventional and undreamlike

A girl loses her father and processes her grief by oversleeping. An emotionally stunted uncle tries to learn childrearing from Google. The complicated interplay of growth and decay makes the future uncertain and scary. If she wants to grow up and stop retreating into fantasies, she'll have to accept the fact of death, but also help her uncle reconnect with his inner child and dream again.

This setup sounds like it should deliver a full emotional experience, bolstered by the metaphoric possibilities of dream language. Unfortunately, Netflix film Slumberland shows us a muted dreamscape that doesn't dare embrace the protean qualities of the unconscious mind. When protagonist Nemo ventures into the land of dreams to look for her father, the place looks too rigid, too rational, built on an oppressively linear logic that makes it less Paprika and more Inception. This does not feel like the dream of a child; it feels like an adult's self-serving memory of what goes on in a child's mind.

I'm usually on the side that magic should have rules, but dreams are the one place where rules should go out the window. The original comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay was a visual extravaganza propelled by the whimsical meanderings of the unconscious self, a metafictional experiment where size, perspective, color, movement and even paratext were at the mercy of a child's id. Standing on its own, the film Slumberland is already a faded echo of the wonder of dreams, but when evalued as an adaptation of McCay's work, it's the worst disservice.

Visual disappointment aside, the film does manage a competent handling of its themes. It at least acknowledges the obvious Freudian connotations of a story where a preteen girl's way of coping with the death of her father is by conjuring an image of thermonuclear sex bomb Jason Momoa, complete with satyr horns and the libido associated with them. His character openly spells it out: "I'm a troubling mix of a father figure and raw masculine power." Accordingly, the film abounds in erotic imagery: on the night she loses her father, Nemo dreams of the destruction of a phallic symbol (a crumbling lighthouse) followed by the threat of a yonic symbol (a swirling hole in the water). Her companion in the adventure (in fantasy terms, a familiar, an extension of the character's soul) is a pig, a traditional icon of unbridled lust. The plot employs a recurring erotic motif of sneaking through forbidden doors and picking locks, and from there the symbolism only gets more intense: the climax requires the protagonist to ride a gigantic goose and put her hand into a watery hole to grab a pearl.

There's a curious parallel between Nemo's psychological journey and that of her uncle, who faces a similar emotional challenge. The plot tells us that he resented his brother for getting married and leaving childish things behind. What this means in Freudian terms is that he responded to his brother's sexual maturation by burying his own immaturity under a mountain of denial. The result is a man with no desires, a repressed loner who sublimates his unacknowledged sexual frustration by pursuing a career where he is in control of the machinery that opens a door.

Regrettably, Slumberland takes all this fertile symbolism and lets it go to waste. As I said before, its idea of the dream world is constrained by unnecessary rules, going to the absurd extreme of adding a bureaucracy that oversees and enforces the proper functioning of dreams. This is the last thing this kind of story needs. The character of Agent Green does provide a measure of tension to chase scenes, but contributes nothing of substance to the plot. When you set a story in the battlefield of the mind, the only antagonist you need is the hero's own conflicting desires. Inside Out understood this. Slumberland burdens its plot with a superfluous antagonist that only serves to overcomplicate a straightforward journey of inner growth.

And yet, straightforward is not what a film about a child's dreams is supposed to be. It ought to be more unpredictable, more fascinating. That's not what we get here. Even for the intended audience, presumably not acquainted with Freudian dream interpretation, Slumberland fails at the basic duty of being exciting. Scenes obviously shot with a green screen are the clearest illustration of this mismanagement of tone: Nemo and her satyr friend burst out at the top of their lungs with explosive exhilaration while the action happening around them is rather slow, bland, underwhelming. Either the CGI department missed a note from the director or Momoa got stuck in Aquaman mode and forgot there are more ways to act.

Slumberland is an adaptation in name only. It has a valuable point to make about the need to make peace with the reality of death in order to grow up, but its delivery of that message falls short of the spectacle and inventiveness of the source material. The experience ends up feeling like one of those dreams you forget in the morning and don't ever miss.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for thematic cohesiveness, +1 for emotional sincerity.

Penalties: −1 for painfully obvious dialogue, −1 for Momoa's disastrous Spanish, −1 for somehow making a salsa party look boring as hell, −1 for visual blandness.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

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

Friday, November 18, 2022

Microreview [book]: Scorpica by G.R. McAllister

A story of the women in a set of connected queendoms, and the looming threat that will upend their status quo

 

Posterity. From the Middle English posterite, from Anglo-French pusterité, from Latin posteritat-, posteritas, from posterus: coming after.


Humans are a species that can think in terms of years, decades and generations ahead and to come. Humans are a species that is very concerned with their posterity, as a way of preserving not only their legacy, but establishing the future for their children and their children’s children. And when that posterity is threatened, people, and the societies they inhabit, can come under stress, fracture, and break.

P D James’ novel The Children of Men (and its movie adaptation) explores the death of posterity for the human race by having had no children born in the last 17 years. Mankind is slowly and inexorably aging out to death, and the stresses on people, on society are like an inexorably tightening vise, a ticking clock for humanity. It’s not pretty, even (and perhaps especially) when there is a glimmer of hope that the doom can be averted.

We come to GR McAllister’s Scorpica, which takes a widescreen epic fantasy approach to this scenario. The Five Queendoms (which is also the name of the series that Scorpica starts) are a quintet of fantasy kingdoms which are not just matriarchies, kingdoms ruled by women, but out and out gynarchies. This is a woman’s world, from the fierce fighters of Scorpica to the potent magicians of Arca, the power, authority and social structures are all controlled by women.

So, when the Drought of Girls begins, and girls are no longer being born among any of the five kingdoms, there is indeed a slow moving, inexorably building crisis that strikes the inhabitants of the kingdoms, and the lives of those whom we meet in the book. There is an interesting shade that the Queens give to the problem of the Drought of Girls, and it is this. They all recognize that with no more girls being born, the gynarchial structures that hold up society are under threat. In Scorpica, only women are warriors. No more girls being born means, necessarily, that their military pool is going to shrink. In Arca, it will shrink the number of practitioners of magic, especially the rare and important all-magic types, the only ones eligible to be Queen themselves.

But what they don’t recognize is that the Drought of Girls is just a slightly slower moving version of the aforementioned P D James novel. If only men are being born, eventually, once all the women are aged past childbearing age, the entire future of the human race, women and men alike, is threatened. I think the author is making a point here that any social structure, any hierarchy, no matter who is running it, is going to be first and foremost concerned with the threat to their own power and authority, with larger issues and concerns not even a thought in their minds.

I mentioned that this is a widescreen historical epic approach to the story, and the author plunges into that format and mode enthusiastically. The narrative of this novel takes place over years of time and across a wide swath of the Queendoms, paying attention to dates and locations of scenes is crucial. The map is helpful and useful; however, a timeline at the end of the book would have also been helpful to help align when things happen, to be honest, because of the hopping between POVs and points in time and space. Since the author is telling about the decline and threat to Queendoms, it makes sense that we wind up with a sometimes episodic narrative as a result, as the Drought continues on, and we see characters come to terms, or not, with not only the Drought but the day to day business of living.

Given this wide frame, in terms of space and time, the novel does swell and rise, draw into a scene and moment, and draw out again, as society continues to slowly and inexorably feel the strain of the Drought of Girls. As of the time of the writing of this piece, a recent study has shown the Western United States is suffering the worst physical drought in the last 1200 years. This is a long term slow moving catastrophe that is going to affect lives on a small and macro scale alike, and already is doing so. The author’s use of the word drought is a deliberate one, and it is a good one.

But that widescreen nature means that there are many stories here, and many of them are not going to end happily over the course of the novel. Characters who we’ve been consistently coming back to again and again, over years in the narrative, can and do come to quick and often violent ends.

It is a rich and diverse world, though, and rich and diverse characters through a span of time. We get points of view from a couple of Queens, both current and future, as well as bandits, healers and also the ultimate antagonist of the piece as well, Several of them are mothers, which is not surprising in a gynarchy work with mainly female characters but is still welcome all the same, and it fits in with that hitherto mentioned theme of posterity.

While the widescreen epic feel can mean that some characters, though, for all this long book get short shrift, and sometimes it feels like a Grand Tour of the Five Queendoms, it is a world and characters that I was fascinated with. There is good queer representation in this world as well. It should be noted that McAllister does a critique of the gender balance of a lot of fantasy over the years (and too much even *today*) of having nearly all male characters and few women, by having only a scattering of male characters (and no POVs whatsoever)

The other metaphor that comes to mind with how McAllister works this novel and what its final form is that of a bonsai. Dwarfed, restricted, pruned and ruthlessly shaped, the Five Queendoms, its Queens and rulers by the end of it (which, you will not be surprised are not the same ones who start the narrative) have been put through an experience that, in the end, looks like it might be just the first act in a even larger story. What that story is...I think I have an idea, but the story of the Five Queendoms is only just beginning, here. The novel ends on the point of a blade, not really any offramp now that momentum really has been achieved for the historical narrative.

I am left to wonder as a reader if the subsequent volumes will go for a more time-constricted narrative, having set the stage for one by the events at the end of this book, or can and will the author continue this big screen, time and space wise style of story and tell it over years and great distances. The model for the latter that comes to mind, and only because of the scale and ambition rather than theme or plot, is Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings series. I am intensely curious to see if McAllister can match Liu’s ambitions. She certainly has made a start of it. here.


The Math


Baseline Assessment: 7/10


Bonuses: +1 for a strong and interesting world built from the ground up as a gynarchy and exploring what happens when that world is put under stress.


+1 for daring to go full widescreen epic in terms of time as well as space.


Penalties: -1 The lack of an offramp and the slowness of building up to the climax of the book may turn off readers.


Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


Reference: McAllister, G.R. Scorpica [Saga Press, 2022]


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

Yearning and suspense by the bucketload in the Burning Kingdoms' second instalment


Last year, I said that The Jasmine Throne was one of the strongest in an impressive year of diverse fantasy, introducing a new fantasy world full of history, intrigue and queer yearning. Now, we get to see how the story continues in The Oleander Sword, and this time both the yearning and the suspense have been turned up as high as they can go. Spoilers are ahead for the first book of the series, and it's very much worth starting there if you haven't already.

Like the first volume, The Oleander Sword largely follows the intertwined journey of two women, both of whom now occupy powerful roles in their respective lands. Malini, the imprisoned princess of The Jasmine Throne, has received a prophecy and declared herself empress in opposition to her despotic younger brother's rule, and now marches on said brother with support from several of the kingdoms that make up the empire of Parijatdvipa. In the former Empire territory of Ahiranya, former maid Priya has also come into an inheritance, becoming the first Elder in a generation and gaining the magic needed to turn back the Rot, a sickness which still threatens to overrun her people. For Malini, the rise to power is welcome but comes with the frustration of trying to keep the loyalty of men as a woman in a highly patriarchal society; for Priya, political leadership is an unwanted challenge, mostly left to her fellow elder and temple sister Bhumika while she takes a more hands-on approach to Ahiranya's problems.

Despite going their separate ways, and taking their countries down potentially conflicting paths, Priya and Malini are of course still obsessed with each other, and it doesn't take long for the understated but ill-advised personal letters to start. Once that boundary has been crossed, and with a difficult siege lowering the morale of her army and casting doubt on her prophesised leadership, it's a small step for Malini to call Priya to her side, and ask for her help in battle so that she can enact her promise of Ahiranya's future freedom. If there wasn't tension dripping off every page every time these women think about each other, Priya's answer would be an obvious "no thanks", but, of course, she's easily enough convinced. Within the first act, then, Suri reunites her would-be lovers and leaves the fate of Ahiranya to be told largely through the eyes of Bhumika, with a broader cast of occasional POV characters brought in to round out the storytelling gaps.

Almost immediately, the story in Ahiranya takes a turn for the pant-wettingly terrifying, as the resurgence of magic brought about by Priya and Bhumika ends up having unexpected consequences. I think it's better to go into this section unspoiled about the details, and so I'll talk around what exactly happens here, but there's a progression of the body horror elements from the Rot, an illness which causes people to grow progressively more plants on themselves until they are all plant. The idea of people sprouting flower buds and mossy growths is unpleasant enough, but it's taken to the next level when the origin of the illness and its intended purpose is explained. The events in Ahiranya also make us reconsider any views we might hold about the land being a straightforward underdog to Parijatdvipa's unjust rule: while there's no justification made for colonisation or prejudice, the events of the book also confront us with the shortcomings of backward-looking restoration, especially when the past one is trying to restore is not a well remembered one. Bhumika's storyline here is heartbreaking and offers her very little to celebrate, as she comes up against forces that are far, far beyond her own power.

Priya is cut off from her homeland, so its problems don't reach her for the bulk of The Oleander Sword. Instead, she joins Malini and is thrown into her own political quandry as other leaders treat her with everything from grudging acceptance to outright hostility due to her heritage and her magic. The pair are at their best when they are supporting each other through the challenges of patriarchy, and while The Oleander Sword doesn't close the gap between their overall goals, Priya's higher status as an Elder does bring greater equality to their relationship, even if her power is rarely exercised and goes mostly unrecognised by the men around them. Make no mistake, though, the real leveller is how often both of them think about that time they kissed during The Jasmine Throne, and how much they both want to do it again. The fact that the pair of them are in the middle of an army is brought up as an impediment to further kissing right up until it isn't any more, and if this feels a little convenient, let me reassure you that both of these disaster lesbians have plenty of ways to make new impediments to kissing all on their own, and oh boy do they ever make things complicated by the time everything has played out.

All the elements that make Suri's fantasy writing so interesting are on display here, particularly her depiction of how women wield power in patriarchal societies and particularly how they do so around norms that separate out the two genders. It's particularly satisfying to watch the men around Malini make jokes about how they'll have to bring their daughters to court instead of marrying them off, assuming that this will just be a different way of using daughters to serve their personal interests, only for one such daughter to immediately display political ambitions of her own and side against her father's betrayal. Malini's own power rests on a prophecy from the Mothers, a deified group of immolated women whose blessing could be twisted to "require" her own death, if certain religious authorities have their way. Priya, gets both the freedom and the prejudice of being a total outsider, with power that can't be taken away but can be dismissed and used to invoke disgust. It doesn't help that - surprise! - the Rot has left the borders of Ahiranya and the kind of magic Priya wields is now linked to a very immediate threat for the rest of Parijatdvipa, rather than a generations-ago conflict. Throw in some grappling with the limitations and drawbacks of that power, and you've got some great tension right there. With added dread, because oh god these plant powers, where are they going to lead, nowhere good it seems.

The Oleander Sword doesn't conclude so much as it sets up the pieces for its final volume. Will anyone kiss in that one? Maybe, but not without even more emotions, and perhaps a giant battle for the future of the entire world playing out in the background. If that sounds good, then I'll see you there.

POSTED BY: Adri Joy hasn't written her byline on the bottom of a review for so long that she might as well create a new one. She is a co-editor at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, an international politics nerd, a converted Londoner and a whippet owner, who would live her life submerged in the ocean with a waterproof e-reader - if she only had gills. Find her on Twitter @adrijjy or Mastodon @arifel@wandering.shop.


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

6 Books with Victor Manibo

By Sean Collishaw

 Victor Manibo is a Filipino speculative fiction writer living in New York. As a queer immigrant and a person of color, he writes about people who live these identities and how they navigate imaginary worlds. He is a 2022 Lambda Literary Emerging Voices Fellow, and his debut science fiction noir novel, THE SLEEPLESS, came out in August 2022 from Erewhon Books. Find him online at victormanibo.com or on Twitter @victormanibo.

Today he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?
 
Lone Women by Victor LaValle. I was lucky enough to be given an advance reader copy (ARC) of this one, and as soon as I got it, I jumped right in. I had heard Mr. LaValle read its opening chapter at a KGB Fantastic Fiction event a few months back, and ever since then, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s the story of Adelaide Henry, a black woman fleeing a dark past to be a pioneer homesteader in 1910s Montana, carrying with her only a single traveling bag and a mysterious steamer trunk. All throughout my read, I kept yelling, “What’s in the trunk?” all Seven-style, because Mr. LaValle is so adept at layering complex characterization and a strong sense of place with ever-escalating tension. All that with the incisive social commentary, sharp attention to historical detail, and gorgeous prose–what more could I ask for?

 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?
 
Liberation Day by George Saunders. I have been waiting such a long time to get my hands on this, and luckily I only have a few more days to go. His Tenth of December was a real eye-opener for me on how a short story can portray the human experience with ferocity and tenderness, and I fully expect this new collection to do just that and more.









 

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

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. That book was an awakening of sorts for me; I read it in high school and I immediately imprinted on it. It’s so lush and had such a grand scope, and of course, I could not get enough of Lestat de Lioncourt. He is such an unforgettable character. I haven’t re-read it in the last twenty years, and I really never had the inclination to until the TV adaptation premiered in early October. The show altered much of the source material, and it made me wonder how well or how poorly the book has aged. I wondered too how my recollection and attachment to it would change, reading it now not only as an adult, but as someone who writes speculative fiction. So now the book is near the top of my TBR list.




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

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I first attempted it in college (not as required reading), and at the time it was impenetrable to me. I simply could not get it. The postmodernist style was not something I had a lot of exposure in, and despite some affecting moments of pathos, the story felt disjointed. So I never finished it. Fast forward about a decade and a half later, I read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and absolutely loved it. Yet I felt I missed a lot of its layers because I skipped Mrs. Dalloway, so I revisited it. And wow, the re-read was a whole different experience. I’d become a different person, a different reader, since I last opened its pages, and this time I got it.





 

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

All of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were a huge influence on me. I started reading the novels and shorts when I was around nine, which might seem a tad young, but my parents didn’t mind. I was really taken in by the time period, the interplay between Holmes and Watson, and of course, the puzzle aspect of it all. I wanted to figure out the solution before I got to the end, and when I didn’t (which was often), I would reread the stories to see what I missed. That reverse engineering is something that I still do to this day, in the stories that I craft. My debut and upcoming novel are both mysteries, and I probably wouldn’t have written them if it wasn’t for Sherlock.


 



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

The Sleepless is a near-future sci-fi noir mystery/thriller and I think it’s awesome because it is such a multi-hypenate. It's a what-if thought experiment about a world where some part of the population does not require any sleep without experiencing any physical or mental drawbacks, and it is also a locked-room murder mystery, and also an exploration of grief, memory, and time. It straddles the line between genres and styles, and weaves many of the literary elements that I find thoroughly fun to read and even more fun to write. 









Thank you, Victor!

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Zootopia+ expands on the secondary characters from the movie

A series of vignettes on how these talking animals of different sizes and habits make coexistence work

Since 2016, we've been wishing for a sequel to Zootopia. The concept of a prosperous city where all kinds of animals live together in peace is endlessly fertile with story material, which makes it odd that it hadn't sparked its own franchise until now. Just over the past couple of years, Disney+ has streamed Monsters at Work, Olaf Presents, Baymax!, Cars on the Road and Forky Asks a Question. It was well past time to revisit Zootopia. If we can't have a second movie, this series of shorts is the next best thing.

Zootopia+ is composed of six episodes, ranging between 7 and 9 minutes in length, that expand on the lives of secondary characters from the 2016 film. These episodes are arranged in chronological order to match each character's appearance in the story. This narrative device has the advantage of satisfying the curiosity of viewers who were left hungry for more time with characters who hadn't been given enough focus, and the disadvantage of limiting itself to the events of the original film, as if reinforcing the suspicion that there aren't more stories to tell in that setting.

Hopp on Board follows the parents of Judy Hopp right after she left her hometown for the big city. This episode is a breakneck chase that confronts the Hopps with the realization that their daughter was right: life outside Bunnyburrow can be fun and exciting.

The Real Rodents of Little Rodentia is a parody of reality TV, complete with stressful wedding planning and bridesmaid jealousy, centered on the ostensibly mafialike family of Fru-Fru the shrew, who after a close brush with death decides she doesn't need so much drama in her life.

Duke: The Musical is a jaw-droppingly bleak episode, disguised as an absurdly over-the-top monologue sung by the small-time thief Duke Weaselton, a man apparently fated to stay broke the rest of his life.

The Godfather of the Bride continues from where we left Fru-Fru, whose father takes a moment at her wedding party to answer the biggest lingering question from Zootopia: how on Earth did a tiny rodent climb the ladder of power and become a mob boss? Turns out he made the right friends and replaced a band of bullies with one of bigger bullies.

So You Think You Can Prance puts the spotlight on the cheerful and soft-hearted Officer Clawhauser, who briefly gets to indulge his dream of sharing a stage with the superstar Gazelle, and in the process reveals an unseen side of his boss, Chief Bogo.

Dinner Rush is a simple but effective comedy sketch about a restaurant waitress struggling to finish her shift in time when the sloth Flash brings his girlfriend for a painfully slow date. This episode leads directly to the ending scene of the movie, where our protagonist Judy stops the same sloth for speeding.

With regard to comedy, this series fulfills its mission easily. The animators at Disney know their art, and here they showcase their ability to provoke laughter with simultaneous layers of slapstick, parody, innuendo, absurdism, hyperbole and expertly timed rug-pulling.

However, as a broader look into the world of Zootopia, we get very little. A second season, if it ever comes to pass, needs to unshackle itself from the timeline of the film and go deeper into the dynamics of this extremely diverse and complex society. The original Zootopia was good comedy, but it was better social commentary, and that's where this setting can truly shine. For the time being, these animated shorts will have to suffice.

 

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Monday, November 14, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: Scarlet Nexus by Bandai Namco and Tose

Not a great follower, but still a good time.



Odd beings called Others have been tormenting humanity for centuries, and it's up to members of the OSF to stop them. But even with their superpowers, two new rookies find themselves in a struggle that will affect the outcome of the entire planet. Play as Yuito Sumeragi and/or Kasane Randall as they unravel the mysterious power of the red strings and solve the issue of a massive black hole called the Kunad Gate. Form friendships with other platoon members and level up combat prowess and synergy all while discovering the hidden motives behind a rebellious uprising.

Scarlet Nexus
is a narrative-heavy action JRPG developed by Bandai Namco Studios and Tose. The game takes heavy inspiration from two of the genre’s best; Nier:Automata and the Persona series. The gameplay and story structure follow Nier:Automata while the relationship and bonding are noticeably influenced by Persona’s social link system. While these are both fantastic inspirations, Scarlet Nexus never reaches the lofty goals it sets out to achieve. Nevertheless, there is plenty of fun to be had in the meantime.

The main draw of Scarlet Nexus’ gameplay comes from its SAS (Struggle Arms System) gameplay. The player controls either Yuito whose movements are stronger yet slower or Kasane who has a bit more speed but less power. While their attacks differ (though control the same), their main psionic power; gravikinesis, is shared. The power allows them to use their mind to move objects, similar to psychokinesis. This power is used in the heat of battle, as well as to solve some simple puzzles. When combined with other party members through the SAS gauge, the combat becomes exciting. Each character leads a different platoon with a different set of party members.


Yuito platoon is home to characters with pyrokinesis, clairvoyance, sclerokinesis (temporary invulnerability), and teleportation. Kasane's platoon offers invisibility, electrokinesis, duplication, and hyper-velocity. The only powers that are slightly similar are those of Hanabi and Shiden (electro- and pyrokinesis). They are used for similar functions but have extra effects under different circumstances. For instance, an enemy soaked by water is weak to Shiden’s electricity, while one drenched in oil will be vulnerable to Hanabi’s flames. All the other powers are unique and offer different strategies mid-gameplay. This makes the SAS fun to employ while fighting Others. Do I go invisible and go for a critical attack, or do I enter hyperspeed and attack before they even have a chance? Over time, the player is given the ability to activate more than one power at a time, and that’s when the real fun begins.

The main issue I had with these different squads is that I found one to be better than the other. Kasane’s squad makes it significantly easier to empty an enemy’s crush gauge (stamina meter that lets you immediately finish off an enemy). By activating Kaguro’s invisibility and Kyoka’s duplication, enemy crush gauges are immediately depleted. I decided to play Kasane first, so I spent some of my Yuito play-through wishing for the other set of platoon members. That’s not to say Yuito's platoon was not enjoyable to play with, just an uneven experience.

What Yuito platoon lacks in ability dominance, it gains in platoon character quality. While I enjoyed some members of Kasane’s squad, most never jelled with me. Shiden is a complete jerk the entire game, even when he shows vulnerability. He still left a sour taste in my mouth after maxing my friendship with him. I enjoyed all the characters in Yuito's platoon and was happy to further my bonds with them.

Unfortunately, the bonding system can become a bit of a drag. There are twelve chapters per character, and between each is a standby phase. That standby phase is used to advance friendships and increase social bonds with your squad mates. Later in the game, the player has access to more characters, making it become a grind when you have to watch a ton of cutscenes in a row. This is worse on the second play-through. It also doesn't help that the last few chapters are essentially the same between the two playable characters.


Exploring the world of Scarlet Nexus is a mixed bag. At times the levels are appealing, pulling me in and making me want to explore. At other times, the levels were hideous and made me question whether I was playing a PS5 game. Scarlet Nexus also has the issue of level overuse. Finding myself returning to some of the same levels repeatedly got old. But at least the soundtrack was nice to listen to while I was exploring, and the title song pumps you up before you enter the game.

While the main story has many complexities and side stories intertwined throughout, some of the character motivations are rather odd. They waver frequently and don't seem to have any solid ground. This left me with a lot of questions that I thought would be answered in my second run with Yuito, but they never were. I realized it was just poor writing. There are many instances of this throughout the game, sometimes reactions were unrealistic given certain situations—which sometimes made me laugh audibly. Sometimes the conveyance exposition is so blatant and poorly implemented that I had to pause the game and reflect: is it that bad, or am I being snobbish? Some of the acronyms are comical. It surprises me that quality assurance thought it wasn't ridiculous every time a character mentioned BABE with a serious demeanor. Despite this, the story is still intriguing, and most of the characters are fun to interact with making it worthwhile to see the game through.

Though Scarlet Nexus hits many snags, some in pacing, and some in writing, the gameplay loop remains enjoyable. Bettering each character’s friendship with the main character allows you to create better combos with them in combat and expand the lore. Though the game never answers why Others look the way they do (for instance one has a fig (yes, the fruit) on its arms with a lightbulb on its head), it does answer most of the story-based questions it asks. Even if the character motivations still left me confused. Despite not reaching the heights of either of its influences, Scarlet Nexus is still worth exploring for its story, characters, and gameplay if you’re looking for an action JRPG fix.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 SAS combat system. +1 intriguing story. +1 for a fun soundtrack.

Penalties: -1 for odd character motivations. -1 for time-traveling plot holes. -1 for poor writing at times. -1 for poorly implemented exposition.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

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.

Friday, November 11, 2022

6 Books with Dan Koboldt

 Dan Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager) and the Build-A-Dragon Sequence (Baen), the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction and Putting the Fact in Fantasy (Writer’s Digest), and the creator of the sci-fi adventure serial The Triangle (Realm). As a genetics researcher, he has co-authored more than 100 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid deer hunter and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.


He's also a genetics researcher at a leading children's hospital, where he and his colleagues use next-generation DNA sequencing technologies to uncover the genetic basis of inherited disease. He has co-authored more than 70 publications in The New England Journal of Medicine, Science, Nature, and other scientific journals.

Today he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m listening to the audiobook The Weight of Command by Michael Mammay. (Full disclosure, Mike is my friend and critique partner). The book is about Kiera Markov, a scout platoon leader for a peacekeeping force on a remote planet. It’s normally a quiet job – keep peace in the populace so that lithium can keep flowing up the space elevator to be shipped off-world. But when an act of sabotage takes out most of the leadership, she finds herself in command (it’s not unlike the show Designated Survivor, where someone completely unprepared for it is thrust into the big chair. In Markov’s case, she’s facing rival politicians on both sides of a simmering conflict, and on top of that she has to find out who’s behind the sabotage. The book is narrated by Cassandra Campbell and I’m in love with her voice. Really enjoying it so far.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

There are so many. One I’m really looking forward to is Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty, which is due out in October. She’d a podcaster as well, so I imagine many Nerds of a Feather listeners know her for I Should Be Writing. She had me on as a guest to that podcast a long, long time ago. I’m also a big fan of Ditch Diggers, the podcast about the business aspects of writing that she hosts with Matt Wallace and numerous substitute Matt Wallaces.

In SF/F Mur is well known for Six Wakes, her Hugo-nominated novel. That was also a space-murder book, so we know she’s good at this kind of story. Plus, Station Eternity apparently takes place on a sentient space station, what more do you need? I confess I’m not certain if her new book is a standalone or the start of a new series, but it has a series name (The Midsolar Murders), so I’m optimistic.

 

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

That would be Network Effect by Martha Wells. Granted, I’ve already read it two or three times, but I can’t help myself. I love Murderbot. You can drop into the book or any of the novellas and the experience is the same. It’s like sci-fi comfort food. Great action, interesting sci-fi world, and all told from the POV of a sarcastic, jaded killer android. There’s a decidedly anti-corporate slant to the series, which I dig as well, but mostly it’s the voice and character that keep bringing me back to it. I’m not alone, either. Whenever I meet someone who reads SF/F, we start talking about favorite books, and I bring up Murderbot. They know it and love it, too. 

 




4. Is there a book that you love and wish that you yourself had written?

Dune (Frank Herbert) may be my favorite series of all time. I like how it combines fantasy and science fiction elements with complex world-building. So yes, I wish I’d written it mainly because, I’d love to be able to write books in that world, which I’ve read and enjoyed since I was a kid. The header quotes for chapters in my first trilogy were a nod to Dune, as a matter of fact. Sadly, that’s as close as I’ll ever get. The good news is that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have written many excellent books in the Dune universe. I’m so thrilled they were able to do that, and I like their books just as much as Frank Herbert’s.  




 

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

Have Space Suit-- Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. It wasn’t exactly a new book at the time (it had been out more than three decades). Nor is it my favorite Heinlein novel; that’s a tie between Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. However, it has the distinction of being the first science fiction book I read. I honestly don’t remember much about the book itself. I’m sure it had rockets and aliens and space travel, but I remember the experience of coming to the genre for the first time. Until then, the only genre fiction I’d known was fantasy, namely Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy and science fiction tend to get lumped together in the literary world, and I really don’t understand why. For me, fantasy is about escapism. I like it because I enjoy visiting worlds that are completely different from our own, rich with magic and fantastical creatures. In contrast, I enjoy science fiction because it represents a possible future, an extrapolation of technological innovation and where it could take us. Two very different genres if you ask me, and it’s a shame they’re often treated as one. I write in both genres, and I can say the writing is a very different experience, too.

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

My latest book is Deploying Dragons, which is set in the same world as Domesticating Dragons (2021). Both books are about a genetic engineer who goes to work for a company that produces customized dragons made-to-order. It’s like a combination of Build-A-Bear Workshop and Jurassic Park. In the first book, he has to figure out how to domesticate the dragon prototype so that they can develop different models to sell as household pets. In this book, the new book, they embark on a sort of biotech arms race to develop dragons for use by the military.






Thank you, Dan!

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

 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Microreview[Comic]: Wonder Woman Historia Book 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Jimenez

 A retelling of the birth of DC's Amazons, centring their perspective, and giving a view into the world of the gods.


I am not up to date on Wonder Woman in the DC comics universe more broadly. This is a review coming from a place of enjoying her in film and in the abstract, rather than a detailed understanding of her place in DC lore. With that said, Wonder Woman is one of my favourite superheroes, and one with a backstory I find neat and interesting, so when I saw that there was going to be a more or less standalone comic series on the depths of that backstory, one where I wouldn't need to try to find out exactly what lore I did and did not need to know in advance, and that it was going to be written by Kelly Sue DeConnick no less, I was absolutely there for it.

Wonder Woman Historia tells the history of the Amazons, right from not only their creation by the gods - or rather, the goddesses - but from the causes that led to that creation. It details their division into tribes, their attributes and personalities, and it details the anger that drove the goddesses to create them, their despair of the world of men and their treatment of women, their argument with the gods over this, Zeus's dismissal... and what they did in the aftermath.

Volume 1 is primarily concerned with beginnings, with the exact why and how and the different threads that led to it, it's an introduction more than a strong driving narrative. So you might think that would make it a weaker read, being as it is more of a piece of lore than a story. And yet... it works. There's a both a palpable emotion to it, especially in the way the goddesses are talked down to by a Zeus so comfortable in his power and his justice that he feels no need for diplomacy, and the way the male gods are arrayed behind him, leering with his pronouncements, but also a palpable strangeness. These gods are not just humans writ large - these are gods as the otherworldly, gods as the embodiments of strange forces. Athena is an empty shell, masked and armoured. Hecate is thorn-covered, multi-headed, more like a spider than a person. These are the gods as inhuman, in form and feeling, in how they see the world, conduct themselves. And between the strangeness and the sharp emotional resonance, it manages to be just as compelling as a more story or character driven narrative might be.

That being said, for all the comic does a great job of recognising some of the terribleness of the ancient world instead of lauding it uncritically, it is only concerned with that single axis. We see the problems faced by women, and pretty much only by women. Even when slavery is mentioned (briefly), it is as another angle of men's power over women, which ignores that slavery in the ancient world was vaster and more destructive than that one vector of oppression.

This monofocus bleeds up into the conflict at the god level - it is a story so fundamentally about women and their oppression by men, that there is little space in it for other problems, at least in this volume. Which has a strange effect in the immortal conflict of bringing together a group of goddesses who, in many of the myths, have very conflicting aims and allegiances. They, for the most part, operate as a unified front of feminism, rather than a fractured group of people who may align on this one issue, but may equally not on whatever fate throws their way tomorrow. If one wanted to be a traditionalist about it, this jars somewhat with a lot of the mythology, and beyond emphasising how bad the ancient world is for women, the comic does little to justify the changes it makes. But because it is very much focussed on the birth of the Amazons, and their existence as a force for the defence of women, this unity makes sense for the endpoint, if not the start, and so at least for me was relatively easy to overlook.

The more interesting "change" is the shift in focus on Hera - in many modern iterations, her role as the goddess of marriage, and perhaps motherhood or childbirth, is the one emphasised, and especially contrasted to her philandering husband. Wonder Woman Historia chooses instead to focus on her role as the goddess of women - it goes straight in with that in her introduction. It also gives her the gift of perfect prophecy, setting her apart from the other goddesses not just in rank but in how she views the world - she can see everything, past, present and future, all at once, and so knows how their endeavour will unfold, even as it begins. But more critically than all of that, she is not cast as a jealous wife or a bitter enemy here, as she is in so many other stories - she is a protector of women. Her role is a less active one than her fellow goddesses, but she makes her feelings no less plain in their dealings with the gods. In a time when we have so many myth retellings, with so many rehabilitations of gods who may have been overlooked in stories previously, it is rare to see Hera getting the same treatment, and for me, a welcome innovation.

The other key point of the volume is not a story one - it is simply that the art is utterly gorgeous. Reminiscent of Christian Ward's psychedelic depictions of the gods in Ody-C, Phil Jiminez's art is sumptuous and, when depicting the gods, gorgeously strange. The use of intense colour, excessive detail and more fluid and flexible page structuring heavily emphasises their inhumanity, and is by far one of the resounding triumphs of the series. And it is not only here we see that shine.


The art tells a story - a continuity of strangeness from the mundane, subdued palette and more normally spaced and structured world of humanity, up to the overwhelming saturation and complexity of the gods, with the Amazons sitting at a midpoint, with deeper, richer colours and more vibrant detail, but a paler shadow of their patron gods. They are human... but also more than human, and the art cues us to this before the story has the chance to spell it out - the two work hand in hand to build a deeper, richer world than one alone could accomplish.

And to some extent, it is for the art, more than for anything else, that Wonder Woman Historia is worth reading. The story is compelling, the lore interesting, the structure unusual and the emotions absolutely there on the page, but it is the art and its use in the world-building, and just as an aesthetic experience, that really sells this. For most stories, I find what lingers with me is a character moment, or possibly a well constructed phrase. For this, it is the vision of Hera, armed and armoured and surrounded by birds, unearthly and inhuman in her gaze, that stands strong in the memory. However good the story, it pales before the insistent presence of the art that overwhelms it.



Which leaves this a somewhat mixed review. For me - the sumptuousness of the art was sufficient, and beautifully scaffolded an already excellent story. But it could just as easily distract, and become the main focus, and for someone who wants a story that is more pacy, more driven and more narratively focussed, the need to linger on some pages, to figure out what goes where and who is who, definitely brings down the speed reading. There is simply too much on some pages to hurry. And if you want the story but to ignore the art, the experience here will be actively detrimental - the two are so necessarily entwined that you can't fully enjoy the one while sidelining the other.

But if you want to spend time luxuriating in it, and if this art style works for you? Then it's absolutely fantastic.

--

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +2 gorgeous art that reflects the world-building

Penalties: -1 monofocus on oppression of women sometimes seems to conspicuously ignore other problems within the world

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference:  Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Jimenez, Wonder Woman Historia Book One [DC, 2021]

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