Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Microreview[Novel]: Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

 A novel of unsettling memories of undersea events and wistfully sad lesbians.

The sea is, in my opinion, a deeply unsettling place. Especially the deep bits. The really really deep bits, where no light penetrates, and all the creatures look like they've escaped from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Thinking about that vast depth of unknown blue-black gives me the shivers, and the thought of swimming above the whole "far, far beneath in the abyssal sea" situation... eururugh.

Julia Armfield has taken this deep sense of unease and asked "what if we turned the creepy dial up a bit more? And then a bit more than that?". Against all my better judgment and my desire to sleep comfortably ever again, I have to admit, it was extremely compelling. Just don't ever ask me to get on a submarine.

The story follows Miri and her wife Leah, who has finally returned from a deep-sea mission extended long beyond its planned term, and which clearly ended in disaster of some kind, though the participants won't discuss it. At first, Miri is just glad to have Leah home, hoping to get back to the close and loving relationship they had before. But as the story progresses, we and she begin to suspect that the disaster, whatever it was, wasn't solely contained to the bottom of the sea. Not only withdrawn and quiet, unwilling to eat and with a fondness for drinking salt water, Leah begins to seem... wrong and getting wronger. And all the while, that strangeness serves to reinforce for Miri that the wife she got back isn't the person she fell in love with anymore.

We see the mystery of it unfolding through Miri's eyes, while at the same time learning from Leah's perspective the events that led up to the disaster and the present day, and through both of them the relationship they had before, and what they're missing now.

For all that this is a novel with a strong horror element - which only increases as the story goes on - the primary driver and for me compelling part of reading it is the interpersonal relationship. We get a very close view on Leah and Miri, and who they are to each other, reinforced by the flashbacks and memories throughout the story of how their relationship came to be. There is a terrible, wistful sadness to Miri's perspective, an increasing yearning for the past and how things were, that serves only to reinforce the mundane horror of a wife who simply isn't herself anymore, let alone the more unnatural, unknowable horror that we begin to see as events progress. But it's not a totally rose-tinted view - their relationship wasn't perfect, even in Miri's memory - and because we see snippets of fights and tensions as well as the love and the closeness, it feels all the more real and tangible, and all the greater loss. We also get little tidbits of their lives as they intertwined with others, and Miri is capable of some quite casual brutality in how she judges her friends and Leah's, all kept internal, shared only with the reader, while she maintains a polite façade of everything being... okay.

Everything is really not ok.

The book is divided into sections named after the various depths of the oceans, beginning with the shallowest and heading down to the very depths of the hadalpelagic horror-show (definitely a technical term) zone. Each section steps up the level of unease, the strangeness of what seems to be happening to Leah, reinforcing the feeling of the ocean being a horrifying place, but also a more and more unknown one the deeper we go.

Because fundamentally, a lot of what this book is about is the unknown and the unknowable and the intangible. It's not a story with clear answers and a table at the back to explain things to you. Which is why it being such a relationship-focussed story works so well - much like the growing mystery of Leah and her experiences underwater, relationships are fundamentally things that defy logic and easy clarification, especially to those outside. We are being allowed this window into Leah and Miri's, and we can see the movements under the surface, the evidence of things gone by, but we can never know it in truth. We can, instead, see only the effects it has, the outcomes and the consequences, and how it affects those involved. Intertwining that so closely with the horror elements, making them so personal and intimate, really drives them under your skin as you read, and it is impossible not to keep thinking about some aspects of the story, even after you've put the book down.

The other thing that lingers - which was true just as much for Armfield's previous book, Salt Slow, as it is for Our Wives Under the Sea - is the prose. It is to be savoured, devoured carefully, bite by delicious bite. It is hard to point out any specific thing she does particularly well, but as someone who tends to devour books at pace, the fact that I feel the need to stop and deliberate and fully engage when I read her words really catches my attention, and makes me want to keep coming back for more.

Her prose is however what makes me slightly dubious about the novel's place in SFFH. Instinctively, while reading it, the tone of the prose alongside the deep, internal focus on characters makes me take this as a piece of literary rather than genre fiction, despite the obviously speculative horror angle. It doesn't feel like an SFFH book, and that too, for me at least, is part of its charm. It's doing something entirely SFFH, but not in the way I'd ever expect to see it, and that lends an already quite interesting premise that extra layer of something. Moving speculative elements into the litfic genre, in my experience, either ends in doom (when the author doesn't have enough experience of the genre they're playing with to contextualise them within what already exists) or glory, when, like this, the fusion of the two creates something better than the sum of its parts.

That being said, I'm not sure how well this would work for an inveterate horror reader (of which I am not one, being, as I am, a complete and utter wuss). Certainly, if you go in wanting the horror to be the main event, you will be disappointed. Obviously it's there, and it's a critical part of the story, and I felt very horrified by the end, but it's not the sole focus, and there are definitely points in the narrative where the actual horror parts take a backseat to the more mundane horror of the breakdown of Leah and Miri's relationship. And the two of them are paced very well - it never feels rushed or unnaturally spun out for the sake of keeping us in suspense. There's a creaking inevitability to both parts of the story, and so when things do finally come together at the end, it definitely feels satisfying, but a big chunk of that is the interplay between the horror and the relationship, rather than just the maritime nastiness itself.

But if you're happy for your horror to play second fiddle to a really compelling bit of character work? It's an absolute winner. Come for the sad lesbians, stay for the stunning prose, eerie atmosphere and horrible events involving submarines.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 genuinely managing to play out the suspense for the whole novel


Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  Julia Armfield, Our Wives Under the Sea [Pan Macmillan, 2022]

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

Monday, February 27, 2023

Rereading The Old Kingdom Series by Garth Nix

 First published 27 years ago, the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix was a big part of many people’s childhoods, but does it still hold up to a reading in 2023? Elizabeth and Roseanna look back at the original three books of Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, and reflect on how their opinions of the series have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same. 

Sabriel follows a young woman as she leaves school and heads back across the Wall into her mysterious home country, after finding out that something has happened to her father. Who happened to be a necromancer, and has been teaching her to follow in his footsteps - not to raise the dead, as most necromancers do, but to lay them to their final rest. Her journey into the Old Kingdom will reveal to her how little she knows of her craft, the charter magic of her homeland, her father and her heritage, and will test her resolve as she faces an evil far greater than she anticipated.

Roseanna: I first read Sabriel when I would have been about 12 - it came out in Australia in the 90s, but didn’t make it to the UK until 2002 - and I was exactly the right age to fall completely in love with it. There’s a strong memory that still sits with me of some book-selling group coming into my school with a pile of various delights, and of me seeing the UK hardback edition, which was bright white, with an extremely fancy clear plastic dust jacket with a gold illustration on and thinking to myself “ooooooh”. The series was also one of the first I remember reading with female characters I genuinely liked and thought were well done, ones that seemed heroic and exciting and like people whose adventures I wanted to follow. That it was set in a gorgeous world with an interesting magic system was absolutely a bonus, but it was the characters that really did it for me the first time around, and who kept bringing me back to the series over and again.

Elizabeth: Honestly, I’m not sure I can remember exactly how I first came across the series – it seems almost by osmosis. Certainly, I’d read it by 2004 when I started studying Creative Writing at the same university as Garth Nix, where he was something of a hometown hero. Although I was in my early twenties, the mix of adventure and magic drew me in and kept me hooked. I’m not much of a rereader (there are always so many new books!) so the details have faded over the years. But the Abhorsen’s bells remain etched clearly in my memory.

Roseanna: One of the things that really stuck with me after reading the series for the first time was the magic system - particularly the bells. It’s one of the best examples I remember reading as a child of a magic system that manages to be neat, easily comprehensible and fully integrated into the world-building. The bells aren’t just bells, the Abhorsen isn’t just a person, they’re all woven into other parts of the Old Kingdom, and this only gets deepened and deepened as the series goes on - the more we learn, the more we understand how things fit together. And part of how well that worked was the little rhymes that explained parts of it - even years after I first read the books I could recite you segments of them, because they were catchy and exactly the sort of thing that would be taught to children, or memory rhymes, or other bits and bobs - the world-building works in the how, as well as the what, and I love that it captured child-my imagination.

Elizabeth: I love what you said about the bells not being just bells. Not only does each one have a particular purpose – a particular kind of magic it’s used for – but even a personality. Some are serious, others mischievous, and all worthy of caution. They even correspond to a particular Precinct of Death and the way that precinct manifests: whether the river of death comes in tidal waves or looks calm but has hidden potholes.

In addition to mnemonic rhymes, the lore of the world offers a visual language in its heraldry: the silver key of the Abhorsen, the gold tower of the King, the silver trowel of the Wallmakers. We know our heroes by their colours.

That visual language is less well defined when it comes to the magic itself, but is no less evocative for allowing the readers to picture their own Charter Marks. 

Roseanna: And the Charter Marks are such a neat part of how the world is visualised - not least because they’re everywhere. Magic isn’t distant and ethereal in the story as we see it. Important places and objects are spelled, and to those who have been baptised with a Charter Mark are able to see, and read in what they see, the magic in the world around them. It means that our characters – and especially Lirael in the second book, who is a skilled Charter Mage working in a library full of peculiar, old and magical objects – connect us to the lore of the world simply by looking around. 

I love too that this is tied into how the books are presented. The British editions I had as a child were bold, plain hardcovers with a single charter mark each on the cover, while the paperbacks that came after had smaller marks printed all over them in clear gloss, so they were invisible until they caught the light - just as we are told of the marks in the story. For twelve year old me, that felt utterly magical… and still does to my somewhat older self now.

But the magic isn’t just the written symbols - there are links to all sorts of other elements, many of which are older, more folkloric, and so while we learn about one part, the other parts – especially around the Free Magic side of things, or the wardings and bindings – feel already familiar.

Elizabeth: Part of this is because Nix draws on existing folklore to create the Old Kingdom and its magic. For example, when Lirael is researching how to banish a powerful Free Magic creature, the book she finds tells her to use “...an ensorcelled sword or a rowan wand, charged with the first circle of seven marks for binding the elements…” Rowan has long been popular in European folklore for holding protective properties, and rowan growing by stone circles – echoed by the Charter Stones of the Old Kingdom – was believed to be the most potent. This weaving together of old folklore with the unique elements of the world grants it a solid foundation and that feeling of strange familiarity.

It’s also an element of world-building that points to the strong influence of English children’s literature. After all, this is European folklore, European plants, not Australian like the author. While this is a common trend among Australian fantasy, it is by no means a foregone conclusion. For example, Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s Bitterbynde Trilogy (the first book of which was published in the same year as Lirael) subtly weaves in Australian flora and fauna into the background of a tale strongly influenced by English fairy lore. Much more recently, Sam Hawke’s Poison Wars books eschews our world entirely in favour of making up plants and poisons from whole cloth.

In the Old Kingdom Trilogy, we get rowan and Charter Stones. Across the Wall in Ancelstierre, we get boarding schools, bobbed hair and firearms. Although Sabriel isn’t strictly a portal fantasy, the story functions in much the same way. In rereading it, I felt like I had stepped into a world adjacent to the Chronicles of Narnia… although one with rather stronger representation of women.

Roseanna: And this is one of the things that really drew me to the stories as a child - Sabriel herself, despite being young, and often afraid or out of her depth, was the first protagonist I remember reading in a “proper” book who was both female and fighty, and she’s written with a depth and reality that really sells it, rather than just being the pattern of a 90s female action hero, who has to be all machismo and “one of the boys” to fit in. Especially with her all-girls-school, jolly-hockey-sticks background, she feels grounded in a realistic idea of a young woman on a journey, albeit one who has been learning to do necromancy since she was very young and taking fighting arts classes at school.

It isn’t just Sabriel herself though - Lirael too manages a great balance of competence, inner strength and doubt, as well as being the first representation of depression I recall reading. She’s not strong in the same way as Sabriel; her fighting skills aren’t at all her focus. But she’s compelling, willing to go out and achieve what needs achieving, and brave confronting dangers those around her find difficult to face.

What they both contrast beautifully is the men around them too. It seems to be something of a theme in Nix’s work to write competent women who, for all their turmoil, get the job done, alongside men with strong emotional focuses who, for whatever reason, are unwilling or unable to solve the problems of the story alone, or struggle to live up to the roles set out for them. For Sabriel, it’s Touchstone, a man out of time being overcome by guilt over his past actions, to the point of sometimes being unable to act at all. For Lirael, it’s Sam, the man who is supposed to be learning necromancy to follow in his mother’s footsteps, but fears the dead, the bells and Death itself right into his bones. Neither man is weak, both of them are brave at points in the plot and very good at their areas of expertise, but neither have the driving determination and ability to just Get On with things that their female counterparts have. This holds true even among the side characters - the whole series is peopled with various no-nonsense women who just get on with things, including an entire glacier of matriarchal seers.

This isn’t even restricted to just the human women - Lirael’s Disreputable Dog companion epitomises the exact same attitude in her oft-repeated statement of “it’s better to be doing” whenever any of the characters get a little too mopey for her liking.

Elizabeth: Contrast this with Mogget, arguably the most memorable of Nix’s animal companions. This powerful and somewhat malevolent spirit has been forced to take the shape of a white cat for so long that he has taken on many of the traits of that form. The contrast here is not like that between the female and the male characters of the book; Mogget does not by any means have a strong emotional focus and would be perfectly happy to Get Things Done, if this meant burning them to the ground. Instead, he contrasts the Disreputable Dog’s drive to action with pure laziness. For the most part, he rides around in the backpack of his companion and rarely takes initiative, responding only to commands and providing snarky comments.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Mogget does have a driving focus on eating fish.

While Mogget may be the most well-remembered animal companion of not just the Old Kingdom Trilogy, but Nix’s oeuvre, the Disreputable Dog is particularly significant for being the first of Nix’s many canine companions. His middle-grade fantasy adventure Frogkisser! springs to mind. This story has a pack of canine advisers to the royal family. They're presided over by a matriarch, and one of the younger dogs serves as a companion to the main character on her adventures.

Nix’s adult works are less likely to feature canine companions, but are not entirely devoid. For example, his 2006 story “Dog Soldier”, published in Jim Baen’s Universe. In the story, a military engineer on the front of a space war receives a package from R&D containing a robot with the mind of a dog.

However, while canine companions are more prevalent in Nix’s work for younger audiences, one does not need to be young to appreciate them – or, indeed, the themes of the Old Kingdom Trilogy.

Roseanna: Absolutely. And this was something that was particularly obvious to me coming back to reread as an adult - there’s a strong theme in both Sabriel and Lirael of the death of one’s childhood and childhood dreams, and moving past them to becoming the person you’ll be as an adult, which hits really hard in a way it didn’t when I first read them. In many ways, some of the themes become more appropriate to someone reading them looking back, rather than forward, as you have the experiences to really appreciate how well those emotions have been put across on the page. Unsurprisingly for books that centre the experience of death, however fantastically, they are often unflinching in dealing with hard topics in ways that make them both appropriate for a young audience while still poignant to older readers. The darkness and emotionality never overwhelms the more fun aspects of the stories, but neither are they trivialised and sidelined. 

There is a sadness running through so many of the characters’ stories - Touchstone, trapped out of time and away from everyone he ever knew and loved, forced to reckon with the worst of his own experiences alone, at least at first; Sabriel, facing the death of her father right on the cusp of her potential adult opportunity to join him in her homeland; Lirael, constantly reckoning with the idea that she may never achieve the one thing that her family seem to think is worth being, and the loneliness of never being part of the community that surrounds her. There is depression, suicidal ideation and a lot of really sensitively handled big topics that I think just become better and better when you come back to them.

And for me, they are at the heart of what makes these somewhat timelessly good stories. They have a solid emotional core that rewards new perspectives from the reader, and in many ways feels sufficiently universal to be able to touch something in everyone, even if it may not be quite the same something.

Elizabeth: I think you’re right about there being something here for everyone. Even if the reader is not taken in by Lirael’s teenage angst – or her desperate and genuine need for belonging that is so relatable – there’s Sabriel repeating (and, arguably, making worse) her father’s mistakes in raising her own children. 

It may have been the magic and adventure that enchanted us as young readers, but the themes hold wisdom that will have us coming back all our lives.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Review: Muneera and the Moon, Stories Inspired by Palestinian Folklore

A collection of Sonia Sulaiman's previously published short stories and several new ones

Over the years, author Sonia Sulaiman has built a noteworthy career as one of the prominent representatives of the Palestinian literary tradition in the Western world. Her recent collection Muneera and the Moon showcases a great selection of her literary output and serves as an altogether enjoyable introduction to Palestinian storytelling for English-speaking readers.

In the title story, Muneera and the Moon, delicately painted with the erotic imagery of pomegranates (originally published in FIYAH), two outcast spirits meet in a placid afterlife that provides the bliss they couldn't find on Earth.

Sweet heat infused her body. She was wanted, all of her
accepted and treasured for the first time in her life.

In Tatreez, a sensory trip across an embroidered dreamscape (originally published in Lackington's Magazine), a college student disappointed by the paucity of Palestinian content in her university library takes comfort in the cultural memory encoded in her family heirlooms.

Has she been to the realm of the dead? But she
will bring back what she can preserve. She will
gather up the emptied, the fragmented, and the lost.

In The Mandrake Loves the Olive, a brief, passionate monologue of interspecies devotion (originally published in the Xenocultivars anthology), the trauma of the Nakba is transposed onto the metaphor of a wounded earth crying out for peace.

The story is in my root's skin. Above the soil, you can see
the scars of these many trespasses, where blades and
rough hands in violence touched my sanctified being.

In From Whole Cloth, a worthy entry in literature's long tradition of stories about stories (originally published in ArabLit Quarterly), an asexual prince pressured into marriage finds the perfect soulmate.

There are no stories about what I do mean, so we must make our own.

In Handala. The Olive, the Storm, and the Sea, a mythologized ekphrasis of a national symbol, the titular child displays the serene dignity of Palestinian resistance in an allegorical encounter with a trio of self-satisfied benefactors.

It wasn't that he was proud, that he thought himself special
from the rest of humanity. He defied because he had to survive.

In Autumn Child it seems that the author reworks the same motifs of Muneera and the Moon: the loneliness of immortals, the serendipitous discovery of happiness, and the creation of a private refuge for lovers. But the exquisiteness of the prose makes the retread no less delightful.

He could never quite believe that he was allowed
this. It never became routine, never taken for
granted. How could he be this good, that he
would merit being allowed to love him?

In The Zaffah, a prequel to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a prophetic message is only completed by the recipient's reaction to it.

Song and steps stopped and there was silence.
She looked up, was about to inquire about
the delay, when her eyes fixed on a vision.

In What the Ghouleh Said on Thursday of the Dead, a monologue in the voice of an undead flesh-eater (originally published in Seize the Press), the Holy Land is resignified as a profane abode of horrors, defiled by the unceasing hunger of colonizers.

I beckon, and entice the unwary, the foolish, the curious.

In Rumanye, a fresh twist on a fairy tale complete with portal travel, the reader is reminded that many classical narrations often believed to be typically Western actually have deeper roots in other traditions.

So, this is the story of how a medieval
torture robot thing captured me.

In Megiddo, a time travel adventure set during the first battle ever recorded, the notion of historical accuracy is pointedly satirized.

Things were going as expected up until the robots showed up.

In The Nettle Branch, a simple yet touching coming-of-age allegory, the salvation of a village comes from the spiritual traditions maintained by women.

Aziza would dream of djinn. Now, before
her tenth year, she would get to see one.

In The Birds Who Turned to Stone, another ekphrastic piece, this time about the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, the many facets of artistic creation are celebrated as the true miracle they are.

It is the story of the Spirit churning
minerals, blending impurities, sculpting
that which it desired unseen for eons of time.

In The Marriage, a post-apocalyptic mystery framed as a tale within a tale, the wounds of history continue to send jabs of pain into the future.

A dark scar on the land revealed itself as the children
drew closer. Their laughter died; the horses stilled.

In The Witches of Ascalon, inspired by a real historical event (originally published by Hagstone Press), the sincere generosity of a hated community is praised even under the certainty of upcoming betrayal.

We could be friends; I could be friends with the people
in Ascalon if they would follow the secret road to
learn and enjoy the delicious shade and the grapes
of my vines without hunger for my blood as well.

Sulaiman explains in the introduction to this collection that her chronic illness led her to choose to write in the short format to take better advantage of her available physical energy. The noticeable result of this choice of format is a very precise, very concrete prose, that condenses layers of symbolic meaning in a single passage without sacrificing elegance of style. Her writing wastes not one sentence in getting to the kernel of her plots, yet somehow finds space to luxuriate in curlicues of description that are always refreshing and never superfluous. This collection is a practical way to get acquainted with Sulaiman's expert writing and with the indestructible heart of the Palestinian people.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Reference: Sulaiman, Sonia. Muneera and the Moon, Stories Inspired by Palestinian Folklore [self-published, 2023].

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Micro Review [Video Game]: Overwatch 2 by Blizzard Entertainment

Don’t call it a sequel.

The original Overwatch holds a very special place in my heart. There were nights spent with strangers working together to achieve our common goals: to increase our skill rating and have a good time choosing characters that had strong synergy. Overwatch was unique when it was released, melding the gameplay of a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) with the perspective of a first-person shooter, all while bringing the game to the mainstream. Each match contained twelve players divided into two teams attempting to achieve one of four main objectives; push the payload/defend the payload (Escort mode), capture and hold an area/defend an area from attackers (Assault/Control modes). Some maps had a mix of these objectives as well (Hybrid maps), creating variety. For instance, King’s Row (my favorite map) begins as a standard control point, then becomes an escort map. The game was endlessly fun, and still accessible despite the difficulty level of traditional first-person shooters. There were characters like Mercy and D.Va who were easy to use and not too difficult to master, yet still contributed to the team in a meaningful way. But why am I still talking about the original Overwatch when this is a review for the sequel? Well, it’s not much of a sequel at all.

was a premium game released at full price. The game had micro-transactions, but they were done tastefully (or as tastefully as one could implement those devilish things) by allowing players to unlock all of the game’s skins by simply spending time playing matches. Overwatch 2 is a free-to-play game that now introduces a battle pass system, like current popular games; Apex Legends and Fortnite. I wanted to wait a few battle pass seasons before giving Overwatch 2 a fair review. I can now confidently say that Overwatch 2 is a few steps sideways and a few steps back from what Overwatch originally brought to the multiplayer space.

Thankfully all of the battle pass items, like the loot box system before it, are cosmetic. None of the items are necessary to get ahead of other players. No pay-to-win mechanics. Unfortunately, all those high-quality skins that were once obtainable by playing the game are near impossible to get without forking out a lot of money. I’m not cosmetic crazy, but for those of you who are; this game will get expensive. I would advise not going to the store unless you have a lot of self-control. Luckily, they have not locked new characters behind a paywall. You can earn them through the battle pass for the season they were released (though you do have to play quite a bit to unlock them if you don’t want to pay).

All this talk about cosmetics, but what about the gameplay? What’s changed? What has warranted the addition of a “2” next to the Overwatch logo? In my opinion, absolutely nothing. Instead of twelve-player matches, the player count has been reduced to ten. Two tank, two damage, and two support characters was the original go-to for a balanced match, but now the folks at Blizzard have cut one tank from each match (at least as far as Competitive and QuickPlay go). By only allowing one tank, the developers saw fit to buff all of the tank characters to give them solo-tank capabilities. In doing so, not only did they remove the fun main tank/off-tank synergy, but they created annoying monsters that, if constantly healed, can make the enemy tank an utter annoyance. While this is great for a team with more communication and synergy, it can render some characters (and tanks) completely useless in most situations. I find that the players I’ve encountered have been split on this decision, I’m decisively on the “do not like” side.

In addition to the reduction of tanks, the developers saw fit to remove the Assault mode from QuickPlay and Competitive (the two most played matchmaking modes). Instead, they've replaced it with a mode called Push, where each team fights to move a robot closer to the enemy spawn. The robot moves along slowly, and pushing it far gives your team a spawn advantage. If the enemy defeats your team, then it is their turn to return the robot and try to push it into your spawn. Reclaiming the robot will make it move quickly to the furthest point your team had previously pushed. The game is won by whichever team pushes the robot to the opposing team’s spawn or, when time runs out, whoever pushed the furthest. Three Push maps have been released since the inception of Overwatch 2, of which I like only one (Esperança). The other two make me groan when I see them on the screen. While I do believe Assault mode had its issues, I feel that Push is just as—if not more—frustrating than the mode that they removed.

The original Overwatch roster consisted of twenty-one characters. All of which were unique and useful in certain scenarios. Some, like Solider 76 and Mercy, could be used almost all the time, while others, like Torbjorn and Symmetra, were situational (but still useful!). When the sun set on Overwatch, the character total had climbed up to a whopping thirty-two characters! Impressive, but also quite the balancing match. The meta would change all the time, bringing old heroes back into the limelight. But can you guess how many new characters launched with the sequel? Three (in addition to the original roster). That's it. And one of them (Soujorn) was completely overpowered at launch, making her a nightmare to play against in the hands of a slightly skilled player.

Despite all this, Overwatch 2 still retains much of what made Overwatch special. The quirky characters still exchange clever dialogue that expands the lore of the game, the payload and control maps are still fun to play, and the feeling of getting in with the right team at the right time is still a blast. It’s too bad that much of the community has become toxic, throwing matches on a whim because they don’t want to lose or switch characters for the good of the team. The gameplay is still tight and the roster of memorable characters has such a variety of tactics that learning a new one feels like picking up a new game. Though it is easy to fall into playing the same character repeatedly.

Part of Overwatch 2’s appeal is finding the correct character to solve your team’s current ails, then countering when the opponent tries to counter you. It’s a game of chess that relies not only on the player’s knowledge of the game mechanics but on their mechanical skills as well. Simply switching to Mercy won’t save your team if you aren't versed in using her skillset (even if she is one of the simplest characters to use). One must also know how quickly Mercy flies to an ally, how long her resurrection ability takes to pull off, and how close she can get to the action without risking herself. Game sense and awareness are just as important in this sequel as they were in the original.

Trying different characters is always a blast. Some may not be to one’s liking, but that’s okay, there are another thirty-plus to test! The character pool is divided into three tiers; tank, support, and damage. While all these characters maintain the same movement speed and have the same control layout (for the most part), their abilities and purpose set them apart. These differences are even greater when moving between the different character roles. Reinhardt (tank) and Ana (healer) may both have multiple abilities and an ultimate, but their functions are entirely different. That’s the beauty of Overwatch 2; whenever you feel bored with a character, switching to another almost makes it feel like an entirely different game. That’s something most other multiplayer games don’t do well.

In addition to the primary modes, the Arcade mode has been expanded to allow more freedom with friends. Unique user-created matches and game types are much easier to get into for those who prefer that type of multiplayer interaction. The few modes they've added over the season have been fun if only momentary distractions. Allowing players the ability to join a user-created match for a brief time while waiting on matchmaking is a welcome treat for those who have long queue times (I’m looking at you, tank and damage players).

Considering not much has changed, the developers gave the game a little facelift, cleaning up character models and putting in a bit more detail. Better shading and lighting never hurt, but Overwatch already looked great, so the update—while welcome—wasn’t wholly necessary. All the old and new maps are vibrant, even the ones that I don't enjoy playing. Blizzard knows how to make enticing visuals for their multiplayer maps. And while the music is still great, for some reason the developers continue to play very loud intro music on some of the home screens. I don't know who thinks this is a good idea, but they should immediately stop in the next update.

Though much of my review of Overwatch 2 hits a lot of negative points, it's not because it's a bad game. It's still a good game. Just one that took things from an amazing game. While Overwatch 2 remains unique, the transition from a premium to a free-to-play game has not made the game worthy of a “2”. It is not a sequel, but an update that blunts some of what made the original game so great. We were promised co-op modes that would expand the lore, where we could level up our favorite heroes and learn abilities exclusive to the cooperative experience. Instead, we got a game with a little bit of new content, a little bit of cut content, and a whole lot of microtransactions. Overwatch was amazing when it launched, and it was fantastic for quite some time after that, but eventually, it fell from grace amid the studio’s turmoil. Overwatch 2 does its best to inject some life into the franchise, and it does, even if it doesn't meet the heights of its predecessor. Being free-to-play opens the game up to a host of new players. And, given time, I hope to see Blizzard expand upon what they've built, even if Overwatch 2 stumbled out of the gate a bit.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for updated visuals. +1 unique new characters. +1 for beautifully crafted maps.

Penalties: -1 for removing Assault mode and reducing games by one tank per match. -1 balancing issues with characters and maps. -1 for obnoxiously loud intro music every season (yes, I hate it that much).

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Second Look: Civilizations by Laurent Binet

 A second look at Civilizations by Laurent Binet. 

In October 2021, my colleague Arturo Serrano reviewed Laurent Binet’s alternate history novel Civilizations here on the blog.[http://www.nerds-feather.com/2021/10/review-civilizations-by-laurent-binet.html]. He did not find much favor with it. As I will be deeply engaging with that review, I recommend you read that review so you can get some details I am not going to repeat here and to get a general sense of context.

Back? Great. Let’s dig in.

Since Serrano’s piece, the novel has garnered some critical acclaim, including the Sidewise Award for best Alternate History, 2021, where it is that it came on my radar.  I decided, especially urged on by a colleague who was very interested in my opinion on the book, to give it a try and see for myself what I thought of it. And so here we are.

So this is not quite so much of a review as a reaction to the book, and thinking and interpolating the thoughts of friends and colleagues, and using them, and my own history, in coming to terms with the book, and ultimately where do I think it sits. 

Alternate History has been a power chord for me ever since coming across stories such as “Sidewise in Time”, Lest Darkness Fall (which is a time travel creating alternate history), “Delenda Est” ,and of course the works of Harry Turtledove. But the alternate history book I want to talk about here, because this work feels very much in conversation with it to the point that I think that, if you can find it,  you might want to read it before reading Civilizations is For Want of Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga, by Robert Sobel. ¹

Sobel’s book is not a novel, and does not even pretend to be, even though Civilizations has ambitions to be a novel or at least sits closer to the novel format. Sobel’s work is a sweeping look at an alternate history of North America and the world, with one change: the British win the battle of Saratoga and end the American Revolution. He then spins out two hundred years of alternate history. Hamilton and other failed leaders of the American Revolution wind up in Texas, and use that as a springboard to eventually take over all of Mexico and rule it Caudillo style. The story of the 19th and up to the mid 20th century is the rivalry between the British possessions in North America and Mexico. 

But the point is, there are no characters, there are no plots, it is really just a textbook of ideas, reflections, thoughts and historical review and analysis of the events being written about in the book. The historical author has opinions, and is clearly writing (until the “modern day”) from a historical perspective of hindsight, and a political and social point of view on those events.

So, thus, although with more narrative drama, runs Civilizations.  Civilizations, unlike Gaul, is divided into four parts, although dominated by one narrative, and three shorter ones. The major narrative is the most Sobelian in nature, being told much more like a history book than a straighforward narrative, and I will talk about it further in due course.

The first narrative comes across as an attempt to write a Viking Saga, in telling the story of an Viking expedition that winds up exploring down the coasts of North and Central America. This is Binet’s point of divergence, since this voyage solves three of the historical weaknesses that Native American civilizations had in facing the Europeans: the Columbian Exchange of diseases, ironworking, and horses. If you have read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, you will recognize that Binet is substituting horses for gunpowder in his formulation.². I do see Binet’s point here. Gunpowder and guns were initially far less impactful on the 16th century contact between Europeans and Native Americans than you might think. It was horses, and steel and a lot of luck that helped Pizarro and Cortez.3

The first second gives way to a shorter second section, however, and further to set up the pieces on the chessboard for his major third section, this section is a story of an alternate Christopher Columbus.  The aforementioned Viking saga and timeline divergence (the Vikings never returned) did not affect European history in the slightest, and so Columbus’ voyage happens on exactly the same time frame and starts off in exactly the same way.

The first portion of the novel was told as a Viking Saga and in the style of a Viking Saga. This second portion is found footage, pieces of the journal of Christmas Columbus.⁴. Binet is using the real journal as a model, as a guide as a framework for the reader.   It is when Columbus lands on the islands, that we see the changes between the texts, even given the more fragmentary nature of the journals produced within Binet’s book.  Without the Columbian exchange to quickly sicken the natives, and with iron, and being aware of horses, the local inhabitants are much more of a challenge for Columbus than in our own timeline. It is here that Binet plays the gunpowder card, but his point seems to be that gunpowder alone is NOT enough. The Native Americans do not have it, but it alone is not enough of a technological edge (especially given the size of Columbus’ force) to save him. Columbus fails and falls. 

One reason for this interlude, in addition to introducing the natives to gunpowder, is perhaps one of the thinnest reeds in the alternate history in setup for the third portion. Even given the Horses, Germs and Steel, and now the beginnings of firearms, one can see how he sets up his Native Americans to be on a footing much more equal with Europe. But for his true tour-de-force portion of the novel, the third, he needs a way to get the Inca TO Europe.  Columbus’ captured ship is the answer to that dilemma. I think it is the thinnest of reeds, but let’s continue for the moment and talk about it some more momentarily.

With Columbus’ fall, the third and the bulk of the novel is the Sobelian piece--the story of the Incan invasion of Europe. Without the Columbian Exchange, Binet has to invent a reason for , Huayna Cápac, the Incan Emperor, to die and have it fall to his two quarreling sons, but with this managed, Binet shows that with Steel and Horses, war in the Incan empire is a very different affair than in our timeline. Atahualpa, instead of grinding out a slow victory against his brother, instead, elects to flee with his supporters and followers. He eventually winds up in the Caribbean where a still seaworthy ship of Columbus is there to carry him east, away from his brother, to find a Fifth Quarter to rule as his own. 

As mentioned before, this is all told in a Sobelian manner, with events skipped over, dramatization sometimes strong and sometimes weak, and all with a looking backward approach to it. As for example:

"Later the scene would be immoritalised in a famous Titian painting: Athahualpa, young, handsome, imperial in his dignity, a parrot on his shoulder, his puma on a leash, surrounded by his wives...At the centre of the image, a Levantine, sitting cross-legged, naws at a bone, his lips drawn back, in front of a hrrified priestess of the Sun. Another, curious, reaches out to touch the ears of an impassive Inca Lord...of course Titian wasn't there to witness the scene and it didn't actually happen in precisely that way"

Once the Inca (Quitonians) are in Portugal, just after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1532⁵, they go through trial and tribulation in order to attain political and temporal power. There are resonances here with our own history, basically putting Charles V, Emperor of Spain, in the role of Athahualpa, winding up a prisoner, hostage and negotiating chip to Athahualpa in his bid for power. It’s a precarious climb to power, just as it was for Pizarro in South America, but with terrain and characters that will likely be much more familiar to the reader. This IS the part of the novel where the cameos and walk on roles from this time period fly by, and sometime become very plot relevant. 

Binet has a lot of fun with this. Pizarro winds up becoming the servant/man of Athahualpa. Machiavelli gets mentioned a couple of times. In the course of events, Athahualpa (who becomes Holy Roman Emperor) winds up encountering and alternatively working with and clashing with Martin Luther. Athahualpa’s political naivete comes off very weird here, not understanding the conflicts swirling around him.

The other thing that Binet decides to do is to have a religious conflict, having the Inca as being religious tolerants in a Europe that is starting to splinter over the ideas of Martin Luther and his contemporaries. The idea of Sun worship being such a tolerant belief feels a lot like wish fulfillment than anything from history, quite frankly. Athahualpa, too in his beliefs and approaches feels much less than being steeped in Empire and power as he doubtless was. The reforms and policies he puts out (including the aformentioned religious toleration) does feel like wish fulfillment on the author’s part. He does stir the pot with the arrival of the Aztecs on European shores, taking advantage of the political and social chaos by Athahualpa’s arrival to get a piece of the pie for themselves.⁶ The Incan and Aztecs do not, in the end get along anything but uneasily. Again, Binet is doing a thing here, reversing the European drive for Empire and influence over peoples and nations around the world by having the Europeans be the ones on the receiving end.  As Serrano notes in his review, the Aztecs (that is to say, the “Mexicans”) impose a ruler on France and the French, in a reversal of our own 19th century history.⁷

The last portion of the book ends on, for me a whimper. The Adventures of Cervantes tells an alternate story of the writer Don Quixote. In real life, he had amazing adventures that were not quite his literary creation’s, but close enough, winding up in battles, acting as a spy, sold as a slave, and even more. The Cervantes in this book goes through a number of the same events as the Cervantes of our timeline, but there is one fundamental fear and difference in this timeline that Cervantes fears to face--the Aztecs. In the main section, the Aztec use of human sacrifice is definitely not tempered down from our history, and anyone captured by the Aztecs or an ally of the Aztecs would rightly fear. But Cervantes crossing “the Ocean sea” is the inconclusive ending to a story that does feel like Don Quixote. The chapters have the old style sort of foreshadowing of events in their titles, which gives the chronicle an antique feel. Perhaps I know little about Cervantes as a person to really judge or connect with this final section of the book and after the Inca section, it feels like an unnecessary coda to the entire book, in my opinion. The book, in end, does not land on the strongest of notes. 

As such, given this essay, I do not think that a rating is warranted. I will let my thoughts above serve the reader in that regard.

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

Reference: Binet, Laurent [author], Taylor, Sam [translator]. Civilizations [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021].

¹The book is out of print, and out of print copies are expensive. I find myself, with my many books, wondering just where MY copy is (I bought it over 20 years ago. Did it survive my many moves??) 

² Charitably, Diamond’s work is problematic in many ways. 

³ I am reminded of Fred Saberhagen’s Mask of the Sun, where the protagonist winds up in the Incan Empire just before Pizarro and his merry gang show up, and his marching orders (and to stay alive) he needs to figure a way to defeat them. He is far more concerned with the Spanish Cavalry than their guns, and his focus in defeating the Spanish is to try and figure out how to handle them. 

⁴Which you can read at the Internet Archive.https://archive.org/details/cihm_05312  I remember reading some of this in Junior High in history class. Given this was the early 1980’s, it was not very critical of Columbus at the time.

⁵My suspicion is that Binet saw the temporal convergence of the Incan Civil War, and this earthquake and may have built the book so that the Inca would be in a position to take advantage of it. 

⁶Again in Mask of the Sun, the intertemporal timeline conflict eventually reveals itself to be between rival Aztec and Incan Empires.This does make me think that Binet read Mask of the Sun as one of the inspirations for this book.

⁷ A book I recently read on this is The Last Emperor of Mexico by Edward Shawcross.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

When things are broken, you can wait ages for them to go back to normal, or you can adapt

Argentinean literary critic Ricardo Piglia described, in one of his many essays, his personal theory of short fiction: every plot contains two plots. This is most evident in the detective genre, where the protagonist's tale (the investigation) is about unveiling an earlier tale (the crime). So reading detective fiction (and, according to Piglia, all fiction) is a dual task: to follow the protagonist's thought process is to simultaneously discover the two stories contained in the text.

By that standard, Malka Older's new novella The Mimicking of Known Successes is twice as ambitious as the typical detective mystery. Set in a network of metallic platforms where future humankind clings to survival among the clouds of Jupiter, it presents, instead of two, four stories to unveil: an investigation on the sudden disappearance of a university professor, the scholarly endeavor to reconstruct the last years of life on Earth, a rekindling romance between our detective and an old flame, and the project to bring homo sapiens back to a livable ecosystem. Once put on the page, these four stories become four mysteries that drive the reader's curiosity: What happened to the missing professor? What made humans leave Earth? Why did the two lovers break up years ago? And how can catastrophic historical failures be repaired without causing more damage? Upon reading it, one can intuit that the biggest structural challenge of this book must have been to write it in such a way that pursuing each separate question leads to answers for all the others.

To give proper praise to the way Older weaves these questions around a unifying theme, it's necessary to spoil at least part of the answer. This is a story about the dangers of misplaced nostalgia and the need to learn new forms of compatibility. Here Older resorts to a helpful literary device by which the larger conflict mirrors the inner conflict; that is, the civilizational question about the compatibility between human beings and their environment is explored in parallel with the personal question about the compatibility between the protagonist and her former lover. And for both conflicts the resolution is the same: you need to stop wishing things could return to the way they used to be. A totally new compatibility is possible if you're willing to adapt.

This is the meaning contained in the book's title: there's little to be gained from just repeating what worked before, because when the circumstances no longer allow that outcome, you become stuck. And Older reinforces that theme with her faithful, but not subservient, homage to Sherlock Holmes. The narrative style is clearly inspired by Watson's observations of Holmes's work, but doesn't try to replicate it. The floating colonies built in Jupiter are prone to atmospheric disturbances that make radio waves unreliable. So this is a cold and foggy world of scarves, coats, and cozy fireplaces, where people have to rely on telegrams and travel by railway between isolated structures because there's no solid ground. The result is a book that evokes the flavor of Victorian detective novels, but doesn't share their worldview—a happy synergy of genre, aesthetic and setting.

It is remarkable to find such complexity in so brief a wordcount. Although the plot flows with effortless readability, it rests on an intricate scaffolding that enables all the literary elements to bolster one another's strengths. The intriguing backstory emerges in hints scattered through the blend of colloquial and erudite prose, a sign that this civilization has lost continuity with Earth culture; the first-person narrator laments the impossibility of pairing recovered accounts of life on Earth with their physical referents; the core argument about the pitfalls of yearning for a lost past resonates with the narrator's characterization, the villain's masterplan, and the contemporary reader's circumstances. Like the platforms linked by railways, all the parts of the story are meticulously interconnected. The Mimicking of Known Successes is not only a potent environmental and political parable, but a major achievement in storytelling technique.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Older, Malka. The Mimicking of Known Successes [Tor, 2023].

Monday, February 20, 2023

Microreview: Backpacking Through Bedlam, by Seanan McGuire

The preceding novel in Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series, Spelunking Through Hell, paid off a lot of small references to Alice Price-Healy throughout the previous ten books. Having read every one of McGuire’s numerous short stories dealing with the Healy family in Buckley I’ve lived with this world and these characters longer than the novel-only readers. Spelunking Through Hell pays off *everything*, but it many ways it doesn’t feel quite as much like an Incyptid novel because, well, Alice is hopping between dimensions to find Thomas. Calculated Risks was similar in that regard as the first book to actively take place not in our world. This will all make more sense if you read in the series in order, which I heartily encourage.

The first third of Backpacking Through Bedlam suffers (which is not quite the right word) that same issue. Alice found Thomas in Spelunking Through Hell. She gets him home in this book. Once she does, I felt my tension as a reader dissolve (much as that of Alice and Thomas does as well). We’re back in Buckley, back in familiar environs, and there is just enough time for Alice to info-dump some knowledge onto another character before McGuire circles back on everything else that has been going on while Alice has been hopping between dimensions and Sarah and Antimony were destroying an existential parasite and then finding their way back to this dimension.

Remember way back in Book 5 (Chaos Choreography) when Verity exposed her family on national television and threatened the Covenant of Saint George and then in the next book (Magic for Nothing) her younger sister Antimony went undercover in a Covenant training school? Well - all of that (*waves hands at story*) is coming home to roost.

In a number of ways, a book review is not and perhaps should not be a discussion of what the story is about or, gasp, “the plot”. That idea works, I think, for just about everything except the twelfth novel in a long running genre series, almost regardless of genre.

Now, in certain series you know exactly what you are going to get - in some cases beat by beat, and other than acknowledging that the author delivers the expected experience that’s really all that needs to said.

Seanan McGuire has been playing around with that a bit in her Incryptid series by shifting protagonists every two to three books, which has allowed a recalibration of a character’s personal stakes in a story following a previous book. Verity is not Alex who is not Antimony who is sure as heck not Sarah - they each have their own perspectives, despite being siblings (Sarah not withstanding) - so the common experience has been the particular world and how the Price family interacts with the supernatural around them and, ultimately, in conflict with The Covenant of Saint George, the misguidedly evil organization of self-righteous murder.

There is a certain amount of comfort in reading the Incryptid series. The expectation is not so much that we can color in the numbers of the plot or the revelation ourselves, but the tone and the acceptance and belonging that is felt within a very small and tight knit tribe fighting against increasingly large and impossible odds.

That’s where Backing Through Bedlam takes its place - with a world-shattering conclusion to the last Antimony novel, a trip through inhuman dimensions with Sarah Zellaby, and Alice Price bringing her almost mythological husband home after fifty years - Backpacking Through Bedlam brings a whole lot of story together and begins to restitch what seemed like multiple books running on tracks that started parallel but continued to diverge and diverge back into one larger fight. It’s impressive.

Spoilers but not spoilers for a long running series that has not advertised an “explosive conclusion” but Backing Through Bedlam continues to set up that one larger fight. I wouldn’t expect readers who have followed along this deep into a series to anticipate a true ending - though there have certainly been multiple stops along the way where we could reasonably have been satisfied if that’s where McGuire chose to bring this to a close - but the Alice story has been too important to Seanan McGuire to not get to this point and beyond. For those readers who have been delighted with the Incryptid series for years, you will continue to be delighted by Backpacking Through Bedlam. Readers who may have felt that Spelunking Through Hell was a bit of a diversion will be satisfied once Alice and company return to Earth (that’s a sentence I wrote).

Backpacking Through Bedlam is an absolute delight.

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

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Microreview: Finna by Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri’s Finna is a devastatingly funny and fun look at a broken couple who just happen to be low wage workers in a big box store with a multiversal gate problem they must solve.

Ava has a problem. Or at least two problems, but she only knows about the one at the start of the day. After breaking up with her love interest Jules,. Ava does not want to see them at the big box store that is Not Ikea that they work at. But a shift change and someone sick means that Ava and Jules are going to have to be on the same shift. But that’s cool, right? Big store, stay out of each other’s way. But no. When a grandmother goes missing in the store..and in fact goes missing through a multidimensional portal that has opened in the store, Ava and Jules are thrown together to find the grandmother...or at least the next best dimensional copy of her, a trip through the multiverse.

This is the story of Nino Cipri’s novella Finna.

Anyone who has worked in a store of any kind for a length of time, and I have¹ can and will recognize the essential truths of the novella. It IS soul crushing work, often thankless, usually very much underpaid, and with scheduling that is geared to the corporation, not to the employee, it can be very much a grind². And if you have to work with someone you don’t like, or worse, someone you broke up with, messily, the daily grind can feel like interminable hell. 

Cipri captures all of this in Finna, and then adds the multiversal element of the portals that enter into other worlds randomly inside of their expy of Ikea, “LitenVarld”. Anyone who has spent time in Ikea knows it is an absolute maze, even with and especially given the shortcuts and secrets that people use to navigate the store. The topology of such stores appears to sometimes require a degree in mathematics to completely understand and appreciate. So, the author cheerfully uses that as an excuse for the place to have portals to other dimensions in the multiverse. It is an idea for me reminiscent of Joseph Deutsch’s A Subway Called Mobius [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Subway_Named_Mobius]. And of course, being a corporate dystopia, the store has ill-suited plans for what to do when a portal appears and someone goes wandering through.

And so a stage is set and a plot is made. I am a sucker for multiverse stories and I really enjoyed the friction between the two protagonists as they make their way through worlds, looking for the lost grandmother. The worlds that the pair wind up visiting are interesting, well sketched in limited space, and there is a good suggestion of an even wider multiverse out there, beyond the pages of the book. The novella has a real air of authenticity to it given its strong sense of corporate culture--of course a corporation that knew about a problem like this would handle matters in a way just like this. The novella feels like, if dimensional portals opened up regularly in big box stores was a thing, that the company in question would put half-cocked plans in place just like this.

It does feel like the 1990’s tv show Sliders (complete with a handy gadget to find gateways through worlds), and as a longtime fan of the show, I am here for that sort of feel and aesthetic. The gadget itself (the titular Finna) has, as it turns out, secrets of its own that I will not divulge here. It’s a lot of fun to follow Jules and Ava’s trip.

And of course, though, the heart of this novella is the broken relationship between Ava and Jules and how that works through their adventures. Their strengths, their weaknesses, how they drive each other to distraction, good and bad, and in the end, how they can maybe possibly make this relationship work *out there*. It’s a story with a lot of heart, and it is hardly easy and simple. Relationships can be awfully prickly even at the best of times and Ava and Jules are definitely in the spiny cactus end of such things.

And above and beyond the worlds, and the characters, the writing (especially when listened to in audio as I did ) just sings. We are entirely in Ava’s point of view, get a running commentary in her head about everything and really come to understand here in a very well written and effusive style. Ava can for you become your co-worker in this low wage box store hell, and you will in a short period of time, really get a sense of her and her deal, and why she fell for Jules, why their relationship cratered, and yet why they might still try and make a go of their relationship again. 

It’s punchy, it's light, its fun. Finna it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and it’s a pleasant and short diversion from my normal mainline of much larger and longer works. 

If you are interested in reading this and then the sequel, Defekt, our Sean Dowie has a review of the sequel here on Nerds of a Feather.

¹I was the second in command in the Price Integrity department of a grocery store, which meant I was responsible for making sure the prices in the system, matched what the ads and signs and shelf labels said, making sure the people changing those floor signs and labels did their job...and since my bosses tended to be lazy, was always the one sent to deal with customers who thought something was wrong, often vocally and loudly.

²What did I do New Year’s Eve 1999, you might ask? My boss had a case of the “didn’t wannas”s, so *I* spent New Year’s Eve at the store waiting to see and be able to react if Y2k was going to crash our computer systems.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Cipri, Nino, Finna, Tordotcom  , 2020

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