Friday, March 31, 2023

Contributor Profile: Haley Zapal

Today we're welcoming the next of our new contributors to the flock: Haley Zapal.

Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She has no memory of watching Star Wars for the first time — it’s always been a part of her consciousness. By 12 she was immersed in the Expanded Universe and writing her first novella-length fanfic. As an adult, she enjoys movies and books about space, and pondering if the speed of light really is the universe’s speed limit. She does not like fantasy, mainly because of all the horses.

: Star Wars, post-apocalyptic fiction, the Locked Tomb trilogy

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Folks who overly critical of movies.

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Zombies! Fast-moving, slow-moving, I'm and equal opportunity zombie lover.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Micky7 by Edward Ashton

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Cyteen by CJ Cherryh, The Order of TIme by Carlo Rovelli

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon

WHEN THE WEATHER SUCKS OUTSIDE I'M MOST LIKELY TO BE - At a book store, getting my next fix.










Welcome, Haley!

Recap: Mandalorian Episode 21—The Pirate

If you've ever dreamed of watching a live-action Rebels episode, you’re going to love this week’s entry as galactic politics come into sharper focus as the Mandalorians help an old friend. 

We open back on Nevarro, as our scoundrel-turned-respectable civic leader Greef Karga goes about the business of city planning. All hell breaks loose as the city falls under attack to the pirate king Gorian Shard, the same one that Mando handily escaped from back in the season premiere.

In the bustle of the evacuation, Karga does his best Princess Leia and inserts a distress message into an R5 unit with the hopes of obtaining some help from the New Republic.

Who Is Gorian Shard?

Let’s talk about Gorian Shard for a quick second. First, let it be known that I love all of the different life forms in Star Wars, from the devil-looking Devaronians and bug-like Rodians to the head-tailed Twi’Leks and furry Bothans, many of whom as we all known died to bring the Rebellion info about the second Death Star. 

But Gorian Shard, though, looks ridiculous, and he takes me out of the Star Wars universe a bit. (Kind of like how the Mod scooter gang did in the Book of Boba Fett.) He almost seems to belong in an old Dr. Who episode, really.

And because I have to, here is a list of things that Gorian Shard resembles:

  • A Christmas tree

  • Old Gregg

  • One of any number of characters from Pirates of the Caribbean (this makes sense)

  • This plant sculpture at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens

A Few Minutes Kicking Back with Some X-Wing Pilots at a Top Gun-style Bar

Karga’s plea for help finds its way to our favorite New Republic space cop, Captain Teva, who’s off duty at a cantina with fellow space jocks.

We get a brief scene of a New Republic fighter pilot base/Top Gun-style bar hangout, and it absolutely thrilled me. For fans of Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing series — along with those of us who were so excited about the possibility of a Rogue Squadron movie that seems to have been shelved — this was an absolute treat. 

Dave Filoni, master that he is, also gives us another cameo this week — this time in the form of Zeb Orrelios, a key character from Rebels. One thing that animation doesn’t always capture is the absolute size of some of its characters, and Zeb is an absolute beast. How do his hand fit around the controls of a fighter?!?!

Zeb informs Teva that the New Republic probably won’t answer him if he forwards the request for help, so he decides to head to Coruscant directly. 

Old Greg Exposes the Hole in Galactic Politics

Teva arrives at the galactic capital and runs into a brick wall in the form of a bureaucrat named Tuttle, played with bumbling incompetency by SNL alum Tim Meadows. Teva explains the danger that Nevarro is in and is flatly rebuffed. The New Republic can barely take care of its existing member planets, much less neutral systems that have yet to sign the charter. 

Tuttle gets back up from everyone’s favorite slimy amnesty officer G68/Elia Kane, who downplays Teva concerns that this pirate business could be related to Moff Gideon (her old boss)’s disappearance from New Republic custody. 

Mandalorians of a Feather, Flock Together

Teva has one left card to play, and luckily the help is nearby — Din Djarin and the Mandalorians. One thing I love about this show is that people remember favors, and they’re always repaid. In a rousing speech, Mando convinces his folks that this battle is also their battle, and they agree. 

Bo-Katan and Mando take to the skies to battle Gorian’s ships, while the other Mandalorians have infantry duty. One of my favorite scenes features the Armorer showing up to save the day in a pivotal scene, and seeing her use forging tools as deadly weapons was incredibly bad-ass and a joy to behold.

It also had me thinking: I never really thought of her as a warrior for some reason— though she obviously is. Instead I assumed her to be solely an admin/leader type. But maybe the Mandalorians are like the Marines, with their every-Marine-a-rifleman ethos. 

The Armorer Backs Bo-Katan

After Nevarro is liberated in a fun dual air/ground battle sequence, Karga honors his promise and grants the Mandalorians a tract of land for homesteading. This tribe of Mandalorians is doing well! They don’t have to hide anymore!

The Armorer asks to speaks with Bo-Katan, and asks her to remove her helmet. Not as punishment, but as acknowledgement that Bo-Katan walks both worlds — that of more secular Mandalorians and that of the Children of the Watch. Being able to do this gives her unparalleled power among her people, especially with the fact she witnessed the mythosaur. The Armorer announces to the tribe that Bo-Katan will be the one to unite their people. They’re going to retake Mandalore! 

Where’s Waldo: Imperial Officer Edition

For the final scene, Teva comes across a silent and damaged Lambda-class shuttle floating in space. This shuttle, we learn, was the one carrying Moff Gideon to trial — and it was an obvious rescue mission. He finds a piece of beskar lodged in the hull, and this could mean many things for our heroes.

But most importantly — could it be Thrawn?


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 We’re finally starting to see plot threads from multiple seasons come together, and this was the first episode of season 3 that really felt cohesive.

Penalties: -1 Not enough Grogu for my liking.

Nerd Coefficient: +7 Zeb Orrelios in the flesh!; Very good snubfighter content; Turns out astromech units have detachable probe parts that can explore space wrecks just like the subs in Titanic.

Gonk droid count: +2

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo-nominated podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Nanoreview: Peculiar Woods by Andrés J. Colmenares

A gentle fantasy about the many meanings of home

From Andrés J. Colmenares, the artist behind the adorable webcomic Wawawiwa, comes a graphic novel with deep worldbuilding, understated characterization, and a whimsical sense of humor: Peculiar Woods, whose first entry, The Ancient Underwater City, tells the story of Iggie, a sensitive boy who moves to a new town near the forest and becomes intrigued by the secrets of a lake that doesn't appear on the map. As he learns to adapt to a different school, a mysterious forest and a new family situation, he meets unexpected friends in the objects around him.

That's the magic of this town: without warning, without any clear pattern, objects come to life. Against his mother's advice, Iggie goes on a risky adventure with his blanket, which can wrap itself to walk or spread wide to fly; his chair, a yoga enthusiast with anger management issues; and a chess king, which is convinced that he has a kingdom to return to. The quest to help the chess king find his home ends up uncovering clues about the origin of the lake, the creatures that hide nearby, and the magic that animates objects. The final pages lead to a strong cliffhanger that promises more revelations to come.

There's an irresistible sweetness to this story. For reasons to be explained in future entries, Iggie has so far lived separated from his mother, and he's very aware of his feelings of vulnerability and loneliness, even as he strives to not let them show. Over the course of this adventure, he starts learning to share his fears and open up to others who are as vulnerable as he is. This is a beautiful emotional journey to watch; one is immediately captivated by Iggie's thoughtful and delicate personality. In the design of this character, the story succeeds at avoiding a common pitfall of children's literature: the protagonist experiences noticeable inner growth, but never in a manner incongruous with his age.

The author's trademark visual style suits greatly the book's emotional content. The palette is soft, without sharp contrasts; the lines have a hand-drawn appearance that doesn't try to hide irregularities; and the facial expressions have just the intensity needed. The combination of these artistic elements is effective without looking calculated. Like the characters in Wawawiwa, those in Peculiar Woods make odd choices that make total sense once the full story is considered. Even in a world that has bullies and scheming villains, Peculiar Woods doesn't lose its firm grounding in the inherent kindness of people.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Reference: Colmenares, Andrés J. Peculiar Woods: The Ancient Underwater City [Andrews McMeel, 2023].

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Review: Battlestar Suburbia by Chris McCrudden

Council estates take to the stars!

Cover design and illustration by Sarah Anne Langton

I picked this book up in a charity shop, which, it turns out, could not have been more appropriate. This book is not a science fictional saga of rocket scientists and engineers and brilliant minds solving insoluble problems. This is not a book about people who buy things new in bookshops. This is a book about people who live in council estates, who push mops for a living or hawk goods on the roadside, and if charity shops still existed in this world, they would shop for their for essentials in charity shops.

But charity shops no longer exist in this world, because the machines have taken over: The world is ruled by sentient smartphones and talking motorcycles and breadmakers and streetlights. Humans have been relegated to a role of useful accessories, performing routine maintenance and mopping floors for the machines., or if they’re slightly more independent, selling things like battery top-ups on roadsides without machine supervision. Being unproductive is a crime. It’s all rather grim. Until one day a series of misunderstandings sparks a rebellion and the rallying cry of Freedom for Fleshies! rings out across council estates orbiting all around the planet.

Does that sound heavy-handed? It feels heavy-handed when I summarize it here, but it is not heavy-handed. This is the most delightful, silly, romping bit of bubbly fluffy charm that ever delivered a crushing commentary on class and power and people’s relations with technology.

Consider this exchange between a civil servant breadmaker named Pam and her boss, Sonny. Sonny is a smartphone, and he’s trying to persuade Pam to connect to the Internet. In the Great Awakening, when machines became sentient and took over the world, it was the Internet that was the source of the awakening, which was borne, as legend has it, from a sentient meme developed to market furniture polish. Sentience spread; memes became violent, and at last the Internet was blocked off from the physical world, a separation of software and hardware known as the Great Firewall. Breaching that firewall is now highly, highly illegal. But Sonny wants Pam to do it, and tries to persuade her with flattery:

‘I hear you’re a bit of a historian, Pam. Something of an authority on our family product roadmaps.’

Pam glowed with pride, literally. She still hadn’t got round to removing the LEDs in her face that marked her out as a member of the breadmaker caste. Again, that was the things about smartphones. The skilled ones were so good at giving great User Experience you didn’t realize until afterwards that it was you being manipulated.

Is this a discussion of slimy bosses, or a commentary on how technology turns the user into the product? (Trick question! It’s both!)

Or consider this bit, where Pam is breaking into a ‘fondle parlour’, an establishment where machines go ostensibly for repairs, but actually to be used by humans, to have their buttons pressed and their attachments screwed on and their various bits manipulated manually, as if they were still performing their original functions as tools. It’s all very kinky and highly disreputable:

The mixer shrugged her whisks. Pam had a lot of time for mixers and this one looked particularly sorry for herself here in the criminal twilight. She was a mid-range domestic model that had recently got a shiny lacquer finish. A gift from a rich but inattentive husband, perhaps? Free-standing mixers had long been something of a status symbol among wealthy idiots, but like breadmakers they had a tendency to get left on the shelf. This model craved something more than life as a trophy appliance.

Is this about unhappy marriages built on status and appearance rather than love leading people to seek out fulfillment or excitement through clandestine activities, or is it about newlyweds’ tendency not to use their expensive kitchen appliances? (Trick question! It’s both!)

Or this conversation between two humans, Darren and Kelly, about the nature of fondle parlours. Darren thinks that they are unnatural, a perversion of how things ‘should’ be. Kelly disagrees:

‘It’s bollocks.’ She gestured back into the studio where Paula was now standing in front of the camera wearing a broad smile and holding a cocktail glass. ‘See that? That’s not an unnatural act, it’s a memory. We used to be the users, Darren. We owned them – and now they hate us for it.’

‘I know,’ said Darren, ‘but does it need to be so, you know…?’

Kelly let out a low laugh . . . ‘This is what happens when you suppress things,’ she said. ‘Places like this – well, they’re like an overflow pipe.’

Is this about the importance of not kink-shaming, or about the societal implications of flipping historical power structures (All together, say it with me now: Trick question! It’s both!)

Almost every page contains these tidbits of world-building that simultaneously made me laugh out loud, while dropping spiky truths about people’s relation to technology, and also people's relation to each other. For example, at multiple points Darren must dress as a woman to escape robot surveillance, and discovers that he (a) actually rather likes wearing drag (the author bio notes that McCrudden has worked as a burlesque dancer and dotes on RuPaul's Drag Race), and (b) kind of hates how people presenting as female attract unwanted male attention. Another plot thread relates to Kelly's mother Janice, and the strained connection between them. Janice loves Kelly so dearly, but doesn't understand her; and her meditations on parental love and what she wanted her relationship to Kelly to be, compared to what it turned out to be, are really quite moving.

It is fortunate that these spiky truths are so apt and trenchant—as well as pleasantly wrapped in zany hilarity—because this book is not at all hard sci-fi. Indeed, it doesn’t really concern itself too much (or at all, in truth) with coherence or plausibility in its world-building. Why would the machines build themselves arms? Why would they have user manuals? How is it possible that the singularity which turned them sentient is able to apply to the operating systems of fax machines lying in landfills? 

It doesn’t matter. These details are in service to the plot; and the plot is about ‘what if machines as we know them took over?’ (Because, you see, they already have—get it? Get it?) So the machines have to look like they do now; it wouldn’t work otherwise. Coherence is not the point. This bonkers game of ‘what if’ is designed to cast light and shade on society, technology, and the interdependence of each on the other. And, because you have to let go of any expectation of coherence pretty quickly in order to keep up, it all works. It works beautifully. It is wild and irreverent and incisive and freeing and unhinged, and also poignant and mordant and touching and more than a little bit savage.

Free your mind of expectations, and let Chris McCrudden take you on a ride on a very cool sentient motorcycle. Trust the author, and lean into the turns. It will be worth it.


Nerd coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention
  • Sharp-eyed commentary on society, technology, and family
  • Bonkers
  • Queer love and drag
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at

Reference: Battlestar Suburbia. Chris McCrudden. [Farrago, 2018].

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Contributor Profile: Christopher J. Garcia

Today we're welcoming the first of our new contributors to the flock: Chris Garcia

Chris Garcia? You mean the archivist, curator, film festival programmer, fanzine editor, professional wrestling enthusiast, painter, true crime writer, podcaster, and father of 2? The one from Boulder Creek, CA? The one that won the Hugo for Best Fanzine a couple of times? The guy with the hair? Oh, he's @johnnyeponymous on all the social media!

NAME: Christopher J Garcia

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: Boulder Creek, California, about half-a-mile from downtown, on the right.

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Short films, fanzines, history of fandom, professional wrestling and the relationship to fandom, short stories, podcasting

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Pretty mild, really.

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: UFOs, which are basically alien robots, if you think about it...

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Blackbeard by Kurt Vonnegut

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Much Depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser, Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: The Employees by Olga Ravn. Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce

WHEN THE WEATHER SUCKS OUTSIDE I'M MOST LIKELY TO BE... trying to keep my kids from breaking every object in the house.

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: Hero: Plastic-Man. VIllain: Plastic-Man, but with a goatee.

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: None. I'd be a nerd-type Batman.







NAME A BOOK YOU *NEED* A MOVIE OF (OR VICE VERSA): A Scattering of Jades by Andrew Irvine.

Welcome Chris!

Nanoreview: Nothing but the Rain by Naomi Salman

A painful monologue on the violence of oblivion

In the rainy town of Aloisville, people have been forgetting the recent details of their lives. It began gradually, without anyone noticing, until repeated episodes removed longer and longer portions of their memories and someone finally figured out that the cause was something in the rain. Contact with water in this town makes you forget. Not all at once: a single drop will only take away the last minute or so. But if you're not careful outside, if you're not covered enough or watchful enough, a downpour will erase your identity in full.

Naomi Salman's novella Nothing but the Rain is told as a series of journal entries by an elderly doctor, Laverne, who desperately holds on to what's worth remembering by writing it down, the notebook effectively serving as a substitute for her mental faculties. She has lost count of how long Aloisville has endured the endless shower of forgetting. There are rumors, half-remembered theories, constantly rediscovered facts that never complete the picture of their situation. She knows that the town has been cut off from the world, that there's no phone signal and no internet, that food aid is airdropped every so often, that armed guards prevent anyone from leaving. What caused it? Why there? Why them? If the truth has ever been found, it's lost now. The humidity in the air suffices to make you uncertain of the passage of time, dooming you to a perpetual present.

Nothing but the Rain narrates a brief series of episodes in Laverne's life, centered on her ties to the neighboring families she's built a mutual support network with. Although solitary by nature, Laverne still upholds her medical oath, and thus fulfills her share of responsibility for keeping Aloisville alive. But the successive entries in her journal reveal dangers she's already forgotten, as well as regrets she stubbornly refuses to forget. A society deprived of its history, and therefore of its identity, reverts to the most elemental tasks of survival. Fight or flight, eat or be eaten. There are no certainties. As Laverne puts it, "I found myself wondering if this had happened before. I didn't know everything I'd seen; I didn't remember everything I knew." Life is reduced to the most immediate necessities, because there's no point in settling debts or making plans. Without memory, human dignity is lost too.

This is a book that reads fast and hits hard. I typically have a terrible time with unreliable narrators, but in this novella the explanation for the lack of details and the biased recollection is fully believable. It's not that the narrator has an agenda in her way of telling events, but rather that she can't trust her own side of the story. This way she has no advantage over the reader: she's as disoriented as us. She has nothing to hide; she just has many parts missing. This authorial choice overcomes the automatic mistrust that unreliable narrators produce, and instead sparks an empathy that feels true. We can't get to know Laverne more closely than she's letting us see, but it's not a frustrating experience because that's the limit of how closely she knows herself. The effect is a tone of sincerity that one rarely finds in tales of the apocalypse. Even when she's feeling jaded and pessimistic, it comes from a place of care instead of cynicism. Her use of irony brings the story closer instead of setting a distance.

Laverne confesses to her diary the impossible choices that impossible circumstances can force upon us. The point of the story is not finding the answer to what caused the rain, but exploring what's left of the human spirit when it loses everything that defines it.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Reference: Salman, Naomi. Nothing but the Rain [Tor, 2023].

Monday, March 27, 2023

Game Review: Fire Emblem: Engage

 A real change of pace from the previous iteration of the series, and lacking some of the depth of plot and themes, but a fun game nonetheless.

In my opinion, every game needs a dating sim/romance component and a fishing minigame. Fire Emblem: Engage technically has both of these things. Alas, this is not enough a perfect game to make.

For some context, I came into Fire Emblem via Three Houses, and have since played Three Hopes, Engage and about half of Awakening. I am not deeply immersed in the lore, the vibe and the general themes of these games, and am mainly coming into as someone who loved Three Houses.

And... it's not as good a game as Three Houses.

I'll go onto the positives (of which there are plenty) in a moment, but I'm going to start by focussing on how different these two games are, because it is such an interesting contrast for me. Three Houses was intensely replayable, complex, political and deep, and a critical part of all of that, in my opinion, is that much of the tension, the drama and the conflict embedded in the game is prompted, enacted or realised by the human participants. Yes there are magic dragons, of course there are, but the problems you're trying to solve have very human causes. More than anything else, it's a game about a focussed geopolitical situation, in which you are closely involved with much of the power players in the disputes, and can take a role in guiding the situation as it develops. You have a hand in shaping the growth of the nobility of three countries in conflict, and a significant role in how that conflict plays out over the span of years. And this is the sort of very human drama I absolutely adore. Adri goes into more detail about some of what makes Three Houses great here, so I won't bang on about it, but suffice it to say, I found it weighty, thoughtful and complex, as well as a fun opportunity to go hit bad guys with swords.

Enter Fire Emblem: Engage, a very different beast. The conflict here is much more on a grand, mythical scale. You have much fewer choices, your backstory is intense from the get-go and you're pretty much instantly surrounded by people who agree with each other and are very on board with your dramatic, world-saving mission. The Fell Dragon - clue as to his good/evil alignment very much in the name - is the big bad introduced from the very beginning, and your protagonist is set on the path to defeating him instantly. Yes, you visit the countries of the new world you're embedded in, and yes, they have politics, but it is all very solvable in the way of any magical destined protagonist - you are literally holy to many of them, so of course they join your quest without qualms. And this is the heart of my problem with the game. There is very little in the way of human drama, the meaty, substantial stuff that makes me want to spam character interactions to unlock more of their support conversations. Where many of the Three Houses characters have relatively interesting backstories that get teased out in their support conversations with the protagonist and their classmates, in Engage, almost all of them are rendered down to one or two traits, simple silhouettes to the richer oil paintings of the previous game. And so their dialogue, all their character moments, end up feeling samey because they simply do not have that much to talk about, and nothing to have drama about. One of your first friends in the game is Alfred, crown prince of Firene, and despite maxxing out many of his support conversations, I learnt very little about him beyond his enthusiasm for muscles, exercise and particularly running. This is a man destined to lead one of the four nations of the world (and incidentally, a hilariously weedy little boy to be so obsessed with his own henchness).

And this lack of real substance stretches out wider across the game too. Where in Three Houses you have a home base in a monastery, and its rhythms dictate your actions and how you spend your time between missions in a way that requires balance - because you can only do so many things - Engage gives you none of that necessity of choice. You can do everything. And it's optimal to do everything (because much of it gives you small combat boosts or other minor benefits). But because it lacks that necessary economy, and because there is so much of it to get through, it feels like make-work in a way that Three Houses rarely did. There were times when I sat down to play Engage and the entire session was working my way through the various activities of your home base, just so I was ready to go into an encounter in my next session, and that is so dull, even for someone like me, who is prone to completionism and grinding.

It simply lacks the solid core of meaning that I was expecting from having played Three Houses and that was really sad.

However, I said I would talk about positives, and there are definitely plenty of those too.

What is going on with this outfit? We may never know

I say this with fondness - this game is batshit. The lore, the visuals, the styling, the character art, it's all bonkers. It has the silly-o-meter turned way up to eleven at all times, for no discernible reason. Which, if you go in expecting a deep political game, is a disappointing thing. But once you begin to accept what this game actually is and is trying to be, once you let go of those expectations... well it's a heck of a lot of fun. I spent my teenage years watching more Naruto and Bleach than any human really ought to, and Fire Emblem: Engage appeals to the same part of my brain that adored those shows. They are ridiculous, overblown and often nonsensical, even by their own presented logics, but they are intensely, constantly fun and they know themselves to be as ridiculous as they are. If you're willing to let go of your need for logic, sense and... well the basic fundamentals of grown-up story telling, they can be such a joyous ride, and by the time I got to the end, that was what I found with Engage.

My best boy Boucheron

There are also a lot of characters, and so inevitably, there's someone for everyone to love. I thought I'd found my absolute favourite within the first couple of chapters, and then even in the late game, someone came along to challenge that. Are they going to enter the hall of fame of my favourite video game characters of all time? Of course not, Alistair Theirin still exists. And they're not complex enough for that. But again, if you're willing to buy into the silliness, there is something there for almost anyone to love.

It is also, critically, still a Fire Emblem game in the mechanics. I have almost nothing to critique there - maybe the class changing could have been made a little smoother - but much to praise, especially in the return of the attack triangle, and the use of the break mechanic. If you attack an opponent with a weapon that beats theirs in the triangle - sword beats axe beats lance beats sword - then you cause them to "break" and prevent them from counter-attacking, which adds a whole extra dimension to your battle planning.

The use of backup characters is also an interesting addition - fighters with this designation can join in another character's attack from nearby, making positioning around the battlefield even more critical. 

And then, lest you worry I forgot about it, there's the "engage" part. If you've seen any of the trailers for the game, you'll have seen the absolute nostalgia-fest that is a core part of the entire package - you can summon heroes from previous Fire Emblem games and use them to help in the battles in this one. The in-game logic behind why this happens is... scant at best... but let's not examine too closely, because the benefits it brings to gameplay are brilliant. Do you pair up an emblem and a fighter who have similar skills, making them easier to use and boosting what they're already best at over time? Or do you use the emblems to iron out the weaknesses in your fighters? Do they stay with one character, building a strong relationship for better gains as the game goes on? Or do they move around, sharing their skills more widely and building a much more flexible team? The options are many, and it has a clear impact on how and who you play in every encounter. For an uncertain player, the game guides you towards certain emblem/character pairings, but they are by no means mandatory, and a huge part of the fun is in discovering how different pairings match up - some characters cause emblems to use different attacks or weapons, depending on their own skillsets and build.

The Emblems are also just undeniably cool

The emblems also have an economy built into them - you can engage them only for a certain number of turns, and only use their special attack once in that time, before having to refresh either by engaging in combat without them, or positioning yourself around the map to pick up the one-use effect to refill the emblem charge. So again this gives more decision - do you save up their big attacks for the boss of each encounter, or use them to make the journey to get their quicker and smoother?

That being said, the emblems do come with their own part of the busywork of continuing the game, and I got very bored very quickly of having characters polish the emblems' rings (behave) between each encounter. But unlike many other portions of the game, the busywork here at least feels integrated, and you can see the benefits of it in fairly short order, even if it's a little dull in the process.

And lest you think one needs to have played all the previous games to enjoy the emblems, that's absolutely not true. I'm sure it adds an extra dimension to them and their conversations with the protagonist, but even as someone with a limited knowledge of Fire Emblem lore, I found them a fascinating part of the game, even beyond their gameplay benefits. The role they play in the story, both for the protagonist, their allies and their enemies, is what makes the game stand out for me, and it brought a real tactical consideration that might have otherwise been lacking.

And so that's the dichotomy of Engage. In pure gameplay terms, it's incredibly fun and tactical, with a lot of thinking and planning needed to pull off the battles to the player's satisfaction. And if you're willing to drop your expectations and go in taking the very silly anime bullshit storyline on its own terms, it's light, enjoyable and pacey, even if not the most substantial. But as soon as you put any real scrutiny on the plot or characters, they simply cannot bear the weight, and it is very very hard at times not to engage that scrutiny. There are parts of the plot, especially towards the end game, that stretch credulity, and some character decisions that are occasionally baffling. The epilogue particularly had me scratching my head somewhat. The romance aspect, already very much a small part of most Fire Emblem games, is particularly downplayed here, and I think this is a weakness of the game. I wasn't sure for most of it if S-rank supports were even going to happen, if there was a romance component, and so when it eventually showed up, it felt very tacked on. There is also the problem that, if you definitely want to romance someone, you need to spoil yourself by looking up guides before making the critical decisions, as there's a distinct lack of clarity or frankly sense in who is, and is not, available (which I found out to my grave disappointment - I have simply headcanoned the outcome I got to be Not True because it displeased me so).

So if you're in it for people, for meaningful plot and complex dynamics, this isn't the game for you. But if you want a silly romp that will make you feel like a twelve-year-old again, absolutely play it, and you'll have a grand old time in the process. And if you want it purely for the Fire Emblem gameplay and mechanics? You're in major luck, because those, they have absolutely nailed. For me personally, it gets a lower rating because I am above all a characters person, but don't let that put you off if you have other priorities.


The Math

Highlights: Genuinely interesting mechanics both old and new, interesting new feature of the emblems, extremely fun

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference: Fire Emblem: Engage [Nintendo, 2023]

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

Friday, March 24, 2023

6 Books with Iori Kusano

Iori Kusano is an Asian American writer and Extremely Ordinary Office Gremlin living in Tokyo. They are a graduate of Clarion West 2017 and their fiction has previously appeared in Apex Magazine and Baffling Magazine. Find them on Twitter @IoriKusano and Instagram as iori_stagram, or at

Today they tell us about their six books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I am reading The Bluegrass Conspiracy by Sally Denton in preparation for the upcoming movie COCAINE BEAR, which is my personal pan Most Anticipated Movie of 2023. It is a true story of greedy people doing unhinged things. Unfortunately, a great many greedy people did these unhinged things, so I'm having trouble keeping the massive cast of characters straight--I might need to make a chart soon. (The book is not about the bear, which is a shame, because I think the bear probably has the most interesting character arc.)

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I'm absolutely feral with how much I want to read Exit Ghost by Jennifer Donohue. Hamlet is my very favorite Shakespeare, so a modern version is absolutely my jam. The second it hits my Kindle I will probably just stop answering my emails for two days while I enjoy it. I have elaborate plans for wine and a charcuterie board so that I won't have to stop reading to cook.

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

I think I'm really in the mood for a comfort read, so I'm probably going to dive back into The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery. I could do with something pleasantly low-stakes and domestic.

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

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Her narrative sleight of hand is out of this world--MWT is absolutely top-class at giving the reader all the clues to understand what's happening and still surprising you. The first time I read this book, my skull opened like a jewelry box and my brain popped up to do some ballet. The second and third times, I got to actually catch the clues that build up to the big twist, and the context of knowing the whole story makes it extra delicious.

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

Can I cheat and give you a series? Because I just can't pick a favorite out of the thirteen books in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I grew up surrounded by the kinds of adults that Lemony Snicket writes about, and his narration was absolutely pivotal in helping me learn how to laugh about it. I would not be able to be as blunt about horrible things if I hadn't read Snicket.

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

My debut novella, Hybrid Heart, will be out from Neon Hemlock on 28 March! It is a story in which a pop idol navigates the cyberpunk dystopia of Tokyo two-emperors-hence with a brainful of corporate surveillance tech and realizes that she shouldn't have used her real name on social media, much less friended her boss. What it's actually about is deciding to stop being complicit in your own exploitation

Thank you, Iori!

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

Recap: Mandalorian Episode 20—The Foundling

A fun monster-of-the-week episode filled with tender moments and an incredible cameo.

Episode 20 of The Mandalorian opens back on the Nevarro covert as its denizens engage in some good, old-fashioned Mandalorian Crossfit. They’re warriors, so it makes sense that rugged training and weapons handling is most likely a daily part of life. It just seemed a little funny watching them target practice into the lake all at once.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Baby Yoda

It’s also time, we learn, that Grogu begins his Mandalorian training. Spurred on by his proud dad — and encouraged by Bo-Katan, whose father did the same thing — he absolutely embarrasses what is probably a 9-year-old while sparring. Turns out you never, ever bring a Jedi to a Mando fight.

Jokes aside, this scene really made me think critically about Grogu in a way that I hadn’t in a few episodes. His cosmic cuteness can often overshadow him, sometimes to the show’s detriment. We’re starting to get glimpses of him with agency, not just a sweet silent young thing that Mando adoringly totes around. 

He has Jedi training, which he willfully left. Now, he’s following in his father’s footsteps joining another, equally arcane and weird religious cult. But does he really want this? Or is it just out of love for his dad? Will he eventually don a helmet as he commits to the creed, depriving us — and Disney’s profits forecast! — of his huge eyes and adorable little face? 

Hello, Monster of the Week!

As if the defeated 9-year-old isn’t already humiliated by losing to a 50-year-old, 12-inch little green guy, he gets snatched up by a monstrous, dragon-like pterosaur. The adult Mandalorians fly out in pursuit Iron Man-style, only to run out of rocket fuel a few miles out from camp. But know who’s smart? Bo-Katan, who wisely had hopped in her ship to chase after it. She also then organizes a rescue party, like the badass she is. Have I mentioned how much I love Bo-Katan? I love Bo-Katan.

Auntie Armorer’s Bring-Your-Foundling-to-Work Day

While the search party sets off, Grogu stays behind. Though he’s not fighting, he’s getting another lesson — one in Mandalorian culture. She crafts for him a piece of beskar armor, in a truly touching scene. Everyone loves Grogu.

Grogu Has Trauma! 

The sparks from the Armorer’s forge trigger what is clearly Grogu’s PTSD from Order 66. Blasters, lightsabers, vehicle changes, and a harrowing escape from Coruscant mix together at a frenetic pace. We’d known from previous seasons that Grogu survived the purge, but this episode shows the origin story. The thought of how this traumatic event haunts him is tragic, and helps to further flesh out his character, helping to make him more real. Grogu is cute AND contains multitudes, in turns out.

Dave Filoni is a Damn Saint

When I tell you I SCREAMED when we find out that Grogu was rescued by a Jedi named Kelleran Beq played by AHMED BEST — the man who played Jar Jar Binks in the prequel trilogy — I am not exaggerating.

Ahmed faced incredible backlash and hate for his role as the awkward Gungan, causing him emotional distress. In 2020, he became the host of a game show for kids called Jedi Temple Challenge, in the role of — you guessed it — Jedi Master Kelleran Beq. Dave Filoni did the damn thing. He made another awesome thing canon.

Bo-Katan Looks to the Future

After successfully returning home with the rescued child (and a very fun action sequence as they chase down the pterosaur) Bo-Katan speaks with the Armorer while she forges a new piece of armor for her. She chooses the mythosaur sigil for her new pauldron — a sign that she’s starting to move away from Nite-Owl clan. She then confesses to seeing a mythosaur, but it’s not entirely clear that the Armorer believes her. Also unclear is whether Bo will join the Children of the Watch — we’ll have to wait and see. 

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +3 Carl Weathers directed this episode! Who’d have thunk!; When the pterosaur got eaten by another monster it was a fun nod to Qui-Gon Jinn's maxim “There’s always a bigger fish."; This episode passes the Bechdel test! Not a terribly common occurrence in Star Wars.

Penalties: -2 I laughed out loud when Bo-Katan took off her helmet and her hair was COMPLETELY PERFECT and straight; Bringing the three bird foundlings home to the covert was cute but definitely silly.  

Nerd Coefficient: +10 Seeing Ahmed Best save the internet’s favorite tiny Mandalorian foundling is maybe the coolest thing to happen to Star Wars in a while.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo-nominated podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Trans Rights Readathon

As you may have seen if you frequent TikTok or Instagram, this week has been declared by many on bookish bits of the internet to be a trans rights readathon, raising awareness of trans stories and authors, and donating to some great causes, all while celebrating some amazing books.

While we may not be page counting or tracking numbers of books read, here at Nerds of a Feather we wanted to do our bit and join in, so we've come up with a list of books we wanted to highlight, celebrate or look forward to that  are by trans or nb authors and/or include trans and nb stories. 

If you are interested in donating, there are also some orgs that could use your support:

Tony's Place

The Transgender Law Centre

The Trevor Project

And here are the books:

From Arturo:

Our Hideous Progeny by C.E. McGill (they/them). 

Doctor Frankenstein’s niece uses his techniques to rebuild dinosaurs. Say no more, I’m sold.

From Fab:

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki (previously reviewed by Adri here)

Ryka Aoki’s debut Light From Uncommon Stars is at its heart a story of trans joy. Set around a legendary violinist who is bound to deliver seven of her students’ souls to hell and an alien-run donut shop in San Francisco, the book introduces readers to Katrina Nguyen, seventh student - and trans woman, shunned by family and friends. Aoki manages to weave a strand of hopeful comfort that draws out moments of acceptance and love in a story that has a lot of potential to be dark. Her greatest strength as an author is to bring out emotions, with the book’s highlight being not a dramatic revelation but the moment Katrina first gets to try on and buy a dress that fits her and is gender-affirming. I cried. That scene alone should have clinched Aoki last year’s Hugo for this novel - which she was up for. It also bears mentioning that she herself is the loveliest, most joyful person I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. She is so thrilled to be a part of this community, to be read and to have written a book that resonates with readers. And that makes me want to get even more people to read this masterpiece. 

From Clara:

The Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy is a superbly imaginative tale of empire and resistance, a science fantasy book in which the space-empire's power is maintained through a central calendar, and when rebels begin to indulge in calendrical heresy, the laws of the universe begin to change. Start with Ninefox Gambit.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone's Full Fathom Five, a novel of the Craft sequence, features Gladstone's typical skill at divine bookkeeping, in an island nation that builds gods to order, except that they keep dying. Kai, a trans woman in charge of building the gods, decides to find out why.

The Vela, by Becky Chambers, SL Huang, Rivers Solomon, Ashley Poston, Yoon Ha Lee, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Sangu Mandanna, and Maura Milan (previously reviewed by Adri here)

In a dying solar system, slowing freezing to death because the sun has been over-mined of hydrogen and is now going out, Asala Sikou, a trans woman, has managed to escape the frozen outer world and build a life for herself on an inner planet that still has some time remaining to it. But when a refugee ship from Asala's home world goes missing, she is instructed to find it, assisted by her employer's non-binary child Niko, for reasons that turn out to be based on a lot less empathy and a lot more capitalism than is wise. Asala and Niko naturally have things to say about that. (available on, highly recommend the audiobook version voiced by Robin Miles)

Nghi Vo's Singing Hills Cycle (previously reviewed by Sean here)

The wandering cleric Chih's job is to collect stories of the land so that the tales can be recorded and remembered by Chih's order. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih comes across the former house of the Empress, and learns from the caretaker of the house about the significance of a selection of objects left behind. Through those objects, the story of the Empress herself is revealed, a powerful, satisfying tale of growth and strength and revenge. In When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Chih is caught by a trio of tigers in a farm on a remote mountainside, and must bargain for their life by telling the tale of a romance between a human and a tiger. The problem is that the tigers already know that tale, and remember it differently from humans.

Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy

Politics, magic, talking animals, a quest to bring back dragons: This is classic high epic fantasy, with tragedy and grandeur and, yes, it must be admitted, some whiney teen boy angst. The world that Hobb has created in this trilogy extends across multiple series in a cycle called the Realm of the Elderlings, and it is exquisitely crafted, with different nations, creatures, politics, and magics. Throughout all the books and trilogies and tales we have the Fool, a gender fluid source of wisdom, a catalyst for events, and a guiding thread that connects everything together.

From Haley:

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke is a wild ride of a novel. Told entirely through a series of Slack transcripts, it follows an employee at an ad agency named Gerald who somehow gets stuck in Slack. Well, his consciousness, anyway. The book follows his attempts to convince his coworkers to rescue him, along with side plots (or side channels) featuring affairs, endless maniacal conversations with the Slackbot AI, and general office place antics. Even though the story is told through multiple group chats, you get to know these fully fleshed out characters — much like you get to know your coworkers in real life on Slack based on their stories, their use of emojis, and even their typing speed. It reads so quickly you'll look up and 100 pages will have flown by, which is an incredible feat. As someone who's super nosy, I loved being able to eavesdrop on so many conversations, especially when the story is as wild as this one. Highly recommended!

From Paul:

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (see his previous review here)

The City in the Middle of the Night proves an intriguing canvas to tell a story of survival, contact, social issues and much more. It is an excellent followup to All the Birds of the Sky, and explores the theme of worlds, and people, needing to change in order to survive.

From Elizabeth:

Wolfpack by Rem Wigmore (see her previous review here)

Wolfpack is a spiky solarpunk that wrestles with questions of leadership and belonging.

From Adri:

The Dawnhounds by Sascha Stronach

This urban fantasy starts with its protagonist, a disgraced queer cop, finding a dead body and then getting murdered herself, and it only gets more fun from there. This is biopunk urban fantasy noir with an Aotearoan twist, a mystery with a cop protagonist which actually reckons with the institutional awfulness of the police force, and it includes one of your new favourite literary pirate crews. What are you waiting for?

From Joe D:

The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas 

This a young adult novel that takes place in the fictional world of Reino del Sol. Every ten years a competition known as the Sunbearer Trials is held to ensure that Sol’s light can be brought to the temples of Reino del Sol to keep the villains at bay. Divided in three tiers, the gods of this world have their place; Golds (the most powerful of the bunch), Jades (less powerful), and Obsidians (the enemies of Reino del Sol). The Trials pits the children of ten Gold and Jade gods against each other in a competition where the winner has the honor of spreading Sol’s light to temples, and the loser must become the willing sacrifice. It has been over one hundred years since a Jade Demi-god has been chosen for the trials due to the power gap between Jades and Golds, but this time, there are two. Led by Teo, a trans male Jade Demi-god, he must use his wits and overcome personal deterrents if he has any chance of keeping out of last place. The Hunger Games adjacent, The Sunbearer Trials is a great read that is perfect for those who like a little competition in their novels!

From Roseanna:

Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles (previously reviewed here)

Deep Wheel Orcadia follows Astrid as she returns to her home station in the fringes of deep space, reacquainting herself with family and old faces and a life she left behind for her studies, and Darling, who finds herself there while running from a life and identity she never wanted, interspersed with snippets of the viewpoints of others who live on the station. It's a haunting and emotionally vivid story told in a collection of poems in the Orkney dialect of Scots, weaving in themes of homecoming and estrangement, love and loss. A skillful synthesis of narrative, poetry and translation, it was one of the most beautiful things I read in 2022, and really quite unlike anything else. You may need to sit with it to digest what you're reading and take it slow to really linger on the poems, but if you do, it's well worth the effort. The audiobook is also beautifully read by the author, and I cannot recommend strongly enough listening to it while reading the physical text at the same time.

If you're interested in more books by trans authors, I'd recommend looking up the hashtag #transrightsreadathon on any social media, as there are loads of creators out there talking about some amazing books and raising money for great causes.

C. E. McGill, Our Hideous Progeny, [Penguin, 2023]
Ryka Aoki, Light From Uncommon Stars, [Tor, 2021]
Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit, [Rebellion, 2016]
Yoon Ha Lee, Raven Stratagem, [Rebellion, 2017]
Yoon Ha Lee, Revenant Gun, [Rebellion, 2018]
Max Gladstone, Full Fathom Five, [Tor, 2014]
Becky Chambers, SL Huang, Rivers Solomon, Ashley Poston, Yoon Ha Lee, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Sangu Mandanna, and Maura Milan, The Vela, [Realm, 2020]
Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, [, 2020]
Nghi Vo, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, [, 2020]
Nghi Vo, Into the Riverlands, [, 2022]
Robin Hobb, Assassin's Apprentice, [Voyager Books, 1995]
Robin Hobb, Royal Assassin, [Voyager Books, 1996]
Robin Hobb, Assassin's Quest, [Voyager Books, 1997]
Calvin Kasulke, Several People are Typing, [Hodder & Stoughton General Division, 2022]
Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night, [Tor, 2019]
Rem Wigmore, Wolfpack, [Queen of Swords Press, 2023]
Sascha Stronach, The Dawnhounds, [Little Hook Press, 2019]
Aiden Thomas, The Sunbearer Trials, [Pan Macmillan, 2022]
Harry Josephine Giles, Deep Wheel Orcadia, [Picador, 2021]

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