Friday, April 28, 2023

You'll want to try Kuauhtla, a Latin American-inspired setting, in your next RPG session

Latin American culture can provide inexhaustible inspiration for heroic fantasy

The Rainbow Age of speculative fiction is also reaching the tabletop gaming scene. We're seeing a fantastic variety of new settings, lore, and worldbuilding principles, caused by an explosion in diversity among game designers and artists. The most notable recent cases are Pathfinder Second Edition's launch of its African-themed setting The Mwangi Expanse and its South Asian-themed setting Impossible Lands, while the massively acclaimed Coyote & Crow is a standalone game set in a never colonized North America.

So, what about Latin America? As it happens, there's a rich selection of new material being produced. Today I'd like to show you a game setting inspired by the myths and traditions of the many Indigenous cultures that live in this vast land: Jungles of Kuauhtla by Fifth Sun Press. I spoke with one of its designers to learn more about what makes this setting unique.

Arturo Serrano from Nerds of a Feather: How did the original idea for Jungles of Kuauhtla emerge?

Mike Chell from Fifth Sun Press: While I started running out official adventures when I first became a DM, after some messy attempts at learning the rules, I quickly found that modules lacked much of the detail I was looking for. Characters were meant to travel for several days and no direction was given, so not long afterwards I began making my own campaigns.
A habit I had developed as a DM was to open my new campaigns with a monologue, often timed to a music track, where I could set the tone and kickstart my players into character.
Kuauhtla was sort of backwards-engineered from me hearing a song and imagining the campaign to which it could have been an intro, that song being, and I'm being serious, Banana Boat Song by Harry Belafonte. It's very much a workers' anthem to me and I saw in my head an image of some dockworkers loading crates onto a zeppelin at a port in the sky. I'll admit I'm not sure where this technological side came from.
After that, it was a step-by-step process. I was running a Ravenloft horror campaign at the moment, but my mind kept returning to this scene—I built onto the world piece by piece until I noticed my creativity had left that horror project entirely. I had friends in South America and even a long-distance partner in Brazil at the time, jungles and pre-Columbian civilizations fascinated me, so I suppose that's where these cultures first came into the mix.
I sat down and got to writing. Not soon after, my party was buzzing down the Uru'arama in the infinite jungles.

AS: Where did you look for the writers and artists for this project?

MC: The creators of Kuauhtla, at least when it was still only a campaign setting for me and my friends, were always just ourselves. We had a great time with it, and we became really proud of what we had made, so proud that we wanted to share it. As soon as we had this idea, we knew that we'd need to get in contact with more Latin American creators, especially for the illustrations.
One of our writers and translators, Bruno, was already in our circle, but for artists we had to scour the internet. We tried to look for Latin American illustrators who had incorporated some aspects of their culture into their art, and we found many incredibly talented people. Some of our artists expressed interest in joining our team, as in getting more hands-on with the project after seeing what we were up to, which was a major stroke of luck for us.

AS: At what stage of development is the project at this moment?

MC: Right now I suppose we've moved into a marketing stage. The ideas of Kuauhtla were solidified even back before we "went public," so to speak; I can be a quite meticulous worldbuilder when I run a campaign. Everyone on the team is trying to save up as much as we can for any kinds of sponsorships. We're all working long, hard hours to give us the best chance we can get for funding. So far we've been very lucky with the support we're getting from other creators who find the project interesting, and we're incredibly grateful for that.
Trying to get people's eyes on the project takes up most of my time now, but I still write on the book itself when I can; even if we don't get funded, we'll continue to build Kuauhtla for ourselves. After all, we were loving it long before any of this.

AS: Which real-world cultures inspired the world of Kuauhtla?

MC: When we're pressed for time, we say "Latin American," but that's an annoyingly broad term.
We've chosen to view the world of Kuauhtla through the lens of a human civilization called the Cities Above, and as the humans of the setting, they harbor the most direct references to real-world cultures. In their ancient history, they consist of multiple in-game groups seeking refuge from the deadly jungles. They resemble pre-Columbian civilizations like the Aztec and Maya, but also more tribal peoples like the Tupi.
After this point in their history, we ran into something of a dilemma. In reality, these pre-Columbian cultures were not allowed to naturally grow after the horrors of European colonialism spread. The history of Latin America is deeply linked to these atrocities, but we didn't want to inject real tragedies into the history of our setting.
The path we chose was for the Cities Above to independently adapt aspects of modern Latin America, which of course includes hints of European architecture and influence. In the end, Kuauhtla is meant to celebrate Latin America's people, both their past and their present, so we want to include all that this enormous culture has to offer.
To exclude what Latin America becomes post-colonialism or to include some magic conquistadors to spread European influence felt wrong, so we simply chose to imagine a fantasy world which can focus on the beauties and not the horrors. Here the ancient evolved into the semi-modern independently from outside influence over centuries, gaining Mexican-styled pueblos in the scrublands, and dense cities inspired by places like São Paulo and Bogotá with old architecture to match.
Since the Cities Above grow naturally, they retain many parts of the ancient cultures, so even the most modern cities can resemble the old Mayan plazas.
There is one more influence that comes into play for the modern age of Kuauhtla. An industrial revolution is sweeping the Cities Above, and we've chosen the American Art Deco style to represent this new age, with a little of the general industrializing Europe to back it up.
All that being said, we do not want to whitewash the real cultures that still push through immense struggles because of imperialism; we want to make clear that Kuauhtla is a fantasy world which chooses to put the focus elsewhere. In the real world, the tragedies should not be ignored or forgotten. This is partly why we intend to donate to ACT, the Amazon Conservation Team. It's our way of giving back and supporting the communities who carry on the cultures we were inspired by.

AS: How did you ensure a respectful representation of elements from real-world cultures?

MC: We knew the only way to truly represent these cultures was for those of us not linked to them to take a step back. We already have writers from Brazil and Chile, but we're committed to bringing more Latin American creators along so that every culture has had a representative thereof look over our work.
Writing is one thing, it can be looked over and edited more freely, but for our art we ensure that only Latin American artists illustrate these themes. To edit or alter an illustration would almost certainly make it less cohesive, so we ensure it's appropriate from the start.

AS: What game systems is Jungles of Kuauhtla compatible with?

MC: As of right now, only 5th-edition Dungeons and Dragons. For the future, we hope to adapt it to Pathfinder 2e as well, but because of the differences between the two systems, it would almost require a separate book. Of course, we intend to fill our campaign guide with as much lore as possible, so an experienced DM could make easy use of the world in a homebrew campaign of any setting.

AS: What unique rules does Jungles of Kuauhtla introduce for character creation?

MC: There are a plethora of new lineages and subclasses to pick from, along with backgrounds and feats, as well as more specific options like eldritch invocations and fighting styles. Some of these we are particularly happy with would be the Gadgeteer rogue and the Primeval druid. The Gadgeteer rogue uses the new technology of the Cities Above to create things like bombs, listening devices, caltrops, and grappling hooks. It allows a player to take over the battlefield and gives them tons of new options to deceive and spy.
A Primeval druid, on the other hand, learns an ancient art from the jungles, which allows them to transform only part of their bodies into animal tools and weaponry. They become monsters as they mix and match the thick hides of crocodiles with the poison of a dart frog, or perhaps grow the forearm of a fearsome gorilla. It's a generalist among the druids, who can fit well into many roles but not quite master any one discipline except grotesqueness.
Backgrounds aren't the most exciting things, but as a setting with an eye for the little details, we knew we had to let players be ordinary people. The classic lineup of backgrounds is often quite restrictive. Our options, such as the Worker and the Proprietor, allow characters to be farmers, store owners, janitors, or market stall merchants. Anyone can be an adventurer, after all.
Lastly, humans are of course not alone on the mountains. They're joined by elves, gnomes, and so on, as you might expect. But they are also joined by the alien Owa, who claim to have arrived on a meteor made of a magical metal. They possess psychic minds and an inhuman culture, so the Owa's districts within the dense cities are hard to miss.
There are also the semi-nomadic Kolash, living on the snowy peaks. Their bodies are made from a porous blue material similar to aerogel, which makes them weaker, but also allows them to bounce around and even fly for short periods of time thanks to a gas stored beneath their skin.
You'll find the llama-men, the Quchi, shepherds of nature, and its fierce protectors. They wander on a holy mission trying to spread the wisdom of preservation to the humans, but they've had to take drastic measures as industry is born.
The jungle also brings new and unthinkable creatures for the players to choose. For example, the Miktlan, demonic spirits with no corporeal form. Feared by all, but in fact among the only fiends to not be evil, the Miktlan can only live by possessing dead bodies and using the powers and skills their hosts once held—until they break, and a new vessel must be found. Your friends will never die for nothing again.

AS: What unique rules does Jungles of Kuauhtla introduce for spellcasting?

MC: Something new we've come up with that evolved from ideas I'd utilized in my own sessions are Specializations. In Kuauhtla, certain spellcasters can go down a path to learn unique talents—this is not something you choose, like a subclass, but instead something you become when you practice certain spells. These spells have unique rules and limitations, and can only be learned by one or two classes.
For example, one of our Specializations is called Witchcraft, and can only be learned by druids or by warlocks who have chosen a new invocation. Witchcraft allows you to make a limited number of magical items, such as potions that can be drunk or thrown at people, or fetishes that can bind spirits to the witch's will. However, to make these items, you have to find a list of ingredients in the game world that will often require additional effort or maybe even a whole session to get your hands on. Substituting ingredients for similar things may work, or it may put you in grave danger—each spell has listed effects for adequate or poor substitutions.
Specializations are best suited for long-term campaigns where the art can slowly be picked up and grow alongside a character. To strengthen this idea, all Specializations also the change the caster if used frequently, giving both negative and positive permanent effects.
For another short example, clerics may practice Mysticism, communing with forces beyond the understanding of even the gods. Such entities can grant enormous power, but you risk madness, death, or worst of all: their attention.

AS: What unique rules does Jungles of Kuauhtla introduce for combat mechanics?

MC: We had made a whole new system for spellcasters, but we knew that the martial classes really needed more new stuff to keep them fresh. Since the start of D&D 5e, all that's been added to them is a few reworks, one or two fighting styles, and subclasses, of course. To us, that just doesn't match the infinite possibilities of the spell system.
But we came up with a solution. Something I've always thought was a little sad is that most weapons have no reason to be used. The list of options is long, but it all boils down to a handful of optimal choices. To combat this issue, and add more to the martials, we've given these classes new special actions that can only be taken with certain weapons.
For example, if you're an acrobatic monk or rogue, you may use a longsword or spear to perform a plunge attack from above your target, dealing extra damage. Experienced fighters or barbarians might use a war pick to negate metal armor. These options make martials seek out a varied arsenal, and give them a reason not to stand in front of an enemy and trade simple attacks until combat ends.

AS: In terms of the player experience you wish to create, what does it feel like to travel through Kuauhtla?

MC: First and foremost, we wanted a setting that appealed to something important to us as players as DMs: details. In most of your standard settings, how do people live? What do they know about the world? Hell, who even rules the country they stand on? Maybe these things aren't relevant for most sessions, but we believe the stories a party can weave become much more interesting when everyone understands their surroundings. A well-detailed world can allow players to make revelations about lore; it can let their backstories easily intertwine with each other's and with any story the DM wants to tell without them needing to bend over backwards. Whenever you explore Kuauhtla, the details will be there to back you up. You can of course choose to ignore them, but removing things on the go is far easier than adding them.
Our world is defined by its dichotomy. That's not to say you only have two options for your experiences, but every diverse location exists either on the mountains, giving close enough proximity to safety and civilization, or in the jungles, where no place is ever truly out of reach of death's iron grasp. There's an insurmountable disparity between the two areas—the mountains are dangerous and exciting in their own right, but nothing survives permanently in the jungle.
When you wander the Cities Above, you'll pass over beautiful country roads, viewing immaculate horizons and quaint brick villages. For me, it's how I imagine paradise, ripe with history and intrigue, delicious food and fresh air. Centuries isolated on the confined mountains have let thousands of mysteries accumulate in every little town and forest, creating especially dense collections in the bustling cities which give the country its name.
It's the perfect place for lower-stakes games, political games, as well as most of your standard D&D stuff. After all, the mountains are only safe in comparison to the jungles; it's still a fantasy world.
The jungles are another story. Really, they can be thought of as an infinite dungeon. There are temporary safe havens and plenty of loot to be found, but below the canopy the wildlife has entered an evolutionary arms race. Imagine what incredibly specific survival strategies already exist here on Earth, and now turn it up to eleven and inject it with magic and psychic powers. Beasts and plant life like this means every step could be your last. You'll uncover ancient abandoned temples and glorious cities filled with the humans whose society has adapted to such a hostile place. Here the adventures are big and bombastic, high-risk, high-reward sessions where you can claim legendary artifacts and discover the truths of the universe—truly, it's a land of gods, where the most epic stories can be told on a daily basis.
I guess to sum it up, we hope Kuauhtla will make you feel something. Whether you're relaxed as you talk to the owner of an old family business, tense as you speak with a government agent, or frightened as you walk through the jungles, we will take the steps to make sure your sessions are brimming with emotion.

AS: What traditional gaming assumptions should one unlearn when entering the world of Kuauhtla?

MC: Normally, while playing a TTRPG, you might roam around without knowing much of the place around you, even though your characters often live in the same regions. There's nothing wrong with books that give you broad-stroke worlds that can be easily filled by a DM with a lot of time and creativity, but the world of Kuauhtla is a place that doesn't forget the little things. Because of our choice of mostly describing only a single country, albeit a somewhat large one, we're able to tell you at least a little about almost everything the Cities Above have to offer. Just like when playing a game in a setting based on a movie, you'll quickly learn and understand the world of Kuauhtla.
When you walk through it, you can see every little detail as part of the story, both the one your DM might be telling and the story of Kuauhtla itself. The setting can evolve like a book as you move through it, because DMs will be informed of all the little pieces and how they fit together.
This style of worldbuilding allows natural stories to emerge. It's great for DMs who want a solid system of consequences or reactions from the world, and it works wonders for player backstories and motivations.
Another strength this gives our world is engaging cities. Playing through campaigns in the past, I've always found even the most detailed towns quite empty, amounting to little more than shopping sessions. When you're in the Cities Above, every settlement feels different; it becomes its own environment, like a forest or a cavern, with its own unique threats and opportunities. These are places for practicing politics, forging alliances, and going on more roleplay-based adventures. Through cooperation with experienced DMs, we can offer the rules, advice, and resources that make cities fun and exciting places to travel to.
In a more concrete sense, something different about Kuauhtla is how it handles the planes, to use a D&D concept. The divine and otherworldly exists in the mundane world; you can find and touch it, though that may be ill-advised. Other planets far away in space often serve the same roles as planes do in other settings. There are, however, still more unique places that can be reached, which forgo the rules of reality, but they serve as less central to the setting's cosmology.
Building on this, we also decided to have most people not be knowledgeable of the otherworldly. No one knows what happens after death, they don't know of all of the gods and don't really understand them either. There are a lot of answers which will be included in the book that even the great scholars of Kuauhtla don't know of. To help players mimic this, keeping the mysteries mysterious if they want to, sections of our book are color-coded. You can see if a page talks about deep arcane mysteries or technological advancements, and if you don't think your character would know those things, you can avoid those parts. Of course, if you are, for example, a religious expert, you can seek out that knowledge specifically as well.

AS: What interesting locations in Kuauhtla are you particularly proud of?

MC: It's very hard to choose, but as a writer I keep returning to a few places that give me a lot of ideas. There's a city called Yaotlan that once surrounded a great institution of learning in ancient times. The Yaotl people were warriors who weren't keen on a life of study, but they'd found mutual benefits from living near this place.
Over time, more and more of the Yaotl learned magic from this institution and it permeated their culture—they became intertwined with this place and were soon some of the most magically gifted people in the Cities Above. When a rival family took power over their mountain and threatened their sovereignty, a split occurred among the Yaotl. Some would bend the knee, while others refused. As tensions rose, those who wanted freedom used their magical prowess to raise Yaotlan into the sky and jam it into the side of the mountain. It was far enough below the plateau that their rivals dared not travel there for fear of the jungle.
Centuries passed. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Cities Above, Yaotlan flourished, and shifted course from the rest of humanity. More isolated than ever, with a population full of passionate, paranoid, and ambitious mages, it became something new entirely. The people changed themselves by arcane manipulation, strengthening themselves, making them something beyond human. At first they fought to defend themselves against the beasts from below that would come to attack the city for food. Their population dwindled, and those who survived were the strongest, the most reclusive, and the least human.
Everyone in the Cities Above assumes Yaotlan long devoid of life, but no one has been there since it moved down the mountain—or at least no one has returned.
Another location I adore is Tolodo, the City of Streetlights. It's the capital of the Cities Above and has been the seat of power for around 500 years. Modernity was born here, and it is evolving at a pace too quick for the city to keep up. Chaos has overtaken the city and its stability is hanging on by a thread due to all the factions growing inside of it: there's the politics, the technology, gangs and cartels, immigrants fighting to gain power in the system, the poor and the wealthy—it's a melting pot where anything could happen. Thousands of paths and stories emerge from the dense streets and spread out all over the mountains.
As the seat of power, the High Council, a group of seven enigmatic politicians who rule the Cities Above, have the most presence here. They're one of my favorite tools when running campaigns in Kuauhtla. To the public, the Council is mysterious but trusted; they were originally publicly elected and had a member from each of the six mountains, and they were born out of a time when trust in government was at its lowest. Dethroning monarchs and peacefuly uniting the mountains made them public heroes.
But things changed. To learn their full story you'll need to read through the book, but now the public isn't even aware of who the seven members are. Only some among them have ever been seen, but even they are certainly not open books. The High Council frantically collects knowledge in secret and runs the Cities with an iron fist disguised as a gentle hand. Don't be deceived: they are brutal utilitarian rulers who would cross every line to keep the Cities safe, and most of those lines were crossed long ago.
Of the sessions I've run in Kuauhtla, Tolodo has played a part in maybe half of them, whether that means performing a heist, dealing with the government, unraveling cartel plots, or just renting an apartment for your party. While other locations create the perfect environments for certain sessions, anything can happen in Tolodo.

AS: What awesome folk monsters should we expect to meet in Kuauhtla?

MC: The nature of South America is filled with fascinating creatures that, if only described, I'd venture most people wouldn't believe exist. You can imagine what that means for the myths that have sprung out of here. Adding on to the ancient religions of Mesoamerica, and the melting pot of cultures in the Caribbean, I'd say that these regions birth some of the most incredible folk monsters that are criminally underused in fantasy.
A majority of the creatures we've found have been undead, various ghosts and ghouls with unique backstories and abilities. We're certain to include some of these, but we're trying to focus on the more monstrous, since terrifying beasts are a big part of Kuauhtla. One such creature we've found is the Yacumama. It's a Quechua myth of an enormous serpent who is mother of all creatures of the water. There are similar legends from Indigenous cultures in Brazil and North America, and since little has been written down of these legends, we've filled some of the gaps by adding aspects of them as well.
In Kuauhtla, the Yacumama was believed to be an ancient godlike creature who ate the Earth to form all the rivers. It was wide enough to swallow a tree without stretching its jaw, and long enough to encircle a village. It had small lungs for its size, but they were still enormous, and the creature could suck in its prey by drawing breath—or blow them away so hard it could knock them out cold. Moving through water, over the earth, and even into stone, nowhere was safe from the Yacumama.
To scare it away, large horns would be blown that mimicked the battle cry of a now unknown beast. Loud noises made the Yacumama retreat, but in the deadly jungles, making so much noise could mean your end.
Perhaps the most frightening part of the Yacumama is that it is no god at all. The snake was nothing but another one of the billions of beasts that stalked the jungles, each worthy of worship in its own right. On the mountains, monsters were more clever, more human. Worst of the monstrous plagues upon humanity are the creatures that were once mortal. One such demon is the Huay Chivo. In real myth it was a Maya legend, a beast-man who knew sorcery and could turn himself into animals, which is a common power for Mesoamerican creatures. Generally it eats livestock and causes trouble.
We went for a more in-lore backstory that makes all Huay Chivo be cursed mortals influenced by the powers of very mighty and evil gods. This influence has turned them insane, leaving behind all of their humanity except for a creative mind. Huay Chivo are clever, conniving demons who love inflicting pain and misery. Like most monsters on the mountains, they tend to stay out of the cities and instead roam the countryside. There the children all sing nursery rhymes that remind them of how to flee from the demon of blood and shadows.
An encounter with a Huay Chivo is most often a surprise. They set up traps and lures to bat in unsuspecting and innocent folk that they can torment and kill. Due to their curse, they can manipulate shadows into a real substance that can be formed into walls and negate magical powers, as well as conjure a flame made of blood that can deal wildly low or high damage. It is an intimidating demon, and most of the time it will be more focused on causing you misery than actually killing you.

AS: What has been the response from playtesters and buyers?

MC: So far, it's been overwhelmingly positive. We have a version of the book which consists of my notes about the setting before we started this project, which includes much of what we hope to put in the campaign guide. There have been a lot of changes both to our campaigns and our character options—nothing is perfect at first, but over time we've reached some really good points for a lot of our material.
On the setting itself, we've also heard only good things. I'm sure there will be many critics when things are fully open to the public, but even from strangers who have seen Kuauhtla we've heard that it is unique and a refreshing step away from the classical fantasy world. All of us who play it in my campaigns are big fans of attention to detail, in-depth backstories, and things like that. Kuauhtla has certainly filled that gap for us.

AS: What's next for Jungles of Kuauhtla? Are you planning any additional rulebooks in the same world?

MC: We're trying hard not to get our hopes up, but we could write a dozen Kuauhtla books if given the chance. Say we do get funded, the next step after our campaign guide would almost certainly be more modules. There's one or maybe two proper modules that'll be included in the guide, but we want to create something large scale with hundreds of branching paths and locations—that'd be the dream. After that, who knows? Perhaps more player options? Or maybe even something set in a land far away from the Cities Above. One book couldn't possibly include everything we want to share about Kuauhtla.

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

P.S. Other Latin American-inspired RPG content you might like to try: Koboa, Boricubos, Ngen Mapu, The Way of the Pukona, Nahual, The Elephant & Macaw Banner, New Fire, Brave Zenith.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Interview: Kate Elliott, author of Furious Heaven

 Kate Elliott is a science fiction and fantasy author who has been writing novels for over 30 years. With works ranging from the epic fantasy to space opera, she is known for interesting characters, intense worldbuilding, and often, doorstopper length writing. Today, Paul Weimer asks Kate about Furious Heaven, the second novel in her space opera Sun Chronicles, following Unconquerable Sun, which shares all of those virtues and then some.

What's the pitch for Furious Heaven? 

The same as for Unconquerable Sun: Gender swapped Alexander the Great, in space. But much bigger in plot, worlds, theme, consequence, and word count. It reflects the expansion of Alexander’s actual life in ways no one, at the time, could have predicted.  

Furious Heaven, being a sequel to Unconquerable Sun, is a middle book in a series. How has the writing of this been the same, and different than other series that you have done? 

My goal with each of the three books of this trilogy has been, and continues to be, to shape each individual volume as if it is a standalone. Unconquerable Sun completes several of its major plot threads and, I believe, ends at a satisfying point. If I’ve done my job right, the reader will feel they’ve read a complete story and ALSO wish to read more.

Middle volumes are peculiarly hard. It’s important, in my opinion, to avoid “adding more beads onto the string” -- that is, just to add more incident without complicating or expanding on the original elements of the story. A middle volume can add layers, unexpected twists and outcomes; it can deepen the characters and guide the reader into new landscapes and unknown dangers only hinted at in book one. That’s how I worked with (for example) Shadow Gate (Crossroads), Cold Fire (Spiritwalker), and Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives), which are all second volumes in trilogies that make the story bigger and show the reader new places and new conflicts.

With Furious Heaven I specifically wanted to do my best to make the story readable by someone who hadn’t read book one, while also having it build on what had come before. This meant finding a way to open the book as I would if it were my first look into the world, while concurrently reminding the returning reader of the things they recalled or liked about the characters and situation. It’s important to re-introduce the reader regardless, even if the story continues from a cliff hanger, because in many cases there will have been a break since they read the first book. A middle book needs to get the reader’s feet under them as quickly as possible before it charges ahead, but it does need to offer that grounding.

In addition, given the publication gap between book one and book two, and the likely gap coming for book three, I wanted the book to come to a close at a place that would leave the reader feeling they had gotten many things they wanted, and could manage the wait. So no cliffhanger but rather, I suppose, implicit promises about what lies ahead.

The book was challenging to write, very complex, and, in the end, really rewarding.

You have a number of new POVs to go with the ones introduced in Unconquerable Sun. How did you decide on picking them, especially Apama, given their position vis a vis the Republic? Are there POV shifts in other series you've read that have done this well?

Apama first appears in book one. She may seem like a minor character in book one but that’s simply because I needed to spend more time with Sun and her Companions. I always knew Apama’s role would expand in book two, as it does. She’s my absolute favorite gender swapping in the story, although not in the way people may think.

In book one I wanted to keep a tight hold on the number of POVs: Sun (and Hetty) and Persephone as the major POVs with Zizou and Apama as secondary POVs. The story’s focus is on the Republic of Chaonia. Even Apama’s side story, in book one, is focused on the republic for plot-relevant reasons I won’t go into here in case a reader hasn’t read book one and doesn’t want spoilers.

Book two expands the story. Because I knew how big the canvas was going to get, I decided not to limit myself to the original four (five, if you count Hetty, which one should, although one could argue that Sun and Hetty’s POVs are the same--one soul in two bodies). I had to decide how many POVs to add, while also not overwhelming the reader with too many POVs.

In the end I made two choices.

The first choice was to add Makinde as a secondary recurring POV because I needed a viewpoint into locations and battles where I knew Sun couldn’t be. His POV is very structured and deliberate in terms of the choices I made about when and how I used him to reveal information and events. He’s also funny, and of course he is accompanied by Dozer.

The second choice was to create “interludes” that would follow a single POV for a single episode, and then not return to that POV (even if that character might recur in the story). These interludes bridge gaps of time or distances so I don’t have to say “four months passed.” They also allow glimpses into how wide ranging the consequences of Sun’s actions become. When the POV remains tight on a central figure or figures, it can be hard for the reader to see the ripples and the debris. I wanted to bring into view the consequences of the great campaign in the worlds it touches and among the people who live through it, for good and for ill.

Of massive epic stories I’ve read recently enough to recall well, I think both Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (The Grace of Kings) and Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga (Jade City) do an excellent job with multiple POVs. They mostly follow specific key characters but also deftly drop into the heads of secondary characters exactly when that perspective is needed.

Persephone remains my favorite character outside Sun herself, but it's hard to stare at the Sun long. I felt she bore different narrative weight than in the first novel. How do you use middle novels to develop the meat on the bones of her and other characters? Are there novels you've read that do that particularly well?

Persephone is always following the narrative plan ordained for her, and the reason why her POV, alone of all POVs, is in first person.

Book one really provides a basic introduction to the world(s), the characters, and a sense of the plot. Everything expands in book two, including the character depth --at least that is obviously my intention and hope. I want readers to feel they understand the main and secondary characters even better by the end of book two.

In addition, life experience alters people. Sun and her crew are all young in book one: in their early 20s, what we would call “fresh out of college.” People deepen and mature as they age. In addition, the intense experiences they live through in book two will naturally have an effect on people’s outlook, moods, understanding, and goals. So the book has to represent and reflect that as well. I’m not a fan of stories in which people undergo massively intense and traumatic experiences and seem not to change at all or have any reaction or lingering effects. One of my goals in Furious Heaven was to start showing that slow process as well, often unremarked or ignored, but real.

In the case of Persephone, she only tells us what she wants us to know, so it’s important to read between the lines and look for the things she isn’t telling us.

I’ve recently read the first six books of the Marcus Didius series (Silver Pigs), by Lindsey Davis, about a retired soldier turned private eye in ancient Rome. Davis does a good job of feeding us a bit more about our hero with each book, so with each subsequent volume we get a better sense of him, his relationships with others, his strengths and weaknesses, and an idea of how he will probably approach the various problems he’s confronted with. That kind of slowly expanding character development is, in my opinion, key to retaining reader interest in a long running serial like a mystery series. If you know everything there is to know about the character in book one, and nothing about them ever changes, then plot alone rarely is enough to keep readers engaged. Or at least, it isn’t for me as a reader.

What non fiction books did you read to inspire your world and your characters? 

I have read a lot of history to build the world of Sun and her Companions. Instead of deluging you with a long list, I’ll share six books that have been crucial in influencing how I approached the world(s) and people.

The memoirs and histories of Alexander’s campaign written at the time have survived into the modern day only in fragments. Therefore, the four main classical accounts of the Alexander history date from the Roman era, when they still had access to those now-fragemented and missing histories from Alexander’s time that are now lost to us. I mostly follow Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander because I like it. My edition of choice is The Landmark Arrian edited by James Romm and translated by Pamela Mensch.

Carol Thomas’s Alexander the Great In His World is honestly a fantastic world building tool whether or not a person is writing about Alexander. Thomas situates him by describing various elements of the world he was born into, the landscape, the societies, and the people he knew, and how he fit in with those elements. It’s a great way to understand how any given person emerges from the landscape they live in.

China In Ten Words by novelist Yu Hua (To Live, The Seventh Day, Brothers) is a set of essays about modern China. These astute essays helped me think about how most societies are in a constant back and forth between what they want to say they are and how they are to really live in. 

Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Neptune’s Inferno are both histories by James Hornfischer that examine, in close detail, two specific naval battles in the Pacific Theater during World War 2. To reconstruct the battles he used first hand accounts as well as interviews he himself conducted with (by now elderly) survivors. These two books offer insight into the chaos and terror of battle as well as the courage and determination of those who fought. 

Popular science book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili gave me a lot of food for thought. Among other things, it influenced how I describe the Riders.

What's your favorite detail, worldbuilding element, or filip that you introduced into this world in Furious Heaven?

There are so many Easter Eggs in this book, and I love them all, especially the obscure ones. For the purposes of this interview I’ll highlight how much fun I had turning commonplace proverbs and sayings that mention everyday animals into commonplace proverbs and sayings that mention dinosaurs in the place of the original animals.

You have a wide range of books written, and you once did a "boy band" comparison of your books. How would you classify Unconquerable Sun and Furious Heaven in that rubric?

You’re referencing this post, the one pinned to top of my (inactive) blog:

Here’s what I said about the Sun books: “This is the show you don’t want to miss!”

Thank you, Kate!

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Review: 1899

A melodramatic feast for puzzle box fans

When Netflix announced it would not renew the mind-bending historical series 1899, disappointed voices rang out across the internet. The single-season status made some of us wonder if it would still be worth watching. However, if you are in the mood for a sci-fi mystery dressed up as a steampunk period drama, then 1899 might be just what you need—a show to fill the time until your next binge-worthy series comes along. From the producers of the television show Dark, we have another twisty, angsty, German puzzle box series.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the luxury steamship Kerberos sails from England on its way to New York. On board the transatlantic cruise ship is a diverse, international group of passengers, crew, and stowaways. The set design immediately evokes the Titanic, a luxurious but doomed period piece. But the opening scene of 1899 quickly lets viewers know they are headed deep into Twilight Zone territory. After some heady, off-camera narration about the largeness of the brain and the sky, the main character, Maura, a young British physician, is shown being dragged away and restrained in an asylum-like setting. A few moments later she is in her cabin on the Kerberos, and adjusts the sleeves of her elegant dress to cover the strap wounds on her wrists.

We get a quick overview of the other characters (the wealthy but unhappy passengers above deck and the oppressed and even more unhappy working-class passengers below deck). In addition to the protagonist Maura, we meet Eyk, the moody, grief-stricken German captain of the Kerberos, whose wife and children were killed in a fire. Other passengers include the wealthy and unhappily married French newlyweds Clemence and Lucien; fake brothers, playboy Angel (from Spain) and priest Ramiro (from Portugal); Ling Yi, a purported young geisha traveling with her older companion Yuk Je. The lower-deck passengers include the Danish siblings, pregnant Tove and brother Krester, their little sister Ada, and their overbearing parents. Additional key characters are Olek, a Polish worker who spends his days shoveling fuel for the steamship’s fire; and Jerome, a French soldier and stowaway with a connection to Lucien.

Several of the passengers and crew have a mysterious envelope which creates concern for them and which they hide from the others. Then the main plot gets going when the long-missing steamship Prometheus mysteriously reappears. Eyk, the emotionally tormented captain of the Kerberos, must decide whether to continue to America or go back to investigate the ghost ship. The longer they hover near the Prometheus, the more unexplained occurrences happen. Although 1899 is a series from the team behind the German series Dark, it is much more of a callback to Lost, with an ensemble cast trying to solve the mystery of their circumstances. Like Lost, 1899 is a puzzle you will never really solve but hope to have fun trying. But will you have fun trying? That depends on what you are in the mood for.

Also like Lost, 1899 has an appealingly diverse ensemble cast of characters, all with haunting, traumatic backstories that inform their current choices on the ship. Or so we think. On multiple levels, no one is who they seem to be. This is an important difference from Lost. In Lost, flashbacks revealed each person’s true character. In 1899 many of the flashbacks are unreliable red herrings. As the story progresses, the ship’s occupants experience both temporal and spatial shifts that make them question their sanity and the wisdom of staying near the Prometheus. Robotic beetles, portal-inducing pyramids, and mass suicides complicate things as life on the Kerberos becomes increasingly deadly.

1899 is best enjoyed with a willing suspension of disbelief, not just in the puzzling occurrences but also in the protagonists' extremely emotional behaviors. Without that willing suspension, viewers will find themselves frustrated by the repeated poor choices made by otherwise sensible characters. The main theme of the show is the power of the mind and the power of heightened emotions in determining our behavior. Secondary themes include classism, bigotry, extremism, oppression, love, and betrayal, and the universality of those themes across various cultures.

In terms of culture, the show’s characters are international and speak in eight different languages to each other onscreen. Watching this in its original format immerses the viewer in an environment where the lead characters often cannot understand each other’s words but manage to communicate in other ways. The effect is charming and intriguing but also a bit unbelievable, especially at moments of crisis. The English version dubs all the characters into English and creates a very different effect because the characters' difficulty in understanding each other disappears. Once the very big twist is revealed in the last episode, we are left with as many questions as we have answers.

1899 is entertaining for those who like character studies in an offbeat setting. Viewers looking for a point will find themselves frustrated. The show’s haunting opening song White Rabbit lets us know that ultimately none of this will make sense; you just have to enjoy (or endure) the ride.


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10


  • Fun dueling languages
  • Exhausting melodrama (and I am someone who loves melodrama)
  • A puzzle with so many red herrings
  • Binge-worthy

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – multitasking, fiction-writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

´The Ark' makes a plea for mutual trust to save humankind

This story proves you don't have to be a ruthless cynic to apply game theory to hard survival choices

Future Earth has gone to hell in a stinking, toxic, burning handbasket. Entire continents are up in flames, the atmosphere is either unlivably hot or fatally poisonous, and what's left of human governments is as good as finished. Superstar tech bro Jeff Bezos no, sorry, Elon Musk no, sorry, Steve Jobs no, sorry, Will Trust (really, that's his name) has funded a space colonization project that will send a dozen generation ships in various directions to search for the next home of our species. The first of these ships, the Ark 1, has been traveling for about five years until it suddenly reanimates its frozen occupants. A mysterious accident has killed their commanders and damaged the engines, and the few people left have to figure out what happened, where they are, how they're going to survive for the remainder of their journey, and how they're going to rebuild society from scratch.

With this premise, it sounds like the newest Syfy production The Ark should be a delight to watch. And at times, it is; these characters have to improvise on the fly with every bit of brains they've got in order to deal with brutal life-or-death choices under unforgiving circumstances. But often, especially in the first couple of episodes, it's difficult to get into the tone that the series wants to adopt. The urgency of the stakes, literally the survival of the human species, doesn't quite fit with the light-hearted dialogues, the melodramatic characterizations, and the silly brand of humor that fill the scripts. But if you manage to get used to the tone, you'll be rewarded with a profound demonstration of how civilization can be saved if the ages-old exchange of hostilities is abandoned in favor of an exchange of goodwill.

Unfortunately, there are multiple hiccups to overcome before full enjoyment is possible. The social dynamic between the ship's crew members is too dependent on the needs of each episode, shifting from animosity to camaraderie to resentment to intimacy with little time to let the characters (or the viewers) process the change. Although this uncertainty helps communicate how fragile this new society is in its first steps, it makes it very hard to follow whose loyalties we're supposed to believe. It's like the writers tried to emulate the cutthroat power dispute from Battlestar Galactica but wanted to also keep the ban on crew conflict from Star Trek plus the chaotic management style from Futurama.

This problem is of a kind with the overall tonal mismatch. One gets the impression that one writer was in charge of plotting a heavy drama with constant crises and impending doom, and then another writer was tasked with painting a coat of rom-com whimsy over it. Of the focus characters, the most notable (and hardest to swallow) are Alicia Nevins, the adorkable teen genius with no speech filter and advanced degrees in everything; James Brice, the imprudent pilot and resident eye candy who somehow only seems to own tank tops; Cat Brandice, the dating advice vlogger conscripted as the galaxy's least professional ship counselor; and Spencer Lane, the protagonist's Designated Foil whose entire role in the show consists in whining about having a woman boss.

So, what's actually good about The Ark? The plotting. This series is a brilliant example of how to write an unfolding story with interweaving parts where solving one problem leads to discovering more problems that lead to unexpected solutions that open yet more problems. This is an incredibly solid structure that maintains an unbroken momentum from one episode to the next. The Ark doesn't have the most consistent characters in space opera, but it does boast an expert command of the chains of consequence that make up a story.

The other great achievement of The Ark is its moral stance. Whereas the big space opera franchises seem to have forgotten how to write a thrilling climax that doesn't rely on who pew-pews harder, The Ark is set on a civilian starship with no weapons, so the big resolution has to rely on the decency of human nature, not on brute firepower. In the season finale, the protagonist argues that the dog-eat-dog methods that one can find both in warfare and in corporate competition are exactly what ruined Earth, and the survivors of humankind shouldn't take that habit with them into space. Instead, she's willing to try openness, sincerity, empathy. That's a way more interesting approach to watch, and the writers do it justice by concocting a way more interesting problem to solve. The crisis in the last episode, which our protagonist doesn't overcome with battle tactics but with kindness and generosity, illustrates beautifully how to survive an iterated prisoner's dilemma, a well-known thought experiment in game theory that serves as a microcosm of everyday life in a society. Nonviolent heroes FTW!

Often it seems like these contentious times have made us forget how to live as humans. By every objective measure, the survival strategy of our species is not perpetual hostility, but cooperation. The Ark makes a powerful case for the position that, if we want to found civilization again, our best chance for it to endure is to build it on the recognition of our common vulnerability and the willingness to be vulnerable with each other. Watching that noble message bear fruit is well worth all the cheesy dialogues.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Monday, April 24, 2023

6 Books with Sarah Jost

Sarah Jost was born and grew up in Switzerland in small yet stunning Montreux against the backdrop of Lake Geneva and the Alps. She studied medieval French, modern French, and history of art at the Université de Lausanne and worked part-time as a publishing assistant alongside her studies.
She has been living in the UK since 2008 and works as a housemistress and French teacher at a girls' school, which she considers an immersive course in character study. Sarah lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, Luke, and their adorable and goofy golden shepherd, Winnie.

Today she tells us about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Persuasion by Jane Austen for the first time. Like pretty much everyone else on the planet, I’m a big fan of hers and re-read Pride and Prejudice about once a year. (Not counting how many times I’ve watched the BBC TV series! That’d be embarrassing.) For some reason I’d never picked up Persuasion, but the reactions to the recent Netflix adaptation made me want to read it for myself. Austen truly is the master of character. Everything is unsaid and quiet and felt so keenly and shown deftly in half a sentence. She can draw a portrait of someone in one line and the reader will immediately know who that person is, and feel like they have met them before. She is so modern in how she taps into how humans socialize, our hopes and dreams and communication mishaps. As I’m thinking about and planning my third book, here I am begging her to show me how it’s done!

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I can’t wait to read Between Us by Mhairi McFarlane, which comes out in the US in August. The hook sounds fantastic: a woman finds out that her boyfriend has put all the private things she has told him in confidence in his new TV show. Great potential for drama there and I can’t wait to read it! Mhairi writes the very best kind of woman fiction: laced with humour, awkwardness, character growth and big moments of ‘win!’, but she also tackles some dark themes head on, including toxic relationships, grief and abuse. Every book I’ve read from her so far is a masterclass of making you laugh one page and tear up the next.

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

Not currently, but I wish I could re-read The Invisible Life of Addie Larue for the first time, as it is so beautiful and haunting and perfect. I listened to it as an audiobook when I was alone on a writing week in Cornwall, and the mere thought of it conjures the ragged coastal paths, the screeching of seagulls, a bittersweet kind of loneliness and the wonderful atmosphere V.E. Schwab created in that novel. The sheer ambition of the plot, that premise that pulls you right in… What if you could be free, but always forgotten? I love books about art and belonging, and this was perfection. Actually, I think I might be talking myself into purchasing a physical copy and diving right back into it.

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

Not quite that, but I have mixed feelings about The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. On paper, it really isn’t the kind of story I enjoy reading. A butler who thinks back on his life in the most British, repressed kind of way… Very far from the stories that I would be personally attracted to. Yet I gasped when I read a certain sentence towards this end, and I have thought about this novel very regularly since. It is such a brilliant demonstration of outstanding writing and character building, and a masterclass of how to slowly build a whole novel towards a climax that is about regret, and loss, and a character unravelling as much as he will ever allow himself to. I cried for that man, and I didn’t even really like him.

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

I grew up in Switzerland and my first language is French. I learnt English when I moved to the UK in my mid-twenties, but thinking about it now, I seem to have read quite a bit in translation, perhaps because there were more YA books available in English than French. I was an avid reader as a child and I still remember the moment the librarian in my local town told me I could graduate to the grown-up library (just a different room across the corridor), as I had pretty much exhausted what they had in stock for children. Our mum would read a chapter of a book to us every night, until I was in my teens; it was a precious time when we would gather as three sisters and enjoy the sound of her voice and travel together in the halo of the side-lamp. I strangely have very few memories of particular books; ‘Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret’ comes to mind, as well as the first time I sobbed for a book I was reading by myself, ‘The Bridge to Terabithia’. They must all have had an influence on me, though; I’ve been so lucky that my mother gave me the gift of understanding the power of writing and how stories can bring people together.

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

My debut Five First Chances is being published by Sourcebooks on April 18 this year. Louise, the protagonist, is stuck in her life: anxious about the future and full of regrets about the past. When she learns that her ex is engaged, she finds herself falling back in time to a night that could have changed everything. She keeps re-living a period of about two years of her life, which brings her closer to a certain someone… and she gradually discovers who she is and what is worth fighting for. It is a love story, and people have been rooting for Lou and her love interest, which is brilliant, but it’s first and foremost about Lou learning to love herself enough to finally show up for the ones who matter. It’s awesome because there’s light and darkness and a cast of loveable characters. Some of it happens in Switzerland, in the UK and further afield; even better, the zoo plays a big part, as do otters and elephants… A book can’t be awesome without animals in it. Or cheese. Well, if you agree, do check it out!

Thank you Sarah!

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

Friday, April 21, 2023

Recap: Mandalorian Episode 24 — The Return

The final episode of season delivers the goods with incredible action and a weeks-long payoff that was definitely worth the wait.

The past week has been a wild ride for Mandalorian fans as conspiracy theories abounded. Is the Armorer a spy? What about Axe Woves? Will Din die? Will his memory be erased by the mindflayer?!?

Thankfully, none of these were true. 

We start right where the last episode leaves off, as Axe heads off to get reinforcements to help Bo-Katan fight their way out of the base. He flies through the atmosphere to the capital ships and gets it evacuated, but I’m not gonna lie — the entire time, I was just waiting him for to contact the Imperials. He doesn’t, thank god. 

The Return of Badass Mando

Lest you may have forgotten, Din Djarin is an incredible fighter, and his skills are on full display this episode. This finale isn’t unlike the last episode of The Last of Us, which also features Pedro Pascal dead-set on righting some wrongs with muscle and huff. 

He escapes capture and is rescued by IG-12/Grogu, and they decide to make their final stand against Moff Gideon. But he can’t do without the help of a classic Star Wars trope: an astromech plugged into a mainframe. 

R5-D4’s Redemption Arch

R5 has been in several episodes of The Mandalorian over the years, but it’s important to remember his origin story: the one Owen Lars & Luke almost bought that blew a top thanks to a bad motivator. R5 is nervous and twitchy, but he gets the job done.

In this episode, Din communicates with him to control the Phantom-Menace plasma screens, allowing him to tackle them piecemeal. Pesky mouse droids interrupt him, but he holds his ground before jetting off to safety. Good work, R5-D4! Once again, these fight scenes between Din and the Imperials are incredibly orchestrated, and an absolute joy to watch. 

It’s Raining Mandos

In the air, the Armorer returns with reinforcements as the Mandos go up against the jet troopers, and the aerial battle is wild, all over the place, and sheer, non-stop excitement. Seeing the Armorer fly into battle with her hammer and forge tools knocking the ever-loving hell out of bad guys was something I didn’t know I needed, but definitely did.

The visceral KA-THUNK as her hammer makes contact with a body that then falls from the sky — amazing. Bo-Katan also soars into the fray wielding the Darksaber, and nothing feels more natural. We also learn in this episode that plants are growing again on Mandalore, which means that the future is looking up for the planet's inhabitants. 

3 Praetorians and a Baby

Din and Grogu pass a hall of clones — including Gideon’s clones that we learn he’s been growing that have Jedi powers. (This ties together threads from the very first episode of the series — why he wanted baby Yoda in the first place).

Obviously disgusted, Din pulls the plug on these brewing clones, much to the imperial leader’s dismay. When they finally meet up with Gideon, Grogu gets separated from Din as he's dragged away by three Praetorian guards. Din, meanwhile, is stuck battling Gideon in his super powerful Beskar armor and things aren't looking good. Thank goodness for a Deus Ex Bo-Katan-icha, as she arrives to take over the battle so he can go rescue Grogu. 

This fight scene with Din, the three guards, and Grogu is wild — he manages to take them all on and defeat them, thanks to key force pushes by Grogu. They make a great team, and its interesting to note that Grogu isn’t using the force for attack — only for misdirection and keeping weapons just out reach. 

Still Flying Half a Ship

Axe Woves, doing his best Anakin Skywalker, is flying/crashing the light freighter down from the atmosphere on a direct course for Gideon’s base. Bo is still battling Gideon, who has crushed the Darksaber with his beskar fist, and now it’s her turn to be saved by Din.

As the ship comes crashing down around them, flames engulf everything — except for a small circle around Din, Grogu, and Bo. Grogu uses the force to create a safe bubble as Gideon falls away — but is he defeated? Are there more clones? Time will certainly tell, I have a feeling.

Din Finally Signs the Adoption Papers

After the battle, we’re back at the living waters of Mandalore as we witness Paz Vizsla's son take the creed. RIP Paz, but your son is following in your footsteps, and you died a hero's death. Din approaches with Grogu, asking for him to be confirmed as his apprentice. He’s still too young to speak, but could become an apprentice if a parent gave consent. So, he adopts Grogu, henceforth known as Din Grogu. Bo and the Armorer together relight the Grand Forge, and it’s clear that Mandalore has a future. 

What’s in Store for Our Duo?

Back at the New Republic base, Din meets up with Carson Teva to propose a business deal — he’ll work as an independent contractor/bounty hunter for the New Republic. It’s hinted at that future seasons of the show will revolve around the types of missions we saw in season one, but this time Din and Grogu will be a team. While at the bar, Grogu finally gets his chicken nuggets, and notices an assassin droid head, which they take. 

A Single Dad, Now Officially a Homeowner

That assassin droid head? It has the parts to repair IG-11 (finally). Our duo return to their homebase of Nevarro and present Greef Karga and the citizens with a restored-to-life IG-11. Greef then gives Din the keys to a cute little cabin on the outskirts of town, where he can raise his small green son when they’re not off gallivanting around the galaxy. 


The Math

Baseline score: 9/10

Bonuses: + 3 Finally! The action we’ve been waiting for.  

Penalties: I have none this week!

Nerd coefficient: +3 Dave Filoni cameo in the bar! So many mouse droids. Phantom Menace-esque laser gates!

Gonk droid count: 1! In the final scene, whew.

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, vidalia onions, and growing corn and giving them pun names like Anacorn Skywalker. 

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Netflix celebrates 30 years of Power Rangers

In a world afflicted by chronic nostalgitis, only one team of heroes can defeat humankind's mortal enemy... again

The 30th anniversary special episode Power Rangers: Once & Always is a fairly standard Baddie of the Week plot that succeeds at summarizing the show's formula for the ages: enemy shows up, new hero is recruited, big robots fight, enemy explodes, the end. Why fix what ain't broken? My generation ate it up for (at least) 145 episodes and a movie before the first change of costumes, and we loved it. The Power Rangers franchise is now on its 29th season, healthy and well, and, although it has nowhere near the budget or the public presence of the bigger superhero properties, it shows no signs of decline. We may very well go on to have more Power Rangers for another three decades.

Given the show's uninterrupted existence, its part in this century's plague of nostalgic legacyquels has a very different effect compared to productions that were canceled at some point and revived. Power Rangers already has an established tradition of bringing past heroes back for reunion episodes. The franchise embraces the motto "once a Ranger, always a Ranger" in a way that keeps old stars alive in fans' memory. Of course, Once & Always doesn't fit in the present continuity, but that's also true of numerous teamups where previously depowered heroes somehow come back to save the world one (additional) last time.

What sets Once & Always apart from other reunion episodes is that it's focused entirely on the original cast, the team remembered by the first generation of viewers, which allows the plot to offer those now older viewers a more violent and lethal adventure than do current seasons. As an homage to the late and dearly remembered actress Thuy Trang, who played the original Yellow Ranger Trini Kwan in seasons 1 and 2, the story focuses on the team's grief over the loss of their sister-in-arms. The opening of this episode implies that Trini Kwan returned to the team and continued having adventures into her mid-40s, but the character is never shown out of her superheroine suit. The same treatment is used with the Pink, Red, and Green Rangers, who are only seen in costume because their original actors didn't join the production (Amy Jo Johnson declined to reprise her role, Austin St. John is dealing with legal trouble over charges of financial fraud, and Jason David Frank took his life last year).

That leaves us with only two returning heroes from the original team: David Yost as the Blue Ranger and Walter Jones as the Black Ranger (along with fellow stars Steve Cardenas as the second Red Ranger and Catherine Sutherland as the second Pink Ranger, plus Johnny Yong Bosch and Karan Ashley in minor supporting roles). In this adventure, the Power Rangers must reassemble after a botched attempt to revive their mentor Zordon causes the return of their first enemy, Rita Repulsa, who starts capturing multiple teams of Power Rangers across the world to fuel a time machine she plans to use to ensure her past self's victory before the first team is ever recruited. During the crisis unleashed by Rita, Trini's daughter Minh assumes the mantle of the Yellow Ranger, avenges her mother, and helps save the world.

Let's forget for a moment that such a reunion shouldn't even be possible (the dinozords were destroyed by second-season villain Lord Zedd, the Green Ranger was permanently depowered shortly thereafter, the dino power coins were destroyed by third-season villain Rito Revolto, and the second Pink Ranger never had dino powers). None of that matters for the purposes of this story. This is not a continuation of the 90s show, but a celebration of a generational milestone. Of all the nostalgia grabs that inundate us these days, Once & Always is the least cynical. It never pretends that the show was anything more sophisticated than a corny campfest with facile moralizing and barely passable acting. What matters to the viewers of my generation is that it was our corny campfest with facile moralizing and barely passable acting.

The charm of Power Rangers has always rested on its sincere use and reuse of very flat archetypes. When I was an unremarkable awkward nerd, the Blue Ranger taught me that the unremarkable awkward nerd could be best friends with the hypermuscular jock dude and with the fashionable valley girl plus pilot a robot dinosaur to kick butt with plus save the world in time to run home and finish homework. These characters connected with my life in a way that Goku and Wolverine could never hope to. Years later, when I learned that the Blue Ranger actor David Yost was queer, I felt an even closer link to the character. To this day, my phone is set to play the Power Rangers communicator beep tune when it gets a text message. It's hard to believe that this extremely simple, repeatable, color-coded story has been with me for 30 years now, but its basic format still moves me. While acknowledging all the problematic implications of putting child soldiers in front of magical warlords (and the crushing blow to a teenager's self-esteem that is to watch a bulked-up twenty-something play a high schooler), I'll still gawk at the comically huge rayguns, the impractical poses, and the contortionist robots. That's the significance of this anniversary episode. These are the characters who taught my generation about goodness and bravery. These are the characters I filled notebooks of atrociously drawn fanfic with. These are my heroes. Once and always.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

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