Monday, July 31, 2023

6 Books with T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher (she/her) writes fantasy, horror, and occasional oddities, including Nettle & Bone, What Moves the Dead, and A House with Good Bones. Under a pen name, she also writes bestselling children's books. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, dogs, and chickens who may or may not be possessed.

Today she tells us about her Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading a bunch of mystery, and have been reading the new Hercule Poirot from Sophie Hannah.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I’m really looking forward to the re-release of the Doctrine of Labyrinths books from Katherine Addison!

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

Yes, although it’s more that I am itching for it to have been long enough since I re-read all the Murderbot books that I can do it again!

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively? Or if not, a book that you love and wish that you yourself had written?

Hmmm…I think the closest I get is that when I read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, every few pages I’d go “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that!” Just all the weird worldbuilding bits were so fascinating. 

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

Probably Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. I checked that one out from the library so often that I don’t think anyone else got to read it for about six months. 

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

*laugh* Well, Thornhedge comes out in August, and I think it’s awesome because the main character is anxious and overwhelmed and trying her best and I love her. Also she’s a were-toad. But also I recently had an interviewer on a podcast, who’s read a LOT in-genre say to me “I have read so many retellings of Sleeping Beauty, and I’ve never seen anyone do this particular [spoiler] before. And once I read yours, I thought ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that?’” Which, I mean, originality isn’t the be-all and end-all of everything, but sometimes it’s still nice to get there, even if largely by accident.

But mostly, were-toad. 

Thank you T. Kingfisher!

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

Review: Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

A retelling of sleeping beauty that flips the original on its head.

T. Kingfisher has several modes in which she operates (I'm a big fan of "mocking paladins (affectionate)", though less keen on "horror, genuinely horrifying" because I am coward), and one of those is "fairytale retelling, but make it dark, vaguely feminist and contains at least one aggressively practical woman". Unsurprisingly, Thornhedge is an entry into that latter category.

I mean this as no insult at all, but you know what you're getting into when you start a T. Kingfisher novel. Maybe not in terms of the plot beats or events, nor the interpretation of the source material if it's a retelling, but in the tone. She has a very, very distinctive voice in which she tells her stories, and opening a new book from her is like greeting an old friend, because as soon as they open their mouth/you read the words on the page, you're back in a familiar, comforting place, even if they're telling you about their new partner you've never heard of, or the job you didn't know they had. In her own afterword to Thornhedge, Kingfisher protests that this book is sweet, despite it being filled with death and biting and curses - which... I agree, though it's not the word I'd use. I'd say "friendly" instead. Or "welcoming", perhaps. No matter how gruesome the murders, how many corpses are made to dance and how many demon chickens there are, a T. Kingfisher story is always a welcoming one, where the narrative voice is clear, and comforting and on your side while you watch the terrible things happen. In this, Thornhedge is entirely like her other fantasy works, and particularly her fairytale interpretations, like Bryony and Roses or Nettle and Bone. I think this is a wonderful thing, especially for an author with an extensive catalogue of work not in a single series or unified world. Once you know you like that voice - which, if it wasn't already clear, I very much do - you can dip your toe into anything in the back-catalogue that takes your fancy and know that, regardless of whether the plot is to your taste or the paladins sufficiently attractive and guilt-ridden, there will be something there, constantly, throughout the reading experience, that will make you happy. It reduces the risk inherent to picking up something new.

It then obviously helps if the story, characters and so on are well-constructed and enjoyable, but luckily she's got that covered too.

Thornhedge is a retelling of the sleeping beauty story, but one that asks "what if the briars, the sleep and the centuries of magic weren't to keep people out, but the sleeper in?". Our viewpoint character isn't the sleeper, but instead the godmother who put her into this position, who, through a mixture of flashback and present time slowly shares with us and a knight errant the series of events that led to her solitary vigil of a tower and a tangled hedge of thorns.

Because it is a solitary vigil, this is, primarily, a novella of few characters. We of course have our protagonist, Toadling, but outside of her, the time we spend with other characters, in memory and in present narration, is relatively brief, and most of them suffer a little for it. The minor exception is Halim, the knight errant, who manages to be endearing to the reader in almost no time at all, just as he is to Toadling. But even he could perhaps have done with some more space and time. We know a little of him, and we are charmed by him, but he lacks the depth many of Kingfisher's secondary characters achieve in other works, simply because he lacks the space to encompass it. Even Toadling is done a little dirty by this, and does not get the impact for instance Bryony does in Bryony and Roses. That being said, what we do get is incredibly sweet and wholesome, while never straying into the saccharine, so it's more a problem of wanting more, than an issue of what we actually get.

The balance between the flashbacks and the present time is very crisply managed, without feeling artificial, and the pacing is well balanced, so we come to the intersection of backstory and story at a very natural point. It never feels like we're being force-fed context and exposition, rather this is just how Toadling is thinking about her predicament. She's intensely inward looking - unsurprisingly, given her solitary situation - which makes it all the easier to achieve, but even so, it's nicely managed to give us those morsels of backstory sufficiently spaced out as to feel worth each wait to get to them.

There's also a pleasing brutality to the world - as is true of many of her books. It never feels gratuitous, like some of the Game of Thrones style attempts at historical "realism" that stray into torture-porn, but rather emblematic of a pragmatism that feels well situated in the period the story is from. Likewise, her fairies are deeply alien things, who do not behave, speak or feel as humans do, and this comes with a cruelty that links them into many of the traditional fairy stories. And yet, it always gets looped back to some essential piece of them, or their nature or their setting in the book, so it never feels forced. They are what they are, and that can sometimes be cruel, but it's never there simply for the sake of it.

And, as ever, there are some really cracking occasional lines dropped in without any warning - "thorns die from the inside out, like priests" hit me out of absolutely nowhere and I was thoroughly unprepared for it, and now it's stuck in my head, likely for the rest of the week. Some of this impact comes from the fact that, for the most part, she's not a prose-forward kind of author, so when you get those little snippets of gold (to horrendously mix some metaphors), they stand out all the greater. Or rather, to borrow Max Gladstone's phrasing, her work is primarily aerodynamic (though with its own, very distinctive style), but this means when it's got a little wing or spoiler or something that affects the flow, it's all the more distinctive for it. 

I'll stop brutalising analogies now, I promise. 

In any case, all in all, it's nice - more than nice, it's a very enjoyable read with some interesting and thoughtful choices about worldbuilding - and very much worth the time spent reading it, but it's not going to set the world on fire or be thrust into the awards limelight. Luckily not all books need to be that - it's a book for the fun of reading, one that you'll blitz through the first time, then put aside, and maybe come back to a few years later when you need something cosy and cheering. And those are just as important as the ones that break your heart or change the way you see the world entirely. Sometimes you need the downtime, the calm and the comfort, to leave you able to appreciate the bright and the brittle and the brilliant. And this is exactly that, done beautifully.


The Math

Highlights: lovable characters, enjoyable subversion of the fairytale tropes, fairies that are inhuman in all the right ways

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge, [Tor, 2023]

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

Friday, July 28, 2023

6 Books with Genevieve Gornichec

Genevieve Gornichec earned her degree in history from the Ohio State University, but she got as close to majoring in Vikings as she possibly could, and her study of Norse myths and Icelandic sagas became her writing inspiration. Her nationally bestselling debut novel, The Witch's Heart, has been translated into more than ten languages. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Today she tells us about her Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I'm in between books right now, but I recently finished an ARC of Dark Water Daughter by H.M. Long. It's the pirate fantasy novel I never knew I needed-like, take Pirates of the Caribbean, add the most unique magic system you've ever read, and make it winter all the time. I can't wait to pick up the audiobook especially, because I've heard both the narrators' work before and I can't wait to experience the story again in a different medium.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I am most excited for Alecto the Ninth, the final installment in The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir. I may or may not have prints of the covers hanging in my living room, complete with an empty frame waiting for Alecto. That's normal, right? I like TLT a regular amount. It's healthy to be this invested in a book series. It's fine. I'm fine. :')

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

I've been wanting to re-read the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden for several years now, because I remember loving them the first time I read them, so I'm hoping to do a re-read this winter. I also have a stack of sequels that have been sitting on my physical TBR for a very long time because I need to reread the first books in each series before moving onto the next (I have a goldfish memory), but alas.there's just not enough time in the day!

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

This might be because I recently finished an ARC of the upcoming prequel, but I've gotta say Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree. It's the literary equivalent of a warm hug, and I feel like it hit so many people at exactly the time they needed it-that was certainly my experience!

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

I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman as a young adult, and it was one I kept coming back to during the most turbulent years of my life, but it's been quite a few years since I picked it up.


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

My latest book is The Weaver and the Witch Queen, and it's a reimagined origin story for the legendary Viking Age queen of Norway, Gunnhild, known in history as Gunnhild Mother-of-Kings. It's got peril at sea, tough guys who learn to feel their feelings (but also kill people, because they're Vikings), witches who project their souls as animals and fight each other, and a supporting cast I would die to spend more time with in future works. But at its heart, Weaver is a story about the relationships between women, which is something you won't find much about in the source material I used-that is, the medieval Icelandic sagas, which are by and large concerned with men. So I saw an opportunity to fill that gap by giving Gunnhild two best friends and a found family of sorts. Between the action scenes, the romances, and the friendships, I think the book has something for almost everyone.

Thank you, Genevieve!

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

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Nanoreview: They Cloned Tyrone isn't too far from how things are in real life

You'll laugh about it, then think it over, then realize with a shudder that it wasn't joking

The pitch-perfect Blaxploitation homage in the new Netflix film They Cloned Tyrone is so hilariously over the top, so absurdly far-fetched, that you may miss the realism just beneath the surface. It's not science fiction to say that US government agencies have repeatedly treated Black people as disposable and interchangeable. It's not science fiction to say that the US has had a murky relationship with medical ethics, especially with Black patients. It's not science fiction to say that a segment of WASP leaders sincerely believe that they have already built the common ground for interracial peace and the only step needed is for Black people to agree to it. When you consider all those details, They Cloned Tyrone proceeds almost like a documentary.

The best satire is that which shows us exactly what the problem looks like, maybe through a funhouse lens, but still recognizable. The film's trio of lead characters are comical exaggerations of overused stereotypes, but it is their distorted irrealism that frees the story to make its points more openly, to engage in the Black cultural practice known as real talk. A serious documentary about the benefits that WASP society derives from enforcing the status quo in depressed neighborhoods would barely be noticed. But a speculative farce with world-class actors, sharp dialogues, unafraid hyperviolence, expert direction, and an aesthetic sense heightened all the way to the top of Jamie Foxx's afro? Now that's how you get audiences to pay attention.

Partly due to the references to Blaxploitation cinema, the look and feel of this movie exists in a curious limbo where audio casettes and funk music coexist with smartphones and Bitcoin scams. Set aside the props, and the story might as well be happening in the 1970s or tomorrow, cleverly signaling how little has truly changed. This effect is achieved with loving attention to detail in costume design, set design, and cinematography. Of particular note is the protagonist played by John Boyega, a meticulously crafted performance that makes you forget that the actor's natural accent is British.

Lies that tell a truth, as Alan Moore called the narrative art. The movie's ridiculously freakish premise is part of the point: even in such unbelievable circumstances, the message still rings true, and it does because it comes from a place of honesty, from deep familiarity with the damage that the American Way of Life™ does to Black communities. It may be about fake people, but They Cloned Tyrone is the type of art that can't be faked.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Review: Starling House, by Alix E Harrow

Look, just do what the nice sentient haunted house wants.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I loved this book — I loved it so, so much. I stayed up well after 3am to finish it, and I can’t remember the last time I did that. This book is great: moody, tender, dark, touching, and fierce. There is a sentient house. There are monsters. And, crucially, it ends well. To be honest, that’s really all I feel you need in order to know whether you want to read it. If the moods and features I just listed strike your fancy, then quite reading this review and just go read the book.

If, however, you want to know more about why I loved it so much, well, I won’t object to your continued attention. It’s about Opal, a high school dropout in her mid-twenties who’s spent the last decade looking after her little brother Jasper following the death of their mother. Opal is smart and unscrupulous and fiercely loyal to her family — her dead mother's memory, Jasper’s future — and she's determined that the miserable town of Eden where she was born and where her mother died will not get the best of her. She dropped out of high school to work dead-end jobs, and she's not above shoplifting school supplies or sticking her hand in the cash register in times of need. Her goals are clear: to get Jasper a spot at a boarding school up north, a wealthy place for wealthy people, where his whip-smart intellect will have the opportunity to build him a future outside of Eden. Because he and Opal have no future in Eden.

In truth, no one has a future in Eden. The town is blighted, cursed. Economically it is oppressed by the wealthy Gravely family, who own the industry that poisons the town and employs the people, without ever actually spending more than a day or two within the town limits. But beyond the mundane, it seems to suffer incredible bad luck: people die in freak accidents, like the one that killed Opal and Jasper's mother; buildings catch fire; and floods and catastrophic environmental disasters crop up at much higher rates than seem plausible by chance alone.

This bad luck is somehow tied up with the history of Starling House, a mysterious looming hulk that holds itself apart from the rest of Eden. Arthur Starling, the current Warden of Starling House, knows its secrets, but has no interest in telling them to anyone — least of all the reader — because he also works for a single goal: to be the last Warden of Starling House. Whatever responsibility that position entails, he wants to end it forever, not for his own good, but to spare whoever would hold the role after him from that terrible burden. His goal, although more shadowy, mirrors Opal’s: They are both fixated on building a future that will benefit someone else, even if they must burn themselves out doing it.

Naturally, these two cross paths. Starling House — which, by the way, is sentient, and has strong opinions, and so immediately won my heart because I am a complete sucker for sentient inanimate objects — decides that it rather likes Opal, and would like to have her around. It pulls her in, attracts her magnetically to its gates, arranges for Arthur to meet her there. And because Arthur is not quite as strong, brooding, and solitary a hero as he would like to be, he offers Opal a job as housekeeper. Starling House is a wreck, Arthur has money, and Opal needs money, so she takes the job. And thus, the pieces are in place for Opal to discover the secrets of Starling House, the reasons for Eden’s blighted luck, the skullduggery at the heart of it all, and what she and Arthur can do to make it better.

I’m being deliberately vague about the details here, because part of the brilliance of this book relates to the way the themes and revelations wind around each other like smoke. Stories and legends about the history of Starling House appear in multiple forms: in the official history propagated by the Gravely family, in the unofficial oral histories uncovered by the town librarian, in a picture book that was a formative part of Opal’s childhood, and in the records kept in Starling house itself. Each time we hear the story, we spiral a little closer to the truth underlying it all, and the truth resonates with the modern day events in deft, elegant details. The name of the school where Opal wants to send Jasper is the same as the name of a founding Gravely’s horse; a Gravely who died under mysterious circumstances fell off a bridge into the river in the same way Opal’s mother did the night she died. The interweaving of past with present is beautifully done.

Opal, too, is a wonderful main character. Life is hard in Eden, and Opal has become hard in turn: she keeps a clear bright line in her head between needs and wants; she knows how to smile and charm people when that is the only tool in her toolkit; she is keenly aware to the details of self-presentation that make her seem harmless, or trustworthy, or frivolous, or whatever characteristic will get her what she needs from an interaction. She lies freely and easily to everyone — even to Jasper. He objects to this at one point: ‘[Lying] is for everybody else. Not for family.’ But Opal reflects
The innocence of it makes me want to laugh, or maybe cry. The biggest lies are always for the ones you love the most. I’ll take care of you. It’ll be fine. Everything’s okay.
Her narrative is full of these sharp observations. Because she is so skilled at manipulation herself, she recognizes it when people try to pull it on her:
[Baine] smiles some more. It’s a well-practiced expression, an efficient arrangement of muscles meant to make me smile back. It’s alright, this smile says. You can trust me. The hair prickles on the backs of my hands.
And when her bright line between want and need falters sometimes, and she finds herself wishing for things, the hunger of that want surprises her: Dreams are just like stray cats. If you don’t feed them they get lean and clever and sharp-clawed, and come for the jugular when you least expect it.

Despite its starting point in such a grim place, this book's emotional trajectory is a heartening journey to show how Opal can, in fact, begin to start giving her trust and loyalty to people other than Jasper. It starts with Starling House, which responds so eagerly to her attention that she finds herself looking for tasks to continue her employment, unwilling to desert it after she’s cleaned and repaired the most pressing deficits. Perhaps because Arthur is such an extension of Starling House, Opal also grows closer to him, recognizing in him an outsider who shares a crushing burden, even if — for all her snooping — she can’t quite figure out what it is.

But as the book progresses, we see Opal realizing that there are other people in her life that she can trust. The proprietor of the motel where she lives, the town librarian, the family of Jasper’s best friend — they all turn out to have hidden kindness to them that Opal could not see, single-minded and hardened as she has been forced to be by her single-minded, hard life. She begins to open up, to discover that she doesn’t always need to protect herself, to project an image of self-sufficiency when she is not, truly, self-sufficient. On any other night I’d lie to her, Opal thinks at one point, when the librarian offers her a chance to leave Eden, tell her I’m saving up money, dreaming up some grand future. But maybe telling the truth is like any other bad habit, which gets harder to quite the more you do it.

The mood of this book is bleak, but the journey is about finding trust, and warmth, building a home for yourself, and lessening burdens by sharing them. It is beautiful, and comforting. Please give yourself the gift of reading it.



Nerd coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention
  • Sentient house
  • Intertwining myth, story, and oral history
  • Grim, loyal people determined not to let history repeat itself
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. She is on mastodon at

Reference: Harrow, Alix E. Starling House. [Tor Books, 2023].

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Review: Our Shadows Have Claws

A journey through the hidden corners of a continent's imagination

Edited by Yamile Saied Méndez and Amparo Ortiz, Our Shadows Have Claws is a bone-chilling anthology that gathers folk monsters from all corners of Latin America. Now, before I proceed to reviewing this book, I feel I have to insert an important note. At Nerds of a Feather, I've previously covered other collections of speculative short fiction from the Latin diaspora, which I'm always excited to do; I see it as my small contribution toward increasing the visibility of Latin authors. Like many contemporary writings by bilingual migrants, those stories contained bilingual dialogues; by now it's become increasingly accepted that people who publish in English and come from cultures where English is a foreign presence shouldn't have to treat their own mother tongue as the weird Other. As an aspiring writer myself, with English as my second language, I can appreciate the empowering effect of demanding English to accommodate our words instead of the other way around.

However, in Our Shadows Have Claws I find a substantially higher proportion of untranslated Spanish compared to previous collections I've reviewed, which will doubtlessly make the stories hard to follow for the monolingual reader. On discussing this point I must be mindful of my own position. I'm not a member of the diaspora, so I'm not qualified to evaluate the verisimilitude of Spanglish and successive code-switching in the context of the geographic settings where those dialogues occur. Speaking only for my experience as a reader, I had no difficulty with the book because I grew up with Spanish; your particular mileage may vary. The authors' (and editors') choice to include this much untranslated Spanish places the book in the middle of a conversation about intended audience, a conversation that was already intense back when Junot Díaz miraculously convinced The New Yorker to print his Spanglish untouched by the editorial hand.

All this is to say that Our Shadows Have Claws is unapologetically not meant for the incurious gringo. In a way, it's fitting for a collection of spooky fiction to make itself a bit elusive, partially out of the reach of unprepared eyes. So let's get to the stories.

The Nightingale and the Lark by Chantel Acevedo, about the doomed love between the respective descendants of a lineage of cryptid rescuers and a lineage of cryptid hunters, leans on Latin America's thorny baggage of civil wars to comment on the regrettable ease with which inherited grudges can continue to poison social ties.

I tracked my father the way I'd been taught to
track monsters—silently, on alert, like a woodland
creature. I could smell his aftershave, hear the faint
crackling sound his left ankle made every few steps,
spot the places on the earth where he'd knelt down.

¿Dónde Está el Duende? by Jenny Torres Sanchez, about a girl haunted by the sound of nighttime scratching during a visit to her profoundly disturbed cousin, takes advantage of the stylistic arsenal of first-person narration to draw the reader into the perspective of a second-generation immigrant gradually losing her memory and identity.

I don't know how much time has passed when I suddenly sense
something else in the room. A heavy, threatening presence that
thickens the air and makes my mind feel muggy. Some part of me
tries to scream, but my mouth won't open. My voice won't work.

El Viejo de la Bolsa by Alexandra Villasante, about an unofficial foster home that welcomes the children of missing political dissidents, makes Cold War dictatorships pass through the lens of allegory to portray with an understated expressiveness how the loss of basic civil rights can feel as dreadful as an urban legend told to make children behave.

Making people disappear is like balancing
an equation; one half is the taking of a person,
the other half is pretending not to see.

Beware the Empty Subway Car by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite, about a teenage mutant cannibal shapeshifter on the loose in Manhattan, deftly weaves together the desire for prey and the desire for human connection, thus subverting the power dynamic that occurs when comfortable New Yorkers choose not to see those in need among them.

As he shifts back in his seat to eat a slice, his scent
meets your nostrils. He smells sweet but not sickly so.
Your mouth waters. You take a bite of pizza and try
not to wonder what it would be like to do the same to him.

Dismembered by Ann Dávila Cardinal, about a grieving granddaughter who returns to a childhood home where things start to go bump in the night, suggests an original, gentler tweak on the trope of ghosts with unfinished business.

I was heading to my room, trying not to think about the fact
that I was alone in the house, when I heard a dragging sound
outside the front windows. Like someone was hauling a full
garbage bag across the gravel with long, scritching noises.

Blood Kin by Ari Tison, about a family physically and spiritually wounded by territorial encroachment on their Native reservation, balances the tragic tone of its ending with a resounding plea for drawing strength from the struggles of those who resisted colonization before us.

His eyes are horrified, and he begins to pull himself
away, half mauled. But I have no doubt what to do.
No doubt to finish. To let my ever-present fire pour on
him. I tear him apart. Limb by limb until he is no more.

La Boca del Lobo by M. García Peña, about a girl dangerously fascinated with a particular spot in the woods near her parents' former home, invites the reader to walk through her dreams and daydreams as she reconnects with her half-forgotten wild side.

A stabbing pain juts into my back reaching out
through my hands, my feet, my mouth. My body arches
forward, raising me up to my tiptoes, I feel the crack
of each individual finger breaking, shaping, growing.

Blood-Stained Hands Like Yours by Gabriela Martins, about a homeless orphan desperate to prevent her family curse from hurting the girl she loves, builds slowly toward a triumphant affirmation of our ability to redefine ourselves beyond the evil we've inherited.

She wakes up choking in sobs, overwhelmed by a heavy
smell she couldn't identify at first. She touches her face, and
it's slick, but… not with tears. Her fingers come away red.

The Boy from Hell by Amparo Ortiz, about a young slayer pursuing the clues to a vampire who's been stalking her classmates, proposes an interesting parallel between the abstruse politics of vampire clan rivalries and the equally arbitrary dynamics of Latin-on-Latin racism.

The deeper I get, the thicker the bushes are; there's
barely any space for solid footing. Cows moo at me a few
feet away. None have obvious bite marks, so I'm safe from
being attacked by four-legged bloodsucking mammals.

La Patasola by Racquel Marie, about an avenging spirit who seeks unfaithful men to brutally punish them, is curiously set far from the Colombian mountains where this folk monster is said to roam, which, for all the gore in its plot, suggests the comforting notion that the power of our stories can still sustain and protect us wherever we go.

She emerges from the shadows slowly, crawling across
the ground on her hands and foot. As grotesque as her
flesh is, her body moves fluidly. Like she learned to prowl
from the very pumas whose teeth tore her to shreds.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Claribel A. Ortega, about a young man who goes on a quest to rescue his sister from the witch who kidnapped her, plays with the standard hero's journey and puts it on its head, warning that in the jungle there are forces you can't defeat.

Her skin was not skin, but feathers. Her hair
stringy and thin against a visible scalp, with
large bulging eyes and lips sharp like a beak.
Her fingernails long and twisted like claws.

La Madrina by Yamile Saied Méndez, about a house built on the road between life and death, where a personified cosmic force gives succor to those uncertain of their journey, descends upon the reader like a soothing balm before sending us back on our quest.

I stumbled toward the witch light. Somewhere in
the brambles, I lost one of my shoes. Thorns tore
through my soles. Blood seeped through my nylons.
The earth drank it thirstily, like a payment for a grace.

Sugary Deaths by Lilliam Rivera, about an unrepenting womanizer who one day makes the poor choice of messing with the wrong girl, is a straightforward but impactful revenge fantasy set in the streets of a 1980s Nuyorican neighborhood.

Across the street, the stone gargoyles on her building stand
as they always have, but instead of their usual poses,
one holds a handkerchief as if crying, another appears
to be shouting, while another holds a spiked club.

Leave No Tracks by Julia Alvarez, about a secret community of river spirits with a natural defense against the exterior world, has in its biracial protagonist an example of how you can fight for your homeland and your heritage even if you already have a life settled far away from it.

When he saw me, he didn't chase after me.
Instead he sang me a song he made up on the spot.
Day after day he returned and sang it. That's
when I realized not all humans are inhuman.

The Hour of the Wolf by Courtney Alameda, about a high school mean girl haunted by a savage presence she unwittingly summoned, closes the book with a terrifying game of cat and mouse that honors the wave of supernatural flicks that swept the 1960s.

The Tukákame is a god of death and cruelty. At night, he
comes forth from the deep places of the earth to hunt, taking
the form of a wolf. But his true form is that of a skeleton,
and he garbs himself in the skins and bones of his victims.

A common thread in many of these stories is a warning to the gringos to not mess with what they don't understand. One by one, colonizers, exploiters, harassers, bigots and plain vanilla jerks meet their demise at the hands (or claws) of the beasts that roam our mountains and jungles. This is not only a collection that showcases our folk monsters, but one that explores the specific unequal relationship between the United States and Latin America. I'm usually not very moved by revenge fantasies, but there are some days when white Latinophobia gets so irritating I would just like to roar it into shreds. Perhaps you've heard of the classic Mexican Llorona. Now meet her extended family. Read, and tremble.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Reference: Méndez, Yamile Saied and Ortiz, Amparo [editors]. Our Shadows Have Claws [Algonquin Young Readers, 2022].

Review: The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd

 A disappointing love letter to an evocative craft

When you think of cartography and fantasy books, you typically imagine quests, crinkled vellum for the discerning adventurer, or crumbling parchment for the more impecunious; maps showing forgotten paths leading dragons or treasure (or both), discovered at the bottom of an old chest, or perhaps purchased from a stall in the market square that is gone when you go back to ask questions.

The Cartographers takes that sense of magic and updates it to two time periods: the slightly retro 1980s and modern day. No longer are maps made of sheepskin and penned with quills and iron gall ink. Instead we have folding highway road maps and big tech GPS systems. Yet these mundane types of maps are not without their magic, and Peng Shepherd does an admirable job identifying the perfect conceit for a fantasy tale about cartography. Specifically, she builds on a strategy that mapmakers use, in which they booby-trap their maps, adding in fake places that don’t exist so they can catch rival publishers who copy their work rather than doing their own surveys and drafting.  

The story focuses on Nell, an academic, a historian of old maps, who was ejected from her dream job at the New York Public Library, fired by none other than her own father, for a quarrel she refers to as the Junk Box Incident, and is coy about elaborating on for longer than she needs to be. For seven years she has chafed over why this argument had to turn into such a catastrophic quarrel, and has been alienated from her father and her former colleagues ever since. 

Then one day her father dies at his desk at the NYPL, and when Nell comes to help the police in their inquiry, she discovers an old highway map in his desk drawer. She recognizes it as one of the maps from the box of maybe-fakes that had precipitated her downfall, but it’s not one of the fabulously valuable-if-real ones; it’s an old highway road map. Worthless. But when Nell, in an act of tribute to her father, decides to catalogue it in the inter-institutional map-cataloguing system, it turns out that all of the other hundreds of copies of this map are missing, stolen, or destroyed somehow. And the day after she catalogues it, someone breaks into the NYPL but doesn’t steal anything. She researches it further, and finds odd message threads on internet forums warn people not to ask too many questions or else The Cartographers will come looking for them.

This is a terrific opening. I was all on board with this book after I got this far in the set-up: a thirty-something female protagonist who has earned her expertise through an actually realistic educational pathway (none of this three PhDs by the time she was 25 nonsense); a niche interest that the author clearly understands at a deep level, down to the typical workflow used for the cataloguing software interface; a deep and abiding love for the New York Public Library that comes through every fond description of the framed pictures on the wall and the décor of the study rooms. And an intriguing mystery, to boot. This is great! I thought.

But as events unfolded, bits of the story began to rankle. One bit revolves around a big-tech job at a company like Google or Amazon, called Haberson Corporation. Haberson is huge. Its search function has become a verb: ‘Have you Habed it?’ And its goal is to build the perfect map. Here’s how it’s described, from the perspective of one of the programmers:

[Haberson’s Map algorithm] would be not just unfathomably gigantic, but also graceful, each piece of information so well integrated into the whole that the map would be like music. A symphony. A geographical program capable of containing in one massive depiction every singlestream of data from every single arm of the company. Haberson Global had medical consultancies, urban planning teams, mass transit tracking, interior design apps, weather charts, internet search programs, social media, food and grocery delivery, sleep monitoring, flower bloom patterns, endangered species migration routes—all of it would feed into the map, more information from more sources than ever possible before, through the algorithm Felix’s team was designing. .. A refined code that would, somehow, take the Haberson Map from incredible to perfect.

First of all, I have enormous difficulty believing that engineers and tech people—not the CEOs but the actual programmers—really believe than an algorithm can be made ‘perfect’ (what does that even mean? Perfect for what?). My impression is that most people who actually write the code have more of the following perspective:

A cartoon of a vast assemblage of bits and pieces, smaller ones resting atop massive foundations. The massive foundation itself depends on a teeny little stick wobbling in the lower right hand corner. The bulk of the assemblage is labeled 'All modern infrastructure'. The teeny little prop in the corner is labeled 'A project some random person in Nebraska has been thanklessly maintaining since 2003'.

Likewise, the CEO of Haberson is unrealistically perfect. He always responds to emails from his employees personally (personally? From tens of thousands?), and he’s dedicated purely to the goal of perfecting the Haberson map. He sounds like he is intended to be in actuality how a rather disagreeable subset of the internet believes Elon Musk to be in their heads. And, living as I do in a world of actual Elon Musks, it’s hard to believe in big tech CEOs with that kind of integrity. My suspension of disbelief is pretty stretchy, but it can only flex so far. (Haberson turns out to have his own hidden depths, but they both take an awful long time to be revealed, leaving me rolling my eyes at Haberson’s purity, and were also desperately obvious well before they were revealed, leaving me rolling my eyes when I was expected to gasp at something I’d figured out fifty pages ago.)

The structure of the revelation of the secrets behind this road map also irritated me. A lot of the narrative is told from the perspective of people Nell tracks down, people who knew her parents in the 1980s, and whose contributions are recounted in flashback chapters. This sort of thing works well if each person knows a little bit of the puzzle, and only by tracking them all down and making each of them tell what they know can Nell figure out the whole story. But in this book, every person Nell tracks down is actually in a position to tell her everything, so their constant breaking off and holding back serves no real purpose beyond to irritate the reader. And what they do tell her is full of literary exposition and characterization and introspection and philosophical meditation that works well as a chapter in a novel, but is entirely unbelievable as a narrative from the mouth of someone who both begins and ends the conversation begging Nell to stop asking questions. 

The narrative itself is also irritating in what it reveals. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that it involves a group of new PhD students making some very dumb choices and getting into a heap of trouble that was entirely of their own making. It has more than a bit of Secret Histories to it, but what is forgivable (or at least artistically defensible) in a group of college kids who fancy themselves extremely clever is much more tiresome when the people are in their late 20s and have PhDs and should really know better. Yes, there is a wonderful kernel of magic at the core of it, but all of the interpersonal drama surrounding that kernel badly dragged down the story.

Against this perpetual irritation raised by the larger structural issues, I was in no mood to forgive smaller errors. A big project being planned in the mid 1980s is going to synthesize fantasy maps from Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea, and . . . Discworld? I stopped there and looked up publication dates. The Color of Magic, the first Discworld book, was published in 1983. The Light Fantastic came out in 1986. This flashback sequence is taking place in maybe 1985 or so. Discworld simply wasn’t enough of a thing yet to rank with Middle Earth and Narnia. 

Then there is a horribly inaccurate bit about fountain pens, laughably bad, hilariously bad for people who know the difference between a cartridge filler and a piston filler;* and at the end someone gets a very important job that they are desperately unprepared for, on the basis of qualifications that are over a quarter century out of date.

All together, the bits that I’ve highlighted as irritating me are not in themselves all that bad. But they add up, and the end result is a disappointment. The conceit of this book was superb; the execution needed work.



Nerd coefficient: 6, enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore

Deep and abiding love for cartography and the NYPL

Poorly constructed flashbacks

       People who should really know better being the authors of their own downfall

Unconvincingly virtuous tech billionaires

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: Shepherd, Peng. The Cartographers, [William Morrow, 2022].

*Because I know you pen-fanciers are curious: a character gives Nell a fountain pen that her mother earned when she got her PhD. She took the cap off the pen and ran its nib along the back of her hand. The ink came out dark and rich like oil against her skin, even after all this time. ‘I had it restored’ [the pen-giver] added. ‘I clean the piston and refill the cartridge every few years’. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

What's in an Adaptation? A Sapkowski Fanatic Watches Netflix's The Witcher

Literature is magical because, at some point, you read a book and grow convinced that it contains answers to all the mysteries of creation. I have felt this way several times in my life, particularly with esoteric novels. Many of my absolute favorite books, from Roberto Bolaño's fragmented mystery 2666 to William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, read almost like scriptures - arcane texts that require hermaneutics of interpretation. 

Indeed, it is not always clear what these books are about; at times they seem to be more vibes than plot, with hints of deep lore sprinkled like fairy dust across their pages. Neuromancer, for example, is a book I've read at least five times over the course of my adult life - and every experience has felt unique. The current rise of AI chatbots has even recontextualized this book once again, leading me to consider a sixth go around. 

Of all the fantasy series I have read (and there are many), none have given me that quasi-religious experience quite like Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher cycle.* The characters are tremendously well articulated: complex, raw and human. The books are, I would argue, part of the dark turn in fantasy. But they are not just dark, they are also warm and romantic; they do not focus just on pain and suffering, but also on loyalty, friendship and what it truly means to love. 

The series is not, however, an easy read. The plot is more elliptical than linear, with a narrative focus on small groups of characters rather than big set-piece moments of great import - which happen offstage and are more referred to than described. The world-building is complex, but there is virtually no exposition to aid the uninitiated; like Gibson's science fiction, it is all showing and zero telling. Character motivations, meanwhile, can be opaque in the moment, only to revealed piecemeal through oblique reference. For all these reasons, I can see how the series could be frustrating to someone expecting Martin, Sanderson or Hobb. But for someone like me, who craves a literary puzzle, the Witcher books are pure magic.  

*[For those who don't mind spoilers, you can find more detailed, book-by-book analysis on The Last Wish, Blood of ElvesTime of ContemptBaptism of FireThe Tower of Swallows and The Lady of the Lake. But warning: these reviews will contain spoilers for the book and TV series.]


I actually first discovered the Witcherverse through other media - specifically, through CD Projekt Red's Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. The world and characters were so captivating to me that I jumped online to find out more about the book series. I learned that Sapkowski's books were a sensation in Eastern Europe and Latin America, somewhat akin in popularity and influence to George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which was (rightly) viewed as a breakout fantasy series when first published in the 1990s. I also learned that the Witcher books were being translated and published in English, so of course I had to read them. 

The games and books do not tell the same story; rather, the games pick up the story at the end of the book series. And as good and likable as the games are, the books to me are just on another level. What's interesting, though, is that I didn't stop liking the games after reading the books. If anything, my enthusiasm for the games grew. This is progress for someone who often gets hung up on changes made to revered media (e.g. some of the creative license taken for the Game of Thrones TV series). 

Really, the games feel like spiritual companions to the books. They tell a different story, but the characters and world they inhabit feel true to their literary roots. Sapkowski himself isn't a big fan the games, in part due to ambivalence toward games as a storytelling medium and in part due to licensing disputes with CD Projekt Red (which now appear to have been resolved). But what strikes me about the games is how loyal they feel to the world Sapkowski created. They are loving tributes to their source material. 


Enter Netflix, which in 2017 announced a new TV adaptation in development. The streaming service hoped to capitalize on both Game of Thrones mania and the popularity of the Witcherverse in other media, with a series launch scheduled to coincide with the end of HBO's mega hit. It was announced that the series would adapt the books rather than the games and would star known nerd Henry Cavill as the eponymous Witcher. 

The first season had the unenviable task of adapting The Last Wish, a short story collection that sets the stage for the cycle proper, which begins in Blood of Elves. The showrunners could have just adapted the stories in episodic format, but they wanted to reel people in the way only serialized programs can. The show also had to grapple with the fact that Witcherverse lore is so deep, complicated and - as I mentioned earlier - shown piecemeal rather than told straightforwardly. Their solution was a nonlinear narrative that combines episodic stories with backstories that unfold across different dimensions of time. Yennefer's story, for example, is told across a 70-year period while Ciri's happens within 2 years. 

The result, in my opinion, is a mixed bag. Overall I think the first season provides a solid introduction to the characters, world and general themes of the series - and I like some of the adjustments to character (e.g. fleshing out Yennefer's backstory). But I've never been sure whether it could truly capture the imagination of someone who never read the books or played the games. Nor how they would follow the world's complicated and often opaque politics. And on top of that, the pacing of season one can only be described as sluggish. 

Since comparisons are inevitable, I'll note that this contrasts unfavorably with the first season of Game of Thrones, which does a superb job of telling you what's at stake (Westeros), who the main players are (the Starks, the Lannisters and the Targaryens) and why it matters (emerging threat too everyone from the White Walkers). It seeds these vital pieces of information within a compelling political mystery plot with parallel narratives of discovery north of the wall and on the continent of Essos. Finally, through a truly shocking plot twist (which readers of the books already knew was coming but TV neophytes did not), the show sets viewers up brilliantly for season 2.  

With this in mind, I didn't exactly have high hopes for The Witcher season 2. Blood of Elves is an odd book - a good book, to the sure, but not the best in the series. As I noted in my review, it's the installment  where Sapkowski's preference for micro over macro perspectives works least well. A lot of the action takes place at the stronghold of Kaer Morhen, where Ciri trains to become a witcher. There is a very long passage, brilliant in writing but difficult to translate to the screen, where sorceress Triss Merigold castigates the all-male witcher cadre for expecting Ciri to behave like a boy and undervaluing her femininity. We are introduced to Rience, who is one of the series' main antagonists, and get glimpses of the political machinations that propel the macro plot across the cycle. My concern going into season 2 of the TV series was that this would not make for compelling television, which requires even more "watercooler moments" than books. What if the show remained sluggish? 

Boy was I wrong. Season 2 of The Witcher is fantastic. The pace picks up, as the story shifts from contained monster hunting and backstory exposition to the multi-pronged contest to capture and control Ciri, with Geralt and Yennefer desperately trying to keep her out of the hands of those who would manipulate her for their own ends. 

The shape and structure of Sapkowski's book series only really works in the medium of literature; in order to turn it into effective television, the showrunners had to make changes - opting to capture the tone and feel of the books while diverging from them in specific ways. In season 2, the plot is simpler, clearer and strikes a more even balances micro and macro events than does Blood of Elves. Which is not to say that it is better than Blood of Elves - the opacity and nonlinearity, even in its least compelling installment, has always struck me as a feature rather than a bug. But the streamlined narrative does work better as television.   

Season 3, half of which is available as of writing (with the second half dropping worldwide on July 27), wraps up events from Blood of Elves and shifts to the second novel in the cycle proper, Time of Contempt. In contrast to Blood of Elves, Sapkowski's elliptical narratives and micro-focus work tremendously well in this book. In fact, Time of Contempt is one of two Witcher novels I scored as a 10/10, and is a supreme example of what can be accomplished within the fantasy genre. I even suggested that it "may be the best fantasy novel I have ever read." - which it probably was, at the time (though now, having finished the series, I am inclined to think The Lady of the Lake is even better). 


Season 3 struggles a bit more with the source material than in season 2, perhaps because the roadmap to transitioning the story to television is less clear. But it is still quite good - and, knowing what comes next, I am very excited for part two. Having watched the preview trailer, it looks likely that the show will adapt the intensity and pure weirdness of Time of Contempt's denouement. I don't want to spoil anything, but since you can see them in the trailer, all I will say is this: unicorns. The unicorn sequence in Time of Contempt is batshit crazy, in the best possible way. 

The show is supported by a superb cast of actors; besides Cavill, British actresses Anya Chalotra and Freya Allen shine as Yennefer and Ciri, and Eamon Farren is superb as the enigmatic Nilfgaardian agent Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach. Some of the smaller characters are also quite memorable - sorceress Sabrina Glevessig, dwarven adventurer Yarpen Zigrin and magical detectives Codringher and Fenn all make the most of limited screen time. 

Notably, some characters from the book series have been altered past the point of recognition. Sometimes this works. Prince Radovid of Redania is far more interesting as King Vizimir's perennially underestimated brother than he is as Vizimir's young, stern son. Sorceress Fringilla Vigo is also transformed from a minor character in the early novels into to a major player with backstory, nuance and complexity. We similarly get a deeper look at elven Queen Francesca Findebair, who like Fingilla Vigo becomes a more important character later in the book series but isn't really a major player in Blood of Elves. This exposition should make it easier for Witcher neophytes to understand the roles Fringilla Vigo and Francesca Findebair play as the cycle unfolds. 

At other times, the changes work less well. Philippa Eilhart is one of the most intriguing characters in the books and games - a scheming puppet-master with the mercurial, predatory demeanor of her other form, the owl. The way she's played in the show feels off to me, she is more sensual and almost feline. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and as always with these things, your mileage mat vary - it's just a deviation from the books and games that doesn't really work for me. 

There are also a lot of new characters, some of which work better than others. Gallatin the elven insurgent appears in season 3 to create conflict but doesn't really have much of a role otherwise. Dara is another elven character who seems to exist more to move the plot along than anything else. But Istredd to me is a very strong addition to the story. 

Now, to be fair, Istredd does appear in the short story "A Shard of Ice," but he does not appear in the cycle proper. However, unlike, say, Stregobor, he is not the feature of the story nor does he have a major place in Witcherverse lore - rather, he is included in that story as a device that helps us delve deeper into Geralt and Yennefer's relationship. As such, his portrayal in the show as an academic mage with a key role in unfolding the central conspiracy at the heart of the first two novels feels more original than just expanded. 


All of this is a lengthy way to say the TV adaptation has to date surprised me with its quality, its depth and its ability to know when to adhere to what has been established in the books and games and when to deviate from them. 

With that in mind, I have some major concerns about how the series will wrap up. Let's start with the obvious: for some baffling, unimaginably stupid reason, the show's producers decided to let Henry Cavill go and replace him with Liam Helmsworth. It's not that Helmsworth is a bad actor or would make for a bad Geralt; it's that Cavill has embodied the character as only someone with a true passion for the role can. Cavill is a known nerd who came into the role as a big fan of the games; since taking on the role, he has dived deep into the books and broader Witcherverse, to the point where cast and crew have called him the set's expert on series lore. 

This may have been the reason for his dismissal. Cavill allegedly argued with the showrunners on deviations from the book series, whereas the showrunners would prefer not to stick too close to the books. Given my comments on the series above, you might think I'd take the showrunners' side here - but seasons 2 and 3 clearly show Cavill's influence. Without that, the deviations may become less authentic to fans of Sapkowski's writing. 

The show may also suffer from the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes (which we strongly support). The scripts for season 4 have apparently already been written, but the strike could impact necessary revisions. And does anyone, for a moment, think the studios might not just rush the product out to meet financial obligations, ready or not? 

I have even greater concerns about how Netflix will handle the show's ending in season 5. After all, we've now seen countless examples of streaming channels chasing ratings by letting beloved series series end miserably. Even worse is the new trend to cut costs by killing off projects that people love, no matter where we are in the storyline. Both would do a major disservice to what has been, up to now, a major success. I hope neither comes to fruition, but I do have serious concerns here.

Ultimately, though, we can only judge the series on what it's done to date - and it's hard for this Witcherverse fanatic not to see the adaptation as a glass more than half full. Sure, it's not the books - and it may not be the games either, but it is good. Very good. I hope that the show continues to live up to its promise. 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).

Monday, July 24, 2023

You'll love the winner of the second Self-Published Science Fiction Competition

Rory August's novel The Last Gifts of the Universe is a beautiful exploration of the idea of joy in the middle of cosmic abandonment

I have a soft spot for self-published science fiction. I know first-hand the stress, the insecurity, the persistent sense of disorientation, the all-devouring doubt that is the bane of the aspiring author. To watch self-published books succeed fills me with warm fuzzies.

Full disclosure: I participated in the second Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. But this article is not about me. This is about the very deserving winner, Rory August, for their spectacular space opera The Last Gifts of the Universe.

In a far future when, seemingly by pure luck, only one starfaring civilization remains, space archaeologists jump from planet to planet trying to figure out what killed every other sentient species that ever existed. Scout, our protagonist, works for an organization called the Archivists, collecting technological relics that might contain data from the last days of each world they find. Along with their brother and their unfailingly opinionated cat, they climb, rappel, tiptoe, crawl and jump across the ruins of advanced societies that were mysteriously wiped out thousands of years ago. If any of those ruins happen to contain intact hard drives, Scout hopes, maybe those alive now will learn from those historical records how to avert the same fate.

However, the focus of the novel isn't so much on the strategies for defeating the strange world-burning entity that's been extinguishing sentient life, but on the significance that it may have for every small, fragile person to know that death is coming and no one knows what to do about it. This is a practical way for an author to link the larger drama to the individual drama: the characters cope with the death of civilizations by relying on the same emotional tools that we use to cope with the loss of loved ones. Scout is still mourning their mother, and through the text it becomes clear that the author wants to compare the techniques of archaeology with the process of mourning: digging up old belongings, trying to ascertain their function, undusting fragments of letters, debating for decades what this or that odd phrase may have meant, choosing what to preserve and what to give up.

With this strong thematic parallel, the novel suggests that knowing your world will die is no different from knowing you'll die personally. We can choose, through the mementos we leave behind, to perform our ultimate gesture of love. If true love doesn't expect retribution, then love for coming generations is the truest form, because it can't possibly receive any retribution. And still, knowing this, knowing there's no reward or acknowledgment, we are capable of loving the future. We are capable of leaving the best of us for the benefit of those yet to come.

The point of The Last Gifts of the Universe isn't how to stop death. No one has that answer. Rather, this is a story about how to build the fortitude to keep doing what matters to you even when you have the certainty that you'll vanish forever. What Scout finds in this mission not only reaffirms their sense of the importance of recovering what's left from the dead, but also gives them some much needed comfort in the knowledge that those who preceded us wrestled with the anxious questions that plague us, and we can find strength in what they chose to transmit to us. This is not only a precious view of our finiteness in a hostile universe, but also a precious gift from Rory August to their readers.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: August, Rory. The Last Gifts of the Universe [self-published, 2022].

Review: Barbenheimer

Barbenheimer — The summer movie double-feature spectacle/meme event

For months, the internet has been murmuring about the simultaneous release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Two diametrically opposed films — sugar vs substance, pink vs black and white, divine feminine energy vs stark, intellectual masculinity — both dropping on the same fateful Friday in late July. 

By mid-June, the phenomenon had a name, and #barbenheimer was heavily trending on Twitter and picked up by news outlets. People all over the world were talking about and gearing up for this pop culture explosion (pun intended, of course). It even had its own Wikipedia page.

Naturally, I made plans to take PTO and see them both on opening day — Oppenheimer at 3 p.m in 70 mm at the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, then Barbie at Midtown Arts Cinema (a two-mile drive away) at 7 p.m. 

Let’s start with the order  

One of the things that has made #barbenheimer fun to discuss and debate is one’s preferred viewing order. I decided to go heavy and dark first, and then end the night with the fizzy, buoyant Barbie

I’ll admit, it’s a weird feeling to spend three hours chronicling the break-neck race to build an atomic bomb and then dive headlong into a bright pink world filled with perfect dolls, but I think it’s the best order for viewing if you don’t want to end your marathon cinema experience too morose. It’s like having a steak, then getting dessert. It’s also easier, in my opinion, to sit through a long movie first then cap it with a short little number. 

Oppenheimer, destroyer of worlds

As a caveat, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan. I admire the way he mixes the extremely serious with the dreamlike, the hard science with sentimentality (looking at you, love-exists-in-the-fourth dimension Interstellar). 

The film chronicles the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, beginning around college and following him all the way through into his old age. Cillian Murphy never once for a moment makes you believe he’s anyone other than Oppenheimer for the entire three hours. He’s incredible, and this portrayal will win an Oscar, I’m sure of it. I didn’t even think about Thomas Shelby once.

In the hands of any other director, a biopic about a physicist wouldn’t exactly be record-breaking box office fodder, but Nolan deftly makes this movie into a nail-biting thriller. Once we learn about the need for beating the Nazis to the atomic bomb, it becomes almost like a heist movie. Even Matt Damon is there, portraying the gruff engineer general tasked — along with Oppenheimer— with assembling the crew of scientists that will pull it off.

They build a town to house the scientists so they can work in seclusion in the deserts of New Mexico. The first two hours of the movie you learn about all of the interpersonal drama between the famous scientists of the day — names like Fermi, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Feynman. Ones you remember from chemistry class. 

The end of the second act leads up to the Trinity test in New Mexico, and you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time. The explosion itself is divine, triumphant, frightening, mesmerizing. It builds in silence for 40 seconds before the shock wave hits the scientists — and you — with an otherworldly wall of hell-like noise (another Nolan specialty). The light that this bomb emitted was so bright that a girl blind from birth miles away reportedly asked what the brightness was. 

In all honesty, I think the movie should have ended there. The last 40 minutes focus on the problems Oppenheimer ran into after the war. As the father of the atomic bomb, he was lauded as a hero at first, but as the reality of all the past — and future — blood on his hands sank in, he struggled with his feelings on all of it. He eventually spoke out against the creation of further weapons of mass destruction like the hydrogen bomb, and for this he was blacklisted and accused of being a communist. It’s a stark examination of the McCarthy era witch hunt mindset. But the next 50 years of the Cold War proved him right. Even though the world has yet to be destroyed by nuclear war, we came perilously close. And it still might happen. 

Unlike Barbie, Oppenheimer only has two female characters, and they’re not terribly sympathetic. I know you can’t change reality, but it still kinda stings to have both ladies simply be the love interests of Oppenheimer. The first, his communist lover Florence Pugh, who spends the majority of her few minutes on screen completely naked. The second, his wife, played by Emily Blunt, a woman who hates her children and is an alcoholic. 

Barbie, giver of hope

For my Barbie caveat, I will say that I never played with them growing up. I was a tried-and-true tomboy who loved Ninja Turtles and He-Man action figures. But Barbie is no ordinary doll movie — it’s directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by her and her husband, Noah Baumbach. Early on the rumors leaked of it being a feminist movie, not what you’d expect. Of it being deeply funny and weird, also not what you’d expect. 

We rushed from one theater to the next, driving down Ponce de Leon avenue in Atlanta during a thunderstorm with flooded streets. I won’t lie, this added to the cinematic nature of my afternoon. 

Arriving into the lobby during the evening rush was a sea change. Pink everywhere, in every way you can imagine. Men wearing pink t-shirts. Young women decked in pink dresses and boas. I saw a group of Muslim girls wearing pink hijabs. It was fantastic! I had no idea how much people loved Barbie. And even though it’s never been my cup of tea, I was happy that people that did love it were reveling in the celebration. It’s easy for society to dismiss the things that women love when it comes to movies, so I beamed with pride that Barbie was having this moment. 

But Barbie is being simultaneously praised — and derided — as a feminist movie. 

Let’s get this straight: It is a deeply feminist movie in a way that I’ve never seen in a mainstream film, and certainly not in a way that I expected from a movie about a blonde doll. 

The plot, briefly, is this: Barbie lives in Barbieland, an idyllic place where women are supreme court justices, presidents, astronauts, and more. As the first doll to not just be a baby or a mother, Barbie showed girls that women could be anything. And it was inspiring (for a while). 

But that’s just in Barbieland. In the Real World, there’s still patriarchy and problems to be solved for gender equality. Barbie and Ken get to visit this Real World, and Ken very quickly learns that in the Real World, men are on top. 

When they return to Barbieland, he spreads the gospel of patriarchy, turning their world upside down. It takes teamwork, probing, and self-examination, but Barbie and her friends learn the power they possess deep inside themselves, and eventually all is returned to normalcy in Barbieland. 

I’m not doing the plot justice here, but the plot is secondary to the main point of the film. There’s an incredible scene in the climax of the movie where America Ferreira, playing an exhausted mom, gives a monologue about how hard it is being a woman, and all of the never-ending and impossible-to-fulfill demands placed upon them. The key message is: You are enough. 

At this scene, a big chunk of the audience I was in started crying. This message is something that many women need to hear, and Greta Gerwig gave it to them. It was awe-inspiring.

Some detractors have claimed this movie is “anti-man” and filled with “nuclear-level rage” against men. It’s not. It’s a movie made for women about being a woman and all the complexities therein. And spoiler alert: There’s not many of these films.

Barbie is enjoyable, wildly funny, and very, very smart. The movie opens with a parody of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that had the entire audience cackling. There’s a reference to Proust! A character name drops Stephen Malkmus from the band Pavement. There’s a second Kubrick reference that combines The Shining with a Barbie. 

As someone who never once desired to play with a Barbie, I’m struck by an overwhelming desire to see this movie again. I will, too.

Nerd coefficient: 9/10

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.