Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Nanoreviews: Councilor, Starter Villain

Councilor, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Because I’m a sucker for L.E. Modesitt, Jr’s fantasy novels and I am all in on how he writes a slow burn narrative that is as much focused on the day to day mundanity of life as it is on the exciting large set piece action sequences, Councilor scratches the exact itch that I have for this sort of fantasy.

Councilor is the second novel in L.E. Modesitt, Jr’s Grand Illusion sequence, following 2021’s Isolate. It is set in a somewhat more technologically advanced fantasy world with coal power and cars (but not electricity) and that is set even deeper in the middle of a fairly democratic political structure.

Most of Modesitt’s fantasy work involves political and philosophical discourse wrapped around the day to day as tension and potential large scale conflict builds from small incidents. Councilor takes that to the next level by living in the political. Now elected to the council which he once defended as a security aide, Steffan Dekkard is settling into this new role with the seriousness he undertook his previous.

Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

There has been a trend in science fiction and fantasy for a number of years now for very cozy stories, which I’m not sure is fully defined but which would reasonably include writers like Becky Chambers, Travis Baldree, TJ Klune. At a minimum, what I’m thinking about is genre fiction with a lighter touch and eschews a harsher darkness in the storytelling but also in tone. There is a separate conversation to be had regarding the definition of cozy science fiction and exactly what qualifies. This isn’t that space, but I mention it because it is something that was on my mind while reading Starter Villain.

John Scalzi has always had a light touch with his science fiction, and Starter Villain is no different. Starter Villain is a very Scalzi novel, meaning that the narrative zips along with snappy dialogue and even though there are potentially life threatening stakes they don’t feel quite as heavy as they might in other hands.

Starter Villain posits that after his estranged uncle dies, Charlie finds himself their heir to immense wealth and a super-villain’s business empire (including a secret lair inside a volcano) - with no idea of anything about this world even existing Charlie is brought in almost against his wishes and finds himself in a world of comic absurdity.

That’s where Scalzi’s light touch works through this every day guy thrust into a world of wealth and power and the thing is, Charlie does it with decency. That’s where I thought about the potential coziness of Starter Villain and how it just felt kind despite billionaires plotting to murder Charlie and take over the world. It’s the feel of the thing.

The core thing to note about Starter Villain though, is that it is just a straight up funny novel. Starter Villain was an absolute delight and a real riot. My wife and I would both snort and laugh out loud and share our favorite lines, which is more than we can say about many other novels - and that’s worth celebrating and sharing.

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