Friday, September 29, 2023

Recap — Ahsoka Episode 7: Dreams and Madness

As we barrel toward the season finale next week, things start to get complicated for our heroes.

This week, we open on a rare daytime scene of Coruscant, the capital city of the other galaxy. It's funny, when I picture Coruscant in my head, it's always a vast, sprawling nighttime scene. Probably because in my head, it's the same as New York City, just more sci-fi. 

Hera has been hauled before the Senate committee to atone for her sins of disobeying orders. Mon Mothma is there, and tries her best to be understanding, and Admiral Ackbar is there but remains silent. Senator Xiono, however, is on a witchhunt for Hera, and calls for her court martial. 

This scene harkens back to the EU, as Xiono basically is taking the role of Bothan council member Borsk Fey'lya, who folks loved to hate for his antagonism and political grandstanding. Even though the EU was scrapped almost wholesale, I love that Filoni is managing to sneak in some of its more important themes and characters (cough Thrawn cough).

A Protocol Surprise to Be Sure, but a Welcome One

All of a sudden, there's a disruption in the courtroom, and we hear Leia's theme begin softly playing. Accompanying this leitmotif is an appearance of none other than our boy C-3PO. It's funny, the Anakin/Hayden Christiansen appearance knocked everyone's socks off, sure, but Threepio absolutely just warmed my heart. 

He barges into the proceedings on behalf of Leia, and of course our favorite princess is here to save Hera's ass. In front of the court, Threepio presents evidence stating that Leia personally authorized Hera's trip to Seatos, and if Xiono has any more beef, to bring it personally to her. 

Afterwards, Mon Mothma lovingly sees through this ruse, but then in a moment of vulnerability asks Hera point-blank how real the Thrawn threat is. She's concerned. 

In a Space Whale's Mouth Far, Far Away

Ahsoka is training with a videotape of Anakin, and it's clear that's she saved this for a very long time. I like this idea of her still honing her Jedi skills, epecially now that's she's come to terms with him and his legacy, and where she falls alongside it. 

We learn that he made more than 20 of these lesson-recordings. With a sharp exhale, Ahsoka admits to Huyang, "He was a good master."

I saw a meme yesterday that was like "Anakin was only 23 when he became Vader. He shouldn't have been a sith! He should have been at the club!" I laughed, but there's a kernel of truth to this sentiment. He was so, so young. Wise behind his years, yes, and a formidable warrior. But he was such a baby in terms of world experiences. 

Arriving to Peridia

Ahsoka drops out of spacewhale hyperspace into an artfully laid trap above the planet — hundreds of space mines. In a very upsetting scene, our beloved purgill are getting attacked left and right. It takes just a few seconds, but the entire pod says "screw this" and jumps back into hyperspace, leaving Ahsoka and Huyang to navigate through the rest of the mines. 

As the emerge unscathed, fighters are launched to track them, and Ahsoka, impersonating her best Han in Empire, heads into the debris field to shake them. She finds a cozy spot and they hide out, buying time to figure out their next move and scan for Sabine.

Thrawn Gets the Surprise of His Life

One of the first things you learn about Thrawn in the Zahn trilogy (and later in Rebels) is that he's a cunning foe because he prides himself on learning as much about an enemy as possibly — background, culture, art, history. 

So while he knew that Ahsoka was a Jedi, when he finds out that Anakin was her master, you can almost see the exact second his jaw hits the floor. Just for a moment though, as he's a consummate tactictian and always, always has that cool blue demeanor. He also takes solace in knowing Anakin — if she's like him, she'll be unpredictable and dangerous.

Noti Caravan Life

Sabine and Ezra are in the Noti caravan, and she's catching him up on the past ten tumultuous year of galactic history. Here again we see Filoni doing the lord's work of trying to insert little plot bits that will help the sequel trilogy make even a slight bit more sense. "So Palpatine died?" Ezra asks. "That's what people say," replies Sabine.

EXCUSE ME. He was thrown down a mineshaft. The second Death Star exploded. Sigh. I guess this means that somehow, he'll return 20 years later. I have to laugh to keep from crying. 

Ezra has missed a lot, but there's so much more that she's not telling him. Good guy that he is, he doesn't press. Meanwhile, I'd be like YOU HAVE A PLAN RIGHT?!?!

The Great Mothers Help Thrawn Once Again

Thrawn's reliance on the Nightsisters and their ability to use the Force and magic is interesting. Not being a Jedi himself, dealing with them has always been his weakness. It's unclear what the Nightsisters are getting from their alliance (besides maybe a free trip back to the other galaxy), but they're definitely devoted to him. 

He asks them to find Ahsoka's location within the spacewhale bone graveyard, and they quickly set to work. I found myself really enjoying their use of magic — it compliments the magic we see with the Force (because that's all the Force really is, isn't it?). 

As Star Wars fans, we can take the Force for granted — lifting rocks, pushing enemies back, hearing voices. So seeing it in a new way underlines how truly remarkable this type of power is. They find her almost instantly, and Thrawn dispatches fighters to track her down.

The Battle Begins

Shin and Baylan have located Ezra and Sabine, overlooking their caravan from a hilltop. In a surprising move that I didn't see coming, Baylan tells Shin to kill them, and then to take her place in Thrawn's coming empire. 

She's blindsided — but Baylan merely tells hers that his path lies separate from hers. He gives her a parting lesson: Impatience for victory will guarantee defeat. 

This bummed me out! I liked their dynamic, and they seemed to care about each other. Also what does Baylan have up his sleeve? I had a feeling he wasn't entirely bad. Maybe that's why he was just using Thrawn and not eager to join the ranks of an evil empire.

A Rebels Battle If Ever There Was One

Shin and her goons race down and attack the caravan, and the battle begins in earnest. Ezra instructs the Noti to circle the hermit crab wagons and they make their stand. Shin confronts Ezra and Sabine, and in a scene straight of Rebels, he comically makes a last minute appeal to distract her before attacking. I'm not sure why this scene took me out of it, it was just a bit corny. It wouldn't have been in a cartoon, but it is in real life. 

Meanwhile, Ahsoka is skimming the planet's surface and spots Baylan. She jumps down and they begin to fight, as well. 

Both of these concurrent battles are fun to watch, but they both end in stalemates. Ahsoka escapes back onto her ship so she can go help Ezra and Sabine. Once there, they run Shin off instead of killing her, which was an interesting choice. (And one I'm glad of, as I like her character.)

This was part of Thrawn's plan. There's no need for him to keep his troops there. Their real mission is nearly complete — loading up the ship and getting ready to leave. 

Another Reunion

Ahsoka is reunited with Ezra, and it's heartwarming. Now what are they going to do?! The only way back to the other galaxy would be via the Eye of Sion. That is, unless the purgill come back, though if I were them, I'd be down with these humans. 

It's clear that the season finale next week is going to be a cliffhanger. I sure hope we get a season 2 — surely we will, right?

The Math

Baseline score: 7

Bonuses: +3 Threepio cameo! Ahsoka is back to her sly and sassy self. Some very good fighting.

Penalties: -3 There's a frustrating lack of plot progress despite how much happens in this episode. We're still no closer to knowing what Baylan is doing, or what Thrawn is loading into the ship, or how our heroes are going to get home.

Nerd coefficient: +2 I've decided my new favorite thing is how Sabine uses her beskar armor kind of like how John Wick is always pulling up his bulletproof jacket to cover his face.

Gonk droid count: Zero!

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, 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, September 28, 2023

Review: Preset by Sarina Dahlan

An attempt to top its ambitious predecessor Reset by not providing a sequel, but rather a prequel showing how the world of the four cities came to be.

Second acts are hard. The “Sophomore Slump” is real. And yet there is a real pressure in the book industry to follow up with a sequel, with a series, with a shared universe. A very less trod path, though, is to try and do a prequel to the wildly ambitious book you have just had published, showing the underpinnings of how the strange post-apocalyptic, haunting utopian(?) society of your first book got that way in the first place.

This is Sarina Dahlan’s Preset.

Dahlan’s Reset was an ambitious, and to my view, extremely effective novel that posed central and important questions about identity, memory, personality and what it takes to build and nurture a new kind of society after an apocalypse. And what happens when a personal relationship, or dare I say, a love, proves stronger and more long lasting than any technology or artifice to reset memories and thoughts. It was moving, elegiac, and powerful.

Preset shows us the foundation of that society, in a pair of time frames with the same set of characters. In the earliest time frame, we met the founder of the Four Cities, Eli, and his wife Eleanor. The world is falling apart, but both Eli and Eleanor are driven to find a place of their own, a place of their own. But there are cracks in the foundation of this power couple relationship. And one of those is the other person who has a lien on Eleanor’s heart, John

By contrast, in the second time frame of the novel, things have changed. The bombs have fallen, and the fate of the rest of the world is increasingly uncertain. But the strains of trying to hold a society together in the wake of the apocalypse has driven a permanent fracture between Eli and Eleanor, and Eleanor flees the autocracy of Eli over the cities to the Resistance...and, well, John. But becoming part of the Resistance, a Resistance that justifiably does not trust the wife of Eli. And of course, the Resistance has a Plan. As does Eleanor. And so does Eli.

And so this is a story of the early days of the Four Cities. The hallmarks of the utopian world of Reset are not here. In the first timeline, there is hope and promise that this can be a new life, a new start, a new future. It is very much showing how the ambition and relentless vision of Eli, and the strivings of Eleanor, shape what will come. It is a world, though, with the Sword hanging overhead, of the footsteps of an approaching doom, or wyrd, all the same. The second timeline is the early days of the Four Cities on their own. Eli has attempted to maintain control, to work toward his perfect society. But there are those who would topple the order he had made, who would resist what they see as his tyranny.

But there is much more going on than just these plot lines. Relationships, romantic and otherwise are a hallmark of Dahlan’s first novel, and overcoming the 4 year cycle of imposed forgetting is a major thread of that novel, in finding where the heart will take someone who only slowly learns to open her heart. This novel, by comparison, takes a different set of romantic relationship issues--the issues of staying with someone who is more addicted to their vision and their ideas than you and what you want, and then the costs of leaving such a relationship, only to find that the person whom your heart is settling on, now, has, in fact, moved on.

In many ways, this is a much more painful book. That is not to say that the first novel. Reset, lacks that poignancy, especially as Aris, and the reader, get a true sense of what is lost and the costs of the “four year memory wipe” that is at the center. That is seen as the rhythms of that world overthrown as the characters struggle to break a cycle that they are seemingly trapped in by the designs of their world.

Preset is not concerned with cycles, this is two time frames at the beginning of the story of the Four Cities. Preset is concerned with genesis and creation. (In point of fact, there is a “Project Genesis” within the novel, showing that the author was definitely putting a spotlight on this). There are concerns, in the second timeline, about the genesis, the creation of a world for the remnants of humanity to try and survive in. This is a prequel that is in many ways a much more traditional SF novel than Reset. Reset is like reading a recurring, waking dream, as the characters struggle to escape its cycle. Preset is concerned with the building of a new society, a new path, a new way forward, and how it is just the sacrifice of a relationship, in the end, that makes that society possible.

But this gets to the issue that I really want to dig into here, and that is the idea and issues around prequels themselves.

Prequels: What ARE they good for?

There is a school in writing that suggests that knowing when the story starts is an important factor in writing a story or a novel. Where is the important place for the story to start? Starting a story or a novel in the wrong place wrong-foots the writer, and ultimately the reader. The problem with many prequels is that a prequel, in effect, catapults the reader backward and decides that the story did not begin where the writer originally thought it did. And that foreknowledge of what will happen can weaken the narrative within the prequel itself. Either the prequel or the original book can then wind up being a pale imitation of the other, and thus in the end both books together are weaker than the original novel. This also works in movies as well, if one considers how the elf-dwarf romance (Tauriel-Kili) in the Hobbit movies absolutely cheapens the hard won friendship that Gimli and Legolas have to build, between two cultures that do not trust each other, in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Also there is a problem of overlapping a character with its prequel. It can for me as a reader feel stagnant to read the prequel to the novel I just read, just to have the character I enjoyed in the first novel, to have been pretty much who they are in the prequel, or a convoluted and jury rigged sequences of events is needed to mold a character into the character we see in the original novel. It feels more like a crossword puzzle than a novel, an attempt by the author to “get the character” to who they are in the original book. This frustrates me, too.

A prequel such as Preset, though, does avoid some of this blowback. By avoiding having such a wide gulf between the time frame of the first novel and the second novel, we get to see a very different sort of world. The utopia of the Four Cities, for all of its faults as seen in Reset, is a hard won thing, and in the two time frames are so removed from the first that the overlap of characters is just about not there. The characters of Eli and Eleanor are present in Reset, but in such a changed form (and so relatively briefly) that they really are new characters, tabula rasa for the author, to explore here in these pages.. But in Reset, the poignancy and tragedy of those two characters is established as a fact, and in Preset, we see just how that tragedy came out, in the creation of the Four Cities as its running concept in the original book.

In many ways, then, Preset depends on that last chapter of Reset in which we pull the camera back a bit, but that is somewhat unfair to readers and to the author. Preset creates the world of Reset and while there are hints and strains and the building blocks of the world of Reset are shown, it is in fact a very different story.

I do have a radical proposal for the reader who has not read either of these novels and is considering doing so. Upon reflection and thought (and a review of Reset), I think that these novels should be read in order of their internal chronology and not publication order. The story of Preset, is a tragedy of relationships and pain as the world breaks and the sacrifice of that relationship and how that relationship’s breaking ultimately creates the utopia that we then see in Reset. I am thinking especially here of the chapter in Reset which, in reading these two novels in “reverse order”, ultimately ties the original novel to its prequel second, and makes it a united whole.

But does this ultimately work? I am still uncertain and I have considered and reconsidered this question. For all of the underpinnings of character, romance and relationship that the novels share, depicting a utopia (however so very flawed) and depicting the creation of that utopia are completely different kinds of stories. I admire that sort of ambition in a writer. It shows range and a willingness to take a big risk.

But the question that comes back to me--is this book *necessary*? Is this a story ultimately that needed to be told. Eli and Eleanor and the fruit of the tragedy of their relationship, as seen in Reset - was it necessary to show and map out the contours of a story that is, in Reset, so very sketched out enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. I think the writer definitely wanted to explore this story and make it work. There is something rather mythic about these characters as seen in Reset (to the point of using mythic language in fact). The characters in Preset are all so very human, by comparison. Very flawed. Very prone to making mistakes. And that is part of the point.

Does this mean that this book is a story of apotheosis, in a sense, how these two flawed individuals together, despite themselves, create the world of Reset? A utopia that they themselves cannot really share, a world and future of their collaborative creation that they stand apart from and are by the needs and structures of their roles, can NEVER be a part of? Perhaps.

"Stories never live alone, they are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward".

Roberto Calasso wrote that in the first pages of his fantastic look at Greek mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. I know he might counsel you to read these in publication order, and trace the story backward. I still maintain that you, reader might want to follow my advice, and read them forward.

But in the end the point is that these novels are worth reading, and while Preset in many ways can be more pedestrian and less philosophical and reflective than Reset, it is a story worth having been told, and for you to read.


The Math

  • The painful building of utopia, at the cost of a relationship
  • Strong character beats and arcs spread across two timelines
  • But is it a necessary book compared to it’s first?
Dahlan, Sarina, Preset [Blackstone Publishing, 2023]

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Futurama is back, as sharp as ever

The world of the 31st century feels even closer to ours

Depending on how you keep count, this is season 8 or 11 of Futurama. After being killed and revived twice, it makes sense that this time the series has some things to say about the state of television, corporate whims, and the meaning (of lack thereof) of death.

For example, episode 1, "The Impossible Stream," makes fun of streaming media and the trend of show revivals. Note how trivial it is to bring Calculon back from robot hell and how Bender shrugs off the death of a TV director, while Fry briefly appears to have died, just to show up unharmed. There's a theme being built towards, but it's not evident in the first viewing.

Episode 2, "Children of a Lesser Bog," resumes the hanging thread of the tadpoles spawned by Kif back in season 4. The bulk of the plot deals with the usual antics of new parenthood, plus a brief legal drama with a disappointingly deflated resolution, but there's also a point at the beginning where Kif's hundreds of tadpoles are eaten by various swamp predators until only three survive. This incident is portrayed as normal in Kif's culture, but one has to wonder about a civilization where this degree of child mortality is acceptable. Again, this is all part of an overarching theme. Earlier in the same episode, Kif intentionally lets a man die as part of a rescue mission.

Episode 3, "How the West Was 1010001," is all about the Bitcoin fad. This one must have been easy to write; Bitcoin is laughable enough in itself. The Planet Express crew visits a town that has reverted to Wild West technology because "mining" consumes all electricity, which provides a believable excuse to call back to the aesthetic of Gold Rush movies. Several minor threads converge in a massive shootout, but the final scene reminds us of all the minds lost to Bitcoin. This is shown for laughs, but it's connected to the growing interest of the season in how we react to huge personal losses. The news of a whole planet being destroyed, with a population of 50 billion, is likewise treated as a minor affair.

Episode 4, "Parasites Regained," goes even more personal: Nibbler's brain is being eaten by worms. In a parody of the Dune movies, our heroes battle armies of microscopic beasts in the desert sands of Nibbler's litterbox. After perhaps too many toilet jokes and a couple mystical visions, the day is saved. Nevermind that Nibbler ate a whole person in broad daylight with no consequence.

Episode 5, "Related to Items You've Viewed," has a thinly disguised Amazon devour the entire universe yet everything stays the same.

Episode 6, "I Know What You Did Next Xmas," is about the, honestly, overdue murder of Robot Santa Claus, who somehow has been allowed to go on a violent rampage every year. As this episode involves time travel, we once again encounter Futurama's established lore that successive restarts of the universe are identical and thus interchangeable. To Professor Farnsworth, to watch whole generations rise and fall seems to be an amusing spectacle.

Episode 7, "Rage Against the Vaccine," is a not very successful parody of the disinformation crisis during the present pandemic (yes, I said present, because it's not over). This episode has the same director as "Children of a Lesser Bog," which may explain why the ending falls a bit flat. Here the plot point to keep in mind is the callousness of negationists whose words literally cost lives.

Episode 8, "Zapp Gets Canceled," hinges on a scheme by the Democratic Order of Planets to trick the natives of a peaceful planet into surrendering their air.

By now you may protest that it's surely a stretch to focus on so many minor deaths when it's already known that Futurama uses a zany, absurdist style of humor. But then we get to the crux of the matter, the weird and experimental Episode 9, "The Prince and the Product," where the season-long theme is finally explored in full: does death matter all that much? Early in the episode, three nameless royal guards in the service of the King of Space are crushed under the Planet Express ship, with no one even commenting on it. A few minutes later, the King coldly sends his son to die in combat, and the Prince's fiancée ends the episode untroubled by his death.

To underscore this theme, the episode is interrupted by three fictional commercials, featuring the Futurama cast as windup dolls, car toys, and rubber ducks. And here the plot applies a much closer focus on the triviality of death. In the first commercial, windup dolls turn out to be able to reincarnate, so it doesn't matter if they lose power. In the second commercial, parts of dismantled cars still retain their consciousness when taken apart. In the third commercial, a war between toys leads to the revelation that toys can reproduce. In each segment, and also at the end of the episode, this idea of the cycle of death and return is expressed via the recurring motif of loop-de-loop acrobatics. The fact that the entire cast of Futurama is involved in each tale of death and return may allude to the diminished impact of each cancellation and un-cancellation of the show. Futurama has already died and come back before. Should we care?

Episode 10, "All the Way Down," gives us the answer, but it's not an easy one. Professor Farnsworth creates a simulation of the universe, including digital versions of everyone in Planet Express. This leads to a snowball of existential questions that results in the show all but stating that the characters of Futurama know they're not real, but that doesn't make their experiences less valuable. They may vanish any moment, or they may remain suspended in infinitely slowed time; that makes no difference from their perspective. What the season treated as a repeated joke, this idea that death doesn't matter, now makes a peculiar kind of sense if seen from the other end: life is what matters. Yours may end now or end in a hundred years, and that doesn't change its worth. You may even discover that your reality only exists in someone's computer, and that doesn't change anything about you.

This resolution is a beautiful callback to the end of the previous season, where time stopped in the whole universe except for Fry and Leela, who got to experience a full lifetime together. This new ending (of what is just the first part of the season) reintroduces the same idea: time appears to prolong in one level of reality while whole generations rise and fall in the next level up. The viewer's circumstances aren't too different. An inconceivable number of deaths are happening right now across the universe. All you have is now.

Futurama will be back. Or not. Enjoy it while it's still with us.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Microreview: Sordidez by E. G. Condé

Sordidez address community survival in the face of empire and the climate crisis, offering a future centering Indigenous power and queer resilience.

a book cover with dark colors featuring an androgynous person. The title Sordidez is scrawled in white cursive over the top of the picture.

E. G. Condé’s novella Sordidez is an important intervention in climate fiction and speculative fiction because of the focus on Indigenous reclamation and critique of empire, particularly around Puerto Rico. Through multiple narrators, Condé unravels a complex story of Indigenous resistance, colonialism, climate weapons, dictators, and queer power. 

The novella begins and ends with Vero, a trans man who is a leader in his community while simultaneously disregarded and hated for being trans. When a superstorm destroys the community in Puerto Rico, Vero and his family (both blood and found), design different technology and alternate ways of living to survive the aftermath. 

Part of that aftermath is the abandonment of Puerto Rico by the U.S. Empire to China, and subsequently to a one-world government called the United Nations Parliament. Resources are only handed out to those who assimilate, and Vero and his community resist. One aspect the novella does well is not to hand-wave away the difficulty of that resistance. One member of the community is eventually given over to the settlers because of the lack of insulin. Additionally, Condé doesn’t shy away from depicting the violent tactics empires use to put down Indigenous resistance. 

Through the different voices and narrators, the empires are revealed for their lies. Only those who assimilate have access to the protection, services, and food available in climate-controlled areas, as Doña Margarita discovers. She works among refugees and those impacted by the androvirus, a virus that caused memories to be forgotten. Doña Margarita is largely left alone to her work among the refugees until the U.N. Parliament discovers she has seen the Loba Roja, a Mayan leader working to help the people and violently force out the U.N. It is only then that Doña Margarita is brought to the Green Zone, under the guise of protecting her and those she cares for from rejuvenating rains, that she is questioned against her will. She witnesses the plenty that is available to those who assimilate. 

Through the different depictions of empire, Condé demonstrates how people are stripped of their sovereignty. Climate change plays a role through the superstorm Teddy that destroys Puerto Rico at the beginning of the novella (which mirrors Hurricane Maria in 2017), but also through technology, such as the “hydrophage,” which was supposed to help capture water but turned out to be hydrophobic and deployed as a weapon. Similarly, while the U.N. Parliament claimed to be helping restore the land from the hydrophage's desertification, instead the drones were spreading chemicals that were potentially harmful. Condé demonstrates the different tools of empire, from familiar forms of violence to the new technologies that will emerge in response to climate change. As SFF writers continue to imagine alternate futures, Condé demonstrates the value in imagining these visions of imperialism in order to form resistance.

Importantly, the novella ends on Taíno power. Without giving away too many spoilers, one of my favorite sections was at the end as Condé creates a world of Taínofuturism combining technology, Indigenous practice, and community protection. Vero thrives when he embraces this future and takes on his leadership role not in a sense of hierarchy but as a guide and protector of his community.

Condé does a great job handling the form and weaving together the multiple viewpoints. More linear plots cannot always capture the complexity of empire and climate change. While this novella may not be for all readers, Condé’s structure emphasizes these complexities while still creating a satisfying reading experience for each character. These characters come together in the end to create an alternate vision of the future that foregrounds the Taíno community.

Condé’s vision of the near-future recognizes the ways imperialism will fluctuate in response to climate change and what that could mean for colonized communities. It can open pathways for resistance, like Vero’s community after the storm. It can also open pathways for dictators, renewed imperial violence, and climate weapons. What I appreciated so much about this novella was the response that Condé imagines as blooming from occupations. As Vero says near the end of the novella: “I will show them that our myths live on in us.” I look forward to reading more of Condé’s #Taínofuturism.

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and ecology.   

Monday, September 25, 2023

Review: The Road to Neverwinter by Jaleigh Johnson

It turns out you can have a lot of fun this many levels of adaptation in. Who knew?

It’s a novel based on a movie which is itself based on a tabletop role-playing game. In reading this book, we are three layers into the adaptation-mania that is cultural production under late-stage capitalism. I got this on a roll of the dice from a library, mostly because I had liked Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and to my great joy I found that it was actually quite good, and that under the swashbuckling heroics and magic we all love from D&D there’s some really smart stuff in it.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: the Road to Neverwinter (another curse of cultural production under late-stage capitalism: SO. MANY. COLONS.) is written by Jaleigh Johnson, an author I didn’t have any experience of. Well, whatever she did before, it prepared her well for this, in the way I understood why Lucasfilm chose Timothy Zahn to save Star Wars after reading his Conquerors trilogy (a series I love).

The Road to Neverwinter is a prequel to Honor Among Thieves, detailing how the merry band of misfits that had broken up by the start of the film got together in the first place. As you may suspect, it’s a heist, and plot-wise there’s nothing groundbreaking (but it must be said that D&D codified a lot of these tropes, so they’re everywhere). The author more than makes up for that in how well she captures the voices of the film characters; you can imagine Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant saying all their lines, and it helps you get in that goofy fun mood the way the movie did. Even better, Johnson totally sells you on the notion that these people could make an adventuring team (someone should make a movie about that). She also has the knack of humor, and I guffawed several times. It’s good for the soul.

What really struck me about this book is that Johnson understood that she’s writing a novel adaptation of a film adaptation of a tabletop game, and that therefore there is plenty to play with in terms of the ways people create fictions. Firstly, there’s the frame story of Edgin recounting the story to his daughter Kira (about nine years old at the time), who was involved in several of those events and wants them told a certain way, which has all sorts of implications for modern fandom (and perhaps throwing a little shade at some fans). Beyond that, it gets rather spoilery to discuss it in depth, but there are several layers of representation and performance and adaptation and whatnot that add a clever subtext to the whole thing.

And, of course, there’s the certain je ne sais quoi that I can’t put any other way than ‘feels like a D&D game.’ The film had it, and this book has it too. Johnson does a good job of making the world feel like a D&D game while still working as a novel, and there are several personal interactions that feel joky in the way that players who know each other are. That isn’t usually how you write pseudo-medieval fantasy, but here it helped with the vibe. The whole thing feels a bit wacky and improvised, and I mean that in a positive way.

The Road to Neverwinter felt like warm soup when you have a cold; in a world this dreary, you need something filling and wholesome and warm. It’s a fantasy romp in the proudest tradition of D&D and a good thing for when your RPG group isn’t in session if you have the hankering for it. It rounds all this off with a self-awareness that enhances proceedings rather than encumbers them, and it complements the film like hand in glove. If you enjoyed the film, you’ll enjoy this.


The Math

Highlights: witty dialogue, subtle but clever meta-weirdness.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Recap — Ahsoka Episode 6: Far, Far Away

 Episode 6 really delivers the goods as we meet Thrawn in the flesh for the very first time!

We open in purrgil hyperspace, with Ahsoka and Huyang telling old tales. Huyang's skill as a storyteller, we learn, is why our beloved franchise begins with the infamous preamble "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." Spoken, of course, on the way to a faraway galaxy ensconced in the maw of a space whale.

We're Off to See the Witches

Sabine awakens in a holding cell, encountering Baylan and shouting that they had a deal — she'd give up the map if he'd agree to take her to Ezra. 

It's not quite that easy, though — he knows that she can still be of use when it comes to her obsession for finding Bridger. 

The Eye of Sion exits hyperspace above the planet Peridia (and not, in fact, "Druidia" from Spaceballs, which is 100% what I heard watching for episode for the first time Tuesday night without subtitles).

It's the ancient homeworld of Elsbeth's ancestors, the Dathomiri Nightsisters. Encircling the planet isn't a ring of dust or ice like Saturn, but rather of MOTHERFREAKING PURRGIL BONES. This is a VERY metal moment in Star Wars, and I'm here for it. It seems the purrgil are not unlike our salmon, and return home to pass away, crushed into bone dust around an ancient planet.

The Nightsisters harnessed the purrgil, hopping between galaxies like the badasses they are. We're only like 5 minutes in and this episode is already incredible. 

When Shall We Three Meet Again?

Our bad guys fly a brilliant gold shuttle reminiscent of yet another Spaceballs reference (Lonestar's Winnebago!) down to the surface of the planet to rendezvous with none other than Night Sisters! 

Seeing them in live-action is INCREDIBLE — so creepy, so eerily voiced. This, we find out, is how Elsbeth manufactured the map/McGuffin device so central to the show's plot. She heard their call across the galaxy and it worked! I loved loved loved this scene. The sisters are giving Bene Gesserit in the best possible way. 

Elsbeth knows there's an ulterior motive — Thrawn has summoned them. He chose well to ally with these witches. They notice the reek of Jedi — not just Baylan and Shin (who seems utterly shocked by the existence of more than one witch) but also Sabine, their prisoner. 

Insight into Our Dark(?) Jedi

As the witches leave, we're left for a scene with just Baylan and Shin. Finally, we get more insight into who these people are, and what they're all about. I've been referring to them as dark Jedi throughout these recaps, but I wasn't sure. Turns out, they're just mercenaries! 

Baylan is a former Jedi, having been raised the traditional way in the temple. We learn of his trauma, of watching Order 66 unfold before him. 

But unlike traditional Sith masters and apprentices, their relationship doesn't seem to be one of obeisance and blind subservience. He listens to Shin, and provides guidance, but doesn't demand blind obedience. He's fatherly and kind, not unlike Anakin and Ahsoka, as he listens to her questions and criticisms. 

I don't think he's a dark Jedi or a Sith, but I do believe he's trying to live outside the stark strictures of history. He mentions the rising and falling and the repeating natures of it all — he wants to break free of it. In this way, he's similar to Ahsoka's stature outside the order. Using the Force, but in pathways yet unforged. 

A Meeting 33 Years in the Making

Thrawn. THRAWN! First introduced in May 1991 by Timothy Zahn, and beloved by Star Wars fans throughout the intervening years. Once relegated to Legends status, our lord and savior Dave Filoni resurrected Thrawn into canon in Rebels — and here in this episode, we shall meet our Admiral in the flesh, played by his voice actor Lars Mikkelson. 

Ever one to make a grand entrance, Thrawn descends upon the scene in his Star Destroyer — a mightily imposing scene that had me guessing at how precise their sublight engines and repulsor lifts were. As Elsbeth, the Nighsisters, Baylan, and Shin meet step to meet him, we're presented with an awesome display of might.

Lining the floor of the hangar, we see a legion of stormtroopers, their masks cracked and repaired, their bodies lined with red stripes signifying we know not what. We get an up close and personal glimpse of Enoch, Thrawn's number one, his stormtrooper looking for all the world like a Party City Mardi Gras mask — but in a badass way, of course. 

The music is blaring, the Thrawn theme is echoing, and we're here, folks. We're here. We're meeting Grand Admiral Thrawn in the flesh, and it was so worth it. 

He's so blue. And his eyes are so menacingly red. Thrawn has been in exile for 10 years — that's an incredible amount of time! And it accounts for his slightly dirty uniform, as well as his stormtroopers' cracked visages. These soldiers are called night troopers, which is interesting. They've been living without support or reinforcement for a decade, no wonder things are in disrepair. 

What has this man been doing?!?! I have SO many questions, mainly from a supply chain point of view. The quartermaster in me really wants to know how he's been feeding these troops, keeping his Star Destroyer in fuel. 

A Kink in the Bad Guys' Plan

Our Bene Gesserit admit to Thrawn that there's a loose thread — the presence of Sabine, a familiar name to Thrawn as he knew her and Ezra back on Lothal. 

Thrawn greets Sabine, and thanks her for the part she played in freeing him from exile. Oof, that burns! Yes, it's technically her fault that Elsbeth & co could find Thrawn because she didn't destroy the Nightsister map. But it's complicated! 

Thrawn agrees to let Sabine go after Ezra, but of course she's going to be tracked. She mounts a howler (like a wolf horse) and traipses off into the brush of the planet, warned by Enoch to be wary of nomads. 

She gets ambushed within seconds (hey, she was warned!) but manages to impressively defend herself against a handful of natives. Her scanning equipment gets destroyed though, so she's in a pretty bad spot. 

Ready to Meet Your New Favorite Star Wars Creatures?

Lost and confused, Sabine stumbles across what can only be described as Peaky Blinders Hermit Crabs. They're called Noti and I'm obsessed. 

Like Leia befriending the Ewoks on Endor, she earns their trust and notices one wearing a rebel insignia — they must know where Ezra is!

I LOVED these little creatures. They really help capture that old Star Wars magic of strange and beautiful sentient beings. 

The creatures bring Sabine to their encampment, and we finally get the reunion we've been waiting for. Ezra is there, looking for all the world like Moses. He's been living among the Noti, we assume, and it's adorable.

It was a little hilarious that they didn't dive into the details of her arrival or her (lack of a) plan for getting off Peridia. But after missing each other for 10 years, sometimes you just want to have a moment of pleasure. He's NOT going to be happy when he learns she completely made his self-sacrifice moot in a moment of weakness. 

Bokken Promises

Tracking Sabine, Baylan and Shin find remnants of her scuffle. Shin asks after this Ezra, and we learn from Baylan about a type of Jedi called Bokken — ones trained after the fall of the temple. So Ezra, obviously, but also Luke! She asks if she's one, and Baylan replies no. He's training her to be something more than a Jedi. More clues! I remain fascinated.

Another Problem for Thrawn

Thrawn is told by the Nightsisters that the thread of fate has spoken — a Jedi is on the way via purrgil. He's understandably pissed, and immediately guesses that it's Ahsoka. He's been burned before by these space whales, so he charges his crew to eliminate it with prejudice. Little does he know that an entire pod is on the way. 


The Math

Baseline score: 9

Bonuses: +100 Thrawn's live-action debut was perfection.

Penalties: 0 I can think of none. This episode had me absolutely giddy.

Nerd coefficient: +5 This is the first piece of Star Wars content in years that really captured the old-school magic. Nerds everywhere, rejoice.

Gonk droid count: Zero!

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, 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, September 21, 2023

Review: The Equalizer 3

Can a movie this bloody be beautiful? I guess so

My mother asked me what the movie I was going to see last Sunday was about. I told her The Equalizer 3 is about “Denzel Washington killing people for two hours.” She chuckled and said it was in character for him. In a way, that pithy description I used was accurate (I have also described the John Wick movies as “Keanu Reeves killing people for two hours” and I don’t think I’m wrong there either), but in some ways it undersells what’s going on in this film.

You get the distinct impression that Robert McCall, played by Washington, is just so sick and tired of this shit. He is a man who has seen shit, heinous shit, and you can see it in how he walks, how he talks, how he carries himself, how he looks at others. This is a man who feels the crushing weight of the last two movies, and you can’t blame him for wanting to get away from it all. The best line in the film is McCall talking to his enemies about how he had learned something about war and death and violence, but only here, in this town across the ocean, has he begun to learn about peace.

That town is on Sicily, land of scenic aerial shots of the coastline, as well as the mafia. Both feature prominently here; would an Equalizer movie set in Italy have any other villain? This town of Altamonte (not real, to my understanding, although there’s an Altomonte in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot) isn’t just houses and churches (although you get plenty of those); you get to know the townsfolk, the cafes, the community events (there a parade sequence near the end that is magnificent in its pageantry).

Here the film plays with the stereotype of much of Mediterranean Europe that Americans have, of peace and beauty and joy and no suffering. That, of course, is the thin patina overlying the violence that exists here, the tentacles of organized crime that sneak into every nook and cranny, the fear that the beauty distracts from. Italy is a country with a relatively recent history of political violence, and before that, it was invaded (sunny Spain, with similar stereotypes, had a fascist dictator who held power til the 1970s and came to power in a bitter civil war; Portugal and Greece are quite similar). Indeed, how McCall ends up in Altamonte has its unsavory aspects. It makes the violence more hitting, more painful, as you come to love Altamonte; indeed part of me wanted to move there, how joyful and loving it seemed.

That’s where the pacing is so good: there is less violence in this film than in more fantastical shoot-em-ups, and much time spent developing Washington’s character and the town of Altamonte. Particularly, the relationship between him and Enzo (played by Remo Girone), the doctor who took him in, has many depths and nuances, and you feel an almost paternal quality from Enzo toward McCall. To the viewer's satisfaction, the violence avoids the risk of becoming meaningless, and this violence is very, very bloody, all blood spilled due to cruelty in Mediterranean Arcadia.

It took some rumination to phrase what impressed me the most about this film: it’s that it successfully persuades you that a man who drove a pistol through a mobster’s head and shot bullets through the back of his skull at other mobsters is, at his core, a good man. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk don’t fall into the temptation to turn McCall into a man we love to hate; he is a good man who, because of his station, has had to do awful things. He has fought monsters for so long, but has miraculously avoided becoming a monster himself. It is a remarkable achievement. It’s what I imagine many soldiers end up like after they've fought for just causes. The good fight is not clean, even when it's fought to cleanse evil. It's not a situation I would wish on anyone, but if it has to happen, you better have the likes of Robert McCall at your disposal.

A side note (but not a complaint): much of the film is in Italian with English subtitles. I like this approach more than just rendering everything in English (Sisu, a recent Finnish action film I otherwise liked, took me out of the experience a bit by having dialogue in English rather than Finnish when the setting is clearly Finland). As fortune had it, I am doing Duolingo in Italian right now, and I noticed a few interesting bits of the language. There’s a bit where an Italian policeman refers disparagingly to an American CIA agent played by Dakota Fanning; the subtitles render the word ‘woman’ (‘donna’ in Italian) but he says the word ‘ragazza,’ literally ‘girl’ as taught to me by Duolingo, but Google Translate says it can also mean ‘lass,’ ‘gal,’ ‘girlfriend,’ ‘missy,’ ‘maid,’ and Google results suggest other translations, all denoting youth and more often than not a degree of dismissal (and, let’s be blunt, misogyny). His tone certainly gives that impression. Also, I like how the Italians say ‘CIA’ phonetically, sounding like ‘la cha’ in English.

The Equalizer 3 is more than Denzel Washington killing people for two hours, and it delivers it in a thoughtful, beautifully shot, but no less bloody package. I recommend it to all action junkies.


The Math

Highlights: Intense depth of character and theme, also graphic violence.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

Review: Lavender House by Lev A. C. Rosen

 A 1950s murder mystery that queers all your expectations.

One of the big things about period detective fiction is they all do a great job of crafting a vibe, an atmosphere. Someone calls a woman "doll", and suddenly my mental images of the book shift to black and white, everyone's sitting depressed (or possibly just repressed) at a bar in a fedora or a red dress with a thigh slit and there's smoke in the air and clouds in the sky. It just all comes with the territory.

What's so fascinating about Lavender House is how neatly it overturns some of these expectations, with the tiniest of twists, while still occupying and playing with the same tropes and ideas.

Specifically, we meet our protagonist drinking to forget in a bar, and a beautiful woman sits herself down next to him and asks him to do a job... but she's gay. He's gay. And suddenly the narrative shifts entirely. We've overturned the core relationship dynamic of the noir detective, so where do we go from here? It's a seemingly small thing, yet one that not only changes the content of the story - which is unsurprising - but also the entire feeling of the setting, of the type of book. It takes all of my issues with a certain sort of historical detective story and makes me re-examine them entirely, and I find that, when that landscape of attraction is changed, so too is the feel of the whole world.

And on this bedrock of delightful uncertainty sits Lavender House. In some ways, it's a standard murder mystery - rich family, house out in the countryside, a whodunnit, secrets behind closed doors, some upstairs/downstairs drama, learning about the detective's life as he learns about the lives of the victim and suspects, clues slowly seeping out until the answer becomes clear, a red herring or two. All the good stuff. If we just examine it as a murder mystery, we find a very competently built plot, with some compelling characters you find yourself doubting - but not wanting to doubt - and a substantial setting that leaves plenty of scope for the petty grievances and betrayals and heartbreaks that are the necessary backdrop to any investigation. Which isn't to play it down - as a murder mystery it is very well done - just not really outside the scope of the normal. I could pick up any number of books about dead rich people in the UK, the US or anywhere else, and find something that does just a good job of puzzle and clue and reveal as this does.

What I'd be much less likely to find is one that does all the peripherals quite so well as this. And it's in the peripherals that I found most of my joy in reading Lavender House.

Firstly, of course, it's a book about queerness in 1950s San Francisco. And that's already interesting - it's managing the balance really well of the terrible state of culture and law for queer people at the time with acknowledging that they were nonetheless there, and there was culture and life and joy to be found amid the awfulness. And in that dual reality - of hardship and of joy - is the divide between our protagonist and those he encounters.

Which is the second thing - Rosen does a frankly amazing job when it comes to characterisation. Every single person we see in any significant detail, and particularly Andy, our detective, and the residents of Lavender House itself, feels rounded, full and human. Some of this is par for the course for a good mystery, because you need to understand the people who might have done the murder to try to piece together the clues (hopefully just before the detective solves it on the page, so you can feel smug). But Rosen takes it that step further, and where some stories might have a house full of the haughty rich, where motives are understood intellectually, but emotionally speaking it's just a puzzle, he manages to make them all genuinely sympathetic, at least for a time. At several points in the story, I cared about who had done the murder less for the challenge of solving it and more because I was really invested in these characters I cared about not having done it please and thank you. And this I find rare, and wonderful, especially in the murder mystery genre.

Because here's the thing - and this is far bigger than can be grappled with in a single review about a single book - murder stories need to be humanised. There's a lot of terrible, grisly, cold and emotionless discussion of murders, rendering them only puzzles to be solved and obsessed over, whether in or out of fiction. And then in some cases, we push it so far in that murder becomes "cosy" - a soft, comforting genre of story where death is just a necessary premise, and the human cost is hidden in the setup, likely off page. It's not even really important except as a motive force for the plot. But if we want a story that feels real, that feels human, then that human cost needs to weigh on the page too. We need to feel like the dead were people, whose ties reach out into those who remain in the story, and critically that the murderers are people too. That complexity is the antithesis of the Scooby-Doo style mask-off reveal, where the moment the truth is known the culprit drops their own façade of humanity to become a cackling, amoral villain, but the crux of why these stories are so interesting. They're all people, doing people things for people reasons. And they feel more people when we understand them, not just logically but emotionally, especially when we don't agree with them. A senseless murder is no good story at all.

And this, Rosen has grasped fully. When we are at that point in the story where we still don't know who it might be, it is incredibly easy to care about so many of the characters, so easy to see where their insecurities, uncertainties and grudges come from. We feel like anyone could have done it, and if they did, we'd see why they were pushed to that point.

Of course, our detective gets exactly the same treatment, but from a very different angle. We meet him at a low point in his life - as we open the very first page, he is contemplating suicide because of what has happened to his career in the police - and watch him build himself back up through the course of solving the murder. We watch him begin to care about the suspects, just as we do. We also see that he, like them, is far from perfect, and has done many things we may judge, may not condone, but nonetheless understand.

And herein lies the third thing Rosen has done so well - and again is found so rarely. He genuinely interrogates the structures within which we find our characters (and their general archetypes). For Andy, our detective, this means getting to grips with the moral weight of being a gay man, in an anti-gay world, in a world where the law gleefully and regularly commits violence against queer characters. He has his reasons - of course he does - but those are never used as a carte blanche for the choices he's made or the ramifications they may have had. He has to face up to the fact that he was complicit in the system that has hurt and killed people like him. He has to face up to the fact that there may be no forgiveness from some quarters for that. And he has to face up to the fact that he might still be there, might never have pulled himself out of that complicity, but for circumstances conspiring. There are no simple answers to his moral situation. And nor are there for our - however beloved - suspects. Because they too are complicit in their own injustices. This is a small, sheltered house whose safety is bought by financial security. They have made freedom - each in their own way - to be themselves, but their is always a cost. Whether in bribes to the police for absence of scrutiny, or lip service to societal norms, or in aggressively playing the part of heteronormativity outside the confines of their sanctuary, no matter the cost, there is always a price to be paid, and there is a mark on each of them for their privilege. We see them for themselves, but we also see them, see the house, through discussions with the servants, who have their own place in the system, their own view of the injustices in the world around them, and whose voices are given the weight they deserve.

Almost everyone in the story is queer. But no one is given a free pass for it. Everyone is scrutinised for the harms they commit by their place in the world, even as we acknowledge their oppressions, and the sympathy we feel for their positions never excuses their privilege. The rich country house isn't merely a setting for the story, but the whole architecture through which to examine the world and the characters. And in this, Rosen has done what makes Lavender House truly stand out from the crowd. Because for all this examination of privilege, this acknowledgment of intersectionality, and this genuine weight to the moral questions of the book, somehow the story never falters in pace, in readability, and in due consideration of the mystery at hand. It is both a genuinely critical, thoughtful story while being a fully engaging murder mystery.

If I had any criticism - though it isn't much - I might say that the reader feels a little too in the dark about who might be the murderer for a little too long. The clues are not always paced quite so well as we'd like. But the ultimate reveal is handled well and smoothly, with sufficient drama, and the ending is satisfying, so with all the rest the story is doing, it feels very easy to forgive.

I have seen this book often likened to Knives Out, and I think the comparison falters when it comes to humour, which is my primary thought about Knives Out. There is a common thread in their examinations of wealth and privilege, but the difference in tone is a stark one. Don't go into this wanting either constant humorous undertones or the savageness that underlies the film's examination of wealth. See instead - as is present in Knives Out, though less prominently - a great deal of human sympathy, human feeling, and a murder mystery dedicated to a critical examination of what that genre truly entails. I can't wait for the next one.


The Math

Highlights: Moments of genuine complexity and interest, a compelling cast of characters, a nuanced view of the queer world of 1950s San Francisco

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Lev A C Rosen, Lavender House, [Forge, 2022]

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Review: The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao

A junglepunk fantasy that centers the relationship of a married couple in a strong character-centered way.

In a world where cities, polities (ashrams) float above a dangerous world spanning jungle plagued by earthrages (earthquakes), the relationship between a Senior Architect, one of the central people responsible for keeping the city up and safe, and his wife, a would be archaeologist who believes study of the jungle and its inhabitants is not only a good idea, but necessary, proves to hold the fate of the ashram itself.

This is the story of Kritika H Rao’s The Surviving Sky.

When I first read about this book and its premise, I as a reader and reviewer got excited. Like arctic and polar climes, jungle climes are uncommon as major settings in SFF. For all of the diversity of settings in SFF, I have noticed an inordinate tendency toward various kinds of temperate climes as the norm, with more tropical locations as an exoticized (with all of the negative connotations of that) Other Place. Sometimes this avoids some of the very unpleasant connotations (c.f. The Rainwilds of Robin Hobb’s novels). Portions of the world of Martha Wells’ Raksuraverse also comes to mind, although I’ve always seen that as more temperate than actual jungle.

Stories that center a true jungle landscape and stand alone in exploring that are uncommon. Thoriaya Dyer’s Crossroads of Canopy series, though, comes to mind. And now, we can add The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao to that list. But not in the same way, as we shall see.

The center of the story is the floating sky ashram itself, Nakshar. It floats (for as long as it can) above a continuous jungle landscape that is dangerous at the best of times. The world that Nakshar and its sister cities float above is plagued by “Earthrages” (earthquakes), a violently disruptive and hostile landscape that reminded me of a different fantasy series with an extreme and unfriendly setting of a different sort: The Broken Earth series by N K Jemisin. One can draw a number of parallels between Jemisin’s work and Rao’s here. Jemisin’s lithologically wracked world, with science fantasy magic that is also Earth-aspected, parallels the setup here. Here we have a jungle world under constant stress, a landscape, a world where humans have to struggle against a world that is not friendly to them at all (this in turn can be thought of a metaphor for the climate change alterations to our own planet today).

And like The Broken Earth, the science fantasy magic-technology that the inhabitants use is tied directly to the matter of the world. Here, plants are the basis of science fantasy magitech that the inhabitants use in a very hostile world. Not just the transporting power of trajection which is certainly the most spectacular of the science fantasy plant based powers, healing, truth telling, and other abilities and powers are harnessed by the power of various plants. While the ashram Nakshar may float above the jungle (and the metaphor is not subtle), plants and the plants of the jungle are an everyday necessity for the people who live in the city.

But above the interesting worldbuilding, the world, the plant based science fantasy, the floating cities in the sky, and other strange and wondrous things to be found on this planet. (is it Earth? It’s not exactly clear!) , where this novel is really centered, what it really does and where it’s heart is, is in the characters, and particularly the two viewpoint characters, Iravan and Ahilya.

Let’s start with their relationship status. It is more than a cliché, it is a failure of imagination (or perhaps just realpolitik market trends) that young men and women, often fumbling toward a relationship with each other, is the default norm in a lot of SFF. The reasons why from a literary view are well trod and well understood. The Surviving Sky defies that worn well path through the jungle of its pages by presenting to us a married couple, a couple that has been through some years of marriage, with the joys and also very tempestuous fights and relationship ups and down that that entails. Iravan and Ahilya have not had an easy time of it in their marriage. Rao cleverly funnels that not only into character development and drama, but even makes that part of the plot and and problem.

The two characters each face a central problem, and in the end strong aspects of that problem are to be found in their relationship, and it is in the resolution of those problems with their relationship is the resolution to their problems, and the problem of the ashram. But it is not easy. Iravan, as a young and ambitious senior architect, overworks and finds it difficult to connect to his wife, as much as he loves her, who is interested in very different things. Ahilya craves a relationship with her husband, but their fights have caused issues, secrets, lies and betrayals of trust. But even as her husband tries to hold onto himself and his position, on the edge of being declared an Ecstatic, someone who has gone beyond the limits of what should be possible, to the danger of the community, and thus needs to be dealt with ruthlessly, one of the keys for Iravan to not be judged as Ecstatic and to keep himself whole is material bonds. That is to say, his wife.

I really enjoyed this bit of worldbuilding. In way too many magic systems, and systems of power and authority, magic powers are a ouroboros snake-eating tail justification and power and hierarchy in and of themselves. Or bonds and connections to others (looking at you, Star Wars) are judged to be at best distractions and speedbumps to true power and mastery. The world and science fantasy magic system of The Surviving Sky challenges that. In this world, material bonds, being connected to people, particularly a committed relationship like a marriage, is essential to an Architect not going overboard, becoming an Ecstatic. The material bonds, the relationships the architect has, are essential to their well being and the responsible and safe use of their power.

The revelations in the last act of the book come, I think, perhaps a little too fast and furious for its own good. For a novel that has been so character focused, with the two points of view of this married couple that while they are very different and have a lot of friction, really do love and care about each other, the worldbuilding revelatory drops come a little too sudden, leaden and heavy. I understand that this is the first in the series, and what is revealed by the end of the first book reminds me of the jaw dropper at the end of the first book, again, of The Broken Earth, where what what we, and the characters, thought they knew about the world and its setup is very much not what we thought at the beginning of the book. But it feels a little lumped in the backend and while there is character development and exploration throughout, the last portion of the book feels qualitatively different and I am not sure it is better for it.

That said, with its strong characterization and intriguing world, jungle landscape and science fantasy setup, The Surviving Sky is to my mind a very successful first novel. I look forward to more from the author.

The Math


  • Strong character focus

  • Science fantasy jungle setting

Reference: Rao, Kritika H., The Surviving Sky [Titan Books, 2023]

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