Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review: Napoleon

Ridley Scott's historical epic is wildly weird, ribald, and absolutely breathtaking at times

Director Ridley Scott — 85 years old! — is known for his far-ranging career in sci-fi and historical epics: Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, The Martian, The Last Duel, House of Gucci.

Adding to his pantheon is Napoleon, which isn't a biopic in the traditional sense, isn't saccharinely grandiose and inspiring, and isn't necessarily all accurate. Does this take away from how enjoyable it is? Absolutely not.

Scott spares no expense in his grand set pieces occupying locations from the French Revolution to Egypt to Russia, and he sweeps thousands of soldiers (both real and CGI) across the plains of Europe like so many chessmen on a board. He's a master of his craft, and when I heard the first whispers that this movie was coming out, I knew I'd be there with (tri-color) bells on.

A brief detour to my love of all things French

Before we get started, I'd like to tell you a little about myself and my interest in the Little Corporal. (I found myself in the theatre wondering why every other person in the theatre was so interested in a three-hour movie about a 19th-century French general). I know why I was there, why is that grandma!?!

I have always been a history buff, and I have a degree in French literature. One thing about me—if there's a period piece set in Paris, I'm gonna see it. I've also been slowly reading the epic 900-page doorstop of a biography Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts.

Our general wrote tens of thousands of letters during his life, and though I'm only 200-ish pages in, it became immediately apparent that this man was wild. More emotional than I ever imagined, brilliant, capable, and utterly obsessed with his empress, Josephine. He was, in a word, emo.

Ridley Scott has stated that he didn't have to read a book like this—that it was the poor scriptwriter's job to condense the life of one of the most famous men in history into a few short hours. The Napoleon that Scott chooses to bring to life is fascinating and weird, and the film itself has a wildly strange tone that I guarantee no one will see coming.

For this post, I'm going to structure my discussion in 5 exclamations/short phrases, along with the caveat that it's a movie worth seeing. It's just not that movie you may be expecting.


Napoleon is really two movies: The first, about a Corsican general's successes and failures on the battlefield. The other is a psycho-sexual drama between Napoleon and Josephine. 

The relationship is ribald and coarse and full of machinations à la Dangerous Liaisons. The movie follows this schema literally, too—you'll see an epic battle, then it'll cut to Nap & Jo on a couch, having a weird and tense conversation about how she never writes. 4 years will pass, another battle, another couch, rinse and repeat. There are awkward, stilted love scenes, and it's never quite clear if Josephine actually likes her emperor, though she definitely plays his games. Unfortunately, they didn't include my favorite bit of Napoleon trivia: in a letter to her, he once said, "Will arrive in 3 days. Don't wash." Man was into some pheromones!

SO interesting

Despite the weird tone of this movie, it's nearly impossible to take your eyes off the screen. I found myself waiting nearly two hours to sneak away and use the bathroom because I didn't want to miss anything. The highlight of the film is the Battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon beats the Austrian army with surprise tactics and then uses artillery to chase them off the ice of the frozen lake. 

The scenes where men and horses fall into the water are brilliant and artistic. There are things in Napoleon that I definitely have never seen before, and that's wild considering director Scott is nearing 90. There is also absolutely brutal gore that makes Saving Private Ryan seem like Hogan's Heroes.

Spectacular costumes

Is there anything cooler than the wild colors and extravagant tailoring of a French general? Methinks not, and this movie was a visual feast for folks like me. Ther are even impeccable small details, like the tricolor sashes wrapped around the waists of soldiers, signifying their loyalty to the republic. 

The women's dresses are equally as stunning; there's just (surprise) not as many women in the film. By the ending, Napoleon has switched to a khaki-colored overcoat that looks for all the world like the one Inspector Gadget wears. It works.

Empty, in a weird way, especially for a grandiose epic

Joaquin Phoenix was a strange choice for this role, and I'm not sure where he got his direction to play Napoleon like he does. One would assume Scott, but who knows? His portrayal is cold, weird, and surprisingly lacking in any sort of emotion. The real Napoleon suffered not from a Napoleon complex (he was actually of normal height) but from a Corsican complex: his family was Corsican, not French, and he didn't come from lofty riches. We get none of this in the movie, only his obsession with Josephine—which is definitely true, but this movie makes it seem nearly completely one-sided.

Also missing from this depiction of Napoleon is what made him a cult of personality. We see a brief glimpse of him charming his soldiers (including when he returns from exile), but that's about it. He doesn't seem like a leader, in the George Washington / Horatio Nelson / Alexander the Great type way.

Finally, I know a movie can only contain so much, but Napoleon speaks only to his success on the battlefield. In reality, he was also a keen civil organizer who introduced incredible public works, an entire civil code that would go on to influence law all across the globe, and wide-ranging and surprisingly liberal religious & educational reform.

Funnier than anyone will expect it to be

Most movies have moments of comic relief. Napoleon has yawning chasms of absurdity that crack open a scene, taking you out of the history and into a different place. I found myself laughing out loud at least a dozen times—sometimes I was the only one, though. There's one scene where he's rebuffed by the English foreign minister and Napoleon, in a fit of rage, screams something akin to "You think you're so great because you HAVE BOATS!!" It's true, the French navy was nothing compared to the ocean-ruling power of the English navy, but the way he spits out his frustration is nothing but funny.

On top of the strange one-liners ("Destiny has led me to this lamp chop"), Phoenix's performance is just so wildly weird that you can't help laugh every now and again. He's very serious, and he does a good job; you just have to wonder for the entire movie what he was trying to convey. 

Lots have been said about how the film was trimmed down. Speaking for myself, I can't wait for the director's cut that will tip it into 4-hour territory.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She is an avid Francophile and once had to announce a moratorium on gifts featuring the Eiffel Tower or art featuring croissants because her family was going overboard.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

On the woes of 'The Marvels'

Captain Marvel is unsure of what place to occupy in the universe or how to fix past mistakes. That's probably a metaphor for something.

Someone at Marvel Studios should have pointed out that being simultaneously a sequel to WandaVision, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel and Secret Invasion and providing two sequel teases was too much weight to load onto the shoulders of one movie. But we've played this tune before: Marvel movies are doomed to be mere links in a neverending chain, each forgettable villain is just there to get the pieces in position for the next entry, what you see isn't most of what the director intended, and so on. To keep going to theaters for a Marvel movie is by now a thoughtless habit, like grabbing one more potato chip when you know you're full.

Setting aside whatever big plan Phase 5 is about (am I sure? is this Phase 5 already?), The Marvels tries to bring together the plot threads of Kamala Khan's growth as a superhero and as a fan of a superhero, Monica Rambeau's abandonment issues, Captain Marvel's unfinished business with galactic politics, and Nick Fury's promise to find a home for the Skrulls. This movie's solution? Nah, let's just magically swap our characters' places in the universe and let them sort it out on their own. Add a couple lines of technobabble about damaged teleportation nodes and call it a day.

It's not the most elegant narrative device, and the chances for character interaction it opens are pretty much wasted. It turns out Captain Marvel has a completely nonsensical explanation for never visiting Monica and has zero interest to spare for Kamala's obsession with her. A third potentially meaningful relationship isn't even attempted: there could be much drama to write about between the opposite perspectives of Kamala and Monica, the former as Captain Marvel's enthusiastic fan and the latter as Captain Marvel's formerly enthusiastic, now disillusioned fan.

Even more regrettably, the gimmick of having our lead characters swap places could have been used to explore the theme of occupying one another's shoes. Captain Marvel could get over her self-loathing if she could see herself the way Kamala does, and she needs to understand what it was like for Monica to lose her aunt for so many years. Kamala needs to grow up a little and learn from Monica's hard clash with hero worship, and she could form a more grounded idea of superheroism by facing some of Captain Marvel's challenges. Finally, Monica could begin to heal her loneliness by experiencing first-hand the strong family ties built around Kamala, and she needs to see for herself what complications have kept Captain Marvel busy. There was ample space for character work here, but the gimmick's only purpose was to get the plot from point A to point B.

Still, with all the wasted opportunities, there's solid acting to be seen in Iman Vellani's pure joy as Kamala Khan, even if some of the lines written for her sound too much like the director inserting the DVD commentary track into the movie proper. She's the super-glue that holds the crumbling pieces of this movie together. Monica Rambeau is already known to viewers, but her character is yet to be defined. She spent half of WandaVision not even being herself, and the other half misguidedly trying to save the actual villain of the story. Here, she's just filling the slot of a third superhero. She's not a character with goals and choices of her own; she's a screwdriver clumsily wielded to attach more IP to the MCU. We don't even get a decent explanation of what it is exactly that her powers do. And Captain Marvel is supposedly the main star of the show, but the script implies she missed the obvious solution to her mistake for over thirty years, and in the meantime she lets entire civilizations be destroyed under her watch. But hey, look at the little cats! Aren't they adorable?

The Marvels not only has a serious problem with characterization, but also no idea how to handle its tone. Sure, Kamala Khan is always a delight, especially after more than a decade of watching every single male lead in the MCU adopt the exact same exhausting cocky-quippy style of dialogue. But superhero stories (not only from Marvel) have a long-established obliviousness to the implications of dropping a child soldier in the middle of bloody political disputes with death tolls in the millions. Together with Monica being cursed with nondescriptness, Nick Fury being reduced to ineffective comic relief, and Captain Marvel trying obviously too hard to still sound cool in this century, the background conflict struggles to matter. As Abigail Nussbaum put it recently, this movie is "a hilarious slapstick comedy featuring multiple acts of genocide."

And when you set aside all plot logic and focus on the action scenes, which at the end of the day is what Marvel Studios cares about, The Marvels chooses to go for emphatically meh. The choreography is OK, and it knows how to handle constantly teleporting characters with ease, but the staging is dismal. The problem starts with the design of the main villain, one of the most visually boring and lamentably miscast characters in the MCU.

Exhibit A:

We can see the costume design department chose as its inspiration an "insipid casual" look that pays homage to Marvel's signature "everything is gray slurry" aesthetic and smears it all over the actress's hair, clothes, and weapon. You can almost hear the director giving the instruction, "Make sure there's nothing that catches the eye," while telling the casting department, "Find me an actress with all the menacing vibe of a bowl of oatmeal."

Exhibit B:

You know you failed to make your big bad evil lady command any attention when you frame your shots in such a way that the audience's gaze is first drawn toward the big bad evil lady's nameless assistant standing in the background because he's the only one wearing any color.

Exhibit C:

What's lazier than green screen? No screen! Why invest in set design when you can stage your big, all-important fights inside a poorly lit spaceship where the audience can't tell the featureless walls from the featureless floor and the huge window to featureless space?

For all of Iman Vellani's superheroic efforts to make the viewers excited for the story, The Marvels is very confused about what it wants to be about, structurally haphazard, emotionally inept, morally unaware, and an easy excuse delivered on a silver platter for the usual suspects to keep maliciously badmouthing lady superhero movies.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

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

[Microreview]: Minesweeper by Kyle Orland

A little gaming history in a small paperback

Most people born in the 90s (and earlier) can remember the ups and downs of playing a game of Minesweeper. There was the satisfaction of finding a massive, deserted area of the board clearing the way to a better record. Then there was the anxiety of the end game, forcing a cross between skill and luck to choose the right square. Some people knew there was a strategy to it, while others thought the entire thing was just dumb luck (slowly raising a hand). Throughout Kyle Orland’s Minesweeper, some light is shed not only on the game itself but on the history that revolves around it and the competitive scene that grew from a free-to-play game bundled with Microsoft Windows.

I won’t lie: as soon as I finished the book, I booted up Minesweeper to apply the knowledge I gained from the book and won (perhaps my first) intermediate board. Those colorful numbers really do mean something after all. The book begins by explaining the game’s rules, and from there, the history surrounding it. This is done in a way that engages the reader and brings them into the early days of Microsoft (when they were a serious software company and games were just a distraction). From Bill Gates's mild obsession with chasing the high score to the International Minesweeper Committee, the book covers all eras of this addictive game’s adventure throughout the world.

Orland’s blend of primary and secondary sources helps paint a picture of a technological landscape that, up until the 2000s, was a bit of a Wild West. Convincing Microsoft head honchos to include a free game as part of their OS seemed a massive hurdle. Yet the inclusion of games like Solitaire and Minesweeper was the Trojan horse that led to today’s casual game ubiquity. This book covers everything from investor pitches to day-to-day occurrences and exchanges between developers (some of whom don’t seem to remember the actual events, so don't hold them to it).

Occasionally Orland gets a bit technical, bringing the pace of the book to a crawl. There were quite a few moments where the book felt like a manual, and my eyes, already drowsy from a long day of work, had a difficult time remaining open. Despite these moments, I found Orland didn’t linger on them for quite too long, allowing the flow to return to the book, and the pace to resume.

It's easy to get caught up in a simple game like Minesweeper. One game turns into two, and two into two hundred, but despite this, it never occurs to someone that something so simple could have such an impact on a generation. Who would have thought that one freemium game—included to help users become acquainted with a two-buttoned mouse—would be brought before Congress because of its potential deficit in work productivity? Many fun historical tidbits and more are woven into this short book.

If you were an 80s/90s kid with some spare time and a computer to boot, there is a chance you played Minesweeper. Even if you didn’t become obsessed with it, at some point in your life, this game had you in its grasp for a moment. While it’s not a necessary read, Kyle Orland’s Minesweeper is a great example of how everything we listen to, watch, and play has a story behind it regardless of whether we look into it. If you’re looking for some light reading on one of the world’s first major casual games, or just a bit about the early days of Microsoft game development, you could do a lot worse than Minesweeper.

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Double feature: Don't believe everything you see

Cinema is the art of illusion, so what new thing can films say in the age of the deepfake?

A shady government agency has been researching the use of paranormal powers, more specifically projected illusions, implanted memories and mind control, as a mechanism to secretly influence global politics. Their experiments culminated in the improbable birth of the child of two psychics, a prodigy who upon reaching adulthood might manifest formidable talents. However, ethical scruples move an employee of the agency to take the baby away from what would surely have been a lifetime of servitude and medical torture. Years later, the agency's deadliest psychic is still hunting down that child, eager to twist the world's most powerful mind into an unstoppable weapon. Successive layers of illusion are deployed until the movie pulls out of its hat the big reveal that not only the protagonist has been deceived from the start, but also the viewer, who must now reevaluate all the events that have supposedly happened so far.

Probably nothing in this description strikes you as particularly original or groundbreaking. What I do find at least noteworthy is that in 2023, not one but two movies used this exact plot: Hypnotic, co-written and directed by a shockingly out-of-form Robert Rodriguez, and starring a very tired Ben Affleck in exactly the type of depressed-divorced-detective role you accept when you no longer have a superhero salary; and Awareness, co-written and directed by Daniel Benmayor and starring Carlos Scholz as a rogue mentalist whose most daring trick is the illusion that he can still play a teenager.

It's understandable that the idea of lies-based espionage is becoming popular. Our historic moment is ripe for science-fictional allegories of disinformation for political gain. You've heard of fake news, alternative facts, CGI impersonation, distorted curricula, journalistic and scientific malpractice via LLMs, and the most absurd conspiracy theories asserted with a straight face. Real life has become a bad magical tournament/urban fantasy: whoever can cast the most convincing illusion spell will control the world.

Unfortunately, when it comes to representing those anxieties on the screen, neither Hypnotic nor Awareness does a very convincing job. In both movies, the momentum gained by what is admittedly a strong start gradually loses its punch as the plot keeps adding more and more outlandish complications until the ending arrives forcefully, not because the story has been resolved, but because it ran out of the sense it could pretend to make.

A few good things can be said of Hypnotic. It boasts careful coordination of the choreography between the initial scenes and later ones that reenact the same events without the filter of mental trickery. Borrowing perhaps too many pages from The Prestige and Inception, most noticeably in its visual effects, it makes an interesting argument about the dangerous uses of dramatization as a method of control. However, in hindsight, the reveal that most of the plot has been a fiction-within-a-fiction fails the moment you pause to examine the incompatibility between the villains' actual goal and the feigned actions they scripted for the protagonist to witness. Even worse, the cinematic language successfully established all through the movie, which communicates to the viewer the simultaneous unfolding of an illusory action and its real counterpart, breaks apart in the ending, where the same editing technique is used to introduce shots that may not be immediately recognized as the flashback they actually are. The last thing you need during a crucial scene where instead of dramatizing your climactic resolution you make a main character quickly vomit a mountain of exposition is to confuse the viewer as to which events are in the past and which in the present.

As for Awareness, its merit is to be found in the deliberate use of the camera during fight scenes. By affixing a camera to the end of a character's gun, an otherwise ordinary arm motion forces the viewer to reverse the focus of their gaze: instead of a stationary body with a moving limb, here the limb appears stationary while the rest of the body rotates across the frame. This technique is used in scenes where psychics use mind control to force other characters to shoot at each other; the possessed hand becomes the center of the action as the victim helplessly watches in the periphery. A variation of this type of shot (pun only half intended) occurs when the psychic twitches his head to give a mental command: the camera rolls in sync with the head, effectively keeping it static in the frame, signifying its control over the action, while the world around it looks momentarily kicked out of balance by the character's thoughts. Many such camera tricks inundate the fight scenes to express distortions of reality, although there are times they become excessive, almost hostile to the eyes, especially in the flashbacks that reveal one character to be a mental fabrication. Little else is worthy of praise in this movie. The tone is a mishmash of the best bits of Push with the saddest bits of Stranger Things, and the dialogues are so painfully hackneyed that the viewer may start suspecting that the plot has more than one purely imagined character.

The theme of deception as an instrument of war is enormously relevant today, but these two films waste their opportunity to say something meaningful about it. They're serviceable action thrillers, as long as you don't poke too hard at the plot's logic, and the implied subtext about children being the biggest potential victims (and unwitting tools) of organized disinformation is one worth taking to heart. As Orwell warned, a war over the telling of our past is really a war over our future.

Nerd Coefficient

Hypnotic: 4/10.

Awareness: 5/10.

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

Festival View - Sorry About Tomorrow

Sometimes, you can have good and fast...

 It is fully possible to make a movie in 48 hours; I’ve done it myself, in fact. It’s nigh-impossible to create a film that is layered, intelligent, and ambitious in 48 hours, but it does happen. In the case of Sorry About Tomorrow by Motke Dapp, well, it took slightly longer, but the end result was 100% the best science fiction film of any length I saw in 2013. 

The 48 Hour Film Project has been around since about 2001. It’s one-part contest, one-part internal filmmaking challenge to get filmmakers who tend to sit around talking about making movies to actually dedicate a weekend to making a movie. It grew and there are dozens of 48 Hour Film Project competitions in cities around the world these days. You’re given a list of musts – a genre, a line of dialogue, a character, and a prop. These can be interpreted by the filmmakers in a variety of ways. I started to see films come through our programming queue in 2003 or so, and they all tended to feel like they had been made in 48 hours. I did two films for the San Francisco 48 Hour Film Project, one where we won best script, and another where I was really just craft services. A few years later, I was one of the judges who helped determine the various winners and by that time, 2012, the quality of the films had gone from surprisingly good, to just plain whoa.

Now, in 2013, in Nashville, director Motke Dapp was given the genre of science fiction. Dapp, a working director who has become known for his comedy work, has an incredible eye for texture. As far as cinematography goes, texture imparts sensation to a scene. It’s an often underrated aspect of film shooting, but when you’ve got a director of photography who knows how to make things feel plastic (see Barbie: The Movie which did so incredibly without going the way of those 1990s Duracel commercials) or gritty (pretty much anyone who worked in Film Noir in the 1940s and 50s) they are going to leave a mark.

The story of the film is simple – Baldwin, a tinkerer, meets Emily, a scientist, at a party for Sen. Tom Tuckerbee (the required character for the project.) She’s working on time-travel and has discovered The Milk: a semi-synthetic substance that is the catalyst for time-travel. Baldwin is quickly smitten with Emily’s lab partner, Cricket, and as soon as he’s on the scene, he comes to a breakthrough that appears to be putting everything in motion, including the Baldwin-Cricket relationship. After they confirm that time travel works, and leads to some dicey territory, they start to be terrorized by time agents. 

All that is kinda prologue, though, as the film is really about Baldwin breaking up with Cricket. Well, he’s breaking up with the Cricket from 15 years in the past. 

The thing is, everything comes together. The story, kinda simple and kinda complex, bounces off the edges of over-down genre tropes in an incredibly smart, but sincere way. Yeah, we see time cops a lot, like in a personal fave Timecop, but here instead of winking at the idea, they are there and they are a menace, and they’re dealt with deftly. The characters are well-drawn, but each and every performance is played to a level of perfection, from John Ferguson’s Baldwin, who has the genre-acting chops that make folks like Sam Rockwell so affective, to Collen Helm’s Cricket, who somehow skirts maniac pixie dreamgirl portrayal in a role where many actors and directors would dive right in. 

But really, it’s Emmaline Weedman who absolutely steals the show. 

Child actors can be positioned a number of different ways. Smart writers and directors get that they can’t carry the weight of the film itself, performances like Natalie Portman in Leon, The Professional notwithstanding. They can, though, carry elements of the film and if they’re good at the thing, they can give weight to anything they deliver. Weedman delivers so damn hard, and while it’s only a minor twist in the scheme of things, it’s so well done, partly because it’s cleanly written, partly because it’s perfectly delivered.  That it’s followed by a great montage that 100% understands how you move a story towards a climax while telling the viewer what they should have been taking away from the entire piece only makes things that much better. 

Sorry About Tomorrow has shown all over the place, and you can watch it at We showed it at the Silicon Valley Science Fiction Short Film Festival and it won our big award. I was always shocked that it didn’t win the Nashville 48 Hour Film Project, but apparently it took a little bit longer than 48 hours, though it still won many of the individual awards, including for acting, which it certainly deserved. Still, this is a film that has all the layers of quality that a film in development for years would have trouble developing. 

Chris Garcia - Archivist, Zine Nerd, Curator, Pro Wrestling Enthusiast. 


Monday, November 27, 2023

Review: The Marsh King's Daughter

Daisy Ridley wades into the marsh of abuse.

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, abuse is terrifying, disorienting, reality-warping. I say this as a survivor of vicious parental abuse; as such it is a subject I am very much attenuated to. It was very much for the best that I went into The Marsh King’s Daughter knowing basically nothing about it, seeing that it had Daisy Ridley leading it, figuring that any film that could afford a lead Star Wars actor couldn’t be that cheap, and that it was a thriller. Frankly I was just wanting to kill time and enjoy the theater experience.

Bloody hell, did I choose fortuitously, and harrowingly. The Marsh King’s Daughter, released 2023, directed by Neil Burger and written by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith, based on the novel by the same name by Karen Dionne, which as of writing I have not yet read (but have put on hold at my local library). It’s a taut hour and forty minutes long, so it’s not an epic by any stretch, but it packs a lot into that time.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is the story of Helena, the daughter of Jacob Holbrook (Ben Mendelsohn), a kidnapper hermit who lives in a forest in a cabin he made in the remote backwoods of Michigan, and the woman he kidnapped so he could force her to be his bride. Helena, played by Brooklynn Prince as a child and by Daisy Ridley as an adult, eventually finds her way into the broader world, escaping her abusive father in the process. Now grown, with a boring excel sheet job, a loving husband, and a beloved daughter, her life seems, for now, going well, having told very few people, not even her new family, about who she really is, for her father has become an infamous serial killer and media sensation (a subject matter not unlike Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places). This appears to end with a coda early on when her father escapes from prison and is believed dead while trying to escape to Canada, but then it seems that he has found her, and wants his daughter back.

As you can guess, this movie is a lot, thematically and otherwise. Of the less heavy aspects, there is the environment of the wilderness of Michigan, far removed from the urbanized parts of the state. If you are seeking a pleasant peninsula, you will certainly find it in this film. The waters are serene, the trees towering, the birds cheerful, the setting almost silent. It is this arcadia that is, of course, shattered by the cruelty of Jacob Holbrook, his very hatred for life itself, seeing value in it only as something to exploit. It is the quiet that would be refuge for the decent ends up prison for the vulnerable and haven for the malicious.

Ridley is the star of the show, and she earns that title. She plays what I recognize from agonizing personal experience as a very realistic abuse victim. She hates that she is Jacob’s spawn, and wishes she could forget about him, but the scars of abuse linger on. The habits, which those of us in survivor communities call ‘fleas’ (as in annoying bugs that won’t go away), still remain, having become a part of how she interacts with the world, indeed frames her entire existence, even if unconsciously. Ridley does this without ever succumbing to melodrama; it never felt tacky to me.

I must give props to Brooklyn Price as the younger Helena. There’s the vulnerability that comes from an upbringing like hers, in the middle of the woods, with no interaction with the broader world. There’s the innate trust a child has in a parent foiled deftly by the naivete that obscures the fact that not all parents are worth obeying, or loving. She sells the utter tragedy of all this, the cruel inevitability of such fate; any child with a parent like that would end up like her. Likewise, I must praise Caren Pistorius as Helena’s mother Beth, so utterly beaten down, so utterly aware of the perversity of her situation, but doing all she can to shield her daughter from the worst of her father.

Ben Mendelsohn plays a frighteningly accurate abuser. There is the pure terror, of course, that had me very anxious throughout the film. But just as importantly, he has two other qualities: a definite charm to him, and a certain patheticness. The charm is how abusers reel in their victims to be psychologically consumed, their sense of self extinguished; you can absolutely believe that this man has talked himself out of a wide variety of situations because he can persuade you that he could never hurt a fly. The patheticness is due to a crushing lack of self-awareness when most decent people would have some: he cannot understand that his daughter would hate him for entirely understandable reasons. It is these two traits that combine to form his great delusion: that his daughter may take her daughter and go be a family together with him in Canada. It’s the sort of wishful thinking that is so hard to refute, and can only be endured until a way out can be found. The wait for that one can be a long, arduous one.

There’s nothing supernatural in The Marsh King’s Daughter, but you would not be wrong to see a noticeable similarity to horror movies in the way it builds suspense. What I found especially compelling is how, more often than not, the tension built is resolved not in a terrifying appearance of Jacob, but in something mundane. It is the sort of hypervigilance that I can personally vouch is so often the result of being abused (I’m reminded of the time in college, in a sleep-deprived exam-induced haze, I thought I saw my mother coming out of the corner of my eye while sitting in a dorm common room - she lived over a hundred miles away from me). You see danger around every corner. You fear that any act you take may be used against you after your abuser learns about it through the most arcane way imaginable. You see hostility, indeed frothing hatred, lurking behind every smile. It is a torture of your subconscious’ own making, and you wish you could grab your mind and shake it, yelling at it to cut it out. So much of the movie is filmed highlighting the monster that is the legacy of abuse, and it really works.

The writers, the director, and Daisy Ridley all combined to give one of the best depictions of the psychology of an abuse victim I’ve ever seen. Helena never told her husband or daughter that she was the daughter of a man so infamous; they met her with deep confusion and a temporary (thankfully) loss of trust in her once they learned the truth, after her father resurfaced. It’s something that I understood immediately: she did not want to perpetually live in the shadow of the cruelty inflicted upon her. She wanted to define herself, to be a person independent of reference to her father. And yet, part of her yearns for her father, a trickle of the ironclad obedience instilled in her remaining malignant well after it was necessary. People want to love their parents, but when the parents have not earned that love, the emotions can be complicated and contradictory. Helena is forced to mourn not the father she had, but the father she wished she had, and her subconscious can have an agonizingly hard time telling the two apart. It felt very real to me. It is something that is alien, indeed downright incomprehensible, to people who haven’t lived it; I envy those who haven’t, and I hope they never become familiar with it.

The film stumbles, though, with some of its side characters. The only person of color in the cast is a police officer who becomes something of a surrogate father to Helena; he is a Native American, and I couldn’t help but think the way his arc ends was somewhat dismissive of him. Likewise. Helena’s husband and daughter disappear from the narrative after a certain point. This leaves the film to focus on the conflict between Helena and Jacob, but I feel like they could have had more active roles in the third act.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is a well-paced, scary-as-hell thriller that has a lot of emotional weight to its core. It was a visceral experience for me, having experienced something like what Helena did, and it ended up leaving quite the impression on me. It’s very much worth seeing, but it may well be too much for some people.


Highlights: the cinematography

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Friday, November 24, 2023

Microreview: Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman

A new and fresh spin on the story of the French Revolution fictional hero The Scarlet Pimpernel...but with a fanged twist.

It is the year 1793. The French Revolution is losing it’s head, or at least a lot of French nobles, and traitors (real and imaginary) are losing their heads, in any event. Eleanor works on the estate of a Baroness in England and so knows little of what is happening in France. But it so happens she resembles an important person in France, and so she is recruited by Sir Percy Blakeney, The Scarlet Pimpernel himself, to join in a rescue mission relying on her eerie resemblance. 

Oh and did I mention the Vampires?

This is the world of Genevieve Cogman’s Scarlet.

It is not surprising that Cogman, writer of the Invisible Library series, a series all about magical librarians going into worlds often inspired by books, to get books, would start a new series based partially on a book--in particular, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Where her additional invention lies, is giving this world an additional spin--this is a world that, indeed, has a stratum of aristocratic vampires, at least in England, and of course, France. 

Cogman’s alternate history takes the Naomi Novik Temeraire approach to worldbuilding. Vampires exist, have a place in society, but their existence and presence has not had a visibly huge change in the history of the world up to the point of the novels. Events in France, England, and elsewhere have gone, as far as they are mentioned, on schedule vampires exist in an aristocratic, noble place, taking their place alongside human barons, baronesses, dukes and more. I am always of two minds of this approach to worldbuilding, and I had the same two minds back when I read the Temeraire novels. On the one hand, it feels absolutely like a cheat to suggest that this major change in the world has had no net effect on the events and people and history that we known (or more properly, the historical fictional world of 1793 France of the Scarlet Pimpernel). An innate conservatism of history that feels a little unbelievable. For example, given vampires clearly have noble titles, why hasn’t any gone for a crown, and an immortal crown (save of course by being killed) at that? Maybe not France or England, and perhaps Cogman simply doesn’t mention that there is an independent German State or Balkan principality that is autonomously ruled by a vampire and has been for centuries. 

The other side of the coin is a matter of the narrative ask and the amount of time and groundwork needed. The novel asks you to accept a historical fictional world of the Scarlet Pimpernel, with vampires. Cogman goes into real depth and inventive worldbuilding in showing what that kind of world is like, especially from the perspective of a servant like Eleanor. What is it like to serve in a vampire’s household? How does a vampire feed? How does the rest of society regard them? Cogman goes into a lot of thought as to how what apparently are non-supernatural vampires would fit into a late 18th century context. 

And then there is her depiction of 1793 France and Paris. There is meticulous and immersive detail to be found here in the pages of the historical moment of this England and this Paris. The place and moment of the Terror, particularly, the paranoid police state nature of the Terror is chillingly well described. Eleanor’s plunge into this world from the relative safety of England is evoked very well indeed. 

So, with establishing all of that, trying to add on top of it all a full fledged alternate history and conveying it to the reader, and still having something that reads like a novel would be too much of an ask for nearly any writer, living or dead.  So I do not give Cogman as much grief as I might for having a historical conservatism to the novel. 

That does beg the question, that might occur to you, reader, and it did occur to me for a fair point of the novel--so why vampires in the first place? What does this world gain by having them, if they have never really changed history or society in significant ways. Are they just really aristocrats with a hunger for blood?  

There are a couple of answers to this that emerge as the novel unfolds. We start off with Eleanor in the household of a vampire noble, and when she is recruited and sent to France, she encounters yet more vampires. The novel plays with expectations, showing vampires in an ordinary, almost mundane sort of light (pun intended!).  Then, as the novel unfolds, Eleanor eventually learns that...

Ah, but THAT would be telling. Suffice it to say that Eleanor, in the course of seeking to be part of the rescue mission that the Scarlet Pimpernel is on, discovers that what she thought she knew about vampires, society, and history itself is, shall we say, not the complete story. 

But there is also a strong social criticism here. Seasoned genre readers no doubt know the use of vampires as a metaphor for the desire for youth and immortality, trading the day to live forever. But there is also a strand of criticism that sees vampires as a metaphor for the nobility, the aristocracy, being parasitic and literally sucking the blood of those they control, contributing little of anything of themselves in the process. Cogman leans into this interpretation of vampires hard, and does it by starting Eleanor as thinking her employer is “one of the good ones” and becoming disillusioned by the French experience of vampires help introduce us to the metaphor gradually and inexorably. Eleanor might not be a republican by the end of Scarlet, but she certainly gets an eyeful as to what vampires CAN do to society. 

With all of this worldbuilding and discussion of theme, I’ve neglected to talk about the other virtues of the novel. Eleanor is an engaging young protagonist. While she has the spunk and verve and courage of her more established protagonist Irene Winters (of the Invisible Library), she is distinctly younger, less experienced, and her mode of reactions are somewhat different. She is driven with a vigor of youth, and in some ways more ambitious than Irene, and I look forward to seeing how she develops in future novels. 

The writing of the action scenes, description of the world, and the evocation of England and France in an alternate Pimpernel world are by and large well done. There are some truly excellent set pieces for Eleanor (who is our sole point of view) as, for example, when temporarily separated from her companions, she finds that she is indeed having to face off against a vampire far different, and far more overtly dangerous, than ones she is used to.

And for fans of the Scarlet Pimpernel movies and the novel, I think Cogman really gets the tone of these sequences and the general feel of the world just right. The Terror is dangerous, Eleanor is often in danger, but this is a relatively light touch, for all the talk of the Vampire as social parasite theme. I do owe myself a rewatch of some version or another after reading this book. (there is no lack of versions. While the Pimpernel doesn’t quite have the popularity of, say, The Three Musketeers, there have been numerous versions) 

Scarlet is the first in a new series. I recall, historically, the sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel did not go over anywhere near as well as the original. I can hope that this will not be the case for Cogman and her series. Given her experience with her Invisible Library series, I am confident that the series will grow and mature further.

  • Engaging protagonist
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel--but with vampires!
  • Strong historical fictional shading into fantasy worldbuilding
Reference: Cogman, Genevieve, Scarlet, [Ace, 2023]

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

Thursday, November 23, 2023

In Pluto, the quest for humanlike AI reveals our worst side

Can we build machines that think like us without teaching them to hate like us?

Someone is killing the world's most advanced robots one by one. The same perpetrator seems to also be targeting robot rights advocates. Since robots are programmed to not kill humans, why can't the police find any evidence of a human murderer? What does it mean that every crime scene is found staged with huge ominous horns? How does the obscure past of Europe's top artificial detective fit into this mystery? And is it a coincidence that the killed robots were veterans of a ruinous preemptive war that was declared for fictitious reasons?

The new Netflix series Pluto weaves these parallel plotlines with admirable skill, closely following the structure of Naoki Urasawa's sweepingly applauded, Astro Boy-inspired manga series. What begins as a bizarre police case gradually morphs into an international conspiracy of technological espionage and postwar malaise, which culminates in a world-shattering clash of philosophies about the purpose of hatred and the possibility of escaping cycles of violence. Although the manga was originally written during the Iraq War, in the two decades since its publication, the relevance of its themes hasn't changed: from Mosul to Grozny to Aleppo to Khartoum to Aden to Bamenda to Maiduguri to Donetsk to Imphal to Mekelle to Stepanakert to Gaza, every war reenacts and reproduces the same basic defect of humanity.

Pluto is set in a future world where robots have achieved legal equality, but anti-robot prejudice is still common, to the point that the mere unfounded suspicion of a robot army can spark a world war. The cascading consequences of that conflict still haunt the characters in this story: the robots who were ordered to kill fellow robots now carry the same trauma and regrets that would be expected in human soldiers. One of them has become an environmentalist, another is an aspiring musician, and another flat-out refused to fight and opened a foster home for war orphans. Even far from the battlefield, in the prosperous cities of the European Federation, casual disregard for the dignity of robot life still leads to daily microaggressions that from time to time snowball into self-perpetuating rounds of revenge.

One of the many fascinating arguments implied in Pluto is the robots' counterintuitively enhanced capacity for hostility. They're forbidden, both legally and electronically, from attacking humans, but in a society where robots are supposed to have the same rights as humans, that restriction is egregiously one-sided, not to mention fated to fail. A convenient counterweight to human belligerence is that we have the luxury of forgetting, whereas a digital brain with a grudge will always carry a perfect memory of it. Let that emotion fester long enough, and any machine will snap. If human hatred has already proved harmful, a robotic form of hatred could be cataclysmic. In several scenes, characters who are experts on the matter claim that AI is unable to hate, but the story goes on to demonstrate that it wasn't even necessary to program hate in its code. All it took was interaction with human insensitivity.

Despite this easy recipe for disaster, each time a piece of the puzzle is solved, hatred is exposed in its pointlessness. One character schemes to avenge his dead brother and puts his entire family at risk. Another wants to hunt down the invaders that bombed his homeland and loses all sense of who he is. Another makes the moral calculation that the lives of his country are worth endangering all the rest, and is easily manipulated into almost blowing up the world. In most of these cases, the wasteful effort of hatred is spent in response to a similar act of hatred that was sparked by a previous one. You can't summon the god of death into your service without then becoming his servant. So the script is careful to represent the opponents' motives as understandable without once taking their side. Its plea for empathy is not a defense of retaliation.

Taking advantage of its mutually mirroring subplots, Pluto contains copious internal references. Often, a scene will literalize the point made more symbolically in another. A beautiful instance of this technique is noticeable in a character who researches agronomy. He's quoted as having remarked that flowering plants typically die after producing seeds, and then he discovers a flower that stays perpetually in bloom, intact for years, never giving seeds. However, to produce that flower, an entire field around it had to die. The implied theme, developed more explicitly over the rest of the plot, is that the pursuit of survival at the cost of other lives results in fruitless stasis.

Here Pluto finds a space to address the horror hidden just under the surface of the manga series that inspired it: as you'll recall, the whole reason for Astro Boy's existence is as a replacement for a dead son. This backstory is transformed in Pluto into an exploration of the risks of trying to bypass the reality of death. For one of the villains, the goal is many deaths at the acceptable cost of an aberrant life. For the secret mastermind villain, the goal is an aberrant life at the acceptable cost of many deaths. Atom, this story's version of Astro Boy, is the first to transcend this poisoned bargain. His second chance at life is fueled by extreme hatred, but he avoids becoming a perpetuator of death by realizing the true nature of hatred: there is pure emptiness inside of it.

The show restates this argument in the form of a thought experiment. Suppose that a human programmer wanted to design the smartest AI possible. Having only human tools at hand, one solution is to feed the program with the intelligence of every human being, a balanced whole containing all our wishes, personalities and inclinations. However, to simulate all of humanity would paralyze the digital brain. It would never decide anything. In Pluto, one character theorizes that the way out of this problem is to give the balanced whole a good shake. To unbalance it with our worst primal impulses.

What makes this scenario even more interesting is that a set containing every human being is a not very veiled metaphor for the world. The character who cynically suggests pushing the simulated collective of humanity with hatred represents the philosophical position according to which violence is the driving force that moves the world. Atom's success at integrating his rebuilt self represents the refutation of that position.

By refraining from a straightforward portrayal of war and focusing instead on its painful aftermath and the passions that feed it, Pluto squares the circle of telling a story about war that doesn't inadvertently glorify it. In addition to boasting formidable complexity in the way its structure effortlessly juggles numerous flashbacks set at different points in the timeline, as well as featuring a cast of the most compellingly human robots this side of Blade Runner, Pluto is a profoundly moral story where grievous destruction follows naturally from the ancient, unrelenting sin of counting any life as expendable.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Review: Freelance

John Cena plays John Cena and I found that enjoyable

John Cena is a wrestler, and a meme, and perhaps a walking assemblage of potato salad. I remember my classmates in fourth grade being obsessed with him, although I never was into wrestling. I do remember being impressed with him in The Suicide Squad, which was a rather odd film, albeit an enjoyable one. It was him alone, really, that made me want to see 2023’s Freelance in theaters, directed by Pierre Morel and also starring Alison Brie and Juan Pablo Raba.

The best comparison I have for Freelance is The Hitman’s Bodyguard, that zany action-comedy from a few years back featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds being Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. The latter as a film is very much a buddy movie with a good deal of heart under all the killing, with a sadistic streak to it. Freelance isn’t quite that, but it has its own emotional core, plenty of humor, and a star that the whole film is clearly banking on.

John Cena plays a former US Army special forces operative who was honorably discharged after an injury in combat. He returns to America, marries, has a daughter, and becomes a lawyer helping the downtrodden. Despite the stability and love from his family, he misses the action and the camaraderie of the Army, and yearns for more excitement; this begins to cause problems in his marriage. One day, an old Army buddy walks into his law office, offering him one last job in a Latin American country teetering on the edge of stability. Cena, unsurprisingly, accepts. His job is to provide security for a journalist (Alison Brie) who is the first journalist in decades to interview the country’s reclusive dictator (Juan Pablo Raba). This looks to be a pleasant, simple, quiet job, but this all changes when the dictator’s nephew mounts a military coup against him, announcing this with a hail of bullets in the vehicle carrying the three of them.

I found myself liking Cena in this movie a lot. There’s something very funny to me about how a man with such brawn, such clear strength, is at first relegated to the dull and tedious life of a lawyer; it feels like something out of an old comedy. When the action kicks in, he is very much in his element, and he has the fortune of delivering several great lines. I like, too, his softness, with his daughter and his wife, but also with the people he’s stranded with in this jungle. He has a willingness to try to understand people, even people he has every reason to hate (and oh boy, does he meet such people), and perhaps see something else in them. In a genre dominated by protagonists who are set in their convictions and their opinions, there’s something refreshing about that.

Alison Brie does a very good job as the intrepid reporter sent to a dictatorship for a scoop. Her character is coming off of some professional tragedy in this film, and she is eager to prove herself, to clear her name. Her character is also the conduit for one of the more clever ways I’ve seen in movies of addressing the omnipresence of smartphones in modern life. You think, for a second, that they’ll do another lazy trope of a vain woman always taking selfies, but no - she’s recording the action on her phone, in hopes of a big scoop. It felt real to me, in a world where wars are now playing out in the palms of our hands.

Juan Pablo Raba rounds out the leading trio, playing the dictator of this small, resource-rich fictional Latin American country that feels too far from God but too close to world financial markets. He strikes the right balance between loathsome, as dictators always are, and charismatic, as they also often are; they never would have risen to power without it. He’s Hugo Chavez adapted to the norms of Hollywood, or perhaps a snarkier, funnier Lazaro Cardenas. He has all the vices of these dictators, to the point that he can verge on the stereotypical, but Raba brings enough charm to the role that he is enjoyable in it.

Freelance uses a trope that I don’t particularly like: fictional countries that are clearly in a real region. To me, someone who has spent much time trying to learn about the world, it comes off as the writers being too lazy to research a real country. It is the film’s portrayal of Latin America where, in my estimation, it really stumbles. This country felt Central American, or maybe northern South American, the sort of place the CIA would have overthrown a democratic government in the name of stopping Communism but in reality at the behest of the United Fruit Company. The politics is suitably chaotic, with a ruling family that is at each other’s necks. I am not the hugest fan of how the film portrays the opposition, which feels somewhat cliche (this is redeemed somewhat by the participation of the opposition in one of the film’s most entertaining scenes), but it did some interesting things with the military, and how some of its soldiers are more than simple automata obeying their orders. With some more spit and polish, it could have said something interesting about how no ruler rules alone, but the script didn’t bother to venture there. There’s a real attempt to depict the diversity of this place, unreal as it may be. Overall, I’m certain those with more familiarity with Latin America could drive a truck through the gaps in the region’s portrayal, but to my gringo mind, at least, it wasn’t the worst.

This is a film that, in its concerns, strikes me as distinctly middle-aged, reminding me of Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels. The characters here are well into their careers, all with regrets, all having to see their professional identities challenged in some way. One wants the excitement and purpose of his youth, one wants a restoration of her credibility, and one has to find out his fate when his people seem to have had enough of him. There’s a clever thematic spine here that is easy to miss. When should we give up our youthful dreams and accept reality? It’s a hard question. It also figures in Cena’s character’s personal life. His marriage is on the rocks, and this affects his interactions with Brie’s character in a telling way, a way that underlines his innate kindness.

There’s also something to be said as to how the film portrays masculinity and its intersection with American military culture. I had the luck of reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection No Time to Spare recently, and she muses about traditional male friendships, the intense camaraderie they can foster, and the undercurrent of violence that so often underlies them. I thought the film could be read in dialogue with Le Guin on that score, and it enhanced the experience.

It was not until I wrote this review that I learned that this film has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it makes me question my taste, and fear that I’ll have my critic card revoked. In any case, it was a pleasant enough way to spend an evening before going to dinner. It doesn’t reinvent action cinema by any stretch, but I enjoyed it for what it was. Form your own judgment of it, if you’re so inclined.


Highlights: Cena's character

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Review: Godkiller by Hannah Kaner

A quartet of protagonists thrown together by their separate needs to visit the site of a battle against the gods. 

Kissen, Elogast, and Inara are three very different characters with very different agendas and problems. 

Inara is a young woman who watches her family home get destroyed, the residents killed. Thrown on the road, this last daughter of a noble house winds up running into and traveling with two very different and dangerous people.

Elogast is a baker now, but once he was one of the foremost knights of the realm, and still is the king's friend. But the king is dying from the long delayed results of the last war. So, Elo marches off toward the ruins of Blenraden, the site of his greatest battle, a battle against gods, to find a cure for his king.

Kissen, the main lead of the novel, is an out and out Godskiller, the titular character, a Veiga. Kissen has had a very unpleasant relationship with gods for a long time. That metal leg she has? She lost her leg in being freed from being a fire god's sacrifice, long ago. So, she, too, in order to help Inara, is now headed toward the wrecked and ruined city of Blenraden. She is more than equipped and trained and ready to take on any gods. It's her duty and her pleasure. 

This of course is all  more than a bit of discomfort to Inara's secret companion, a small god named Skedi. 

Their stories are the matter of Hannah Kaner's fantasy novel, Godkiller.

Kissen as the titular character gets the most development and perspective of the character for the most part. Hers is the prologue that sets up her career, and while all the protagonists get rotating turns in POV, she is the one the author focuses on. She provides disability representation in having an artificial leg, although it does not hinder her too much in her job of killing gods, of which I will speak anon. 

Elogast, the knight turned baker turned knight, is our second MC. He is the sort that his sense of duty can overwhelm his good judgment to go where angels fear to tread. Some of his best stuff is when he actually talks about his craft of baking. He has been put into a difficult position with his friend the king, and I am glad the book does explain why he is so loyal, although the reader is left guessing (although I guessed correctly) where the bond really formed. And it is clear that, although he does not articulate it so, that he is definitely suffering from PTSD, and this is handled with nuance and good writing.

Inara and Skedi round out the pair. Inara is the orphaned protagonist thrown out on the road and into Kissen's care by the destruction of her home. The author slowly makes it clear, however, that she has something quite unusual about her, that she has a secret, a power, that she does not understand herself. The slow reveal of her power and how the characters react to it, is well done.

And then there is Skedi, and the heart of the worldbuilding and raison d'etre of the book. Skedi, you see, is a small god, in a world full of gods. Gods of things as small as one particular crossroad and as large as a god of an entire ocean.  Thousands of gods, and maybe more.  But as trade, commerce and the world has widened, the wild gods, gods grown out of genius loci, out of places, came into conflict with abstract and one might say foreign gods. The conflict caused a war, and devastating destruction, enough that the king declared that all gods were anathema and had to be destroyed, and of course worship and sacrifice to any god was forbidden. 

Kaner makes it clear that the Veiga, the Godkillers used to enforce this (and make good money) to do so, are really fighting an impossible battle here, but for the moment the Kingdom is brutally destroying shrines and rooting out outright believers in the gods that are now anathema. But given that all the gods in this world are born out of human need, belief, fear and desire, there really is no way to do this forever. And it is a strain on society, and helps show the rather harsh nature of this world. The king's efforts to suppress the gods, as well as the fact that the kingship fell on him rather unexpectedly makes it clear that the kingdom's future is very much in doubt as well. King Arren's head very uneasily holds the crown.

So back to Skedi. He is a small god of white lies, but he is strangely bound to Inara. Killing him, as is the natural thought of Kissen, and of Elogast, might just kill an innocent young woman in the bargain. Skedi does know he is on thin ice, but his nature and his impulses, both seen in his point of view, and seen from outside, are a fascinating character study. He also, interestingly, has a lack of self-awareness of where he came from and how he bonded to Inara in the first place. Gods in this word, Skedi included, are potent in their own sphere, but they are flawed and imperfect, too. 

So if it is not clear at this stage in the review, I will say it outright: yes, Godkiller is a grimdark fantasy novel. While there have been challenges to it, it remains a strong paradigm within the secondary world fantasy genre. Godkiller runs in the tradition of writers like Anna Stephens and Anna Smith Spark and fits in that sub-spectrum of the grimdark tradition. Strong female characters, very much concerned with their points of view, lives, and problems. This tradition of grimdark often avoids some of the worst excesses I've seen in grimdark, especially when it comes to the treatment of women, and is less interested in being "darker than dark". I appreciate that the novel hews in that direction. If grimdark is the base template, at least it is a somewhat more inclusive template.

The city of Blenraden, wrecked and ruined by the Gods Wars, is the highlight and centerpiece of the book. It's a fascinating and well done ruined city as important setting, a dangerous place where there are remnant gods, guards on the make, and other dangers around every corner. It's evocatively drawn as a locale for the quartet to finally reach.

There is some roughness in the writing, particularly in the pacing. The first three quarters of the book work rather well, the plot and characters move along decently, if sometimes in a bit of a gear shift issue. But the last portion of the book, and the final revelations and twists all come suddenly, without warning, and the finale after that feels rushed and hurried and perhaps a bit of left field given what we have seen, and known, about the characters. And it feels a little forced of a joining to connect this with all of the protagonists. Dropping more breadcrumbs earlier to reinforce and buttress this would have been extremely welcome and would have done the book a much better service. As it is, it feels like a shocking reveal, and not one that is really supported. 

The queer representation in the book, and there definitely is some to be had, feels a bit thinly signaled rather than a heartfelt inclusion. As mentioned above, however, disability representation definitely is a highlight of this book. 

So while this is the first book in a series, and even given the strengths of the book, I am not entirely certain I am sold on this world enough to continue with the series. I am frustratingly on the fence about whether, especially given the out of left field final part, that I want to continue in this series or not



  • Interesting worldbuilding
  • Strong quartet of POV characters 

Reference: Hannah Kaner, Godkiller, [Harper Voyager, 2023]

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

Star Wars Subjectivities: TIE Fighter video game (1994)

Some folks just really wanted to pretend to fly for the Imperial navy in the 90s, and this old-school, lo-fi PC video game let us have a blast while doing it. 

"Enter your name, pilot!" is the first thing you hear when the log-in screen pop up in the Star Wars: TIE Fighter video game. That's right, you're a new pilot recruit in Palpatine's space navy. 

First, though, let's set the scene.

POV: 13-year-old me, obsessed with flying (for years I wanted to grow up to be a naval aviator, and I so much spent time playing Jane's US Navy Fighters video game, another fun romp) and finally getting to pilot a space fighter! (I sometimes jokingly say that the great tragedy of my life is that I'll never be able to join a spacy navy. Thank god for Battlestar Galactica Reruns). 

How was I playing this game? In my bedroom, on a huge clunky Compaq desktop. It ran through MS-DOS (ancient technology). The graphics? A few steps above 8-bit. The sound? Oh the sound card was MIDI, most definitely. 

But it was fun

More Than Just a Space Shooter

Galaga was just a button masher. The Rogue Squadron N64 game? Just a console button masher. You flew and pressed shoot, sometimes launched a missile. 

TIE Fighter, on the other hand, actually made you a pilot. You used an actual joystick. You know, like a pilot. 

But the fun and strategy of this particular game lies in how much control you have over the tools in your cockpit—and you have a lot of it. 

In the top corners, you have scanner screens that tell you who's in front and behind you, so you can juke at opportune times to evade laser fire. 

You have shield and engine gauges, and if you want to go faster, say, you can shunt power from the shields to the engines for an extra boost — and vice versa. Granted, not every ship in the game even has shields, but there are some fun advanced ships that do. 

In the center of your screen is a display that lets you toggle through nearby ships, both friendly and enemy. You can see how much damage they've taken, how far away they are, and their name and cargo, if you get close enough to scan it. 

When you're in the pilot's chair, you have to make a ton of small adjustments and decisions to gain that competitive edge, and you actually feel like you're keeping the wheels on the damn thing just to make it to the end.

You're Just a Hardworking Pilot Trying to Make Their Way in the Galaxy

Before this game came out, there was an X-Wing game, told from the POV of the good guys. It's not as fun! I can't explain it, but becoming a cog in the Imperial navy is so, so much more entertaining. 

You're not just fighting rebels, either. This game surprisingly introduces a more nuanced approach to "the bad guys." As a pilot, you help planets having a civil war, battle space pirates, and root out traitors. Just every day military stuff. 

After each battle, if you're good enough, you obtain decorative ribbons and awards. You can also follow subplots that place you into the Emperor's secret circle — you even get rewarded with special tattoos. 

Did I take pride in my Imperial navy decoration book? 100%. Was I a weird kid? Duh.

A Glimpse into the EU

TIE Fighter also played into the Expanded Universe of Star Wars content (thin though it was in 1994). You see a blotchy, digital Thrawn (and Pellaeon!) throughout the game, fresh off his appearance in the Zahn book trilogy just a few years before. 

Not only do we get Thrawn, we also get our first-ever view of Coruscant! At least, I think it is — would love to know if someone else can find an earlier visual depiction of our favorite capital city-planet. 

Later Iterations

It's amazing how quickly graphic technology progressed in the 90s. Just a few short years later, X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter was released, and the screens were so much clearer and more impressive. The score was instrumental, not MIDI keyboard blops. There was also a multiplayer capacity, but I didn't have good fast internet until I got to college in 2001. 

Then, 2 years ago, I heard they were releasing a modern version for PlayStation called Squadrons. I purchased the game, and then a VR headset, and then also a throttle and joystick. 

It was incredible. You look down wearing the headset and see a body clad in an orange jumpsuit, flying an X-wing through space in full surround-sound and view. 

I only played it for a few months, but it was worth every penny to be able to relive my love of space dogfighting with modern, mind-blowing technology. God bless adult money! High-five, 13-year-old Haley.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning 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.