Thursday, March 23, 2023

Trans Rights Readathon

As you may have seen if you frequent TikTok or Instagram, this week has been declared by many on bookish bits of the internet to be a trans rights readathon, raising awareness of trans stories and authors, and donating to some great causes, all while celebrating some amazing books.

While we may not be page counting or tracking numbers of books read, here at Nerds of a Feather we wanted to do our bit and join in, so we've come up with a list of books we wanted to highlight, celebrate or look forward to that  are by trans or nb authors and/or include trans and nb stories. 

If you are interested in donating, there are also some orgs that could use your support:

Tony's Place

The Transgender Law Centre

The Trevor Project

And here are the books:

From Arturo:

Our Hideous Progeny by C.E. McGill (they/them). 

Doctor Frankenstein’s niece uses his techniques to rebuild dinosaurs. Say no more, I’m sold.

From Fab:

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki (previously reviewed by Adri here)

Ryka Aoki’s debut Light From Uncommon Stars is at its heart a story of trans joy. Set around a legendary violinist who is bound to deliver seven of her students’ souls to hell and an alien-run donut shop in San Francisco, the book introduces readers to Katrina Nguyen, seventh student - and trans woman, shunned by family and friends. Aoki manages to weave a strand of hopeful comfort that draws out moments of acceptance and love in a story that has a lot of potential to be dark. Her greatest strength as an author is to bring out emotions, with the book’s highlight being not a dramatic revelation but the moment Katrina first gets to try on and buy a dress that fits her and is gender-affirming. I cried. That scene alone should have clinched Aoki last year’s Hugo for this novel - which she was up for. It also bears mentioning that she herself is the loveliest, most joyful person I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. She is so thrilled to be a part of this community, to be read and to have written a book that resonates with readers. And that makes me want to get even more people to read this masterpiece. 

From Clara:

The Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy is a superbly imaginative tale of empire and resistance, a science fantasy book in which the space-empire's power is maintained through a central calendar, and when rebels begin to indulge in calendrical heresy, the laws of the universe begin to change. Start with Ninefox Gambit.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone's Full Fathom Five, a novel of the Craft sequence, features Gladstone's typical skill at divine bookkeeping, in an island nation that builds gods to order, except that they keep dying. Kai, a trans woman in charge of building the gods, decides to find out why.

The Vela, by Becky Chambers, SL Huang, Rivers Solomon, Ashley Poston, Yoon Ha Lee, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Sangu Mandanna, and Maura Milan (previously reviewed by Adri here)

In a dying solar system, slowing freezing to death because the sun has been over-mined of hydrogen and is now going out, Asala Sikou, a trans woman, has managed to escape the frozen outer world and build a life for herself on an inner planet that still has some time remaining to it. But when a refugee ship from Asala's home world goes missing, she is instructed to find it, assisted by her employer's non-binary child Niko, for reasons that turn out to be based on a lot less empathy and a lot more capitalism than is wise. Asala and Niko naturally have things to say about that. (available on, highly recommend the audiobook version voiced by Robin Miles)

Nghi Vo's Singing Hills Cycle (previously reviewed by Sean here)

The wandering cleric Chih's job is to collect stories of the land so that the tales can be recorded and remembered by Chih's order. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih comes across the former house of the Empress, and learns from the caretaker of the house about the significance of a selection of objects left behind. Through those objects, the story of the Empress herself is revealed, a powerful, satisfying tale of growth and strength and revenge. In When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Chih is caught by a trio of tigers in a farm on a remote mountainside, and must bargain for their life by telling the tale of a romance between a human and a tiger. The problem is that the tigers already know that tale, and remember it differently from humans.

Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy

Politics, magic, talking animals, a quest to bring back dragons: This is classic high epic fantasy, with tragedy and grandeur and, yes, it must be admitted, some whiney teen boy angst. The world that Hobb has created in this trilogy extends across multiple series in a cycle called the Realm of the Elderlings, and it is exquisitely crafted, with different nations, creatures, politics, and magics. Throughout all the books and trilogies and tales we have the Fool, a gender fluid source of wisdom, a catalyst for events, and a guiding thread that connects everything together.

From Haley:

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke is a wild ride of a novel. Told entirely through a series of Slack transcripts, it follows an employee at an ad agency named Gerald who somehow gets stuck in Slack. Well, his consciousness, anyway. The book follows his attempts to convince his coworkers to rescue him, along with side plots (or side channels) featuring affairs, endless maniacal conversations with the Slackbot AI, and general office place antics. Even though the story is told through multiple group chats, you get to know these fully fleshed out characters — much like you get to know your coworkers in real life on Slack based on their stories, their use of emojis, and even their typing speed. It reads so quickly you'll look up and 100 pages will have flown by, which is an incredible feat. As someone who's super nosy, I loved being able to eavesdrop on so many conversations, especially when the story is as wild as this one. Highly recommended!

From Paul:

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (see his previous review here)

The City in the Middle of the Night proves an intriguing canvas to tell a story of survival, contact, social issues and much more. It is an excellent followup to All the Birds of the Sky, and explores the theme of worlds, and people, needing to change in order to survive.

From Elizabeth:

Wolfpack by Rem Wigmore (see her previous review here)

Wolfpack is a spiky solarpunk that wrestles with questions of leadership and belonging.

From Adri:

The Dawnhounds by Sascha Stronach

This urban fantasy starts with its protagonist, a disgraced queer cop, finding a dead body and then getting murdered herself, and it only gets more fun from there. This is biopunk urban fantasy noir with an Aotearoan twist, a mystery with a cop protagonist which actually reckons with the institutional awfulness of the police force, and it includes one of your new favourite literary pirate crews. What are you waiting for?

From Joe D:

The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas 

This a young adult novel that takes place in the fictional world of Reino del Sol. Every ten years a competition known as the Sunbearer Trials is held to ensure that Sol’s light can be brought to the temples of Reino del Sol to keep the villains at bay. Divided in three tiers, the gods of this world have their place; Golds (the most powerful of the bunch), Jades (less powerful), and Obsidians (the enemies of Reino del Sol). The Trials pits the children of ten Gold and Jade gods against each other in a competition where the winner has the honor of spreading Sol’s light to temples, and the loser must become the willing sacrifice. It has been over one hundred years since a Jade Demi-god has been chosen for the trials due to the power gap between Jades and Golds, but this time, there are two. Led by Teo, a trans male Jade Demi-god, he must use his wits and overcome personal deterrents if he has any chance of keeping out of last place. The Hunger Games adjacent, The Sunbearer Trials is a great read that is perfect for those who like a little competition in their novels!

From Roseanna:

Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles (previously reviewed here)

Deep Wheel Orcadia follows Astrid as she returns to her home station in the fringes of deep space, reacquainting herself with family and old faces and a life she left behind for her studies, and Darling, who finds herself there while running from a life and identity she never wanted, interspersed with snippets of the viewpoints of others who live on the station. It's a haunting and emotionally vivid story told in a collection of poems in the Orkney dialect of Scots, weaving in themes of homecoming and estrangement, love and loss. A skillful synthesis of narrative, poetry and translation, it was one of the most beautiful things I read in 2022, and really quite unlike anything else. You may need to sit with it to digest what you're reading and take it slow to really linger on the poems, but if you do, it's well worth the effort. The audiobook is also beautifully read by the author, and I cannot recommend strongly enough listening to it while reading the physical text at the same time.

If you're interested in more books by trans authors, I'd recommend looking up the hashtag #transrightsreadathon on any social media, as there are loads of creators out there talking about some amazing books and raising money for great causes.

C. E. McGill, Our Hideous Progeny, [Penguin, 2023]
Ryka Aoki, Light From Uncommon Stars, [Tor, 2021]
Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit, [Rebellion, 2016]
Yoon Ha Lee, Raven Stratagem, [Rebellion, 2017]
Yoon Ha Lee, Revenant Gun, [Rebellion, 2018]
Max Gladstone, Full Fathom Five, [Tor, 2014]
Becky Chambers, SL Huang, Rivers Solomon, Ashley Poston, Yoon Ha Lee, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Sangu Mandanna, and Maura Milan, The Vela, [Realm, 2020]
Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, [, 2020]
Nghi Vo, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, [, 2020]
Nghi Vo, Into the Riverlands, [, 2022]
Robin Hobb, Assassin's Apprentice, [Voyager Books, 1995]
Robin Hobb, Royal Assassin, [Voyager Books, 1996]
Robin Hobb, Assassin's Quest, [Voyager Books, 1997]
Calvin Kasulke, Several People are Typing, [Hodder & Stoughton General Division, 2022]
Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night, [Tor, 2019]
Rem Wigmore, Wolfpack, [Queen of Swords Press, 2023]
Sascha Stronach, The Dawnhounds, [Little Hook Press, 2019]
Aiden Thomas, The Sunbearer Trials, [Pan Macmillan, 2022]
Harry Josephine Giles, Deep Wheel Orcadia, [Picador, 2021]

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

Review: The Last of Us (HBO)

 Good adaptation, great show.

Adaptation. A dirty word in the world of video game fandom. How many times have fans been promised a television show or movie that would faithfully depict their beloved intellectual property, only to miss the entire soul of the game they love and bring some shoddy representation to a different medium? Book fans know the feeling and have been dealing with the struggle for a while, knowing how infrequently justice is done in depicting the source material. For video games, that struggle is even worse. A few recent exceptions like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Arcane: League of Legends are wonderful additions to the small list of great video game adaptations, and the legendary Pokemon anime is still going strong. But what of successful live-action adaptations? Well, HBO’s The Last of Us may be the best one yet.

As someone who still highly reveres the original The Last of Us title for its engaging, laser-focused narrative and memorable characters, I was instantly interested in the show. I’ve played every iteration of the game multiple times; The Last of Us (PS3), The Last of Us Remastered (PS4), and The Last of Us Part I (PS5). Normally, I would immediately dismiss the relevance of any video game adaptation due to the history that precedes them, but the more information I gleaned, the more interested I became. The perfect storm of Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann, Playstation, HBO, and a wonderful cast of well-known actors was enough to give a fan hope. Not because The Last of Us needed an adaptation, but because it would be nice to see this world and these characters be brought to a new audience. The Last of Us is a highly cinematic franchise with over five hundred Game of the Year awards (the most for any modern franchise), so it wasn't too difficult to see how this could transition to a passive form of entertainment.

The Last of Us season sne does a lot of things right. The first two episodes are quite similar to the game's opening sequences. The first scene of the first epsiode portrays multiple men on a talk show discussing a potential fungus that could end the world if, god forbid, there was an increase in global temperature. An eerie silence washes over these men as they contemplate the possibilities of such abject destruction of modern society. What seemed a mere talking point becomes a feasible idea, one that makes the viewer and talk show participants pause. A harrowing moment to open the show’s first season, and a fantastic deviation from the source material.

To pull the player into Sarah and Joel’s relationship, they expand Sarah’s role and flesh out her story a bit. This helps create the initial bond needed to pack the show’s first punch. And it is done incredibly well. Considering The Last of Us has one of the best openings in a video game, it was a breath of fresh air to see it carefully recreated for the show. There’s an underlying sense of tension that sticks with the viewer throughout the entire episode, even in the calm moments. An impressive feat, and a reminder to the viewer that no one is ever safe in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. Admittedly, there was a ridiculous moment when an infected popped up from the ground in a silly and uncharacteristic way. A momentary break in immersion. However, before the credits rolled on the first episode and Depeche Mode’s Never Let Me Down Again plays to the view of the coming storm, I felt satisfied. Not only was I pleased with the deviations that did right by the source material, but by the show’s faithfulness to it, and to the overall quality. Joel and Tess received their cargo in the form of a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie, and I was excited to see the next episode.

This feeling of satisfaction continues into the second episode. Again, the introduction of the episode diverges from the show, where we are introduced to a mycology professor (played by the wonderful Christine Hakim) in Jakarta, where the beginning of the outbreak occurred. And just like episode one, this sequence left me with chills. This is also the first episode where the viewer encounters Clickers (the most memorable enemy from the game) for the first time. All I can say is bravo. The costume work, the behaviors, and the sound effects (which are used in the game) work brilliantly and inspire a sense of fear and panic. Not to forget, the underlying tension from the first episode remains here. There’s a heightened fear of being in control of the character who can instantly die from a Clicker. Though a passive media, the show did the confrontation in the museum justice.

As Joel, Tess, and Ellie make their way through the ruins of what was once Boston, the characters unfold before the viewer; their intentions, their mannerisms, and their desire to be doing anything else. The ending of the episode changes from the main characters being surrounded by FEDRA soldiers and instead having a horde of infected come in to finish the job. In doing this, they introduce tendrils; a way for the Cordyceps fungus-infected individuals to communicate over long distances. By killing an infected near a tendril, the protagonists alarm a massive host of infected enemies to their location. There is an odd, rather uncharacteristic, invasive, and bizarre moment with Tess and an infected near the end of the episode that confused me. The scene was certainly horrifying, but also lore-breaking. The overall episode was terrific despite minor missteps and kept me excited for episode three.

Titled “Long, Long Time”, episode three is an interesting case. While the game focuses on Joel, Ellie, and others they meet along the way, the show deviates by taking time away from them to look in on other characters. Episode three is the largest departure from the source material. Instead of having the character Bill reluctantly assist Joel and Ellie on their journey, Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann decided to take Bill’s story in another direction. In what is one of the finest hours of television I’ve seen, Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett put on a beautiful performance of a gay couple surviving in the apocalypse. It’s strong, poignant, and reminiscent of the opening of Pixar’s Up. A tale of love, struggle, and acceptance. My issue then is that has nothing to do with what was going on in the previous two episodes. Episode three puts the plot at a standstill for over an hour. And while they eventually tie everything together, those ties aren't strong enough to justify an entire episode away from our protagonists. As a standalone episode, Long, Long Time may bring you to the verge of tears and consider your mortality, but in the overarching view, it’s just a beautiful bump on the road back to our protagonists.

With Joel and Ellie back in the driver’s seat, the show’s plot moves forward with episode four. This episode sees the protagonists sneaking their way through a rebel-infested Kansas City. A few important moments happen in this episode between Joel and Ellie, like the beginning moments of trust budding between them. This episode uses some of its time to show a departure from in-game Joel to Pedro Pascal’s version; he’s growing old and showing vulnerability. He can't hear as well and needs Ellie’s help to escape a hairy situation. He accepts how useful she can be with a gun and shows her how to use one properly. A big moment in the game, though slightly underwhelming in the show. The primary issue with this episode, and episode five for that matter, is the focus on the character Kathleen (played by Melanie Lynskey). The rebel leader that had overthrown the Kansas City QZ has too much time in the limelight. Every time that part of the plot appeared, I simply wanted to get back the main characters. The character was not a convincing leader and I had difficulty sympathizing with her.

As I got to episode five, and more and more time was spent on this Kathleen character, I realized how much time the viewer missed with Henry and Sam (the two newcomers to the show). A lengthy part of the game is spent with these characters, getting to know them, observing their relationship with the brothers, and the friendship that grows between them and the main protagonists. Instead of simply having two brothers trying to survive the apocalypse, the show tries to force the viewer into a sense of sympathy by making the younger brother (Sam) deaf, and eventually revealing that he had Leukemia. It’s a weight that doesn't need to be there. Sam being deaf wasn't much of an issue, but it made it difficult—with the amount of time given—for the viewer to bond with his character. Instead of sympathizing with him as a character, we are merely sympathizing with him for his plight, which I think is much weaker than what is presented in the game. Had less time been spent on Kathleen’s story, I feel like it could have been fleshed out better. That said, Keivon Woodard and Lamar Johnson (Sam and Henry’s actors) put on a great performance. The penultimate scene of this episode puts on a bit more dramatic flair than is necessary and creates a bit of a deus ex machina that is only briefly mentioned in the previous episode. The final scene, however, is spot on.

After a traumatic ending to episode five, episode six sees Joel and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) reunited. This episode again, shows a more vulnerable Joel, speeding up much of his character development to ensure a connection with the viewer. I found this to be one of the weaker moments in the episode. The memorable scene between Joel and Ellie, however, is handled beautifully. It’s well-acted and takes lines from the game, word for word. The final scene leaves a bit to be desired compared the intense escape for survival portrayed in the game, but it leaves the episode on a cliffhanger…

Which isn't continued until episode eight. But before that, there’s episode seven. Which, like episode three, puts the main plot on freeze. Entitled “Left Behind”, episode three is a flashback to when Ellie got attacked by an infected. The episode itself is well done and explores the relationship between Ellie and her best friend Riley, but where the game hovers back and forth between its main narrative and the flashback, the show is wholly focused on the past. Leaving the viewer hungry for more, then dangling the present story in front of them while they tell another is an interesting tactic. Doing it two times in a season that has only nine episodes is rather foolish.

Once we get back to the present, we meet a new character David (Scott Shepherd). A leader of a local settlement who has more to him than is initially revealed. David reveals to Ellie that he is kind, yet violent. That he wants to lead, and he wants her beside him. A man in his fifties, and he's trying to court a fourteen-year-old girl. The entire sequence is unsettling, and Bella Ramsey (Ellie) counters Shepherd’s David perfectly for an entrancing episode. Without a doubt one of the season’s best. A return to form from the first two episodes.

The finale of The Last of Us is, unfortunately, the shortest one. It’s packed full of action and successfully wraps up the story between Joel and Ellie, even if it feels rushed at times. There’s a specific moment in the show where the show writers bludgeon the viewer with their messaging. In the game, Joel’s progress is easily noted in his actions and his shift of tone. He doesn't have to say, “You saved me,” because you feel each action takes the characters to where they are. The show also makes a point of showing that Joel’s decision is more justified in saving Ellie. The bloodbath that occurs close to the end of the episode leaves the viewer with a more solid perspective on Joel and his willingness to kill for what he wants. When the final lines of the show are uttered, they pack less of a punch than they do in the game, but they’re still powerful. Nine episodes spent (well, seven really) building trust between these two characters, all to end on a massive lie. One that needs to be swallowed by Ellie. And both Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey finish strong.

Some of the deviations enhance the story of The Last of Us, like the beginnings of episodes one and two, as well as the intro to episode nine, which sees Ashley Johnson (Ellie’s voice actress in the games) play Ellie’s mother. Some deviations, like episode three, bring an interesting perspective that enhances the lore but also damages the pacing. Then there are the bad deviations, like the Kathleen storyline in episodes four and five. Despite all the changes, the core of The Last of Us is here. As an adaptation, it does a great, though imperfect, job of representing the characters I’ve loved so much over the last ten years. As a tv show itself, it's fantastic. One of my favorites in recent years. Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann did a terrific job adapting this project to television. And though I would have liked to have seen more infected encounters throughout the season, the overall character arcs and performances were handled well. Whenever they announce a season two, I eagerly await not only the show itself but the fan response to it. If they do as well with season two as they did with one, viewers are in for quite the spectacle (and quite the debate as well). The Last of Us is never bad, and frequenelty great. It’s weaker than its video game counterpoint at times. In some cases, it outshines the game, and that’s something to be applauded.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonus: +1 for some clever, lore-buffing deviations. +1 fantastic performances. +1 for creating an underlying sense of dread and tension. +1 for Clickers.

Penalties: -2 for trying to manufacture sympathy. -1 for two pace halting episodes. -1 for Kathleen storyline/character.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Review: Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee

 Giant birds are cool - let's go hunt monsters! Now with bonus EmotionsTM.

Untethered Sky is a brief, beautiful novella that packs in themes of family, love, loss and belonging, all under the wing (ha) of a compelling plot about training giant birds to fight monsters.

Ester is a trainee rukher in the royal mews, ready to move to the next stage and try to tame a newly captured wild roc. Once she completes the first, dangerous step in bonding with her charge, she'll be sent out to hunt the manticores that plague the countryside, and there is nothing she wants more in life than this. She's a young woman dedicated to a dream, surrounded by a precious few who understand her obsession, and holding deep in her heart the reason she left her family behind to follow this path. We watch her take those steps into the life she's dreamed of, and watch the relationships she develops with the people - and giant birds - around her as she grows into that life and her own self.

Untethered Sky is a perfect example of what a novella should be - beautifully self-contained, efficient and neat. Fonda Lee uses the shortness of the form as a boon, not a burden, so tightens in the focus on Ester, her perspective, her emotions and her struggles, leaving us deeply embedded in how she views her own life. It's not a book that throws the big drama at you right away, and not one for dramatic, sweeping emotional moments, but it has a quiet certainty that builds as you read, and leaves you in an emotional chokehold by the end of the story. All the more impressive when it does it in only 160 pages.

The viewpoint we get, then, is a very narrow one - just Ester, her two closest friends, and her bird, with brief moments and appearances from others as required. It's this triad of friendship, with the only people who can really understand what she cares about, that is the focus of the first half of the story, though we expand out a little as we go on. And again, that close focus is such a boon to this novel, because in so little space, we get such a good understanding of the three characters, how they interact, and the bittersweetness of this period of their relationships.

Because this isn't a happy fun novel of monster-hunting adventures. It's more a story about growing up, especially emotionally, and about losses of various different kinds. It's a story that's interested in the complexities of friendship dynamics, and how people can behave in perfectly reasonable ways that nonetheless hurt even those closest to them, and the guilt we can feel for our actions that drives us, no matter how unreasonable it may seem on the outside.

What is also does, which I found particularly interesting, is to tell it from the perspective of a character who could so, so easily have been a secondary character in a story told a slightly different way. Ester is great, and interesting, and a lovely, flawed person whose head we ride inside. But Ester is, in a certain light, not really the protagonist of the events we see. And so we're seeing only one particular side of these events, one particular slant on them.

And, of course, that's true of any story. But it is a well-managed thing that Lee has crafted her story such that it works, it stands alone and as itself, and is interested and balanced and complex... while at the same time, leaving us with a lingering feeling that this isn't the main event, or the close view. We're looking in at the window, instead of riding in the front seat, and that's fascinating. To play with the audience's perspective like that, and to do it without being heavy-handed or obvious, is such a delicate, skillful thing, and it was a joy to read.

Unsurprisingly for the author of The Green Bone Saga, the world Lee has created here is also fabulous. But again, the brilliance of it comes through in the fact that there are only 160 pages in which to do it. Lee has given us a world inspired by historic Persia, but she has mainly done so in little parts here and there, rather than focussing on it. We see satraps and fire rites, of a king and the manticores that plague his kingdom, but none of these are foregrounded, instead just moments that enrich the main story of Ester and her obsession and her life. It is surprisingly well-fleshed for how little actual page-time is dedicated to it, and once again it is a testimony to Lee's deftness in craft. 

It's also a setting we see less often in fantasy, and one which felt just as ripe for that extra flourish of the fantastical as any of the other historical settings we see more often.

If I have one critique of the story, it is that the foreshadowing at times is quite heavy-handed, and perhaps feels more weighty than the events that later happen actually deserve. That being said, logically, some of it is genuinely catastrophic from the characters' perspective, so the problem is more that, having had the foreshadowing, the actual events are not made to feel quite so dramatic in the moment for the reader. But it's a very minor gripe, and one that did not really spoil the narrative at all for me.

Over all, I think Lee has crafted a poignant, beautiful novella, rich in emotion, and one that exists in such a perfect, neat form that it could only ever have been as it is. Some stories do not need a full novel to explore, and are better for their brevity - we inhabit them for a moment, focussing on a small window or time, or a specific idea or emotion, without the core of the narrative or themes being muddied by wider context. This is precisely one of those stories, and I hope we see more standalone novellas from Fonda Lee in the future, if this is what they're going to look like.


The Math

Highlights: impossible to put down while reading, beautiful world-building, big sads

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Fonda Lee, Untethered Sky [Macmillan, 2023]

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Review: Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

A character study about the hubris of believing you can cheat hubris

I'm afraid the fashionable trend of referring to people as "bodies" is incorrigible by now. What began as a specific usage in Academese with a specific meaning has finally completed its migration into literary language, where it stands out from the text like a record scratch in a soundtrack. If you can summon the patience to put up with dozens of instances of this lexical affectation, you'll have a pleasant time reading Lee Mandelo's otherwise fascinating novella Feed Them Silence.

Set in a near future beset by ongoing environmental collapse, Feed Them Silence tells the story of Sean, a neuroscience researcher in a failing marriage, and a wolf called Kate, a member of the last surviving pack in the wild and Sean's object of study. As part of a last-resort attempt to make people actually care for endangered species, Sean et al. have developed a neural implant that transmits the sum of Kate's wolfy sensations and emotions into Sean's head. The hope of this ethical minefield of a study is that, by making an animal's inner experience publicly known, enough empathy will be sparked to mobilize stronger support for conservation programs. However, before Sean's investigation yields any publishable findings, it becomes clear that downloading a wolf's consciousness onto a human brain should come with a lengthy warning label. What this mental connection does to Sean and how her human connections change as a result of Kate's influence is the main focus of the story.

One recurring preoccupation in Feed Them Silence is the question of who is invading whom. From the inside of her fancy telepathic machine, Sean believes she's bored a peephole into the wolf's mind, but the process could be just as accurately described as the wolf's experiences supplanting Sean's. If you're going to pretend that scientific observation can be passive, you're going to have to deal with what "passive" entails: to know something is to let it change you. Is Sean still Sean while the content of her subjectivity is being replaced with that of another mind?

That question can be rephrased as: can Sean truly know what it's like to be a wolf? But then we'd be joining a discussion that started half a century ago and remains unresolved. Fortunately for the reader, Feed Them Silence isn't so much a story about the metaphysics of consciousness as one about the ethics of interaction. Sean et al. are well aware that Kate didn't, and couldn't, articulate an informed opinion about the prospect of having a chip put in her brain for someone to spy on her thoughts. This whole mission to engender empathy relies on an act of aggression. In trying to foster cooperation between humans and animals, Sean has had to commit the deepest breach of trust.

The book acknowledges this paradox with open eyes, as do researchers in the real world. Our natural communication barrier renders lab animals more vulnerable than human volunteers, and yet it is that same communication barrier which makes a laxer ethical standard necessary for animal experimentation to be doable at all. A mouse can't tell you whether it wants its belly cut open, but precisely because you can't ask it about its dinner, you have to cut its belly open.

In the case of Kate the wolf, the paradox is compounded by layers of dramatic irony. The neural implant was put in her without asking how she felt about it, but the direct communication that the implant provides makes it now possible to know exactly how she feels about it. But even with that level of access to Kate's mind, what good does it do? It's still mediated by a radio signal, and processed by Sean's human brain; and the people Sean wishes to convince of Kate's inherent worth will only know her wolfy feelings as expressed in human words. The book refers multiple times to the preverbal, intuitive, visceral quality of the data received by Sean's brain, but the reader can only learn about it from the words in the book. Feed Them Silence thus becomes an illustration of the paradox attributed to the sophist Gorgias: things can't be known, and even if they are somehow known, they can't be communicated—the paradox being that such a statement is itself the communication of something known. Literature is the art of going inside someone's head; to write a story about the impossibility of truly going inside someone's head is the ultimate form of dramatic irony.

So let's talk about a singing cat for a moment.

At the end of The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, Mowgli the man-cub feels a sudden urge to abandon his wolf pack and return to human society. As a farewell ceremony, his animal friends sing a song of well-wishing. The panther's part includes these verses:

Feed them silence when they seek
help of thine to hurt the weak.

The reference to this line in the title of the novella does quite a bit of heavy lifting. As a human who can understand the speech of wolves, Mowgli is the ideal of empathy that Sean aspires to. And the panther can be read as Mowgli's mirror image: an animal who can understand humans. The farewell song is made of moral maxims intended to keep Mowgli in good terms with the natural world even after he's reintegrated into civilization. In this context, "to hurt the weak" alludes to the imbalance of power between humans and animals, and the request to "feed them silence" means to deny humans the use of the fruits of that imbalance of power.

In other words, Sean's method of research, conceived as a means to oppose the domination of nature, can easily become another form of domination. The findings of her study could be packaged and monetized as an entertainment gadget instead of a tool of political action. Empathy, the altruistic sharing of pain, can be twisted into a selfish extraction of pleasure. And here's where the novella reaches thematic completion: the point where the political meets the erotic.

Intersubjective attunement taken to the point of feeling exactly what the other is feeling is the Holy Grail of eroticism. Sean's link to Kate isn't blatantly described in those terms, but it's impossible to miss the intense desire that such intimate connection produces in Sean. In one scene, Sean's therapist directly compares her marital difficulties with the undemanding presence of an always available object of desire who can't refuse, can't reject, can't withhold, can't leave. But even through her deliberately unidirectional channel of communication, the power that Sean exerts over the wolf is complicated by the power that the wolf begins to exert over Sean. Just like with knowing, to desire something is to let it change you.

In a short wordcount, Feed Them Silence explores convoluted questions of epistemic justice and proposes a scenario where the standard intuitions fail to offer full solutions. Your mind may not know whose mind you're visiting while reading it, but one sure thing is that your mind will have been changed by the experience.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Reference: Mandelo, Lee. Feed Them Silence [Tor, 2023].

Monday, March 20, 2023

Review: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

 A surprisingly emotionally complex novel about the stories we are told about the world around us, and how those stories survive contact with our own experiences of life.

Kyr has grown up on Gaea Station knowing that she and her fellows are the last scraps of humanity, their asteroid the solitary bastion of a destroyed world and culture, holding out against a hostile universe that killed their planet. She's one of the best fighters of her generation, and knows she's destined for one of the elite military roles when she finishes her training. Kyr is, more or less, happy with her lot.

Then her brother, her shining, perfect soldier brother, disappears, and she's relegated to a role she never thought would be hers. Everything about the life she thought she'd live and the world around her comes crashing down, and she is forced to seek out her brother's strange, irreverent, potentially seditious friend and a captive alien to find the answers to her newfound questions. When she leaves the station that's been the only home she's ever known, she begins to understand that what she's been taught is only part of the story, and that the world outside her own is a more complex place than she ever thought possible.

Unsurprisingly, given the title, Some Desperate Glory is a story about war and propaganda, and about the complexities of conflict. It's a story about the beliefs we're raised with, the stories we tell ourselves to survive, and growing up to realise that maybe, just maybe, what you've been taught isn't necessarily all that's out there.

It is also a stunning, surprising, intensely compelling novel, and an unflinching character view of someone with some really quite unpleasant beliefs.

It is a story that asks - what would it be like, to be someone brought up to believe the propaganda? What would it be like, to think you're the best of the best, and have a duty and a destiny to fight, to kill, even if triumph is beyond you, because everything outside of your own little world is evil, and lesser, and alien, in a literal and a figurative sense?

It's not a fun story, let me put it that way.

But, difficult and uncomfortable though it is, it is a fascinating story and a unique one, and not just because of its chosen character perspective. Tesh plays with our expectations throughout the story, and balances some interesting chronology choices - the closest parallel I can think of isn't another novel, but the game Bravely Default - and, critically, the gorgeous prose that made Silver in the Wood such a joy to read. Though here she's bringing to life the dull corridors of a space station, the algal bloom on an alien world and the vivid experience of fighting for your life in a simulated battle, something of the wonder that she wrote into the woodland of the Greenhollow duology is still here. There's a magic to the world she writes, and it brings a joy even to the grim and gritty parts of the universe she's written.

The pacing too, and those interesting chronology choices, are well handled (though they may not always seem it in the moment). Reading as an e-book, I had a couple of double takes, thinking the book was almost over and then... oh not there's 40% left? Huh? But once you reach the end, it all slots into place, and I honestly cannot fault the choices. Trust the process.

And this is all great, but in my opinion, the truly, bafflingly best bit of this whole story is the character of Kyr herself. Because Kyr... isn't very nice. Kyr isn't good, or pleasant, or particularly likeable. She's definitely not charming. On paper, Kyr is primed to be hateable. And yet... I never could. I was so embedded in her thoughts, in the way she was experiencing the events of the story, that I could never find it in myself to truly rage at her, not matter how much I disliked or disagreed with her opinions and actions. More than any sad emo boy with a sword, Kyr is an anti-hero how they ought to be done, morally tainted to her core and thoroughly compelling in her journey.

Because the book is, for the most part, about that emotional and moral journey Kyr is undertaking. It's not quick, it's not easy, and it makes it all the more satisfying, because the reality of these sorts of changes isn't the lightswitch moment of revelation we get in many stories. People don't become different people overnight. People don't necessarily become different or better people for the right reasons. Sometimes it needs to be personal for them to see what's really going on, no matter how we may judge them for it needing to be there.

Though we are settled very firmly in her perspective, this doesn't cut us off completely from the other main characters, all of whom bring something to the table and play off each other really well. Kyr's squadron mates are an eclectic bunch, and being able to see how they relate to Kyr - sometimes before Kyr realises it for herself - is really enjoyable. Her brother isn't the most exciting man in the universe, but his friend certainly makes up for that, and provides one of the best counterpoints in opinion and just vibe that Kyr gets through the whole story.

And it's a book that's really thinking about how the environment would shape the characters. They all fit - or do not - so perfectly in the world that made them, and it's very clear why they've become the people they have, responded to the pressures of the world as they have. Whenever I come to imagining them all, I can only think that Tesh has put so much careful, considered deliberation into who and how they all are, and it's great.

Which is somewhat my overall impression of the book - down to the last detail, it has been considered and thought over and examined from different angles to make sure each piece fits neatly into the whole. 

Safe to say, then, that I loved the book. But I don't think it's going to be one for everyone. There are moments in the story when we have to watch something really difficult occurring, and deal with the fact our perception of it as the reader isn't necessarily going to align with our viewpoint into it. You have to be willing to sit with some ugliness, some just wrongness, to get through past it and see the story for its value in the end. Which, for me, was worth it, and at no point did I feel like Tesh was letting you think those opinions were right. There's no apologism here. But that doesn't always make it easy or worthwhile, so if you're going in, go in aware that it's not a happy fun light joyful time.

But if the grim and awful - which gets, at times, really grim and awful - and sitting inside the head of a character thinking deeply unpleasant thoughts at times is something you can get through? I truly think this is a fantastic book, and likely set to be one of my best reads of the year.


The Math

Highlights: interesting chronology choices, a proper morally grey main character and a real sense of thoughtfulness about the political landscape of the space future world

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory [Little Brown Book Group, 2023]

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

Friday, March 17, 2023

Recap: The Last of Us Episode 9 — Look for the Light

Content warning: Spoilers for this episode and the entire season; brief discussion of suicide. 

Short and brutal season finale sees our heroes making impossibly hard choices in the name of love — at the cost of the truth.

Avid fans of The Last of Us have had a week to emotionally prepare for this final episode, all while knowing it was going to be a shockingly brief 43 minutes — the shortest running time of any episode this entire season. 

We See Where Ellie Gets Her Badass-ness

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Ellie’s mom, Anna, played by Ashley Johnson, who provided motion capture and voice acting in the original 2013 video game. As someone who’s played the game several times, I went absolutely feral when I got to hear new curses and grunts from the voice of Ellie. Having video game-Ellie play TV-show-Ellie’s mom imbues Bella Ramsey’s portrayal with even more gravitas — Ashley created and shaped the character, but Bella is perfecting it. 

The episode opens with a harrowing foot chase as an in-labor Anna eludes shrieking, off-screen Infected through a forest. She enters a farmhouse just as her water breaks, and collapses against a wall as she begins the process of giving birth.

A Post-Apocalyptic Birth Gone Horribly Wrong

In modern-day America, giving birth is one of the most dangerous activities a woman will ever engage in. In a post-apocalyptic hellscape, can you imagine how unlikely it would be to go off without a hitch? No running water, no epidurals, no clean bed. And in this case, no one to even help deliver the baby. 

This episode, we had been promised, was going to be the origin story of why Ellie is immune to the cordyceps virus. Just as Ellie comes out, Anna is bitten by a runner on the thigh. She grabs her switchblade — a visual leitmotif that will run throughout the entire episode — and cuts the umbilical cord to prevent the virus from spreading. 

And there we have it — this is the reason why Ellie can be bitten and not turn. Her immunity is spoken of as an impossible occurrence throughout the season by everyone who learns of it. Does this mean Anna was the only person ever to be bitten just as she gave birth? Is that the only way immunity happens? It also leads to other, weirder thought experiments. Would an infected 5-month pregnant person ever give birth? Would the baby be stuck inside a tiny Infected fetus? What if Anna had chosen to breastfeed the newborn Ellie? Would that have changed her from immune to simply infected? 

Your Legacy Is a Switchblade 

Anna’s involvement with the fireflies is made apparent as Marlene enters the house to find Anna cradling Ellie. Marlene, we find out, has been friends with Anna their entire lives. As a final favor, she asks Marlene to save her daughter— to make sure she knows her name is Ellie, that she finds care, and that she’s given her switchblade. This brief moment hit me in the gut. Imagine a world where your only inheritance is the knife that your mother killed a fungus-infected human just as you were being born. 

Your life is owed to this knife, and you, in turn, will carry it around with you as you grow into a young adult yourself, using it to kill the same creatures that are plaguing humanity. Luke Skywalker has his lightsaber. Indiana Jones has his whip. Ellie has her switchblade. Anna then asks her friend to kill her, a final act of mercy from Marlene now that Ellie has been shepherded away by a soldier. Marlene refuses initially out of love, and for a brief moment, you wonder if she will let her friend become a hideous, twisted version of herself. 

You picture a postpartum Anna doomed to turn into a runner, then wander through the house for years. Would she turn into a clicker? Before you can continue down this depressing thought spiral, Marlene returns and shoots her. This is Ellie’s origin story. Her birthright is a violent act of love. 

Boggle, Giraffes, and a Promise 

We shift to the present, finding Joel and Ellie entering Salt Lake City, where they’ll find their final destination, the Firefly hospital. Joel has recovered from his shiv wound, and Ellie is physically okay after her ordeal with David, but she is definitely not emotionally okay. She is aloof, distant, and sad, despite Joel’s new-found emotional availability. 

He finds a Boggle game so they can play later, and he talks about teaching her guitar. The two have switched roles — he is becoming more emotionally available, and she is shutting down. They are so, so close to completing their goal, and Ellie, it seems, may believe that their future is not set in stone, despite saying that she’ll follow him wherever he goes. (This made me tear up, a la “where you go, I will go” from Fried Green Tomatoes). 

She doubles down when he offers them the choice of just going back to Jackson, with its enticing warm food, electricity, and movie nights. No matter what, she tells him, they have to finish the drill. You can almost picture in Ellie’s head Riley, Henry, Sam, Tess — people whose deaths she wants to make mean something with her immunity. 

Moments after making this solemn and very adult declaration of determination, we see that Ellie is, however, still a child. While crossing through an abandoned building, she discovers a wild horde of giraffes grazing in a baseball field, and gets close enough to feed one. (Shocker — they used a real giraffe! The entire time I watched this scene I kept thinking “Wow, that’s some good CGI!”). This is a tender moment where Ellie gets to experience the childlike awe of a spotted leopard horse with an impossibly long neck. 

Giraffes are wild-looking, even to our modern sensibilities, so imagine a child born after the breakdown of society getting to meet one. Ellie has many firsts in the show, including a first car ride, but meeting a giraffe is incredibly special. 

Choices, and Who Gets to Make Them 

As they approach the hospital, our duo gets overtaken by Fireflies, and Joel wakes up in the hospital. Ellie, he is told by Marlene, is getting prepped for surgery. Joel instantly knows what's up, and says “Not her.” It’s here where the idea of choice comes into play. 

Ellie didn’t know that she was going to undergo surgery, and she definitely didn’t know that she wasn’t going to make it out alive. (The cordyceps virus grows in the brain, so the procedure would necessitate brain surgery she wouldn’t survive). Some argue that Ellie, had she been told, would still have agreed to do it. 

Her devotion to the cause would give her life meaning. But Joel, who has acknowledged his feelings, cannot, will not let this happen to his baby girl. It’s not just love for Ellie driving him. Like Bill, his role and purpose in life has become protector again, and he cannot lose this. The last time he lost his purpose — Sarah — he almost died by suicide. 

Marlene spares his life, gives him Ellie’s switchblade (there it is again) and instructs two soldiers to walk him to the interstate. Joel, as we expect, attacks them and begins making his way to the operating room to save Ellie. This part of the video game is very long, and it requires you to kill dozens of Fireflies. It’s also a tough level, difficulty-wise, and it took me probably a few hours to clear it. 

Who Decides Who Lives or Dies? 

Here’s the fascinating thing, though: It wasn’t until watching this episode that I felt conflicted about all of the deaths Joel rains upon the Fireflies. He is brutal, and ruthless, and methodical. When a soldier puts his hands up asking for mercy, Joel shoots him anyway. By the time he gets to the OR, he has murdered at least a dozen people. 

This is one of the reason why the show is so much more emotionally devastating than the game. Human expressions and gestures will always outperform the uncanny valley of digital renderings. Did I cry and feel moved at the video game? Of course. But the show is next-level emotion with world-class acting. 

The way he walks slowly and changes out weapons and loads in ammo is calm, cool, and collected. He’s on a mission to save his daughter. But I couldn’t help but think about the mass shootings in America today. What’s the difference? One man’s will against a group of people. Of course, victims of mass shootings tends to be innocent bystanders — children, teachers, concertgoers. The Fireflies, on the other hand, are a paramilitary organization.

But are the lives of these soldiers worth less than one little girl? When he opens the door to see Ellie lying anesthetized at the table, the surgeon tries to stop him. Joel kills him. He grabs Ellie from the table and leaves the hospital, having left carnage in his wake. He encounters Marlene in the parking garage, and she tries to stop him, as well. 

She tells him that she alone knows the cost of what she is doing, having promised Ellie’s mother she’d care for her. Joel kills her, too, the final obstacle to their escape. He can't risk anyone coming after them, either.

Wanting to Believe 

Ellie awakes in the back of their stolen car, as they speed away from Salt Lake City back to Jackson. Joel lies to her, saying that they didn’t need her after all, and that the hospital was attacked by raiders. She doesn’t quite understand, but falls back asleep, exhausted. 

Fast forward a few days. The car has broken down, and they have to make the last few miles on foot. At this point, Joel is positively ebullient as he talks openly about Sarah — the most we’ve seen thus far in the show. You can tell how excited he is about the future, about spending time with Ellie in Jackson in a functioning society.

Ellie knows something is up, and on a promontory overlooking the promised land of Jackson, asks him to swear that everything happened as he said it did. She knows he’s lying, but wants desperately to believe him — believe in him. He doesn’t miss a beat, and swears it. After all, he’s done, this short lie is the least of his bad deeds. If the did discuss the truth, she would have said that he took away her choice, her meaning. 

But the Fireflies did the same thing by not telling her she would die. Who trumps? It’s impossible to say, just as it’s impossible to know whether the Fireflies’ surgery would have been successful. Her death, then, would have been all for naught. 

What’s Next? 

The show ends abruptly at this scene, and we can only assume they head to Jackson and start a relatively normal life together. For video game players, we know what happens, but for TV viewers, it’s all up in the air. As someone who’s played both games, I can only say one thing: I really recommend finding a way to play the sequel, if you can. Spoilers abound, and it’s going to be a long two years before the next season, baby girl. 

The Math 

Baseline Score: 8/10 
Bonuses: +1 Ashley Johnson (the original Ellie in the game) is fantastic; real-life giraffes!; incredible readings from Ellie’s joke book; a morally gray but loving choice in the final minutes.
Penalties: -1. Only 43 minutes! This could have been stretched out into a two-parter, for sure.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. Video game nerds gets incredible payoff and extra details that add to, not detract, from the original story. 

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A cohost of Hugo-nominated podcast Hugo, Girl!,  she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review: A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon

 Sometimes the need to live up to the hype is what undermines the book.

I have heard Samantha Shannon referred to as the "sapphic daddy" for The Priory of the Orange Tree, and credited to an extent with kickstarting the current trend of lesbian high fantasy. Whether that's true or not is by the by, but the sentiment exists. Especially in the wake of the success of the sapphic trifecta (The Jasmine Throne, The Unbroken and She Who Became the Sun), and the sudden resurge of popularity of The Priory of the Orange Tree on tiktok. And, riding off the back of this surge in popularity, comes the new prequel - A Day of Fallen Night.

If you watch the tiktoks, you will notice a pattern in a lot of them - praise for the worldbuilding, the sapphic relationship, and also a number of people urgently wanting to reassure you that while it looks like a heckin' chonker of a book, it's really not that bad, honestly, truly it isn't. There's a whole microgenre of tiktoks that are people telling you books you may already have read that have a longer wordcount than it. The enormity of it has become part of the mystique and the selling point. And so it's no surprise that A Day of Fallen Night is also enormous. She is, as the kids say, thicc. And why shouldn't she be? If we cannot be sprawling and epic in high fantasy of all places, where can we be? But that chonkitude has, I think, come at something of a cost here. It's a slow book, and frankly, a book that feels bogged down by unnecessary fluff. It feels, if I'm being honest, like it's been made so big purely to fit into the brand that Priory created, rather than as necessitated by the story it wants to tell.

And that story is a good one! It's not all doom and gloom here. We follow primarily four viewpoint characters through a time 500 years before the story of Priory, when the world is becoming hotter and drier, and strange forces seem to be awakening. A mysterious plague has sprung up, spreading through the lands, and terrifying beasts are awakening from the dark recesses of the world. The viewpoints are arrayed initially at the four points of the compass, showing us the way this threat affects various places, and giving us different understandings and approaches to such mystical and deadly forces. These four characters are all close to, but not holding, great temporal power, and allow us to watch the political machinations that ensue from all the chaos. They're also all pretty compelling as people.

We have Glorian, the young princess of Inys, whose bloodline supposedly holds in check a great beast once vanquished by her ancestor the Saint, and who must, at all costs, produce an heir to that bloodline, as well as help her mother bolster their unshaky rule after a run of weak or terrible rulers before them.

Then there's Wulf, housecarl to the great uniter of the northern kingdom of Hróth, but originally from Inys, keen to prove himself and hoping to escape the dark rumours that have followed him everywhere since he was found abandoned at the edge of the supposedly haunted wood at the heart of the kingdom.

Then Tunuva, a sister of the priory of the orange tree, a woman trained from birth to defend the world against the great beast she knows Glorian's ancestor had no part in defeating, alongside her sisters, but also a woman carrying with her an old, old hurt in her heart that she cannot bear to let go, and trying, with her partner Esbar, to steer their daughter into good decisions as she grows to adulthood.

And finally Dumai, a godsinger living at the top of a mountain, waiting for the return of the ancient Seiikinese gods from the ages long slumber, wanting nothing more than to succeed her mother as the most senior of their number at the temple, and to climb the mountain with her closest friend, Kanifa.

All four are pulled into the threads of the great threat to the world, and must play their often disparate parts in trying to defeat it, or at least survive it.

And in that, the book is interesting - Shannon herself has talked about how this is not just a novel of defeating evil, but of enduring, of living through it. And that does show at points - the world, as is so often the case in epic fantasy, faces a threat absolutely insurmountable to mortal means, and maybe some part of how those threats are dealt with has to simply be getting through them. To survive is to win. And that is, at points in the story, something of a novelty and a boon.

But it is also part of the problem - because the characters are called to endure, to survive this thing they cannot possibly vanquish, they are at times stripped of agency. Which is part of the interest, but which leaves them unable to drive the novel forwards with the pace something of this size desperately needs. Especially during the middle third, the pace feels boggy and slow, and the various threads the characters are wandering along feel meandering and irrelevant. You know they'll resolve, because they always do, but it makes it a much less fun journey when they don't feel as if they will. And this feeds into the feeling that the book has been made long simply to be long. It covers the span of several years, and maybe, just maybe, we don't need such a long view? Maybe we can hurry things up, just a little bit.

It is also let down by the need for many of its arc-readers to reassure people that yes, you absolutely can read it if you've never read Priory, of course you can. And... yes, I suppose, technically, that's true. But so much of what is meaningful in this story landed for me precisely because Priory had already done the work for it. Yes, it is reiterated here, but none of that repetition managed to do for me what Priory did and infuse a sense of wonder and mystery into the world, and an appreciation that this ancient danger that threatens the whole of that world might be real and imminent.

What it instead does - and does well - is embellish what Priory did before. It adds richness to a world you already know. In my opinion, the Inys storyline in Priory is the best fleshed out one, and thus it is Inys I most remember. So getting to see more of Inys, and the ancestors (and indeed, namesake) of the queen I read first is a delight. Shannon has not lost her touch for worldbuilding - her Inys is one that feels reminiscent of both England of old and the England of myth and legend, and that balance of the real and the magical is one of the best parts, for me, of both Priory and A Day of Fallen Night. She's... less good at the world outside of fantasy-medieval-England, and the people there, though never without commitment to the world she's creating. It is always rich, and deep, and obviously thought through, there are just occasionally some choices that make me go "hmmm". What she has done here, however, is to swivel the focus a little less closely onto Inys, and give the other places in her world that bit more time to breathe, thus lifting them a little compared to how they fared in Priory. It's not perfect, but it's better, and in parts very good, and if immersive, sprawling and rich worldbuilding in a fairly traditional epic fantasy world (though one that does admit to and embrace the existence of places outside of Europe) is what you seek more than anything, this book is likely for you, especially if you've read Priory and want to inhabit that world longer, and pick up some threads of histories mentioned briefly there, and to understand some parts of it more.

But as a new book, for someone who hasn't read its predecessor? I'm not so sure. I think it's a book more concerned with fitting itself into the particular little legend of Priory, both in-story and in the meta, than in creating a standalone masterpiece. And that's fine. Just don't let the people who love it convince you it's anything else. And don't necessarily expect the drama of the plot or the people be what carries the most weight here. In my view, the primary purpose of A Day of Fallen Night is in that worldbuilding, in that creation of more content in Inys, and in Seiiki, and in all the other places we saw or heard about in Priory, and it is only in the secondary that it's concerned with a strong plot, or compelling character relationships. It lacks the substance that the central romance of Priory managed, because while there are romance threads, and the characters involved in them are individually delightful or interesting or complex, none of them have that focussed, slow burn chemistry that came through in Priory. Which, for me, is a real shame, as that was one of the things I really took and remembered from it.

On the whole, while I mostly enjoyed reading it, I definitely kept coming up for air with a sense that his really did not need to be quite as big, and slow and lumbering as it has ended up being, and wondering if the mythos of the first book has found its way into the creation of the second. I think there is a tighter, more elegant book that could have existed in the place of A Day of Fallen Night's place, but it's not what we go. If you go in wanting world building, wanting sprawl and slowness and to just sit in and immerse in the world? Then it may well be what you want. But it lacks, for me, the special something that made Priory sing, despite its flaws (A Day of Fallen Night is, by far, the better paced of the two, without the dramatic frenzy of happenings at the end that Priory has), and so I never felt I loved it, despite its connections. For me, it did not live up to the quite intense hype I've seen it get, and for that, I am a little sad.


The Math

Highlights: a re-examination of the lore of a well-constructed world, a genuinely interesting cast of varied characters, an interest in the place of motherhood in an epic fantasy narrative, sapphic as heck

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference:  Samantha Shannon, A Day of Fallen Night [Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2023]

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

New Contributors

We are excited to announce that Nerds of a Feather is growing. Today we welcome four new writers to the flock. You’ll be seeing much more from them in the coming weeks and months, but for now, here is a quick introduction to who they are and what they are about.

Chris Garcia? You mean the archivist, curator, film festival programmer, fanzine editor, professional wrestling enthusiast, painter, true crime writer, podcaster, and father of 2? The one from Boulder Creek, CA? The one that won the Hugo for Best Fanzine a couple of times? The guy with the hair? Oh, he's @johnnyeponymous on all the social media!

Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She has no memory of watching Star Wars for the first time — it’s always been a part of her consciousness. By 12 she was immersed in the Expanded Universe and writing her first novella-length fanfic. As an adult, she enjoys movies and books about space, and pondering if the speed of light really is the universe’s speed limit. She does not like fantasy, mainly because of all the horses.

Clara Cohen lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. You can see her right hand on Season 8, episode 3, of Outlander, because they needed someone who could cut and wield a quill pen. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating.

Alex Wallace is a history and science fiction nerd who reads far more than is probably healthy. He is a fan of alternate history, and has had four stories in that genre published. When not being that type of nerd, he is a devoted partaker of various partner dances.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Report from the AWP book fair: buy more indie SFF!

Last week, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference, filled, as usual, with discussion panels, author readings, dozens of offsite events, and a copious book fair described as "the nation's largest marketplace for independent literary presses and journals, creative writing programs, writing conferences and centers, and literary arts organizations."

This year's AWP conference was held in Seattle, and I had the good fortune of attending with my husband. The book fair was truly gigantic, with aisle after aisle of little-known publishers offering countless creations you'll rarely hear discussed in literary journalism. So I'm posting this article to help remedy that lack of visibility. I'm going to share with you what hidden gems caught my eye at the 2023 AWP book fair:

A Cage for Every Child by S. D. Chrostowska
(Sublunary Editions, 2021)

"Their bodies lingered, vanishing only when you, who glimpsed
them vivid and felt their breath inside your ear, vanished first."

And if That Mockingbird Don't Sing, edited by Hannah Grieco
(Alternating Current Press, 2022)

"My daughter is two. She still giggles when she sees
her reflection. She has not yet seen her ghost."

As if Fire Could Hide Us by Melanie Rae Thon
(The University of Alabama Press, 2023)

"And they were young again, it's true,
transformed by the plasma of humans."

At the Edge of the Woods by Masatsugu Ono,
translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
(Two Lines Press, 2022)

"The trees would pat each other familiarly on the shoulders and
back and sometimes wriggle their hips as they hurried on ahead."

Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022)

"She realized she could not move, not even to blink, helplessly
watching that black figure cross the lake at an impossible speed."

Dance of the Returned by Devon A. Mihesuah
(The University of Arizona Press, 2022)

"He was born repeatedly, and the memories of innumerable ancestors
flashed through his mind, all complex and too indistinct to recall."

Dioramas by Blair Austin
(Dzanc Books, 2023)

"Millions and millions of years pass in the outside
world, but the diorama appears unchanged."

Erase and Rewind by Meghan Bell
(Book*hug Press, 2021)

"Louisa discovered she could reverse time on a dim suburban
street, thirty-eight minutes after leaving Nick's house."

Everyday, Monsters by C. M. Chapman and Larry D. Thacker
(Unsolicited Press, 2021)

"Down the way was what was left of a woman, still stuck in her vehicle, barely
clawing at the windows and doors, baking for days, decomposing in motion.

God Isn't Here Today by Francine Cunningham
(Invisible Publishing, 2022)

"Midday light poured in through the large windows.
God had a corner office. Small, though. And dusty."

Infinity Ends Soon by Joseph Avski,
translated by Mark McGraw
(Mouthfeel Press, 2023)

"Sometimes memory is a shallow grave, sometimes a
black abyss where all the forms of the universe are hidden."

Keeping Time by Thomas Legendre
(Acre Books, 2020)

"If I make a circle it doesn't matter where I start, so
let's begin with Aaron appearing from the future."

Loving Monsters by Laura Eppinger
(Alternating Current Press, 2021)

"It's not easy being the kind of ghost who haunts a house decorated
out of an IKEA catalog, but that doesn't mean I'm giving up."

One Person Away from You by Andrew Bertaina
(Moon City Press, 2021)

"I told Sally about the earth spinning in a different direction today.
I asked her if she had noticed the change in the quality of light."

Only and Ever This by J. A. Tyler
(Dzanc Books, 2023)

"We dream, too, of escaping before Our Mother
goes transparent, before she becomes a ghost."

Ring by André Alexis
(Coach House Books, 2021)

"All had passed the ring on to their daughters.
But not all had used the three wishes."

Ship of Fates by Caitlin Chung
(Lanternfish Press, 2019)

"The gold was carried in the belly of a whale that swam for
seven days and seven nights while Mei rode on its back."

Split Aces by M. L. Schepps
(Korza Books, 2022)

"I stared at JD while JD stared right back at me. I felt a reflexive
urge to look away but instead I held the reflection of my other self."

Temporary by Hilary Leichter
(Coffee House Press, 2020)

"My job was to open the doors, then close them, every forty
minutes, every day, all day long, until otherwise notified."

The Anchored World by Jasmine Sawers
(Rose Metal Press, 2022)

"I kept the Moon in water and moisturizer
and conversation. The Earth began to suffer."

The Enhancers by Anne K. Yoder
(Meekling Press, 2022)

"Pomegranate minds were more common, with ideas packed together side
by side then sealed off, like apartment tenants, like networked computers."

The Man with Wolves for Hands by Juan Eugenio Ramirez
(Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2022)

"The left wolf sniffs at the trunk above his head. The right wolf sleeps
across his lap, occasionally growls, probably dreaming wolfy dreams."

This Side of the Divide, edited by Danilo John Thomas
(Baobab Press, 2023)

"The bird's stomach would be filled for another day. But it refused to
speak again until it had taken a gooey dump at the foot of my mailbox."

Unwieldy Creatures by Addie Tsai
(Jaded Ibis Press, 2022)

"Perhaps there was a way, I questioned, that I could use a laser to
sculpt an embryo out of material in ways we had never considered before."

What Makes You Think You're Awake? by Maegan Poland
(Blair, 2021)

"Once the knob clicked tightly into the frame, it was as though she had
pushed pause on the outside world and the scene beyond the window."

To be honest, I haven't yet begun reading the books I bought at the conference, so instead of a review, this is an invitation. The indie market is the asthenospheric convection cell that periodically renews the felsic crust of literature via decompression melting. Or something. Be more curious about indie books, is what I'm saying.

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