Thursday, February 29, 2024

The State of the Video Game Industry: A Discussion

Shaking up the Video Games Industry

Recently it was announced that Microsoft will be bringing some of its first-party games to rival platforms. While it is not unheard of (as is the case with the Ori series to the Nintendo Switch), this cracks the door open to a potential new era in the console gaming sphere. But before this, some history.

A little over twenty-two years ago, on November 15, 2001, Microsoft released a new gaming brand; the Xbox. This act reintroduced an American console manufacturer into the fold and brought innovations and new corporate tactics to the console side of the gaming industry for the next two decades. As Sega phased out (their previous two consoles failing to break the ten million mark), a huge shift occurred; Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft were now the big three. With an American console maker in the mix, the two Japanese giants would make pivots to stay competitive in a market that they’d dominated.

Bill Gates wanted a competitor in a sphere he assumed would compete with the PC industry. With the PS2’s ability to play DVDs and CDs in addition to games, this was perceived as a potential threat and thus a need to enter the arena. While the PS2 handily trounced Microsoft’s first offering and Nintendo’s Gamecube (Playstation 2 sold over triple the amount of its competitor’s combined sales), Sony relied too much on its namesake for their successor and hubris caused a gaping opportunity. This is when Microsoft brought out the big guns.

While Nintendo ended up doing its own thing with the Wii (lower power console for a more casual audience), Xbox and Playstation competed directly for the same audience. This is the generation in which Microsoft introduced the Xbox dashboard, better Xbox Live services, higher visibility of indie games, a great controller, and easily replaceable hard drives. They also highlighted micro-transactions, pointless DLC, a higher focus on timed-exclusive content, and the biggest repair bill that any console manufacturer has had to dole out (thanks Red Ring of Death). Despite Xbox 360’s shortcomings, Sony priced their PS3 at $600 and launched a year later. Their online tech was miles behind (though free), and their messaging equated to: “If you can’t afford it, get a second job.” It took Sony years to recover from their mistakes and eventually overtake the 360, but in turn, they learned a very important lesson; exploit your opponent’s weakness and hammer away when the opportunity presents itself.

Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox One (their third console, not to be confused with the original, simply named Xbox) was a mess. Their messaging confused fans and casuals. The inclusion of Kinect frustrated those who didn’t want it, the console requiring a constant internet connection angered those with poor or no connectivity, the focus on digital-only games left physical lovers in the dust, and to top it all off, the console was weaker, yet more expensive than it’s competitor; the PS4. The Xbox One was ahead of its time. This singular major Microsoft error set Sony up for success throughout the entire generation, which bled into the current one with the PS5. Sony deployed the same tactics Microsoft used in the previous generation; timed exclusives, full exclusive content, procuring franchises synonymous with the other platform, keeping certain characters exclusive to their platform, using their leading position to make better deals, etc.

Though Microsoft has put out some decent games these past few generations, they couldn’t match Sony or Nintendo in the breadth of titles that were either high quality or could sell on name recognition alone. Their Forza games have been a highlight, but their bread and butter, Halo and Gears, dropped from “legendary” status to “great”. In the case of Fable, it disappeared completely (though there is a new one in development). While they’ve released some fantastic indie games, nothing has propelled the Xbox brand to reach the same heights that they had in the 360 generation. So, Microsoft decided to buy a bunch of developers. Then they did the unthinkable in the console space; they bought entire publishers.

With Bethesda and Activision (and let’s not forget Obsidian, Mojang, and inXile) under their umbrella, Microsoft was sure to take the top spot, put their main competitor out of business (or at least demote them to third place), and begin to take control of the console narrative once again as they did in the glory days of the 360. But something happened. Despite all the acquisitions and even an entire exclusive Bethesda title (Starfield), GamePass subscriber numbers haven’t increased and Microsoft has decided to shift tactics. Recent rumors stated that the heads of Microsoft want ubiquity, no more console squabbling. Every screen is now an Xbox. The internet went wild with speculation. Which games would come to rival consoles? What was the point of owning an Xbox if there were no more true exclusives? Will there be another Xbox console?

Unfortunately, the messaging from Phil Spencer and company wasn't entirely clear. What we do know is that Microsoft will be dipping its toes further into the waters of third-party publishing (on PS5 and Switch) with four titles. Microsoft says that Pentiment (Obsidian), Hi-Fi Rush (Tango), Sea of Thieves (Rare), and Grounded (Obsidian) will be the first four titles to have the honor of building the bridge between Sony and Microsoft. While all four will be coming to PlayStation platforms, only Pentiment and Hi-Fi Rush will release on Switch.

With this bit of history and current information in mind, I’d like to ask G, being an Xbox owner, what his thoughts are on the matter. While it may make sense for Microsoft as a whole in the long run, is this a good idea for the Xbox brand or does it weaken its value?

G - I’ll be honest, I thought Microsoft was going to bring Gamepass to the PlayStation and thus end The Console Wars. I was convinced that Microsoft didn’t really want to be selling consoles anymore, but did want to be the Netflix of the coming age of video game streaming. What better way to do that than to first become the biggest and best provider of subscription content and then to offer it on all platforms?

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead we found out that some Xbox-exclusive titles would eventually come to the PS5. Which…doesn’t really move the needle for anyone. But I think it does point to a structural problem in gaming: namely, that The Console Wars are a relic of a lost age and don’t really make any sense for anyone anymore, but Microsoft and Sony are still stuck in the trenches because they are too heavily invested to pivot.

I want to explore that idea in a bit more depth - and get your extended thoughts. Here are mine:

So I’ve been on Team Xbox since around 2002. I had a PS2 already but got an Xbox so I could play Halo and the Splinter Cell games, which at the time were Xbox exclusives. When it came time to upgrade to the next generation, I went with the Xbox 360. It felt like a no-brainer - at that point Xbox Live was lightyears ahead of the PlayStation Network. If you wanted to play online with your friends, Xbox Live delivered a streamlined experience that Sony just couldn’t match. And, like a lot of others at the time, I got hooked on Call of Duty’s competitive multiplayer.

Of course Sony caught up, so when the Xbox One squared up against the PS4 Microsoft needed a new selling point. The Kinect was the gimmick, but really they wanted to sell the Xbox One as a media platform - the centerpiece of your entertainment system. This was around the time that streaming began to replace cable in earnest. The problem, of course, was that Apple, Roku and others were developing devices that could do this just as well, but were much smaller. And that’s even before Smart TVs hit the market. Now you don’t even need a device.

Microsoft’s pivot to streaming turned out to be both a dead-end and a distraction. As you say, the Xbox One just didn’t have the exclusives that powered the Xbox and 360. Sony, meanwhile, had decided to focus on games, bringing a diverse array of critically-acclaimed exclusives to the market that Microsoft failed to match. Turns out people buy consoles to play games - and that’s why the PS4 outsold the Xbox One by more than 2-to-1.

Fast-forward to the current generation. I debated getting a PS5 instead of a Series X, but it wasn’t easy to find either at launch. Eventually I managed to find a Series X bundled with Gamepass Ultimate so I went with that. It wasn’t intentional, though I’ve enjoyed the Series X and Gamepass quite a bit.

What I learned, though, is that Gamepass is more or less all that’s on offer. Despite all those big acquisitions, there aren’t many exclusives to speak of, and the ones that exist have been underwhelming (Halo: Infinite was a massive disappointment). Microsoft wants you to pivot to streaming - and the recurring revenues that a subscription model provides. And like with online play and video streaming, they have correctly identified the next big thing. But as with Netflix, there’s going to be a lot more competition soon too. And that doesn’t just mean fighting for customers’ subscription dollars; it also means fighting rival streaming platforms for content.

That said, Sony has also been struggling. The PS5 may be outselling the Series X/S, but Sony has overinvested in VR and spent a ton of money trying to get another Destiny on the market - and, in the process, lost focus on the exclusive single-player games that helped it win the last round of The Console Wars. This is partly because budgets for triple-A titles have ballooned, reducing their ROI - but it’s also partly because big corporations can be really dumb (and often are).

So here we are, at a crossroads where both companies seem a bit lost. Microsoft, for the 2nd generation running, is trying to find its killer app when we all know the killer app is releasing top-flight games. Sony, meanwhile, should know it needs to focus on games but those games aren’t as profitable as they used to be. Does anyone really benefit from The Console Wars anymore? And what does a viable alternative look like?

Joe D - It’s funny, I completely forgot about the whole multimedia approach that Microsoft tried to sell at the Xbox One reveal. It may have been the single most detrimental aspect of the showcase. While I never ended up getting an Xbox One—I had three 360s die on me and was hesitant to invest—I heard the television integration was well implemented. As I said, I think they were way ahead of the times with their focus. It may have gone differently if they focused as much on the games.

Getting back to the question, I do believe the consumers benefit from competition, but not the Console War itself. It has grown from a simple rivalry (from the Nintendo/Sega/PlayStation days) to a vitriolic cesspool. Console zealots now send death threats to developers and tear to shreds all who criticize their beloved. God forbid you want to make a post on social media criticizing a company you support (as I have tried to with some of Sony’s poorer choices), the rabid dogs find their way to you immediately. But outside of the crazy hecklers, the competition between the companies has forced innovation in the video game industry. Let’s go back to the 360/PS3 competition. Sony was so comfortable resting on their laurels at the end of the Playstation 2 generation that they didn’t think they needed to compete. With more third-party companies supporting Xbox, Microsoft’s pressure forced them to rely on their first party a whole lot more than ever before. During the PS3 era, Sony was much more daring than today. We got the Resistance 1, 2, & 3, Infamous 1 & 2, Uncharted 1, 2, & 3, The Last of Us, Killzone 2 & 3, LittleBigPlanet 1 & 2, and so many more. On the reverse, PS2’s success made Microsoft come out of the gates early and set the precedent for online reliability and services for not only that gen but the future of gaming on consoles. Sony’s insistence on BluRay made Microsoft do the same (Yay, no more disc swapping). Nintendo meanwhile just does unique things that Sony or Microsoft try to piggyback off of (motion controls anyone?). Once Nintendo began to do their own thing with the Wii, it became a two-horse race between Sony and Microsoft.

(List of Sony Published PS3 Games)

I think the reason the rivalry has gone on so long is because, as you said, both companies are entrenched. Sony even more so due to PlayStation’s importance to it, with PS accounting for a third of its revenue. This next part is speculation, but I believe Microsoft allowed the Xbox division to do their thing, to make Xbox the number one place to play, and the guys at the Xbox division were like rich kids at a playground trying to one-up their opponent. As recently as 2019, they spoke about how they were in a position to “spend Sony out of business.” After failing to get out of third place three generations in a row, and more importantly, after the massive acquisitions they made (Bethesda for $7.5 billion, Activision for $69 billion), the higher-ups at Microsoft decided it was time to recoup their investment and come up with a new strategy.

I agree with you that Sony seems a bit lost. I don’t know of any first-party games planned for this year (a first in a very long time), and that’s rather disappointing as I love a majority of their studios. I revere The Last of Us and thought that the Part 1 remake was brilliantly done, but if Naughty Dog releases one more remaster or remake of that series before another new game, I will lose my mind. Tying into what you said about Sony trying to create another Destiny, Naughty Dog’s live-service game was canceled because the studio was going to have to choose between being a live-service studio or a single-player game studio. I was rather disappointed because I enjoyed the Factions multiplayer, but I would prefer their single-player focus. That said, forcing studios that don’t traditionally make live-service games into live-service studios is an odd choice, especially considering people have come to PlayStation for their prestigious single-player experiences. Hopefully, their current success with Helldivers 2 will make them realize they could outsource to second parties for that sort of thing (or purchase a multiplayer dev).

There is something that worries me though. If Microsoft exits stage left, will Sony continue to produce as much excellent content, knowing that no competitor is trying to usurp their market share? Sony was misleading with their “We believe in generations” message at the beginning of this generation, but they have consistently released at least one or two Game of the Year contenders every year since 2015 despite being far ahead of their prime competitor. What will happen if Microsoft pulls out of the console space and simply goes full streaming? Will Sony keep their service as well, or will it let it die off since they own the hardware front? Their PlayStation Plus upper tiers have become much better in response to Microsoft, but it’s not their priority.

I fear that video games will go full streaming service and it affects the quality of the games. While we may get some decent AA games, AAA games will become a relic of the past. As much as I love my Netflix shows, I won’t find a movie with Avengers: Infinity War’s budget as a day and date release. I think Sony may go on for a while longer with consoles while Microsoft becomes more ubiquitous with GamePass. If every game has to eventually launch on a streaming service on release day, as Microsoft says they want to do, how do you think that affects the game industry and the games themselves? While I agree both streaming services are great for consumers, do you think it will be good for devs in the long run? Could it affect creativity in the AAA and AA space?

G - I’ll never understand why some fans think aligning with one massive corporation over another is an important moral choice. Just make the best choice for you and be happy with that choice - why does it matter what anyone else prefers? But everything is zero sum these days, no matter how mundane or, ultimately, inconsequential the battle is.

But anyways, back to the topic at hand…at this point I don’t think we have to worry about Microsoft abandoning the Xbox, at least not for a few years. But I also don’t think The Console Wars, as currently structured, really benefit either Microsoft or Sony. Sure, PlayStation revenues are higher, but the Xbox platform appears to be more profitable; as a percentage of revenues, Microsoft’s margin is almost double Sony’s. So there is something for each company’s Board to be unhappy about.

Also worth noting that Nintendo’s profit margins are the highest of all, and by a long-shot. This is a direct result of Nintendo’s decision to opt out of The Console Wars. They’ve had their ups and downs, but scored a hit with the portable Nintendo Switch - which is now the 3rd best-selling console of all-time. How did they do it? They stopped trying to keep up on hardware tech specs and instead focused on making high-quality first-party games and then making them fun (and convenient) to play.

I don’t know if either Sony or Microsoft can emulate Nintendo’s model, the same way Dell or Lenovo can’t really emulate Apple’s. But it’s time for a rethink - and that’s why it seemed plausible that Microsoft would start to offer Gamepass available on the PlayStation. They aren’t doing it, apparently, but would it really be a bad idea?

I agree that we don’t want a situation where only Sony makes a console for triple-A games, and recent layoffs suggest that’s not even a great bet right now. But maybe there are alternatives! Maybe what we really need to see is Microsoft and Sony strike a partnership where they both keep making consoles, but those consoles are compatible with each other. You would need a standard OS but each could have a custom build of that OS. Both could then focus on delivering games - and their streaming services, as I’m 100% convinced this is where the market is heading. Thoughts?

Joe D - You’re right about Sony’s current model being unsustainable, the profits get smaller while game costs continue to rise. More info will come from the recent layoffs, though it seems to me to be a restructuring of how they manage their studios. With Jim Ryan on the out, maybe the company will go back to focusing on single player games, or at least that's what they say. When it comes to hardware, I doubt that Sony gives Microsoft any leeway in the console space. If Microsoft backs out of making consoles, then maybe Sony will take a Nintendo approach and make their games with a lower budget. I think that having a dedicated gaming system could eventually become obsolete, with people streaming from their television, computer, or some kind of attachment (like an Amazon Fire Stick). Who knows, maybe the Amazon Fire Stick will eventually provide both PlayStation Plus and Game Pass on it within ten years. If it comes down to competing streaming services, Microsoft is well-positioned to demolish any competitor.

I think the situation could be this: Nintendo makes the casual console, Sony makes the high-spec console, and Microsoft tries to proliferate through using Game Pass. If Microsoft gets rid of the need to spend as much on competing consoles, they could use that money to grow the Game Pass library and put it on PlayStation and Switch. When the streaming service space expands, they’ll have more leverage to force Sony to innovate.

Eventually, I see the space becoming a place where Microsoft and Sony simply have timed-exclusive content on each platform (like Netflix and Hulu), with exclusive content that they make in-house. It’s kind of like it is now, but you won’t own any of the content unless you decide to buy it, and even then it will be digital so you’ll only own the license, not the game itself. So long as Microsoft produces a console, I’m not sure when Game Pass would come to PlayStation, as it would make their console obsolete. The only reason to get an Xbox would be because you like their OS, but I doubt that would be a high consumer motivator in the console space. I think that by publishing these four games on PlayStation, Microsoft is testing the third-party waters and it will eventually lead to their exit from the console space (possibly after the next generation). 

Though this is an inconclusive viewpoint, I think it could have both positive and negative effects on the industry. While we already discussed the negatives, the positives would allow Microsoft to play to its strengths and get on more screens, and it would allow Sony to back off on spending so much on their games since their main competitor is out of the race, giving them more profitability and the ability to create more first-party content. I can’t be sure how this is going to change the industry, but I’m sure it will have a profound effect in the upcoming years. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that whatever happens, I’ll always have a way to own my media.

The Wheel of Time Reread: Winter's Heart

Welcome back, dear readers, to The Wheel of Time Reread. Today we’re going to talk about Winter’s Heart, the ninth book in the series.

Winter’s Heart is the book where I start to feel like we are making a real push to the end of the series, though we are going to move from the holy shit that really happened at the end of the book right into Crossroads of Twilight in which the rest of the world reacts to something happening somewhere that is probably important but no matter it’s very far away. We’ll get into it, but before we do we’re going to talk about *this* book first.

You know, one interesting thing about reading The Wheel of Time as a single volume ebook is that at any given time I have no idea where I am in the specific book I’m reading. If I don’t check on the chapter count all I know is that I’m on something like page 6700 of 10,000+. Because I’ve read these later books fewer times than the earlier ones, my memories of particular events are less clear and I just don’t know how close I am to the end. I’m just enjoying the ride.

If you’re reading a Wheel of Time re-read deep enough that we’re talking about the ninth book, I assume nothing here is going to be a spoiler. But just in case, we’re going to talk about the ending first.

You’ve been warned.

Chekov’s Cleansing. Rand’s first act plan to cleanse saidin from the Dark One’s taint goes off in the third act. If anyone asked me what happens in Winter’s Heart I would respond that this is the book in which Rand and Nynaeve cleanses saidin. If anyone asked me what else happens in Winter’s Heart I would shrug, because, well, first, that’s a series defining moment for anyone who has been reading from The Eye of the World. The taint on saidin that makes male channelers go crazy? Gone. It’s pure again. It is one of the singularly most important moments of the entire series besides, you know, winning The Last Battle.

It’s such a small moment in the book. Rand announces it early, and then goes and fucks off to Far Madding for a fair amount of the book. Far Madding is a weird city that has some ter’angreal that prevents men and women from touching the Source. There are, of course, ways around that, but what Far Madding also allows is for Cadsuane to shine some more, a bit of a scene with Alanna, and Verin being awesome.

Honestly, I didn’t mind it. Oh, Rand is still just about the least interesting part of any book he is in but Far Madding is a very different setting that most other cities we’ve seen thus far so it still feels refreshing even at the same time there’s a bit of treading water and *another* moment where Rand declaims his need to be hard and Cadsuane notes that she still needs to teach Rand to laugh and cry otherwise the world is doomed even if the Light wins. I don’t think there are therapists enough in the world to deal with the collective trauma everyone is going through.

I do still find the Faile / Shaido / Perrin storyline to be tedious. More specifically, I find Perrin’s part in that storyline to be tedious. He’s probably my least favorite major character not named Rand right now. Faile, Alliandre, and Morgase are much more compelling as captives of the Shaido than anything Perrin is doing to rescue Faile. The fact that Perrin’s storyline is intersecting with the bloody flaming Prophet, Masema, does not help one bit. What *does* help one bit, though, is that this is a much smaller part of Winter’s Heart than I remember. There is almost no forward progress but fewer chapters are spent on the storyline than the nearly half of the book I misremembered. This makes me nervous for Crossroads of Twilight, honestly.

I also don’t mind the Elayne / Andor Succession drama. It’s just that, like so many other things the last few books, there is very little progress. Realistically, Elayne securing the throne in the particular way of Andoran politics is not something that would occur very quickly. Narratively, it’s a bit of a drag. I just happen to enjoy spending time with Elayne and Andor.

Possibly more importantly, that particular storyline leads to Elayne, Min, and Aviendha all bonding Rand as their collective warder as Rand declares his creepy love for all three of them. Which, really, that’s fine because it’s not like he spends any sort of time with any of them except for Min (and when the Aiel required Aviendha to be his shadow) or have any sort of real conversations with any of them. The relationships don’t feel quite real, but, eh, he’s just going to wander off and do Rand things somewhere else and this at least allows the chance to make more Dragon Babies to set up the next generation.

Back to The Cleansing. I think that’s a moment which should be capitalized. The Cleansing looms large, but it’s only one chapter in the book and there’s a massive battle with Forsaken and darkfriends trying to get to Rand and Nynaeve doing the work and there are all of the lightfriends guarding our dynamic duo and….most of it happens off page. There are hints of what’s happening, but so much of that action is not described. Heck, most of the actual Cleansing isn’t described but I guess there is only so much description one can write about filling a saidar tube with saidin and pushing it into Shadar Logoth until the city explodes. There are hints for the duration of the Cleansing but at the same time it could have been forty five minutes of active Cleansing or two days and it’s all unclear.

I’m making it sound like the Cleansing is not thrilling, but this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read Winter’s Heart and there is no recapturing the shock and wonder of reading the Cleansing for the first time. It’s still a big deal and still a really cool moment, but it just doesn’t land the same this time.

All of this sounds waaaay more negatively about Winter’s Heart than I mean it to be. This is a better book, overall, than The Path of Daggers and absolutely a better book than Crossroads of Twilight. Oh! I also never mentioned Mat. Mat is consistently the best part of any book he is in and Winter’s Heart is the book where he finally meets The Daughter of the Nine Moons, one of the daughters of the Empress of the Seanchan and Mat’s future wife. Shenanigans will ensue, mostly in the future books but Winter’s Heart has Mat working on being a hero and saving some captured damane Aes Sedai. And - we discover the male a’dam that was supposed to be dumped in the middle of the ocean was unfortunately not dumped in the middle of the ocean and that’s something that should probably stay far away from Rand and will certainly come into play later.

Next up: Crossroads of Twilight, in which things happen (more or less). Plus, some people notice something is happening somewhere, a siege begins, the falcon is still in captivity, and courting the nine moons.

Joe Sherry - Senior Editor of Nerds of a Feather. Hugo and Ignyte Winner. Minnesotan.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

6 Books with Bogi Takács

Bogi Takács (e/em/eir/emself or they pronouns) is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person and an immigrant to the US. E is a winner of the Lambda award for editing Transcendent 2: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, the Hugo award for Best Fan Writer, and a finalist for other awards like the Ignyte and the Locus. Eir new short story collection Power to Yield and Other Stories is coming in February 2024. You can find Bogi talking about books at Bogi Reads the World, and check out eir daily SFF story and poem recommendation newsletter on Buttondown.

Today, read about Bogi's Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, recommended to me by Rasha Abdulhadi after I read Everything Comes Next: Collected & New Poems by her, aimed more at a child and teen readership. Words Under the Words is more for adults, though a lot of her poems work for all audiences. She has a gentle speculative sensibility to her work, even though it’s usually not marketed as speculative poetry. By the time this instalment of Six Books comes out, I’ll have a poem recommendation from this book in my daily speculative story and poem recommendations newsletter.


2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar – I got an advance review copy I’ve already read, but I’m really eager for other people to read it so that I can discuss it with them! I’m excited by everything from her, to be honest. But this one was the way I’m always imagining what dark academia could be and it often isn’t. Written with a real awareness of the horrors perpetuated in academia, in the name of scholarship; but also understanding the beauty of the universe and the essential liberty that is everyone’s birthright regardless of one’s academic and/or social standing. Also, this is a prison spaceship story in addition to all of that.


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

The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann – I’m about to read the third volume of their Outside trilogy, and I usually refresh my memory of a series before I read a new volume. I loved the first two books, and happily had a chance to blurb them, but the third volume was in production when I was in the middle of changing jobs, so I had to miss out on it. Now I’m catching up!


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

I generally don’t wish I’d written books by other people, the books I love are often quite different from what I personally write. It might be easier to find anthologies I wish I’d edited? Recently I absolutely loved Infinite Constellations edited by Khadijah Queen and K. Ibura, though I think it’s wonderful the way they put it together, it doesn’t need me :) I also got an advance copy of this early last year, but now it’s out and you can all read it!

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

Not so much on my writing, but more on my life in general, which of course includes my writing – the Nausicaä manga by Hayao Miyazaki found me in high school at a very vulnerable and emotional time, where I was ready to give up on everything. This series got it across to me that even when we know things are going to be destroyed, it’s still possible to live on and strive. That was an approach I didn’t see anywhere else at that point, and I really needed to hear it. 


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

My latest book is Power to Yield and Other Stories, my second short story collection coming this February from Broken Eye Books. It has people changing into plants, a telepathic AI kid talking to aliens, angry clothing, and saving the day with sadomasochism. It all gets quite complicated, which I hope counts as awesome! I aim to capture some tiny shards of life with its infinite complexity in my work.

Thank you, Bogi!

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Cool Books I Read While I Was Too Sad to Review

If a review copy lands in the inbox when the reviewer is too overwhelmed to read it, does it even get a review?

Well, no, obviously it doesn't. Despite my fervent hopes, the review fairy did not visit me once while I was having a Big Bad 2023 to magic away my Netgalley obligations and show love to books during my period of chronic distraction. But the books continued to be good, and I'm going to cover some of them here in not-even-nano-sized review chunks.

Case in point: The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera was a 2023 highlight. I've seen a lot of deservedly flattering comps for this novel, a story of divine destiny denied set in a fantasy Sri Lanka:  my own mind was drawn to Sofia Samatar and Ursula K. Le Guin while reading, with a few of the bleak vibes I last felt in A.K. Larkwood's The Unspoken Name. For a story that really invites comparisons, however, Saint of Bright Doors is very much making its own mark on modern genre - and I'm sure there are plenty of threads of Sri Lankan and wider South Asian influence that I missed entirely.

Highlights of the reading experience for me included the way the story's geography seems to literally rearrange itself around the absurd authoritarianism of Luriat's state politics, the portrayal of gods and unknowable supernatural forces co-existing with a mundane, modern setting, and the greatest first person pronoun drop in genre history. This is an essential novel and I hope we'll be talking about it for years to come.

Translation State by Ann Leckie was a novel I hoped to feel similarly about. This latest standalone-ish instalment in Leckie's Imperial Radch universe is a solid, thought provoking piece of SF (Clara has some excellent provoked thoughts here) but it hasn't withstood the test of time as a standout novel for me, Don't get me wrong, I love the Presger translators, and I highly appreciated the way Leckie gives us crumbs of further context without really making anything clearer about the setting's most mysterious alien race. Less attractive on reflection is the treatment of alien biological urges as fundamentally irresistible in a way that would simply not make sense if the author were talking about humans. Protagonists Reet and Qven are, for different reasons, terrified of the urges of their alien heritage, but all Presger translators simply have to go through "puberty" in the way their creators designed, so oh well, suck it up kids, they'll be fine once it's done. 

I understand the narrative is setting up questions about personhood in general, not creating any deliberate queer parallels, but gender is so integral to the setting as a whole, and aliens so often used as a stand-in for human queerness (and neurodivergence) that it's hard not to think about Qven and Reet's lack of choice through that lens. It would be nice to see stories that think more about how alien queerness would manifest, from the starting assumption that of course it would manifest in any sentient species, but I'll keep searching for those books elsewhere. In the meantime, any Imperial Radch is good Imperial Radch, but this one didn't hit "great" for me.

Joe and I share a love of Seanan McGuire's October Daye series, and while he does the honours of the full Nerds of a Feather reviews, I also found time for both of last year's double-Toby entries, Sleep No More and The Innocent Sleep. These are the 17th and 18th books in the series respectively, and they effectively act as companion novels to each other: Sleep No More follows series protagonist October - a fae changeling - as she grapples with the effects of a reality-altering mass illusion, while The Innocent Sleep breaks with series tradition to focus on her Cait Sidhe husband Tybalt, who is working against the illusion from the outside. The actual points of narrative overlap didn't set my world on fire (In one book, October thinks Tybalt looks angry! In the next book, we learn Tybalt is angry!), but the double-bill allows McGuire to let loose with the most unsavoury conventions and darkest corners of fae society in a way that brings the series full circle to its earliest vibes. There's also more time across the books to feature a wide set of supporting characters - including one unexpectedly sympathetic "recast" - who demonstrate the breadth of the series' worldbuilding. As always, I'm eager for more.

Let's talk about some more underrated series! Claws and Contrivances is the second in Stephanie Burgis' Regency Dragons romances and it's just as delightful as the first: an intricate and often hilarious plot of misunderstandings and reversals, sprinkled with fun dragon naturalism and centred around a young protagonist with a lot to learn and a LOT of willing accomplices to her various schemes. Unlike the first book in the series, Scales and Sensibility, Claws and Contrivances takes place in a fundamentally loving family environment where queerness and difference are accepted, and it's the perfect backdrop for Rose Tregarth and her nerdy, autistic-coded love interest Aubrey to fall for each other.

Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott is anything but light, both in content and in physical weight. As Paul covered in detail, this is a 750 page chonk retelling events from the life of Alexander the Great, except Alexander is now Princess Sun, daughter of Eirene of Chaonia, an expanding galactic power rubbing up against the much larger might of the Phene while trying to maintain their own powers at home. If you know the history of Alexander the Great, you'll probably recognise more moments from real history, but it's certainly not necessary to enjoy the combination of pew-pew space battles, irreverent epithet-laden narration, "oh no she DIDN'T" politicking, and silly teenagers with entirely too much power. Go look up the facts afterwards to find out which bits really happened (no genetically modified four-armed people in antiquity, unfortunately), and get some knowledge useful for pub quiz as a bonus!

Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Bluesky at

Monday, February 26, 2024

With the new Avatar series, one has to ask: What do we really want from an adaptation?

This version isn't perfect. It isn't horrible either. The world is at balance again.

Before anyone watched 2005's Batman Begins, one strong argument for its existence was that audiences' definitive memory of that world couldn't be allowed to be 1997's Batman & Robin. Such a lamentable misfire needed to be overwritten with something more dignified. The same reason explains the quasi-reboot of the X-Men films with First Class after the not-quite-beloved The Last Stand, the casting of Tom Holland to replace Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, and the ongoing quest to one day, finally, make a decent Fantastic Four movie.

An even harsher approach is to not restart the timeline, but resume it from a well-liked beginning that was less well served by its sequels: 2019's Terminator: Dark Fate is intended to ignore everything that happened after 1991's T2, while Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a deliberate erasure of the unfairly hated 2016 remake. Although this method is called "soft reboot," it's actually more aggressive, because at least a "hard reboot" doesn't go out of its way to discourage viewers from enjoying previous works if that's what they prefer (e.g. Godzilla, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan). While a "hard reboot" is content to do its own thing, a "soft reboot" executes a hostile takeover of an ongoing storyline and tells viewers to pretend that some portions of it never existed.

All this is necessary context before jumping into the rather complex relationship that viewers have had with the Aang/Korra franchise. The original cartoon show is now acclaimed as an almost perfect classic, but before the ending aired (and even for some time after), fan ships used to launch cannonballs at each other with the ferocity of Twilight subreddits. This situation didn't improve once the sequel series launched: one segment of fans flatly refuses to acknowledge Korra as part of the canon, another segment accepts only season 1, and yet another segment didn't believe the Korrasami pairing was official until the comic books spelled it out.

There ought to be a way for audiences to love a story without getting so petty about it. But one specific portion of such fierce protectiveness isn't totally unjustified: 2010's film adaptation The Last Airbender was so calamitously plagued with incompetence that any substitute was destined to be an improvement by default. And the 14 years fans had to wait for the palate cleanser couldn't pass fast enough.

The new live action adaptation, which just launched on Netflix, condenses the 20 short episodes of the cartoon's first season into 8 long episodes. Some plotlines have been condensed, others have been merged, and a few have been omitted. Whereas the cartoon took its time to explore at leisure the impressively varied and rich setting of its fictional world, the Netflix version focuses on a handful of key locations. This cutting and stitching of material isn't accomplished successfully. Sometimes an entire animated episode's worth of plot is wedged in as an easy-to-miss line of dialogue, and characters that are indispensable to the story but lived in locations that were removed from the adaptation appear now where it doesn't make full sense to find them.

For example, Teo, an inventor's son, no longer lives on a mountain, but he still has his mechanical flying wheelchair. The owl-shaped spirit of knowledge didn't even appear until the cartoon's second season, but here it makes a gratuitous cameo. Koh the Face-Stealer is moved to a completely separate plot in the Spirit World. And the traveling musicians from The Cave of Two Lovers are shunted to a scene of clumsily shoehorned exposition. The inclusion of characters and plot points that the cartoon didn't introduce this early in the story may be due to the fact that any show produced for Netflix exists under the hanging sword of capricious cancelation. Fire Lord Ozai, Princess Azula, Avatar Kuruk and even Fire Lord Sozin are shown much earlier than in the cartoon, consuming precious runtime in really unnecessary scenes that explain too much.

This is the main sin of this version of the story: it doesn't trust viewers' patience. The cartoon didn't  jump at the first chance to explain the backstories of Zuko, Iroh, Katara, or even protagonist Aang. It knew how to set up its mysteries and pay off its reveals at the right dramatic moment. The Netflix adaptation seems afraid of letting any question linger for more than two seconds. Part of this problem is caused by the quicker pacing, another part by the aforementioned risk of cancelation, and no small part by ongoing changes in viewers' preferences, namely the widespread misconceptions about what constitutes a plot hole. By this point in the story, the cartoon hadn't even revealed why the Air Nomads had been singled out for extermination in the first place.

What redeems the Netflix Avatar is the technical side of the storytelling. The combat choreography is flawless, and it takes care to represent the different styles of each elemental discipline. The degree of detail in set design is to be commended, as is the faithfulness of the casting (let it never be forgotten that the 2010 film is the whole reason why we have the word "racebending"). Even when the script leaves little space for emotional development, often replacing it with overstuffed lines of dialogue, the child actors do a fantastic job of portraying the anxieties of living through a world-changing crisis. Gordon Cormier understood the assignment perfectly: in the role of Avatar Aang, he knows how to channel with the same believability the enthusiasm of youth, the grief of absolute loneliness, and the paralyzing cluelessness of someone forced to grow up too soon. His antagonist Dallas Liu expresses the right mix of bravado barely concealing Prince Zuko's profound insecurity. As Katara, actress Kiawentiio displays both the tenderness of a gentle soul and the determination of someone who knows she can be much more. And Ian Ousley nails Sokka's brand of deadpan sarcasm every time.

In general, the visual effects are very good, except for a few acrobatic moves that look too obviously digital. And the makeup for Iroh and Bumi looks fake to the point of self-parody. As well-executed as this production is otherwise, it doesn't manage to justify its existence as something separate from the original cartoon. Unlike most reboots, this one retells exactly the same story viewers already know, which is always a recipe for unreachable expectations. Avatar: The Last Airbender set an incredibly high bar for fantasy animation aimed at children, and the openly confessed Game of Thrones-inspired grittification of this version doesn't make the story any more meaningful or exciting. It does fulfill more than satisfyingly the mandatory mission of giving fans something to show to newcomers that isn't the horrible 2010 film, but beyond that, it can't hope to match the first telling.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Review: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

 A creepy fairytale story with its eye on more than the just magic, mystery and missing children.

When the cover of a book has animals with their skulls out on it, I feel like the audience is probably well-primed for the kinda gross - or at the very least rather unsettling - events that are about to unfold. Because - spoilers - this is not a story about a happy fun man who has a meat-and-sundries shop in an enchanting woodland paradise. These woods are creepy. So do go into it with that in mind.

That being said, Mohamed has managed to do the thing I always appreciate when authors do - she's stayed on the near side of the horror line - it's going to leave you feeling a bit ill at ease, but it never fully breaks out into the full on scary, the "guess it's time for the nightmares", actually horror-horror. And, because I am a great coward to the very depths of my soul, this is perfect for me. I want some horrible skull-creatures, I want nastiness... but only up to a point. The Butcher of the Forest takes me a fair way towards the edge of that line, but never threatens to step across it.

What it does do is give us a very good fairytale feeling story of a journey into a wood that might also be another wood, in another place, or no place at all, inhabited by creatures that aren't totally within the human scope of understanding, at least in the traditional sense. Unless you're Veris, our protagonist. Veris went into the wood a long time ago to fetch back a child that had disappeared there, something no one else had managed to do, because Veris Knows things. Not big, grand magics, but just enough to give her the wisdom and sense to get in and get out with what she came for. Much good though it may have done her. Now, many years later, she's been asked - well, not exactly asked but we'll come back to that - to go and do it all again, to fetch back another two children lost to the dangers of the North Forest, a Forest no one in the village goes into, and in which any lost children are simply considered dead. The North Forest is not to be messed with.

But when the two children lost in there are the children of the Tyrant? The Tyrant who knows you successfully made that trip once before? Well, sometimes heroism isn't a choice you get to make for yourself. Sometimes someone has decided your heroics are their due, and there's not much you can really do about that.

Which brings us to the core of what's so good about The Butcher of the Forest as a story - it's a story that understands the place a person may be forced to occupy, in the sort of world that so many fantasy stories like to draw on. Because Veris lives in a village - a land - occupied by the Tyrant. His name isn't ironic. And through her musings on her own past, and the events of the story as we witness them, we see a much better appreciation of what that might mean than I have come to expect of pseudo-medieval fantasy. Not so much in the understanding that social hierarchies exist, which is often covered perfectly well, but in the understanding of the layerings of explicit and implicit in the power dynamics that fuel them, and critically, in the legacy of what it took to get the world to that place.

Veris remembers the war that brought the Tyrant to power here. Veris remembers the cost - especially to her personally. The cost to her family and her body. Mohamed is perfectly blunt in what that conquest will have meant, and keeps on meaning, in the family that is a woman in her forties, her aunt in her 70s and her grandfather pushing 100 forming a household together, with the obvious gaping wounds of missing family members. And so, when Veris is picked up with some lack of courtesy at an inhospitable hours and pushed to her knees before the tyrant, there is no question of dramatic resistance. This power is a power to be suffered through and survived, if you can. It asks too much but you have to obey nonetheless.

Seeing that just written plainly on the page, in every act and choice of the heroine was just... kinda powerful. And just as grim as any horrible skull creature the woods had to offer.

And it gets better, because the children Veris is being sent in to rescue are the Tyrant's own. This man who has done such harm to her people, who threatens her family so she'll do this thing for him that no one else has done. A lot of the story has an undercurrent to it of Veris' torn emotions - her hatred of this man, her knowledge of what he has done... against the as-yet innocent of his children. They may well grow up to be their own monsters, they may well already be being shaped into them, but as yet... as yet? They're innocent. They are not the owners of their father's crimes. But they are part of the system as it is. They are its inheritors. They are an intrinsic part of a system that is anything but innocent itself. There is nothing but complexity to their place in relation to Veris in this world.

So it is this constant musing on that tension that underlies the whole of Veris' story in this book. She finds herself caught between the poles of resentment and understanding, as well as the past and the present, as her trip into the dangerous lands inside the North Forest naturally summon memories of her last trip.

The narrative threads through these moments of the past delicately, with a measured pace, so it takes much of the story to fully understand the story that came before, and its full significance. The moment when every piece finally clicks into place does not feel like a revelation, merely a moment of satisfied understanding, because those foundations have been so carefully built as we went the whole way along.

But this tension, this satisfying weaving of opposing points, would not work nearly so well were not Veris such a good character to infest the point of view of. She's already a rare thing in being a heroine in her 40s - I do love to see a fully adult women still being allowed to be the focus of a story - but she's also just someone with a relatable pragmatism, as well as a realistic backstory, in that she truly feels like she has one. There are not many pages for this story to unfold across, but Mohamed dedicates enough page space within them to give Veris the very real sense of being a whole person, a person with a life that has happened before this, and for whom that past has real effects, writ both large and small, on how she interacts with the present. It feels relevant to her words, her actions, her choices throughout, and makes her feel so beautifully realised, especially alongside her pragmatism, her wisdom to know which are the battles she cannot fight and must resign herself to suffer through. There's a weariness to those decisions, the sense of a big sigh just being held back, that does a great deal of work in making me like her.

Is she a heroine though? It's a question I came away from finishing this wondering, and not to Veris' detriment. But it is simply that, unlike so many stories, she has ended up in this role through no agency of her own. It's a story that has happened to her, even as she is the one suffering it. Does that make her more the heroine than in stories where the protagonist's chose their battles? Or less? I don't know. But that lingering pondering... that too is a joy of the book.

Which leads me onto the ending... which I won't spoil. But I can say, without spoilers, that when you get there, you realise quite what the scope of this story is, and that, in one framing, it could merely be the prelude to another, different story. I kind of hope that story never gets written though. I enjoy that this exists as that prelude, and that there's a big wide gulf of potentiality hovering around the ending at what the "and then?" could be. It is forever left as an exercise of the reader to wonder and to dream it. Mohamed has left us a framework, and we can find our own answers within it, if we want to spend the time doing so (I certainly have).

All in all, The Butcher of the Forest is a wonderful novella that gives us a great (creepy - did I mention creepy?) story, but with a real meat of thoughtfulness under the skin, that sometimes peeps through the gaping wounds to give us a glimpse of what lies beneath. It's got the nastiness that fairytales often have, as well as a very offhand, pragmatic approach to magic that is unwilling to explain it because it simply does not need an explanation. When the horrible skull creature is coming after you, you don't have time to wonder exactly how it works, after all. The wondering is saved for the important things - how fucked up the world is under the bootheel of a tyrant, and the lingering horrors of one's own existence. Just how I like it.


The Math

Highlights: over 40s women allowed to have adventures (even if they don't personally want them), political musings, creepy horrible skull creatures

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Premee Mohamed, The Butcher of the Forest, [Tor 2024]

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

Friday, February 23, 2024

Microreview: Dragons of Deepwood Fen by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Introducing a new fantasy world, filled with the intrigues of an empire, its unwilling vassal state, a grasping church, and oh yes, dragons.

Rylan Holbrooke has a problem. Well, a bunch of problems. He is the illegitimate son of the local governor. He has a rapport with dragons, in fact he is a dragon singer, able to calm and work with the dragons that the empire relies on. But he is also a thief and scoundrel stealing from said empire as well.  His checkered nature, his straddling (however very uncomfortably) of two worlds puts him in position to notice the threads of a dreadful and dangerous plot. A plot that will change the vassalized realm of forest known as The Holt forever. And, perhaps, the entire Empire as well.

Rylan's story, and the stories of his fellow protagonists, are the matter of Bradley Beaulieu's The Dragons of Deepwood Fen.

Rylan is our primary protagonist and gets the most screen time out of all of the characters we see. He's caught between two worlds and trying to balance his lives in both worlds, and the author aptly shows his inner and outward struggles in handling that. This is best shown in the points of conflict--his lack of desire to have anything to do with the Red Knives except when forced, and then later, on the opposite site, the very prickly relationship he has with his half-siblings in his father's house. Where does, in fact, Rylan fit in and feel himself, the best? Alone, flying over the holt with his dragon, and, it is shown, nowhere else. 

Our other major protagonist is Lorelei. Lorelei is an Inquisitor (investigator) for the Empire, and with her queer partner Creed, she, like Rylan, goes from her day job to being wrapped up in the tendrils of the conspiracy and danger to the Holt and beyond. Starting off with investigating a drug smuggling ring, Lorelei starts to learn that there is something rotten in the Empire city of Ancris. Lorelei is a fascinating character and perhaps even slightly more interesting than Rylan on a character level. Rylan is interesting because of his spending time in two worlds. Lorelei is more connected, with her partner, with her mother. She also very clearly has what we would call undiagnosed ADHD with a side order of social anxiety disorder. We don't use and see those terms of course, but Lorelei is so clearly not a social creature, is always leaping ahead in her mind, and really is only herself when she is working on a puzzle or problem, in limited company. She does a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting to see the scope of the problem. 

Third, and to a lesser extent, is Rhiannon. Rhiannon is the youngest of the three, and has magical potential and power that she herself does not quite understand. Also, being young, she is also the one who is the most manipulated out of these three characters. This makes sense, but it makes for sometimes a bit of a frustrating read when she is on stage. Also, hers is the point of view that seems to have the most flashbacks to them. While these flashbacks provide extremely important context and development of the byzantine and labyrinthine "plots within plots" that the novel revels in, it means that as a result, that Rhiannon feels like she has less agency than Lorelei and Rylan, and is much more of a narrative device and tool than an actual character that I could really feel for. I could imagine (while holding my nose thanks to his odious smoking) talking with Rylan and meeting his dragon. I could definitely imagine getting to know (carefully!) the shy and introverted and socially awkward Lorelei. Rhiannon, by contrast, I have a far less good hold on, as a character in my mind. 

There are a couple of other viewpoint characters (this is epic fantasy, and so we have a good half dozen of them in all), but I actually want to hold my fire in discussing them, because it is very easy to get spoilery regarding them. Suffice it to say, Beaulieu is firmly in the Point of View Solves Problems school of writing, and we get other sides to the conflict through these characters. We also get some rather unusual twists regarding these characters and their nature, and once again, the author gives our characters very understandable, and sometimes rather painful flaws to deal with.

So given a thick fantasy novel with a complex plot, where does one start? For one thing, let's lay the groundwork. Refer to the map in the book (this is a case where audio is a weaker medium, because the map is definitely important here). The Holt is not part of the Empire at the heart of this world, it is an uneasy vassal state with a government that is a messy hybrid of control from the central Empire and local magnates having their say, with the current holder of the position, Rylan's father, about to face a regular vote of confidence. It feels like a somewhat more aristocratic and less monarchist version of the Roman Empire era Kingdom of Armenia. It's not officially part of the Empire, but its government certainly is overshadowed by the nearby Empire.

In point of fact, the right model is surely a flavor of the Roman Empire. Latin terms and names abound in the book. The Five rulers of the empire are called a Quintarchy. Lorelei's last name is Aurelius.  The center of Ancris is called the Quadrata. There are legionnaires as the military force. And so on.  Fortunately, as witness Lorelei itself, this is a far far less patriarchal Romanesque world than the real thing. Lorelei is not unusual for being a woman, she is unusual in her lack of social skills and the convoluted method by which she became an inquisitor in the first place. We see women in power and authority throughout the Empire, and the Holt as well. 

The plot of the novel does move slower than what is good for it. Beaulieu, even with the shorthands above, has a lot to try and get off the ground. So a lot of the novel has Rylan bustling about, and Lorelei wrapped up in her police procedural storyline that proves far more important than even she realizes. So this fantasy novel adds that as one of the balls that it is trying to juggle along with the hybrid low fantasy world of a lot of the work (a notable touchstone here might be the world of Joe Abercrombie except with significantly more magic and less gore). It does feel like its a while before Lorelei truly gets out of her storyline and really into the main action, or the main action in general. Beaulieu lays down a lot of the world in the time, including, of course, dragons.

So let's talk about the dragons, given the title of this work. There are two schools of dragons, and two supergroups of them. The metallics, based on metals, are the dragons used by the Empire. They are magically controlled and coerced, the Empire turning to raw power. This is what makes Rylan so valuable, his Dragonsinger nature means he has a better understanding of his charges than even the dragon's owners in many cases. It is a very hierarchical, dominance based system (I wish that Rylan made his feelings about this system planer earlier, but he eventually vocalizes just how horrid he thinks this whole thing is). 

By contrast, a rebellious faction living in the Holt, the Red Knives, and as mentioned above, secretly, Rylan, use a magical ritual of bonding to tie a rider to their sragon. The dragons of the holt are non-metallic, and their scales are often used for alchemical reagents. There is a much more sure pairing of dragon and human, and the connections to McCaffrey are obvious (also, Robin Hobb and Tracy Hickman, among others). Given how fraught the first meetings can be, I was also reminded of the movie Avatar, as Jake must bind and tame a flying mountain banshee, and then that bond is permanent.  The Rylan-Vedron connection and their relationship is one of the highlights of the book. 

In all, yes, Beaulieu does deliver on the dragons, and really, given all the intrigue and characters as given above, the prose and the feel of the book really do achieve lift-off when Beaulieu is writing passages with his dragons front and center. Be it a glorious aerial battle of dragon versus dragon, or the quieter ministrations of Rylan doing his job as Dragonsinger, Beaulieu clearly wrote this novel with the dragons front and center. 

I give good credit to Beaulieu for going beyond the usual settings in creating The Holt. Empires and colonialism are complex and complicated subjects. Rather than going for an occupied province, or a land outside the boundaries of the Empire entirely, The Holt is instead a vassal and dependency. This is inherently an uneasy and uncertain status for it and its inhabitants. It allows Beaulieu to have some of his cake and eat it too. They aren't quite part of the Empire, but the Kin (the inhabitants of this region) are certainly connected to the Empire. Rylan himself is half-Kin and suffers prejudice, particularly from the Empire, for his nature. It helps give depth and feeling for both Rylan and the Holt itself. I mentioned Hobb above, and I do believe that the Rain Wilds were an obvious inspiration for the forested vastness of The Holt, although more temperate in climate.

I do have some thoughts about other aspects of the worldbuilding here, ones that frustrated me.  Fortunately, not the map itself or the basic geography. There are no rivers that fork unexpectedly, or anything that violates basic conventions of geology. I am less clear on something that really isn't touched on and I wished it were. This is a novel, as discussed above, that is all about the vassalized but not incorporated Holt and how it chafes under that indirect control, and the interesting ideas that entails. We've plenty of works set in empires, and in "barbarian" (sic) lands, but the polder and borderlands of vassalized and client-kings, is a setting we get little of. But my question is, just where is the heartland of the Empire? It's not entirely clear. We have these important cities in the mountains, and we have the fivefold Quintarch structure to the government representing these five cities. But are the mountains truly their heartland? It sure seems so, and if that is the case, he missed a big worldbuilding opportunity. The Holt is very different than the mountains, but we never get a sense of the sense of place of those mountains. We definitely get a feel for the Holt, as mentioned above. But an Empire built and developed in those mountains, well, the denizens are sure to have opinions about lowland forests as a terrain. I've mentioned before how much Beaulieu has modeled his empire on the Roman, right down to the Latinate names. Well, the Romans complained incessantly about the cold north of England and Scotland, the forests of Germany, the desolate heat of Syria, the weirdness of ancient Egypt. And yes the Romans went there anyway. But this Empire feels pale by comparison. In making the Holt as such a rich tributary vassal and place for the action to take place, the Empire itself as a place suffers. Ancris, one of the five capitals, suffers in comparison to the Holt as a setting. 

The ending of this novel doesn't really have an offramp if you want to one and done the series. The immediate threat and problem, once the true scale of what is going on is revealed, is thwarted but not defeated. All of the major characters have gone through a lot, and the stage is set for the next novel, the next round in the conflict. Despite my reservations above, I did enjoy the novel, as I have enjoyed Beaulieu's work going back to his earliest novels. Perhaps with worldbuilding under him, the second volume can move from the strength of the last quarter of the novel (where things ramp up) into a stronger second book.


The Math


  • Diverse and interesting fantasy world
  • Rylan and Lorelei make a strong two hander of the primary protagonists and viewpoints
  • Some issues with the worldbuilding and pacing. 

Reference: Beaulieu, Bradley P.,  Dragons of Deepwood Fen, [Daw, 2023]

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

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Microreview: The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The gang is reunited to buckle some swashes, but they sure took their time getting to the good bits

The hook of S. A. Chakraborty’s newest offering ticks all my boxes: Piracy and magic and spirits and daevas? Ships and trade and 12th century Islamic world? A middle-aged mother who has Lived A Life is strong-armed out of her peaceful domestic retirement into taking One Last Job? Please and thank you, yes, may I have some more?

The story is told from the perspective of Amina Al-Sirafi, who made a name for herself in her youth as the most ruthless, terrifying pirate captain in the Arab world. Tales of her feats are known everywhere:  She is tall, fights like a man, has gold in her teeth and scars on her arm. She poisoned a feast during trade talks in order to rob the attendees; she stole horses from the emir of Hormuz. She robbed Chinese envoys of their cargo and stole their ship while they slept through it all, only to awake drifting in the sea on dinghies. She is not to be trifled with. 

 Or was not to be trifled with. Now, though, she just wants to be left alone to live quietly and raise her beloved daughter, secluded and hidden from the girl’s father, who is clearly bad news of some sort. (The exact badness of his news is kept an irritating secret from the reader, but not a terribly secret secret; I'd figured it out by page 49.) So when a wealthy woman whose daughter has been kidnapped comes to hire Amina to find the daughter, she knows exactly which pressure points to push to make Amina take the job: threaten her quiet retirement, and make it known where the fabled pirate captain now lives. Of course Amina takes the job---and since deep down she misses the old life, the excitement, the seafaring adventures, it’s not a complete catastrophe. One last job. One terrific pay-out. Then she’ll definitely absolutely retire for real. No fooling. Absotively posilutely. Forget that this is marketed as Book 1 of a trilogy. Just one last job, that's all.

From here the plot proceeds in two halves. In the first bit, Amina gets the gang back together. She must track down her old ship and her old crew and get them on board (hah) with her new endeavour. Friends must be sprung from prisons, ships must be stolen from soldiers, and poisoners and cartographers must be persuaded to give up their own comfortable retirements to help Amina find the kidnapped child.  Next, once the gang is all gathered, Amina and company set out to rescue the child. And since the child has been kidnapped by a collector of magical artifacts, with his own plans for how to use them to his advantage, things get real magical real fast.

This book delivers on all of its promises. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that provides so fully and completely everything that it promised on the tin. We have sea battles, heists, poisoners, and trips to the world of the Unseen where trees grow people as fruit and court finery includes cloaks of porcupine quills. We meet loyal friends, ambiguous former lovers, mysterious (sexy) strangers, teenage waifs with hidden depths, and a ship’s cat who is so bad at being a cat that it clearly is hiding some other secret. From the midpoint to the end, this book is a sterling example of the sort of historical Arab-centered fantasy that Chakraborty did so well in her previous Daevabad trilogy.

The problem is that in the first half, the Getting-The-Gang-Back-Together-Again half, I found myself chafing a bit, getting restless. Some of these relate to my own personal preferences in reading fantasy, but some of it reflects a slight clumsiness in execution.

I understand exactly what Chakraborty was doing in this bit. She has chosen a wonderful, underused (in western fantasy at least) setting for her story. The medieval Arab world is this delightful mishmash of cultures and languages and peoples, trades going east to China and India, south to Madagascar, north to the Mediterranean. The cities of Aden, of Socotra, Mombasa—these are wonderful, vibrant, exciting settings. By sailing from place to place to gather up her old comrades, Amina is taking the reader on a tour of this world, allowing us to visit the markets, run into the local governments, learn about the world that is so different from the more familiar knights-and-stone-castles of medieval Europe historical fantasy settings.

This approach also allows us to sink into the character histories some more. We learn about Amina’s previous exploits in the regions, we see her thinking about her youth, reflecting on what she has learned and what she wants from her future, having conversations about growing up and growing older with her former (and once-more) shipmates. Structurally, it is a very effective decision.

But, see, it’s boring. There’s only so much navel-gazing about responsibilities as a parent conflicting with one’s desire for adventure that I can take before I start wanting less talk and more plot. And this was a little bit over that line. Not a lot. But a little.

The other issue with this first half of the book is something that is really, really hard to get right, but which must be addressed in historical fantasy. And that is the importation of modern progressive values into a very, very different world. Slavery was a thing in the 12th century Middle East. Women didn’t have much freedom. Queer people and trans people existed, and did not always have an easy time of it. Previously, if such issues were addressed in a historical fantsy, they were folded into the worldview of the narrator and characters, because ‘historical accuracy’. More modern texts don’t accept the presumed worldview of a person ‘of the time’ so blithely, and so must find a way for their characters—who absolutely are ‘of the time’—to be people that won’t come across as despicable bigots to a modern reader.  

This is a hard task. It’s true that we often assume a sort of knee-jerk reactionary worldview in historical fantasy that isn’t actually all that historically accurate, but it’s also undeniable that a 12th century pirate captain is not going to be flying a rainbow flag and speaking the language of trans rights. There’s a balance to be struck. And Chakraborty works very, very hard to strike that balance. Amina knows about the practice of slavery and abhors it. She knows that some of her crewmates are gay, learns that one is trans, and accepts it easily. There’s nothing in Amina’s head that would, I think, offend the modern reader. Chakraborty makes sure of it. She’s very careful. I can tell. She’s doing her job. 

 And that’s the problem—not that Chakraborty’s doing her job, but that I can tell she’s doing her job. It doesn’t feel organic. It feels careful. It feels attentive. It feels like there were sensitivity readers consulted. It feels calculated.

In a way this criticism might be unfair. What else is Chakraborty supposed to do? Not consult sensitivity readers? Not acknowledge that slavery was a thing and queer and trans people existed in this setting? Make her heroine a bigot who accepts injustices unthinkingly? Of course not! But all the same, the seams of her process showed a bit more obviously in these bits than they did in the swashbuckling action, the descriptions of the world of the Unseen, the parry and thrust of the villains and heroes, the negotiations with the daevas. The bits that felt smooth and natural and engrossing and enchanting were all in the second half. The bits that felt laboured and slow were all in the first half. The half without magic.



Nerd coefficient: 7/10, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

  • Pirates

  • Medieval Arab world

  • Daevas

  • Modern worldviews in medieval minds


Chakraborty, Shannon. The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi [Harper Voyager, 2023].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at