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 adrijjy.bsky.social.

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. @chloroformtea.bsky.social

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

Highlights:

  • 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.

--

Highlights

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

  • Pirates

  • Medieval Arab world

  • Daevas

  • Modern worldviews in medieval minds

References:
  

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 wandering.shop/@ergative.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Review: True Detective Season 4

The dark and icy fourth season of True Detective is the first deserving follow-up to the incredible first season, and Jodie Foster & Kali Reis help showrunner Issa Lopez stick the landing in the finale. (Spoilers abound below.)


It's been a cold winter here in Georgia, and my six Sunday night journeys to Night Country have felt strangely similar to True Detective season 4 as it explores the dark and frigid world of Ennis, Alaska. There are no one-eyed polar bears or months-long night in Atlanta, of course, but isolation, cabin fever, and icy winds give you a taste of what life at the edge of the world would feel like — basically microdosing Alaska.

And that claustrophobic and cold weather-induced feeling is such an important part of this season. Arctic horror has a long and storied history in the popular imagination, starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and progressing along to tales of Franklin's lost expedition (Shout out to Dan Simmon's The Terror, a book that I think about at least once a week) and John Carpenter's The Thing. Why is Arctic horror so effective? Because cold, icy dark is inimical to life. Because it's inescapable, unforgiving, and just damn uncomfortable. And maybe, just maybe, because the kind of chill that months of dark and damp and ice make you believe that anything could be possible, even monsters on the frozen sea. 

A brief recap

This season starts with the death of a team Arctic research scientists who, for reasons unknown, ran out into a blizzard, undressed, and froze together into a corpsicle. Chief Liz Danvers (played with incredible aplomb by Jodie Foster) and Trooper Evangeline Navarro (the divine Kali Reis) work to unravel the mystery, tied up as it is with the local pollution-generating mine, a prior cold case concerning the murder of local Iñupiaq protester, and possibly even her vengeance-seeking spirit. 

Along with the plot-driven elements, we also get fascinating character studies of the people who choose to live in Ennis, and the things that haunt them. 

Danvers is a cold, brusque and no-nonsense detective — she's also utterly unliked by most of her coworkers and a good chunk of the town's residents. Try as I might though, I just couldn't bring myself to dislike her. Jodie Foster is too intelligent, too charming, and too damn competent to truly be an Arctic Karen, despite her best efforts. 


Navarro is the opposite. While she's tough, intelligent, and good at her job (and a military vet), she really cares about people. It's why she hasn't given up on the Annie K. cold case from six years prior. She threads the needle delicately with her Iñupiaq heritage, turning to it sometimes while also trying to stand apart as an officer of the law. 

There are tons of other fascinating characters, from the monk-like scientists at Tsalal research station to my favorite character in the show, Rose Agineau (played by Fiona Shaw). 

She lives on the outskirts of town, butchers wolves, listens to Tim Buckley, and throws elaborate Christmas dinners for herself. She's a former professor but also the kind of person you call when you need to hide a body (she knows you have to puncture the lungs so a body won't float under the ice). I would watch an entire season of Alone with her as the star (and yes, she would absolutely win it all). 

The finale, explained

We get a super-sized episode to tie everything together, and it's fairly safe to say that nobody guessed this one. It turns out that 6 years ago, Annie K. was killed in a fit of rage by the scientists at Tsalal when she broke in and destroyed their years of research. The scientists knew that the mining company was polluting Ennis, and they encouraged this since it was melting the ice faster and helping their tests. Hank Prior disposes of the body for the mine bigwigs, and then her case is closed with no further investigation. 

So, who killed the scientists, then? Eventually, we find out, the cleaning ladies and local worker women discover what happened, and they barge into Tsalal and drive the men out onto the ice. It's an interesting turn of events, because in the first episode we learn a little about these scientists, and they seem like quiet, intellectual milquetoast types. Danvers goes through their belongings and sees a Wilco t-shirt, a Cormac McCarthy novel, and Ferris Bueller appears to be a station favorite. The scientists appear to be the liberal kind of men that are nice dads, that wouldn't dream of hurting a woman. 

But when their precious research (and years of hard work) are destroyed, they killed Annie K. in a riotous rampage, stabbing her dozens of times. 

We learn the truth in a powerful scene where the detectives question these women about the events that transpired. The viewer gets to witness individuals who are usually voiceless (native women) being given the power to enact justice when the law can't — or won't. 


Seeing a group of women like come together gives me the same rah-rah feeling I got from the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road. Action movies and revenge stories aren't usually the realm of older women and minority characters. When we get to see it, it's revelatory. 

A brilliant choose-your-own-adventure of supernatural belief


In this fantastic interview with showrunner Issa Lopez, she talks about her intentions with the mythological and supernatural elements of this season. Every single thing that happens in the show has a reason grounded in reality. But just how far you want to take it depends on your point of view, and what you want to believe. In a setting as spooky as Night Country, you can really lean into it. Over the past few weeks, I watched countless TikToks of people speculating on all sorts of conspiracy theories and supernatural bit-parts that people believed where actually happening. My favorite was idea that Rose was a ghost à la Sixth Sense

We get callbacks all throughout to the first season of True Detective, from the swirled line imagery and Rust Cohl's Alaskan-born father to the infamous "Time is a flat circle" line. It's never completely explained what all of these things mean, but they add up to create a spooky vibe that can make you start rabbit-holing into various ideas.

Adding to the supernatural timbre of the show are certain aspects of the Iñupiaq folklore, specifically Sedna, the goddess of the sea. Peter's son is drawing a picture of her way back in episode one, which is our first introduction to her. In the myth, she angers her father and he cuts off her fingers and throws Sedna off the side of his kayak. She falls to the water below and becomes the ruler of the monsters of the sea, her fingers becoming sea creatures like whales and walruses.

At the end of the day, though, the show isn't focusing on the supernatural — it's about people. The first season was the same way, too (though people may argue this point). Homicide detectives, the focal point of each season of True Detective, see the absolute worst parts of humanity. They have to do their job while not crumbling inside when faced with rage, torture, anger, racism, misogny, everything that contributes to and leads up to one person killing another. Rust Cohle in season one takes a nihilistic, pessimistic approach. In this season, we see a different approach. Danvers is haunted by the death of her family, but she still is a mother at heart and continues to keep trying to make a difference.

Navarro loses everything, and while the show is ambiguous about her destiny (Does she die? Does she leave? Is she on a walkabout away from Ennis?), we learn that her Iñupiaq name means the "return of the sun after a long darkness” — I choose to believe she settles with her past and looks to the future, and lives.


Unanswered questions

  • Where has the tongue been for 6 years? 
  • Has it been in a freezer like a piece of wedding cake?
  • What happens to Navarro at the end?
  • Will the mining company ever face justice?
  • Did Hank ever have a real mail-order bride?
  • How did that polar bear lose his eye?

--

The Math


Baseline Score: 8/10


Bonuses: Stellar performances by the lead actors; a feminist twist ending; coldness is personified in the icy, blizzardy city of Ennis


POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Review: Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne

A curious experiment in probing the minds of fans

More or less a year and a half ago, the North American Jules Verne Society posted a call for submissions to a planned anthology of short stories inspired by Verne's oeuvre. These could be sequels, prequels, sidequels, or original pieces using the same vibe or setting. The result is the book Extraordinary Visions, which contains thirteen stories from across the Anglosphere.

What this collection contains is the purest form of fanfiction—and here I must be very clear that by "fanfiction" I don't mean anything derogatory. These stories consciously seek to honor and perpetuate Verne's style, buttressed by the state of scientific knowledge that existed during his lifetime. This is the highest form of flattery Verne could have hoped for from his readers; indeed, one can read Extraordinary Visions as a historical register of the state of English-speaking Verne fandom at this moment of the 21st century. However, in terms of literary quality, the success of the experiment is mixed.

The Dominion of All the Earth, by Joseph S. Walker, a belated epilogue to Journey to the Center of the Earth, suffers from too much loyalty to the original text. The dialogues try for antique but come off as stilted and verbose. The protagonist has done all his actions prior to the story proper, leaving him only with the role of sitting and listening to seven pages of exposition, and that's the end. If we judged this text by today's narrative conventions, the first criticism would be that this is not a protagonist propelling the action; this is a protagonist having the action dumped onto him.

However, when considered as what it really tries to be, an epilogue to the original novel, it fits perfectly. On its own, this story can't boast much in the way of structural quality (nor can the novel), but if we imagine this story printed at the end of the novel, extending the plot beyond its original non-ending, it helps it reach the completion Verne couldn't give it.

To Hold Back Time: A Baltimore Gun Club Adventure, by Michael Schulkins, more a stealth remake than a true sequel to The Purchase of the North Pole, also shows the limitations of prioritizing faithfulness to the original. In speech, mannerisms, personalities and interests, this story achieves a credible recreation of the Baltimore Gun Club, one of the most suffocatingly ultramasculine creations of literature. However, this outdated vision of scientific progress still finds resonance. The scenes where the Club's entrepreneuring gentlemen meet to plan the improvement of human life via the all-purpose power of firearms bring to mind today's equally overconfident tech bros, obsessed with moving fast and breaking things.

This time, the Club's big idea is to give themselves more free time each day "for extended gunnery practice" by slowing down the rotation of Earth. How, you ask? With huge, carefully positioned cannons, of course. The story delivers the bits of humor that can be expected from such a premise, but the plot follows the beats of The Purchase of the North Pole so closely that the reader will not be surprised to find a similar ending that happens for similar reasons, with the added disadvantage that this ending requires experienced cannoneers to commit an elementary mistake about how recoil works.

A Drama in Durango, by Alison L. Randall, is a more original story, even if it's partly inspired by A Drama in Livonia and less directly by Master Zacharius. Its protagonist is a fan of Verne's books who lives in the age of cowboys and uses the same logical methods of Verne's characters to solve the case of a wandering bank robber who turns out to be linked to a much larger conspiracy. The plot is woven impressively tight, with each step in the chain of secrets, betrayals, plans and counterplans fulfilling its function in harmonious order.

Old Soldiers, by Gustavo Bondoni, is rather problematic. It's set decades after the ending of The Steam House and deals with the reconstruction of its mechanical elephant so that it can be used in World War I. Although the idea of defending France from the Kaiser's troops with a steam-powered robot is a potent premise, that adventure is only reported in a late flashback by a minor character; we don't see it happen. The focus of the story is centered instead on an Indian man who worked as a servant of the British pilot of the Steam House, and who even in his last years continues to feel for his old master a reverence that is disturbing to read. The abusive power dynamic between colonizer and colonized is never addressed, and the rightness of arming the British Empire with a huge metallic fighting machine is simply taken for granted, as it was in the original novel. Add to these problems the two lead characters' fixation with manly emotionlessness and the story's unquestioned pro-militarism, and the result is a deeply uncomfortable read.

Want of Air, by Janice Rider, is another story about Verne fans. With a gentle touch over the wounds of grief, the author draws a poetic parallel between a widow and a son comforting each other during a winter night and an episode in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas where Nemo and his crew are trapped with only a few hours of oxygen left. This story gets the closest to the stated spirit of the anthology in that, instead of playing with Verne's fantastic machines, it goes straight to the more vital topic of readers' shared love for Verne and what that shared love can bring to your life.

Nellie and Jules Go Boating, by David A. Natale, alludes to a real-life incident. In 1889, American journalist Nellie Bly embarked on a solo trip around the world, in an (eventually successful) attempt to complete it faster than Verne's imagined 80 days. During one of the stops in her itinerary, she happened to be close to Verne's house in France, so of course she took the opportunity to meet him and discuss the adventure she was undergoing. No one knows what they said to each other. This story imagines what might have happened in those brief hours.

The premise is a good one, but the dialogues suffer from the frequent appearance of untranslated French in the middle of lines supposed to be transcribed in English for the reader. Also, for a story about a woman's determination, independence, and accomplishments, there's a bit too much of focus on Verne's relationship with his father. Those sections distract from the events that are actually of interest, and are written with less technical finesse than the rest of the text.

The Highest Loyalty, by Mike Adamson, is a standard rescue adventure starring Captain Nemo. He receives a call for help, he helps, the end. The briefly mentioned backstory, where the Nautilus was part of the Underground Railroad carrying Black people to freedom, would have been far more exciting to read than the plot that is instead told here.

Embrace of the Planets, by Brenda Carre, is a surreal potpourri of Verne references, as well as a multilayered dramedy about the stories we keep about ourselves and that not everyone deserves to hear. Bonus points for Doctor Who vibes.

Rust and Smoke, by Demetri Capetanopoulos, plays with the possibility that Captain Nemo's diaries might have been found ashore in Norway, but not recognized for what they were. This story carries a bittersweet aftertaste of how quickly the most precious memories can fade into the indifference of time.

Gabriel at the Jules Verne Traveling Adventure Show, by Joel Allegretti, captures with the sincerity that can only come from first-hand knowledge that primordial experience of being a child who meets the worlds born of Verne's imagination for the first time and naturally, as we all once did, wants to become part of them.

Tyranny Under the Sea, by Christopher M. Geeson, presents a terrifying scenario: what if a fragment of the Confederacy had survived in a secret city on the ocean floor? And what would a slave revolt look like in such a place?

Trumpets of Freedom, by Kelly A. Harmon, merges the plots of Robur the Conqueror and The Lighthouse at the End of the World into something less tragic than either. Vasquez, the lighthouse keeper, has built mechanical workers to help him with his daily tasks, which makes him exactly the type of unconventional thinker that Robur is eager to befriend.

Raise the Nautilus, by Eric Choi, is the blood-pumping adventure you want a collection like this to end with. The British Empire has its hands full, what with fighting the Kaiser in Europe, so what good would it do to send warships to the South Pacific in an improbable attempt to salvage what could remain of Captain Nemo's shipwrecked invention from the ruins of the Mysterious Island?

It is to be commended that this story takes the time to consider the moral tensions inherent to having British soldiers steal the life's work of an enemy of the British Empire. Unlike in World War II, the Great War had no good/bad divide: all parties were criminally culpable. The single-minded, never-ending pursuit of bigger and bigger guns is hinted at in some dialogues. However, the story stops short of attributing any tactical advantage to possession of the Nautilus; one central character explicitly predicts that, in the new kind of war that the 20th century has brought, even Nemo's advanced weaponry will make very little difference regardless of who captures it. So, in the end, the core question this story hinges on is not whether the British will remain unconquered by the Germans, but whether Nemo will remain unconquered by the British.

Extraordinary Visions is a worthy read despite the uneven selection it's composed of. It especially piques my curiosity that the most innovative, thoughtful and creative of its stories are those written by women. If I may be allowed a very rough generalization, the men wrote about interacting with Verne's settings and characters, while the women wrote about what Verne means. Verne himself might have felt more at home with the first style of writing, but both are compelling ways of exploring the legacy of one of science fiction's biggest forefathers.


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Reference: Southard, Steven R. and Hardesty, Matthew T. [editors]. Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne [BearManor Media, 2023].

Monday, February 19, 2024

Review: Finding Echoes by Foz Meadows

A novella with a distinctive voice in a distinctive city, that knows how to focus in on what really matters.


There is a story in this novella - a good one, as it happens, well crafted, well paced and interesting - but it's not what my lingering memory is, when I closed the last (digital) page. There were two other things instead.

The first, unsurprisingly, was the slow revelation of the relationship between the two main characters - their history, their circumstances, who they are and were to each other. We learn about them and their past through the slow unveiling of the world and their places in it, and there is a tentative deliciousness to the slow pace of our understanding, as well as an immediacy to it too. We met Gem and I immediately knew - as I imagine everyone does - "old flame". So it's not that we are waiting for a grand reveal that takes ages in the telling. We know the shape of it. But the deliciousness is in the slow unravelling of the details, a gradual understanding of all the steps that brought these two people to where they are now, strangers who were once close. And it is, let me stress, beautifully paced. There's a glorious suspense to the full understanding that lasts almost up to the final page and I loved it.

Why isn't this a surprise? I've read Meadows' work before, and he excels at this kind of emotional cave-diving. A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was full of thoughtful introspection, from two people is a slowly closing orbit, and it shares a substantial DNA in that regard with Finding Echoes. It is not misunderstanding, exactly, that fuels the drawn out unclarity of the relationships of Meadows' characters. I am by far less frustrated by misunderstandings in romance than most readers seem to be, but even so, that isn't what this is. Instead, it is a subtle and deeply empathetic understanding of the gulf between people, no matter how close they have been, want to be, might well someday be, that takes real effort and determination to cross. Especially for characters who are full of doubt, or wariness. Characters who have learnt not to trust, as Gem and Snow have in Finding Echoes.

And it is particularly well done here, because we only ever see the story from Snow's perspective, and yet we still get that depth of feeling from them both, through the interactions between them, and particularly the dialogue.

Which is the other strength I want to pick up on.

Language in fantasy is hard. It's hard to make up a bunch of concepts, and words for those concepts, and smush them all together in a way that the reader understands, but also reads as natural, as the sort of thing humans (or non-humans) would really say. There are so, so many stories in the failure-state of awkwardness where too many neologisms have been coined that the reader is swamped in them, and the author feels they have to spell too many of them out, lest confusion reign, and we never know that this things is basically a horse, it's just not called a horse*. Even if you avoid the worst of it, it is also just incredibly hard to hit just the right vibe, just the right atmosphere, just that natural voice that people have when speaking that needs to be crafted from the ground up.

But Meadows has done it. And done it so well I found myself noticing how coherent a voice all the characters from the same background really had when speaking to one another. There were a lot of terms thrown around, a lot of concepts to learn, about drugs and magic and mushrooms and technology and crime gangs and just slang, and yet they all coalesced into something that felt actually human. In the banter between Snow and Nixa, both living and working in the same section of the city, for the same criminal gangs, there emerges a distinctive tone, a dialect, that forms into something that feels real. Other characters share it, to greater or lesser extents, and the way they use the words, the way the unfamiliar terminology peppers their speech, never rings untrue as you read it, even as you don't understand it all.

And some of that is the charm - Meadows trusts the reader to pick things up in context, to go with the flow and learn the context as and when it comes (which it absolutely does). While I finished the story with some questions unanswered, I did not finish with any confusion. Everything that needed to make sense absolutely did - often in the way of the best novellas, with just enough explanation and no more. I could give you no etymological details, no fascinating trips down exposition lane, but I knew the stakes, the setting and the slang well enough to grasp what the story wanted to tell me, and to ponder at points where it might take me, before I got there.

The flip side of this, of course, is that this is not a story for the lovers of deep, expansive world-building. I do not say this because it is done badly - far from it - but it is simply not the focus. The world, and to a lesser extent the plot, exist to support the core the story is interested in. For me, this felt like it was that central relationship between two once-close people long-estranged. The plot isn't weak, but it's not the thing that felt like the sharpest focus at every point. Snow's gaze, through whom we see it all, is too often drawn back to Gem, or back into himself and his memories. Even as he lives through the events of the present, he dwells instead on the past, on the past of his life, of Gem's, of the city, of all of it, and so our focus too is drawn backward and inward, with the events of the now as a vehicle to carry us through. As someone who likes character-driven stories, for me, this was a strength.

I like that the world was sketched, rather than filled in meticulous detail. It felt spare in a way that was artful, rather than rushed - thoughtful about what was needful to tell the story being told. Especially in shorter format stories, I often find that cramming in too many extra bits and pieces of information makes the story cramped and bloated, when much of the delight of the novella comes from the brevity and speed, the snapshot story rather than the sprawling epic.

If you like this too, if you like stories that know what their focus is, that use every tool within them to support it, to create an artful centre - this may well be for you. It has a strong, interesting and admittedly somewhat traumatised pair of men at its centre, and if you delight in watching two people relate to one another across a gulf of years of separate experience, there will be delight here. I left it wondering - hoping - for other stories set in this world, about other people, other brief snippets of life and introspection in this setting, and with plenty of space and willingness to learn more about a strange city of walls. But equally, if this sits alone, then it will be more than sufficient, because even alone, it was a small delight.

*a passage in Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy sticks out particularly in my mind for this, where she goes to great pains to explain the exact nature of a ceryni (after whom one of the characters is named), only for us to get to the end of it and realise... it's a rat. It's just a rat.

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The Math

Highlights: two beautifully drawn, traumatised people trying to relate to one another, beautifully spare world-building, excellent use of language and dialogue

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Foz Meadows, Finding Echoes, [Neon Hemlock 2024]

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