Friday, March 29, 2024

Six Books with Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with two obligatory writer's cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma and her books on her website

Today she tells us about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

I'm just about to finish Naomi Klein's "Doppelganger" which is... not an easy read... I'm already living through a crazy political and social time and reading about it in a book when it isn't being sprayed at me through a firehose everywhere else in the Real World (TM) is arguably self destructive - but  she does make some salient and fascinating points and on the whole I"m glad I took the time. But I am about to start on something that I've been keeping as a treat - Alix Harrow's "Starling House"... see next question...

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

...technically it isn't an "upcoming" book since it's already out but it's recent enough to qualify so there and I really am excited about it. THere are very few writers whose new offerings I will preorder sight unseen as soon as I am aware of the existence of a new book on the horizon and Harrow qualified for that with "Ten Thousand Doors of January" which was an amazing read (and I"ve got everything else she has ever written, by this stage). Her command of story and character, as well of the very language she uses to create these two things, is a rare and amazing thing and I will always be excited for any new book she produces. I can't wait to start the new one.

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

"Dune" part II is about to drop in March 2024 and I am really looking forward to that - and I have a feeling as though I should go back and read it again, just to get myself up to speed once more. That was a pretty seminal book and bits of it like grains of its omnipresent sand found their way into the desert parts of my world in a book like "Changer of Days" - it was in "Dune" that I gained my awe of the desert landscape, and it stuck. (well, that, and the opening credits frames of "Lawrence of Arabia" which you REALLY have to see on a big screen in a cinema to get the full impact of...) I do think the "Dune" universe spiralled downward in its evolution, and I have long since stopped reading the spinoffs that Frank Herbert never even touched  - but the original novel, itself, is extraordinary, and I do circle back and re-read it periodically anyway. There is a savagery there that disturbs my soul and I need reminders of that every now and then when I get too complacent about anything.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about - either positively or negatively?

At some point last year I picked up Asimov's "Foundation" again. It is among the most complex of his works (he was one of my entry points into  science fiction...) - I find a lot of his other stuff annoyingly simplistic now and I lose patience very quickly, but I recalled the Foundation trilogy to be  a little deeper than most of the rest. ANd I just couldn't read it. There was just too much in it that made me stop and throw my hands in the air and say "REALLY?" And I do have to wonder - his reputation in the area aside - whether Asimov ever met a real woman because he sure can't write a believable female character worth her salt. I'm kind of having a gentle distancing from the "golden age" SF - not a divorce, as such, I owe the damn era too much - but it's definitely in the rear view mirror, an "ex" of whom I will sometimes think of with a tinge of pleasure and gratitude but whom I have definitely outgrown...

5a What's one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that
has had a lasting influence on your writing?/ What's one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that
holds a special place in your heart?

This kind of answers both those questions, and it's a real cliche - "Lord of the Rings" (and I do mean LOTR - I actually read "The Hobbit" AFTER I read the trilogy...) A lot of people are impatient with it - it's "too slow" or "too wordy" and stuff like that, for the modern reader - but for me, it opened up the UNIVERSE. It gave me worldbuilding on a silver platter - it showed me what could be done with words, that words could be used to paint with. and it was an early lesson that stuck because I've written "lush" ever since. I currently own no less than three copies of a one-volume LOTR trilogy - my tattered paperback reading copy whose spine is so broken that it is in danger of falling apart into its component parts any minute now, a hardcover copy which I have for when the paperback copy does finally disintegrate, and a really nice "collector edition" with Alan Lee illustrations which I keep as a first edition treasure and a jewel on my bookshelf. But it is a building block of my formative years as a human being and as a writer, and I could not live in a home without that book in it...

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

In 2023 I reissued the definitive Author's Cut editions of my Worldweavers books (my four-book trilogy, as it were - "Gift of the Unmage", "Spellspam", "Cybermage" and "Dawn of Magic") and in January of 2024 Florida paid me the compliment of BANNING #1 in that series so now I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Margaret Attwood, Isabel Allende, Neil Gaiman, Anne Frank, and many other  writers whose works ar seminal in the literary world. I actually really love these books, and I consider them "awesome" inasmuch as an author is permitted to say this, because while I had a great deal of fun writing them (you can tell, by paying close attention to every chapter opening in "Spellspam"...) they ended up being more than just fun, there was depth and heart to it all, and characters like Corey the Trickster (yes, Coyote) and Nikola Tesla (yes, THE Nikola Tesla) were a gift to write about. Both of those come to full flower in the fourth book, "Dawn of Magic" just out in November last year so still relatively hot off the presses as it were. I commend these books to everyone out there. I am currently working on a non-fic, a book about books, as it were, but that isn't due until Fall of 2024 so I can't really reveal much about it at this point. But watch my website ( for more info as soon as I am able to share it...and if you want an early glimpse I will probably be sharing that on my Patreon

Thank you, Alma!

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

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Trans Rights Readathon Recommendations 2024

You may remember from last year, the team collated some of their favourite books by trans and nb authors or centring trans and nb characters for the Trans Rights Readathon, an event primarily organised by creators on Tiktok to raise awareness of trans authors and stories, and encourage people to donate to some great causes in the face of the horrific issues being faced by trans folks across the world right now, all through the medium of reading some amazing books.

This year, the readathon is back, with creators on various media committing to promote trans works, and to be reading them between the 22nd and the 29th of March, leading up to the International Trans Day of Visibility on the 31st.

If you're interested in donating, there are so many impactful charities and similar (many of which are local and small scale and desperately need the funds), but the following orgs are a great option if you're not sure where to look:

Tony's Place

The Transgender Law Centre

The Trevor Project

As we did last year, we've curated a list of some of our favourite trans and nb reads that we'd absolutely recommend, and if you want more inspiration, do look back at the 2023 list, which is chock full of gems too.

So, without any further ado, here are the books:

The Two Doctors Górski by Isaac Fellman [Tordotcom, 2022]

An American woman goes to study magic in England, knowing this to be her last shot at academia after a relationship has tainted all her possible options. But the difficult, prickly and idiosyncratic professor has a strange legacy, a magic he performed that no one else has managed, and the long tail of his past choices will come back to bite his students. A deeply emotive story that understands trauma and the irrational decisions people make and have to struggle with for the rest of their lives.

Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman [Penguin, 2022]

A short novel that plays with format to tell the story of a trans vampire archivist, and the donation of her wife's papers that brings a woman into his life, changing things forever. It covers themes of identity, personal growth, and how sometimes a harsh break is needed to plant something new amid the mess tha has developed around a life of hiding from things. It's deeply strange but beautifully told.

Finding Echoes by Foz Meadows [Neon Hemlock, 2024]

Fuller review can be found here. This is the story of two characters, long out of each others' lives, coming unexpectedly back into contact, and working in parallel through the now and the then to figure out who they are to each other, and whether they can get past the legacy of each other's choices. It is also a story that really gets how to write a group of people speaking their own little dialect, creating a visceral sense of community, even in a short space. It's also got a strange city full of magic, people who speak to the dead, political shenanigans and quiet revolution. A great read that's easy to devour in a single sitting.

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth by Andrew Joseph White [Peachtree Teen, 2023]

A ghost story where Victorian cisnormativity is allegorized as institutional control over the magic that allows people to contact a world beyond ours. The protagonist is like a flaming river of lava raging against the brutal mechanisms of domination in his society.

Mistress of Lies by K. M. Enright [Orbit, 2024]

Imagine Interview with the Vampire meets The Godfather. All the angst and tension and drama of simmering vampire romance, plus all the machinations and double-crossings of a powerful crime family, plus incredibly complex characters you'll hate to love.

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

TV Review: X-Men '97

A nostalgic return to the addictive X-Men adventures of the '90s

Back in the '90s—before iPhones and streaming apps—a long week of work or school would be rewarded with a lazy Saturday morning of sugary breakfast cereal and X-Men cartoons. The original X-Men: The Animated Series stood out from the other Saturday morning entertainment because of its diverse characters, edgy storylines, heavy social justice commentary, and soap-opera-level romantic entanglements. Although X-Men comics had been around for decades, the weekly episodes brought the adventures of billionaire mentor Charles Xavier and his team of sarcastic, imperfect, stressed-out superheroes to a wider audience.

The original Saturday morning animated series ran from 1992 to 1996. Eventually, three feature films were made, followed by other animated X-Men shows and even more feature films. However, after all the expansions in film, television, and comics, Disney+’s X-Men '97 instead returns to the retro format of the 1990s series and picks up where the '90s show left off. X-Men '97 is not a reboot, adaptation, or sequel. It is a continuation. Watching it feels like stepping back in time. X-Men '97 assumes viewers know the entire previous backstory of the characters, so viewers who have never consumed X-Men in any form may need to skim a few episodes of the original show (also conveniently available on Disney+).

Here’s a quick refresher: Charles Xavier is a powerful telepath who runs a school for “gifted” children in an era when humanity is evolving to a new level of superhuman capabilities. “Gifted” means mutated into having some sort of superpower. (Younger viewers can think of the story as a precursor to My Hero Academia.) Contrary to other superhero stories, in X-Men those with special powers (mutants) are hated and feared by the rest of humanity. As a result, they often hide their true nature or must face overt racism and abuse. Xavier builds a school where young mutants can learn in safety and hone their special powers. As the students grow up, they become X-Men, a team of superbeings who act as guardians and protectors from various villains while still trying to live their day-to-day lives. Each member of the team has their own terrifying power, tragic backstory, and complicated emotional baggage to navigate as they learn to trust each other while battling powerful villains. A primary antagonist in the show is Xavier’s lifelong best friend/frenemy, Erik Lehnsherr a/k/a Magnus (a/k/a Magneto). Magnus wants to violently confront the oppression mutants face from humans while Xavier wants to pursue peaceful co-existence. The struggle is a general allegory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Throughout the series, the two philosophies battle as Magneto wreaks havoc and Xavier tries to save and protect. In the finale of the first series, a critically injured Charles Xavier says an emotional goodbye to his young students, leaving original X-Man, Scott (Cyclops) as de facto leader.

X-Men '97 opens in the post-Xavier era. A well-armed hate group, the Friends of Humanity, is using newly acquired weapons to hunt down, neutralize, and kill those with special powers. Scott struggles to lead the team in Xavier’s absence while also dealing with the rise in hate crimes against mutants and dealing with his wife Jean’s pregnancy. Telepath Jean wants Scott to abandon the X-Men so they can raise their child in peace. But things take a turn when long-time adversary Magneto appears with a startling message from Xavier.

As in the original series, the core members of the team are the focus of the show. The new show particularly focuses on Scott, Jean Grey, and Storm/Ororo, who can manipulate the weather. Also featured is Rogue, a southerner who debilitatingly absorbs the powers and memories of anyone she touches, so she spends her life avoiding direct contact with others. This complicates her romantic entanglement with Remy (Gambit), a Louisiana native who can charge objects with energy and use them as weapons. Additional returning characters are fan-favorite Wolverine, Beast, Jubilee, Bishop, and Morph.

Despite the advances in animation since 1996, X-Men '97 maintains the old, slightly stiff animation style of the '90s show. The show also maintains the original visual design and voice style of the characters, which further draws viewers into the retro effect. Many of the characters, including Rogue, Storm, and Wolverine, have the same voice actors from the original series. For those looking for nostalgia, this will be a welcome surprise. Although the character design for most of the X-Men remains the same, a few are slightly changed. Jubilee’s face and eye design is updated; and Morph, the shapeshifter, now has a pale, helmet-like head versus the regular, average human face he had in the original series. Morph is also used as a gateway to brief visuals of other X-Men when he momentarily shapeshifts into offscreen heroes, including Colossus, Angel, and Psylock. His flash transformations into familiar old characters are a fun surprise each time.

The initial episodes of X-Men '97 each end with great plot twists to hook viewers, especially if they’ve never read the comics. Wild plot twists and mature themes were a defining element of the original series, making it a gateway for future animated stories like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Naruto, and other animated series that move beyond surface fights and adventures and dig into emotions and relationships. X-Men '97 continues to lean into that original storytelling strategy, and will fill a nostalgic place in the hearts of long-time viewers. And, with the intense and expansive source material to draw from, X-Men '97 should have plenty of complicated and emotional plot twists to maintain the new show for as long as needed.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.


  • Lots of nerdy nostalgia
  • Old-fashioned art design and animation
  • Strong social commentary and great plot twists

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Review: Love Lies Bleeding

A24's new sapphic psychological thriller is a wildly entertaining look at revenge, body horror, and attraction

For months prior to the release of director Rose Glass's Love Lies Bleeding, the lesbian internet has been absolutely ablaze with speculation and anticipation. With a Kristen Stewart-helmed gay love story set in 1980's New Mexico, how could it not? Discussions of its cinematic forbears bubbled to the surface: It was obviously going to take stylistic cues from the neo-noir Wachoski-directed Bound (1996) and the stark and beautiful setting from Desert Hearts (1985). Beyond that, we weren't sure. After viewing, I can confirm that it did indeed crib from these stories, but it also is its own beast, with an added magical realism element that only A24 films can pull off.

The Plot

Jackie, a jacked drifter played by Katy O'Brian (nerds may remember her as ex-Imperial officer Elia Kane from The Mandalorian) roams into a sleepy New Mexico town in 1989, training at the gym Lou (Kristen Stewart) manages. The two hit it off and embark on a whirlwind romance as Jackie trains for a bodybuilding competition, with Lou providing illegal anabolic steroids and whipping up protein egg-white omelets for her new live-in girlfriend.

When Lou's sister (played by Jena Malone) ends up in the hospital after a severe domestic violence incident at the hands of her husband, Lou is irate. Jackie, with both the motivation (her desire to take care of Lou) and the power (her steroid use has not only increased her muscle mass but also her rage), steals away and gives him a taste of his own medicine—only she can't control her vitriol and she beats him so horrifically he ends up dead.

Lou finds out and helps Jackie dispose of the body in a canyon. How does she know this secret crime-dumping location? We soon learn Lou's dad is the town gangster/gun runner (and also Jackie's new boss at the gun range), so it's part of the family business. Jackie freaks out, and instead of lying low, hitchhikes to Las Vegas to make the bodybuilding competition. Once there, her steroid use upends her sense of reality, and she ends up hallucinating, vomiting, and maniacally beating up yet another person, which lands her in jail.

Lou's dad (an excellent bald Ed Harris with glorious long extensions) bails her out. Then, he convinces her to kill the woman who saw Lou and Jackie the night they hid the body. As evil and horrible a father as he may be, he still wants to protect Lou.

The movie ends with Lou and Jackie reuniting and facing off against her father. The ending, however, isn't straightforward. All throughout the movie, we've seen glimpses of magical reality. Jackie's biceps and muscles bulge, squeak, and swell. Her hallucinations at the competition are vivid and disgusting, but seem entirely real.

The end of the movie is no less surreal, as Jackie grows to 50 feet tall—very She-Hulk or 50-Foot Woman. She smashes Lou's father, but decides not to kill him, leaving him for the police. Did it really happen? Or is it just a metaphor for her preternatural size and strength, which isn't common in women?

The movie leaves you wondering what is real and what isn't, and some folks will find that it completely takes them out of the movie and kind of ruins it. I loved it—it was weird and unexpected and yet entirely fitting.

The Relationship

Love Lies Bleeding doesn't work without Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart—their on-screen chemistry and relationship is incredibly, compellingly watchable. The scene where they first meet in the gym is a prime example of the female gaze. Lou can't take her eyes off Jackie as she moves through her warm-up and workout, and a few short hours later, they end up in Lou's bed. Some critics have criticized the movie as muscle fetishization, but I think it's something different. As I mentioned earlier, traditionally "attractive" female bodies—now, but also especially in the '80s—tend to be small, diminutive, and smooth. Jackie is bulky, strong, and definitely not tiny. Lou spends much of the movie staring slack-jawed in awe of her musculature, while the one sexual encounter Jackie has with a man is transactional: it happens fully clothed, at night, in a car, and she's only participating for the change at a job offer.

One could also argue that a few days isn't enough time to really develop true feelings, but to that proposal I have two responses: West Side Story and trauma bonding. Falling in love within days is a common trope in movies (see such films as Romeo + Juliet, West Side Story, Titanic, etc.), and not only that, but when love is accompanied by traumatic events, that relationship is usually fast-tracked. There are murders, revenge, and violence aplenty in Love Lies Bleeding—enough, anyway, to sustain my suspension of disbelief. The movie ends on an unclear note, but I like to think that the two women continue running off into the sunset and staying together, going to therapy and joining the witness protection program.

Is This a Genre Film? Depends on Who's Watching

Queer cinema. The fun thing about this movie is that it can appeal to a fairly broad range of audiences. I spoke earlier about how the lesbian internet has been anticipating it for months, ever since the trailer leaked. This is because queer films, while more prevalent than ever before in the history of humanity, are still fairly rare. And to see unabashed same-sex attraction on the big screen like this still remains kind of a big deal, especially to sapphic cinephiles. Some folks will absolutely see this movie primarily for the queer relationship, at best enjoying it and at worst ignoring all the other parts.

Film noir. This film encompasses all the classic elements of film noir—it's got the new stranger in town who causes trouble, a gritty and atmospheric desert setting (everything is sand-colored or fluorescent-green-tinged), and a whole host of morally ambiguous characters. It's also got the requisite intricate plot twists and double-crosses to keep audiences guessing until the very end. Lou's—and especially Jackie's—descent into a world of crime, violence, and deception mirrors the dark and morally complex narratives typical of noir movies. There are two VERY graphic frantic blood-soaked crime-scene-cleaning scenes, and it gets really stressful as you empathize with how much hard work it takes to cover up a murder or two.

Bodybuilding and muscle hero movies. Set in 1989, Love Lies Bleeding's focus on muscles, gym culture, and steroids definitely takes some cues from early movies like Pumping Iron (you know, the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger that came out in 1977). The '80s experienced a new wave of fitness and weightlifting, and this glamorization of all things muscle definitely helped influence the brawny action movie dudes who also came to prominence in the '80s—Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme. (I recommend Susan Jeffords's Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (1993) for more on this sort of thing. Jackie's bulging biceps and 'roid rage in search of vengeance take a page right of this era.

A24 arthouse horror. We see the effects of brute-force physical violence on human bodies, specifically in the form of what Lou's brother-in-law does to his wife, and then what Jackie does to him, in exquisite, disgusting, and at times revolting detail. The camera doesn't shy away from the close-ups, and it's clear that Rose Glass wanted the prosthetics teams to put in extra hours. The result is gruesome, but that's the point.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this movie, especially considering that A24 movies usually aren't my thing—but this is definitely one I plan on revisiting.

The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10.

Bonuses: The late '80s soundtrack is killer; Kristen Stewart delivers a performance that even her haters can't deny is fantastic; Ed Harris's extensions are one of the movie's best jump scares

Penalties: Some folks may not dig the copious violence, or Kristen Stewart, or Kristen Stewart's copious violence, but that's on them.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a 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.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Film Microreview: Robot Dreams

It shouldn't be possible for such measured, minimal forms to contain all this wealth of feelings

Of the five candidates for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2024, Robot Dreams is the most visually modest. Without the energetic wildness of Nimona, the boundary-pushing experimentation of Across the Spider-Verse, or the meticulous virtuosity of award winner The Boy and the Heron, Robot Dreams tells an intimate story of loneliness, bliss, grief, and reconstruction that stays faithful to a specific moment in New York history while expressing an emotional journey so universal that it doesn't even need dialogues. The characters' intentions, inner states, conflicts, doubts, hopes, and moments of growth are communicated expertly by the happy confluence of a solid script and a team of animators in full control of their talents. The simple lines that represent a hand, a mouth or a pair of eyes carry out the fundamental task of keeping you in syntony with the content of a scene at all times. Against the fad of photorealism that seems to have taken over 3D animation, Robot Dreams succeeds by putting its trust in the effectiveness of clear lines and clear writing.

Let's set aside the conceits of a world populated by humanized animals and DIY robots. The essence of this story is in a random nobody who one day meets the perfect companion who can make his life finally feel less empty. The simple joy of having someone to walk the city with suffices to render him complete. You may read these scenes as a platonic friendship or as an allegory for queer sexuality; it makes no difference. What matters is that you can recognize the sweetness of their bond and the heartbreak of their separation. Within the story, this is expressed as the robot being unable to stand up and leave the beach because it's become rusty from seawater, but the circumstances that force the separation could have been anything. A particular situation that says a universal truth: that's the hallmark of great art. You have known what it's like to yearn for that moment of fully shared presence, and you have known what it's like to be torn in half by losing it. And you especially know what it's like to dream of all the ways you might reconnect one day.

The key detail here is that it's no one's fault that this relationship ends: there were no harsh words, no dishonesty, no malice. This was a gloriously pure case of non-toxic affection if there ever was one. It was perfect. But life happens. You get stuck in one place, you meet other people, you get used for selfish reasons, someone takes away a big part of you, you become the world to someone who one day just flies away, you get discarded, you get broken into pieces, you get put back together. Next thing you know, it doesn't make sense anymore to run back and search for what you had, no matter how beautiful and precious it was. And the reason you can't is that you're no longer the same person. You've made new memories, and of course they will never overwrite the old ones, but what you've experienced in the meantime has taken you to a different place. And for all you know, it could be another beautiful place worth exploring.

And again, the wonderful thing about Robot Dreams is that these complicated, bittersweet concepts are defined, presented and analyzed without speaking one word. If there is magic in the craft of animation, it's this: that a bundle of lines can make us think of a living person, and merely by watching those lines change we can know all there is to know about that person. And if you're in the hands of true masters of the art, that imaginary person can reveal to you a vital secret about yourself.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

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

Friday, March 22, 2024

Review: March's End by Daniel Polansky

Taking some of the basic the tropes of epic and portal fantasies and intensifying them via the lens of a family drama. 

You may think you have heard this story before. Young scions of a ruling family in a fantasy kingdom have to come to terms with being the next generation and having to fill their parents' and ancestors' shoes, especially as a power capable of undoing the world comes calling. Plenty of extruded fantasy product has this sort of dynamic, in epic fantasy novels, trilogies, and series that are not yet complete.  If you are a seasoned reader of epic fantasy, you know all the beats, the shape of this story.

Except, you haven't heard this particular story before. The Harrow family is well off in our world, our own Earth, but every evening, once they find themselves of age, they can find themselves in a secondary fantasy world of fantastic landscapes and even more fantastical anthropomorphic intelligent creatures. The Harrow family, rulers of this world, are, in fact, the only humans in the March. But when time has moved on and the younger March family members are faced with the possibility that the March's time has come, one way or another.

This is the story of Daniel Polansky's March's End.

A mix of urban and epic fantasy, mixing a secondary fantasy world with our own world, and having people with agency in both, is not sui generis to Polansky here. Eric Nylund's Pawn's Dream took a similar conceit, with the protagonist falling asleep in our world and waking up in a secondary fantasy world, and then back again when he fell asleep there, night after night, day after day. Violette Malan's Shadowlands novels have a Professor of History in a Canadian university who finds out he is really a Prince of Faerie, and Faerie definitely needs him back. The feel at the beginning of the series is urban fantasy, with magic intruding into our world, and ending with epic fantasy with the action mainly in faerie. Edward Lazellari works on a similar method, where a NYC police officer in Awakenings finds out he is a knight of a secondary world fantasy realm. By the third book in the series, Blood of Ten Kings, the story has gone completely from urban to secondary world epic fantasy. 

Polansky's method and style and ethos subverts and plays with all of this throughout the book. He starts it off with a couple of the Harrow children, as young children, discovering their family's secondary world secret for themselves for the first time. But he subverts what might be a straightforward coming of age by having time frames both set early on in the kids' lives, and then 20 some odd years later, in our present. Mary Ann, Will and Constance are very different than their young selves, and old conflicts between the three of them and their mother, Sophia, have driven strong wedges into the family. A lot of the present day narrative does not take place at all in the March and instead focuses on the family conflicts and drama between the three of them, as the seams of what is going wrong with the March, and has been going wrong for quite some time, come to light.  

Thus, Polansky relies on their younger selves to show the March and the rot and decay underneath the Harrows and their rule subtly and carefully even as he shows and then undercuts the secondary world fantasy narrative. And this then is the grist for the mill of the present day conflict that the Harrows primarily face in our world. The Harrows bicker, come into conflict, and finally must not only face themselves and each other, but face the problems they themselves have helped to create. The novel shows us the consequences of rule, and often gives us a stark exploration of what a secondary fantasy world is like, and not just for the ruling class, either. 

Thus, overall, the book does feel like a deconstruction of secondary world fantasies, in particular, as well as portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Polansky's deep focus is always on the characters, especially in the present, and it is their fates, nature, destinies and problems. Just why the March is falling apart, who is ultimately responsible and what can be done--sure, Polansky does give us some big action sequences, but in some ways, even the big set piece one we get, is a sideshow to his development and study of these characters. Just what would ruling a secondary world fantasy kingdom by night do to a family over generations, over time? What does having that secondary world do to a person or a group of people who can share that experience? How can you make connections and bonds to people who can't appreciate, quite literally, what you do in that other world?  This is also territory that Seanan McGuire has been exploring in her series of Wayward Children novellas.  

This is definitely, in the end, not a Fantasy 101 book by any means. This is a reconsideration, reformulation and distillation of several types of fantasy and looking to see how they actually work with characters out of mimetic fiction who have, by birth, not by choice, have the connections to a magical world as their legacy, birthright, and even curse. Polansky doesn't explain some key bits about how the Harrows' world of the March vis a vis our own actually works and doesn't work, and there are some beats in the story that happen and are remarked on, but again, are not explained and explicated.  I think that's part of Polansky's point, his design for this novel. He challenges readers to think about these subgenres but doesn't spoonfeed any answers, but rather poses the Problem of Secondary World Fantasy (capitalization intended) through the lens of the Harrows and their lives. 

Thus, I don't think this book is for everyone. For all of the fantastic that Polansky shows us in the March, and it is vivid and amazingly well shown when he focuses on that, this is not a novel about escapism. No, I am wrong in that. It is a novel entirely about escapism and the perils of escapism and not facing up to the consequences and problems of the escapism that is, at the bottom, what the March *is*.  It's a strongly written book, a book that often cuts very to the bone, especially for a fantasy reader. It's not a comfortable book (but that seems to be a Polansky speciality, in my reading of his work).  Reader beware, but also, reader discover.



  • A strong family dynamic central core
  • Interesting if uncomfortable discussions of genre and what it is for.
  • A challenging and rewarding read on an emotional and textual level.

Reference: Polansky, Daniel, March's End, [Angry Robot, 2023]

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

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Review: Deadlier Than by Corey Brotherson, art by Jennie Gyllblad, Olivia Samson, Ted Brandt and Kit Buss

 A collection of graphic shorts that deliver a big punch in a small space.

I don't think I've ever read a graphic novel of short stories before, or at least not this short. WicDiv had that one issue that was bit more episodic... but it was also a lot chonkier than the rest of the series, and had a heavy reliance on text-only pages, so I'm really not sure it counts. Deadlier Than... however is a collection of three short stories told in comic form, connected by a theme of female strength, and tied together by short text interludes from the perspective of an injured spider. And that's great! More of that format please!

Graphic novels are always a bit tricky. Sometimes it's a series that never gets finished (RIP Ody-C). Sometimes it's a one-off that feels in an awkward position between too short to be long and too long to be short. Sometimes it feels like you spent a chunk of money for something you only spent 45 minutes reading. But somehow, doing three separate short stories really solved that problem here. It felt substantial, when you got three fully complete and coherent narratives in one book. There were natural pause points for me to put the book down and reflect on what I'd just read. There was a bridging motif that enforced those pause points. And when I finally did close it, I felt like I got three whole stories out of it, not just one, and that felt like a super worthwhile use of my money.

All in all, it's an A* from me for the format.

But onto the actual content.

These are three very different stories, spanning SF and F. We've got fairies, we've got robots and we've got aliens. So what joins them together? What makes this a collection, rather than just well... some things that have been collected? The cohesive force between them is the focus on the three, central, female characters and their strength, in whatever form that might take. Each of the three stories lasers in on a single event, a single encounter or episode, in which its character demonstrates, at her core, who she is in this world (wherever, whenever and whatever that world might be). There's some obvious physical strength at play, but there is also a focus on surviving adversity, and being able to adjust your thinking in the face of events that change your worldview. There are themes running through of self-doubt, of being misled, and having to live with the consequences of those revelations, all of which are surprisingly well-covered for the extremely short story-space they each occupy.

There are also three different art styles, and each one feeds into the vibe that story has - I particularly enjoyed the contrast of the more clean line style of the sci-fi future story and the loose, almost watercolour lightness of the story with the fairy protagonist. It's a format that lends itself well to that sort of playfulness, with the space to bend the form to accommodate the story, without having to commit to anything for all too long.

But there's also a fourth story. And this one is slightly different. It sits between the others, connecting their themes together, following a spider trapped in a garden longing for escape. This one is told primarily in text, white on saturated black background, and slower, more poignant than the others, told as it is in little episodes broken up by the brightness of the other stories. While all the tales in the collection have strong emotional through-lines - it's one of the things the collection does well - it is in the spider's story that I found the strongest emotional resonance, quite simply because it is pared down. It's a story that contains so little, it has distilled itself down to the finest grains of bittersweetness, and so manages to pack even more of a punch than its fellows, while occupying so little space. And where the others may leave some ambiguity, the spider's story does not, and sets the tone for the whole collection, your entrance to and your exit from it. You begin and end with crispness, visually and narratively, and I really enjoyed how that directed the reading experience.

Within the stories, there's also a lot to love. All three are very quick to give you a sense of their character and the general arc of their struggle. They trust the reader to roll with light worldbuilding (and reward that trust) and instead lean in heavy on character and tone, ensuring they deliver on their punchy intensity.

But there's obviously a downside to that, and because it is so world-building light, and each story is so short... you can't really ask any questions. What's there, if you confine yourself to solely the text and nothing more, is great. But really good stories, both long and short, leave you with the space to wonder and wander around the edges of them. This is the stuff that fanfiction is made of, after all. But because we don't get that here, because the decision has been made to prioritise immediacy of character and emotional arc over anything more external or concrete, once you pass the end of each story, it starts to flatten itself out in the memory. It only lives while the reader lives in it, and doesn't quite manage to stand on its own beyond.

I'm not sure this is even a flaw, exactly. It's a choice that needed to be made within the constraints the format demands. There simply is not space in a graphic novel, in a short-story style format, to do anything extensive, and so something needs to be prioritised. For me, I think all three of these made the right call, choosing as they did. I would rather fleshed out people with believable responses to problems than an expansive, thought-provoking world. Both is great, don't get me wrong, but if I have to choose, that's the choice I would make every time. So I don't think it's a problem here, exactly. But it is a limitation, and one to be aware of when reading it, especially if the reader is someone who prefers world-forward style narratives, because that simply isn't what we have here.

And that's what, for me, caps it at an 8 out of 10. There's ultimately something incomplete about the experience, when looking back at it. It gets the 8 for how it feels in the moment, and all its successes. But it goes no further because it simply cannot. If it had been a little longer, perhaps? Or done only three narratives? Maybe. Maybe then. 

Looking only within the constraints of itself, it absolutely sings, and is a worthwhile read. I just found myself, when I finished, when I pondered... not quite satisfied, in the end. But some things don't need to last forever. Read it for the moment, read it for the experience, and embrace that ephemerality.


The Math

Highlights: instantly emotive characters; well handled, interestingly used story structure; beautiful visuals that really play well with the vibes of their stories

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Brotherson, Corey, Deadlier Than, [Doodle Doole, 2019]

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Review: Damsel

Netflix's new CGI dragon and Millie Bobbie Brown vehicle is a perfectly fine fairy tale romp aimed at the YA audience.  

Like many a fairy tale, Damsel begins with a young woman, Elodie, who is given away in marriage to the noble family of Aurea, her dowry a last-ditch effort to save her people from starvation. Little does she know that her new family has a sinister secret — they have to sacrifice three brides to appease the evil dragon who lives in the nearby cave, and Elodie is the first to be tossed callously into the yawning chasm. 

The vast majority of the movie is spent following Elodie as she explores the dark cavern evading the vengeful dragon (her dragon infants were mercilessly slaughtered once upon a time, so in recompense she demands the same sacrifice in perpetuity, a scaly, fire-breathing Miss Havisham if ever there was one). We see the names of dozens of women who were sacrificed before carved into the wall, a gruesome reminder of the brides that preceded Elodie.

This being a Netflix movie, though, and Elodie being Millie Bobbie Brown, things will be different this time around. She manages to outsmart the dragon and convince her that she's been tricked for generations, leading her to join Elodie's quest for vengeance against the evil royal family, complete with a finale scene of fire-breathing destruction against the House of Aurea. My favorite Letterboxd review aptly quipped, "Targaryan origin story."

One part The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, one part How To Train Your Dragon, and one part Dragonheart, Damsel is an entertaining YA fantasy-horror romp. I say horror because there are some fairly gruesome wounds and dragon-induced deaths — more than I expected, actually. 

As I thought about it for a bit, I've decided that the dragon sacrifice plot could be seen as a metaphor for the unknown horrors that awaited young women throughout history who were given away unwillingly in marriage. 

At one point in Damsel, Elodie's father expresses sincere regret about trading her for a jewel-laden dowry. In real life, of course, women don't ritual blood sacrifices to reptilian creatures, but they are taken far away from their families, isolated in cold and dank castles, and often times neglected by their new family. 

It's a scary prospect, maybe ever scarier than facing an enormous dragon eye to eye. Fortunately, in this film, the damsel saves herself and ends up back with her family — and a new scaly family protector. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: Robin Wright and Angela Basset are always a fun addition to any cast; the dragon special effects are stellar

Penalties: Not particularly groundbreaking.

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.

Review: Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

Vintage body-swap, with vintage sensibilities

 Body swapping is a well-used trope, familiar in modern media, but dating back farther than you might think. F. Anstey had a father and son switch bodies, in his 1882 novel Vice Versa; and in 1931 Thorne Smith did it again with a husband and wife in Turnabout. In these cases—and in most of the more modern Freaky Friday versions1—what makes the story work is that the swappers know each other. Indeed, body swapping is a useful narrative tool by which two acquaintences can further develop a high-stakes relationship by learning what each other’s lives are like from the inside.

Maud Cairnes’s Strange Journey (1935) does something different: The swappers are complete strangers. They’ve never met. There are no stakes to their relationship, because they haven’t got one. So instead what we have is a relationship that is created by the body-swap, and in fact could not have been created without it, because the two swappers come from decidedly different walks of life.  

Our narrator is Polly Wilkinson, a middle class housewife with an affectionate husband, two lovely children, and a whole haul of domestic, family, and social responsibilities that go along with such a life. Her partner in swappage, Lady Elizabeth Forrester, is a wealthy aristocrat with a strained marriage, living a life of unimaginable (to Polly) luxury. A country house; a town house; horses and jewels; cabinet ministers and internationally famous concert pianists swirl around her social circle. Throughout their repeated unintentional swaps, Polly and Elizabeth find themselves in a position to either cause trouble for the other, or perhaps smooth over difficulties that the other doesn't have the ability to handle. Polly finds herself determined to figure out what's wrong with Elizabeth's marriage and fix it, while Elizabeth uses her superior social acumen to help Polly organize events that are important for her husband’s career. In the end, everything resolves itself in this book exactly as you might expect from a respectable novel of this era.

If you allow yourself to take this book for what it is, which is a fluffy, light, quite surfacy romp, then there is a lot to enjoy here. The social circles of Polly and Elizabeth are very well realized, and each woman’s fish-out-of-water behaviour in the other’s body makes for some excellent situational comedy. For example, Polly and Elizabeth have different artistic taste: Elizabeth is refined, and adores atonal, discordant music and foreign theater, while Polly is basic: She likes Ronald Coleman and romantic comedies. So Polly in Elizabeth’s body ends up snubbing a concert pianist quite badly when she insists he play show tunes; while Elizabeth in Polly’s body makes a dreadful hash of things when she tries to organize a group outing to the theatre and selects a Romanian play that ends up being inappropriate for unmarried ladies.

The best of these hijinks take place during the middle portion of the book, when Polly is convinced that Elizabeth is responsible for controlling the timing of their swaps. After one particular swap that causes Polly to miss Christmas with her family, she grows indignant about it all, and decides to cause mischief for Elizabeth. Not much mischief, because remember that this book doesn’t go very far in any particular component, but certainly enough to pep things up entertainingly, if you’re in a mood to find a high-stakes bridge game sufficient excitement.

The most interesting components of this book lie in the treatment of class. Polly and Elizabeth are fish out of water not just because they are strangers to each other, but because they are from such distinct social classes. Elizabeth’s high-handed manner in Polly’s body surprises her acquaintences, but has many benefits: she puts overbearing relatives in their place; she can talk comfortably with Polly’s husband’s boss without being overawed. She’s not shy about extending invitations and being socially bold in ways that Polly would never dare to be. Polly, by contrast, makes repeated errors of behavior that are rooted in class, which Elizabeth’s acquaintances at first think are jokes, but later leaves them equally confused. When Polly is presented with Elizabeth’s jewel box while dressing for dinner, she is so gobsmacked by all the sparkly pretty things that she puts on as much as she can manage, resulting in much commentary at dinner that reveals she has dramatically overdone it. She doesn’t know that the correct term of address for herself is ‘Lady Elizabeth’ instead of ‘Lady Forrester, and she calls her father ‘Dad’ instead of the more refined . . . ---actually, I’m not sure what she should have used instead. Papa? Father? I’m not posh enough to know, but it’s clear that ‘Dad’ is incorrect.

(I am struck, however, by the fact that Elizabeth’s importation of upper class manners into Polly’s life has a general tendency to the good, while Polly’s importation of middle class manners into Elizabeth’s life does not.2 This asymmetry of the class-based manners is, perhaps, less of a surprise when I reveal that the author’s full name is Lady Maud Kathleen Cairnes Plantagenet Hastings, daughter of the 15th Earl of Huntingdon. Plantagenet Hastings, good grief. )

 More striking still is a revelation that I think the book doesn’t take nearly far enough: namely, that Polly in her own life has no time to call her own. Every minute of her day is taken up with obligations to the house, the children, the social circle of neighbors and relatives who see everything she does and will be bound to ask questions if she needs to step out for an afternoon to arrange a clandestine visit with an aristocratic body-swap partner. She used to write to her friends from school, but over the years has had to give that up, too. She can have no secrets, no privacy, no life of her own—but it’s not until she tastes the freedom of Elizabeth’s life (a freedom made possible by a neglectful, straying husband who doesn’t care what she does, to be sure) that she realizes what she lacks. This is a very touching moment, and afterwards it is entirely dropped. It’s as if this description of Polly’s constrained life is only important for what it means for the plot’s requirement that Polly find a way to have a private meeting. The revelations about the concessions Polly’s made to her tidy domestic comfort are almost inadverdently revealed, and never explored.

Another consideration that is hampered by the ethos of its time is the ethics of sex in other people’s bodies. If the closest you want to come to mentioning the existence of sex is to say that a ‘foreign’ play is inappropriate for unmarried ladies to watch, it’s going to be hard to give adequate consideration to how Polly and Elizabeth must handle their relations with their husbands. When Elizabeth wakes up in Polly’s bed next to Polly’s husband, she immediately leaps from the bed and runs from the room. When Polly tries to reconcile Elizabeth(‘s body) with Elizabeth’s husband Gerald, she has to tread a fine line of signalling her openness to further intimacy, while taking great pains never even to kiss him. (This sends some extremely mixed signals to poor Gerald). She frets a bit about whether it counts as unfaithfulness to her own husband, given that her own actual body remains decidedly uninvolved in the potential romantic interaction, but in the end remains firm about never actually taking any action, even in Elizabeth’s body. And given the period and intended readership of the book, I don’t think she could have done any differently.

What concerns me more about this dilemma, however, is not whether such an action would count as cheating (yes, obviously it would), but whether it would be rape. And if so, of whom? Of Gerald, who most certainly did not consent to sleep with Polly, whatever she looks like? Probably.3 But also of Elizabeth, who is not on terms of sexual intimacy with Gerald and would not consent for her body to be used in this way if she were in it. Her absence from her own body is pretty parallel with being drugged or unconscious, or otherwise unable to consent to sex.

In sum, then, this book is decidedly of its time, which results in a lack of depth in its treatment of the quite deep issues it raises. It’s a light frolic, and enjoyable for what it is, as long as you don’t mind the author covering your eyes and putting her fingers in your ears at the difficult bits.

Star Trek has quite a few body swap plots: TOS Turnabout Intruder swaps Kirk and Janet Lester, an old lover; VOY Vis A Vis swaps Tom Paris and an alien of the week (although in this one the swappers aren’t well acquainted); SNW Spock Amok swaps Spock and T’Pring.
The asymmetry is also reminiscent of Star Trek TOS Mirror Mirror, in which Spock immediately detects that mirror universe counterparts have taken Kirk, McCoy and Uhura’s places, because, as he says, ‘It is far easier for […] civilized men to behave like barbarians, than for barbarians to behave like civilized men.’
3 Once again, I would like to point to Star Trek’s mirror universe, this time in the context of the the DS9 episode Through The Looking Glass, in which Sisko is abducted into the mirror universe to impersonate his mirror self and convince his mirror wife to join a rebellion. The Women at Warp podcast was pretty quick to note that any sex between prime!Sisko and mirror!Jennifer would be rape, because mirror!Jennifer would think she is consenting to sleep with mirror!Sisko, not prime!Sisko.



Nerd coefficient: 6/10, still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore
  • Body swap
  • Class-based manners
  • Hijinks and high-stakes bridge
  • Missed opportunities for deeper thoughtfulness


Anstey, F, Vice Versa: or, A Lesson to Fathers [Smith, Elder & Co., 1882].
Cairnes, Maud, Strange Journey [The British Library, 1935/2022]. 
Smith, Thorne, Turnabout [Doubleday Doran, 1931]

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Review: Drive-Away Dolls

Be lesbian do crime.

If there is one word that describes the filmography of the Coen brothers, it is ‘quirky.’ They are almost instantly quotable. There is always some character with an outlandish accent. There is an endlessly weird plot that nevertheless says something intelligent and profound about America (and it’s always America) by the end. Now, Ethan Coen sets off with his debut as a solo director, the lesbian crime film Drive-Away Dolls, written by Coen and Tricia Cooke, released in February of 2024.

This film is set at a very particular junction in American history: the late 1990s, the turn of the millennium, the dawn of the digital age, the time when America bestrode the world like a colossus with no equal (and I must admit, it is strange that a time that I was alive in, although was too young to remember, being born in the last days of 1996, is becoming the object of these somewhat nostalgic period pieces, as has been done with the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s - Madame Web, being set in 2004, was something that made me feel very old, despite not being that old). In this regard, it feels like an odd throwback to older crime films, albeit with a Coen-esque quirkiness and an unrepentant queerness.

When I was describing this movie to my sister, I called it ‘be lesbian do crime,’ to echo the internet meme. This is a movie that is about lesbians, primarily a pair of characters whose inner journeys parallel the very real physical journey on which they have embarked. This voyage starts in Philadelphia, where Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) rent a car that happens to be carrying precious cargo for organized crime. They are pursued, and hijinks ensue. I would understand if viewers are worried that a straight man would not write or direct lesbian characters well, as there are so many of them in the ensemble, but it bears noting that Ethan Coen’s wife Tricia Cooke, who is a lesbian (they have a relationship where they each have sex with other partners but are involved romantically with one another, from what I can tell - an odd arrangement, but if it works for them, more power to them), co-wrote the film. I accept that, as a straight man, I am utterly not the best person to judge the representation of lesbians in this film, but at least one lesbian was intimately involved in its production. Make of that what you will.

As you would expect from its director, this is a gut-bustingly funny film; my lungs were tired by the end of it. It has the trademark razor-sharp wit that results in lines that are eminently quotable. This is punctuated by perfect delivery, especially by Qualley’s Jamie, the designated ‘funny woman’ to Viswanathan’s ‘straight woman’ (in the comedy sense, not the sexuality sense, of course). Qualley is the designated character with the funny accent, a Texas twang that emphasizes what a fish out of water she is on the East Coast, and what a foil she is to Viswanathan.

What really shines in this film are the performances of Qualley and Viswanathan. They are, as I said, a traditional comedic duo; one is bubbly and extroverted, and the other introverted and intellectual (she spends much of the time reading Henry James, and describes him as long winded; as someone who recently read The American Scene I found her complaints amusingly relatable). So much of the film is Jamie trying to break Marian out of her shell, be it at skeevy lesbian dive bars or swanky Florida hotels or college parties. It’s a delightful contrast of characters that the writing gets a lot of mileage out of. They are yin and yang, so different and yet so necessary for each other.

Something should also be said for two of the hired guns the mob sends after them, who in some ways parallel the two leads. They are Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C. J. Wilson), another comedic duo. One wants the other to live a little, while the latter thinks the former is a nag. It is a blunter, more physical partnership, one more concerned with brawn than brain, and is in many ways a funhouse mirror of the protagonists. They likewise bumble through the American South, including multiple juke joints. They have that same clash and yet complement of personality, of contradictory but congruent goals, but the congruence only lasts so long before it heads south in a way that the protagonists never did.

There is a lot of sex in this film, to an extent that somewhat shocked me, even with some idea that it was there. To my straight male eyes, the cinematography and the writing of these scenes did not strike me as written for the male gaze, as so many scenes of lesbian intimacy have been over the years, although I am the first to admit I am not the most qualified person to judge that. Every sex scene in this film has a meaning to it, a purpose to it, and all of them involve character development in an artful way. Indeed, there is a warmth and intimacy to some of these scenes that have the role of more chaste scenes in more reserved films, to the point I cannot help but suspect that a degree of parody of more serious dramas is involved. Ethan Coen, so far as I can tell, views his two leads as proper characters and not merely objects of lust, and it enriches the film.

Drive-Away Dolls is fun, good fun. It is yet another great film produced by a Coen in Hollywood, although interestingly one that is only helmed by one of them (I wonder why Joel was not involved, but that’s ultimately his business). I don’t know where it fits in the history of queer representation in Hollywood, but that’s not my call to make. All I can say is that it is really funny, and quite touching in just the right parts. I highly recommend it.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

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

Review: Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis

A delightfully atmospheric exploration of a world and a hotel through the eyes of the workers, linking together their daily experiences to allow us to see a greater whole.

In almost every forum I've seen it referred to, the blurb for Floating Hotel refers to The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's what drew me to reading it. And it is entirely accurate, from a purely vibes-based perspective. I don't know quite how, I don't know quite why, but while reading, I had the spiritual equivalent of that music that everyone used for a bit doing Wes Anderson skit tiktoks going round my soul on a neverending loop. It just had something of that plinky-plunky, moving-between-shots and dotting-about-but-nevertheless-coalescing-into-a-coherent-whole-by-the-end feeling that I associate with his films. It had atmosphere.

And this is the major strength I would say the whole book has - it does vibes and charm and that general creation of a consistent atmosphere really really well. 

Which it needs to, because this is a book that dots between different characters and plotlines quite a lot and quite quickly, and so it really needs to have something consistent underlying the whole thing to keep you hooked. Imagine if a particularly whimsical episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Adrian Tchaikovsky's City of Last Chances and Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series got together and had a strange, unholy yet kind of adorable spawn. That's what we're looking at here. It's the story of a... well a hotel... that's... uh... floating. Through space, specifically. Admittedly, I think hotel is a bit of a misnomer (though used throughout the book). It seems far more like a quaint, intergalactic cruise liner making stops at the various ports on its predetermined route, picking up passengers along the way, dropping some off, and being the backdrop for a number of... whatever the lower-key cousin of wacky hijinx are. Whimsical shenanigans, perhaps.

We follow the ship through this journey through the eyes and perspectives of various members of the crew, learning how they came to be on the ship, what their job is, what their current preoccupation is, their concerns, their interactions with other staff. For the major part of the story, the stakes are extremely low - who's been sending sonnets through the pneumatic message system? Will people like this month's shit film club where we watch a retro movie? Let's go try to get an ox flank from the planet, but oh no, it's out of stock! We cycle around through the staff, this way, steadily learning the ship and its rhythms and sense of self, while slowly beginning to see the edges of a deeper, darker plot lurking under the surface, that might be more important than just the day to day running of business, may even be more important than the financial wellbeing of the hotel. But we do so steadily, gently always, never pressuring events to move faster than the current perspective would focus on. There are just little hints peppered through the dish... until eventually you realise find the chilli pepper? Something like that.

As a concept, it's not totally unique (and I do think City of Last Chances is a crucial comp for the structure - if you struggle with how that is a story far more focussed on the city than the people within it, this may give you difficulties for very similar reasons), but it is still plenty unusual. By using so many perspectives, it forces a more oblique approach to the central plot, and gives the author a chance to really bed down a sense of a place, a group of people and their collective community together, focussing on that, on the physical details of the space, the little moments of daily interaction, rather than feeling the need to get a proper drive on towards action and resolution.

Having this space particularly helps in addressing, in a casual and off-hand way a thing I often find poorly handled in SFF - class. It's not a core focus by any means. Don't go in expecting full Marx or anything. But there is a much more competent undercurrent of class consciousness in this book than I tend to assume I'll see in books set in space, even when their characters occupy various points on spectra of wealth and privilege. This is a book that gets the concept of nouveau riche, that gets the shift that happens from what was once vogue into something that is less high-culture and more aspirational middle class, the genteel degeneration of luxury. And that's super interesting! It's a luxury space hotel that's been flying through the galaxy, hosting the wealthy for decades - of course its interaction with fashion, with class and with culture is going to change in that time! And I love that it gets addressed, however obliquely.

Likewise, that space, and that approach to character hopping introduces us to a lot of people, and works hard to make them memorable and distinctive immediately upon meeting. My particular favourite is a grumpy linguistics professor whose position teaching an elective, ungraded course has left her able to gently exploit her situation and do whatever the fuck she wants, more or less, who unfortunately is being pushed back into actually acting on her principles, however much it irks her. I loved her so much, the moment I met her. And there are plenty like her - they appear on the page feeling nearly fully formed, you spend a chapter or so with them, and you feel instantly acquainted. And then see them through someone else's eyes as you carry on hopping.

And in this, I think it actually has City of Last Chances beat, because it does feel rather more tethered to its people than that did - I struggled with CoLC because we had a perspective for a little while then seemingly abandoned it for something completely unconnected. The web of interactions and interlacings there took a long time to materialise (and was amazing once it arrived, don't get me wrong - it's an astonishingly good book), in a way that wasn't an issue here. It's a hotel with a small staff. Everyone is connected and interacting all the time, so it's very hard not to feel like those different perspectives all link up. They're literally talking to each other right now!

But... but. It's not perfect. While those characters are often instantly interesting and interestingly realised, they suffer somewhat in the long term. The structure does not lend itself well to providing character depth, and the lack of repeat perspectives only doubles down on that. You simply do not spend long enough with any one person to get as fully bedded into their headspace as you would in a one or two perspective story.

And then, because of that, because you're not so totally emotionally invested in their wants and needs, some of the emotional payoff come the end of the story suffers a little. It's a story of ups and downs, and the downs never quite hit me like they should have at the end, because I didn't get the time to fully connect with the stakes, and the people, enough to let them fully seep in. Don't get me wrong, there are some moments of great catharsis or excitment or sadness, but the successful ones are all in the short term story scope, told in the confines of one perspective and chapter, rather than the overarching plot that has been gradually built across the perspectives. Which is a real shame precisely because you have those single moments done well to compare it to. It just doesn't quite land that final punch, and that left me somewhat unsatisfied on closing the final (digital) page.

It also, unfortunately, does not always manage the plot reveal itself super well. As I say, there are hints peppered throughout, and gentle foreshadowing galore, but for myself, I found that I had predicted some of those shadows rather, well... fore. And not the "one chapter early" that is the perfect delight of a mystery novel - exactly the zone where you get to feel smug, but before the intelligence of the detective starts being called into question. Once you start spending pages and pages sitting on a certainty that you know what's coming, it starts to grate a little bit that the author hasn't trusted that you'll have figured it out yet.

And I get that that's hard - I cannot imagine how tricky it is to try to manage that pacing knowing your audience is going to be a full range of people from called-it-on-the-first-page to never-saw-it-coming-even-at-the-last - I do. But personally, I would always rather be surprised than patronised, and this definitely felt like it leaned a little bit too far the wrong way in that equation. Not aggressively, not didactically. I never felt like Curtis was spelling it out and elbowing me in the ribs in case I'd missed it. But we were just given that bit too long with a few too many clues and well... it seemed obvious, when we got to things actually being admitted and uncovered.

Which is something of a contrast to some of the wider world-building, once we stepped outside the confines of the ship and started connecting up with what the wider galaxy looks like. Much of this is done, in the early parts of the book, through little snippets of pre-chapter text, which I am personally inclined against, but which were actually done particularly well here. They always felt relevant, they were never too long, and they worked tonally for what they were trying to be. That part of the world-building? Grand. But when we get to the later stages of the story, and the outside world starts to encroach into the insularity and safety of the hotel, and subtext has to stop subbing... slightly less well-managed at that point. There are some questions that I feel never got answered, in a way that isn't "lingering mysterious what if" so much as "we only have so many pages to do this in, let's go go go" and that's... well that's always disappointing. Especially in a book that really didn't overstay its welcome in terms of length and totally could have handled a couple more chapters to make sure everything got tidied away nicely (emotionally, at least).

It's not that I wanted no ambiguity, I want to stress. There's some ambiguity, or some... unfinishedness to some of the storylines at the end that feels entirely deliberate and is entirely good. Where we leave the characters, where we leave the emotional journey of the hotel? Yes, that ambiguity absolutely brings home how those plotlines did and should go. But it's more... there are parts of the story that are set up with the expectation of answers. They get answers. But some of those answers feel rushed, incomplete or emotionally immatured, in a way that we could totally have avoided with just that little bit of extra character work with a few people near the end.

The story is, very deliberately, set at a remove from the rest of the world. The hotel is itself a little world. That's the whole point. But when external events are allowed to intrude, I do unfortunately think a little bit of resolution to some of the questions is in order.

But, for all those gripes, I do still think this is a good book. It's not a perfect book, sure. But it is intensely charming, consistently atmospheric, and the vibes are impeccable. Does it have a plot? Not always. Eventually. Sort of. Does that actually matter? Actually... no. Not really.

As someone for whom A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet did not work, Floating Hotel delivers the experience that so many people have told me they had with the Wayfarers books - a bunch of people thrown together in a space ship, sharing their lives, seen through their distinct perspectives and having low-ish stakes, slightly delightful escapades, with some more serious bits of emotional work and the odd drama thrown in for some texture. For me, Floating Hotel does a better job at connecting those disparate threads of story, and creating that sense of community and cohesion than Chambers' work did, as well as delivering more impactfully (at least in the short term) on character work. It has some rough edges I would have loved it to have sanded down, but at its heart, it was deeply enjoyable and I'm incredibly glad I read it.

I also respect it for doing something that little bit different (not totally maverick, but just that little bit of "ooh, what are you doing here???") from the norm, and that always gets a rating bump from me. 

Taking that into account, as well as all those rough edges, puts it into the trickiest bracket of scoring in my opinion - the seven out of ten. It's a 4/5 if you're doing star ratings. To an external viewer, that looks like an uncomplicatedly good rating, right? But 7 isn't uncomplicated. 7 is good... but. It's the last point of overall positivity before we start heading into "very mixed" or "meh" territory in your 6 and belows. 7 is messy.

7 is the best place for a book to be for a review, because it's where all the best discussion is. It's good. You're not angry at it or upset. It wasn't a wasted reading experience. But you have a lot of things to talk about, a lot of things to wonder if they could have been done that little bit differently, or what if they just...? What if it had only...? 10/10 can sometimes be dull, because you run out of ways to say "lads, this was good 'un". 7/10, existing as it does at the intersection of good and middling has all the scope for discussion, while retaining the sympathy and enthusiasm, to make for a thought provoking reviewing experience. So on a very meta-level, I rate this book's 7/10 a 10/10.

Dialling the nonsense back again slightly, I did enjoy it as a reading experience. I would absolutely recommend it, especially if you're someone who likes their books very vibes-forward. Come for that, come for the delightful cast, come for gentle pacing and delicious place descriptions. Yes, there are some issues, and they might niggle you, but if you like that tone, that atmosphere? Then they'll be a worthwhile price to pay for a really lovely reading experience. And, critically, it's a book that's trying to do A Thing. I would always prefer books that shoot for the moon and land among the stars over the ones that never tried at all. Especially when you're in a fancy Wes Anderson space hotel, so the cold vacuum of space is less of a concern.


The Math


- demon lovechild of a TNG episode, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and The City of Last Chances, all directed by Wes Anderson (complimentary)
- stunning visual descriptions
- immediate character connections

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Curtis, Grace, Floating Hotel, [Hodder & Stoughton, 2024]

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