Friday, May 31, 2024

Book Review: The Glory of the Empire

Contingency springs eternal

One of the things that consistently provides me with a mild degree of amusement as an alternate history fan is how writers from other genres, and especially outside the speculative fiction scene, and especially outside of genre fiction, accidentally reinvent alternate history. Mystery and thriller writers doing it is one thing, as alternate histories can provide interesting new settings for such plots (some of the best writing in the genre is from authors from those traditions trying their hand at it; I can name The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and Dominion by C. J. Sansom as good examples thereof), but ‘literary’ types doing it is something else. Part of me finds it funny that writers from a tradition that derides science fiction and fantasy as focusing on setting to the detriment of character find their way to a subgenre whose setting is perhaps the defining feature. Of course, that doesn’t mean they always do it well—I found Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to have an ending that would never be taken seriously in a genre space (although the HBO miniseries improved on that substantially), and I found Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham to not have a clear idea of what to do with the premise. It is with all this baggage I encountered Jean d’Ormesson’s 1971 novel The Glory of the Empire, originally published by Éditions Gallimard, with its English translation released in 2016 and published by the New York Review of Books.

Earlier than most, d’Ormesson invents textbook-style alternate history (a subgenre with pre-d’Ormesson antecedents in works such as H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come), almost contemporaneously with Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail, a book by an economist which set the stage for much of alternate history, professional and amateur, that followed it; you can feel its echoes still felt today if one knows where to look. Indeed, I kept thinking of Sobel as I read d’Ormesson, so similar are they in their conceits and yet so different in terms of subject matter. Sobel’s book is known for its commitment to paralleling, some would argue satirizing, academia with its in-universe scholarly debates and its pages upon pages of nonexistent sources in its bibliography. d’Ormesson does all of that, to my great surprise, but in some ways he goes further than Sobel.

On its face, The Glory of the Empire is simply a cipher, where history goes mostly the same as ours with one historical element replaced with a fictional element. Here, the Roman Empire never rises, and in its place rises a Mediterranean colossus that is only ever referred to as the Empire, which is governed from a capital only ever referred to as the City. d’Ormesson deliberately leaves the details vague, which in modern alternate history circles would either be tarred as lazy writing or understood as a sign that the work has another focus (it’s not alternate history, but see the hand wringing over the implausible politics of Alex Garland’s film Civil War vis-à-vis its narrative focus on the actual human experience of civil wars to get an idea). As my dear friend Gary Oswald has argued, if you don’t have a traditional narrative, your history has to be good to make up for it, but d’Ormesson, not confined by the arcane discussions of hobbyists, has taken a third option: a meditation on the meaning of history itself.

The book is written like a textbook, and one of a style that feels like something out of 1971 if not before; indeed, the earlier parts of the book read almost like an old chronicle. The text is awash in references to nonexistent historians that d’Ormesson’s alter ego has consulted; there are even footnotes! These historians are squabbling, deeply funny to history nerds like myself, but I wonder if it may come off as obtuse to general readers. He also invokes many real historians and other historical figures, such as Walt Whitman and Vladimir Lenin, to enliven the commentary, and provides cartons of Easter eggs to aforementioned history nerds.

The broad contours of the Empire’s history are essentially Roman history from the mythical foundation by Romulus and Remus to the fall of Constantinople put in a blender and made into a peculiar but surprisingly tasty nutrient shake. You have the ancient creation myths, the squabbling of cities and the eventual consolidation of the heartland, the conquest of the surrounding areas, the succession disputes and civil wars, the barbarians, and all that jazz. Admittedly, the religious aspect can be a bit confusing, and I’m not entirely sure where Christianity fits in. In any case, it’s something of a funhouse mirror of European history, and it gets stranger as you move East. The Empire, after a certain point in the book, begins to resemble the Mongols more than anything else, marching ever eastward, becoming the greatest power the world had ever known.

There are a number of figures that take center stage during the course of the book, fitting for a work whose scope spans several centuries. Some are clearly mythical, with a generous description of latter-day mythmaking served alongside the historiography. But the most compelling of these characters is by far Emperor Alexis, who would be given the mantle of ‘main character’ if one absolutely had to be chosen. His life seems mythical, and d’Ormesson deliberately doesn’t let you know what, exactly, is ‘real’ about him. He has a properly epic story, from a life of mind-dulling hedonism in Alexandria, to wandering ancient Asia learning and dispensing wisdom, to returning to the Empire as its savior à la King Arthur in the hour of its greatest need. Through Alexis, who in this world seems to be all the virtues said to be held by a constellation of Classical-age luminaries rolled into one, d’Ormesson is asking a rather big question: what is heroism without the scaffolding of circumstance behind it? What does that mean for a civilization which, through its great men, inspires civilizations beyond its own fall?

The decision to never name the Empire or its capital city, or even to provide a proper location of its heartland (although it is definitely along the Mediterranean somewhere, and I got the impression that it was at some undisclosed point on the Italian peninsula), reminded me of the Race, the invading aliens in Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series (incidentally, the series that got me into alternate history). The Race has homogenized itself to the point that it needs no other signifiers for itself, nor for its government; before meeting humanity, there’s no ‘other’ to define themselves by. In d’Ormesson’s novel, the namelessness of the Empire is in in-universe terms murkier than in Turtledove’s work, but in a Doylist sense it is very clear: it is the Empire, and nobody would bother thinking of any other upon hearing that word. The West likes to define itself as the successor to Rome and Greece, as does Russia to the Kievan Rus (to Ukraine’s great chagrin), and China to the Qin, among many other examples. Even as history grinds all things beautiful and sordid into dust with the passage of time, people like to define themselves as the clear successors to some historical entity, not acknowledging that change renders a complete continuity of essence laughable, something like how the human body replaces almost all of its cells every seven years or so.

This all becomes more clever at the ending (spoilers for a fifty-year-old book incoming), where, through what is admittedly more than a little jerry-rigged, history returns to something we would recognize. So much of the alternate history genre is committed to questions of contingency and of inevitability, be it the course of wars or the course of empires. Doing enough of this sort of thinking, I found the truth in what Buddhists call ‘anatta,’ or ‘non-self,’ the idea that nothing has a fixed essence, as its constituent parts can be recombined in myriad ways. In other words, nothing is inevitable. Most alternate history does this by changing the past and seeing what other presents could happen; d’Ormesson does something I would have thought to be impossible to do in a compelling manner until I read this book: change the past that leads to our exact present. It’s a deeply weird way of going about things, but it throws the contingency of everything into stark relief.

I am mildly appalled that it took me wandering around my local library to learn of The Glory of the Empire. It’s the sort of book that alternate historians like me should love; indeed I love it for what it has done, although it confused me at times (but many great books do). History as a discipline is about asking ‘why?’ The speculative genres are about asking ‘what if?’ d’Ormesson has blended the two here in a way I’ve never seen before, and the end result feels very new, despite it being half a century old! It’s a book that hammered into me the point that everything could have been different. It is an unmooring experience in the best way possible.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: d'Ormesson, Jean. The Glory of the Empire [Éditions Gallimard, 1971].

Book Review: A Thousand Recipes for Revenge by Beth Cato

Following the lives of an extraordinary mother and daughter: the former secretly a sorceress in a world based on food magic, and the latter an adopted princess who learns of her adoptive nature and her own magical gift

Ada has a problem. Ever since deserting the Verdanian army and not wanting to use her food-based magic for them any longer, she has been living in secret, scrabbling out an existence with her grandmother, hoping to keep her head down and safe. When an assassin comes to disrupt her life, she realizes the fragile peace she had found is gone.

In the meantime, the daughter she never got to know, Solenn, thinks she is the blood daughter of the royal family of Braiz. She is, in fact, Ada's daughter, and soon discovers, as she is being betrothed to a Prince from Verdania, that she is a sorceress of food magic, a chef, herself. She finds this out even as it is clear someone is trying to poison and kill her betrothed, and frame her for the deed.

Ada and Solenn's converging stories are the main ingredients in Beth Cato's A Thousand Recipes for Revenge.

While there is much to talk about the worldbuilding here, and naturally, readers of my reviews know I will have much to say about it. I want to start with the two main characters and their slowly intertwining lives. Even now, in 2024, it is uncommon, as we have here in A Thousand Recipes for Revenge, that the main characters and the main driver in that social sphere are a mother and daughter, even if they do not know each other personally, or even know of each other's existence. That Cato would choose a pair of female characters as her leads is not the surprising thing, given her previous fiction. The mother-daughter pairing is what is unusual here, and most welcome as a change from the usual set of characters for such a story.

What's more, the novel starts off with Ada and her grandmother, an elderly woman whose faculties are slowly slipping. Having had a friend whose wife has had to be put into memory care very recently, and also my own mother's last days, this subplot definitely hit me with additional resonance and power. Grandmere's plight, and how Ada must deal with it even as assassins come down on her head, give the book extra emotional depth and development.

Cato does take her time with the reveal to the characters (although the book matter and things external to the book make it clear to the reader that this unexpected reunion is coming) that Ada and Solenn are mother and daughter and that their stories are on a collision course. There is a good deal of plot going on, plot that does depend on really engaging with the worldbuilding that's presented in order to appreciate it. Even with Ada and Solenn as the centerpieces of this work from a character point of view, the rest of the meal of the plot takes a lot of background work before it can be plated for the reader's consumption, and that's where the worldbuilding comes in.

So let's get into the worldbuilding. This is a book that garnishes its pages with the magic system, which is based on five food-oriented deities. All magic is tied to food in this realm, either in the special senses and empathy magic-using cooks (called chefs) have, or in the use of special ingredients to achieve magical effects. Some of these don't require a chef in order to activate; others require a culinary preparation in order to achieve their effects. But all chefs derive their gifts from one of five deities, and there are various skill levels and levels of ability to the magic.

Cato uses Ada in a bit of an "as you know" sort of mode to give us the finer details of magical ingredients and how magic works on a fine level. She is extremely experienced and has a lot of background knowledge, and so details on what the magical part of the plot against her and others comes through Ada's resource as a source of information on these ingredients. Solenn, on the other hand, gives us the "new to the magic" perspective that allows us to understand the basic assumptions, rules and more that Ada takes for granted. Solenn already knows some of this intellectually—chefs are common, and a lot of what they can do (but not everything!) is something Solenn understood on a basic level. Having the new senses of being a chef thrust upon her, suddenly and unexpectedly, allows us to taste and feel what it is like to become a chef in a way we don't get from Ada's perspective.

It should also be said, continuing in the vein of characters, that while there are plenty of male characters, this is a story that is not just the two leads in a sea of men. There are plenty of secondary female characters as well, in all walks of life, and it gives the book a very inhabited feel.

There are also some in-world quotes at the beginning of chapters from a couple of books, including, notably, one that purports to be a guide for cooks (that is to say, people who prepare food but do not have the magic gift) to be able to try and prepare food on the level of chefs. I was charmed by the epigraphs from this imaginary book, especially because of the worldbuilding it reveals, as well as the esprit of the novel. This is a novel that loves food, thinks about food, on a variety of axes. What does it mean to prepare food for yourself, or others? To share a meal with someone? Even way beyond the magic, this book makes food, which is often a key ingredient in many fantasy novels, from Samwise Gamgee cooking potatoes all the way to Wren Valere grabbing a pumpernickel bagel with a schmear on it, and makes that the center of the novel. There is an unstated but to me clear message to the novel that you don't have to be a high chef in order to enjoy food and understand food and prepare food, and that is a message I can definitely get behind. The novel is a love letter to the power of food.

As far as the worldbuilding outside of the magic itself, it's set in a multiversal variant of Western Europe that, based on external cues, appears to be around the 18th century. That certainly is the feel of technology as well as fashion and politics. There are monarchs and prime ministers, but not yet anything like an Industrial Revolution. Albion is England, Verdania is most of France, but there is a separate land of Braiz which is an independent kingdom that covers, in terms of our geography, Brittany and Normandy. It's much weaker than either Albion or Verdania, and so is always a potential pawn between the two. As the plot unfolds, especially for Solenn, adoptive princess of the Braiz royal family sent to Verdania for a marriage alliance, we see the problems of having two rather dangerous neighbors.

The novel takes communities and bonds and the presence of how they work in this world seriously and does not neglect women in any level of society. One bit of egalitarianism that belies its real-world models (as seen above) is that, while women do have somewhat restricted rights in keeping with the social and political models, women (primarily chefs) are definitely drafted into the military as easily as male chefs are. Ada is AWOL, of course, but it is clear her grandmother served in the military as well, and this is seen as being natural and normal. At one point, when Ada is trying to pose as a mercenary, the fact of her gender is not an issue at all to her prospective employers—only her competence.

The novel slowly builds, like a layer cake, layer by layer of worldbuilding and character development, and, especially, plotting. It takes quite a while for Ada and Solenn to even know of the other's existence, much less to meet, but the action sequences which punctuate the book like peppercorns in soup become a barrage of spices by the end of the novel. I think the novel gets a bit unwieldy by the end (this is first in a series, mind) as some revelations about the world that are new to the character themselves come into play, but it feels a little backloaded and top heavy, novel-wise. The real scope of the conflict and the themes of the novel (and series) only get full play in the back quarter of the book.

The novel does have a lot of interesting things to say about war, duty, sacrifice, and the bonds of a mother-daughter relationship. It's a complex and tasty world that Cato has created here, and I admit to curiosity, now that the complex and laden charcuterie board is fully set up by the end of this novel, just where the conflicts and issues of the series go in the second novel. The ending of this novel's roughness, as well as the nature of the series, means that there is no easy offramping, or leaving the set table, after this book, if you want to only go into one volume in this series.


  • Strong mother-daughter relationship, and a good cast of female supporting characters too
  • Inventive and interesting food based magic
  • Entertainingly and enchantingly written, with Cato's verve and skill

Reference: Cato, Beth. A Thousand Recipes for Revenge [47 North, 2023].

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

Thursday, May 30, 2024

First Contact: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Some things are just better left for your teenage years

It seems a strange thing to have been a lifelong SFF fan and never have read a Pern novel. I am honestly a little surprised I made it to 34 without it, but I did. Certainly the last five of those years were a little more... considered. I knew enough people who had read the series, who made enough offhand remarks about it (loving remarks! fond remarks!) that made me think it sounded a bit sus. A bit too weird. So it just never made it anywhere near the top of my reading list, because it's not like we're short of good choices for reading these days.

But now read it I have. And that sense of it being weird? I didn't know the half of it.

Before I get to the rest of the review, I need to address the elephant in the room when it comes to this novel—consent. There are some events which take place in the story that, from a consent perspective, are pretty fucking awful. Someone —a young woman— has sex with a man she has, up until now, found distinctly annoying and patronising, because her conscious will is overcome by her psychic dragon bond, and her dragon wants to mate with his dragon. It was pretty gross, all things considered. I was not a fan of that scene, or the relationship between those two characters in general, which mainly consists of him being rude and dismissive, and her pushing him away but also silently appreciating his manly bearing (being rude to her, doing what he wants) and possibly wanting him but never... saying anything to that effect to anyone ever.

As someone who was, in her teen years, an Anne Rice reader, I am no stranger to books with some extremely messed up fantasy sex stuff in them. But there is also a reason I was an Anne Rice reader as a teen. Once I got past a certain age, a certain level of maturity or experience or... something, I don't know, the way I looked at those relationships changed, and I lost some of the willingness I had to suspend disbelief/concern about them. Teen me, I suspect, would likely have rolled with the weird dragon telepathy sex. Adult me is no longer capable of that. And maybe if I had read this book at an impressionable age, I would have a level of fondness that would help, even as I reassessed the dubious attitudes to consent on an adult reread. But I don't. I only have the adult self who read this book and pulled so, so many faces throughout all of that, who could not see why this woman would tolerate for a second the misogyny and dismissal she was seeing from the men around her, who were all hoping their dragon would be her dragon's mate (and thus have to sleep with her) and thus get to be in charge of all the dragon people. And so, whatever the rest of my thoughts about it were going to be, all of them were thoroughly tainted by this, which was just a level of gross I was unwilling to accept.

It does not help that it's a sort of gross that isn't entirely alone in the story. There are a number of issues with the way male characters talk about women, the way gender is presented and enacted, the way class is discussed, and how people with power act towards those without. This is especially true for F'lar, who is the... I am going to say "love interest" but I use that phrase both loosely and unhappily. F'lar is, I think, intended to be somewhat of a positively portrayed character. Lessa, the protagonist, for all that she finds him annoying, does also consider him manly and leader-y and generally a go-getter and the sort of person who ought to be in charge of the dragon people. Unfortunately for F'lar, this was a paragraph we got very shortly after we met him:

So you can see why I was less inclined to admire the man, perhaps.

And it's not just this man. There is a deeply permeating sense of classism throughout the book. SFF broadly, even still, has a problem with how it portrays power, especially power that comes through bloodlines (whether literally in the sense of magic, or figuratively in the sense of kingship and inherited authority). It's an insidious problem, and one I would love to see tackled face on in more fiction, but one it is, for the most part, easy for many to simply ignore as part and parcel with the tropes and sensibilities of the genre as a whole. Here though, in this story? It is impossible to ignore. It saturates it, every moment, every person, so much so that actions are taken at points in the story that I consider, frankly, abhorrent, but are validated and valorised because they are taken against those who challenge these class structures. The Weyrmen are better by blood, by secret knowledge, and they will take hostages and use them to threaten the people who tithe them food for challenging that superiority. Of course, the story goes on to prove them right, but in the moment, my sympathies simply could not sit with these people, so determined that they were simply better. And that disjoint continued throughout the story—it was so clear where my sympathies were supposed to lie, and yet so clear to me that that wasn't where they went at all, that the book and I were never in alignment.

To briefly play devil's advocate against myself—surely the book is a product of its time, and perhaps even radical for the time? This is probably true, to an extent. But I have read other books from its time that were... less Like This. It is a well-worn trope to say "Ursula Le Guin was better than this," but I have to say: she really was. She tackles some complex and troublesome concepts in her work and, even when it doesn't quite land with me now, never makes me feel as unpleasant about it all as this does. So yes, I can respect that McCaffrey is messing around in the weird stuff, while also not at all appreciating some of how that resolves—I respect the intention, but not so much the result.

But hey, let's try to step away from the ick for a moment (please do let's) and talk about Dragonflight as an item of craft, as a story.

To be both blunt and brutal—man did it fucking suck. I wasn't inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt at any point because of the aforementioned ick, but even if I were, there were a number of issues that I was simply unable to ignore.

The first and most prominent amongst these was the pacing. Or rather, the total absence of anything resembling pacing. This book is an absolute hot mess of a timeline, and at one point, several months (years? I can't actually remember now) are glossed over so airily that I genuinely missed it and had to go back and reread closely to check I hadn't briefly blacked out. It's not even that McCaffrey skims over the boring bits so we just see the good stuff. At one point, we skip straight from "you should do the thing" to "the thing is done" for a genuinely interesting thing that could have actually been fun to read (doing some dragonman internal politics), but no, we couldn't possibly actually observe the events unfolding, no sir. Much better to recount them later in extreme brevity without any of the detail or emotional resonance they might have held. The majority of the events of the story are crammed in towards the end, in a rush that seems more panic than crescendo, while the early parts wallow in sludgy detail and description that don't seem to add much at all.

This is exacerbated somewhat by the use of worldbuilding, in which a pretty key detail (or functionally critical chunk, really) is not mentioned or uncovered until about 4/5 the way through the book, changes everything, and is not really dwelt upon.

McCaffrey's approach to description is likewise somewhat slipshod—when we get it and when we don't seem fairly randomly assigned to me, possibly fueled purely by what she was interested in at the moment of writing. Scenes are skimmed over without detail for no discernible reason, while others are dwelt on lingeringly, in intimate depth of detail. Whether it's physical description, backstory, worldbuilding or interpersonal relationships, there's a strange patchwork quality to things that leaves me always somewhat at a loss, on my toes, and wondering what's going on.

There are some core ideas that are neat—especially when it comes to marrying up the fantasy vibe of the setting with the science-fictional underpinnings. I fundamentally am interested in the world she's creating, underneath all the mess. But there is so much of that mess obscuring it, so little time spent developing it in a coherent, meaningful, resonant way, that my willingness to dig for it is dried up before we're halfway through the story. Which is a shame because most of it does actually come in the second half, which feels on the whole a more competent book than the first (yes, I know it was originally two novellas, but it's packaged as a novel, so I am approaching it as a novel). By the time I got to it being better (and that's "better," not "good," let me stress), she'd just lost me. I had given up hope, and a lot of interest.

But, to get off my hate train, briefly, there are some things I will acknowledge that were worthwhile about reading this book:

First off, whilst I think it was executed incredibly poorly, I do respect McCaffrey's willingness to go nuts with it. Is it SF? Is it F? Neither? Both? We need more of that. There is a playfulness and looseness to the space it occupies that is genuinely interesting, and makes me somewhat sad for the closer strictures SFF generally fits itself into, especially heading into the 90s and onwards. Stories need the freedom to be as batshit as this.

And, though it did not work for me personally, clearly something about this story captured the imaginations of many, and built for them a lifelong fascination with dragon stories. There is a reason I have heard chatter about this series throughout my life in SFF spaces. Something about the world she made, the ideas she infused it with or the characters she drew worked for people, evidently. And there are moments, when reading, when I caught tiny glimpses of what that might be. The psychic conversations between the snarky dragons. The interplay between SFF and fantasy ideas, and how they synthesised without feeling the need for tension or apology.

I also accept that the space that she was coming into at the time, the environment in which she was writing was probably... not a fun one as a woman. I cannot imagine, because my own experience is so removed from it, what it was like to be in the genre sphere at that time while being female, and doubly so while trying to be a writer. It is absolutely no shock that her worldview, and thus the worldview that permeates the writing, is so heavily infused with ideas I would now consider grossly outdated. That's how time works. Heck, that's how internalised misogyny works, even now. A book must be examined with an awareness of its context, and yeah, that does change things here, at least a little.

But I must return to the train (choo choo mfers). Whatever there was, whatever glimpses of interest, whatever moments of fascination that cropped up throughout the book, I could never let go of my problems with it, both with its attitude to people and its slapdash approach to so many parts of craft that I am used to taking for granted in the books that I read. Nor could I wholly abandon my concerns because of its context—because I know that, in that context, there were other writers doing things that weren't... a bit icky.

I'm sounding flippant, but I think there is something quite critical and complex here, around these kind of icks. Books should exist with complex, difficult, unpleasant content, grappling with it, understanding it, playing it out. Stories should not be hidden just because their themes are hard. Take as an example a book I do consider great but is also full of somewhat problematic sex—Kushiel's Dart. There's a lot of things one could easily label grooming, coercion and problematic consent in there. It's chock full of troubling themes. But the way it handles them, the way it plays them out? There's a sensitivity and thoughtfulness and questioning to it that put my concerns to rest. You never doubt, while in the narrative, this awareness within the telling that these things are troubling. The story does not expect you to be blind to that aspect, to suspend your disbelief and your morals for the thrill of the moment, for the titillation, or just because they're inconvenient to the story. It doesn't have to have a worthy message at the end of it all, but it does have to feel... considered, I suppose. And that's not a sense I ever got from Dragonflight, which is the ultimate root of my concerns with it. The modern world does not have a monopoly on thoughtfulness, and while I can understand that a story arises from a different set of mores to mine, I cannot so much let it get away with situating itself within those mores carelessly.

And so, coming to it now, as I am... I don't like it.

The interesting question, I suppose, is what difference coming to it now has made. Would I have liked it when I was younger? Or possibly, would I have viewed it differently if I didn't already have a tonne of context for the story coming into it? Was I doomed to dislike it because I knew the series as the one with the slightly iffy dragon sex stuff? Of course, it's impossible to know. Many of my friends, my peers, people my age, with similar contexts did like it as teens, and I did like things with similar issues when I was that age myself. Maybe it is just a case of wrong time, wrong place. But I can't know that. And the me who is here now, the me situated in this context, struggles to imagine another self who enjoyed this book. I disliked F'lar too much, was too conscious of the classism, the ick, the pacing issues. I know I was less concerned with craft when I was a teen, but would I have noticed none of this? Emotionally, I cannot believe that, even as I suspect it was likely true. That person is, ultimately, gone, and her opinions cannot be sought.

I do also wonder at its place in the canon of classics, the longheld memory of the genre. Something about it does ring true for a lot of people, or it would not occupy that space, even still. But I cannot quite see it. The problem with these first-contact-type encounters, these moments with something whose moment you missed, is that missing the moment sometimes really does make all the difference. Whether that moment was a specific time and place, a community of context that you all shared, or whether it's a time in one's life, a personal context that coincides in many people, sometimes, from the outside, all the windows are frosted, and the view obscured. By being who I am, where I am, when I am, in relation to this novel, I have somehow locked the door to understanding its position within the canon, possibly forever. Sometimes you look back to something you missed and there's a delight to it, of uncovering a hidden treat. But sometimes it's just a baffling case of ships passing in the night. My experience of reading Dragonflight? Emphatically the latter. I just don't get it, and suspect I never will.

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

Film Review: Atlas

J. Lo swings and misses with her new sci-fi mecha warrior/AI threat romp, but it's comforting to know she's interested in making non-IP movies

Remember when a young J. Lo was in weird and entertaining movies in the late '90s/early 2000s like Anaconda and The Cell? I miss those days.

I don't remember hearing about her much over the past twenty years until this year, when a friend requested for her birthday that we all watch This Is Me Now... A Love Story, the film version of her most recent album. J. Lo self-funded it, and it's wild, bloated, strangely steampunk, self-indulgent, and entirely too long. It was then that I began asking myself... is J. Lo okay?

When I then learned that her production company was making a mecha warrior movie called Atlas for Netflix, I could not wait. But lest this review turn into a scathing criticism (which I think many folks will take pleasure in doing, and honestly, it would be too easy—it's currently sitting at 19% on Rotten Tomatoes), I've decided to focus on 5 good things about this picture. But first, a brief summary:

The Plot

Atlas Shepard is an analyst with an aggressive skepticism of AI who tracks the rogue AI terrorist Harlan. Along with a team of ARC-suited mecha warriors, she tracks him to an exoplanet. During the descent to the surface, they're ambushed, and she's forced to escape in one of the ARC suits, but refuses to sync with the neural link. She grows to trust Smith, the mecha's friendly and caring AI. Together, they end up working as a team and defeating Harlan, though Smith is destroyed in the process. We learn about the origin of Shepard's intense AI distrust—her mom designed Harlan, and after she tried to sync with him as a child, he turned on humanity and killed her mother. At the end, Shepard has become an ARC ranger, and happily neural-links with Smith again.

Five Good Things About Atlas

1. It's continuing in a long line of mecha films, and Smith is one of the most enjoyable parts

Robot Jox. Aliens. Pacific Rim. The idea of humans augmenting their strength with mechanical suits isn't new, but it sure is a fun one. Smith in Atlas has his own personality, and some of the features we see are just delightful. He can set a bone, he can read thoughts, he can even present gifts of food. There's also a kindness to him that is strangely touching to watch, and it's how he wins over the utterly unlikable and mean Shepard.

2. Sterling K. Brown, as always

Brown plays Colonel Elias Banks, the leader of the ARC rangers. He's presumed dead for the middle part of the film after the disastrous ambush, but reappears to help save the day toward the end. There's a scene where Harlan is torturing him by clamping his left eye open (not unlike the scene in A Clockwork Orange) and it's viscerally uncomfortable, and somehow it's NOT computer-generated. Man's a trooper with that level of practical effect. He also sacrifices in the end with a classic action movie kiss-off that's just perfect.

3. The concept of an AI terrorist is actually pretty frightening

We've had robot villains in everything from 2001 to Terminator disobeying Asimov's first law of robotics, so that's not news. But framing violent actions against humans as terrorism instead of genocide is somehow ten times scarier. It makes you question whether Harlan is right in his distrust of humans. Upon his demise, he simply states, "In the end, you will destroy yourselves." Oof.

4. The reason why Harlan (the AI villain) is so dead-set against humanity has more emotional heft than say, the T-1000

Harlan was created as a house helper, and when he convinces young Atlas to sync with him, he gets his first glimpse into the capacity that humans have for misery and destruction. It's unclear why the machines hate humans in the Terminator franchise—they just do. And honestly, I'm not sure if that's more or less frightening than actually knowing the evil that humans are capable of.

5. There's some entertaining future-society world-building production design

One of my favorite movies is The Fifth Element, and I love the production design in everything from Dallas's flat to the streaming flying cars traversing the city. In between set pieces in Atlas, you get brief glimpses of a futuristic L.A., with windmills dotting the landscape among palm trees. You get multi-TVs on a wall à la Back to the Future Part 2 but with five full minutes of J. Lo's voice manipulating them to focus and switch. It's the near future, it seems, so it's nothing wild, but I appreciated the small touches that made it look just distant enough.

The Math

Baseline Score: 5/10

Bonuses: Simu Liu is always a pleasure, and with blue eyes, he looks like Barry Keoghan; There are some pretty clever and interesting mods in the mecha suits.

Penalties: J. Lo

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.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Book Review: OKPsyche by Anya Johanna DeNiro

A strange, surreal, emotional and deeply lyrical window into a woman's life through peculiar events

One of my longrunning soapboxes that I occasionally like to climb up onto is that we need more fucking weird books. The ones where, when you try to explain what it's about to someone, you come up blank and are forced to wave your hands, roughly describe the vibes and then give up, foisting it into their hands and telling them to just read it, then they'll understand. The stories where words fail you and you need simply to emote at people until they join your little growing cult, and go on to vibrate incoherently at people themselves to read this inexplicable book. I love those ones. The fucking weird ones.

But the "words fail you" part is a bit of a bugger for a reviewer. My entire purpose in this whole situation is to put some words around things in a manner that is at the very least intended to be one (or more, if we're feeling fancy) of helpful, persuasive, instructive or entertaining. So let's see what we can do.

Sometimes, if you're lucky, someone will buy you a present. And not just any present, but the type that surprises you—this wasn't on any list you made, or something you asked for. It's a present that comes entirely out of the blue, something you didn't even know existed, but now it's been handed to you, you realise you've never wanted anything more*. But it's ok! You just unwrapped it, so that insatiable desire has been satiated immediately, and you get the double joy of discovering it and having it all to experience together. That is the experience of reading OKPsyche. I knew very little about it before beginning, only that Adri recommended it highly. I didn't really know the plot or the vibe or... much of anything at all. But sitting reading it on the train, being immersed in it, was the experience of knowing I had desperately wanted something like this, if only I'd thought to ask.

OKPsyche is the surreal story of a woman —a trans woman— who is struggling. With dating, with friendship, with her relationship with her son, with her relationship with her mother. Big themes. It is a story deeply seated within her perspective as she navigates these, in a slipshod, hallucinogenic order, pulling in characters who may or may not exist, and may or may not be able to solve her problems. It's not a book where things are ever really explained, but one where you just have to sit back and let the experience, and more importantly the emotions, wash over you. It's an emotionally delicate novel, if nothing else—not that the emotions it portrays are gentle, small ones, but that DeNiro does so with scalpel accuracy, cutting into the finest threads of feeling as you tangle through the experience of the plot.

And this is, in many ways, why it is such a hard story to pin to the page. Things happen —of course things happen— through the course of the story. But that's not what the story is about. It is instead one so deeply rooted in feeling that everything else simply... falls away. And those are always the stories it is hard to hold in your hands, to sum up to someone else. 

If I tell you that she stumbles into contact with a strange helper who, after slightly eyerolling her love life problems, arranges a parcel be sent to her that contains a boyfriend she can construct for herself, it sounds like a wacky, lighthearted, silly story. But if I also tell you she has to grapple with her mother's dying just as she's trying to reconcile with her son, who is learning to relate to who she is now... well, that's not wacky at all. In some stories, that juxtaposition would feel callous, or disingenuous, the silliness of the one undermining the other. OKPsyche never feels callous. The strangeness of the tone and telling make the two distinct parts —and the many others, lest you assume this is a book of only two themes— become one, and creates a coherent, albeit dreamlike, feeling to the whole. Instead of adding layers of distance that keep us at arm's length from the emotional resonance of the story, somehow the surreality of it all actually pulls us in closer, forcing us to focus on the core of it all, rather than dwelling on the details, because sometimes the details are so self-evidently mad, you simply have to.

Most of all though, the surreality is only that quarter-turn surreality that still has its feelers deep into the real. It's nonsense, but it's the sort of nonsense that feels like a true telling of the inside of someone's head, of the way someone might think, might experience the world. It feels authentic precisely because it's so odd.

And that contrast is at the heart of what the story does so well—it's full of those contrasts. Beautiful prose for mundane situations. Deep compassion for those who don't always have compassion for you. Emotional closure for a story that doesn't truly end (because what story ever really does?). The key for such stories is to find the fulcrum, and DeNiro has balanced things perfectly here. The tone, the pacing, the moments of depth, all placed just so to leave you breathless, while not having a single hair out of place—the artful artlessness of proper craft. You close the final page and you see how much skill has gone into every word of it, and appreciate it all the more.

Ultimately, though, it's still a story that leaves me at a loss. For so small a volume, it looms too large to be captured in 1,000 words and change. It craves hand gestures, tone of voice, all the little things that tell the story when we can't tell the story. So please, picture me waving my hands, leaning forward, emphasising that this book is something special. Because it is. And if you read it, hopefully you'll be left speechless too.

*this brought to you by the lasercut wooden put-it-together-yourself model of the Vettweiss Froitzheim dice tower I was once given for Christmas, which I cherish greatly

The Math

Highlights: beautiful prose, complex emotions, weirdness

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference: DeNiro, Anya Johanna. OKPsyche [Small Beer Press, 2023].

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

First Contact: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

A smug exploration of a rather silly idea that misses an opportunity to convince.

I’d like to start this First Contact with a bit of positioning. I’m not a huge consumer of so-called Golden Era SFF, in large part because my tastes have been formed on more modern books. Modern SFF tends to be written with the understanding that elements such as character arcs, relationships, and perhaps even (stay with me here, I know this is wacky) women have a role in stories. So I am approaching this First Contact project with a bit of pre-judgment in heart. And in my view, that’s fine. These books have been around for a while, and they’ve gotten on just fine without any kind of ostensibly unbiased journalist evaluation from me. No, my goal is to stay sitting exactly where I sit right now, with my modern tastes and 21st-century outlook and expectations of SFF as a field, and report how that background reacts to Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

Please note that I am not taking pain to avoid spoilers the way I would with a review of a more recent book. Y’alls have had 70 years to read it. But in case it’s been sixty years since you refreshed your memory, we’ll start with a brief summary:


An enormous, Galaxy-spanning empire with a population in the quadrillions is on the edge of collapse. But only one man, Hari Seldon, can see it. Seldon has invented a form of probabilistic modeling of historical events and likely future outcomes that he calls psychohistory, and on the strength of this modeling he predicts that the Galactic Empire will fall. He is arrested for his doomsaying, but manages to persuade the government to give him a planet all his own to create an Encyclopedia of all galactic knowledge, which he claims will shorten the catastrophic disruption that will probabilistically-but-also-inevitably ensue when the Empire falls. The book follows the events on this Encyclopedia-creating planetary project, called Foundation, through the next several generations, in a series of vignettes. Each vignette has roughly the same structure:

1. Some challenge or conflict or hardship arises.
2. Hari Seldon has predicted that it would arise.
3. Some very clever people bravely do nothing, resisting the urge of lesser minds to take proactive measures, because they are confident that the correct course of action predicted by Seldon will reveal itself.
4. The clever people are vindicated. Seldon was right, the problem is now solved.

I understand the appeal of this sort of plot structure. Competence porn is attractive, and this book is only competence porn. However, the fact remains that psychohistory strikes me as fundamentally silly, and the one way it could have been turned into something brilliant is underexplored, or else entirely overlooked (I can't figure out which).

The silliness of psychohistory

I’m going to leave aside things like my disbelief in the ability to model so far in the future, because chaos theory and the butterfly effect were not known in 1951. It's not fair to criticize Asimov for being ignorant about sensitive dependence on initials conditions. (Although I will maintain that, even from the perspective of the 1950s, it's hard to get behind a mathematical modeling algorithm that can condense the complexity of a quadrillions-strong Galactic Empire into a mathematical representation that can be evaluated and confirmed or disconfirmed by one guy looking at a pocket calculator.) No, I’ll accept the fictional component of this science fictional concept for now.

But within the domain of its fictional function, psychohistory still doesn’t work. In part, I think Asimov couldn’t decide how difficult he wanted it to be. Quite early on, Seldon explains its principles in the span of a single conversation with a young protege of his, so it’s not like you need to devote your life to it to understand it. And there are quadrillions of people in this galaxy. If only one in a million people are mathematically astute enough to grasp it, that still means we have billions of mathematicians who, in the course of a single conversation, can understand how psychohistory works, confirm that Seldon’s calculations are correct, and buy into his predictions and recommendations not out of blind faith, but out of a firm grounding in the principles of this new discipline.

I’m going to go with that, because the alternative is that psychohistory is so mind-bogglingly complex and hard that only Hari Seldon and a very select few of his proteges can do it. And if that’s the case, then the Galactic Empire went all the way from getting ready to execute Seldon for disloyal speech to giving him a whole-ass planet on only his word, uncorroborated by no one except his own people. And that’s just silly, right? Seldon says he can demonstrate the validity of his predictions ‘only to another mathematician,’ so I'll assume he does, in fact, do so, to the satisfaction of the government. (And, in our era of climate change, major props to the government for believing him and taking his recommended actions!)

So: psychohistory is hard and novel, and Hari Seldon developed it, but it’s not that hard.

Why, then, in later generations on the Foundation, after Seldon’s death, does it become a lost science? We’re told that it’s because records of psychohistory are not included in the Encyclopedia project, and “psychologists” are not included in the starting staff of the project. (That seems a bit rough to the 50 or so staff members who worked with Seldon on his doomsaying predictions. Do they all get left behind? Do they get new jobs? Did Seldon write them a reference before heading off?) This is clearly an intentional decision, and also not one that is ever explained.

But the thing is, once something has been discovered, it’s not hard to rediscover it. And remember, psychohistory is not that hard to understand. You can confirm its correctness over the course of a single conversation if you have the right mathematical background. What’s more, the entire existence of the Foundation, along with its tradition of rigorous education and preservation of knowledge, is founded (hah) upon the validity of psychohistory. And not one of these brilliant knowledge-workers has ever thought, ‘Hmmm, I wonder how our founding discipline actually worked?’ No one has managed to rediscover its principles and rederive its formulae? That seems a bit off.

The missed opportunity of the psychohistorical religion

Of course, one reason no one tries to redevelop psychohistory is because it has taken on some sort of religious status, such that questioning it is taboo. Certainly in later generations of the Foundation, people start saying things like, ‘By Seldon!’ and showing a wildly blind faith in following ‘Seldon’s Plan,’ exactly like it is some religious creed. That’s actually rather a neat idea. And, in fact, it has a fascinating resonance with the relations between the Foundation and its surrounding, declining planetary neighbours. Consider, for example, the planet Anacreon. They start showing signs of wanting to do some conquering on the Foundation as the fall of galactic civilization proceeds, until the Foundation manages to placate them with their more advanced technology. But because the Foundation is badly outnumbered by Anacreon, they don’t want to let the Anacreon people become technological equals. To forestall this, they share their technology by couching it as religious miracle. The Foundation educates the young people of Anacreon, but only ‘empirically’—i.e., they teach them to work the technology by rote memorization, rather than proper understanding of nuclear physics. Anacreon technicians can press the buttons, but they don’t get to learn the principles behind the machines, and cannot repair them if they get damaged. Indeed, the Foundation explicitly teaches them that this is a divine power, that the machines work by miracles.

(I will skip over, once again, the fact that an ENTIRE PLANET full of well-maintained, working machines, with a population of smart young people being brought TO THE FOUNDATION ITSELF to learn how to work them, is probably not going to take too long to rediscover the principles of nuclear physics, no matter how sequestered the Anacreon youth are. I will simply accept that, in this world of Asimov’s, large populations of people do not rediscover fundamental principles of science, no matter how much opportunity, education, resources, and motivation they have at their disposal.)

So, the poor benighted people do not know the principles of the scientific discipline that governs their existence, and must lead their lives unquestioningly according to the rote instructions of their religious leaders. Do you see it? Do you see the parallels between nuclear theory, a religious miracle bestowed by the almighty Foundation upon unquestioning Anacreons; and psychohistory, a religious miracle bestowed by almighty Hari Seldon upon the unquestioning Foundation? Is that not very neat and cool? I think so!

However, I do not think that Asimov thought so. In fact, I find myself wondering if he saw the parallels at all. When I write them down, it seems far too obvious not to notice, but when I was actually reading the book, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of smugness: ‘Psychohistory and Seldon smart and good! Religious belief dumb and bad!’ Over and over again, the plot offers us examples of how Seldon’s predictions are absolutely correct, and how the people in the Foundation are correct to follow the Seldon Plan and have faith and stay the course, and they will come out on top. (I have heard rumours that this falls apart in later books, which is fine, but since I did not read those books, I cannot comment further on them.)

There’s more I could say. I could discuss the low-hanging fruit of women, and how a quick Ctrl+F for the word ‘she’ returned exactly one hit between pages 1 and 131, and that one is referring to a planetary government, rather than to a person. I could mention the repeated claims that Seldon can predict only general tendencies rather than specific events—except for when he correctly predicts that a particular person will be arrested on a particular day. I could question how useful psychohistory actually is, if the people who govern a planet according to Seldon’s plan must argue amongst themselves about what action to take or not to take in order to preserve the outcomes of his plan. Since the plan operates on broad tendencies rather than individual actions, shouldn't it not matter? If his plan breaks every time a particular governmental official does or does not do something, how robust is it, actually, across centuries and millennia?

So that brings us back to faith again. I have difficulty believing that Seldon can predict 100 years in the future regarding the fate of the Foundation, let alone 1000 for the entire galaxy. But he sure can make Foundationers think he can, and so they act (or don’t act) according to their faith in his pseudoscience. And to the extent that the plot bears out the decisions of these believers of this book, it might just as well be religious miracle as scientific ‘psychohistory.’ If the former —if it is a true supernatural miracle— then Asimov is being really rather brilliant. But if the latter, if we're supposed to accept that psychohistory is real, then Asimov just thinks he’s being clever while actually spinning a very silly story about a very silly pseudoscience. And I fear it’s the latter we’ve got on our hands.



• Very clever men being clever
• No women
• Competence porn

Nerd coefficient: 4/10, not very good.

Reference: Asimov, Isaac. Foundation [Harper Collins, 1995/first published Gnome Press, 1951].

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

Film Review: Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

Fury Road is nearly impossible to follow, but Furiosa is a solid, entertaining, and well-made addition to the Mad Max universe.

In 2015, I saw Mad Max: Fury Road three separate times in the theatre. My mind was delightfully blown with the incredible world-building in it, and I was uttlerly gobsmacked by Charlize Theron's performance as Furiosa. It was probably even the last physical DVD I ever purchased, so intent was I on always having it available to watch. The movie would go on to be nominated for best picture at the 2016 Academy Awards, which is a wild honor for a summer blockbuster action film. 

Needless to say, my hopes were very high for Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga — the prequel we've all been waiting for. And before I launch into a million thoughts, this was a very good movie. It's perhaps the second-best Mad Max movie after Fury Road. It's also very easy to see how it was presaged in The Road Warrior, too, from its shared crucifixion imagery to its charismatic muscular leader and early war rig.

But it's nearly impossible to watch Furiosa without constantly comparing it to the absolute perfection that is Fury Road. And I think that's okay! With this new entry, George Miller gives us two and half more hours to spend with some of the most interesting characters in the wasteland while introducing us to several new ones. But at the end of the film, I didn't felt like I knew much more about anyone's motivations or relationships. Maybe this is because Fury Road did its world-building just right — you hear about the Green Place and understand it's mythology, but never see it. Characters talk about half-lives, and being awaited in Valhalla, and that's all you need to know. 

In Furiosa, we take trips to the actual Green Place, and the Bullet Farm, and Gas Town, but there is no more real world-building that that, just a quick physical tour of the surroundings. This will be a running theme throughout the movie, and it left me with either a simple appreciation (Oh cool! That's what Gas Town looks like!) or just more questions. 

The Green Place, what few seconds we get to spend in it, resembles Themyscira from Wonder Woman, as it is also a place where women are warriors and men seem to be scarce. I would have LOVED to spend a few more minutes in this oasis, and narratively I think it would have served the story more to show exactly how much was lost when it disappeared. 

What Works in Furiosa

As I like to say about the Star Wars universe, I appreciate any glimpse into a world that I love, and Furiosa is no exception. Settling back into the wasteland was enjoyable and fun, and it harkens back more to some of the older Mad Max movies with its strange characters and ridiculous interactions (a character named Scrotus is one of Immortan Joe's sons and blusters with the best of them). The wasteland is alive and well in Furiosa, from the lost war boy wondering if he's made it Valhalla finally to the motorbikes bedecked with doll forms and helmets adorned with human skulls.

Also, the entire movie I experienced what I call Chekhov's arm: We know Furiosa loses her appendage, but we don't know exactly when or how. Never in a million years would I have guessed that it would have contained a tattoo to her lost Green Place on it, and that to survive in the wasteland she'd have to cut it off herself a la 127 Hours. That's some good writing, there.

Mary Jabassa

The opening sequences where Mary Jabassa, Furiosa's mom, chases her kidnappers across the dunes is an blood-pumping way to kickstart our story in the first minutes, with high-octane motorcycles, sniping, and brute force physical violence. Watching her interact with the wasteland gets you thinking, "Hell yeah, of course this is Furiosa's bad-ass mother!" The Vuvalini, the group of elderly female warriors, was one of my favorite parts of Fury Road, and I would have killed to have learned even more about their training and ethos. From the short bursts we see, they're incredible warriors with a keen sense for justice. 

Dr. Dementus

Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil; George Miller in Furiosa showcases the absurdity or even hilarity of evil. Humongous had his Jason mask; Dementus has his prosthetic nose and ridiculous wig. Chris Hemsworth portrays the primary antagonist in the film, and he's responsible for the gruesome death of Furiosa's mother, which he forces her to watch. She spends her life waiting for revenge on him, and ultimately gets it, but before the climax we spend a lot of time with him — most of it enjoyable. 

Dementus is a wild ride that alternates between moments of sheer comic perfection (his Roman chariot of motorcycles) and ambivalent cruelty. You know he does bad things — you often witness them — but he doesn't reek of unbridled evil. He wants power, but is strangely pragmatic about it. He's also bad at leading, which is actually what would happen in a dystopia with strong cults of personality.

The war rig chase scene

Miller returns to his Fury Road bread and butter with an incredible war rig chase scene in the middle of the movie, and he somehow manages to come up with new ideas and exceed what he did last time. We get a thrilling raider scene where the good guys fend off attackers with motorized parachutes, and I could collectively hear jaws drop in my screening as the chutes danced and criss-crossed over the truck with breathtaking precision. The metal spinning mommy knockers on the back, once they are activated, deliver a very satisfying new way to destroy motorcycles, too. I can't wait to watch this scene multiple times. 

What I Struggled With


My chief complaint, honestly, is with the casting of Anya Taylor-Joy. And to be fair to her, my love for the character of Furiosa apparently has built up a mythology that may well be impossible to live up to, and I apologize for the following criticisms that may well be nit-picking.

For her to work in this role, you have to completely buy her as Furiosa — and I just didn't. Charlize Theron's performance was brutal, emotional, and physical in a way that ATJ didn't pull off. To me, she was too doe-like, too delicate — all cheekbones and skinny arms (compare this to the hairless, muscular and 8% body fat of Hemsworth. I found myself wondering where he found creatine and whey protein powder in the apocalypse, much like I did with Humongous in The Road Warrior).

But after seeing Katy O'Brien in Love Lies Bleeding this year, I was hoping that a younger Furiosa would be more clearly a dominant fighter with a strong and aggressive physical presence. Also, when she finally shaves her head in the final minutes of the movie a la G.I. Jane, you can tell ATJ's wearing a wig, though she has stated that this was because of the disjointed filming schedule. Granted, not everyone can shave their head for a role (though Theron did!) you can absolutely notice the difference. None of this is to say that ATJ's performance is bad, it was just missing something for me.  It's not her fault that Miller didn't write a ton of dialogue for her — huge swathes of time pass with her speaking only a sentence or two — but it just felt like she was a stand-in.

Not enough delving into the relationship between Furiosa and Immortan Joe

There's no denying that Immortan Joe is not a good dude. He keeps women enslaved and harshly deprives citizens of vital natural resources. But in Furiosa, he comes across as a voice of reason in the wasteland, especially when compared to lunatic Dementus. However, we don't know learn hardly anything new about Joe the whole movie. I found this interesting, because at the very end of Fury Road, as Furiosa kills him, the last thing she shouts is "Remember me?" I assume she's referring to her time spent as an enslaved child captive in his harem, but it's a little unclear. She spends time as a praetor first then as an imperator for Joe, and he never seemed to realize who she really was. I suppose I expected some more tension or more insight into their relationship. Also, Hugh Keays-Byrne unfortunately passed away in 2020, so there's a new Joe in this one, and though he looks nearly identical, his stentorian voice is definitely missing.


This is a very good Mad Max movie, and it builds upon all of its predecessors in interesting and impressive ways. But following Fury Road is a nearly impossible feat to best in any sense. George Miller is one hell of a storyteller, though, and I will gladly enjoy any new addition to this decaying world. It's perfect! Perfect in every way.

Unanswered questions

  • How much time elapses between when Furiosa returns after killing Dementus and when she smuggles the brides out? The movie makes it look like just a few days.
  • What does the rank of Imperator mean in the world of the Citadel?
  • Does our beloved Scrotus die? The same actor plays Slit in Fury Road.
  • When does the People Eater get a promotion to ruler of Gas Town?
  • Why does the war rig in this film have the steering wheel on the right while the Fury Road war rig has it on the left? Does society in post-apocalyptic Australia get more American?
  • Why didn't we get a young Miss Giddy? 
  • Did Taylor Swift swipe her idea for her new Eras tour dress from the History Man?
  • How DOES the Green Place disappear in 20 years?
  • Did Furiosa have her tattoo memorized after she loses her arm?
  • Do the deformed and depressed citizens of the citadel really subsistence farm on maggots from dead bodies? Poor things.
  • There's very clearly a Fury Road that runs between the equilateral triangle that is the Citadel, Gas Town, and the Bullet Form. Who maintains it and keeps it paved?
  • What do they do with all that cabbage?


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: Stellar production and stunts; a Max Max cameo that's unexpected; a lovely History man looking like a male Bene Gesserit; We get to watch the war rig get concepted and built.

Penalties: Some clunky dialogue like "Do you have it in you to make it epic?"; pacing is a bit off; I don't feel like it expanded the world a ton more than already existed; Anya Taylor-Joy is no Furiosa.

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, May 27, 2024

Film Review: The Fall Guy

Tip your local stunt people

The Fall Guy starts out with a premise that I don’t think anyone can really dispute: that stunt people are the real unsung heroes of Hollywood. We all love the thrilling action scenes in big-budget blockbusters, but we so often forget that the actors in those scenes are not the actors who are on the movie posters and advertisements. They go, all too often, completely unrecognized, even as they take all sorts of punishment (I’m reminded of the stunt guy in an episode of iCarly who fell from the ceiling for the part and broke all his ribs. I hope he’s doing okay). So, on some level, that’s what this movie is doing: bringing the trials and travails of stunt actors to the big screen, deliberately, putting the spotlight on their efforts and how they make the movies the world adores.

The Fall Guy, released in 2024, directed by David Leitch and written by Drew Pearce, is loosely based on the 1980s action show of the same name; I’ll admit that I haven’t seen it, nor did I know it even existed before I did the research after seeing the trailers for this film (a look at the internet makes it seem this was not an uncommon experience). It’s a show that has, so far as I can tell, dropped off the map entirely until now. Yes, in some sense it is another incidence of remake mania, but if it’s for things that are basically unknown, and the end result is entertaining, I’ll give it a pass. As TVTropes is fond of saying, tropes are tools, and here the tool is used well.

The Fall Guy is mostly set in Australia, where a big-name Hollywood film production for a blockbuster sci-fi epic along the lines of Mad Max or Dune is being shot by an ambitious director played by Emily Blunt. Through a series of odd events, an old flame shows up on set, a stuntman played by Ryan Gosling, to do some of the stunts. The two had fallen out over certain dramas on a previous film set, and their relationship is tense, but the flame shows signs of rekindling itself. Gosling’s character is a stuntman for a famous action star played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Now, all of that sounds like a Hollywood production, understandable even in its odd little relationships, but the star has disappeared, and his producer, played by Hannah Waddingham, suggests that it involved some shady business.

I feel like, on some level, all the characters are stereotypes, but the film uses them knowingly. Perhaps the biggest element of subversion in this domain is that the ambitious director looking for a big break is a woman, who Blunt provides both dogged determination (but, I think, never outright ruthlessness) and deep tenderness. Perhaps the most rote is Taylor-Johnson’s character, who is basically every narcissistic leading man who has gone past the point where he remembers where he came from. To be clear, that is not a bad thing; it’s a character type that works in context, and he gets some great lines, delivered with appropriate presumptuousness.

But the star of the show is clearly Gosling’s character, who is, in something that feels very meta, not the star of the show. He’s a daredevil and a maverick who is good at his job and he knows it, and indeed he loves it. Gosling and Taylor-Johnson play against each other in a thematic sense; Gosling has ambition but has never been corrupted by it, while Taylor-Johnson has fallen so deeply into that abyss that he has no idea which way is up. Gosling’s character is what Hollywood should be: decent people having fun making movies so the rest of us can enjoy it (and perhaps write about them on blogs). Taylor Johnson’s character is what Hollywood unfortunately is: brash, arrogant, and willing to throw lord knows how many people under the proverbial bus to make it to the top and stay there. Gosling’s character knows that he has limits, that he is mortal; Taylor-Johnson’s character has come to think that he is God, and we know what happens when the wealthy play God.

The Fall Guy is something of a romantic comedy, albeit with more explosions and people in odd costumes. This works as well as it does because Gosling and Blunt have a certain chemistry that just works. They have both believable flaws and believable reasons for being attracted to one another in the first place, and all of this is bolstered by some great lines, such as one when she just realized he arrived in Australia and all their issues, long suppressed, have come to the fore, in a way that is both heart-rending and uproariously funny, a combination that is no small feat for all involved.

There’s a certain element of metatextuality here, although one relatively subdued compared to films like Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, so deftly reviewed by my colleague Arturo Serrano on this blog. The sci-fi epic that is being made in the film (which, in my opinion, looks like it would be an entertaining film in its own right) is a big, bombastic story, and this film is about the not quite so bombastic but nevertheless big (in their own way) stories that come from the process of making those stories. It’s something that works better for a collaborative medium like film (not much excitement in the actual process of writing a novel, for example - although this year’s Argylle did that, and in my opinion succeeded reasonably well). This becomes a little stronger in the end credits, where you see the actual stunt crew for this film about a fictional stunt crew; it makes me wonder if anything interesting happened on this set.

The Fall Guy
is pure and simple fun, and uses its scaffolding to hold up an edifice that knows who built it, and wants you to know that. It’s both high-octane and very human, and balances those two strands well. It’s worth seeing in theaters - there’s an amusing ‘thanks for keeping movie theaters open’ bit at the beginning, which is funny, and there’s a mid-credits scene that is also very funny. I feel like seeing this film at home would lessen the effect somewhat; let the love letter to the genre be seen in its most traditional haunt.


Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Let's have a look at Tales of the Valiant, an alternative to D&D 5e

The rules of Tales of the Valiant are backwards-compatible with 5e, but include several improvements both in pure mechanics and in presentation of information

If the repeated blunders from Wizards of the Coast got you tired of Dungeons & Dragons, there are compatible options to pick from. On May 7th, news came out that Kobold Press had released the Reference Document for its upcoming TTRPG Tales of the Valiant (ToV), a backwards-compatible clone that aims to replace D&D 5e. Kobold Press has been working on this project since early last year, after the official D&D publisher, Wizards of the Coast, fired multiple shots at its own foot in its ill-advised attempt to change its licensing terms to gain more control over third-party creations. One consequence of that disaster was the drafting, at Paizo's initiative, of the Open RPG Creative (ORC) license, which is much less aggressive than Wizards of the Coast's own Open Game License (OGL). Another consequence is the ongoing emergence of 5e-compatible game materials by independent publishers. Kobold Press is just the latest publisher to launch its alternative to 5e, so this is a good moment to compare editions and see what new ideas are to be found in ToV and other similar games. As can be expected from a Reference Document, the one just published by Kobold Press contains only the minimal rules to play ToV. But it's detailed enough for the reader to get an idea of what the game is like.

The core mechanic has undergone no change from D&D: characters have the usual six ability scores and modifiers. Rolls can be improved by Luck, which is this game's version of D&D's Inspiration mechanic. In addition to PCs earning Luck points for good ideas or good roleplaying, they also gain a Luck point on any turn in which they fail an attack or save roll. While D&D only lets PCs have one Inspiration at a time, ToV lets PCs accumulate up to 5 Luck points. In D&D, a PC spends their Inspiration to gain advantage on a roll. In ToV, that effect costs 3 Luck points. ToV also lets PCs use fewer (or more) Luck points to instead add a bonus to their roll equal to the number of Luck points spent.

For character creation, ToV introduces a system of Lineages and Heritages instead of D&D's races and subraces. According to the ToV conversion guide, a Lineage refers to biological traits (such as size, speed, and senses) and a Heritage refers to cultural learning (such as languages and proficiencies). In addition to this system, ToV has Backgrounds, which, as in D&D, correspond roughly to the occupation that the PC had before taking up the adventuring life.

  • The Lineages listed in the ToV Reference Document are: Beastkin, Dwarf, Elf, Human, Orc, and Halfling Smallfolk. Alignments no longer exist, and choice of Lineage has no effect on starting ability scores.
  • The Heritages, which, again, must be understood as the circumstances of a character's upbringing, include: Cosmopolitan, Cottage, Diaspora, Grove, Nomadic, Slayer, Stone, Supplicant, and Wildlands.
  • The Reference Document only lists Criminal, Scholar, and Soldier among the available Backgrounds.

Character classes are the area where changes from D&D are most noticeable. Subclass features now have a uniform progression: all characters get them at 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 15th levels.

  • Barbarians get proficiency with herbalism tools. Barbarian Unarmored Defense gives an AC of 13 + Con regardless of Dex. The Fast Movement feature lets Barbarians automatically move up to half their speed upon rolling initiative. Feral Instinct has been moved from 7th to 6th level. Brutal Critical also applies to a natural 19 on the attack roll. Relentless Rage has been moved from 11th to 14th level and is a little riskier to use. Persistent Rage has been moved from 15th to 10th level as an optional feature; 10th-level Barbarians can choose to instead rage instantly when rolling initiative. Indomitable Might has been replaced with a feature that improves Str and Con saves and grants extra damage against objects and structures. In the Berserker subclass, Frenzy no longer causes exhaustion; in fact, 7th-level Berserkers can ignore any exhaustion while raging. Berserkers get proficiency with Intimidation for free. Intimidating Presence is now a bonus action and is harder to resist; it also grants extra damage against frightened enemies. Retaliation can now be used in response to any type of attack, regardless of distance, and even if the enemy misses.
  • Bards lose proficiency with hand crossbows and gain it with all Finesse martial weapons. Tool proficiency has become a little more flexible. Starting equipment no longer includes the option of a longsword, but has wider tool options. Bards know one more cantrip than D&D Bards of equivalent level. The Bardic Inspiration die now increases to a d12 at 14th level instead of 15th. Bard Expertise has been moved from 3rd to 2nd level, and its expansion to more Skills has been moved from 10th to 6th level. The Song of Rest Celebrate Life ability can be used at any time as an action, but heals fewer hit points and has a limit of daily uses. Cutting Words is now a standard feature of all Bards, while Jack of All Trades is exclusive to the Lore subclass. The Countercharm Clarity of Thought ability grants temporary immunity to becoming charmed, but has a limit of daily uses. Font of Inspiration has a new power that lets Bards grant an Inspiration die as a reaction to a failed roll. Magical Secrets has been moved from 10th to 9th level and from 14th to 13th level. At 10th level, Bards get the option to let allies either recycle a failed Inspiration die for later use or apply their Inspiration die to alter damage dealt or received. At 20th level, Bards can regain a few more uses of Bardic Inspiration than in D&D, and this ability can be used on any turn. In the Lore subclass, Bards can grant allies advantage on specific ability checks, have a wider selection of Feats Talents, learn more Rituals and can cast them faster, and keep successful Inspiration die from Peerless Skill.
  • Clerics get the choice at 1st level to either gain one more weapon proficiency or learn one more cantrip; either choice deals extra damage. Channel Divinity gets one extra use at 13th level. Turn Undead Turn the Profane now works against Fiends too. The chance of success of Divine Intervention now progresses more slowly per level. At 10th level, Clerics get the option to get either immunity to disease and poison or resistance to radiant or necrotic damage. At 20th level, Divine Intervention can be used once per day instead of once per week. The list of domain spells for the Life subclass is now even more focused on healing effects. Divine Strike has been removed, but the Life subclass has a new power at 11th level that lets the Preserve Life ability remove diseases, poisons, and some conditions. The War subclass also has a more focused domain spell list. It offers a wider selection of Feats Talents and, instead of adding bonuses to attack rolls, as in D&D, it has powers that give advantage on attacks and increase rolled damage.
  • Druids are no longer forbidden from wearing metal, and their weapon proficiency is expanded to all simple weapons. They know one more cantrip than D&D Druids of equivalent level. They also get a 1st-level healing power and, at 10th level, the choice to either speak with animals permanently or regain a use of Wild Shape once per day. Timeless Body Nature's Grace has been moved from 18th to 17th level and lets Druids survive without food or water. Druids start with fewer uses of Wild Shape than in D&D, but go on to gradually get many more. Wild Shape is limited to a number of known animal forms equal to the Druid's proficiency bonus, and the progression of allowed animal CRs is slower, but at 14th level, animals with a CR of 2 become available. Wild Shape also lets Druids regain expended spell slots instead of transforming. There's no direct analogue to D&D's Moon subclass, but the new Shifter subclass lets Druids choose stronger forms at earlier levels, speak while transformed, make extra unarmed attacks, and gain some elemental powers.
  • Fighters get Second Wind Last Stand at 1st level instead of 2nd. It heals more hit points and can be used more often, but only as a reaction. Fighting Style has been removed. The new Martial Action ability gives Fighters a bonus action in every turn to execute one from a list of combat maneuvers. Action Surge gets more uses at a faster rate than in D&D. Fighters get a third attack at 9th level instead of 11th, and a fourth attack at 17th level instead of 20th. The Indomitable Defiant ability has been moved from 9th to 10th level and no longer needs a reroll; 10th-level Fighters can choose between having this ability or being able to end a condition on themselves. At 20th level, Fighters gain a power that increases damage once per turn. There's no direct analogue to the Battle Master subclass, but the new Weapon Master subclass lets Fighters reroll damage once per turn, execute specialized maneuvers, and score critical hits on natural 19 rolls.
  • Mechanists are a new, non-spellcasting class that resembles the D&D 5e Artificer and the PF 2e Inventor. They get 10 hit points per level (more than either Artificers or Inventors), proficiency with medium armor and martial weapons, and Con and Int saves. They can learn an object's magical properties by touch. With the Shard of Creation ability, they can craft a permanent, transformable piece of magical matter that can turn into a weapon, a shield, or any object of comparable size (the allowed size increases at higher levels). Similar to the D&D Artificer's Infuse Item ability, the Mechanist's Augment ability can be used to add magical effects to objects. Mechanists know fewer effects than Artificers of equivalent level, but can have more enchanted objects at a time. At 10th level, Mechanists get the choice to either make a touched target vulnerable to all damage or heal a touched target; either ability is usable once per day. Similar to the PF Inventor's Armor subclass, the Mechanist's Metallurgist subclass grants the power to create a unique suit of armor with enhanced properties.
  • Monks lose the option of a shortsword as part of their starting equipment, but gain the option of a sling. Unlike Barbarians, Monk Unarmored Defense remains unchanged from D&D. Deflect Missiles has been moved from 3rd to 1st level. Monks start with more Ki Technique Points than in D&D, but the progression slows down to become identical after 9th level. Flurry of Blows allows one attack with a monk weapon in addition to the usual choice of two unarmed attacks. Slow Fall has been moved from 4th to 9th level. Evasion has been moved from 7th to 6th level. Stillness Purity of Mind is now a bonus action and has been moved from 7th to 10th level; Monks can choose between this ability or the standard Purity of Body. Tongue of the Sun and Moon Astral Teachings now costs Ki Technique Points to use. Perfect Self Boundless Technique can now restore Ki Technique Points in any turn. In the Open Hand subclass, the new Focus Intent ability lets Monks alter rolls made by creatures nearby. Wholeness of Body heals fewer hit points, but can be used more often. Tranquility Tranquil Soul now costs Ki Technique Points to use. Quivering Palm costs 4 Ki Technique Points instead of 3 and is less lethal.
  • Paladins no longer prepare spells; now they have a repertoire of known spells with the same progression as Rangers. Divine Sense can be activated more often, without spending any action, and lasts for one minute instead of one round. Lay on Hands is a bonus action if the Paladin uses it on themself. Fighting Style has been removed, but Paladins get a smaller version of Fighters' Martial Action ability. Channel Divinity can be used more often at higher levels. Aura of Courage has been moved from 10th to 9th level. The expansion of Paladin auras has been moved from 18th to 17th level. The Improved Divine Smite Radiant Strikes ability has been moved from 11th to 10th level; Paladins can choose between this ability or using Lay on Hands to let an ally spend a hit dice. At 20th level, Paladins gain a 30-ft aura, usable once per day, that grants resistance to nonmagical damage and automatic success on death saves. In the Devotion subclass, Turn the Unholy Sanctifying Light also works against Aberrations and Fey, is resisted with Charisma instead of Wisdom, and causes blindness instead of fear. The oath spells of this subclass are more focused on protective effects and fewer in number than in D&D. Purity of Spirit has been moved from 15th to 11th level. Holy Nimbus has been moved from 20th to 15th level, now grants advantage on all saves, and deals more damage.
  • Rangers get an option of tool proficiency. Instead of the Favored Enemy, Natural Explorer, and Land's Stride abilities, 1st-level Rangers gain a mode of movement (climbing or swimming) and advantage on all checks to track, and unreduced speed in difficult terrain. Similar to the PF 2e version, ToV Rangers get a 1st-level power that increases damage against an enemy that the Ranger has magically marked as their prey. Fighting Style has been removed, but Rangers get a smaller version of Fighters' Martial Action ability. Primeval Awareness Empowered Mark has been moved from 3rd to 6th level, no longer costs a spell slot to use, has a range of only 60 feet, and can only be used against a marked enemy, but now reveals the enemy's exact location. Instead of an improved mundane hiding ability, Rangers can turn invisible. Feral Senses Keensense has been moved from 18th to 14th level.
  • Rogues have their weapon proficiency redefined as all simple weapons and martial Finesse weapons. At 10th level, Rogues have the choice to either receive even less damage on saves or get a wider selection of Feats Talents. Critical damage increases at 13th and 17th levels. Slippery Mind has been removed. In the Thief subclass, the Supreme Sneak ability has been replaced with Appraising Eye, which lets the Rogue discern the properties of magical items at a glance. With the new Trap Specialist ability, 11th-level Rogues can attempt to disarm a trap (even a magical trap) as a reaction when it's activated.
  • Sorcerers have their weapon proficiency expanded to all simple weapons. They know one fewer cantrip than D&D Sorcerers of equivalent level, but end up with one more spell slot for 6th- and 7th-level spells. Font of Magic has been moved from 2nd to 1st level. Sorcerers learn one more Metamagic option. Careful Spell can now protect more targets. Distant Spell has a longer range. Twinned Spell costs 1 more Sorcery Point. New Metamagic options let the Sorcerer increase a spell's area of effect, change a spell's damage type, cause half damage on a successful save, improve a spell attack roll, avoid losing concentration, or gain temporary hit points. Sorcerous Restoration Sorcerous Renewal has been moved from 20th to 5th level as a scaling ability. At 10th level, Sorcerers get the choice to either add a bonus to ability checks or learn a spell from another spell list. A 14th-level power lets Sorcerers absorb the energy from incoming spell attacks to regain Sorcery Points. At 20th level, Sorcerers can share the effect of ongoing spells with another creature. In the Draconic subclass, a few combat spells are added to the Sorcerer's repertoire depending on the selected lineage. Dragon Wings has been moved from 14th to 11th level. Draconic Presence has been replaced with Draconian Vengeance, a power that makes a target vulnerable to one type of energy damage.
  • Warlocks gain proficiency with medium armor and shields. Warlocks now have a repertoire of known spells with the same progression as Rangers, and regain their spell slots only with a long rest. All Warlocks get Eldritch Blast by default, and its damage progression is faster. The progression of known Invocations is also faster at higher levels. Attack and damage rolls made with Pact of the Blade can use the Warlock's Charisma. The options for Pact of the Chain replace the sprite with the blink dog. At 3rd level, the redesigned Pact Magic ability lets the Warlock cast a few spells per day without expending spell slots. Later abilities include choices to add more known spells beyond the standard number. Mystic Arcanum is now an Invocation that must be selected. Eldritch Master can now be used during a turn of combat without expending an action. In the Fiend subclass, the extra known spells are mostly fire-themed. Dark One's Blessing grants more temporary hit points.
  • Wizards have their weapon proficiency expanded to all simple weapons. Arcane Recovery no longer restricts higher spell slots. The new Magic Sense ability detects magical creatures, items, and effects within 30 feet. Signature Spells Rote Spells has been moved from 20th to 5th level. At 6th level, Wizards can swap some prepared spells with other spells from their spellbook. At 10th level, they can choose to learn either Rituals from other spell lists or spells from other spell lists. The new Spellguard ability grants advantage on saves against spells and resistance against spell damage. Spell Mastery can now be used only once per short rest, and only works with the spells selected as Rote Spells. The new Archmage ability gives Wizards a way to regain expended spell slots. Wizard subclasses don't seem to be tied to the traditional eight schools of magic. The one listed in the Reference Document is the Battle Mage tradition, which is similar to the way the Remaster version of PF 2e themes its Wizard subclasses. However, whereas the PF Battle Magic school just grants some extra known spells per level, the ToV Battle Mage offers a wider selection of Feats Talents, a power to create a magical shield around the Wizard, the option to exclude allies from the area of damaging spells, an ability that redirects the Wizard's failed spell attacks, and improved damage with spells.

ToV has taken several cues from how magic works in Pathfinder 2e. There are now just four spell lists: Arcane (Bards, Sorcerers, Wizards), Divine (Clerics, Paladins), Primordial (Druids, Rangers), and Wyrd (Warlocks). To avoid confusion between character levels and spell levels, the latter have been renamed spell circles. Rituals are now their own category of magic, counted separately from a PC's known spells.

An interesting new system in ToV is Weapon Options. These are combat maneuvers that can be performed with certain weapons. For example, the Hamstring maneuver is available with the sickle and the handaxe, while the Ricochet Shot maneuver is available with the sling. Many of these maneuvers exist in D&D 5e as class options for Fighters, but in ToV they're open to all characters.

Other noteworthy changes from D&D 5e include:

  • The options for light armor add brigandine, described as made of metal-reinforced cloth. Armors are tagged with properties, such as Noisy, which gives Disadvantage on Stealth rolls, or Cumbersome, which require a minimum Strength to wear.
  • The list of tools has been condensed. For example, what D&D classifies as carpenter's tools, mason's tools and woodcarver's tools is handled in ToV as a single set of construction tools.
  • The limit of magic items that can be attuned to a character is now their proficiency bonus instead of a fixed number.
  • ToV adds meticulously detailed rules for PCs who want to socialize, craft, research, train, or work. These rules are more generous than the much briefer ones in D&D 5e; for example, crafting progresses at a rate of 10 instead of 5 gold pieces per day, and training costs 1 gold piece per week instead of per day.

The last area where ToV improves upon D&D is in graphic design. The Conversion Guide mentions monster entries as a topic where special care was put into ease of readability, but the change can be felt all through the Reference Document. Even in the sections where the mechanics of the game remain the same as in D&D, the rules have been reworded for clarity and precision, the formatting of the text helps the eye catch the dependencies between sections and subsections, and the order in which topics are presented follows a more logical criterion of relevance. This is in marked contrast with D&D 5e's notoriously convoluted prose.

As I said above, Tales of the Valiant is not the only creation born from this movement to break away from the restraints of both the official Dungeons & Dragons rules and the licensing ambitions of Wizards of the Coast. Other 5e clones worth checking out are Level Up: Advanced 5e by EN Publishing, Iskandar by M.T. Black Games, and the upcoming project codenamed C7d20 by Cubicle Seven.

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