Thursday, July 7, 2022

Review: The Saint of Steel Series by T. Kingfisher

An extremely cosy series (with murders), adorable romance, and something of a thesis on how to make paladins amazing.


What happens when a god dies, but His berserker paladins are left behind without a hand on the holy reins? If T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series is anything to go by, the answers are: angst, romance, lawyers, angst, tutting, solving murders, angst, exasperated bishops, angst, magical morticians and a lot of pragmatic, down to earth do-gooding. Each book (three currently published but more promised) follows one of the seven remaining paladins of the Saint of Steel as they rebuild their lives with each other, find love, and… yes, angst a bit.

This may seem like a lot of angst – and in many ways it kind of is – but unlike most books you could quantify that way, while the paladins in question may do a lot of moping, guilting and general being sad and righteous all over the place, the tone of the books runs so contrary to it, that it never threatens to overwhelm… anything. They are, in fact, surprisingly jolly books, that just happen to have some paladins in them who are slowly together overcoming a serious combined psychological trauma and literal crisis of faith. And those two things shouldn’t marry up neatly, really. They don’t naturally fit together at all. But the key thing that makes this series absolutely work is that what Kingfisher does superbly well is people, and particularly, she never lets the reader lose sight of the fact that here characters are people. What this means is that for every dramatic moment, or every soulful bit of angsting, there are several more where we are reminded that they need clean socks, have to eat porridge that isn’t particularly nice and have a bad back when they’ve been overdoing the exercise. Kingfisher manages to bring to bear the full scope of human from the sublime to the mundane, and by revelling in that contrast, and highlighting the mundane parts, manages to humanise a character archetype that is all too easy to turn into something of a holy robot.

This delightful mundanity and emphasis on the realistic little details of actual humans is what makes her romances work, and all the more so because all of the current three aren’t the type of characters who might normally get a romance plot. Two of them are a little older than your traditional heroines, in their thirties, with experience of love and loss and the world before they reach us, and the third is a mortician, which I’m not led to believe is a traditionally sexy profession, and moreover someone with some very particular concerns when it comes to his partners and his life generally. And because they’re not 19 year olds with big protagonist energy, they all bring quirks and problems with them to their relationships that need to be overcome. Not dramatic problems, not “we are the heirs to rival kingdoms and our parents will never understand our love” problems. But problems like the shadow of a past relationship affecting their self-esteem and self-perception, or being settled into a life that might not accommodate a traditional relationship and cohabitation. Or, because this is fantasy series after all, being a were-bear. But even so magical a problem as that gets touched by very human concerns and made all the more relatable for it.

All this is to say that T. Kingfisher writes characters you can imagine walking out into the real world and being genuine, fleshed out people you could have a cup of tea with, rather than larger than life heroes, all the edges polished off until you have something otherworldly.

Which is a fantastic way to handle paladins as a class. As it happens, they are my favourite D&D class by far, but also one of the ones that I think struggle the most when it comes to characterisation. How do you take someone who is meant to be the righteous hand of god in the world and make them feel like a person? How do you reconcile humanity with the literal touch of the divine? And how do you make someone likeable who exists in a world of black and white, good and bad, holy smiting of the sinners? They are a class that wants to defy nuance, which simultaneously makes them unlikeably inflexible in their dealings with others, as well unflatteringly two dimensional – I can’t even fault someone who says they don’t like paladins because they’re boring goody two shoeses… most of the time, they’re not wrong. And those times when they do get deeper character development, it is often centred around their angst, their sadness that they cannot live up to the goodness/holiness/whatever-else-ness their god has imbued them with, are too weak, human and grey to embody their shining holy purpose, and so are a terrible, flawed person and we should feel very sad for them. Which often falls flat.

T. Kingfisher has solved these problems in a couple of ways. Firstly, she doesn’t try to deny them. She herself calls out her paladins for being inflexible, she eyerolls them in the text for a tendency to martyrdom, and she points the reader very much at the parts where their humanity and their divine duty come into conflict. She never denies the traditional problems we might see with them, and instead revels in them, and then makes them funny. Not, for the most part, laugh-out-loud-jokes funny, but instead the sort of wry, under-the-breath-chuckle funny that you get in Banks’ Culture novels, for instance, and this humanises them more than anything sincere could really manage. But critically, the tone of the books always stays the right side of laughing with them, not at them - there’s a terrible fondness to it all, like teasing a favourite cousin. They’re never a joke, but they are sometimes funny.

Secondly, she lets them fail, at least some of the time. They make mistakes, especially in their personal lives, and then they have to do the work to fix them, and something about having to apologise for an embarrassing social faux pas really seems to undercut a lot of the drama.

Thirdly, she lets them be self-aware. Not always, and not all of them, but some of her paladins are capable of looking at their comrades and despairing, and this somehow sneaks you into immersion in the world, because it makes the exasperation you might be feeling at them part of the setting. It helps too that they are surrounded by some of the most un-paladin-like characters it is possible to imagine, who all collectively sigh and pinch their noses at the noble and martyrly antics that unfold.

Which brings me onto the Church of the White Rat, which is the lodestone around which this series, the Clocktaur War duology and the currently standalone Swordheart all revolve, and the worldbuilding more broadly. In her priests and lawyers sacrosanct, T. Kingfisher gives us an incredibly hopeful bit of religious worldbuilding. While they all seem to be incredibly down to earth and pragmatic people, taken as a whole, the Church of the White Rat is a statement of goodness in the world, of doing the job in front of you and making the best of things, of defending people who are weak simply because they deserve to be defended. As the point to which all the characters in the stories come back, it is a brilliant nexus focussing the narrative of the series into Doing Good, not on a grand, demon-battling scale (as in the Clocktaur War duology), but on a far more prosaic level. We see the paladins escorting healers in dodgy neighbourhoods, helping deal with flood damage and looking for mysterious murderers. Instead of the usual grand concerns of a fantasy series, Kingfisher pulls us closer to home, and to issues that would have been just as present in the generic medieval European fantasy world the series approximately inhabits. Shelter and health, justice and legal aid, food and safety. And while this might seem like it would do nothing to undercut the boring, good-two-shoes paladin argument, something about having them deal with much more mortal concerns does work in their favour, and makes an excellent counterbalance for when they do have to do some smiting. They’re not just concerned with sinners and evil. They also care about people.

And yes, there is some smiting, because they wouldn’t be paladins if they didn’t get their swords out occasionally, but by using it sparingly, and grounding the characters as people first and holy warriors later, Kingfisher gives it more meaning when it finally does come around. That and she understands that good pacing can sometimes mean only giving us the bit of detail a fight scene needs to keep the plot moving, more than every sword swing and step.

The closest comparison I can think of to the Saint of Steel series, and the world of the White Rat as a whole, is the late Sir Terry. It’s a big comparison, not one to use lightly, but I think that in her humour, her worldbuilding and her skill at giving us characters who are intensely human, T. Kingfisher is doing something that feels extremely familiar to readers of the Discworld books. They’re not the same, of course, but they both have the ability to leave a reader feeling incredibly comforted.

Thus far, we’re three books in, and the stories seem to have settled into a formula of paladin-meets-love-interest, plus shenanigans, with some overarching plot. That said, the ending of the third book, and what we know about some of the paladins who’ve yet to be the focus, suggests that this pattern may be broken, at least a little, in what’s to come. I’m hopeful this is the case, because for all that what we’ve got so far has been lovely, seven books, as the series is projected to be, might be too much for it to remain in a single pattern.

--

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10 

Bonuses: +1 excellent representation of realistic romances

Penalties: -1 slightly formulaic at the moment (though with hope that that might change in future novels)

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

References:  

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Grace [Red Wombat Studio, 2020]

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Strength [Red Wombat Studio, 2021]

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Hope [Red Wombat Studio, 2021]

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



Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: Pokémon Legends: Arceus by Game Freak

Ever wanted a Pokémon game to switch it up? Well, here it is!


Introduced as a youth to the Pokémon franchise, there used to always be a special feeling when I’d start up a game and hear the cheery, yet empowering soundtrack play. After playing one game, I knew what was in store; choose your starter, fight your rival, go on an adventure, fight Team whatever their name is, and beat the Elite Four. Eventually, this formula became stale, and though Pokémon games sell themselves without the need for change, core players found themselves not completing some of the games. Over time Game Freak and Nintendo tried to switch things up, but nothing ever created a substantial shift, that is, until now (I hope). Pokémon Legends: Arceus injects some brand new mechanics into the franchise. Though it's only a spinoff, I hope that some of these things will be carried over to the mainline entries.

The most exciting addition to Legends has to be the new capture system. Players can now attempt to capture Pokémon without the aid of their fellow ‘mons in battle. Instead, as the player character, you can directly throw a ball at a wild Pokémon for an attempted catch. Three different types of balls have varying effects: standard Poké/great/ultra balls, feather/wing/jet balls (good for catching flying and fast-moving Pokémon), and heavy/leaden/gigaton balls (extremely effective if you hit an unsuspecting Pokémon from behind). This type of capture system removes the tedium of having to weaken Pokémon in battle every single time. Do you hide in the grass and throw a feather ball from far away and watch it fly across the map? Do you get up close and try for a backstab capture with a heavy ball, knowing the Pokémon can turn around at any second? The game emits a satisfying sound whenever you hit a Pokémon from behind. Or you could always do what I did and hit every Bidoof in the face with an ultra ball. Works every time.

In addition to a revamped capture system, Legends adds a more exciting Pokédex. Considering this game takes place a long time ago, the inhabitants have yet to truly understand Pokémon. Most people are afraid of them (yes, even the lowly Bidoof is feared by all). The game takes place in the Sinnoh region during early settlement, back when it went by the name of Hisui. The diamond and pearl clans are at each other’s throats and Team Galaxy is trying to research Pokémon to ensure that Hisui’s inhabitants have a better understanding of the world around them. Luckily for everyone, the player character drops from a rift in the sky to help out. This is where the new (old?) Pokédex comes in. It’s up to the player to research and help fill out the dex. Every Pokémon requires a different set of tasks to fully research. For instance, some dex objectives will have the player catch a certain amount of a specific Pokémon, some will have them see that ‘mon defeated multiple times, some will want to see them use a certain move, etc.


I spent my first few hours in Legends being a good little Pokémon trainer, catching everything I could find, filling out the Pokédex objectives, and exploring everywhere I could. The initial hours of the game are enticing, especially for an old-school fan of the series. Using the player character to navigate Pokémon battles and having to avoid their attacks was a fun new mechanic. I enjoyed feeling like not only were my Pokémon battling, but I was too. And it makes sense. Not all wild monsters are going to ignore you until you throw out another ‘mon, the more aggressive ones would probably attack you too, and the skittish would run away. Due to different Pokémon natures, some will ignore you, some will watch and wait for you to make a move, some will run, and some will attack on sight. For the record, in absolute Bidoof fashion, Bidoof will ignore you, even when you're directly in front of his face.

Depending on how many new Pokémon are captured and how many Pokédex objectives have been fulfilled on your return from the field, you receive currency and experience toward your Team Galaxy rank. Your rank within Team Galaxy determines your ability to train Pokémon to a certain level, akin to badges in the traditional games, so it’s a good idea to get to level seven so you can get your ‘mons to level one hundred. That is if you make it that far.

Unfortunately, I found that the luster of the new mechanics began to fade after about fifteen hours (out of twenty-five I put in). The quest design is rather uninspiring, with many side missions being simple fetch quests. The main quest is pretty straightforward but eventually becomes rather silly. The diamond and pearl clans who were once at war now seem more like immature siblings. The writing in Pokémon games can be and has been (looking at you Black and White), better. Unfortunately, this title is one of the weaker entries in that regard.

What’s worse, the reward for maxing out a Pokemon’s research in the Pokédex is… wait for it… nothing! That’s right. Of those objectives I mentioned earlier, you only need to achieve ten points worth of research to consider the ‘dex entry filled. In some cases, Pokémon can have over thirty objective squares to achieve. The more diligent player isn't rewarded for the effort. It’s nice that Game Freak catered to the more casual player, but they left the hardcore players in the dust in the process.


The worst offender in Legends is the bland, uninspired world. The game initially felt like such a departure from the standard Pokémon game that I was blinded to how underdeveloped the playable areas were. They hit all the basic biomes with a beach area, grasslands, tundra, a volcano, etc., but it never feels like more than a bland map with variety implemented for the sake of variety.

One of the best additions includes alternate versions of some Pokémon and their evolutions. Scyther gets a cool evolution in the form of Kleavor (bug/rock type) while Growlithe and Arcanine take on a different look and become fire/rock types. Instead of offering a new set of three starters, Legends gives the players a choice between Oshawott, Rowlet, and Cyndaquil. Each of these Pokémon are well known, but to spice it up, each one has a new final evolution. Typhlosion becomes Fire/Ghost, Decidueye becomes grass/fighting, and Samurott becomes a water/dark type. These alternate evolution/versions of the Pokémon were a much welcome addition, with some being silly and others quite well designed.

For players looking to add more challenges to the game, Game Freak implemented alpha Pokémon. You can find these ‘mons in the wild and they put up quite a fight. They are much bigger and stronger than the average Pokémon of its species and re-spawn less frequently, so you have to balance your offense and defense when approaching one if you want to catch them. I thought this was a great addition to a not very challenging game. That is unless we’re talking about the final trainer battle in the main story.

The final human trainer boss battle is a doozy. Completely unbalanced with the rest of the game, and to be honest, quite frustrating considering how the game never offers up much of a challenge in the way of trainer v trainer battles. The inclusion of fast and strong moves adds an extra layer to the turn-based combat (with fast moves letting you attack quicker and with less damage, and strong moves doing the opposite), though I never needed to pay much attention to it until the final battle. I wish the mechanic had been necessary throughout the campaign.


Though Pokémon Legends: Arceus misses the mark on a few important things, it’s never a bad game. It’s an enjoyable experience that becomes a bit easier to put down over time. When I first started the game, I picked it up every night for a few hours. Eventually, I would pick it up every few weeks to make sure I finished it, but once I started playing again, I would appreciate the simple joy of collecting all the little critters around the map. It’s just too bad the innovative ideas aren't supported by the story, characters, and world this entry deserves. That being said, if your favorite aspect of any Pokémon is catching, then this one is absolutely for you. And though there isn’t a huge reward for maxing out your research, there is one for catching them all. The Pokémon god Arceus awaits. Boot up your Switch and start collecting!

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for new and enjoyable capture/battle mechanics. +1 for the addition of alpha Pokémon. +1 for the new alternate Pokémon designs.

Penalties: -1 for poor character/story writing. -1 for a bland and ugly world. -1 lack of satisfying research rewards for more hardcore players.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Review: Eyes of the Void by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The sequel to Shards of Earth brings bigger revelations, deeper questions, and riskier adventures

In the first book of the Final Architecture series (which I reviewed with high praise last year), the fearsome Architects, alien megastructures capable of destroying planets and responsible for humankind's current state of cosmic homelessness, had suddenly returned, and the only countermeasure that was useful against their uncaring advance—the mysterious ruins of a long-gone civilization—appeared to have lost their repellent effect. The only hope that remained was the telepathic power of the Intermediaries, surgically altered humans with the ability to perceive the layer of unreality beneath the fabric of spacetime. But the surviving Intermediaries are now aging war veterans, and the Architects will not listen to newly-made Intermediaries who have undergone the cerebral torture against their will.

So our revered hero Idris Telemmier, member of the original slate of Intermediaries, twice savior of the known civilizations and very much tired of it all, is the most prized weapon in the galaxy. And everyone wants to get their hands on him. The early chapters of the novel consist of a relentless pursuit, full of spy games and secret agendas, because each faction calculates that gaining control over Idris will give them the key advantage against the Architects and, ultimately, against the rest of intelligent species. The balance of power in the galaxy is precariously volatile, the return of the Architects has put every major government on maximum alert, and Idris just wants to be left alone. As soon as he's done training a new group of Intermediaries (who, he emphatically insists, must be free volunteers or else their powers will be useless), he's ready to retire and forget about wars and politics and the fate of the universe.

Alas, the universe is not done with him. True, most factions want to steal him as a weapon, but he's also useful as a seer, an irreplaceable channel of communication with whatever dark purpose the Architects are working for. As the plot takes our crew of protagonists aboard the salvage ship Vulture God through more and more elaborate ruin sites, Idris gradually begins to sense the true relationship between the material universe and the void of nonexistence where the Architects live. And the answers are irresistible catnip to his altered brain (and, to be frank, to the reader).

Whereas the first novel in the series, Shards of Earth, felt like it was inspired by Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, in that it explored the tango of attempted negations inherent to any contact between two conscious entities, this new entry appears to take after Sartre's Being and Nothingness and its exploration of how important conscious thought is as the condition of possibility for negation. In other words, the concept of "not" only makes sense to a mind that can reflect on being. Once you start classifying the world according to categories, you notice negative space around each being: the attributes that make a cup a cup are the same that make it not a penguin. To be something is to not be everything else. But it is only through a thinking mind that this abundance of nonexistence is even possible. The world doesn't get filled with negations until it gets defined. Without a mind to impose categories, one arrangement of atoms would be as good as any other. It wouldn't matter if Earth were a livable place or a twisted wreck of magma. That is why, in the first novel, the world-warping Architects only retreat when they realize that we do care about arrangements of atoms. It is our consciousness which bestows the universe with meaning. It is our consciousness which distinguishes between things, and within that distinction lies our most terrifying creation: the "not." To even begin to make sense of the world, to apprehend it, requires us, in a way, to surpass the realm of the real and reach into the nonexistent. This is what Hegel terms, and Sartre quotes, as the role of an Intermediary.

In the setting of Tchaikovsky's Final Architecture series, FTL travel is performed by Intermediaries who guide the jump from the real universe into an empty nothingness folded into routes. (Here we have to come back to Sartre, who defines physical distance as a negation of contact, and the destination as a negation of further movement.) In stunningly poetic passages, the novel describes the negative void between things as the very fabric that links them and holds them in place.

In the unspace postulated by Tchaikovsky, intelligent minds intuit a lurking presence, contact with whom would be absolutely intolerable. To put it in Sartre's words, "nothingness haunts being." But conversely, conscious thought is the only thing that has an effect on unspace. If, following Sartre, nonexistence is incapable of sustaining itself, it's even possible that Tchaikovsky's unspace didn't begin to exist until intelligent species emerged in the universe (we'll have to wait until the conclusion of the trilogy to find out whether this speculation holds).

Here we may find a clue to decipher why Tchaikovsky's characters suffer an intense state of anguish while in unspace. According to Sartre, the human attribute that brings the "not" into the world is freedom, the possibility of making a choice (because each choice comes at the cost of negating other possibilities). And it is precisely the infinity of all the negated possibilities that makes us feel anguish upon being aware of our freedom (this is Sartre quoting Kierkegaard) or, indeed, anguish upon being aware of the nothingness (this is Sartre quoting Heidegger). The human mind collapses under the weight of everything it could be and is not.

The arc that Idris follows in this sequel is a fascinating one: he yearns to retain his freedom, both legally and morally speaking, from any of the various governments that are making unabashedly obvious plans for war and would love to acquire his services, but the lure of the truth about unspace keeps dragging him back to the wrong places, where he's wanted by all kinds of the wrong company. For all parties involved, this is a basic fetch quest: to get Idris by whatever means, rinse and repeat. But Tchaikovsky never lets it get boring. A clandestine auction of stolen government data quickly erupts into a shooting match plus murder mystery; a routine pilgrimage to a holy site is interrupted by cataclysmic weapons that laugh at the laws of physics; a simple interview at a university ends with a nail-bitingly tense chase and a ritual duel; a search-and-rescue operation leads to a four-way starship standoff over an ancient planet with lethally resplendent flora. Each of these scenes is built with an almost cinematic eye for the combination of intense pacing, truly alien setting, and meaningful stakes that makes every piece of the puzzle matter.

And I still haven't mentioned the rest of the cast: the robot archeologist Trine makes a return, with their unmistakable snark; the clone soldier Solace is as torn as ever between her patriotism and her personal sympathies; the sharp-tongued Kris gets much welcome development; the alien arthropod Kit continues to provide the pragmatic viewpoint with exactly as few words as necessary; and the foulmouthed Olli is still the best representation of a disabled badass I've seen in ages.

Eyes of the Void is all the best things about space opera: political machinations, unlikely alliances, shady cultists, body augmentation, literal world-shaking enigmas, extradimensional shenanigans, deep philosophy, and lots and lots of pew-pew. It provides more than enough answers to reward the extensive journey, but keeps the best ones carefully hidden for the upcoming conclusion.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for expertly holding the narrative rhythm like a music conductor.

Penalties: −1 because the political machinations in the early chapters are a bit too hard to follow at first.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Eyes of the Void [Tor, 2022].

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The October Daye Reread: Chimes at Midnight

Welcome back, dear readers. Today we’re going to revisit the seventh novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series: Chimes at Midnight. We are now almost halfway through the published novels (2021’s When Sorrows Come is Book 15), which means we still have a long way to go but we’re also fairly deep into the series with big events occurring almost every time we turn around.

We assume you’ve been reading along with us because this will be rife with spoilers for past books and likely also for future books. You have been warned.

Let’s go.


Not to start out with a negative, but one of my least favorite / least enjoyable aspects of the series is goblin fruit. I find the addiction plots somewhat tedious and don’t enjoy reading about it - which makes what Seanan McGuire does in this series all the more remarkable because even as I don’t appreciate the storylines of these few novels with the goblin fruit, I still love reading the novel - just perhaps not as much as the rest of the series, or maybe it’s also that every part of Chimes at Midnight that focuses on everything else is what works for me.

Here’s the basics of Chimes at Midnight: Goblin fruit is back, Toby wants to get it off the streets, brings it to the Queen of the Mists and finds out that not only does the Queen not really care about the impact of goblin fruit on changelings (it addicts and kills) she is helping facilitate the importation of the goblin fruit trade into Mists / San Francisco. Not too much after this revelation, Toby is banished from the Mists and has 3 days to leave before her life is forfeit.

This naturally leads to a plot to overthrow the Queen of the Mists because of course it does. As one of the more interesting things, I don’t believe we ever learn her name. We know everyone else’s names and their heritage. Heritage is important. Bloodlines are important, even beyond the prejudices about changelings / part human fae - what race a fae belongs to is important, at least to those who truly care about that sort of thing, but it is also part of identify. The Queen has been passing herself off as the child of King Gilad, who died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and she’s not the true heir of Gilad but without a real challenge it’s just something that has been forgotten about. I do wonder if we’ll ever learn the Queen name (spoilers, we still don’t know it through fifteen books). I assume the only reason we don’t know it is because it matters.

One day I’d like to get a full and detailed explanation from the Luidaeg about how / why she is prevented from telling Toby particular things. There’s the gaes on her because to not harm the descendents of Titania but this is different.

In this instance, one of those things is Arden Windermere, the actual daughter of Gilad. Arden has been in hiding for more than one hundred years. Arden was hinted at before, but boom, it’s time to bring Arden out of hiding.

Midway through Chimes at Midnight, the novel begins to rush headlong to the end. It races. The pacing is just incredible. During her quest to overthrow the Queen and restore Arden to the throne, Toby is hit in the face with an “evil pie” - which is goblin fruit, so Toby ends up addicted and besides being a race to overthrow the Queen, it’s a race for whether she can survive long enough to get Arden on the throne.

This would be one hell of a grim ending to the series if Toby doesn’t pull through and fails to restore Arden to the Mists and, spoilers - Toby is fine, the Queen is deposed, and Arden is the new Queen. There’s not exactly a happier ever after in this series, or perhaps in faerie at all, but it’s a huge game shaking win that, as always, has Toby on the edge of death before pulling through.

Chimes at Midnight has the first real betrayal of Toby by Sylvester after Toby is hit in the face with the Evil Pie and is tended to by Sylvester at Shadowed Hills and he neglected to let May and Tybalt know where she was and what had happened to her. There have been a couple of minor quibbles, but this is a case where doesn’t respect Toby’s wishes above his own fears and pays for it. It begins a deeply unpleasant period in their relationship which still continues through the most recent novels.

Chimes at Midnight is also the novel where we find out that Quentin is actually the Crown Prince of The Westlands - the High Kingdom in charge of all of North America (which, I assume also includes Mexico in this world, though I don’t believe we’ve interacted with anything south of the border - but then this series has been very focused around Mists and San Francisco).

There have been hints that Quentin is somebody important, beyond just his blind fosterage at Shadowed Hills with Sylvester, but the level of importance is more than Toby could have imagined.

Last random thing is that this is the book that introduces the Library - a supremely cool catalog of everything fae (that they could get sourced) that we probably don't spend nearly enough time in even though it doesn't make sense for Toby to spend two books doing nothing more than just giving us tidbit from the Library. We probably get as much of the Library as we need, which is always less than we want. That's probably as it should be.  

Open roads and kind fires, my friends




Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Microreview: A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

Foz Meadows weaves a tale of healing and self-worth amid this political murder mystery.



When Velasin is called to his father's estate, marriage is the last thing on his mind. That soon changes when his father announces Vel's impending engagement to the princess of the neighbouring kingdom Tithena. This alliance is placed in jeopardy when Vel's father and the Tithenai ambassador catch Vel in a compromising position with his male ex-lover, but the situation is soon resolved by engaging Vel to the prince instead of the princess. However, Vel's father is disgusted by his proclivities and makes it clear he will never be welcome back. Thus Vel finds himself exiled to a foreign country and unsure of whom to trust when it becomes apparent someone might be trying to kill him.

There was much about A Strange and Stubborn Endurance that put me in mind of Winter's Orbit: a gay romance featuring a political marriage, a protagonist coming from an abusive relationship who is isolated in another culture, and a bigger mystery at play. I did not love Winter's Orbit, so the comparison worked in favour of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, which I felt handled several aspects rather better.

It does this by being very clear about the kind of story that it is: a story of healing and self-worth. Although it alternates between points-of-view, Velasin's sections are written in first person and Caethari's in a close third person. This makes it very much Vel's story, allowing us to fully experience the complicated emotional journey he's going through.

In order to get to the healing we must first go through the trauma. The story carries content warnings for sexual assault and attempted suicide, among other things. In fact, there's a handy list under the author's note at the start, which I very much appreciated; being a story that foregrounds healing, it's not looking to play gotcha with readers' triggers.

Many gay romances can be light on female characters, but this is an obstacle the book manages to avoid. Cae's sisters and grandmother play prominent roles; the army commander he serves under is also a woman and women are well represented in the guard. On the other side of the border, this is less pronounced, but still present. In the wake of Vel's assault, there is a lovely exchange between Velasin and his step-mother, Lady Sine. Although she is happily married to Vel's father, she is also no stranger to the realities of sexual assault and arranged marriage. She is the one person who can understand what Vel is going through and does her best to provide comfort within the limits of her power.

There is also space made for non-binary characters. Tithena recognises them as a third gender referred to as kemi. The Tithenai ambassador is kemi, and while the role they play in the story isn't necessarily a huge one, it's also one that continues long after they return to Tithena with Vel.

This brings me to something of a criticism of the worldbuilding: the treatment of the nations was rather uneven. Caethari's Tithena recognises three genders, accepts same-sex marriage and transgender people. The food is excellent (according to Velasin). Divorce is permitted and consent is an important part of marriage contracts. In contrast, Velasin's Ralia has all the unattractive features of English-based medieval fantasy: arranged marriage, women as chattel, same-sex relationships censured by religion and society (though not outright illegal), and bland food.

Similarly uneven was the treatment of former lovers. Both Velasin and Caethari have exs who appear in the story. Velasin's ex, Killic, is a nasty piece of work who sexually assaults him on the page, then stalks him and attempts to gaslight him. In contrast, Caethari's ex, Liran, is utterly charming: a trans man of colour who is a painter and a deeply intelligent individual who welcomes Vel warmly.

This unevenness arises from its purpose as a story of healing; Vel literally moves on to a better place. Unfortunately, it undermined a little of the story's credibility for me, leaving it feeling a bit like wish-fulfilment.

And this does overlook the fact that someone (or a group of someones) is trying to kill Velasin. In fact, the story becomes something of a murder mystery. First Vel's party is attacked by bandits as they cross the mountains between the nations. When they arrive at the city, someone attempts to assassinate Vel and ends up stabbing his friend Markel instead. From there, the bodies begin to pile up. The mystery was largely well handled, but while I wouldn't say the culprit was obvious exactly, the story could have benefitted from a few more serious suspects.

Before I go any further, it is egregious that I haven't yet introduced Markel properly. He is Velasin's valet and friend. He is also mute and communicates through sign language. The relationship between Vel and Markel is truly lovely and built on mutual respect. Both have been there for each other through difficult times. It's a bit of a shame that Markel tends to be side-lined once the pair arrive in Qi-Katai to make way for the developing relationship between Vel and Cae. However, his obvious shipping of the pair is quite charming and I was delighted to see the character was allowed to be a bit of a ladies man himself.

Speaking of Vel and Cae's relationship, the pacing of it works nicely. They become friends reasonably quickly. The romance takes longer, which is fitting considering Vel's experience and culture. I was relieved that the story avoided the miscommunication that so characterised Winter's Orbit (and many other romances). In fact, I was surprised at how early Vel confessed his sexual assault to Cae, but it allows the story to move on to the healing which is the focus.

Overall, while I felt it had some weak points, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was a delight to read.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for being clear what it's about, +1 for lack of miscommunication

Penalties: -1 for uneven worldbuilding.

Nerd Co-efficient: 7/10


POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz


References

Meadows, Foz. A Strange and Stubborn Endurance [Tor Books, 2022]

Maxwell, Everina. Winter's Orbit [Tor Books, 2021]

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

6 Books With Kimberly Unger

Kimberly created her first videogame back when the 80-column card was the new hot thing. This turned a literary love of science fiction into a full blown obsession with the intersection of technology and humanity.


Today she spends her day-job time in VR, lectures on the intersection of art, narrative and code and writes science fiction about how all these app-driven superpowers are going to change the human race. You can find her on Twitter at @Ing3nu or on her blog at www.ungerink.com. Kimberly’s second science-fiction novel, The Extractionist, will be released in July of 2022.

Today she tells us about her Six Books.
 



1. What book are you currently reading?



I have, in my hot little hands, both Quantum of Nightmares and Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross. I’m a fan of all his work, but the Laundry Files strike a particular chord for anyone who has 1. spent significant waking business hours in some form of cubicle hell and 2. who has witnessed first hand the way bureaucracies have begun to evolve to handle agile and fast moving threats.












2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?



As of this writing, The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi is on the top of my list, but I’ll probably have finished reading it by the time this goes to press. However, that’s the cool thing about books, there’s always more on the way and I’ll have something new to be excited about shortly.













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


Weirdly enough, not right now. I blame the pandemic. I went back and did quite a bit of re-reading (one of the side benefits of e-books is it’s much easier to keep them around long-term) and I’m all caught up and looking forward to the new stuff.

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



Patricia K. McPhillip’s The Changeling Sea sticks with me. It’s short, it’s cleanly crafted, it’s charming, there are elements of her writing craft in that book that I strive to reference in my own style.
















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


I’m going to say “Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov. I first read it in high school and it was one of my first tastes of “harder” science fiction. At the time I was deeply into mysteries so that combination of a noir-style detective story set in a far future world opened up a lot of ideas to me about the differences between worldbuilding and narrative. It’s interesting to look back on some of those books to see where early science fiction authors got it right, because there’s always something in there they got right.










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


The Extractionist, interestingly enough, has its start in pop-culture sci-fi, rather than cyberpunk. In every popular-culture science-fictional world, someone gets stuck in virtual reality. Sometimes it’s a trap, sometimes they fall in love, sometimes it’s just a remnant of an alien civilization but sooner or later, someone needs a rescue. And if it really is such a common occurrence across all different universes, wouldn’t it make sense that some enterprising soul has figured out how to turn those rescues into a paid gig?


So allow me to introduce The Extractionst, a cyberpunk novel about a disgraced engineer whose bleeding-edge second career turns deadly. Eliza McKay’s called in to extract the head of an international spy ring from an undercover operation the Swim. For McKay, success means she has a shot at getting her old life back. For the client, it should mean putting the gears in motion to bring down a corporate warlord. But the kind of existential crisis that gets you stuck in a virtual reality internet isn’t driven by logic and fact. To figure out the truth, McKay must push the envelope of what the human mind can do, risking her own life and facing down mistakes from her past.

Thank you, Kimberly!

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

Monday, June 27, 2022

Microreview: Prison of Sleep by Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt’s Prison of Sleep completes his duology oif a multiversal story of a man who travels to a new universe every time he closes his eyes.




Zax, or Zaxony more properly, has a problem. A new problem.  His original problem, as detailed in The Doors of Sleep have been moderately solved. He can control his need for sleep, and thus the involuntary slipping through of worlds. He has found the love of his life, whole and complete, thought lost to madness. He’s made allies and friends, and managed to start to make sense of it all.  Until, of course, a cult attacks, scatters his allies, and threatens not only him, and his, but the infinity of worlds.


This is The Prison of Sleep by Tim Pratt.


The novel introduces a second, alternating point of view in Ana, the inamorata that Zax lost, and then found again at the end of the first novel. A lot of Ana’s chapters, though, are written as recollection of her story, explaining what happened after she was lost, and how she was able to reconnect with Zax. This does give the reader a lot more context and a feel for Ana as opposed to the glimpsed memories that Zax shares in the first novel. Instead of being an unreachable, perfect quest Dulcinea for Zax, she is a character in her own right, with her own goals and strengths. The disadvantage of this approach, though, is that in general, a good chunk of this book doesn’t propel the forward narrative of the plot at all, merely catching up the reader toward a present that eventually interacts with the mainline plot.I am not entirely certain this structure for the book works quite that well, although if Pratt was trying to show the separation of the two lovers by having them separated in time as well as space by the trick of this narrative technique, then he was entirely successful with that trick. In any event, it is welcome to see how travel through the multiverse could work besides Zax’s original model.


As far as Zax’s story itself, it switches from the “Flight to Forever” mode that the original book marked, and is a more directed journey on his part, and eventually turns into an inevitability as he finds himself in trouble with the newest threat to him. The Cult of the Worm, the “real enemy all along” from before the beginning of the original novel. Unlike the Lector, though, the Cult of the Worm as far as its members are much less interesting as characters. In the first novel, The Lector was a true Master like villain, a character with personality and drive to spare. In this novel, it is only The Prisoner (of the titular Prison of Sleep) that really jumps out. If Lector was The Master, the classic Doctor Who analogy for The Prisoner to go with is almost certainly The Black Guardian. 


I will refrain from going into the Prisoner’s plans, methods and goals too deeply here, but the novel does darken a bit, a notch, from the bright heroic light SF of the first novel as a result. But in general, this is a pulpy Good vs Evil story that might seem “simplistic”, but there is a notable lack of moral greys here. There is an attempt at moral complexity in one “episode” (to use the Doctor Who term) but that is quickly dismissed with. There are debates among the Companions about what is to be done but in general, there is Good and there is Evil. 


The novel keeps some of the strong strengths of the first novel, and a reminder of why I read and enjoy multiverse fiction. In often short visits, or even just a few well chosen words tossed off, Pratt creates a sheaf of worlds that spark the imagination. We don’t see much of these worlds, or any worlds, really, something that the author himself lampshades in dialogue in one of Ana’s chapters. But what he excels at is the invocation of entire worlds and societies in the briefest of spaces, providing a canvas that is largely left to our imagination, but giving us the tools for that canvas, that space. 


We do get a new Companion for Zax in the narrative and that would be Zaveta of the Broken Wheel. If we are continuing the Doctor Who analogies, and they do work so rather well in discussing this series, Zaveta is the Leela (4th Doctor Companion) for Zax, and is rather ferocious and dangerous in hand to hand combat. She doesn’t understand much technology, at first, but proves adaptive and ready to learn, just like Leela. Zax’s superpower is not that he is a super genius (like the Doctor) but that his social abilities and skills make him allies and friends everywhere, even unlikely ones. He doesn't, as Davros once accused the Doctor, of "fashioning his companions into weapons", they do that very well on their own, thank you very much. Zaveta, like the other characters, shows the variability and viability of a variety of characters to travel the universe with. If I might editorialize, one thing that the current Doctor Who hasn't tried much of, and I think it really could, would be to have companions NOT from our modern Earth.


In the end, though, I think, looking back on this and on The Doors of Sleep, the two novels quite frankly feel like an artificial division of a longer narrative. Coincidentally, this reminds me of another multiverse book series, the first two novels in the Hugo Finalist Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross, The Family Trade and The Hidden Family.  That was really a single narrative split ungainly into two books and the books suffered from its arbitrary and abrupt division. I would say that readers interested in Pratt’s work, or in multiversal fiction with the tone of Doctor Who will like these two books, but they should buy and read them together as a set.

---


The Math


Baseline Assessment: 7/10


Bonuses: +1 for providing a wider point of view in Ana, giving balance to the narrative.


+1 for a dense and chewy set of worlds and adventures for Zax and Ana to adventure through


Penalties: -1 The post-denouement sudden plot twists feels a little rushed and forced.


Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


Reference: Pratt, Tim The Prison of Sleep [Angry Robot, 2022]


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