Thursday, January 20, 2022

Microreview [book]: Base Notes, by Lara Elena Donnelly

Lara Elena Donnelly’s Base Notes takes the author's penchant for strongly realized characters and settings and turns them loose in an underground world of a parfumier who carries a very deadly secret as to the power and success of his product.

Vic is a parfumier like no other. He truly has a nose for scents, and a honed natural talent for crafting and making scents come to life. Some of his creations, however, those for a specific clientele, are extremely special, for they can evoke for a wearer, and a specific wearer at that, a full sensorial memory of a time and event. To make those scents however, requires raw materials of a sort that requires Vic to be something more than a parfumier: a murderer.  Now, as a powerful and rich former client asks Vic for an even more complicated creation, the garrote around Vic and his business, and his secrets, slowly tightens.

Vic’s story is told in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Base Notes.

Readers of Donnelly’s Amberlough novels have come to expect strong and vivid characterization, and deep and vivid language in evoking a sense of place for them to inhabit. Readers who are looking for spare, clean, “invisible” prose are readers who, I find, don’t take to Donnelly’s vividly imagined worlds. Her word choice, structure and style are immediately visible on the page. For readers who want that immersion into language and want to engage with it, I am happy to report that her talents from the Amberlough Dossier are on full display here.  Here, though, the author goes for a memoir, a memory, a recollection by our narrator, the author, Vic. 

In this way, Base Notes keeps that high sensory writing and marries it to a very personal first person perspective. Given Vic’s profession as a parfumier, it means that the book is full of olfactory, smell based sensory data first and foremost. In a world and genre where sight is a primary sense, hearing perhaps secondary and other senses often get short shrift by writers, a book where we are immersed in this main character’s mind and perceptions means that smell is as important as any other sense in how Vic perceives a scene, and the author’s skill translates to that page wonderfully. This is a book that immerses you in every scene that Vic inhabits, and scent is the first and primary sense that the author uses to do that. 

Vic himself is a fascinating character, for being a horrible human being. The author runs a really thin tightrope here. We spend every moment of the book in Vic’s head, so how do you make a preternaturally good parfumier, who is also a remorseless murderer, into a character that we can understand, even sympathize with, and then watch with horror as the inexorable results of his actions drive him past his own (already messed up) boundaries and beyond even the moral event horizons that were already sociopathic into worse territory?  It’s difficult. The sensory detail does help. Being immersed into Vic’s world and only gently being told of how he gets his special perfumes done helps. We also see Vic himself fumbling through a relationship of sorts, as events bring him into the circles of Giovanni, his barber, and Jane and Beau, a couple whom he forges a friendship with, and in the case of Jane, something more. We feel his pain and anguish as he himself tries to work out being, for lack of a better word, human with them. The story of his relationship with his former mentor, Jonathan (Vic is bisexual, it should be noted) is one that slowly emerges from its base notes as the story unfolds, and part of the mystery of the story is just how that relationship went so very wrong--and how it formed the Vic Fowler of today. 

The plot, then, you will not be surprised is strongly character-focused, setting up the main character in an ever tightening situation, and every step of Vic’s descent (not that he was a good man at all when the novel starts) is inexorable and inevitable. I guessed early on once all the main characters on stage how things were going to go, but it is the how and the why and the clockwork beats that kept me turning pages. This is not a novel of redemption of a terrible person, and while the author humanizes Vic at first, as things turn darker and darker, the window of sympathizing with Vic turns to horror and for me, a turning away from sympathizing with him. It’s a high wire tightrope act--make it clear that Vic is a terrible person, early on, really get into his head and make us understand him, understand his boundaries and his circumscribed world. And then when we see him transgress those, when events inexorably force him to cross the boundary of an ever shrinking circle of action, then for me, it then becomes a fascination to see how and why it will end. 

What this means is, that, like any SFF novel, but in harsh and strong relief, that this is not the novel for everyone, or for every moment. (If I personally was in one of my low periods, this novel would not have worked for me at all). This is a novel about a parfumier so singularly minded on his craft, so driven that he has not only have committed murder in the past, not only have the apparatus to deal with such murderers, but coerces others into such a life as well. 

Beyond the sensory and story of Vic, the novel does not lean heavily on theme, but theme definitely drives the narrative. This is a novel that looks at modern “late stage capitalism” and how it drives Vic, and how Vic uses the drive to manipulate and move others. The phrase “Eat the rich” does get invoked here.  Mind, Vic is a terrible person who does terrible things, and drives and manipulates and offers openings to other people to do terrible things. But, you can see the social forces goading and driving him, and other, to consider those acts. And more than consider the acts. Vic’s own rather terrible living situation encapsulates the problems of housing in America today, for example.

If such a protagonist as Vic and a story is something you might find favor with reading, Base Notes is a story that can enthrall you with its writing. Although the story is very different, there is a movie that I kept mentally flashing back to as I read this book, and that is Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Some of the aspects are similar (strange ways of getting scents, preternatural senses, a science fictional element) but the story is very different in how it plays out that it can be thought of as a companion piece rather than aping it. Or, to use the tools of the book and movie themselves, there are elements in the “Scents” of both the movie and the book that have familiarity, but the resulting perfumes are different and do different things, but close enough that those who enjoy one will definitely enjoy the other. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses : +1 for a very vivid and immersively written sensory experience of the first focused on smell that is rara avis. 

+1 for tight and inexorable plotting and a story that slowly constricts around the main character and drives him to an inexorability that keeps you turning pages.

Penalties: -1 This is a novel whose main character and his actions are *definitely* not for all readers. Caveat Lector!

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 

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

Reference: Donnelly, Lara Elena. Base Notes [Thomas and Mercer, 2022]

'The Silent Sea' is a cautionary parable about infinite greed

This space survival thriller about a mysteriously deserted lunar station hides an effective thought experiment about economics

Conservation of mass is the fundamental principle of chemistry. Evolution by natural selection is the fundamental principle of biology. That each thing is identical to itself is the fundamental principle of logic. If such basic facts are not taken into account, everything else stops making sense.

Likewise, in economics the fundamental principle is scarcity. It means that resources are not infinite. Even our access to sunlight is limited by our technological capabilities, the position of Earth, and the amount of fuel in the Sun. Every resource has a limit. No matter your political persuasion, your ethical guidelines, your partisan agenda or your pet cause, every single theory of economics has to deal with the solid fact that there just isn't enough to satisfy all desires. This is why all economic problems have to do with choice: resources are not infinite, so we have to choose. How we choose and who does the choosing is where economic schools differ, but the underlying principle remains; it's almost like it's written in the laws of nature.

So what would happen if there actually were an infinite resource?

Now that would be a violation of the laws of nature.

It would be an aberration. Something monstrous.

Countless works of utopian science fiction have imagined a post-scarcity society, where production is not constrained by availability of raw materials and our basic physical needs are permanently covered—in a sense, all post-scarcity theories are in themselves science fiction. We can imagine, as in Star Trek, a society that has moved beyond such preoccupations.

Or we can, as in the new Korean Netflix miniseries The Silent Sea, ask the hard questions about what such a state of affairs would actually entail.

The Silent Sea tells the story of a government-led mission to retrieve a suspiciously unexplained piece of laboratory equipment from an abandoned lunar station. The astronauts recruited for the trip come from a future Earth where water has become so precious that access to it has become the criterion of social stratification. The once blue planet now looks deserted from space, and the seas have become as dry as those on the Moon.

What our heroes find on the Moon, however, could change everything: there's an impossible new form of water that reproduces upon contact with living tissue. If brought to Earth, it would solve the climate crisis and the political volatility forever. It would effectively provide infinite amounts of water. What's not to love?

Well, there's only so much water the human body can take. Infinite water will kill you. If you bring that to Earth, you're going to kill everyone.

The gruesome image of sick bodies bending over and vomiting gallons upon gallons of water brings to mind the curses of dark fairy tales, which makes sense, because this is a fairy tale, of the sort that were spun in antiquity to teach universal moral principles, for example, that greed can hurt and you should be responsible with what you have. Think King Midas, and multiply it by everyone who has ever wanted something.

The inconceivable scale of the monstrosity is subtly explored at a more personal level early in the series. One of the astronauts, Dr. Song Ji-an, has received government compensation for her sister's death. She's now a gold-class citizen, meaning she has the legal right to infinite water. She's been taken out of the queue, out of the rules of allocation. By every school of economics, she's an aberration.

The series treats her undeserved new status with the appropriate disgust. People are on the brink of rioting over the unfairness of water distribution, and here she's being given the royal treatment. The incongruity of the situation is not lost on her: she has the thing everyone on the planet wants the most, but it doesn't satisfy her. It's futile as compensation for the loss of her sister. There's no compensating for human life. The value of human life does not lend itself to that kind of calculation. Now that's something truly infinite.

Economic inequality and the myriad wrong ways to deal with it appear to have become a staple of Korean drama. We've had, in quick succession, Parasite, Space Sweepers, Squid Game, and now The Silent Sea. It's doubtlessly an everyday concern for Koreans, who are now becoming painfully familiar with the American paradox of immense national wealth and heartbreaking individual poverty. What The Silent Sea has to say about that topic is that illusions of abundance are not the solution to the crisis of inequality, and even if we could have everything, it would solve nothing.

Who could even live with infinite water? Well, this dark fairy tale comes with its own angry spirit: Luna, the unnatural child, the only survivor of an assembly line of clones expended in the hope of controlling infinite water. Those clones are the embodiment of the sacrifice of entire generations for the dream of ever-increasing resources. Even if you found a way to reliably obtain ever-increasing wealth, producing it would require you to defile nature and defile humanity. Luna's tortured life is what results from following that imperative. So no, that's not the solution either.

Because the series ends with Luna nowhere to be found, humanity will not be transformed into her, and the self-replicating water from the Moon will not save Earth. This is fitting with the theme of the story: Luna is an impossible creature. We'd all need to become impossible creatures in order to both create infinite wealth and make any use of it. Having everything is equivalent to needing nothing: once we reached that hypothetical state, we might as well throw away our physical protections and walk, like Luna, in the vacuum of space. That's not going to happen.

So let's recap: you can't satisfy every single desire, and if you did, the human cost would be unacceptable, and if you paid it, you'd have to make everyone pay it, and if everyone did, we'd no longer have a world.

The lesson is the same as in the tales of old. Greed can hurt. You need to be responsible. We need to abandon the illusion that we're going to solve inequality by finding a magical source of endless riches. The only way is to distribute better.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for great visual effects.

Penalties: −1 because the dialogue overexplains the plot, −1 for some flat characterizations.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

In 'Station Eleven,' you don't give up just because the world has ended

You'd think lethal virus stories are in bad taste these days, but Station Eleven is the triumphant cathartic release we didn't know we needed

Station Eleven, the miniseries adaptation of the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, follows the lives of a handful of survivors of a global pandemic that ended civilization. That sounds exactly like the last thing we'd want to see on TV during a real global pandemic that might, perhaps, really end civilization. But what this story has to offer is completely different from your standard post-apocalyptic drama. Except for news reports in the background of a scene, we don't see the masses out of control, fighting over scraps and forming unstable factions, or the desperate horror of watching passersby drop like flies. The incalculable toll of death is implied.

What this story is interested in showing is how life persists after so much death. Showrunner Patrick Somerville famously pitched the series as “a postapocalyptic show about joy.” We follow Kirsten, a young actress randomly paired with a stranger who shelters her during the first weeks of the pandemic, and whose sudden brush with tragedy makes her so hypervigilant that she casually carries a knife with her at all times. We follow Clark, a gentle but bitter middle-aged man who ends up leading a community of survivors permanently stranded at an airport, and whose unlikely ascent to power eventually changes him from conservator to conservative. We follow Tyler, a neglected child of self-absorbed parents, whose repeated experiences of rejection and mistreatment mold him into an emotionally stunted manchild with a vendetta against the past. What connects their journeys is how they were touched by the death of narcissist womanizer and movie star Arthur, as well as the graphic novel Station Eleven, self-published by Arthur's ex-wife Miranda. In particular, the twin trajectories of Kirsten and Tyler will be shaped by their drastically differing readings of the same text.

You don't need the backdrop of a lethal pandemic to tell a story about the power of stories. In fact, Mandel's original intention wasn't even to write a novel about the end of the world; she just liked the image of wandering actors bringing joy to village after village. You may as well remove the whole pandemic plot from Station Eleven and see it for what lies at its core: the double-edged power of performance. Both Kirsten and Tyler have been deeply moved by a story, and both will reenact it at key moments of their lives. However, Kirsten uses performance as a balm (at one point a spectator remarks that the troupe of actors brought "new life" to their town), while Tyler uses performance as a weapon. As for Clark, his fear of things decaying makes him keep them stuck in place, where he continues to tell stories about them but doesn't let the story around them move forward.

To explore this theme it doesn't really matter that the plot happens in a setting where almost everyone is dead, because those who are left alive still face the same old question of how to live. What should we do about the things that time takes from us? Make beauty from them, like Kirsten? Lock them inside a display case, like Clark? Or burn them, like Tyler? This is not a story about finding meaning after the apocalypse; it's a story about finding meaning, period. The trappings of world-ending catastrophe are only there to enhance the emotional content, to make the implicit explicit.

This is why it doesn't feel distracting when the plot of Station Eleven jumps between time periods. The path of things from A to B can find more useful routes than a straight line. It doesn't feel like a different world when we see the scenes before the mass death. It's all the same story. It's always the same story. That the world has ended does not change the fundamental questions of life.

However, the path of things from novel to TV series did meet with some bumps. The character of Tyler is made much more ambiguous in the adaptation, but without the benefit of added nuance. Whereas he was unmistakably a monster in the novel, here he is given a tentative chance of redemption. This defuses the tension that sustained the story before it's given a proper answer. Once Kirsten and Tyler realize that their lives have been shaped by their love for the same book, the main conflict of the series becomes about which relationship to art (and which relationship to the dear deceased Art) will prevail. Kirsten takes a page from Hamlet and orchestrates a session of psychodrama where Tyler's moment of growth is to achieve the basic human decency of not slitting Clark's throat. In a way, this fits with their characterizations: once again, Kirsten gets to use performance to heal things, Tyler uses it to break things, while Clark stands still and describes the way things were. That works; that's who they are. However, in proportion to the significance of the conflict, it's rather anticlimactic. We spent plenty of time following Miranda's determination to preserve her artistic integrity and create her masterpiece, the only part of her that survives the death of all things, and the way in which the rival interpretations of her work are left not-quite-resolved leaves a deflated feel.

The actual resolution comes later, when Kirsten reunites with her old friend and rescuer Jeevan, and he says he's happy that his family will get to meet her in person, because for years all they've known of her are his stories, and this time they'll see the real her.

In this beautifully shot, movingly acted, sharply written, captivatingly edited, epically scored version of Station Eleven, that is the final victory over oblivion: the moment when a story comes alive.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Dan Romer's soundtrack, +1 for the power duo of Hiro Murai and Christian Sprenger, who together bring a flawless sense for shot composition.

Penalties: −3 for watering down Tyler's villainy.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Nanoreviews: Grievers, A Master of Djinn

Grievers by adrienne maree brown [AK Press, 2021]

Grievers is a short novel (or long novella?), kicking off a new fiction line from publisher AK Press - whose non fiction I always find super engaging (and I'm always here for a fellow adri!) And it's a tough, slow heartbreak of a book that demands a lot from its reader: the ability to watch a young woman go through tragedy and loss over and over again, the need to respect her decisions, and above all the ability to engage with the novel's perspective on Detroit, in all its complex facets. It is also a pandemic novel, and although the dynamics of its pandemic are pretty different to our present reality (it's unexplained and invariably fatal), the way in which the disease disproportionately hits marginalised communities - in the novel's case, specifically Black people - is very familiar.

The pandemic in Grievers is grief, or something that looks like it: an illness with no known contagion mechanisms, that only affects Black people in Detroit, which sends them without warning, in the middle of ordinary activity, into a catatonic, pain-stricken state. Dune, a queer mixed-race Black woman, has to live through her mother becoming patient zero of this new disease, and without health insurance she is forced to discharge her mother from the hospital early and try to take care of her at home - eventually burning her in a backyard cremation ceremony. From that initial loss, we follow Dune through an increasingly desperate existence as the illness takes over Detroit, and everyone with the means to do so leaves the city. Taking up the activism of her mother and grandparents, Dune begins to chronicle and map out some of the pandemic's effects, while caring for her very ill grandmother and facing the realities of survival. The trauma is relentless, but it doesn't feel voyeuristic or exaggerated; this is a bleak book, but it knows exactly what its doing. Similarly, Dune's decision to stay in Detroit despite the crushing loneliness and threat of illness feels natural to her character, even as we might not understand it as readers. There aren't any answers here - the closing scene is a barely flickering candle against the darkness of the book's premise - but this is a novel with a lot to say regardless, and definitely one to engage with for those looking for outstanding political speculative fiction. I'm going to be watching AK Press' fiction with great interest.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark [Tor Books (US)/Orbit (UK), 2021]

I was expecting a delight going into this novel and Clark's first full-length foray into the "Dead Djinn" universe does not disappoint. Set in an alternate steampunk-y Cairo where djinn and other magic was unleashed in the human world a few decades ago (turning the tide of colonialism and catapulting Egypt into a powerful independent nation in the process), we follow Special Investigator Fatma of The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities as she and her new partner - and some returning friends and Fatma's awesome, mysteriously powerful girlfriend Siti - try to unravel the mysterious murder of a group of British cultists, and the rise of an individual claiming to be Al-Jahiz, the sorcerer who unleashed magic in the first place.

Regular genre readers will know Fatma from the story "A Dead Djinn in Cairo", and A Master of Djinn is very much a direct sequel to that story, to the point where several character beats and items will feel very two-dimensional to readers who haven't experienced that story (it's short and free, and I don't understand why Tor didn't include it in at least the US edition of the book!) Taken as a sequel rather than a series starter in its own right, A Master of Djinn blends its police procedural elements, its magical worldbuilding, and its character work in very satisfying ways, deepening the relationship between Fatma and Siti, giving Fatma a new foil in Hadia, her butt-kicking hijabi partner who gets to call her out on a whole lot of internalised sexist "I work alone" nonsense, and really exploring how the shadow of Western imperialism still looms over this version of Egypt even as the balance of power has shifted away from Europe. Figuring out the mystery a couple of chapters before Fatma was satisfying, but didn't dampen the fun of the climactic chapters. Excellent stuff. 

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

Monday, January 17, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Light Years From Home by Mike Chen

A novel that miraculously bridges people even when they feel light years away.

In these times of 2022, it almost feels like contentment was never something that was available. Any memories of such an opportunity feels stretched back to such a bygone era that when I think of it, it’s distant and scrambled. In Light Years From Home, a family is brought something that seemed unattainable for over a decade: the arrival of a long missing family member. The memories of getting to that point aren’t clear in some characters’ cases, but despite how scrambled it is, it’s miraculous. The story showcases the family coming together in a way that feels messy through difficult circumstances but absolutely clean in its heartfelt humanity. Memories can be scrambled, emotions can peak and sink from the unreliability of human actions, but what makes Light Years From Home such a powerful book is that the mundane yet miraculous instance of finding hope after an expanse of hopelessness is always in the cards, no matter how much time has passed to make it seem like an unattainable wisp.

15 years ago, Jakob was abducted by aliens. His two sisters have different approaches to dealing with the disappearance. Kass dismisses the prospect and assumes he wasn’t abducted but just left as the unreliable person he was. Evie thinks otherwise, devoting her time to studying extraterrestrial life, trying to solve the mystery of her missing brother. Meanwhile, the parents are left in mental shambles. There doesn’t seem to be any developments concerning it for a while until at the start of the novel, Jakob arrives on Earth with a special mission. That mission embroils his sisters in it through incisive developments. 

The characterization is where the story really shines. Whether it’s Evie’s ardent hope that what she’s dedicated her life to is a reality, Kassie’s fed-upness of her family, or the portrayal of Jakob who’s portrayed as making so much growth even though some of him is initially under a veil of mystery. It all works so well. Character arcs move at a pace that makes it so no one feels stuck in a rut. Just about everything feels like their choices align with their personality, making the plot move organically.

One thing to note is that as organic as the developments are, Light Years From Home definitely favors the exploration of familial bonds and human emotions over a rollicking plot. There are seeds for an explosive story here, but Mike Chen holds back, and it mostly worked for this reviewer. Although, there were some times when the vibrancy of the characters wasn’t enough to buoy some slower sections scattered throughout. Despite holding my engagement for the vast majority of the plot, I think it’s worth mentioning that this could very likely be lacking in speculative and action-packed elements to those in search of it.

Despite having a short supply of speculative elements, Light Years From Home is still imaginative through the way it’s able to carry its proceedings through an original voice and some brilliant plot points. It’s a novel full of love with a tenderness that might seem light years from our home. But the more I read about the familiar and cutting specificity of the characters, the more I realized that such a tenderness is still here–it just seems scrambled and distorted. Jakob goes on an interstellar journey, through many light years, surprising you with its direction but ultimately landing at a place that seems new until you realize it’s home.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For its top-notch emotional intelligence.

Negatives: -1 For some slower and less imaginative chapters scattered sparingly.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!

Chen, Mike. Light Years From Home [MIRA, 2022].

Friday, January 14, 2022

Microreview [book]: Chaos Vector by Megan O'Keefe

A space opera universe of mysteries and intrigue in a backwater solar system.

Megan O Keefe’s Velocity Weapon introduced Sanda and Biran Greeve. While Biran Greeve launched himself, a little unwillingly into solar system politics, seeking to become a Keeper, one of the mysterious power group controlling the interstellar gates, Sanda was the militaristic one, a high flying sergeant on a gunship. Velocity Weapon tells a twisty story where Sanda is lied to and tricked by an AI on an enemy warship, and Biran desperately seeks political power for, primarily, finding out what has happened to his sister. The novel was particularly potent for a "Wham! moment" where Sanda’s understanding of what was happening to her, and why, turned out to be far far different than she knew.

Now, with a solar system seething with potential conflict, Sanda free of her captivity, and Biran in a position of power within the Keepers, Chaos Vector continues the story of these two siblings as revelations and conflicts from the first novel start to well as new mysteries, and yes, new wham moments!

I am being deliberately oblique to the nature of the wham moment in Velocity Weapon, but want to talk about it in a general sense as a concept, because it so colors the book. I was waiting, as I read Chaos Vector, to see if there was going to be a similar rug pull. In retrospect, there were hints leading up to that twist: the author plays fair with what she told the reader, what she “let slip” and so when things came to light, and how the pieces fell into place. 

This novel doesn’t have the single moment that Velocity Weapon has, showing that the author doesn’t want to or need to rely on one large “twist” or revelation in order to make her novels work. There are a number of smaller revelations that make the reader reconsider what has gone before, and rethink more than one character in the narrative. That is what I consider an effective wham moment. Unlike, say, the end of the Mark Wahlberg Planet of the Apes movie which ends in a non-sensical twist, compared to its predecessort at the end of the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes movie. See the difference? Velocity Weapon’s "wham" is in the Heston mode, as are the smaller ones in Chaos Vector.

This novel is far more wide ranging than the first, which had a tight feel with Sanda on a warship as a quasi-prisoner, and Biran mostly planet-bound and seeking paths to power within the Keepers, the trans-solar system group who control the interstellar gates. This novel has Sanda ranging across the solar system on her quest to deal with the chip implanted in her head, and the mysterious location the information is contained on it. And of course, she is on the outs, if not a fugitive, over the escape of that AI starship from the first novel. Sanda gives us a grand tour of the Cronus system, and we get an even clearer and more nuanced look at a solar system divided between an authoritarian government (Prime) on the primary planet, and a number of settlements with varying levels of fealty - or who are outright trying to maintain their independence, like Icarion. Add to that the power of the interstellar Keepers who control the gates and wield power of their own, and O’Keefe provides a complicated and interesting solar system, with surprises and differences and interesting touches throughout.  

Biran, too, gets out of his relative bubble more in this novel. Now that he has a position of power in the Keepers, he has more responsibility, and more adversaries and opponents to his agenda and goals. That means gets to get out and about, although he does feel more cocooned and bound than Sanda is, a reversal of the first novel.  I did also particularly like the small but significant bits of interaction between the siblings. The author enables their interactions across interplanetary distances, a distinct difference from their being firewalled off from each other in the first novel, and the very different but equally ambitious siblings have an intense familial relationship.

The novel is a very contemporary space opera, too, in terms of its characters. Sanda uses a prosthetic leg. One of the new viewpoint characters is non-binary. There are a lot of female characters in positions of authority, and also in conflict with the main character. All of these characters, including the antagonists - in a way, especially the antagonists - are complicated, nuanced and have agendas, goals and drives that make sense and make for multidimensional characters. This is a very well peopled universe, and as fascinating as the solar system is, it's the people who inhabit it who really bring it to life. Whereas Velocity Weapon kept Sanda mostly talking to one character, this is a novel where O’Keefe opens the floodgates on characters. One of Sanda and Biran’s fathers, Graham, gets a lot of play in this novel, and we find out a lot about HIS deal. I kept imagining him in my mind as being played by someone like the actor Tom Wilkinson: someone aging, who has seen a lot, done some things for some very shady people when he was younger, who thought he was “out”, but gets back into his old life to help his children. 

Like the first novel, there is also a small additional point of view, a flash back to the founder of the Keepers, and the entire interstellar society, Alexandra Halston. We got to see a few back in time looks at her life in Velocity Weapon, and here we get more.  It is probably not a spoiler to say here that one of the multiple smaller moments in this novel that makes you reconsider everything occurs during one of her points of view. Even more than the first novel, this, as well as the other revelations, show that O’Keefe continually wants to make us question the base assumptions, revealing an even more complicated, and fraught, universe and setup than what the reader might have thought. This novel, then, even more than the first, is a matter of curtain pulling, and having the reader reassess events and especially characters in a new light. This novel, too, makes some of the details of events in the first novel come to be seen in a new light.

That is, if one can really call it such, the only weakness of the novel. This is a novel that really rewards having recently read or re-read Velocity Weapon. It makes for a tightly bound pair of novels (and I fully expect Catalyst Gate, the third novel, to follow this line) and so starting here in this novel, jumping in mid-series, really means missing a lot. This is a series to read closely, to get the full effect of the revelations and plot twists.  Nevertheless, this is a very successful followup to Velocity Weapon and continuing to solidify O’Keefe’s turn from fantasy into space opera. Readers who are interested in the space opera of today really should be checking out what O’Keefe is doing--but not to start here, but rather to launch into her verse with Velocity Weapon.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for crackerjack plotting and Wham! Moments that keep the reader engaged

+1 for a diverse and interestingly peopled and complex universe

Penalties: -1  Readers who have not read the first book, or not read it recently, may miss some of the power and careful structure of revelations and plot. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


Reference: O'Keefe, Megan. Chaos Vector (Orbit, 2021)

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

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: It Takes Two by Hazelight Studios

A Co-op Delight; Honey We Shrunk Ourselves meets [Insert any RomCom Here]

The Game Awards Game of the Year winner, It Takes Two, asks two players to come together to repair an ailing marriage. In many relationships, poor communication causes the initial bond between partners to break down. Therein lies the crux of the conflict with It Takes Two. Cody and May, fed-up with their relationship, cause their daughter Rose much distress. Rose consults Dr. Hakim’s Book of Love to help bring them back together. With her tears, she binds her parent’s souls into two wooden dolls. Now it’s up to the players to help the protagonists get out of this mess and back to their bodies.

It Takes Two is a mandatory co-op game. Hazelight Studios created a free downloadable pass so that a player who hasn’t purchased the game could still play with a friend who purchased a copy, a genius move. Through clever yet simple quest and level design, Josef Fares’ vision of returning to the couch co-op days of old has paid off. My girlfriend, who was my partner throughout this adventure, hasn’t played many modern games, and she took on the controls with relative ease. Except for a few glitches, there was nothing we couldn’t solve with some solid communication.

Though the aesthetic of each level feels like they were created for the sake of variety, they present varied gameplay that keeps the game from stagnating. The levels flow sequentially in a comprehensive manner and are beautifully detailed. In one level we found ourselves in a toolshed, retrieving parts for a damaged hammer, and in another, we’re off in space fighting Moon Baboon. Most of the gameplay segments last just long enough that they don’t overstay their welcome. It Takes Two covers all kinds of genres over its runtime; platformer, hack and slash, third-person shooter, and even a rhythm segment are included.

In addition to a consistent flow of different video game genres, Hazelight Studios did a wonderful job in ensuring that the gameplay maintained asynchronous tasks for each character. This guarantees two things. The first is that each player has to consider the abilities of not only their character, but of their partner's as well when attempting to solve a puzzle or overcome an enemy, and the second is that it keeps a second run feel fresh in a game with otherwise low replay value (which in this humble reviewer’s mind doesn’t carry much weight, but is nice to have regardless).

Both characters have the same basic controls; jumping, walking, and running are identical for Cody and May. I don’t know who decided to give Cody such a ridiculous running animation, but I thank them for it. Where the characters’ controls differ is in level-specific gear. For instance, one of the earlier segments sees Cody receive some nails that can be thrown and retrieved (think the Leviathan Axe in God of War) while May gets a hammerhead. Cody can throw the nails into specific surfaces that May can then use as platforms to swing from with her hammerhead. Most co-op segments hit the mark well and make both players feel accomplished when a puzzle has been solved.

May and Cody’s animations serve the characters well in representing their out-of-body avatars. When in human form, however, not so much. The uncanny valley effect is especially present in their daughter, Rose, who, for some reason, seems like a weird robotic child. It felt as though the developers had never been around a human child, making me feel less sympathy for Rose’s plight. Cody, May, and Dr. Hakim provide great foils for each character and their banter plays well, but Rose seems like a dead fish that sometimes kills the mood when she becomes the focus of a scene.

Many times throughout the game, Dr. Hakim reiterates that cooperation is the key to getting Cody and May back to their bodies. The gameplay heavily represents this mantra and stands as one of the two pillars for the narrative, the other, as relayed through the cutscenes and dialogue, is about reigniting their romantic spark. As May and Cody repeatedly fumble their chance at freedom, the narrative’s pace moves along steadily, even if the end comes sooner than I expected.

For those players that enjoy a little competition in their co-op games, It Takes Two has that covered as well. Many two-player mini-games sprinkled throughout each level see May and Cody play against each other for a fun little distraction from the main campaign, from chess to shooting galleries, the variety keeps the side content engaging.

It Takes Two has serviceable mechanics that usually do what you want them to. The platforming works well, though it’s no Mario. Once in a while, we would encounter a glitch with the mechanics; a missed rope swing, or a missed grind connection that caused a death. One time my girlfriend got caught under the floor during a boss sequence and I had to finish it off by myself. It was so distracting that I can’t quite remember who or what the boss was, just that I was looking at both screens trying to figure out a way to get her back into the fight. These weren’t game-breaking by any means, as It Takes Two respawns players quickly (even quicker if you can tap the Triangle/Y button quickly) after a death, user error, or not.

Small animation issues and infrequent bugs aside, most of It Takes Two delivers an enjoyable experience for both players involved. I haven’t enjoyed a co-op adventure this much since Portal 2. Though the ending seems inevitable, the journey is more than worth the time invested. From fighting corrupt flowers in lush gardens to combatting talking war-hardened squirrels, the simple premise of making love work through fun and cooperation is embodied in every facet of It Takes Two. The game delivers memorable cooperative fun, so grab a friend or partner, a controller, and one copy of the game. You’re in for a good time.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 9/10

Bonus: +1 for creating clever puzzles and conflicts that consistently keep the game fresh, +1 for free pass to play with a friend.

Penalties: -1 for technical issues, -1 for incredibly predicatble story, -1 for sometimes faulty mechanics.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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.