Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Review: MaXXXine

Ti West's final installment in the X trilogy is an '80s-soaked spectacular with nods to classic Hollywood and horror films with absolutely immaculate vibes, but something about the third act just falls flat. (No spoilers)

It's around 97 °F here in steamy Atlanta, Georgia, and as a horror and Halloween enthusiast, I'd been looking for a new entry in my slasher summer series. Maxxxine, the third installment in writer/producer/director Ti West's X trilogy and yet another Mia Goth vehicle, hits the spot.

Slasher summer is a vibe/aesthetic that seeks to encapsulate the hot, sweaty, horror nostalgia of '80s scary movies and TV. Think Stranger Things, rewatches of Friday the 13th, and retro clothes you'd find in the 1983 classic Sleepaway Camp.

Maxxxine fits the bill on so many accounts, and I knew it from the minute I saw the first trailer a few months back. But, as a caveat —and I don't recommend you do this— I saw Maxxxine first last week without having seen any of the other movies in the trilogy. I was suitable impressed though, so I then watched Pearl and then, finally, X. (This is right up my alley; I saw Infinity War after only having seen like 4 Marvel movies).

But seeing all of the X movies out of order gives me an interesting vantage point to analyze them, and I do think they work well together. Being introduced to Maxine as a tough survivor on the precipice of success (albeit with an intense and nearly sadistic propensity for violence) before having followed her through the physical and emotional trauma of the Texas Porn Star Massacre gives you a new appreciation for the baggage that we all carry hidden deep inside.

Maxxxine finds our heroine about to star in her first major non-porn feature film, a horror sequel directed by a classy auteur played by Elizabeth Debicki, who aims to mentor the young porn star. As shooting begins, Maxine's friends are being murdered by an unknown figure, masked and leather-gloved in a nod to old giallo films.

The year is 1985, and the Los Angeles vibes that West manages to evoke on camera are absolutely stellar. He always hires good music supervisors, but this film truly outdoes itself with gems that capture the mood, ranging from Judas Priest to New Order. Gritty and nostalgic shots of the Strip, the Hollywood hills, and classic videotape rental stores dot the background. Most scenes are punctuated with late-night TV news updates about the ongoing Nightstalker murders and the killer behind them. There is so, so much cocaine.

We're kept in the dark about the killer until the very end, but his go-between is a Louisiana private investigator played by Kevin Bacon in a comedic role straight out of Coen Brothers central casting.

There's a lot you could write about this movie, from a wide selection of themes: nostalgia, repression, paranoia, history, and Hollywood. I'll keep this review short, but lots of undergrads in coming years will write many a paper on this trilogy, Maxxxine especially.

Hollywood and the desire for stardom, in particular, is probably the most prominent theme, and one that runs through all of these movies. Pearl wanted to be a dancer in the Follies in 1918 and had a pet alligator named Theda (after Theda Bara, the silent film star). Maxine, as a struggling actress reaching for respectability, stubs out a cigarette with her shoe on Theda Bara's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Maxine evades her pursuers on various lots throughout Hollywood studios, at times even taking refuge in the Psycho house overlooking the famed Bates Motel set. Hollywood loves nothing more than homages to itself and show business.

By the end of the movie, we get a reveal of who the killer is, but something about it just falls flat. It's got a tie-in to the other movies, though honestly it would have been better if maybe it didn't.

The problem, I think, is that the movie spends so much time focusing on character performances and overall (killer) vibes that I think it just didn't have energy left over to stick the landing.

It's still a fun watch. I find Ti West's movies compulsively watchable and never boring. If you like the other movies, you're probably going to enjoy the hell out of Maxxxine even if you're less than blown away by the finale. There are some gore scenes that I am still thinking (and shuddering) about, that had the entire audience slack-jawed. But that's show biz, baby.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10.

Bonuses: Elizabeth Debicki steals the scene in every shot she's in; it's a love letter to Hollywood, which Hollywood loves; the classic horror Easter eggs are fun to catch

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

Monday, July 15, 2024

Review: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell

An easy-to-read military space opera attempting to have a deep discussion

Military SF as a phenomenon tends to attract authors with military backgrounds, and I find it fascinating to compare their approaches to things like military tradition and discipline with the approaches taken by authors with other backgrounds. Without in any way trying to suggest an association (I don’t read enough military SF for that), it has nevertheless not escaped me that an author whose non-writing career was ‘lawyer and antique dealer’ was really keen to have his spaceship captains execute mutinous crew members for the sake of discipline in a crisis. Meanwhile, Jack Campbell, author of The Lost Fleet series, which begins with Dauntless, was a navy officer before becoming a writer, and his spaceship captain tends to chuck mutinous people in the brig and then have a lot of meetings. The frequency of all-fleet meetings in this book convinces me as nothing else does that Campbell knows whereof he writes.

In fact, one of the strongest elements of this book is Campbell’s reflection on military traditions. He’s very pro-them, but not in a fascist way. And he gives himself the opportunity to reflect on that through a rather ingenious plot device. John Geary, commander of an Alliance Fleet ship, acclaimed fame and honor when the neighboring Syndicated worlds (‘Syndics’) launched an attack on the Alliance, kicking off an unending war. Although Geary was lost in the battle, his selfless sacrifice ensured that his crew escaped safely and lived to tell his story. He was granted a posthumous promotion to captain, and his memory lives on for the next century in the legend of ‘Black Jack’ Geary, the one man who could get out of any fix, win any battle, lead any mission to brilliant success.

Except he wasn’t lost; he made it into a damaged escape pod at the last minute and drifted in suspended animation until, a century later, he is picked up by an Alliance ship, thawed out, and learns what has happened in the last few decades. And it’s not great. Besides the century of constant war, he learns that the military has also degraded in a variety of ways, some of which were not quite believable—more on that later. They’ve adopted a more democratic system of decision-making, in which ship commanders all vote on proposed fleet actions (this is bad); they’ve apparently lost all their tactical training (this is very bad), and they’ve even given up saluting (this is astonishingly bad).

Fortunately, Geary’s prompt posthumous promotion means that he has built up a century’s worth of seniority as captain, so when the rest of the fleet’s senior staff are executed by the Syndicates during an ostensible negotiation that was apparently in no way an obvious set-up for a betrayal, Geary ends up in charge of the fleet. The task: to escape Syndic space, carrying with them the MacGuffin—excuse me, I mean the access key to the Syndic hypernet transport system—back to Alliance space. And, through the power of remembering former, better tactics and traditions, and also knowing how to salute, he does.

I mean, I assume he will. This is a six-book series, and I’m partway through book 3 at the moment, but it’s pretty clear that he will. Which is also kind of the problem.

See, Geary’s main character arc is his struggle with being a man: John Geary, who is seen as a legend, Black Jack Geary. He is regarded by many of his deeply religious crew as a gift from the Living Stars and their Ancestors (a firm cultural tradition of ancestor worship, which was a rather nice touch) to come rescue them in their time of need. ‘I’m only human!’ he thinks, at excruciating length. And yet, every time something goes wrong, every time he needs to outthink the Syndics, outguess them, outfight them, he always wins. There is never a situation in which he makes a mistake, gives the wrong order, guesses wrong, or in any way is responsible for anything bad happening. And this badly undermines the attempted discussion of man vs. myth that Campbell is trying to have here. It’s as if, in his desire to work through the mechanics of space battles and supply runs in enemy territory, Campbell forgets that sometimes the cool plans might not work.

And that brings us to something else that doesn’t work terribly well here: the discussion of military tactics. I’m going to comment solely from the perspective of a reader, since I know nothing about actual military tactics (and, to be fair, no one knows anything about space tactics). But a huge part of the plot has to do with the idea that Black Jack’s legend has almost single-handedly been responsible for a shift in military culture away from thoughtful, clever tactics, instead encouraging ship commanders to be thoughtlessly, stupidly aggressive. Black Jack mythically was super-duper aggressive, and so in copying his example, modern spaceship captains end up seeking the credit for individual wins, rather than engaging in disciplined joint action to ensure a successful encounter overall. The result is a staggering loss of ships and a death count that produces a real dearth of seasoned, experienced commanders. So one challenge that Geary has to overcome is re-training this fleet under his command to stop using Bad New Tactics and start using Good Old Tactics again.

Now, I suppose I could accept this shift in tactical culture, even though it requires me to accept a transitional period during which the Bad New Tactics are taking over and causing enormous losses, despite which no one says, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be fighting battles this way?’ But the problem with this plot point is that it requires the Syndics also to adopt the same Bad New Tactics, otherwise there would be no way for the centuries-long stalemate to persist. It’s pretty clear from Geary’s successes that, if the Syndics had stuck with the Good Old Tactics that Geary is re-introducing, they’d have won all the encounters with the Alliance, and that means they would probably have won the war pretty quick. So why did the Syndics shift in the first place? The Alliance shifted to be like Black Jack, but the Syndics don’t care about Black Jack. He’s not their hero. So they must have just decided to start being bad at fighting, which is hard to swallow.

That being said, there are some good bits in these books too. First, Campbell is really good at gender equality. Captains and leaders are equally likely to be men as women, and there isn’t even any tedious self-congratulatory lampshade hanging on it. It’s just part of the world-building. There’s also a certain pleasing rhythm to Geary’s problem-solving, as he thinks through some objective, such as where to resupply the fleet, or deciding which route to take back to Alliance space, or confronting antsy ship commanders who object to his methods.

And finally, there’s also a careful attention to the relativistic effects of long-distance space battles. Campbell never loses track of how far people are from various events, such that whatever they see five light-hours away (or however distant) actually happened five hours (or however long) ago. This consistently structures all the space battle scenes. When the fleet magically-FTL-wormhole-materializes (or “emerges from Jump space”) into a star system, they can see the precise number of Syndic ships already there as of five hours ago, and start planning the engagement accordingly. Meanwhile, the Syndic ships and cruisers aren’t even going to know that the Alliance fleet arrived for another five hours. Every encounter is built around this sort of light-speed limited thinking, which works well.

The antsy ship commanders who don’t like Geary’s leadership offer an opportunity for some thoughtful internal tension in the book. They serve as a counterpart to the hero-worshippers that make Geary so uncomfortable, but the source of their antagonism is the same: The reason they disagree with him so vehemently is because they’ve subscribed wholeheartedly to the ostensible Black Jack philosophy of fighting, and don’t like the real John Geary telling them they’re wrong. Whether supporters or detractors, the Black Jack’s legend affects how everyone views Geary’s command.

In practice, though, the Bad Commanders form another point where I have difficulty believing, because—remember—Geary never loses battles and never does anything wrong. And it’s not as if these captains have any better ideas; they simply want to cause difficulty for him by being dumbheads. At some point, aren’t they going to have to face facts and realize that they’re wrong?

Or maybe not. Maybe the most realistic part of this book is how dumbheaded some dumbheads are, even when their lives and futures depend on it. But if that's what it takes to make a book realistic, then I'd rather skip the lived experience of ex-soldiers and let a better writer tell me a more entertaining tale than the best that reality has to offer.


• Gender equality
• Careful attention to space battle tactics
• Kind of dull

Nerd coefficient: 6: still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore

Reference: Campbell, Jack. Dauntless [Ace Books, 2006/Titan Books, 2011].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative

Friday, July 12, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episode 7 — Choice

This episode transports us back to the past to learn exactly what happened the night Osha and Mae were separated on Brendok, and the Jedi were pretty terrible. 

We're flashing back in this week's episode, and we see the foursome of young Sol, Kelnacca, Indara, and Torbin exploring the vast planet of Brendok for signs of life. They've been there for two months, and young and impatient Padawan Torbin is homesick and itching to get back to Coruscant in a very teenage and Anakin-like way. (Shout out to Kelnacca roasting up some poultry a la Chewie grilling porgs in The Last Jedi — Wookiees gonna Wookiee.)

The Jedi are investigating why the planet, which was categorized as lifeless for years, is now thriving. They suspect a vergance, which is a concentration of Force power around a location that could allow for the creation of life. 

While Sol is wandering, he stumbles across young Osha and Mae in the scene we saw the first time in episode one. Not only is Brendok experiencing a resurgence in plantlife, it's also home to what is clearly Force-sensitive individuals. 

This episode is the Jedi perspective of what happened that fateful night everything went down, and to be fair it does paint everything in a slightly more nuanced way. Sol truly feels concern for the twins and their seemingly harsh treatment from a coven of witches. Does that mean he's right? Of course not. But as we so often see in Star Wars, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Indara agrees to go investigate what's going on, and the team show up at the Ascension ceremony. It's so damn good to see Mother Aniseya again, as every time she's on screen she's absolutely entrancing. 

While Aniseya and Indara are exchanging pointed but veiled insults, we learn what really happened to Torbin when his eyes went black and became incapictated in episode one. Somehow, while simultaenously talking to Indara, Aniseya gets into his mind and low-key begins tormenting him with promises of returning home, preying on his fears and anxiety. That's some dark Force stuff, there, I think. 

And while I'm always on Team Force Witch, viewing this episode through a space cop's eyes does give me a little bit of pause. Maybe it's not the best and safest choice for a pair of young girls? Sol worries if the Jedi aren't looking out for beings like this, who is? I'd never thought of the Jedi as a Force DFACS, but maybe they were!

Aniseya agrees to let the Jedi test Mae and Osha the next day. Indara thinks it's just a good idea from Sol to buy them time so they can talk to the Council about the situation. But he's being honest — and he's doubling down by admitting that he feels drawn to Osha and that she should be his Padawan, despite the fact that she's already too old to join the Order. 

Osha passes the test, while Mae deliberately fails. Torbin takes some blood and talks about how their M-count is through the roof. I found it interesting that they don't even say the dreaded M-word (midichlorian) but yet still reference it as a benchmark against which to measure a Jedi's potential. Not only that, the twins have the same symbiont. Something powerful enough to split one consciousness into two bodies. Only a vergence could do that. 

Torbin, upon hearing that, says that's it! That's the proof we need, and he rushes off toward the Coven. In his desire to finally leave the backwater planet, he starts putting everything at risk.

Indara also finally reaches the Council, and they put the kibosh on Sol's plan to bring the girls to Coruscant. And it's true — they've already interfered enough with the inhabitants of this planet.  

Back at the coven, Mother Aniseya speaks with her sisters about Osha's desire to leave with the Jedi. Everyone but her seems against it, but she seems surprisingly understanding about the young girl's desire for a different life. They prepare for battle as the Jedi approach. This is going to get ugly.

Mae locks the outer door so everyone is stuck, and starts the fire that we know will soon encompass everything. When the Jedi arrive, Torbin this time isn't affected — but the Wookiee Kelnacca is, and we witness a pretty awesome Jedi fight of him versus his companions as he's possessed.

As Mother Aniseya threateningly turns to smoke, Sol panics when he sees a witch use dark side magic he's not familiar with and impales her with his lightsaber. As she falls, she admits that she was going to let Osha go with him. Sol's attachment to Osha is the primary cause of this tragedy — and the ultimate death of all the coven — a lesson we continually learn again and again in Star Wars. 

After the witches all pass out (Did Indara kill them? Or are they sleeping?), she instructs Sol to go get the girls, despite their being directed not to. How are the Council going to react when they show up with these essentially kidnapped children?

Sol rushes into save the girls, and we are presented with a literal Sophie's choice scenario: Osha and Mae are on opposite sides of a bridge cut in half, and he only can save one. He rushes for Osha, while Mae falls (he believes) to her death. 

The Jedi take Osha and flee the planet on their ship, discussing what they're going to say to the Council. Indara, here, cements her tortured legacy when she calmly gives the plan: They're going to lie. Here they are, faced with a massacre on a strange planet and a direct violation of their orders by carrying Osha away. 

Sol wants to confess and come clean, but she say no — we're not doing that. In a way, she's right. This is a terrible situation that no one could have predicted. They're going to say that Mae burned down the fortress and everyone died. In a way, she's right. Osha has lost everything. There's no point in taking away her only other thing, her desire to become a Jedi. 

But also, telling the truth could have worked out alright — this was a tragedy by all accounts with some terrible luck. As we've seen from Master Vernestra, though, throughout this season, the Jedi are very, very loathe to admit when they're wrong or behaving in ways that may embarrass the Order.

I imagine next week we'll see Mae's rescue by Qimir, and the path that she's set on as she grows up. I'm still appreciating this deep dive into Jedi history and the constant complications that arise time and again because they're simply people. Maybe the dark side is a more inherently natural way of using the Force, since it allows for the use of emotions that are completely normal for living creatures. Striving for monk-like calm and emotionless living is nigh on impossible, as we keep seeing.


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: Proto speeder bikes (touring editions with lots of room for cargo); another glimpse of Mother Aniseya; we get further proof that the Jedi are jerks sometimes; a Mother Koril bad-ass fight scene.

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

6 Books with Suzan Palumbo

Suzan Palumbo is a Trinidadian - Canadian, dark speculative fiction writer and editor. Her work has been nominated for the Nebula, Aurora, World Fantasy and Locus awards. She also co-founded the Ignyte Awards with L.D. Lewis. Her debut dark fantasy/horror short story collection Skin Thief: Stories is out now from Neon Hemlock. Her queer, Caribbean, space opera novella Countess will be published by ECW Press on September 10th 2024. She is represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. When she isn’t writing she can be found gardening or being a goth.

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’ve just begun Witch King by Martha Wells. The opening has grabbed me by the throat. If an author writes the words: “…a drop of his blood hardened into a red pearl buried in her heart…” on the first page of their book, I am going to sit up and be ready to be told a story! It’s a super goth line!

I recently got to meet Martha while she was in Toronto at a signing event. She was incredibly gracious. I’ve been a fan of Murderbot for some time but I’m excited to read a fantasy book about revolution by her. I think she will deliver a narrative I don’t expect and I’m a big fan of people surprising me. Throw me a curve ball and I am happy.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I’m excited to read Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera. My mother practices Hinduism and the concept of reincarnation was one she spoke about a lot while I was growing up. As a result, I’m always keen to read speculative work about transmigration by writers who grew up with similar belief systems. I think Vajra’s book is going to be epic, profound and thought provoking. Again, give me the unexpected and the unpredictable. I’m here for all of that!

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

I tend not to re-read many books these days, though I did reread books often when I was younger. I read 1984 several times as a teenager. If I do re-visit a book now, it’s to look up a paragraph or phrase that struck me as well written, insightful or pertinent to a situation I’m encountering in the present. Sometimes, I’ll reread a text for research purposes.

A friend once said, “We only have the capacity to read a certain number of books during our lifetime.” That struck a chord with the absurdist in me. So, while I’m all for everyone re-reading generally, I tend to always be working on my new TBR pile so I can experience as many new books as possible. After Witch King, I plan to read The Wings Upon Her Back by Samantha Mills.

4. Is there a book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. I have to preface this by saying I don’t think I could write The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I think what Vo accomplished with that novella was stunning and unique and only she could have done it. What was so revolutionary about it for me was Vo’s ability to tell the stories of characters who are often given little space or notice. She showed how ordinary people can have a profound impact on the course of history and she did it so elegantly. It is probably the best novella I’ve ever read.
5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that holds a special place in your heart?

I read Jane Eyre when I was fourteen and it blew my mind. I had never before related to a character as strongly as I did with Jane. Her hopes, struggles and loneliness seemed so visceral to me. I was shocked that I could connect with a book that was written almost one hundred and fifty years before I was born. That book’s earnestness informs all of my work. The writing felt so confessional and heart wrenching. It is indelibly part of who I am as a person and writer.

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

My latest book, Countess, is a queer, Caribbean, space opera novella with a gothic arc at its core. It is full of Caribbean food and culture as well as romance, space chases and curses. It is also a deeply anticolonial story about a Trinidadian descended lieutenant in the future who must come to terms with what she has been taught about empire and the self-hate empire has fostered within her.

I’ll add that the protagonist, Virika Sameroo, is one of the first, if not the first (I could be wrong), femme Indo-Caribbean space officers to be written and published in a novella or novel. I have never encountered a character from my demographic in this type of story before. Virika is passionate and has a temper but she also has a good heart and she cares for her community and people. Her story isn’t an easy one but she is brave despite the odds. That is what makes her and the book awesome. I hope Countess will resonate with those who have never, or rarely, seen themselves and their point of view represented in science fiction and space operas. I hope everyone walks away from the book with indomitable hope in spite of the odds.

Thanks so very much for having me here and letting me talk about some books I love, Paul!

Thank you, Susan!

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Book Review: The West Passage by Jared Pechaček

A world peopled by creatures straight from the pages of a medieval manuscript, with a story strange enough to match.

Weird stuff reviewing continues! No really, this one is also baffling, although in a very different way to either OKPsyche or Rakesfall. In The West Passage, the debut novel by erstwhile social media fashion commentator, strange art purveyor and all round interesting person Jared Pechaček, the story is relatively linear and comprehensible, but the visuals? Ooh the visuals are something else.

The story follows two apprentices from the Grey tower, one learning to become a Mother, caring for people at death and birth, and holding on to a great memory trove of song-lore in the meanwhile, and the other training to become a Guardian, charged with the defence of the palace against the Beast. Shit, as it often does in stories, goes all wrong, and they both have to travel away from their home in Grey to try to put the world to rights, and find a way to stop the looming arrival of the Beast, who threatens to destroy everything. Along the way, they discover that all is not necessarily as they expected to find it in the rest of the palace, find friends and enemies, learn, grow and all that good stuff. You know, stories?

So what is it that sets this one apart? Why is this part of weird shit summer?

Well, for a start, look at that cover. Is that a lady with a tower for a head? Yes. Yes it is. That is very much emblematic of what you're in for here. It starts slow, at the beginning. Off hand comments about twiggy hair or spiny hands that catch on the edges of your attention - did it really just say that? maybe it was metaphorical? - that keep on building and building, little hints, little wrongnesses, until you can't quite ignore them. And then the book hits you with art like this:

That thing on the right? With the gothic architectural twiddle for a head? That's a beehive. It pisses honey. Just... roll with it.

And once you get to this point, the floodgates really open, and it all comes gushing (sorry) out. Pechaček really shines in his visual descriptions - of people, of scenery - and doubly so in his ability to capture abstract, the almost indescribable, with metaphorical and whimsical and often somewhat grotesque language. For instance, we have this passage on the Beast:

the Beast might pass equally as a subtlety at the banquet table of the apocalypse, or as a costume at a masque where every player represents three simultaneous crimes. Now enters Madame Murder, all blood and bone, who is also Sir Larceny, all grasping hands and covetous eyes, who is also Treachery, all knives and masks.

Does this physically tell us what the Beast looks like? No, not at all. And yet somehow we come out with a sense of it nonetheless. And there are many, many things like it throughout the book - things that we have no easy map for within the world of simple physical description, but to which Pechaček gives life through these little passages of metaphor. These descriptions are also heavily grounded in the assumed chronology of the world of the story - as you can see from the manuscript styling of the art (which varies according to where in the setting we are for that part of the story, incorporating visual aspects of different real-world manuscript traditions to give a sense of the relation between the areas of the world), there's a strong medieval flavour running through it all - and so they feel all the more tied into the story itself. They make use of concepts at least passing familiar to either of our two protagonists, to set the scene for the reader in terms that make sense for the story's frame of reference, and so never falter, never break the cohesion of our immersion. Likewise the steady creep of it all, the absolute rejection the classic wall o' text, brick to the face exposition, makes it all the more clear that strange to us is normal to the world. People with bird heads are unremarkable, so of course it only comes up in the text as it becomes relevant (for instance in what sex acts they can and cannot perform). Otherwise, it's just sort of... there.

But that doesn't mean there's no explanation in the story - far from it. I would, in general, describe this as a worldbuilding-forward novel. Much of the core story isn't really about the protagonists; they're just the people it's happening to. They don't really make choices that change the way the plot flows, or perform feats that no one else could do. Instead, they're the vector through which we steadily uncover the mystery of the world... within its own terms, its own lore. Rooted in the perspective of someone from Grey, we learn to interrogate the (very little) we know, and dig further into the wider, richer history of the place we call home, and to understand that the stories we know aren't necessarily the  immutable truth we thought them to be. For the reader, that means a steady, gentle exposition, that last pretty much through the whole story, of the core question that hits you on the first page - what on earth is this world? It's a story to explore an idea, to understand a place, and simply to visit it. To see its many parts and begin to know it. And that's somewhat delightful.

Especially because that place is playing with the common fantasy trope of the fallen world - the story takes place in a crumbling, decrepit, enormous castle-like structure, full of tumbled masonry, empty halls and piled rubbish. Nothing is as it was in the days gone past, and people yearn for the glory of the stories of old. So far, so familiar, right? But because this story is so lore-forward, so focussed on that self-narration, the way that this fallen glory comes across is precisely alongside our interrogation of the truth of it all. We are constantly aware, from fairly early on, of the unreliability of our sources, and so we are constantly on guard, watching for the potholes in these songs of greater days, wondering what other information might be hiding there. It makes for a very interesting experience. It also goes hand in hand with one of the areas Pechaček dwells on often, around worship, holiness and magic, and how that plays into the strict hierarchical and inheritance based system that seems to be in place in his world. The Ladies - with their strange and varied morphology - are extremely powerful beings capable of miracles, who head up a governing structure whose steepness is nearly vertical. Our protagonists exist somewhere near the bottom in an even further fallen bywater of this fallen world. The Ladies are worshipped. But how does worship - and holiness, and miracles, all words Pechaček uses directly in the text - exist in a world where that power visibly flows from beings you can see and touch? That's a mystery the text does not exactly solve, but you can feel it being lingered on, in moments, the way the story takes us to these parts of the world, gives us these moments of something... magical.

And that is a word I don't believe is used even once. People are cursed, transformed, charmed and otherwise affected by incomprehensible power... but not once is anything referred to as "magic". In a fantasy book. Isn't that interesting?

Historically, at various points, what cultures conceptualised as prayer, song, poem and magic spell has has intersected and flowed together in ways that seem strange to a modern, Christian, Anglophone mind. We have plenty of historical examples of the holy and the magical overlapping, combining and working together without qualm, or the one being in a place we might expect to see the other. And so it is absolutely fascinating to see a work of fantasy take this historical truth and run with it - so much of this story is rooted in an alien perspective, so why not this thing too? It's another little, subtle... and yet enormous, fundamental thing that adds to the rootedness of the story perspective, layering and layering up the different aspects of the telling to feed into the creation and uncovering of this strange, beautiful world.

But there is a story - and there are characters - and I don't want to imply those aren't a part of the telling. We predominantly spend time with the two above mentioned, who begin the story as Pell and Kew, and both of whom have somewhat differing but interesting perspectives, but who have a common home and a great deal in common in their foundations and worldviews. They are also both incredibly driven by duty, a motivation I'm always a sucker for in fiction.

Once again playing with common tropes, there's something of the traditional narrative to taking these impoverished, ignorant, lowly characters and inserting them into a grander story. But where in many others they might end up politicking with the great and becoming the focus of a world that previously did not care about them, here their interactions with power are generally fleeting, and rarely upset the status quo (and if so, never for long). This isn't a story of their rise through the ranks to grander status. The world has its inertia which one, or even two, people cannot fight alone, even if they want to. Politics, throughout the story, remain obscured and distant to them, beyond the scale with which they are already somewhat familiar, and they are often pawns in someone else's story. Things generally happen to them. And again, for the story being told, for this uncovering of a world, I think this decision really works, even if it makes a lot of the time spent with the characters somewhat melancholic. We see how trapped and powerless they are, how their ability to do their duty - however sacred - is hindered by forces utterly beyond their grasp, and it's hard not to feel incredibly sorry for them, sad for the state of the world they exist in, and by extension and resonance, sad about a lot of other things in the real world besides.

So this is not an entirely cheery book, I have to say. But it's not quite so grim as all that, in the main because much of the story is so focussed on uncovering all this lore, all this wonder, that the awe, fear, confusion and mortal peril tend in the moment to overwhelm the quiet, unrelenting sadness of it all. But it is there, and after closing the final page, it does sit with you - this is a story that lingers in the mind, both visually and emotionally.

Is it a perfect story? I will admit not. I found the ending a little rushed, and somewhat out of tone with much of what went before, precisely because of that rush - everything else has proceeded at its own pace, and given that sense of pervasive doom, inevitable sadness, and when you give a sudden uptick, those are hard emotions to maintain. There's also just quite a lot going on to follow in the last 5-10% or so, and I think some of the more emotive parts of it might have hit harder and been more impactful (read: heartwrendingly sad) if they'd been given a little more time to breathe.

There are also a couple of loose ends of plot - one of which feels somewhat significant - that don't really get tied up in any meaningful way. They just sort of... trail off, as the narrative camera pans past, in a way I found somewhat unsatisfying, rather than plot hooks for a sequel, or deliberate mysteriousness. And they do niggle, now I sit back to reflect on the story.

But on the whole, I think I'm willing to ignore them, because so much of what I got from the rest of it was so good.

It's a deeply strange, intensely visually driven book, and a story you read to get a mad ride through a baffling world, rather than to fall in love with people or to be carried away by events. But so much of what is it is so beautiful, so vivid, so enthralling, that even an intensely character focussed reader (i.e. me) could be carried away by it.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful but surreal and intensely visual world; strong emotional resonance; sheer wtfery

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Jared Pechaček, The West Passage, [Tordotcom, 2024]

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Anime Review: Wind Breaker

Likeable characters and a strong moral core drive the breakout appeal of this successor to Tokyo Revengers

A gang of high school delinquents maintains control of their town through their physical strength. The premise sounds a lot like Tokyo Revengers. But the new Crunchyroll series Wind Breaker has a twist on the usual fight anime concept. When first year student, Haruka Sakura, arrives in the town of Makochi, he plans to attend the notorious Furin High School, a place known for brawling and having the strongest street fighters. Sakura is an outcast teen who wants to have the top fighting spot at his new school. Sakura’s unusual hair and eye color (half black, half white – similar to Todoroki from My Hero Academia) made him a target of bullies throughout his life. As such, he has grown to be bitter, violent, and untrusting but he has also become an extremely strong and skilled fighter. Furin High School seems like the perfect place to vent his unending bitterness. But, as always, things are not as they seem.

On his arrival, he sees a group of boys harassing a teenaged girl. The young woman, Kotoha, is fearless and tells them off, but after the boys put their hands on her, Sakura intervenes and quickly overcomes them. When a mostly unbothered Kotoha casually thanks him, he assures her that his actions were based on his personal annoyance with the boys not any intent to save her. After mutual eyerolls the two develop a grudging friendship over a meal at a café Kotoha runs. She starts to tell him the truth about Bofurin, the fight gang based at Furin High School and she lets him know he won’t reach the top spot without building bonds with his classmates. Later, when the defeated attackers return in greater numbers to trash the town and hurt Kotoha, Sakura finds himself protecting her and the other townspeople alone despite the overwhelming odds. When the real Bofurin squad arrives at the conflict, Sakura discovers something unexpected. The fighters of Bofurin are actually protectors of the town and all of its people. Sakura is stunned, annoyed, and uncomfortable to realize that the residents love the Bofurin fighters (including Sakura), often showering them with gifts of food and pastries, and calling on them for help with a range of tasks. The contrast of the tough boys and the doting grandmas with hugs and cookies is hilarious and endearing.

However, despite the underlying moral core, Wind Breaker is, like Tokyo Revengers, filled with violence. Some of the fight scenes are difficult to watch, especially when the dynamic changes from fighting to beating. The Bofurin fighters have an ethical code to cease violence when an adversary is unable to defend themselves anymore. But this concept is not shared by their enemies which results in some blood soaked scenes. The story’s ultimate appeal lies in the contrast of light and darkness symbolized by Sakura’s hair, and the need for both strength and compassion for the community to thrive.

Wind Breaker benefits from appealing visual designs of the scenes and the character. Each fighter has a distinctive look which is ultimately unified by the green and black military-style jackets they all wear. The show also benefits from the diverse personalities who make up the fighters. The interactions reflect (in a good way) other popular anime. Nirei is the high energy comic relief supporting character. Although he is not as strong as the others, he keeps a data book on the strengths and weaknesses of all of the other fighters in the surrounding area. His personality and appearance are similar to Zenitsu in Demon Slayer. Earring and eyepatch wearing Suo is calm and polished but disturbingly lethal in a fight. Other characters include pink-haired, video game loving Kiryu; loud, workout obsessed Tsuguera; and long-haired, grumpy, murderous Sugishita. Sugishita’s brief solo fight scene in the battle with a rival gang is a highlight of the episode. Leading all of the Bofurin fighters is mild-mannered, white haired Umemiya, the upperclassman who guides the others and embodies the moral compass of the fighters. Umemiya is voiced by Yuichi Nakamura who also voices superstrong but easygoing Gojo in Jujutsu Kaisen. Umemiya’s laid back but deadly vibe is similar to Gojo and to Kakashi from Naruto. Umemiya’s persistent preoccupation with his rooftop community vegetable garden mirrors Kakashi’s obsession with romance novels in Naruto and is a comedic element throughout the season.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Wind Breaker is the fast pace. Unlike some filler-laden anime, there is never a dull moment in the series. The story dives straight into the action from the opening scene with a rom-com worthy meet-cute and a sharp fight scene, followed by efficient character development. Moments of introspection or character development are brief links between the action scenes. As a result, every episode of the first season is fast-paced and action packed making it very bingeable.

There are, however, some confusing aspects of the show. The Bofurin fighters attend Furin High School but there are never any teachers seen in the school. The students are never in class nor ever doing any schoolwork. Additionally, the story’s focus on the Bofurin fighters leaves little room for female characters, other than Kotoha, in the first season. Most of the women who appear on the show end up being protected by the Bofurin fighters. The effect is endearing but not exceedingly empowering.

Despite the inevitable comparisons to Tokyo Revengers, Wind Breaker’s unique art style, engaging plot, and strong but likeable fighters, have made it one of the breakout hits of the season. Sakura’s fierce, wounded, but ultimately compassionate personality make him an appealing hero. In the course of the season, his character develops from fiercely feral and self-focused to fiercely protective of others and supported by his newfound family. The opening monologue tells us he may reach the top but the real adventure is watching his journey and the fate of those who join him.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient:

  • Surprisingly likeable characters
  • Relentless action and extreme violence
  • Positive messaging amidst a confusing academic setting

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

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Anime Review: Kaiju No. 8

An unexpectedly fun, feel-good, action-comedy.

2024 is becoming a kaiju celebration with stories like Ultraman Rising, Godzilla Minus One, and Crunchyroll’s anime contribution, Kaiju No. 8. Kaiju are giant monsters or powerful creatures who appear and wreak destruction in urban areas. One of the season’s most popular new anime, Kaiju No. 8 is the story of an underdog, clean-up worker, Kafka Hibino who rises to become a heroic protector by accidentally becoming the very thing he is fighting against—a kaiju.

As young children, Kafka and his friend Mina dream of joining the Anti-Kaiju Defense Force when their town is devastated by a kaiju attack. Through flashbacks we see the two comforting each other in the wake of their mutual loss. Kafka and Mina navigate their ensuing PTSD, while encouraging each other in pursuit of their goal of being officers together in the Anti-Kaiju Defense Force, the elite military-style team that fights the giant attacking monsters. Years later, the former friends are both thirty-two years old and estranged. Mina has risen to the rank of captain as a fierce fighter in the Anti-Kaiju Defense Force and is celebrated publicly for her victories. Kafka, on the other hand, is working with a local sanitation team to clean up kaiju carcasses so the surrounding areas can be rebuilt. The work is disgusting but also essential and he is paid decently. But Kafka wonders how he ended up on this side of the equation as a forgotten clean up worker, while his former childhood best friend Mina has risen to fame for her fierce heroics.

Things change when Kafka supervises an idealistic new young worker, Reno Ishigawa, whose determination to join the defense force causes Kafka to rethink giving up on his dreams. Kafka and Reno are unexpectedly attacked by a kaiju while off duty and the two show surprising strength and bravery in protecting each other until they are rescued by Mina. However, another unexpected attack transforms Kafka into a small scale kaiju, which terrifies him and Reno. Despite his terrifying appearance, Kafka holds on to his own consciousness and sense of humor. He is able to use his newfound transformation for good until he reverts back into a human. The series follows Kafka’s attempts to hide his kaiju side (with the help of confidant Reno) from the government while trying one last time to pursue his application to the defense force—whose job is to kill creatures like him. The hidden identity / secret hero trope results in an extremely funny story despite the fighting and carnage.

Many anime main characters fall into one of two categories: the lonely, abused outcast or the strong, good-looking, determined hero. Kafka is neither of these. He is normal, a representative of most of us as ordinary people, slogging through a day job that is essential but not glorious, working hard, going home to dinner and tv and a messy home. He is not particularly good looking and is somewhat out of shape as he navigates the field tests for the defense force in his human form. Kafka’s appeal as the center of the show is his infinite relatability. His ordinariness dramatically changes by the end of the first episode as Kafka experiences a Kafkaesque metamorphosis of his own. But the show still feels like an allegory for all of our lives: changed by disaster but maintaining a sense of grace and humor under pressure.

Another appealing aspect of the show is the persistent presence of both humor and kindness as a contrast to the intense action and violence of the show. Kafka’s cynical jokes and occasional hysterics are balanced out by Reno’s loyalty and deadpan pragmatism. Kafka and Reno’s co-workers on the clean-up team tease each other but are ultimately supportive. Their fellow competitors in the defense force tryouts are initially cynical but become ultimately loyal and encouraging of Kafka.

Kaiju No. 8 benefits from a good ensemble cast. Although Kafka’s humorous struggles are the heart of the show, Kaiju No. 8 surrounds him with a memorable team, including Reno who constantly refers to Kafka as “sir” or “senpai” and becomes Kafka’s protector as the only one initially who knows about his kaiju transformation secret. Reno is a classic cinnamon roll hero who worries about being strong enough to protect those he cares about. Kikoru Shinomiya is an arrogant young candidate who acts like a spoiled princess but is by far the strongest fighter in their cohort. Super strong Aoi and mega-rich Haruichi develop a close friendship despite the significant differences in their backgrounds. All of the characters have their own backstories and internal struggles as they chase the dangerous duty of protecting their community.

In addition to great characters, Kaiju No. 8 is filled with heavy symbolism and metaphors that connect the fantastical story to the reality we all live in. The kaiju attacks are representative of real life disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, or the trauma of war. When a giant monster attacks and crushes buildings, people in neighboring areas calmly check their phones and speculate on which division will respond to manage things. The vibe feels like the arrival of FEMA after a hurricane or tornado. The potential for devastating loss is an accepted aspect of the characters’ lives. Kafka’s transformation into a kaiju symbolizes his transformation from a clean up worker to a fighter. Ironically, it is his background as a clean up worker that repeatedly gives him the intel needed to save his friends during critical moments. And, it is his innate internal strength and humanity that allow him to use the kaiju state for good instead of becoming a rampaging evil. The season ends in a powerful showdown that emphasizes these themes.

Overall, Kaiju No. 8 is an unexpectedly fun action-comedy with a nice balance of grim adventure and laugh-out-loud humor. The high-energy closing theme song, "Nobody" by OneRepublic captures the positive essence of Kafka and his friends. But the sharp character development is what will make the show appealing to so many people and have viewers binging and rewatching this hit series on Crunchyroll.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

  • Laugh out loud humor
  • Intense action scenes
  • Relatable hero with a great ensemble cast

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