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At rest in Cush

When Charles R. Saunders passed away in 2020, I didn’t have the heart to write about it here. I’ve been thinking about this CBC piece about his life ever since then and its implications. Saunders was a pioneering African-Canadian fantasy author who deserves recognition for his contributions to the field, but that recognition largely eluded him in his lifetime. He wrote African-inspired fantasy from the 1970s on, but time and time again people who declared they sought broader cultural settings for fantasy would act surprised if someone mentioned him. I have consistently pushed his work where I could, but in online spaces the exact communities that theoretically should have been most receptive to his style of fantasy, who made diversity a publishing brand, seemed to pass him by.

It’s hard for me to reconcile why this happened, why the Imaro series was dropped by two publishers on separate occasions, why he hasn’t already received a “fantasy masterworks”-style reprint when his influence is so striking, and why his later literary career was limited to micro-presses and self publishing.

I know, before the news broke of his death, that he’s someone I wanted to meet one day from my limited interactions with him online, that he was extraordinarily kind to his fans to a degree that’s rare for an author.

I’m bringing this up because at the beginning of the year I read Imaro II: The Quest for Cush and the book reminded me once again of his talent. Yes, Saunders wrote sword and sorcery, but unlike the stories in the first Imaro collection, other characters come into his life, and his own personality is complicated by that companionship in a way most sword and sorcery, to be honest, doesn’t attempt.

Saunders seemed at home transitioning into longer-form fiction than his initial outing in short stories. The Quest for Cush is still episodic but there’s more room in each adventure for conversation and quiet introspection. The overall narrative is more complex and inward-focused than the romps of Imaro’s previous outings. There is action, of course, and it’s masterfully done—Saunders was a boxer, and it shows in how precisely and elegantly he describes fights throughout—but it interweaves and supports a broader theme of Imaro rediscovering his humanity after a life of hardship through the support of his lover Tanisha and his scholarly friend Pomphis.

Not all has aged well since the 1980s. There is a section where Imaro encounters the descendants from a cursed kingdom that has unsettling descriptions of disability, but there is a note of compassion at the end of the adventure that speaks to Saunders’s own. It’s not perfect as a recompense, mind you, but the thrust of the lesson there is that the curse lies in the inhabitants’ internalizing the doom of their ancestors into self-hatred, and not in their physical appearance.

This is as far as the Nightshade Books reprints/rewrites get. Saunders had the misfortune of signing up with a publisher that was, behind the scenes, falling apart, and so the story leaves Imaro in Cush willing to try his hand at a new life and leave his lone wanderer days behind him. As far as I’ve found, the next two of this four book series are only available through a print on demand service.   

He was a great author who never got the break he needed from publishers or a larger audience, even when all indications were that his work should have had a renaissance in the past 20 years. I will keep pushing his books, and his importance, but I wish he’d had the opportunity to write more, and enjoyed more recognition for what he’d done. His was a powerful voice in Canadian fantasy.

Farewell to 2021

December already. As I predicted in my 2020 year-end roundup, this blog has been very quiet this year, seeing just a few podcast episodes and a lukewarm book review. That’s not to say the year hasn’t been eventful for me, just not in a way that made me run to posting things here.

Within the world of science fiction and fantasy, I was surprised (very pleasantly, mind) but the appearance of khōréō magazine, dedicated to stories from an immigrant perspective. Their about page mission statement reflects some things I’ve written on this blog in the past about the unique compatibility of immigrant identity with imaginative literature. I longed to submit something since before the first issue, but the words didn’t come. Perhaps one day they will.

Here are some other things I found noteworthy this year.

Books

After some effusive enthusiasm from a friend, I took the plunge and bought the 10-volume e-book omnibus of Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I’d heard of it on the edges of fantasy circles, but underestimated its influence; much of the DNA of current fantasy series trace back here. That being said, Cook skirts around the raw cynicism of his acolytes: while the series indulges in shocking violence, it comes as little shock to the characters, who live through what all accounts is an awful period of history in their world and therefore the story doesn’t over-indulge itself in descriptions of misery.

Here we follow the Black Company, a band of mercenaries who plied their trade for centuries, as they are unwittingly drafted into the current Dark Lord’s army and, being bound to honour their contract, do her bidding. Things grow steadily more complicated after this simple but elegant premise. Cook also has a knack for writing about terrible people who nevertheless spark off chaotic situations that makes them fun to tag along with. This is a rare talent for an author, as I find unpleasant characters are easy to make flat, tiresome, or hard to stomach, but Cook will find some core quality that makes them sympathetic in some way. I have just finished the sixth novel and am happy to go on, where so many series in this vein have made me abandon ship with the first book.

I re-read Don Quixote this year, this time the Edith Grossman translation. Miguel de Cervantes, writing in the 17th century, still manages a depth and warmth that has largely been unmatched. Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza are of course an iconic pair. They attempt to live Chivalric romances in an era where Spain had long since moved on from chivalry, but its in the encounters with everyday life rubbing against a man out of time that the novel shines with an almost transcendent sense of humour.

There’s a theme of great characters this year: Martha Wells’s first Murderbot novel (following a series of novellas), Network Effect, digs a bit deeper into its awakened AI. The Murderbot’s voice is among the strongest to come out of science fiction: puzzled by humans, wanting contact, too awkward to approach the subject. Wells has always been good at banter but the dialogue here felt like a grand achievement. Great fun, but thoughtful too.

Finally, The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk took a few chapters to win me over, but I ended up getting swept into this regency romance with magic. There is a danger of the interplay between nobles feeling trivial, but Polk manages to tease out genuine feeling through character relationships and evokes the suffocating nature of social structures. This eventually brings real stakes to Beatrice’s attempts to became a female magic user in a land that doesn’t want them. The ending is too neatly resolved, perhaps, but it’s hard not to forgive it.

Comics

I stumbled upon a lot of great webcomics this year; Tigress Queenby Allie Shaw was undoubtedly the most delightful. Kizarasunga travels to the enemy nation of Jaez to broker peace, but the tough warlord finds that peace requires her to marry the pampered prince Jintu. Both parties are strongly against this, but as these things go, only at first.

What could be just a gender-swapped version of a setup we’ve seen countless times before ended up consistently overturning my expectations. Instead of letting misunderstandings spin out of control, characters confront each other, effectively short-circuiting the usual motifs. The romance instead becomes built around the growth of mutual trust. The art is just as strong as the writing, showcasing bright colour palettes, fabulous hair, and people who express emotions with their whole bodies. I can’t stop raving about it.

Movies

Somehow I had never seen Goodfellas before this year. I can’t really add anything to the conversations around this Martin Scorsese classic beyond it being downright weird to see Ray Liotta give a great performance in a movie when up to this point, I’d only seen him in, shall we say, lesser works. An incredible bit of cinema.

Denis Villeneuve adapted half of Dune for the screen this year. On social media I largely saw people sniping at it and declaring the superiority of David Lynch’s 1984 version, to which I can only say—I vehemently disagree (largely because I think Dune ‘84 is trash). The approach Villeneuve took is a very deliberate one, choosing not to explain anything not directly related to the story at hand, and instead dropping you into an alien future. Between the production design, music and sound, I was completely absorbed. But as a coherent whole…it isn’t one, not yet, and there is the inherent weakness in adaptation: a novel can be as long as the author wants it to be and present as a single work. A movie is bound to how long an audience member can sit there before having to go pee, and with a story the size of Dune, achieving the thematic effect using this immersive style means a two year wait before these films can encompass a fraction of what the book did.

It’s still a hell of a first half, though.

TV

The first season of Foundation is just barely an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s original fix-up novel. Yet I also don’t see how it could have been faithful and worked as seasonal TV; the individual stories that make up the Foundation trilogy span large breadths of time and mostly aren’t of inherent interest in of themselves, with their interchangeable shuffle of characters moving about marionette-like in service of an absurdly ambitious, centuries-spanning story.

The best parts of Foundation don’t have anything to Asimov at all. Lee Pace as 1/3 of the galactic tripartite emperor has a lot of screen time for good reason: he exudes an aura that demands attention, and it would have been a waste not to use him. Most of the acting, in fact, is very good, and it was easy to latch onto the cast…but once again, besides Hari Seldon, almost none of these characters are in the source material. The scope and the attention to detail in the production design are what carry over. I did not particularly want an adaptation of these books, but they did a great job here.

An unexpected hit for 2021 was Arcane, which few people seemed to have high expectations for before its release. While taking place in the setting of the video game League of Legends, it succeeds by not adapting any story out of that game but instead playing around in that world on its own terms. The striking animation style certainly helps, and the angry women punching each other part of the plot really captured me.

Unfortunately, there’s a whole other strand to the story that isn’t executed so well: a political council-members-jockeying-for-power element that falters along and features characters who make decisions for the sake of connecting dots instead of anything you could trace to their own personalities. The story, too, can feel dragged down by its setting, which is just a hodgepodge of cool looking stuff without much rhyme or reason behind it. The show is pulled in too many directions, I feel; the parts I liked are very strong and managed to more or less keep things centred, but I don’t know if I’m confident in future seasons maintaining the same amount of drive.

Computer games

Role-playing games are time commitments, Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) even more so with their focus on long, intricate (some would say over-stuffed) plots. I never played a game in the Tales series before and most sources indicate Tales of Berseria was the wrong place to start, only for dedicated fans of JRPGs. But it was on sale, and I remembered seeing the trailer once and finding it intriguing, so I took the plunge, and had a grand old time. The conceit here is that you play a character who would normally be a villain: she’s hell-bent to take revenge on the heroes of the world for their founder murdering her brother so he could attain the power needed to fight a demonic invasion, and she proceeds to do terrible things to achieve her goal. On the way, she gathers a merry band of misfits, which are the real draw of the game—their personalities play off each other very well, and the game rewards you with extensive conversations between the main cast of strong personalities and superb voice acting. While the story is a meandering collection of adventures where the “heroes” eventually end up saving the world despite everyone hating them, I found I got really attached to my party. There are several elements that will be definite turn-offs for a lot of people, the clothing choices and wild shifts in tone being a couple of them, but I ended up sinking a lot of hours into this one.

I am also now about halfway through Tales of Symphonia, which is overall a better game but much more standard in its characters and overall tone.

I finally played Portal II this year. I played the first Portal when I was still in university. Portal II isn’t as elegant as the first game, but does a lot of things right for a sequel, and I found myself having a bit more fun. Clever puzzles now pair with a much twistier narrative diving into the backstory of Aperture Science and offering up a couple of more characters from the sparse cast of the original. The jokes mostly land, the portal gun is still an excellent concept to build a game around, and the ending song is just as catchy as the first one. All in all, a fantastic experience.

Notable, but perhaps not praiseworthy

I guess I’m the one Millennial who did not wholeheartedly fall in love with Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. The writing is, in fact, painfully Millennial in nature, but Muir manages to largely balance the raw juxtaposition of an operatic space necromancer setting with a mid-2000s teen soap opera for maximum effect. I enjoyed myself until the last 100 pages of this 400-some page book, when the plot asserts and injects itself when up to that point there wasn’t much of one. Asking for emotional investment in the narrative after 300 pages of (admittedly amusing) faffing about was a step too far for me. 

I am still reading the comic Monstress, mostly thanks to getting access to the Hoopla app through my public library. The art by Sana Takeda remains spectacular, but the writing by Marjorie Liu grows steadily worse. By The Vow (vol. 6) it appears that the narrative will never meaningfully challenge Maika Halfwolf’s attitude or actions, even after she threatens to slaughter civilians on her own side in volume 5. Strong artwork can’t save everything else.

Both of the above works have something to recommend about them. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters really doesn’t, and falls into the “books I regret ever finishing” bin. This novel about an America where slavery never ended, centring on an escaped slave who now works to catch escaped slaves, is remarkably tone-deaf. It’s written exclusively  by and for a white middle class audience. I’ve concluded that Winters has a talent for cranking out TV pilot pitches which he then strains through bland, formulaic plots, and this one only stands out by how unsuited the author was to handle this material.    

Final

Sorry for ending on a downer note, but it’s only to signal for brighter things to come. That’s it for 2021. Happy New Year when it comes, and I wish you a wonderful 2022.

Episode 46 – Book People

Sting. In Dune.

Despite the title, we are in fact talking about movies. But also books. Because this episode is all about adaptations!

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

It’s Axiomatic

Science fiction publishing, for all its dedication to bringing you futures, was slow to recognize the massive audience that potential authors have garnered on YouTube. Lindsay Ellis commands a huge viewership on that platform and her novel was very likely to end up a bestseller as a result. Yet, as one of her videos detailed with refreshing honesty, the road to publication was still a 10-year process. That doesn’t change that, in the end, the final push that got her noticed by an agent was still her YouTube presence.

Despite all that, I wanted to separate Ellis-the-author and Ellis-the-video-essayist when I read her novel Axiom’s End (2020). There are plenty of YouTubers who have promoted their almost-always self-published novels to the point of creating a stigma around the whole thing; however, Ellis has through her video essays and other work shown that she has a deep connection to science fiction and fantasy as a reader, and was a Hugo Award finalist for a (very good) documentary on The Hobbit films to boot. I was cautiously optimistic.

After finishing Axiom’s End, I’m sorry to report I couldn’t make the separation.

There were too many issues with the prose and structure for me to take the book on its own terms and approach it the same way I would an unknown author’s debut. If Axiom’s End had been the latter, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I did, and I’m glad I read to the end, but Ellis had the benefit of being someone I’ve watched for about a decade. Frankly, that’s a detriment to Ellis-the-author.

Axiom’s End centres on Cora, a character painfully Millennial in her situation and outlook, who becomes an interpreter for an alien dubbed Ampersand. It’s a first contact story, but a limited one; for most of the narrative the rest of the world is unaware that contact was even made besides conspiracy theories fueled by Cora’s estranged father. Axiom’s End is an easy read and the setup is compelling, with a lot of thought put into depicting an alien intelligence that humans can almost but not quite relate to.

However, between flat, repetitive prose, some jarring pop culture references, and much less compelling characters, Axiom’s End gets off to a bumpy start. There is a clear theme, but it takes too long to get there through the clunky turnings of the plot. The story sticks closely to Cora, and she just isn’t very well defined through a good chunk of the novel besides family resentment and the clear sense that she’s a beset-upon screw-up at the very beginning. Then the aliens enter the story and she’s just propelled along without much chance to grow or have introspection as she’s flung from one panic-inducing situation to the next.

It’s not until the second half that things take on more weight and we get glimpses of a much better story: Cora and Ampersand have their “two creatures of different backgrounds going across the ice” segment best exemplified by The Left Hand of Darkness. I have a weak spot for depictions of intercultural friendship and Ellis handles it well. Of course, it’s no surprise that a novel about inter-species communication would shine best when exploring these interactions on a personal level, and these were the most positive aspects of the book.

That’s not enough, coming as late as it does, to save a profoundly uneven work.

There are intriguing elements about alien civilizations and relating to otherness that the author could have cultivated and grown into a much stronger novel, but here, they are embedded in a framework that suffocates them instead.

Axiom’s End has promise, but it’s not the kind of promise that makes me want to continue through this series—the sequel comes out this year. I can’t help but feel this was a necessary book for the author to get out of the way on the steps to writing something better, but which should have stayed in the trunk.

A short discussion about Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).

Part of this episode references the YouTube video “Raya’s Moral ISN’T A Good Lesson to Learn” by La’Ron Readus.

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

Good riddance 2020

The title of this post refers to global events, not personal ones, though the ripple effects have definitely not helped the isolation I’ve felt steadily increasing these past few years. Many plans lay discarded because of the pandemic, but I still managed to finish building a cabin after two years of work, and my friends have been tremendously kind this year, for which I am absurdly grateful.

Books

Launching into 2021, I’m painfully realizing the lack of any kind of tracking for books I’ve read, especially since I haven’t been making regular posts on this blog. I read many novels this year, but I can’t recall the titles of most of them. I feel this is tied to reading as an escape, but also my enthusiasm for common narrative tricks in science fiction and fantasy has flagged considerably. The latest installment of The Expanse was no longer a breezy page-turner; the authors have shifted the series away from the interplay of various factions into the more comfortable territory of spacefaring empires and rebellion, and it felt like many thousands of pages of buildup inevitably pointing to an empty conclusion. The Poppy War was well-reviewed and had a lot of positive buzz through the authors I follow online, but I found its cocktail of conflicting structures, tones, and voyeuristic cruelty to represent a trend in fantasy already highlighted by The Traitor Baru Cormorant that I personally find distasteful. Lastly, while I was all for the first half of Foundryside with its Thief-like city and tightly knit cast of characters, the thick succession of reveals at the end made me feel like the novel had spiralled out of control.

Starting off my best of the year list with disappointments is keeping too much with the spirit of 2020, but I want it there because it represents a shift in my attitudes towards what I read.

Some things still poked their heads up above those general impressions. I read the first three of Martha Wells Raksura novels, and while I wasn’t so keen on The Cloud Roads the series grew more intricate and more sure as it went on and I now think it’s one of the most compelling settings found in fantasy. I also read the remaining novellas in her Murderbot series after All Systems Red, and have a similar reaction but displaced to science fiction: as a representation of space capitalism gone horribly wrong, the Murderbot stories are much more effective as satire and at exploring how characters interact with their deeply broken social and political structures.

I caught up on more dystopian fiction besides, finally reading 1984 and its mirror, We by Yevgeny Zemyatin. Both represent the railroad-track conclusions of totalitarianism, We being the more poetic of the two, a string of haunting images dwelling inside a disconnected narrative.

My experiences with self-published books had been universally poor up to this point, but I finally found one I could recommend without reservation: Books and Bone by Victoria Corva, about necromancers in an underground city that reminded me of certain parts of Death of Necromancer by Martha Wells, but with a gentler sensibility that somehow pairs well with all the gore.

Outside of the sff world, I at last read Pride and Prejudice and you know what? I found it delightful, though my positive reception of its many, many adaptations should have tipped me off. I was not expecting Mr. Collins, however, to be nearly as awful a human being as he was. Silence by Shusako Endo was the opposite of delightful: a very heavy exploration of what faith means set against the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan.

Another standout for historical fiction were Emma: A Victorian Romance and Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori, two manga set in Victorian England and 19th century Central Asia, respectively. The amount of care and research Mori puts into bringing these eras to life is astonishing, but it’s in the service of small stories and how individual lives intertwine with class structures and political struggles.

Television

So much for books, then. I finally bought a TV this year, so I at long last watched Avatar: The Last Airbender after abandoning it early in the first season some years ago. I am happy that I waited, since  think it took until now for me to truly be able to appreciate the strength of the writing in this series. What starts at a seemingly formulaic children’s adventure show soon abandons those pretenses and focuses on building its characters and complicating their relationships. The earlier struggle with the episodic format changes into assured, confident execution, and the climax of the final season is the best TV I have seen in a very long time. I now understand why my generation uses Avatar as the go-to example for fantasy at its finest.

Games

The long nights of this winter were largely occupied with Avatar in the evenings and playing computer games. Supergiant Games once again impressed me with Pyre, where you lead a sports team to glory in an ancient ritual. The characters are a wonderful mix of conflicting motivations and attitudes, paired with the gorgeous arts style I’ve come to expect from this developer.

Gris was a captivating platformer with spectacular visual design, a puzzle experience told largely without words. I am currently making my way through Return of the Obra Dinn, a bizarre mystery game that lovingly recreates the look of old adventure games on a Macintosh Classic while delivering an atmosphere and game mechanics that were probably beyond the capability of older systems.

Final

So those were the things I read, watched and played this year. I left off The Witcher and The Witch only because I have entire podcasts about those up online right now. Elsewhere, no short story publications to report. I have steadily been drawing and painting, but I’ve been training myself lately that I don’t need to share everything I make online. I’ve found it relaxing while writing, on the other hand, remains a struggle for publishable content, though I’ve belched out hundreds of pages of personal projects, which is an improvement.

I don’t expect to kick things up on this blog for 2021, but I’m allowing myself some hope that things will be better.

After 5 years of people yelling at me to see this film, we finally watch The Witch (2015).

Books mentioned:

  • Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs (1998).

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

Geralt’s butt.

Marie watched the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher! Michal indulges in his teenage obsessions. We end up comparing The Witcher to Dealing with Dragons.

Correction: At one point, we make it sound like Dandelion is the English translation of Jaskier. This is incorrect. Jaskier in fact means Buttercup.

The books.

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s website

My blog post about the Polish television series from 2002

Source of our theme song

Years after I read the book, I can finally articulate why my opinion on Station Eleven has grown more negative every year after I happened to tune into a radio interview with Emily St. John Mandel this morning about a completely different novel.

Station Eleven snaps back from its post-apocalyptic setting to a contemporary one and asks us to care about characters who are already far over-represented in mainstream Canadian literature, as if it connects in some way to the troupe of actors who otherwise centre the novel. In my mind, the two don’t connect, and the split focus that draws attention to its bourgeoisie cast speaks to a constricted sphere of experience. There is little reason for me to feel invested in the narrative thread of a failed actor and a comic book artist in the 2000-somethings when balanced against people fighting for survival in a post-pandemic future. It certainly doesn’t give any literary legitimacy to the other side of Station Eleven, which I (uncharitably) think is likely why Mandel constructs the story that way.

My favourite books often highlight a cross-section of societies in their settings. I often get annoyed at Can Lit in general for representing a very specific upper middle-class experience over any other. I see it when Guy Gavriel Kay, an author I otherwise enjoy, writes anything set in the modern-day real world, an assumption that his privileged background is a universal default and a blindness to how people outside that sphere don’t think about the world in the same way. It’s good he doesn’t write in that space often, then, and Mandel didn’t have to draw that thread either. But she does, and the book is a lot poorer for it.

A write-up for the current game I’m running. As it’s already out there online, so I thought I’d share it here as well. The setting sprang from my painting to the right.

I play using Risus: The Anything RPG. Write-up designed to hand out to players before character creation.

This setting is also available as a printable PDF on Risusiverse.

Background

Three hundred years ago came the Hammer’s Blow. An astral body came hurtling towards the earth with an impact so great the very continents were hurled into the sky. With it too came a large infusion of magical energies that permeated the shattered land.

Now, the world looks little like it once did. The habitable regions are floating islands of a myriad sizes, ruled by an amalgam of kingdoms, principalities, republics and city states. Few of these island nations have the resources to remain self-sufficient, and so many depend on the vital trade along the sky roads, traversed by airships run by powerful merchant families or the occasional daring adventurer.

A thick blanket of noxious mist called the Celestial Fog churns beneath the archipelagoes, but if one were to plunge beneath, they’d find the torn remnants of the world that was – a charred wasteland that never sees the sun, surrounded by deep ravines and bubbling seas of magma. However, even in these dangerous regions people have found a way to make a life for themselves, plundering the ruins of the ancients and learning the secrets of their advanced technology.

The player characters will be new members on the crew of am independent merchant airship called the Cloudfarer, under a certain Captain Sasha Waylend

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