Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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The first time I encountered George Orwell’s 1984 was in an essay collection by Isaac Asimov I read when I was 11. It was the first thing I’d read by Asimov, it was the first essay in the book, and it was devoted to criticizing 1984 as a bad example of science fiction. It’s laughable to recall that essay now. Asimov was fixated on the Orwell’s failure to imagine technological advancement and how well it measured as a predictive text; he pushed an idea that science fiction attempts to accurately extrapolate the future. If you measure Asimov’s own work against that criteria, then he failed to write good science fiction too. And from the viewpoint of 2020, the situations have reversed: Asimov wrote the essay in actual-year 1984, and many of the social changes 1984 warns us about sank into daily life much later. 1984 became much more of a predictive text than Asimov’s in the 21st century, but we’ve ceased to measure it by the criteria.

Not to criticize Asimov too harshly on this point – there are other things that he deserves much more criticism for. In 1984, there was a vogue to write those kinds of comparisons when the year and title of the novel are largely arbitrary. The worst I can say is that Asimov’s essay meant I didn’t pick up 1984 on my own through high school. It was assigned reading in other English classes but not in mine, and I didn’t actively seek it out.

Time passed. It’s 2020. I have finally read 1984 for the first time.


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While fantasy novels promise the ability to reach the limits of our imaginations, it’s still not often that authors choose to tell stories with no humans in them at all. Estrangement is a common way to describe fantasy, but crossing the gap to completely alien biologies and societies puts more distance between a reader than just throwing in unfamiliar words, behaviours and cultures. I know plenty of readers thrown off by the first chapter of Dune just from the terminology used in the first chapter. Unless you map creatures against a clear historical human antecedent like the Edwardian dragons of Tooth and Claw, you need to put in some real effort to make readers accept and care about characters who don’t look like people.

This barrier comes up immediately in Martha Wells’s Books of Raksura. The main characters are a species of shape-shifting, flying humanoids who structure their society unlike any human one, and the entire vastness of the Three Realms likewise is packed with varied intelligent species who call the land, the water, the air, or the islands that also float up in the sky their homes.


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The Scott Pilgrim series (2004 – 2010) is one of the most influential things to come out of Canadian comics. It captures the thrust of new artistic movements in the medium and storytelling modes in the first decade of the millennium. Bryan Lee O’Malley draws on video games and manga for its form – the six volumes are all made to imitate Japanese comic releases from the size to the panel formatting – while still retaining a unique look that distinguishes it from its inspirations.


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Charles De Lint is highly prolific and has explored a wide range of styles, but Moonheart (1984) set the dominant flavour for his work. When you think of the name Charles De Lint, you think of a very specific kind of urban fantasy.


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My experience with novels that have multiple authors is always coloured by wondering what part belongs to whom, and how things would have shaken out under just one pen or another. Often, the voices of the people involved dampen each other instead of sharpening their quirks and thematic obsessions, such that I come away feeling something is missing from the collaboration.

The Steel Seraglio (2012)has three authors, but I didn’t encounter any of those difficulties as I read it. Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey seem to operate on the same wavelength, maybe helped since they’re a father-mother-daughter team. Despite its multi-narrative structure, it flows together seamlessly. Maybe this is helped by its imitative nature, trying to evoke the 1001 Nights and the 20th century fantasies that drew from that, particularly the short fiction of Borges and Lord Dunsany. A distant fairy tale voice gives the authors a stylistic goal.

The novel tracks an attempt to create a utopia in the desert, its too-brief golden age, and then its fall back into the sands. The sultan of Bessa keeps a large harem that’s exiled out of the city after he’s overthrown by an ascetic cult-leader. The members of the harem never reach their ordained destination, instead becoming an army that returns to take Bessa and make it “the city of women.”* Yet they carry with them their undoing, the last surviving heir of the sultan among their ranks who comes back to a new-forged civilization that sees no need for patriarchal structures, and certainly not for a new sultan to rule them.


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It’s hard to imagine the kind of circumstances and types of people that spurred on the intellectual achievements of classical Greece. While we admire Greek philosophers, the issues they discussed don’t come up all that often outside university campuses and late-night conversations. In modern life, philosophy has taken on a much smaller role in steering society, and we don’t tie together a broad range of activities like art, literature, biology, technology and the like under the same umbrella anymore.

Jo Walton, however, has gone ahead and tried to imagine a place where we would do these things in the three books that make up Thessaly (2017): The Just City, The Philosopher Kings and Necessity. These are very specifically books about Greek philosophy and the making of philosophers, tackling some of the most basic existential questions such as what is goodness, what is excellence, what is our purpose – and while Walton doesn’t provide universal answers, she centres the constant asking of these questions as the root to living a satisfying life.


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Phantomland by Maaria Laurinen perfectly captures the experience of being tossed into a new job head-first and feeling completely out of their depth. Notwithstanding that in this case, the job is joining an elite law enforcement unit that appears to only employ people who have already died.

This is a webcomic that clearly takes inspiration from the “big coat” fashion of Fullmetal Alchemist – just look at these jackets!

Yet that influence isn’t just aesthetic; it manifests in the impeccable paneling, expressive characters and equally expressive inking. The drawing skill on display is remarkable, as well as Laurinen’s grasp of composition and pacing.

Technical proficiency comes paired with characters the creator loves dearly. Chie is relatable as an apprentice who, underappreciated and underutilized, can’t deal very well with her insecurities on top of the amnesia that’s fundamental to becoming part of the “ghosts.” Jon is a grizzled veteran who hides trauma beneath a veneer of indifference and has no desire to be a mentor. Both are typical archetypes for a buddy cop story like this one, but they’re realized well and play off each other into a broader team dynamic as we’re introduced to other ghosts.

It’s obvious I really like Phantomland. It’s aims, at this point, seem simple – give readers a fun romp – but it’s executed so delightfully well I think more people need to read it.

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No other imagined world has generated as much illustration as The Lord of the Rings. Considering the sheer amount of artistic material to draw from, however, even before the live action adaptations came out in 2001, we already had a consensus “look” for Middle Earth in John Howe and Alan Lee’s paintings. Why the collective consensus for what Middle Earth should look like coalesced around these two has a host of factors, one being how prolific they were, how often they appeared on book covers and ancillary material, and the last being their obvious skill. Most later-day Tolkien artwork tends to follow their template. But there are multiple ways to interpret the text and it’s always a pleasure to move out from the soft edges and predominate greens of Lee and Howe to see alternative visions for the world.

Probably the best place to find these is A Tolkien Bestiary (1979). Quibble all you want with the content from David Day, who often gets criticized for poor research and making stuff up, but the bestiary is his finest work and is lavishly illustrated by artists who are not really known for their work representing Tolkien. The wildly differing styles manage to complement each other because they are so carefully-chosen to match their subject matter: meticulous stippling for the Riders of Rohan, jagged baroque ink for the landscapes of Mordor, flowing loose lines for the elves. This is a gorgeous showcase of very personal artistic takes on Middle Earth and I would love to see more like it – it left a huge impression on me as a teenager and remains my go-to example for impeccable art direction. The text is largely a secondary thing – there’s more colour to the descriptions than the thematically similar (and more accurate and exhaustive) Complete Tolkien Companion, but its real edge over other books of this type lies in layout and design.

The Tolkien Bestiary’s prime place in David Day’s career is evident from just how many times it’s been released under different titles (at least 8 from my last count) or repackaged through abridged editions that shuffle around the content and add maps or make formatting changes (An Atlas of Tolkien, The Heroes of Tolkien etc.). None manage to quite match the production excellence and beauty of the 1979 and 1984 editions.

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Rasputin’s Bastards (2012) has a promising start with a giant dying squid. It’s a squid-filled novel, though David Nickle does not go the expected route and delve into the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, his imitators, and the other tentacle-obsessed. Rasputin’s Bastards centres on much more personal horrors of being unable to grasp your own identity and humanity.


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