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When I bought a new laptop this year, the shiny HD screen lured me over to the world of digital art. I bought a Wacom Intuos tablet shortly afterwards and had a go at painting with a stylus. What’s really impressed me over the last few months have been the wealth of free and open source tools available for creative expression that are capable of some really impressive results. Not just for painting, either: Blender, InkscapeGIMP and LibreOffice are all catching up to their commercial counterparts, sport an appealing anarcho-punk approach to giving users complete control over their products, and are sometimes friendlier to use.

My tablet came with ArtRage Lite as the bundled software, but I found I didn’t get along with it. The heavy focus on reproducing the effects of physical media ran counter to what I wanted to do—take advantage of the freedom provided by the digital space to produce artwork that would be otherwise impossible or too time-consuming if I used the supplies in my “art box”. The user interface was also a major turnoff for me, performance issues proving the final straw. After some experimenting, I’ve settled on three painting programs for use with my tablet: MyPaint, Krita and FireAlpaca. (more…)

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The only times Tatsuhiro Satou ventures out of his tiny apartment are for the basic necessities of life, and even then, he doesn’t go far. 22 years old, a college dropout, unemployed and living off a meagre allowance from his father…Satou seemingly has no hobbies or interests beyond sleeping, staring at the walls, or getting drunk/high. He’s been like this for four years now, and while he berates himself and dreams up various schemes to become a “normal person” again, he inevitably ends up retreating into his constricted existence. The days flow by and his only comfort rests in bizarre conspiracy theories about how the world is out to get him. That is, until he bumps into a young woman named Misaki who makes him sign a contract to take part in a “special project” to reform his life.

The hikikomori phenomenon was starting to get major media attention in Japan when Tatsuhiko Takimoto wrote Welcome to the NHK! (2002). While this manifestation of alienation, social anxiety, and inability to deal with expectations is largely unique to Japan, the problems that lead to it are common enough in the western world. NHK is in part the author’s own attempt to come to grips with these issues, but is clearly also a personal expression of the yawning hopelessness the author himself once felt. The Afterward confirms that NHK is semi-autobiographical, “I felt as though I were taking my own shame and revealing it to the whole world.” Out of all I’ve read, it most closely resembles the middle section of Lanark: both by the main character’s depths of self-loathing and the honesty with which it touches on that character’s less savoury qualities. (more…)

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One charge often lobbed against secondary-world fantasy novels is that they don’t dwell on the economics of their imagined landscapes. What currency do the people use? Who grows the food? Who manufactured that cloak? The complaint strikes me as a little silly; most realist and historical novels I’ve read are similarly disinterested in these questions if they’re not directly tied to the narrative. I don’t see why the switch to an imaginary place suddenly makes the absence of economic matters a sin. The romantic tradition that influenced fantasy literature involves narratives that don’t, by and large, make economics a primary focus. Maybe our society frowns upon literary creations that seem overtly escapist when they don’t factor in the primary ideologies that run it–in North America, capitalism and economics; similarly, in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the spectre of Marxism. Or maybe the capitalist focus of our society makes dealing with those issues in fantasy seem like a path to being taken seriously in a genre that still isn’t very respected.

Which isn’t to say that narratives where economics play a huge part are boring or unsuitable for fantasy. I spent this summer reading the Spice & Wolf series by Isuna Hasekura, a 17-book series out of Japan that centres heavily on economics. Hasekura takes the high medieval setting of most western fantasy and makes the stories all about the nuts-and-bolts of trade and commerce that those stories usually elide. (more…)

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There are two books I read over the summer/autumn that I meant to write about at some length on this blog, but never actually did. With winter very close and the days shortening at an alarming rate, it seems as good time as any to get my thoughts about both of them out in one go.

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As an aside, I really love the design of this cover.

Children of Earth and Sky – Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

I should have enjoyed Kay’s latest more than I did, since it once again happens to enter an area of personal historical interest: the eastern Mediterranean in the late fifteenth century. I did enjoy it, for the most part, and the thematic echoes of his earlier Sarantine Mosaic are clear. There, Crispin travelled to Sarantium to create a mosaic commissioned by the Sarantine emperor. Here, Pero travels to then-Sarantium now-Asharias to paint a portrait of the grand khalif of the Osmanli Empire. Seemingly insignificant people put in positions where their decisions have grand historical consequences abound, as is usual for Kay, with a similar sense of crushing weight to history in its uncaring inevitability. That weight is most evident in the Osmanli (Ottoman) attempts to besiege Alternate-Vienna; foiled not by the actions of the brave Senjani soldiers we follow who trek to defend the Jaddite faith, but something as simple and fickle as the weather. The historical content is great, as usual, especially the depictions of a parallel Venetian court as well as in-fighting among the Ottoman sultan’s sons, and unlike Under Heaven or River of Stars, Kay feels free to move aside from “how things really happened” and explore his own scenarios, what-ifs and characters. Of those characters, Danica of Senjan, a female mercenary who wants revenge on the Osmanlis for destroying her family and who is literally haunted by the ghost of her grandfather, is the most compelling. (more…)

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Keith Miller’s The Book of Flying (2004) seemed like the language-focused, flighty (ha!) novel I was in the mood for, complete with a glowing blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin splashed on the cover. And it was that, to a certain extent: it read easily, evoking a dream-like, metaphor-heavy world devoted entirely to artistic creation, fully of lovely imagery and wonderfully weird landscapes. Still, there were aspects that grew more and more irritating as I read on, causing eye-rolls and muttering that ultimately overshadowed anything good I might have to say. It’s a set of problems I can’t attribute so much to Miller himself as to a literary culture bent towards expressing its own importance, telling us artistic production is important and meaningful but retreating from attempts to explain why. The Book of Flying is a book in praise of books, a story purporting to be “about” stories but really seems to be about something else entirely; that is, making the reader feel good about being bookish. (more…)

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Let’s review a vampire novel! Albeit a slightly unusual one.

From my Cold, Undead Hand (or, Chevonne Kusnetsov vs. the Sharp Teeth Krew) has vampires prowling near-future New York, infiltrating all levels of society in a well-worn vampire conspiracy. Chevonne Kusnetsov and a cell of clandestine resistance fighters are out to stop them by any means. (more…)

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Tide of Shadows and Other Stories is a slim collection, just five stories in all, and all but one unpublished until now. For such a modest ebook release, it got a lot of attention in the corner of the internet I dwell in: for many years Aidan Moher ran the Hugo award-winning blog A Dribble of Ink. The substantial network of authors, podcasters, reviewers and bloggers he built there gave this self-publishing venture a boost few others could dream of on a debut short story collection. I picked up a copy when the author temporarily released it free to all, which makes me a latecomer to the initial review-and-podcast push.

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