Die, Vol. 3: The Great Game by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans & Clayton Cowles

Tho I’m a ginormous fangirl of both this series and its creative team, I must say that I’m glad that this installment was passed over for the Hugo nomination (for purely temporal reasons) because things definitely start to fuzz out of cohesion here.

So! Our intrepid heroes were originally, literally sucked into the twenty-sided world of Die back when they were bored teenagers more or less interested in playing a fantasy role-playing game run by their friend Sol. When they managed to emerge, somewhat the worse for wear, they found that years had passed and that Sol hadn’t returned with them. Almost three decades later, having grown older and wiser and sadder, they get pulled back in again by the lure of rescuing Sol. Trouble is, in order to leave Die for the real world once more, they all have to agree to go. They don’t.

Ash and Izzy, the Dictator and Godbinder respectively, want to stay in order to fix what they’ve done and to make Die a better world for its people. GriefKnight Matt and Neo Angela want to get the hell home. Chuck the Fool doesn’t really care either way, while Sol — or what’s left of him — is Ash and Izzy’s prisoner. While Ash and Izzy struggle to retain control of the land of Angria, Angela, Chuck and Matt go questing for fae gold in an attempt to gain enough power to stealth into Angria and, um, well, they don’t really have a plan (in a realistic reflection of many, many role-playing games.) Mostly, they’re trying to figure out how Die and the Fallen managed to exist before and separately from the game Sol started and what the implications of this are for the future.

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Clementine, Book One by Tillie Walden

It’s become vanishingly rare for there to be anything new to say about the zombie apocalypse. This book is no different, but will likely hit the sweet spot for fans of the subgenre, and especially for those who don’t think that there’s enough teenage angst already in the existing corpus.

In this expansion on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead universe, Clementine is on her own again, using crutches to compensate for the makeshift prosthetic she’s been using since losing her lower left leg. It’s after breaking this substitute leg that she reluctantly agrees to accept help from a nearby Amish settlement. The doctor there fits her up with a nice new prosthetic but she’s too wary to stay overnight, despite all the help they’ve freely given her.

While on the road north the next day, she crosses paths with Amos, an Amish teen who fought to be allowed to go on Rumspringa, the first of their community’s since the apocalypse shut everything down. He has a dream of traveling to a Vermont town to help rebuild a mountaintop hideaway, after which he’ll be rewarded with a real life plane ride. Clem is skeptical of all this, but eventually accepts a buggy ride and helps take turns driving and keeping walkers away. As the days pass, Clem starts to grow fond of Amos’ sunniness, not that she’d ever admit as much out loud. When they arrive in Vermont and find the mountain he’s been heading towards, she decides to stick around for a while just to make sure everything is legit.

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The Last Session Vol. 1: Roll for Initiative by Jasmine Walls, Dozerdraws & Micah Myers

So on the one hand, I love any book with an inclusive portrayal of role-players and depictions of how out of game dynamics can affect in-game performance. On the other, yikes, these people need to play something that isn’t Dungeons & Dra– I mean, Dice & Deathtraps. I guess it’s unfair of me to stereotype ppl who play only D&D as being predisposed to the wildly immature behavior on display here but woof, maybe try something that encourages less grandstanding than cooperation and it’ll help with the attitudes? Disclaimer: I run and play and enjoy D&D on the regular but have found that ppl who don’t care to diversify aren’t the best adjusted, ijs.

Tho I guess that since these are all basically college kids who first got together in high school, I can’t really expect a display of full-fledged maturity. And in fairness, Shen and Cassandra are both quite level-headed. I just… well, I felt a little personally angered by Lana’s character because, in my experience, players like her don’t change for the better. They enjoy gatekeeping and it takes A LOT more than what happens in this book to get them to grow up.

Anyhoo, the story is that Jay has been running a Dice & Deathtraps game for their friends — Drew, Lana, Shen and Walter — since the days of getting together for their high school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance. Now that Jay’s girlfriend Cassandra has moved to the East Coast, they want to introduce her to the game by inserting her Dragonkin Bard into this original, long-running campaign. Lana, Shen and Walter are on the cusp of moving away, and Lana especially is dealing with the idea of change poorly, lashing out at Cass for not being “good enough” at gaming to meet her bizarre standards. Everyone else starts sidelining Cass too, until catastrophe strikes the party because the rest of them ignored her character’s warnings. Can they salvage the campaign and fix their friendships before ruining everything for good?

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Chloe #6: Green Thumb by Greg Tessier & Amandine

Combining two volumes of the original series, translated from the French, this volume follows middle-schooler Chloe Blin as she navigates two very of-the-moment issues: environmental friendliness and cyber-bullying.

The first half of this book sees Chloe and her friend Mark roped into helping start an eco-friendly vegetable garden at school by their far more enthusiastic best friend Fatouma. While Fatouma is totally gung ho about everything to do with setting up the garden, Chloe is more half-hearted, especially when she realizes exactly how much work it entails. It doesn’t help that her nemesis Anissa has also been recruited for the project, and seems alternately more intent on making catty comments about everyone else or positioning herself the star of the show. But as Chloe slowly gets more into gardening, she also gets super bossy in the way only self-righteous middle schoolers can be. When an attempt to shame Anissa backfires, her school principal cancels the project and declares the garden off-limits. Can Chloe and her friends figure out a way to get him to change his mind?

The second story involves Chloe turning cyber-detective to figure out who’s harassing her classmate Miriam. When a video of Miriam slipping down the steps goes viral, she quickly becomes the target of mean jokes in real life and awful comments on social media. Kind-hearted Chloe leaps to Miriam’s defense but soon finds herself in the crosshairs of the main troll, who goes by the name LOL. Efforts to solve the issue on her own cause her to become secretive and start doing poorly in school. Will Chloe be able to overcome her own paranoia in order to unite a group of unlikely allies for the purpose of taking down this vicious internet bully?

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Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Across the Green Grass Fields is the first of Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series that I have read that’s entirely waywardness, and I liked it that way. There’s no mention of Eleanor West’s Home, nor do any of the characters from the previous five novellas in the series appear. I didn’t miss them at all, which I suppose means that I like my fantasy perfectly fine without a portal to tie it to this world.

McGuire’s main character, Regan Lewis, does need a portal. At seven, she sets great store in being normal, and she is a perfectly normal, happy child who likes reading, spinning until she gets dizzy, loves her parents and doesn’t even mind much that she doesn’t have any siblings. “But most of all, more than anything else in the world, more than even her parents (although thoughts like that made her feel so guilty the soles of her feet itched), Regan loved horses.” (p. 10) Fortunately, an unreasonable love of horses is an approved quirk because “strange was something to be feared and avoided above all else in the vicious political landscape of the playground, where the slightest sign of aberration or strangeness was enough to bring about instant ostracization.” (pp. 10–11)

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

That terrible fate is visited on one of Regan’s two best friends by the third in their charmed circle. One day Heather brings a small snake to school, and Laurel had been horrified. “‘What is that‘ Laurel had demanded, in the high, judgmental tone she normally reserved for bad smells and noisy boys.” (pp. 11–12) Heather’s joy at sharing something interesting with her friends turns into confrontation and an irreparable break as Laurel insists that girls don’t play with things like snakes. She pulls Regan away, and Regan doesn’t react quickly or strongly enough to mend the rip in the girls’ social fabric. In the months that follow, Regan sticks with Laurel. Even when Heather and her mother come to Regan’s house — and Regan’s own mother reminds her how cool she found holding a python at the fair — Regan chooses Laurel.

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The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

This is one of those books that I can appreciate, even if I don’t like it. And there’s a lot to like here, so maybe it’s just a me thing. I just… I feel like Cat Valente has a lot to process in terms of abuse and marriage, and that her issues spill out way too messily on the page for me to pretend that her writing isn’t a far too personal peek into a private life that requires a lot more therapy. I totally understand using fiction as a coping mechanism, but I feel more trauma-dumped than entertained every subsequent time she writes about a victimized woman or a fucked-up marriage, both of which feature in this novella.

I originally read the first part of this book, The Future Is Blue, in the excellent John Joseph Adams anthology Wastelands 3. TFiB is a striking short story: a young woman growing up on a floating trash barge in a post-apocalyptic Earth does something so terrible that she’s subject to unthinkable punishment. The Past Is Red moves some years into the future to see what’s become of that young woman, whether her actions were validated and how she survives.

So, first, what I thought was good: the use of Garbagetown as a metaphor for Earth, and the gentle admonishment against leaving it for pie in the sky promises. The critique of consumerism is also pointed and valid, and leads to much of the book’s humor, just in wry observation of how very unnecessary and over-the-top much of corporate branding and marketing is. And I very much liked the idea of our heroine Tetley as a futuristic Candide, tho she’s arguably more Panglossian given that she never rejects optimism, no matter how terrible her circumstances.

The mediocre to bad: the critique of survival mechanisms, and an inability to differentiate between rationing and hoarding, particularly for the purposes of political power. It felt like a clumsy critique of private health care, a deserving subject which was conflated here with the very existence of pharmacies, which exist for a very good reason! I was also a little annoyed at the mini-rants against private ownership when Tetley’s few belongings were both clearly valuable to her and things she was unwilling to cede to others.

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The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide: Expanded Genres Edition by James D’Amato

with the subsubtitle “Prompts and Activities to Create Compelling Characters for Horror, Sci-Fi, X-Punk, and More”

As an RPG nerd from way back, I was both deeply appreciative and somewhat perplexed by this book. I’ve never really had trouble dreaming up backstories for my characters, but can see how people with less active imaginations would find the many exercises and minigames in this guide to be super useful for filling out why their characters are the way they are when game begins. There’s even a helpful section in the book as to what to do in the event of a mid-game time jump, with players sitting around a table and drawing playing cards for prompts from the book (tho I’m unclear as to what James D’Amato means by making a visible break in the circle of cards. I assume that the cards are divided into stacks of four or are otherwise layered in some fashion?)

There were a few other sections where I was a little confused as to what was required of the reader. The strong and weak prompts for Standing Out In A Crowd in the Western section, for example, weren’t as clearly marked as they might have been. But overall this was a very thoughtfully designed handbook covering a variety of genres that, as the author notes, can be mixed and matched to accommodate the particular nuances of a game’s setting, using superhero prompts in a fantasy setting, for example, if you’re running a swords and sorcery story that involves secret identities. The language used throughout was also excellent, particularly in making this book feel welcoming for all players and reminding readers to avoid harmful tropes in our designs.

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Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora & Tamra Bonvillain

Oooh, Bridgette with a sword on the cover, y’all!

Inside however, as in prior installments, good old Gran is more comfortable with a gun, using it to good, if horrifying, effect when the titular parliament of magpies comes calling, bearing ominous news. She immediately calls her grandson, the reluctantly heroic Duncan, who says he’ll call Rose who, since she’s standing right next to him, calls him out on the little pause he always makes before lying. Rose and Duncan, after their failed first date and subsequent misadventures, have gotten closer, you see. But are they actually dating? This conundrum leads to a conversation that made my semantic-loving heart near overflow with pleasure. /nerd

Rose’s initial divination finds nothing awry, so with Duncan’s car totaled, she drives him up to visit Gran the next day on New Year’s Eve. They decide to follow a lead to the Lancelot Arms, in hopes of uncovering what the treacherous Mary had been up to prior to summoning King Arthur. Their interview with the inhabitants is violently interrupted (I shrieked with horrified glee when I realized by whom,) forcing Rose to get even closer to the Story when she realizes that she’s unwilling to let Duncan imperil himself further by taking on more than two roles out of legend. Bridgette has to admire her logic, even as she worries as to what she’s getting another innocent into. The fewer who know about all this mystic stuff, the better, after all.

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Hugo Awards 2022: Best Novelette Nominee

I’m a big fan of ordering my group reviews for the Hugos alphabetically, but what to do when my favorite is the very first of them? I haven’t had a chance to read much Suzanne Palmer, but I adored Bots Of The Lost Ark, which managed to pack a whole bunch of interesting and delightful surprises into its 20+ pages. Essentially, a sentient Ship is attempting to limp home to Earth after a succession of battles left it both damaged and wildly off-course. With another potentially deadly encounter on its horizon, Ship is forced to wake the troublesome Bot 9 in order to help it overcome the conflicts plaguing it internally before even being able to prepare for examination at the hands of the AI-distrustful Ysmi. The story is fun, inventive and funny. I loved it.

Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer, magazine coverSecond alphabetically is Caroline M Yoachim’s Colors Of The Immortal Palette, which I loved much less. I appreciate the fact that this novelette tries to grapple with what it means to belong and to matter when you’re not in the mainstream of society, but didn’t feel that it said anything particularly new or interesting, or that the supernatural conceit of longevity added anything to the story. It was fine, but probably at the bottom of my list of nominees this year.

Next up is Catherynne M Valente’s L’Esprit D’Escalier, which I was pleasantly surprised to find did not end by punishing the heroine, as I was fearing was becoming a habit with this author. This update of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was beautifully written and wonderfully observed, tho a large part of me would rather have had the story told from primarily Eurydice’s perspective.

Fourth on the list and in my esteem is Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s O2 Arena. The dystopian setting of underground fighters battling to the death to earn a fortune in oxygen credits in a world seared by pollution isn’t the freshest, and the ending of the piece a little too abrupt, but the depiction of bullshit patriarchal systems dominating in even supposedly enlightened academia hit home to me as someone who went through a similar system. I’m just… well, I always assumed that the trade-off for putting up with crap like that was at least a strong social net and a functioning system of medical welfare, particularly for the ill and disadvantaged, but apparently that’s not as common in Nigeria as in Malaysia, and that sucks. I greatly admired the passion behind this story, even if I think the craft still needs work.

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Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elder Race offers an extended meditation on Clarke’s Third Law, some thoughts on cultural contamination that are not new but are important to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s characters, all wrapped up in a fast-paced adventure of swords and sufficiently advanced technology. The novella is set on Sophos 4, a planet colonized by humans during the first interstellar flowering of Earth’s civilization, when generation ships were sent out into the cosmos. That effort proved unsustainable on humanity’s home planet and starfaring stopped, leaving the colonies to fend for themselves. Much later, a second wave of exploration began with the mastery of faster-than-light travel.

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Nyr, the first-person narrator of half of Elder Race was part of that second wave. As he puts it, “My name is Nyr Illim Tevitch, anthropologist second class of Earth’s Explorer Corps. I am centuries old and light years from home.” (p. 25) He was part of an expedition to Sophos 4 that observed the colonists’ descendants and sought to understand their cultures and developments without letting them know that they were being observed. The inhabitants of Sophos 4 had lost all of their advanced technology, retaining only myths of an origin from across the seas of night. Some of the colonists had been modified to breathe water as well as air, and these traits had become inheritable. Nyr’s expedition aimed to understand these changes, too, and what had happened in the generations since the first arrivals. At some point in the study, Nyr’s fellow scientists were recalled to Earth, and he was left to mind the store for what they thought would be a brief hiatus. Something happened, though, and they have not returned although centuries have passed. Even communications have stopped coming. Nyr is stranded, alone with the machines that were designed to study the planet, and which support him through many decades of stasis.

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