A Master Of Djinn (Dead Djinn Universe #1) by P. Djèlí Clark

P Djèlí Clark wrote two novellas set in this universe before A Master Of Djinn, and I think that if you preferred A Dead Djinn In Cairo to The Haunting Of Tram Car 015 then you’ll definitely enjoy this one too. Like the prior novellas, his first full-length book is about mystical goings-on in an alternate history, steampunk Egypt that shook off the colonizing yoke when Al-Jahiz, a Soudanese mystic, pierced the veil between worlds and allowed djinn and other creatures of legend to freely walk our mortal plane. Now Egypt is a burgeoning world power due to its enhanced citizenry. With any new source of industry, however, must come the requisite government oversight.

Enter the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, responsible for overseeing and regulating any legal issues involving same. Fatma el-Sha’arawi was once notorious for being its youngest female agent — and for a style of dress that screams young Western dandy — but has plenty of experience in solving supernatural crimes and saving the world. She prefers to work solo, but is often aided by her girlfriend, Siti, the Nubian worshiper of Sekhmet whose temple status seems to have lent her preternatural powers of her own. The last thing Fatma needs or wants is a rookie partner, in the form of fresh academy graduate Hadia, whose sky blue hijab hints at her less than conservative approach to a society where women traditionally wear more somber-colored head coverings.

Despite Fatma’s reluctance, their first official case together is the slaughter of an entire Brotherhood devoted to Al-Jahiz. Headed by Alistair Worthington, one of the richest men in Cairo as well as a prominent English citizen, the secretive Brotherhood collected items said to have belonged to the long-disappeared mystic. When Al-Jahiz himself reportedly turns up to one of their meetings to violently display his displeasure, the entire city looks poised to riot, as the same mystical figure is also making appearances in the streets, preaching against foreign interference and decadence. With an international peace summit scheduled just days away, Fatma and Hadia must get to the bottom of this before the impostor brings more bloodshed to the streets of their beloved country.

So here’s the deal: Mr Clark tries. I’m really glad that he’s writing Afrocentric, Islamophilic fantasy featuring strong female leads, with a rich and textured world-building that emphasizes harmony and compassion, while denouncing warmongering and slavery. Which, I think, is why the feminism often feels a bit college-level in comparison. This is an Egypt where almost all the women wear head coverings but are also totally encouraging of a woman who dresses in suits carrying on a lesbian romance with a worshiper of the old gods? While I personally think this is pretty awesome, I don’t understand why a fantasy environment like this one would also feature a heroine who flinches every time someone seemingly heteronormative comes into her daily orbit. Fatma has a lot of assumptions about Hadia that make it look like she has a lot of experience with asshole hijabi women judging her or worse for being who she is, but absolutely nothing about the setting as written lends itself to this tension. I was also not impressed with Hadia, at least not in the way I enjoyed how her counterpart, Onsi, proved himself to his superior, Hamed, in THoTC015. Hadia’s a bit of a complainer, and I wish Fatma too was as bold on the inside as she goes to such pains to appear. I totally understand putting up a brave front, but finely tailored Western suits in multiple color combinations are A Choice in the Egyptian heat, you know?

Also, I was extremely unimpressed by their detective skills. It was glaringly obvious as soon as they had the ledger entries who the bad guy was, so I spent most of the back half of the book waiting with varying degrees of patience for them to figure it out too. I did really enjoy how the world-building was extended to the European powers tho, which are learning how to harness their own native spirits, and I’m looking forward to reading more of this universe in future. I’m rather hoping the next book will feature Agents Hamed and Onsi, who seem less like awkward character ideas and more like actual people, both in their novella and in this book where they appear as supporting cast members.

A Master Of Djinn (Dead Djinn Universe #1) by P. Djèlí Clark was published May 11 2021 by Tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/17/a-master-of-djinn-dead-djinn-universe-1-by-p-djeli-clark/

Cool For The Summer by Dahlia Adler

On the one hand, this is a thoroughly lived-in YA romance with two bisexual leads, at least one of whom is struggling with her identity as someone who isn’t strictly heterosexual. Lara Bogdan was your typical mousy high schooler, with a clique of awesome friends and a raging crush on handsome, sweet Chase Harding, football quarterback and all-around American dream. But he’s never looked at her as anything but a friendly acquaintance till the start of senior year, when she’s returned to her New York suburb from a summer in the Outer Banks, looking and feeling like a new and improved version of herself.

First, there’s her tan, then there’s her awesome new haircut. More importantly, she carries herself with a newfound sense of confidence, born of a summer spent in the company of Jasmine Killary, her mom’s boss’ daughter. When Lara’s mom had told her that they’d be spending the summer in North Carolina, Lara had been pretty bummed. She had a sweet bookstore job lined up, as well as several lucrative babysitting gigs, all in service of filling up her car fund. But Lara’s mom hadn’t felt comfortable leaving her daughter alone for the summer while she went south to accompany her high-flying executive boss, and so Lara had to tag along.

Luckily, the Outer Banks were a lot more fun than she expected. Having a housemate her own age certainly helped, especially since Jasmine was both exceedingly cool and surprisingly considerate, bringing Lara to parties and introducing her to all her own summer friends and activities. And that was even before they kissed…

Back in Stratford in the fall, Lara is ready to resume life as usual. It’s a surprise when Chase suddenly starts paying attention to her, the culmination of nearly her entire life’s dreams. It’s an even bigger surprise when Jasmine walks through the doors of her high school, a senior year transfer who’d given Lara absolutely no warning of her arrival, and whose attitude towards Lara now seems to be that of an aloof stranger.

Lara has no idea what to do. She’s always loved Chase, but she can’t get Jasmine out of her head, even if Jasmine keeps sending her mixed signals. Should Lara just pursue the happily ever after with Chase that she’s been dreaming about for years, or should she try to figure out what’s going on with her and Jasmine?

I loved how Cool For The Summer, which Dahlia Adler freely admits refers to Demi Lovato’s hit song, really examined the thoughts of a confused teenager as she tries to make sense of her love life. Tough enough being in a love triangle without also questioning your own identity and fearing the reactions of your loved ones should they discover your same-sex attraction. What I didn’t love (and this is my on the other hand bookend to this review’s opener) was the frustrating use of the non-communication trope. There would have been a lot less silly angst if Lara had just texted Jasmine a “hey, can we talk?” after Jasmine shows up in New York. There was certainly enough angst going on even without avoiding the “do you still like me and want to be together?” talk. The only reason I could forgive the use of the trope was the fact that these are teenagers we’re talking about, and if ever there was an age for jumping to conclusions and assuming the dramatic worst, it’s definitely adolescence.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed this tale of exploring your sexuality and learning who you are and who you really want to be. It was really great that everyone was basically a decent human being, and I loved all the diverse representation as well. Was also pleased that the ending bucked the trend of recent bi/questioning books I’ve been reading — all said endings have been equally valid and delightful, but it’s nice to bring balance to the force.

Cool For The Summer by Dahlia Adler was published May 11 2021 by Wednesday Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/14/cool-for-the-summer-by-dahlia-adler/

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

It’s weird feeling like I’m perfectly suited to review this book as a diaspora Malaysian but also feeling inadequate to review this book for that very same reason. The experience of reading Black Water Sister was like stepping back into old, comfy clothes and wandering around my hometown, but a small part of me was squinting at my own familiarity from the outside, wondering if my history was doing too much work filling in the gaps in this gripping urban fantasy/horror novel. “What gaps?” the happy part of me argues, to which the critical part responds, “Exactly!” Can I even find any flaws — any incongruencies, anything an intelligent person might not be able to reasonably infer — when my own background autofills any missing details before I can even register them?

So I’m going to lean into my Malaysian heritage instead when reviewing this book, with apologies to anyone who might find the culture or language difficult to relate to or comprehend. I want to believe that this is an accessible book to all readers, but the fact that I’m even having this internal argument gives me pause. What I can confirm is that this book is 100% authentic Malaysian, from the Manglish to the weather to the mores, good and bad. The cadences of the language are both correct and, when translated to English in the text from the original languages, elegant. The attitudes towards race and religion and sexuality map perfectly with Malaysia in the 21st century, showing off my mother country respectfully but honestly. Zen Cho does a brilliant job of presenting Malaysia as it is, a country of many influences jostling together in search of harmony, an imperfect union that keeps striving towards respect and coexistence.

Which also makes it the perfect setting for this tale of a young woman trying to find herself while beset by supernatural forces. Jessamyn Teoh grew up in America but moved back to Penang as an adult with her aging parents. Closeted and unemployed, she’s still trying to find her footing in an unfamiliar country where the weather alone can drain the unaccustomed into lassitude. Her girlfriend wants her to get a job in and move to Singapore where they can be together, but Jess is worried that her parents are too fragile for her to move that far away. The last thing Jess expects or needs is to suddenly start hearing a voice that claims to be the spirit of her recently deceased, estranged grandmother.

Ah Ma is not the kindly sort of grandma. Jess’ mom had discouraged any sort of relationship between Jess and her own mother, which is why it comes as a surprise to Jess to learn that Ah Ma was a spirit medium in life, and kind of an awful person. Worse, Ah Ma expects Jess to follow in her footsteps, with regard to religion at least. While Jess has been feeling pretty rudderless since moving to Malaysia, she’s pretty sure that that’s not the life she wants, especially when Ah Ma’s post-mortal machinations involve seeking revenge against a local tycoon and invoking the considerable power of the malevolent Black Water Sister. Jess’ life is complicated enough without becoming the vessel for vengeful spirits, with the constant threat of losing her own life in the process.

I can’t explain how wonderful it was to read this book, a contemporary, polished repackaging of the Malaysian horror pulps I read as a teenager eager for everything supernatural. It is, quite frankly, a perfect framing. Jess has always felt like an immigrant, whether in the US or Malaysia, and her “outsider” point of view lends itself well to a story of alienation and rage, as she grapples with Ah Ma and Black Water Sister breaching the bonds of mortality itself to make sure they are remembered, and if not understood then at least respected or feared. Jess’ POV is also great for subtly critiquing the worst of Malaysian excesses, whether it be corruption or exploitation, while also appreciating the unique spirit of multiculturalism that has Bangladeshi Muslim construction workers praying to a Malay spirit in a Chinese cosmology for protection. BWS is a perfectly Malaysian book, portraying the eternal tension between then and now, between development and superstition, between being your own person and caring for your family, and I felt so at home reading it. But also, it is a universal book about growing up and finding out what’s important to you and learning and modeling empathy and kindness, while overcoming your fears and learning how to use your righteous anger to stand up for yourself. Frankly, I loved it, and I hope you will too.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho was published today May 11 2021 by Ace Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/11/black-water-sister-by-zen-cho/

Fearless World Traveler: Adventures Of Marianne North, Botanical Artist by Laurie Lawlor & Becca Stadtlander

I thought I had a fairly good knowledge of obscure Victorian women who became explorers against the odds, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn of yet another one via this beautiful picture book for children (tho I continue to be chagrined by eras and societies that deny people opportunities on the basis of sex alone.) Marianne North was a self-taught naturalist and painter whose vivid oil studies, often completed in situ while racing against light and weather, not only made waves in her own day but continue to impress in one of the longest continuing solo exhibitions by a woman, in a gallery dedicated to her works at Kew Gardens.

Ofc, it helps that she came from money and basically funded renovations to the Kew that allowed for same, but her works do stand on their own merit. Several are included in the gorgeous endpapers for this already sumptuous volume, and it’s hard not to be entranced by her artistry and especially her use of color. I can only imagine how Victorians trapped in smog and greyness must have felt when confronted with such riotous, lush beauty, tho the anecdote about witchcraft at the end gives me a fairly good idea.

Laurie Lawlor does an excellent job of telling Ms North’s story simply and without bias, acknowledging the aspects problematic to modern readers while still conveying how groundbreaking and impactful Ms North’s actions were and continue to be. Becca Stadtlander’s illustrations are for the most part perfectly suited to the text. Her depictions of tall, shy Marianne and her family are lovely, and while her depictions of wildlife pale in comparison with her subject’s, who can cast aspersions on anyone following in those illustrious footsteps? Ms Stadtlander wisely uses a different art style entirely, so it all balances out. I did, however, think it an odd misstep that the pictures of Marianne traveling through territories alien to Victorian society were entirely devoid of any local guides or bearers. I can see where she might be riding solo with only a pack horse for company, but have a hard time believing she’d pole her way through crocodile infested waters alone, much less ride a laden elephant by herself. It’s weird to see the pictures ignore the help the text acknowledges. Please don’t erase indigenous peoples. Visibility matters.

That said, this was a beautifully put-together, highly informative — though light, given its intended audience — biography of a botanical artist whose name and contributions deserve to be better known. I also enjoyed the extra material at the end that encourages readers to find out more about this remarkable woman. I got my ten year-old to buddy read this with me, and we both liked it, with him noting that the art was really good (and inspiring!) throughout.

Fearless World Traveler: Adventures Of Marianne North, Botanical Artist by Laurie Lawlor & Becca Stadtlander will be published tomorrow May 11 2021 by Holiday House and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/10/fearless-world-traveler-adventures-of-marianne-north-botanical-artist-by-laurie-lawlor-becca-stadtlander/

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

This book reads like a corporate war manga as told from the perspective of the plucky ace/aro civilian sidekick who’s the bridge between the corporate super soldiers/heroes and the public kept in the dark about what the evil megacorps are doing, both to the super soldiers (called SpecOps here and given only numbers as identifiers) and to the general populace. Mal is your typical 22nd century 20 year-old, long orphaned in a corporate war, juggling several gig jobs to survive while sharing what was once a hotel room with at least five other people. One of her jobs is live streaming play in BestLife, the massively multiplayer online game where she struggles to make a dent in the leaderboards while playing the War version (as opposed to the Fantasy or Sci-fi settings.) The War version is mapped to the real world where she lives, with the main draw of the setting — besides providing an outlet for people jonesing for realistic violence — being the occasional sightings of the dozen SpecOps NPCs, based on the corporate androids developed by Stellaxis, the corporation that controls water, to combat the mechas of Greenleaf, the rival corporation that controls food.

The SpecOps are both elusive and wildly popular, with fanbases and lines of merchandise both in-game and in the real world. After Mal streams a sighting of 28, she and her best friend and teammate Jessa are summoned by an unknown sponsor to get more up-close footage of the SpecOps. Thing is, their new sponsor B is convinced that the SpecOps aren’t highly realistic androids at all but are actually kids Stellaxis got away with kidnapping and experimenting on because everyone who knew them had died in one of the many devastating attacks on Stellaxis land.

At first, Mal and Jessa refuse to believe B, but take the job because she’s paying in water rations, probably the most valuable currency in New Liberty City. But when B disappears, and Mal runs into the real-life versions of 06 and 22 while looking for her, the two friends realize that maybe Stellaxis hasn’t been telling the entire truth after all, and that there’s far more to B’s story than they’d previously acknowledged.

Mal makes for an unusual heroine: kind but antisocial, determined but not the smartest. Her crush on 22 is never really explained, but she has a hard time explaining herself generally. And honestly sometimes who can explain a crush! Her strongest trait is the fact that she’ll push herself past the point of exhaustion in order to do what’s right, even in the face of overwhelming odds (with my one quibble being that anyone who regularly hikes up and down 6 flights of stairs on the daily has no business calling themselves out of shape, not unless it’s a struggle every time.) Fortunately, Mal is surrounded and supported by some real badasses, including the irrepressible Jessa, as she sets about fomenting a revolution and getting to the bottom of what Stellaxis is doing both to New Liberty City and to her beloved 22.

The social commentary was easily my favorite part of this book, as Nicole Kornher-Stace criticizes the idea of corporate-owned nation-states and the ways in which capitalism and fascism intersect. I also loved that she emphasizes a lesson I’ve only learned in the last year or so, that the adage “a poor craftsman blames his tools” is as much smug bullshit as “money can’t buy happiness.” Bad tools are a handicap in the same way that modern poverty is: not only do they make you think you’re a bad craftsman/undeserving person, they also actively discourage you from trying harder and discovering your true potential. Good tools can be life-changing, and anyone who pretends otherwise is protecting entrenched interests at the expense of everyone else.

That said, Firebreak does suffer from the fact that Mal often feels more like a supporting character than a main. I loved the #OwnVoices representation but found Mal’s awkward, antisocial personality difficult to mesh with. And that’s fine! She’ll definitely connect with lots of people who aren’t me, and the ideas and plot of the book otherwise are both thought-provoking and entertaining, tho it certainly helped to keep in mind the manga concept as I read.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace was published May 4 2021 by Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/07/firebreak-by-nicole-kornher-stace/

Toasty by Sarah Hwang

So pleased to begin celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Month here at The Frumious Consortium with this surrealist delight of a children’s book! Toasty is a piece of toast who loves dogs and really, really wants to be one himself. He has a collar and a sparkly ball, but his first actual foray from home to make doggy friends at the park does not go as planned. Spoiler alert: all’s well that ends well, tho certainly not in the way Toasty expected.

My kids are OBSESSED with object animation shows, so I knew this book was going to be right up their alleys (even tho the twins have a perpetual antipathy to dogs due to their love-hate relationship with our aging bichonpoo.) My ten year-old, especially, giggled his way through reading the entire book. “The plot was random but I loved it,” was his final verdict.

The plot was, indeed, fairly random (but adorable!) as it centers Toasty’s desire to belong and to be loved. Sarah Hwang’s debut as an author presents universal themes in a manner light enough for young children to grasp. Her art looks deceptively simple, with broad, visible strokes that evoke the drawings of her young readers, but is crammed with expressiveness and lacks any of the murkiness that is the occasional drawback of the quasi-fauvist art style.

A delightful debut, with silliness balancing out the heavier themes of belonging and love. I’m really looking forward to reading and sharing more of Ms Hwang’s work with my kids in future.

Toasty by Sarah Hwang was published May 4 2021 by Holiday House and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/06/toasty-by-sarah-hwang/

Hurricane Summer by Asha Bromfield

There is a LOT going on in this book, and some of it is really good and some of it is really bad, but I definitely looked up the age of the author after this and I’m genuinely convinced that in a decade or two, she’s going to come back to this book and wince because there’s so much she gets right but so, so much that she doesn’t understand how to write quite yet. And I’m not saying that 26 year-olds shouldn’t write books: Asha Bromfield clearly has a lot of talent and a lot to say. But after reading this, I genuinely don’t think that she’s finished processing her traumas yet in a way where she’s actually forgiven the people who hurt her given the way she forces our heroine Tilla to forgive, and so the denouements feel more forced and shallow than they might in, say, fifteen years, when she’s finally come good with what happened to her.

(I am not a doctor, I only play one on TV*.)

Hurricane Summer is the story of the summer of 2008 in Jamaica, immediately before, during and after one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit the island. Tilla is 18 years old, and sent away from Canada with her nine year-old sister to spend the summer with her father in her parents’ homeland of Jamaica. Tilla’s parents have a strained marriage, with Tyson floating in and out of his family’s lives, traveling back and forth between countries. As the story begins, Tilla and Mia haven’t seen their dad in over a year, but he’s keen to have them visit and learn about their culture, pooh-poohing their mother’s concerns about the dangers of hurricane season.

It’s culture shock almost immediately as the girls land, as their dad keeps them waiting for almost an hour before picking them up. After love bombing them, he spirits them off to the countryside instead of to his Kingston home, dumping them to stay with their country cousins before hightailing back to the city himself. While their grandparents and boy cousins are happy to have them there, the rest of the family takes a much dimmer view, from their bitter Aunt Herma to menacing Uncle Junior. Cousin Diana, who’s about the same age as Tilla, initially seems to take the “foreigner” under her wing but soon makes it clear that they’re going to be frenemies at best, even before Tilla meets Hessan, the cute guy Diana regards as her own.

When Tilla isn’t foolishly falling in lust with Hessan, she’s exploring the island with her cousin Andre, who introduces her to the best of Jamaica, including one memorable scene in the middle of the hurricane. But it’s also Andre who opens her eyes, however unwittingly, to the colorism and sexism of Jamaican society. As her summer lurches from one disaster to the next, Tilla needs to overcome heartbreak and claim her own identity independent of the men she loves who fail her over and over again.

First of all, I want to scoop Andre out of these pages and put him somewhere safe where he’ll never be hurt again. I want to nurture and protect that sweet shining soul, and I’m only going to imagine the best and most wonderful things for him. He’s one of the loveliest fictional creations I’ve encountered this decade.

I wish I could say the same for anyone else in this book, including poor Tilla. It’s just hard to believe that at the age of 18 she’s never had a best friend, and that she’s still so pressed about a dad who’s been a fucking deadbeat for years. So much of what happens reads like she’s a 13 year-old aged up to make some of the situations more “appropriate” for a YA novel (and more on this in a bit.) It’s also really hard to imagine that anyone this passive would suddenly grow a spine and tell as many people off as she does in the end. I just… there’s been a trend in contemporary literature lately of girls who just do whatever guys say despite their own wishes and despite not owing the guy, usually a virtual stranger, a goddamn thing. Ladies! You are allowed to say no! You are allowed to not put yourself into dangerous positions! You are allowed to not be polite when all your radars are going off!

Because lots of bad shit happens to Tilla when she doesn’t listen to her internal danger sense, stuff that makes me really hate that this book is shelved as YA. Sexual pleasure and assault are both treated in a way that feels more graphic than it needs to be for this genre. This is a grown up book about grown up problems, and it is weird as hell to see it cynically marketed for readers who may not be ready for all that.

It’s also weird to see Tilla just not understand Patois, which anyone who speaks English should be able to pick up easily from context clues. I get not being able to speak it, but needing to ask the meaning of “wha gwan” (what’s going on), “mongrel” (dog) and ffs “shop” (shop!) is just bizarre and makes her seem extremely childlike. Which leads to my (other) main criticism of the book: that Jamaican culture and society is overwhelmingly portrayed as abjectly terrible. Except for Andre and several minor characters, everyone is outright awful. Tilla proclaims that she loves Jamaica and feels it running through her spirit, but you get the feeling that she kinda hates all the people? But radically forgives them, as she says in one of the opening dedications, or something?

In the same way that I rail against the North American concept of niceness, I also rail against the idea that you have to forgive people, especially if they make no attempts at amends. While we owe it to society to be the best people we can possibly be, we do not owe it to individual people to not hold them responsible for their bad actions. If someone hurts you, you are under no obligation to let them think they can keep doing it. Abusers and their enablers will tell you over and over again that YOU need to be the better person, when it’s on THEM to change. Being good does not mean allowing other people to get away with harmful behaviors!

Yet for all that I rail against the cultures that put Tilla through this absolute hell of a summer — and look, I know it’s empowering to think that YOU’RE the hurricane and you get to go home while these people pick up the pieces, but YOU’RE not the rapist or the people who encourage and excuse him while slut-shaming you, and you don’t need to minimize your own pain just to make life easier for other people! You deserve to take up space! You matter! — I cannot deny the power of this story. It is brutally honest and wonderfully observed, and the fact that I’m so overwrought with advice and love for Tilla and women and girls like her speaks to how vividly this book is written. It has its flaws, for sure, but I wish only the best in healing for Ms Bromfield, and hope she takes comfort in knowing that she’s built an incredible monument here to Andre and his friendship and love. She and I may not agree on radical forgiveness (which, btw, is not uniformly applied in this book, as if even she doesn’t really believe in it) but I 100% believe in the power of the radical empathy she puts on display here.

*This is an old joke, a protomeme, if you will, from 1984 (the year, not the book. Sigh. Whippersnappers.)

Hurricane Summer by Asha Bromfield was published yesterday May 4 2021 by Wednesday Books, and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/05/hurricane-summer-by-asha-bromfield/

Odyssey Of The Dragonlords — Players Guide by James Ohlen, Jesse Sky & Drew Karpyshyn

As I look forward to being fully vaccinated — two shots down and waiting for those antibodies to spool up, baby! — I’ve been itching to play more tabletop role playing games than just my current three hours a week, twice a month or so local game. It’s a fun D&D game, a homebrew fantasy with light steampunk elements, and nothing beats the convenience of everyone living in a five-minute-drive radius from one another (even tho we’re all playing over Zoom still and for the foreseeable future.) Scheduling, however, is a constant pain. Plus, as someone who used to game regularly twice a week, twice a month feels like the bare minimum of nourishment.

So when an old friend asked if I was interested in joining an Odyssey Of The Dragonlords game, I nearly fell over myself to say yes. To be frank, D&D is not my favorite system, but no one plays my favorite flexible d10 roll and keep systems any more, so I’ll take what I can get. Since I was already familiar with the basics of D&D, I was told that I only needed to read this player’s guide, downloadable as a free pdf (at least for now) from Modiphius Entertainment. I was also told that the setting was vaguely Ancient Greek, but in more of a Clash Of The Titans style than actual historical mythology.

And, y’know, I didn’t know what to expect honestly, but it certainly wasn’t this beautiful, professional package full of meaty plot hooks and flavor! The three-page character sheet in the back alone is a gorgeous meld of function and art, and I’m itching to print it out on some of the antiqued paper I’ve been hoarding. As for the supplement’s text, while there are parallels to the established Greek history and pantheon, the deities are entirely original, and the story and world-building tension uniquely first class. As a testament to how absorbing the new playable races are, for this campaign I’m stifling the whimpering protests of my inner minmaxer and building a Siren Barbarian who has All The Feelings. After I told the Discord chat my character concept, they suggested I eventually take the Barbarian Path Of The Storm Herald, the Sea aspect of which is just going to be the best flavor for making the most of my bipolar girl’s background and abilities. Her journey going forward will be loosely based on finding a way to positively manage and channel her emotions, given the unfortunate lack of pharmaceutical mood stabilizers and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in fantasy settings. I’m just so pleased that a predisposition to mental illness is presented here as inherently non-villainous, and just as much a part of a hero’s makeup as her wings or religious leanings.

I can’t say anything yet about how this setting and the new rules work as a play experience, but as a reading experience, it’s incredibly rich, absorbing material for flexing one’s imagination. Supplements like this make me so glad Wizards Of The Coast decided to go back to using an Open Gaming License in 2016, as it really allows for more people to get into the game while encouraging a community of creatives to give players a reason to buy more of the source material. While I’d ideally prefer to play something non-D&D eventually, books like this leave me content with the system and willing to overlook some of its most egregious failings (I mean, no merchant skill, wtf is up with that?!) in order to enjoy a great collaborative storytelling time with friends.

Odyssey Of The Dragonlords — Players Guide by James Ohlen, Jesse Sky & Drew Karpyshyn was published March 3 2020 by Modiphius Entertainment and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/05/03/odyssey-of-the-dragonlords-players-guide-by-james-ohlen-jesse-sky-drew-karpyshyn/

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I’m gonna preface this by saying that I’m sure there are tons of readers who love this book, who just adore this Belle Epoque-inspired fantasy romance novel. And I’m glad for readers who find joy and comfort in its pages. But if you, like me, find shitty historical romance tropes utterly tiresome to the point of frustration, then please do read on as I complain about how, as in the perennial classic subReddit Am I The Asshole?, Everyone Sucks Here. Not even Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s delicately tuned writing, a convincing pastiche of Georgette Heyer and her ilk, can save this book from being a deep disappointment.

I mean, I can get over the absolutely ridiculous idea that telekinesis — or psychokinesis as it’s called here — is viewed merely as sport for the lower classes, and that Hector Auvrey, our “hero”, has made a fortune from entertaining with it but has never been conscripted by an army. And I can get over how that and an altered geography are the only fantastical elements in this otherwise bog standard historical romance. I simply cannot get over the weird misogyny underlying everything in this book, especially with poor Valerie.

Here’s a precis: Hector and Valerie were once engaged to be married, and he went abroad to make his fortune. She said she’d wait, but after several months? years? of withstanding the pressure from her impoverished, if noble family, she finally agreed to marry the wealthy, dull Gaetan Beaulieu, in hope of reviving her family’s fortunes. A decade passes and Hector, having amassed his riches, returns to Loisail to fling his wealth in Valerie’s face. But how to get close to her family? He decides he’ll start by courting Gaetan’s unsophisticated cousin, Nina, in an effort to ingratiate himself into the Beaulieu household. Nina falls for worldly, handsome Hector like a ton of bricks, so when she discovers that he loves Valerie — who rebuffs him because she’s fearful of the love she bears him, a love that would cause her to repudiate reputation and good sense to have him — Nina is understandably heartbroken. Only Hector then realizes that he actually loves Nina. And Valerie is pissed to discover this, so decides she’s going to do whatever it takes to keep them apart.

It’s weird because Ms Moreno-Garcia does a really good job at first of sympathetically portraying Valerie, forced by her family to marry a man who does the bare minimum to help them, instead lavishing her with expensive gifts that she can’t convert into funds to help float her relatives. Gaetan doesn’t care about Valerie’s interests, whines when she has migraines that cause her to back out of social engagements — that he huffily refuses to attend solo because he’s apparently a huge baby — and spoils his own cousins in sharp contrast to hers. When this idiot finally realizes that Valerie never loved him, he exiles her from Loisail, and we’re supposed to feel vindicated, like her entire life hasn’t been one long string of punishments already. And yeah, she does go over the top in trying to marry Nina off in a way that will benefit her own family, and to punish Hector for having the temerity to be in love with someone else, but the latter especially felt less organic than a “how can we make readers hate the ex-girlfriend?” device. You know, maybe romance novels don’t fucking need cliched female villains. Maybe, if we’re writing a romance novel about telekinetics, we can also stretch the expectations of genre readers by not having the ex go from restrained, tragic figure to vulgar, shrieking harpy.

And oh sweet babby Jebus, I wanted so much to like Nina, but all her “I’m not like other girls” bullshit was only in the service of the romance plot. I spent the first 70% of the book desperately hoping that she’d kick Hector to the curb and go be a badass entomologist who’d later fall in love with someone worthy of her, once she’d matured and gone through a few more heartaches. But nope, she bucks convention primarily to choose Hector, who is one of the least interesting sopwit leads of a romance novel I’ve ever had to endure. I’m still not entirely sure why he loves Nina. I think it’s a combination of her long, pretty hair and the fact that she’s the only eligible woman available for him to imprint on when he falls out of love with Valerie. Since Nina is also justifiably rejecting him at the time, the idiot gets into another cycle of stubbornly pursuing a woman who’s told him to leave her alone. What that guy needs is therapy, not an ingenue wife.

Anyway, this was an extremely frustrating read, and probably not the best way to begin my experience with Ms Moreno-Garcia’s oeuvre. I’m hoping the two other novels I have scheduled of hers to review this year are far less infuriating, as I’ve heard good things about several of her other works.

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was published April 27 2021 and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/30/the-beautiful-ones-by-silvia-moreno-garcia/

Beatrice Bly’s Rules For Spies: The Missing Hamster by Sue Fliess & Beth Mills

This absolutely charming picture book series debut follows young Beatrice Bly as she applies herself to the business of being an investigative spy. Armed with her notebook and, more importantly, her keen powers of observation, she’s solved many a household mystery, tho no one save her best friend knows her true vocation.

When the class hamster Edgar goes missing one day, all the other students are shocked and saddened. Beatrice, however, sees this as the perfect opportunity to use her skills for the greater good. While everyone else goes on the usual if ineffective hunt for the missing pet, Beatrice follows the clues… but how far will she go, and what will she discover at the end?

A large part of the charm of this terrific tale comes from Beth Mills’ delightful illustrations. Entire wordless pages describe several of Beatrice’s pre-Edgar exploits with an expressiveness that packs so much information into a form easily digestible by kids and admired by more advanced readers. It felt less like reading a book than enjoying an animated series: that’s how wonderfully her illustrations flow. Sue Fliess’ writing partners perfectly with the art, telling this sweet, funny story without overloading young readers, while still presenting a smart, empowering tale that had even a veteran mystery reader like myself both enthralled and impressed. It’s hard to believe how much story the authors manage to pack into a mere 32 pages!

Which, hilariously/annoyingly, was one of the first questions my eldest asked me when I told him we were doing buddy reads yesterday evening. “Is it less than fifty pages?” he wanted to know before he’d consent to join me. As I’ve told my husband, the greatest regret of my life is the fact that my kid isn’t the voracious reader I was at his age and still am today. That said, Jms really got into the book and rated it highly, particularly admiring Beatrice’s intelligence in tracking down Edgar. My personal favorite part — that he didn’t really understand because he’s always had short hair — was how Beatrice ties her hair back when she’s about to get some serious spying on. Ah, well, there’re lots of things he’ll understand better when he’s older.

Highly recommended for the independent reader in your household, and well worth a look in from adults who enjoy mysteries and want to share that love with the kids in their lives.

Beatrice Bly’s Rules For Spies: The Missing Hamster by Sue Fliess & Beth Mills was published April 6th 2021 by Pixel+Ink and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/29/beatrice-blys-rules-for-spies-the-missing-hamster-by-sue-fliess-beth-mills/