Archives for category: Fiction

Last year I signed up for Audible for the sole purpose of listening to the new audio version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. And I enjoyed it greatly, even though it comprised only a small portion of the 75-issue comic that ran between 1989 and 1996. I think there must have been a selection process to determine whether there was sufficient interest to cover the whole thing. The first release included Morpheus’ first trip into hell, the brutal Collectors episode, Calliope, Facade, The Dream of a Thousand Cats, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But wait! What about Orpheus, Augustus, and The World’s End? Well, fast forward to a few months ago when Audible released Sandman Act II.

Ah, there we find some more of my beloved favourite stories. It seems like they’re working around to doing the whole thing. Eventually. In Act II, we meet Orpheus (in the French Revolution-set Thermidor – Where do you hide a severed head?) and having met his mother in Act I.

In general, they’re doing a good job of telling the essential stories – there are so many characters and there’s so much rich storytelling in Gaiman’s original material (not to mention in Gaiman’s own source material, which includes Shakespeare, Greek mythology, science, fiction, and the mythologies that make up a lot of history) that planning this out required a lot of choices regarding order and the transition from illustrated storytelling to audio. When the original run of Gaiman’s Sandman concluded in 1996, it was obvious that its conclusions had been in mind from very nearly the beginning (this remains a spoiler-free zone, note). Almost everyone we meet has a role.

My main issue, has to do with that very transition. When you read a graphic novel, there’s no reason to describe all the characters – we can see them. What we get in the audio drama is a lot more exposition than perhaps the story needs. We know what Dream and Death, Desire and Despair look like from their first descriptions. There’s no need, usually, to repeat. And it’s okay for the listener to fill things in that are left out of the text. These stories are especially strong and, mellifluous as Gaiman’s voice is, this kind of exposition could have been trimmed in favour of more showing. (I’ll note that being familiar with the source material, I can picture a lot of the story based in the original illustrations. I do wonder what listeners coming to this without the prior experience think.)

Having finished the last couple chapters (The Hunt, Soft Places, The Parliament of Rooks, and Ramadan), I’m overall very pleased with the production values, the acting, and the script. My gripes regarding exposition are minor. I think a lot depends on the story. I didn’t feel the descriptions were problematic or overtaking the stories as the audiobook progressed.

It’s interesting how the people working on this have balanced the overarching story with pieces that are one-offs in context. The framing of Three Septembers, for example, provide some background on the conflict between Dream and Desire. The last four stories are all self-contained, but provide more context about who Dream is. Weirdly, Act II’s centerpiece, A Game of You, only has a couple of scenes with Dream at the very end. And it can be hard to see how it fits into the greater narrative. (In this moment it comes to me that it bears a structural affinity to The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Sherlock Holmes only shows up at the very end.)

In considering the stories not yet shared in audiobook form, I wonder if a forthcoming Act III or Act IV will cover The World’s End which had some insanely good artwork and at least two wordless two-page spreads that will be hard to describe. As the series progressed, the art got more and more interesting (and even the earliest issues weren’t slouching in this department). This might also be why the audio exposition is so detailed sometimes.

In any event, I definitely recommend it, whether you’ve read the graphic novels or not.

I read Raybearer, the first book of this duology over the summer and immediately preordered the sequel which arrived a few weeks later on my e-reader. In the afterward Ifueko notes that she spent twelve years creating the first book and nine months, as the pandemic was beginning, on the second. It came in such a rush that she says that she didn’t recall writing swaths of it. With a score of great characters ready to take on the task described at the end of Raybearer, she knew where it was going, I think.

There’s a lot to be said for this work and its intricate world. The blends of magic and mythology and world building are effective (and mind bending, sometimes). There’s a lot in the first book that grounds you in the world. Pretty early on she explains all the kingdoms that make up the empire and the very interesting ways in which power is passed between generations. We then meet the Abiko, demons who, under treaty, take hundreds of children each year into the underworld as the price of not overrunning the empire. The trick is that some early emperor agreed that only children of one kingdom, Songland, would receive the mark indicating they were to go into the breach between the worlds.

I don’t want to give away any of the key plot points. Our narrator, Tarisai, is set up by her mother in the first book to join the prince’s council to undermine the empire. She’s able to subvert her mother’s will but finds that she’s the only one who wants to change the way the redemptors are chosen (from only one kingdom), and later who wants to change the way the empire as a whole is run. No one else seems to find the traditions of court life so repugnant that they’d even examine how to change them.

Ifueko makes Tarisai’s struggles and emotions real, and we feel a three-dimensional character experiencing them. And she’s created a hero who looks like the people fighting today’s battles against establishment oppression. The fantasy world’s elites bear strong resemblances to those of our world.

If there’s a downside in the story, and I’m not sure this isn’t just the nature of such heroes – the ones who take on the big tasks that no one else can do (or, in the words of Norton Juster, will do), she doesn’t tell anyone of the one thing that’s driving her to distraction. The nature of the council she sits on is that the members have psychic bonds with one another, if they open themselves to the connection. So Tarisai’s reticence to share her experience moves the plot along, but it turns the conflict into Tarisai versus herself, rather than against external forces.

This is a trope of this kind of fiction, I think. In a world where the hero’s bond is a major plot point, and her establishment of a greater number of such connections is one of the drivers of the second book, her refusal to engage feels false. Not false, but an easy way out of creating a way through in which the character relies on the thing that the story hangs from as a whole. On the other hand, she’s the one with the insurmountable goal that almost no one else will take on.

On their own merits, Raybearer and Redemptor succeed admirably. My quibble doesn’t obviate my joy in Tarisai’s various successes, and in the beauty and terror of the worlds Ifueko has opened.

Learn more here: https://www.jordanifueko.com/books (and dig how gorgeous those covers are!)

The Infinite Noise is a slightly supernatural queer YA something that includes romance, but mostly not. I don’t read a lot of YA, so I’m not sure how to characterize it. The story follows two neurodivergent high school boys. Caleb is an empath – he can be overwhelmed by the emotions of others. He’s also on the football team. Adam suffers depression and is one of the stars of the debate team.

One thing that grabbed me about this book was the alternating first person narratives. Caleb and Adam are very different but have an endearing quality to their differentness. Adam’s depression has been known to lead to self-harm – it’s nice to read of a boy in this position because this is thought to be mostly a girl’s issue. We meet Caleb before a fight he has after which he blacks out. The fight is the impetus to put him in therapy. There are no spoilers in that – we learn these things about both boys in the first couple of chapters.

Note that this is released as a ‘Bright Sessions Novel’, Dr. Bright being Caleb’s therapist. I’m not sure how I came to this book – my guess is that it was a Tor.com freebie, but it might have been some other special offer. That said, it wasn’t until I read the afterward that I learned that The Bright Sessions started out as an audio drama podcast. This gives the book (and its place in a series that has two more books, both of which have different protagonists) more sense. Because the voices came out of audio drama, they had to be unique. Shippen succeeds admirably in bringing these differences to the page.

I also love the fact that the main characters are queer and that their varieties of neurodivergence are normalized in the context of the story. The parents are concerned, but their concerns are mostly for the health and safety of their kids, not any kind of homophobia.

Even the bully doesn’t have an issue with the fact that the two main characters are dating. It’s a little utopic, but I love how Shippen normalizes the nature of queer love – the focus on all the things they’re dealing with (including all the heavy emotions of the protagonists’ internal states, the emotions of just being adolescent, and some schoolyard violence) isn’t compounded by the fact that they’re queer. The queerness is simply adjacent. But the parents, who are most definitely issue-laden, are cool with the fact that their sons are boys in love.

As the story progresses, what we experience is a courtship and burgeoning relationship that captures adolescent angst about these things in a way that feels especially accurate. It certainly brought to mind the ups and downs of my own adolescence, in a bittersweet way.

The trick with stories like this, comprised of first-person internal monologues, is that you have to want to be in the characters’ heads, even when they don’t want to be in their own heads. It’s a feat to make that emotional rollercoaster attractive and inviting and Shippen makes it work.

I really like Caleb and Adam, so I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the other books in the series. I’m curious about the original audio drama that gave birth to the stories. A couple of episodes of The Bright Sessions are waiting on my phone.

I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.

Victory Day is an elegant and worthy conclusion to a fascinating series. It’s been a real ride following this story’s progress since I read an early version of Battle Ground two years ago.The storytelling gets tighter and tighter the farther along we get. There’s always been tension between the twin antagonists, even when one was in London and the other in Edinburgh, but Churcher ratchets it up in this concluding volume. Bex (‘The Face of the Resistance’) and her former trainer, Corporal Ketty, again tell their sides in short alternating chapters.

In some cases, those chapters are less than a page each, and the sequence in which Bex meets Ketty for the first time since False Flag (book 2) is one of the most heart-racing things I’ve read. I give nothing away by indicating that both have guns and shots are fired.

RMC-BG5-VDI especially liked how this book succeeds in making both Bex and Ketty more sympathetic characters than they were before. Bex had become less likable the more she resisted her role in the bigger conflict at play. Ketty, on the other hand, elicits more sympathy from us the more she learns about the nature of the forces for whom she’s working. This is an especially difficult trick for Churcher to have pulled off – the sheer sadism of some of Ketty’s behavior makes her about as likable as a Bond villain. (She pays a pretty stiff price for her redemption in a sequence that’s oddly, and appropriately, parenthetical in her journey.)

While there’s the tension of the two narrators facing each other as everything they’ve worked for comes to fruition or falls apart, depending on how you look at it, there’s a roll call of supporting characters who we experience through the eyes of both of the narrators. It’s really hard to write this without giving spoilers, because when I say Ketty has an interview with Person X, you readers of books 1-4 will say, ‘Well, it’s not necessarily surprising, but wait a sec, how did we get there?’ You just have to drop a few pounds to find out.

It was really interesting to reread this in its final form, having proofread early drafts of each book. This series takes up the mantle of many other dystopian series of being a warning, not a manual. As times have started to catch up with what was initially a (more) far flung future, some aspects of the books are difficult to read. I’ll be honest: It’s taken me longer to read each book (and not just because Victory Day is about 40% longer than Fighting Back) because I can’t read these things before sleep or in the middle of the night. There’s the page-turning aspect, for certain, but also heartbreaking nearness of what Churcher is confronting. With the UK becoming, it seems, less compassionate and more like the US in how it divides the rich and poor, the idea of a conscripted home force, for example, has almost entered the realm of possibility.

Go over to Taller Books to get the whole set.

Note: I received a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.