SATURDAY STAR WARS – The High Republic Imprint Has Me Excited!

Here’s a little something you might’ve learned about me over the last few weeks, reader, if not the last few years. I am…quite fond of Star Wars. Yes, it’s true; I know, I know, you are shook to the core of your being, considering the title of this post. Bear with me as I gush about the newest Star Wars updates coming out of Lucasfilm!

Why am I this excited about a prequel series? “No matter what happens, we all know how it ends, right?” the more cynically inclined of you might think but to this I say: So what?! It’s the stories I care for; the notion of seeing Jedi philosophy at its absolute heyday, long before the Order grew complacent and eventuually . I love what the writing team is building; an age of heroism with the darkness of the sith far from sight. If done right, this event could revitalize the mythos of my favourite science-fantasy universe and really wash away some of the bad taste left from the unfortunate mess that was the sequel trilogy.

I have faith that this will go very well indeed, because I hold the work of Claudia Gray and Charles Soule in high regard. Both Gray’s “Master and Apprentice” and Soule’s “Darth Vader” run for Marvel Comics are some of my favourite Expanded Universe works in the post-Disney Star Wars canon, adding so much to beloved characters such as Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Vader himself.

Outside of these two novels and a third one aimed at middle-grade readers, The High Republic will also be explored over comic books, in an ongoing series by Marvel studio, which’ll bear (predictably) the High Republic title. Another Marvel ongoing, especially a flagship title for an event, likely means that the folks at Marvel editorial will get some heavy-hitters. I haven’t seen any artist names attached as of yet but the writer is Cavan Scott, of whom I know next to nothing – I think he did the Star Wars: Jedi Lost audiodrama, a Dooku-centric prequel. We only have a variant cover for the Marvel series:

The cover above features the new bad guys, the nihil, who have been described as “Space pirate vikings”. To this I can only say:

Yes, I went there.

There’s also going to be a comic series aimed at younger readers published by IDW, which I am somewhat confused by; for what it’s worth, it looks pretty sweet!

I suspect this Adventures series will revolve around Jedi of the Outer Rim which will be akin to sheriffs in the Wild West, but also explorers of new worlds in the Unknown Regions. This is where Star Wars excels – and I can’t wait to see what the writers have come up with!

Oh, and the cherry on top? Yoda’s going to have some part to play! He’s going to be a lean 700-year old Jedi machine! No one has come out and said so yet – but I will be damned if that little green friend of Palpatine’s isn’t going to be buzzing left and right with his tiny lightsaber, Jedi-ing like a crazy muppet.

Jokes out of the way, I am excited to see the Jedi draw from Arthurian legend; I want to see the Republic at its best; I believe this event has the potential to be fun and memorable and I hope it’ll bring plenty of new elements to the universe. And I love the aesthetics so frickin’ much, I cannot lie to you, there’s something about the brilliant light colours and the gammut of lightsaber colours that gets to me.

May the Force be with the architects of The High Republic! GIVE ME SOME BLOODY GOOD STAR WARS ALREADY.

Along the Razor’s Edge (The War Eternal #1) by Rob J. Hayes – Book Review

Review originally posted over at: Booknest.eu
Release Date: March 30, 2020
Published by: Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
Pages: 281
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Provided by the author in return for an honest review.

What Rob J. Hayes has done in Along the Razor’s Edge cements his place as one of the masters of grimdark fantasy.

I’ve taken my time getting to the review of this book, the first of an ambitious new trilogy Rob has decided to release over the next few months of 2020, starting March 31, just a little over a month as of the time of writing of this review. There’s plenty I want to say, and I will begin with this: as soon as I was finished with Razor’s Edge, I was desperate for more. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like great praise to you but keep in mind, only a few fantasy authors in my adulthood have awoken in me the desire to dive into their fictional worlds without so much as a breath of something different in-between – Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Brian McClellan, Steven Erikson.

Eskara Helsene is a Sourcerer of great potential, capable of holding up to five Sourcery stones in her stomach at any one time, she is a deadly trump card for the Orean Empire and a fierce combatant against their Terrelan foe. Or she was, anyway, before the side she fought the war on lost. Now, Eskara is a captive, one of thousands of the foes of the victorious Terrelans stuck in The Pit, a hole in the ground in which the prisoners are forced into performing endless Sisyphean labour every day of their miserable existence. Digging rocks, dragging them out and then digging yet more rocks. “Maybe it was just punishment; never-ending, pointless toil down in the dark. The sure, unwavering knowledge that nothing we did or said meant a damned thing. A punishment worse than death. Irrelevance.” The Pit is made to break people, not just physically but psychologically shatter them as well.

But Eskara will not be broken. Despite betrayal by her closest friend and beatings at the hands of a sadistic foreman at the opening of Razor’s Edge, despite the lack of food and rest and even sunlight, this fifteen-year-old girl refuses to surrender. She draws strength from the daily cruelties perpetrated against her, turns it all into smouldering fury. All-consuming rage is perhaps one of the most sure-fire mechanisms of survival and it serves Eskara well but like the Source inside her belly, it too is poisonous the longer she carries it inside. Do not mistake this for flat characterization. Though Eskara is dominated by fury and pride, her emotions go further; it’s the inability to express them that speaks of a character deeply scarred and emotionally curbed from childhood. What she uses as a crutch is her power: “…I wouldn’t trade my magic for all the meals and sleep in the world. I love the power far too much.” Eskara defines herself through her Sourcery, even in the Pit.

The strongest element in Hayes’ work has to do with character voice; the narrator is none other than Eskara herself – but an older, world-weary Eskara, one for whom the Pit is in the far-off past, though it’s obvious through her narrative that it’s a gangrenous wound that this older Sourcerer has not wholly escaped from. Foreshadowing, done right, can add so much to a work of fiction. Rob does it right, as well as Gene Wolfe in the genre-defying Book of the New Sun. Though these are two very different stories, they share strands of DNA not in voice alone but also in the primal fear of deep, dark places far underneath the surface they both seize. They share, too, well-crafted prose, every word fitting into the greater whole like pieces of a puzzle. So often I come across self-published fantasy works whose occasional smattering of modern parlance comes across as staggering discrepancy, and indeed, I recall even the first of the author’s books I read, City of Kings had the occasional incongruity in this way; not so with Hayes’ latest.

Another strong element of this title is the magical system. A cool, imaginative twist on the schools of magic you might be familiar with, the magic in this world is internally consistent and what I’d call “hard” magic. It’s powered by Source stones the Sourcerer must swallow, each stone with a different magical affinity. There’s plenty more of it than that and suffice to say, I’m excited to see its further complexities reveal themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention the cast of characters. Though I don’t intend on calling each one out, I have to commend Rob for his handling of the dynamics between Eskara and her fellow Sourcerer, Josef. Few in the Pit are what you might call “nice people,” and Eskara is nowhere near as good at making friends as she is at making enemies, but a few allies are nonetheless in the cards for her and the intricacies of their relationships intertwined make for an additional layer of human drama.

The novel is an intelligent work about the costs of perseverance fuelled by the basest human emotions. As thrilling as this first chapter in Eskara’s tale is, it offers caution too. Though anger keeps her alive – that’s no great spoiler, I think, as the older Eskara’s narration is immediately evident – the urge to lash out at those around her costs our protagonist immeasurably much.  

Shall we speak of the cover art? Felix Ortiz continues to outdo himself and if you don’t believe me, come back over at booknest.eu tomorrow, because I have a special treat for you – Rob has given me the absolute pleasure of revealing the cover for Along the Razor’s Edge’s sequel, The Lessons Never Learned!

In the end, I am excited – excited to see the world outside the Pit, excited to see Rob follow-up on what is the best example of foreshadowing I’ve come across since Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, excited for more of Eskara beyond all else. This is my Fantasy Read of the Month; I am happy to give it a full score of 10/10. I consider this a grimdark masterpiece, and an early contender for my favourite opening of a series for the year.

Synopsis:

No one escapes the Pit. At just fifteen Eskara Helsene fought in the greatest war mankind has ever known. Fought and lost. There is only one place her enemies would send a Sourcerer as powerful as her, the Pit, a prison sunk so deep into the earth the sun is a distant memory. Now she finds herself stripped of her magic; a young girl surrounded by thieves, murderers, and worse. In order to survive she will need to find new allies, play the inmates against each other, and find a way out. Her enemies will soon find Eskara is not so easily broken.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #01) by Martha Wells – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 152
Format: paperback
Copy:  Borrowed from my local library. Support your libraries, folks!

While browsing through the rows of books in English in the Swedish library I frequent, I came across Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, a novella whose cover I dimly recalled seeing years before on Tor.com. I looked through my To-Read list and – surprise! – this one was nowhere near it…as if that would stop me. I grabbed it, stole away Ada Palmer’s too Like the Lightning as well, in case someone thought this thin novella too conspicuous. Long live sci-fi!

By the end of the night, I’d read through the first of these titles with barely any effort.

All Systems Red offers a fun story from the point of view of an anxiety-riddled robot with several biological components and a touch of misanthropy: “I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other”. This SecUnit calls itself Murderbot and seeks to avoid all direct interactions with its human wards, interested only in watching the tv, music and game programmes on entertainment channels. If this isn’t enough to make the Murderbot relatable, I don’t know what will.

Stuck on a planet with a band of scientists performing geological studies, our protagonist hopes to avoid any sort of excitement; unfortunately for him, this is a sci-fi novella intent on putting Murderbot on the spot and testing its mettle! A few action scenes are only to be expected – and they were well handled and entertaining.

The prose is serviceable – not quite excellent, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of great interactions, the dialogue never tends towards the heavily expositional and the personalities of all the scientists, led by team leader Mensah, shined through. Oh, and the humour? Golden: “Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.”

In terms of antagonists, the architects behind our protagonist’s woes don’t make for anything especially memorable; they’re rather archetypal, presenting rather the depths to which human greed tends to go when a group of people goes off the deep end. It works well and keeps our SecUnit and his group of scientists on their toes and pushing themselves as hard as they can to survive.

Once embroiled in a crisis, Murderbot is willing to put its life on the line for the band of humans it has been tasked with protecting – despite it hacking its governance module. The same module that allows anyone who’s signed a deal with the Company – like the scientists – to command Murderbot. By working to save Mensah and the rest of her team from a shadowy enemy, then, Murderbot is exercising its free will – and this is at the heart of what’s examined in Wells’ novel. The question is one of freedom and compassion and examination of the self, and the text goes a long way in showing how Murderbot exercises all three.

My score for All Systems Red is a 4/5. This is a legitimately enjoyable adventure in a science fiction setting with plenty of good zingers and a socially awkward Robocop – what’s not to love?! I’m looking forward to reading more about Murderbot in the future! I’ll definitely be picking up his story when I’m next in my local library!

SUNDAY STAR WARS: In Celebration of the Clone Wars!

I want you to seriously consider what you’re about to read. Even with the first season of The Mandalorian available for streaming, the Clone Wars is still the definitive Star Wars experience on the small screen.

“What? No!” I hear you say. “The Mandalorian was so good! How can a 3D animated series that ran from 2008 to 2014 beat a live-action show from 2019?”

The answer, reader, hides within the nature of The Clone Wars, a series which spans the adventures not only of the main characters of the Star Wars saga but of countless players, big and small, in the war itself. What The Clone Wars manages to do, especially once it moves past its weak opening season is the investigation of dozens of different theatres of operations in a galaxy at war. The show does so with admirable skill, empathy and intelligent storytelling.

This is Star Wars at its best, refusing to shy away from the complexities of adult life, offering children (it’s a kid’s show! It ran on Cartoon Network) a plentitude of moral questions and ethical dilemmas.

The Clone Wars looks at so many serious issues, not only specific to Star Wars but questions that offer serious food for thought on a moral level. Further, the show does a wonderful job at offering a multifaceted look at a conflict that, if you’ve only seen the prequel movies, comes across as very black-and-white. In the Season 03 episode, Heroes on Both Sides, the viewers are introduced to the separatist senator Mina Bonteri, a personal friend of Padme Amidala.

Mina Bonteri, Padme Amidala and Ahsoka Tano, S03E06

What better way to present entirely different stakes in a war that previously seemed clear-cut than to put a human face on it? Bonteri, whose attempt to pave a way to peace talks between the Republic and the Separatist Confederacy eventually costs her her life.

I would be remiss not to mention Ahsoka Tano once more in this column, as she is the character offering the viewers a way out; like us, she’s only ever experienced the Separatists as a hostile force, has never been in contact with members of the Coalition outside of Dooku’s agents, has never even considered whether the hundreds of worlds that broke off the Republic did so for good reason. And can we blame her? It’s the easiest thing in the world to see the enemy as less than you, some evil force possessed by malicious intent.

In Star Wars, of course, we know that malicious intent is real; and we know also that our heroes are, for all their nobility, tools in a war orchestrated by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, in a chess game that is best encapsulated by the following image:

The story of is just one arc, a few short episodes. Other arcs examine questions of loyalty (to a commander whose orders are actively harmful to his platoon of Clones), guerrilla warfare as a force for good and ill, corruption and the role of banking in society (IN A KIDS’ SHOW!!!). And I’ve not touched on Jedi, the Force and lightsaber combat once!

I have yet to see the new season – I’ve been playing catch-up with the last two seasons, which I realised recently, I’d never finished watching. My excitement to see its seventh and final season, however, grows by the week – and I am overjoyed to know that The Clone Wars is back on the air.

Kingshold by D. P. Woolliscroft – Book Review (Blog Tour!)

Published by: Self-published
Genre: Epic Fantasy

Series: The Wildfire Cycle #01
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Courtesy of TheWriteReads, as part of the Kingshold Blog Tour!

Kingshold was difficult to get into – so difficult, in fact, I hate to admit that if I wasn’t part of this blog post, I might not have gotten past the opening third…which would’ve been a pity as there is plenty I enjoyed further on! For that reason, before I get into the review proper, I’ll take a little while to tell you about the issues I thought plagued these first hundred and thirty pages or so.

The first 30%

The beginning felt bloated. Exposition-heavy dialogue distracted from the characters and their motivations, traits and roles in the story.  There’s a lot which yells out “boilerplate fantasy” here, in terms of archetypes and descriptions both – from the ancient mildly Bayaz-esque wizard who pulls the strings of a kingdom and does as he wills to the burly torturer who says “M’Lud” instead of “My Lord”. All planets have a north, I know, I know. The issue of the descriptions to start with is, they all felt like I’d read them a hundred times before. I prefer a well-crafted image, which fleshes out one memorable trait as compared to what the reader often comes across here, a dozen forgettable adjectives.

It’s overwritten – but even then, I enjoyed some of the characters from the start. Take for instance the Lord Chancellor Hoskin, whose wry amusement at the expense of others put a smile to my face. What I found lacking early on was subtext – so many issues are presented bare and without a hint of subtlety. It’s almost as if the author didn’t quite have the faith early on that the readers might pick more subtle cues from his characters; Woolliscroft felt the need to be blunt about characters’ motivations and goals this early on, and I wasn’t won over by that.

Once I passed the 30%, however, I started getting into Kingshold.

D. P Woolliscroft has comedic timing, something I got quite a few hints of early on. It really blossoms once you get to know the characters better and as a result, I chuckled throughout. I found more than a few of the intimate moments between the cast touching, as well.

The dwarves deserve a commendation – several small details given them by the writer differentiated Woolliscroft’s take in memorable ways compared with the usual portrayal you get in fantasy. Some sweet details about their homes, their forging techniques, their thermal baths – all things you have got to love.

In terms of characters, I enjoyed their growth over the span of the book. Chancellor Hoskin transformed from a nervous bookworm to an acidic arsehole, and I loved every minute of it. I won’t touch upon all of them, but the bard Mareth was also a lot of fun to watch grow from a semi-capable drunk to someone with vision and a desire to elicit change, as was the servant Alana, whose duties in serving a wizard his breakfast really help her find her place in the world. The wizard in question has a daughter, Neenahwi, who has several satisfying moments in her own right.

The prose holds this book back – too often, words feel out of place; dialogue or descriptions are overwritten and bloated. As I said, it’s serviceable but it lacks a certain amount of stylization – particularly in terms of dialogue, which comes off as unintentionally ironic from time to time – which is what makes the best examples of the epic fantasy subgenre exceptional. The language lacks exactness, and often makes the mistake of being too passive: “There have been some of the younger dwarves who have gone missing.” This sentence could easily be reworked to something dynamic like “Some of the younger dwarves have gone missing.” Shorter, easier to read, better.

Another small qualm I have with the novel is, it’s got a number of punctuation errors and typos, a few missed words: “She’d come into their group like a whirlwind, full of confidence of the like Alana only dreamed [of].” Annoying, that.

With a round of close in-line edits, these issues could have been fixed. Kingshold has a strong core of ideas, a cast of likable protagonists and plenty of heart. It’s a pity that some of it comes across as sloppy, bloated and over-written because the potential for this one to be brilliant is there. So many of the ideas Woolliscroft presents are ridiculous amounts of fun! One of Kingshold’s chief exports, for example? Assassins. How does it work? A legal framework is in place and all, and no one bats an eye!  “…It did prove useful that there was a certain understanding between the branches and the head office here. Made him wonder why the other cities would countenance their existence. But he supposed a score of deadly assassins had a certain special kind of lobbying power.” See? Fresh and funny!

My score for this one is 3.5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, or a 7 out of 10. Kingshold offers a pastiche of many of the traditional themes and motifs of epic fantasy and while it takes a while for them all to mix fully, once they do, Woolliscroft offers an engaging read despite a number of issues.

You can follow D. P. Woolliscroft over at: www.dpwoolliscroft.com
Or check out his Twitter – @dpwoolliscroft and Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/dpwoolliscroft/

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu.

Published by: HarperVoyager (2010 ed.)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Pages: 296
Format: paperback
Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (1968)
Copy: Picked up at my local library. Support your libraries, folks!   

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Gods, I loved this one. My admiration for Roger Zelazny and his talents goes back to early adolescence when my father, may Krishna and Vishnu look at him favourably, granted me passage into a world that lies in intersection to our own (and yet far, far above it, the way real objects are above shadows), the world of Amber. It is a glorious place, and one I haven’t dared revisit for many years; but this review goes a little further back, before Zelazny himself ventured into the Chronicles of Amber.

Lord of Light is an epic contained in just under a three-hundred page novel. Its ideas are grand and ambitious, as much in the vein of fantasy as in science fiction, the basic structure of much of the novel borrowed from the creation myth of Buddhist lore (heavily based on reality but mythologised after two and a half millennia), the aforementioned Sam taking on the role of prince Siddhartha Gautama. But Sam is not a man to only wear a single hat – his identities throughout the seven chapters of the book are many and the role of destroyer comes as easy to him as that of ascetic philosopher. Whether he believes in what he preaches or not is besides the point.   

This book is fantastic to read if you don’t know much about Hinduism and Buddhism but are looking for something to enthuse you, make you curious about enlightenment and spirituality of these dual religions which many of us in the Western world are hardly ever in the position to interact with on a meaningful level.

But divorce it from any knowledge from Hinduism; no, divorce is the wrong word. Rather, give Zelazny the creative leeway he deserves, let him loose on the pantheon and watch as he creates something remarkable and original as well as traditional. Perhaps the most delight I took was in these scenes which centred around the interactions between Sam and Yama (also called Yama-Dharma) the death-god and most brilliant amongst all the gods.

“Call themselves?” asked Yama. “You are wrong, Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. … Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered a torture which coincided in nature with those forces which had ruled his life. Being a god is being able to recognize within one’s self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them into alignment with everything else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics, one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain, the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a day, the clasp of love. One rules through one’s ruling passions. Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, ‘He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.’ So, to reply to your statement, they do not call themselves gods. Everyone else does, though, everyone who beholds them.”
“So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?”
“You choose the wrong adjective.”
“You’ve already used up all the others.”

This is the kind of dialogue that got me into literature, made me want to dig as deep into it as can be, and make the study of it my life’s work. It sparkles, it crackles, and it captures perfectly who these two characters are; Yama, who is avatar and representation of the end of all things, as severe as the silence of the grave; and Sam, who cuts through all the bullshit and calls things as he sees them, and fights for a cause not wholly his own to the last. Fine – I’m projecting beyond the conversation above but you can’t blame me for the enthusiasm. 

See, the intertextuality is something Lord of Light thrives on and is shaped by. The paragraph above makes a passing nod to Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps to some of Zelazny’s other work itself – a quick google search revealed the following quote, penned by none other than him: “All of these things considered, it is not surprising that one can detect echoes, correspondences and even an eternal return or two within the work of a single author. The passage of time does bring changes, yea and alas; but still, I would recognize myself anywhere.” What this intertextuality allows Zelazny to do is weave his unique vision while using Hindu and Buddhist cannon as a vehicle to enrichen an imaginative world which takes on themes of oppression and the dangers of technological advancement, touches on colonialism and, most formidably, seeks to divorce religious preaching from spirituality, while arduously studying the bonds between the two. What does that last point stand for? As mentioned before – and I don’t mark this as spoiler, for it is established early on – Sam hardly believes what he preaches. Does that lessen his teachings? To discover the answer, multi-faceted as it is, you might want to pick this one up.

I am in awe of Zelazny, yet another of the SFF masters of old whose works will always hold relevance to our present. Lord of Light is a quintessential classic, and one you will be well-served by taking the time to read it. It will not always be easy…but it will be rewarding. This is my Sci-Fi read of the month, and I give it full marks, 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

I rarely add a song to my reviews, but there is one that encapsulates the book and its protagonist in particular, in such an excellent way as to warrant it. The song in question is called “The Lord of Lightning” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Book Review

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism
Pages: 96
Format: ebook
Purchased Copy: from Amazon
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella (2016)

Calvin Park spoke about this one over at one of the recent episodes of his Under a Pile of Books podcast; and since I’ve been trying to finish the last few squares for r/fantasy’s yearly bingo challenge, a book on the topic of afrofuturism was most welcome.

Sometimes, everything about a story is excellent – the voice, the worldbuilding, the protagonist – with the exception of one huge, glaring error, a detail overlooked in such a low-key manner that you might not even notice it at first. Then, once you’ve put Binti away, you pause, take a breath and consider.

That is when the final third of this 90 or so pages long novella falls apart.

But before I touch on this spoiler-heavy section of the review, allow me to offer credit where credit is due. Nnedi Okorafor’s respect for the culture of Binti’s people (which draws inspiration from the Himba people of Namibia) along with its infusion with mathematical knowledge make for a fascinating vision of a society both new and steeped in tradition. The way ideas such as mathematical harmony and “ancestral magic” as some call what Binti does, are presented, enrichens the world, and the internal conflict Binti goes through – between following into the footsteps of her ancestors and going after her own desires – plays out in an interesting way.

It’s an engaging read, which I finished in a little over an hour, having enjoyed many of the ideas within – some of them core tenets of science fiction.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of my review, which illuminates the extent of the problem with Binti.

The Meduse, an alien species that counts itself as one of the enemies of the humans and has long warred with them, assaults a ship traveling towards Oomza University. On this ship is Binti, one of the dozens or even hundreds of students on their way to Oomza Uni. Out of all of them, only Binti and the ship pilot survive. Everyone else is slaughtered in seconds, all at once. Binti eventually manages to talk the Meduse out of their attack on Oomza Uni and comes to represent the aliens before the directorial council of the university. Together, they all come to an agreement that sees the stinger the Meduse came to Oomza Uni to reclaim returned to its rightful owner, and everything concludes with a peaceful resolution and the seeds of friendship planted between two old enemies.

So what’s the problem? Let’s look to the Meduse, and what they do here.

The following notion is a turning moment in Binti’s personal perception of the aliens: “Now I could never go back. The Meduse. The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. I had to earn their honor and the only way to do that was by dying a second time.” That said, to ignore the fact that the Meduse killed a ship full of prospective students is ludicrous – and this is just what happens, when at the end of the novella, during negotiations, the professors of Oomza University agree to return the stinger of the Meduse leader on whose order the massacre is perpetrated; not only that, they demand one of the Meduse come study at the university. What of the slaughtered students? It’s as if they are forgotten by everyone involved – their deaths forgotten, too, by Okorafor, judging by the speedy resolution she offers.

Based on this alone, Binti, much as I enjoyed most of it, shouldn’t have won a Nebula award. This is a glaring mistake and though I’m very interested in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, to praise her work for such naivete goes against the spirit of science fiction. Look at Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a SF Masterpiece which treats ; look at the conflict between terrans and the people of the Forest, and how it ends. When one side slaughters dozens or hundreds, there can be peace…but the kind of harmony Okorafor’s characters find after the shortest negotiations is an impossibility, which overlooks so much of the nature of humanity. Not the better part, perhaps – but a part of who we are, nonetheless. Voices should be crying out for justice and for vengeance; there should be words of righteous indignation spoken. But there are none – instead, there is harmony.

It is not earned. Binti’s growth and individual understanding of the Meduse doesn’t wash away the weight of what they have done. The stolen stinger, as fine a reason as it is to the culture of the Meduse for the perpetration of slaughter and the planning of a yet more grand massacre, is no excuse most anyone would accept. And that…that’s a serious overlook on the part of Okorafor, all the more shocking for the brilliant way in which she captures the culture of Binti’s people, and the work she does on the Meduse.

My score for this one is, regretfully, a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Saturday Star Wars: Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston (Book Review) and Talking About Star Wars on Under A Pile of Books!

Hello everyone, and welcome to a new weekly column I’ll be writing for the foreseeable future, based on one of my favourite fictional universes of all time, STAR WARS! (In case the title was somehow misleading.)

As this is the first post in the series, I’ve a double treat for you all!

Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston – The Book Review

We readers and listeners sometimes enjoy books that are not necessarily great works of fiction. Ahsoka, for example, has no shortage of small issues, the greatest of all which is its rushed pacing – and yet, I cannot find it within myself to feel more than trifling annoyance at author E. K. Johnston. Not when I had such a wonderful eight hours listening to voice actress Ashley Eckstein bring the character to life once more.

Ahsoka is a brilliant character, one of the finest additions to the Star Wars universe. Her arc in the Clone Wars animated series never ceased to capture the imagination and her fate post-Order-66 was the subject of great interest before Anakin Skywalker’s former apprentice resurfaced in the Rebels series a few years ago.

With Ahsoka, E. K. Johnston fills in the blanks and shows everyone’s favourite togruta at one of her lowest moments. Ahsoka Tano has spent the first years of the Empire hidden away, uncertain about how to make a difference in a galaxy controlled by fear and plummeting ever further in the depths of oppression. Changing circumstances force her to relocate from her hiding place on planet Thabeska to a small Outer Rim moon by the name of Raada, a settlement of only a few hundred farmers. In this settlement, Ahsoka – or Ashla, as she goes by now – befriends some of the locals, embracing the uncomplicated life of a mechanic.

It doesn’t last long, as an Imperial contingent arrives with the sole purpose of exploiting the arid lands of Raada in order to grow a crop of nutritional supplement, which has the side effect of leeching the nutritional elements inherent in the Raadan soil. The Empire forces the farmers to grow this poisonous crop, to which Ahsoka does not take kindly to; the farmers are even less happy about working at the end of a blaster, and resistance is quickly in the works.

I’m continually impressed with how dark stories involving Ahsoka tend to get, and this is no different – there’s elements of torture here, of oppression, forced labour and mass murder. Just like the Clone Wars! Y’know…for kids!*

Ahsoka Tano, the confident wisp of a girl we know, is much changed at the beginning of this novel, the full extent of the Jedi Purge weighing down on her beyond anything she’s faced previously.  It’s no wonder that she’d be hesitant to find a cause to fight for, then; however, Ahsoka goes through a transformation as she witnesses the brutality of the Empire first-hand. Through luck, a few new friendships and even an old ally or two, however, we really see her find her footing in this cruel new galaxy; Ahsoka is above all, a story about hope regained.

Ahsoka side by side with her voice actress, Ashley Eckstein

Ashley Eckstein is a brilliant narrator; she’s truly made Ahsoka her own, to the point where thinking of anyone else taking over for her would force me and the rest of the Star Wars fanbase to rebel. She elevates an enjoyable novel to something I couldn’t stop listening to, an audiobook I want to return to despite having finished it a mere two days ago.

My other major complaint, besides the pacing which is really uneven throughout, has to do with the following: a few chapters felt out of place – especially one concerning everyone’s favourite Obi-Wan, which I can only imagine the editor forgot to delete, or perhaps the publisher inserted into the book by mistake. Bit of a weird flex, as the kids say.

My score for Ahsoka is 4/5 stars – with a recommendation to listen to the audiobook if you can, since it’s nothing short of brilliant. Please, Mister Mickey Mouse, gimme more Ahsoka stuff narrated by Ashley Ekcstein, sir!

*Though I make fun of this, I do actually believe that the adult way in which the Clone Wars, Rebels and, yes, this book too, deal with a variety of heavy topics is mature and something kids should bear witness to. The Clone Wars in particular has a depth of interesting topics, which are very relevant to the world we live in.

Talking about Star Wars on Under a Pile of Books

I’m on a podcast, y’all! *Squeals*

This is the first ever podcast I’ve done and though I was a little nervous and I did fumble words twice or thrice, I thought the end product turned out quite well! Chatting with fellow book blogger and Star Wars afficionado Calvin Park was tremendous fun – looking forward to next time! We spoke about so many different elements of the universe – the old Knights of the Old Republic Games, the original Thrawn trilogy, the Clone Wars and what we hope for in terms of what comes next for the movies!

You can listen to the podcast on Spotify:

That’s it for this edition of Saturday Star Wars! Thanks for joining me – come back next week!

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.

The Outer Worlds Review – Great Dialogue, Good Characters…Okay-ish Gameplay?

The Outer Worlds was one of the games I was most excited about in 2019 – so why did it take me this long to finish it? It’s got a lot going for it – the great dialogue, the memorable characters who don’t get nearly enough screen-time, and the…okay…gameplay? No, that doesn’t sound right – Obsidian wouldn’t do something like offer the minimal amount of customization in terms of weapons and equipment, right? They wouldn’t offer us a really boring Perk system in the place of Fallout’s V.A.T.s, would they?

Oh, they would? Ah, then.

That is unfortunate.

It’s not that I disliked The Outer Worlds – but I’m nowhere near as taken with it as I hoped I would be. In this twenty-two minute long video, I’ve gone at great length to explain what my problems with Obsidian’s latest consist of.