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SFF Anthologies and Special Issues

I went on a bit of an Amazon 1-click buying spree (they make it so easy!) recently when I discovered how inexpensive many of the Lightspeed special issues are in e-book format. I finally picked up 2014’s Women Destroy Science Fiction and the all new 2015 Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue, both for $3.99 each. I also bought 3 issues of Uncanny magazine for about $3 each and Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond for less than $8. In general, I like to buy physical books, but Uncanny is only in digital format, and the cost for the other 3 physical anthologies together is prohibitive to my somewhat limited budget. I’m really looking forward to digging into them this summer!


FFXIV: Heavensward (Or, My First Expac)

Me and my lil’ buddy, hanging out in the Churning Mists.

As I’ve written elsewhere, FFXIV is my first MMO. I’ve been playing it for about a year and a half now (just hit 540 days on my sub) and Heavensward is the game’s first expansion. With the expansion comes several new zones that are 2-3 times as large as previous zones, flying mounts for the new zones, a 10 level increase, multiple new dungeons, and in about a week or so, a new end-game raid. I play on PS4 and as the hype built towards early access, I was increasingly nervous as to how to get the game as nothing was available on PSN until about a week or so before the early access started. Finally, I was able to order the digital CE and dowloaded the client update. After the freakout of not having those all-important codes (turns out PS4 users didn’t need them), I settled into waiting till Friday morning to download the full expansion.

It took me a few tries to finally get into the game, but SE has handled the server load issue quite well compared to previous releases. I had no real issues with the server during early access, but Aether data center did experience a server-wide crash that lasted for the better part of a day prior to full release. After that, it’s been fairly smooth sailing, a week into full release. SE decided to make the new zones instanced to help with server load and so far that seems to be working quite well, with the downside that you may not end up in the same instance as your buddies. I haven’t tested to see if party members will stay together, but as most of the world content is solo-able, party zoning might not be that big of an issue.

As far as the game itself goes, SE did an amazing job with the new zones and the visuals for the new dungeons (more on them later). The zones feel huge when running around on terrestrial mounts during the discovery phase, but a breeze to navigate once flying for the zone has been unlocked. All the new zones have much more vertical terrain to deal with than previous zones, making completing quests and finding the aether currents necessary for flight a bit of a pain in the ass, but I expected no less and would have been disappointed if they’d made it too easy despite my pre-flight bitching. The zones themselves are beautiful and there are many vantage points that highlight the thought, care, and fun that went into developing them.

The new story quest sends players to Ishgard, a nation at war with dragons while simultaneously wraps up some of the events from A Realm Reborn. I haven’t finished the main story yet, but it’s been good to get some resolution on a few fronts. The Ishgardian story is fairly interesting as much of it seems to be about diplomacy between humans and dragons, an idea that appeals to my love of dragons. Heavensward’s dragons are solid entries in popular dragon fantasy lore, complete with a long and complicated history, a beautiful to listen to language, and gorgeous design. I am just at the point n the story where things take an interesting turn in Ishgard itself due to the meddling of an old adversary.

The new dungeons aren’t particularly challenging, which is somewhat of a disappointment. I (now fondly) remember beating my head against Captain Madison in Sastasha HM. None of the bosses present a very challenging fight thus far (I have the first 3 unlocked), but I’m hoping that will change as I progress. At 57, I only have 2 main dungeons left, I think and then the primals. Ravana was a total pain in the ass as a BLM and I am absolutely not looking forward to the Extreme version, though it drops sweet looking weapons.

The most exciting thing thus far has been the gear: they decided to re-skin two of my favorite melee chests and made them available to all classes. I squeed with joy when I finally got my BLM shirt (shown above). That shirt had previously only been a dungeon drop for BRD, now it’s a dyeable option for all classes! And most exciting of all was the discovery that the jackcoat I had so desperately wanted for BRD, which was only available for DRG and NIN, is now the level 51 crafting chest piece! And it’s glamourable for ALL classes! Squee! The gear progression has been very good, but it’s very strange to be lvl 57 in HQ white gear that’s better than the Final Coil gear I slaved away at for over 4 months. Much of the progression gear are re-skins, while the dungeon gear is wholly new and fairly good-looking if a little too….Catholic for my tastes. The blue gear, bought with tomestones and upgraded with the new hunt seals looks quite good and is dyeable.

Leveling is probably the worst aspect of the expansion so far. You can get by on your main class by doing most of the side quests, hunts and at-level dungeons for the chain bonus xp. Leveling an alt class is going to be tough. Many of the left over initial side-quests can’t be turned in until you hit lvl 51, and that grind from 50 to 51 is tough. Crafting and gathering are beasts I haven’t even tangled with yet, though I did manage to get my GSM to 51 just crafting low and mid-level accessories to sell (and made a decent amount of gil in the process). I think crafting will be manageable as you get manuals that give you a massive xp boost after doing the new level 50 class quest. Gathering is going to be a whole other issue for me, especially as I never made it past 1-star gathering. The new nodes are 3 star and require well over 400 gathering stat points. Grand company turn-ins are going to be a big deal for the first two levels for crafters and gatherers.

Overall, this expansion has gone incredibly smoothly and is thoughtful and well-designed. There are many fan favorites (Bandersnatches!) as well as completely original mobs and content. While I have yet to experience the current iteration of a level 60 BLM (which, from what reddit says, may be a serious issue, but still not as bad as what’s been done to BRD), I am excited to get there. Some would say that the new jobs are flawed, but I am certain that SE will respond to legitimate critiques appropriately, given their history of fan responsiveness. There seem to be many issues with the expanded abilities of current jobs, but as I’ve only just gotten Enochain, the main new BLM ability, and seem to be doing just fine with it, I’ll have to wait and see.

Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

Atlanta Burns By Chuck Wendig

Like all of Wendig’s books, this one has a gorgeous cover.

As the back of the book says, Atlanta Burns is someone you don’t want to mess with. The people who have tried, well, it doesn’t turn out so good for them. Unfortunately, it never really seems to turn out so good for Atlanta either. As the begrudgingly appointed defender of the weak and the small, Atlanta takes on the bullies of her town: the mean kids at her high school who pick on her new friend Shane, the white supremacists who tortured her friend Chris, the dogfighters who kidnap house dogs for bait. All of these things are related and the power behind them runs so deep that every time Atlanta wins one fight, she has to face three more. In a place where none of the adults are trustworthy, how do you deal with those who want to do you and your friends harm?

The answer, at least for Atlanta is to harm them first. The first time she had to do this gained her the reputation of She-Who-Is-Not-To-Be-Fucked-With in her small town. For some, it works; she’s a pariah in her school and none of her former friends will talk to her anymore. For others, she’s a redheaded goddess of vengeance sent to deliver them from their bullies. Atlanta doesn’t really know how to deal with this new reputation of hers but she uses it blithely when necessary. Part of her just wants to be a normal teenage kid who does normal teenage kid things. But severe PTSD, a wrecked home life, and her status as outcast crush those idle fantasies. Another part of her, the part that wins out, likes being an agent of justice, one who punishes those who deserve it – and in her life there are many.

Most of this she accomplishes with her Winchester .410 scatter shot riffle. It got her out of a bad situation before and now she sleeps with it under her bed. The gun is her proof and symbol of power in a place where kids like her and her misfit friends regularly have it violently taken from them. When Atlanta has had enough, she in turn violently takes it back.

Atlanta is much in keeping with other Wendig heroes, such as Miriam Black of Blackbirds. This might cause consternation among the gatekeepers of young adult literature. Atlanta swears, there’s a quibble about different kinds of racism, there’s explicit descriptions of sexual torture, there’s the rhetoric of white supremacists, there’s violence against people and animals, there’s depictions of drug abuse and underage drinking – basically everything kids aren’t supposed to be exposed to. And yet they are. Already I’ve seen reviews that say Wendig is giving a bad example of how to deal with bullies, that violence isn’t the right answer to violence, etc. My concern there is the role of fiction and stories. Do writers and their authors have a moral imperative to teach – to show a “right way” of dealing with the world?

That’s a pretty massive question, one that has a long history of answers. My answer here is a solid No. The only obligation authors have is to tell a story to the best of their ability. And Wendig tells a damn good story in Atlanta Burns. Wendig doesn’t dismiss the moral quandaries of his characters though. Their actions have consequences, many of them unforeseen and part of Atlanta’s character growth is her dealing with and adapting to those consequences. She’s a girl in shit situations, doing the best she can, the best way she knows how. It’s hard to judge her for that but easy to root for her success. I sincerely hope to see more of Atlanta Burns in the future.

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret PlaceEvery now and again, I get in the mood for a good detective story. I don’t read widely in the genre, so I usually sift through what’s currently popular and find something that sounds interesting. That’s how I came across Tana French. I read the first Dublin murder Squad book, In the Woods, and enjoyed it quite a bit, even thought the main character was a complete prat. Her writing is at times lovely and it’s great to find unexpected pleasures. In a detective book mood this week, I picked up French’s The Secret Place, the 5th book in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In many ways The Secret Place is better than In the Woods. In many other ways, The Secret Place felt like a guilty pleasure read. I have a secret love for movies and sometimes books nostalgic about childhood friendships that I rarely indulge. One of my favorite movies is Now and Then with Christina Ricci and Demi Moore. I grew up reading the Babysitters books, and I had a tight group of friends. Not quite as tight as the girls in The Secret Place, but we were a pack nonetheless.

My nostalgia kicked in the moment we meet Holly Mackey (a character in a previous Dublin Murder Squad book) getting ready to head off to boarding school with her 3 best friends. I could tell right away that this book was going to tap into that magic of friendship (I also watch My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with my kids) with a good dose of creep and maybe terror; it is a murder mystery after all. And I wasn’t disappointed. Holly, Rebecca, Selena, and Julia are four very close-knit girls at a private, all-girl boarding school, St. Kilda’s, full of cliques and hormones and all that fun stuff I don’t miss about being a teenager. This story is partly their growth as friends, and partly straight detective story. French balances these two narratives nicely in alternating chapters. The detective story is set in the present and moves forward toward resolution, while the friendship story is told in the past and moves toward the beginning of the detective story.

Murder Detective Conway and cold-case Detective Stephen Moran team up when Holly Mackey brings Stephen a card that says in cut out words “I know who killed him,” in reference to a teenage boy found dead on the boarding school’s grounds over a year ago. What follows for Moran and Conway is a day-long journey through the tumultuous and sometimes scary world of teenagers as they try to figure out who wrote the card and who killed Chris Harper, the boy found dead on St. Kilda’s grounds. Conway worked the case previously, but they never found the murderer, and Moran thinks solving it now is his shot at making the Murder Squad.

French is an acute observer of human relationships and follies, as she’s displayed in her other novels. Taking on the world of teenage female friendships and all the fraught emotional drama (and sometimes trauma) is a large venture. While her portrait of Conway and Moran is solid and believable, as well as the other adults in the novel, her portraits of some of the girls didn’t quite hit the mark. Her four misfits, Holly & Co. are fairly well rounded but her mean girls come right off every stereotype about mean girls we already know. She does a good job of anatomizing the posturing and posing they do every moment they have an audience, but they are still as vapid and soulless as their stereotypes make them out to be.

This dynamic is the guilty-pleasure aspect of the book for me. It offers a window into something nostalgic from my past but also exciting and terrifying because the stakes are so high. It’s also slightly voyeuristic in its close following and understanding of the relationships of teenage girls. The kind of friendship the misfits have is powerful, dangerous, and wonderful all at the same time, just as in Now and Then. It’s also ephemeral, and watching its growth and dissolution is very intimate. That, for me, is one of the great strengths of French’s writing and of her stories. She gets so close to her characters and makes (most) of them feel so real that they stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. These protagonists were much more compelling for me than the characters of In The Woods, but her writing and sense of atmosphere is what drew me back to her. I’ve already picked up Faithful Place and I hope it will satisfy that detective craving just as well when it hits.

Mort(e) by Robert Repino

Mort(e) by Robert RepinoEver wonder what would happen if a millenia-old, sentient ant queen got fed up with humanity and released a hormone that gave sentience to all animals? I never have, but I’m sure glad Robert Repino did. In his debut novel Mort(e), after centuries of watching her people die at the hands of humanity, a sentient ant Queen unleashes a hormone into the world’s drinking supplies that gives sentience to animals, from house cats to deer in order to wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Giant killer ants help wage war on humanity, while house pets shoot their former masters. And this is just the first 25 pages.

A house cat formerly know as Sebastian, now called Mort(e) does what he has to to survive while searching for his friend, a dog named Sheba, who ran away as the war reached their town. Along the way he joins an elite military force known as the Red Sphinx and spends 8 years fighting in the war with no name against humanity. But Sheba is always in the back of his mind and he finally decides that he needs to find her, as impossible as that may be. He returns to his former master’s home and encounters a member of the human resistance while investigating a series of strange deaths though to be caused by the human-engineered virus known as EMSAH. With new hope that Sheba is alive somewhere, and a growing realization that all is not well in the ant Queen’s court, Mort(e) hurtles towards a destiny that will either end the war in peace or annihilate everyone.

Repino’s prose is spare and relatively matter-of-fact to match the grim realities of this post-apocalyptic world where humanity is on the brink of extinction and the animals who have taken over their domain are faced with the existential question of “how to live now?”. Mort(e) is closer to Watership Down in tone than Animal Farm as it’s less a political fable and more an exploration of what makes people human, but there is a direct nod to Animal Farm, by way of a sentient pig named Bonaparte, the only survivor of his farm and a member of the Red Sphinx. There’s also quite a bit of camp; scenes where giant killer ants snap people in half are highly reminiscent of horror B-movies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

In as much as the animals govern themselves (there’s a question there), they do not disintegrate into dictatorships with ruling species as one might expect, but rather they try to discover a way to live that is authentic for themselves, but too closely resembles the lives their former masters lived, complete with infrastructure, bureaucracy, cars, and cell phones. While most animals believe that they will be better than humans, Mort(e) sees how similar they already are. In the second half of the novel, the virus EMSAH and its origin takes center stage and the novel begins to veer off into moralistic territory. While EMSAH is a garbled anagram, it’s not for the word you might expect which is a shame, because that word and what it evokes would have offered far more interesting options for the narrative. It’s hard to fully critique the end of this novel without revealing too much, so I won’t. Suffice it to say I was disappointed.

On the whole, the premise of this book surprised me and kept me reading through the night to its ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. I really enjoyed the story, but I wished the book had done more and pushed harder against conventions. Still, I’m excited to see what Repino will do next.