Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Actual Sunlight

Actual Sunlight CoverDeveloper: WZO Games Inc
First Release: 2013
Version Played: PlayStation Vita
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Evan Winter is depressed. Nothing has any meaning anymore, but he gets up for work anyway.

This game is about depression and suicide, based on the game developer’s own experiences. It’s mainly told through text transcripts. These can include imaginary therapist conversations or chat show appearances. Between these sections there are pixel art locations which Evan can explore, uncovering more comments about his life.

There aren’t any happy endings here. Evan has internalised a lot of bad things about himself, and nothing that happens causes any change in that. He hates himself because he’s fat and sees that as a reason why no one will love him. He feels alone and as though his life is worthless. He does things like watch porn (not shown in the game) and play games to take his mind off things, then hates himself for it.

Evan has a lot of prejudices and is highly judgemental of the people around him. He doesn’t believe he has privilege as a white man, as his life is hard and he doesn’t feel part of a community. At the same time, he shows some awareness of the issues faced by others, such as realising his workplace is very white and discriminates against talented non-white people. There’s also a woman with a chronic illness, who he almost manages to empathise with, but not quite. In the end, it doesn’t feel to me as though the game world reinforces Evan’s view as being correct. It’s more that he has a narrow perspective and he doesn’t see much beyond himself. Though that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to read for someone on the receiving end of some of his comments.

Actual Sunlight Screenshot

Image Caption: Evan, a small pixel art man wearing a red scarf, is standing outside an apartment building. The building has glass doors. Against the wall is an ATM, popcorn machine, lamppost, rubbish and trees/flowers. Ahead is the road with a streetcar stop.

As a study in depression, this game does a good job. Evan’s thoughts of worthlessness go round in endless cycles. He constantly thinks about jumping off the roof. When the destinations in the lift pop up, the option for the roof is always there. It’s clear from the start that things aren’t going to get better. Evan has no support network to notice or care that things are falling apart.

This is one of those games that could be exactly what some people need. Seeing someone else facing similar issues can help people. For others, it may be too much, particularly the frequent suicidal thoughts and lack of hope. There is also a message from the creator encouraging young people not to kill themselves, but at the same time, suggesting once people get to their late twenties it’s hopeless.

The game lasts about an hour and doesn’t have a lot of interactivity. It plays more like a short story with brief game interludes. I found it somewhat interesting, but it’s not something I’d want to replay. I always felt a certain distance from Evan because of his level of privilege. I’d never be in his situation, not because it’d be impossible for me to be depressed, but because it’d play out very differently based on my other marginalisations.

Tales from Perach – Shira Glassman

Tales from Perach CoverSeries: Mangoverse, #5
First Published: 19th July, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Short Story Collection
Available: | Amazon UK

This is a collection of short stories linked to the main novel series. The original edition contained five stories. I read the updated edition, which also contains two stories previously published as Tales from Outer Lands. I haven’t read the novels, though mostly the stories worked on their own and had self-contained plots. An exception was “Every Us”, which came across as more of an extra scene for people who know the characters.

“Rivka in Port Saltspray” is the strongest in terms of standing alone. Rivka needs money, so ends up taking on a job to rescue a woman. I liked that Rivka and the woman she rescues use their shared faith to communicate: they don’t speak the same daily language, but do know the same stories and prayers. This is also the odd one out in the collection, as it has a fair bit of violence.

The rest of the stories had a generally lighter tone, though I didn’t always react to them in that way. There are microaggressions and threats, which made the stories where they appeared rather more uncomfortable. The one that particularly didn’t work for me was “Aviva and the Aliens”. It’s otherwise a very silly story about hungry locust aliens. But the aliens have all the same attitudes as the men on the planet below, so there’s a forced marriage threat. It changed the tone of the story with a jolt.

I enjoyed the domestic focus of many of the stories, such as running a business and family celebrations. “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” was a particularly fun story, about two children gathering flowers to surprise someone. There’s some interesting fairy lore in this one too.

Many of the characters are queer. This includes trans, bi, lesbian and gay characters. One story has an asexual aromantic supporting character. I appreciated seeing these characters getting to have happy endings. I also liked that their Jewish faith was shown in a positive light. Religion was part of their daily lives.

There’s a lot to like here, but I felt there was an overall mismatch between how I reacted to the stories and what was intended. These are billed as being fluffy, which I could see for some, but not for others. Situations where rape is threatened, leering and microaggressions are all things I find decidedly non-fluffy. It’s not graphic, but those themes are there in some stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Game LogoDeveloper: The Chinese Room
First Release: 11th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Everyone has disappeared in a small village in Shropshire. All that remains are the things they left behind and a mysterious light.

This is an exploration game, where the story of the apocalypse is uncovered by searching around for scenes. These act out what went on before and during the event. The people are made from light, showing it’s a memory of what’s happened, not something happening in real time. Each area is named for a person, and finding all their important scenes unlocks the finale to their story.

Though it’s a story about strange events, it focuses much more on the human side. It’s about how people in the village cope with what’s going on. It’s about their relationships and history. Tying it all together is the story of Kate and Stephen, the scientists working at the local observatory. Kate is African American, a woman with a doctorate, and kept her last name after marriage. All things that don’t go down well in an insular village. Stephen, her husband, is a local lad. He doesn’t really understand the issues Kate is facing.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, from finding the first blood-stained tissues to the final revelations. There are some answers, but there’s also a lot left open to interpretation.

The village is a great setting for the game. The beautiful countryside is a strong contrast to the horrors. There’s a feeling of isolation from walking around the empty houses and streets. It’s also a little surreal due to the way time moves around the player. Each area is at a different time of day, so the sun swings around quickly at the transitions. Then it waits until the player moves on. I felt as though the light was trying to explain what happened, though why remains a mystery, as the character controlled by the player is never revealed.

A farm field in the game

Image Caption: An open gate leads into a field of golden wheat, ready for harvest. Trees surround the field. A barn and a windmill are in the distance.

Accessibility is a problem, due to the terrible save system. There’s no manual save. The autosave only happens at points where the player has to tilt the controller to see a scene. Nothing else makes the save happen, including story scenes that happen when close by (the majority of them), listening to radios, and finding collectibles. As there are a limited number of tilt scenes, this means it’s very easy to lose progress. My first two goes at the game, I didn’t get very far before I had to stop due to motion sickness. My next attempt, I avoided activating the tilt story scenes. Instead, I kept a list, and only backtracked to them when I needed to stop. Being able to save frequently is really important for people who need to keep playtimes short.

There is a decent density of things to find for the size of area. There are also quick routes to previous areas if required. However, the game does have collectibles and players may need to search for missed scenes. Which means the lack of a proper run to backtrack is an issue. There is sort of a run, as holding one button down will eventually increase the speed, but it doesn’t help much. Restricting players to walking speed only really works when there’s no need to go backwards. I probably felt this more because of the need to backtrack to saves all the time (often whilst feeling sick, so getting there quickly would have made it a lot more comfortable).

I realise developers do these things because they think it helps immersion and makes the experience more magical. So to be clear, this does not make me feel immersed and does not improve my gaming experience. Nothing kills the mood more than having to keep lists of where I can save and hoping I can get there before I vomit on my PlayStation.

In terms of story and setting, it’s an interesting game. It relies on creating a chilling atmosphere, rather than jump scares and the like. There’s some blood and dead animals, but it doesn’t go heavily into gore. It’s likely to appeal to anyone who likes that quiet horror feel. I only wish some of the technical aspects, such as running and the save system, had been as carefully done. It feels like the way someone who doesn’t play games might design those features, which isn’t very practical for actually playing.

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time – Hope Nicholson (editor)

Anthology CoverFirst Published: 24th August, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Grace L. Dillon; Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair; Richard Van Camp; Cherie Dimaline; David A. Robertson; Daniel Heath Justice; Darcie Little Badger; Gwen Benaway; Mari Kurisato; Nathan Adler; Cleo Keahna
Available: | Amazon UK

This anthology focuses on Native American two-spirit and QUILTBAG stories. All authors are Native, but not all of them are QUILTBAG. It opens with an introduction from the editor, followed by two pieces that introduce the theme and a little bit about the history of two-spirit people. There are eight stories and one poem, so it’s a relatively short anthology.

There are a number of reoccurring themes. Nations sending out colonists into space is one, and is handled differently in each story that raises it. Another is what makes someone a member of a tribe. “Valediction at the Star View Motel ” (Nathan Adler) has a white girl who was adopted as a child, and “Imposter Syndrome” (Mari Kurisato) is about a non-human trying to get on a colony ship. Both stories share a similar theme, of the tribe viewing a person as a member for being part of the community, and the outside not wanting to acknowledge that. I also liked that “Imposter Syndrome” has an asexual aromantic character. It’s clear this is not because she’s non-human, as another non-human wants a relationship.

A number of the stories are romances. “Né łe!” (Darcie Little Badger) was my favourite of these, as it was about slowly getting to know someone, rather than love at first sight. The concept of transporting pet dogs for wealthy colonists was also fun. A more serious note to the story is about sovereignty, and the contrast between tribes when it comes to being able to maintain it. The Navajo Nation has its own space colony. Whereas the protagonist is Lipan Apache, and her family is forced to leave their farm, with no new home in the stars.

I liked the focus on a parent and child relationship in “Legends Are Made, Not Born” (Cherie Dimaline). Auntie Dave is raising the protagonist, which includes training in two-spirit community responsibilities. It shows ties between two-spirit people outside of sexual relationships, which really shouldn’t be as rare as it is in stories.

Though there are a lot of positive things, I didn’t like “Aliens” (Richard Van Camp). Unfortunately, this was the first story, so wasn’t a good start to the anthology for me. I did like how it was told as people verbally tell stories, but I had some concerns when it was suggested that Jimmy being a gentle person who wasn’t having relationships would mean his life was forgettable. As though it’s not a proper life without sexual relationships. And then once he does have a relationship, the shift is to making fun of his genitals. It’s implied he’s intersex, though even if that wasn’t the specific identity intended, he’s still going to be in one of the groups that frequently gets reduced to being a set of genitals. Those jokes do not feel like jokes to the person constantly on the receiving end of them. Had the story been told from Jimmy’s perspective, and not treated like it was funny, I might have reacted differently. But it was from the perspective of the people doing the laughing. It was presented as a warm and positive thing. Fortunately, it’s the only story in the anthology that isn’t from the perspective of a two-spirit person.

There is some representation across the QUILTBAG, though it’s stronger on LGT than the rest. Lesbians are particularly well represented. Others are less so. I do wish the one possible intersex character had not been handled that way. The binary-gendered language of some of the stories also stood out. This is talking about both genders, rather than all genders. It’s having male roles and female roles, but no room for other roles. Which is an odd choice when the focus is on two-spirit people.

Note that some stories contain descriptions of rape and assault (particularly “Imposter Syndrome”). The term halfbreed is used in a few stories. It’s in a reclaiming context, rather than being used as an insult, but still something mixed race people might want to know is coming in advance.

It’s generally a strong anthology, with a range of approaches to speculative fiction. There are stories where the speculative elements are very light, space adventures, and fantasy. It has cultural representations that do not fall into stereotypes and othering. The QUILTBAG content was mostly good, but there were areas where it was spotty.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]