All the Stars Left Behind – Ashley Graham

Stars CoverFirst Published: 6th June, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Leda moves to Norway after her father’s death. Roar is an alien looking for a weapon to stop the destruction of his world.

Aliens in this setting are basically human. There’s a reference to humans being “almost another species” compared to Aurelites (Roar’s people). So there are differences, but they’re not that huge. The only oddity is blood colour changes depending on where someone is born. It’s probably best not to worry about the science of that too closely.

The early part of the novel had some odd jumps and inconsistencies. My guess would be there were some heavy cuts in the beginning during editing and the rest wasn’t changed to match up, but it means it’s a little confusing at times. Things settle out when the space elements gets going.

The book has instalove, which is not really my thing. I did like that Leda and Roar have to consider life beyond instalove. I wasn’t so fond of the idea that sex is mandatory for relationships (this comes mainly from Leda). I also don’t like over-protective and controlling behaviour from love interests. Roar does this less often than some, but he still ends up climbing into her bed and hugging her without asking, not letting goes when she struggles, and it’s fine because that’s what she wants after all. This is scary, not romantic.

There’s a fair bit of representation in this book, but some of it is rocky. Early on, there’s a microaggression about a woman having shoulders that are too broad for a woman, which sets the tone. There are a lot of little things and some big things. I’ll discuss a few of them, but it’s not a complete list.

Leda has spina bifida and uses crutches. The good sides are that she isn’t magically cured when the alien stuff gets going and she can’t suddenly run around without crutches when the plot demands it. There is also a mention of having limited energy, such as walking without crutches for a short distance making it hard to walk at all. However, I wasn’t fond of her constant self-hatred. She’s internalised a lot ableism, which may well be realistic, but it is somewhat constant during the story. She wants people to see past her disability, as though it’s a negative thing that overlays the real person inside.

Leda appears to be non-white. She’s described as having light brown skin and black hair. Roar considers that she looks “Spanish-meets-Arabic”. So she’s likely someone who has ancestry that is not clear. I didn’t like that Roar considers her “beautiful in an exotic kind of way”. This is not a compliment. Worded another way, this is saying she’s pretty for someone of her race, not properly pretty like all the pale blondes.

Roar’s friend Petrus is mute and uses sign language. Both norsk tegnspråk and Aurelis’s sign language. It’s unclear how he became mute, though it’s implied that he hasn’t always been.

One of the characters is a trans boy. The reveal was through misgendering and deadnaming the character, which is repeated several times. Also, it avoided any issues that would be specific to Aurelites. Namely that males have living tattoos that develop at birth. There is a brief mention of the trans boy having tattoos, but it’s something I’d have expected to be much more of a big deal in this context.

Some of the supporting characters are either gay or bi/pan. There’s not a lot to say on that, as not a lot happened, but they’re there.

The central issue is that this book copies some tropes that are popular in mainstream books, without critically looking at those tropes. It’s great to have a more diverse cast, but not so great to copy harmful tropes relating to that diverse cast. It’s painful because a lot of these things were on the surface. They could have been sorted without changing the main plot. It did feel like the author was trying, but wasn’t able to get there.

All this aside, I thought the book was reasonable. It passed the time and there were some bits I liked. The concept of aliens hiding out in a remote part of Norway was an interesting idea. The space conflicts make it clear that there’s more going on. There’s the potential for a series tackling some colonial political issues. Note that the book does have an ending, but it’s written as though it is the first in a series rather than a true standalone.

Fillius Glint – Ditrie Marie Bowie

Fillius Glint CoverFirst Published: 31st January, 2017
Genre: Science Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A universe is attacked by hackers who want to destroy it. Meanwhile in the universe, three people find some magical colouring pencils.

There are four viewpoint characters and a frame story. The frame is a family where the children are growing universes. When hackers attack the home network, Nancy loses most of her universes. The one that remains is where most of the story takes place.

Fillius has quite a bit of viewpoint time, showing the lead up to the main story events. He was raised in the gender-neutral religion of Zorda. Everyone uses Spivak pronouns, which is briefly explained at the start of the book. People with breasts bind them. The aim is to be as genderless as possible, in honour of the deity. I had issues believing all this, because the Zords are very binary for a gender-neutral cultural group. When they do gendered things, it is based on where they would be assigned in a binary society. So if they would be assigned female at birth, they might wear a dress or makeup. They also have names to indicate that, just with a letter cut off the end, rather than using truly gender-neutral naming conventions (Clar/Clara, Nor/Nora, Belind/Belinda).

On my first read, it gave the impression that being non-binary was a sham and that no one was really non-binary. On a second read, I can see it might be intended to show Fillius’s issues. He decides he’s a man based on his genitals. He starts misgendering other Zords. Everything he sees is filtered through this perspective. It’s also possible the names are due to more recent converts altering their names. However, this is the first introduction to anyone non-binary in the book, and the only time the Zords are shown living in a community, so I remained uncomfortable with it even after seeing it in the context of the full story.

Fortunately, the other viewpoint characters are more interesting and don’t fall into this as much. Their story happens in the present in the universe, as each of them picks up a magic crayon.

Luiz is recovering from breaking up with his girlfriend by taking a lot of drugs. He’s also in trouble with a business associate. I liked that his story deals with issues facing people of ethnic minorities in a majority culture.

Calliya is a shaman who lives alone in the forest and has control over elements. This introduces another religion and culture. I also liked how it highlights the ridiculousness of some of the worldbuilding, such as the trees with tacos growing on them. I could imagine a child growing a universe like this.

Nor is a Zord living outside of a Zord community. Unlike the Zords in Fillius’s sections, it’s clear Nor really is non-binary. Ey faces issues like gendered changing rooms. Ey competes in a sport that splits people by weight class, rather than gender, to avoid some of those issues. Nor is very honest and open, to the point that when things get weird, ey just tells eir coach plainly what’s going on, magic crayons and all. There is some misgendering of Nor by the others initially, particularly from Luiz, but this is something that self-corrects. It’s rare to have characters get it wrong, realise they were wrong, and start getting it right, without being told to do that.

Once I got past Fillius’s initial sections, I did enjoy the book overall. The setup and plot are unique. The protagonists contrasted well with each other. It presents a world that’s fanciful, yet also complicated in a realistic way, with different cultures and how they interact. The main weakness was the Zords, because outside of Nor, it didn’t hold together for me as a gender-neutral society.

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

Book Launch: Werecockroach – Science Fantasy Novella

It’s launch day for my new novella! Werecockroach is a tale of aliens and werecockroaches. I’ll talk a little bit about the book, including a few story notes with background on some of the themes. But first, here are some quick links if you want to skip all that. The book is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK and Smashwords. Other retailers are listed on the official book page. The page also has links to cover merchandise and a brief content guide.

 

Book Description

Rin moves into a new flat on the day the aliens arrive. Their new flatmates are laid-back Sanjay and conspiracy theorist Pete. It doesn’t take long to notice some oddities about the pair, like hoarding cardboard and hissing at people when they’re angry. Something strange is going on, but it’s not all due to the aliens.

The book also includes a bonus short story, from the perspective of one of the supporting characters from the novella.

 Werecockroach  Cover

 

On Cockroaches

The idea for the book came from having hissing cockroaches as pets. One of the biggest misconceptions when people find out about my pets is that they’re like the cockroaches that invade people’s kitchens. There are a lot of different species of cockroaches. Hissers aren’t one of the ones that people will see in their homes (outside of being pets).

They’re from the forests of Madagascar and eat things that have fallen to the forest floor. Pet cockroaches are fed mainly on fruit and vegetables, with a little meat protein here and there. They don’t smell strongly, they don’t fly, and they tame easily. All round, they’re very hardy and easy to keep.

They hiss in various different ways. The one people typical know is the loud disturbance hiss, but they make a number of other hisses. A common one is a soft hiss that accompanies normal daily activities. They’ll sometimes hiss to themselves and sometimes they’ll hiss back and forth with another cockroach. Some are more vocal than others. I’ve had some that hardly ever hiss to some that hiss softly for most of the time they’re awake.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt from keeping them is how much personality they have. Each cockroach is different. They like different foods and they react in different ways. They learn and remember, which is why they soon get to know that I’m not a dangerous predator who wants to eat them. They’re funny little critters, and if they could turn into humans, I’d be happy to invite them round for tea.

 

On Identity and Time

The characters in the novella share aspects of my identity, though it doesn’t mean that they have identical life experiences. One thing I had to consider was how age would change things. When I was younger, being androgynous was the only way that I’d heard to describe being non-binary, long before I’d ever heard the term non-binary. It also wasn’t uncommon for anyone who didn’t quite fit in a gay/straight divide to end up in the bisexual community, so that was primarily how I described myself when I was younger, rather than aromantic and asexual.

Rin wouldn’t have grown up with those experiences. Information has been much more available since the internet, as well as giving people better access to communities. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a different thing, so the book was partly an exercise in considering how things might have gone differently if I’d been born a little bit later. Would I have chosen agender instead of androgyne to describe my gender? Would I have gone directly to aroace? I won’t ever really know, but it was likely enough to say that’s how it went for Rin.

My experiences of dyslexia (Rin) and sensory processing disorder (Pete) were also influenced by age. There was some awareness of dyslexia when I was younger, though it mostly didn’t go beyond maybe giving someone a bit of extra time in tests. I didn’t know SPD existed until I was well into adulthood. Before that, I was treated as being picky, because no one really acknowledged that those sensory things caused a lot of discomfort and pain.

Hidden hearing loss is probably the most influenced by time, as the studies that identified it were only in the 21st century. Even Rin would have been born before anyone knew about that. But I liked the idea of them knowing what was going on. It would have helped me to know a lot earlier than I did (I was obviously aware that I had tinnitus once I was old enough to realise that not everyone had loud sounds in their ears, but hidden hearing loss was a later thing).

What has stayed about the same is my experience of race, because people react much the same way now as they did when I was younger. Not everything is progress.

Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

She Remembered Caterpillars

Game LogoDeveloper: jumpsuit entertainment
First Release: 17th January, 2017
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

A girl is determined to save her father from death using the power of fungi.

This is a puzzle game based on navigating little fungus people (gammies) to launch pads, so they can fly away. Getting there involves crossing caterpillar bridges and other obstacles. The gammies are marked by a colour and a shape, which dictates which obstacles they can cross. The design of the puzzles is clear. Using colours and shapes gives a backup for anyone who can’t use one or the other, which is helpful for colourblindness or not being able to see fine detail very well.

The difficulty of the puzzles increases slowly. New mechanics have a simple level to show how they work. However, the text instructions for how things work are sparse. This won’t be a problem for most players most of the time, but some players may need a little more guidance to get started.

Progress through the game is split into acts, which slowly take the player higher up a structure. Each act has a distinctive art theme, which reflects the feel of the story at that point. I loved the style of the art. It’s hand drawn and whimsical, in a twisted fungal kind of way.

The story is told through text, which appears at the start of the levels and acts. It floats between memories of the girl and her father, and trying to save him using the gammies. Other uses of fungi are also hinted at, suggesting a world where fungal things are integral to everything. It’s a non-linear approach to storytelling that I see more often in short stories than games, and it fits very well here.

Gammies fly away

Image Caption: A raised structure of pathways is surrounded by mist. The structure has an organic feel in muted earth tones. Bright caterpillar bridges in blue (with circles), red (with squares) and purple (with Ds) join the sections. Three gammies fly helicopter-style from fungal launch pads. This is what happens on finishing a level. The gammies are little fungus people with faces and colours/shapes to match the bridges.

The progression of the art and story was balance well through the acts. The puzzles were mostly spaced well, as each act introduces a few new things. The exception was act seven, which saw a change in scenery, but no new mechanics. This was the weakest act for me, as the gameplay felt like it was staying on a level rather than advancing. That’s not a strong criticism though, as mainly I felt the game kept things fresh with new gameplay elements.

I enjoyed the game and would recommend it. The shape and colour concept of the puzzles was interesting, and it was very relaxed as there was no time limit. The art and story were great. Everything combined together to create something unique. It took me around five hours to complete the puzzles, but could take more or less time depending on skill. Though this is generally a cute game, note that the story does involve death and medical procedures. Lame is used as an insult at one point.

[A copy of this game was received from the developer for review purposes]