Monday, July 1, 2019

Galaxy's Edge: The Reservist

They promised him one weekend a month. The House or Reason swore the 9th would never leave their gentle homeworld. But after Kublar, things changed for Sergeant Fetch and the Caledonian Reserve Legion Corps. Thrown into a meat grinder conflict in a desperate bid to hold the line, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reserve or active, only that you kill and survive.

The first book in the Galaxy's Edge series, Legionnaire, began as an attempt to bring back a little of that Star Wars magic in a form palatable to modern military science fiction and military veteran sensibilities. What Nick Cole and Jason Anspach delivered was science fiction's version of Black Hawk Down, a classic military science fiction novel worthy of mention alongside Starship Troopers and The Forever War. After completing the main series, Cole and Anspach opened up the Galaxy's Edge universe to their fellow writers with the Order of the Centurion series. While the tone of each novel varies from that set down by the first, Order of the Centurion (reviewed here), each new book delivered competent military science fiction action and heroism by some of the best military science fiction writers in independent science fiction.

Then came J. R. Handley's The Reservist.

Military science fiction--and military fiction in general--tends to fall into competence porn, or, in the case of farce, incompetence porn. Generally, the protagonist's leadership is sure, decisive, and unwavering, as are his troops. Incompetence, leadership failings, and, just as often, gross moral failings are reserved for the inevitable conflict between the protagonist and his risk-adverse superiors. What does not get shown is the forging process by which a newly promoted NCO or officer, often green and squirrelly, matures into a proper leader worthy of his position. That involves a lot of mistakes, counseling, and, more often that not, a "Come to Jesus" meeting or two. In garrison, there's time and space to learn the ropes in relative safety--for the leader and his troops. But on the battlefield, where dead leejs mean instant promotion, the learning process becomes a crucible.

That's the situation the newly-minted Lieutenant "Fetch" Ocampo finds himself in after a mine and an infiltrator leaves the former sergeant as the most senior legionnaire of Rage Company. He has to adapt to his new position as an officer in the middle of the latest Legion meatgrinder fueled by the Mid Core Rebellion's treachery. But the futuristic version of Isandlwana forces Fetch to come to grips with his shortcomings as a leader elevated above his current capabilities, and each growing pain threatens to cost lives.

It's a far different spin on a reservist's duty than the tired-out weekend warrior tropes thrown at the reserves. And Fetch's pain comes raw, from the first shot of whiskey at a legionnaire's dive bar to the slow whittling down of Rage Company on its way to its last stand. Faith is a solace here, a rarity in science fiction, and it is given the same authenticity seen in Civil War battlefield letters. In general, Handley avoids the common war story tropes cemented by decades of World War Two and Vietnam stories, and delivers a story that's personal and authentic, even to the ear of an extremely real-echelon commo puke.

The result is that Handley has given Galaxy's Edge its second entry into the military science fiction canon.

Currently, The Reservist is available only through Audible, or in ebook for Galaxy's Edge Insiders. A paperback version is on its way, as soon as the exclusivity window with Audible passes.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Light Novels: The Arrows of Time

Up to this point, this light novel survey has been focused on stories set in the writers' present. The recent history of the medium can be organized into three great periods: the secondary fantasy worlds of  the 1980s and 1990s, the primary fantasy adventures of the 1990s and 2000s, and the isekai portal fantasies of the 2000s and 2010s. More than twenty years of popular fiction has used the present as its staging ground, as primary and isekai fantasies are concerned with the affairs of the present--or, at least the present at the time of writing. But fascinations with the past and with the future are universal, and light novel writers have explored history and visions of the future in addition to the preoccupation with the present.

With that said, the arrow of time normally points forward in light novels. History tends to fuel the settings of the secondary fantasy worlds, as in the quasi-medieval Germany of Spice & Wolf, with classical China, Heian and Warring States Japan, and Continental Middle Ages Europe providing the common milieus. Historical figures do tend to be re-imagined into primary fantasies as well, such as in the complete re-imagining of the characters of Twenty Years After of the d'Artagnan romances into the isekai magical academy of The Familiar of Zero. As a result, those looking for historical adventures similar to the Sharpe series or the Three Musketeers might be better served by manga as Cesare, Vinland Saga, or Ruroni Kenshin. However, a handful of history themed light novels have made their way into English publication, including the previously mentioned Full Metal Panic, by Shouji Gatou, a military mecha adventure fueled by an alternate history of the Cold War, and Ryohgo Narita's Baccano, a Great Depression mobster fantasy that combines the farce of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels with European alchemical magic.

Science fiction is far more popular, but not quite in the same form as American audiences may understand the genre. Japan has a storied history in the genre, with weightier Campbellian and Wellsian speculative social fiction finding a home in more traditional novels, while Continental-style (1) futurist fantasies fill the pages of light novels. As a result, light novel science fiction embraces the genre-blending of "science fantasy", incorporating any plausible or implausible element as long as it can be dressed up in polished metal and shining composite plastic--especially in the use of magic, whether it be in the sufficiently advanced technologies of telepathy, telekinesis, and other forms of Esper mentalism, or the application of computers to Sandersonian hard magic.

Perhaps no genre better illustrates the blended futurist fantasy quite so much as the Battle Academy. These near-future settings combine the magical academies of places like Hogwarts with computers and other forms of technologically-assisted magic. Students at these academies strive to climb the rankings in their class, often through the familiar trope of fighting tournaments. Meanwhile, dark conspiracies play out at the academy, using the students as pawns. As combat and intrigue rage around the often troubled and ostracized hero, he earns respect and a place in the school's social scene through his prowess. The Irregular at Magic High School, by Tsutomu Sato, follows this outline best, with The Asterisk War, by Yuu Miyazaki, a more light-hearted take on the formula. Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index adds a layer of complexity--and the occasional whiplash from tone changes--by forcing the hero to navigate delinquents, predatory professors, and a silent war between scientific Espers and magic-wielding churchmen.

However, those looking for more familiar genres of science fiction will not be disappointed. Space opera looms large, with the True Tenchi Muyo novels expanding on the worldbuilding of the original anime's OAV continuity, and the classic Crest of the Stars (reviewed here). Haruka Takachiho's classic The Dirty Pair follows the Lovely Angels, a pair of intergalactic crime fighters who tend to forge an unmistakable--and unintentional--path of destruction. Asato Asato's 86 taps into the strong dystopian vein of Japanese science fiction as it investigates the forsaken soldiers forced to fight in their government's "bloodless war". And while video game isekai brushes up against many of the same themes as cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex further explores the setting and themes of the classic cyberpunk manga.

The arrow of time flies onward, and readers find themselves at the end of the isekai age, as the popularity of the genre and the web novels that fueled it are waning in Japan. What might replace it, no one knows. It could be a return to the detailed secondary fantasy worlds, the low fantasies of the current day, or even the grand space operas of the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, English publishers such as Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and Vertical are bringing the vast backlog of this medium to a growing and enthusiastic English-speaking audience.

*****

(1) "Ah, well, you’re now taking the German view that any romance about the future is science fiction." C.S. Lewis, "Unreal Estates". Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.






Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Great LibertyCon 99-Cent Book Sale

(h/t: Hans G. Schantz)
With the LibertyCon Science Fiction Convention about to convene in Chattanooga, Tennessee, some attending authors and friends are offering a few of their most popular ebooks for only $0.99. For most books, the sale begins 12 am PDT Wednesday 6/26 through 12 am PDT Wednesday 7/3 on Amazon, (12 am GMT 6/26 through 12 am GMT 7/3 on Amazon.co.uk).  The author’s chosen start and end dates may vary – always confirm the price before you buy. 
Get a great deal on a liberty-friendly book, and help support the creators. Here’s the full list (including both some familiar Ratburger favorites and new discoveries), alphabetical by author…
The full list can be found at The Ratburger. While I am working through this list, I can say that Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, by Fenton Wood, is a must read, and Hell Spawn, The Hidden Truth, and The Powers of the Earth, the 2018 Prometheus Award winner, are all climbing my To Read pile.

UPDATE: Soda Pop Soldier, by Nick Cole, Fade, by Daniel Humphreys, and Honor at Stake, by Declan Finn join the sale to make 10 books available at 99 cents each.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Light Novels: Secondary Fantasy Worlds

Previous entries in this light novel recommendation series have explored Tolkien's primary and secondary worlds, with the aim of explaining the mechanics of isekai portal fantasies that take characters from the present and fling them into fantasy worlds. As a result, the selections have dealt with heroes from the primary world--our world. But self-contained and internally consistent fantasy worlds such as Westeros, Selenoth, Newhon, and Discworld have captured the imagination of readers around the world, and it comes as no surprise than Japan's light novels have their own treasured adventures in such fantasy worlds.

***

During his travels, merchant Kraft Lawrence comes across a village harvest festival centered around a wolf and wheat. Despite the enthusiasm of the celebration, the village treats these rituals as little more than superstition. Later on that night, Lawrence stumbles across the harvest goddess, Holo the Wisewolf, who makes a request of him, in her own maddening way. Progress and the church have pushed out the old ways, and Holo wishes to see her hometown in the North once more. Lawerence agrees, and as they journey north, the cunning Wisewolf helps him toward his own dream, earning enough money to settle down and open his own shop. To get to the North, they must navigate the intrigues of merchant houses, church politics, the occasional would-be suitor, and the growing May-December bond between a mortal man and an immortal goddess.

Occasionally nicknamed "Wolf and Economics" for the deep dives into medieval trade deals, Isuna Hasekura's Spice & Wolf is a long courtship between Kraft Lawrence and Holo the Wisewolf. Contrary to early American marketing attempts, Spice & Wolf is not a fanservice book, as the romance is driven by poignant character interaction and not Holo's state of undress. Unlike most light novel romances, not only is marriage the intended resolution, but the romance is full of more than just the give and take of Holo's teasing. Over the course of their journey to Holo's hometown, Lawrence and Holo's growing trust in each other is tested, broken, rewarded, and reconciled as Lawrence attempts one audacious sales deal after another. Amazingly for the genre, some of the obstacles in Lawrence and Holo's path stem not from the looming threat of the church, but out of their reluctance to wed. Unfortunately, the 2000s distrust of organized religion that filled many Japanese anime, manga, and games is present, simmering as wary caution instead of outright hostility. Fortunately, Lawrence's sales broker schemes are quiet duels of wit and resolve, buoyed by Holo's cunning, instead of academic accounting exercises. As a result, the travelling merchant has been a role more and more light novel heroes have adopted in their adventures.

***

Never let marketers name books. Contrary to the expectations of the genre, Fujino Omori's Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is not a harem story, regardless of the marketing team's efforts to frame it as such. Rather than the adventures of a rake, Bell Crandell decides to be an adventurer but has to get rescued when he gets in over his head. He crushes on his rescuer, the renowned Sword Princess Aiz Wallenstein, and the puppy love drives him to become a hero worthy of fighting by her side. Along the way, Bell's determination, growing skill, and an entire warren of rabbits' worth of luck draw fellow adventurers to the familia of his patroness goddess, Hestia. But the city's dungeon holds ever-growing dangers for adventurers, and Bell's grandfather might have placed a heavy responsibility on Bell's shoulders.

While Bell strives to improve through determination and practice in a way familiar to fans of Shounen Manga such as Naruto, My Heroic Academia, and more, the main theme is the close, almost familial bonds of friendship. Every member of Hestia's growing familia is an orphan or an outcast who finds a home by Hestia's hearth. This allows for two rarities in light novel fantasies, male friendship towards the hero and romantic subplots that do not involve the hero. While Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? bears the video game trappings of the genre lightly, the influence of Final Fantasy VII is unmistakable. For those interested in reading from the beginning, the pretentiously literary prologue is sandpaper rough--after the attempt to tie the story to the marketer's title, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? soon demonstrates why new volumes are bestsellers, even in English fantasy lists.

***

Instead of notable mentions, this week brings two classic light novels that continue to shape fiction and even gaming to this day.

Ryo Mizuno's Record of Lodoss War may have started as a transcript of 1980s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG sessions by Japanese game designers, but it quickly became one of the foundational fantasies for the light novel market, popularizing Western-style fantasy in Japan. Like the Dragon Quest games, it set many of the conventions of future fantasy--including the fascination with the trappings of Western fantasy. What Lord of the Rings is to the portrayal of elves in English language fiction, so too is Record of Lodoss War to elves in Japan. Up until recently, these stories were only available in English through the anime series and manga. However, like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and other light novel classics, the English publication of Record of Lodoss War was overshadowed by the glut in isekai portal fantasies. However, this epic fantasy is highly regarded, and worth seeking out.

Hajime Kanzaka's Slayers, on the other hand, takes a comedic approach to sword and sorcery. Sorceress Lina Inverse hunts treasure, and, in truth, she's not too different from the bandits she charbroils with her magic to get that treasure. Yet this carefree sorceress finds herself a constant pawn in the intrigues between gods and demons. The levity of the humor is balanced by the world-shaking scope of the events and the tactically sound magic battles. Fans of the classic anime will find a few familiar faces missing, but the dim yet strangely perceptive swordsman Gourry is Lina's constant companion. English volumes of Slayers are difficult to come by, thanks to the 2000s manga contraction nearly bankrupting the publisher. Hopefully, with the newly announced third series of Slayers soon hitting Japanese shelves, Slayers may be rereleased in English. Until then, Amazon and used book stores are your best bet to find these books.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Galaxy's Edge Insider

But the galaxy is a dumpster fire. A hot, stinking dumpster fire. And most days I don’t know if the legionnaires are putting out the flames, or fanning them into an inferno.

With those words, Jason Anspach and Nick Cole hooked science fiction readers on Galaxy's Edge, a reworking of everything people loved about Star Wars through the lenses of traditional science fiction and War on Terror veteran sensibilities. Their first book, Legionnaire, proved to be the Black Hawk Down of science fiction, taking a place alongside Starship Troopers, Armor, and The Forever War as a classic of military science fiction. Through nine volumes, the Legion fought against insurgents, rebels, and a strange, impossibly magical warlord who proclaimed himself Emperor. While the fimal volume of the main story, Retribution, might have seen rushed, until a reread of the series reveals how much foreshadowing was set in place from the start, it provided a satisfying ending, a rarity in today's day of endless serials.

Since then, Ansspach and Cole have opened their world to a number of prominent independent military science fiction fiction authors through their Order of the Centurion series, published first as audiobook exclusives through Audible. Anspach and Cole have also dropped hints about upcoming series that cover the Savage Wars, the Galaxy's Edge equivalent to the Clone Wars, bounty hunter contracts fulfilled by the legends Wraith and Tyrus Rechs, and a serial bridging the fall of the Empire to the next grand saga in the Galaxy's Edge universe.

Many a fan might be able to wait patiently for these new stories in the expanding universe of Galaxy's Edge. But for those of us who are impatient, there's Galaxy's Edge Insider.

Insider is a $10 per month subscription services which provides a number of perks, such as swag, discounts, exclusive podcasts, a Tuckerized cameo in future stories, and more. Most important to a reader, however, is the ability to download electronic advanced ready copies (eARCs) of upcoming Galaxy's Edge books. Now, paid eARCs is a not a new service, as Baen is known for selling upcoming new releases as eARCs for $15 each, or about 1.5 times the new release ebook cost to receive the book 3-6 months early. However, for the Galaxy's Edge fans, Insider is far more lucrative. This month offered the ability to download five new Galaxy's Edge novels, including the stunning Savage Wars, and two installments of Takeover, the aforementioned serial. That's $90 of eARCs, or $30 of ebooks in one month.

Future months will bring in additional installments of Takeover, the newest volumes in three spin-off series, and new books in Anspach and Cole's non-Galaxy's Edge projects. But even at one month, the Insider subscription is an excellent deal for fans of the series.


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Crest of the Stars

In the far-distant future, mankind has traversed the stars and settled distant worlds. But no matter how advanced the technology of the future becomes, it seems the spacefaring nations cannot entirely shed their human nature.

Jinto Lin finds this out the hard way when, as a child, his home world is conquered by the powerful Abh Empire: the self-proclaimed Kin of the Stars, and rulers of vast swaths of the known universe. As a newly-appointed member of the Abh’s imperial aristocracy, Jinto must learn to forge his own destiny in the wider universe while bearing burdens he never asked for, caught between his surface-dweller “Lander” heritage and the byzantine culture of the Abh, of which he is now nominally a member. A chance meeting with the brave-but-lonely Apprentice Starpilot Lafier aboard the Patrol Ship
Goslauth will lead them both headfirst down a path of galaxy-spanning intrigue and warfare that will forever change the fate of all of humankind.

It's refreshing to read a light novel not encrusted with 20 years of bad fannish in-jokes. However, Hiroyuki Morioka's Crest of the Stars was also written at a time when linguistics was a writing craze on both sides of the Pacific Rim, so the book serves as much as a crash course on the Abh language as it does a story. The J-Novel Club translator uses an interesting strategy to minimize this, by bolding sections of the English text when corresponding Abh words have already been introduced to the reader. It's still jarring, but not so much as the same text half-written in another language. A reader should not have to hold degrees in neologistic linguistics, history, psychology or anthropology in order to understand the story. Fortunately, once the exposition-heavy introductions are complete, the interruptions settle to a more manageable rate. But that's still one massive hurdle, one that many readers might balk at.

On the plus side, there's a real Vorkosigan Saga feel so far as the story follows Lafier and Jinto on what will become their first mission in an interstellar war. There's mild Ceteganda influence to the Abh, with a society disrupted by genetic manipulation and a uterine replicator on steroids. Lafier's obsession with the proof and status of being a "Daughter of Love", a child created from an act of passion instead of laboratory procedure, is a glimpse at the first cracks in the Abh's air of supremacy. Neither Lafier or Jinto are on the manic level of Miles Vorkosigan, but then again, few characters are. Jinto displays a pragmatism forced on him as the only non-ethnically Abh noble, a mayfly among elves, while Lafier is a hammer with a strong sense of obligation that weighs heavily on her shoulders--more so than the privileges of her lofty position. Instead of an odd couple, they are complementary and will rely on each other's talents as they speed to warn the rest of the Abh fleet of invasion and war.

Crest of the Stars is the first third of a novel split into three books, and, in the 1990s, needed three years to find a publisher willing to take a chance on space opera at a time when space opera was a dying trend. The extra time was spent in refining the prose and the story, creating a space opera tale that is not just a good light novel, but one that can take its place among the better space operas world-wide. It helps that Morioka was a science fiction short story writer, not a fannish writer clinging to trends and in-jokes, and, with the exception of a Tom Swiftie or two, his prose, even when translated, is up to Western standards. This is aided by a rare but consistent use of dialogue tags, which more light novels should employ. Because of all this effort spent on the text, Crest of the Stars can be recommended as a proper science fiction novel, not just a young adult pulp.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Dungeon Born

Conquering dungeons and using them to grow has long been the most efficient way to become a powerful adventurer. The only thing keeping the process from being easy is the Beasts that inhabit these places. Questions plague those entering this particular place of power: Where do the ‘rewards’ of weapons, armor, and heavy gold coins come from? Why is a fluffy bunny charging at me? For abyss-sake, why are there so many monsters?

Cal has all of the answers to these age-old questions for a very simple reason. He is a Dungeon Core, a soul forced against his will into a magical stone. With the help of an energetic friend, Cal grows a dungeon around himself to bring in new sources of power.

When a threat he doesn’t fully comprehend bares its many teeth, Cal is determined to survive the attempt on his life. Unfortunately for adventurers, the only way for him to achieve his goal is to eat anyone that enters his depths.


The first novel in Dakota Krout's Divine Dungeon series, Dungeon Born starts as a pretty formulaic dungeon builder story, in the same vein and general plot as Bone DungeonA murdered man is reincarnated as a Dungeon Core, the chief intelligence in the creation and building of dungeons. Along with his fairy-esque assistant, the newborn Core branches out underground, absorbing wayward creatures and careless adventurers until he attracts the attention of the Adventurer's Guild. The Guild debates destroying the young dungeon, but the drop of a legendary treasure persuades them instead to use it as a training ground for novice adventurers. Along the way, the Core stumbles into a special relationship with one of the young trainees, which will become a lifesaver to them both.

Here, the Core's name is Cal.

Again, pretty standard stuff so far, although Dungeon Born has a sharper edge than the more whimsical Bone Dungeon. Yet Dungeon Born maintains the lighthearted approach that makes many dungeon builder stories a popcorn read.

What does set Dungeon Born apart from other lighthearted gimmick fantasies is its replacement of the traditional dungeon-builder game mechanics of HP, MP, and XP with the chi energy cultivation system of Chinese xianxia. This moves the actual dungeon building exposition from arbitrary mechanics to abstract, but more logically consistent methods. Issues of purity, contagion, and energy flow can affect what Cal is currently able to create, with breakthroughs coming from cleaning up energy paths and new ways to adjust the flows. Chi cultivation also allows for worldbuilding hooks into the plot that mere XP and MP do not allow. Surprisingly, this distinctly Chinese magic system is used without any other chinoiserie elements, which indicates a further progression of xianxia towards the English-speaking fantasy mainstream.

However, Dungeon Born does have issues when it seeks to move past the narrow scope of the dungeon. Since the popularization of The Lord of the Rings, epic scale fantasy has been the flavor of the decades. An intelligent cave just is not mobile enough to visit, much less influence, cataclysmic events, and Dungeon Born, like its fellow dungeon builders, wants to play in the cataclysmic. And rather than train heroes, Dungeon Born wants Cal to be the hero. The result, played out in its sequels, is the power creep familiar to fans of shounen manga. There is also a lack of purpose to the story, as Cal grows stronger to draw more energy to grow stronger in a cave's power fantasy. Every bit of cleverness is tied to a rather weak purpose with few obstacles in the way. The result lends itself to the open-ended approach of kishotenketsu's development-twist-consequences cycles instead of dramatic structure. Dungeon builders in general need more focused plots and more modest stories that take advantage of a dungeon's immobility and allure to adventurers.

As mentioned, Dungeon Born is a lighthearted beach read with aspirations to something grander that stands out more as a transitional story in the growing evolution of American xianxia than on its own merits.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40

“I will enjoy speaking with the architect of HALO’s success.” 

The four XSeed pilots exchanged glances. “You probably won’t.”

Before the asteroid drops, combat frame battles, betrayals, and ultimate victory of the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition (SOC)--described in the Xseed CY1 novel and the CY2 short story--Senzan Kaimura discovered something in the Martian ruins. When he used this secret to turn Elizabeth Friedlander into the self-proclaimed Goddess of the World, Sekaino Megami, he birthed a monster that terrorized humanity--a monster that lived on past Megami's death. As new intrigues threaten another SOC-launched cleansing of Earth, the Human Liberation Organization strives to free Earth from SOC control.

How can you fight a monster, but by creating one of your own?

The Brussels HLO cell, led by Tom "Arthur Wake" Dormio, is an unusually effective cell, costing the local SOC governor nearly 50 officials and ten million credits in damage. During one of their raids, they receive a strange message which leads them to a mysterious benefactor--and four of the most powerful combat frames ever. Equipped with these series 100 XSeeds and aimed at both the SOCs and Megami's monster, these partisans rampage against the SOC forces, easily taking down all opposition by their oppressors. But a growing unease builds among the XSeed pilots, as Arthur Wake might just be a monster as well.

Like with Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle and the previous XSeed, a simple summary is not enough to capture the twists, shifting intrigues, and stunning revelations in Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40. But where CY 1's plot explored shifting loyalties between two stark moral poles, CY 40 is a grayer martial thriller. While the nationalist Earthers are portrayed as the sympathetic side in the XSeed saga, their methods in CY 40 are no longer as pure as they once were, dealing out atrocities just as severe as the ones inflicted on their people in the past. Black-hearted monsters fight with the good guys, while honorable opponents fight for the no less evil SOC, just as the SOC's paternalism for their conquered peoples is exchanged in hopes of a more final solution to the Earther problem. Yet Niemeier does not dip into the cesspool of grimdark nor the bloody thrill of atrocity. Revenge is a powerful motivator, and hot-blooded lapses of judgement return to haunt both HLO partisan and SOC alike.

Perhaps the most sympathetic characters are Simon Trent and Malov Strauss. Trent is a young student whose aptitude for programming lands him a front seat (in an XSeed, no less) to the real costs of driving the invader out of Earth, an innocent behind a gun. Trentt's struggle is how to remain good in wicked times. Malov, however, is a hound of justice, consistently snapping at the heels of the HLO. Sneered at by his bosses as a Cassandra, Malov's uncanny abilities exposes him to Arthur Wake's cruelties, which push him firmly and understandably into Megami's monster's camp.

While I raved about the original XSeed (CY 1) and its side story (CY 2), it is refreshing to see CY 40 offer new scenarios and new types of action and intrigue, instead of rehashing the successful CY 1. The underlying 60 million year-old mystery begins to be fleshed out in ways that make speculation even wilder. Like all of Niemeier's stories, careful reading is rewarded. However, it is so easy to be swept up in the breakneck pace of the action. Perhaps rereading might be more appropriate and fun.

CY 40 ends with another of the grand space battle set pieces common to Niemeier's fiction, mixed with new revelations and one heck of a desperate gamble by the Adele Mundy of HLO. Fortunately, more XSeed is on its way,, so we won't have to wait long to see what happens next.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Light Novels: Video Game Isekai

As video games increasingly become the most common method of interacting with fantasy, the portals to fantasy worlds have sent heroes into video game worlds. Not just the fantasy worlds of the favorite games, but inside the games themselves, continuing the trapped-in-a-computer-game stories made popular by Jumanji, The Matrix and cyberpunk. While the influence of the Dragon Quest video game series on Japanese fantasy has already blurred the line between game world and fantasy world, a distinct genre of video game isekai portal fantasy has developed. 

Unlike more traditional isekai fantasy, the conventions are most often based around those of MMO role-playing games, with the mechanics of the game prominent in the story. These include the player menus always in the character's vision, talent trees, an ever-improving collection of gear and items, instance dungeons and raids, a strange loathing for player-versus-player combat, and the ever-present threat of permanent death for those trapped inside the game, often against their will by deranged versions of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. Influenced heavily by cyberpunk, these video game fantasies have in turn become an important influence to today's popular litRPG genre, especially the Russian resurgence of the form. 

Strangely enough, video game fantasy portals work in one direction, from the present primary world to the secondary video game fantasy world. Reverse isekai in video game settings are almost non-existent.

*****

Rising of the Shield Hero, by Aneko Yusagi

When Naofumi is suddenly summoned to an alternate world to be one of four legendary heroes, he is handed the Shield, and a country's hatred as well. Then his companion betrays him, leaving Naofumi penniless and ostracized. To rise to the challenge of defending his new world, Naofumi must pull himself up by his bootstraps--even though only unsavory options remain open to him.

Rising of the Shield Hero has attracted a fair amount of controversy Stateside, from portraying some women as liars and daring to punish them, to sudden delays in translation causing over a year between releases. This continues to the storytelling itself, as some praise the prose of the translation, while others point to the exposition-heavy plots and constant recap chapters as a sign of poor writing. What is clear, however, is that the continued process of adaptation from the original revenge fantasy web novel into various media is polishing the story and the characters while drawing curtains around the more vicious incidents. Naofumi manages the delicate dance between anti-hero and hero with some sympathy, although with complete acknowledgment that many of his actions are motivated by weakness instead of heroism. Starting with a firecracker opening arc, Shield Hero does get bogged down by the same old fault, the reliance on new characters, villains, and lands leading to languid kudzu plots. Like with the Wheel of Time, the first six books are worth the effort, with the remainder depending on your buy-in on the series.

*****

Log Horizon, by Mamare Touno

For twenty years, the MMO Elder Tales has been the most popular and ambitious MMO, eclipsing even World of Warcraft in its player base. As Elder Tales’ twelfth expansion, Homesteading the Noosphere, rolls out, a socially awkward engineering graduate student known as Shiroe finds himself trapped inside the game along with hundreds of thousands of players worldwide. As the trapped players struggle to adapt to the new reality inside Elder Tales, a growing malaise, poor food, and decaying relations with the non-player characters known as The People of the Land cloud the game world. Together with his friends Naotsugu and Akatsuki, Shiroe sets out to rekindle hope and create a place that the gamers can call home.

Time has not dulled my praises for Log Horizon. It is a welcome return to stories featuring young professionals instead of middle school students, strategy over power, and, most importantly, hope--both for the future and the present. Instead of seeking character improvement, Shiroe and his companions grapple with creating and improving the community around them, even if that means exploiting the game to do so. But what sets Log Horizon as a light novel apart from the rest is in the supplemental information included in each volume. Most light novels are content to illustrate a scene every chapter. Log Horizon chose to include character sheets, maps, stories, game guides, and even comics with the novel itself in one of the most art-intensive series currently available. These materials flesh out the Elder Tales game, allowing for a more streamlined story, as much of the background exposition and the rules crunch are reserved for these entertaining vignettes. Most importantly, the art and strategy guide extras reinforce the all-important visual aspect to a game world. Log Horizon has recently returned after a long hiatus, so it will continue to raise the bar on the use of art to supplement story.

*****

My Next Life as a Villainess, by Satoru Yamaguchi

After a blow to the head jogs Katarina Claes's memories of a past life as a Japanese student, she finds herself face-to-face with a horrible revelation--she is inside her favorite game, a relationship-based choose-your-own-adventure visual novel. But Katarina is not the heroine, but her foil, a conceited bully of a duke's daughter, destined for death or exile when the true heroine finds happiness. Katarina must draw on her knowledge of the game and its characters to avoid certain doom.

While My Next Life does serve as a classic example of the sensationally long and unwieldy light novel title, it is a rare example in English of a female-oriented light novel and a visual novel isekai. Like other female light novel heroines, Katarina's struggle is for security instead of popularity, romance, or acclaim. Yes, she is practically the epitome of a Mary Sue, all wonderful and quirky and caring, but that's because she has to be to avoid her fate. It's balanced out by her sometimes frustrating obliviousness to the loyalty her efforts at self-preservation through helping others have inspired. While the presentation is clad in the conventions of a certain segment of female Japanese fandom, the idea that helping others in return helps you is refreshing in this age of proud independence. Hopefully, more Katarinas wake up to that fact.

*****

Notable Mentions include: Infinite Dendrogram, by Sakon Kaidou, for exploring an immersive MMO setting without trapped in the game tropes,  the .hack ("dot hack") franchise, which follows players affected as programs within an immersive MMO game slowly develop life and will, and Overlord, by Kugane Maruyama, which puts a far darker spin on the trapped-in-a-game trope as the main character is in charge of a kingdom of monsters, villains, and cutthroats.

The elephant in the video game isekai room is Sword Art: Online, by Reki Kawahara, the popularizer of this particular genre. Reactions to Sword Art: Online are divided, many love it while others take issue with the characters, power fantasy, and worldbuilding. However, references to Sword Art: Online in other media and novels are multiplying, so it is mentioned for completeness.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Level Up's Top Ten LitRPGs

Conor Kostick, of the up-and-coming litRPG publisher Level Up, offers a list of the top ten eleven fantasies that mix literature and crunchy game mechanics.
Once you’ve been bitten by the LitRPG bug, you’ll want to keep reading works in the genre. And the good news is that there are hundreds of LitRPG titles to choose from. So many, in fact, that a common question in forums is to ask what are the best LitRPG books ever? Here’s my own answer to that question. Of course, it is highly personal and I don’t claim some kind of objective authority. But these are the ones that I enjoyed reading, that are well written, have engaging characters, strong plots and, of course, a game or game-world in which the drama unfolds.
I don’t include our own Level Up titles in the list, this is a compilation of great LitRPG reads made as a guide to promote the whole genre, rather than our books in particular, but I do think Level Up books would be there or thereabouts. Hopefully, you’ll see them crop up in other lists of the best LitRPG books! 
Having chosen my top ten LitRPG books of all time, I realised I had missed one out that I really wanted to include, so apologies for not having the heart to cut any to make room. I also didn’t include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, even though it would have been up in my top five, because while there is a game of sorts in the virtual world of OASIS, searching for Easter Eggs doesn’t give LitRPG fans the engagement with game strategies and levelling that many look for.





Friday, May 24, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations: Reverse Isekai

The portal between fantasy worlds works both ways. Not only do characters leap from our primary world to secondary fantasy worlds, characters from those secondary worlds can cross into ours for fish-out-of-water adventures. These fantasies are known by the systematic and admittedly unimaginative label of "reverse isekai" fantasies.

However, the approach between classic isekai portal fantasy and its reverse reflection differs more in just the direction of travel between worlds. Where isekai tends to shove its protagonists through the door between worlds, only to lock the door behind them, reverse isekai stories tend to install a revolving door between worlds. Furthermore, since reverse isekai do not need to rely upon the main character as a stand-in for the reader exploring the world, these stories are far less reliant on wish fulfillment fantasies. This allows reverse isekai stories to offer a wider variety of kinds of stories than the tried and true hero fights against a villain found in traditional isekai portal fantasy.

*****

The Devil is a Part Timer, by Satoshi Wagahara

After the final, climactic battle in another world, the Devil King and his last general are banished to another world: ours. But without magic, they can neither return to their own world, or conquer ours. Forced to make ends meet, the Devil King survives as a lowly fast food employee, with designs of working his way to the top of the company, and then the top of the world. But they aren't the only otherworlders in Japan. The Hero has arrived as well, and she knows where the Devil King works.

A bit of a guilty pleasure, The Devil is a Part Timer combines reverse isekai with the devil/monster genre. Here, Maou is treated more as a demi-human than a proper devil, and the burdens of making ends meet in a low-paying job actually humanize him to the point that he's no longer the same power-mad end boss he once was, much to the consternation and confusion of the Hero, Emilia. The unresolved tension between Maou and Emilia fuels much of the comedy. It is refreshing to see an adult cast evenly divided between the sexes, with actual male friendships that aren't handwaved off screen in favor of harem hijinks or romanticized for fetishes.  The worldbuilding leans heavily on Kabbalah, which some might find off-putting, but becomes important when the powers that be in the old world won't leave Maou and Emilia alone in ours. The Devil is a Part Timer is a humorous refuge from wish-fulfillment and harem fantasies that still brings sword and magic action to the table.

*****

Notable mentions for straight isekai portal fantasies include: Re: Zero--Starting Life in Another World, by Tappei Nagatsuki, where a teen from our world finds himself in a new world with the mysterious power to reverse time by dying--a lot, and the recently released Mushoku Tensei, by "Rifujin na Magonote," where an unsuccessful man in his thirties resolves to do better in his new life, even if it means challenging a god.

Reverse isekai notable mentions include Outbreak Company, by Ichiro Sasaki, in which a fandom-obsessed teen is tapped by the Japanese government to export fandom to another world, and Restaurant in Another World, by Junpei Inuzaka, which combines cooking stories and slice-of-life stories as it follows the stories of adventurers from other worlds that have found their way to a restaurant in ours.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations: Isekai

With laughter and mockery closing off wish-fulfillment fantasies set in the familiar world around light novel readers, light novel fantasists escaped into other worlds, taking their everyday Japanese characters with them. These in another world fantasies, sometimes called portal fantasies in English but better known as isekai in Japanese, soon became the dominant genre of light novels, enjoying popularity for close to a decade with no end yet in sight.

Isekai portal fantasies offer a bridge between two types of fantasies, primary world fantasy and secondary world fantasy. Primary world fantasy, as described by J. R. R. Tolkien in "On Fairy-Stories", takes place on Earth, typically in the present at the time of writing. Examples of primary world fantasy include American Gods, The Dresden Files, and Who Fears the Devil?, with Soloman Kane, The Lord of the Rings, and arguably The Wheel of Time providing primary world fantasies in the past. Secondary world fantasy takes place in another world than Earth, such as Narnia, Westeros, Discworld, Lankhmar, or the scattered worlds of the Cosmere. Isekai takes main characters from the primary world and thrusts them into a secondary world adventure. Whether through a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, answering a strange personal advertisiment, or uploading one's consciousness into the internet, this transition between worlds is the defining feature of isekai. As this transition typically takes place in the first chapter, the story lives off the secondary world introduced to the reader.

While Western portal fantasies typically draw from sword-and-planet fantasy, myths, or fairy tales, Japanese light novels tend to draw from games for their conventions, with Dragon Quest being the primary influence--as discussed earlier on this site in "Blue Slime Fantasy."  While isekai portals into actual MMO worlds are common, today's recommendations look at adventures in fantasy worlds unconstrained by silicon, even if the leveling and the looting remain.

*****

Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, by Hiro Ainana

Programmer Ichiro "Satou" Suzuki falls asleep in an overtime patching session he calls a "death march", only to wake up in a world that resembles the game he was working on. While the leveling and skill systems come straight from the game, he soon finds the world too real, and starts delving its secrets.

Sometimes a recommendation is on this list not because of quality, but because it is the purest example of the form. And since isekai stories are currently caught up in a search for novelty, twisting and riffing on the conventions of isekai, an example of what everyone is trying to subvert is required. Death March gets the nod over titles like In Another World with My Smartphone for navigating the traditional isekai conventions of ever-increasing cast, lands, powers, and quests while dropping the least characters and plot threads along the way. While Death March incorporates gaming tropes, it straddles the line between game world and fantasy world as other characters are Japanese souls reincarnated into the new world.

Death March also is notable as a "burnout" fantasy, where the main character is an overworked salaryman thrust into a new life, as opposed to the under-socialized teens that commonly fill light novels. The result is a more idyllic journey through the video game-inspired fantasy world, as Satou grows to enjoy the moment instead of just being married to work. Satou's age and maturity, compared to most isekai protagonists, filter out a number of pandering tropes as well.

*****

Konosuba: God's Blessing on this Wonderful World!, by Natsume Akatsuki 

When perennial loser and MMO junkie Kazuma Satou dies trying to save a girl from a runaway tractor, he finds himself in the waiting room of heaven, where, after a goddess roasts him for being an idiot, she gives him a choice. Kazuma can enter heaven, or take a continue in an MMO-inspired world as an adventurer. Kazuma naturally chooses the second option, complete with the customary choice of a starting cheat in the form of a legendary item or skill. Wanting to wipe the smug smirk from the goddess’s face, Kazuma selects her as his special perk. After all, what could be more powerful in a fantasy world than a goddess? To her horror, heaven agrees to his request and sends them both to the fantasy world. Now Kazuma and the goddess Aqua must quest to defeat the Demon King before either can return home.

A light-hearted comedy, Konosuba follows the other tradition of isekai light novels, that of flipping over one or more conventions. Here, the wish-fulfillment seen in many light novels gets turned on its head, as Kazuma's crusade against the Demon King is quickly laid low by misfortune and misfits, with none more dysfunctional than the goddess at his side, Aqua. The comedy is situational instead of gag-based, fueled by subverted expectations and a rare willingness to let the characters indulge in their faults--including the women. But no matter how genre-savvy Kazuma may act, he never treats his new world as just a game. Although my first review was rough on the series, later volumes do become more enjoyable, another trait common with many light novels.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations - Secret Worlds

Like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, protagonists in the once popular secret world setting follow a bit of strangeness in an otherwise mundane life, discovering instead vast conspiracies and earthshaking revelations that upend the main character's understanding of what the world is and how the world works. For the shadows of everyday life are full of alien infiltrators, secret societies, living urban legends, ghosts, and other mysteries, each with a hand on the tiller of the world and each trying desperately not to be noticed. Swept up in that madness, suddenly a mundane life becomes something far grander and the world never seems quite so small--or safe--ever again.

These "secret world" fantasies are primary world fantasies, taking place on Earth in the present at the time written, and always offering a peek behind the curtain at Fortean secrets most people are unaware of. Popularized in light novel form by Boogiepop and Others, these secret world novels are a common setting for horror, as well as the main outlet for a pop science fiction junkie for the better part of a decade.

The height of the secret world books came to an end with the popularization of the term chunibyo ("Eighth Grader Syndrome" or middle-school delusions). Many of the stories of secret aliens, superheroes, and living legends found in secret world matched the delusions of grandeur common to a certain phase in a young teen's life, and realism and ironic detachment settled into the genre. Instead of being swept up by grand and hidden secrets, the main characters instead turn to rescue friends from their delusions. And if the delusions turned out to be real secret worlds, the characters view everything through a genre-savvy and often snark-filled lens. The point becomes to move past these delusions and accept life as it is, instead of thirsting for wonders unseen.

Those looking for wonder--or a place to revel in the fantastic unmocked by their peers--soon turned to settings beyond the constraints of the current day, to the video game-inspired settings of isekai portal fantasy.

As always, recommendations are limited to what I have read.


***

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Nagaru Tanigawa

Kyon is ready to start high school after putting aside childish things such as belief in UFOs and superheroes. Then, on the first day of class, he is introduced to Haruhi Suzumiya, a strange girl who has no interest in anything except the weird. Haruhi is unwilling to speak to anyone other than aliens, time-travelers, and psychics. But, after a chance conversation convinces Haruhi that Kyon shares her interest, he gets swept into Haruhi's strange club. A club full of aliens, time-travelers, and ESPers all trying to keep their identities a secret. For Haruhi also has a strange power to influence reality, and it's best for all that she never knows about it.

Admittedly, Haruhi puts the manic into manic pixie girl, but the real charm of the series is watching Kyon play the only sane man among his co-conspirators as they deal with time-traveling hijinks, dimensional shifts, homicidal aliens, and even rival clubs behind Haruhi's back. Over time, Haruhi adjusts to normal high school life, while Kyon warms up to the weirdness that surrounds Haruhi at all times. Kyon narrates the various mishaps in a deadpan that never lets up, no matter what pocket dimension, past era, or alternate timeline he finds himself in. Unfortunately, the complexities of simultaneous alternate dimension and time travel became too much for Tanigawa to navigate, so it is doubtful if the series will ever be finished past the tenth volume.


***

Bakemonogatari, by NISIO ISIN

After a particularly monstrous Spring Break, Koyomi Araragi's eyes are open to the various curses, monsters, and aberrations that cling to the people around him. When he catches a reclusive girl in his class after she floats down a staircase, he discovers that she is cursed with weightlessness. Freeing her from this curse only ensnares Koyomi in a strange web of living urban legends and monster tales.

I have reviewed Bakemonogatari both at my own blog and for Castalia House's, and find the series a complex mix of reward and frustration. NISIO ISIN brings two important elements not found in many light novels; a literate playfulness with the Japanese language and a deep love of mystery literature. Keen-eyed readers will see nods to American and Japanese mystery traditions, including a story structure familiar to fans of Doc Savage. Not only does Bakemonogatari play with language, but it is also rich in symbolism as well. The literate approach adds depth and gravity to the living ghost stories. Unfortunately, Bakemonogatari gets a little too taken with its own cleverness at times, and the less said about its pandering to some of the least tasteful trends of late 2000s Japanese pop culture, the better. But if a reader can overlook what for a light novel are minor foibles, the monster tales of Bakemonogatari are among the best in the medium.


***

Invaders of the Rokujouma, by Takehaya

Koutarou thinks he's found the perfect place to stay while his father is away. The apartment is close to school, and most importantly, the rent is dirt cheap. However, he soon finds out why, as a ghostly girl, two aliens, an honest-to-the-Moon magical girl, and an underworld princess crash through the door. Each invader wants Koutarou's apartment for their own purposes, but Koutarou is not willing to give up his room without a fight.

Let's get the obvious out of the way, as Invaders has sandpaper rough prose guaranteed to grate on the nerves of anyone with the slightest desire for style. However, what the series may lack in grace, it makes up with a surprising amount of heart. Instead of appealing to the young professionals who enjoy most light novels, Invaders is aimed at a junior high audience who might yearn for a little science fiction-flavored excitement. Freed from the demands of acting cool, the characters are given the chance to revel in the moment, whether it be the classic high school culture festival or ship vs. ship combat between rival space princesses. Uncluttered by the typical demands of fanservice, Invaders instead has room for a slow burn through an ambitious plot through time and space, with the invaders of Koutarou's apartment at the center. Also slowly burning is a rather sweet romantic rivalry as the invaders switch from invading an apartment to invading Koutarou's heart.


***

Honorable mentions include Full Metal Panic!, by Shoji Gatoh, an alternate history where the Cold War never ended in the 1980s and schoolgirl engineering geniuses are protected by mecha pilot mercenaries without social graces, and A Certain Magic Index, by Kazuma Kamachi, where an unlucky young man gets thrust into an X-Men-style clash between Science and Magic when he meets a young nun.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations: An Introduction

Light novels have been a frequent topic here, combining the evolution of the pulp magazine with Japanese pop culture to various degrees of success. In the 1970s, Japanese publishers combined pulp magazines with anime-inspired illustrations aimed at teens and young adults. Since then, the market for these short, pulpy and fannish novels (about 50,000 words or so, like the hero pulp novels), has exploded in Japan and abroad, with recent English publisher J-Novel Club releasing over 200 translated volumes in two years.

Success has changed light novels from their pulp origins. Rather than an episodic series like the Shadow or Doc Savage, the average light novel has returned to dime novel serialization, with many light novels amassing a dozen volumes of story and more. And, to fill the demand, publishers have been offering contracts to newer writers and web novel writers. So the polish expected of the pulps has started to rub away. But enthusiasm, novelty, and an editor's not-so-gentle prodding have carried many a light novel writer to success despite the deficiencies of technique. Currently, just as in American Young adult, the medium has been following their readers as they grow older. But the heart still remains--mystery, action, and a heavier leavening of the spicy than even Martin Goodman would consider wise.

Like in any medium that has been around for longer than a fortnight, writers have chased various trends. Currently, isekai portal fantasy and harem romance have been the rage, influencing Russian litRPG and the recent glut of American harem fantasies, to the point that many readers are searching for their next novelty fix. Prior to that, the fad of the day included, at various times, "devil" stories, sword and sorcery, space opera, magical battle academies, and high school secret histories.

Over the next few posts, I'll take a closer look at these admittedly broad categories and make recommendations in each, based on what is currently available, starting with my personal favorite category, the secret worlds.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Quick Reviews: Shadow Heart and A Thousand Li

Irma wishes to be the perfect girl: chaste, feminine, and generous. But when a giant monster stomps through her hometown, her plans crumbled right along with the stores and apartments.
In the chaos of acrid smoke and panicked civilians, the private military company Shadow Heart snatched her friend out of the crowd and took her captive.
Now Irma must pilot the Grand Valkyur, a mechanical titan of steel more powerful than any weapon made by human hands. With a brilliant sword that could cut any matter and gleaming armor that could withstand any weapon, the Valkyur challenges all who dare to fight it.
But piloting the Valkyur means using violence — and to Irma, violence is men’s work.How can she rescue her friend without betraying the feminine elegance she prides herself on?
The second novel from the #AGundam4Us circle of mecha enthusiasts, Rawle Nyanzi’s Shining Tomorrow: Shadow Heart embrace the giant robot vs. kaiju monster traditions of Ultraman. But where that past few years of big kaiju anthologies have treated these heroes with a double-helping of camp, Shadow Heartinstead plays the heroic struggle straight. This alternative history future, similar to The Man in the High Castle but with Japanese hegemony instead of German, provides a backdrop for the deadly intrigue that sets the main character Irma on the path to becoming the masked heroine Shoujo Red. But before Irma can settle the clashes threatening to sweep the world into another war, she must first resolve the conflict between the constraining demands of a prim schoolgirl and the needs of a larger-than-life warrior. While the action easily fits the grand expectations of the genre, the star of this novel is the almost alien Japanese-American hybrid society, complete with the rigid expectations for Irma and the rest of society.

Long Wu Ying never expected to join a Sect or become a real cultivator. His days were spent studying, planting rice on the family farm and spending time with his friends. Fate, however, has different plans for Wu Ying and when the army arrives at his village, he and many other members of the village are conscripted. Given the opportunity to join the Verdant Green Waters Sect, Wu Ying must decide between his pedestrian, common life and the exciting, blood soaked life of a cultivator.
Join Wu Ying as he takes his first step on his Thousand Li journey to become an immortal cultivator.
Chinese xianxia fantasy continues make inroads into English audiences with Tao Wong’s A Thousand Li: The First Step. Like many series before it, A Thousand Lifollows the life of a young boy into manhood as he struggles to master the intricacies of chi cultivation, the internal martial arts, and the world around him. Tao Wong brings some Western sensibilities to the genre that make this fantasy more accessible to Western readers unfamiliar with the legends around Chinese internal martial arts. The growth in cultivation levels, and thus in hero Long Wu Ying’s magical and martial abilities, are tied to concrete achievements, such as clearing chi meridians, instead of random increases in levels of chi. This sense of accomplishment carries over into Wu Ying’s personality and story arc. Many xianxia fantasies are power fantasies, with arrogant heroes effortlessly surpassing the conflicts in their path through natural talent. Wu Ying starts as a disgraced peasant of above-average ability, and is repeatedly thrown into perils where he must either adapt and overcome or die. This gives him a sense of accomplishment and humility that many of his peers lack. Wu Ying’s adventures through the Chinese magical academy make for an excellent introduction to the xianxia genre.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Dragon Award 2019 nominations

With the Dragon Awards picking up steam in discussions as of late, here are my current choices for the categories. The Award eligibility period is July 2018-June 2019, and the nominations remain open until 19 July, 2019. Unlike other awards, there is no cost for nominating or voting.

Not all categories have selections, especially gaming, TV, and movies. Also, unlike the Hugos, voters only nominate one title per category, which means that there are a couple hard choices to make. Fortunately, there's still a couple months before the deadline.



Best Science FictionCombat Frame XSeed, by Brian Niemeier, or Pop Kult Warlord, by Nick Cole, if Brian declines.



Best Fantasy - Sword of Kaigen, by M. L. Wang or Sowing Dragon Teeth, by James Alderdice. 



Best Young Adult - Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, vol. 12, by Fujino Omori. It's a decent novel, horribly misleading title. Rather than the adventures of a rake, a young teen decides to be an adventurer, but has to get rescued when he gets in over his head. He crushes on his rescuer, and the puppy love drives him to become a hero worthy of fighting by her side.


Best milSF - I like Retribution better, but Jason Anspach and Nick Cole want the fans to get behind Galaxy's Edge: Order of the Centurion


Best Media Tie-In - Realmslayer, by David Guymer

Best ComicsAlt-Hero Q #1

Best Graphic Novel - Conan le Cimmérien - Le Colosse noir, or Elric, the White Wolf, vol 1. by Julien Blondel, et al.

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mini Game - Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team

******

A few comments on the Dragons. It is good to see a fan-oriented science fiction award that fits the current practices of other Internet Age awards. That said, short fiction exists, and it would be nice for the Dragons to acknowledge this admittedly atomized field. Maybe in the future?

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Out Today: Queen of the Martian Catacombs

Trouble is brewing on Mars... With civil war about to erupt, Eric John Stark has been sent to investigate an apocalyptic warlord recruiting mercenaries. More disturbing than the promise of a full-scale war to unify the Martian city-states is the claim that Delgaun's ally, Kynon of Shun, has at his disposal ancient sorceries that grant him powers of life and death.

When Kynon's mistress, the beautiful Berild, takes an interest in Stark, the mercenary swordsman finds himself caught in a web of betrayal and evil magic. Can Stark unravel the mysteries of the lost Martian tribe and pull Mars back from the brink of war? The mysterious Berild is prepared to kill to keep the secret buried in the deserts of Mars--or offer it up on a plate to stark if he will help her conquer the Red Planet!

An all-new, fully-illustrated edition of Leigh Brackett's classic Sword & Planet adventure! 


This 6″ x 9″ volume contains Queen of the Martian Catacombs, by Leigh Brackett, fully illustrated by Star Two, with an introduction by Nathan Housley.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Team Stark: Only One Day Away

Only one day remains before Queen of the Martian Catacombsby Leigh Brackett, releases in paperback and Kindle. Get your copy of the pulp classic, brought to life with illustrations by Star Two.