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The Crew of the Helianthus has intriguing relationships

By Brian Thompson, member

Jun 19, 2019: Crew of the Helianthus is weekly serial about an old space ship with a vibrant young crew. Each story describes an important event in their struggle to obtain resources while exploring the galaxy about five hundred years in the future. Humanity has spread across the Network, a set of planetary systems that can be reached within a few days by jumping through the mysterious “Space Between” with some very peculiar properties.

A delicate peace exists between the superpowers in the Network, but that is of secondary concern to the crew of the Helianthus whose main focus is to earn resources by trading goods and transporting guests. Because the Helianthus is a freelance ship, its crew does not belong to any one faction. That means its crew must find work while navigating both the dangers of space and the intrigue of interplanetary diplomacy.

The story begins with the arrival of a new crew member, Valorie Davis, who is a gifted ex-Imperial communicator with a jaded background. She is a warm yet secretive character because she is afraid that the rules applied to her kind could lead her to inadvertently betray her new crew mates. She has symptoms of PTSD from previous traumatic events that resulted partly from the abilities of her species and the talents she developed in her past career. She want to make the transition to becoming a member of the Helianthus crew but she must evolve and adapt to accomplish that. Of course, she makes mistakes and is misunderstood which leads to scenarios that teach the reader about the nature of the Network and its superpowers.

The other members of the crew are equally interesting both because of their unique talents, and because of the complex and charming personalities. Most weekly episodes focus subtly on the nature one of the characters, initially to reveal their nature, and eventually to show how their character was developed in past crisis or how the character is evolving in a current event.

The essence of these stories (for me) is the interplay between characters which both reveals and develops their personalities, and of course, advances the storyline. I gleaned a great deal of pleasure from the reading about the nature of each unique character and their relationships to others onboard. I also enjoyed how the storyline presents the interactions between characters because of the depth of the emotional components of each character that is implied or subtly revealed by the very personal style of writing chosen by the author. I feel like the author is writing specifically to me.

One of the first things that appealed to me in the Crew of the Helianthus was relationship between the first officer, Leon, and the captain, Gareth. Leon is almost overprotective of the Captain because, of course, their leader must be protected by his crew. There is a depth to this relationship, and to all relationships between crew members, that is a reader magnet. The author peels each layer open one by one, week by week: each layer is consistent with the previous, and each new layer provides more profound insights into the deep and compassionate nature of each unique crew member. I often find myself engrossed in wondering about the implications this conversation has for other relationships between other characters: what would change if someone else knew about this conversation. I also enjoy the balance between pragmatism and compassion that is present in the makeup of all characters yet quite unique to each. The interpersonal relationships between crew members are like “candy” when reading the Crew of the Helianthus.

I have never been a very good reviewer, so please accept my apologies for that, but you might find important is that since starting to follow this serial, I have looked forward each week to the next new episode.

Each episode has invariably heightened my curiosity about the nature of one member or another of the crew. The book presents a world that is quite realistic in part because it relates how our knowledge and understanding of the world is always incomplete. The storyline intrigues me because it ventures to expose what a Captain really knows, and needs to know, about his crew. And, what does a first officer, an engineer, a navigator, or a communicator really need to know versus what they actually told or discover for themselves? The relationships are the most interesting element of this weekly serial, at least for me.

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Daring but Didactic

By Rhodeworks, author of Not All Heroes

Jan 30, 2019: Vigilantes Make Us Safe (henceforth VMUS) is an intriguing, ambitious idea. Essentially, it is a collection of serials where each one follows a specific character in a wider world where the American government has legalized vigilante justice. In short, I feel the idea, while shaky, is more let down by the execution than the core concepts.

This review covers Hitbox, Rebel Rebel, Dynamo, Serenity and Toxic, as well as the first few chapters of The Law. I have attempted to condense the thoughts, positive or negative, into ones that are more of a recurring pattern across the various works. The most obvious part of the pattern, and therefore what I’m going to mention first, is that VMUS feels like a very political work, written as a response to certain events that took place within the United States over the past few years, and the fears of what might result from them.

So, for better or worse, VMUS certainly feels unique.

But it is hard to ignore that feeling, and it leaves the various works feeling quite didactic. The third-person present tense, combined with the characterization and often-clunky dialogue, reinforces that feeling. The sense of didacticism is further bolstered by how the stories proceed, as if we are reading a summary of stories written elsewhere. Often, the pacing is a bit shaky, where a lot of time (and words) is spent on exposition, and the elements that could be quite interesting are hastily ‘told’ over. I think the worldbuilding is hit hard by this, too (and I could’ve sworn there was a page on the site that illustrated some of the world’s fictional history, but I couldn’t track it down.)

I don’t have an issue with a political work. If that’s what A.M. Thorn is attempting, then I applaud them and I want to make it clear that I am not penalizing them for it. The issue is that chapters sometimes read more like a summary than a story, and it really hurts the potential. A lot of the components of these stories feel quite strong, but they aren’t given the best opportunity to shine.

For example, I point to the characters. Conceptually, I’d say they are all pretty solid and I liked them all well enough. However, the story uses a lot of distancing language – and a lot of exposition – which, along with that didactic tone, makes it difficult to immerse myself in their lives and problems. As an aside, I think Jia was my personal favorite of the various protagonists.

The writing is all generally pretty solid. As far as grammar and spelling go, I didn’t notice any issues. The stories are pretty easy to follow. However, the exposition can really slow things down. The stories can feel hard to read because so much is heaped on the reader so quickly, exacerbated by the length of many of the paragraphs.

My personal pick of the ones I read is The Law. A lot of the issues I’ve raised are less present there. If I had to point to one thing I’d recommend VMUS does, it would be to guide new readers a bit better. With so many stories, even I felt a touch of choice paralysis. Just a little hint which one is the best to begin with, y’know? As it is, it feels like every story has to spend time establishing itself as if the reader is completely new to the VMUS world.

Overall, though, I think VMUS has a lot of ambition and heart. The execution doesn’t quite match those two things, however, which lets it all down. But there’s so much stuff here, with such a varied cast, that I think everyone might be able to find something they like. With experience and confidence, I think A.M. Thorn might be able to create something really interesting.

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Enjoyable Despite the Shaky Premise

By Megajoule, author of The Warlock Ruthless

Jan 28, 2019: Note: sort of part of a review swap, though I’ve moved away from doing them and wanted to review VMUS anyway. I always endeavor to be honest.

Vigilantes Make Us Safe (or VMUS) is worth checking out. That’s my thesis statement for this review, so you know how I feel about it right off the bat. The work oscillated between "fairly solid" and "solid" but ended up at fairly solid for me. There were certain works that were more intriguing or well written than others, I think especially the later ones.

Most of what I read includes Hitbox, which seems to be the kind of foundation piece of VMUS, but I don’t think there is any one story that’s supposed to be the main one. I read portions of the others but enjoyed "The Law" the most.

VMUS is built off a premise I found somewhat faulty, and while I always try to allow a story the concept it sets out, there was some inconsistent worldbuilding around the idea that made it hard to buy. I would describe it as vaguely "The Purge" meets superheroes/vigilantes. The basic summary is that the President is gung-ho for allowing Watchmen style vigilantes back on the streets again. He pushes a bill through Congress that gets vigilantes legal rights. The Purge-esque elements come from his strange insistence that people should start right away.

It makes me wonder if it’s purposeful, but the problem is details outside of that are scant, at least within Hitbox’s story up to where I read. Certain clerks have no idea what the language of the bill even means, but then the test Zach ends up taking seems like it’s been run for years at this point, fine-tuned to a smooth process. The clash strains immersion.

That said, I found that to be the weakest part, which means that the rest of VMUS – the characters, the writing, and the grammar – range from solid to compelling. Zach, in particular, I actually quite liked. He is somewhat of a stock trope, being the orphaned son of multibillionaires a la Batman/Iron Fist. However, AM Thorn spins it more realistically, to the point that I felt like I would do exactly what Zach would do if I had enough money to live on for centuries and was deeply depressed: I would stay in my shitty apartment and play games and eat/drink myself to death (of course, Zach swerves course when he finds out about the VMUS act).

I mentioned enjoying The Law quite a bit. The first episodes were fairly tense, full of mystery, and seemed even more tautly written than Hitbox. Hitbox had some early stilted dialogue and writing that I noticed (though not enough to make me stop reading), while The Law was more competent and terse, and not quite so wooden with exposition. Perhaps because there was the expectation that you’d read other works first, but it didn’t waste too much time rehashing the premise.

Overall, I ended up on fairly solid. While the characters were neat and the writing overall quite good, the premise of VMUS is hard to swallow and inconsistently built around, and some dialogue can be wooden. That said, it’s definitely worth a look if you like grounded superhero stories. With the vast library, you’re more than likely to find something you enjoy.

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