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SUPER MINION

Hooked from the start

By Fiona Gregory, editor

Jul 31, 2020: Imaginative narrative from the perspective of an artificially intelligent being in a paranormal affected near future. Subtly humorous and subtly appalling. Full of adventure and flows well.

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WORTH THE CANDLE

A LitRPG Matrushka

By theredsheep, author of Pyrebound

May 23, 2020: I’m not going to bother with an elaborate intro here, because everybody knows this story. I’ll just say that WtC is a LitRPG. I have never played a tabletop RPG in my life, have no interest in it, have yet to actually unabashedly like a LitRPG . . . and I went through all million-plus words of WtC in a week. Because WtC is much more than a LitRPG.

So much more, in fact, that it’s hard to pin down what it is, because it’s so many different things at once. First, it’s a hardcore litRPG full of statistic wonkery and munchkinry. Then, it’s a deconstruction of role-playing tropes. Then it’s a loving tribute to the culture and experience of tabletop gaming. Then it’s a psychological drama, exploring one man’s efforts to overcome his personal demons. Then it’s a romance. Then it’s a series of well-executed action scenes. Then it’s a work on moral philosophy. Then it does something else. And it shifts more or less seamlessly between all these modes without losing control of its overall tone or pacing, which is frankly a remarkable accomplishment.

With so much wrapped up in it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something you love. That’s the good news. I especially enjoyed a particular epic duel somewhere around the million word mark (if you’ve read it, you know the one I’m talking about). Other high points: ingenious problem solving, intricately developed fantasy conceits, generally good pacing, and the odd burst of sick but still funny humor. At one point there’s a madman slaughtering hundreds of innocent people, and it’s being played for comedy, and . . . it works. He pulls it off.

But by the same token, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something you really, really don’t love. For me it was the mechanics-heavy sections, plus everything related to [a certain school of magic which shall remain nameless]. The romance parts also don’t do a lot for me because, while I want Joon to find some happiness in this crapsack world, the foreshadowing on his love life is a bit heavy and the resolution so long in coming that it feels a bit like watching a man hammer a nail at 2 fps. Your mileage may vary, of course. Keep on moving, you’re bound to find something you love further on.

Final observation, neither criticism nor praise: every work reflects its author’s mindset. Your characters can’t help being reflections of you. I was struck by the essential optimism of Wales’s work; it reminds me of Neal Stephenson, another proud Midwesterner. It feels like there’s a general assumption that everyone in this very grim fantasy world has agency and is capable of self-improvement, even if they don’t take advantage of that opportunity, and that only ignorance and disorganization stand in the way. That I don’t personally view the world this way only makes it more enjoyable.

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MOURNERS, ABEDNEGO, PERSISTENCE

Beware the Purple

By Pyrocardiac, member

May 3, 2020: The Sebastio Artaxerxes saga, of which Mourners Etc. is part two, isn’t so much a story as an artifact, the enjoyment of which lies mainly in exploring its details and peculiarities. I’m tempted to judge it on its considerable merits as such, except that it clearly wants to be a story. And credit where it’s due, it improves on its predecessor The Simulacrum of Dread in this regard, with a more consistent plot, sustained tension and mystery, and characters whom I’ve at least spent enough time with to care what becomes of them and their noble mission.

This tale lives in the Thomas Generalized Recountings Library, whose unique flavor I tried to communicate in my Simulacrum review and won’t be expanding on here. Quick plot rundown: Sebastio, armed in the most literal sense with a godlike superweapon, has taken over the domain of Pennat Gate and established it as a kind of refugee asylum for the omniverse known as the Gem, a move which earned him some powerful political enemies. Thanks to shenanigans ex machina at the end of part one, a group of hitherto purely destructive Beasts from the chaotic interstitial realm of the Purple have become rational (and kind of adorable) and are making their first foray into the civilized world. Now Sebastio and crew have to deal with the consequences of integrating their monstrous new guests while fending off various conspiracies and power-hungry neighbors.

All the pieces are here for a cerebral and outlandish ethico-political drama, but too many of those pieces are stifled, truncated, or not quite strung together so as to create a greater whole. (I realized belatedly how many “buts” there are in this review. That’s the most frustrating part: there’s a lot to like in the TGRL and it all comes with caveats.)

Mourners sets up promising potential plot threads and conflicts only to either leave them by the wayside or resolve them with baffling abruptness. We’re convinced for all of two scenes that our overpowered hero’s existence might really be in danger and/or that he can’t protect his people from something. We’re reminded that the quirky cosmic beings who facilitated his rise to power have their own agenda for him, then left wondering ever after what it might be. We get a genuinely suspenseful battle that by all rights ought to be some kind of significant setup or turning point but turns out to be basically a self-contained episode. The many mysteries left unanswered serve their purpose of establishing that we’re only seeing a tiny slice of an infinitely bigger world. But the least readers deserve for persevering through labyrinthine wit, diplomatic doublespeak, and combat that only a programmer could write is a satisfying payoff to the mysteries we’ve been following within that tiny slice.

Much of the drama of speculative fiction lies in confronting the mind with possibilities beyond its ken, and yes, Mourners does this. It introduces big, fertile ideas: what if a society with effectively infinite resources still wasn’t willing to make room for everyone? What if some of the most fearsome creatures in existence miraculously gained sapience and just wanted to be friends? These ideas are fun for us readers to think about, but it’s hard to feel their impact on characters who already live in a world of impossibilities. This is a major reason why the Earth-born character Louis feels thoroughly squandered until too late, to say nothing of Sebastio’s relationship with Caladhbolg, his talking WMD of a passenger. It might also be why Seven, the viewpoint character for the uplifted Beasts, is my favorite of this installment.

The prose hasn’t changed since last time: still leagues more polished than most, still entertaining and evocative at its best, still weaving drunkenly down the line between clever and maddeningly prolix. If good writers strive for clarity, conciseness, and courtesy, the author’s style is discourteously self-indulgent. I can admire the nerve it takes to casually use calculus terms to tell me that an aircraft’s ascent is slowing, but I can’t enjoy it as literature.

For those who are just searching for something different, I still say the TGRL is worth a look. Whatever else one can say about it, it’s a labor of love, imagination, and talent on an internet full of mediocrity. I believe that with a little more labor and less elaboration for elaboration’s sake, a cult audience could love it almost as much as its creator does.

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