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More human interest, young grasshopper!

By theredsheep, author of Pyrebound

Apr 17, 2019: Orphans follows four adolescent students at a martial arts temple where they have lived their whole lives. The twist is that this temple specializes in psychic ability as well as kung fu—in fact, the psychic aspect predominates. Our foursome have to use their powers to find out why they’re there and why the temple seems to be gearing up for war.

The mental powers have multiple elaborate applications, as well as broader implications for the story’s society. All very good, what you’d expect from a spec-fic work by a thoughtful writer. In this case, however, the author’s enthusiasm for his lore runs away with the storytelling.

Of the foursome the story focuses on—Xu, Ran, Thom, and Chou—we get to know basically their names, genders, and little more. I couldn’t tell that the narrator Xu was a boy until the fifth update (and I was looking for a stray pronoun to clue me in). I don’t know what they look like, except that Thom is pretty buff, and their personalities aren’t all that developed either (Ran seems more lively and assertive). We get to know two teachers so far; one is nice and the other is horrible.

Part of this may be due to their masters teaching them to repress their emotions—on a related note, the story is told in a rather bloodless and sometimes stilted style thus far. But I think it’s more that the author is more interested in the mind-blowing stuff you can do when you’re a psychic monk (and the political/philosophical implications of same).

To be fair, there are some pretty cool ideas here—think of The Matrix, only powered by ESP—but at some points it doesn’t feel like a narrative so much as sitting down for a couple of beers with Rynjin while he talks about this totally sweet system he made. And he misses some real opportunities to show the human side of his world.

For example, at one point early in the story (not really a major spoiler, but stop reading if you want it absolutely pristine), they learn that their teachers can hear their thoughts. This is a staggering revelation. These kids just learned they have had no privacy whatever for their entire lives. They react with momentary and subdued dismay, then move on. Bear in mind that these are teenagers. Do you remember the kind of stuff that went through your mind when you were a teenager? And how you dealt with it?

Then there’s the setting. It’s . . . called Gao Shansi. It’s sort of temple-ish, I guess. Parts of it are wood, I think, with trees in courtyards. They eat rice with their stew. Most of the people there have Chinese-sounding names, with a few intriguing but unexplored exceptions like "Anya" and "Jacque."

Without fully developed characters in a firmly established setting, the emotional impact of the story is greatly muted. The good news is that the story is otherwise fundamentally sound as far as pacing and such go. It’s only woolgathering a bit. Orphans gets three stars, "worth a look."

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Quorias & Quoriaser

By tkjarrah, author of blacklight

Apr 15, 2019: Short Version – if you enjoy the experience of going ‘oh my god no you idiot don’t’ every few paragraphs, Quoria is for you. No, this is not sarcasm.

Long Version – Quoria is a fantasy detective/noir story about Colton McKinley, an ex-con and current PI, and his struggles to get by in the fantasy, 1900s-esque city of Quoria, vexed at every turn by suspicious police, shady clients, and most often, his own tendency to be kind of an idiot.

Quoria (the city) is a great setting, a weird mix of middle/modern fantasy, 1920s New York City and 1950s Heartland America. Think a typical noir city, but throw in magical dolls, soda bars and screamo music in the bars instead of jazz, and you’ll be close. (That last one is a joke . . . or is it?)

The city, and the world in general, give the impression of being very fleshed out (to the point that there’s an entire set of fictional months and respective horoscopes made up), but as the story is fairly small scale, so far we haven’t seen much of it.

That’s okay, though, because the characters are definitely where Quoria (the serial, not the city) really shine. Colton himself is a great protagonist, by virtue of having no common sense whatsoever but being endearing enough that you root for him anyway. If you come from a circle of the internet where ‘disaster gay/bi’ is common, you’ll recognise it instantly in him.

The rest of the cast is just as good – Detective Mabre “Javert But Like Not As Utterly Stupid” Darling and university student/part-time back alley fight club participant/full-time Hawaiian shirt wearer Jude Baer are my personal favourites, but there’s also a dubiously-genuine fortune-teller, Everybody’s Little Brother, definitely just a normal tailor, and others! Something For Everyone!

One piece of information it’s good to have is that updates can be somewhat inconsistent, but we’re all just trying to survive under late-stage capitalism so if you have a problem with that you probably aren’t gonna enjoy this anyway.

Oh, and also everyone’s gay. Go read!

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Strange, Beautiful, Fantastic

By ElliottThomasStaude, author of The Simulacrum of Dread

Apr 14, 2019: Urban Reverie is a collection of delicious ingredients being cooked for a recipe both completely unknown and completely worthy of examination. The enigmatic Joaquin Saavedra has a few flaws in the storytelling department, grammatical or typographical for the most part, in addition to resorting to explaining certain magical apparatus as “it’s just not possible to understand!” a tad more often than advisable. However, the only other things which I’ve looked at and considered as potential defects constitute matters of taste; considering the collective taste of the work, which I find powdery-sweet with just the right hint of sourness, those defects seem trivial and utterly inconsequential.

Urban Reverie is what you’d get if you took a good bit of English/Gaelic folklore, stirred in a few pinches of Asia Minor and Vedic influence, cut it with a large amount of totally original material, or which certainly seems that way at least, poured it onto a proto-steampunk civilization, and then let it develop into a modern nation after they realize that magic is a good answer to many problems of civil and information engineering. It’s great. For a lorehound it’s like walking into a convention and getting a Christmas present from every third conversation. The mechanics of the universe’s fundamental composure and the essential structuring of magic have a very neat and mathematically-inspired design. For that matter, Joaquin seems to have a fair interest in matters like the Qabalah and traditional Western alchemy (alright, the moniker “dwarf” is used instead of “gnome” – zero stars). It’s serious enough about itself that you’re compelled to also take it seriously, but not above levity sparingly introduced. In fairness to some people, the way that many things are just not spelled out up front might rankle somewhat, but I have enjoyed it greatly.

Without giving much away, because a story’s plot is like dignity – it shouldn’t be idly surrendered without a very compelling reason – the events generally unfold around friends Oberen, Chrysanthemum, and Quinen, who have an unusual relationship to say the least. Things start off with raised eyebrows, on the set of a scene which would make Van Helsing proud, and don’t ever come close to “perfectly standard” despite the portrayal of certain major archetypical locales: the halls of academia, a murder (!?) scene, a dealer’s den, homey little apartments, and so on. Some of this is the alien society in which this all takes place, but it’s a little bit of a mystery, a little bit of political conspiracy, a little bit of crunchy action, and a little bit of other stuff less easily pigeonholed, which results in a . . . well, something like a space opera wearing the skin of unusual fantasy. A bucketful of different species trying to coexist in at least passive-aggressive acceptance, the edifice of a monolithic governing establishment, and a place where even daily routine seems fascinating to freshly-introduced outsiders.

In short, there’s an admirable grand design in Urban Reverie: cute if obviously strange romance, a layered tapestry of lore, interesting people, big-picture planning, and many many places where it’s just cool to read. It’s absolutely worth picking up, and doubly so if you like fantasy that lies well outside shouting distance of Lord of the Rings.

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