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URBAN REVERIE

Strange, Beautiful, Fantastic

By ElliottThomasStaude, author of Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

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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THE SIMULACRUM OF DREAD

An Impenetrable Achievement

By Rhodeworks, author of Not All Heroes

Mar 9, 2019: IN SHORT: The laws of space-time state that the denser an object is, the more it draws someone in. The rules of writing, however, state the opposite. Case in point: The Simulacrum of Dread is dense to the point of being impenetrable.

IN LONG: One of my favorite novels is Blindsight by Peter Watts. In it, an alien species receives transmissions from Earth but cannot make sense of them, the transmissions being packed with too much information they cannot understand. Unable to parse the data as anything but dense, loud noise, the aliens assume that they are being attacked.

My time with The Simulacrum of Dread made me feel like one of those aliens.

I bring up Blindsight because I like dense science-fiction. I like stories that throw you in the proverbial deep end and expect you to swim. I like stories where I feel like I’m learning things. I like stories that aren’t afraid to throw heady words at you, expecting you to piece them together through context and so on. I’m even down for excessively meta stories like House of Leaves or Ship of Theseus. But even to me, Dread is impenetrable.

Dread is interesting. It abandons pretty basic concepts of storytelling, such as explaining what a particular object or thing is, in favor of dense worldbuilding. It’s clear that Staude is aiming for a distinct type of story with a distinct feel and that I may not be part of the audience who gets it. On the other hand, I’m not sure who would.

I spent a lot of my time with Dread confounded. It’s clear that Staude is acting with deliberation. Some of the entries in the glossary (which you will almost certainly need to refer to as you go through the long, wordy chapters) are some of the highlights of the story/site simply because they get to the point and demonstrate that he can add some purple flourish to text without making it as loud and overbearing as an electric neon indigo sunburst.

How do you rate a story like this? A simple one-to-five system doesn’t really fit. On one hand, it does nothing to engage the reader and make them become interested in this sci-fi spectacle of multi-dimensional scope. On the other, it’s clearly written with a purpose and care, probably more than most serials you’d find here. And yet, on the third hand growing out of my chest, what’s the point of writing for a purpose if it is all too dense to engage with?

I like bits and pieces of Dread. As mentioned, there are pleasant flourishes here and there. Some of the setting elements are neat. Some of the names are just nice to say, such as Sebastio Artaxerxes—even if I feel like it belongs to some brooding vampire crime boss. The overall problem with it is that I didn’t feel anything that was conducive to following the story. I was never engrossed, but I was also never interested. The prose was just too dense to allow my brain to settle into the rhythm of the story.

Because I did feel things, and that is respectable too. I was positively daunted by this story. That’s quite the achievement. In some ways, this story is quite monumental. Dare you attempt to conquer it?

Maybe it all just wasn’t for me. Above all else, however, The Simulacrum of Dread is certainly unique and constructed with purpose. That does make it interesting. But I fear the audience for this effort is quite narrow, even among people who might otherwise be interested in it. I respect Staude’s efforts, but it just makes me wish he’d directed his talents toward a story that was easier to get into, with more heart than worldbuilding. It’s like building a grand temple at the peak of Olympus Mons: an achievement, but to what end?

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THE SIMULACRUM OF DREAD

Don’t Panic, There’s a Glossary

By Pyrocardiac, member

Mar 8, 2019: The author of The Simulacrum of Dread knows what he’s talking about when he describes it as "quite emphatically not for everyone”. Let me expand on that. If you love aliens, morally conflicted heroes with supernatural powers, quests for mythical swords, power struggles that “dwarf words as simple as ‘cosmic,’” and/or vampires, it may be for you. If you love those things in the context of an easily-digestible narrative that gets right to the point, run for your life. If you love intricate world-building rife with metaphysical imagination above all else, allow me to congratulate you on your entry into nerd heaven. And if you’re still not sure, you should have a good sense by the second chapter at least.

Elliott Thomas Staude does not believe in hand-holding. Expect to find yourself foundering in made-up words early on, and I’m not even talking about the proper nouns like Weguerreguwregerr. He has, however, been kind enough to start building a glossary within the “Thomas Generalized Recountings Library,” still under construction at the time of this writing. His work explores an all-encompassing reality called “the gem,” where anything can happen and probably already has, somewhere. It’s a blender full of quirky races, impossible places, magic (wait till you see how he defines magic), and other sufficiently advanced technology. These and other elements are liable to be introduced by name only, with no explanation or description until context allows for it organically, which may not happen until much later in the novella if ever. Unless you have an exceptional memory, some scenes will only make sense upon a second reading. I fully respect this approach, but fair warning to those who don’t like being confused.

Elliott decidedly nails the immersion in this multifaceted world of his. In fact, so immersed was I in the scenarios and concepts presented during the early chapters that I found myself forgetting what the story was supposed to be about. Some will undoubtedly find this a drawback. Mercifully, he dials it back long enough for anyone still reading to get invested in the main events. Just when you think things might be settling into a more straightforward action fantasy groove, you’ll be whisked off to causality watchdogs or entropy-based interplanar trade deals to remind you just whose story this is, which you may or may not find refreshing. Simulacrum really shines in its evocation of things beyond the bounds of our experience or comprehension, stoking the imagination with big surreal ideas composited from fantasy, philosophy, and pseudoscience.

Right. The plot. It’s there, though it sometimes feels more like a connecting thread between stops on a tour than anything in its own right. Elliott is interested above all in exploring his uberworld with us, and a glance at the upcoming tales in the Recountings Library suggests there’s also a fair amount of setup happening here. It centers on Sebastio Artaxerxes, security consultant with a troubled past, who’s been chosen as a pawn in one of the vague feuds of an eclectic and mind-squashingly powerful bunch called the Beings of Old. A few unexpected consequences later, he finds himself in a unique position to carve out a slice of destiny for himself – if an old friend, and the titanic machinations surrounding them both, don’t get him first. A story worth following, though it could have been much more enjoyable had it received the same level of care as its setting.

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether this novella’s strengths compensate for its lack of heart. There are no endearing characters to be found here, with the possible exceptions of Bugbear and Sun – everyone else is simply too pragmatic. A POV character may be introduced and discarded within the span of a chapter, never to be seen again, which I suppose is a matter of personal preference. Sebastio himself is sympathetic at best. The villain is creepy, bloodsoaked cardboard, and although putting up with him for a chapter yields hints of a more compelling conflict, it’s never fully realized. No compelling conflict is, for that matter. Some of the person-to-person confrontations do succeed in creating dramatic tension, none of which ever lasts for long. What action there is suffers from detachment and the inherent limitations of unlimited possibility, striking and creative though its imagery may be. I followed the world-shattering events as a curious onlooker rather than an engaged participant. I then had to go back and double check that this was listed as a complete novel, as it doesn’t build to anything resembling a satisfactory climax or conclusion. Presumably Mourners, Abednego, Persistence will pick up the dangling threads whenever it comes out. I’m more than willing to revise the above criticisms if the sequel gets around to remedying them, since I will certainly be reading it.

Other thoughts:

It’s only the author’s penchant for maximum vocabulistics at the expense of flow that keeps the overall writing just shy of elegant. He loves language and wants to employ it as fully as possible, for better and worse. Sentences on the better end are fun little brainteasers or wonderfully inventive descriptions; on the worse end they’re unholy dictionary pileups. (Grammatically impeccable pileups, mind you; I don’t want to slander the man.) But there are so many more deft and even poetic lines that I suspect the monstrosities are just thrown in to mess with us.

Though Simulacrum can get pretty spectacularly violent and grotesque, Elliott is having way too much fun for it to ever go full grimdark. The humor he injects ranges from subtle to disarming to outright absurd, and it all lands. I’m thinking of the particular scene in Chapter 2 that convinced me to keep reading. You’ll know it when you see it.

With unearthly happenings recounted in a deadpan-erudite manner, it put me in mind by turns of the Wanderer’s Library and the SCP Foundation, Vitaly S. Alexius, Garth Nix, and even a certain guidebook for hitchhikers, but the truth is that I’ve never read anything quite like The Simulacrum of Dread. If you have a taste for the unconventional, a sense of wonder, and a bit of patience, give it a try. You’ll either be pleasantly surprised or give yourself a headache. Possibly both.

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