Im Eisland: Band 1, Die Franklin-Expedition

Image ID: A panel of a man seated on the ground, taking notes. He has a thick beard and is dressed in an Inuit style coat. His internal monologue reads, in German, "Was gescha damals vor 20 Jahren wirklich, als die Franklin-Expedition in der Arktis zugrunde ging? Ich, Charles Francis Hall, werde das Rätsel lösen!" The Snapchat caption reads, in English, "'I, Charles Francis Hall, will solve the puzzle!' Fuck, that is so very Hall." End ID.

Kristina Gehrmann’s “Im Eisland” trilogy has been on my radar for a long time and I’ve owned it for almost as long. It’s the story of the Franklin Expedition and its disappearance in the Arctic in the mind 1800s. If you’re a long time follower, you probably recognize the name as I’ve had at least three reviews on FE related fiction appear on this blog. Due to the mystery of the expedition, however, each piece of fiction brings something new and “Im Eisland” is no exception.

Volume one starts with Charles Francis Hall interviewing a group of Inuit about discovering the remains of the expedition before flashing back to just prior to the expedition sailing and getting to know our key players. It then ends with the death of the first of the Beechey Boys, the trio of men who died during the first winter when the ships were frozen in at Beechey Island.

Something I really loved was how seamlessly we are introduced to new, frequently similar looking, characters without the narrative grinding to a halt. I also enjoyed how we got an even split between scenes with the officers and scenes with the men, which we are given through John Torrington, Thomas Evans, and John and Tom Hartnell, being point-of-view characters. (Note: The two Johns here make up two of the Beechey three, so it makes a lot of sense to make them early POV characters.)

Image ID: A panel of a man, First Lieutenant Graham Gore, playing the flute. He has dark hair with muttonchops and a freckle on his left cheek. Behind him is a string of music notes. The Snapchat caption reads "Gore on the flute!!!" End ID.

It’s also very clear that a lot of care went into the research. For example, we see Graham Gore playing the flute, which he did historically, but it’s such a small detail and one I’ve never seen in FE fiction before. I also love the art style, and how Gehrmann has adapted the few images we have of the officers to create visually dynamic characters. I am particularly fond of her Le Vesconte, Fitzjames and Crozier. The art also really drives home just how young a lot of these men were, Fitzjames was 31 to Franklin’s 59 and Crozier’s 49.

Image ID: In the wardroom, Sir John Franklin stands flanked by Captain Francis Crozier on his right and Commander James Fitzjames on his left. The age difference is very apparently between them, Sir John is graying and portly at 59, Crozier is younger, but still showing his age at 49 and Fitzjames is a fresh-faced 31. Sir John has his hands out and is saying, "Wunderbar! Heute Abend lasse ich die besten Delikatessen servieren, die England zu bieten hat! Sie werden sich wie zu Hause fühlen, Gentlemen!" The Snapchat caption reads, Fuck, the art really drives home just how young James was. End ID.

Now, I read “Im Eisland” in its original German, both because I need to refresh my rusty skills before grad school and because I do better reading from hard copies. However, there is an English version, “Icebound,” that has been published online as a webcomic. If you are thinking, “My German is rusty/bad/limited, but I’d like a hard copy,” I can tell you that it’s not impossible to read with rusty/limited German provided you have the determination and a dictionary. Ultimately, my biggest problem was unfamiliar vocabulary.

A few words of warning, everyone from the expedition dies. This is historical fact, but reading about graphic death in a novel is different than seeing it drawn. Volume one sees on page animal death, and later volumes will see deterioration from scurvy and a variety of other deaths. There’s also some period typical reactions to gay characters, and I believe volume two has a lashing for sodomy, but nothing I would define as uncomfortable/excessive levels of in canon homophobia.

If you enjoyed “The Terror” show (not the book, never the book), I would definitely recommend “Im Eisland”/“Icebound.” I got my copies straight from the press website, however, you can find it on Amazon if shipping costs are an issue.

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Phoenix Song: Echo, written by Rebecca Roanhorse

When the Phoenix Force is given a host that isn’t a mutant you tend to get a lot of unhappy X-Men fans. Being wildly unfamiliar with the Daredevil comics, I picked up two random middle issues of “Phoenix Song: Echo” thinking that she might be a new X-character. I saw that Echo, aka Maya Lopez, was deaf and indigenous and said “Yes, please!” without really investigating further. It wasn’t until I mentioned my find to a friend that I realized she wasn’t an X-character and promptly went through the five stages of grief. 

However, I am now here to encourage all disgruntled/suspicious X-fans concerned about a non-mutant Phoenix Force host to give Echo a chance. We actually see that same sort of suspicion play out in canon with Forge, who decides, based on past familiarity with the Phoenix Force, that he knows best and that Maya needs to give up the Phoenix Force. While Maya is having trouble with control, Forge should frankly know better. I can’t think of a single time that trying to forcibly subdue the Phoenix Force has gone well, like… that’s literally how Jean Grey went Dark Phoenix. 

Image ID: A comic panel. The X-Man Forge is walking out of a bunker where Echo, aka Maya Lopez, Phoenix host, has been immobilized in a chair with psionic restraints. Forge says, over two speech bubbles, "I have to act, for the sake of...well, everyone. These psionic restraints are matched to the Phoenix's energy wavelength. They will hold you until I can investigate your powers more, understand how the Phoenix bonds to you and how to uncouple it." The Snapchat captain reads, "Hey Forge, Mr. so called Phoenix expert? When the fuck has forcibly restraining the Phoenix Force ever ended well." End ID

“Phoenix Song: Echo” is all about the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of Maya and the Phoenix. Who is Maya that the Phoenix felt she was the right host? With the Adversary looming large and wanting the Phoenix Force for himself, Maya has to go back through the past to figure out who she is as the Phoenix and if her ancestors can help her. But it’s not that simple, because it never is. Maya is being helped by River, the adopted grandson of a family friend, and River… River is all tied up with the Adversary. 

Image ID: Two comic panels. In the first Maya stands on some stairs with a Mayan village behind her and asks, "War games? Who are you, exactly?" The second, larger panel, shows a woman in a dress that combines both Mayan aesthetic and the pattern and color of the original Dark Phoenix costume. She says, "My name is Ohoyo Luak. but you may call me... the Phoenix!" End ID

I found Maya’s journey of self/Phoenix discovery to be incredibly compelling, and it was compelling even before we get to the reveal of her (spoilers) Phoenix host ancestor. The Phoenix Force has long been tied to questions and dilemmas of self and personhood, from Jean Grey to Quentin Quire, and Maya Lopez slots very neatly into this.

This mini-series was also a breath of fresh air for me regarding indigenous and disability representation. Marvel has historically not been particularly good about either of those things, Native characters get reduced to stereotype and disabilities get ignored. Maya, as she is portrayed here—I cannot speak to earlier iterations of her character—is well written to both points. Key for me, is that her ability to read lips isn’t perfect, even bolstered by her powers. She struggles with unfamiliar accents, can’t read lips in the dark, and knows sign language when lip reading is impossible due to language barrier. 

I will say that I would have liked to have seen more of Maya learning from her ancestors, particularly the Phoenix Force ancestor. The narrative jumped very quickly through Maya’s past, her talking to her ancestor about the Phoenix powers, and then to Maya fighting the Adversary and a weird hallucination, which I think boiled down to the fact that there was a lot to cover for a five-issue mini-series. Personally, I would have loved to see this as a longer run series, since Maya is now probably my favorite non-X character. 

As always, check your local comic shop for trades and single issues, but “Phoenix Song: Echo” can also be purchased online here.

If you enjoy what I do, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon.

Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022

Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.

A pile of books and papers. The bottom later is the D&D books "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" and "Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft," only the titles can be seen. The middle layer is, from left to right, "A Rainbow Thread," "Jews in Old China" and "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation" volume 2. The top layer, from left to right is "Tolkien: On Fairy-stories," Deborah Sabo's article on archaeology and history in Tolkien, and "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Continue reading “Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022”

Star Wars: The High Republic, There is no Fear by Cavan Scott and Ario Anindito

A comic panel, we see Keeve Trennis' hand extended to a young boy. She says, "Thanks. Can you hold this?" The boy replies, "You mean it?" Keeve answers, "Sure, I do. Can't keep it floating up there all day, can I?" The Snapchat caption reads, "Fuck yes. Getting to hold a lightsaber is a baller (and effective) way to console an upset child. It would 100% work on me."
I’m just saying, this is everything I would have wanted as a child.

I have found the Star Wars extended universe a fascinating place since childhood. I read every Star Wars book our library had and then I created my own Stars Wars encyclopedia out of the information contained within — the result of having access to a computer, but limited connection to the internet. The official Star Wars universe has changed a lot since then, and the new tie-in books don’t really interest me, so I thought, why not check out the comics. I picked up “There is no Fear” at my local comic shop primarily because it was volume one of a trade paperback. It promised good art and the beginning of a story and that was all I needed.

“There is no Fear” takes place during the High Republic, before any Skywalker nonsense, and follows Keeve Trennis as she becomes a new Jedi. It’s a good place to go if you are like me and wanting to avoid any of the canon-fuckery caused by the sequel trilogy. “There is no Fear” does a really good job of introducing you to new characters and helping you fall in love with them, which is a credit to both good writing and compelling art. I was deeply invested in Ceret and Terec from the moment of their introduction.

A comic panel. Two identical humanoids stand facing each other, they are bald and their skin is stark white, and both of them are fairly beat up. The one on the left, Terec, is holding out a deactivated lightsaber and the one on the right, Ceret, is reaching for it. Terec says, "Here" as he holds out the lightsaber. Ceret replies, "Terec... the things we have seen. that the drengir did to us." Terec answers, "That is in the past, Ceret. Now we are whole once more--" The Snapchat caption reads, "I am so glad my boys are okay" followed by the crying emoji.

The only place I really felt like I was missing something was in references to a “great disaster,” and just generally how the Jedi had reached the point of launching a space station outpost in the Outer Rim. I feel like there are probably storylines that precede “There is no Fear” that I’m going to have to seek out to get those answers. That’s more-or-less how comics work though, you pick a starting point and then, in reading, you find where you want to go next to learn more, and this story is a super interesting one that brings a lot of new and exciting things to the greater Star Wars universe. It’s definitely going to be one I pick up as it continues weekly (it also doesn’t help that volume one ends on a cliffhanger that I must find out the resolution to).

The story feels, to me, very much like a classic EU Jedi story, where the emphasis is that, above all, the Jedi help, though that is something that provides resolution and conflict alike as characters struggle with being, maybe not human, but people with complex emotions. All of the characters, even the side characters, are incredibly well presented both in terms of writing and art. I greatly enjoyed the expressiveness given to the alien faces. I won’t spoil too much about the new antagonists introduced by this story, but I will say that they are a particular flavor of eldritch abomination that I greatly enjoy. It’s a similar kind of horror as found in “Bountiful Garden,” so if that interested you, this may too, though as this is Star Wars, it’s going to have more action alongside the creeping eldritch horror.

As always, I highly recommend going to your local comic shop to buy comics, and the book’s retail page even has a comic store locator option right there.

If you enjoy my content and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

“Solomon Gursky” is an unexpectedly weird book, but one I would highly recommend to anyone with a taste for unique Franklin expedition fiction. As a novel, “Solomon Gursky” is part Franklin mystery, part Jewish family drama, and part critique of capitalist dynasty families. A lot of effort has been put into portraying the expedition accurately — Richler cites “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie as a primary influence — and a good number of the deviations (of which are many) don’t feel accidental, they feel intentional as part of building this alternate history where two Jewish conmen manage to finagle positions on the Franklin expedition.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky Was Here" reading, "There was another problem. Neither Ephraim Gursky nor Izzy Garber was listed in the muster books of the Erebus of the Terror (available at Admiralty Records, Public Records Office). The Snapchat caption reads, "Fucking fantastic." End ID.

The book is framed by a man named Moses Berger and his efforts to write a biography of the deceased Solomon Gursky, it’s something of an obsession, actually. This framing allows for the mysteries and secrets hidden by the Gursky family to unravel over the course of the book as we bounce between the points of view of various Gursky family members (there’s a helpful family tree in the front of the book); Moses himself; epistolary elements such as diaries and telegrams; and a variety of other important players. The same stories get told in different ways depending on who is doing the telling, which is very fun, and it’s done in such away that it never feels repetitive. Every time I got a detail that clarified a previous mystery or teased an answer I was vibrating with excitement. If you enjoy piecing together mysteries as you read you will find “Solomon Gursky” very satisfying.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'You shouldn't have lied at the trial' 'We owed Solomon everything.' 'You did it to save your own skin.' 'Why bring that up now, after all these years?' 'Find Bert Smith. Make it up to him. Promise me that.' 'I promise.'" The Snapchat caption reads, "There are so many moving pieces to this Solomon mystery and they're laid out so masterfully. I am yelling!!!" End ID.

While the Gursky family is Jewish and Judaism is important to the story, on the surface several characters could be read as anti-semitic stereotypes. For example, Ephraim Gursky is a notorious conman, and brothers Bernard, Solomon and Morrie establish themselves as capitalist alcohol barons who get their start selling bootleg alcohol during prohibition. Few of the characters in this book can be considered “good,” but from a Jewish author it becomes “these are complicated, difficult and sometimes awful people who are Jewish” rather than offensive stereotypes. A gentile author could not pull this book off, at all.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "Sammy 'Red' Levine, out of Toledo, was stricktly Orthodox: he was never without a yarmulke and didn't murder on the Sabbath." The Snapchat caption reads, "Because Shabbat is clearly the only time murder is unacceptable." End ID.

Anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia come up throughout the book, from various characters and in a range of opinions. However, not every instance of prejudice can be explained as only coming from the characters. Two of the biggest issues I had were the portrayal of the Inuit, which runs stereotypical more often than not, and the existence of Lieutenant Norton — replacing one of the Erebus lieutenants — a minor character who is portrayed as a crossdresser, which was almost interesting when it was first teased, with a penchant for violence. Some of his actions could have been chalked up to lead poisoning etc. but it didn’t really land in my opinion.

The one thing I will say about Richler creating Franklin expedition OCs is that it doesn’t drag the names of real historical people through the mud, which is more than can be said of “The Terror” author Dan Simmons. Frankly, I saw a surprising amount of similarities between certain aspects of “Solomon Gursky” and “The Terror,” which made me wonder if Dimmons hadn’t read “Solomon Gursky” at some point. Unfortunately, any influence, if it is there at all, is limited to the all of the worst bits with none of the redeeming qualities of Richler’s writing.

I went into “Solomon Gursky” utterly blind, I knew “Jew on the Franklin expedition” as a premise and that was it, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more too. Everything matters. “Solomon Gursky” is a big book with lots of characters and plots that are masterfully woven together. There are surprises around every corner, including the borderline magical realism presence of ravens as motif and harbinger, and a group of Jewish Inuit.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Does it haunt your dreams?' the interviewer asked. 'Molly?' 'Cannibalism.' 'Well, I'lll tell ya, it kind of puts you off your prime rib. Like, you know, it's so good and sweet. Hardly any gristle.'" The Snapchat caption is three Rolling on the Floor Laughing emojis. End ID.
And of course it wouldn’t be a book about the Franklin expedition without cannibalism.

Some final warnings: Sex scenes, which are occasionally detailed in a way that make you wonder if the author didn’t have a fetish; plenty of nudity, both male and female; and some mentions of rape and suicide, but nothing explicit.

As I stated before, “Solomon Gursky” reaches some very weird depths, and is not without its share of problems, but I enjoyed it immensely and now I need everyone else to go read it so that I have someone to talk to about this frankly beautiful piece of insanity. The book seems to be out of print, but can be found from most used booksellers.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Can you arrange for me to go through the Solomon Gursky file or not?' 'Yeah sure.' But the file had been stolen. The large manila envelope in the library was empty. And when Moses dragged out the old newspapers that dealt with the trials, he discovered that somebody had cut out the relevant stories with a razor blade. He was hooked." The Snapchat caption reads, "Hot damn, i'd be hooked too." End ID.

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School for Extraterrestrial Girls: Girl on Fire by Jeremy Whitley and Jamie Noguchi

[Image ID: A panel of Tara, a 15 year old Black girl, adjusting a bracelet on her wrist. The text boxes of internal monologue read: "I eve have this bracelet. I'm not really sure how it works, but my parents say it's vital to my health to keep it on. So, I do. It's important to do as you're told." The Snapchat caption reads "That's not sus at all." End ID]

To start with a quick summary: Tara Smith was raised with her identity as a an alien hidden from her, a tall task considering she is a species of lizard that catches on fire. A morning of missed “allergy” meds and a cracked “health” bracelet leads to her powers emerging and The Government getting involved. All is not lost, however, as aliens are normal apparently, they just stay hidden from the every day human for reasons. Tara can just go to a school, where she will learn how to control her powers, simple right? Wrong. This is high school, nothing is simple or easy about high school.

There are some overarching Big Plot things going on, but they happen mostly in the background of the story, though that’s not to say they aren’t important or don’t impact it. This is primarily a story about acceptance, finding friends, and learning to love yourself, and also everyone is an alien. It’s pretty great. It takes a step beyond your traditional high school story, grappling with difficult topics and loss in various forms and allowing the characters to be messy. It is absolutely a funny and heartfelt story, but mistakes are make and their repercussions born out. This messiness feels important in an age where I’ve been seeing increasingly black-and-white takes about media.

Image ID: A comic panel of Agent Stone, an older butch woman in a suit, leading Tara, who is now green skinned and lizard like in appearance, through a hallway. Agent Stone's first speech bubble reads: "And as silly as this part is, our treaties with other worlds mandate that in a closed environment like this, we're not allowed to have co-ed housing, so..." Tara interrupts with: "Wait, alien races also freak out about the gender binary?" To which Stone replies, "Binary? There's one very conservative race out there with seven different genders. But that is a headache for another time. Now, let me introduce you to--" The Snapchat caption reads: "I'm wheezing. This is so fantastic. I was not expecting anything like this to be touched on at all." End ID.}

Furthermore, there is something very queer about loving the monstrous and learning to love yourself when your perception of yourself is monstrous. As a queer person I found it very appealing as a coming of age story because of how the story dealt with perceptions of monstrosity and the self as monstrous. I don’t know if the intention was there to use aliens as a queer allegory, but the story as a whole certainly doesn’t shy away from queerness.

For example, our lead agent, Agent Stone, is very classically butch, and we also learn from Agent Stone that the reason the schools are split into boys and girls schools isn’t because of some gender binary hang up on the part of aliens, it’s because of the treaties they have with various governments, on Earth and elsewhere, which makes so much sense it’s hilarious. To cap it all off, one girl who Tara makes friends with, soap opera obsessed Kat, is very much rooting for Tara to fall in love with another friend Misako.

Image ID: Tara, Kat and Summer are standing in a hallway, all wearing simple grey and white school uniforms. Kat, an orange cat-like alien is saying: "Next weel on interstellar BFFs. Will Tara finally be reunited with her one true love?" Tara interjects with: "I told you, Kat. We're just friends." Kat replies, "This is my fan fiction, you stay out of it!" Summer, a dark skinned girl with long pink hair and an undercut, is laughing next to them with a speech bubble that says "Ha ha ha ha." The Snapchat caption reads, "There's nothing wrong with a bit of friend fiction XD." End ID.

“Girl on Fire” manages to do so many things in such a limited amount of space and it does all of those things well. I am eagerly awaiting volume two, which is slated to come out in October 2023.

Right now, you can order volume one here and pre-order volume two here.

If you enjoy what I do and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon

Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver

Image ID: The cover of the novella Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver. It shows A young man and a young woman framed by an large house with  figures in several rooms. The art is in a very classically 1920s style. The snapchat caption reads, "Fucking look at that cover art." End ID

I knew I had to read “Uncommon Charm” the moment I saw it. For one, it’s a set in the 1920s, a fantastic era; two, there is a Jewish character; three, it was a gothic comedy that promised ghosts; and four, the cover art is by one of my all time favorite artists. I didn’t initially expect the magic to be, like, real magic, I’d assumed that “magician” meant stage magician, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Image ID: A snap of the text reading "'What did you see?' 'A woman,' Simon said, startled into answering. 'Not your mother, but tall and blonde. A bit, er, bony. And bleeding.' 'Oh, well. I should have expected you'd be a medium. Come along!' I bounded up the stairs. 'The ghosts will wait.'" The snapchat caption reads: So it IS real magic. End ID.

I absolutely adore the way the book treats magic. It’s delightfully mundane, which is admittedly, a weird thing to say, but it feels accurate. The drama isn’t necessarily magical in nature; magic is baked into the world, it’s part of the norm and treated as such, which I love as world building. The drama primarily comes from interpersonal relationships, both past and present, and is only enhanced, not driven, by magic. Our narrator, young socialite Julia, is grappling not only with her relationship with her mother, but with her relationships with the Koldunov family, and newcomer to the household, Simon. Simon is himself grappling with feeling out of place as the illegitimate son of the Koldunov patriarch in addition to his newfound magical ability. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'Have you consulted a rabbi about your magic?' 'A few,' Simon said. 'Their opinions differed.'" The snapchat captain reads: "Of course." End ID.

At 16 Julia’s curiosity and enthusiasm really is what drives the plot, as she is our main narrator. I love, so very much, the particular flavor of unreliable narrator that Julia is, in that she’s not so much completely unreliable, but rather, she is running through the world as a headstrong teenager who wants to believe that she’s on the right foot with everything. It’s a very classically teenager style of moving through the world, trying to find the answer to a mystery that isn’t quite the dramatic mystery that you thought. Her point of view is also perfect to keep the right balance between gothic and comic.

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I thought you wanted me otherwise occupied whilst you and Simon vexed divine powers we frail mortals wot not of. I didn't realize this was a—a conspiracy to teach me the importance of hard work and practice.' She offered me a cryptic smile. 'And no magic was necessary.' 'Muv!'" The snapchat caption reads, "That's parents for you" followed by the joy emoji. End ID

Something else I adored was the reorienting of the world that happens, both literally and metaphorically. On one side, we have the physical effects of Simon’s magic where he unintentional alters the world around him and Julia coming to terms with some heavy truths about the world and the people around her. On the other side, there is the wonderful development of Simon’s perspective on magical philosophy and how it blends with his Jewish beliefs. I will admit to feeling a touch nervous that his Jewishness would get lost behind Julia’s narration, but it very much didn’t, and I loved that by the end, Simon has invited both Julia and her mother to join him for Passover. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I've made a decision,' he said. 'I am looking forward to having you at our seder.' 'As you should, but Muv will ask all sorts of questions,' I warned. 'She's wise, you're wicked, the other two I don't know—it's a joke, Jules, I'll explain it tomorrow.'" The snapchat captain reads, "Yes yes yes yes," with the first "Yes" very drawn out. End ID.

Last, but not least, “Uncommon Charm” is decidedly and unashamedly queer. Julia explicitly notes herself to be queer and it is strongly implied for Simon as well as for a handful of other characters. The queerness is exists with a confidence in the way the characters interact with the world in relationships of all sorts, though the focus is on the friendly and familial more than the romantic. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "Our homosexual proclivities were one thing Jos and I had in common, at any rate, though he knew I wasn't necessarily opposed to boys." The snapchat caption reads, "Nice nice nice." End ID.

If a 1920s gothic comedy deeply influenced by Jewish and queer experience seems up your alley, then “Uncommon Charm” is the book for you. 

If you enjoy what I do and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

[Image ID: The cover of Janelle Monáe's "The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer" Janelle Monáe is front and center as Jane dressed as a Torch as she is in "Dirty Computer - An Emotion Picture." The Snapchat caption reads: "Fully forgot I preordered this XD" End ID]

“The Memory Librarian” is a fantastic dive back into the world of Janelle Monáe’s 2018 concept album “Dirty Computer.” In addition to giving us more of Jane, Zen and Ché, we get to see what the rest of the world is like, from impoverished children to the people at the very top who monitor society. If it’s been a while since you last watched “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture,” I highly recommend doing so before jumping in to read to refresh yourself on the world. Now let’s look at the stories:

The Memory Librarian feat. Alaya Dawn Johnson: This story introduces us to Seshet, the director librarian of Little Delta, who wanted to better the world through her work within the system of New Dawn, but not in the typical sense that New Dawn wants to better the world. A Black woman, with a number of opinions and feature that could  see her labeled a dirty computer, she keeps her eyes away from areas known to be congregating spaces for dirty computers as she monitors the memories of people in the city and this story sees her juggling her personal desires with the careful line she has to tread with her superiors. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted segment reads "Well, don't they fucking know? Is it possible that they haven't even realized? What has she done, wise Seshet, compassionate Seshet, even while precarious in power? She has not looked." The Snapchat captions reads: "The rebellion of not watching in a surveillance state" End ID]

This story introduces us to the system of New Dawn that is in place and digs into an idea introduced in “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture” of things that get caught up in memory collectors that aren’t memories, like dreams. 

Nevermind feat. Danny Lore: Here we meet Jane and Zen again and learn what they (and Ché) have been up to. Jane and Zen are living at the Pynk Hotel (as seen in “Pynk”) while also helping to rescue others from New Dawn. Jane shares the protagonist with a nonbinary individual named Neer, and we see, through the events of the story and an attack on the hotel, the importance of fighting for radical acceptance as well as showcasing, incredibly cleverly, how willing exclusionists are to get chummy with the oppressor, but also how important it is to show compassion to people who maybe are only reacting out of ignorance or lack of options. 

On that note, this story introduces us to blushounds, genetically augmented humans who can smell emotions. Used by New Dawn to track dissidents, they are themselves victims of New Dawn as we learned from one of them, Bat, who goes on to stay and heal at the Pynk Hotel. 

Save Changes feat. Yohanca Delgado: This story follows the daughters of Diana Morel, a woman who had rebelled and been caught alongside Jane, but had been caught and unable to escape the same way. Now she’s not fully there, canning Twinkies in Windex, and under the care of her daughters, because, apparently, something went wrong in her cleaning. Her daughters also have to deal with the stigma of being related to a noted rebel. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted portion reads: "...the promise of a fresh start at school had shriveled up on Amber's first day at City College, when one by one, each of her professors made her sit in the front row of each class and read a statement from New Dawn, informing her classmates who she was and warning them that any decision to fraternize with her was one they made at their own risk." The snapchat caption is a row of four grimace emojis. End ID]

This story also asks us, what if you had a single opportunity to change the past? While this is a sci-fi world overall, there are specific moments of magic throughout. It’s not explained it just is. In this story, it’s a stone that purports to be able to turn back time passed down to Amber by their father before he died. 

Timebox feat. Eve L. Ewing and Timbox Altar(ed) feat. Sheree Renée Thomas: I’ve put these two together, even though they aren’t next to each other in the book (they frame “Save Changes”) because they are similar in several ways, while they are opposites in others. 

 In “Timebox” a young couple getting their first apartment together find that time stops when they are in their pantry and a disagreement erupts about how to use it, which also brings to the surfaces differing opinions on activism and community aid based on the class differences they experienced growing up.  Between the disagreements and their own uses of the box, they fall apart and the story ends painfully unresolved with more questions than there are answers. I was genuinely startled when I hit the end and realized there wasn’t any more. 

“Timebox Altar(ed)” on the other hand, revolved around a group of children, living in an incredibly impoverished area, outside of a larger New Dawn-monitored city, mostly forgotten unless someone is flagged to be taken away for cleaning. Stumbling into an abandoned railroad crossing full of junk, they build an ark and, after a kind stranger instructs them on working with intention it turns out that when an individual sits inside the ark, they are transported somewhere that gives them a glimpse of a beautiful, hopeful future and “The Power of Yet.” As the last story in the collection, the message of a healed future ushered in by the youngest generations was a powerful note to end on. 

This is so much longer than I usually go, but I really wanted to talk a bit about each story, because they all have so much to offer, and are incredible as a whole. If you enjoy sci-fi, Afrofuturism and/or urban fantasy, this is definitely a book for you.

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Bountiful Garden by Ivy Noelle Weir with art by Kelly Williams

[Image ID: The five issues of Bountiful Garden splayed out on a bed. The first issue is on top and the only one fully visible and is notable for being a Free Comic Book Day copy. The Snapchat captions reads "Spooky space time." End ID]

“Bountiful Garden” is a horror story about space and terraforming other planets, but not quite in a way you might expect. 

Our cast is a crew of children, most of whom appear to be teenagers at maximum. Jane appears to be the youngest, probably no more than preteen in age. They are woken from cryostasis 10 years early because something has gone wrong with the ship. 

Their mission is make a new planet habitable, they have two engineers, a botanist, an architect, a biologist and a military personnel member. Their ship has been stopped above a planet with no notable human inhabitants but traces of an old civilization, and lots and lots of plants. 

From issue one of the five issues mini-series, you get the impression that something wasn’t quite right with the mission from the outset. They aren’t the first terraforming mission that’s been sent out, and none of the others have ever been heard from again. “The signal’s too weak,” according to the government. Our military boy has complete faith, which makes a lot of sense, but the others aren’t so sure. It’s one of several things that sparks conflict between our crew.

Throughout the story we are teased about the planet, the strange plants growing on it, and the remnants of a religion, as well as about the backstory of the program on Earth that led to these six children being on this expedition. Something I really love was how seamless the backstory about the government program that was woven into the story through the characters. We learn so much about it through short moments of the characters ruminating and discussing why they’re even there. There’s a big pay out involved, but it goes to their parents instead of them, because they aren’t on Earth to collect it. For one person, this will help their parents escape poverty, for another, it inspires bitterness that their parents will be reaping the benefits of their work on an expedition that they were well aware had a high chance of them dying. 

The planet’s backstory is given in a different, but no less skillfully done, way, by the characters picking up clues within the text, glyphs found at ruins, strange dreams, and by clues presented directly to the readers that the characters don’t see. The most notable of these is an extra-textual fragment titled “Recording Found at Site 11A,” which appears at the end of issue four and tells the story of how the strange plants came and essentially terraformed the planet. 

The art really helps the haunting feelings come through too, the characters are so expressive and distinct, and the inkwash style allows it to be dark, yet vibrant at the same time.

Another thing of note that I enjoyed was how diverse the cast was. There was an even split of female and male characters as well as a diverse array of characters of different ethnicities, a breakdown that allowed for deaths without falling into racist and sexist tropes surrounding character death.

All in all, if you like horror, sci-fi and stories of how interpersonal relationships can fracture when people are isolated and trapped, “Bountiful Garden” is the mini series to check out. It’s newly available in trade paperback as of April 6th!  

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Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Telling me something is gay historical fantasy is like, the fastest way to get my attention when it comes to getting me to read a book. I am gay, I love historical fiction, I love fantasy and the supernatural. Which is to say, when the English translation of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation”—“Mo Dao Zu Shi” in the original Chinese—was announced last year, I could not slam the preorder button fast enough. Volume 1 arrived in December and I fell in love instantly. Well, not quite instantly, I didn’t have time to properly read it until January, but my point still stands. The book is fantastic.

From the plot structure to the characters themselves, there is nothing that didn’t draw me in and this is only volume one of five. There are two interconnected plots that you follow through the book: 1. main character Wei Wuxian’s death in the first chapter and the backstory of how that came to be and 2. his resurrection some years later on the cusp of some sinister supernatural happenings. Both plots are really cleverly woven together in that you learn what you need to know of the past when it becomes relevant to the present day, this is done variously through internal monologue, spoken dialogue or actual flashback sequences. It’s great! 

To the characters, it’s very difficult to dislike a single character in the book, even when they’re antagonists, because they’re just so well done. I am particularly in love with how character development is established so quickly between past and present. I think my favorite example of this development is Lan Wangji, who we see predominantly from Wei Wuxian’s point of view in this first volume. Wei Wuxian knew how Lan Wangji acted when they were younger and in the present seeks to get similar reactions from him, but this backfires because, in the intervening years, Lan Wangji has grown and changed. We don’t see Lan Wangji’s internal development (at least not in this volume), but it is  so clear that growth has happened regardless of whether or not we’ve seen it and it’s just presented in a really excellent and effective way. 

The book is also just, really fun. There’s a great balance of what is, in truth, a rather heavy plot and humor. The writing is very good at playing to your emotions and it just feels incredibly human. It’s messy and complicated and it makes for an incredible story. 

If you’re wondering “where is the discussion of the gay shit?” It’s interwoven throughout the plot is where it is. “Grandmaster of Demon Cultivation” is very much slow burn when it comes to romance. There were other things going on in the past and there are other things going on in the present. The romance is by no means secondary, but it takes its time, volume one deals very much in obliviousness and pining/yearning. While the most explicit discussion of queerness is the in world homophobia and Wei Wuxian’s attempts use of that to his favor, there is, in my professional experience as a homosexual, a very clear queer yearning as well, it just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is fitting given the character it comes from. 

One final thing of note is the excellent glossary and character guide at the end of the book. The character guide breaks down Chinese naming conventions and why the same character might be referred to in different ways by different people, and the glossary explains everything from pronunciations to genre terms (danmei, xianxia, wuxia) to various terms that are staples of those genres and might be unfamiliar to a Western audience. I found a decent amount to be discernible through context, but those appendices were still massively helpful. If you were worried about being confused by the names or cultural context, don’t be, the book has got you covered. 

Volume 1 of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” is available for purchase now and volumes 2 and 3 are currently available for preorder from a variety of sellers.

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