In the recent years of my life, I’ve grown to appreciate the run’n’gun style of games. I suppose you could say that it began with Halo back in the day, but I don’t think I really appreciate the genre/style until I started playing DOOM (2016). DOOM’s simple mechanics, fast-paced combat, and loose approach to storytelling made it a very fun game to sit back and play when I was too stressed or tired to invest in a game. Most of the story was told through codex updates and the occasional speech you couldn’t walk away from, which means it was mostly there for you to find if you wanted to look for it while it stayed out of the way the rest of the time. Doom Guy even leans into it, punching screens and breaking things rather than listening to exposition or operating instructions.
The first and only Animal Crossing game I’ve ever played longer than a day (I borrowed one in college but didn’t have the time to do more than make a character) was the original one on the GameCube. That isn’t a result of a lack of willingness on my part so much as a result of my disconnect from buying new games during college (I think the only new game I got while I was in college was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and my lack of free time as a post-college adult. I’ve always had something come up that make a time-intensive and daily play game like Animal Crossing prohibitive.
“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”
Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.
I’ve rewritten this opening paragraph half a dozen times so far and I’m forced to confront one of the worst things a reviewer can face: There is nothing even remotely close to Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers for me to draw on for comparison or to reference as I describe the strengths and my favorite parts of this book. I’ve cycled through everything from my favorite stories to my favorite bits of metaphor and poetry from various sources to books that fall under the same “disease and rampant evil assholes bring about the end of civilization as we know it” umbrella but none of them works. I get about three sentences in and am forced to admit that, right now, in my experience as a reader, there’s nothing that can compare. Which isn’t to say that it is the best book ever written and this novel transcends literature to be the Perfect Story–that’s far too subjective of a claim for me to make. I’m just saying that any reference I make is going to wind up being such a pale shadow that all I can do is say they had a similar function or action. Like comparing a sunrise to an idea that slowly came to your attention. One is the actual dawn, to which nothing can truly compare, and the other is something that dawned on you simply because describing an idea as something that slowly rose before you is the easiest way to say that you thought something through in a way that gave rise to a new idea. This book was powerful on so many levels that I’m not sure I could really draw good comparisons without breaking it apart so much that there’s hardly anything left.
I don’t know about you, but I frequently find myself in need of a strong dose of positivity in order to get through my day. It’s pretty nice to be able to wake up, struggle through the bleary-minded period right after waking up while my six subsequent alarms go off every other minute (anything less has, at least once, not brought me out of the bleary-minded period enough to actually wake up), and check my phone to find a nice, heartwarming good morning message from my favorite person on the internet, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He doesn’t send them to me specifically, but he tweets them out every morning and I’ve set up my phone to get notifications every time he tweets because he’s such a positive voice in the world. Since I also like to go to bed on a positive note, I always save his “good night” messages for as I’m climbing into bed. They’re just as positive and usually related to the earlier message. It’s often has some kind of flipped message or is a “ending/end-of-day” variation of the morning tweet. It’s a bit of a drag that they’re only sent out on weekdays, but I can understand his desire to stay off his official twitter account on the weekends. I sometimes feel the same way but I don’t yet have the luxury of time away from my craft, seeing as the time spent on my craft is actually my time away from the rest of my life.
The only thing better that getting those good morning and good night messages would be some kind of collection of those ideas. Which, guess what, is a thing that exists. Someone collected and curated a bunch of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets into a book called Gmorning, Gnight! Little Pep Talks For me and You. Gmorning, Gnight! is my second favorite book from this year, after only An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. With a wonderful selection of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Good Morning and Good Night tweets and illustrations by the amazing Jonny Sun, Gmorning, Gnight! is a ray of sunshine in what has otherwise been a rather dark few months for me. The positivity, love, and support of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets manages to carry through into the book without losing anything and actually gains a little more warmth thanks to Jonny Sun’s illustrations that capture and magnify the feeling of the tweets.
I honestly wouldn’t recommend reading this book from cover to cover. If you need a sustained burst of positivity, maybe read through a dozen or so pages, but you’ll probably be better off going to his twitter feed for that. While nothing is lost in the message itself, there’s something to be said for the freshness of the messages on Twitter. The message of each tweet isn’t any different from the ones in the books, but they feel much more immediate and relevant to the days we live in than Good Morning or Good Night messages from years ago. Thanks to the chaotic and difficult times we live in, the more recent ones have a certain amount of resolute weariness to them that gives them a little more oomph. If you just want something warm and positive to juggle around in the mind because you’re trying to pull out of a negative thought stream or you need something to give you that quick little boost, just grab the book and crack it open to any old page. You’ll find a warm message that’ll life the corners of your mouth and take the edge off the weariness in your heart. If that particular one isn’t working for you, or you have a habit of opening books to the same place all the time despite your best efforts (I can’t understand, much less explain, how I keep opening to the same set of messages every other time I open the book), just flip a couple pages in either direction and you’ll find something that works.
If you want to get the most out of this book, I recommend learning to meditate and using a message that resonates with you on any given day as the focus of your meditation. There are a lot of really wonderful images in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s message, both on his Twitter account and in his book, so they make excellent focal points for most meditation. Most of my favorite involve pacing oneself, going at one’s own speed, or focusing on marching to the beat of your heart rather than someone else’s. Since I struggle with the feeling that I’m not getting enough done or that I’m not working hard enough to make the kind of progress I want, it’s important for me to keep myself focused on doing as much as I can without over-extending myself. Given how often it shows up in his tweets and how many times it appears in the book, I think Lin-Manuel Miranda probably has a similar feeling. He wrote a whole musical about a guy who lived his entire life with this feeling, so I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that he understands the feeling, even if it’s not something he himself constantly struggles with.
That being said, there’s enough other imagery in here that pretty much anyone can find something that fits whatever is going on in their heart or mind. I rarely have to flip more than half a dozen pages to find something that resonates with me, even when I’m not struggling with feelings of running out of time. Everything from learning to forgive yourself, to stuff like learning to love or accept yourself. If you look hard enough and actually read through Gmorning, Gnight! from front to back, I’m sure you could find a message for any occasion. Someday, I might do just that. Instead of memorizing poetry or being able to summarize great thinkers of big ideas, I’m going to memorize the modern-day wisdom of self-love and self-kindness that Lin-Manuel Miranda espouses. Any time someone needs support, I’ll be able to draw wisdom and support from the annals of the greatest, kindest person on the internet. I bet there are other people out there who do similar things, but how many people have the kind of platform Lin-Manuel Miranda does who then use it to spread positivity and kindness? If you know of any, send them to me!
The kindness, care, and concern Lin-Manuel Miranda expresses at the entirety of the internet still manages to feel directed toward you specifically. Look at the subtitle of his book: “little pep talks for me and you.” He’s said before that his Good Morning and Good Night tweets are the messages he most needs to hear each day, but they seem so heartfelt and open that they couldn’t be for anyone but him and you, like the title implies. This thing, the way he manages to make them feel personal despite being shared with millions of other people, is why I’m still on Twitter and social media in general. I almost gave it all up toward the end of the summer but following his Twitter account (something that was off limits until I’d seen Hamilton, just like listening to the soundtrack was off limits) is what convinced me that the internet could still be a good place. John and Hank Green’s videos this fall, in addition to the talking they did during Hank’s book tours, helped solidify it, but I wouldn’t have made it that long with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets.
Since Gmorning, Gnight! Little Pep Talks for Me and You is the hardcover version of those tweets, I honestly can’t recommend it enough. As I struggle to deal with my grandfather’s failing health, my own grief, and the complicated relationship I have with my family that is only made more complicated by the holidays and current circumstances, this book is pretty much the other thing that can pull me out of a negative spiral of emotions and thoughts. I recommend buying it and keeping it near your bed or wherever you do most of your reflect. It’ll be incredibly helpful.
I bought this game the day before it came out so I could play with my roommates and friends. I played it the first night people could access the servers and not much since then, thanks to National Novel Writing Month. That being said, most of what I’ve learned about the game has been from my solo playing after the brief introduction with my friends and from watching my roommates play it. Well, plus reading about it online because it is currently the internet’s favorite thing to love to hate right now. While I don’t have as many hours as I’d normally like in the game before reviewing it, I really think that it needs to be talked about.
First of all, it plays like pretty much every other Fallout game. There are a bunch of minor variations, like V.A.T.S. (the auto-targeting system that lets you use character stats to shoot or hit things instead of your ability to aim) not pausing time and jumping costing Action Points, but those seem like fairly obvious concessions necessitated by the change from a single-player game to an online multi-player game. You can’t pause the world if someone on the map is using V.A.T.S. and it’s unreasonable to expect the developers to find a way to pause time for only your character. Other than those two things, it feels remarkably like Fallout 4. Maybe even disappointingly like Fallout 4, since I was really hoping for a change in color. You get bored with browns and washed out blues or greens. I was hoping for some orange and yellows, maybe, or some vibrant color variants. It is a solid entry in the same vein of most Fallout games, simply trading one contrived plot for another, one vault for another, and one location for another. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you. I quite enjoy all the Fallout games even if I tend to get bored of the endless side missions and weird power curves before long.
The biggest downside to this being a standard entry in the Fallout line of games is the number of bugs. There have been tons of them and even the most forgiving players would characterize Fallout 76’s first month as a “rough start.” That being said, it’s still managed to pull off a multiplayer online game while avoiding all of the worst problems. Griefing people is difficult, since the Player versus Player combat rules require two consenting adults to shoot at each other before removing a huge set of damage reductions on either character. It is still possible, of course, but there’s no way to stop a determined player from griefing someone if they want to. The lack of a good, in-game reporting feature is concerning, but the fact that they can real-time track every player, who is doing what events, and how your individual actions might set up the environment for a player passing through later is monumental. We expect it because we’ve been spoiler by online multiplayer games that are good at faking it, but we actually get the whole thing here. There have been myriad issues with the gameplay itself, things like players getting trapped in their Power Armor or the one player whose character is unable to die. There are a lot more bugs attributed to the game acting weird than issues arising from it being an online game, which has so far shocked no one but the people who’d never played a Fallout game before this one.
The internet has been going on about this game a lot. Most people seem to absolutely hate it or love it, which seems to be a theme of internet culture these days. Everything is all of one thing or it’s all of the other. There’s no room for middle-ground or change over time, everything either sucks or is the greatest. To be fair to the haters, Bethesda kinda deserves it. There have been issues with pre-orders, people feel like they were misled about the game they were getting, some of the pre-order people received sub-standard items with their pre-orders, and people feel like the game is limiting them from actually enjoying their online experience because of the rough start to the game’s release. At the same time, not all of the criticism is as valid as the rest. Advertising a canvas bag in one of the top-tier pre-orders and sending a low-quality nylon bag instead is dumb. They either should have had the prototypes and pricing done before they advertised, or they should have sucked up the cost and given people what they were promised. Being mislead about the game they were getting isn’t really valid. Sure, people expected a fully finished game on launch, but I think people’s expectations are wrong in this case, especially seeing how the video game industry has changed over the years.
Sure, there’s the basic change of development from risk-taking hobbyists to corporate profit-chasers that has resulted in micro-transactions and a “new” Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty game every year, but that’s about how the industry makes its money and what sort of staple games appear. What I’m talking about is the way games are delivered and what is handed to us when we download it. Back in the day, there wasn’t a way for games to get an update so they’d take a few years to create despite being relatively simple. No amount of computer tools makes a 3D model easier to create and animate than a sixteen-bit pixel model and every level in an old game was a two-dimensional surface with shading to give it a sense of depth. The games took longer and were as complete as possible when they reached our hands because they had to be. The games that weren’t that good have gone down in history as being enormous flops or cult classics. Sure, everyone probably remembers the Missingno trick from Pokemon Red and Blue, but not every realizes that doing it wrong or making a poor choice at any time could have really screwed up your game. I mean, I played Majora’s Mask for a week, trying to get to the first save point before my game froze on the N64 and I only ever saw it as a challenge I had to overcome. Our expectations were different back then. The only games that were “perfect” where the ones that were too simple to mess up, and even most of those had bugs or exploits for whoever went looking for them. At some point, we got it into our heads that games had to be perfect when they come out and it’s ruining our ability to enjoy perfectly playable if buggy games.
In addition to that, the product being delivered to us has changed. Gone are the days when we expected a game to stay exactly the same as when we bought it. There are still some games like that out there, but most of our big games change overtime. Almost all of our online multiplayer games shift as time passes, introducing new events and story tidbits for us to enjoy. Look at Destiny 2. The game has an entire year of additional content planned. Most of it isn’t story content or anything that’s really going to change the game for us (we already got our big chunk of story content and changes to the game this year, so that’s all for us until the next expansion), but it’s still new activities and weapons and so on. Look at World of Warcraft and the way they spread the pieces of a new expansion out over the course of several months. Look at literally every multiplayer online game out there. We, as consumers, have grown to expect this, and yet the entire customer base loses their shit when a game isn’t perfect the minute it releases. For whatever reason, we love a story that unfolds over months but can’t stand a game that transforms from a basic, ambitious concept to a fully realized constantly developing world that ceaselessly incorporates community feedback in its decisions about what to do next? That’s ridiculous.
I think that we, as a whole, need to cool our jets and just enjoy the alright Fallout game we’ve got as the development teams continues to improve it. It is far from unplayable and the fixes they’re delivering are a sign that they’re listening to what the community wants, even if they’re slower about responding to it than we’d like. People should just play what they can and give the game a chance to live up to our expectations rather than trying to shut it down the moment it fails to conform to our desires. I think people will be presently surprised at how much the game has grown if they return to it in the spring.
It is no secret that I love John Scalzi’s books. From the first time I found a copy of Old Man’s War to his recent release, The Consuming Fire, I have always thought of him as one of the best Sci-Fi writers, and not just because Old Man’s War shone like the sun in comparison to The Forever War when it comes to books that critique war in a space-centric futuristic setting. He’s one of two writer’s I’ve gotten to sign my laptop, a request reserved for my favorite writers of a genre I want to write in. All that bias acknowledged, I still think you should take it seriously when I say that the Interdependency Series is one of the best science-fiction series I’ve read in recent years.
The first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, sets a complex, multi-faceted stage. We are introduced to The Interdependency, a series of Human colonies spread through space, connected by something called “The Flow” and ruled by an Emperox who is not only the leader of the government but also the head of the official religion. The Emperox we are introduced to, a younger woman named Cardenia Wu who assumed the throne somewhat unexpectedly after the death of her half-brother. There’s trouble brewing in the system of Human colonies, something vague her dying father only hints at before his death, and she must rise to the challenge of assuming a role she doesn’t really want and convincing the entire Interdependency to take her seriously. Helping her is the son of the scientist who spotted the problem, who is also an accomplished physicist in his own right and who has to escape his home planet and the noble family who wants to grab power during what they think will be a time of great vulnerability for the Interdependency and the Emperox.
All of the characters are incredible. The Emperox is a mixture of a confident, trained leader who has clearly been prepared for their role in society and a woman who never expected to be the head of anything but a few charities. She perfectly rides that line between fitting in with the part she must play in the Interdependency and wanting someone who sees her as a person instead of just as the Emperox. She is sympathetic to the reader, but her character is never dependent on that sympathy. The male scientist, Marce, is a giant nerd who studies The Flow, a series of wormholes that connect our realities to streams of altered space-time that allow ships with properly configured reality bubbles to travel great distances quickly along the flow of said streams, and who is clearly along for the ride when it comes to getting off-planet. He always seems a little bewildered, but never lost. He’s clearly intelligent and it shows as he quickly grasps whatever plans are laid around him, even when he’s clearly out of his element and just trying to keep up with the women who are trying to keep him alive.
Even the antagonists seem Human, showing us not just their plotting but also why they’re trying to grab power when they are. Most of them have a softer side, making it clear they are concerned for the survival of all Humans even if they’re taking this chance to enrich themselves while they try to safeguard Humanity. The only exception is the ring-leader, a woman named Nadashe Nohamapetan, who seems like a cackling villain from the beginning and whose behavior does nothing but reinforce that image of her. I want to believe there’s a chance at redemption for Nadashe coming (I haven’t reading The Consuming Fire yet), but all signs seem to point away from us seeing her as anything but an ambitious woman trying to grab power for herself and her family with little regard for the survival of Humanity.
She’s clearly a political expert, though, given the way she relentlessly positions herself to be in the right place for each step of her plan. Watching the political maneuverings is interesting since the whole system of government is a lot more difficult to influence that it is in more politically focused novels. For instance, in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, the government is ruled by whoever has a claim and sits on the throne. In The Interdependency series, not just anyone can become the Emperox. Anyone can try to grab political and economic power, but the absolute rock-solid certainty of the house of Wu being both the head of the government and the head of the church means that power will almost always tip back to the Emperox in the end. Which means the politics in both The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire are a little tame compared to what people generally look for, but the unique setup of the government of the Interdependency is more than enough to make them interesting.
The universe itself is well-developed in exactly the right ways. The specifics of everything aren’t incredibly important and Scalzi tends to brush past them quickly, instead focusing his time and attention on the important details. For instance, there is only one planet in the entire Interdependency on which Humans can live without some kind of habitat. Every other human settlement is either some kind of space station or hive, a bubble of habitability for Humanity to occupying in an otherwise hostile environment. This is important because it means there is only one place all of Humanity can survive for an extended period should something happened to the Interdependency’s linked economies is this planet, End. If the empire actually does collapse as the first book’s title suggests, then it is likely most of Humanity will die out except for those who live on End, a planet called such because it is as far from the center of the Interdependency as it is possible to get. All of the world details we get, from how The Flow works to how the various Human populations behave shows us how connected everything is and how reliant every single Human settlement is on being able to trade with all of the other settlements.
Like all good science-fiction, Scalzi’s books make a few statements about modern Humanity. The way all of the settlements rely on each other for long-term survival closely mirrors the situation we have on Earth, and how our survival as a whole is dependent on us working together in the modern age to fix the problems we’re all facing. The story has yet to show how The Interdependency works together to solve the problem, but I imagine it will fit Humanity’s current process all too well: argue for too long to do anything positive and then find someone to blame for the lack of results. Additionally, the deterioration of The Flow is a decent analogy for the environment and the way The Interdependency as a whole receives Marce’s scientific presentations completely matches the way most governments reacted to the initial findings about Global Warming. Some people take it seriously and a lot of people fear that it is true, but the idea of having to change on that big of a scale is so much more terrifying that people will cover their ears and yell so they can’t hear the truth. As someone who tries to fight that behavior in the real world, it is refreshing to find characters in a book who are trying to do the same thing, albeit in a more fantastic setting.
The entire series is worth reading and The Consuming Fire is even better than I hoped it would be. I would go into it more, but so much of The Collapsing Empire would be entirely spoiled if I did. You should definitely start there and enjoy the various twists and turns of the plot, even if it does pretty much match up with the title. The entire series is a solid chunk of science-fiction and I’m definitely putting this on my list of Christmas gifts for other people so I can spread the love of this series as far as possible. Let me know what you think once you’ve read it!
If you are a Human who uses social media, grew up on the internet, are a part of modern society, have regular access to the internet, or sometimes wonder how the world has become as angry and loud as it currently is, you need to read Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” Ideally, everyone should read it. I doubt it’s the first book of its kind, but I don’t know if any other book like it speaks with as much experience, is written with as much clarity, or delivers as powerful a message as Hank Green’s does. This Science Fiction/Coming-of-Age-For-The-Modern-Twenty-Something novel is the beginning of something big that I can’t really put my finger on, but everyone I know who has read it agrees with me so I’m inclined to believe my gut on this one. You should read this so you don’t fall behind. Also, if you someone miss that feeling of something on the horizon or don’t really get what I’m talking about, you’ll at least have read a good book.
Even though this book doesn’t really fit into any of the modern genres, I still think it’s useful to talk about it in those contexts. This is a science fiction novel because it involves a world much like our own with a few changes, all of which could be explained by technological advances. It also talks about the way technology (in this case, social media) impacts civilization and offers some wonderful, insightful commentary on the lives of Humans and on Humanity as a whole. It is a Coming-of-Age novel because it involves the growth of a character from a more “childlike” mindset to a more “adult” one, even if all it really does is show an adult, albeit one in their early-to-mid-twenties, becoming wiser and more responsible as a result of the challenges they face and overcome. The book, at its core, is both of these things done in the best ways possible. The story focuses on a young woman who suddenly finds herself going viral and what she does as a result of that. She makes mistakes, she learns a more about how the world and Humanity works, and she ultimately makes a statement about the Human Condition.
Even though you can’t really separate it from those genres, it still shouldn’t be lumped into them without an asterisk. Instead of the usual coming-of-age story about a child becoming an adult or leaving behind the carefree days of youth for the responsibilities of adulthood, this story is about the uncertainty modern twenty-somethings face and the way that we struggle to find a place to exist in the world. Above all else, though, it’s a story about the internet and how Hank Green feels about it, as told through a fictional setting making use of hyperbole to make a point. If you don’t know who Hank Green is, he’s the younger half of the Vlog Brothers and the person who has most relentlessly pursued a pro-internet agenda. He’s started dozens of companies, or at least started dozens of big projects, like various educational shows with their own YouTube channels, a side channel for his process and projects as a whole, 2D glasses for people like me (well, people like his wife) who get headaches when we watch 3D movies, at least one charity, multiple conventions, and so much more. He has been a huge part of internet culture for a long time and he has firmly advocated that the internet is a good thing.
If you went to one of his book events or have read the book, you know he doesn’t really believe that anymore. Now, he seems pretty clear that the internet is a tool. Whether it is good or bad depends entirely on how it’s used. He has a lot more to say on the topic, but I don’t trust myself to properly recall the talk he gave at his book event and I will update this review with a video about it if he ever posts one (or if I find one he’s previously posted). To summarize, though, we basically failed to establish rules on the internet and that has allowed a lot of very angry and very loud people to have influence we should have denied them. Unlike physical societies or communities, there aren’t strict mores governing how we treat each other on the internet. Closely tied communities like the Nerdfighters (what the fans of the Green Brothers call themselves) might have some, but the internet at large does not, nor do a lot of internet communities. All of which is an important part of understanding what Hank Green says in his book during the times the protagonist, April May, interacts with her fan communities. Or strangers on the internet. Or the communities that sprung up specifically to oppose her. There’s a lot of really good social commentary that feels particularly relevant after the shitshow that was 2015 and 2016 wound up deciding to carry on through the present. There are entire characters, antagonists mostly, who map to some of the negativity and hate that we’ve seen crop up since then, and it’s all shown to us by someone who knows what it is like to be an internet celebrity, to be able to influence thousands of people with a single tweet. Someone who knows what that power can do to people has reached out and shown us what that power can do to the person who has it and wants to use it for good.
Even without all that, it’s still a really engaging book that addresses the age-old question of “what would it look like if we had an encounter with an alien species?” The story is about a young woman who finds what looks to be a new art installation in New York City when she’s heading home from work late one night, and how her life changes as she becomes the official face of what the world has taken to calling “the Carls,” which are the exact same art installation that appeared in cities all over the world at the exact same moment. There’s romance, heartbreak, violence, and even a bit of heartwarming friendship all mixed into a plot that could carry the book on its own. April May has to figure out what the art installations are and defend her beliefs about them in front of an international. audience before the people who are senselessly promoting fear and hate get ahead of her, or else she’ll lose what she believes in one of the best opportunities she has to be a force for good in the world.
The writing itself is clean, pleasant, and easy to follow. It reflects the way Hank thinks and talks in his YouTube videos. Hank tends to keep his sentences brisk and direct, heading directly toward his meaning like they’re going to lose out if they don’t get there quickly. It works really well for a book like “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” a story told as if the narrator were speaking to us or writing an informal blog post. There are a few places where that backfires a bit, ending in some grammatically correct but difficult sentences were the verb tenses combine to make a tangle of words, but there’s literally no way to avoid this in the English language if you’re writing a first-person narrative in the past-tense about events that happened but are still sorta of a part of life when the story is being told and specific things might even still be happening the day the reader picks up the book. I don’t really ascribe to the whole “English rifles through the pockets of other languages for loose grammar” derision a lot of people express (I literally studied the languages that combined to become English and the history of the English language, so I’ve got a view-point that most people don’t have), but I will say that past tense talking about events still ongoing is a pain in the ass to write. These moments that no one can avoid are the only burrs in the story and it wouldn’t have been as powerful any other way. Just keep going if you hit them. The meaning of each sentence is clear enough, they just sound weird in your head or out loud.
While we only see one character in detail, we get enough of a picture of the other characters for them to all feel incredibly real. Even the bossy, sorta nasty PR woman who basically takes on all of April May’s publicity and contacts stuff seems like a real person you’ve met even if she’s only in the story a handful of times. The main antagonist, who sees The Carls as something to be feared and hated rather than as something that could unite Humanity, even gets the same treatment. Despite appearing as a caricature of hate (like a lot of internet personalities), Hank Green manages to make it clear that this person has depth to them, even if all we see if their caricature because the narrator doesn’t spend much time on them. More than any one character, though, Humanity as a whole gets one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. We’re depicted as beings who want to simplify and who often define ourselves not by what we support but by what we fight against. Some of whom will embrace hate or fall prey to fear when we’re up against something we don’t understand instead of taking a chance on hope and love. It’s honestly kind of refreshing to see someone who regularly witnesses the best and worst of humanity as an online media presence show us in a truthful and complex light rather than just one extreme or the other.
You should read this book. Everyone should read this book. I’ve bought three copies and am planning to buy more, just so I can give it away to people. If you really want it but can’t afford it, I will try to buy it for you, finances permitting (I can’t afford to buy one for everyone, though I totally would if I could). Buy it for yourself and then treat yourself to an afternoon of reading. Knock it out in one sitting and then bask a book that is the start of something much bigger than itself. Maybe in a few more years, there’ll be an entire genre for books about finding meaning in the twenty-first century and trying to grow as a twenty-something. I can’t wait to see what comes of this movement and I’m going to do my best to be a part of it.
I don’t know if it’s a common part of most people’s college experiences, but I spent a lot of time reading mythology. I also studied literary criticism, so I’ll admit I’m probably more likely than most to encounter mythology as it was originally written rather than just more recent adaptions. It was one of my favorite things to study because there was a long period were all stories were what we’d now call “fantasy” and we kind of just lump them all into “mythology” because it’s an easy classification. It’s a vast oversimplification of a complex and storied body of literature, but it does make life easier for everyone who doesn’t specialize in pre-modern literature or spend a lot of time reading mythology.
To that end, I think a lot of people would enjoy ancient mythology if we had more complete stories and they were translated into more modern words than most scholars use. I mean, most Norse mythology makes for a great read, but even the translated stuff is a bit dense since almost all ancient mythology we have is from someone writing down a story that had been passed down through a solely oral tradition up to that point. Oral stories tend to have a lot of repetition and they tend to spiral around each plot point for a while to make it easier on the performer. If you could streamline it all, fill in some of the gaps in stuff like The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’m sure more people would get really into it.
Since that doesn’t seem likely to happen, they should read “Dysa of the Nothing” by Arlynn Lake. While Amazon lists it as a “Suspense” or a Children’s Fantasy and Magic eBook, I honestly thing “mythology” would be a better fit. There’s a certain cadence to storytelling that appears in almost all ancient myths and “Dysa of the Nothing” captures that perfectly. It is an easy book to read, but it is anything but simply written. Something that flows through a story and a strange world with this much ease can’t be anything but the result of strong writing and a lot of work on the author’s part. It has the feel of a finely crafted statue, with all of the rough spots smoothed over and everything seamlessly joined together so that every piece of the story feels like a single, unbroken part of a whole.
If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the writing in this story and that, alone, would make me willing to recommend it. That being said, there’s plenty more amazing stuff to say about this book and I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on all of the high points, but I also want to stress that this was a really good read. It was engaging, it kept me interested the whole time, and it was short enough that none of it had the time to get boring. In terms of well-craft stories, this is probably one of the best I’ve read this year, right up there with Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” (which I’ll be reviewing next week) and John Scalzi’s “Head On.” It’s very different from most of the stuff I read, but it was good enough to be literally the first eBook I’ve ever fully read in an electronic format. I am so bad with most electronic forms of writing and information collection that I literally forget I have an entire (small) library of Nook and Kindle books that I’ve never even read a tenth of (going by page count since I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ve never finished an eBook before). Anyway, back to the stuff most people care about: the story, its characters, and the world.
The world is deceptive in its complexity, with two very different groups of people who might not be that different after all and a long history of conflict with something called “The Nothing.” There’s a sense of long history and traditions maintained over many lifetimes as the story starts and no matter where the story takes us, there’s this sense of so much more just around the corner or hidden over the horizon. The worldbuilding isn’t as heavy or “complete” as it is in most contemporary fantasy, but there’s no need for more. There’s never a moment in the entire story were I was left wondering about some aspect of the world. You’re given exactly as much as you need to enjoy the story and maintain your suspension of disbelief. Arlynn Lake has done an amazing job at one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling (or blog-post writing): taking out what isn’t necessary. I like my fluff as much as the next fantasy fan, but I also really appreciate a good story told succinctly and, as someone who struggles with that, greatly admire an author who can do it well.
The plot itself is fairly straight-forward. There are not many surprises along the way, but the real point of the story is watching the characters progress through the journey that has been laid out for them. While there is some question of how things will turn out, it mostly hinges on how what the characters’ relationships will be once the story has finished rather than how the journey will end. This works well for the story since it is mostly focused on the growth of the characters and they’re the most interesting part of the story by far. I was all set to dislike the main character, a teenager named Andwith, because he’s pretty much set up as this perfect kid who can do anything, but you gradually start to see the Humanity in him, the flaws and fears he hides behind what everyone calls his Four Virtues (which are explained in the first chapter of the book). Despite his gifts and near-perfection, he still has flaws and he still makes mistakes, even if most of them are small. Plus, the story isn’t really about him, it’s about the people around him and what happens because he appears in the world (much like when Enkidu appears to change the life of Gilgamesh, though the similarity pretty much stops there).
I would definitely recommend buying this book. It’ll take a few hours to read, but they’ll be fun hours from beginning to end and the low price of the eBook on Amazon (especially if you have Kindle Unlimited) makes it a no-brainer to buy. You should check it out and enjoy a quick story about having faith in people, trying to help people become the person they want to be, and giving people a chance to be Human, even if they’re not.
I’ve been putting off this review for months because this is my favorite story and I don’t want to sell it short. I want to be as charming and witty as this webcomic is and I just don’t have it in me since I’ve been constantly struggling just to keep up with the stuff I need to do, much less the stuff I want to do. I’ve written and deleted this post ten times over at this point because I can never come close to expressing how much I love this comic and how much Rob Balder, the writer and creator, inspires me. I feel like there’s some perfect version of this review inside me and I just keep failing to bring it out. Ultimately, though, a finished review that’s “alright” is better than the “perfect” review that never gets written. Anyway, as the protagonist of Erfworld–a man named Parson Gotti (just rearrange the letters a bit)–said, “We try things. Occasionally they even work.”
Erfworld is a comic about a man, the aforementioned Parson Gotti–aka Lord Hamster, who gets sucked into a different world by a spell created by people to be named later. The “side” of Gobwin Knob, ruled by Stanley the Tool (formerly Stanley the Plaid), paid a fortune for a spell to summon the perfect warlord, as defined by a handful of people who all had very different ideas of what that meant. Nevertheless, Parson arrives and sets to work with a will, slowly learning everything he doesn’t know he needs to know in order to take on what feels a lot like the whole world from the disadvantageous position of a long losing streak. Joining him is a memorable cast of detailed characters from a resigned necromancer, an illusionist with arguably too few marvels, a conjurer who hates violence, and a telepath whose moral ambiguity isn’t as much of an asset as she wants to think it is. Leading (debatably) them all is a man who just so happens to be incredibly short, incredibly short-tempered, and frustratingly short of common sense. Throw in some magic weapons with godly powers, a war for the very soul of Erfworld, a power dynamic that resists change, and you’re finally scratching the surface of this amazingly complex story.
While most of the world works according to some basic mechanics best compared to a miniatures game (units form “stacks”, move a certain number of terrain “hexes,” and have certain “specials” that modify their unit type such as “Flying” or “Archery”), the magic system is far more complex than most I’ve encountered and my descriptions of the various casters in the above paragraphs are vast over-simplifications for the sake of expediency. The necromancer is actually a “croakamancer,” which is a subset of the “naughtymancy” class of magic. I’d explain the others, but you’re honestly better off just reading the comic for yourself because the time it’d take to explain the magic system in a way I’d find satisfactory is greater than the time it’d take for you to read everything on the website. Not to mention that I’d have to revise it several times while writing it because we’re constantly learning more about magic in Erfworld and old assumptions and “facts” are constantly being set aside as we realized the fallacies of our assumptions. The one thing you do need to know is that the rules of the world are incredibly important, much more concrete than the rules of our world, and potentially exploitable. If you’re a gamer and you look at this story from the perspective of a power gamer looking for an exploit, you’ll find a lot of places for things to be used in a way the rule-writers likely didn’t intend. At the same time, Balder does an amazing job of breaking down what’s happening through text updates, character narration, and the detailed direction he gives the artists so that you don’t need to be a power gamer to understand or see what’s going on. All you really need is either a strong knowledge of pop-culture or strong Googling skills.
The plot itself is both pretty standard but also incredibly open-ended and unpredictable. Parson is summoned to serve his ruler and save the “side” of Gobwin Knob, but then what? The story carries on after plot wraps up and even the characters dealing with the fallout of how that concludes is only setting the stage for the appearance of even larger threats who all seem laser-focused on the fact that Parson is a player on the stage of Erfworld. Is Parson actually in a different universe, or did he have an aneurysm? Who are the bad guys in this story? What’s right and what’s wrong in a world where free will is a basically a special trait belonging only to a few units? What part does Fate play in the outcome of events and can it be circumvented or defeated? What does it mean to be the perfect warlord? All these questions and more are posed as the plot winds it way from one startling turn of events to another and, the further we go, the more we realize we’re not actually sure about the answers to those questions.
No one is the villain in their own story, but how do you tell a story about people who are trying to conquer the world through what seem like some pretty brutal means without making the readers dislike your protagonists? Is it enough to just give them someone worse to fight, and is that other someone actually worse or does it just seem like they are because we automatically sympathize with characters whose perspective we get to see? Only Balder has the answers to these questions, but it’s plain to see that he actually does have the answers to them. The way the story unfolds and the clever way he seeds foreshadowing into every major event is so detailed and complex that I can barely begin to comprehend the scope of his planning and work.
Behind the veneer of cutesy-sounding names and hilarious onomatopoeia is a harsh world full of difficult questions and the undeniable fact that only through death and war can any “side” survive. The often cute art of the comic hides an incredibly dark story of how far is “too far” and what’s justifiable in war, either as a defender or as an aggressor. Easily, the best part of this comic is the number of large and important questions it constantly raises and forces you to answer on your own. The characters in the comic find their own answers frequently, but that aren’t necessarily the answers we want since their answers are generally motivated by the desire for their side to win the war or come out on top. It can be difficult to keep track of what horrors each side has visited on each other because it feels like there’s a clear bad guy, but there are a few good guys who are only good because they’re willing to talk rather than fight. Peace isn’t really a permanent solution in Erfworld, but working for it seems like a better goal than just fighting all the time.
The art is amazing, even though it has changed rather frequently. The current artist team is by-far my favorite and I’m always excited for each new page because I can’t wait to pour over each page for all the hidden details they slip in. The often-changing artists are emblematic of the major struggle that has plagued Erfworld for a long time: an overabundance of tragedy. From the artist’s mother having cancer to the writer’s wife and one of the main employees of the website getting cancer, to stylistic differences with another artist, there’s a lot that has gone wrong for the comic as a whole and for Rob Balder in general. He’s been fairly open about everything since his fans are willing to stick by him throughout it all and have numerous times helped him come up with the money he needs to continue working on our favorite comic, but I still feel like most of those stories are his to tell, so I recommend checking out his news posts once you’ve read the whole thing. Regardless, his persistence and the way he’s always carried on with this story despite the hurdles he’s had to overcome has always inspired me to keep trying, even when I didn’t write for most of a year and considered giving up on it. I set the little statue of Parson I got from one of the Kickstarters next to my monitor and told myself “We try things. Occasionally they even work.” That is my all-time favorite quote from this comic (and that’s saying a lot because there are some real doozies here), and it has helped me not just get through the rough patches but stay focused when things were going well so I never took my good days for granted.
There aren’t a lot of stories I can say had a huge impact on my life and the number of writers I find truly inspiring is small enough that I can list them all on one hand, but Rob Balder and his wonderful story is at the top of both lists. If you want a story that will carry you along, with a cast of impeccable characters and a plot that will never leave you wanting, read Erfworld and bask in the glory that is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Please, do us both a favor and start reading it now.