I’ve made no secret of how much I adore Avatar: The Last Airbender. I didn’t discover it until a few years ago (after a friend bugged me endlessly to watch it) and my eventual experience bingeing it was life-changing. I wrote at length about what I think makes Avatar: The Last Airbender so magical, but the gist is that Avatar was able to imbue levity and colour into every facet: from its humour and character building, to its plot, worldbuilding, and visual design. It’s an absolutely delightful show, which makes it so much more effective when it hits you with an emotional hammer. I discovered Avatar at a difficult time in my life, and it helped me through a period of (what I now recognize as) depression.
My praise was high:
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a remarkably consistent piece of storytelling that retains its quality from the first episode to the last. In fact, even if pressed, I’d find it difficult to find a point in the entire series where pacing is ever an issue. Every episode, even the sidestory episodes that don’t directly involve Aang’s plot against plight against the Fire Nation, like the previously mentioned “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” all serve a purpose in the tale, revealing more about the characters and their world. There’s not a wasted frame, not a wasted word, and that’s something that can be said about so few pieces of fiction, no matter the medium.
A season of The Legend of Korra (a follow-up set in the same world with some of the original creators involved) was already out when I finished Avatar, and I unabashedly jumped on board, expectations unfairly high. Korra did many things right (and its third season is particularly good), but it’s much more of a roller-coaster in terms of quality compared to its predecessor. Though I enjoyed it in its entirety, and appreciate many of the elements it introduced to the series (Korrasami <3), it failed to capture me in the same way as Avatar. In a lot of ways, Korra was missing the heart and soul that made Avatar so special. It took itself a bit too seriously at times, its storytelling was fraught with melodrama, and thanks to never quite knowing if it would get another season, the pacing of the overall narrative was rocky.
One notable exclusion from the Korra staff was Aaron Ehasz, and now, with hindsight, I realize how many elements of Avatar likely originated with him. Ehasz (along with Justin Richmond) has returned to the world of YA fantasy with a new show on Netflix, The Dragon Prince. In many ways it’s the follow-up to Avatar that I’ve been waiting for.
It’s impossible to understate how obsessed I was with dinosaurs during my youth. I devoured the thick textbook-style tome that covered dozens of dinos, each with its own detailed sketch, to-scale comparisons against humans, maps detailing where they lived. It had it all. It was beautiful. By the time I was nine, I’d moved onto Michael Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park. I still vividly remember sitting in the movie theatre, lights dimming, and trying, frantically, to finish the novel before the film started. I didn’t quite manage it, but was quite pleased, hours later, to discover the the ending of the book is quite different than the film. I’m sure my parents heard about all the differences between the book and the film for weeks.
I was dino crazy.
As a teen and adult, I wasn’t quite so vociferous in my dino fandom, it was replaced instead by a newfound love for epic fantasy, but I’ve always been drawn to their vast history and all the millions of question marks that remain about our planet’s most enduring species.
Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is the absolute best re-entry point I could ask for as a formerly-dino crazy kid who, as an adult, wants to learn more about the history of dinosaurs. It’s thorough and academic, but not at the expense of being readable and charismatic. It’s clear that Brusatte is more than a dry scientist—so much of his passion and knowledge about the subject shines through with his clear, often humourous voice. At times, especially during the first couple of chapters, he can become a little self-referential, dropping extensive lists of names and anecdotes about his fellow palaeontologists, but once he digs into the history of the dinosaurs, everything is smooth sailing.
At this point in my life, most of my knowledge of dinosaurs has dwindled to not much more than “it happened in Jurassic Park.” I’ve been pleased with Brusatte’s work both from the perspective of easing me back into the dinosaur world, but also his efficacy as a narrator and storyteller. There’s something epic and beautiful about the way he writes about the slow, labyrinthine rise and inevitable, tragic fall of the dinosaurs.
I’ve written at great length about my relationship with Terry Brooks’ epic fantasy series, Shannara. After Tolkien, Brooks’ work reinforced my newfound love of elves and adventure, magic, vast landscapes, harrowing escapes, and epic battles between good and evil. One of my main/ongoing criticisms of the Shannara series, however, is that Brooks has a tendency to repeat himself—dipping his pen in the same inkwell too often. Themes, story structure, and characters archetypes repeat themselves in each new Shannara series, which makes reading a new Shannara book sometimes too predictable. He’s shown however, through his other fantasy series, such as Word & Void, a contemporary fantasy, and The Magic Kingdom (a humourous secondary world fantasy) that he has the chops to write original fiction outside of his most famous series, and I’m always curious to see what happens when he turns his eye toward something wholly new.
Street Freaks (Grim Oak Press, 2018) is a major departure for Brooks in a lot of ways. It’s his first pure science fiction novel (if you consider his post-apocalyptic Shannara novels to be a science fiction/fantasy hybrid), and it’s an absolute blast to see him playing in a new playground and worldbuilding from the ground up for the first time since 1997’s Running with the Demon. In many other ways, it’s familiar ground. Thematically, Brooks is sticking with his tried-and-true formula of coming-of-age meets adventure, which has proved immensely successful in the Shannara series. In all, he finds a nice balance between new and familiar, which appeals to the long-time Brooks fan in me.
I’ve long been a fan of Mur Lafftery’s work as a podcaster (I Should Be Writing and the Hugo-winning Ditch Diggers) and editor (I mean, heck, she was one of the first to buy a short story from me), but, until now, I haven’t been exposed to any of her fiction. Six Wakes, her first science fiction novel, earned a lot of raves this year, and ended up being nominated for some prominent SFF awards, has been on my to-read pile for several months. After finishing off Peter Frankopan’s tremendous (and tremendously heavy) The Silk Roads, I needed a palate cleanser, and Six Wakes seemed like the perfect thing. A generation ship story AND a closed room murder mystery? Sign me up.
I’m listening to the audiobook, and the first pleasent surprise is that Lafferty herself is doing the narration. She’s not as dramatic as some narrators, choosing instead to let the text itself do the speaking, but her experience is obvious and her authorial voice brings forward an interesting perspective on the story.
And what a story it is. Things come together quickly, as the cloned members of a generation ship wake to find their previous bodies brutally murdered. Lafferty’s prose is whip sharp, and she relies on natural, well-paced dialogue to move the story along. I’m about 20% into the book, and at this point the handful of main protagonists have already established personalities and separate themselves from one another easily. Its pace, coupled with a high number of characters, and a mystery plot, could easily have made for a huge mess, but Lafferty handles things with ease. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Agatha Christie’s famous, And Then There Were None. The conceit that all but one of the principal crew members on the ship is a former criminal partaking in the mission with the promise of a full pardon adds to the Christie-like air. It’s immensely compelling, especially as the secrets of their pasts are slowly revealed. Mystery and suspicion abounds as each of the characters tries to juggle uncertainty with the need to trust their fellow travellers.
In all, I’m hooked. The mystery is compelling, the characters are rich, the pacing is breakneck. I gotta know what happens next.
A couple of weeks ago, I was spitballing on Twitter about wanting to read more ’90s-style epic fantasy. You know the type. Lots of pages. Travelogues. Plucky heroes. Coming-of-age. Magic. Quests. Adventuring parties full of D&D stereotypes. It was my bread-and-butter growing up. I loved Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Raymond E. Feist, and their contemporaries. I received a lot of great recommendations, but eventually settled on my first choice: Green Rider by Kristen Britain.
Green Rider tells the story of Karigan G’ladheon, a young woman who, after being expelled from a prestigious school for duelling, becomes snared in the magical and political machinations of Sacoridia’s elite. Like most epic fantasy of the time, Green Rider is a story of hope and perseverance, and grows larger in the tellings as the conflict around Karigan gets bigger and more deadly with each turning page.
Things pick up quickly (no Lord of the Rings-style easing into the story here) with Karigan getting caught up in the murder of F’Ryan Coblebay in the novel’s early pages. After that, it’s an avalanche of appropriately epic set pieces, escalating levels of magic, several seemingly impossible-to-escape scenarios, and just enough hints of a larger threat to keep things interesting. Karigan travels on her own for much of the book, and each new chapter reads in an almost episodic manner as she stumbles across some new character or two, who present danger or succour, until Karigan eventually moves on or escapes.
The JRPGs of the mid-’90s have influenced me more than any other media outside of fantasy fiction. I grew up OBSESSED with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI; poured hundreds of hours into Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Xenogears, Grandia, and Suikoden; have replayed games from that era over-and-over again in the 20 years since. It’s no exaggeration to say that Octopath Traveller, a new JRPG from Square Enix and Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch that hearkens back to the halcyon days of Squaresoft, was made for me.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time with it now, and I’m pleased to say that not only does Octopath Traveller do justice to the classics of its genre, it manages to take the feeling of those games and create something that feels both nostalgic and modern at the same time.
The first thing you’ll notice about Octopath Traveler is its unique blend of 3D-environments and 16-bit style spritework/pixel art. I left a playthrough of Final Fantasy VI unfinished to pick up Octopath Traveler, and the similarities are obviously striking—but, the more I play, the more I’m reminded of the 32-bit RPGs that melded 2D sprites with 3D environments, like Grandia or Xenogears. However, rather than trying for a 1:1 emulation of the old style, as many throwback JRPGs do, Octopath Traveller combines the 16/32-bit aesthetic with modern sensibilities. As someone who grew up on 16/32-bit JRPGs, it’s a heady combination that manages to look the way I remember those games looking, which is a high compliment.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve made a dedicated a lot of my gaming time (such as it is these days…) to revisiting older RPGs. I grew up playing everything from Squaresoft’s finest on SNES to BioWare’s amazing output on the PC. It’s been a joy to revisit favourites, such as those listed below, and discover some classics that slipped past me at the time of release.
Since I’ve been thinking so much about these older games, and recognizing (or rediscovering) what makes them work so effectively, especially compared to a lot of modern games, which I’m finding myself less attracted to, I thought it would be fun to explore my Top 10 Favourite RPGs (and 10 Honourable Mentions.
(The list is unordered, except for the first game, which is undisputedly my favourite game of all time.)
I played Grandia to completion back when it was first released, and have always considered it one of the high-water marks of PSX-era JRPGs. However, in a lot of ways, it hasn’t aged well, particularly while playing it on original hardware (or PSP, where I first attempted to replay it) due to slowdown, so I’ve never made it more than a few hours into a replay. This time, I’m playing it via Retroarch, using GPU overclock for a consistent 30fps, and it’s like a new experience.
I’m currently two hours deep and exploring the game’s first dungeon: the Sult Ruins.
I *love* the sense of optimism and adventure. One of my favourite games of all time is Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, which shares these attributes, but Grandia takes it to another level. There’s no overarching horror encroaching on the world at the get-go. In fact, it’s a time of peace. Justin wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an adventurer—to explore the world, discover knew things, dig up knowledge. In this day and age where we have grizzled Geralt from The Witcher, Lara Croft dousing people with gasoline and lighting them on fire, and beautiful but excessively violent games like Ghosts of Tsushima, it’s so refreshing to return to a time when game settings were fun and joyous.
First thought: I saw a Star Wars film on opening weekend and the theatre was only 30% full. That’s… odd.
Second thought: Holy smokes. I liked it. A LOT.
Admittedly, I went into the viewing with middling expectations (despite being a HUGE fan of The Last Jedi). This was due to a lot of factors, but mainly I didn’t like the idea of recasting one of the iconic characters from the original series. Han Solo is Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford is Han Solo.
So, imagine my surprise when, thirty minutes into the film, I was enjoying the hell out of it. Everything I love about Star Wars is there and works brilliantly. The film’s production hell is well documented, and the fact that Howard was able to make not only a watchable film, but a goodfilm is remarkable.
Earlier this year, I was blown away by Sam J. Miller’s debut YA novel, The Art of Starving. It was a beautiful, raw, warm, funny, and heartbreaking experience. I was already familiar with Miller’s short fiction, but that did little to prepare me for the emotional rollercoaster of protagonist Matt’s journey of self-discovery, super powers, and overcoming the perilous challenges of teenagedom.
Finishing The Art of Starving was like adding rocket fuel to my anticipation for Blackfish City, Miller’s debut adult novel. As soon as it released, I bought an audiobook copy, and, boy howdy, Miller’s outdone himself. Blackfish City is a tour-de-force of incredible, prescient worldbuilding, lush prose, and characters that are achingly real.
The eponymous city, called Qaanaaq, is a floating refugee city ruled by crime syndicates and landlords. It was constructed in the Arctic Circle, post climate change-fueled worldwide flooding, and, like any city populated by people fleeing dead or dying cultures and societies, is rich and diverse, but also suffers from many challenges. Blackfish City follows four people—Kaev, Soq, Fill, and Ankat—and their intertwined conflicts. Life in Qaanaaq is disrupted by the arrival of the Orcamancer, a woman riding an Orca, accompanied by a polar bear, and it soon becomes apparent that the lives and fates of Kaev, Soq, Fill, and Ankat are entwined with the mysterious visitor’s arrival. It’s a story about privilege and self-identification, hope, colliding cultures, and oppression. Like all of Miller’s work, it has a lot to say about the state of the world, and the dangers we face moving forward if things don’t change.