As I’ve written about at length, Japanese video games have been a huge part of my life since I was a kid playing Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Alongside those experiences, I was obsessed with Sailor Moon in seventh grade, Dragon Ball Z by ninth grade, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki as a high school grad. Japanese art and pop culture has had a tremendous influence on my life as a fan and a creator, second only to western epic fantasy.
Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World from Matt Alt is an exhaustive and entertaining look at my history—about how a generation of kids and teenagers were influenced as much by Hello Kitty and Gundam as Barbies and G.I. Joe. It’s the story of Japan’s rise to cultural dominance in the post-war era, and paints a chillingly direct line from the creation of anonymous message boards in Japan to modern day political unrest in the United States.
A couple of years ago, Wizards of the Coast made a gamble by bringing on popular fantasy authors like Brandon Sanderson, Kate Elliott, and Martha Wells to pen tie-in fiction for their mega-popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. For years before that, Magic’s fiction was handled by in-house writers and the results were dubious at best. While there has been some disappointment among fans for the major novel releases from Gargoyles-creator Greg Weisman, by and large these efforts have produced some of the best tie-in fiction the franchise has ever seen.
Among those brought on board was Django Wexler, whose military fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns earned critical acclaim for its masterful battles, political intrigue, and its genre-defying prominence of nuanced and well-written women. The Shadow Campaigns is “a masterclass on how writing a sexist culture – and sexist men, even – doesn’t have to restrict the significance and range of your female characters,” said reviewer Foz Meadows. For all its faults and hiccups from a storytelling perspective, Magic has made a valiant effort to increase its number of female characters over the years, and in addition to bringing on women like Elliott, Wells, and Cassandra Khaw to handle the story, Wexler is another excellent fit to help Magic transition into a better and more inclusive storytelling style.
Before my wife gifted me a copy of her book Life in Code for Christmas, I’d never heard of Ellen Ullman despite her long, impressive career as a programmer, software engineer, and author. Turns out, I’ve been missing out on one our the sharpest and most insightful writers on tech, culture, and feminism. Ullman is witty and broadly experienced, and has a terrific voice that flits between amusing and professionally rich without batting an eye. I know who Ullman is now, and, boy am I sorry it took me so long to find her.
(And major thanks to my wife for putting in work and research to find an absolute GEM of a book.)
Life in Code is a collection of Ullman’s essays ranging from the late ’90s to days after the 2017 US presidential inauguration. Posited as an auto-biographical account of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture, Life is Code is also a biography of technology and web culture over the past 20 years. It’s a detailed, real-time look at all the mistakes we’ve made as we’ve chased the ghost in the machine and the allure of fast, endless capital at the expense of privacy and social safety nets.
As 2019 tipped into 2020, readers started compiling their lists of the best books of the decade. I thought long and hard, but the only book I had any certainty about was the decade’s best: a debut novel from Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. With a tenacity matched by few other books, The Night Circus has not left me since I first read it years ago.
The Night Circus is a classic novel that will sit on the highest shelf of my bookshelf, right next to The Hobbit and The Shadow of the Wind. … There’s magic in this novel and it deserves to be read by anyone wanting to be reminded that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Usually when I liken a book to two all-time classic, the comparison begins to show its age as the days, weeks, and years pass?—but not so with The Night Circus. If anything, the comparison seems more fair to me now than it did then, especially after having read Morgenstern’s much awaited follow-up, The Starless Sea. Like Tolkien and Zafon’s novels, The Night Circus is a book for the ages.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve done a round-up of my recent work, that’s not for lack of writing. I’ve got a couple of reviews, a retrospective of a video game I’ve been waiting to play for over 20 years, and a round up of books perfect for fans of Japanese RPGs.
It feels like hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel about necromantic lesbians, bone citadels, rockin’ adventures, tantalizing mysteries, wicked sword fights, and many, many reanimated corpses has been building for YEARS. It was earlier this year, however, when it really started to catch my attention. Isabel Yap, who’s been championing the book since its earliest days, popped onto Twitter and blew my socks off by callingGideon the Ninth “the closest thing to a JRPG in novel form.”
Over on Kotaku (!!!, what is my life?), I’ve got a longread the explores the connection between the new wave of SFF writers and the influence of Golden Age Japanese RPGs (from the 16- and 32-bit era, like Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger, Suikoden 2, etc.) I’ve been working on it for a long, long time and I’m so proud it’s finally out there for everyone to read.
When I think back to my childhood and teenage years, when my literary tastes were being forged in the crucible of youthful emotion and impressionism, particular scenes come to life: Sam carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom. The Reaper chasing Wil Ohmsford through the Westland. Marle hugging Crono on top of Death Peak.
Most fantasy readers won’t need a reminder of what books the first two scenes come from (Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks), and most Kotaku readers won’t miss the reference to the classic Japanese role-playing game Chrono Trigger. And for some, all three of those works are of equal importance. Today’s fantasy novelists are just as likely to have been inspired by JRPGs as they are J.R.R. Tolkien. For some authors, Celes’ performance at the Opera House is just as much of a storytelling touchstone as young Simon fleeing Pryrates beneath the Hayholt.
It was an absolute pleasure to chat with various SFF writers about the topic. When I first started conceptualizing the piece, I had this vision of me showing up on Twitter like a naked dude at a graduation—everyone staring at me funny because I was the only one writer inspired by Golden Age JRPGs. Based by the overwhelmingly positive response on Twitter, this is obviously not the case.
I had to cut A TON of content from the interviews and first draft, so check back soon for a post featuring some of my favourite out takes that didn’t make it into the final article.
I’ve got reviews piling up these days, and, can just point out how blessed we are to be living in such a rich, wonderful time for SFF literature? Some seriously good books coming out these days, and my most recent reviews cover two of the best fantasy novels of the year: Empire of Grass by Tad Williams and A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay.
One of the benefits of being a part of the vast SFF community is making great friends. One of the benefits of those great friends is the opportunity to read their books early. I consider myself fortunate to count Sarah Gailey among those friends. They’re smart, funny, dynamic, and have a range to their writing that few other authors can match. I had an opportunity to read their first novel a couple of years ago, back when it had a different title, and it’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve been on the edge of my seat WAITING until it was released ever since then so I could scream at everybody I know to read it. It’s out now, called Magic for Liars, I’ve read the final version, and, y’all, it’s GOOD.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I felt my previous involvement with the novel meant it would be in poor taste for me to review it for a professional venue—but, here on my blog, I can say whatever I want. So:
Recently, I had the chance to read two very different but equally kick ass science fiction novels by two brilliant women. Funny enough, they’re also both published by Saga Press, a relatively new imprint that has been producing some of the genre’s best novels over the past few years. So, cheers to Joe Monti and Navah Wolfe at Saga for their vision and taste.