A Review of the Year 2016

(Not really.)

Consumed

One of the highlights of this category, for me, was the indie game Masquerada, a cross between Transistor and perhaps The Banner Saga. It’s one part visual novel, one part squad-based RPG, presented with fine visual style and fabulous music, and easily the best writing—and among the best voice acting—I’ve ever seen in any game. I very much hope to see more like it, and more from Witching Hours (whether a sequel or otherwise), who IMO could easily stand poised as the next Supergiant.

XCOM 2 was really good, wasn’t it? I’ll probably replay it at some point (if I can just make myself reinstall the billion or so mods to make the game a bit more… more), and hopefully by now most of the performance issues have been patched out. You don’t play this stuff for the story or the writing, but what’s there served it fine. Playing for the first time always has the thrill of discovery you just can’t replicate on the second go; facing new aliens was genuinely exciting and often dangerous.

In terms of books, this was the year I started getting into Chimamanda Adichie in a big way. Americanah, obviously, and currently (and slowly, to savor) reading Half of a Yellow Sun. She’s a bloody tremendous writer. Obviously, neither of those books was published in 2016, but better late than never.

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw was another highlight. It’s usually very hard to get me to read a book with a male protagonist (well, not necessarily is Persons male, as such). But this is an interesting, unique noir; what I like best is that Cassandra’s style is never static and it’s been evolving constantly since I first read her short fiction. She does something new every time, and I have the pleasure of seeing a little bit of what she’s got forthcoming next, which will be different yet again.

I binged on a bunch of magical girl anime in search of something that’d be interesting the way Puella Magi was. The result was exceedingly poor. I’ll give Flip Flappers another try, though. Not magical girl: Psycho-Pass was fucking amazing. Looks like the next year I mostly just have second seasons or remakes to look forward to. Oh well.

My livetweets of MCU films: X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War, Captain America Whatever It Was, and the Thorses. They were all predictably completely terrible.

I recommend Kiva Bay’s essays. This one’s very good. (Her art is also not to be missed.)

There’s a line in Terry Pratchett’s wonderful book Going Postal right at the start where Moist is asked if he has any last words before he is hanged and he says, “I wasn’t actually expecting to die.” That’s how I felt on election night. As polls came in showing me that I had been betrayed by my fellow white women, that they were the ones with the knife all along, I felt sick and sad and broken.

Nora Reed is one of my favorite people this year, and in general really. Their writing here, and their bots, the most famous of which is probably Thinkpiece Bot.

I was introduced to J. Moufawad-Paul’s philosophy writing, which is actually really, really accessible without sacrificing incisiveness; Continuity and Rupture is available now, but I’m also looking forward to his Austerity Apparatus forthcoming next year.

Created

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So I had a lot (to me) of stories out in 2016, but of them all I was especially proud of ‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’, an epic desert fantasy of deconstructing gendered language, playing with myth and prophecy and predestination. People found it sexy. I’m satisfied.

Capping off 2016 is ‘We Are All Wasteland On the Inside’ (illustration above by Eric Asaris, which I really like), one of my rare forays into dark fantasy. I described it on twitter as ‘Lesbian noir meet tragic Spirited Away, in a decaying magic realist world’, more specifically the world is Bangkok and the magic is from Himmapan Forest (do look it up; don’t appropriate it). It’s one of those stories that I write with an intent of cathartic bleakness, which I should think aloud on at some point.

What I’m looking forward to in 2017 the most is, of course, my epic fantasy WinterglassIt’s loosely a lesbian retelling of ‘The Snow Queen’, very loosely. Mostly I’m especially looking forward to writing the acknowledgments, there being a lot of people to whom I owe thanks.

Magical Girl Raising Project (Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku)

Content warning: descriptions of graphic violence to women, young women, pregnant women, children; queer tragedy; homophobia; transphobia.

Well, well, if it isn’t a blatant Puella Magi Madoka rip-off.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Madoka was huge. There was always going to be a parade of copycats, the way there are parades of copycats of everything else (sometimes produced really fast; see Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress shamelessly pasting bits from Attack on Titan) and ‘magical girls, but dark‘ is almost its own subgenre. You can do interesting things with that, or… you can produce Magical Girl Raising Project. 

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Winterglass, forthcoming from Apex

Sci-Fantasy Novella Acquistion: Winterglass

Apex Publications is pleased to announce the acquisition of Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Winterglass is a fictional sci-fantasy about one woman’s love for her homeland (Sirapirat) and her determination to defeat the Winter Queen who has overtaken the land.

I’ve been sitting on this for a while. I wrote Winterglass from late 2015 through much of 2016, on and off. It went through a couple drafts (there was a lot of silly flab, some unnecessary secondary characters and a subplot that went nowhere) before it was ready. It also turned out a good deal longer than expected; I thought it would be, at most, 15,000 words but the final manuscript is more than twice that. Oops. That makes it the longest thing I’ve ever had published, so far. (Yes, it’s longer than Scale-Bright by a good measure.)

Here’s the blurb.

The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.

At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.

To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.

If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

It is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, set in a South East Asia analogue that’s been subjugated under an eternal winter. It is queer (of course), post-colonial, and probably several kinds of fantasy. It contains, among other things, a big dog. I love big dogs!

Coming late 2017. I’m pretty hugely excited.

First Impressions: Masquerada

I’ve been playing Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a tactical story-heavy RPG set in a Venetian city of politics, intrigue, and civil war. From the title screen on I was charmed: the music is intense, gorgeous, and matches the game’s aesthetics perfectly. Much of the game’s story is told through hand-drawn panels, stylish, minimalist and very elegant indeed. I’d say it reminds me the most of Transistor.


I found my favorite character pretty fast, right in the tutorial that drops us in media res into the last chapter of Cyrus Gavar’s life, a man bent on ridding the city of its oppressive system where the haves command the magical masks (Mascherines) and deny access to them to the have-nots. The city—the Citte—is quickly established as a place fraught with power struggles, and before long Cyrus is executed for his role in leading the insurrection. (My newly found favorite character, Lucia Shuria, is the lady up there and the one who kills him.)

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‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’

‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’

Terasadh arrived in the world with a force so abrupt that the resin womb holding her split in two, cracking as she took her first breath and cried out from the shock of being alive.

Her aunt, King Nadjana, was the sole witness; she cleared the infant’s throat of birth-fluids and warmed the infant’s breath with her own. For a week the king secluded herself. In that week she fed the newly-made prince with the juice of ripe language-fruits, the milk of wisdom-orchids, and the nectar of doorway birds. Royal birth is a delicate matter, and she would trust no other to anoint her heir.

This one’s a big story for me, literally: 7,200 words. For the record, I never thought I’d be able to place an epic fantasy at Apex.

I describe this story as ‘queer desert Arthuriana’, though its connections to Arthuriana are extremely loose. I picked apart some of the base components and transposed. There is an Arthur figure, but not exactly; there is a Mordred figure (and Mordred’s mom), but not precisely. The analogues are intentionally very rough. What I wanted to play around with—rather than ‘King Arthur, but queer’—was the idea of prophecy, agency, predestination, and the lost monarch who’ll return to serve her land in its time of need.

More forefront is that I wanted to work with pronoun fluidity, the gendering of nouns. I don’t like gendered common nouns, as a rule, and a lot of them are aesthetically ugly: authoress, stewardess, policewoman. Many are outmoded and have fallen out of use, but others remain firmly gendered: queen, princess, mother, niece, sister.

I don’t think the genders of the characters in ‘Prince’ need spelling out—that’s part of the point—but it’s probably worth saying that Terasadh is non-binary. (A story about deconstructing gendered language where everyone is cis would, of course, be absolutely lazy.)

TUBS TUBS TUBS – supersized skincare

I mean tubs of skincare. Asian brands do their share of putting out products that come in huge tubs, usually 300 ml, mostly aloe vera-based but sometimes you do come across nicer ones with snail filtrate or horse oil. I like them as multi-task products you can use on your body, or as wash-off masks, or… you get the idea. They are very cost-effective and you can layer them up in lieu of a multi-product skincare routine. Prices quoted include shipping, since most of you are probably based in the west.

The SAEM Horse Oil Soothing Gel Cream ($12). It’s much cheaper than the Geurisson horse oil cream, though the ingredient list is not as nice, as this one has a good deal of aloe vera as filler. Still, aloe vera is good for your skin and horse oil is even better. It sinks in slower than an all-aloe gel, is thicker and milkier, and can serve as a decent last moisturizing step or a sleeping pack. (Available from Testerkorea for $4.39, but they do shipping by the weight and this is a pretty heavy item.)

Tony Moly Pure Snail Moisture Gel ($10). 90% snail filtrate! No aloe vera! It does contain alcohol denat and a lot of fragrance, but it’s a lot of snail in a big tub.

The FACE Shop Jeju Aloe Fresh Soothing Gel ($9.25). Good old aloe vera. No fancy ingredients (there’s a bunch of plant extracts but in this sort of product, it’s not going to be a large concentration), but if your skin likes aloe vera, here’s 300 ml of it. Contains alcohol.

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‘Under She Who Devours Suns’ is up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

By the time Melishem returns to her birth-city Tessellated Talyut, there is little of her that anyone can recognize. Her gaze burns unhuman amber, her bare scalp glistens with meteorite blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints, more delicate and superb than any lace.

Her bare feet track salt across the earth, leaving shriveled worms and withered grass in her wake. She has been walking a long time, unresting and unseeing of any sight save her objective.

She arrives before the Gate of Glaives at sunrise, the sky green and trembling behind her.

“I’ve come back,” she rasps in a voice of burnt honey and rust, more bitter than sweet, “to fight Sikata Lantern-of-God.”

There’s a common wuxia premise: the wandering martial artist who seeks to become the best of the best. Their method of proving themselves is brute – they go around challenging warriors (sometimes entire schools), armies, and so on. They take extreme measures to improve themselves, years of brutal training; they may come across and aid those in distress, though this is somewhat incidental to their quest of improving their skills. It’s a romanticized ideal, but it’s also a self-destructive obsession – these wondering warriors have virtually no other concerns or desires but to prove themselves the ultimate swordsman or martial artist.

In ‘Under She Who Devours Suns’, Melishem should have been one of her birth city’s champions, but the laws dictate there can be only one – and her friend Sikata took the title by besting her. This is what happens after someone like that has remade herself in order to achieve the title of the best. It’s a bit Claymore in that the system around them forces fighters to obsess over who’s the best and who ranks above whom, and it’s also a bit Claymore in that the women in the story have a complex, deadly relationship with each other.

(I don’t call the god in the story a goddess, even though she is gendered female. I’ve grown quite resistant to gendered common nouns, but more on that when my next fantasy story goes up.)

A reader has been very kind and thorough about this story, providing such close reading that would have been equal to any novel review easily. It’s a tremendous and lovely gift to be read, let alone so exactly and thoughtfully.

Work such as Under She Who Devours Suns demonstrate that we are indeed living in a SFF renaissance, even if there are those who resist and desire to pull us back into a “golden age” that was never that golden and didn’t really exist. While there has always been excellent SFF the genre sections at bookstores and libraries were usually dominated by a sea of mediocre and derivative shit that, for some reason, is still defended by a group of MRA-type nerds who are content with mediocrity. Now things are beginning to change; more interesting work is being published and becoming popular. Despite the fact that some people are pushing back with an eye towards backwards literature is just a sign that the best days of “genre” fiction are upon us.

Charles Peysaur at Quick Sip Reviews was also very nice about it!

To me this is a story of longing and, in some ways, obsession. With devotion and with purpose and with missing something in the pursuit of that purpose. But it’s also, I think, about institutions and duty and how that duty can poison relationships, twist people’s lives. Pervert justice. The story features Melishem and Sikata, two women who grew up together, who were equals until the day they had to fight each other for a single position. Until the day the system they worked under, the customs and government and everything, tore them apart. And in so doing it threw the world they had built together into chaos, doubt, and dissolution. To me it shows how focusing on the best and only the best is damaging. By setting up a system where there can be only one at the top, it fosters a spirit of competition over harmony.