Aspirational Obscenities

Photo pf lush greenery. A pink neon sign says "breathe". In white handwritten text, it is preceded by "I can't fucking"
Original photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash – white text added by me

Inspired by this strange article screenshot from The Times and tweeted by @sbl1976 (an article I really, really hoped was a parody, but nope), here’s my daily morning routine. I don’t think I’ve ever written something fuelled solely by the power of spite and anger, but there’s a first time for everything!

5:00 – 5:25 My phone alarms, set at 5 minute increments, each go off one at a time. Every single one gets put on snooze so I can indulge in the cosy feeling of “just 5 more minutes” again and again. With the last alarm sounding, I concede defeat and haul my arse out of bed.

5:30 Stare at myself in the mirror and take photos of the new, incredible bed hair creations my pillow has helped to usher into the world.

5:30 – 5:45 Shower and contemplate why I just didn’t get up when I should have as now I need to rush. I use Lush soap and shampoo bar, not because I can afford to fill my bathroom with lovely-smelling products, but because someone was kind enough to give me a gift card for Christmas. Remember that Lush Sales Assistant saying the shampoo bar with marigold would make my scalp feel “squeaky clean” as I rinse for an eternity to get rid of yellow petal bits stuck in my hair.

5:45 – 5:55 Wash and moisturise face with products that are cheap but do the job. Stare hard at the one product that cost way too much and try to convince myself it’s maaaybe doing something. Shove two pieces of bread in the toaster while I get dressed. Pick one of the 3 jumpers I have and pair it with one of the seven pairs of black leggings in my wardrobe. Grab toast, butter, and stick them on a piece of kitchen paper, hoping the butter doesn’t leak through (it will).

5:55 Pick up broken rucksack, remind myself (again) that I really need to buy a new one. Say goodbye to sleeping Ben. Rush out the door to the car.

6:00 – 6:10 Drive to station, munching on toast, cursing that I forgot to bring any water with me. Park up and nearly choke on dry toast as I wolf it down.

6:20 ish Catch train, read Twitter, wonder why I do this to myself every morning, keep reading anyway. If I’m lucky, I’ll get the “Golden Chair” i.e. the single seat near the door, which means I won’t have to put up with manspreading.

6:45 – 7:18 If I’ve had another bad night, nap while the train throws me and fellow commuters around. Otherwise I’ll write notes on my phone for an article I’m drafting; there’s no guarantee I won’t be too tired that night to do any work on it.

7:20 ish – 7:45 ish Catch bus. Continue drafting article. Occasionally take photos of London landmarks to pretend to Instagram that I have a life and to remind myself that I do exist outside of my office sometimes. Try to hold on as bus driver hits every single pot hole along route. Precariously balance myself as we arrive at my stop, tentatively walking down the stairs while the driver seems determined to check if the bus has ABS.

7:45 Walk into work. Head to toilets to put on makeup because there’s no way it would have survived my commute.

8:00 Piss around with drip coffee filter thing, give up, go to Pret and get an Americano in my reusable cup. Feel bad for “treating” myself to a £1.25 beverage.

8:15 Switch on computer and start work. Remember I should take some fizzy orange vitamin tablets with water. Get distracted by catching up with family WhatsApp messages and forget.

8:30 Actually start work, because it’s taken 15 minutes for the computer to turn on.

I guess my point is that I would love to wake up in the morning at a reasonable hour and journal my thoughts, or only eat organic produce, or use nice non-toxic everything. But I wake up at 5:30 to travel to a job 2 hours’ away because I can’t afford to live nearer. London house prices are a joke. It’s impossible for me to move significantly closer because house prices increase dramatically as you start to approach London. I’m a professional with a relatively privileged life, and I still barely manage to cope with the daily costs of where I live now.

I’m sure many of us would like to take better care of themselves, like the woman who does yoga in the park while staring at the sun (jfc) and somehow absorbing electrons through her feet. However, short of a lottery win, myself and many others who work in London are never going to live within walking distance of Hyde Park.

Some of the things in the article aren’t terrible ideas, like making sure you go outside now and again, or using a technique to help you focus. However, I don’t have the time or the money to do most of the things these people can, and a lot of it seems to be absolute bollocks (the HumanCharger defies belief).

The Times article is just obscene. It’s implied these might be “extreme measures” for wellness. It’s likely making fun of the interviewees. However, the writer doesn’t actually identify or offer any real critique of the tremendous gap in quality of life between those interviewed and those often vilified for claiming benefits, living on minimum wage or surviving on unstable zero hours’ contracts. Any person who promotes or publicises these kinds of ridiculous lifestyles without offering any kind of analysis of them is ignoring the barriers many face to accessing basic standards of living in the first place. I’m just a bit tired of “haha, aren’t people with more money than sense so funny?” articles that don’t connect the dots with the huge inequality in our society.

The only thing the article points out is that, once again, “wellness” is only for the wealthy.

Dragon Age and Me

Dragon Age: Origins art - featuring Morrigan in the foreground with a demon behind her

As I’m writing this, I’m cursing my haphazard approach to “putting things in a safe place”.

You see, I had plans. I was going to go home after work tonight and play a few hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I haven’t played it in at least a year. However, 4th December 2018 is #dragon4geday , an unofficial Dragon Age day, created by the fandom. It felt right to go back to the world of Thedas and say hello to some old companions.

As with all the best laid plans, they often go wrong. Scrabbling around my living room this morning, I couldn’t find my copy of the game.

It’s in there somewhere, buried under a book or an abandoned, half-finished craft project. But the momentary sadness I felt about not being able to revisit Thedas reminded me how much the whole game series means to me.

We’ve been through a lot.

Dragon Age: Origins was the first video game I ever completed, multiple times. It was also the first RPG I’d ever played. There was something that always kept me coming back: the companions, their stories, and building relationships with them.

I…wasn’t great at it to start with. On my first play-through, I was unaware that certain items were gifts that would, when given to the right character, reveal more of their personal story. I had completed nearly 75% of the game when someone explained it to me, as well as how the friendship/enemy mechanic worked. I stared at the hundred or so hours I had poured into the game, sighed, and restarted.

I next played as a female Elven rogue. I couldn’t help but fall for Alistair’s goofy humour, and set about romancing him. I was surprised by the sex scene (such as it was). Yes, it was awkward as fuck, and my character seemed to kiss by bumping her face against Alistair’s jaw. But I’d never played a game where one of the main points was to build a relationship, sexual, romantic or friendly.

I think of how I now unashamedly embrace smut and sexy times in video games, fanfiction, and not very subtle TV shows about cannibal serial-killers. That I have read and reviewed erotic fiction. I can’t help but smile at how the clumsy campfire scene once made me blush.

Dragon Age: helping you become the smut-enthusiast you were always meant to be.

I continued on with Origins – it was a struggle, but I managed to help make Alistair king. He complained, but he eventually got on with it.

Then, the ultimate betrayal: I was ditched because he couldn’t have an Elf as his queen. The people of Ferelden, he blustered, would not stand for it. I was more than a little heartbroken. After everything, the best I could hope for was to be his secret, barely-tolerated mistress. What happened to the romance, to standing up for love?!

Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins
Swooping is bad, but not as bad as supporting social injustices, Alistair

I begrudgingly finished the game, then replayed it, this time as a human. I read guides, which I hadn’t done since I was 10 years old, entering cheat codes to skip infuriating Lemmings levels. I discovered that, to make Alistair more accepting of his kingly duties, you had to persuade him to lose some of his softer side.

I finished again, this time as queen to Alistair’s king, but was still pissed off. I hadn’t wanted to change who Alistair was, but if I didn’t then he might be a terrible ruler. At the same time, I was annoyed that the social norms of Thedas meant an Elven queen would not be tolerated.

It was the first time a game had made me realise that, in order to get a particular outcome, I might need to make certain moral compromises. I had never played anything which had really given me choices, or made me face the consequences of making a choice.

It was refreshing to find myself emotionally invested in anything, let alone a video game. A recent period of depression had numbed me, and I was still clawing my way back to feeling myself.

As I was starting to care more and more, I read guides on how to say the right thing to the right characters. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m on the autistic spectrum. It was sometimes difficult for me to work out which approach works best with different people, what things I should and should not say. It still is. However, what I didn’t know at the time was that playing Dragon Age: Origins helped me understand how to relate to others, or at least try. The characters all had pasts and preferences that affected their reactions. I was already well aware that saying what I wanted or thought didn’t generally work well in real life. Playing this game let me see that it wasn’t impossible for me to adapt if I paid attention.

On the flip side, it also played into my fears about my poor social skills. I would focus on “getting it right”, saving constantly in case I messed up. Yet, having a guide or wiki was a comfort. Here, for the first time, was a manual for how to deal with other people!

These days, I try to accept myself more for who I am, asking why others can’t adapt to me instead of me having to always change. That said, learning that I might be able to improve and manage social skills meant the world to me at the time. Though I had a small, wonderful group of friends, I always felt isolated from others, lacking confidence to manage day to day small talk due to previous bad experiences. It seems strange, looking back on it now, but Dragon Age forced me to think about the perspectives of others in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

Dragon Age: Origins also showed me that positive LGBTQAI+ representation could exist in games, or that gay relationships existed in games at all. When Dragon Age 2 rolled around with the freedom to romance any character, regardless of whether you were male or female, I was pleased they had made this an option. It also made me happy for reasons I wouldn’t really understand until last year, when I accepted another part of myself. I’m still working out what it means to me, but god bless Dragon Age’s Isabela for kick-starting my little bisexuality epiphany all those years ago.

Isabela in Dragon Age 2
She like big boats and she cannot lie

As a female character, I romanced Fenris and Isabela on different play-throughs, then as a male character with Anders (god dammit, Anders!) and Fenris again. I was drawn to Fenris’s story the most, particularly because the writers managed to represent his trauma’s long-lasting impact upon him. It takes literally years for Fenris to trust you or himself. Your romance is not an immediate fix to all his problems. I liked that, having endured a constant media message while growing up that women are supposed to magically repair men through their love.

Fenris from Dragon Age 2
You know he’s only thinking about punching Anders

By then, I was becoming more and more engaged with Dragon Age fan art and fic. Tumblr (Rest In Peace) became a source of amazing illustrations, stunning cosplay, and snarky Gifs. The dedication and warmth of the community was incredible, and I felt welcomed. That’s a rare feeling for me.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sanctuary. At the time, I had just left a challenging job. I can see now that a lot of the problems stemmed from my then-undiagnosed Aspergers. I couldn’t verbalise or explain why I wasn’t able to do what others seemed able to manage, or why certain tasks gave me panic attacks. I’m doing better now, with an employer and manager who understand me and how I work.

But back then, I was still dealing with the anxiety and depression fallout. Even though I had left the job and found a more suitable working environment, it would take me a long time to build myself back up. I immersed myself in Inquisition as a coping mechanism. I would come home, eat, then relax by kicking Templar arse. There was so much beauty in that game that I sometimes ran around the Hinterlands or Emprise du Lion just to enjoy the scenery. Playing the game was a comfort, one that I had felt throughout the entire series.

It also helped that I wanted to romance pretty much every character (although Solas can jog on), even ones who weren’t romance options. I can only hope that Krem makes it into Dragon Age 4.

While Dragon Age has helped me understand who I am, as well as allow me to hide away and repair myself, it also gave me a way to connect. I’ve met new people through our shared love for the world. I’ve been able to write very serious articles about who should be romance options in Dragon Age 4. I even moderated and participated in a Nine Worlds 2018 panel about inclusivity in dating sim games versus mainstream games (also called: “Dragon Age is a Dating Sim: Fight Me”).

There are worlds within these fantasy lands that spill over into reality, often in ways we don’t understand at the time. Dragon Age was that for me, and I’m grateful to have had the whole series in my life (I will defend Dragon Age 2 to the death, don’t @ me). I’m lucky that I can look back now and trace the person I was to the person I became through these games.

How could I have possibly known back then that something as silly as “swooping is bad” would be the start of so much joy?






A quick update

Blue notebook with

So I haven’t really posted much on here directly for some time. This isn’t because I’ve just been laying around surrounded by empty Jaffa Cake packets and zero regrets (though I have been doing this as well).

I’ve been focused on writing reviews and essays, trying to build my particular set of skills. These have mostly been for Women Write About Comics, Sidequest, and Popularly Positive, as well as an essay with Rogues Portal. Each site has been very supportive, especially after I had to take a break a few months ago.

The reason for the break was that, after several years, I finally decided to go get a diagnosis for autism. Turns out, I am indeed on the autistic spectrum. The diagnosis in itself was not an issue. It was actually a relief, something that allowed me to make sense of and accept a part of who I am. No, the problem came around having to relive some incredibly difficult moments in my life as a part of the assessment. These moments had been emotionally challenging to go through the first time, let alone having to remember and repeat them to someone as they and two other people made notes.

And then there was the report.

I work in Disability, so I know diagnostic reports are clinical and medical model by design. I wasn’t really prepared, however, for seeing aspects of my personality defined as deficiencies and failures. I had a hard time dealing with this for a few months, but I am doing OK now thanks to the people around me.

I’ve just come back from Nine Worlds – I’m currently writing up a con diary, and aim to post some of my more personal reflections upon it here soon. For now, let’s just say that a lot came up.

In the meantime, you can find most of my work on WWAC, Sidequest, and Popularly Positive. Below are some links to pieces I’m particularly proud of:

I, along with other writers at WWAC, get intrigued by the new Dragon Age: Deception cover

A “suggestion” list for characters we might romance in Dragon Age 4

An interview with Backstory podcast host and tabletop RPG designer, Alex Roberts, about her newest game: Star Crossed

A review of Blade of the Immortal and what it says about glamorisation of violence

A personal essay on how, as awful and insensitive as Doki Doki Literature Club is, it allowed me to work through some issues

A review of Pairanormal Chapter 1, a dating sim/visual novel I fell in love with

A reflection on being caught between two different culture’s beauty ideals

and, of course

Me recounting my unabashed first crush on… Dr Ian Malcolm

Short story: Here Lies My Love

blue velvet ribbon background

Note: I’ve posted this previously on a different blog, but am slowly shifting things over.

A while ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Creative Writing Workshop at the London College of Fashion. The aim was to create stories, poetry or narratives generally inspired by pieces of clothing from the LCF Archive.

I can’t help but feel incredibly privileged to have been able to view and handle things like exquisite lace dresses from the 1930s, or kid leather shoes from the 1800s. It was like being able to step into a museum exhibit and literally get to grips with history.

It was fascinating to get an insight into how other people viewed each piece, and the stories they wanted to tell. I wanted to share the story I wrote because I sometimes forget that I can write.

I was obsessed by a blue, velvet jacket. I’ll describe it in the story so you get a sense of it.

Here Lies My Love

He couldn’t remember the photo being taken, but there he was, framed on the mantlepiece, and looking very handsome even if he did say so himself.

Wearing that beautiful blue jacket; my goodness, hadn’t he been beautiful?

In the photo, his eyes were certainly less bloodshot, his hair more blonde than the strange, tobacco-stained locks he sported now.

The walking frame barely supported his weight, but he pulled himself up from the draining comfort of his armchair. It wasn’t like he had far to travel.

He grimaced as he set off, musing that when they had imprisoned him here, they had made the cramped space sound like a positive feature.

‘Traitorous bastards,’ he thought, his socks scratching the carpet as he shuffled forward.

Back then, when they had made him a pot of musty-smelling tea, when they had sat him down in his own living room to “have a chat”, it hadn’t taken long for the full horror of what they were saying to start peeling away at his mind.

He had looked past them then, his gaze instead flittering around his lounge, his home with its many secrets. He had cried then.

They had told him to cheer up.

Over the next few weeks, they had informed him of the need to “downsize”, allowing him to keep little. However, he’d fought for that jacket and he had won.

Step. Step. Step.

He mentally saluted himself for another strenuous mission completed as he arrived in front of the closet. Carefully, he lifted one finger, then his hand, testing his balance.

It held, and he opened the closet door.

The blue velvet sparkled and shone amongst dull, sensible shirts and drab trousers (which reached impossibly, unnecessarily high).

His ran his hands over the black lace of the lapels, the papery skin of his palms catching upon it, his fingertips juttering at every detail.

Years ago, too many to recall, he had spotted the jacket in a shop window and fallen deeply in love for the first time. He had saved for weeks to afford it because, from the moment it had appeared before him, he had known that he needed it. It was an extravagant piece, true, but it was a statement.

And he had always wanted to make a statement.

He closed his eyes and let his hand fall away from the velvet. He glanced back over at the mantlepiece and smiled at his younger self, as well as the dark-haired vision arranged beside him in the photo.

His smile grew a little wider as he remembered that the jacket had certainly caught Simon’s attention.

He reached once more for the jacket and, holding it lightly between his fingers, he slipped it off the satin hanger.

He had forgotten how soft the velvet felt on his skin. He lifted it up and slid his arms through the sleeves, pursing his lips as he did so; he had also forgotten how much the lace cuffs scratched the shit out of him.

Grabbing hold of the frame once more, he manoeuvred his unreliable bones backwards in order to admire his reflection on the closet door mirror.

He nearly cried when he saw himself. True, he was older, and Simon was no longer there to hold him up, but he could still see the face of the beautiful boy, the boy who had fallen in love and who had been loved.

Tiredness ate at his muscles and he suddenly found the armchair a terribly inviting prospect.

He collapsed back into his meagre throne and felt warmer for the first time in years. His eyelids began to slide shut, but he didn’t try to fight it.

‘Let them find me like this,’ he thought, ‘the beautiful boy in the beautiful jacket.’

As his eyes closed for the final time, he thought about Simon and his stupid, lop-sided grin, and the way that the light from his smile could resolve the darkest disquiet. He thought about what his not-family would do with the jacket. He wondered if they would let him wear it as they poured the soft earth upon him.

He thought that he would like that, to be buried with his love. And though it would decay around him and rot as he rotted, it would always be his.

The Twilight Pariah: Scooby Doo, with added dismemberment

Author: Jeffrey Ford
Publisher: Tor
Publish date: 12 September 2017
Pariah 2

All Maggie, Russell, and Henry wanted out of their last college vacation was to get drunk and play archaeologist in an old house in the woods outside of town. When they excavate the mansion’s outhouse they find way more than they bargained for: a sealed bottle filled with a red liquid, along with the bizarre skeleton of a horned child.

Disturbing the skeleton throws each of their lives into a living hell. They feel followed wherever they go, their homes are ransacked by unknown intruders, and people they care about are brutally, horribly dismembered. The three friends awakened something, a creature that will stop at nothing to retrieve its child.


The Twilight Pariah is a curious beast. It is the story of three childhood friends meeting up during a college/university summer break. Maggie plans to rope Russell and Henry, our narrator, into her amateur archaeological dig, and rope them she does. Things go well until they unearth something unpleasant, kick-starting a series of murders and general spookiness. The problem is that, for a book touted as being scary or creepy, it just… isn’t.

Let’s start with the positive. Ford weaves a nostalgic story around the three friends, adding a layer of wistfulness as they reflect upon how this may be the last summer they spend together. He succeeds in creating a set of believable relationships, evoking the slight melancholy that comes from realising some friendships end as lives take different turns, and that that’s just the way it is.

The relationship that resonates loudest is the one between Henry and his father. Ford delicately creates the sense of being alone, together, yet wanting to connect. It is even more powerful when Ford couples this with the sad realisation all children come to at some point: that their parents will eventually disappoint them. Ford builds realistic relationships, yet others between main and side characters lack depth. This undermines the emotional impact when Bad Things happen to those around the overly-curious trio. The Bad Things are thus predictable as the reader quickly recognises that these side characters are, essentially, disposable plot points.

It is worth pointing out that the book is an enjoyable enough read. There are some genuinely funny scenes as the trio banter, even some laugh out loud moments. The dialogue is sometimes clunky, but the three protagonists are likeable as they stumble through the plot. However, there is also the sense that this book has been badly mis-sold.

A reader could understand some of the comparisons made to Stephen King (nostalgia combined with horror or dark fantasy is a common theme). However, this is the part where the book fails. The discovery of what sets events in motion is truly unsettling, but it is the only such disturbing moment in the story. There are attempts to build suspense as things go missing and there are several bumps in the middle of the night. The problem is that the “monster” is seen too soon, and easily escaped.

There’s a common trope in cinema where the filmmakers hold off on showing the creature in their movie for as long as possible, with this “monster delay” increasing tension. However, this early confrontation cements it as real, removing the thrill of discovery. Compounding this, the exposition is awkwardly revealed, with pages full of info-dump towards the end of the book. It lands heavily and sits there in the middle of the narrative like a somewhat embarrassed elephant in the room.

Without wanting to go into spoilers, the Twilight Pariah itself is not very frightening. Yes, the beast cuts a swathe of violence through the story, as the book blurb gives away, but it often involves characters in whom the reader has no emotional investment. Scenes where the Pariah is confronted aren’t slowly built, they just happen, like a jump-scare. It feels like Ford was aiming for an IT-vibe, as old friends band together to fight some unnamed evil. Instead, reading about these crazy kids stumbling around decrepit mansions and unearthing revelations feels less like Stephen King and more like Scooby Doo, albeit with added dismemberment.

The Twilight Pariah suffers from trying to be two things at once and failing at establishing itself as either. On one hand, it’s a story about growing up and away from the people we love. On the other, it wants to be a dark tale where a “terrifying” evil threatens these fragile relationships. The problem is that, whilst you may care for the three main characters, there isn’t enough depth in their relationships with others (save Henry’s father) to have an impact when those around Henry, Maggie and Russell start getting attacked. There simply isn’t anything that gets under your skin and the terrible things happen to characters whose only purpose is to be cannon fodder. Nothing about the Pariah feels truly dangerous because of this and, if you’re writing a book sold as creepy or scary or even just “dark”, that’s the one thing you really need to get right.

Ghost Stories: hauntingly familiar

Author & Artist: Whit Taylor
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Publish Date: 10 January 2018
Ghost Stories Cover, 2018, by Whit Taylor
Ghost Stories, 2018, by Whit Taylor

Ghost Stories is a collection of three tales, all connected by a sense of loss, be that of a loved one, a friendship, or yourself. Using a cartoon-style that belies the sometimes dark subjects, Taylor explores the ways we fall in and out of grief throughout our lives. It is a series tinged with a sense of pathos and humour, one that is (sometimes too) easily recognisable.
Taylor’s art is vivid and eye-catching. Throughout, she uses bright, lo-fidelity illustrations, which juxtapose well with the more melancholic themes covered here. It’s a vibrant reminder that, even within despair and loneliness, life continues.
The hand-coloured images often follow a hard bordered panel layout, but there is little use of this in Ghost, reflecting the dream-like plot. The first story begins as a fantastical journey where a female character (possibly Taylor herself, but never stated) is told she can meet with three of her deceased idols. There are, of course, rules: she gets one day, and the only thing she can’t discuss is their death.

Title Cover for Ghost, Whit Taylor, 2018
Title Cover for Ghost, first tale in the collection

The conversations between ghost and living being are at first light-hearted, but soon become a way of exploring philosophical ideas, and revealing more about the female character. This feels clunky as the conversation can sometimes awkwardly pivot to her, running the risk of portraying the ghostly idols as merely over-qualified sounding boards.
What prevents this from feeling like an exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing is having the first two meetings interrupted by seemingly unrelated vignettes. This reinforces that there is surrealism at work, hinting at a hidden depth that helps the story flow to the final encounter. It is only when she meets the third person that the relevance of these interruptions, and the underlying cause of these ghostly apparitions, becomes clear. It is an intriguing narrative device, which invests a greater, more touching meaning in the previous pages.
Wallpaper is delivered in a different style, pairing up chunks of text with some truly unique examples of wallpaper design. It’s a deceptively simple story reflecting on the snapshots that make up a family’s life together. The large and the small moments are captured and filtered through decisions about DIY and mundane day-to-day details, lending a poignancy to the tale as the constant shifting, remodeling, re-papering of the home reflects the fragility and impermanence of life. It’s an effective and affecting story of childhood and change.
Makers also deals with change, this time looking at the reality of female friendship. Taylor lays bare her characters in a series of scenes spanning over a decade. This builds a firm understanding of who they are, what they want to be, and why they become what they become. In turn, this brings the characters to life, allowing the reader to recognise them in an uncomfortably relatable way.
Ghost Stories is ultimately not just about grief, but about life; they are all familiar tales, the issue being that they are sometimes too familiar. However, the way they are told, particularly in Ghost, allows the reader to explore these themes in ways they perhaps haven’t before. Each story leads to some kind of resolution of the loss, but none of them has a neat conclusion. If there is a power in these tales, then this is it.

Revenger – an actual, proper adventure

Author: Alastair Reynolds

Publisher: Gollancz

Publish Date: 2017-05-18

RRP: £8.99 (paperback)

Revenger front cover, 2017, by Alastair Reynolds
Revenger, 2017, by Alastair Reynolds

The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives.

And there are vast fortunes to be made, if you know where to find them…

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. It’s their business to find the tiny, enigmatic worlds which have been hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection—and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside. But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore’s crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune…

Revenger is initially sold as a “swashbuckling adventure” according to its front cover quotes, a space romp with hints of Firefly about it. It is easy to see why: Arafura Ness, led by her daring sister, Adrana, unwillingly seeks adventure and fortune aboard a ship with a quirky crew of characters. Captain Rackamore isn’t exactly Mal Reynolds, but he has the same audacious nature and, much like Firefly, Revenger contains some brutal, surprising moments amongst the initial witty asides and general racing through space.

This is an actual, proper adventure where the plot twists and turns, leading the reader down all sorts of paths. The universe is an interesting take on our future, a mix of Victoriana expeditionary zeal with a sci-fi aesthetic. The dialogue is littered with colloquialisms which evoke the age of pirates, not an accident as ships resplendent with glowing sails race from one buried treasure to another. Just swap the open sea for the swirling skies, and islands for “baubles”. The slang used helps to create an “otherness” to this universe, but it’s simple enough to decode it without causing headaches; Clockwork Orange or The Quantum Thief, this is not.

Reynolds drops the reader into this universe and carefully builds its structure as we follow Arafura’s reluctant plunge into a new life. There is no heavy exposition, and the reveals are drip-fed to us, with some pleasing references back to our current era. The pace is tense, with healthy dollops of suspense, as long moments of calm or planning often burst into frenetic action. This is the tale of how Arafura Ness grows as a person, with all its ups and downs, and we are along for the enjoyable ride. What’s most interesting about Revenger is that, even towards the end, the reader is not entirely sure just what Arafura Ness is becoming.

This is a first person narrative, and thus we learn most about our narrator, Arafura. It invariably means that we do not receive as much insight into the other characters, so they can feel a little thin at times, reduced down to familiar types: well-meaning but clueless father; bitter crewmate with a heart of gold; vicious, relentless bounty hunter, and so on. However, this is the price paid to follow Arafura’s personal journey. It’s a well-realised one, too, with believable character development as Arafura navigates the Empty.

What’s most striking is the relationship between Arafura and Adrana because it’s just so convincing. There’s sisterly love tinged with the need to compete, pride fighting envy at every step. It’s complicated, and lays a solid foundation for Arafura’s path. It is also refreshing to see a female protagonist thrown against insurmountable odds, without having the background distraction of which love-interest to pick. Arafura is driven and seeing what she is willing to sacrifice makes her endlessly fascinating.

Unfortunately, there are one or two issues. Whilst the plot can be shocking and heart-breaking, it can also be somewhat predictable in other places. It is hard not to see some twists coming, and these stand out sharply against the other (genuinely surprising) events. Some plot details are, conversely, thrown in with little explanation. The intent may have been to give a sense that the story isn’t quite over, though Revenger does have a satisfying conclusion. A lot of threads are left dangling, but this makes sense as Reynolds has stated he is doing a follow-up in what may become a series.

In Arafura Ness, Reynolds has created a compelling character and placed her within a universe full of wonder, if one tempered with hard choices and brutality. While it draws in tropes common to other space opera stories, Revenger soon sheds these borrowed clothes and becomes its own tale, making a singular impression upon the reader. However, it also feels like the start of something more, with the intricate history of this universe only hinted at within this book; a universe to which the reader will want to return.

Ironclads – a crash course introduction to a dystopian world

Publisher: Solaris

RRP: £19.99

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Published:  2017-11-02

Ironclads front cover, 2017, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Ironclads, 2017, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Scions have no limits. Scions do not die. And Scions do not disappear.

Sergeant Ted Regan has a problem. A son of one of the great corporate families, a Scion, has gone missing at the front. He should have been protected by his Ironclad — the lethal battle suits that make the Scions masters of war — but something has gone catastrophically wrong.

Now Regan and his men, ill equipped and demoralized, must go behind enemy lines, find the missing Scion, and uncover how his suit failed. Is there a new Ironclad-killer out there? And how are common soldiers lacking the protection afforded the rich supposed to survive the battlefield tomorrow?

In Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky follows up his 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Children of Time with a fast-paced but thoughtful novella. It examines a similar theme from his Guns of the Dawn work, namely the fights ordinary people find themselves dragged into due to wider, political machinations. On the surface, Ironclads appears to be an updated take on a familiar tale; a group of army grunt underdogs sent on a dangerous rescue mission to a perilous land to save some hapless, stranded soul. However, this is less Saving Private Ryan and more Dirty Dozen as the team fight against increasingly outlandish mechanical enemies (and each other) in order to survive. What elevates it is the focus upon the everyday people presented throughout the story’s commentary against class barriers and status.

Told in first person, the reader is guided by Ted Regan, a soldier in a time of conflict between the US and Sweden, with Finland and Russia wading in for good measure. However, ordinary men like him now serve as mere cannon fodder, whilst the rich play at war in near-indestructible suits of armour emblazoned with their company’s logo. The book quickly highlights that this is a world where the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically; the rich, favoured sons never step outside their compounds without either civilian or battle-ready Ironclad suits, whilst the poor take a reverential approach to these new, corporate-sponsored gods. Wars are fought by business men, not countries.

Tchaikovsky’s vivid use of language brings to life the world we have been dropped into. His colourful descriptions of an England post-Brexit take some satirical swipes at the UK’s uncertain situation, and certainly won’t ease the fears of Remainers. Overall, Ironclads’ relevance to the current political climate is clear, painting a future where Trump-style values have won out, where money and big business will always win. The hints at the lot of women in this brave new world, especially women of colour, are slight but chilling, pointing to a society regressing even as it advances technologically.

Yet, this is still an enjoyable, action-filled and just plain fun novella, with a set of likeable and diverse characters. The reader might glimpse the skeletons of the archetypes beneath now and again, but they are fleshed out through the occasionally sardonic narration, allowing the reader to start caring about what happens to this dysfunctional group of misfits. The team’s relationships are predictable but believable, be they growing, begrudging trust, to familial squabbling belying a deeper camaraderie. The characterisation of Regan sometimes dips too far into the beleaguered everyman persona to make a strong individual impression, but the conversational style of Regan’s narration also injects some droll and much-needed humour into the proceedings.

Whilst affable enough, the male characters are upstaged by their female counterparts time and again. It is interesting that, in a world seemingly run by men, it is the women who take control of the plot at decisive points. The characterisation of the female soldiers and fighters runs the risk of leaning towards what has now become the “strong woman” cliché, but they are driven by their own motivations. Tchaikovsky manages to steer just clear of formulaic portrayals – yes, these women are strong, but this doesn’t preclude vulnerability, either.

The story leaps from one action set-piece to another, with some neat sci-fi nods littered throughout. Ghost in The Shell’s Tachikomas come to mind as the team meet lethal, near-sentient AI droid units, some of which draw their design inspiration from the Martian fighting machines in War of the Worlds. The book’s venture into other sci-fi aspects are less convincing. Despite Tchaikovsky’s careful establishment of a worryingly possible future, the depiction of the terrifying Finnish fighters jeopardises the reader’s suspension of disbelief. However, it ultimately adds to the absurd and desperate situation Regan and his group find themselves in.

In Ironclads, Tchaikovsky gives the reader a crash course introduction to a progressively dystopian world where worship of the rich has reached even more alarming levels. At times, the sci-fi elements teeter towards less believable fantasy, threatening to undermine its own grounded, polemical tone, but Tchaikovsky helms this in by focusing upon the humans trying to survive in a world indifferent to their worth. This depiction of humans without agency over their own lives, subject to the whims of those with power, is what ultimately gives Ironclads its heart.