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I'm Not a Competitive Necromancer

I'm not a Competitive Necromancer Review

Guy Debord once opined the failure of translation, and admittedly several drafts and a few Anglo cracks at The Society of the Spectacle might've proved him right. Still, I'm starting to sympathise.

I found I'm not a Competitive Necromancer to be a strikingly difficult read, and it might not even be the author's fault. Hell, it might not even the translator's fault. Translation is a tricky endeavor; I would know, having picked away at a manga or two. It's never what people think; the surgical transplant of word-for-word results in nothing more than machine-written lifelessness, but too liberal and it becomes the semiotic equivalent of fanfiction. Indeed, fluency in both languages doesn't make one a strong translator: small snippets, unspoken expectations, and a feel for a particular delivery can be lost with a reckless or inexperienced translator. It's why the works of Murakami are relatively easy to bring over, but open Dazai and you might find the prose to be, at times, crushingly staid. It's not because one is better written than the other, but that therein lies a sort of energy in prose and diction which can be challenging to equivocate.

I'm not a Competitive Necromancer (Necromancer going forward) has that problem, and because I don't know the original language, I don't know how to make any clear recommendations or give my thoughts (with any confidence). Perhaps there's a particular fluid lucidity in the original Italian which makes all the flow rush as a river, some striking prose or wordplay rendering the English as mere shadow. I don't know. In fact, it's because of my own uncertainty about my criticism that makes this review exceedingly difficult to pen, even after a few cracks at the chapters I read.

Thus it's in that spirit that I'll try and tackle Necromancer, as thinly as my review and as poorly composed as my thoughts are.

I try to give my thoughts on the story through a rough breakdown of the themes I'm seeing and then go into the general RoyalRoad structure, but I think I'll structure this a bit differently. Instead, I'll tackle it all at once. Again, I'm not entirely sure what to say.

Necromancer concerns a wide cast of mouthy, picaresque individuals who found themselves in another world. It blasts you with information at somewhat breakneck speed, while at the same time delivering it in these short expository monologues. Its characters are built through information dumps:

Verana was Swiss, but really Swiss. She was one of those people who give the reputation of very precise and efficient people to the nation in the middle of the Alps. Like a Swiss watch.

Here is an example of my own inadequacies as a reviewer. The translation makes some very choice italics, but no matter how I try, I can't seem to wrap my head around why certain words are in italics while others are not. Is there a specific stereotype about the Swiss that I'm missing out on? I thought perhaps they meant to emphasize that Verana was REALLY Swiss, but in that situation, why was Swiss the word that was emphasized? Was she not Swiss at all?

Though this comes off as a minor nitpick (and to be fair, it is), it's somewhat emblematic of small, yet confusing stylistic and writing choices which make the initial chapters much more challenging than I presumed. Instead of telling me how Swiss she is, was there something about her character that made her act like the stereotypical Swiss? At times, characters focused on how much preparation Verana undertook, so why couldn't we just have a one-off comment by someone who knows her, "That's the Swiss for ya!" or some variation of that? Less is more, right?

And this is where I run into another problem. Let me talk about two different scenes. In Nigerian filmmaking, there is sometimes an emphasis on maximalism, a loud reclaiming against the quiet austerity dominating indie productions. This bombast extends throughout much of the genre, powerful narrations, iconoclastic "babes," and a petrification of objects North Americans might take for granted (such as ATMs). To indie Nigerian filmmaking, the vampiric ATM or the destructive babe flips conventions of Christian domesticity and colonialism on its head, reviving questions of class and gender roles.

In comparison, thousands of miles away, Japanese love stories were being written for women. "Pure Love" stories began dominating television sets, long hours of nonstop will-they-won't-they, stoic and noncommital male characters, and a near-complete rejection everyday relationship life. Here, the Pure Love story's slavish devotion to depicting courtship - and courtship alone - can come off as both frustrating and liberating. The Pure Love story is the site of a battlefield of what critic Tohru Honda called "Love Capitalism," the expression of happiness and belonging through material consumption and courtship.

Both are examples of how culture shapes storytelling, right down to its conventions. We often think of stories as having immutable rules: show, don't tell! Let them speak with their actions! Have payoffs! "Remember the call to action!" Shouts the Monomyth slave, their eyes rolling back into their head as a line of droll falls from their lips. This advice is, of course, always personal preferences drenched in the insidious language of universalism: "Good storytelling means show, don't tell! Good storytelling means payoff! Good storytelling means the thing I want and like in the format I want to see it in!" However, in the case of Nigerian filmmaking, telling draws underlying presumptions about class, women's rights, and colonialism to the surface (why is a "babe" a babe?). In the case of Japanese Pure Love stories, payoff is simply an ideological suture to uphold the toxic rhetoric of domestic womanhood, as the "romance after" is often framed as motherly, wifely, homely romance.

And while Necrmancer isn't about Nigeran indie filmmaking or Japanese pure love stories, it finds strange bedfellows in those stories. So much of what I've read and re-read has these winding paragraphs explaining character motivations and context, but I don't know if that's preferential, cultural, subcultural, or what-have-you. This is an important distinction since, at times, the story is written clearly and whip-sharp description. Oftentimes you can figure out a story based upon its tendencies: patterns give meaning to figuring structure and form, but Necromancer often breaks those patterns. It often sets aside he long, winding paragraphs to jot brief notes that, as a reader, makes me think, "I guess the translator and writer CAN write with brevity!":

A letter would have given her a choice. Maximilian could have easily persuaded Strith to come aboard and risk it all despite her happy family conditions. But he wanted to allow her to pick her own fate.

So from my perspective, it reveals new directions: if they could write like this, does that mean the longer, laborious sections had some meaning I'm just not getting?

Is there something wrong with me?

Necromancer is definitely a story of immense scope: even in the first few chapters, it leaps from character to character, never hanging on place or person too long for familiarity. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach: it drastically expands the scope of the story, but at the same time comes off as somewhat dizzying. The slow prose of the story gives me a little bit of time get a grip on some of these characters, but the moment the chapters end I'm hit with another. Maybe I'm not retaining the names well enough.

I hang on the prose, however, because the story moves at a very deliberate pace: even in the fastest moments, the way its written can make everything come off as heavy and slow, and I think it's because the translator frequently employs passive voices:

"First, it was necessary to understand how he got to that place."

Why not something shorter? "He needed to figure out he got here." I'm not saying to write like me, I'm hardly a decent writer, but there's this reader-author division which emerges, where I'm expecting a sense of rote acquaintanceship - he's done this many times after all - but it comes off as faint curiosity. Is it supposed to be faint curiosity? I'm not sure.

This use of the passive voice comes with an abundance of adverbs, some of which aren't clear to me:

"His dark eyes, framed by thick eyebrows and shining black curls, lit up in amazement unexpectedly."

Why was I supposed to expect it? What made it unexpected? I think it's supposed to be sudden, sharp, quick, but I could be completely wrong: after all, if this was translated, perhaps there's some melodious lyricism I'm missing. It's in that frustrated uncertainty that I'm writing this review. I want to try and give as fair of a shake as I can, but there are just so many perculiarities in this text, informed by my knowledge of this as a translated work that I'm not sure if it all made sense in another language.

This is notable in Interlude L, where the translators' notes directly mention how the dialect was so specific that they had to appropriate a version of Scottish. This, of course, came entirely from a frame of mind that English readers would default to British English, but I've no frame of reference for that, my English is North American, so the Scottish dialogue snaps as hard and sharp a language as Afrikaaner or Creole. This is, in many ways, a bold endeavor, but it makes it for a bit of a challenging read as I'm trying to pluck through the translator for what specific words mean. Did the original italian readers need to plug the words into a translator?

Why then, do I believe I'm inadequate? If my concerns are concrete enough to pick at specific sentences and give my own hamfisted corrections, how can I realise or acknowledge my inadequacies? Because Necromancer IS grappling, on the basis of its content, with some interesting arguments; the thirteen are clearly being used as tools for another group, and while it's not yet clear exactly HOW they all relate to each other, their relation to the world is more complex than potential coloniser to colonisee.

In fact, Maximilian, the first vantage point we see, deliberates on the extent of realness of this otherworldly place:

"Of course, Maximilian would have compliment the excellent background lore that had been given to the Vanedenis, who therefore could not have been anything other than projections, pretences of someone's sick imagination. Still, following this reasoning, perhaps even Themistocles and the other Earthlings were nothing but illusions."

There are discussions of power in this story: power between characters, the powers they wield, and to whom they yield and yield to. Perhaps this will all unravel at a later date, though given that I've only gotten to Interlude L, perhaps my speculation is a bit immature.

Since I'm required to explain my ratings,

Style: It kinda shifts, and I think it's the product of constant improvement. Trying to find that "balance" leads to a sometimes frustrating experience, but the intentions are there.

Story: It's definitely a vast scope. I think perhaps it might be a bit too heavy at the beginning, since the vast amount of names make it hard to keep track as to exactly what's going on.

Grammar: I'm of the belief that unless something is unreadable, grammar is largely unimportant. Dotting i's and crossing t's can always be taught. I didn't find anything particularly cumbersome.

Character: The characters feel a little jarring in relation to the prose it presents; they speak like the contemporary people they are (or seem to be), but it's buffeted by this somewhat languid prose. Makes for an odd experience and does make their dialogue standout, however.

I feel like many reading this review will find it frustratingly incomplete, inconclusive, and vapid. I apologise.


Griffon's Fury!

Spoilers, since it's hard to talk about this at length without spoilers.

I'm not without self-awareness: I'm sure that many, upon seeing my reviews, skip the overly long paragraphs and winding sentences, roll their eyes and loudly sigh at the Althussers, Uenos, and Derridas. However, in my defense, I try to tackle every story honestly. That means, despite all of the strange rambling, I am trying to grapple with the story based on what I think it's giving me with the tools I have at my disposal.

Griffon's Fury is a bit of a limit case. I'm not sure if I have any interesting to say about it, not necessarily because it's not interesting, but because I'm not sure if I have it figured out. The story concerns Nero, a boy gifted with prodigal ability and living a comfortable life in quaint rurality. However, after awakening a mysterious black egg, he is thrust into a completely different set of circumstances almost entirely against his will.

Nero, it turns out, is not only a scion of any lineage but THE lineage, a byproduct of an exceedingly capable military father and an equally capable warrior mother, whose destiny is intertwined with visions of revenge and rulership. He is the son of a dynasty, a byzantine political machination where his desire to regain what little control he has over the events of his losses are at odds with the distanced, haughty desires of his brethren, who (accordingly to the unreliable narration of one Gustav), see the transfer of power as simply "the game," of sorts.

Griffon's Fury is painstakingly orthodox in its application of a Campbellian narrative: though Nero is hardly a fresh-faced farmboy, he does carry the trappings of normalcy. He makes good friends, dances small-town jigs, pines and opines on women (of sorts, though they seem to opine him more). He's an everyman. However, in the small moments, away from eyes, he'd also slip away for training. All of these are part and parcel of the Campbellian narrative: the one who finds themselves and their true purpose after some dramatic shift in their life. The village is burned, and by moving out, he moves out of the cave.

Yet while world_wanderer slavishly sticks to this structure, he shapes it with a painstakingly clear vision: so much of the initial story focuses on the mountain village: the festivals, the training, the girls, everything. It hammers in with such force the neverending roteness and remoteness of the mountain village. The political machinations of empires and kingdoms are far-off, yonder stories spoken at campfire tales. However, it's revealed that such stories are not merely stories, but forces. They're still there.

In this sense, the story is reminiscent of Bakhtin's concept of chronotope, where it crafts a particular image of spacetime. To Bakhtin, the dull everydayness of the space reflects the dull everydayness of time. To him, roads are a means by which characters progress internally, and salons are spaces that situate peoples as others bustle by, only to be witnessed through the panes. Like his strict adherence to a Campbellian structure, world_wanderer is strict to a Bakhtinian sense of spacetime; breaks in character are exemplified in breaks in space, the descent into the cave to find the Griffon's egg is sold as, quite literally, a nadir ("lowest point"), only to be shattered as the shell shatters. Nero, after the tragic death of his mother, must live with his grandfather, and in this situation, he is quite literally whisked away on the back of a flying lizard.

In many ways, this story's structure is clear. However, at the same time, it is bogged down by a lot of technical concerns. None of these, I want to note, makes the story unreadable.

Griffon's Fury has a tendency to stick to patterns: chapters tend to start with the weather (Chapter 2 and 4), tend to emphasize the purple (a frequent code for royalty, due to its scarcity), and characters tend to say the same things ("Doggone it!"). This isn't necessarily a bad thing: consistency, even staid consistency, can be useful in setting up a particular kind of mood and energy in a world. Certain quips, terms, and turns of phrases can help settle in a world-vibe. 

Here, I think it's a little rough. Griffon's Fury doesn't really expand or explain these consistencies: I think the sunniness of a day can give us a little more insight into the inner mood of the characters (like how a gloomy, rainy day can reflect a character's unspoken somberness), though I'm not sure to what extent here. In chapter 2, the sun reflects the idyllic nature of the mountain village, but in chapter 4 the sunny weather belies an ominous undertone as Gustav warns Tiona of Nero's lineage bubbling to the surface.

In fact, the mountain village, despite the swaying moods, constantly shows clear skies: Chapter 5 begins with a starry night, likely unencumbered by night clouds. This story is filled with discussions about the weather, and it's clear world_wanderer is setting a particular kind of mood, sort of like a pillow verse, a cutaway lingering on some minute detail to give pause before it returns to the meat of the story. As it picks up, as those idyllic days turn halcyonic, the pillow verses slowly disappear.

I'm not a fan of the Royalroad review structure, so I'll break down my thoughts here as clearly as I can.

Story:

At this moment, there isn't too much revealed about the broader world other than the story told to us by Gustav. While we know about the kingdom, the story of the General and the princess, of the political struggle, these aren't really experienced. In other words, these events are only told to us, and we haven't yet been able to grapple with their consequences beyond the small, personal vendettas that have cropped up. We don't know how accurate or reflective Gustav's story is, we don't know his clear motivations, and we don't whether the monsters in this political apparatus are truly monsters. Yes, we have characters sneer "slut" and threaten sexual violence, but is everyone on "the other side" truly like that? And if not, to what extent?

 

Style and Grammar:

I have to combine these two because the style and grammar have similar challenges. There aren't many technical issues: the words are spelled correctly, the apostrophes are there, the t's are crossed and i's are dotted. It's all there. However, on another level, the writing style makes some decisions that sometimes make for an awkward read.

World_wanderer is going for a certain voice: it's relatively clear, not too flowery, but tugs at a sort of simulacrum fantastical feel. In this sense, it's what Umberto Eco might deride as a hyperreal traveller, one who's imagination purports being set down to something concrete, but in reality is an object of its own. It's hard to pin it down. However, at times, it veers away and breaks convention, using quips which come off as somewhat out-of-place in the fantasy vibe it's constructed:

 

"Depends from which angle you want to look. If you were a mage, I would say that it was okay, but if you want to become a knight and use your inner energy, then it's super bad."

 

Given that this came from the gruff and wizened Gustav, 'super bad' comes off as a little awkward and breaks the illusion the prose sets out. There's already a pattern of Gustav speaking to him directly, stating you, you, you - why not end it with another you:

 

"Depends from which angle you want to look. If you were a mage, I would that it was okay, but if you want to become a knight and use your inner energy, then all you'll do is fail."

 

It doesn't even have to be like that. Sometimes a harrumph or a curt "No," can work, since it begs the characters to find out more, to pout in frustration or come to their own conclusions.

The style break can also drastically shift the way in which the writer's voice is heard. In a pitched battle between Robert and Gustav, the story describes Gustav's glacier spell like so:

 

"Even though Robert once again dealt with most of the spell, some of his people ended up wounded or killed because the spell was just too strong and area orientated. He just couldn't deal with it himself."

 

Here, the writing conflates fantasy with formality, and I'm not sure if that's the direction world_wanderer wanted. Though I don't harp on the passive voice as often as many of my fellow writers, I think a more active voice in action scenes adds heft to their moves. For example, if we follow the route of the glacier, it can be rewritten as:

 

Robert shook what he could, ward up and tense, but the remains still maimed and killed an unlucky few. Its might was too great and its arc too wide for one man to block.

 

Maybe you don't think this is a better entry, and I understand. However, at the very least, I think it demonstrates that how you describe the events can shift the energy of the events it portrays. Here, "because the spell was just too strong and area orientated," feels more like commentary than narration, and I'm not sure if the author is going for that.

 

Characters:

At the moment, because it leans so heavily on its backstory, there isn't much right now on how the characters round out. Nero, unsurprisingly, has the most development, though much of his character is kickstarted by the sudden and brutal attack in the later chapters. Until then, he lives a relatively naive life, and while he has a clear set ideological positions (no doubt handed down to him by Gustav and his mother), it's largely talk.

On the subject of ideology, Griffon's Fury does something interesting, which is that most of the characters largely wear their beliefs on their sleeves. Thus, character development occurs, somewhat appropriately to the theme, via clear lineages: Nero doesn't learn his own position in the world contradistinct from his trainer or his mother, but rather because of them:

 

"My dear, if that band was truly strong, the elder would have been busy trying to save himself. Remember, weaklings can't decide their fate. Any strong knight or mage can kill them at any moment."

 

Here, Tiona's martial mentality seeps through, that even though she's presented as a calm and collected mother, her utterances are that of a war-hawk. The strong live and decide, the weak suffer and die. That is her truth, because she's a warrior, and that's all there is to it. In this sense, while there is a performative evil in Griffon's Fury (as emphasized by Robert's insistent misogyny), it is characters like Tiona and Gustav who speak some hidden dark ideas in some strikingly calm manners:

 

"Look there,' said Gustav, turning and pointing at the village below. 'What do you see?'

'A village,' said the boy, while Gustav only nodded.

'That's a village of mortals. There are almost no knights or mages there. Those people are weak, and they are lucky they survived before I moved here. If not for my appearance, monsters, bandits, beasts would have long ago destroyed them.'"

 

The village here is not a new world to start anew, but a slight reprieve. Though Tiona speaks of wanting to give Nero a chance at a normal life, it's all spoken as if it's temporary. And here is the fundamental conceit of Griffon's Fury and its "good" characters - they don't see themselves as trying to enact a good upon the world, but as wolves among flocks of sheep, equally corralling and preying upon them, needing to draw from the weak when convenient, but ultimately deciding the boundaries of these relationships.

 

Favourite Passage:

His mother’s warm arms embraced him as soon as Tiona saw Nero and he felt how his fear and cold left him with each passing moment. He once again felt that he was protected and wasn’t alone. Gustav also released a relieved sigh as he moved his glance through his disciple’s body finding no wounds or injuries. The boy was fine and such a sudden and potentially dangerous adventure might help him in his future training. Some trial is always good for growing talents.


Drinker of the Yew: A Necromancer's Tale

Drinker of the Yew: A Necromancer's Tale Review

In Programmed Visions, Wendy Chun described the longstanding tradition of performative language as sourcery, a neologism of source and sorcery. She referred to the nature of programming languages as protocologic, i.e. a mesh of rules that allow (and govern) autonomous nodes of expression. To Chun, coding is the closest we have to fantastical magic. This is not because coding is alien to her (which it isn't). Instead, coding is, by its very nature, performative.

Drinker of the Yew (DOTY going forward) is obsessed with this concept of language as a performative apparatus, a set of out-there utterances, not simply acknowledgements between its performers and actants, but as a living, breathing entity. 

The story bears a quite Austinian image of language. JL Austin describes language as performative in that its utterances can drive people to act, that speaking leads to doing. In this sense, the act of magical spellcrafting - the conjuring of specific words in specific ways to lead to particular outcomes - is an interimplicated imagination of both code-as-magic and magic-as-code. To cast a spell is to write code, and vice versa. If we take that analogy further, Austin notes that those utterances are only possible because of agreements: acknowledgments within orders and between operators. After all, to say something and have someone act only works if the receiver responds to it.

There are obvious and overt examples of how DOTY grapples with an Austinian understanding of performative language. The spells each mage crafts, partly their own, have a linguistic flourish that carries consequences despite their command of magick. Mages need to take great pains to ensure they don't mess up:

 

"Two weeks it took, to craft the baron's requested spell, and no more than two weeks did it take. Any longer, and the language of the spell would have changed, for the nature of disease is that of constant change."

 

Here, JMWebb is interimplicating this understanding of magic as a mediation between an outsider object (such as a disease) and a language capable of transversing energy and intention into something controllable. The crafting of a spell is, thus, distinctly Austinian in that it must be these spells, these words, at these moments, to say these things.

In fact, one of Austin's most famous examples is by speaking, "By the power invested in me, I now pronounce you man and wife" (or partners). Here, the spoken word carries a distinct acting meaning: a couple transitions into a married one when the priest, through simply the exhalation of sound, says it in a specific way. It is unsurprising (and perhaps coincidental, perhaps not) that DOTY would also revolve around marriage, though based upon the discrepancy in the names from the first chapter and the other, something tragic is probably in store. Much of what drives Nayinian is not only her passions, but also the consideration she has for Ynuginian, her fiance:

 

"Cordindrian asked if Ysnuginian could deliver the parcels, as paladins and their squires often head eastward through and further beyond Temini. I told the mage that I would rather die than ask my betrothed, a soon-to-be paladin of saint Mentillian, who above all favors law and serves Order, to break the law and commit subterfuge."

 

And Nayinian's betrothal to Ynuginian isn't the only promise: she makes promises in exchange for currency, for opportunity, to keep secrets, to wield and break her chains of destiny. Pacts and oaths bind characters, and the few moments where they try and find ways around them are presented as unholy and distasteful; the world, in effect, runs on pacts and agreements.

Magic as performative language, therefore, is everywhere. It isn't just in the wilds of wondrous weather spells or the skedaddling of fiery lizards, but also in the agreements in which they make, how they fulfill them, to whom, and for what reason. Underlying this world, slowly melting into war and chaos, is a structure hardier than once presumed: a world of language, spoken in both sound and ethers around them, of promises locked and broken.

However, I didn't say DOTY is a story about pacts, promises or performance - I said it was about language. DOTY is told in retrospect, a recollection by a Nayinian wizened by time and experience, wrapped in branding and tattoos. Here, she bears her life quite literally on her skin, much like Frederic Jameson's description of society borne on the caduveos. A mage - a weaver of language - carries language on her body, recalling a story that is only translatable through language.

And DOTY acknowledges some of the limitations and challenges of language. In a moment, Nayinian describes Autumn colours, words that have long lost their meaning in a world lacking those resplendences. When words fail her, she is forced to conjure up a dazzling display:

 

"Nayinis leaned towards the children of the village who were sitting cross-legged on the longhouse floor in front of her. Their eyes were wide, and several whispered to each other in wonderwent over what a forgotten color might look like....The necromancer put her hand into her shirt, and lifted outwards the deep red amulet that Ynuguinian had bestowed upon her and held it high above her head. The amulet, seeming almost ponderous, she set in the now-empty hearth, and whispered inwards to cold wood. The hearth alighted once more, and then slowly like a smoke ascended moving ribbons of forgotten colors of the peaks of perpetual winter."

 

There is something particularly poignant about how Nayinis, in casting aside Ynuguinian's amulet, uses it to rekindle energy and life into the lives of curious, bleak children. The charm comes off as a totem of another time, a halcyonic artifact destroyed for the sake of hope and wonderment of a new generation. Nayinis gave up her precious amulet, in effect, to give life to the room.

And that leads to language's second significant component: memory. Jacques Derrida gets a lot of flak for his somewhat challenging writing but has once beautifully outlined the fickleness of memory. Let's talk about the Mystic Writing Pad.

Briefly discussed by Freud, the Mystic Writing is a wax sheet on top of a resin slab. Writing on the film leaves an imprint, which can then be rewritten numerous times, creating the illusion of an infinitely reusable sheet. Think of it as a precursor to an etch-and-sketch. However, both Freud and Derrida focus on a critical element of the Mystic Writing Pad: the resin will always leave behind trace elements so that new sheets are never entirely pure. The etch-and-sketch is similar: magnetic traces, especially if they've been there for too long, form a rough image in the backing board. 

Therefore, the Mystic Writing Pad is an analogue for writing, memory, and language: we are utterly whole in our approach to something but always preceded by language. This idea that we are subjects to language extends into most continental semiotics: Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, all focus on language in some ways, shaping our relation to the world "out there." 

By being a story told in retrospect, DOTY grapples with some of these ideas, though to what ends, it's not yet clear. It reveals small bits about the world through a very deft hand, letting slip comments about the fate of characters ("burned at the pyre"), setting up reader expectations about what will happen. This is a pretty conventional storytelling practice to keep readers hooked. Still, it's particularly appropriate since, in a self-reflexive fashion, Nayinis' narration has a clear political purpose: to win over the people of the village.

The idea of language as memory and memory as language comes up indirectly when (spoilers!), in chapter 16, the perspective breaks. It's the third person, but instead of returning to the village where she tells her story, the events are of her former teacher and the lord. Here, in his moment, JMWebb breaks the convention of a limited narrative to stress the importance of the scene, the machinations of something grander swirling in the background. Here, it focuses on two elements: on a practical level, it lets slip the mask of memory and shows us an "objective" view, but that view may not be as objective as any other. The narration takes sides as surely as Nayinis does:

 

"Darronin took a long swig from his goblet, pondering the sobering information."

 

Why is it sobering? How do we know how he feels? Part of why stories reveal character motivations is because they take sides with the narrator. Perhaps he could've just been sitting, silent, fingers swirling the goblet of wine. But it was sobering. It was a moment that broke the clinical description and peered into a character's shoes. In this sense, the chapter is no more separated from the fickleness and language than any other. As we see Nayinis' memory, we might be seeing a sort of memory of the world itself manifest through writing.

The second note is that it reveals Nayinis doesn't necessarily have all the answers. Yet, for all of her confidence, she speaks of the events with an unwavering surety. The meeting, separated from her, acts as a reminder of the folly of her memory and experiences when describing the vast conflict as she does. In other words, she doesn't know everything that happened but is attempting to craft a narrative of her own through her recitation of these events.

Here, through narrative, language folds back on itself. Perhaps unintentionally, I don't know, but it seems to be the case.

I'm never a fan of the SSGC system of RoyalRoad, but I understand it's a necessary evil:

Story: I think the story is quite solid. It never lingers too long on something to bog down its pacing, and days and months will jump at a time. I think some of its relationships (particularly Ynuginian and Nayinian) are somewhat fast. Still, it has a particular feel to it that I can't put my finger on, and for that reason, it's not that big of an issue.

Style: I think the style works, though it does break at times. However, it's not as strange as it might be, and let me ramble for a bit. It's essential to keep in mind that much of this is being narrated, and thus there's a political investment to present things in a certain way. But I wonder - and this isn't necessarily a criticism, but whether it's a revealing nature of her character - is the languid prose an element of Nayinis' character? She speaks, sometimes, in ways that I would think are offputting to villagers, especially if they've demonstrated a striking superstition of her as they did in the first chapter. Is the opulent language of a world traveller the right way to present the narrative?

Or, perhaps, in a twist of character building, is this a critique of Nayinis, so close to villagers yet distant enough to weave a tale with prose that may be too soft and melodic? Did JMWebb, in another use of language to build character and worlds, isolate the necromancer even as she attempted to bridge gaps with the villagers she's ensorcelling?

Grammar: As always, I don't take points off grammar unless it impacts my reading or does something a lot. There are quite a few minor mistakes (like missed periods, etc.), but otherwise, it's not particularly distracting.

Characters: I think this is the most difficult one for me since I don't find many of the characters particularly well-defined, but there is a caveat: it's almost all told from Nayinis' perspective, and she's more intent on describing the actions they do rather than some of the elements which round them out. This is clearest in the breakaway chapter where Corindrian and Darronin are arguing: two heated men, worried, long-faced by hearth fire shadows, pensive. They feel much more lively and overt in their expressions than the somewhat subdued and composed men that Nayinis describes.

And that's both its strength and its weakness: they're all filtered through her perspective, so what we see of Ynuginian we see from her perspective: the wild-eyed boy seeking glory away from home. Since they're all filtered through her lens, we always get shadows, perhaps purposely so, and maybe once again, JMWebb is falling back on another discussion of language as a thing that shapes and commands us.

 

Favourite passage:

"I know not how Corindrian changed the mind of Darronin, but as the strangling winter lessened its chilled grip on the weather, the Baron began to observe the lessons the weathermaster gave to me and Ornookian in the library."


Rise For The Sky [Slow-Pace Multi-Lead Dungeon Crawler]

In Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, three men are trapped in a waiting room. The story (spoilers!) unfurls to reveal that they're in purgatory. The realization that you're trapped in an offputting space, and trapped with strangers, open up a few critical avenues. 

One on hand, it lets you set up some fascinating premises. For example, the confined space is a hallmark of locked room mysteries, where every member of a group is faced with figuring who's capable - and is likely responsible - for an act as heinous as murder.

On another and more broad avenue, it lets you interrogate the contours of human subjectivity. Subjectivity, in the most basic theoretical sense, refers to what you're subject to. You can be subject to the law, to the government, to ideology, to God. In a locked room, a confined space, a dungeon, you're subject to other people.

ANCT plays with that initial theoretical premise quite straight: people - sixty people - are effectively stuck in a dungeon and need to figure out a way to navigate their way out. Who they are and what they do brushes up against each other. In this sense, there is a basic existential crisis here: who are we concerning the others here, the people we're stuck with? People, after all, craft themselves in relation to others, especially others they're comfortable with. However, in a situation where they're stuck with the company of others they aren't guaranteed to enjoy, what sort of conclusions or decisions will they make, and what sort of tensions rise out of that?

There is, however, a secondary component that emerges; WHY are they stuck with each other? They're placed in a confined space at the behest of a capricious entity in a grand game of sorts. It puts all of these people together, gives them game-like abilities and progression, and ultimately leaves them to figure it out.

ANCT is built similarly to survival stories from the early 2000s. According to Uno Tsunehiro, young people are pitted against each other, either by design or incidence. Doing so reveals more about themselves in relation to others in that society. Tsunehiro's comments were written in the pall of the post-9/11 Koizumi reforms, where decaying Japanese social welfare and increasingly temporary work led to the promulgation of hyper-competitive workplaces. In these stories (known as "sabaibukei"), to find out who you are demands finding out who you're against.

At the time of this review, ANCT hasn't yet delved deep into the Koizumi-esque battle royale mentality of the sabaibukei. However, it has already begun to show cracks, multifaceted and tentacular. At the heart of the story is a growing tension between keeping the group together and the slow establishment of hierarchy. In pure existential fashion, Characters are starting to form relations and bonds with each other, and in doing so, inadvertently (or directly) exclude others. In fact, as these relationships germinate into something more concrete, the story outwardly expresses concerns with these behaviours:

 

"The sixty need to come together, but it's not like we're forming a government here." To himself, he added, If I thought him the better leader...then I would step aside. Until then, I'll just help organize us.

'You can take the people out of the civilization, but you can't take the civilization out of the people,' murmured the redhead."

 

Stew on that a bit: you can take the people out of the civilization, but you can't take the civilization out of the people. In this situation, what does civilization necessarily mean? In the context of someone like Hermann Schwartz, civilization could be a complex distribution of power, a top-down imposition of a particular set of values to keep the supposed 'uncivilized' in check. To Michel Foucault, civilization can be understood as an internalization of power, an imposition of practices and self-reflections to signal to others while, at the same time, absorbing those demands into yourself. What is civilization to the people here? Here, characters insist that this isn't civilization, that this isn't the formation of a new government or order, that there is a true sense of freedom in finding yourself stuck in this strange environment.

And the story absolutely plays with the question of the dungeon as a freeing space. Vincent, for instance, was a fan of swordsmanship, that he couldn't find a practical use for his passion, but here, now, he's free. The knowledge and ability are upturned, gone from a hobby to something useful, powerful, and potentially dangerous. Likewise, in a character like Damian, he finds his own newfound passion has armed him with newfound power, the manifestation of magical knowledge into something clear and actionable. In these instances, despite the dangers the dungeons pose, these characters find out something is freeing about this.

In this sense, ANCT flirts with an apocalyptic imagination in the Kermode sense. According to Kermode, the apocalyptic imagination (or "Sense of an Ending" as he calls it) is the constant drive and desire to see beyond the veil, to glimpse at a completely new space since it lets the person reshape their perceived position in society. Vincent was a failed swordsman, but now he's a threat. Malachi is a man who feels much older than he might be, but here he's unleashed a sort of sage position. And Warner - bullied, defensive Warner - has developed a taste for violence. Everything here is the same, yet everything here is different.

In this sense, the story has a somewhat rumble; cliques are starting to form, and no matter how strongly people insist, an inner circle with its own allegiances is starting to form. In this light, the dungeon represents a clear physical threat: monsters without as people scramble to learn how to stop them, but monsters within as they shift from a gaggle of fellow prisoners to a micro-fiefdoms.

 

I again begrudgingly use RR's SSGC system, so I'll be brief:

Style: The story's great strength is its characters, and there are quite a few of them. It also establishes a wide array of POVs, though the style maintains a somewhat staid consistency; every character - aside from the moments in which they reveal a bit more about their intentions - feels the same. This, I think, is partly because the author uses pretty similar metaphorical constructions. For instance, the description of circumstances between both Vincent and Vivian have similarly florid descriptions and diction. Similarly, characters like Molly and Clarissa, when they're looking around for something, are both described as "scanning." This can feel like a minor quibble (and it is in many instances), but it does somewhat temper the personal voices these characters can have. Perhaps one might scan whereas another might whip, or another might curse with lady-like refrain or another might flat out say "fuck" and there'd be restraint at all. In this situation, the stylistic consistency works a bit against the story's strength at times.

Story: It's unafraid to let it burn, and quite slowly too.

Grammar: I usually don't hang on grammar if I think it's minor, but in this situation I think there's a few moments where it feels a little off. The near-end of chapter 5 is a noticeable example:

  Her friend coughed lively as the golden sparkles danced briefly and her color mildly returned. Clarissa checked over Julia to see that the wounds had all stopped bleeding. In contrast to the half-healed wound on the archer’s ankle, the shieldmaiden’s wounds looked like they were just scabbing over. The dark-haired woman looked up at her friend with a smile before falling asleep. Evan’s heart was warmed by the deep and healthy breaths from the woman in her lap. She turned to see to the second potion she had on her, but someone had already taken it to Molly. The rest of the group all looked better after the six had been given the restoration potions. Sleep taking them all peacefully.

ANCT writes with a clear rhythm, in a voice that comes off as sing-songy and oral. Therefore, while the decision to use three adverbs (lively, briefly, mildly) in one sentence can be seen as a somewhat provocative break with conventions of concision, I think it largely works, though it depends on maintaining the rhythm they set out.

However, near the end of the paragraph, they undermine that rhythm based upon the sentence's full-stops:

She turned to see to the second potion she had on her, but someone had already taken it to Molly. (FULL STOP) The rest of the group all looked better after the six had been given the restoration potions. (FULL STOP) Sleep taking them all peacefully. (FULL STOP)

The second sentence has a full stop where a comma (in my opinion) should go, so that it says, "given the restorations, sleep taking them all peacefully." I think this might be a situation where ANCT was editing and, worried the sentence might be too unwieldy, compromised the rhythm of the sentence for the sake of conciseness. I think they should be bolder, write longer, let the sentences dance on their own; the story is rife with these splits, and while it's nothing big, I think it's a significant enough undertaking that warrants me needing to mention it.

Characters: Characters are good, though I did wish the women varied a bit more, at the time of this writing they all feel like different levels of peppy, and I admittedly had some difficulty differentiating them. I ended up knowing them as just "the bow lady", etc.

 

My favourite passage:


  “Mana is the function and medium in which one’s vision can be imposed upon reality,” recited John Harken. “A substance that is distinct, but undefinable. The world is infinite. Humanity is finite. Through Mana, we close the gap to the infinite, and are divine.”


Awakening: Prodigy
Louis Althusser, one of the cleverest frauds of all time, noted in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses two vectors in which a state subjugates its citizens. On the one hand, it uses repression - soldiers, military, force. This is the famous "monopoly of violence" adage. Here, repression gives the state its power and form.
 
The second, and more insidious, is the ideological state apparatus. Here, it's a subtle stream of subjugation; people become subjects of the state through normative action and teaching. They are forced and reinforced into roles that serve the state's demands and self-preservation. The latter, he says, is clearest in the churches, in families, and most strikingly, schools.
 
To Althusser, the school is where students learn to become adults but not to grow up. Adulthood, after all, is an agreed-upon set of practices and beliefs which preserve a state apparatus. What makes someone an adult changes by the culture - look no further than different drinking ages or enlistment.
 
It's notable, then, that AV Dalcourt's Awakening: Prodigy concerns children. After all, it focuses on growing up in the midst of fire, blood, and memory.
 
One of our main characters, Astral, is learning how to hunt demons, strange beasts lingering on the edges of human civilization. Here, they're a sort of Weberian wild, like inky black borders in a children's book. Sometimes they come alive, and they bring death with them. Thus, in Awakening, demons swirl like oil, undulating, seeping. In a tragic confrontation, Astral survived, but she was scarred. Yet despite Astral's role in the Clearwater, she never really 'grows up.' She keeps the company of stuffed animals, even up to the most recent chapter. Her entry into the school isn't a moment in which she casts aside her naivete and immaturity, but she wields it like a ward, a bulwark that partly defines who she is.
 
And on some levels, you might trip into this comfort zone, thinking Astral's behaviour odd. She feels stunted and slow as if she was putting on an act. Her whispers to her toys are in stark contrast to how she seems to speak telepathically with Kendra (who's older than her). Astral feels like a girl who's collapsed all these years of her life into a sort of simulacrum, an effigy.
 
But then you remember the setting; humanity is, for all intents and purposes, at war. Of course, Astral's personality feels like it's a girl whose years have been smashed together - that's who she became.
 
Awakening: Prodigy does something quite fascinating with its characters: it's aware of the cost of war, but it drapes it as scars and half-truths. Astral is a young girl and a woman beyond her years all at once, juggling identities without a lineage. Seth faces similar challenges: he has strange visions, dreams too real to be dreams, a growing obsession with a girl who tugs at him at the back of his mind. Seth's memories, like a trace, are also nightmarish. Here, darkly prophetic concerns like PTSD given a new kind of miserable life.
 
In fact, it's William whose the most normal. At the same time, William is also the least rounded. He's an impetuous brat who, at first, acts exactly like a punk. He's mouthy and presumptuous, he expresses glee at the misfortunes of others, and he fantasizes about hearing girls serving him based on his name alone. But he's also someone with clear dreams and aspirations, wrapped up in the world's military-industrial complex, wowed by its spectacle. In this situation, William is closer to an everyman than Astral or Seth, children with baggage.
 
And again: they're children. The idea of children fighting to save the world isn't a new thing, nor is it unique: young protagonists finding themselves needing to save the world is a staple in fiction, schools of warfare are rife in anime and manga. Yet Awakening stresses a concept of lineage - not of blood, but duty. The children inherit the world from their parents, who've bred them to fight for their glory. It seems, in this sense, what they've inherited along with the world is its violence.
 
This is clear at one moment, where Astral expresses her concern at how adults gain prestige at their childrens' expense:
 
"...In theory, the parents gain through their child's advancement." He looked to the sky for the words he sought. "Sort of like a proxy or an extension of themselves. For example, you're here because Dezmond can't be, neither can I. You are acting as our proxy."
 
"Seems selfish," Astral concluded.
 
Mathias fires back with how it needs to be done, that someone needs to defend the people. But are children not afforded their own liberties and freedoms? Is parenthood simply another extension of state violence, both as a weapon and as a force to be meted out?
 
Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I'm not a fan of the SSGC breakdown, so I'll give my brief thoughts.
 
Style: I think the style works. It's quite clear what's happening, though the pacing is a bit slow at times when I'm not sure it needs to be. It feels rock-solid, but perhaps a bit more edge might be nice. Of course, this is really a subjective thing, and it might work for many people. It might just not work for me.
 
Story: The story starts very strong, and then it somewhat lulls a bit to build on some of its characters, but it's starting to pick up again. I was hoping there'd be a bit more excitement, but I understand that this build-up is necessary. Seth's sections are nice, and they break the flow of the others.
 
Grammar: There are quite a few basic errors (bear versus bare, an and a, etc.), but they're all minor. Those can be fixed in a snap, so there's no point in docking points.
 
Character: I think I'd need to get a better grasp on William's character before I can say anything. I know what he likes and how he generally acts. Still, I find that characters tend to reveal themselves more when they're pushed to their limits, either morally, ideologically, or physically. There are implications (such as his staunch defence of the spectacle of warfare that is the whole situation), but it's very silent as of now.
 
Favourite Quote:
 
I didn't mention this, but there's a phenomenal implication of economic class at play that adds another dimension:
 

'Social pariah.' What did it matter if some rich fourteen-year-old girl had an opinion about the school program? She wasn't the average student. She would never have to study hard for the dream of getting a good job; she would have one handed to her when she was ready to take control. She would never have to work a side job while studying hoping to improve her meal plan; she would never have to endure the stale taste of a food cube linger in the back of her throat. She would never have to worry about stepping foot on the war fields. No, at best, her only worry would be if her marriage contract was air tight in her favor.

She had choices. He could only survive.

 

Flight of The Draykes

Flight of the Draykes examines a rather libidinal understanding of power. Emotions shape and warp the way power manifests, and it's through this lens that Faustus learns how to be strong.

Honestly, I don't have too much to say, primarily because it's so relatively early in the story and a lot of it focuses on building this world and the power structure it presents. In this sense, there's this rather opulent, potentially byzantine imagination of the world, especially the Proteans, but again, I think I'm just too early.

Some characters somewhat stand out, though because of where I ended, it might not be enough time for me to get a good idea of what they're really like. The fawning Alina or the brusquely violent Leonidas - I have a sense of them - but whether that sense is good or not at this stage, I'm not sure.

I know that one of them is a prodigy, I know that the Proteans can live very long lives, I know that due to their long lives, the impressiveness of the ranking system is unclear, and I know that Faustus is suffering from what seems to be some level of developmental envy. However, how any of this shakes out, I'm not yet sure because so much of it at the beginning focuses on building up the general mechanics and operational rules of warforce and the awakening.

In some ways, it reminds me of nekketsu (熱血), or "hot-blooded" stories. In those, protagonists fight and struggle, and it's only through their fighting that a particular truth about a character or the world is revealed. In this sense, I can see a truth about warforce or awakening being one of its topics. Alternatively, I can also see the reality of war and battle as another. I'm not sure.

It's also no surprise that fights become not only window-dressing for narrative but what Jonathan Kreng would call a physical narrative, where conversations happen through the violence meted out. In this sense, Flight of the Draykes is a very talkative story; it speaks not just through the liberal utterances of its characters, but also through their fists. If characters aren't fighting, they're learning how to fight, and if they aren't doing that, then they're figuring some greater reason on why they fight. It is fighting all the way down, like Jamesonian levels of ideology stacked on top of each other. Somewhere, somehow, we know that there's some greater thing in the last-determinant, but exactly how we get to that isn't clear. At least, it's not to me; perhaps it's clearer to someone who's read more than 16 chapters. 

I'm not a fan of Royal Road's SSGC System, but I understand I need to explain it, so:

Story: Much of the story is currently draped in legends, speculations about the origins of things, including the powers they wield. It's a little hard for me to decipher at the moment.

Style: The style reads a lot like a cellphone novel. It has the kind of cadence and performative tone of something read on the phone, with loud, bombastic lines in operatic fashion to give a sense of who's doing what and where. Through its first-person perspective spends way more time on Faustus' thoughts, it's not shy to colour a lot of character actions through adverbs ("insidiously," "unceremoniously," "furiously"). 

I know some people have issues with adverbs, but I don't mind it.

Grammar: There are quite a few grammatical errors - sentences would be run-ons for no clear reason, punctuation would be missing, there isn't a consistent capitalization of some things...but none of that matters. It can all be fixed, and none of it really impeded my ability to grapple with the text, so I didn't mind it.

Characters: Since each comes from Faustus' point of view, everything is tinged through his perspective. He's also quite chatty, but that chattiness also somewhat belies a neurosis shaped by what seems to be envy and imposter syndrome:

 

Am I just meat in your eyes?

Am I?

Tell me truly!

Am I not Human?

No?

I’m a pig?

Of course, I have doubts. Wha-mirror?

Yes, I am a pig.

 

He slips into these rants, and they're interesting because it shapes the character and gives him a somewhat schizophrenic quality, where dialectical exchanges happen entirely in his own mind. I think this could lead to a situation where it becomes a real kind of traumatic stress or a neurological disorder, considering he's also meant to fight. Still, I'm not far enough in the story to speak about that with confidence. 

Who knows? Perhaps the Draykes will never take flight and instead sink into the oceans.

 

Favourite Passage:

 

Did I tell you that the people on Protos are big? Like freakishly big?

No?

Yes?

Doesn’t matter. I’m going to tell you that again.


Assassin Queen and a World on Fire

Maybe it's because I'm just reviewing it with regards to where it is right now, but there's something quite fascinating about the way this story is structured. It gives off, quite confidently, the feel of something in media res, where questions of what Anastasia and her group of operatives seeks to do is somewhat uncertain. There are greater ideological and political goals; the removal of the Zudrians, the liberation of the slaves, and the ultimate oft-mentioned "Revolution," but they seem incidental. In this sense, it seems like there's something bigger and grander on the horizon, that even in the sheer bombast of this story something much more nefarious will be coming their way. I think, in general, it works.

 

Style:

Assassin Queen and World on Fire is written in a really curious way. It has this clearly youthful, bubbly energy, interlocked between these quick and short-sentenced moments of bombast and these longer, descriptive passages where a lot of its imagery really starts to flourish.

Its prose is really chatty, and I think it's probably because the author may be writing their stories like a recitation: it makes much more sense spoken, and you get a good feel for how the paragraphs and sentences are paced when they're said aloud. If read in silence, there are some moments where it can feel odd:

“Architectural zudrian vomit”

But a description like comes off like the hateful stutter of someone with a very invested drive. In reading, it might have been better to write, "Zudrian Vomit" to describe the architecture, such as "The architecture is no more glamorous than Zudrian Vomit," but orally it doesn't have the same punch as "architectural zudrian vomit." So in this sense, the style makes sense.

One problem with the style that I don't really agree on is the inconsistency in contractions. Sometimes the same characters would speak without contractions ("they are", "would not"), and sometimes they'd use contractions ("the'y're"). This isn't a big deal in the scheme of things, but it does somewhat dilute the individual voices and quirks of each character and how they speak. It's a minor quibble, but when you notice it that voices start to meld, and I think keeping spoken quirks can go a long way to really distinguising voices.

 

Grammar:

The grammar was good! Evaluating grammar is a lot more difficult than a lot of people realise since its so heavily tied to style. The 'wrongness' of a sentence fragment is determined by its use-case. In this situation, I never really found instances where "incorrect" grammar is used in a way that makes it incorrect. Yes, there are sentences. Yes, there are run-ons. Yes, there are strange uses of semi-colons. But it generally works in the ebb and flow of the story, and realistically that matters far more than sticking to an arbitrary guide whose conventions have already been broken by more professional writers.

I think the only major grammatical issue I had was the strange italicization, where the characters would stress particular words but the stresses didn't make that much sense. Italicizing "shit" in "treating you like shit" is fine, but why is it emphasized? Perhaps this isn't really grammar, but I do think it affects the way the sentence is read on a technical level.

 

Story:

The story was particularly challenging, because there moments where I clearly loved it and moments where I didn't. I think this story needs - desperately needs - some down time. I understand that the situation demands an escalation; time is running out, the operation needs to unfold, things need to stick to the plan. I get that.

However, I was hoping for perhaps a bit more on the ballroom scene; it was a perfect piece of down, a moment that not only contrasts Anastasia's seeming bloodthirstiness versus her girlish awkwardness (given how she absolutely detests the wardrobe). It could also, in my opinion, serve as a way to introduce a bit more about the world you crafted. I understand the slavery and trenchant racism, but I don't know too much else. In fact, the story - somewhat awkwardly - shoe-horns those explanatory moments into the middle of action scenes, and it somewhat disrupts the flow of it. I think if it focused explanation during scenes that demanded it, and keeping action much more tightly composed, it would feel a bit more cohesive.

 

Characters: 

The characters are interesting, though - and it might be because this is relatively early in the story - they don't really play off each other other than as character foils. There are some moments where characters snip at and joke with each other, and I understand that the stakes of the operation means there shouldn't be discord among them, but I was hoping for there to be more concrete ideological differences. It would, I think, give readers a better idea of how characters fill out the weaknesses and strengths of others, see where they stand, and how interpersonal relationships have emerged.

One quality that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't is the chattiness of the characters. When they're talking to each other or on the radio, they speak like normal human beings. This can work a lot of the time because it feels lived and organic, but can also backfire because real life conversations are messy and redundant. I think figuring where you want to keep it simple and punchy, clear and concise is crucial, and then the rest can be peppered by more overall lively conversation. I also think, since the narrative tends to favour Anastasia's perspective, that it gives much, much more emphasis on her character, with Matty a somewhat far runner up.

The villains, though fairly simple, act as the stubborn blustering fools pretty well. I think, for the most part, this hasn't been a story about Zudrian megalomaniacs and slavers, but rather how these Zudrian villains react to this new force against them. It's for that reason there are relatively scant descriptions of the people burned alive or thrown around.

 

I do, however, want to end this review with what I think is my favourite passage that, in many ways, summarizes the themes, ethos, and energy of the story as well as the frenetic and seemingly free-spirit of the Assassin Queen:

“Women like her refused the life of sexual submission, of pleasing so-called superiors, and of faux consent, and chose instead a life of resistance. It was a path of blood and destruction, and she knew many would think of her as a hateful woman, a vile thing to be destroyed.”


The Blunderbuss Chronicles: Jon The Farmer

I'm not sure what to make of The Blunderbuss Chronicles. It reads easily, it reads cleanly, and things move at a pretty breakneck speed.

The story feels like a dye-in-the-wool Light Novel, and given trianman's self-professed interest in anime; it makes sense. This feels like a Light Novel: one-sentence descriptions, action-oriented work, characters with clear quips and over-emphasized voices to give a clear, sharp punch to who they are.

It works pretty well.

The conceit of The Blunderbuss Chronicles is a discussion about someone's role in society. For Jon, he isn't cut out to be a farmer. No matter what he tries to do, it never helps; he keeps failing. That is, of course, until he runs into a magic blunderbuss and finds himself at ease handling this weapon.

In this sense, the story is as much about dealing with failure as it is about finding out where you belong. This is particularly interesting considering that The Blunderbuss Chronicles somewhat subverts a lot of the usual narrative starters. I'll use Star Wars as an example. Jon's failings as a farmer are not because of his disinterest (ala Luke Skywalker) but rather because of his inability to pass the bureaucratic nightmare that seems to be the farmer's test. Of all the rote, normal, menial jobs saddling the protagonist, Jon seems to be the lowest of the low, the failed farmboy, the job that every protagonist wants to leave.

In this sense, the foisting of the blunderbuss is not a rejection of the role of the farmer but a reclamation of Jon's own subjectivity. He is, it seems, no longer a slave to narrative convention - he doesn't cast away the imagery or trappings of a farmer. Rather, he embraces parts of it, reinforced by his encounters.

And we can see how some of these encounters are subverted elsewhere. Mercy, who shows up as a rather mysterious figure. In some stories, she'd be a girl who would set him on his path (the Leia analogue). She is instead always there, playing the role of both pathfinder and princess. Likewise, Hector and Mallory, guards chasing after her, turn into a tsukkomi-boke comedy act, giving the story considerable levity.

In this case, The Blunderbuss Chronicles is aware of its own position as a story beginning with normal, samey, and potentially cliche beginnings. Still, it plays with those beginnings in very earnest ways. It is thus story and critique, and the latter is quite striking. It is reminiscent of what Zizek would call a kynical farce. Here, instead of approaching something as a cynical subject to look down upon, it engages and grapples with those ideas as valuable and valid vehicles of expression and interrogation.

I'm not a huge fan of breaking stuff down into Style, Story, Grammar, and Character, so I'll keep it short:

Style: As I mentioned, it's very reminiscent of a Light Novel. Light Novels, sold as easy-to-read books that can be read on commutes, give a specific kind of stripped-down presentation and a focus on distinct voices and clear actions. The Blunderbuss Chronicles is exactly that. Reading this on a cellphone (instead of printed out on paper as I did) may change how you engage with it.

Story: Ten chapters in, the story moves pretty quickly, which is a good thing. It never lingers on one thing for too long, though it's still very early.

Grammar: There are a few errors here and there, but they're largely misspellings or easily corrected ommissions—no point in losing points for things that can be easily fixed.

Characters: Characters definitely feel very anime-like. They've got a performative streak to them, and the ramblings of at least one Mercy comes off as a little chuuni (middle-schooler syndrome). This isn't a bad thing. Rather, it somewhat wears its influences on its sleeves, and for some of them, it helps inform why some of the characters do what they do.

 

Favourite passage:

He was interrupted by the sound of a snapping noise. Everyone in the house went silent, save for some kids in the side room.

“...Was that…” Mallory didn’t get to finish his inquiry, as a whole wave of snapping noises began to fill the entire house. The syncopation made it so that there was a never-ending barrage of snapping sounds coming from all directions outside the house.

“Holy shit,” Jassiter said.

“Holy shit,” Mallory also said.

Aw, shit, Jon thought.


Chronicles of a Blessed Adventurer

Chronicles of a Blessed Adventurer Review

Praise be to the Bluedawn boy, the bard, the song-sword!

Chronicles of a Blessed Adventurer is, in a lot of ways, a very orthodox Campbellian tale; a young man with dreams of a world "out there," but through circumstance, he is freed of his obligations through misery. After something strange attacks his family and his home, Rohl Bluedawn finds both opportunity and purpose. However, there's a bit of a twist: he's a bard.

The story is still nascent, but Rohl's tale is one fundamentally focused on the journey. As he leaves the boroughs and grapples with vast expanses, his awkward and sometimes stumbling social skills endear him to a lot of his companions. He makes awkward gaffes that, more often than not, open up the hearts of those who talk to him. Yet despite his ability and willingness to craft these friendships, he (or perhaps, the story) doesn't seem too interested in nurturing them. They never hang around for long.

This is important because he also has something else: a blessing was given to him by a deity, and through his utterances, he can affect those around him. There's a crucial analogue here: bards, in RPGs, are pretty normal classes - they can buff and debuff, and it seems Rohl's ability is pretty similar. However, the story plays that ability quite straight: the buffing and debuffing is strong, useful, and can easily turn the tide of (at least one so far) battles, assuming it's used properly.

This brings up an interesting conundrum: for a man who is exceedingly valuable as a party-goer, why is he so flighty with the people he meets? On one hand, I think some of it can be because his members come and go, but on another, a deeper tension. The drive to witness a new world might not necessarily be found in the comfort of people you're already comfortable with, that to find new places you might, invariably, need to find new people. In this sense, "chronicles" are taken literally: the unveiling of events of some person or thing, and it seems in this case to be Rohl's. His life and character are unfurling.

As of writing this review, I'm at the 23rd chapter, and at this time, the characters are fairly different, but it's also important to note that the narrative is quite sympathetic to Rohl. As a result, there's another kind of tension that might emerge. See, a lot of girls in Chronicles of Blessed Adventurer are pretty enamoured with him, either because of his country farmboy blustering, his skillful musical ability, or because of his unrelenting and honest naivety and empathy. Yet his role as a bard, problematizes this: does the power of his voice, welled inside of him, play a role? Is his small-country charm the thing that charms them, or is it something else?

There's one scene that comes to mind: when Nia pulls up the chair to listen to his playing and the tavern is raucous and fettered with applause, how good is Rohl, exactly? Even Rohl seems uncertain about his own ability:

There were many bards with lovelier voices and musicians with more practised hands but Rohl was decent enough, the villagers had always said so anyway. With a bit of luck, he’d be able to find an inn or tavern willing to give him a room in exchange for performing as a bard. Nothing made a drinking atmosphere better than live music. Surely the cost of giving Rohl a room was equal to the money and customers he would bring in. 

Does Rohl's blessing play a role? Or is he underplaying his own ability? It's never really clear, and he never really tests it out, nor does he get the opportunity to do so. After all, he admits, it's hard to understand the limits of your personal ability when you don't really have one to test it with. In this sense, for a man who is so vital in a group setting, he is oftentimes alone.

In this sense, the story, though I might've described it as an orthodox Campbellian tale, also has a tinge of Greek drama. In those stories, gods would have champions and bless them, but exactly how far and to what extent is unclear. Was this champion a champion because of a god's blessing? Or did they earn it themselves and then the god found them worthy? It's no surprise that Chronicles of a Blessed Adventurer begins with a discussion about gods, and more specifically, Greek gods. However, whether it'll unfurl like a Greek comedy or tragedy, I'm not entirely sure; there's just not enough info yet.

I'm not a fan of the SSGC system on RR, but I also understand that I need to somewhat explain why I give the ratings I do, so here's a brief overview:

Style: I think the style somewhat works. There are a few moments where action scenes have the same pace as every other scene, so it can feel like it all melds together and fast things aren't as fast as I'd prefer them to be. It isn't an issue elsewhere, but when things need to be fast sometimes it doesn't feel fast. I think shorter sentences and fewer descriptions during actions might help.

Story: Story is pretty short right now. A lot of it is somewhat at that early wandering stage, where much is moreso on worldbuilding than anything else. That's not a bad thing, though, it's just where it is.

Grammar: There are a few spelling and grammatical errors, especially in the later chapters, but nothing egregious. I always place less emphasis on grammar; it can be easily fixed over time, so pointing stuff out in a review, which is more concrete, feels somewhat pointless.

Character: They're quite different and varied, and while Rohl is a somewhat reactive character who often acts as a nervous foil for some of the more lively characters, he has his moments. I do wish there was a bit more on Quinn other than "matchmaker guy," which seems to be his big defining characteristic.

My favourite passage:

Unwilling to question her on it, Rohl remained silent as he slowly approached the angry elf and just hugged her, providing whatever comfort he could to the crying elf, who beat down angrily on his chest yet did not pull away. It was something he wished had been done for him when wept for his family, for his home. No one had been around to do it for him but at least he could do it for Ell. 


Even in Chains
Kendall gives life to an anima, but it seems it's more of a tulpa.
 
Even in Chains grapples with trauma, culpability, personhood, and exactly how to handle some of the issues that arise from that. From the first-person perspective, it weaves a profoundly broken individual, shattered through deep trauma, much of which is shown in splinters, like shards of glass.
 
The story, thus far, has a quite earthy approach to its writing. It uses a close, tight style of a pretty mouthy, curse-laden Kendall, whose voice is very standard for a teenager suffering from past abuse. It cordons off these sections of downtime to emphasize her now-loving home. However, that loving home is (at the time of the fifth chapter) teetering on real precarity. Healing, in this sense, is not only a healing of the mind but also a healing of more material circumstances.
 
The bullying is relentless, persistent, unpredictable, and rawly accurate. Her treatment of Robbie is not - and never thankfully - enters any libidinal stage, no "unrequited feelings" or any of that. Instead, she metes out misery because it gives her a sense of control. Through this, Kendall exercises a willingness to shape her own subjectivity relative to someone she deems weaker than her.
 
There's also an interesting thematic connection with the woodworking aspect of this story. It's hands-on, physical, shaping and making something in a way that requires tight precision, carefulness, and intuition. In this sense, Kendall's work reflects her emotional state, a self-healing practice through creation.
 
Where does that put the anima? Esmer is interesting, but I'm not sure where to place it. It has a voice of its own, clear and rational, but it speaks with the sort of sage advice of someone who knows more about the situation than Kendall. The anima has only been around for a brief while, but it feels less like a being manifest out of the murk of Kendall's subconscious problems and more like an angel (or devil) on her shoulder, offering free therapy advice. Of course, this story is only five chapters in, so whatever intentions it has - and it seems to have intentions - could reveal itself over time.
 
I hate giving summaries of ratings because I don't think it's a particularly good or helpful way to evaluate a text and what you get from it, so I'll summarize it to the best of my ability.
 
Style: It works pretty well. It's short, curt, concise, though, at points, the description is at odds with the character's voice. Sentences without contractions are followed by a resounding "fuck!" giving an inconsistent voice.
 
Story: The story works. Admittedly it's not something I'm interested in, but it does pick up a lot more by the fifth chapter. The first two chapters are miserable bullying, but the reasoning is clear.
 
Grammar: Grammar is good.
 
Character: We only really see it from Kendall's point of view, and she's pretty good at not giving us a surfeit of excuses as to why she does what she does.