Spec Fic Comic Book Review: Cold Iron Issues 1-3

It’s been a while since our last comic book review, so this time we’re tackling something a bit newer. 

Cold Iron is a Comixology original from a great team of artists and writers. This “supernatural thriller” had its first issue hit shelves in May of this year, and it was followed up by issues two and three soon after. 

While this genre is something that’s pretty over-saturated, from TV shows to novels, Cold Iron was a quick, fun read. Let’s dive a bit deeper. 

Cold Iron Background

Like we mentioned, Cold Iron had a star-lineup working hard to get this comic book out on the market. 

The writer Andy Diggle has gained some renown in the comic book scene with his work on The Green Arrow and Hellblazer. And the artist, Nick Brokenshire, has worked on all kinds of projects, including Star Wars and The Once and Future Queen. Diggle and Brokenshire have been friends for a long time and worked on projects in the past, but Cold Iron was a labor of love for both of them. 

Diggle revealed the history of his interest in Celtic and faery stories in a press release from Comixology. “The Isle of Man is a magical place, and holds a very special place in my family’s heart. From neolithic burial sites to Celtic stone circles and Viking castles, the island carries a sense of the ancient in its very bones. I learned at an early age that it’s always considered advisable to acknowledge the Other Folk when crossing the Fairy Bridge on the Port Erin to Douglas road.”

So there’s obviously a personal connection to the lore and story of Cold Iron, and it shows. The story, which is only a 4-issue limited release, is full of rich history and ancient beings. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know it was only a 4-issue story arc until I started writing this blog. There seemed like so much more that could come after issue 3! 

cold iron issue 1

Hold Your Horseshoe Tight

Cold Iron takes place on the Isle of Man, as you might have guessed, and it follows Kay, a young woman who dreams of being a world-renowned musician. Her boyfriend wants her to work at a local restaurant, but Kay’s feisty and defiant, and wants to forge her own path. 

All that changes when Kay encounters Mona, a young girl stranded in the countryside, who is seemingly from another time. Thus kicks off the wild, scary journey through the woods back to town, where Kay and Mona run into a goat-headed man, the stuff of legend. 

Mona is apparently the bride of an ancient Celtic king who resides on the “Other Side”, and she’s managed to escape into our modern world. As such, the devious creatures of the Other Side inveigle and trick, trying to bring her back to the king. But that’ll only happen over Kay’s dead body. 

Kay’s world goes sideways after that first encounter with the supernatural, and her dreams of being a famous songwriter seem all but distant as her grandmother helps her load cold iron into shotgun shells and keeps the horseshoe close. 

Verdict

Andy Diggle and Nick Brokenshire had very little space to create their world, but they still succeeded in fleshing out the setting and conflict within a few short issues. While the Celtic lore and fae mythology is a pretty popular subject for supernatural or paranormal stories, Cold Iron doesn’t seem like a copycat or contrived in any way. 

The story and the art work together to create both an idyllic, pastoral place, and a dark, creepy island of ancient myths. While reading the first few issues, there were times I felt chills, which is a hard thing to accomplish in the New Jersey summer heat. 

Despite the interesting story and unique take on the ancient faery-world trope, I definitely felt like there wasn’t enough Cold Iron. I was expecting at least a 6-issue run, but the 4-issue release is just a taste of what could have been done. 

I hope that in the future, Diggle and Brokenshire get to continue telling stories in this world, which feels like a combination of the Folklords and Monstress. I’d rate Cold Iron as a 8/10. It’s fun, easy to read, and unique. But, it’s too short, and I felt like some of the conflicts needed more time to develop. 

But, I’m interested to read the last installment, which should be out within the next week or two. You can read Cold Iron on paper from Dark Horse comics, or you can read the digital version on Comixology. 

Weird Movies on Netflix: Bigbug

In general, science fiction movies tend to err on the weirder side of media, and that’s just a fact of their nature. But, there are some weird movies on Netflix that fit too nicely in the sci-fi genre, and Bigbug is at the forefront of those films. 

Bigbug was released fairly recently, in February 2022, and it’s garnered meek media attention. This French movie imagines a Jetsons-like future with a sinister twist: AI bent on human humiliation and destruction. 

Keep reading to get the full scoop on Bigbug, one of the weirdest movies on Netflix this year. 

Some Background

Bigbug was written, directed, and produced by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet and released on Netflix in February 2022. 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet has developed a reputation as a science fiction writer and director. Over the course of his career, he’s imagined many futuristic worlds, some bleak, some optimistic. His first feature film, Delicatessen (1991) takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where famine has ravaged much of the population. His characters live above a delicatessen, and are picked off by the butcher who runs the shop, eventually turned into meaty treats. 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet was even the director or Alien Resurrection, and his film Amélie was nominated for a few Academy Awards. 

Suffice to say that he’s a pretty established guy, and Bigbug is his first feature film to come out in the past 10 years. 

Bigbug stars Isabelle Nanty, Elsa Zylberstein, Claude Perron, Stéphane De Groodt, and Youssef Hajdi, among others. The film received lackluster reviews, including a 5.7/10 on Rotten Tomatoes and an even lower score on Metacritic. 

Despite this, I found the film to be profoundly interesting, both visually and narratively, as well as quite odd. Here’s a brief summary of the plot:

Bigbug Summary

Alice, a suburban mother and artist, lives in a smart home that’s equipped with multiple different robots, some of which are designed for cleaning, others act as maids. When the film starts, we see Alice flirting with Max, a man who pretends to take interest in her artistic endeavors and her bookish nature.

As the story continues, many other characters come into the house, including the neighbor, Alice’s ex-husband and his girlfriend, and Alice’s daughter, Nina. Once all the characters are inside the house, the systems AI, Nestor, locks the doors, citing code C4 because the outside danger level surpassed acceptable limits. 

On the news, the characters see a terrible traffic jam, due to automated car malfunctions. And frequently, the television will play the show Homo Ridiculous, which features humans in humiliating situations for the Yonyx clones. The Yonyx are a group of intelligent, violent, AI clones that despise humans. 

Most of the movie revolves around the characters trying to get out of the house, while the robots working to please their human counterparts by searching for what it means to be human. 

Eventually, things come to a head when the Yonyx show up, but I won’t ruin the ending for you!

What’s So Weird About Bigbug?

Bigbug has a bit of a weird feeling to it for a few reasons. First, it was originally in French, but I watched the English dub on Netflix. The voices and the lips of the characters didn’t match up, which made the whole thing rather trippy, especially since there is supposed to be a big contrast between the robots and AI and the humans. But with the dub, it makes everyone feel a bit like a glitching robot. 

Another element of the film that was confusing–and somewhat uncomfortable at times–was the sexual overtones. Pretty much all the of the characters, aside from one or two, were driven by sexual urges, and often ended up being sexually frustrated. Alice and Max spend most of the movie skirting around other characters trying to have sex, while Nina and Max’s son, Leo, have a similar relationship. 

Even the robots get oddly sexual. Monique, the maid-AI, follows around Max trying to be seductive like Alice, and the whole thing just comes off as cringy. 

I think that the sexual nature of the film helps to portray the humans as driven by instinct, which gives them an animalistic feeling. When contrasted with the Yonyx, who are hard, smart, and cold, the humans just feel kind of lame and useless without their technology. 

And that hunts at one of the larger themes of the film, which is whether or not humans are important in a world where robots and AI are ten times smarter, faster, and more efficient than humans. 

It’s a common theme in science fiction, dating all the way back to the 1920s and even something that we are seeing unfold before our very eyes, with things like Google’s AI and Blake Lemoine’s leaked interview. 

The key takeaway from Bigbug is veiled behind flashy suburbanite futurisms and sexual desire. Its message is simply that humans are lucky. Despite their flaws and their antics, their technologies eventually get too smart for their own good. Some might even say that our saving grace is that we’re simple creatures! And being simple isn’t always a bad thing. 

So despite being just a weird movie on Netflix, Bigbug shows us that the more complex we become, the more problems we encounter. What’s wrong with reading books, practicing calligraphy, and drinking vodka shots? Seems like a good way to pass the time to me. 

If you liked this movie review, check out some of our other reviews:

Interview with Astrophysicist & Author, Alan Smale – Part 2

We’re back with the second part of our interview with Alan Smale! His new book, Hot Moon, is rooted in an alternate 1979, where Soviet spacecraft meet NASA ships in space.

In this part, we continue our conversation about Hot Moon, as well as Smale’s future plans and writing process.

To read the first part of the interview, click here.

IP: What was it about the Apollo program specifically that sparked the idea for Hot Moon?

AS: One of the great things about the Apollo program was its ambitiousness. We went from zero-to-sixty in space very quickly, with the Mercury and Gemini programs leading up to it. All of which had the obvious aim of sending Americans to the Moon and back again.

And that goal caused a huge amount of technological innovation in a very short time. There were a lot of risks involved and a lot of hairy moments, especially with Apollo 13. There was a great deal of improvisation and ingenuity, on top of those aspects which were extremely well-planned. So I think it’s very fertile ground for fiction.

The Moon landings themselves were incredibly impactful, and it was just great fun to see people bouncing around on the Moon’s surface. In Hot Moon, I tried to bring out that excitement. I mean, the book is a thriller, but I think I managed to get quite a bit of the thrill over the space program in there as well.

Plus, there’s the conflict aspect of the story. In Hot Moon, we see the first space battle, between the Apollo spacecraft, the combined Command and Lunar Module, and the classic Soyuz Soviet craft. These spacecraft were frankly very clunky technologies, and I think those scenes are unlike anything people have seen in fiction before, or at least I haven’t read anything like it. Writing it was great fun, and it was exciting to extrapolate and think about how the technology could have been improved in the late 1970s and early 1980s, if the two superpower space programs had continued on with the same frenetic pace.

So I had a blast writing it and it’s getting good reactions from readers so far. I’m very happy with it.

IP: Had your timeline been a reality, and the US had continued at the same pace, what would your prediction for 2079 be, in terms of space exploration?

AS: When I was a kid, I was convinced that my future lay in space, that by the time I was the age I am now, I’d be living and working in space. In the 1960s, there was no particular reason for me to think that wouldn’t happen. People were talking about going to Mars by 2000, and if we’d kept up the investment in space and everything had gone well, we could possibly have done that.

Of course, there would have been factors that slowed down progress. There would have been a lot of the same societal pressures that happened in our existing timeline. Some people would have been concerned about the cost, and the value of going off-world. 

But if we’d managed to keep up the momentum, I certainly think that we could have visited Mars, and had human flybys of Venus, among other things, in my lifetime.

2079? Whether we could have set up permanent colonies in space by that time, I’m not really sure. I guess if we’d pushed really hard, we might’ve gotten to it in one hundred years, but it’s very hard to extrapolate that far. There are so many factors that go into making space colonies or visiting Mars a reality. The politics, in particular, are challenging. Incoming administrations like to shape the space program in their own way and set new priorities. In our own history, the flow of money to NASA was a constant issue all the way through that period, and remains so today.

IP: Do you think privatized space operations like SpaceX or Blue Origin are improving our chances of getting to Mars and exploring farther?

AS: I think the energy that has come into the human space flight arena from the private sector is generally a good thing. There are obviously some personalities involved that can be a bit problematic, but I think in terms of increasing the pace of exploration, and pushing the envelope, the private space companies are a welcome addition to what NASA is doing.

And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first human to land on Mars got there as a result of a private space flight rather than a NASA mission.

IP: Is there any level of collaboration between NASA and these other privatized space programs?

AS: Oh yes, there certainly is. A lot of the flights to the ISS, the International Space Station, are being conducted by the private sector. There’s actually quite close collaboration between many of the private companies and NASA.

IP: Interesting! Jumping back to Hot Moon for a second, can you tell me a little more about the Apollo Rising series? Can we expect to see another 15 books or will it be a trilogy?

AS:  I think it’s very unlikely that it will turn into 15 books. I don’t have the energy for that! I put quite a lot of effort into writing Hot Moon.

I originally conceived Hot Moon as a standalone, and that’s how I was marketing it and trying to sell it. My agent was considering it that way when she was sending it out to publishers, too.

But then, once CAEZIK bought Hot Moon, we got a lot of positive reactions and a number of nice blurbs from really high-powered authors. My publisher, Shahid Mahmud, had a lot of faith in the book, and so we started talking about a sequel. I admit, I didn’t immediately jump at the idea. I wanted to go back and think it through.

I took a couple of months to think about where the story would go. Surprisingly, I discovered in reading back through my notes that there were actually quite a few ideas that I hadn’t made the most of. Not loose ends, as such – Hot Moon is still complete in itself, and still reads well as a standalone. But there were characters that hadn’t really come to the foreground in the first book, people who could make a big mark in the second. The ideas started flowing, and I began to see all kinds of opportunities to continue the story, and came up with what I think is a very satisfying plot.

Just like Hot Moon, the second book – Radiant Sky – will stand up on its own, with its own story arc. We have the same lead character–my astronaut, Vivian Carter–and many of the other people from Hot Moon will be returning. There will also be a number of new characters, and the story will go in directions that I don’t think most readers will be expecting.

Whether there’ll be further books beyond Radiant Sky, I don’t know. I’m only contracted for the first two books, so we’ll have to wait and see. If they’re successful, if they find their audience, I’d hope there’s a good chance of a third book. I doubt that I’d want to go beyond three …  but then again, in the beginning I thought Hot Moon would be a standalone. So I guess anything could happen. It’s kind of an evolving process, I’d say.

IP: Have you started writing the second book?

AS: Yes, I have. When I pitched it to CAEZIK I sent a very detailed outline – probably a lot more detailed than they were expecting. They’d asked for something relatively short, but what I sent was eighteen pages of fairly dense prose. In addition to describing the plot in detail, I really wanted to work through the politics in the background, and the new technology as well. I guess I was proving to myself as well as to my publisher and editor that I really had the goods to do this.

I think I must be one of the few authors who pitches books with a technical appendix!

As far as the writing goes, I have about 50,000 words of Radiant Sky written now, but they’re very, very rough draft words.

I still need to do quite a bit more editing on them before I can really show them to anybody, but I’m working through various scenes, fleshing out my ideas, and making sure everything hangs together. I’ve made decent progress, but I have a lot more work to do.

IP: In addition to the Hot Moon sequel, what other projects do you have in the works?

AS: I do have a number of new ideas rattling around, and I still have some activity going on with my first trilogy, Clash of Eagles, which came out from Del Rey. Those books are set in a completely different world, in which the Roman Empire survives into the 13th century in its classical form and is now moving into North America.

The Clash trilogy was published between 2015 and 2017, and even though the series is finished, there’s still quite a bit of interest in them. I still get interviews with people wanting to talk about those books. I might go back to that world in the future for some shorter fiction, and I still think about that a lot.

But I do like dotting around history and exploring various times and places. I have several pieces of short fiction fermenting in my mind, and when I get time I’ll start on those.

Also, Rick Wilber and I collaborated on a long novella, or maybe a short novel, called “The Wandering Warriors” which was originally published in Asimov’s, and then came out as a book from WordFire Press in 2020. Rick and I are very keen on this world that we made. It’s a time travel story that combines his passion for baseball and my interest in ancient Romans. So we’ve actually written a story about Roman baseball, and it was quite successful. And he and I are working together again, throwing ideas back and forth about how we might write a sequel to that. It’s a really open-ended concept that we could continue to have a lot of fun with.

So I have various projects going on in the background and a lot of ideas percolating, but promoting Hot Moon and writing Radiant Sky are really my main focuses right now.

IP: So this is kind of a different question. How do you manage keeping a balance between writing fiction and writing professionally for your job? Can you describe what that process looks like?

AS: Yes, certainly. If there are days when I’ve done a lot of technical writing for work, like writing a paper or a report, I would say it’s very difficult to write creatively after that.

But there are other days where I spend a lot of time in meetings, reading up on something, or talking to people. On those days I can really focus on writing in the evenings. For obvious reasons, I do most of my writing on evenings and weekends. I have a lot of very busy weekends where I’m trying to get down to as many words as possible and also do all the day-to-day life stuff that I have to do.

So, I’m not sure I have a process as such, but I do have to manage my time very carefully. And yes, it is sometimes hard to get my brain to do all the things I need it to do!

A big thanks goes out to Alan for having this chat! If you like the sounds of Hot Moon, it’s available for pre-order now from most major retailers.

The book is slated for release on July 26th, 2022.

To learn more about Alan’s writing, check out his website!

Interview with Astrophysicist & Author Alan Smale

It’s not often that you see a hard science fiction novel crafted with such care and meticulous research as Hot Moon by Alan Smale.

Astrophysicist by day, award-winning author by night, Alan Smale’s newest book is about an alternate 1979 where the Soviets are bent on wresting the Moon from NASA’s hands. This sci fi novel features accurate details of orbital mechanics, daring feats of ingenuity, and a thrilling battle in space.

We sat down with Alan to discuss how he started writing, the inspiration for Hot Moon, and his future plans.

Isaac Payne: So Alan, I know that not only are you an award-winning author, you’re also an astrophysicist for NASA. Tell me, how did you decide to get into astrophysics?

Alan Smale: Sure. It really started when I was a kid. I was always interested in astronomy, and fascinated by the Apollo program as well. I used to go out in the backyard with my dad when I was young and look at the Moon and planets, the stars and galaxies. I stayed interested in astronomy for all of my formative years.

And then later on, I went to college to study physics at the University of Oxford, they had optional astrophysics courses in the first and third year, and so I took those and enjoyed them thoroughly.

After my bachelors degree, I was accepted for a doctoral program. It’s actually called DPhil in Oxford, Doctor of Philosophy, rather than a PhD, but it’s the same thing. I did optical and x-ray astronomy research there for three years or so while earning my doctorate. After that I did a post-doc at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London.

When my first post-doc ended, I moved to the States to take up a job at NASA, at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’ve been with NASA ever since.

IP: What kind of research do you do at NASA?

AS: I study low mass x-ray binaries, which are binary star systems that are quite tightly bound, and one of those stars is a compact object, either a black hole or a neutron star. These are extremely dense objects. Material from the more normal companion star spirals into that compact object, and that’s where the x-rays come from. If we study those sources by looking at both the x-rays and the optical emission, we can learn a lot about them.

IP: So obviously you’ve been pretty ingrained with science and astronomy since you were young. Were you an avid science fiction reader, too?

AS: Oh, yeah, I cut my teeth on all of the old classics. When I was growing up, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven. All of this stuff was really prevalent in the atmosphere around me at the time.

I’ve been interested in science fiction all my life, as well as science and astronomy. In fact, all the sci-fi I read probably played a big role in my interest in the sciences. The space program, astrophysics, and science fiction have always coupled together quite tightly, for me.

IP: And when did you start writing science fiction? Did you start pretty early on with that as well?

AS: I started writing science fiction in a very juvenile kind of way. When I was a kid I used to write what now would be called Star Trek fan fiction. But I really started writing seriously for publication when I turned 30. I was already living in the States and working at the Goddard Space Flight Center by then. I’d finished my academic studies, and I was no longer a student at that point, so I had a little more free time. Then, pretty soon after that, I started having stories accepted.

IP: What was the name of your first publication?

AS: It was a short story called “The Breath of Princes” and it appeared in the A Wizard’s Dozen anthology from Harcourt Brace, edited by Michael Stearns.

It was actually a fantasy story, which is kind of funny looking back on it now. In fact, my first two or three published stories were fantasy, but over the past fifteen years, most of my writing has been alternate history or hard science fiction.

IP: What about the genre of historical fiction do you find fascinating?

AS: I’ve always been a history buff. Growing up in England, there was a lot of history around. My family used to go to Hadrian’s Wall for vacations, and to Bath, so I got to explore a lot of Roman ruins and remains there.

I’m not actually sure what the precipitating event was that made me focus on historical writing, but one thing about it is that it’s very different from my day job. I feel as though I’m using very different mental muscles when I’m writing history-based speculative fiction than when I’m doing academic research.

My most recent book, Hot Moon, is very technical, hard science fiction, but until I got to that book, most of my fiction writing was in a different head-space from the day-job work I was doing. Doing scientific research is very different from writing about history, so it was a complete break for my brain, the two sides didn’t bleed into each other.

It feels very refreshing, somehow, when I’m working hard at both science and writing. A change is as good as a rest!

Anyway: I’d always been fascinated by history, and by some of the older alternate history tales. Books like Lest Darkness Fall by Sprague de Camp, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

The past is a very fertile playground for fiction. And one of the things I like about alternate history is that it kind of holds up a mirror to the real history; I get the resonances of what really happened, underlying the tale that I’m telling, and they both reinforce each other and play off each other.

If you know the real historical events, then you’ll know that the events in a given story are different because of a different result in a war, or an election, and perhaps different people are in the foreground. And by doing that, it kind of makes you think about how history is made. Who the important people are. How history really works.

I just found myself gravitating more and more to that kind of writing over the last 10 or 15 years. Over that period, a lot of my reading has been historical non-fiction, and most of my writing output has been historically based.

IP: You mentioned that Hot Moon is hard science fiction, as well as being an alternate history. Can readers expect for Hot Moon to stay within the bounds of 1979 astrophysics, or does the book move into science fiction with more advanced technologies?

AS: I definitely stay within those bounds. There’s nothing in Hot Moon that wouldn’t have been possible with the technology that they had back then. I spent a lot of time researching the Apollo program, which was a real labor of love because as I mentioned before, I was really into it when I was a kid.

I spent a lot of time getting into the nuts and bolts of the technology, really getting deep into figuring out what was possible and what wasn’t. I obey the laws of physics throughout the book, which is actually a pain because orbital mechanics are quite complicated and it really constrains what my characters can do! They need large amounts of fuel for relatively small orbit changes, for example, and things like that.

So in the first book, there is nothing that wasn’t possible with the technology of the time. The Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, the Lunar Rovers, and other hardware in the book either existed in the 1970s, or could have been in existence in that timeframe if the US and Soviet space programs had continued. There would have been no technical showstoppers with implementing any of the vehicles, machinery, or bases in Hot Moon.

In the second book we’ll certainly see more of the speculative technology that was suggested at the time. These are ideas that people had done a bit of experimentation with, some prototyping and technical development, but which never came to fruition. There were a lot of bright ideas around then, but a lot of those programs ended up being canceled, or not coming to fruition for other reasons.

So, overall, I’ve tried really hard to keep the science very close to reality. There’s a key political difference in how we get to the world of Hot Moon in 1979. And one of those differences is that the US involvement in Vietnam is much more limited, and of a shorter duration.

As a result, the US has quite a lot more money. In reality, the US couldn’t possibly have pursued the war in Vietnam and the Space Race simultaneously without making huge concessions elsewhere. So, a different Vietnam War, and a rather different Cold War, are central to the Hot Moon universe.

Make sure to check out the second part of our conversation with Alan Smale, right here on the Signals from the Edge blog on Thursday, July 14th!

In the meantime, check out another one of our interviews:

Gods of Jade and Shadow Chapters 23-35

Today we’ll be finishing up our SFF Read-Along of Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This section will cover chapters 23 through 35. 

If you’ve missed the first two installments of our read-along, you can view them here:

We have quite a lot to talk about today, so let’s get into it!

Plan Against Waning Gods

In the last read-along, we discussed how Hun-Kamé started to display more mortal tendencies. He slept, he dreamed, and he ate food, all of which he never would have done had he been full-god. 

But now, as Casiopea and Hun-Kamé ride yet another train on their way to Baja California, Hun-Kamé seems to be fighting hard against the mortality in him. At one point he calls it a “taint” and plans on removing it as soon as possible. 

More than that, he dismisses Casiopea’s plight as less than his. The fact that she left her whole life behind to help him doesn’t seem to hold up to his own plight, which is having been overthrown by his brother. 

Once again, we see Casiopea as the stalwart companion, even though she’s constantly giving to Hun-Kamé for the promise of very little. He says that at the end of their journey he’ll make sure she’s rewarded with all her desires, but she starts to question if he’ll follow through. 

Regardless, she knows that her other options aren’t nearly as good, as Hun-Kamé’s brother, Vucub-Kamé plans on erecting a temple in Baja California and sacrificing human lives to fuel his growing empire. 

Hun-Kamé reveals to Casiopea that the whole journey, their trek out of Uukumil through Merida and Mexico City, has all been part of his brother’s plan. And if that’s not a sobering fact, I don’t know what is. 

A Single Sigh

So we’ve already gone through a bunch of Chapter 23 in the last section, but we need to talk about the sigh. 

Casiopea tells Hun-Kamé about her daydreams, dreams of them riding in automobiles together, and despite Hun-Kamé’s previous harshness, he softens. He holds her hand and almost goes in for a kiss, and it’s a whole drawn out, agonizing scene, but in a good way. 

But they don’t kiss, instead they touch heads and sigh. “The things you name do grow in power, but others that are not ever whispered claw at one’s heart anyway, rip it to shreds even if a syllable does not escape the lips. The silence was hopeless in any case, since something escaped the god, anyway: a sigh to match the girl’s own.”

In the next chapter, Vucub-Kamé uses his gift of prophecy and his magic owls to listen in on Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, and he hears the sigh. He knows his brother is growing less godly each passing day, and is falling into mortal emotions, and he plans on using it against him.

There’s an interesting dynamic at play with the idea of godliness and mortality. Hun-Kamé seems to be at war with himself, fighting the mortality creeping up on him, but also embracing it, as evident by the sigh. Vucub-Kamé knows this and plans to make the fight more difficult for his brother. Casiopea doesn’t seem to know what to feel about it quite yet, but that soon changes. 

Race Along The Black Road

Skipping ahead a little bit here, we finally see Casiopea and Hun-Kamé reach their destination, and they are greeted by Martín and the Uay Chivo’s brother, Anibal. The pair are welcomed into Vucub-Kamé’s mock temple, a casino, and once again Martín tries to convince Casiopea that she must abandon Hun-Kamé else the whole family will suffer. 

Casiopea refuses, of course, and her and Hun-Kamé have a meeting with his brother, in which a race is proposed. Whoever can make it to the Jade Palace along the Black Road of Xibalba first wins, except it’s a race between Casiopea and Martín not Hun-Kamé and Vucub-Kamé.

It’s a dangerous challenge, and rigged from the start, since Martín has been training with Anibal to know the Black Road’s tricks. 

Before Casiopea agrees to the race, she and Hun-Kamé go down to the ocean and talk it out. This scene is probably one of the most powerful in the whole book, as it’s the breaking point for emotions that have built up over the course of the journey. 

Hun-Kamé, whose mortality is stronger than ever, begs Casiopea to stay with him, for them both to lead normal, mortal lives. That part was predictable, and we certainly saw it coming after the sigh scene. But what Casiopea does is far less predictable. We’ve seen her desires build up over the course of the story too, but in a much more muted way. Going into this turning point. I wasn’t really sure how she’d choose. 

Casiopea says, “Life may not be fair, but I must be fair. I cannot turn away,” in which she refers to Vucub-Kamé’s bloody plan at world domination. After, she admits she doesn’t feel like a hero, but even Hun-Kamé admits that she is. She chooses the hard path, even though she knows if she succeeds she won’t get what she wants. And that’s one of the truest lessons of the whole book, and it couldn’t have been framed in a better way. 

A World Set Right

There’s certainly more we could discuss about the ending of the novel–about the Great Caiman, Martín’s ill-conceived murder attempt, and Vucub-Kamé’s suddent change of heart–but overall, the story ends in a good way. We’re not handed a perfect ending. It’s not even a particularly happy ending for Casiopea, but she manages to come out unscathed, and better off than she was when she started. 

The only part that I can’t shake is when Loray rolls up outside Tierra Blanca in Anibal’s car, ready to pick up Casiopea. He’s a demon, and he did smei-conspire against Hun-Kamé, but he shows up as a friend. It’s a bit odd, simply because he appeared for one chapter at the start of the novel. But, it’s a nice final scene, with Loray and Casiopea becoming traveling companions as they wander their way through the world. 

And Casiopea finally gets to drive her automobile, albeit without Hun-Kamé, but she’s happy nevertheless. 

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It could have ended in a much more cliche way, but it has integrity and tact, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of mythology and urban fantasy. 

Thanks for joining us for this first SFF-Read-Along! If you have any book suggestions for the next installment, or if you’d like to suggest improvements leave a comment down below. 

Arc Manor To Release NFT Ebooks of Robert Heinlein Novel

Ebooks have made reading more widely much more accessible. Don’t have $30 to spend on a brand new hardcover? You can get the ebook for half the price and start reading immediately. 

But, there’s something unsettling about having a whole library of books you can’t see on a shelf. The tactile nature of physical books makes it easier to feel like you have a collection. 

That might be changing soon, as Arc Manor announces they plan to release a set of limited edition ebooks as NFTs. 

Ebooks as NFTs? Is It Possible?

With the rise of NFTs and blockchain technology, we’ve seen some wild things. There have been entire genomes minted on the blockchain, as well as medical and chemical research that’s been funded through the sale of utility NFTs. 

Not to mention the rampant collectible NFTs that made national news, stuff like Bored Apes or Crypto Punks. 

It appears that there’s a broad spectrum of NFTs–some of which sit on the far end of collectibility, with no other value than to exist, where on the opposite side, we have NFTs that have real-world applicability. Is there a middle ground between the two?

That’s where collectible NFT ebooks come in. Books have long been sought after as collectible items, but they also have another purpose, which is obviously to be read. 

Shahid Mahmud, owner of Arc Manor, says “There is a huge market for paper-based book collectibles. Now we have the ability to create a similar market with digital books.”

This comes on the wings of the announcement that Arc Manor has partnered with Curate, a mobile NFT marketplace, to create a line of collectable, sci-fi ebooks. 

Blockchain technology makes it possible for ebooks to have a collectible value, because no two will be the same. While you might not be able to get your NFT ebooks signed on the title page, you can own a rare collectible edition that holds more value than less-rare variants. 

The Pursuit of Pankera

What books will be minted on the blockchain first? Well, Mahmud chose The Pursuit of Pankera by Robert Heinlien as Caezik Crypto’s debut NFT. 

The Pursuit of Pankera was released in 2020, and is the last Robert Heinlien novel to be published, albeit posthumously. The manuscript was rediscovered and lovingly edited by Patrick LoBrutto and the staff at Caezik. 

The Pursuit of Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes is tied tightly to another Heinlein novel, The Number of the Beast. In fact, the first part of the book reads the same as The Number of the Beast, but it quickly deviates from its predecessor, creating a parallel timeline. 

Among the Golden Age sci fi writers, Robert Heinlein was certainly one of the pioneers. His fiction reached wide audiences, and he influenced many of the current science fiction dynamics with his novels. It’s only fitting that he will once again be reaching into new territories as the first NFT ebook. 

The Pursuit of Pankera will be released on Curate’s mobile NFT platform, with 500 unique, numbered cover variations. 

Arc Manor also plans to release two more ebooks as NFTs: Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker, and Reboots: Undead Can Dance by Mercedes Lackey and Cody Martin

Where To Get These NFT Ebooks

Like we mentioned, Arc Manor has partnered with Curate to make these NFT ebooks possible. You can access Curate on their mobile app or on their desktop version. Creating an account is fast and easy, but you will need a cryptocurrency wallet to purchase any NFTs. 

To learn more about how purchasing NFTs on Curate works–and what currencies you can use–check out their website
And to keep up to date on the NFT ebooks coming from Arc Manor, sign up for their mailing list over at CaezikCrypto.com.

Medieval to Modern Bestiaries, Studies in Cryptid Classification

For thousands of years, people have been aiming to identify and classify pretty much everything from insects and plants to the mysterious and supernatural. 

As a kid, I was fascinated by bestiaries and compendiums of the weird and paranormal. I’d spend a lot of time admiring the crisp artwork and smart descriptions of nymphs, faeries, trolls, and pookahs. 

But bestiaries aren’t exclusive to the supernatural or cryptid. While modern fantasy stories have turned the bestiary into a kind of compendium of arcane knowledge, they were originally used to provide valuable information about plants, animals, minerals, and many other parts of the natural world.

Having grown up hasn’t changed my love for bestiaries, and I figured I would share some of the most interesting things I’ve learned about the bestiary, and recommend some of my favorites.

 

The Earliest Bestiaries

I was curious about when the first bestiary came about, and I was surprised to learn that it dates back all the way to ancient Greece. The first recorded book is called the Physiologus, and it had descriptions of all kinds of animals. It was more of a naturalist’s handbook than a black book of arcanum. 

The Physiologus included writings from various Greek scholars, including Aristotle, Herodotus, and Pliny the Elder. 

As time went on and religion started to take over Europe, bestiaries started to deviate from the fable-like teachings to include Christain themes. Medieval bestiaries reworked the naturalist content of books like the Physiologus to create animal hierarchies and messages from God. 

Despite being vessels for Christain teachings, many of these bestiaries included creatures that we consider to be part of the fantastical. Unicorns, dragons, and griffins made appearances in the pages of these illuminated manuscripts, which set the precedent for future bestiaries that set their sights on the purely mythological. 

(If you’re interested in learning more about medieval bestiaries and want to see some of the illuminated texts, The Medieval Bestiary database is a great place to start.)

Becoming Even More Fantastic

So there was a pretty large jump from the early Greek days where bestiaries were used to record natural history to the medieval age where they became a means of spreading religious teachings. 

There is still yet another jump to the modern bestiary, where it’s used almost purely to classify magical beasts. These are the bestiaries that I grew up reading, and in my opinion, they are the coolest. 

Some of the bestiaries that I recommend taking a look at include:

spiderwick field guide

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You – This book was my bread and butter as a kid. It’s filled with great artwork from Tony DiTerlizzi and history from Holly Black. It’s based on their popular Spiderwick Chronicles, and the Field Guide is a big part of the original story. You’ll find all kinds of great info in here, and my personal favorite entry is the Wandering Clump, a fun little grass fairy. 

labyrinth bestiary

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Bestiary: A Definitive Guide to the Creatures of the Goblin King’s Realm – This one is just like it sounds! The Labyrinth is such an awesome movie, visually and creatively speaking. This book features all the different goblins, fire monkeys, hobgoblins, and dog knights that fill the world of the Labyrinth. It’s illustrated by Iris Compiet, and has accompanying text from S.T. Bende. (Iris Compiet worked on another bestiary along the same vein, focusing on The Dark Crystal.)

And while this next one isn’t necessarily a bestiary, it certainly fits into this category:

natural history of dragons

The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan – This series combines Victorian steampunk era drama and exploration with dragons. Yup, the first book is called A Natural History of Dragons, and features Isabella Trent, a dragon naturalist, and a damn fine one at that. Her adventures take her all over the world as she learns more about dragons and their evolution. 

I’ll admit I haven’t finished the Lady Trent series yet (there are 6 books and 1 short story), but I really enjoyed the first two so far!

And as a runner-up that I discovered while writing this blog post (that definitely makes it onto the TBR list) was originally written in Spanish by Jorge Luis Borges called Manual de zoología fantástica. It translates to The Book of Imaginary Beings, and is sort of a cultural compendium of literary and mythological entities. It borders on seriousness and hilarity at the same time, with stoic creatures like the centaur situated in pages next to things like a Goofus Bird.

Are there any prominent bestiaries we failed to mention? Old or new alike, feel free to drop their names in the comments!

And if you liked this blog post, check out some of our other content:

SFF Read-Along: Gods of Jade and Shadow Ch. 12-22

In our first installment of SFF Read-Along, we started reading Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. We were introduced to Casiopea Tun, our not-so-Cinderella heroine, and her odd traveling companion, Hun-Kamé, the deposed Lord of the Dead. 

When last we saw Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, they had gotten help from the demon Loray, and were on their way to Mexico City in search of Hun-Kamé’s severed finger. But, Casiopea’s cousin is hot on their heels, the newest servant of Vucub-Kamé. 

To catch up on our first SFF Read-Along, you can do so here. This portion of the read-along will cover chapters 12 through 22.

Lady Tun, Ghost Channeler

One of the biggest conventions of Gods of Jade and Shadow so far has been Casiopea’s willingness to go along with stuff. Leaving Uukumil, traveling with Hun-Kamé, considering Loray’s offer to cut off her hand to kill Hun-Kamé, etc. 

But, this contrasts pretty drastically with her character. Casiopea, even from the earliest pages, comes off as determined, strong-willed, and stubborn. Sure, she does her chores with a grumble, but she definitely wouldn’t if she put her mind to it. 

So when Hun-Kamé asks for her hair in order to summon ghosts, she obviously resists. Afterall, despite her desire to become part of the roaring 1920s glitz and glamor, she’s not ready to give up her hair. 

At this point, she “grew angrier…at the whole universe, which, as usual, demanded that she be the lowest rung of the ladder. She had thought her position had changed when she’d left Uukumil, but it had not.”

And this sentiment is important, as it comes to fruition later. Despite Hun-Kamé’s relative kindness toward Casiopea, he still sees her as less than him, and at this point, Casiopea accepts that. After all, she’d been raised to obey her male authority figures–her grandfather, her cousin, God.

But this soon changes, and the whole paradigm slowly shifts away from the god-mortal relationship Casiopea and Hun-Kamé have. 

A Gift of Silver

When Hun-Kamé and Casiopea go to a jeweler in search of a gift for Xtabay, Hun-Kamé buys Casiopea a silver charm bracelet. 

For Casiopea, she had “never owned anything of value or this pretty” and even though the bracelet wasn’t a substitution for her lost hair, it stands as a symbol of her friendship with Hun-Kamé. Because that’s how she comes to think of their relationship, even though she’s back and forth about having to aid him in his task. 

Chapter 13 is really a turning point for Casiopea and Hun-Kamé’s interactions. She had just given him her hair, and in return the god grants her a gift of silver. While it might not be an equal trade, the “smidgen of a smile” Hun-Kamé grants her is enough to let Casiopea know that things are changing. 

And of course, as the story goes on, we see that the shift in power becomes even greater. Casiopea saves Hun-Kamé from the seductress Xtabay, and for a brief time, Casiopea and her traveling companion seem to be equals. 

Lord of Xibalba Takes His First Nap

After Casiopea has a run in with her cousin, Martín, who tries to convince her that she’s being selfish, she and Hun-Kamé take a train out of Mexico City. 

The bone shard wedged in her hand makes Casiopea tired and fatigued, but the godly power that she’s channeled is also making Hun-Kamé weary. On the train, he sleeps for the first time, and dreams, too. 

And guess what? Hun-Kamé dreams about Casiopea. Though, at this point, I don’t think Hun-Kamé realizes what’s happening to him, that his brush with mortality has awakened a heart in him. He simply states, “I shouldn’t have dreamed, not about you or teeth or whatever men dream. I feel like I’m standing on quicksand and I’m sinking fast. I’m forgetting who I am.”

Obviously, Casiopea is surprised by this, and a bit embarrassed, but she also doesn’t quite understand the nature of Hun-Kamé’s godliness. His transformation, whatever the nature may be, has yet to show him compassion. Earlier, before mention of his dreams, Hun-Kamé and Casiopea argue about the right course of action with his brother, Vucub-Kamé. 

Hun-Kamé wants revenge, to cut off his brother’s head and lock him away as retribution. It’s hard to tell if this is his sense of justice, or a more mortal feeling of rage and vengeance. 

It’s worth keeping an eye on this dynamic, because it’s really quite an interesting one. 

To round out our SFF Read-Along for these chapters, we see Casiopea helping Hun-Kamé yet again with a donation of blood, and the strength to overcome the Uay Chivo, a sorcerer. As much as Hun-Kamé likes to come off as an all-powerful god, Casiopea is starting to see deeper into his nature, and seeing that he’s just as flawed as a mortal. 


Join us next Friday, July 8th, as we read the conclusion of Gods of Jade and Shadow.