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Hugh Likes Comics: Sins of Sinister #1

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Sins of Sinister #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Various Artists
Colored by Bryan Valenza
Lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics

The Skinny: Speed-running into a dark timeline
Ever since the X-Men’s soft reboot into the current era with 2019’s House of X/Powers of X, the heroes have had a problem. It was never a question of if evil eugenicist Mister Sinister was going to betray them, but how. While he’s been sitting on the ruling council and biding his time, his plans have accelerated since the start of Gillen’s Imortal X-Men.
Sins of Sinister #1 is the wig reveal for the diabolical mastermind’s ten-year plan, serving as a sort of a speed-run start to the event. Sinister isn’t one person, more of a system of clones, and he’s secretly corrupted the Quiet Council in order to bring about his larger goal of turning the entire Earth into a Mister Sinister hive-mind. The result is that this is less of a kick-off and more of a guided tour of ten years of a Marvel Comics history that is likely to be completely undone at the end of the event.
Gillen has put all his cards on the table for this event. By leaning into the fact that this won’t be the status quo going forward, he gets to take bigger swings with the story. The event is spaced out in powers of ten, with the first books set ten years after Sinister’s takeover, then one hundred, and finally a thousand years into the future. This unique structure is a lot of fun, and this volume gives us a whole lot of cool splash pages and hypothetical events as the corrupted X-Men help take over the world. Sometimes it’s fun to watch the bad guys win.
With a huge number of artists drawing the book, the art varies, but it’s all good, and Bryan Valenza’s colors tie the different sections together. The book has a dark palate, which fits the sci-fi dystopia that Sinister is trying to bring about.
Sins of Sinister #1 is less a puzzle box and more of a explainer video of a comic, a wig reveal of machinations that have been threaded through the last four years of comics. It’s a lot of fun, but I’m most looking forward to the individual books, and seeing how the unusual structure for the event plays out. You can pick up a copy for yourself at the usual digital retailers, and from your local Comics Shop.

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Hugh Likes Comics: Young Men in Love

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Young Men in Love: A Queer Romance Anthology
Edited by Joe Glass and Matt Miner
Published by A Blue Wave World

The Skinny: A sweet collection of short gay romance comics
A pair of pirates just looking for a bit of privacy, a pre-teen looking for his own identity, and a new couple still figuring out their boundaries are just some of the stories in this sweet, romantic anthology. Created by Queer writers and artists across the comics industry, this anthology of six-page pieces runs the gamut from the fantastic to the mundane and from the melancholic to the exuberantly joyful. There is a story here for everyone.
Young Men in Love is a book of stories that go on separate journies but arrive at the same place. Gay love and Queer relationships are more varried than you often see in media, particularly comics, and this book breaks the mold by telling personal, diverse stories that each have a life of their own. This book is as long on charm as the stories are short. There are low-stakes stories about first love, self discovery, and loneliness, and more fantastical stories about discovering your partner is a superhero or a couple falling into a virtual world while replacing a lamp. YMiL isn’t just about love but about acceptance and more importatnly, self-acceptance.
 Joe Glass tells a story which feels deeply personal. It follows a fat person as he deals with his body issues as a gay comics fan, coming up against not only the societal expectation that he should be ‘thin’ but also potential lovers that fetishize his weight. Dead End creator Hamish Steele tells a poignant story about loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts during the holidays. While not all the stories are so personal,, they all feel important. There is something deeply uncommercial about this collection.
 These aren’t love stories about the stereotypical gay characters you would see on a sitcom or in a romance novel written for the female gaze. YMiL is a book of our stories, for us, and that feels vital to me. If you want to see more diverse stories or find new, brilliant creators, writers and artists not on the radar of big-2 comics, you need this anthology.
Young Men in Love is available in print and digital editions from your local comics shop or the usual monopolistic book outlets. It is a deeply personal, highly original, and honest collection of stories that need to get out into the world. I give it my highest recommendation.

Hugh Likes Video Games: The Cult of the Lamb

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Cult of the Lamb
Developed by Massive Monster
Published by Devolver Digital
Played on Nintendo Swtich


The Skinny: This is one animal you don’t want to cross.

With the rise in popularity of roguelikes, horror games, and cute animal life sims, it was only a matter of time before a developer combined all three.
 Much like SNES classic Actraiser, Cult of the Lamb alternates between simulation and action gameplay and does an excellent job of using the two modes to create a satisfying gameplay loop. The player is thrust into the role of The Lamb, sacrificed by The Bishops of the Old Faith, four dark gods who rule over a sinister forest full of adorable cartoon animals, like a theocratic Animal Crossing. But death is only the beginning, as you are chosen by their imprisoned sibling, The One Who Waits, to build a cult, slay the four bishops, and free him.
Gameplay consists of two phases. In roguelike action sequences, players attack the lairs of the four bishops fighting enemies, rescuing prisoners, and gaining supplies. The rewards feed into a management sections, in which you grow your cult in order to use their faith to empower your supernatural abilities in combat. Players can also explore the world, completing side quests and playing mini-games.
 The gameplay loop is challenging and satisfying, as you must balance your follower’ needs and venture out in the dark to find your enemies. If you neglect one, the other will suffer. Players need to go out to gain gold and other supplies, but if you neglect your cult, they will abandon you and you won’t have the required population levels to unlock later areas or the upgrades needed for end-game challenges.
 The game’s art reminds me of ‘Happy Tree Friends,’ Taking a light, cartoonish style and mixing it with some seriously messed up stuff. The cartoony nature sands the edges off of some of the more despicable actions you are able to take as cult leader. The game gives you a lot of options. Will you sacrifice your followers for a quicker boost in power or nurture them in order to gain more resources? It’s all fun and games until you summon that tentacle from the farthest planes of reality to crush their little bones.
Combat is challenging and intuitive and will be familiar to anyone who has played games like Hades or The Binding of Isaac.
While both parts of the game are fun and feed into each other well, both feel a little shallower than if the game were more tightly focused.
Cult of the Lamb is available for Steam along with major console eShops.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Fevered Star

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Fevered Star: Between Earth and Sky Book 2
Written by Rebecca Roanhoarse
Audiobook Read by Christian Barillas, Darrell Dennis, Cara Gee, Nicole Lewis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett
Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc
Listened to via Audible

Spoilers for Rebecca Roanhoarse’s previous novel, Black Sun. Also, I listened to the audiobook, so please forgive any misspelled names.
The sequel to 202’s Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhoarse returns to her Pre-Columbian America inspired epic fantasy world of the Meridian, expanding the focus of the story from the canyon city of Tova to encompass its neighbors, as the fallout from the first book’s climax reveals the charactersWith both the Crow God’s champion of Serapio and the Sun Priest Naranpa having unexpectedly survived, but the city itself in a shambles, the new year dawns in Tova with the sky frozen in an eclipse, as Shadow and Light struggle for dominance. While the office of the Watchers has been destroyed, the Sky-Made clans and their matrons still plot, and Serapio and Naranpa both return home to their clans and families, unsure of what to do next. But as the sorcerers who engineered Serapio’s rise plan their next move, so to do the disaffected masses of Clan Carrion Crow, and the clanless criminal underclass of Coyote’s Maw. While it is difficult to say much about the book without getting into spoilers, I really enjoyed this epic fantasy. Roanhoarse is a master of the dramatic irony and pacing that are the life’s blood of the sub-genre. The unique setting of the Meridian, with its pre-Columbian America vibes is a delight to return to. I’m glad this book gives the characters more figurative and literal room to breathe. The first book was a race towards the climax, which coincided with a solar eclipse and a big festival for the city. This book feels less like an impending crash and is a bit more quiet, as the characters recover and consider their next moves. The Sun Priest and the Crow God’s avatar spend the book circling one another, looking for advantage, or a way out.That isn’t to say this book is dull. There’s plenty of drama and action, and cool magical powers and fights. Everything that was great about the first book returns here, and is enhanced. With more cliffhangers at the end, I am fully invested in this series, and can’t wait for the next entry.The audiobook features five different narrators, each of whom brings one point-of-view character to life. I enjoy this style of narration for epic fantasy, and it works well here. The different voices highlight the different points of view of the characters to great effect. I just wish that the producer had made sure all of the readers were on the same page for pronunciations, as some of the proper names and places would shift depending on the narrator.Fevered Star is available in print, ebook, and audiobook from your local bookseller or internet-based megastore.

Hugh Likes Comics: A.X.E. Judgement Day

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Written by Keiron Gillen
Drawn by Valerio Schiti
Colored by Marte Gracia
Lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics

The Skinny: Marvel’s big crossover event for the summer dives deep into Superhero Politics

Spinning out of The Eternals and Destiny of X, Guillen and Schiti deliver the opening salvo in a summer event comic that promises to be a bit more than your typical hero vs. hero slugfest. Because this isn’t just a book about superheroes. It’s a book about superhero international relations.
 The Mutant Nation of Krakoa continues to dominate the world stage by doing the impossible. After terraforming and colonizing Mars last year, the secret of their ability to resurrect dead mutants has become public knowledge. The fact that they are unable to bring back humans has led to a public backlash and mistrust.
 Meanwhile, the Eternals have been facing some societal shake-ups of their own. The tumult has left scheming Druig in charge as the Prime Eternal, and many of the other immortal heroes unsure of their purpose after being abandoned by their creators, the Celestials.
 Oh, also the Avengers are using the hollowed-out corpse of a dead celestial as their new base. For reasons.
 With Druig on shaky political footing, he comes up with a plan to unify his people and secure his power by convincing them that the Mutants are byproducts of their ancient enemies, the also Celestial-created Deviants, and thus they must be eradicated. Not unfamiliar with attempted genocide against them, the Mutants on Krakoa fend off the assault. The ones on Mars aren’t so lucky. As Druig moves through more and more of his fantastical arsenal of ancient Celestial technology to use against Mutantkind, sides are chosen. But who wins in a war where both sides are effectively immortal? And will anyone else still be standing when the dust settles?
 Obviously, the answer here is going to be ‘yes’ because this is a superhero comic, but I am enjoying the way this event is spinning out less from Action-movie cliches of previous events and the more cerebral moments from Eternals and Immortal X-Men. The first issue is mostly scene setting and getting the characters where they need to be, but it’s still a strong first issue, with great writing by Gillen. The scene between Druig and Moira X, and the whole thing with the protesters (no spoilers) is just chilling.
 Schiti and Gracia’s art is excellent. I love the opening pages, which juxtapose Iron Man and Sersi having brunch against the human protesters surrounding the X-Men’s treehouse headquarters. The colors are rich and the characters are all expressive and dynamic. This feels more like a political thriller than a superhero dustup, and the art sells it when the pages are mostly talking heads.
 A.X.E. Judgement Day #1 is now available in print from your local comics shop or digitally from the usual sources.  

Hugh Likes Fiction: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built
Written by Becky Chambers
Published by Tor.com
Read as a part of a promotional ebook from Tor.com

The Skinny: A post-industrial story so cozy, it should come with a cup of tea.

Cover image: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Sibling Dex is a tea monk. They peddle the roads of Panga delivering brews and a comforting shoulder as a part of a society that long since gave up on automation and the creature comforts of industrialized society. But they are restless. Dex is good at what they do, and proud of their work, but they are no longer satisfied by it. On a whim, they pedal their bike-mounted home into the forbidden wilderness, where they meet Brilliant Speckled Mosscap, the first robot to make contact with humans in centuries.
A Psalm for the Wild Built is a sociological sci-fi novella built in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin. It is an optimistic story in that it predicts a world (or in Panga’s case, a moon) where humanity looked at its actions and changed course before it was too late to avoid catastrophic climate change. Much of the novella is devoted to worldbuilding and the technology that makes such a world possible, as well as the values that the people hold that make it sustainable.
The novella is also is also pessimistic, in its way. Much like in her other writing people are still at the end of the day people, and all the green technology and cups of tea in the world can’t solve the problems we carry inside us. A lot of the story is devoted to Dex and Mosscap’s respective existential crises and goals. Mosscap isn’t sure it will be able to complete its mission to determine what humanity needs after their long separation, and Dex doesn’t even know what they need themself anymore. Chambers’s writing is witty, their worlds are richly imagined and technologically fascinating. She doesn’t stumble over the hard science of how an ox-bike works or a get bogged down in the precise history of Panga, but gives just enough detail to bring her world to life.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a quick, engrossing read about utopia, friendship and the limits of each. It is available in print and ebook wherever books are sold, and I highly recommend it.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Legends and Lattes

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Legends and Lattes
Written by Travis Baldree
Audiobook read by Travis Baldree

The Skinny: What if the Coffee shop A. U. was the story?

Viv is a barbarian warrior ready to get out of the mercenary’s life. But before she hangs up her greatsword for good, she needs a plan. Fortunately, she has two things going for her: A lucky, if gross charm in the Skalvert Stone, a sort of a magical bezoar she takes from the skull of a monstrous giant insect. Trophy in hand, she travels to the town of Thune, following the ley lines to the place where she’ll start her new life: Opening a coffee shop.
Unfortunately, there are a few hurdles for her to overcome, including the local organized crime boss, the fact that nobody in town has even heard of coffee before, and her prime location is in fact an abandoned livery. But with the help of some new friends, and the occasional assistance of her former adventuring party, she’ll give her new life a go.
Legends and Lattes is the coziest of cozy fantasy stories. Not so much a tale of adventure and blood, but of steam and baking. There is some tension as Viv attempts to break from her old life and settle into the new one, but most of this audiobook’s six-hour run time is more concerned with the day-to-day running of the shop than fighting monsters or fantasy politics. It’s clear that these things are all going on somewhere, but this story is all about the beans.
As a professional narrator, Baldree does an outstanding job reading, and the text feels right as an audiobook. His voices for the characters feel distinctive without becoming forced, which is no mean feat as a male actor reading a book with two female leads.
While the story was engaging and satisfying, It did feel a bit on the short side to me. We get an eclectic cast of characters, both from Viv’s old life and her new one, but they are mostly supporting Viv. It would have been nice to have spent more time with Cal, Thimble, Tandry and the rest of the supporting cast. Also, this is a romance, but a very fluffy one. It doesn’t go much farther than awkward stammering and acknowledged feelings. I would have liked it to have been more, well, steamier.
Legends and Lattes  is a +5 cozy little story that is sure to warm your heart like a warm cup of coffee on a cold winter’s morning. It is available as an audiobook, print or ebook from the usual locations.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Unpacking

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Unpacking
Developed by Witchbeam
Published by Humble Games
Played on PC as a part of Xbox Game Pass

The Skinny – A relaxing game about stressful life events.

Unpacking is a relaxing, low-stress pixel art game about a stressful real-world activity: Moving. Each level consists of a number of boxes to unpack in increasingly large spaces. You start in a child’s bedroom and eventually have to unpack a whole house’s worth of possessions. Almost Tetris-like, the challenge is in finding the right place for every object, and making them fit in a limited space.Each object is a detailed isometric pixel sprite, which lends the game a bright and charming air. But the sound design is where the game really shines. There are unique, realistic sound effects for every individual item in the game. Placing a mug on a counter and opening a drawer sounds incredible in high-def. Which feels odd to say in a game review, but here we are. Sure, you don’t punch aliens or soar through the air on an airship, but did you hear the way that towel sounds when you fold it and put it on a shelf? The sound effect for when you fold up an empty cardboard box is the best dopamine hit I’ve gotten in a while from a game.I guess it’s a sign that I’m growing up. Which is fitting, as this is very much a game about transitioning through life. You follow a woman through multiple moves, from her first bedroom to her first college dorm, and beyond. Each level is framed as a page in a photo album, and completing the level gives you a line of text from the unnamed character as she thinks about that day.The objects are all suitably varied based on the rooms, and while it is a challenge to make them all fit, there isn’t really a score or a timer to beat. Certain combinations or placement of objects reward you with stickers which double as achievements, but there’s not much else other than that. There are some lovely hints of storytelling through the objects themselves, though. We get hints of who this person is, and what their life is like what her hobbies are, and how her life changes from move to move over the years. Crayons give way to fancy pens and to a drawing tablet as she grows up and pursues an art career. A cane and a wrist brace appear among the objects as time goes by. A photograph of two people has a pin placed through the one figure’s face following a breakup.Unpacking is a delightful and relaxing puzzle experience. It is available for PC and major consoles.

Hugh Likes Comics: Immortal X-Men

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Immortal X-Men #1
Written by Kieran Gillen
Drawn by Lucas Werneck
Colored by David Curiel
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Design by Tom Muller
Published by Marvel Comics

The Skinny: The X-Wing
The next ‘season’ of X-Men comics kicks off with this banger of a book focusing on the Quiet Council, the ruling body of the Mutant Nation of Krakoa. And while this book is a who’s who of A-list comics characters, Gillen puts the story in the shoes of his favorite villain, Mr. Sinister.
 As a new number one, Immortal X-Men #1serves as a good jumping-on point for readers who missed the X-Men’s glow up from a boarding school with teachers who shoot lasers from their eyes to international and even interplanetary politics. It reintroduces the status quo and the major players. The council is a mixture of white and black hats, the issue opens with a big one hanging his up. Magneto is stepping down from the council, and most of the issue is spent on the debate over who should replace him.
 It’s a risky move to start a comics story with so little action, but one of the strengths of the X-line has always been the way the books fit together, using varying tones to tell complex stories that appeal to different audiences. X-Force and Excalibur are books in the same line, with very different tones from the ‘core’ X-Men title. And Immortal X-Men is an extension of that idea, a book that focuses on the politics of running the mutant nation. The X-Wing if you will. Gillen pulls it off by focusing on Sinister’s twisted perspective. A supervillain’s supervillain, he plots and schemes and seems to know everybody else’s secrets. Except for Destiny, the precognitive mutant recently back from the dead. The book opens with the two sparring in post-WWI Paris, and a hundred years later, not much has changed.
 The issue is further saved from being a collection of talking heads by Lucas Werneck’s excellent art, which is stuffed not only with gorgeous, expressive characters, but delightful background images as well. The X-Men, and Mr. Sinister in particular, has leaned into its own weirdness in the last decade. Werneck is serving that weirdness up with cool body horror and bizarre monsters. I can’t wait to see what else is up the sleeves of this artist and writer pair.
 If you’re into comics for the fight scenes, this isn’t the book for you, but this book takes the central political conflicts of the X-Men and turns the tension up to eleven. If sci-fi politics is your jam, you owe it to yourself to check out Immortal X-Men. You can find the first issue at your local comics shop or online from Amazon. (R.I.P. Comixology)

Hugh Likes Fiction: Fireheart Tiger

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Fireheart Tiger
Written by Aliette de Bodard
Published by Tor.com
Read on Kindle

The Skinny: A tightly plotted fantastic historical romance about power and politics

Thanh is a princess bereft of options. Sent as a hostage to the distant and powerful nation of Ephteria, she returned home after the royal palace burned down with her inside. She still has nightmares of the fire. Lately, these have been getting worse, and she’s been smelling smoke and seeing flames in impossible places.

 Worse still, her cold and uncaring mother the Empress has put her in charge of the latest negotiations with Ephteria led by her former lover the princess Eldris. Caught between impossible duties, irresponsible desires, and the terrifying prospect that she is either a witch or madwoman, Thanh fights to make a future for herself where she remains free.

 The author of novellas such as The Teamaster and the Detective and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, I have been a fan of Aliette de Bodard’s writing for years. She has a signature grasp of political melodrama, with characters caught between the things they want and the duties and destinies of empires. She is a master of using that drama to humanize her characters, even when they’re sentient spaceships. And while I won’t spoil the twist in this novella, she uses that skill no less effectively in this secondary world echoing historical Vietnam and France in the colonial period. Thanh is an intriguing protagonist, limited in her options and constrained by her position. But she is always moving, always fighting, even while she bemoans her lack of power. This novella burns through fantasy and romance tropes like well, again, no spoilers but it is a delightful trick to see her use those tropes and the echoes of Vietnamese history to such excellent effect here. In another kind of story, Eldris would have been the protagonist with all her poise and strength, swaggering into a political negotiation with her sword bouncing on her hip.

 The major complaint I have for this story is that I would’ve liked to have seen more of it. de Bodard confines the action to the Imperial Palace, with lots of discussion concerning Thanh’s sisters and the Empire’s neighbors. While I understand the reason this story is so intimate, I would’ve also liked to have seen a longer novel, or perhaps a sequel that incorporates more of those elements.

 Fireheart Tiger is an enchanting queer fantasy romance that burns away the illusions and deconstructs some of the tropes of the subgenre. You can find it in print from your local indie bookstore, or digitally from the usual storefronts.

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