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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.

Hugh Likes Comics: Crowded Vol. 3

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Crowded Vol. 3: Cutting-Edge Desolation
Written by Christopher Sebela
Drawn by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt
Colored by Triona Farrell & Diana Sousa
Lettered by Cardinal Rae
Published by Image Comics

Crowded Vol. 3 Cover

The Skinny: The Near-Future Dystopian Mayhem reaches its finale.
Crowded is one of the comics of recent years that floored me with how of the moment it was. Originally published as a monthly series in 2018, The pandemic and resultant shortages shifted the last volume from a monthly comic to a graphic novel format, but it has been worth the wait.Charlie Ellison, human disaster and the famous $3 Million Dollar girl, may have made the last mistake of her life. Having fired her bodyguard Vita after a brief but passionate fling, she’s now being defended by Circe, the assassin who has been following the pair since the beginning of their disastrous road trip. But with the organizers of the assassination campaign against her in her sights, will she turn the tables on them, or will Vita, not to mention everyone else in America, get to her first?The final act of Crowded continues with the elements that made the first two volumes such a joy to read. The over-the top characters and setting remain horrifyingly engaging. From a drone-army of weekend warriors to a a staggering number of wrecked self-driving cars to a queer utopia in Oklahoma City of all places, the trail of destruction crosses the U.S. as the story rushes towards its conclusion.Sebela’s writing is as sharp and incisive as ever, with all the shouting and explosions pierced with quiet scenes of actual depth and emotion that caught me off guard.Stein and Brandt continue to impress with their skills on art. Aided by Triona Farrell and Diana Sousa on colorist duties. Their skill at facial expressions in particular is a driver of the story, and if you go in thinking how many ways could they possibly have to draw Vita looking angry, it’s an impressive list.While I would’ve liked to have been able to pick this book up monthly from my local shop, I’m glad we got this final volume, which is a very satisfying conclusion. While new readers should start with volume one, I highly recommend this series. You can order digital or print editions from the your local bookstore or comics shop!

Hugh Likes Video Games: The Solitaire Conspiracy

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The Solitaire Conspiracy: A Mike Bithell Short
Developed by Bithell Games
Published by Ant Workshop
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A tense, techno-espionage thrill built from a deck of cards.
Mike Bithell has some brilliant thoughts on game design and post/transhumanism. He’s also known for his tight, compact game design, compressing his point-of-view into tiny games. He made his mark with indie storytelling platformer Thomas Was Alone and cemented it with the robot detective game Subsurface Circular. His recent project The Solitaire Conspiracy mixes intense spy thriller action with an unlikely gameplay mechanic: a game of solitaire.
 Players fill the shoes of Spymaster, an analyst candidate tapped to save a shadowy spy network when a supervillain locks them out of their coordination software, C.A.R.D.S. Working with the last remaining analyst, it’s your job to coordinate scattered spy crews and get everything up and running, but in the world of spycraft, nobody can be trusted. 
 As you play through missions and rank up, you gain access to colorful crews of operatives, each with their own suit and special abilities. Face cards represent not only the faction but individual members of the team, and placing active cards uses their team power. This can be things like shuffling a stack or redistributing a suit or moving a card of a specific value or suit around. They are powerful twists on the game, but in fitting the theme, they can hinder you as much as help.
 The UX is where the game really shines, with the board appearing as a virtual space lit in the slick blacks and scintillating neon of a cyberpunk wonderland. The design made it a bit difficult to read at times, especially playing in handheld mode on the Switch. Fortunately, there is a zoom feature that makes everything a bit bigger and easier to see. The cool sci-fi colors, along with the pounding, synth-filled soundtrack, lends a tension to the game that traditional solitaire lacks. Missions add both flavor and drama to the gameplay. I frequently found myself playing just one more mission to reach the next rank and advance the story, or get the report on a thrilling mission.
 The Solitaire Conspiracy is a masterclass in design and proves that engaging storytelling and slick aesthetics can spice up even the most mundane gameplay mechanics. Like most Bithell games, there are only a few hours of the main story here, but they’re a thrill ride. The Solitaire Conspiracy is available for download from Steam, the Nintendo eShop, and the Xbox game store.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Revenant – Star Trek Deep Space Nine

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Revenant: Star Trek Deep Space Nine
Written by Alex White
Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio

The Skinny: A thrilling and thought-provoking stand-alone story set in the middle of a sci-fi classic.
Revenant by Alex White is an excellent reintroduction to the world of Star Trek Deep Space Nine.  Set midway through the series, it follows one crewmember, Jadzia Dax, as she delves into a mystery concerning her own past. Dax is actually, technically speaking, two people in one. The humanoid Trill Jadzia and Dax, a long-lived symbiotic creature that is surgically implanted. The symbionts are implanted in the best and brightest of Trill society and can remember their hosts’ lives with such clarity that they are effectively a gestalt, granting their hosts lifetimes of experience. But when an old friend of both herself and Dax’s previous host comes to her with a problem, Dax becomes trapped in a conspiracy that stretches through lifetimes, and the highest echelons of their society.
 White does an excellent job of telling a fascinating science-fiction mystery that delicately balances introducing the story to new readers and giving sly nods to long-time fans. This is no mean feat for a series that has been off the air for over two decades. They pull the trick off by not merely presenting the characters who flit in and out of the story but establishing the characters from Dax’s point of view. As in their excellent Salvagers series, White balances character development and world-building to fill out their universes with style and panache. From the gaming tables of an alien casino to the tunnels beneath a sinister hospital, these don’t feel like a TV soundstage, but a living, breathing universe. As someone who fell off of Star Trek midway through the series, I felt like I got just enough of the characters to be reminded of who they were, and managed to catch a few of the winks directed to long-time fans.
 I listened to this book in audio, and narrator Robert Petkoff does a good job. The performance is not over-produced and doesn’t distract from the story. It was an exciting, fast-paced read as Jadzia and her allies delve into Dax’s past and uncover an imaginative sci-fi conspiracy.
 If you are completely uninvested in the series, this book probably won’t be what changes your mind. But as a former fan who hasn’t seen the series in decades, Revenant lit a nostalgic fire in my heart. You can find it wherever books and audiobooks are sold.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Eastward

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Eastward
Developed by Pixpil
Published by Chucklefish
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: An on-rails sci-fi story presented with a gorgeous pixelated aesthetic
Eastward is a beautifully rendered action RPG in pixelated graphics that doesn’t quite follow through on what it promises but is still a lot of fun. The game follows John and Sam, two refugees from a post-apocalyptic underground village as they travel by train on a quest to save the world and uncover the secrets of Sam’s burgeoning psychic powers. As they steam along, they fight their way through a series of linear, puzzle-filled dungeons and meet a huge cast of charming and wacky characters, but the chapter-based structure and frantic pace made the game feel a bit cramped and rushed.
 The game is broken into chapters, with the duo arriving in a new town, meeting the locals, and solving some dungeons before the plot pushes them back aboard their train to a new locale. The towns are probably the game’s best feature, with creatively designed and gorgeously rendered locations like a city built into the side of a dam and a film studio on rails filled with uplifted apes. Each is depicted with HD pixels in loving detail. The world is filled with faded advertisements and overgrown ruins. It is a testament to environmental design. I just wish I got to spend more time in each area before being pushed ahead. Towns are crammed full of mini-games, sidequests, and unique NPCs to talk to, and I always felt like I didn’t get enough time before being pushed ahead.
 The one mini-game that is always available is Earthborn, an in-world game that is a mix of turn-based RPG and rogue-like presented in a Gameboy aesthetic. It’s charming, and intersects with the story in interesting ways, but is ridiculously difficult.
 Dungeons are more linear than the sprawling towns and feature a mix of puzzle and combat. John has a variety of weapons that he gains over the adventure, starting with his trusty melee frying pan. Sam wields psychic energy to stun enemies or heal, but she can’t attack directly. Combat involves constantly switching between the two to keep hordes of enemies back in order to stay alive. Combat, which uses a Zelda-like formula, is clever, but fighting doesn’t feel as good as the puzzles.
 Eastward is a joy to look at and listen to, even if the gameplay isn’t quite as fun as the production. Still, it is well worth your time. You can pick up a digital copy via Steam or the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Rockstar & Softboy

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Rockstar and Softboy
Written & Drawn by Sina Grace
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics

Rockstar & Softboy

The Skinny: Sina Grace’s latest oversized one-shot is a paen to queer friendship mixed wit and wackiness.

I was not sure what I was getting into with Rockstar and Softboy, but I’m glad I picked it up. On the surface, it is an autobiographical slice-of-life comic. When Softboy is having trouble dealing with the stress of his day job, Rockstar convinces him to throw a party. With the help of their shapeshifting, talking cat.

 Inspired by his real-life friendship with fellow comics creator Josh Trujillo, This oversized, super-gay one-shot story deftly blends the fantastic and the mundane to create a lovely tribute to the power of queer friendship. Grace’s writing is lovely and constantly surprising. This is certainly a book full of surprises, and I found new delights with each turn of the page. His madcap and unabashedly queer energy infuses the book and render his characters in a charming light even when it highlights their flaws. By the time the book reached the inevitable Sailor Moon parody, I was giggling in my chair, drawing curious stares from my husband.

 The art is whimsical and transformative, keeping pace with the story and helping to ground the reader in the off-the-wall antics.

 At a hefty sixty-seven pages, this book is a bit too long and a bit too short for the story it is telling. I would’ve like to have spent either a little bit more time with these characters, or maybe pared the story down a bit. There are quite a few data pages and explainers mixed in, which occasionally break the story’s flow. Cramming this story into a single issue also raises the price tag, so I’m not sure if I can recommend this book if you’re unsure if you’ll like it. But if you like queer slice-of-life stories that also take big swings, this book is for you.

 At the end of the day, this book isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and at $8.99, I can’t recommend that you give it a try if you’re unsure if you’ll like it. But the world could use more unironic stories that believe in the power of friendship and being your true self. And also the power of power bottoms. You can purchase it online or at Your Local Comics Shop!

Hugh Likes Fiction: Elder Race

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Elder Race
Written by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published by tor.com

The Skinny – A braided novella that plays well with two very different set of tropes.

Lynesse Fourth Daughter is a princess on a noble quest. Perhaps the queen forbid her to get involved, and she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, but she’s off to a good start. She’s even recruited the legendary sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder to her side. Except that ‘Nyrgoth’ is in fact Nyr Illim Tevitch, a shlubby, depressed anthropologist from Earth, who should be studying the regressed society of interstellar colonists instead of playing wizard. But the rest of his team headed back to Earth centuries ago, and he hasn’t heard anything from them. And he’s lonely and depressed. But everything should work out fine, right?
Elder Race mixes far-future science fiction with old school sword and sorcery. Author Adrian Tchaikovsky weaves a deft course between genre tropes and delivers a stunning gut-punch of a novella packed with complex characters.
The story is split between the points of view of the main characters, switching off between Lynesse and Nyr as they go to confront a ‘demon’ causing havoc on the planet’s surface. Nyr is sure that this is just another bit of old technology that’s gotten out of hand. Lyn is sure that the Ancient Sorcerer will have no problems dealing with evil magic, as he did centuries before, when her ancestor called him. Of course, they’re both super wrong.
One of my favorite tricks Tchaikovsky plays with in this story is in the use of language. Nyr is constantly frustrated by the fact that he can’t even confess that he’s a charlatan, because all of this post-Earth cultur’e’s words for ‘scientist’ are also cognates for ‘wizard.’ By shifting perspective, the reader gets to understand both characters better than they do each other. There is even a great sequence where their text appears side by side, and the reader sees the same story as Nyr means to tell it and as Lyn hears it.
Tchiakovsky takes a warrior princess and a displaced sci-fi crew member and puts them into what amounts to a comedy of manners, with each struggling to both use the other to their own ends, and to understand one another. It’s a clever little story, and it surprised and moved me more than I expected.
Elder Race is a delightful spec-fic gem of a novella, and I highly recommend picking it up, whether you’re a fan of quests or post-human existential angst, it’s a cocktail sure to delight the palate.

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