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All the Hidden Paths, by Foz Meadows

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This sequel to A Strange and Stubborn Endurance doesn’t strictly require reading the first volume, but it’ll help a lot, because this is a book about next chapters. Velasin now lives in a place where he can be out as a man who loves men, where he can be married and have his marriage not only accepted but the basis for a political alliance. He and his new husband Caethari are just getting settled into their marriage, with all the complications that come from cross-cultural relationships in the public eye, when they have to travel to the capital city to meet the monarch and deal with court–something Cae never wanted to do in the first place and Vel is not very well prepared for.

Oh, and someone is trying to kill them. And/or break up their marriage. So that’s fun.

We even know a bit of who/why, because we run into that person early, and the suspense of where they are and what they’re doing is part of the early tension of the book. Once they do show up clearly, figuring out which way he will jump next only ratchets the tension up further. This is fundamentally a very political book, where politics are the interaction of human motivation and relationship, and having another character to be a dark mirror for motivations of the ones we already had adds depth and places to reflect. This is the kind of fantasy that has a light touch with magic, all the better to spend more time on speculative societies and politics, and I like it that way.

One of the things that starting with the first book will make clear is that this is a series that is dealing with consent and its grey areas and the fallout that sometimes comes from not being careful about those. If you are not interested in reading explicit sex scenes whose participants did not always manage consent well, this is not the book for you, please take the content warnings on the introductory page seriously. This is not a book that endorses the grey areas of consent, and in fact it does a lot more with “hey, these things can have lingering effects” than some books that are a lot less careful about warning about them. But these elements continue to be explicitly present, and readers should carefully manage when, how, and whether they want to encounter them.

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A view from on land

I have a poem out in the current (Nov/Dec) issue of F&SF, “Like Other Girls.” This one is a Little Mermaid poem, inspired by my thoughts about the original story’s sense of the main character as one of a group of sisters.

F&SF is not available online, but you can buy it from bookstores/newsstands or from their website, although that has not been updated with the current issue yet.

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The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History, by Ned Blackhawk

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Between my downloading this book from NetGalley and reading it, it won the National Book Award, so it’s clear that I’m not the only one giving it a look these days.

I think with books like this it’s important to understand what they are and are not. This is a map, a highlights version, hitting the high points. You can’t do four hundred years of history of a large portion of a continent and the people who live on it and go into really satisfying analysis and detail about…really much of any of it. So if you aren’t very familiar with Indigenous history in the US, this is a book that will have you making a list of what else is out there that you should find out about in more depth.

If you have taken the time to become familiar with Indigenous history in the US in some depth, you will probably only encounter one or two concepts and figures that are new to you. If your reading intention is to murmur, “I never knew that about the Mandan!” or similar phrases, you will likely come away from this large and magisterial work disappointed. Its purpose is relational, contextual. For the relatively informed reader, it is putting together pieces that you may previously have only had separately, the Ghost Dance and the arguments about citizenship in their temporal proximity.

It’s easy to see why it won a National Book Award; it’s a very useful sort of road map to have, to put this kind of information together and be able to have it all in one place, to be able to gesture clearly to the informed and the uninformed alike and say, look, these are the throughlines, these are the themes, this is what was happening all along. And Blackhawk does a very clear and briskly-written job of that.

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Books read, early November

M.A. Carrick, Labyrinth’s Heart. This is what I believe is known as “the triumphant conclusion” to this trilogy. There’s a recap in the front so you don’t have to commit to rereading two giant fantasy novels to get to this third one, but all of Ren’s birds sure are coming home to roost, with betrayals and reveals and confrontations galore. “Carrick” (writing team Brennan and Helms) could do more in this world but not because they left anything for the swim home here, this is an all-out extravaganza of magic and relationships.

Sarah Orne Jewett, Deephaven and Selected Stories and Sketches. Kindle. “Sketches” is a very accurate way to describe this: it’s extremely gentle descriptions of the people and places of the Maine coast in the mid-19th century. There’s nothing that could be accused of being a plot here, and I didn’t really want one, I just wanted to wander around mid-19th century Maine and meet old sailors and fishers and farmers who had strong opinions and funny bonnets.

Ariel (A.E.) Kaplan, Grendel’s Guide to Love and War, We Are the Perfect Girl, and We Regret to Inform You. A friend recommended the last of these, I got it from the library, and I immediately got the other two and read them, one per day three days in a row. Was that because I was stressed and well-written YA was what I needed? Absolutely. But this is well-written YA. I particularly love that Kaplan takes seriously that teenagers have genuine problems, she is not trying to gloss over everything with a hug and a Hallmark lesson. In Grendel’s Guide, for example, Tom Grendel’s dad has seriously bad PTSD, and the kids next door are realistically seriously inconsiderate about it even when they have it explained to them. Some problems teenagers are facing are not “we just needed to be vulnerable and understanding!” Some problems are holy shit problems that do not conveniently go on hold just because you’re under 18! And these books are well-written, funny, tender, not wallowing in woe and angst, and at the same time treat the problems of people under 18 as genuine and worth consideration and respect. So for thumbnails of each, you have: the Beowulf-inflected one, the Cyrano one, and the one that’s about college admissions and honestly is my favorite (even though another one is about Beowulf! I know! but still!). I am waiting for my copy of Kaplan’s fantasy novel. Eagerly.

Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai’i One Summer and Other Writings. A bunch of essays on various topics, some of which touch on being treated as the Sole Representative in ways that one didn’t ask for, some of which are about parenting or conferences or living somewhere new…not nearly as striking as her early work but interesting.

Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang. Reread. There are things I find fascinating about the construction of this book–the structural placement of its central concern, having to live with oneself wherever one is, at the one-third mark rather than the beginning or the ending, is really unusual, and it’s handled well. I like that it’s a quiet mosaic novel and still remains science fiction. I like how the relationships are not sensationalized. But it front-loads the racial slurs a lot, and while most of them are self-directed by the character, they are not self-directed by the author (that is, McHugh has written a mixed-race person of partial Chinese ancestry using racial slurs for Chinese people about himself and other Chinese people; she is not herself Chinese), and I’m not thrilled with how they’re situated in the context of American Sinophobia even though I’m very sure that’s not McHugh’s intent. So…a lot to appreciate here but proceed with caution/awareness.

Heather Radke, Butts: A Backstory. It was a bit disappointing that this only covered fairly recent (basically late 19th century up to the present) American (more or less, with few exceptions) attitudes towards women’s butts, as this is an area where a broader contrast of times, cultures, and genders might have been really interesting, and I doubt that there’ll be a lot of interest in a similar work with this one recently published. I was interested in her interview with Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ex-girlfriend (the voice of “oh. my. God. Becky…”) for her perspective on the song and phenomenon, but if you pick this up, do so knowing that it’s not a very broad portrait. So to speak. I also wanted the section about drag prosthetics and adjustments for trans women to be much longer and more detailed–glad that a cultural historian focusing on women acknowledged trans women, but it was fairly brief, so go in aware if that’s one of the major reasons you’d pick this up.

Larry Rohter, Into the Amazon: The Life of C├óndido Rondon, Trailblazing Explorer, Scientist, Statesman, and Conservationist. Late 19th/early 20th century Brazil is extremely more complicated than I know about, and Condon’s biography is a great introduction to that complexity. “They did what? They had what?” I found myself asking incredulously as I read, but it was grounded enough in things I did know about that I was never confused, just surprised. Condon, himself mixed race, was very committed to the rights of Indigenous people, and his interactions with them were considered a model for those in that movement for generations to come–not just “he was good for his time” but “oh gosh why didn’t later people do that well,” things that seem obvious now like commitment to de-escalation when encountering a new group in the jungle. Fascinating.

Lev A.C. Rosen, Lavender House and The Bell in the Fog (the latter discussed elsewhere). So I read the second one, The Bell in the Fog, first, and I was enthusiastic enough to go get Lavender House right away and read that. I have to issue a caveat here: some of you may want to just start with The Bell in the Fog and hope for sequels. Because Lavender House starts with our detective, Andy, at his lowest point, kicked off the police force for homosexuality, and he is suicidal. He spends the book investigating a murder among a rich queer family and figuring out what he thinks of the idea of there being queer family at all (it’s the 1950s, this is not intuitive to everybody–sadly I suppose it’s not even intuitive to everybody today) and whether he can figure out a shape of a life for himself at all, whether he might have something to live for. For some of you, the existence of the second book will be enough there: spoiler alert: he does in fact find things to live for. And for some of you, it will be life-affirming to spend a book with someone who is finding that hope–but for others, being in close perspective with a character in that much despair is not going to be what you can deal with, and I want to indicate that content clearly for you: it starts that way on page one, that is the book it is, if you don’t want that book start with book two. It has lovely interesting period details about clothes, music, soap, all sorts of things. I really hope there are more in this series. But I’m glad I can point to the second book for those for whom the first one will be the wrong fit.

Susan Scarlett, Poppies for England. Kindle. This was just lovely in some very weird ways. It shows families adjusting after the Second World War in ways that are neither “let’s just pretend THAT never happened, everything is literally exactly the same hooray” nor “everyone who fought in a war is now abusive due to trauma” but had things like “you have bonded with your buddy from the POW camp and need to get to know your family again.” It also made me cry by valuing a character who very much resembled someone I loved and miss, someone who is not often seen and valued in fiction. People are not flattened into heroes or villains who usually would be in this kind of fiction, it’s so much better than it “had” to be.

Alexis Shotwell, Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding. This is not a pop philosophy book meant to be sold to the mass market, it’s a chewy thing that had me making notes on ideas to follow up on. Which was lovely for me, I like having more ideas about implicit understanding, unspoken knowledge, and background information to think about. It is not, however, the version Alexis will give you if she wants to make it the easiest possible on-ramp to her work (she is a friend, so I know she absolutely can do that easy on-ramp).

Dana Simpson, Punk Rock Unicorn and Unicornado. Every so often I catch up on the comic strip adventures of Phoebe and her unicorn friend Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, plus the assorted tiny dragons, goblins, parents, and other magical beings who populate their environs. These are the two most recent collections, they are entirely accessible whether you’ve read the fifteen or so before them, but also we’re getting to the critical mass of “basically infinite amounts of Phoebe and Marigold, hard to remember which one is which” for this series, and that’s totally fair.

Tan Twan Eng, The House of Doors. Too much W. Somerset Maugham, not enough Sun Yat Sen. The prose was lovely, the characterizations were beautifully done, but I expected the politics of mainland China to have much, much more bearing on the eventual resolution of this plot than they did, and was disappointed thereby. I will still read more by this author, but with my expectations adjusted way, way toward the “two humans had emotions” end of the scale that goes from that to “oh gosh several new governments.”

Marissa van Uden, ed., Strange Machines. Kindle. A brief anthology of fictional manuals for fictional dark machinery, science fictional or fantastic or just odd. If you don’t like the one you’re reading, it won’t take long to get to the next one, just a little tasting menu of fiction.

Mariet Westmann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. If you know things about Dutch art of this period already, the main thing you will get from this book is the agricultural art. Gosh they painted nice cows. I think it is really underestimated how nice a painting of a cow you can get from the Dutch Golden Age, but if you want a very nice painting of a cow, the Dutch of this era are hard to beat. “Just look at that cow,” I said unironically. “That sure is quite a cow.” And so on. I am hard to please with cows. I come from a dairy farming family. So, you can readily see, did these Dutch artists. They had seen a cow or two, let me tell you. If you don’t know other things about Dutch art of this period, you can learn, and it’s quite nice, lots of glossy pictures of the sorts of things you expect and won’t be sad to have reviewed if you already do know. But even if you do, for example, happen to live with the sort of person who has a lot of stuff about the Dutch Golden Age scattered around underfoot (or shelved neatly, to be fair) and if you do, for example, happen to just pick up books that are around the house because you need reading material, there will be the nice cows that are new. So there’s that.

Kell Woods, After the Forest. Discussed elsewhere.

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The Bell in the Fog, by Lev A.C. Rosen

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Evander “Andy” Mills is a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, trying to make a go of it as a private detective after having to leave the police force because of his sexuality. The queer community is not entirely ready to trust someone who has so recently been a cop, given how the police of the time treat them, but Andy is working on convincing them that he’s on their side, that his PI cases are for the protection of people like himself rather than exploiting his identity. He has some key allies at his beloved bar, Ruby’s–and maybe even a crush there.

But one of the very few people desperate enough to trust him to try to unravel a blackmail case turns out to be an old friend–an old flame–he hasn’t seen since his Navy days, and suddenly memories he’s tried to repress are relevant to his life again. And to the lives–and possibly deaths–of those in his community.

The Bell in the Fog is the best kind of historical mystery, drawing a vivid picture of its milieu and the people who inhabit it. It takes the time to consider what the shape of justice might be for people who are on the periphery of a society, rather than falling into the pattern of treating whodunnit as the only possible question. The characters are vivid not only as a virtue in itself but as a means to making the questions of the plot and its resolution more interesting–this is the stuff, friends, this is how mystery is supposed to work.

This is the second in a series, which has me all excited because it stood alone perfectly well and that means I have a first book to go back and read.

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After the Forest, by Kell Woods

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

It’s been a long time since they’ve been to the gingerbread house, and things have not gotten a lot easier for Greta and Hans in early adulthood. The Thirty Years War has left a lot of hardship in its wake, their local lord has been replaced by somebody–or something–much worse, their father is dead, and the villagers are pretty suspicious of a girl people say pushed an old lady into a fire. Even if her gingerbread sells out every Walpurgisnacht.

But there’s a bear in the woods, and wolves, and a soldier from the south, and even when things are not easy they can always get a little harder. And quite a few things are not as they seem in this story–in fact, quite a few things are from the next story over, or the next one over from that. Yes, these woods are dark, and it’s getting pretty Grimm around here….

But it’s not actually grimdark. This is an historical fantasy with fairy tale references in every part of it, and it’s a coming of age fantasy about choosing who you want to be as you rise from your horrible past. Also it will make you terribly, terribly hungry for gingerbread if you like gingerbread even a little bit.

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Books read, late October

Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds. This is not a metaphorical title: this is a book about bird intelligence and how we know what we know about how different groups of birds think about things. If you follow the popular science press you will probably know several of these examples but their grouping is still instructive.

Theodore Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. A popular anthropological study of the fish market in downtown Tokyo, so yeah, that was outside my usual fare in an interesting way. What are the official regulatory bodies, what are the unofficial relationships among vendors, what does the year look like there…interesting stuff. Also guess who ordered takeout sushi when finished reading this book.

Stephen B. Bright and James Kwak, The Fear of Too Much Justice: Race, Poverty, and the Persistence of Inequality in the Criminal Courts. Lays out a lot of stuff about American court systems and the guard rails they set up against admitting that they’re doing anybody wrong, especially anybody poor, especially anybody Black or Native or Latine. The examples and the rulings and the court cases put out in black and white like this are extremely instructive if you haven’t been paying attention to the details of it, or even if you have.

Su Cho, The Symmetry of Fish. These poems are so precise, and they are so weighted, and also I read them and went out and bought yellow kiwifruit, because sometimes my reaction to poetry is very deep-dive nerdy about word use in the fifth line and sometimes it’s…rather shallower than that. There’s a lot about being a two-cultures kid and later adult here, there’s a lot of family relationship and sensory culture and…I will want to reread this. But in the meantime, also, I will be eating yellow kiwifruit. (Look, there are worse themes to a book post, okay.)

Roshani Chokshi, Once More Upon a Time. Novella-length, an after-the-fairy-tale story that is very transparently about modern love, not actually one of my favorites of hers but fine, she knows how to write sentences.

Ben Goldfarb, Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet. I think one of the most surprising take-away points from this for me was how much we know that we can actually do to make things ecologically better for animals around roads and highways. There’s a lot of fatalism around this topic that simply does not have to be there! Yes, things are very bad for animals around roads and highways, but we already know things to improve this and can learn more, and Goldfarb is really interesting on the topic. So this was far less depressing than I expected it to be.

Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee, eds., Lives of Houses. A nonfiction essay anthology–I’m used to reading fiction anthologies or essay collections, the distinction being multi-author vs. single-author, so this was a pleasant change. As with fiction anthologies, it was a mixed bag of “oh what a delight, this is just what I wanted to read about” mingled with a few of “I don’t really care about this at all.” A lot of it is about the homes of famous writers and other figures in the arts and letters, many of whom were famous writers I care about (see Hermione Lee right there on the tin). It’s not a book of great heft and substance, and sometimes that’s okay.

Naomi Kritzer, Liberty’s Daughter. Discussed elsewhere.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. Reread. I wanted to read the generation ship novella at the end again for my own generation ship project, which is different but having influences is nice. It just kept striking me how very anthropological she gets and how nice that can be. Lots of ringing changes on “would you look at that shape of human relationship” in ways that I like, and I think I liked it better than last time I read it.

Rose Macaulay, Personal Pleasures: Essays on Enjoying Life. These are generally quite short, they are alphabetical, and it was just what I needed. Not all the pleasures aged well. Of course they didn’t. Ours won’t either. Some of them are extremely simple and direct, some of them are screamingly funny, you’ll be able to spot the mildly xenophobic products of their time coming and they won’t be as frequent as a lot of other people of her era, and I will just skip those and read her being funny about family albums again later. The thing that is odd about this new edition is that they had someone footnote it who didn’t like made-up words, and look, this is Rose Macaulay, she makes up words like a champ, she makes up words like the proto-SFF author she was, and she does it in a perfectly comprehensible way, from roots you know and with incluing you can get from the text. So to have sniffy endnotes where the person writing the endnotes is clutching their pearls about how it is another made-up word–she’s done it again, Howard–and it probably means what it transparently does mean–is to sigh. The other thing about the endnotes is that they’re so odd. They put notes on things that you probably have to know if you’re going to get anywhere, and–look, these are vastly referential, and they endnote most of the things you’ll need to know to get what she’s being funny about, but then not all. But then some of the deeply obvious things they also endnote. But again not all. What a weird set of endnotes. But oh gosh, Rose Macaulay can be funny pastiching Hemingway just to be a brat about it. Love her so much.

Wilma Mankiller, Mankiller Poems: The Lost Poetry of Wilma Mankiller, The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. This is quite a small collection, and a lot of the poems are very much on the nose. I came out of it thinking how interesting it was to see the poems of a political leader rather than what a shame it was that she didn’t spend more time as a poet.

Temi Oh, More Perfect. A science fiction novel about the perils and joys of connection, personal and artificial. The characters make believably poor choices for their ages (they are mostly in their very early twenties–it’s not YA but they are adults who are quite young, and they aren’t the kind of quite young adults who are cautious and unemotional). There’s been cataclysm and social upheaval that’s run right over their childhoods, and you can tell. I wanted to like it more than I did, but I ended up glad I’d read it overall.

Naomi Salman, Nothing But the Rain. A mysterious rain induces amnesia on the residents of a town, and they also don’t always treat each other well. This is a novella, and I didn’t want any more of it than that.

V.E. Schwab, The Fragile Threads of Power. Another in her parallel Londons series, and the title is extremely appropriate both with the magical system and metaphorically. Lots of magical gadgets and world-crossing and the sorts of things I like. I had fun with this one and am glad there’ll be more.

Melissa Sevigny, Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon. At the height of the Great Depression, the Colorado River was not very navigable by anybody, and at the time a lot of people thought that adding “ESPECIALLY LADIES” made sense there. (Ugh.) Two botanists from the University of Michigan took a river trip sampling plants and mapping where they were found in the Colorado River canyons, and this goes a little bit into the botany involved but a lot more into the social history of the trip and them doing that kind of work. It’s interesting and not terribly long.

Margery Sharp, Martha in Paris. Kindle. What a weird little book, what a weird, weird little book. Fair warning: Sharp makes some very offensive assumptions about who can be sexually assaulted. (There isn’t sexual assault in the book, but she has the old-fashioned and wrong-then-too assumption that one must be conventionally attractive to be a target, which: NO and also GROSS.) This is very much a middle book, and in it Martha is sent to Paris to study art, and she does that despite other people’s determination that she should focus on other things, some of which another person very well might focus on under the circumstances. I feel like in some ways this is almost more like the middle section of a book than a middle book, really, and it has less of other people than The Eye of Love both for good (Martha is more interesting than they are) and for ill (they gave The Eye of Love more shape and substance).

Emily Wilson, trans. The Iliad. This is so readable, it just rushes along at such a clear and angry and grief-stricken pace. You’re never going to miss that this is full of the wrath of men and gods; you’re never going to lose sight of the deaths of everyone who matters to you, assuming that anyone here matters to you. Even the section that I think of as “ancient box scores and shout-outs” (battinnnnnng fooooor the Greeks! numberrrrr seventy-two! etc.) went by at a good clip, but not enough for the prose to feel rushed. I wrote two poems while I read it. I still hate the vast majority of the characters. This is entirely expected and in no way Emily Wilson’s fault; my people would have gone home with enough gold in book two, acclaiming Thersites as the most sensible soul they’d ever met. Sure is fun to take enough gold and go home to our nice houses and families! Wonder why they didn’t call it the Thersiad! Guess we’ll never know, we’ve wandered off home with enough gold!…there’s more poem then? how odd. (I did read the rest. I like Scamander also. The rest of them. Well, they’re not there for me to like, is the thing.)

F. C. Yee, The Legacy of Yangchen. Definitely a sequel, and I’d start with the first if you’re interested in Yee’s explorations of Avatars past. If you read these book posts, you know that I don’t read much in the way of media tie-ins at all. These are a notable exception because Yee is given enough space to really play with the setting, which I appreciate.

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Liberty’s Daughter, by Naomi Kritzer

Review copy provided by the author, who is a friend of mine.

Beck Garrison doesn’t really remember life on land. Her father Paul brought her to live on the cluster of libertarian seasteads when she was in preschooler, when he told her her mother died in an accident. Since then she’s gotten thoroughly accustomed not just to the pitch and yaw of the repurposed yachts and other holdings but also the rules of the different steads. Which ones have no laws, which ones have minimal laws, where she’s allowed to go alone, where she needs to check in with private security…where she just cannot go, period. Kids are resilient, Beck even more than most, and by her mid-teens she has picked up a part-time job as a finder, helping people trade rare goods like sandals and shoelaces so that everyone has things they want from land and Beck has a little pocket money.

Not everything people want to find is quite so simple as a swimsuit or a bottle of fancy whiskey. Looking for a missing person leads Beck through a cascade of discoveries about her home that isn’t what anyone intended her to find, but she’s not going to quit, and she’s definitely not going to abandon people to some of the circumstances she’s discovered.

Because frankly? Have you read some of articles about actual attempts at libertarian utopian communities? Naomi has. They tend to be gross in a number of directions. Sewage treatment is one, and that’s a pretty key element of seasteading. Human right violations would be another. Liberty’s Daughter walks a really good line between not flinching away from these elements and not getting screamy, wallowing, or unpleasant to read. It also points out some of the ways that spontaneous organization can be a really good thing. I don’t actually think that Naomi specifically sat down and said, “How could I demonstrate the difference between classical anarchist thinking and the contemporary American libertarian movement with a fun teenage protagonist and her adventures?” but if she had, it might still have come out like this. Which is not to say that it’s an anarchist treatise or in fact any kind of treatise. Beck’s reactions are a lot more pragmatic teenager “well that’s dumb, how do we fix that” than “and I will give you a several page speech about liberty,” which works a lot better and makes for a more fun book.

There are villains here, but they’re not grandiose and chiseled. There are heroes here, but they’re mostly just trying to make life work better for the people around them with limited resources. So…like life, really. But with more adventures. Yeah, I’ll sign on for that.