Friday, September 11, 2020

Book Review: The Day of the Martians by H.E. Wilburson

 I'm more than willing to review any works of audio fiction that are requested. However, as I have stated many times before, I maintain a policy of strict honesty. As I have said, if anything doesn't work I will not hesitate to call it out. With all of that having been said, this brings us to the book that we're going to be reviewing today. We're taking a look at The Day of the Martians, book one of The Martian Diaries by H.E. Wilburson.

Day of The Martians acts as a sequel to War of the Worlds. It picks up the action in 1913. A new comet has been sighted, and the British government is fearful that it means the Martians are returning for another invasion attempt. An unopened Martian cylinder has been discovered in Wales, and our protagonist has been sent to investigate, with his wife Laura in tow. They'll have to be quick about it, as the fate of the world could hang in the balance.

You can purchase this audiobook on Audible, or you can listen to it in three parts over on Moonlight Audio Theater

I was asked to give this book a review by my associate Anita Dow. We know each other through various audio drama related groups that we are both members of. She has been a faithful reader and follower of my audio drama reviews for quite some time now. As such, I was more than happy to review Day of The Martians for her.

Now, books that serve as sequels to public domain works always start off with a considerable uphill climb. Right out of the gate, they're setting themselves up to be compared to the original. Most of the time, these sequels just don't measure up to the greatness of the originals. Perhaps it is because the writing is lackluster, or the authors misunderstands, or underutilizes, the themes of the original. Now, that's not to say it is impossible to create great works of fiction using the public domain. One way is to create crossovers with other public domain works. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Anno Dracula do this to great effect. Another is to remix and reinterpret the source material. Works such as Pride, Prejudice and Zombies and Sense, Sensibility, and Sea Monsters do this to great effect. Yet another method is to retell the story from the perspective of another character. Famous examples of this include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Song of Achilles.

That having been said, this isn't always a guarantee of success. There have been plenty of lackluster works that attempted to cash-in on the success of Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Likewise, another method that is popular with works based on mythology is to strip away all the magic and gods and show the "true" story of what happened. Basically, showing the alleged history behind the legend. This has a tendency to backfire, as authors all too often forget that you have to make the characters compelling despite the lack of gods and magic. Still, this can be done well in the hands of a skilled writer. Successful examples include the comic Age of Bronze and, to an extent, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. 

So, where does Day of The Martians land? Well, I'd say somewhere in the middle. Let me start with some of the things that I enjoy about it. I did appreciated that at least somewhat stay true to the spirit of the original. It is emphasized just how hopelessly outgunned the British are as the Martians prepare to return. It is also mentioned that British scientist have only the faintest of ideas about how to reverse engineer Martian technology. I also like that the tripods didn't have force fields, like many other works depict them. In the original novel, that tripods main defense was that they were extremely fast, which made it near impossible to land a blow on them. This was quite a feat, as the British military is widely considered the best military of the 19th century.

War of the Worlds was written, in large part, to be a satire and critique of colonialism and imperialism. H.G. Wells was trying to show the British public what it would be like if the shoe was on the other foot. In many ways, the British, and other European colonial powers, might as well have been Martians to the various peoples they conquered. They came with advanced technology that must have seem fantastically advanced to many of the inhabitants of Africa and Asia. Though that isn't to say it was completely inaccessible. Japan, for example, is rather famous for how well it was able to adapt Western technology. So, I can see Day of the Martians at least somewhat paying respect to the themes of the original.

We also do have at least a few characters from the original novel. For example, Ogilvy, an astronomer from the original book, is working with the British government to find a way to disable the tripods. Granted, he shouldn't have been there, as he died in War of the Worlds not long after the Martians arrived. Still, I thought it was a nice touch. And I would assume the unnamed narrator of Day of the Martians is supposed to be the same one from War of the Worlds.

Having said all of that, this book has a few issues. This is a work of audio fiction, so let's start with the audio. Music and sound-effects are tool when it comes to audiobooks. They are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. It all depends on how you choose to utilize them. Think of it like adding condiments to a sandwich, or spices to a soup. You don't want it took be so faint and limited that you might as well have not added it. At the same time, you also don't want to add so much, or overplay it, that it overpowers and drowns everything else. Unfortunately, Day of The Martians suffers from both problems at the same time.

The music felt incredibly out of place. The story is set in 1913, but the music primarily consists electric guitars and other bits of modern music. Using anachronistic music can work, but you have to fully commit your story. For example, the movie A Knight's Tale uses anachronistic music to show that people of the Middle Ages weren't so different than modern people. You can't just have the music be anachronistic without adding anything else, or it just comes across as jarring. The music was also very monotonous and repetitive. It was like listening to a song with only one cord. It kind of felt like the music had been selected due to being cheap or free, rather than because of quality.

It also felt like the music was also a bit too loud. Not that it was bursting my eardrums, or anything like that, but that it overwhelmed the narration. Of course, it could just be that the repetitive nature of the music made it feel that way.

The narration also suffered from monotony and lack of variation. The book is narrated by Harry Preston, with Terry Thompson providing the introduction. Harry's narration started out fine enough. It seemed reasonably appropriate to the time period and setting. Unfortunately, it quickly became rather flat and one-note. Harry made little-to-no attempt to differentiate between any of the characters. He also maintained the whole stiff upper lip demeanor, even in scenes where the characters should have been displaying stronger emotions.

The sound-effects, in contrast to the music, were severely under utilized. We get a few decent once at the start of the first third of the book, but the sound effects soon vanish. This is quite a shame, as they were sorely missed, and could really have added to the experience. We do get a couple more towards the end of the book, but it is too little too late.

Now let's talk about the writing and plot. Things started off reasonably well. The trip to Wales to investigate the cylinder actually makes for a fairly descent short story. The pacing was good, and it stay fairly true in style to the original novel while as being a fun adventure story. Unfortunately, the other two-thirds are where things fall apart. The Martians arrive on Earth, and we are treated to what I can best describe as a prolonged action sequence. There was very little introspection or pauses between the action. Well, there were some, but they felt misplaced.

The arrival of the Martians is supposed to feel like the climax of the action. However, due to the short length of the novel, it fails to make any emotional impact. If we had more build up, rather than jumping directly from the trip to Wales to the invasion, it might have worked. As it stands, however, the novel falls flat on its face. Overall, this novel feels too short for its own good.

I can't help but feel that Day of the Martians failed to make the most of its potential. It starts in 1913, just one year before the outbreak of World War I. Would the major powers of Europe have put aside their differences to present a united front against the Martians? Or would old rivalries have proved too strong? Would there even have been those who tried to collaborate with the Martians in parallel to how the happened in certain colonies, such as the Princely States of India? Or what if the invasion had occurred in the middle of the war, rather than before it? Even ignoring all of this, how did the rest of the world react to the first invasion? How have they been doing?

All are intriguing possibilities, which are sadly not explored by Day of The Martians. I'm trying to think of a more tactful way to put this, but Day of The Martians had a very amateur feel to it. It felt like everyone involved needed more time to hone their skills before releasing their final product. The whole novel felt like it needed more time to bake. I'll cut new audio dramas a certain amount of slack, but being new to the world of audio fiction isn't a get out of jail free card. I've seen plenty of audio dramas made by people who were just starting out, but had impeccable production values and story quality.

Now, I'm aware that I might sound harsh, but I do genuinely believe that Day of The Martians had potential within it to be great. Its just that there is considerable work that needs to be done to attain that potential. I understand that there is a second novel in the series, and I'd be willing to give it a review if asked.

And so that was my review of The Day of The Martians. I don't think there's much more for me to add. I will see you guys next time.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Audio File: Harlem Queen

 As you may have gathered, I listen to a lot of podcasts, especially audio dramas. Having such a packed listening schedule means that it sometimes takes me a while to get around to certain shows. But, as the saying goes, good things often come to those who wait. That brings us to the audio drama that we'll be reviewing today. We're taking a look at Harlem Queen.

Harlem Queen takes place in the 1920s during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Unsurprisingly, then, it is set in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It follows Madam Stephanie St. Clair. She ran numerous gambling institutions, which some might refer to as criminal enterprises, given that they operated outside of the law. She invested this money back into the Black community, and supported several Black artists and entrepreneurs.  She  was also a social activist who advocated for great equality for Blacks. The audio drama follows Stephanie's life as she keeps rival gangs, such as the Mafia, out of Harlem, and wrestles with her personal demons.

Harlem Queen is created Yhane Smith. It was funded by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. As I understand it, the grant was to provide money for works of art relating to the history of New York City, especially Manhattan. Thus, we have a wonderful historical fiction audio drama set in 1920s Harlem. It is great to see arts funds supporting quality audio dramas. We really need more of that. It would be really nice if Louisiana, the state I live in, had a similar program, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

As I have already noted, this audio drama was well worth the wait. I'd never heard of Stephanie St. Clair before listening to Harlem Queen, but now I want to find out more about her. Apparently, many of her gambling operations we based around Policy Banks. I'm still not entirely sure what Policy is, but from what I've been able to gather, you place bets on numbers, and you have to get three right to win a prize. How much you bet is up to you, and you can do something where you win if you only get two, but you get less money. Also, you have people called Numbers Runners going around collecting people's bets, and telling everyone what the winning numbers are. Somehow this was able to generate wealth within the Black community. Again, I'm not entirely clear on how it all works.

You guys know I'm a sucker for historical fiction, so I was instantly draw to this audio drama. Interesting that Policy plays such a big role in the plot. Bronzeville, another historical fiction audio drama I love that also involves a highly successful Black community funded by Policy; albeit in 1940s Chicago, rather than 1920s New York. I'm waiting for season two of Bronzeville before I formally review it. It comes out sometime between now and the heat death of the universe.

Anyway, back to Harlem Queen. The show being set during the Harlem Renaissance means that Stephanie runs shoulders with several notable Black writers and artists. For example, Langston Hughes appears in one episode at a gala that Stephanie is hosting. I love pretty much all the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but I've always had a soft spot for the works of Langston Hughes, so I very much appreciated this.

In other cameos, at one point Stephanie has a brief chat with Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston is going back to her home state of Florida to collect the testimony of former slaves as part of a book she's writing. Though she can't think of a name for the novel at the moment. Stephanie suggests Their Eyes Were Watching God, but Zora dismisses it as too wordy; though she promises to give it thought. Joke being, that's the name she eventually settled on.

Season one's primary storyline involves Stephanie working to keep the Mafia out of Harlem. Besides protecting her investments, Stephanie does have altruistic reasons for this. The Mafia have made it very clear that they want to sell hard drugs in Harlem. Stephanie might run a Policy Bank, and isn't averse to indulging in a little alcohol, because Prohibition is in full-swing after all. However, she draws the line at things that are actively harmful, in a major way, to her community.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed season one. My only complaint would be that I wished there had been more episodes. Thus far, each season of Harlem Queen has only had four episodes. The episodes also tend to be on the shorter side, so each season clocks in at about an hour or so. Don't get me wrong, it keeps things brisk and moving along at a good pace. I just love the show so much I wish there was more of it.

To talk about season two, I should probably discuss something I've left out til now. Stephanie has an illegitimate daughter named Michele. Michele is light skinned enough to pass as white, but doesn't know that she is half-black, or that Stephanie is her mother. Stephanie used to work as a maid for a wealthy family in Guadeloupe. Her employer's son had a...less than consensual relationship with her, which resulted in pregnancy. So, she moved to Canada, and then to America to make a new life. That would explain her French accent, which I often wondered about during season one.

Stephanie wanted to give Michele a chance at a better life. So, Stephanie set her up at a fancy boarding school and constantly showers her with gifts. Stephanie takes a rather different view of the whole "Spare the rod and spoil the child" line from the Bible. Her assistant even notes this, saying essentially "You know, that's not how my daddy interpreted it."  It might seem odd that Michele could pass a fully white, despite being half-black, but genetics doesn't always do what you expect it will.

Of course, all of this does come back to bite Stephanie. Her enemies eventually figure out that Michele is her daughter and plot to kidnap her. Stephanie's quest to get Michele back, and struggling with if she ought to tell her the truth about who she is, forms the plot of season two. Stephanie also has to do all this without anyone else discovering the truth. On a micro level, Stephanie's deceit has caused Michele to become very racist against black people; though she does soften a bit by the end of the season. I wonder if this is going to be a plot-point in season three?

Also, there a scene where Stephanie is hosting another gala, and examples of black food include fried fish and gumbo. I always associate gumbo as being a Louisiana thing, and not strictly a black one. Do other states, especially Northern ones, eat it too? I suppose it could be a side-effect of the Great Migration. Help me out in the comments if you know.

Right, I should probably explain about the Great Migration. During the 1920s, Black Americans in the South faced a number of misfortunes. Institutional racism, a series of nasty floods, and various other things did not make it a good time to be Black. So, millions of Black people collectively threw-up their hands and said "Screw this!" and moved to the North en masse. Make no mistake, there was still racism in the North, but it was less overt, and more importantly, not enshrined in law, like in the South. This gave Blacks a genuine chance at upward mobility. This also lead to a flowering of black writers and artists, but we already covered the Harlem Renaissance.

The voice actors are all very talented. I don't know if they are professionals or not, but they certainly sound professional. Also, I just love how each episode opens with an old timey radio announcer setting the stage for the episode.

All in all, season two is a worth follow-up to season one. I can't wait to see what season three has in store for us. Well, I don't think I really have much more to add. Harlem Queen is another great historical fiction audio drama, and you should listen to it as soon as possible. You can binge the whole thing in about two hours. Though, fair warning, after that you'll be hungry for more.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Audio File: Visionaries: Season 1

 If you've been following my last two editions of The Audio File, then you'll know the drill by now. I'm happy to help anyone who ask me to review their audio drama podcasts. However, I also maintain a policy of strict honesty, and I won't hesitate to critique any elements that I think aren't working. I don't really have any more to add, so let's jump right into it. We're taking a look at season one of Visionaries

Visionaries takes place in the post-apocalyptic future of 2185. Humans have evolved various superpowered abilities. What these abilities are depend on what eye-color you have. Hence, these powered individuals are known as Visionaries. However, not all humans managed to evolved powers. These powerless individuals are known as Dead Eyes. Dead Eyes are kept as slaves by the Visionaries. This is how it has been for years, but all of that is about to change. The Dead Eyes are about stage a revolt against the Visionaries. But they aren't doing it alone. Rumor has it that a Visionary is leading them. 

I had heard about this show before, and I'd been meaning to listen to it. What finally got me around to it was when I was contacted by Visionaries series creator Richard Seneque. He discovered by reviews from the r/audiodrama subreddit. In particular, he enjoyed my reviews of Lights Out and Sticks Shift Incorporated. I said I'd be happy to take a look at his podcast, and now here we are. 

On the technical aside of things, this is a very well produced audio drama. The audio is very slick and professional sounding. The audio is the same high-quality sound you would find in any professionally produced audio drama. The actors as also quite talented. I don't know if they are professionals, but they certainly sound professional. The sound effects and music are well done, and there's plenty of them, which keeps the audio drama properly immersive, and contributes to the professional feel of it. 

Another aspect I liked was how the narrator will describe the scenes and the action. It reminds me of various recorded plays I have listened to, mostly stuff written by Shakespeare and Sophocles. They too will feature narrators who describe the action for the benefit of the listening audience. It is good that it reminded me of those plays. Fall of the Shah did something similar due to it nature as a docudrama. It also reminds me of those podcasts that adapt prose short stories into audio. Honestly, descriptive narration is something I miss from those short story podcasts, and I wish more audio dramas would consider incorporating it. There's certainly a lot that a little bit of descriptive narration can add to an audio drama. 

Okay, I put it off as long as I can so let's get to it: the podcast has more than a few issues. Let's start with the setting. The premise makes this sound like the audio drama is going to be a science fiction adventure, but it wound up being fantasy. The powers of the Visionaries are pretty much magic in all but name. There's some official artwork on the podcast's website that depicts Seer's Rock, one of the settings of the series, as a medieval-style castle that wouldn't look out of place on the cover of a fantasy novel. The names are the  characters also wouldn't be out of place in a fantasy novel. This podcast feels much more like a fantasy that was wearing the skin of a science fiction podcast. 

Now, to be fair, the audio drama's website does specifically describe Visionaries as a fantasy podcast. And I wouldn't have minded that if Visionaries didn't bill itself using clear science fiction elements; such as the setting being a post-apocalyptic future, or the Visionaries' powers being explained by evolution. When you include stuff like that, it creates certain expectations within your listeners. So, when your podcast then turns out to be fantasy, it kind of feels like false advertising. It would have been better, I think, if the podcast had gone the full nine yards and set itself in a separate fantasy world.  

We get some hints and justification about why the world has reverted into a quasi-medieval fantasy world. There's mention that there was a World War III, and that the Visionaries banned pretty much all advanced technology because they didn't want another war. Well, that's what they say at any rate. I suspect the real reason for the ban was because technology might put Dead Eyes on equal footing with Visionaries. 

The setting just felt reminiscent of at least a dozen or so young adult fantasy novels, which aren't something I typically seek out of my own volition. Which is interesting, as I've always felt that those novels were just re-skinned young adult dystopias. Oh, science fiction dystopia, especially ones like The Hunger Games, might not be as common as they once were, but fantasy young adult, especially ones set in secondary fantasy worlds, often hit a lot of the same beats as young adult dystopia. Oppressive ruling classes, generic badass (usually female) protagonist, love triangle, getting cool clothes at some point, rebellion to overthrow the oppressive kingdom, deadly challenge or quest that must be completed, it's all there. 

I should add that Visionaries doesn't follow this formula as slavishly as other examples I can think of. For example, we have a male protagonist, no love triangle, no quest beyond the rebellion. 

The worldbuilding felt like it left something to be desired. It felt like I was being plopped in the middle of the story without being given much to go on beyond the whole slave revolt angle. This is particularly bad given the aforementioned use of the narrator. Give me a sense of this world; descriptions of clothing, food, social customs. I suppose it is possible these things are being saved for future seasons, but I still found their absence annoying. 

Richard has said that he intended Visionaries to be a commentary on racism and discrimination. Essentially, what if we discriminated people based on eye color, rather than skin color? If this is meant as allegory, well, then we have some issues. Let's have a brief refresher on terms. Allegory is a form a storytelling where everything in the story is meant to be a stand-in for something else. Applicability, by contrast, is where a story can be interpreted numerous way because it is written in such a way that it could apply to numerous things, even those the author might not have known about. If we interpret Visionaries as an allegory, then we have a problem. 

In our world, white supremacists claim that whites are inherently superior to other races, despite there being no evidence to support such claims. In the world of Visionaries, the Visionaries claim to be superior to the Dead Eyes...and they're absolutely correct. Yeah, doesn't really work as an anti-racism allegory. However, if we take the audio drama as applicable, then we could see it as applying to discrimination against the physically handicapped, but also having some elements of racial discrimination. Applicability would also work because Visionaries don't seem to care much about skin color anymore. Though, as mentioned, that just means they focus on eye color. The official artwork does seem to show the slaves as multiracial. They also look like they got lost on their way to a Mad Max themed BDSM club, but I digress. 

As for the characters, I struggled to keep track of who was who, which is never a good sign. I just didn't find that any of them really made much of an impact on me. I'd also like to take a moment to clarify a point. I know it sounds like I've been ragging on the official artwork, but I actually think it is quite good. It looks like something you'd find in a high-quality indie comic. Besides the castle and the slaves,my of get to see what the different colored eyes look like. 

Look, I need to be perfectly honest with you guys. This isn't the sort of podcast I'd normally seek out: especially after I realized just what kind of podcast this really is. It's not that I'm opposed to this kind of fantasy. The Two Princes is set in a fantasy world, and I very much enjoyed it. Though, it took a considerably different tone than Visionaries does. 

Now, that having been said, I must give Visionaries the benefit of the doubt here. I still encourage all of you reading this to checkout Visionaries. It might not have been my cup of tea, but maybe it will appeal to you in was that it doesn't for me. At the end of the day, it is important to try things for yourself. It didn't matter what other people say or think about an audio drama, what matters is what you think, even if that goes against the consensus. I give you all full permission to like things I don't like, and to dislike things I do like. I will not hold it against you. 

In sort, listen to Visionaries and decide what you think about it yourself. Season one is only five episodes long, and the episodes themselves aren't very long in length. You can easily binge it in one sitting. So, even if you don't like it, you won't have lost too much time. 

Well, I think that covers everything for now. I will see you guys next time. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Audio File: The TEMP

I've already established, on multiple occasions, that I'm happy to help anyone who ask me to review their audio drama podcasts. I don't really have any more preamble to add, so let's jump right into it. We're taking a look at The TEMP

The TEMP follows a man named Bernie Pfelger. He's a temporary worker, a temp if you will. He has worked many strange jobs, with many strange employers. We are joining him on all the wacky misadventures in his quest to find permanent employment. I realize that isn't much of a summary, but I promise that this is a good show. 

I was approached by series creator Michael Wilhelm to review this audio drama. He noticed my frequent posting of reviews in the Audio Drama Lovers Facebook group. I said yes, after I took care of a couple other reviews, and now here we are. 

A few general thoughts before we delve into the individual episodes. The TEMP is recorded before a live audience. The first few episodes were recorded in a coffee shop with an audience of about thirty. Later episodes were recorded in a television studio with a slightly smaller audience, but the microphone was better able to record audience reactions. So yes, that is real laughter you are hearing in the episodes. 

The acting is good, but it felt like something was off when I first listened to The TEMP. I guess recording in front of a lives audience does result in a different sound that recording in a studio. It's also a bit more barebones compared to most audio dramas. Not as much music or sound effects as most other audio dramas. The dialogue and acting certainly carry the show, but there were a couple times I felt that a little music, or a touch more of sound effects would have gone a long way. 

The humor and writing are very reminiscent of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Stuff like The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo and the like. That's interesting because Hanna-Barbera cartoons were often criticized by animation veterans as being illustrated radio plays, due to how dialogue-heavy they were. Of course, that was kind of a necessity due to the limited animation style Hanna-Barbera utilized. And some would argue the dialogue was part of the charm of those shows. 

Okay, now let's move onto the individual episodes. Episode One is called "Voices." It sets up the basis premise of the series. Bernie is working a terrible job for a terrible boss. He decides to use his knack for doing impressions to get back at the boss. This works, but he gets fired, and thus we have our series. Okay, got to admit, this was the weakest episode of the bunch. The series was still trying to find its footing, and the humor came across as corny rather than charming. Well, let's leave this one behind and move on to Episode Two, what I consider to be the true start of the series. 

Episode Two is titled "Child's Play." Bernie is hired to work at a video game company. It is a very youth oriented start-up. In fact, Bernie is the oldest person there. Oh, and did I mention that the second oldest employee is eleven? Yeah, not only is the company aimed at kids, it is also run by kids. Bernie is hired to wear a high-tech mascot suit at conventions. It seems like a fairly simple and fun job. What could possibly go wrong? 

This is the episode where the series really found its footing, and is the one I recommend starting with. The true charm of The TEMP is having Bernie, our everyman, finding himself in absurd and unusual situations. The suit he wears did sound kind of cool. It has its own internal air conditioning system, and the face of the mask is synchronized with the facial movements of the wearer. If I did have one criticism of the episode, and I admit this is more of a nitpick than anything, it would be that some of the stuff the kids like seemed a bit outdated. For example, it was pretty strange that there were no Fortnight references, despite the company being run by and for kids. 

The kids also have cubical so based on things from cartoons. One kid has a cubical shaped like the Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo. Okay, that's acceptable, and fitting, given how similar to a Hanna-Barbera cartoon The TEMP is. Except another kid had Snoopy's doghouse. I'm not so sure The Peanuts are as popular as they used to be. Though the kid with a pineapple cubical was a nice touch. If you're wondering what that one is, answer the following question: who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Though I'd also add that it was odd that the superhero represented in the meeting room were all DC, but no Marvel. Especially odd given how big the MCU is. Though, like I said, these are just minor nitpicks. Overall, I greatly enjoyed this episode. 

Of course, given the nature of the show, we know that Bernie's going to lose his job by the end of the episode. In this case, he showed his wife Penny the suit, but it went into lockdown mode while she was wearing it, and the paramedics have to come cut her out. Bernie explain at work the next day that it happened when he and his wife were messing around in the bedroom. Good thing he was the only adult at the company, or else someone might think he was making an inappropriate sex joke, and he'd wind-up in hot water. All in all, and excellent episode. 

Episode Three is titled "Beauty Treatment." Bernie has gotten a job at a cosmetics company where he is surrounded by beautiful women all day. His coworker are all very nice and very friendly; especially since he's pretty much the only man at the company. This makes Penny worried that Bernie is going to have an affair sooner or later. 

We had some technical issues with this episode. I only got sound out of one earbud. And no, it wasn't a problem with my headphones. I checked, it worked just fine on everything but this episode. A problem such as that is a major issue for a podcast episode. Were I not listening for review, I probably would have skipped this episode because of this. Thankfully, Michael immediately fixed this issue when I brought it to his attention, and now all is well.

Technical issues aside, this was another well-written episode. Penny's fears were for nothing. Bernie only has eyes for her. So he quits the job so she won't have to worry anymore...well, that and he's allergic to the perfume that the company specializes in.  There really isn't much more for me to add here other than that, apart from the sound issues, this was a really great episode and I enjoyed it. 

Episode Four is titled "Detour." Bernie gets hired as a hearse driver for a funeral company. Unfortunately, he has a terrible sense of direction. So he has a handy GPS installed in the hearse. But what's going to happen when he accidentally resets the GPS? 

I very much related to this episode. Driving has always made me nervous, and I'm not the best at improvising. I used to have a GPS, but I lost it, that's how bad I am with finding my way. Thankfully, I've got the Google Maps app installed on my iPhone now, and that helps a lot. I liked the scene where Bernie takes the hearse to a drive-thru and orders in his vampire voice. The cashier assumes he's joking about the hearse, but nearly has a heart attack when Bernie pulls around. I can kind of understand why everyone was mad that Bernie didn't make it to the funeral on time. I sort of can, but come on, it isn't Bernie's fault that the dead are always late to their engagements. 

All of this having been said, the audio issues from the last episode persisted in this episode. Thankfully, this has also been resolved, and all is well with the world once again. 

Episode Five is titled "Temp Games." Bernie is competing against several other temps for one of seven positions at a company. And when I say competing, I mean like on a game show. Bernie is face tests of strength, cunning, and tasks that actually have little to do with actual office work, but they sure are entertaining to watch. 

First off, I'm happy to see that the audio issues of the previous two episodes are completely absent here, and remain so for the other two episodes after this one. This episode kind of reminded me of The Next Food Network Star. It's that show Food Network does every few years to pick a new headliner for a new show. Said new shows never seem to stick around too long, unless your name is Guy Fieri. Though some of the other winners occasionally show up as judges on other shows. Food Network Star will make the contestant do all sorts of crazy things that don't really have much to do with having a show on Food Network. For example, one challenge is that you have to keep filming even though the lights go out, or something falls over. In real life, production would stop and those issues would be fixed, but the challenge makes for better television. That, and Food Network can probably assure that the winner will be reasonably loyal to them. Especially ironic in that Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis constantly mumbled and failed to look at the camera when they started out. 

Where am I going with this? Well, Bernie finds himself in a very similar situation. One challenge is to change the toner on a copy machine, but he must climb a rope to get to the toner. Another challenge is to answer what do when your printer isn't working. Giving three wrong answers eliminates you from the competition. Bernie gets two strikes when he says he ask other people for help. Then, in frustration, says he'd fix it himself, and this turns out to be the correct answer. A similar challenge has "I don't know" as the correct answer. So, Bernie bumbles his way towards victory and even becomes team captain. Of course, given the nature of The TEMP, he gets stabbed in the back at the last minute, and all his trials and tribulations were for naught. 

I suppose this episode could be read as a commentary on the struggles of finding employment in a struggling economy...nah, I'm overthinking it. This is, however, another excellent episode from The TEMP

Episode Six is titled "Love Language." Bernie get hired as the personal assistant to an old ex-girlfriend of his. She's married to a famous writer, and they're both very cerebral people who pride themselves on their intelligence. Bernie and Penny are invited over for dinner, but given what show this is, things go pear-shaped before long. 

I'm also happy to report that there are no sound issue for this episode either. So, we have an episode where Penny plays a major role almost from the start.   We also get some insight into her relationship with Bernie. She married him because he made her laugh.  Of course, after several years of marriage, the voice impressions got rather annoying. Still, despite it all she does still love him very much, and the feeling is mutual. Of course, Penny runs foul of what ought to be a golden rule: never correct smart people when they're on a roll. So for once, Bernie loses his job for reasons outside his control. But hey, that's just how the show goes. And this is another great episode.

Episode Seven is titled "Flexibility." Bernie gets a job working for a military contractor. It's mostly stuff like writing technical manuals or drawing schematics. However, the boss runs things with military precision. That means no listening to music, no joking around, and pretty much no creativity or self-expression. The other workers are miserable, but Bernie is determined to help them express themselves.  

Maybe it's because I've grown up around military types, but Bernie's boss seemed oddly mellow for a military guy. I would have expected him to yell more, or be more boisterous. Thought that was just a minor nitpick. This was another episode I greatly enjoyed, and that was free of audio issues. Some of Bernie's coworkers had cool sounding ideas. One guy tacks rubberbands to the wall, and puts little note cards explains their fake history. For example, one is said to have been found on the Yellow Brick Road, and is claimed to have held up the Scarecrow's pants. Another person draws animals, like butterflies and rabbits, in the technical manuals. Since the manuals must be followed to the letter, then means there are navy ships with hidden butterflies and bunnies drawn on their inner workings. So, they were all subtly resisting even before Bernie showed up. 

Still, good that he helped them stand-up to the boss. We all know that Bernie is doomed to fail eventually, but he's endearing enough as a character that we want to see him succeed, even if only briefly. Another great episode from The TEMP

And so that's all the episodes of The TEMP that have been released thus far. Despite a rocky first episode, this is overall a great series. The writing, while not the most sophisticated I've ever seen, always manages to show the listener a good time. I'm glad I've gotten to listen to it, and I happily recommend it to all of you. 

Well, I think that's should do it from me for now.  I will see you guys next time. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Audio File: Sticks Shift Incorporated: Season 1

 I'm always happy to take requests for reviews from audio drama and other fiction podcasts. However, I maintain a policy of strict honesty. I will not hesitate to critique any elements I feel are lacking or otherwise not working. With all of that in mind, this brings us to the podcast we'll be reviewing today. We're taking a look at season one of Sticks Shift Incorporated.

Sticks Shift Incorporated follows a young non-binary person named Skyler. They are down on their luck given that post-college life turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be. Still, they are keeping busy working for a sushi restaurant and for a ride share company named Sticks Shift Incorporated. However, all is not as it seems. Strange things have been happening around Vancouver. Before long, Skyler finds themselves in the middle of a war between Heaven, Hell, Mount Olympus, The Fae, and just about every other realm from mythology and religion. And what does Sticks Shift Incorporated have to do with all of this?

I was approached by series creator Ditrie Marie Bowie to review this podcast. I post my reviews to the r/audiodrama subreddit, and that often attracts the attention of audio drama creators hoping to promote their shows. As previously stated, I'm more than happy to oblige. Of course, at the time only one episode had been released, so I had to wait a bit to get a proper fell for the show. Well, what do I think now that I've listen to the entirety of season one? I see potential, but there's also room for improvement.

Okay, so the synopsis was incredibly vague and didn't even hint at all of the gods and mythology stuff. Yes, I technically spoiled that for you, but believe me when I say you'll be in much better headspace if you know all of that going in. The first half of the seasons seemed to be just wandering around aimlessly and tossing out random weirdness for the sake of tossing out random weirdness. Having to wait for episodes weekly was a new experience, as usually I just binge a series all at once. Of course, that is starting to change for me, as I am listening to season two of Timestorm on a weekly basis.

Also, how do I put this delicately? Without going into detail, I've had some rather unpleasant encounters with the non-binary community. As such, this podcast was kind of starting out with a handicap. All of that being said, I do my best to keep an open mind when I am asked to review a podcast, and that aspect didn't really bother me in the long run. Of course, that coupled with how every episode ends with a statement that the series is set and created in the unceded traditional territory of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Coast Salish people, made me think "Good grief, what did I just agree to" a few times in the beginning. Of course, as time went on, and the podcast showed no signs of getting too crazy, I got over it. And again, Timestorm does that too now, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much.

Unfortunately, the wait between episode made the plot felt like it was dragging out for way too long. I was practically drumming my fingers thinking "Get to the point already!" The first half of season one of Sticks Shift Incorporated felt like it was drawing from the JJ Abrams School of Mystery Box Writing. Well, halfway through the season the mystery box finally opened, but you already know that because I told it to you at the start.

Okay, let's go into a bit more detail. Mr. Katakosmos, the CEO of Sticks Shift Incorporated, is in fact Hades, Greek god of the underworld. The name of the company is a pun on the River Styx. That means that Skyler has, in fact, been ferrying the souls of the dead to the afterlife. That's the reason Skyler faces penalties for driving non-clients in the car. The living aren't supposed to ride on the ferry of the Styx. Apparently, the Olympians are trying to expand their territory outside of Greece. Also, several of Skyler's acquaintances turn out to be demons and angels. Heaven is having trouble because God has disappeared. Oh, and there's this prophecy that says one day a human will sit on the throne of Heaven. So, Heaven and Hell are also gunning for Skyler.

Fortunately, Skyler has some allies on their side. Skyler's mysterious benefactor is Wisakedjak, better known as Whisky Jack, a trickster figure from the mythology of the Algonquin people. He's been doing his best to keep the Fae from Celtic Mythology away from Skyler. Yeah, turns out that mythical beings can only interfere with people who have ancestry from their cultures. Skyler has Celtic, Greek, French Catholic, and Cree ancestry. Hence, why everyone is after them. Also, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures can't expose their true nature to humans, or else they explode into dust. However, there are a select few humans who have a genetic mutation that allows them to see mythical creatures as they truly are without said creatures exploding. Skyler is one of these individuals.

So the set-up is sort of like a Canadian version of American Gods. I guess Canadian Gods just didn't have the same ring to it as Sticks Shift Incorporated. Although I can't say that I'm too thrilled about Hades being cast in the villain role. Way too many works of fiction portray him as the Ancient Greek equivalent of Satan. In reality, Hades wasn't any worse than the other gods. In fact, in many way he was better than the other Greek gods. Hades was firm, but fair, for all are equal in death. Well, the Ancient Greeks would say it depended on if you got proper funeral rights, and how you lived your life, but you know what I mean.

Granted, this is softened a bit by the implication that Zeus is that one really calling the shot, and that Hades is submissive to him. I'm hoping this turns out to be the case in future seasons, and that the podcast didn't lazily turn Hades into a villain. Hades being head of Sticks Shift Incorporated also explains a minor issue I initially had. It seemed weird that an evil CEO would be so open-minded about having a non-binary employee. But him being a Greek god clears that up, as the Ancient Greeks were more open-minded about that sort of thing. I will also say that

I'm glad to see Whisky Jack involved in the happens. Always good to see Indigenous Mythology play a role in pop culture. Especially when it is accurately represented. This adds another dimension to Skyler being non-binary. Many Indigenous tribes in Canada believe in concept of being two-spirited. Roughly, this means to be both male and female at the same time, but also a category onto itself. Two-spirited people got to perform special rituals for the tribe, and held positions of honor and authority. However, you have to be careful about using the term if you aren't Indigenous. Due to the history of White Canadians trying to stamp-out their culture, many Indigenous Canadians don't take kindly to non-Indigenous people adopting the two-spirit identity.  

Okay, now that all sounds like an interesting premise for an audio drama. However, I would have preferred to have known that going in rather than discovering it halfway through the first season. First impressions are everything when it comes to fiction. No matter if you are writing a podcast or a book series, a good first impression is non-negotiable. If you fail to hook the audience by the first installment, be that a first season or a first novel, then we have a serious problem. Serialized podcasts have an additional wrinkle that the first few episodes are especially critical in this regard.

When I started out with Sticks Shift Incorporated I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There were certainly no hints of the urban fantasy mythology crossover that I eventually got. It all just felt like weird things were being tossed around for the sake of tossing out weird stuff, a la Welcome to Night Vale. In fact, were it not for that fact that I was specifically asked to review Sticks Shift Incorporated, I probably would have dropped the podcast before I got to the point that everything is revealed.

Season one rather feels as though it is setting up the premise of the show. I would have preferred if we had gotten the reveal from the get-go and then expanded upon things from there. Of course, now that we've gotten this out of the way in the first season, this should mean that season two will be smooth sailing. That is, assuming that aren't going to be any other mystery boxes in need of opening. 

 Okay, time for the million-dollar question, would I recommend Sticks Shift Incorporated? Well, for now I will give a tentative yes. Despite its initial flaws, I see great potential in this audio drama. Stick with what you're good at, urban fantasy mythology crossover, and leave out the mysteries. However, this is all going to depend on how season two turns out. Sticks Shift Incorporated impressed me with the second half of its first season; let's see if it can keep up the momentum.

Hey, I've been surprised before. The Program started off in a very similar position, and it is now one of my favorite audio drama podcasts. So, you never know.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Audio File: Miriam and Youssef

So, the audio drama we're looking at deals with the origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the founding of the State of Israel. Well, I can see absolutely zero ways that this could go pear-shaped. For those of you who couldn't tell, that was sarcasm. Well, no point in putting it off any further, so let's just get into it. We're taking a look at the audio drama Miriam and Youssef.

Miriam and Youssef tells the story of the British Mandate of Palestine and the founding of the State of Israel. It does so by following a Jewish woman named Miriam and a Palestinian man named Youssef. Miriam came to the Mandate of Palestine to escape persecution in Poland, and is optimistic about the future of the fledgling Jewish State. Youssef was born and raised in the village of Deir Yassin, just outside of Jerusalem. He's cautiously optimistic about the changes the British bring to Palestine, but fate has other plans. It is these two who will serve as our eyes as we explore the history of the British Mandate of Palestine. We begin in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration and the founding of the Mandate, and end in 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel.

Miriam and Youssef is created by Steve Walters and is a production of the BBC World Service. Steve previously teamed up with the BBC World Service to create the excellent audio drama Fall of the Shah. It is because of this that I was willing to give Miriam and Youssef the benefit of the doubt. And it would seem that my faith was not misplaced. So, a bit more background about Steve Waters. He worked on a kibbutz in Israel when he was a teenager. Kibbutz are a type of Israeli communal farms. So, he obviously got to know many Israelis, but he also met several Palestinians and learned their stories and perspectives.

As part of his research for Miriam and Youssef, Steve worked with several Israeli historians and scholars who have begun to question the traditional narrative of the founding of the State of Israel. These scholars argue that traditional narratives largely ignore the Palestinian perspective, and downplay Israel's less than shining moments. Was he right to do this? Are these scholars really worth their salt? I freely admit that I don't know the answer. I'm just letting you know so that you know what perspective Miriam and Youssef is aiming for.

For what it's worth, Steve has stated that he believes the creation of a Jewish state in the Levant was justified and necessary, especially after the Holocaust. That having been said, he also believes that Israel did wrong by the Palestinians.

Well, time to see how well I can navigate this mine field. So, what do I think? No nation is perfect or immune to criticism, and that includes Israel. I would say there probably were mistake made along the way. On the other hand, few other nations have their right to exist so often called into question. I also think they don't get enough credit for the good that they do. Israel is the only nation in the Middle East where you can have gay pride parades. Almost all of the Arab gay rights organizations are headquartered in Israel, because there is nowhere else in the Middle East they can do so. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of conservative religious Jewish in the Knesset, and in Israeli society in general. Still, Israel remains far more secular and liberal than pretty much all of its neighbors. The Middle East needs all the secularism and liberalism it can get.

On the flip side, Palestine is dominated by Muslim fundamentalists and other radicals who aren't above bombing school buses and targeting civilians. There's a reason Israel needs its Iron Dome missile defense system. One State? Two State? I don't know, I really don't know. Honestly, there is no easy answer, I don't expect a solution anytime soon. Still, there is a small, but hopefully growing, movement among young Jews and Palestinians living in Israel to move on from the past, and work towards a common future. We can only hope this is the case. Also, Arabs account for nearly twenty percent of Israel's population. Not all Palestinians live in the Palestinian Territories. Some do live in Israel proper. Just letting you all know where my thoughts and biases are.

Well, now that I have alienated just about everyone by discussing modern-day politics, let's get back to the podcast. This means we now get to discuss 1917-1948 politics. I will say that it is interesting that the series begins in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration. Usually, works exploring the origins of Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, begin in 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel. By contrast, that is where Miriam and Youssef ends. You don't really see the British Mandate of Palestine explored in fiction very often, so this was a nice change of pace. This means we also get the preservative of British people who moved to Palestine during this time. We do so through the eyes of, arguably, our third main character: Harry Lister. He's a British civil servant stationed in Jerusalem. Unlike most of the other civil servants, he makes an effort to connect with the locals and learn their culture. He winds up befriending both Miriam and Youssef over the course of the series.

In fact, the podcast actually argues that the British are most to blame for the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Throughout the series we see the British do only the bare minimum required to keep peace between the Jews and Palestinians. Even this rarely proves sufficient. The podcast argues that the British made no effort to integrate the Jews and Palestinians, and often inadvertently fanned the flames of resentment. It's rather telling that, by the end of the series, both Jew and Palestinian alike are revolting against the British. The episode set in 1942 is especially sad. It intersperses the story of Miriam and Youssef with the story of a boat of Jewish refugees desperate to escape the Holocaust. They arrive in Palestine, only to be turned away because the British are limiting Jewish immigration to appease the Arabs. The ship spends several weeks docked at a Turkish port before it is torpedoed. It is a somber reminder that Miriam is lucky she got to Palestine when she did.

Interesting that the British are assigned the most blame. That's not a perspective you see too often in discussions about the Arab-Israeli Conflict. But the series doesn't just leave it at that. If anything, the blame is placed on the fear and mistrust both sides had for each other. Distrust leads to fear, fear leads to hate, hate leads to violence. This is best demonstrated in episode two. Jews and Arabs are doing work near the Western Wall, and some small bits of rock fall. The Arabs and Jews immediately get into a fight with each other. Worse, the Arabs have been wary about the Jews building kibbutz, and use the riot as an excuse to attack the kibbutz. Earlier, the Jews has been debating about if the kibbutz needed to have more security, or if they were worrying for nothing. It would seem they had good reason to be wary.

Now let's talk about our two leads. Miriam starts off very optimistic about the possibility of a Jewish state in Palestine. By the end of the series, she's still cautiously optimistic, though it is an optimism tempered with the world weariness of life experience. She quickly rises through the ranks of leadership within her local kibbutz. She also winds up working for the British administration in Palestine, which is how she meets Harry.

Miriam also rubs shoulders with several figures involved in the founding of Israel. For example, she frequently mentions having a cousin named Ben Gurion. When we finally meet him, it becomes clear that he is David Ben Gurion, one of the founding fathers of Israel. I can best describe him as the George Washington of Israel, as he was the first prime minister of Israel. In other figures, Miriam also works as the assistant to Rabbi Judah Magnes. He was a rabbi from New York City who was one of the leading voices of the Reform Judaism movement. He was a major propionate of the One-State Solution, with him envisioning Palestine as a multinational joint Arab-Jewish state. I guess he envisioned it as a federation of sorts.

Miriam's views on the Arabs shift throughout the series. She starts out reasonably open to coexistence, but then the attack on the kibbutz happens. Miriam's mother is among the causalities, which rather sours Miriam's views on the Arabs. As the series progresses, however, she begins to disavow the more extreme elements of Jewish resistance. Her major turning point when she participates in the bombing of the King David Hotel and the French Embassy. By that point, the Jews had grown angry with the British for failing to protect them from the Arabs, and for turning away Holocaust refugees; so the Jews began armed resistance against the British. Miriam grows guilty and try to warn the hotel, but it proves too little too late. Well, that and real history said the bombing had to happen.

Youssef is, in many ways, not all that different than Miriam. He starts out uncertain about the Jews and the British. He finds opportunity by attending British-run schools, and working for the British civil service, but these prove unsatisfying. He frequently finds himself falling in and out with various extremist groups. Usually, he'll try to do things the nice way, but then circumstances force his hand. In so, the series ask the question of just what drives someone to become an extremist? Ultimately, however, he rejects extremism, but doesn't necessarily accept peace. By the end of the series he's world weary and jaded, but accepts things as they are. The same can be said of Miriam.

Now, I do have a few criticisms of the series. For example, I felt like it seriously downplayed the role of religion in the conflict. Now, it is certainly true that there were more factors than just religion that went into the Arab-Israeli Conflict. For example, many Arabs weren't keen on having a largely scalar and westernized people moving in on their territory. However, to flat out ignore the role of religion in the conflict is, I would say, a major oversight. Also, I couldn't help but feel that Youssef and his family were awfully open-minded and liberal for their culture and time-period.  Arab anti-Semitism had its roots way before the British Mandate of Palestine was established. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Prophet Mohammad himself. There were some Jews and Muslims living together in the Middle East, true. However, just because they weren't loping each other's heads off doesn't mean they got along particularly well.

Now, you could argue that Youssef and his family weren't meant to represent all Palestinians. Likewise, Miriam and her family aren't meant to represent all Israelis. It is the focus on the human element of the story that makes this podcast work so well. Still, there were a few times it felt like the podcast tried a little too hard to be sympathetic to the Palestinians. For example, at one point, Youssef bemoans that his father has been unjustly imprisoned. He conveniently leaves out the fact that his father was imprisoned because a hateful speech he gave caused the Arabs to riot against the Jews. The riot eventually leads to the attack on the kibbutz that claimed the life of Miriam's mother.

I think the podcast might have acknowledged this in a way. In episode three, Miriam and Rabbi Magnes are discussing the kibbutz massacre, and Magnes basically says "well, it is understandable why the Arabs attacked." Obviously, Miriam is having none of it and breaks-off their friendship. Even if Magnes might have had a point, it probably wasn't such a good idea to say so just after Miriam had lost her mother. He definitely could have been more tactful and sensitive.

On the other hand, there were plenty of well-written and powerful moments. The most notable of these was the depiction of the Deir Yassin Massacre. For those who don't know, Deir Yassin used to be a village located just outside Jerusalem. It had a population of about 600. During the War of 1948, a far-right Jewish paramilitia attacked the village, almost all of whom were unarmed civilians. To be fair, Israeli leaders, and international Jews such as Albert Einstein, condemned the massacre. All the same, it became a major rallying cry for the Arabs. Mind you, most Arabs don't love Palestinians. In fact, Palestinians are considered the bottom of the totem pole in most Arab nations. The Arabs primarily supported them to get back at Israel. Pretty much the only Middle Eastern nation, besides Israel, were Palestinians aren't still in camps is Jordan. And they aren't in a rush to give citizenship to Palestinian refugees, because if they did, Jordanians would be a minority in their own country.

Despite all of this, and despite acknowledging the massacre, the Israeli government hasn't really done anything to commemorate it. There were calls for the village to be abandoned permanently, but these were rejected. In fact, this is briefly depicted in the show. Today, a mental hospital sits on the former sit of the village. You can still see the ruins of the village in the hospital courtyards. Like the bombing of the King David Hotel, it is very much an example of the persecuted becoming the persecutors, and the hunted becoming the hunters.

Still, overall, I did very much enjoy Miriam and Youssef. Steve Waters said that originally, he wanted the series to be forty episodes long, but the BBC made him cut it down to ten. Perhaps if it has been forty episodes long, we would have gotten more nuance, well, more than what we already got. He also said that he could easily have made it about all the political maneuverings within the British government that allowed for the creation of the British Mandate of Palestine. Hey, I'd give it a listen. More than just that, I'd love to see what Steve could do with the history of Israel post-1948. Perhaps we'll get a sequel series one day. For the moment, though, that is only in our dreams. Of course, I'm also eager to see what Steve Waters can do with other eras of World History.

So there you have it. Miriam and Youssef tells the story of the British Mandate of Palestine and the founding of the State of Israel. It does so by examining these events through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It is a well-made and well-written podcast, and I happily recommend it.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Audio File: The Two Princes

I've said this before, but if I hear a podcast recommended enough, sooner or later I'll take a look at it to see what all the fuss is about. Sometimes I find the shows to be severely overhyped. Other times, however, I discover that the show in question is indeed worthy of all of the praise. The show we'll be taking a look at today falls into that second category. We're taking a look at The Two Princes.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far way, the King of the West and the King of the East faced each other in battle. Both kings wanted their kingdom to dominate the other, but their fighting caused a magical forest to sprout. Ah, but this wasn't one of those happy magical forests. It was a fearsome dangerous place that threatened to consume both the Kingdom of the West and the Kingdom of the East. All hope rests on their two sons. When two princes enter the Hallow of the Two Kings, upon reaching their eighteenth year, one kingdom shall rise, and the curse shall be broken.

Rupert, the Prince of the West, has led a fairly sheltered life. His mother, Queen Lavinia, has filled his life with parties and balls, and his trying her best to get Rupert married off. Rupert, for his part, prefers curling up with the good book, and cares not for the maidens he mother constantly tries to set him up with. Rupert decides that he must venture into the enchanted forest and break the curse. Along the way he meets Amir, Prince of the East, and a skilled fighter and statesman. There's plenty of adventure, comedy, and entertaining times as the two princes race to fulfill their destiny. Along the way, they were discover feeling for each other they never thought possible.

What can I say? I absolutely adore this audio drama. The humor reminds me a bit of the Shrek movies. And I mean that as a compliment. I love all of the Shrek movies and specials. A lot of people do so ironically, but I unironically love them. The Two Princes occasionally pokes fun, in an affectionate way, at various fantasy tropes, and liberally indulges in anachronisms. For example, you have characters who say things like "LOL" and "OMG" despite the setting being vaguely Medieval European. And there's one point where Rupert talks about how he thinks Sam and Diane should get together. It sounds like an anachronistic reference to Cheers, but then it turns out Sam and Diane are servants who work in the castle.

The characters will also often swear in the name various figures from Arthurian Legend, despite living in a separate fantasy world. There's also a point when Rupert nearly get eaten by a carnivorous plant that disguises herself of Flora, the Roman goddess of plants. Well, she never calls herself a Roman goddess, but she does call herself a goddess.

Also, I just love the voice acting. Yes, it is all very well performed, but there's another reason I love it: the accents. I know I'm going to get flack for this, but personally, I get tired of everyone on fantasy having British accents. Give me some American accents! Thankfully, The Two Princes give me my much longed-for American accents. Oh, there are a couple characters with British accents, but they are minor characters. All the major characters have American accents, and I love The Two Princes for that, among many other reasons.

However, also much like Shrek, The Two Princes more often than not plays the various fantasy tropes perfectly straight, and wholeheartedly embraces them. In fact, The Two Princes is very much a Heroic Fantasy story, but with lots of jokes and character development. Well, that and the interracial gay romance, but we'll talk more about that in a minute.

For now, we need to discuss what exactly Heroic Fantasy is. Heroic Fantasy is the middle ground between High Fantasy and Low Fantasy. There's less focus on geopolitics of different nations, and the setting is mostly there for the heroes to have adventures and quests in. It's also more hopeful and optimistic than Low Fantasy, and the heroes are genuinely heroic. The problems, while serious, tend to be more localized, rather than the potentially world destroying kind you see in High Fantasy. So less Lord of the Rings, and more Dungeons & Dragons, or perhaps Conan the Barbarian. Very closely related to the Sword & Sorcery genre, though that takes a somewhat darker approach.

Our two leads are a study in contrast. Rupert has been sheltered for most of his life, so he isn't much of a fighter. He usually tries to solve his problems with his wits and cunning, but his lack of real-world experience often proves to be a stumbling block. Still, he has his moments. For example, when he and Amir are attacked by a band of traveling thespians, Rupert, with Amir's help, comes up with a plan to disarm the performers. They do so by pretending to be aspiring actors who are looking for constructive criticism of their play, which requires them to use all the weapons the actors have.

By contrast, Amir has been trained to be a prince practically since birth. He's skilled with the sword, but also knows the art of diplomacy and state crafting. He's noble and has a strong sense of honor and duty. He's also kind to the low classes. For much of the first season, Rupert hides his identity from Amir, pretending to be a thief named Fitzroy. After getting of his initial disgust at "Fitzroy's" choice of career, Amir is shown to treat him with genuine respect, and comes to enjoy Rupert's company.

The feeling is very much mutual. As I have previously mentioned, a big selling point of The Two Princes is that it features Rupert and Amir developing an interracial gay romance. Rupert is white, and Amir...well, it isn't quite clear what race he is. The official series art clearly depicts Amir as non-white, but he could be black, or Indian, maybe Middle Eastern, maybe even some combo thereof. The Kingdom of the East seems to have the same vaguely Medieval European, with some elements of modern-day America, culture as the Kingdom of the West, with perhaps a dash of Middle Eastern for flavor. All that aside, I thought Rupert and Amir's romance was well-written and very cute.

Also, Rupert and Amir have a pet dragon named Porridge. They found him as an egg when they were exploring a cave, and he imprinted on them when he hatched. Rupert has always had a great love of dragons, especially since they were believed to be extinct. Of course, it turns out account of the extinction of dragons were greatly exaggerated. And no, I don't mean just because of Porridge.

In other secondary characters, I loved Sir Joan. She wants to be a knight like her father and grandfather, but her father and the other knights disapproves because she's a girl. Still, she proves herself, and Rupert and Amir's mothers task her with helping them find their sons. She also transforms Rupert's former suitors into an army of badass warriors. I really liked Sir Joan, and I wish she'd gotten more screentime. It might have been nice to have her join Rupert and Amir. Now, I can understand that this might have interfered with the development of their relationship. Oh well, maybe in a future season.

Okay, from this point forward we are going to talk about season two. I should also point out that season two is exclusively available on Spotify. As such, we're going talk about the ending for season one of The Two Princes. So, if you don't want any spoilers, now would probably be a good time to get off the train.

Last chance, you sure you want to continue?

Well, okay, if everyone who wants off is gone, let's begin.

Rupert and Amir make it the Hallow of the Two Kings. Their fathers are still there, but have been twisted into a pair of evil trees. This explains where the mysterious whispers Rupert has been hearing came from.

So, Rupert and Amir prepare to do battle, but then Rupert confesses his feeling for Amir. Before long, Amir does the same, and the next thing you know they're kissing. Not long after that the curse is broken, and the forest disappears. Surprise! The prophecy went that one kingdom would rise, because the two kingdoms will be united when Rupert and Amir marry each other. I must admit, I really like how the curse was broken, and the twist of the prophecy. The ending is really heartwarming, and our two princes certainly earned their happily ever after.

So, with an excellent first season under its belt, how does The Two Princes handle season two? Quite well, actually. In fact, I'd say it just keeps getting better.

Season two begins with Rupert and Amir preparing for their wedding. They've decided to build their castle between the two kingdoms, right where the Hallow of the Two Kings used to be. Unfortunately, Malkia, the former sorceress queen of the Midlands, has come to reclaim her kingdom. Rupert and Amir manage to save the kingdom, but at the cost of Amir getting amnesia. Worse, Malkia is going to return with an army of ghosts to take the kingdom by force. Thankfully, our two princes receive help from a good sorceress, who send the, on a quest to get ingredients from a potion to restore Amir's memories and defeat Malkia.

This season sees Rupert and Amir switch roles. Rupert has to be the proactive one who faces-off against the various threats. Amir, by contrast, has become scared of his own shadow, is easily distracted, and wants to be called Chad. It allows Rupert to grow as a character, while providing moments of comedy with Amir. There are also moments where Rupert questions if it is moral for him to restore Amir's memories. The is presented as a moral dilemma, but I call bullshit. Yes, amnesiac Amir will be gone with Rupert restores his memories, but old Amir will be gone if he doesn't. Why does amnesiac Amir, or Chad as he calls himself, have any more of a right to exist just because he's the one in the driver's seat? Doesn't old Amir get a say? It comes across as a weak attempt at drama, and a forced conflict.

Also, at the beginning of the season we learn that the royal baker refuses to make a cake for Rupert and Amir's wedding. And the royal florist also refuses to take part in the wedding. This is clearly mean to be a comment on the gay wedding cake debate, but it falls flat because The Two Princes is not set in our world. Rupert and Amir are, I assume, absolute monarchs. Couldn't they just throw the baker and florist in the dungeon, or threaten to have them beheaded, for refusing to make stuff for the wedding? Granted, both princes are wary about abusing their power because of their fathers, but still.

Thankfully, the moral dilemma doesn't play as big of a role in the plot as I might have made it seem. The quest itself is a lot of fun. One of the ingredients is unicorn horn, so Rupert and Amir travel to a menagerie in the hinterlands. Unfortunately, Rupert discovers that the menagerie was forced to eat its animals because the enchanted forest limited their food supply. And wouldn't you know it, that was the last unicorn in the world. Wow, Rupert and Amir really need to make a magical version of the Environmental Protection Agency. That would be pretty tragic, but what pushed it into comedy was that we're told the unicorn tasted like chicken.

The second item is the song of a siren. The siren they meet, named Lorelei, turns out to be surprisingly nice, and I hope she reappears in future seasons. She tries to seduce Rupert with her song, but it fails because he's gay. Amusingly, it turns out Rupert is the third gay person Lorelei has encountered. I must say that the third ingredient, hydra venom, was very well done. Each of the heads ask Rupert a different riddle, and it was a good opportunity to showcase Rupert's strength as a character.

Also, Sir Joan is back. She spends most of the seasons taking care of things so Rupert and Amir can go on their quest, but she's back all the same. She also has a girlfriend...sort of. Lady Cecily was head-over-heel for Rupert in the first seasons, but now she's got the hots for Sir Joan. This means the series has at least one confirmed bisexual character. For her part, Sir Joan isn't sure what to think of Lady Cecily, but there are hints that she'll come around to her eventually. Lady Cecily was my favorite of Rupert's hopeless suitors, mainly because she was the only one with a clearly defined personality, but still.

Well, I think that's everything of note without spoiling the ending of season two. So, there you have it. The Two Princes is a fun, funny, entertaining heroic fantasy audio drama with a well-written gay romance. Be sure to listen today, you'll be glad that you did. Remember, season two is exclusively available on Spotify.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.