Monday, November 20, 2017

Interview: Pelycosaur24

I'm taking a small break from my Riordan Retrospectives.  I've just gotten a major break with my writing career, and I need to focus on that for the moment.  However, I'm not going to leave you guys empty-handed.  I've got another interview today.  We've having a brief chat with Pelycosaur24 from DeviantArt.  She's made some really nice commissioned art for me, which I'll hopefully get to share with you guys soon.  So, without further ado, let's get started.

1) In your own words, tell us who you are

I am someone with a lot of different interests - which has led to four different university studies (I am currently working on my master’s thesis). My hobbies include experimental archaeology, archery, sword fighting and of course drawing.

2) I understand that you're from Austria. Can you tell the readers a bit about what life is like in Austria?

It is very different than life in America, I imagine, but I am very happy to live in Austria, what I love most about this country is the great balance between modern times and historical presence. Most cities have existed at least since the middle ages and there are a lot of old houses everywhere. But of course, we have a lot of nature too, mostly mountains and forests.

3) What got you into art?

I used to write short stories and wanted to get a better picture of my characters, so I started illustrating my stories

4) Is there any story behind your user name?

I just love mammal-like reptiles, but there is no particular story behind the name

5) What is a typical day like for you?

Since I joined the army 2 months ago, a typical day for me now begins at 6 am and consists mostly of marching and combat training.

6) What historical era is your favorite? Relatedly, what historical figure do you most admire?

That is a tough question, but I think I go with the roman republic. Corresponding with that one of the historical figures that fascinates me most is Tiberius Gracchus. The historical figure I most admire would probably be Archduke Charles, a 19th century Austrian military commander.

7) What is your favorite prehistoric creature and why?

My favorite Dinosaur has always been Iguanodon (also because I love the history of paleontology and the story of how Iguanodon was discovered), while my favorite prehistoric mammal is the cave bear (the most common prehistoric animal in Austria - 30.000 have been found in one cave near where I live).

8) Are there any works of fiction that you're a fan of?

I generally really love Pixar and DreamWorks movies (especially Kung Fu Panda), and I also really like the show Primeval.

9) Any advice for aspiring artists?

Just always keep practicing, and from time to time you can compare your drawings and reflect on your progress.

10) What are you working on at the moment?

I had a rather big drawing project where I drew lots of people from the Chalcolithic and now I am working on some backgrounds for them, and of course I have my Stone Age movie reviews that I write every other week.

11) What does the future hold for you?

Right now, I just want to get through basic training and finish my master’s thesis at the same time.  Then I will see what I do from there.

12) Any closing remarks, and where can the readers find you?

You can find my drawings at my DeviantArt page or on my Facebook page. I appreciate every like and favorite.  

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Riordan Retrospective: The Demigod Files

Welcome once again to the Riordan Retrospective.  For those of you just joining the fun, I'm taking a look back at the works of Rick Riordan, collectively known as the Riordanverse.  That means the Percy Jackson series, its sequels and its spin-offs.  Last time, we took a look back at The Battle of the Labyrinth.  This time, we're taking a look at The Demigod Files.

Now, this time is going to be a bit different; since we're looking back at a short story collection rather than a novel.  As such, this retrospective might run a bit shorter than the rest, but there's still lots of fun to be had.  Let's get started by talking about the stories themselves.  As per usual, beware of potential spoilers beyond this point. 

Our first story is entitled “Percy Jackson and the Stolen Chariot”.  Percy is at school when he looks out the window and sees Clarisse La Rue being attack by feather-shooting birds.  After getting excused from class, Percy learns that Clarisse is on a mission to retrieve Ares missing war chariot.  It's been stolen by her brothers, the gods Phobos and Deimos, who have hidden it at the Staten Island Zoo.  Percy and Clarisse have until sundown to get the chariot back to Ares temple, aka the USS Intrepid.

Overall, I thought that “Stolen Chariot” was a great way to expand on the worldbuilding of the Riordanverse.  We get the sense that Percy is having adventures even when he isn't at Camp Half-Blood.  This is also the first time that minor gods have played a major role in a story.  Granted, Janus appeared in Battle of the Labyrinth, but this time minor gods are front and center.  Also, this story confirmed a theory I'd long suspected: Percy can walk on water!  Albeit, it takes an extreme amount of concentration on his part.  The fact that the gods still have temples, of a sort, has...interesting implications.  We'll touch more on this when we get to next retrospective.

We also gain some interesting insights when Percy and Clarisse confront their greatest fears.  Not so much what their greatest fears were; Clarisse fear being a disappointment to Ares, and Percy fears that his friends would get hurt and he wouldn't be able to save them.  No, the interesting part is that Percy apparently counts Clarisse as one of his friends.  It really says something about how far they've come since the series began.  Rick Riordan originally posted this story, in three parts, to his blog back in 2007 to help hold readers over until book four came out.  So, chronologically, I'd say this story takes place between The Titan's Curse and The Battle of the Labyrinth.

Our next story is “Percy Jackson and the Bronze Dragon”.  Percy Jackson and Charles Beckendorf, son of Hephaestus, are on the same team in capture team in capture the flag.  Things are not looking very optimistic.  Athena Cabin and Ares Cabin are playing on the same team and kicking everyone's butts.  Things only get worse when Beckendorf is captured by a swarm of Myrmekes when trying to retrieve a bronze dragon head from their nest.  The head belongs to a mechanical dragon the used to help guard the camp.  Percy's going to have to team up with Annabeth and Silena Beauregard, daughter of Aphrodite, to save Beckendorf and put the bronze dragon back together.

In every series there's always a few ensemble darkhorses, as TV Tropes would put it.  They're those character who, even though they don't necessarily play a major role in a given work, but you love them anyway.  Everyone has their personal ensemble dark horse, but to me, it's always been Beckendorf and Silena.  I can't really explain why, but I've always been fond of them.  So, I was very happy that they both played starring roles in this short story.  These stories might seem like fun little side adventures, but they have actual relevance to the overall plot of the series.  The titular bronze dragon becomes incredibly significant in The Heroes of Olympus

In terms of chronology, I'd say that this story takes place between The Titan's Curse and The Battle of the Labyrinth.  It a plot point that Beckendorf wants to ask Silena to the Fourth of July fireworks show, the biggest dating event at Camp Half-Blood.  This is significant because Silena and Beckendorf didn't officially become a couple until the end of Battle of the Labyrinth.  Then again, that doesn't necessarily work out know what?  Don't question it, it's a story with Beckendorf and Silena, enjoy it for that alone.  It was also really nice to have a story set a Camp Half-Blood where the fate of the world wasn't at stake.  As with “Stolen Chariot”, it helps to expand the worldbuilding.  

Our third and final story is “Percy Jackson and the Sword of Hades”.  It is set between The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian.  Percy, Thalia and Nico have been summoned to the underworld by the goddess Persephone.  Hades new sword has been stolen by a demigod working for Kronos, and it's up to the children of the Big Three to get it back.  This is especially important because the Keys of Hades have been forged into the sword.  The keys allow anyone to enter the underworld, or free any spirits in the underworld, anytime they please.  

This is another story that winds up having huge significance in The Heroes of Olympus.  This is when we first meet the titan Iapetus, or as he's known after falling into the River Lethe, Bob.  Thalia and Nico have always been very popular ensemble darkhorses in their own right, and I like to think that this story made a lot of fans very happy.  In fact, Nico gained such popularity that he'd later go on to play a major role in The Heroes of Olympus.  I loved that the story included an appearance by Melinoe, goddess of ghosts.  She's definitely not a goddess most people would know off the top of their heads. 

Fun fact, Rick wrote this story for World Book Day back in 2009.  I gotta say, I did not see the end of this story coming.  Turns out it was Persephone who made the sword in hopes of bringing balance of power among the Big Three.  Hades had not clue, and wasn't entirely happy about what Persephone was up to.  That actually brings up an interesting point.  Zeus has his thunderbolt, Poseidon has his trident, but Hades doesn't really have any iconic weapon.  He has his Helm of Darkness, and his two-pronged staff, but nothing with any offensive capabilities.  

Now that's we've talked about the short stories, let's talk about the character interviews.  Well, actually, let's talk about the introductory letter.  From this letter we learn that Rick Riordan himself is a character in the Riordanverse.  Specifically, he's apparently the head scribe of Camp Half-Blood.  The Kane Chronicles would later reaffirm Riordan's existence as a character in the Riordanverse.  This is certainly interesting, but it does raise the question of why Percy never mentioned Rick in any of the books.  

Okay, now let's talk about the interviews.  They're a collection of fictional interviews with Percy, Annabeth, Grover, Clarisse and the Stoll Brothers.  Overall, I thought they were pretty fun.  My favorite bit was when the Stoll brothers recalled the time they tossed a golden mango with the words "To the Hottest" into the Aphrodite Cabin and then laughed their asses off as all the Aphrodite girls fought over it.  Of course, it was the Aphrodite girls who ultimately got the last laugh.  Also, their names are Conner and Travis Stoll, and their dad is Hermes, god of thieves (amoung other things).  Funny, but it should be noted here that one of Rick Riordan's former students really is named Travis Stoll.  Also, I'd like to take the opportunity to point out that, contrary to popular fan belief, Conner and Travis aren't actually twins.   Rick has stated this multiple times, as has Percy in various books. 

The Grover interview was also pretty fun.  I especially liked he part where he asked his story about meeting wood nymphs in Upsate New York to be retracted.  He wouldn't want to upset his girlfriend Juniper, after all.  I did find it a bit disappointing the everyone said their favorite god, besides their parents, was Zeus.  That just seemed too predictable.  I like to think they said something else, but then they heard a clap of thunder and changed their answers.  

There a few bonus features including a crossword puzzle, a word jumble, a look inside Annabeth's camp trunk, and a sneak peak at The Last Olympian.  There's also a map of Camp Half-Blood, but it has since become out of date.  

There's not much to say about the cover, as there's just the one.  We see a sword, presumably Percy's sword Riptide, in front of a glowing trident symbol. This is accompanied by a swirl of bubbles and set against a blue background. As per usual, you know I'll take this moment to plug the excellent audiobook version.

Well, I think that wraps up this retrospective of The Demigod Files.  Join me again next time when we take a look back at The Last Olympian.  Until then, I will see you guys next time.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Riordan Retrospective: The Battle of the Labyrinth

Welcome once again to my Riordan Retrospective.  I'm looking back at Percy Jackson and the Olympians, its sequels and its spin-offs.  Last time, we took a look back at The Titan's Curse, widely considered to have been a major turning point in the series.  This time we're taking a look back at The Battle of the LabyrinthPercy Jackson and the Olympians book 4.  As usual, we're going to kick things off with a brief summary. 

Percy Jackson is feeling a bit down about having to go to freshmen orientation in the middle of summer.  He mood doesn't exactly improve when he's nearly attack by a pair of empousai.  Percy soon finds himself back at Camp Half-Blood, where there's trouble brewing.  The war against the Titans is drawing closer with each passing day.  Worse, the Labyrinth of Daedalus is back, and on of its openings is in the middle of Camp Half-Blood; a perfect sneak entrance for the Titan army.  Percy and his friends are going to have to brave the twists and terrors of the Labyrinth to find Daedalus and get him to close the Labyrinth once and for all.  

As I've stated many times before, but I'm going to state it again, there will be spoilers of plenty beyond this point.  Turn back now if you don't want anything spoiled.  Now with that out of the way, let's talk plot.

As the penultimate book of the original series, some serious shit goes down in Battle of the Labyrinth.  This is, of course, in order to set things up for the final book, The Last Olympian.  The changes that The Titan's Curse started only continue to mount in this book.  

Perhaps the biggest shocker was when our heroes finally find the god Pan.  Grover's entire character arc has been based around finding Pan and convincing him to come back and save the wild.  However, Pan has grown so weak that he no longer has any will to live.  Still, he passes his spirit to Grover and friends and encourages them to keep fighting the good fight, and defend the wild.  Again, this has been what Grover's entire character arc has been building towards, and you can just feel how absolutely crushing this was to him.

And yet, even with this crushing blow, Grover still dusts himself off and soldiers on with his new.  I think it really goes to show how strong-willed Grover is, and how many people often underestimate him.  To me, Pan's death was even more shocking than Bianca and Zoe, because it showed that even gods can die.  Granted, this does raise quite a few questions.  For example, Pan claims to be dying because wild places are being destroyed.  Problem is, there are huge swaths of America that contain wild and undeveloped lands; that's not even getting into all the places in other countries with wild and untamed lands. 

Now, let's change gears slightly.  Throughout the Percy Jackson series there's always been a bit of a subtle environmental message.  For example, there are a lot of times that Percy winds up in a river and will remark on how polluted it is, and of course there's Grover's occasional commentary.  There's also a couple other occasions that Percy will note the ways humans have effected the natural landscape.  You get the message, but it never gets too preachy.  This contrasts nicely to how Riordan would go on to tackle other serious topics, but again, we'll get to Magnus Chase eventually.

It is also in this book that we get an explanation for how Athena has children, despite being a virgin goddess.  Apparently, they're created from thought when Athena finds a mortal mind that matches her own.  So, I guess you could say that a child of Athena is literally a brain child.  Admittedly, it does seem a bit odd that Riordan took so long to get around to explain this, given that Athena having children would raise most mythology buffs' eyebrows.  I think it is a good and clever explanation.  It also had the benefit of expanding the pool of goddess mothers beyond just Demeter and Aphrodite.   

Speaking of children of Athena, let's talk about Quintus.  It was certainly an interesting dynamic to have an adult demigod be one of the major characters. In fact, this is the first, and only, time in the original series that we see an adult demigod.  It has been strongly implied that most demigods get killed by monsters before reaching adulthood.  Though, admittedly, this is somewhat contradicted by how many famous historical figures are mentioned to have been demigods.  It does seem like a bit of a missed opportunity that we never got to meet any other adult demigods.  What sort of wisdom and perspectives could they have offered to Percy and company?  

Of course, we can't talk about Quintus without discussing who he actually is: Daedalus.  It's mentioned that Daedalus was a son of Athena, though this is purely and invention of Riordan's.  Then again, the myths were never very consistent, and as I mentioned in my retrospect of The Titan's Curse, it's implied that not all myths are accurate accounts.  Hephaestus more or less says as much when Percy meets him, so there's that.  His major character arc is learning that wisdom and book-smarts aren't the same thing.  As Annabeth points out, children of Athena are supposed to be wise, not just clever.  

There's a bit of early installment weirdness, as TV Tropes would put it, at play in this book.  The biggest offender being when the characters encounter Janus, a purely Roman god with no Greek counterpart.  The Roman gods and demigods didn't appear in full until the sequel series, The Heroes of Olympus. I suppose it can be excused somewhat, as it is possible that Riordan hadn't workout all the lore and/or plans for sequel series.  Though, if nothing else, Janus serves as (possibly) unintentional foreshadowing for what was to come. 

I probably should have brought this up before, but a lot of the characters' names are actually pretty significant.  They either nod to their parentage or reveal something about their personality or motives.  For example, we have Nico di Angelo, son of Hades.  In Italian, di Angelo means "of the angels", like how when someone dies they're often said to have become an angel.  Theologically speaking, this is inaccurate, but you get the point.  A very fitting name for a child of the god of the dead, especially one who was originally from Venice.  

That brings us to Ethan Nakamura, son of Nemesis, the goddess of justice and balance.  In Japanese, Nakamura means "middle village", or to put another way, neutral.  He also wears an eyepatch over one of his eyes, due to it having been stabbed out, bring to mind the old say "justice is blind".  Ethan is also notable in that he is the first child of a minor god we are introduced to.  His entire motivation is based around the fact that the minor gods, and by extension their children, get no respect.  The minor gods don't have thrones on Olympus, nor do they have cabins at the camp.  Their children as forced to bunk with the Hermes campers. 

Just a side note, just why didn't the minor gods have cabins?  I can understand not having thrones, but no cabins for their kids?  Children of minor gods aren't exactly rare, and even taking into account how bad the gods were about claiming their kids, surely, they'd need somewhere to sleep at the camp?  Was there some rule that said only gods with thrones could have cabins?  I'm getting off track, let's get back to talking about Ethan.

You get the impress that, at heart, Ethan is a good kid.  However, his circumstances forced him to join Kronos' army in hopes of bringing justice to the minor gods and their children.  It's related to one of the things that makes Luke such an effective villain.  A lot of the things he says do have at least some legitimacy to them.  There also a really great scene where Percy is on Ogygia and is having dinner with Calypso.  He ask how she could have sided with the Titans during the Titanomachy.  She replies that they were her family and she felt obligated because they're her family; then she asks if that's really so different than why Percy fights for the Olympians.  

Percy himself have a pretty significant name, but we'll get more into that when we get to The Last Olympian.  In more on the nose names, we've got Rachel Elizabeth Dare, who is a redhead.  I liked the way she factored into the plot, and showed that mortals who can see through the mist can still do cool things even without demigod powers.  I also enjoy the fact that the other characters didn't get derailed just to make Rachel look more competent.  Annabeth's plan for finding Daedalus wasn't without merit, she was just looking at things from the wrong angle.  This contrast very well with a similarly scene in the later books, but we'll get to The Blood of Olympus eventually.

Also, let's take a moment to appreciate how, when faced with the newly revived Kronos, Rachel tossed her hairbrush at him without a second thought.  Even Kronos himself was a bit impressed that she was so bold.  Don't think I've ever brought this up before, but I've always thought that The Mist was a really cleaver way to explain why most regular mortals don't notices the mythological goings on.  

Leaving aside names, let's talk about the Labyrinth itself.  It was actually a pretty great way to get the character across America in the blink of an eye.  My only minor criticism is that it seems like it could have gone a bit further.  For example, why not have it take the characters to other nations?  Granted, the gods are currently living in America, so that probably explains it.  Still, it does seem like a bit of a wasted opportunity.  Interestingly, The Trails of Apollo would later confirm that, yes, that Labyrinth can go to other nations.  I will also add that I loved how the scene with the Sphinx satirized standardized testing.     

As a side note, in this book we finally get some scene set in Riordan's native Texas.  I bring this up because, as of the posting of this article, he's never set any of his book in San Antonio, the city of his birth and where he spent most of his life.  We've got scenes set in San Francisco, where Riordan lived for many years, and Magnus Chase is set almost entirely in Boston, where Riordan currently lives.  We've also, in other books, had scenes in Houston and Austin, but not San Antonio.  It just seems odd that San Antonio has yet to appear in any of Riordan's books. 

As usual, you know I'm going to plug the audiobook version.  It was just as excellent as all of the other audiobooks in the series.  The only minor criticism I had was that Jesse gave Ethan an Asian accent, even though nothing in the text suggests that this is the case.  Like I said, just a minor point, it is still a great audiobook.

In other things that you know are always do, let's analyze the covers.  The new cover features a group of buildings that eventually turn into the Labyrinth.  Looming over it menacingly is Kronos; at least, I'm fairly certain that's him.  If you look closely you can see our heroes on the run.

The old cover features crimson red as its primary color.  We see Percy pearling into Kronos' sarcophagus, which is overflowing with energy.  Below, we see a miniature version of the Labyrinth and miniature representations of some of the major stops in the novel.  

Well, I think that wraps it up for now, just one minor order of business to attend to.  Technically, The Last Olympian is the fifth book in the series, however, there is short story collection set between it and Battle of the Labyrinth.  This collection, known as The Demigod Files, will be the focus of the next edition of The Riordan Retrospective.  Not only is it chronically set between books four and five, but it actually plays a pretty significant role in the sequel series, The Heroes of Olympus.

So, all that having been said, join me again next time when we take a look back at The Demigod Files.  Until then, I will see you guys next time.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Flag of the Republic of Ezo

This is the flag of the Republic of Ezo.  It comes from a world where the Boshin War went slightly more favorably for the Shogunate forces.  As a result, the Meiji government was forced to, at least temporarily, recognize the Republic of Ezo.  It wasn't long before the Japanese declared war on Ezo once again.  However, the Satsuma Rebellion still happened and was a lot more widespread, emboldened by Ezo's success.  The Meiji government was forced to focus on quelling the Satsuma Rebellion.  Ezo was able to find support from France and Russia to help protect them from the Japanese.  Eventually, Japan had no choice but to formally recognize the Ezo government.

In response to Ezo's alliance with France and Russia, Japan strengthened its ties to Britain and Germany.  Following their failure to capture Hokkaido, the Japanese turned their attention to Korea.  Ezo, under the command of the recently defected Saigo Takamori, also sent an expedition to conquer Korea.  Korea was able to play Japan and Ezo off of each other, and was able to maintain its independence.  In time, Korea was able to modernize and industrialize like Japan had.  Japan was humbled by its failure in Korea, and the Japanese were forced to focus more on domestic policy than foreign conquest.

Ezo also pursued a policy of isolationism following the failed expedition to Korea.  Some industrialization was a necessary evil, but on the whole Ezo strived to maintain as much of its traditional culture and way of life as possible.  As time went on, however, Ezo began to increasingly fall under French influence.  In many way, it could be said that Ezo had become a French protectorate. 

World War I started off around the same time, and with very similar circumstances, as our world.  However, in this world Japan fought for the Central Powers.  The Japanese were bitter at the British for selling weapons to Ezo, resentful growing opposition to the creeping British influence on Japanese society, and their alliance with Germany was as strong as ever.  Ezo initially tried to remain neutral, but a surprise Japanese attack prompted Ezo to join the Entente Powers.  The war ended in an Entente victory.  Japan was placed under crushing reparations to Ezo, and was forced to cease land in northern Japan to Ezo.

Japan began to grow resentful against Ezo, and began to rearm for another war.  Ezo and Korea were subjected to a series of harsh bombing campaigns. It wasn't long before Ezo and Korea were forced to surrender and formerly occupied by Japan.  The Japanese continued to expand their influence across East Asia and the Pacific.  It wasn't long, however, before they found themselves in conflict with the United States.  Like in our world, the war ended in an American victory. 

Ezo regained its independence following the war.  Though there is still bad blood between Ezo and Japan, the two nations are slowly putting their past behind them.  There is a movement to reunify Ezo and Japan into a single nation, but it doesn't have much support at the moment.  Still, you never know what the future might hold.

The flag is black and white in reference to the flag of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the seven-pointed star stands for the spirit of the Ezo people.

Riordan Retrospective: The Titan's Curse

Welcome back to my Riordan Retrospective.  For those of you just joining the fun, I'm taking a look back at the works of Rick Riordan.  This includes Percy Jackson and the Olympians, its sequels and its spin-offs.  Last time, we took a look back at The Sea of Monsters.  This time we're taking a look at The Titan's Curse, Percy Jackson and the Olympians book 3.  As usual, we're going to start things off with a brief summary.

It's Christmas Vacation, but there's no rest for Percy Jackson, the demigod son of Poseidon.  Along with his fellow demigods Annabeth Chase and Thalia Grace, the newly revived daughter of Zeus, he's on a mission to locate a pair of newly discovered demigods.  During the mission, however, Annabeth is kidnapped by an manticore.  Worse yet, the goddess Artemis is also being held hostage.  An important meeting of the Olympian Council will occur during the Winter Solstice, about going to war agains the Titans, and Artemis could prove to be the swing vote.  It's going to take everything Percy and the gang have got to brave to fearsome odds to get Annabeth and Artemis back in time.

The Titan's Curse is often considered to be a turning point for the Percy Jackson series.  I think that, all things considered, that's a fair assessment.  We're introduced to several characters who either leave a big impact, or go on to play major roles later in the series.  We also get set up for events and plot-points that play a big role later in the series.

Once again, given the nature of these retrospectives,mothers going to be spoilers ahoy, so just keep that in mind as we move forwards.

One of the big changes that comes with The Titan's Curse is that it marks the first time we witness characters die "on-screen", and two main characters at that.  Granted, previous book have discussed demigods getting killed, but always in reference to the past.  This time, however, Plot Armor is not guaranteed from the get-go.  I does deliver the harsh, yet still true, message that sometimes even heroes die in the line of duty.  It also serves to up the stakes and makes thing a bit more interesting, as everyone's survival is not a forgone conclusion.

Now then, let's talk about those characters.  First up we've got Bianca di Angelo.  Despite only making it about halfway through the book, she leaves a huge impact on the series.  Her death proves to be a huge source of motivation for her brother Nico.  Speaking of Nico, Bianca often catches a lot of flax for her decision to join the Hunters of Artemis, but I think she deserves more sympathy.  She's been looking after Nico for quite a while by the time Percy and company find them, and she's only twelve-years-old.

 Well, physically, she and Nico have been in the Lotus Hotel since the 1940s, but time passes slower in the hotel than in the outside world.  Point is, she definitely loved Nico, but she was just a kid herself.  She knew that he'd be safe and cared for at Camp Half-Blood, and the Hunters would be able to give her the freedom to just be free and actually be a kid, just like she'd always wanted.  Plus, she knew that she wouldn't be saying goodbye to Nico forever, just goodbye for now.  Granted, that's not how things played out, but I can at least understand her thought process.

In other characters, we've got Zoe Nightshade.  She makes it almost all the way through the book before she bites the dust.  Bianca's death has more long-lasting impacts, but Zoe's death makes more of an immediate impact because we've spent the whole book getting to know her.  She also helps expand the worldbuilding.  For example, we learn that she's one of the Hesperides, the daughter of the titan Atlas.  However, the reason she never made it into the mythology books is because Atlas disowned her for helping the hero Heracles.  I liked how it gave the impression that, while all of the Greek Myths are true, they might not all be completely accurate accounts of what happened.  It's a clever way to handwaving any discrepancies; well, that and the fact that consistency was never a strong point of Greek Mythology.

Next up, in important characters, there's Annabeth's dad.  Throughout the first few books, Annabeth has had a strained relationship with her father.  So, what's he like when we finally meet him?  He's goofy and silly, but he also clearly cares about Annabeth, and he's there for her when the chips are down.  Now, consider that Percy is goofy and silly, but also cares about Annabeth, and is always there for her when the chips are down.  Studies have shown that women often uses their fathers as a template for choosing a husband; the same holds true for men using their mothers a templates for choosing a wife.  This isn't an Oedipus Complex, or anything like that.  It's more that these kinds of people often bring with them the comfort of familiarity and feelings of safety.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, maybe one of the reasons Annbeth became attracted to Percy is that, subconsciously, he reminds her of her father.  On a similar note, I like to think that Percy's mom was a bit like Annabeth in her younger days.

So, there is that supercool scene at the climax where Mr. Chase rides in on a World War I biplane, and shoots monsters with Celestial Bronze bullets.  However, that scene raised an interesting question: why don't demigod use guns.  Now, from a Doylist, or out-of-universe point-of-view, the explanation is probably that sword fights are cooler to read about than gun fights; though that is subjective.  It's also possible that, given Riordan's political views, he simply doesn't like guns and doesn't want to glorify them.

Okay, so what about the Watsonian, or in-universe, explanation?  There could be quite a few reasons.  It could be that swords are more reliable than guns; gun need to constantly be reloaded with bullets and might jam at critical moments.  There's also the question of how many bullets it would take to kill a monster.  On the flip side, it only takes one or two bullets to kill a demigod.  Perhaps the thinking is that it's best not to give the monsters any ideas.  Curiously, in The Heroes of Olympus, the Camp Half-Blood arsenal is mentioned to contain a shotgun, so maybe it just hasn't occurred to anyone yet?

In other speculations, let's talk about the Ophiotaurus.  First of all, hats-off to Rick for not underestimating his audience.  The Ophiotaurus is definitely not a creature most people would think of when listing creatures of Greek Mythology.  Now, Percy convinces the gods to spare the little beast on the grounds that it is wrong kill it for something it might do.  It probably didn't hurt that the gods were also having a very similar conversation about whether or not to kill him at this time.  Perhaps, however, Percy's motives weren't as altruistic as they seem.  By this point, Percy is more than aware that the gods can be major pricks when they want to, and that demigods are often powerless to do anything about it.  So what if he saved the Ophiotaurus to use as a potential Sword of Damocles if the occasion ever called for it?

Don't think he wouldn't go through with the ritual.  If there one thing you should never do, it's mess with Percy's loved ones.  He'd probably use it as an absolute last resort, but if he were pushed far enough, I believe he'd go for it.  Though, I concede, this is all speculation on my part.

To a certain extent, The Titan's Curse follows the pattern set by the previous books.  Like the previous books, someone significant to Percy has been kidnapped and he needs to rescue them.  In The Lightning Thief it was Mrs. Jackson, in The Sea of Monsters it was Grover, and this time it's Annabeth.  Similarly, whereas last time we got The Odyssey 2.0, with a bit of Jason and the Argonauts, this time much of the action is inspired by the Labors of Heracles.  Percy and the gang battle the Nemean Lion, our heroes hit ha ride on the Erymanthian Boar, and holding up the sky is, of course, the titular Titan's curse.  In the previous book , we also got the Stymphalian Birds and the Hydra.  We also get some more of this in The Battle of the Labyrinth, but we'll talk about that next time.  Like I've said, it ties in with the theme of history/mythology repeating.  We also got other cool monsters, such as the Spartoi.

All of that having been said, The Titan's Curse also diverges from the other books in that it is clearly setting things up for later books more so than before. For example, we get the first few sparks of Percy and Annabeth's eventual romance, as well as set up for the eventual war with the Titans.  We're also introduced to characters like Nico and Rachel, who play major roles in subsequent books.

The audiobook version was as excellent as always, and the Hoover Dam scene becomes even funnier.  If you're reading the text, it's obvious that the characters are saying things like "the dam snack bar" or "the dam bathroom".  In the audio version, it sounds slightly racier, as though they're saying "the damn snack bar" or "the damn bathroom".  I knew what the joke was from the start, but it's fun to pretend, and I love Uncle Rick for including it.

Let's now take a moment to analyze the book covers.  First, we'll start with the original.  It's very purplish-blue, and we see Percy and his pegasus Blackjack atop the Chrysler Building.  Fun fact, when Blackjack was first introduced in The Sea of Monsters he was described as female, but in all subsequent books he is described as male.  It is unknown why this is, probably just a typo that never got corrected, or something like that.  We see some vines from Mr. D attempting to stop the duo from going to Washington D.C.  When Rick first showed this cover to some kids to promote the book, he had a memorable experience where a kid shouted out "Percy's riding a war moose!" because of how fat Blackjack looks.

Moving on to the new cover, we see Percy and Blackjack front and center.  In this version, Blackjack decidedly does not look like a war moose.  In the background we see the Golden Gate Bridge, since the climax takes place in San Francisco and thereabout.  It also notable I contrast to the previous covers.  The first two covers had very dark and ominous color schemes; this time, however, the colors are bright and triumphant.  Curiously, the books are numbered using Roman Numerals, even though the Romans don't appear until The Heroes of Olympus.

I hope you've been enjoying these retrospectives as much as I have.  If you like these and my other work there are many places you can find me.  You can follow me on Twitter where I'm @ArthurDrakoni, you can like my fan page on Facebook, or you can checkout the Camp Half-Blood subreddit where I regularly post these retrospectives.

Well, I think that does it for now.  Join me again next time when we take a look back at The Battle of the Labyrinth.  Until then, I will see you guys next time.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Riordan Retrospective: The Sea of Monsters

I'm back with my next installment in my Riordan Retrospective.  For those of you just joining the fun, I'm taking a look back at Percy Jackson and the Olympians, it's sequel series and its spin-off books.  This will be less of a formal review, and a bit more laid-back than a typical review, but still lots of fun.  Last time, we went back to where it all began with The Lightning Thief.  In this retrospective, we're moving on to The Sea of Monsters, Percy Jackson and the Olympians book 2.

First of all, let's there be summary.  It's been one years since Percy Jackson found out that he's the demigod son of the Greek god Poseidon.  Life has been relatively peaceful at his new school, but then he gets attack by cannibal giants on the last day before summer.  Thankfully, he's got his new friend Tyson, who turns out to be his cyclops half-brother.  Percy and Tyson catch a ride with Annabeth to Camp Half-Blood, but all is not well.  Thalia's Pine, the magical three that protects the camp, has been poisoned, and Chiron's the prime suspect.  The only thing that can heal the pine is the Golden Fleece

Worse yet, Grover is being held hostage by the cyclops Polyphemus.  To find Grover and the fleece, Percy, Annabeth and Tyson are going to have to venture into the Sea of Monsters; which is currently located in the Bermuda Triangle.

Before we go any further, I must emphasize that this is a sequel.  I know that this is kind of obvious, but that does mean there will be spoilers for The Lightning Thief.  For that matter, there's probably going to be some spoilers for this book as well.  Just figured I ought to get that out of the way now.

Now that we've got that out the way, let's get on to the main event.  One of the recurring themes of the Percy Jackson series is of history/mythology repeating itself.  As Battlestar Galactica put it, all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.  In The Lightning Thief we got a few shades of Orpheus with Percy and the gang's trip to the underworld; and echoes of Perseus with the encounter with Medusa.  This time around, we've got shades of Odysseus, with a bit of Jason and the Argonauts thrown in.  Most of the major monsters and antagonists come out of The Odyssey.  We got Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, the Sirens and of course Polyphemus.  We get a few monsters from elsewhere, but for the most part it's all straight out of Homer.

As I've stated before, one of the many charms of the Percy Jackson series is the way it recycles and reinterprets Greek Mythology in modern day America. For example, Circe's island is portrayed as a spa, and she turns men into guinea pigs rather than actual pigs.  Now that my family actually owns guinea pigs, that particular scene is entertaining on a whole new level.  The part where it's mentioned that a new chain restaurant opens every time a hydra gets decapitated was also clever.

That the beginning of the book Annabeth makes a dismissive comment about Canada; saying there's nothing but Laestrygonians and a few forges of Hephaestus.  In hindsight, this is somewhat humorous in light of The Heroes of Olympus.  Come that series, we have Frank Zhang, a Canadian demigod, as a main character.  Obviously, he's not too pleased with this assessment of his home country.

For the most part, the books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series are relatively timeless.  There aren't that many references to pop culture or current events.  That being said, there one minor aspect of this book that does date it just a smidge.  At one point, Percy is talking about how smart and brainy Annabeth is and mentions that she watches documentaries on the History Channel.  So yeah, if she were watching historical documentaries today, it would definitely not be on the channel that has degenerate to the point of Ancient Aliens and Swamp People

I do also love the little off-hand comments about several famous people who were demigods.  For example, we learn that Harriet Tubman was a daughter of Hermes, and in the previous book, we learned that George Washington was a son of Athena.  It really gives a sense that there's more to this world than just what we read in the pages of these books.  Granted, it is a little depressing to think that almost everyone who did anything of note was a demigod, and that us mere mortals can never hope to compare with them, but still kind of cool at the same time.

So, let's talk about Tyson.  In hindsight, I really appreciate how Riordan handled his character.  Tyson is mentally handicapped, yes, but that's not the be all end all of his character.  He's skilled at forging weapons and armor, he's super-strong, naturally fireproof and more durable.  He does actively contribute to the plot rather than just being a token.  I bring this up because it contrasts rather positively compared to some of Riordan's later characters.  Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  We've still got aways to go before we get to Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.

Also, there's something about Tyson that's become somewhat humorous in hindsight.  Tyson is, physically speaking, a teenage boy who is into ponies.  Also, his favorite hippocampus is named Rainbow.  That's right, Tyson was a brony before it was cool.

In other characters, let's talk about Clarisse La Rue.  When we first meet her in The Lightning Thief, she's a pretty typical bully character, it seems to be a genetic trait of Ares Cabin campers.  This time, however, we see a few chinks in her armor.  Technically, she's the one who is officially tasked with retrieving the fleece.  We see that she has self-doubts and fear disappointing her father, Ares.  There are some bullies who are just asshole for no reason, and who just want to watch the world burn.  Believe me, I dealt with enough of those kinds of people in high school, but maybe there's more to Clarisse and the other Ares campers than just that.

Okay, so with Chiron indisposed, who's watching the campers?  Why, Tantalus, of course!  You know, the guy famous for killing and cooking his own children.  Looking back now, I can kind of see how Luke had a point about the gods not caring about the campers.  Technically, Chiron is only the camp activities directors, but given how apathetic Mr. D tends to be, Chiron basically runs the camp.

That brings me to another interesting point: just why did Zeus put Dionysus in charge of Camp Half-Blood?  Officially, it's punishment for chasing after Zeus' favorite wood nymph.  However, I think there's more to it than just that.  Before becoming a god, Dionysus was himself a demigod.  If you know anything about the myths relating to Dionysus, you'll know he went through some serious shit back in the day.  So, who would understand the struggles demigods face more than a former demigod?

Also, consider what I mentioned earlier about Chiron, even that could have been part of the plan.  If Dionysus wasn't up to the task, he'd still be punished, but there would still be someone around to ensure that the camp didn't get driven into the ground.  Perhaps, just perhaps, Zeus isn't as clueless as he seems.  Though, I concede, this is all purely speculation on my part.

One part of the book I really loved, and that I wished had favorited more into the later books, was the chariots races.  Apparently, they used to be more common, but got banned after a race gone wrong killed three campers and injured twenty-six more.  Naturally, Tantalus is more than happily to revive them, and they're presumably banned again after Chiron returns.  Still, I've always loved the thrill of a good race.  I love racing video games, and while I don't really watch motor racing, but it has always fascinated me.  Quite a shame that it never really appeared in the later books.

You could argue that campers could potentially get killed during capture the flag, or sword fighting practice, but I kind of get where Chiron was coming from.  Those are to train demigods for fighting monsters in the real world, where they won't have the protections the camp offers.  Monsters aren't going to pull any punches, and the demigods need to learn how to fight like their lives depend on it.  By contrast, they most likely won't need to know how to race/battle on a chariot.  Still, it does seem like a wasted story potential, in my humble opinion.

On a personal note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Sea of Monsters while I was taking a school-sponsored trip to Italy the summer before my junior year of high school.  It was so cool that I got to travel around a country steeped in Classical Mythology while listening to Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  I'd tell you all about it, but that, perhaps, is a story best saved for a separate blog post.

As you're probably aware, the movie adaption of The Lightning Thief made just enough money so that Sea of Monsters was also adapted.  I do have plans to review The Lightning Thief movie, eventually, but not the Sea of Monsters movie.  This is mostly due to the fact that I have not seen the Sea of Monsters movie.  I was thoroughly unimpressed by the first movie, and so I steered clear of the sequel.  I might review it, if my readers would like, though that's a considerable maybe.

Right, now that we've got that out of the way, let's compare the book covers.  As you can see, the original cover is very orange, and Polyphemus' eye is front and center.  You've got the Queen Anne's Revenge down below.  Side note, I loved how an actual pirate ship factored into the plot.  Percy really should raise sunken ships more often, but I digress.  We've also a rope bridge with three shadowed figured, presumably Percy, Annabeth and Tyson.

Moving onto the new cover, we see the CSS Birmingham, with Percy standing on top, nearing Scylla and Charybdis.  In the background, Polyphemus looking a menacingly.  Oh, and what's this?  A bit of wing on the edge?  You see, when you place in of the new covers together, in order, they form on continuous picture.  It looks really cool when it's all together.

So here an interesting tied bit about Rick Riordan that I didn't mention last time.  You probably know that he used to be a middle school English and Social Studies teacher.  However, did you also know that he used to work at an Episcopalian summer camp?  Specifically, he played the guitar and led singalongs.  He learned to play the guitar during h college days, when he played in a folk-rock band.  I guess that explains why there's a campfire singalong in almost every book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  Rick has stated the working at the camp was a big inspiration for how Camp Half-Blood turned out.

Though, one assumes, the camp he worked at presumably didn't hand out actual swords and spears to its camper.  We can also probably assume that none of the campers were ever eaten by monsters.  But their climbing wall definitely had lava on it like Camp Half-Blood...nah, I'm just being facetious.

Well, I think that about wraps it up for now.  I hope you guys are having as much fun with these retrospectives as I am.  Join me again next time when we take a look back at The Titan's Curse.  Until then, I will see you guys next 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Audio File: Religion in Speculative Fiction

For better or worse religion has been a part of the human experience since our earliest days. Even in these increasingly secular days we still feel religion’s impact; if only in the ways it has shaped our history and culture. For centuries religion inspired great works. Perhaps it’s only natural that religion often finds its way into speculative fiction. That brings us to the subject of today’s edition of The Audio File. We’ll be looking at speculative fiction stories that have to do with religion.

Speculative fiction’s relationship with religion is somewhat complicated. It’s often said that science fiction has more atheist authors than any other genre. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily true, but I suspect that the majority of science fiction authors have atheist leanings. Fantasy, by contrast, certainly seems to attract more writers of faith. It could possibly be instructive to go back to the roots of modern speculative fiction: atheistic writers such as Asimov and Clarke vs. devout writers like Tolkien and Lewis.

On the other hand, it’s not quite that black and white. Asimov consider himself culturally Jewish and Clarke had a soft spot for Buddhism. Their contemporary Ray Bradbury was non-denominational Christian, and we all know about L. Ron Hubbard’s relationship with religion. Today atheist authors Lev Grossman, China Mieville and the late Terry Pratchett are some of the biggest name in fantasy. Writers as a group can lean a certain way, but there will always be outliers or those who don’t fit the mold.

Now this is obviously a very touchy subject, but I’m going to do my best to stay neutral. I did my best to cast as wide a net as possible and feature as many religions or points of view as possible. All of this is brought to us by the good people at PodCastle, Lightspeed Magazine, Escape Pod, Cast of Wonders, The Drabblecast and Nightmare Magazine.

Well nothing more that I can add, so let’s get this show on the road…


Narrated by Dave Thompson
Originally Published in Unidentified Funny Objects 3

This story takes places in a world where angels have descended from Heaven and rule Earth as a benevolent dictatorship. War and strife are things of the past and humanity couldn’t be happier under the rule of the angels. Despite all of this, the protagonist of our story finds himself dissatisfied with the world. He’s struck up something of an odd friendship with Satan, who is a mere shadow of his former self. Everyone is required to pledge their allegiance to a particular angel, and soon it will be time for our protagonist to make his choice. Of course, Satan is technically an angel.

This story contains some excellent world building. You really get a sense of who the individual angels are and the impact they’ve had on the world. It’s also very well researched, since all angels mentioned in the story are actual angels from Christian belief. One thing I did find interesting was that, though the story appears to take place after the Second Coming, God and Jesus aren’t mentioned even once. The story still works perfectly well without them, but it did seem like an odd omission.

You can look at the protagonist’s conflict from two points of view. The first is that you can see it as asking if it is preferable to live as a slave or die as a free person. The second is that you can see it as an allegory for wrestling with faith and doubt, especially in the context of events such as Confirmation or Bar Mitzvahs. This story really spoke to all of those feelings I experienced going through Confirmation in the United Methodist Church. The scene when the protagonist notes how young some of the kids pledging service to the angels are really struck a chord with me. It always seemed kind of insane to ask a bunch of sixteen year-olds to make such a big decision, though as I’m now an atheist you can see how it turned out for me. Nathaniel has stated that the story was inspired by his own wrestling with faith back when he was a Christian.

A story this heavy needs a narrator who can rise to the challenge. Dave Thompson coined the term spiritual noir for stories like this. It was only natural that he’d act as narrator, and what a performance he gives.

“Why I Bought Satan Two Cokes On The Day I Graduated High School” is a story about faith, doubt and finding your own path. Very much recommended.

The Pilgrim and The Angel” by E. Lily Yu
Narrated by Rajan Khana
Originally Published in McSweeney’s Quarterly 45

This story follows a man named Fareed Halawi. He owns a coffee shop in Cairo and has led a good life. The only thing he really wants is to go on the Hajj to Mecca. One day he is visited by the angel Gabriel who has been sent by Allah himself to take Fareed on the Hajj. Before long Gabriel transforms into a flying carpet and the duo are of on their journey.

Okay, the description isn’t much, but this is a pretty good story. It was nice to see a story centered around Islam that didn’t try to lecture me about how I ought to view the religion or its followers. It was a central part of the story, but the story never made a big deal out of it. Overall it’s a really heartwarming story about a kind old man getting a well-earned reward. Plus you can potentially learn quite a bit about what the Hajj entails.

Some readers have complained that Fareed didn’t do all the steps, and thus didn’t complete his Hajj, when he asks Gabriel if they can visit his son in Florida. Considering that Gabriel only put up a token resistance, and given that Allah didn’t strike him with a lightning bolt, I’d say it probably counted just fine. It’s also worth noting that most pilgrims on Hajj don’t do so while flying on carpets that are also angels, so there’s that.

As for the narration, I thought that Rajan did a great job. “The Pilgrim and The Angel” is a lovely little story that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

The MSG Golem” by Ken Liu
Narrated by Anaea Lay
Originally Published in Unidentified Funny Objects 2

This story takes place on a starship cruise liner that his bound for the planet New Haifa. It follows a Chinese-American girl named Rebecca who discovers that she is a descendant of the Kai Fang Jews of China. She finds this out because God himself tells her so. A group of rats have snuck aboard the ship, and they’ll wreak havoc on New Haifa’s ecosystem if they aren’t caught in time. God has given Rebecca the task of rounding up the rats, but that might be a bit more difficult than He bargained for.

Nine times out of ten when you see Jews in media they’ll be Ashkenazi. So it was nice to see a story centered around Kai Fang Jews. I enjoyed how God was portrayed as having the personality of a stereotypical crabby old Jewish man. All of the times that Rebecca and God got into arguments about Torah were really funny as well. It reminded me of those jokes where God and Moses get into arguments about how to interpret the Jewish law. It’s also nice to see science fantasy stories getting some representation.

Anaea Lay can be a bit hit-and-miss with her narration, but for this story she does a really great job. “The MSG Golem” is a very funny story that also has a lot of heart. I recommend it.

"Ravana's Children" by Ian Muneshwar
Narrated by Kaushik Narasimhan
A PodCastle Original

Attention readers, our next story is a two-for-one special. The first half follows a boy named Jamie living in modern day New York City, in the borough of Queens. His parents have been going through a rough path in their marriage and he wishes they'd just stop fighting. On night, while going to the roof to get some fresh air, he finds himself in the garden of the demon king Ravana. Jamie and Ravana has many more encounters as well as many deep conversations.

The second half of this story follows Jaime's mother Elaine, her life back in India, and how she came to America. The story alternates between the two halves before it ultimately converges.

I'm still a bit sketchy on my knowledge of Hindu Mythology, compared to other mythologies, but I am learning. I bring this up because it is always great to learn new mythological figures. I liked the way this story contrasted the fantastic with the mundane when it came to Jamie and Ravana's conversations. For the most part, it was easy to keep track of the two stories, barring a few occasions. In terms of narration, I thought that Kaushik did a good job.

"Ravana's Children" is a story that seamlessly mixes the mythical and the everyday. I say give it a try.

Judgment of Swords and Souls” by Saladin Ahmed
Narrated by Stephenie Morris
Originally Published in Intergalactic Medicine Show

This story is set in the world of Saladin Ahmed’s Crescent Moon Kingdoms. It’s a fantasy world modeled after the Middle East during the Golden Age of Islam. The story takes place at the Lodge of God, a monastery of sorts for a group of holy warriors known as Dervishes. The story follows a young dervish named Layla. She was orphaned as a child, but was taken in by a high ranking dervish named Shaykh Saif. Layla has become Saif’s prize student, and they’ll need each other now more than ever. Another shaykh named Zaid is challenging Saif for control of the lodge. It will test their closeness to God and their students’ skill with the sword.

This religion of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms is fictional, but it is heavily based upon Islam. If fact, it’s pretty much Islam in all but name. It’s easy to read this story as a parable about the ways in which religion is twisted for ill gain, as well as the rise of extremism and fanaticism. Shaykh Zaid is obsessed with getting the entire Lodge of God behind his interpretation of the Heavenly Chapters, which is basically their equivalent of the Koran. This parallels the rise of many Radical Islamic regimes throughout history.

On a lighter note, it was refreshing to see a fantasy world that wasn’t based on Medieval Europe. I also thought the Dervish culture was well fleshed out. I loved how they used two-pronged swords to symbolize how they aim to cleave right from wrong. Layla was a well written and strong female character. In terms of narration I thought that Stephenie did a really great job.

“Judgment of SDwords and Souls” is a story about standing up for your beliefs even when the world stands against you. I recommend it.

Where Virtue Lives” by Saladin Ahmed
Narrated by Rajan Khana
Originally Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Here’s another story set in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. This one follows Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last ghul hunter in the city of Dhamsawaat. He’s recently taken a dervish named Raseed as his apprentice. They’re as different as night and day. Raseed is incredibly pious and uptight, while Adoulla is more laid back and easy going. They’re going to have to put aside their differences to take down a ghul that’s been causing problems.

What I liked most about this story is the way that it contrasted Adoulla and Raseed’s views on faith and piety. It’s the opposite of what you might expect given the characters’ ages. There’s also a lot of subtlety to their attitudes. Adoulla may be somewhat lax in his observance of religion, but he gets his magic powers by quoting verses from the Heavenly Chapters. Raseed is so devoted to the cause of the Dervishes that he’s blinded to just how corrupt they’ve become. This is especially poignant if you’ve just finished “Judgement of Swords and Souls”. This does lead to plenty of humorous moments, such as when Raseed makes a big speech about the importance of religious devotion, only for Adoulla to ask when the last time he got laid was.

The story contains plenty of other humorous moments: Adoulla has enough tea jokes to put Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender to shame. Plus you get some good old fashion sword-and-sorcery action, and there’s the commentary about faith and religion. You need just the right sort of narrator for a story like this, and Rajan more than delivers.

What can I say? “Where Virtue Lives” is a good time all around, one you won’t want to miss.

Lightspeed Magazine

The Streets of Ashkelon” by Harry Harrison
Narrated by Paul Boehmer
Originally Published in New Worlds

This story follows a man named Garth who runs a trading outpost on a distant planet. The planet is inhabited by hairy salamander-like aliens known as the Wesker. They only have a Stone Age level of technology, but they’re fast learners. Over the years Garth has grown to view the Wesker almost like his children. One day, a rocket arrives carrying a Catholic priest named Father Mark, who has come to evangelize the Wesker. Although initially reluctant, Garth allows the priest to interact with the Wesker. The Wesker are incredibly literal minded, and Garth worries about what effects organized religion will have on them.

This is one of Harry Harrison’s most well know stories, so I’m going to assume that you guys know how it ends. It’s pretty difficult to talk about this story without talking about the ending. If you don’t know, and you don’t want anything spoiled, skip to the next story on the list.

Okay, with that out the way let’s move on. There’s several levels of tragedy to this story. There’s the tragedy of Father Mark with his death coming about because of the misunderstandings caused by his evangelism. It kind of reminds me of those stories about missionaries who went to far-off Pacific islands and, due to not grasping the local customs, wound up as the main course for dinner. Then, there’s the tragedy of the Wesker who have committed a murder. Their tragedy is particularly sad because they didn’t realize the priest would die if they crucified him. It’s also sad because they seemed to be getting along perfectly fine without religion in their lives.

Finally, we have Garth’s tragedy. I got the feeling that the whole thing could have been avoided if he’d spoken up sooner. Granted, he probably had no idea the Wesker would go as far as they did in order to see if what the priest told them was true. On the other hand, he does repeatedly warn the priest that things aren’t going to end well. Even though he doesn’t agree with Father Mark he at least ties to tolerate him. Perhaps he did want the priest to get knocked on his ass, but he certainly never wanted to see him get killed.

“The Streets of Ashkelon” is easily Harry Harrison’s best short story. A story this famous and grand needs a narrator who can make it feel just as fresh as when it was first published. Thankfully, Paul more than delivers with his performance. All in all it’s a classic story that is still well worth your time.

The Way of Cross and Dragon” by George R. R. Martin
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Originally Published in Omni
1980 Hugo Award Winner

This story is set in the far-future where humanity has spread to the stars and has come into contact with many different alien races. Human religion has also spread to many worlds. The One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds, in particular, has been doing pretty well for itself. Controversy has erupted because of a heretical sect that has made Judas Iscariot into a saint. The Church has dispatched a priest named Damien Har Veris to meet with Lukyan Judasson, the founder of the heretical movement. Har Veris has been wavering in his faith and he finds himself drawn to the sect’s holy book “The Way of Cross and Dragon”.

Yes, believe it or not George R. R. Martin has written more than just A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s always interesting to see how religions change and adapt in science fiction settings, and this story was no exception. The Judas cult, their beliefs and holy book all felt very fleshed out. There’s also a lot of commentary about the power religion has to influence societies. There’s also a very strong theme about doubt and the questioning of faith, which really resonated with me. I can’t really add too much more without giving the story away, but it is well worth your time. You can also find this story over on StarShipSofa.

Stefan did a great job with the narration as always. A story about faith, doubt and the power of religion to shape civilization. Well worth checking out.

The Stars Below” by Ursula K. Le Guin
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Originally Published in Orbit 14

This story is set in a low fantasy world somewhat similar to ours during the Renaissance. It follows an astronomer named Guennar who has been forced to hide in a mineshaft after he is branded a heretic and his observatory is burned to the ground. Despite this, he remains faithful both to his God and to his work as a scientist. In time he comes to love the mine and its many wonders. He also befriends a group of miners and hopes to teach them about the wonders the mine contains.

Okay, not the best of summaries, but the story is quite good. You definitely see parallels to the life of Galileo Galilei. As such, there is certainly an underlying theme of science vs. religion to this story. There’s also a strong current about the awe and wonder that come from science and its discoveries. The story seems to suggest that religion could have an even more enriching worldview if it could only get over its fear of science. The journeying through the mine could be seen as a metaphor for the process of seeking knowledge and making discoveries. There’s lots of symbolism and metaphors, and the story invites you to make your own conclusion about them.

Once again Stefan does a great job with the narration. An elegant story with many layers to unpack, and many interpretations to find.

Hiranyagarbha” by Kevin Jared Hosein
Narrated by Vikas Adam

This story takes place on the island of Trinidad and follows a man named Balgobin. He and his friend Yadav have discovered a strange gold substance in the Caroni Swamp. The substance appears to come from nowhere and it completely engulfs everything it touches. Yadav gets some on himself and soon doctors from around the world, as well as a few sleazy reality shows, are descending on Trinidad to search for the truth. All the while, Balgobin can’t help but wonder if he is witnessing the rebirth of the world.

Again, the summary doesn’t do the story nearly enough justice, but I promise you it is well worth your time. Hiranyagarbha refers to the creation of the world from a golden egg in Hindu Mythology. The Caribbean actually has a fairly large Hindu population, though you don’t often see them represented in the media, so it was nice that this story depicted that, as well as Trinidad culture in general. I loved the way this story poked fun at pseudoscience shows such as Ghost Hunters and their ilk.

If I did have one criticism it would be that this really felt more like a fantasy story than a science fiction story. The mysterious gold substance isn’t given any kind of explanation and it just feels supernatural in nature. Now normally I’d let that slide, but this was part of an issue of Lightspeed dedicated to science fiction, not fantasy. This is really a minor issue, though, and doesn’t really detract from the story.

In terms of narration I thought that Vikas did a great job. “Hiranyagarbha” is a story that explores lesser known cultures, one that I recommend to you.

Escape Pod

Come All Ye Faithful” by Robert J. Sawyer
Narrated by Mike Boris
Originally Published in Space Inc and collected in Identity Theft and Other Stories

This story follows the only Catholic priest on Mars. In fact, he’s pretty much the only person of faith at Bradbury Colony. He’s not especially popular with the other colonists, but he does his best to take it in stride. One day he’s contacted by the Church to investigate claims made by a televangelist about the possible appearance of the Virgin Mary on Mars.

I’ll preface this by saying that I do not have a particularly positive view of ordained clergy. Therefore, it is a testament to Robert’s skill as a writer that he was able to make me sympathize with the main character. I will say I was a bit confused as to why he was on Mars in the first place. It was mentioned the Church thought it was important to get a priest on Mars, and that the priest had done work with the Vatican Observatory, but it just didn’t add up. We never see the priest do any scientific work, only typical priestly things like holding mass or performing marriages. Presumably it would have cost a lot of money to get NASA to send the priest, and that probably would have hurt the Church’s public image quite a bit. Plus it’s not like there’s any Martians to evangelize.

That’s not the say I didn’t enjoy the story. Like most of Robert J. Sawyer’s work, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I liked the way that the society of the colonists is depicted. For example, they all wear very bright and gaudy colors because of how monochrome Mars is. One of the recurring themes in Robert’s works is of the intersection between science and religion. It is always interesting to see what new perspective his works will bring.

No Robert J. Sawyer story is complete without a good narrator, and Mike is the narrator “Come All Ye Faithful” needed. Another great Robert J. Sawyer story you won’t want to miss out on.

"Karma Among the Cloud Kings" by Brian Trent
Narrated by Ellora Sen-Gupta
Originally Published in Analog

This story follows a group of Jains in the future. They been trying to find a planet to call home and peacefully practice their religion. Unfortunately, they been having a bit string of bad luck in the Shakespeare System. They're trying their luck on the stormy planet Tempest. Their job to keep to colony stations clear of a strange substance that blows around on the raging winds. One of the Jain's, a woman named Preema, being to suspect that the strange substance isn't an inanimate as it appears.

You don't often see Jains depicted in fiction. Granted, there aren't that many of them, and ironically enough they've contributed quite a few works of Indian Literature. Still, it was nice to see them get a bit of the spotlight. I liked how all the planets in the solar system they live in are named after William Shakespeare plays, with the star being named after the man himself. For example, prior to arriving on Tempest, the Jain's lived on a planet named Winter's Tale. You'll actually learn quite a bit about Jainism from listening to this story, and I loved how the story explores how Jainism might adapt to a science fiction setting.

I won't give away how the story ends, but I will say that Henry David Thoreau and MLK would be proud of these Jains' civil disobedience. One of the themes of the story could be that you don't need to be violent in order to make a difference or to take a stand. Of corse, that is in keeping with the Jaim philosophy of pacifism and nonviolence.

 In terms of narration, I thought that Ellora did a really great job. "Karma Among the Cloud Kings" explores Jainism in a science fiction setting. I happily recommend it. 

Cast of Wonders

Gift Cards of an Ex-Goddess” by Melissa Embry
Narrated by Christiana Ellis
A Cast of Wonder Original

This story follows a girl named Mala who is currently serving as the avatar of a goddess. Soon it will be time for a new girl to become the avatar of the goddess. Mala decides to flee the temple with as many offerings as possible, but it isn’t long before the goddess to-be’s mother is hot on her trail. Mala strikes up a deal with the skeleton warrior temple guard, and soon the unlikely duo are off on whirlwind big city adventure.

Believe it or not this story has a basis in fact. There is a group of Hindus in Nepal who believe their goddess is reincarnated as a young girl, but after the girl reaches a certain age the goddess moves on to another girl. I loved Mala’s freewheeling and devil-may-care personality. I also enjoyed the skeleton’s sarcastic and snarky personality. It nice to see some Urban Fantasy in a non-Western setting. It’s a really fun story and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it quite a bit.

I will say that I thought that Christiana did a perfect job with the narration. Go ahead and give “Gift Cards of an Ex-Goddess” a listen. You’ll be glad you did.

"The Golem of Deneb Seven" by Alex Shvartsman
Narrated by Rachel Swirsky
Originally Published in InterGalactic Medicine Show

This story takes place on the planet Deneb Seven and follows a girl named...well, actually we never find out her name. Her family is Jewish and life is good, except for how annoying observing Shabbat can be at times. That all changes when Deneb Seven is invaded by the Oligarchy. Our protagonist and her family must maintain their faith as they'd venture across the war-torn landscape.

I know it doesn't sound like much, but I promise this story is worth your time. If there's one consistent them in the story of the Jewish people it's of survival and resilience. No matter how many horrors they've had to face, Jews always find a way to bounce back. Alex has stated that this story was inspired by the history of the Ukrainian Jews. Also, this story was published before that time Russia and Ukraine had a...heated debate about Crimea. So, any similarities are purely coincidental, but it still works out pretty well.

I would have liked to have known a bit more about just who the Oligarchy are. There's also a scene where the main characters grandfather lists all the people who have persecuted Jews over the years. We get the usual suspects such as the Egyptians, the Romans, the Cossacks and the Nazis. However, he also lists the Iranians. Did Iran make good on their promise to push Israel into the sea?

These are just a few minor criticisms, overall, I quite liked this story. In therms of narrations, I thought that Rachel did an excellent job. "The Golem of Deneb Seven" is a story of faith, family and resilience. I recommend it.

The Drabblecast

The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Infinity Science Fiction

This story follows a Jesuit priest who is also an astrophysicist. He’s part of a crew investigating the remains of an alien civilization in another star system. The star having gone supernova fascinates the priest. It isn’t long before he makes a discovery that shakes his faith to the core.

This one’s pretty much impossible not to spoil, but it’s also one of the most well-known of Clarke’s stories. I doubt there’s many of you who don’t know the twist, but if not I’m going to give it to you straight. The star isn’t just any star, it’s the Star of Bethlehem. The implication being that God killed a perfectly peaceful civilization to announce the birth of his son. Alternatively, it suggests that perhaps there isn’t any God. The story leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion.

“The Star” is certainly a powerful story, and quite well written, but the fact that the twist is so well known works against it. To make a story this well-known work, you need to find a way to tell it fresh. Thankfully, The Drabblecast really pulled out all the stops when it came to the production of this episode. Norm’s narration certainly proved effective.

It’s considered a classic for a reason, and you really should give it a listen.

A Nice Jewish Golem” by Ao-Hui Lin
Narrated by Sondra Harris
Originally Published in Jersey Devil Press #25

This story follows an old Jewish woman named Mrs. Levine. Her son Yeshua is a happily adopted golem, but he longs to find love. After a trip to an interfaith conference, he falls in love with a girl who is something of an Inuit equivalent of a Golem. Even the rabbi who made Yeshua approves of their union, but Mrs. Levine had been hoping Yeshua would find a nice Jewish girl. Will Yeshua ever get his mother to accept his new girlfriend?

A new boyfriend or girlfriend having a different religion tends to be a deal breaker for even the most open-minded parents. This story felt like a fantasy version of that sort of scenario. I loved the banter between Mrs. Levine and Yeshua. I imagine Jewish mothers and sons have been having such conversations for centuries, and it felt very authentic. You usually see golems used in serious stories, so it was nice to see them in something lighter for a change. “A Nice Jewish Golem” is funny, argumentative and had a lot of heart.

Sondra really nailed it with her narration. She really has the perfect Jewish mother voice. Oy vey, I think you’re gonna like this one.

Nightmare Magazine

"This is Not For You" by Gemma Files
Narrated by Claire Benedek

This story is about a group of pagan women who worship the goddesses Persephone. Ah, but this isn't the Persephone you're probably familiar with. The goddess they worship is more ancient, more chthonic, hungrier, wilder and more violent. They all met on the internet, and they've been getting together for a while now to make sacrifices in the woods. Men are strictly forbidden from their gatherings, so what happens when one of the member's son stumbles across the gathering?

I've always been fascinated by the pre-Christian pagan religions; the ones that mostly only survive via their mythologies. I always wondered just what their religious rituals and ceremonies were like. Not just the ones we have records of, but also the ones that were lost to the sands of time. And yet, as I listened to this story, I'm reminded of the words of the physicist Steven Weinberg. He said, paraphrased, that in order to get otherwise good people to do evil things, it takes religion, or something very much like religion.

Though I wouldn't go as far as to call this story anti-religion. Rather, I'd say that it's more about the dangers of fanaticism and allowing your passions to consume you. As for the narration, I thought that Claire's performance was fantastic.

"This is Not For You" is a story of passion and excess, and one that I happily recommend.

"No One Prays to the Goddess" by Ashok K. Banker
Narrated by Vikas Adam

This story is set in India and follows a first generation Indian-American immigrant named Harry. When he lived in India he and his family worshiped an ancient and primordial goddess named Mumba Naag Devi, the Fisher Queen. In fact, his family were amoung the last devotees of the goddess. The goddess has returned, and she is very displeased with Harry's lack of devotion.

You know the drill, it's better than it sounds. This story has a very gothic feel to it. The writing kind of reminded me of the horror stories of Rudyard Kipling. Without giving away the ending, I liked that the goddess wasn't portrayed as all-powerful. That is to say, there are ways to beat her, or at least bargain with her, if you're cleaver enough to figure them out. The writing and descriptions of India were very detailed and descriptive. I really felt like I was there.

Vikas did a great job with the narration. "No One Prays to the Goddess" is a gothic religious horror story that you won't want to miss out on. Of course I recommend it.


Well here we are at the end of the list once again. I hope you’ve had a good time and that you’ve found some great stories to listen to. As usual, if there are any topics you’d like to see in future editions of The Audio File, let me know and I’ll put them on the rotation. Or if there’s a story you’d like me to review I’ll certainly check it out. Until next time, Audio-Faithful.