Category Archives: fantasy

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

Magical Realism Actually Exists

I recently heard an off-hand comment that magical realism was just another term for fantasy, used by people who don’t want to admit they read fantasy. While I agree there are plenty of pretentious people who go through dramatic convolutions order to claim they don’t read genre stories, I don’t think this is the case with magical realism.

The key distinguishing factor of magical realism is that the fantastic elements cannot be proven within the story, whereas in typical fantasy they can be. The main fantasy stories in the general zeitgeist currently are “zombie apocalypse” and “superhero” – both of these are fantasy stories, and for both there is no dispute within the world of the story that the fantastical elements are real. These are a form of alternative universe stories, where the rules are fundamentally different to the rules we accept in the “real” world.

Magical realism, on the other hand, has fantastical elements that are not provable even within the world of the story. For example, in “100 Years of Solitude” Gabriel García Márquez has ghosts, prophetic visions, and people who reportedly live for longer than is realistic, such as a 145 year old brother owner. If they wanted to prove this to the satisfaction of the outside world, they wouldn’t be able to do so. There is a guru in India who claims to be more than two hundred years old, and no-one can really prove that he is or isn’t based on record keeping. In the book there’s a women who ascends into the sky, which would be quite a metaphorical ending for her if it wasn’t written so literally. Again, except for the witnesses all anyone has to go on is hearsay.

Most fantastical elements in magical realism have real-world counterparts, legends or stories which are accepted by some people as true but dismissed by most as fabrications, not because there is any evidence against them but because that’s simply not how we think the world works. But sometimes, the world works in ways that are different to what we expect, and people do experience things that they can’t explain in terms of “the real world”. That doesn’t mean those things have no explanation, of course, but it has to be taken on faith that there is a “reasonable” explanation that is simply unknown.

That is what distinguishes magical realism from other fantasy genres.

Review: If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love

If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky is a second person POV story that works really well. It starts with a tone of wistful reverie – what would the world be like if you were a dinosaur? What would my life, our lives, be like? It flows nicely from this to show nonjudgmental love, and then to accepting that sometimes you have to let people go.

The reverie is illustrated with a poetic tactic, starting each paragraph by musing on the final sentence of the preceding paragraph. For example:

They’d work until they’d built you a mate.

If they built you a mate,

This works as a poetic device to add cadence to the musing, but is also very useful in showing when the musing ends; the sudden abandoning of this trick coincided with considering actual past events, rather than completely imaginary hypothesis.

The story flows on, naturally becoming more melancholy, until the situation that started this wistful reverie is revealed. It is disturbingly mundane, which emphasises that it is the mundane that we should truly fear, not the fantastic.

It is the language that makes this story good, the ideas that crop up in the daydream, the poetic use of words. A couple of favourites:

  • “deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs”
  • “decanted their lives”
  • All in all a good read, to the point where I’ll be following the links at the bottom of the story to read her other work.

    Review: Things You Can Buy For A Penny

    Things You Can Buy For A Penny by Will Kaufman has a number of interesting features about it. The point of view is a sort of second person – the voice is one of a storyteller narrating the tales to an audience. The storyteller has a slightly superior tone, as if the tale is meant to be instructional.

    The story has a good rhythm and good foreshadowing, starting by talking about stories that would later appear, working through them backward (with each story influenced by the one that is set at an earlier time) and then forward again through the protagonists. I liked that structure and thought it was effective at maintaining interest, and linking the disparate tales.
    As for prose, it is fairytale lyrical, a very good choice for this type of story (after all, fairytales are exactly odd stories that are meant to be instructional).

    I felt as if there was something lacking from the story, something that stopped it being great, but I can’t figure out what it is. It could be that the story seems very familiar, either because I’ve read it before or because I’ve read something very similar. I knew how each story would go, and how the overall story would end, so maybe it lacked any surprise for me. Also, maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so tired and stressed when I read it.

    Review: Candy Girl

    Candy Girl by Chikodili Emelumadu is the other story I am to review for my writing course, and I didn’t like it nearly as much as We’ll Be Together Forever. It deals with much the same subject matter in much the same way, and the writing is poetic enough, so it took me a while to work out why I didn’t really like it. After my first reading I could only say that it seemed less believable – which is an odd criticism for stories about functioning magic – but on rereading it I realised the problem was the characters.

    The main man in the story, Paul, the villain, does not seem like a real person. He has a long list of negative qualities – weak, obedient, obsequious, self-serving, tries to force his way into another culture, arrogant, entitled – and absolutely zero positive qualities, except maybe attractive toes. Personality-wise, he is more like a puppy that no-one finds cute than a human. He certainly does things that a puppy would do but no man would do.

    The other characters are also cookie-cutter characters but less fleshed out. What we know of the main character Muna (not really the protagonist, she doesn’t do much) is that she can’t tell the difference between zombies and mummies, even when the name of one of them is in the movie she’s referencing, and is apparently stupid enough to date a man with every type of patheticness and absolutely no redeeming qualities.

    Her cousin, Ginika, is only slightly better. We know she’s hyper-violent, visits Nigeria a lot, and is smart enough to get a scholarship to a posh school. Then there’s the magic-user Ozulu, who is a generic magic-user who despises those who don’t understand the forces they’re playing with.

    Bearing all this in mind, particularly that the most fleshed-out character was Paul, the story reads as nothing more than an attack on the kinds of men the author doesn’t like, all wrapped up into a single character. I suspect it was published because the setting is exotic; the descriptions of the Nigerian town are beautiful and evocative.

    To be fair, it’s possible I may have found the plot more interesting if I hadn’t just read another story with basically the same plot. If I’d read Candy Girl first I may have been less interested in We’ll Be Together Forever, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I find the characters in the latter far more believable than the characters here.

    Review: We’ll Be Together Forever

    I’ll start by saying that We’ll Be Together Forever by Joseph Allen Hill is the best story I can remember reading in Lightspeed Magazine*. It’s a magical surrealist story looking at the way two people relate to each other in a relationship that probably should have ended a fair while before the story starts.

    The characters and their relationship are fleshed out in the first tenth of the story: The man who wants to push the relationship to the next level irrespective of the wishes of the woman, who has inferiority issues; the woman who is passive-aggressive and doesn’t seem to really care about the man but is to lazy to end the relationship and strike out on her own. The relationship is basically the man nagging the woman into having the deeper relationship he wants while the woman distances herself from the man to keep the relationship shallow, the way she wants.

    The story could be read as an allegory for the most likely outcome if these people stay together – he absorbs her completely so she no longer appears to exist, but she controls him from inside the relationship so he never really does what he wants to do.

    It’s the magical surrealism of the story that kept me hooked. The absurd and peculiar turns the story takes, getting creepier and more disturbing, until finally the end arrives with the promise that, for the characters, the horrorshow will continue for the rest of their lives.


    *There probably have been others – I have a hard time remembering what magazine my favourite short stories were in – but the preferences of John Joseph Adams often don’t mesh with my own.

    Life is More Perverse Than Fiction

    When writing fantasy a lot of the story, by necessity, is not written from experience. In my novel I have an initiation scene into a fraternity, and I worried that I made it too over-the-top, too extreme, too ridiculous. Recently those worries have been set to rest, with the claim (nay, accusation) that “British Prime Minister David Cameron probably put his private parts into the mouth of a dead pig when he was at Oxford” as part of an initiation into a secret society. Now I think my scene may be a little tame…

    Obviously this has got everyone chuckling, but Lawrence Richards has a good post about why Cameron would do this, why he would be asked to do it, and why – if you think about it – it’s no laughing matter.

    The pig scandal that now has the world laughing at Cameron wasn’t from the Bullingdon Club but the Piers Gaverston, less well-known (until this week), but with a reputation for bizarre sexual rituals and initiation rites. Where the Bullingdon boys built their fraternity around shared values of hating the poor, the Piers Gaverston was about sexual humiliation and the creation of shared secrets. Its structural function is as an agreement of mutually assured destruction between the rulers of tomorrow – I know your secret and you know mine, so let’s stay on the same side, yeah?

    This is how the power structures that oppress the world are formed, and how they’re maintained, and quite probably why the same families have been in the elite social circles for 800 years. This is the true old boys club, and it is set up to produce heartless oppressors the same way the school system is set up to produce mindless factory workers. We can all laugh at David Cameron for doing such a thing, but it’s probably why he’s Prime Minister of Great Britain…

    Review: Homeworld Blues

    This debut novel by A.J. McMillan is a cracking good read. The writing style is fast and fresh, the characters mostly well-written and the world-building brilliant. It’s a good length, too.

    Homeworld Blues is in the science fantasy genre, which combines technology and magic-as-science-we-don’t-understand…like the Force in Star Wars. In this universe, Earth as we know it shares an interdimensional axis with two other planets in two other worlds (or dimensions, or branes, or planes, or however you want to think of them) and certain people know how to leap between the worlds, which ability they use to transport refugees from Earth to the paradisiacal Breorl, via the hellscape of Darsa. All the locations are richly detailed and realistic, and I often paused my reading and spent a while imagining what I would do in each place. The books starts off in a claustrophobic colony ship, jumps quickly to a desert world, then to a magic jungle tree with dizzying rapidity that often made me wish McMillan had spent longer in each setting.

    Still, this is the first book in a trilogy (the second one is planned for 2015 some time) so I’m sure the plot will return to each place over the course of the series. The characters are fleshed out and likeable – and you’ll find some annoying and some pretentious and so on based on your personal preferences, which is a sign of diverse characters. McMillan follows the lead of George R.R. Martin in being perfectly willing to kill off characters that the reader has become attached to and which appeared as if they would have a major role to play throughout the series.

    Apart from a few minor scientific errors, the few things which jolted me while reading concerned a couple of characters. Zepp is a great character, but a touch inconsistent. At one point he looks at a woman “in a whole new light” because she was wearing a sexy and revealing dress; but he had the hots for her the moment he met her and his increase only increased throughout the novel, so I’m not sure what the “whole new light” would have been. At another point he admitted to himself that he deserved to be distrusted because of his actions, but he’d never been anything except completely open and honest throughout the novel – to the point where some other characters chastised him on his openness. At one point I got the impression that Zepp had originally been two characters that had been merged in editing.

    Trayia, the protagonist, is awesome. She’s a strong character – not just a strong personality, but a character with good depth and believable motives and beliefs. Still, she gets accepted as the leader/saviour pretty easily by everyone else despite her extreme inexperience and lack of broader knowledge. One guy got told by the Goddess that she’s “the one”, so that’s fair enough, but a lot of other experienced and highly capable people give her undying loyalty based on not very much. I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve it, just that her actions in this book didn’t really warrant it.

    All in all, they’re minor issues in a well-written book, and I think we can expect McMillan to get better as the series progresses. So if this is a genre you like, buy the book.

    A.J. McMillan’s blog is here.

    Settings And Geographical Privilege

    I’ve been having difficulty with my stories lately people people keeps saying they want to know where they’re set – which city as opposed to “America”. Which is a problem, because I’ve never lived in America and don’t know anywhere well enough to set a story there. So I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia and Google Earth and the like, with the big problem being that it’s entirely possible I’ll spend a week researching a city only to realise my story can’t be set there for some reason.

    And I had this thought: “It’s getting the point where I’m just going to say ‘bugger it’, and set my future stories in places I’ve actually lived.”

    This was followed by the thought: “Why the hell didn’t I start off doing that?”

    As far as I can tell, the answer is that all the stories I read are set in America (or sometimes England) and there’s this idea that Americans don’t want to read stories about non-Americans in other countries, because it’s too confusing trying to figure out what American state those other countries are in (or something).

    But is this really true? I don’t know, I’m not American, but one thing gives me hope. I’ve just finished reading Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, following on from Women Destroy Science Fiction last year, which were obviously very popular. This breaks down the notion that people don’t want to read about characters of a different gender or sexual orientation because they won’t be able to relate – a concept I could never get my head around, since reading about characters that were very different from myself was one of the main attractions of science fiction and fantasy. So maybe people really don’t care, and they’ll read a story set in Australia or Mexico, because it’s not really that great a stretch.

    And who wants to write for the lowest common denominator anyway?

    Thicker Than Blood

    Notice: This story is written and published under the auspices of AppleSoftBM Literary Entertainment. All Trademarks and Copyrighted words and phrases used have been cleared by their respective owners. Any breach of copyright on this work will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and physics.

    The banging on my NoFale™ security door brought me back to full wakefulness just as I was buying a ticket to slumbertown. The NoFale™ vidscreen showed the anxious face of my brother and I relaxed. He was always anxious about something: The GovMent™ was torturing this person, a corporation was invading that country … he always seemed to find something wrong with the world. I let him in.

    “Thank the good whatever,” he said. “I may be in a bit of trouble.” I made some Sparkling Tea fresh from the paradisiacal island of Sri Lanka™ and indulgently awaited his story. I was not at all prepared for what I heard next. “Have you heard of Chutzpah?”

    The icy hand of panic caressed my heart. Chutzpah was an “independent underground magazine” as it styled itself, and “a dangerous attack on our rights and economy” as everyone else considered it. At least, everyone with power. Even to have heard of it was to draw suspicion as a dangerous rebel. So I said “it doesn’t ring a bell” as he launched into his story. I was worried that he had gone so far as to purchase a copy from some hoodlum, but it was worse than that — he had contributed.

    “I did a series of cartoon strips about an elephant with a hand on the end of its trunk,” he said, and catching the look on my face hurriedly explained it was a metaphor for the power of the common man — a connection I couldn’t make, myself.

    I wracked my brains for an infringement but nothing came to mind. Ever since the “Protection of Peoples Copyright Act” was passed in 2023 almost every creative development had been through entertainment companies. These had the resources to check for any infringement by the work being created, and of course also any infringement of the work which, due to the broad wording of the act, could be almost anything. That’s why independent creation was so dangerous.

    I was aghast at the irresponsibility of my brother. Without the judicious help of an entertainment corporation there was no way to ensure that his metaphorical cartoons were sanitized, securitized and, above all, legalized. “And uh, is there a, uh…” I tried to delicately enunciate my question but my brother responded to the holding-terror-in-check look on my face with equal bluntness.

    “Do you remember anything about Dumbo?” he asked. I was confused. Dumbo? An old kid’s word for a stupid person? Then a vague memory floated through my mind; the demented ravings of my grandfather as he wallowed in senility, about a cartoon he used to watch as a boy…something about flying? A flying elephant? Oh no…

    My mind reeled and my blood flushed hot and cold. I largely ignored what my brother was saying, rambling on about writing under a pseudonym and the unfairness of the injustice system, always trying to find a way to justify his disregard for social mores and the law. Still, he was my brother, and I considered ways to hide him from a minor company. My hands clammy with sweat, I asked him which corporation he had inadvertently attacked.


    One word chilled me to the bone. The Wonderful World of Walt Disney (TM). No-one wanted to mess with the Wonderful World of Walt Disney™, which was widely believed to have convinced President Jenna Bush to nuke Brazil in retaliation for ongoing infringement of intellectual property.

    I walked over to the CleerVue™ wallglass and gazed distractedly at the advertisements hovering outside, automatically trying to see past them to the streetscape. My skin was now cool and dry, my pulse had slowed.

    “Don’t worry,” I told my brother. “You look exhausted, have a strong drink and go to bed, get some rest.” A few hours later, my brother’s profuse thanks ringing in my mind and his snoring sounding in my ears, I picked up the phone and dialed the number everyone knew by heart.

    “Organization for the Defense of the Authors Moral Rights and the Works Underpinning the Economy of America the Land of the Brave and Free™. We’re here to help the public, how may I service you?” said the suave voice at the other end of the line.

    “I have some important information that may interest the Wonderful World of Walt Disney,” I replied, hoping it would help me avoid my brother’s fate.