Astrolabe 1: SFF goodies, a thousand shattered gods, Beyond Oasis impressions, and some big personal news
Welcome to the first issue of my irregular newsletter, Astrolabe! Each new issue will bring you all sorts of goodies—from personal news about my work to thoughts on SFF, fandom, and gaming, to my favourite reads, and some fun retro gaming coverage.
I got an agent, y’all!
So, big news: I’m now represented by Eric Smith of P.S. Literary—literally the coolest guy in SFF. Eric and I have known each other for a while, generally geeking out over our shared love of science fiction, fantasy, and old school Japanese RPGs, so it was a natural fit when we connected over a non-fiction proposal for a book that is very near to my heart.
I’m not ready to talk about that project yet, but I’ll be working closely with Eric on finding a home for it and am excited to get to work. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed my work over the past couple of years. Very on brand.
In the meantime, Eric and I are also working on my various fiction projects, including The Thousand Shattered Gods, The Rose and Honey Soul, and a few other pitches and ideas I’ve been kicking around for a few years.
You can read a bit more about me and Eric on my blog.
Out & About
(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)
“Magic: The Gathering’s digital history, from first build to end step” is a long, exhaustive look into one of my favourite hobbies and its transition from table-top phenomenon to full-blown eSport over the course of 20+ years.
Like any product that’s survived multiple decades, Magic’s 25-year journey is full of world-class successes and almost catastrophic missteps. But if there’s one thing that never changes, it’s Wizards’s willingness to experiment and push forward, and their ever-present mandate to make the game as broadly accessible and appealing as possible to players around the planet.
History is best told by the people who experienced it, so I’ve connected with pro players, Wizards of the Coast staff, journalists, and content creators who have devoted their lives to this wonderful game. Join us as we dive deep into the history of Magic: The Gathering’s digital ambitions.
To find the beginning of this digital journey, we have to travel way back to 1997, just four years after the release of the game’s ultra-rare Alpha edition.
To help me tell this story, I spoke to a bunch of Magic pro players, journalists, content creators, and Wizards of the Coast employees. I spent nearly a year working on it, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of a piece. Enjoy!
The 8 Craziest Japanese RPG Fan Theories (Insert Cartridge)
LTTP—Beyond Oasis (Sega Genesis, 1994)
( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)
Aaaaaand! The winner of the very first LTTP poll is…
(Though you already knew that because I spoiled it in this issue’s dek.)
(All images in this section come from Super Adventures in Gaming)
Beyond Oasis (also known as The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light) is a 1994 Genesis action RPG that takes queues from Zelda and other popular adventure games of the time. I’ve dipped my toes into it several times, but never for more than twenty minutes, so this extended play session was a great experience and I managed to cover a decent portion of the game.
First impression is…
Holy wow those graphics! Huge, GORGEOUS sprites (though the low frames of animation make gameplay jerky, reminding me a bit of the SNES version of Trials of Mana), incredible, detailed environments, and SO MUCH COLOUR. Whenever I go back to 16-bit games, I’m reminded of how vibrant and colourful gaming was back then. I think we’re getting back to a similar place now—especially thanks to many amazing indie games, like Dead Cells, Hyper Light Drifter, and Cosmic Star Heroine—but it’s always such a joy to jump back in time to this Saturday Morning Cartoon aesthetic.
The player character Ali has a lot of different moves in combat, from a jab with his knife to a jumping slash, and he can pick up various other limited-use weapons and items. This gives good variety to combat, but Ali’s four-directional movement really hampers the fluidity of the action, and what is it with Genesis action RPGs and lousy hit boxes? Ali’s not the most agile character at the best of times, but very obviously from the beginning of the game—most notably fighting the giant in the first combat encounter and a snake I literally could not hit outside the castle town—my weapon would clearly pass through enemies without dealing damage or causing bounce back. This makes combat feel less predictable than I like, especially since it seems like there’s no reason to fight enemies on the overworld? I haven’t collected any gold and there’s no XP system. They drop healing items, but if you’re avoiding them health isn’t an issue anyway.
The first dungeon is very short, with simplistic puzzle solving, and an easy boss fight at the end. It’s acting as a bit of a tutorial for the player, but by the standards of other first dungeons in the genre, it’s not exactly an inspired showing. Still, defeating the first boss and getting access to the elemental water spirit and its magic is a good reward.
The huge and beautifully rendered overworld is gated off in a similar fashion to Zelda or Metroid, with new areas being unlocked as Ali gains the trust of the elemental spirits by completing the game’s shrines. The fields surrounding Ali’s home village feel a little empty and not as eloquently handcrafted as the overworld in Link to the Past. The towns, though, are nicely populated, giving the world a lived-in feel that had me invested right away. And, just to reiterate, this is a gorgeous game. It’s clear a ton of effort went into the art and world design, and it stands up against the best the 16-bit era has to offer.
Finally, gaze in wonder upon the game’s map. Sure, it’s not, like, all that useful, but I’m such a sucker for diorama-style interfaces—like Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen’s battles or Populous—and this hits me right in the feels. So perfectly emblematic of the 16-bit era.
Beyond Oasis has a lot going for it, and despite its rough edges, ambition shines, and the gorgeous world and graphics are more than enough to convince me to give this a full playthrough. It’s a very different take on the Zelda formula than its console-sister, Crusader of Centy, but they both offer great adventures and bright, colourful worlds that are a joy to explore.
The Sin in the Steel by Ryan Van Loan—This book, y’all. Pirates and dead gods, truly fantastic odd couple protagonists, and a ton of delicately handled themes add up to a must-read fantasy debut. Read my full review of The Sin in the Steel by Ryan Van Loan.
The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey by Shawn Speakman—I was lucky enough to get an early copy of this from my friend Shawn Speakman, and, wow, it’s a perfect post-apocalyptic mech-filled SF adventure—like Pierce Brown’s Red Rising meets Robotech. I can’t wait for you all to have a chance to read this.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo—This book is an absolutely formative and critical discussion about intersectionality and racism. It’s not an easy read, but approach it with a willingness to self-analyze, recognize your faults and your place within the system of white supremacy, and learn, and you’ll walk away with SO MUCH. Buy it from your favourite local bookstore.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The Duty of the Black Writer During Times of American Unrest by Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor.com)
A peek into the underground world of fan-translated games by Alexa Ray Corriea (Polygon)
The Stockbrokers Of Magic: The Gathering Play for Keeps by Cecilia D’Anastasio (Wired)
Kickstarter: Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes
Excerpt: The Thousand Shattered Gods
The Thousand Shattered Gods is my WIP epic fantasy novel. It’s heavily inspired by classic ‘90s fantasy from writers like Terry Brooks and Tad Williams, but also equally shaped by my love for golden era Japanese RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Suikoden 2, and Final Fantasy. You can learn a bit more about it on my blog.
To celebrate the launch of Astrolabe, I thought it would be fun to introduce you to one of The Thousand Shattered Gods’s principal characters: Valjane Aldebourne.
The rhuuk regarded Jane quietly. Its eyes matched its ruby-tipped pinions. The colour of fresh blood. It was wary, but not scared of her. As though it was more concerned or upset about being interrupted from its doze than sensing any threat.
Jane reached out a hand, let the rhuuk sniff her.
“What’s your name—”
“Don’t touch her.” A woman’s voice from behind her, cold and hard as ice. It had a slippery quality, an accent that took Jane a moment to place as being from Irridia, a mysterious land rumoured to be ruled by druids with mystical powers. The few times an envoy had visited Cyr-Linden, Jane had been rushed from the council rooms. Even the queen’s special aide was not privy to those discussions.
Jane turned toward the voice.
She was tall and slender as a whip, and wore her skin like a costume. The dim light of the paddock caught cold eyes shrouded by a riding mask cast in the visage of a serpent. Dark, long-fingered hands emerged from her form-fitting leather riding gear. She held no weapons, and her body was at ease, but she was cut from violence as though she breathed it. Jane took a startled step back.
Where did she come from? The thought set Jane’s heart racing. She was sure the paddock had been empty. But, then, she hadn’t noticed the garnet rhuuk, either. She tried to shrug off her unease, but it settled deep in her gut and wouldn’t leave.
She summoned courage and said, “I’m the personal aide to Queen Ovelia, and my authority extends to the care of the rhuuks in her personal paddock—”
“Not this one.” The casual dismissal in her tone came easy.
Jane cowered back, but then the ball of frustration and fear ignited into something fiery. “Listen,” she said, stepping forward, squaring her shoulders, and puffing out her chest. “These rhuuks are under my care and discretion, and I will not have you barging in here and telling me what to do.”
Jane huffed with practiced perfection, and turned back to the garnet rhuuk and extended her hand again. “What’s your name?” Jane purred, trying to be so utterly unlike the aggressive rider who owned the bird. The rhuuk sniffed, and then nipped playfully. Jane giggled, and the feeling of menace fled.
Suddenly, the Irridian woman was beside Jane, pushing her away from the bird toward the stall door with a heavy shove. As she stumbled backward, Jane slipped on the stall muck, and fell into the open passageway between the stalls. Where did she come from? Jane wondered, even as the ignominious pain of falling on her backside brought and angry and embarrassed flush to her face. How had the woman covered the distance between them so quickly?
And, again, the Irridian appeared above Jane, a looming shadow against the dim paddock rafters. She reached down and hauled Jane up to her feet by two fistfuls of fur-lined riding jacket. “Do not overstep your—”
“Kay.” The command cut through the dim paddock.
A figure stood silhouetted against the dust-speckled light streaming in through the paddock door. Sera’s hand rested on the pommel of the long dirk at her belt. “Hands off.”
Kay let go of Jane, who settled from the tips of her toes to her heels. She vainly tugged her overcoat and riding vest back into place. Kay turned toward Sera and glared at the rhuukrider Captain. A brief pause while the women measured each other, the air between them crackling. Kay bowed abruptly, like a knife chop, mockingly low. She stood straight, and stalked through the paddock, bumping Sera’s shoulder with her own as she pushed passed.
And that’s a wrap on the first issue of Astrolabe! Thanks for reading! Get in touch and let me know what you liked and how you think I can make the coming issues even better.
Cheers for all the love!
There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!