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Bonus Level: A Night in the Woods

July 18

In a funny coincidence, I finished this game and Fir Valley just days apart, and they totally re-use the same plot.

OK, so game-wise, this got a little old, because you spend a LOT of time just walking back and forth from place to place. Which... it's fine to pace the game like that, there's good reasons to do it, but I wanted it to go faster and feel cooler? The walking and platforming are kind of slow, floaty, and annoying, so that could have been a lot better. (The lightbulb smashing minigame and the Demontower game-within-a-game both felt pretty great, though. And sticking a landing onto a mailbox had a very nice sound.)

But story-wise, I liked this a lot. Excellent dialogue and character writing, and good use of dialogue choices (which are hard to get right).

I've been wondering what it meant that Mae was one of the ones the creature in the mines was "singing" to, and how that relates to the hole in the center of everything that the sphinx god was on about. And how it relates to her dissociative episode back in middle school, when she hurt that kid.

Like, most of the game is taking place on this level where it's about friendship, and family, and how capitalism chews up people and places and then spits them out, and the different ways people try (and sometimes fail) to have a life despite that. But there's another level where it's maybe about the choice you have to make all on your solo once you've touched the corrosive amorality at the core of the universe. Existentialism: The Video Game.

(Speaking of which, hey B, were you gonna play this one? I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

Jon Bois — 17776 (aka "What Football Will Look Like in the Future")

July 26

Readable online.

I've been wondering what the first clearly identifiable post-Homestuck mixed-medium web epic would be, and I think this might be our first winner! LMK if you've got a good argument for something else.

I liked this. A fun little episodic gonzo SF story about the final immortal generation of humanity and the meaning of play.

Jessica Reisman — Substrate Phantoms

July 7

I didn't enjoy this as much as Reisman's previous novel.

The parts I liked were the parts about just struggling by in a dusty corner of a big, old, galactic civilization — Reisman is really good at that. The conspiracy plotline wasn't bad either. The prose has its ups and downs — The Z Radiant hit a sweet spot for overtly made-up sci-fi jargon, and this book dials it up and maybe overdoes it a bit (different levels of pushback from different editors?), but there were enough other things I liked about the writing to offset that.

But the main focus of this book is its first-contact story, and I wasn't really into it. Reisman is aiming for this sort of ineluctable otherworldliness re: the alien that she doesn't quite nail. There are some cool, creepy sequences, but by around the 2/3 point of the book, after the alien started talking like a person, I realized it wasn't going to wrap up in a way that would satisfy me and follow through on the promises of the early book. If you want a really satisfying alien possession/not-possession story, I feel like the Southern Reach trilogy is still the one to beat.

Also, minus a point for what I felt was an unnecessary rape scene.

Martha Wells — The Harbors of the Sun

July 31

This is it: the final Raksura book. It's good.

I'll mostly let my review of the first half of this duology stand, and only add that this was exactly the closing I hoped it would be. A fitting final send-off for some beloved characters, and a real solid page-turner to boot.

Ruth Ozeki — A Tale for the Time Being

July 24

Oh man, this was excellent.

I picked this book up on a whim. It caught my eye on the Canton library sale shelf when I was visiting my sister, so I gave it the ol first-page/second-chapter test and went for it. I was, like, vaguely aware of its prior existence, but my style of memory is to aggregate tidbits into a fuzzy result and then forget the tidbits... so I knew it had a generally positive reputation, but I'd forgotten that Lauren had read it, that it was like a Booker Prize nominee, and that the same author wrote My Year of Meats.

Back in the low-information '90s, I read a lot of books this way — I'd run out of books I knew anything about, and start just picking stuff up and sniffing it. That's how I ended up reading Infinite Jest without any idea what I was getting into. (Man, can you even remember what it felt like, to have your "to-read" stack run out? LiveJournal basically ended that for me; curious what ended it for y'all.)

Anyway, for being a book about a frustrated novelist reading a book (lol), this was amazingly engrossing! It's one of those stories where it keeps feeling like everyone is just on the verge of realizing something incredibly important. (And it paid off well, which is the crucial-but-oft-forgotten part of that recipe!)

Also, there are elements that keep nudging it in the direction of weird horror or SF. Ruth, the author character, spends a lot of the book looking for confirmation of Naoko's existence or evidence of her fate, and she keeps almost-but-not-quite finding it. And the result is weirdly tense; since most of us expect that we're constantly leaving uncontrollable digital traces, an almost-complete disappearance registers as Wrong/Unnatural/Spooky.

The way that part of the story eventually spins out is kind of hilarious, and ultimately lands on "definitely SF." I thought it was great. And there's also a fantasy element involving questions of, idk, mutual fictionality, which I'm still chewing on.

I want to go back at some point and pick apart some of the ways Ozeki differentiated the two narrators, just for my own curiosity. For example, Ruth's segments are slower and full of lush environmental descriptions, but Nao doesn't seem to notice her physical environment much at all; it's almost nothing but characters and actions. The separation was really effective and effortless-seeming, and I bet I can learn a lot from looking at how she did it.

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