Spring 2021 reading: saviours and boyfriends

A collage of thin slices of book covers

Springtime! Wasn’t it gorgeous? We were allowed outside again here in the UK, into the pub even, if you can believe it. Following my usual yearly pattern, my reading picked up again this spring, including a slew of Loki comics, both new to me and re-reads, which are detailed in a separate post. But what about the rest?

Blood, Sweat and Pixels, by Jason Schreier

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels tells the stories of several video games—some you’ve probably heard of and some you likely haven’t—and how they were brought into the world. It’s a fascinating look at game development full of insider insights, and I couldn’t put it down. It paints a picture of how creative people work together to make something as intricate and complex as a game while constrained by the hard limits of the capitalist system in which they work.

The big takeaway from this book, for me, was the ubiquity of crunch. (Crunch, if you haven’t heard of it, is the period of development before a deadline where shit gets real and devs end up working endless hours of overtime, often sleeping at the office, to finish their work on time. In the US, crunch is unpaid, as devs are salaried and have only a potential bonus to look forward to if the game sells well and gets good reviews.) Even the games with the smoothest development couldn’t avoid crunch.

Schreier uses insider quotes to present crunch as an unavoidable problem. Making games is an unpredictable endeavour as the technology is constantly evolving, constantly changing. Therefore it’s impossible to know if you can meet a deadline before you set it. When a deadline then looms and the studio has faced inevitable setbacks, devs have to crunch. What’s more, devs are presented as wanting to crunch. When maybe you can make a game that’s just okay without crunch, or you can crunch for a month or so and make a game that’s awesome, the devs in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels embrace crunch.

Supposedly that’s because devs are passionate about the things they create. Gamemaking isn’t just a job—there are plenty of well-paying jobs in software development that don’t put you through the wringer like making games, so nobody in game development has to be there—but a vocation.

But here’s the thing: unpaid crunch is unpaid labour. Devs submitting to unpaid labour for creative props and the gamble that their extra work makes a game good enough to garner them a bonus down the line is not a fair system. The book covers the development of The Witcher 3 by CD Projekt Red, and the crunch that went into the making of that game—except CD Projekt Red is a Polish studio, and under Polish labour laws devs are required to be paid for the overtime they do. And lo! The Witcher 3 became one of the best games of the decade, earning mega bucks for everyone involved. They didn’t lose out because they paid their devs fairly for their time and effort.

If a dev wants to put in extra hours on the game they’re developing—not for themselves, but for a studio that will reap the majority of the profits—then they damn well should be paid their fair share for it. Not as a conditional, not as a possibility, but concretely, here and now. Maybe crunch is unavoidable in as volatile an industry as game development, but labour has value in and of itself, and devs deserve remuneration for theirs.

Yes, You Are Trans Enough, by Mia Violet

This is the story of Mia Violet—professional online person and technicolour delight—finding her way to herself. It’s a story that she’s telling you—you, personally, because this is a very personal book—to help you maybe reflect on the similarities and differences within your own life.

While Mia’s story is at times quite grim, her humour and personality shines through her voice, making it bearable whereas otherwise it might have been too much of a downer for me at the moment. She feels like a big sister, guiding you through her life and offering advice about yours. While some was different from my own story, much felt familiar to me. At times it felt as if Mia was seeing into my soul.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It should be in every library. Everyone should read it.

Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell

Prince Kiem is the least favourite grandchild of the Emperor of a multi-planetary empire. Count Jainan is the representative of the vassal planet Thea, and recently bereaved spouse of another of the Emperor’s grandsons. A marriage must be arranged to keep galactic politics safely ticking over, and the two of them—as different as fire and ice—have to find a way to make it work even as a murder mystery unfolds around them.

I pre-ordered Winter’s Orbit on a whim last year, looking for more queer SFF—specifically mlm-focused SFF—and picked it up when I wanted something sweet and gentle to read. But this isn’t just a fluffy romance (not that there’s anything wrong with fluff). As Jainan and Kiem’s relationship deepens, Jainan has the space, time, and support he needs to come to grips with just how abusive his previous relationship was.

Winter’s Orbit tackles domestic abuse and its effects on the survivor with nuance and care. And as romantically satisfying as it is to see Kiem defend Jainan from those who would hurt him, it’s even more so from a character growth perspective to see Jainan realise his own worth and his own strength.

Bless this novel. I loved everything about it.

Boyfriend Material, by Alexis Hall

Luc O’Donnell just wants to get on with his life. But being the son of two celebrities, even relatively obscure as they are, seems to come with nothing but downsides for Luc. The tabloid press is determined to paint him as a sex-obsessed junkie meltdown, despite the reality of his life being perfectly ordinary. Now he’s going to lose his job if he can’t clean up his image. So he recruits his (hilarious, queer as hell) friends to find him a respectable fake boyfriend.

Oliver Blackwood is nothing if not respectable. A reserved vegetarian barrister, he lives quietly and works hard. He’s exactly the kind of guy Luc is looking for. And, luckily, Oliver is on the lookout for a fake boyfriend of his own to bring to his parents’ wedding anniversary.

Of course, they catch feels.

Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material is a romantic comedy for the ages. This novel should stand in the romcom halls of fame beside Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, or at least The Holiday. Hall has a perfectly English sense of humour, where everything is lightly farcical at best at all times. I give you: Alex Twaddle, the Wodehouse-posh, nice-but-dim workmate; Judy Cholmondeley-Pfaffle, a caricature of the hearty English aristocrat; and the James Royce-Royces, husbands and soulmates who both just happened to be called James Royce.

Not only is Hall pitch perfect on the comedy, he’s diamond-sharp on the stratifications of British society and prejudice. The novel—and Luc—doesn’t fail to comment that Luc’s job is in danger because he’s being perceived as a ‘bad gay’, instead of the nice, friendly, middle class type. From Welsh pop-up restaurants in London to nouveau riche Milton Keynes mansions, middle class dinner parties to queer gatherings in beer gardens, Hall’s analytical eye is acute, and always serving not only his comic sensibility but his gentle social critique.

Can I telegraph ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ even harder? Because I love this book. And oh fuck but I’ve just discovered Hall wrote the Kate Kane series, which I’ve been dithering over whether to pick up, and now I feel like a tit for not grabbing them sooner.

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Red Rising was a YA phenomenon when it came out in 2014. (Seven whole years ago! A different era!) Reading it now, its evocation of working class tradition and exploitation feels more timely than ever.

Darrow is a Red, a miner from a caste of miners, living and working under the surface of Mars to mine helium-3 so humanity can terraform the planet’s surface above. At least, that’s what Darrow and all the other subterranean Reds on Mars believe. When Darrow’s wife is executed by the ruling Colours for insurrection, Darrow is forcibly recruited by the hidden Red rebellion and made into a sleeper agent in Gold society, with the eventual aim of bringing it down to liberate the enslaved Reds. And that’s just the beginning!

This is a very masculine book. Maybe it’s that I don’t read a lot of books by cis men? I don’t know. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Brown’s solar system is a bloody and grimdark place, and Darrow finds himself in possibly the bloodiest, grimmest, and darkest place in it.

Regardless, it’s disturbingly good fun. Much like the Hunger Games, it’s unsettlingly gripping to read about teenagers murdering and maiming each other to satisfy a cruel society’s deeply unjust rituals. And the really satisfying thing about Red Rising and Darrow is that Darrow is just brutally good at it. Despite his setbacks, Darrow in full possession of all the facts about his situation is a Darrow who cannot be beaten. I guess it’s a bit like supporting a relentlessly good football team.

Though lacking in substance, Red Rising is good, bloody, gripping, righteous fun.

Golden Son, by Pierce Brown

A couple of years after the events of Red Rising, Darrow is embedded deep in his campaign to infiltrate Gold society and rise to the top so he can destroy it from within. Out of the Academy, there’s bigger and badder foes to deal with, and consequences are more dire. Darrow must navigate politics and war to come out of the turmoil in a position of ultimate power if he’s to turn the Golds against themselves, fracture society, and liberate the lowColours.

I mean, wow. Golden Son went hard. If I thought Red Rising was brutal, then damn, my eyes have been opened. Golden Son is the story of Darrow figuring out how to trust anyone when he’s living a deadly lie, and how important trust in his Gold fellows is when he’s putting his life on the line in the gambit of civil war.

Is this too vague? I honestly don’t know how to talk about this book, and not just because everything is such a spoiler. So. Much. Happens! Twists and turns all over the place. Absolutely gripping, and very dark.

Morning Star, by Pierce Brown

After the end of Golden Son, everything is different. It’s one of those ‘where can we even go from here?’ moments. But there is somewhere to go, and the only way is up.

Kept captive and tortured by the Jackal, Darrow must escape and return to his struggling rebellion. But when he does, he must contend with the clashing personalities of everyone he has brought together.

I appreciated how Morning Star became less about Darrow—though of course he is centre stage—and more about the people around him. Brown really shines at creating memorable characters, and they were all given their moment in the spotlight in this final book of the series.

Of course, the exceptionally grimdark tone continued, and I began to find the endless setbacks and awful surprises hard to bear. There was a moment, three quarters from the end, where yet another terrible thing happened and I immediately put the book down and didn’t come back to it for three weeks. Eventually I returned to it, and was glad I did. But still—the neverending tension was wearisome.

Oh, and the ending? Allow me to sigh heavily. The political conclusion made sense, but the interpersonal wrap-up for Darrow felt agonisingly hackneyed. But there will be those who like that kind of thing, I guess.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a series. Pierce Brown is a master of emotional intensity, conflict, and sci-fi coolness. I’m glad I experienced it.

Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo

Girl moons unrequitedly over best friend. Girl saves best friend’s life with heretofore unknown magic. Girl goes to magic school and learns to embrace her powerful magic by letting go of mooning over her best friend. Girl falls in love with bad boy. Girl discovers bad boy is very bad indeed and runs away. Girl reunites with best friend. Best friend complains about girl incessantly. Girl and best friend kiss. Girl and best friend defeat bad boy with the power of kindness and flee into sunset together.

I’m being glib, but honestly? I wrote the above paragraph trying to figure out exactly what Alina Starkov’s journey is supposed to be, and I’m still not sure. Halfway through this book, I was fully onboard! Alina Starkov, skinny and perpetually exhausted orphan, discovers within her the most powerful magic of all the many magics of Ravka—the power to bring light, to save people from the terrible darkness of the Shadow Fold and the monsters within it. The power was buried deep, deep inside her all along. Why? Because she suppressed herself to remain at the side of a boy who never even noticed her adoration. That denial of her true self was slowly destroying her—diminishing her appetite, dragging her down with fatigue, never allowing her a good night’s sleep. Until she embraced herself fully, Alina Starkov was a ghost of herself.

And then she discovers herself, and when she does, she shines. Alina Starkov is the most important person in all Ravka, a messiah figure, the Sun Summoner. As soon as she stops denying herself, she comes into her own, reveling in not only her newfound magic but the simple power of a body that’s allowed to eat and sleep as much as it wants to.

And then… and then she finds her boy again. Or, rather, he finds her. As they trek across the wilderness together, he resents her for having grown into a person he doesn’t know, even complaining (supposedly jokingly) about her new appetite. Alina ties herself up in guilty knots over his sacrifices, without thinking about her own.

I found it very, very difficult not to resent Mal. His emotional arc is there, just about—he goes from oblivious idiot to resentful idiot to conditional acceptance. But even at the end of the book, Mal and Alina’s contrasting attitudes to her new amplifier foreshadow Mal as the person who will pull Alina back from the zenith of her power. And this relationship—Mal and Alina’s—is the ultimate romantic heart of the book. A romance based on the boy holding the girl back from the full extent of her own power in various ways is not a romance I can get behind.

Falcon & Winter Soldier: Cut Off One Head, by Derek Landy and Federico Vicentini

Cover of Falcon and Winter Soldier

A five-issue collected volume from last year, this little adventure is brief but full of fun details. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes reunite by accident at the scene of a gruesome mass murder, and team up again to solve it, not to mention find someone Sam’s looking for. Along the way Bucky struggles with his boundaries re: killing bad guys, and Sam helps him to a conclusion. (The last couple of pages are sweet as hell.) Oh, and Bucky’s cat Alpine is there.

Fighting the seductive slide back into being a killer is Bucky Barnes’ natural arc. So maybe it’s coincidence that you can see a lot of Bucky’s emotional journey from the recent Disney+ show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in this comic, right down to the pivotal gun. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the showrunners had pulled from this to write Bucky’s arc in the show. This comic after all looks like a reaction to Bucky’s and Sam’s popularity as a double act in the MCU. And I for one would like to thank our corporate overlords at Marvel for giving us the good Sam’n’Bucky content we crave.

Before I knew it, it was summer! And as the year rolls on, my optimism tends to drop away. Check out the next seasonal reads post to find out how that went.

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