A Shapeshifter’s Lament

The following piece is the poetry winner of F(r)iction’s Fall 2022 literary contest

It starts

with the smallest request.

Something inconsequential,

 barely noticeable, behind

the ear, the crook of the elbow. The

slightest engorgement

or deflation,       spikes or gills, colorful

plumage, a cyclops eye.

And it could be anything? he says-

the glimmer of his own shift

happening like heatwaves

under his skin. You

could be anything.

To prove it

I work my skin like smoke, arms

shedding to wings, a splattering of scales that grows from the

stucco walls. My fluid

drips from floor to ceiling,

he catches a drop           

– transforming possibility

into a word         that never left his tongue.

The dance turns my insides

into meadows where bare feet leave muddy imprints

of newly clawed toes.

You’re showing off, he says

as I gather my spores the way an orchestra conductor

gathers sound –

I entwine him in the rhythm of my aortic pulse, filaments

connect root to bloom and expand,

my body

a universe with origins that lap

like ocean waves.

You’re scaring me,

he says, unable to move

under the layers of my titanic being.

Changing shape

can be powerful,

I say as I shrink to

the willowy shadow he once believed me to be.

Intoxicated – he asks

for the body

of an old lover,

a dream, a fantasy as pedestrian

as blood in veins…

like asking Beethoven

to play                  chopsticks,

               instead of Moonlight.

I fold myself

into mundane shapes as he threads fingers

through my hair, possibilities

boiling angrily under my

skin,                      like a god flaying herself

to create the cosmos, while

humans trace stick figures

across her remains.

Review: The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon

Published June 27, 2023 by Tordotcom

Sunai—nomadic, immortal, horny—wakes up having taken a salvage job he doesn’t remember agreeing to. It has already taken him outside the city walls, in a rig escorted by an enormous, violent, and fabulously scarlet mech. Worse, the rig has no kitchen.

In this world, AI gods watch over their patron cities—until they don’t. Until they become corrupted and lose control, and the citizens under their protection in turn lose their safety or their lives. In Sunai’s case, he is the relic of one such AI, a deathless supplicant of a dead god who once delighted in the beauty of organic life. Sunai hides from the Harbor, an organization that seeks relics of corrupted AI to control the AIs’ husks, and more desperately hides from his own past.

The Archive Undying wastes no time entering the action, kindling the stakes, and challenging the main character. Author Emma Mieko Candon (she/they) begins this book with deft characterization, swiftly painting a lovably reckless lead, his latest inadvisable hookup, and a rather suspicious crew.

The greatest strength of this book is the writing, which is fluid, clever, and hilarious. Some descriptions read like poetry, others made me laugh out loud: “You were interfaced when corruption hit, riddled with finer threads, all white and tender, the dendritic web through which you understood Iterate Fractal meat to finally consume you. If Iterate Fractal means to eat you, it had better hurry its shit up.” Anyone can tell from the cover that the aesthetics of this world are peak: green mecha sci-fi, lush fauna overgrown on the ruins of malfunctioning robots. The worldbuilding is stunning, if slightly opaque at times. I can picture the cities, but not how they function; details about various factions were thrown out too fast with too little foundation.

The first half is almost a book in itself; the plot is tight with stakes that naturally evolve and progress and come to a thrilling head. I was riveted, grinning at the page and the witty characters and the fascinating mystery of what they found on their salvage mission, and just what would come of their meddling.

But in the second half, my clarity of the plot faltered more and more. The formerly vivid action became difficult to picture, and even more difficult to pinpoint its causes and consequences. The stakes and plot felt like a spinning top—incredibly fast, then wobbling, then falling. The characterization that made me tear through the first half evaporated, leaving me with a cast who behaved so out of character, I felt like I’d never met them.

Often, just as the plot swam too far ahead of me, I was delivered a concise explanation through a clever bit of dialogue to clue me into what had just happened, but the fact that I couldn’t follow along without these hints left me dizzy. Reveals hit, and I couldn’t piece together until pages later what the significance was. The characters stopped behaving in ways that made sense to me from their initial characterization. The point of view takes a drastic series of warps and wefts, draping shrouds over an already complex plot.

This novel spans so much action, changing character motives, and wild escalations in conflict. My initial read of the first half had me thinking that this ~500-page novel was as delightfully complicated as the first full three books in an SFF series while, incredibly, remaining digestible. This book dances, and it doesn’t miss a single step—but then it becomes a different book entirely. Nevertheless, the beautiful writing kept me reading with fascination, even as my understanding of the plot continued to slip.

This is a drunk chess game of a book. (Not writing from experience, why do you ask?) It’s complicated, progressively confusing—but still fun. I wish the book I began was the same book the entire way through. The worldbuilding is vivid and colossal, but it’s just not penetrable. The plot fascinates, if you can navigate through the points where the plot bewilders. It’s a book you’d want to take your time with. It may be a book I’ll return to in a year or two and discover the 30 percent of clarity I was missing and happily say, “It’s better than I remembered.” Despite its density, I don’t discourage readers from picking up The Archive Undying this summer. If you do take a chance on this book, hold on to your robot socks, and maybe take some notes to keep track of things. I dearly hope you take to it better than I did; the world Candon has built here deserves the patience of a second chance.

An Interview with Margaret Owen

In another interview, you described a previous book as one word (“TEETH”): in one word, how would you describe Painted Devils?

CULTS! (Mild spoiler: the cult of heterosexuality, primarily.)

The process to writing a sequel is different for every author, and I’m aware Little Thieves was written originally as a standalone. How did Painted Devils come about? And when it did, what was that process like for you?

About two thirds of the way through Little Thieves, I became acutely aware that these characters practically wrote themselves, and really all I needed to do was point them down the paths of most hilarious resistance. I also had two things I wanted to specifically explore in a sequel: The reality that Vanja’s core issues would not be solved just by having a boyfriend, and how funny it would be if she accidentally started a cult. I put together a proposal for my editor, sent it off, and I can only assume she bribed everyone at the acquisitions meeting to go along with it.

What are you hoping readers will take away from Painted Devils?

The After School Special version of the message is “You get to decide the progression and pace of your own relationships,” but the more in-depth and blunt takeaway is: People are very good at weaponizing sexuality—how you have consensual sex, who you have it with, when you have it—when all of those things are up to you. Anyone pressuring you to conform to their ideas about it has an agenda.

One of the things I found the most moving about Painted Devils, coming on the heels of Little Thieves, is that Vanja’s journey through both speaks to a much greater journey and truth: upon dealing with one trauma, you usually find a sneaky second trauma hiding. Essentially, trauma is an onion and Vanja is slowly peeling back her own layers. Did you set out to write Painted Devils knowing it would be the next layer of the trauma onion? Or did you uncover that layer as you wrote?

Oh, I absolutely knew we’d be digging deeper! Like I mentioned earlier, having a boyfriend doesn’t magically solve all of Vanja’s problems. Time after time, people she’s loved, who she thought cared for her, have deserted her. We are wired to recognize patterns in things that hurt us, so it was always going to be an uphill battle for her to believe this time will be different. She’s also quite adept at blowing up good things in her life rather than be abandoned again. When you have a character aware of this and trying to change, it demands a very precise dissection of their ghosts.

The Court of the Lower Gods, the visuals of the Lower Gods, the world-building in Vanja’s world and Vanja’s voice are two of my favourite aspects of the series. Which one came first? Was it world or character?

Vanja as a character came first, but she was originally conceived more as a classic hypercompetent and confident con artist/jewel thief, and that was fine but not memorable. When I began digging into more of her gremlin tendencies, she really came to life.

I am blown away by the full-page illustrations in both books. You noted on Tumblr that “PD is…more Midsommar” and that you went for a linocut style: how long does one illustration take you? How do you decide which moment in each section to illustrate? Is it easy to pick?

There’s a fun detail with the linocuts for Painted Devils, which is that the stories they accompany are progressively earlier in Vanja’s life—they start at the present day, then move backwards in time, until she’s relating memories from when she’s as young as four. The illustrations accordingly become more simplistic and childish, to match her age. Which is a very long way of saying each one took less time than the last, but overall, each took anywhere from a week to a day to carve! I compose each illustration depending on what the story is really about, and how it fits in the overall narrative; if an illustration has common elements with another illustration, or similar composition, it’s never a coincidence.

Painted Devils brilliantly looks at the construct of virginity. One of my favourite related moments is Ragne attempting to understand the conundrum set by the Scarlet Maiden and beautifully illustrating the lack of logic behind the construct. How did “deconstructing virginity” come to be a main thread in PD?

As someone on the asexual spectrum, who was also writing about two ace spectrum kids in love, it was always going to be at the core of the story! Especially when also talking about cults, which are notorious for using sexuality, desire, and shame to control their members. It also links very closely to the emotional journey Vanja’s on, of relearning vulnerability and intimacy, and figuring out how to assert her own wants and needs.

Painted Devils is your fourth published novel; what advice would you give to writers just starting out?

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is always a classic, but my go-to is: Ignore the current trends and write what sets your brain on fire. Readers can tell when your heart’s not in it. Oh, and document, document, document. It doesn’t matter what anyone promises you in conversation, what matters is what’s in writing, and even then that’s not always reliable.

You’re currently working on Little Thieves III; do you have any thoughts on what you’ll be working on after that?

I’ve been letting a thriller idea steep for about eighteen months, so it might be time to pick up the pen on that! I also have a very heavy shelf of various SFF ideas on layaway, and I have a project currently underway that I can’t talk about but am absolutely thrilled to be working on.

What are you most excited for about Tears of the Kingdom?

Is my editor reading this? Jess, look away.

I have played so much Tears of the Kingdom at this point. Mostly while I was on tour. I was especially excited for the possibilities with all the new tools the game gives you, but having beaten the game (partially so I would stop using it to procrastinate) I can now say my favorite part is how cinematic some of the key moments are. I think they kept the best parts of Breath of the Wild’s loose narrative structure, while successfully making each major questline feel increasingly urgent and meaningful.

Bonus question to ignore if you wish, but I did some deep-diving and the internet didn’t answer it for me: how did your Twitter/Tumblr handle come to be “what-eats-owls”?

College! It was a question posed after perhaps a few adult beverages, and the only answer we could dig up was “bigger owls.” Many years later, when the time came for me to have a professional social media presence (Ha! Haha! Oh, the optimism!) I said to myself, If John Green can be @fishingboatproceeds, then I’m damn well keeping @what_eats_owls! Perhaps a bit of hubris on my part, but at least it’s a conversation starter.

Walking Practice: A Novel by Dolki Min

It’s a classic premise: alien crash-lands on Earth and hunts humans to survive. The alien, Mumu, uses dating apps to find their prey. With multiple dating accounts and the ability to transform their physical appearance, they become the ideal specimen for their many one-night stands. At the peak moment of pleasure, they bite off the unsuspecting human’s head. Other than the hair, human is all they can eat. Dolki Min’s Walking Practice, however, takes this trope of aliens killing people and uses it to explore societies’ expectations on gender identities, our relationships with bodies, and what it means to have an insatiable hunger—for touch, for blood, and for love.

Throughout the novel, Mumu addresses the reader, sharing their intimate thoughts. It gives one the feeling of reading a transcript left behind for a shipmate or a salacious diary meant to be found by a past lover. The voice is familiar, quirky, and at times unapologetically ruthless. Mumu brings up gender and identity in the early pages of the novel as Mumu transforms into both male and female shapes to ensnare their victims. They explore the societal expectations of the gender they are mimicking. I loved this aspect of the novel. It added depth and intrigue that made me question my very human existence while connecting deeply with this very alien character. For example, Mumu explores how the gait of a woman takes more thought than a man, even when there isn’t anything physically different. All humans walk on two legs, all humans swing our arms, but Mumu talks about how there is an unspoken difference, a code that signals what we believe our genders are. Suddenly, I’m walking through the grocery store very conscious of how I walk. This book sticks with you, in more than one way.

At the forefront of this novel is the relationship with the body. Gravity, humidity, sweat, sex—all of these have a physicality to them that author Dolki Min examines with excruciatingly beautiful detail. Having spent a year living in South Korea, I could feel the bodies pressing in on Mumu in the crowded subway car with exactitude, the rush of air as the doors opened and people spilled out, and then the stairs leading up to the humid heat of summer. Years later and now living in cold northern Minnesota, I was transported. The strength of the novel is in its sensory details, and I felt it all as if it was yesterday. Like looking through a magnifying glass, this novel explores the nooks and crannies of the everyday experiences our bodies feel. As Mumu painstakingly transforms and travels in a human body, we learn that they hate walking on two legs (their alien form has three) and stairs are a nasty ordeal for them. The struggle Mumu experiences is not glossed over, but dug in. We spend pages on the stairs, no doubt a way to demonstrate just how long it feels to them. We also experience the relief and safety of Mumu’s home, their crashed spaceship in the woods, when they finally let go of the human form and relax into their own body. Throughout these moments, we not only see the physical relationship, constraints, and joys of the human form, but we see the oppression of the binary rules and regulations society holds to. Through this piece of speculative fiction, we can see truths, pain, and harm in the binary limits our societies have.

The novel also uses structure in a unique way, using its chapters to reflect the distance Mumu’s prey is away from them, much like a dating app reveals how far away you are from one another. The heading of each chapter is the distance in kilometers and the further away the one-night stand, the longer the chapter is. Other interesting uses of structure may be somewhat lost in translation. Translator Victoria Caudle explains that what could look like a typesetting error when text is broken apart is an intentional decision. When translating the Korean manuscript, the clusters and characters of Hangul are broken in specific ways that are still legible but can carry multiple meanings. While this isn’t wholly achievable in English, Caudle did her best to demonstrate Mumu’s consciousness changing to something less human. Mumu was so fascinating to me that part of me longed to read the layered meanings so lacking in English. When I learned this aspect of the novel, I was half impressed and half disappointed; still, Caudle manages to create dynamic and interesting tension using Latin letters. In moments of feeding or fear, we visually see Mumu’s thoughts reverted to something more primal, more natural to them. Shorter sentences. Grammatical changes. This thoughtful curation of text ultimately added to my reading experience. Towards the end, as fear and hunger intensifies, the letters are replaced with symbols that are neither Latin or Hangul, but purely hunger. Mumu’s hunger is, after all, what motivates them to leave their home each day, propelling them and the reader through the story. But it’s not just a need for meat or blood—it’s also a deep panging loneliness at the center.

I’ve never experienced anything quite like Walking Practice. While at times it feels haphazard or stitched together, it’s hard to know if that is intentional or happenstance. Mumu reveals new information throughout the novel, often intriguing and thought-provoking, but it did sometimes make me wonder if Dolki Min had just thought of the idea while writing and decided to pop in the new ideas as they came. Still, the voicing of Mumu is distinct and consistent throughout and this made me trust in their journey. I wanted to follow them. I wanted them to be safe, fed, and happy (despite the fact that they could eat any of us if it came down to it). Walking Practice is easily the strangest, queerest, coolest book I’ve read this year.

Review of I Do Everything I’m Told by Megan Fernandes

Published by TinHouse on June 20, 2023

In I Do Everything I’m Told, poet Megan Fernandes curates a sweeping photo album of a restless life—church pictures and nudes alike. Her witty nihilism feels instantly familiar and appropriate for the strange time period from which this book emerges: the suffocation of mid-pandemic isolation contending with the unmoored freedom of a re-opened world. A weary but relentless infatuation with life coats these pages, yet Fernandes stops short of any definitive conclusions—rather, she leans in and claims the questions. “Where am I supposed to be at this age?” she asks in “Phoenix.” With language as imaginative as it is casual, as funny and self-aware as it is heartbreaking, she creates a space of intimacy and approachability that I haven’t experienced in many books of poetry—one I deeply appreciated as a novice poetry reader.

Granted, when I say “approachable” here I certainly don’t mean shallow or easily understood. There were enough references to Rimbaud, Rilke, and Brooks to keep Google within grasping distance as I read—and even then, several poems still went over my head. I wouldn’t call this a “beginner” book of poetry by any means, but I also wouldn’t let that stop you from engaging with it if that’s where you fall as a reader. There is so much to be seen and felt in this book, even if you don’t know what a villanelleis or fully grasp the nuance with which Fernandes employs her heroic crown of sonnets in Part II. Even at its most formally and intellectually dazzling, this book remains a three-a.m. conversation with your slightly wine-drunk friend about the beauties and infinite frustrations of life.

And I Do Everything I’m Told has all the frankness and vulgarity you’d expect to tumble out of that wine-drunk friend’s mouth. Fernandes’s poems tote titles like “Fuckboy Villanelle,” “Get Your Shit Together and Come Home,” and “How to Have Sex in Your Thirties (or Forties).” She treks through abortion, divorce, masculinity, Catholicism, and “white girl gentrifiers / having their white girl epiphanies”—all with an egalitarian informality. There’s a sense that nothing is too sacred to probe and dissect, not even herself. “I go low some days,” she acknowledges in a poem about looking for dignity at the grocery store. At first, this “lowness” might read like simple irreverence for life, and I found a lot of joy in the chain-smoking badassery of that feeling.

But it’s more complicated than that. Fernandes contorts her poems in such a way that irreverence begins to feel like prayer. “I watch your film about fisting,” she begins a piece, before continuing several lines later: “To be taken apart is as important as being put together. / Near-annihilation reminds you of a limit / and ask yourself, who do you trust at your limit?” The sacred bleeds into the vulgar, and the vulgar often leads to revelation. Fernandes’s unkempt honesty doesn’t take away from the intimacy of this book—it multiplies it, draws you closer, and invites you to reimagine what constitutes a meaningful life. “I do not track the world by beauty but joy,” she writes in “Love Poem.” “Even if it was ugly, it was joy.”

The book itself is separated into four sections, each with different tendencies toward form and theme. While I found favorites in each, the most incredible section to me as a whole was the aforementioned Part II, “Sonnets of the False Beloveds with One Exception OR Repetition Compulsion.” It contains eight full sonnets—each named after a different city—and eight “broken” versions of those sonnets with missing words and new meaning. This gave me a sense of traveling through space and time, of uncovering loves in many different forms and places, and of feeling it all change in the fragments of memory. Now, did I have to remind myself what a crown of sonnets was? Yes. Did I have to read through this section several times to discern what was happening on the page? Yes. But my limited grasp of Fernandes’s skill and boldness didn’t stop me from being moved by her words and their form. In fact, the attention they required of me deepened their impact.

The precision of Fernandes’s imagination—and the freedom with which she releases it onto the page—creates spaces of magic and mysticism within everyday scenarios. “Space Cowboi” begins with a divorce lawyer and ends on the icy rings of Saturn; “Shanghai” begins in…well, in Shanghai, but ends in an alternate dimension where Fernandes’s “beloveds multiply, / and with them, their laughters.” I could never guess where a poem would end, and I loved the disorientation of it. It felt so cathartic, so aligned with the nonstop chaos of our post-Covid world. “Optimism plus despair // is the soup of our time,” she says in “Too Much Eliot.” And I think we all might be getting a little tired of soup.

I Do Everything I’m Told is equal parts a celebration of and formal complaint against the dirtiness of life. It’s a tome of ostensibly conflicting moods: goofy and tragic, wrathful and zen, irreverent and sacred. The best part about it, though, was realizing partway through that these moods aren’t really conflicting at all—they balance and inform each other. And even if imbalanced, “not everything / holy has to hurt or cohere.” This book reminded me that a life’s value isn’t found in control, perfection, or logic. It’s the opposite, really. “Contradictions are a sign we are from god.” And god is in the ugly, joyful thick of it.

June Staff Picks: Netflix, When We Were Birds, and more!

Victoria Bruick

When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Set in a fictionalized Trinidad, When We Were Birds alternates perspectives between Yejide, a woman inheriting matrilineal powers to communicate with the dead, and Darwin, a Rastafarian man that breaks his vows and leaves his mother to take the only job available: digging graves. Exploring themes of grief, heritage, love, and kinship, When We Were Birds does not shy away from the heaviness of death and its pervasiveness in a city built on slavery. Author Ayanna Lloyd Banwo invites us to sit closely with death, ghosts, and the spiritual realm, but also grounds us with the joy of being in a body and being in love.

This was one of those books that I couldn’t read casually. The novel required unhurried time and my trust that the watercolor-like details would come into focus as I delved deeper into the story. In other words, it requires a bit of patience to get into, but it’s worth it. If rainy weather has you stuck indoors, pour yourself a cup of tea, and settle in for this stormy yet hopeful read.

Tommy Chisholm

I just started listening to the new Sigur Rós album Átta, their first in ten years. I’m a long time fan and fell out of love with the band a few years ago. I think I just over played them while they were inactive. But then I scored cheap tickets to see them live last year. I was pulled all the way back in! The band debuted a handful songs on their 2022 world tour. But I found them incredibly dull—little piano and vocal tracks, too stripped down for my taste. When they dropped the first single from Átta, “Blóðberg,” I was again disappointed. It was too slow and a little boring. I was afraid they were going to retread the ground they laid on 2013’s Valtari, a sleepy yet atmospheric project that languished in its ambiance. Valtari was great and it needed no sequel. To my great delight, Átta is no sequel. It is similar to Valtari in its slowness and the absence of great crescendos the band is most known for. Átta reveals a new side of Sigur Rós that is wrapped entirely in strings. The album was made with a forty-one piece orchestra. It’s a gorgeous listening experience, yet easily Sigur Rós’s saddest record. It’s funerial, has an air of grief, and a hint of hopelessness about the world we live in. Just look at that cover art. It’s an obvious political statement from the queer frontman of otherwise apolitical group. It’s very much so an of-the-moment album, one that demands start to finish listening as there aren’t many stand out tracks—it all blurs together in a good way. 

Dominic Loise

Netflix’s Never Have I Ever is a series that gets binged in our household when a new season drops. On the day it premieres, we start watching it and the only reason we stop is for sleep. Each season is about the high school career-driven student Devi Vishwwkumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her dealing with the psychological trauma of having watched her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) pass away in front of her.

I found that the show not only had an honest portrayal of talk therapy in Devi’s sessions with her therapist Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) but an honest portrayal of school & family and the trouble Devi gets into by avoiding telling the truth to spare hurting others. Devi may be an above average student but the hook of Never Have I Ever is when she is an average teenager who makes mistakes, fights with her mother Rhyah (Sarayu Blue) and works on mending relationships with best friends, boyfriends & classmates.

The show is also one of the funnier shows I have watched on tv. Credit to co-creators Lang Fisher & Mindy Kaling, and their cast and crew for their amazing balance of comedy and drama with this series. The rest of my Staff Pick could be a list of the amazing cast, who all have in-depth characters and storylines. And as a celebrity hook, nothing demonstrates the dramedy nature of this show more than the fact that it’s narrated by tennis legend John McEnroe. When I found out why he was the narrator, it was in an episode both heartfelt & heartbreaking.

Never Have I Ever ends its final season with closure on Devi’s high school career and an incredible focus on herself and self worth before sending her off into the real world. I highly recommend this show for everyone since we can all relate to the high school part. But as someone who related to the trauma and mental health awareness of the show, each episode seemed a reminder to keep moving forward, but take note of who I currently am now.

Emily Brill-Holland

Painted Devils – SPOILERS for Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Vanya is in strife again, but this time she didn’t start it. Ish. Painted Devils picks up almost immediately where Little Thieves left off, but all the best stories reflect a version of reality, and Vanya’s had a life of internalizing she’s not good enough. She’s off to track down her family, and you thought a love interest (as much as we adore Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad) was going to solve Vanya’s trauma?

She runs.

Or to put it more simply, she stays put. She’s ended up in Hagendorn, and she’s the head of a made-up cult with a made-up goddess. (Vanya just needed help picking up some rubies and then it Became A Thing).

Until the goddess manifests and demands Emeric as a blood sacrifice.

Painted Devils delivers on all that Little Thieves set up and more: the emotional through-line, character development, fantasy elements, and world-building. Come for the gods, stay for Vanya’s journey.

May Staff Picks: Judy Blume adaptations, K-Dramas, Bo Burnham, and more!

Eileen Silverthorn

Strange World on Disney Plus

It’s an animated family movie that has everything I look for: 1) Amazingly colorful and detailed settings and characters. 2) A diverse depiction of people and relationships. 3) An adorable and quirky companion character that communicates through nothing but dramatic gesture and sound. (In this film, it is literally a blob, with a big personality. And it is my favorite, okay, it just is.) This movie follows the Clades, a family of epic explorers, as they navigate the alien landscape living beneath their home. They discover that this new ground is more than just uncharted territory, but part of a living and breathing biome that needs their help to survive. That’s all I can say without giving away the true crux of the adventure, you’ll just have to watch it!

Jessenia Hernandez

Bo Burnham’s comedy special, Inside, came out in 2021. People, myself included, were floundering in search of purpose and meaning as we learned to navigate a world forever changed by the coronavirus pandemic. I heard great things about Inside, including its deep message, creative execution, and emotional impact. Quite frankly, people’s reactions made me afraid to watch, afraid to be faced with feelings I didn’t feel mentally equipped to handle at the time. I finally decided to watch Inside on a random night after putting it off for so long, and I can’t express enough how much this work of art moved me.

All I knew of Bo Burnham before this was his earlier specials, which included controversial musical comedy sprinkled with biting social commentary. Inside came after a five-year hiatus from Burnham, and the content felt much more vulnerable and intentional than ever before. Burnham’s music ranged from deeply heartfelt to wildly ridiculous, but each song showed his masterful understanding of music and his genuine talent and love for creating it. I noticed that many songs incorporated the sounds and tropes from a wide variety of music genres, including everything from synth-pop to show tunes to acoustic fireside melodies. Along with these wide jumps in musical style, Burnham also delicately weaves a story that will have viewers filled with laughter one moment and existential dread the next.

As Burnham films himself creating the special in a small room over the course of a year, viewers follow him through an emotionally tumultuous journey. He explores the theme of “inside vs. outside” and our tendency to retreat inward when things get hard, emphasizing the dangers of this by showing his own isolation throughout the making of the special. With a past of some controversial and insensitive comedy, Burnham also reflects on the nature of public image and influencer “apologies,” the internet’s inescapable draw and overwhelming presence, the value of art and a joke amid a struggling world, and the ever-present fear of making oneself known to others.

These honest and relevant themes, combined with the creative sets, props, and light design in each segment of this one-man show, work together to create a truly special and unique viewing experience. I think Inside will be a thought-provoking, inspiring, and heartbreaking watch for anyone living in the modern digital age, as well as for anyone who experienced the social and cultural shift brought on by the pandemic.

Album cover art for Inside: The Songs (2021)

Dominic Loise

My wife kept nudging me in the theater while we were watching the movie adaptation of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. She was making sure I was enjoying the movie because she was the only one of us laughing. I was in fact enjoying the movie but was busy thinking how different my life would have been if I had read the book when I was younger. Many of the struggles I dealt with growing up were on the screen, while my wife remarked on the accuracy in which the film and source material also portrayed girls going through puberty

The stigma of reading what was thought of by my peers as a girls book kept me from checking Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret out from the library. However, I always found a voice of recognition and compassion in Blume’s writing as a sensitive and awkward young boy. She was able to nail how I felt in my family dynamic with The One In The Middle Is A Green Kangaroo and feeling lost being a middle child. And the world between kids and adults seemed a little less blurry after reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the Fudge books. I was enjoying the movie but also wishing I had read the source book when I was younger while seeing the truth Judy Blume had to write about navigating true and false friendships, understanding religion and changing bodies from a sixth grader’s perspective all play out on screen.

I appreciate that the film kept the setting in the seventies, and writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig grounds the character in the decade instead of sending up the seventies. Craig brings truthfulness to the setting so that the subject matter and actors can take root in that truth. The amazing cast is anchored around Abby Ryder Fortson who plays the title character Margaret. The film reminded me how much Judy Blume built the bridge from my childhood to young adulthood and I wish Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was part of that foundation.

Asmaani Kumar

Misaeng: An Incomplete Life (2014)

Of all the genres out there, my favourite K-dramas have always been those around the struggles of mundane existence. What drew me to Misaeng was how like every underdog tale, it was about unrealistic wins and realistic losses. But as time went on, Jang Geurae was one character whose scales tipped so much more towards losing battles, and then getting up in spite of it all.  Even though this drama was set up in a competitive corporate space where people were drowning in their own biases, the story wasn’t as much about Geurae winning in this strange world he found himself in; I think it was learning to live with his past and surprisingly finding kindness at every turn. So many people continued to root for him, but even then, he lost. What mattered was the people who continued to believe in him even when he didn’t believe in himself.

Oh Sangshik and Geurae’s relationship is a testament to this, and is the most beautiful thing about this show. To see them believe in each other so fiercely in spite of everything they’ve been through makes your heart so full. Misaeng and all the characters in it have brought meaning to my existence, and I think that’s what the best kind of art does to me. If you’re looking for a story that grounds you, makes you hopeful and believe in yourself more, then this one is for you. (And also it comes with the most stunning life lessons captured through the metaphor of ‘Go’ game!)

Not Your Average Frankenstein: Exploring Grief, Sexuality, and the Monster in Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s Monstrilio

Published by Zando Projects on March 7, 2023.

For readers with a soft spot for unconventional monster fiction, Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s debut novel Monstrilio is packed with metaphor and nuanced layers of horror and humanity. The novel draws the reader into the raw, intimate spaces of mourning and creates something distinctly original as the story effortlessly blends speculative horror with grief, sexuality, and what it means to be human.

The novel follows a grieving family after the death of their son, Santiago, who was born with one lung. In her grief and desperation to hold on to part of her son, Magos cuts out a piece of the lung that both sustained and failed her child. Magos’s inspiration came from a play where the actress lapped up her dead son’s blood as she wept over his body, and as Magos cuts into her own son, “She savors her Santiago’s blood, a taste of iron and warmth. She could suck more blood out of his veins, but she won’t; she’s not a vampire though now she understands the impulse—the craving to drink deep and thirsty in her bowels.” Magos’s choices here are disturbing, but awkwardly justified as Córdova draws the reader into her grief, and this over-the-top, ghoulish action resonates with the raw desperation and tenderness of a mother clinging to her child. As this piece of dead flesh takes life, and morphs into a human-like creature, this desperate thirst and unsatiated hunger follows Monstrilio throughout his life and separates him from humanity. 

The reference to folklore and reincarnation, while not particularly subtle, quickly brings the reader up to speed and takes some mysticism out of the equation when the lung takes on a life of its own and transforms into something more in line with a deformed animal than a child. Magos is determined to raise the creature she names Monstrilio in place of Santiago in spite of his violent nature and the pressure from her family to kill it. From Monstrilio’s unusual beginnings, the tension of the narrative often flourishes in the undefined spaces where his evolution from monster to man intersect in ways that might remind the reader of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. This stands out when Monstrilio learns how to speak. As language connected Frankenstein’s monster closer to humanity, it also sways the rest of Magos’s family into seeing Monstrilio’s potential to evolve. While Victor Frankenstein’s creation was an act of pride, crudely cast aside in horror, Magos pours her desire into the lung and focuses on his capacity for good. Like other monster narratives from the genre, Monstrilio plays with the monster’s sense of belonging and maintains a sense of tension in regard to how Monstrilio will be accepted by society but offers a steady foundation of support and love rather than regret and alienation from his creator.

Although their marriage cannot recover, Magos and Joseph maintain a coparenting relationship and are determined to “weed out whichever Monstrilian instincts remained” as they coax the creature into evolving into something closer to human. Córdova packs layers of tension and nuanced emotion throughout the book as we see Magos and Joseph work through the stages of grief, but there is also a sense of loss as Monstrilio is forced to mask or suppress the inhuman parts of himself. This identity crisis is muddled by his name as Magos begins to call him Santiago in public, while he prefers M to distinguish his transformation and personal identity from the idyllic son that was lost. In Monstrilio’s early phase, Magos’s best friend, Lena, admires the monster. “It opened its mouth wide, revealing the fullness of its fangs. Two rows extending halfway across its body. I was jealous of the monster, how it didn’t care what it was or did. No shame. It held itself up with a certain pride.” The balance between fear and admiration for the monster carries across the horror genre, and Monstrilio stands out in the ways Córdova leans into the emotional complexities of the characters’ lives. 

The story is split into four sections, each featuring the perspective of one of our protagonists: Magos, Joseph, Lena, and M. While Monstrilio’s transformation and the fear of his inhuman nature is the central tension, each perspective is distinctly personal and introspective, and the text resonates with a longing from each character to be seen, loved, and understood. There is a primal sense of desire that manifests as both hunger and consumption, but also as sexuality, which is a place the characters are often their most vulnerable selves. Our four protagonists are LGBTQ+, but Córdova doesn’t spend his time exploring the build-up to this aspect of their personality as many novels often do. Rather, it is stated as a fact, which was incredibly refreshing to see, and left space to explore nuances of sexuality beyond sexual orientation. This opens the door to kink and fetish as Lena describes how she regularly hires women to bathe her, an act that is both sensual and allows her to explore the part of herself that longs to be cared for. When Monstrilio starts dating, the sense of vulnerability is complex because he wants to be loved and accepted as himself—perhaps not as human, but as the individual he’s grown to be. But despite his best intentions, he is a predator and his desire to bite his partners often toes the line of consensual kink and an act of violence. “I say I’m hungry because my hunger is what makes everyone scared,” Monstrilio notes. He wants to partake in the raw, unashamed, ruthless consumption of a predator consuming prey, but knows if he doesn’t resist the temptation, he can’t maintain the illusion of his humanity or live up to the idealized reincarnation of Santiago he’s meant to be. 

Córdova masterfully blends the elements of literary horror and folklore to create something distinctly modern and unique. Monstrilio might not be a typical monster story, but it draws the reader into the fold of a family moving through the stages of grief, and it resonates with hope for new beginnings. Córdova creates a classic sympathetic monster with Monstrilio as he writes him with a deep sense of humanity, understanding, and desire to be good, but also a desire to be his true self. There is a sense of freedom in acting on predatory instinct and giving in to his ravenous hunger because “hunger can be magnificent.” Perhaps the real question Monstrilio poses is not what makes a monster human, but why we would want to change him to fit our mold of humanity.

April Staff Picks: Batman, Cozy YouTube, Godzilla, and more!

Jaclyn Morken

With spring FINALLY showing itself, and winter slowly withdrawing, I’ve found myself watching a lot of peaceful, spring-aesthetic YouTube videos. In particular, I really enjoy watching organizing and decorating videos; there’s something so refreshing about seeing a space DIY’ed and reorganized into something new. (Not to mention motivating—I have definitely adopted a few methods I’ve seen for my own living space, and keep coming back for more inspiration!)

One of my favourite YouTube accounts that offers these videos is cloudyhills. These videos are so calming and wholesome, from videos about redecorating kitchens and bedrooms to upcycling thrift store finds and DIY-ing décor. I love playing these videos when I need a break from work, or when I’d like to have some peaceful background noise as I go about my day. I highly recommend the channel for any time you need some low-stakes, cozy entertainment!

C. E. Janecek

What show is brave enough to ask: What if Dr. Manhattan was a dinosaur?

Godzilla: Singular Point, a Netflix original anime that adapts the cult classic kaiju with the 4D spacetime concepts in Interstellar and futuristic AI technology. Mei Kamino is a genius student researcher studying the molecular biology of mythical creatures (which don’t even exist in her world before the kaijus’ grand entrance). Yun Arikawa is an engineer working for a quirky company, Otaki Factory, whose owner invested all assets into building a monster-fighting mech. They come in contact when a mysterious radio signal coincides with the first Rodan emerging from the sea.

This Godzilla adaptation leans in to the various kaiju slowly overtaking Japan—and then the world—in a mythical plague. Classic literature and folklore meld with Interstellar-esque spacetime distortions to create a suspenseful and visually stunning apocalypse. Much of the show pays homage to classic Godzilla films—Singular Point’s main mecha has humble origins and the even humbler design of the original Jet Jaguar. The soundtrack sent chills down my spine when there’s an opening in the red fog and we see our first glimpse of Godzilla. There’s even easter eggs in the closing credits. The interdisciplinary meeting of myth and science create a universe that—for the most part—tries to stay consistent with its own laws of physics and their limitations. I really enjoyed the hard science fiction aspect of this show, as well as the imaginative examples of how intra-dimensional creatures may adapt and grow in various environments. While the final arc of the first season has to rely on visual metaphors to express the theoretical fourth dimension that only quantum physicists can really understand, I still appreciated the imaginative leaps the writers made to bring these theories to life (along with some sick kaiju designs).

Dominic Loise

The new BatMan/Superman: World’s Finest is set in the DC Universe Silver Age. Since it is before the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans, Dick Grayson is not yet Nightwing but still Robin and part of the Dynamic Duo. He is also an integral part of the World’s Finest team just like he was back when the original series debuted as World’s Best Comics in 1941, before the name changed to World’s Finest Comics.

One of the best issues of the series centers on a time-displaced Robin stuck in the late 19th century. Til BatMan and Superman come to retrieve him from 1892, he falls back on his years in the circus as one of the Flying Graysons by finding a surrogate family in Stratford’s World-Famous American Circus. While with the traveling circus, Dick solves a mystery with the modern detective knowledge learned from BatMan but needs to keep the explanation relevant to the times. This book shows the type of beacon of joy comics can be as Robin is first reunited with BatMan & Superman undercover in the late 1800s as circus performers and how Bruce and Clark have both become father figures and family to Dick since the death of the Graysons.

Both writer and artist keep fringe characters fresh in this series while drawing definitive lines on the core characters. Mark Waid writes classic DC characters with the watchful eye and keen sensibility of a childhood friend who has helped you find solid footing through the years on the way to adulthood. Artist Dan Mora’s clean line work and body composition lets these characters tell us their physical stance on the philosophy of Truth and Justice.

Truth and Justice come to play in the most heartfelt and heartbreaking storyline of the series Strange Visitor, about Boy Thunder, Superman’s Sidekick. First, there is the truth of Boy Thunder and how this story ties into one of the most groundbreaking DC comic books of all time. Then, the Truth of Superman and the fact that the character never lies. How writer Mark Waid ties these two truths together shows his understanding of DC history from the Silver Age to the current Heroic Age.

BatMan/Superman: World’s Finest is ongoing from DC Comics.

Emily Brill-Holland

The world is a lot right now. Dedicated to “anybody who could use a break,” A Psalm for The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers is a wholesome, thought-provoking hug. Dex’s journey of discovery, the gorgeous world-building, Chamber’s stunning sentences and the soul-warmth of the growing friendship between Sibling Dex and Moss have lingered since I finished it.

Just like another beautiful novella (This is How You Lose The Time War), I started this in the bath and then the bath went cold and I couldn’t get out until I’d finished it.

A Psalm for The Wild-Built follows Sibling Dex on their journey through what I would equate to a quarter-life crisis.

In this solarpunk world of Panga, centuries after humans and robots peacefully parted ways with a Promise, humanity lives in harmony, both as a society and abutting the natural world. Nobody wants for anything; oh, friction still exists, in the form of human needs like tiredness and needing somebody to listen, and for that, they have tea monks who will offer a quiet moment to just be, a steaming cup of perfectly-brewed warmth,and a shoulder to cry on.

In this perfection, in this wanting-for-nothing, Sibling Dex feels entirely alone with their discomfort, in wanting more. Attributing it to a desire to hear crickets, Sibling Dex becomes first a tea monk and then,  startlingly, the first human to make contact with a robot, Moss, since the robots disappeared into the wilderness. Moss has arrived with one question: what do people need?

The answer for me was “this series.”

March Staff Picks: Intern Picks!

Alex Schotzko

Okay. Seriously. I’m being serious here. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed reading the graphic novel On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. It’s queer, it’s magical, it’s trippy and tear-jerking—and above all, it’s gorgeous! (I mean, just LOOK at that image from the first chapter! Seriously.)

The story centers around protagonist Mia as she joins a small and quirky crew of ancient building restorers working in the quiet fringes of space. Flickering between past and present, the narrative flows as beautifully as the visuals, weaving a kaleidoscopic story of love, heartbreak, danger, and chosen family. If you like graphic novels featuring powerful, intelligent women and non-binary folk doing dope things and feeling big feels while flying around in their giant koi fish spaceship, then this book is for you. This is also probably the only book out there that hits every one of those markers, so you better get on it!

You can read this treasure online for free (it was first released as a webcomic), but if you can afford it, I would highly suggest purchasing the graphic novel. First of all, you can support the artist this way! And second, the beauty of the pages when they’re in your hands… it’s just a sublime experience. Seriously.

Marizel Malan

The comedian and actor Brett Goldstein, who many may know as the stoic footballer Roy Kent in Ted Lasso, hosts a film-related podcast that I have become slightly obsessed with. And it’s not just any old film podcast: Goldstein begins the conversation with his guests by asking them how they died, hence the name Films to be Buried With. As he interviews other well-known actors and comedians, I have not only found myself answering the questions alongside them, but genuinely smiling throughout the hour-long episodes. The first episode, recorded in 2018 in Goldstein’s kitchen and featuring British comedian James Acaster, serves as the perfect example of how chaotic and unhinged the podcast can be. With questions ranging from “what’s the first movie you remember seeing as a kid?” to “which DVD would you like to be buried with?”, you can’t help but become immersed in the conversation. While I still have a ton of episodes to listen to, some of my favorites include the very first with James Acaster, Ed Gamble’s “Judgement Day” episode, and Quinta Brunson’s lovely episode.

Simon Kerr

The Murderbot Diaries, written by Martha Wells, has the spirit of a crime procedural with the trappings of a sprawling galactic setting and a very unamused bot narrator. Have you always yearned to see a salty detective, with less gender and more built-in arm guns, roundhouse kick a capitalist goon in the head? You’ll probably like Murderbot as much as I do. The only thing more endearing than Murderbot’s love of media is Murderbot’s love for the humans it reluctantly but fiercely protects. (“Reluctantly” according to Murderbot, but its read on its own emotions is not to be trusted.) There’s nothing more lovable than a character who refuses to love and yet is suspiciously keen on protecting a certain few.

Besides having an agender, asexual protagonist I’d let rescue me from terrifying space fauna any day, The Murderbot Diaries is also a mirrored look into the future. Will capitalism claim the stars, or will bright spots of genuinely caring humanity endure? Come for the neopronouns, stay for the sarcasm-drenched fight against the corporates.

The Hugo and Nebula award–winning series has five novellas beginning with All Systems Red, one full length novel, and a new release scheduled for November 2023. Catch up before System Collapse releases at the end of this year!

Haley Lawson

As I write this, the days are getting longer. Spring in Northern Minnesota is marked by surprisingly sunny days—ice drips from our roofs creating craters in the snowy banks. Just when I’m about to naively pack up my winter gear, a winter storm warning blows through, turning the roads to black ice and coating us all in fresh snow. It’s a season of constant change and one that makes me recognize the wild beauty of the world around me.

I’ve long felt that my soul rests at the bottom of Lake Superior, or Gichigami. A striking and powerful body of water, so large it feels like the ocean. It is along these shores that the Ojibwe and Dakota people have always, and still, thrive and reside.

With this in mind, there are two Native Minnesotan artists I’d love to recognize!

Thomas X, musician and artist: The Seven Teachings

The Ojibwe Seven teachings: respect, truth, wisdom, honesty, humility, courage, and love.

I hope today you can take a moment to think about these teachings. How can you incorporate them into your day today? Maybe even your daily practice?

Rabbett Before Horses Strickland, artist: Native Report

I was in AICHO (American Indian Community Housing Organization) when I first saw Strickland’s work. His series of paintings are a gorgeous mix of folklore, mythology, and history. In all of his pieces, he depicts the figure of Nanabozhoo, a prominent figure in Ojibwe creation stories. Strickland’s work is truly breathtaking.

Art Print: “Nanabozhoo Getting Nibi [Version #1]” by Rabbett Before Horses Strickland. Available for purchase here.

Hungry Ghosts: An Interview with Kevin Jared Hosein

You have said that your own writing career got off to some false starts before you made a conscious decision to “be strategic.” What did being strategic about writing and getting published look like? What advice can you give to emerging writers?

To be an accomplished Caribbean writer back then typically meant moving from the Caribbean. That wasn’t an option for me—my secondary school did not even offer Literature as a subject. Still, I hungered to be a writer! When Trinidad started hosting our Bocas Literature Festival, I illustrated and self-published a short children’s book (Littletown Secrets) in the hope of somehow participating. I’d been in education for a few years, so it was easy using contacts from fellow teachers and librarians to secure orders for their classes and book clubs. The initial run sold out and I became part of their children’s caravan for a few years. To emerging writers, I would say: avoid talking about your work too much before you’ve finished, or even started… you’ll feel as if it’s already complete. Work with the hunger.

Your short stories have won awards and appeared in many journals and magazines. Which stories are you most proud of?

That would be Passage. I wrote it based on memories of a Trinidadian news story when I was a teen, about the uprooting of a family living in a mountain forest. I wrote it in one feverish night ten years later, only for it to be rejected from every single outlet I submitted it to. Ultimately, it went on to win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2018. I’m proud because it’s written fully in our lyrical Trinidadian English Creole—and so many people from so many countries got to experience it.

You have said that, as a teenager, you were most interested in three literary themes: revenge, salvation, and madness. Which literary themes most interest you in 2023?

I often say that Trinidad writes itself. Many stories I write are drawn from actual people, communities or events. We are a theatrical kind—people of entertainment. Revenge, salvation, and madness continue to be three thematic sources of entertainment and dramatic intrigue in our oral traditions. At the same time, I am interested in up-ending expectations of these themes. I’m drawn to thinking about moments that cause humans to react in the most seemingly inexplicable ways, and how madness can be relative to scenario and time.

Hungry Ghosts features a sizable cast of characters. Did certain characters come to you first with their stories, with others branching out from them as the plot required? Or did the community at the barracks appear fully-formed?

Marlee Changoor came first, and everyone else met her along the way. The settings had already come fully formed, however, from the barrack to the dark riverside to Bell Village to the wild plains; senses and ecology, all. In my head, I had weighed the majesty and sovereignty of the land against the gilded diorama that the Changoors had created, almost as if to shut nature out. I created keystone images to guide each character, like leitmotifs—Hans hidden in water, Krishna surrounded by torn magazine pages, Shweta being lashed by laundry.

The novel is set “sometime in the 1940s in Trinidad,” with specificities of time and place richly evoked throughout. How much of the Trinidad in this novel is the land you know, and how much the product of research?

Many parts of Trinidad have acted as time capsules, preserving the conviviality of halcyon days: ancient graveyard parables, hammocks and bead curtains, and rituals of self-sustenance. I spent my first few years in a rural village where time has slowed like this. So much wilderness has stood against the olden beast of time. I haven’t lived in the 1940s, but I can recognise its faded echoes. And I was fortunate enough to converse with the elders of my family and childhood village, who lent a cerebral tone and timbre to those echoes.

How do you approach the responsibilities that come with writing historical fiction? Does one side of this equation lead the other?

I did once feel nervous about elders and historians reading Hungry Ghosts and secretly compiling all the anachronisms and misnomers—all of which I’ve tried my best to keep to a minimum! However, my goal was never to create a facsimile of Trinidad at that time, but rather to capture the growing dread of us having to face ourselves in becoming what the colonial authorities never wanted us to be—a civilisation. And the ensuing beautiful nightmare of clashing faiths and privileges along the way.

You describe going through a transition period of writing “in the uncanny valley of an unconfident identity,” writing over-explained stories set in your home country and doubting whether to write in Creole vernacular. Do you feel like you have left that valley?

In school, we never really learned how to write in Creole vernacular. Some are still probably discouraged from doing so! And so it exudes an illusion of clunkiness when put on the page. It’s foolish now to think that nobody will know what you’re talking about—they have Google. Still, I keep in mind that some of the more specific or esoteric aspects of Caribbean culture can benefit from elucidation—it can be slickly done with just an em-dash and a short poetic phrase. If decades of readers can be cool with A Clockwork Orange’s ‘devotchka’, ‘moloko’ and ‘malchick’, I think there’s little sense in worrying about ‘badjohn’, ‘dingolay’ and ‘tabanca’.

What book are you most looking forward to reading in the year ahead?

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. I’ve heard that at its meta-fiction core is a moral greyness that tackles (and possibly subverts?) ideas of privilege, identity, and appropriation.

January Staff Picks: Horror, K-Dramas, and Romance!

C. E. Janecek

Twenty-Five Twenty-One has all the spirit of a sports drama (professional fencing, in this case), the youthful enthusiasm of a bildungsroman, and the heart of familial and romantic relationships coming together and pulling apart over the course of Na Hi-Do’s life. Through the frame of Na Hi-Do’s daughter reading her mother’s diary entries about her high school years in the 90s, the majority of the story takes place during the 1997-1998 Korean Financial Crisis, striking the fine line between being a sobering drama about class and also a genuinely uplifting story of growing up with dreams of being a professional athlete and finding one’s way into adulthood during a crumbling economy. Athletic rivalries, professional sacrifices, and heartbreakingly written friendships make this drama feel deeply in tune with its difficult backdrop. The ending—unlike many dramas that struggle to find the right tone between comedy, romance, and drama—felt absolutely perfect and bittersweet. Grounded deeply in reality as well as the high hopes and aspirations of teenagers’ dreams, Twenty-Five Twenty-One is one of the best Korean dramas I’ve ever watched.

Jessenia Hernandez

Heartstopper is a delightfully sweet series of graphic novels that was recently adapted into a Netflix show, and I have been absolutely in love with both since discovering them this past month. Alice Oseman’s story follows Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, two teenagers who meet in school and proceed to have the warmest, kindest, and most refreshing romance I’ve seen in a long time. While Charlie was outed as gay and is still recovering from the incessant bullying he faced, Nick is known as the straightest guy on campus, a “rugby lad” who’s popular with all the ladies. But as Nick spends more time with Charlie, he starts to question his own sexuality.

The most beautiful part of this story is that despite the two main characters dealing with their own insecurities and expectations, there is an overwhelming amount of love and support in every interaction they have. When one is afraid, the other is there to comfort him. When there’s a misunderstanding, it’s usually not long before the characters are word vomiting their honest feelings. The characters are never working against each other, only holding each other up as they navigate being queer in a sometimes unaccepting environment.

Aside from the perfect pacing, killer soundtrack, and abundance of adorably romantic moments, I also love that the show incorporates little bits of animation from the graphic novel. Leaves float around the pair or sparks fly between their hands, adding a certain magic to moments between them while paying homage to Alice Oseman’s endearing art style. Needless to say, I binge watched Heartstopper’s first season in one night and read the four volumes of the graphic novel the next day. The later volumes get into some heavy mental health topics (TW: self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia), but Oseman deals with them honestly and compassionately.

It’s very unlike me to watch something first and then read the books, but the show left me feeling so happy that all I wanted was more Nick and Charlie content. Luckily, volumes three and four go beyond the show’s first season, so I got to read some fresh Heartstopper content before watching the story unfold again when season two comes out!

Dominic Loise

Rats! The year 2022 is over and I still have a stack of unread books, as well as a queue of unwatched shows. New Year’s Eve hit and I hadn’t finished the first season of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix. Yet, the single episode called “Graveyard Rats” may be my favorite television viewing experience of 2022.

Cabinet of Curiosities is an anthology horror series created, produced and hosted by Guillermo del Toro. Each of the Cabinet of Curiosities episodes has its own director and most of the episodes are based on short stories by classic authors like H. P. Lovecraft. Please note that I am putting trigger warnings for this series due to the visuals involved bringing these stories to the screen. “Graveyard Rats” is directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the first Cube (1997) movie in that science fiction/horror puzzle box franchise. Henry Kuttner wrote the short story the episode was based on. Kuttner wrote the piece the Twilight Zone episode “What You Need” was filmed from. David Hewlett plays the main character Masson. Hewlett is an amazing character actor who fans of Murdoch Mysteries may know as Dilbert Dilton in the emotional episode “The Accident”.

I haven’t seen the version of the story done for Trilogy of Terror II and I will acknowledge that I have written about rats and horror already in 2022 when reviewing Wrath. However, this “Graveyard Rats” is a different animal. Not only is this production my favorite episode of television of the year, but I would put it up as one of my “go to” episodes of horror television. I was jumping multiple times with fright and delight. I bought Masson’s motivation for graverobbing and how the terror of his financial straits caused the crawling after rats through burrowed tunnels under the graveyard. And the confined spaces Natali filmed in Cube comes back to play here along with the same atmosphere of enclosed desperation fighting for survival that I loved in the director’s previous work. “Graveyard Rats” is one of those perfect combinations of story, director and actor that makes something memorable and nests itself as a benchmark for the genre.

Asmaani Kumar

Alchemy of Souls Pt.1 and Pt. 2 has been the IT drama of last year, spanning two seasons to tell you about this fantasy world of mages intermeshed with dangerous palace politics. Our central character Jang Uk, is the only mage without his own source of energy to cast spells and you find yourself on this beautiful journey where he becomes the most powerful mage in the kingdom. This happens all because of his stern tutor, Naksu/Mudeok, a dangerous assassin that has switched souls and is now trapped in a body that cannot perform spells. With a hauntingly beautiful OST and a host of lovable characters all on their own journeys, this is a storyline that keeps you hooked with its exploration of multiple relationships and dynamics, a series of unexpected twists and a brilliant cinematography that leaves you wanting more.

It’s been a long time since I have fangirled over a series so much but it’s also been too long since I came across a story that was so beautifully written with a solid narrative that brought in so many sub-plots together. But what I was drawn to the most was the relationship between Jang Uk and Mudeok, which as ill-fated as it may have been had all the ingredients of a romance that could conquer all. To see their journey of living with their past, accepting loss and heartbreak and becoming more powerful together was one of the best things I’ve seen all this while. I’ve been calling this story beautiful too many times, but I love it so much that I just cannot find the words to capture what I feel and how brilliant this show is. It’s an iconic must watch!