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TEA REVIEW: A Date with Mr. Darcy

 


NOTE: I am a Chapters Tea & Coffee affiliate, so purchases made via this blog post may result in compensation for me. Thank you for continuing to support me and my writing!

All things considered, Chapters Tea & Coffee is a relatively new company. (So new that the "& Coffee" part just launched a handful of months ago!) But they've already been making a name for themselves among lovers of books and caffeinated beverages across the Internet. Their blends and brews are inspired by classic literature, from a Hobbit-y English breakfast to a Little Women-inspired herbal. Over the winter holidays, they launched a trio of new flavors (two limited-edition, one still available)—and they've done it again for Valentine's Day.

A Date with Mr. Darcy is the second Pride & Prejudice-themed tea from Chapters, dedicated to the ultimate fictional crush. As with all their other offerings, this one features beautiful artwork depicting a romantic picnic within view of Pemberley. This is also the second tea blend to come in a tin: and while I love the bags and the room they allow for the artwork to shine, the tins are really something special, too.

The tea itself is a blend of black and white teas flavored with bergamot, vanilla, and rose petals. It's not nearly as strong as Poet's Study, their Poe-inspired Earl Grey—so if you like bergamot but prefer it to hit a little less hard, this is a good balance. The vanilla and rose in particular mellow it out, making this a genuinely gorgeous blend.

I feel a bit odd constantly earmarking new blends as my "new favorite," but A Date with Mr. Darcy hits pretty much all my high points for tea. Bergamot and rose is already a fantastic combination, but getting the balance right can be extremely difficult. Many places either bury the rose entirely under the bergamot or overcorrect in the other direction. Everything is perfectly balanced, making for a blend that is somehow both dreamy and invigorating. I can't recommend this one enough.

If you'd like to try it for yourself, check it out on the Chapters website. And make sure to use my code KARAD15 for 15% off your whole order at checkout!

BOOK REVIEW: Science Fiction

 


For more than a decade, Obverse Books has focused on expanded universe and spinoff literature—largely works adjacent to and/or analytical of the world of Doctor Who. Recently, though, the indie publisher has been branching out even further into original fiction. There are, of course, plenty of things already out there, including Brenda and Effie collections (which I also highly recommend). But the latest stand-alone novel from Scott M. Liddell, simply (and appropriately) titled Science Fiction, could herald a new era for Obverse: one in which new stories are free to thrive alongside established IPs.

While there are many familiar pop culture references throughout Science Fiction, this novel does not hook itself to the actual canon or lore of any existing stories. It's not stealthily Doctor Who, not a quiet Faction Paradox tie-in: it is its own universe. And what a twisty, confusing universe it is.

Our hero, Jason (who prefers to go simply by J) lives in 2CV: a thriving post-apocalyptic civilization in which politics, capitalism, and religion have been pared away. Education is gained via simulations in which participants are immersed in great events from the history of 1CV (our civilization)—not just learning what happened, but how it felt to be there. And at some point, each human takes part in the Fiction: writing down their life's dream and, should everything check out, being whisked off to an alternate universe where they can live out their best possible life.

J has been rejected repeatedly, as his Fiction breaks one of the process's core rules: it cannot be "about" another person, and his is all about chasing down his crush, Leah. After multiple rejections and immersing himself in the world of ancient films, he has a run-in with a young woman named Caro. Her inventions enable him to skip universes without all the checks and balances, touching base with alternate Caros along the way and (he hopes) meeting his one true love. But as with any seemingly perfect world, especially one that's been so heavily legislated and Occam's Razored, things aren't as they seem.

Science Fiction peels back in layers: a spacetime-trekking love story morphing into hard sci-fi. There are dashes of Star Trek and Die Hard, but absolutely not in the way you're expecting. It's a deep and dense story, but not hard to follow. All the pieces are set up bit by bit as the reader watches, but how they're put together in the book's second and third act is a constantly surprise.

While each reader's mileage may vary on the book's philosophical leanings, none of that stands in the way of Science Fiction being an absolutely cracking read. And the seemingly simplistic title wraps up a plethora of themes: from the role of classic sci-fi in how may of us view ourselves and the world to the very real push-and-pull of human nature vs. technology. In a modern literary landscape where sci-fi is often a matter of jingling the keyring of nostalgia in front of its readers, Science Fiction asks us to interrogate why we like what we like—and, moreover, if we're actually paying attention.

Science Fiction is now available from Obverse Books. And while their tie-in and critical works will always be close to my heart (although I'm probably a bit biased on that front), if Science Fiction is any indication, there's a lot of promise for brand-new stand-alone novels in Obverse's future.

February 2024 Book Reviews

 


February is my birthday month, as well as being the birthdays of several friends. So I'll be honest, I had my fingers crossed for a few little "gifts" for myself and others. Overall, this feels like a really strong month for new releases — from mysteries for middle-grade readers and adults alike to paranormal rebellions and romances, along with a much more down-to-earth YA piece.

Thanks as always to the publishers for sending these titles along. I wish I still had that glossy newsstand platform to really shout about these, but a blog's not nothing. If you dig in to any of these books, be sure to let me know!

OUT NOW: Otaku USA Spring 2024 Issue

 


New year, new mag! Otaku USA is now selling its Spring 2024 issue. And before we go any further — yes, the magazine is now quarterly. Although the anime-specific Anime USA issues will still be coming out as well. (And I'll try to be better about reminding people of those, too, since I absolutely do features in 'em.)

So while Present Kara may be neck deep in Bang Brave Bang Bravern and Undead Unluck, Past Kara is here to tell you about rad recent releases that are totally worth your time. As always, everyone in this issue is fantastic, and you should pick this up to read everything. I'm especially happy to see A Place Further Than the Universe, one of my favorite contemporary series, getting some ink again. But that aside, here's what's mine in the new issue.



In the Reviews section, I give my two cents on The Masterful Cat Is Depressed Again Today. It's no secret that GoHands gets heavily side-eyed on the regular, and I am one of its most dedicated side-eyers. (And that's without even touching on the Tokyo Babylon fiasco — even when it's operating ethically, its animation just looks weird.) But credit where credit is due, this bizarre little show won me over.



Over in the features... hey, I got the cover story! And honestly, Sacrificial Princess and the King of Beasts deserves all the hype it can get. It's one of my favorite shows of recent seasons — another for the "my terrible life turned out pretty great, actually" pile with lots of happy romance wish fulfillment and cool worldbuilding. This is one I absolutely recommend to anyone who thinks it looks interesting, as well as the subject of my other feature for the issue.


Undead Murder Farce is, without question, a show made for me. It's got supernatural horror. It's got rakugo. It's got more Victorian literary characters than you can shake a stick at. And it's got good and interesting mystery. Shows like this are why I'm glad I get to write for Otaku USA: I have a chance to wave a huge flag and relay to as many people as possible how very good a show actually is.

You can get the latest issue at your local bookstore or from the Otaku USA website. And while you're there, check out my site features. I'm penning articles every few days on everything from how to understand Bang Bravern to which legendarily bad anime Rifftrax should have a go at. And thanks as always for your continued support of my work and the work of my fellow anime nerds.

On MST3K, Anxiety, and the Power of Familiarity

 


Autumn and winter are my favorite seasons. I like the cold. (Specifically, I like being cold and getting warm.) I like the full stretch of autumn and winter holidays. I like the cold-seasons aesthetic. Heck, I even kind of like it getting dark early. But the cold months don't love me back, which is an absolute bastard of a way to be. Like a cheese-lover being lactose intolerant, but instead of gas and stomach pains you lie awake at night wondering if you'll die alone.

I do all the things one needs to do. I get out socially. I get sunlight and take extra vitamin D. I don't drink caffeine after a certain time of day. I say my prayers (which is functionally as close as my ADHD will let me get to meditating or mindfulness). My therapy regimen is none of your business but it exists. And, in a nearly century-old house that's built for a family of four but currently contains me and two guinea pigs, I put on sounds at night. Because if the intrusive thoughts don't get me, the creaking and settling will.

In the darkest of dark months, things just stop working. ASMR used to do it, but now the noises just make me nervous. I used to listen to a British comedy radio station, which had the bonus of running the audio of a Blackadder right around the time I woke up, but somehow even the mix of The Navy Lark and random witcoms wasn't doing it anymore. Then one night I switched the Roku to the little unused TV in my bedroom (my PS4 handles streaming in the living room). The intent was to watch a bit of before-bed Space: 1999, but I remembered that Shout! Factory exists. So I did an experiment: I popped on their 24-hour MST3K channel, put the volume just where I could hear it, and rolled over to go to sleep.

And baby, did I sleep through the night.


Mystery Science Theater 3000 inhabits a weird place in the television zeitgeist. Either you don't know anything about it, or it's an indelible part of your life. There's basically no in between. I remember my uncle bringing over VHS recordings of it from Comedy Central, back when my family decided cable wasn't worth it anymore. And, in fairness, back when I only understood maybe about a third of the jokes. Didn't matter. Robots funny.

I remember going to a live show of Cinematic Titanic one night, and Frank Conniff commented on how MSTies are pretty much the most dedicated fans ever. We were viewers who were dedicated to a show whose every episode was two hours long, and which had been off the air for (then) more than a decade. And with the exception of the first season (not counting KTMA) and the occasional stray Mike episode, I've seen just about all of it. It's all floating around in the brain somewhere. Granted, some episodes stick out more than others ("The Human Duplicators," "Mitchell," and that one "Hamlet" are pretty much always surface level for me). But even those few I haven't seen feel familiar. Because each host has a style of delivery and it's reliable and comforting. And maybe that's what's up.


Because let's be real. Anxiety, or at least my anxiety, is a fear of the unknown. Ruminating on uncertainty. Will I have to have surgery on my leg? How much of it will my insurance cover? How much will I owe on my taxes this year? Will that wind outside blow a hole in my roof? Is that creaking sound in the stairwell just the house settling or an intruder? Is this weird feeling in my chest a panic attack or a heart attack? Are the people I care about safe? And so on, and so on. Not knowing is terrifying, which I know is true of humans in general, but it's a problem for me to the point of causing insomnia. And that's not cool.

So maybe that's what's going on. The introduction of something that's so deeply ingrained in my life brings some certainty to the late-night hours. Even if that certainty is in the form of three people talking over terrible movies.

It's not a fix for everything, of course. It won't take away the uncertainty of the future (or the present). But I think there's something to the idea, no matter how old you are, of finding something that unwavering and reliable to turn to when life won't offer you that security. Maybe it's a favorite book or comic series, or a favorite long-form anime. Maybe it's a certain band whose every song you know. Maybe it's the same as it is for me: knowing that Tom Servo will have a song ready, that Mike will do that "toot-tee-toot" thing whenever silly slow music plays, that certain words just sound funnier in Joel's voice.


We're coming out the other side of winter, and the days are getting longer again. And before long I won't be awake for nearly as many dark hours, and this will potentially be less of a problem 'til winter kicks in again. And in fairness, one TV show didn't "fix" my anxiety. But it lets me experience certainty - weird, unhinged certainty, but certainty nonetheless - for a few hours a night. Not the sort of reflection I expected to have when my uncle brought over that tape of First Spaceship on Venus when I was nine years old, but I've learned not to question a good thing.

Get in the Robot - My First Time Playing Armour Astir: Advent

 

from the cover of Armour Astir: Advent

If you're new here, quick update: I love love love giant robot anime. I worked on Discotek's DVD release of Mazinger Z. My fellow Crunchyroll newsroom writers save mecha anime news for me in the morning. (And yes, I'm aware of Brave Bang Bravern. We'll talk about that another time.) So when my Sunday game finished our year-and-a-bit D&D campaign and the DM wanted to try a new system, and happened to mention this one, I was hype.

Two sessions in? Still hype. And I will absolutely revisit my experiences with this at the end of the campaign, but I want to give a beginner's view of what it's like to play and, if you're a hopeless mecha addict like me, how much it will vibe for you.

To start, Armour Astir: Advent is a Powered by the Apocalypse game. (Think Blades in the Dark or Monster of the Week: playbooks fitted to genre archetypes, story progression over hit point counting, and d6es only.) PBTA games have their share of ups and downs, and while the system is constructed in a way that eases party/game setup and story flow, your mileage may vary based on your goals in tabletop games. I've found myself warming to this style of game over time as I get more acclimated to it.

The one issue I've had with other PBTA games is that sometimes, the thing you want to do doesn't have a clear stat attached to it, and thus there's a lot of hemming and hawing over how to account for the dice-rolling aspect of your next Move. In Armour Astir, at least for Channelers (more on that in a second), there's literally a move and a stat for that: "Weave Magic," i.e. "anything that goes above and beyond everything on your sheet." Which I think is pretty great.

Art by Si F Sweetman

The game is inspired by a mishmash of robot anime, fantasy anime, and fantasy in general. Relevant titles are listed in the source book, but if you're anything like me, you'll likely catch the references in the names of Moves and the descriptions of things overall. And the writers really know their stuff: the tropes run deep, and players are encouraged to play with what they mean from a character standpoint.

Case in point, the Impostor playbook (i.e. the one I'm playing). This one jumped out at me for two reasons. For one, it's the most rooted in the hot-blooded shouty delinquent super robot pilot vibe I love so much. For another, "Impostor" refers to the fact that these characters channel magic not through study or faith or some other aptitude, but through body modifications. Players are encouraged to approach this through the lens of disability or dysphoria. And as someone who spent half my life dealing with debilitating chronic pain, I chose the former. The book says that your augmentation does not make your life more difficult unless you want it to, and for the purposes of this character I want it to.

Without going into a whole long diatribe on my character and what makes her tick, I will say that my experience building an Armour Astir character has been much more in-depth than any other PBTA games. Interrogating the deeper meaning of a certain play style is something I try to do with all my characters, but this is the first time a book has ever outright said "Please go there."

Similarly, each playbook comes with a unique Gravity trigger. Gravity is a stat that measures the relationship between you and other characters, be they PCs or NPCs. This could be romance, friendship, uneasy alliances, a desire to absolutely murder each other, etc. Besides being a great way to measure and keep tabs on the pacing of story threads, I really appreciate that it's a concrete way to tell the GM, "I would like to focus on the chemistry between these two characters, please." I've been gaming for years and I still do a bad job sometimes of voicing when I want to chase down a plot thread.




More things I love, in quick succession:
  • There's plenty for non-Channelers to do. Our party is made up of two Channelers and two Support, and I've been enjoying seeing how their abilities and contributions to the party build out. Nowhere do the Support characters feel at all lesser or underpowered.
  • One of my favorite things about PBTA games is that you're rewarded for enduring difficulties in the game. (XP for failure in Monster of the Week, XP simply for having to make Desperate rolls in Blades in the Dark.) In Armour Astir, failing rolls stack into something called Spotlight. You can use those to advance, or you can spend six Spotlight in the moment to do something really cool. As a serial Bad Roller, I appreciate anything made to soften the blow of RNG failure at table. Not to mention it fits into the hot-blooded eleventh hour action I love so much.
  • While I didn't see it listed under the inspirations, I get a lot of Super Robot Wars vibes off this game. (Which is to be expected.) This feels especially evident in the Impostor playbook, where your Channel stat increases as you take hits, to the point that it behooves you to save your big badass moves for when you're about to take a knee.
One last thing that deserves its own space: I appreciate that this game acknowledges more interesting risks than simply death. As someone who delved deeper into gaming as a way to get back into the world after a death in the family, and as someone who does this largely to exercise the creative part of my brain and get back to storytelling consistently, I'm not a fan of player character death being solely at the whim of the dice. (If others are, that's fine, but I believe players and DMs should decide this before playing.)

In Armour Astir, when your character Bites the Dust, they're out of the sortie. Based on the next set of rolls, they might recover unexpectedly well, or they might carry that defeat with them in some way. To me, that's so much more interesting and compelling then saying "Too bad you failed at rolling, your character's story is just done now." That's the main reason I've warmed to PBTA games recently: instead of it being a Session 0 discussion, defeat as transformative rather than subtractive is baked directly into the system.

As I said, I'm only two sessions in. We're all learning together as we go, figuring out how everything works. One of our players is even trying out a playbook from the expansion. When we're further in, or perhaps at the end of the campaign, I intend to report back with more.

Check out Armour Astir: Advent, eight addition playbooks in Armour Astir: Encore, and romance expansion Amor Astir at Briar Sovereign's itchi.io page!