Several years ago, Brian Niemeier’s Dragon-nominated Nethereal came out, and I noticed something very interesting: the images playing in my head as I read it were coming out very 90s anime-esque. Since then (and maybe before then, I haven’t done a ton of research), there’s been a bit of an uptick in anime-influenced writing. Niemeier’s Combat Frame XSeed is the flagship of the “A Gundam for Us” movement; I’ve seen magical girl novels and dungeon crawling “isekai but good” novels. And most recently, B. Michael Stevens’ “Robotech-meets-Shadowrun” trilogy No Gods, No Masters.
The Goddess Gambit is the series’ first novel, telling the tale of a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a mysterious event called “The Storm.” Humanity is now primarily concentrated around an immense fortress called the “Zigg,” with the fortunate pure ones living inside in relative luxury, the unfortunate– mutants, aliens, and general undesirables– living in slums clustered around it. (If you’re thinking Final Fantasy VII‘s Midgar, you’re on the right track.) Jon 310-257 is a genetically engineered super-soldier that wants only to fight to protect what’s left of humanity; unfortunately for him, that turns out to be far more complicated than just humans vs demonic aliens. What should have been a morale boosting trip to see the pop star Lilly Sapphire perform winds up with Jon on the receiving end of an otherworldly impurity that could get him banished from the Zigg, and soon enough, Jon is drawn into a web of conflicting conspiracies to decide the fate of humanity. On one side, he was created to be a pawn, as were all his brothers, in the plans of the Zigg’s chairman; on the other, a mysterious girl known as Maya believes him to be the linchpin in the survival of humanity during the trials to come and in undoing the damage of the Storm.
If Niemier was initially quiet about his anime influence, Stevens takes the opposite approach: he shouts it loudly and frequently. What you’re going to see in The Goddess Gambit isn’t so much a surprise (though it has some nice surprises) as it is Stevens delivering on his promises. Like me, like Niemeier, classic 80s and 90s anime has wormed itself deeply into his brain, and man, it shows. During an early combat scene, I realized that I was picturing the exchanged gunfire as a kind of cheap, stock footage scene, and it was really rather wonderful. The post-apocalyptic setting easily lends itself to imagining the painted deserts and wastelands of 80s anime, and while I’m not sure I should have been picturing the protagonist’s motorcycles as Robotech/Genesis Climber Mospeade‘s Cyclones/Ride Armor, I absolutely was. And, most excitingly for the die-hard Macross fan that I am, Lily Sapphire is such a wonderful homage to the idols of that franchise that I was practically able to hear the songs she was singing while I was reading– particularly her opening number.
It would be easy to read all this and think that The Goddess Gambit is a soulless pastiche when it is anything but. The anime influence is thick and the usage is intentional, and the closest comparison I can think of is the way Quentin Tarantino makes heavy and intentional use of grindhouse elements in his films. No one who enjoys a Tarantino film is going to try to lodge a complaint about the borrowed elements in his films, or argue that they’re derivative; the borrowed elements are there because the director loves them. They’re part of his style. That’s The Goddess Gambit; the appropriate response to the feeling of stock footage is to remember Saturday nights with rented VHS cassettes of The Slayers, watching three episodes in English and another three in Japanese because that’s the only way you could do it with what the local video store had. It’s cozy, in a hellish post-apocalyptic sort of way.
Nothing is perfect, and The Goddess Gambit is no exception. The opening is a little slow, and the villains are a little on the mustache-twirling side. One particular moment of horror towards the end falls a little flat because it seems more like sadism on the villain’s part than anything meaningful to the narrative, and it sticks out to me because it feels like it’s supposed to mean something. But that shouldn’t dissuade you– this is a wild, pulpy ride and a hell of a lot of fun. (Pun intended.)
Buy B. Michael Stevens’ The Goddess Gambit. $3.99 on Kindle.