The Wayward Youth of ‘Substance’ (A Review)

Substance cover

Review by Curtis Cole

        Author Ashlyn Forge understands the finer points of drama: foregoing melodrama in favor of subdued, almost amnesiac thread of low-intensity existential angst, Forge’s standalone—Substance—set in her “Toys and Soldiers” universe, crafts a wrenching coming of age story set in an oppressive civilization called “The Colony.”

Protagonist Phil, a trainee of the martial arts master Job—the Colony’s most notorious sensei—is reminiscent of young people today: he lives with his father, a miner, idolizes Gara (a musical superstar), and is desperate to make his family proud, while at the same time resenting the overbearing affection placed on him while he simply wants to try and find his own way in life. An introvert, however, Phil finds it hard to become the extroverted, highly physical, warrior elite his father pines for as a means of financially liberating them to a higher class. With his training with Job coming to an inglorious end, Phil slips further into desperation as he imagines ways to earn credits. Coming to become part of a ransack-team hired to rob the home of a wealthy target, Phil’s world forever changes when the heist goes wrong and he is pulled into the depraved world of his idol—Gara.

Forge tells the story of a young man discovering himself both sexually and as an individual. His new life as a bodyguard for Gara becomes an allegory for growing up; experiments with drugs, insecurity with others and misconstruing hormones for love, being torn between family, pride, and necessity, and settling for the best one can get given the circumstances. Substance is not always a happy story, but it is realistic. When one considers that it is set in a homonormative sci-fi world plagued by a rigid class system and sexual segregation, this becomes remarkable.

Forge has a talent in breathing life into characters. Although Phil rarely speaks, spending most of the novella’s paragraphs in interior monologue, the reader gleans an interest in him as a person; distant, though emotional, thoughtful yet not intellectual, and caring yet blunt are but some of the ways in which a reader could describe the subtle nuance of Phil’s personage. His interaction with Gara is thus transformed into a multilayered interaction as traits about both men are revealed and as Phil gains insight into the world he has been dragged into. Together with details about The Colony gradually trickling down from organic moments in both reflection and conversation, the construction of this stand-alone installment in is a beautifully written tract on youth and its meaning.

Although a brief read, I would recommend Substance to anyone, especially in the Queer community, who is looking for a well-constructed story. The cast is enjoyable and believable in their deeds, the plot packs an emotional layer underlying the seemingly benign, irrational, series of events, and the ending is an unexpected, although heartwarming, surprise which mixed with equal amounts joy and melancholy, amounts to a movingly poetic, yet decentering, aesthetic. Fans of youthful struggle should not miss!


Ashlyn Forge

82 pages. Published in Japan by Ashlyn Forge. $0.00 (Kindle)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices taken from and were accurate at the time of writing.

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