The game-playing takes place on computers in a recreation center of sorts. The center is unique in that it specifically caters to disabled youths. (Think internet cafe meets after-school center.) There are teens with vision loss, hearing loss and mobility loss, among other challenges. The main character, Thelsea, finds comfort by befriending people with hearing loss who play the game Zeperno.
In Zeperno, players draw cards to assume avatars of characters called “Ables.” Each “Able” has a certain spell-casting power, represented by their disability. For example, those who draw the “Silence” avatar can stop other characters from casting spells. Those who draw “Seize” have the chance to cause other characters to “damage themselves at every turn.”
As someone with zero knowledge of gaming but a particular interest in hearing loss, Thelsea’s character was enough to engage me. Throughout the book, O’Brien’s writing style is sensory and descriptive.
“Her lips were difficult to read as she passed through a patch of shade.”
“She said something, her words and her wave cut short as she vanished through the front entrance.”
From Thelsea’s perspective, O’Brien describes how everyday challenges – such as lighting and positioning – can impact communication because of her hearing loss. O’Brien also described some common solutions to help those with hearing loss, such as positioning speakers so they can easily be seen.
O’Brien is a bold writer, however there were instances where I wish he had chosen a different word to address hearing loss. For example, he described the deaf protagonist’s ears as “useless.” He also used “normal” as a comparative term, implying that deafness is not normal.
Despite my qualms with some of the vernacular, O’Brien’s heart seemed to be in the right place when painting Thelsea’s world. He describes her world with empathy and care. O’Brien imagines the interpersonal struggles a teenage girl with hearing loss might face.
Overall, “Siren Play Zeperno” was an enjoyable read. Like-minded characters with a variety hearing loss (and other disabilities) develop their friendships and divulge their vulnerabilities while playing a fictional pro-disability card game. O’Brien’s writing style is vividly engrossing. His pro-disability focus is also refreshing.
HLM: What was the inspiration for Zeperno?
Geoff: Zeperno is not a place that exists, rather, it’s the title of the fictional online computer card game being played in the novel. The word ‘Zeperno’ is based on the greek word ‘xepernó’, which apparently means to transcend, outgrow, surpass, etc. This represents the main theme of the novel: that it’s always possible, and desirable, to grow, to improve oneself, despite any and all imperfections, imagined or real.
HLM: For someone with zero knowledge of online card games, can you explain Zeperno in a few words?
Geoff: My usual answer to explain Zeperno is that it’s basically meant to be Hearthstone with a pro-disability esthetic. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Hearthstone and it’s one-hundred-million player base, I’ll try this: Zeperno is a (fictional) free-to-play online game where players can battle each other, one-on-one. Each player chooses a character known as an “Able,” a cross between an avatar and a general, and fights to destroy their opponent’s “Able” in turn-based combat.This is not achieved by commanding minions or casting spells, but by playing cards that represent these. Cards are played in turn after being drawn from a deck of the player’s own construction, such deck being chosen before the game begins. Players construct their decks by choosing a limited number of cards from that player’s collection.
HLM: Each “Able” is like an avatar that a player can control. Is that correct?
Geoff: Basically, yes. “Ables” are shown to represent each player as animated portraits that communicate in limited ways. They may perform a certain limited ability once per turn, and that’s it.
HLM: How did you create the Deaf character Thelsea?
Geoff: I’m always being inspired by stories, fiction or not, about disabled or unusual people achieving superlative or unusual things. I wanted to do a story like this some time.
One day, I was watching an Esports tournament of Hearthstone (a popular online card game by Blizzard software, themed around their Warcraft games). All the players were White or Asian men, every single one. Then a story idea struck me: why not have a protagonist that’s really different to these guys, playing games and competing in Esports as well?
Therefore, I decided this protagonist should be female, she should be indigenous…and she should be disabled in some way. I eventually chose for her to be deaf, because my mother used to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing children, and knew some sign.
“I eventually chose for her to be deaf, because my mother used to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing children, and knew some sign.”
I understand the concept of disabled people achieving something can sometimes come across as belittling or disrespectful in some contexts. This is something I kept in mind throughout the novel. For example, during a scene where Thelsea and her friends are streaming Zeperno, one of the viewers emphasizes them being deaf or hard-of-hearing. Thelsea then offers some gentle constructive criticism, typing it in the chat window, that in regard to playing or streaming Zeperno, being deaf or not doesn’t matter.
HLM: What motivated your interest in hearing loss?
Geoff: The challenge of writing interesting, and hopefully inspiring, characters who happen to be affected by hearing loss.
The other three main characters are variations of this idea: one always wears hearing aids, another doesn’t wear them despite being totally deaf in one ear, and the third is quite “normal.” With these four all showing subtly different elements regarding hearing loss, I hoped to create some interesting situations and social dynamics.
Having said that, writing good characters means adding extra details, little touches to make them seem more real. Part of this means I ought to explore whatever would be important to these characters. This is an explicit goal of my writing in general: it offers me a productive opportunity to immerse myself in all sorts of ideas and perspectives that I would otherwise struggle to find time for.
Being quite “normal” myself, and not knowing anyone with first-hand experience of hearing loss, I spent several hours online, doing everything from reading an academic paper on sign language to watching music videos by a deaf rapper.
HLM: Are there going to be any future developments (books) about Thelsea?
Geoff: Probably not, sorry. A primary goal of mine for writing is to explore different concepts in different ways, and in different genres. I don’t have any sequels or follow-ups planned for Thelsea or her friends.Though I’ll admit, the more copies of “Siren Plays Zeperno” that sell, the more reasons I might have to explore the possibility of a sequel.
Having said that, one of the novels I’m working on now is more casual and shorter than “Siren Plays Zeperno,” but similar in spirit: about a preteen girl with type-one diabetes who wants to play rugby league.
Read more: 5 tips for gamers with hearing loss