Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” by Alan Dean Foster

Title: The Force Awakens
Author: Alan Dean Foster
Series: Star Wars: Episode VII
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2016

Okay, let me be incredibly clear about this: the rating above applies to this novelization only! I loved the movie, with just a couple minor quibbles to complain about. It was incredible. This book? Sadly mediocre.

Hey, look at that! I managed to make this review almost spoiler-free even without trying to!

Thirty years after the events of The Return Of The Jedi, it seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, now the dominant power in the galaxy…at least for the moment. After the death of the Emperor, the Empire fell prey to numerous revolutions and uprisings, signing a peace treaty with the New Republic before melting away and reforming in the Unknown Regions as the First Order. Now, faced with a Senate that is unwilling to risk war and mounting evidence of First Order skulduggery, Leia Organa has formed the Resistance in the image of the Rebellion of old, a private military force to keep an eye on their old enemies. This would be so much easier if Luke was anywhere to be found, but in the wake of a particularly heart-wrenching family tragedy both he and her husband Han have disappeared….

I’m not sure what happened here. Alan Dean Foster is an accomplished author, both of original works and novelizations of films. As I noted above, I absolutely loved the movie. So what went wrong with the book? Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t seen the movie already, this would prove far from satisfactory. While I projected the amazing performances from the film onto the characters as presented in the novel, even managing to carry that through the “deleted scenes” as it were, they would have been fairly uninteresting if I were experiencing them here for the first time. The writing was fairly (though not completely) emotionless when it came to exploring the characters, or perhaps it just pales in comparison with the onscreen performance backed by John Williams’ score. (EDIT: I think this was a huge part of my issue. A number of my favorite moments in the film weren’t captured in full effect here, possibly because Foster was working from a screenplay and not the finished film, which would of course not reflect any added nuance of character injected by the actor. Other scenes are more fully rendered.) Part of the problem is that we almost never get into their heads. That’s why I was so excited to get my hands on this–there are a number of places in the movie where I really wanted to know what a given character was thinking. Normally, this would be the province of the novelization. Not this time. We get a couple snippets of thought, but mostly obvious stuff. Was this a forced tactic by those in charge of maintaining the secrets yet to be revealed? Maybe. I’ll admit that I was hoping for more clues on certain theories, especially Rey’s backstory.

Of course, there are good things to find here too. Numerous sequences that were cut from the film, such as more with Leia, Rey’s first encounter with snow, or a scene where Unkar Plutt tracks down Rey and the Falcon on Takodana. Usually these scenes offer illumination to other moments in the film, such as Rey reminding herself to flip the safety off on her blaster before firing. Too, Foster puts in a valiant effort when it comes to making other elements feasible. Starkiller Base gets a pseudo-scientific explanation for its power and firing mechanism, and Finn has trouble figuring out which tools Rey needs because of their disorganization, not because he’s unfamiliar with mechanics. Then too there are a few more hints regarding the resolution of certain mysteries. Kylo Ren finally realizes Rey’s true identity just before they commence their battle (meaning he’s still one up on us), and Snoke drops several more hints regarding his origins that still fall far short of revelation.

Bottom line: I’m not telling you to give this one a miss, but I am telling you to see the movie first. That experience will add some much-needed flavor to this one.

CONTENT: Mild to no profanity. Mild violence, occasionally heart-wrenching. You know the part I mean. Little to no sexual content.

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Review: “Star Wars Annual #1” by Kieron Gillen & Angel Unzueta

Title: Star Wars Annual #1
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Angel Unzueta
Series: Star Wars Annual #1 (Official Canon)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2015

I’m annoyed by comics stories that don’t have a proper title. It makes things like this more difficult. Ah, don’t mind me. I’ll get over it….

Rebel agent Eneb Ray has spent years in deep cover on Coruscant as a minor revenue official. It’s not the most glamorous assignment, but it does allow him access to information on Imperial shipping that he can feed to the Alliance. Eneb Ray will be the first to tell you he’s no hero…until a small collection of Alliance-sympathetic senators are scheduled for execution. On orders from Princess Leia, Ray infiltrates the prison only to find himself presented with an unprecedented opportunity–the Emperor himself is scheduled to arrive in under an hour….

This was a pretty good story. As a one-shot it has little relation to the events of the ongoing series, and its not entirely clear when exactly this is set other than sometime after the battle of Yavin. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Ray was an interesting character to get to know, and I look forward to hopefully seeing him show up again in the future. I think given the early setting and our knowledge of later events I can say without spoilers that the assassination attempt goes poorly, in no small part due to the machinations of Palpatine. You simply don’t outwit that guy, not usually. Bottom line: this story is non-essential but well worth the read.

CONTENT: Mild violence, no gore. No sex or profanity.

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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Bloodlines” by Garth Ennis, John Smith, William Simpson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, & Mike Hoffman

Title: Bloodlines
Writers: Garth Ennis & John Smith
Artists: Will Simpson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, Mike Hoffman, Mike Barreiro, Kim DeMulder, & Stan Woch
Series:  John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume VI, Issues #47-61)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

Ummm….yeah, I have no idea what’s up with that cover. It appears to be Constantine standing over a demon he’s beaten to death with a crucifix. Just so we’re clear, that never happened here. Which is kind of a shame, now that I think about it….This is mostly a patchwork anthology, one-offs and shorter story arcs. Most of them were good, a couple not so much.

When last we left our antiheroic mage, he’d just conned the three princes of Hell into healing his fatal lung cancer lest they be forced to go to war over his soul. Needless to say, they’re not too happy about being outwitted by a mortal…. Constantine’s going to have to get back in the saddle pretty quickly, though, as the magical catastrophes aren’t taking a break. First up, its stopping a pair of poltergeists after an insurance scam turns deadly. Will Simpson’s art is great in part one (The Pub Where I Was Born), but I wasn’t a fan of Mike Hoffman’s in the second half (Love Kills). Next Constantine explores the “real” meaning of Christmas (i.e. getting hammered and laid, possibly but not necessarily in that order) in Lord Of The Dance. It is alleged that the titular song (“Dance, then, wherever you may be….”) was not originally about Christ but about a pagan spirit of revelry, who was in effect neutered by the coming of Christianity to the British Isles. Steve Dillon’s art was good, and I managed to be (mostly) unoffended by the slurs against my own worldview. It’s par for the course when reading certain series…. A couple days later in Remarkable Lives, Constantine is summoned in the middle of the night to a darkened park where he finds none other than the King of the Vampires trying to recruit him. Obviously, that goes real well…. Will Simpson once again handles the art, and does an excellent job of it for the most part. This is followed by the only story in the book that I actually disliked, Counting To Ten. John Smith serves as guest writer, while Sean Phillips handles the pencils. Honestly, I’m not sure I get this story even on a second read-through. Something with a dead woman who isn’t dead, and a friend of Constantine’s in need of an exorcism. There’s no tie-in to anything else, no payoff or fallout from the events therein described. I’m gonna try and pretend it never happened…. Next up we get the closest thing to a main story this volume offers, the four-part arc Royal Blood. In London, the Caligula Club caters to the every twisted, perverted whim of the rich and famous, from bloody cocktails to catfights all the way to matters of the occult. Last night they summoned up the demon responsible for the Ripper killings, and it possessed the heir to the throne. Now  they’re loose on the streets of London, and the body count is rising….Will Simpson’s art is excellent, if morbid, and I have to wonder if Ennis consulted Alan Moore about using the plot of From Hell as backstory. This Is The Diary Of Danny Drake was a particularly disturbing tale, drawn by the legendary David Lloyd, featuring a man being haunted by his diary. Yeah, you read that right. It makes sense in the story, kind of. Mortal Clay/Body And Soul features Steve Dillon back on the artwork, this time exploring a shady munitions testing firm that’s graverobbing to help provide test corpses. Problem is, they’ve made off with the corpse of Chas’s uncle, and that’s got Constantine after them…. The two-part tale Guys And Dolls sees the First Of The Fallen put in place the first elements of his latest scheme to lay low our favorite antihero, this time using a young succubus of Constantine’s acquaintance. Trouble is, Chantinelle has no interest in revealing just how she met Constantine, as that conversation would go very poorly for all involved. Seems she’d fallen in love with an angel a few years back, and Constantine managed to save her skin. But can he do it again? Find out in She’s Buying A Stairway To Heaven! I look forward to seeing what happens next as Constantine readies for war with Hell once more….

CONTENT: PG-13 grade profanity, missing R-rated by the strategic placement of word bubbles. Some moderately explicit sexual content and nudity, including a shot of Constantine’s ass as he uses a urinal. We all needed to see that…. Strong, gory violence, frequently disturbing. Strong occult content, par for the course in this series.

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Review: “The Prison In Antares” by Mike Resnick

Title: The Prison In Antares
Author: Mike Resnick
Series: Dead Enders #2 (The Birthright Universe)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Pyr, 2015

Colonel Nathan Pretorius is the best agent the Human-led Democracy has in their war with the alien Transkeii Coalition. Fresh from a suicidally-difficult mission behind enemy lines that went off without even the slightest setback, Pretorius and his team are given a new assignment: rescue or eliminate a scientist captured by the Coalition before he loses the entire war for the Democracy. This time around the team is joined by Iris “Irish” Fitzhugh, a psychologist tasked with determining whether or not their target has given up vital information before being rescued. The rest of the Dead Enders all reprise their appearances from the previous book: contortionist and thief Sally “Snake” Kowalski, cyborg strongman Felix Ortega, computer genius Toni “Pandora” Levi, part-alien empath Circe, and the alien shapeshifter (kind of) nicknamed Proto.

The Prison In Antares is the sequel to Mike Resnick’s 2014 novel The Fortress In Orion. Resnick has an impressive reputation in the sci-fi community, with five Hugo wins and over thirty nominations, so I had high hopes. Too high, as it turned out. The first book was marred by a plot where a seemingly-impossible mission was pulled off without a single setback or casualty. This time around Resnick has at least somewhat improved on the failings in the last book, but not enough. This time the mission doesn’t go off without a hitch, there are setbacks and obstacles that the team must deal with, and the mission isn’t without casualty either. Unfortunately, some of that difficulty comes about because the apparent intelligence of the characters seems to have been markedly reduced between books. Casualties, when they do occur, spur from characters making idiotic mistakes instead of meaningful moments of self-sacrifice or calculated risks to achieve a desired end. The book is still fun and entertaining, and Resnick’s reputation suggests that this series is not representative of his work, but I’d start someplace else in his bibliography.

CONTENT: Moderate amounts of violence, occasionally gruesome. Occasional R-rated language. Occasional sexual innuendo, nothing too explicit.

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Review: “The Fortress In Orion” by Mike Resnick

Title: The Fortress In Orion
Author: Mike Resnick
Series: Dead Enders #1 (The Birthright Universe)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Pyr, 2014

As some of you may know, I review for the San Francisco/Manhattan Book Review in exchange for free books. I’m usually careful not to inadvertently get myself dropped into the middle of a new series. Then I requested The Prison In Antares, not realizing it was book two in a new series. So I hastily tracked down The Fortress In Orion to catch up before I set in. Now I find out that everything Resnick has ever written is set in the same universe! (Okay, just most of it.) I’ve got a lot of reading to do….

The (mostly) human Democracy is at war with the alien Transkei Coalition, fighting a war that they may not be able to win. Colonel Nathan Pretorius is the Democracy’s go-to man for crazy, impossible missions…when those missions haven’t left him in the hospital growing a new spleen. This next mission? This one is going to top them all…. The Democracy has managed to clone a replacement for General Michkag, the top Transkei commander. Its up to Nathan and whatever fools he can convince to follow him to capture if possible, kill if necessary, the real Michkag and leave the friendly one in his place to try and bring the war to a peaceful conclusion. The odds of this mission ending in death for the entire team? Not worth thinking about. Failure isn’t an option. Pretorius and his Dead Enders are just going to have to find a way to infiltrate The Fortress In Orion….

This one…this one has me conflicted. I really liked the characters, every one of them felt well-realized and interesting. The setup was good, and had the potential to be a great story. But you know what you need for a great story? There’s this literary device called Things Going Wrong. You see, its just not interesting when everything goes to plan and the good guys carry off their allegedly difficult, nay, impossible mission without a hitch or casualty. Its far more interesting when the crap hits the fan and everything goes wrong but they somehow manage to squeak out victory anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens here. Occasionally a wrench gets thrown into the works, just for flavor, but since Pretorius is following a careful plan of winging it anyway that never seems to matter. Something went wrong? Give me three pages and I’ll turn it to my advantage. There’s never any real danger or tension, despite everyone saying how dangerous everything is. I’m not giving up on Resnick, his reputation is too shiny for one book to tarnish, and I’m obligated to read the sequel anyways, but I will admit this was a disappointment. On the other hand, he managed to keep things moving along at such a clip that I didn’t quite notice until the ride was over that there was never any real danger. The tongue-in-cheek tone was also pretty great.

CONTENT: R-rated language, not gratuitous. Mild sexual innuendo. Occasional violence, sometimes disturbing.

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Review: “Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I” by Tony Lee et al.

Title: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I
Writers: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, & Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Josh Adams, Paul Grist, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg, Kyle Latino, & Deborah McCumiskey
Series: Doctor Who (Series 2, 2010) #1-12 + Annual 2011
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Comics, 2015

How do you explain Doctor Who? The Doctor is an alien who looks human (“No, you look Timelord!”), the last of his kind, travelling all of time and space in a vessel camouflaged to look like a 1960s British police telephone box. There’s a fair bit of tourism, to be sure, but the Doctor is always willing to help someone in need…and since his ship has a habit of depositing him when and where he’s needed rather than where he wants to be, he has ample opportunity. When critically injured he regenerates into a new body, thus allowing the showrunners to do a semi-reboot every few years without actually hitting the reset button and starting from scratch. Clear as mud? Good! Let’s move on to the book, shall we? This particular tome is a collection of Doctor Who tie-in comics starring the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy and Rory Pond, set during Amy and Rory’s honeymoon in between the fifth and sixth seasons of the revived series. It’s status as canon is questionable, but even with the occasional inconsistency* it shouldn’t be too hard to square things given the shifting nature of the timeline.

Doctor Who is at its most fun when it’s reveling in its core of whimsical lunacy, but there’s a deep vein of tragedy and determination to the character of the Doctor, and it’s the moments that this is revealed that make the franchise one of my favorites. Thankfully, this collection does both elements extremely well. There’s whimsy galore, from spam email infecting the TARDIS’ mainframe and manifesting as holograms to Kevin, a robotic tyrannosaur that briefly joins the adventuring. There’s a story that functions on one level as a standard Doctor Who romp and on another as an homage to the show Castle, transplanting the cast of that series to a space station. There are also more serious moments, such as a conversation between Rory and the Doctor about how much Amy means to them both, or between Rory and Kevin about finding your place and purpose in the world. These moments serve to ground the characters, making the Doctor, for all that he is an alien, very human. There’s a wide variety of art styles, and while I’m more a fan of some than others, they all seem to work for the stories being presented.

Most of these are written by Tony Lee, with the exceptions being the stories from the 2011 Doctor Who Annual. Spam Filtered (art by Andrew Currie, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the TARDIS overrun with holographic spam mail after Rory and Amy use it’s extra-temporal internet connection to check their email, forcing the TARDIS to set down and reboot. Unfortunately, the planet they land on is scheduled for destruction in about an hour…. The art here is pretty good, especially when it features the Doctor or Amy. Rory kind of gets the shaft, though. Also, the leader of the Scroungers is totally Danny Trejo. In The Ripper’s Curse (art by Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, & Tim Hamilton, colors by Phil Elliott) the Doctor and company get sidetracked to Whitechapel, London just in time for Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. The art on this one is shared among three artists, which leads to some small inconsistencies in the visuals, but the colorist is the same all the way through and helps to smooth things out with a painted (maybe watercolor?) aesthetic. It was different. I liked it, most of the time anyway, though I’m starting to think nobody can draw Rory properly. They Think It’s All Over (art by Mark Buckingham, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) has our protagonists once more sidetracked on their way to their football match, this time a case of right place, wrong time. This time, they’re in the ninth century, stuck between the invading Vikings and Alfred The Great’s defending Britons. Good story, and it includes a scene that should help explain just why the Doctor and Rory are two of my favorite characters ever, in different ways. The art was good, as is expected from Buckingham. When Worlds Collide (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) gives us a minimalist, geometric aesthetic that actually worked better than I’d expected. The story involves a strange resort built on a rift allowing for different spaces slightly out of phase with each other….until an accident merges them all. Suddenly, there’s a dozen Amys, a dozen Rorys, and a dozen Doctors….and a whole army of Sontarans. Also introducing Kevin the Dinosaur! Space Squid (art by Josh Adams, colors by Rachelle Rosenberg) was weird. I think the writer had a fixation with the television show Castle (and who can blame him?) because the side characters are all named after the cast of that series. Commander Katic, Major Fillion, everyone down to Ensign Quinn. It was honestly a bit distracting, though I did laugh when I first noticed. The likenesses aren’t bad, either…most of the time anyway. The story involves a mind-controlled cult on a space station that wants to enslave the galaxy to their giant squid god. Yeah, you read that right. It’s not Cthulhu though, unfortunately. Body Snatched (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the Doctor set off to save his friend Trevor, the Horse Lord of Khan. It seems Trevor has had his mind transferred into a bioengineered plant person on the hospital planet of Bedlam….Smith’s art is once more strangely suitable for the story being told. Silent Night (art by Paul Grist, colors by Phil Elliott) is a “silent” tale featuring the dynamic duo of The Doctor and…Santa Claus? Odd, but fun. Not sure how it fits in with last year’s Christmas Special though… Run, Doctor, Run (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Blair Shedd) is an homage to the Looney Toons, featuring a planet without conventional physics that makes up and down unpredictable. Down To Earth (written by Matthew Dow Smith, art by Mitch Gerads, colors by Gerads & Kyle Latino) was a nice little tale featuring an alien stranded on Earth who would rather just stay if it’s all the same to everyone. The art was good, too. Tuesday (written and art by Dan McDaid, colors by McDaid & Deborah McCumiskey) is told in the form of a letter home to Amy’s parents detailing a few of their adventures. The art was odd, but it worked.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, nothing too severe. Several murders, played to be quite scary in The Ripper’s Curse. A couple scantily clad characters. Minor sexual innuendos in the form of a couple “little blue pill” jokes in Spam Filtered or Rory’s sudden enthusiasm for a beach vacation at the thought of Amy in a bikini. Some prostitution in The Ripper’s Curse, nothing too explicit.

*One that springs immediately to mind is Jack the Ripper, here shown to be an alien stopped by the Doctor and friends, elsewhere stated to have been “stringy, but quite tasty” by Madame Vastra.

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Review: “The Untold Tale” by J.M. Frey

Title: The Untold Tale
Author: J.M. Frey
Series: The Accidental Turn #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: 2015, REUTS Publishing LLC.

There is very little Forsyth Turn doesn’t know. As Shadow Hand, the king’s spymaster, he wages in secret the war his famous older brother carries out in songs and tales told in every tavern throughout the three kingdoms. Kintyre is everything an epic fantasy hero is made of—strong, brave, and oblivious to what’s going on around him. While Kintyre is off gallivanting about the world with his loyal sidekick and magic sword, slaying first and asking questions later if at all, Forsyth quietly manages the family’s holdings and keeps up with the mountains of paperwork generated by his legion of spies. Through this legion, Forsyth knows nearly everything there is to know about the world he lives in…which is what makes the girl so fascinating. Rescued from the clutches of the evil Viceroy by Forsyth’s men, Lucy Piper (Pip to her friends) is brought to Turn Hall to recover from the tender attentions of the Viceroy’s sidekick and torturer Bootknife, attentions that have left an intricate lattice of artistic scrolling vines carved into the flesh of her back. For anyone to have resisted Bootknife long enough for the carvings to become so intricate is alone enough to earn Forsyth’s attention and respect, but Pip also represents a complete mystery. In a world where Forsyth can usually match a face to its family heritage at a glance, Pip’s bronzed skin and the shape of her eyes are like nothing he’s ever seen. Then too there are the things she cannot know but does—such as the fact that mild-mannered minor nobleman Forsyth Turn, Kintyre’s worthless younger brother, so shy and graceless, is really the Shadow Hand of the king. Could it be true? Could the Viceroy really have managed to call down one of the legendary Readers, one of those all-powerful beings who watch all that happens from on high? But surely not. Readers, the Great Writer, the world being born from the nib of a pen, that’s all just mythology and nonsense…isn’t it?

“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “It’s a metafictional world, the girl is trapped inside her favorite book, we’ve seen that before.” Well, yes. I suppose you may have. It does bring Inkheart to mind, though that was sort of the polar opposite to what’s happening here. Such a metafictional narrative is itself a fantasy trope, if not a widely used one. But that just strengthens my point. J.M. Frey is a master of the fantasy trope, both the good and the bad. The central conceit here is that The Adventures Of Kintyre Turn were written by a stodgy (and frankly, downright lecherous) old man who ripped off, er, faithfully followed every single convention of his genre when creating the world his characters inhabit. Women exist solely to be damsels in distress, fainting at danger and then falling into the arms of the Conquering Hero. Minorities and non-humans are scattered through for flavor, but only in background roles or to be the Exotic Other. Quests all follow a certain formula. These tropes are so ingrained in the fabric of the world that they remain true even when the author isn’t writing. By dropping in an outside observer, Frey is able to really examine each and every one of these tropes even as she makes use of them herself. The result is truly incredible, a novel that is by turns hilarious and heartrending, at times a love letter to the entire genre, at others a biting indictment of its more appalling conventions. Beyond its agenda, though, the fact remains that this is simply a stellar book. The characters, while initially suggested to be little more than the stereotypes they inhabit, are all real living breathing people, and whatever you think you know about what’s going on is just waiting to be upturned. I would recommend this book to anyone with a healthy love of the fantasy genre, or just a love of good stories. I do offer fair warning, though, there’s quite a bit of sexual content in the back half of the book. It’s necessary to what Frey is trying to do here, but does render the book unsuitable for certain audiences.

CONTENT: Intermittent R-rated profanity. Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Moderately explicit sexual content, scattered throughout the back half of the book.

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