Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review: “Redshirts” by John Scalzi

Title: Redshirts
Author: John Scalzi
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2012

I’ve mentioned before, I don’t usually do audiobooks. I prefer to actually read for myself, and don’t typically have a long, boring commute. I made an exception in this case. I had heard a little bit of buzz for this book over the past year or so, around the time it won the Hugo, and was planning to read it eventually. Then I found out the audiobook was narrated by Wil Wheaton, and I decided that this one needed to happen via my iPod. Why? I’ll get to that.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is new to the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, but it has already become clear that something strange is going on. It’s a prime posting, one of the most coveted berths in the Dub-U fleet, but Dahl soon notices that all of his superiors conveniently disappear when a senior officer is around. Then there’s the fact that nearly every away mission involves some sort of lethal encounter with killer robots, deadly diseases, or improbably creatures. Lowly crewmembers die left and right, and Lieutenant Kerensky may get the living $#!^ beat out of him, but he’ll always make a full recovery and none of the senior officers will be seriously injured. On top of these statistically unlikely death figures, every so often everything gets really melodramatic and occasionally nonsensical. It’s the twenty-fifth century and we still have people killed on the bridge when their console explodes? Why haven’t we installed a surge protector by now? And why is it that decks six through ten are always the ones that take damage? Most of the ensigns on the Intrepid are more interested in keeping their heads down and avoiding away missions than they are in figuring out just what’s going on, but Dahl…Dahl is determined to get to the bottom of the matter. And maybe, just maybe, in doing so he can save the life of himself and his friends.

Obviously, this is a parody of Star Trek and it’s many clones. Will you be able to enjoy it without being a Trekkie? I think so. I’m a casual Trekkie at best, much more devoted to the Galaxy Far, Far Away than I am Mr. Roddenberry’s utopian vision of our future. I may have missed a few of the references or more pointed jokes, but I don’t think it took away from my enjoyment all that much. This is also an incredibly metafictional yarn. Or rather, it’s a novel about characters who discover they are all extras on a basic-cable science fiction series. They’re fictional, even within the pages of the book, but they’re also real people with real lives. And they’re tired of being killed off to prove that the situation is serious…. On one level, this is a light read with a biting dose of snark and sarcasm. On another level, this is a fairly deep meditation on the nature of fiction and free will.  Which level you read it on is up to you. I enjoyed it immensely, even the three codas that wrap up the stories of three of the “real” people who encounter our “fictional” characters and now have to deal with the fact that reality is not quite what they thought it was. There are a few criticisms that could be leveled at the book, however. Some reviewers have criticized Scalzi for his inability to differentiate his characters’ voices–all of them speak the same way. I don’t know if this is so much a lack of ability as it is Scalzi not finding this particular element to be a priority, but I can’t dispute the point. They all sound the same, which leads to every line of dialogue being attributed, even during snappy back-and-forth banter. On the page, I don’t mind so much. In an audiobook, that got a little annoying. Another criticism leveled at Scalzi is his lack of exposition and description, complaints about how he let’s the dialogue carry the story almost on its own. This is true, so far as the facts go–his work is incredibly dialogue driven, with little exposition or description, but I think it’s unfair to lambast him for what is effectively just his personal style of writing. If you don’t like it, go read Stephen King. He should have exposition enough for the both of them.* I personally found the degree of profanity off-putting, but that’s a matter of personal taste to some degree.

Now to the audiobook-specific part of the review. Wil Wheaton was an obvious choice, given his geek-god status and the added layer of “metaness” that comes from him actually having been a Star Trek actor in his youth. He’s also suitably sarcastic, which works well. What he does not do is affect different voices for the different characters. He’ll change his voice to indicate if a character is yelling, whispering or drunk, but not to indicate who is talking. This works out okay, since Scalzi attributes every line of dialogue, but I know that this is a major concern for some consumers of audiobooks. I did find the constant attribution to be slightly annoying, but not a deal breaker. Just know what you’re in for.

CONTENT: Heavy use of R-rated language. An off-putting level of such, in my opinion. Sexual innuendo and references, but nothing too explicit. Characters die in a number of horrific and improbably ways, but that shouldn’t be a surprise given the premise.

*Don’t take this as an insult to Stephen King. I like Stephen King. He’s just got a reputation for using lots of exposition and description.

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Review: “Under The Black Ensign” by L. Ron Hubbard

Title: Under The Black Ensign
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Galaxy Press, 2008

There’s something refreshing about reading classic pulp fiction. All pretentiousness and pretense of literary ambition is stripped away, and the story stands revealed in it’s sole purpose–to entertain the reader, to transport him or her to distant lands and other ages. Some swear by “literature,” citing themes and hidden meaning and looking down their noses at what they deem inferior, the publishing ghettos of “genre fiction.” Perhaps I’ve reacted a bit against that, but genre fiction is my bread and butter. I read because I love a good story, and if that story involves spaceships or elves or in this case pirates, so much the better. I’ll leave the Great American Novel to someone else–give me a good sci-fi classic.

Hmmm….that was supposed to be an introduction for the book, not a rant. Whoops. Anyway, L. Ron Hubbard was apparently the reigning king of the pulps back in the golden age of pulp fiction. Galaxy Press is re-releasing a bunch of his old golden age stories, usually with the original cover art.* This is the third such volume I’ve read, and there is a consistent degree of quality here. It’s not great literature by any means, but who cares? It’s incredibly fun, and as I noted above, that’s why I read. This particular volume I won through the Goodreads FirstReads program, in exchange for an honest review. This changes nothing in my review, except to ensure that it exists and in this case to move it up my reading queue when one of their editors asked when they could expect to see this go up. Always nice to see them take an interest….I have to admit a couple misconceptions on my part going into this book. My only context for the word “ensign” is as a naval rank. Thus, the title Under The Black Ensign to me implied that the main character would find himself serving under a pirate captain with an incredibly odd nom de guerre. Instead, I learned that an ensign is the technical term for the flag flown by a sailing ship to denote it’s nationality. Pirates typically flew a black flag with a skull (the “Jolly Roger” of fame), and thus the title.

Tom Bristol is not the mutinous type. Even after he has been press-ganged out of a tavern while on shore leave from his berth as second mate on a Maryland merchant ship and into service as a deck hand on a British man-o’-war, he works diligently if resentfully. But when a random accident sees him strapped to the main mast for a lethal dose of the lash just in time for an attack by pirates, Bristol gladly turns coat and joins them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go a whole lot better, and he is soon forced to kill a mutinous fellow sailor in self defense after rebuffing his recruiting efforts. The punishment for such an offense is simple and unbending–marooning on a barren island, with no hope of rescue….

Like I said above, this was incredibly fun. It was also fairly short–the story itself clocks in at only 84 pages, with the rest of the book filled out by an introductory essay on the golden age of the pulps, a closing biographical essay on L. Ron Hubbard, and a preview of the next volume in the collection. I didn’t read these extras, since I’d read the two essays before when reviewing Gunman’s Tally and I don’t do samples of books. The story manages to be engaging despite never really leaving you in doubt as to the final outcome of the tale, but in all honesty that’s what you sign up for when you pick up most of the classic pulps.

CONTENT: No profanity. No real sexual content or innuendo, aside from a female character remarking that her fate with the pirates wouldn’t have been pretty if they’d realized she was a woman. Plenty of violence, but nothing too disturbing.

*Not in this case, since this story wasn’t the cover attraction to the August 1935 issue of Five Novels Monthly. It might get a bit confusing for readers buying this pirate story if the original cover art was attached, given that the story the art was intended to sell was a western….I’m not sure where this cover art came from.

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Review: “Star Wars–Empire And Rebellion: Razor’s Edge” by Martha Wells

Title: Razor’s Edge
Author: Martha Wells
Series: Star Wars: Empire & Rebellion (Legends Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2013

They keep referring to this Empire And Rebellion set of books as a series or a trilogy, but I don’t think that’s very accurate. From what I can see, these are three individual books not connected in any way aside from the fact that they are set around the same time (i.e. between Star Wars IV: A New Hope and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back) and feature the “big three” characters from the films–Han, Luke and Leia–with one book primarily from each viewpoint. Razor’s Edge is primarily focused on Leia, with Han pulling a significant number of POV scenes as well.

Han and Leia are on yet another vital mission for the Rebellion, hoping to buy much-needed supplies for the construction of Echo Base on Hoth. Only when they come out of hyperspace to pick up the coordinates for their meeting, they’re met with an Imperial cruiser! Damaged and on the run, the Rebels barely escape to the rendezvous point only to find their troubles compounded–the smugglers they’re to meet have just fallen afoul of a local pirate band. Worse yet, the pirates are an orphaned Alderaanian defense crew forced into piracy to keep themselves afloat–and they’re deep in debt to a larger pirate armada who wouldn’t think twice before selling Leia to the Empire. Leia and Han are going to have to think fast and talk faster to maneuver their way out of this one….

This book was a lot of fun, and probably the best bridge between Episodes IV and V for adult readers–most of the other stuff in this period is either YA or side adventures. Getting insight into this stage of Han and Leia’s relationship was a great bonus, as well as seeing the evolution of the various interconnected friendships between the “big three” of the Star Wars films. I loved the biting humor of Han and Leia’s banter, it was great. The insight into Leia’s character was also excellent, and long overdue–Han and Luke both have a plethora of solo stories, but Leia-centric media is strangely lacking. The insight and exploration of her character worked incredibly well, with the band of Alderaanian pirates serving as a catalyst to allow the reader to explore her guilt and grief over the destruction of her home planet. All this emotional and relational drama doesn’t keep the story from being a thrill-ride full of death-defying stunts, however. You may have trouble finding time to breath between feats of daring-do.

There are always issues setting a story in such a heavily-documented part of the timeline, but on the whole the novel managed to either avoid them or handle them adroitly. Since the book wasn’t rooted in a throwaway line from the films, there was no need to explain away earlier stories based on that same line. Lando didn’t appear, so that convoluted relationship grew no more tangled. The only real issue it had to face was the one that’s unavoidable–how do you create drama when we know everyone (or at least everyone we knew going in) is going to survive intact for the film that happens right around the corner? Mostly the author handled this by creating emotional drama, forcing Leia to deal with these wayward members of her own people and the emotions that they call up. She also manages to make us care about most of the side characters she creates, so while we know Han and Leia will come out of all the death-defying exploits intact, you’re still riveted to the page to make sure your favorite side players are doing okay.

CONTENT: Mild language. Brief sexual innuendo and flirting from Han, but nothing too bad. A fair amount of violence, as would be expected from Star Wars.

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Mini-Review: “Tales Of The Slayers: Broken Bottle Of Djinn” by Jane Espenson, Douglas Petrie, Jeff Matsuda & Gene Colan

Title: Broken Bottle Of Djinn
Writers: Jane Espenson & Douglas Petrie
Artists: Jeff Matsuda & Gene Colan
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer(Tales Of The Slayers one-shot)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2002

This is a one-shot comic in the style of Dark Horse’s earlier graphic novel anthology Tales Of The Slayers and released under the same title. That earlier anthology is generally regarded as official canon due to the direct involvement of Joss Whedon, and while Whedon’s name isn’t on this book I extend it the same courtesy based on the fact that it’s obviously related, plus the fact that Espenson and Petrie were both writers for the show. Where it falls timeline-wise, however, is a slightly more awkward question due to a bit of sloppy work by the editor at Dark Horse, Mr. Scott Allie. The inside cover sets the Sunnydale portion as during Buffy’s second season, which fits with the dates given, but Willow’s witchcraft skills as displayed in the book place this into season three. An astute reader pointed this out to Allie in the letter column of the ongoing series (I think it was during the Slayer, Interrupted arc) and he acknowledged the mistake, unofficially revising the setting to season three. I doubt they’ll care enough to change the attribution in future printings, so I’m just making a note of it here and moving on.

The Buffy segment here really just serves to introduce the main story, set in 1937 New York, so I won’t worry about spoilers for that too much. Principal Snyder, in his ever-present battle to shrink the budget, has acquired a bunch of salvaged lockers from New York’s Penn Station.* One of the movers drops his locker, smashing a bottle inside and freeing an angry Djinn. Buffy and Willow take it on and manage to send it through a temporal portal to some other time, some other place…. In 1937 New York, impoverished slayer Rachel O’Connor is recruited by the OSS to intercept a Nazi agent carrying a powerful weapon. I’ll give you three guesses what it is, and the first two don’t count….

On the whole, I liked this little adventure. It was small, a short read, but definitely had the same flavor as the previous stuff in Tales Of The Slayers (which you’ll recall I greatly enjoyed.) Artistically, again, Gene Colan isn’t really my cup of tea, but his artwork complemented the setting very well. Jeff Matsuda I’m less familiar with, and I’m not always taken with the style he demonstrated here, but it worked and I enjoyed it. Jane Espenson didn’t really get much time to work here, but I enjoyed what there was. Doug (sorry, apparently he’s going by Douglas now…) Petrie’s work took up the majority of the book, and it was good, though I thought it wrapped up a bit abruptly. The whole thing forms a paradox, but I feel like that’s not actually looked down upon anymore. Certainly not by the kind of fans that Whedon has, who I feel also have a tendency to be Whovians as well.** And who enjoys a good paradox more than everyone’s favorite Doctor?

Like the one-shot I reviewed yesterday (Jonathan), Broken Bottle Of Djinn is a rare comic. The only place I know of that it’s reprinted is the new(ish) Dark Horse collection Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Tales. I think the purpose was to tap into the popularity of Whedon’s Buffy Season Eight comics and, depending on your level of cynicism, either harness that to sell more copies of the older anthologies Tales Of The Slayers and Tales Of The Vampires, or to give fans the chance to own those aforementioned books, plus the one-shots being collected for the first time, in one nice pretty volume.

CONTENT: No profanity. No explicit sexual content, but a man tells a girl she can make more money by following him into an alley than she will selling pencils all day. Vampire violence, consistent with Buffy materials, plus some other violence of about the same level. Occult-wise, we have Buffyverse vampires, plus some witchcraft.

*I can’t imagine the bargain he got offset the cost of transporting them across the country, but whatever.
**Perhaps that’s just me projecting my own fandoms onto other Whedonites. I don’t know, I could be wrong.

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Mini-Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Jonathan” by Jane Espenson & Cliff Richards

Title: Jonathan (Codename: Comrades)
Writer: Jane Espenson
Artist: Cliff Richards
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2001

This is just a quick review of the one-shot Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Jonathan. There’s really no good place to group it, since it’s a rare issue and only reprinted in the Buffy omnibus series (Volume VI, in case you’re interested). EDIT: You can also read it online via the BBC! (Link here) You remember that one episode in season 4 of Buffy where the perennial background character Jonathan Levinson had cast that spell to make himself a superstar? This is a story set in that changed world, just before the events of that episode. The world loves Jonathan, and he can do anything and everything. He’s the star of The Matrix, a military genius consulting with The Initiative, scourge of the vampires of Sunnydale, lit professor at UC Sunnydale, Tony-winning performer, platinum-selling recording artist, sports star, you name it. But even Jonathan is going to need help when a cadre of vampires forged in the Soviet version of the Initiative come to town. He’s going to have to “re-form” the Scooby Gang (apparently they never got forged into a cohesive group in this reality, due to Jonathan taking care of all the problems that pulled them together before) if Sunnydale is going to survive the onslaught of these Soviet vampires….

Alternate realities are a fun playground, and I really enjoyed this one both in the episode and in this comic. The writing was great here, giving us more insight into Jonathan’s character and allowing us a greater exploration of the world created by his spell. My one issue is that Spike acts differently in the comic than he does in the episode–in the episode he acts sullenly terrified of Jonathan, a disgraced and unthreatening ex-arch-nemesis that would never be invited into their graces. In the comic he’s disdainful of Jonathan and the Scoobies, invited to join but too good for that. The feel was just off. The art was spot-on though, with all of the characters looking and acting like themselves even while Richards does his minimalist thing. I’m not sure how he does it….

Canon-wise, this is tricky because it technically never happens. This reality gets erased at the end of that episode and everything goes back to normal. Oh well, whatever. The only minor problem with it canonically (aside from the whole it-never-happens thing) is that Jonathan describes the Soviet program as the inspiration for the Initiative, while we learn later that the Initiative has been in existence since WWII.

CONTENT: No profanity. No overt sexual content, though the implication is that Jonathan is sleeping with the Swedish twins that share his bed. Some vampire violence, consistent with every other Buffy comic I’ve reviewed. Occult-wise, these are Buffyverse vampires, and there’s some minor witchcraft involved in the Scooby Gang’s preparations for battle.

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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: A Stake To The Heart” by Fabian Nicieza & Cliff Richards

Title: A Stake To The Heart
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Artist: Cliff Richards
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1998 Dark Horse Series, Issues #60-63)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2004

The Buffy binge continues! Today I bring you A Stake To The Heart, the final arc of the 1998 Dark Horse ongoing series.*

Buffy is out of the institution and back home, but her parents’ failing marriage has finally imploded for good. Watching from afar, Angel devises a plan to try and alleviate the emotional pain gripping Buffy and her family. Not too surprisingly, it backfires and a series of “malignancy demons” are released. Buffy is then forced to battle physical manifestations of the negative emotions she and her family are dealing with.

Plot-wise, this isn’t the most complex of tales. It is, however, very much like the show in that it uses Buffy’s Slayer status to deal with non-tangible issues metaphorically through slaying. It was well-written, with all of the characters ringing true, and pulled the audience full-circle back to where the show started. The art was also great, and whatever problems Richards had with the first “Year One” issues are long gone by this point. Everyone looks like themselves, with the occasional exception of Buffy’s mom. For some reason he has trouble with her…

As with earlier books, this arc can be found in it’s own dedicated TPB or it is included in Dark Horse’s Buffy omnibus series in Volume II.

CONTENT: No profanity to speak of. Vampire violence and slaying, as per the usual for Buffy. No explicit sexual content, but during one of the demons’ attacks we see a female junkie sitting in the bathtub. Nothing is explicitly seen, but she’s definitely naked. There’s also a sequence where Angel is naked as a requirement for a spell he’s working. Again, nothing is seen thanks to camera angle and conveniently-falling shadows, but Whistler makes a comment about him appearing “excitable” that I didn’t need. As mentioned before, Buffyverse vampires are demonic, and to boot this particular arc features both actual demons and magic being worked.

*Yes, the final arc. They went back and did a “Year One” thing after the show was cancelled, to buy time to figure out how to move forward. I decided to read the books in chronological order based on the events depicted as opposed to publishing order, which has a few weird effects but mostly I’m happy with.

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Review: “The Dresden Files: Storm Front (GN Adaptation)” by Jim Butcher, Mark Powers, Ardrian Syaf & Brett Booth

Title: Storm Front Vol. I: The Gathering Storm/Vol. II: Maelstrom
Original novel by: Jim Butcher
Adapted by: Mark Powers
Artists: Ardrian Syaf (Vol. I-II) & Brett Booth (Vol. II)
Series: The Dresden Files
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dabel Brothers, 2009/Dynamite, 2011

Okay, I’ll just say this up front and get it out of the way: you should totally be reading the real books, not these graphic adaptations. However, I’ve read the real thing, and so now have no compunctions about reading the graphic novel. To clarify, this is a graphic novel adaptation of the first novel in the series, published in two volumes and reviewed here as one unit.

When the Chicago PD have a case they don’t know how to explain, they give it to Karrin Murphy and the Special Investigations division. When Murphy thinks there may actually be something supernatural going on, she calls in the only practicing wizard in the Chicago phone book–Harry Dresden. This time, there’s a couple of corpses in a gore-splattered hotel room, their hearts exploded from their chests mid-climax. One is a high-class hooker, one of Madame Bianca’s girls. The other is the right-hand man of Chicago’s local mob boss. This was obviously the work of a powerful wizard–the problem is, Harry’s the only one around who fits the bill. Now Harry has the council watching his every move, and any attempt to recreate the spell used to kill the hitman and the hooker may be enough to seal his doom. On the other hand, if he can’t figure out what happened, the city will soon be gripped in a war between the mob and Madame Bianca’s vampires. In addition, he has another seemingly-unrelated case to distract him, and a beautiful tabloid journalist vying for his attentions. Can Harry unravel these tangled plot threads and figure out what’s going on? Go read the book and find out!

Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the original novel this is adapted from, but this seemed incredibly faithful. Jim Butcher seemed to think so in his introduction, anyway. The writing was good, which can partially be laid at the foot of adapter Mark Powers but I think belongs mostly to Jim Butcher’s original novel. The art, however, is the reason I picked this up in the first place–keep in mind, this is adapted from a book I’ve already read, so it wasn’t too high on my priority list. Ardian Syaf, the same artist from the prequel Welcome To The Jungle, continues his stellar work here. Characters I’ve been reading about for years jump off the page almost exactly how I imagined them, and I have to say it’s been a great experience. Where the first volume  falls short is in it’s bonus story in the back, an adaptation of the first ever Dresden short story Restoration Of Faith. It wasn’t a particularly strong story to begin with (by Butcher’s own admission), and the graphic treatment isn’t kind. It’s adapted by Grant Alter with art by Kevin Mellon, and it just doesn’t stack up. Important information is never given, a character just appears out of nowhere when it’s time for him to show up with no introduction, and the villain’s defeat is almost incoherent–if I hadn’t read the story before I would have no idea what happened in those two panels. The art isn’t particularly horrible, but it’s not good either. I would almost tell you not to bother with this so-called bonus story, and just find the original in Butcher’s Dresden anthology Side Jobs. Midway through producing the adaptation, it appears the original publisher (Dabel Brothers) either went out of business or sold the property to Dynamite. This obviously delayed some of the production, and artist Ardian Syaf got a better offer from DC. You know, one that actually involved working and getting paid instead of waiting for the paperwork to be settled. I don’t like that he left, but I can understand it. The powers that be replaced him with Brett Booth for the remainder of the second volume, and I suppose Booth did okay. Had he been on the book from the beginning, I would have been fine with it. As it stands, however, the switchover was jarring, unannounced, and a little disappointing. Will I keep reading these? Of course! It’s still Dresden….its just that Syaf’s art was what pulled me into this in the first place, and now that’s gone.

CONTENT: Mild language. Some gory violence and creepy creatures. Some non-explicit sexual content, including a set of corpses still locked in a very sexual position and some discussion of prostitution. Occult-wise….Harry’s a wizard. You know up front what you’re getting into with this one….

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