Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic

Review: “Wanted” by Mark Millar & J.G. Jones

Title: Wanted
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: J.G. Jones & Dick Giordano (Flashback sequences in issue #6)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2007

Every once in a while you run across a book like Wanted. Well written, excellent art, genius premise, a smart story and interesting characters….and a stated goal of offending every sensibility you have. In that, Wanted certainly succeeds. Am I recommending you go read it? That depends on who you are and how easy you are to offend. This one’s not for everyone. It’s been billed “Watchmen for super-villains,” if that tells you anything.

Wesley Gibson is the ultimate loser. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his supposed-best friend, he has a dead-end job with a boss who chews him out regularly, he’s a hypochondriac, and to top it all off he seems to be a clone of Eminem. But all that changes when a woman named Fox upends his life. It seems that Wesley’s father was the Killer, one of a cabal of super-villains who have secretly run the world since 1986. Now the Killer is dead, and Wesley stands to inherit not only his worldly possessions but also his place in The Fraternity. Before you know it, Wesley is a whole new person with a whole new set of…well, maybe not friends. Associates might be a better word. Tensions are rising within the Fraternity. After years of peacefully keeping the world subjugated, certain members are getting tired of living behind the scenes. Civil War seems eminent, and there’s no better time to be the Killer….

Imagine suddenly having the ability to do whatever you wanted, with absolutely no consequences. Blow away a restaurant full of people? Police have no suspects. Make your “friend” who’s cheating with your girlfriend disappear? Doesn’t even make the news. Whatever your fancy, it will be covered up. How? Because the super-villains are ruling the world. Do you remember the Heroes? No, of course you don’t. They’ve been relegated to cheesy TV shows and comic books. They never really existed. Or at least, that’s the story now. Turns out that in 1986 all the super-villains – ALL of them – teamed up and took down the mighty Heroes, rewriting reality so that they never even existed. A certain pair of caped crusaders now think they just played those characters on TV, and the world’s greatest hero spends his days in a wheelchair staring out the window at a world that has forgotten him, wondering just what he’s trying to remember. The gang’s all here, given a gritty update and with their names changed to protect the author from lawsuits. Some of them are recognizable, others less so. Remember Bizarro? The failed clone of Superman that turns everything opposite? He’s been translated into [REDACTED]*, a “Down’s Syndrome copy of the world’s greatest hero.” Clayface? Try [REDACTED]*, a creature made up from the feces of the world’s six-hundred and sixty-six most evil beings that have somehow become sentient. There’s more in the same vein. Fox is clearly Catwoman stuck in Halle Berry’s body. (No, I have no idea whether that’s a coincidence. The comic was released first, but I don’t know how far back the casting for Catwoman was announced.) Mister Rictus is a darker take on the Joker, a former priest who died for a few moments only to find that there’s nothing waiting on the other side. Now? Now he does whatever he wants, eats what(or who)ever he wants, fornicates with whatever he wants. Currently? He wants to take America from his old rival Professor Solomon Seltzer….

The content here is over the top offensive. There’s the obvious profanity, sexual content and gore, but there’s also adapting DC’s Bizarro to have Down’s Syndrome (and then making fun of him), or putting not-Superman in a wheelchair….just like the guy that used to play him in the movies. At the same time, the premise is genius. The characters are all incredibly well executed. The plot is a purposeful inversion of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” theme. This is an incredible piece of work….except for how offensive it is. So, should you read it? I’ll let you decide.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity throughout. Explicit sexual content, including references to rape and bestiality. Strong, gory violence. Not for children!

*I keep this blog PG, even when the works I’m reviewing definitely aren’t. Redacted names contain profanity.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. VII: The Troll Witch And Others” by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell, & Richard Corben

Title: The Troll Witch And Others
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Additional Artists: P. Craig Russell & Richard Corben
Series: Hellboy
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2007

That figures. I stated in my last Hellboy review that I couldn’t wait for the next volume to figure out where the story was going, and so of course the next collection was an anthology. Oh well, I like those best anyways….While he still handles most of the art, this time out, Mignola collaborates with a couple guest artists for special occasion stories.

We open in Malaysia, 1958 as Hellboy investigates a local creature known as The Penanggalan, a demon born when an old priestess accidentally kicked her own head off. (“That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” “I did not say it was true, only that I believe it.”) A short, predictable, and delightfully strange tale. We then move on to Alaska, 1961 as Hellboy investigates claims of a monster haunting the grave of Hercules in The Hydra And The Lion. Mignola is the first to admit that this one doesn’t make a lot of sense, but in Hellboy’s world that really doesn’t matter too much. The Troll Witch takes us to Norway, 1963 as Hellboy investigates a series of horrific murders. This has the distinction of being one of the only stories where Hellboy doesn’t get to punch something, which leads to a bit of a subversion of your expectations. The Vampire Of Prague is set in 1982 and is Mignola’s first time writing for P. Craig Russell. This is some good stuff. I especially enjoyed the part where the vampire is chasing his own severed head down the street…. Dr. Carp’s Experiment takes us to New York, 1991 as Hellboy and the BPRD investigate a newly-discovered secret chamber in a notorious haunted house. This one was good, I always love a good time travel story. The Ghoul is set in London, 1992, and is one of the strangest Hellboy tales I’ve seen. It features our favorite demonic hero beating the crap out of a ghoul who speaks solely in creepy poetry, and a puppet theatre production of Hamlet. Makoma is another weird one, this time a collaboration with Richard Corben. Mignola draws the framing story set in 1993, while Corben draws the legend being narrated. I’m not entirely sure how to understand this one, but it seems to be about Hellboy in a past life. Sort of a “Wheel of Time” thing where everything repeats throughout time. If so, it sheds some light on Hellboy’s eventual battle with the Ogdru Jahad….

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Mild sexual content, and some non-sexual nudity. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “Windswept” by Adam Rakunas

Title: Windswept
Author: Adam Rakunas
Series: Windswept #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Angry Robot, 2015

In the distant future, everything runs on molasses, rendering sugar cane the lifeblood of human civilization. Corporate interests control the starways, staffed by an indentured workforce, while the Union takes every opportunity to convince said workforce to breach their contracts and jump ship. Out at the edge of settled space, Union recruiter Padma Mehta is particularly eager to add new Breaches to her headcount—thirty-three more recruits and she’ll get a bonus that will allow her to buy her favorite rum refinery and retire. Of course, it’s never that easy. Santee is a backwater, barely kept afloat by the supply of molasses sent up the elevator, so when Padma catches wind of forty potential Breaches she jumps at the opportunity…right out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now she’s dodging corporate hit squads, running from the police, and wading through sewage in an attempt to save the planet from a crop-killing plague…and the corporate response that would doom every soul on Santee to a fiery death.

Windswept is definitely a roller coaster of a novel, with a breakneck pace that refuses to slow down and let you think. This serves the novel well, especially as it helps gloss over the odd plot hole or uncharacteristically foolish action a given character might take in service to the plot. (Notably, a character picks up a fallen enemy’s gun, removes the magazine and pockets it, then throws the gun itself away. Why? Because the upcoming fight scene wouldn’t be as interesting if she were armed, but that magazine is going to be essential to solving a problem in the near future…The character does at least have the grace to question why she discarded the pistol, chalking it up to sleep deprivation clouding her judgement. There’s also a jarring moment where a character announces that she’s got to be at work in fifteen minutes, then a page later reflects on the fact that she’s going to be able to kick back and relax the rest of the night.) There’s not a lot of such gloss needed, but then it may have worked and I missed some examples. On the whole, though, the book was a very fun thrill ride through a future that looks like no other I’ve ever seen. A worthy debut, and I shall watch for future works from Mr. Rakunas.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, prevalent but not gratuitous. Strong violence. Moderately explicit sexual content.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. VI: Strange Places” by Mike Mignola

Title: Strange Places
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2006

“Don’t mess with me, lady. I’ve been drinking with skeletons.”

Seriously, how many characters do you know who could deliver that line in all seriousness? Pretty much just Hellboy, which goes quite a ways towards explaining his appeal. The entire series is so….over the top, ridiculous, ambitious….not really sure of the best word to sum it up, but you have to admit it’s pretty great. This time around in The Third Wish, Hellboy is pitted against the Bog Roosh, an undersea witch who wishes to save the world….by ending Hellboy once and for all. Sure, Hellboy has rejected his birthright as Anung Un Rama, the Right Hand Of Doom and devoted his life to saving the world, but so long as he exists someone could use the power of his hand to loose the Ogdru Jahad and burn the world. The Bog Roosh would end this threat once and for all. Then, in The Island Hellboy washes up on a forsaken island and is given a lesson in the origins of the world and all things that culminates in his death. Kind of. Maybe. Guess we’ll have to wait for the next book to see how that works out.

I won’t pretend that I understood everything that happened here, but I don’t think you’re meant to. Mignola is giving you an inside look at the creation of his world, true, but what is left out is as relevant as what is shown. We’ll see where the path Hellboy is set upon leads, I suppose. The book is filled with scattered moments of Hellboy being delightfully himself, and that is most definitely worth the rest of what is undoubtedly one of the darker entries in this series so far.

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Little to no sexual content. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “Battlefield Earth” by L. Rob Hubbard

Title: Battlefield Earth
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Galaxy Press, 2001

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Battlefield Earth? Isn’t that that movie that always tops the lists for the worst movies of all time?” Yes. Yes it is. It also happens to be a novel, which comes recommended by quite a few people including Neil Gaiman. Was it weird? Yes. Beyond a doubt one of the odder novels I’ve ever read, in a number of categories. But it was also strangely entertaining. For the record, I received a free copy for review purposes from Galaxy Press.

In the 1980s, Earth was invaded by the Psychlo Empire. Humanity was mostly exterminated, the few survivors retreating to the hills and other inaccessible locations. So long as they didn’t make trouble for the Psychlo’s mining operations they were mostly ignored aside from the occasional sport-hunting expedition, and over the next millennium human society slowly devolved back to the primitive. Now, as the year 3000 dawns, events are set in motion that will forever destroy this status quo. Terl, the greedy head of security for the Earth-based mining corporation, has hatched a scheme to make himself one of the wealthiest monsters on Psychlo when he makes it back home. This scheme, however, hinges on the obedience of captured human Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. But Tyler has his own plans, and they mostly involve kicking the Pschlos off his planet and making sure they never return….

On the one hand, Hubbard’s pulp pedigree is on full display here, offering a massive yet delightfully-readable adventure. On the other hand, this gets weird fast. The book clocks in at over a thousand pages, but it takes just over four hundred to reclaim the Earth. Then comes the hard part: preparing for the inevitable counterstrike from Psychlo. Hold onto your seat for a thrilling journey featuring such topics as diplomacy, vengeance, political scheming, and intergalactic finance! What, that doesn’t sound all that entertaining? You’d be surprised, actually. A lot of the time you just have to focus on the subplot at hand, shutting off that voice in the back of your head that is persistently asking what the heck this has to do with anything–it all makes sense by the end, I promise. Despite its reputation, the book didn’t involve nearly as much Scientology craziness as I’d expected–if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might miss it entirely. On the other hand, referring to the field of Psychology as “an ancient cult” is about as subtle as a brick in the face. The characters are all pretty two-dimensional, but that’s honestly to be expected. This is a return to the pulps, after all, albeit on a grander scale. The names are ridiculous, but I think that was intentional. The science is surprisingly sound, from what I can gather. In short, this is a ridiculously amusing ride…if you can lift it.

CONTENT: Mild profanity. Mild sexual innuendo. Some violence, including the gruesome aftermath of a torture session.

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Review: “The Circuit: Executor Rising” by Rhett C. Bruno

Title: Executor Rising
Author: Rhett C. Bruno
Series: The Circuit #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Diversion Books, 2015

(EDIT: The book has been given another proof-reading and re-released by a different publisher, so the author asked me to update the information found here. I’ve not seen the new version, but I’m told that the only difference is that it’s been proofread once again to catch those pesky typographical errors that seem to always slip past even the best of us.)

Reading works from debut authors can be a game of Russian Roulette, especially if the book has been self-published (This book is not, in fact, self-published, but I thought it was for some reason.) You sometimes find a gem, and other times you wind up beating your head against the wall wishing you’d never won that giveaway. This time, I’m pleased to say, I found something quite enjoyable. Unlike most of the relatively-unknown books and authors I’ve featured in these reviews, I didn’t actually seek this one out. Mr. Bruno was apparently trolling Goodreads reviews, found the one I did of Ancillary Justice, and figured I’d be a good candidate to review his own book. He was incredibly courteous, and of course I cannot speak highly enough of anyone who gives me free books, but beyond that the book was actually very enjoyable. Not perfect, there are some minor quibbles to be hashed out, but very enjoyable nevertheless.

It’s been five hundred years since the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, but humanity remains unbowed. We’ve spread throughout the solar system, scrounging and scraping a meager living wherever we can aided by the Kepler Circuit, a series of space stations set up by the Ancients of Earth before the planet burned. The stations of the Circuit are linked by the Solar Arks, traveling at nearly the speed of light from world to world distributing supplies and resources without bias. Most of the solar system is controlled by the New Earth Tribunal, a fanatically religious sect forged around the idea that the Ancients ruined the Earth with their technological and scientific hunger for knowledge that was not theirs to attain. They believe that all humans are linked together into a New-Agey collective spirit that remains tied to the Earth, and that someday the Earth will heal itself and we will be able to return home if we prove ourselves worthy. This has not, of course, stopped them from continuing to mine the Gravitum from the core of the Earth, allowing for humanity’s continued existence away from our home planet. Cassius Vale is an ex-Tribune, exiled to his home on the moon of Titan for heresy until the Tribunal is forced to ask for his help dealing with a string of attacks on their transports. Little do they realize that Vale himself is responsible for the attacks, or that these hijackings are only just the beginnings of his plan to bring down the Tribunal he has come to hate. ADIM is an android built in secret by Vale to further his plans. The Tribunal has outlawed all robotics research, declaring such artificial life to be abominations that have no place in helping us reclaim the Earth, even waging a genocidal war to wipe out as many of them as possible. ADIM is wholly devoted to his creator, and for his part Vale sees ADIM as a surrogate son. Together, they may very well bring down civilization as the Tribunal has shaped it for centuries. Sage Volus is an Executor for the Tribunal, operating behind the scenes to find and destroy their enemies wherever they hide. Her latest mission takes her to Ceres Prime, the asteroid colony that constitutes the largest threat to Tribunal domination of the entirety of the solar system. Talon Rayne is a Ceresian miner, formerly a general and bodyguard for one of the clan leaders who dominate the colony before a failed assassination attempt left him slowly dying and obsessed with providing  a better life for his daughter before he succumbs. These four characters are on a collision course with one another, and when the dust finally settles fate only knows who will be left standing.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this. It was really a great story, especially for a debut work. The prose was simple but cinematic, and you could “see” everything that happened very vividly. I understand the author is currently studying screenwriting, so the visual focus may have something to do with that. The characters were well-formed and complex, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that populate the horde of mediocre fiction the age of internet publishing has unleashed upon us. There were minor issues of grammar, punctuation, and word choice, but much less than I’ve seen in other Indie works. (“He was a shadow of his formal self” vs. “former self,” things like that.)

I did have two character-related complaints; one a matter of taste and one I think is more a case of semi-universally accepted practice. I’ll start with this latter one: Cassius Vale is too perfect. He’s an interesting character, don’t get me wrong–I was fascinated by his character, sympathized with him, even occasionally found myself rooting for him despite my misgivings with his work (I’ll address that in a minute), but he really had little standing in his way. No, that’s not it exactly. He had all kinds of things standing in his way, a whole slew of obstacles to overcome before he can unleash his plan to bring down the tribune…and every single domino falls just the way he plans it. Every single thing that happens is according to his design, or at least easily dealt with. He’s got an incredibly complex scheme running here, and not a single wrench gets thrown into it. Maybe this isn’t as much a problem as I think it is; it certainly didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I would have preferred to see him have to adapt on the fly to changing conditions in order to achieve his goals. A more minor complaint, more a matter of taste, is that while I enjoyed all of the POV characters found here, I found most of them very hard to root for. Cassius Vale is a snarky antihero with a tragedy in his past, and I think I’ve adequately demonstrated my weakness for those characters, but he’s ruthlessly pursuing a vendetta that cost countless innocent lives. ADIM is awesome, but working towards the same ends as Vale. Sage Volus is a kickass secret agent, again with a tragedy smouldering in her past, but she’s completely drank the Tribunal’s Kool-Aid and believes their crap wholeheartedly.* I like these characters, but I don’t necessarily want theirs goals to be achieved. The only character I can root for without reservation is Talon Rayne, and even there I have to wonder what use his bosses have for the Gravitum shipment they’re forcing him to hijack. But who knows, other readers may see this same issue as one of the strengths of the book–heaven knows that it can’t be easy to write a character you like even if you don’t want him to win.

The world Bruno has created here is incredibly complex, and I believe he at least is very familiar with its ins and outs. I could have used a little more information at times though. I had serious questions about a number of things as I read. Most of those were eventually answered, but having that happen sooner would have been nice. I would have been significantly more confused than I was if it weren’t for the book’s blurb that set the scene. That said, Bruno did manage to almost completely avoid that dreaded practice of “infodumping.” For some, that’s a cardinal sin. I don’t believe so myself, if it’s done well and manages to be engaging, but enough people have embraced that doctrine that a writer must think twice before employing it. Thankfully, he also managed to avoid the rookie mistake that many a writer has fallen prey to in their efforts to avoid this dreaded practice: characters telling each other things they should already know in an effort to inform the reader. “As you know, Bob, if Doctor Neffario manages to get his hands on the MacGuffin device he’ll end life on the planet Damsellus!” I would have liked to have been told what exactly happened to leave the Earth a barren cinder–it’s somewhat implied that it was a result of mining the core for Gravitum, but if that were the case I think the Tribunal would stop the mining as part of their efforts to make the Earth habitable again. Unless that’s just rhetoric to keep the unwashed masses in line, of course.

Some of the science is wonky, or at least under-explained–you can break the rules of physics, but you should acknowledge doing it and offer some explanation. Some examples: the ease of communication between Vale and ADIM, even across vast distances. Elsewhere in the book it is implied that distance affects the ease and clarity of communication, but ADIM has a communicator with seemingly infinite range built into his head? Seems like that device should be pretty big, if it’s possible at all in this universe. Or maybe not, it just seemed a little inconsistent to me is all. Then there’s the Circuit itself. Everything is described as if it stays stationary relative to each other, but all of those planets are orbiting the sun at different speeds. I assumed the Circuit was a teleportation network like the Stargates in that universe, but it’s revealed towards the end that instead they are space stations that allow the Solar Arks to pick up and drop off people and cargo without ever slowing down from their near-light speed. The routes of those Solar Arks take must be convoluted as all get out and subject to some killer calculations. Again, not insurmountable, but some acknowledgement of the issue and a throwaway line about how it works would be nice.

CONTENT: R-rated language, pervasive but not gratuitous. Some brutal violence. Some fairly strong sexual innuendo, but I don’t recall it becoming very explicit.

*Do I detect the mold of Mara Jade in this character? Methinks I do! That’s okay, if you have to imitate somebody, Timothy Zahn is one of the greats. There are other loans from Star Wars, such as the name Talon (not-Karrde) or the Hands and Executors (though their roles are modified/flipped.)

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Review: “Insurgent” by Veronica Roth

Title: Insurgent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #2
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Katherine Tegen, 2012

I’ve decided I need to be more focused when I read a series. I’ve always tried to not binge, but that’s obviously not working–I never finish! So here we go. Insurgent! Plus, the movie’s coming soon, and I know I’m going to get pulled in to see that with my wife and/or my sister….can’t see it ’til you read it, after all….Oh, and since this is the second book in the trilogy, it’s bound to be a bit spoilery for the first novel. If you’ve not read the first one yet, you’ve been warned.

Insurgent picks up right where Divergent left off. The faction system is shattered, teetering on the brink of collapse due to the unprecedented attack led by Erudite against the Abnegation. Erudite stands powerful, maintaining a position of strength after seizing control of the city. Abnegation is almost nonexistent, most of its leaders and citizens slaughtered. Dauntless is fractured, split between those allied with Erudite and those in revolt, horrified at having been manipulated into committing genocide. Amity stands aloof, offering a safe haven for refugees of the attack, while Candor stands undecided. But there is a sixth group that no one has considered yet, and they may hold the key to everyone’s future in this troubled city. Can Tris and her friends trust the Factionless? And regardless of the answer to that question….do they really have a choice?

I stated before, in my review of Divergent, that I thought this trilogy was far superior to The Hunger Games for a variety of reasons. I still hold that opinion, and I don’t think it’s likely to change despite my sister’s allusions to her “ocean of tears” after finishing the last book. The writing continues to flow almost effortlessly from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and while I’m admittedly unlikely to give these a second read-through (I only do that if I really like a book) I have to admit to an incredibly reluctance to stop reading once I’ve started. Tris is a bit less emotionally stable this time around, and I can see where some people get annoyed at that, but I think it’s only natural for the character. She just watched most of the people she grew up with get massacred, her parents both sacrificed themselves to save her (a sacrifice she feels deeply unworthy of), and she was forced to shoot one of her closest friends in the face when he tried to kill her while under simulation control. I think her emotional breakdown is warranted, and while I don’t like whinyness in a narrator, I think I would find her character less believable if she didn’t break down occasionally. And believably, overwhelmingly human characters is something that Ms. Roth does incredibly well. There are a couple characters who are just outright slime (Eric, for example), but most of the villains are operating from a desire to serve the greater good…as they see it, and regardless of the cost. That element in particular is highlighted in this book, as we get more insight into just what the heck went down to cause the Erudite coup. I’ll not get too lost in rambling, except to say that any lingering qualms I had about the premise of the trilogy after the first book (and there weren’t many) have been laid to rest.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language (I think, I don’t actually remember any, but the first one had some….) Strong, occasionally gruesome violence and its aftermath. Mild sexual innuendo and flirting, but nothing too explicit.

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Review: “The Book Of Apex Volume IV,” The Apocrypha

You may remember a year ago I reviewed the stories contained in The Book Of Apex: Volume IV Of Apex Magazine. This anthology reprinted the fiction from Apex Magazine issues #30-44, in it’s entirety (or so I thought.) Turns out, there was at least one story from each issue left out of the collection! So far as I can tell, all of these were reprints when they appeared in Apex, but I’m a completist. And so, I give you the omitted stories from Apex #30-44!

  • This Creeping Thing, by Rob Shearman. (***)
    From issue #30, originally appearing in Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical. Susan has trouble loving, but once she gets there….once she gets there, her love can move mountains. I didn’t like this one, and I can’t explain why. It just rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t poorly written, though. You may like it okay, I just didn’t. CONTENT: Sexual content, non-explicit. Mild profanity. A cat gets euthanized after being hit by a car, so I suppose that counts as violence. Occult-wise, we have ghosts….
  • The Yellow Dressing Gown, by Sarah Monette. (*****)
    From issue #31, originally appearing in Weird Tales #63.2. A museum curator obsessively tracks down the yellow dressing gown worn by a famous artist during the last days of his life, alone in his gallery painting away while he slowly went mad from syphilis. This one was delightfully creepy! I highly recommend it if that’s your thing. CONTENT: Brief sexual innuendo. No profanity that I can recall. No overtly-depicted violence, although the aftermath of a murder or suicide is dealt with. The story is also fairly creepy, it should be pointed out. Occult-wise….there are implied to be some supernatural figures that don’t overtly appear in the story but hover around the fringes. I won’t say more because spoilers.
  • The Prowl, by Gregory Frost. (*****)
    From issue #32, originally appearing in Mojo: Conjure Stories. A former slave tells the tale of how he came to America, his troubles once he arrived, and the strange creature that came along with him in disguise. I cannot stress enough the high level of quality in this tale, nor how much I enjoyed it. Go read it–you won’t be sorry you did. CONTENT: Mild profanity. Some frank but non-explicit discussion of sex. Violence, occasionally a bit gory. I don’t think the plateye quite counts as occult content, but he is a semi-spiritual figure, so that may depend on your definition.
  • Useless Things, by Maureen McHugh. (***)
    From issue #33, originally appearing in Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction And Fantasy. A woman battles the New Mexico desert, the economic downturn, and the general ups and downs of life. This tale contains doll-making, burglary, illegal immigrants, cheating spouses, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t connect with it, personally, but I do have to admit that it was well-written. Just not up my alley. Unlike most of the stuff published in Apex Magazine, I don’t think there was anything fantastical or speculative about this story. Very bleak, which I’m not usually a fan of. CONTENT: Mild profanity. No violence. The only sexual content comes when the protagonist breaks down and uses her doll-making skills to craft specially-ordered sex toys in order to make ends meet.
  • Lehr, Rex, by Jay Lake. (****)
    From issue #34, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Forbidden PlanetsAn Imperial scout ship is dispatched to the rescue when a twenty-year-old distress signal is finally received from the INS Broken Spear. On arrival, however, the rescuers discover that the now-delusional Captain Lehr has no intention of leaving, and that there may be more to their mission than meets the eye given the planet-buster stored in the hold of their ship. What was on the Broken Spear that the Empire deems so dangerous? This was a very fun story, with a twist that I at least did not see coming until the very end. CONTENT: Very mild sexual innuendo. Some sci-fi violence. No profanity.
  • Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life, by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. (****)
    From issue #35, originally appearing in Interzone Magazine #229.  I can’t describe this story. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was obvious that the author put a lot of effort into shaping exactly how much is revealed and when, and to describe that would be to upset the balance she worked so hard for. Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan (and that’s a subjective judgement I can’t quantify), but it was a well-written piece nevertheless. Some would call it beautiful. CONTENT: Mild sexual innuendo. Some implied violence. No profanity.
  • The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set, by Nnedi Okorafor. (****)
    From issue #36, originally appearing in Space And Time #101.  Ulu wants to be a chemist like her uncle, and spend her days protecting the land from pollution and other threats. Ulu is a very orderly little girl. So, her dad stops at Ugorgi’s store and buys her The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set. Ugorgi’s store is a very interesting place, full of things that shouldn’t exist–a six-legged dog, for example. But when a “laboratory accident” disrupts the local space-time continuum, it’s up to Ulu and her chemistry set to make it right…. CONTENT: Brief profanity. Mild violence. No sexual content. Occult content….that depends on the conclusions and definitions of the reader.
  • Blocked, by Geoff Ryman(****)
    From issue #37, originally appearing in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This one was….confusing. I first took it to be a dream, (it does begin with “I dreamed this….”) but now I think that the narrator was speaking figuratively. I didn’t like this story, per se, but I do have to admit that it was well written. It was quite a scathing indictment of humanity’s discontent…. CONTENT: Brief profanity, mild innuendo, and no real violence despite some very adult themes such as suicide.
  • Wolf Trapping, by Kij Johnson(****)
    From issue #38, originally appearing in The Twilight Zone Magazine. A disturbing tale of obsession and its consequences, how far we will go to achieve the thing we want. Richard is living alone in the woods, observing the wolves and their behavior. One day he stumbles across a lone woman doing the same, but whereas Richard strives to remain detached and not affect their behavior, this woman wants to join the wolves and be a part of their pack….. CONTENT: R-rated language. No sexual content. Some disturbing and gory violence.
  • Undercity, by Nir Yaniv(*****)
    From issue #39, originally appearing in Hebrew in Dreams Of Aspamia #19, in English as a bonus novellete in The Apex Book Of World SF II. There is a city that exists beneath the Tel Aviv that you know. No, that’s not quite right…you couldn’t dig your way to the Undercity. It exists in another plane entirely, a cold, sunless echo of the world that we live in. And tomorrow the two Tel Avivs will switch places….I’m not entirely sure I “got” what the author was trying to tell me here, but I was very much pulled into his world. This was a dark, very atmospheric tale, and whether or not I completely understood it, I have to say that I loved it. CONTENT: No profanity that I recall. Some mild sexual content, fairly non-explicit. Mild violence.
  • Sacrifice, by Jennifer Pelland. (***)
    From issue #40, originally appearing in Dark Faith: Invocations. A woman sits by her father’s bedside as he lays dying of lung cancer. A voice offers to allow her to trader her life for his…. OR A man stands outside his daughter’s funeral, mourning with every fiber of his being the deal he made to save his own life at terrible cost…. Was this well done? Yes. I have to admit that it was. Did I like it? No, I really didn’t. You should have noticed by now that I’m really not a fan of stories that cast God as a sadistic old creep. CONTENT: R-rated language. Mild sexual references. Mild violence and the heavy subject of death and sacrifice.
  • Sonny Liston Takes The Fall, by Elizabeth Bear. (****)
    Also from issue #40, originally appearing in The Del Rey Book Of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sonny Liston was a boxing legend back in the day, until the day he faced off against a young up-and-comer by the name of Cletus Cassidy. Cassidy? He went on to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston lived a hard life, full of controversy, and died the way he lived. Elizabeth Bear spins a poignant tale of this controversial figure, and I’ll admit I had no idea about any of this. Prizefighting legends from fifty years gone aren’t really my specialty, you see. I did enjoy the tale though…. CONTENT: R-rated language. Fighting violence. Mild sexual innuendo, non-explicit.
  • Simon’s Replica, by Dean Francis Alfar. (****)
    From issue #41, originally appearing in the Philippines Free Press. An aging queen, feeling her mortality creeping up on her, commissions a perfectly accurate replica of her lands so that the golden age of her kingdom will be remembered. I have to admit that I did see the ending coming, but it was still a pleasant tale. CONTENT: No language, no sex, and no violence.
  • The Glutton: A Goxhat Accounting Chant, by Eleanor Arnason. (****)
    From issue #42, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Tales Of The Unanticipated #22. Here we are treated to an epic poem by an alien race very different from our own. This is my first encounter with the Goxhat, but apparently their culture has been the author’s pet project for quite a while now…. CONTENT: No sex or profanity, some violence.
  • Relic, by Jeffrey Ford. (**)
    From issue #43, originally appearing in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet Of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories From Top Authors And Artists. Out at the end of the world, there is a church to a maybe-saint by the name of Ifritia. It only holds services four times a year, once for each season, and its main claim to anything resembling fame is the supposed relic of its namesake saint in a shrine behind the church. Father Walter is ordained by no particular higher authority; he simply built the church and recalled that the preachers from his boyhood were called Father. Sister North simply joined the church one day after an infrequent sermon. I feel like this story was supposed to tell me something, but I missed the message. Without whatever it was supposed to tell me, the simple almost-plot left much to be desired. Maybe it’s something you’d enjoy, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. CONTENT: No profanity. Some violence, some non-explicit sexual innuendo.
  • The Patrician, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. (*****)
    From issue #44, originally appearing in Love And Romanpunk. In the Australian outback, there is a town built of Roman stone, in the Roman style, and committed to the Roman way of life….as long as the tourists are looking, of course. But there are monsters that called Rome their home, and they are drawn to things that are Roman….there are also those who hunt them, on a quest to rid the world of its monsters. I absolutely loved this story, and I am very much looking forward to tracking down a copy of the collection it originates in. Roman monsters, monster-hunting, immortality, this tale has it all. Highly recommended. CONTENT: Mild profanity (At least, I don’t recall any that wasn’t mild, but its possible it slipped my attention. I was kind of distracted by the sheer awesomeness of the tale.) Some violence, usually perpetrated against dragons or manticores or lamia or some such, but occasionally extending to their victims as well. Some sexual content, not too explicit.

This is just one of a series of posts I did on this anthology. You can find the others here:
Part One (My personal favorites….)
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
-Apocrypha (The reprinted stories from the relevant issues, not included in the anthology)

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Review: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Katherine Tegen, 2012

I know, I’m late to the party. I have this bad habit of avoiding high-hype books out of a sense of general stubbornness, not because I really doubt their quality (a certain series involving glitter-ridden “vampires” excluded, of course) but partially from general cantankerousness, partially from convenience (I heavily rely on the library, making high-demand books somewhat inconvenient at times), and partially from the fact that my “to-read” stack has become a full set of shelves, crammed to bursting, and lower-priority works have overflowed into a series of boxes until I can get things under control. This procrastination only gets worse when there’s a perception of market glut; i.e. “Twilight is big! Let’s ride this angsty faux-vampire thing all the way to the bank! Oooh….look at the sales numbers on The Hunger Games…..” This last is unfair, I know…there are some seriously good dystopian books coming out now. It’s just a matter of digging through the glut to find the gems. I’m hoping to read The Maze Runner soon, and I’ve heard good things about The Blood Red Road as well. In the case of Divergent, my sister is obsessed. Some of the other YA dystopian stuff she’s into holds no interest for me (Matched, for example), but this looked interesting. Plus, my wife wants to see the movie, and to watch it before reading it would be pure heresy. Thus, I borrowed my sister’s beloved copy and dove in (Thanks Chloe!)

In the unspecified future, Chicago has become a self-sustaining dystopian fortress. Within its walls, the citizens are divided into five factions based on their most dominant character trait–Amity, the peaceful; Abnegation, the selfless; Candor, the honest/impartial; Erudite, the learned; and Dauntless, the brave. Children are raised in the faction of their parents until the age of sixteen, when they take a test that tells them which faction best fits their character/thinking/instincts. They then choose their faction, once and for all. They are free to choose a different faction than their test indicates, providing some thin semblance of democracy, but once the choice is made it cannot be changed…and if you can’t make it in your chosen faction, you become one of the Factionless, the faceless untouchables that perform the menial labor for the entire city.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior has been raised in Abnegation all her life, but she doesn’t feel she really fits in. She wants to be good and selfless, but the fact is that politeness and seeing others’ needs isn’t what she’s good at. If she ends up in another faction, its likely she’ll see her family only on rare occasions (“Faction before Blood” is the motto of the new society), but Tris frankly isn’t sure she can stay in Abnegation for the rest of her life without going crazy. Things only become more complicated when her test comes back inconclusive–Tris could be suited for Dauntless, Abnegation, or even Erudite. The test overseer informs her that she is Divergent, and that to tell anyone her secret could get her killed. The test results are wiped and the overseer pretends there was a problem with the readings, while Tris leaves the test that should have given her guidance with only more questions. Right up until the moment she makes her choice, she doesn’t know what she is going to do, but once she decides there is no going back….

This book garners all sorts of comparisons to The Hunger Games, and I can see the similarities, but I think the differences are far more significant–and I think Divergent is better, on the whole. Both books feature an oppressive social system, a strong-willed female protagonist who narrates the work in first-person POV, and an incredible amount of violence perpetrated against children. At the same time, even these elements bear only a passing resemblance to each other. While neo-Chicago’s faction-based society is clearly flawed, it was founded with the best of intentions while Panem makes no bones about being a bloody dictatorship that televises an annual live-action adolescent death-match. Katniss and Tris definitely share similarities (bravery, a strong survival instinct, and the determination to protect those they care about,) but there are also marked differences. For one thing, Tris is a very active character. Most of what happens in the book happens because makes a decision and does something. Katniss is more reactive, largely as a product of the plot, but the former still makes for a more interesting character. Then of course there’s also Katniss’s angsty whining for the first half of Catching Fire, followed by her slow descent into madness during Mockingjay. I wasn’t too big a fan of those elements. Tris manages to still have a love interest without being quite so whiny about it. Just my opinion.*

The writing here was tight and action-packed, flowing so smoothly and keeping me so engaged that I’ve ended up staying up later than I intended several times over the past week, lost in the ruins of Chicago. That said, there are elements of Divergent that I’m a bit conflicted about. The world itself is overly simplistic, for one thing. And yet….maybe that’s the point. The idea of a society where everyone is defined by a single character trait is ridiculous, on the face of it, but on closer examination Divergent makes it work much better than I expected when I started the book. For one thing, the factions aren’t necessarily built around the only character trait that its members exhibit, but the one they want to emphasize. It can require bravery to be selfless or honest, or even simply to leave your faction and family for a new one at the choosing ceremony. You can have brave Abnegation, honest Amity, or even Dauntless who recognize that violence isn’t always the best option. Beyond that, there’s also the simple fact that this is a dystopian vision. A society based around these factions wouldn’t work? Exactly. That would be why it’s falling apart…. I am less thrilled by the underlying anti-intellectualism necessitated by the plot, but even here Ms. Roth makes it clear that its not learning and knowledge itself that is bad, but the underlying human nature–i.e., a lust for power. You see this moral decline in both the Erudite and the Dauntless, and to some degree even in Abnegation. If we explored Candor or Amity a bit more in this book, I suspect we’d see the same decay in their values, and I expect exactly that from the other two books in the trilogy. The problems we see come to fruition in the book are the result not of a particular character trait, but of each faction valuing their chosen ideal to the point where they dismiss or denigrate the others. The faction manifestos included in the back shine an interesting light on the original ideals of each faction, as well as how they’ve drifted from that original conception. The point was that each virtue was supposed to be the best way to ensure the common good, not that each virtue was an end in itself. Thus we see Dauntless emphasizing bravery in defense of the weak, and Amity admitting that fighting to defend another is also laudable. We see Erudite going out of their way to emphasize that while knowledge is a powerful tool, it must be wielded as a tool for the greater good and not a weapon for their own gain. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize how far each of these factions have fallen from their initial ideals…and the original good that underlies the corrupted society they’ve inherited.

Divergence itself confuses me a bit, and I hope this supposed anomaly is explored further in the next couple books. Initially, it appears that divergence is simply displaying the character traits of multiple factions, thus making the placement test inconclusive. If this is all it was, you would expect most people to be divergent, and this apparent disconnect is the source of quite a bit of griping from other reviewers. However, one of the effects of divergence is the ability to mess with whatever simulation they’ve got running in your head, thus implying its more of a neurological anomaly. Since the test itself is a simulation designed to force the subject into specific situations requiring particular traits, that fits, as does the apparent genetic nature of it. As for the apparent rarity of divergents, events soon prove that while they are not the norm they certainly aren’t as rare as everyone assumes. Two of the main characters prove divergent, as do at least two minor characters and several others that are only mentioned in passing.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language, but otherwise PG-13 on the profanity front. Strong, occasionally gruesome violence, including a potential attempted rape. Some sexual innuendos and references, but nothing too explicit.

*Keeping in mind, I read Catching Fire on a very slow night at work, reading almost the entire first half at basically one sitting. That’s a lot of concentrated angst, and had I read it over a longer span of time I may have reacted slightly less negatively.

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Review: “East Of West, Volume I: The Promise” by Jonathon Hickman & Nick Dragotta

Title: The Promise
Writer: Jonathon Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Series: East Of West (Volume I, issues #1-5)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Image, 2013

Apparently this was one of the hottest creator-owned books to come out last year, and I totally missed it. No longer! I was recently scanning the graphic novel/comics section at the local library for that eye-catching sticker designating new acquisitions for my greedy perusal, when I ran across this particular gem. Science-fiction-slash-Western, you say? Well, I doubt it can top Firefly, but I’ll give it a go. Alternate history? I like alternate history. I find alternate versions of any familiar world interesting, especially ours. The apocalypse? I love a good impending apocalypse. Probably why I watch both Sleepy Hollow and Constantine these days, among a slate of others. All of these factors together? That’s gotta be interesting….

The Four Horsemen walk the Earth, heralding the end of days. Surprisingly, however, they do not stand united….Following a staggering betrayal, Death stands opposed to his former comrades, and may just prove to be the only hope humanity has left. The forces against him are legion, including a cabal that would hasten the apocalypse, and he has few friends left standing. But one simple fact remains: eventually, Death comes to every man….

That synopsis really doesn’t do the book justice, of course. Half the fun here is slowly figuring out exactly what’s going on. That can be a little difficult at times, admittedly–the book does you no favors in terms of presenting backstory in a timely manner–but is well worth it nonetheless. It’s less alternate history than it is a future based on an alternate history, but that difference is somewhat academic. Now, what else can I say about this without spoiling it for you? It’s delightfully over-the-top, the product of numerous impulses that blend together to give a flavor that is sometimes Tarantino, sometimes Eastwood, often manga/anime/whatever-you-call-it, and always amazing. I can’t wait to read the next collection….

CONTENT: Profanity on a PG-13 level. Some brief sexual innuendo and non-sexual nudity (it’s a childbirth scene, in case you were wondering). Over-the-top, bloody violence. I’m not sure occult is the right word, but we’re dealing with the Four Horsemen here. I’m not sure what other word to use. Oh, and there are a couple Native American witches. I suppose that qualifies as well.

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