Friday, September 09, 2016

A Harvest of Mini Reviews for the Fall

Harvest season: fat, orange moons lumbering along the horizon; a crispness in the air that warns no matter how hot the days may still be, winter is coming; the crackle of leaves of a million colours underfoot; and the bounty of the fields coming in. What better time to collect a bushel of books read over the summer and serve up a feast of mini reviews.

On the table for your consumption:

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
The Dinosaur Knights by Victor Milan
Enter the Janitor by Josh Vogt
The Dragon and the Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi
Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Saint's Blood by Sebastien de Castell
Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

As always, the spoilage warning is in effect.


League of Dragons
by Naomi Novik

The closing chapter of the Temeraire alternate history series, League of Dragons, opens with Napoleon's army in full retreat from Russia, but the British-Russian-Prussian-Chinese allied forces are still unable to capture the French emperor. As if dealing with food shortages and battle isn't enough, Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, have to contend with duels with cruel nobles, challenges to Laurence's authority by other British officers, and the imminent hatching of Temeraire Junior. But the question of dragons' rights (spearheaded by Temeraire) becomes the pivotal issue. Napoleon may still gain the upper hand because of his policy of extending full standing as citizens to his dragons. He already has the unswerving loyalty of his own dragons and those of the Inca (through his marriage to that empire's leader), and many feral dragons as well. And his league of dragons may soon win over other powers, including the Tswana in Africa (who succeeded in pushing European colonizers and slavers off of their continent), Japan, India, and some First Nations in North America. The equality issue even threatens to undermine the loyalty of dragons in the UK. As Laurence and Temeraire try to organize a final decisive attack against Napoleon, their hopes are pinned on dragons winning equal rights in Britain in time to gain enough support to win the war in Europe.

Like the other Temeraire novels, League of Dragons is a lot of fun and a good, fast read (if you have the time, you could probably get through it in a day or two). Novik's characters are well-rounded and believable (I know Temeraire is probably supposed to have an English accent, but for some reason, right from the start, I've always imagined him sounding like Henry Gibson as Wilbur in the 1973 animated version of Charlotte's Web), and she's done a good job of portraying British and European societies of the early 1800s.

My only problem with the story is that in the final act, Novik denies the audience the chance to see the head-to-head fight where Napoleon is at last captured. One minute, Laurance, Temeraire, and their air crew are closing on Napoleon and his rogue Chinese dragon, Lien, and the next the battle is over and everyone's preparing to bundle the former emperor off to his exile while they decide how France will be run. For several novels, Novik has been building towards the collision between Temeraire and Lien: the white dragon has launched schemes and intrigues, insulted and threatened Temeraire and Laurence, helped Bonaparte enhance his air corps and recruit feral dragons, and forged his army into a nearly unstoppable juggernaut. The whole time, Temeraire has fretted about her threat and set himself on a course for revenge. And then 'League comes along, with plenty of blow-by-blow bloody scraps with other dragons throughout the plot, but no account of the final reckoning between the opposing Celestial dragons. It's one thing to tease the audience; it's one thing to leave the audience wanting more; but to give us nothing of what the series has been building towards, that's a mistake — no, a failure — that even the 2014 Godzilla avoided (and that flick was bogged-down with dragon-sized plotting mistakes). Does this omission ruin the novel? No. But it does take away some of the lustre from what should be a gem of a story for any dragon-lover's hoard of books.


The Dinosaur Knights
by Victor Milan

When The Dinosaur Lords hit the shelves last summer, I couldn't get through it fast enough. It was a savage, fun mashup with interesting characters, great action, a cool world (well, pretty hot and muggy, actually), and wonderful yet simple art accompanying the chapter headings. I tore through it like an allosaurus slicing through a duckbill haunch. And I wanted more.

A couple of months ago, volume two, The Dinosaur Knights, finally arrived, and I giddily gorged on it, and it was every bit as sticky sweet tasty as the first book.

'Knights picks up more-or-less where 'Lords leaves off: Voyvod Karyl continues to gather and train an army to defend the territory of Providence — ostensibly run by a commune of "Gardeners" dedicated to beauty and truth — from attacks by cruel neighbouring nobles. This, despite the fact that some of the ruling council of Gardeners are becoming increasingly strident and narrow in their definitions of beauty and truth, undermining their leader, putting Karyl on trial, and taking a greater degree of control over the lives of their region's citizens. Dinosaur master Rob Korrigan continues to support Karyl, acting as spymaster even as he tends to his stable of monsters — whose ranks are swollen by the arrival of a squad of huge triceratops and their fighting crews. Soon the army is joined by imperial princess Melodia (still fleeing the brutal intrigues of the court), who has to survive the hidden dangers of Garden politics, as well as the challenges of becoming the leader of Karyl's light cavalry. But fending-off scheming Gardeners and attacks from local nobles is the least of Karyl's worries: the imperial crusade, under the command of Melodia's lover, Jaume, has now been ordered to scour Providence of the Gardeners. To do this, Jaume has to deal with fanatical priests, the presence of his court rival, Duke Falk, and the on-site supervision of his unpredictable emperor. And it gets worse: one of the feared Grey Angels of legend has re-appeared, raising an army of mindless servants to raze humanity as punishment for supposedly sinning against the gods. Karyl, Melodia, Rob, and their people are caught between the hammer and the anvil as they flee the growing, ravenous horde towards the imperial army.

I really can't say enough about how much I loved The Dinosaur Knights. As popcorn reads of science fiction and fantasy go, this is a huge popcorn ball covered in bourbon-spiked caramel with chunks of toffee and macadamia nuts dipped in fine chocolate. Great characters, a lush, well-built world, and fucking knights riding fucking dinosaurs!!!

This book was so enjoyable that it pains me to say something bad about it. But it has to be said. While there's nothing wrong with the story, the proofreading job done in this book was a mess: glaringly obvious mistakes all over the place that show the proofreader really wasn't paying attention. The problems were so bad that they frequently pulled me out of the story. And a story this good shouldn't suffer because the editing staff dropped the ball (and let it roll right off the court and into the grease catcher beneath the chip wagon in the parking lot).

That said, Victor Milan has told one hell of a tale with The Dinosaur Knights, and I'm waiting eagerly for the next instalment.


Enter the Janitor
by Josh Vogt

Is it wrong to review a book when you've only read less than half of it? Some might say so. Not me. If the book was bad enough to make me give up on it after 14 chapters, I ought to be able to tell you so. And I will.

Think of Men in Black, or RIPD, or any other science fiction or fantasy story using the trope of the kid who doesn't know what's really going on with the world who suddenly has the curtain pulled back, signs up for the Weirdness Law Enforcement Bureau or whatever it's called, and is taken under the wing of the crusty veteran. Hijinks ensue. Evil is defeated. Add hints of "the chosen one" plot device (or, at least, I was picking up a little of that vibe by the time I got as far as I did), and wrap the goodguys in the guise of janitors fighting evil/chaos/whatever-is-represented-by-dirt-grime-and-all-that-is-gross, and you've got Enter the Janitor.

In this case, we have Dani, a college student who is nearly incapacitated by her germ phobia, in the role of rookie/chosen one, and Ben as the gruff, wizened master. Who lives in his van. And is depicted on the book's cover as looking somewhat like Bruce Campbell, but within the pages is more reminiscent of Scruffy Scruffington, the janitor at Planet Express on Futurama. Dani's in the vicinity when Ben slugs it out with a drain clog demon or whatever in the library washroom and then, well, you know the rest because the plot (at least as far as I got) is standard fare, more-or-less.

In short (because it's just not worth while to go long with ETJ), the story's boring inside its well-trodden concept, the characters are uninspired, it tries like hell to be funny but fails completely, and it comes off as prissy when it (frequently) makes reference to the fact that the characters aren't allowed to swear. Dani tries, but rather than allowing her to get in some cussing in italics to show what she's thinking rather than saying, we're treated to a row of asterisks. It's not like this is the Victorian era, where swearing just wasn't allowed in print. Unless this is a YA book (and I don't see any such branding on my copy), we're all adults here and I think we can handle a "fuck" or "shit" or two. Worse, for some reason it takes Dani a couple of pages before she realizes that nothing's coming out of her mouth when she tries to swear, which makes no sense. I don't know about you, but if I was good and mad and launched into some creative metaphors, I'd realize right away if the desired foul language didn't actually make it out of my mouth when everything else did. Characters should either be allowed to swear or not, but don't go dancing around the issue in chapter after chapter like some smarmy brat needling the kid next to him in a Sunday school class.

Maybe Enter the Janitor cleans up its act in the rest of the book, but with the first 120-odd pages being as lacklustre as they are, I can't be bothered to find out.


The Dragon and the Stars
edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi

Six years ago, this is the book I'd thought I'd wanted to read. I've mentioned previously that I love short story anthologies showcasing talent from a given country or cultural group. They provide a window into the minds of a people, allowing us a glimpse of their history, the issues that are important to them, and their dreams, aspirations, and nightmares. Ideally, you also get to read some cracking good science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which may have perspectives you haven't considered before. Back in 2010, my wife and I were travelling in Asia — we had to attend a friend's wedding in Bali, and since we were flying all the way over there, we scheduled a couple of weeks in my wife's home of Hong Kong, and tacked-on an extra week to see the sights in Beijing. The whole time we were in Hong Kong, I scoured every bookstore we came across that had an English section to see if it had any anthologies of translated Chinese sf short stories. After all, if we were going to be travelling in the region, it would have been nice to read its particular flavour of nerdity. Sadly, I was out of luck. I was only able to find the usual American and British sf offerings in English. Nothing from the home team (the stores might have had stuff in basic or traditional Chinese text, but that wouldn't have done me any good — my Chinese is limited to speaking a few words and phrases in Cantonese, nothing written).  Fast-forward to 2015, where I stumbled across The Dragon and the Stars at a bookseller's stall at a convention. An anthology devoted to showcasing authors from the Chinese diaspora? I thought it would be exactly the kind of collection I was looking for!

Unfortunately, it didn't meet my expectations in terms of quality.

To be fair, there were a couple of very good stories in it. Tony Pi sets the bar high, starting the collection with the excellent "The Character of the Hound", about a man who allows himself to be possessed by a dog spirit (although perhaps "possessed" is too strong a word, it may be more accurate to say that he plays host to, and partners with, the entity) to help him chase down a thief. "Threes", by EL Chen, is about a woman feeling somewhat adrift in life in part because of the disappearance of her mother years before, who comes home to a pair of squabbling sisters and a father who may be losing his mind — or who may just realize that his lost wife may be returning in an unusual way. A sensitive, well-crafted story that's worth the read. Brenda W Clough's steampunkish "The Water Weapon" was funny and had some punch. And Ken Liu's "Beidou" was a smart, solid read.

That said, the bulk of the contributions to the anthology were mediocre and forgettable, and two entries were flat-out terrible — so bad that it's not worth any time complaining about them in detail.

I'd really hoped for a stronger collection, but The Dragon and the Stars just didn't deliver. And so, while I won't say I'm back to square one where I was six years ago, my search for a really good anthology of Chinese sf (whether it's from people of Chinese heritage from around the world, written in English, or whether it's something that's been translated from contributors living in China) continues.


by Jack McDevitt

Several months ago, I was sent an ARC of Jack McDevitt's Thunderbird to review for SF Signal. While I read the book soon after receiving it, admittedly I procrastinated on writing the review and didn't send anything to the 'Signal before the site took its final bow. So, now I'm finally getting around to it.

Thunderbird is the sequel to McDevitt's 1996 novel Ancient Shores, about the discovery of an ancient boat — and then a star gate — of unknown origin in North Dakota on traditional First Nations territory. In Thunderbird, the local Sioux band council has maintained a tight control over the star gate, even as pressure mounts from the US government and the rest of the world to gain access to the device and the planets it's linked to, while others are calling for its destruction. While the Reserve's chairman recruits scientists (and a local talk show host) to join his people on their explorations of the garden world Eden, the tunnels of the Labyrinth, the derelict space station adrift beyond the edge of the Milky Way, and the other destinations each of these connects to (some of which prove to be inhabited), residents of a couple of surrounding communities begin to have encounters with a mysterious, telepathic cloud creature that's made its way through the gate to Earth.

I'm on the fence about Thunderbird. Didn't love it. Didn't hate it.

On one hand, it kept me reasonably interested and entertained during a six hour plane flight at the end of November that had no seat-back TV/movie service. The story has a solid opening that piqued my interest, and it wasn't hard to get up to speed in a world and set of circumstances already set in motion by a first novel that I hadn't read. In terms of characters, Sioux Chairman James Walker is a thoughtful, even-keeled, personable guy who's so well crafted that he reminded me a lot of a couple of Chiefs, elders, band councillors and treaty negotiators I've met over the years. I also liked the detail that McDevitt puts into his worlds, and the fact that not all of them are safe to just walk into. And there are what look to be a couple of quick references to Farmer's Riverworld and Clarke's Childhood's End that work nicely.

On the other hand, there's a lot about the book that's problematic. The dialogue is often clunky. There are also frequent references to the amount of security staff guarding the stargate site and escorting the exploration teams, but we don't see any signs of decontamination procedures when people come back from their expeditions, or security monitoring of the departure room, or even cameras taken to document the trips to other planets. There's a lot that could go undetected and undocumented, and if the worst that happened was that Louie the cloud creature managed to slip through from the Labyrinth world and cause a few car accidents, these people got very lucky.

Aside from the lack of even a cheap GoPro camera on the expeditions, the staffing is a little weird. Sure, I can understand that April the chemist, who's been the Band's go-to scientist for a while, might be kept on as the scientific lead for a while, but you'd think that when the bridge was discovered on Eden the team would pull back until they could get an anthropologist on board to take over. Especially when the bridge leads them to a first contact situation with the "gorilla" aliens (let's call a spade a spade: the author's brought Big Foot into the story, so now all we need is either Steve Austin or Wild Boy to make an appearance) and their culture.

In terms of the science teams, I was disappointed that on a couple of occasions, McDevitt describes two of the scientists as being overweight and unhealthy. Fat shaming? Really? Just because someone's overweight, doesn't mean they're unhealthy. Describing one character this way would be fine, because not everyone carrying extra weight is capable of going on a hike, but both heavy characters (when only two people in book are described that way)? That's unfair, ignorant, and just plain lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy writing, the story could have done without the President's Chief of Staff, Admiral Bonner. Sure, this is a story that, in some ways, suffers from a lack of antagonists, but Bonner is more of a caricature than a real character: a stereotypical, narrow-minded military man who's only contribution to the stargate discussion is to insist that everything has to be blown up just to be safe. While his role was limited to brief walk-ons to harass the President about the need to make things go kablooey, he was just so ridiculously single-minded as to be unbelievable, and that detracted from the overall believability of the story.

Then there's Brad Hollister, the local radio talk show host. I have no problems with the way Brad is portrayed as a person — as the non-expert on the off-world expeditions, his character is perfect for the reader to identify with. But the descriptions of Brad as a professional broadcaster just don't match with the real world. There's a section where Brad is described as feeling out of place when acting in a news capacity, and doesn't think of himself as a journalist. As a former radio news journalist, I've met several talk show hosts in my time, and none of them would ever feel out of place gathering or presenting the news — or anywhere near a mic, story, or potential audience for matter — and they certainly wouldn't think that they weren't journalists, especially if they were involved with an event as significant as a stargate and exploring other worlds. Talk show hosts are a pretty confident bunch when they're doing their jobs. There's also the bit where Brad returns from an off-world expedition and proceeds to hold a news conference outside the stargate building. Um, no. No self-respecting reporter — or talkshow host, for that matter — especially one working for the local radio station, would ever come back with that kind of a scoop and just start sharing with the other media outlets. A real reporter, anchor, or talkshow host would step off the stargate pad, go to a corner, take out his/her cell phone, and file live to his/her own station first, before coming out and dealing with the competition — and dealing with the competition would at best involve giving details only after first filing for his/her own station, and, at worst would be to smile and say "You'll hear everything on our 4:00 (or whenever) newscast on KLYM!" because being a nice guy is fine as long as your station gets the story first, or you won't be working for that station for very long. Given the attitude of Brad's boss, this approach should be as true in the book as it is in real life.

Then there are the problems with Chairman Walker. For starters, he seems to do a lot of unilateral decision making. Now, I know, different First Nations have different governance policies and traditions, but you'd think he'd consult with his Band Council or a few elders before making half the decisions he does over the course of the book. Especially when it comes to his final choice (super mega ultra spoilage here) to permanently disable the stargate by tossing one of its components into Lake Superior. I just don't buy it that he'd do something that drastic on his own. But, really, I don't believe he'd do something like this at all. Right from the start, Walker is written as a smart, careful guy who makes sure he has a good sense of what's going on around him. The reality is that with a technology this advanced, important, and controversial, the stargate and Walker (and probably everyone else involved with the artifact and science teams) would be heavily monitored by human surveillance teams and electronics (including spy satellites) from every intelligence gathering organization within the US, as well as by other governments, and probably more than a few corporations and other NGOs. Walker wouldn't be able to sneeze without it being documented in detail by several agencies. So there's no way he'd be able to get a piece of stargate equipment out of the artifact, off the Reserve, and into the lake without it being known and without his every movement being tracked to within a metre. He might be able to dump the thing in the lake — for about a day until a recovery expedition was mounted by someone else. And the thing is, until the end of the book anyway, Walker's smart enough to know this, so he wouldn't waste time on a corny and ineffective scheme like this. Again, lazy writing. The book also says at a few points that Walker is feeling a lot of pressure to do something about the stargate, but it doesn't do a very good job of showing the reader how that pressure is manifesting. Sure, there are a few phone calls/enounters with the President, but the President is such a nice guy about it that there's no feeling of urgency to back up his words. There's a single meeting with the Band Council, and a meeting with a corporate CEO, but that's it. There are a lot of better, more visual and thus visceral ways that "pressure" could have been illustrated: new people suddenly showing up in town and following Walker and other Band members around, something to show that his phone was being tapped, or that his email was being intercepted, or government helicopters patrolling the local airspace constantly, or any number of things that would do a better job of illustrating an increasing level of attention from outsiders and an urgency about the future than simple complaints from the Chairman.

And that's a problem with the story as a whole: there really isn't any urgency to any of it. Maybe for a moment when one of the science expeditions runs into a scary creature on a desolate planet, but only for a moment. Then the pacing eases back to its normal, gentle flow, and the plot continues to meander back and forth between different characters and different situations that are interesting without being compelling. In essence, the story wanders like Louie the cloud creature, and, like it, may generate a little excitement from time to time, but mostly is just inoffensive and just kind of there. I certainly didn't mind reading Thunderbird, but I just can't see myself ever picking it up again.


Dark Eden
by Chris Beckett

I stumbled across Chris Beckett's Dark Eden entirely by accident back in 2014. Apparently, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2013, but I didn't see it at any of my local bookstores. In '14, I was in London for WorldCon, and one night, after having dinner with some friends, had been wandering the streets of Soho in the rain (no, we hadn't just gone to Lee Ho Foot's for a big dish of beef chow mein, although that would have been tasty) when we ducked into a bookstore (can't remember which one), and Dark Eden caught my eye up in the sf section. And I'm so glad it did.

On the world of Eden, a planet that doesn't get sunlight, where the only light comes from the glowing fruit of geothermal-heat-fed trees and the animals that live among them, the members of the Family live, more-or-less, in contentment. Descended from two ship-wrecked astronauts (one, a cop, the other, a thief), these 530-odd people live a hunter-gatherer existence in a couple of different tribes spread out across their forested valley, practicing a kind of free love semi-matriarchal society and worshipping the artifacts left by their progenitors. Some are normal, while others have deformities no doubt caused by their limited gene pool. One of the hunters, a young man named John, isn't content with their life. The rituals ring hollow to him, the tribal elders seem small-minded and petty,  he wants to explore beyond their valley, and he's becoming more concerned about how the Family keeps growing, while their food sources are becoming scarce. And John isn't the only one: Tina's interested in John, but she's dissatisfied with aspects of the Family's life as well, and concerned with an increasingly ugly turn its politics is taking; and Gerry the crippled genius has reasoned that things will change whether anyone wants them to or not. When John causes a scandal at the Family's annual religious gathering, he's exiled, and Tina, Gerry, and a few other youths and children join him. But living on the fringes of the valley isn't enough, when a thuggish "batface" (someone suffering from a severe hare lip) named David forms a gang that uses intimidation and violence in a growing bid to take over, John, Tina and the others have to undertake a dangerous journey into the cold dark wilderness to try to find another home.

Dark Eden is a superb piece of writing. Its beautiful, dangerous, fairy light world of gloom (like a rave without the uninspired techno music, or a gym light only by Christmas trees, or a bunch of kids playing with flashlights and glowsticks in a dark basement — that is, if a basement or gym or rave warehouse was also populated by six-legged reindeer, and singing black panthers were stalking everyone and everything) is a fresh setting that's detailed and believable. The story taps into elements of Genesis and Exodus — with a generous dash of Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome flavouring — and doesn't pull any punches about what would happen to people and an ecosystem in this kind of situation. Beckett's characters are well-rounded, evolving, and believable. While John is at times Adam, Moses, a kind of Cain, a great hunter, something of an inventor, and a visionary, he's also (as Tina takes note) stubborn, deliberately emotionally distant, and sometimes manipulative and arrogantly single-minded. And yet, even he grows, learning that sometimes it's best to run rather than fight. Tina changes from a moon-eyed girl chasing after her would-be boyfriend to an astute leader in her own right. Even David, the cruel boss of the Guards, changes from merely being a dismissible asshole in the tribe to an up-and-coming tyrant who cunningly realizes that what's really a simple scandal with a rebellious teenager can be his vehicle for taking power, changing society, and getting pretty much anything he wants.

I can't wait to get into Dark Eden's sequel, Mother of Eden (which I ordered a little while ago and, having arrived, has now moved to the top of my to-be-read pile), and the upcoming conclusion to the series, Daughter of Eden.


Saint's Blood
by Sebastien de Castell

A couple of months ago, I was offered an early copy of Saint's Blood — the newest instalment in Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoats series — for review, and  I jumped on it like a fat kid on a Smartie (Okay, admittedly, I am the fat kid, and I would, in fact, jump on a Smartie if it fell out of the box onto the counter or a clean floor — within the 5-second rule limit — in front of me. I mean, come on... Smarties! They're better than M&Ms and you can make the box into a single-note harmonica!). I've greatly enjoyed the first two books (Traitor's Blade and Knight's Shadow) and would have snapped this one up anyway. The fact that it was free was nice, but that's not enough to influence my opinion of a book. So what did I think?

Loads of fun!

This time around, just when Falcio, Kest, Brasti and their companions think they should be closer to restoring the monarchy, order, and justice to the strife-torn land of Tristia, things (of course) spiral increasingly out of control. Someone is torturing and murdering saints, and whipping the peasants into a frenzy of zealotry. Worse: those behind the killings have found a way to drain the saints of their mystical powers and use that energy to supercharge fanatical assassins hellbent on killing Greatcoats — and anyone else standing in their way. Even Tristia's gods aren't safe: the mastermind behind the religious revolution has figured out a way to create a new god, one that will force the land to submit to the new order. And so Falcio and the others, battered, beaten, outnumbered, outgunned, and on the run, have to figure out how to protect their young queen and defeat an opponent powerful enough to make a god. Oh yeah, and there's some cool cane-fighting too.

As usual, de Castell serves-up a story heaped with action and humour, seasoned with heart and intelligence. Reading it, you flinch at every slice of a blade through skin during the duels, you feel Falcio's mind scrabble around like a rat as he tries to figure his way out of one trap or fight or mistake or another, and you feel the confusion and frustration of the Greatcoats as everything they've started to rebuild falls apart and their friends are brutalized with seemingly nothing to be done to help them. You also feel the frustration and sad resignation as two lovers grow apart. But there's the excitement of the chase. There are the smiles as Brasti and the others dig at each other with jibes as merciless as steel. And there's the satisfaction of seeing Tristia move a little closer towards redemption, even if the way it gets there isn't quite how Falcio imagined it would.

The only problem I had with the book was the jarring effect created by the use of first person narration in the chapters dealing with the Greatcoat gang's first encounter with the new god. Normally, riding shotgun with Falcio through this story (and the previous novels as well) works just fine, but when the group has its initial confrontation with the god, Falcio goes out of commission for a while; when he wakes up, the god is gone, and we don't really get a full sense of what was involved that resulted in the god leaving. We're left with the feeling that this newly-minted deity and his handler just kinda wandered off. Granted, that might be sufficient for Falcio in terms of what he experiences as he wakes up to a suddenly much lower threat level, but I don't think so — he doesn't seem like the kind of guy that would be content with waking up and finding out that the big bad has just exited stage left — and it's certainly not sufficient for the reader. In a confrontation like that, it just doesn't seem believable that the god and his handler would say "Well, that pesky Falcio's face-down in the dirt. Kinda takes the fun out of things. Forget about everyone else standing around, let's go get a sandwich or something. Yeah, a sammy sounds good right about now. Maybe liver and onions." and then that Falcio would come back on the scene and not really think anything of it. Admittedly, the bad guy seems to take the greatest amount of satisfaction from tweaking the nose of Falcio in particular, but you'd think that before they moseyed-off into the woods that they'd smite one or two of the other goody-goodies in their path (beyond the damage already done) just for good measure. Possibly a maiming, or even just a wee little permanently-psychologically-damaging snide remark or something. But nope, they just kinda leave, leaving the Greatcoats et al still on their feet just kinda defaulting to fretting over those lying in the dirt without any real questioning of, or explaining, how they're all actually still alive and not still staring down a petulant incarnation of asshattery. It's not a scene that's weak enough to torpedo the entire novel, but it is one that's annoying enough to pull a reader out of the flow of the story for a bit. At the very least, it needs more filling-in-the-blanks/while-you-were-away storytelling from the supporting characters when Falcio's interacting with them again. Certainly more than we're given, which is pretty much nothing. A story this good deserves a little more backstory from the supporting cast to get around the weakness of the first person style when the narrator's attention was elsewhere.

But, like any good duelist, the story shakes off this momentary mistake and gets back to the business of circling in towards its final satisfaction. And it is an immensely satisfying book. The only question is, now that the Greatcoats and their queen have dealt with a god, what could they possibly face next that could be any worse? The way the world seems to like to beat up Falcio, there's no doubt that something worse will be coming soon enough. And, as mean as it sounds, I can't wait to see it.


Children of Earth and Sky
by Guy Gavriel Kay

A poor, young artist is summoned to the most dangerous commission of his life: painting the portrait of the Khalif of a powerful and hostile empire across the sea. A noblewoman tries to create a place for herself in the world as forces beyond her control tear the ground out from under her feet again and again. A young archer seeks whatever opportunities she can get that will help her avenge her family. A fledgeling soldier tries to decide what is right as he's swept through the challenges of training camp politics, and warfare. And the son of a merchant searches for wealth beyond his coin purse and the next big deal. As two mighty empires in Guy Gavriel Kay's historical analogue world crash into one another, people from the middle and minor powers on the sidelines (his quarter twist towards fantasy renditions of Venice and Dubrovnik and others going about their business in the shadows of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires) do whatever they can to survive, and, if possible, find happiness.

When you read a Guy Gavriel Kay story, you know you're going to get two things: a set of thoughtful, sensitive stories about believable people (sometimes the mighty, sometimes the humble) living amidst interesting times; and a meditation on life. As with Kay's other tales, Children of Earth and Sky has a tidal ebb and flow between the scrutiny of those lives — each like a wave coming in to shore — and a pulling back to a philosophical mediation (sometimes a humorous musing, sometimes a sad reflection) about what it means to be. Making this rhythmic movement in and out of the plot isn't something that's easily done. To pull back and talk in broad terms about life means temporarily sidelining characters we want to see more of (I'd guess all of us have experienced this in novels that follow the points of view of multiple characters: we enjoy or identify with one or two more than the others, and we want to spend more time with them, and when attention shifts to another character, as much as the story may still be good, we none-the-less can't wait to get back to our favourites). It also radically changes the pace of the plot. And yet, Kay manages this deftly, giving us enough time with the characters to grow to love them (mostly), and then pulling back in such a way that we don't resent it, because those general meditations on life become a kind of literary gentle hand on the shoulder, helping us understand how we feel about what's happening and how these events illustrate the way of the world, and telling us it's okay to feel the way we do.

As for the characters themselves, in his usual fashion, Kay teases us with a supporting cast who walk into and out of the story briefly (and yet are three dimensional, believable, and have the power to make an emotional impression on the reader) either to engage the clutch of protagonists and then go about their lives, or, in some cases, to start down important paths, only to die. As much as we may want to see more of some of these characters (Give me more Ambassador Orso Valerii! Who else pictured him as a younger Londo Mollari, still unburdened by a life of political failures and the long, slow retreat of a dying empire?), the richness of their brief appearances makes Kay's world more believable, and gives greater weight to the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the protagonists, as well as the movements of the world they have to deal with. And, of course, the protagonists themselves are as fully rounded as people you'd meet in your life (moreso in some cases). You may not know a Danica who's looking for the first opportunity to go out with a bow and arrow and execute everyone from a certain country/faith that she holds responsible for the deaths of her family, but you probably do know a young person who's driven towards a certain goal and is prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to get it. You may not know a Pero Villani on his way to paint the portrait of a foreign leader who could kill him, but you probably do know someone who's been manipulated by leaders and managers for their own ends, who will suffer even if he doesn't make the wrong move, while the powerbrokers who put him in that position remain untouchable. We learn where these characters come from, see how their situations have shaped their attitudes and goals, and watch as they grow over the course of the story — or beyond, throughout their lives, as each character's story is tied up. Not necessarily neatly — there is real, aching heartbreak in one of the story threads that you wouldn't necessarily expect. But these people's lives are all concluded believably.

I also loved the little throwaway details scattered throughout the book that helped make the world of Children of Earth and Sky feel bigger than just the story, older, and more complete. Things like the little references (in the form of artifacts, and at least one character) to the Byzantine-style empire of the previous era detailed in Kay's other books. There are the two moons. Or the ring of blue fire in the depths of the palace, or the spectral voice in the old temple, reminding us that Kay's world is a place where ghosts are real, where there's still magic (if fading magic at that) and that as much as it might seem like our Earth in the past, it isn't. Not quite.

The success of Children of Earth and Sky is that you don't want it to end, and yet, you find yourself content with its ending. Again, it's that narrative hand on the shoulder giving a reassuring squeeze because endings are a part of life, but another part of life is being able to look forward to the next story from Guy Gavriel Kay.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dragon Tales - A Review of Disney's Remake of Pete's Dragon

Disney's original Pete's Dragon means a lot to me. In 1977, when I was 3, it was the first movie my parents took me to see. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember walking through the theatre lobby, waiting in line for popcorn, getting seated and realizing that the movie had already started, but not caring because it was the scene where Pete and Elliot are romping through the apple orchard happy and free. I remember Jim Dale's Doctor Terminus and Red Buttons' Hoagy crooning their deliciously evil song "Every Little Piece", and Elliot going berserk in the boat house, and then saving the day by lighting the lighthouse lamp. It wasn't just my first trip to the movies, it was the story that hatched my life-long love of dragons, and, to some extent, fantasy and science fiction in general.

So I was very, very cautious a while ago when word came out that The Mouse was going to take another crack at this wonderful dragon tale. Sure, the original is a little corny in that classic Disney animated musical kind of way, and its early 1900s setting might be a little lost on an audience of modern kids (and many adults!), but it's also beautiful to look at and, at its heart, is a good story with a lot of heart. In general, as I've mentioned often before, I'm skeptical of remakes of movies that don't need to be remade. But I figured I had to give it a chance. It was going to be, after all, a movie with a dragon in it.

[From this point on, like any old map that warns "Here there be dragons", consider yourself warned: Here there be spoilers!]

This evening, my wife and I went to catch a showing of the new Pete's Dragon at the local bazillionplex, and, I have to say, I really enjoyed it!

In this version, Pete is orphaned in a car accident in the woods at the age of 5, and rescued by a lonely dragon who takes the child under his wing (pun intended). A few years later (this version is set in the early 1980s — almost, but not quite as alien to modern audiences as the Edwardian era of the original), Pete's discovered by a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a bunch of loggers, and taken back to their nearby mill town, causing Elliot, the dragon, to begin a desperate search for the boy. The dragon is disheartened when he finally tracks Pete down and sees that the boy is happy with the humans who have taken him in. When Pete tries to introduce Elliot to his new family (which includes Grace's father, Meacham, played by Robert Redford), the dragon is captured by one of the loggers. Pete must then find a way to free Elliot, and the friends then face the challenge of making a new life in a world that won't let them stay together.

It's a sweet story. Pete and Elliot have some wonderful moments together, and Redford's account of his encounter with a dragon in the forest years before is, itself, magical.

The Weta special effects team has done a gorgeous job with Elliot, although he too (like the story itself) has been reconceptualized. In the old movie, Elliot was a tubby, green version of a Chinese dragon, rendered in classical Disney animation, with stunted wings and no barbels or chin beard, who, despite only vocalizing in grunts, croons, whistles, clicks, and growls, was clearly understood by the humans around him as though he was speaking English (likely due to some kind of telepathy). He was also able to turn invisible. The new Elliot retains the invisibility trick, but his wings are much larger, and his appearance is furry and like a canine-inspired western dragon, and there's no telepathy — humans discern his meaning from body language, the tone of his vocalizations, and the emotion in his eyes. The new, photoreal Elliot, armed with an array of sharp teeth, is also much more intimidating than his predecessor. A thoroughly different dragon, but this one will do nicely.

I also loved the cloudscapes in the background during the forest scenes at the beginning of the film, and in the mountains at the end. Admittedly, it could have been my eyes playing tricks, trying to find patterns where none actually exist, but I'm pretty sure that in several of those shots, some of the clouds looked like dragons. One cloud in the beginning when Elliot and Pete first soared really high looked a lot like the old Elliot. A trick of my mind, maybe, but this is a Disney film with a Weta special effects crew, and those teams have proven time and again over the years how deeply concerned they are with details. I suspect that what I thought I saw was actually there (cue Lampy/Mickey Rooney's "I swear I saw a dragon!" song from the original); that they have intentionally seeded the cloudscapes with outlines of dragons.

I also enjoyed the nod the special effects team made to the original, keeping Elliot's flying style as a kind of twisting bumble through the air (though his inability to land properly in the new version was a bit annoying).

It was also nice to see Elliot get to spend the rest of his life with a dragon family of his own at the end, rather than just kind of mosey off to wander the Earth alone, occasionally helping other people, like the dog in The Littlest Hobo (thought I was going to make a Pulp Fiction/Kung Fu reference, didn't ya?).

Where the new movie suffers is that it has a much weaker story and characterization than the original.

First, Grace, despite being kind and loving, is lacking in any real strength. She's a forest ranger and (as we see from her introductory scene) interested in protecting wildlife, but she does nothing but stand on the sidelines ineffectually wringing her hands when Elliot is captured. A wild creature, never before catalogued, in a forest she's tasked to protect, and she takes no preventative measures when it is taken down in an alarmingly brutal fashion and dragged off to be imprisoned in a dark mill warehouse in chains. Let's compare Grace to Nora (played by Helen Reddy), the lighthouse keeper's daughter, from the original, who takes in Pete and is every bit as ferocious as a dragon protecting its hoard when she defends Pete from his evil adopted parents, the Gogans. The Gogans try physical intimidation, and Nora threatens to pound them. They cite their adoption contract, claiming ownership of the boy, and she refuses to accept that it has any kind of authority and basically dares them to do anything. The new version of Pete's Dragon would have been so much better — and believable — if Grace had been more like Nora and immediately rounded on the loggers during the capture scene and threatened to bring down the full force of whatever animal protection laws (or relevant fish and game jurisdiction) that were in place in the 80s, maybe made an arrest if she had the authority, or made a phonecall afterwards to a well-funded and highly visible animal protection NGO like Greenpeace. Instead, Grace is too busy looking weepy.

And speaking of threats, a huge problem with this film is that there's no clearly-defined villain. In the original, we had both the Gogans and Dr Terminus. The Gogans were abusive and worked Pete like a slave, and probably would have eventually killed him one way or another if they'd succeeded in recapturing him. Terminus, the snake oil salesman, wanted to kill Elliot, cut him to pieces, and sell off "every little piece" to make "money, money, money by the pound!" These were all awful people who represented a real threat to our heroes. By contrast, the closest thing we have to a villain in the modern version is Gavin (played by Karl Urban), one of the owners of the logging/mill company, who is concerned for Pete's welfare, treats everyone else nicely enough, and just wants to capture Elliot (Meacham even confronts Gavin about capturing the dragon without really knowing what he wants to do with it). So Gavin's kind of a dick, but not remotely evil. Which completely puts out the fire of any kind of serious threat to Pete or Elliot. Sure, we know that if Gavin gets his way, Elliot's certainly not going to be enjoying his freedom in the forest, but there's no indication that his heart is going to be removed and "wrapped up in a ribbon with a string" like Terminus would have done. Sure, in the modern era, we like to see characters, even villains, more well-rounded to be believable; and yeah, I can see why Disney wouldn't want to make Gavin a classic bad guy because they clearly don't want to alienate loggers or mill workers or their families who could be in the paying audience (Disney's also obviously shying-away from making much of a statement about logging — especially 1980s-style logging — and its environmental impacts), but without an antagonist who's clearly on the wrong side of the moral compass (as opposed to Gavin's mere self-centred brashness), there isn't the same ability to generate tension, nor is there the moral payoff when the goodguys prevail. About the closest thing we get in this movie to a real badguy is the deer that causes the car accident in the beginning that kills Pete's parents. My theory is that this Bambi, lashing out in blind vengeance against any human he comes across to settle the score for the death of his mother. If there's any justice in the Disney world, hopefully Elliot ate him sometime later (look at the big green guy's canines: he's clearly enjoying venison and other game every couple of days) and saved a haunch to roast for his new friend's dinner.

The other major weakness in the film is that there are no big life-or-death stakes. As mentioned above, Elliot's imprisoned here with an uncertain future, but it's not a given that he's going to die, like Terminus' plan in the original. Pete loses his parents in the opening act, but that's just the set-up. The rest of the film doesn't create any impression that he's in danger. Life with Elliot is good. Life with Grace, Natalie, Jack and Meacham is also good. The prospect of being taken by Social Services is obviously not as good as life with Grace et al, but the story doesn't impune the foster system in any way (again, Disney's probably stepping carefully here so as not to offend anyone working in Social Services, or any of the many good foster parents or adoptive parents out there). So the prospect of losing Elliot is definitely sad, but in no way holds the same kind of horror that was in store for Pete in the original if the Gogans had their way. Also, there's no risk to anyone else in this modern version. The original upped the ante by having a ship — carrying Nora's long-lost fiance (who, if I remember, had been injured and afflicted with amnesia in some distant port until Elliot found him and cured him) among its crew —pushed by a storm towards the rocks near the town, and the lighthouse's lamp disabled by a wet wick. Elliot had to do more than just free himself and save Pete — he had to relight the lamp to save the sailors from dying and Nora from losing her fiancĂ© once and for all. The closest we get to a big save in the new version is Elliot rescuing Grace and her boyfriend Jack (in a really vague — and this is stretching it — kind of full circle nod back to the fatal car accident in the beginning), which doesn't have quite the same punch. It would have been better (and more symbolically appropriate) if he'd had to use his fire to create a firebreak to save the town from a forest fire or something — anything to make the stakes bigger than just one family.

But for all its failings, the new Pete's Dragon manages to soar, and I'd certainly watch it again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sebastien De Castell Book Launch in Vancouver

If you're in the Vancouver area and looking for something interesting to do Thursday night, swing by White Dwarf Books for the launch and signing event for Sebastien De Castell's newest book, Saint's Blood.

Thursday, June 23
7:00 pm
White Dwarf Books
(3715 West 10th Ave, Vancouver)
free admission
-and there's a door prize!-

I've enjoyed the heck out of the previous two novels his Greatcoats series (Traitor's Blade and Knight's Shadow), so I'm looking forward to this one. They're fun, rollicking, Three Musketeers-inspired stories set in a fantasy world where the Greatcoats — the former wandering police/judiciary force of a now-overthrown and murdered king — try to reunite their realm under a just ruler, while dealing with squabbling, violent lords and their knights who enjoy the chaos just fine, thank you very much. Throw in encounters with "saints" (people of exceptional ability in their chosen pursuit — like swordplay — who possess near-godlike powers), assassins, the occasional monstrous horse, and sometimes the need to eat "the candy", and these heroes have their work cut out for them.

So buckle your swash and come on down to White Dwarf this Thursday evening!

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Salvaged from the Signal: Thoughts on the BSG Episode "Maelstrom"

This is the final item I've salvaged from SF Signal (recently retired from the 'net with honour). Over the years, I submitted comments to many of the discussion threads beneath posts and Mind Melds on the site, but I think, on the balance, few were worth keeping. This is an exception.

One of the best TV shows in the last few years was the new Battlestar Galactica (though some would complain it went far enough off the rails in its last season to lose that status). It was a story that took a hard, unflinching look at the lives of people facing a hard situation: life as survivors on the run after an apocalypse/genocide. It also portrayed how they died. Sometimes those deaths were suicides.

One episode, "Maelstrom", depicted the apparent suicide of ace Viper pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. After allusions to a rough life, she survived the Colonial apocalypse, followed by years of more-or-less non-stop daily battle defending the fleet against Cylon attacks, with the added weight of various personal conflicts in what passed for down-time. Unsurprisingly (to me, anyway), Kara bottoms-out. While flying a mission above a planet, she decides to fly her fighter into what appears to be a violent storm, giving the impression that she's ended her life. Ultimately (and remember, the show's been over for years, so don't go whining about spoilers), we find out in later episodes that Starbuck survives... or respawns/reboots, or whatever, but not knowing that would happen when "Maelstrom" aired, the character's apparent end hit audiences like a Cylon Centurion's metal fist to the jaw.

This was not the first portrayal of suicide on the show (Boomer attempted to end her life fairly early on), and it wouldn't be the last (Dee's tragic death was one of the most heartbreaking on the show), but when "Maelstrom" aired, it really hit a nerve with fans. At the time, one of the SF Signal contributors posted a piece about it (I'd share the link, but the page has been deactivated), and while there were some thoughtful comments afterwards, there were some people in the community who reacted fairly harshly. Reading these comments, I became a little alarmed at the lack of understanding and empathy in some of them and thought I had to weigh-in. See, over the years, I've had a number of friends who were suicidal. Some of them attempted. And in a few cases, I had to support them in their moments of crisis until they were in a safer frame of mind. So this hit close to home. Additionally, at the time I was working for the local crisis centre/distress line, so I knew a lot about the problems in our society around discussing suicide: about how much stigma there is around talking about it, about the need for empathy when talking about it, and about how many people have no idea of the complexities and difficulties that are involved when someone is considering suicide. And I knew that it was entirely possible that someone out there who was suicidal could have been reading that post and those comments, and that some of the harsh criticisms of Starbuck, and of Ron Moore and his writers for tackling the issue, might have had a harmful effect on them. Something needed to be said. So I gave it some thought, talked with a few people to get some more to think about, and then added my two cents to the discussion.

The entire discussion thread would have been way too long to copy, so I've just included my comment here (occasional late night-induced typos and spelling errors and all), for what it's worth:

I think Moore and his writers have put a lot of thought into the presentation of Starbuck's suicide. Putting aside speculations about her supposed "destiny", the writers have deliberately tackled the very human tragedy of suicide head-on with this episode as part of their efforts to create and develope realistic characters and a believable story line.

Starbuck's decision to kill herself came as no surprise. The story lines have been building her death by suicide as a real possibility since the beginning. Starbuck has displayed many signs of someone who is at risk of suicide including erratic behaviour and mood swings, increased use of alcohol, depression, sense of worthlessness (the "screwup"), agression, giving things away (the statue of Athena given to Adama shortly before her death), isolation from loved ones, and previous attempts (the dual with "Scar" was clearly more than just an enemy threat elimination or a competition with Kat to be the top gun). Let's not forget also that we've been told she has a history of childhood physical and emotional abuse (Leoben's cross examination in the interrogation room and the doctor Cylon's medical analysis on the Caprica "farm") which she constantly surpresses. And then there's the added stress of the annihilation of the Colonies and possible accompanying survivors' guilt, imprisonment and personal violation on the "farm", imprisonment and psychological torture on New Caprica, the loss of Apollo as a potential lover (during the conversation in the hanger where Lee says things with Dee are great, Kara looks like she's trying to hide the fact that she feels like she's been kicked in the gut), and of course, frequent, intense battle with the enemy. The manipulations of the apparent Leoben who appeared to her in the cockpit were just the last straw. The writers have been showing us a very fragile, much pained Kara Thrace for a long time.

Given this long history of building stressors, the pacing of the episode was entirely appropriate. Once Starbuck began moving in the direction of suicide, things proceeded very quickly. The pacing also puts the audience in the position of many of her friends who may not have seen the suicide coming, or who may not have suspected that she was hurting that much and who are thus all the more shocked at the apparent suddeness of the death.

As to comments to the effect that Starbuck's actions are "selfish and ignoble" or that she is a "quitter", while these are commonly-held opinions about suicide, it's important to understand that suicide is not about death, it's about finding a way out of pain. People who attempt or complete suicide are in so much emotional pain that they're desperate to rid themselves of it and they can't see any other way out. This is why most people who die by suicide send some kind of warning first - at some level they're looking for another option that they can't see. The problem is whether others understand the warning in time, whether they can get the person to help, or whether they see the warning at all. In Starbuck's case, Helo seemed to have some sense that she needed help (he suggests she see the psychiatrist he's taking Hera to) though he didn't see the imminence of the danger. When Kara gives the Athena statue to Adama, that's a warning too, Adama just doesn't see it, especially given Starbuck's quick shift from being downcast to buoyant. In this sense, Starbuck was trying, on some level, right up until she got in the cockpit, to get help. In real life, of those who die by suicide, some are people who we call heroes - police officers, members of the military, firefighters - people under increadible stress, usually on a daily basis. While we, as survivors, are upset when a person kills him/her self, it's important to remember that everyone, including our heroes, has different tolerances for stresses and different degrees of support to overcome those stresses. Moore and his writers have realized this, and in presenting Starbuck as someone in a highly stressful job who dies by suicide, they have created a painfully human character who has reached her limit, doesn't feel she can talk about it, and can't see another way out.

In the end, I think Moore and his writers are to be praised for tackling the issue of suicide in "Maelstrom". They presented Starbuck as a real human being struggling with, and ultimately overwhelmed by, real problems. In dealing with the subject, they have not glorified her death - the crew (even Tye, who's come to blows with Kara) are visibly shaken and grieving, and whatever this "destiny" alluded to is, the fact that it's pushed on Starbuck by Leoben in a time of emotional fragility should make us highly suspicious. We may ask, what is this supposed "destiny", but ultimately, does that make any difference to grieving shipmates who have just lost a friend? In dealing with suicide on BSG, Moore is helping to remove the stigma our culture has placed on its discussion. By talking about the causes and effects of suicide, we become more aware of the problem and are in a better position to stop it. We can reach out to others and offer to help them help themselves overcome these feelings. To that end, SF Signal is to be credited too for bringing this discussion into the open.

If anyone reading this thread is considering suicide, remember that you can get help to overcome these feelings; there are people out there who will listen to you and who will support you and help you explore other options. If you need help, call your local distress line/crisis centre, speak with your doctor, a counsellor or someone you can trust to help you get to safety. If you are a person who is worried a friend or relative may be suicidal, talk with them, ask them if they are thinking of killing themselves, listen to them without judging them, get them to help (such as a doctor or counsellor) who can help them overcome these feelings, do not leave them alone without making sure they have help, and you can also call a distress line/crisis centre for assistance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Salvaged from the Signal: My Review of Shadows of Self

More relics from the secret vaults of SF Signal (gone, but not forgotten): this time, my review of Brandon Sanderson's Shadows of Self.

SHADOWS OF SELF by Brandon Sanderson Will Appeal to Fans of Mystery, Steampunk and Superhero Fiction
Posted on October 6, 2015 by Robin Shantz in Book Review // 0 Comments

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fast-paced mystery that shines with superheroic action and a steampunk feel, but is tarnished a little by choppiness and predictability.
MY RATING:  [5 stars]
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the teeming industrial city of Elendel, where a some people have superpowers thanks to their control of metals, someone is trying to ignite a revolution. Former frontier lawman and steel-pushing metahuman Waxillium Ladrian steps in with his sidekicks to investigate a series of murders that seem tied to the approaching chaos, only to find that all of it may have a deeply personal connection to his past.
PROS: Rip-roaring action in a Victorian-esque urban setting with nods to the Old West — and superheroes!
CONS: The story’s transitions frequently feel choppy while the plot is somewhat predictable.
BOTTOM LINE: A fast-reading rainy-day-at-the-cottage novel that fans of mystery, superhero, and steampunk fiction might enjoy.

Somebody is going to love this novel.
Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson’s newest Mistborn novel, explodes out of the gate with an Old West-style firefight that’s reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In short order, it settles into chases through a steampunky Victorian London-esque metropolis. And then things really pick up, with a murder mystery, political thriller, and race to prevent total societal collapse. If that wasn’t enough, there are also superheroes powered by metal-based magic.
The cast of characters includes troubled hero Waxillium Ladrian, a legendary lawman of the frontier, now leading the genteel life of a rich urban lord in the city of Elendel. Possessing superpowers rooted in a control of steel, Wax still gets involved in crimefighting when he’s not overseeing his business interests or preparing for his upcoming wedding. From time to time, he also talks to the god who’s currently ruling over the world of Scadrial, and that god, Harmony, occasionally talks back — or worse, sends him on a mission. There’s Wax’s sidekick, Wayne, who’s come with him to the big city, and whose abilities to blend in anywhere and gather intelligence are matched only by his talent for banter, a deft hand at mixing cocktails, and skill at rationalizing petty theft. And there’s Marasi Colms, an up-and-coming cop who’s smarter than most of her colleagues, and who uncovers crucial details of the plot while Wax is soaring over the rooftops in frequently fruitless pursuits of bad guys. The trio is also joined by MeLaan (one of the kandra: a race of angelic servants of Harmony — if angels were shapeshifters whose ability to transmogrify involved eating the bones of the dead), and sometimes by Wax’s quietly observant bride-to-be, Steris.
Shadows of Self is a book that grabs elements from different types of stories and throws them into a blender to produce something weird and new (a sort of broad, novel-wide magnification of a scene where Wayne saunters into a bar and decides everyone needs a change). There’s the above-mentioned Western homage, murder investigations that are straight out of a police procedural, and aspects of steampunk and fantasy. There’s also a flashback to Wax’s childhood that’s reminiscent of the Banks children’s visit to the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in Disney’s Mary Poppins, with all of the looming cruelty and menace, but none of the singing. Its presentation of super-powered individuals as somewhat commonplace in this society — and specifically its depiction of most of these metahumans having to do everyday jobs to get by, rather than live the ideal as superheroes or super villains — owes a lot to the Wildcards shared world novels. In general, the book does a very good job of paying tribute to these disparate influences.
Sanderson also effectively ratchets up the tension in the story, with the ugly mood in the streets reflecting the increasing chaos in the halls of power as more of the elite are murdered. As the secretive killer taunts Wax, the characters become more on edge, feeling themselves accelerated towards the destruction of their city.
Yes, someone is going to love this book.
But not me.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate Shadows of Self. I just didn’t particularly care about it.
Maybe it’s not fair to be introduced to a writer’s world through a book that’s the middle instalment of its series. Shadows of Self is not only the sequel to The Alloy of Law, it’s also part of a sequel series to the original Mistborn trilogy. That comes with a lot of plot- and character-related baggage. Sanderson doesn’t always assume that the reader knows everything — there are some brief explanations of various aspects of Scadrial and its history. But there are, nonetheless, plenty of points where those explanations are thin, or where the story takes it as a given that the reader will know what certain things are, such as ethnicities or bloodlines that are casually mentioned, or creatures like the koloss, or the relevance of the nightly mists. And even if one takes it for granted that a little extra work is required to make sense of it all when coming fresh into the middle of a series, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a novel should be able to hold its own as a self-contained story. Shadows of Self was a little too short on detail in too many places to accomplish that, in my estimation.
Additionally, in its quest to be fast-paced, the novel often felt choppy as it transitioned from scene to scene. There were times when it seemed as though the story was laid out more as a screenplay for a movie or TV show than as a novel, which has the luxury of more room to get into details of culture, explain the world a little better, or let an interaction between characters play out or a protagonist have a more full experience of a situation.
I also didn’t find the primary characters engaging. Sanderson includes plenty of scenes and internal monologues that show us different aspects of their personalities, but for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, there was nothing about any of these people that really grabbed me at an emotional level. In many respects, they seem like the types of characters you’d find in standard network TV cop shows, and since that’s well-covered ground, and because I don’t find that genre entertaining, I was indifferent to them.
I wasn’t even terribly interested in just watching the protagonists go through the motions to see how the story played out because I found the plot to be predictable. There isn’t much of a surprise to the end of the story, or to the emotional burden that Wax has to deal with, or to the fates of the other characters.

And so I find myself on the fence. While I didn’t particularly enjoy Shadows of Self, I can appreciate that it has enough of the right elements that others will enjoy it. Maybe this book deserves a steel medal, rather than gold.

Reminder: Guy Gavriel Kay Book Launch in Vancouver

Just a quick reminder to fans of Guy Gavriel Kay in the Metro Vancouver area (and Vancouver Island if you missed the event in Victoria) his local stop on his reading/launch tour for Children of Earth and Sky takes place:

(3214 West 10th Ave, Vancouver)

The event is free.

If you need to buy a copy of Children of Earth and Sky — or if you need to round-out your collection with some of his other novels — White Dwarf Books will have a sales table on-site.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Salvaged from the Signal: Recollections of Memorable Short Stories

Another piece from the archives of the dearly departed SF Signal: part of a Mind Meld.

The Mind Melds were a popular feature on the site where a question on an sf-related topic would be put to a panel of participants, with their written responses collected into a post. These would usually prompt lively discussions among other community members in the comments section, sometimes with further thoughts from the original panelists.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to contribute to a Mind Meld on memorable short stories. While I haven't included the notes from the other panelists (there were so many participants that it had to be broken up into two separate posts), here's my two bits:

MIND MELD: Memorable Short Stories to Add to Your Reading List (Part 2 of 2)
Posted on July 22, 2009 by John DeNardo in Mind Meld // 5 Comments
This week’s question is a simple one, but yielded lots of responses. We asked this week’s panelists:
Q: What are some of your favorite short stories in sf/f/h and what makes them so memorable?

Robin Shantz
Robin Shantz writes about all things SF on his site: bloginhood. He’s also a member of the editing team of the Internet Review of Science Fiction and is the author of “Passage” – the third place winner of the On Spec postcard fiction contest. When not babbling about science fiction, fantasy, etc, he works in communications for the non-profit sector in Vancouver, BC.
It’s a funny thing that my favourite short stories aren’t necessarily the ones I remember best, and those that jump immediately to mind when someone says “SF short stories” aren’t always the ones that mean the most to me. Sometimes a story will lock itself in my brain simply because of its visceral impact, or maybe because I really didn’t like it. Some just kind of hang around like old friends at a college or high school reunion – I like them well enough, even if they aren’t my favourites. As for the favourites, while some are beacons for the genre, others may just become one more tree in the forest as memories of other enjoyable reads spring up. In any case, for the purposes of this Mind Meld, here’s a selection of stories that for one reason or another were all memorable:
There’s no question that Ray Bradbury is the master of writing short stories that really hit home. There are a lot of his works that stick out in my mind, but the two that stand head and shoulders above the others are There Will Come Soft Rains and “Last Rites”. TWCSR is probably one of the best-known installments in The Martian Chronicles and is memorable for being completely emotionally devastating. The Earth is in wreckage, a family’s dog drags itself home to die alone (a scene guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of just about anyone, especially pet owners), and after disposing of the corpse, the house itself malfunctions and is destroyed. The end of this story has literally scoured the Earth of any legacy, physical or emotional, of mankind. It makes you not only think, but feel what the ultimate price of mankind’s folly could be. Meanwhile, in his collection Quicker Than The Eye, Bradbury gives us a story full of deaths with a far different tone. “Last Rites” is a time machine story, but a very different kind of time machine story than we’re used to. The protagonist isn’t interested in launching himself forward or backward in time on a voyage of discovery; he isn’t off on a dinosaur hunt; he isn’t stacking the deck to grow his own personal fortune or create temporal commerce; he’s not even in it to alter the course of history. Rather, it’s a touching story about human connections, about a man who visits some of the greatest authors in the English language on their deathbeds to comfort them by showing them proof that their books continue to be printed and read and loved far into the future, thereby assuring them that their lives and their works have meaning. Admittedly, I may blank on the title of this story from time to time, but this gentle, good story itself is forever locked in my mind.
Arthur C. Clarke is another giant who has a lot of memorable short stories. Two of my favourites are “The Star” and “Superiority”. “The Star” stands out for being not only the story of a man struggling with his faith, but the idea perhaps a god may not be worthy of worship. It also paints a moving picture of a people making a heroic effort to be remembered, even as they face their extinction. When I first watched The Fountain a few years ago (and I was reminded of this when recently reading Pete Tzinski’s review of the movie here on SF Signal), the special effects shots of the nebula as Hugh Jackman’s character flies through it matched the image I had in my mind as I read Clarke’s description of the ship flying towards the star and the time capsule planet. “Superiority”, on the other hand, with its recounting of alien military R&D disasters amidst a war with Earth, is memorable for Clarke’s unexpected and funny finish.
Theodore Sturgeon’s “When You Care, When You Love”, about a young woman who uses her inexhaustible wealth to find any way possible to save her dying husband, is another one that really sticks out. On the surface it’s certainly love story with some charm, and yet I think it’s always stuck with me because there’s something a little unsettling about the idea of rules (in this case, even the rules of life and death) not applying to the ultra-wealthy. Sure, we see a little of this in real life: in communities where you might encounter spoiled rich kids growing up in lives free of consequence, or in the financial sector with corporate raiders and morally bankrupt execs despoiling businesses, annihilating the savings of the little guy, crippling the economy and leaving thousands without jobs, then walking away with fat bonuses and pensions. But science fiction has a way of showing us just how far this mentality could go. Sturgeon’s Sylva Wycke, though loving and benevolent, is none-the-less the literary ancestor of Asimov’s Solarians (in his Elijah Bailey Robot novels) or the Tessier-Ashpools in the Villa Straylight space station in William Gibson’s Neuromancer who are so rich and so far above the rules and challenges of the rest of humanity that they have in effect become alien. I’m no class warrior, but there’s something a little frightening about that, and it’s haunted me since the first time I read WYCWYL.
Speaking of stories that haunt, Philip K. Dick’s The Father Thing isn’t what I would call a favourite, but it’s always stood out for being very creepy. The story is about a boy who has to enlist the help of some other neighbourhood kids when he finds out that his father has been eaten and replaced by an alien android and that there are other dopplegangers being grown in the grove behind the house. In many ways, it’s the ultimate example of Dickian paranoia distilled into just over 10 pages – the question of what’s real, are people actually who they say they are or is it all a sham and are they actually out to get you? Certainly, having been published in 1954, it can be seen metaphorically as a product of its time: a typical Cold War we’re-gonna-be-subverted-and-replaced-by-reds scary tale. Looking at the kids, you can see them as an idealized America in miniature: the white kids (each from different ethnic backgrounds) working with the black kid; one representing emotion while one is brawn and one is the brains – ultimately, a coalition of different individuals contributing their unique talents to take down the enemy. You could also say that it’s a story of growing up; that as a child ages, he changes and his sense of who his parents are changes as well. He has to deal with crises himself, and, in a somewhat Oedipal kind of way (because he has to take out the Father thing, not a Mother thing), he has to overthrow the father figure. But what really works with this story is that it grabs you with the sense of deadliness and betrayal being associated with the most familiar settings and people that are supposed to be safe. The garage is where the killing is done, the stone walkway hides an alien, the grove behind the house (a bamboo grove no less, which one would think is a pretty alien thing in a typical US suburb of the 50’s and in fact harkens back to the battlefields of the Pacific in WWII and of the Korean War) isn’t a place to play because it’s full of garbage and rot and is where the dopplegangers are grown. Even the house itself isn’t safe, as the Father Thing chases the boy up to his room under the guise of going to have “a talk” with him. The fact that the aliens have replaced the father is particularly terrifying, because if you can’t trust your family, who can you trust? This taps into the primal fear all kids have of their parents being taken away from them, and the greater horror that some unfortunate children have of living with abusive parents who, to others, may appear normal on the outside, but within the home are monsters. Because it scares on so many levels, TFT is a story I won’t forget.
Another story that’s deeply unsettling, but for different reasons, is Spider Robinson’s “User Friendly”. The notion that a person can be, without warning, taken control of by alien minds who want to experience life on Earth through human senses but who have no concern at all for the human they’re occupying and no knowledge or care of how a human being can safely experience life on this world is obviously scary. What’s even worse is the thought of having to be a person watching their spouse go through this, being powerless to stop it, and being left in a position of worrying each time whether their loved one will come back alive, and if so how physically and emotionally damaged they will be.
“Outport”, by Garfield Reeves-Stevens, is a story that sticks with me both for the starkness of its landscape (or seascape, as the case may be) and the mindset of the people who are forced to survive in it by any means necessary.
Cory Doctorow’s cynical and funny The Super Man and the Bugout comes to mind anytime I watch a superhero movie or spend any time browsing in a comic book store. It’s portrayal of what a real Superman (or, in this case, Super Man) would have to go through in terms of navigating government bureaucracy and political opportunism, staying relevant if aliens eliminated crime and war, putting up with greedy landlords, and answering to a loving, if pushy old mother, and is in many ways the answer to the simplistic portrayal of costumed vigilante life served up by comics.

I’ll end on a light note with Dennis L. McKiernan’s “The Halfling House”, about a hobbit hole that travels TARDIS-like between fantasy universes, acting as a getaway resort for halflings, leprechauns, faeries and other wee folk. No deep metaphors or incisive views of humanity here, this story is just memorable for being really funny.