Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mini Reviews 9 - Monsters and Gods

Five books in this mini review batch, all dealing either with monsters of some kind or gods — or both! From xenoprions to werewolves to dinosaurs to various deities, and people who surf the line between godhood and monstrosity, the books I was reading from the end of the summer until just a couple of days ago encompass the whole spectrum.

Get the rundown on The Dinosaur Lords, Valkyrie's Song, Tesseracts 18 : Wrestling with GodsAurora, and Licence Expired - The Unauthorized James Bond.

And, as usual, these reviews come with a warning: Here there be spoilers.


The Dinosaur Lords, by Victor Milan

Remember when you were a kid and you and your buddies would reach into your toy box and grab... whatever, and just start playing? GI Joe's Cutter (having wrecked the Killer W.H.A.L.E.) and one of the Centurions might have to build a labyrinth of wooden blocks to outwit Darth Vader (all pissed off and looking for trouble because he doesn't have his vinyl cape or light sabre anymore) riding a Crystar lava dragon. Or Boba Fett might get into a slugfest with the Fisher-Price cowboy to see who gets to keep his horse. Or, if there were girls in your group of friends, He-Man and a squadron of Space Lego pilots might have to help Barbie defend her motorhome from a legion of Playmobile knights and their Weeble Wobble shock troops? Yeah you did. And it was fun as all hell.

Victor Milan's The Dinosaur Lords is just like that — a wonderful, geeky mashup of armoured Medieval-style knights and dinosaurs. Really, it doesn't get much cooler than that.

The story takes place on the world of Paradise (with hints that it could be some kind of distant future colony world or experiment of Earth's) where humans (though not quite Earth-normal humans) who live in a feudal society do what humans living in feudal societies usually do: vie for power, but with the added advantage of being able to harness the gigantic brute might of dinosaurs. Local lords and their knights clash swords and lances atop everything from traditional warhorses, to hadrosaurs, to ceratopsians, and even allosaurs and tyrannosaurs, while peasants struggle to keep out from under foot and survive. In the background, there is the dimly-perceived threat of the legendary Grey Angels, creatures who, in the service of the Creators, have occasionally been known to come to the lands of humans and wreak destruction. The story begins in the empire of Nuevaropa, where a rebellion is put down, only to have the seeds sown for the overthrow of the ruling dynasty. Rob Kerrigan is a dinosaur trainer/keeper, soldier, and bard who finds himself out of work after the battle, and eventually falls-in with Voyvod Karyl, a great general from the losing side who now has taken a job to help a group of utopian aesthetics defend their colony from the depredations of a local lord. Meanwhile, in the royal court, Princess Melodia watches in frustration as her father, the emperor, is manipulated into making bad decisions and allowing the ambitious young Duke Falk (back in the service of the crown after betraying his former partners in the rebellion) to catapult through the ranks at court, even as her lover, Jaume — the only noble who might be able to stop Falk — is sent away to lead another military campaign that gets increasingly out of hand.

I'll give Milan a lot of credit for putting this story together. It would be easy with this kind of setting to just give us a one-dimensional sword-swinging romp, or a palace intrigue full of forgettable moustache-twirlers, but even as he serves us all of the fun stuff we'd expect from a knight-and-dinosaur mashup, the author still gives us fully flushed-out characters with who deal with their circumstances in believable ways, such that even as we're enjoying the fun of the larger scenario, the reader takes what's happening to the protagonists very seriously. Which is important, because not everything that happens to these people is fun — some of it is downright horrific — and if they weren't well-rounded, the things they have to endure wouldn't have the emotional impact to make us take the story seriously.

I also enjoyed the little details of the world Milan has created: everything from the colloquial nicknames given in passing for dinosaur breeds (such as "fatties" to refer to a type of ceratops filling the niche of cattle), to the very well thought out ways that different kinds of dinos are used in warfare (hadrosaurs as heavy cavalry, triceratops standing in for war elephants, raptors as attack dogs and tracking hounds) and the tactics one would use them for, to the exotic fashions of the nobles who strut about court in brightly-coloured saurian feathers rather than silks (putting me in mind of ancient Middle- and South American empires). It's also a refreshing change for Nuevaropa, the dominant power in the region, to have a Spanish cultural and linguistic influence, rather than the English or French that's typical in fantasy literature.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight the wonderful sketches of dinosaurs by Richard Anderson at the start of every chapter. His lines give a terrific sense of explosive movement, while his use of shading in the basic black and white of the drawings creates a sense of dangerous shadow enveloping these monsters, even as it emphasizes their size. I'd almost like to see Anderson publish a companion book of illustrations — not just of individual dinosaurs, but also of whole scenes from the dino battles, and the world in general —once Milan has completed the series.

How much did I love The Dinosaur Lords? Let's just say I'd brave the jaws of a T-rex to get my paws on the sequel, The Dinosaur Knights, right now.


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Valkyrie's Song, by MD Lachlan

The life of an ordinary English peasant during the early days of the Norman conquest was not easy. For Tola, having to flee, starving, into the cold wilderness after Norman soldiers killed her family was bad enough. But in doing so, she's discovered that under certain painful circumstances, she can commune with the Norse gods, thanks to the presence of one of Odin's runes within her. It's a talent that's made things worse: Tola's rune has attracted a Byzantine witch who's bent on taking all the runes for herself to resurrect the dead god, a quest that brings her — and her fierce Viking guards — to the north to kill the young woman. If that wasn't enough, a werewolf is stalking the land, and not just any monster: Fenrir, the divine wolf tasked with slaying the gods during Ragnarok. And the wolf has its eye on Tola too.

Valkyrie's Song is the latest instalment in MD Lachlan's saga about humans and gods trapped in a cycle of pursuit, torment, death and resurrection in the Viking era. As Odin and Fenir lock horns again and again over the long years, the humans who are their vessels and witnesses try to come to grips with their curse, and possibly break it.

Like the other books, Valkyrie's Song picks up decades after the previous installment (Lord of Slaughter), where the woman fated to be the love interest of the man doomed to become Fenrir has again reincarnated. This time she is the farmer's wife, Tola, and her stress at being harassed by the Normans acts as the psychic beacon which attracts the wolf and Odin's minion. While the narrative perspective rotates between several protagonists (Tola, the witch, the witch's Viking shieldmaiden bodyguard, Loys the werewolf, and a Norman lord distracted from harrowing the Saxon north by the rune curse), Tola is the main focus of this story — a change from the other novels where the werewolf tends to be the dominant perspective. This emphasis on Tola is a good decision on the author's part, as it's easier for the reader to identify with her than the other characters. To be clear, Lachlan has done an excellent job of making the other characters three-dimensional and very human — figures that we can identify with when we look at who they are and what their circumstances represent: the witch who wants power, long life, youth and knowledge; Loys the werewolf who struggles to cope with, and maybe overcome a terrible condition that controls his life; the shieldmaiden who's just trying to support the person she loves; and so on. The shieldmaiden in particular is a very sympathetic character. And yet, for all of that, it's easier for us, as modern readers, to identify with Tola, who (for most of the novel, anyway) is just a normal person struggling to survive as she's alternately pushed and pulled by huge, dangerous forces beyond her control, or trying to avoid them. She's more familiar to us than a witch, sword-wielding warrior, or werewolf/godling could ever be. Her ultimate transformation at the end tells us, metaphorically, that it is possible for a normal person to overcome these greater forces, with the warning that this empowerment is a change in self rather than a simple triumph, and one that comes at great cost.

Valkyrie's Song is also different from the previous books in that the characters of the witch and werewolf come into the story (or return to the story, as the case may be) not as reincarnates who've had all knowledge of their previous experiences wiped and have to rediscover their circumstances (like Tola) but rather as the same people from the previous era, now immortal (somewhat) and coming forward into the new cycle with full knowledge and more sophisticated agendas. This adds more complexity and tension to the story, even though less time is devoted to their point of view.

But for all its strengths in characterization and imagination, the story is weak in the one scene where it — as a dark historic fantasy novel — should be strongest: werewolf versus zombies. Near the end, the witch raises an army of the dead to capture Tola and kill anyone with her. Luckily for Tola, Loys is tracking her too, and his love for her (or, at least his love for her meta-soul through the ages), along with his determination to prevent the witch from uniting Odin's runes, sends him charging to her defence. The set-up for a collision between a god-wolf and an army of undead would have any fanboy slavering in anticipation, but Lachlan denies us the satisfaction, giving the fight a brief mention before shifting back to Tola's flight. Sure, the past three books have entertained us with plenty  of scenes of carnage as Fenrir (in various stages of transformation from human host to giant wolf thing) tears through opponents, and yes, this story is more about Tola's journey and transformation (the title of the book is, after all, Valkyrie's Song) because the wolf has already had his day, and, admittedly, it's a battle that really has no influence on the outcome of the story, but come on! WEREWOLF VERSUS ZOMBIES! This monster mash-up is just too huge to gloss over! A few more paragraphs, or even a short chapter (and the chapters in this novel are short enough already to allow it) to give us a full blow-by-blow would have done the trick, but no such luck. This was the only time in the entire series that I've been disappointed with Lachlan's plot choices.

Overall though, the book is well put together, with pacing that tears along like a marauding Viking band sacking a fishing village on its way to a monastery. It's a grim study in how people deal with fate and the choices that make us human — or not.


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Tesseracts 18 — Wrestling with Gods, edited by Liana Kerzner and Jerome Stueart

I wanted to love Tesseracts 18. For years, this anthology series has been the premier (at times, only) collection of Canadian short speculative fiction. Time was, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next  instalment. But over the past few years, it's become hit and miss. There have been Tesseracts books that not only didn't contain a solid line-up of great stories, but were downright forgettable. Now, each year, I hope for a return to the glory days when I can finish the collection, put it down, and say "Wow!" in a good way. Sadly, it didn't happen this time.

Wrestling with Gods wasn't a terrible collection. There were a few good stories in it, like "The Harsh Light of Morning" by David Jon Fuller (you wouldn't think it possible to make the Residential School Program more horrific, but this story succeeds), or "Summon the Sun" by Carla Richards (which felt like a good Connie Willis story), or "So Loved" by Matthew Hughes (which didn't go in the direction I thought it would), or JM Frey's "The Moral of the Story", or "Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae" by James Bambury, or Savithri Machiraju's "Ganapati Bappa Moriya!" — in fact, the entire back half of the book was good. Not especially memorable, but enjoyable and interesting.

But the first half was weak. Too weak. Every other story in the first half of the book seemed to leave me wondering why it had been included. And while it's good to finish an anthology on a high note, if you don't have a strong opening followed by consistently good choices, it's hard for a reader coming it at for the first time to justify slogging through in hopes of maybe finding something worth while later on. You may disagree. Everyone's got different tastes in literature, and maybe Tesseracts 18 — Wrestling with Gods will be like a gift from the heavens for your book shelf. For me, it was more like a decades-long trek through the desert to get to, well, not exactly the promised land.


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Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

At first glance, master of hard science fiction Kim Stanley Robinson takes a hard look at the ideas of generation ships and interstellar colonization in his newest work, Aurora. Narrated by the titular ship's AI (a narrative choice that's reminiscent of Robert J Sawyer's Golden Fleece), the story begins with the colonists aboard a generation starship headed towards a (relatively) nearby solar system, trying to maintain both their environmental/biological balance in a closed system and their vessel's mechanical systems as they close in on their destination. And those efforts are proving to be increasingly problematic as the years go on: the birth rate is declining, the new children don't seem to be up to the health standards of the previous generations, bacteria are starting to outpace the colonists' ability to deal with them, and mechanical systems are starting to wear out. Among the younger colonists is the chief engineer's daughter, Freya, who initially is feared to have no practical aptitudes, but soon demonstrates a knack for being able to get people to communicate, both with her and each other. Freya falls into the role of unofficial shaman, wandering the ship's different habitats, learning a little general knowledge about its different operations, and developing a deep understanding of its people. As the story progresses, the colonists have to deal with the harsh realities of trying to set up a colony in another solar system with no likelihood of help from Earth, the dangers of their failing shipboard systems, health hazards (from their own relentlessly mutating bacteria and an alien prion), civil war, the risks of a voyage home, and the reception from a civilization that hasn't thought about them in years. It's a tale that paints a pretty bleak picture about the notion of setting out to spread humanity among the stars, reinforcing the need to protect an Earth that our species probably needs more than we fully appreciate.

But that's not what the story is really about.

We're told that the narrator is the ship's AI (or group of AIs), chronicling the story of the Aurora at the request of the chief engineer. Initially, its style is simple, mechanical, and objectively factual as it zeroes-in on details (some of them painfully, unnecessarily specific). Gradually though, it softens its approach as it adopts Freya as its primary focus, becoming more interested in her experiences and who she is, and more intuitive in its portrayal of her. We see the AI begin to develop emotions (such as annoyance at the colonists during the civil war, along with a shade of smug imperiousness) and introspection (during its long, stretch on the trip home when everyone's hibernating, there's a moment where it seems less like HAL 9000 and just a touch more like Red Dwarf's Holly going mildly batty out of loneliness). And then, near the end, we're shown explicitly that our narrator is entirely unreliable. When the narrator (which you'd think, being an AI, is the most reliable narrative source you could have) describes Freya watching the destruction of the Aurora and then continues the story of Freya's experiences on Earth, the reader —knowing that the narrator/AI is inextricably a part of the ship — is forced to doubt every single fact of the story. A no point is there made any mention of an afterlife (biological, AI, or otherwise), nor is the AI copied to another host. And yet it continues to tell the story of things that happen after its destruction. And if we conclude that the narrator/AI is making up everything that takes place after its supposed death for artistic purposes, we can't take anything in the previous parts of its story for granted either. Taking this thought to its ultimate conclusion, we're forced to ask whether we can even believe that the narrator is even the ship's AI at all.

So if all of the details in the story are thrown into question, what's it really about?

Aurora is about how we are made human by the act of telling a story. By continuously changing and improving the way it tells the story as the story progresses, as a means of better engaging the human audience it's trying to connect with, the AI itself evolves and becomes more human. It develops from something a little more sophisticated than MU-TH-UR 6000 from Alien, to something more self-aware and feeling — probably equivalent to HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey — to ultimately something much more: maybe not the slightly daft Holly of Red Dwarf, or the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, or the crotchety Nell from Battle Beyond the Stars, but at least something — someone — more akin to the more sensitive HAL 9000 from the end of 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Aurora tells us that even as we make the story, it makes us. The making of the story — the struggle to put thought into words, to communicate in a meaningful way to another mind, to impose meaning on the universe (even if that meaning is communicated through fiction) — makes us human.

As with The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson has shown us in Aurora that beneath the hard details of a straightforward, factually grounded story, there are deep layers of meaning about the human experience.


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Licence Expired — The Unauthorized James Bond, edited by Madeline Ashby and David Nickle

If the theme for this set of mini reviews is monsters and gods, and this blog as a whole is dedicated to speculative fiction, what's a collection of short stories about James Bond doing here? Bond's world of gadgets and of super villains concocting elaborate and often impractical word-dominating-or-destroying schemes from extravagant lairs ranging from mansions to volcanoes while employing armies of flunkies and monstrous henchmen using strange signature weapons or execution methods are all familiar to SF fans. Bond himself is unhuman in his ability to withstand torture and injury — repeatedly — that would kill most people outright (including the punishment of his own body through high levels of alcohol and tobacco consumption), to tirelessly do feats of physical prowess, to assimilate endless languages and abilities, to keep Lady Luck at his side in any casino, and to get pretty much any woman he wants any time he wants without any real consequence. While Fleming's original books may be somewhat more grounded than the movies they inspire, it never feels like much of a leap to get to the realm of sf, and sometimes there's no leap at all. As to monsters and gods, Bond is both: clearly a god among assassins and spies, but monstrous in ability to kill and inflict pain without remorse, to think only of his own satisfaction in indulging in the pleasures of the earth — and specifically in his treatment of women, which don't seem to rate much higher in his mind than the food, alcohol and cigarettes he consumes. To that end, it couldn't be more appropriate to talk about Bond on this post.

And so we get to Licence Expired, a collection of new short stories about 007 and his world, inspired by Fleming's original works and made possible only because of copyright laws in Canada (a notion that itself seems ripe for some sort of Bond story about rogue publishers — maybe with eye patches, or diamond-encrusted elbows, or henchmen riding turbo-powered pogo sticks — flouting the law by hiding out in some differently-legislated country as a means to bring the world to its knees). It's a collection that is one of the most entertaining books I've read in the past year.

It's hard to pick out favourites from The Unauthorized James Bond because the stories were all so good! Really, it was a pain worse than Jaws' stainless steel orthodontics having to put this book down sometimes, instead of continuing on to the next story, and many of them are worthy of a 00 designation. Some were more rooted in conventional reality, like the opening shot by Jacqueline Baker, "One Is Sorrow", about a woman who meets a very young James; or Bond's rescue of a kidnap victim in EL Chen's "Half the Sky"; or Claude Lalumiere's "You Never Love Once", about a mob enforcer's encounter with an aging 007; or "Not an Honourable Disease" by Corey Redekop, also about a run-in with the spy in his later years. Others whole-heartedly adorn themselves with science fictional trappings, like the virtual reality prison in Kelly Robson's "The Gladiator Lie" (with that gleefully gory, unforgettable line: "The assassin's skull opens like a book..."); or Ian Rogers' post-apocalyptic "Two Graves". And then there's everything in between, like Charles Stross' wonderful neocon super villain harangue "No, Mr. Bond!"

Whether you're a Bond fan or not, if you live in Canada, buy this book. If you don't live in Canada, find yourself a secret agent or an amenable super villain and get this thing sent to you via robotic groundhog or other overwrought covert means. After all, you only live twice: once to read this review, and once to read the actual collection.


Monday, November 02, 2015

Coping with the Flu through Graphic Novels

An apple a day certainly does not keep the doctor away, but one thing I've learned over the years is that reading graphic novels helps me cope when I'm down with the flu for a week or two.

I don't exactly know why. Maybe it's because a graphic novel is a detailed story that can be absorbed in a single dose over an hour or two, and so it's easy on an exhausted mind and body. Or the combination of dialogue and images are less taxing than pure text where the brain has to create everything from scratch. But being sick doesn't stop me from reading regular novels though. Maybe it's as simple as graphic novels being comfort food for the imagination... kind of like chicken soup, except with full-page single panel explosions and characters engaged in scripted pose-offs.

I tend to stockpile graphic novels for the sick times too. Sure, I read some when I first pick them up at the comic store, but others I'll shelve for the sick reserve so that I'll have something "new" to read when I'm stuck in the house for days on end. Illness is also a good time to re-read old favourites... with some exceptions: I found out the hard way about four years ago that it really, really isn't a good idea to re-read Arkham Asylum late at night in the midst of a crushing fever.

In any case, I've been beat-up by a bug for a little over a week, and (with the exception of Monday when the fever was so bad I thought I was a banana tree for a little while) to help deal with it, I've been reading a graphic novel a day. Here's a quick rundown of my prescription for a pre-Hallowe'en flu, along with some reviews (needless to say, here there be spoilers):


Star Wars Darth Vader — Vader by Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado
Okay, to be fair, I read this one a couple of weeks before I got sick, but it was just so damn good, I couldn't leave it off of this review list. I mean, how could you not love a book where Darth Vader lays down a Force choke on Jabba the Hutt (in a nice father-daughter nod to the crime lord's ultimate fate in 'Jedi) within the first few pages? The art work is fantastic, the story in this volume is good, and Gillen does a great job of writing Vader true to how he was portrayed in the original trilogy: the choice of words and their delivery, the way he deals with others, and how he moves through the story is thoroughly authentic. I was initially cautious when I saw this comic series first appear on the shelves, but after this first collection of issues, I'm looking forward to the next Darth Vader graphic novel.


Doctor Who — The Weeping Angels of Mons by Robbie Morrison, Daniel Indro, Eleonora Carlini, Slamet Mujiono and Hi-Fi
This graphic novel probably would have been more appropriate for Remembrance Day than Hallowe'en, but "Blink" was one of the scarier episodes of Doctor Who, and a story featuring the Weeping Angels stalking soldiers amidst the ruins of a French town during the horrors of the First World War is conceptually frightening enough to be worthy of October 31st. While the illustrations of our hero rarely come close to actually looking like David Tennant, the dialogue and depictions of movement are spot-on for the Tenth Doctor.  The main story of the flight of the soldiers and the Doctor and his Companion, Gabby Gonzalez, from the Angels was suitably fast-paced, and the tension was enhanced by the gloomy colouring of the art and its unflinchingly adult portrayal of the brutality of war (such as the full-page spread where we see not only bodies strewn across the battlefield during a charge, but a man being shot through the neck while another is impaled and still another is burned — not details we'd see on the more kid-friendly TV instalments of the Doctor's adventures). But I also appreciated the side stories of the soldiers, not just trying to survive, but talking with each other about home, and later on, what happened to them when each was eventually confronted by the Angels — they were given the full treatment of primary characters, rather than being casually discarded as background props. By showing the soldiers' fates, the story gets added weight by reinforcing the danger of any meeting with an Angel, but more importantly, it makes these characters memorable — memorable in spite of the fact that they're not the Doctor or his Companion or generals who would be written about in history books — and in so doing, it reinforces the underlying idea that every soldier who went off to World War I (or who has served his or her country in any capacity) was a person with his or her own story who is worthy of being remembered.


Ghostbusters volumes 8 & 9 — Mass Hysteria parts 1 & 2 by Erik Burnham, Dan Schoening and Luis Antonio Delgado
One of the things that's really impressed me about the Ghostbusters graphic novels over the past few years is how they've done such a great job of capturing the feel of the movies. While the drawings are not meant to be portraits of the various actors, they definitely capture the impression of them, an impression that's heightened by dialogue that's true to what the characters might have said, and how they would have said it, if they'd been written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis like the originals were. The series has also had strength in its storytelling, which isn't afraid to get dark, and the artwork, which is rich in detail and allusions not just to the two movies, but to other films that the various actors were part of (from Ray's guardian angel looking like Jake Blues, to more subtle fare like the Hulkaburger restaurants), and even deeper references to other things that might not have a direct connection to the films, but are entirely appropriate none-the-less (like a cut-out ad for Mikey, Donald and Goofy's "Ajax Ghost Exterminators" company from Disney's ancient Lonesome Ghosts feature). What I also appreciate is that the series keeps time and the development of the characters moving forward — the team accumulates new equipment and makes technological developments, they have new political realities to deal with, and they have to deal with personal experiences with lasting consequences. This latest two-parter maintains that standard of excellence. "Mass Hysteria" has the boys in grey bringing back some of their associate members like FBI Agent Melanie Ortiz and the guys from the Chicago franchise, while Ray's store employee, Kylie Griffin, and Janine also suit up to help out again. They're faced with another divine incursion into the Earthly plane: the Sumerian goddess Tiamat has been stirring up trouble — including hijacking Dana Barrett and Louis Tully for another round of possession and transformation — as a prelude to a grudge match with her sibling, Gozer the Destructor. Amid the wisecracks and the blasting of spectral badguys, there are some genuine human moments, such as when Peter and Dana talk about dealing with each other in the wake of their failed relationship; or when we see the emotional impact of Oscar no longer being part of Peter's day-to-day life; or, in a major plot point towards the end of the story, when one of the Ghostbusters is forced to deal with the hard consequences of what he's had to do to save the world. Who needs to wait for the new Ghostbusters movie (or movies, if some of the rumours are to be believed) when you've got comics that are this good?


Nemo — River of Ghosts by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
It's always interesting to see what Alan Moore will do next to tap into pop culture sources both antiquated and modern to expand his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mash-up universe, so you never need to twist my arm to go into the comic shop to buy the latest instalment. That said, some are stronger than others, and you need more to make a story worth while than just a grab-bag of obvious and obscure references set on a roller-coaster ride adventure. When it comes to River of Ghosts, the latest adventure of Captain Nemo's (now aging) daughter, Captain Janni Dakkar, the adventure moves along briskly enough, but there isn't enough attention paid to the personal angle of the story. It's 1975, and for Janni it isn't enough to be the ruler of a rich and powerful pirate nation, the head of an international syndicate of super villains, or a mother and grandmother — she has to ensure there's no unfinished business at the end of her life, and that every grudge is settled. That means that when rumours come to her of her old enemy Ayesha in league with Nazis in a secret base in South America, Janni is determined to go and personally settle old scores, regardless of any advice to the contrary from family, business associates, or the ghosts of old lovers, family, and friends who surround her, unseen by the rest of the world. Racing off with her crew — and stowaway grandson — in a new version of the Nautilus, she has to deal with dinosaurs and fembots on her quest for blood. As much as I enjoyed the references to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, as well as the secret Nazi base that would fit right in with any Hellboy adventure, the story didn't spend as much time as it should have with Janni actually coming to terms with the end of her life. Sure, there are the occasional bits with the ghosts, and the pacing of the story, along with some of the dialogue, is meant to show that Janni isn't allowing herself to think about anything else as she focusses on the mission, but really, I think a couple of added quiet moments of solitude when she couldn't escape the weight of her life would have given the story enough depth to be on par with Century 1910. There might have been room for that extra character development for Janni if Moore hadn't included the sub-plot about her grandson, Jack, and yet he needed to be part of the story to create the legacy for the next instalment as the universe continues to move forward. That said, I don't see why, as readers, we can't have our cake and eat it too, and have Moore allocate more page space to flushing-out Janni's experience, and introduce us to young Jack. I don't regret buying River of Ghosts, but it certainly isn't as memorable as some of the other League stories.


Hellboy — Conqueror Worm by Mike Mignola
Over the past couple of years, I've been slowly working my way through the back issues of the Hellboy graphic novel collections, and enjoying the process immensely. Conqueror Worm is no exception. The story sends Hellboy and Roger the homunculus to a castle in Austria where, decades earlier, head-in-a-jar Herman Von Klempt sent a dead Nazi scientist into space to bring back some Lovecraftian Old Ones to destroy the world. Now Von Klempt and his cronies are back, awaiting the return of the capsule and its horrific cargo. The ghost of Rasputin, along with the spirit of old-time hero Lobster Johnson, also wade into the fray, along with other homunculi and an evil upgraded gorilla. Carnage ensues and the world is saved, thanks to the very human efforts of Roger, in spite of the BPRD's inhumane view and treatment of him. Conqueror Worm has everything that makes a Hellboy instalment great: rip-roaring action, brooding art, monsters both human and supernatural, and at its heart, a story about Hellboy facing the challenge of doing the right thing and what it means to be good.


Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Alex Maleev and Dave Stewart
Even though I'm not finished going through the Hellboy back issues yet, I saw the new '1952 graphic novel on the comic store shelf a while ago and decided to pick it up anyway, just to see how Mignola and his crew would do winding the clock back to Hellboy's early days in the supernatural superheroing business. While the art and subject matter are both worthy of the franchise, I can't say the same for the story. I didn't hate it, but for all its length, it felt rushed, and ultimately came off as flat. When a series goes on for as long as Hellboy's has, it's inevitable that it's going to stumble at some point, and I guess this is it. Hopefully the next volume will get the series back in the race.



Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Find My Review of Shadows of Self

My review of Brandon Sanderson's new Mistborn novel, Shadows of Self, is now up on SF Signal!

Of course, you should be reading SF Signal anyway because the site is loaded with Mind Melds, other reviews, links to stuff happening everywhere in the world of science fiction and fantasy, and all kinds of other cool stuff.

Just be sure to bring some bagels to appease the 'Signal's Bagel Overlord, John DeNardo. I've tried to bring him over to the good side of donuts, I really have, but I fear when it comes to his choice of foods with holes, he's wholly lost.

Monday, October 05, 2015

VCon Day 3 - Time's Up

In some respects, the true test of the quality of a science fiction convention is whether it's worth showing up for the last day. In most cases, that's a Sunday. And in most cases, the energy level is much, much lower than any other day of the con: everybody knows it's the end, everybody's tired from a couple of days of high-intensity nerdity, some are still hungover from Saturday night's parties, some don't even bother to show up because they're still sleeping off last night's parties, and of those who are still hanging around, some are checking out of the hotel and loading their cars — the mere sight of which is guaranteed to sap the energy out of the few remaining die-hards. All of these things were true today at VCon, and yet, for all of that, there was still a relatively good line-up of programming on the board, and enough people hung around that some of those sessions were reasonably crowded. Proof that, despite the pervasive feeling of thrown-together-at-the-last-minuteness and what appeared to be a smaller-than-normal turnout, this year's VCon was none-the-less a pretty good gathering.

My day started late (as usual) with me rolling in just before 11am to meet Joe Haldeman (the con's Author Guest of Honour) and his wife, Gay, for an interview. What's the interview for? Well, stay tuned, friends. You'll find out soon enough. In any case, we had a good chat, and I'm really grateful they were able to make some time in their schedule for me. In fact, we enjoyed ourselves enough that after the interview we ended up going for lunch together and continued to have a good time. Interesting fact (maybe it's common knowledge, but it's not something I knew before today): Haldeman loads his fountain pen with his own ink. He uses his skills as a painter to custom mix his own shade of red, which is a pretty cool way to add to the personalization when he autographs books for fans.

After lunch, I found myself drawn back to the dealers' room. The guy at the antiquities and replica jewelry stand I'd visited yesterday had some interesting Roman and Medieval pottery fragments for sale, and one in particular stood out in my mind: a small, 3rd Century Roman pot that had been made to look like an artichoke. It had been shattered over the centuries and glued back together by the dealer, and about a third of it is missing. But, aside from the look of the thing, I really liked the idea of just an ordinary pot that some ordinary citizen of the empire would have had in an ordinary kitchen. In some way, it makes it more real than a more dramatic piece like the blade of a gladius or a chunk from the corner of a scutum. And I thought it would look good in the display cabinet in our kitchen. The price was reasonable (because of its state), and so it didn't take much to convince me to buy it.

Once my ceramic treasure was safely stowed in the car, I went upstairs to catch the back half of the "Evolutionary Tree of Dragons" session. I don't always bother going to sessions when they're half-way through, but because this one was about dragons, I probably would have gone even if there were only 5 minutes left. And I wasn't the only one: that little room was packed like Glaurung's treasure hoard. The biologist doing the session had divided the different types of dragons and dragon-relations from myths around the world and fiction into different branches of a family tree based on their appearances, and gave scientific explanations for how each type would have branched off and maintained or lost certain features like legs or wings. Lots of good examples were mentioned by the biologist and the crowd, like Fafnir, Tiamat, Smaug, Falkor, Elliot, Vermithrax Pejorative, Temeraire, Drogon and his siblings, Puff, and the flight from Pern, but there was no love for  Smrgol, Gorbash, Breagh and their buddies, or Draco, or even Godzilla. Seriously? Smrgol was a badass. There needs to be respect. Anyhow, it was a good session.

When that was done, I decided to take a little break and do some reading down in the lobby. At one point the fire alarm went off, and everybody had to evacuate. In theory, at least. There being no signs of smoke or sense of excitement from the hotel staff, a fair number of people in the lobby and pool courtyard area just stayed put, and those of us who went out front as we were told did so without any great sense of urgency. While milling around outside, I heard one person make a crack that the alarm had probably gone off because someone had wanted to get a really good deal at the art auction. I also overheard, on the way back in, from a couple of hotel staff, that it may have just been steam or a little smoke from a hot plate in the con suite that set off an overly sensitive smoke alarm. Oh, the terrible price of cheap eats. And speaking of terrible, after resuming my seat in the lobby, a family of non-con-goers sat down nearby (overly showy new rich, from the looks of them), and I had to spend the next 10 or 15 minutes hearing the mother and teenaged son quietly make fun of the nerds passing by. Riiiiiight. Like anyone mashing miniature dogs under their arms like footballs as a form of fashion accessory, the way these two were, has any right to make fun of someone else's appearance. Stay classy.

Not liking the smell of the bullshit near me, I went upstairs a bit early for the "Unintended Consequences" panel. Lots of good examples from the panel about scientific advancements, technologies and drugs that had wide-reaching and unintended consequences, such as cars, cell phones, and birth control pills. But there were also a number that were mentioned that have also had unforeseen ramifications that most people don't think about, like genetic testing, the introduction of tea into the Western diet, food and water safety measures, different forms of lighting, and even universal education. Another well-attended session, and one that made a thoughtful end of the con for me. Because after that, I decided I'd had my fill, and skipped the closing ceremonies and went home.

My only regret: I never did get the chance to sit in that replica of the Time Machine. Maybe I could have travelled back in time and prevented the fire alarm from going off, or gone back further and snagged that artichoke pot back when it was newly-made in some provincial town in Gaul... Nah. I probably would have just wound the clock back a day or two and bought more books. And who knows what sort of unintended consequences that would have had!


Sunday, October 04, 2015

VCon Day 2 - Wake up! Time to buy!

When you allow yourself to drift into the dealers' room at a con not once, not twice, but three times, there's no way you're going to leave financially unscathed. Today, I was scathed. Oh so scathed.

The day started a little later than I'd intended. No surprise there — that's the story of my con-going life. I'd wanted to arrive around 10 this morning, because VCon's programming looked pretty good right off the block this year. But with last night's blogging, followed by reading, and a leisurely get-up this morning, 10 turned into 11:30 by the time I rolled in the door. That was the first time the dealers' room got me.

Oh, it started off innocently enough... I'd gone in to drop-off a care package: my wife makes chocolates and other confections, and she'd sent me with some treats to give to our friend Walter at the White Dwarf Books table. Which was fine. Except the coolness emanating from the Cat's Knitting table dragged me over like tractor beam from a Dalek command ship: there was a set of cool Doctor Who-themed scarves that I knew my wife would love. With our tenth anniversary coming up, the outcome was a forgone conclusion. So the wallet came out, and I bought her a black scarf with red trim, a red Dalek, and the word "Exterminate" woven into the pattern. Deadly stylish.

At noon I hit my first session of the day. Sessions, as a matter of fact. I started by trying to go to the "Science of Time Travel" panel, but the room was packed, some video was playing (for quite some time), and my space along the wall didn't allow me to see the screen, so I abandoned ship in favour of something else. The next option was the Joe Haldeman reading. Definitely worth going to. Haldeman read an excerpt from a new book he's working on called Phobos Means Fear, and showed the audience the notebook he's using to write the thing out. Bonus points to him for still doing most of his manuscripts in pen. Extra bonus points for his wicked sense of humour — Haldeman frequently had the audience in stitches during the Q&A afterward.

Heading out into the hall when it was done, it struck me that VCon feels smaller this year. Not as many people as you'd normally see on a Saturday, and not as many in costume. I can't back this up with numbers, but that was my impression. Not sure why it would be smaller this year (if it is) but while it wasn't crowded, the turnout at least looked respectable. And while there weren't as many costumes as I'm used to seeing, there were a few, and some of them were pretty good. I got a kick out of seeing someone dressed as Ratchet, the Autobot medic from Transformers. It could only have been better of it was capable of transforming, but that's a pretty tall order. Later on, just before I left this evening, there was a couple sporting intricately made Time Lord robes. I'm not a cosplayer myself, but I certainly respect good workmanship and people who have a real passion for their outfits.

And speaking of a dedication to fannish pursuits, I've got to give credit to a couple of folks in the games room, who wanted to get a group game of Magic The Gathering going so badly that they came out into the hall to try to recruit people to come in and play. One of the guys approached me, but since I haven't played Magic since university 20-odd years ago, and back then I played it poorly, I had to politely decline. But I certainly appreciated the invite. That's one of the things I like about VCon: it's not the biggest convention in the world, but most of the people who go are friendly and welcoming.

After a quick lunch, I was back at the hotel to take in the taping of an episode of the Caustic Soda podcast. What? You're not listening to Caustic Soda? Go and download an episode now. Seriously. Minimize this window, go to the show's website or iTunes, download an episode on whatever uncomfortable topic seems most interesting, and hang on for the ride. This time around was a little different, with only one of the regular hosts present, supported by a panel of guests, but ultimately the show worked, and was a good mix of information and entertainment delightfully skirting bad taste.

The show ran just over an hour, so when it was done, rather than jump into another session midway through, I drifted back into the dealer's room. Do I need any more books to add to my to-be-read pile? No. Did I buy some. Yes. Because I have no power to resist a good bookstore/stall.  So I picked up an anthology of Canadian speculative fiction (a book with the highly inventive name Canadian Tales Volume IV) from the SF Canada stall, and then, from White Dwarf, a copy of Haldeman's A Separate War and Other Stories and the Chinese-themed anthology The Dragon and the Stars, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi. It wasn't too long before I was then browsing at antiquities and replicas of antiquities at the Gaukler Medieval Wares stand, and doing my best to fight the temptation to buy something there. Because as much as I may want an authentic Viking-era ice skate carved from some animal's thigh bone, it would be hard to make the case that I actually need to have it... although part of me thinks that I do actually need to have it (though ultimately my wallet won-out on behalf of the "no" side of the debate). It was a long battle too — I was probably there for the better part of half an hour, shooting the breeze with the owner about various historical knick-knacks. But I held firm. For a while, anyway.

To wrench my attention away from the lure of shiny things, I did a circuit of the art room. As usual, it was a mix of very nice work alongside stuff that, well, just isn't what I'd put on my wall or in my display case. But to each his/her own.

By 5pm it was time for the "Justify the Science Flaw" panel, an annual tradition at the con, and a session that's become one of my favourites over the years. This year's panel was made of a large and diverse collection of experts, and it was pretty funny seeing them stretch science to its limits to try to plausibly explain things like the salt vampires from the old Star Trek series, or how the nightfall in the classic Isaac Asimov short story "Nightfall" could actually work if you juggled the orbit of a planet, its gaggle of local stars, and maybe a moon or other planet just right.

I'd been doing some thinking about what I'd seen in the dealers' room, so after the JTSF panel let out I went back to the Gaukler table. As I mentioned earlier, my anniversary's coming up, and I thought I needed to get my wife a little something more than a scarf. She's been mentioning lately that she'd like a nice pendant, and I saw a really nice brooch with nine amethysts (a replica of an actual piece from the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain) that could easily be repurposed with the addition of a chain. The price was right, so I completed my anniversary shopping. From the rib-crushing hug I received when I got home, I think it did the trick.

Initially, I'd intended to hang around for the Masquerade at 7pm, but after waiting around in the hall with half of the other con attendees for 20 minutes with still no sign of it getting under way, I gave up and left to find some supper and go home. Sure, I could have stuck around for a while longer for the costume show, or gone to a room party, or had dinner and come back for a late panel (the late evening "Sophisticated Insults for More Dignified Folk" session looked particularly appealing), but I'll freely admit I'm at that point in life where something's gotta be pretty spectacular to keep me around in the evening, when really, all I want to do is go home, see my wife, have supper, relax for a little bit, then do some blogging or reading before hitting the sack. Let the others hold up the party banner. I've been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. Speaking of bed...

Saturday, October 03, 2015

VCon Day 1 - Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time

It seems like almost no time at all has passed since we were down in Smokane this summer for Worldcon, and already October's upon us, a chill is in the air, Thanksgiving is coming up, and it's time for VCon.

Time is very much on my mind at the con this time around: there was the rush to get away from work on time today (especially since it was the last day of my contract and I wanted to wrap up as much as possible), trying to make good time in rush-hour traffic (which, luckily, I did), getting to VCon in time to actually take in some programming before the end of the day, making time for other outside-of-nerdity life this weekend, and, beyond all that, there's the theme of the con this year, which is Time Travel. Fortunately, even without a time machine at my disposal (although, as you can see from this photo from the dealers' room, someone at the con certainly has one at their disposal - and a flashy one at that!), it all seemed to work out. So far.

Against all odds, I made it from Downtown Vancouver to central Richmond to the con hotel in just under an hour (Been to the Lower Mainland before? Then you know the traffic hell of which I speak.) and was able to find a pretty good parking spot. Registration was friendly and reasonably fast, and I was pretty impressed with the con's programming schedule. In recent years, the programming's been hit-and-miss, but this year, even though it feels like there are fewer sessions on the schedule (and that's just a guess — I don't have last year's schedule for comparison and can't be bothered to hunt it down), overall a lot more of the panels look a lot more interesting than they have in a while. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that hour-for-hour, the programming for modest little VCon this year looks more interesting than the average day at Worldcon this summer.

Next, I wandered around a bit to get my bearings. VCon's been at the Sheraton in Richmond many times before, but it's always good to do a refresher tour to see if they've located things in different rooms this year, and to see who's turned out. I had a nice chat with the folks at The 13th Colony BSG fan club table because I just can't resist stopping to check out a Cylon centurion mask. After that, I scouted-out the dealers' room, stopping to chat with my friend Walter at the White Dwarf Books table, as well as the folks at the Edge Publishing table (not much to buy from them this time around because they took all my money at Worldcon when I proved incapable of ignoring their collection of new anthologies). I also had to stop at a table selling knitted goods (she sold me a replica Tom Baker scarf a couple of years ago) to check out her new line of Doctor Who-themed scarves because my anniversary is coming up, and my wife loves the Time Lord something fierce. No buying though — not yet, because this time I was determined to stick to my no-buying-in-the-dealers'-room-on-the-first-day policy. Tomorrow though...

From there, I took in the Science of Fantastical Beasts panel. Think a "justify the science flaws" session focussing just on critters of myth, legend, and the fantasy genre, with a panel of scientists grasping at genetic straws to explain how these things could possibly exist and function in the absence of magic. Examples included the "vegetable lamb" of Hebrew mythology (think of a lamb that buds off of a tree, with blood tasting of honey, and flesh tasting of fish) that would probably be some kind of semi-ambulatory coral; and the King of Monsters, Godzilla himself: maybe akin to a sponge... a titanic colony of organisms, rather than a single creature. Yes, yes. I know. "Heresy!" you're no doubt hollering. "Godzilla is a force of nature beyond our ability to fully comprehend!" But maybe the big guy's a little like a bath product too. Anyway, lots of fun at this panel, and I was really glad to have caught it — especially since that was the only panel I had time for today.

After that, I sat down to interview author Kristi Charish for a little while. What's the interview for? Stay tuned, fellow fanboys and fangirls. Stay tuned. Suffice it to say that she's a great conversationalist and we had a pretty entertaining and informative discussion. If you haven't read her stuff yet, you probably should. Owl and the Japanese Circus has been getting a lot of good buzz, and I'm a huge fan of her "Canadian Blood Diamonds" supervillain short stories (the first can be found in Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories, edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa). All in all, a good way to end a first day (even if this "day" was only 2-and-a-half hours of con time for me) at VCon.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Photos from Sasquan

Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny — oh no, wait... that's the original Battlestar Galactica. Let's try this again:

Fleeing from the brutal wildfire haze that has resumed smothering Spokane like a facehugger from the Alien franchise, we hopped in the car around mid-morning today and raced back along the beautiful (and yet, shrouded in smoke, haunting) Route 2 across the plains, and through the mountains, back to the coast to head north and home to BC.

While I've been posting a few photos from Sasquan/Worldcon to my Twitter feed on the fly over the past few days, this is the first opportunity I've had to upload all of them to the blog. Included here are the pics from Twitter, along with some that have not yet been posted.

Fighters at First Night in the park
The couple that cosplays together succumbs to Alien infestation together
Guess who I voted for in the Worldcon 2017 site selection?



Black Widow
Captain America

One tough customer at the coffee bar
Bounty hunters. We DO need their scum!

Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker. Sort of.

The last days of Krypton... er, a smoky evening in Spokane

This is how bad the air got by Friday night when the Masquerade let out
Where can I get a hat like that?
This guy's Captain Kangaroo cosplay could only have been better if he'd had Mr Greenjeans with him

All hail Immorten Joanna!





A pint-sized TARDIS, complete with mini Doctor

Miyazaki fans will know you don't want to feed this guy. You REALLY don't want to feed this guy!


Daredevil

We are Groot