Monday, 14 April 2014

Ghost Train to New Orleans by Mur Lafferty, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Her travel guide to New York having done well, despite a series of supernatural calamities that occurred in the course of its writing, Zoë Norris is given a new assignment by her editor at Underground Publishing: the supernatural tourist’s guide to New Orleans. She takes a hand-picked team of writers with her: two vampires, one of whom would kill her now if it wasn’t against company policy, a goddess of death, a Valkyrie, and a baby dragon, Bertie.

Her sadsack boyfriend Arthur tags along too. He’s on the way out, both metaphorically, because their relationship isn’t going anywhere, and literally, in that he’s been bitten by a zombie and he’s out of the magic medicine that has so far stopped him turning. (“Would he rot? Would he stink? What would sex be like?”) His dangerous search for a cure comes at an inconvenient time. Zoë has a book to edit, undead parties to attend, voodoo gods to meet.

Plus, the city itself is being a bit of a pain in the neck. Zoë has just found out that she is a citytalker, a supernatural being herself, and in New Orleans she’ll find out much more about what that means – the powers it gives her, and the target it paints on her back. She’ll get to know a friendly ghost who once had similar powers, find out more about the supposed peacekeeping activities of the Public Works, and have her willpower tested by her attraction to a series of unsuitable hunks.

The tone is light, misery when it comes played as quick, sharp melodrama. It’s a corner of the Buffyverse where demons and vampires hold down steady jobs instead of working towards the apocalypse. The characters are entertainingly tetchy, ready to jump down each other’s throats (or sink fangs into them) at the wrong word. The writers are thoroughly unimpressed with their editor, and let her know about it constantly. Zoë is little better herself – she and Arthur are consistently grumpy with everyone from whom they need help.

The interpolation between the chapters of this book of chapters and appendices of Zoë’s finished tourist guide was a bit off-putting in the contents list, but they are kept short and do nothing to break the flow of the book, being used subtly to underline important details and foreshadow future events. It is a sequel and there’s a fair bit of backstory to catch up on, but the setting of a new city makes it easy to jump in.

Ghost Train to New Orleans (Orbit, ebook, 4604ll) should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Paul Magrs’ Brenda novels, and anyone who enjoys this should give those a look too. Fantasy fans will enjoy bits like the nods to Red Dwarf (her lazy goldfish Lister and his friend Kochanski), Doctor Who (Tom Baker or David Tennant?), and “the George R.R. Martin fitness plan” (lugging his books around). I had a lot of fun with this book. It finds the sweet spot between too silly and too serious and steams straight through it. Recommended.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Template by Matthew Hughes, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

There are few things I find more enjoyable than a Matthew Hughes novel, and it’s a struggle to stop myself gorging on them at the expense of everything else. Template (self-published, ebook, 4865ll) is a book from 2008, new to me, recently republished. Like most of the Hughes books previously reviewed here, it is set among the Ten Thousand worlds of the Spray, under the subtle rule of the Archonate.

Conn Labro is an exceptional sportsman, brilliant at everything from fencing to chess, and he takes on all-comers at Horder’s Gaming Emporium – which owns him. Hallis Tharp has paid in advance for a lifetime of his services: a weekly two-hour game of paduay. On one occasion, Tharp is not ready for the game, and Conn goes to investigate.

Tharp is dead, and he has left Conn with enough money to buy his freedom, as well as the deed to a mysterious property, in the shape of a small bead. Troubled by feelings he does not understand, and after an attempt upon his own life, Conn leaves his homeworld Thrais and travels with Tharp’s concerned neighbour Jenore to Old Earth and beyond to solve the mystery.

These are the adventures of an innocent abroad, though in this case the innocent is not from some idyllic, magical paradise. He’s from a planet where no one does anything unless it benefits them financially, and is “pitched from its familiar confines into a wider universe that was rife with whole worlds ruled by mass delusion” – that is, the delusion that one should ever do anything without being paid.

When it serves to further his goals, Conn sometimes describes himself as a professional duellist. And that’s how he approaches every conversation, like a fencing match to be won or lost. A character who so unerringly finds the right phrase with which to run through his opponents is perhaps unrealistic, but it’s highly enjoyable. He has one blind spot: right over his heart.

My reviews of this author’s books must now come with the disclaimer that I’m a fan. His books make me feel like a mouse whose pleasure centres are being deliberately tripped in a scientific experiment upon its brain. That disclaimer aside, I thought this was excellent. Conn has a fascinating personality, his romance with Jenore is sweet, the mysteries intrigue and the action excites. Brilliant.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Divergent, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Chicago plows dauntlessly into young heroine-driven dystopia subgenre

We Chicagoans recently endured one of our worst winters in recorded history. I wonder how many of us, clomping through the slush-laden Loop streets or stuck on bleak highways, saw the Divergent ads on billboards and bus wraps as not only an exciting way to launch spring, but also as a potential to extend our city’s reputation for innovation.

Director Neil Burger had quite a challenge: how to cinematically interpret the first novel of Chicagoland resident Veronica Roth’s international bestselling trilogy? Though the film has somewhat polarized critics and the general public—guess which camp doesn’t like it—Burger has created a work as navigable as Chicago’s gridded street system and as stalwart as the city’s John Hancock Center, which happens to make a cameo.

Divergent offers a future Chicago not of gleaming efficiencies and technological showmanship, but of disrepair and jilted expectations. It’s a city whose slightly modified and sometimes crumbling architectural and transportation icons stand beside yet-to-be-built skyscrapers, a city whose beloved Lake Michigan has degraded into a marsh.

A Prior Engagement
Everyone is grouped into one of five factions, each of which focuses on some value that defines its societal role. The Erudite, for instance, value knowledge and strive to eliminate the ignorance that leads to conflict, while members of the Candor faction value truth and hold positions in the field of law. Each teen takes a test to determine the faction to which he or she is best suited. The test-taker then considers the results when he or she chooses a faction.

Sixteen-year-old protagonist Beatrice Prior, whose Abnegation faction embraces self-denial, discovers that she is one of few with inconclusive test results. Thus, she is “Divergent”. Then Beatrice shocks her family when she chooses the Dauntless faction, a motley collection of thrill-seeking thugs tasked with protecting that society.

Beatrice, now self-titled “Tris”, plunges into a highly competitive and dangerous initiation process in a subculture whose members engage in reckless activities to prove their devotion to what they consider the ultimate virtue: bravery.

The Path to Dauntlessness

The majority of Divergent, the first in a series of three (or possibly four) films, focuses on Tris and other initiates’ gruelling training to obtain the physical and mental strength that characterize the Dauntless ideals.

A variety of challenges put Tris in the underdog category and pump up the tension. First, she is a small girl competing in a faction that doesn’t consider gender or size when it challenges one initiate to fight another. Second, ruthless training leader Eric reveals that some of the initiates will be cut—“It’s a new rule”—and become “factionless” (i.e. homeless and destitute). To compound the challenge, Tris is a transfer from another faction, while many of her competitors have been raised in Dauntless households and thus have a head start. All this occurs amid a background of power struggles among the corrupt Dauntless leadership.

Meanwhile, Tris must conceal her Divergent results from an increasingly threatening Erudite/Dauntless alliance, a kind of brains-meets-brawn powerhouse that targets Divergents because they threaten the rigidity that holds the faction system in place.

Erudite mastermind Jeanine, the main antagonist played by Kate Winslet (who seems to have taken her fashion cues from Hilary Clinton), has used her power to start a smear campaign against the Abnegation faction, whose members occupy the governmental positions within the society. This macro issue escalates and eventually collides with Tris.

A key strength of Divergent is that many of the scenes evoke tension, even for those who’ve read the novels. For instance, Burger tautly renders the Choosing Ceremony, in which adolescents make proud or disappoint their parents. The families, separated in groups within an amphitheatr, watch as their sons and daughters drop blood into a bowl that represents the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives.

Four’s Company

The film also introduces a burgeoning love interest between Tris and Four, a reserved Dauntless trainer with a troubled past. Four is much more subdued than the brutish and envious Eric. Still, Four is no pushover: one of the first things he says to Tris is something like, “What makes you think you can talk to me?” Charming.

Actor Theo James offers an acceptable, but not necessarily riveting performance as this pivotal character. Four speaks through his actions, like when he hurls knives around Tris’s head as she stands immobile to prove her bravery. How romantic.

As Four reveals more of himself to Tris, he comes to embody the film’s theme. Among the tapestry of tattoos on his back are symbols of each of the five factions. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” he says. “I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest and kind. Well, I’m still working on kind.”

A poignant statement for today’s teens, especially in a society that pushes them away from these ideals.

All Aboard the Hoodlum Express!

Why does Tris leave her faction and join Dauntless? It’s an interesting question to ponder. One could postulate that Tris, recognizing the flaws inherent in her social system, perceives Dauntless as a means of convincing her world to overcome the absolutist philosophies that bind its inhabitants. Or here’s another possibility: Dauntless is cool.

Think about it. Here’s a girl forced to wear bulky gray clothes, a girl taught to shun herself to the point of not even looking in mirrors. Then there’s the Dauntless, whose pierced and tattooed rebels enter the film by jumping off one of the Windy City’s famed elevated trains—Chicagoans call it the “L”—then fist pumping and hollering while they run to their destination. The Billy Badasses who constitute this faction are every parent’s nightmare, and every sixteen-year-old girl’s dream! Tris wants to break free of the faction that has quashed her individuality.

Nevertheless, Tris makes a choice, and she must accept the consequences. That she does, and actress Shailene Woodley offers an admirable performance in which she effectively transfers her emotions to the viewer, especially in the film’s most tragic scene.

“Faction Before Blood”

On its surface, Divergent is about a young woman’s struggles to overcome her fears and defend herself from those who are out to get her because of what a test reveals (or doesn’t reveal). On a deeper level, it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when people lose their ability to think contextually and divide into groups with neatly packaged philosophical systems. We can’t make moral choices with a checklist.

Then there is the inevitable Hunger Games comparison. Yes, Hunger Games offers a more complex lead and makes the viewer feel closer to what’s happening on screen, but which future is more likely: one in which an oppressive leadership sponsors an annual tournament in which kids kill each other, or one in which a city divides into factions?

Today’s children, fussed over by their helicopter parents, aren’t likely to be sent to the killing arena anytime soon. We do, however, have a tendency to identify strongly with the group to which we belong. Divergent has its factions. We have our departments and teams.

The credo that drives Tris’s society is “faction before blood.” Some might believe that a society that goes to such lengths to support a narrow ideology is a thing of the past. However, Chicago Cubs and White Sox fans consistently pummel each other. If people are willing to beat each other to a bloody pulp over baseball, what will they do to support an ideology?

The critics can denounce Divergent as silly, but aren’t we all? - Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday, 4 April 2014

BFS Journal #11: out now!

Sorry that things have been so quiet on the TQF blog this year – paying work has been keeping me very busy (can’t and won’t complain!) but work is progressing on the next issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction – and about 25 reviews I have at various stages of unreadiness.

One distraction has been that I was asked to help out on the BFS Journal for a couple of issues after it had stalled, to give the new managing editor time to train up. You can only get this 184pp paperback if you’re a BFS member, but we’ve ordered a handful of extra copies, so if you join today there’s still a chance of getting it.

Sarah Newton is the editor of this issue’s fiction:

  • The Switch, Mark Lewis
  • Electricity, Gary Couzens
  • Pawnarchy, Mark Huntley-James
  • The Eden Paradigm, Allen Ashley and Madeleine Beresford
  • A Barrow on the Border, Rima Devereaux
  • The Need to Create, Emma Newman
  • The Lost Name, Sandra Unerman
  • Baby 17, Jonathan Oliver
  • The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, M.E. Lerman

Stuart Douglas edits the non-fiction:

  • Jennie Gyllblad, interviewed by Max Edwards
  • Freda Warrington, interviewed by Alex Bardy
  • The Adventures of Brak, Mike Barrett
  • Tim Powers, interviewed by Stuart Douglas
  • Nick Campbell on The Child Garden
  • Forbidden Fruits, Ray Cluley

And Ian Hunter edits the poetry:

  • Cybernetic Mary, Deborah Walker
  • Protecting Veil, Megan Kerr
  • A Paranormal Romance, Allen Ashley

There’s also a controversial editorial by Max Edwards, a controversial chairman’s chat by Mark Barrowcliffe, and a BFS news section that has not yet attracted any controversy (but maybe no one has read it yet). Cover art by Jennie Gyllblad.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza by James Kochalka, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza (First Second, hb/pb, 112pp; Netgalley pdf) is another superb, hilarious comic for children by James Kochalka. Well, I say for children, but it made me laugh out loud enough times to attract the children to my office, concerned they were missing out on some fun. And they were. The Glorkian Warrior is happy to doze on his sofa until he is woken by the sound of the emergency space phone. Someone has called to order a pizza. A pepperoni pizza. His Super Backpack is keen for adventure, but not too impressed with this one: “I’m not SCARED. I just don’t think ‘heroic destiny’ is usually this STUPID.” There’s no pepperoni pizza in the fridge, but there are leftover peanut butter and clams slices, so that’ll have to do. On the way to deliver the pizza they’ll meet, battle and make friends with battle-suited Gonk, attempt Glorkian kung fu on a spaceship, adopt a space invader baby, and meet the Magic Robot!

I’ve read a lot of James Kochalka since his stuff began to appear on Comixology – for example I purchased each of his American Elf digital collections (one per year from 1997 to 2008, so far) the second I’ve seen them. Partly because they’re so cheap, because I do like a bargain, but mainly because they’re so good. His previous books for children, Dragon Puncher and Johnny Boo and their sequels, were excellent, but very short (making them good for bedtimes), and The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza is even better, and much longer. There’s a Groo-ish quality to it which was very appealing. The Glorkian warrior is a heroic, good-natured but idiotic warrior determined to complete his silly quest, with his Super Backpack (like Groo’s dog Rufferto) an adoring, slightly smarter companion who can’t do much to change their course. It’s appealingly colourful, good-natured and silly, and would make a super birthday present for any under-tens or reluctant readers. Don’t be surprised if older brothers and sisters take an interest too.

Monday, 10 February 2014

I, Frankenstein, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Juvenile, shallow, and highly recommended: Legendary monster romps with angel-gargoyles and suit-wearing demons in Underworldesque adventure

No. I will not join the critics who’ve ganged up to lambast I, Frankenstein, the film inspired by Kevin Grevioux’s graphic novel of the same title. I will not take sides with those who say that they did not enjoy this film because of its one-dimensional characters, poor dialogue, and rambling storyline.

Yes, I, Frankenstein, reminiscent of the Underworld series, is immature, hokey, and at times laughable. But come on! We’re talking about one of literature’s most renowned monsters thrust into a modern day battle between two shape-shifting factions: demons set on destroying the human race, and the Gargoyle Order of angels striving to protect it. And, it’s based on a comic book. What were these naysayers expecting? An Oscar nod?

I, Frankenstein, despite its dumbed down approach and its rigid delineations between good and evil, offers a high-octane reprieve from reality.

Everyone Wants Adam
The gargoyles first spy the stitch-faced protagonist’s demon-slaying skills in the late eighteenth century. They take Frankenstein to their cathedral penthouse hideout, where theatrical leader Leonore sees hope for a soul within Frankenstein. She names him Adam and encourages him to join the Gargoyle Order and the good fight. He’s not convinced the humans are worth it.

The film jumps to present day, in which the battle continues. Adam enjoys picking off demons, less to preserve the human race, and more out of sheer hatred. The Gargoyle Order still wants him to quash their adversaries. However, the demons also want to recruit Adam so they can unveil Victor Frankenstein’s (Adam’s creator) life-giving secret, use it to reanimate the corpses that they possess, and then command their Frankensteinian army to destroy the human race. Ambitious.

Rugged and Refined, Ancient and Current
Canadian actor Aaron Eckhart offers a gruff counterpoint to the more graceful characters who populate this film. They dress impeccably. He wears a hoodie, jeans, trench coat, and big black boots. They have British accents. He sounds (and looks) as if he has been plucked from under a railroad overpass in a rough Chicago neighborhood. Moreover, Eckhart’s husky voiceover augments the dark atmosphere—the only daylight comes in the first five minutes, and that in Frankenstein’s wintry birthplace—that pervades the film.

The film offers a strong contrast between the opposing forces: the demons wear suits and operate a technology-rich lab whose sparse interiors and sterile color schemes suggest a contemporary corporate environment. Conversely, the tech-free gargoyles, still clad in their centuries-old battle garb, reside in the upper chambers of an ornate cathedral. 

Bill Nighy plays principal antagonist and lab overseer Charles Wessex, also known as Prince Naberius, head of the demons. Nighy, who had a similar role as Viktor in Underworld, offers a slender, eloquent, and often angry villain who pushes around his human “employees” with all the confident cruelty of the psychopathic CEO. His chief target is the world’s leading electro-physiology authority Terra Wade, who also happens to be beautiful and in her mid-twenties. Would you expect anything else from a film like this? Wade is Naberius’s best hope to replicate Victor Frankenstein’s process so that he can animate the corpses he has collected over the last couple centuries.

Bring the Clunk

If one were to indulge in musings about the protagonist’s internal conflicts (not this film’s strong point), one might consider that Adam, not human, not demon, and not gargoyle, seeks merely to withdraw from the world and indulge in self-loathing. Then, he finds himself in the presence of a matriarchal figure who encourages him to overcome his self-doubt, shed his monster surface, and embrace his role (or his “I”) as a productive member of society. Also, the demons explode into a ball of fire when you kill them.

Early in the film, gargoyle soldiers bring Adam to their weapons cache, where they encourage him to take his pick. He examines two metallic batons. One gargoyle says something like, “You don’t want those. They are blunt, unwieldy, and heavy.” Adam Frankenstein has found his weapon. Clunky, yes, but also shiny and cool. A weapon that might symbolize this film. 

If you only like films like There Will Be Blood, then I, Frankenstein isn’t for you. But if you like alpha male protagonists who live a long time, body farms, rigid delineations between good and evil, cathedrals, symphonic music, and of course, explosions, then see I, Frankenstein.

Some critics have said this film seems like a seven-year-old created it. They say that’s a bad thing. I say that’s awesome! – Douglas J. Ogurek

Saturday, 1 February 2014

BFS Journal #10, out soon

During January I helped out on organising and typesetting #10 of the BFS Journal. It’s one hundred and sixty-eight pages of fantasy fun, weirdness and even a dash of controversy, edited by Max Edwards, Sarah Newton, Stuart Douglas and Ian Hunter.

Contributors include Al Kratz, Allen Ashley, Anne Lyle, Anne Shah, Anton Sim, Cav Scott, Clare Le May, David Buchan, David Gullen, Erik T. Johnson, Gary Budgen, Jaine Fenn, James Barclay, Juliet Boyd, Juliet McKenna, Mark Barrowcliffe, Mike Chinn, Paul Magrs, Pye Parr, Richard Farren Barber, Stuart Douglas, Tammy O’Malley, Zoe Gilbert and frequent TQF contributor Douglas Thompson.

The cover art, originally from Blood and Feathers: Rebellion by Lou Morgan, is by Pye Parr, who is interviewed by Cavan Scott about his work on that and other books.

BFS periodicals aren’t generally available to non-members. However, we ordered 25 spares and they will be sent out to new members and renewals as long as stocks last, along with two BFS exclusive hardback anthologies, The Burning Circus and Unexpected Journeys, edited by Johnny Mains and Juliet McKenna respectively. Contributors to those books include Kate Elliott, Stephen Volk, Muriel Gray and Adam Nevill. Join here.

Theakerly plans for 2014

We’ve been a bit quiet on here since the beginning of the year, with just the one blog post so far, a review from Douglas, but don’t fear! We’re still here! I’ve been writing quite a bit, but most of it has gone into interminable BFS discussions of one kind or another.

So, what are our plans for this year of Theaker’s? Well, we aim to publish four quarterly issues of the magazine as usual, in March, June, September and December, or thereabouts. We will also publish, at long last, John’s novel The Hatchling in paperback and ebook.

I’m aiming once again to have a new review here on the blog each Monday (I managed that about 35 times in 2013). The Wednesday lists may or may not make a comeback. In truth, I rather resent them for attracting more hits than the reviews which require so much more work to produce!

The Theakerly thoughts will definitely return. They provide a useful and moderately healthy way to empty the rubbish from my head. Their absence over the last month has principally been down to the frequency with which my thoughts have been unpublishable.

On the reviews front, I’ve been asking publishers to take us off their mailing lists for print review copies. I hardly ever read print books these days and when I try they take me three or four times as long as they should, however good the books.

It’s a shame, because there are few feelings as pleasant as receiving a mystery book package in the post. But nice as that is, and grateful as I was to receive them, I think they were a drag on my reviewing and reading.

Let’s see how it goes. Whatever your plans for the year, I hope they come to fruition!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek


Thugs meet witches as horror dynasty takes it to the hood, and delivers yet again.

The first four Paranormal Activity (PA) films were simply numbered (e.g., Paranormal Activity 2). Number five is slated for release this October. This month, however, the PA team, which has held court in the pop culture horror realm since the series’ phenomenal inception in 2007, threw a curveball when it released Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.

Caucasians, typically teens, encounter evil in a suburban or rural setting. For far too long, this formula was de rigueur for U.S. horror films. Then came the rash of films, many of them poor, in which a malignant figure or force terrorizes an ethnically diverse group of teens, still in a non-urban environment.

With PA: The Marked Ones, director/writer Christopher Landon not only upholds the strengths that make the film’s predecessors so enjoyable, but he also fully immerses the viewer in a non-Caucasian, non-suburban setting. In this case, it’s the gang-infested streets of a Latino neighborhood in California.

Powers that Corrode
Armed with a new video camera—this preserves the PA found footage technique—recent high school grad Jesse and friend Hector are having a little fun before the mundanity of adulthood begins. Though the film dallies a bit before it reveals that Jesse is somehow “marked”, its introduction offers a taste of inner-city Latino culture, and the relationship between two friends who have evaded the gangbanger fate.

The storyline of PA: The Marked Ones is reminiscent of that of Chronicle (2012): a young male discovers he has special powers—in this case, Jesse’s powers aren’t necessarily his powers—and mentally deteriorates. As Jesse, Hector, and their dispensable acquaintance Marisol connect the dots between the death during childbirth of Hector’s mother and the eerie goings-on within their neighborhood, Jesse becomes gloomy and confrontational. Tension mounts. Control slips. Scares escalate. Another effective horror story is told.

The film is a bit overindulgent in characters doing research and viewing maps. For instance, in one forgettable scene, Ali Rey, the teenage daughter in PA2, returns for an information dump at a picnic table.

The Basement Beckons
Like its forbears, PA: The Marked Ones offers sufficient doses of humour, pop-out horror, and—this is what makes these films so great—that exquisite anxiety elicited by situations in which little or nothing is happening on screen. Who would have thought that watching someone text in a vacated house could be so nerve-wracking?

Budding actor Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz convincingly portray Jesse and Hector, lovable goofballs (especially Hector) whose antics rival those of the PA3 protagonists. Their harebrained schemes (e.g. sliding down a staircase in a laundry basket, taking young ladies to a murder scene with hopes of scoring) reveal that we’re not dealing with geniuses. Thus, these are the kind of guys who would go into a basement.

Simon Says: Stick to What Works
Most horror film series devolve from groundbreaking to lacklustre, sometimes very quickly. Scream comes to mind. It’s much like a drug use: the first film offers a potent experience that sticks, but then viewers just can’t get the same high with subsequent installments.

Though none can quite achieve the unease that lingers within the viewer long after the credits of the first film, each PA successor brings something new to the formula. For instance, besides the Latino bent, PA: The Marked Ones offers a battery-operated Simon Says game that answers characters’ questions with “yes” (green light) and “no” (red light). Then there is the hitherto uncharted territory—or should I say turf—of street thugs meeting witches, a mash-up that shifts from humorous (“Let’s smoke these bitches”) to creepy.

Critics continue to attack Paranormal Activity’s progeny and PA: The Marked Ones is no exception. The two arguments that seem to surface most often are “cheap scares” and weariness of the found footage technique. Regarding the former, again, it isn’t possible to achieve the same level of terror that the first film evoked. However, PA: The Marked Ones manages to carry through the essence of these films, and even ties back to the original in a surprising way. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with having something (or someone) fall into view every now and again.  

And what of the found footage? To claim that the found footage technique has played its course is comparable to criticizing a band’s music because it continues to use guitars. Some of my favorite bands have pounded out album after album with little stylistic variation, and I have continued to buy their albums for a simple reason: I like what they deliver.

PA5? I’m there! - Douglas J. Ogurek

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Hey, Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #46 is out now! Free ebook, cheap paperback!

Amazing fiction! Insightful reviews! A self-indulgent editorial! Yes, it’s Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #46! This issue features alphabetically-ordered stories by Gary Budgen, Mitchell Edgeworth, Josie Gowler, Stephen Palmer, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson and Ross Gresham, plus eighteen reviews from Stephen Theaker, Jacob Edwards and Douglas J. Ogurek. Our spacechristmassy cover art is by Howard Watts.

Our print format changes a bit with this issue, shaving an inch off in each direction. Not sure if we'll stick with the new size until we see how the printing goes, but as ever the goal is to make the publication easier to produce and easier to read. I hope you'll like it.

Links

Paperback edition: on Amazon.co.uk / on Amazon.com / on CreateSpace
Epub version (free)
Mobi version (free)
PDF version (free)
Kindle edition: on Amazon.co.uk / on Amazon.com
The ebook is also available on Feedbooks and Lulu (both free)

All 45 back issues are also available for free download, in various formats.

Contributors

Charles Wilkinson’s short stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990, Best English Short Stories 2, Midwinter Mysteries and London Magazine. A collection, The Pain Tree and Other Stories, was published by London Magazine Editions. Ag & Au, a pamphlet of his poems, recently appeared from Flarestack Poets, Birmingham. Previously in Theaker’s: “Notes on the Bone” (#41) and “Notes from the Undergrowth” (#44). This issue: “Petrol-Saved”.

Douglas J. Ogurek reviews The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for us this time. His work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. His website: www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Gary Budgen’s fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including Interzone, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction (“Through the Ages”, #43) and Morpheus Tales. Recently he has had stories in the anthologies Where Are We Going? and Urban Green Man. He is a member of London Clockhouse Writers. Read more at http://garybudgen.wordpress.com. In this issue: “Black Ribbon”.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the fantastic cover art for this issue. In fact, he provided it over a year ago, for the issue originally intended for Christmas 2012! Check out his Deviantart page.

Jacob Edwards reviews About Time, Computing with Quantum Cats, The Day of the Doctor and Gravity in this issue. His heart belongs to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but we’re happy to be his holiday romance. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s site: www.jacobedwards.id.au.

Jessy Randall’s stories, poems, and other things have appeared in Asimov’s, Flurb, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, LQQK, McSweeney’s, and Star*Line. Her website is personalwebs.coloradocollege.edu/~jrandall/. Her story in this issue: “The Night of Red Butterflies”.

Josie Gowler specialises in writing weird tales set in the English East Anglian Fens, and science fiction and fantasy short stories; she has most fun when these all overlap. She’s been published in 365 Tomorrows, Lorelei Signal, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction (“Soldier”, all the way back in #28) and Bewildering Tales. She is a Napoleonic re-enactor and is currently working on a trashy coming-of-age space opera. Her story in this issue is “The Lazarus Loophole”.

Mitchell Edgeworth lives in Melbourne, Australia, and his fiction has been published in The Battered Suitcase and SQ Mag, as well as here. He keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com and tweets as @mitchedgeworth. “Customs” is the fourth in his Black Swan series to appear in these pages. Like everything we publish, it can be read quite happily in isolation, but if you want to find out how the Black Swan got off the ground, see his stories in #40 (“Homecoming”), #42 (“Drydock”) and #43 (“Flight”).

Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His stories have previously appeared in #34 (“Name the Planet”), #41 (“Milo Don’t Count Coup”) and #44 (“Milo on Fire”). His story in this issue is “Wild Seed”.

Stephen Palmer is the author of seven published novels, including Memory Seed and Glass (Orbit), Muezzinland, and Urbis Morpheos (PS Publishing). His short fiction has been published by NewCon Press, Wildside Press, SF Spectrum, Rocket Science, Eibonvale Press, Unspoken Water, Infinity Plus and Solaris, plus two more currently unmentionable. Ebooks of all his novels have recently been published by Infinity Plus Ebooks, who will also be publishing his forthcoming novel Hairy London. He lives and works in Shropshire, UK. His story in this issue: “The Mines of Sorrow”.

Stephen Theaker reviews all sorts of things in this issue. He even liked some of them. Further to last issue’s editorial, he got up to 107 consecutive days of writing at least 250 words a day (getting up to an average of 837), before post-Nanowrimo fatigue kicked in and brought the run to a halt on December 5. His work has also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism, the BFS Journal, and the letters page of the NME. (He wrote to defend the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers, comparing them favourably in that regard with bands like Curve. Time has – as usual! – proven him quite right.)

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek



Smaug may desolate, but Legolas steals the show in a superb epic fantasy adventure

Ostensibly, The Hobbit film series is about its namesake character: Bilbo Baggins. The first film, An Unexpected Journey (2012), focuses on Bilbo, who undertakes an expedition both physical and mental. However, in this second installment, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), returning director Peter Jackson (who also directed the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy) moves further back, assuming a wider view on a group of unlikely and in some cases likely heroes. Those coming to see Desolation aren’t just coming to see Bilbo; they’re coming to see a collection of beloved characters. Moreover, true to the contemporary western culture that spawned such blockbusters as The Avengers (2012), Desolation has minimized those pesky internal struggles, and taken external challenges and battlefield bravura to the next level.    

Bilbo, his dwarf companions, and Gandalf the Grey (wizard) continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain on the once-thriving dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which the dragon Smaug has desolated (hence the title). Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield hopes to gain passage to the mountain and use Bilbo’s thieving skills to seize the Arkenstone. Then Oakenshield can assume kingship and the dwarves regain their home from Smaug, who has shacked up in the mountain’s treasure trove.

The action begins when Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf arrive at Mirkwood, a forest that poses threats both arachnid and elfin. The barbaric orcs are in pursuit of the dwarves, and to top it off, Gandalf, without sufficient explanation, concludes that he’ll be unable to accompany Bilbo and company through the forest.   

The group confronts a variety of adventures in the woods. A scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves ride wine barrels down rapids stands as one of the most compelling action sequences this reviewer has seen. Axes and arrows fly, orcs fall, barrels bob and roll, and through it all skips, slides, spins, and hops Legolas, the consummate elfin warrior. More on him later.

Another highlight is Bilbo’s descent into the treasure trove. The smug Smaug’s resonant voice (provided by Benedict Cumberbath) and the shlinking – yes, I made that up – sounds as Bilbo climbs and slides down the vast swells of gold and jewels in pursuit of the Arkenstone immerse the viewer in the action.

Meanwhile, Gandalf’s side quest to discover more about the mysterious Necromancer seems a bit forced in its attempt to neatly package The Hobbit and LOTR stories.

Look Everyone: It’s the Inimitable Legolas
Some of this reviewer’s favorite scenes from the LOTR trilogy involve the battlefield acrobatics of Legolas. From a standing position, he mounts a galloping horse. He single-handedly ascends a massive Oliphaunt, takes out all its passengers, kills the creature, and then slides down its trunk for a picture-perfect landing. And the speed! The astounding speed!

The blond elfin bowman and beloved member of the LOTR Fellowship of the Ring does not technically appear in Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. Therefore, Jackson risks ostracizing Tolkien purists by sliding Legolas into Desolation.

The risk pays off. From his smooth entrance in a Mirkwood fray to his orc slaughter in Laketown, Legolas moves through this film like a whirlwind.

The spell that Legolas casts over so many fans deserves further scrutiny. As the SF/F community continues to endorse stories with “QUILTBAG” elements, Legolas, with his Barbie doll locks and his impeccable shave, presents a somewhat genderless counterpoint to the traditionally gruff male action hero exemplified by Thorin Oakenshield. During their journey, the dwarves climb through toilets or get fish dumped on them. That sort of filth seems below Legolas, to whom even a tiny nosebleed seems amiss.  
   
Legolas never gets dirty, his speech never falters, and he rarely misses his mark. To watch Legolas fight is comparable to watching a ballet set to technical death metal music. His fighting ranges from displays of agility to the barbarity of shooting arrows into orcs’ faces at point blank range.

Desolation also introduces Tauriel, Legolas’s female counterpart. Though Tauriel’s lineage isn’t as royal as Legolas’s, her battlefield skills are nearly as impressive. With Tauriel comes the beginning of a love triangle between her, Legolas (who isn’t very affectionate), and the dwarf Kili. When Kili is injured, Tauriel must make choices between doing what “Mr. Perfect” requests (i.e., staying out of the fight) or helping Kili.

Economics Carved in Arkenstone
Desolation also perpetuates the age-old arguments about the influence, both good and bad, of wealth. The character affected most deeply is Thorin Oakenshield. The Arkenstone that Thorin seeks represents not only the resurrection of his people, but also the potential to corrupt the would-be king. Remember that an obsession with wealth lead to Thorin’s father’s downfall. So avarice is in the blood.

And how does Thorin appeal to the people of Laketown to support his quest to defeat Smaug and take back his home? Redemption? No. Safety? Wrong again. Glory? Courage? No and no. Rather, the deep-voiced leader uses the almighty dollar! He promises the humans a share in the gold within the mountain. Smart.

Certain scenes could have been cut – the “skin changer” at whose residence the group hides comes to mind – but on the whole, Desolation stands as a highly recommended epic fantasy that equals in excellence the film that precedes it. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Twenty artists by whom I’ve only ever bought one album

Twenty artists by whom I’ve only ever bought one album (for myself, at least), and in brackets what the album was:

  1. Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City)
  2. The Streets (Original Pirate Material)
  3. The Magnetic Fields (69 Love Songs)
  4. S’Express (Original Soundtrack)
  5. The Prodigy (Their Law)
  6. Korn (Follow the Leader)
  7. Mouse on Mars (Rost Pocks)
  8. Los Campesinos! (Hold on Now, Youngster...)
  9. T'Pau (Bridge of Spies)
  10. The Hold Steady (Boys and Girls in America)
  11. Yo La Tengo (Summer Sun)
  12. Bomb the Bass (Enter the Dragon)
  13. Big Fun (Paradise)
  14. Liza Minelli (Results)
  15. The Bloodhound Gang (Hooray for Boobies*)
  16. The Cooper Temple Clause (See This Through and Leave)
  17. Oasis (What’s the Story, Morning Glory)
  18. The Art of Noise (In Visible Silence)
  19. Editors (The Back Room)
  20. Klaxons (Myths of the Near Future)

How about you?

And by the way, Merry Christmas! With any luck this will be the only new article on the internet today and our hits will go through the roof.

Wednesday is list day. This is list #16.

* I’m so, so sorry.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Doctor Who and the Pescatons by Victor Pemberton, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

It has been quite a while since I last dipped into the six-story collection Doctor Who: The BBC Radio Episodes. I began with the Jon Pertwee story The Paradise of Death, reviewed in these pages many years ago, and it wasn’t too bad. A bit later I listened to The Ghosts of N-Space, which was so painfully awful I couldn’t bring myself to review it, especially since that was shortly after the deaths of Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney and it wasn’t the right time to give their work a slating, however richly deserved. If you haven’t heard that story and you’re curious what was so bad about it, as an example let’s just say I never needed to hear the third Doctor explain the meaning of “sodomite” to Sarah Jane Smith.

Recently I’ve found that the new Audible iPad app is a very nice way to listen to audiobooks, and it’s kind enough to let you listen to non-Audible titles too, so I’ve been digitising and loading onto the iPad a lot of older audio adventures that got lost in the rush originally. Where those are ones I bought (for example the first eight in the Big Finish Companion Chronicles series, picked up in a sale), I may or may not review them, depending on whether I have time, but where (like this story) they were originally submitted for review and got stuck in the pile I will try to do the honours, though it’s a couple of years late. I don’t suppose anyone comes to this magazine/blog expecting timely reviews!

So, explanations aside, on to a short review of Doctor Who and the Pescatons (AudioGO, 1xCD, 46 mins; supplied by publisher), which was (the box says) originally broadcast on BBC Radio on 27 August 1993, but first existed as an LP in the seventies. This again features Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, this time paired with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, making this a rare example of a spin-off featuring the current on-screen cast. It’s really more of a story told by the Doctor than a drama. Sarah Jane’s contributions are very limited, and the only other speaking part is Zor (Bill Mitchell), the leader of the baddies who pops up for a couple of scenes. The script is by Victor Pemberton, who had previously written the seaweed serial “Fury from the Deep”.

The plot concerns, you won’t be surprised to learn, the Pescatons, who are a shark-like species of aliens who can walk around on land using their flippers. Though their invasion of Earth is motivated by the need to escape their own doomed planet, there are few shades of grey here: the Doctor says this is a clash between two civilisations, one good (by which I think he means us), one evil (probably the Pescatons). The invasion leads to some terrifying sequences where Pescatons wander round London eating people up. The screams are so full-blooded you worry for the sanity of any children who got their hands on the LP! But I wish I had.

Looked at objectively, this story isn’t terribly good, but it is a great deal of fun and a fascinating product of its time. Given its short length I’m sure this won’t be the last time I listen to it. It’s just a shame that there are no songs! A fan of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds can’t help hearing the points in this story at which a disco beat might reasonably have kicked in, leading us off to new worlds of groovy Whovian fun. Justin Heywood singing for the Doctor, Sarah Brightman for Sarah Jane, David Essex for the Pescaton leader. It would have been glorious! But you can’t have everything. Someone should really get Tom Baker involved in a project like that: his brief contribution to Mansun’s Six shows how magnificent it could be.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Diablo III, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Diablo III (Blizzard Entertainment, Xbox 360; Amazon purchase) is the first of the series I’ve played, and since I don’t play games on the PC, the Xbox 360 version is a new game to me. It’s an isometric dungeon crawler, an action RPG where your heroes run around semi-randomly generated environments bashing hordes of creatures, fulfilling simple fetch-quests. Players can choose from wizard, demon hunter, barbarian, witch doctor and monk, and from male and female versions of each. The setting is pretty much indistinguishable from other fantasy games, with your regulation ghosts, zombies, skeletons etc to fight. Sometimes you get a funny feeling you’re just playing Dragon Age: Origins or Oblivion from a different point of view, though some laser-like magical powers would be more at home in Halo.

It feels slightly odd to be enjoying the game so much (we’ve yet to stop playing it), since there’s little here that wasn’t present in much older console games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. This kind of gameplay more commonly shows up cut-price in the Xbox Live Arcade these days, in games like Torchlight, Realms of Ancient War and Daggerdale. The graphics, though they are pretty enough, don’t feel at first like a ten-year advance on Dark Alliance. But as enemies, powers and enemies’ powers accumulate you realise how well it all works, the game never visibly slowing despite the hundreds of objects flying around. The more you play, the more you appreciate the neat little touches that show how much work went into it.

It has a chemistry and balance that is difficult to define, though having a drop-in-drop-out four-player mode which works so well accounts for some of it. Put your controller down to sip your cup of tea and your character ambles along after your friends on their own – teleporting if need be – avoiding the most frustrating aspect of some previous games in a similar vein.

Similarly, a capacious sixty-slot backpack (at least in easy mode, in which we began playing it) makes for a free and easy approach to loot. As does the knowledge that it’s all fairly random: in other role-playing games, you worry that failing to explore every tunnel in every location might mean missing out on your one chance in a fifty-hour playthrough to get a key piece of equipment. Here you can just run around dungeons aimlessly looking for fights, and then afterwards check the map for unexplored territory. And you can save at any time without losing any treasure, making it perfect for brief gaming sessions.

It’s not very long, but like, say, the Dynasty Warriors games it’s designed to be replayed over and over, your character levelling up, acquiring magical weapons and armour, and training their travelling artisans. What I would think of as the “proper” roleplaying elements are perfunctory, the dialogue skippable, non-branching and quite missable, it being unnecessary (at least so far as I have found to date) to talk to anyone other than the indicated characters to acquire quests. It’s a vehicle stripped down to its chassis: fight monsters, open chest, get treasure, sell treasure. An endless torrent of glittering gold!

When I mention playing it with the children, you might look with concern to its age rating. But though it’s rated 15 by the BBFC, the ratings board judges games via video recordings rather than playthroughs, and, aside from a few particularly gory dungeons which I had to face alone, I’ve found this to be a super game to play with the younglings: they just love throwing jars full of spiders at the bad guys. Mrs Theaker has been playing it regularly too, despite the jars full of spiders, and I’d say it’s been our favourite family game since Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim.

The only flaw with regard to the multiplayer seems to be that all of us share one game save, regardless of who is logged in. It’s a bit annoying to have to wipe out my progress on a level when the children want to log in and play a section that’s a bit less challenging on a lower difficulty level. Maybe that’s because everyone created their characters within my initial game save, but it’s the only Xbox 360 game we’ve ever played that behaves in that way.

As usual, I haven’t played the game online, so I can’t comment on that. But otherwise, highly recommended, especially if you have chums at home to play it with.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Rarely does a movie outshine the book that inspired it. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire blazes as an exception.

Catching Fire, the middle installment in Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular Hunger Games trilogy, divides into two stories that could stand alone. The second and far better half details the Hunger Games’ 75th anniversary “Quarter Quell”. District 12 tributes (i.e., competitors) and winners of the last game, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, square off in a fight-to-the-death match against past victors from the nation of Panem’s other eleven districts. Collins writes about this battle royal with skill, and the film follows suit.

The first half of the novel, however, only fizzles in Katniss’s introspection—the first person present narration doesn’t help—about goings on within the districts, about the threats her sister and mother face, and about the two young men (Peeta and Gail) vying for her attention. It just takes too long to get to the good stuff.

This film version presents the two stories, but in the first half, it glides over the novel’s boring elements, dispatches with the introspection, and moves quickly in and out of less emotionally charged scenes. Additionally, the diversity in settings, ranging from the cold and desolate Victors’ Village where past Hunger Games winners reside to the technological pomposity and vivacious fashions at President Snow’s Capitol party, brings to the film a visual interest that the novel cannot achieve.

The first half of the film chronicles Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour, and drops hints, some subtle, others not so, at the rising tension between the wealthy Capitol and the twelve districts it oppresses. Katniss has her work cut out for her: she must keep her family safe from President Snow’s threats by convincing Panem that she loves Peeta (despite her uncertainty); she must placate the districts whose children were slaughtered in the game that she and Peeta won; and she must come to terms with the districts’ growing desire to embrace her as a symbol of revolution. All that, plus President Snow, the most powerful man in Panem, wants her dead.

The film shrewdly portrays the unrest within Panem. It’s in the crowds that Katniss and Peeta address. It’s in the graffiti that they glimpse while on the tour train, and it’s in their reactions to the growing presence of Capitol soldiers.

As it transitions into the second half, the film transfers to the filmgoer the pre-game jitters as effectively as did its predecessor. Then there is the tension and disorientation when Katniss gets conveyed to the arena where the game takes place. Water. Sunlight. Trees. Other tributes. The camera pans. Where’s Peeta? So much to absorb before the whistle blows and the killing begins.

Director Francis Lawrence also adds a few new touches in his approach to showing the game. This time around, the most antagonistic players take a back seat to the dangers that the elaborate setting hurls at Katniss, Peeta, and their alleged allies. With fewer subplot cuts, the film more thoroughly immerses the viewer in the action. And when a character dies, it’s fast. No dying speeches. No prolonged agony.

The film transcends other recent big budget action films by showing secondary characters with eccentricities and psychological, rather than physical, weaknesses. We meet individuals with backstories, and characters propelled by passions ranging from love to rage. Johanna Mason, portrayed as an axe-wielding femme fatale, strips naked in an elevator as her audience looks on with annoyance (Katniss), discomfort (Peeta), and admiration (drunken mentor Haymitch). Catching Fire also introduces District 4 playboy Finnick Odair. Although the flashy name underscores his arrogant façade, Odair is much more than a handsome hotshot.

A who’s who of recent Oscar winners and nominees bolsters the Catching Fire cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers a subdued, but by no means subpar performance as head gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee. Unlike other Capitol minions, Heavensbee wears little makeup and avoids flamboyant clothes. His smirk and his calculated comments suggest that he knows something that other characters don’t.

On the other extreme, actor Stanley Tucci endows Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman with a trademark cackle and a kind of disingenuous fascination with the tributes he interviews. Flickerman’s gleaming teeth and purple hair are as vibrant as his movements and verbal flourishes. He is bullshit embodied.

Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen is convincing and emotionally engaging. When Katniss and Peeta address a silent District 11 crowd during their victory tour, families mourn beneath giant screens that show recorded footage of their fallen children. While Peeta speaks, Lawrence uses facial expressions to convey a complex mix of emotions.

The role of Katniss Everdeen in the contemporary motion picture canon deserves mention. The typical action film portrays women as one-dimensional, highly sexual objects. Katniss makes a refreshing departure. She doesn't use sexuality to get what she wants, nor does she rely on magic or super powers. She only has her intelligence, her resolve, and her drive to protect those she loves. Perhaps Katniss represents not only a redeemer to the people of Panem, but also a new kind of heroine to the filmgoing public. Things are catching fire indeed. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Ten things which I learned of from Steven Gilligan

Ten things I had no experience and/or knowledge of until I was introduced to them by our much-missed friend Steven Gilligan:
  1. Buffalo Tom
  2. John Constantine, Hellblazer
  3. J-Pop
  4. My Bloody Valentine
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire
  6. Using a small amount of water to wash out the inside of a ketchup bottle
  7. Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out
  8. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  9. Wim Wenders
  10. Funerals
I'm grateful for some more than others. My life has not been improved by the addition of Mini Moni songs to my inner playlist. Not one bit. On the other hand, the first time Steven showed me an episode of Vic Reeves, I laughed so hard and so suddenly that tea shot out of my nose.

Wednesday is list day. This is list #14.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Nexus Omnibus, Vol. 2 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Nexus Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse, ebook, 423pp; Dark Horse app purchase), written by Mike Baron with most artwork by Steve Rude, collects issues 12 to 25 of the original series from First Comics. They continue the comic’s odd mix of high seriousness and low humour. The former: the punishment of genocidal maniacs, as super-powered Nexus puts to death the mass murderers of whom he mysteriously dreams. An example of the latter: the ongoing adventures of Clonezone the Hilariator, a terrible Catskills-style comedian who travels the galaxy from one crummy gig to another, always in hope of making it big.

In this volume the main storyline goes in a number of interesting directions. The dreams get too much for Nexus and he has surgery to blank them out, leading to him live like the guys from Men Behaving Badly, only with more smashing of televisions and accidental deaths. Nexus’s girlfriend gets fed up with him and leaves their home planet Ylum to establish a spaceship factory on Mars. When Nexus’s powers are finally restored, his nightmares will bring him to our own solar system.

I wish I could have read this book in Comixology’s app. Dark Horse do deserve respect for not joining the rush to hand the entire comics industry over to one distributor, but using their apps is a struggle. The iPad app crashes if the device isn’t connected to the internet, it took months for this purchase to show up on there, and even then the app couldn’t complete the download without crashing. The Android app downloaded the book, but the guided panel view is unhelpful, an unnecessarily huge swipe is required to turn the page, there are no options for blanking out the panels not currently focused on, and it hangs for a second before flipping.

Despite those off-putting problems, I enjoyed the book. Mike Baron’s writing here has a sour flavour, seeming to find its source in anger and frustration rather than joy or pleasure, but that gives it a unique feel. It’s a book about consequences, whether it’s Nexus giving retribution for almost-forgotten sins, or the surviving children of his victims vowing to seek out and punish him in their turn, and as consequences accumulate it becomes very grim. The bursts of zany humour didn’t click with me at all, especially when mixed with stories featuring murder and abuse. The book’s biggest flaw is the interpolation of the painfully unfunny Tales from the Clonezone backup strips, which break the more consistent mood of the Nexus adventures. Getting through its eight pages was never anything less than a trial, nobly endured to reach the next episode of Nexus.

The artwork is where the book shines. The stylish pencils on the main strip are by Steve Rude, with inks by Eric Shanower and John Nyberg, while Shanower, Mark A. Nelson, Hilary Barta and Keith Giffen pencil backups and fill-ins. Despite the many hands at work, the style is consistent, striking page and panel design always a major feature. Perspectives constantly change and aliens look truly bizarre. Artistry is evident on every page, not least in Les Dorscheid’s subtly shaded colours; the Marvel and DC colouring of the period looks rudimentary in comparison.

Overall, recommended, but buy it in print – not often you’ll hear me say that! – and skip the Clonezone stories till you’ve read the rest. They rarely feed back into the Nexus stories, and you’ll resent them much less as an extra.